Friday night, several of us gathered for supper at South of the Border. I’d just sat down and was searching for a menu when someone pointedly asked, “Well, Kim. What are we going to talk about tonight?” I reached for the drink menu instead.
Thankfully, someone else piped up: “I’ve been reading some process theology!” Hmm. Frozen or on the rocks? They went on to say they’d found an article online explaining process theology and they’d had to read it 20 times, but they were starting to get the gist of it.
That led to more conversation about how God interacts with the world, the purpose of prayer, whether miracles are real, and whether God speaks in an audible voice. Y’all, I just wanted to eat my burrito. But when folks want to talk theology, what’s a pastor to do?
Actually, we had a great time. In that more relaxed setting, we were able to get below the surface. Later, Allen asked my assessment of the evening. I told him it felt like church.
It felt like church, but we weren’t “at church.” We weren’t here on this property, in this building. So, what was it about the gathering Friday night that felt like “church?” And if we can have “church” experiences somewhere else, what’s the point of our property and buildings? How do this property and these buildings contribute to our being church?
This summer, we’ve been reflecting on how to build a stronger community. We’ve learned a lot. First, we discovered that our community has a spiritual life. We often feel God’s Spirit in the things we do together—praying, serving others, supporting each other at significant life moments, like Mia’s coming out last week…
Recognizing Spirit’s presence among us led next to reflecting on our community’s vocation. Remember the sermon where you shared your ideas about the one thing to which God has called us? To a one we named it: welcoming others in Jesus’ name.
The last three weeks, we’ve considered our community’s financial resources, asking, How might we use our material resources to welcome others in Jesus’ name?
Today we begin exploring one last area–our facility. Spirit is among us, calling us to welcome others in Jesus’ name. We have material resources to use in that work. Among the material resources we have to use in welcoming others are our property and buildings. We certainly can have “church” experiences outside this place, but how might we use this property and these buildings to extend an even more radical welcome to others?
To help us reflect on our facility, we’ll look at two stories set in the outdoors: Jacob wrestling with God and Jesus feeding the 5,000. Believe it or not, there’s much to learn about our facility from stories that have none…because buildings don’t start with bricks and mortar.
Buildings begin with dreams. Some of you have been to John and Laurie Moeller’s cabin in Ellijay. When I met John 20 years ago, he was in the process of buying that land. He’d been eying it for a while, drinking in the beauty of it, imagining a cabin groups like ours could use for retreats. His mission was clear: to provide a place for groups to experience God through being together in creation. The clarity of the mission paved the way for the dreams to become reality.
Our property was chosen by folks nearly 40 years ago with a vision to create space for a church. Forty years is a long time…especially for HVAC, fascia, and restrooms. As we tend to our building’s aging systems, it’s the perfect time to revisit our vision and reflect on how this property and these buildings help us fulfill our mission of welcoming others in Jesus’ name. But first, a trip to Peniel, the place where Jacob wrestled with God.
As a young man, Jacob had cheated his brother, Esau, out of his birthright. Understandably upset, Esau vowed to kill Jacob. Also understandably, Jacob hightailed it out of there.
Today’s scene happens a couple decades later. Both men have prospered. Jacob is coming home and is about to cross into his brother’s land. He’s apprehensive. Would his brother try to kill him? Might they reconcile?
The night before crossing the river to meet his brother, Jacob lies down… but sleep eludes him. In the middle of the night, God shows up and Jacob wrestles with God. Jacob demands a blessing. God gives it…just as Jacob’s hip slips out of its socket.
Jacob is renamed “Israel,” which means, “striving with God.” He then names the place where he did that striving, Peni-el. Peni—face; El—God. The place where I met God face-to-face. What made that face-to-face encounter possible? Wrestling—struggling—with God.
Churches do a disservice when they make people feel bad, or wrong, or heretical, for wrestling with God. Too often, churches penalize people for questioning. But Jacob’s story suggests the best way to get to know God, the surest way of meeting God face-to-face is to wrestle God. How can we know God in our depths if we keep God at arms’ length?
