Judith Robbins' message for Membership Sunday:
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As often as not, those who marry these days have a nontraditional service, including writing their own wedding vows. But you must have been present at some time in your life at a wedding ceremony where the more traditional wedding service and vows were spoken. It usually starts off, “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and woman in holy matrimony.”
In the old Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church, the service for the public baptism of infants begins with the same words: “Dearly Beloved.” And so will our brief service of welcome to our new members begin today: “Dearly Beloved.” At first I thought the expression quaint and perhaps outdated and considered updating it. I wisely abandoned that plan and will follow the form as it has been done in this church, at least from the beginning of the federation of the First Congregational Church of Newcastle and the Methodist Church of Sheepscott.
“Dearly Beloved,” I will say, addressing those who have chosen to join us as the worshipping community of the Sheepscott Community Church, “do you now then, in the presence of the church community, unite with us in the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus for the worship of God and the service of others?” As I address that question to those seated here in the front, I would ask all of us to consider whether that is indeed part and parcel of our purpose in coming together here each Sunday.
This is a solemn occasion––an occasion for joyful celebration, yes, and we will mark that downstairs after the service, but the choice to commit to worshipping with a group of others seeking wider and deeper understanding of spiritual truths is a solemn business. While all are welcome to worship in this church , whether members of not, with this willingness to join the church there is a deeper level of commitment. It is nothing less than a move from attending to joining your future to the future of the church.
The search for spiritual truth is a communal affair, and part of the joy of partaking of that communal affair is discovering how that search has been experienced and lived by others in the past and present. As circumstance would have it, in our little community we have many different traditions, different lived expressions of religious faith––most of the Protestant denominations: the founding Congregationalists and Methodists, Anglican or Episcopalian, Lutheran, Unitarian, Presbyterian, and the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions are also represented among us. There may be others I don’t know about. I used to think––because I was so taught––that the rupture of Christianity at the time of the Reformation was a bad thing. I have come to believe that the various expressions of Christianity, and other religions as well, can be seen as expressing the multifaceted being of God, which, whom, we finally can only wait on for revelation about that One’s self.
A reality that I cannot ignore in this context is that historically there has been enmity between and among denominations and religious expressions––extreme enmity that most of us don’t need to have drawn out because it’s a sad history we are well acquainted with, a history that is marked by the blood of martyrs for whichever cause depending on your sympathies, not to mention heated discussions with slammed down forks at holiday dinner tables that continue even in our own time.
I noted that the search for spiritual truth is a communal affair, and Christianity, like all great religions, is explicitly communal in its theology, but part of the damage that has been done to Christianity and to so many who have been disillusioned by it, has arisen from interpreting community as a matter of walls, like a ghetto. Everyone inside the wall is part of the community, and everyone outside of it is not. By virtue of our having come from so many points on the religious map individually and as a group, I believe we are a model of mutuality and acceptance, perhaps prophetic of what Christianity can look like when the focus is where Jesus directed it in John 13: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other. This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.”
If some are disillusioned by what are interpreted as walls that keep out and separate, conversely, one of the attractions of religion, for many people, is the existence of a supporting community, for which walls can function as a different metaphor. I think all of us in this church could give testimony about that. Jon and I have only been members of the church for less that two years, and yet, we have experienced the church’s support personally again and again, most recently when Jon badly cut his hand. I had no compunction or hesitation about reaching out to the prayer chain to ask for prayer for him while he was in surgery. I myself was carried up on wings of prayer by this church when I was knocked off my horse by Lyme disease last fall. In that pinch, Chuck Reinhardt responded to a Saturday night message I left and filled the pulpit the next day, when I was too sick to get out of bed. I would mention that he had been out late that Saturday night and yet got up at 6 to prepare for a 10 o’clock service. That level of commitment and professionalism and kindness has earmarked our association with this church again and again.
But it’s really the fellowship /at the time of worship/and before and after services/when the ties that bind are established and strengthened. For many, the attraction of becoming part of the friendships and energy of such a group is tempered by the implicit demand that people who do these things together must also be part of a total religious system to which assent must be given. But in reality, in this community, we are free to choose the strength and truth of a community without automatically choosing its total creed. This does not rule out any particular aspect of religious systems that we may, in time, come to understand, and appreciate, and choose.
Choosing to follow an insight we might have coming out of worship or fellowship in the community is a level of commitment. That insight may link up with other scarcely seen realities, and soon, in some way or other, we experience the fact of community, seen or unseen. Community happens.
Today you all are making a choice to become more fully a part of Sheepscott Community Church. Bruce and Dot Ullrich have been coming for years but simply have not signed the book of membership. We also welcome choir member Karin Swanson; Sylvia Martin, Eli Miller, our youngest new member at 7, almost 8––on April 27; his mother Lee Roberts; Barbara Meyer, whose son Damon with his children Sophie and Jack, whom we have all met before, and who are here to mark the day with Barbara; Linda Zollers; Ernie and Lily Mayer; and Carroll and Ted Smith.
You’ve all made a choice to build on a moment of spiritual awareness or just liking this church and what you’ve experienced here, to value it, to rejoice in it, and now today to officially join us as we unite in the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus for the worship of God and the service of others.
We all have a sense of being part of something large, yet intimate; seen and unseen; explicit and yet quite vague. If we don’t have that sense, we want it, and the importance of this awareness cannot be overstated because it corresponds to the nature of human being, which is interdependent down to the last molecule, whether or not we admit it or like it. There is comfort in a sense of solidarity, in a sense of being part of something beyond ourselves. Just the knowledge that other people haven’t given up can make a difference.
May you know yourselves, indeed, dearly beloved. Amen.