A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 9, 2014
Acts 2:42-47 CEB
One of the things that we do best here at the United Church is provide a loving, nurturing, open and inclusive religious community for all who come here. But is providing religious community enough?
What got me to thinking about this, and what caused me to pose this question, was a magazine article I read a couple of weeks ago. Now, as I have shared in the past, I have subscribed to a wide variety of newspapers and magazines—the Congregationalist, United Church News, Quaker Life, Time, Christian Century, and others. One of the magazines I read religiously is UU World, published by the Unitarian Universalist Association. UU World has some really good articles on spirituality, church dynamics, etc. The article that caught my eye in the current issue was “Religious Community Is Not Enough.” I realize we are not Unitarian Universalist, but the article has some insights for us nonetheless. The author, Tom Schade, notes that one of the primary purposes of Unitarian Universalist congregations has been to provide religious or spiritual community. And, as such, they have done a good job. He notes, “We work at caring for each other, and listen intently as we share our stories. We try to be the village for each other’s children.”1 But Schade had begun the article by saying, “If your congregation defines its purpose as being a religious or spiritual community, it is time to think bigger.” It seems like he is contradicting himself. So he goes on to explain, “in today’s religious climate, many others are not interested in religious communities that exist just for the sake of existing. They think such groups are self-serving and obsolete. If the main work of a church is just to survive, ‘to uphold the tradition,’ or to keep alive a beautiful old landmark building, there’s not enough reason [for new people] to join.”
Schade concludes, “It is time for us to acknowledge and proclaim . . . and to see that building a religious community is but a means to [a] larger end.” What he is talking about is the “’missional trend’ . . . in which people are committing themselves to living out values in real, embodied, particular ways in specific communities. . . “ He is talking about “service to a larger goal: humanizing our culture and transforming the world.” I will return in a moment to break this down. But let’s first look at the passage I read from Acts, as it has something to say on this issue as well.
This passage from Acts relates how that the fledgling Christian church early on began providing religious community for all those who embraced their message. They shared food and had meals together. They were united and shared everything and sought to meet the material needs of their members. But very soon they realized the need to provide more than just religious community for those of their own number. There was a missional emphasis to reach out beyond the house church walls to witness and share their message and meet the needs of those outside their number—the poor, widows, orphans, and others in need. And as they witnessed to and shared their faith, and reached out to those outside their walls, the community grew daily.
Now, how does all of this relate to the United Church of Oak Ridge? What all of this says to me is this: (1) First, as noted earlier, we do an excellent job here at the United Church of providing religious or spiritual community. One of the original purposes of this United Church was to provide a religious community “Where People from All Denominations Meet in Their Differences, but Are One in Their Search for God.” We do an outstanding job of listening to one another and caring for one another. And much of the recognition for the way we care for one another goes to our In Reach Committee. Of all the congregations I have served, there is probably a greater sense of religious community and caring for one another in this congregation than the others I have served. That is meant to be a compliment to you.
Providing a nurturing religious community is important. Such is something that all of us need and crave. It is good to have a place like this, a spiritual community, “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came,” to draw from that television show Cheers that was popular some years back. So we don’t want to underestimate in the least the importance of providing a loving, nurturing, caring, spiritual community for all of us. And you do that well.
(2) A second thing this says to me about Our United Church is for a church our size we also do an excellent job of reaching out beyond our walls to help meet the physical needs of those in our local community and, as much as we can, our wider world. We distribute in the neighborhood of $5,000 each year locally to help people with food, utility bills, and rent. And we support a number of local agencies that help meet the physical needs of people such as ADFAC, Ecumenical Storehouse, Grace Lutheran Food Pantry, Second Harvest Food Pantry, Free Medical Clinic of Oak Ridge, TORCH, Clinch River Home Health, Emory Valley Center, Special Olympics, and three or four $1,000 college scholarships.
Globally we send support to help children of developing countries through UNICEF, and families of Third World countries through Heifer International, CARE, Doctors without Borders, and Church World Service (Blanket Sunday). And of course one of our biggest global missions is supporting our members who go on the Nicaraguan Medical Mission trip each October. Our total mission outreach in 2013 was close to $30,000. Again, for a church our size, we impact our wider world in a significant way.
(3) But thirdly, I wonder if an area where we might stand some improvement is being more intentionally missional in our outlook and being greater witnesses to our faith in our local community. To put it in Tom Schades words, being more intentional about living out our United Church “values in real, embodied, particular ways” in our community. Perhaps we need to think more seriously about seeking to humanize our culture and transform our world.
One of the distinctive things about this United Church is we don’t adhere to any particular creed or confession. But having no creed doesn’t mean we don’t have values and principles that we seek to live by. Some of the most identifiable and important values of this United Church, as I see them, are that we are open, inclusive, tolerant, and compassionate. And as we relate to others in our local community, each of us should be seeking to relate to them in an open, inclusive, tolerant, and compassionate spirit. And we should not be ashamed to let others know that we are members of this United Church, and such are the values and principles of this United Church as well. If we do this, we cannot expect to win the whole world to our way of thinking. However, surely there are many in our community who would be drawn to this religious community, if they knew the values and principles that define us. But the only way for others to know that is by each of us being intentionally missional and letting our values and principles be known. If we were more consciously open in the community about our positive values and principles, perhaps it would be as it was with the early church that members would be added to this religious community monthly.
As I said earlier, providing a loving, nurturing, open, and inclusive religious community is important. And we do that exceptionally well. But sometimes outsiders can interpret such as being self-serving. Those outside our walls want to know that we are concerned about the world—about doing what we can to make the world a better, more humane place. I think most of us here at the United Church want to do that. But perhaps we might do a better job of letting the community know that too.
Those of the early church boldly shared their faith with the communities around them. Now, I am not talking about trying to convert anyone. But I am talking about being more comfortable with making known and sharing those core values—openness, inclusivity, tolerance, compassion, and service—that make us what we are and make this United Church the wonderful religious community that it is. Amen.
1UU World, Winter 2013.