Livestreamed service

Psalm 37:1-4
Psalm 126
Isaiah 55:6-12

        If I had to describe yesterday’s Cranberry Fair—the first since 2022 and the first ever to be held in a month other than November—in just one word, well—

        —Actually, . . . before I tell you my one word, why don’t you tell me yours? Just yell it out—one person at a time, please—and I’ll repeat the words into the mic so that our online worshippers can know what you’re saying.

        And, speaking of online worshippers, I invite those of you who attended the Fair but aren’t here in the sanctuary today to type your one word into the LiveChat.

        So what is your one-word description of yesterday’s Cranberry Fair?

        Thank you for that sharing!

        Now, before I tell you my word, let me share with you a little personal history: Fifteen years ago now—or 15 years in November—the Cranberry Fair was my first full experience of First Church Amherst. I was not yet your pastor, but both the Search Committee and I were hoping that I would be,  and, after some discussion, we scheduled my so-called candidating weekend—the time a potential pastor and church members beyond the Search Committee have an opportunity to meet one another, and when the whole congregation votes on whether to call that person as pastor—for the Cranberry Fair weekend.

        It was both exciting and a little overwhelming for me, and I couldn’t help remembering that experience yesterday when entire hordes of college students would walk into the building at once, some of them asking, with a mix of anticipation and confusion, “Where is the Cranberry Fair?”

        The Cranberry Fair is many different things to different people, of course—although not, as one person who called the church inquiring about it thought, the marketing of various cranberry products.

        I like to think of the Cranberry Fair of a celebration of who we are and our love for one another and our church. The fair is a representation of the church as a body with many parts—some of them working the white elephants’ room, others selling clothing, tools, puzzles, books and holiday fare, some serving lunch, others managing the silent auction or rocking the welcome table, and some keeping track of the money.

        The fair calls forth and celebrates our different gifts and skills, even as it shows what wonderful things can happen when we dedicate all our gifts toward a single, shared purpose.

        I also think of the fair as a real-life, if all-too-fleeting demonstration of God’s economy. Those of us who have more than enough contribute from our excess so that others can buy for a song what they need or want. Our neighbors who depend on our business contribute gift certificates that generate income for us and bring more business and goodwill to them. The blessed cycle of giving and buying and sharing and supporting creates new connections and generates new resources—not only for our church, locally-owned businesses, and individuals and families, but also for our community’s common good.

        The fair also hints at the amazing things that can happen when we reach out to and engage our neighbors. I’m going to hazard a guess that yesterday’s fair had the highest percentage ever of people who’d never been to the Cranberry Fair before—in part because we held it at a time when college students are still in town, and especially because a couple different church members went out in public (at the Amherst Block Party) and not only shared the good news of the fair but made meaningful connections with students, who then shared information about the fair on their campuses.

        And these connections enrich us all—and not primarily in terms of money raised, fun had, and vintage clothing purchased. At least one college student, for example, learned from a church member yesterday that there are Christian churches like ours that celebrate and fully welcome queer folks. And we learned a little bit about the different language and life-navigation tools of the younger generation, which leads at least some of us to conclude, among other things, that the church needs to have a Venmo account.

        How can we minister to, or just connect with, our community if we don’t know them and their language? And how can we learn their language if we don’t meet them on their own turf or provide activities and conversations that appeal to them?

        All of this brings me to my one-word description of yesterday’s Cranberry Fair, and that word is restoration—not a return to normal, exactly, but a restoration of joy and hope that, by God’s grace and our shared vision and purpose, has the potential to bring us to a new normal and a new understanding of who we are and what God would have us be about. And this joy and hope, along with the assurance that God’s promise will be fulfilled, can foster within and among us a renewed commitment to a  clarified purpose—even as we live in frightening political and economic times, even as we evidence everywhere we look of the church’s decline, even as we are thrust toward an uncertain future.

        For two-and-a-half years now, we have been wandering in the pandemic wilderness. For more than a year of that time we were in exile—separated from one another, our building, and much of our common life together, including such beloved traditions as the fair.

        In some ways our situation was similar to that of the ancient Hebrews, deported to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem, forced to live in a strange land, and so utterly separated from everything that grounded them and gave them identity that they wondered if God had abandoned them.

        They longed for the good old days, but how could they sing God’s song in a strange new world? They longed for a time when their culture was the dominant one, when they understood the ways of the world, when God’s face shone upon them.

        Their longing was both inevitable and understandable, as is ours. And just as the Hebrew exiles returned to Jerusalem with shouts of joy, we delight in the normalcy of the Cranberry Fair. And it wasn’t just us; many Cranberry Fair shoppers told us how thrilled they were that the fair was back.

        But we must also understand that, as the Hebrew returnees discovered  somewhat painfully, there is no going back to the way things were—only the  building together of a new future. The people without a vision for life together beyond survival will perish, and our vision for the future cannot be simply a return to the past, or we will surely wither and die—not only in numbers and resources but also in spirit, relevance, hope, and power.

        This is so important that, at one point in the Hebrews’ preparation for return, the prophet Isaiah tells the people to remember not the former things, or consider the things of old, which is to say, Don’t get hung up on the way things used to be. Because God is about to do a new thing; even now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?

        So if I could add another one-word to description to my experience of yesterday’s Cranberry Fair, a descriptor and a feeling that also contains my hopes for our future together, it would be this: possibility.

        So let us find strength and hope in remembering—not the way things used to be, but all the things God has done for us to bring us to this moment. Let us trust that the God who did great things for us in the past is with us still, and longs to do new and different great things in us and through us to bring us into the future with hope, a future that will bring hope and justice not only to our church but to college students who know nothing about church, to young people grieving a world on fire, to vast numbers of our fellow citizens who are so afraid of change that they are willing to destroy democracy to maintain control.

        For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so is God’s promise of new and abundant life, of community and justice and peace:

        If we but remain faithful, if we but continue to face the future with hope and purpose, God’s promise will not return empty, but it will accomplish God’s purpose and succeed beyond all our imaginings.

        And will will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before us will burst into song, and even the trees of the field shall clap their hands.