A sermon given by Rev. Dr. Peter A. Luckey on Sunday, May 28, 2017
What does it mean to be the church today? Here’s my simple answer.
What it means to be the church today is not to be something that we are not, but to be something that we are. There—sermon’s over. We can go to the Mayflower Room. It means to be who we are, which is to say, to be the church today means not that we grasp for something that we don’t already have in hand. It doesn’t mean we have to go read something that we don’t already know. It means to be who we are. It means to celebrate what we have been given. It means to claim our inheritance. It means to affirm what is already been given to us, what is encoded in the DNA of our spiritual life as Plymouth friends and members, what has been written upon our hearts in love, in the words of Jeremiah. What does it mean to be the church today? It means to be who we already are.
But what does that mean—really? I was in the middle of bites of my sandwich at Hank’s Charcuterie this week enjoying my club sandwich and somebody came up to me and said, “Peter!” I said “Hi.” “How’s it going? I mean, really, how are you doing? I mean, are you okay? You’re the pastor of Plymouth Church You’re leading a flock. I mean these last four months and the election in November 2016. How are you managing all this?” I took another bite of sandwich. I wanted to say, “Well, I ask you how do you think it is going? How am I doing?” But I didn’t. I ate my sandwich and the person left. And I can’t remember what I actually said to him. After he left and I finished my sandwich, I thought to myself that is a good question.
How are we doing as a congregation in this time in our history? That is a really important question that we have been asking ourselves. Surely, the way I see it, the country is in a really difficult place these days. It is a chaotic time, a tumultuous time, in our nation. It seems as if we are headed in a darker direction, that the core values of who we are, the values of decency and hospitality and inclusion and being a melting pot and opening our arms to everyone, especially mindful of the least and most vulnerable of these, that all of that is really at stake—right now. And this is not an easy time in the life of our country and it is not an easy time in the life of our church for that very reason.
And, so, I ask myself what is it to be the church in these tumultuous times?
The church has been here before, has it not? Over 2000 years, the church has been around and had vexing times in its life and history before. And, even here at Plymouth, this local congregation of ours—why, my gosh, this church endured the national trauma of the civil war and Quantrill’s raid.
Might there be clues as to what it means to be the church today if we look back into our past and into our history. Friends, we are so blessed that we have an amazing historical document from Reverend Richard Cordley.
Some of you who are new may not know Richard Cordley was a longtime founding pastor of this congregation. He didn’t found it in 1854, but came
in the late 1850’s and served here for thirty-eight years. I’m coming up on
22 in September—I don’t think I can reach him. Anyhow, Reverend
Cordley kept an amazing diary of his experience and life at Plymouth Church. Some of you, perhaps, have read some of his words that are very eloquent and well-written. One of the things he talks about in his diary was what he called ‘Golden Years.’ In all those thirty-eight years, five stood out for him as Golden Years in the life of Plymouth Church, in his point of view.
They were the years 1867 to 1872. Think about it. That was four years after Quantrill’s Raid. That was two years after the end of the country being traumatized by the Civil War. And, yet, Richard Cordley said, “These are the Golden Years of Plymouth Church. The Golden Years. How can that
be? Well, it was a time when the sanctuary that we are in this morning was built. The bricks were made right out here on Vermont Street and put one on top of another. They were the Golden Years. And this is what he says about that time: “The Church grew during these five years from 110 to 391 members. They were added to the church 328 members, 216 of whom were received on profession of faith. The Sunday school had an attendance of over 300 and the congregations filled the house.” That’s the data, the statistics, the numbers. You know, friends, some of the things that really count can’t be counted. Not just numbers of heads, numbers of bricks, but what is it that made it the Golden Age of Plymouth Church? I think it comes down to this one sentence that Richard Cordley wrote in his diary. This is what he said, “There was the most entire harmony and good will and an esprit de corps which brought the entire membership to the support of everything the church undertook.” In other words, what made it the golden age of Plymouth was the spirit of the congregation. It was that deep sense of belonging, connectedness, the feeling that people belong to
Plymouth and Plymouth belongs to them. They felt this deep sense of community here and that’s what made that time the golden age. And I like to feel that there is that spirit of belonging and connection that is here today as well.
You see, these words Mary just read to us from John 17 are words that
Jesus is praying to God the Father on behalf of the disciples on the very last night they are together. I want you to hear these words as if they’re Jesus’ words spoken to God on our behalf at Plymouth Church. What is He saying in that prayer to God? What is it we are to overhear? What we are to overhear is how much Jesus is praying to God, praying for our sense of unity, a sense of belonging, a sense of connection. And the same connection Jesus has with God, also Jesus has with us and we have with each other as a community and that we are all connected. That is what
Jesus is praying to God on our behalf.
