Sermon delivered at the Massachusetts Conference's 213th Annual Meeting
Saturday, June 16, 2012
by The Rev. J. Bennett Guess
‘The Church is a Place’
The church is a place. The church IS a place.
Now I realize I’m going to have to defend that, because those words go against the grain of everything we’ve been taught, everything we’re supposed to believe about Christian community. The church isn’t a place we go to, we say. We are the church.
Anybody who’s witnessed the idolatry that grows alongside a beautiful, beloved sanctuary will be the first to argue against it: the church is not a place. Anybody who’s spent too many years on a board of trustees can attest to that.
Whenever a tornado topples a once-formidable steeple, or a fire ravages an impressive, historic sanctuary, it’s the first reassuring sentiment we can think of to say: the church is NOT the place. And that’s true.
Except when it is. And our experience and our memory tell us so. The church IS a place, the place where you and God first fell in love, and the places where you return again and again to seek one another’s presence.
It’s not necessarily a building, but sometimes buildings do suffice. But it is a place — a place where we go and gather; to collect ourselves, to pick up the sometimes scattered pieces of our lives, to gather with others in prayerful and playful pursuit of all things human and, therefore, all things holy.
No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here – here. Even our welcome denotes our sense of place. Our gathering has proximity and location. You can find us on a map. The church is a place.
Granted, that place can be a park bench, or an oak tree, or a soup kitchen. But, still, it’s a place.
It can, without apology, be an impressive place of stone, glass and steel, or a sweet picturesque wood-frame place, or a more-casual store-front place. Maybe it’s a community center, or a living room, or a coffee house, or a cozy fire pit. It can be a chapel or a cathedral. Call it what you will, but the church is your heart’s sacred home. A place. An intentional place — where you feel led to build an altar, encounter the wisdom of the ages, and are opened to believing that, just perhaps, God has a will and a purpose for your life … and of those gathered around you. Those you love and, even a few that are not so easy to love.
A place I go where I feel more than a measure of safety, but also of challenge, where the people there are busy being and doing the things of God.
The Bible says it’s so. It is a scrapbook of stories of people looking for their place.
What is the story of Abraham and Sarah, but the long and winding journey of a family, a people, in search of God’s place? What is the tradition of the Exodus but a people looking for a sacred home?
I know it was true for Jacob, who fled his homeland before his brother Esau could retaliate for Jacob having tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him a blessing that wasn’t rightly his.
And he finds himself in a new, strange place, where he had stopped only for the night, but while sleeping he dreamt there of a ladder, Jacob’s ladder, a ladder of angels descending and ascending back and forth from heaven to earth. And he heard God’s voice there saying to him, “I am with you, Jacob. I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised.”
And Jacob wakes bright eyed and confident in the morning, knowing and proclaiming it is true: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
It felt to him as if it were the “gateway to heaven,” he says, so much so that he gave that place a name: Bethel, which means the place where God lives.
The place where God lives. Have you ever been to a place like that?
By the time I graduated high school, I was a seasoned church camper, with at least a dozen or more weeks of my youth spent at a place called Camp Loucon, a rustic campground in central Kentucky, where the facilities weren’t all that spectacular but the scenery was, with beautiful woods and ravines and waterfalls and hillsides. Except, when I first went to Loucon, the summer just before my fifth-grade year, I wasn’t easily impressed with natural wonders. In fact, I was pretty certain that allowing myself to be dropped off and left alone at a place like that was about the stupidest mistake I had made in my young life.
I was far, far, far from home, at least a two-hour drive. It was hot, with no air-conditioning and bad food, with strange people from strange places like Louisville and Lexington. They were going to make us do crafts, and I never liked crafts. The only thing I hated worse than crafts were organized sports, and word was we were going to have to do that too. Phone calls to home were not allowed, except in dire emergencies, and I was pretty sure I was having a dozen or so emergencies that first day alone.
That first night, I laid there wide awake in my bunk bed – listening to the sounds of wild, hungry beasts lurking only a few feet away from my cabin’s screen window. And I was just certain that I’d never, ever fall asleep in a scary place like that – except I did.
And the morning came. And I don’t think it was as hot that second day. And even the food seemed to have gotten a little better overnight. I learned, pretty early on that, in me, were the makings of a fairly formidable four-square player, and even the crafts – the crafts – were tolerable. I think I made a bead and twine bracelet that year that I wore until mom made me take it off at Christmas.
At the Wednesday night talent show, I sang, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow” from Annie. And, I’m not one to brag, but I’m pretty sure they’re still talking about it.
As the week went on, I started to get lots of letters from home, even my dad wrote me one. I could tell they were missing me something terrible, but I was doing okay.
On Thursday, we went swimming in an old dirty pond that they called a lake, but we didn’t care. Earlier in the week, I’d probably wanted to call home about it. But not now.
That night, we had the biggest bonfire you’d ever seen in your life. With hot dogs, and marshmellows, and RC Colas. And one of the preachers stood up in front of us, and he took out some paper napkins and he spread them out on the back of a flatbed truck … and I remember he picked up one of those hot dog buns, and he broke it in two, and he talked to us about Jesus in a way that no preacher had ever talked to me before. Like we were special, like we were important to him – important to God – and what we were talking about that night was the most important stuff in the world.
And then he took some Nehi grape drink, and poured that in a cup. And we had communion together, with Nehi and a hot dog bun, right there in a wide-opened field next to that big fire. I had never done that before – had communion with Nehi and a hot dog bun -- but all I could think about was how happy I was that tomorrow wasn’t yet Saturday.
Friday’s mail call was by far the largest. I received cards and letters from the whole town of Henderson, Ky. -- my grandparents, my Aunt Gail, my pastors, even the Lucy Moss Women’s Guild sent me a care package from the church. (I reckon they’d heard about the talent show.)
