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”.

“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.