Life for life

As she begins, Kay Warren tells us to find the guide to her sermon in the printed materials. I get mine, which is a four-paged supplement with sentences that have blanks where I can fill in the words from her presentation like a biblical Mad Libs.

The first sentence that needs my attention is this: “The altar represented the claims of a holy and righteous God which must be _________ before he can meet with man and bless him.” The missing word is “satisfied” but I need a moment to locate my pen so it stays blank. Further down: “Any deviation from perfection must be punished by the person or a _________.” I fill in “substitute.” Kay explains during the time of the tabernacle this substitute was an animal, provided as an offering. “Why did God require a blood sacrifice?” _________.  I write “because blood represents life.” The size and prominence of the bronze altar is no accident, it really was a hugely significant component of the tabernacle, perhaps even the most important element. Blood had to be shed for God in an attempt at restitution: the gift of life for the gift of life.

Now Kay’s talk turns to the act that birthed Christianity from Judaism. “Jesus was the __________.” I stare at the blank, knowing full well that “ultimate blood sacrifice” is the answer but unable to bring myself to write the words. Jesus was a human sacrifice. I’ve never thought of it like that, and the idea feels too big and powerful to reduce to a fill-in-the-blank response. His death didn’t occur on a bronze altar but his blood shed is interpreted by Christians as the last say in the “life for life” transaction, officially nullifying the need for further animal sacrifice and rendering all the other Jewish “rules” obsolete. To flesh-out the story, my study guide provides several quotes from the New Testament, like this one from Acts 13: “In this man Jesus, there is forgiveness for your sins! Everyone who trusts him is freed from all guilt and declared righteous—something the Jewish law could never do.” Whatever indebtedness to creation or God each of us senses was paid by Jesus and our job then is to believe in the power of this transaction. “Acceptance of Jesus as my substitute makes me ________ to God.” In tiny letters I write: “acceptable.”

At the end of the service Kay has an exercise for us. She asks us to find a small rectangle of paper that has been placed in each of our packets. This piece of paper has been made to look like an old-fashioned luggage tag, with a hole punched at the top and a string to tie to an imaginary suitcase handle. She tells us to write our sin at the bottom of the tag and, on our way out of the building, she wants us to rip the sin portion off and toss it in the red garbage bins placed by the doors for this purpose.

Audience members rise and begin to leave, but I stay seated and try to think of a good sin to write on my luggage tag. Finally, I scrawl, “Not feeling worthy.” This feels like the ultimate sin, something each of us struggles with on some level that causes any self-destructive behaviors that masquerade as the real sins. The Jews built into their system of worship an answer to this sense of unworthiness, an attempt to repay God for the gift of life. Christians accepted this basic premise but substituted Jesus as the compensation and sin as the debt.

The crowd streaming out has thinned by the time I join its ranks. The tall red bins are hard to miss. Each boasts a sign. “FORGIVEN,” they announce in big letters. I go to the nearest one and feed my paper to the slot at the top. I peek in at the mound of sins and watch mine flutter to the top.

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The sacrifice

What I find most surprising about the tabernacle recreation at Saddleback is the size of the box-like dais for sacrificing animals. It sits directly in front of the main structure, the very first thing you encounter as you approach the tent’s opening. Taller than the average person, a small ramp leads to the top where sheep and goats were tied to the “horns” at each corner. Originally made of bronze, today’s version looks like plywood spray painted to mimic a charred patina. I knew killing animals as a show of gratitude to God was an ordinary practice among ancient Jews, but so much time has elapsed since it was abandoned due to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem that it’s easy to overlook or downplay this history. With this re-creation, it’s impossible to ignore. The proof stands front and center.

It’s a little jarring, the transition from the dark and quiet ancient house of God to the big and bright worship center of today. The main sanctuary looks like a building one might find on a college campus—not the older, more distinguished stone structures, but the brand new ones that go up in a year and have tons of windows. They may not last as long, but they offer a breath of fresh air after being cooped up in the dim classrooms of yesteryear. Light floods in from either side of the stage where the walls are glass with doors that lead to additional rows of outdoor seating. If this were an academic building, it would be the biggest lecture hall on campus, the ones for courses like Organic Chemistry 101.

The auditorium quickly fills up as the band plays, and I find a seat closer to the back where the rows are raised. On the way in, I was handed a packet of materials, glossy and packed with colorful pictures. Today’s sermon is the second in a multi-week arc given by Rick’s wife, Kay Warren, entitled “All Access” that ties to the theme of the tabernacle. Here, the sophisticated marketing I’ve tended to find at newer churches is bumped up a notch: not only does the church have a logo, but this small series of sermons has one too—it looks like an old-fashioned ticket stub, the kind that gets ripped in half before a carnival ride.

At first I’m disappointed that Rick isn’t giving the sermon. Then I see Kay, blond and confidant, and that dissolves. Her eyes shoot laser beams of intensity and suddenly I understand that hers is the steely determination of a woman like Hillary Clinton whose drive propelled her man and made all this possible. She emerges from the back of the stage like a benevolent queen at the end of our singing, the last lines lingering on the big screens as she greets the audience, her voice amplified by an invisible mike. “The tabernacle and what it represents has always been one of my favorite portions of the Bible,” she says. “It gets to the heart of what Jesus did for humanity.” I would never have guessed that a portable worship tent created by Jews was the key to understanding the significance of Jesus, but if Kay says so, I believe it.

