Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
“An Unfinished Church” — Rev. Brent Gundlah
First Reading (1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, CEB)
Gospel Reading (Matthew 23:1-12, NRSVUE)
I’ve been thinking about church a lot lately — which kind of makes sense because I’m a pastor. I should say that I’ve been thinking about church more than I typically do lately — which also makes sense because we, the members and friends of Holladay United Church of Christ, will be celebrating our 70th Anniversary in less than a week. And I can’t help but think that such an occasion in the life of our community is a good time to reflect a bit upon who we are and what we’re about.
A professor of mine, who understands the UCC as well as anyone, describes our denomination as an “unfinished church.” Though some might see this as an insult — as if we somehow lack a completeness that a church should have — it’s definitely not an insult; she’s stating that an intentional open-endedness is an important part of who we are. We see this manifested throughout the UCC in many ways, including but not limited to the slogan we’ve been using for while now (which, for the record, was borrowed from comedian Gracie Allen): “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.”
We as a church — both here in Holladay and throughout the UCC — have always tried to make the world a better place than it’s been, which implies a certain willingness to embrace change; and this is one of our greatest blessings. To be clear: we’re not talking about change for it’s own sake; we’re talking about change with a purpose. Our desire, expressed when the UCC was formed in 1957 (four years after our church here was founded), is to be “a united and uniting church,” one that’s constantly seeking new ways to be in relationship with God and with our neighbor.
While this is true, we must also acknowledge that, in a world full of division and conflict and strife, there’s still a lot of work for the church to do. And, since we also say that we believe God is still speaking, we must constantly decide how we’ll respond to God’s call for unity in our place and time. The UCC has it’s roots in the Reformed church tradition, which sounds decidedly past-tense (as if any reforming that needed to be done is already done). And this is kind of odd because, truth be told, the Reformed church is constantly being re-formed.
This is always important for us to keep in mind, but maybe especially so this week, as we prepare to celebrate 70 years as a community and to embark on year 71. On a related note, this past Tuesday was not only Halloween but also Reformation Day (don’t feel bad — I don’t expect a Reformation Day gift and, frankly, I didn’t get you one either). And Reformation Day is kind of a big deal too.
On October 31st of 1517 an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther wrote to his superiors denouncing certain practices of the Church. Along with his letter, Luther included a list of radical questions (95 of them to be exact) that expressed his concerns over corruption and hypocrisy within the church, and called upon the institution to completely reform itself.
Luther nailed these documents to the door of All-Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, which definitely got people’s attention; it was a revolutionary act that began what’s known as the Protestant Reformation. This was no empty gesture on Luther’s part — indeed, he did this at great peril to himself. The Church found his attitude and his actions to be so radical, in fact, that he was excommunicated by the Pope and declared an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor. But Luther had his supporters too.
In Luther’s time (and perhaps even in ours), his sharp rejection of the existing religious order, and its accepted doctrines and practices, was seen either as confrontational troublemaking or as righteous courage, depending on one’s perspective. Of course, it should be noted, that the very same things were said about Jesus too. Sure, Jesus and Luther were different people, doing different things, in different places and in different times, but each was an important agent of change when it came to faith in their respective place and time.
The particular questions and problems that Luther faced were not the ones that Jesus faced, and the ones that we face are certainly different from those those that either Jesus or Luther faced. And this is also important for us to recognize. With it’s grounding in tradition, the church has always been a source of stability in the lives of people in the world — and this is good. But the church is also a living thing that, for better and, sometimes, for worse, affects and is affected by what we do in and with and to and through it. In other words, the church evolves, as all living things do — it must evolve in order to live (go check our what Darwin has to say about that). And this is also good — often challenging, but good.
Our traditions are absolutely essential to who we are. But to live into the responsibility that comes along with our heritage as reformers, we must also constantly question if our existing ways of being a church enable us to be in community with God and all creation, or if they serve instead as impediments to Jesus’s call to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Reform is the result of an ongoing dialogue between innovation and tradition — because these two things really need each another to exist. Tradition that hides itself away from the ever-changing world around it eventually becomes a mere artifact. And without tradition, reform makes no sense – for without tradition there would be nothing to reform.
We also need to understand that reformation isn’t a one-time event; it’s not something that we can just look in the rear-view mirror at, thank Luther or Jesus or even HUCC’s founders for, and be done. The Church (with a capital “C”) and HUCC didn’t stop becoming in the either the first century or in 1953, and didn’t stop reforming in either 1517 or 2023.
Reformation demands that we “remember” in the Hebrew Bible’s sense of that word, not by simply recalling or resting comfortably upon our past achievements, but by actively looking for ways that we can live into to all that God is calling us towards in our place and time — and then actually doing it.
It is incumbent upon us, with God’s help, to interpret and to enact the Gospel for a new generation. While we have always been called to love God and our neighbor, the means by which we show that love, and the ways in which we understand who our neighbor is, change with time and circumstance. Embracing the tension between the timeless and the timely — and embodying our faith amidst and in-light of that tension — is what’s enabled our unfinished church to thrive for the past seventy years, and it is what will enable our still-unfinished church to thrive for the next seventy years and beyond. It is in our community’s DNA.
When we saw that families here in the Salt Lake Valley lacked childcare, we created the Holladay Preschool;
when we saw our siblings being denied their fundamental rights, we proclaimed that we are an Open and Affirming congregation — and we continue to remind everyone though what we say and what we do every single day that all people are welcome here;
when we saw that our Earth was in crisis — and when we saw that this crisis was affecting marginalized people disproportionally — we committed ourselves to doing the work of Creation Justice.
When people are hungry, we feed them; when people are suffering, we comfort them; when people are ailing in mind, body, or spirit, we care for them; when people feel alone, we embrace them in the radical love of our community; wherever there is need, we strive to meet it.
And we do these things even when they’re difficult; we do these things even when they’re costly; we do these things even when they’re unpopular; we do these things because that’s who we are and that’s what we’re about. Our church is in all of those things — the kind of things that Jesus did; it’s not in reciting the right creed or saying the right prayer or worshipping the right way. In this sense, we are a Reformed church.
As we close the book on our first seventy years and begin another, all of the things that I just mentioned — all of the things that make us who we are — remain as true as they’ve ever been. But the circumstances in which we find ourselves now are different ones than HUCC’s founders encountered in 1953, and theirs were different than the ones that Martin Luther found him himself in, and Luther’s were different than the ones that Jesus found himself in; things change, that’s just the way it goes.
But, like I said earlier, the life of the church has always been marked by a tension between the timely and the timeless. For the HUCC community, the foundational principle, the timeless truth seems to be this: Wherever there is need, we strive to meet that need.
And so the question for us right here and right now is pretty much the same one it’s always been: Where is the need in the world today and how can we meet it? The willingness to ask this question, to discern the answer, and to constantly live into it— and to do these things over and over and over again — is part our identity. In this sense, we are a Reforming church.
A church that is unfinished, a church that is both united and uniting, a church that is both Reformed and Reforming. That’s who we are and that’s what we’re about.