The First Congregational Church of Darien

United Church of Christ

A community of faith since 1737

All posts by Julia Arstorp

George Foreman is a former American professional boxer who competed from 1969 to 1977, and from 1987 to 1997.  Nicknamed “Big George”, he is a two-time world heavyweight champion and an Olympic gold medalist.  Outside the sport he is an ordained minister, author, and entrepreneur. 

This fearless boxer said this about preaching:  “Preaching is the most original thing I’ve ever done. There’s nothing familiar about it. You have to be brave.”  George is absolutely correct in his statement.  One must be brave to preach the gospel.

This Sunday, my younger brother, Mickey S. Morello will be brave.  He is going to preach his first sermon at our historical church.  Mickey is currently enrolled at Nyack Seminary pursuing his Master’s of Divinity.  Mickey and his wife Frances, are extremely grateful that our church is blessing him with this moment in his life.  Faith has done wondrous things for our family.  What I believe, is most inspiring, is the bond we have as siblings since we all became Christians.  This bond that we share is a direct result of following Jesus Christ.  Anytime we do something together we pray that our story motivates others to believe.   

We all have had a first time experience in our careers.  Do you remember yours?  I remember the first sermon I preached.  Moreover, I’ll never forget the people who gave me the opportunity to do it.  Preaching puts one in a vulnerable place.  I have yet to walk into a pulpit and not feel the awesome presence of God.  Rev. Dale always says that when we preach we are mediating between God and the people.  What an honor it is to do this at The First Congregational Church of Darien.

Personally, I would like to publicly thank our Senior Minister, Rev. Dale Rosenberger for his humility in sharing the pulpit with others.  In addition, I want to thank our entire church family for supporting my younger brother and best friend.

Join us, this Sunday, as we encourage a brave young minister to preach the word of God.

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

 

You’ve heard me recall aloud how my preaching professor, William Muehl, urged us seminarians “to preach as though everyone there almost didn’t show up on that Sunday.” His charge was less about that phantom “relevance.” He was more about preaching with urgency on things that matter. Rather than make the gospel relevant to your life in a modern world—which usually means watering it down—I want to make your life in this modern world relevant to the gospel. Big difference!

 

Bill Muehl was way ahead of his time in at least one sense: every year fewer and fewer folks attend worship in America. Perhaps some days you ask: why bother? Our July attendance has been good but every August attendance drops off a cliff.

 

This much is clear. Attending church in order to get your card dutifully punched—attendance for attendance sake–is on the wane. Why? Back in the era of Moses Mather, our founding pastor, our church was the hub of society, culture, and also partnering with others in the life of Darien–besides connecting people with God.

Today much of that gets done on the electronic appliances of an internet world.
So then why attend church? Actually, I know a pastor in Boston for whom such talk as that is a pet peeve. “You don’t attend church. You attend worship.” At first, I wanted to groan at this stickler for detail.  But more and more, I get her point.

We don’t attend church.  We are church.  Yes, just like the Sunday School ditty merrily affirms: “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together.  All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the church together.”
So the real question is: what does it mean to be church? Being the church has something to do with living your life for Christ–in the peaceful and loving shape of the cross–and demonstrating that love by serving others and sharing your faith.

 

Being the church means abandoning being a spiritual consumer in favor of being a faithful contributor, sharing your gifts, both tangible and intangible. We can’t do that apart from other Christians.  Our gathering together is Jesus’ idea. We don’t attend church. We are church as we take on the mission Jesus gives us. Church is less about filling seating capacity than it is about seizing our sending capacity.

 

Another compelling reason to be with us on Sundays is a desire to keep growing your faith. This isn’t so much about increasing how much we know as it is stoking how much we love—both God and neighbor. The future of the church will be built upon those who want to share in this purpose, express it in service, and engage the mission of Christ’s church where we live and even to the corners of the earth.

 

The more we expect from each other such a vibrant level of engagement rather than pandering to spiritual consumers, the more vitality we will see sparkle here. Nothing will change the world more powerfully than sharing the love of Christ with a world in desperate need of it.  That gets me out of bed from Sunday to Sunday.

