270 years: legacy and future promise
Some time in the spring of 1748 St. Paul’s United Church of Christ assumed its identity as a church in what would become the town of Woodstock.
At its very beginning the name would be St. Paul’s Reformed Church and the town was then known as Muellerstadt, Virginia. As we prepare to gather for our 270thAnniversary Celebration on Sunday, April 22, 2018, I think it is worthwhile to think about the place of churches in communities.
Of course an initial reaction would be that the purpose of the church is to convert sinners to the saving power of Jesus Christ, end of story. But it is not the end of the story is it? Because if that were our sole purpose we could pitch tents and deliver our message. Yet from the smallest community in the countryside to our largest cities the physical existence of church buildings is an iconic reminder of our need for faith, for community, for focus, for action. Long after the pews are no longer filled each Sunday, those structures tell a story and await new people to come and experience the power of faith in community. Here are some of my observations around local churches as St. Paul’s UCC gets ready to begin its 271styear of witness and ministry. And because of the anniversary I will construct my observations around the life of one church knowing that the values and images can also fit other churches.
1. Life in 1748 in Muelllerstadt, Virginia, on the banks of the Shenandoah River and between the mountain ranges of the Blue Ridge, Massanutten and the North Ridge of the Alleghenies was life on the frontier. The German settlers than made their way to this remote location were for the most part farmers and many immigrants (or close to it) from the war-torn Palatinate Region of Germany. As the saying goes, they immigrated with their Bibles and their Heidelberg Catechism. Their strong faith was what sustained them in Europe and it would be what would sustain them on the frontier. Their faith was so central to their lives that it could not be contained within the walls of their homes. They talked with one another as people who were solving the problems of settling the wilderness and that language was within the structure of the faith that defined them. The life of a local church is a place for faith language and faith inspired decision making.
2. Community is a central identifying characteristic of a local church. Sometimes it is defined as a “church family”. Although I get the meaning behind that language, it feels a little narrow for my tastes. Yes, families have all kinds of folks living in relationship. Some of whom folks may feel they could do just as well without. Others are beloved matriarchs or patriarchs. A community is more than those who have been born into a relationship or married into it. It involves learning to live together when no relationship requires agreement. It is finding the “common” that holds us when the particulars differ. It is a pot luck supper not a specially crafted meal. The local church is where the Table is always big enough to include those who choose come.
3. A local church is not stagnant. Those of us who are identified with the United Church of Christ understand that when we take the Bible seriously not literally we are confronted daily with God revealing God’s Self through these sacred words. Whereas once upon a time St. Paul’s would view slavery through the lens of an acceptable behavior as evidenced in the language of the Bible, that is no longer the case. Thanks be to God! Then it was a justification for excommunication (the case of Judge Rye). Now racism is topic for deep soul searching and sacred conversation. Once upon a time women were not allowed to be leaders in the church. Now we cannot do without them! A local church can be that safe place to grapple with the issues of life and become open to new ways of living in relationship.
4. Those buildings in towns and cities that have the steeples, or the bell towers, or the open and welcoming modern spaces are symbols of hope for both those who live in a community but also those who are only passing by. Those buildings carry a bigger story – one of remembered stories, one of vows exchanged, one of “if only”, one of God’s love made available to all. As such they contribute to the life of a community, just as do the symbols of justice in the Courthouse, or the symbols of education in the schools. These three words: faith, justice, education define communities as places where people want to live. Built on the firm foundation of Jesus, we are also part of the firm foundation of Woodstock and Shenandoah County.
As St. Paul’s United Church of Christ celebrates 270 years of witness and ministry, may it move forward into its future
· being a place where faith and our lives intersect
· being a welcoming and inclusive and diverse community
· being a safe place for difficult conversations and decisive witness
· being a continued foundational pillar for Woodstock and Shenandoah County
Grace and Peace