Gospel Choirs and Defining Freedom at Tremont Temple Baptist

This week, we visited Tremont Temple Baptist Church, near the Boston Commons. It is an amazingly beautiful space and has an amazing history in the way of social justice!

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This is from their website: “Tremont Temple Baptist Church has a rich history that has made it a leader in the Boston area for social justice, evangelism, and human rights. In the 1830s the struggle for social justice was seen in the fight for the abolition of slavery. The churches were at times defenders of the status quo and even charged for seating.  In 1838 a group of men led by Timothy Gilbert started the Baptist Free Church. It was “free” in that there was no rent charged for pews, but more than that it was for the freedom of all people, being the first integrated church in America.

A group of 82 charter members organized the church in 1839. The basis of organizing the church was clear from the start: 1.) “Realizing our obligations, to make continued efforts to supply every human being with the privileges of Gospel, and 2.)….All who practice slavery or justify it, shall be excluded from the church and its communion.” Therefore evangelism and social concern were held together right from the start. In defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, Tremont Temple resolved that all slaves be cared for, and protected.

tremont12Despite the 20 degree weather, steady snow, and rather unpleasant gusts of wind, 5 of us met up for this morning’s service, led by Reverend Denton Lotz – an alumni of Harvard Divinity School who went on to do some truly amazing work, both abroad and in the States.

tremont2The service began with the baptism of two church members. Each woman was fully submerged in water at the front of the church. It was really interesting to witness as I had never before seen a baptism. A powerful ritual and powerful symbolism. You can (sort of) see the space in the picture below (apologies for the grainy quality):

tremont9We sang several hymns (always fun) and then were treated to a SPECTACULAR performance by the church’s gospel choir. So powerful and energetic! They sang “God is Great” and “Worthy is the Lamb.” Woo! Nothing like some lively tunes to warm you up on a frigid Boston morning in February.

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The two scriptural readings leading up to the sermon were: Exodus 34: 29-35, and II Corinthians 3: 6-18:

Exodus 34: 29-35 — 

(29) Now it was so, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand when he came down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him. (30) So when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. (31) Then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned to him; and Moses talked with them. (32) Afterward all the children of Israel came near, and he gave them as commandments all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. (33) And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. (34) But whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with Him, he would take the veil off until he came out; and he would come out and speak to the children of Israel whatever he had been commanded. (35) And whenever the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone, then Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with Him.

(Before I go any further, I have to say that I just love the imagery of Moses’ face literally glowing and radiating with the glory of God. Talk about a divine experience).

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II Corinthians 3: 6-18 — 

(6) God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (7) But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, (8) how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? (9) For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. (10) For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. (11) For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. (12) Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech — (13) unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. (14) But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away from Christ. (15) But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. (16) Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (17) Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. (18) But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”

tremont13In his sermon, entitled “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, There is Freedom,” Rev. Lotz drew on these two passages as a way of highlighting the transition from a legal covenant (as seen in the Old Testament) to a spiritual covenant (made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the Gospel). The Reverend started by reminding us of Black History Month and of the fact that Tremont Temple church was the location of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Boston. He expanded upon the theme of freedom and went on to discuss that the “human” notion of freedom is all too often conceived as “doing what I want to do,” while divine freedom in the Christian tradition is located exclusively in bondage to God and in embracing the image in which God created us.

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He expanded upon the symbolism of the veil which Moses wore and stated that in Jesus Christ lies the potential to remove the veil that lies between God and humanity. True freedom lies in enslaving oneself to Christ and the Gospel in order to see the true face of God. This is the purpose for which we have been created and our gifts and talents should be executed towards this end.

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As someone who does not identify as Christian, I found myself feeling a bit uncomfortable and out of place at various points during the sermon. Nonetheless, I also found points that I could relate to, such as the notion that we are all too often in “bondage” to various things — such as stress, money, materialism, etc — and that there are better, healthier ways to direct our energies and efforts. I found the Reverend’s condemnation of a modern, secular American culture that is serving to “dumb-down” the population to be a bit much, particularly after he used the example of the most recent Superbowl half-time performance…since, personally, I in fact quite enjoyed Beyonce’s booty shakin’, even if it WAS evidence of misguided collective priorities and fascinations. What can I say…

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It also made me realize that I need to do some serious research in terms of my understanding of early Christian history, particularly on this issue of legal vs. spiritual covenants and on the history of the Christian conception of a personal relationship with God. What did Paul’s letter to the Corinthians intend to convey about a departure from legalistic bondage? I always find Paul to be rather dense and difficult for my mind to comprehend. The Catholic church comprises most of the first 1500 years of Christian history, and, at least in my limited knowledge, this institution also consists of intermediaries between God and man and of various legalistic prescripts. Wasn’t it only after the Protestant Reformation that the ideas of a personal, direct relationship with God and a more individualized interpretation of scripture really took off? Clearly, this is my own knowledge deficit. More research needed.

What all this talk of veiling between man and God REALLY reminds me of is Sufism, the mystical practice of Islam. But that’s a tangent for another day.

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Anyhoo, that is more than enough for today. More to come!

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