What Makes a Church a Church?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 26, 2022

Galatians 5:1, 13–25

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.…

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen

Last Saturday, we had the Annual Meeting of our Conference – I mentioned it last week.  The worship was so not like what we have here.  It was more like what we did when we weren’t meeting together – one person or group after another, each videoed in their living rooms.  There was music – I particularly remember the organ and steel pan duet, the rock band….and other great music, though not what we hear in this place.  While there were songs, we were not able to sing together.  

You could almost think that the differences between that worship and this worship weren’t the same thing.  We struggled with that ourselves when COVID required us to let go of in-person worship.  We wondered, we worried, what could we be doing, was this anything like real worship. 

But we were, in fact, worshipping, different music, different settings.  We were united, not by our appearance, not by our economic status, our gender or orientation, not even our age or singing ability – we were united by what makes us a church.

To be church, you need four things:

  1. You need people.
  2. You need people who love Jesus.
  3. You need people who love one another.
  4. You need people who will reach out into their community.

Now there’s more to say about churches, but this is the core, the essential.  You can’t have church of any type without these things:  you can’t be a Catholic without people; you can’t be a Baptist if you don’t love one another, you can’t be Presbyterian without service, you can’t be a Congregationalist, or a Methodist, or anything at all, without people, Jesus, love and service.

Of course, there are different kinds of churches; some, like ours, are governed by the people, some by the pastor, some by the local bishop, or even some faraway headquarters.  Some insist the pastor wear special clothing – pulpit robes, and all kinds of fancy duds.  Some would rather the pastor wear ordinary street clothes.  Some begin by gathering in a circle, some dance, some have processions. 

And we differ in the details of what we believe.  But when you get right down to it, we all agree on the basic – people, Jesus, love, service.

Now, think about this – turn it around.  If you are a group of people who don’t like each other, can you be church?  If you don’t care about Jesus?  If you don’t serve your community?

This is the time of the year when I often attend mandolin camp; I’m not a very good classical mandolinist, but I really enjoy getting together with this group of about 40 people who all love to play the mandolin.  The first year I went, I remember our teachers were talking about how they began to learn to play our instrument.  Over and over we heard a variation on “I tried another instrument, but here I felt welcome”.  We had love, we had people…. and in many ways, we sounded like a church.  But we had no Jesus, we had no service…

I think of this whenever I hear people say “I worship God when I sail, or hike, or play golf… “ and think to myself (because arguing the proposition seems unwelcome) but you don’t have people, you don’t have Jesus, you don’t have service… and you don’t really have church.

Church is when we get together, not just to love one another, not just to be friendly, but to welcome the stranger, to serve the needy.

Our lessons for today make this clear.  They don’t talk about the right way to organize a church, or the right songs to sing, the right robes to wear.  They talk about how we make our commitments real in the eyes of all.  And that’s what makes a church a church.

In Galatians, Paul tells us that we are free people.  He says, Jesus has freed us from the dead hand of habits and expectations.  He tells us that we need no longer be the thoughtless victims of meanness, cheesiness, nastiness, greed, self-indulgence and so on.  He tells us that we are now the commissioned, empowered practitioners of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

Paul says we are not only all these things; he says we KNOW that we are free, we know we can put shoddiness aside, we know we are made and freed to be good.  And he expects that if we can do it, we will do it.

But, God bless him, Paul sometimes was more than a little optimistic.  Our Gospel lesson adds to Paul’s story by telling us about a couple of disciples and how they got it wrong, and about several would-be followers, who didn’t quite get the urgency of the whole endeavor.

You see, the time to be church is not tomorrow, it is not when it’ll be more convenient. The Samaritans were all in on following Jesus, until they knew what he actually intended.  It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as he didn’t try to upset what was really important, so long as he didn’t challenge what they’d always known was true.  

It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as it didn’t mean giving up any of the little luxuries that made life worthwhile. 

It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as we were given enough time to take care of other important things.

