by Daniel Harrell
Upon seeing the title of my sermon this morning, The Congregational Way, I’ve been asked whether I knew our Senior Minister emeritus authored a book by the same name more than fifty years ago. Not to split hairs, but Arthur’s book was actually entitled The Congregational Way of Life. Among the many hallmarks of our particular brand of Christianity is its dependency on each member rather than reliance on religious structural hierarchy. As Arthur wrote, “A Congregational church is the people’s church. It belongs to them. It is their work, their life, their responsibility.” Among the chief ways we exercise this responsibility happens about an hour from now. We call it, unambiguously, “The Annual Meeting.” You’d think after all this time somebody would have come up with a more catchy title. On the other hand, if you’re not a fan of church meetings, it’s nice to be reminded this one only happens once a year.
Annual Meetings actually go back centuries; they serve as the heartbeat of a congregation’s collective decision-making. They provide the occasional heartache and heart attack too. The architectural inspiration for our Meetinghouse, the West Parish Congregational Church in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, about ten minutes down the street from my in-laws, was built in 1717. Four years after its construction, we’re talking truly colonial, long before the Revolutionary War, their Meetinghouse was deemed too small for its worshipers. At its Annual Meeting in 1721, the congregation decided it best to cut the Meetinghouse in half, pull the two ends apart and add 18 feet of length to its middle. Fortunately, for us today, we only have to discuss putting on a new roof.
Like all reformation-minded Protestants, the colonial New England Puritans held to the priesthood of all believers, which fueled the conviction of each member as a necessary part of the whole body of Christ. Congregational governance and its importance placed on each person has been credited with inspiring American democracy, one person one vote, but there are critical distinctions. Unlike a democracy, Christianity’s goal is not majority rule but corporate submission to God’s rule. When Congregationalists gather to discern the Lord’s will, we trust the Holy Spirit among us in ways she’s not present when we pray by ourselves. It’s why we’re called the body rather than bodies of Christ. God’s spirit infuses our collective souls with collective wisdom and capacity for discernment, spiritual common sense and concern for each other, as well as with courage and mutual support to do the right thing.
As a lifelong Congregationalist, I attended my first Annual Meeting as a kid in my Greensboro, North Carolina church. Like many longstanding local churches, my family and others had attended together for generations, more or less learning to tolerate each other’s peculiarities. To quote Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Love was understood, once for all, to be the basis on which our life was built—and after that—the less said, the better.” This was definitely true of our Annual Meetings, which took about ten minutes each year, squeezed in between the last hymn and benediction. Anything important had been decided already where church business is often decided—in the parking lot where the Deacons smoked their cigarettes before worship.
After becoming a minister myself, I served a church in Brookline, New Hampshire. A tiny congregation of 50 souls, its Annual Meeting more rough and tumble affair. They held it the church basement with thick carpet on the floor in case an argument got physical. The Moderator was more of a referee. Many more showed up for the business meeting than ever showed up for worship, for reasons that had to do with the church’s somewhat substantial endowment and who got to control it. In Boston, where I attended 23 Annual Meetings as a minister there, the challenge was always how to make the meetings more about ministry than business. One year, determined to trust the Holy Spirit as poured out at Pentecost—fiery and blustery—we dispensed with Robert’s Rules and let the Spirit blow. An especially blustery member stood up and proposed several thousand dollars to build a tourist kiosk out front to attract Boston visitors to our church. Chaos ensued over whether the church was a house of worship or a tourist attraction worthy of diverting money from the missions budget to staff. Robert’s Rules returned the following year to assure the Spirit wouldn’t blow out of order.
It is good, I think, that we conduct our Annual Meeting here in the Meetinghouse where we worship. Our business with God should be shaped by our worship. For our erstwhile forbears, the Puritans and Pilgrims, mundane questions of everyday conduct were always treated as spiritual questions that pressed their faith into behavior. As Jesus declared, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do what it says.” We believe what we do. Given Scripture’s high standards, this does present challenges. Doing God’s word can be daunting and even unrealistic, so we often default to treating Scripture as ethical ideals—a bar set impossibly high on purpose so to force us to our knees to concede our need for grace. While we surely need grace, its greater purpose beyond forgiveness is to empower obedience. To the accusers of a woman caught in adultery, Jesus said to throw rocks only if you’ve never sinned yourself. As stones dropped from tight fists to the ground, Jesus turned to the woman and told her to “go and sin no more.” As the apostle Paul rhetorically wondered, “Shall we continue to sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!”
Jesus did not intend his words as idealistic. When he said “do not worry,” I think he really meant not to worry, that God would supply what you need. The same with not judging or hating or hoarding treasure on earth, or practicing your piety for applause. True, “gouging out your eye if it causes you to sin” was a bit hyperbolic, but staying faithful instead of adulterous is doable and not idealistic. The same with giving your shirt to somebody who takes your coat, going a second mile or turning the other cheek, visiting the sick and people in prison. Selling possessions and doing with less so to give more to the poor is doable too. Daunting and difficult, but definitely doable.
Jesus compared faithful obedience to a wise man who built his house on a rock to safeguard against torrential winds and flood. When hardships and trials crash against shore, as they always do, we can trust Jesus’ word that not even sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father, and that we are of much more value to him than a sparrow. When parting from our dearest friends at our deaths, it matters that Jesus said this world is not our true home, that our real destination is a heavenly city, a place Jesus goes to prepare for us all together. When financial crisis threatens, it matters that Jesus promised, “if God so clothes the grass of the field which is here today, and tomorrow is cast into the fire, shall he not do much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” It matters that God allows hardship as mercy, sometimes, to “wean us from loving the things of this world.” It matters that Scripture assures us how “the sufferings of life cannot compare to the glory to be revealed in us.” What Jesus teaches is daunting and difficult, but over and over it proves right by those who obey it. No explanation of Christian virtue works apart from it.
