Even if a tent is not our home, it should still provide shelter.
The first time Elizabeth and I went camping together, we brought with us a little rinky-dink tent. If I remember correctly, it was a metallic silver color, because, it turns out, you can judge a book by its cover some times.
It was about 3:00am when the rains started, and that was when we realized that the tent failed at what was really its only job: keeping us dry. We leapt out of the tent, picked it and everything inside of it up, and threw it into the back of our fancy Dodge Cargo Van, where we spent the rest of the night.
I learned an important lesson that night: even if a tent is not our home, it should still provide shelter.
In our lesson this morning, as Paul continues his second letter to the Church at Corinth, he sends them a word of encouragement about the challenges they are facing. And as he does, he focuses on the glory that awaits them one day. Bodies may break down, but spirits are strengthened. What we see is temporary, but what is unseen is permanent. The earthly tents we live in can be destroyed, but our true home is an eternal, heavenly home.
Yes! And, what happens to us now still matters. What happens to the body matters. What happens to the temporary matters. What happens to the tent matters.
There is a temptation to read Paul and declare that the “here and now” is irrelevant, that all that matters is what happens in heaven. If that were the case, we would have to ignore everything else Paul wrote or did. Remember that Paul had an existential crisis that turned him from persecutor to Christians to promoter of Christ. Remember that this conversion sent him to Jerusalem to argue for the inclusion of Gentiles in the fledging Church. And remember that Paul spent the rest of his life traveling, preaching, and teaching the crucified and risen Christ.
If none of this mattered, then Paul could have rested on his laurels after his conversion, waiting for his earthly tent to be destroyed so he could take up his permanent, heavenly residence. Instead, Paul earned his living as a maker of literal tents and spent his days and nights as a maker and mender of spiritual tents, earthly churches, bodily communities that followed Jesus.
So rather than seeing our lesson this morning as a call to disregard the “here and now”, the invitation is to keep the “here and now” in healthy perspective.
If that space-age monstrosity that advertised itself as a tent had been our only earthly shelter, it would have been insufficient to say, “We seem to be getting wet! Oh, well. Good thing we’ll be eternally dry in the sweet by and by!” That’s not faith; that’s delusion. Then again, if we had reacted to all of this by abandoning the tent for some kind of indestructible bomb shelter, declaring, “We’ll never ever be wet,” then we’ve missed the point once more. That’s not faith, either; that’s paranoia.
The call of faith is to live, somehow, with the in-between. It means holding these gifts God has given us, but with a loosened grip, recognizing that they are not ours to begin with.
One of the things that I have always appreciated about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is the ability to keep these kinds of things within a healthy, faithful perspective. If we were to give into the cultural perversion of bigger, better, faster, stronger, then our building isn’t even a mere shadow of what it should be. That said, neither should we neglect it.
And while there is no shortage of projects around this place, in the past few years we have checked a number off the list. We have new roofs! We installed new, secure doors at the back parking lot! We have updated our antiquated HVAC system! We even have a bathroom for grown ups on the Sanctuary level! We have just, thanks to your generosity, finished phase one of replacing asbestos-backed floor tile. And as we speak, we are finalizing drawings to convert the basement of the Chapel into Kindergarten space and the lower courtyard into an outdoor classroom.
This may never be the most elegant building in Brookhaven, nor do I think it should be. After all, at its very best, it is still our temporary home. And yet, the care we give it while it is in our hands should reflect how we value what it is that God has entrusted to us. We are situated in the midst of perhaps unprecedented growth with a piece of property that is vacant more often than it is occupied. To put it a bit more crassly, we are holding onto empty real estate in a place where land is at a premium. What an opportunity God has given us, God has given you, to be stewards of this place in a way that reflects the character of God we see in Jesus.
And that’s the point after all, isn’t it? If Paul knew anything at all, it was the gift of Jesus as God incarnate, as God embodied. If the world we live in doesn’t matter, the crucifixion doesn’t matter. We know that’s not the case. The fact that the body of Jesus was tortured and suffered is of vital importance. And one of the many ways it matters is that it calls us to minister so that others never have to live with that kind of suffering.
It’s one thing to mend our own tents, whether literal or metaphorical. It’s another thing altogether to look after the tents of others.
Our latest ministry is a perfect example of that, as we embark on becoming partners in New American Pathways in refugee resettlement. Sometime over the next year, Oglethorpe Presbyterian and Emory Presbyterian will work together to furnish a home for a family of refugees. It is possible that they may very well come from living in a literal tent. And your welcome of them not only follows Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger and the exile; it shows that what happens to them matters not just to you, but to the same God who created and loves and yearns for them.
It is my hope that, in all of this, all of us will call to mind what it means to live faithfully in the earthly tent that God has provided for us. We know it is temporary. And yet, if it leaks, we know we deserve better. And the same is true for all of God’s precious children and the tents in which they live. God has given us the ability and the means to make and mend tents the world over so that they, too, would reflect God’s promises of love and hope.
The table is the perfect image for what we are saying here today. The bread and cup we share are not enough to feed the hungry or satisfy the thirsty. They do remind us of the eternal feast that awaits us in God’s perfect presence. And at the same time, they stand as a challenge to our conscience that we should do what we can to make sure that none of God’s children ever hunger or thirst.
After all, even if a tent is not our home, it should still provide shelter.