Wrestling obliterates pretense, doesn’t it? I’m not talking about professional wrestling. That’s pure pretense. But true wrestling has a way of stripping everything down to its essence. To ask our deepest questions requires complete authenticity. And vulnerability.
We did a little wrestling Friday night. Not literally. J But because the conversation went below the surface of things, we discovered that we weren’t all on the same page of every issue. We didn’t debate issues…but we did have some healthy conversation about a few.
One example…Someone said, “I’d like to hear more about what Republicans in our church are thinking,” to which someone at the table responded, “What do you want to know?” And so, we talked about our different—and similar—thoughts about the state of our country’s politics. And guess what? No dishes were broken. No voices were raised. We simply wrestled with it for a few minutes then went on. It was beautiful. I don’t think anybody changed anybody else’s mind, but simply talking together, wrestling a little over healthcare and immigration….in that brief conversation, it felt like we were meeting each other face-to-face. No pretense.
I’ve titled this sermon “Tag-Team Wrestling.” “Tag-Team God-Wrestling” might work better. The God-wrestling part comes from the Genesis story. The tag-team part comes from the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.
Some see this story, not as a miracle of Jesus creating food out of thin air—like Jean-Luc Picard on the Starship Enterprise. “Computer, a cup of tea.”—but as a miracle of generosity… that the little boy’s gift of his lunch inspires others to share their lunches…that they already had all the resources they needed. All the people needed was a change of heart, a conscious decision to share their resources—and themselves—with the community.
I think that’s what happened Friday night. Without taking time to talk with each other, we hoard our deepest selves. We become stingy with our authenticity, keep things on the surface. Why? Because it keeps us safe. But it also keeps us lonely…and it keeps us from true and deep experiences—face-to-face encounters—with each other and with God.
My favorite question from Friday night was this: Why do people at Pilgrimage seem so happy? After a good bit of conversation, we decided that our church’s commitment to radical hospitality, in particular, to members of the LGBT community, is the culprit. Because we really work hard to accept everyone for who they are, “wherever they are on life’s journey,” we have created a place here that’s safe for everyone to be authentically who they are. Keeping up pretenses is exhausting, isn’t it? Hiding in the closet takes the life right out of you. Being fully who you are? Being loved for who you are? How can we not feel joy?
The high point of Friday night’s conversation for me was when someone remembered something from last week’s sermon. Five days later and they remembered something! What they remembered was the idea of breathing…that we come to this place each week to breathe in God’s love, to act each other into wellbeing. Once we have been renewed by our togetherness and by worshiping God, then we leave this place to breathe out God’s love, to act the world into wellbeing. We did experience God last Friday night at the Mexican restaurant…but we didn’t worship. It would have been hard to do so at a restaurant, especially on a Friday night.
There’s something about having a dedicated space to come together and worship God that is vital to who we are as a community of Jesus’ followers. It’s crucial to have a place to call home, a place where we can recharge our batteries and reconnect with the one whose love we leave this place to share. It’s good that we use our space to house Family Promise families. But don’t you know those families long for a place to call their own? A place where they can come at the end of the day, be together, and simply rest before heading back out into the world?
That’s what this place is for us, this property, these buildings. This is our home. This is the place we reconnect with each other and with God. This is the place we remember why we’re doing everything we’re doing out there. Don’t get me wrong. We are definitely a party house. We love inviting people to join us. And in attempting to upgrade our space, we are seeking to make our property and buildings even more welcoming to the people in the wider community.
At the end of the day, though, this place, this piece of God’s creation, these particular buildings…this is the space in which we wrestle with God and meet God face-to-face. This is the space where we give generously of our material possessions and ourselves for the good of the community. This is the place where we breathe in God’s love…so that we can leave this place to breathe out God’s love. // This is our place, our home…how shall we tend it?