Stained Glass, VIII: Why Kenilworth Union Church Is a Great Idea
God has shown you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?—Micah 6:8
I grew up thinking human beings were very tribal animals. That may have been the product of a very childish imagination, but that’s what I thought.
My small familial unit belonged to many tribes. We were Dutch, not Polish. We were Calvinists, not Catholics. We were Chevrolet, not Ford. We were Tide, not Cheer. We were Coke, not Pepsi. We were Colgate, not Crest. We were Spartans, not Wolverines. I’m only a Wolverine now because I fell in love with a Wolverine and had to convert to Ann Arborism after marrying into the faith. Betraying my father, I faithfully raised my kids in the one true Wolverine faith.
Brands tell us who we are. We love our brands, but now I buy a lot of generic, unbranded merchandise. Denominations are brands, but there’s something to be said for unbranded Christianity, right?
The other day I read a book with a provocative title: Was the Reformation a Mistake? It will not surprise you to learn that the author earned his PhD degree from Boston College, that venerable Jesuit institution, and is now the Chair of the Theology Department for Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake not far from here. Was the Reformation a Mistake? asks the author. Maybe. Sort of. Kind of.
The great Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan once referred to the Reformation as a “tragic necessity,” and you see what he means, right? It was a necessity because the Church of the Middle Ages was such a wreck, such a corruption, such a departure from its New Testament origins.
But it was also tragic because it splintered and fractured the Church’s witness to God’s pristine, sacred truth.
Another Church Historian said that the Post-Reformation history of Europe in the sixteenth century is like looking at a horrible car crash. The landscape is littered with wrecked parts, some passengers are dead and others injured, and the vehicle is totaled and nobody has any idea now how they are going to get to where they are supposed to be going.
Luther is to Christian History what Pandora is to Greek mythology, right? Remember the story of Pandora? Pandora is the Greek Eve, the first woman. She is the one who took the lid off her jar, or her box, or whatever, and let out every pestilence and danger and famine and earthquake and hurricane that has afflicted the human race ever since.
She eventually succeeded in fixing the lid back onto her jar, but it was too late; every evil thing had escaped and there was only one thing left in her jar when she got the lid back on, and do you know what it was? The only thing left in her jar, now imprisoned forever, is Hope.
Luther is kind of like that. Once he taught Christians they could think for themselves, that’s what they’ve been doing for 500 years.
One hundred and twenty-five years ago, Joseph Sears and a small band of wise Kenilworthians presciently predicted that as year succeeded to year into the future, denominationalism would gradually begin to seem like a mistake, a necessity perhaps, but a tragic one.
You’ve heard about the lady who went to the Post Office to buy stamps for her Christmas Cards, and when the clerk asked her, “What denomination?” she exclaimed, Oh, Lord, has it come to that? All right, give me 10 Episcopalians, 10 Catholics, and 10 Methodists.”
My friend Jeff is a Presbyterian minister and one day he overheard a conversation between his eight-year-old son Jimmy and a new friend of Jimmy’s. Jimmy is a preacher’s kid, so of course the conversation eventually got around to church. One boy asked the other, “What abomination do you belong to?” Denominations are abominations, aren’t they?
In 1893, according to Sally Campbell, our masterful Chief Historian, The Union Church was the 13th building in the village. The Union Church of Kenilworth is older than the Village of Kenilworth, which wouldn’t be incorporated until 1896.
There were only 15 families. The tiny chapel they originally constructed was way bigger than they needed, for generations. It cost $6,100, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but $6,100 in 1893 is equivalent to $158,000 today. They furnished the building and built an organ for another $900; in today’s dollars, another $24,000.
I suppose most of it came from Mr. Sears, the faithful Swedenbourgian and magnanimous philanthropist, but still, we have been living off their prescience and their generosity ever since.
Their emphasis on union and on inclusiveness starts with the two signature texts that they selected as their mission statement, one from the Hebrew Prophets and the second from the Christian Gospels, recited so capably for us a moment ago by these skilled if diminutive orators.
“Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God,” says the prophet Micah. “Love God above all and your neighbor as yourself,” says Jesus in all three Synoptic Gospels.
Those are catholic texts, aren’t they? Catholic—small ‘c’—means that it covers all God-fearers of every stripe and every tongue and every garb in every time and every place. Our founders were careful to choose inclusive, unifying texts, because no one but Joseph Stalin and Sayfullo Saipov could possibly disagree with them. Justice, kindness, humility, love for God and love for neighbor. That is exemplary religion distilled to its purest essence.
They could have chosen other central texts of our faith. They could have chosen ‘born of a virgin,’ or ‘ascended into heaven,’ or ‘descended into hell,’ or ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’
Those are important texts of our faith, but it’s harder to assent to those texts; those texts demand capacious credulity and suspension of disbelief.
But these texts from Micah and Matthew pitch the broadest possible tent under which even the unequivocally skeptical can take shelter. You begin with ‘Love God above all and your neighbor as yourself,’ and maybe eventually you get to ‘we have seen his glory, glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’
It wasn’t a sorting out that our founders wanted; it was union. It wasn’t just the muscular Christian they wanted, but all of us, credulous and skeptical alike.
Our founders, you see, were wary of “the narcissism of small differences.” Do you know that wonderful phrase? Sigmund Freud made it famous in his book Civilization and Its Discontents; Freud actually borrowed the idea from somebody else, but what Dr. Freud means by the narcissism of small differences is that most of us engage in our fiercest disputes with those who are almost but not quite like us, with those who are different from us in small ways.
