Our Story: Sermon for the 379th Anniversary of the Congregational Church in Exeter, April 2, 2017

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.

exeter church logo triple vertical-1A 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.

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Rev. John Wheelwright

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.

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The church in the later 1800’s.

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.

1473964586467In 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.

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Singing “Happy Birthday Dear Church” before cutting the birthday cake.

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.

Gained in Translation: Sermon for Pentecost, 2015

Before I became a parish minister, I was a chaplain. I was working for a hospice on the South Shore of Massachusetts, and I had one patient down near New Bedford, where many of the older population still speaks Portuguese fluently.

Whenever I went to see this patent at their nursing home, this other resident on her unit would see me in the lobby and start shouting at me in Portuguese. And I had no clue what she was saying, but it was obvious to me that she was upset, and so I always just apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible.

One day I went back and the same thing happened. Only this time there were people around. And one of the aides said, “Do you know what she’s saying?” And I said, “no, but whatever I did I’m sorry.”

And then she told me that the woman was speaking Portuguese, and that she was a little confused. But she thought I was a relative of hers, and that when she saw me she wasn’t mad at all; she was excited. And she was yelling joyfully to me about how glad she was to see me. After that day I would always talk to her, and I understood now that when we talked, though I couldn’t understand her, she was happy.

Pentecost by He Qi.

Pentecost by He Qi.

I learned then that translation matters. It can change everything. Today’s story is about translation too. It’s ten days after the Ascension, when Jesus left this world, and the disciples are together, trying to figure out what to do next now that Jesus is gone.

And all of a sudden a rushing wind, with tongues of fire, fell on them. And suddenly, the disciples, all of whom were Galileans all just speaking the same language, were speaking languages that they had never known before. People from other places were nearby and they heard it and they could understand what they were saying, and they asked “how come we are hearing this in our own language”?

Some didn’t even believe it; they said “they must be drunk.” But Peter gets up and he says “look, it’s only 9am..we’re not drunk”. Instead, something new has come, and everything has changed.

In the church we call this the Pentecost, which is translated to mean “fifty days”, as in fifty days after Easter. And we call that mighty rush of wind that came down the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we call this the birthday of the church. This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, and the church was born.

I’ve always found that interesting. Because, intuitively, it might not make a lot of sense. Shouldn’t Easter be the birthday of the church? After all, it’s the day Jesus rose again and appeared to the disciples. Maybe you could even argue that Christmas, with the birth of Christ, should be the day of celebration? Or, maybe Maundy Thursday when Jesus tells the disciples how to love one another?

But most believe Pentecost is the church’s birthday. And I think it’s because that was the day the disciples went from being this sort of loose band of followers of Jesus, standing around wondering what now, to being equipped by the Holy Spirit to minister not just to their own, but to the whole world.

And I think it says a lot that on its day of birth, when the Holy Spirit came down, the first gift that the disciples realize they have is the gift of being able to speak in new languages. The ability to translate the message to others.

I told you that story earlier about translation, and how it helped me to know what was being shouted at me in Portuguese. But translation doesn’t always have to be literal. Sometimes we learn to speak, and to understand, the language of others even when we don’t have the words.

One night when I was on call as a hospital chaplain, I received a page, and I was asked to come meet with a man whose wife had just given birth and who now was not doing well. And he was an Orthodox Christian originally from the Middle East. He spoke English fluently, and had been in this country a long time. And we were talking and I asked him, as I always did in these situations, if he wanted to pray.

He said “yes”, and took my hand and I was about to start praying, as I always did, but instead he started. And in Arabic he prayed this impassioned, heart-felt prayer for his wife.

I have no idea what those words were that he was saying. But in that moment, without knowing a word of Arabic, I knew exactly what he meant. And I know that the Holy Spirit was with us in that moment.

If the Holy Spirit were to sweep into this place again today, and give us all a birthday gift, because we are all the church, I think we would get the same gift the disciples got. And I don’t mean by that that we would all be able to speak Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Arabic, per se. Rather, I think we would learn how to speak in new ways to those who haven’t heard yet about God’s love in language that they understand.

And you don’t have to leave the country to find people who haven’t. You don’t even have to leave Exeter. Just look at the news. A few weeks ago there was a poll out talking about how fewer and fewer people considered themselves religious now. It made the front page of major papers. And New Hampshire is the second least-religious state in the country. And “nones”, those who do not claim a religious tradition, are the fastest growing demographic group.

And yet here we are in the church, speaking a foreign language. There was a time when everyone knew what the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and all of our other church words meant. There was a time when most people knew our language. But they don’t anymore. And that is new, but it’s also not necessarily bad. Because it doesn’t mean that ours is not a language worth sharing.

For decades now too much of the church has stood still, angry at the world that no one understands us anymore. No one speaks our language. We complain about that fact, and we have plenty of things to blame, everything from parents to over scheduled kids to sports on Sunday morning, but the reality is that few people are going to spontaneously show up at our doors asking to learn our language.

But do you notice something about the Pentecost story? When the Holy Spirit comes, it’s the disciples who learn the new language. All the other people there don’t suddenly speak the disciples’ language: instead the disciples learn to speak theirs.

I think maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something. We can’t wait for others to talk the way we talk. Instead, we have to learn their language. We have to learn what is important to them. We have to be able to communicate in the ways that matter to them. We have to be willing to make the connections. It’s what the church has been doing since its first days, and it’s what we are still called to do today.

And, more importantly, we have to have something to say. Gone are the days when people are going to come to church out of obligation. And I think that’s a good thing. But what that means is that the people coming through our doors are looking for something deeper. They are looking for community. They are looking for meaning. And, more than anything, they are looking for a spiritual connection.

The Holy Spirit is what we in the church have to offer. We as Christians believe that God speaks to us and leads us through the Holy Spirit. It is our companion and guide through life. It is what gives us comfort when we need it, and courage when we are done being comforted. Jesus called it the paraclete, which means “advocate” or “helper”. The Holy Spirit is our advocate and helper. Why would we not want to claim that and share that?

That’s one reason that we are doing this Natural Church Development process, and we are looking seriously at what it means to reclaim “passionate spirituality”. Because in this world where so many say that they are “spiritual but not religious”, if the church can’t do “spiritual” well, we may as well close our doors. There’s no point unless we are gathered around something bigger than ourselves and led by a Spirit bigger than our own; a Holy Spirit, the same one that came on Pentecost all those centuries ago.

Because so long as we are actually trying to God’s will for us, so long as we are actually following where the Spirit leads us, we aren’t some forgotten dinosaur speaking some lost language. We’re alive, and we have something to offer. And there are people who want to hear about it. They want us to make the connections, they want us to be translators, they want to know. But if we try to hide that light, that fire of Pentecost, under a bushel, then what we have will be lost in translation.

And so, on this Pentecost, on this birthday of the church, we can make a choice. Because Pentecost didn’t just happen 2000 years ago. It happens still. And on Pentecost we are given an incredible gift in the Holy Spirit. It’s one that will never wear out, never grow too small, and never fail to amaze us if we only let it.

But here’s the catch: we can’t hold on to that gift only for ourselves. It must be shared. And if you have really received it, it will be shared through you. In fact, it probably has been already, and with God’s help will be again. You will be the translator of all God has to give this world.

And so this Pentecost, unwrap your gift. Delight in it the way you would any good gift. But don’t stop there. Share it with a world that has a deep spiritual hunger. Learn to speak the language of the ones who thirst for spiritual depth. And follow the Holy Spirit into all the places God has already prepared for you to go. You just may find that behind every corner a never-ending birthday celebration waits. Amen?