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Whales and Puritans

Peggy Bendroth
Sun, Sep 15

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Hebrews 11: 32 – 12:2

Many light years ago, my children went to public school here in Cambridge. These were heady days for them, for me, and apparently also for people designing elementary school education. I don’t know if they are still doing it now, but back then, instead of entirely separate concentrations on math, social studies, or art, they studied just one thing and then related it back to everything else. My son’s class, for example, learned everything there was to know about tornadoes (dear to the heart of every fourth grade boy) –but also the mathematics of things like wind speed, the geography of Tornado Alley, and I guess for an art project made a “tasty tornado town” out of cookies and candy.

My daughter studied whales—what third grader could resist?—and Puritans.

The pairing of whales and Puritans was a little odd in my book, but Anna wholeheartedly loved both, as she does to this day. Imagine, though, the class program at the end of the Puritan cycle: we saw displays on Plymouth plantation and recreations of Wampanoag wetus, and for music, those public school kids, in the land of separation between church and state, stood up together and sang a few old hymns. Before the class launched into “We Gather Together,” one young lad stepped forward to explain that this was one of the songs sung by Puritans. They were, he said, “very religious.”

It is a wonderful thing that Puritans can rank up there with whales and tornados in the imaginations of elementary school children. No problem with that.

But there is no getting around the fact that they—the very people who founded this church in 1636—have become modern-day curiosities, right up there with whales and tornados.

Yes, I am going to talk some about Puritans this morning, but it won’t be as bad as you think. For one thing, rest assured that they were not the over-anxious kill-joys we imagine, always worrying, as H.L. Mencken once said, that “somewhere someone was having fun.” The grown-up version of these old myths and stereotypes is that the Puritans were an exceedingly complex group of people, with big sins and big virtues.

And they are, in some equally complicated way, our spiritual ancestors. As we are beginning this new church year and contemplating all of the possibilities ahead, I thought it would be worth pausing a moment to consider this fact, what it means that FCC Cambridge is 376 years old—that we have a very long past that involves a lot of people, probably 90% we don’t know. This is a big part of the question “who are we” as the people of God in Cambridge.

The past tense has always been central to our language of faith, as our passage from Hebrews illustrates very clearly. Both Christianity and Judaism are essentially “religions of remembrance,” as one historian has put it. Thousands of years ago the Jewish people came to know God, not through a set of abstract philosophical principles or religious rituals but through the nitty-gritty realities of human history. “[T]he God of the prophets was the God of events,” rather than places or things, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes “the Redeemer from slavery [and] the Revealer of the Torah.”

We are a story-telling people. Our most important religious events—Passover, the feast of Tabernacles, Purim, and Holy Communion—are based on the telling of old stories, stories that we enter and are transformed. Our faith unfolds within the liturgical cycle of the Christian year and the Jewish holidays.

Much of this may seem obvious, but it’s a way of speaking that modern western people, Christians included, have mostly lost. I’m not saying we’re all philistines when it comes to history—in fact in some ways we’re more gaga about the past than ever—witness all the folks walking the Freedom Trail over in Boston. Libraries like mine are making an incredible array of old documents available at the click of a mouse. It’s that we have no words, other than a few hackneyed phrases about repeating past mistakes, to explain why it is relevant, why anyone should care about the past in the first place.

As I sit at my desk in the Congregational Library, or go around to churches and talk to people, I am incredibly aware that we twenty-first century Christians have lost our sense of narrative. We don’t know our place in a longer story. We are stranded in the present without a map or a compass, and we are the poorer for it.

And so this morning we have both an obligation and an opportunity to become familiar with the “communion of saints” who have made up this church since 1636. Who are we? The good part is that the answer is pretty interesting!

All of us here who make up First Church in Cambridge today share in a very distinct and unusually powerful Protestant tradition: we started out as Puritans, as people who dissented from the prevailing religious order in England and came here to create a simpler, deeper, and they hoped more honest way of being Christians—without altar rails and clerical vestments, choirs, organs, and stained glass. (Yes, oops.) In no way were they paragons of virtue, any more than we are. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we model ourselves after them or ignore the next three centuries of intervening history. I’m just suggesting that we recognize them as our ancestors, people who gave us a complicated and deeply compelling legacy.

