As has become my tradition (three times makes it a tradition I guess), I am posting the sermon that I gave yesterday in church. The only thing that I want to say about it ahead of time is that, though I think its themes are universal, it has been tailored very specifically to my congregation and the city of Burlington. So I guess what I’m saying is, there may be people and places mentioned that you don’t know, and I’m not going to explain them. Good luck! And now, here are my thoughts on: Believing in Place.
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
So if there’s one thing we can take away from that gospel lesson, it’s that where you’re from is really important. This is the third week in our sermon series focusing on the new church website,
which in turn is focusing on the new church mission statement. Two weeks ago, Mark spoke about what it means to be a worshiping community, and last week Rachel talked about walking in the way of Jesus. And now we’ve arrived at the third, and perhaps least obvious, segment: Believing in Place.
What does that mean? Believing in Place. When you look at the website, and our mission statement, the first two segments make some common sense at first glace. What are we? A worshiping community. Ok, I get that. And what are we doing? Walking in the way of Jesus. I don’t think we’re going to get any arguments on that one either. And then we hit Believing in Place. What? What is that? Is that like Running in Place? Does that mean that our faith isn’t going anywhere? Or do we put our faith in a place? Is this building the most important thing about us? And of course the answer is no to those questions, but believing in place is an important aspect of our mission here together, because it answers the final question that someone who doesn’t know anything about us might ask.
Who, what, when, where, why, how. Those are the basics, right? Who are we? We are a worshiping community. What are we doing? Walking in the way of Jesus. When are we doing it? Well, it’s ongoing, but I think the present tense verb conjugations of “worship-ING” and “walk-ING” let you know that we are doing it right now. Whenever you are asking the question, that’s when we’re doing it. And why are we doing it? Jesus. That’s why we’re doing it. And where are we doing it? We’re doing it right here. In this place. This is a place that we believe in, and it’s a place that we Believe…in. As for the how, don’t ask me about the how. The how isn’t our mission, it’s what we do to carry out the mission, and it changes every year, and every month, and every day. The how is adaptable. The where is somewhat fixed.
So where are we? What is this place that we find ourselves in? Well, currently we’re in a church. We’re on Buell Street. We’re in the downtown area. Ward 3. We’re in Burlington. Chittenden County. The Champlain Valley. Vermont. The United States of America. North America. Earth. 3rd Planet from the Sun in our Solar System. The Milky Way Galaxy. The Universe. The Multiverse. The Omniverse. All that ever was and ever will be. But for now let’s focus on Burlington.
Wait, Burlington? Can anything good come out of Burlington? Burlington, Vermont? The least religious city in the entire country? According to a Gallup poll from earlylast year anyway.
What good can a church do in a place like that? A place full of hipsters and hippies, pot smokers and tree huggers, pagans and atheists, gay marriage and maple syrup. What kind of place is that for a church? And you know, I guess it depends on the church. And maybe church isn’t the right word to use there. What if we rephrased the question, what kind of a place is that for a Jesus? Is there any place at all where Jesus can’t do some good, because of, or in spite of, a church?
The origins of “Believing in Place” can be traced to a program in our schools that is currently rising in popularity. It’s called “place-based education,” and the idea is that students use the community as a tool for learning. It’s very hands-on, and, though national or global issues are certainly dealt with, these issues are viewed through the lens of how they affect things locally. So from this place-based education came the idea of place-based spirituality. If part of our calling, as walkers in the way of Jesus, is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners, well, who are those people around here, and how can we help them? And we do this with the realization that the needs of the people of Burlington are possibly different from the needs of the people of Shelburne, and are probably quite different from the needs of the people in Texas. And if we suddenly found ourselves in North Korea, it might be wise to adjust some of what we do accordingly. We’re a worshiping community, walking in the way of Jesus, and we need to know how best to do that, given the place that we’re in.
The median age of the city of Burlington is 26 and half. And it’s dropping. It’s a fairly even split between male and female, and the median household income is just over $40,000. Per capita income is around $25K. And that matters. It matters to me, and I hope it matters to you, because the median age of this worshiping community is not 26.5. And that’s okay; it doesn’t have to be. But it makes it harder for us. Because if we want to really minister to this community, we need to meet them at their level. And it’s not intuitive. We are not 26.5. I don’t feel so old myself, most of the time, but I am almost 50% older than the average Burlington resident. I’m out of touch myself! What I think is cool, is actually embarrassingly lame, or so I will be told by my children in just a few years. And so I have to think hard about the things I do here. I don’t want to alienate the people who are already here of course, but how can I make sure that what I present is relevant and interesting and exciting to a 26.5 year old too?
Because I believe that this is a community that needs us, just as much as we need them. The polls may say that people here aren’t religious, but, at least in my experience, they sure are spiritual. They are open to new ideas, and searching for beauty and meaning in this world and this life. And whether they ever come to a worship service or not, there are people in great need that we are already helping. This church is home to a number of 12-Step programs that meet here on a very regular basis. We serve the community with the Thrift Shop every Monday, and we serve community lunches on Christmas and Easter. The sanctuary hosts concerts, on First Night and throughout the year, and our Vacation Bible School program regularly draws in folks who we rarely, if ever, see here on Sunday mornings. So what I’m trying to say here is that we believe in this place already. Believing in place is not a thing that we made up out of the blue, and it’s not a new program that we’re going to be starting this Spring. We’re already doing it. We’ve been doing it. We are a part of the fabric of this community. We’re not just here to feed and clothe the people of Burlington, we’re here to worship with them too, and we believe that it’s an important part of our mission and our identity.
