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”.

Sermon for the Closing of Wilmington Congregational Church

Genesis 12:1-9

12Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,

6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lordappeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

If I could only say one thing to the members of Wilmington today, I’d say this: “you did nothing wrong”.

And if I could say a second thing it would be this: “God is not done with you.”

We’ve come today because we are saying goodbye to one particular form of the body of Christ. We are sad. And it is not something we ever wanted to do. And yet, in the end, we felt like this was the most faithful choice we could have made. Which makes today particularly bittersweet.

Over the last year we have engaged in a hard conversation. A conversation that had been a long time coming. It was not easy. It was emotional. And it was something none of us wanted to talk about. And yet we did. And about two months ago we sat in this sanctuary and took a unanimous vote that it was time to close our doors.

Since that time, the biggest regret I have heard from folks. is not about closing the church. It’s about whether we let our ancestors in this place down. Would members of all the generations that came through those doors look at us today and think, “You didn’t do enough. You didn’t honor our legacy.”?

There’s a tendency to beat ourselves up about that. To wonder what we could have done better. But if we are doing that, we are losing sight of the question: Did we honor their legacy?

As I’ve thought about it, I think the answer is “yes”. We have honored the lives and faith of the people who came through that door. And I’ll tell you why.

The earliest founders of this church, back in the 1780’s, were not from here. They came to a new frontier, and they built a church that reflected the needs of the community at that time. They were people of faith. People for whom the will of God was the center of their lives. And they, and the generations that came after them, kept the doors of this church open to respond to the faith needs of not just this community, but the world.

They did incredible things in the name of faith. They gave meaning to a growing town, before Vermont was even a state. They baptized and confirmed people who would know Christ. They, in the days before abolition, sent money to support Congregational missionaries working to free slaves. They rallied to keep responding to the needs of Wilmington in the Great Depression, and the World Wars, and they served the people of this town well even into the last few months. Even when we knew where we were heading, when the waters flooded this town, we responded to Wilmington as people of faith, and we opened our doors.

Up until that very last meeting with the vote, we did the things that honored the legacy of  our forebears. And then, at the vote, we did it once more.

You all know there was enough money in our accounts to keep our congregation going for a few more years. But you also knew that this was about more than us. This was about God, and the legacy of this church.

You made a hard choice. You decided to honor the legacy of the people who came before you by giving freely of the gifts we had, so that our sister church down the road could continue to minister to our whole valley. You made a selfless choice. And the choice you made, and the way you made it, said more about who you were as Christians than about anything else. You spoke well for all the generations that no longer could. You told the world what kind of Christians they were, by showing what kind of Christians you are.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have uncertainty. That doesn’t mean we exactly what happens next. But, I can tell you this: God isn’t done with you yet.

This afternoon I read you a story of old beginnings. Old because they come from one of our oldest ancestors. One who never lived in Vermont, but whom we still know. I read you the story of Abraham, and how God told him to leave the place he knew.

God doesn’t just tell Abraham to go. God tells him that there is a new land waiting. One that will be shown to him. And God tells him that God will bless Abraham’s name and make it great.

You have to wonder what Abraham was thinking. Was he scared? Was he unsure? Did he really believe it? Did some part of him want to hold on to all he knew and stay there in that place?

I’m guessing he did. But I also know that he went. And I know that God did everything that God promised. Because thousands of years later, when the book of Hebrews was written, we are told about what Abraham did. And how he looked to God, “the architect and builder” of a new place. And how this man, who Scripture calls “as good as dead”, produced a legacy. Descendants who were greater in number than the stars, or grains of sand.

But you don’t even have to take Scripture’s word for it. You can take the word of his descendants. I am one of them. And so are you.

And if God would do this for Abraham and Sarah, God will do it for those of us who are his legacy.

You have done nothing wrong. You have done everything possible to honor the legacy of those who come before you. You’ve done it by loving your neighbor. You’ve done it by  being good stewards. You’ve done it by trusting that God never forgets God’s children. And that God sometimes calls us to a new home in order to make us great. And God wants us to be great.

