What Makes a House a Home?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 29, 2023

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same

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.

Did you ever hear the story of how your parents met?  Maybe they met in the hospital nursery where they were born?  Or took a class together in high school or college?

Mine – and this is so stereotypical – met at a wedding.  His cousin was marrying her friend.  They were both in the wedding party, and the rest is history….  not so important to many, but immensely important to my brother and to me – because it was the beginning of our family, the foundation of our home.

Homes are so very important to each of us.  It might be a childhood home, or a grandparents’ place – or a summer cottage on a lake somewhere.  For some of us, maybe those of us who moved over and over as children, the home of our hearts is a place like Silver Lake, or a college or grad school. Sometimes that home is our church.  And sometimes terrible things happen to our homes.

In April of 1967, for the members of South Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home was a yellow brick building on the corner of Madison and Alger.  It was built on the same plan as Faith Lutheran Church, up on Washington St.  Freshly built, they’d poured their hearts into it.  And then one night, while the youth group was meeting in the basement, a tornado came through.  You can see what happened to their home on the cover of the bulletin.  It was a devastating experience for them; it wasn’t just the worship space that was destroyed.  When I came as their pastor in 1999, they were still struggling to deal with it, even though they had completely rebuilt the structure immediately.  Thirty or more years later, they lived as though their home was dead.

When my seminary sold its campus in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, and moved to New Haven, Connecticut to nest in with the Yale Divinity School, for a lot of the alumni/ae, it felt as though the parents had sold their home out from underneath them.  We were deserting Massachusetts, choosing New Haven over Boston… how could that be?  For oh so many reasons, people were really angry.  As someone whose parents moved often enough that I attended three high schools in four years, I totally understand where they came from.

My classmates didn’t think that home could be anywhere other than on a steep hill in Newton, MA.  But over the past five years, as we’ve moved and settled in, we have all learned that while the buildings are different, the community is the same.  We’ve learned something I don’t think the folks I knew in Michigan ever really were able to get comfortable with.  We learned that it wasn’t the place, as much as we loved it, that really made us who we are; we learned that it was the community.  And the community continued.

The place changed, the people changed, but the community was the same.  It was still our home, but now in a new and different house.

Building community is what we do.  It’s the call of Christians everywhere.  The scholars tell us that building community is one of the necessary components of human life.  Without community we would not be human.

But what does it mean to be that community?  What does it mean to make a home?  What makes a house a home?  And, what makes a church building become a community?  The theologian Miroslav Volf describes what makes for community in his recent book The Home of God….   He’s trying to describe the place God resides, what we might call heaven, and ends up describing what we mean by church.  I’ve pasted part of his explanation in the bulletin; if you like it, and want to read more, the book’s available on Kindle as well as in bookstores.

Now, Volf is a theologian, and he’s talking about God, even so, what he’s talking about makes sense for us as well.  He says homes are places where we have  resonance with one another, where we build attachments with one another, where we feel as though we belong, and where there is mutuality of relationship.

In my first church, in Raymond, Maine, we had a member who always greeted people at the door.  Horace was maybe the most extroverted person I’ve ever met; for sure, he had a real gift for getting to know people in a minute or two.  But he didn’t stop there.  Once he knew you were from Chicago, he’d find someone in the church who was also from there – or had a child living there or some other connection and he’d introduce you to each other.  He was a genius at making connections between newcomers and long-time folks.  That’s resonance, the first step in building community, in turning the house into a home.  

Now, we all know it’s not enough just to know that other people in the room share your love for whatever.  That’s a beginning, and the next step builds on that.  You love ballet, I love ballet, let’s go together to the ballet.  Or in church, you want to be in a welcoming church , I want to be in a welcoming church, let’s work together on making that happen.  Let’s have lunch and talk about life.  Let’s take those beginning connections and build a friendship.  That’s Volf’s attachment.

