SERMON ~ 08/08/2021 ~ Membership ~ South Freeport Congregational Church, UCC, South Freeport, Maine

08/08/2021 ~ Proper 14 ~ Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost ~ 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51.

YOUTUBE Video of the complete service of worship:


“Get rid of all bitterness and wrath and rage and anger and wrangling and slander, malice of every kind. In place of these be kind to one another, tenderhearted, compassionate, mutually forgiving— forgiving one another— as God, in Christ, has forgiven you.” — Ephesians 4:31-32.

In my comments today I am going to mention several people who were well known in show business decades ago. They will be known to those of us who are of a certain age. Dare I label that age as ripe?

Younger folks do not have to take my word for it that these people were famous. You can GOOGLE it. However while I do need to mention these famous people of yesteryear for context, in a real sense what I will say has little to do with them. Indeed, the place I need to start is by telling you something about my late Father. (Slight pause.)

Dad was a graduate of Manhattan College, in New York City. When he was a Freshman one Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty was a Senior. Even those of the aforementioned ripe age will not know the name Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty. But you might know the stage name eventually adopted by this performer— Dennis Day. (Murmurs of agreement are heard.) I can hear some people agree that they remember Dennis Day.

Here’s the second name we of a ripe age will know: Jack Benny. Benny and his writers concocted a variety show— music and sketch comedy— first on radio then on television. Indeed, it might be argued the writers of the Benny Program invented the form which eventually evolved into what we today call a sitcom— situation comedy.

Let me come back to this Owen McNulty/Dennis Day fellow. He appeared in sketches first on Jack Benny’s radio program and later on Benny’s television show. But he was also a singer, an Irish tenor, who supplied some of the music for the show. Both my parents liked Dennis Day and liked the Benny program.

But this McNulty/Day fellow was very special for my father. You see, every time Day came on the TV screen, my father invariably said (and I am quoting), “Dennis Day— he’s a Manhattan College graduate, you know.” (Slight pause.)

Even though or perhaps because I was a child, I always wondered why my Father said that. The questions which came to my mind ran along these lines— a Manhattan graduate— did that make Dennis Day a special human being, above reproach, placed in a special category, a level of sainthood of which I was blissfully unaware? (Slight pause.)

When I got older I realized my father was saying Dennis Day— a Manhattan College alumni— is a member of my club. I am a member of Day’s club. Dad was saying that they— this well known Irish tenor on TV and Joe Connolly, Sr., someone who could not carry a tune in a bucket and was a less than well known High School English teacher— were members of the same club. (Slight pause.)

These words are from the work known as Ephesians: “Get rid of all bitterness and wrath and rage and anger and wrangling and slander, malice of every kind. In place of these be kind to one another, tenderhearted, compassionate, mutually forgiving— forgiving one another— as God, in Christ, has forgiven you.” (Slight pause.)

You may or may not know this. Different churches and different denominations have different ways of counting membership. Some churches say Baptism, infant or adult, constitutes membership. Others say if you receive Communion you are a member. Some churches say you need to be confirmed to be a member.

And when it comes to Confirmation, churches cannot even agree on what Confirmation is. In the Roman tradition Confirmation is a Sacrament. In Protestant Churches it is a rite of the church but not a Sacrament.

When it comes to joining a church some churches say Baptism— again, infant or adult— is the key. Others insist you have to take membership classes before you can join. Some say you only have to meet with the pastor or deacons. Many say you need to go through some kind of ritual, a ceremony in which a person formally joins a church.

Indeed, churches, themselves, have so many rules and categories for counting membership that often the churches don’t know who is a member and who is not. But most do put some kind of limit on membership, some necessary step which determines membership, say there is some way to join the church. (Slight pause.)

So, how should church membership be counted? (Slight pause.) I want to suggest asking how church membership is or should be counted is the wrong question. And I want to suggest the author of Ephesians got it right.

You see, my Dad was right in the sense that he and Dennis Day were in the same club, Manhattan College graduates. But church membership is not that kind of club. And church membership should not be like a club, despite any strictures we place on it.

Churches are not or at least should not be a place for special human beings or a place which allows someone to be above any kind of reproach or a place that slots you in some special category, some level of sainthood. Churches are for real people. Churches are for flawed people. Churches are for all people.

Churches are also places, as the writer of Ephesians suggests, where we can (quote): “Get rid of all bitterness and wrath and rage and anger and wrangling and slander, malice of every kind.” Churches are also places where we need to (quote): “…be kind to one another, tenderhearted, compassionate, mutually forgiving— forgiving one another— as God, in Christ, has forgiven you.” (Slight pause.)

For a moment, let’s move in another direction about church membership. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us the worship hour on a Sunday is the most segregated hour in America.

And we know from the other writings of Dr. King what he said was not confined to race— class, education, income, profession— all kinds of things separate people into groups. So it’s a human reality to say churches, by their nature, are club-like.

Put differently, a reality of church is that like people worship with like people. And that statement at one and the same time is both theologically abhorrent and it is true. So how do we, how can we deal with that reality? (Slight pause.) Well, first we name it. As painful as it is to admit that reality, unless we name it we will not deal with it.

But let me take that one step further. If you read the brief biography which let people know I was to be your “Bridge Pastor” it said I was a pastor at one church in rural, Upstate New York for 23 years. Over the course of those 23 years a lot of people joined that church.

When folks talked to me about joining I always said this. Let’s assume you are waiting for a train in a train station. And the church is the train you want to board.

Here’s the problem. That train is going to come through the station and it is not going to stop. It been around 200 years and has quite a head of steam. If you want to join you need to stick out your hand and grab onto it and pull yourself on board.

Why? Every organization, a church, a business, a town, has it’s own way of doing things. And that way of doing things is already established. To be clear, that way of doing things will change and even may even change radically simply due to the fact that you joined, because you joined. But another reality is often the change will be slow.

This brings me back to that which is both theologically abhorrent and true. The church is unfortunately in some ways like a club. Why? Like people worship with like people. And what are we to do about that? What can we to do with that? (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest the writer of Ephesians has two answers for us. I have already referenced the first answer. “…be kind to one another, tenderhearted, compassionate, mutually forgiving— forgiving one another— as God, in Christ, has forgiven you.”

If you think that is hard to do… you are right. It is hard. But the second answer the writer of Ephesians gives is even harder. (Quote:) “…try to imitate God, as beloved children. Walk in love and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave of self….” Amen.

South Freeport Congregational Church, UCC, South Freeport, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is a précis of what was said: “If you saw the service I led by video in June you know it is my practice to say something before the Benediction. Today’s entry is a quote from Catholic theologian Richard Rhor. “Christianity is a lifestyle— a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared and loving. However, we made it into an established religion (and all that goes with it) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish and vain in most of Christian history and still believe that Jesus is one’s ‘personal Savior.’ The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on earth is too great.”

BENEDICTION: The loving kindness of God, the steadfast love of God, is always present to us. Therefore, may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

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