Gathering and scattering

December 23, 2009

Samuel and Jesus have a lot in common. Both were dedicated to the Lord
before birth; both were taken on religious pilgrimage by God-fearing
parents (Shiloh and Jerusalem);
and both spent all or part of their growing-up years among spiritual
leaders in the community. Both Samuel and Jesus had mothers whose
prayers were as poetic as they were prophetic (compare Hannah’s to Mary’s). Both were presented to the Lord at an early age (before Eli and Simeon, respectively) and were destined to do great things for God.

The
connections don’t stop there: Samuel anointed King Saul and King David,
starting a Davidic line that would culminate with the arrival of Jesus,
the long-awaited Messiah (“anointed one”).

Yet what strikes me
most in today’s dialogue between 1 Samuel and Luke is the geographic
movement. Both texts read like a travelogue: Elkanah and Hannah
traveling to and from Shiloh, Joseph and Mary to and from Jerusalem
(with a three-day search and rescue thrown into the mix). Movement,
intentional movement, movement from hearth and home to religious centers
of worship and back again. I don't think it is a coincidence that
families making these kinds of treks on a regular basis become the raw
material for the new and exciting things God is doing in the world.

In a recent Theolog post, Will Willimon wrote about the importance of communal worship for those who profess to follow Jesus:

Who
is a Christian? Someone who has not given up meeting together. That’s
not all that needs to be said about Christianity, but down through the
ages we have no record of a single faithful disciple who refuses to
gather with other fellow believers.

His opinion is
countercultural today, when spirituality has become a private affair,
one that provides a quick and easy way to dismiss human community with
its real and irksome problems. People often make the case that Jesus was
anti-institutional, that if he were incarnate today he would be in the
streets and back alleys of contemporary society but nowhere near a
worship gathering.

It is true that Jesus ate with sinners,
touched lepers, conversed with women and disregarded the occasional
sabbath practice. But he also was presented in the temple as a child,
found in his “Father’s house
as an adolescent, and baptized at a riverside revival as an adult. He
then embarked on an itinerate preaching ministry--church could happen
beside a lake or in an upper room.

Missiologists Robert Gallagher
and Paul Hertig might call this geographic movement—this gathering for
worship and scattering for service—“the centripetal and centrifugal for mission.”
It is a pattern that continued as the early church gathered in prayer
and worship and was thus equipped by the Holy Spirit to go into the
world in love and service. The church gathered around the Lord’s table in the sacrament in order to become a sacrament, a means of grace to the world.

It’s
easy to sit back and criticize the institutional church; I have done it
often enough myself. But I know better. Author Rose Macaulay captures
both the problems and the promise of the church in her novel The Towers of Trebizond. The narrator describes
the church as a “wonderful and most extraordinary pageant of
contradictions, and I, at least, want to be inside it, though it is
foolishness to most of my friends.” I agree.

Today’s readings
remind me that gathering for worship and being sent forth in mission
animate the body of Christ, like inhaling and exhaling air. Where two
are three are gathered in the Lord’s name, God only knows what will
happen next. That’s why I still make the weekly pilgrimage, with my kids
in tow.