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.

What God Sees, and What We Miss: Sermon for March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13

16:1 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

16:2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’

16:3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.”

16:4 Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

16:5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

16:6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD.”

16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

16:8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any of these.”

16:11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

16:12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

When I was growing up, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest of all my siblings, by far. The youngest of all my cousins. Most of tine time I was even the youngest in my class. I’ve joked that growing up I had a permanent reservation at the children’s table.

I think that’s why I like this story so much. It is a quintessential youngest kid story. Samuel has been appointed by God to go and anoint the new king. And God tells Samuel that the king will come from among Jesse’s sons.

So Samuel goes to Jesse’s house and says, “I need to meet your sons”. And Jesse’s seven oldest sons are brought in. Now, it’s important to note that in these days seven was a very highlly valued number. Seven was the ideal number, the one that signified perfection. So when Jesse had seven sons, that was something to be especially proud of in his society.

But the thing is, Jesse also had an eighth son. David. David was the youngest, and the smallest, the unexpected one, and no one really expected much out of him. So when Samuel came to anoint the new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him into the house. They just left him out in the field to watch the sheep.

But when Samuel starts to look at Jesse’s sons, God makes it clear that none of them is the king. The first one comes, and Samuel thinks, this has to be the king. But it’s not. And then the second. And then the third. Again and again until none of David’s brothers has been chosen. And that’s when Samuel asks, “Are these all your sons?”

And Jesse tells him about David. And someone went out to the fields to get him, and as soon as Samuel sees David, he knows. This is the king.

I’ve always liked underdogs. When I watch football games I almost always root for the underdog. And this story is about an underdog. In fact, David wasn’t even really an underdog because he wasn’t even considered as a possibility. And yet, he was the only one for the job.

This story reminds me that sometimes we have preconceptions about how God works. We expect that God is going to choose someone who looks a certain way or acts a certain way to do God’s will. And when you think about it, why wouldn’t it be David’s brothers? Older, bigger, stronger…it just makes sense.

But God tells Samuel, “don’t look at their outward appearance…look at the heart.”

And David’s heart was strong. This is the one who would defeat Goliath with just a slingshot. The one who would reign as king. The one who is even an ancestor of Jesus.

What if Samuel had never asked Jesse, “are you sure you don’t have another son”? What if they had left David out in the field tending the sheep? What if Samuel had tried to settle for anything less than what God wanted? My guess is that the entire Biblical story would be very different.

It makes me ask, who are we leaving out in the fields today? Some of you read the story of the eight year old girl in Virginia who was pressured out of her Christian school because she was too much of a tomboy. The school told her grandparents that she couldn’t keep cutting her hair short, or wearing the clothes she wanted to wear. They told them that she had to learn to accept her place as a girl and to be more feminine. Thankfully, her grandparents decided that they weren’t going to subject her to that anymore, but they shouldn’t have ever been forced to make that choice.

This was a Christian school. This is a school that says they want to teach children what the Bible teaches. And that’s what this child of God has learned about Jesus…that he doesn’t like the way she dresses. And when you think about it, that is so different than what God tells Samuel in today’s Scripture: don’t look at the outward appearance…look at the heart.

But the thing is, things like this happen all of the time. Sometimes in ways as blatant as the child in Virginia, but other times in more subtle ways. We stop listening to someone’s voice. We dismiss it because they are too young or too new or too old or too…whatever it is that we can’t wrap our heads around. And slowly, we push them out into the fields.

Have you ever wondered who’s out there? And have you ever wondered what they can offer?

What are we missing out on? Whose voices are not being heard? Who is not sitting at our table? It’s a question we as the church have to ask ourselves every time we make a decision. Not just “what do we want or what do we need” but “what do the people who are outside the wall of this church need”?

Last year a family came to the church for help making ends meet. And we have a pastor’s discretionary fund which lets me help our neighbors who are having a hard time, on behalf of our whole church.

The family sent me a thank you email, and I wrote them back and said we were glad to do it. And I also said, “you know…you would always be welcome at our church if you ever want to attend. No pressure, but the invitation is there.”

The email back said, “Thank you…not every church lets just anyone come.”

It was heartbreaking. Because that’s what some people think that church is; a club that one has to be deserving enough to join. And even though you and I know that we welcome anyone who comes through that doors, the reality is some people truly do believe that that’s what church is about. They believe that the church puts people out in the fields, the same way David was left out in the fields.

You really can’t blame folks for believing that though. Because sometimes Christians are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting our message out there.

