ARE YOU BORN AGAIN ENOUGH YET?

July 14, 2019

 

 

John 3:1-16

 One member of our church recounted to me a visit she had with some folks from another local church who had come knocking on her door. They asked if they could speak with her about spiritual concerns. Because this member of our congregation is gracious and hospitable, she conversed for some time with her guests.  In the course of the conversation, they asked her if she was “born again.”

Later, when she recalled the question to me, she confessed that, because she was not sure what her guests meant, she did not know how to reply. Was she a born-again Christian or not?

Others of you have mentioned to me that you have friends or relatives who describe themselves as born-again Christians. Some have seemed puzzled by the phrase, as if it suggests that there are various types of Christians, some born-again and some not. So what does it mean to be born again?

On one level it means simply to start life anew. We started living when we were born, so if we are born again, we start living a new way. For some people, the impact of initially connecting with Jesus is so dramatic, so emotional, that they describe the experience as if they started to live a new life, meaning they pursue new values, new interests, new spiritual vitality. In some instances they become practically a new character. The change is so all-encompassing that they sense they have started living anew or again.

Admittedly, in other religions people similarly describe their conversion as a rebirth. A Hindu or a person who believes in reincarnation could claim that they have been “born again,” in some cases more than once. So what do Christians mean when they ask, “Have you been born again?”

In simplest terms, when a Christian asks if you have been born again, they want to know if you are a Christian. In other words, “to be born again” means, the same as, to become a Christian. Although this phrase is quite popular, particularly among Evangelicals, the expression “being born again” is only one among many used in the New Testament to portray the process of being committed to Jesus. For example, the Gospel of Matthew describes being committed to Jesus as becoming a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 28:15-16). Luke describes becoming committed to Jesus as entering the kingdom of God (Luke 18:17). John describes becoming committed to Jesus as believing in Jesus (John 20:31).

Mark describes becoming committed to Jesus as following Jesus (Mark 9:34). In his history of the early church, Luke is the first to use the word “Christian” to describe followers of Jesus (Acts 11:26). Paul uses several terms to describe becoming a Christian: being saved (Ephesians 2:8), being justified (Romans 5:1), being baptized (Romans 6:3), being adopted as God’s child (Ephesians 1:5), being reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), receiving the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14-15), being redeemed (Galatians 3:13), being grafted into God’s [family] tree (Romans 11:17).

Therefore, if you wanted to know if a person is a Christian, you could ask “Have you been grafted into God’s family tree?” or “Have you entered the kingdom of God?” or “Have you been born again?” They all mean essentially the same.

Although the phrase “being born again” is currently a popular way to describe this process, the phrase is relatively rare in the New Testament. It only occurs five times. In a short letter addressed to Titus, in 3:5 Paul wrote: “[God] saved us through the washing of rebirth, in other words, being born again.” In the First letter of Peter, 1:3 we read: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth…” Again later in the same letter, we read (1:23): “You have been born anew, or born again.”

Being born again occurs the remaining two times in the conversation between Jesus and a nighttime guest, Nicodemus. Nicodemus initiates the conversation with a flattering acknowledgement addressed to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one is able to perform the signs you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus deflects attention from himself and redirects the focus of attention back onto Nicodemus’ search for insight by saying: “I tell you the truth, no one is able to see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:1-3).

Nicodemus is taken off guard. He came to talk about Jesus, not himself. So he raises a common sense question: “How is a person able to be born again when old?  How outlandish to imagine someone crawling back into his mother’s womb?”

But Jesus is insistent. Once more he reiterates his odd statement, directed specifically at Nicodemus: “You must be born again” (3:7).

Based on these five occurrences, we have a strong precedent, even coming straight from the lips of Jesus, to describe becoming a Christian in terms of being born again. But why? What about becoming a Christian is similar to being born again, or being born at all? Why is being born again a helpful way to describe becoming a Christian?

In order to explain why being born a second time is a useful description, let’s review some features of being born the first time. Then we can make some comparisons between being born a first time and being born a second time.

 In the first place, birth is one event in our lives for which we can take no credit. I was born because of what my parents did, because my mother carried me inside her body for nine months, because she went through labor for me, and because a doctor and some nurses helped me get out. I cannot take any credit for what my father and, especially, what my mother did. They, along with a little help at the end from hospital staff, were responsible for my birth.

Now, when it comes to being “born again,” the same trait is true. Just as none of us can take credit for our birth in the first place, so none of us can take credit for being born again or becoming Christians. We do not qualify to be called Christians because we are good people, because we admire Jesus as some great ethical teacher, or because we come to church regularly. None of these reasons are suitable because they all suggest that we can give birth or, should I say, rebirth to ourselves. None of these reasons are applicable because they all suggest that we can take the credit for being born again.

We already know that our birth is one event for which none of us can take any credit. We were not born the first time because we tried extra hard to behave correctly inside our mother’s womb. We were not born the first time because we kept the Ten Commandments for prenatal care. We were not even born the first time because we performed better than other fetuses. None of these reasons account for why or how we were born.

No one qualified for being born the first time, so likewise no one qualifies for being born a second time, or for becoming a Christian. As long as we imagine that we can give birth to God’s relationship with us, we are misreading the process of birthing.

