“Life Together”

August 24, 2014

 

Acts 4:32-35

Matthew 18:15-22

 

This is certainly one of the best Sundays of the year. The public schools have started. We stand on the edge of the fall semester at the university. The campus and the downtown are filled with students ready to get going. Parking is once again at premium, but we hardly mind that inconvenience today as we welcome new students and look forward to a new year.

And in our worship we get to sing what one member calls, I believe, “the loud, pounding workers song”—that wonderful hymn for the beginning of the school year, “Earth and All Stars”—in which loud boiling test tubes join with loud cheering people and the rest of creation in sing praises to God.

We gather together once more after being dispersed all over Iowa, all over the United States, and, really, all over the world. As we do so, it seems good this morning to reflect on just who we are as a congregation—the people of God gathered in this place. Such reflection is not necessarily an easy task, because in the freedom of our Congregational United Church of Christ tradition, each of us and all of us are living out our faith in so many different ways that it’s hard to get a handle on just who we are.

We are, in the very best sense of that very good word, a liberal congregation. Our long and living tradition emphasizes a searching faith, individual freedom, and inclusive community. You’ve probably been looking for a place like this. “Liberal” implies a sense of generosity and we are generous with our time and our lives as well as our treasure.

We seek to follow the God made known to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We seek to be open to the Spirit of God moving among us.

But we are wary of formulations of faith.

And this is one of our most important features. No creed is binding upon the members of this church. This is not because creeds do not matter, but because sincerity of conviction requires that we all have the full opportunity for intellectual freedom and personal experience. We will not limit ourselves or our children to a museum faith. We claim for ourselves and offer to our children a faith that is alive in the world.

We value the freedom we have as members of the United Church of Christ. We avoid dogmatic proclamations and know that we are people who cherish the freedom to think out and work out what is always a changing faith in a changing world and for a changing world.

Following the lead of Jesus, we have an inclusive sense of community. Congregationalism naturally attracts men and women of genuine conviction, of adventurous faith, and of gracious respect for each other’s sincerity.

We’re not all alike. But we are similar in our openness to and respect for the faith of others. We are similar in our faith that God is still working within us and among us and through us in the world. We are similar in our fierce recognition that this church belongs to us. It is our work, our life, our responsibility. The success of everything we do depends entirely on our members. No one is going to do it for us.

So what does it mean to be part of this community?

We come from the Congregational tradition and in many ways, it all comes down to that—to the congregation. From our beginnings with the Pilgrims of the seventeenth century, we have affirmed that the church is present in all its fullness anywhere there is a locally gathered community of faith.

This congregation is a home.

This congregation is a community.

This congregation is a gathering of flawed and redeemed people. And yes, here I’m using “religious” language, so we’ll have to come back to that phrase.

This congregation is a home.

I find great comfort in the words of the poet, Robert Frost, who wrote that “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” We could mine the treasures in those words for some time, but they suggest at least two things about a congregation.

First, no matter how far you travel, no matter what your life becomes, this is your church and you will always be welcome here.

We have members here who first walked through our doors as university students and are now in their seventies and eighties. They found a home here and just never left. There are people who worshipped here as students who still come back to visit. There are students and others who come in by the side door, slipping into the chapel downstairs to pray or sit in silence. I had a call recently from a young woman who said she walked by this church for four years, never worshipping here, but she always thought of this as her church.

There’s something about this congregation that leaves people with the feeling that this is home.

A lot of people have an “irregular” relationship with this congregation. They can be here for years, active and involved. And then one day we look around and ask, “Hey, where’d they go? What happened to them?

I’ve talked with such people. They confirmed what I thought might be the case. They didn’t “go” anywhere. Nothing “happened.” In their own minds, they haven’t even left. This is still their church.

And they will be back.

Why do I say this? Because there are people in this congregation who are active and involved, who were away for a while. And when they returned, we welcomed them home. What else could we do? What else would we do?

Those words of Robert Frost come as a comfort and they also come as a challenge for us. A congregation, this congregation is called to be a home, a place of welcome for all people. In part that’s because of our own history. Our beginnings, as I said, were as pilgrims, as refugees, as outcasts. Our Congregational tradition calls us and challenges us to be a place where everyone is accepted. When you come here, we have to take you in. We rejoice to do so and we are glad that you are here.

