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Outside the Box

July 18, 2010
Sermon:  Outside the Box
Text:  Genesis 28:10-16


Last summer when we returned from our family vacation, I shared with you a story about loading our pickup truck to the brim with all of the items we carry to the beach.  I had packed an electric grill, hammocks, equipment for a baby, all kinds of things.  I went back inside the house to make sure everything was as it should be since we were going to be gone for a week and left Clare sitting in the pickup truck with the air conditioner running.  I must tell you that Clare was wearing a linen blouse and a string of pearls. 

 A fellow pulled up in his own pickup truck right next to ours in the driveway.  His truck was painted in about seventeen different colors.  It was covered with dents and all kinds of accidental injuries.  When he got out of his truck, he did not look any better.  He wore a baseball cap that was absolutely in tatters and covered with grease.  He wore overalls and a sported a scraggly beard.  He was chewing tobacco, and it was apparent that he had had no dental work for a long, long time. 

This man walked over to our truck, tapped on the glass, and motioned for Clare to lower the window.  Clare lowered it no more than several inches.  He asked, in what was apparently a northern Spartanburg County drawl or maybe a western North Carolina drawl, “Ya’ll goin’ to th’ dump?”  Then he proceeded to tell Clare that he was in the “arn and steel business” and that he would be glad to haul off all that junk in our pickup for us.

Clare used her good sense and replied, “No, we already have everything loaded.  I think we’ll handle it ourselves.”  She certainly did not reveal to the man that we were going to be out of town for a week.

With that, he got in his truck and left.

Last year our vacation began with that episode and ended, as you perhaps recall, with a stop at a rest area.  Clare and I pulled off into a rest area because the heavy traffic on I-26 was at a virtual standstill.  We unloaded two beach chairs from the truck and took two apples out of the ice chest we had in the back.  We sat in the shade, enjoying our books and eating apples until the traffic cleared. 

I learned from that experience that you can have a vacation anywhere.  You can have a vacation even in your own backyard.  You can have a vacation anywhere that you decide to stop and take the time.

I have a corollary which is the reason I refer to that story.  This year, our pickup truck was again loaded just as severely.  In fact, my good friend and across-the-street neighbor, Jimmy Tobias, walked over to the truck and surveyed the pile of stuff.  He said, “Dr. Neely, those bungee cords just might not hold that load very well.  I have some motorcycle straps if you would like to use them.”

I thought later, Jimmy, we have decided not to take the motorcycle this year.  Thanks for the offer.  We made it to the beach and back with no problem.

Here is the corollary.  You can take a vacation anywhere that you decide to stop and take the time, and you can also worship anywhere you decide to stop and take the time. 

By almost anybody’s reckoning, Jacob is a mama’s boy.  He stays close to home.  His very complexion tells that story.  Though the family lives in a tent, Jacob does not love the outdoors the way his brother, Esau, does.  He does not roam the fields and hunt game.  Instead, he stays home and assists his mother with chores.  Preceding the text for today, Jacob has absolutely infuriated Esau, stealing the birthright and taking a blessing.  Esau has every right to feel enraged, and he has sworn to kill his brother.  In fear of his life, Jacob flees the home, leaving his father and mother, Isaac and Rebekah. 

On his first night away, Jacob finds a round stone that I imagine was one of those that cover the ground in that part of the world.  He lays his head down on the rock and falls asleep.  I suppose that lying on a rock that has been warmed all day by the sun would result in fitful sleep.  His sleep was certainly not very restful. 

While Jacob sleeps, he has a vision of heaven with a ladder lowered as if to meet him.  Angels are rising and falling on the ladder, ascending and descending.  There above the ladder, God Himself speaks to Jacob words of assurance, “I will be with you wherever you go.”  Upon waking, Jacob names the place Bethel, which means “House of God,” because he said, “This is the very house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.  I did not recognize it” (Genesis 27:18). 

This spot seems to be an unlikely place for Jacob to worship.  If he had known what we know from reading the Scriptures, he would have understood that his grandfather Abraham had built an altar in this very place.  It may well be that the stone on which Jacob lays his head was once a part of Abraham’s altar.  This location is a holy place, but it is an unlikely place for Jacob to encounter God.

When we read other parts of the book of Genesis, we see that God often appears to people in unlikely places such as a mountaintop or a clearing in the woods.  In Exodus, Moses has an encounter with God at the foot of a mountain.  He finds a revelation from God in a bush that is burning but not consumed. 

Over time, the people of Israel decide that God needs a house, a place to stay.  First, they build a tent, which they call the tabernacle.  The Bible goes into great detail about how this tent was constructed and adorned with objects.  Second, the people decide that a box, which they call the Ark of the Covenant, symbolizes God’s presence.  They carry that box everywhere they travel.  They even carry it into battle, believing that God is sitting, as it were, invisibly on top of that box in the mercy seat. 

