What a confluence of holy days we're in this week. It is the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, and Muslims are celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, the three day celebration of the end of the month of Ramadan. Our nation has a civic day of mourning, remembering the violence and devastation of 9/11, nine years ago whose effects, of course, have been long-reaching, morally confusing, militarily devastating, and have raised some of the most difficult questions about religion's role in the world.
I certainly hope by now that we can fairly conclude that all religious families have their crazy, violent members. Terrorists pray to all different gods, it is not in any way unique to Islam. I just saw a show on the History Channel about the Crusades just another reminder that any religion or moral philosophy can be used and warped to condone savagery. That's human nature, not divine nature.
No religious tradition has cause to be proud of its entire histories, its entire communities. But we forge on living into the ideals that these spiritual philosophies provide us and the beauty and illumination that are uniquely theirs. I will be giving a sermon series on the gifts of the major religious traditions of the world this year so we can look at some of the beauty of world religions. It's not that the church, or mosque or synagogue or sangha or ashram is the only place for humans to do good and create community it's that these places have ancient and deep wisdom and practices to teach us, to bless our lives, to help us read the world, endure its hardships, make meaning of it -- they've lasted for a reason. We're part of that history. So when I talk today about the "big-C church" I want you to know that I am thinking about all of those houses of worship, all of those spiritual communities. Imagine, just for fun, seeing this headline for today's newspaper: "Today, millions of Americans will celebrate homecoming or ingathering Sundays in their houses of worship. Associated Press."
September 12, 2010 will mark the continuation of a tradition began hundreds of years ago, as congregations full of ordinary Americans will return from summer hiatus, pastors return from vacation, church staff return to the office and children and teachers start back to Sunday School.
Although the vast majority of these congregations have less than eighty active members and average forty to fifty people at worship, those who attend report an increased sense of hope, usefulness, and gratitude in their lives. Researchers note that while no church has ever technically fulfilled all of the ideals which it has professed and that often, in fact, congregations are rife with conflict, concerns and budgetary constraints, men, women and children of all ages continue to choose to attend church, insisting that its possibilities are exciting, its challenges interesting, its expectations demanding enough to make the effort to meet them worthwhile, and the potluck suppers exemplary. For the ninth decade, singers in church choirs rate "the opportunity to stand real close to other people and sing" among the top reasons they return week after week to rehearse and to sing for worship.
Church is a thing we do. Church is a thing we are.
We often say that the church is the people and not the building, but I can't help but be excited when I see the workers climbing up our steeple to paint and repair it. That steeple is such a great symbol of the high hopes and aspirations we are when we are the Church.
It's that heavenward pointing beacon, pure and clean white. But when you see it, when you see it while you drive by or drive to the church, I'd like to encourage you to see it not only as OUR spire, but as a symbol of our shared aspirations with all the houses of worship all over the world. And I'd like you, in your own way and manner, to send up a prayer when you do see it, for all of the ministries and missions and programs for the religious communities all over the world that are doing their best to live into a higher calling just as we are trying to do here.
But what about the churches like that one in Gainesville, Florida, you might ask, where that pastor did so much harm threatening to burn the Koran? Do I have to send out good thoughts to them? Well, the Koran suggests this, " They should rather pardon and overlook. Would you not love Allah to forgive you? Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful." (Qur'an, 24:22)
I think the point is not to regard every religious group with respect because some of them don't deserve it but to accept that we all have crazy, dysfunctional members of our religious families. That heavenward-pointing beacon doesn't require us to take the inventory of other churches and judge them as being worthy or not of our goodwill, but to remember and appreciate that we are a tiny cell in a larger organism, part of an interconnected web of Church, for better or for worse. I encourage you to pay attention to the better, to notice it in the news, to listen for it from your friends and neighbors, to celebrate it when you hear it, to rejoice in the good works of the Church. We often get so caught up in critical analysis of each other's theologies that we forget we are all people of God however you choose to define that. We are all seekers after a deeper truth, and we risk seeking that truth in community. We all share the sacred moments of life's passage and mark them in our own way with sacred ritual. We are all engaged in ministry. We all claim a similar golden rule, some version of the Do Unto Others. Here are some of the things going on in small churches across the country, none of them bigger than ours and many much smaller:
The Harvard UU Church in Harvard, MA, started a Gleaning Project this summer. "We work with local farmers and the farmers market to glean their unharvested/unsold produce and we take it to two local food pantries. We've been having a blast saving food from going to waste and helping reduce food insecurity in our community." (Rev. Wendy Bell)
A group of churches in Winchester, Virginia are working together to provide a thermal warming center during the winter - they are open to people who are not admitted to the regular homeless shelters in the area.
