St. Paul’s Congregational Church,
September 19, 2021, Proper 20B
Mark 9: 30 – 37; Acts 2 – sel.
Rev. Cynthia Reynolds
It’s good to be outside again this week at Worship on the Lawn, isn’t it. A very busy and intense week here at St. Paul’s Church with insurance adjusters, contractors, our organ expert, our heating system expert, and members of the congregation involved with coordinating our recovery process – you can see evidence of it by the dumpster parked here!
Work has started on the cleanup of our building – and that’s a good thing. But we all know that church is not the building – it’s us! And I suspect we all recognize our own needs for recovery as well amidst the emotions we’re all still experiencing.
So, it’s fitting today to be reminded of Pentecost – the time we celebrate the birthday of the Church when the spirit came upon the gathered people, speaking in different languages but all understanding each other – the words from the prophet Joel of dreaming dreams, seeing visions, and the assurance that everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved. And in the gospel of Mark: we see that the disciples have lost their focus, arguing, who’s the greatest? And Jesus takes a little child, puts him among them and tells them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We have work to do on our recovery too – to remember who we are and whose we are – we are the Body of Christ called together to love and serve God, called to be a people of radical welcome!
Cameron Trimble’s writing this week touched me where I needed to be touched, as if she were speaking directly to us: “It seems like we’ve lived five years in the last seven days.” Between the trauma and heartbreak we are witnessing in Afghanistan and the fear and foreboding we have lived through with hurricanes, droughts, fires, and floods, we are staring starkly into the face of the world of our nightmares.” Trauma, heartbreak and floods – that’s so true for each of us, isn’t it.
Cameron continues, “Lately, I’ve been reading and
meditating on “dark night of the soul” experiences. Today, when most of us use that phrase, we casually refer to a challenging moment or a season of sadness. The term “dark night of the soul” comes from the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross (1541-1597) who writes about the experience as one of profound spiritual transformation marked by a time of purification and clarification of one’s senses and then learning to live with radical faith and trust. When you experience a dark night of the soul, you are never the same.”
“I do have the sense that we are all living through a collective “dark night” experience – we are living in unsettling days that offer no obvious way “out.” We face challenges that do not have easy solutions, leaving us to push past the edge of what is reliable and familiar. These days demand a new imagination from us, one that questions how life works (and doesn’t work). Dark nights call for a spiritual response, not a therapeutic or purely political one.
Thomas Moore explains in his book, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life's Ordeals, “During the dark night there is no choice but to surrender control, give into unknowing, and stop and listen to whatever signals of wisdom might come along. It is a time of enforced retreat and perhaps unwilling withdrawal. The dark night is more than a learning experience; it’s a profound initiation into a realm that nothing in the culture, so preoccupied with external concerns and material success, prepares you for.”
From this space, the basic question is not “why has this happened” but once tragedy occurs it is “who are we now because of it?”
It is there that I think God dwells. It’s a fair question to ask, “where is God” in this mess of a world we have created. Who are we now?”
She goes on to say, “I believe that God does not cause bad things to happen. God is not a punitive parent who makes us suffer to teach us lessons. We live in a world of free will, and a condition for that freedom includes suffering. And she says, “I understand that God is with us through it all. When we grieve, God grieves all while hoping for our healing and wholeness. In our “dark nights,” I trust God to be bringing resurrection from the experiences of life. Most often, that transformation comes through the deep, caring love we show one another.
And here’s the key: during times such as these I am reminded again of how much we need each other. God has created us, not for isolation, but for community. When we care about one another and reach out to one another, then we can make it through whatever we face.
She’s right, isn’t she – we are in this together. How can we live into this truth as we are on the brink of transformation even as we grieve? And our question is the same: who are we now?
The UCC Newsletter, posted to our facebook page, featured New Jersey churches who suffered damage from Hurricane Ida – including us! And there’s also the story of the flooding at First Congregational Church in Montclair: three feet of water surrounded mechanicals in the church subbasement. The church said it was 176th in line for pump-out help from the local fire department. “Like so many in our community, we have been hit hard, ” the church said in an email blast to the congregation, asking for help.
And members responded to the crisis – the help they offered ranged from coming by with buckets to bail water to the use of their personal pumps. A member’s pool pump got much of the job done. It took a week of round-the-clock work by property manager Jay Richardson— and repeated trips to the store to replace worn-out hoses — to get the last drop out.
So many times during and immediately following a crisis, we know we need help, but we don’t know what to ask for. I’ve discovered during my health challenges this year that is so true - many of my closest friends and my family have offered – but honestly, I don’t always know what I need – because I’m overwhelmed or still in shock. When they offer suggestions it’s a whole lot easier to accept the help that’s offered. And that’s how community has been formed.
We’re in a transformational time here at St. Paul’s and I wonder how we can build a closer community at this time to share our journey into the new normal, a new future – a Pentecost moment indeed – and ask for help. One of our members wrote, “What a challenge this is – maybe in a catastrophic situation such as this, some things needing attention will be replaced, repaired, etc. during the reno – what a small but wonderful miracle that would be.” She’s right, isn’t she! Opportunity is right in front of us – and every one of us has something to offer – every one of us loves this church and believes in our mission – how do we encourage participation? How do we ask for help and build a process of engaging our community in new ways? Our building is the place where we come together in worship, create an opportunity for each of us to deepen and empower our faith, our call and mission as disciples of Christ.
But then we go out into the world and live out our faith every day, everywhere we live and work – our ministry, our mission, becomes a beacon of the light of God’s love and hope: both for each of us as we participate and also for a world that hungers for hope and good news and meaning in their lives. That’s a powerful goal, isn’t it! We are called to make a difference! We can make a difference! Remember that old hymn, “They will know we are Christians by our love”?
Friends, we can do this! We are in this together.
There’s a parallel for us to consider: Frederick Buechner has some insights from Alcoholics Anonymous that might be helpful: we know that AA is made up of a group of people who acknowledge that addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives and they come together for help to give it up and help others do the same.
They have a common goal and they realize they can't pull this off by themselves. They believe they need God and they believe they need each other. Sounds a bit like a congregation, doesn’t it.
When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, "I am John. I am an alcoholic," "I am Mary. I am an alcoholic," to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, "Hi, John," "Hi, Mary." They are apt to end with the Lord's Prayer or the Serenity Prayer. Apart from that they have no ritual. They have no hierarchy. They have no dues or budget. They do not advertise or proselytize. Having no buildings of their own, they meet wherever they can.
Nobody lectures them, and they do not lecture each other. They simply tell their own stories with the candor that anonymity makes possible. They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There's not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.”
Buechner goes on to say, “No matter what far place alcoholics end up in, either in this country or virtually anywhere else, they know that there will be an A.A. meeting nearby to go to and that at that meeting they will find strangers who are not strangers to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it.
That is what the Body of Christ is all about: to tell the Greatest Story ever told, to tell our stories of discipleship, to help each other and ourselves to heal, isn’t it. My prayer is that when the mold is remediated, when the construction is finished, when our kitchen is renovated, when Falconer Hall is ready, the Community School is back here in session, St. Paul’s would be that community of loving people, open to all, no matter where they have been on life’s journey. A community where help and healing and hope are freely available to all – supported by our building but bigger than our building. A community with a story we want to share, both in word and action! We are all in this together! Through God’s grace, may it be so for St. Paul’s Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. Amen.