Texts: Romans 8:29, Ephesians 2:19-22, Galatians 6:9-10, Acts 2:44-47
Worship Under the Trees service
Presbyterian minister Patrick Willson tells about the place his grandfather grew up, a tiny town west of Ft. Worth called Dido, Texas. (Story told in “Pass the Bread, Tell The Story,” Pulpit Digest, Sept.-Oct. 1998, p. 79-80). There isn’t much there now, but 100 years ago it was a community center for ranching and farming people in that area. There was a post office, a store, a cemetery and a school, and on Sundays, people came together to be the church in Dido.
Going to church on Sunday was a big event. Early in the morning, wagons would be loaded and teams hitched, and then came a trip of perhaps several hours along wagon-rutted roads to the schoolhouse in Dido, where they met. They didn’t have an organist, didn’t have a Board of Deacons, didn’t even have a pastor, but there were Bible classes and hymn singing and the people gathered to talk about their lives and their faith.
On rare occasions an itinerant preacher would come through, or perhaps a nervous young student from one of the seminaries in Dallas or Ft. Worth. A preaching service was a major event and lasted all day. After the regular Bible classes in the morning, the preaching service would begin. They would sing maybe twenty hymns and then settle in for an hour and a half or two hours of preaching. (When the preacher only comes around once in a great while, you want to get your money’s worth.)
After the preaching came a light lunch, and then everybody would get down to the serious business of visiting. Ranches and farms were miles apart, travel wasn’t easy, and Sundays were the only time anybody saw each other. Women would swap recipes and maybe work on quilts as they visited. Men would talk about crops and lie about fishing. Children would play together and have a big time. More industrious souls might weed the cemetery or work on a fire for the evening barbecue, which was the big meal of the day.
After the barbecue, since they had the preacher around, there would be another preaching service. But before the service, the younger children were bedded down in the backs of family wagons to go to sleep. It had been a big day and they were tired and needed to rest. The older children and teenagers, however, were expected to attend the evening service and at least appear to be paying attention.
One night, while the service was going on, Patrick Willson’s grandfather, then a teenager, snuck out of the service with his friends. They crept quietly out to the wagons, where the children were sleeping. When they reached the wagons, they lifted the sleeping children from the wagons and switched them around. And at the end of the preaching service, everyone hitched up the horses and drove long miles into the night, carrying each other’s children. A couple who had no children might suddenly be parents. A family might go home and have two little boys instead of two little girls. The mother who had been praying for a daughter would have one.
People were scattered. Some lived a couple of hours away from the schoolhouse in Dido and now had children who belonged on the other side of Dido. So they just kept the kids for the week. For that week, the children were theirs – theirs to love and to feed and to work; theirs to care for.
Because of changes in transportation and changes in the way we do church – we miss out on opportunities like those teenagers in Dido, Texas had. (Although I am sure Patrick Willson’s grandfather got in serious trouble.) But for me, that is a wonderful story, and it can teach us some very important things about being church.
One of the ways the Bible speaks of the church is as a family. The family of God, the family of faith. The scriptures that Aiddy and Kaylinn read use that kind of language. What does it mean to be the family of faith, the household of God? A lot of what it means is illustrated by that group gathered as the church in that little Texas town.
In the first place, the church is people, not buildings. In Dido, they didn’t have a church building, so they knew that they themselves, the people, were the church. They understood that when they gathered together, they constituted the church.
Now there is nothing wrong with buildings. They can be important. We are putting a lot of energy and effort and investment into our building. The new rest room at the back of the narthex is now open for business, and that is worth celebrating. We could have had a blessing of the bathroom service, but I’m not sure how that would have worked, and it’s probably just as well. The new walk in front of the church looks great. The flowers in the planter along the ramp are beautiful – thank you to Beth for that. You may have noticed that the sanctuary window sills have been repaired and painted, the doors have been painted, and the painters are just going to keep going with exterior repair and painting.
The building needed all this attention. But the danger is getting so wrapped up in the building that we lose sight of the church. The church is made up of people, and those folks in Dido, Texas knew that.
As we meet outside here this morning, we are every bit as much the church as when we meet in the sanctuary. The church is people.
I heard of a church that was having their morning service out on the front lawn, like we are today. It happened to be an Episcopal church. At a time for the passing of the peace, the priest, trying to be a bit more informal for the outdoor service, said, “Not let’s all greet the church.” What happened was, everybody started waving at the building and saying, “Hi, church.” Well, the building is not the church. We are the church.
The church is people who worship together. Worship is at the heart of who we are. Giving praise to God and gathering together in God’s presence is what makes us the church. A lot of people may have picnics and cookouts and get-togethers of various sorts today, but it is worship that makes this gathering different. It is worship that makes us the church.
Worship orients our life as followers of Christ. Sometimes we speak of worship as “rehearsal for life.” In worship, we remember who we are, we connect as a community with the God who has created us and called us and loved us, and it is through worship that we truly become the church.
