When I was in divinity school I took a graduate course on utopian societies. Over the semester we examined among others the likes of the Harmonists of New Harmony, Indiana; the Shakers of Mother Ann Lee; and the Oneida community in upstate New York. Born out of certain assumptions of human nature and a vision for society, each of these groups were experiments in communal living, attempting to create not just a new social order, but a kind of ideal civic life.
As you probably already guessed, these communities are gone now. Many of the buildings still exist, but the folks have all but disappeared. My sources tell me there are two elderly Shakers still living in Maine though, so a comeback may yet be in the cards. The dissolution of these communities has not stopped others from trying their hand at communal living (and some communities continue to be sustainable), but by and large Americans have decided that utopian living isn’t for us. It reminds me of the time the evangelist Billy Graham told a crowd, “If you find a perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll ruin it.”
Our analysis of the human condition acknowledges that anything promising to be a utopian society is going to be a far cry. We simply aren’t perfect. Instead, most of us choose to live in a world of competing interests. The demands on our time, energy, patience, resources and stamina can be relentless. With a dim view of civil mutuality, sometimes we feel like Atlas, holding the world up on our shoulders all alone.
Which is why I’m thankful for the church. We don’t need to be perfect here. In fact, our Reformed tradition emphasizes that God’s love for us isn’t predicated on our behavior at all. We just show up, bringing our tired bodies, our broken stories, our shameful secrets, and our hope-filled dreams. We file into pews, sit on folding chairs in classrooms, or stand with our hands wrapped around paper coffee cups, and we remember that not only is God with us, but we are with us. Our illusion of solitude is shattered by our proximity to other imperfect people who are straining to hear some Good News amidst the busyness and loneliness of life. I need the church — these days now more than ever — to hear Christ’s call on my life, to shake me out of my complacency, to shape my priorities, and to remind me of my shared commitments to my expanding sense of the neighborhood. Maybe the church means the same thing to you.
This Sunday is noteworthy for two reasons. First, we celebrate our heritage as descendants of the Reformation, proclaiming God’s gracious love to us without condition. And second, we will dedicate our promises for the upcoming year, as an act of faithful response to God’s own generosity toward us.
We are far from perfect, and truthfully, I like it that way. My participation in a perfect congregation would spoil it. But we are deeply loved, and we hope you experience that love here as well. Come join us Sunday morning.