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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Basics of Faith 8 - Why Church?

Why Church?

Basics of Faith 8 – August 20, 2017
 A Sermon by Rev. M. Gayle MacDonald

Texts read on August 20:  Deuteronomy 31:12-23; The Universal Pilgrimage ~Paraphrase of Psalm 122 by James Taylor (printed below); Acts 2:42-47; Luke 6:1-12

The Universal Pilgrimage
Paraphrase of Psalm 122 by James Taylor

God calls people everywhere to a pilgrimage. 
From all over the world,
many feet beat a path to God’s holy places. 
They struggle over high mountain passes;
they shuffle across dusty deserts;
they crawl along the walls of river canyons. 
Straggling lines of searchers
converge in a fertile valley;
a great shout of joy goes up to the heavens. 
Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus
—in common cause
the great religions rise above
doctrinal differences.
Pray for their unity;
pray for their commitment
May they not threaten each other;
may they generate peace among their peoples. 
God, watching over them, says,
“They do not all call themselves my followers.
Yet because they are brothers and sisters,
meeting in harmony, I will treat them as my own.” 
Because they do God’s will, God welcomes them.

This morning’s topic is “Why Church?”  I have been re-thinking this topic in light of the events of the past two week:  the gathering of a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia and the terrorist bombings in Spain.  I have heard some liken the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups who claim to be Christian as not much different from members of Isis who claim to be Muslim. 
The events of this week highlight the need to really understand why we gather and what we are about?  My understanding of church and its place in the world is no different now than it was some four years ago when I last preached on this topic.  At that time it was Mother's Day and the news that dominated the television reporting was that Boko Haram had just kidnapped some 376 school girls.   Most of the world was outraged then, as most of the world is outraged now by the White Supremacists and neo-Nazi's and wonder how they can still consider their cause legitimate in light of the holocaust of World War II. 
          Arnold Schwarzenegger posted an excellent talk on the Internet calling out white supremacist groups, and calling out President Trump for not speaking out against them more decisively.  He spoke in light having been born in 1947 in Austria.  Growing up, he saw and felt the guilt and remorse and shame of the generation before him who blindly followed Hitler; who returned home defeated and, in their defeat, came to a realization of just exactly what they had done.  Schwarzenegger admonished people to speak out loudly and quickly; that it is important not to be silent in the face of such groups.
Considering all that has been happening and in the news, I went back and began re-reading a classic:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Life Together".  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran Pastor who taught at seminary.  He was in the United States teaching when the World War II broke out.  His colleagues wanted him to stay in the U.S. where he was safe, but he insisted on returning to Germany.  His twin sister was married to a Jew. 
Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law were part of a German resistance.  He was arrested and continued his ministry while in prison.  His "Letters from Prison" is another well-known book of his.  Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazi's for treason just before the end of the war.
In his book "Life Together", Bonhoeffer talks of the Christian community, what it is and what it isn't.  He warns that if one comes into the Christian community with a dream or a vision of what it should look like, the best thing that can happen is that that dream be shattered quickly.  The Christian community is not an ideal we can think of and create; it is simply a gathering of people under the grace of the Christ.  This is what the community has in common.  That one who is lonely, sick, or in prison and is visited by a fellow Christian, or those who are denied the opportunity to gather understand the joy of such a fellowship; whereas those who gather regularly may not realize such a gift and forget to be thankful for the small things and start complaining about the community or about one another.  If this is the case, Bonhoeffer suggests that they do not yet understand the nature of the fellowship, but maybe are still expecting some ideal that doesn't exist.
He warns Pastors who desire to create a community to fit some ideal or vision that they have that the vision will soon be shattered and they will become disillusioned.  And as far as Bonhoeffer is concerned, the sooner this happens the betters.  A Christian community is not an ideal but a reality, it is not a psychic (i.e., not of the mind) community, but a spiritual community.  It is faith and love that bonds its members. 
We are all on a journey through life and we have chosen to travel that journey as a spiritual path.  We have chosen, as our teacher and spiritual guide, Jesus of Nazareth.  I agree with Bonhoeffer in that Jesus is what binds us together in community.  This does not make our community superior to other faith communities, but it is our centre and it is our faith and it is our identity. 
We are on a human journey and ours is a human community as is the journey and community of other faiths who seek to grown in love and compassion.  Our scriptures teach us that God is love; and perhaps that, in the end, will be what binds us as humans – love that transcends boundaries, race, colour, gender, creed or belief systems – but we learn that love by gathering in community;  gathering with the humility to know that without each other our understanding in partial; gathering knowing that each one of us learns from the othe, that none of us is perfect.  As a Christian church,  we gather in the name of Jesus whose love knew no boundaries.   
There is hope for us in the events in Charlottesville in that people, prominent people and everyday ordinary folk are speaking out against racism and violence.  One of the photographs shown frequently is of a long line of clergy marching together in protest to what the white supremacists stand for – clergy of all faiths walking arm in arm against exclusion and violence.  At least we have come this far, far enough to agree that discrimination based on the colour of one's skin should not exist in the civilized world. 
These things cannot be separated: the outrage of the world against violence, against discrimination, against kidnapping, against acts of terrorism and the need to gather and reflect as a people of faith living in such a world.   The common thread in all of this is the radical and incessant demand for justice; the respect and value for of all life; and the need to support one another in these pursuits as we struggle with issues of morality, and the place of faith and of God in the midst of the reality of living.
So, in the light of all that is happening, in the world in this time and in this place, I ask the question:  "Why Church?"  Why do we continue to gather?  What is the Christian church, and is it relevant today? 
Whether or not the church is relevant depends on what you consider the church to be.  If we are not “being the church” in the world then we are irrelevant. And you get to decide, as the gathered people what the church in your time and your place will be.  Can you live together as brothers and sisters with one love – sometimes broken and in need of healing, sometimes in disagreement and in need of reconciliation, but always bound together with the one love that calls us to live with compassion, respect and humility in our life together.
For too many years, the church was too comfortable.  It had a dominant place in society.  If you wanted to get ahead, if you wanted respect, that came with attending your local Christian Church.  The church was the norm and, while it was a good place to be, it was also, at times easy to forget it roots in radical transformation; too easy to forget that at its root the church was never envisioned as a middle or upper-class institution where the comfortable feel comfortable.  Rather the gathered community of the followers of "the Christ" was a place that turned the world on its ear; because it was the opposite of groups like the white supremacists.  I don’t want to lead you astray; because the early church did have arguments about “inclusion” rules – i.e., certain foods, circumscion, etc. – but in the end these were cast aside as unnecessary for inclusion in the community.  The Christian community was and is intended to be a place where everyone should feel welcomed and accepted and cared for – especially those who normally aren’t: a place where none are hungry and all are valued.
If the church is living true to its roots, then church is not just a place to belong, but a place to question the very act of belonging; and a lens through which to look at the world.
            Listen to this description of the earliest of gatherings of the community of the followers of the teachings of Jesus from the book of Acts (NRSV). 
Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . .   All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