 

Two key items in our life: I want to announce the expansion of our Church School Director into a broader Director of Christian Education.  I also want to update our summer conversations about our FCC, Darien becoming a Full Blessing Church.
This week our Church Council followed our Stewards and Deacons in approving a 29.5 hour per week Director of Christian Education.  This position will involve reigniting our Church School, leading a middle-school youth group, managing the milestone events like 3rd grade Bibles and collaborating with Gary in confirmation. Of course, hiring more hours for this means more money. We’re working on that.
Gary and I have been recently calling our young families. They are enthusiastic about fortifying and expanding our ministries to our children and youth. Recently, with our strong high school youth group under Gary’s leadership, it has revealed gaps in our work with ages from 4th to 8th grade. We want to eliminate those gaps and create seamless care and spiritual formation for all of our children and youth.

We have been searching for a candidate, and hope to have someone by autumn.

 

The idea for this bubbled-up from our Board of Christian Education over the last nine months. I believe it has broader implications for engaging our young families into our mainstream and attracting new members. A clear pathway to vitality is letting our young families and others new to Darien know that we have their best interests at heart, and want to minster to them in areas that matter most to them. When leaders of a church are mostly a generation older than that—as ours are—we must get outside of ourselves and see through their eyes.  If we seek growth, then we recognize the most important people in our life are the ones not yet here.
Item number two.  In my Flash previous to this, I attached my sermon describing my long journey to a place where I now see my way clear to perform weddings for same-sex couples who desire to live in the Christian covenant of marriage. After this sermon (now found on our web page), we shared an 11th Hour to let members speak.  Seventeen members attended.  Everyone there agreed on this.

 

But not so fast.  That 11th Hour charged me to listen to everyone in the church by soliciting all points of view. We don’t take for granted the sharing and hearing of our many perspectives. That is not who we are or how we roll. I am in the midst of an all summer open listening phase. I spent much of Monday writing to as well as sitting down with those who do not object to civil unions, but see marriage as holy, between a man and a woman.  It’s not like to be a “good” or “real” Christian, you must agree with those differing from you on an issue like same-sex marriage.

 

We need everyone’s input. Please feel comfortable coming forward and speaking honestly and confidentially with me.  I can’t know your convictions unless you tell me. You will not be dismissed or disrespected. But you must speak if you want to register your view. I’ll be around all summer except the first two weeks of August.

 

That is what I want our membership to do anyway during the summer: to slow down so you can read more. To ponder things that you cannot always on the run. To pray to find a way forward for you, your family, and the spiritual family of FCC.

 

But I have an extra assignment this summer.  Last Sunday I preached about the blessing FCC brings for couples.  Not just for the bride and groom on the top of the wedding cake.   But for when two men or two women approach us to be wed.

 

In 2006 FCC reached a consensus to allow its clergy to bless gay and lesbian couples in commitment services to form a civil union. But with the Supreme Court decision in 2015, the way has been cleared for the church to extend the rite of marriage to same-sex couples. For some, holy marriage is far beyond civil union.

 

So I preached on this last Sunday.  Attendance was good for a summer Sunday, but we need to reach more of you to update our consensus.  We shared an 11th Hour gathering which 17 persons attended.  Each of us spoke out of personal convictions, and respect for everyone’s point of view carried the day. We want that to continue.   The consensus in the room was for FCC to take the next step.
I propose we declare ourselves a Full Blessing congregation. Let me explain that.  For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian church was a Zero Blessing church to gays and lesbians, expecting them to keep secret their sexual orientation, rendering them invisible, or in some cases even becoming party to the persecution of gays.

 

In the 1970s, some pastors began doing commitment services for gay couples.  Most churches tolerated these pastors exercising their conscience, but no few churches forbade them from conducting the services within the church sanctuary. I am calling this in-between period of recent decades our Partial Blessing church.

 

By proposing to become what we call a Full Blessing Church, we agree to offer an unhesitating and fully celebratory blessing over two men/two women forging a holy covenant together before God to love the other as Christ loves the church.  Last Sunday’s text had Peter the Apostle exclaiming, “God shows no partiality.”
While the consensus within our 11th Hour gathering was clear, we want to make the effort to seek out all of the congregation for your sense around this change. My sermon from last Sunday follows this Flash so that you can read and ponder, pray and discern.  Take the summer to search your heart and soul and spirit on this matter. By fall, we’ll hold another 11th Hour hoping to hear from any and all. Or if you prefer, call me personally any time this summer to chat about this issue.

