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Gifts from Our Congregational Roots

Psalm 63:1-8

This psalm is beautiful. It really captures for me the personal connection some that people experience with God.

It’s passionate.

It reads like a love letter to me.

David, the poet and king and lover, tells God how much he desires God.

It reveals to me a different side of faith, one we sometimes forget to embrace in our tradition, especially during this season of Lent, a season typically associated with prayer and silence and penitence.

And yet perhaps it is times of emptiness and thirst and pain when we long most for God.

Just as David did so long ago.

It’s wild how often truth appears in the stories of our distant distant ancestors.

This Lenten season, as we walk the journey toward resurrection and new life, we’re remembering our origins, as Christians, and as members of the United Church of Christ.

We began by talking about scripture and how reading the Bible is a practice in compassion. Last week, we talked generally about the United Church of Christ and how it formed when 4 different denominations came together in 1957.

Today, we’re going to look at the Congregational branch of our church and the gifts it has to offer us today.

It’s difficult, at first, to recognize those gifts, because the history of congregationalism is a bit rough, especially in the early years.

It was not always the progressive church we know today.

The Congregational branch of the United Church of Christ has its origins in the Christian movements of the Puritans and the Separatists.

The Puritans wanted to “purify” the Church of England, and the Separatists just wanted to break away completely, believing that the Church of England was beyond fixing.

Both groups wanted a fresh start in North America.

The Puritans wanted even more than a fresh start, though.

They had a vision of a “City on the Hill,” a new society governed not by political leaders but by God.

So when they arrived in North America, they set up their society with the church at the center.

The early Congregational churches were not fringe institutions. They WERE the institutions.

There was no separation of church and state as we know it today.

Colonies actually paid taxes to support the early Congregational churches, and no one was allowed to vote on civil matters without belonging to the church.

The meeting house was both church and courthouse, blending church and state in ways most of us would find incredibly confusing and uncomfortable today.

The Congregational churches were powerful political and social institutions in New England.

And yet, they were far from organized.

They believed strongly that each church should be independent.

It wasn’t until almost 100 years after the Declaration of Independence that the Cognregational churches held their first National Council.

So the Congregational churches were at once powerful and at the same time incredibly independent and open to change and diversity.

Even though the puritans and separatists believed that their way was better than the Church of England, and it was not uncommon to hear preachers talk from a place of confidence about their personal beliefs about what was right and wrong, early Congregationalists also believed that God was still active in the world and that people with different views on Christianity may have something to say.

That’s massive.

Because back in England, there was one answer, one doctrine.

In North America, there was a new philosophy – the idea that perhaps, humans are not capable of understanding all that God is and that perhaps, other Christians may have valuable insights.

This led to a wide variety of beliefs.

While some Congregationalists were preaching about the importance of reading scripture as literally as possible, there were other Congregationalists, like Horace Bushnell, talking about how due to the imperfect nature of language, scripture couldn’t possibly be read “literally.”

While some Congregationalists insisted on a faith that was purely intellectual and reasonable, others promoted a more emotional, personal relationship with God.

Today’s Psalm would have resonated with Jonathan Edwards, for example, an itinerate preacher who emphasized conversion experiences.

He relied on that longing and thirsting for God to draw people to God in new ways.

Because at its heart, congregationalism emphasized local church autonomy, there were always then and continue to be now churches that are more progressive and more orthodox and many in between.

Across these diverse congregations, what united them, and what unites us, is 1) a belief that God continues to reveal truth in the world. And 2) A belief that we will disagree, but that it’s more valuable for us to walk this journey together.

The congregational system gives space for doubt and debate

and diversity.

It shifted the focus of revelation, the revelation of God and the Divine, the revelation of Truth, away from the pastor or priest and into the congregation itself.

It shifts our orientation.

God is not just revealed in the words of scripture, or in the words of the person in robes.

It’s revealed in God acting in the world and in community.

Which left things open to possibility.

And our documents reflect hat.

We have no creed or doctrine you must believe in order to be a member of the United Church of Christ.

Even back in the 1900’s, The National Council of Congregational Churches, when they went to put together a statement of faith, they chose to leave out some key things.

They omitted any reference to human sinfulness.

They also left out any mention of Jesus dying in atonement for our sins and any mention of eternal rewards or punishments.

They also left out any rules about how we had to perform the sacraments of baptism and communion.

They DID firmly commit to progress, justice, peace, and brotherhood, and the importance of openness to the possibility of ongoing revelation in community.

Community became an essential element. Although sacraments aren’t officially mentioned in the Congregational organizational documents, their philosophy emphasizing God in community had major implications for the sacraments nonetheless.

Today, we will celebrate the Baptism of Maxime Robert, grandchild of Carol and Bruce St. John.

As descendants of Congregationalists, we believe strongly that baptisms should be done in community.

We don’t hide out in a back room somewhere to perform the sacraments.

We celebrate them together.

Even though Maxime will grow up mostly in France, today, we will welcome him into our extended family.

More than that, when we witness this event, we will witness God at work through him and through his family.

As descendants of Congregationalists, we get to participate in the sacrament, saying YES to this child and remembering that we too are still in the process of growing and learning in our OWN faith.

We remember, as descendants of Congregationalists that it very well might be Maxime Robert or his parents or his grandparents through whom God will reveal God’s truth to us.

Witnessing the sacrament today is a part of how we continue to live into the gifts of our congregational heritage, heritage which teaches us to be open to God’s still-speaking voice.

Speaker: Rev. Sarah TevisTownes
March 25, 2019

Psalm 63:1-8

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