The time to be church, the time to follow Jesus, is right here, right now.  And it’s often a time that doesn’t see right in our eyes.  I might not feel ready to follow Jesus.  I might think it’s more important to have some time for myself; I might think my laundry needs to be done.  I might even not agree with what it seems Jesus is asking me to do.  It doesn’t matter, not one bit.  

What matters is that we are church.  

What matters is that we are people, people who follow Jesus, people who love one another, people who serve our world.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Words and Deeds Lead the Way

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 19, 2022

Galatians 3:23-29    Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Yesterday, the Southern New England Conference, the name for all the UCC churches in CT, MA and RI, held its third Annual Meeting.  At the beginning, there was a long – more than five minute – statement of apology, acknowledgment for stealing southern New England from the indigenous people who were living here.  Land acknowledgement is a great idea, but what does it mean if it doesn’t lead to some sort of action?

Words… words about gun control, words about land acknowledgement, words…. And now these words, from Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow.  McMorrow is a practicing Christian, a Roman Catholic, and she wrote in a recent Commonweal Magazine article:  

Calling yourself a Christian, or putting it in your Twitter bio, is not the same as being one.  It’s performative, and it’s nonsense.  It’s not showing faith through works.  

Last week I pointed out that everything we do here is founded on our belief in Jesus Christ, however you define that belief.  It’s quintessentially in our DNA – we don’t want to confine anyone to a particular way of describing Jesus, but we do want you to follow Jesus.

Mallory McMorrow reminds us that following Jesus is not about saying “we follow Jesus”.  It’s about following Jesus.  It’s not about getting into fun discussions about whether or not Jesus is fully human and. . . and fully divine.  It’s not about saying racism is bad.   It’s not even about white people learning about Juneteenth.  It’s about doing, not saying we do.  It’s about living out our faith.

Today’s scripture reading is one with which we’re pretty familiar, because it contains …. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  But there’s more to this selection that that wonderful declaration.

You see, that declaration is part of a longer discussion about what makes us Christian.  Back in the day of Galatians, the way you became an adherent of a religion,  was that you were born to it.  You were a Roman, you followed Roman gods – tho a wealthy important Roman might also follow the Greek gods because they were classy.  But Phoenicians followed Phoenician gods, Egyptians followed Egyptian gods, and Jews followed the Creator God we follow today.  By and large, you didn’t change gods, unless you were trying to cozen up to the powers-that-be…. Thus the Herods pretend they are kinda sorta Roman, so as to be more acceptable to the occupying powers.

The question of the day for Paul was – did you have to become a Jew in order to be a true follower of Jesus?  If you were a Greek or a Roman or from one of those countries on the south side of the Mediterranean – did you have to give up who you’d been in order to become a follower of Jesus?  This was not just a religious question.  If Romans didn’t honor the Roman gods, their loyalty to the Roman authorities became suspect.  Being a Christian in those days was something of a liability.

There in Galatia, there was an argument going on, one which basically said, if you’re not born one of us, you’re really ever not going to be one of us.  We still think this way — we all know communities where if you’re not born there, or if you didn’t graduate from the high school, you will never ever really be accepted.  Or one of those places where if you aren’t from the right class, or not related to the ruling family… well, then, the words will say “you’re welcome”, but actions will say, “not so much. . .”

Our lesson helps us understand that everyone is welcome, that everyone is a member of the family, that everyone counts, that what supports one, supports all, what hurts one, hurts all.  And there’s more.

Because what we say is not just about words, it’s also about deeds.  And the Bible is really clear as to what those deeds will look like.  How we are to behave is throughout the Scriptures:  in Exodus 22, for instance, we read that aliens, people who are not of our country, must be treated as we treat ourselves.  In fact, all the laws and rules we find in Exodus and Leviticus, as boring and petty-fogging as they can seem, are an attempt to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.

