SHARING THE STORIES FROM WHERE WE’VE COME
The Dream of the Early Church from the Book of Acts
Back in September, we were reminded of the day of Pentecost in scripture, that read: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” We then talked about the overwhelming job that the disciples had in starting the Christian church. And we discussed the fact that they didn’t dream of big buildings with tall steeples, but they dreamt of community, they dreamt of relationships and the way that people could work together and support one another as they reflected on their faith in Jesus. Sure, Jesus had called them to share the Good News to all ends of the earth, but trying to do that all in one day, or one year, or even in a lifetime was biting off far more than they could chew. That dream was too big, so they started small. The disciples started where they were, with their households sharing the stories of Jesus and encouraging families to continue to tell those stories as they did their best to live out their faith. And now more than two thousand years later, the story of Jesus is still told, because the disciples not only shared the stories of Jesus, but they encouraged everyone else to continue to share those stories too. Friends, the job was too big for the disciples alone. It takes all of the followers of Jesus—including us!—to continue sharing the stories and teaching others by their own example, just as Jesus had taught the disciples long ago.
The Dream of our Founders in Oldtown
As most of you know, our church was founded here in 1712 by a group of hard-working pioneers who came to settle in this area. I’d like to share a few words with you this morning from the Rev. John Whitehill who served this church for over fifty years. If his name sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s on the bronze plaque that you look at in the front of the sanctuary every Sunday. This quote comes from one of Rev. Whitehill’s sermons in 1894. Listen for his vision for the future of Oldtown and his challenge for this congregation. “The early settlers who came hither put time, thought, labor, and money into this religious institution, which we have as an inheritance from them. And what is there of all that they did which is now yielding richer results? These precious results are not confined to the present. All generations in the town’s history have been reaping them. Let the visible fruits of the effort of the pioneers be an inspiration to us. What they accomplished they accomplished through a whole-hearted devotion to the interests of religion. We claim to be, in some things, more enlightened than they, but if we are, or if we so regard ourselves, then our responsibilities are greater than theirs. How can we meet those greater responsibilities unless we give ourselves as fully as they did to the service of the Lord?”
The Dream of the UCC
Sixty-one years ago, the Evangelical Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church came together to form an organic merger that they called the United Church of Christ—the UCC—and that is the denomination that our church is a part of. As the United Church of Christ, we believe that Christ is the sole head of the church. So, we don’t look to a pope, or to bishops, or to any other person. Now, here in Oldtown, we often refer to ourselves as the “backwards church,” because when you come through the front door, the congregation is looking at you. Well, our denomination is often looked at as an “upside-down church,” because the authority is given to the local church and not to the leaders of our denomination. The United Church of Christ does not have a hierarchical structure, but faithfully and prayerfully puts authority into the hands of the people. Through our Congregational and Christian roots, we were given the gift of autonomy, meaning that we are self-governed and free from external control. What that means is that local churches make their own decisions rather than being told what to think and do. But that also means that each church is responsible for themselves—financially, organizationally, and structurally. Individual churches own their own buildings, pay their own bills, hire their own pastors and staff, manage their own budgets, and actually, we even pay yearly dues to support our denomination. So, local UCC churches depend on congregational or democratic polity. If we have an important decision to make in our church, we call a congregational meeting and have every member vote to decide how we will move forward. In the UCC, we believe that when the body gathers to discuss business, to argue, to sing, or to worship, the Holy Spirit is present and guiding us. Although our local churches are autonomous—meaning they make their own decisions—they are also in covenant with the wider denomination. This sense of covenant, which helps us to listen and support one another, comes from our roots in the Evangelical Reformed Church. We are a covenantal church, not a creedal church, meaning that we are not held by a test of faith or set of beliefs, but instead, we strive to testify to our own faith as together we listen for God’s still speaking voice. Does that sound familiar? Our United Church of Christ motto, “That they may all be one,” helps us to live in the tension between our sense of autonomy and our sense of covenant. “That they may all be one” was Jesus’ prayer of unity and healing for the church universal, and it is our prayer as a denomination that we might work together to be united and uniting.
It’s often said that the United Church of Christ is elastic. We can stretch and bend, and we don’t break. We can disagree, and that’s okay. The UCC strives for a just and peaceful world, but that doesn’t mean that we all agree on what a just and peaceful world is. I think the best part of being a church in the UCC is that we can all think for ourselves, and we are encouraged to do so. Hear these words from the Constitution of the United Church of Christ: “The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole Head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. It acknowledges as kindred in Christ all who share in this confession. It looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world. It claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers. It affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”
So, what now? Friends, we have this amazing church. A church that has been handed down for generation after generation. A church that has weathered the storms for three hundred and six years! A church that has been a warm welcome and a safe sanctuary for individuals and families alike. A church that offers hope and inspiration and a place to belong in the midst of the crazy world that we live in. What a gift! And yet, what a responsibility!
Friends, this morning we heard the stories of the first disciples, the founders of our church, and the story of how our denominational leaders dreamed the church would be. But to be honest, we can listen to those stories and glean historical information and understanding, but the work is now ours!
We need to figure out, as a congregation, how we are going to move forward. The world is constantly changing, and we need to change with it! When the disciples dreamed of the idea of church, and even when our founders built our first, second, and present-day church buildings, life was very different. There was no electricity. There were no cars. Women weren’t allowed to preach or even to vote. There were no telephones, or televisions, or internet. Life was hard. Everyone worked long days, and to be honest, the idea of retirement hadn’t been dreamt of. That was something that insurance companies taught us in the early 1900s. But the sense of community was what drew people to church. Through the church, they connected with each other. Remember, they didn’t have Facebook! And even though they all worked long, hard, physical days, they also worked together to support and maintain the church.
