The Gospel in Our Godspell

A sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Mark 9:36-37)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 2, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Those of you who have seen Godspell may have noticed some sheep and goat puns. We added those. By we, I mean me. Give me all the blame. Those puns seemed to be a place where we almost always cracked ourselves up in rehearsal, but they also provided some unexpected fun when weeks after we introduced them someone working on the show told me they had only just got one of them. When I told the cast about this late pun epiphany a number of them indicated they too were flummoxed by that pun where –spoiler alert– John the Baptist looks at the sheep and to stop them punning ironically says “EWES . . . guys stop with the punning.” EWES . . . sheep get it. EWES . . . awww never mind.

Our church – ewes guys– have long had a sense of extravagant compassion and care. And our incredible work and partnership with Gay Street Methodist Church and Right Brain Productions to create The Chancel Players and put on Godspell has been a part of that.

Ewes guys have long longed to provide compassion and care to adults and, most especially of course to younger members of the community. Indeed when I was called to this church three-and-half years ago I understood one of the hopes was to find ways to reach out and better welcome families, and help us to nurture and grow our children and youth ministries. And this was not for numbers sake, but because A ministry of this church is to work as the hands and feet and voice for our younger community members, to tend to them and care for them and their families.

I have been hearing more and more about how wonderful it is to see more children and youth and families in church. I hear that because the longing to provide compassion and care for them – and with them– is very real here.

Many churches these days are not attracting young families with children. See Christianity in American, the Church (with a capital C) in this country has been losing out on connecting to younger adults and their children for sometime now. To borrow the metaphor from Ezekiel rather than being the healthy Body of Christ, Church in American as a whole is on this matter – metaphorically speaking– more like a dry bone, lacking sinews, muscles and flesh needed to animate the Body of Christ for and with many young adults and parents and their children.

There is this interesting tension in Christianity, where many want church to maintain the status quo and yet many know it needs to change if it is to last and be what Christ intended it to be, a dynamic entity that brings love into the world building God’s Empire on earth, now. The tension is not necessarily a bad thing. Ideally such tension helps both sides and the middle prayerfully consider both the value of what is, and the value of what could be, weigh the pros and cons, and then act to keep the Body of Christ en-fleshed in the culture, and not be satisfied with bare bones ministry.

The bottom line to giving Christianity its sinews, muscles and flesh has always been its caring about the well being of all humans regardless of their location in the strata of a culture, and also care for God in the rest of creation. That’s been true since Jesus started the movement, it’s the meat of his Way.

As I mentioned quite often, we can disagree with how to best care about the well being of humans and creation, but it’s pretty hard to argue against that being a primary goal of the movement Jesus started 2,000 years ago, what we now call Christianity. Unfortunately, the misleading message in our modern media is that the broader Church in America is not following the heart of the Jesus’ Way. It’s misleading because by and large most churches do focus on the well being of others and earth–and so try to follow the heart of Jesus’ Way. But young adults and others are staying away from church because frankly Christianity through the misleading messages can seem pretty mean and uncaring in the media reports. Mean and uncaring and even oppressive to others, as well as uncaring about the environment.

Our church has been emphasizing, and getting word out that this church not only preaches the heart of Jesus’ message but practices the heart of his Way . . . love. Like a number of churches we are not practicing a mean or uncaring or oppressive form of Christianity, rather the very opposite. We seek to stop oppression and we care about the oppressed and the earth.
One of the groups of people that are not treated as well as they should be in our culture are children and youth. There is no doubt this church has a deep affection and appreciation for children and their well being. And it is quite touching to hear long time members get excited with all the children and youth and families becoming a part of this church and our lovely ministries. We have created a wonderful interfaith community summer camp called Peace Village that teaches and works with children to tend to the well being of each of them, each other and the planet. It’s worked so well other churches in Ohio are starting Peace Villages– I’ve even traveled to teach them how. We have dynamic Sunday school programs, which using our faith traditions, also teaches and works with children to tend to the well being of each of them, each other and the planet. In Laura we have a wonderful music director who is revitalizing the children and youth music program. We heard one result this morning with –to use her favorite word– “amazing” middle-schoolers singing so well. Becky and Darlene and Matt and Carter have all worked with the youth with more cool outings and lock-ins on the horizon, as well attending the play last night. This church loves and appreciates children– and truly acts like it. It’s a beautiful thing.

