So What Are We Like?
We welcome new members into this church one at a time, two at a time, or — as is the case this morning, in a group of 16. Last Sunday, after our worship, most of them sat through an Inquirer’s Class in which they got a quick survey of Congrega-tional church history and a chance to ask questions about our beliefs, our ways of worship, and how we govern ourselves. That class has never been a pre-requisite for membership, partly because people who attend for months before they join have already learned more about us than they could possibly pick up in a single session. But it does create a kind of group dynamic that encourages asking questions, and there are always a few surprises in exactly what it is people want to know. With some of those questions still fresh in my mind, I decided this might be a good morniong for all of us to be introspective about ourselves for a few minutes.
I chose as a sermon title a question I hear often from people who come to worship with us for the first time, or get acquainted because of a funeral or a wedding they have attended: This is a Congregational church, right? So what are you like? Which, in translation, usually means: How are you different from some of the churches I know more about? It’s fairly common to define Lutheran and Episcopal-ian churches in terms of their distinctive liturgy and the rituals they have in common, to define the Church of Christ as “those people who only sing a capella in worship because they think it’s sinful to use a piano or an organ,” to define Southern Baptists as believers in total immersion and the submission of wives to husbands. But what is a Congregationalist?
If I am asked to pick a single approach that makes the Congregational faith distinctive, I would speak of its being non-creedal but that requires immediate explanation or it is can be taken to mean that we have no specific beliefs, no strong convictions to talk about from the pulpit — a mistaken idea that lies behind the following question-and-answer joke: What do you get when you cross a Congregationalist with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who rings the doorbell and then has nothing to say.
Well, the truth is that we have plenty to say, some of it conventional, some of it much less dogmatic and at times more controversial than what one might hear in some churches, and I will touch on some of those things today. First, a little more comment about creeds and how they develop and why we like not having one. Creeds have been formulated over the centuries to perpetuate certain interpretations of Scripture by men or women charismatic enough to find followers. So it is that churches are born: Lutheran because there were those who wanted to propagate the views of Martin Luther, Presbyterian because of the insights of John Knox, Methodist because of John Wesley, Christian Science because of Mary Baker Eddy, the 4-Square Gospel Church because of Aimee Semple McPherson, the Mormon Chuch because of Joseph Smith…..and so on, and on, through at least 350 different Protestant churches.
We believe that this proliferation of differing churches proves that intelligent people, reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves — without coercion — will never see things exactly alike. It has never happened, it never will happen. So, looking back over the many divisions in the history of Christian churches, and recognizing how uneven our educational and life experiences are, those of us in this Congregational church do not expect conformity of opinion among those who worship with us. We have no party line that has to be followed, no catechism to memorize, no Apostle’s Creed to recite. We are open to all who wish to study the teachings of Christ and to walk in his ways as they come to know and understand those ways. With that kind of freedom, each person creates a personal belief system with deeply-felt and sustaining convictions instead of passively accepting one handed down by others.
We try to preserve in Congregational churches a place where those who have been put off by rigid dogma, and who have been made to feel guilty because they have some honest doubts and want to ask tough questions, can feel at home. As a result we probably have the richest diversity of religious backgrounds of almost any church you have ever known: people, like those joining this morning, who grew up Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, Quaker, Mennonite and Methodist. They will never be totally alike in how they interpret the Bible, but since absolute conformity to a creed is not required they can get along together beautifully in this place.
I realize how difficult this is to understand for anyone who grew up as I did in a church where you either followed the party line and kept your doubts secret, or you had two choices: you could repent of your heresy and promise not to talk about it, or the church would remove you from its fellowship and you would be left to find another place. Anyone trained to think of religion in that way is concerned to know what our stance is on things like gun control, gay rights, evolution, birth control, abortion, and so forth, and we have to say: “There is no official church position on such matters because we honor the freedom of individual conscience. Gary and I have opinions on such matters, and full freedom to present them, but no one feels any pressure to accept them, and the person who meets us at the door to say, “I didn’t agree with what you said this morning!” is as welcome in this place as anyone else, just so long as they respect the convictions of others.. We really mean what the slogan says on our stationery: that this is a place where head and heart are equal partners in faith. Intelligence keeps us from being credulous in a world of superstition; emotion keeps us warm and caring. The balance makes for a great church!
We can hardly imagine that someone would become a member of a Christian church who did not believe that Christ had answers about how to live, but just how he came into the world, how he went out of it, whether he will come again physically, what might be the most accurate translation of what he may have spoken in Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect, and was later translated into Greek and many centuries later into English — we leave those conclusions to the private conscience as we study the implications of Scripture together.