It is by virtue of what God the Father did and what Jesus did and what the Holy Spirit does that anyone and everyone, including good, decent people, are born again, or if you prefer, are saved, or redeemed, justified, grafted onto the family tree, or adopted into God’s family, in other words, become Christian. To piggyback on what Jesus said to Nicodemus, which of us can give birth to the divine spirit? Which of us came down from heaven to bring God’s will to life on earth? Which of us gave up her or his only son to save the world? Which of us has the patent on eternal life? Becoming a Christian, like being born, is something done for us, not by us.

That is not to deny that we have some role to play in the birth or rebirth process. The newborn child is expected to respond. No wail is more welcomed than the gasping squeal of that daughter or son announcing their arrival. But none of us would confuse who is responsible with who is responding.

Likewise anyone who claims to be born again, cannot claim responsibility for what is happening. We are responding to what God has done, what Jesus did, and what the Spirit does.

There is another sense in which being born again is a helpful way to describe becoming a Christian. Although I have observed only two births, I have heard enough stories to surmise that not everyone passes through the birthing experience in the same manner. The length and intensity of labor may vary; the birth may be achieved through natural means or by a Caesarean section; the child may come out head first or feet first. Being born differs from baby to baby.

When Ruth, our oldest, was born, she was alert, wide-eyed, and quite calm during her entrance into the world. Her eyes surveyed the birthing room as if she was trying to soak in her new surroundings. Classical music played softly in the background as we joyously saw her for the first time.

In contrast to that serene scene, Cameron’s arrival was dramatic. He was not alert upon his arrival. He was not even breathing. The nurse, thank God, noticed his inertia and initiated action. Our joyful expectation was abruptly interrupted by the nurses’ brisk orders calling for suction and the urgent prayers of two worried parents pleading for their son’s life.

Ruth and Cameron were born in markedly different manners. Birth can come in many ways. Similarly, rebirth can come in many ways. As anyone who has seen a birth can testify, and as can anyone who has been born again can testify, every birth—slow or fast—is a miracle.

For some, the miracle of becoming a Christian can be gradual, calm, and slow. The realization, little by little, dawns that Jesus has paved the way for God’s best wishes to come true. An assurance comes gradually that Jesus’ death and resurrection have brought to life God’s dreams for us. We awaken one day sensing our spirit is attuned with God’s spirit. We come to endorse that God has acted decisively in Jesus to set the world, including ourselves, back right.

For others the process of becoming a Christian can be dramatic and instantaneous, tearful and intense. Practically overnight one becomes a new person, sold out to comply with God’s plans, eager to make amends for past sins, and resolved to abide by God’s standards in the future. The change is so overwhelming that people can’t help but notice we are different.

But after time the process becomes less important than the product.

Some remember the drama of becoming a Christian vividly. They can recount the day and hour when life changed. Others cannot recall when the event took place.  They simply know their life is currently intertwined with Jesus and invigorated with God’s Spirit. Recalling what process you underwent may be encouraging to recall, but not necessary to remember. I do not recall how I was born the first time, but I am alive now. I do not need to consult my birth certificate to verify that I am alive. I remember some details about how I was born the second time, but living out my commitment to Christ now is more important than recalling how it began fifty years ago.

More challenging than pressing our memory about what happened some time ago is pressing the question “What am I doing about it now?” Am I now devoted to God, who so loved the world that he gave his Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life? If you are a Christian now, whether you use the phrase born again Christian or not, you may have come to realize, as I have, that we can never be born again enough. There are some features of God’s parenting that have yet to mature in us. There are traits of God’s DNA that have yet to show through us. There are more aspects of God’s Spirit yet to come to life in us. For there is more of God’s life we have yet to experience.

Thus, whenever someone claims to be a born again Christian, I remember that being born is a good beginning, but there is more to living than being born. I readily confess that many parts of me have yet to be born again and others are not born again enough. Being born again is not a badge to wear or a way to identify who is in and who is not. Being born again is only one step in living, sometimes a memorable step, sometimes long forgotten. Growing up is the challenge I face now, not trying to remember or label how it all started. Getting along well with God is a big enough challenge for a whole lifetime.  

DIGGING WORSHIP

July 7, 2019

 Genesis 28:10-17

 When I went on my first camping trip as a tenderfoot Boy Scout, I was taken aback by the Scoutmaster's instructions for setting up camp.  As soon as we laid out our tents, and before we could even drive in one stake for pitching the tents, the Scoutmaster ordered us to dig small channels, about the width and depth of a shovel blade, around the perimeter of each tent.  I knew that moats were useful for keeping intruders out of medieval castles, but they hardly seemed necessary for the protection of our Boy Scout pup tents.  The little furrows we dug could not have stopped any hungry vermin, ambitious reptile, or two-legged intruder.  What purpose, I thought, could the construction of those miniature moats serve other than to delay our fun?  When I mentioned my reservations to some of the First Class scouts, they assured me that on every campout they went through the same routine.  Dig ditches around every tent every time. 

       What a bore!  I had looked forward to an exciting weekend roasting wieners, staying up late listening to ghost stories, and playing Capture the Flag in the woods, instead I had to comply with some time-wasting policy of ditch digging, some empty ritual of a killjoy Scoutmaster.

       I could see no sense in that boring routine until the next morning.  During the night a heavy rainstorm has drenched our campsite.  I had heard the rain pelting on our tents during the night, during which time I was grateful that at least my tent did not leak.  When I stepped out of the tent in the morning, I was surprised to see that the little ditches around our tents were full of water.  Only then did I realize the wisdom of our leader's insistence on burrowing furrows around our tents.

