First Congregational Church, Chesire CT Sunday May 31, 2015
My geographically separated brethren, I greet you in the name of the One who calls us to be one. If a flock of Connecticut church leaders is willing to hear a word from a Massachusetts pastor, even if only for 7-9 minutes, I think we are at least halfway to the unity that the Ephesian church longed for! I’ll take the liberty to presume I speak among friends, kindred Congressionalists- we know that New Hampshire isn’t the only place that subscribes to the mantra “live free or die.” We know that a presumed self-sufficiency, a functional congregationalism no matter the denomination is endemic in this land. The Disciples of Christ pastor Michael Kinnamon said “Denominations make powerful adjectives, but idolatrous nouns.” We know that tucked in the back of our locked cabinet, behind the good silver and the musty church records, is a porcelain idol of independence- and maybe, secretly, we like it there. Maybe, secretly, we don’t want move it out on the front lawn for the parish rummage sale to be sold for $0.50 along with some mismatched wise men and shepherds from an incomplete crèche.
Now, “maybe there are no more cowboys in this Connecticut town,” And maybe this isn’t true in your churches, but certainly in Massachusetts, our churches act as if accepting help of another is a sign of weakness. We drag our feet. We go at it alone before trying together. Collaboration is for the weak, not the strong. In a town that shall remain nameless, I visited a UCC church next door to an Episcopal parish. The UCC deacon showed me the exact spot where you can inconspicuously spy on the Episcopalians to see whose parking lot is fuller, because if someone else is winning, we must be losing… With this mythology of competition, collaboration becomes a second option, rarely the first. Yet, deep down, beneath the rock and the clay and the silt and the sand, 6 feet below where the earth is still cool from winter, we know that our splendid isolation will leave us entombed in clapboard white coffins.
Therefore, I charge you, sisters and brothers, be worthy of the holy calling to which you are called, only connect. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own parish. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own denomination. Build up the body of Christ, for the sake of the world. We in the ecumenical movement have done a lousy job of remembering the second half of John 17. We remember that our Lord and Savior, just before his death, prayed that his followers might be one. We forget that he prayed that his followers might be one, so that the world might believe in the one who sent him. Our unity is not simply for our own good, to tamp down the tempest in the teapot that is the divided Church, but for the sake of our reconciling witness to the world! Reclaim the wide, thick commitment to the oikoumene, not just the Church, but the whole inhabited world. Reclaim the oikoumene, and maybe start in your neighborhood. I wonder if the end of an official ecumenical structure in Connecticut doesn’t actually free you for more vitality and life at the local level. To butcher Tip O’Neill, maybe all ecumenism is local.
About a year ago, I developed an unexplained pain in my right hip. I had been in a cycling accident, but the injury was to my back, not my hip. The doctors tried to treat the site of my pain, but no relief. Finally, a doctor diagnosed my suffering as “referred pain.” The site of the suffering is not the same as the source. While riding my bicycle again, my legs had gotten strong, but my back and core were still weak- so my hamstrings were pulling my tendons tight across my hips without the rest of my body compensating. The Church in Ephesus was told to attend to each part, because when “each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
Therefore, I charge you, the body of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut, join and knit together. Bind up the broken, so that every ligament, each part is working properly together. We’ve learned to compensate for our brokenness, hobbled by our fractures yet unable to remember what it was like to be working properly. We’ve grown familiar with our “referred pain,” unaware that the site of our suffering is not the same as the source. We’ve grown so used to our divisions that they seem natural, pre-ordained even. We can barely imagine the possibility of working with the Roman Catholic parish next door. And yet, to the wider world, to that whole oikuemene, the difference between a Congregationalist and a Lutheran and an Episcopalian and an Evangelical means less and less and less. Massachusetts is the fourth least religious state in the nation at 28%, and you, always just a bit better than us, are the eighth, with only 32% identifying as ‘very religious.’ All our denominations are religious minorities now. Our differences are small compared to an entire oikoumene that does not know, does not care about our precious denominational divisions.
A few year’s ago, a colleague from Duke Divinity School came for a few days to visit and observe the church in Massachusetts. I showed him our fine buildings, our town squares, our attempts at adaptation. At the end of the visit, he said, “You still have all of the burden of being establishment and have not yet claimed all of the creativity of being marginal.” Church, I charge you, for the sake of Gospel for the whole inhabited world, claim the creativity of being marginal.
Finally, I charge you, beloved servants of God:
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.