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Friday, October 05, 2012


We are mid-way into the Jewish Festival of Sukkot. Sukkot means huts or tabernacles.  Some people prefer to call them "booths".

Every fall season, depending on where you live, faithful Jews build a sukkah (singular form of sukkot), a temporary shelter where all their meals are taken and sometimes, it's where people sleep.

Sukkot is really three celebrations in one. First, it celebrates the harvest and offers thanks to G-d for the abundant bounty of the earth. I don't know if you have friends who observe Sukkot but if you happen to drop by, you'll find that there is always lots of food in a sukkah. Lots and lots and lots. No one ever goes hungry during this festival. ("Have a sandwich. Maybe a piece of fruit?")

I'm told by some of my Rabbi friends that this aspect of the festival derives from earlier pagan traditions and at times has included some rather bizarre rituals such as throwing lemons at, or pouring water on the king (more on this in a bit).

The lemon-throwing is still practiced in a more subdued manner in the shaking of the etrog (a lemon-like fruit) and lulav (a palm frond and willow and myrtle branches tied together).

The shaking of the lulav and etrog in the six directions is reminiscent of the Native American tradition, as is the customary use (in this country at least) of squash, maize and cornstalks to decorate the sukkah.

The second aspect of Sukkot commemorates the time when the Israelites came out of captivity in Egypt and entered Canaan - The Promised Land - and lived a nomadic existence in the desert. The sukkah was not meant to be permanent but merely protected them mainly from the harsh sun. Strict Jewish law still requires that the roof of the sukkah be at least one-third open to the sky.

Finally, there is a deep, spiritual aspect of the sukkah which I think Christians would do well to remember. The sukkah is a reminder that we are vulnerable and finite creatures. The sukkah alone can not protect us from the forces of nature. Its structural fragility is a powerful reminder of our dependence on G-d, keeping our human egos in check while reminding us that even the most powerful king is still a human being. Above all, the sukkah demands that we have faith in a power greater than ourselves.

Actually, our Eucharistic is reminiscent of Sukkot, the Festival of the Tabernacles, in many ways. We celebrate and honor our Abundant God by gathering up the stories of God's presence in our history as well as our daily lives, collecting our treasures to share with others, and sharing a sacred meal of remembrance where everyone is given a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet to which everyone is invited and all are fed.

Except.......we do not gather in temporary structures. Indeed, many of our churches are magnificent structures of stone or brick or wood - some with elaborate stained glass windows - that were designed to hold many, many people for many, many years.  They were intended to give glory to God and inspire worship and awe, but, more often than not, they are a source of pride to the congregations who attend and the clergy who lead services there.

Yes, of course, Jews have there magnificent Temples, as well. However, there is something about a sukkah that reminds us of the fleeting fragility and impermanence of life that provides, I think, a wonderful antidote to the pride we hold in our places of worship.

St. Peter's Cathedral, Wilmington, DE
In fact, I think the pride we have in our churches is killing us. Whenever I served as Vicar or Rector of a church, it used to amaze - as well as pain - me every time I realized how much money were were spending on buildings and grounds. Invariably, it was at least three times more than the money we contributed to alleviate poverty or provide shelter for the homeless or food for the hungry.

I think it's a sin.

I do not think it is pleasing unto God.

I was talking with a friend earlier today who, among other things, brought me the news that yet another church in this diocese is closing. We closed the cathedral in June. Last weekend, we closed a little church that had been recently "planted" but its roots did not take and it "died on the vine".  Now, another church will close sometime in June of 2013.

When I arrived here two years ago, there were 32 or 34 churches in this diocese - depending on how you count them. There are now 29 or 31. Rumors are swirling that there will be two more churches closed by years end, bringing the total number down to 27 or 29.

While I grieve for the people who have lost their sense of what it means to be church, I am more hopeful that God is up to something and the Spirit is moving. 

No, I'm not bothered by the dwindling numbers. Indeed, I hear it as a call to a deeper sense of vocation and ministry and mission. I privately delight to wonder where this may all be leading and what new sense of being church will mean to us.

Perhaps we are learning - finally! - that the building is not the church. So many of us are 'marching in place', struggling to hold onto a building that has not served the needs of the congregations or the community that surrounds it for many, many years. And yet, we hold on for dear life, which is a painful irony since life has long since left the building.

The church building, sturdy as it may seem, can not protect us from the forces of nature - be they sun, wind, rain or fire. Neither does attending church guarantee us happy, carefree lives undarkened by heartache or illness, grief or suffering.

Perhaps we all need a little Festival of Sukkot every year - just eight days in the autumn where we build a temporary structure where we eat and sleep and live and invite our friends of whatever religious persuasion (or, none) to celebrate and share in God's abundance.

I want to suggest that we need these reminders of our impermanence and vulnerability as well as our dependency on a power greater than ourselves as an antidote to the sins of pride and avarice.

This is especially so if we want to become a more "missional church" - the new theological buzz phrase that seems to be sweeping through some dioceses.

If we go "back to the future" of the church, we may remember that we are a pilgrim people, and, in the words of that wonderful Ruth Duck hymn, rediscover that "the journey is our home".

Many years ago, a Rabbi friend gave me this Sukkot Prayer which I think speaks powerfully to those of us who have, perhaps, "lost" their church building and are searching for a "church home".  It also reminds those of us who worship in church structures that are modest or magnificent about the real meaning of "home".
The Way Home
G-d of Old
The One who led our ancestors to a land of promise,
A vision of abundance,
Milk and honey from holy soil,
Grant me the strength to follow that sacred path,
Trials in the desert,
Trials of heart,
The journey home.
Ancient One,
Your Voice resounds in the hills,
Your Call echoes in the valleys,
Your Mysteries waiting
In the desert and by the seas.
Home is in my breath,
In my eyes,
In my heart.
Home is in the joy and the laughter,
In the work and the struggle,
In the toil and in the rest.
Blessed are You, G-d of our Ancestors,
You are the way home.
Chag Sameach (KHAHG sah-MEHY-ahkh) - literally "A Joyous Festival" - to all my Jewish friends.

Never doubt that the blessings you receive make you a blessing to others. 

1 comment:

Marthe said...

The "missional" business bothers me, not that I don't think the church ought to have outreach/mission activities, but because it seems to be a flavor or the week response to falling attendance. Perhaps what we need is a church informed, a church responsive, meaning: first, we are to spread the Good News, to teach so that lives CAN be lived informed by the Word, second, we respond to the Word with our lives.
What seems to be at the core of all the anxiety is the simple realization that for all the talk, too few people actually know what's in the Bible, so too few lives appear to be informed by even the basic tenets ... because the whole idea of Christian education has fallen into disputes over form and ritual and "my sect/interpretation is better/purer/more authentic than yours" thinking ... division and splintering and nonsense that drives people away ... I think Jesus would look at all of the Christian churches and shudder at the failure to inform and respond to the real lives of real people in this so-called information age.
The question might best be, "how do we spread the good news effectively?" -- figure that out and the rest will be resolved ... lives lived informed by the Word - ah! what possibility!