The narcissism of small differences, says Dr, Freud, comes from the human need to find, and even to exaggerate, small differences from others to convince ourselves that we are special, that there is something distinctive about us; brands and labels and clubs give us a sense of otherness and separateness and selfhood, a false sense of selfhood, but we want it anyway.
That’s why Freud called it the narcissism of small differences, narcissistic because we emphasize these small differences to stroke our ego and stoke our pride. We all scoff at the young men of Chicago who join gangs, but in fact our brand loyalty and our participation in various clubs make all of us into gang members.
So, for instance, Wesleyan Methodists don’t argue with Muslims; they spend most of their energy arguing with United Methodists, who are almost but not quite like them.
Missouri Synod Lutherans don’t argue with Jews; they argue with Evangelical Lutherans, who are almost but not quite like them.
Democrats don’t argue with communists; communists are a lost cause. Democrats argue mostly with Republicans, from whom they are virtually indistinguishable in the larger scheme of things. That’s less true just now in 2017, but you see my point.
In Jesus’ day, Pharisees didn’t argue with the Romans or the Zealots; the Romans were a lost cause and the Zealots were crazy and dangerous. The Pharisees spent most of their energy arguing with the Sadducees, who were almost but not quite like the Pharisees.
In fact, it is the Pharisees’ narcissism of small differences that elicits Jesus’ recitation of the Great Commandment in this morning’s Gospel Lesson. A Pharisee has just watched Jesus annihilate a Sadducee in a little verbal dispute, and the defeat of his rival religionist emboldens the Pharisee to puff out his chest and demonstrate his own theological acumen, and so he asks Jesus, “Rabbi, which is the greatest commandment?” He wants to show the world that he’s just a little better than a Sadducee. It is the narcissism of small differences.
And so our founders preferred Union to the narcissism of small differences; they thought it unseemly that Presbyterians and Lutherans couldn’t worship the same God in the same space at the same time.
So do you think the world could use such a Union Church just now? After the imbroglio in Charlottesville last August, Nancy Gibbs, then editor of Time Magazine, pointed out that in the 2016 Presidential election, of the 3,113 counties in the United States, the election was decided by 10 points or fewer in just 303 counties—303 out of over 3,000. In 1,196 counties, the margin was 50 points or more; a landslide, one way or the other, in almost 40% of American counties.
Ms. Gibbs says, “We have self-sorted into private pockets of affirmation and where we live shapes what we believe. ‘These days, Democrats and Republicans no longer stop at disagreeing with each other’s ideas,’ argues Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center. ‘Many in each party now deny the other’s facts, disapprove of the other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources, and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage, and parenthood. It’s as if they belong not to rival parties but to alien tribes.’”
So I think America could use a Union Church which tries to erase the narcissism of small differences, and stands up tall on its two beautiful pillars, Micah and Matthew: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, love God above all and your neighbor as yourself.
My friend Steve is the pastor at the Church of the Palms in Sarasota, Florida. Steve is a World War II aficionado. He’s been to Normandy two or three times, and the last time he went he came back with this story from June, 1944. It may be apocryphal, but it is illustrative.
Three paratroopers jumped into the French countryside under cover of night on or around D-Day and in the confusion got separated from their company. One of them died in the jump, and the two survivors carried their friend’s body to the local Roman Catholic Church and knocked on the door of the rectory. They asked the priest if they could bury their friend in the church’s cemetery.
The priest asked, “Is he Catholic?” The soldiers admitted that he was Protestant. “I’m so sorry, friends, but my bishop will not allow me to bury a non-Catholic among all our saints.”
The soldiers continued to plead: “It’s war; can’t you make an exception?” The priest continued to refuse, and the soldiers continued to plead, until finally the priest gave in—a little bit—and said, “Bury him just outside the cemetery fence.”
So the soldiers dug a grave, buried their friend right up against the cemetery fence, and said a prayer. It was getting dark, so they went to get some sleep in the forest, intending to scratch their dead friend’s name and dates on a stone or a piece of wood and erect a primitive memorial for their friend.
When they returned the next morning, though, they couldn’t find the grave. They walked clear around the perimeter of the cemetery twice and couldn’t find the grave.
They knocked on the door of the rectory again and asked the priest if he knew what happened to the grave. “Father, forgive us,” they said. “We were the ones who came yesterday.”
The priest said, “Ah yes, friends, I know what happened to your grave. I was so upset about your visit yesterday that I spent half the night worrying about what I said to you. And I spent the other half of the night moving the fence.”
This church has spent the last 125 years moving the fence, expanding the sacred space, so that there is room for all. That’s why Kenilworth Union Church is a great idea.
Matthew Levering, Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical, with a response by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).
Quoted by Kevin J. Vanhoozer in Was the Reformation a Mistake?, p. 194.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, quoted by Vanhoozer, pp. 194-195.
Jim Patrick, quoted by Cal and Rose Samra, Holy Humor (New York: Guideposts, 1996), 200.
Nancy Gibbs, “Will the Nation Succeed After Charlottesville Where Donald Trump Failed?” Time, August 28, 2017, pp. 24-27
Stephen D. McConnell, in a sermon entitled “The Spirit of the Law,” at Church of the Palms, Sarasota, FL., July 21, 2013.