       The ditches served as canals for the rainwater, channeling the water away from the ground underneath our tents.  Since in that day and age, pup tents did not have their own waterproof floors, we had placed layers of newspapers underneath our sleeping bags to protect them from the dampness in the ground.  If the rainwater, which rolled down our tent sides, had seeped into the ground beneath our tent and sleeping bags, we would have become soaked during our sleep.  However, by virtue of carrying out that routine task of burrowing ditches in dry ground, we had made sure that when the rain came, the water would go where we wanted it to go.  Because we carried out that seemingly empty routine, to paraphrase one Boy Scout motto, we had been well prepared.

       My experience of making channels around pup tents contains more than simply useful advice for any would-be weekend campers in our congregation.  That Boy Scout experience has insightful similarities to our weekly observance of gathering to worship God. 

       Some folks downplay the benefit of gathering for worship of God once a week by claiming that it is only a routine, only a ritual.  Every week we go through the same activities: we recite the same prayers, collect an offering, read Scriptures, hear a sermon, and sing a few songs.  We hear some of the same prayer requests week after week.  Many of the Bible stories or stories for children you have heard before.  The Christian church has not been very creative in designing what we do in worship: we can read, sing, pray, collect money, share Communion occasionally, read the Bible and preach. Not much originality beyond that.

       In fact if one goes back nearly 2,000 years to the earliest thorough description of a Christian worship service (by a church leader, Justin Martyr Apology I 67), one finds the same routines for what we do when we are reading the Scriptures, preaching, praying, offering money, and ending with a benediction. 

       Not only have churches carried on the same types of activities from year to year, some churches even carry on the same order of these same activities in worship from year to year.  The content and order of service in this congregation has not changed much in at least 80 years.  The earliest worship bulletin I could find in our church's archives dates from 1937.  Then as today we still have a call to worship, an opening hymn, an invocation, a hymn, pastoral prayer, offering, sermon, hymn, and benediction. 

       However, the fact that these elements, these rituals are repeated year after year and week after week is not necessarily a reason why we ought to change or abandon them, anymore than I ought to change my day after day, week after week practice of kissing my wife before I leave for work.  Whatever is good is worth repeating.  Rituals are curious sequences of actions we repeat time after time after time in order to help us remember.  Rituals are curious sequences of actions we repeat time after time after time in order to help us remember. 

Digging ditches around pup tents was a routine, a special Boy Scout ritual.  It was a curious sequence of actions our scout troop did religiously on every camping trip.  Each time we did it we remembered to be prepared for any change of the weather.

       The rituals of worship are curious sequences of activities we do week after week after week to help us remember.  By gathering in one room (instead of in front of a television screen) we remember that Jesus came to us in flesh and blood not simply through an electronic bulletin board.  By reading a call to worship, we remember that Jesus invites us, still calls us to be his friends, even if we have forgotten him during the week.  By singing we remember that God wants to touch our hearts, our emotions as surely as music and poetry can touch our souls.  By offering our gifts we remember that God expects commitment, not simply a convenience, from us.  By hearing the Bible stories, we remember that our life story is a part of God's bigger story.  By hearing a sermon we remember that the relevance of God's messages was not exhausted 2,000 years ago but still applies to us. 

       These rituals, repeated for generation after generation, help us to remember that we are not the first or the only ones to worship God, to love and follow Jesus.  Rituals keep us from forgetting, which is precisely why we need to repeat them so often, because we forget so often and so easily what it means to be Jesus' follower and friend.

       Digging ditches around pup tents and gathering for worship of God are alike in the first place because both are routines.  Let us not discredit routines for being perfunctory or mechanical. Taping a note to the refrigerator door or jotting down a note on the smart phone may seemmechanical, but their common purpose is to be memorable.  We must credit routines for helping us remember what otherwise we easily forget. 

       Admittedly some people discredit routines because the actions sometime seem empty, sometimes seem fruitless.  One can go through the rituals, go through the motions of a worship service and sense that little has happened, sense that God's Spirit doesn't touch ours, question if the results justify the investment.  But this is not so much a criticism of worship per se, as it is simply a statement of fact about routines in general. 

       I shampoo my hair routinely.  I do not always get that tingly feeling in my scalp that some brands of shampoo are reported to bring.  People who shower daily do not always experience a new zest for life just because they become zestfully clean.  Singing the Star Spangled Banner before every ball game does not always awaken our patriotic feelings.  The fact of the matter is that sometimes routines are empty of emotional impact. 

       But this is not a sufficient reason to abandon a routine.  Sometimes on our Boy Scout camping trips the morning after we had dug those ditches around our pup tents, the ditches were full of water.  Other times the morning after we had dug a set of ditches around our pup tents, the channels were empty.  But we did not give up the practice of digging ditches because sometimes afterwards the channels were dry or empty.  The truth of the matter was that if the channels had never been empty, they never could have become full.  If they had never been dry, they never could have held water.

       Although I hope it is not the case, I grant that sometimes worship will seem like an empty routine, because sometimes it is precisely that, a routine that is as empty as a ditch is empty, waiting to be filled.  But if the ditch had never been dug, it had never been emptied, then the channel would not have been ready when the waters came.  One purpose of the weekly worship routine is to keep the channels ready, always prepared so that God can fill them.

