For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
~ Ephesians 2:8-10 (NRSV)
Friends, I wonder, if someone were to ask you about our church, what would you say? That we are like a family? That we are passionate about including all ages in worship? That we have a rich history? That we have lots of church suppers? That we were the first church of the Attleboros? Over the years, I’ve heard our church described in many ways. Sometimes, we’re “the backwards church” because of the direction our pews face. Or “the coffeehouse church” because we offer a safe place for youth in our community to share their gifts of music and poetry. Sometimes, “the church that does the third-grade tours” because since the 1970s North Attleboro’s children have been visiting our church as part of the tour of the town. “The AA church” because our schoolhouse has been a saving grace for many. “The police church” because the police like to park in our parking lot. Those are all names that are used to describe our church, but who are we really?
Well, we are a gathered group of human beings. We’re Christians. We’re a community of faith that welcomes all. We’re a church family that loves and supports one another, at least most of the time. We are grounded in the Protestant, Congregational tradition. We are members of the United Church of Christ. We are a relatively small—but growing—congregation that has always worked hard to support itself.
So if that’s who we are, then that raises another question: when we come here on Sunday mornings, and when we are “in this house,” why are we here? Well, I’ll tell you what my hope is. My hope is that you come here on Sunday mornings to take a deep breath and to get a break from the busyness of the world around you. I hope you come to worship, and to pray, and to sing, but also to know that you are a part of something bigger. I hope you come to be inspired and to be reassured that you are loved just the way you are and that the grace that we heard about in our scripture reading today is not only true, but it’s abundant, in your life and in the lives of others. I hope you come here for a sense of community and belonging—not that you might be served, but that you might be inspired to serve others. I hope that you come here because, whether you’re having a good day or a bad day or a day somewhere in-between, you know that this is a safe place where you don’t need to be anything but yourself. And I hope you come here to feed your spirit, not only so that you’ll be made whole but so that you might go out into the world to share God’s love with others.
Friends, to be honest, the world that we live in has become very self-centered, and many people are more worried about what they are going to get, than what they can give. The crazy part is, because of that, the more they have, the less they realize that they have. It’s because of this self-centeredness and of the self-serving society that we live in that the state of the Christian church as a whole is in a tough spot. People’s schedules are busy, and choices need to be made as to what is important in life and how we spend not only our time but also our energy and our money. It’s no longer the day of “Blue Laws” when there is nothing else to do on Sundays but go to church. Society no longer judges people by their church attendance, so you don’t need to worry about your reputation being ruined if you don’t attend worship, which could have happened in years past.
So, why are we here? Why do we gather week after week, month after month, and year after year? Is it guilt? Is it tradition? Is it simply because that’s what we’ve always done? Folks, one of the reasons why church attendance worldwide is waning is that many churches no longer meet the needs of society, and the tenets of religion, which used to bring comfort and guidance, now feel either too rigid or too empty. People feel that they don’t get enough back for the time and money they invest in their faith. Friends, when I hear that, my heart breaks because what happens here on Sunday morning has nothing to do with what we are going to get. On the contrary, it is a celebration of God’s love for us and, by the grace of God, what we have already been given.
Friends, this fall we are going to take several weeks to figure out what it means to be a part of our Oldtown family of faith, and why people have gathered in this house on Sunday mornings for more than three hundred years. We are going to be reminded not only of who and whose we are but also of the gifts that we have been given by the grace of God. We’ll bring generations together to teach and to learn from one another as we build and foster relationships, remembering that the most important thing for us to do—even more than being able to quote the Bible or pray fancy prayers, more than being well-behaved and having all the answers—is to love one another unconditionally, as God has loved us.
That’s why this week’s statement is: “In this house, we give grace.” To be honest, my friends, it’s nice and easy to say that we give grace. After all, we’re a church. But what that really means is that we love one another unconditionally, despite our differences and our mistakes, and we even love one another when our personalities clash or when the behaviors of others make us want to roll our eyes and walk away.
In Household Huddle this morning, we talked about behavior and how we are supposed to act when we are here in worship. We talked about the fact that it’s important to use inside voices and walking feet, and how we need to treat our church building gently—like a grandmother—because it’s old.
Whenever I talk to the kids about behavior in the church, I always think back to when I was a kid. I remember having a constant feeling of fear that I would do something wrong in the sanctuary because expectations were so high and I didn’t want to do something to get into trouble. The difference between the way the kids today understand the rules of the church and the way I did back then, I believe, is an example of grace. Today, we talked about behavior in worship and in church as a whole, not through the lens of “if you do something wrong, you’ll get in trouble,” but rather that we are called to act so that we are respectful of ourselves and to those around us.
Today, we teach that our relationships and the ways that we treat one another are very important, even more important than whether we are right or wrong, or whether we are going to get in trouble. Because if I forget to use my walking feet, and I run down the aisle on my way out of church because I want to get the donut with the pink frosting. I won’t get in trouble or even get yelled at, telling me that I’m a bad person. Hopefully, though, because the people in this congregation care about me and I care about them, they will remind me that it’s not all about me, and that I should slow down so that I don’t run into anyone else.
That’s how we teach by example and give grace to others. It’s not about demanding a certain behavior, but loving one another in the midst of our mistakes. None of us are perfect, my friends. We all make mistakes. Whether we are here in the church or out in the world. But the good news is that God gives us grace. God gives us a second chance, and a third chance, and a fourth chance, and a fifth chance if we need it. And God doesn’t love us any less or any more because of the things we do. Folks, I don’t know about you, but that’s one of the reasons why I come to this house on Sunday mornings. Things out in the world get pretty crazy sometimes, and when they do, I start to judge myself and others. I forget about God’s unconditional love and amazing grace. So, on Sundays, when I come to this house, I come to be filled and fed and reminded of just how amazing God’s Grace is.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, don’t get overwhelmed by the weight of the world. Remember that no matter what mistakes you make, God’s love for you never falters. So stand firm in your faith, know that you are loved no matter what, and then go out and share that unconditional love with the world, remembering that “here in this house, we give grace!”
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!