Stained Glass, IV: Why We Should All Be Congregationalists
“…that they may all be one.” —John 17:21
In the gospel of John, between the Thursday evening Last Supper and the dark night of the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus gives a farewell address. It’s no short speech. It goes from chapter 14 to chapter 17. As he faces what he knows will be certain death, Jesus desperately wants his disciples to cling to faith, not despair, hope, not fear. He wants them to know that he goes willingly, that he’s meant to face the violent places in the world, and that his life will be, for them, courage in the face of danger, life in the midst of death, promise in the face of likely persecution. He promises the Spirit of God will fall upon them, and that love must remain at the core of what they do together.
Jesus knows he must face the cross, that he must walk toward certain death alone, but he tries to get across to the notoriously thick disciples that he will be with them, that he remains with them, and that he goes ahead of them.
At the end of this long farewell address, Jesus prays. And like a rock that gets caught up in the push and pull of the waves crashing on the beach, the theme of unity is rolled forcefully through this farewell prayer, as if Jesus just can’t reiterate enough how much he needs his disciples, and any who come to believe later, to be people of unity, collaborating, standing in solidarity, avoiding strife and discord, being of one mind together.
As you know, such unity was lost on those who follow Jesus.
This year, we celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation. One way to tell that story is to call it a story of reform: moving toward a more holy and pure vision of how Jesus called us to life. It was an improvement, a refashioning, a change for the better. But, on the other hand, it is the very thing Jesus is praying won’t happen. This 500-year-old clash, and the many years of Christian quarrel and faithful falling-out embodied the messy conflict that Jesus warned against. The church was surely divided prior to the reformation: Orthodox and Catholic, Maronite and Coptic, Nubian and Mar Thoma. But the Reformation caused such disunity, such division, such quarreling, arguing, feuding, conflict, and violent strife among Christians, it is difficult to say exactly what a reformation era Christian might think of religion in America today.
Amid the divisions that happened as a result of the reformation, the Congregationalists have their own divided history. Today, I will take a look at just a fraction of that history: Robert Browne, Jonathan Edwards, and Henry Ward Beecher.
Currently, there are many congregations that claim these reformers as their own, including the United Church of Christ, where I was baptized. As a denomination, it was formed, in its very essence, as an attempt to undo at least some of the bickering disagreement and schism that the Reformation era left in its wake. As its core, it sought unity. In a fragmented world, it turned back to Jesus’ ancient farewell prayer, and took as its central scripture passage John 17:21— “…that they may all be one.” And so, as we consider our Congregational window, our scripture lesson for today is simply that: Jesus prayer for his disciples and for all of us: “…that they may all be one.”
Scattered across my house are three white chairs—too short to be anything but awkward at the dinner table, too straight to be comfortable in the living room, and too much clutter to be all lined up together—but I hold onto them for sentimental reasons. Somehow, decades ago, when my grandmother’s church was doing some renovation, she bought the old church chairs—the ones up front for the pastor and deacons to sit in during worship—and they meant something to her, they connected her to that church, to that spiritual heritage, to that place.
My grandparents were part of this little church in Crawfordsville, Indiana that is part of a small denomination called the Disciples of Christ, that formed in the 1800’s as an attempt, too, like the United Church of Christ, to establish Christian unity after so much division during the post-reformation era. I was dedicated as a baby there, in a blessing service, and so my spiritual beginnings are there in that place called to unity.
My earliest memories of church, however, are from the United Church of Christ, in Midland Michigan, where I grew up and was baptized. The church was right next door to my elementary school, not so close that they were connected, but close enough that in my kindergarten mind, they very well could have had a secret passage way hitching them together underground. I vividly remember Sunday School in the room with the purple door—a strong enough memory in my mind that I checked their website yesterday, to see if they had a photo of their Sunday School rooms. Sure enough, all the rooms still to this day have colored doors. Red door, blue door, purple door, rainbow door. Isn’t that easier? Instead of room #126?
