“Celebrations, Thanks, and Challenges”
by Rev. Stephen C. Butler
Faith United Methodist Church, South Burlington, VT
Joshua 23:1-3 and 24:14-30
December 6, 2015
The ancient Hebrews were not seafaring people. They did not build great ships and explore the seas. They were people of the land that God promised to their ancestor Abraham. So whenever they crossed a body of water, it was fraught with danger and significance. Abraham’s grandson Jacob was camped by a stream of water when he had his famous dream of the stairway to heaven. Years later, Jacob returned to that stream and wrestled with God all night until he received God’s blessing. Then he crossed that water as “Ish-ra-el”, The Man Who Wrestles With God. His descendants made their most famous water crossing as they escaped from Egypt. Forty years later, Joshua led a new generation up from the Sinai Desert, west through what is now Jordan, to the Jordan River where once again they prepared for another great event. Certainly there were celebrations. I’m sure they gave thanks. Then Joshua challenged the people. “Choose today whom you will serve: the gods of Egypt, the gods of the desert, those of this country where we are now, or Adonai Eloheynu, the Lord our God, who brought us out of Egypt and to this place today.” “We’ll serve the Lord!” they answered. “Are you absolutely sure?” “Yes, completely sure!” But no one ever serves God completely, do we? And that’s our challenge, too.
Joan and I are very thankful to be part of this celebration! 50 years ago we were Juniors in high school. We didn’t know each other then, but I vaguely knew that two new churches were being established that year in Queensbury, NY and here. In 1978 I was appointed as your pastor. We served and raised our children here for 11 years, and we’ve been privileged to celebrate many wonderful events in this place. Just like every pastor, every congregation, and every person: most things were pretty ordinary. Some were quite tragic. There were a few notable failures. Others were great victories. Today we give great thanks to God as we celebrate this victory. Halleluiah! (Amen?) Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
So now comes the challenge. (You knew that was coming, right?) What will it take for any of us to be able to celebrate here again, even 25 years from now? If I’m alive in 2040 I’ll be 91. And there’s no guarantee that this church will celebrate its 75th birthday. But I am totally convinced it can and will, if and only if we continually live in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, serving in unity with Jesus Christ! I keep learning two very powerful lessons. Life is not about what we do. It’s about who we are! And life is not about accomplishments. It’s about relationships. I first came here ready to do and within three years I burned out. I tried to do so much I lost sight of who I was and who I was called to be. With lots of prayer, support, and assistance from many of you I started re-orienting my life, a process that still continues. It’s not about what we do. It’s about who we are.
Since retiring, I now see the church as a participant rather than a leader. And the most crucial thing I’ve learned is: the overwhelming majority of America sees no use for us at all. In the 1950s our problem was, “Where can we put all these people?” By 1975 we wondered, “Where is everyone going?” Now we find on any given weekend, almost 90% of America is somewhere else. And on a three-week road trip through the Midwest and back, I did not find a single church building that looked even half as inviting to me as the average convenience store. Look around anywhere and you’ll see what I mean. They have lights, flags, and banners all around. Churches today are not attractive places to the vast majority of Americans. We can no longer expect people to come to us. We have to attract their attention. And most importantly, we need to go to them, earn their trust, and establish serving relationships with people who think we don’t care about them at all.
Today, most Americans believe all we want is their money because we’re not known for who we serve, but for what we sell. I congratulate you for your generosity in giving away the proceeds of your annual Christmas sale. But does the general public know that? Are there signs or leaflets prominently available that day telling people what happens with that money? We can’t assume anyone today understands what we’re doing. We have to tell them. The last place I worked was known as the Chicken and Pumpkin Church because we sold chicken dinners twice year and pumpkins in October. “They know we are Christians by our sales!” We never found a way to get beyond that with the general public. But here, there’s a chance. What we did find was, when people know what the money goes for they’re often happy to give more!
Also, most of us have been trained that Christian Mission means sending money or things somewhere else. Many of us do volunteer, where we do a lot of good. But seldom do we explain it’s because we serve Jesus Christ. So the public doesn’t realize the connection between our faith and our service. They don’t see us as Christians, just nice people. And even when we do talk about what we do, most often we say it’s for our church, not for Jesus Christ. We have to tell people what we do and why we do it. It can start very simply. What do we say when somebody sneezes? I hope it’s “God bless you!” We’d never say, “May the Church bless you!” My greatest failures have come when I’ve tried to serve The Church. Haven’t we all seen bad things happen “for the good of the Church”? That’s when we get our backs up and blood starts to boil.
Success comes when I serve Jesus Christ. Of course, we can never serve everyone but we can always serve Jesus. We may not impact an entire city all at once, but we can go out, get to know people in one apartment complex, ask how we can help, go there on a regular basis, and serve in the way they ask us to. What do people need in the condos and apartments nearby? I don’t know, but they do. And the only way to find out is to ask. Life is not about accomplishment; it’s about relationship. It’s not about getting people to come here. It’s about getting us out of here, serving people where they live. Smart phones and virtual reality can never satisfy anyone’s basic needs for real human contact. We can send a virtual hug to a hand held screen. But it’s not like going to a community room and helping a child with their homework, or helping an old person read their mail. We have been blessed with the treasure of God’s love in our hearts, but it only grows when we give it away, right? Then it comes back and grows some more, doesn’t it?
Choose this day who you will serve. Will it be the church: this church, the church of the past, or even of the present? Or will we serve our Lord who calls us to go, make friends with sinners like ourselves, who once were lost but who can be found? I pray that none of us will ever seek to serve the church, but that we all will serve our Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that this building will become ever more a training center for the ministries we carry out in our communities. And I look forward to seeing you and a lot of others we have not yet met, in another 25 years!