 

 

Preaching is strange, believe me. I will never exhaust its mystery. You can sweat over a sermon that falls flat. You can cobble together on the fly something that people find riveting. The latter happened last Sunday. I could tell by your faces. Most of what impacted you was spontaneous and not even on my manuscript. If you weren’t there, I entertained the weighty question: will our children have faith?
I want to build on that theme recalling the story of a young girl with a special faith. Fifty-six years ago Ruby Bridges walked into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.  Ruby was black.  The rest of the students were white.  She walked in accompanied by federal marshals.  At some point you have probably seen Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With. That was Ruby.
Ruby’s little walk signaled a major development in desegregation. Before her first day of school was done, parents had emptied that school of white children in a massive boycott. Ruby learned alone in 1961, taught by one teacher who stayed.
Huge crowds of protestors gathered daily outside to yell slurs and death threats at Ruby. Throngs of angry whites waved Confederate flags. Some even shoved a child’s casket in front of Ruby with a black baby doll inside. Mobs can get so ugly.

 

Episcopal layman and Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles studied children from the Sixties desegregation movement.  Coles took a personal interest in what made Ruby tick. Her display of strength, stoicism, and bright cheer amid her daily hell caught his attention and puzzled him. He began to meet with her every week.

 

One day Ruby’s teacher told Coles that she had noticed Ruby moving her lips as she was walking into school.  Coles asked her who she was talking to.  “I was talking to God and praying for those people in the street.”  Coles pressed on, “So why were you doing that, Ruby?”  “Well, because I wanted to pray for them.  Don’t you think they all needed praying for?” We are talking about a six year old.
“Where did you learn that?” Coles asked her.  “From my mommy and daddy and the minister at church. I pray every morning going and every afternoon as I come home.” Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.” “No,” she said, “I just keep praying and hope God will be good to them. I pray the same thing for them, ‘Please, dear God, forgive them.  Because they don’t know what they are doing.’”

 

I ask you again, what I asked you in my sermon.  How many of you want that for your children?   How many of you will support FCC as we try to give it to them? How many of you will help us embed Biblical truth deep within their character?
You say that is impossible in today’s world. I say consider the resources God has provided us.  Ruby’s parents could neither read nor write.  But they discovered through their humility how to practice Jesus’ love in daily living.  Will you join us?

 

Now back in our beloved Meetinghouse, we naturally ask the Spirit: what’s next?  What big challenge awaits us? What moves would God have us make just now? We’re at one of those rare, inviting “blue sky and clean sheet of paper” moments.

 

Fortunately, our Board of Christian Education has mulled this over for the past year.  They presented something at our last Council meeting that I want you to know about.  Few would disagree that taking seriously the lives of young families with children is central to the cause of the whole church. Even more so in Darien.

We’ve discussed how millennials are a missing generation within most churches.

 

Of course, we are gladdened by how our youth ministry has grown and thrived.  Gary and Erica Morello have sacrificed, showing us the way forward. Getting into families and our youth’s public lives—time intensive!–has set the table for youth ministry. Now grade school children excitedly can’t wait to be in the Youth Group.

 

Many of us feel like, why should they have to wait? The problem is we have gaps in our ministry to children and youth that cry out for us to address. Our Church School was sagging long before Mary Jo arrived. Churches everywhere ask hard questions about reinventing the Church School.  Our number of our confirmands drops from double-digits to single-digit, not that numbers are everything. Having planned for a middle school youth group, that was sadly scuttled as Yale Divinity School pulled out of our program for a student intern at the last moment last year.

Rather than whine or complain, we have asked: why not do something about it?

 

The Board of Christian Education proposes an expanded Director of Christian Education position to shore up related ministries and supplement Gary’s work.  Council liked the idea but was worried about taking on a full-time salary just now. We tabled the idea for more discussion next month. We wanted you to know this. Think about it. If such dreams can become reality by autumn, we must plan now.
The Director of Christian Education is about rebuilding our church school with an eye toward getting into the lives of young families, as Gary has with youth. Also included in this job description is forming a middle school youth group to feed into our high school youth ministry. The DCE will assist Gary with Confirmation. Mary Jo has been splendid with our children, but we need more hours and other skills.

