Tentwork (Proper 5, Year B)
St. Paul knew about tents—what they were made of and made for; how well they held together and often fell apart. By tradition some have called him the Tentmaker of Tarsus. And by coincidence we meet him most often on days like today, Sunday morning, pitching a kind of missionary tent in the middle of our lectionary readings: a few scripted panels, flung up between Old and New Testament communities, pointing us always to a greater life in Jesus Christ, a life that promises to last no matter what.
Today our readings begin back in Genesis with Adam and Eve wishing for their first set of clothes, some new way to reconstruct who they are before God: “I was afraid,” says Adam, “because I was naked; [so] I hid myself.” Right at the start, we’re caught up in the human hope of shelter and self-protection. And before we get to thinking shelter will make a difference, we meet Paul tearing down the whole enterprise of construction and reconstruction, tearing down the hope of any house we aim to live in here and now, any house made with hands. So, feeling half-dressed and homeless, we make a run for the Gospel of Mark, where today’s lessons draw to a close with Jesus telling us even the way we construct our sense of family is up for grabs in God’s kingdom.
Taken all together, these readings disturb our sense of home. They challenge where and how we live our earthly lives. And it’s Paul who puts words to our deepest reality: “If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed,” he writes, “we have a building from God.” With these words, Paul suggests that no matter how or where we live, we’re all just camping out. Though buildings and houses often fool us with their seeming permanence of concrete and brick, wood and glass, locked doors and sealed windows, in the end they might as well be tents: temporary shelter, but finally not the “house” God has in mind for us. To think of ourselves daily living in a tent reminds us that we’re part of an adventure, on the road, not yet in full view of where we’re headed, but nonetheless getting there one day at a time.
When I was eight-years-old, my military family camped across Spain. In the evenings, the five of us slept together in a tent whose sagging lines embarrassed my parents. Our tent was the biggest tent in every campground we visited. It stood out: a big square-ish lumpy tent, its canvas a pale faded green. Compared to the tents of our neighbors, our tent lacked elegance. Our fellow campers—mostly French and German—had small tents with crisp tight panels in bright snappy colors. Alongside theirs, our tent looked unreliable, on the verge of collapse.
It wasn’t easy to pitch either—lots of tent pegs and cumbersome interior poles that gave it a ceiling high enough for my father to stand up in. Europeans seemed to raise their better-built tents with the flick of their wrists. And whenever we got round to raising ours, they turned in dismay and evident amusement to watch us. From one campsite to another, we laid our loathsome tent out flat on the ground, staggering around its sides with my father shouting orders at us, telling us what to do next, in some way cussing our tent to risen life.
What I remember most, though, about our tented evenings was the way we huddled together in the dark, trusting our tent to hold up for the night; and the way we murmured in soft low voices, moving toward silence, eventually tuning our ears to sounds that came to us through the permeable thinness of our canvas walls: a baby crying, someone coughing, people laughing and talking in languages we didn’t understand, and behind those deeply human sounds, the more distant rhythms of wind in the trees and nocturnal forests coming to life. There seemed some Other Life happening beside us, a life both intimate and beyond us, a mystery sharing the evening with us.
St. Paul knew about mystery. Not the little mystery of camping with your family and waking up to the world around you, but that greater mystery that comes from beyond us; that greater mystery that came into our world, our lives, our homes in order to save us: the mystery of Christ died, risen, and coming again, breaking in on how we live our lives.
Paul knew about big tents, too: big ideas that challenge our narrow definitions about God and God’s people. He knew it was important for us to know the difference between our earthly tents and our eternal home in Christ with God. That said, I confess I’m partial to a house made by hands. When I try to imagine myself living without walls, without doors or windows, I feel like Adam and Eve wishing for shelter, too vulnerable by half. Day in day out, I need something to hide in, to shelter me, to keep me safe, to tell me who I am and how I live or at least how I want you to think I live.
Paul is different from me in this, and I suspect from most of you, too. For one thing, he wasn’t trying to hold on to things like they are. He preferred the invisible to the visible, the unknown breaking in on the known world, the eternal house not made with hands renewing the earthly tent. As his letter today reminds us, in Christ, eternal promises had touched Paul so deeply, he saw his earthly existence as a momentary affliction, and felt his outer nature wasting away while his inner nature was being renewed. And it’s that essential experience we must be careful not to write off as something we can overlook, some curious Pauline artifact with nothing much to tell us here today.
This is, of course, a deep temptation for us because we’re not like Paul. We’re not first-century believers, collapsing our tents, waiting with bated breath on the return of our Lord to lift us into heaven any day now. We are twenty-first century Christians who mostly seek God here on earth, sometimes so completely that thoughts of eternity can seem a distraction from the all-important work of repairing our world.
Occasionally, we talk of finding “heaven on earth,” but mostly we save our thoughts of heaven for funerals. And yet for that very reason, Paul’s words today are a necessary gift to us because the gift of heaven—of eternal life—matters right now today, and matters as much to the living as to the dying. Paul asks us to take heart: to trust in the abiding reality of eternal life here and now, bearing us up and giving us shelter. With this odd apocalyptic construction—a house not made with hands, we already have a building from God, eternal in the heavens.
Our tents go up and our tents fall down, and in that difficult rhythm of rising and falling—of coming together and falling apart—we experience (like Paul) our life in Christ, strange and mysterious, breaking in with glorious hope from beyond us, challenging the way we live, transforming our earthly afflictions and problems with risen life and gracious possibilities. No matter what happens to us, we have an eternal home with God, made to last and full of love.
Through his own risen life, Christ calls us again and again to shift our tent pegs, sometimes even to bust up the sureness of former foundations, in order to set our hearts on the abiding certainty of God’s love. God loves us! And God has already saved us in Christ! Paul knew that.
By the terms of his teaching, everything else is tentwork. The good we do? Tentwork. The mistakes we make? Tentwork. Caught in time, full of make-shift beauty and frequent need of repair. We patch it together as we go, and along the way, through and in Christ, we discover that God is in the tentwork, too: sustaining us in all things, in good times and hard times, with forgiveness and love and hope. For the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with him.