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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

What Is A Church? Who Is The Church?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 25, 2007


What is a church? Sometime around the year 1800, the English poet George Crabbe answered that question this way:

What is a church?—Our honest sexton tells
‘Tis a tall building, with a tower and bells…

That’s a straightforward answer, certainly, but perhaps not very helpful in our context this morning.

We know that a church is so much more than a building for public worship. But if it’s not (really) the building, then what, precisely, is a church? What is the essence of this institution that commands our presence this morning—to which we are being asked, once again, to commit something of our time, talent, and treasure?

We know that a church is not primarily a building. We know that. That much is clear. We also know that a church—this church, any living church—is not primarily a what, but a who. The question that faces us this morning is not so much: “What is the church?” as it is, “Who is the church?”

To which, this year’s Canvass Committee shouts forth—sings forth, even—the exuberant answer: “We Are The Church!”

A church is a living organism—a living being: a collection of living beings, actually, joined together in service of something greater than any of us individually. A couple of weeks ago, my dear colleague in the Stoughton clergy, Jean Lenk of the Congregational Church, spoke with you about St. Paul’s idea of the Body of Christ, “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member, but of many,” Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians. And he goes on to explain how, even though each part of the body is different, each has its own role to play, and each is also related to all others.

That’s a wonderful, organic image for the church, it seems to me. It states so clearly just who we are when we gather together as a church, and, even more important, how we are related to one another.

“We are the church.” Each of us, its individual members and friends; its individual men, women, and children. We each have our own role—or roles—to play in its proper functioning. If we do not fulfill these roles, then something is lacking—something is out of balance—and the church, then, becomes ill. If too many of its organs—its systems—shut down, then the church will die.

If there is going to be a church school, then someone has to teach.

If there is going to be special music on Sundays, then someone has to sing in the choir.

If there is going to be a fellowship hour after the service, then someone has to make the coffee and bring the cookies.

If there is going to be a church fair, then someone has to step forward to chair it; there have to be people to make all those nice items for people to buy; there have to be people to staff the tables, and so on…

And so on, and on, and on… through every aspect of our church’s life together… Many members; many different functions and tasks and responsibilities-- but one church. And we are the church—all of us—through our gathering here together; through the things we do in support of our church and its work.

But within the church, none of us exists separate one another. We are joined in one body—one church—together. So, we are dependent upon one another, and interdependent with one another. We comfort and assist one another in our labors. We celebrate together in joy, and grieve together in sorrow. When one suffers, we all suffer. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. One person cannot a church make. We need one another, and we have come together, here, in this church, because we sense, so deeply, that profound need.

They are peculiar institutions, these churches of ours-- these churches we build and nurture; get mad at, fall away from, come back to; hold on to for dear life; work so hard to support; yearn so deeply to pass on to those who will come after us.

“Churches are particularly fragile institutions of dollars and dreams,” William Schulz, the former president of our denomination, once said. That’s one of my favorite definitions of what a church is. I think it sums up so eloquently the basic chemistry of this, or any, community of faith: dollars and dreams; practical and ethereal; oftentimes the highest ideals and oftentimes the most mundane reality-- meeting and merging, right here, right now, in this church we call our spiritual home.

All of us are members of that one body which is our church. We are its organs, as it were. And our energy—and our spirit—and our time—and yes, our money—are its lifeblood. They are what bring this church to life. As they flow—full and free and generously—so the life force which is our church will continue to bless us, and bless our communities, as it has now for 263 years. That’s at least sixteen generations now, right here, on this church green, in the middle of beautiful Stoughton Square.

Sixteen generations before this one have come together, on Sundays like this one, and have decided, over and over again, that the survival of this dear church was worth the cost. That’s a great legacy, and a great responsibility, that has been placed in our hands.

Another of my favorites quotes around canvass time is from Paul Carnes, who was president of our denomination between 1977 and 1979. I like it because it sets out honestly and directly, even a little starkly perhaps, the choice that we face:

“It is my fervent belief,” Rev. Carnes wrote, “that our society needs a church which can blend the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, faith and works, freedom and responsibility. We can be that church, but it is not preordained. The decision as to whether we become a museum piece of the 19th Century is ours and no one else’s. I pray that we do not fail...”

The 19th Century is over, and so now is the 20th, and we are (already, somehow) seven years into the 21st. We are a church proud of its past, and reverent and respectful of its past. We owe a real debt of gratitude to those who have come before us, for keeping things going when lesser souls might have just thrown in the towel. This church is second to none in the honest reverence it pays to those who have come before.

But, ultimately, being a church isn’t about the past. It’s about what we do right now, today, and how our actions will affect what comes after us. Being church is about the decisions we make right now—and how well we meet our commitment to this church, right now.

Seasons change. Churches change. But what doesn’t change is our need to support our church as generously as we do any other of the important aspects of our lives. What doesn’t change is the necessity for us to commit ourselves to our church to the full extent of our ability and our means.

We’ve all used that expression, from time to time: “I’m going to church,” or something like that. But I think there’s something of a problem when we put it that way.

It has been said that the church is not something we go to. It is, rather, who we are. When we support our church, we dare to put some meat on the bones of our deepest ideals. We dare to stand for something real in this hard world. Ideals which rescue spirituality from dogma; which affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people, not just those whom fortune or society has favored; ideals which dare to embrace an ethic as big as the whole world and which seeks to reconnect us with the earth and with one another. These are the ideals we live out when we support our church; ideals like these-- and so much more-- honesty, compassion, freedom, responsibility, justice, equity, idealism, interdependence—and yes, generosity—a generosity of spirit, which we all seek to reflect in the lives we lead.

As the Quaker founder George Fox once said, “The riches we have are not our reward for being good, but our opportunity for doing good.” Or, as Confucius said: “It is generosity which creates the soul.” Our generosity grows and nourishes our souls. It is generosity which grows a church. Our generosity toward our church is the foundation upon which our church’s future growth must be based; it is the spark which kindles the burning fires of our faith.

We are the church, all of us. And when we show our caring and love for our church, we demonstrate our caring and our love for one another, and for our earth, and for all of those with whom we share this world.


 


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