27 June 2011

The City of God

Psalm 46 & Revelation 22: 1-6
Second Sunday in Pentecost/ June 26, 2011

God has a special fondness for cities.  Although the Bible’s story begins in a garden, it ends in a city.[1]  Although Jesus began his ministry in the tiny villages of the Galilee, his ministry culminated in a city – Jerusalem.  Although Paul was convicted by the Spirit on the road to Damascus (on the way to a city), the conclusion of his ministry was in the greatest city of the ancient world – Rome – and his journey in the Spirit led him through the major cities of the Roman Empire, particularly Ephesus, Athens, and Corinth. The growth of the early church and the proclamation of the gospel centered around urban areas.  Trade routes brought the message of Jesus from city to city.  The first Christians were urban, not farmers, not villagers, but people who gathered for worship, for prayer, for the sharing of meals, for service, in the city.  Ideas and beliefs spread from one city to the other.  When John had his revelation on the island of Patmos, he sent letters to the churches in the cities of Asia Minor – to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Laodicea, Sardis, Thyatira, and Philadelphia.

            In all these settings the health and vitality of a church community was directly related to its context, to its setting, to the city.  Indeed, the health and vitality of the church was directly related to its ability to relate to, preach to, witness to, and minister to the needs of the wider community.  The health of the church has often been directly connected to the health of the city.

            Today, many of our cities are in sad shape – as are many of the churches that try to survive in urban settings (Not unlike the church as a whole that’s suffering; I wonder if there’s a connection.) On Thursday evening at the meeting of Baltimore Presbytery we heard a rousing sermon given by the Reverend John Thomas of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, Baltimore.  He said that although cities have been “the crucible of progress, our cities are dying from within.”  Just about every city in the United States is struggling, particularly the cities in the Midwest, the Rust Belt, the Deep South, the old industrial cities of the Northeast.  Due to the racial unrests of the 1960s, combined with the sagging economy of the 1970s (a time when people pretty much gave up on the city), many churches left the inner-city and rebuilt in the suburbs (making matters worse in the city).  I grew up between Manhattan to the east about five miles and the city of Newark, NJ, about five miles to the south.  I heard the stories of the riots in Newark.  I grew up being afraid of the city.  And yet, I enjoyed going to Newark with my mother and grandmother, walking down Broad Street, past the Old First Presbyterian Church, the church of the first settlers of the city in the 1600s. Today, even though Newark is slowly coming back to life after all these years, that church continues to struggle.A city like Newark was a place from which to escape.  Moving away from the city, avoiding the city, driving around the city so as not to see its blight, was common.

            There are some that dislike cities and prefer living in quieter, suburban, even rural areas.  There are others who prefer life in the city, with its frenetic activity and buzz.  Whether one likes cities or not, there are still sections of every city which we probably avoid altogether because we don’t want to see what’s there.  We don’t want to see the boarded up row houses or empty shells that once housed families, we don’t want to see the crack dens, the poverty, signs of unemployment, or homelessness.  We don’t want to see the crime. 

            I often think that there’s something about the power of wealth that separates. With enough money we can separate ourselves from pain and suffering.  The wealthy can leave the city, the wealthy can move to a bigger home, a nicer neighborhood, safer, cleaner, with trees. Drive through the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore and you’ll see block after block will be missing trees.  Our wealth means we can drive away from there, drive around it and not see what’s going on there.
            But it’s there. Just take the Amtrak train from Wilmington to Baltimore.  As you approach Penn Station and look out the window, you can’t ignore it – block after block of blight.  Sometimes, I intentionally get lost driving around downtown Baltimore. Sometimes, I intentionally go into extremely poor areas of Baltimore, along North Fulton Avenue or North Avenue – not to avoid, but to see, to remind myself what’s going on in my city (I live in the city, on the edge of the city, but still in the city). Granted, it’s from the relative safety of my car, but it’s better than ignoring what’s in my backyard or watching it from a distance on television. 

            It’s true, some cities have experienced renewal:  think of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, many neighborhoods are coming back to life (Bolton Hill, Hampden, Canton); I think of downtown Washington, DC, especially along the 7th Street, NW, corridor.  People are moving back into the city, the urban renewal movement among architects is reimagining urban life. 

            And the church – many churches – are reimagining urban life, of the ministry waiting for us there.  We are being reminded that God loves to dwell in the city – the city of God is lifted up as the model for the beloved community, the place where God’s people dwell with God. God seeks the the welfare of the city, which means God’s children are also called to seek the welfare of the city.  Why? Because God longs to dwell where people live. God wants to be involved in our lives. And God seeks to dwell with people in greatest need – especially the poor.  God wants cities to flourish.  The psalmist envisions a city fed by a life-giving river, life-giving water that courses through the heart of it. A similar vision is offered at the end of the Bible in Revelation.  John sees the city of God coming down out of heaven, established on the earth.  It’s the place where God will dwell with God’s people.  At the center of this city is a river flowing with the water of life. The source of the river is the throne of God; it pours through the city bringing life to the nations.  That’s what God intends for the city.

            Sure, God dwells with people in the suburbs and in rural places.  But we need to remember that we won’t find any reference to the suburbs in the Bible.  It’s a foreign concept to the Bible.  There was no such thing as a suburb.  Yes, God dwells in the suburbs and in the country, but there’s something about the city and its people and it’s poverty that matters in a unique way to God.  Maybe because how a people address the needs of the people in a city says something about what really matters most to people, what’s at the center of a culture or civilization.