Just briefly a little Bible study, this prayer was at the end of three chapters of conversation Jesus has with the disciples on the last night, the Last Supper. He has this conversation with them and then the conversation turns into a prayer. It is almost like the sermon and after the sermon we have a pastoral prayer and you all overhear the pastor praying to God. So we overhear Jesus praying to the Father. It is really a thirty thousand foot view of the church, my friends. Really it is looking at the church from a distance. You see, John was written in 90 AD, about forty or fifty years after the death of Jesus. He is writing to a small church dealing with a lot of hostility at the time, not unlike the challenges we face today. He is writing and speaking to the church, to God on behalf of the church, during what we call the ‘in-between time’. That is, between the time when Jesus ascended into heaven, the Easter experience as Mary read this morning, and the fullness, a time that is yet to come—an in-between time in the life of the church. It’s like viewing that the dawn has already arrived, but the full day has not yet been revealed to us. The world is still a hostile, difficult place and it is this in-between time that Jesus is praying to us and for us on our behalf.
So, to be the church means to be a community where we belong to each other. It means to be a place where we pray for each other, we support each other, and, yes, we hold each other accountable. It is to be that Spirit and that place and that experience where we feel as if we belong. It is impossible to overemphasize the critical nature of belonging in this time in the life of our country. The real issue I want to speak to this morning, for just a minute, is not just a sense of belonging here in our community which
I think that we have in many, wonderful ways, but it is what is happening outside our community in this nation. And there is in our country today and in our world an increasing sense of alienation, of people that are feeling alienated from their country. They are feeling alienated from their neighbors. They’re feeling alienated maybe even from the depths of themselves and maybe even alienated from God. And this alienation, this experience of alienation, is leading us to some bad places. I invite you, if you want to read more, to take a look a David Brooks’ column in the New
York Times this last Tuesday, May 23rd. What he suggests in his column is this spirit of alienation that has led to the results of the election in
November 2016. And he is looking at what happens when people are alienated and that alienation is a power, a force to smash things, but it is not a force that can build anything. It doesn’t create something. It just wrecks things. And this is what we are experiencing today, what we are living today. He writes, “Alienation breeds a distrust that erodes collective effort.” Breeds a trust that erodes collective effort.
Think about that and let me take you back to the Golden Age of Plymouth Church. Just imagine for a moment these people that built this building that we are sitting in right now. This was a small congregation. It was not a huge church. It was one-hundred and forty members. Do you think, for a minute, if those folks were feeling alienated this building would ever have been built? Do you think that if they didn’t feel that they belonged to each other and that the church belonged to them we could have ever accomplished what we did? Do you think that if they didn’t have a sense of community this place would have ever happened? It never would have happened. This place never would have been built—if there wasn’t this incredible spirit in the life of this community. The spirit where the church could be who it is, who we are, created this Golden Age.
Every Sunday we say in the Plymouth Covenant, we unite for the worship of God and the service of all. We don’t say we will unite or we should unite or maybe it is a good idea if we be united. It just says present tense ‘we unite.’ We unite for the worship of God and the service of all. It’s an expression of the church being who it already is, encoded in our DNA, written upon our hearts by God. I submit to you, my friends, that when we have a spirit of belonging in this community of faith, that is the way we transform this world. That the world aches for places like Plymouth where people have a sense of belonging. And I don’t mean ‘belonging’ in a sense like, hey we are all on the same page and we are all united and we don’t disagree. No, not at all. That is not what unity is. Unity is not uniformity. It is deeper than that. It’s transcendent; which is to say, as a community of faith we still have a lot of questions to ask, like how do we balance our love and compassion with our thirst for justice. How do we go forward as a community of faith and what does that look like? We are going to have different ideas and have different opinions and we are going to come from different places. We are not going to be a sectarian place cut off from the world. We are going to be a place that is engaged in the world. Think of
Justice Matters, think of Head Start, all the different ways we are engaged in this world. The world is most transformed when the church is simply being the church. When we are who we are.
How do we do that? How do we live out that sense of belonging? I don’t have time for that sermon. That is another day, another sermon. But it is enough, right now, to suggest to you that the answers about our future and who we are in this world, we don’t have to go search someplace, they are already here. We have got this. They are in our DNA, they are written upon our hearts. And who is to say, my friends, that the Golden Age of
Plymouth Church is not just 1867 to 1872. Who is to say that it is not here on our horizon? Who is to say it is not already in our midst when we embrace who we are. Amen.