Guest preacher: Kathleen Hugh
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Last August I went to Edisto Island, SC. to our family reunion. I’ve gone there every year of my life until Covid hit. Now it had been two years, and I sorely needed familiarity. I had become very sad at the prospect of my church building here disappearing and was feeling a great inability to deal with more change. Losing my husband, the isolation of Covid, and now my precious church. Just too much change.
When I arrived at the house on Edisto, I didn’t find comfort at first. Eventually, I did find joy in seeing my family. But I had left Virginia thinking about this new loss I would be facing in 2022. I just wanted things to be the same here. And, now, as I looked out across the inlet-the reeds, I saw the Atlantic Ocean with its waves crashing on the beach. But that wasn’t what I was supposed to see!! The ocean was supposed to be hidden and far off!! I knew it was there all my life. But it was safely far enough away from where our house was that we had never seen it, unless we went around the island to that beach.
I remembered my Grandma taking me on a walk around the island to the other side of those reeds when I was five. We were both wading in the calm surf waves. “What is that?” I asked her, as I saw something odd just past my feet.
“Stairs,” she said.
“Stairs!? What are stairs doing there?”
She said, “That is all that is left of all the houses that once stood along this beach.”
She said, “Hurricanes.”
“I don’t understand, Grandma.”
She said, as we continued our stroll, “There is a time and a season for everything under heaven. A time for endings and a time for beginnings.”
Two weeks later, On the drive back to Virginia from the beach, I turned on the radio and heard the song Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds. Beautiful. And actually, the importance of that adventure with my grandmother and my recent visit to the beach house didn’t really register with me until I heard Turn, Turn, Turn.
When I got home, I looked the song up on YouTube and saw in the notes that the lyrics came from Ecclesiastes. “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven.” All of these memories, places, and songs converged. All together they dislodged my sadness at all the losses, and made me feel, actually, excited. I remembered that I was a case in point. I came here after my husband died, and though I still grieve that loss to this day, I could never have expected to find a level of happiness here that I had never had before. I know I’ll still grieve for our church building: the unpredictable elevator, and the temperamental air conditioning. But now I see what an amazing opportunity we have ahead of us! We will be stripped down to our basics – just us – the people. And we will have that rare opportunity of rebuilding from there.
I think that our church is amazing! And I am not personally desiring change in how we do things. But when I think about the charge Pastor gives us each Sunday: “Who are we and what do we do?” It reminds me that Jesus didn’t just give his 12 disciples all love and light and tell them to just enjoy. They were to go out and spread that love and light. And that is our challenge as Christians, to move beyond our own comfort in order to bring comfort to others.
I recently learned how this congregation tried many ways of reaching out over the years: weekday services for our businesspeople in the area, a community picnic in the park. Some were great ideas that have had success in other parishes. I gathered that all that effort here did not seem grow the congregation. That had to feel discouraging. And my brief time as the head of our outreach committee led me to feel the same frustration. But now we will be stepped down to our basics, as we rebuild our aging building. Perhaps we can move beyond our expectations and discover together just who those in our community who do not attend a church really are, and why they do not attend.
I believe our biggest audience is a growing group of people now referred to as the “Nones”.
Not catholic nuns, mind you. N -O -N -E-S.
Many in this group were raised in one of the Christian traditions, but walked away from it as adults. Many baby boomers also walked away as young adults, but returned when they got married and had kids. But now more young adults are leaving and not returning, even if they have families. Currently, This group exceeds in size all Catholics and Evangelicals in America. The current estimate is there are 60 million Nones in the United States, and 60 million reasons why they left organized religion. Yet 40% say they still believe in God and may even still identify with a religious affiliation. And many of the Nones will, in fact, return, if and when invited in a way that is meaningful to them as individuals.
I know a bit about Nones because, until I found this congregation, I was a NONE.
I was longing to belong to a spiritual community. And I had just about given up trying, after 64.5 years of searching, having never found a church that accepted me as I was, on my individual journey. I had tried many different denominations and churches. I had no idea that by not giving up, I would finally find my spiritual home here.
There is no bigger challenge or charge facing Christians today. Churches are trying many approaches, just as this congregation did. And when it doesn’t work, it is so easy to give up trying. But I am a case in point why it is important to never give up.
Perhaps many of you have heard the story of a grandmother and her granddaughter who take a walk along the beach. (A different grandmother and a different beach.) They come upon hundreds of starfish washed up on the beach, drying out. The grandmother picks one up and puts it back in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the waves. The child calls out to her grandmother! “Don’t bother. There are so many. It won’t make a difference!” The Grandmother points to the water where she placed the starfish. “It will make a difference to THAT one!”
I am that starfish.
You made such a huge difference to me. You changed the trajectory of my life. You greeted me that first Sunday, and every Sunday after that. Pastor invited me to take communion at God’s table, and even though I still didn’t know what I believed about Jesus, all doors and hearts were opened to me here. Every step of the way, you made me feel that I belonged, even when we didn’t believe exactly the same things.
How did you do that? You greeted me warmly each and every Sunday, you accepted me as I was, and supported me as I became. And every step of the way, you helped me get involved in activities I love. You never made me feel less than or unwanted, just because I was on a different part of my spiritual journey. You made me feel that my difference was a strength to be valued. And there are so many more of me out there!
On my way back to Virginia I had hoped to be able to find and visit an old family friend.
And on this trip back I happened on a bit of luck. She was 94 now, and in a nearby nursing home. I scheduled a visit, thinking it would be a short one, as I was told she tired easily.
I was so glad to see how well she was taken care of there. To my surprise, for two hours we had shared tales, reminiscing about our two families’ times together. Oh, we laughed and laughed with shared memories, combined with those pesky little rest-of-the-story tales.
When it was time and I got up to leave, she got up and gave me the biggest bear hug I had had in years. She whispered in my ear,” Thank you for bringing it all back to life!” We promised to stay in contact, and I cried all the way to my car.
That day and that visit reminded me how important it can be – how important it IS – to be mindful of the many small ways in which we can be God’s people in the world every day; how easy it can be to make a BIG difference to just one person, just by doing what might seem to be a small simple thing, and how important that effort can be.
The United Methodist Church has seen the proverbial writing on the wall, as membership in all Christian denominations continues to drop, even while belief in God does not. Some of these approaches may take more planning, and more discovery as we find out who our community members are, as individuals. In the meantime, and for the rest of our time, we can work together and encourage one another to remember the many ways in which we can go out to be God’s people in the world. And we already do this when we smile at one another, listen to each other, pray for each other.
Surely if we plan and work together we can learn both old and new ways to reach out to find out what the Nones in our community want and need, even over and above what we think they should want and need. People have so many reasons for having given up on organized religion. But I know one thing for certain: if any congregation can bring Nones back into the fold, this congregation will be able to do so in beautiful ways. Believe me, if you could get me to come in and stay…
If any congregation can make a difference, WE CAN! We can make a difference to Nones in our community, while still serving those we aim to serve, and do serve, now. This congregation has exactly what is needed to make a difference to each and every person.
There is a time, a purpose to every season – turn, turn, turn – which means to me that we keep beginning and keep starting over as we try new ways, and we never stopping trying. I know we will find many new ways to reach out to people in our community. I am so looking forward to all the little ways in which, together, we will continue to grow as a congregation, in either people or in deeds.
Turn, turn, turn.