Eleven days ago, the president of the United States stood before a joint session of Congress. He delivered his State of the Union address.
The Union upon which our president reported, and upon which all of our presidents have reported annually since 1790, might well not exist - or not in its present form - had it not been for this church. Harvard's John Fiske has rightly pronounced that there is no other church so responsible for the establishment and the shaping of this nation in its earliest days than Old South Church in Boston. There is no church more responsible for this nation's quest for freedom and democracy than Old South Church. No other church whose members and ministers played such key roles in the crucial conversations, deliberations, actions and founding documents that birthed a new nation.
A plaque that once hung by the door of the Old South Meetinghouse proclaimed this:
HERE were held the
ushered in the Revolution
HERE Samuel Adams, James Otis
and Joseph Warren exhorted
HERE the men of Boston proved
worthy to raise issues
which were to concern the
liberty and happiness
of millions yet unborn
Today we are stewards of a story and a legacy that includes Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Sewall, Samuel Adams, William Dawes, Phillis Wheately, the Salem Witch Trials, the Boston Tea Party (the real Tea Party!), the Declaration of Independence, abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, and more.
This is our legacy, Old South. Such is the role we have played on the stage of history. Such is the pedigree of our ancestors. A pedigree not so much of station as of stature; not so much of wealth as of worth; less of heredity than of holiness. It has been in our best moments a pedigree of liberality in thought, word, action and, eventually, law.
For these three hundred and forty-one years the people of this congregation have held and cherished and carried these stories. We have carried them through the centuries, as if on a pillowed throne. We teach them to our children. We tell these stories to our new members, to visitors, tourists and confirmation classes. Some we have carved in stone.
It is remarkable, therefore, that through the years this church has not calcified around these great stories and great personages. Although we cherish the past and endeavor to learn from it - both its good and its bad - we are, and always have been, aimed at the future, at God's future.
This is not true for many of our sister churches. Aging churches across this land are foundering and sinking. Anchored to the past, stubbornly unwilling or frankly unable, ill-equipped to refit themselves for a new day, they are strewn across the land like old wrecks on the ocean's floor.
At the grand age of 341, Old South is what you might expect: venerable and seasoned, weathered and battle-scarred. But we are so much more. We are thriving, vital, engaged, youthful, experimental, inspirited, on the move.
Why are we doing so well, while so many churches are foundering? Here's why. And this is all the difference. Throughout the centuries, at critical moments, moments of opportunity, our ancestors had the presence of mind, the courage and the foresight, to refit this Ship of Faith, to equip it and update it - to re-train its crew, its officers and captains - to ready themselves for their next adventure.
Our ancestors are proof that you can teach new tricks to old seadogs.
Experienced sailors know that success on the sea is a combination of things: a vessel that is both sea-worthy and ship-shape; a crew and captain who work well together, a good navigation system, and an instinct for the opportunities provided by wind and weather.
Today, on the occasion of our 340th Annual Meeting, I propose we have arrived at an opportune moment … this is an occasion of reckoning.
This old ship is on the move. Our sails are billowing in gusting winds. The ship is heeling, spray is flying, whales are singing, dolphins are dancing, gulls are laughing, the fish are jumping. The winds of God's Spirit have taken hold of our sails, and we and God, are out upon the high seas. Do you feel it?
Here's how I know it: Because our grieving ones are caressed, our homeless ones are welcomed in, our rich ones are sharing, our broken ones are being mended, our new ones are being baptized, our hungry ones are fed from God's table.
Our congregation is growing and lively, our ministry is fresh and bold and getting younger by the day, our numbers are increasing, our young adults are bearing babies, our small groups are connecting people one to another, our outreach is creative and strong, our worship is vibrant, our financial stewardship is astounding, our budget is in the black, our gardens are growing, our knitters are knitting, our teachers are passing the faith on to new generations, our choirs are singing and ringing up a storm of praise, our staff are gifted, loyal and effective; our Web page hosts visitors from around the world. An experience of radical hospitality greets all newcomers.
And our lay leaders - you, so many of you - have thrilled to the feel of the winds of God's Spirit. You have found new sails to unfurl and set. The Holy Spirit has come among us and is stirring us, awakening us to new adventures of a new day. Do you feel it?
We are aboard ship, upon the sea, the wind is in our sails, the whales are singing, the dolphins dancing, the gulls laughing and the fish jumping … and Jesus says: "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."
