“Radiant Over the Goodness of the Lord”

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Rev. Dr. James S. Harrison, Pastor Emeritus

October 25, 2015 – The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Celebrating 325 Years of Ministry on Woodstock Hill

Jeremiah 31:7-14


Three hundred and twenty-five years! That’s a long time. Perhaps just a drop in the bucket, considering the centuries-long history of the Christian enterprise itself. But still it’s a long time. This church is older than our nation. Not the building, of course, but gathering of saints here.   John Eliot first came to Woodstock more than 100 years before the American Revolution.

But before we get too fixated on that 325 number, we probably should also remember that figure is really only an educated guess. When this church fired Josiah Dwight, its first minister, after 36 years of ministry by a vote of 57 to one, he absconded with all the founding records of the church to the “waste lands of Thompson.” (As it was then known by the good folk of Woodstock.) So all we really know is that a church of Jesus Christ was “gathered” (as good Congregationalists say) sometime before 1696. Eventually the church settled on 1690 as its founding date. So every 25, 50, or 100 years thereafter, this church, has paused to remember its history and heritage, in quarter-century increments, which is one of the reasons you have invited me to preach here today. Because I am, you see, one of the last remaining living artifacts of its most recent quarter century stretch of time. I was called to be the pastor of this church 15 years before its 300th anniversary and 20 years after that commemoration retired before experiencing the fate that befell Josiah Dwight.

When I arrived on the scene in 1975 someone had gotten the bright idea to publish a new history of the church in commemoration of the nation’s 200th birthday in 1976. So one of the most important activities that introduced me to the history and ethos of this church was meeting with a small group called the Antiquarian Committee practically every Wednesday evening for almost a year reading and editing together Margaret (Maggie) McClellan Tourtellotte’s evolving history of this church chapter by chapter until it was declared fit to publish. The five saints, all of blessed memory, who made that determination, were Dr. Jerry Adams (who presided as chairman), Dorothy McClellan, Betty Anderson, Florence Young, and Maggie herself. (Jock’s mother) Looking back now I realize that experience of meeting so frequently with those particular individuals (who were really some of the strongest pillars of the church in those years) was really what grounded me for such a long run as pastor of this church. Their collective knowledge and experience of this congregation and what this church values, gave me important insights into the soul and character of this congregation, which stood me in good stead for years to come.

But in all honesty (having recently experienced a milestone birthday myself), doesn’t an individual or an organization like a church really want to be remembered for more than its longevity? When we mark an occasion like this 325th Anniversary, exactly what is it we celebrate, appreciate, or honor about the life of this congregation? When you look back over the entire life of this church, or if you can’t fathom doing that, at least of your most recent experiences in it or memories of it, what stands out? What important events, ministries, affirmations, undertakings, and accomplishments do you recall or remember others recalling? What would you lift up for celebration and honor?

Would it be something physical, like the first time you walked into this building?  I can remember my first visit. I was 29 years old. I had received a letter from the search committee expressing an interest in talking with me. So Martha and I (and Christopher in his flimsy car seat) took a ride up here to scope out Woodstock. In those days the front doors of the church were not locked, so I surreptitiously stole into the sanctuary and was immediately impressed by the simple elegance and dignity of this room. I return to the car and reported to Martha, “This might work out.”

What else might you lift up to celebrate? Would it be the way this congregation and its people have been about the ministry of caring for and about the common good since its inception? You know our “tribe,” our way of being church, our “brand,” our New England Congregational tradition (which later on morphed into the United Church of Christ), has always been about caring for the common good—the greater community around us. Remember, for at least the first century the governments of this church and town were one in the same. And thereafter members of this church have always shared in prominent places of town, state, and even national leadership. Remember the letter that George Washington wrote thanking this church for loaning its pastor, Abiel Leonard, to be a Chaplain in the Continental Army in 1776. And remember how the longest serving pastor of this church, Eliphalet Lyman, almost single handily raised the money for the construction of the Woodstock Academy during the first years of the 19th Century. And there are graves of 32 Civil War Veterans in our cemetery. Our “tribe” has always recognized our collective “interdependence,” as our present Connecticut Conference Minister is fond of saying. It’s in our DNA.

Or would we lift up and honor this church’s concern for issues of justice and equality?  While we really don’t know much about the sentiments of this church regarding the abolition of slavery we do known that one of the sons of this church, raised right here in Woodstock, Henry Chandler Bowen, went on to publish “The Independent,” a New York Weekly paper founded in 1848 primarily focused on the abolition of slavery. We also know that the wife of Fosdick Harrison, pastor during the First World War, was a champion of Women’s Suffrage and draped a large banner supporting that cause across the front of the parsonage. And knowing a little bit about ministers’ wives I suspect that Fosdick was a supporter too, or there would be hell to pay. And most recently we can remember this church’s support of our LGBT brothers, sisters, sons, and daughter when we voted to become Open and Affirming of all God’s children in the first years of this century. Or remember our Bosnian resettlement ministry in the early 1990’s? When Sally Jones called me from Interfaith Refugee Ministry on the Friday before Christmas in 1992, and initiated the invitation that eventually lead to our welcoming two Bosnian families into our community, I had no idea then how deeply my life would be touched and transformed by the entire experience. It was, in a very real sense, a spiritual adventure.

