Sunday, July 9, 2023

HOMILY: "What an Odd Thing to Be Doing!"

A Meditation on Song of Solomon & Matthew 11
Sunday, July 9, 2023
Community Church of Durham


Last Sunday I officiated at a wedding in Derry, a wedding that was supposed to take place outdoors in a vineyard, but was redirected instead to a huge hall inside. Because of last Sunday’s driving, drenching summer rain.

The young couple had planned their outdoor wedding meticulously, enthusiastically for the last 12 months. The way couples do. Vines hovering above the bridal party. Great bouquets of flowers in baskets, creating an aisle for coming and going. It was going to be magical. But the best laid plans, right? And to their immense credit, they pivoted easily, the two of them—and we gathered instead around a great fireplace, friends and family and two young lovers, as sheets of rain blasted the windows and washed the world clean.

At the reception following what was a spirited celebration, I found my assigned seat and was immediately introduced to others at the table. Some were local, others had come from quite a ways to celebrate and toast and dance the night away. The woman to my right had come from the west coast, and quickly she asked about my connection to the couple. “How did I swing my invitation?” Something like that. “Bride’s side or groom’s side?”

I told her that I was a minister and that I’d assisted with the ceremony. And she recognized me. “Oh, sure,” she said. “You’re the minister.” And then I could see the wheels turning, turning. The way they do sometimes. “Like the minister in a church?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said, “like the minister in a church.” And then, at that point, her eyes got really big, strangely big, and she looked at me the way you might look at a sailor friend casting off for the day just as the storm rolls in. She said, “What an odd thing to be doing these days!” Seriously. She said that. To a minister. At a wedding reception. “What an odd thing to be doing these days!”

I must have flinched a little, or at least registered a tiny bit of surprise at her reaction. I mean, she looked genuinely and painfully concerned. But she quickly apologized: “I didn’t mean to offend you,” she said. “But I just read this article in the New York Times.” And sure enough we spent the next fifteen minutes or so talking about an article we’d both read in the Times: a piece describing the great migration away from religious life in America, or at least away from organized religious life in America. I think it was called “The Great De-Churching of America.” Something like that.

In the piece, the Times put it this way: “We are currently in the middle of the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country,” and I’m quoting, “because around 40 million people (or 15 percent of American adults living today) have effectively stopped going to church (or religious services of an organized kind).” And, stunningly, the piece goes on to observe that “most of this de-churching has happened in the last 25 years.” In other words, since 9/11. Imagine that. Since 9/11. 40 million of us have given up on organized religious life; and most of this has happened in just the last two decades. So consider yourselves renegades, my friends, iconoclasts. Showing up for church on a Sunday in July.

It's no wonder my new friend was worried about me. And to her immense credit, she was genuinely curious about why the church still matters to some of us, and why the church still matters to me, and whether I thought folks could just as easily find God on a hike in the mountains, or gardening in their backyard, or dancing at a club on a Saturday night. (By the way, the answer there is, “Of course.” Of course, you can find God on a hike or in your garden or at the club on Saturday. God knows no boundaries! And I told her that.) Just the same, I had to work a little at dinner that day. I had to struggle for the words to describe where the church fits in, and how I think of it, and where the church might be going from here. It was a great conversation, and a lively one, and I was glad for the chance to search for the right words about a calling I love, a faith I cherish, and a community I need.


So this morning, I’d like to test drive some ideas with you, some language describing the church and what we are, and what we do together in spaces like this one. Because the truth is: “church” makes less and less sense to more and more people. There’s no doubt about that. More and more of our friends are either deeply suspicious of the church (as an agent of fundamentalism and meanness, frankly) or completely baffled as to why such a thing exists at all.

And while it’s never been our particular calling to draw them in, to enlist them in our ways and beliefs, or (heaven forbid) to convert them, I would suggest to you it is our calling to tell the story. It is our calling to bear witness to the good news of God’s love and Jesus’ mercy. It is our calling to offer the skeptical and suspicious a sense of what’s possible in community—and what’s happening in the church. Not because they need the church to be saved. Not because they need the church to be good or healthy or smart. But simply because God is doing good things, sweet things, hopeful things in our midst.

