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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

"Looking for a Church" by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy

Numbers 35:6, 13

Matthew 18:20

2 Corinthians 12:9

On July 31, Northminster Church will welcome with great gratitude and expectations our new Pastor, Jillian Hankamer. If you have not read Jillian’s “Personal Message” in the church’s “Newsletter” for this week, please read it. I read Jillian’s words with tears in my eyes. Rather than speak about her, listen to a few of her words to us.

Jillian’s Words: “What I care about is your heart. (I could stop there, but there is more) What I care about is your heart. I care about your relationship with God through the tangible expression of Her love; Jesus Christ. I care about helping you live out the message and mission of Christ in the varied and unique way that you are specifically gifted for. I care about how you treat people, particularly the grieving, the disenfranchised, the marginalized. I care about how we go about disagreeing on difficult issues. And I care about us coming together to be a community that reflects the love, inclusion, and relentless grace of Christ.”

For today and two more Sundays, I will share thoughts with you that relate to the beginning of Jillian’s ministry and our church’s ministry alongside her. The story with which I begin, though, has nothing to do with Jillian.

When Carlyle Marney, a great preacher, one of the best I have ever known, moved from a pastorate in Texas to a pastorate in North Carolina, he found the transition difficult. Not long after Marney’s relocation, a friend called to ask him how he was doing. In his typical slow, thoughtful words, Marney said, “I guess I am doing alright; the move went well, my new home is comfortable, but I can’t find the dang church.

My friend’s sharp honesty expressed clearly my personal sentiment precisely and, my guess is that those words have also crossed your lips while looking for a church at one time or another.

During a conversation with Northminster’s Pastor Search Committee, Kay Southern said, “We have got to make this work because this is my last time to try church.” Immediately I responded saying, “The difference between the two of us is that I am not sure I even want to try again.” More than one person has also made that same statement.

I have always liked ministry, I felt God call me to the ministry, though sometimes I still think it was my mother, but in more recent years while ministering, I have seen and heard too much that bothers me. Literally, I am tired of people talking about grace when there is no grace and talking about church when there is no real church.

I still remember overhearing a woman in one of the first churches I served saying, “As badly as I need people around me, my church is the last place in the world that I would go right now.”

I listened to and spoke with parents who told me they had sent their High School Senior away for more than a year so they would not have to face friends in their church talking about their daughter’s pregnancy.

I will never forget a family I did not know that asked me to visit their dying son and conduct his funeral when he passed away. That family came to me and to our church because the ministers in their son’s church refused to visit their son in the hospital and later refused to conduct their son’s funeral because their son had died from (as their pastor said) the “sin” of HIV/AIDS. How does a church or a minister do that in God’s name?

After coming to Northminster Church as its pastor, it did not take me long to know that these good people and those who joined us later had, with great desire, longed for a real church filled with authentic grace. I knew the feeling; I had felt it.

By the time I was here, I had had it with so many of those kinds of experiences—people’s comments and behavior. Every time that happened it weakened the meaning of grace and church. I no longer automatically associate church and grace.

I would like to think of the church as a fellowship of grace. I love “Amazing Grace,” but I get very tired when grace is only a song. My home church was far more interested in warning people about hell and punishing them rather than embrace the ones they would call the “bad ones” with love. Yes, I heard people say that grace is a passive way of looking in another direction.

Not too early in life was I disappointed when I discovered that in most churches grace was more important in becoming a Christian than it was in living a Christian life. Saving people vigorously seemed more important than offering an application of grace to someone who was in trouble. The church made me somewhat angry when I discovered that many churches were so vigorous in trying to save someone, they pay little or no attention to people who have done something wrong. I kept asking my elders, “Where is the grace now? If grace can save a person, surely grace can forgive a person.

In my early days at Northminster, I spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the kind of church all of us long for. I knew Northminster was looking for a church.

I studied the Bible, of course (Judaism prized the “city of refuge” named after Moses), the “place of refuge” in the 15th century in Hawaii), the “Cities of Refuge” on the East Coast of Florida sponsored by “The United States Life-Saving Service).

Let me share some of what I found while looking for a church.

A church is not a sign or a billboard in the yard; I want to think of it as a welcoming community—a community of grace.

I never left the church though, often I was sickened by the institutional church. I spent many years preaching, comforting, counseling, and leading congregations all the while thinking that someday I would experience church, not just attend one. I also learned that I could find church in other settings that had nothing overtly to do with religion. By that I mean, outside a building with a steeple on it, I learned about grace, forgiveness, vision, justice, and the possibility of a new creation. I found a church in Northminster.

Finding a church is not easy but it is more important than just joining if it is a church.

