Genesis 12:1-9 ~ Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.
We have what I cynically call the "device altar" in the corner of our home office. You've seen them I'm sure, a special box usually covered in leather or a faux suede that holds the many chargers we need for our various devices. The box has a hidden space for a power cord that hosts four electrical outlets There are four holes in the top of the box where the wires from our chargers can connect but hide the cluttery wires. Each night, the devices go to bed on the "device altar" until the next day when they are charged and ready to serve us again. Do you have one of them?
In almost every nail spa I know, there is an altar to Buddha, usually near the cash register. Around the figurine of the Buddha, there is flowers and fruit and coins. Living in the interfaith world of central Jersey, I respond to these altars by pausing and recognizing the beauty of the Buddhist philosophy. An altar in Buddhism is quite different than an altar for Christianity. It is not about the Buddha outside of us, the one who lived long ago. The altar is about the Buddha within us.
We are in the process of designing a new sanctuary and the architect keeps writing the word "altar" on the communion table. I'm a firm believer in picking my battles and with the myriad issues around designing and building a new sanctuary, making a big deal out the calling the table an altar seemed to be one battle I did not want to begin. However, I eventually found a way to lovingly add it in conversation. As Presbyterians we don't have altars. We have a communion table. Altars are used for sacrifice. The Roman church has an altar, I explained, because on Sunday there is mass, a sacrifice is made. Our table isn't the same. Now, do I care that the architectural plans say "altar?" No, not at all. And to be honest, I'm wondering what we have lost by ridding ourselves of the "altar."
Abraham built two altars in this short text. Both times the altars served as part of the ritual, first for recognizing God's revelation and second for invoking the name of the Lord. The act of building an altar takes time. Abraham stopped to build an altar - stopped his journey, changed his pace, interrupted his flow - to recognize God and to interact with God. As Christians without a specific altar, how do we stop our journey? When do we change our pace? What do we do that might interrupt our flow?
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