The United Church of Strafford
The United Church of Strafford (VT)
August 11, 2002
One of the special pleasures of owning a vacation home, albeit a small cabin you built with your own hands and the help of friends, is to return to familiar scenes year after year, to see how they have changed even as you hope they haven’t. Going to Sunday worship in Central Vermont fits into this category for me. We have found a church fellowship where the music selected matches our taste (sacred, good, well-presented, consistent with the theme of the service), where the sermons are thoughtful and assume intelligence on the part of listeners, and where the people quietly and gladly welcome newcomers.
Let me observe the difficulty we have had in this corner of the Green Mountain State finding a service of worship which didn’t find me after the benediction muttering to myself, “Why ever did I come here this morning?” We’ve suffered an hour or more of discomfort in Bradford, Woodstock, Montpelier, Hanover (NH) and Chelsea in a variety of Protestant churches more times than I care to remember. We’ve listened to diatribes against civil unions (gay marriages), against Christians who are only playing at Christianity (that is, those who don’t see eye to eye with the fundamentalist preacher), and against tailgating SUV drivers on the Interstate. What we didn’t hear most of the time was the Gospel preached with authenticity and intelligence.
So we returned to the UCC of Strafford for the fifteenth time. Some of the parishioners feigned remembrance of us. There was no air-conditioning, nor need for it, thanks to the cool Vermont breezes wafting through the windows. Sitting in the pew to our left was the former pastor of Riverside Church, Bill Coffin. In earlier years he had enlisted summer supply preachers of note to take the pulpit: Forrest Church, from the Universalist Unitarian Church on Madison Avenue; and Harvey Cox, the theologian from Harvard Divinity School. The pastor, a woman of middle years, a graduate of Union Theological seminary, presided in mufti.
When we left the service Barbara (I am her husband) stated, “If I were to spend the whole summer in our cabin, this is where I would worship every Sunday.” Bob said, “Amen!”
Let me try to explain why, according to the categories by which the Sunday experience has been measured previously.
Building: a meeting house with a clocked steeple. Intimate is the word that comes readily to mind. Worshipers in the back are no further from the communion table than those at the far reaches of either side of the room. A full house would be one hundred fifty people. Seventy-five worshiped with us. The windows were translucent. Fresh flowers from the field adorned the platform where the pulpit, piano, and communion table are placed.
Music: a pianist at a baby grand accompanied the hymns and choral music. In other years an organist would preside at the small pipe organ up front to the far corner from the pulpit. A quartet of two women and two men sang an introit, an anthem, and a response following the benediction. They sang with an obvious uncertainty: I assume that the music director was on vacation, because in other years a mixed choir of as many as fifteen would provide anthems from the contemporary and classical sacred repertoire. The special treat this Sunday was a flautist accompanist, with a full-throated tone. The hymnal was United Methodist (!) because, I assume, the congregation had sampled other modern hymnals and had found them less appealing. We sang three hymns, one of them, “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee,” that featured me as an unannounced soloist… so unfamiliar was the tune, but just so appropriate was it to the service theme.
Children: They were (thankfully!) escorted to the Sunday School rooms early on in the service. The preacher had not prepared a children’s message. Apparently during the summer there are, in the preacher’s judgment, an insufficient number of children at worship to warrant a message for them. More’s the pity. We arrived with two ten year olds in tow and they could have used some pastoral attention.
Sermon: the pastor/preacher began with a recent personal experience – her return to her family’s home in Savannah GA – and connected it with the Biblical narratives of Elijah atop Mt Carmel and Jesus’ walking on water, probably the lectionary texts for the day. Her theme was Hope, especially when it seems impossible. Her hometown of Savannah is mired in ancient racial attitudes and she felt a strange unease tending to her aged and ailing mother during her week in the Deep South, and how could it ever change. When there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles in our way, when the enemy is overwhelming (think Elijah), when summoned to follow Jesus (think walking on water), then what is needed is more than courage, more than intelligence. What is needed is faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here is a grand theme, a Gospel theme, worthy of being called the Word of God. I thanked the preacher as we left the church, saying to her, “We came for the music, but, serendipity, we found a strong sermon.”
Welcome: we “passed the peace” at the very beginning of the service (an excellent place for it) and were invited to a coffee hour following the service. We were spotted as “visitors” and invited to sign the registry. No, Bill Coffin doesn’t know me from Adam.
Rating: this Sunday four haloes, mainly on the strength of the sermon, and the memory of other summers when the choir was in full voice. We shall return.
And we did return two Sundays later. The music did too, return that is. The choir sang one unannounced anthem, a jubilant melody, when the preacher was delayed in getting to the church on time. They sang three more times, at the beginning and the ending, and in between, accompanying a baritone soloist in a very appealing Spiritual, "Just tell them when you saw them that I was on my way..."