Earlier this week the Milwaukee Historical Society recognized Plymouth Church for our 175th anniversary. You know you’re old when people give you an award for just being around.
The award, which you can see in the Douglas Commons, carries the caption, “Plymouth Church meets the spiritual needs of people from every walk of life.” Not a bad epigram for our church.
This Sunday we welcome new people into the long-standing work of our congregation. We will confirm youth and accept adults into our community. We’re welcoming them into the long project of our congregation to meet the spiritual needs of people from every walk of life.
A key aspect of joining involves reciting the covenant of the church. This action is sometimes given the antique title “owning the covenant.” Our Christian movement, the United Church of Christ, defines itself by covenants, by mutually shared agreements.
Other denominations bind themselves together on the basis of rules enforced by the power of a central authority. But we bind ourselves together on the basis of shared ideas, with only the commitment of our hearts to enforce it. In other words we’re not a “have to” church but a “want to” community.
Our covenant expresses what we want to do together. “Depending on the life and teachings of Jesus for guidance and inspiration, I promise to love God with all my heart, my mind, my soul, and my strength; and to love my neighbor as myself.” This covenant takes the Greatest Commandment - love God, love neighbor - and marries that to the life of Jesus - we know how to live the Greatest Commandment because of his life and teachings.
The covenant, like a prism, refracts all the aspects of our community life: gathering for worship to love God with all our souls, playing in the gym because we love God with all our strength too, and serving the wider community in acts of justice and service because our neighbors matter as much as God.
Our covenant, like the Greatest Commandment, makes a particular claim about the way spirituality works: love of God can’t be separated from the love of our neighbors. An ancient abbot named Dorotheos of Gaza once gave the best description of this spiritual claim.
The monks of Dorotheos’ monastery did not get along with each other. Backbiting gossip turned to open hostility until the monastery seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Dorotheos gathered the monks to teach them a new way to live together. He began, saying, “suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle.”
I know - you’re thinking to yourself, “I was told there would be no math.” But imagine you draw an outline of a circle. The center point is of course equidistant from the outer edge. Radial lines can be drawn from the edge to the center; each will be the same length. “Now,” Dorotheos continued, “Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings.”
Dorotheos’ analogy gives us a way to imagine the connection between loving God and loving our neighbor. Moving closer to God, moving down the radius towards the center, not only draws us closer to God but closer to others. Likewise, being drawn to our neighbors draws us down towards the center, closer to God.
This geometric insight underlies our congregation. We come here to praise God but it deepens in us a love of neighbor. We go out to witness and work for the justice of our neighbors but find our sense of God’s presence strengthened.
Our current covenant has defined the life of our congregation for as long as any living member remembers; but it was not our first church covenant. 175 years ago, when the first people came together to own the covenant, their shared ideas of church seem strikingly different. The first covenant of our congregation required people to say:
“We will keep the Sabbath holy; we will not conform to the world in its fashions and follies, such as gaming, dress unbecoming godliness, balls, dances, and theaters, and all scenes of dissipation.”
It doesn’t sound like the Plymouth Church we know today. Did we break with the faith of our spiritual ancestors?
And yet, if we remember how they lived and what questions engaged them, then we can see our continuity. The founders of our congregation came to Plymouth from New England. Like Yankees across the country, they were committed to the cause of abolition. Our first pastor - John Mitre - studied with the father and husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Our founders were immersed in opposing human slavery and fighting for human dignity. 175 years later we still know racial equity is a central question of our society.
Even their abstinence can be seen in context of our continuing work. In the 1840’s and throughout the decades after, the movement against the consumption of alcohol was one of the premier women’s issues. Women wanted men to swear off alcohol because too often men’s drinking spent precious family income and contributed to domestic abuse. We don’t look at the issues the same way, but I can appreciate their commitment to women’s rights expressed in the covenant.
175 years separate us from the founders of our congregation but we share with those long ago people a common desire to draw closer to God through our advocacy for human dignity. They might never have imagined our work for LGBT rights but they would understand our long effort to change public opinion. And they would not have spoken about “white privilege” but they would get the effort to address racial equity. They didn’t sing with inclusive language hymns nor speak of reproductive freedom but they knew women’s rights mattered.
David Greenhaw, one of my mentors as a pastor, told me why he joined a church. “Some problems are too big to solve in a year,” he said, “and some problems are even too big to solve in a lifetime; and some programs are too big to solve alone.” David belonged to a church to solve those big problems, the ones that take lifetimes of people working together.
When I remember the first founders of our congregation fighting against slavery and when I see us working today to address racial equity, human trafficking, and youth homelessness and basic needs, I realize we’re part of working on the really big problems of human life. This morning, when youth and adults “own the covenant” of Plymouth, they join a long line of Christians working on the long project for human dignity.
I particularly like one phrase of our first church covenant. “We will not conform to the world in its fashions and follies.” The antique wording reminds me of Paul’s comment in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Our long project as a congregation, through which we draw closer to God and our neighbors, necessarily involves confronting the “fashions and follies” of the world. Follies like the current nonsense about which bathroom transgender people use.
Another such folly, or perhaps better called a fallacy, surrounds the issue of diversity. There is a view out in our country that America's greatness comes from conformity; that we must wall out and banish diversity. This conventional wisdom comes out in all sorts of ways. Someone wants a “good” school, but good really means white. Or they want a “safe” neighborhood, but safe really means white.
Such fallacies make our Pentecost story important to me. We normally focus on the dramatic beginning of the story, when the Holy Spirit appears as if a tongue of fire over the disciples. But this morning I’m struck by what happened next: the long list of nations present to hear Peter preaching - Parthians and Medes, Libyans and Romans, Cretans and Arabs.
Peter faced a world of diversity. Parthians were mortal enemies - a line of forts ran through Judea as protection from them. Romans were conquerors - they imposed their will, boots on the ground. Egyptians and Greeks, encroaching foreigners, with strange customs.
Now in our Pentecost story, I notice that Peter didn’t grab a bullhorn to promise to make Galilee great again. Instead he connected with people. The diversity was not lost; but he was able to connect beyond all that could be seen as dividing himself from others.
Peter’s Pentecost moment takes me back to Dorotheos’ geometry. In the upper room Peter felt himself drawn close to God. And then he went out in the street to draw closer to his neighbors; at first they seemed like strangers and enemies but through the spirit he drew close.
There is one long project of our church for today, yesterday when our congregation was founded, two millennia ago on the first Pentecost. We draw nearer to God; we draw nearer to neighbors; praising the holy; celebrating human diversity and dignity.
Alleluia and Amen.
Bondi, Roberta C., To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church