       Because if we wait with patience, if we patiently keep the channels open, there will come times when God's mighty waters, God's mighty spirit will enliven or stir us.  At such times you, like Jacob so many years ago, will leave a very familiar place saying, "Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it" (Genesis 28:16-17). 

       Worship can be a routine, but that is not necessarily bad.  For routines help us to remember.  Digging ditches helped our Boy Scout troop to remember to be prepared for any inclement weather.  Therefore, as one poet in the Bible warned us, seek God in a time when the Lord can be found, so that when the storms of life fall upon us, the floods will not sweep you away (cf. Psalm 32:6). When the troubling storms come, we will be prepared so that the waters can run away rather than douse us. 

       I readily admit that at times worship can seem like an empty routine, but that is not necessarily bad.  Parents spend a great deal of time and energy impressing upon our children the value of routines. We foster the routines of brushing their teeth twice a day, washing their hands before meals, making their bed in the morning, putting their dirty clothes in the hamper, turning off lights in empty rooms, going to bed at a reasonable time, saying their prayers before falling asleep. We observe these routines day after day, month after month, year after year. Parents know that routines shape children’s character, so we enforce them even when our children complain that they are bored or disinterested. Parents know that routines keep life in order, keep us healthy.

At some time or other all routines must be empty. Our routine of working out in the gym three times a week sometimes is drudgery. I’d rather stay home and watch television or play on the computer. But we learned as children that routines protect us even when, maybe especially when, they seem empty.  If I had not gone through the seemingly emptyroutine of making empty ditches around my pup tent, the rain waters would not have flowed where I wanted them to go.  Whatever is empty is only waiting to be filled.  Keep the channels open now so that when the refreshing waters come, God's Spirit can flow into us.  

DECLARATION OF OPEN OCCUPANCY

June 30, 2019

Micah 2:1-5

This morning we celebrate the founding of our congregation, the Union Memorial Church which as founded back in 1896. Each year on this Sunday in June I share a story from our past, for knowing what our forerunners did in the past helps us know what we can and ought to do in the future.

This story starts back in the Great Depression, when nearly one quarter of all adults were out of work. Families struggled to earn enough to buy food, clothing, and housing. President Franklin Roosevelt and his advisors wanted to make it easier for hard-working families to afford to buy a decent house. In 1934 the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration, whose purpose was to help secure loans for families so they could buy houses.

Taking out a loan is a risk, both for the bank and the person taking out the loan, because the person may not be able to pay back the money borrowed from the bank. They might lose their job, or get sick, or not be able to work, in which case the bank loses the money they loaned out and the person loses the house. The federal government wanted to lower the risks that banks would incur putting out money for people to buy houses, so over the next few years the federal government, with help from the Home Owners Loan Cooperation, came up with a strategy for measuring the degree of risk for people taking out loans for purchasing houses. The government evaluated the degree of risk associated with buying houses in major cities throughout the United States and to record these degrees of risk, they created color coded maps of those major cities. These color coded maps spelled out the level of risk a bank would incur giving money for customers to buy a house in different parts of these cities.

The parts of the towns that were colored green were the most desirable parts of town, the places with the lowest risks for the bank to loan money for mortgages because the value of the property in those districts stayed high. Blue shaded sections showed the still desirable parts of towns. Yellow sections showed “definitely declining” parts of cities and the sections colored red showed the least desirable parts of town, called on the map “hazardous.” These redlined parts were the places where the Federal Housing Administration would not insure banks for giving out loans for people to buy houses. If someone wanted to buy a house in a redline district, provided the buyer could find a bank to give a loan, the buyer had to pay higher interest on the mortgage, much higher to offset the risk that banks incurred. 

If you are interested, you can look on line at the Home Owners Loan Cooperation map for Stamford and Darien published in 1943 [see the map at https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=4/#36.71/96.93&opacity=0.89 or search for "Mapping inequality".] Most neighborhoods are color coded, although curiously Glenbrook has no color coding. There are three red line districts in Stamford: one on the Richmond Hill district, and two in the downtown areas. Interestingly there are two redline districts in Darien: one is along West Avenue beyond the border with Stamford and the other is south of the railroad tracks in Noroton. By clicking on any section of the interactive map, you can read the reasons why the agency rated any section into one of the four categories. The charts will tell you what kind of houses were there, how many people lived there, and notably what kind of people lived there. A recurrent national trend in most cities, including Stamford, was that people of color tended to live in or near the redlined districts on the maps, the areas where few banks offered loans to buy houses.

At the same time that the Federal Housing Administration was refusing to secure loans for people purchasing houses in redlined districts, they were giving lots of loans for people to buy houses outside of cities, in new suburbs, such as the famous Levittown on Long Island. But only certain people could qualify for those loans. The Underwriting Manual of the Federal Housing Administration said that "incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities." That policy meant that the federal government insured loans for white people to buy houses in the new suburbs but would not insure loans for African-Americans to buy houses in the same suburbs. The FHA subsidized builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites, with the stated requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.

The federal government, as well as the Veterans’ Administration loan policies, insured that enforced segregate housing continued through the forties, the fifties, and into the sixties. By the last fifties and early sixties people of conscience began speaking out against this national government policy of promoting and enforcing discrimination in housing. For example, in 1960 the Connecticut legislature amended the State’s Public Accommodations Act to include a ban on discrimination because of race, color, or creed, in the sale or rental of private housing where there are five or more contiguous units, in other words, in multifamily units.

