Sermon: March 8, 2015
Mountain Religion: “The Church in the World” and “The City Set Upon the Hill”
Come to me, all you who are weary and I will give you rest. Lay down your heavy burdens and take up my yoke, which is easy, and my burden is light. In this time of Lent, I don’t think of Jesus’ burden as light. What I think of is the cross upon which Jesus’ sacrifice was fulfilled, and that can’t be light, can it? But as a person trained in reading more than just the words of text, I look at Jesus’ promise in a different way as well. My burden is light. Perhaps Jesus is speaking literally, in which case he is telling us that the burden he gives to us is not darkness, such as our burdens are, but instead it is light. He will take our darkness upon him if only we take his light upon ourselves. I find this to be an encouraging statement, then, a promise to us to be light in whatever we do and wherever we go.
We are the United Church of Christ. One of our mottos in the UCC is, God is still speaking. Comedian Gracie Allen, to whom the phrase is initially attributed, said more than this, though. She said, “Don’t place a period where God placed a comma” – which has led to the UCC being considered the “comma Church” – and she continued with “God is still speaking”. The theology behind that phrase encourages me in a similar way that Jesus’ message encourages me. It suggests that each and every one of us here today can be a prophet of God’s message because God’s word is not finite but is forever. God is still speaking to us, and we can carry that message into the world. With God’s message and Jesus’ promise, we are like candles individually shining in the darkness, united as one. We are the church in the world.
In the 1600s, a Puritan preacher named John Winthrop looked out across the Massachusetts Bay at a thin ribbon of land – which we know today as the Boston Seaport – and envisioned a great prophetic vision of the Church in the New World. It would be a beacon, whose light was Christian value and virtue, and it would shine from the new world into the whole world. We remember his vision encapsulated in a single phrase which he used to describe it: the church would be “as a city set upon a hill”. 370 years or so later, I see that light from Winthrop’s beacon refracted into many separate beams. I can’t see them joined as one united church as Winthrop might have envisioned, and that is troublesome to me. How are we supposed to be the church in the world if we can’t be a united church in Christ? It begs another question: does the city set upon a hill look among or look down on the church in the world?
In order to complete the Master of Divinity degree at my school – Andover Newton – candidates must cross the border between their familiar environment and into an unfamiliar environment… from the old world into the new. Literally, we must leave the hill… literal because Andover Newton is literally on a hill… and go into the world to see how the church in the world functions. I did this, and I want to share it with you now. True, some of these trips could have taken me to exotic places where there wasn’t snow: Turkey, Mexico, China, Myanmar (Burma), even to the Holy Land. Instead, I chose to go about 900 miles south of here to Appalachian North Carolina. It is a region that is so geographically close to home and yet I know nothing about it… or at least I knew nothing about it. Surrounded and defined by mountains, Appalachia is a region most of us have forgotten, or do not see. Yet, the church exists there in its valleys and hollers, in its fields and forests. That’s what I went looking for.
I should probably mention that culture and religion are inextricable in Appalachia: how one believes in the existence of the invisible world they cannot see around them greatly informs how one sees the visible world and that which exists within it and around them. Spirituality relies on place, culture relies on spirituality. That being said, the mountains are a topographical enigma. They do three things for Appalachia: they protect, they preserve, and they prevent. The mountains protect mountain folk from the trappings of mainstream Protestantism and religion as well as from popular culture (although a small amount of both have summitted the mountains nonetheless). The mountains preserve a unique spirituality derived from the relationship of the mountain folk with the land. But the mountains also prevent that unique spiritual perspective from leaving the mountains and being shared in the world beyond Appalachia. So what does the church in Appalachia look like? Stereotypes and prejudices of both Appalachian culture and its religion have escaped the mountains. Images of ecstatic congregations, dramatic scenes of river baptisms and miraculous healings, and of course the image of poor and old-fashioned country folk are among the many prejudicial truths accepted about Appalachians by non-mountain folk. Behind each is a truth.
The Pentecostal and Baptist traditions of Christian Protestantism have made the most impact on Appalachia. Many of these prejudicial images stem from experiences within Appalachian Baptist and Appalachian Pentecostal churches. It is significant to note that these churches derive their rituals from that fountain of unique mountain-based spirituality as well as from Biblical literalism. For the Pentecostal churches, some of these practices are very different than what we’re used to: speaking in tongues (called glossolallia), spontaneous dancing and praying, and dramatic healings – these are all ways in which the Pentecostal church experiences the presence of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit at worship. They, along with other unusual practices, are drawn from passages in the Bible and are therefore true and honest practices in praise of God. Spontaneity, for example, during service looks like a disruption, but the appreciation of them among congregants is that the Holy Spirit has overwhelmed someone and they can’t keep from expressing their praise. The service can wait until this has been performed. Is it wrong? Is it strange? What it is, I think, is the church in the world.
Appalachian Baptist churches also practice from a sense of Biblical literalism. Some of these practices are: full-immersion baptism, which re-enacts the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the river Jordan; surrendering oneself to God and testifying of that salvation, and a heightened sense of eschatological presence (which is studying the end of times or the return of Christ) through the Holy Spirit’s presence during worship – these are all ways in which the Baptist churches experience the presence of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit at worship. Salvation is a big concern, so to testify of your salvation… your surrender to God… is as important to the Appalachian Baptists as confirmation is to us New England Congregationalists. One who has been saved can recall perfectly the time they were saved, where they were when they were saved, and the emotions that overwhelmed them and brought them to God. Decades can pass and the perfect recital of one’s salvation testimony will be unchanged, because this is proof that it is true. Is it wrong? Is it strange? It’s the church in the world.
So what does this mean to us? It makes me think of how we carry God’s message and Jesus’ light-burden on ourselves. Does our worship come from a sense of Biblical literalism? What sources inform our theology and spirituality? This Lent we are trying to dig deeper into our spirituality and faith, so I propose a final challenge in that frame. Let us think of our church and practices, our worship rituals, in a tangible way. There is a poster and several cards on the table in the sanctuary: I challenge us all to read these cards, which have the beginning of a sentence, and complete these sentences in our own words. Then, to symbolize our unity as many lights shining together, I challenge us all to paste or tape these cards to the poster so that we may see what the church means to us.
And as we go forth as lights to symbolize the church of Christ in the world, let us be a united Church of Christ, stewards of our faith and church to other churches near and far, and may they all be one.