Doing and Believing
by Rev. Joseph ConnollyClick here to listen to this sermon on Vimeo.
“The apostles said to Jesus, ‘Increase our faith!’” — Luke 17:5
Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is the result of a merger among four denominations— Congregational Churches, Christian Churches, Evangelical Churches and Reformed Churches. At the Fall Meeting of the Susquehanna Association, last Saturday, we devoted time to sharing information on polity, the church governance, found in those roots.
Bonnie and I attended the meeting. I was invited (chosen?) to speak about Congregationalism. What follows is the essence of what I shared. (Slight pause.)
To start, I let everyone know I grew up Roman Catholic. Hence, I turned to the expert on Congregationalism in the family— Bonnie. While she readily admits she was Baptized in an Episcopal Church, her family lamented and wisely joined a Congregational Church by the time she was three.
From that point forward, she has always been a member of a Congregational Church. Given that history, I asked Bonnie what being a Congregationalist meant to her.
She laid it out simply. We have no Bishops to govern us, so each church is responsible for itself. No one else tells us what we have to believe. And we are in covenant with others in our own church and with other churches so each of us as individuals and each of our churches pledge to listen, to respect and to help each other.
Given Bonnie’s eloquent input, I probably should have just repeated what she said. But I’m a preacher. I repeated it and then I illustrated with story. (Slight pause.)
A classmate of mine at Bangor Theological Seminary wound up there because his pastor, David Ladry, had graduated from Bangor in the early 1960s. That was at the very beginning of the time when the United Church of Christ had come together as a body.
When a student at Bangor, David was asked to be a supply preacher at a small church in Aroostook County— very far north in the State of Maine. Upon arrival David was met by the Chair of the Deacons. Having shown this student the worship space, the Deacon said, “Of course, this is Communion Sunday.”
David, appropriately, demurred. “I’m not licensed by any Committee on Ministry to offer the Sacrament.”
The Deacon, all five foot four of him, got in the face of David who was nearly six feet tall wagging a finger. A thick Maine accent— David had not noticed it before— poured forth. “Are you the person Bangor Seminary sent here to preach today?”
A little put off, David replied, “Well of course I am. Who else would have come here from Bangor at this time of day?”
The Deacon seemed to relax. “Fine. This is Communion Sunday. Case closed.”
The real punch line here is David went on to become the licensed and later the settled, ordained pastor at that church, the first settled and ordained pastor that church ever had. But the point is within our Congregational polity we do have this streak of independence.
However, there is another side to our polity and Bonnie mentioned it. That is our mutual interdependence.
Let me illustrate it this way. Our Susquehanna Association is geographically large. It stretches from Walton to Corning, from Sherburne to Binghamton— about 120 miles West to East, 60 miles north to South. Put another way it’s shaped like a big sausage. And size is only one aspect. It also cuts across a bunch of hills and valleys.
Now, the famous writer Mark Twain spent a lot of time in Elmira. But he also spent a lot of time in Hartford, Connecticut.
To travel from Hartford to Elmira, Twain would get on an evening train in Hartford and go to bed in a sleeper car. The train would switch engines in Albany and head west. Twain would wake up in Elmira ready to face the day.
You see, between about 1870 or 1880 and 1940 transportation— and the Susquehanna Association existed then among Congregational Churches— between about 1870 or 1880 and 1940 transportation and, therefore, communication and, thereby, connectivity, across these hills and valleys was better than it is now— better than it is now. And one of the places where covenant among our churches needs to happen and one of the places we need to encourage it to happen, is in our communication, our connectivity today. Communication and connectivity: that is the life blood of any Association or Conference.
Having said communication and connectivity are vital, that small church in Northern Maine I mentioned earlier in Aroostook County— despite the aforementioned independent streak, it communicates and connects pretty well. It just hosted a Conference-wide meeting. And if you think the Susquehanna Association is hard to get around in, you’ve never been to Maine.
Well, all that addressed polity— government. So I finished with a word about what should empower church government— faith.
These are the words of the Puritan William Ames. This quote addresses not just the local church but the whole church in each of its settings.
Hence, the quote addresses the Covenant our churches have with one another. (Quote:) “…the profession of true faith is the most essential note of the Church…. that same profession doth make a Church visible, which by its inward and real nature doth make the mystical Church…”— faith— visible and mystical. (Slight pause.)
And these words are from the Gospel known as Luke: “The apostles said to Jesus, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Slight pause.)
I have found myself using the words of theologian Richard Rohr way too much on Sundays. So, let me apologize as I do so again.
“A common saying is this: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ …Scripture clearly says… God helps those who trust in God, not those who help themselves. We need to be told that very strongly because of our ‘do it yourself’ orientation.”
‘Trusting God takes applying the brakes, letting go of our own plans,… experiencing power from a Another Source to really move to different awareness. Otherwise, there is no real transformation, only increased willpower.’
‘The way our culture perceives things it’s as if the one with the most willpower wins! Willfulness is… different than willingness. They… yield very different fruit.’
‘Subtraction makes one holy, not addition. The stripping of illusions, the letting go of pretense,… breaking open the heart to understanding God and neighbor makes one holy— holy— that means set apart to do the work and the will of God.’
‘We tend to reflect the pride and arrogance of Western civilization…. Our operative religion is success. Success is holy!’
‘That version of Christianity makes the Gospel nothing more than spiritual consumerism. Ego is in charge so there is not much room left for God; one’s own private self-development becomes an end. Christianity, on the other hand, says it’s not just about me; we are all in this together.’ — theologian Richard Rohr.
Personally, I ask this question: is freedom an imperative of the collective or the individual? I maintain if freedom fails to be collective then it ceases to be within the grasp of any one individual— if freedom fails to be collective then it ceases to be within the grasp of any one individual.
And I think that is where and why and how our Congregational polity is in line with the idea of freedom and call of the Gospel to freedom. The Gospel does invite us to accept responsibility for ourselves— independence. But it also invites us to reach out to one another, to support one another— interdependence. (Slight pause.)
Today we both accepted the Neighbors in Need Offering and we celebrated World Wide Communion Sunday. In so doing we recognized that first, we, ourselves, are in need.
In so doing we recognized our neighbor sitting in the pew next to us might be in need. In so doing we recognized our neighbor might be half way around the globe in France, in Afghanistan, in Japan and might be in need.
And in so doing we recognized we are all in this together. In so doing we recognized there is but one human tribe: God’s tribe and we are all members. Indeed, what is the motto found on the emblem of the United Church of Christ? “That they may all be one.”
And the one thing that can hold us together as one is the very thing Jesus said was necessary ingredient: faith. In short, trust God.
You see, the great commandment— love God; love neighbor— has only one linchpin. Trust God. And it is when we place our trust in God that loving God and loving neighbor becomes possible, that loving God and loving neighbor becomes real. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Coffee hour today will have an example of our connectivity with other churches. It will feature 2 pies from the Sherburne United Church of Christ pie sale, yesterday. And so we are connected on many ways. And yet again next week we shall have an opportunity to understand our interdependence as the Rev. Marian Shearer, Associate Conference Minister for Clergy and Authorized Ministry Concerns, will be with is to share the Word. And certainly part of that Word is this: we are one human tribe: God’s tribe.”
BENEDICTION: We are called by God to serve faithfully, trusting in God’s grace. May the gifts of God be rekindled within and among us. May our trust grow as we are empowered to do God’s work in this, God’s dominion. And may the peace of Christ which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and companionship of God’s Spirit this day and forevermore. Amen.