King Street UCC, Danbury, CT
August 16, 2009
“This Old House”
1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43
"But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)
Sometime in the early 1970s, the president of AT&T called all his company managers into a large conference room for an emergency meeting.
Attendance was mandatory.
Speculation ran high as to what announcement would be made.
Perhaps a breakthrough in technology. Perhaps a downsizing of the company. When all were seated, the president went to the podium and said, "The telephone as we know it no longer exists."
Muffled laughter rippled through the room. They all knew he was joking. They had used telephones that morning. The president then said: "Anyone who does not believe what I just said can leave this room right now and pick up your final paycheck on the way out."
The room quickly quieted down. No one left.
Then they noticed that all the phones that had been in the room that morning, were gone.
The President said once again, “The telephone as we know it no longer exists, your job today is to invent one."
He then proceeded to break the managers up into small groups and they spent the rest of the afternoon designing a telephone from scratch. They asked themselves, what kind of features would we want in a new phone?
Some wanted one with no cord, one that could be carried in the car, or on the street.... and wouldn’t it be great to know when another call was coming in, or to be able to forward calls to another number, or to be able to transmit not just sound but documents, text and video!
About 60 new features distinguished the telephone invented by this impromptu gathering. Many of which we take for granted today, from call waiting to cell phones to text messaging, and the list has not yet been exhausted.
With this story in mind, imagine now as we enter the third millennium, that we come here to King Street church one Sunday morning and much to our shocked dismay, we find a vacant lot where our church once stood.
In the middle of the lot there is a little note tacked on a piece of tattered plaster. The note is written in Hebrew and the same note has been left on vacant lots all over the world where Christian churches once stood, from towering cathedrals to tiny one-room chapels. Translated, the note reads, "The church you have always known no longer exists; – the walls, the pews, the altar, the set in stone beliefs and assumptions. All of it is gone."
"How can this be?" We ask in abject puzzlement.
How can all that we have built be gone?
In the background, we hear God laughing and saying, "Given the world the way it is, with its devastating problems and amazing opportunities for joy, given what you know of how Jesus lived in the world, and how human beings are meant to honor the covenant made with God, the real question is, 'How can your churches NOT be gone?' "
Then God looks us straight in the eye and says, "The church you have always known no longer exists - Your job today is to build a new one.”
This scenario comes from the book “Dying Church, Living God” written by the late author and chaplain Chuck Meyer.
In his book Meyer addressed the problem of the continuing decline of our mainline Christian denominations. The term mainline refers to those Protestant denominations that were brought to or established in our country by our immigrant ancestors – the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Congregationalists, who are the forbearers our own United Church of Christ.
Modern day prophets like Meyer paint a picture of the future that is not very pretty. The church as we know it is dying.
While evangelical and other non-denominational churches have grown over the past 20 years, mainline denominations like our own have shown a steady decline in membership. Although some mainline Christians have switched to non-denominational churches for theological reasons, an even greater number have chosen to leave the church all together.
According to a recent poll, 87% of Americans declare themselves to be religious, but less than 20% go to church on a weekly basis.
It has been said that in 50 to 100 years Christian churches in America will be like many of the churches in Europe today – kept open during the week as tourist attractions or museums, while they remain locked and empty on Sunday mornings.
There is no shortage of reasons given for the decline in church membership:
Some cite the tendency for mainline churches to cling to language, music, and traditions that are out of step with the times and which no longer speak to the people of today.
Others blame the current cultural preference for individualistic forms of religion that emphasize self-help and prosperity messages, while downplaying the social justice and politicized teachings of the Gospels.
One obvious factor contributing to the decline, is the steady loss of young adults, many of whom say they are disillusioned with the hypocrisy of Christians who profess to love thy neighbor on Sunday, while doing everything they can to exclude their neighbor on Monday.
Mainline churches have not been blind to the downward trend in attendance, and there have been attempts to adapt to the current culture and attract new members.
