I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Beloved Community

Here is yesterday's sermon. Note the shout out to my anonymous colleague PeaceBang...

Beloved Community
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
March 19, 2006
The Eliot Church, Natick, MA

Johnathan Swift once observed that
We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love
When we look honestly at the condition of our world
And of human relations today
It is hard not to sympathize with Swift’s statement
So much of what passes for religion in modern society
(All religions)
Seems at times to devolve into various exercises in finger pointing
Into a sometimes deadly debate
Over who best knows the unknowable

And while there are many people
Who are truly sincere in their beliefs
Too often we find under the surface piety of our leaders
Conflicting self-interests and willful misunderstanding
In an environment such as this
It can be hard to build a truly community of faith

We can see this is in the work and career
Of St. Patrick, for example
Who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Ireland
And who, after escaping, returned there as a priest
A man of peace and opponent of slavery
Surrounded by tribes and clans
Constantly at war with each other
Now That was a challenging work environment
And while he achieved many things
He never was completely successful

And just like Patrick, all that we achieve
Comes from the dedication and hard work
Of individuals and groups
If this were not the case
If a true community was easy to build
Then there wouldn’t have been any reason
For Jesus to behave the way he did
In the temple

Take these things out of here! [he declared] Stop making my father’s house a marketplace.
Then he chased them,
Making a whip out of rope, turning over tables
Generally creating a nuisance

Why did he do this?
Not because there is anything wrong with commerce
But because the temple, a sacred space
The house of God
Serves a higher goal
There was, in the presence of these merchants
Selling sacrificial items, religious trinkets, souvenirs
A confusion of communities
A conflict between secular norms
And religious requirements

The purpose of religion, after all
Isn’t, really to develop products
But to build an inner life both for the individual
And within congregations
The presence of the merchants challenged that basic function

Much as with the temple in Jesus’ time
We can see this trend/
This confusion of communities in the church today
(And here when I say “the Church” I am speaking of the church universal
Rather than the Eliot Church specifically)
We see the confusion of a consumer culture
Applied to religion
In an area where the mall
Has become a greater gathering place than the common
It is natural to expect that people’s understanding
Of other parts of their lives
Would change, too

The most obvious example would be the Las Vegas Wedding Chapel
Where a “church wedding” of sorts can be had quickly, for cash
And with no real reflection or discernment required
But this attitude can also filter into how people relate to
Actual religious communities
A colleague of mine who serves a church near here
And also near a popular reception hall
Told me recently that only 10% of her wedding services
Are for people with a connection to the congregation
And only 2% of the other couples
Eventually form a connection with her church

Now everyone is entitled to the kind of wedding they want
But when a location is selected based on convenience and architecture
Rather than a sense of belonging
Then the basic relationship with and expectation of religion has changed
From a provider of community and connection
To a provider of services

(I should note that 100% of my wedding here have been for people from our Eliot community…maybe we should move)

The basic function of faith communities is still
To bring people to together in meaningful ways
Aristotle tells us
That all healthy communities have certain things in common
There is an assemblage of people
With different interests and gifts
And there is a shared goal
In his words
The salvation of community is the common business of [us] all.
Without this common business
A group of people make
Not a community but an assemblage of self-interested individuals
Sharing services

In religious communities this common business is worship
Worship in the sanctuary
And worshipful lives in the world
Jesus spent his life, as did his followers like St. Patrick
Trying to build
A community of faith loved by God
A Beloved Community
A love that can be seen in Genesis
Between God and Abraham and Sarah

And it can also be seen in our covenant:
In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus
We unite for the worship of God and the service of All

That is:
On a quest for truth, (the same quest that Jesus took)
We come To worship together in love
And to serve, not just our own Eliot community
But everyone we touch
That is a tall order, but all around us in the sanctuary today
We see people who are willing to try

We are getting ready for annual meeting
On April 30th
So we are well aware
Of the many different gifts our members have
From managing money to educating our children
And lately we have been thinking
A great deal about our outreach programs as well

The programs of this church
Aren’t undertaken because we need to feel busy
Most of us are busy enough as it is
They aren’t even done merely because they are good things to do
No, the purpose of the activities of our congregation
From the deadly serious to the fun and whimsical
Is to deepen our faith
And our relationships with each other
All our activities
Help us fulfill our covenant

For example, Last week we celebrated Outreach Sunday
Where the committee focused
On one of their many projects
Namely the West Virginia Workcamp
In the part of the service where we heard from participants
Each of them told us that the experience had changed them
Had deepened their faith enough that they wanted to return

The same can be said for volunteering for the service council
For working with the Pine Street Inn to fight homelessness/
Even when we invite people to our after service forums
To discuss things like the Community Preservation Act
We are living out our love of truth and of the Divine

All of these activities have something in common:
Human contact, the exchange of ideas of hopes and dreams

Today we are having a forum after church
Focusing on a relatively new endeavor, both for the church
And for the MetroWest region
The Metropolitan Interfaith Congregations Acting for Hope
(or MICAH) Project
A group founded on this concept of beloved community
Specifically, it contends, as many people of faith do
That the basic glue that holds a community together
Is made up of the relationships that we make with each other
And with the God
At MICAH Catholics and protestants, liberals and conservatives, believers and seekers, Christians and Jews sit down together to talk about
What concerns their local communities today

This emphasis on conversation
Is inherently religious or spiritual
John Haynes Holmes in our reading today wrote that
Religion has to do with the ideal ends of life. In the very nature of these ideal ends [he says] religion must direct its attention not to individuals, but to relationships between individuals.
Building a house, serving food,
Meeting to discuss the issues and problems of the world
These things are often harder than sending money
More challenging, even, than voting
(Though we certainly should do these things, too)
Because it requires us to risk ourselves
To take a stand
To make our faith a relevant part of the world
And of our own lives

We are also required to set clear boundaries
Rules for healthy interactions
Healthy relationships
That is another reason the church has a covenant
For the quality of our conversation is important

We are always in relationship, after all
In a rapidly shrinking world
Each of us is even more dependant
Not just on family and friends
But on people we do not know and may never meet
And, strangely, this proximity can make us more isolated than before
It can encourage us to give up control
To those who seem to have all the answers

By being here at Eliot, by sharing/ belonging
We do risk something
But the rewards of right relationship
Are greater than the risk
We have become part of something larger
What Martin Luther King called a Network of Mutuality
Each of us is an essential part of the human drive
Toward that new and ideal society
The commonwealth of Heaven here on earth

Among the legends of St. Patrick
There is one involving a sacred fire
One lit on a hill in the darkness that could not be put out
We, too, here at Eliot
And in every church, temple, synagogue and mosque
Can light that unquenchable fire in the darkness
Not on some lonely hill
But in our hearts and in the hearts of others

So that we may, someday prove Swift wrong
And have too much religion to hate
And just enough to love