31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
January 26, 2020
Ephesians 2:19-22, 4:1-6, 11-16
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Before I came to the First Congregational Church, I had a little association envy. My colleague who served a church in the Farmington Valley Association of the United Church of Christ would talk about these great fellowship events within their association. How the clergy gathered for study and prayer, how adults gathered for meals, how they had a youth event every year.
There was a time when the churches of the Farmington Valley Association were really connected, where people of different churches knew one another and knew what was going on in each other’s ministries. Now, I doubt most of our members even know they belong to an association, let alone who the member churches are. By the way, there are fourteen of us: Granby, First, Granby, South, East Granby, Hartland, Canton Center, Simsbury, Avon, West Avon, Farmington, Unionville, Burlington, Terryville, Plainville, and of course, us, in Bristol.
Even the churches in Bristol are not as connected as we used to be even ten years ago.
In our home lives, in our work lives, in our church lives, we know what a difference it makes when we are connected. We know what a difference we can make when people come together, work together. Painting your living room is not such a chore when others help. That huge presentation becomes more manageable with all hands on deck. Family Promise, weekend food, and school supply backpacks are possible. When we are connected, we are able to do things we could never do alone.
And yet, Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon write in their book The Art of Neighboring:
Given all these good results, it seems strange that believers and churches are not better at working together. Why is it that partnerships between people of different congregations seem to be the exception and not the norm? (Pathak & Runyon, pg 166-167)
Why is it that partnerships between people of different congregations seem to be the exception and not the norm? Why is it so difficult to be one? One body in the one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God of all?
Jay and Dave propose two reasons for this – because we fear compromising our identities as churches and we can be myopic. When it comes to other churches in Bristol, it is true that we let our differences separate us. We look at them. They look at us, and because we do not worship the same way, because we do not structure our communities the same way, we overlook the fact that we are all following Jesus and we are all called to love God and love our neighbor.
While we have much more in common with our neighbor churches in the Farmington Valley Association, we can be short-sighted, focusing only on our music ministry, our Children’s Ministry, our annual meeting. We rarely look up, look around and ask – what are other churches doing that we could participate in, partner with them on and together build the kingdom of God?
Because that is the real purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, not to build the best First Congregational Church in Bristol that we can. No, it’s to build God’s kingdom here on earth, and for that we are going to need partners.
And to get partners, we need to be partners. We need to take Paul’s words to the Ephesians very seriously. We are going to need to be humble and gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain, nay, restore the unity of the Spirit.
“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine…..but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:14-16)
Jesus’ prayer for his followers and the motto of the United Church of Christ is “that they may all be one”. Paul challenges the Church in multiple letters to build the body, the Church up in love, to be united and uniting, and yet, I am not seeing a lot of unity, a lot of knit and joined together, between the churches in Bristol nor the United Church of Christ churches in the Farmington Valley Association or our new Southern New England conference.
Just as we can literally change the world, if we literally love our real neighbors, imagine the difference we could make if we loved our real neighbor churches and joined with them to love our neighbor and build the kingdom of God. Could we end hunger and homelessness in Bristol? In Connecticut? In the world?
Sadly, though, connecting with other Christians and other churches is not an easy ministry. It’s a totally different mentality than churches have had for decades and even centuries. There is a church that regularly calls up other churches and asks if they can pray for them. Sometimes their calls are greeted with suspicion, other times, no one even returns the call.
Offering to participate in another church’s craft fair or Vacation Bible school, even if your own Christian community does not get any credit or any cash, requires a lot of humility, patience, and forbearance. Spending your Sunday afternoon attending the ordination or installation of another church’s pastor feels like a sacrifice, and it is. And it also honors our covenantal connections and builds the whole body up in love.
Do you see what a big change this would be? And can you also envision the possibilities, the amazing things we could do as the Church of Jesus Christ, if we took literally Jesus’ prayer to be one and worked together to love our neighbors?
Our community and our world would be literally and profoundly changed.
Someone’s going to have to take the lead though, and I cannot think of anything better for the First Congregational Church to be first at than being a good neighbor to all of our sister churches in Bristol and the Farmington Valley, to be first in offering our support to our neighbor churches, asking what they are doing to build the kingdom of God and how can we help.
I’m not suggesting we give up our own ministries, that we forget our history and traditions, compromise our theological beliefs and strong commitment to inclusivity and welcome. I am inviting you to consider what it would look like to love our neighbor churches, our literal neighbor churches: the Congregational Church of Plainville, First Church in Farmington, Prospect Methodist, St. Joe’s across the street, Salvation Army around the corner, Zion Lutheran down the hill.
How might our lives, how might our ministry, how might Bristol and the world be changed for the better if we, at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Bristol, Connecticut, took literally Jesus’ words to love these neighbors, too?