I was brought up, first, in these churches that call for Christian unity as their core value. Bill, Jo, and I are preaching this sermon series called Stained Glass, wondering about the many many ways that God’s light shines through our stained glass windows—the deep and abiding traditions that surround us every Sunday—and the reason why any one person might adopt one or all of those traditions as their own. I am preaching today on the Congregational window, because these early, formative churches in my life are part of the Congregational church.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that their link to Congregationalism, nor their hope for unity, meant anything to me,
but I have always felt akin to these ways of being the church, even as I pursued ordination in the Presbyterian church. Educationally, I’ve spent much more time among the Presbyterians—along with a Presbyterian seminary, I also attended a Presbyterian college (which still has a Presbyterian chaplain, who many of you know, Rev. Cat who used to lead our children’s chapels is now the chaplain at my alma mater, Hanover College). But, when I first became a pastor, I served at Grinnell College, a congregational college (well, one of those colleges that now denies its religious roots, but was founded by Congregationalists heading west into the great unknown). Then, I worked as a pastor at First Congregational Church in La Grange. I love my Presbyterian roots, don’t get me wrong, but to be honest, I’ve spent more time serving Congregational churches than Presbyterian ones, so it’s time I knew the history at work in our Congregational window.
Why should we be Congregationalists?
We already are, in many ways. Try this on for size, Kenilworth Union Church:
- Congregationalists never tightly subscribe to any one specific creed—that would be idolatry—but welcome many creeds, confessions of faith, hymns of faith, and testimonies about the way God is at work.
- Congregationalists hold that the local church is the church not beholden to any governing body beyond the local. Put more eloquently, “there are not many churches, but one church in many places.” For Congregationalists, Jesus Christ binds us all together every time we gather, so no other authority, beyond Jesus, is needed.
- Congregationalists emphasize the role of the laity, the ordinary person.
- Authority is vested in the local church. The local church is the church. They hire their own ministers (and can fire them). They write their own doctrine, liturgy, and rules for participation in worship. They own their own property. For Congregationalists, religion is and should be voluntary, not coerced in any way.
- From Congregationalists, we inherit democracy itself:
- Government derives its legitimacy from the voluntary consent of the governed
- The governors should be chosen by the governed
- Rulers should be accountable to the ruled
- And constitutional checks should limit both the governors and the people.
Some of that will feel decidedly familiar. You could sign up to be Congregational, I’d guess. But there are other ways in which our congregational heritage might challenge us.
Robert Browne, there on our window, for example, spent much of his life in and out of jail. He was ordained in the Church of England and then promptly burned his clergy license claiming his authority to preach comes, not from the archbishop or the king or queen, but from God on High. (Bill and Jo would be horrified at the burning of one’s clergy license, how else do you get free parking at the hospital? That’s truly the only perk to having a clergy card, no one else ever asks for it.)
And Kenilworth Union might be horrified at the idea of their pastors being in and out of jail. Robert Browne’s radical departure from the norm of his day would challenge us here, where the middle of the road is not just safe but is a foundation on which trust and unity is forged. Robert Browne’s life was nothing but safe, and he made enemies all the way up to the top. He had to flee to Holland (hence the windmills on our window) because of his radical belief that church and state should be separate, and that all people should have the basic right of religious freedom.
Jonathan Edwards, too, might seem both familiar and foreign. He grew up in an era when print media dominated, so he read anything he could get his hands on. We can relate to that in an era where digital media dominates, and we read anything we can get our hands on. He delved into the theological volumes in his father’s library—we all do that, right? And he recognized that the still-British-at-the-time colonies, and church life, might need to change to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing modern life—something we can all resonate in our own changing world.
But, in Edward’s religious world, some of the fights of his day included where to sit in church—a radical departure in his church was the ability for families to sit together, instead of being separated by gender—and a “seating committee” based their decisions on where to assign people, by social hierarchy based first on wealth, then age, then “men’s usefulness” in society. Yes, Edwards might have preached against those who “seek after a higher seat in God’s house” but he fully approved of the hierarchies created by the seating committee as a basic way for God’s good order to be upheld.
Edwards was well known for his sermon Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, a sermon that many of you would be aghast to hear from any of your preachers. And, fun fact for all you fans of Hamilton: Edwards was the grandfather of Aaron Burr.