 

How do I feel about it? I laud the spiritual investment this makes in children and youth. What is more important? Also, I want young families to know we have their best interests at heart. Inclining toward them to address what matters most to them will pull them in from our periphery, and bring them into our orbit of ministry.

 

Some feel like it is the next big thing. But all of this is really not so new. A decade ago we were staffed much like this. Maybe we are only coming full circle, healthy and poised for growth. Maybe we should thank God for putting us in this position.

 

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Acts 1:8

Next week we wade into a graduation season of pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns. Huge, gushing, wild-eyed expectations will be articulated by tongues, loosed with alcohol. It will frighten the graduates much more than reassure them. Well-wishers will predict prosperous paths sometimes in a single word. “Plastics!”

 

Then there are the fawning speeches. Commencement speakers typically tell our young, “You’re amazing. You are awesome!  You’ve got what it takes and much more! You’re the best and brightest of a new generation.” Better cue more drinks.

 

But how would the voice of truthful love speak if it surfaced at commencement? Maybe like this. “Listen, I won’t lie to you, but you don’t actually have what it takes. Neither do I. Nor do all of the professors arrayed in their finery before you. If you’re feeling a little anxious today, that’s probably a good thing…But I bring us hope.  You and I aren’t left alone to our own devices and resources. An amazing power is afoot and at work in the world, if you’re willing to tap into it. A power that God will pour out upon those who invite and welcome it, those willing to trust God….So now, despite the ravings of this moment, you ain’t all that.  But God is.”

 

Ascension Day, when Jesus departed the earth, is the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend.  Pentecost Sunday follows on its heels the first Sunday of June. Taken together, these two are a graduation of sorts.  It was when the disciples finished their crash course with Jesus on the kingdom of God, and set out after it. It was when the disciples received earthy diplomas, graduating into 12 apostles.

 

Before Jesus bows out of the scene, he doesn’t say, “You’ve got what it takes.” Sort of the opposite, truly. “You need to wait…wait for the Holy Spirit to descend.”

 

How many times in your life have big moments presented themselves when we wonder if we are up to the challenge, if we’re really up to what awaits us ahead? Do we alone unto ourselves have what it takes to do the things the world needs? The tendency is to puff ourselves up, inject some adrenaline, rile up testosterone. We tell ourselves or await others to assert, “Don’t worry, we’ve got what it takes!”

 

From a Christian point of view?  It would be truer, wiser, and more honest to say, “Let’s not get ridiculous, ok?  You and I don’t have what it takes to meet all of the challenges of this trembling moment in history. But God does. God has the power you will need and God will not begrudge giving it to you.  But you have to ask for it.  You must want it.  The God of love will not force this upon you.  Ask for it and await its coming.  It will come, I promise.  And you will look back and say, how did I ever do that? It was far bigger than my powers and gifts, thanks be to God.”

 

In truth, no one would ever invite me to give such a speech. If they do, I’m ready!

 

You have heard me say more than once that in the course of the gospels, Jesus asks 365 questions but only answers seven of them. Maybe rather than ‘Jesus is the answer’ we might say ‘Jesus is the question,’ if you get my drift.  So much is at stake in asking the right question.  To get good or deep answers you must ask good or deep questions.

 

I was thinking of this with regard to our 13 young people confirmed last Sunday.  Their faith statements reflected their probing questions, shedding their childhood faith to take on a budding grown-up faith. I was thinking of this with regard to this Sunday, when I will preach a second installment in the sermon series “Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love.”  I want to ask what’s behind and underneath our fear. My sense is we won’t get anything like good answers for immigrants or refugees until we can ask questions such as these.

 

Church is where we ask the hard questions. Even when no clear or satisfying answers sound in reply, it is still worth asking them. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, asked, “Is evil a recompense for good?” (Jeremiah 18.20) Or to put his query more colloquially, “Is that what I get for doing the right thing?”  Elsewhere, Jeremiah asks the flip side of that question, “Why do the evil prosper?” Church is where we ask the hard questions.
Questions like these are not low-key or routine inquiries. They are not asked in a neutral tone, as if to say, “Is the food any good there?” or “What station has the cheapest gas?” They are charged. They carry a full freight of feeling: anger, hurt, sadness, confusion, despair, rejection, more anger. Did I mention anger? It is why I want church not merely to be where we put on our “Sunday best”, but where we tell the whole truth of our lives. Otherwise, these deep and confusing truths of our lives might not find voice elsewhere.

