I’ve come to understand New England summers. I grew up in a place it was warm most of the year so summers weren’t a big deal to us. Actually, they were so hot we wanted to stay indoors.
But here in New England summers are beautiful, but they are also short. And that means that you have about 10-12 weeks to do the vacationing and outside exploring that you’ve waited to do all year.
That means that during the summer, we are scattered to the winds. I know members of this church have, literally, been across the country and around the globe this summer. But now, there’s a chill in the air, the leaves, believe it or not, are starting to change, and we have returned to our nests here in Exeter.
And this morning, for the first time since early June, we are back in the pews at 10am on a Sunday, the choir is in the loft, our church school orientation is happening, and we are about to kick off a whole new church program year. And so, wherever this summer has taken you, I say this: welcome home!
I was thinking about what to preach about on this Gathering Sunday. What Bible story sums up what it means to be church together? There are so many good ones, but what I kept coming back to was this: the Greatest Commandment.
Jesus was asked a question by a lawyer who was trying to trick him. If the lawyer could get him to say something blasphemous, then Jesus could be charged with a crime. So they ask him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
To me, that sums up both what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be the church. Love God. Love yourself. Love your neighbor.
I see those three challenges as the legs of a three-legged table or stool. If you kick any one of the three out, the table cannot stand. You need all three to have a stable foundation. That’s because each one of the three depends on one another.
You cannot really love your neighbor until you learn to love yourself. And you cannot say that you love God if you do not try to love your neighbor. And, I believe that you cannot really love yourself until you realize that you are created by a God who loves you wildly, a God who is worthy of our love and devotion.
Learning how to balance those three great loves is what we do in church. And so, I want to talk about how we try to do all three, and how we can build on that love this year. And so, for the purposes of this sermon, I want to talk about “loving yourself” in the corporate sense. I want us to talk, not about “I”, but about “we”, and who we are as the church together.
So first, the love of God. The best way we show our love of God is by doing what we are doing right now: worshipping. When we come here on Sundays our first task is to give praise to God. Worship isn’t about the music, or the sermon, or even the community, though those are hopefully meaningful to us too. It’s about telling God that we love God, and looking for the ways God is speaking to us still.
When we have a relationship with someone we love, we invest time in that relationship. We talk to our spouse, we make time for our families, we give of ourselves to our friends. So, it just makes sense that if we love God, we will make time for God in our lives. Sunday worship is a huge part of that, because we get to spend time not only with God, but with others who love God. But that’s not the end of it.
This fall there will be some new opportunities to get to know God better. Starting in October we will have a Bible study every Wednesday night. We will be talking about the Scripture for the next Sunday’s sermon. You don’t have to come every week, just come as you are able, but give this a try. The Bible is often so misunderstood. It can seem so intimidating. Come and learn why it doesn’t have to be.
We are also forming a group that will take another kind of spiritual journey. Several adults asked me after last year’s Confirmation Sunday whether we ever do adult confirmation classes. The short answer is “no”. Confirmation is a step baptized youth take in which they “confirm”, or agree with, the baptism that their parents chose for them. So, adults, by virtue of being baptized or joining the church, essentially make the same vows.
But that doesn’t mean that adults don’t have questions. And it’s become clear that a lot of you might want to have a similar kind of class that breaks down our belief and teaches it in a deliberate way. That’s true especially for those of us in younger generations. Many of you, like me, didn’t grow up in the church and didn’t get this kind of class. Others want a class so that they can decide whether or not to be baptized. For whatever reason, there’s a hunger for this kind of spiritual journey. And so, we are forming this class now. If you are interested, please let me know.
So those are some ways we can love God, what about how we love ourselves as a church community? Well, the first step is deciding to be a part of this community. Community is important in every aspect of our lives, but church community is crucial for our spiritual journeys. Having companions on the path helps us to draw closer to God. And so this year, think about the ways that you can allow yourself to really be a part of community. Are you holding back? If so, what’s keeping you there? What would it mean to take a risk, and dive in with both feet?
We believe that anyone who walks through these doors and calls this their church is a part of this community. But we also offer a way to formally become a part of this church by choosing to be a member. Membership is not about paying dues or anything like that. Church membership is a way of saying “this is my church…this is the place, and these are the people, I choose to be with as I search for God’s will for me.” Our next Joining Sunday will be October 22nd. If you are ready to make the leap, and join us officially, please let me know.
Beyond joining, we love our church community by serving. Think about how many people serve on a typical Sunday. Deacons, ushers, welcomers, coffee hour folks, church school teachers, childcare, youth group volunteers, choir, musicians, sound, and more. Part of being the church means being willing to serve. This is a form of love for one another. We give of our time, and our energy, to help one another to grow in the faith. There are so many ways we can all serve. And service feels good. It is rewarding to be a part of a community, and to give back. This fall what’s a way that you can serve?
Finally, loving our neighbors. If we don’t love our neighbors, we can’t say that we really love God. I’m really proud of the way this church seeks to serve our neighbors, near and far. Yesterday we sent off a big shipment of goods to our sister church in Zimbabwe. Throughout the year we take up special offerings for the wider church, and for Church World Service, Heifer Project, and more. We work with Seacoast Family Promise, cook meals for the Salvation Army, knit prayer shawls for people who need comfort, stock food pantries, assemble Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets, and more.
And we are looking for new ways to serve, too. Mission and action is exploring serving a meal out of our church for people who need it. We continue to look for ways we can live into our environmental and open and affirming covenants. And, an ad hoc group is looking at how this church can support immigrants and refugees. I love the way that we are never content with just doing what we’ve always done before. We are always growing, always looking for the ways the God we love wants us to love others.
And so, welcome back. Welcome back to a place where we love God, we love one another, and we love our neighbors. There are so many ways for us to do this together, and you are invited to participate in each one of them. So my question to you is this: How will you love this year?
It is my honor to be your pastor, and I love this church and all of you. I love this place because I know we honestly try our best to love God and neighbor. As we enter a new program year, may our love for one another grow, and may this community be blessed.