Dedication Sermon

How do dreams begin?
Sometimes it’s a stirring within, maybe a still small voice,
whispering a future is possible.
Maybe it starts in prayer, or an awareness
that something is about to change, a quiver,
in the soul, a fresh breeze across
open water, light dances and dazzles,
something beautiful, something wonderful is about to happen.
We catch the light,
a dream of God, riding the breath
of the Holy Spirit.
We’re going to tell a story today,
of a dream we caught here at St. Paul.
We’ll be hearing from
some of the people who helped make
the dream come true. But the story
really begins with the Gospel and the dream of Jesus.
When Jesus walked and talked among us,
he drew us into a great vision,
God’s universal building project,
a dream of the kingdom of heaven on earth,
where everyone is drawn under
the holy canopy of shalom,
into the divine shelter of a good creation,
peace on earth, good will toward all.
It’s a vision, as deep and wide as love itself.

How the vision comes to earth depends on how we live
—the way we live the promise
of the kingdom here in our lives,
in faith active in love, justice and peace.
We discover that acts of mercy, peace and justice,
happen in the fundamental gestures
of welcome, of taking time, energy, and commitment
to make room for others,
in our souls, in our communities, in our buildings.
Jesus promises when we have welcomed another
in his name, we have welcomed him, and the One who sent him.

When you come into a room and experience it
the way a person in a wheelchair might experience it,
or the way a very elderly person
or a small child, or a deaf or blind person,
might experience it, your world changes.
We experience an epiphany,
a stunning recognition
of this truth: whatever we do for those
who have less privilege, less power,
than we have, makes everything better for everyone.

I learned this lesson powerfully
when I worked at Goucher College
as an advocate for students with disabilities.
We discovered that every time
we made a change toward accessibility, whether
it was enlarging printed texts, or providing better sound,
redesigning curriculum,
or simply creating wider spaces in classrooms,
everyone’s learning improved.
Accessible spaces and classes affected all of us.
The world is a more open place for everyone.
It was a spiritual lesson in abundance, the more
welcoming we became,
the more we and our students received.

And sometimes the kingdom looks like this:
a small community that wants to be more
loving decides to take on the weight of reality
and transform it, acting on the wisdom of the Spirit,
drawing on the strength of gospel faith.
In this case the weight of reality
was a building that
needed a major renovation.
The impulse for transformation had to come from within,
from a conversion within, rather than a mandate
from outside.

We all have memories of people struggling
to negotiate this space,
of being asked, can a wheel chair get in?
We have had to apologize to guests who struggled
to come for funerals and weddings, and services.
We’ve watched some of our long-time members
stop coming, because the stairs were too steep,
or they had stop to get their breath.
We have had to turn down programs and groups
that wanted to come here because we weren’t accessible.
We all wanted to see this change
for the sake of someone we loved:
for Buster Demilia with his oxygen tank,
for Billy Natti, with his cane,
for Joey Enos in his wheelchair,
for strong advocates in Michael Stoffa and Vi Ray;
we all have names we remember.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that God wastes nothing.
When I came here, everything I had learned
about accessibility came into play.
You had a vision,
you wanted to be a community church,
a welcoming church.
It was clear to all of us
that if we were going to extend God’s invitation,
if we were going to preach God’s welcome
to everyone at the banquet of the Lamb,
if we were going to be salty Christians, with flavor,
and people of the light, if we were going to preach
the kingdom of God was something worth living and dying for,
if we were going to unleash the Gospel,
then we had to preach with everything we had.
People are watching, and they expect the world of Christians.
Are you who you say you are?

In the first week of my time here,
it became clear: if you were going to do
all that you had envisioned as a church,
if you were going to be the community you wanted to be
and serve the neighborhood they way you wanted to serve,
the building had to change.
How we could preach the wide all-embracing
spacious joyful welcome of God
in a building that wasn’t accessible?
A major vision required a major building renovation.
That was implicit in all you wanted to do.

Opening the building came up at the first Council meeting I attended.
Vi Ray, who we miss every day, sat at the end of the table,
and said, as she did at every Council meeting she attended,
“what about the elevator.”
The dream of an accessible space
was dear to your hearts, and so we had to
work it out, in fear and trembling sometimes,
but mostly in joy and a sense of adventure.
Everyone did their part, from the youngest child,
to the eldest of our members.
Along the way we’ve been inspired by
incredible stewardship;
gifts came in from far and near,
from former members and friends, from strangers
who lived elsewhere.
We asked for guidance from churchwide in Chicago,
and from our Synod, and got it.
George Scharfe came forward as project manager;
our small parish raised almost four hundred thousand dollars;
we received a surprise bequest from Vi Ray,
and further help from Rockport National Bank.
The City of Gloucester approved us.
We had incredible architects and builders.
We made new friends,
and our neighbors delighted in our progress.
The dividing walls came down, the doors opened,
and the God who had been far off drew near.
We prayed and built on in the face of an economic downturn.
People stopped me on the street to say
how glad and inspired they were to see what we were doing.
And now the Holy Spirit, the beauty of this place,
and the steady faith of all of you
have made the building itself a proclamation of the Gospel.
Here the gracious love of God is at work in
a long cherished dream come alive.
And so rejoice dear friends,
with those here today, and those
who have gone before us, for
we can finally say All are welcome in this place,
and know that it’s true.

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