When I say church I am not talking about a place or a building—I am talking about people to whom you know you can turn in any situation with assurance that you will be accepted; people who are not misers of grace but practitioners of plentiful mercy; people who want everybody to be the best we can be but who also will pick us up when we fall and help us walk when we only can limp. When I think about the importance of being church, my thoughts do not turn to signage, letter heads, slogans, budgets, parking lots, and membership campaigns; rather to consistency in proclaiming the gospel of good news, urgency in offering acceptance to the unacceptable, the necessity of forgiveness, the offer of second, third, and more chances, and a constant conscience-based effort to find ways in which to do together what Jesus instructed us to do and God promised to help us do that we cannot do alone.

To be church or to do church is faithfully to celebrate and share church as Jesus envisioned--a community of equality, mutuality, love, and ministry. But to be church in a specific community is ultimately to develop strength in ways critically needed to address weak places and gaping needs in that community.

Let me share what I found while looking for a church.

During the 19th century in the East Coast in Florida, reefs, summer hurricanes, and winter storms destroyed thousands of ships and claimed the lives of many of their crew members. “The United States Life-Saving Service” a precent to the US Coast Guard built nine houses for refugees. While speaking in that area, I spent almost an entire day studying those structures and programs.

“The House of Refuge” stood solely to serve people in trouble.” It was only for people hurting. I was so excited by the details.

Consider its location: a short line spot where storms were prevalent, and danger was dominant. In 1875 the best possible site for the construction of the place of

refuge was the worst possible site for taking up residence. That is where the House of Refuge was built.

Study its mission: The clientele of the House of Refuge were desperate individuals with multiple needs and few if any resources with which to express appreciation or to offer payment for their needs being met. Only as the supplies are being depleted in service to persons in dire conditions was its existence justified.

Ponder its vision: Not just to stand as a lighthouse beckoning people to the stability of the shore, but actually to offer an always open sanctuary promising safety and security. Neither clock nor convenience dictated activities with this building. Storm and crises constitute the environments for which its work was intended. Needs set its agenda.

No restrictions barred an entrance to the House of Refuge for anon one. Signs providing directions to the house were posted all along the coast. All seeking sanctuary were invited.

For years a steady stream of sailors sought refuge for a variety of reasons—Listen to the question—Was the shipwreck unavoidable or the result of human error? What were you doing in this potentially dangerous area anyway? You did not think like a responsible navigator! Such foolishness as you exhibit deserves an onslaught of difficulty. A shipwreck serves you right! That is not a House of Refuge or the language of grace.

The House of Refuge was a permanent home only for the caretaker, the rescuer. For everyone else it was a place of transition, a place to ride out the storm, a place of peace amid turbulent conditions, a place to find assistance, a place of fellowship with other persons battered and broken for various reasons, a place to rest, a place for wounds to heal, a place to get well. Wow! The length of people’s stay had no limit. A constant turnover of residents guaranteed that the space occupied by the weak who had grown strong could be made available to the next persons who show up in weakness.

What about this? -- What about this? Isn’t the church supposed to be precisely that kind of mercy, grace, community—the kind of community in which grace abounds. Definitions are decisive.

While looking for a church, I saw a community—a community of grace. That’s the kind of church I want to support and embrace. Looking for a church I changed my mind about how to see a church. No longer do I look at the structure, the size of the congregation or the beauty of the institution, less than ever am I caring about belief; I find the essence of belief in one’s action.

I am well aware that not everybody thinks the same way. I know some people do not agree with me as a minister. I don’t condemn them for that or praise them for it. I have no interest in judging them. Each of us must find our church! I just want the church I serve to be more like a place of refuge. But we can’t be church alone.

Let me remind you of the sermon last week in which I said we will be our best at walking together (together is the key word).

It is to a church that is a community of grace that is a congregation to which I will give my heart. Jillian said that about us. I like a pastor who shows how to love.

I think we belong where life is roughest, and needs are greatest. Our vision is an extension of help amid people with problems. Our work is to give away what we have.

The earliest communities of refuge were preparatory for Jesus just as Jesus made the way for churches or other named religious people.

Parallels between this house of refuge and the church as a community of grace have continued to pulsate in my heart and inform my convictions about what it means to be the people of God.

I know people come and go in churches for many reasons.

Think of what you have heard and thought about this morning and decide when you need to be looking for a church or maybe you are there. Be where you need to be. I found my church. At Northminster, everyone is a minister.

Jesus said:

Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.


Pastoral Prayer

O God, our hearts are filled with gratitude born of the realization that you have trusted us enough to make us stewards and instruments of your love. Whatever the cost, God, make our lives and the life of our church always reflect the nature of your greatest of gifts to humankind as we never falter or fail in our love for you, for each other, and for the world in which you graciously have brought us together. Am

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