250 years: God is just getting started with us...

There is much to say about the depth, joy and gratitude we all experienced today at the 250th anniversary of First Church.  It was more beautiful than I ever imagined... and in time I will have some pictures to share that give some shape and form to the festivities.  For now, let me simply post my remarks (which I edited on the cuff) as they are illustrative of a totally wonderful time. I return thanks to Carlton, Eva, Dave, Dianne, Jon, Brian as well as Jon, Linda, Rob, Paul and the whole PCTV crew. I am blessed that Mayor Bianchi was able to join us - and doubly-blessed that Kelly and Sara, Carolyn and Jane and Mark could be a part of the fun, too.

Well, dear sisters and brothers, here we are:  all gathered to return thanks to God for 250 years of mission and ministry.  One of the anonymous writers of the Bible, whom some have suggested may have been the Apostle Paul, recorded a sermon from the earliest days in which these words were proclaimed:

Since, therefore, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and sin that clings too closely and run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Now I have loved that passage since I was a young man: since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us run with perseverance the race that has been set before us. Notice that the preacher did NOT say: since we are gathered together this day with an intimate coterie of our ancestors – nor did she say anything about a small group of like-minded friends and neighbors coming together for some casual barbeque.  No the proclamation is that we have been SURROUNDED BY A GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES.  Saturated with their bold and graceful presence and buoyed beyond imagination with their love.

You see in those early days of persecution, when Christians risked life and limb to show compassion and justice to those in need, they drew strength and stamina from the assurance that they had been surrounded by faithful saints who had preceded them on the journey of life.

·   And they didn’t just include those they knew personally – or those who looked like them – or those who lived on their side of town.  No, they celebrated and serenaded all different kinds of saints who showed the world something of what it means to live for faith, hope and love.

·   In the list of honored guests recorded in this sermon as it is written in chapter 11 of Hebrews, there are Christians and Jews that are celebrated as models of faith.  There are women and men with questionable pedigrees that are celebrated. There are patriarchs and matriarchs among the celebrated as well as a few dear souls who are just wounded, broken and even messed up people like you and me.

·    I mean… Samson?  Or Rahab? Not paragons of public virtue, to be sure but still apparently worthy of being remembered among the saints.

Because, you see, they ran with perseverance the race of faith that was set before them even when they saw as through a glass darkly. So today that same cloud of witnesses – expanded by time, wisdom and humility – join us here for our cele-bration – and I want you to think about that truth if you dare?  Think about who is with us right now in this room – whether in heaven or on earth – as we mark the 250th anniversary of this congregation.

·   Certainly it would have to include the 8 foundation men who were called together by the Holy Spirit back in the earliest days of this community and became the core of First Church are with us today.  And certainly our first pastor, The Reverend Thomas Allen, the fighting parson is here, too probably with his gun.  All too often brother Allen is remembered as firing the first shot at the Battle of Bennington in the Revolutionary War, and that has its place; but did you know that the fighting parson once took in a runaway slave into his home and gave him solace and support for 11 years?

·    I am certain the Parson Allen is here with us today and unless I am totally mistaken, the 18 pastors who have preceded me in ministry – including all of their Moderators and faithful deacons and church councils as well as their beloved families – they are all here today, too.  19 minister in 250 years – amazing!

·   But let’s go deeper, beloved, because I have been persuaded by faith to tell you that I also believe that the Reverend Samuel Harrison, the first minister of Second Congregational Church, is here today along with the 7 foundational women and men who started that sacred institution in 1846. The Holy Spirit was alive among our African American sisters and brothers when in good conscience they could no longer tolerate the racism of the age and chose to break away from First Church in freedom even before the Civil War had begun. Truly, those saints are in the cloud of witnesses that are gathered here among us today.

And there are hundreds and hundreds of other saints who are joining today as a part of our celebration – people with whom we have become partners in ministry within the city of Pittsfield - Sara and Kelly Shuff, Carolyn Valli, Mayor Bianchi and Jane Winn.  According to the grace of God, they too are a part of this great cloud of witnesses as are our musical partners and choirs and children. 

You see, today we gather not simply to mark a birthday – that’s important, don’t get me wrong – but simple chronological longevity takes place among even reptiles.  So, while age has its place, what we want to celebrate today is the profound shift in vision and approach to ministry that has taken root within and among us. Let’s be honest and talk turkey:  while we were gathered by the Holy Spirit to come into being as Pittsfield’s FIRST church 250 years ago, today we are no longer first in influence, power or authority anywhere.  We are not Pittsfield’s movers and shakers.  We are not those who regularly influence public opinion or social investment in any significant way. And we are not the country club at prayer as they used to say about our beloved membership.

