Rev. Joe Connolly
“‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,’ Abraham and Sarah replied, ‘neither will they be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.’” — Luke 16:31.
I am sure most of you know, when someone says the words “New York” many people think “New York City.” Norwich, of course, is in New York State but nowhere near New York City. Norwich is in a rural area of New York State.
Now as many of you also know, I grew up in New York City. And yes, New York City is a really, really big city and life can be very different in a big city than it is in a rural area. But, having been a native of New York City, I then moved to Maine.
Maine is a rural state, a state that does not even have a big city anywhere in it. So, having moved to a rural state, I then moved to Norwich, in a state with a couple of big cities but a whole lot of rural areas.
Now, one might fairly argue that when I moved to Maine and then continued on to Norwich those moves meant I experienced a very large shift in cultural surroundings. Why, yes, I did. My motto had always been ‘If the Subway doesn’t go there it’s too far.’
But what was it that did not change for me? What remained the same for me? People— people are people are people are people.
Different cultural influences may expose us to different experiences. And yes, the influence culture has on us can be overwhelmingly powerful. But no matter how strong cultural influence is, we cannot and should not let it affect us to the point where we lose sight of what it means to be human. To reiterate: people are people are people are people. (Slight pause.)
There are two corollaries to that thought. Pastors are pastors are pastors are pastors. And churches are churches are churches are churches. This holds true even when the pastors are called rabbis and when the churches are called synagogues.
And so I recently read an article by a Rabbi, Seth Goldstein. Similar to myself, this particular colleague has had a long term tenure at a congregation. Yes, synagogues are known as congregations. In fact, congregation is a term found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The title of the article was 10 Things I have Learned About Serving as a Congregational Rabbi. I won’t list all ten.
Instead I’ll to skip to some of the conclusions the Rabbi reached. Note: I’ve altered some of the language to fit the church, not the synagogue, but the ideas are the same.
As for those conclusions— first, said the Rabbi addressing the congregation based on the experience of a long tenure— first, I don’t want you to become a member of this congregation. I want you to become a friend, a part of a whole.
I don’t want you to be a part of a club. I want you to be a part of a community, to find value in the organization by finding value in the community.
This friendship is not based on your frequency of attendance, your religiosity, your preference for or disdain for the food at coffee hour. It’s based on the shared value that we are better off together than alone and that congregations are needed to not just maintain traditions but to forge people to people connections.
Next, I don’t want you to make a pledge. I don’t want you to simply offer financial support. Rather, I want you to support this community based on a sense of deep commitment, engagement, gratitude. Further, your support of the community should not be seen as a prerequisite for but rather as a result of participation. (Slight pause.)
This is vital: I don’t want you to join a committee. No, indeed, I want you to join with other like minded folks, committed to the same goals and outcomes. I want you to work together on a common cause to make things happen.
Where your interest lies— governance, music, education, grounds-keeping, an entirely new idea— matters not. Find some like minded folks and do it. Forget meetings and minutes. Think about creating and making. (Slight pause.)
Here’s another way to look at our community, said the Rabbi. I don’t want you to just show up. Rather, I want you to be present. In the context of community to see yourself as a passive recipient is a questionable practice. To see yourself as an active participant in congregational life means you own what happens here, in this community.
Part of how that is done is by coming to services hoping to be moved, hoping to find meaning. Come to classes hoping to learn, hoping to be inspired. Come to a service project hoping to get your hands dirty, hoping to make a change in the world.
Come to the community to be open to new relationships, new friendships. Come to laugh, to eat, to share. Come to accept help when you need it, to give help when you are able. And yes, come to be a part of this community. But please don’t just show up.
The Rabbi writes this: if you do your part and I do my part we can fulfill the promise of what it means to live in a sacred community, a holy community. Last the Rabbi says: let us demonstrate that when we join together, we can both transform and we can be transformed— transform and be transformed. (Slight pause.)
And these words are from Luke/Acts in the section commonly referred to as Luke: “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,’ Abraham and Sarah replied, ‘neither will they be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Slight pause.)
In the Gospel story, the rich person is unable to even know the beggar is at the gate. Why? This person of wealth has a flaw. That flaw is not one of purposeful meanness or abusiveness or arrogance. The rich person is simply unaware of what is going on right at the gate. (Slight pause.)
It seems to me human society, the culture, is often flawed. That is not because society is purposefully mean or abusive or arrogant. To often we are, the society is, simply unaware of what is going on, right in front of us.
I want to suggest that we have the ability to fix that flaw. How is it fixable? We need to be involved.
You see, the person of wealth realizes everyone in the household has the same problem and says (quote): “I beg you, then, to send Lazarus to my own house where I have five siblings. Let Lazarus be a warning to them,…”
Let me be clear about this: being frightened is not being involved. Being frightened means retreating into a shell. Being frightened means being unaware. Being frightened means being detached from reality.
Being frightened means not taking action when it’s needed. Being frightened means losing track of this deep truth: people are people are people are people.
This is obvious: the person of wealth always had a way to be aware of Lazarus. After all, Lazarus was sitting right at the gate. But I suspect the rich person was always distracted— distracted by the culture, distracted by being (quote): “dressed in purple and fine linen….”
In fact, there is nothing wrong with fine linen. But sometimes people do become detached from reality because of the trappings society offers. Because of the trappings of the culture, the society in which they live people become distracted. Which is to say this story is not a warning about the afterlife.
It is, however, a threefold admonition. The admonitions are these: first, do not be afraid. Second, the trappings of our society may cloud your vision, if you let them. And if you let them, that has the possibility of making you afraid. Third, people are people are people are people. Love them. Treat them with equity.
When we forget that, we have forgotten what community, a congregation is about. And a community, a congregation is a place where we can both transform and a place where we can be transformed. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Theologian Richard Rohr has said ‘much of organized religion tends to be peopled by folks who have a mania for some ideal order— something which is not possible. The purpose of religion is not for the sake of social order. The purpose of religion is for the sake divine union.’ Union, you see, union with God and with one another, is the point.”
BENEDICTION: There is a cost and there is a joy in discipleship. There is a cost and there is a joy in truly being church, in deeply loving one another. May the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.