Saddleback

From the freeway, I begin to see the massive red clay roofs of high-end housing developments in every direction. Once I exit, signs clearly mark the direction of Saddleback. At a final stop light, I have an option: turn left to take the road that leads to the church grounds, or make a right to go in the opposite direction; a sign declares this “Rocky Road.” It’s a joke, as Rocky Road doesn’t actually go anywhere, but dead-ends into a patch of land that appears yet to be developed.

Volunteers direct the stream of cars. I make my way past various parking lots, different sections, with someone at every turn to point me in the direction of the appropriate slice of asphalt. I arrive 20 minutes early, with enough time to explore. I buy a cup of coffee at an outdoor café and stroll past the book and keepsake kiosk.

The Saddleback campus is strewn with large tents. In addition to several permanent structures—including the main chapel where most congregants will attend services—supplemental worship areas are housed beneath canvas canopies. Each tent seats a hefty crowd, and will receive a broadcast of the sermon from the main chapel accompanied with its own unique music and other touches. I stroll past a tent for gospel lovers, another for Spanish speakers, and one called “Overdrive,” where fans of hard rock can crank it up a notch.

Along meandering paths, uplifting music emanates from speakers hidden in rocks. I’ve never seen so much creative use of cement—stamped into boulders, walkways, waterfalls, gentle streams. Smoothed, it forms the glassy floor of an industrial-looking building called “the Refinery,” which houses big open spaces for teens to gather; inside is like a big loft in some urban dreamscape. Around the building the concrete swoops and dips to form the necessary surfaces for skateboarding tricks.

On a big lawn behind the gospel tent, I spy the tabernacle. A high fabric barrier surrounds it, just as historians say it long ago in the desert, a measure taken to protect the sacred site and ensure that everyone entered through the same designated opening. In this re-creation, the fabric is a fine mesh so it’s sheer enough to see through. If this tabernacle had been built according to God’s exact specifications, all of the items would be made of precious metals and rare woods too costly and difficult to secure today. The materials here are more ordinary, but the way it looks—the precise dimensions of each item and how they are arranged—is true to God’s instructions. The tabernacle itself is not that big, less than half the size of the modern worship tents and much simpler in format—just a basic rectangle with fabric panels draped over posts. Inside, the space is divided into a few simple rooms, each dark and bare save for key objects: a large candleholder, a stand for food offerings, and a tray for burning incense. At the far back, in “the holy of holies” where only high priests were allowed, is the Ark of the Covenant, a fancy trunk used to house the stones on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.

What could be

Today’s Torah reading covers the last of Exodus, which focuses on God’s instructions for the tabernacle tent. I’m surprised at how detailed they are: according to Moses, God has outlined the exact components for every part of the structure, including their precise dimensions and even what material from which each thing should be built.

God has also made it clear that everyone who is able to contribute, resources and skills, must do so. The people are eager to comply. Carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers—everyone chips in. Even the “working women” give up their precious scraps of metal for the cause. During an informal question and answer portion of the service, the rabbi acknowledges that this may be a reference to prostitutes surrendering the small reflective surfaces they used as mirrors. This small detail, he explains, indicates how even those with very little were willing to sacrifice items essential to their livelihoods.

Once the people understand what the tabernacle is for, they dedicate themselves fully to its construction. They seemed to be soothed by the specificity of the instructions, the lack of ambiguity.

Just as the history of being enslaved helped them grasp how time can be used to draw closer to the sacred, being homeless had made them keenly aware of how a shelter can be used for that same purpose. Experience may have heightened their gratitude for both, but it also made it clear that freedom is the essential ingredient—without it, one cannot organize time in such a way that a Sabbath is possible, just as putting up a structure like a tabernacle isn’t allowed if the land belongs to a person who doesn’t permit it.

With all this focus on homelessness and tents, I can’t help but think about the young people who I found camped on the synagogue steps when I first arrived this morning. Freedom is the ability to say “no,” whether it’s “I won’t work this day” or “I won’t vacate this space until I’m ready.” It’s why the “Occupy” movement is so powerful—people are refusing to leave an area that technically does not belong to them. With their tarps and tents and bed rolls, they are designating a space where everyday rules no longer apply. It’s not all that different from what the Jews did as they trekked across the desert thousands of years ago. The parallels are not lost on the rabbi. At the end of the service, he explains the events of the morning to the members of the congregation, most of whom showed up after the porch was cleared. I don’t know what he could have done differently, but he obviously feels that kicking the occupiers off the porch wasn’t the best choice. “We must ask God for forgiveness,” he says. “We have to right this wrong.” He doesn’t elaborate on what restitution might entail—whether something impersonal like cutting a check to a homeless shelter or more intimate like opening the synagogue’s basement as a shelter on stormy nights—but it reminds me once again what I admire about religion. It doesn’t automatically make you do the right thing, but it helps you imagine that there might be a right thing, lighting the way from what is to what could be.