Rachel and I first met through a group of friends who enjoyed going to concerts and camping together. It began one summer in a little New York town called Bearsville. A few dozen of us camped in a rundown campsite between concerts at the Bearsville theatre. There were some in the group that we never saw again after that first day, while others began to gather and travel together, attending a variety of concerts in a variety of states. The core group started small but continued growing.
The concerts were usually the focal point of our gathering but they were usually just an excuse to get together. We enjoyed each other’s company and did everything together for the days before and after the shows. I’m not just talking about me and Rachel, I’m talking about the whole group – sometimes numbering thirty people or more. And we’d do everything together. We’d fill up someone’s house, sleeping on beds, couches, the floor – any available surface. We’d sit around all day talking and laughing. Then, when we were hungry, we’d decide to go out to eat.
Have you ever tried to go to a restaurant with thirty people? We weren’t very good at planning ahead so we’d usualy just show up – thirty people, no reservation, expecting to all sit together and eat at the same time.
Of course before we even reached that point, we had to choose a place to eat. Trying to get dozens of hungry people to agree on where to go is near impossible; everyone has their favorite choice and nobody wants to hear about someone else’s preference.
Whenever a group of people become a community there are bound to be disputes. Today’s reading starts out with an example of how the early church experienced and dealt with disagreements. As their group began to grow and as folks started to join them from communities outside of their own, division began to develop. A concern arose that outsiders were being treated differently and that Greek speaking widows were not being cared for.
The twelve leaders decided to address the issue head on. They called for group discernment; everyone should gather and work together to hear who God is lifting up to take care of and feed the widows and others who are in need. The Greek word used here for “to serve” is diakoneō – this word and this story are where the church gets the concepts of the diaconate – the Deacons that help serve and care for the church even today at MCC.
We’ve gotten to this moment in time as a church because of all that has come before us. We have traditions that go back 377 years to the founding of this particular faith community in Sudbury; Prayers and stories that go back 2000 years to the first followers of Jesus; and guiding laws and wonderings of God’s work that were composed closer to 4000 years ago as Judaism began to form.
When Stephen was challenged, he relied on the foundations of his faith and tradition. In order to tell others where he was in life and belief, he had to first tell them about what he had learned from previous generations.
Our church would not exist today if it weren’t for all of those who had come before us. Brave folks who created communities in the desert, who followed God’s word of love even while being captured and hunted, rebels who escaped slavery, disciples who led and discerned, martyrs who were killed, and poets and musicians who told their stories.
The previous generations of our religion and our church built a foundation upon which we can rest, if we so choose. We’re set on rock that has lasted hundreds, even thousands years and we can sit back comfortably enjoying the stories and songs of our faith in the house that we’ve built for God.
Of course, when Stephen preached about his past, it’s wasn’t a call to remain still. It was a call to continue moving forward. The base that is set is only meant as a jumping off point. Stephen looks back to challenge others to move forward. He recognizes the importance of continuing the work.
These stories of the deacons and of Stephen have been passed down to us and set a foundation for our church. Now what will we do with them?
It’s no secret that the Christian church in America is declining. Churches across denominations are seeing decreases in attendance and giving. Churches are struggling. Churches are closing. What will the church look like for the next generation? In another 377 years will anyone be talking about the foundation that we’ve set for them or the traditions that we’ve passed down?
Well, that’s a big question. And it’s scary – to me at least. Maybe it’s too big to worry about now. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on 377 years from now just yet. Let’s just think about what comes next.
Last week, as we prepared for Bruce Wright’s funeral, I heard stories from Bruce’s children Graham and Peter and from others in their generation. There was tales about Sunday School and Youth Group, how children of similar ages grew up together and were mentored by the adults in the congregation, how parents of friends talked about the church and passed down traditions and how those memories still last. It was a wonderful affirmation of the ways that this church have helped to form a generation who is now out serving the world in amazing and caring ways.
Last year, we discerned as a church that we want to continue investing in the next generation. We gathered in prayer and discussion and came up with ways to pool our resources to grow our youth ministry so that our children can learn about the stories and the songs of our faith from professionals trained in theology who know how to teach and connect with our kids. The incredible staff join with dedicated volunteers to set the foundation for a whole new generation. We set our sights on the future while staying firmly rooted in our traditions; we had a wonderfully successful pledge drive; we won an award! Everything was positive and felt great.
But now, things are feeling a little more worrisome. After all of last year’s work of discernment and fundraising, Sandra’s leaving. I understand that we all have many feeling about this. It’s sad to see her go, some may feel angry or betrayed, many of us are worried about what’s going to happen next.
Fortunately, the work that we did last year is not negated by Sandra’s leaving. We’ve invested in the positon of Pastor of Youth and Families; we’ve invested in our children, in the next generation. As our search for the next Youth Pastor begins, I’m confident we’ll find the right candidate who will continue to grow the youth ministry and who will continue to inspire our children to explore their Christian faith.
Today marks the end of our pledge drive and, to be honest, the last time I checked the numbers were not looking too great. The joy and enthusiasm that we saw last year seems to have waned. Last year, we asked for large increases in giving. This year the ask was more modest but, yes, we were still hoping for some folks to give more so that we can continue all of the ministries of the church. However, the numbers have been struggling to keep up. As of this morning, we have 53 pledges for $190,000. This is $73,000 short of what we need and there is a real possibility that we’ll need to start cutting programming .
During this year’s pledge drive, there have been a few people who have seen the need to reduce their pledges from last year There are many valid reasons why this may have happened but, in most cases, we have no way to know what they are. If your pledge has decreased because you family’s circumstances have changed, please remember the Deacons’ fund is available to help you. If there’s another reason why, I hope that you’ll feel comfortable letting me or a member of Stewardship know why. We want to hear your voice and make sure that you know your church is here for you.
I’m trying not to let the false witnesses of fear and discouragement take over. As we work to concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the Word, it’s all too easy for me to get lost in the muck of despair, worrying that we won’t be able to raise enough money, concerned that more folks aren’t coming to church or giving more, wondering if any of this is worth it.
But then I remember the stories of our past. I remember how we got here: small successes like the creation of the diaconate and huge sacrifices like Stephen dying for his faith. These memories that have been handed down from generation to generation to teach us and remind us and inspire us.
When the disciples realized that their growing community was struggling, they called on everyone to discern the will of God. They talked about difficult issues and they worked together to solve problems.
I have seen this congregation come together time and time again to discern the will of God and to solve problems. We have folks in this room who have been coming her for 50 years. Over and over again, MCC has found ways to remember our past and to invest in our future.
If you haven’t yet pledged, please do so today. If you’ve had to reduce your pledge, you have our prayers of support. If you are able, please consider increasing your pledge so that we can continue to grow our church and support our community.
Memorial Congregational Church is a product of 377 years of history, 2000 years of traditions, 4000 years of faith. When we gather, the Holy Spirit comes among us and the glory of God is made know to us in community. The Risen Christ calls us to follow now as we take what we have learned, as we explore our faith today, and as we continue to pass down our love of God and our call to serve others to the generations that follow.
May God be with us as we set new dreams on solid rock. May Christ lead us away from false witnesses of despair and discouragement, and may the Holy Spirit inspire us with shouts of Hallelujah to make the dreams of our hearts become reality for generations to come.