Sermon for the Closing of Wilmington Congregational Church

Genesis 12:1-9

12Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,

6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lordappeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

If I could only say one thing to the members of Wilmington today, I’d say this: “you did nothing wrong”.

And if I could say a second thing it would be this: “God is not done with you.”

We’ve come today because we are saying goodbye to one particular form of the body of Christ. We are sad. And it is not something we ever wanted to do. And yet, in the end, we felt like this was the most faithful choice we could have made. Which makes today particularly bittersweet.

Over the last year we have engaged in a hard conversation. A conversation that had been a long time coming. It was not easy. It was emotional. And it was something none of us wanted to talk about. And yet we did. And about two months ago we sat in this sanctuary and took a unanimous vote that it was time to close our doors.

Since that time, the biggest regret I have heard from folks. is not about closing the church. It’s about whether we let our ancestors in this place down. Would members of all the generations that came through those doors look at us today and think, “You didn’t do enough. You didn’t honor our legacy.”?

There’s a tendency to beat ourselves up about that. To wonder what we could have done better. But if we are doing that, we are losing sight of the question: Did we honor their legacy?

As I’ve thought about it, I think the answer is “yes”. We have honored the lives and faith of the people who came through that door. And I’ll tell you why.

The earliest founders of this church, back in the 1780’s, were not from here. They came to a new frontier, and they built a church that reflected the needs of the community at that time. They were people of faith. People for whom the will of God was the center of their lives. And they, and the generations that came after them, kept the doors of this church open to respond to the faith needs of not just this community, but the world.

They did incredible things in the name of faith. They gave meaning to a growing town, before Vermont was even a state. They baptized and confirmed people who would know Christ. They, in the days before abolition, sent money to support Congregational missionaries working to free slaves. They rallied to keep responding to the needs of Wilmington in the Great Depression, and the World Wars, and they served the people of this town well even into the last few months. Even when we knew where we were heading, when the waters flooded this town, we responded to Wilmington as people of faith, and we opened our doors.

Up until that very last meeting with the vote, we did the things that honored the legacy of  our forebears. And then, at the vote, we did it once more.

You all know there was enough money in our accounts to keep our congregation going for a few more years. But you also knew that this was about more than us. This was about God, and the legacy of this church.

You made a hard choice. You decided to honor the legacy of the people who came before you by giving freely of the gifts we had, so that our sister church down the road could continue to minister to our whole valley. You made a selfless choice. And the choice you made, and the way you made it, said more about who you were as Christians than about anything else. You spoke well for all the generations that no longer could. You told the world what kind of Christians they were, by showing what kind of Christians you are.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have uncertainty. That doesn’t mean we exactly what happens next. But, I can tell you this: God isn’t done with you yet.

This afternoon I read you a story of old beginnings. Old because they come from one of our oldest ancestors. One who never lived in Vermont, but whom we still know. I read you the story of Abraham, and how God told him to leave the place he knew.

God doesn’t just tell Abraham to go. God tells him that there is a new land waiting. One that will be shown to him. And God tells him that God will bless Abraham’s name and make it great.

You have to wonder what Abraham was thinking. Was he scared? Was he unsure? Did he really believe it? Did some part of him want to hold on to all he knew and stay there in that place?

I’m guessing he did. But I also know that he went. And I know that God did everything that God promised. Because thousands of years later, when the book of Hebrews was written, we are told about what Abraham did. And how he looked to God, “the architect and builder” of a new place. And how this man, who Scripture calls “as good as dead”, produced a legacy. Descendants who were greater in number than the stars, or grains of sand.

But you don’t even have to take Scripture’s word for it. You can take the word of his descendants. I am one of them. And so are you.

And if God would do this for Abraham and Sarah, God will do it for those of us who are his legacy.

You have done nothing wrong. You have done everything possible to honor the legacy of those who come before you. You’ve done it by loving your neighbor. You’ve done it by  being good stewards. You’ve done it by trusting that God never forgets God’s children. And that God sometimes calls us to a new home in order to make us great. And God wants us to be great.

As we leave here today, and ring that bell one last time, may it ring out our commitment to that carrying our legacy with it. May it ring out our intention to be people who serve our God and our neighbors. And may it ring out our hope as we join another community of faith, and seek to serve this whole valley. God has promised us a blessing. And God will meet us on the journey. Amen.

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