what makes a church.

7 Jun

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
June 5, 2011

Reading before the sermon: Excerpted from “Inclusive Evangelism” by Robert Karnan in Salted with Fire. Not included here but I highly recommend reading it!

It was a rather embarrassing moment. I was talking to a parent of one of my kids friends, and she asked the innocent question “What makes your church a, you know, church?” Maybe it was just a bad day, or maybe I was caught off guard. I hemmed, and hawed, rambled on about faith and hope and searching for truth and meaning, and though she seemed to understand, I was completely dissatisfied with my answer.

It took me a while to realize why I was so dissatisfied. It was because I didn’t have a quick, easy to understand answer. It seems much more straightforward if one is talking about a Protestant or Catholic church. But a Unitarian Universalist church is a horse of a different color. And like the horse of a different color in the movie “The Wizard of Oz” – the answer changes depending on how we look at the question. Indeed, this is why so many UU congregations choose instead to call themselves a “congregation” or a “fellowship” or a “society”. But here at First Unitarian Church, which has been here in Louisville since 1830, we are proud of our name and so it seems it would be good to have a way to address this question!

In the reading from a few moments ago, Robert Karnan had one perspective. I will come back to that in pieces in the next few minutes. I am also inspired by this quote from the Rev. Glenn Turner:

“I believe that the mission of the Unitarian Universalist Church is to address the social isolation and rootlessness that is characteristic of modern life, to minister to the hurts and hopes of those in our community, and to radically define our community beyond our membership borders, seeking to bring other people who need our support into our churches and into our lives.”

I wish I had had this quote in my pocket when that parent had asked about what makes us a church – Turner’s answer seems to encapsulate it beautifully. Let’s take the pieces apart and look at them separately.

The first piece of the mission of the UU church, Turner says, is to “address the social isolation and rootlessness that is characteristic of modern life.” The radically independent nature of the culture of the United States is marked by an increasing social isolation.i In 2006, the American Sociological Review published a report that found that “a quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two.”

Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who helped conduct the study, said “There really is less of a safety net of close friends and confidants.” She suggests that “increased professional responsibilities, including working two or more jobs to make ends meet, and long commutes leave many people too exhausted to seek social — as well as family – connections.”

Being social isolated is not good for the human animal. We need these close ties, particularly in bad times, but in good times as well. In our reading, Karnan points out that our churches are places where we can form deep and good friendships, and that the trust and serenity that come with them are transformative. Healing. “Deep friendship makes a healthy life possible, even likely. It makes for peace and for strength in facing the hardest issues.” Our churches “address the social isolation and rootlessness that is characteristic of modern life.”

According to Turner, they also “minister to the hurts and hopes of those in our community.” Internal to this community, we do this through sharing our joys and our sorrows with one another. We share our milestones with each other. Through ritual ceremonies, we honor sacred transitions in each others lives – birth, death, coming of age, graduation, marriage, divorce, retirement – and more.

In our reading, Karnan wrote that our churches “invite us to share our woes, our tears, our laughter, and our joy. They ask us to share our lost moments and our insanity as well as our found ones and our sanity, for each of us has all of these at some time or another.” Boy, do we. And it is so comforting to know that we have a community with whom we can share these moments. Similarly, together we ponder the deep questions of existence, we search together for truth and meaning, and we celebrate life in moments such as these.

But our community is not limited to those who are in this church. Karnan also said that our congregations “invite us..to listen to the cries of injustice and of pain and to do something curative about them.” Our churches invite us to pay attention to the world we live in – not to further isolate ourselves from it, but to engage in what Marge Piercy called the work of the world. And to know that as we engage in this work, we are not alone.

Unitarian Universalist Minister and historian Mark Morrison-Reed tells us that “It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.”ii In this way, with widened view and renewed strength, we are able, as a church, to minister to the hurts and hopes of those in our community.”

Finally, Turner says that part of the mission of the Untiarian Universalist church is to “radically define our community beyond our membership borders, seeking to bring other people who need our support into our churches and into our lives.”

We know there are people out there who need our support, who need what our church offers. We know there are, because many of us were once them, and in our stories we so often share the feeling of “coming home” when we find Unitarian Universalism. People need us! So who are we to hide our light under a bushel? No, we must let it shine, for that is part of being a church.

In her new book 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong writes “each [faith] has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule…’Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.’” She continues, “Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody – even your enemies.”iii

The church is an institutional manifestation of a religion. As such, a Unitarian Universalist church in particular is an institutional manifestation of our covenant. We do not share a creed, or a set of beliefs. We have different politics, different ways of parenting, different opinions on pretty much every issue imaginable. But we have a covenant – a way of living together.

In general, the church as an institution is charged with having concern for everybody and extended benevolence out into the world. In particular to First Unitarian Church, however, we are called to help one another – those of us in the church, but I would say that this covenant extends to those beyond these walls, as well – to help the world, even in small measures.

Karnan would agree. “Our task as a religious society is not to idolize and love God [however you may define God], it is to love one another in just relationship.” We do this when we “radically define our community beyond our membership borders, seeking to bring other people who need our support into our churches and into our lives.”

So what makes us a church? I would answer the question differently today than I did when that parent asked me. I might go back to the old children’s rhyme. It is not the building, beautiful though it may be. It is not the steeple, as uniquely contemporary as our story is historical. It is us, the people, that make us a church: by living together, intentionally, in covenant with one another to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another, and as we do so, we are guided by a love so big it must not be contained. May it be so. May we make it so.

i  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/22/AR2006062201763.html

ii Mark Morrison-Reed, “The Task of Religious Community” (Unitarian Universalist, minister, historian)

iii In the preface.

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