Our passage this morning marks the birth day of the church, the very first Annual Meeting you might say. Fired up by the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter preached and thousands believed and their belief changed how they lived their lives. The signs and wonders performed by the preachers helped too, I imagine, but the ongoing practices were much more pedestrian: teaching and fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.
A new Gallup survey of churchgoers this week revealed the number one reason people show up on Sundays. Far ahead of the music or the kids’ programs or the doughnuts or even miracles—the number one reason is sermons that teach about Scripture. There’s some pressure. Thankfully it makes no difference who’s preaching. God’s word has its own power despite the messenger. The Lord tapped tongue-tied people like Moses and Isaiah and Peter to do his talking on purpose. And then in Christ, God’s word became flesh and blood, a lesson in real life and death. God so loved the world he gave all he had in Jesus. The early church followed suit, we read, giving all they had so that nobody had any want.
Everyone shared all in common, in community or fellowship, an expression from the familiar Greek word koinonia. Despite its importance, this is the only place Luke uses the word koinonia in Acts. Apparently, there is a kind of uniqueness to Christian community that supersedes what we might experience elsewhere. Spiritual kinship of the kind shared by Christians is thick, old and young, needy and needier, packed full with as much love as possible—made possible by proximity and prayer. A hallmark of Congregationalism is its localness: your neighbors are truly your neighbors. Because of our closeness we get into each other’s business. You can’t edit out the bad stuff and have true community. Even when you try to hide, love finds its way in. In those times when I’ve tried to hide my problems, or been ashamed of my failures, so few are ever surprised when it all comes to light, even though I’m shocked that friends knew all along. “How insensitive and unobservant did you take us to be?” one person asked me. And then from another, “Are you so special that you don’t suffer too? We catch each other. We pastor each other.”
As to the breaking of bread, the mention is likely reference sharing meals and also, especially, to the Lord’s Table, the centerpiece of Christian worship and symbol of our oneness. We gather together to eat and drink “in remembrance of Christ,” which is not that same as “in memory of Christ.” Jesus is not dead, but risen and present, his very body and blood pulsing throughout our own. Christ’s life in us is our life, but more specifically, his broken life allows for us to be broken to0—by and for each other—broken and put back together by grace, our witness to resurrection and hope and all things made new.
As to prayer, this is our spiritual oxygen, our breath, our respiratory dependance and very life support. Heads bowed, knees bent, hands raised, hearts engaged—prayer denotes submission and surrender. Again, Christianity’s goal is not majority rule but personal and corporate submission to the will of the Lord. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Submission and surrender are best done in communities where we learn to defer to one another. Morality by definition entails relationship with others. Love always implicates other people. Our culture puts a primacy on autonomy and individual rights, but as churches we push back against this, understanding that who we are as congregations is always greater than who we can by by ourselves left alone.
The history of the church, and of any particular church, celebrates chapters of faithfulness and accomplishment, but there are invariably chapters of failure and sinfulness too. We die and we rise and we die and we rise. Our integrity as witnesses to gospel power and the fruit of prayer bears out in these more challenging chapters through repentance and rebirth. Redemption demands we die to old ways big and small, time and again, little deaths every day, for the sake of love and new life.
During my early years in Boston, debate churned in more conservative churches over whether women could preach or be deacons. As the word of God says, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” 1 Timothy 2:12, a verse with various interpretations according to its context. The year our church took up this verse made for a very memorable Annual Meeting. A special committee populated with people from every position had met for months prior. They came up with something of a contrived solution, meant to keep the peace between the sides: Women would be allowed to serve as church leaders but could comprise no more than one third of the Church Council. So much for peace. The congregation went crazy and roundly defeated that proposal. Whether conservative or liberal, everybody agreed that gender gerrymandering was not in the Bible. Finally, a member stood and nominated Anne O’Donell to serve on the Church Council. And everybody was like, Anne is awesome. We love her. So they voted her in and that settled that. The Spirit had moved and we never talked about it again.
We must override the instinct to self-preservation with holy curiosity and adventure—with fear and trembling we must continually ask, could God be doing something different among us? This is the thing about Jesus. As soon as we’re sure we know what he’s doing, he seems to be doing something else. Strolling through the Jerusalem Temple, the Old Testament epitome of God’s presence on earth, Jesus warned how in time not one stone would be left on top of another. Death and resurrection must happen if our mission is to be more than merely survival. We guard what we love to be sure. And yet love also lets go. Any way forward will suffer disappointment and loss. Go to Jerusalem and you’ll not find the Pentecost church. None of the congregations Paul planted still exist. In America, thousands of congregations shut down every year. And yet thousands more start up, learning and loving, breaking bread and praying, many looking very different than how we presume church should look. And many others looking exactly like church should look if we’d only we’d kept the faith.
The difference between a good church and a bad church is pretty much up to the congregation. We can be a terrible church by trading Scripture for feel-better sermons, insist we still care but then never show up, saying we love but never tolerating being loved, insisting on our own ways instead of the way of the Lord. Or we can be a good church— learning and loving, getting into each other’s business, breaking bread and being broken, praying and submitting ourselves to God and each other. These are not ideals. We can do this. At the same time, the difference between a good church and great church is not up to the congregation at all. “Day by day,” we read, “the Lord added to their number those being saved.”
“Perhaps when that day comes,” Arthur reminds us, “we will not care so much to do everything with speed, to be so efficient and successful. Perhaps, in that day, we will have wave learned to wait and to hope and to trust, gathered together with our covenant sisters and brothers, listening with each other to the word of the Lord and finding God among us in power and love.”