Henry Ward Beecher is, to me, delightful character in our Congregational window. He was not quite as revolutionary as Browne, but equally divisive, and as a theologian he took a hard-left turn from Edwards, who was 100 years his theological predecessor. In fact, Beecher’s father might have been known to preach sermons like Edwards Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God and it was in wrestling with the contradiction between such a supposedly angry God and a gospel of, as he saw it, love, that Beecher became so well known. Christ, to Beecher, was a friend and mentor. Salvation, to Beecher, was based, not on God’s judgment, but God’s acceptance.
People came from near and far to hear him preach at Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, taking ferries over from Manhattan, gathering in the standing-room-only crowd of three thousand people, to hear of this God of love from the famous preacher. And, at a time when most churches were silent on the issue of slavery, Beecher convinced thousands of Americans that slavery was ungodly and unchristian—a stance that made him equally beloved and controversial.
His church became a massive anti-slavery engine, reportedly a stop on the Underground Railroad. He held mock auctions (as seen in our Congregational window) at which the congregation purchased the real freedom of slaves.
One of the most famous of these famous slaves was a little girl named Pinky, who was auctioned off at a regular Sunday worship service on February 5, 1860. A collection was taken up of $900, which today would be around $20,000, and a gold ring was placed in the collection plate that day. On the day of her liberation from slavery, Beecher presented Pinky with that ring. And then, more than 60 years later, at the time of Plymouth’s 80th anniversary, Pinky showed up to give the ring back to the church as a sign of gratitude. They still have that ring today, as a reminder of the work to which God calls them.
So, why honor our Congregational heritage?
Today, we, too, are still called. We are called to remember the people who come before us who had courage and compassion, pursued life-risking work, and had genuine fearlessness in the face of oppression. We are called to wonder about how God might be needing us to muster up the same courage and compassion, with risk and fearlessness.
- As we face our 125th anniversary, who from this church do we want to come back for our 150th anniversary, our 175th anniversary, and—like Pinky returning to Beecher’s church 60 years later—what life changing story do we hope they might tell?
- Like Robert Browne and his followers, what might we risk getting arrested doing, for the sake of the gospel?
- Like Edwards, what might we need to think about now, in order to equip our church for the changing and challenging future that is surely ahead?
- Like today’s churches that claim this same Congregationalist history, what ways might we be called to pursue unity, even in the face of things that truly divide us.
Jesus’ prayer for unity took place at the Lord’s Table, at that Last Supper. It was between the gathering of friends around a sacred meal, and the challenge of going out into a world of violence, a world of risk, a world that seeks to divide us. We find ourselves in a similar place—between shared sacred meals and a world of violence just outside the door—just as the Congregationalists did, just as Browne and Edwards and Beecher. We gather here in this safe, beautiful, holy sanctuary, tuned to praise God, and as we turn from this gathering, we are all too aware of the world of violence, the world of risk, the world of division beyond the doors of this church.
As a civil rights theologian wisely said, “The opposite of good is not bad, the opposite of good is indifference.” It takes a deep trust in Jesus’ presence among us, a deep trust in the God of love, a deep trust in one another, to step out into the world and risk our lives for the sake of such love.
- In a world that seeks to divide us by race or religion, by democrat or republican, by rich or poor, by country or mother tongue, how do we do it?
- In a world that perpetuates violence, through hotel windows onto innocent crowds, how do we do it?
- In a world that naturally unleashes terror through storm and earthquake and storm and storm, how do we do it?
How do we build such trust here? How do we take risks together? “The opposite of good is indifference.” With the Stained Glass here, reflecting into our holy sanctuary such deep rivers of love, such witness to holy risk, such work for good, how can we not?
I will go home and sit in those chairs, the ones scattered across my house, and I will ponder: how do we live up to the challenge, to the good within our theological heritage… I will wonder, what does God call us to now? I will prayerfully consider how we might be called into the future. Will you do the same? Will you ponder? Pray? Wonder? How does God call you now? In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
- Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America.
- Kevin T. Christiano, Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments.
- James F. Cooper, Tenacious of their Liberties.
- Ernst Haenchen, John.
- George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life.
- Gail R. O’Day, John.
- Brian Sterling-Vete, The Rebel Who Inspired A Nation.
- Marianne M. Thompson, John.
- Lukas Vischer, Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present.
- Krista Tippett, On Being: Arnold Eisen — The Opposite of Good Is Indifference.