Monday, July 18, 2011

Where do you go to church? - Richard R. Crocker

Where do you go to church?
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 17, 2011
Psalm 82 and Hebrews 10:19-25

It will not surprise you to learn that I have spent a good part of my life going to church. This is due not only, and not originally, to my interest in Christian faith, or to my profession as a minister. It is due to my having been born and brought up in a small Southern town, where church attendance was universally expected. Though many things have changed in the south, it is still often the case that Yankees and other visitors are confounded, even offended, when they are inevitably asked, upon making a new acquaintance, “Where do you go to church?” A question that is deemed public in the South is deemed private in some other parts of the country, and indeed, it is deemed secret in New Hampshire.

Now, my interest in religion, and specifically in Christian religion, having been planted when I was a child in Alabama and watered by the Baptists, sprinkled by the Methodists, and carefully pruned by the Presbyterians, finally blossomed into lifetime of church experience. Indeed, I would wager, if I were allowed to wager, which of course, I am not – that I have attended more churches of different traditions than anyone in this congregation. My experience is wide. For fun, and for this sermon, I counted them up during some down time on my recent vacation. Here’s the abbreviated list:

Baptist churches – all varieties, Southern, American, National, primitive, hardshell, missionary, foot-washing, etc.
Presbyterian – a variety, including the Church of Scotland
Episcopal and Anglican (Church of England)
Congregational and United Church of Christ
The Church of Christ (not to be confused, on any account, with the UCC)
Christian Church - Disciples of Christ
Roman Catholic
Church of the Brethren
Assembly of God
Church of God
Foursquare Gospel
United Pentecostal

Also Christian Science, Unitarian, Mormon, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim services, as well as a few “nondenominational churches”.

I’m sure I’ve left some out. But it’s a pretty good sample, you’ll have to admit. And what have I concluded from all of this experience? I have concluded that people do in fact go to church, and the question “Where do you go to church?” properly understood, is a profound one. So today, I want to help us properly understand it.

First, let’s examine the question grammatically to discover what I really mean. Where do you go to church is a question like many others, such as:

Where do you go to work? Where do you go to fish? Where do you go to borrow money? Where do you go to eat? Where do you go to golf?

But you will notice that all of those questions end with a verb. All of them end with an infinitive: to work, to fish, to eat – not with a noun. So in the question, “Where do you go to church?”, the word church can be a verb, not a noun, just as “golf” can be a verb as well as a noun.. So do we ever think of church as a verb, rather than a noun? Try doing it. It changes the whole way we think about that question.

If we consider church as a verb rather than a noun, where do you go to church is as natural and as important and as necessary as going to sleep or going to eat, or going to work.

So what does church, as a verb, mean? What does it mean “to church”? What are we doing when we go to church?

Well, let’s turn to today’s scripture lesson from Hebrews. As far as I know, this passage is the only place in the Bible where Christians are told to go to church. I may be wrong. You tell me if you find it somewhere else. I don’t recall any passage in the gospels where Jesus tells people to go to church. But the writer of Hebrews gave us a text that has promoted many a sermon on the necessity of church-going. The passage starts off theologically, using the imagery of the Hebrew temple, where, you remember, part of the temple was reserved for the priests, and the holy of holies was reserved for one specially purified priest to enter, once a year, to make atonement for the people. This passage from Hebrews says that we all can enter the sanctuary because of the sacrifice that Jesus has made. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us …. Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Most of us would interpret this passage as saying that baptism has cleansed us and given us confidence. And if you want to find evidence for baptism as sprinkling, it’s there, and for baptism as dipping, it’s there. But either form gives us the confidence to know that we can approach God, who accepts us. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised (God? Jesus?) is faithful.” We can have confidence. And then, the clincher: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, … but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

By my reading, this passage gives us the answer to the question: to church means to receive confidence and to encourage one another in doing good, as we await the return of Christ.

So, where do you go to church means “where do you go to gain confidence? Where do you go to be encouraged? Where do you go to be provoked to love and good deeds?” All of us need encouragement, don’t we? It is a universal need. In bad times, especially, we need encouragement that our lives, and our deaths, are in God’s hands. Some of us, facing trials of sickness or loss, or anxiety, or unemployment, or profound loneliness need that encouragement today. And all of us need to be encouraged to love and to do good deeds. I hope that you find that encouragement here today. But too often, I’m afraid, and for far too many people, “churching’ is an empty or even negative experience. People go to church to be encouraged, but they are often either condemned, or ignored, or, worst of all, bored. So if people do not find the encouragement that they crave in the worship and fellowship of church, they will look for it elsewhere.

You know, the picture I painted of my Southern church-going upbringing is probably out of date. Urbanization and opportunities for travel and the seven day work week and youth soccer leagues have diminished church going everywhere in our nation. The result is that people are looking for church elsewhere. Maybe they find it in youth soccer. Or maybe in twelve step groups like AA. Or maybe they look for it in groups of friends, or in bars, or in clubs. And maybe some people find it there – but I’m afraid many don’t. There are many people across the world who are truly churching today. But let’s be honest, there are far more in our town and state and nation and world who are not. They may even be sitting in a church building, but church is not happening for them. There is nothing in their lives that is truly encouraging to them, nothing that is prompting them to love and good deeds - nothing that makes them feel that they are so infinitely precious before God. But their hunger for encouragement continues, the need for church remains.

I would like to share with you two snippets from recent speakers at Dartmouth – snippets that relate to what I am trying to convey. One was from Geoffrey Canada, the educator who has encountered notoriety and considerable success as the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an educational experiment in New York City that is greatly lauded and that was featured in the recent documentary film, “Waiting for Superman.’ When asked how he came to devote himself to the strenuous task of bringing encouragement and hope and love and opportunity to the children of Harlem, Geoffrey Canada explained that when he was a college student at Bowdoin, he had made some good friends, and that this group of friends, this small group, had made a pledge to each other “to support one another in doing good.” So he became a teacher, and his friends became wealthy. He has been able to do what he does because those friends from college were supporting him, financially, and with love. Now I don’t know if Geoffrey Canada attends church services, but I know that Geoffrey Canada has been churched and is churching.

Another statement comes from Bill McKibben, the extraordinary advocate for the sustainability of our planet, and a Methodist Sunday School teacher, who was our baccalaureate speaker this year. Mr. McKibben remarked that people often say that college was the best time of their lives. He hypothesizes that this is because in college they lived in close proximity with other people, their friends, all the time. And then he pointed out the irony that the purpose of college is to enable them never to have to live like that again. Dare we hope that what is going on in the dormitories at Dartmouth right now is really church?

I would like to close by having us look at the psalm for today, Psalm 82. It’s a very strange short psalm that portrays God speaking to a sort of council of Gods and calling them to account: “How long,” God asks, “will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” Then God upbraids them and charges them: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” This passage seems to acknowledge that there are other Gods in the world, but they are blind Gods: “they have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness and all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” But these gods shall “die like mortals and fall like any prince.”

In a world where great powers “walk around in darkness and the foundations of the world are shaken” we come to church – yes to a place, a noun, but also to an action, a verb, to do something. We gather together regularly in this church building to church, to “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” and to encourage one another. We can encourage one another because we are convinced that a great Day is approaching, when all that we have hoped for will be fulfilled, indeed, when God ‘will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes”, when “death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4), when “Christ is all in all.” (Colossians 3:11).

May it be so. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

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