Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." ~ Luke 1:68-79
Mike has been a member of First Baptist since he arrived in town shortly after college. He met his wife and they had raised their children in the congregation. The kids are grown and have lives of their own. Now retired, Mike serves the congregation devotedly by managing the facility schedule for all the different groups who use the church building.
Over the decades, First Baptist has dwindled. Once thriving and able to sustain itself on pledge income, the congregation now relies almost entirely upon an endowment to pay its bills and support its staff. Many of the pews in the enormous sanctuary sit empty on Sunday morning. Mike and other members of the church cannot help but notice the empty spaces. During the week, however, it's a different story.
There is a day care center and an after school program for children. There is a school to teach the English language to immigrants in the community. In the evenings 12-step groups and acting troupes (no relation) fill the Sunday School class rooms. The homeless come by during the day for a sack lunch or to use the showers in the locker rooms...and there is the basketball court. All day and all night people come in to play basketball or indoor soccer.
The facility is constantly humming with activity, but each Sunday for the last several years Mike has sat in his place in the sanctuary wondering to himself, â€œWhere are all the people?â€ Over time, like others Mike gradually came to resent the people who were in the building all week long. They weren't members of his congregation. They did not pledge. They had no real investment in the life of the congregation, not that he could see at any rate. All of this changed, however, one Ash Wednesday service.
Mike was one of a small group of people in the side chapel that night. It's a baptist church, so the service is never well attended, but Mike found it meaningful and tried to attend every year. This year he was seated listening to the music coming from the piano. His heart was open as he reflected on his life with God.
As he sat there, a woman he did not recognize walked up to one of the pastors and asked if she could attend the service. She was one of the mothers who was in the church to watch her child who was playing soccer in the building that evening. She was Catholic and would otherwise be at her parish, but she was there to watch her son play soccer. Could she attend the service anyway? â€œOf course,â€ the pastor replied.
So, the woman went away. She had gone downstairs to get more people. Again and again she went back and forth and brought people to the service. Mike sat in stunned amazement. Tears welled up in his eyes. This woman brought in more and more people until the congregation doubled in size. Strangers, children and adults alike, came forward to receive the ashes. Mike wept.
After the service, the pastor asked Mike what had happened, what had moved him to tears. â€œI had not understood it until just now.â€ He said. â€œThey may never come on Sunday morning. I might never know their name, but they are part of my church community no less. We minister to these people and they are part of who we are.â€
This is a true story. The names have been changed, but know that I am not making this up. Know that this does happen. Our perspectives shift and hearts and relationships change. Sometimes God brings us what we want in new ways and not the ways we expect or even hope for.
An article appeared in the Chicago Tribune this week featuring Our Place. Our Place is the agency that uses the rooms upstairs from the Guthridge Lounge. They provide community and various kinds of support for young adults with special needs who have â€œaged outâ€ of the New Trier system. The headline read, â€œYou never age out at Our Place.â€ It's a wonderful. They have become a regular part of our community here each week. I know many of you have gotten to know them. Trish and I have gotten to know the names of the young people who benefit from the program. We talk about football or girls or boys or anything else that might be important that day. We greet one another in the hall and smile. More and more it feels like they are part of our community. They aren't simply renters, but part of who we are.
I have a generous definition of "together" and who â€œweâ€ are..."We" is very, very large. Community is big. It's expansive. It contains a "we" full of strangers and long time friends, people who pass one another in the hallway simply offering a smile, and those who will sit by you in the best and worst of times. It is all these things simultaneously. Community, as a concept, is expansive. It contains all the various spheres of our lives.
These spheres overlap or collide. They may even sit idle from time to time, but the combination of them is this thing called â€œcommunityâ€ and it is constantly shifting, and pulses with a life of itâ€™s own.
On Friday evening a couple of weeks ago I sat up front here in the sanctuary with Rabbi Sam Gordon, Cantor Ross Wolman, Matt Long, and my friend from the band, Roger Sherman, and we sang to the Sabbath Bride with our Jewish friends and neighbors. It was a lovely evening and I heard over and over again how welcome they feel here, how they love to be here and so appreciate this place. I looked out over the congregation gathered and saw members of our church mingled with members of their synagogue. I sat with friends, strangers, and colleagues all in the presence of the living God. This is community.
At the close of Council meetings I occasionally pray the words, â€œLord God, send us your people.â€ And God has. In a stroke of divine humor God first sent us the Jews, Godâ€™s Chosen People. Such a funny Deity we serve. God's Chosen are here every Friday night just like we asked.
Then the â€œleast of theseâ€ arrived in the form of Our Place. They had nowhere else to go. They had aged out of the programs around the township, but, as the article states, one never ages out of Our Place or the Kingdom of God for that matter. Now even more people think of this church as a place to come and be community with one another. The spheres of relationships in Wilmette and the rest of the North Shore collide and combine here all week long.
Our church is a place of healing for those who come to Qi Qong. It is a place of adventure and learning for the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. Children are here every afternoon to learn to sing and to dance. People have always come here for help with their rent and utilities. They come to the church when they need help in the hopes that God's people are still doing God's work.
We've been praying for it; that God would send us his people. We thought we were simply praying for new members, and they too have come, but all of God's people are coming here. Are you beginning to see it? We don't have to do anything to please God but offer our space, to make room at the table in and the education wing, and that desire has been at the center of this congregation from the very beginning.
In the March 19, 1920 issue of the Lake Shore News, there is an article and an advertisement for the Wilmette Baptist Church. We were unveiling our building plan and inviting the village to â€œhave a share in this enterprise which is in measure a community responsibility.â€ When I first read this article I though, â€œWell, that was a different time.â€ And it was. But I learned something when I read the article, and though weâ€™ve spoken of it time and time again these last several years, it really sank in for me recently.
The members of Wilmette Baptist Church saw their building as a public space. Their plans included a projection room for movies. It would add another screen to the booming movie goer culture served by the Wilmette Theater and the Village Theater (The Presbyterians had the bowling alley.). Wilmette Baptist Church was always intended to be public space. Part of the congregationâ€™s stewardship of their resources was to be stewards of a public space.
We serve a public God with a public witness. We are called to join with Zechariah in the public proclamation of Godâ€™s gracious love for Godâ€™s people. We are to make a public proclamation and live public lives in a public space.
Thus God has shown the mercy
promised to our ancestors,
and remembered his
the oath that he swore to our
that we might serve God without fear,
in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days. (Lk. 1:72-75)
This is what Mike finally understood in our earlier story. This is what I am beginning to see grow here at Community Church with all the people who come and go all week long. This is a public space. We are it's stewards. We are the stewards of the Kingdom of God and this building is the public space that helps us articulate that call.
Open minds. Giving hearts. One expansive, generous, community.
We are called to be a community and to facilitate community for others. It's in the air we breathe. It's in the walls of this place. Weâ€™ve done it before and we do it well. God has prepared us for this ministry. The time has come.
During the singing of this hymn you are invited forward to place your pledge cards in the basket. Your offerings of time, talent, and treasure are precious gifts. They embody the hope we all have for this church. God is moving. The Spirit is calling. Christ is not done yet.
Thanks be to God.