Being One. Being Many.: Sermon on Orlando for June 19, 2016

Last Sunday morning, when we walked into church, we knew that another tragedy had occurred. Our country has become strangely conditioned to the news of mass shootings. Somehow the horrific has become all too commonplace.

We hear the news of another town, Blacksburg, Newtown, Aurora, San Bernardino, and automatically those places become synonymous in our mind with senseless violence.

Last Sunday, as I put on my robe and stole, I knew that my hometown had joined the list.

We didn’t know how bad it was until after worship though. By the time I took that robe and stole off, there was an alert on my cell phone. It told me that 49 people had lost their lives. It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. In the sickly competitive rankings of death tolls, Orlando was now first.

I spent the day waiting for names, wondering if any friends were there. In the end, none of mine were lost. And I thanked God for that. But then I realized my good news was other’s devastation. Because it’s always someone’s hometown. It’s always someone’s friends.

After church I found your moderator, Alison, and asked if I could have her blessing to hold a candlelight vigil on the front lawn that night. We put out the word and on only a few hours’ notice people came, and spoke, and prayed. We held our candles against the darkness, and proclaimed that nothing, not even this horror, could extinguish their light.

The next day I looked at the lectionary readings for this morning, and found that this week’s came from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It contains this remarkable line: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

And it felt like somehow the lectionary knew ahead of time. Somehow it knew that this morning we would be doing two things: trying to make sense of a tragedy, and baptizing a child of God.

I carried that passage with me this week. Most of you know that early Tuesday morning I flew to Orlando with my friend and fellow trauma responder Chris. The next day we were joined by three other trauma responders from New England UCC churches. And over the next few days, we were on the ground in Orlando with two missions. First, to be helpful wherever we could. And second, to observe what was happening and to report back.

I am thankful that I went with your blessing. In a real sense, you lent your pastor out to Orlando this week. You shared me with this place. When we went to the vigil sites in our clergy collars, and talked with people who were mourning, you made that possible. When we hugged someone who had lost a friend, you the people of Exeter were there too. And when we stood at a funeral on Thursday, blocking any protestors that may come, you stood with us.

Paul is right. In Christ we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus because we are a part of one body. And last week this part of the body shared its resources with another part. That is remarkable, and that is what Paul was talking about.

13466499_10101216654147178_4874541647657160548_nBut I want to raise a word of caution here. Because as much as we are indeed one in Jesus Christ, that does not mean that we are all the same. And though we respond as one body, that does not mean that this body of Christ is not diverse, or that those differences don’t matter.

The reality of what happened is this. A man, filled with hatred or self-loathing or whatever compelled him to think that he should take this course of action, chose deliberately to walk into a club where LGBTQ people were gathered. His father tells us that he had been disgusted by seeing two gay men kissing. And so he took his rage, and he went to one of the safest places that LGBTQ people in Orlando can go. And he took their safety away.

As someone who grew up gay in Orlando, that took my breath away. It brought me to my knees. These were my people.

And yet in other ways they were not. Because the other reality is this: 96% of the people who were victims were members of the Latinx community. This was Latin night, and for many who were there, this was the only place in their lives that they could be fully themselves, both Latinx and gay.

I am not Latinx, and so this week I kept reminding myself that there would be times when I would need to step back, and let others speak. Let others lead the way. Trust others, who were a part of both communities, to know how to respond. Because as much as we are all part of the same body in Christ, our differences still exist.

And they should. They are what make us Christ’s body. Because if Christ is God in human form, then of course Christ’s body should show the vastness of God and God’s people. And this week, the parts of Christ’s body that spoke Spanish and danced to the merengue while loving whomever they loved were the ones who were targeted. We can’t forget that. We can’t fail to name that.

Why? Because right now in Orlando, there are victims whose families refuse to claim their bodies because they are gay. And right now in Orlando there are survivors of the club who won’t go to the places designated for counseling because they have undocumented status and they are afraid of being turned over to immigration for deportation. That has already happened to some survivors, by the way.

It matters who they were. And it matters that we lift them up and love them for who they were.

This week I saw so many slogans. “Orlando strong.” “Orlando united.” But the one I connected with the most was this: “Somos Orlando”, or in English “we are Orlando”.