One sentence in there caught my attention as I read it this week:
“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,”
It is their gathering together which seems to have provided them the ability to break bread at home and eat with glad and generous hearts.  Gathering and remembering are acts of the community – along with feeding and supporting.  Breaking bread is reminiscent of the command of Jesus to remember him at the table; and that memory, that assurance that telling of the stories in community and the prayers they shared in community, was spiritual sustenance to carry them into their lives.
The first century gatherings were places of hope, places to be fed and cared for, places of learning or re-learning what it meant to be followers of the one called Christ.  They were places of fellowship, and places that provided the strength, the courage, and the insight to live what they experienced and learned when they returned to their homes.
Though their lives could, at times, be a life of unjust suffering; they were people of God; they were followers of the one they saw as the Christ; they belonged to a community who cared; they were loved and treated as worthy; they could choose to feed one another and share with generous hearts and know in their hearts that their suffering was unjust – that God did not cause their suffering, but humans. 
        When they gathered they learned that they, together, created and made real the vision of God’s way of living here is this life, despite, maybe even because of, their own circumstances.  In the gathered community, there was hope and love and freedom. 
This gathered community is as important now as it was then, perhaps more so when there are so many opportunities for gathering, but few opportunities to recall that your life is lived within a greater whole and has importance and meaning beyond our own likes and dislikes.  We call our gathered community ‘church’.
It is true that church as we imagined it was/is changing, but maybe that is a good thing.  The church is not about what we imagine, but what God imagines.  It is not there to make us feel good, but to support us be a microcosm of the Kin-dom of God. 
We, the gathered community are still the church, and we will be quite alright if we remember that church is wherever people gather to hear the story of God’s people; to study and live what it means to be part of an invisible country where all are equal, where love is the motivating principle for seeking justice and for action; it is the place where we seek together a way to express the ineffable experience of faith; it is the place that provides us with a framework for the rest of our living.
 Here we share our concerns in this life and struggle together to understand our deeper life in the spirit.  Yet even as the people, the church, gather and draw closer to God, we are challenged to bring love and hope into the world.  We gather and then we scatter, bringing a kingdom or kin-dom sensibility of love and justice to the world; for what is the church if not a microcosm of the kin-dom of God?  And how could we do all this if we don’t  first meet to learn, to challenge, to grow, to do?
It is not an easy task to be the church in the world.  And so, we gather regularly:  for a refresher course in Christian spirituality, or simply to absorb the nurturing and strengthening gift of being in fellowship with one another – because, after all, we are the church.
            So Why Church?  Because the church is people; because the church is not a building but is everywhere that we live our radical, life-altering, transformative faith; because the church is who we are everyday; and we gather as a church community so that we can be the church together in the world. 

