300 Years of Community
Three hundred years ago, the Town of Longmeadow was born. It did not begin with the Massachusetts legislature—called then and now the “General Court”—officially recognizing Longmeadow as a town; that would not happen until 1783. Before Longmeadow, or any other place could become a town, the people residing there had to become a community. That community formed with the establishment of the First Church of Christ in Longmeadow.
Before a place can begin the process of becoming a town, the people of that place must decide, at some level, to join their fortunes and fates together. This is not automatic; broad swathes of the state of Maine still consist of unorganized townships. From the arrival of settlers in the 1630s until 1713, “longmeddowe” was part of Springfield.
By 1713, a group of people in longmeddowe was determined to worship together. They found the trek into First Church in Springfield too long and too dangerous (there had been an Indian attack against traveling parishioners). This group of people, not yet numbering 40 families, petitioned the colonial General Court for a fourth time to allow them to establish their own church. They were granted permission, but it was conditioned upon the solemn promise that the petitioners would support their minister.
This involvement of a political body in the establishment of a church reflected how much church and state were intertwined in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The British King ruled by divine right, voting for some decades was restricted in Massachusetts to those men with full membership in the Congregational church, and the town’s meeting house hosted church services and the annual town meeting. With the creation of a separate religious community, Longmeadow became a distinct political community, that is, a precinct of Springfield.
It was in 1716 that the meeting house in Longmeadow was completed and the church had its first pastor, Stephen Williams, who would go on to serve for 66 years. One year after his death, the United States gained its independence, and Longmeadow became its own town. In 2015, the institutions of First Church and a democratic town government continue to be cornerstones of the Longmeadow community.
The idea of Longmeadow as a distinct community has persisted long after the establishment of that meeting house in 1716. The living memory of that event died two centuries ago, but the idea is very much alive. Much like the U.S.S. Constitution docking in Charlestown harbor with every board, nail, and sail having been replaced but still existing as the same ship, all of the components of that original community have been replaced, many times over. Despite these changes, there is an unbroken thread that connects the people of 1716 to the Longmeadow residents of 2015.
But none of this was inevitable. In 1716, the first meeting house was constructed sufficiently to allow for its use, but it would take 13 years for the walls to be plastered, and in over 50 years of meetings of all sorts, it never had a stove. Longmeadow was nothing more than an experiment. The challenge of fewer than 40 families supporting a pastor and erecting that meeting house must have seemed daunting. One wonders whether 40 families today could manage such a feat.
Town government and the idea of democracy were mere seedlings in 1716. Town meetings and the election of “select” men to provide executive leadership became practices almost immediately after the colony was chartered, but the governor answered to the King and not the people. Overseas in England, there was a Parliament which prevented the King from exercising absolute power, but it was considered altogether fitting and proper that mere colonists should have no representation. Taxation without representation was the law of the land.
In time, direct democracy in the form of the Town Meeting would become sacred and British interference in Massachusetts local government would figure in the words of the Declaration of Independence. The example of ordinary people deciding questions of local import in meeting houses like the one that resided on the Longmeadow Green would serve as a blueprint for democracy on a national scale. The idea of government by and for the people has swept across every continent, and it continues to gather force.
On October 3, 2015 at 11 am, First Church, members of the Longmeadow Select Board, state representative Brian Ashe, state senator Eric Lesser, and the Longmeadow community will honor Longmeadow history in the kickoff to a year-long celebration of the 300th anniversary of the First Church of Christ in Longmeadow. The fledging religious and political community of Longmeadow has grown from a seedling into a towering oak tree. That living tree, depending on daily nourishment to survive, is still an experiment, but it is stronger than ever.
Alex J. Grant is a member of First Church and the Longmeadow Select Board. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This sermon was given at Beneficent Congregational Church, Providence, Rhode Island, 5 April 2015 by Reverend Nicole Grant Yonkman.
