An audio recording of this sermon is available here.
When you’re telling a story, there are two ways to do it. One is that you can focus on a very short period of time, like a year, or even a week. Those can be great stories. James Joyce’s Ulysses might just be the best work of Twentieth Century fiction and that takes place entirely in one day.
But on the other end of the spectrum, there are the stories that take not just years, but generations, and centuries, to tell. We read from a book of those stories every Sunday. The Bible spans centuries, and we can never forget that some of the central characters were separated by long spans of time. From Moses to Paul, for instance, was probably about 1300 years.
So that’s a really long story. And near the end of the story told in the Bible, there’s the start of a new story. The passage from the book of Acts that JD read this morning is about how the Christian faith started spreading and growing, and how Christ’s disciples and new converts to the faith began to form into a community.
The passage tells us that the believers “devoted themselves” to the teachings, and to praying, giving to others, sharing fellowship, eating together, praising God, and growing in number. In other words, they became the church.
That’s the larger story that we are a part of today. Because nearly 2000 years ago the first Christians learned that community mattered, we know to gather in this community, and to live out our faith with one another. This is the story of the church in every age and in every place.
But every church that has ever been formed, every community that has ever gathered around the story of Christ, has its own story too. And it’s the story of this community, and what God has done in it, that I want to talk about a little today.
A few years ago a pastor friend down in Florida was talking about old churches. He was saying to a group of New England pastors, “You know, they’re really old…they’ve been around since the 1800’s!”
There was a little suppressed laughter and he was like, “wait…I forgot…how old are your churches?”
And then the roll call started. Late 1700’s. Early 1700’s. Late 1600’s. And I very humbly said, “Oh, you know, 1638.”
People are always surprised to hear just how old we are. We’re not the oldest church in continuous existence in New England. The first comes from 1620. But we are close. 379 years ago tomorrow, our church, and by extension the entire town of Exeter, was founded.
It’s worth noting that this story does not start joyfully. The people who came here to Exeter were in a real sense religious refugees. The Rev. John Wheelwright had been kicked out of Massachusetts for the heresy of being too focused on the love and grace of God.
So, that dour old Puritan in the painting down in the vestry? He was the fun one.
Around the same time Wheelwright’s sister-in-law, a woman named Ann Hutchinson, was also kicked out. So, Hutchinson went south to what is now Rhode Island and Wheelwright and his band of followers came here to a place no one back then wanted to go: New Hampshire.
They settled on the banks of the Squamscott and they started to build a new community. And back in Puritan times, if you wanted to have a town, you had to have a church. There was no separation of church and state back then. They were essentially one and the same.
That’s the start of our story. A few years later this area came under Massachusetts’ control, and Wheelwright, still persona-non-grata, had to move on. But the church stayed. And even though it had some rocky years at first, it took root. And so did the town. And because of that, 379 years later we are still here.
Think of those 379 years. Think of everything that has happened in that time. This parish predates American independence by 138 years. A signer of the Declaration of Independence was a part of this very church.
Later in 1781 John Phillips and other church members took seriously the need for education and founded what is now Phillips Exeter Academy. And in the next century this church took a stand against slavery, and committed itself to abolition.
In the 20th century this church sent young people off to World War I and World War II. Later it sent its pastor off to march with Dr. King at Selma. It watched the Cold War come and go, and society rapidly change. And all the while, it endured, here at the heart of Exeter. And the story went on.
But that is only part of the story. Because this church has survived a lot of change inside its doors too. First, there’s the physical change. For instance, did you know that we are in the “new building”? This is actually the fifth church building, built recently, in 1798.
This church has also seen its fair share of changes involving clergy, and their role. When this building was first built, there was no second floor sanctuary. Instead, you came in the front doors and sat in pews in what is now the vestry. But the pastor would stand about where I am now. And he, always a he, would look down on his congregation, and preach to them for hours.
Sometime in the 1800’s things changed and the sanctuary was moved upstairs, and the pastor rightfully was brought to the same level as the people, both physically and symbolically. (The sermons became a lot shorter too.)
In all this church, excluding interims, has had 38 senior pastors. Each has had their own style, and each has influenced the direction of the church. And no matter whether they were beloved or their tenures were rocky, they were not the church. And when they left, the story went on.
There have been challenges too. Like the fact that or a large part of our history this church was supported by the taxes people paid to the town. We were the only church, and you had to belong, so everyone was taxed and that’s how the pastor got paid and the building stayed open.
But in the 1800’s, when there were more faiths in town, that ended. And the church was absolutely panicked about it. They thought for sure that this would be the end. But instead, people dug deep, and gave. And in the end they gave more willingly in gifts than they had ever given grudgingly in taxes. And the story went on.
There was also the time this church split it two. In 1748, in the heart of the Great Awakening, theological differences were so great that this church split into First Parish, which was more orthodox and remained here, and second parish, which was just down the street by the Academy.
They remained separate for 170 years, not rejoining one another until 1918 or, as I like to think of it, until everyone who remembered why they were fighting was dead.
That’s one reason that we have our name. Once the churches rejoined, we became one. And so was no longer First Congregational Church of Exeter, or Second Church, but only The Congregational Church in Exeter. And the story went on.
Later we added the initials UCC, for United Church of Christ. The Congregational Churches merged with another denomination in 1957 to form the UCC. But there was plenty of debate. New England Congregationalists have a healthy suspicion of hierarchy, and cherish independence. Still, we joined, and became connected with another larger story.
In recent years, this church has been called to take other stands as well. Like in 1996 when the question of whether we should become an Open and Affirming congregation, one which welcomed people of all sexual orientations or gender identities, came before the church. You have to remember that this was truly a different time. The decision to become ONA led to some leaving the church. And yet, sometimes you have to move forward and do the next right thing, even if not everyone is onboard. Because that’s the work of faith. And even then, the story went on.
And so, this morning we sit here in this place, and we remember that the story did not begin with us. We are here because generations of faithful people tried their best to be God’s church here in Exeter. We are here because a cast of characters we will never know wrote a story that was rich enough to last centuries.
But hopefully we are also here because we want to be a part of the story. We are here because in some small way we are hoping to write our own sentences and paragraphs into the story of this church.
You and I get to write this chapter in the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter. And, God willing, long after we are gone, others will be writing this story too. Because this isn’t just our story. It’s the story of John Wheelwright, and it’s the story of John Phillips. But it’s also the story of unnamed women who kept the doors open. It’s the story of children who were raised in this church, and in the faith. Children whose names we will never know, and children who grew up to be men like Harry Thayer.
And it’s the story of generations left to come. My hope is that generations from now another pastor will be standing at the pulpit of this church and preaching about this church’s birthday. Neither they nor the people they serve will probably know our names. But they will know us. They will know us by our works, and they will know us by the story that, with the help of God, we have written for them. The one that they will then take their turn writing.
I pray that the story we leave to them is one worth reading, and one worth telling. And I pray that what we do today will make it possible for them to truly write a masterpiece. We are so very fortunate to be a part of the story of the Congregational Church in Exeter, because long after we are gone, the story will go on.
And so, Happy Birthday, Congregational Church in Exeter. And may God bless us with many more.