A Church Without Walls

The church is not a club. This morning, we began another round of classes for potential new members. I’m always aware of the language we use in these conversations: things like “membership” or “join”. The words we use can very easily create the impression that we are trying to draw a circle, deciding who is “in” and who is “out”.

And why shouldn’t we? We do that in every other area of our lives. In school, we either pass the test or we don’t. In sports, we’re either off the team or on it. Those dividing lines make some sense. And then it begins to infect everything else. In politics, it seems that you are allowed to be either a conservative or a liberal. You can either watch Fox or MSNBC. And once you pick your team, your friends are either on your side or they’re just wrong.

You do that kind of thing often enough, you begin to think that this is the way the world works, that everything is painted in stark colors, that “either/or” is the way it’s supposed to be. And when we’re talking about faith and religion, about powers that shape and mold the universe, we step foot into some dangerous territory. We label ourselves, and others, as either “good” or “evil”, and are then tempted to regard them accordingly.

Well, my friends, I’ve got good news – actually, I don’t know if it’s good news or bad news, so let’s just say I’ve got news: the world has always worked this way. Very little has changed. We are tribal to our core.

In fact, both of our Scripture lessons this morning touch on the inclination to circle the wagons. And in both cases, this instinct comes face to face with the way that God wants the world to be.

The prophet Jeremiah is God’s mouthpiece to an utterly beaten down people. The ancient Israelites have experienced their national humiliation at the hands of the Babylonians. First, they failed to heed Jeremiah’s warnings about their faithlessness. And now, not only has their nation been defeated, their capital ransacked, and their Temple destroyed, they have also collectively been captured and taken into exile in the land of Babylon. As they lick their wounds, they no doubt are biding their time until they are able to return and rebuild the glory of Jerusalem.

And yet, note what Jeremiah says. Even though they are no longer “home”, even though they find themselves as strangers in a strange land, the prophet tells them to make their home there. Build houses. Plant gardens. Have children. In other words, even in exile, the message is simply, “life goes on.”

And then, if that weren’t enough, Jeremiah takes the message one step further. Not only are God’s people supposed to seek their own welfare, they ought to pray for the welfare of their new homeland. That’s right: the nation that leveled God’s Temple, the one that worships the wrong kinds of gods and treats them poorly, they are deserving of God’s blessings, too – so much so that God’s people are supposed to beseech God on their behalf! Why? Because, Jeremiah says, “your welfare depends on their welfare.” Even though you are downtrodden, even though you are defeated, dejected, and angry, if Babylon thrives, you will thrive.

Can you see how insane this message must have seemed to them? This is the equivalent of a P.O.W. being told to pray on behalf of his prison guards – and not one of those “hedge your bets” prayers, hoping that they’ll turn toward God and do what’s right and let me go. No: this is a “no holds barred”, “I want them to thrive” kind of prayer. I don’t know about you, but this feels like it goes against every fiber of my default settings.

Well, not to worry…because our New Testament lesson shows that Jeremiah’s challenge didn’t make much headway in Babylon. The old rivalry of Samaritan and Jew rears its head. Its roots of it are deep, and are intimately connected to the Babylonian captivity. You see, it was the Jews – or the Judeans – of the Southern kingdom, not the Samaritans of the North, who were taken into exile. And when the captives returned, the rumor persisted that the Samaritans had intermarried, mingling their Jew-ish blood with that of the Gentiles who had infected the land. Thus the cultural disdain for Samaritans that Jesus uses as a regular reference point.

In this particular story, Jesus is headed from the far north of his native Galilee on his way to Jerusalem in the south. While passing through a village on the edge of Samaria, he encounters ten lepers whom he heals. The kicker? The only one who says “thank you” is the lone Samaritan. Once again, the message is that, no matter what we might think, it’s not all about us. Those whom we think of as “in” have a lot to learn from those who are technically “out”.

All of this brings us back to church. As much as we might not like to admit it, the harsh truth is that there is nothing about being church members that makes us better people than those who are not. And it has been my experience that Christians tend to thrive the less time we spend comparing ourselves favorably to the world around us and more time we spend in service to – and with – that world.

I say all of this with some confidence that ya’ll get this. Not only do we say that the community is our congregation, we tend to live it out. When there is need, we take care of each other. And we also, as a matter of course, reach out to take care of those who are outside these walls, who may never even set foot in this church. Why? Because we Jews in here are no better than the Samaritans out there. Why? Because when Babylon thrives, we thrive.

Our current worship series has been about looking back at our congregation’s history for hints of character and mercy that reveal something both about who we are and who God is at work within and through us. And this characteristic of our church existing not for ourselves but for the world has roots that run deep.

Several years ago, my family and I were passing through Montreat, North Carolina, and got to spend an evening at the home of Fitz and Emmy Lou Legerton. Fitz served as pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church for forty-one years, and he and I both make it a point to catch up from time to time. On this particular visit, Fitz shared some reflections on his years here and his memories from that era. There was one character of the church that he was particularly proud of, something he called “the equality of the saints.” It was a principle that was there from the earliest days.

You see, Philip Weltner, president of Oglethorpe University, and his wife Sally, were absolutely essential to the founding of this congregation. When Mrs. Weltner died, it was a tragic day early in the life of the church.

In 1959, we celebrated our tenth anniversary. As plans were being made for a celebration, the session leadership met and discussed how best to mark that historic moment. For those of you keeping score at home, all of this is noted in the minutes from the February 8, 1959, session meeting. What is recorded of that meeting says a lot about who we are. First, a motion was made to place a plaque in the Fellowship Hall in memory of Mrs. Sally Weltner. The motion did not pass. A second motion was made that a tenth anniversary plaque be made that would name all of the charter members of the church and be dedicated to the memory of Sally Weltner. That motion also failed.

It was the third motion that passed, and here, I quote: “The Session desires to affirm our belief that many people have and will continue to contribute much to the building of this church…and in this belief we consider it undesirable that any plaque be erected in the church which would single out any one individual.”

I have no doubt that this had to be a somewhat delicate stance to take. But they took it nonetheless, because the church is not a club. We become members of a church not in order to pay dues or receive benefits or see our name in lights. Instead, we do so to become members of the body of Christ! And his tribe? It’s much, much broader than we could ever imagine.

This principle is at the heart of almost everything we have done. In 1953, two families of the church approached the session about their need for a Kindergarten program for their children. Two families was not quite enough to warrant further study. However, the request was taken seriously when it was pointed out that this clearly was a need far beyond our walls. And so the seeds were planted for our Preschool program, a ministry that began not out of a desire to meet the needs of our members, but rather the needs of the community.

We can say the same about our Food Pantry, our Bargain Shop, our involvement in Habitat and Journey Night Shelter, our hosting of Pastor Carlos and his ministry to the Spanish speakers of our community.

There is a thread of selflessness that runs through what we do, one tied directly to the God we know in Christ, for whom selflessness was a way of life. As members of that community, may we always reflect this Christ in the way we love, and live, and serve.