Numbers 14, selected verses

I John 4.7-16a

Not My Church

Third Sunday in Lent

Before I begin, I have a postscript to last week’s sermon about Eternity in a Moment that I didn’t come across until last Tuesday.  I’ve mentioned before how uncanny it is that so often when I’m working on a certain theme or idea for a sermon, I’ll come across something that is totally unrelated to it, and yet fits like a glove.  I was reading a book last week called The Kortelisy Escape, by Leonard Rosen.  It’s a story about a magician and his granddaughter who get caught up in some mob activity and he has to rely on his wits and his illusions to escape their grasp.  I didn’t finish the book until Tuesday, but I want to read you the next-to-last sentences, which I’ll invite you to hear with last week’s sermon about eternity still in mind:  “Our world is heaven, only not all at once.  Heaven is heaven all at once, every instant of every day.”  Like I said, uncanny, right?  It’s almost like Rosen wrote that with last Sunday’s sermon in mind.

I was less than a week into my ministry at a new church – I won’t say which church this was – when Verna came striding purposefully down the hallway to my office to set me straight about the way things were done at that church, particularly as regards the church kitchen.  “We put on a lot of church suppers from that kitchen,” she informed me.  “And if things aren’t done the right way every time, it’ll just mess everything up.  I have a crew I like to work with; they know the kitchen best and they’ve been doing it for years.  We should keep doing it this way.  This is my kitchen and this is my church.”  Now, to be completely honest, I had no idea what might have provoked this encounter, but I agreed with her and let her know I was happy to let her run the kitchen and I would stay out of the way.  Two days later, as I was still scratching my head over the conversation, Marge came striding purposefully down the hallway to my office to set me straight about the way things were done at that church, particularly as regards the church kitchen. – her spiel was nearly identical:  “We put on a lot of church suppers from that kitchen,” she informed me, and a light began to glow in my head.  “And if things aren’t done the right way every time, it’ll mess everything up.  I have a crew I like to work with; they know the kitchen best and they’ve been doing it for years.  We should keep doing it this way.  This is my kitchen and this is my church.”  In that moment it was quite clear to me that I had stumbled into a territorial tiff – I called it “Church Kitchen Wars” – and then and there I resolved I would stay out of the kitchen, stay out of the wars and let Verna and Marge figure it out for themselves. From that day on I remained resolutely ignorant about where the creamers were kept, about where to find the silver service, about how to operate the dishwasher.

Of course, it wasn’t Verna’s kitchen any more than it was Marge’s kitchen in the same way it wasn’t Verna’s church any more than it was Marge’s church.  And likewise, this is not your church and this is not my church, although when I’m talking to friends they’ll often ask about what my church is like, and I’m sure you hear the same thing.  In congregational polity it is our church, it belongs to all of us.  We are responsible together for all the decisions we make about our church’s direction, about our church’s mission and ministry.  We call our own minister, we maintain our own building, we fund our own budget, we decide which missions to support, and we don’t have a denomination coming to us with directives or decisions on our behalf.  Of course, this also means that sometimes we make our own mistakes, but then we live with them until we can make them right, because nobody’s going to come to bail us out.  This is our church.  Right?  Well... maybe, maybe not.

Lately we have had some friends among us from the Ivoryton Congregational Church, a congregation that made an incredibly bold and courageous and difficult and faithful decision to close their doors. Do you know how hard it is to let go of your church like that?  Church members are extraordinarily possessive about their buildings – this is why I recall the story of the Church Kitchen Wars so vividly.  In Beverly, Massachusetts there are four UCC churches in a city of 60,000.  Each serves a different constituency, but this is still too many for a city that size, and on more than one occasion the four of us entered into conversations about somehow merging congregations, which from an objective point of view, we all agreed, was entirely practical – it made perfect sense.  Well, it made perfect sense only until we began talking about what consolidation would look like, about whose building we would use, because nobody wanted to give up their building.  Each congregation went into the conversation with the tacit assumption that if all four of us were to merge, the other three would naturally agree to use “our building.”  And this is why I am so impressed that the Ivoryton congregation overcame their natural connection with the church building and moved to what I believe is a higher level of ecclesiastical consciousness and let go of the building.  Because after all, the church is not the building, it is the people.  That’s why it’s our church – it’s not the building, but it’s us, the people, God’s people, doing God’s work of mission and ministry together.  This is the sense in which it is our church.  Right?  Well… maybe, maybe not.