Paul says it very clearly in Philippians 4: 7 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  In the Letter of James, it’s written:  be ders of the word, and not merely hearers…. And a little later in that same first chapter, it’s written:  14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Words are good.  We need to know who we are, whose we are.  

Deeds matter because they give tangible form to our words, they make our words live.   

Words and deeds together, are a gift from God, a gift to God.  

We welcome the stranger; we feed the hungry. We clothe the naked.  But we don’t just do exactly and only what those words say.  Feeding and clothing are only examples. We use our powers of observation and compassion to see what needs to happen where we are.  We use our intelligence to listen to our world, to let go of what’s no longer needed, to pick up what’s important now.  

We are Christians and we care about our world.  We are Christians and we work to make this world better.

That is our name, that is our calling, that is our work.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Cost and Joy of Discipleship

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 12, 2022

Acts 16:11-22

We (Paul and his companions) set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. 

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Paul and his companions made the big journey over the sea to Philippi, to a city, a Roman colony, a crossroads between Europe and Asia – and a place where no one yet had heard their good news, where they had no friends that they knew of, where they had no connections.

One of the first things they did was hunt up other Jewish believers.  While they knew they would reach out to non-Jews, they wanted to begin where they might find friends, or friends of friends, where they might find connections.

And find them they did.  When they sat down with the women and began to tell their story, they met Lydia, a merchant in the city.  There they forged new connections and a new church.  

Those connections were not limited to those with money and power.  Others heard their gospel news and began to follow them.  One of those was one of the least in the city, a slave, a slave girl, a slave girl with not even a name.  But God’s story doesn’t come only to those with money; it comes to all of us.  The slave girl heard the story and began to tell all the world what she’d heard.  It was Jesus who brought together Lydia, Paul and the slave girl. 

What binds us together?

Is it our mutual love of UNO? Or pizza?

Is it that we went to the same school, maybe at the same time?

Have we known each other since forever?  Do we go to the same church? Were we on a committee together sometimes, some place?

Are we Facebook friends?

Were we/are we members of the same Scout troop? Or Rowing club?

Do we run together?  Work together?

Have we been poll watchers together for years?

Or do we love jazz, or organ music, or .. well, you fill in the blank…..

What ties us together?  What ties the “us” that is here today?  Not the “us” that’s family, or the “us” that loves some sport activity, or any other “us” you can think of.

What ties together the “us” that is here today?  What connects us to one another.

The foundation of all we do, the thing which draws us and hold us, loves us and pushes us is Jesus Christ.

Now we might say no, we’re here for the music, or the people or the church’s passion for justice, and all that’s real and true.  But it doesn’t exist on its own.  It exists because, first, we decided to follow Jesus.  All those things are good, and valuable, and important.  But they are not the foundation out of which all our connections grow.

We have many connection with one another and each of them, in some way, is founded on this man who lived two thousand years ago.  Now as it happens, there are many ways to describe that man.  Some of us believe Jesus was both God and man, some of us think he was a good person. 

But all of us believe that there is something about what he said, how he lived, that gives meaning and purpose to our world today.  All of us know that there’s something gravely wrong with our world.  We know that there are forces and powers trying to drive us back into the dark ages of hatred and contempt. And we know, however we describe Jesus, that he has a way forward, a way which unites us.

It’s on that connection that we build all the other connections which hold us together.  We are old and young and in-between; wealthy and struggling; educated and haven’t read a book in decades.  Some of us run, some hike, and some of us sit on the couch and watch others.  We are not all the same by any stretch of the imagination, and the connection which cements all the other connections here is that connection to Jesus.  That connection builds connections of passion and interest – our commitments to being Open and Affirming, our concern and involvement in issues of racial justice and equity, our dedication to feeding the hungry.

Some of us are Lydia, some of us are nameless slave girls…  some of us could recite the theological intricacies of the Apostle’s Creed, while some of us aren’t sure they want to say – out loud – that they follow Jesus. 

As a church, however, Jesus is the rock on which we stand and it is in Jesus’ name that we make our connections.  

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child