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I Peter 2.9-17

Didache 15

One Church’s Gift to the Nation

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

I don’t get many email forwards any more – I guess social media and the rise of the emoji have pretty much put the nail in that coffin.  But I will never forget one that I received I don’t remember how many years ago right on the weekend before the 4th of July.  It had waving flags and exploding fireworks, which were still novel back in the days before gifs.  Part of the text referenced a poll that had been taken by one of the morning news shows, I think it was “The Today Show,” and the email trumpeted the results of the poll:  “86% of Americans believe that the words, ‘In God We Trust” must remain in the Pledge of Allegiance,” it read with multiple exclamation points.  I scratched my head and thought to myself, I must have missed something here; maybe there’s a punch line I didn’t see, so I went back and read again:  86% of Americans believe that the words, “In God We Trust,” must remain in the Pledge of Allegiance!!!  And just in case you are at this very moment silently reciting the pledge to yourself, let me save you the trouble:  the words “In God We Trust” are not in the Pledge of Allegiance.  I looked at the distribution list and the email trail, and I was about the fifteenth or so person in the line who had received it, and many of the forwards had multiple addressees; did any of them actually read it before forwarding it?  Maybe they were so dazzled by the flags and the fireworks, they just hit forward without thinking about it.  Whatever the reason, on this, a mere two days away from the 247th birthday of our country, I started thinking, not about the ways God is called into service of the nation, but rather about the ways that our nation has grown and developed because of the contributions of the people of God.  And in particular, the people of God who settled our little corner of the country, our forefathers and foremothers who comprised the Congregational church.

 In 1775, a Congregational preacher in East Windsor, Connecticut, rallied his parishioners to the colonies’ defense:  “In the late battle at Concord and Lexington, inglorious to the British arms, they have imbrued their hands in the innocent blood of their fellow subjects with a relentless cruelty and inhuman barbarity,” the preacher told his flock, urging them to stand firm in liberty, made free by “God, nature and Christianity,” and concluded with a paraphrase of scripture:  “he who shall seek to save his life, shall lose it; so on the other hand, he that shall lose his life, in religiously supporting so good a cause, shall find it, and in the end shall receive an hundred fold.”  At the onset of the Revolutionary War there were hundreds, likely thousands of sermons preached in a similar vein.  But our ancestors’ contributions to the emerging nation were more than just words preached from the pulpit; Colonial Congregationalists led to a way of life and a way of governance and a way of organizing themselves as a society which remain at the heart of our nation to this day.

It would be too much to credit our congregational forbears with the establishment of democracy.  Seven centuries before Jesus, the slow gestation and development of a democratic society was beginning in the city-state of Athens.  But it would not be too much to remember that the earliest foreign settlers in New England were congregational, and that the congregational way they brought with them from England included the idea of organizing both church and society by way of majority rule.  This is unmistakably a congregational notion.  We won’t find this in the Catholic Church or the Episcopal Church or the Lutheran Church or the Presbyterian Church or the Methodist Church or the Baptist Church anywhere near to the same extent as we do in the Congregational Church.  For better and for worse, the notion of one person, one vote in both the sacred and secular realms is Congregationalism’s unique gift to the nation that emerged 156 years after the first settlers landed on Plymouth’s shore.

There is, of course, a hierarchy of leadership in both church and culture, and we see it reflected in the earliest church writings, including the passage from the Didache, “The Teachings of the Twelve:” “Choose for yourselves bishops and deacons who are worthy of the Lord, for they are carrying out the ministry of the prophets and teachers for you.”  Pay careful attention to the language:  “choose for yourselves.”  The bishops and deacons, the leadership – the hierarchy - of the local and the wider church, were chosen by the people themselves.  Even in the church’s earliest days, a fledgling form of democracy was at work.

But as I said a moment ago, the democratic urge within the church works both for better and for worse.  There are some things within the life of the church that want to be decided by majority vote:  where to put our mission efforts and monies, how to organize ourselves, who should be our deacons and our ministers, these are all things that lend themselves to the democratic process.  But there are also higher truths that are not subject to majority rule, things like the nature of God, the place of scripture, the authority of the Holy Spirit, the centrality of Christ.  The founders believed similarly:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

The Cambridge Platform is one of the principal documents of colonial congregationalism, and it is fully aware of the tension created by majority rule.  Written in 1648, the Cambridge Platform reads, in part,

“This government of the church is a mixed government:  in respect to Christ, the head and [ruler] of the church, and the sovereign power residing in him, and exercised by him, it is a monarchy; in respect of the body, or [fellowship] of the church, and power from Christ granted unto them, it resembles a democracy.”

One of the challenges of the Congregational Way, which our ancestors anticipated, is that we become so accustomed to making the practical, day-to-day organizational decisions by majority vote, that we are sometimes tempted to believe certain higher truths can be determined in the same way.  “…That all people are created equal.”  We touched on this briefly as we read our Open and Affirming Covenant together last week.  The bottom line, as I see it, is, “Is everybody welcome at the United Church of Chester?”  And are we bold enough to make that welcome known outside our doors?  Well, the no-brainer answer is “Of course everyone is welcome here, and we are proud to say it!”  And there are some of us who think this is such a fundamental truth of the church, such an inalienable right, that it shouldn’t even be voted on, and I think there is a valid point here; and there are also some of us who want to ask the question, “Well, just who do you mean by ‘everybody,’ and at that point, the discussion becomes engaged.  It is this conundrum that led American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr to suggest “[Humanity’s] capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but [humanity’s] inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

As imperfect as it may be, both in the religious as well as the civic sphere, democracy is not the only gift our forbears gave to our nation.  When the settlers arrived in what they actually called “New Plymouth” in 1620, they drew up a document intended to ensure fair and equal laws for the general good of the settlement with the will of the majority in mind.  The document took on the form of a biblical covenant and it governed the new settlement for 71 years – it is known as the Mayflower Compact:

In the name of God... we whose names are underwritten... having undertaken for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor of our King and country a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.  In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November... 1620.

More than 150 years later, John Adams, second President of the United States, said that it was this Mayflower Compact, this covenant among Congregationalists, which served as the foundation of the Constitution of the United States of America.  The Compact, like the Constitution, reflects the belief that a covenant intends to be honored both between ourselves and God, and among one other as well.  It represents a healthy engagement between church and state, and it is part of our Congregational heritage which has helped to shape the way tour nation is organized and governed to this day.

Our Congregational ancestors did not invent democracy nor did they conceive the concept of covenant.  But it was the democratic sensibility of the pilgrims, of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies, and the compact, the intentional covenant among the first settlers which helped shape our own democratic society and the Constitution.  On this cusp of our nation’s 247th birthday, I’d say this is quite the gift.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


From the South: Take CT Route 9 North to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn Right; we are .8 miles on the right.

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Post Office Box 383, Chester, CT 06412


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