Happy Easter! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Early Sunday morning before the sun was even up, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to see Jesus. The Gospel of Luke and Mark both say the women brought spices, which was a way to honor him and take care of his body. Mary sees that the stone is rolled away and Jesus’ body is gone and she cries because she is afraid that Jesus’ body has been stolen, a further humiliation and dishonor of Jesus. Then Jesus appears to her and asks, “Why are you weeping?” Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus; her brain will not let her see his face and hear his voice and put to form the utterly unbelievable idea that a person who had died could be alive. After all, dead is dead. Finally when Jesus says her name “Mary” she recognizes him. Then Jesus says “Do not hold onto me.” The text does not say so, but Mary must have grabbed hold of Jesus. Not knowing how to believe the unbelievable, but touching Jesus, Mary somehow absorbs the reality of the moment. “Do not hold onto me!” Jesus says. “Give me some space.” How much time passes, we do not know. But eventually, Mary lets go of Jesus. She has a job to do. Jesus asks her to spread the word. So Mary goes and tells the disciples that Jesus is alive. A woman; the first preacher of the good news of Easter; that is how it all started.
That is the Easter story; the story of resurrection. The funny thing about resurrection is that there is nothing I can say or do to give you reasonable evidence that Jesus rising from the dead is true. God, the resurrected Jesus, the Holy Spirit, they are all a mystery rooted in faith, in belief. Mary was one person so moved by this experience, transformed even, that when she told her friends the disciples, they believed her. We do not have the benefit of hearing from Mary herself what she experienced. We have a story in an ancient book, but it’s not the same. Instead, as people of faith who have come many years after Jesus, we must rely on other evidence of the resurrection. And the main evidence for resurrection we have is Christian community. Mary turned her experience into a compelling testimony that in turn transformed the disciples who gathered into a larger and larger community. They grew and thrived against all odds of failure and persecution. Christian community is the billions of people worldwide who have heard the ancient stories and gathered together in common for these almost 2000 years. And Beneficent Church is one of the faith communities which traces its beginning to the resurrected Jesus and Mary and the fact that Mary did not keep it to herself, but she told the Good News. And that telling bound the people together in a special way that allowed the mystery of resurrection to take form in a living, breathing community.
For me, Easter compels me to think about where I trace my beginnings in the church. How did I get here? What is the connection between Jesus and Mary and me? Well for me, part of that story is my neighborhood when I was a kid. I lived in a neighborhood of 10 houses which was on a country road in Maine called Shaw Mill Road, named after an old mill that used to be on the creek. Most every house in my neighborhood had kids about the age of my brother and me. On a typical Saturday morning, we would get up early and watch the Saturday cartoons and then go outside to play. I would tag along with my big brother as he went from house to house getting the kids together to organize a game of ball. We would go to Kraig’s house, Peter and Kevin’s house, Willie and Angela’s house. We would play kickball or baseball or basketball. We had fights, we made up with each other, people moved out and others moved in. Our geography put us together and being a neighbor meant that you were connected. The grown-ups had coffee or drinks at each others’ houses, the kids played together, you could borrow a cup of sugar for a recipe or a tool for a home project, or get help on snow-blowing your driveway. And in the case of our next-door neighbors, the Hamiltons, they invited me to go to church. And I thought that would be cool because I knew Angela from the neighborhood. When I think of the neighborhood, I guess it’s kind of nostalgic for a time that is now gone. My kids have never really had that experience. I’m not in touch with anyone from the neighborhood. But the thing that I will always take with me is that is how I got connected with a church community. It was a small church with a small sanctuary and a part-time pastor. My Sunday School class was taught by Mr. Hamilton, Angela’s dad, in the kitchen in the basement. I was confirmed in that church and attended a few youth group meetings. That was basically it. But it was my first church community. It was my first experience of being with a group of people who cared for me who were not my family. And something connected for me. At that church I began to be in touch with a feeling that God had a special plan for my life. That special plan I came to understand as a call to ministry and that is what started me on the pathway that led me here to you today, about 35 years after my neighbor Angela invited me to church.