In churches like ours, through churches like ours, God is offering the world a vision of grace. In churches like ours, through churches like ours, God is inviting the world to dynamic partnership, generous collaboration and sweet harmony within and among our many differences. I hope you agree. And our neighbors deserve to know about all this. Right? You don’t hide this kind of light under a bushel.

So the first thing we might want to say about church is this: church is a community of the humble. Church is a community of the humble. We are not a gathering of the proud and the self-satisfied. We are not a congregation of the saved seeking to peddle salvation like cheap insurance to the sullied, and the unsure, and the vulnerable out there. Church is a community of the humble. And this is an intention we cultivate every time we gather for worship, every time we choose a particular path or prioritize a particular ministry. We are called into being, and into this circle, by Jesus; and so it is that our life takes the shape of his life, his story and his teaching.

To love Jesus, to follow Jesus is to face the world with radically open hearts. To go all in with Jesus’ people, to commit to the church is to embrace mystery as he did, to welcome diversity as he did, and to meet brokenness with compassion and love. In the church, our life takes the shape his life, our spirit finds its source in his spirit.

So what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel today is so very important for us, a theological touchstone if you will: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,” Jesus says, “because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” Hidden these things: things like unconditional love and boundless mercy; things like resurrection and eternal life; things like tenderness and kindness and peace.

His point, I think, is that the mysteries of faith, the gifts of mercy are revealed to those who are childlike in faith and humble in understanding. What church creates among us is a space for not knowing, a sacred space for bewilderment and humility and grace. Childlike grace. And by this grace, we see opportunities for joyful praise, and possibilities for service, and urgent work around justice and peace. Not because we’re given answers to every test. Not because we’re designed to rule the moral roost. But because we seek, together, in diversity and kindness and faith, to be a community of the humble.

Then, too, church can be, should be, often is a community of the audacious as well. Not just humble, but humble and hopeful. Not just gentle, but gentle and visionary. Again, we are called into being, into this circle, by Jesus; and so it is that our life together takes the shape of his loving and resisting, his healing and feeding, his singing and dancing. Church is a community of the audacious.

So we march in the Portsmouth Pride Parade every June. Even when it rains. Why? Because we celebrate the church’s audacious commitment to queer partners and trans kids and every gorgeous, sacred, shining life among us. Not just because we love rainbows (although we do)—but because we love God. And then we send our kids on summer trips to the border in Arizona, and then to urban ministry centers in Boston and Philly. Why? Because we believe in partnering with audacious friends—offering hope to siblings crossing the desert, and to siblings seeking a decent meal for their kids, and to siblings creating safe spaces for kids of all backgrounds, races, and places.

Church is a particular kind of community, a community of siblings gathered in the traditions of Jesus and his first followers, a community of friends who draw our hopefulness from the wellspring of Christian story and witness. You will undoubtedly find God in the woods this afternoon. And you can most definitely experience God’s movement, God’s energy in a dance club any Saturday night you like. But what we discover together here is the shape of Jesus’ life, the substance of Jesus’ faith—and a community of the humble, a community of the audacious, a community of the broken and the beautiful. Embracing God’s call to neighborliness. Embracing Jesus’ ways of compassion and mercy. “Take my yoke upon you,” he says, “and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.” We take that yoke. We live that life. Together.


So I’m stumbling through most of this with my friend at last weekend’s reception. Church as a community of the humble. Church as a community of the audacious. The shape of Jesus in our midst. And she’s very patient and very gracious and remarkably curious about all of it.

And then the most amazing thing happens.

