A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor ©2020
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost/A • July 5. 2020
Most of us know the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, a group of English Separatists who settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and serve as one of the foundations of the Congregation Way. Less well known is the story of the Arbella and its fleet which carried a thousand Puritans and landed in Massachusetts Bay nine years later. Yet it was their colony that shaped Massachusetts, eventually incorporating the settlement at Plymouth.
Imagine for a moment that you were the leader of this group. It’s been a long voyage; some have been seasick ever since they left England. Many have been frightened, many are missing home and its comforts. Now land is sighted; now the great ship comes into the natural harbor of what will become Salem. What would you want to say? How would you inspire them? What would you tell them about the purpose of this great and dangerous voyage?
John Winthrop was the leader and Winthrop chose to speak about charity, a word that translates the Bible word for love that cares for others. Winthrop’s sermon lifted up Christian love as a practical principle for governing. He quoted the sermon the mount to describe the purpose of the settlement.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others,Matthew 5:14-16
Winthrop was explicit about the need to support the poor and make sure each had what their needs met. Infused in his sermon is a principle that underlay the Congregational Way and ultimately the American Way: that there is a fundamental dignity, a fundamental promise, inherent in each person; that each person represents a gift of God and it is the responsibility of the whole community and especially the church to allow that gift to unfold and serve God’s purpose.
When Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, two sons of the Massachusetts colony Winthrop founded, set out with Thomas Jefferson to define a new nation in the Declaration of Independence, they went back to this founding principle, that all are created equal, all have a human dignity under God, a purpose and a claim on the freedom needed to live out their purpose. This weekend, we celebrate that moment when our fathers and mothers said such things and we must ask, as the historic source of this faith, how can we renew it, how can we make it again a light for all?
Jesus also preached the profound value of each person. He summoned those he met, those who heard him, to remember and renew the living light of God’s word that they had heard from scripture all their lives. He himself said that he didn’t come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. In this, he was doing what prophets do: seeking the vibrant core of God’s Spirit and making it live again. Of course, many of his contemporaries couldn’t see this.
We heard his frustration in the story from Matthew today. Jewish children, like our own, made the rituals of their parents into games. We do weddings; children play with Wedding Barbie. We cook; children work in imaginary kitchens. We dress for success; children love to dress up. But what to do with someone who won’t play?
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’…
Jesus has summoned all who hear him but they refuse to play. They don’t respond; they don’t dance to the music. They cannot remember the original vision; they cannot see the original hope. The “wise and intelligent” are the worst of all; they are too busy compromising to see the goodness of God. Only those who can come as children receive his gift: the peace that makes it possible to lay down burdens and find rest for the soul, the rest that will allow them to fulfill their purpose in God.
We celebrated Independence Day this weekend. But in the midst of our red, white and blue feeling, have we reached back to touch the bright vision with which our nation began? It is a vision that believes all have gifts and its genius was always that we offered a place to express those gifts, to make a life by doing the work of expressing those gifts. Where other societies chose to make birth a qualification, we made hard work the important factor. Where other societies were built like a pyramid with some kind of aristocracy at the top, we said from the beginning, from Winthrop on, that everyone, rich or poor, had a responsibility for everyone. Where other societies glorified a gifted few, we claimed a fundamental dignity for all. This is not simply a political issue; it was, it is, always, a religious issue. For the real task of churches to lift up a prophetic patriotism. That is, a patriotism that remembers we are founded on a vision of God’s purpose in our community. We do that most effectively when we demonstrate what such a community looks like.
Perhaps we could learn a lesson from our history and make it our vision for the future.
In the fifth or sixth century, a monk named Dubhan led a group to Hooks Head, a remote corner of Ireland, and set up a monastery. Soon the monks noticed that the bodies of sailors were washing up on their pristine beach: they had perished when their ships hit the rocky coastline. The monks decided to set up a beacon and operated it for the next thousand years.
This is a concrete expression of Winthrop’s summons to be a city set on a hill, a light to all. Every shoal, every reef, needs a light. Lighthouses are built by people on land for sailors they don’t know, to provide a guide, to help them make a safe passage. What lighthouses do we need to be building? We know there are dark and dangerous currents in our culture; how can we provide guidance to those caught in them? We know there are rocks on which lives shatter; how can we be ready to rescue the endangered?
Sometimes when we think of patriotism, it’s simply a matter of cheering for our country, in a sense, our team. But real patriotism is prophetic. What prophets did was to remind everyone about God’s purpose and summon the whole community to return to that purpose. Prophetic patriotism has nothing to do with parties. It remembers God’s purpose, it remember the vision with which we began. It is a patriotism that takes up the call of the prophets to hear God’s call to make justice a living reality, to make care for the widow, the orphan and the immigrant our concern, to make justice our bedrock. This is a patriotism that takes the love of neighbor Jesus taught and intends to make our community a city set on a hill, giving light to all, as Winthrop said,.
Jesus has come dancing; we are summoned and if we don’t know the steps, it’s time to learn. We must look to his example and learn his steps. When we do, we will certainly see that he spent his life on the way, seeking the lost, healing the hurt, restoring the ability of those who had thought they were dead to live again. To dance this way, to live this way, we will have to go out, as a light goes out, into the darkness, to show the way, to offer the love of God. Jesus is an invitation: lift up, light u,p the love of God.
None of us can do this alone. Jesus did not live alone; his first act is to gather a community around him and we are the successors of that community, it’s children. So we are meant to be a light here not simply as individuals but all together. Like a band, like a choir, I hear Jesus calling us to this dance and his first words are surely: “All together now!”