A Holy Experiment

Sunday, September 29, 2019

What a joy it is to be here with you today – because of the history and connection your church and my church share and because of the affection and admiration I have for your pastor, Nicole. I’ve known Nicole for 15 years – since she graduated from seminary and started ministry. I was blessed to work side by side with Nicole and with Jennie Barrett Siegal, who is also here to share in today’s big event. The three of us were together at Wellesley Village Church from 2005 to 2007. It was Nicole’s first call just out of seminary.

And what a wonderful thing it is too that there are several members here from Village Church today. We are so glad to be here with Nicole and with you Community UCC on the day when you will make a covenant commitment to each other as pastor and people.

For me, the serendipity of Nicole’s call to be with you goes even further. A few years ago when I was in Massachusetts preparing to enter the search process for a new call, I asked Nicole to serve as one of the three references on my profile, to write a letter and take phone calls. And then last year when Nicole was in California ready to start her search, we reversed roles. I served as one of her references.

And now here we are. When all of this started – it never occurred to us that we would come from either edge of the country and end up serving in the same community. I’m still in awe at how things unfolded. And I find myself asking, “What in the world is God up to?” Aren’t you curious too? I know Nicole and I are. In my experience, the Holy Spirit loves to play matchmaking games, bringing people who need each other together at just the right time. It’s God’s way of caring for us and also of calling us into something new. Our God is a schemer, always stirring things up in us and inviting us to live out our faith in new ways.

Community UCC, I imagine you already know this about your pastor, but let me say it anyway. She’s a dreamer too. Nicole has the imagination to see new possibilities and to help us see them. She also has the courage to step into them. A big vision and a brave heart – two of her best gifts. I remember how she put them to use when she was called to serve a struggling church on Cape Cod and understood that her first job with them was to build trust and bring healing.

I watched and wanted to learn from her as she stretched those gifts further, bravely setting out to start something new in Silicon Valley, bringing the good news of a progressive Christian faith to people who didn’t trust or know church. Guiding and grounding Nicole’s holy experiment at every step was her conviction that our life’s journeys are best lived out in the midst of a faithful community.

When we come together we tap into a common longing, into shared concerns and questions and hopes for our lives and for the world. In time we come to articulate a shared language and practice. We also come to see more clearly the ways we belong to each other. And more – so much more –we discover how we are held and lifted, in these words of blessing “by a grace greater than our imaginations, by a strength stronger than our need, by a fellowship richer than our togetherness.”

Naming our need for these gifts and expressing our gratitude for them is surely among the reasons we come together time and time again in worship. We gather to give thanks for this grace, this strength, this fellowship. We allow them to fortify us so that we can do God’s good work in the world. They form us, making us more the people God created us to be. They shape our life together so that we can become a witness of God’s love for the world. All of this is the work of the church. This is who we are.

And all of this makes us a wonderfully peculiar people.

About five years ago, the US Census Bureau released a report showing that more and more people are living alone – 32 million Americans, some of them older adults who live lives of silent loneliness and dangerous isolation. But it’s not just home-bound elders who live on the margins. The next largest group living alone are young adults, those you might expect to have the strongest social connections.

Author Peter Block finds this concerning . “The absence of belonging is so widespread,” he says, “that we might say we are living in an age of isolation.” Even though we talk today about how small our world has become with the shrinking effects of globalization and the instant sharing of information through quick technology, these things don’t necessarily create the kind of relationships in which we can root ourselves and experience the connectedness and constancy we need in order to thrive. They don’t necessarily enable us to engage in the kind of flourishing that includes being able to make a contribution to something larger than ourselves.

But in the middle of this age of isolation, with its individualism and its deep divisions, we in the church bear a different kind of witness. It’s a commitment to being called out of ourselves into a more expansive vision and a greater venture.

This is the story Scripture tells us from beginning to end. Starting in Genesis with the promise God makes to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants will number more than the stars, and ending with the vision of a new city of Jerusalem in Revelation, it’s clear that God’s focus is on forming a community, a visible body in the world, a people who will be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.

The essence of this effort can be found in the short passage we just heard from the book of Acts. It describes a community gathered in Christ’s name who live together, worship and eat and pray together, share all things in common, rejoice with one another other, and draw more and more people into the circle of belonging. It’s a picture of the peculiar habits of the early church.

And as such, it helps us to understand that the Christian life is indeed a life. Not so much a particular set of ideas or beliefs but a whole way of living. We learn that the way to be Christian is to participate in the life of the Christian community, the church.

We might say that this church community described so beautifully in Acts is God’s ideal, God’s dream of what might be. Paul’s letters, on the other hand, are the early reports from the holy experiments, the laboratories in the field. In them, we get a glimpse of the greatness of church life, but we also see the gaffes. We see the quarrels and controversies that challenged the early church. We see their flaws and their floundering.

It isn’t always pretty, but what’s remarkable and perhaps what’s most inspiring, is that these early Christians make a commitment to stay together anyway. They stick it out even when it’s hard, even when it’s messy, even when they don’t really know what they’re doing. And Paul hangs in there with these fledging congregations through it all as together they figure out what it means to live this new life in Christ.

