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Isaiah 45.20-23; Zechariah 8.20-23

Matthew 28.16-20; Luke 10.25-28

Searching for Titus Coan

(Five to Seven for Good Behavior – I)

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

In 1810, a group of recent graduates from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, formed one of the largest and most ambitious American missionary organizations the church knew to that date.  It was called The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, or ABCFM.  If you have ever heard of the Haystack Meeting, that was the moment of inspiration and commitment that led to the birth of this organization.  The ABCFM became the mission arm for Congregational, Presbyterian and German Reformed churches and played a major role in 19th century mission and outreach from the US around the world.  When the United Church of Christ was formed in 1957, the ABCFM became an agency of the UCC, renamed the United Church Board for World Mission.  In 1831, a young man from neighboring Killingworth named Titus Coan, a member of the local Congregational Church, heard the call to mission, entered Auburn Theological Seminary in New York state, was ordained in 1833, and after a brief stint in Patagonia in southern South America, sailed to what were then known as the Sandwich Islands under the aegis of the ABCFM, and spent the rest of his life, but for a brief lecture tour back to the Americas, as the organizer and pastor of the church in the Sandwiches, islands you and I now call Hawai’i.

Now the whole idea of missionary work is seen in a very different light today than it was two centuries ago.  Then, it was thought to be a benevolent outreach to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to people, nations and cultures who knew nothing of him.  Today though, we recognize that the missionary impulse was a decidedly mixed one.  At its best, it brought the love of Jesus and the grace of God into people’s lives.  But it also carried the heavy baggage of colonialism, of eclipsing or erasing native religions and cultures, and often brought with it a thinly veiled imperialism and nation-grabbing.  The missionary effort in Hawai’i was led primarily by our congregational forbears, through the efforts of what is now Yale Divinity School, in partnership with a handful of local New Haven area churches.  As their heirs, we have much to take credit for and much and much to take responsibility for.

So it is partly to dig more deeply into the complicated history of our church’s Hawai’ian evangelization, partly to understand the place of the UCC in contemporary Hawai’i, and partly to learn more about our sister church’s missionary impulse just across Chester’s western border, that I will be spending my coming sabbatical in Hawai’i:  come this February and March, I will spend time on the big island, where Titus Coan landed and established his first church in Hilo, and on Oahu, where the “mother church” still stands in Honolulu, and where the offices of the UCC’s Hawai’ian conference are located.  The Rev. Dr. David Popham, currently Minister and President of the UCC’s Hawai’i Conference has helpfully sent me a list of resources and places to visit while I am there, as well as an invitation to spend time with him and with some of the Conference leadership to talk about the state of the church, past, present and future, among the islands.

I’ll be dividing next year’s sabbatical – our church has given me three months after five years of being your minister, which we marked last summer - into two sections:  the first will begin in the middle of February 2024 and take me nearly to the end of March.  This will be the time for travel and research, as well as some R&R that I’ll tell you about in a moment.  The second half, to be taken next summer, will provide time for follow-up study and organizing the results of what I will have found and learned on the first leg.

Here is where I need to be transparent with all of you:  the first leg will coincide with most of the season of Lent.  I’ll be leaving right around Ash Wednesday, my dates aren’t yet fixed yet, and returning the Tuesday of Holy Week, which means I will miss Palm Sunday, but for a good reason.  Last November one of my nephews and his fiancée asked me to marry them, to which I readily agreed.  The wedding was going to be in Napa, and I had visions of wine country dancing in my head.  But a few months later the wedding venue changed; the date remained the same, the afternoon before Palm Sunday, but the location was moved from the California coast to another wine country two hours north of Sydney, Australia.  And because my pursuit of Titus Coan will take me halfway to Sydney already, I thought, Why not just extend the journey and join Danny and Chloe and some of the rest of my family in a part of the world I’ve never seen?  After all, every one of my previous sabbaticals, as you will hear in the coming weeks, has been a combination of research and study on the one hand, and travel and recreation on the other, so next year’s adventure will follow the pattern nicely.

As I’ve indicated, I’ve already begun my preparation for sabbatical.  I’ve read Titus Coan’s book Life in Hawai’i; my trusty Fodor’s is well-thumbed; Rev. Dr. Popham’s two-page list of resources and places to visit sits on my desk; and even though I haven’t made all my reservations yet, I have a good idea of where I need to go and when we will be there.  (I say we, because every sabbatical I’ve taken has included my family at some point, and it will again this time around.)

But no amount of preparation would be complete without my Bible, and I’ve spent some time looking more deeply into the roots of mission and evangelism in the pages of the scriptures.  And, like the congregational experience, the sources are decidedly mixed.  For example, the entirety of Isaiah chapter 45 is given over to expanding the reach of the Hebrew faith, yet as it does so, it carries more than a hint of the attitudes that give the missionary endeavor a mixed reputation.

“Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations!  They have no knowledge – those who carry about their wooden idols that cannot save.  Declare and present your case…There is no other god besides me… I am god, and there is no other… To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.”

Elsewhere is Isaiah 45 we read, “Subdue the nations and strip the royalty of their robes… I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron.”  Well, what if those doors of bronze lead into the holy temple of another people?  What do we make of this imperious and high-handed mandate?  Well, in part we can temper it with the prophecy of Zechariah, who foresees, “Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities… shall go to one another, saying, ‘Come let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts… many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts.”  One way to read this is that people themselves will come before God of their own desire, without the force of compulsion.  It seems the Hebrew Bible is of more than one mind when it comes to sharing the grace and favor of God.   

The same can be said of the New Testament, transparent in those two very familiar passages I asked Diane to read today.  It might be too much to characterize the readings as “The Great Commission” vs “The Great Commandment,” yet it might not be too terribly wrong either.  At the end of Matthew Jesus commanded the disciples to “Go and make disciples of all the nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  This, more than any other verse in the Bible, drives the Christian missionary impulse.  Yet it too is tempered, by the familiar words in Luke, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  I take it as a good sign that Titus Coan chose the latter rather than the former as the epigram for his book describing his missionary journey.

And we can taste firsthand Coan’s inspiration, since it was the United Church’s Katie Wilcox who undertook her own missionary journey to India, not to ‘convert the natives,’ but to bring the good news of a better life to the underprivileged women of Mumbai.  Hers was the inspiration of love for neighbor built on her own love for God that not only guided her steps, but insured her success.  It is my guess that I may find something similar.  Much of the Hawai’ian church celebrates its congregational and UCC heritage and maintains a powerful presence to this day.  But I do look forward of immersing myself in both church and culture – as much as a brief sabbatical allows, anyway – and of sharing it all with you on my return.

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


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