How does the story of our people start? The biblical story?
You may remember that in the book of Genesis we meet Father Abraham and Mother Sarah, and they are given God’s blessing and called to begin a journey. God’s blessing then passes down the family line, to Isaac and Rebecca, to Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah, to Joseph and his eleven brothers and his sister Dinah. Over time, one couple becomes a people whom God names “Israel.”
This people Israel travel down to Egypt to escape a drought. They receive mercy because Joseph has found favor with Pharaoh. But in time, a new king arises over Egypt who does not know Joseph. The Israelites are enslaved. Years pass – generations – and these people Israel who are blessed by God suffer. Finally a little boy named Moses is born, and miraculously survives childhood to witness God’s presence as a burning bush on top of a mountain. There God tells Moses: “I am the God of your ancestors, and I have heard the cries of my people. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
After much protesting, Moses and his brother Aaron follow God’s guidance and lead their people out of Egypt. Together they escape across the Red Sea and travel through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai. Returning to the mountaintop, Moses receives instructions for a new chapter in this holy story. Now God establishes a covenant – a holy promise – that binds God together not with one person, or one family, but with a whole people. God lays out the terms of the covenant, including the instructions that we know as the 10 commandments, and gives many other guidelines for the people’s life together.
If you read the bible from the beginning, the books of Genesis and Exodus, you may find yourself really enjoying this story, right up until you hit Exodus 25. At that point in God’s instructions, God begins to give chapter after chapter after chapter of extremely detailed commands about where the Israelites should worship while they continue their wilderness journey. You can read in these chapters about the measurements of each span of acacia wood, about the exact placement and number of the golden cherubs, about the intricate design of the cups – shaped like almond blossoms — about the ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns. It all sounds glorious, but as reading material it is maddeningly precise and repetitive.
Why? Why would God care so much about the place where She is worshiped, how it is built and decorated? Why would our bible contain so much detail about the tabernacle, and the tent of meeting? This text argues that creating and setting aside a special place for worship is very important. It should be beautiful, made of the best materials, crafted by gifted craftspeople, tended by faithful leaders: the best that we can offer to God and one another.
Moses and the people receive these instructions, and they do their best to carry them out. But Moses is more concerned about the journey he will take with the tabernacle than its precise measurements. He tells God, “See, you have said to me, “Bring up this people,” but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.” And later, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”
God reassures Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And, indeed, when the tabernacle is made, it is consecrated by God, and filled with God’s glory. The cloud of the Lord is on the tabernacle by day, and fire is in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel, at each stage of their journey.
Here at West Concord Union Church we have spent three and a half years trying to decide how this meeting house should be renovated. Unfortunately, God did not provide chapters and chapters and chapters of instruction for us. The result of our efforts has been imperfect, both in process and design and in process. But I do believe we are doing our very best to honor God and one another with our efforts.
It’s hard to make a change from what is familiar to us, what is beloved. Looking around today, though, I wonder: how did the holy space we have now come to be? How is this a reflection of the callings and generosity of previous generations?
Our covenanters, whose name are on a plaque at the back of the room, began gathering in January of 1889. The first place they met was a community building called Warner Hall. Once they had gained in numbers and capacity and calling, these people erected our first church building, dedicated in 1894; you can see that building in the upper left hand corner of the cover of your bulletin. The next picture to the right shows how in 1910, the building was rotated on its foundation and significantly expanded and improved, creating the heart of the building we know today, including our lovely stained glass windows and our beautiful ceiling and our cross.
If you keep following the pictures, you can see how in the 50s, the chancel was filled with furniture, with one central pulpit and a communion table in front of it. In 1960, the education wing was added, with a Bauhaus-style entrance. In 1971, our beautiful tracker organ was installed in the back of the sanctuary to replace another organ that had failed. The next picture shows the chancel as it was in the 70s and 80s, with paneled furniture and choir seating in the chancel, and what appears in some pictures to be orange shag carpet. I’m still looking for confirmation on that from someone who was there at the time.
1986 marked our last major renovation, including the current Pine Street Pedestrian Entrance, as well as the chancel you can see today. Our modern elevator and its tower were added just a few years back, in 2009, the result of an amazing effort to expand our welcome during an interim time; you can see the tower in the last picture on the bottom right.
The meeting house of this congregation has changed a lot. Each change was made in an effort to serve the ministry that was happening: to accommodate growth, to enhance our music, to mark shifts in theology and practice.
Consider, for instance, the sacrament of baptism. Members were baptized at the very first gathering of the church in Warner’s pond. When this building was made, the chancel was constructed to hold a large baptismal pool in the center, perhaps as a result of the Baptists who were part of the congregation. In 1987, a new font was purchased that could be brought out among the people, dedicated in honor of Elizabeth Debinder, daughter of Pat and Todd. Records show that over one thousand people have been baptized here in the past 125 years, including many current children and youth, as well as many children and grandchildren of our current members. A few adults who are here now were baptized at WCUC as well, including Pris Clark, Carlin Andrus, Andy Carlisle, Andrew Southcott, and others.
Communion has been celebrated at at least three different communion tables during the course of the church’s life. This one was dedicated in 1987 in honor of Winifred Carter, mother of Bob Carter. It was made at the same time as the pulpit and lectern, which were dedicated in honor of Charles Comeau.
There have been at least 439 weddings here. Many current members have had children married here, and some who are among us now or of recent memory were married here themselves: including Sue and Gary Lanchester, Polly and Keith Jenkins Man, Annie and John Holt, Carolyn and William Robinson, Janice and Thomas Hart, Charles and Beverley Bartlett, Norm and Marilyn Cousins, Caroline and Holly Holden.
We have had many memorial services here, for beloved members, too many to count.This sanctuary also has a wonderful musical history, including two different organs and one grand piano. The dedication to musical excellence is clear throughout our history records.
In renovating the church this summer, we are following an established tradition. We are trying, to the best of our ability, to modify our building to the current needs and practice of our shared ministry. But it is still hard to imagine it changing. How will it look, how will it feel?
As we prepare to travel this summer, and then to re-enter a renovated building, a changed sanctuary, it is natural to have grief about what we are leaving behind: the pine street steps, most of the sanctuary pews, our table, and font, and lecterns, the lights, our current kitchen. It is natural, too, to feel some hope and uncertainty and excitement about what we are headed towards: greater safety, accessibility, flexibility, and environmental responsibility. All of us here will have different and sometimes conflicting emotions about the changes we are about to undertake. We need to be gentle with one another.
Whatever we are feeling as we face this journey, there are two questions that are most important. The same ones that Moses asked. Will we all go together? And, Will God be there?
On this front we have good news. You love one another enough to keep worshiping together in new circumstances – even if it means traveling all the way across the street, or two miles across town, or returning here and sitting in chairs. We will go together. As for God, as the Israelites learned, She travels with us, and dwells with us, even if we are on the road. Her glory will fill and consecrate any space we worship in.
Let us pray. Holy God, Great is your faithfulness to all generations. We thank you for our past. We ask for your support in this time of grief and anticipation. Help us to stay close to one another. Fill every place we meet with glory. Stay always before us, and lead us on. Amen.