Concurrent with the passage of that legislation, several concerned citizens of Stamford hosted a series of monthly public meetings in 1960 to address fears and concerns about allowing people of color to purchase property in previously all white neighborhoods. At their meeting in the First Presbyterian Church on August 15, 1960, the Rev. Simon Montgomery, pastor of a downtown Stamford parish, told a crowd of over 350 folks that he had traveled throughout the United States and found that “Stamford and Evanston, Illinois are the “two worst cities he has seen for Negro housing.” (Stamford Advocate, August 15, 1960p. 2) He urged that everyone in Stamford work to correct this “ungodly situation.”

Another speaker at the event was T. Carter Dodd, president of the Stamford-Darien Council of Churches, an association of churches that our founding pastor, the Rev. Samuel J. Evers had helped to establish back in 1938. Dodd said that the Council had been studying the problem of housing discrimination in Stamford for several months. He stated that the Council was ready to “get off the ground with a strong program on this problem very soon.”

In April of the following year, in 1961 the Council held their “strong program on this problem.” The Rev. Dr. Thorpe Bauer, Pastor of the Union Memorial Church, and Mrs. Lange, a member of the church’s Board of Education, attended the meeting in Darien. At the meeting the Council issued a statement against discrimination in housing, entitled “The Declaration of Open Housing of the Stamford-Darien Council of Churches.” Pastor Bauer promptly brought this statement back to the next meeting of our Church Council. They in turn voted to call a special meeting of this congregation in May to hear and act on the Declaration.

The next part of my story is hearsay, for I have not confirmed it in any written sources. Some years ago, The Rev. Ron Evans, former pastor of the Darien Congregational Church, told me that the pastors of the churches who belonged to that Council all agreed to read the Declaration on Open Occupancy to their congregations on an agreed upon date. But, when the date came, most pastors passed.

On page 5 of the Annual Report of the Union Memorial Church for the year 1961, we read that the Church Council called a special meeting after worship on Sunday, May 21, Charles W. Bradbury presiding. The purpose of the meeting was for the congregation to act on the Declaration of Open Occupancy of the Stamford-Darien Council of Churches. After the Rev. Thorpe Bauer led in prayer, copies of the Declaration were distributed and Charles Bradbury read as follows:

We, the Christian and Jewish delegates of the Stamford-Darien Council of Churches, of varied racial backgrounds, desiring to speak to the groups we represent and to the community at large on the urgent issue of adequate housing for all in Stamford and Darien, declare:

1)  The equality of all men before God and the right of every man to be accorded justice by his neighbor.

2)  We affirm the right of every man to rent or purchase housing without discrimination of race, creed, or color.

3)  We appeal to the conscience of all to support the principle of open occupancy.

Mr. Raymond Ellis made a resolution, seconded by Mr. Edgar Thompson that the members of Union Memorial Church in the church meeting assembled, do hereby subscribe to the Declaration of Open Occupancy. When the moderator called for a vote, the motion was unanimously carried.

In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act, prohibiting  on the books at least discrimination concerning the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, or sex. I am well aware that laws on the books do not change prejudices in people’s hearts or their practices about whom they want for their neighbors, as some of you may be able to testify.

Yet I am pleased to have learned and to share with you that in 1961 our congregation was ahead of the learning curve in applying Jesus’ directive that Christians are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).  In our times we are still learning about loving our neighbors, all our neighbors, whatever may be their color, gender, language, sexual orientation, mental health, religion, or birthplace. I am proud to be part of a church that has taken and still takes seriously the divine mandate to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” As we learn, celebrate, and share Christ’s love, may we carry on the outlook that the former members of this church displayed nearly sixty years ago. 

STILL GOING TO CHURCH?

June 23, 2019


I Corinthians 3:5-23

 I had a professor in seminary who was well known for using exaggerations, hyperboles, and overstatements in his lectures to prove his points.  In spite of what we knew about his reputation, one day he tossed out a one-liner that created quite a stir.  The professor said, "The biggest problem with Christians today is that we go to church.  The biggest problem with Christians today is that we go to church."

         As you might expect from an audience of aspiring pastors who had dreams of preaching to sizable and rapidly growing congregations, this statement raised a few eyebrows.  As far as we could see, the fact that Christians went to church was not a problem for us.  The problem as far as we were concerned was that not enough Christians went to church.

         The professor could clearly tell that he had our attention, so he proceeded to toss out another one-liner.  In addition to his contention that the biggest problem with Christians today is that we go to church, he added that in the era of the New Testament, the first generations of Christians never went to church.

         Now, he clearly had our attention and had provoked numerous questions.  "Well, if the original Christians didn't go to church, how did they worship?  Where did they meet?  When did they collect funds?  What did they do on Sunday morning?"

         We were aghast that this professor, who was supposedly training us for future ministry in local congregations, was actually undermining our vocational dreams.  Yet he seemed undisturbed by our reactions.  After waving off all the objections and questions, he made his third and major point.  "According to the Bible," he said, "Christians do not go to church; rather, Christians are the church.  Christians do not go to church; Christians are the church."

         Although some may shrug off my teacher's comments as mere hair-splitting, he had made a thoughtfully and Biblically accurate distinction.  We commonly say, "I'm going to church on Sunday morning."  I'll see you in church next week."  "Excuse me, I have to leave early during the church service."  In these casual and conventional ways we picture church either as a location, such as the church at 58 Church Street, or we picture church as a building, the Union Memorial Church, or as an event, such as coming to a worship service.  Although we are accustomed to using the word church in these ways, the original Christians never used the word church in any of these ways.

