The United Church of Chelsea
The United Church of Chelsea (VT)
August 18, 2002
For 45 ½ years I labored for the Kingdom in churches close enough to the Twin Towers to smell the smoke that wafted eastward following 9/11. I never intended to be a metropolitan pastor, but God had a better idea for Bob Howard. So what could I possibly know about the special discouragements of a rural church? Not enough to prescribe definitive solutions, but enough to form some opinions. I have experienced over those same 45 ½ years several weeks each summer of small town Christianity. We always attend at least once and sometimes twice each August the church in the town with our summer mailing address.
We have witnessed a parade of pastors both Methodist and Congregationalist. The United Church of Chelsea is a federated church, becoming that (federated) when the thriving farm community of the late Nineteenth Century thrived no longer as it gradually lost its Boston market for milk to flatter and less frigid regions. I can quickly count ten different pastors. The Congregationalists have stayed longer than the Methodists, because the latter’s system for supplying clergy gives lesser importance to federated appointments. Some of the preachers who have come and gone have been lay people with preaching licenses. For many it was their first church. For others it was their last, for reasons best left unreported.
I have from time to time tried to put myself in their robes, wondering just how I would conduct a pastoral ministry in a community whose best export is its young people. I think I would have done what I have done in Brooklyn and Long Island: immerse myself in the life of the community, make myself available to anyone and everyone, and never let myself forget that being faithful is every Christian’s vocation, in the Green Hills no less than at Ground Zero.
So I went to worship this Sunday with high hopes and a predisposition to be generous in judgments. Earlier in the week I had a chance meeting with the pastor in a local restaurant. He is earnest in his commitment to the church and to the souls given to his care. He writes a monthly newsletter complete with pictures of local events. He maintains an online website. The order of service is carefully prepared and the cover artistically designed.
But the Sunday experience, that one hour of the week which should be stronger and richer than all of the others, left me dazed for its disorganization:
1. The order of worship, carefully printed, was accorded a casual disregard. A printed unison prayer was ignored.
2. The preacher excused himself early on, exited to his study with the concern he might have listed the wrong lections, and returned with a smile to announce he was right after all.
3. Four Scripture Readings (!) were listed, but only one was read and another paraphrased.
4. The “Meditation” was left unmeditated, without explanation other than the hint the preacher’s wife might complain the service was going on too long.
5. No “Special Music” materialized.
6. The bulletin cover depicted Samuel anointing David, but the Old Testament Reading for the morning featured Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers.
Most unnerving for me, a veteran of a lifetime of preaching, was what passed for the sermon. I think, though I cannot be sure, the preacher was attempting an extemporaneous exposition of the Old Testament reading, with a concluding nod in the direction of the Epistle reading. I was reminded of the stock comment of George A. Buttrick, former pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, a noted preacher, and a professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary, when a student in his sermon class spent too much time retelling a Biblical passage: “A painted ship on a painted ocean.” “What’s the point?” I wanted to ask the preacher of the morning, but I was, of course, too aware of my own identity as an outsider and ordained clergy to put it to the preacher.
Years ago on a Sunday morning in the pulpit I tried to excuse my lack of adequate sermon preparation, blaming a busy week and a sick Saturday. A congregant took me aside later and kindly chastised me with words to the effect that he didn’t really want to hear that I hadn’t thought through my sermon, that that was my job just as wiring telephones was his, and when he sat down on Sunday in the church he expected me to have something worthwhile to say.
The vocation of preaching has lately fallen on hard times. I’m not sure of the reason, but I suspect that mainline Protestant seminaries tend to diminish this aspect of the pastor’s work. There is a dissatisfaction with “traditional” worship. “New wineskins for new wine,” is the preferred text, not I Corinthians 11:23. And few acts of worship are more traditional in Protestantism than preaching. The consequence of this de-emphasis isn’t what I would have predicted. Instead of getting shorter, the sermons are getting longer, sometimes because the preacher is at pains to link the four lections for the morning, and sometimes because a lack of forethought leads to an imprecision of words. But, by God the Holy Spirit, I expect, just like the aforementioned phone installer, the preacher in the pulpit to have thought through not only in general outline but in exact expression what he or she thinks I need to hear under the gaze of eternity. The sermon is (also) the Word of God, not an after thought, not twenty minutes or more of wandering, and never merely a “Meditation.” It is what the preacher and pastor, knowing his congregation, devoutly believes God wants him to say to the flock of Christ. At least that seems to be the commission on the ordination papers hanging in my study.
Would I return to The United Church of Chelsea? Yes, I feel I have to. But I shall go hoping against hope that God in mercy will look more kindly upon the long-suffering congregation and provide them with pastoral leadership worthy of their devotion.
Rating: one halo