Recently, a couple of months ago, I tracked down my childhood pastor, whose name is George Frobig, who is now retired and living in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I called him on the phone and ended up making a trip to visit him. So I could tell you that Rev. Frobig said that even as a young child he could tell I would be a minister. But the truth is, he didn’t remember me at all. We remembered a lot of things in common about the church, the people, the events, but me, Nikki Grant, nope. He didn’t remember me at all. And that was OK. It really was because that was not the point for me. I wanted to tell Rev. Frobig what that little church and that little community meant something to me, and the role he played to make sure that the church was there for me, made all the difference. However small that community, whatever small part each person had that touched my life, it was enough to kindle the flame that would start me on the path to ministry.
There is a lot of research that has been done about how the nature of community has changed in American culture. Some of you may have heard of the famous book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam which brought to light something that really resonates with Americans as a whole: people don’t join bowling leagues, lodges like the Masons, and even churches, like they used to. There is something that has fundamentally changed about the way we interact with one another as a community. Most recently in 2014 Marc Dunkelman who works for a Brown University think tank on Public Policy published a book called The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community. And through a year-long program I am part of called Leadership Rhode Island, I had the opportunity to meet Marc and talk about this phenomenon of community today. In a nutshell he says: despite the technological advances including email, facebook, and skype, Americans are actually connecting with fewer people in community in deep and meaningful and face to face ways. So even though we are hyperconnected to a worldwide network, people are lonely, disconnected, and yearning for community like never before. And it just so happens that churches are one of the few organizations whose primary mission is connecting people in community.
So what is it that churches offer that is so valuable? What I value is the day-to-day relationships, working through issues, figuring things out together, and seeing us grow and change together. For me that is what community is about. Yes there are meetings, and yes they happen on weeknights sometimes, and yes sometimes we have “issues” that are complex and seemingly unsolveable. But week after week, year after year, people show up, the volunteers especially, to make sure that this community continues and to be Jesus’ hands and feet and heart and body for YOU! What builds community is not rocket science. It hasn’t changed with technology. What builds community is time on the ground. What builds community is showing up; it’s being there for one another, and perhaps especially for the people whom you do not know who happen to walk through the door. This is the place where you learn and grow, where you have Sacred Conversations, and where you learn to love people whom you would never have met if you had not been part of the church. And the reason we do this is our common mission to be like Mary Magdalene and share the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
You are here today, at least many of you, because you are seeking a community, you are looking for Mary Magdalene, a person transformed by the resurrection. At Beneficent, we are a very diverse place, and we do not ask that everyone believes exactly the same thing. Some of us are comfortable talking about God and Jesus and the resurrection. Some of us are doubters and seekers and questioners. But the point is that this community is all pointed in the same direction: and that direction is new life. That direction is forgiveness. That direction is hope. Because death is not the end; death does not have the last word. And as we are all pointed in that direction, somehow, amazingly, on good days, we manage to make a step together. That is community. That is resurrection community. It’s bigger than all of us. And through the miracle of the resurrection, I trust that I am making a difference in the world because I can see it in front of me everyday in you. In your lives.
This story of me coming to church as a child invited by my neighbor I think is kind of perfect for Easter. Because it’s nothing so flashy as Mary Magdalene having this face-to-face meeting with Jesus and running to tell the disciples. It was a regular group of people in a community in church in a small town who went about the business of church just because that is what the gospel called them to do. And that to me is the miracle of the resurrection. We go about our work of being the church, trusting that the time and effort we take to lovingly and carefully gather a community of believers and seekers and questioners. Sometimes we may be able to see the impact we have on individuals or on the community, but most of the time we do not. We cannot. Thousands of people come through our doors every year, and we do not know how important it was for an usher to smile and greet you after a tough week, or a song from the choir that touched your soul, or for your prayer to be shared in public, or the opportunity to teach the children in Sunday School, or grill the hotdogs for our community lunch. Or maybe a little girl who shows up with her friend for Sunday School one day. You do not know. And that is the mystery of the resurrection: the living breathing community of faith that is bigger than any of us, that is more than any of us can accomplish on our own, that changes people we do not know or even remember in remarkable and transforming ways.