         When the Apostle Paul used the word church, he did not associate it with a street location, or a building or a once-a-week scheduled event.  He would never have confined church to one spot, one time, or within four walls.  His view of the church was much larger, much grander, much more challenging.

         For example, listen to some of the ways he described the Christians he knew who lived in Corinth:

         "...You are God's garden, [you are] God's building (I Corinthians 3:9)...Do you not know that you are God's temple, [God's sanctuary] and that God's spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person.  For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple, [that sanctuary]."  (I Corinthians 3:16-17)

         In the ancient world people assumed that a temple, any temple, was a place where someone could expect to find the deity.  If someone wanted to ask a deity a question, to request a favor, to give a thank-you gift, or to pay a visit, they went to that deity's temple.  Most deities did not make house calls, so if you wanted to consult with one, you had to go to their office, which also served as their residence.  If you dialed directory assistance and asked to speak with your deity, the operator would tell you that your deity's numbers were unlisted; one could only talk to them in person at their respective temples where they lived.  People lived in houses; deities lived in temples.

         The ancient Hebrews held a somewhat nuanced view about where their divine being resided. When the celebrated King Solomon built and dedicated the iconic temple in Jerusalem back some 900 years before Jesus lived, the King admitted that the Hebrew’s deity did not actually reside inside the grand temple. For, since not even the highest heavens could contain their Lord, even the great temple was not large enough to accommodate their Lord. Nonetheless, the temple did provide an agreed-upon meeting place, a place where the Lord conducted business while actually residing elsewhere.

         However Paul and the original Christians had a different perspective. A temple was still the customary place for meeting with the deity, but instead of living in a temple made of bricks and mortar, their Lord opted to live in temples made of flesh and bones. God's spirit lived in Christians.  Each Christian was a temple on legs.  God's spirit conducted business inside Christians.  God's spirit was not restricted to office hours between 10:00 and 11:00 on Sunday when the temple's front doors were open.  God's spirit was on the go 24 hours a day.

         Paul probably got the idea from Jesus. In John 2:18-22, Jesus had described his body as the Lord’s new version of a temple ­ the new place where people could connect with the deity.

         Nowadays people go to church buildings or so-called church services presumably to make a connection with God.  People expect that meeting within these four walls at the appointed times, they can expect or at least hope to get in touch with God, whether to ask God a favor, to get to know God, or simply to be close with God.  Since ancient times people have believed that they could meet with the deity in certain buildings at certain times by doing certain rituals. The ancients called such buildings temples; modern Christians call them churches.

         But if Paul was here, he would advise us differently.  He'd say that Christians are now God's building, God's residence, God's house, God's temple.  The church, that is the place where people expect to encounter God, is not chiefly a building, nor a place, but people.  You and every other Christian, you are God's house.

         God's address is not simply the church building at 58 Church Street, or at 358 Glenbrook Road, or 241 Courtland Avenue, or 301 Strawberry Hill Avenue.  God's current addresses also include Cove Road, Hope Street, West Avenue, Elmbrook Drive, Hollow Tree Ridge Road.  Wherever Christians live and work, God's spirit lives and works.

         Once we agree with Paul's revised definition of temple and church, at several inferences follow.  Given that temple or church is where people expect God to reside, and given that God's spirit now resides in Christians, then church is wherever Christians are.  Or as my professor said, we are the church, we do not simply go to church. For you cannot go to where you already are.

         Since God's spirit lives in you, since Christians are God's new residences, then you may be the nearest thing to God that some people will have the chance to meet.  That is a weighty challenge.  Since you are God's newest temple, then you ought to be a place where people are touched by God's spirit.  Since we collectively are God's new sanctuary, then we collectively ought to be a people wherein others sense God's spirit at home. 

         You are God's selected construction site. Wherever you go is zoned for God's spirit to take up residence.  People who look to see what God is like should have to look no further than you and me and other Christians.  They should be able to find God's spirit at home in us.  That persuasion leads me to ask the question: What would people know about God if they only had us to look at? Not our building, but our behavior. Not our sanctuary, but our lifestyles.

         Not chiefly in a building, not chiefly at one hour of the week, but wherever you and I go at anytime of the day, people should be able to sense God is present.  Pretty buildings do not turn people on to God; spirit-filled people turn people on to God.  Anyone looking for God ought to be able to look not to our building, or even to our worship service, but to us -- how we live, what we say, what we do. 

         If we agree with Paul's logic that we are God's building, a second consequence follows.  I occasionally hear parents admonishing their young children to behave in certain ways when they are in this building, because that is not the way to behave in “God's house."  I confess that I probably said the same thing to my children, so I am not finding fault with parents who, like me, look for all the help we can get to reinforce good habits in our offspring.

         It is correct to urge our children to treat God's house with respect and dignity.  But what happens when we expand the definition of God's house to denote Christians, not chiefly a building?  If we are upset that a child acts disrespectfully in "God's house," should we not be equally upset when anyone acts disrespectfully towards another Christian, who is, according to the Bible, a traveling house of God?  Maligning another Christian is not simply getting even or venting frustration, it is insulting to God's house.  If we are quick to tell our grandchildren and children that they should act a certain way because God lives in these walls, should we not also tell them to act in certain ways because God's spirit lives in you?  We are God's RV -- God's recreation vehicle.