As we leave here today, and ring that bell one last time, may it ring out our commitment to that carrying our legacy with it. May it ring out our intention to be people who serve our God and our neighbors. And may it ring out our hope as we join another community of faith, and seek to serve this whole valley. God has promised us a blessing. And God will meet us on the journey. Amen.

Eagle’s Wings and Football Scores: Sermon for 5 February 2012

As you may have heard, there’s a little football game happening later today.

This afternoon I know many of you are going to be tuning in to see who wins the Super Bowl. You Giants and Patriots fans especially have been waiting for this moment to see who wins. It’s the biggest game of the year. So big, that not even the church is immune. That’s why some of us will even be here at the church watching the game down in the basement.

Now, our little Super Bowl party is not the first time this season that faith and football have collided. Sports and religion have often intersected. Like Cassius Clay converting to Islam and changing his name, or Hank Greenberg refusing to play baseball on Yom Kippur. But this year we heard quite a lot about Tim Tebow, and his very public prayers in the end zone during football games.

Now, I’ve heard different theories. Some say religion has no place in sports. Others say it’s a refreshing change. Some say that a football player should do as Jesus suggests, and pray in private. Others say, how is this not okay when extravagant touchdown dances are?

All valid points, perhaps. But they are also all secondary to the real point here. Which is, does God even care about football?

There was a picture going around the internet that showed Tebow praying in his classic Tebow pose after a touchdown. It was placed right next to a picture of a child in Africa who was severely emaciated. The implication was clear. How can God care about a football game when there is real grief and suffering in the world?

Today’s reading from the lectionary may seem very fitting for a day focused on sports. It’s a verse that is often read by athletes as a source of inspiration: “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

I’ve heard athletes and teams read that before a game as a sort of promise that God will give them physical strength. God will help them run that last mile, or push past that last hurdle. And, maybe that’s true. But winning the football game is nowhere near as glorious, and incredible as what the author of the passage was talking about.

This section of the book of Isaiah was written near the end of the Babylonian captivity. It was written right around the time that the people had lost all hope, and needed that strength of God. They needed that renewal, that ability to rise up and not be defeated. It wasn’t 4th and goal. It was 4th and life.

It wasn’t the Broncos vs. Patriots. It was the child who didn’t know what it was to be full.

But does that mean that things like football don’t matter? Does that mean that God doesn’t give us strength and perseverance in our daily lives, even when we are not in crisis?

I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Now, as much as I like to tease the Giants fans in our congregation, I honestly don’t think God is going to be nudging the football through the uprights for one team or another tonight. I think in the big scheme of things that Giants vs. Patriots is a battle of good and evil. (That’s Red Sox vs. Yankees.)

But what happens tonight doesn’t have to be irrelevant to the life of faith.

Many of you have seen the movie “Chariots of Fire”. It’s actually a true story, and one of the central characters is a runner named Eric Liddell who happens to be a devout Christian. He makes the 1924 Olympic Team only to discover that his best race is being run on Sunday, the sabbath. He makes a principled, and unpopular, decision not to run. And instead he goes to a church and preaches on this passage. Years later, as a missionary, he died in an internment camp in China. He had declined an opportunity to be released, and had decided to stay and serve the people around him.

Eric Liddell’s life was not made great by the fact that he was a great runner. It was made great because he was a principled man who made hard, sometimes unpopular, choices because he believed his relationship with God demanded it. But his gift for running was not irrelevant.

He talked about how when he ran he could “feel God’s pleasure”. And he used the recognition he received as a runner in order to turn focus away from himself, and to God. When he made the hard decision not to run, it was all the more notable because had he run that day he probably would have won. But for him, honoring his understanding of who God was meant so much more.

We all have gifts. Some are runners. Some are quarterbacks. Some are musicians. Some writers. Some preachers. Some artists. The list goes on. And sometimes we judge our gifts by what they get us. Do they get us money? Prestige? Super Bowl rings? Or do they get us something more. Namely, do they get us that much closer to God’s will for us?

The mark of how valuable our gifts truly are is in how we are able to use them to serve God and others.

That’s one reason we are having this Super Bowl food drive. We have a gift in this church that maybe we wouldn’t generally describe that way. We are a church divided on football lines. We have our die-hard Giants. And our die-hard Patriots. (And we also have a lot of other good people with really good hearts and a sense of humor.) And you might be saying, how is that a gift?

