Sermon delivered by Joshua Wachtel, Community Coordinator, on July 12, 2022
Welcome Greenwood Campers, Counselors. Greg,thank you for all your work and for being here. Welcome to members of our community, from Village Church and West Cummington Church, as well as other guests.
My name is Josh Wachtel. I’ve been involved with this church since 2013 and recently became Community Coordinator. Today I’d like to talk to you about why this church matters to me; and also why I think church matters, or can matter, to individuals and to a community.
In this day, churches around here, and in many parts of the country, are losing members. Many have closed. Religion as an idea has had a hard road over the past couple hundred years. Specifically, science has demonstrated the growth of its power, not only to explain the world. The success of technology has transformed everything. Science has even tried to explain much of what religion and myth originally explained – how our world started, how it might end, what our role is here. And that has weakened the role of religion, or religion’s power to sway and hold the attention of thinking people today.
I think my family growing up was typical of the trend. My parents were Jewish. We celebrated certain holidays, with food, customs and extended family. But we did not go to synagogue. When I turned 10, my parents sent me to Sunday school and Jewish summer camp for three years until my Bar Mitzvah. But then religion was put aside again (except for those holidays).
Starting as a teenager, I ended up taking a personal interest in both science and religion, however. I loved the strange implications of modern science. Einstein’s theory of relativity and the implication that matter and energy are interchangeable. And especially quantum physics, which seemed to reveal a world beyond rationality, where at the most fundamental level the nature of reality was uncertain and unpredictable.
On the religious side, I was drawn to outsiders, mystics, Sufis, and unconventional interpretations that showed religious stories were not necessarily to be taken literally. I discovered that bible stories, and tales of prophets and saints, revealed psychological dynamics. I found a handle to make use of religious ideas. These ideas pointed — like modern science, and the most far out science fiction stories I would grow to love — to the ultimate mystery of life.
We don’t know how life is possible in all its myriad of forms — which is, I think, one of the reasons why we come to nature — in a place like Cummington. To breath in life, to sense its strangeness and wonder. And to let it inform our lives and our work.
Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
I know I was drawn to Cummington in part because of its wildness and the way the natural world helps me step aside from the hustle and bustle and explore a deeper meaning of life. I expect this is an important reason why Greenwood was established in these forests, among the birds and trees, valleys and hills.
At the same time, I found myself drawn to the quality of community in Cummington and the surrounding hilltowns that I never found anywhere else I’d lived. People strive to know one another here, and they strive to help each other. I believe they even strive to articulate and develop a shared vision of how life can be different, better.
In fact, it was that quality that drew me to this church in the first place. I found it served as a copacetic space to convene community members to talk about things that really mattered, in the face of a world that often seems not to care.
About the time my son was born 10 years ago, I decided to convene a Community Resiliency Summit. This was an attempt to bring together different aspects of the community, from citizens who had been involved in sustainability efforts, including the newly formed Creamery Coop, the churches, local municipal government including the fire department, farmers, and nonprofits — like the Hilltown Community Development Corporation which among other things helped organize the art display up and down Main Street, which you may have noticed as you walked here to church. I intended for the Summit to be a day of discussions and networking.
Over 110 people attended. We had a morning of talks across the street at the Community House. I’m a musician myself, so I brought a sound system. Lunch was held here in the vestry, and the church was hired to provide soup and bread to everyone. Unfortunately, my sound system broke and I didn’t know how everyone could be heard during the post-lunch discussions. Just then I felt a tap on my shoulder, and Scott Keith handed me this wireless microphone, and it worked on the speakers mounted on the wall in the other room. The moment was saved. As small a thing as it was, that moment continues to stick with me as a symbol of how this church helps to make community connection and conversations possible.
Fast forward to the pandemic, which strained our little church as it did so many institutions, including Greenwood I’m sure. For one thing, we missed having you all here the previous two summers. I know from speaking with Deb that community service is one of the founding principles of the camp, and that this is a big part of why you all visit us here, to sing and play for us, and with us, and have for so many decades. What you bring is a community service indeed, and so appreciated. You bring a joie de vivre. And the fruit of all your hard work is palpable in the music you offer in this space.
During the pandemic we hired Sarah Pirtle to be our minister. As she and I have gotten to know each other, we often talk about why church matters. Why should we work so hard to keep doing what we do here? So many churches have folded. Maybe we’re not really needed.
But then I say to her, “Well, we need a church because there’s no place else in society where we can all come together, outside of the hustle and bustle of life, and talk about what really matters.”
And Sarah often says, “Josh, will you say that again? I love how you say why we should have a church.”
And I say, “Okay, Sarah, we need church because we have to just stop thinking about everything else once in a while, and go inside, and really reflect on what matters to us.”
And it seems to me that while we can and should do that on our own, there’s something really valuable in us doing this together. This space, which has been here over 180 years, twice as long as Greenwood has been around, offers us a space where we can come together and affirm that each of us matters. Each of us matters. And we matter to each other. And despite this being a crazy, crazy world in so many ways, our lives really do matter. Our values matter. And we have to keep working to bring them forth.
I ever so appreciate you all being here to do this thing called church with us for five weeks each summer. For bringing us music that helps us reflect. The sounds and words evoke meaning and mystery. They help us step outside of ourselves and the world, and step into the meaningful lives we sense within us — the qualities of our lives we need to nurture and bring forth. I thank you for your offerings. And I invite you to see these Sundays as time to reflect, and to help you discover and embrace deep within you what really matters to you. And to allow this time to inform the other aspects of your lives.
Thank you for listening. And now I’m ready to continue listening to all of you.