Last week, Dr. Jay’s sermon homed in on one of those $64,000 questions: do non-believers go to heaven? He asked about Gandhi, a man of undeniable good works, is he condemned to hell for failing to believe in Jesus? He told the story of two teenaged girls, friends who died together in a car accident, one a practicing Christian, the other not. A minister extolled the believer and suggested that the non-believing girl would not be going to heaven.
His audience at First Church audibly gasped when it learned of the minister’s unkind words to the girl who had not gone to church. And I dare say that his audience wholeheartedly accepted his message that Jesus’s message was inclusive, not exclusive. Jesus did not set out to create in-groups and out-groups. He did not bring the good news to only those who think and worship like us, however one defines “us.”
In support of this message, our scripture readings included John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8. The passage from John begins, “For God so loved the world . .” and from that it is clear that the love of Jesus extends to the whole world. It does not discriminate, and it does not confine or limit itself. The passage from Ephesians stated that we are saved “by grace . . . it is the gift of God.”
I believed every word of Dr. Jay’s message. As someone who chooses an open and affirming church, who chooses a denomination that extends the sacrament of communion unconditionally, these words rang true. Of course, Gandhi is saved. Of course, a teenaged girl who lived a good life is not condemned to eternal damnation for a deficiency of church attendance or of faith.
But still. As right as the message felt, as true as it seemed, deep down, there were still nagging questions. Does it really not matter whether we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or maybe the questions arose just because I had opened the Bible and followed along with the Scripture reading. Starting with the famous text from John 3:16, it does say, “For God so loved the world,” but the very words that follow say, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Wait–God loves the world but “whoever believes in him shall . . . have eternal life.”
The text goes in opposite directions, does it not? This is not a matter of finding disparate passages from the Bible and finding contradiction; the tension exists within the same sentence. God’s love is inclusive, but eternal life is conditioned on belief. Ephesians 2:8, the text also chosen by Dr. Jay, seems to point in opposite directions too. The full text reads, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Again, there is God’s expansive grace and yet salvation seems to be premised on faith.
Beyond these textual ambiguities lies the broader question: was Jesus indifferent on whether people subscribed to his teachings? Surely not. (The Children’s Bulletin the week of Dr. Jay’s sermon called on kids ages 3-6 to trace the words “Believe in Jesus.”) The notion of being saved because of belief, because of faith, occurs repeatedly in the gospels. Indeed, this notion is central. As part of Pastor Marisa’s sermon this week, we heard the story of Lazarus. At John 11:25-26, Jesus tells Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
Given this repeated message, that people who believe in Jesus will have eternal life, it is hardly surprising the minister in Dr. Jay’s story might have concluded that salvation is conditional. Open to all but dependent on faith.
I can only conclude that there is ambiguity in the Bible on this basic issue. Biblical scholars and our pastors and those who have studied the Greek and the Hebrew biblical texts surely have better answers than I could ever provide in resolving this ambiguity. But rather than trying to resolve the ambiguity, perhaps it is better to ask why these confounding texts exist in the first place.
The mixed message I have identified is hardly unique. In this week’s Scripture reading, we had John 12:8 as part of the story of Mary using an expensive ointment to wash Jesus’s feet. Judas takes the opportunity to chide Mary for not using selling the ointment and using the money for the needy. Jesus defends her, saying, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” It does seems like Judas, for whatever his motives might have been, was on to something. It does seem Jesus-like to sell a luxury good and provide for the poor. Jesus, a few chapters earlier in the Bible, might have suggested such a thing.
But that’s just an example. Instances of confounding text and mixed messages abound. Certainty is in short supply in the Bible. But why?
Did God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit mean to be opaque? Did the human authors of the books of the Bible err as historians and story tellers?
The notion of uncertainty in the Bible is distressing to many people. If the Bible, on its central points, is open to interpretation, then are we not unmoored? In a world filled with moral dilemmas, an inconstant guidebook hardly feels like a solution. Unlike many literalists and absolutists, I am OK with the ambiguity and the need for interpretation. I feel no need to square the circle when I encounter confounding texts.
But again, why? Why would Jesus speak in an inherently contradictory fashion? If eternal salvation is all it is cracked up to be, then why not mark a clear path for the imperfect men and women who are to follow it?
