I have found myself thinking about altars quite a bit lately. Really, ever since we were forced to shut our sanctuary doors last March due to necessary COVID restrictions as the potential threat of the virus became reality. As a church staff, we began the process of establishing a virtual worship service out of necessity. Our altars in our worship spaces suddenly became off limits to most. So, in an attempt to help our Body of Christ in our isolation, the staff began to encourage each of our households to set up a home altar. Why an altar? Why not just commit to lighting a candle for our YouTube worship time at home? Why did we feel compelled to encourage one another to build an altar? Why did we, almost immediately, seek to define new worship spaces, when we lost the ones we held in common?
If you comb through the Hebrew scriptures, you will find several references to people building altars to the Lord. The first was built by Noah, in Genesis 8, immediately following the recession of the flood waters. Noah’s first act upon setting foot on dry land, was to create a space to make an animal sacrifice to God, and then God responded by making a covenant to never destroy living things in the same way again. Abram built an altar after God spoke to him and let him know that his descendants would inherent the land. (Genesis 12) It was a recognition of a holy encounter with the Lord. Jacob built an altar after his miraculous reconciliation with his twin Esau. (Genesis 33) As Jacob went about looking for a place to settle, he set up a homeplace in the land of Canaan and created an altar with the name El-e-lo-he-Israel (God, the God of Israel.) Moses told the people to build an altar with large stones covered in plaster, once they finally arrived in the land that was flowing with milk and honey – the promised land. (Deuteronomy 27). And on, and on.
God’s people have quite the history of building altars. They are built by people along the journey – many while seeking a holy pilgrimage. The people build them for a variety of reasons, but they all do so because they have encountered the divine. Some were built out of human desperation, some with great hope that God would show up when they had felt God’s absence, and some out of sheer faithfulness. God’s people seek to make the place in which holy things happened, where transformation began, where covenants were made, and where forgiveness and reconciliation manifested. The altars reveal God’s communion with God’s people.
For the rest of this Lenten Season and throughout Holy Week, we will be building an altar outside on our church lawn. We will begin with the stones laid for our labyrinths. Each of you are invited to bring your own rocks and contribute to the construction of the altar. We all will approach this outdoor altar for different reasons. You may choose to paint your rock, or write a phrase on it. As you lay your rock down, you may choose to loose a burden you have been carrying. Together, as God’s people of FUMC, we will mark this space as holy ground; where God’s promises are kept, where we yearn to hear God’s voice, and where God’s people have heard a word from God. I am so thankful, that even though our altar will exist outdoors, it will be accessible to all. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?