Believing in place… It’s actually kind of catchy. Because places are important. Places have meaning. Places are sacred to us. How often in the Bible do we read about God’s people just wanting their own place? And God said okay! Go! Go to the promised land! For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills. Boy, that sounds like a nice place! And then God says one more very important thing. When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
So wait, let me get this straight. You are going to give us a place. A wonderful place. A place where we have plenty of food and resources, and then you expect us to do something other than sit around and complain about it? You expect us to do something other than stare at the green grass over at that other place? Because make no mistake about it, believing in this place does not make any of the other places less valid. No, we are expected to give thanks for the place that was given to us by God. “But God!” you are thinking to yourself, “I really did love this place. But then I kind of got used to it. And not only that, but everybody else messed it up! I mean, first they started calling “Martin’s” Hannaford, and who can pronounce that?! And then Carbur’s closed. and the Ground Round, and they put a Price Chopper where the Grand Union used to be, and everywhere I look there are more and more college kids, and their pants are hanging halfway down to their knees, even in winter, and there’s trash on the streets, and there’s a Panera on Church Street, and all these refugees have moved in, and the homeless people make me uncomfortable, and they painted over the mural on church street, and sure the new one looks nice, but I miss the animals, and Penny Cluse is where the Ben and Jerry’s is supposed to be, and I barely recognize anythinganymore! THIS IS NOT MY PLACE!”
Well, let me tell you a little bit about place. Place is more than just a dot on a map. Place is a dot on a timeline. Place is a moment in history. Place is your relationship with God. Place is what you are thinking about today versus what you were thinking about yesterday. Believing in place is not as simple as believing in the plot of land on which you find yourself. Believing in place means that we recognize where and when we are, and what we are able to do, and we do it. Joyfully. Burlington today is not Burlington twenty years ago. Or forty years ago. If we try to solve the problems of 1974 Burlington, we’re going to be very confused and frustrated. That’s not to say that we can’t be confused and frustrated trying to solve the problems of 2014 Burlington, but there needs to be a recognition, and a dedication, to the here and now. Can we end homelessness in America? Maybe. Can we end homelessness in Vermont? Perhaps. Can we end homelessness for those two guys on the corner over there, across the street? I don’t know, but let’s try. Can we end teen suicide in this country? Seems unlikely to happen this week. Can we talk to our youth and engage with them in a meaningful way? Reach out and get to know them and their worries in a loving, non-judgmental way? That’s believing in place. The knowledge that we can make a difference, right here, and right now. And that the good we do here today will ripple out in waves to the surrounding communities, and that together we can change the world, simply by changing this place.
Do you know why I’m here? I’m here because Hans Heikel was my 5thgrade Sunday school teacher. I’m here because of frank conversations about faith that I had with Bob Ayers. I’m here because of my youth pastor, Mari Clark. I was gone for fifteen years, and when we began to look for a church home in Vermont again, there were several on the short list to check out. We never made it past the first one on the list. I’m here because Marcheta Townsend grabbed ahold of me and never let me go. I walked in these doors and knew that I was home. The pastor was different, the choir director was different, the style was different, and many of the people were different, but… there’s just something about this place.
I understand that sometimes things change, and we get uncomfortable. Or we get sad, and mourn for the past. Or we get so used to doing one thing one way, that the thought of doing something else becomes unimaginable. I personally don’t like change. I would be very happy with everything staying exactly the same. Even, and this seems crazy to me when I say it out loud, even the bad stuff. Even things I know aren’t healthy or fully functional, I would keep those too, because I know how to deal with them. If I was in charge, everything would be just like it is today, forever. My kids would never grow up, I would always be at this church, making music, laughing, and singing with you all. We would never move, even though our apartment is far too small for us. I may not like everything about my life, but I knowit. I know it intimately, and I think it’s fine.
Luckily for the world, I’m not in charge. Things change, life happens, people come and go, businesses go under and new ones pop up, and places that once seemed safe and familiar suddenly seem strange and upsetting. This, then is our calling. To believe in this place. To look at things with Christ-filled eyes, and see, truly see, the work that is laid out for us. To look past how we want things to be, and look at how Christ wants them to be. We’re walking in the way of Jesus, right? We are called to do His work. Well, here we are. We are imperfect beings, struggling and battling, sometimes with each other, sometimes with ourselves, and sometimes with God, but we’re here. This is not a city of angels that we are building. This is humanity at its best and worst. We may not agree on the how, and there will be times that we even disagree on the what. I may see societal problems that you think are just fine the way they are, and vice-versa. But what I hope we can all agree on, is that we’re here. Together. I’m not going anywhere, and I sure hope you’re not going anywhere, because it’s going to take all of us to do the work that Jesus has given us. Look around you. Can you see it? Open the doors! Oh Burlington, Burlington! City that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! We love you anyway! We will feed you, and clothe you, and visit you, and believe in you! And when we see the fruits of our labors spoil, and we hit rock bottom; when we are ready to give up on you, we will hold each other’s hands, lift each other up, and start to build all over again! This is holy ground. It’s not any more or less holy than the ground in Shelburne, or in Texas, or in North Korea, but it is ours. Thank you, oh Lord, for this place, and this calling, and let us serve you here in the way that most benefits your people’s needs, right here, and right now. Amen.