I grew up hearing about Nicodemus coming to see Jesus at night, but we didn’t say much about him other than Jesus told him he had to be “born again,” which made him a hashtag ahead of his time. As I thought about him this week, my mind found a connection with architecture and Allen wrenches. I can’t explain the thought process, but I like where it took me.
When I was a youth minister in Texas, I got to know a man named Mike who taught Sunday School for ninth grade boys. He did a good job. He connected well with the kids, yet he was serious most of the time. I met him for breakfast one day just to get to know him better and found out he was an architect. We were contemplating a renovation of some of the space we used for our young people and when I mentioned it he came to life. He began talking about how we are shaped and influenced by the spaces we inhabit, and how our sacred spaces both reveal and affect our understanding of God and ourselves. When we change our surroundings, we open ourselves up to new possibilities.
When I worked as an editor, one of the potential authors I interviewed had been the rector at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, which sits right on the Common and that defines itself as “a house of prayer for all people.” For several years, they shared space with a Muslim congregation that met in the basement. When the main sanctuary was to be remodeled, the church talked about how their space might better reflect their motto. They pulled out all of the pews and replaced them with chairs that could be moved around. They built a labyrinth in the floor tiles. Then they put the necessary sinks and faucets in the walls so the Muslim congregation could do their cleansing ritual on the main floor rather than the basement. They changed their surroundings to reflect who they wanted to become.
At First Church in Guilford, Ginger overheard the ministerial intern use the phrase “the theology of boxed pews,” meaning people get accustomed to being in their place in church. Box pews, which are those that have the doors on the aisle side, allowed allowed families to sit together in a regular spot and provided shelter from the cold in a drafty building. They were typically purchased or rented by families and the cost could be substantial—sort of like the private boxes that ring stadiums today.
It’s hard to know whether theology made the pews, or the pews shaped the theology. Maybe we could call it congregational anthropology. Either way, the nature of the pews and the room invite people to stay in their places. There is one way into the pew and one way out. To get up to pass the peace takes effort. They are a warm congregation. They like to be together. And the pews make it hard to show that to one another on Sunday morning.
We are shaped by our spaces.
Nicodemus, the religious leader who came to see Jesus at night, was a person who was defined by a specific religious architecture, if you will. He was a Pharisee, which meant he was a part of a group whose job it was to make sure everyone followed the religious law to the letter–that they stayed in their place. My friend Sid talks about “flat box theology” as a way to describe folks who want life to be like an IKEA kit with (sort of) clear instructions that mean if you just do what they say you end up with the furniture you want. If I follow that metaphor, Nicodemus was one of the people with an Allen wrench.
The traditional take on Nicodemus has been that he came to Jesus by night because he was too frightened or embarrassed to be seen talking to Jesus in the daytime. Rabbinical sources reveal that nighttime was the preferred time to study the Torah. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, who lived in the early 200s, said, “The moon was created only for Torah study.” And when Nicodemus found Jesus he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
He spoke to Jesus as if he was a part of the group, as though he understood the flat boxes. Perhaps he came at night to have a significant conversation about theology, as rabbis often did. Jesus’ response blew up the furniture, in a way: He said, “Unless you are willing to be born anew, you can’t understand God’s architecture.” Then he went on to talk about how the Spirit of God cannot be confined by a kit or a pew or any kind of structure that thinks it provides all the answers.
Life changes. People change. God changes as we learn more and become open to the creativity of the Spirit. God did not create us to become accustomed to or expectant of things staying the same. The God who continues to give birth to the universe calls us to new birth again and again and again.
Nicodemus heard what Jesus said and replied, “How are these things possible?”
It’s a great question that Jesus doesn’t answer directly, other than to say God is in the habit of extreme makeovers, and those willing to trust the renovating power of the Holy Spirit will find life larger and more creative than any structure or system that promises perpetuation. The point is not to see how long we can make things last but to see how God can make things new.
As we sit in this room where the pews have been in place for a long, long time, and we try to figure out what it means to be the people of God in Hamden in 2023–everything from what worship should look like, to what committees we need, to how we meet the needs of the community around us, to how we honor our history without being beholden to it, to how we grow in our love for God and for others–we may want to ask the same question: How are these things possible?
Let’s start here: we are not furniture. We are people created in the image of God, in the image of One who cannot be controlled or defined, a God who is Love so radical and relentless that it knocks all the walls down if we are willing to look up from our manuals, drop our Allen wrenches, and pay attention.
What is waiting to be born anew among us here?
This morning we share Communion, the bread and cup that tell the story of life and death and rebirth. As we come to God’s Table together to share the meal Jesus shared two millennia ago, how can we be reborn in this ancient ritual? How can we create space for God to break loose?
Come, let’s talk about it over supper. Amen.
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