One of you told me earlier this week you really appreciated Quinn Caldwell’s prayer for last Tuesday’s reflection in our UCC Lent Devotionals.  It is a simple one:  “Show me my place in your plan, and set me free from my own expectations.”  It followed the devotion he wrote based on our Old Testament reading this morning.  Numbers 14 is actually kind of a difficult passage.  The Hebrew people, liberated from captivity under Pharaoh in Egypt, begin chafing at their wilderness journey as they were making their way toward the promised land.  They wanted the journey to be over yesterday, and even though God continued to sustain them with miracles throughout  – think of manna appearing on the ground every morning for breakfast, think of luscious quail, a delicacy really, falling from the sky to roast for dinner, think of water miraculously appearing out of the ground whenever they were thirsty –yet they began to long for the good old days.  “Let’s choose a captain,” they said, “and [let’s] go back to Egypt!”  Really?  Back to Egypt?  Back to slavery, back to oppression, back to the lash and forced labor?  What were they thinking?  After everything God had done for them!  And if that were not enough, they began to lust after other gods, even while this God gently held them and led them to freedom and a land they could call their own.  So God’s anger was kindled, and only Moses’ intervention kept Israel from being destroyed:  “Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.”  And so God relented – sort of.  Instead of abandoning them, God decided that particular generation would not see the promised land; instead, it would be the next generation – their children – who would inherit God’s promise.  In other words, if they wouldn’t do God’s work, God would find someone else who would.

So for those of you who read Friday’s blog post, I left a series of clues about the direction of this morning’s sermon, one for every day of the week, and I wonder if you found the common thread?  In fact, let me tell you the thread and see if you can hear it in each of the clues we provided:  every one speaks about relinquishing control, about relinquishing self, and giving things over to God.  Or maybe a better way to put it is to admit that God knows what She’s doing, and sometimes we need to get out of the way and let God be God.

From Monday’s Intercessory Prayer and Boundaries by Tony Robinson:  “In [intercessory] prayer, we are placing those we care about in God’s hand – and relaxing our own grip.  Ultimately, the congregation, the children, the students aren’t yours.  They are God’s… relinquishing your claim, and asserting God’s, calling upon God to be God.”

I already read you Quinn Caldwell’s prayer from Tuesday: “Show me my place in your plan [O God], and set me free from my own expectations.”

From Wednesday’s Chocolate and Other Habits by Rachel Hackenberg:  “It’s about God’s work in Lent.  God’s miracles.  God’s judgments.  God’s promises.  God’s breath and flesh on earth.  God’s mystery and majesty in the heavens.”

From Thursday’s My Biggest Bucket by Marchaé Grair:  “It’s a spiritual practice to show up for someone… without making it about your own ego and own desire for a quick fix.”

And from Friday’s My Soul Desire by Marilyn Pagán-Banks:  “Lent is about both emptying ourselves and offering ourselves as empty vessels.”

Each one, in its own way, is about getting the self out of the way and letting God do God’s work.  By this I don’t mean not doing God’s work, but simply remembering in whose mission and ministry you and I engage together.  It is only our mission and ministry because it is first God’s.

Here’s a way to think about it:  the mission and ministry come first, because they belong to God.  And by God’s grace, we are called, and then equipped to engage in them.  That is, God’s mission has a church, the church does not have a mission.  The mission is prior to the church.  In the book of Numbers, God’s people turned away from God, so the promise, the blessing, the mission if you will, was given to their descendants instead.  If our church is defined by God’s ministry and mission, and I would insist that it is and it should be, then the church is God’s church.  The church is not mine and the church is not yours and the church is not Verna’s and the church is not Marge’s - no, not even the kitchen - and the church is not ours.  The church is God’s:  the church is God’s church, the temple is God’s temple, and the mosque is God’s mosque. 

In fact, if you accessed Friday’s blog through our church’s Facebook page, we even sprinkled some clues into the splash page:  it had photos of four different houses of worship, none of them ours, so you could look at it and say to yourself, “That’s not my church – that’s not my church – that’s not my church – that’s not my church.”  But we could look at each one – and if you looked closely, you’ll have seen they are Chester’s St. Joseph’s Church and Congregation Beth Shalom’s temple, and Centerbook’s Trinity Lutheran Church and Meriden’s Masjid Al-Rawdah Mosque - we could also look at them and say  This is God’s church – This is God’s temple – This is God’s church – This is God’s mosque…

God’s mission has a church, God’s mission has a mosque, God’s mission has a temple.  We are privileged – no, we are blessed - to do that work.  And what is that work?  What is that mission and that ministry?  It takes a variety of expressions, but I believe the passage Jen read from I John captures it for all of us, regardless of our religious persuasion:  “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”  For as long as you and I and our Jewish and our Muslim brothers and sisters abide in God’s love, God will work with us and through us to make that love real to the world.  And the minute we stop loving one another?  I pray it never happens, because then God will find another church, another temple, another mosque, to do God’s work because God is love, and that love is the beating heart of the mission and ministry we are blessed to share.

Amen.

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