Weave Us Together

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 30, 2022

1 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12:  

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,  To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.. We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 

Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring . . . .   To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

A couple of years ago, the First Congregational Church in Fairhaven, MA, set up a loom in their sanctuary, and invited members to use it – if I remember correctly – during the service, to weave mats out of plastic throwaway grocery bags to give to homeless people on the streets of Fairhaven and New Bedford.  The mats provide a moisture-resistant foundation if you’re sleeping out under the hedge at City Hall.

But that’s not why I mention the mats.  I’m telling you about them because they were a visible symbol of the way the folks in Fairhaven wanted to weave a bond between themselves and those who were in such different circumstances.  

We are the weavers of our world.  It is our job, our call from God to weave people together into one beautiful tapestry. 

In the late 1930s, some clergy leaders got together, and began to talk about a dream that their two denominations might become one.  Out of those conversations came the United Church of Christ.  That was the kind of weaving together churches thought of in those days… we weren’t the only denomination which did a lot of uniting.  The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren became the United Methodist Church.  Swedish Lutherans and Norwegian Lutherans and German Lutherans eventually formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  And in a time when we barely recognized one another as “real” Christians, that was important.  It was a visible sign of the call we all experience, to bring the world closer together.

By the 1980s, in many places, all the Christians in a given community were able to come together, often to worship, always to serve our communities in some way or another.  Sometimes we’ve even been able to work in partnerships with Roman Catholics or very conservative evangelicals.  Always as important as the goal of the day is the opportunity to be woven together into one mutually supportive community.

And let us be clear – unless the work we do is built on a goal of creating, supporting, improving or extending community – it is not the foundational work to which we are called.

Here’s what I’m talking about.  Imagine just for a minute you work in a food pantry (and, be clear, I’m not describing any pantry here in Connecticut).  Picture it…. people come in the door on the left of the room and check in at the first table.  On they go to the second table, fill out an order, and then go sit down, while their order is assembled.  Finally their order is done, they pick up their food and leave.  But in all the time they were there, they never had the opportunity for a good conversation with anyone.  The folks at the tables were friendly, but rushed.  And while people are fed, no community is created.  Then look again, because the pantry has changed… sure, people still check in, still make their orders, but now there are tables and chairs around and coffee and snacks.  Now there are volunteers who sit with clients and help them with the forms.  Now there’s a resource person who can help people with various kinds of government paperwork.  Now when people come, they’re greeted by name.  Now, some of the clients have volunteered to help run the pantry.  Now there is community, ownership, belonging. 

That’s what we’re here to create.  We’re here to find those bleak spots and add in the joy, to create the hospitality.  When we do that, we change the world right around us.

Sometimes that work is easy and fun.  Sometimes it’s really really difficult.  Sometimes it’ll reinforce what we’ve always know is right, sometimes it’ll turn everything we’ve ever known right upside down. Sometimes it means we need to step out and take charge; sometimes it will mean we need to step back and let new people with different ideas begin to lead.  

One thing it will always need, and oh how we hate to mention this, is money.  While we can certainly build community without money, our effectiveness as a group is limited by the extent of our resources.  Many of you know that, and  you have already pledged to support our ministry of community-building in 2023.  Your pledges are important, and not just for the plain amount of money they represent.  You see, every pledge we receive, no matter the size, is a vote for the work we’re doing in Jesus’ name.  From that point of view, the pledge of a dollar a week is as important to our work as the largest pledge we receive, because it is the vote to continue that matters.  And, of course, a pledge which fairly represents your commitment, resources, and other obligations is wonderful.  Our gifts to keep our church running are also part of the tapestry we weave together.

Some of us have lots of money.  That’s great.  Some of us have lots of volunteer ability.  That’s great too.  Some of us are prayers.  We need that as well.  Every way of supporting us is important.  

