Why are we here?: Sermon for January 18, 2015

So, I’m going to ask you a question that is going to sound better suited for a college philosophy course than worship: Why are you here?

I don’t mean in the big, existential sense of why are you alive, or here on earth, or why does any of this exist. I mean in a very simply sense: why are you here at church this morning?

After all, you have other options, you know. You could be home, sleeping in right now. You could be out running errands at the grocery store or doing home repairs. You could be at brunch, sipping coffee and eating Eggs Benedict. You could be in so many places right now other than sitting in the pews at church on a three day weekend. And yet, you are here. Why?

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nNow, don’t get me wrong…I’m glad you are and no one is asking you to leave. Far from it, because I hope you keep coming. But in this season after Epiphany, this time before Lent when we are still remembering the Light that just came into the world at Christmas, it’s as good a time as any to ask yourself that question: Why am I here?

So, unless choice was taken out of the equation, and your parents brought you here today, take a moment to ask yourself that. Because in an age where no one goes to church simply because “everyone does it” anymore, you choose to come anyway. Something has brought you here today, even if you can’t exactly explain it.

And so I’m going to ask you this question about why you are here a few different ways this morning. But before you answer that, let’s start with the Scriptures.

I normally only preach on one text, but this morning we read two. The first is from the first book of Samuel, and it talks about a young prophet of the same name. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving there. And one night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, the priest he works for, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.” And God does.

So, that’s the first story. The second comes from the New Testament, and the Gospel of John. In it, Jesus begins to call his disciples. He goes to a man named Philip and he calls to him and says, “follow me”. And he does. And then Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel, and he tells him all about Jesus, and even though Nathaniel doesn’t quite believe it, Philip tells him “come and see”. And he does, and he finds out that everything Philip said was true.

Both stories are about calling. They are about God speaking to people who never expect to be spoken to by God. In Samuel’s case he hears God’s voice directly. In Philip’s he is called directly by Jesus. And in Nathaniel’s, it’s Philip that God uses to call to him.

In the United Church of Christ, the wider church we are a part of, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel or Philip or thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And sometimes our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And, sometimes, our job is to drop everything when we hear Jesus saying “follow me”. And sometimes, it’s just to repeat God’s call and to tell the ones we love the most, “come and see”.

So this leads me back to the question: Why are you here? First, why are YOU here? We each have our own answer to that question, but I believe each of us is here, in Christian community for a reason. Because just like Samuel, and Philip, and Nathaniel, I believe that God called you. I don’t know how God called you, but I believe God called you.

First, God called you to God’s self. This was not a one time thing. God calls us to God over and over again, and even if we get off the path sometimes, God calls us back to God. You might not hear it the way Samuel did, with a literal voice in the night. You might hear it through the voices of friends. You might hear it in community. You might hear it whispered around you, like a gentle nudge. But however you hear the call, it’s real. And it’s valid. And even if you aren’t so sure what it’s saying, something about it was enough to get you out the door today and here this morning.

And so here’s my next question: Why are you HERE? I don’t just mean here at the Congregational Church in Exeter. I mean here at any church. Because this is the era of “spiritual but not religious”. There are plenty of voices out there telling you that you can connect with God on a hike, or over brunch, or at a party with a bunch of friends.

And I’m not saying that any of those things are false. But I am saying that I don’t think they are enough. Because at the end of the day, the solitary spiritual life is just that: solitary. And I don’t think God calls us out only to leave us alone.

When Christ called Philip, he didn’t leave Philip alone for long. Right away Nathaniel was called too. And then more and more disciples. The church is here today because Christ knew we were better together, and for generations we Christians have discovered the same thing. And something about that appeals to you enough that you are here, in a church.

That’s true for each of us here today. Each of us has come here on our journey, our roads converging together here. And now, as members of this community, we walk the road together. That’s why I am here. That’s why you are here. That’s why each of us is here.

And so here’s the next big question: Why are WE here? Why have we been brought together in this place.

Some of you read in my weekly email on Friday that today we are starting a new, month-long sermon series that will lead us right to the start of Lent by that same name: Why are WE here? And here’s the big question we are asking: What does it mean to be church together?
What we are really asking here is “What’s our purpose? What are we all about?” And to answer that question, sometimes it’s easier to ask the opposite question: What isn’t our purpose?