Well, the truth is, if we do nothing with it, it isn’t. But if we see it as an opportunity, if we see it as a way that we can glorify God and help our neighbor, it becomes one. Anything can be a gift if we look at it in the right way, and decide to use it in a way that matters.

And so now, you have brought what you had in your cabinets. Or, what you bought on your last grocery trip. And because of you, a few more people are going to get a good meal here in the Deerfield Valley. You might have brought your food items here because you wanted one team or the other to win. You may have finally remembered that can of Cream of Tomato soup you’ve been meaning to throw in the box today because you are the world’s biggest Giants fan. Or you might have heard the Giants were in the lead and so you grabbed some more pasta because you are a diehard Pats lover. But I sincerely doubt any of you only did it for that reason. I’m guessing you did it because you love your neighbor, and because you love God. The football stuff…that’s just a fun way to use this gift of a good-natured football rivalry to create gifts for others.

Things like that happen more often than we know.

This afternoon, between this service and the Super Bowl tonight, the Wilmington church will be having their last closing service. It’s a sad day in so many ways. And yet it is also one in which I know God has lifted the people up on eagle’s wings, and is getting ready to give them more strength. I know that, because they have found their gifts, and they are, even in their last acts together, using them to help their neighbor and glorify God.

I’ve told you all before that the people of Wilmington could have waited to close their church. They could have decided to keep all they had. But instead, they saw they had a gift, and they gave it to you. Those are the kinds of people that made up Wilmington. They are people of faith, and goodness, and giftedness. And now, they are going to be joining us here in our church as well. We are blessed by that.

And maybe no one is going to be kneeling in the endzone here, Tebowing, and thanking God for them. But we should be. There may be no trophies, or rings, or ticker-tape parades, but there can be warm welcomes, and open hearts, and gratitude. I know that we are welcoming, open, grateful people. It’s one of our gifts. And it’s one we can give to give to people who need to know those eagle’s wings are real right now. 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.