·   Rather, we are a collection of predominately white middle class Christians trying to follow the spirit of Jesus in the 21st century.  We are gay and straight, male and female, young and old, wealthy, poor and every-thing in-between.

·   We are doubters and seekers, believers and heretics, those with a passionate evangelical commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior and those who are often offended to even be called Christians given the bone-headed and sometimes mean-spirited thoughts and actions perpetrated on our friends by of other members of the Christian community.

And what we ache for these days is not pomp and circumstance and certainly not the power and prestige of by gone generations.  No, what we yearn for most as a congregation in 2014 is partnership - partnership with those who are committed to the common good of our community – partnership with those who hunger and thirst after compassion and justice – and partnership in the humble spirit of the Lord made flesh in Jesus. That’s why today’s celebration is a concert:  a form of shared beauty playfully and reverently offered to God and our town by musical partners who love to embrace the joy of life in community.

Our mission statement reminds us that we have been called together in com-munity to worship, to reflect, to do justice and share compassion – our witness is defined by how we do this together – in partnership with one another and other allies who have a vision of the beloved community.  Not a dog-eat-dog world or some addicted race to the bottom of the barrel in obeisance to the lowest common denominator. But rather something that resembles a choir – or a band – where everyone listens to one another carefully – covers one another’s mistakes with creativity and forgiveness – and tries to make something beautiful together in the spirit of cooperation and joy. 

Jazz guitarist, Bill Frissell, once put it like this:  we play and practice and improvise together because when we do this we can explore the freedom and beauty we need in a space where no one gets hurt. And that’s part of what we’re doing today:  we want to celebrate together in community.

Another part has to do with reminding ourselves of who the Holy Spirit has called us to be for THIS generation.  Once upon a time, we were called to be first, but not so much in 2014.  In fact, I think there are two passages from the Bible that are calling out to us for serious reflection.  You may recall, that the Old Testament scholar and theologian, Walter Breuggemann, once observed that when a people or a community is in transition they tend to grasp hold of their favorite old and time-tested texts with what seems like a death grip. But the better way – the more faithful way – he suggests is to go to the portions of the Bible we have neglected over the years – journey to the border and the periphery – and listen to the voices from outside the circles of power. And in that spirit there are two passages that cry out to me for deeper understanding for they offer to us a new vision for our ministry. The first is taken from the Hebrew Scriptures in Psalm 131:

Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; My soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel trust in the Lord from this time on and for evermore.

This is all about humility and trust:  my soul has been calmed and quieted like a baby resting in her momma’s lap. Mmmmmmm…. The second text comes from that wounded sinner who in time became one of Christ’s most loving advocates, Paul of Tarsus, who wrote to a weary church in Corinth:

My grace is sufficient for you, says the Lord, for my power is made perfect in weakness. That is why I am able to boast all the more gladly of my weakness, for in this the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ for whenever I am week, then I am strong by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sometimes Paul would go so far as to say that he had become a FOOL for Christ –  not a social mover and shaker but a fool for Christ – and from my perspective as pastor I think that is true for many of us today at First Church. Oh we may not like to talk about ourselves as fools, but we know that given changes in our culture, we no longer have to carry the mantle and burden of greatness or wealth or power.

Now we can live more freely and playfully as compassionate collaborators with Christ.  That is why we are giving so much attention to music, poetry and prayer today:  it empowers us to mature as creative fools for Christ in a world that wants to keep us locked into the slavery of distraction and fear.  But this congregation, for most of its life, has had a LONG history of opening its heart to the wisdom of God through music. 

At one time there was an orchestra playing here to accompany congregational singing.  In time that was replaced by an organ – and once upon a time for a few years there was a moment when the primary musical instrument was a bass viol!  I’m not kidding – what goes around comes around – and as a bass player I LOVE that fact.  We’ve had a long history of beauty and innovation.  I think of the 50 years of music making that enriched the Berkshires and this church under the leadership of Lou Steigler, an alum of my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary in NYC as one recent example: playing bold and beautiful music here to evoke the radical vision of Christ is nothing new…

What has changed, however, is the context and the theology.  Today we are broadly eclectic – as you will here in a moment – combining blues and rock and roll with sacred chorales and hymns. Today we rarely start our music from a theology of glory and power.  No now we try to trust that in OUR weakness GOD is strong and that changes everything:  from this upside down vision the last become first, children become honored members of the community and our wounds become sacred teachers that can lead us to wisdom. 

