Paula Northwood January 19, 2020
Scripture Acts 7:44–51
One of my earliest memories is of a tent. This tent was set up in my grandfather’s alfalfa field. It was the largest white canvas tent I had ever seen. Large wooden poles held up the roof, and lots of ropes were pulled taut and staked to the ground. Hundreds of chairs were set up inside. Now, I might have wished for a circus tent, but, instead, there was a huge platform and pulpit. This was a revival tent, and a special preacher had been invited to hold a revival for our small town. The first night of the revival was the 5th of July. I remember the sermon was based on one word. And I thought it was a bad word. The preacher said, “Some of you raised it last night. Some of you look like it today. Some of you are going there if you don’t watch out.” I was only 4 years old, so maybe I got it wrong.
It reminds me of the mother who wasn’t feeling well one Sunday and decided not to go to church with her family. She asked her little girl to remember what the sermon was about so she could explain it to her. When the child came home, she reported: “The preacher said, ‘Don’t be scared, you’ll get your quilt.’” Of course, the mother didn’t understand the child’s explanation, so she called the minister. He explained that the message was: “Fear not, thy comforter will come.” Children can get words mixed up. There was a father who read Bible stories to his young children. One day he read, “The man named Lot was warned to take his wife and flee out of the city, but his wife looked back and was turned to salt.” His child asked, “What happened to the flea?”
It’s so easy to misunderstand words. If you have been a regular church attender, you have heard over one hundred thousand words a year just in sermons alone. Words are so important and powerful. Unkind words can hurt and destroy relationships. In our text, which is a speech from Stephen, his words end up costing him his life. On the other side, loving words can bring even the toughest person to their knees. We need words. The world needs our words. Someone out there needs to hear your words.
Every religion, each in its own way, uses words and sacraments that point to the ineffable mystery of what we call God. We humans need physical spaces that look and feel sacred and holy. We also need someone to model and exemplify the journey of physical incarnation, through joys and struggles and even death, and then across the threshold to the other side. Those of us who claim the name Christian know about Jesus walking this journey. But far fewer know Christ as the eternal manifestation of the Word. The Word became flesh in Jesus, but Christ became flesh in us.
In our Acts of the Apostles sermon series, we are covering four chapters of Acts a week. From last Sunday we move from the spiritual high of Pentecost to the practicality of living in community. There were so many needs to attend to that they assigned some people to wait on tables and others to study the scriptures and preach. Stephen is chosen to be one of these preachers. But it doesn’t take long for Stephen’s words to get him into trouble and he is arrested. In his defense before the Jewish Religious Council, he recalls the history of the Children of God. He tells again the story of Moses and the liberation of their people. He speaks of the “tent of testimony” or “tabernacle of witness” in the wilderness.
We know from the Hebrew Scriptures that this is a reference to the portable temple structure that early priests used and then dismantled, transported and pitched wherever the Israelites set up camp. Within the borders of this traveling tent there was an area curtained off that was referred to as “the holy place.” This holy place contained the “covenant box” or the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Sinai covenant, represented by two broken flat rocks that were inscribed with “10 sayings,” what we know as the Ten Commandments, plus some other tokens such as a golden pot of manna. This sacred tent was used for worship until the Temple in Jerusalem was built by Solomon, King David’s son. The Temple was a magnificent and glorious thing, and it, too, had a room called the Holy of Holies. This was where it was thought that God resided. As Stephen recounts this history, he gets into trouble because he says the Most High does not dwell in a house made by human hands—not a tent, a temple or sanctuary.
The council listening to Stephen’s defense would have known that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Seventy years later, the Second Temple was built on the same site. The Second Temple, however, met the same fate as the First and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, following the failure of the Great Revolt. It’s interesting that Stephen in reciting this history does not mention the destruction of the Second Temple, but that could be because it happened in their lifetime and it was obvious—everyone knew that.
