November 2023

SERMON: There’s No Place Like Home

The sermon praises the congregation's active community involvement and stewardship, emphasizing the church's role as a welcoming, supportive sanctuary.

Today we celebrate our Fourth Sunday of Stewardship, and we bring our pledges to be accepted and blessed.  I don’t have to ask you to be good stewards, because you already are good stewards.  It is simply my honor to thank you.  I spend a great deal of time observing our Black Mountain family, and this is what I wrote in a blog for the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ:

“They did everything at the church.  They cleaned the bathrooms.  They replaced toilets.  They brought food.  They prepared the bulletins.  There was a dog who sat in the front pew and seemed to listen to my sermons.  There was a piano player who could make all my favorite songs fill the sanctuary with joy.  They never said, “We’ve done enough.”  They always said, “I’ll do that right away.”  They didn’t just talk about the unhoused in our downtown Phoenix community, they showed up in person to visit with them.  They made hundreds of blankets for our asylum-seeking neighbors in Mexico and convinced non-church community members to bring carloads of food to be placed at our altar before distribution to local food banks.  The men clean up the kitchen.  They know stuff about addiction, incarceration, poverty, LBGTQ issues and loss.  They’re even fun, and they laugh and tease one another.  They recently raised thousands of dollars to provide heat relief during our desert climate crisis.”  This is a reflection of who you are, this is stewardship, and I thank you.

To become more fully who we are, we need a building where we can congregate, where we can be together, where we can gather as family.  We need a place we call home.  We create a place of familiarity and love, a safe place where we will feel protected. Taking care of our building, or being good stewards, takes some financial support.  Our beautiful building represents who we are, and offers us a place to be together as family.  In this place we are at home.

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy clicks together her red slippers three times, and she and Toto are returned to their farm in Kansas.  As she clicks her heels together, she utters the now famous words, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”  I think many of us feel this way when we walk through the doors of Black Mountain United Church of Christ.  We are all thrilled when our members return from their summer homes or long trips.  We are testimonials to the comfort, welcome and safety of home.

I don’t think any of us would argue that our world has gone somewhat insane.  During my absence, there was the slaughter of innocent people by gunfire, and the multi sided slaughter of civilians by warring madness.  We are bombarded with images of dead bodies, bloody injuries and grieving and frightened people. Our sanctuary offers us a place to find respite from the blare of war and countless images of violence.  We can gather here and experience silence, clearing our senses to feel the presence of God.  Silence has become a necessary balm in our current world and a necessary medicine for our mental health.  It costs money to provide this space.

Our physical campus offers us what might be the only place in our current lives where we can gather as diverse people without violence, provocation or conflict.  As we see our world become more and more contentious, we need a place where we can gather in peace and listen to one another with open hearts and minds.  We come into this place in peace.

In this place, we are able to practice our value of extravagant welcome, offering hospitality to the stranger and the guest.  Just last month I received an email that that read:  “Tina, I want you to know I felt like one of the family on Sunday July 23rd.  Thank you!”  The writer, previously unknown to any of us, was in the valley to speak at his best friend’s memorial service, and belongs to a UCC church in another state.  He found welcome and comfort here as he prepared to bid farewell to his beloved friend.  In this place we can comfort the hearts of the strangers in our midst.

In this beautiful place, we gather together to consider the message of Jesus, the meaning of the Gospel.  We grapple with difficult topics from a posture of faith, digging deeply into our souls to ask how to be faithful and loving in a frenzied world.  We need a space to come together.

Instead of filling our ears with screams of terror and vulgar outbursts, our campus provides us with the sounds of a ringing bell and beautiful music coming from our newly gifted piano.  We bow our heads, not in the fear of bombs, but to thank God for our many blessings and that we have enough to share.

Our sanctuary also provides us a space where we can come and weep without embarrassment.  We can pour out the contents of our hearts to God, knowing that we are buffered by love and safety.  It is in this space we are able to share our grief at the time of death or loss or fear.  It costs money to provide this space.

Our sanctuary provides us a space not only for private prayer, but for corporate prayer.  We come together as a spiritual family and pray for one another, for peace, for comfort, for courage, for direction.  We bow our heads in humility to ask for guidance from God.  As we enter this place, we know we will have a quiet space to have heart to heart spiritual communication.

It is on this campus that we gather as a community to teach our children the values that anchor our lives, and we remind ourselves that our children are not ours, rather they are gifts from God.  We teach our children about love and compassion, risk and calling, faith and commitment, integrity and courage.  We teach them to pray before meals and to greet us with enthusiasm.  We teach them that it is ok to be imperfect, that they are loved by adults outside of their family, and that animals are part of our community.  We protect and guide them, patch them up when they fall, and cheer for their victories.  We provide them with a safe place to fall and then launch them into a world knowing that we are always here.

In our social hall, we experience family meals.  We live out the value of extravagant welcome where all are welcome at our table.  We hold classes and hold hands.  We lean in to get the latest news from one another.  We notice what someone is absent and when they have returned.  We share cookies and cakes hams and cheese plates and waffles.  We laugh and tease and notice how we’re doing.  It costs money to provide for the upkeep of this gathering place.

We not only provide space for ourselves, but we offer a place where people gather to affirm a life of recovery….where chairs are waiting to welcome people who want to believe that there will be a spiritual awakening as a result of a program that admits powerlessness and unmanageability, and invites participants to turn their lives and their wills over to the care of a Higher Power.  We offer a physical space where the miracle of recovery takes place.

We are also stewards of time and talent, and recently had a wonderfully successful Silent Auction where we offered a wide variety of skills, creativity and fun for sale.  In doing so, we provided much needed financial support for our church, and reminded ourselves that stewardship is really about relationship.  We become stewards of one another.

Because we love and support one another, we gain a sense of wholeness and belonging.  We are then able to give, not out of obligation, but out of a genuine desire to share.  We have experienced love, and want to say thank you to God for all that we have received.  We know that we are holy and beloved.  We learn that leaders must first be servants, and we learn to serve one another and to serve our wider community.  We give not because we have to, but because we want to.  Because we have been loved, we reach out to love others.

In Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Emily, a young woman, has died, and from the other side, she looks down on her beloved small town Grover’s Corners. Emily breaks down when she sees her father, crying out:  “I can’t go on.  It goes so fast.  We don’t have time to look at one another.”  She turns to the Stage Manager, the semi divine figure who has sanctioned this trip in time.  “I didn’t realize.  So all that was going on and we never noticed.  Take me back—up the hill—to my grave.  But first:  Wait!  One more look.  Good-bye, world, Good-bye Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa.  Good-bye to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers.  And food and coffee.  And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up.  O, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Yes, it goes so fast.  As we take on the divine responsibility of stewardship, we realize that God is the owner, and we are the stewards.  We realize the wonders of our life on this earth, and come together to give thanks for that gift.  In response to this gift, we give joyfully and with enthusiasm.

Stewardship is a way of thanking God.  Stewardship is a vote of confidence in our future.

There is a story about a woman who faints during a church service, and loses consciousness when she hits her head on the edge of the pew.  One of the church members calls an ambulance, and as she is being carried out on the stretcher, she regains consciousness and calls to her adult daughter to come to her.  The members of the congregation imagine she is calling her daughter to express her final words.  Instead, the woman whispered to her daughter, “My offering is in my purse.”  We can be like this woman, and make sure that it is known where our budgeted operational funds are located.  In doing so, we will make real the presence of a peaceful dwelling place and an undisturbed place of rest.  We will make real a church community that is founded upon a rock.  I sincerely thank you for your loving relationships, for your stewardship and for your generosity.  Amen.

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