         If we accept Paul's original definition of church, namely that Christians are God's building, God's sanctuary, then a third consequence follows.  When we leave this room, when we conclude this service, we do not cease to be the church.  We may cease to be together, but we don't cease to be the church.  Herein rests the crux of my professor's critical remark that the biggest problem with Christians is that they go to church.  His concern was that if we assume that we can go to church, then we can infer that we can go from the church.  If church is a place where we go, an event we attend, then church ceases when we conclude the service or walk out through the doors.

         But, if we are the church, then we never stop being the church.  We may leave a church building, but we do not leave being a church.   We may cease to be in a worship service, but we cannot cease to be God's church, a home for God's spirit.  We may cease being together as a church family, but in God's eyes we are as much as church out there as we are in here.

         I enjoy gathering with my larger family for special occasions.  It is refreshing and relaxing when we can get together.  But when we separate and go our respective ways, I do not cease being an Edele.  Wherever I go, I am an Edele.  We may enjoy, appreciate being together as a church family periodically, but when we leave here we do not cease to be the church.  In fact the most powerful moment of our weekly Christian worship services is the benediction, the dismissal, when people go out the door into the world to be the church, to be little temples on legs.

         I doubt that we will break the habit of saying that we are going to church. I have tried earnestly over the years to stop saying that I go to church, instead I say that I am going to worship. I have tried earnestly over the years to stop referring to this structure as a church, instead I refer to it as the church building.  

         You may sense that I am splitting hairs, as the seminarians thought our professor was splitting hairs when he said “The biggest problem with Christians today is that we go to church.” We may go to worship or we may come to this sanctuary, but we cannot go to what we are.  We don't go to church; we are the church, whether we meet at 59 Church Street or in the grocery aisle at the supermarket or chat on line or call on the phone. Wherever we go, we are the church. 

CARING FOR TREES

June 16, 2019

Deuteronomy 20:19-20

God loves and protects trees. In the ancient Middle East, when kings conducted wars, they often followed a scorched earth policy. When they attacked a city, they entrapped the inhabitants behind siege works, spoiled their water supplies, and ruined the surrounding farmland. They also chopped down all the nearby trees, so that the enemy would not have a source of fuel, lumber, or food (compare the campaigns in 2 Kings 3:16-19; Isaiah 10:18-19; Jeremiah 6:6, 46:22).

However the Lord cautioned the Hebrews about conducting the scorched earth policy. According to the battle strategies that the Lord devised for the Hebrews when they invaded Palestine, they were to protect trees from becoming collateral damage. The Hebrew troops were specifically told to protect fruit trees. The troops could cut down other trees for constructing ramps and siege machines, but not cut down the fruit trees. For someday in the future, assumedly after capturing the city, the Hebrews could readily eat the fruit from the trees, rather than wait years for new fruit trees to mature and bear fruit. Warfare was to be directed against people, not trees, as the Lord warned in Deuteronomy 20:19 (New Living Translation): “Are the trees your enemies that you should attack them?”

On the contrary, trees are assets that people should protect and preserve. For God loves trees and so should we.

Alan Sonfist loves trees. Back in 1965 he proposed an idea for planting trees in New York City. He wanted to plant the same types of trees that had grown on Manhattan Island long before it became a city, back before Americans turned the island into a metropolis, back before the English settlers built a town on the site, back even before the Dutch settled the island in the early 1600s. He wanted to plant the same types of trees that had grown on marshland dotted with sandy hills, the land that the Canarsie Indians had once called Sapokanican. He wanted to recreate the type of forest that four hundred years ago had covered Manhattan Island.

Alan went to great lengths researching the botany, geology, and history of the Island, then collecting trees, shrubs, wild grasses, flowers, plants, rocks, and even soils. In 1978 he obtained permission to transform a 25’ x 40’ plot of land on the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in Greenwich Village. With help from volunteers in the community, they planted and recreated a landscape from a long ago bygone time, calling it a “Time Landscape.”

He sculpted a living monument to pre-colonial times, while also showing three stages of how such old forests grew. The youngest stage of his living monument grows on the southern part of the plot, where there are birch trees, beaked hazelnut shrubs, and a carpet of wildflowers. The next stage, in the middle of the plot, showcases beech trees, red cedar, black cherry, and witch hazel with a groundcover of mugwort, Virginia creeper, aster, pokeweed, and milkweed. The mature stage, in the northern end of the plot, contains oaks, white ash, and American elm trees. Spurred by his love for trees, Alan Sonfist has on a small, and admittedly artificial, scale created a carefully sculpted ancient forest living in lower Manhattan.

God loves trees and wants to protect them. So do Mbarouk Mussa Omar and Jeff Schnurr. When they met in 2007, Omar worked for a Tanzanian conservation NGO and Schnurr worked for a Canadian agency planting trees in Africa. They shared a vision for planting trees on the islands of Pemba and Kokota. The residents on Kokota Island faced an environmental crisis. Over the years they had exhausted their natural resources, cut down their forests, and depleted their fisheries. They could no longer sustain themselves. On top of their self-imposed troubles, repercussions of climate change were threatening their island. Salty sea levels were rising and their normal patterns of rainfall were becoming erratic. 

