Every year, we take time out of the month of November. We call it Congregational Heritage Month because November is Thanksgiving, which reminds us of the Pilgrims, and the Pilgrims were our spiritual ancestors, they were the founders of what would become Congregationalism in America.
But isn’t it kind of backwards-looking to celebrate Congregationalism? I thought were were Christians. Shouldn’t we be about Jesus instead of people no sense of humor and too many belt buckles? I thought we lived in a post-modern world. All those old denominations are a thing of the past. We’re supposed to be uniting, not celebrating our divisions.
Why are we looking to the past when we have issues worth talking about today? We have a presidential election. We have Michigan ballot initiatives on everything from the right of the government to build bridges, to the right of the people collectively bargain. And if the 37 pieces of SuperPac direct mail in my post office box are any indication, the choice is either apple pie and America or post-apocalyptic destruction.
I got a message on the church answering machine. I saved it, you can go and listen. From Dr. Irwin Luther from a large congregation in Chicago and Rabbi Johnathan Houseman from AvaTola Congregation in Boston, who warned me that if I were a truly good shepherd, I would go to judeochristianvoterguide.com and choose a voter guide that’s perfect for my people and distribute it at every opportunity between now and Tuesday, especially before, during, and after services. I would hand them out at the exits, and them on the windshields of your cars. And just in case I missed that message, I got another pretty much identical one from Father McClosky and Father Shay Johnson of Yonkers, New York.
Am I seriously going to ignore this crucial responsibility so we can talk about our Pilgrim Heritage? Yes. It is my sincere belief that far from being a thing of the past, our congregational way is a living community, and the distinctiveness of that community, the gifts that this tradition brings to the table are just necessary now as they were at the founding of our National Association.
Today’s service was drawn from the Worship Book for Free Churches, published in 1948, which makes it liturgically appropriate for that decade-long merger controversy that ended in the founding of the National Association in 1959. This week, I went back and looked through our records, the meeting minutes from this time period.
Do you know what struck me? First off, I was impressed with how well they kept records. Those books have everything: membership, officers, weddings, baptisms, funerals… and minutes from every Congregational meeting. But that wasn’t what struck me. As a pastor, what stood out, is that they spent this much time talking about the life of the church. This one book covered a decade in the life of the church: Cradle Roll, Pilgrim Fellowship, visiting the sick, installing an organ. These things fill this entire book. Merger controversy? Two pages.
Dear high mucky mucks. By unanimous vote, we are letting you know that whatever decision you make on the merger, we will not consider it binding until we vote on it as a congregation. And then a couple years later, one more page. By paper ballot vote of a whole bunch to three, the congregation decided to join the National Association. That’s about it. Two pages. Yes, it’s important. Yes, we made a clear decision. Now let’s get back to work.
We are a Congregational Church. We take it seriously, when Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered.” Therefore, we believe that the church is not a building, it is the people, and that a church, with Christ as it’s head, is complete. We don’t need higher-ups to pick our pastor, set our policy, or decide our politics.
We also take it seriously when Jesus prays that we would be one. Look back at Jn 17 for a minute. ““My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Now skip ahead a bit “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Remember these verses the next time someone tells you that trinity is an idea a bunch of bishops invented at a council in the 5th century. It’s already here, in the first century. And our spiritual ancestors took it seriously enough to build their church governance around it. Just as there is no hierarchy in the trinity, there is none in our church. No church or synod or bishop or pope can tell a congregational church what to do. Hence that first letter. “You go ahead and plan any mergers you like. We won’t consider them binding until we vote on it.”
But just as there is no hierarchy, there is no independency either. Jesus doesn’t ignore the will of the Father, and the Spirit doesn’t ignore the love of Christ. The three exist in an eternal dance of freely given love. Hence the second letter. We are not content to go our own way. We either live in free and loving relationship with our sister churches or we are not a congregational church.
