Monday, July 19, 2010

Under the radar

(I decided it was time for this church to 'come out of the closet' on this blog, especially since they are celebrating their 125th anniversary this year.)

Martha and Mary, He Qi, China

Psalm 15; Luke 10: 38-42
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
July 18, 2010 - Heritage Sunday

The shortest paraphrase of Psalm 15 that I ever heard was in the movie “Friday Night Lights”, of all places: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” The movie is the story of the Odessa-Permian High School football team in 1988, the year they made it to the Texas state championships but lost by the closest, most agonizing margin I have ever seen.

It’s a story that doesn’t make it into the headlines very often—about almost winning, about losing by this much. More importantly it’s a story about having clear eyes and full hearts, and when you do, you can’t lose no matter what the scoreboard says.

Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, gives us Psalm 15 in this way:

1 GOD, who gets invited to dinner at your place?
How do we get on your guest list?

2 "Walk straight, [or move through life without blame]
act right,
tell the truth.

3-4 "Don't hurt your friend,
don't blame your neighbor;
despise the despicable.

5 "Keep your word even when it costs you,
make an honest living,
never take a bribe.

"You'll never get blacklisted
if you live like this."

You’ll probably also not be written up in the paper or in a history book, make it into a who’s who or the nightly news. Most folks who live this way go largely unnoticed yet we’re always extremely thankful that we know one or more persons like this, even more so if we call them friends.

I would bet that both Martha and Mary lived this way. They were more than, as my grandmother would have said, ‘good people’. They were the best sort of friends. In the gospel lesson from Luke, Martha opens her home to Jesus, making him feel welcome. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he is saying. So far, so good. Both women demonstrate their intent to be disciples of Jesus, each in their own way. Clear eyes, full hearts. Both have an enthusiasm for Jesus and his presence in their home and what that means to them.

Back in the latter part of the 19th century, when this church was formed, there was great debate as to how one’s enthusiasm for Jesus should be displayed. There were rationalists, born of the Enlightenment, who thought that faith was an expression of the mind and one approached God through the study of scripture or through the hearing of an expository sermon, with clear eyes. Others in the Protestant faith, of the Pietist tradition, believed that faith was a personal, transformative experience, a living reality known in a living God—full hearts. Both of these expressions of faith are present in the United Church of Christ, stemming from our forebears. The Congregationalists of Boston focused more on rational aspects of faith, called “Old Light” Puritans, in contrast to the “New Light” Congregationalists, during the revivals of the 1800’s. The Evangelical and Reformed church, from our German heritage, was more pietistic in practice and theology.

Granted, these are broad strokes of our religious history, but in it we can witness a similar tension in today’s church. How is faith to be experienced and expressed? What is to be the focus of our faith and of the church?

Washington Gladden

Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, the social gospel movement was born. There was an urgent demand to match the church’s enthusiasm for Jesus with action and justice in human lives. Here it was that the study of scripture and the transformative experience of faith joined hands. Congregationalist Washington Gladden was one of the first leaders of the social gospel movement, which took seriously the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. He and others witnessed the effects of unbridled capitalism on the urban poor and brought the message of Jesus to bear on injustice and poverty. And in this we see the beginnings of the present-day mission of this church.

On May 5, 1885 twenty-one souls gathered in an old schoolhouse to form an ecclesiastical society, a community church for the purpose of worship for families who summered in Woodmont. Before that auspicious meeting, there had been the Sunday School and evening gatherings. Charles Merwin and George W. Smith each donated the hefty sum of $5.00 toward the building of the chapel. The Treat and Bryan families donated the land and in the fall of 1886 the main part of the chapel was built and then completed in 1888. When all the bills had been paid, there was a balance of $115 in the church treasury—they said they had “gone over the top!”

When I researched the narrative of this church, in a published history of Milford for its 350th anniversary, there is only one mention of this church. “The Woodmont Union Chapel, non-denominational, was built in 1886 to provide a house of worship for people of all faiths.” There are small and varied mentions of the other three UCC churches in town: building additions, the calling of pastors, the old bell ringing in the steeple of First Church after years of silence, the Trade Show sponsored by the Plymouth Men’s Club. There was no mention of when the land on New Haven Avenue was purchased, when you broke ground, or any of the pastors you called.
But in a self-published booklet for this church’s 50th anniversary I found these words: [“…our community church here in Woodmont]…began, as most great movements begin, in a small, insignificant way, much like a snowball rolling down hill, gathering momentum, adding material, weight and size…as it progressed.”

You folks fly under the radar. Though no one would doubt your enthusiasm for Jesus, you do not attract a lot of attention for the sake of attention. When you do, it’s for a very good reason—as when this church, with the leadership of your former pastor Paige Besse-Rankin, established the Milford Anti-Hate Task Force in 1999 in response to KKK recruitment and a racial incident between two neighbors. You were one of the first churches in the 1960’s to have people of different colors worship together and took some heat for it. When you became Open and Affirming, the prevailing sentiment was “Didn’t we do this already?”

You offer the hospitality of Martha but you also sit at the feet of Jesus to learn what your mission, your focus, your expression of faith will be. You are a church that takes seriously the words “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It hasn’t gotten you into the history books or a recent newspaper, but I know that this church has a hold on your affection and on your lives like none other.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Jan Vermeer, 1645-1655

Fifty years ago at the 75th anniversary of this church, the following words were shared. They sound as though they could have been written for today:

“Nowhere in the record of these years is there any earth-shaking event to which one can point and say ‘THIS was the important moment—the great decision—the finest hour.’ On the contrary, the records are prosaic and in a sense even a little dull—as the diary of the average housewife or business man would be prosaic and dull. Yet when the days are added up and the years are catalogued, we find that the total is one to make us both proud and humble.

“We can be proud indeed that we have come so far. We must be humble in our awareness that there is a long road ahead, one which we shall walk for a little way ourselves, while others will succeed us and go on beyond us.

“Of one thing we can feel fairly sure: the Chapel is burgeoning with new enthusiasms, new ideas, new hopes. With the guidance of our new minister—with the close cooperation of our members—with God’s blessing on our efforts—the future of Woodmont Union Chapel is bright.”

May Jesus continue to claim the better part of your time, your attention and your lives. May the enthusiasm of your minds and hearts be sustained and renewed by both study and service. May you keep your eyes clear and your hearts full, and if you do, you can’t lose no matter what the balance sheet or the membership numbers say. And whether you fly under the radar of history or not, I urge you to persist at the feet of Jesus that you may learn what your next mission, focus, expression of faith will be.


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