Revelation 21: 1-4 (NRSV)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.'
On October 19, 1715, my congregation, Westfield UCC in Killingly, CT was formally organized with eleven members. Over the years, that number has grown and shrunk and grown again. Our community of faith has borne witness to God's love in this community through wars, including the one that founded our country. We've trumpeted God's compassion through economic depressions and politically volatile days. And still today, we fling our doors open as wide as the arms of Christ to make everyone, everyone, everyone feel welcome here.
On October 19, 2015, we rang our bell 301 times in celebration of this momentous occasion. And as we rang, I thought about all the people who've heard this bell, our bell, chime. I thought about all the events to which our bell has called attention. Some heartbreaking: Lincoln's assassination, Kennedy's murder, Newtown. Some triumphant: the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's I Have a Dream Speech and too many weddings to count.
In a world more and more divided, our church has this gift to offer: the gift of community. Every hour, on the hour, our bell chimes, and we remind our community (and ourselves) that we are in this crazy, wonderful, messy, beautiful life together.
And the truth is this: We have been in it together for 300 years. We've sung together and prayed together. We've wept together and cheered together. We've smiled at newly-baptized children together and we've buried life-long members together. Together.
The Sunday before our big celebration, as we were celebrating Communion, we sang these words: We are standing on holy ground. And I know that there are angels all around. Let us praise Jesus now. We are standing in his presence on holy ground.
As I stood behind the Communion Table looking out at all of you singing, I knew it was true. I knew that this is holy ground. I looked around and saw faces that cared deeply for Westfield and for each and for this story, our story. I looked up into the balcony and could almost make out the faces of those who've gone before us, that Great Cloud of Witnesses, who cheer us on even today.
They were the ones who heard John the Revelator's vision and founded their church on those words of the coming realm - one where mourning and crying and pain would be no more.
By the last time we sang those words, I found myself planting my feet firmly behind the table, knowing more then than ever how holy, how sacred, this ground is.
That night, just after 7 p.m., we started counting the final strikes of our 301 rings. After everyone had a chance, we still had four chimes to go. So we all gathered around the rope hanging out of the front window down to the church steps and grabbed it together. And we pulled, counting down these last years alongside each other: years of renewed promise and such hope, years proclaiming God's new realm in our midst. And we did it together.
O God, open our eyes to your hand in our midst, inspire our work to prepare for your coming Realm, and help us to do it together. Amen.