Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sermon for September 21, 2008

Core Values: Holding Traditions
2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; 1 Corinthians 11:1-7

In March 1638, a Puritan woman stood shamelessly before a gathering of Massachusetts Bay clergy. As many of her former friends from Boston watched, Pastor John Wilson read a writ of excommunication, casting Anne Hutchinson out of the church and the colony. She was charged with “lewd and lascivious conduct” for having men and women in her house at the same time during Sunday Bible study meetings. Later that month, Hutchinson and over a hundred supporters left for Rhode Island.

Anne Hutchinson converted to Puritanism through the preaching of English Pastor John Cotton. When Cotton migrated to the New World, Anne and her family followed. There she began to hold weekly women’s meetings in her home to discuss Cotton’s sermons. The meetings grew in popularity, and women began bringing their husbands. These gatherings evolved into question and answer sessions in which Anne often voiced her own opinions. She suggested that some ministers in the colony promoted a covenant of works, while John Cotton preached a covenant of grace. The works-versus-grace debate violently divided the community. Authorities took action. The clergy condemned Anne for claiming that God spoke directly to her soul, giving her inner direction and personal revelation. Her teachings angered and shocked the clergy who believed that prophecy ended with biblical revelation. And by holding public meetings for both men and women in her home, Anne had moved beyond her authority. Some of the clergy referred to Anne as “an American Jezebel, who had gone a-whoring from God,” and who should be, “tried as a heretic.” Anne had to confess to being “guilty of wrong thinking”, even though she did not really believe it. In 1638, with the words of the excommunication burning in her ears, Anne Hutchinson declared, “The Lord does not judge as man judges. Better to be cast out of the Church than to deny God.” She was banished from her community, and forged a new life in Portsmouth Rhode Island.

Eventually, Anne and her family moved to East Chester New York. Because of ongoing hostilities with the Dutch, Indians massacred Anne, her servants and five of her children. While this news horrified some her friends in the Massachusetts Bay community, others viewed it as God’s final judgment of her blasphemy.

The same issues raised by Anne Hutchinson are still very much with us today -- spiritual freedom, the role of women in the church, the issue of individual freedom versus being part of a covenant community. We also deal with the question of how we know God. Do we only accept tradition, or are new ways OK? How do we know when our traditions are life-giving and valuable? And how can we tell when our traditions imprison us? Keep these questions in mind as we read our second scripture.

You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.I am so glad that you always keep me in your thoughts, and that you are following the teachings I passed on to you. But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. A man dishonors his head if he covers his head while praying or prophesying. But a woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head. Yes, if she refuses to wear a head covering, she should cut off all her hair! But since it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or her head shaved, she should wear a covering. A man should not wear anything on his head when worshiping, for man is made in God’s image and reflects God’s glory. And woman reflects man’s glory (1 Cor. 11:1-7).
What are we going to do with that doozy? It’s in the Bible, so we traditionally affirm that God has something to say to us in these verses. Paul later says, “If anyone wants to be contentious about his, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God.” Case closed. End of discussion. Really? How many women here will agree to wear head coverings as a sign of submission to men’s authority?

Our Puritan women ancestors covered their heads in worship. When our church was founded in 1730, men and women sat separately. Women were not allowed to preach or teach in worship. Yet, they were the backbone of the nonconformist movement. In Puritan New England, a woman’s duty was household religion. Women helped found new churches, participated in public demonstrations and acts of symbolic defiance. Women wrote, translated, and printed religious literature. Some women even became involved directly in the government and ministry of the church, especially in England.

But the tradition held firm – no women were allowed to preach or teach in church. The tradition directly the apostle Paul, who insisted it’s disgraceful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:35). If a woman has a question at church, she should wait and ask her husband at home. Having been silenced, women like Anne Hutchinson turned to the Holy Spirit to find direct, personal revelation. The men who governed civil and religious life didn’t like it. As some women found spiritual freedom, authorities tried to repress self-expression. Later on, evangelicalism would foster this enthusiasm for the Holy Spirit that appealed to the powerless members of society.

In 2008, there are still Christian churches that don’t let women speak during worship. Women are excluded from authoritative teaching. They may not read scripture publicly. Why? Because Paul said so in the Bible. Because that’s our tradition, in word and in letter. In some Christian churches, women still need to cover their heads and wear long skirts to cover their legs.

At TCC, we’ve obviously gotten past this. The first ordination of a woman took place in a congregational church -- Antoinette Brown in 1853. Today, denominations like the UCC, PCUSA, and United Reformed Church will reject ministerial candidates who are against the ordination of women. Liberal mainline churches think that this issue is a no-brainer. Too bad this is not the case for all churches. In 1995, The Christian Reformed Church voted to allow women ministers. In 1998, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council suspended the Christian Reformed Church’s membership because of this decision. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest protestant body in the US, actually revoked the ordination of women. In a statement issued in 2000, the Southern Baptists said, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Their existing female pastors are allowed to remain, but no new female pastors will be ordained.