I have gone back and forth about using it. The part of me that stands in solidarity with the Latinx community in Orlando wants to say “Somos Orlando”. But the part of me that grew up in arguably the whitest, most comfortable suburb of Orlando, speaking only enough Spanish to get through my high school language requirement, wants to be careful not to appropriate what isn’t mine.

In the end, when I say “Somos Orlando” I say it only in this sense: “Somos Orlando” because I am a part of the body of Christ, and last Sunday morning a part of Christ’s body was broken again on a dance floor in Orlando. And I stand with Christ’s broken body today.

But in saying that, I can never forget, can never minimize, the fact that it was bodies that did not look like my own that were targeted. We can never forget that. And we can never allow that to be forgotten by others.

And now we also must now stand up, so this does not happen again. We have to stand up and say whatever part of Christ’s body that is going to be targeted next, in whatever town and whatever place, and for whatever reason…we are going to try to stop it.

That’s why it feels appropriate on this Father’s Day to tell you this story. 22 years ago, my father called my college dorm room from Orlando and told me my mom had told him I was gay. My dad is a Southern man, and a career government agent. And this was 1994. I didn’t know how this would go.

To my surprise, he said this to me: “That’s okay. And let me tell you something; there are going to be people who try to hold you back or target you for who you are. You can’t let them.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but he was giving me words for my Christian journey. Because if we are following Christ, we can’t let anyone hold anyone else back or target them for who they are. We have to work for a world in which we are equally valued and protected as children of God.

And so we are going to work for a world where hatred does not win. We are going to work for a world where violence is not the answer. We are going to stand up against the interests of death and destruction, and call out our love of what can kill us and kill others. We are going to be Christ’s body, a body that has again and again been broken open. We are going to change this, because Christ requires nothing less.

And like my dad taught me, we have to teach the children we know the same thing.

And so perhaps that is why it is so fitting that we are baptizing Trudy today. We are making her a part of Christ’s body. We are taking her to the waters of baptism, and she is receiving this sacrament that will forever change her. And because of that, Trudy will grow up to be someone who cannot be silent in the face of events like this. She will be someone who will stand in the broken places, and help to repair this far-too-often broken world.

Today Trudy remains herself. She is Trudy, a young child from Exeter, New Hampshire. But today she also becomes something more. She becomes one with this body that is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. And a body that is no longer gay nor straight, white nor Latino, Exeter nor Orlando either.

May she, and may we all, love this body enough to fight for every part of it. And may we love, by not erasing but by lifting up, all that makes us different, and all that makes us beautiful. And may we all work to keep this body from being broken again. Amen?

“The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”: A Letter from the “Dying” Church

To my mourners:

Sometimes the dying are the first to know. While others believe you are invincible, you quietly go around collecting pamphlets from hospice and making final arrangements. But sometimes, more rarely, the dying are the last to know. While they feel alive and vital, others are picking out their headstone. Lately I’m feeling like I’m in the latter camp.

I hear that I am dying. This is a shock to me because I had no idea. I’m a good two millennia old so I think I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well, and I certainly have had tougher times than this. In my earliest days, in fact, my very existence was in question. So picture my surprise when I hear that those who have known me for only a fraction of my days are counting down to my demise.

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nI think what makes it all the more surprising is that many of the ones who are saying I am dying are not just observers. They are actually a part of me. A recent part, perhaps, but a part none-the-less. Because I, the church, am more than just another institution. I am, in fact, the body of Christ; the living and continuing presence of Jesus in the world. And all who believe in Christ are a member of this body, just like all believers in the past have been members of this body. To be the church is to be Christ’s body in the world.

With that in mind, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am dying. Let’s say that death is even somewhat imminent. Let’s say that the body of the church, the body of Christ, is indeed about to die.

Well, here’s what I know about Christ’s body. It has died before, and it has risen again. Resurrection. That’s the whole message of Easter. Death occurs, but death does not win. The body rises stronger. And we, who are Easter people, should know that and not fear the end.

But beyond that, am I really dying? Because I’m not so sure that’s true. Yes, fewer people are attending church. Yes, as that happens some churches are closing down. Yes, the church’s influence in society is not what it used to be. But does that really mean I’m dying? Or does that just mean that the church is entering a new phase of life, just like it has before and will again? Maybe, in fact, a better phase?

