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From Generation to Generation

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jan 31

Texts: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Church, today is the eve of this congregation’s 380th anniversary. For almost four centuries, across the generations, First Church in Cambridge has been sharing and owning the covenant that we just read together. Today, more than my words, I’d like to share with you a sense of what our founding and our covenant has meant to various First Church witnesses throughout the centuries, using some of their words. I want to take you back to those first days of First Church, before Puritanism became establishment, when it was still what political theorist Michael Walzer calls a ‘revolutionary ideology’ that gave rise to this Newtowne (as Cambridge was then called), in this New England, in this New World.

Of course, we must continue to acknowledge the grave sins of our founders, against Native Americans, against African slaves, against women and so called heretics. And, despite failure after failure of this congregation to live out the gospel, some which persist to this day, we can hear throughout our history an earnest effort, indeed an honest striving— to receive and share God’s grace, to let more light and truth break forth from God’s word, to forge a congregation of gathered souls and to build a community bound by covenantal love. It’s that love of God about which Paul writes in the familiar text I just read. Not merely the patient and kind love we hear invoked countless times when marital covenants are formed, but a deeper and wider love made known to us in communal covenant. It's that love of God which bears all things, believes all things, endures all things, from generation to generation.

That said, let’s start with one writer’s somewhat imaginative account of the events of our founding. The day happened to be a Monday as well. I turn to William Newell, who was an early minister of our sibling congregation, First Parish Cambridge. Hear how he conjures our founding from his vantage point, a mere 170 years ago, in 1846 in an address titled A Discourse of the Gathering of the Cambridge Church. Newell writes:

"On a Monday morning, towards the close of the early and severe winter of...1636… The signal for a public gathering was heard; and, as the inhabitants issued from their dwellings and passed with sedate step through the streets, others of less familiar countenance, who had spent the Sabbath with them…were seen mingling with them as they went. Gathering from all quarters came the [elders] of the infant church and commonwealth of Massachusetts, to sanction by their presence the solemn act which was about to be performed in the first rude temple, which had been erected a few years before, a little way from the spot on which we are now assembled to the worship of the one living and true God."

Our first meetinghouse, the one built by Rev. Thomas Hooker and his company before they decamped to found Connecticut, was at the corner of Mt Auburn and Dunster Street, right where the J.Press clothing shop is today. Though several churches had already been gathered, at Plymouth, and Salem and Charlestown, establishing themselves with covenants very similar to the one we just read, our church was the first to be gathered and sanctioned in the presence of representatives of local congregations, a pattern which continues to this day and which would later be inscribed as the Congregational Way. And here we can turn to an eyewitness account from the journal of Governor John Winthrop who was in attendance on that February 1, 1636. Winthrop writes…

"Mr. Shepherd, a godly minister, come lately out of England.. intending to raise a church body, came and acquainted the magistrates therewith, who gave their approbation. They also sent to all the neighbouring churches for their elders to give their assistance at a certain day, at Newtown, when they should constitute their body. Accordingly, at this day, there met a great assembly, where the proceeding was as followeth: — Mr. Shepherd and two others (who were after to be chosen to office), sat together in the elder's seat. Then the elder of them began with prayer. After this Mr. Shepherd prayed with deep confession of sin, and exercised out of Ephesians V, and also opened the cause of their meeting. Then the elder desired to know of the churches assembled, what number were needful to make a church, and how they ought to proceed in this action. Whereupon, some of the ancient ministers, conferring shortly together, gave answer: That the Scripture did not set down any certain rule for the number. Three (they thought,) were too few…but that seven might be a fit number. And, for their proceeding, they advised, that such as were to join should make confession of their faith, and declare what work of grace the Lord had wrought in them; which accordingly they did, Mr. Shepherd first, then four others, then the elder, and one who was to be deacon (who had also prayed), and another member. Then the covenant was read, and they all gave a solemn assent to it. Then the elder desired of the churches, that, if they did approve them to be a church, they would give them the right hand of fellowship."

New members, I hope that process sounds familiar! Shepard proceeded to preach about covenant. After the ceremony, a feast would have filled the long trestle tables with currant wine, cheese, cakes, breads, turnips, apple pie and my favorite “ordination beer!” In my research, I came across these words from Shepard himself that underscores the significance of this covenantal bond that was the cause of the celebration…

"But the Lord’s heart is so full of love (especially to His own) that it cannot be contained so long with the bound of secrecy but it must aforehand overflow and break out into the many streams of a blessed Covenant. The Lord can never get near enough to HIS people, and thinks He can never get them near enough unto Himself, and therefore unites and binds and fastens them close to Himself and Himself unto them, by the bonds of a Covenant. …Oh! The depth of God’s grace herein…that [even] when [a man] deserves nothing else but separation from God, and to be driven up and down the world as a vagabond, or as dried leaves fallen from our God, that yet the Almighty God …must make himself to us, and us to Himself, more sure and near than ever before. Is not this Covenant then (Christian reader) worth thy looking into and searching after?"

