By Rev. Joe Connolly
“But the truth is whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones just for being a disciple will not lack a reward.” — Matthew 10:42.
As was mentioned earlier, Bonnie and I will be leaving after the service today, headed to Maine to visit family. We will be back by next Sunday. And what better week to go than the week that has the Fourth of July in the midst of it?
One of the things we have planned will, however, not be in Maine but will happen on our return trip. We will visit the Rev. Dr. Bill Imes, now retired, and his wife Judy for lunch on the day we return.
Bill was, of course, one of my mentors in ministry. He preached at my ordination. Bonnie says a lot of people tried to get me to go to Seminary over the years. Bill got it done. Since we have not seen Bill and Judy in quite a while, I expect we shall have a lot to talk about and have a good time seeing each other.
Bill and Judy now live in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Easthampton is just a short detour off I-90, so the visit won’t be hard to accomplish.
Now, Bill graduated from Seminary in 1969. He went to Yale. Back when he was a seminarian even at Yale, a relatively urban institution, and even back in the late 1960s, one of the things the professors stressed was the physical places in this country in which Main Line Churches largely and mostly reside.
Back then they said the natural habitat of Main Line Churches was what they called “town and country.” Therefore, Seminaries, even urban ones like Yale, felt they were training pastors who would serve churches located in towns and in the countryside.
To put some geographic teeth into that statement, let me translate it this way. Main Line Churches are largely in places like Norwich— towns— and in the country— places like Preble for example, about an hour and twenty minutes West of here. One of our fine U.C.C. churches resides in Preble. And if, on your travels, your destination is not Preble, if on any trip you simply travel through Preble, don’t blink. You’ll miss it— country.
My point in bringing this up— the fact that 50 years ago we all knew Main Line Churches were largely in town and in country locations— is there is a boldfaced lie that goes around about Main Line Churches. This is the lie: Main Line Churches are losing population.
Guess what? The places where Main Line Churches exist are losing population. Ipso facto, Main Line Churches are losing population. But that loss has little to do with the churches, themselves.
Example: since I came to Norwich more than twenty years ago the data says the population has gone down by about 30%. That’s more than 1% year. Which is also to say, yes, numbers in the Main Line have diminished. But you need to ask ‘what is the real reason for that?’
Indeed, there are plenty of Main Line Churches experiencing growth. Guess where those churches are located?
They are in suburbs and exurbs and those areas are experiencing growth. But, generally, there are few Main Line Churches in those areas. (Slight pause.)
There is a second bold faced lie out there concerning church population. This lie says Main Line Churches are too liberal to be popular. Conservative churches grow. Liberal churches do not.
That lie was recently addressed, dare I say destroyed, in an interview given by Diana Butler Bass. Bass is a church historian and theologian and an independent scholar who writes broadly on American religion and culture.0
She started this interview by noting the Southern Baptist Convention, clearly a conservative group, has lost more than one million members in the last decade, the last ten years. And, if you stretch back for five or six years before that, the losses would be well the million, nearly trwo.
So, what’s happening? Yes, many of these churches are located in areas losing population also. But there is a second reason which Bass addressed.
This is a quote: “Cultural circumstances— cultural circumstances— surrounding religious life and religious choice are far more important than any theology…. The issue is not whether you’re a liberal or a conservative…. That is irrelevant.”
Southern Baptists are culturally, she noted, now going through what liberal churches went through about 30 or 40 years ago. In the mid-20th century mainline Protestants had grown cozy with cultural power and the status quo. Being comfortable with the status quo undermined their ability to have or to offer a prophetic vision for the world. The inability to have or to offer a prophetic vision undermined their ability to be anything other than the church of just getting along.
So, culturally, conservative churches filled that void. But then they also got comfortable with their own brand of cultural power. Now they are being confronted by issues concerning race, concerning gender and gender identity, and other issues concerning justice.
Bass continued (quote:), “Evangelicals have been completely unable to address these in any meaningful way. The leaders of evangelical churches have continued their alliance with the powers that be, the status quo, and their children are saying, ‘We don’t buy it.’”
“Not only is the younger generation walking away. The younger generation says, ‘We will not be the church of the status quo. We do not want to be the church of Caesar.’” (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Matthew: “But the truth is whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones just for being a disciple will not lack a reward.” (Slight pause.)
The message we hear in this brief passage indicates a revitalization of family relations is possible but it goes beyond that. These words say the establishment of a new family is also possible, a new family bound together by a common commitment to do the will of God. However, the new family does not automatically emerge to replace the support of the old family ties.
The new family must be born, be refreshed, renewed. And that new family must be born, be refreshed, renewed in the context of mission. Community is out there, beyond the current community, in the context of mission. This community needs to be welcomed, in the context of mission.
Put another way, this community, in fact, needs to receive a cup of cold water. And the old community and new community alike, can be bonded together with the divine presence in the context of mission. (Slight pause.)
We live in a society, in a world, that thinks everything has a price, everything can be bought and/or sold, a deal can be made for everything, anything. Therefore, I think when we read these words from Matthew we believe the important part of the verse I quoted is “…a disciple will not lack a reward.” We hear these words and we hear and we see transaction.
But and therefore, we tend to ignore these words: “…whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these…” That dichotomy begs the question: what is a disciple? What is discipleship? What does it mean to be a disciple? (Slight pause.)
In that same interview Diana Butler Bass said this (quote:) “This is the real issue for churches: are you a congregation that provides a way of life, meaningful life, for people which can help them navigate through chaotic times. Are you a congregation that provides a way to be able to connect with God, to experience a new sense of the Holy Spirit, to be able to empower love and to be compassionate? That is what makes religious communities vibrant, not whether they are liberal or conservative.”  (Slight pause.)
The Dominion of God is not about transactions. The Dominion of God is not about rewards. The Dominion of God is not about who has the most wherewithal when they die.
The church is not about transactions. The church is not about rewards. The church is not about who has the most wherewithal when they die.
The church is about striving to provide a way of meaningful life for people to help them navigate through chaotic times. The church is about helping people connect with God.
The church is about the experience of a new sense of the Holy Spirit. The church is about empowering love. The church is about being be able to be compassionate. (Slight pause.) The church is about giving a cup of water. (Slight pause.)
The question before us, the question before this congregation, any congregation, is not a question about power or any kind of reward or even survival. The question before this congregation and any congregation is did we, were we, providing a way of meaningful life for people to help them navigate in chaotic times?
Did we, were we, helping people to connect with God? Did we, were we, helping people experience a new sense of the Holy Spirit? Are we, can we empower love and compassion? (Slight pause.) Did we give a cup of water, simply a cup of cold water? 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 Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “This is a poem by Tod Jenkins called The Gospel. ‘When the gospel no longer / sounds like good news, / maybe our measure / of what is good – / and the people for whom / it was intended – / has slipped a few / too many notches. // We are not called / to shoehorn the gospel / into our narratives / of comfort and security, / but to open our hearts and lives / to love’s expansive reach. // We are made to fit love, / not the other way around. // Keep stretching. / It’s reaching toward you now; / has been since / before your first breath; / will be forevermore.’ I probably don’t need to add anything to that.”
BENEDICTION: 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.
 A summary of this interview is found at this URL.