Here’s the thing. There’s a difference between death and change. Just because I am no longer the way you (or your parents, or your grandparents) remember it growing up does not mean I am dying. Just because you don’t see what you want or like when you look at the church does not mean that death is imminent. Because, and this is sometimes hard to accept, as much as you may like to believe otherwise, the church is not dependent upon your comfort or approval for its life.

So here’s my question: Do you want to continue to sit and mourn around a death bed that I do not inhabit? Or do you want to be Easter people, and live in the Resurrection? If it’s the former, fine, but don’t call that church. Call it what you want, but don’t put the words “body of Christ” on that funeral.

But if it’s the latter, if you want to live as a Resurrection people, here’s a few thoughts on what you can do:

1. Read Scripture: I know, I know. There are many forms of revelation, the Bible has been used to justify some terrible things, etc., etc. But the Bible is the story of communities of faith learning how to live, and change, and grow together. And when we lose Biblical literacy we lose our story, and we lose our hope. And too many Christian have given up on really knowing the Bible.

We need to be able to talk about Moses and the Israelites taking the risk of leaving Egypt, getting lost, and then finding the promised land. We need the early Christians of the Book of Acts to tell us what it meant to be the church together in those early days. We need Paul’s letters to small local churches struggling to figure out who they are and what that means. We need it all.

2. Take risks:

Every local church I’ve known that has died has one thing in common: for too long in their lives they were risk averse. Maybe in the last years of their lives that changed and they were willing to risk everything, but they didn’t get to that place without years of choosing “safety” over choosing a bold witness to Christ’s love. No one wanted to rock the boat. No one wanted to risk losing a few members. No one wanted fail. And so, slowly, the local church became so afraid of making a move that it just withered in place.

But every local church I know that has thrived has one thing in common: they took risks. Not reckless risks. But risks. They took financial risks to expand growing ministries. They took leaps of faith when calling pastors and other staff, and did not try to find a candidate who wouldn’t make waves. They took risks when it came to social issues. And, most of all, they took these risks without sabotaging themselves because they feared their own success.

3. Reject negativity:

No one likes to be around negative people. (Well, possibly with the exception of other negative people.) And yet, the church is often a negative place. Church meetings are filled with anxiety about money or arguments about bylaws. Community life is uninspiring and tedious. And gossip and “parking lot meetings” are far too often the rule of life in the church. Who wants to be a part of that? Anyone who doesn’t enjoy drama won’t stay at a church like that for long.

More importantly, who is going to believe we are being honest about saying we have faith in Christ if our churches are like this? Because if someone says that Christian faith is all about redemption and new life and hope, and then turns around and shows someone a church that is full of pettiness and negativity, no one is going to buy it. Yes, Christians are human and make mistakes, but our default mode should be about living in God’s grace, not living in fear.

4. Recognize grace and practice gratitude:

This follows on the last point. Christians are called to recognize God’s grace in their lives. It’s sort of the point. It’s why you all sing “Amazing Grace” so much. But understanding grace on an intellectual level, and really knowing you have received grace are two different things. And here’s how you know that you really understand God’s grace: you can’t do anything but say “thank you”. Gratitude is the most natural response to grace, and it’s what the Christian life is all about. Christians do what they do not to earn their way to heaven, but to say “thank you” to all of the grace that God has already provided.

So why don’t churches live that way? Why is so much of Christian community life about the anxiety of not having enough? Why is it about mourning what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do?

People in recovery, perhaps some of the most aware people in the world about the grace they have received, have a practice called gratitude lists. When everything looks like it’s going to hell, they sit down and write down what they are grateful for in their lives. Sometimes it starts small (I’m alive, I have enough to eat, I have enough for today) but often it grows into something more (I have more than I need, I have a community that loves me, I have meaning). What would it look like if your church made a gratitude list? Could you do it? If not, that may be part of the problem. Help those in your community to cultivate grateful hearts, and you will transform your local church.