That’s what ALL of the songs we will share with you today reinforce – from the surly and gnarly music of Tom Waits to the hymn that Eva and Carlton wrote for this occasion – but there is one in particular that I want to call to your attention because it cuts deep: Peace Train. It takes the image of a train moving across the country on behalf of peace and partnership and invites us to ask ourselves:  are we ready to get on board?  Are we ready to be a part of the choir – or the band – or the dancers or painters who want to strengthen and build up our community? Are we ready to do our part in cooperation – not necessarily as leaders – but as servants?  Now pay careful attention here because there two truths we must consider:

The symbol of the train has been used for decades in American soul music. One song, “This Train” speaks about holiness – this train don’t carry no gamblers, this train. Years later the great Duke Ellington and Billy Straythorn wrote “Take the A Train” about leaving the stress of oppression downtown behind and getting home to their safe and sweet neighborhood uptown in Harlem. Twenty years later, Curtis Mayfield, wrote the incredible “People Get Ready” about a train ‘comin that was picking up passengers from coast to coast. And just last month Bruce Springsteen released a new tune, “Land of Hopes and Dreams” that celebrates a train so inclusive in love that it carries saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers and all types of lost souls.

That’s one layer of train symbolism.  Another whole strata is built upon the Underground Railroad and the importance that reality has played in our collective history.  So, first of all, Peace Train reminds us that there is a force – a power – an energy alive in the world that is rolling across this country – and every country – and it is about healing and hope and transformation and freedom.  The second truth about “Peace Train” is that sometimes that force – that love – that grace finds us laughing, sometimes it finds us singing and sometimes it finds us crying.  But it never quits rolling – it meets and greets us where we are in life – happy or sad, broken or whole – and invites us to get on board.

See where this is going…?  The Peace Train is an invitation to partnership in community no matter what our condition or station in life.  It acknowledges that there is pain and sorrow in our world – evil and injustice, too – and like Dr. King once said: we must choose which side we’re on.  Every generation must do likewise and either get on board or get out of the way

The second thing we are celebrating today on our 250th anniversary is that we want to get on board with those who care about the common good as partners in Pittsfield. Not as first this or first that – but partners – dare I say as fools for Christ?

That is why we are so grateful that some of our allies in compassion are with us today – and they will be sharing words of greeting and encouragement in their own unique way in just a moment – but there is one last truth I must call to your attention today.  And it is born of our history, our human sinfulness and our God’s amazing grace.  One hundred and forty six years ago, our African American sisters and brothers felt led by the Spirit to break away from First Church – we all know this story but many don’t like to acknowledge it – at least here – because it is so ugly and painful.

But there are two beautiful things that came out of the sinful breech:  the first was the birth of the first African American congregation in the Berkshires – Second Congregational Church – a community of faith dedicated to breaking down barriers and challenging injustice with love and faith.  The second beautiful thing has been simmering and percolating in the hearts of the faithful at First Church for a long, long time – far longer than I have even been alive – so you KNOW that’s a long time – has something to do with repenting of our sin and walking the road of reconciliation with our sisters and brothers.  Some of my predecessors set the stage for this throughout our history, but we have a unique opportunity at this moment in time.

·   So today, on the occasion of our 250th anniversary of First Church, we want to take another small step on the road of repentance and offer Second Church a symbol of our love and gratitude and friendship as part of the Peace Train.

·   We have a gift - it is one of our historic silver communion chalices – that dates back to 1804.  It was probably used both by members of First and Second Church at different moments. For the story of our historic breech, at least as it is told here, has something to do with the wife of a pastor refusing to share the common cup at Holy Communion with the African American members of First Church.  This is probably partly truth and partly fiction but it is an accurate reflection of a broken relationship born of a culture of division and racial bigotry.

So what we would like to do today is simply say that in the 21st century we want to walk with you – we want to find new ways of being partners with you – and we would like give you this as a symbol of our repentance.  It is a sign that not only do we want to work and pray for the day when very soon we will know one another again so that we can all drink from the same loving cup, but that we trust that God’s love in Christ is bigger than our sin.  (SHARE THE CUP…)
As fools for Christ we trust that in Christ Jesus our Lord there is neither male nor female, slave nor free – and in my Bible that goes on to say – neither rich nor poor, black nor white or anything else in all creation that can ever separate us from the love of God we share in Christ Jesus our Lord.  I am so honored that you have all joined us for the party – so as the master of ceremonies and pastor of funk – I think it is time to get down…

And we did.. going right into an down and dirty version of Tom Waits' "Come On Up to the House."


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