Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The mercy seat

Isaiah 65: 17-25
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 17, 2013

Naive drawing in the style of of an ancient map of Jerusalem
to communicate Christian brotherhood and peace among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism,
in essence these three becoming a new Ark

            Many of you may already know this story.  But like any good story, it bears repeating, and in its retelling, the story becomes not only more cherished, but also more a part of us and of our shared history as a church.  Not unlike reading scripture.


            It’s the story of this ark.  The story begins with its creator, Norma Longhauser, Storm’s mother.  Norma was a very creative person.  She could have attended art school, paid for by her family, but that was not done by many women in her day.  Late in her life she took up woodcarving.  She had bad arthritis in her hands.  There was something about holding a piece of wood and a knife or chisel that helped ease the aches.


            Norma was not a member of this church.  In fact, Storm said his mother had some differing views in comparison to those of the New Ark.  But when Storm launched a fundraiser for a sound system for the sanctuary, Norma took up knife and chisel and wood out of love and support.


            Most of Norma’s other projects were larger:  carousel horses a third of size, decoy ducks, and such.  The ark and its passengers was the smallest scale item she had made, requiring many hours of slow, patient carving.  And most of you know how the story ends.  Bev Wieland won the bid on the ark and then donated it to the church, to the New Ark.



            Not so long ago in the history of the wider church, in the early 1800s, the ark and its purpose was a metaphor for the Church; that the Church was a refuge in troubled times and that those within this ark, the Church, would be spared from the wrath to come when Christ returns in judgment.


            Listen to these lyrics from a hymn entitled “The Hiding Place”, written by John Newton in 1803:

            You have only to repose
            On my wisdom, love, and care;
            When my wrath consumed my foes,
            Mercy shall my children spare;
            While they perish in the flood,
            You that bear my holy mark,
            Sprinkled with atoning blood,
            Shall be safe within the ark.


This was written the same composer who penned the hymn “Amazing Grace”.  Grace saved John Newton but it seems he could not extend the same grace to the rest of creation.  To him, the Church was seen as a hiding place from the storms of life, and those outside the Church were damned.  Some of us may have worshipped in a church where the rafters on the ceiling resembled the upside down frame of a boat or ark.  But we in the New Ark strive to live out that the Church is called not to be a shelter or refuge that keeps us from pain or from those in pain, but to be the nexus where we meet the storms of life, the storms of the world and the new thing that God is doing head on.

            That ark thrashing about in an earth-covering flood held the promise of life and a second chance for creation.  Then, after God had brought Israel out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, God did a new thing in the Ark of the Covenant that held the promise of community life wherever God’s people roamed, contained in God’s law written on stone tablets.

            The Ark was carried from place to place, never intended to be permanently settled in one place.  It was carried on poles and set inside an enclosure, a tabernacle or tent, only to be encountered by the high priest. On the lid of the Ark were two winged creatures, two cherubim, and their folded wings faced the center of the Ark, creating an empty space.  This empty space was called the mercy seat, the throne of the creator of the heavens and the earth, upon which the high priest would make a blood sacrifice on behalf of himself and all of God’s people; the seat from whence was given God’s mercy and grace.

            God was seen as doing a new thing with the mercy seat.  No more would God wipe out the sins of humanity by destroying human beings and all of creation.  Now the priest would atone on behalf of the people and mercy would be granted.  From this empty place, God’s people were given a second chance.

            In Eugene Peterson’s memoir entitled The Pastor, some young adults in his Presbyterian new church start wondered if the empty tomb wasn’t another ark, another empty space, another mercy seat from whence God’s grace was given for all time.  An angel sitting where once there was a body, asking Mary why she was seeking the living among the dead.  Again, in the Easter story, God is doing a new thing, is recreating new heavens and a new earth.  The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  This is not just something God does once but again and again, not only for God’s people but for all of creation.
DESCRIPTION: The ark is for sale.  Sign out front advertising CAPTION:

            And so today this ark becomes our mercy seat, the empty space from whence shall come God’s grace, the new thing that God is doing in our midst, for the former things shall not be remembered or called to mind.  I have been reading the transcripts from the listening circles and what you had learned as a congregation from a time of great loss and pain and conflict.  And as I was reading I could hear all those things, but I also heard honesty, bravery, deep love, and a longing for healing and transformation.

            It was as if for some of this congregation there was a painful arthritis, an inflammation where two bones meet, between pastor and person, between one person and another.  And in order to deal with this pain, you took up wood and knife and chisel, and you began the long, slow, painful process of carving yet another new ark, by speaking and listening and praying some truly beautiful prayers.  God then won the highest bid for this ark, this new mercy seat, would ransom any price for you, and then gave you back to yourselves.


            And then into this empty space, where once there had been hurts and resentments but then became filled with a waiting for God’s new thing, you began to welcome the future, the unknown, the possibilities of the Holy Spirit working in your midst.  What do you think?  Are you now ready to release the former things and realize God’s joy and delight in what God is creating within you and amongst you?  Are you ready to build a future and live in it?  Are you ready to plant vineyards of justice and compassion and to share its fruits?  Are you ready to enjoy the work of your hands?  Are you ready for God’s mercy?


            And so into this empty ark on the communion table I invite you to bring your pledges next week and in the following weeks of Advent.  God’s mercy is already yours.  There is nothing you need to do to deserve it—only that you accept it.  So fill this ark with your hopes and dreams, with your faith that God will indeed and is already creating new heavens and a new earth here at the New Ark and through you and your life together.


            Mary Luti, a former professor at Andover Newton, said that sometimes the longest and most difficult journey is not from place to place but from the past to the future, from pain to forgiveness, from doubt to trust, from emptiness to new life.  So honor this journey you are on.  Honor it with not only your pledges of money, but with precious time to be spent, and numerous talents to be shared.  Let’s see what the Spirit has in store for us.  And may God’s people say, Amen.

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