Hancock Church Sermon

Rev. Paul Shupe

October 28, 2012

John 17:15-24

This passage includes part of a long and passionate prayer offered
by Jesus for the sake of his disciples. In it he prays that all his disciples
might become one, as he is one with God. This passage was important to
the process of the formation of the United Church of Christ, which brought
together four historic faith traditions into one.

[Jesus said] I am not asking you to take them out of the
world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do
not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent
me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for
their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified
in truth.

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those
who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be
one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also
be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they
may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they
may become completely one, so that the world may know that
you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved
me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me,
may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have
given me because you loved me before the foundation of the
world.

Freedom and Covenant

On this Sunday when we have welcomed our newest members into

Hancock Church, a show of hands, please. How many of you have never

been anything but a Congregationalist or a member of the UCC? We’ll not

stop to count, but let the record reflect that it is considerably less than half

of us, which means that majority of us either were once members of other

traditions. In this, Hancock Church is not unusual. The United Church of

Christ across the country has become the place for seekers and

sojourners, for former members of other traditions, for folks who’ve become

troubled or even rejected by previous communities, and for people who are

finding their way into Christian churches for the first time. We are a harbor

church, a port in the storm, a safe place in the lee of the winds of more

rigid religion. I think that you know this already; because more than half of

you have come into the particular port called Hancock for just such

reasons. Welcome!

But would it surprise you to know that this is not an accident? Would

you be surprised to learn that this is precisely the sort of community that

the founders of the UCC envisioned when it was organized just over fifty

years ago? Some history lessons are in order.

Five hundred years ago, if you were a Christian living in Europe, or

the newly discovered Americas for that matter, you were a Roman

Catholic. There wasn’t anything else. You didn’t choose a church, you

were assigned one closest to the town you lived in. And since the feudal

system didn’t permit much in the way of a mobile society, you would be

buried in the same church you were baptized in. There was a saying

among theologians: “There is no salvation outside of the church.” If you

weren’t in good standing in a congregation whose priest was in good

standing with his bishop, who in turn was in good standing with the pope,

your very salvation was thought to be endangered. Your church

attendance didn’t matter all that much, though most of the time, you went.

But the priest celebrated the Mass with his back to the congregation,

singing and speaking in Latin, and he took the communion for the entire

parish. You couldn’t read, and there was only one Bible in town anyway.

Still, you were welcomed, along with your financial contributions, as the

Church sought to pay off the huge cathedrals that they had spent the past

three hundred years constructing. In one of the more interesting ways to

contribute, you could purchase an indulgence, which would have the effect

of springing your dead relatives from the bondage of Purgatory and into

heaven. One particularly effective indulgence salesman was a man named

Tetzel, who went from parish to parish singing “Once the coin in the kettle

rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.” All of which seriously troubled a

young monk named Martin Luther.

Luther had been trying without much success to persuade himself

that he was dedicated enough to warrant salvation. He confessed his sin

several times a day and spent most of his waking hours doing penance.

He knelt in prayer til his knees bled. He fasted. He “mortified the flesh,” a

nice way of saying he beat himself whips to drive the sin from his body.

And all to no avail. He felt no more forgiven than he had been before.

Then one day, reading the epistles of Paul, in his own words,

he “rediscovered the gospel.” Salvation, he read, was not something

earned, but something given freely, by God people through their faith. It is

called grace, and it was given because God chose to give it, and not

because it had been earned or deserved. Suddenly sure that this teaching

was right, and the teaching of the Church was wrong, Luther posted 95

topics for discussion on the door of the church in his home parish of

Wittenberg. The pope, the bishops, the priests, and the indulgence

salesmen were unimpressed with a lowly monk who argued that 1500

years of church teaching were wrong, and he alone was right. But the

people loved him, and the German princes, who were looking for a way out

from under the gigantic papal thumb, also loved him, and before long, a

new church had come into being. He called it the Evangelical church, the

church of the good news, but to many it became simply Lutheran.