5. Live for others, not for yourselves:

When you talk to churches in transition I ask them about their greatest challenge. “We need more people,” is what you will hear a lot. Some go further and are a little more blunt: “We need more people to join so we can pay our bills.” For some churches, too many, bringing new people in is not about welcoming them to a community of faith. It’s about ensuring the local church’s survival. And the reality is that people can see that desperation from a mile away. And no one joins a church, or any other organization, just to be another name on the books or another pledge card in the plate. And no one should.

What if instead of asking people to build up your church, you asked how your church could help build up others? What if the focus wasn’t so much on healing yourself, but on helping those who need it the most? What if your greatest priority wasn’t saving the church you know, but instead sharing that church with others and giving them the freedom to help change it?

And what if we lived together like the Resurrection is real, and is happening still? Because it is. And because we have work to do.

With love from the empty tomb,

The Church

P.S. – Of course one person cannot speak for the church. But if we believers are really the church, each of us can speak as a part of the church. So what do you have to say, church? Are you dying? Or are you ready to live?

Journey Through Lent: Day 17

Icon-Laying-HandsWhen I hear the words “healing service” my first thoughts are not very positive ones. I think about the services that televangelists in the 80’s sometimes had where someone would come onstage and they would reach out their hands and cry “be healed!” and then suddenly the person would be knocked to the floor and rise again without their crutches, or suddenly be able to see again, or hear again. I thought it was hokey and fake back them, and I’d still run the other way today from any preacher who told me they could do that. Because healing doesn’t work that way.

There’s a difference between being healed, and everything being changed back to how it was before. When we are healed, the bones don’t unbreak, the depression doesn’t immediately lift, the cancer doesn’t suddenly reverse course and leave our bodies the way we were before. The ones we love don’t come back.

Healing is different than that. And at first glance that might make it a little disappointing. It’s not a quick fix. What it is is a way to ask for God’s love to be with us especially during a difficult time. It’s a way of acknowledging that we need something more than ourselves when things get really bad. And it’s a way of being open to what the Holy Spirit is able to do to transform those places where the pain and the brokenness are happening.

Many who go to church on Sunday go the rest of the week, maybe quietly, without anyone else knowing they are fighting a hard battle. But that means that on Sunday, you are in a place with a lot of other people who might not know exactly what you are going through, but who have some idea, and want to travel this path with you. When the hardest times in our life come, we have a community that surrounds us. More than that, the body of Christ surrounds us, and it pays attention, and journeys with us.
I sometimes get called by hospitals or by funeral homes when someone is sick or someone has passed away and the family has no faith community. And I’m always glad to go and pray or say a service or help out. But I always feel bad. Because I see the way that this whole community, and not just me, surrounds a person who is going through something hard and stays with them. The best part of the church is not the clergy; it’s all of the people. That’s the ministry of the church and what it means to be Christ’s body together. And I wish that everyone could have that, because I think that they would find that Christ’s healing, more often than not, comes in community, and not in isolation, because Christ often chooses to work through others.

In this Lenten season, that healing takes on a particular importance. This is a time when we are called to heal our own relationships with God, and to draw closer to Christ. We accompany Christ symbolically through his times of greatest challenge, and greatest pain. And we learn what it is both to be healed, and to be healers.

Called to Healing: Sermon for March 3, 2013 (Third Sunday in Lent)

535654_10151272282211787_2021364405_nI believe you can find God everywhere. You can experience God’s love up in your relationships with others. You can see the wonder of God’s creation up on the top of Mt. Snow. You can hear words of comfort from God in books or music. And you can find God’s hope in the most unexpected places.

I don’t believe that church is the only place where you can find God. We don’t have a monopoly on God, and God doesn’t live here and here alone. And so, sometimes when people tell me that they can find God without walking into church I tell them that I agree, and they grow confused and asked, “Well, what’s the point of church then?”

I think there are a lot of reasons to go to church, personally, but today I want to talk about one. And this reason has to do with what it means to be in community when time are hard. It has to do with where we turn when our pain, or grief, or sadness are too much. And it has to do with being a part of Christ’s body together, even when that body is going through some tough times.

But first, let’s look at the passage I just read. It’s from the Old Testament, and it comes from a prophet named Isaiah. Isaiah was probably actually several different prophets who writing to the people of Israel during a particularly difficult time. The part we read today takes place during the Babylonian Captivity, a time when the Jewish people were under the rule of the Babylonians, and taken from their land. And this part is meant to comfort them, and promise that something new is about to happen.

