By Rev. Bob Thompson
Mark 1: 16-20
Matthew 16: 13-20
Last week during the reflection time, I shared some ideas about community – specifically the community that Jesus invited us in to – the kin-dom community. This week, I want to try to carry forward and perhaps expand some of those ideas.
In July, I did a month long, on-line study led by Diana Butler Bass. Some of you will recognize that name –Butler Bass is an Anglican lay person in the United States, a noted Christian author and church historian. The study she was leading was an update on a book she published in 2012 called “Christianity After Religion: the end of the Church and the birth of a new Spiritual Awakening”.
In that book, Butler Bass talks about the three ‘B’s, which are the basis for the traditional way we have connected with church. Traditionally, the first “‘B’ is Believe, and it has been our way into the church. We figure out what we believe – about God, about Jesus, about the Bible etc. Then we act on those beliefs by finding the people who hold to the same beliefs that we do, and we connect to those people – she calls that act of connecting with people, Behaving on our beliefs. That connection also gives us the clues about how we are to Behave in the world. Last Sunday, I talked about the kin-dom community as a community where love, compassion, justice, peace, hope are the normal way of acting toward each other. By connecting with those people with the same beliefs that we have, we discover how to live out those community attributes. Then the believing, behaving, leads to belonging. We Belong to the church where those people are connected. As I said, it is a traditional notion of church. It is the church that Matthew talked about in the one scripture passage this morning – the confession of Peter.
But Butler Bass goes on to say that a great transformation is taking place. It is more aligned with the story of the call of the disciples from all four Gospels. The Believing, Behaving, Belonging, are still our basis for connection with church, except they have become reversed. Now, we start out in search of community which tries to live out the kin-dom community attributes. We begin by Belonging. That community is the vehicle through which we Behave in the world, and finally, we may begin to talk about what it is we Believe.
I’m not sharing all of this with you, as simply Butler Bass’ ideas of what the church has become, but mostly because, what she is saying seems to be my experience of church now, and I think it is the experience of many of us. Recently, Jim Taylor has said on more than one occasion, that if, for some reason, this church had to shut down, what he would most miss about it is the community. When Kathy Davis came from the Region ministry, to help us with our vision focus at the end of Covid, the word we used most, to describe the way forward, was community.
I have wondered if this is mainly the experience of the mainline churches such as The United Church, the Presbyterians, the Anglicans etc. I thought this might be because there is so little consensus about what we believe. I think we agree that, even in this congregation, there is a great spread about what we believe on any of those doctrinal topics such as God, Jesus, the Bible etc., and that one of our jobs is to make the tent big enough so that we can all exist and thrive inside it.
Butler Bass says that one of the reasons for that broad range of belief, is that ‘Believe’ has shifted radically too – moving from what we believe to how we believe – and that is my experience too.
What do I mean by that?
We hardly ever say any creed in our service, except perhaps on Communion Sundays. And even when we do, I hear some of us saying, “I don’t voice that part of the creed, because I just can’t believe it anymore.” Some of us pretty much still accept the Bible as the revelation of God to us humans, while others are highly critical of many parts of the Bible, and much of its teaching. Some of us learned our faith as children, and it continues to serve us well, while others are pretty much prepared to jettison the tradition unless its relevance can be demonstrated. Sometimes we reject the traditional things have been taught, because they no longer fit with life as we have experienced it, and our experiences have led us to some different beliefs. And sometimes we reject traditional beliefs because they no longer make sense to us. We have moved
away from external belief – away from someone or somebody telling us what we must believe -- toward experiential belief – how does my attitude toward the Bible, my relationship with the traditional teaching of the church, my experiences and my rational thinking – how do all of those things form what I believe? And I think all of us are faced with those questions, whether our faith is basically traditional or progressive. We all face the question of how we believe as we do.
At the beginning of each service we say, “no matter who you are, no matter where you are in your own faith journey, you are welcome here”, and that is an attitude we really try to live out. We try to be a kin-dom community, where we make love, compassion, justice, peace and hope the normal way of acting toward each other, and we invite anyone who is trying to live that way, to join us. Not always successfully, but that is how we try to act. We try to make the tent as big as we can.
Often, the struggle we face with that is whether we really are any kind of community at all. What are the boundaries of that community? Who is inside the community and who is outside? And I must admit that my views about that are changing as well.
A putdown statement that we used to hear from outside The United Church was that we were nothing but The Rotary Club at prayer. We even used to hear that from within the church. And I admit that I used to bristle at that and try to point out what makes us different from The Rotary Club. Now I’m coming to the point of view that people in the Rotary Club are trying to behave the same way we are in the world, and we should celebrate the attitudes that drive us all. Of course, as a church we are different than the Rotary Club, but we shouldn’t be using those differences as a way to build the fences between us. Rather we should be offering our way of seeing the kin-dom community as a gift to fellow travelers on the journey.
It is a challenge that Winfield United has come to grapple with, and I am glad to be part of a community that is trying to find its way through that challenge.
For instance, is the Thrift Store an outreach ministry of this community, gathered here, or are we seeking ways of expanding our community in a way that includes the people of the Thrift Store. There are many women who volunteer at the Thrift Store, who do not come to worship, and yet who are trying to live the same values we are. Are they part of our community? What about people who drop off goods at the thrift store? They may not even think of themselves as being a part of kin-dom community, but when we thank them for living out the values we espouse, in the way they help others, that may become an awakening to kin-dom community for them. What about the clients at the Thrift Store. In our God Moments, we have heard stories of how they have created community already, in the store. And we have celebrated that and seek to make community connections with them.
These are not just questions for our church. They are questions for our world. I believe that the future for humanity – the kind of world we want to bequeath to our children and our grandchildren depends on if the kin-dom community can become the normal way of acting toward each other, all over the world. It’s a question that is way beyond us, gathered here, but we have a part of it. We can’t make the whole world a kin-dom community, but we can make that happen in this part of it. And so, in good Biblical language, lets gird up our loins and get on with it!