First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
September 15, 2019
“Being Church”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith

Scripture

Matthew 25:32-40 (NRSV)

32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

 

Colossians 3:12-17 (NRSV)

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

 

So you’re standing in an elevator wearing one of your First Congregational UCC t-shirts… and you all have them, right? Someone else gets on, notices your dashing attire and asks “What’s a UCC?”

Ahh, it’s the dreaded scenario from whence the concept of developing an “elevator speech” arises – that occurrence when you have 15 seconds to tell someone something about you… or your job… or your church. You’re expected to have a convincing elevator pitch about anything important in your life should you need to. How many of you do?

Two things you should know about how I feel about the elevator pitch:

  1. They’re boring, unless you’re really excited about what you are talking about. It’s like handing someone an audio brochure that they open up and can’t turn off. And they’re stuck in the elevator and they can’t get out. And they’re stuck there while someone is regurgitating their well-rehearsed ten-word promotion: “We live into the gospel, not just preach it.” “We save souls for the sake of Christ.” “We’re the Dairy Queen church.” Okay, that last one isn’t really an elevator pitch but it’s usually how many of us talk about our church. Unfortunately, that doesn’t say anything about who we are, just where we are.
  2. The other thing about elevator pitches is, most of us have a pretty good sense of what we do and what we like about church but we don’t know why our church is what it is. We might know that we’re no longer in the building over on 2nd Ave and 9th North. We might know that we share a building with Christ United Methodist Church. We might even get our full name right once in a while. But, we should also know why we are what we in the first place. We should know why we are open and affirming. We should know why we say everyone’s welcome.

A few years ago, Marchaé Grair was hired by the United Church of Christ as a digital content manager. She came from a conservative church so coming to work at the national office of the UCC reflected a bit of a change in her personal faith journey. She was trying to figure out what to say to the average person by saying what she thought church could be and what she though UCC churches could be at their best. [1] What she came up with is what is before us on this banner:

Be the Church:

Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject Racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.

Apparently, her words resonated with many folks because it’s become the center of one of the UCC’s most popular messages.

But I think there’s a piece missing. Anyone want to guess what it is?

(Remember if Lynne asks a question in church and you’re not sure of the answer “God” or “Jesus” is a pretty safe bet.)

The piece that’s missing on the slogan is the “why.” Why do we strive to do all this stuff? Why do we even want to “Be” the church? Isn’t “going” to church enough?

All of these things are great things, good things… for everyone. But almost all of them could be on a banner outside of a grocery store. Except the Love God part. Not sure if that would go over at all grocery stores. But, what is it about these nine things that make them important things for the church to be?

Several years ago I had a conversation with a person who was leaving the church. He wanted to let me know why. Which is cool. Most times, people just quietly leave. He wasn’t sure that religion made a difference. He was convinced that the only reason people did anything good for others is it made them feel good about themselves. I’ll give him that. It does feel good to help others. It feels good to be able to make a difference in someone’s life. And I don’t think that people should stop doing good things for and with others just because it makes them feel good. As long as it’s true goodness and help and not coercive compassion, it’s most likely a win-win.

But what if the motivation had nothing to do with getting something in return? What if, as followers of Jesus, we were kind, loving, compassionate, forgiving, non-judgmental and all that stuff because we recognized that being that was not only being like Jesus, it was recognizing the holy image within every single person. Every. Single Person. What if, as followers of Jesus, we recognized that every time we protected the environment we were honoring God? What if, as worshippers of God, we recognized that God’s realm becomes a bit more clear when we behaved as if we were living in it (‘cause we are!).

Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject Racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.

Jesus and God. Many of these are things that Jesus did. Many of these are things that the people of God did (or were supposed to do) before Jesus came on the scene. These are things that reflect God’s vision for creation. These are not just things that are about being politically correct. They are things that reflect being faithful to the gospel. They are things that a church looks like when it is living into being the body of Christ. They are not always what the church is but they are worth trying to get there.

The cool thing is, we get to be all this stuff, not just because it’s cool (and it is). We get to be all this stuff because they are all God things. We get to do our best to be the expression of the divine wish for creation because it’s not only what Jesus did and taught, it’s what Jesus equipped the church to do. When we do these things by ourselves because we’re inspired to do so from our faith, we’re being Christians. When we do it together, we’re being the church. We get to not just go to church, we get to be the church, the institutional (yes, we are an institution) embodiment of the risen Christ.

The way that Matthew’s gospel tells the story of Jesus, shortly before he was executed, he had a big teaching session with some of his disciples. He warned them not to be like some of the religious leaders of the day. He told them to always be ready through a parable or two. And, he taught them about the realm of God. And that some people will understand it and some won’t. And the ones who understood what the realm of God is all about is the ones who understand that it has something to do with many of the things that are listed on the Be The Church Banner – if not explicitly, implicitly: care for the poor, reject racism, share resources, fight for the powerless. He used examples like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned. And then he puts this amazing twist on it all…. Because Jesus is in the hungry, in the poor, in those imprisoned and forgotten.

Think about the times that someone has treated you as if you were sacred and special. Think about the times you’ve done that for others. Every time you treat someone with dignity and respect, every time you extend compassion and forgiveness, every time you reach out to some one who has been rejected, you are not only reaching out to the Jesus in them, you are also being the body of Christ for them. You are being the church.

How we go about being the church has as much to say about how people will see us as a 15 second, well-polished elevator pitch. But the important thing is, we don’t do and be all this stuff just to be cool. We are all of this stuff as the baptized followers of Jesus of Nazareth. We are all of this stuff because this is the stuff of resurrection. Remember, it wasn’t any wise or spiritual person that was raised from the grave. It was a person who lived this stuff. It was a person that was so intent on living out the realm of God on earth as it is in heaven that people couldn’t help but recognize the divine nature in him. So, when Jesus was raised from the dead, so too, were all of his teachings and his ways of being. By being the church, the body of Christ, we are proof that love does not die, that compassion can not be put to death, that justice lives. We are the walking, living, breathing, love-extending, hope-giving, justice embracing body of Christ – the church.

We will be taking some time this fall to walk more deeply through most of these ways of Being the Church. We will be slowing down to celebrate that we get to be the church and to get a deeper understanding of why we do what we do the way we do it. We not be able to answer, with words, what’s a UCC, but, my hope is, we’ll be better equipped to Be the Church.

Amen.

 

[1] Drawn from Marchaé Grair’s Facebook posts on Be the Church Series Facebook Group, May 26, 2018.