The chapter we read today is towards the end of that middle passage of the book, the one that promises something better. And in it, the prophet is telling the people that it’s going to get better. He tells them, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. If you are hungry, come and eat, even if you don’t have anything to give. God is going to make a covenant with you. God is going to bring you mercy.

Isaiah talks about the snow and the rain and he says that even though they fall, they also nourish the earth, and create new life. He talks about the mountains and hills bursting into song, and the trees clapping their hands, and the people going out with joy. And he talks about thorns and briers giving way to flowers. He’s talking about the pain being transformed into new life.

So what does this have to do with us today? This is where that first thing I was talking about comes into play. This is where being the body of Christ when times get tough matters. This is where we claim God’s promise of transforming the broken and painful and difficult places into places of joy, and we do it together.

I’ve been your pastor for almost three years now. And in that time, I can’t remember another time when we have had so many people in pain, or in grief, or in a time of hard transition. I can’t think of another time when we’ve had so many people in need of such healing.

I can’t name all the ways this is happening right now, both for confidentiality sake and for time sake, but so many we love are fighting a hard battle right now, in some way or another. There are new diagnoses and surgery. The loss of a loved one, and grief. Struggles with depression, or recovery, or anxiety. Changing relationships, changing job situations, changing abilities, and changing lives.  There is a lot going on, and some of it, probably only the person going through it knows about.

And that’s why today I want to do something a little different in worship. I want to talk about healing, and I want for us to pray for healing for everyone who needs it.

Now, when I hear the words “healing service” my first thoughts are not very positive ones. I think about the services that televangelists in the 80’s sometimes had where someone would come onstage and they would reach out their hands and cry “be healed!” and then suddenly the person would be knocked to the floor and rise again without their crutches, or suddenly be able to see again, or hear again. I thought it was hokey and fake back them, and I’d still run the other way today from any preacher who told me they could do that. Because healing doesn’t work that way.

There’s a difference between being healed, and everything being changed back to how it was before. When we are healed, the bones don’t unbreak, the depression doesn’t immediately lift, the cancer doesn’t suddenly reverse course and leave our bodies the way we were before. The ones we love don’t come back.

Healing is different than that. And at first glance that might make it a little disappointing. It’s not a quick fix. What it is is a way to ask for God’s love to be with us especially during a difficult time. It’s a way of acknowledging that we need something more than ourselves when things get really bad. And it’s a way of being open to what the Holy Spirit is able to do to transform those places where the pain and the brokenness are happening.

In the passage that we read, the prophet doesn’t try to turn back time and say “it’s going to be like this whole Babylonian Captivity thing never happened.” Instead, Isaiah says, God is going to transform this. God is going to take the places of pain and make them places of beauty. God is going to make the mountains sing out and trees clap their hands, and you are maybe even going to be filled with joy.

And for those of you who are here today, who throughout the week, maybe quietly, without anyone else knowing are fighting a hard battle, that means you. And that means that today, you are in a place with a lot of other people who might not know exactly what you are going through, but who have some idea, and want to travel this path with you.

That’s the beauty of church. When the hardest times in our life come, we have a community that surrounds us. More than that, the body of Christ surrounds us, and it pays attention, and journeys with us.

I sometimes get called by hospitals or by funeral homes when someone is sick or someone has passed away and the family has no faith community. And I’m always glad to go and pray or say a service or help out. But I always feel bad. Because I see the way that this whole community, and not just me, surrounds a person who is going through something hard and stays with them. That’s the ministry of the church and what it means to be Christ’s body together. And I wish that everyone could have that, because I think that they would find that Christ’s healing, more often than not, comes in community, and not in isolation, because Christ often chooses to work through others.

In this Lenten season, that healing takes on a particular importance. This is a time when we are called to heal our own relationships with God, and to draw closer to Christ. We accompany Christ symbolically through his times of greatest challenge, and greatest pain. And we learn what it is both to be healed, and to be healers.

And at the end, we hear the message of the Scripture passage we read today: this pain does not last. I will not let it. You are going home.

