I grew up in an area of the country once perfectly described in the opening lines of a novel as “…a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all.” Why do I tell you this? Because if you couple a “kind of nowhere” with the fact this southeastern corner of the state of South Dakota, has colder winters on average than Alaska, and its cornfields in summer contribute to a heat and humidity that rival the tropics, you begin to understand why, to outsiders, this might not seem like an appealing place to live
You could begin to understand how such a location might not be the first choice for pastors seeking a new church in which to serve, and why it might not necessarily attract “the brightest and the best” candidates. Let me be clear though, Douglas does not suffer these same hindrances, and in fact, will most certainly be a very appealing prospect for exceptional pastors discerning a new call. Our hindrance is not geography, our difficulty may be Sal.
To be honest, for me, right now, even with all of our careful and deliberate preparations for transition, imagining Douglas United Church of Christ without Sal is like trying to imagine the Sound of Music without Julie Andrews. For many if not most of us, we believe the fact we’re evening sitting in this chair or pew today or watching online is because of Sal. For some of us, there was a season in our lives, perhaps a very long one, in which you believed, for many valid reasons, that you were “done” with the church. And then, miraculously, you found Sal. Like the epiphany star, Sal drew us from far and wide, pulled by a longing of which we may not have even been fully aware, across a long-parched dessert of thirst, to a cup of blessing that finally satisfied.
But like all religious language and stories, symbols and metaphors point to and participate in the idea, but they are not the thing itself. Sal, like the star followed by the ancient’s seeking wisdom, drew us from near and far, but he was never pointing to himself, he was always pointing to this sacred space. Sal drew us not to himself, but to ourselves, and to each other.
Which brings me back to South Dakota. While generally competent and kind in all the important ways you’d hope a pastor might be, I did not have the good fortune of growing up listening to overly compelling, thought provoking, or creative preaching. The kind of preaching we’ve had the good fortune to receive from Sal. And, as I remember it, any lack of true oratorical giftedness on the part of these childhood preachers seemed not at all to affect their insistence on an overly lengthy sermon, as if simply droning on longer might somehow improve whatever point they were trying to make.
So, you might understand why, when the next in a series of underwhelming preachers promised to be worse than the last, I begged my parents to let us go to a different church. I remember their response very clearly, they said to me, “The church is not its pastor, the church is the people.”
You were drawn to a light and then looked around to discover that maybe you weren’t the only one. Maybe there were others who felt as alienated in the world or by church as you did. Maybe there were other “skeptical dreamers,” who like you, needed to feel welcomed, accepted and loved, no matter who we were, or where we were on our journey. Maybe your broken spirit was just too exhausted by the effort required to carve out a faith all on your own—and here was the promise of the company of other orphaned believers.
Maybe there were some, who despite the many ways there are to try to foster a spiritual life outside the church, recognized the limitations of these methods, paying so much attention as they can to self-improvement, and so little, as they must, and as the author bell hooks wrote, “to the practice of love within the context of community.” Or, as one of my favorite new young authors, Cole Arthur Riley suggests, “If your spirituality does not demand beauty and liberation for every person and piece of the cosmos, it is not God you are seeking, but a shallow ritual of self-soothing.” And she goes on to say, “In the tears of another I meet the face of God.”
Generally, when people are asked, after the fact, why they joined a church they will tell you it was due to a certain set of beliefs, maybe even specific doctrines or creeds they were told they must believe, but if you dig deeper, you find that belief always follows belonging—what we first found was home. You may have first come because of Sal, but returned because when the church, the people, turned to pass the peace, it felt real, it felt like maybe they meant it. It felt like there were a whole bunch of people who were excited to be together, and you were curious to know why, and you were drawn to know more.
Now don’t get me wrong, belief matters, but not the way those church’s you may have left in your past required, or in the way the church that abandoned you demanded. We do have a few non-negotiables here though, beliefs we revisit every time we welcome new members, when they promise, as we did when we joined, to grow together spiritually as progressive Christians, welcoming all, pursuing peace, love, justice and healing for all of creation. To be open and affirming, respecting all belief and faith traditions, recognizing and celebrating our connectedness to all peoples, and being good stewards of the earth’s resources.
