Something Surprising, Something Beautiful

by BC

Our reading for this morning was titled The Grout by Marcus Hartlief.

There is a great story about a church that was falling apart.  It comes to us from the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette – a wonderful name for a minister.  And the story originates when she was serving First Church in Somerville, Massachusetts, a United Church of Christ congregation.  She begins the story very simply.

The church was a mess.  Membership was bleeding, the grounds, the very little bit of grounds they have mind you – were unkempt, the church was crammed with junk in every nook and cranny, no one took care of the church other than an overworked custodian, and it was dark, damp, in need of repairs, and not a place you’d want to be on Sunday morning.

No one put away the dishes in the kitchen – they expected the holy spirit to do it for them, tables were never put away, floors were never swept, the list went on and on.  Outside of this unending list of things that didn’t happen, one thing was clear, the people of First Church in Somerville either didn’t have pride in their church or they failed to remember that they were the church and, as a result, that it was theirs to take care of.

Rev. Molly goes on to share that when she arrived she had the age old thoughts – this church will not survive, it needs to close its doors, board up the windows, call it quits while it still can, and the remaining people can go elsewhere.  She gave in to despair and was not enjoying her ministry much.

But for some reason or another, some people came back while she was settling in to her new unsettling ministry in Somerville.  And then more people showed up.  And then a spark of hope struck this pastor, and she shared that hope with a handful of lay leaders that wanted things to be different.

She remarks in her story that she was certain that this was God working in and through her and the church, and she wasn’t sure if it’d work – because God isn’t a magician – but that she would cling to hope.  Should we fail, she thought, then we fail with a great love on our hearts, because we tried.

Fast forward two years and First Church in Somerville is booming.  The pews are increasingly filled on Sunday morning, the classes and social events are flooded with people, the board is energized in talking about the future of the congregation, pledging was up, and the little corners of the church are no longer cluttered with stuff.

Volunteers see kitchen ministry – that of making coffee, washing dishes, and tidying up – as just as important as pastoral ministry.  In some ways, I have to agree – the problems of the world are sometimes worked out over a cup of coffee.  Don’t underestimate kitchen ministry.

Rev. Molly would go on to speak about how the energy of those few dedicated members started something remarkable in the congregation.  It brought about a pride of belonging that motivated them to all be stewards and, most importantly, all were seen as members of the hospitality committee.

After all, why should hospitality in a church be left to a few, when it is an expectation of all?  Rev. Molly would go on to put this work of saving this church from an almost certain doom into a book titled, “Real Good Church.”  Whether or not she took liberties in embellishing the stories, one thing remains clears.

Church is a peculiar place.  And anything is possible.  And our being here, the choice to exist, rests not with the minister or the staff, but with the people that fill the chairs week after week.  The choice to be hospitable and welcoming, the choice to have an impact, to make church something wonderful – no church staff person could ever accomplish such a thing alone.

In the story we just heard, I wonder if there were any flickers of recognition for some of you.  My own understanding of this congregation is that it has never feared for its existence because of a loss of members, I could be wrong.  However, I have heard stories of what the fellowship hall used to look like, I’ve heard of our fear of filling up landfills so, instead, we donate thirty rocking chairs to the church and create our own landfill on Clays Mill road.

I know I’ve jettisoned random boxes of garbage and broken stuff tucked away in corners — but don’t tell anyone, okay, the minister shouldn’t be doing that – and I’ve heard conflicting accounts of just how, shall we say, rustic our shared meeting space used to feel.

Whether or not those anecdotes are true, what is true is what is surfacing in your own heart in this moment.  Perhaps it wasn’t this place, but some other community you were a part of where you had those glimmers of recognition – those feelings that perhaps no one was paying attention in the first place.

We’ve all been there.  Whether it was here or elsewhere.  And we know what it feels like to encounter a community where its first impression is not a good one.  A lot of it has to do with expectations, or it has to do with being burnt out, sometimes you encounter communities that are so weary and you just can’t pinpoint why.  Churches are not exempt from this.

And as the American understanding of community and our place in it shifts and we find ourselves less connected in meaningful ways, communities that are burnt out are an increasing thing we face.  I’ve come to believe that it all has to do with how we treat our communities.  Are we treating them as consumers, as we would Trader Joe’s or Aldi’s, or are we treating them with the possibility of being life-affirming and renewing?

Peter Block, a consultant that is known for his work in developing community, in the broadest and also the most specific terms – from businesses to churches to clubs to whatever gathering of people you can imagine – in his book, “Community:  The Structure of Belonging,” argues that authentic and life-giving communities need to discourage, at all costs, the idea that a member of a community is merely a consumer, a buyer of goods and services that will walk out the doors the moment a better deal arises.

And this includes churches.  Oh god, it includes churches in this day and age.  Let me up front with all of you, I will never compete with a mega church pastor.  I will not wear the Britney Spears microphone, the Steve Jobs turtleneck, and sell you a Unitarian Universalism without boundaries, without disappointment, without the word “no” in its vocabulary, without the struggle of our history, and the reality that church cannot possibly meet every person’s needs and requests at all times.

