• November 15, 2016
West Concord Union Church, 1893-1909

West Concord Union Church, 1893-1909

Isaiah 65:17-25

Why do we long for holy space?

The prophet we hear in scripture today is speaking to a people in despair.  The people Israel have endured war and defeat and exile in Babylonia. Now they have just begun to return and to rebuild.

The prophet speaks to these people, and his words are words of hope: God is creating a new heaven and a new earth, a new reality in which life together will be a joy.  Common hardships like poverty and illness will not exist in the new order. There will be economic opportunity and economic justice; everyone will enjoy the work of their own hands. Children will be born safely into a world that is safe for them.  Even natural enemies will be reconciled, and evil will be struck down. “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

Fueled by faith in this vision, the people Israel took heart. They began to rebuild their homes. They began to rebuild their community.   And then, they began to rebuild their Temple.  Twenty years after their return from Babylonia, the great second Temple was completed, and it stood for 500 years.

Why do we long for holy space?

The West Concord Union Church had only been gathering for about nine years when our forbearers decided it was time to have our own building. The decision was quite practical: the community’s meeting space at Warner Hall was no longer available for public use.  Still, there were many benefits seen to having a space of our own. Therefore, a meeting was held at Rev. Campbell’s house to  “see about building a church.”

The folks who founded this church didn’t have much money to spare. They were prison guards and mill workers.  And yet, they were determined. Land was purchased on the corner of Pine and Westvale (now Main) Streets and fundraising for construction began.  190 donors contributed.  The drive was successful, in part, because of the kindness of friends of the church. Two of the largest gifts came from folks in the community who were never members: Harvey Wheeler, for whom the building across the street is named; and Jeremiah Sheehan, a Catholic neighbor. The new church was dedicated on February 6th, 1894.

“Concord has a church, a union church, which her people can call their own – a place where they can worship amid holy and beautiful surroundings as they have never been able before”  reported the local paper, the Concord Enterprise.  By August, funds had been raised for a bell to ring out in the church tower. An organ was bought three years later.

I have been thinking this week about sanctuary: about safe and holy space. Scripture tells us that we can find sanctuary in God: under God’s wing, within God’s shelter.  We also provide sanctuary for each other, seeking to embody God’s love in the world.

One of the striking things about the aftermath of this election is how many people feel unsafe. People voted for Donald Trump for all kinds of reasons.  I hope that his presidency will be a positive opportunity for our nation.  The fact remains that his speech, and the speech and actions of those associated with him, has included bigotry, hate, and threats of intimidation and violence. So, now, preparing for him to take office, people are afraid: Muslims and Jews, women and sexual assault survivors, immigrants and people of color, those with disabilities and the GLBTQ community.  It seems that the structures of civility and mutual respect that we have worked so hard to build, and which are still so incomplete, are crumbling around us.  It feels like the laws we have managed to put in place so far to protect the most vulnerable among us from injustice are in danger.

How can we provide sanctuary for one another?  This is a very serious question that I hope we will continue to ask ourselves and act on in the months and years to come.  This community is full of all sorts of privilege, and it is our clear moral obligation to use that privilege for good.

It’s hard to know where to start today, but there are two tiny possibilities in the hallway.  Some folks have begun wearing safety pins on their clothes, to let other people know that they are willing to stand up for the safety of their fellow Americans. There are safety pins in the entry way if you want to consider whether you are called to take that stand.  I’ve also put out some cards to local groups who may be feeling afraid this week; please consider signing them, and starting additional cards for other groups you can think of.

God is our shelter. We shelter one another. And still, we are moved to build physical shelters: great temples; magnificent cathedrals; small neighborhood churches.

We long for holy spaces in a world that feels dangerous and uncertain.  We want to a place to feed our souls with worship, with physical beauty, with music. We want somewhere to come where God is recognized as the highest authority, and our purpose is to discern what the kingdom of heaven on earth might be like, and how we can work in partnership with God to get there.

More than two years ago now leaders of this congregation raised the question: what should we do about this building? We knew that there was a lot that needing fixing. At first, all options were on the table. Do we really want a building? Do we really want this building? But the answer, emphatically, was yes. We want this building: this simple and beautiful and somewhat awkward building, which is in need of significant repair.  We want this building, because of what has happened here in years past.  We want this building, because of what we imagine we could do, here on this corner, with this resource for our ministry, in the future.

Since then, we’ve been engaged in a process of figuring out what to do with this building, and how much. It hasn’t always been easy. I don’t know if you’ve met the other people in this congregation, but there are at least as many opinions as people. At times, we’ve struggled to listen well and to trust that beneath disagreement lies a much deeper mutual love.

Overall, though, this process has been a blessing. We’ve gotten to learn more about all the people who helped create a sanctuary on this corner.  We’ve gotten to think and pray about what we hope our ministry will be: how we want to welcome people, how we want to care for our earth, how we want to worship. We’ve had the chance to do hard work together, refining the proposal, to get it closer to our shared values and goals. We’ve witnessed great enthusiasm and extraordinary generosity. We still have one more round of discussions to have – please, share your joys and concerns.  I have confidence that, whatever the final plans look like, we will be doing something great together.

We’ll be doing something great – because now, more than ever, this community and this country where we live needs sanctuary. We need holy space where we can remember that we and our friends and our families and our neighbors and even our enemies are in God’s care.  We need holy space where we can remember that we and our friends and our families and our neighbors and even our enemies are in one another’s care.  We need holy space where all are welcome, and all are safe, where everyone can get through the doors and up to the table, and where the earth is honored.  We need to be healed and empowered and sent with beauty, music, scripture, silence, prayer, service, and fellowship.

Our God has a word of hope for us.  She reminds us that whatever we see when we look around us today, she is creating a home of joy, a community of delight, a future of peace and shared abundance. When we call, she will answer. When we are speaking, she will hear. We are travelling together towards a future where the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. Thanks be to God.