Out on the dance floor, the DJ is introducing the groom and bride for their first dance as husband and wife. And I know that it’s coming, because we’ve talked about it, planned for it in the months leading up to this big, bright, lovely, rainy day. But I have to tell you, my friends, that I’ve never in my life seen anything, anything at all, quite like that first dance. And I’ve been to my share of weddings over many years. The crowd gathering around and howling with delight. Folks pulling phones out of their pockets to get some of it recorded. There is not a dry eye in the hall. And in a moment, I’m going to pass my phone around so you can see what I’m talking about. (If we had a screen up here, I’d cast it up there—so you could all get a look.)

You see, it turns out that the bride was injured in an accident when she was 11 years old—and since then she moves around the world in a wheelchair. Graduated from MIT in a wheelchair. Goes to her engineering job in a wheelchair. Falls in love, gets engaged in a wheelchair.

And now, on the dance floor, the two of them (bride and groom) are dancing. In one moment, he’s kneeling beside her chair, looking her in the eye and saying something funny. In the next, he’s standing again and twirling her and her chair in a lovely, sweet pirouette. The crowd roars. Everybody’s crying. They move around the dance floor, circling, twirling, rolling, dancing, laughing. And every now and again, he grabs the back of her chair with one hand, and her shoulder with another, and he dips her. All the way back. Almost to the floor itself. And kisses her like that. And the crowd howls in ecstasy. Handkerchiefs mop at weepy faces. And I mean, all is well with the world. Seriously. All is well and beautiful, and love is alive and on the move, and light shines upon us all on a dark and rainy summer’s day.

“And that too,” I say to my new friend, when we’ve taken our seats at the table again. “That too is church.” And when she looks at me funny and asks how so, I tell her about their dancing as an extension of their vows. How they planned it that way. How they imagined it that way. How they’ve promised to help one another see the wonder and feel the wonder and embrace the wonder of everyday life. Weird and wacky and unexpected as everyday life can be. And every bit of that first dance (every pirouette, every dip, every kiss) was that vow, that promise fulfilled in real time. And, my friends, if we’re doing church the way Jesus did church, we’re helping one another in the very same way: every Sunday morning, every Wednesday rehearsal, every Koinonia conversation, every immigration meeting, every youth group road trip. We’re helping one another see the wonder and feel the wonder and embrace the wonder of everyday life. Church, my friends, is a community of the grateful.

We know that life can be hard, and sorrow can cut sharp at our human hearts. Just the same, church means keeping our minds and eyes and hearts open to the miracles that surround us and abide within us all the time: hands touching, hearts sharing, pianos playing, tea bags brewing, and communities resisting hatred with love and kindness. Church means daring to praise God for love and beauty and justice—in a world that can indeed break our hearts and sometimes seems unimaginably lost. Church is a community of the grateful. That’s our first and primary resistance.


When I said goodbye to the couple Sunday night, I thanked them for their joy and for their faith and especially for their dancing. And the bride smiled, a great big smile, and she said: “That was some kind of church out there tonight, wasn’t it, Dave? That was some kind of church out there!”

So I leave you with these thoughts on church today. On what it means to be church. On what it means to invest in church. On what it means to embrace the ways of Jesus in a circle of siblings, in a community of friends like ours. Maybe someday soon someone will ask you why you’re all in with a church like this. Maybe you’ll want to say a little bit about humility, about audacity, about gratitude and praise. The shape of Jesus in a rainbow people.

I do hope we’ll continue to be the kind of church that lives humbly by the spirit of God. And I do hope we’ll continue to be the kind of church that leans bravely, even audaciously into the challenges and opportunities of serving the world with love. And then, and then, I trust we’ll continue to sing songs of praise. Lots of them. Old hymns, new songs, all kinds of prayers in grateful wonder for all the glory and all the mystery of life. I trust we’ll never cease to rejoice in what’s good and beautiful and lovely in one another and the world. God desires it. God counts on it.

And I know I need it. I sure do. And I have a hunch that you need it too. And I’ve got to believe that the world needs that too, now more than ever. A church where humility goes deep. A church where audacity is relentless. A church where joy runs free through the people of God.

Amen and Ashe.