Sermon for November 17, 2019

I googled the word membership and this is what came up in the search results:

Maine Historical Society, Portland Stage, Visit Portland, YMCA of Southern Maine

Often when we join organizations – when we become members, we are provided with tangible benefits.  Admission to a museum. Tickets to performances.  Advertising.  Access to facilities.  Become a member and get….

And typically, all that is needed to become a member is willingness to pay a fee.  Payment of the fee determines whether you are a member in “good standing” or not.  And I would dare say, that when we choose to become a member of most things – we are doing so because we like what we get in return for that affiliation.

So here’s the hard thing – that is not the point of church membership.  At First Parish, we could say, become a member and get a plate, a directory a nametag, and a flower – but that I dare say that no one that joined today or in the past ever made the decision to join because they were going to get a free commemorative plate.  You might say, well no, that’s not why I joined First Parish.  I joined First Parish so I could have a faith community to rely on – one to share with in the good times and one to support me in the hard times.  That’s a nice sentiment – but also not a reason to become a church member because - here’s little known secret – you can get all of those benefits of this community without ever joining.  You could say I like what’s happening here at First Parish and I wanted to officially attach my name in support so I became a member – also not the point of church membership.

I was recently intrigued by a USA Today news story entitled, “That’s not bringing about change’ Obama advises ‘woke’ young people not to be so judgmental.”1  Here’s a brief excerpt:

Obama called out young progressives for being too ideologically rigid and judgmental during an interview…[Obama said],"This idea of purity and you're never compromised and you're always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly, …The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you."

The article went on to discuss how Obama’s comments related to cancel culture.  At that point I felt old and had to google, Cancel Culture to figure out what the heck that meant.  I found an article in the New York Times entitled, “Tales From the Teenage Cancel Culture” which I found helpful.  Here’s an excerpt:

A few weeks ago, Neelam, a high school senior, was sitting in class at her Catholic school in Chicago. After her teacher left the room, a classmate began playing “Bump N’ Grind,” an R. Kelly song.

Neelam, 17, had recently watched the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly” with her mother. She said it had been “emotional to take in as a black woman.”

Neelam asked the boy and his cluster of friends to stop playing the track, but he shrugged off the request. “‘It’s just a song,’” she said he replied. “‘We understand he’s in jail and known for being a pedophile, but I still like his music.’”

That classmate, who is white, had done things in the past that Neelam described as problematic, like casually using racist slurs — not name-calling — among friends. After class, she decided he was “canceled,” at least to her. 

Her decision didn’t stay private; she told a friend that week that she had canceled him. She told her mother too. She said that this meant she would avoid speaking or engaging with him in the future, that she didn’t care to hear what he had to say, because he wouldn’t change his mind and was beyond reason.

A recent CNN article noted this about cancel culture,

The underpinnings of the [cancel culture] worldview is that there are only good people (aka people who agree with me on all things) and bad people (those who don’t agree with me on everything).  There is no gray area.  It’s black or it’s white.3

According to a pamphlet produced by Parish Life and Leadership, Local Church Ministries, a Covenanted Ministry of the United Church of Christ Membership creates a covenant between the church member and God and between that person and other members of the church. People who enter this covenant relationship promise loyalty and trust in one another. Commitment to this covenant empowers people to infuse life in the church with a quality not typically found in human organizations--appreciation and honoring of differences and diversity. Most human organizations survive and prosper because they bring together people who are alike. But the Christian Church, through its sense of covenant, preserves congregational life. It holds members together even when severe struggles over diversity of actions and beliefs occur. The Christian Church makes no distinctions of race, sex, age, tongue, nationality or economic status. It seeks to anticipate, and to be the first sign of, how all people will dwell together in unity in the coming reign of God.

The point of church membership is to remind the world that there is an alternative to cancel culture.  We don’t have to accept the messages that you’re either with us or your against us.  We can bind ourselves together based on something different – based on an identity that we have from the time we are born – we can bind ourselves together simply because we are God’s beloved children.  

The snippet from 1 Corinthians that we read this morning asserts that our differences are God givenThat means as we strive to be the expression of community that God intended for the world – we can’t cancel people.   And even harder than that – we can’t even just avoid those people.  If we believe that we all have unique spiritual gifts to offer, the only way we can come to function in the world in the way that God intended is to figure out how to be in relationship with each other and use our gifts.

When news stories about cancel culture are making the headlines, I know that the world needs the Christian church.  The world needs models that we can live differently.  The world needs the good news that God does not cancel people and we don’t have to either.  I know that if we trust in God – we can find a way forward that honors Paul’s understanding that all of us are necessary.

What you might not know is that the chapter that follows this one in 1 Corinthians is the infamous reading on love that is often recited at weddings.  Love is patient, love is kind.  That’s important.  Love is the way forward.  Radical love is the glue that can bind us together despite what might seem like untenable differences. Our call in the world as the church is to model that love.

Committing to relationships of difference is hard.  The hard part though is that this binding together can make our individual lives harder – not easier.  We have to listen to one another.  We have to wait for one another.  We have to figure out how to love one another even when we have fundamental disagreements.  But that’s it.  That’s the purpose of the church.  That’s the purpose of church membership – to bind us together so that we have to figure out how to live lives of love that include our differences – not lives of love that silence our differences.

Thanks be to God for all who are willing to commit themselves to this work and for good news that God will never cancel us.  Amen.

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