“Making New Paths” – Sermon for 4 December 2011

Most of us have seen a fender bender take place in front of us before. We may have even been asked to be a witness to the accident. A police officer has asked us to remember everything that we saw, leaving nothing out, even if it seemed insignificant. And then he or she has gone and asked everyone else what they saw.
What’s interesting is that if you and I and a few other people were to see a fender bender, get separated, and then get asked what we saw, our stories wouldn’t be the same. I might remember that one driver ran a stop light. You might have seen the other driver texting. Someone might say the car was red. Another might remember where the license plates were from. And some of our stories might even conflict a little, not because any of us are lying, but because we were standing on different sides of the street or because one thing in particular caught our eye and felt so important that we remembered it.
It’s been said that the Gospels aren’t that different. There are four Gospels that we consider canonical, or a part of Holy Scripture. And each serves as a witness to the life of Christ. Each tells the story of what they saw. And they are all different. Some overlap and tell some of the same stories, but often you’ll find that a story one or two Gospels contains isn’t in the others. It’s like the witnesses to a fender bender. The parts of the story I think are most important might not even make it into yours.
Which is why John the Baptist is so interesting. Because he is there in all four Gospels. He is a part of everyone’s story. While some of the Gospel writers leave out this miracle or that parable, no one forgets John. He’s like the car that everyone saw run the red light. You can’t leave him out.
Every Advent we read about John. We read that he was the one who came first to try to tell everyone who was coming after him. He told those Gospel writers who was coming, and they couldn’t forget it.
The writer of Mark in particular didn’t forget. In fact they start the Gospel this way: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” And the beginning of that good news is that God sent this messenger. This messenger who lived out in the wilderness and wore camel’s hair and ate honey and locusts. He’s the first thing that Mark talks about. Not Mary or Joseph or the manger, but this strange guy who shouts out “prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s paths straight.
You might think that Jesus could have gotten a better PR guy. Locusts and honey and camel’s hair don’t seem like what you want people to remember about your spokesperson. You want someone polished and dynamic and exciting. Someone with powerpoint and music and a big budget. Someone who Oprah will invite on the show and say that you changed her life. Someone who will write the feel-good best sellers that fly off the shelves. Not someone who tells everyone to “repent” and to get ready for something that is about to change their life.
But God sent John. And every year about this time we remember him in Advent. We remember him as the first person to know who Jesus was and to tell people to get ready.
As a child I thought “John the Baptist” must actually be a Baptist. I figured that there was John the Baptist, Steve the Methodist, Joe the Presbyterian, etc., etc. I didn’t understand why he was called that. A more accurate name for John would be “John the Baptizer”. Because that’s what he did. He called people out to the wilderness, away from the comfort of what they knew, and to a river. And they confessed their sins, all the things that caused them pain and grief and kept them tied to the past, and he baptized them. He helped them to put all of that behind them, and to start over fresh, because someone was coming that was going to need them.
John the Baptist was the original Advent guy. He was, as Mark says, “the beginning of the Good News”. He was the one who told you that Jesus was coming, and everything was about to change. And so, you’d better get ready.
Advent is about waiting. It’s about expecting that something incredible is about to happen, and watching for the signs that are all around you.
And we hear “wait” and we probably think about being patient and passive. You might think about the Advents we knew as children where the most we could really do was shake the presents and count down the days as you opened the doors on the Advent calendar. Advent was something to be endured.
But Advent is more than a kind of calendar. It’s a time of preparation. It’s “the beginning of the good news”. It’s the time where we are called to not just passively wait, but to get ready. John tells us to prepare a path for God. And Advent is the season to do it.
But how do you prepare that path? How do you get ready for what God is about to do next? How do you say, “Come, God. Come”?
To me, Advent is more than just four weeks a year. Advent is a lot like life. If we have faith, on our best days we believe that God is going to do something incredible with God’s people, both in this world and the next. We believe that Christmas, the coming of Christ, was not a one time only event. We affirm that Christ is coming again. And we are waiting.
But God wants us to do more than just sit around and wait. We don’t live our lives just crossing days off calendars the way we might open the doors of an Advent calendar just wanting to get to December 25th. God wants us to get ready. To prepare the way of the Lord, not just during Advent, but every day of our lives.
And so we get ready. Just like we get ready for Christmas by putting up the lights, and cutting down the tree, and buying the presents, we get ready for Christ every day of our lives. Because what is coming is more incredible than anything we have ever hoped for on Christmas morning.
But how do we get ready? We get ready by making this Advent world look like we want it to look like when Christ comes again. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Let’s wait until God changes everything.” We look around, and we see what we can do to make this world ready for Christ. And then we work together to do it.
It’s not always convenient. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always what we want to do. Usually it takes us on a path that is nothing we would ever expect. But in the end, if we are preparing the path that we think Christ will need in this world, we will find ourselves more fulfilled than we ever will leading a passive life of faith. That’s not what Advent is all about. That’s not what the life of faith is all about.
The church I attended in college and seminary was not a place of passive people. It was a place where people looked around, saw what they thought Jesus would be doing if he came back today, and did it. They looked around their neighborhood, saw homeless folks all around, and they invited them in and fed them and gave them somewhere to sleep. They were waiting for Christ to come again, but they weren’t content to sit by and cross days off the calendar. They listened to John. They were preparing the way of the Lord right then and there.
I was thinking of them this week, as Wilmington prepares to decide what path to take and how they will prepare the way of the Lord. My little church had slowly lost members until less than fifteen folks came on Sunday. And it became clear to all of us that God was ready to do something new. God was calling us to create a new path.
That church is gone today. At least in any official sense. There are no Sunday services, the members have all gone elsewhere, and the sign out front is gone. But its legacy lives on in the form of a building that has been transformed into a residential center for those who need a hand up. Hundreds of folks in Atlanta have had their lives changed because the people of that church decided that God was calling them to take what they had and create a new path. It wasn’t the end of a church. It was, as Mark says, the beginning of the good news.
Our job in all of our life, is to be a little like John the Baptist. Without the locusts. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make a path for God. In all we do, point not to ourselves, but to the one who is to come. And be the beginning of the Good News. Because if we can be that, God will make sure that there is more Good News to come, and that the Advent, the beginning, we create will give way to the one who is yet to come. Prepare the way of the Lord. This is only the beginning…Amen.