“A Gathering of Snobs”

April 15, 2012


Acts 4:32-35

John 20:19-31


Our membership board recently took the opportunity to put an ad about our congregation in a new University of Iowa visitor’s guide that will be available all around the campus in the coming months. The lead time on this was short and we had to quickly come up with some ad copy.

How could we briefly describe this congregation?

What few words might quickly tell people who we are?

Open and Affirming.

Respecting Questions.

A Liberal Protestant Congregation.

The Book of Acts gives us some quick snapshots of the early Christian community in those first months after the resurrection. The “whole group,” we are told, was of “one heart and soul.”

It is an idealized picture—a little like an advertisement.

We can understand. We like our congregation, we experience great joy when others join us a members, we’re glad when we are well-regarded in Iowa City, we want to show our best side to the University.

When a congregation is at its best—when we are at our best—it is as though the risen Christ stands there among us, granting us his peace.

When a congregation is at its best—when we are at our best—the words of the Psalmist describe the experience: “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when the community lives together in unity!...For there the Lord has ordained the blessing: life forevermore.”

We recognize that the Book of Acts gives us an idealized picture. If, in those early post-resurrection days, the church had such unity, differences, disagreement, and dissention all arose soon enough. And congregations have had to deal with such stress ever since.

Today we are a congregation with many viewpoints—and while that occasionally causes friction or tension, the variety of perspectives in our congregation also works for our good. Members hold different opinions and struggle with different questions and face different problems. Still—given our location, our commitments, and our demographics—I’m willing to assert that we are of “one heart and soul” in the value that we place on education. It’s hard to swing your arms in Rockwood Hall and not bump into University of Iowa students and alumni, faculty and staff—current or retired. Our members are also teachers and staff in our public grade schools, junior highs, and high schools. Our youth plan on some education beyond their years at West or City.

So my guess is that you were as troubled as I was a few weeks ago when Senator Rick Santorum stated: “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”

Set aside for a moment the ironic fact that Senator Santorum has a bachelors degree, a masters degree, and a doctorate. Recall that what the president was really talking about was the importance in our contemporary economy for all Americans to get some kind of further education or vocational training beyond high school.

We don’t have Rick Santorum to kick around any more, but Mitt Romney seems to have some misgivings about higher education as well, or at least about making it affordable. Last month he told a high school student at a gathering in Youngtown, Ohio: “It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that.” He told students to “shop around” at a time when all the stores are looking like luxury boutiques.

We didn’t put it in the visitor’s guide advertisement, but maybe on our sign out front or on our website we could put: “Congregational UCC—A Gathering of Snobs.”

Here we are this morning, an assembly of the educated, a gathering of snobs, who would open the groves of academe to as many as possible, who certainly understand the importance of public universities for our state’s economy and our national well-being. We recognize that, as one person put it, post-secondary education is a way out of poverty, the road to a better life, and an investment in our nation’s future.

What, then, are we to make of these recent assaults on education?

We get some hints about their origins in Senator Santorum’s explanation as to why the president wants everyone to go to college. “He wants to remake you in his image.”

That’s the fear, isn’t it? Education will not simply provide the skills necessary for success. It will bring about a new creation and the unsuspecting students will bear a new image.

This is—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—this is where I agree with Rick Santorum. Oh, not in thinking that the president is conspiring to remake us in his image—but in recognizing that education will indeed change who we are.

The difference is, I’m think that might be a good thing.

A few years ago we heard the results of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute’s longitudinal study of the spirituality of college students during their undergraduate years. The major finding? While attendance at worship services declines dramatically for most students between their freshman and junior years, the students’ overall level of spirituality increases. On hot-button social issues, such as reproductive rights and same sex marriage, students become increasingly liberal.

Let me first say that if you’re a junior or senior, we’re glad that you’ve hung in there with us over the years. And freshmen and sophomores, we give thanks that you’re here, too. A major reason that worship attendance declines as students advance in their studies is that they just get too busy. So, students, slack off a little bit—lighten up and join us for worship.

Now this is where things get interesting. The UCLA study discovered that while attendance at religious services such as this one declines during college years, juniors are even more involved in a spiritual quest, a search for values and meaning, than freshmen. The down side is that juniors are also more depressed, anxious, and overwhelmed than freshmen.

At the same time, higher education seems to lead to a broader religious perspective that shows a greater openness to people of other faiths. From a liberal Christian perspective, this should be a welcomed development.

It seems to me that in some sense, college students are becoming resurrection people:

Responding to the Easter invitation to open our doors.

Responding to the Easter invitation to open our hearts.

Responding to the Easter invitation to share the love of God.

The risen Christ does not know the barricades of locked hearts any more than the barricades of locked doors.

The risen Christ is not limited by our closed minds any more than our closed windows.

The risen Christ will not be constrained by our fears—real or imagined.

Whether we are students or not, in the midst of our stress, in the face of all the demands that press in on us, in the midst of our rapid paced lives, we need to catch our breath, to renew ourselves, to attend to our spirits.

I’m convinced that a church—this church—is just the kind of place we need for “spirit tending.” You probably remember that in the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible, the words that we translate as “breath” are also the words that we translate as “spirit.” So the risen Christ breathes on the disciples and tells them “Receive the Holy Spirit”—the breath of God.

A congregation is set up to be a place where we can catch our breath. Unlike most other places, a church offers silence, opportunity for prayer and meditation, the chance to sing and speak and study and reflect with others.

In this community we can explore new ways of living that might make work and home and school more fulfilling. We can catch our breath and begin to see one another as human beings—and perhaps see ourselves as human as well—loveable,  forgiven, accepted, filled with gifts.

The risen Christ breathes upon us, giving us God’s Spirit. We become part of a new creation—part of something that God is doing through us and among us.

With the Spirit that the risen Christ gives, we continue in mission and ministry. The Gospel of John most likely originally ended with this chapter and those words about Jesus doing many things that are not written in this book. That’s a good ending. It reminds us that the work of Christ is not over. The work of Christ continues among those who follow. Because of the work of this congregation people find their lives changed for the better. Because of the work of this congregation God’s Spirit is made known in places nearby and far away.

You know, the word “snob” originally referred to a person having no wealth or social rank, one of the common people—perhaps much like those early Christians who made no claims of private ownership, who did not regard one as higher than another.

On The Daily Show Jon Stewart suggested that in calling the president a “snob,” Rick Santorum was actually redefining the word. President Obama said that it’s important extend the benefits of post-secondary education to a greater number of people. That’s a new kind of snobbery—one that is inclusive rather than exclusive. It’s a snobbery whose goal is much the same as the goal of land grant universities, as Marilynne Robinson suggests in her new book, “to create an elite so large the name no longer serves.”

In this new snobbery, I think we at Congregational UCC are of “one heart and soul.”

We are a gathering of snobs.

We want as many diverse people as possible to be a part of our community—we are snobs.

We want to extend the joy and the legal benefits of marriage to all people—we are snobs.

We want to ensure that everyone has enough to eat and a safe place to sleep—we are snobs.

We want everyone to have access to the kind of education they want and need and to be able to afford it.

We are a gathering of snobs.

We are followers of the risen Christ.