Christian life is a life dedicated to building community, and marked by generosity, generosity of time, of talent, and of treasure.  But all our money is as nothing if we do not put love, put community, first in our lives.  With our ages-long commitment to building the ties that bind among our religious siblings, we know that community makes a difference.  Whether we’re holding a Halloween Party in our parish hall, hosting a meeting of clergy of Middletown, putting on a Christmas Dinner for all who would come, or presenting a concert in this room, it is all God’s work.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Rising Up Out of Nowhere

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 23, 2022

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.

A million years ago, I bought a new car… I was excited – most new car owners are, of course – but I’d been wanting to own a VW for some time and this was the time.  So I took delivery of a brand new VW Beetle and happily drove it around town.  I loved that car.  

Sometimes my new car stalled at traffic lights.  Both my husband and I thought this was because the VW was my first standard transmission car.  Because, after all, the car was brand new, right?  And assuming it was driver-error was the easiest explanation.

Then came the day I was cruising down the interstate through Jacksonville, Florida, and the engine stopped running.  I was fortunate; I was able to get the car off to the side of the road, without being hit (or hitting anyone).  and doubly fortunate; after a few minutes, not even long enough for the engine to cool off, it started right up again, and I continued my trip to my mother’s home without another incident.  My husband and I thought, this time, that I’d gotten some bad gas.  And most of the time, the car drove perfectly.

Now my husband was a mechanic by trade and upbringing.  His dad had been an auto mechanic, and my husband prided himself on his ability to keep our vehicles running.  So when I returned home to Vermont and the car kept stalling out at intersections, even when he was driving, he realized there was a mechanical problem.  He worked on the car, and fixed it.  For a week, or maybe two…. and then one day, it stalled on him as he was driving me to work.  When I came home that evening, we no longer owned the VW.  He’d gone to a dealer and traded it for a Ford.

That VW was a lemon… an unfixable car, unreliable, and really unsafe.  Nothing changed the reality that it might stop at any moment.  But for all the time we owned it, right up to that last morning, we couldn’t see what was right before our eyes.  That car was bad, right from the first day I owned it, and our pre-conceptions kept us from seeing it.

I’m boring you with this long story about my lemon yellow VW (yes, it was what VW calls Texas Gold) because it’s a inside-out version of the same story Jesus tells in the Gospel lesson I read.  Two men went to the Temple to pray.  One of them lived in a land of delusion where he thought that all the things he did made him good and important.  The other saw himself realistically, and knew that no matter how good he tried to be, there were always going to be gaps.

For us, today, this is a story about seeing ourselves truly, about recognizing where we are as we recover from COVID.

Last week, I said that we still matter.  Even in a world where church has lost much of its influence, we still have an essential part to play in our world.  But here’s the thing:  we are called to understand where we are right now. 

We’re coming back from a dread disease which has warped every program we offer.  We’re living in a world where the way we’ve done church for the last 200 years no longer works.  But, in the midst of all that is different, we’re still trying to evaluate ourselves by the standards we’ve always used.

That rich man in Jesus’ story is simply describing himself in the ways he learned really matter.  his terms are useless; he just hasn’t realized it yet.  He doesn’t realize that God isn’t interested in his worldly successes, that to God this sounds like boasting.  

Now, we’re not boasting about the many things we’re doing well, right now.  Instead we’re taking things in the other direction.  We look around and say, oh look, we only have 45 people in church.  We’re failing.  

Oh, look, the search for our new pastor has been going on for a while; why don’t we have that new person right here right now?  

We think that if COVID is over, well, we should be right back to normal.  I’ve had a couple of people come to me in the last year with detailed plans for how we can re-make our church so that it matches the height of our successes maybe forty or fifty years ago.   Yes, I can imagine what this church looked like in 1948, when Ralph Christie was the pastor.  The records say we had 376 men who were members, and a total of 967 members.  I can’t help realizing, you know, that the Congregationalists of 1948 didn’t even want to name that women were members.  There’s no number for attendance, but the yearbook says we had 277 children in church school.  Those were glory days indeed, stalwarts in preserving the traditional stories of their world.