All of this is prolegomena for getting to my question. In our first reading, Paul says, “Stand firm. Hold to traditions.” During our cottage meetings last Spring, we affirmed that one of TCC’s core values is to honor our cherished traditions as life-giving witnesses to us and to future generations. But which traditions? We certainly don’t follow Paul’s teachings on women any more. How do we know which cherished traditions hold us back? How do we honor the traditions that help us live faithfully into the future? We need to find ways to hear God’s voice in our traditions and decide whether they are life giving or death dealing.

The story of TCC’s traditions takes on mythic qualities. Some of today’s church members still echo the sentiment of one local historian who wrote, “It can only be hoped that the legend is correct. Nothing could be more fitting than that a Puritan Church should take form, and its principles first be heard under the cathedralled trees in the wilderness of a new world of freedom.” The mythological significance of TCC’s founding continues to nurture the lives of its worshipers and helps define who the church is today. We believe that what we teach, how we express ourselves in worship, and how we live are important enough to pass on to others.

The church building itself has the ability to make the past come to life and reproduce the past. Sometimes I invite groups of people to sit in the sanctuary and tell me about meaningful experiences, remarkable sermons, and significant family events. As people talk, the walls come alive as if the space is able to hold these memories for generations. Some stories are forgotten, waiting to be heard again. For example, TCC’s first pastor, the Rev. James Beebe owned two slaves, Nero and Peg, who were admitted into church membership. Who tells Nero and Peg’s story as part of the living tradition? While we tell stories of a pleasant church home and cozy memories, we must also listen for the stories of those on the margins. As we tell our stories to future generations, we remember that there are hidden stories waiting to be told – unstoried traditions waiting to live.

When do we hear God’s voice in tradition? The word tradition comes from Latin. It can mean to hand on – as in passing on a teaching from generation to generation. It can also mean to hand over, as in betrayal. Our traditions can help us faithfully reproduce, or our traditions can betray us.

I propose that we test our traditions by listening for the voice of God in them as a community. Our traditions pull us forward to God. At the same time, our life-giving traditions anchor us to God. One of the earliest images of the church in Christian art is a boat. Throughout church history, warnings abound that we must stay anchored to the Bible and tradition as we enter the choppy waters of life. We remain grounded in our faith. We can become so grounded – so comfortable -- that we decide never to leave the docks. But don’t boats belong on the high seas? Shouldn’t a boat be in forward motion? How can the church move into the future when it’s anchored?

Imagine what would happen if we cast our anchor of tradition into the future and winched our way toward it. There is an ancient shipping practice called kedging. When storms or turbulent seas threatened a ship that was docked in a harbor, a crew of eight or nine sailors would be sent out in a launch. Their mission was to haul the ship’s anchor out into the sea as far as the chain would take them. The anchor would be let down and the ship winched forward into deeper water on the anchor chain. This practice also helps a boat move when there is no wind. Our job is to let traditions guide us into the future – to make our past current.

Some traditions are not worth passing on. They betray us. They do not deliver us to the future or firmly anchor us to God. When we identify a tradition that subjugates or suppresses another – whenever our past exiles, or excludes – it does not give life. We do not hear God’s direct voice in scriptural texts that marginalize or abandon others. If our traditions are not based on Christ’s self-giving love for all, then they are not of God. If our traditions lead to complacency or anxious over-focus on survival, they do not serve us.

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was no more than a hut, and there was only one boat; but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea. They went out day and night, tirelessly searching for the lost. Some of those who were saved wanted to be associated with the station and give their time, money, and effort to support the work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew. Some of these new members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so small and crude. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided for those who were saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely because they used it as sort of a club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work.

About this time, a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them were foreigners. The beautiful new club was in chaos. Immediately, the property committee hired someone to rig up a shower house outside the club, where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside. At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities because they felt they were unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. A small number of members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. The small group’s members were voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast.

As the years went by, however, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old station. It evolved into a club, so another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the passengers drown.

Herein lies the role of tradition at TCC: tradition grounds us so that we have the courage to set sail. To move ahead in confidence by casting our tradition forward and grasping the hope that is set before us. We include everyone in what God has in store for us. Those who are long time members and those who are new comers, those who are comfortable an those who are drowning, those who are in the center of the action and those who sit on the margins – we all have a place in telling the traditions and moving forward together into God’s future.


Nugent, Madeline Pecora. 1989. “Apologizing to Anne Hutchinson.” Christian Century 106, no. 10: 304-305. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 18, 2008). See also:

Greaves, Richard L. 1983. “The role of women in early English nonconformity.” Church History 52, no. 3: 299-311. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 18, 2008).

Beach, E. Merrill. Trumbull: Church and Town. Trumbull, CT: The Trumbull Historical Society, 1955. 23.

Honoring the Past, Building the Future. Trumbull, CT: Trumbull Congregational church, 1992. 2.

Sweet, Leonard. Aqua Church. Loveland, Co: Group, 1999. 72-73.

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