A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton, Massachusetts on August 23, 2015
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 Now therefore rever the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.
Ephesians 6:13-17 Therefore take up the whole armor of God
Years ago, I was called to serve a church in an upscale, wealthy community. On Sundays, we often had more than 150 people in church. One of the things they loved to do, occasionally, was have coffee hour. On our first Sunday together, they got out the silver, the delicate china cups and saucers and prepared delicious tiny cookies and sandwiches. We had a delightful time, with lots and lots of little conversations going on all over the hall.
The next week, there was no coffee hour. After several weeks had gone by, I asked about it. Well, I heard, they couldn’t do it too often, because it was so much work. No one wanted to come in early each week and start up the coffee pots. No one wanted to polish the silver. No one wanted to wash those delicate cups. No one wanted to do all that baking and preparing each week.
You all know where they were coming from, right? But what was missing? When would we talk with one another? How would we meet visitors? With no coffee hour, folks just left after church, and we never met them.
You’d think it would be simple to start a weekly coffee hour. How hard could it be to plug in a pot of hot water, put out jars of instant coffee and tea bags, use paper cups. Well, talk about heresy! If you suggest instant coffee for coffee hour, even paper cups will seem acceptable by comparison!
We started using paper, having a reception every week, and people – new and longtime, stayed, talked, and got involved.
I thought it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t easy for them. I hate to do dishes; they loved beautiful china. Even today, there are folks in that church who believe we lowered our standards. The beauty of the silver and the china was what was important.
Accepting that the church thought it more important to welcome the newcomer than to have that high-quality coffee hour was a really hard decision.
Don’t be mistaken – change is hard.
A couple of years ago the Old South Church in Copley Square in Boston owned two copies of the Bay Psalm Book. There are only 11 copies of this book in the world. The Bay Psalm Book is rarer than a Gutenberg Bible, and Old South owned two of them. They lived in the Boston Public Library’s Rare Book Room. Beautiful possessions, they had no practical impact on the church’s mission to welcome the least, the last and the lost.
Faced with the increasing costs of doing ministry – we know about that, right – and with the increasing costs of caring for a historic building – we know about that too – the church began to think about selling one of the copies.
For many folks it was a slam dunk kind of decision. After all, the Copley Square building was still chugging along with its vintage 1875 heating system, a really slow elevator to the upper floors, and the original electrical system. Who wouldn’t want to upgrade everything before it failed entirely? Much less adding internet access, air conditioning, handicapped access to more of the building, and so on.
But others said – not that the work didn’t need to be done – but that it could be financed through the use of the church’s $23 million dollar endowment and the running of another capital campaign. They added that they had a fiduciary responsibility to the folks who’d given them the books to keep both of them.
Everyone agreed the work on the building needed to be done: they disagreed on financing. The deciding was not easy; there was a fight and it ended up on the pages of the Boston Globe. No one wants their church’s fighting to end up on the front page of the Globe!
Deciding isn’t easy. The right way isn’t always clear. And when the deciding is over, sometimes people leave.
When all was said and done, Old South’s congregation voted to sell the second copy of this book. The book was auctioned off at Sotheby’s two years ago, for just over $14 million, which Old South is using to upgrade its building and support its ministries throughout the city. Some of the folks who disagreed left the church.
When we hear the story of Joshua, it feels all warm and fuzzy – but that’s only because it happened thousands of years ago. Close up, when we’re reading about a church fight in the Globe, we can see the pain on faces, hear the anguish as friends argue with friends, notice the folks who have simply stepped back until it’s all over…. Because it’s not easy, not always clear, what the right way to follow Christ is for today.
Decisions to follow God, weren’t all that easy back in Joshua’s day and they’re not now, either. Then, and now, they ask us to form our daily lives intentionally. Our decision to follow Christ asks us to live in ways that build up the world. It asks us to put our desires in the context of the community, to see ourselves as part of a whole – and then, together, as church, as community to discern God’s will for our life.
But, we ask, how do we do that without conflict? I’m going to suggest that that’s not the key question. The only organizations that don’t have conflict are dead or dying. The question really is how do we disagree in ways which build up, rather than tearing down?
In the lectionary readings for today, there’s a reading from Ephesians 6. The author of Ephesians sees life as a continual struggle, and offers up some advice, which I think applies to making the decisions of life as much as anything else.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times. . .
Use the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness. Proclaim the gospel of peace. Let your faith keep disagreements from feeling like personal attacks. And remember that God comes first.
We’re not just talking about factual truth here, but the inner truth of understanding why you’re where you are on this.
Last year, I worked with my church on the process of becoming Open and Affirming. Some of us were not comfortable with ONA. As we went through the process, they began to understand that heir objections weren’t grounded in Scripture, but grew out of their personal feelings. When they understood that truth, they began to hear the congregation’s sense that God’s extravagant love and welcome was extended to all. It wasn’t easy for them, but they stayed with us, even in their discomfort.
Be true to yourself; be the person you claim to be. Avoiding the hypocrisy of saying one thing and living another is a big part of living a righteous life.
It is salvation – the health of God’s community – which is central in our life. It is not about winners and losers, but about discerning God’s will for us. We believe that God speaks most clearly to groups of people, not to individuals. Of course, a group such as this church can be mistaken, can mishear God. But we believe that it is always better to listen together. Even when what the congregation discerns is not what you did! Even when you think they are wrong.
Don’t take me wrong. Trying to do the work of discerning God’s will, either for ourselves or for our church, is never easy. It wasn’t easy for Joshua. It wasn’t easy for the folks at Old South. It wasn’t easy to move from china to paper cups. It’s never easy to become Open and Affirming. We are almost certain to make mistakes from time to time.
But with the power and comfort of the Holy Spirit,
our aim will be clear,
our hope trustworthy,
our love abounding,
and our passion for the work of ministry unabated.
© 2015, Virginia H. Child