Folks, I remember when I was a kid, Sunday was church day. Because of “blue laws,” there was nothing else to do. And even during the week, people looked to the church for relationship-building and gathering with others. Back in the day, people loved to serve on committees because it got them closer to friends and neighbors. They had social groups through the church, like the ladies guild and adult and junior fellowship. Even church suppers were looked at, not as a chore, but as something that gave them an ability to get out and work together, spending time with friends. Unfortunately, life has changed since then. Individuals are busy twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The television doesn’t play the national anthem and turn to fuzz at midnight anymore. Blue laws are gone, and stores are open 24/7 hours.
Because we have such busy schedules, we run ourselves ragged and try to do as much as we can while feeling guilty that we can’t be in three different places at once. Our social life happens via screens, and we share our thoughts in a few simple words via text or twitter. And the worst part of all is that we’ve taught our kids to do the same.
I know, I’m showing my age. I know that they say it’s progress. I know that things can’t stay the same. I know that times have always been difficult, and people have always worked hard, whether it was on their family farms, running town stores and businesses, or working with companies around the world via computer technology. And the church has had to grow and change to meet the needs of its people, because without the people, the church will be no more. Did you hear that? Without the people, the church will be no more!
Friends, if you remember the three stories that we heard earlier, they of told of three very different time periods. The disciples were dreaming in about 30 AD. The founders of our church were here in 1712, and the UCC came together in 1957. Though they were very different time periods, each one of them spoke to the importance of working together. Remember? The job was too big for the disciples alone. It takes all of the followers of Jesus—including us!—to continue sharing the stories and teaching others by our own example, just as Jesus had taught the disciples long ago. How can we meet those greater responsibilities unless we give ourselves as fully as the founders of our church did to the service of the Lord? It is the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own. So, friends, we can’t just sit and wait for someone else to do something. No, it is up to us to make this faith our own!
Friends, I don’t want today to sound like a desperate plea or a cry for help, but in some ways it is, because our church is slowly starting to slip. People work long hours and have busy schedules, I get that. But over the last few years, I have also watched all of the work fall to a few workers, and those workers are getting tired. As I told you earlier, because of our polity, or the way that our church is set up to function, no one tells us what to do or how to do it. That can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. Because we have the freedom to do what we want, but we also carry the great responsibility of having to take care of everything ourselves.
Friends, this is one of the most amazing churches that I know. And part of what makes it that way is the way that everyone pulls together. You pay me as your part-time pastor. Hope is paid to help in the office six hours a week. Dolores is paid to clean the bathrooms and vacuum once a week. And Suzanne is paid to play the piano on Sunday mornings. Apart from that, ALL of the work at this church is done by VOLUNTEERS. And those “volunteers” are the people sitting in our pews. Now I know that because of work and family obligations, there are many of you that simply don’t have the time. But Tom Sanford shared an eye-opening statement with me last week that I want to share with you. Friends, we average about sixty-five people who attend worship each week. If each of those sixty-five people could share just one hour of their time each week volunteering for the church, that would be sixty-five hours of help a week! And one hour is a lot easier than committing to an entire Saturday, isn’t it? But here’s the catch: it takes every one of us giving that one hour for the plan to work.
Friends over the next few weeks we are going to be talking about the ministries of our church and ways that you can get involved in missions or Christian education, in our flower ministry or fundraising or building and grounds. But what I really what us to remember is that we (all of us) are the church. It is our responsibility together to care for our building and our community. Just because your name isn’t on the buildings and ground ministry list, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pick up a piece of trash that is our in the parking lot. Or just because you’re name isn’t on the fundraising committee doesn’t mean that we don’t need your help at the yard sale next week! I guess the ultimate reason for today’s message is to remind everyone that we are all in this together.
If you see something and think, “Wow, someone should take care of that!” remember that you are someone! If you are frustrated with how something is running at the church and think one of the “leaders” should address or change that, remember you are one of the leaders! If you realize that there is someone lonely or sad or in need of a little encouragement, and you think the pastor should talk to them or visit them, I would ask you to turn to the front page of our bulletin to remember that here in Oldtown, we are ALL MINISTERS!!
Friends, Amie, Emma, and I attended at a workshop on Friday night at Rehoboth Congregational Church with pastors, teachers, CE Directors, and youth workers from several other churches in our area. And I have to tell you that the same thing happened that always happens when I attend workshops with other churches. Friends, every time I go to a workshop like that, I have the same kind of experience. After the workshop was over on Friday night, I headed to my car, I sat in the driver’s seat with tears in my eyes, and I thanked God for this amazing church!
Friends, we don’t always realize what we’ve got here. This is an amazing place! And though we may face growing pains sometimes, and we might lose track of our responsibilities every once in a while, or fall behind on our budget, or get frustrated with our fundraising, we are blessed beyond measure! And we can do amazing things! But we have to be open and honest with each other. And we ALL have to work together, each doing our part!
Hope and I have been talking about ways to get more information out to the congregation about what is going on at the church and exactly how you can help, but we need everyone’s information and input. We are also going to be sharing “ministry moments” in worship to look for volunteers and share more information about how you can get help.
Friends, throughout this fall, we have been talking about and dreaming about how the church can be. But it’s time to stop dreaming, and it’s time to start doing. As we learned in Household Huddle this morning, we can do far more together than we can alone. And working together not only gets things done more quickly, but it also makes it more fun!
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, please take a little time to think about our church. Think about the things that you can do to help. What can you do to spend one hour this week to strengthen our church? And if you don’t know, talk to someone at our potluck luncheon today. Remember that it’s time to stop dreaming and start doing.
Friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!