Rev. Sarah Buteux
May 15, 2022
To View this Morning’s sermon click here . The sermon begins at the 44 minute mark.
Friends, I think you know me well enough by now to know that there is nothing pollyanna-ish about my approach to the world or the Church. I pride myself on staying well-informed so I can make a clear eyed assessment about the challenges that lie ahead for us as a congregation and as people of faith.
And because I refuse to minimize the troubles that surround us, I know I can come across as a wee bit depressed at times…because, well, I am. It’s rough out there and I won’t deny it.
So what I am about to say may surprise you, but it comes from a very real and realistic place inside me. I am not blowing smoke or putting a good face on an otherwise dire situation when I say… are you ready?…
First Churches, we’re gonna be ok.
We’ve been through a lot and we’re going to go through a lot more, but we’re gonna be ok.
And when I say that we’ve been through a lot, I’m not just talking about the challenges of the last two years, which have been many, or the last 24 hours which have been heartbreaking. I think that sometimes it is good to take a step back and remember that this congregation has ministered here in Northampton for more than 360 years.
This particular building, our fifth, has withstood the test of time for 145. We have survived fire and flood and the roof caving in. We have lost pastors – indeed we fired the most famous pastor in American Religious history…and then put up a huge plaque to honor him because, to be fair, he’s the most famous pastor in American Religious history.
That is so First Churches. I mean, no hard feelings, right? Sometime you gotta live and let live. Yeah.
For more than 3 centuries we have watched the religious landscape of America radically change and, God bless this congregation, we have endeavored to change with it. With hearts attuned to the still speaking voice of God, we have expanded our welcome, our mission, and our vision.
We merged with First Baptist in 1988 to become First Churches. We voted to become open and affirming in 1996 at the prompting of the Baptists even more than the congregationalists.
We were recognized as an environmental justice congregation back in the early aughts. And once we’re really up and running again on all cylinders, I hope we will keep building on our diversity and inclusion work and take the necessary steps to officially become a racial justice congregation as well.
Will you do that with me? Good, because every time a church takes a step like that and really leans into understanding not just what it means but what it looks like to be Open & Affirming, to practice care for the environment, or uphold and advocate for racial justice, we claim just a little more ground for the kingdom of God and we help make this world just a little bit safer for all God’s children. So let’s do it.
Friends, just as we have opened our doors for myriad groups in this city from AA to NA, from politicians to poets, from authors to artists to organizers, we opened our doors to provide shelter for the unhoused during covid because we believe that being good stewards of what we have here means sharing what we have here with our neighbors.
I love that about this church. Actually, I just really love this church, and I myself don’t know where I would be without you.
Over the last 2 years we have weathered a global pandemic, a national reckoning over the evils of white supremacy, a contested election, an insurrection, the loss of good friends, a good pastor, and the ministry of Common Ground. We’ve adapted and pivoted, planned and canceled, opened up and closed down, masked, unmasked, and re-masked, celebrated and mourned.
We have been through so much, but through it all we have stood firm. Amen? Amen. We have stood firm because here at First Churches we are standing on good solid ground, the sort Jesus is talking about when he proclaims: “‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise one who built their house upon rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall…”
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them …”
Church, I believe we’re still standing because we’ve been acting on those words. But Jesus said a lot of words, so it might help to be more specific. Does anyone know what words Jesus is talking about? Everyone from Monday Bible Study knows, because that was our first question when we came to this text.
This admonition of Jesus to hear his words and act on them is actually the culmination of his most famous sermon, the sermon on the …. The Sermon on the Mount; that’s right.
For those of you just tuning in, it’s the one that begins back in chapter 5 with the words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” It is the sermon where Jesus refers to us as salt and light, and warns us against losing our saltiness or placing our light under a bushel.
This is the sermon where Jesus calls us to a higher understanding of the law and says things like, yes murder and adultery are bad, but so are the hatred and lust that lead to such things, whether you act on them or not.
He says that we should have no need of oaths, but rather let our “yes” mean yes, and our “no” mean no.
Jesus says that we should love our enemies, which I am 99.9% sure means not going to war with them…like…ever. (But that’s a whole other sermon).
And then he talks about giving to the needy, about prayer, and fasting. He says don’t just give so that others can see how generous you are, or pray in such a way that everybody thinks you’re really religious, or make such a big deal about the fact that you are fasting so that everyone can see what a saint you’ve become.
