By Michael Swartz
I have served now two UCC churches with roots in the Congregational side of our faith family since I retired in 2012. You remember that the UCC was formed when the Evangelical and Reformed Church, our side of the family here at the Church of Peace, united with the Congregational Christian Churches in 1958. And as the Thanksgiving Holiday is connected with the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony up east, it is today appropriate to talk about that other side of the family, the Congregationalists. And maybe after 64 years it is simply one family.
Our spiritual ancestors explicitly sought to form a nation in covenant with God. The history and heritage of the United Church of Christ and of the Congregational Church is one of civil discourse that stretches from Massachusetts Bay Colony, through the American Revolution and the Civil War and up to today. This discourse has to do with the relation of God, providence, civil society and the nation. And not only civil discourse, but also political action.
A city set upon a hill. This phrase is from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “A city set upon a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a candle and set it under a bushel, but rather on a candlestick, so that it can light the whole room. Let you light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven” (KJV)
“A city set upon a hill” entered the American civil discourse early in colonial history through the 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” preached by Puritan John Winthrop while still aboard the ship Arbella. Winthrop admonished the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be “as a city upon a hill”, watched by the world—which became the ideal that the New England colonists placed upon their hilly capital city of Boston. The Puritans’ community in New England would set an example of communal charity, affection, and unity to the world or, if the Puritans failed to uphold their covenant of God, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” of God’s judgment. The errand to the wilderness embraced by our forbears was to show Europe, their world, how to do it right. And give glory to God.
It is easy to chide and ridicule people who set out to show the world how to do it right, and then inevitably fall short. But I admire our spiritual mothers and fathers for seriously seeking to build a community in harmony and covenant with God.
The “city set upon a hill” has become part of the American civil vocabulary, alluded to by John Kennedy, George Bush, and Barack Obama. And particularly by Ronald Reagan in 1980:
I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining “city on a hill,” as were those long ago settlers …
These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still… a shining city on a hill.
And with Reagan the city has shifted from Boston to “the city on the Potomac.” But people of faith consistently make God’s story their story, and their story God’s story.
Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln was engaged in rebooting the soul of the nation in 1863 based on common aspiration. The Civil War did not officially end until April 9, 1865 when Lee surrendered.
On October 3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation setting aside a National Holiday of Thanksgiving. While there had earlier been local days for thanking God, Lincoln is credited with establishing a national day. His hope was to bring the nation together.
Soon after, 159 years ago, yesterday, Lincoln began his Gettysburg address on November 19, 1863 with a reference to the Declaration of Independence: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Lincoln rooted the struggle for the freedom of enslaved African people in the words of the Declaration of Independence. And that document takes for its moral foundation that theses rights are granted in the Creation by God, and that we are bound as a people in covenant with God.
So is there a point in 2022?
- First off, our forbears have consistently regarded themselves in Covenant with God in the conduct of our civil affairs. The words of the declaration of independence of July 4, 1776, rather distill this understanding.
- Our ancestors were not been timid about asserting their understanding by their speaking and their actions in the public arena. They have sought to do what they believe is right.
- We could do far worse than calling for ethical action based on moral principles founded in Covenant with God!
- At this Thanksgiving moment it is appropriate to seek to do the right thing and do it the right way.
There are some phrases that make it seem like things come out right based on some sort of auto-pilot:
- The “arc of history.”
- The “unseen hand of the market.”
- Or even “the providence of God.”
But I would assert that it is the interplay of words and actions, and the back and forth of civil society and civil discourse that in fact determines our destiny. Folks working, with mutual respect and dignity, to do what they believe to be the right thing. And our Congregationalist/United Church of Christ intellectual, spiritual and activist heritage has been exceptionally prominent and important in this understanding.
And it is hard work. The challenge of our present situation is about whether we are willing to do the difficult work of determining together, through democratic process, what we are really about. Or if we prefer to be polarized, or have someone else do it for us. Will we forfeit our birthright? Our ancestors had a large capacity to work it out together through democratic process, and in this they understood themselves to be in covenant with God and with each other to do it right. And give glory to God.
In 2022 we are due for another reboot of the covenant.
Amen and amen.