Let’s build a place where all belong.  We’ve sung the new Marty Haugen hymn, All Are Welcome:   “Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live….”.  Belonging, Volf says, is a major part of building a random group of people into a community.\

Belonging means this is my place too.  It’s not someone else’s community where I’m welcome.  This is my community, and yours, and ours together.  Maybe, in church, that means we know where we’re going to sit each week, and we leave a back cushion there, or hide a cache of cough drops in the pew cushions.  But it always means we know a place, a physical space, where we are known, welcomed and where we belong.  

But there’s more.  Community means looking out for one another, keeping an eye out, offering a friendly smile, protecting one another from nastiness, and so on. The final category, mutuality, means that we all take part, that we are a place, a group, where all participate.  It’s not all you give, I take, not organized just for the benefit of one group.

You can build this community anywhere.  You could build community into the Chester County Dairy Calf Club – the 4H group I belonged to when I lived in Pennsylvania (and we did – girls sitting together and planning our feed program for our calves during lunch hour), but we here are trying to build a different kind of community.  Our community is based on, built out of, the principles of the Beatitudes, of today’s lesson.  Our community is intended to be a place where we care about the poor, those who are struggling with physical, mental or spiritual issues.  We’re working to be a place which comforts those who mourn, who work for justice.  We aim to be peacemakers in our world.  And we are determined not to allow the persecutions of this world stop us from doing what we can to make this world of ours a home, not just a house, but a home, for all people.

When we do this, intentionally, we make this place, this gathering of people, into a home with God in our midst, and when we do that, in the joy it gives us, in the comfort with which we are strengthened, we become a little outpost of heaven, we become what God has truly made us to be.

When we do this, intentionally, we become a place we can bring our pain or confusion about what’s happening in our world.  

When we do this, intentionally, we become a place where our strength is gathered to reach out into our community.  

When we do this, intentionally, we become a little out post of God’s intended world.  We become  home for one and for all.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Waiting, Not So Patiently

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 15, 2023

Scripture:                                                     Psalm 40:1-6 (The Message translation)
I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened.
He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from deep mud.
He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip.
He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God.
More and more people are seeing this:
they enter the mystery, abandoning themselves to God.
Blessed are you who give yourselves over to God,
turn your backs on the world’s “sure thing,” ignore what the world worships;
The world’s a huge stockpile of God-wonders and God-thoughts.
Nothing and no one comes close to you!
I start talking about you, telling what I know, and quickly run out of words.
Neither numbers nor words account for you.
Doing something for you, bringing something to you—that’s not what you’re after.
Being religious, acting pious—that’s not what you’re asking for.
You’ve opened my ears so I can listen.

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.

In 2018, the Hartford Courant ran a story about our celebration of twenty-five years of being an Open and Affirming Church.  In it, Wally Many, that long-time, well-loved leader of our church, said:  

“I hope the people who are gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, whatever, they feel free to come here and see what we’ve got to offer,” said Wally Many, who led the church’s original effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s to become Open and Affirming.

When I read this psalm, I think about the people who, like Wally, worked so hard, so persistently to make a vision of inclusivity come true.  

I didn’t know Wally at all well.  I was friendly with Dody’s wife, Selena Blackwell, and so I heard of him, and saw him at various Connecticut Conference meetings in the years I was active in the Conference.  I’m grateful for the words of Bill Roberts, reproduced in this Sunday’s bulletin, to give us a wider picture of Wally and the gift of his life for all of us – not just here in First Church, but to Connecticut and all the world.

Because Wally, and other brave people like him have changed our world.  And the patience of God was one of their most effective tools.

I want to remind you today of what the world used to be like, so that we can all appreciate what’s changed and how Wally and those who stood with him used patience and persistence to make a better world for all of us.