Among those for whom Jesus asks us to let down our nets are people who believe that faith is more about scaring the hell out of you than inviting you into heaven. They think that we think about Armageddon; that we worry about being Left Behind; that we are keeping weather eye out for The Rapture. They do not know - and how can they if we do not show them? - that, not only our cupboards not stocked with supplies to carry us through Doomsday … but that among the treasures we carry about this Ship of Faith is the theological proposition of universal salvation … all are saved, heaven's doors are open wide. They do not know - and how can they if we do not show them?
Those for whom Jesus asks us to let down our nets, believe, deeply believe, that Christians are judgmental, narrow minded, anti-intellectual, homophobic. We have surveys to prove this. They do not know - and how can they if we do not show them? - that among the treasures aboard this ship is a liberality of spirit, a intellectual curiosity and a wide open, hospitable welcome to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. A welcome, just as you are … no bait and switch.
Among those for whom Jesus asks us to let down our nets are they whose image of the church is freighted with guilt and gloom and judgment … people who believe themselves to be unworthy. They have been told they are unworthy! They do not know - and how can they if we do not show them? - that among the treasures we carry aboard this ship are fellowship and forgiveness .. and that each person is a beloved child of God.
Those for whom Jesus invites us to put down out nets believe … or they believe that we believe, that God is male … an old guy in the sky. They do not know - and how can then if we do not show them? - that among the treasures aboard this ship of faith is the Spirit of the Living God who is gracious and merciful, who is neither male nor female, but who is love and who is Spirit.
Those for whom Jesus asks us to let down our nets, believe that a Christian church is likely to feel like a state room, filled with people who have purchased their way in, who are proper and fit and hale and whole, well fed and well dressed. They do not know - and how can they if we do not show them? - that we are raggedy and broken and grieving and hungry. We are, ourselves, just a bunch of swabbies, but swabbies who are made better by each other's, and by God's, good company.
Jesus invites us to let down our nets for those who are afraid of death and who do not know that among the treasures aboard this ship of faith, is the way through death. They do not know - and how can they if we do not tell them? - that our dead are not dead … they rejoice with us but upon a farther shore and in a greater light.
It is time, it is time, now is the time, to refit this Ship of Faith and to retrain ourselves to sail, navigate, and fish the new and deep waters to which Jesus calls us.
Among our fishing equipment: our Web page. It reaches thousands and thousands of people, informing them of the presence of a lively, diverse, urban, open-and-affirming, and accessible to all, progressive congregation of the UCC. The Web page is currently undergoing a major refitting. We expect a new Web page, one directed toward those who do not know the treasures of a life of faith, will be up and running by Easter.
Getting ourselves ship shape means updated out 1980's sound system. We are working on it in phases. The next important phase it to wire speakers into the upper galleries. This, too, is scheduled to be accomplished before Easter. Once that is done, we will invite many of you to climb up into the galleries, making room for new comers in the nave.
We are in the midst of re-training ourselves as a teaching church. We have long thought of ourselves as a church that calls and equips and sends new generations of clergy. Increasingly, however, it is falling to us to teach and equip newcomers, members, who come to us not knowing anything about the Christian faith. If we are to go fishing, our crew needs to trained in the practices and fluent in the language of faith.
And there is evangelism … a practice of the faith about which Quinn preached so elegantly last Sunday. Think of it not as conversion, but just as conversation. We can speak easily of Ben and Sam and Phillis … now is the time to learn to speak of what we ourselves know of mercy, grace, forgiveness, hope, love … It will be a easy as opening a chest of treasures, of shining, gleaming, beautiful treasures and sharing them with others.
At the annual meeting of the membership that follows worship, I will propose, on behalf of the clergy and Church Moderator, a plan of action, a means for refitting this ship and retraining ourselves to engage in the work to which Jesus calls us.
Old South Church was born in controversy over the waters of baptism.
Years later, with loose tea and harbor water, we baptized a new nation into birth.
Still later, our home, our beloved Meetinghouse, ran aground. It got stuck, mired in the mud of an old down town. Determined to continue the journey upon which we had set out in the late 1660's, we abandoned an old ship, sailed in our dinghy's across to the Back Bay. Here we built a new ship: bigger, stronger, finer. Isn't she beautiful?
As a collective body we bear little responsibility for the state of the Union we helped birth. Throughout the course of the past 341 years, however, our ability to play a great role on the stage of history has been in direct correlation to our fidelity to God … to our ability to navigate (not the seas of state) but the seas of faith.
A new moment of opportunity is arisen. This old ship is on the move and God is our North Star.
Our sails are billowing in gusting winds. The ship is heeling, spray is flying, whales are singing, dolphins are dancing, gulls are laughing and the fish are jumping. Can you hear it? Do you hear him? Can you make out his words above the sounds of wind and wave? Jesus says, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."
It's about the fish!