Stephen is making the point that God does not need a structure or place for God to reside because Heaven and the Earth are God’s house, and, when believers are gathered, God is present. God is bigger and more expansive than anything we can construct physically or in our mind. In fact, each one of us is to be a temple of God.
I have been thinking about this “tent of testimony.” It seems that not only should our places of worship be tents of testimony but also our individual selves. This place should be a tent of testimony, a place where we share our stories, our struggles and joys so that we can be together what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Beloved Community. What would it look like if we did this?
In the Beloved Community, discrimination would end because we are siblings, and we would insist on equity. In our story, the early church shared many things in common. In Acts, chapter 5, we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who thought it fair to hold back some profits from the sale of land. They lied about it and there were consequences, deadly consequences. To be equitable is not the same as fairness. Some people must give things up, let go of things, because equitable relationships require more of us. But that’s the choice we make for our beloveds.
Dr. King knew his Christian history, knew how often folks have stumbled over and fallen short of Christ’s mandate that we love one another. He did not invoke the vision of beloved community lightly; he had no illusion that love comes easily. On the contrary, Dr. King knew, knew it like the shock of a water hose, like the cold floor of a prison cell, like the heart-rending pain of little girls killed in a blast, knew it like Jesus knew that love is challenging, as anything of value always is. Love requires sacrifice, and caring for the sick, and breaking bread with adversaries and sharing our vulnerabilities.
It’s testimonies like this that we are called to seek out and to attend to, if ever we are going to build a beloved community. For this we know, as we learned last week, we the beloved community are the body of Christ. What does it mean for us to walk out into the world, which is, after all, God’s most beloved community, and seek out stories of hurt and hope? What will it take for us to love one another into speaking, celebrating each story? What will it take for us to embrace our differences and marvel at the truth that fear does indeed fall away when we face our fears together, when we recognize the presence of Christ in our midst? What might it look like to do that?
It’s what Dr. King said to his companions in the Civil Rights movement, and to his naysayers, including white liberals who too often remained silent: Come and witness. Be a tent of testimony! Listen to the testimonies of pain; bear witness to generations of terror wielded by people of one race against another. Do not presume that the beloved community can wait, that there is “a more convenient season” in which to pursue freedom. Witness to how urgently we need it now.
God moves from tent to temple to the beloved community into our hearts. The moment I truly realized this mystery was during a time when I had hit rock bottom. I had lost everything: my job, my husband, my family, my home and more. I was grief stricken. I did not know how I was going to make a living. I didn’t know how I could go on. And from this bottomless pit of sorrow, my mind started making a moral inventory of all my shortcomings—the mistakes I had made, the people I had hurt, those things said and left unsaid. I was beating myself up, and I was weary and ready to give up. So, I prayed. No eloquent words, just basically, “I give up.” It actually felt good to just let go and weep. And that’s when I heard it. It wasn’t a voice from heaven or a phone call from God. No, it was more like a whisper, a sound that never reached my ear because it came from within. It was a voice that came from silence. I simply heard: “I’m here.”
“I’m here.” It was that simple, that basic. But it changed everything for me because I knew deep inside that I was not alone. I knew that I could start over, that I had the power to start over with God’s help. And that I could do it with the freedom to be who I really was. I had reclaimed my integrity. That was my moment of testimony. What’s yours?
Hear, again this blessing by Jan Richardson, “This blessing takes one look at you and all it can say is holy. Holy hands. Holy face. Holy feet. Holy everything in between. Holy even in pain. Holy even when weary. In brokenness, holy. In shame, holy still. Holy in delight. Holy in distress. Holy when being born. Holy when we lay it down at the hour of our death.
“So, friend, open your holy eyes. For one moment see what this blessing sees, this blessing that knows how you have been formed and knit together in wonder and in love. Welcome this blessing that folds its hands in prayer when it meets you; receive this blessing that wants to kneel in reverence before you: you who are temple, sanctuary, home for God in this world.”
Let us go forth this week and be a temple, a sanctuary, or a “tent of testimony” for the world needs to see the holy in you! May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html (accessed January 23, 2020).