This is part of why we voted to become an Open and Affirming church. It’s part of why we decided to go on record as being the sort of place where we can honestly say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”. And, no, that won’t make the front page of the papers, or the news rotation on CNN, but it’s every bit as important a piece of news.

People need to hear that church is where you are not judged on worldly things, but you are welcomed because of your heart.

We all need to hear that. Because there’s another piece to this too. And that is, have you ever left yourselves out in the fields? Have you ever thought maybe there’s nothing about you that God can use? Maybe at some level you don’t feel like you really belong. Maybe you think your voice is not important.

But it is.

That’s especially true in church. Because church is not somewhere you go…it’s who you are. You are the church. And church is not a spectator sport. It requires more than one hour on Sunday morning. It requires your heart.

And so the questions for this church, the questions for every church, are this: Whose voices are we missing? And is one of them yours?

When they finally called for David, what do you think he was thinking? Do you think he was thinking “finally! They finally know what I am!”? Or maybe was he thinking, “there’s some mistake? It’s got to be one of my brothers”?

But it wasn’t a mistake. And in time, David came to know that.

God can do amazing things through you too. And God can do amazing things through the people we haven’t met yet. So, are you out in the fields? Do you know someone who is? It’s time to call them back. It’s time to come home.

And, by the way, there’s no children’s table back at home…the one God invited us to sit at has enough room for everyone. Even you. Amen.

 

God Will Pay for the Broken Windows: Mustard Seeds, David, and Dads – A sermon for June 17, 2012

I’ve never given a lot of thought, one way or another, to mustard. I can sort of take it or leave it. Usually I pass by it at picnics. And I’ve never thought much about where it comes from, or how it’s made. So when Jesus uses the example of a mustard seed in today’s passage, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.

