Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

The Tent of Meeting: Working on a Building

Sunday, August 13, 2006

 

 

Exodus 33: 7-11

 


Rev. Dean Snyder

 

This brief passage – 4 verses – is a very early fragment of the Exodus story.

 

It is about the Tent of Meeting.

 

The Israelites traveled for 40 years between Egypt and the Promised Land. If they had gone in a straight line they could have apparently done it in six months, but human beings don’t go places in a straight line all the time, do we?

 

During the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, they often made camp. These encampments might last a long time – years.

 

Moses’ household, like everyone else’s, would pitch their tents, carrel their animals, set up their cooking areas, their hygienic areas, just like nomadic Bedouins do in the Middle East still today.  

 

But then Moses would pitch another tent outside the camp that he called “The Tent of Meeting.”

 

 It was not a large tent originally. Even though the Hebrew terminology is a bit unclear, I think it is best translated to say that Moses, he, himself, pitched the tent.[1] In other words, it was a small and simple enough tent that Moses himself could pitch it with his own hands.

 

During these times of encampment or settlement, Moses would regularly leave the camp to enter this tent where he would meet with God. The Hebrew word which is translated meeting here has the connotation of meeting at an appointed time. John Durham says it should be literally translated as the Tent of Appointed Meeting[2] or the Tent of Meeting at an Appointed Time.

 

We do not know if it was daily or weekly or how often, but at an appointed time Moses would walk through the camp, outside the camp, and enter the Tent of Meeting to meet with God, the God he called by the name YAHWEH or I AM.

 

When Moses left the camp to go to the tent, all the Israelites would stand outside their tents and watch him go. When he entered the Tent of Meeting, according to this ancient account, a cloud would descend and position itself outside the entrance to the tent…a cloud in the shape of a pillar.

 

In other words, the people could discern the presence of God. They could perceive and feel that the divine was there in the tent with Moses, and they would kneel outside their tents until the meeting was over and the cloud would ascend again, and Moses would come out of the tent.

 

This is what was at stake here: the slaves in Egypt had followed Moses through the Red Sea with the mighty Egyptian army of chariots chasing them because Moses told them the God  I AM wanted them to be free. Then they had followed Moses into the wilderness where there was no food to eat or water to drink because Moses had told them that I AM was leading them to a Promised Land.

 

Now the Israelites were going in circles in the Wilderness living like nomads, dependent upon some strange food called Manna or What is it? The Israelites didn’t know where the Promised Land was or how to get there. They were in a strange place where they did not know how to survive. It was pretty important to them to have a sense that Moses and I AM were still talking with each other.

 

So watching Moses enter the Tent of Meeting at the appointed time and having a sense that God was truly there meeting with Moses was an important time of the day or week or month.

 

Then eventually the people, when they felt a need for a sense of the presence of God in their lives, would go stand outside the tent of meeting…because it was a holy place, a place where I AM had been and where I AM might be again.

 

Over time, this simple tent that Moses could pitch with his own hands became larger and larger, and more and more elaborate, until it took a small army of people to carry it, and to pitch it. Eventually it became so large and complex it couldn’t be taken down any more. It became a permanent structure. Eventually it became the Temple of Jerusalem.

 

This simple little Tent of Meeting that Moses could pitch with his own hands is the prototype of every house of worship in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that exists today. Every synagogue, mosque, church and cathedral has its beginnings in this little Tent of Meeting.

 

This short early account from the Exodus story – 4 verses – is a reminder of why we build and repair houses of worship still today.

 

We do it because we are still in the wilderness. We are still traveling in circles. We still aren’t quite sure where we are going, or how to get there, or how to live in the meantime. We are still vulnerable.

 

For all the medicines, safety nets, armies and weapons in the world, we are still vulnerable. Anybody here not know that this week?

 

9/11 was accomplished by a group of young men with box cutters.