This morning, I invite you to come forward and receive a physical symbol of that promise. We all, whether we admit it or not, probably have a place in our lives that needs healing. I do, and you may too. And so I invite you, as you feel moved, to come forward and let either Heidi or I anoint you with oil, the ancient Biblical practice of consecrating a person and marking them as ready for God’s healing. As we enter a time of holy prayer, I invite those who wish to come up as they feel ready. If you do not with, I invite you to pray for all those you know and love who need God’s healing now…

When Community Gets Messy (Hint: It always does.): Sermon for January 27, 2012

533999_485840638098085_190703679_nOne year ago this week, do you remember what our church was about to do? Or, I should say, do you remember what our churches were about to do? It was something that was sometimes hard and sad and something that made some of us grieve. And yet, it was also something that brought new promise, and new hope.

A year ago this week, we were preparing for the final service of Wilmington Congregational Church after over 220 years of ministry. But more was happening than a church closing. Things weren’t just changing down in Wilmington. Things were changing here at West Dover as well.

The leaders of this church got together and made a decision. They decided that they wanted to actively invite the members of Wilmington into this congregation, and they even decided to open spaces in leadership on the committees here for Wilmington members. We even brought the Wilmington communion table and sanctuary cross here as a visible reminder of Wilmington’s legacy.

A year later, I get a lot of feedback from outside people who watched the whole process. It’s overwhelmingly positive. They have rarely seen such a positive major church transition happen. And I think they’re right. And I also think they don’t know the half of it.

In the past three years, we have grown in membership numbers by nearly 70%. We have also grown in terms of the thing that really matters: the number of lives we touch. In a way, who we are is not just a merger of two congregations. It’s a merger of three. West Dover, Wilmington, and those who in the past few years, for a multitude of reasons, have come through our doors who weren’t in either of the two.

So what does that have to do with today’s text, a portion of a letter sent almost 2,000 years ago to a church in a town called Corinth? At first glance, maybe not that much. But, dig a little deeper, and maybe this town in Greece and this valley in Vermont have a thing or two in common.

Corinth was right at the center of a lot of different cultures. People passed through it as trade took place between Europe and Asia. They came from different backgrounds, and different ideas, and they were trying to figure out how to live and work together. And Paul writes this letter to them not because he’s angry at them, but because he holds this church dear and he has some suggestions.

And in one of the passages, the one we read today, he says something that must have hit home for a community trying to figure out how to be the church together. He gives them a metaphor. He says that the church is like one big body, the body of Christ, and all of the members, no matter who they are, are members of that body. A body has a head and feet and hands and a heart, and they are all different, they are all parts of that body just the same. The church, Paul says, is the same way. We have people who come from different places, who are good at different things, who have different beliefs, and yet they are all a part of the church. They are all members. And they are all essential.

Paul asks them, what if the body only had eyes? What if it only had ears? What if it only had hands? Paul shows that every part of the body works for the greater good, and every part of body matters.

The same is true of the church. All the members have a place. And he cautions against those who think otherwise. Not only do you never say, “we don’t need you,” but Paul says “those people you think don’t have much to offer…they are the indispensable ones”.

Paul says what we in the church, not just this church but the whole universal church, need to keep being reminded of…we all matter. We all have a reason for being here. We are all just as valuable as the next, and the next is just as valuable as us.

Churches sometimes don’t get this. I sometimes talk to people who have tried to be involved in other churches. And as hard as they’ve tried, they’ve found themselves turned away for one reason or another. And usually it’s not because someone has said “you’re not welcome here”.

Usually it’s a lot more subtle than that Someone makes a comment to them about people who don’t give to the church, not knowing that the person they are talking to isn’t able to give themselves. Or they make a dismissive comment about the AA group that meets downstairs not knowing that the person they are talking to is in the same program. And then, they wonder why that nice person who came for a while never comes back.

That’s sad for the person who leaves, but it’s sad for the community, too. Because they never know what they might be missing. They never know when they’ve cut off their own hands or feet, and cut themselves off from the gifts that God was sending to them.

I don’t know if that has ever happened here. I hope not, but in times of change like we have had for the past year, the potential is high. And that’s not just about us. I’ve been involved in a number of different churches in a number of capacities, and this is the one truth I have always found: community always gets messy. When new people come in, when the way we have always done things changes, when a group decides to keep growing and moving and doing good things, it is never neat and easy and simple. It is always messy. But, if you’re deliberate about it, it can be pretty great too.