First Parish in Groton, MA helped found, hosts and hugely supports Groton Community Dinners, a monthly free dinner. The dinner is free for everyone, features homemade, high quality food, as local and seasonal as possible (local farmers and vendors make donations) and there is live music provided by local musicians and bands. "We serve 120-140 guests at each dinner, plus 30-40 volunteers who cook, set up, serve, clean up, etc. We hope to increase to 2 dinners per month this year but need to strengthen the infrastructure some first. (Rev. Elea Kemler).
All Souls Church in Braintree, MA hosts a GLBT senior brunch once a month.
Members of the UU Congregation of Woodstock, IL are visiting immigration detainees from around the world being held by Federal authorities at McHenry County Jail and the church building continues to host the homeless every Wed. Oct-April as a PADS shelter site and has been doing so for more than 20 years.
"We, at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Dorchester, Ontario, Canada plant a garden. We call it The Lord's Garden and we utilize the produce to feed the hungry in our community. We plant potatoes and carrots and give them away. It brings our parishioners outside, to be part of the church in the world, and it connects us to others we may never otherwise meet."
The churches in Atwater, Cosmos, and Grove City, Minnesota are partnering with the schools to fill backpacks with food to feed hungry families over the weekend.
St. Andrew's Episcopal in Elyria, Ohio, located in the Rust Belt: "We are providing eight community meals per month, feeding close to 100 people each time. Our food pantry opens 2 times a week to all in our city. We arranged rides for a boy with a single full time working mom to get into Cleveland three times a week for therapy for his spina bifida. We are now arranging rides for a disabled woman to go see her husband in the nursing home (instead of paying Visiting Nurses money for each ride/visit.)
Palomar UU Fellowship of Vista, CA hosts UURISE in its very limited office space. UURISE provides legal support to immigrants.
Heartsong Church in Memphis, Tennessee welcomed the Memphis Islamic Center to town with a big sign a year and a half ago, and wound up offering some of its building space to the Muslim group. The two communities have forged strong bonds through shared programming and social events.
I love these stories, I love feeling connected to all of these efforts as I hope you do, too. They help us appreciate our own ministries and to imagine new ones.
What I find both sobering and exciting is that none of these works of the church have anything to do with preserving the institution. You may have noticed that. None of them are about getting more for the church, but envisioning the church as a place for giving away, for giving out its heart, soul and strength.
I remember so well the words of Methodist Bishop William Willimon a few years back, when he shared with an ecumenical clergy group at a conference the sad fact that he would be closing down between seventy and eighty churches in his district in the coming year. He said, with great acceptance and wry humor, "I just know that God is not invested in real estate." We all went, "Ooooooh." It was a sad thing to hear, humbling, and also somehow exciting. We know what WE want. What does the Spirit want, and ask, for the Church?
That heaven-pointing beacon outside - this flaming chalice inside representing the fire of passion, the warmth of the spirit I hope we will treasure them, and our church, with a broad and outreaching energy, a creative openness to our own place within the Big "C" Church, an entity that is not any specific building or one specific people, but is the very spirit of the living God - the creative and creating Energy of the Universe -moving in our time, connecting us to the church's high aspirations of all time. I hope we will feel its call and respond to it with courage and excitement and generosity.
In the spirit of the Jewish new year, may we say:
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe
shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higi'anu laz'man hazeh. (Amein)
who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.