“What Makes Us a Church?”
preached by Peter A. Luckey to the congregation of Kansas City United Church of Christ on Sunday, May 24, 2020
Scripture: John 17:1-11
Here’s something sweet I have come to appreciate about your church, KCUCC. You made the decision two years ago to change your name. Instead of calling yourself Country Club Congregational Church, you now call yourself Kansas City United Church of Christ. Bravo for you!
And I know that back in 1923 the name was chosen not for the atmosphere you wanted to convey but the geographical location of the church—close to Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.
I wasn’t present for the discussion leading up to your congregational vote. But I can imagine how some of the conversations must have gone. Some of you undoubtedly said that the word, “country club” was not the impression you wanted to leave with a prospective member or a first-time attendee.
That word “club” and add to it “country club” connotes, like it or not, an “in house way of doing things” maybe some rules on how can join and who cannot, who’s welcome and who’s not.
Someone might have said, “Who’s to say a first-time attendee might before they walk through the front door, imagine a narthex with golf clubs handing from racks and tennis rackets next to the coffee mugs at coffee hour.
In that conversation you realized that names matter. They confer meaning. They shape our identity, tell others who we are, what we are about.
You took a bold move. You changed your name.
And you picked a name that reflected your true aspirations, of who you are, and where you hope to go. You picked a name to be in alignment with your core identity not a “club” but a church. A congregation of the United Church of Christ. And the core values of the UCC, namely that wherever you are on your journey you are welcome here.
There are moments in the life of a congregation that calls for it to think deeply about its core identity, what the enduring values are. Like that moment two years ago, we are in one of those similar moments now.
As I suggested last week, this is a liminal moment. We are on a threshold, between past “normal” that we may never go back to and a future unknown.
Ever since March 15 when we were unceremoniously thrust outside of our building now gathering as we are online, our virtual community for worship as we are this morning. It’s a moment that calls into question what really does make us a church. Is it our building, or is it something more?
And as much as we may miss the building, the place that holds special memories, and all the other marks of our life together, we are being pressed to realize that what really matters, has always mattered is the people. And, in short what matters is love. The love we have received from God, our love for one another, and our love for our neighbor which is to say the world.
And the point should not be lost on us this morning that it is because of LOVE that we are pointedly NOT gathering physically for worship this morning, regardless of what the President dictates. It is because of our love for one another that we want to keep each other safe, and that is why we are here we are this morning, worshipping from our dining tables, from our living rooms.
So, if love is our core value, what makes us a church, not a club, then what does that mean?
The morning’s sermon is very much an “in house” affair, a conversation among family if you will.
Think of my words this morning very much in keeping with the context of the lesson this morning, which is a prayer Jesus offers God on behalf of his disciples and in so doing offers on behalf of the church. Think of the words this morning, as if a pastoral prayer offered to God on behalf of the good people of Kansas City United Church of Christ.
To give you a little background on our morning lesson, let me say this: For the past several weeks we have immersed ourselves in Jesus’ final words to the disciples while having one last meal with them. Here in the 17th chapter, we find Jesus has pivoted from speaking directly to his friends, to now Jesus has turned his attention and is speaking directly “up to” if you will, to God.
As we shared last week, this was a liminal moment for Jesus’ followers. Their threshold moment, a moment betwixt and between, a moment when one thing has ended, and another begun. Jesus will soon be nailed to a cross. His death was imminent. And Jesus is telling his friends that “his hour has come to be glorified” that is, with his death and resurrection Jesus will now rejoin the Father.
So now, the real question for the disciples, and for us as the church today, is what’s next? Will they/we feel like orphans? Who will guide them/us?
And Love is our anchor, our compass, our guide. But what does that mean?
How do the words of Jesus prayer to the Father inform us, in this regard? What do they teach us about how the dynamic of love is to work in the life of the church?
What I want to share with you this morning is how I see a two-fold process here, what I call the yin and yang of love in the life of our church. Which is to say the church is the place where love is received and then given away.
And you can hear this dynamic in Jesus’ petition to God. “All mine is yours” he prays. What that means is that we belong to Jesus, we are His, and if we belong to Jesus, we belong to God. This is our pedigree. The very love of God that we see revealed in Jesus is now the same love that is passed down to us. “You are my beloveds” We are no club. Our foundation is Christ.
This is the love received. And now the second part is the love we have, we are to give away. “Love one another” Jesus prays, “I send them out into the world” which means this love is not be kept wrapped in a box, for us only, but this love to be extended out into an often hostile world, as it was back then, and is still true today.
We are gathered so we may be scattered.
We are brought home only so we can be sent out.
We are comforted so that we may also be challenged.
We are held only so that we can be released.
Here is how I think of it: We are two places at once. We are a refuge from the world, but we are also a base camp to be sent out into the world.
Refuge and base camp.
When I say church is a refuge, I mean church is home, that place you can be centered and renewed, wherein the moment there is no other place you would rather be right now. That place from which you draw comfort, and you feel a profound peace.
Think of the words from the psalmist: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord…” Psalm 84:1-2 (NRSV)
Maybe you felt that in the sanctuary during worship, a moment suspended in time. A Christmas Eve candlelight service, you held your candle high, you sang Silent Night…and the peace was there.
But it does not have to be in the physical sanctuary.
It could be outdoors in nature by the side of the beautiful lake the crimson sunlight dappling on the waters.
Or you could have experienced the comfort, the refuge of your congregation, during a time of crisis when the chips were down, and a casserole appeared at your door or you were in the hospital and someone came to hold your hand.
Or it could be here online this morning, seeing your friends, feeling that connection, this place a refuge
To hear Jesus’ prayer this morning is to be reminded that it does not matter the physical location, what matters is remembering that the essence of our life together is always of a life rooted in God, through Christ. What makes a church a church and not a country club, is the knowledge of God’s radical love poured out upon us.
This is huge my friends. We can always take rest in this love, this peace, and find comfort wherever we are whatever challenges the world throws at us.
So, this is church as refuge, but there is also church as base camp.
You know what a base camp is. When the hikers go up Mount Everest, they start at a base camp. A base camp is a place where an expedition gathers to collect all their equipment, to assemble their expedition. When hikers go up Mount Everest, they need oxygen for that high altitude and so they equip the people to go off onto their expedition. It’s a base camp. You might think of church as a base camp where we are given spiritual oxygen to go out into the world to do God’s work.
So church is refuge but it’s also base camp. There is a great danger that we think of worship as a refuge only and forget the base camp part of worship. There’s a danger that we think of worship as only a warm blanket and not a call to action. There’s a danger that we think of worship only as a respite and not a prod to get us out into the world. There’s a danger we think of worship only as a warm hug and not a kick in the pants.
These truths can seem at times to be at odds with each other, but they are complementary. And one cannot exist without the other. Never an either/or but always a both/and.
And when I say we are sent into the world today, what does that mean? How are we sent? To do what? Well, now, in this liminal time, it is to bear witness to the gospel. To the way of the cross. And what does that mean?
To answers those questions, you will have to wait till next Sunday, which is Pentecost by the way, when we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit upon the church. These questions will have to wait until next week.
This morning it is enough to be reminded you, God’s beloved here at KCUCC, that you continue to reveal that your core identity is not a country club, nor a church that is solely in love with its building but, you are a church that understands we are here on earth, to receive and give away the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that is a great purpose my friends, and worthy of a name change. Amen