As this church stops to remember 325 years of worship, learning, companionship, and service in this place what memories would you lift up to honor and celebrate? But, probably more importantly, what is your vision for the various ways this church will grow into its future while being grounded in its past.

So, very briefly, I’d like to switch gears a little here and think about that future. Not the one Marty McFly envisioned 30 years ago this past week in “Back to the Future” but the future you envision for this church. None of us know, do we, what that future has in store for us? But how do you envision the shape of this church’s life and ministry in the days ahead? And I’m not just asking that rhetorically. Because I’m as uncertain as others about how future generations will look back on the heritage our generation will leave for them.

However, many of you, I’m certain, may be familiar with the general grumbling and gnashing of teeth that is presently going on in many quarters today of what is known as the old Mainline Protestant tradition—which would be us and churches like ours across all denominations. When I entered seminary in preparation for ordination in 1967 the United Church of Christ nationally boasted over 2 million members.Last year that figure was about 950,000. So it easy to understand why there’s a lot of pining for the “good old days” going on throughout Old Mainline Protestantism and prognostication about the demise of old Mainline churches. Because along with this membership decline there has been a steady matching decline in the influence and relevance of churches like ours in society in general. And this state of affairs, understandably, has many wondering what the future will hold. Others are having a hay day finding fault with attitudes and activities that may have led us in this direction.

But the keenest minds, I think, don’t go there. The keenest observers and scholars have recognized, I believe, that God has always reshaped and reformed the church for God’s purposes in every generation. And that reshaping is certainly going on today. No doubt about it. So while today we may very well be wandering in the wilderness of exile (as were the people of Israel in Babylonian Captivity throughout most of the 6th Century before Christ), a wilderness where Christian churches are no longer the dominant power in culture and society, I think our task is to search the horizon for the kinds of things we really do best and to be about them with renewed trust and conviction. Remembering the words of Jeremiah who spoke to the exiles in Babylon (and other still in Jerusalem), I think we need to look back over our heritage, to recognize the on-going benevolence and grace of God that has brought us to this milestone, to “sing aloud on the heights of Zion,” and to be “radiant over the goodness of the Lord.” The spirit of God has been alive in the life of this church accomplishing God’s purposes, through thick and thin, for over three centuries. And a careful reading of our history would indicate that there have been some pretty thin times, and turbulent periods, and seasons of conflict and dissention. On one occasion (the year the North Parish was formed which eventually became both the North and East Woodstock churches, 1760) a literal brawl broke out in a service of worship and a rival party hauled Pastor Abel Stiles out of the Pulpit, and women joined in the fray pulling off caps and bonnets. This church has seen some very dark days. But it has seen its share of blessings, celebrations, and joyous occasions too. I know because I remember many of them. In preparation for this service today I reread Maggie’s history of our church published in 1976. In it she began by saying, “Like countless Congregational churches in New England, [this church] has never had an interruption in its existence. Though its life at times has been turbulent, at other times languishing, yet to have let it dies away would at all times have been unthinkable.”

So, when I look back and lift up what I would honor and celebrate on an occasion like this, and search within all of that for clues about how best to move forward and grow into the future God is helping us create, I mostly remember the saints among us who lives have been radiant over the goodness of God; saints whose lives glowed with the love of God. You know who those saints have been and are for you.I know who they have been for me.

They are the ones who know that the clearest expression of what they believe is demonstrated in their behavior.

They are the ones who laugh, and grieve, and rejoice with you and who want nothing from you except your presence.

They are the ones who don’t try to fix you, but accept you unconditionally.

They are the ones who say, “Here, let me help with that,” and who say to Jocelyn, “What can I do for you today?”

They are the ones who pray, and sing, and rejoice in the faithfulness of God even in their darkest hours.

They are the ones whose lives inspire you to be a kinder, more grateful, more generous human being.

They are the ones whose lives are radiant over the goodness of the Lord.

They are the ones who glow with the love of God, and when they all get together in one place you can almost see their radiance for miles around.

Therefore, when I envision the kind of church I’d like my children and future generations to remember someday in the distant future, it’s a community of saints who glow like that together. And I am confident that a church that glows with that kind of radiance will still be around for many years to come.

Let the people of God say, “Amen.”


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