Here’s a quote from an expert quoted in an AP story that ran this week this week: “The raw materials to make [the liquid explosives seized by British authorities this week] are available anywhere, in hardware stores, agricultural stores, pharmacies, supermarkets. And they're really cheap. I have calculated that to bring down an airplane it will cost you, at retail prices, $35.”[3]

We are a congregation of people who fly all the time. Who of us isn’t feeling vulnerable this week?

But it is more than our vulnerability.

It is Israel and Hezbollah and Lebanon. It is Iraq. It is Afghanistan. Why is it that we can not manage a generation without war? I feel incompetent on behalf of humanity. What is wrong with us?

I still go regularly to the CNN website (http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2003/iraq/forces/casualties/2006.08.html) that posts the names and photos of U.S. and coalition soldiers as they die in Iraq. If you go there this week you will find the photo of a 22-year-old young man named Brian from Naperville, Illinois. In his photo he is smiling this free-spirited sassy smile, like someone for whom life is just fun. Look at his smile. He was killed a few days ago by a roadside bomb.

I am not saying anything partisan here. I really haven’t seen one political party being smarter about this than the other, but what are we doing here…sending one 22-year-old smiling Brian after another to accomplish who knows what anymore.

I still go to the website site IraqBodyCount.net that tallies Iraqi deaths reported by reputable news sources. (http://www.iraqbodycount.net/database/bodycount.php?ts=1155414195) It is up to 82 pages now with 50 causalities at least a page.

I have no answers. I don’t know what to do, that’s for sure, but I feel incompetent for America because we don’t seem to be accomplishing whatever we set out to do, and nobody seems to be able to come up with a plan to do anything different. I feel incompetent for humanity. I feel incompetent for America.

We are in a wilderness.

There are two reasons we need the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness.

First, in the wilderness, a sense of the divine is essential. In the wilderness a sense of the transcendent, a sense of the numinous, of the holy, of the telic is essential for survival. We can face our vulnerability and need and start again only if we know that we are not alone, not merely on our own.  

When Jane and I were in Rome we got in line at the Vatican early one morning. We rushed through the Vatican to the Sistine Chapel. We got a seat on the bench on one of the side walls and sat for a long time looking at the ceiling. We sat for a long, long time.

We sat so long that at least 7 or 8 others groups of people sat next to me on the bench as space opened up. With half an ear, I could hear people speaking all sorts of different languages as they sat next to me.

Then two middle-aged American men sat down next to me. As they sat there waiting for their wives, with Michelangelo’s great scenes of the biblical stories above us and his portrayal of the final resurrection a few yards to our left, one of the American men began describing for the other his most recent visit to his urologist.

At first I was surprised. Then I was amused. Then it occurred to me that it is perhaps when we are sitting in the presence of such powerful signs of eternity that we can most face our humanity and vulnerability.

Because we are not doing so well on our own, these are important days to pitch a tent outside the camp. These are important days to discern the presence of the I AM in our world.

The Tent of Meeting allows us to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we are lost and confused and not very competent at finding our own way without becoming hopeless.

The second reason we need the Tent of Meeting is this: In the Wilderness, someone got to be meeting with I AM. Somebody’s got to be listening to a transcendent voice.

It is no secret that we live in a time when religion is being abused. There are churches, synagogues, and mosques that teach hate, that teach exclusion, that teach repression. No meeting happens there.

If you have been to a church, synagogue or mosque and you come out hating, you have not been to a meeting with I AM. You have not met the God of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. 

No one ever leaves a real meeting totally unchanged. We can’t come to this building as people who already have the answers hoping to get our answers reinforced. We come here as people who are lost in the wilderness and who need a meeting.

The tent is just a tent, but the meeting is everything. And because this tent is where someone once met the divine, and because it is where we might meet the divine again or someone near us might meet the divine – that would be enough – this tent is our hope in the midst of our wilderness.

 

 

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[1] John I. Durham, Word Bible Commentary: Exodus (Word, Inc., 1987), p. 442.

[2] Durham, p. 440.

[3] Arthur Max, Associated Press, http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/1107AP_Israel_Aviation_Safety.html