That night, at sundown, we hiked for what seemed like 100 miles or more, to an utterly remote outdoor chapel in the woods, along a river’s edge. Somebody had evidently rushed ahead of us to prepare the way, because when we arrived the place was all aglow with tiki torches and white votive candles. A huge rugged cross hung from chains between two impressive maple trees, and we sat in terraced hillside seating on outdoor pews made from halved tree trunks.
Now I don’t recall what was said that night, but now, looking back, I’d bet it was that preacher’s very best sermon, the one he’d give over and over again that entire summer to kids of all ages. But what I do remember is us walking back from that place that night – not a single one of us talking, or joking, or laughing … but singing, singing, singing all the songs we’d learned and memorized that week, songs that still haven’t left me to this day.
That night, as I tried not to give into sleep, knowing that morning would come sooner than I wanted, my thoughts were far different than just five nights earlier. The sounds out my window were far from distressing, they were familiar now, even comforting, and all I could think about was this place. This place. Surely it was Jacob’s experience too. “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I didn’t even know it.”
The only thing that made leaving tolerable that next morning was knowing that I could return to this place again and again, and for many years after, I did just that.
It may have been the first time I ever realized it … the church is a place … but it’s certainly not been the last, nor the only place, where I’ve felt that.
In March of this year, I was at St. John’s United Church of Christ in St. Louis – it’s an old, old, storied German Evangelical church that is finding renewed purpose and new life, in what is now a largely African-American part of town. The former dwindling and aging, all-white congregation courageously responded to God’s leading and called a young, energetic African-American pastor, the Rev. Starsky Wilson, to lead them. And with his positive leadership and a commitment to creative, passionate outreach into the immediate neighborhood that surrounds them, St. John’s UCC is coming alive and growing again. Partnering with neighborhood groups, leading an anti-violence community campaign, capturing the interest and involvement of young people, and creating culturally relevant and dynamic worship, you can sense it: It’s a place where God lives.
The church is a place. A transformed and transforming place.
A place like Kirkwood UCC in Atlanta, pastored by an Ellen-DeGeneres-look-alike, the Rev. Susannah Davis, where a hip-and-trendy storefront ministry might as well have a big ol’ “BETHEL” blazed across its front entrance, because the presence of God is just that palpable. People with diverse gifts, each as the spirit has given, each using them to build up this body, this place. You can feel it. God lives there, and everyone you talk to there will tell you so. It’s a springboard from whence Angels ascend and descend on a semi-regular basis.
The church is a place.
It’s a place like Naples United Church of Christ in Florida, where the congregation’s heartbeat is mission, and you can feel that steady pulse every time they gather for worship. They bring such passion for people into their church’s life that it rubs off on you the moment you walk in the door, and somehow, someway, you want to be a part of it.
The church is a place.
It’s like those places that dot the Penn Central Conference where 40 new coffee house groups have formed – at Starbucks and in local diners — where people are gathering on Tuesday mornings or Thursday afternoons to talk about life and faith and meaning and justice. Turning those “cafes” into “Bethels,” where the Holy Spirit dwells.
Place you will find in Somerville, Middleton, Andover, Needham, Lowell, Greenfield and Boston.
If and when you see ministry being done well, then you know there’s no other way to express it: The church is a place, where you, like Jacob, can hear God’s voice saying, “I am with you here.”
A place that takes its place, seriously, because, as people who have been touched by God once, we know how it works: God never loves us in the abstract, but always in the particular. Never generic, but always name-brand, meaning there’s always somebody’s name attached to it.
This is what we do in the United Church of Christ. We want to give birth to Bethels and help them to thrive. Places where worship is excellent. Preaching is excellent. Music is excellent. Care for one another, and outreach into the community, and prophetic witness for the cause of justice is always done with excellence in mind. Sustaining pastoral excellence, because we’re building places where God is being invited to dwell.
James Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, writes that, sadly, more than 75 percent of people say they feel little sense of connection to their “place,” their community, their neighborhood. And the end result, he says, is that we’re finding ourselves left with a whole lot of unloved and seemingly unlovable places.
Maybe we’re all waiting for the other 25 percent to make our places lovable again or, better yet, maybe God is already at work and the church simply needs to follow God’s lead and lay claim to where and how a new role might exist for us in God’s ever-unfolding mission.
There is much talk these days about all that ails the church, and we’re all chasing prescriptions for the magic pills we’d pop to restore the church’s prominence to the easier ways of yesteryear. Much like exiles wandering in a strange land, we long for the comforts of home, where the work of being God’s people seemed a lot less complicated, more formulaic.
But perhaps what the UCC needs most urgently today is not a panic-driven growth strategy, but a radically revitalized mission strategy: where we nurture the locality of God’s presence. It’s the plan outlined by the prophet Jeremiah that keeps stirring my own imagination: “Seek the welfare of the place where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Could it be, that the church is a place? A place where I do more than talk about God’s love; I experience it there. It is accessible to me. It welcomes and affirms me. It stretches me. And I leave that place certain that God is so present there that God must also be present in me.
And that’s what sends me and you forth from those particular, isolated, holy places of ours — challenged, forgiven, and strengthened — in search of all the other places where God is just as fully present, just as fully known.
Yes, the church is a place. Don’t you dare let anybody try to convince you otherwise.
And Jesus appointed the 70 and sent them out ahead of him to all the many towns and places where he, himself, intended to go. And he told them: whenever you enter a place and its people welcome you extravagantly, you go inside. And you eat whatever food they put in front of you. You tend to the sick people who are there. And you preach the word to them, saying, “The Kindom of God has come to this place.”
I don’t know about you, but it sure sounds like church to me. Amen.