University Congregational Church
Aug. 23, 2015
“The Blessings of Belonging”
I Peter 2:9-10
I have a wonderful book in my library entitled, “What Ministers Wish Church Members Knew”. It has intriguing chapters with provocative chapters entitled:
- Churches and Ministers Get Married, then Try to Fall in Love
- The Bible is the Word of God – Sometimes
- Church Grapevines Usually Bear Bad Fruit
- Churches Sometimes Shoot the Wounded
- There is No “They” in Church
- It’s OK to Have Fun in Church
- The Church Wants More than Your Money
- The Church Wants Your Money Too
Today’s “do-it-yourself” sermon topic is from a newer person in our congregation who asked me to speak about my expectations for members of the church and what goals I had for the congregation. I’ve been excited about preaching this sermon because someone actually asked me to lay out my hopes and dreams for this congregation. And I’ve been a little bit scared about preaching this sermon because I don’t want to scare anyone away with my high expectations or outrageous ideas!
So here goes! As I said, I have high expectations for church members. I have been an active member of a church all through my life. I didn’t go through the rebellious time of leaving the church as a young adult… in fact, that’s the time in my life when I was most in love with the church. So my expectations of our members include my own experience as a pew sitter, not only from the ministerial point of view.
1 Peter 2:9-10 describes being part of a church this way: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
- I expect regular attendance. I know that people travel and have a life outside of the church. But I expect that those who are healthy and in town will show up nearly every Sunday. It is difficult to build enthusiasm and momentum in a congregation when you have a different group every week. Another way to say this is that we miss you when you are not here! As 1 Peter says, “you are the people of God”. It’s important for us to be together.
- I expect us to all be good communicators. Communication is a two-way experience. Paul and I are here each week to share with you the exciting programs and work of the church. We work hard to communicate the good news of what is happening. But worship and preaching are not spectator sports. Good communication drives preaching and programs. We have to hear from you about what is going on in your heart and in your mind and what you would like the church to offer to you. Otherwise, we are left to our own devices… and that’s dangerous! We need you to communicate with us – what is going on in your life; how your spiritual life is developing; if worship and educational offerings of the church are beneficial; if you have health or other challenges.
- I expect that each member of the church will be involved in some outreach or ministry/ giving back to the community. This can be as simple as volunteering to read to children at a school, helping with our Hygiene Pantry, serving on a board of a non-profit, or any other ministry where you are offering your time and energy to those less fortunate. This is the number 1 thing to do if you are looking for spiritual enrichment in your own life. Serving others brings you spiritual depth and joy!
- I expect that you will bring a positive, willing, cheerful spirit most of the time when you participate in worship or other church events. That’s not always – we all have those times in life when we need the church to lift us up because we cannot do it on our own. That’s what they church is here to do. But we must also realize that the church’s identity is us. There is no UCC without us. UCC is defined by us. We’re in this journey of faith together. That’s why it is so important to bring that positive, willing, cheerful spirit most of the time.
- I expect that every member of the church participate in systematic charitable giving. In our household, we split our donations. 50% of our charitable giving comes to the church. 50% of our charitable giving goes to non-profits in the community. We are deliberate and systematic about sharing what we have with others. I expect that children be taught to give part of their allowances to the church. I expect that every adult – of every financial ability – give something (even $1 per week) to help others. It is part of the spiritual life to share and to give.
- I expect forgiveness, mercy and grace will be normative for our church. We give each other the benefit of the doubt. And when we aren’t certain about something, we directly ask the person or persons who have the information. But always, we offer forgiveness, mercy and grace to one another. Our traditional word says it this way, “once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
I consider it is good news that you haven’t walked out yet! Honestly, this list of expectations isn’t meant to say that we do otherwise. In fact, UCC is truly blessed with members who are generous and kind. We are blessed to belong to this amazing place where so many lives being well lived.
Let me tell you a true story of a woman who was a member of another congregation I served. Her name was Joylene. With that name, you might think she was a light and breezy sort of woman. That she was joyful and fun-loving and possibly even a bit silly. But you’ve got the wrong woman. Joylene was a stout older woman, the mother of 3 adult sons, a chain smoker, and a census bureau interviewer. She was out in all kinds of weather walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors to get census information.
Her husband and grown sons never came to church. But Joylene was there every Sunday. She was a straight-forward, look-you-in-the-eyes sort of person. It wasn’t above her to say, “I’m going into the hospital next week. It isn’t anyone’s business, so please don’t say anything to the congregation or put me on the prayer list. But I would like you to come on Tuesday morning at 9:00 am to say a prayer before I go into surgery.”
I loved that about her. She was clear with her expectations and there was absolutely no question about whether I would be there Tuesday morning. When she was dying, she told her husband and sons that they should meet the minister who was going to conduct her funeral before the time came. I don’t know what else she did, but they started showing up at church – in dress shirts, ties, and suit jackets. Every Sunday. On time. In the back row, which we eventually saved for them with a “reserved seating” sign! I grew to love the smell of red cherry tobacco that lingered when they left.
One Sunday she mentioned after the 1st service that she thought my sermon would have made more sense if I had done the last part of it first. She said it in a way that I knew she was trying to help me – a relatively new preacher – before I preached the same sermon at the 2nd service. I took her advice and it was better!
Joylene called one day and said the time was coming when she wouldn’t be able to attend church anymore. She asked if I would come periodically to bring communion to her. I did. Her family continued to attend. Joylene died. I said at her funeral that she was a rare person who knew what to do with a minister.
Her husband Wayne started volunteering in the church office. He was a rough and tumble individual with a smoker’s deep voice and cough. Every Thursday morning for 7 years, I listened for the sliders on his walker and his shuffling feet coming into the church office to answer the church phone. More than once, I tried to rescue an innocent telemarketer who called on a Thursday from his gruff retorts! “This is a church, dammit!”
He once invited me to his apartment and fed me a lovely shrimp dinner, with homemade brownies. Wayne is the only single older man who ever made dinner for me, his pastor. And he cooked for me when his mobility was severely limited. Several years later when he died, I brought brownies for everyone at the funeral. His recipe had German chocolate frosting in the brownie batter.
I suspect that the financial support they gave to the church was not at the top range of givers. But I also suspect that they were generous to a fault. While Joylene was never the lithe happy-go-lucky person you might assume with that name, she was a joy to me. She brought her rough and gruff husband into the church, and it was my great honor to know them and learn to love them. She told me about her story. She shared her faith, her life, her problems, her ideas, and her love with me and with the church. What a blessing!
The Sullivans set the bar high for me. When thinking about what I want church members to do and to be, I think about them.
And I believe that any church which has a few Joylenes and Waynes will be alive and growing in faith. People are attracted to churches where the members are gregarious, honest, and loyal. When we belong to a group like this, there is no limit to the blessing of belonging.
And that’s also my vision for the future of this church: that each of us takes on these expectations and offers the best we have to serve those inside and outside of this building. That each of us is blessed as we belong in this place. And that we, in turn, are a blessing. There is a saying, “We will never change the world by going to church. We will only change the world by being the church.”