First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton

May 26, 2019

Scripture: Ezra 3:1-13; Psalm 136:1-16,26

Accidental Advantage

A minister was having a quiet breakfast at home early

one cold Sunday morning when the phone rang. It was the

church officer who had arrived to open the church and get

the sanctuary ready for Sunday worship. On finding the

space really cold, investigations revealed that the boiler

was broken and there was no heating.

“Can we cancel worship?” the church officer asked.

“Please check the hall,” said the minister and waited while

that happened.

“The hall is really cosy but it’s all set out with tables and

chairs for coffee and a blether after church,” said the

church officer. “I’d never be able to get it ready in time. And

it’s communion Sunday. How will we manage?”

“Can you squeeze some extra chairs around the tables?”

asked the minister. “And find some hymn books, there’s no

projector in the hall. I’ll be there as soon as I can to help

you.”

And, with that, the minister went off to get dressed and

head to the church.

When she got there, a few others had arrived and were

busy helping, squeezing in extra chairs, carrying through

hymn books, moving the piano… Everyone, as they arrived,

soon found a job and pitched in. “

It’s a shame about communion”, said one.

“What do you mean?” asked the minister.

“Well, we can’t have communion in the hall without our

table and white cloths. And how will the elders know how

to serve when we’re all around tables and not even in

rows?”

“I’m sure God won’t mind if it’s a bit untidy,” said the

minister. “Let’s give it a go!”

And so people came to worship. They squeezed around

tables, meeting people they had never spoken to before.

They shared bread and wine, passing it around, making

sure everyone was included. They shared hymn books.

They prayed for one another by name around the

tables and remembered those who were not there. And

communion Sunday was celebrated in a warm, friendly,

slightly messy way.

Once the service had ended, folk stayed around their

tables and enjoyed tea and coffee together.

All agreed, that, although they were not in their usual place,

and although the table covers were not white, this was one

of the best communion services ever. And that they were

sure God enjoyed it too!

On the next Sunday, the boiler repaired, they returned to

the sanctuary…

Fortunately for us, unlike the Jews, we have never been forcibly removed from our place of worship.  This is the third church building for this congregation – but each one was built by choice.  I wonder what it was like when the second building was being built or when this building was being built.  I’m sure there were some who were excited about the new possibilities and what was to come – but were there also some who were weeping for what would be lost?

This morning’s reading from Ezra tells of a very important event in the history of Judaism.  The Jews have been forcibly removed from their homeland.  Their temple – the dwelling place of God has been destroyed.  And suddenly, King Cyrus of Persia, allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem.  Led by Zerubabbel, they return and rebuild the temple.  And while many are overwhelmed with joy, the reading makes clear that some weep as the temple is constructed – suggesting that they are sad that this will never be like the original temple.

Having been in our present building since 1868, it’s hard to imagine this congregation worshipping in any other space.  No one here remembers worshipping in the Old Sloop – the building that was constructed in 1818.  And yet, despite no catastrophic loss of place, things have changed here over the years and I’m sure some changes have caused weeping.  But every time we engage change we are invited to consider what matters most, what is at our core, what are the essentials and what is malleable – what can and should change as the world we live in changes.

Over the past year, we have been saying goodbye to Rev. Kent Allen and preparing as best we can for change.  While not as dramatic as being removed from our place or having our building destroyed, changes such as the retirement of a pastor, mark a threshold – a time where we will transition.  What we have in the future will not be the same as the church of the past.   It is appropriate to be sad and to mourn what once was. 

Of course, some of the changes we can imagine.  But I wonder about all of the possibilities that might surprise us.  That’s one of the reasons I like the opening anecdote.  In the opening story, the unexpected loss of heat forces the community to do things differently.  Because the minister is not wed to worship happening in one specific way or in one specific place – worship goes on.  On the positive side – the congregation has a positive experience of worship in a new way.  Unfortunately, the story suggests that this experience doesn’t compel them to dig any further into the possibilities opened by their new experience.  They simply return to their old ways the next week.  It’s what they’ve always done.  Why would they do anything differently.

It’s definitely easier to be complacent and do things the same way and in fact, we may eventually begin to tell ourselves that what we do is the only way to do things or the “right” way to do things.  And just because we are at a threshold moment, it doesn’t mean that we have to change everything.  But, I want to challenge us to continue to consider what we do, why we do it, and how we can get even better as time goes on.

For those of you who attended my installation last Sunday, you may or may not be aware that we did things differently differently.  So many people told me after the service that they had never attended an installation like that – that First Parish set a new bar for installation services.  That was possible only because we dared to do it differently.  I take the ritual of the installation very seriously – but I did not want the service to be stuffy and boring and the same old same old.  So I had to think – what is installation really about.  All I had ever seen were installations that celebrated the person being installed.  Lucky for me, one of my colleagues pointed out that an installation is really a celebration of the next chapter in a congregation’s life – it’s a celebration of the congregation.  And so that’s the frame I used to plan the installation service.  Nothing super radical – but just not the same way it’s always been done. 

I suppose I’m saying all of this to you this morning because the search committee is also at a threshold moment.  This week we will either have identified the candidate that we are recommending to you or we will have to grapple with how to move forward with a temporary employee in the fall as we continue to search for our next Associate.  Either way, this congregation will be doing something it has never been done before.  And while I know that we will experience sadness as we recognize that First Parish will never be the same, I pray that we also experience hope, energy, and the power of imagination and possibility as we move forward into our future. 

Sermon for May 26

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