There is a story that goes:
A stranger stops Nasrudin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what this place is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nasurdin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a wonderful place! Neighbors were kind to one another, we looked out for the children, people shared and were generous and happy!" "Ah! said Nasrudin. "You will love it here. Don't worry at all, and welcome!"
Later on, another stranger stops Nasrudin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what this place is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nasurdin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a terrible place! Thieving and fornication and children noisy and running wild. People are selfish and distrustful." "Ah!" said Nasrudin. "You will dislike it here. You'd better move on to another city!"
The stories we tell ourselves about the communities we live and worship in are important. Our past can inform what we think of the present, our attitude can determine all we know and all we can imagine that is possible.
As a newbie, I have not heard a whole lot of stories yet about this church community… I know it was started in 1857, that this building was built in 1881, that you, all, built the fellowship hall, that the first woman pastor ordained in this conference was appointed here for a time….. But I know there are many, many more stories to be heard! And I know that each of you loves this community, and in turn, feels loved by it. And, I have heard some fears about the future of this congregation, sadness over the people who left, a tiredness when you think about what needs to be done, a desire for growth.
One story I have heard is both a lamentation and a joy that we are a small congregation, for this brings great gifts of welcome, of feeling the spirit of being a family, of allowing close friendships between people. But it can also bring a story of lack… not enough people to do things, not enough money or fellow worshippers or singers or…. That list can get long if we allow it to.
Yet today’s scripture tells us where two or three are gathered Christ is among us. This is something we have heard many a time, where two or three are gathered…. And I’m sure all of us have felt this at some point in our lives. Where just a small group of people are together, the Spirit is moving among them and something extraordinary is happening.
If we tell ourselves this story, this can become the reality, but if we tell ourselves that our small church is too small, not what it used to be, a place where we feel the lack of a Sunday school, of families, of missions, of energy and people, then this can be the story we begin to believe.
So, for a moment, I want you each to name something you love about this congregation, right as it is now. Not comparing to the past or worrying about the future, but what do you love about Clearwater United Methodist Church today?
ASK PEOPLE TO SHARE>>>>>
When two or three….. or 25 are gathered, Christ is present!
The scriptures today challenge us to believe this by talking to us about behavior, especially behavior in community. The Roman’s scripture reminds us of the commandments, and then that we are close to the day of judgment, compelling us to put on the armor of light, and then the Matthew scripture tells us what to do when others are not doing this! Speak to your friends, compel one another to do what is right, to have hope and to work for what we long to bind here on earth, a binding of goodness and love and hope.
There is a story I heard recently, that fits in with this:
A monastery had fallen on hard times. It was once part of a great order which, as a result of religious persecution lost all its branches. It was decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the mother house: the Abbot and four others, all of whom were elderly.
Deep in the woods surrounding the monastery was a little hut that the Rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. One day, it occurred to the Abbot to visit the hermitage to see if the Rabbi could offer any advice that might save the monastery. The Rabbi welcomed the Abbot and commiserated. “I know how it is” he said, “the spirit has gone out of people. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore either.” So the old Rabbi and the old Abbot wept together, and spoke quietly of deep things.
The time came when the Abbot had to leave. They embraced. “It has been wonderful being with you,” said the Abbot, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming. Have you no piece of advice that might save the monastery?” “No, I am sorry,” the Rabbi responded, “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is among you.”
When the other monks heard the Rabbi’s words, they wondered what possible significance they might have. “The Messiah is among us? One of us, here, at the monastery? Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Of course – it must be the Abbot, who has been our leader for so long. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas, who is undoubtably a holy man. Certainly he couldn’t have meant Brother Elrod – he’s so crotchety. But then Elrod is very wise. Surely, he could not have meant Brother Phillip – he’s too passive. But then, magically, he’s always there when you need him. Of course he didn’t mean me – yet supposing he did? Oh Lord, not me! Please, not me!
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
The forest in which the monastery was situated was beautiful, and people occasionally came to visit the monastery, to picnic or to wander along the old paths, most of which led to the dilapidated chapel. They sensed the aura of extraordinary respect and love that surrounded the five old monks, permeating the atmosphere. They began to come more frequently, bringing their friends, and their friends brought friends. Some of the younger men who came to visit began to engage in conversation with the monks. After a while, one asked if he might join. Then another, and another. Within a few years, the monastery became once again a thriving order, and – thanks to the Rabbi’s gift – a vibrant community of light and love.
In addition to the respect, I believe these monks had put on the armor of light, they had managed to re-narrate their story from a story of sorrow and loss to one of love and respect and hope. They changed their beliefs from worrying about the future to looking for glimpses of the Divine among them at that very moment, and they began to see these glimpses, see this binding on earth in the ways they knew it would be in Heaven.
And this is what God calls us to do…. in a world so filled with fear and worry, we are called to put on an armor of light and become people of hope, to tell the story from the point of the resurrection rather than the crucifixion, to share the good news! This does not mean bypassing the hard part of following Christ, it doesn’t mean we don’t recognize Good Friday, it certainly doesn’t mean we turn our backs onto the brokenness of the world, and it doesn’t mean we don’t, at times, fall into the pit of despair and grief. Rather it challenges us to face these things knowing there is more, that this is not the end of a story, but just a chapter in it. It challenges us to shine a light, or bring a light, into the hard parts of life. It means we always search for that kernel of hope in the midst of the darkness, that we seek the Divine in each person and challenge we encounter.
And part of this means changing the common narrative we tell about ourselves as a congregation. To celebrate what we have that is good. To tell the world about what we love about this church, this congregation, one another. One example of this might be sharing a story about church when you are with non church people… talk about what inspired you from a sermon, what touched you from a conversation, and invite someone to come to church with you check it out, share a copy of the sermon (they are on our webpage). Another example may be if someone asks, “Do you have a kids program?” Instead of lamenting that we don’t, or saying, “well, we used to have one, but…..” and tapering off, say, “Right now, everyone is welcome to stay in the service during church and we are thinking of preparing an area in the sanctuary where children can play during the service. We have a dedicated time for children during the service, and encourage them to be in leadership roles in the church.” You are still telling them that we don’t have anything for kids yet, but it’s telling them in a welcoming and hopeful way.
Another example is if someone asks how big the congregation is, you could reply, “we are small,” in a sad voice, or, “we are a small, dedicated group of people who are always ready to welcome new people into our family community.”
The changes in how we tell our story can be subtle, but life altering. Like the first two people who inquired about what it was like to live in in the new city, the first was expecting something friendly, the second, not so. The beliefs we have over who we are change how we see the world, and change how we move through the world. When we can stay in the present feeling the hope for the future, but present in what is right now, when we can seek the divine among us, recognizing it in each one, when we can speak from a place of reality clothed in an armor of light, then the world will see are something they want to be a part of.
So as you go about your week, catch yourself if you find a narrative coming forth that is not bathed in light, try to speak to people the good word about who we are, see the divine in each one, and bring hope to all you meet!