Coming back to Dr. Jay’s $64,000 question of whether heaven depends on Christian faith, it seems that Jesus’s mixed message serves a practical purpose. On the one hand, Jesus has abundant, radiating love to all the world. On the other, He needs to, shall we say, incentivize people to take up his standard, to believe, to spread the word. And so He suggests time and again that those who believe will have eternal life. It sounds like a very human solution to a very human problem.
Twenty-five years ago, I was an opinion columnist for my university’s student newspaper, and as a senior majoring in International Relations, I had a lot of views on how to solve the world’s problems. In one column, I authored a peace plan for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that the conflict had been raging in fits and starts since the founding of Israel in 1947, and even before, did not deter me from thinking that I had the answer. The similarity of my plan to numerous other failed peace plans gave me not a doubt that the formula for peace in Palestine was at hand.
My proposal was to hand back the territories Israel occupied in the course of the 1967 war when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan all sought to extinguish its existence. A large portion of this land was, and still remains, the West Bank. The Gaza strip, still occupied in 1990, was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 2005 and then overrun by Hamas in 2007. Mine was a 20 year plan, with the land being ceded back to the Palestinians in three, increasingly large, chunks. There would be a 10 year interval between each handover of land in order to give entities like the P.L.O. and related terrorist organizations an incentive to stop attacking Israel. The intervals would also give Israel a chance to see whether handovers would actually lead to peace, and give Israel the ability to stop the transfers should terrorism continue.
Today we search for peace as earnestly as we did in 1990. The issues are basically the same, although the violence is deadlier and the stakes are even higher now with Iran inching ever closer to nuclear capability. Indeed, I remember reading an analysis of the conflict, written in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, which suggested a land-for-peace deal. That deal still eludes us.
In 2015, our church is considering joining the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement as a means of pressuring Israel to treat the people of the occupied territories better and to advance the prospects for peace in Palestine. As much as I share these goals, I also share some of the misgivings voiced by a recent letter sent to our congregation by two of our Jewish neighbors who called BDS a “very destructive approach” and an “anti-Semitic issue.”
The letter writers point out, accurately, that the BDS approach is “truly one sided, giving no responsibility to anyone other than Israel for the conflicts. It does not validate any rights for Israel to exist . . .” Casting Israel as the oppressor against defenseless adversaries and condemning Israel as an “apartheid state,” while capturing some of the current reality, ignores the historical context of this conflict.
While we may think of Israel as some kind of military juggernaut, it was upon its founding a weak nation, surrounded, and vastly out-numbered by its enemies. Upon the founding of the state of Israel in 1947, its neighbors immediately attacked. These included the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, plus Palestinian Arabs and fighters from other countries. Israel did not have a national army, nor did it have the arms, tanks, or other weapons that its enemies had. Only some of Israel’s soldiers even had rifles. Against the longest of odds, Israel survived.
In the ensuing years, it was the state policy of the five countries who had attacked in 1947 to destroy Israel. In 1967, Egypt, Jordan and Syria were determined to fight again, with Egypt’s Nasser kicking UN peacekeeping troops out of the Sinai peninsula so he could mass his troops against the border with Israel. Israel prevailed again, achieving a sweeping and improbable victory despite being outnumbered and outgunned. It was in this war that it occupied the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.
In 1973, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan attacked on Yom Kippur, and in doing so, achieved a level of surprise against Israel’s mostly citizen army (most of the Israeli army consisted of reserves, like national guard troops in the United States). For a time, it looked like Egypt and its allies would succeed where they had failed in the past. Israel, however, managed to stop the the offensive and regained the advantage, at which point the United States and the Soviet Union stepped in to stop the fighting.
Since these conventional wars by nation-states, the objective of the destruction of Israel has been pursued by terrorist organizations like the PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and these organizations have been supported by countries like Iran and Syria. To this day, terrorist attacks are a fact of life in Israel. Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip by Hamas and suicide bombers on buses are the sorts of events which barely warrant a mention in our newspapers in the United States.
