Paula Northwood March 10, 2019
Scripture Acts 6:1–7
I have lost count of the number of times someone has asked me “What kind of church is this?” I answer “Congregational.” They say, “I know it’s a congregation but what kind?” Where to start? “Have you heard of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists?” I ask. “This church belongs to a group called Congregationalists.” If the person is still looking dumbfounded, I ask if they have heard of the Pilgrims who came across the Atlantic Ocean in 1620. They are our spiritual ancestors. The Pilgrims evolved into current Congregational and United Church of Christ congregations. Then the response is anything from “oh” or “cool” to “weird.”
Continuing in our sermon series, the Purpose of the church that we are examining today is: Deepening our understanding of our faith tradition. To deepen our understanding of our faith tradition, we obviously have to ask: “What or which faith tradition?” We often talk about ourselves as a progressive church in the Christian tradition. We worship God and follow the teachings of Jesus.
On our website we state: We are joyfully committed to intellectual integrity, the arts, diversity, community and social justice. All families are affirmed at Plymouth; we have a long history of welcoming LGBTQ people in this open and affirming congregation.
Our faith tradition is Congregational within the Christian tradition, which at the most basic level means there is no outside or higher authority that can impose any idea, form or worship, governance system or policy on our congregation. We are free from doctrine or creeds. We do not assume that we each believe the same things about God, but we do share the common core values of openness, inclusivity and diversity. We also believe that each generation must make faith its own.
We have a long history of being theologically liberal, which in modern parlance is called “progressive.” Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement within the Christian tradition that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism. Progressive Christianity affirms that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey. Progressives seek community that is inclusive of all people, from believers to questioning skeptics and agnostics, to name just a few. Progressives know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe. We find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes. Progressives strive for peace and justice among all people and strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth. Progressive Christians commit to a path of lifelong learning, compassion and selfless love.
I think this describes Plymouth Church at our best, and this has been demonstrated throughout the church’s history, although not perfectly. As followers of the Congregational Way, the church has been in the vanguard of social issues, such as opposing slavery in our early days in the United States; being the first among Christian churches to ordain women into ministry; advocating for gay rights, including recognizing gay clergy and gay marriage; and a continued and sustained effort to work with the marginalized and the poor. We have also valued intellectual challenge and promoted continued learning.
I chose the text from Acts because it demonstrates a challenge from the earliest beginnings of Christianity. There were people doing social justice work, and there were others who were doing theological work. Doing the work of serving the poor and widows was taking everyone’s energy. They needed help because some people were being neglected and overlooked, and there wasn’t time for others to do the necessary theological work. Both are a part of our faith tradition. Both are needed for the church to grow. The early church nominated some members and commissioned them to do diaconal work, what we would call Deacons. And according to the text and history, the number of followers increased. But as with any organization over time, distortions happen. People lose vision and, in the case of Christianity, begin worshipping the message (Bible) and the messenger (Jesus) instead of embodying the message.
In recent decades, the explosion of information and technology has rendered most of the traditional understandings of Christianity unbelievable or irrelevant. Since Plymouth doesn’t hold traditional understandings of faith, maybe this isn’t quite as serious. But traditional congregations—often called mainline—are closing at a staggering rate, with some polls indicating as many as 4,000 a year. Why is this happening? The reasons are varied: there is a lack of social pressure to attend church, more Sunday options and activities exist, people are more mobile and one can get religious programing from a variety of sources. But I think the number-one reason is that churches have not made the Christian message relevant for today. They have not deepened the understanding of their faith tradition in relevant ways.
We are on the cusp of something different happening in Christendom, and Plymouth Church is positioned in a good place theologically, spiritually and geographically.
We have a great deal to offer. Theologically, we have the freedom to discern what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this time and place, in this neighborhood, on this day. We have the freedom to invite people into an honest conversation, using all we know about science, physics, biology, psychology and so forth, to ask the deeper questions of our existence and purpose, We are not afraid to do this because our faith is not threatened by results even if we are to find out our concept of God is wrong. This is at the heart of our Purpose to deepen our understanding of our faith tradition.
We have spiritual freedom. Spiritually, because we have freedom from following a creed, we have the freedom to use new language and liturgical models to express our faith. We have the freedom to explore new ways that transform lives and create a vital and real faith. We can revere the traditions of the past but not be bound to them; rather, we can be born again in this generation. We can foster a spiritual depth in a variety of ways. Like the early church, we can respond to needs and make changes.
Our Church vision, which is rooted in the faith tradition, is always forward-looking. We lost a few generations in this church because we kept children out of the worship service on a regular basis. And then we wondered why so very few attend churches now. We did not model the importance of worship as a spiritual practice.
We, as a church, have learned from our mistake, and we now have a 9 o’clock service where children are welcomed, included and involved. This service is growing. It is not only the church of the future, but it’s Plymouth Church right now. It may look and feel a little different, but it is our church and it is relevant.
And finally, geographically, we are positioned in an incredible city and we have numerous parking lots. We have resources and gifts to share. We are a faith community that has the flexibility and resolve to move into the future, trusting that God will shape and transform her people as needed. We are a big tent, theologically diverse and welcoming, spiritually open and creative with a beautiful building located in a place where many people are moving to be downtown. We have an opportunity to open our doors and welcome the spiritual seeker.
What kind of church is this? I hope we are a church that desires to grow. A church that speaks truth to power. A church that shares the love of God! A church that truly welcomes all! In all of Jesus’ teaching, there was no outcast; there was no one he considered unclean. If we are to be followers of Jesus and worshippers of God, there can be no prejudices that are allowed to operate in our church. We will be a church with open hearts and a passion for life!
As Annie Dillard stated in our reading from Teaching a Stone to Talk earlier, let’s wake up and realize the power we have to bring the relevant, life transforming love of God to our world! May it be so. Amen.