For Shepard and his congregation, without covenant there was no sense of being held by God’s unconditional love, nor was there a public commitment to hold one’s neighbor in mutual love and mutual respect, and in mutual responsibility and mutual accountability. Without covenant, there was no community. Without covenant, there was no church!
Friends, we can’t underestimate the power of this innovation, especially when we consider that these bonds were and are entirely voluntarily. The very word, religion, from re-ligare, which means “to bind,” finds an at once ancient and new meaning in this form. We bind ourselves to walk, in all our ways, according to the rule of the gospel. If only— But what an ambition! For such a time as then, and for such as time as this, when we so desperately need communities like this one to draw us out of ourselves, communities that resist our nation’s rampant and now rancid me-first individualism, that teach us shared values of compassion and mercy and justice, where we hold our neighbors’ welfare as sacred as our own, regardless of what they look like, who they love, how much money or education they have, or where they are from. It’s what reminds us that we are all in this life together, that we need each other and that we are ever reliant on God’s grace to see us through the brokenness of our lives and our world. It’s how we receive and act out of God’s love that bears all things, believes all things and endures all things! Such is our inheritance, from the days of biblical covenants to the first covenants formed on these shores.

Rev. Newell, of First Parish, had an exceptional way of appreciating our shared forebears while holding them accountable to their own ideals. He also offers a picture of Cambridge in 1846 that I can’t resist sharing. I’ll let him take it from here, with a prayer that his words (which I quote at length) can help us to own our past, for better and worse, and shape our congregation for future generations, who will one day remember us.

Rev Newell, 1846…

"It is good for us from time to time to visit the Mount Auburn of memory, to stand by the tombs of departed sages and prophets, and to read again upon the sunken monuments the moss-covered inscriptions which tell us of their labors and merits. We need not deny, and we need not forget, their faults. We will remember them as warnings and beacons…
If, in this elder age of the world, we can no longer believe with them in witches and apparitions, in omens and dreams, we can believe as devoutly as they in the ever-living, ever-loving God, and in the invisible world on whose borders we are standing. If, from our present point of view, we must condemn or deplore their occasional  exclusiveness and intolerance, their violations of the rights of the individual conscience, their bitterness of language and inquisitorial harshness of dealing in the treatment of their heretics, we can gladly and reverently acknowledge — we should filially love and copy — their noble zeal for the glory of God, for the honor of Christ, for the propagation of his gospel, for the establishment of his law, for the diffusion of his spirit.

Where they were right, we will follow them ; where they were wrong, we will leave them for the truer and better path… But where they have left us wise and winning examples… God forbid that we should ever be recreant to our ancestry.

[And here’s where he moves from past reflection to then present day observation…]

A few days since, I ascended into the tower of this church [the one up the street], and surveyed the animating and beautiful scene upon which it looks. Around me in every direction I saw thriving villages, from which a thousand busy and cheerful smokes curled upward into the sky ; to the east, the populous city, crowned with its stately dome and pointing heavenward with its spires ; close by, the College edifices, — the crowded graveyard, — the churches of the Episcopal and Baptist dissenters from the old Congregational establishment... At a distance, the steam of the locomotive hung like a low cloud over the ground, as the long train shot swiftly by ; — below me, multitudes of sleighs and pleasure-parties were sailing over the frozen roads ; — the sounds of business and of merriment came mingling up into the air.

As I gazed upon the scene around me, so full of prosperity and promise, all radiant with the light of New England industry and New England enterprise [and I would add with the still lingering shadows and stench of slavery], I could not help contrasting it with that which presented itself, to the eyes of Winthrop when he first pitched his tent in midwinter upon this…spot. My thoughts went back to the time of Hooker and Shepard, — to the day of small things, —when only here and there could be seen a little cluster of newly finished and unpainted houses, rising amidst wild grounds, hitherto undisturbed except by the sounds of nature's offspring, and the howl of the wolf...

[There’s just a bit more..]

But in thus contemplating the changes which have taken place since their time in the scenes around us, I remembered that the great essential features of the landscape still remain the same. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth…The same river, which winded its way along the fields of the Pilgrims, and by a defensive palisade, still winds its way by the cultivated and thick-settled villages of their descendants. The same soft outline edges the horizon; the same sun shines down lovingly upon all; the same azure firmament bends over them; the same ever-burning stars light up the evening sky. In the grandeur and mild beauty of the unchanging forms of…creation, God is still speaking to us the language which he spake to them of old time…

We stand in their places. They have committed the torch of freedom and truth to our hands. We must bear it aloft in their spirit, if not with their creed. "Contend earnestly for the faith as it was once delivered to the saints," was their motto… should be the motto of this church still… 

[His closer which seems especially apt on this day of Annual Meeting…]

Brethren, [and I say Beloved] let us begin the new year of our church in the purified spirit of our forebears. Let us begin the new year of our church with a determination to do what we can, each and all, to make it more worthy than it has been of its Christian name, and privileges, and hopes. Let the warm blood of a living faith and a free-flowing charity circulate through its veins, and give it a more vigorous life. Let its winter birthday find summer and sunshine in the heart. Let the First Church in Cambridge be ever among the first in all good things."


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