I have a few thoughts. These are reminders I have to give myself from time to time, because they are easy to default into, but I’ll share them with you because maybe they are helpful. First, the church is not a club. We may have members and membership rolls and a building and all of that, but we aren’t a club. This is a place where we each belong, but remember that this is also a place where anyone who wishes can also belong. There is no exclusivity here.

Second, with all due respect to all the great civic organizations out there, we aren’t one of those either. We can do good works continuously, and we should and must, but at the end of the day if that’s all we do we may as well just pack it in and join together with all the great organizations out there who do good works everyday.

And third, we are not just a place where we are fed, or entertained. Don’t get me wrong. I want us to leave church on Sundays filling spiritually renewed. I want the music to be uplifting, and the sermon to be memorable. But, I want those things to happen because we were worshipping God together. And because we are being prepared so that we can go back into a world that needs people who will lead lives that testify to God’s love.

That’s true of everything we do together. We do not exist for ourselves. We exist for glorifying God, and for loving the world. All the things we do together, worship on Sunday, committee meetings on Wednesday, music rehearsals on Thursday, all of that is important because all of that is part of what it means to be the church, the body of Christ.

And we, you and I and everyone else here, are the church together. Church is not a place we go on Sunday morning. Church is who we are. And we don’t have to be church alone. We are really, truly, better together. And our life together, no matter what comes up, can always be deeply joyful because of that fact.

And so, over the next few weeks, in the course of worship, the most meaningful thing we do together, we will be exploring why we are here. We will be looking at three things that Christ calls us to do together: to learn, to change, and to love. I’m not saying that’s the sum of the Christian life, but those are good places to start. And along the way, I hope you will keep asking yourself the question: Why am I here? And I hope you’ll then ask the bigger question: And what does it mean that I am a part of this “WE” called the Congregational Church in Exeter.

They are big questions, but they are worth asking. And more than anything, they are worth asking together. I’m privileged that my road has intersected with yours, and that we have found each other in this place. And I’m looking forward to asking them together. Amen.

“Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening.” – Sermon for January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
3:1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

3:2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;

3:3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.

3:4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”

3:5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

3:6 The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”

3:7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

3:8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.

3:9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

3:10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

On Sunday mornings for decades now the pastor of this church has preached the same sermon, and offered the same service in one church and then driven six miles to the next and done it all again. Today’s the last time the pastor of this church does that. Today’s the last time Alan plays the same hymns at both places. Today’s the last time we make that quick run out of the door of one church and into the door of the other. It’s the last time we worry about making it down the road in time.

 

In many way the two churches are the same, and in worship each Sunday we do the exact same things. But so many times in the past year and a half I have wanted to preach one thing to Wilmington and one to West Dover, because both churches have been in such different places in their lives. And I came to truly believe that God was calling both churches to something new, and that each needed to listen for it. And today, I can tell you that I truly believe that both have.

 

Today’s Scripture reading talks about a young prophet named Samuel. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving Eli, one of the priests there. And one night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.”

 

In the United Church of Christ, the denomination that both of these churches belong to, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And then, we have to listen.

 

When I came here twenty months ago, I told the members of Wilmington that I knew the idea of closing the church had been around for some time, but that I didn’t have any agenda one way or another. My only agenda was to help us learn to listen for God’s voice, and to listen for what God was calling us to do next.

 

I’m really proud of the way that the members of Wilmington did just that. They listened to what God was saying to them, both in prayer, and by looking around at their community and asking what God would have them do. They looked at towns that were getting smaller, a society where compulsory church attendance is no longer the norm, and the fact that two like minded ministries were just six miles apart. And unlike back before the early 20th century, we don’t have to saddle up the horses on Sunday mornings to make it to church on snowy, unpaved roads. We just have to make a short trip now.

 

The needs of the people of God have changed. And we are being called to do something new. And we have been provided for by generations that came through those church doors and committed what they had to the ministry of the Wilmington Church. And we might be thinking right now that when we close the doors for the last time we might be betraying that legacy. But we’re not. In fact, we are making sure it lives.

 

The people who founded the Wilmington church back in the 1700’s didn’t come from Wilmington. They came mostly from Massachusetts and their families from England before that. They had gotten onto boats, often because they believed their faith compelled them to do it. They believed they had to leave the only home they knew in order to find the place where God was calling them to go. And it must have been terrifying.

