Why (still) Christian: Community
“In spite of all its dysfunction, why remain a part
of the sprawling and diverse family of God?
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
July 29, 2018

Isaiah 43: 1-5, 16-20
“Now this is what God says – God who created you, who formed you, O Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God.” “Do not be afraid, I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you in from the west.
This is what God says – God who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters. ‘Forget the former things; don’t dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing! Now is springs up; don’t you see it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the dessert.”

Let us pray: God be near, give us vision this day – let us see clearly the work before us and also see with new appreciation the great gift of this spiritual family – in Jesus’ name we pray – Amen.

God says “I am doing a new thing”
We are in a shifting spiritual landscape. Christian communities, all faith communities for that matter, are imagining how to “do spirituality” in new ways. We are turned off by traditional discussions of “sin,” “dogma” “exclusivism” “morality” – not to mention the blatant bigotry which is so often fused with religious ideologies. We “spiritual-but-not-religious” folk prefer hanging out with God in “nature” or at “yoga.” We turn to service work or political activism to express our faith. We may dabble in religion here or there.
But the million dollar question for church life in the next fifty years if what draws people together in spiritual community in this next chapter? Traditionally religious communities are motivated by so many beautiful things, baptism, death, friendship, music, prayer, forgiveness, retreat. And these beautiful traditions operate right alongside some of the more unhealthy – or at least antiquated – religious motivations like guilt, obligation, oppressive moral codes, “us versus them” mentalities, manipulative views of heaven and hell, just to name a few… So when we move away from these spiritual motivations that no longer serve us what is left? Do we need church in this new era – do we need a gathered community of faith? With all of the dysfunction in Christian history, and most certainly in our current moment, why are we even still Christian?
God says “I am doing a new thing, do you see it?”
Up front I will admit my bias in this discussion. It is literally my job to be committed to an ever evolving vision of spiritual community. I will also confess, when we bring up the church of the future, I have anxiety about the growing pains we will face. Een though there is great hope in new visions of church, I must admit that though this American Christian Church is deeply flawed, I will miss some of the forms of church that will have to pass away to let something new grow in its place. This flawed experiment is the expression of faith that made me fall in love with Jesus, the church and yes – even religion. And yet, it is also so true that we need something new.
God says “I am doing a new thing”
In Hebrew the word for peace is shalom, which means wholeness. What if the pace of our societal moment is like a centrifuge, spinning, spinning, spinning separating particles that are normally bound together . The speed of our lives, rapid technological change, the bombardment of news, particularly news of the injustice battering the marginalized – what if the force of the speed of these things is literally pulling apart things that belong together. Communities that used to be rich are fraying. This incessant pace is affecting our mental, our physical health, our very being.
And what if God is the great reconciler? What if faith community gathers us back together? Folks who are meant to be together, black, white & brown, poor and rich, queer and straight, men and women, folks of all stripes? What if spiritual communities like this one make us indeed more whole?

God says “I am doing a new thing, don’t you see it?”
What if the “new energy” of church life is to draw together these disparate parts in ourselves and in our community, so that we can work to change the world? Imagine, that where there is a United Church of Christ congregation, in those neighborhoods kids are fed, folks have more access to affordable housing, education is excellent and accessible, eco-justice & racial-justice initiatives are lived and breathed through a community of practice. We certainly have our work cut out for us! So perhaps it is easier now, more than ever, to answer the question “Why (still) Christian?” “Why Church?”

God says “I am doing a new thing, do you see it?”
But you might ask, why this tradition, can’t we work for change and a more whole life in any tradition or even in non-religious settings?
Marcus Borg tells a story in his book, “The Heart of Christianity,” “A Christian seeker asked the Dalai Lama whether she should become a Buddhist. His response…was: ‘No become more deeply Christian, live deeply into your tradition.’ (Think) of digging a well: if what you’re looking for is water, better to dig one well sixty feet deep than to dig six wells ten feet deep.” Borg continues, “Christianity is home for me. I was born into it and grew up in it. Its stories, language, music, and ethos have nurtured me, even as I had to unlearn some of what I was taught…(When we think of Christianity in light of other religions) we do not have to feel that our home is superior to other homes in order to love it (deeply).”

God says “I am doing a new thing”
And so now I will attempt to take off my “pastor” hat and dream about what I hope the future of the church looks like. I hope that Charlie has someone in the church nursery who will wipe her nose when she’s sick. I hope that she has spirituals & gospels & hymns that fill her with courage from a young age on. I hope that she learns how to pray – to share her pain and hopes and dreams in a spiritual family. I hope that she has a community to teach her how to actively work for justice & peace on her journey. A spiritual family who teaches her how to forgive and how to stick together through difficulty. I hope for the next generation that there is a space to draw together with folks who are different, who are marginalized, the powerful and the powerless working together so that we can all have “power with each other” not “power over” anyone else. But most of all I pray for an expression of “church” that helps Charlie and her friends experience God, in their own unique way. And at the end of the day, even if Charlie ends up being either a rebel agnostic or rigid dogmatic Christian – I hope that she knows that she is beloved, that she has a safe community to call her home and that she can follow her passions to the ends of the earth.
And may it be for all of us, that we would each have such a community to nourish us and to challenge us. In this new chapter, in the tensions and divisions of our time, may God gather us in from the east and the west. When the rivers of chaos threaten to pull us apart – may we hear God’s gentle voice through sacred community reminding us that we are not alone. “When you pass through the swirling waters of change” God beckons, “I am with you.” “When you walk through the fire of chaos, you will not be burned. Do not fear, beloved, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Amen.