 

To do the right thing and be rejected — or even be attacked — is one of the most disorienting experiences any person can have. Life isn’t supposed to be this way!  And yet, it is. It is this way. The lives of the prophets, the story of Jesus in Holy Week, the lives of countless advocates of justice and righteousness throughout history confirm it.

 

If we don’t have easy or straightforward answers to Jeremiah’s tough questions, we can at least be grateful that we find them in the sacred Scriptures of our faith. In the Bible we hear people telling it like it is. Thank God. This means that when we are in the midst of such an experience, hearing stories of this happening across time, we are less alone. It means we worship a God who can handle questions born of hurt, anger and rejection.

 

Slowly, it dawns on us there are no easy or obvious correlations between righteousness and reward, between evil and punishment. We live this side of the Promised Land, which is to say, here and now, things aren’t always clear and don’t always make sense.

 

But as our faith bids us to ask such profound questions, we still hold fast in the belief that ultimately there is moral meaning in the universe. If nothing else, Easter and the resurrection of Jesus means this much. And if we can adorn and garnish that truth to live with the confidence of moral meaning in a world that daily challenges such trust — that is faith and it is a beautiful thing to behold.  That is what we are going after, friends.

 

This Sunday you are invited to a dialogue between faith and reason, religion and science.  I will preach on the foundations of truth underlying science and religion. Dr. Fraser Fleming will use my sermon as his point of departure in an 11th Hour address and panel discussion that will follow Coffee Hour within our Parish Hall.

Dr. Fleming, a New Zealander, will be here with his wife, Pam.  They are from Philadelphia. Dr. Fleming heads the chemistry department of Drexel University.   Fleming is also the author of The Truth about Science and Religion: From the Big Bang to Neuroscience. The book explores popular views on science and religion, provides historical and scientific background, and philosophical insight needed to think through issues of science and religion, and their influences upon our lives.

If that sounds drily intellectual to you, consider how much is at stake here. This week I read an article written by Wilfred F. McClay in the Hedgehog Review. The article was the basis of David Brooks’ March 31 opinion piece in the NY Times. May I share a few of McClay’s conclusions? Truly fascinating stuff, at least to me.

“The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has worked to displace the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism, the great historical religions of the West.  But it has not been able to replace them.  For all of its achievements, modern science has left us with two overwhelmingly, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life.

“First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering of ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented.  In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or to die for.

“Second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably…That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not, we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy…

“Perhaps human progress cannot be sustained without religion, or something

like it, and specifically without something like the moral economy of sin and absolution that has hitherto been secured by the religious traditions of the West.”

 

Congregationalism always faces into and ponders the vital issues of our time. What could be a more pressing issue than this? Come and help us sort it all out.

Hosanna!  Hosanna!  Hosanna in the highest!  The word hosanna (especially in biblical, Judaic, and Christian use) is used to express adoration, praise, or joy.  But the actual definition of the word means: save us.

Imagine yourself standing in a line at the grocery store.  As you wait to check out, you notice someone has come beside you to say hello.  Upon lifting your head to introduce yourself you realize the person standing in front of you is, Jesus Christ.  What would you say to Him?  What would you ask Him?  What would you proclaim about Him?  As we can see, in this week’s scriptures, the gospel of Matthew portrays people being in conflict around who this man, Jesus of Nazareth was.  Some ran like wild horses to cut branches down to spread them on the road for Jesus while others were in turmoil and threatened — confused by all the adoration, praise and joy.

The world has always been a place where people have different perspectives.  We see this clearly in scripture as it pertains to Christ.  Some people loved Jesus while others rejected Him.  In the end, he was condemned and crucified:

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:28-31, NRSV)

The passion of Christ means the suffering and death of Jesus.  This historical event means more to me now than it ever has before.  Every year my love for God grows deeper and it is because the story becomes more personal.

Passion Sunday has energy to it like no other Sunday throughout the year.  The story is provocative, profound and heart penetrating.  I can feel the passion burning in my heart already and we are only halfway through the week.  Come explore the meaning of the cross at church this weekend with arms wide open.

Compassionately,
Gary Michael