You have a home in this place.

This congregation is a community.

This is not just a resting place or a gathering of disparate individuals. A community happens when diverse people come together for common purposes. A community happens when individual preferences and agendas give way to a larger, more compelling vision. As a congregation we find our unity not in uniformity of belief but in using our different gifts for the common good.

The German pastor and twentieth-century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer led an illegal seminary, training young ministers in pre-World War II Germany. He reminded us that “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all of his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone…So it is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s word and sacrament.”

By the grace of God… We are strong, at times, but it is not on our own strength that we come together. We are good, at times, but it is not by our own goodness that we are at work in the world. We are wise, at times, but it is not by our own wisdom that we apprehend our calling.

It is by the grace of God.

This community endures as a gift beyond our involvement here. We today are becoming the life-giving memories of one another. As we struggle to make this congregation a community, as we receive with gladness the gift of community that this congregation already is, we are building something that endures, something of lasting value.

By the grace of God, this congregation is a community.

This congregation is a gathering of flawed and redeemed people.

The idea and the reality of home and community appeal to us. Who doesn’t want them? They seem so pleasant. We read the idealized picture of the early church in the book of Acts, where we are told: “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…everything they owned was held in common…[and] there was not a needy person among them.” They seem to be living out the words of the psalmist that we spoke this morning: “How good and pleasant it is, when the community lives together in unity!”

We think—we should be like that.

Actually, the reality of the early church was much more complex. Even in Acts we learn that greed, selfishness, lies and the quest for power could be found in those communities of faith.

A congregation is a Christian community and that requires honesty about who we are and how we live together. We are not a country club or a gathering of like-minded individuals. So it helps if we think theologically about who we are.

This means that we cannot escape the reality of sin. I used the word “flawed” earlier because it’s a little easier to take, but in any honest assessment of ourselves we are confronted with our sin. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus suggests that sin will be evident in the community of those who follow him.

Sometimes sin shows itself in pride, in a desire to dominate.

Sometimes sin shows itself in humility, in a desire to “help.”

At its root, our sin is not a specific action but the alienation that we know—our separation from the best in ourselves, from one another, and from God. That separation is a fact of our existence and part of the reality of our life together. We aren’t always the nice, likeable people that we think we are. We aren’t always kind to one another. We disappoint each other and ourselves.

Jesus tells Peter that when sin is encountered in the Christian community it is to be forgiven—not seven times but seventy-seven times. Some texts even say seventy times seven. You do the math and you’ll see that confession and forgiveness are ongoing mandates for any congregation—and for this congregation.

We are not romantics or idealists or perfectionists. We are Christians—and as such we both know and confess our sin. We are grateful for those times when we do the right thing, when we live up to our own high calling in Jesus Christ. But we also recognize that we come up short. We miss the mark. We sin.

The good news is that God forgives and is still at work among us and within us. When we recognize the sin others, we do so with the conviction that the living God is still acting in their lives, transforming the other person more and more—not into what we would like them to be­—but into the man or woman God wants them to be, into the image of Christ for us. And we, too, are being transformed as well.

As a Christian community we live in the faith and hope that God is redeeming us—that is claiming us as God’s own people and remaking us into new people. We dare to confess our sin because we know that beyond our sin is God’s forgiveness that empowers and informs our life together.

We understand that we are a gathering of flawed—OK—sinful and redeemed people.

Together we find a home.

Together we become a community of sinful and redeemed people.

“Together” is the key. Because of the emphasis within the United Church of Christ on individual freedom and responsibility before God, keeping a group of us together is as difficult as the proverbial herding of cats.

In one sense, that’s my job—cat herder—but in another that is the calling of each of us and all of us in this congregation: to bear one another’s burdens, to share one another’s sorrows, to celebrate one another’s joys, to keep us together in this home, this community.

It all comes down to this—to the local congregation, to this local congregation with all of our weaknesses and all of our strengths, with all of our sorrows and all of our joys.

Isn’t it wonderful to be a part of this?

So again, welcome—or welcome back. Many good things are in the works here for the year ahead. Many other things will happen that we cannot expect or anticipate and we will change with the challenges.

Welcome.

Welcome back.

Welcome home.