Stop Gap Community Church

Memorial Day at Stop Gap Community Church
Matthew 28:16-20
May 30, 1999

    Well, it’s gone. Fitting day, too, Memorial Day being tomorrow. Looks like we buried Stop Gap Community Church just in time to decorate its grave.
    Funny how nobody wants church anymore. Why, when I was a young’un we were in church every week, sometimes more’n once. But the young people nowadays, why, they’ve got cartoons with a flash change of scene every three seconds, commercial breaks that shift whole worlds every fifteen seconds. No wonder they don’t like church even if the sermon is only ten minutes long! I tell you that’s why they turn to violence, it’s to get another change of scene!
    Oh, well, the whole town of Stop Gap has turned secular. There are so many unsaved people out there, and recently I never could get anyone to go on evangelism missions with me. They all want to stay home and get on the Internet after church. My hammock’s made out of a net, too!
    The other day I even heard of someone taking a cell phone to church!
    They say modern communications open the way for the Great Commission to spread the Gospel. But I don’t know how email and beepers and chat rooms and cell phones and forums and virtual conversations can be near a good as pure eyeballing to discover whether or not a man is saved and to bring him around to his knees.
    Yes, I say, Stop Gap Community Church died. It died because we couldn’t finance our programs anymore, and because we had no more personnel to run our programs. We even tried some real “stop gap” programs, but they didn’t work either.
    Oh, Pastor Doolittle! So kind of you to stop by. That was some mighty fine preaching you gave us this morning. Sure enough was. A good funeral sermon that, and Memorial Day coming up, too. I guess we’ve done said Good-bye to the little old Stop Gap Community Church.
    No Sir, it wasn’t always little and old. I remember the day way back, must be fifty years ago, when your father was preaching here. New people moving into town would come right on over to this church and pitch in and make things happen. The young folk had parties and evangelism outings, and the adults had revivals and yard sales. We built that church building over there.
    What happened? I don’t know. We really did try to shore up the edges and stop all the gaps. I remember when we started checking to see who was tithing properly. That was our first real effort at making sure our leaders were all good people.
    Then we sent the heaviest handed deacons to chaperon our youth, and of course we sent secret chaperons to chaperon the chaperons.
    We investigated the church histories on all newcomers to be sure we had only the cream of the crop coming in. I kept trying to tell people we had to do a revival or some kind of evangelism so people would want to apply for membership, but fewer and fewer people even seemed to hear me.
    Yes, I think that was soon after your father died. How we missed your father! That new minister, what was his name? Bill DeFoe, yes, that’s it. Bill DeFoe used to preach a lot about all the evils in the community and even in the church. There were so many godless programs on the radio, and people dropping off drunk right in the gutter beside our church. He sure did build up the foe, and I thought we’d go right out and fight the enemy, but instead people went out and joined the enemy!
    You wonder if I heard what you said in your sermon this morning? Oh yes, you want us to let go of the church, to quit trying to get it to survive, to take our hands off and our noses out of other peoples’ lives. You say God is okay with God being in charge of the church and God doesn’t need our help. Well, I’d say God didn’t do a very good job, since the church lies buried over there today waiting for Memorial Day and a few straggling flowers. And you’re right, we’ve got to let it go.