But those days are gone and they’re not coming back.  And that’s good.  In those days, they didn’t count women.  In those days, Black people were not really welcome.  In those days, gay people were really not welcome.  In those days, all the men wore white shirts and ties and worked in the power structures of the community…. and the women of this church wore white gloves and worked in charity, because there were few jobs for them out in the world.  We had numbers and power, and we lived then as we understood the gospel. 

Today we’ve moved from then.  Today we’re really working to live out our belief that everyone counts, even in a world where so many are thought of as disposable people.

Our anxiety makes it challenging to face the future with hope.  Things don’t look the way they did before.  We’re having to change how we present ourselves, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel right or fair.  It’s no wonder the rich guy in the story stuck to what he knew.  It’s just plain hard to admit to ourselves and to God that we’re not the big cheeses in town these days.

We live today in a world where everything, or almost everything, we’ve counted on has turned out to be less solid rock and more like walking on a trampoline.  That’s another reason why it’s so tempting to evaluate our progress today on decades-old standards.  We know what they were and it’s really hard to get it in our hearts that those standards no longer work, that, indeed they may not have worked as well as we thought even back in the salad days of our church.  

When he tells the story, Jesus makes it clear that it’s ok to not be perfect, it’s ok to not know the future.  This is a time for us to look forward with anticipation to ways of being church that best meet the needs of today’s world, not a time to look back to the ways that worked “back then”.

Recently, I read an article which asked: – “which is the best hymn style?” .  And the author ended this way:

So which do I personally prefer, today’s [new music] or the traditional psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Answer: That’s the wrong question. The question I need to ask myself is more: “What music will best help this church encounter God in a fresh, powerful way, one that moves them to deeper devotion and greater obedience, so that we’re not just hearers of the music but doers of what God tells us through it?”  [https://baptistnews.com/article/yes-i-like-the-old-hymns-too-but-not-the-ones-you-may-think/#.Y1QkEy-B3Ax]

This is our opportunity today.  To step beyond our anxiety about a changing church into our hopes and dreams for the church for today and tomorrow.  God has a plan for this church; it’s our calling, our opportunity to figure out what that will mean for our life together.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Hunt’s Mill Bridge is Closed

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 16, 2022

Scripture:  Jeremiah 31:27-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: 
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, 
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 

But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.  The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. 

Luke 18:1-8  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

On Friday, July 22, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) [closed] the Hunts Mill Bridge, which carries Pleasant Street (Route 114A) over the Ten Mile River in East Providence. RIDOT will completely replace the bridge and reopen it to traffic by the end of the year.  The bridge carries approximately 11,420 vehicles per day

The bridge is about a mile from my house.  And closing it is a major pain.  Close to 12000 cars go over it every day.  It is a major highway.  And the bridge was in terrible shape; repair/replace. . it just couldn’t be put off any longer. The road is to be closed until the end of the year.

The first couple of weeks were awful.   People didn’t notice the “closed” signs, so when they got up to it and couldn’t cross, they got angry and frustrated, had to back up the street into driveways, turn around and go about a mile out of their way.

We’re all kind, loving, safe drivers in Rhode Island (of course we are), but even the kindest driver isn’t happy about that, or about the detour, and the homeowners in the area were not amused at the number of people turning in their drives.

Now, add to that that the two bridges from East Providence, over the Seekonk River, into Providence are each being worked on – that sometimes traffic on the bridges backs up from one city into the other – and that there is no other way to get into Providence from the east unless you drive five miles north into Pawtucket….

And now you’re right where we all are at this time in our little COVID adventure.  It’s just all too much.  We can, and did, handle one thing – but then there was another, and another, and while we were a teensy bit off balance, more bad stuff, more disorienting stuff, happened.  Like I said, it’s all too much.

This past week I announced that Kortney had COVID – for the second time.  And on Monday, Shari discovered she had it also.  Mind you, the one thing we are sure of is that they didn’t give it to each other.  Shari was on vacation when Kortney got sick.  But because I’d seen Kortney, in the office, on the day she tested positive, I spent the next five days or so worrying that I was going to develop COVID.  It’s all too much.

Doesn’t this feel like the way things have been going?  Terrible things, irrational things, annoying things, dangerous things.  One thing, two things, and another…. and then one day. . , it’s all too much.

