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Jan 09, 2022

Healthy & Vibrant: Our Identity I

Healthy & Vibrant:  Our Identity I

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: January 2022


Today's Sermon


"Healthy & Vibrant:  Our Identity I"


Ephesians 4:1-8

          4I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,

‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.’

Healthy & Vibrant:  Our Identity I

            When the church finally decided to close its doors, merging and moving in with another congregation because it could not support itself, it gave a modest bonus.  They’d never been able to give him a raise in his entire tenure, so it was the least they could do.  The check bounced.

            When a family visited a church for the first time and found their way inside to the sanctuary and to comfortable place on the pews, a long-time member approached.  They said, “That’s my pew.”

            When one pastor selected a certain hymn, the other pastor would come down out of the chancel area and sit in the front row in protest, refusing to participate. At least part of the reason the one pastor chose the hymn was go goad the other.  

            A church in a historic part of the city couldn’t keep up with maintenance of its once beautiful church, so one by one as the leaks kept coming, they just abandoned one room after another, cordoning it off from the rest of the facility till they were left essentially huddling in a broken sanctuary.

            These are all true stories, and they’re the tip of the iceberg of poor health in the church.  I could get into statistics about the state of the wider church, but I don’t want to speak such death into this space.  Now, look around, not just at the building, though the space we’ve built together is indeed part of it.  Look at one another—and I know we’re in a pandemic so we’re but a fraction of who is usually here—the faces of the people that have surrounded you here.  Do those stories sound like us?

            Westminster is a healthy, vibrant spiritual community.  That is the truth, and it’s the first line in our new Christian Identity Statement—not a mission statement; before you say what you’re about, you have to know who you are.  We are going to spend the next several weeks going through the statement church leaders worked on over much of last year line by line so we can be clear about what we’re about in here, which will enable us to be more focused and more intentionally inviting. 

          This is a story worth telling, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s alive.  It’s active.  It’s striving.  There’s so much gift in the Spirit here.  We should celebrate that even as we try and improve and evolve, offering something meaningful to the community.  I could talk about money and metrics—for even with our challenges, we are on firm footing, but I’d rather ground this truth in story and people.  I think of getting here in the 6:00 hour on one of the celebration Sundays and seeing a member already here in the quiet of the kitchen cutting wraps he’d rolled by hand.  I think of highly successful and talented people choosing to lend their time and talents here amid all the available choices.  I think of the woman who would spend hours Sunday nights with our guests would make our floor their beds for the night, getting to know them and their stories and in doing so making them feel and be more human, and so many others.

            Westminster is a healthy, vibrant spiritual community.  We don’t say that because we believe we have all the answers. In fact, having the questions is the fun part.  They help us try to live out our still-figuring-it out faith best we can in our individual and corporate lives.  Hopefully you can find those with whom you share values and a way of thinking and hopefully you’re challenged in a healthy way as well.  This is where you can feel good and where you can be broken without shame – I know of people who experienced welcome here precisely because it was the place they could come and cry quietly in the back without having to answer questions.  This is a place, where in relationship, we can grow and find our true selves, the Christ consciousness within and among.  That’s remarkable in a culture in which so many are trying to simply do their own thing.

            I’ll never forget how one of the search committee chairs described you when I was interviewing a little over nine years ago.  “We’re just a band of happy campers.”  It may sound to you like a throw away line, but I can’t tell you what a breath of fresh air it is to serve at a place where people like to be happy. You like to laugh.  So many churches mirror their dour and heavy architectures in the architectures of their souls and interacting.  Laughter, joy, these are traits of the spiritual. Think of the spiritual masters you’ve seen and how often they laugh.  With all they’ve seen, they laugh, which leads me to someone who deserves our time today. 

            Health is not simply who a community is, but who a community is striving to become, what it values, and to whom it looks for wisdom, carriers of the way of Christ.  I like who we look toward here for inspiration.  In recent days, we lost a great who encapsulates this beautifully, someone who almost universally prompts a positive response, a smile, such a rare thing in this day and age.  Betty White. Kidding.  I just had to see your reaction.  I debated going with John Madden.  I could have gone with Sydney Portier, and his inspiring life.  Or, E.O. Wilson, who some have called the “Father of Biodiversity,” this world-leading student of ants.  Wilson he recognized the interconnection, the interdependence of all things, how everything is who it is through the presence of the others. 

