July 26, 2009
Scripture: Genesis 1:1-5
Sermon Title: “And It Was Good”
Rev. George N. Miller
God said “Let there be light”: and there was light. And God saw that the light was good...
Well, here we are, at the opening words of the Bible. The last sermon this congregation will hear preached. “In the beginning...” It may sound odd for a family that’s coming to an end, but I would make the claim that the whole Gospel is message in this scripture.
Here we have all the keys players. We have God, the Creator, the Spirit moving in new, unexpected ways. And if John 1 is read back into this text, we have Jesus, the Word, present.
Biblical historians will tell you that Genesis 1 was written during the exile, a time in which the temple was destroyed, people were taken from their homes and everyone was trying to make sense of it all.
This scripture was meant to give the people reassurance, saying to them “Listen, hear how God has a plan. God is ultimately in control. And when God is in control, there is hope.”
And today Genesis offers us hope and assurance.
Yes, we are losing our spiritual home. Yes, we as a family will break apart and go our different ways. But we are neither forgotten nor forsaken.
God does have a plan.
You see, as far as I am concerned Genesis 1 is not just about creation but it is also about resurrection. Read closer and you’ll find the first mystery of the Bible.
We’re told that a wind from God swept over the waters. But if God had not yet created, how did these waters exist? Where did they come from?
For the ancient people, water often symbolized chaos, unknown dangers, and death. To say a wind from God swept over the waters is another way to say the Spirit moved over whatever chaos, messiness, or death there was.
When read this way, we have resurrection and creation existing at the same time. A stunning idea that the very act of creation involved death, and that it was death that brought forth creation. Just as it was Jesus’ death that ushered in the creation of the Christian faith.
Here we have life and death, resurrection and creation, God, Jesus and Spirit in action. And it takes a spoken word to set everything into play, a word filled with possibilities, a word filled with “yes” even though the waters seemed to say “no.”
God said “Let there be light.” And there was light. And it was good...so good.
This is a message we need to hear today. For we are gathered to honor and recall the life and ministry of this particular body of Christ, known as Burlingame Congregational United Church of Christ.
In our historical records it is written “May our church be a shining light in the community. May it be a place of togetherness.” One of our pastors, Rev. Alfred Allard wrote that “every pastorate has lights and shadows of various experiences...” Let us take a look at those shadows and lights.
In 1923 the Spirit first moved over this congregation, at a time when 6,000 people lived in the community, working for Leonard Refrigerator, Pierre Marquette or one of the 60 furniture factories in Grand Rapids. The pastors from Smith Memorial and Park Congregational met and discerned a need for a church in the area.
A meeting was held at Lee High and on April 28,1924 a new congregation of 28 members was created. James Hamilton and his wife Clara, nee Burlingame, donated the land for the church.
First time pastor Rev. Arden Johnson was called. A year later ground was broken to build the church. We were the only English speaking protestant church in the school district, and we were a Mission Church, with the state giving $600 a year for operating costs.
Throughout our years, one significant trait was our dedication: when a need was apparent the members responded with generosity, even though it wasn’t always easy. The depression hit hard.
In 1937 the state tried to close our doors. Trusting that God was not done with us just yet, Rev. Ed Evans encouraged the congregation to hold on. He focused people’s attention on making the sanctuary as beautiful as possible. The fruit of their faith paid off.
By the 50's Rev. Dalrymple was the pastor and the church building expanded, which meant a new Fellowship Hall and no more classes in the boiler room. The Buzzings were created, programs flourished and people developed bonds.
The 70's were a bit difficult. Rev. Herold’s charismatic way did not fit, causing some people to leave. He also had a young son who died, a solemn reality for any church to cope with.
In the 80's we called another first time pastor, Rev. David Smith who remained our shepherd for 21 years. He wrote articles for the paper, shared his musical talents, and grew the choir.
In 2005 yet another first time pastor, Rev. George Miller was called, and together we did many things, perhaps more things then any church our size could possibly do.