Yet despite efforts to modernize worship services with rock bands and power point presentations, and the push to emulate mega churches by offering one-stop conveniences like coffee shops, fitness centers, and movie theatres; mainline membership rolls continue to shrink.
For doomsayers like Chuck Meyer, changing the design of our church buildings or our style of worship is tantamount to arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
It doesn’t matter how we change the scenery - the ship is still going down.
And there is nothing we can do to prevent it.
And the prophetic voices tell us that we shouldn’t try to prevent it.
Like the AT&T executives in our opening story,
We shouldn’t be asking ourselves, how do we save our old church, but rather we should be asking: “What kind of church will we build in its place?”
We have to wonder, if in the summer of 18 hundred and 30, the eight people who came together to form the First Christian Church of Danbury and Patterson looked at the empty patch of land on the corner of South King Street and asked themselves “What kind of church will we build?”
The church as they knew it no longer existed, as the sons and daughters of new world settlers or as immigrants themselves, they had left behind the church of old, and were now staring at virgin land that was ripe for change. Everything around them was new.
While churches and homes in their family’s native countries had stood for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, most of the houses that dotted the countryside of the small farming settlement known as Danbury had stood for less than 75 years.
The United States of America itself was barely 60 years old.
There were only 24 states in the union.
The entire population was reinventing itself as it went along.
200 years before our church’s founding, our congregational forbearers, the Puritans left their home country because the Christian church as they imagined it to be looked quite different from the church as it was.
Even in the early stages of the Protestant Reformation, when people’s understanding of what it meant to be a church was experiencing a radical shift, there was no one set way to be a Protestant Christian as opposed to being a Catholic Christian.
What there was was a sense that the churches we had built were too defined to house the indefinable nature of God. The box we had built around God was too elaborate, too restrictive and reflected our own image rather than the unknowable image of God.
The people who founded our church 179 years ago had something in common with the Puritans, and the Protestant Reformers, and the first ragtag band of disciples who called themselves followers of Jesus Christ.
They looked at the house we had erected in God name, declared it to be inadequate, and asked “What will we build in its place?”
In our scripture reading today, Solomon looked out at the Temple that he had built to act as God’s dwelling place, and he said:
"But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)
The Temple that Solomon constructed in Jerusalem was not just a house of God, it was THE house of God. It took seven years to build. He used the finest of building materials: the cedars of Lebanon, cypress wood, gold, silver, bronze, and huge blocks of cut and dressed stone. He had master craftsmen carve into the walls of the Temple elaborate decorations of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers. He overlaid everything with gold – even the floor. It was a magnificent building, inside and out.
When all was ready, Solomon brought up the Ark of the Covenant, which had been residing in the Tabernacle, and installed it in the newly finished Temple, in the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, under the wings of the cherubim, carved of olivewood and covered with gold. As soon as the priests put the Ark in its place, a cloud filled the Temple and the glory of the LORD inhabited it.
This cloud that descended on the Temple is a sign of the presence of God. It is the same cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt and protected them from the Egyptian army. It is the same cloud that descended on the top of Mount Sinai when God made a covenant with the Israelites and gave them the Law as a gift. This same cloud settled on the Tabernacle, that movable sanctuary, by which God was present with the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the wilderness.
In Solomon's prayer, Jerusalem is "the city that God has chosen.”
The Temple is the place of which God says, "My name shall be there.” Where passing foreigners will hear God’s name and be welcomed in. It is the place where heaven meets earth and where God's glory appears for all to see.
But it is important to note that Solomon's prayer does not confine God to the Temple. Solomon acknowledges that this "house" cannot contain God. Although the Temple was central to Israel's worship for many centuries, at the same time it was not essential. When the Temple of Jerusalem is destroyed, not once but twice, God is still present with God's people.*
The belief that God cannot be contained in a building still holds today.