There is much more to this history than what I have recounted here, but I am afraid that even the broadest outlines of this ongoing conflict are unknown to many Americans. What seems indisputable from 1947 until today is that there are a large number of people in the Middle East who do not accept Israel’s existence. Indeed, there are over 30 countries which do not recognize Israel, including Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Beyond these actual governments, there are countless terror groups that find Israel’s existence to be an anathema. This includes Hamas, which functions as a quasi-government over the Gaza Strip.
When we in America seek to prod along the peace process, as I so ineffectually did in a campus newspaper 25 years ago, we tend to think of it as a bargaining process with the deal being “land for peace.” But this is not two neighbors arguing about a boundary line. Israel must deal with countries and groups whose final objective is not the West Bank, but all of Israel. Trying to complete a deal with a multitude of neighbors who not only want to adjust boundary lines, but fundamentally want you out of the neighborhood altogether (or better yet, dead) is as confounding as untying the Gordian knot.
Israel holds on to the West Bank because it is a necessary bargaining chip. Land-for-peace worked in the Camp David accords whereby Israel gave back the Sinai for recognition and peace with Egypt. While that bargain has not been achieved with the Palestinians or with Syria, it is hard to imagine how peace could be achieved without some kind of quid pro quo.
That is not the only reason Israel holds onto the West Bank. It has established settlements, with the obvious intent of expanding the territory of Israel, of establishing facts on the ground that will tilt an eventual settlement in Israel’s favor. This settlement growth has been consistently opposed by multiple U.S. administrations as unhelpful to the peace process.
In this context, it is impossible for me to see Israel as the sole villain, which seems to be the assumption behind the BDS movement. To be fair, we must recognize that Israel is still a besieged country. Imagine if we in Longmeadow were to receive rockets launched from Windsor Locks, Hartford, and New Haven. Imagine if missiles were also to hit us from the north and if car bombs and suicide bombs were to detonate regularly on our public transportation and at our shopping malls. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to feel safe.
If we, as outsiders, seek to encourage peace, surely our voices and our efforts must be directed at least as much toward the terror groups which launch the rockets and missiles and which set off the bombs (and the countries that support those terror groups) as toward Israel. To do anything less must seem anomalous to the people in our community, people like the letter writers I mentioned earlier, who care about Israel.
The letter writers also pose a good question on why we take up this cause and stay comparatively silent when it comes to the behavior of Israel’s avowed enemies or of repressive regimes like North Korea and China. What is it about our politics that causes us to focus on the sins of Israel in the West Bank while we utter not a peep about the concentration camps, the mass starvation, and collective punishment visited upon the people of North Korea?
There is a final aspect of BDS that seems deeply inappropriate to me, and that is the comparison of Israel to the white government of South Africa under apartheid. The BDS movement against Israel is explicitly modeled on the successful BDS regime against South Africa in the 1980s. Boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against the South Africa regime were meant to signal that the government was illegitimate. The fact, for example, that South African athletes could not compete in the Olympics was a statement that South Africa, as it was then constituted, was a pariah state, not fit to be part of the community of nations.
These measures against South Africa made sense because its government was illegitimate. It was undemocratic, racist at its core and in its manifestations, and quite simply, not worthy of being called the government of South Africa. Eventually, these BDS measures had some effect on ruling white South Africans who became tired of being despised outcasts.
Israel does not stand on the same footing as the white South African state. BDS measures do more than just inflict economic pain to change governmental policy, they undermine the legitimacy of Israel itself. To seek to de-legitimize Israel in the same way as the apartheid government in South Africa is to undermine the foundation of Israel’s democratic system, which, for all its flaws, is a remarkable achievement in a neighborhood of autocratic regimes and reactionary theocracies.
For the First Church of Longmeadow, or for the U.C.C. generally, to endorse the BDS movement against Israel, we would be doing more than making a polite, politically correct, nod to oppressed people. Taking on BDS is to make a resounding judgment against Israel that strips away the nuance, moral ambiguity, and historical context of this conflict. We should think deeply and tread lightly as we enter this thicket.