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2017 State of the Church Address: "Not About Us"

Each year on Annual Meeting Sunday, I like to prepare what I call the “State of the Church Address.” It’s always fascinating to me to see what the readings will be from the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday and whether they will fit with what I want to say. This year they include a passage credited to King David describing the beauty and comfort of God’s holy place, the temple. That fit perfectly! But the epistle reading is a description by the Apostle Paul of a church that is in crisis and is really just a big mess. That doesn’t fit so well, but it still provides some food for thought, so I’m going to try to bring those passages together and find something worth saying about our own ministry here at Community UCC.

The Psalmist said, “One thing have I asked of God, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. God will hide me in God’s shelter in the day of trouble.” Do you ever feel like you need a place to hide from what is happening around you? I often feel that way. Just watching the news each day has been distressing and even overwhelming at times. Our church moderator, Vicky Graham, said this in the annual report that was sent out this week: “Looking ahead to the many unknowns in our nation's future, I fully expect that this church will remain a place of refuge, renewal, and inspiration for people of faith.” How true that is!

This past Wednesday, I attended an interfaith meeting on the topic of “sanctuary.” One of the speakers was an undocumented gay Latino immigrant teenager whose educational pursuits and hopes for the future are in jeopardy. He and others like him live in fear, and local leaders of churches and other faith communities were there to discuss providing sanctuary in churches and synagogues for those threatened by deportation. What a literal interpretation that is of the Psalm: “I will seek to live in God’s house and hide in God’s shelter in a day of trouble.” It’s also a metaphor for those who feel abandoned even by their own country and need to find refuge in a world that feels increasingly hostile. And that is what we will be in this New Year.

The state of the Community United Church of Christ is strong. Our congregation is healthy and stable and continues to welcome a steady stream of new people who are looking for a church just like this. I often hear newcomers remark on our physical setting beside the mountain and the trees and gardens and labyrinth and Bear Creek, and how that drew them here and refreshes them each time they come to church. Our building is a testimony to simplicity and artistic expression and a commitment to our earth. We made significant progress toward reducing our carbon footprint this year with additional solar panels. I know very few mainline Christian churches that are not struggling to maintain oversized or outdated buildings, and our commitment to living together simply frees up our energy and other resources to do good in the world. There is a slogan floating around in the Christian world lately that says “Don’t go to church; be the church.” This congregation knows what it is to be the church in community with one another and in service to the world.

Our finances have remained strong this year and the projection for 2017 is that we will be able to both increase our budget modestly and underwrite it primarily through our regular giving. This morning we received a generous gift from the PRISM Campus Ministry board that will undoubtedly be a blessing in the future. We’ll take some time in the next year to figure out how to use it, and you will be asked to voice your thoughts since that is how we function as a church with congregational polity.

It occurs to me when I consider our current reality and our opportunities for the future that we are both a regional and a neighborhood church. Many of us drive considerable distances because we have a commitment to the United Church of Christ denomination or because we’re willing to travel to a church that embodies an especially progressive Christian message. We are in the midst of a vital neighborhood, though, and many of the new people who have joined us in the last year or two live close to the church. I believe that we can do more to let our neighbors know who we are and that they are welcome here. In February, we will hold a “Bring a Friend” Sunday and encourage you to invite someone who might want to be part of a church like ours and just need to know that there is a place here for them.

This is the third year that I have served this congregation. It is common knowledge among clergy that the third and seventh years are likely to bring up new challenges. I’m glad to have completed a couple of years and arrived at this point in my service with you. When we get to the place of knowing one another pretty well, we can increase our honesty and vulnerability and deepen our trust with one another so that the years ahead can be even more productive. I have never served in a church before where members are so passionate about ministry and justice and caring for the earth. It’s can be pretty overwhelming at times, trying to make sure everyone is communicating with one another and more or less working toward common, agreed goals. The work of doing so is enormously fulfilling, though, and I can’t imagine a better place to be in ministry.

The reading from First Corinthians is a glimpse of an early Christian community. In one of the towns where I served as pastor was a small storefront congregation with the name “Church of Corinth.” I always thought that was an odd name because the Corinthian church was notoriously troubled. There were all kinds of differences and divisions in the church, and the Apostle Paul starts right out in the first chapter appealing for people to knock it off and be united. I’m not sure how well that worked out. I’ve always thought that telling people they should be united is a bit like telling your teenaged kid that they should have a better attitude. It’s highly unlikely that they will suddenly say “Oh, you are so right, thank you for pointing that out to me!” Right now a lot of people whose candidate became president on Friday are appealing to the rest of our citizens to come together and be united. It’s not that simple. There needs to be a basic respect for one another and a measure of trust in order for unity to exist.

I find it most interesting that the Apostle says specifically that all should be in agreement in the church. He’d have a hard time with Community UCC if that is a requirement. If we were to make a list of all the things that we all agree on, it would be a very short list indeed. But there are many things that unite us, and a remarkable degree of unity characterizes this church.

At our annual meeting today, we are voting on a resolution to confer the title of Pastor Emeritus on our former pastor, Pete Terpenning. The reason Pete is able to not only participate in the life of our congregation as an active member but to receive this well-deserved honor is that he is a man whose love for the church far outstrips his own ego. I’m grateful for the thoughtful and humble work Pete did here for twelve years. It has been an honor to follow him in the position of pastor at CUCC. I think I can safely speak for Pete as well as myself by saying that pastoral ministry is not about us. It is about serving and equipping the church the best we can for whatever time we have. In the Corinthian church, there were divisions headed by people who said “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas.” Members of that fledgling Christian community identified with human leaders rather than Jesus, to the detriment of the whole. I’ve seen that happen often in churches, especially during times of pastoral transition. Pete deserves to be honored because of the gracious way he served as pastor and also for how he has supported the church in embracing a new pastor. One of my goals here is to do the same; to make sure that our members identify primarily with the congregation and its values and not just with the pastor. That is what allows for strength and continuity, regardless of who is in the pulpit.

It’s true for the congregation as a whole that the church is “not about us.” At least not just about us. Worship is at the center of our life together. Our main service on Sunday is always lively with outstanding music and lay leadership and children’s voices. Our contemplative Taize service is deeply meaningful for those who attend, including many visitors drawn to that form of spirituality. Worship and spiritual development are essential to who we are. We know, though, that we are here to serve our community and not merely fill up spiritual reserves for our own benefit. Again, this is something our church understands well. Social justice is a core value of this congregation, and we have continued our work this year to advocate for the marginalized, for the homeless, and for the environment. Whether learning from the Lakota people at Pine Ridge or joining them in protest at Standing Rock or building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Boulder or collecting seeds for Boulder County Parks or donating socks and supplies for the local homeless or helping to produce a film about undocumented immigrant youth in our community or preparing for service and learning trips in New Orleans or Guatemala, we know that we are here to love and serve all people and to protect the created world. Many of our congregation joined in Women’s marches yesterday in Denver, Washington D.C., California, Madrid, and other places, and we were honored to walk in memory of Eileen Moore on the day of her memorial service and to hear our own Sue Buchanan speak on behalf of women’s health care. Many of us have deep concerns for our nation and its people going forward, and our Social Action theme for 2017 is “Empowering Ourselves so that We Can Empower Others.”

The state of the church is strong. It is strong because you are a congregation that is highly engaged with one another and with world. Keep praying and acting and inviting and loving so that our witness will be even more evident and our light will shine even brighter in the coming year. Thanks be to God, and to you. Amen!

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