Jesus is teaching the disciples and he talking about creating the kingdom of God. And he compares it to a mustard seed. Now, I didn’t know much about mustard seeds, but it turns out that when you plant them they are only about 1-2mm big. That’s tiny. But the seeds, when they take hold in good ground, grow into these huge bushes that are almost more like tress. They can be 20 feet tall.
Jesus use the example of that mustard seed to talk about growing the kingdom of God. Even the smallest things become great over time.
That’s reassuring to me. Have you ever heard the phrase “faith as big as a mustard seed?” It’s sometimes taken to mean that even the tiniest bit of faith can yield great things. I think that’s true. We sometimes believe that the only way to be a good Christian, and to live a great spiritual  life, is to have this solid,unshakeable, grand faith that never doubts.
But for most people, everyday is not like that. I’ve talked a lot about faith and doubt and how they’re not necessarily opposed before. I think that has something to do with this mustard seed. It is tiny, the way our faith feels sometimes, and yet it has all of the potential in it to grow into something great. Sometimes our faith feels tiny, and yet it too can grow, and yield great things. All it takes for that mustard seed to grow is little light, a little soil, a little rain. All it takes for us is the light of God, the soil of good community, and the waters of baptism.
I wish we in the church talked about the mustard seed a little more. It makes a for good story. It’s tenacious, it grabs hold and grows where it’s planted. It creates abundance where there was none. And what is most incredible is how unexpected it is.you look at that tiny seed and you think, “How can anything great come from this?”
It’s a lot like that first story that Kenny read today. Now, I don’t usually preach on mor that one text. It was drilled into our heads in seminary not to do that. But you can’t read these two texts that the lectionary gives us today without seeing some resemblance. The tiniest seed. And the smallest son.
Samuel is called by God to find a new king of Israel. And God tells Samuel that king will be one of the sons of Jesse. So Samuel goes to Jesse’s town and asks Jesse to bring his sons. And the first one comes. And he’s the oldest and probably this big, strapping guy. He probably looks like a young king. And Samuel says to himself, “Ah, this must be him.”
But God says, “no…that’s not him.”
So Jesse gets his other sons. Samuel sees the second and third and fourth born sons and each time he thinks he must have found the guy. But God says no. Finally he gets through all seven sons and realizes the king isn’t there. And he asks Jesse, “Are all or your sons here?”
And Jesse says no. There’s another. The youngest. But he’s out in the fields tending the sheep.
That youngest was smaller than his brothers. The runt of the litter. He probably had held down the bunch all his life while he watched his brothers play in every game. They got to do everything. So much so that when the prophet came to town looking for a new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him in from the fields. It was just David, very one thought. Why would the important visitor want to see him?
But David was the chosen son. He was the mustard seed that unexpectedly grew into something great. The runt of the litter, the mustard seed, becomes a tree of life that extend generations down the line to Jesus himself. And he becomes king.
I’ll bet everyone was astonished that day. The father. The brothers. The folks in town. But I’ll bet no one was near as shocked as David. I’ll bet that after a life of being told his place was out in the fields he couldn’t believe that now he belonged on a throne.
But that’s okay. Because God did believe it. And God use that youngest son, that mustard seed, in the most unexpected way.
That’s worth remembering in our own lives. How many times have we felt about as small and insignificant as a mustard seed? How many times have we felt powerless in the face of a big, overwhelming world? How many times have we found ourselves on again sending out in the fields, counted out and feeling like the last in line?
For most of us, when it comes to the spiritual life, our greatest problem is not that we are not enough. For most of us it’s that we do not see the potential that God has already placed inside of us. Like the tiny mustard seed. Like the youngest son. We may not look like much. But God thinks otherwise.
But that doesn’t mean it always happens. Because sometimes we become so tied up in the thoughts of what we cannot do, that we fail to ever do the things we can. We are so caught up in how small and insignificant we feel, that we don’t plant ourselves in the sun and grow towards the light. We don’t take in the things that nourish us. And we don’t put down roots. We get lost in how unlikely it is that a little seed like us might turn out to be something great.
Likewise, when a new opportunity comes to town we might stay out there in the fields with the sheep while everyone else we think is more qualified or more prepared goes running. We might be so caught up in our identity as the last in line that we may never even know what God has prepared for us.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been so caught up in what you think you can’t do that you haven’t let God do the things that God can? Have you felt a tugging in your soul that only comes from God, and yet you’ve turned away for fear of failing?
We all have at some time. In our own lives, and even in our lives together. But how do we get beyond our fears and move forward?
The other day in deacons we were talking about a new idea for this church. We’ve kicked it around before but this time we were really trying to make it happen. We want to offer, once a month, a free meal for the community here at the church. Nothing major. Soup or chili with sandwiches and cookies, maybe.
There are a lot of reasons why. We want to introduce people to our church community. We want to provide a service for our neighbors who might be having trouble making ends meet right now. And, we want to provide fellowship for all of our community, no matter their economic situation. There are many reasons to do this, none of them bad.
But, be honest, how many of you are thinking that it sounds like a lot of work? How many are thinking already of the logistics. The cost of food. The coordination of volunteers. The right recipe for the chili. And where are we going to find enough tablecloths?
I get it. But I also know this. God blesses the mustard seed, and makes it grow. We’ve already seen that in our lives together. In the past two years, this church has grown by fifty percent. While other churches in communities like ours are shrinking and struggling to keep the doors open, we are going the other way. We have undertaken new programs and missions. We have gone through a flood and a merger and we have come out stronger. If we need any reassurance that God chooses the unexpected and makes it grow, look no further,
But that doesn’t mean we can rest. God is not growing us so that we can pay our bills and take care of ourselves. God is growing us for something. God is growing us for service. And we can do this. Whether it’s this new mission or something else entirely, we can do this.
And whether it’s something here in our life together, or something that only you are facing, you can do this too. The only trick is to not be so afraid, so overwhelmed, that you never claim God’s promise.
I’ll close with this. Today is, of course, Father’s Day. I was thinking of a story about my own dad. When I was about nine we were golfing. And we came to a hole that faced a group of houses. And as you teed off you hit right towards the houses. I became convinced that I was going to hit those houses with my first shot and break all the windows.
Now, they were 400 yards away. There was no way in the world I was going to hit those houses, but my dad couldn’t convince me of that. I said, “Dad im going to hit the house.”
He said, “no you’re not.”
I said, “It’s too close.”
He said, “Emily, hit the ball.”
I still didn’t want to, so finally he said this. “Swing away. Hit that ball as hard and as far as you can. And if you break the windows, I’ll pay for them.”
Scripture calls God our parent and at times calls God both a father and a mother. And there are times when I think of God like that. Because sometimes we are so afraid of whats never going to happen that we don’t even want to tee up. And I think of God as the father who just wants us to draw back, put our fears aside, and just give it our best shot. All of us David’s. All of us mustard seeds. God is calling us to the tee. It’s our shot. And we don’t have to be afraid. Because I’m pretty sure that so long as we take that shot, God will always pay for the broken windows. 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.