It’s hard to imagine I’m standing here in this pulpit twenty years after my first official Sunday here at Wapping Community Church. When Kristin and I moved to South Windsor, Micaela was four years old, a little less than a year away from starting kindergarten. Josh was not quite two years old and still in a car seat, though probably just barely. Given how big he was when he was born and how quickly he grew, Josh never fit in one car seat for long.
And Hannah…I’m not even sure she was a twinkle in our eye when I started here at Wapping. By the time Hannah was born in the year 2000, I had been the Senior Pastor for a year and a half. Now in the fall of 2018, Hannah is off at her first semester in college.
My hair was grayless back in 1998…not even close to white. The walls in this sanctuary were painted a teal color that was probably trendy back then…not so much now. There were brown glass globes covering each of the bulbs on the chandeliers overhead, making this sanctuary considerably darker than it is today. And the Gathering Room outside these doors wouldn’t take shape for three more years. It’s hard to imagine, but when I first arrived twenty years ago, there were narrow stairs that led in and out of this sanctuary, rendering this worship space largely inaccessible for anyone with mobility issues.
I believe there were thirteen people on the Search Committee that called me to this church. Some of those Search Committee members have moved away and some have joined the great communion of saints. Yet by my count, four of them are still around, including John Drake, who chaired that committee and had so much to do with my decision to come here.
Given the fact that there have been two Sunday morning worship services for the vast majority of time I have been here, I estimate that I have preached somewhere around fifteen hundred sermons over the years. To add up the number of funerals, weddings, baptisms and special services I have led, I would need a calculator. At the same time, the amount of joy I have felt in this church over the years cannot be calculated. Thank God for Wapping Community Church…!
For me, so much of ministry in this special place is about a series of images which are fixed indelibly in my mind.
Like the moment I’m holding a baby in my arms and he or she looks up at me, sometimes wide eyed, sometimes teary eyed. As I put water on top of their small heads, God moves through my hands as a blessing. All of you move as one gathered body of Christ to animate the Holy Spirit in this sanctuary. And instantly the baby takes his or her place in a long line of Christian people who have been anointed with God’s blessing going all the way back in time to the day Jesus Christ was baptized in the Jordan River.
Or the moment when I’m on a Mission Trip with our SPF group. And I’m privileged enough to see up close the interaction between one of our high school youth and a person whom they are serving or working beside. Perhaps there is an expression of gratitude. But even more importantly, through a smile or a laugh or a hug, it’s a powerful thing to witness that split second when our youth realize that underneath all the things that divide us as human beings, there are fundamental things that unite us. Struggles, triumphs, strengths, vulnerabilities, hopes. All those things that make us human. In the end, we are all created in God’s image.
Like that moment when the choir sings something so profound and so beautiful on Sunday morning that it feels like it takes our collective breath away. And all we can do when they finish singing is rest in the silent, holy aftermath before we go on with the next thing.
Or that moment when a whole group of children come forward to the front of the stairs for a children’s message. Some of them are reluctant and they walk hesitantly and suspiciously forward, hoping to pick out a familiar face. Meanwhile, there are others who jump up out of their pews and race to the front of the sanctuary, as if they’re looking for the best seat in a movie theater. But somehow, our youngest people are willing to sing and dance and laugh and shout out answers to questions without getting hung up in their own insecurities. Providing me and all of us who are adults a vivid reminder of why God invites each of us to be God’s children.
Like that moment when a new person or a new family comes to worship for the first time. And I make a mental note to go and greet them during the Passing of the Peace. But when I arrive down the aisle, I can’t actually reach out to them because they are surrounded by a group of people from this church who are offering their own generous welcome. Yes, no matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
Or that moment when I’m standing around a gravesite with members of a family and, one by one, they take a flower and place it gently on top of their loved ones casket or plot. The same God who calls us by name and knows us by heart at the moment of our birth and on the day of our baptism is also the God who calls us by name and knows us by heart when we take our final breath.
The beauty of the gardens and the flowers surrounding this church property. The sound of our church bells punctuating and sanctifying South Windsor’s days and nights. Business meetings that begin with setting a tone as we share blessings and concerns with one another before we delve into the agenda. Sacred, homemade prayer shawls that I have spread over people in hospital beds as a reminder of the love that warms them. And all those wonderful and unexpected encounters I have with people at Stop and Shop or Sun Sun or the gas station.
So many reasons why I love this church… But my sermon this morning’s isn’t just about why I love Wapping Community Church. It’s about why I love THE church.
If you were listening closely to all of the examples I just offered to you…all the images that captivate my pastoral heart and spirit and imagination in this congregation…there is one important thing all those examples share in common. They might happen with one other person or they might happen in a big group of people. But they all happen in some kind of community…
Over the years I chuckle to myself when people meet me for the first time and find out my vocation. There are plenty of people who will make a conscious effort to try and clean up their language or apologize for language they have already used in my presence. As though I’ve never heard any profane words before…like in my own house.
Sometimes when I tell people I’m a pastor, that’s a showstopper. As soon as I say the words, there’s an awkward pause. Followed by an uncomfortably long period of silence. Until finally the other person changes the subject. Or not knowing how to respond, they simply walk away.
One of the most common reactions I get from people I’ve just met is rationales for why they don’t go to church. Sort of like when you find out you’re talking to a medical professional and suddenly you have all these aches and pains you want to have diagnosed. Or you find out you’re talking to a mechanic and you can’t resist mentioning that funny noise your car has been making recently. Part of the occupational hazard of being a pastor, whether I’m on an airplane or in a social gathering or even when I’m on vacation, is people justifying to me why they are not churchgoers.
To be more specific, one of the reasons why people tell me they don’t go to church sounds something like this: I don’t have to go to church because I find God somewhere else. Fill in the blank. I find God on the beach listening to the ocean. I find God when I watch the stars in the night sky or the sun setting over the horizon. I find God when I’m out on the ski slopes or riding my bike or walking through the woods.
When I hear all those reasons I typically nod my head. Because I agree with everything they are saying. I, too, find God at the beach. I also find God when I watch the stars on a clear night or a brightly colored sunset at the end of a long day or when I’m out walking in the woods. All of that is good and there’s no need to rationalize any of it.
But here is one big reason why I love the church. And it’s the one reason why I keep coming to church Sunday after Sunday and day after day. The church offers something that sunsets and stars and forests and beaches don’t inherently offer. The church is all about community. A group of people who will pray with you and cry with you and hold you tightly when you are struggling. A group of people who will embrace you and celebrate with you when you experience joy. A group of people who will help you grow in faith by nurturing you and challenging you and encouraging you to become the human being God intended for you to be. A group of people who will hold onto hope for you when you have lost hope and until you are able to find hope again.
When all is said and done, church is community. It’s people coming together in the name of Jesus Christ to practice peace and spread love and work for justice and offer hospitality and look forward boldly.
So thank you to all of you who are part of this Wapping community. My community. God’s community. If I had been in ministry all by myself for these past twenty years, I would be exhausted. Instead, I have been in ministry with all of you in partnership and community for twenty years. And I feel exhilarated.
With deep gratitude for all that has been and with great hope for what is yet to come…Amen.