The church is people who worship together, and the church is also people who eat together. That’s right, eating together is important for us to be the church. Read through the Bible, and it is amazing how prominent meals are. Jesus is all the time eating at someone’s house or going to a wedding feast or talking about a banquet or feeding the 5000. The scripture in Acts makes it clear that sharing meals together was very important to those early Christians.
Just as family mealtime is important, meals together as a church are important. The Lord’s Supper is the meal of the kingdom, and we share in that regularly as a part of worship. Communion draws us together as God’s people. But a potluck meal on the front lawn also draws us together as God’s people, and when we understand it that way, eating those barbecues sandwiches and baked beans and corn casseroles can be a holy time.
And so, the meal following the service today is not just something tacked on to the day’s festivities; it is important as a church for us to share meals together. For that little gathering of folks in Dido, Texas, meals were an important part of their gatherings. There are all kinds of meals we share together as a church family – Christmas dinners and potlucks, men’s breakfasts and women’s lunches, college student suppers, third Sunday lunches, choir parties. All of this is important, because as we share meals, we share our lives, and this is central to our life together as a church.
The church is also people who play together. Maybe that’s not what you were expecting to hear today, but play is important for all of us. It is important in families. Some of your best memories with your family may have to do with fun times together, maybe family trips or maybe time just spent goofing off. It is important for the church to play together too, and to have a playful spirit. It is important not to take ourselves too seriously.
If God’s people can’t enjoy being together, why would we even bother?
We live such busy lives and we run from place to place, appointment to appointment, and finding time for anything can be difficult. But when we rush to church and rush home and have no time together, no time for play, no time to really share life with one another, we are the poorer for it. To really invest in one another’s lives, we need to play. Thinking back to that little church in Texas, the time for visiting and quilting and swapping stories was an important time.
And then the church is people who work together. We need a balance in life, and we need a balance in our families, and it is important to both play and work. I like the story of those folks in Dido because they did both. They swapped recipes and fishing stories, but they also cooked and prepared meals and pulled weeds in the cemetery. We don’t think of today as a work day, but there is actually a lot of work that goes into something like this: chairs and tables have to be moved, a sound system has to be set up, lots of cooking is involved, planning is involved.
The work of the church goes on every day. It happens as individuals give time and energy in serving in the ministries of the church, but it also happens as we live out our faith in our daily lives.
We are the church when we gather on a Sunday morning, whether we are in the building or out here in the front yard. But we are also the church when we have the neighbors over for a cookout on Monday, or Tuesday night at the softball field, or Wednesday at lunch with colleagues, or Friday when we visit a friend who has been sick. The church is the people, not the building, and we are being church when we are serving – loving God and loving our neighbor – both inside this building and outside the walls.
As a family of faith, we worship together and share meals together; we play together and work together.
The church is people – people who are related though Jesus Christ. Romans 8 speaks of Jesus as the firstborn in a large family. Through Jesus we are all brothers and sisters. We are related to one another.
In the story Patrick Willson tells, I thought it was great that when those families got home and looked in the back of their wagons and found they had the wrong kids—or were shocked to find they had kids, period – that they didn’t just turn around and take the kids back to the right home. They were so much a family that they just took it in stride. I’m sure those boys who switched the children paid for it, but I can also imagine some of those parents kind of enjoying it. They may have had somebody else’s kids, but in a sense the children they had that week were their kids, because they were all part of a family. Through Christ, we are all family.
As we meet outside today and share a meal together, this might be reminiscent of a family reunion. And in a way, it is. There is a sense in which every time we gather together, it is a family reunion. Every Sunday, as we join in worship, it is a family reunion. Here at First Baptist we are one branch of the family, and there are other parts of the family gathering together this morning all over Ames and all over the world.
Some of you are newer to First Baptist, and some may be here today for the first time, and we are delighted that you are here. But whether a first-timer or a 50-year member, we are family. We are family because Jesus Christ makes us family. In Ephesians 2 we read, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God...with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone.”
Being family means we all have something to contribute. In healthy families, everybody does their part. Somebody has to cook and clean and mow the lawn and do laundry and pay the bills. In our church family, God gives us all gifts to share for the good of all – skills and resources and time and love and encouragement and joy. As a friend of mine liked to say, everybody has a say, and everybody has a do.
Being family means that we are always welcome. I can drive 10 hours to southern Indiana and go back to the house I grew up in, and I’m home. I’m welcome. We’re always welcome in God’s house, even when that house is made of flesh and blood people who meet on the front lawn. There are those times when we may feel as though we are far away from home, but God always stands with open arms to welcome us. We are family.
Perhaps you are here today and kind of trying out this whole church thing and you’re not sure really about it. (That’s OK – there are those days when I’m not sure about this church thing, either.) But what makes the church the church is that it is God’s. This is God’s home, God’s family, God’s people, and God invites and welcomes us into the family. It’s not up to us to say who is in and who is out; God says, “Everybody is in. You are all my children.”
Like any family, we are far from perfect. We fail God and we fail one another and we even fail ourselves, but God’s grace is greater than any of that, and we are always welcome home, always welcome in God’s family. Thanks be to God. Amen.