Fifty or so years ago, you could not easily, and in many cases safely, live openly as homosexual people, much less be openly transgendered.  There was a time when – at least in California –  if you were discharged from the military for being gay, you were automatically reported to the police as a sex offender.  That meant that, anytime a child disappeared or was attacked, you were hauled in by the police as a suspect in the crime – not because you had any history of pedophilia, but because you were gay, lesbian, whatever.

The very thought of gay marriage, gay people adopting children, gay people being normal, not people to fear… that which now exists in some part of the US, existed everywhere, even in our liberal New England states and churches.

Fifty years ago, we all lived in a world where men were men and women weren’t.  We knew that men were smarter, stronger, absolutely leaders – and the taller the better, the whiter the better, the straighter the better.

It took patience, it took courage, to step out to share the truth.

Now think about patience.  It’s one thing to have the patience to wait for dinner, but it’s quite another kind of patience to work to change the world.  And our psalm reading makes it clear that if we are impatient, we’re not the only ones.  The writer says, “I waited and waited and waited….”.  

I think we all know how hard it is to wait, how hard it is to see any progress when we’re in the midst of change.  That’s one of the reasons it’s important to remember Wally and the others who, like him, worked so hard to make those changes.  We respect his courage, and learn from him what change-making requires of us.

Like the psalmist, we learn from our companions on the way that patience and persistence are the essential elements of change.  Not the only elements in change-making, but essential all the same.

The psalmist reminds us that, in the in-between times, we are not alone.  That when we rely on God, we are standing on solid rock.  That solid rock sustains us when we’re struggling.  That solid rock points us  in the right direction, gives us the courage to go on.

Now, of course, while the psalmist talks about rocks, they’re not talking about rocks, like East Rock in New Haven, or Mount Mansfield in Vermont.  The psalm is saying that God is like a rock, that when we’re in the presence of someone who is leading us on, we grow in our own strength, deepen our own courage.  Wally was a rock for us and for those he met through the United Church of Christ, in the same way Martin Luther King, Jr. was a rock to all the world.  

I think, every time I look back so far as the sixties, I’m shocked at how much our world has changed.  I’ve mentioned the book Bill Roberts recommends in his essay in today’s bulletin – and it reflects a stuffy, buttoned-up, world where everyone knew their places and the world was built to keep us there.

It was not easy changing that.  Neither Wally nor Dr. King stood up one day and spoke freedom to folks who waved and cheered and immediately changed.  Right here in this church, nasty words were spoken.  People got angry with Wally and with one another.  Dr. King was spit on, jailed, and eventually murdered because he spoke truth.

So there are those times, when we are speaking truth – or when we are hearing it, willing or unwillingly – when we need that rock.  

That rock is the foundation of our community.  It is built out of our love together for God, our love for one another, and the witness of those who have gone before us – not just the world famous, but people like Wally; that’s why those who knew him in real life so honor him; that’s why we’ve told his story today – to honor and continue to remember his witness.

We will struggle from time to time, for sure.  It’s not always easy to discern where we are being called to go.  There are times today, there will be times in the future, when we’ll need to remember that our God is like a rock in a weary land.  Listen for God’s voice, and answer God’s challenge, blessed with the solid rock of God’s love.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

We’re Going to Hell in a Handbasket?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 1, 2023

Revelation 21:1-6
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more. 
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” 
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 
Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

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.

I’d bet that everyone here knows that ministers go into church hibernation between December 25 and January 2 (or 1, if you have to preach this day)…. 

It’s not that we do nothing during that week, but more that for seven days, we set aside Bible studies or theological books and instead, spend time with our families, do endless piles of laundry, re-stock the freezer, and take lots and lots of naps….

So, there I was, napping, when the doorbell rang.  and when I answered it, there were three women – a girl, her mom, and the grandmother – mom with a Bible in her hand, ready to ask me if I thought that the world was going to hell in a handbasket…and she did so, before I could stop her.

