Last Wednesday was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Now, forgiveness yields freedom and God’s freedom calls us to pilgrimage. To be free is to journey.
I like the way theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it: “The first thing liberated beings do is to enjoy their freedom and playfully test their newfound opportunities and powers.” (Theology of Play, vii.)
For instance, after the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt they could go wherever they liked. They were free, indeed. But which would be the best way to go?
God, in mercy, led the people to show them the best way to go by giving them signposts along the way.
First, God led the people by the sign of fire and smoke.
Second, God showed them the best way to go by giving them the Ten Commandments. They are the “ten best ways to live,” according to Jerome Berryman, author of Godly Play.
The third sign ordered their coming and going, resting and working in a rather unique way. It was the sign of the tabernacle.
The tabernacle was a sign to the people that God would be in their midst, at the center of their community, as they went on pilgrimage from slavery to enjoy their new freedom.
And so, it is fitting that soon after Yom Kippur there is the Feast of Tabernacles called Sukkot. We are in the midst of Sukkot right now. This year it began on Sunday October 16 and ends on Sunday October 23.
It is also called the Feast of Booths and, to observe the festival, many Jews today build small shelters on their property. Just up the street from my home, there is a large apartment complex with a small courtyard in the middle of the building’s three wings. Every year our Jewish neighbors who live there build a shelter to observe the festival.
The booths and the tabernacle portray home as a temporary place. God is on the move and, because our true home can only be found in God, the journey with God becomes our dwelling place.
The message is clear: don’t settle. Be ready to pack up camp and follow where God leads. Your livelihood is found in freedom and adventure.
I am drawn to this way of thinking about home because of its playfulness. To be sure, there is tension intrinsic to this sense of home because we are accustomed to thinking of home in incarnational terms, theologically speaking.
The incarnation is that moment in history when God became flesh in Jesus and “made his dwelling among us.” It was the moment when God “settled down”, so to speak, and grew up in a neighborhood, making a home in a small town in northern Israel. It’s fascinating that when God took on flesh he never left the land of Israel.
Yet, by being present to a specific location, God unleashed a work in the world that is beyond comparison. The Christ-event begins with the incarnation (making a home) and ends with a part of the story that still hasn’t ended: Pentecost.
And Pentecost is that part of the story where God moves wherever he likes in unpredictable ways.
Thus, boundary and freedom are always connected.
Notice that in the incarnation God imposes limitation on God’s self by becoming a human while at Pentecost the Spirit moves humanity to freely follow the untamed purposes of God.
Taken together, the two form a dialectic that continually stand in tension and this is the very quality that constitutes play.
But what’s even more fascinating is that each part of this dialectic, taken on its own, contains the tension of boundary and freedom.
On the one hand, the incarnation represents a boundary in that God becomes self-limited, yet it is by this very limitation that God playfully breaks the rules. After all, who would have ever expected that God would become a human and truly “make his dwelling among us”? The incarnation comes to us as a surprise precisely because the infinite becomes finite. The categories can no longer be partitioned neatly. In the incarnation there is boundary, and by that boundary there is freedom.
And the same is true of Pentecost. The Spirit, who is as uncatchable as the wind, gets “caught” by us. By taking up residence in the human heart, the Spirit of God, who may be found everywhere, can now be found locally in the specific faces of limited human beings.
So, with the incarnation we have a boundary that leads to freedom while at Pentecost we have freedom with boundary. The two cannot be extricated from each other.
This tension is foreshadowed by the meaning of the tabernacle. God, who goes before the people in the column of fire and smoke in the wilderness wanderings, is unapproachable. Yet, God wants to dwell among his people, to be known—so God also places himself in the middle of the camp. God is thus both center and circumference.
The tabernacle assures us that God is our home. It is a place of pure presence. Yet, the tabernacle is intended to be put up for a season and then carried with the people when God prompts them to break camp and move out. God is thus a home that never stays in one place.
I love how God shatters our either/or categories. How playful!
Yesterday afternoon I was out for a bike ride and, as it was nearing sunset, I passed many Jewish neighbors making their way to worship. Everyone was clearly happy, not just because it was a beautiful afternoon but because of the specialness of the holy season. As I biked south on the path, a tall man with a full beard, dressed in black suit with a white collar shirt and a big black hat, saw me coming his way. He smiled broadly and said, “Isn’t this a lovely day? How are you?”
Among other meanings, the Feast of Tabernacles reminds us that we are on pilgrimage with each other, no matter our differences. Along the way, God is in our midst. It is up to us to notice the movement of God in those we meet on the journey, to celebrate the life of God who is ever-present, but never merely static. This God opens our eyes to see the world, made in colorful beauty, and one another, sacred, sought and seeking.