For 3 years — following a devastating Thanksgiving Week fire at Saugatuck Congregational Church — something remarkable has taken place in Westport.
Every Sunday morning, Temple Israel has welcomed the Saugatuck congregation to worship in their space.
Recently — as the church gets ready to return to its almost-renovated home — Michael Hendricks delivered this beautiful, thanks-filled sermon. It’s worth reading no matter what your faith — or even if you have none at all.
It is very tempting to look at today’s Bible text about the people of Israel despairing over water following their exodus from Egypt and think how it relates to our congregation’s situation since the fire that devastated our church home back in November of 2011.
The Israelites were afraid because they had no water. And we were afraid our lack of a building could threaten our identity.
No water. No identity. No existence. No wonder people get frightened.
Do any of you remember talking to our lay leaders in the first days and weeks after the fire? When they had to promise that everything would be okay. Even though they had yet to learn even what the first step would be. Even though they had no idea if any clergy candidate would have the courage to take on the senior pastor position we were still seeking to fill. In light of the incredible achievements that have taken place these last 3 years, it is easy to forget where it began. But think what it must have been like for those lay leaders to ask for our trust at the beginning,
While the main damage was in the rear of the building, no part of the Saugatuck Church was untouched by some degree of fire, soot, water, and smoke damage.
It was at that point of greatest doubt and fear in the Bible story – when there was no hope left – when the ordinary physical world had exhausted its ability to sustain existence – that God steps in and the miracle takes place. Water suddenly, impossibly springs not from a hidden well or oasis, but from a dead, arid, hard rock. And the people of Israel are saved.
Like I said, it is tempting to see parallels in this story with our own congregation’s feelings of wilderness wandering these last 3 years.
Especially now when our return to our church home is imminent and the realization is beginning to sink in that through the grace of God, the contributions of many, and the exhaustive work of a few, we are going to survive this ordeal.
I am, however, going to resist the temptation to draw these parallels.
I am going to resist this temptation because, despite the similarities, in some crucial and pivotal ways our recent experiences, difficult and unsettling as they have been, really don’t parallel the experiences of the people of Israel at all.
And that’s why, though I’m sure some variation of this story undoubtedly happened, I’m not surprised that nobody thought it important or dramatic enough to record it. But, sisters and brothers, I can’t help feeling that, in its own way, this might be the greatest story never told.
And, with regard to Saugatuck, this would be the wilderness story that most closely resembles our experience.
Because before we ever got anywhere near thirsty enough to feel threatened, before the lack of a place to meet for worship ever came close to dispersing us, our friends at Temple Israel said to us, “Come. We have space. We can figure this out. Worship here.”
For that, we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, and because of that we share a bond that I hope continues as long as both congregations exist.
As most of you know, there was a time when the congregation of Temple Israel was welcomed to celebrate their services at Saugatuck Church. And while I am proud, but not surprised, that Saugatuck was the church that opened its doors to our neighbors of a different faith tradition, I confess that I am unable to see the symmetry in our now being welcomed to worship here.
From where I sit, sadly, there is simply no comparison in a church allowing the symbols of Jewish worship through its doors, and a Jewish temple allowing the symbols of Christian worship to enter theirs.
The history of the last 2,000 years, the history of the last 100 years, very understandably and more regrettably than I can ever express, may for some have lent an aura of threat and violence to the symbols that for us read as nothing but pure and holy love.
Nevertheless, these last 3 years, we have taught our stories to our children in the same classrooms that the Temple uses to teach their stories to their children. We have met on the Sabbath to worship God in the same space that the Temple meets in on Shabbas to also worship God.
And I can’t tell you how powerful and how humbling it has been for me these last 3 years that we have been welcomed to celebrate Christmas and Easter – think about it, Christmas and Easter – in Temple Israel’s sanctuary.
Neighbor helping neighbor. Reaching across the things that separate to lend the helping hand that is needed at the moment.
In its own way, is there a more needed miracle in the world today? Maybe even in the entire history of the world? It almost makes the water from the rock miracle seem easy.
Before returning home, Saugatuck Congregational Church offers thanks to Temple Israel.
God bless Rabbi Orkand, Rabbi Shapiro and Rabbi Friedman. God bless Rabbi Mendelsohn Graf and Rabbi Schwartz. God bless Cantor Silverman and Cantor Sklar. God bless Lisa Goldberg. God bless Greg Jones and Troy Golding.
And maybe most importantly, God bless all the members of the Temple Israel congregation who never got the chance to work with us or get to know us, who maybe felt threatened by our presence in their holy place of sanctuary and, by the grace of God, welcomed us to worship here anyway.
Your generosity and courage saved us from ever really having to face that threat to our existence that the people of Israel faced in their wanderings
You have written yourselves a place in the history of our congregation that we can never forget.
You have taught us a lesson in true welcoming that we had better not forget.