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