It’s not just COVID, tho that’s a major part of things, but also the changes that isolation forced on us.  The isolation of the last two years has been enormously disorienting.  

Now, as we seem to be coming out of things, now that we’re able to begin to claim some good learnings we’ve seen, we are anxiously waiting for our beloved past to re-create itself today.  Thanksgiving… right back the way it was.  School, right back the way it was… and church, right back the way it was. . .

I can’t speak for other areas, but here in church, the two year break has exposed something we had not been able to see so clearly before.  Here, right here, the church we knew before COVID was struggling, and the two years has not solved the problems.

Right here, right amid us, our church world has been changing.

It’s been changing for years, and we ignored it.  It’s been changing for years, and we hoped next year would be different.  Our church school has been slipping away and we’ve expected that the next great curriculum would make a difference.  In 1997, right about 25 years ago, we had over 100 kids in our programs.  We’ve never again had that many children.  Today, I’d we have five kids in the youth program and there is no Sunday school.

The same is true of attendance. Over the last 20 years or so, that’s dropped from 160 to 95, to, right now, about 45-50 here, plus about  20 on line.  

It was easy to say that tomorrow would be better, until COVID gave everyone permission to try not coming at all, and an alarming number of people have decided that getting the kids up and dressed and over here on Sunday mornings is just not worth the hassle.  

It’s all too much, way too much.

Lately I’ve been hearing more and more lines like this:  “when the new pastor comes, we’ll be able to get everything back the way it’s always been”, or someone saying, “we can’t stop that, we’ve always done it”.  

Let me be as clear as can be.  Your new pastor won’t be able to bring back the golden days of yesteryear.  They don’t exist.  What you and your new pastor will be doing is creating the exciting days of the future.  What will church look like?  How will you use this magnificent building?  How will you serve God here in Middletown?

It’s daunting, for sure, but it’s also exciting.  And it’s so deeply worthwhile.  

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to start new.  Our scripture lessons, first the Jeremiah and then the story from Luke, tell us about times when change had come, or when old things didn’t work anymore.  Jeremiah promises his hearers that God is making a new way, giving us a new covenant, promising that there will be a tomorrow and that God will be with us all the way.  

Luke tells a story about an unjust judge, who finally gives in and gives justice only because he’s tired of hearing from that nagging widow.  Now, Luke isn’t saying that God is like the unjust judge, that if we nag God we’ll get what we need.  Luke is saying that if even the unjust can be forced to be just, how much more can we depend on God who loves us.

Sure, in the midst of the exhaustion and disappointment of today, there’s a temptation to say “enough”, I’m outta here, to step away, to drop the work.  But I’m here today to say that we, here in this covenant community, are engaged right now in the most important work in the world.  What we’re doing is so important that it makes all our work worthwhile.  It’s so important that, if we have to leave every old habit behind to make it work again, it will be worth it.  Nothing is more important than our work. 

You see, God has called us to be beacons of light to people, including ourselves, who are discouraged.  You know anyone like that?  

God has called us to offer hope to the hopeless. God has called us to be creators of new ways for us to live, to be church.  Because we’re living in a world that really needs the power of reconciliation.  We’re living in a time when trust is thin on the ground.  What’s been happening to us, has been happening to a lot of other groups – people find it harder and hard to build community.  And yet, when they experience it, experience true community, they love it.  We know how to do this; we know how to build community.  We know how to talk about values, about what’s really important.  And the world needs our conversation, our action

God is with us in this work… has given a promise that we will have strength and vision to see what needs to be done, and the courage to follow that vision.  

This is a blessing… to be freed from the burden of re-creating church for the 1950s, to be empowered to meet the needs of today.  Yes the world has changed.  Yes, COVID has been awful.  But no, we are not lost.  We do not need to stay where we are.  

