The Bad and Good News
Rev. Leanne Walt
Sunday mornings were filled with the aroma of Dunkin Donuts coffee and fresh blueberry muffins. Sounds of the NFL pregame show playing on the old rabbit-eared television set permeated from the kitchen into the church’s social hall where the “regulars” dined over an open box of munchkins. On occasional Sundays the “regulars” would venture up the stairs that were in the front of the church building for the worship service. But most Sundays, Mona, Evelyn, Francine, and John, would just sat around this familiar table, woven together by the strands of time, memory, and shared history.
It was the pair of patent leather Mary Jane shoes that Mona remembered most fondly from her childhood days at the church. She remembered the day her mother took her to Ann and Hope to buy this pair of brand new Christmas shoes to give a child in need. “You can pick out any pair you’d like,” her mother told her. And she did. Oh, how she loved those shoes - black with a big red bow - shining as bright and as deep as the night sky. They were fancier than any pair of shoes she had ever owned. With a soft cotton cloth, she shined these shoes every night for a week before she went to bed until she could see the glare of her smile on their surface. But come Sunday she wrapped them in white tissue and set them on the church altar along with the other gifts for those in need.
For John, well, he remembered the basketball games most fondly. Lacing up his Reebok sneakers outside his parent’s apartment and dribbling the ball past the Bunker Hill Monument, down Green Street, and into the church gymnasium every Friday afternoon. There the young men of the church played pick up game after pick up game until the sun set through the tall rafters.
Evelyn, she remembered the bean suppers most fondly. The long tables that lined the church’s social hall with red and white-checkered tablecloths and the distinct smell of hot dogs, baked beans, and homemade brown bread. The hall would be packed so full and the line for food so long that Evelyn would sneak in the back door of the kitchen and beg her father to give her a hot dog behind the serving counter.
Over fifty years had come and gone since Mona shined the patent leather Mary Janes to place on the church altar or Johnny had laced up his Reeboks or since Evelyn’s dad slipped her a secret hot dog in the kitchen, but they continued to tell these stories. Time and time again they told me these beloved old stories about their beloved old church. Time and time again until all that was left of their beloved old church were beloved old stories.
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Each night now, I rock my child to sleep, the lights turned down low, the noise of the day having passed and giving way to the quiet of the night. I look at his gentle face, his restful eyes, tiny hands and feet – so strong, healthy, and vibrant he is - and I say to him, “I can’t wait to see what you’ll become.”
From that vantage point, in the back bedroom of the parsonage where we live I can see over the rooftops of the homes throughout the neighborhood and I know in those moments that I join every mother and father housed under those roofs along with every parent throughout the history of time in softly rocking our children to sleep whispering the words, “I can’t wait to see what you’ll become.”
I wonder if time and time again God hasn’t spoken these very words to His churches.
The heart of God must have been swelling with sweet expectation as He looked upon the founding of Second Parish Church of Braintree on September 10, 1707 and decreed, “I can’t wait to see what you’ll become.”
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This past Friday, early in the morning, I was at the Weymouth Club. I was on one of the cross trainer machines and there were three people using the machines directly to my right. There were two women, probably in their 40s and then a man to their right who was maybe 50 or so. I was on this machine and these three people on the other machines knew each other and were talking. AND, they were talking about church, of all things! As you can imagine, my ears perked up.
Now, they didn’t know that I was a minister, as I don’t typically wear my robe to the gym but the woman to my immediate right said she stopped going to church because it made her feel guilty.
The woman in the middle said she didn’t go much anymore at all but that they still call to ask her for money, most recently for money to restore the organ.
The man said that he stopped going to church because the members were fighting with one another and there was a group there who didn’t like the minister and that caused tension.
This is what so many churches have become: community centers of politics and business, finance management and administration, hubs of power plays and conflict. This is what so many churches have become and this is why so many of our friends and neighbors make a conscious decision to opt out of this way of being and doing church.
And because of this reality there are many church leadership theories today, especially those focused on vitality, revitalization, and turnaround. Books, articles, dissertations and theses are published every day on the topic of church revitalization.
But the greatest lesson in church life and leadership that ought to be at the heart of any approach to vitality and revitalization is the one that Jesus teaches in the 15th chapter of John’s gospel where he tells us: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Jesus here is speaking to his disciples; he is preparing them for his death, as he knows the resistance and trials that this community of his early followers will face once he has left this world.
As the sun was rising this morning, I looked out our kitchen window through the misty air at the beautiful cherry blossom tree in our back yard. Its thick trunk firmly rooted in the ground, so vibrant and life giving that I can’t even count count nor distinguish the flowering branches from one another. And each branch is unique, lined with gorgeous white blossoms. Of all objects in nature about which Jesus could have chosen to make simile, metaphor, or parable of Christian community, he chose this - painting a picture of a living, growing community of faith, a beautiful organism of productivity and increase.
And there is both bad and good news imparted through this image that Jesus offers and that is that each branch has a part in the whole and is able to bear fruit only in so much as it is connected to the vine, its life-giving source. It imparts our utter dependence on God, the vinegrower, and Jesus, the vine.
In fact, St. Augustine’s entire theology rested on the theological premise that Jesus conveys in John 15: that apart from God, no good can come – no blossoms or fruit will be.
This is bad news for churches who remain apart from God; for those communities that hold onto their church like some private possession, those who are held hostage by money and fear, history and memory, or those that run as a business and not as disciple-forming, life-giving organisms.
This is good news for churches that are connected to the true vine, those that seek to be a branch of God, an extension of Christ - practicing compassion and not doctrine, seeking justice and not power. So I ask you, is this bad or good news for this church?
For if we balance our budget but do not use our resources to feed the sick and clothe the poor, then we are not being church because we are not abiding in Christ.
If we hold meetings but do not work to the make the presence of Christ manifest in the greater community, then we are not being church because we are not abiding in Christ.
If we love one another, but do not invite the stranger in, we are not being church because we are not abiding in Christ.
In the words of the psalmist, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (127:1).
On Sunday mornings, I often think of Mona, John, and Evelyn sitting around their table sharing coffee, munchkins, and memories and time and time again I pray that God might find new ways to work through them and their beloved old church.
And on Sunday mornings I hear the voice of God right in this very sanctuary whispering over the beloved old rafters, “I can’t wait to see what you’ll become.”