 

And yet they went. They were called Puritans and they believed they were building a “city upon a hill” in Massachusetts. They didn’t always get it right, but they tried. And by the time their children and grandchildren pushed forth into Vermont we called their houses of worship Congregational churches. And then over the years we became the United Church of Christ. And we began to proclaim that “God is still speaking” and that we were ready to listen. And so, we did. And we heard what God was calling us to do next.

 

Our founders, and the good church people who came through the doors for years, wouldn’t be disappointed in us. They’d be proud of us. They were people who understood what it meant to say “here I am, Lord” and to listen for what God said next.

 

The people at West Dover have been listening too. So many people in the congregation have asked how they could welcome the members of Wilmington. So many have expressed gratitude for the fact that Wilmington has made the gracious stewardship gesture to give what they had to West Dover. Wilmington could have spent down to their last dollar keeping the doors open, but they chose instead to invest in West Dover’s ministry. And West Dover responded by saying, “We want you to work from us from the get go. We want to help you preserve the legacy, and the vision, of all those generations from Wilmington. We want to own it with you.” And when the West Dover church council made the decision to welcome new members from Wilmington into leadership, I couldn’t have been more proud. Because it showed that we were listening for what God was doing next. It showed we believe that God, just like one of those Puritan ministers said so long ago, “has more truth and light yet to break forth”.

 

Now that’s not to say that all of things are certain. That’s not to say that we are all hope and no sadness. Or that we have all the answers, and none of the questions. That’s not to say that we know what church will look like for us in a year or five or ten. That’s just to say that God is, indeed, still speaking. God still has more truth and light. And God is going to be there with us wherever our journey takes us, just like God was there in those boats that crossed the Atlantic, and with those early Congregational settlers who came up here. Just like God was with Samuel.

 

There’s a temptation in times of change to panic and to want every question to be answered immediately. And you probably have questions, and ideas, and thoughts about what should happen next. We all do. And I want to hear them. From all of you. Because I believe that God is truly speaking to all of us, just like God spoke to Samuel. I truly believe that God is about to tell us what God wants us to do next. And like Eli sending Samuel back to listen to God’s word, I believe we are being called to stop and listen with prayerful hearts to what God is saying to us. We have to all be willing to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” and to really mean it.

 

I’d like for us, as members of both churches, to say that together, and then to listen together. I’d like for us to be Samuels, listening for God’s voice in the night. And I’d like for us to be open to the idea that maybe God is going to have words to speak to us from people we might not expect. Maybe even you. Samuel was just a boy when God spoke through him. Surely, God can speak through any one of us.

 

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, said that if a sailor didn’t know which direction he was headed, no wind would seem good. And there’s a tendency, when you’re not sure where you’re going, to thing that there is nothing good coming your way. It’s easy to be negative in situations like that. But when you start to think about where you are truly being called to go, you finally know where to put up your sail and harness the wind to your advantage.

 

It may sound odd to talk about sailing in terms of church, but there’s a long history of representing the church as a boat. It happens in art work and in hymns and in ecumenical circles. We are people who have been gathered together for a journey that is sometimes on choppy seas, but we are held safely together by God’s love, secure in our belief that Christ can calm the waters.

 

Which means we have a choice in our life together now. We could sit out in our boat, in the middle of the ocean, with our sails down just hoping to drift to the right place. Or we could try to see where God wants us to be going, and put those sails up together.

 

In the coming months, I’d like us all to talk about how to do that. I’d like us to engage in a visioning process, one where we can talk about our hopes, and our dreams, and our beliefs about what God is asking us to do next. I’d like all of us to be a part of that conversation, West Dover, Wilmington, long-time member, newcomer, church officer, and even those who can’t stand committee meetings. I’d like for us to think as a community about what we believe our mission is; what we believe God is asking us to do in the Deerfield Valley. And I want you all to be a part, because I want you all to be able to come to church on Sunday mornings and say, “This is my church, and we are listening to what God is saying.”

 

And when we start to see what our mission is, when we start to understand what God is calling us to next, together we can put up those sails. Because God is about to take us to good places. As much as I believe anything in my life, I believe that. I hope that you do too. And so I leave you with this:

 

God is still speaking. And God always will be. So may we always be listening. Because listening to God’s voice is our legacy to honor. Amen.