Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Last Saturday I went to the New Hampshire Highland Games and was completely enthralled. I have absolutely no Scottish blood, but last weekend I really wished I had some. There was booth after booth with information on clans. Kilts and tartans colored the crowd in every direction. Bagpipers played in bands or alone or before a judge. Girls danced. Harps played. And strong men threw extraordinarily heavy things. Of course, the vendors displayed all kinds of Scottish items that glittered – literally or figuratively – in the early autumn sun.
There was a sense of identity and belonging that created a kind of unity in the crowd. People left chairs set up in the really good viewing places and then went to wandered though the festival. No one moved the chairs, sat in them, or complained about them. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. There were a few people who stepped in front of me while watching a parade without out a word of apology or those that seemed oblivious to the crowds of people. But, really, most people were friendly and respectful.
There’s a lot going on in the world today, from Ahmadinejad addressing the U.N. on Yom Kippur (who signed off on this?) to the introduction of iPhone 5s. But I can’t quite shake the yearning I felt as I left the Scottish festival. While I was totally amazed by the men tossing everything from a 60 pound ball to what appeared to be a telephone pole, it was not the most striking part of the festival. I was awed when the disabled men also threw 60 pound weights while, coincidentally, someone played Amazing Grace on bagpipes from a distant place on the grounds. It really was the unity in the crowd that touched me deeply.
As I’ve thought about it, I thought about the church of my childhood. It also was not a perfect community. But for me it really was a place were I felt accepted and cared for. No one tried to make me be something I was not. I made friends that I would not have made in school. I was encouraged to participate in activities. When crisis hit, church members and clergy offered incredible support. Looking back, I could not have asked for more from a church community. I could easily have been overlooked since no one else in my family joined that church. A child alone in a church in the 70s was not typical. Church was a safe, caring place where I was free to be myself.
Now I am not thinking that we should start wearing kilts or playing bagpipes to establish clear identity and belonging in our churches, but I do wonder what we are doing. I hear a lot about young adults taking longer to grow up. This is usually followed by some statement about the seemingly increasing number of men and women experiencing some kind of midlife crisis. This isn’t surprising. The world is changing at a rapid pace and human beings haven’t quite caught up and it is very hard to sort out just what exactly is important. On the other hand, the church in all its many forms has a very unique message to offer in today’s ever-changing world where a identity and belonging are often in question.
For all who have ever asked, “Who am I?” or “Where do I belong?” the church can answer, you are a beloved child of God and you belong in a loving, faithful community. I think this message often gets lost in conflicts around doctrine and practice, but it should be at the core all Christian communities. Value and welcome are vital for those lost in the world today who are seeking something more than technology can provide.
Jesus pointed out that salt without it’s saltiness is pretty much useless. And we learn from the ancient Israelites that complaining usually means that we are focused on what is lacking rather than what is present. The danger for the church is to lose its saltiness by focusing on what was rather than what is. I find myself wondering how we can be proud of our identity as Christians and offer hospitality to all who are seeking in this pluralistic, individualistic society.
I can honestly say that I don’t have an answer, but I want one. The church community of my childhood saved my life and shaped who I am today. The thought of faith communities not being around to offer sanctuary to lost ones scares me. At the same time I am very much aware that the way of being church in the world is changing, has to change. This is not bad, I’m just not sure we are changing fast enough. Looking back at what was is no more helpful to us than thinking of cucumbers in the desert was helpful to the Israelites.
Now I am back to the Scottish festival. The battle of Culloden in 1746 destroyed the Scottish clans. However, in places like Loon Mountain, New Hampshire more than 300 years later, they gather in a new way. They carry some of the old traditions – pipes, kilts, games, haggis (unfortunately) – and they make them new, inviting, and welcoming for those with Scottish blood and those with none at all. (I seriously considered buying a kilt!)
I don’t want the church to be destroyed in any kind of catastrophic event, but maybe we can learn something from the Ancient Israelites and the less-ancient Scots. Maybe we can focus on what we do have today rather than what might have been once upon a time. Then we can figure out what of the old ways are good and worthy of practice today and then balance them with new and engaging practices. But above all else, share the Good News that every human being is created in God’s image and deserves to be welcomed and loved by all those who claim membership in the body of Christ.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a Christian festival! We could call out all the names – Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Congregational… until all “clans” were named and all rejoiced in their presence together. And in that rejoicing welcomed all, even those without a drop of Christian blood? We could have this. After all, we have this Good News, our Christian identity, and we should share it! That’s what Jesus was talking about with the saltiness