How many times have we heard of churches destroyed by natural disasters or fire, yet the people still come together on Sunday mornings to worship – sitting on wooden planks under tarps, in rented trailers, or in space provided by other churches or the community.
Because most Christians know that the church is not found in the plaster or the cinder blocks, the church is found in the people.
Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be.”
This is why we date our church’s founding back to 1830, when eight people came together and said “we are a church," while this actual building didn’t come to be until 16 years later.
So, we’re left with the realization, if WE are the church, then to stem the tide of those choosing to leave the church, it is not our buildings that must change, its not the language, or the music, or the sound system that must change.
WE must change. We as Christians must change.
We must change the way we act and move in our churches and in the world.
We must embrace the Good News of the gospel – that God’s radically inclusive love and saving Grace is given freely to all – and not just speak these words on Sunday but live them on Monday.
We need to throw open the windows, and prop open our doors, so that all will hear that God’s name is spoken in this place, and that everyone, everyone, is welcome in God’s house.
Now, despite the dire picture I painted earlier about the decline of mainline Christian denominations in this country, there is hope to be found.
I’ve spent the last year living in Boston, attending my first year of seminary. During my first year, I had to choose a local church and interview for the ministerial internship that I’ll be starting this fall. To research my options, I made it a point to attend a different UCC church in the Boston area every Sunday - to get a feel for how they worship, how they serve, how they see themselves as “church” in the world.
While I came across a few churches that were stagnant – in their preaching, in their outreach efforts, and in their growth – and a few that were obviously dying – due to an aging membership or changing demographics in their community, the majority of the churches I attended were alive and growing.
These are churches that have held onto many of their traditions and the language of old, but they were not afraid to try something new.
There was a new emphasis on inclusivity and a new interest in social justice issues that came not just from a handful of members on a committee but from the congregation as a whole.
There was a new emphasis on living the message of Jesus, seeing it not just as a guide to make us better people, but as an imperative to make a better world.
There was a new enthusiasm, a new excitement, about changing what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
And I saw this excitement, this enthusiasm, not just in the UCC churches I attended, but also in the faces and the words and actions of my fellow seminarians – who are Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans – both young and old.
These are the people who will be pastoring the churches of tomorrow.
These are the people who are members of the churches of today.
The churches that must no longer shut their doors to the world and spend all their time and money on themselves - building elaborate sanctuaries, preaching sermons that focus more on the prosperity or damnation of the individual then the teachings of the gospel, sitting in judgment of the world and its evils but doing nothing to lessen the effects of those evils.
For prophetic voices like Chuck Meyer, this is the church of old,
the church that must die, to allow a new church to grow in its place.
A church that feeds the hungry, helps the suffering, clothes the naked, strengthens the fainthearted.
A church that hears the gospel as a call to go out into the world and serve others, while at the same time maintaining a space to serve the needs of its members and the immediate community.
A church that builds a house to Worship God, but knows that God cannot be contained in four walls of plaster and stone.
The hopeful news is that King Street UCC is one of these churches.
We are a church that is proud of it’s history, and we know that the way to keep our church alive is not to let go of our past, but to continue to ask ourselves, “What does God want us to do in the here and now - to ensure a better future for all?”
If we were to show up here next Sunday and find nothing but an empty lot, we would be overwhelmingly sad for our loss,
especially those of you who have spent a lifetime in these pews.
Those of you who remember what our church looked like before the sanctuary was expanded in 1980, or before the education wing was added in 1967.
There are even some of you who were here to see the Martin Room built in 1955, and who remember a time when the little church on the corner of South King Street looked the same as it had a hundred years before.
If we were to come here one Sunday and find all of this gone, we would be sad beyond all words.
But with God’s hopeful note clutched in our fingers, and with what we know of how Jesus acted in the world fresh in our minds,
Like our forbearers who built this church we would gather up plaster and cinder block and wood and ask ourselves,
“What kind of church will we build in its place?”
*Temple description adapted from WorkingPreacher.org - Kathyrn Schifferdecker