A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 2, 2011
Ephesians 4:7, 11b-16 GNT
Have you ever thought about the many reasons that people attend church? What is the primary reason that you attend church? If I passed out little slips of paper and asked each of you to write down the primary reason that you attend church here, we likely would have a variety of answers. The music, bell choir, the chancel choir, a Sunday school class, the potluck dinners, coffee hour, the fellowship, the Women’s Circle, the non-creedal approach to faith, maybe even the sermons—the things that draw people to church are many and varied.
What doesn’t draw you to church here, I am guessing, is doctrine or dogma, especially since we don’t have one! But even if we did boast a certain doctrine or dogma, I doubt that would be the motivating factor in your decision to attend church here. Because polls show that the reason that many people attend churches that do have a clear-cut doctrine or theology is not because of, but often in spite of, that doctrine or theology. In days past, people most often chose a particular congregation or denomination because of the specific doctrine or theology of that church. If one was a Methodist and moved to another community or state, then he most often sought out another Methodist church and the Wesleyan theology. Likewise if he was Presbyterian or Baptist or some other denomination. But those days, by and large, are fading as each year passes. Choosing a church based on denomination is not as prevalent as it once was.
No, if we could reduce the reason that many people attend church to one word, it might very well be “community.” What takes many people to church week after week is the sense of community—in this case the religious or faith community—that they find there. But the question is, What is the nature of true community? How does one know when she finds it?
As I see it, community is a place where we all complement each other. Not just in the sense that we say something nice to someone, like, “My, that’s a pretty blouse you’re wearing today.” That kind of compliment (spelled with an “I”) is important. But we complement (spelled with an “e”) each other in the sense that we are all different, and our different interests, talents and abilities help make for a beautiful whole, like a beautiful mosaic. Not everyone can teach a Sunday school class, or sing in the choir, or play an instrument, or be an usher, or serve on the Church Board. But together we complement each other and bring a sense of completeness to the whole by the various gifts that we have to share. And in this community where we complement each other, no one vies for recognition or praise, because what we do is for mutual edification and to promote the greater good, just as all parts of the human body work together for the good of the whole, or like all parts of a well-running machine work together to get the job done. In community, each one is encouraged to bring what they have to the table—to develop their gifts and pursue their interests in the welcoming environment of the church. A community also can help each one see and develop his or her gifts, some of which may still be unrecognized.
Closely related, in a true faith community there is the desire to serve. We serve one another by the gifts that we bring to share. To cite a few examples, I am served by the bell choir when they play a joyful song, or by the chancel choir when they sing a beautiful anthem. I am served by those of you who help with projects like yesterday’s fall fest and other such events. I am served by those of you who bring a special dish to the Wednesday on the Hill potluck. I am served by the In-Reach Committee when you reach out to us and our extended family, as you have done so well these past two years. And each of you could cite ways that you are served by this faith community.
But as a faith community we also have a common goal of serving the wider community. Through our outreach to NHC nursing home, the Ecumenical Storehouse, our annual high school scholarship recipients, volunteering at Methodist Medical Center, and any number of other local and world benevolences, we demonstrate what a true faith community is supposed to be. A reason for being for any true faith community should be outreach or mission—to try to address human need and help make the world a better place. And being in community strengthens us and gives us courage and inspiration to reach out to the greater community. Sometimes it is easier to reach out as part of a group. Community provides a way to serve in a way that best suits each one’s ability. For example, all of us can serve the people in Nicaragua by financially supporting our members who go there.
One absolutely necessary characteristic for any true community is love. As the writer of Ephesians notes, everything a church or faith community does should have as the end result the building up of the entire community in love. And everything a faith community does should be motivated by love.
One aspect of this is we make a point to always speak the truth in love. This, I am convinced, is one of the most important foundations in any faith community—the ability and commitment to speak the truth in a spirit of love. What a gift it is when members of a faith community can sit down in the spirit of love and discuss differences of opinion, or bring to light some issue that has caused hurt or division. I have always felt that in church relationships, honesty is the best policy. The important thing is the spirit in which such concerns are shared.
Love and being able to speak the truth in love also gives individuals the freedom to search for and discover their own theological truth and not feel they have to hide their ideas or conform to the ideas of others or feel they might be chastised for the ideas they share.
Another characteristic of true community is the prevalence of grace. In fact, it might be said that grace is the glue that holds the faith community together. And what I mean by grace is that spiritual quality that leads members of a faith community to love and accept and forgive one another, in spite of our faults and shortcomings. A classic definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” Community means the willingness to bind ourselves together with the knowledge that each of us is an imperfect traveler through life who is willing to journey with other imperfect travelers for the common good and in search of a better way and a better world. So if we mess up on the love part, which we’re bound to do every now and then because we’re human, grace allows us to forgive and seek forgiveness. A good community is like a healthy family—even when you’re a royal pain in the neck or really mess up, they still love you and support you. It is as Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” So it is with true community—true community is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Regarding community, Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Whether they realize it or not, what most people are looking for is inner peace. Many find this inner sense of peace through feeling that they belong. All of us need to feel like we belong. And there is no better avenue to a sense of belonging than feeling one is a part of a true faith community. A community where others complement the gifts you bring, where common service is shared, where the truth is spoken in love, and where grace binds everything together. Such, I believe, is the nature of community that exists here at this United Church. And for that, we have cause to be grateful and celebrate. Amen.