Because if your life depends more on your reputation than on your true character, well, then you’ve missed the point. This isn’t about how you appear or how well you perform or even what others think of you. This is about who you really are…and apparently the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Isn’t it interesting that in his most famous sermon, Jesus doesn’t really talk about what we need to believe in order to be saved or even all that much about what we should do, but about the kind of people God wants us to be right here and right now: real, genuine, sincere. It’s pretty simple really.
Unfortunately, theologians throughout the ages have worked overtime to make it complicated. They’ve gotten all worked up over this passage, especially the first part about false prophets and the trees and the fruit and whether or not we are saved by our faith or our works.
It seems that somewhere along the line people became very preoccupied with this question of salvation and you need to know that the Bible is very clear in several places that it is your faith that saves you. Period.
Unfortunately it’s also equally clear in other places that it’s your good works that save you. Period.
I get that no one wants to die and hear Jesus say, “get away from me, I never knew you.” But in an attempt to avoid this, far too many Christians have taken time away from both the believing and the doing, the better to argue back in forth about what gets you into heaven, your faith or your good works.
Which is a silly question given that the answer is yes. But more importantly, it’s the wrong question, given all that Jesus has just said.
At its heart, Jesus’ sermon isn’t about doing the right thing or figuring out the right answer so you can go to heaven someday, but about experiencing the life of heaven right now by being heavenly. Listen to my words, says Jesus, and then act on what I say. Listen and live. It really is that simple. The only way you can take these teachings of Jesus to heart is to live them into being. When you live them, you become them.
A good life, then…a heavenly life, a life built on a firm foundation, is not about seeming holy, but about becoming holy by being holy. It is not about acting generous, but about becoming generous by being generous; not about appearing loving, kind, patient or merciful, but about becoming loving, kind, patient and merciful, by showing love, kindness, patience and mercy.
Do you get the idea? Jesus doesn’t just want you to act like the person you think you are supposed to be, but to become the person God has created you to be by doing the things God has asked you to do.
Be who you were created to be, says Jesus, because the rains will come. Notice, it’s not a question of if, it’s only ever a matter of when. The rains will come. The winds will blow. The waters will rise.
Life will throw things at you that will strip away the surface and expose who you really are at your core, and when that happens you want something real and worthwhile to be there. You want to know who that person inside really is and you want to be part of a community that knows and loves and affirms who you really are, too.
And that’s why I love First Churches and that’s why I think we’re doing as well as we are. We have worked hard to become who we say we are and to welcome people as they are. We have worked hard to live into those words I say every Sunday, to mean it when we say “Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith that you are welcome here.”
And it hasn’t always been easy but over the years our extravagant welcome has enabled us to bring a whole host of people into our church who never would have come otherwise because they’d already been told by other churches that who they really were wasn’t welcome.
Together we have listened for God and discerned with each new challenge how best to make God’s love and justice real. And as we have done that, we have become more loving and more just. We have become more open minded and open hearted. We have changed our little corner of the world for the better and in the process we have been changed.
And yes it has been hard. But look at us. We have been through a big storm and we are still here. Like those who came before us, we have stood firm. Our faith has sustained us. Our church has sustained us and we have sustained our church. And now it is up to us to keep the foundation strong for those who will come after us so they can weather whatever storms come next.
We want to keep the doors open so we can keep welcoming people into a community that will love them for who they are and help them become who God is calling them to be.
We’ve set a really ambitious goal for our stewardship campaign. $205,000. That is a lot of money to raise but here’s why it’s important. $205,000 will enable us to pay our staff not just fairly but generously. $205,000 will help us keep this meetinghouse in good working order not just for our congregation but for our city. $205,000 will enable us to invest in what we need to keep our worship and our ministries strong.
We’re really hoping we can go into this year with a balanced budget for the first time in the last 8 years and we might just meet that goal. Or we might not. But look around you. Either way, we’re gonna be ok.
I know a lot of churches out there are just trying to figure out how they’re going to keep going, but that’s not our challenge. Our challenge here at First Churches is to figure out how we can keep growing… and not just in number – though bringing in so many new members is awesome and a huge affirmation – but how we can keep growing as a community,
how we can keep growing in spirit,
how we can keep growing in our knowledge of the scriptures,
In our love for God and love for our neighbors,
In our thirst for justice and our work for peace…inner peace and outer peace.
In our efforts to expand our welcome and extend God’s grace to all.
And yes, growing comes with challenges all its own, but those are the challenges you want to have and those are challenges I know we can meet if we keep pulling together and giving of ourselves as generously as we are able… as generously as you have already demonstrated yourselves to be.
First Churches, we’re gonna be ok, because by the grace of God we are becoming who we say we are. We are in this with God and we are in this together. Amen? Amen.