“E Pluribus Unum”
Acts of the Apostles 2.1–21
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
How many of us were raised in non-Christian traditions, including those who were raised in no tradition? How many were raised in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church? How many in evangelical or Pentecostal churches? How many Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, or other mainline churches? How many were raised in the Congregational churches or the Evangelical and Reformed Church before they became the UCC in 1957? And how many were raised in the UCC after the 1957 merger?
I ask that not to claim any kind of superiority for people raised in this tradition, but to show that we come from many different traditions, which reminds me of our nation’s motto, e pluribus unum, from many, one. We have come together in this place as a people seeking spiritual transformation. We may speak different theological languages that somehow, we need to interpret and hear. I don’t object to people referring to a sermon as a homily or the Lord’s Supper as the Eucharist or people saying “trespasses” instead of “debts.” Though we have come from many places, if we apply some effort, we will understand one another.
On Pentecost, the “birthday of the church,” I want to talk a bit about Ekklesia, the Greek word the New Testament uses to refer to the church. It comes from two roots, ek + kaleo, and it means those who are called out. But an ekklesia isn’t just called out; it also must come together. We as individuals have been called out to a faith journey of transformation, and we are called together as the church. Being church together changes us.
With all due respect to Rotary, the League of Women Voters, and United Way, we are different in form and substance. They all do cool things and raise money for worthy causes, but they are not the church. Your alma mater and NPR and PBS and other nonprofit organizations you may support do wonderful work, but they are not the church.
What makes the church different? At the most basic level, it is what you heard in the Pentecost text I just read. Our purpose is “to worship God and make God’s realm visible.” We are called. Not simply for our own enjoyment or sense of satisfaction or good feeling, but we are called to BE the church. Listen to the first covenantal promise each new member joining Plymouth makes: “I give myself unreservedly to God’s service.” By a show of hands, how many of you have joined Plymouth and made that covenant? How are you doing with keeping that covenant? Anyone got it down pat? Neither have I. It’s aspirational, isn’t it? But through our journey of transforming, hopefully we experience growth in offering ourselves to God’s service. Anne Lamott writes, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets where we are but doesn’t leave us where it found us.”
The final covenantal promise we make as members is that we endeavor to make it a fruitful body of Christian people. What does that mean? First a few negative strokes: The New Testament says that unkindness, gossip, and self-centeredness are not helpful in building up the body of Christ. Anyone able to avoid those altogether? Neither am I. But we can work on it. What a fruitful body of Christian people DOES look like is a community where people gladly share with one another. Where people show up every week to prepare communion, greet you at the door, make coffee, collate your worship bulletin, teach our kids, keep the light bulbs changed and patch the roof, offer a warm welcome to guests they meet in worship, assist in setting up for a memorial service luncheon, operate the sound and video boards, ensure that we have events where people can connect with one another, organize parking in our lots, reach out to immigrants and refugees, build and maintain the memorial garden and labyrinth, trim trees and hedges and pick up litter, offer music that inspires, ask for your financial support in novel ways, support social justice efforts that other congregations can’t or won’t, welcome LGBTQ folks when other congregations can’t or won’t, march and demonstrate to end gun violence, discrimination, and to support keeping abortion safe, legal, and rare, serve one another as Stephen Ministers and Congregation Visitors, build homes with Habitat for Humanity, discern the strategic direction of our congregation, sing in our choir, ring handbells, provide lunch and connection for our senior-most members, start a new ministry team, provide meals to those recovering from illness, answer telephones and help in the office, provide emergency on-call coverage when pastors are away, offer financial support to members who are in need, provide flowers for worship, make difficult decisions about running our programs and congregation, do accounting and financial review, write personnel policy and conduct performance reviews. I’ve only named a fraction of what our volunteers do at Plymouth. And I apologize in advance if I didn’t name what you offer as a volunteer.
Why do you do this?! It’s counter-cultural to spend your time this way. Is it because you are part of this community that has been called out and brought together? Is it because it’s a way of showing your love for God? Is it because by serving others you are serving God? Being church is not easy, and it never has been. And it is critically important for God’s world that you bear the light of Christ. I thank you for sharing your light and being the church and your commitment to your faith.
Unlike any other organization I know, the church operates on a “gift economy,” not on a fee-for-service model. Beloved Community forms and shows up for one another generously. Unlike a synagogue, we don’t charge annual fees for membership…we leave it up to individuals to give as they are called to give. We offer our space free to 12-step meetings, who often make a gift in return. Can you imagine a landlord that would say, “Use the space and pay what you feel called to pay” or a university that said, “Pay what you want for tuition and a dorm room,” or a school district that said, “No need to vote for a bond issue, just give what you want voluntarily?” Or imagine a petroleum company that invited you to pull up to the pump and ask you for a gift for however much gasoline you use. This is how the “gift economy” of the church has worked for about 2,000 years. But church isn’t transactional in that way; it isn’t fee for service. Those of us with more to give share more. Those with smaller means give what they can and are balanced out by those with greater means.
And the gift economy works for voluntarism, too. Those who are able-bodied or who have time offer their labor for those who cannot. The gift economy is dependent upon generosity both financial and in terms of sharing our efforts. If either giving or service breaks down, there can be trouble in the way the system operates.
Years ago, I heard Peter Gomes, Minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard, say that people do not come to church because of what they might get but because of what they can give. Think about that. All of us engage seasons of giving and receiving, but our sense of individualism may cause us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” God doesn’t call us into the church because of what we get, but because of what we can give and what we can become together. And that takes hard work and sacrifice.
None of us becomes part of a church because we must, but because we may. We are called to live as Beloved Community, which is also a counter-cultural way of being in a nation that worships the individual (me and mine), not the collective (us and ours).
On that Pentecost so long ago, God called people from many different backgrounds and perspectives to become one. And on this day, we celebrate the church, our being called, and becoming one in Christ. Amen.
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