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