            But no, I’m referring, of course, to Desmond Tutu.  Remember the book about his relationship with the Dalai Lama was called, The Book of Joy.  Tutu was the kind of carrier of the way of Christ to which we look that I think makes us healthy, vibrant, spiritual, and a community.  There are so many things one could say of Tutu, a courageous leader who stood up to the evils of South African Apartheid, here is just a taste of what this vessel carried to us in his time:

  • Tutu was an emissary of forgiveness, without which he said there was no future.[1] Tutu did not understand forgiveness to be condoning injustice or abuse, but rather a voluntary, empowering refusal to respond to the oppressor in their own currency. 
  • When co-creating a way forward from Apartheid, Tutu and others of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission realized they neither wanted Nuremburg style trials nor blanket amnesty or amnesia. Rather, they wanted to retain accountability and responsibility by sharing the particulars of the stories of those who suffered with those who caused the suffering while employing a transforming mercy, a forgiveness that gave them all a way forward.  They wanted reparation, but not retaliation, understanding, but not vengeance.[2]
  • Tutu recognized this was more than simple negotiation or politics or even secular justice. This was, at its core, about good theology.  “It was theology,” he insisted, “that enabled me to assert that this was a moral universe.”[3]  You’ll never find a truly healthy spiritual community with bad theology.  You’ll find successful ones by some measure, but not ones that are spiritually healthy and spiritually vibrant and affirmingly communal without good theology.  Churches love to follow the latest programmatic or technological fad—and it’s good to evolve with the times—but without good theology, you’re embodying an impoverished story and ethic.  Jesus’ correctives were theological correctives.
  • Tutu said, “We are human because we belong.”Church scholar Diana Butler Bass has said it’s time for Christians to flip the old formula that says, believe like us, behave like us, then you can belong with us.  No, she says, we should create a space where people can belong regardless, then in relationship we all grow in how we act and think, and out of all of this our beliefs take shape.  This is why we say Westminster is a place where people can Find Community (first), Grow Spiritually, and Better the World.  We start with belonging.  It’s a shift for a tradition that has come to treat church as a spectator sport rather than communal creation.  I’m sure there’s much more we could do to create the place of belonging for people, and Tutu reminds us we must.
  • Along these lines, Tutu wrote, “A prayed-in church is qualitatively different from one that has the atmosphere of a concert hall.”[4] This is, after all, a house of prayer.  It’s funny some weren’t ready for this when a couple years ago during the campaign to raise the funds to raze and rebuild this building.  The program we worked called for a  24-hour prayer vigil, and some politely scoffed.  We don’t do that kind of thing here.  But we did, and it was one of the most moving times of the entire campaign.  Go visit a Zen center or an old Quaker meeting house like the one we used to attend outside Philadelphia where people have set in spiritual silence for hundreds of years and tell me the room isn’t tangibly different.
  • Lest we misunderstand Tutu as merely syrupy and sentimental, which we sometimes do with religious leaders, we should remember that this praying man also said, “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.”[5]
  • He was a champion for LGBTQ rights, not as easy for him in his context as it is for me in mine, saying he’d rather not go to a homophobic heaven, preferring the “other place.”[6]
  • And, like Ellie Wiesel before him, Tutu condemned the strange affinity for neutrality as if it’s some spiritual virtue, saying, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."[7]

          These things and more we can take from this great beacon of the faith as we strive to become our own modest beacon in what can be a rather foggy landscape.  When you hear the passages read earlier you hear other sources of wisdom for what makes a healthy, vibrant spiritual community.  In the Exodus account, the people come forward, “everyone whose heart was stirred,” bringing an offering of some kind.  The point is not the particulars in what they brought, just that they brought the gifts that they had to offer and that is what a healthy, vibrant spiritual community relies upon, the gifts of the many coming together for the good of all and beyond.  You have and will be called upon to bring your gifts to bear here.  The passage from Ephesians begs us to “lead a life worth of the calling to which we have been called,” as people of Jesus, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:1-2).  Now, that is a guide for those who want to continue to co-create healthy, vibrant spiritual communities. 

          What we’re after is really the golden thread that tied Tutu and others who did that work together.  It’s the African notion of ubuntu, which means simply, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.”[8]  Another way it is often stated is I am human through you.  This is what it means to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.  We are who we are through the presence of others. In that sense, maybe E.O. Wilson would have been a fine choice. 



[1]Desmond Mpilo Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York:  Doubleday, 1999).

[2]Ibid., 30, 45.

[3]Ibid., 88.

[4]Ibid., 263.

[5], January 1985, per BBC.


[7], Oxford Reference.

[8]Ibid., 31.