    Awesome! Awesome! That’s what the kids would say. Interesting word, that.
    Yes, I’ll have to go over to the church in a little bit to open it up. I’m glad I cleaned up the yard yesterday, so we’re all ready for the big day.
    It seems only a few weeks, ago. Some young folk came to me to ask if they could use the church building for a prayer group. I figured that since the church was dead and we’d buried it, they couldn’t hurt much. They started meeting once a week, brought doughnuts and then spaghetti.
    I stopped by their meeting once and saw them praying, on their knees. They had their Bibles open, too.
    Then some church women wanted to start meeting another day of each week. And a few men came to a prayer breakfast once in awhile.
    I could never tell who was in charge of anything, so I just opened the door whenever someone wanted in. I decided since the church was dead, if the building was being used by anyone it was better than being closed up all the time.
    I worried some about cleanup after their meeting, but I needn’t have. I asked sometimes who was custodian so I could contact someone in case of mishap. Always two or three or four people volunteered their names, and the list was different each time.
    Actually the place started looking better instead of worse. Sometimes I let in someone with painting equipment or scrubbing utensils or electrical tools, and their work began to show.
    I asked who sent them; they said always, “Oh, I just wanted to come.”
    Just as I began to feel a bit left out, wondering where was my place in all this, the meetings over at the church seemed to sprout up in every possible time slot. I had to keep busy opening and closing the doors early in the morning and late at night.
    People started coming by to get food; they called it a food pantry. I saw the banker who attends the Baptist Church teaching a class one day. I saw the Methodist minister come in for the early morning Prayer Breakfast. I saw the lawyer who attends the African Methodist Episcopal Church leading a prayer vigil for hostages. Then there was the big Thanksgiving meal for the homeless, and the youth piling way too many in a van with shovels, rakes, and hedge trimmers.
    I tried often to find out who was in charge of all this, and always several people raised their hands. Of course, I knew the church was dead, so I let it go.
    Once, for a week just before Easter, I kept count of all the coming and going over there. It came to more than five hundred people.
    That did it! I started attending one of those Bible groups just to see what was going on. I recognized some of the folk; they had helped us bury the church. There were many new faces, too.
    We read the Bible, we prayed and then we listened to each other. I have never been so blessed as when that group listened to me as if I actually was somebody, as if my spiritual experience was actually meaningful. I learned how to explore and own my beliefs and vision; I learned how to wait and follow while others explored their own beliefs and vision.
    Why, with people listening to me like that, I got enough confidence to create some great dreams for myself. I finally quit smoking after all these years. And now I’m rebuilding relationship with my son who hasn’t come home for twenty years.
    No, I wouldn’t miss this meeting for anything, and I’m looking for another ministry group I can join. I’ll try one and if it doesn’t fit me, I know the other people will let me out of it,–and love me still.
    I don’t think it matters so much what program or activity is going on, so long as there’s no harm and people enjoy doing it. What seems to matter is that every program or activity is for the one purpose of being with others–giving and receiving that wonderful gift of real, honest listening.
    You know, many times in the last few weeks, people driving by have turned in and come to my door to ask what goes on over at that church. They have heard about it clear across the country. That’s when I shine. I love sitting here on the porch with anyone who asks that question and telling them all about that church, which we buried last Memorial Day.
    They want to know what makes it so alive. I say it’s the Presence–the Presence of God with us, listening; and the presence of us with God, listening; and the presence of us with each other, listening.
    A few weeks ago a lot of us met together and decided to open worship services here again. We wanted to apply what we’ve learned to actual church, with worship services, and church education, and board meetings, and budget planning, and property management. We think that by listening we can run a church on mutual consensus rather than on hair-splitting vote.
    I was worried what the other churches in town would think of our starting up again, but several people, of those who will attend their own church services instead of ours, assured us that their attendance numbers have been greatly boosted by all the spiritual advancement over here. They just say, “Let’s make more spiritual activities here; then we’ll grow more, too!”
    Ah, Pastor Doolittle! How good to see you again! No, really I haven’t been doing much.
    Yes, we can go right on over to the church. I’m sure you’d like to look around a bit before the service starts. I guess it’ll be another Memorial Day sermon, but quite different from the last, I suppose?


    There’s that word “Awesome!” again. Keeps coming into my head. I wonder what it means.
    This Memorial Day service certainly is different from anything I ever knew before. I don’t think I would have liked the music a year ago, or the way some people dressed. I still don’t agree with them, and that’s okay. We can listen to each other anyway!
    Pastor Doolittle is quoting Jesus now, “Go therefore into all the world and disciple all nations, . . . and, see, I am with you always.”
    Sure enough, I’d say I’ve been discipled. That’s the word for it. And sure enough, too, didn’t I tell you about that Presence that I love to tell everyone is right here with us? Jesus said He would be with us always and that’s what He’s been here at Stop Gap.
    I wonder what would be Pastor Doolittle’s reason for going over to the epistle of Peter: He’s waiting for us to find 1 Peter 3:15. He says Peter heard Jesus give the Great Commission and that Peter will explain real evangelism for us. Now he’s paraphrasing Peter. “Be ready always to give an answer to everyone that asks what is the reason for the hope inside you. And do it with humility and respect for the other person’s spiritual journey.”
    Now I understand. That’s why we listen, so we can hear the question. That’s why I no longer evangelize by diagnosis and persuasion, but instead by owning and sharing my own story of the hope inside me that lights up my life.
    Look down that row of faces, people I never knew before, people I would not have wanted to know before.
    Here we all are with the cup in our upraised hands. We do this in memorial of Him.


    It is now a well-known and often-discussed fact that the church is declining in percentages, influence, and even credibility in society today. Douglas John Hall, a widely-read theologian, writes, "How could we have been listening to the Scriptures all these centuries and still be surprised and chagrined by the humiliation of Christendom? How could we have honored texts like the Beatitudes ("Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account . . ." [Matt. 5:11]), and yet formed in our collective mind the assumption that Christian faith would be credible only if it were popular, numerically superior, and respected universally?" (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress P, 2003], 170-71.) Perhaps the church’s bent toward power and imperialism over the last 2000 years has come back to haunt the church. All over the world those who have felt the heel of the church’s links with the established system are culling out themselves from the church’s rolls, calling out the church on its theft of their birthrights. And the church continues to decline in influence and credibility. Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, . . .