Let us move forward into the unknown future, trusting in the everlasting love of God.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 2, 2022

Scripture:     Luke 17:5-6 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

A facebook friend posted the other day, celebrating the day, fifteen years ago, when her attempt at suicide failed. there was  a picture, standing in front of her dorm at Rutgers – and when I saw it, my all I was able to focus on, for a moment, was the name of the dorm.  Hey, I thought, I have a cousin with that name.

Talk about missing the point.

And how often doesn’t that happen?

Honestly, it seems to happen most often when we really don’t want to face the more important question.  I, in that moment, didn’t really want to acknowledge the pain my friend had experienced; heaven knows it would be easier to talk about who that person was that the dorm was named after, right?  Thank God I didn’t say it.  Thank God, there was enough time to offer an affirming hand and a blessing that she was with us.

The disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith.  He basically told them they were asking the wrong question…. if they had any faith, even as little as a mustard seed – which just isn’t very much – they could change the world.  They had already all the power they needed, but they were asking the wrong questions – they wanted Jesus to do the magic trick and give them power without their having worked for it.  

We’re in one of those in-between times, liminal times, when the questions we used to ask no longer work, because the assumptions.  You could say that in this story Jesus is telling us that those old stories, those old questions, no longer work, that we need to put in the time to ask if the basic are still basic.

Look at it this way – three years ago, every meeting was in person – then came COVID, and we were forced to do everything on line… and now, we can not go back.  We can’t pretend that it’s not possible to meet online.  We have to factor in that new capacity when we think about the future.  Now, that’s pretty easy for something like online meetings because what they offer  is so clear.

But the ability to have online meetings is not the only change in our world, and it’s really not even the most important change.  Church itself has changed.  the world has changed.  

Back along, church had a honored place in our world.  Everyone belonged to a church, even if they didn’t believe in God.  Being a church member was a sign of respectability.  Church was a place to make friends in the community, a place to bring your children for moral training.  

In 1974, my home church in Vermont, averaged about 400 in church every Sunday; it was about the physical size of this building.  We had between 1000 and 1100 members – one in every 20 people in the city of Rutland attended our church.  When our pastor spoke out on issues, it was front page news in the Rutland Herald.  In our membership, we had a United States Senator, a member of the state supreme court (who later was a US representative), all the Protestant judges in town, and most of the Protestant lawyers.  We also had a faithful population of homeless people who were there every Sunday.  Our choir had forty members.  We were by every standard, a faithful, faith-filled, successful church.  Even as recently as 1997, that church had over 1000 members.  

Today, not so much.  Despite having completely leadership and a fully established presence in the community, today that church has 386 members.  Instead of the over 400 in church on Sunday, last year they averaged 96.  

Does it sound familiar?  It should.  It’s not just the story of Grace Church in Rutland, Vermont.  It’s the story of this church, of South Church, of almost every church I know.  If a church wasn’t healthy, or if they had a nasty problem of some sort, the numbers might go down.

There are, of course, some churches which are maintaining their membership.  Asylum Hill and Immanuel Churches, in Hartford, are doing well. So has the Old South Church in Boston, and here’s what they each are doing in their very different ways.  They are not asking yesterday’s questions any more.  They do not expect Jesus to do a magic trick and bring back 1990.  They are not saying “let’s just wait a little longer and see if the old days come back.”

Here’s the challenge they lay before us – because, never doubt, there is a challenge here.  It is possible to thrive in today’s world.   

But in order for that to happen, let’s think creatively about what our tomorrow will look like.  What are the hard things for people today?  Can we help people deal with life as they find it today?  What do we have to offer now?

We are enormously gifted.  We have money to back up our yearly giving. We have a building which offers us many options.  And we have a community of people who know how to solve problems, know how to ask good questions, know – and this is most important – know how to build community.  

The disciples asked Jesus to do the work for them, to give them pre-packaged, one-size fits all answers to their questions.  That won’t work today.  

At the beginning, I talked about the way we can miss the point, by choosing the easy, the painless, way.  The way I’m suggesting for us is harder, but infinitely more rewarding

Today, let’s ask Jesus for vision for curiosity, for courage and perseverance.  

Because God has a future for this church.  

It’s out there waiting for us to look forward into the future.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child