Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

In the Bonds of Peace — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached September 2nd, 2012


I love church.

I think most of you all know that I love church.

And more than my love of any particular church,

even though I do love you all,

I love the idea of church as a whole.

I love church in its parts.

I love church committee meetings.

I think I got the job as your Assistant Minister

when I told the search committee that I love committee meetings.


I love thinking through what committee in a church

is responsible for what.

I love religious education,

I love church potlucks,

and I love when a church joins together

to stand for something they believe in.

I love pastoral visits in the office or in the hospital.

I love talking with people about money and church finances.

I love board meetings, and visioning the future,

and joining together to sweep the parking lot

or weed in the garden.

I love worship, when a church comes together with intentionality

to connect to that which is larger than any one person,

any one perspective.


I even love church conflicts,

when they are open-heartedly engaged

and centered around the things we hold most dear.

I loved church before I became a minister.

When I grew beyond the theology

of the more conservative Christian church

that I grew up in and left that church,

it was not the people that I missed… not really.

I was still related to most of them,

and saw them in other ways all of the time.

No, what I missed was the unique environment and community

that people build together when we call something a church.

I missed having a place where we are invited

to bring our deepest values and beliefs,

where we are encouraged to share

the depth that is within ourselves,

and where we are challenged to become

more than we were before.


When I first walked into the doors

of a Unitarian Universalist Church a decade and a half ago,

I was not seeking a place where I would find

people who had the same beliefs

about Life, the Universe, and Everything as I did…

but rather I was seeking the kind of community that church offers.

In truth, theology or the deeper questions about life

were secondary to me.  I was lonely.

I was lonely for community that was not based in my work.

I was lonely for people who might do with me

some of the work I felt we needed in this world.

I was lonely for people who would let me join into a potluck,

or who would ask me how I was doing…

and really care what the answer was.


It is an act of courage to walk

into the doors of an unfamiliar church community.

It can even be an act of courage to walk into the doors

of a church community you know and knows you,

when you have had transformations and changes in your own life.

It is an act of courage to come into a church community,

even when you are just fine and everything is okay…

because you are expected to be with other people

in the fullness of whatever they are holding

in their hearts this morning.

What motivates any of us to come into this church community

on a Sunday morning are as varied as we are,

and as we sit here this morning,

each of us has a different reason,

and often several different reasons,

for why we are here.

Why we are here for the first time,

or why we are here every Sunday for the last 50 years.


Our theme for the month of September is Unity.

It is a heavy word for us, Unity is.

It is the base for both words in what we choose to call

this liberal faith tradition we share, Unitarian Universalist.

Unity of all that there is,

and Unity of all of the humans within all there is.

What an ideal is expressed by this name.


Over this next month, we are going to explore many aspects

of this core idea within who we are as a church

and as a liberal faith tradition…

including in our annual Ingathering service next week,

where we officially begin the new church year

and come back together, literally and metaphorically,

as a church community.


When I think of Unity, my heart and my childhood faith training

always goes to a particular verse in a letter of Paul of Tarsus,

written to a new and growing church in the city of Ephesus,

in what is now Western Turkey.

Scholars tell us the letter was probably

not actually written by Paul,

but by one of his later followers,

and based on an earlier letter that we know now as Colossians.


The letter was probably also not written

just to the new Christians in Ephesus,

but was probably a letter that was meant to be shared

between many different new and growing churches.


Think of it as the ancient equivalent

of an email from the Director of Ministries and Faith Development

at the Unitarian Universalist Headquarters

on Beacon Hill in Boston, and you begin to get the feel for it.


Now, there is much in the letter that I don’t agree with.

Why would I?

It was written for small Christian churches

in Asia Minor two thousand years ago…

Much of its theology was tailored for a community

that was far closer to subsistence than I am,

and in reaction to Greek and Roman theologies

that most of us know little or nothing about today.

Much of what it says about personal behavior

made perfect sense in the society of that ancient church,

but has no relation to the culture we live in today… except…


Ok, before I get into that, I have a couple of seminary words

that I need to clarify.

You all know what I mean by seminary words, right?

Those words that we ministers use

to make sure that you all remember that we went to seminary?


Now, I’ve already used the word Theology,

or logos about Theos, or thinking about God.

Now I know, the G word is one that more than a few of us

can only hear a few times in a sermon.

I once had a wonderful member of my home congregation

on Galveston Island in Texas

stand up in the middle of my sermon

and inform me that I had used up my quota

of “God’s” for that sermon,

and had to finish without saying the word anymore.


And so, theology has taken on a slightly different meaning

for many Unitarian Universalists…

more like “Thinking about the depth of meaning”.

But either way, I do not want to talk about theology today.

I hope to do the rest of this sermon

with as little theology as possible.


I want to talk about another seminary word… Ecclesiology…

logos about Ecclesia… or thinking about Church.

I think it is probably a good idea

to think about what it means for us

to be a church from time to time.

I mean, we have the word out on the sign at the roadside,

so it has to have some rather serious importance to us.

Now, some of you know that

not all Unitarian Universalist congregations

call themselves a Church.

