It’s good to be home. Most of you know I’ve been gone the past two Sundays. The first week was for a good friend’s wedding in Indiana, but the next week was spent not on vacation, but in service to the greater church.
I’m sometimes asked about the three letters after our church’s name: UCC. What do they mean? Well, to tell you very briefing, until about 56 years ago we were part of a denomination called the Congregational Church. That’s why our name is West Dover Congregational. But 56 years ago that denomination joined together with another one to create something new: the United Church of Christ, or the UCC.
And every two years delegates from across the country gather in a different location in order to worship and to reflect and to vote on church matters. From local churches like ours people from all over come to do the work of being the greater church together. And that’s where I have been for the last week.
One day last week I was sitting in one of the big plenary meetings and I was listening to one of our denomination’s executive ministers speak. And she was talking about her favorite Bible verse about ministry. And she read this line: “After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”
There are two things about what she said that struck me. First, that we are sent as representatives of Christ to the world. And second, that we are not sent alone. I thought to myself, “I should really preach on that passage when I get back”.
The thing is, as I’ve told you before, I’m a lectionary preacher. That means that I follow the common calendar of readings each week and preach on those passages. And as much as I wanted to preach on this other passage, I wanted to stick to the lectionary and I didn’t want Alan to have to change the hymns without much notice.
But then, I opened this week’s lectionary…and there it was. The same passage. And though it may have been a happy coincidence, I’m not one to ignore what might be the moving of the Spirit. And so, today we hear this Good News.
And it is good news, because one thing I have to be consistently reminded about when it comes to the life of faith, is that there are no lone rangers on this path. We can’t go it alone. It’s part of why when someone tells me they are “spiritual but not religious” I get a bit concerned. Because there is absolutely nothing wrong with being spiritual, but there is also absolutely nothing about being religious that keeps you from being spiritual. At our best we are both spiritual and religious, which means that we are both spiritual and connected with a community that is bigger than just ourselves.
But you probably already know that. And that’s why you’re here this morning. You’re not off doing something else. You’re not at the mountain, or doing errands, or out eating Sunday brunch. You’re here, in a place where you have to live your faith with others. A place where sometimes you might get frustrated, and sometimes you might get uplifted, but where you are never alone.
That’s the beauty of church: Jesus does not send us out on our own, he sends us out with others.
What’s true for people is, I believe, true for churches. We are one church here in southern Vermont, serving our community and trying to live a life of faith together. But we are not alone. I’m sometimes asked, “what is this UCC?” or “what have they ever done for us?” “Why don’t we just do our own thing?” And, the most passionate, “why do we send them money?”
And I could give you a lot of responses to that, but the best I know is this: because we are better together, and because Jesus did not send us out to do his work alone.
This past week, I was reminded that we are not Lone Rangers. We are not just a church in the Deerfield Valley of Vermont. We are not a church without connections. We are not on our own. Instead, we are one part of a national church of over one million members and over 5,000 local churches a lot like ours. Which means that across the country today, from Brattleboro to Chicago to Atlanta to Maui to Seattle, the other churches that we have been sent out with to do the work of Christ are worshipping and fellowshipping and figuring our how to do the same work of loving God and neighbor that we are trying to do.
I’m not sure about you, but that makes me feel good. I like knowing that we don’t have to go it alone. I like knowing that we are not off alone with no one to journey with us. I like knowing that if we get too far off in the weeds there are others to gently call us back. And I like knowing that because we are part of the greater church, our church is working in places we don’t even know about to do the work of Christ.
Scripture tells us that Jesus sent the disciples out to all the places he himself had intended to go. I believe one of those places was West Dover, Vermont. And one was New York City. And one was Omaha. And one was LA. And he didn’t send us alone.
Over the past week I’ve been inspired by hearing the stories of the places where the United Church of Christ, our church, has gone and what we have done there. General Synod is sort of like a big family reunion where everyone comes back and tells their stories, and everyone leaves challenged to do greater things.
Here are some of the things I saw and heard:
- In a generation where we mourn youth not being involved in church, I saw youth serving as delegates to the General Synod, speaking about their faith, and being leaders.
- In a time of mainline decline, there have been over 200 new UCC churches in the past four years. That is a staggering number.
- In a time of war, United Church of Christ chaplains are serving in the military hospitals of Afghanistan, ministering to troops who have been injured.
- In a time of increased natural disasters, the people behind UCC Disaster Relief, the same ones who came to our aid two years ago, are there every time.
- And during Synod, 10,000 of these hand-knit scarves, created by knitters at churches across the country, were given to delegates for free. Or, I should say, for a promise. Each person who took a scarf made a pledge to stand up against bullying in their communities, and to work to protect those who have been bullied.
And these are only a few of the things I saw. And they are all possible because we are a part of this greater church and we support this denomination with our prayers and commitment and giving and dedication. There are places that Jesus has sent us to that you and I may never get to personally, but because we are a part of a larger church, that means that someone is getting there. Someone is doing the work. And they are not alone.
Some of you know that at Synod I was elected, along with 35 others, to the new United Church of Christ Board, a sort of board of directors of our denomination. This means that twice a year I will be gone for a few days for a meeting in Cleveland where I will join with the other board members in trying to help our greater church to remember this Scripture: that we have been sent out, not alone, to the places Christ himself intended to go. I appreciate the support so many of you have given me, and I appreciate that you are loaning me to the greater church for these meetings. You will surely be in the room with me.
But beyond that, I give thanks for all that we are doing as a church because it doesn’t just change our own lives, but it changes the lives of the people in the communities that surround us. And because we are a part of an even greater church, our work doesn’t just stay in southern Vermont.
Because you are a part of this greater church, right now in Afghanistan there are UCC chaplains ministering wounded soldiers at hospitals.
Because you are a part of this church, somewhere at some parish there is a kid who has been bullied hearing about these scarves and what they represent and how his church will stand up for him.
Because you are a part of this church, people who are recovering from natural disasters are getting a little more help than they would otherwise.
Because you are a part of this church, 200 new UCC churches will join together in worship today.
Because you are a part of this church, missionaries around the globe are teaching schools and bringing clean water and medicine and shelters to those who need it.
Because you are a part of this church, students at UCC seminaries across the country are preparing for ministry in churches like ours.
And because you are a part of this church, you are not going out to the places Christ calls us to alone. You are going out with a family that is one million strong, and that is committed to doing this work.
The theme of General Synod this year was “God’s Vision”. And when you came in today you got slips of paper that said “God’s vision: __________.” That blank was intentional. It’s for you to fill in. It’s for you to decide how you will be a part of helping the UCC to live into God’s vision for us. There are as many right answers as there are those of us who call ourselves a part of the UCC. And I would love to hear how you would fill in that blank. I would love to know how you will fulfill that connection.
Our connections are a blessing. Whether to those of us sitting here in these same pews in Vermont, or to those who are across the country. They all strengthen us, and they all help us to strengthen others. May God bless these ties that bind us, and may God bless the entire church, including this one. Amen.