I was not quite as hospitable as I try to be to the pleasant Jehovah’s Witness missionary who visits me monthly, often right as I’m doing my sermon… 

This time, I simply said “no thanks” and closed the door while the mother was still talking.  So I don’t even know if they were also Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, or from some other variety of church.   All I know is that they think the world is not going in the right direction.

And so far, right now, I think we’d have trouble disagreeing with her.  Between inflation, the horrifying snowstorm in Buffalo NY, war in Ukraine, the disaster that is Southwest Airlines – when you list them like that, COVID isn’t actually even in the top five, but still…. 

Here we are at the beginning of 2023, and we might be excused if we find it hard to smile.  But we’d be wrong.

. . . and so was that woman at my door, suggesting that the world is going to wherever, as fast as possible.

One of the books I’ve been dipping into is a social study of Middletown, conducted in the sixties, and focused on the integration of housing.  It’s set in that hard time, not actually all that long ago, when segregation, whether formal, as in the South, or informal, as it was here in Connecticut, was the rule of life.  No white person willingly sold their home to a black family because it would ruin property values… or at least that’s what folks thought.  The book reports on a campaign here in Middletown to open our housing stock to peoples of all backgrounds.  The campaign did not go well, and received very little support from the clergy or churches of this city.  

Now, look at us today.  Today, our churches are united in our commitment to racial justice.  We’ve not achieved it – I’m not even sure it’s something we can “achieve”, at least in the sense of “getting there” and not having to work on it any more, like graduating from high school.  But that aside, we have changed enormously in the past sixty years, and not just about race.  That’s good news.

On New Year’s Day, the lectionary offers us a set of readings that talk about newness and describe what it looks like when we get there.  We begin with an ending – the ending of the Book of Revelation.

Revelation, a book of prophecies about the end times, isn’t often part of our worship.  It’s too lurid, perhaps too specific, maybe even too pointed, for us to be comfortable with a book which condemns lukewarm Christians.  Mostly, though, I think it’s just too too obscure, too hard to understand.  That said, there is something important for us in today’s reading and it is this:  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.’”

See, the home of God is among mortals.  God will be with us, wiping away every tear.  

. . . and what sort of place is this to be where God is with us?  That’s what the Gospel lesson from Matthew describes… it’s a place where we welcome the hungry, where we give something to drink to the thirsty, where the stranger is welcomed, where the naked are clothed, people in need are visited.  

Now the signs of God’s community are clear, and we can see  how much more we live into that vision than we did in past years.  We can see that, for God, it’s how we live in community that matters, more than anything else.  After all, Matthew doesn’t write that the Son of Man will ask where we stand on the authority of bishops or infant baptism.  Matthew says, listen up, poor people matter.   Listen up, no one is supposed to be hungry.  Listen up, everyone gets a decent home – at least in God’s world, they do.  

And we can add, if God is saying those who are scorned matter, then gay people matter in God’s eyes.  Trans people matter in God’s eyes.  Homeless people matter in God’s eyes.  

This is all because, in God’s eyes, it’s our love for one another that is the foundation of the world.  God made us to build community, to accept one another, to figure out how to compromise when we can’t get everything we want.  That’s how we live our love for one another.

God made us to live out forgiveness in our daily lives.  Professor Mark Heim, an American Baptist at the Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, teaches that the ability and willingness to forgive is one of the essential marks of being human.  We are most fully human when we can do so, when we can be love.  

That doesn’t mean, by the way, being patsies or being taken advantage of.  It means not holding grudges that break relationships.  If things are toxic in your circumstances, it may mean stepping as far away as you can – but that’s only about a particular time/place/set of people.  For all of us, together, forgiveness is essential to being Christian, to being human.

Yes indeed, the world around us may be falling apart.  The Yankees have Aaron Judge, but the Red Sox lost Xander Bogaerts.  The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.  In the midst of so much that is so wrong, let us remember that our hope is not in unending worldly successes, but in exemplifying God’s love in our lives.  

Let us be the people God has made us to be.  Let us bring salvation to our world.