For the last year we’ve fallen into this habit, not deliberate and not malicious, of sometimes talking about other people not in terms of where they are now, but in terms of where they used to be. The West Dover people. The Wilmington people. The new people. And we might not mean any harm by it, but we are not three bodies, or even two bodies, anymore. We are one body.

We are the West Dover Congregational Church people.

We are West Dover. It doesn’t matter if you are brand new here. It doesn’t matter if you came from Wilmington. It doesn’t matter if you have been in the same pew every Sunday for the past 30 years. It doesn’t matter if you are 4 years old or 94. You are here because you are a part of this body. And you are just as important to what Christ has in store for this church as the next person. No more. No less. We are West Dover. Period.

So what does that mean? What does it mean to have this body of people from so many different places, with so many different gifts, sitting together. And what does it mean for where we go next?

During Lent we are going to be entering the second stage of our visioning process. The first involved the survey that many of you filled out online. The second will involve talking together over the course of several weeks about where we see the church, and where we want the church to head. And the third will starting to think about our actions. We are deliberately not jumping in now and making decisions because we need this time to keep getting to know the other members of our body, and to listen to what they have to tell us first.

But today I wanted to give you a little foretaste of what is to come in that process. I want to tell you a little about where we are coming from, in your own words. And I wanted you to be able to look around at the church and see that we are not all hands, and not all ears, and not all hearts. We are very different. And yet we have all chosen this place. And we all have a place here.

Of the surveys returned, 77% were from those who had stood up to become formal members of this church. But, significantly, 23% were not. 33% members for 3 years or less, another 8% 3-5 years. 18% were former Wilmington members. And the two most common ways people came here to this church were this: being personally invited, and being a former Wilmington member.

Our commitment to the larger body of Christ was significant too. 33% came to this church because we are a UCC congregation. An additional 43% on top of that reported being committed to the UCC because it is our denomination. Only 7% said the UCC was of little interest.

And where you came from varied. 43% raised in the UCC. But the Lutheran Church. Lutheran, Episcopal, and Catholic traditions tied with 13% each. Geographically, 28% live in West Dover, 24% Wilmington, 21% East Dover, 17% Wardsboro, about 28% live elsewhere. 83% said they wanted this to be a church for the whole valley, and 17% said focus on Dover, Wilmington, and Wardsboro only. But no one said we should just focus on Dover

What you give was also telling in terms of your generosity. 11% give a full 10% of their income, 29% give 5-10%, 54% give up to 5%, and 7% say they would like to give but can’t. What’s amazing is that 0% say they do not wish to give. Everyone who answered that survey had a giving heart.

Now, there were more figures, and I’ll share them at the congregational meeting. But I’ll tell you that in terms of service time, we have our biggest split in opinions there. And, that’s okay…that’s something that we will look at together, deliberately, over the course of our visioning process, valuing each member of our body in that discussion. But, the good news is no matter what the decision, I have faith we will choose a faithful course of action.

Why do I have faith? Because I know the members of this body. And I know you to be the sort of people who can do what many thought was impossible. I know you to be people who a year after a church closure and a merger are creating a new body in Christ’s image. Actions may matter more than words, but sometimes words matter a lot too. Which is why I share these with you today.

I asked in the survey, what difference has this church made in your life? And what do you love about the church. These answers tell us more than numbers do. They tell us about our hearts:

“I love that it is so accepting of everyone that comes through its doors. There is very little judgement from the church as a whole.”

“(I love) the fellowship and love felt when you walk through the doors.”

“This church has brought me a loving community that I feel safe in no matter what I believe or feel or think. I can be myself.”

“(This church) makes me feel part of a larger family that supports me as I support those in it as well as the wider community.”

“(This church has) made me realize the importance to have a “Christian” family to worship with.”

And the shortest answer, and perhaps my favorite. What do you love? “The people.”

And that’s the point. We become the church by loving Christ, and loving one another. If you don’t have one or the other, then you don’t have church. But, I’m happy to report, I think we have plenty of both here. And the future of our body looks very good. And now, let all of us who are West Dover Congregational Church say together, “Amen”.