A few examples of what I mean:
Our church, like all Congregational churches, began when a group of people got together to draw up a covenant—not when a king or a bishop or a church extension committee decided to establish a new church, but when ordinary people did. (We have two dates on our signboard because Thomas Hooker established a church here in Newtown in 1633, but the soil was too dry and sandy, they said, and set off for Connecticut. A second group, led by Hooker’s son in law Thomas Shepard, bought the fields and lands Hooker’s people left and established another church here in 1636.)

What’s interesting about the founding is that in some ways Shepard and his people were winging it. As they all met together in February 1636—Cambridge people and ministers from surrounding churches—Shepard opened with a very practical question, exactly how many people would it take to “make a church”? Two, four, ten? The ministers thought about this and came back with the number: seven. No clear reason why, except it was a nice biblical number and also an odd one—no deadlocks in church meetings.

We have so little sense of how radical this was. First Church began when a group of ordinary people (with a lot of ministers in tow of course) decided to make a covenant, to be radically accountable to each other. In other words, they did NOT require anyone to agree to list of doctrines before letting them join; they didn’t ask for a donation or a ceremony. No, first you agreed to the covenant, to a way of walking before God and with each other.

Being a member of First Church (and the vast majority of Puritan churches) meant that rock bottom, you had a testimony of God’s grace in your life and were willing to throw your lot in with God’s people. Then, you could tangle with doctrine all you wanted, and of course as we know they did, early and often. (Shepard was even something of a “tiger” in that area, as I’ve seen him described.) But they did this in the context of a spiritual community without an exit door, among people who back then called each other brother and sister.

I hope you can recognize some deeply-held convictions of First Church today in this origins story—and in the fact that we were not religious snobs. We often think of the Puritans as my daughter’s classmate did, as “very religious,” or intolerant of anyone who does not make the grade. Some of them may have talked that way, but actual practice was something different. The test of grace as a requirement of membership was not meant to keep out the unworthy out, but to keep the bar relatively low, using the “judgment of charity,” to draw in as many people as possible inside. As Shepard said once in a sermon, First Church was a place for “all those doubting, drooping, yet sincere hearts that much question the love of Christ to them.” Those absolutely sure of their salvation and every line of doctrine can go elsewhere. First Church is still the kind of place Thomas Shepard envisioned—or many of us, including me, would not be here.

We also see echoes in the way we still conduct congregational meetings and in the Christian values we hold dear. Puritan Congregationalism was non-hierarchical—the minister himself had to pass the test of membership before being called to the pulpit. Decisions were made in church meetings, acting by consensus. First Church was governed, in Shepard’s phrase, by “the mutuall offices of love,” the imperative to “seek the good of the whole kind . . . the welfare of the whole.”

This extended beyond the church doors. Although most of the citizens of Cambridge back in Shepard’s day were church members, many were not. And First Church did not ignore or disparage them. Two deacons and twenty-one laypeople from our church, in fact, testified to the Middlesex Community Court on the good character of Elizabeth Holman, a woman who was not a church member who was accused of witchcraft. When a large grant of land, given to the church and then handed over to the town, was divided up in 1652, the conscious decision was to divide it up fairly, observing the entire “publique good” without “respect of any man’s person.”

In the course of my work I visit lots of local Congregational churches, a motley mix if ever there was one. I remember one in particular, in an old church building that over the course of time had found itself surrounded by a mini-mall and a few car dealerships. The congregation was kind of hanging on for dear life, the whole building felt kind of aging and depressed. It was my job to, yes, talk about Congregational history and to acquaint them with their tradition—all fine. But afterwards one of the members sidled over to ask me a question: “what would they think about us today? And I knew the deeper fear was, are we a big disappointment? Would they be angry at how far we’ve drifted from the founding vision?

I probably mouthed a few comforting platitudes at the time—this was a profound and unusual question!