Some call imitrex coupons online themselves as “Fellowship” or a “Congregation”,

or a “Society”, often because they want

to place some distance between themselves

and some of the societal connotations

around the concept of a Church.


Before coming here to Ventura,

I have spent most of my time in ministry

serving congregations that call themselves

something other than a church.

In the years I was travel preaching in the South and the Midwest,


I visited over 50 congregations of our association,

many of which called themselves

just about anything other than a Church.

And do you know what I realized

in all of that experience and travel?

I realized that no matter what they called themselves,

these religious communities all shared

some very similar patterns of religious community.

The reason that I have felt at home

throughout our liberal faith tradition is because,

no matter our theology,

in how we practice being a religious community

we are very, very similar

to the Christian churches that I grew up in.


So, instead of dancing around it, I’m going to say it directly.

While we Unitarian Universalists

are indeed very different in our theology

from many other faith traditions,

we remain quite similar to many of these other traditions

when it comes to our ecclesiology…

or how we think about and practice Church…

even when we call them a Fellowship,

a Society, or a Congregation.


Now, I’m willing to bet that, for some of us this morning,

there is some discomfort at that statement I just made.

I feel some discomfort in making it.


In my own case, in reflecting on where that discomfort is,

I know that some of the churches in other traditions

have done things, or act in ways that I would never want us,

the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, to act.

I know that there is some baggage that rests

among what some churches are

that I do not want to attach to who we are.


And, that still does not change that,

as a religious community,

we share a common heritage with many in the Christian tradition

that traces its lineage back to those early churches

that Paul and his followers were writing to in the first century,

helping them to learn what it meant to be a religious community.


That is really what many of the letters of Paul

that are in the Bible really are…

they are advice to small groups of people

on what it means to be a church.


And so, we come back to the verse

from the letter that a student of Paul wrote

to the small church in Ephesus.

They were a church that had experienced some conflict,

as is common in many churches then and now.

When you ask people to invest

their deepest values, hopes, and dreams

in a religious community,

you are bound to have some conflict,

for we never all have the exact same values, hopes, and dreams.


The letter advised this young church,

in first few verses of the fourth chapter to

“lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility and gentleness,

with patience, bearing with one another in love,

making every effort to maintain

the unity of the Spirit in the bond of Peace”.


Calling.  Humility.  Gentleness.  Patience.

Bearing with one another in Love.


I have long been fascinated with the idea of

the “Unity of the Spirit in the bond of Peace.”

No where in there does it say that we should have

unity of belief, or unity of action, or even unity of purpose…

but rather something larger… something deeper.

The unity of the Spirit.


I want to read you another document, one a bit more modern

and which I hope at least some of you are mildly familiar…


Loving Kindness:
I promise to:

Reach out and include others, especially newcomers, in conversations, church functions, and social events
Honor the different levels of commitment of both time and money that folks make to our congregation
Respect confidentiality
Trust that the basic motives of our members are positive
Maintain a sense of humor

I promise to:

Own my feelings, opinions, and biases by making “I” statements
Avoid making assumptions and generalizations about the beliefs of others
Create and maintain an atmosphere, which invites feedback and allows everyone to speak
Provide honest, up-front feedback at all times

I promise to:

Listen with respect and without interruption to the ideas, beliefs, and feelings of others
Avoid being distracted by anger or an agenda to persuade, debate or win
Keep lines of communication direct and open
Forward Movement:
I promise to:

Accept decisions reached when all views have been heard
Remain committed to our church community regardless of these decisions

I support and trust our church community to:

Respect differences
Create and maintain a safe place to disclose fears and concerns
Discuss these in the most supportive manner
Examine previous opinions and assumptions with fresh eyes and openness to change
Remain aware of the common hopes, fears, and needs inherent in our humanity

Anonymous Criticism:
We covenanted together not to pass on anonymous criticism: If someone has a criticism, we will ask them if they have taken it directly to the appropriate person or committee.  If they have not, we will offer to go with them to do that or let them know that the Committee on Ministry will assist.  If they decline, we, as a last resort, will offer to take their criticism with their name.  If they decline, we will let it drop and we will not repeat it.


I hope a few of you recognize

our congregation’s Right Relations Covenant…

what we promise to each other,

how we commit to treat each other within our congregation…

And what is good for within our congregation

also makes a good guide for how we relate

to the rest of the world outside of our walls.


This is not the only form of this covenant

that I have found in our faith tradition.

When I as serving as the Intern Minister

for the Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL,

they had a version of their covenant

that they said in each Sunday morning service,

to remind each other of the commitment

they made to one another.


Love is the Spirit of this Church, and Service is its law.

This is our great covenant: to dwell together in Peace,

to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.


How we treat one another,

how we build an intentional religious community,

how we value one another

and work through the messyness

of being limited and individual human beings…

this is the essence of what it means to be a church.

This is our Ecclesiology.


And whether we state it in the ancient words

of a letter to an ancient church in Asia Minor,

or whether we express it through the guidance

of the covenant that we have committed to one another

in this, our church… the sentiment holds true.


Let us together lead a life worthy of the calling

to which we have been called,

with all humility and gentleness,

with patience, bearing with one another in love,

making every effort to maintain

the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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