There has got to be a realm of authentic religious community, where we fail miserably, forgive without ceasing, and celebrate amidst the realities of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.  In this day, this hyper-consumerist culture we are participating in, your options on Sunday morning are many.

And Peter Block, and his work on community, goes against the grain and urges us to resist a mentality that leads to continuous and easy disenchantment.  He argues that we are not consumers in communities like this one.  We are, instead, citizens of this community.

I had never thought of it that way, but when you dig deep into the word citizen – free of its reduced meaning in Democracy at large, in which a citizen is just someone who votes – but truly dig deep into it, and it starts to converge with a feeling I have about why church is a good and right thing.

Block says of this citizenship, “The idea of what it means to be a citizen is too important and needs to be taken back to its more profound value.  Citizenship is a state of being.  It is a choice for activism and care.  A citizen is one who is willing to do the following:  Hold oneself accountable for the well-being of the larger collective of which we are a part.  Enter into a collective possibility that gives hospitable and restorative community its own sense of being.  Acknowledge that communities grow out of the possibility of citizens.  Attend to the gifts and capacities of others, and act to bring the gifts of those on the margin into the center.”

More simply put:  Accountability.  Possibility. Affirmation.  Lifting up.  To be a citizen of a community calls into being our call to not just “own” our community, but to do so in a way that checks our own desires against what is life-giving for all of us.  Less elegantly put, it’s a call to sometimes get over ourselves.  And so, too, it asks us to look always at what is possible, to affirm the gifts of ourselves and others, and to lift up the marginalized and unheard.

A handful of months ago, I wrote that I was tired of asking for volunteers as your minister in the newsletter – hopefully more than two of you read it.  I came to this feeling after looking at the order of service announcements and realizing that well over half of them were a call for volunteers to help with our religious exploration program for children and youth.

This is nothing new.  Churches always need people willing to help.  Heck, if we could just get people to break down the fellowship hall and put away all of the dishes on Sunday, it’d be a different story.  But I really want to stop talking about volunteers.  What if we shifted the dialogue from volunteerism to the citizenship that Peter Block speaks of.

What if your membership in this community was an intentional decision on your part to ensure the continued existence of Unitarian Universalism in the heart of the Bluegrass for generations to come?  Well, it already is.  Surprise.  Volunteers come and go.  Citizens commit to the possibilities yet to unfold, whether or not they reap the rewards.

It is part of enabling what Peter Block calls “hospitable and restorative community.”  In such an understanding, for you as citizens of this community, the work of hospitality and restoration become paramount.  Everything we do, then, as a church, becomes an act of hospitality to those who are amongst us and those who are yet to join us – whether or not they ever arrive.

The work of the church moves from business to a joyous welcoming, a restoring of brokenness, and an eager expectation to share our home, our church, with everyone – even if they are just stopping here along the way to some unknown spiritual destination.

Here’s what I want us all to think about.  Close your eyes if you want, keep them open if you want.  It doesn’t matter.  But locate your mind’s eye.  Locate that part of your mind where you remember your first time here.  Find that moment, and I don’t mean first time in this room.

What was it like the first time you came down Clays Mill road and saw the sign – if there was one – if we were even in this location yet.  What did you experience coming up the long drive, surrounded by trees, the hill carrying you upward and then, the break, the parking lot, and the spaceship nestled on the good and the green.

What were your first impressions?  Did you meet anyone in the parking lot?  Did they say good morning or ignore you?  When you came through the doors, what did you find?  Did you know where to go?  Did someone help you?  Welcome you?  When you settled in the sanctuary, what were you thinking?  When the prelude started, where did your mind and heart go?

When it was all said and done and the smell of coffee wafted its way through the foyer, where did the service leave you?  Did you want to flee?  Did you?  Or will you if you’re visiting today? Did you immediately come back or did it take a while?  Ask yourself why.  Keep asking why.  Find that original impulse to come here.  Find what keeps you coming – even after disappointments, rocky years, or troubling times.

In this imagining of your first time here, did you find something surprising, something beautiful, something disheartening, something that left you wondering? Perhaps a combination of everything.  And for those of you that kept coming back, what kept you coming?  What made you choose to be a citizen of this, your church community, our church community?  What has, or what will, allow you to rest in the possibilities that await us?  What will affirm your gifts while lifting up those around you?

For churches, these questions are the bedrock of creating authentic, hospitable communities.  Communities that take pride in their shared space, that welcome the stranger, make room for the unheard, and press on in the promise of possibility.  As this church year begins to unfold and autumn creepers ever closer, just imagine.  Imagine what this place could be.

Give praise for what it already is – celebrate your accomplishments.  But do not lose that imagining spirit.  There is always more awaiting us.  Do not let that drive become stale or miserable, but let it grow, nurture it, let it spill over and infect anyone that comes upon it.  “Gather us in, through time and space, and make all our broken pieces whole in community. In our multiplicity, make us one. From each of our jagged edges, give us the shape of a communal beauty.”  May it always be so.  Blessed be.  Amen.