First, we were drawn by the light, but then we were bound together through our promises to each other, that this will be a place where all are welcome, and none are turned away. That this will be a place where you can come, even with doubts, and be safe. That this will be a place where together we will pursue love, and justice, and the healing of ourselves, and the healing of each other, and the healing of creation. These are the promises that bind us to one another, the promises that make us church.
Despite my own introversion and reliance on the natural world to sooth and restore, I remain convinced that healing seldom if ever happens in isolation, that it is within embodied community, among those who also dream, not of a kingdom but of a kin-dom, not of power over but of power with; those who have faith, regardless of what the Greeks of old or the influencers of today would like us to believe, that it is not the rich, the powerful and beautiful that are favored, but the poor in spirit, the orphaned, the broken and the lonely, it is these who shall know the face of God. God’s wisdom runs counter to almost every impulse the world encourages us to follow. I constantly need to be reminded of this. And it is with you and in you that I find my reservoirs of hope.
When you are deployed aboard a Navy ship, there will be times when the mission, the course charted, or unforeseen circumstances prohibit a return to port. When this happens, the ship will undergo what is referred to as a Replenishment at Sea. This involves another ship, one filled with supplies, coming up alongside, both maintaining a speed of 12 to 16 knots and carefully keeping a 30-foot distance between. Lines are cast linking the vessels, and the transfer of fuel and supplies begins. You can imagine the level of skill and expertise required to maintain safe conditions with two 40-ton ships running alongside each other, and you can also imagine the amount of caution and concern during, but there is also, always, a celebratory feeling.
Though extremely hard work, and an all-hands effort, “all hands” being the Navy way of saying, it’s going to take the entire crew to get the job done, the mood is always one of celebration because you know, for what may be the first time in weeks, you will have fresh fruits and vegetables for dinner. You will be well fed that night and for many days to come.
We often think of and need our time here together on Sunday morning as sanctuary, a day of rest and time apart, a haven and a shelter. And this is important and essential. But far from being a retreat from the world, each week in this hour we are also called to refuel, to re-orient ourselves to a wisdom that runs counter to what the world might suggest we need or pursue. Each week we come to hear the same stories, “because some of them happened but all of it is true.”
Each week we come to put down and re-enforce neural pathways that orient us towards hope. To be reminded of our own goodness and to remember we are not alone. We come because this week I may be struggling, but others will be for me, Immanuel--until that time when I can be Immanuel for you. Each week we come to be the church for one another, to replenish each other for what may be rough seas ahead. It is an all-hands effort.
The church is not its pastor, the church is the people. I needed to learn this as a teenager, but you know this already, you have demonstrated it time and again, from the tiny remnant that once remained, digging even deeper into their own pockets to keep the doors open and the lights on, to all those who led services during Sal’s sabbatical. From our Stephen ministers, Retreat House facilitators, community leaders in the arts and music, to those who advocate for after school programs and creation justice. From the organizers of crop walks, and flour, soup and scarf drives, to those who manage the sound and video in the back of the sanctuary and the ones who ensure flowers and seasonal delights in the front. From those who work behind the scenes setting out food and drink in the friendship hall, to the ones who ensure these ministries can continue through monetary offerings. This, these, you, are the church.
What is sometimes missed in the telling of the Epiphany story--perhaps because we’re distracted by all the shiny gifts--is the fact, that before Paul could later proclaim it in his letter to the Ephesians, the Magi were the very first to recognize Christ came for all, that God’s extravagant welcome was about to be extended beyond the bounds of what anyone had previously imagined possible.
Because too much of the world, to include too much of the church, has lost sight of this truth, it is all the more essential that we here at Douglass UCC continue to reveal all the ways in which the wisdom of God continues to run counter to the limitations others might place on God’s abundance. Sal spoke often of our indebtedness to those who have gone before and our obligation to those yet to come--there are still those seeking the star and Sal has prepared us well to continue to be a light shining in the darkness.
In a few moments, after once again trusting to share our joys and concerns with each other, we will share communion, and this week, in a slight departure from our normal manner, we will read together, as a community, as the church, the words of institution. We will prepare a table for one another where everyone is welcome, a table where despair and hope may sit face to face, a table capable of addressing our wants and attending to our wounds. A table at which to be healed, replenished and blessed. May it be so. Amen.
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