We can hardly imagine that someone would become a member of a Christian church who did not believe that Christ had answers about how to live, but just how he came into the world, how he went out of it, whether he will come again physically, what is the most accurate translation of what he may have spoken in a Hebrew dialect, that was later translated into Greek and much, much later into English — we grapple with such things, present the evidence, and invite students to make up their own minds as we study the implications of Scripture together.
Congregationalists have always promoted higher education, and we gladly welcome the help of modern scholarship in understanding the world out of which the Bible came, and the textual difficulties one encounters in reading it. It does not bother us to find that the Genesis stories of creation, of Noah and the ark, of how different languages came to be, are all derivative rather than original — were influenced by much earlier Babylonian religion — nor to find that most of the laws said to have been “brought down” from Mt. Sinai by Moses had been anticipated centuries earlier in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. It is crystal clear to any careful student of comparative religions that the Bible is indebted in all kinds of ways to the culture out of which it came.
All of which means, obviously, that we are not married to literalism in reading that book. We know that a third of the Bible is poetic, and not meant to be interpreted the way we read a newspaper. The authors of the Bible used legend, saga, myth, legal codes, parable, hyperbole, songs, symbolism — a rich mix of literary strategies — to celebrate history and teach social and religious values, and those techniques have to be read in terms of their own unique ways of expressing truth. We also recognize that the Bible expresses many truths that are timeless, but that there are other commandments and prohibitions which were culturally conditioned and have no relevance at all for a different world.
Many churches feel they have only two choices in approaching Scripture: either take all stories as literal truth, no matter how they contradict reason and laws of physics, or else dismiss them entirely as the childish stuff of a bygone age. Some highly intelligent and sensitive people give up and do the latter, and we especially hope to present a third option to those people: to help them realize that in reading the poetry of the creation story, the deliberately humorous tale of Jonah, the beautiful and touching tales of the birth of Jesus, one need not be mechanically literal-minded…..that there is a truth beyond fact, a high poetry of the heart with a wisdom and a use of its own.
In the church of my childhood, no one ever said this. We paid no attention to different verbal strategies for communicating truth, so we made no distinction at all between literal fact and poetic symbolism. If a story said that God made the sun stand still so Joshua would have time to kill more of his enemies on a battlefield, then that was what actually happened on a certain day in history, and we practically stood on our heads trying to find historical evidence of a unique stretched-out day in the earth’s distant past. I suppose most of us knew that day and night are caused by the earth’s turning, rather than the sun’s, so that the verse should have talked about making the earth stand still, but no one had the courage to point this out or ask if maybe this story might be the stuff of ancient Hebrew folklore. Nor did we wonder at a God who would tinker with the solar system so more people could be killed. Our ministers were authoritarian: they told us what to believe….and we believed.
Some of our new members this morning have come from churches with more liturgy and ritual than we have, and they will have the challenge of adjusting to simpler patterns of worship. A very good friend of mine, who was Episcopalian, happened to visit us one Sunday when we celebrated Communion. I like simplicity, and thought the ceremony was quiet and beautiful, but it lacked pomp and ceremony for her, and she smiled down from the balcony in gentle tolerance of our plainer way of remembering the Last Supper.
Our approach to the Bible, as I have suggested already, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Now and then someone is appalled to discover that Congregationalists, as well as many other believers, allow for the possibility that the Bible is not free from error in every historical description and biological detail. While we make the Christian scripture central in our teaching and preaching, we know that taking the Bible seriously does not mean thinking of it as completely accurate biology, anthropology, geology, or even history.
I realize, of course, that not everyone is attracted to a church because of passionate interest in theology. It may be that their hearts sing at the beauty of a building, that they want a place where their children will be lovingly taught, that they have found inspiration in music and helpful words from a pulpit. There are always some who want companionship as they wrestle with fears and loneliness, and for them the kind of people we are will bring them back week after week. I have known no better people than those to whom Gary and I speak each Sunday and visit during the week. There is an almost palpable warmth of affection and love for this place and its mission. One Saturday, as preparations were going on for a wedding, I was out in the foyer when a handsome old black gentleman came in and looked around as if he were trying to sense what kind of room he had entered. Then I heard him say to someone: “This room is filled with love. I can feel it.” He was right.
And we hope to keep it that way, with the new minds and hearts which have agreed on this day to walk with us.
We give thanks, God of grace, for those who have added their strength to ours. Make us worthy
of the choice they have made, we ask in the sacred name of Christ our Lord. Amen.