Isaiah 6.1-3, 8

Jonah 1.1-3

Acts 17.16-21, 32-34

Changing Times

(Summertime On Demand – VII)

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Before I begin, I just want to say what an incredible experience we all had last week on our mission trip to South Dakota. Amelia Whitney – Molly Marteka – Jared Hart – Lynette and Petru Bester - what a wonderful group of people to travel with and work alongside. Our travel days were long, and our work was, well, both work and fun, as we basically helped to organize and run a week-long day camp for about 30 children of the Lakota Sioux tribe on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Those kids really kept us hopping, and all of us returned filled to overflowing with gratitude for the opportunity to share ourselves and our hearts with them. We will be sharing a lot more about our trip, and on Sunday October 14 our worship service will be dedicated to bringing our mission trip experience to all the congregation – stories, photos, reflections and more. But for now, thank you all for your incredible support for us as we put the trip together, and for holding us all in prayer while we were on our journey.

This morning is the last sermon in our Summertime On Demand series, which has looked at questions you all asked me to address way back at the end of last year. I’ve got to say, I’ve had a lot of fun with these, and I hope that you have found them helpful in your own ongoing faith formation; I know they’ve been helpful for mine. And, by the way, if you missed any and want to catch up on them, the whole series is posted on our church web page.

            Many years ago one of my deacons walked into my office and was rather alarmed by a book that was sitting on my desk. It was written by an Episcopal Bishop named John Shelby Spong, and the title was, Why Christianity Must Change – Or Die. She thought it a rather stark title, and I don’t entirely disagree, but that was the good bishop’s point. He wrote that if the church keeps doing things the way it has always done them, we are doomed to fritter ourselves into insignificance. I thought about Bishop Spong’s book this week because one – actually, two - of your questions raise a similar concern this morning; at first blush the two questions sound very different, but to me, they dovetail very nicely: the first is, “What changes does ‘the church’ need to make [in order] to be relevant in today’s society?” and the other was addressed directly to me, “What are your hopes and expectations of this church?” – and remember, you all wrote these down last December when I was still kind of the ‘new guy.’ The questions go together so well because my hopes and expectations for our church are that we find ways to continue to be relevant in today’s society, and I say continue to because in my time here in Chester I have learned from our community’s leadership that our United Church is not only a relevant, but a critical, part of the community.

            Back in June, Ed Sypher, Susie Webb and I attended the annual UCC Tri-Conference meeting in Springfield. On Saturday the meeting included a lunch that featured about fifteen different roundtable conversations, and we could choose which conversation we wanted to be part of. I don’t remember which one Susie attended, but Ed sat at the “Small Church” lunch table and I was at the “Social Media” table. And even though the two topics were very different, they both came down to the same idea: the church of today needs to be out there in the public square if it wants to be relevant. At Ed’s small church table, the conversation revolved around the importance of our being out in the community, in the public square, of being visible and working in a tangible way so people will know who we are and what we’re all about. And at my social media table we talked about the importance of our being out there in the virtual public square, which, more today than ever before, is that place where people will also come to understand who we are and what we’re all about. Whether it is a physical presence down at the coffee shops or the Chester market or last weekend’s Chester Fair or at next month’s Chester Home Tour; or in the online community – our web page, Facebook, email and other platforms - our United Church wants to be present. I think in some respects we’re doing a good job, while in other ways we have some work to do. But the reality is we need to find ways in both regards to make sure we are getting outside our four walls and being present in our community – even if it’s only something simple like last month’s car wash, where people drove by our church on a random Sunday morning and discovered they could get their cars washed for free – we need to be out there. The days when a church could just open its doors and expect that people would walk right in are receding further and further into the past.

            And this is not a new idea. God’s presence, embodied by God’s people, has always found its way into the public square. In the two readings Michele brought us, God called prophets to go out and bear the word and presence of God to the community; and we heard two different responses: Isaiah said, “Here I am, send me,” while Jonah ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction. But when I think about what it means to get out into the public square, I think about a place where the apostle Paul, and your own minister both stood, albeit 2000 years apart, on a hillside in Athens. The Areopagus in Athens is part of an open-air forum; it’s actually a large rock – the surface area of the pinnacle occupies roughly the same amount of space as our sanctuary; it was a place on which speakers would stand and bring their ideas to those who came out to listen; it was a public gathering place, and when I was on sabbatical in Greece following the footsteps of Paul I stood in the same spot as we heard about in this morning’s reading from Acts – alongside some friends in the congregation this morning. People came from all across the region to speak, to listen, and to debate ideas of the day, which is why Paul chose to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Athenians at the Areopagus. The Areopagus is also not far from the “stoa,” an elongated pillared porch where the Stoic philosophers Paul mentioned would gather for the same purpose. If any place in Athens would be considered the public square, it would be these two places. I didn’t read Paul’s address itself this morning – I will another day – because I just want to lift up the fact that, for the word of God to be relevant in the contemporary world of whatever age, you go to where the people are, you don’t wait for them to come to you.

            A music critic once asked singer/songwriter Paul Simon why he occasionally quotes his older songs in his newer ones. Simon replied that if it was worth saying once, then it is doubly worth saying again. So this morning I hope you’ll indulge me if I follow Simon’s lead in a moment, and quote myself. But first, before I do that, I’m going to quote you. When you all were looking for a minister, you wrote several things in your church profile that leapt out at me and said, this is the congregation for me. For example, you said - and these are pretty much verbatim quotes - you said you wanted to raise the profile of the United Church of Chester in the wider community to increase the awareness of the many ways that the church contributes to the town. You said you wanted to continue and expand services available through church outreach and in the larger community. You said you wanted to be a relevant community resource for those who are seeking spiritual growth and understanding. And you said you wanted to focus on spiritual growth for the congregation and have a strong commitment to and presence in the community. These are among the ways that the church – our church and the church as a whole – serves as a vital and meaningful presence in the public square.

            In a way, you all have already answered your own question about the ways we remain relevant in a changing world. And this is why I said it dovetails with your other question about my own hopes and expectations, because I want to be part of a church that understands that times are changing. Here is a bit of what I wrote, and some of you read, in my own profile. I recognize that the fact that the church of tomorrow will not look like the church of yesterday is a source of anxiety for some people – I get that. But God has always worked among people of faith to bring forth something new – the church is always being reborn – and you and I are privileged to be present at its rebirth. In the past, we have been tempted to measure change with numbers: the number of people in the pew and the numbers on the budget’s bottom line. But I believe God is reminding us that the church has, since the day of Pentecost, been about transformation. After all, if we want to change people’s lives, then as an institution we need to be nimble enough to change ourselves. God’s ability to transform human hearts, and through them, both culture and church, reinforces my enthusiasm for a changing church, and stoked my excitement for what God has in mind for our future.

            We need to be both willing and inclined to change – which we are – and we need to be a recognizable presence in the public square – which we also are, and we’re going to find even more ways to do this, to be out among our friends and neighbors and bear the presence our loving and compassionate God to a waiting and hopeful community and world. As one of our contemporary prophets said, “If your time to you is worth savin’ / then you better start swimmin’ / or you’ll sink like a stone / for the times they are a-changin.”

            Amen.

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