United Church of Canada Statements and Creeds on Communion
1925 – Basis of Union 
Article XV. Of the Church. We acknowledge one Holy Catholic Church, the innumerable company of saints of every age and nation, who being united by the Holy Spirit to Christ their Head are one body in Him and have communion with their Lord and with one another. Further, we receive it as the will of Christ that His Church on earth should exist as a visible and sacred brotherhood, consisting of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, together with their children and other baptized children, and organized for the confession of His name, for the public worship of God, for the administration of the sacraments, for the upbuilding of the saints, and for the universal propagation of the Gospel; and we acknowledge as a part, more or less pure, of this universal brotherhood, every particular church throughout the world which professes this faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him as divine Lord and Saviour.

1940 – Statement of Faith
VII. The Church We believe that the Church, the society of the redeemed, was brought into existence by God Himself through the work and risen power of Christ, Who in calling men into fellowship with Himself calls them by the same act into fellowship with one another in Him.

We believe that the Church is the organ of Christ’s mind and redemptive will, the body of which He is the Head. Under Him the Church is called to the proclamation of the everlasting Gospel with its offer of salvation, to the worship of God, Creator and Redeemer, to the loving service of mankind, and to the care and nurture of the flock.
We believe that all members of the Church are one in Him, and that the life of the Church in every age is continuous with that of the first apostolic company. The groups commonly known as “churches” are called to share in the life of the whole Church, of all ages and of all lands, entering freely into the full heritage of thought, worship, and discipline, and living together in mutual confidence.

We believe that for the fulfillment of her mission in the world God has given to the Church the Ministry, the Scriptures and the Sacraments. So we acknowledge one holy, catholic, apostolic Church, the Body of Christ, the household and family of God.

1968 (Rev. 1980, 1995) - A New Creed
We are called to be the Church:
    to celebrate God’s presence,
    to live with respect in Creation,
    to love and serve others,
    to seek justice and resist evil,
    to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
       our judge and our hope.

2006 – A Song of Faith
We sing of a church
   seeking to continue the story of Jesus
   by embodying Christ’s presence in the world.
We are called together by Christ
   as a community of broken but hopeful believers,
   loving what he loved,
   living what he taught,
   striving to be faithful servants of God
   in our time and place.
Our ancestors in faith
   bequeath to us experiences of their faithful living;
   upon their lives our lives are built.
Our living of the gospel makes us a part of this communion of saints,
   experiencing the fulfilment of God’s reign
   even as we actively anticipate a new heaven and a new earth.

The church has not always lived up to its vision.
It requires the Spirit to reorient it,
   helping it to live an emerging faith while honouring tradition,
   challenging it to live by grace rather than entitlement,
for we are called to be a blessing to the earth.

We sing of God’s good news lived out,
a church with purpose:
   faith nurtured and hearts comforted,
   gifts shared for the good of all,
   resistance to the forces that exploit and marginalize,
   fierce love in the face of violence,
   human dignity defended,
   members of a community held and inspired by God,
      corrected and comforted,
   instrument of the loving Spirit of Christ,
   creation’s mending.
We sing of God’s mission.

We are each given particular gifts of the Spirit.
For the sake of the world,
   God calls all followers of Jesus to Christian ministry.
In the church,
   some are called to specific ministries of leadership,
   both lay and ordered;
   some witness to the good news;
   some uphold the art of worship;
   some comfort the grieving and guide the wandering;
   some build up the community of wisdom;
   some stand with the oppressed and work for justice.
To embody God’s love in the world,
   the work of the church requires the ministry and discipleship
   of all believers.

In grateful response to God’s abundant love,
   we bear in mind our integral connection
   to the earth and one another;
we participate in God’s work of healing and mending creation.
To point to the presence of the holy in the world,
   the church receives, consecrates, and shares
   visible signs of the grace of God.
In company with the churches
   of the Reformed and Methodist traditions,
we celebrate two sacraments as gifts of Christ:
  baptism and holy communion.
In these sacraments the ordinary things of life
—water, bread, wine—
point beyond themselves to God and God’s love,
   teaching us to be alert
   to the sacred in the midst of life.

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