But now we have reached the end of our journey. We beat the odds when the state tried to shut us down, we beat the odds when pastoral theology threatened to tear the church in two .
Today we are called to fully acknowledge our death. That we as a church body will be no more, we will say our goodbyes, and close our doors forever.
No more will there be angels in white dancing to a song Clella Watts choreographed. No more will there be a Couple’s Night in which everyone accidently brings dessert and the men have to get the main course from the local restaurant.
No more will people teach Sunday School in the kitchen with the smell of gas and the antics of a naughty boy named Jerry Waalkes.
No more will Burlingame host Mother-Daughter meals, craft sales or donut sales to help the youth.
No more will there be the ability to come to church in the evening after a bad day and finding people to talk to. No more will the children have fish to feed or plants to water.
No more will we see the magnificence of the sun as it shines through the stained glass. No more will we wonder which of the three hymnals we’ll sing out of. No more will there be ladies smoking in the kitchen.
No more will we hear “speak louder” or “the microphone’s not on”. No more will I see your smiling faces or will you sit there listening to one of my sermons.
No more will any of us be together again, like this, as we have been for the past 10, 20, 40, 85 years.
Yes, our time is coming to an end. But here is where the good news comes in. Because although this is an ending, we are leaving space for God to do a new thing. We are unselfishly stepping aside so God can create something new.
We are leaving the building empty so it can be filled with new possibilities.
For just as Jesus stepped out of the empty tomb, just as there were waters in the beginning of creation, we are leaving behind what can become for God and for the conference, a new beginning.
Although today there is a death, in the hands of God there is the reality of resurrection. We have created a space for new creation, in which God’s Spirit can move over this mortar and brick, these pews and stained glass, and bring forth new life, and new hope, just as God did when the Spirit first moved over the waters.
Today we are gathered to grieve the closing of Burlingame Congregational Church, but we are not to mourn the end of the Body of Christ, for that Body eternal, and that Body is here to stay.
And I have a favor to ask of you. After you go through your grieving process, as you begin the journey of traveling through the wilderness, finding a new church home, do not be ashamed about our church.
When people ask, “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?”, do not be embarrassed.
Say “Yes, but did you also know that our church gave over 12% of our offerings back to the community and our food pantry was the only one open on a Sunday. And it was good.”
When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” Don’t be embarrassed.
Say “Yes, but we also hosted bluegrass concerts, held block parties and handed out treats on Halloween, reaching out to over to 800 people. And it was good”
When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we also had a Southern Preacher lead us through Spiritual Renewal Services and two of the finest musicians around. And it was good .”
When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we were also the ones who turned an empty lot of rocks and broken glass into a community garden filled with flowers and birds. And it was good.”
When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we also were the ones who had a Vacation Bible School and after school program that fed the local children and taught them the Gospel of Christ. And it was good.”
When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we were also the church that was brave enough to call an openly gay pastor when no one else would. And it was good”
When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, and our children were not passive observers but active participants who played instruments, took the offering and introduced the Passing of the Peace. And it was good”
When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we also had bake sales and soup suppers and picnics in the park like no others business. And it was good.”
When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we were also the ones who could honor our veterans with a special corner while having a garden devoted to peace. And it was good.”
When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, and we laughed and we cried, we baptized our children and buried our dead, we ate and we cooked, we worshiped and we were indeed the living, breathing Body of Christ. And it was good”
Friends and family of Burlingame Congregational UCC, it is now time for me to step down as your pastor, and it is time for us to formerly close the doors that have welcomed hundreds of people over the past 85 years.
Though this is a time of loss and goodbyes, let us find assurance and hope. Assurance that just as the Spirit of God moved over those mysterious waters oh so long ago, God’s Spirit will move again, transforming what has been our past into a new, exiting future.
And may it also be good.
All thanks and honor to God, who created us all, to Jesus who loves us all, and the Spirit that dwells in each and every one of us.
Amen, and amen.