I need two volunteers. [lean them together in an A] We are not dependent on some other church or bishop to make our decisions. If they fall, we would fall too. [stand them up away from each other, facing apart]We are not independent of each other, where each church stands alone, with none to help [have them hold hands] We are mutually and intentionally interdependent because it reflects the very heart of a triune God. In a time that could have divided our church, this church grew. In a time that could have distracted our church, our church spent an entire book on loving God, one another, and our communities, and two pages on deciding a merger controversy.
You could see that attitude, if you were looking for it, you could see it everywhere this week. You heard about hurricane Sandy and the impact it has had on the east coast. I found this letter at one of my favorite blogs, Free Range Kids. “Well here in N.J., Halloween, as per governor’s orders, is postponed till Monday and on Halloween itself I told my kids, who took the news with amazing grace. Our friends had lost their homes, so losing Halloween was small by comparison.
My soon-to-be-8-year-old decided that people needed a reason to smile though, and put on her costume convinced her brother to do the same. They leashed the dogs (we are hurricane sitting), grabbed the candy bowl and went door to door handing out candy while walking the dogs. So that everyone could at least smile for a few minutes.” This so inspired the neighborhood that before mom knows it, her front lawn is full of neighbors. They made coffee on a camp stove, charged phones off of car batteries, and shared news. All this because an 8-year-old decided to turn her loss into someone else’s win.
We saw it here in Saugatuck too. We had a fire downtown. By the time they got the call, the house was already ½ engaged. It was already a loss. But Hurrican Sandy was pulling the winds down from Canada that day. It was blowing hard and all of these 100 year-old wooden houses are packed in next to each other like sardines. The fire investigator said we should have lost three houses, minimum, could have lost have the town. But we didn’t.
There was a day when fire companies competed against each other, when calling for help was a sign of weakness. Our department got the call, recognized the situation, and got the word out to all the nearby fire departments while they were driving to fire. “Send what you have. If we don’t need it, we’ll send it back.”
By the way, the time it too from 911 call to boots on the ground? 6 minutes. 6 minutes! Good Goods stands 6 feet away from the burning back door, 3 feet if you count the back porch. And it’s still here because every member of that crew put the community first.
Some people just call that competence. I call it individual responsibility lived out in the context of shared responsibility. None of those examples were explicitly congregational, or even Christian, but their attitude was. We are heirs to a tradition that shaped the identity and character of this nation, and if you’re looking for something to make you sad, don’t grieve over a storm. Grieve that it took a storm to remind us that there’s something more important in this world than seeing the other guy lose. We as a nation have been acting like children.
Children start out completely dependent. Then in our teenage and college years, we define ourselves through independence. But the true adults in this room have stepped beyond that. Yes, I do take care of me. And yes, you do take care of you. And as healthy, whole individuals, we choose to take care of each other. There’s room in that to be conservative, or liberal, or anything in between.
That’s what we voted to preserve in 1959, a church where Republicans and Democrats and independents could love each other anyway, a church where evangelical believers and new thought believers could share common ground. Do you get how rare that is?
I meet a lot of people around town. I make it a point to try and talk to people. And in all my life, in all the discussions I’ve had, I have never actually met a communist. I’ve never personally met a militia member who wanted to declare sovereignty and overthrow the government. I know these people exist. I know there are actually people who look back on the KKK and the Nazis with pride. But I’ve never actually met one.
Considering the number of times I’ve heard people described as communist, nazi, militia, racist, considering how often that pops up in our national conversation, considering all the stupid mail clogging up my mailbox, you’d think I’d have met at least one. Where are they all hiding?
You know the answer, because you live it here each week. That person on the other side of the political divide is not your enemy. He’s a Sunday School teacher for your kids, or your grandkids. She prepared food for your family’s wedding. When you were sick, members of this church came to visit you. When you hit a rough patch, this church gave you a little help from the Love Fund. That’s our congregational heritage shining through. It’s worth remembering, it’s worth honoring, and worth sharing.
First preached at First Congregational Church of Saugatuck on November 4, 2012.
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