            One of the leading evangelists of our time was in Baltimore this past Wednesday evening at M & T Stadium, he’s one of the best theologians of our day, a tireless advocate for justice and peace and the coming kingdom of God.  His name is Bono, from U2.  Bono is a deeply committed Christian (you can hear it all through his song lyrics, particularly in the last album), a faith shaped by writers such as Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) and Walker Percy (1916-1990).  In a speech given to the NAACP in 2007, Bono said:  “God has a special place for the poor. The poor are where God lives.  God, my friends, is with the poor and God is with us if we are with them.  This is not a burden it is an adventure.”

            In the city of God known as Philadelphia there was a downtown Presbyterian Church that faced decline and neglect and urban decay.  The community scattered as the neighborhood around it deteriorated.  The presbytery shut the doors of the church.   The church left and things got worse.  For decades, this facility – enormous sanctuary, chapel, church school rooms, fellowship hall – sat empty on south Broad Street. That is until my friend Bill Golderer, who was raised in the wealthy Philly suburb of Bryn Mawr, had a vision for the place – a different kind of church, doing a different kind of ministry that was rooted and grounded in the community, in that context, in the city.  In 2005, Broad Street Ministry was established as “a broad-minded Christian community that cherishes creativity, fosters and nurtures artistic expression, extends inclusive hospitality and – works for a more just world through civic engagement.”[2]    My good friend, Erika Funk, is now also on the staff, who, together with Bill, both are Presbyterian ministers, have built an amazing ministry.  Our middle schoolers went up there for an overnight several years ago and came back ready to end world hunger in a month.   Another group was there earlier this year and returned equally blessed and challenged.   In a few minutes we will commission our senior highs leaving today after worship for South Broad Street, Philadelphia.  They will be at Broad Street Ministry all week.

            I wish Broad Street was closer to Baltimore, if only to attend their worship services on Sunday evenings.  Communion is served weekly.  People come from as far away as Princeton (about an hour) to worship with the residents of the community, the homeless, people recovering from addiction, people struggling in many ways, but seeking the fellowship of God’s people and searching for the love of God in tangible, life-giving ways.  After worship, they all share a meal together.

            The ministry at Broad Street is built around this core value:  “We believe God is dynamically at work in the life of every person. We aim to meet people where they are – to learn from their spiritual experiences and share ours. We seek to enhance the experience of God through worship, educational offerings, and spiritual friendship.” They are about “building community, a contemporary ‘cathedral’” that “welcomes, serves, shelters, supports and befriends our community regardless of faith commitments or lack thereof.  We attempt to provide our neighbors with the encouragement and resources that are needed to experience the flourishing God intends for everyone.”

            What will our group be doing this coming week?  I asked Erika.  They’ll be meeting with homeless people in Philadelphia on the street and in residences, they’ll be working on urban neighborhood gardens, working with people in recovery, helping with food distribution, helping with their Breaking Bread meal on Thursday at 11 a.m.  A free meal is served to the community and they provide all kinds of free social services, they’ll be doing art projects, helping an old church fix up its building.

            I also asked Erika if there’s a particular theme for the coming week.  Get this:  she wrote back, “the theme for the week is ‘Between the Trees,’ how we are to live between the Tree of Life in Genesis and the Tree of Life in Revelation, living between what God has done and what God will do. And how do we participate in God’s work now?”  I smiled when I read her e-mail because the reference to the Tree of Life in Revelation is here in chapter 22 and I picked this text earlier in the week before I heard from Erika.  It must be a Spirit-thing.  The Tree of Life in Revelation stands right in the center of the city of God. That tree is alive and flourishing, fed by the water of life flowing from the throne of the living God.  It’s a tree producing fruit. Not just one kind of fruit, but twelve kinds of fruit all on one tree.  Have you ever heard of such a tree?  What an amazing symbol of diversity and abundance.  And it produces fruit, not seasonally, but each month – continually yielding life. And the leaves, the leaves are for the healing of the nations.  (I thought of the Moringa tree project in Congo that we’ve been supporting, of the way the leaves of this miracle tree rich in vitamins and nutrients are literally saving lives, yielding health.) The leaves of healing and health – for the people of God in the city of God. This is the vision the Bible ends with.  This is the hopeful vision Revelation offers us. This is the goal toward which the entire universe is moving and every one of us is called and invited to join in the struggle – not the burden, but the adventure of embracing this vision for a world, a city, a people renewed.

            In the meantime, in the in-between times between the trees, between what God has done and what God will do, we are called to act, to live, to love, to serve, to share.  We are called to participate in the new thing that even now God is doing in our lives.  That’s what these two texts call us toward.  It’s what our youth in Philadelphia will be experiencing and praying about this week.  It’s what we’re called to pray about here too, as we seek to discern, how do we participate in God’s work now?  What are we who live in the suburbs, on the edge of a city, called to do?  Where does that life-giving river need to flow in Catonsville, Arbutus, Woodlawn, Hunting Ridge, and Howard County?  Perhaps when our youth get back from Philadelphia they will have something to teach us, to share with us, to help us discover what God is trying to do through us and for us.  May it be so.

Image:  The Schuylkill River running through the city of Philadelphia, PA.

[1] I attribute this quote to David Buttrick.  I heard him offer this insight years ago at the Donald Macleod/Short Hills (NJ) Community Congregational Church Preaching Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary.
[2] Descriptions taken from the Broad Street Ministry website: http://www.broadstreetministry.org/