Omar and Schnurr had a vision for restoring the environment and economic sustainability on both islands. They created a non-profit NGO, known as the Community Forest International, through which they recruited Canadians to plant trees. Since water was abundant on Pemba Island, they first planted the trees on Pemba and then transplanted them during the rainy season on Kokota. Water was so scarce on Kokota that residents sailed, sometimes for hours, to buy drinking water on Pemba. Over the next ten years, the agency planted more than 2 million trees on the two islands. Taking advantage of their resources and funding, they also constructed on Kokota a school and two water reservoirs for collecting and storing rainwater. Omar’s and Schnurr’s love for planting trees has proved to be a god-send, saving the Kokota’s future.

God loves trees and so did Wangari Maathai. Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940, when Kenya was still a British colony. Although girls at that time did not usually attend public school, her parents enrolled her in a local primary school when she turned eight years old. She did so well that she continued through high school. In 1960 she received a scholarship, one of 300 Kenyan youth who came to America for college studies under a Joseph Kennedy scholarship program. Maathai attended college in Kansas, where in 1964 she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. She went on to earn a master’s degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh and seven years later a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi in veterinary anatomy, becoming the first woman in either East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

She taught at the University of Nairobi for the next few years, during which time she became active in campaigning for women’s rights in Kenya. She gradually realized that for women to make progress in civil rights, they needed to develop their own economic power. She also realized that for Kenya’s economy as a whole to advance something had to done to reverse the country’s environmental ruin.

She devised a plan, known as the Green Belt Movement, to address both problems simultaneously. She encouraged women to collect tree seeds from forests, then plant and grow the seeds into tree nurseries. She promised to pay the women wages for planting and cultivating the saplings.

Some opponents ridiculed Maathai, claiming that she, a highly educated professor, was humiliating herself by often getting on her hands and knees beside rural, uneducated women planting trees. But, as Maathai wrote, “As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.”

With funding from the United Nations, the Green Belt Movement expanded operations beyond Kenya to fifteen other African countries, who wanted to set up similar programs in their homeland to combat soil erosion, hunger, deforestation, and clean water supplies.

Maathai admitted that nobody would have bothered her if all she did was to encourage women to plant trees, but she realized that the problems for the country’s environment and for impoverished women in Kenya could not be overcome simply by planting even millions of trees. Although she had been instrumental in planting over  50 million trees, she realized that at the root of the environmental problem was a political problem. The corruption in Kenya’s ruling government thwarted efforts to protect their country’s cherished natural resources.

Maathai became a popular and vocal opponent of Kenya’s governing party, for which she endured arrest, imprisonment and beatings. To her relief, the ruling party lost control in the 2004 elections, in which Maathai was elected to the country’s parliament and was soon appointed assistant minister of environment and natural resources. For her longstanding and devoted pursuit of “sustainable development, democracy, and peace,” she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the prize.

God loves trees and so does Dr. Matthew Sleeth. Fifteen or so years ago Sleeth was an emergency room physician and chief of staff at his hospital. He had a successful career, a loving family, a beautiful house on the coast of Maine. Then a series of personal tragedies tore apart how he viewed the world as a scientist: a close relative drowned in front of his children, a violent patient stalked him, a friend died in the 9/11 attacks. Sleeth could not find a scientific explanation for such evil events, so he turned to religion for some clues. He researched a variety of religious experiences until one day he noticed a Bible placed on a table in a waiting room. Since he had never read the Bible before, he decided to take it and read it.

As he read the Gospel stories about Jesus, he was so moved through what he read that he committed his life to Jesus as his Lord. His wife and two children likewise read and likewise believed in Jesus wholeheartedly. Sleeth developed a growing sense of frustration with his work as a physician. He sensed that, while he was saving patients one by one in the hospital, the earth was dying around him. It was as if he was straightening chairs on the deck of the Titanic while the whole ship, meaning the earth, was sinking. He wanted to save the world from destroying itself from pollution, raising temperatures, elevated sea levels, melting ice polar caps, and climate change.

Sleeth and his wife decided that he would quit his job as chief of staff and head of the emergency department and devote the rest of his life to saving the planet by teaching and preaching about how an informed evangelical version of the Christian faith should protect the environment.

Because he wanted to encourage others to act out convictions about caring for the environment, Sleeth resolved to be more than a teacher; he resolved to be a model. He and his family took to heart Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:2-4: "In the same way you judge others, you will be judged…How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?'" They resolved to practice their convictions about conservation.

They sold their large house and downsized to a smaller house, the size of their old garage. They cut down their use of fossil fuels by two thirds and use of electricity by ninety percent. After removing the plank from their own lifestyle, they could point the specks, or more accurately the similar planks, on others’ eyes.

Sleeth founded the Blessed Earth Foundation, which promotes the biblical demand for Christians to care for the earth. He has spoken out for Christians to protect the environment at more than one thousand events, campuses, and churches. I admire him for bringing his biblically based advocacy for the environment to evangelicals, who, rightly or wrongly, are often stereotyped as being dismissive toward climate change and protecting the environment. 

I openly admit my indebtedness to Dr. Sleeth for his recently published book, Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us. Reading a review of this book was the inspiration for my composing this series of sermons about trees. I have frequently consulted his book during my reflections about trees.

It took me much too long to realize how much God loves trees. God immensely loves trees, and so does Alan Sonfist, Mbarouk Mussa Omar, Jeff Schnurr, the late Wangari Maathai, and Matthew Sleeth. So should we. When we protect and care for trees, we keep good company for we walk in step with God’s heartbeat for trees.