17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.
19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.
22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.
26 If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. 27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.
James 1:17-27, Common English Bible Translation
When I first encountered Saugatuck Church two and a half years ago, it was during the run up to Story Tent 2013. The play that year was held at the “Ministry Center” in the office park were we worked during reconstruction, and it was about Joseph, his multi-colored coat, and his (mis)adventures in Egypt. I hadn’t been officially hired yet, so I didn’t come to the final performance, but I was invited to come watch the dress rehearsal. And it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I knew immediately this was a church I wanted to serve.
From the perspective of someone who is primarily responsible for ministry to children and youth, Saugatuck Church is incredibly unique. This is not just a church with some cool things for young people to do. This is a church that genuinely values young people— a church that puts them up in front of the congregation on Sunday morning not just for a cute children’s sermon but to deliver the real sermon. That is a really powerful gift, and not just to the young people who receive this support but to the members of this church who get to receive the incredible things these young people have to offer.
I, too, have been a recipient of this gift these past two years as I have served among you. It has been a gift to see the children of this church come alive when given the chance to help lead us all in worship. It has been a gift to work alongside so many adults in this church who are deeply invested in their lives. And it has been a gift to hear the powerful insights of our youth as they reflect on faith and life and how they can serve and help others around them, whether that be the refugee families we met on the mission trip or the younger students in this church whom they want to see have the same chances they did.
As a youth pastor, it doesn’t get any better than that.
God has richly blessed this congregation with an abundance of gifts.
Of course, that isn’t to say we haven’t dealt with our fair share of challenges. Just in the last few years we’ve faced the monumental task of rebuilding from the fire, seen transitions in leadership, been challenged by slow changes in our own identity and the surrounding culture of our community, and a financial challenge that can easily feel overwhelming.
But it was in the midst of these challenges that I was blown away by the faithfulness and incredible energy of our youth in Maine. Those youth dove right in to serving hundreds of meals, teaching dozens of neighborhood kids, and helping the people of Portland in countless other ways. But what they most offered to me was their incredible, thoughtful reflections on what that service meant to them, what they learned, and how the things they saw would change their lives.
I’ve been spending a lot of time the last few weeks reflecting on the meaning of church and the nature of community. My sermons have been a little bit existential, apologies to those of you who’ve been here… But I think this is a crucial topic to reflect on at this point in our life as a congregation.
Briefly, here has been the path of my reflections: I’ve been imagining church not as an activity we engage in but as a community we belong to, a family that shapes us and forms us and never leaves us behind. And what brings us together in this family and community is our collective experiences of God at work in our individual lives and in our lives together with one another— both in the good times and the bad, the easy and the challenging. When we pay attention to those sacred moments at which God appears in our lives, and when we intentionally share those moments with one another, we forge bonds that both draw us together and become a framework that affects the rest of how we live our lives. Just like our families can impact how we talk, what we are interested in, and how we relate to the world, so our family of faith can impact every other part of our lives if we pay attention to how God is at work in, among, and through us.
To do this effectively, we have to be a little intentional about how we live with one another. When James writes that we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry, he’s talking about how we live together as a community of faith. If we really believe that what brings us all to this place is God at work in each of our lives, then we have to listen to one another describe what that means for each of our lives. And it’s only as we listen, as we become immersed in that shared experience of God at work all around us, that we can then really begin to speak with one another like a family gathered around a table.
Now families can be challenging, there is no denying that. There’s an image floating around social media that I’ve been really tempted to print out and put up in my office. It’s of a squirrel standing like this and the captain says “Relax… We’re all crazy… It’s not a competition.”
But James reminds us that we must be slow to anger because this whole community thing isn’t just about our individual selves: it’s abut our collective self. Most of the time I find that when I’m angry, it’s because what I wanted to happen didn’t happen or that what I didn’t want to happen did. But really it’s about not getting my way. And that’s a really terrible way to be in community. Jesus calls us to live as servants, and James reinforces this by reminding us that life in community isn’t about us, isn’t about getting our way, isn’t about our standing out in the crowd. True, pure devotion is this: to care for those who cannot care for themselves and have no way of ever repaying us for that service.
So if we really want to take this community thing seriously, we have to check our own interests, we have to stop talking and listen, and we have to let what we hear soak into us and draw us together. Because its only when we hold as our common foundation the experience of God at work in our lives, only when the “thin moments” and the “thin places” of our lives become moments and places that we share with one another, that we will find in this place the kind of community that can truly transform us and deeply impact our lives and the lives of others around us.
For any who might shrug at this community building work or think of it as “fluffy” but not urgent business, especially not in a time of crisis, I would say that this is the most fundamental part of what we do together and it has never been more important.
Since last December when we moved back into this building, we have had around twenty new families visit our church, many of whom are beginning to regularly participate in our life together. We’ve conducted four new baptisms. We brought two new youth on our mission trip. We are lined up to have as many as 15 new confirmands next year. We are set to have twice as many Church School teachers as we had last year. And those are just the stats that cross my desk as Associate Pastor for Children and Youth. Everywhere in this church there are signs of new life, and that’s an awesome thing to see!
But if we don’t take seriously the task of building a healthy community that they can be a part of, that new life will wither on the vine. If these new faces, whether new to us altogether or “new” in the sense of taking on new roles and responsibilities, don’t find the opportunity to connect with others in this congregation, the chance to hear your stories and see your gifts, the space to tell their own experiences of God at work in their lives and share the gifts and talents that God has given them, then we will have failed in our work. And that is what it all comes down to: there is no secret church growth formula, what makes a church is the people in this room and the relationships they have with one another. There is nothing more important for the life of this community than the community itself.
Now that warning is not to suggest that we are in bad shape: on the contrary, I’m extraordinarily encouraged by what I have seen in this place these past two years. Even in the hard conversations about the challenges we face, I’m encouraged. All throughout this church, from the Pastor’s study to the sofa’s in the youth room, important conversations are happening, meaningful connections are getting made, and a powerful foundation of faith for this community is being laid out. It’s hard work, no doubt, but it’s really important work and I only wish I could be here to see how it all unfolds.
As I’m leaving to move on to the next phase in my ministry, I will always look back fondly on my time here at Saugtuck. I have learned a lot from this place. I have grown a lot serving in this place. And I have incredible hope and optimism about the future of this place! Don’t ever loose sight of the importance of community: instead, may you be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry as you continue in life together and share the experience of God at work in and among and through you.