We see this in the 12th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where it seems some members of this church are claiming they are more important than others. They boast that their gifts are greater and make a more significant contribution to the congregation’s life. The context in which the church is set in Corinth is a strictly hierarchical one and it seems the cultural assumptions about privilege and power have seeped into the church and are causing dissension. In his letter, Paul moves in to address these issues of difference and hierarchy head on.

He starts by borrowing an image commonly used in classical literature – an analogy between the human body and human society – an analogy often employed to strengthen the authoritarian social order. In this analogy the wealthy elite get to be the head and the poor work as the hands and the feet. Paul takes on this familiar image, he uses it, but then he completely subverts it to show how a life in Christ witnesses to another way.

He takes the hierarchy, and he flattens it out. In so doing, he lifts up every gift. And then, when he says that those parts of the body that have been considered the lowest now deserve some special attention, he takes that body and he flips it on its head.

Paul doesn’t want to delete the differences. In fact, as we read, the nose and the ear, the head and the hands talk to each other, it’s pretty clear he delights in them. Differences are not only acceptable, he tells the Corinthians, they are to be expected. And God knows, in order for the body to work well, they are necessary. This diversity, Paul says, is the work of the Spirit, who gives the body of Christ every gift we need in order to flourish. And because the Spirit is the source, every difference is valuable, indispensable, and not one of them is greater than any other. Every God-given voice, perspective, and personality, every experience, offering, talent, skill, and service makes an essential contribution to the whole.

And then Paul goes on, summing up his celebration of the parts of the body with this encouraging observation: “When one member suffers, all suffer with it. When one member is honored, all rejoice.” This is how we are knit together. We lean on each other’s strengths, we lighten each other’s load, we enjoy each other’s gifts.

But that’s not all. We also rely on each other’s insights. We stretch each other’s minds, and we work together to discern the mind of Christ. This, by the way, is the distinctive witness our Congregationalist forebears added to Paul’s wisdom about the body of Christ. It’s also one of the things I most treasure about our about our way of doing church.

Drawing on Paul’s understanding of the interdependence of the body of Christ, our Congregationalist fathers and mothers recognized that we need each other in order to listen for the Spirit’s leading. Indeed, they went so far as to say no individual by him or herself is fully equipped to figure out and follow God’s will. Rather, it is the congregation, as it is formed by Scripture and prayer, that is best able to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

So contrary to what is commonly assumed, when we meet as a congregation to discuss some issue or make a decision, we are not looking for the ways each us of us will make up our own mind. Instead, we are seeking together to discern the mind of Christ.

The first church I served as a pastor just out of seminary, long before I met Nicole, was in Newton, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. After I had been there for a couple of years, we began to explore the possibility of becoming an Open and Affirming congregation. People were nervous. This was in the early 90s when there was not a lot of experience yet about how to do this process well. We watched as some churches became hostile and divided. But when our choir’s tenor soloist told us he had AIDS and then died shortly thereafter, we felt we couldn’t delay the conversation any longer. In this time which was both very tender and highly charged, we turned to one another.

The first thing we did was to make a commitment to one another to treat each other with respect and gentleness every step of the way, walking this journey in a spirit that reflected the very openness and affirmation we were exploring. We didn’t do it perfectly – not at all – but in the process we found that our way of being church changed. We listened to each other with greater care. We made room for everyone to speak and then more room as more people showed up to join the meetings.

Many people bravely took risks as they attempted to articulate what was in their hearts. We turned frequently to prayer. All of us tried to assume the best about each other and to stay present to the conversation at hand, not moving ahead too fast, and then only attending to the next right step. It was an achingly beautiful process.

In the end, we were able to make the decision with joy. The vote was not quite unanimous, but the sense of blessing was. A few people left the church, but no one left in a huff, and some came back not long afterwards. Many members actually felt more deeply committed to our life together.

As a congregation, we grew in our ability to hold and listen to and learn from our differences. We became more patient with one another, more generous, more forgiving, and much kinder. We also became much more deeply rooted in our faith and our understanding of what it means to be the church.

After we had taken the vote, church members took the robe worn by our beloved tenor and made the pleated yoke into a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. An alto from the choir embroidered his name into the maroon fabric with gold thread. In worship, we attached the text of our Open and Affirming statement to the panel. We laid our hands on it, we prayed over it as our tears fell, and we gave thanks for our dear and faithful friend. We then sent the panel, a testimony of our heartbreak and our healing, to join the other 48,000 panels traveling the country with the Names Project.

You know from your own experience that as we work at being the church, God’s holy experiment, we get to be a part of something that at times is so astonishingly beautiful we can hardly speak of it. We find ourselves connected to the richly gifted and radically interdependent Corinthian church. We are joined to the community of belonging and purpose described in Acts. We get to commit ourselves to working out the kind of life we believe God hopes for the whole world. We get to sit right in the middle of God’s activity in the world, the creation of a beloved community that moves out to be a blessing to all people.

God bless you, Nicole and Community United Church of Christ. I can’t wait to see what God will do next with you.

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