Of course God and Jesus love and appreciate children–and we can hear that especially well in the Gospel of Mark text I chose for today’s invocation. We are told that Jesus took a child and had her stand in front of the twelve disciples; put his arms around her and said to the disciples “Whoever accepts a child like this in my name is accepting me.”

THAT “Word of the Lord” offers a perfect image not only for our intent and hopes in general as church, but as the perfect text to illustrate what The Chancel Players ministry we have help lead and start is up to. That theatre ministry for the youth and community has had an awesome and successful beginning with the production of Godspell that ends tonight.

The Chancel Players is a recent response with Gay Street Methodist Church to our hearing the Word of the Lord that calls us to accept our young with open caring and compassionate arms in Jesus’ name. This ministry was formed to work with and mentor and support and to put children– community youth– in front of a friendly audience with a warm and supportive embrace. It has been a heavenly project, designed to help those most close to heaven, our children.

For those of you who do not know, and just to remind the rest of us, The Chancel Players was founded less than year ago by First Congregational Church, Gay Street Methodist Church and Right Brain Productions. Joe Bell, Charlotte Watson and I have been at it for months. The ministry’s motto is “Faith communities connecting youth and community through the performing arts!” The hope behind this ministry is to provide family oriented theatre experiences for cast, crew and audience members. Wholesome theatre productions, emphasizing messages suitable for all ages are worked on, put together, and performed.

I can enthusiastically proclaim this morning that we have accomplished that. This is a meaty ministry, no bare bones to the love for youth and families, at all. It’s got Christ’s Body up and moving in a beautiful way. I thank this church for the support and encouragement we have received in response to this great effort to put on Godspell, with an inspiring and inspired cast and crew. The Holy Spirit has moved this production on Holy Skids.

The Godspell program explains that we have:

no plans to provide scripted doctrinal messages about life, or religion, or spirituality; [but] we do want the youth to receive one over-riding message: that there is a lot of good in the world and a lot of people who care about them. It is our intent and hope that our actions will not only provide theatre skills and experiences, but give clear resounding messages of love and compassion, of respect and charity, of hope and joy, and of community commitment to positive growth in all of us. We plan to do this by providing community family theatre experiences off stage, and for audiences.

And our hope is that by hearing the word of the Lord the dry bones of churches not reaching families and youth is not something we are part of, rather the opposite occurs, that we are part of dry bones being connected and enfleshed, so that they rise again, they walk around again, as God breathes on us as a faith community to fill us with life anew. All because we heard the Word of the Lord and – this is the important part– because we acted on it just like we have with our love-filled Peace Village, Sunday School, Children and Middle School Choirs and other youth activities and efforts. All of these Mark 9 inspired ministries hope to continue to give muscle and meat for a healthy Body of Christ to walk around the community spreading love and care for children and youth well into the future.

I gave this summary of The Chancel Players during an interview with a Knox Pages reporter

It’s about community – showing the youth that they are loved in a unique, wonderful way. If you’ve ever been in a play you can’t help but bond because you have to travel through this journey putting on this piece of art. It’s highly disciplined. It takes lots of hours and so no matter what age you are you have to be dependent on each other so there is this wonderful bonding going on.

See the idea is to fill a need –put meat on the bones – in the greater Mount Vernon area for positive activities for our youth, and positive interaction between the youth and the community. We hope to be –and were this winter– a positive place for our youth to belong, to have fun, to imagine and create, to dare to do new things, to interact with adults, to learn and grow, to work, to give to the community and to receive positive responses from the community.

The past two and half months it’s been a deeply moving experience to be a part of that love –what I’d theologically call in reference to our the Lectionary lesson, the enfleshed bones of God, of Christ– as we rehearsed and performed, and adults and youth worked with mutual respect and friendship struggling through rehearsals, having fun and learning and laughing, singing, dancing and playing.

This ministry, and all the youth and children ministries that I have been a part of here, have happened and continue to happen because First Congregational United Church of Christ has a God inspired yearning to love and care for the well being of others and creation and especially extravagantly welcoming children and youth and their families– to provide a loving and safe place for what Jesus calls the “little ones.” And it is an honor and a privilege to be a part of a loving community THIS CHURCH! (Ewes guys) that is working hard and successfully to tend to the least among us, children and youth.

That honor, that privilege, on its own is quite a reward. It is a Holy thing. And it is an answer to Christ’s call. And let me tell you . . . it matters. Much. AMEN.