Thursday, October 14, 2010
"A Spiritual and Working Church"
Before I say goodbye to the collection of Samuel Longfellow's sermons that has given me much food for thought over the past two weeks, I wanted to pick out one more sermon in which he described the church that he hoped to build in Brooklyn. The date is October 30, 1853, the day he officially "assumed the pastorate" in the words of his editor. The topic for the day was his vision of the church, how it should function, and what its role should be in the rapidly growing city they were a part of.
Like many sermons of its era, it is one with a clear structure. It was meant to convey fairly complicated and important concepts to his listeners and to do it efficiently by the standards of the time. It is short on stories and humor, but it still reads well and it isn't all that hard to imagine it being spoken. He begins by reminding us that the word "church" "implies some common idea or purpose. It represents something more than a mere aggregate of persons such as individual and separate errands may bring together at any hour in the crowded streets of a city...we limit, however, the word church to that unity whose central idea is a religious one--the idea of God." he goes on to list a variety of "churches". There are Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians at least, and he leaves room for others as well. Not too bad for the 19th Century pastor (though he really does use the term "church" for each of them, which was rather jarring to my modern ears).
Then, after waxing poetic for a while about the virtues of faith communities, he gets down to his first set of "three points" (preachers know what I mean) by defining church as "a society of men and women and children, associated by a religious spirit, and for religious work". The first word he picks out of his definition is the word "religious". "A church must justify its existence by this, that it holds as its special thought--not its exclusive possession, but its special thought--the idea of God." Today we might argue about what his (or our) definition of that "special thought" might be. After all, there are plenty of devoted church-goers in my congregation and not all of them are sure what they think or believe about God. However, the idea if God is an obvious--if sometimes ambiguous--one.
He then also chooses to emphasize the word "spirit". There are many folks who like to say that they are "spiritual but not religious". For Longfellow, however, the term is rooted deeply in the life of faith communities. In fact, in the liberal church the religious spirit is essential as these bonds may tie us more closely than the those of belief. "I do not deny that similarity of opinion is a bond of union. We are drawn to those who think like ourselves. But it is not the strongest or deepest bond. It is easily overridden by spiritual sympathy, or annulled by the want of that." There are few ministers who have served for any period of time that could disagree with this. Many, many congregations come together over shared ideas, but if the the connections between individuals aren't also felt then there is no real community. Some congregations find this spirit quickly. For some it takes longer. It also ebbs and flows. When the spirit is lost (or at least not present) the congregation is dead--whether they continue to meet or not--and something else must rise to replace it.
Finally, he addresses the word "work". The church is not a private debating society or health club, or therapy session. It is meant to be out in the world. " It seems to me as if, whenever a new church is formed, earth's suffering, sinning, wronged, and perishing ones should lift up their heads and a new hope light up their eyes, as they cried, "You will help us, you will save us". Churches should work together to support each other and work beyond their doors to alleviate suffering and follow the teachings of Jesus. It is a tall order. However, work is needed to balance out the otherwise navel-gazy nature of religious communities.
Finding this balance is the challenge that faces our churches today. Sometimes we lean one way. At other times we tilt in another direction. It is our way as people. Sabbatical, perhaps not surprisingly, is designed to help the pastor to find that balance. The religious work of the church is the job of the minister. It is the job of others as well, but usually part-time. Pastors are paid to think about the church and its members full-time. Often to the detriment of the her or his own religious spirit. Hence the extended sabbath.
Longfellow has three more "points" to his sermon. They are the kinds of work that the church does. First he lists the Culture of the Religious Spirit by which he means those things that spring most quickly to mind when we think of church. Worship, rites of passage, and communion are examples of this first type of work. The second is Religious Education, the deepening and growing of the faith for both young and old. Finally (and he cheats here by including two things as one) there is the category of Religious Benefice and Philanthropic Action. Here he is thinking of what we more often call "social service" and "social justice." It is clear that he does mean both. Again there is the question of balance. We have limited time and resources. Where do we put them?
It seems to me that finding balance between both sets of "points" comes down to our capacity for thoughtful discernment. How do we, as people and as congregations, find ways to consider issues of importance with as little anxiety as possible? How do we remember the spirit that flows through us and between us, while also nurturing that spirit? How do we become religious? How do we make our communities of faith this way as well?
The answers to these questions vary. We are a diverse species and our faith reflects that. However, I think these are questions that we all must consider both for ourselves and for the congregations we love.