One day in a large city, in an old stone church that was right downtown and open most of the time, a man went in and sat down in one of the pews. This was not unusual. Many people came in during the day to sit for a while in the great holy space of the church. But this man stayed. He had been sitting there all day long when the minister decided she had better go talk to him. The man looked like anyone else who might wander in off the street to sit in the church for a few moments - with two minor exceptions. Next to him in the pew he had a butterfly net and a knapsack. The minister felt a momentary sense of restraint but spoke anyway. "May I help you?" she inquired. "Yes," replied the man. "I have come looking for something of God." The minister's uneasiness shifted a little bit in the direction of interest. Not everyone would name this kind of hunger to her. However her joy passed quickly as the man continued. "And when I find something of God I will snatch it up in my butterfly net and put it in my knapsack and pull the cord tight and have God always with me forever." The minister didn't want to discourage the man, but she couldn't exactly leave his statement unchallenged either. She spoke in her best and most gentle theological voice. "I don't think that you can just scoop God up into a butterfly net or into a knapsack," she offered, not even wanting to comment on the "forever" side of the man's desire. "I know that," came the reply. "I didn't say I wanted to scoop God up in my butterfly net. I said I was looking for something of God that I could snatch up with my net and put in my knapsack and have God always with me forever." The minister was torn between trying to explain to the man that there wasn't much difference between the two and the feeling that anything of God in the church that the man could put into his net would likely be stealing, when the matter was taken out of her hands. The man looked at his watch, picked up his net and knapsack, and left. However the next day he was back, and he sat in the church the whole day again. The same thing happened for all the rest of the days that week and Sunday as well. Of course the man was the center of some animated conversation. Many people came up to him and introduced themselves. Some withdrew to a safe distance when the man explained the purpose of his butterfly net and knapsack, but others sincerely tried to listen and help. Yet nothing seemed to change the man's stated intent. Over time he became a kind of fixture in the church. The people greeted him warmly, and they began to appreciate his presence and to see themselves as his caretakers. The man never changed much and never did much and never said much. Occasionally he joined in the services, often he just sat there. To everyone who ever asked him what he was about, he simply said, "I have come to find something of God. And when I do I will snatch it up in my butterfly net and put it in my knapsack and pull the cord tight and have God always with me forever." So it went until one day as he was sitting there in the church the man was overcome by a great drowsiness. He fell asleep in the pew for just a few minutes. When he work up, he immediately sense that something was different. He quickly picked up his butterfly net. He was ready to pounce. However when he looked at the net he saw that while he was asleep someone had cut the bottom out of it. He checked his knapsack. The bottom of it was gone too. Some others sitting nearby noticed the changes as well. They saw the man staring through the holes in the shorn net and the gutted knapsack. They were terrified for him. Someone went to get the minister. Others gathered around ready to offer their support because, as far as they knew, the net and knapsack made up most, if not all, of this man's life. As the minister came running, she was thinking about how quickly they might be able to replace the man's ruined equipment. Silently they all gathered around. The minister was about to say something helpful and comforting when the man spoke first. With a huge grin, he repeated two words over and over. "At last," he said. "At last."
Do you remember the first time you walked into this church and what the hope was that you held within you? We all come here looking for something of God. Luckily God is huge because we all look for God in different ways. Like the man in this story, we have a deep desire to find a connection to the Divine - that Mystery that we can't explicitly see or touch. We're looking for signs of it - the opportunity to experience the love of God that the Bible says is given to us all. Jesus' life embodied that love in human form. That love was not held captured in a butterfly net but freely given away to all with whom Jesus came into contact. That love grew with every person Jesus touched with his compassion and acceptance.
The story of the man in the stone church reminds us that something of God is found in caring and supportive community. The passage from James this morning challenges us to ask ourselves how wide our arms are open to those who come to our church looking for something of God. It reminds us of the royal law to love our neighbors as ourselves and to not show partiality. The contrast between the rich and poor, noted in this passage, is a starkly apparent one; sometimes our differences show in more subtle ways. And our responses are equally subtle but still contribute to how welcome our "neighbors" feel when they enter this church.
If a man walked in this morning with a butterfly net I imagine he would be noticed, and perhaps suspect. A butterfly net is, after all, an odd sort of thing to bring into church. And since we don't know this man we don't really know what to expect.
