Picture with me, if you will, a six-year-old little girl dressed in her “Sunday Best” playing sick so she would not have to go…to church. The image is a little bit more realistic in my mind because that little girl was none other than…YOURS TRULY. You see, before that morning I don’t think I even knew there was more than one church in the world, let alone in Connecticut. I was baptized in the Oxford United Church of Christ-Congregational, and it was what I knew of church. My Sunday friends were there. My minister was there. But when I was 6 my parents decided to change their membership to the church in our home community, the Congregational Church of Naugatuck. There was nothing wrong with the church in Oxford, at least not that I knew of, but my father had a business in Naugatuck, and we lived in Naugatuck, so it made sense to everyone else, besides me apparently, to go to church in Naugatuck. So that morning, almost 21 years ago now, was the one that I left my Sunday morning friends and my minister to go to a brand new place, a much bigger place full of a lot of people and ministers that I did not know. There I was…a nervous little girl in a brand new church.
You see I have never been really good with change. I am one of those people…I got a case of the hives so bad before I left for college that it brought me on my only trip to the local ER. I lost about ten pounds right before I started my first internship in a church because I was too nervous to eat. I walked around in a haze the two weeks before I moved to the Dominican Republic last fall wondering if I had made the right decision. And I tend to hope for the best but imagine the worst. The blessing is that most of the time I have had the good fortune to have amazing experiences and learn a lot from the changes that have taken place in my life.
Now, two Tuesdays ago I woke up, passed over my jeans, t-shirt, and flip-flops for a pair of dress pants, a nice shirt, and heels. I got dressed up in what was not perhaps my “Sunday Best” but was nice all the same. And instead of playing sick, I drove from Naugatuck to Brookfield to another new and different church full of new and different people. I drove to this church to start a position as Acting Associate Pastor, to join with you all in ministry, to become a part of this community that is changing and growing and redefining itself, all the while remembering the history that has led to this moment.
I have been doing a lot of reading and learning the past two weeks. I have read about the history of this place, from the pastor being paid in wheat and corn (which I have to admit I am happy is not the case any more), to the beginnings of missionary and charitable societies in the early 1800’s, to the installation of the organ and budget increases from $500 to $575 in the early 1900’s. This church has a rich history of Christian Education for all ages, youth fellowship, outreach, and acceptance of all people.
One of the historical tidbits that really interested me though was that this church did not begin as a congregation of many gathered in one place but rather as a set of home church meetings, much like the early Christians began their worship life and their communities of faith. It is those kind of churches and places that the Apostle Paul was writing to in his letters like the one to the Romans, where our scripture reading comes from this morning. So, as I read a bit more about the church in Paul’s time, and as I thought about the history of this church and our new beginning together I asked myself what it means to be church? Does it mean that we need to have a place like this one to gather together in? Does it mean that we have to have scriptures and sermons? Does it mean that we need to pray together and share fellowship with one another? What does it mean to be church?
Although the scripture reading from this morning seems to address the members of the church in Rome at an individual level, in Romans Paul begins to answer for me the question about what it means to be church. He addresses individuals all the while understanding that the believers he is writing to are living in community and are called to serve and spread the gospel in community. And so Paul begins with an explanation of what it means to be a faithful follower of God. Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” It is true that we live in a world today with many pressures and many challenges. We are challenged as real people living in our real world to work, to provide for our families and ourselves. We are pressured to prove ourselves successful by society’s standards. And the struggle often times becomes how to keep faith at the forefront of our lives, our decision-making, our work. Paul advises all believers to give ourselves completely to God because in doing so God can use us in this world to bring about positive change, reconciliation…hope.
Paul continues in his letter to the Romans by speaking about the community of believers as the Body of Christ. In one translation it is written, “Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are all parts of his one body, and each of us has different work to do. And since we are all one body in Christ, we belong to each other, and each of us needs all the others.” At the heart of Paul’s message to all of his churches was the core idea of “agape,” a love for all people that goes deeper than just relationships with individuals. But rather because God first loved us, we must love one another despite our own personal differences, our hang-ups, our opinions. It is not always easy, and we do not have to like everything about everyone we encounter, but we do have to try to offer them the love and respect that has been offered us by One much larger than any of our lives themselves. This ethic for Paul, this core idea of agape, was not just an individual ethic, a way for individuals to lead their own lives but is also a corporate ethic. As Christians, we are not merely individuals facing life on our own, but we are also fellow travelers on a journey, members of a community with clear responsibilities to each other, to support each other, to celebrate with each other, to care for each other, to serve each other. Paul writes that as Christians and members of Christ’s Body we are also members of one another.
“God has given each of us the ability to do certain things well,” says Paul, “So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out when you have faith that God is speaking through you. If your gift is that of serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, do a good job of teaching. If your gift is to encourage others, do it! If you have money, share it generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.” In our world today we are constantly faced with appeals to use our gifts in service. We have presented Bibles to our children and are called to teach children and youth to grow to be responsible and faithful members of society. We are called to respond to the heart-cries of people in need, especially now when we join together with brothers and sisters across our country and all over the world as we continue to respond to the disasters that 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina have caused for so many people and families. We are asked to open the doors of this church to people who are facing issues of addiction, who need space to gather and share the word of the Lord in many languages, who come searching for purpose and meaning…for what God means to each of us in our own lives. We are called to be church, to be a community of support and nurture, to use our gifts to serve God and others.
“Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” A pretty tall order for anyone to follow. And in writing this I think it is safe to say that this was Paul’s ideal for the people of the early church. And perhaps it should be our ideal today. Not one that is easy to fulfill, yet one that we can strive for as we work and worship together in community.
The thing that struck me most as I read what many people have written about Paul’s letter to the Romans was that Paul recognized as early as the Christian church began that being church requires all of us. We each have a personal and important individual relationship with God, but being church is community required. There is something lacking without the personal participation of each individual who enters this place, individuals who create a community, a family as was mentioned to me when I was interviewing here this summer. We gather together to ask God to speak to us in our own lives, to thank God for the sacrifices made for us and the gifts given, to be with one another as God is with us.
So does being church mean that we need to have this building to worship in, or that we need to have scriptures read or sermons given, or that we need to fellowship together? Perhaps those things are not required as they have come to be, but I think we can all agree that this beautiful sanctuary and building is a gift to be appreciated, that to hear the scriptures and messages that are shared might help us to learn more about God and the ways that God calls us to be church, and that fellowship and prayer are part of what it means to care for each other. Being church is being us in this place at this time, wrestling with where we are supposed to go from here, how we offer ourselves in service to each other and to God.
Oh, and that new church that my family moved to when I was 6…that was the church where I heard my call to the ministry. And the new church that I started working in, this church, is where I found my first official call. As I sign my covenant this morning and make a pledge to work my hardest here, in this place, I am reminded that new beginnings aren’t so bad after all. May this new beginning lead us to wonderful places as we join with each other in being church and in carrying out God’s ministry together. Amen.