I Samuel provides additional information that illustrates the people’s strong conviction that the Ark of the Covenant symbolizes God’s presence.  The old priest Eli hears news that throws him into shock and bewilderment.  The news that stuns him very badly is not that his sons have turned against him and rebelled.  He becomes traumatized when he learns that the Ark of the Covenant has been captured by the Philistines.   To him, it is as if the very presence of God has been stolen from the people of Israel.  Upon hearing the report, Eli, a large man, falls over backwards and breaks his neck.  The Scripture says that later when Eli’s grandson is born, he is given the name Ichabod, which means “the glory of the Lord has departed” (I Samuel 4:11). 

We see the people of Israel first coming to believe that God is to be contained in a tent.  They then believe that God can be contained in a box, and finally in David’s time, in a temple.  David can build this temple only in his mind.  His son Solomon actually builds a beautiful temple as a dwelling place for God.  Now God is indoors, contained in what is known as the Holy of Holies.  The thought that God can leave that containment, that box, becomes more and more foreign to the people of Israel. 

Only when these people experience that great and tragic event in history called the Exile do they learn that God does not have to be worshipped just in the temple in Jerusalem.  They learn that God does not have to be in one place on one hill in one holy city. This altered view was the beginning of what is known as Synagogue Judaism.  Synagogues, little models of the temple, spring up in numerous places throughout the region.  The synagogue becomes a symbol that God can be in many different places at the same time.  Of course, we derive our worship from Synagogue Judaism.  It is the very way our worship came into being.

Thinking about all of these changes in perspective that occurred over the years, I began considering the many places I have led worship.  When I first entered the ministry and served as chaplain in several Scout camps, our worship was under a very steep roof over open air.  My guitar provided our music.  Can you imagine?  I preached sermons focusing on the great outdoors and topics that related to Scouting.  I tried to deliver the gospel message to a bunch of boys in the woods, on a mountaintop, or by the lake.  It was quite a wonderful experience for me to worship with them.  In time, I served as chaplain at several institutions for juvenile delinquents, at a prison, and at a state mental hospital.  When asked what it was like leading worship in a state mental hospital, I said it is pretty much like leading worship at Morningside.  It is. 

As a chaplain at the Lincoln School, a school in Shelbyville, Kentucky, I worshipped in a classroom with students from all over the state who were intellectually gifted but culturally deprived. 

One day a contingent of students from Lincoln came to me and said, “Chaplain Neely, do you think we could go to a real church?”  I knew what they meant.  Most of the kids in that school were African Americans.  They wanted to go to an African American church.  The principal of the school, also African American, made the arrangements for any interested student.  We took maybe as many as thirty. 

I do not want to be stereotypical in my description, but I do want to tell you about that experience.  The service, which lasted about three hours, was not like any I had witnessed in the churches where I had been a member. 

When we arrived at the church, I sat near the back next to the principal.  I was the only Caucasian person in the entire Sanctuary.  We began worship with music offered by a pianist that would have put anyone in the shade.  I imagine that he played on Saturday nights at another location and brought a lot of that Saturday nightlife into Sunday morning.  Many members of the congregation may have been at that same location the night before because it did not take them long to get right into the music on Sunday morning.  

The ushers were not like our ushers.  Two young women wearing white dresses and a gold sash printed with the word “Usher” came down the aisle.  They walked to the back where I was seated and whispered, “The pastor has asked that you join him on the platform.”

I answered, “Thank the pastor very much.  He is so gracious.  If he wants me to lead a prayer, I will be glad to do so from here in this pew.  Give him my regards.” 

After the ushers turned around and walked out of the Sanctuary, the principal leaned over to me and whispered, “You’ll never get away with that.” 

By this time, the congregation was in a frenzy.  Three robed clergy walked onto the platform with one beginning the service with those words from Habakkuk, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).  Then he added, “Would the Reverend Dr. Kirk Neely come to the platform?” 

I had not yet graduated from seminary at that point, and this pastor had already ordained me and given me a doctorate.  I walked up on the platform and tried to be a quiet participant during the service, which, by the way, included two sermons.

After those sermons, this pastor stood again and said, “I woke up this morning with a sore throat and said, ‘Lord, you have to provide a worship experience for these people.’  The Lord has provided Dr. Neely.  Would you come to the pulpit and bring us the Word of God?”

I stepped to the pulpit and preached the finest sermon on spontaneity you have ever heard in your life.  I spoke on how difficult it is to be spontaneous because we are so programmed.  Actually, it was probably one of the worst sermons I have ever preached.