That is the challenge: we don't know what to expect of something or someone different and that makes us uneasy. If something happens outside our comfort zones we feel the foundation below us waver; we don't know what will happen next. We worry about what people will do or say, and what they will think about what we do or say. We tend to focus on our outward differences instead of the similarities of our internal longings. And all the time our patient God continues to send abundant love our way. Sometimes that love comes with a man and a butterfly net.
Whether we come to church with a visible butterfly net or come with that deep longing held quietly in our hearts, we are all looking for something of God.
Look around you. For the most part these are faces you know; people with whom you have rejoiced, argued, worried, mourned, and celebrated. Hear the whisperings of the story that is the First Congregational Church of Monroe - the longings, the struggles. This is a community in which something of God has lived. Look around you - at this building created nearly 100 years ago. Think of those people who had a vision, who sweated and toiled together to make it come true. Imagine the people of this church those many years ago standing back and looking at these stones and this steeple with a deep sense of accomplishment. Something of God lived in their determination and faith. Look around you - at this town of Monroe. This town has a story and new chapters are being written with every person who becomes a member of this larger community. Something of God is at work amidst the chaotic patterns of growth and change here.
The larger church has its story also and that story is changing. At a time when there is an increase in the number of people recognizing a spiritual hunger not fed by the materialistic bent of our culture; many churches are struggling to fill their pews. If all these people are looking for something of God, why are they not finding it in our churches?
There are not easy answers to this but wrestling with this question is important. Although some would choose to place blame on those who do not come to church, there is wisdom in choosing to place our energy on discovering how to make our churches more full of what the people of God are hungering for: something of God.
That hunger is diverse in its expression but at its root is a desire for acceptance, for community, for love. Our arms open wide and welcoming will help people experience the comforting reassurance of God's love.
Many people today experience a general sense of alienation and loss of purpose in our culture. The way we worship can have a powerful impact on us remembering how interconnected we are to each other and how the Spirit moves through our daily lives. Something of God sings through worship that is joyful, embodied and encourages honest expression of our humanness.
Churches need to be a place where the power of the heart is equally honored with the workings of the head. The heart is mentioned innumerable times in the Bible - that should tell us something. We need to have our churches be a place where the feelings of the heart, both joyful and sorrowful, are given active expression. Loving God is not a theoretical exercise but a willingness to open our vulnerable selves to the possibility of authentically knowing God's love in our everyday lives.
Sometimes that means looking for God in the midst of our deep pain and grief. It means acknowledging that suffering is a troubling part of life; one that we don't always understand. It means allowing space for anger at God to be expressed. The psalmists of old knew the healing power of this. We have something to learn from the lament psalms that both rail against God and reaffirm that God is their hope and salvation.. This honesty in naming the pain in our life creates more possibility for healing.
God has created us with amazing miraculous bodies. Yet, we have too often relegated the body to a separate and lower status from the Spirit. Church needs to be a place where the wisdom of our bodies can be celebrated and where we reclaim the body/spirit connection out of which we live our lives.
The Bible tells us how God created this glorious universe - full of beauty and revelation of God's truth. But, too often we forget our connection to nature and its creatures; we miss the lessons they give us about life. God speaks to us through all of Creation; we need to be listening in all possible ways.
Our UCC tradition holds that there is always more truth and light to break forth from God's holy word and that each generation has the responsibility to make our historic faith its own in reality of worship and honesty of expression. It is being attentive to the reality of our time and place in history that calls forth new understandings of God and Church.
We know today that to be truly welcoming to all people we need to examine the language we use in our churches; we need to expand our images of God to provide abundant possibilities for diverse people to experience God. We need to take seriously the tenet that all of God's people are welcome at the table. There is much to learn from other cultures and even other religious traditions that speak shared truths about something of God.
These are some ideas; I know you have others. I want to hear them and look forward to conversations with you to explore ideas for making this community a place where signs of God's presence and love overflow out these doors. Today we are beginning a journey together. I'm excited and enthusiastic. It is already very evident to me there is much of God in this caring community.
How we will create this together is something we will find out as we go along. I have complete confidence that it will happen if we take seriously the words from the psalmist this morning. Our help and hope is in God. Our deep desire to know God's love and share it with others will make the space for the Spirit to do amazing things in our community. Let us commit ourselves to opening to the Spirit; let us breathe in the abundant life and love God has for us in this very moment and in every moment eternal.
Let us Pray: Spirit of God we know you are here in the very air we breathe. We know that you bless us with your love. Help us to accept that gift and use the wisdom you give us to help others experience something of God. Amen.
*Beginning story by David M. Griebner from "The Carpenter and the Unbuilder: Stories for the Spiritual Quest."