How would we answer it? What would our ancestors think about us (after they finished plotzing over the sanctuary)? I feel very certain that they would see themselves in the way we practice community—meals together, pastoral care groups, the care we take over our children. They would also understand why we care what happens outside our doors, why we have all those flags on the front lawn demonstrating gun violence, why we have such an active and articulate earth stewardship program, and why we are involved in GBIO.

What would they wonder about? That’s a harder question of course. They’d probably wonder why my sermon is going to finish so soon (and of course about my gender) and why we aren’t coming back for another two hour sermon after lunch. They’d be astonished that most of us can’t tell the difference between a Presbyterian and a Congregationalist, much less an Episcopalian and a Catholic.

But I think they’d also wonder why we don’t tell more stories about our history, whether we have any idea of how much we owe to them and to others—the songs we sing, the pews we sit in, books and ideas that inspire us, the names and layout of our streets. Novelist Wendell Barry calls this a “long choosing,” that we and our world are the result of the thousands of decisions by other people, about who to marry and where to live, what to care about and what to ignore.

The author of Hebrews gives us an even more startling metaphor, a "cloud of witnesses" standing around us and cheering us on as we “run the race set before us.” This famous passage also defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." I imagine that at least some of those "things not seen" are the biblical people named in the rest of the passage: from Abel and Enoch to Abraham and Moses. It suggests that all of them—the heroes of Jewish history, the women who received their dead by resurrection, and martyrs who endured torture and imprisonment—are near and available to us, not just as role models, but as companions and guides.

It is pretty remarkable that thousands of years later, thanks to Hebrews, we know the names of some fairly obscure people, people who were not “historically important” or saintly in the typical meaning of the word. The list includes Rahab the prostitute, Samson the man who couldn’t control his lust for Delilah, and Jephthah, the king who sacrificed his own daughter to make good on a promise. The communion of saints is not a cloud of perfection or an undifferentiated mass of the living and the dead, but something far more incomprehensible: the infinite array of personal experiences and convictions, talents and achievements, sins and failures that make up the Christian church across time and space.
Chapter eleven concludes with the somewhat odd statement that these people of faith "did not receive what was promised." God had provided something better, "so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect." For a long time commentators assumed that this phrase was referring to the people of Israel, suggesting that at the end of all things they would finally be saved through the blood of Christ. This "triumphal" interpretation of the passage suggests that only the Christian faith is a truly perfect one, through which the heroes of Israel would be in a sense retroactively converted from Judaism.

This is not the only possible interpretation. The passage may also be read “humbly,” as one commentator suggests, recognizing that the people of Israel “lived the earlier chapters of one continuous story” that we are still finishing.. We do not redeem Abraham and Moses, and we cannot make them perfect. Instead, through the “high-priestly ministry of Jesus Christ” we are all part of “a great unbroken record of faith stretching from the beginning of human history all the way into the heavenly sanctuary of the city of God, where the cord has been securely fastened and anchored by Jesus." This is a phrase that underlines not just our interdependence with other Christians but our spiritual solidarity with all the people of God, past as well as present and future.

Talk about a bait and switch. What you thought was going to be a lecture on Puritanism has ended up as a challenge that I admit has no clear answer or easy response. I think it’s going to take a lot of rethinking and undoing of old spiritual habits before we can break through all the layers of indifference, condescension, and confusion that have accumulated around faith and history over so many years.

Remembering has to become a spiritual discipline. It’s not just a mental exercise—trying to locate my car keys or the name of the person standing in front of me—it’s a statement of solidarity with God’s people in the world. When Christ commanded us to celebrate communion “in remembrance of me,” he wasn’t suggesting we pull out all the old picture albums and wax nostalgic over the first century. It means that we are re-upping our commitment to follow him whether that may lead, throwing in our lot with others.

In a way we are talking about remaking our Christian imagination so that we can see the cloud of witnesses around us, learning to speak an older language of faith. It is one that will provide not just a deeper appreciation for the Thomas Shepards of the world, those great heroes of First Church with their names inscribed on the wall, but all of those “doubting, drooping, yet sincere “saints who have gone before us, and are yet to come. In other words, every single one of us who has been part of First Church Cambridge, from 1636 to wherever God may lead.

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