I have worshipped so many times inside a building.  I made my profession of faith at Croft Baptist Church.  I worshipped at First Baptist Church in Spartanburg.  When I was a freshman at Furman, a fire destroyed some of that church building, an experience that was very hard for me.  I was licensed at First Baptist Church in Taylors, South Carolina, where Clare and I worshipped when we were students at Furman.  I have worshipped in Leesville United Methodist Church when Clare and I were married and worshipped in many chapels, including those at Southern Baptist Seminary, hospitals, and Scout camps.  I have preached a Maundy Thursday sermon at Harvard Memorial Church in Harvard Square in Boston and worshipped in Cape Cod.  I preached a sermon in one of the little antechapels at the National Cathedral in Washington to a group of Scouts, and I have worshipped so many times right here in this Sanctuary.

I have worshipped abroad, as well, in some of the great cathedrals of England and in some of the smaller churches of the Holy Land.  Kris and I had communion during a noon service with the homeless people of England.  I worshipped at St. Martins of the Field at Trafalgar Square, at Winchester Cathedral, at Westminster Abbey, and at Canterbury Cathedral.  In Israel, I have had many worship experiences.  I led a marriage renewal ceremony at a church at Cana of Galilee where Jesus attended a wedding.  I have worshipped at the garden tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and in the Garden of Gethsemane.  These worship experiences inside a church building have been a part of my spiritual formation.

Do you notice that all of these places have something in common?  They are all inside a box, a building.  We tend to think of our worship as happening inside a building.  Consider Pretty Place at Camp Greenville, one of the most beautiful in all the world.  Walls have not been built, but a roof covers the location of worship services.  It is still a building.  Last Sunday, I preached at Pawley’s Island Chapel, a beautiful chapel.  It is still a box.

God is not in a box.  God lives outside the box.  We certainly can encounter God in places of worship; but Habakkuk is not talking about a building on top of Mount Moriah in Jerusalem when he says, “The Lord is in his holy temple.”  This passage means that God’s temple is the whole canopy of the universe.  God’s temple is everything.  God is everywhere.  No neat lines are to be drawn between what is sacred and what is secular.  Habakkuk’s assertion means that our worship is quite portable.  The people of the Exile had to learn that.  We must learn it, too. 

I have been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Altar in the World.  Brown, too, asserts that we can learn to worship outside the box, that we can learn to worship in unlikely places.  Have you driven along the Blue Ridge Parkway lately?  Have you ever pulled off the road onto one of those overlooks and had an experience of worship there?  Have you ever been to the ocean or been outside at night looking at the stars or watching a thunderstorm and experience the presence of God?  Our worship is incomplete if we believe it can only happen inside a box.  Worship occurs outside the box, too.

As Clare and I were driving back from the beach yesterday, we saw a sign somewhere between Andrews and Greenville printed with the words “Chigger Grove.”  Who would name a place that?  Clare suggested, “I think it’s a produce stand.”  I am absolutely sure she is right, as she always is. 

As we continued our drive, we saw a sign identifying a nearby church with a name something like the Southern Independent Primitive Missionary Cooperative Full Gospel Holy Bible Alliance Baptist Church.  When you come to the word “Baptist,” you cannot just say “Baptist.”  It is more like Bap-a-tist, said with a kind of breathless gasping to emphasize the presence of the Holy Spirit.  The many adjectives that we place in front of the word “Church” separate us. 

I immediately noticed that the church was very small.  That entire church building plus seven pickup trucks parked around it could easily fit inside our Fellowship Hall.  I also noticed that the church had no steeple, just a white cross on top that needed repainting.  Someone had leaned a ladder against that cross to use while giving it a fresh coat of paint.  That cross and ladder were perfect symbols.  God is in his holy temple.  We are to be silent before him. 

We must understand that worship does not happen just inside a box.  It happens outside, as well.  It happens wherever God decides to drop a ladder from heaven and encounter us.  He can do that anywhere.  We do not have to be on the Blue Ridge Parkway or at the beach.  We do not have to be at a burning bush.  Neither do we even have to be at a place called Bethel where our grandfather worshipped.  We can worship in our own backyard.  We can encounter a ladder that God drops from the sky and see there a symbol of the cross.  That symbol is the way in which God connects with us more surely than any other way.  The cross becomes a ladder in which God says, “I am with you.  I am going to be with you everywhere you go, and I am never going to leave you.  I am never going to forsake you.”

My prayer for all of us is that we will learn that we can worship anywhere.  I want you to worship inside this box we call Morningside.  The staff tries to do a good job with worship so that you will come and be a part of this experience.  Worship must have other dimensions, too, many of which will happen outside of this place.  We must remember that wherever or whenever worship happens, Jesus Christ is at the center. 

Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?  Maybe you know him but now have some distance in your relationship with him.  You know that you need an experience in which you will be drawn closer to him.  We invite you to renew your relationship with Christ. 

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2010

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