In Lutheran churches the minister faced the congregation, and the

people ate the bread and drank from the cup. The Bible was read, in

German, the language that everyone understood. No indulgences were

sold; Luther demonstrated that Purgatory is nowhere mentioned in the

Bible. “If it’s not in scripture,” Luther said, “I’m not believing it,” and since

Guttenberg serendipitously invented the printing press at just that moment,

there were bibles everywhere, translated into German and soon other

languages, and anyone who could read could check it all out. Suddenly,

there was salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church.

More reformers followed in Luther’s wake. They all agreed with his

teaching of salvation by grace through faith, but they differed with him here

or there and formed their own movements: Calvinists, Anglicans, Baptists,

Anabaptists, Quakers, and, in England, a hundred years after Luther, a

band of Reformers called the Puritans, who believed that there was no

higher authority than each Congregation assembled for its business, and

who wanted their communities to be pure, and perfect. Their leader, John

Robinson, took them first to Holland and then to the new world, a place

called Massachusetts. Our forebears.

They weren’t exactly a friendly bunch. At first they were as intolerant

of objectors as the Pope had been of Luther. They banished people from

Boston and Plymouth for insufficient faith, and they once hanged eight

people for being Quakers. They had come to build the City on the Hill,

nothing less than the Kingdom of God on earth, and they couldn’t tolerate

imperfection. They had always believed in the role of the individual

conscience to seek the truth within the ties of the covenant community

called the congregation. You were free to believe as you saw fit, but you

were bound by your promises of covenant to listen to the witness of others

in the congregation. You were free, but not from the obligation to listen to

others who shared their faith with you. The freer they felt, the more they

began to understand the desires of others to be free.

It was the Congregationalists, for example, who, along with the

Quakers, formed the backbone of the movement to abolish slavery in

America. It took a hundred years and a Civil War, but it was done, and at

war’s end it was Congregationalists who packed their bags and went south

to teach the freed slaves to read. It was the Congregationalists who

ordained the first black man to the ministry: Lemuel Hayes in 1785. We

ordained the first woman to the ministry: Antoinette Brown in 1853. We

ordained the first openly gay man to the ministry: William Johnson in 1972.

Our forebears believed in education, founding Harvard Divinity School for

the education of the clergy, colleges for newly freed slaves across the

South. In the 1850s, a Congregational pastor, Horace Bushnell wrote his

theology of Christian nurture, and in our Sunday schools we stopped

terrorizing children with the certainty of their damnation as sinners, and

affirming them instead as inherently worthy of love and affection.

And by the middle of the 1800s, the Congregationalists were

passionate about respecting the works of their fellow Christians. With the

Presbyterians they shared outreach and missionary opportunities. With

other traditions, the Christian Churches, the Evangelical and Reformed

Churches, they shared talks about merger. For nearly 100 years,

whenever ecumenical meetings would gather there would be the

Congregationalists, praying fervently the words of the prayer of Jesus that

we heard this morning, the prayer that all might be One, even as Jesus and

God were One together. Finally, in 1957, the Congregational Christian

Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches merged together to

form the United Church of Christ. They produced no creed. No words that

you needed to say in order to belong. Rather, you see, they assumed that

all the creeds of all the churches were valid and worthy of respect. Still

placing a high value on the role of the individual conscience, in faithful

covenant relationship with the congregation and indeed with all Christians,

the United Church of Christ declared that it would be home for all

Christians, and that in order to belong, all you had to do was be faithful in

the congregation you are in. You were not, and are not, required to

disavow your old tradition or your old faith. You just needed to promise to

belong, to participate, to support, to care about your local congregation.

So you see, if today we are a harbor church, a safe port in the storm,

a welcoming community for any and for all, it is because we have been

striving for hundreds of years to become such a place. By our actions this

morning, the joining of new members and the reception of them by old

members, we have once more fulfilled the unique Christian vision of the

UCC: here, all are one, united in freedom by the ties of covenant with one

another. Here we are a part of the great movement of human beings

toward justice and equality for all, not merely for some. Here we are a part

of an educated and educating community, where the mind is not the enemy

of faith, but where learning is understood to be a constant calling, a source

of strength and courage. Here we are men and women and children of all

kinds standing tall, rejoicing in the grace we have received and taking

responsibility for sharing the Good News with others. Here we are the

fulfillment of centuries of longing and careful planning. Welcome home.

Amen.