350 Years of Easter in New England: Ancient Worship in a Young Country
Apr 13th, 2019 by Beliefs
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme was established in 1665. What do you imagine the Easter message in this meeting house was 350 years ago?
One of the interesting features of Puritans and early colonial America was that they were reluctant about celebrations like Easter and Christmas. So they may not have had an actual Easter celebration… One of their deep beliefs was the holiness of every single day such that to separate out a separate day like Christmas, like Easter, is somehow sanctified as different than those other days was a troubling thing for them.
So, they may not have marked the day at all in the way that we do at this point in time. That's a relatively recent invention. Having said that there are a lot of features that I think we can recognize from the Puritans that establish a kind of continuity between then and now such that we can speculate about what might have been important to them. One of the things that was deeply important to them was the life of the mind. They would have taken seriously what it means to read scripture to interpret it carefully to be incorporating the deepest and best and broadest learning of the day into their messages.
They had, I would say, a wide understanding of the goodness of the world that the world was created by God, as good. And so that's what led them into that notion that every day was sanctified, every day was holy, and they had a sense of the fallibility of human lives. The sense that there are moments when we need corrective boundaries around our discourses around our communities to help to help bring out the best in us.
I think they give us really helpful perspective on the fact that human beings are not always at their best. That sometimes they are indeed fallible and that indeed we may need things like laws things like norms - strong communal norms in order to shape our lives together. These are things that I think they would have been thinking about not only on Easter Sunday, but every day.
And I think that broadly speaking, we’re deeply continuous with those understandings. And that represents some of what my -our- messaging is every single Sunday and something of what will be happening here on Easter Sunday as well.
You mentioned that the theologian Harvey Cox in one of your recent sermons. Cox has famously stated that, “Sermons remain one of the last forms of public discourse where it is culturally forbidden to talk back.” In this age where Twitter and naked incivility are rampant in our culture. How do you respond to this?
Well I have to say I think Harvey Cox's is right about that. And it's for me a profound moment of humility and gratitude to be able to stand in a in a in a pulpit and to have a crowd of people who are interested in what might unfold in that moment.
I take it very seriously I think it's a sacred moment.
So, I think there's a there's a humility that comes with that. I think there's a responsibility that comes with that. Insofar as it is this privileged moment. One of our former ministers here some hundred years ago said that for him that little space of the pulpit was the most sacred piece of real estate. That he knew insofar as there is a privilege and a responsibility that comes with that - I feel beholden to say something that's going to be of value.
But that's also going to be respectful of the people who are listening. That's not to say that it won't be challenging. I am frequently very challenging in my in my messages. But I want to respect the dignity and the beliefs of the people sitting in the pew.
There is a freedom of the pulpit, but I also respect the freedom of the Pew. But for that moment, for that moment, there's this long you know 15-20 minute discourse where we have to pay attention. Where it involves linear thinking. Where it involves imaginative thinking, and where I hope moments of empathy and compassion and grace can be stirred. That's the hope. So, thank God it still exists. And I don't know. There are places all around all around the country and indeed all around the world where that particular moment anchors communal lives.
Here is another quote from Harvey Cox “We live in a post Christian America. Christian ideals no longer dominate social thought and action.” How does this resonate with you?
I've given this one some thought because I think that's from a book that Harvey wrote in the late 60s, when indeed it seemed as though Christian thought was not going to dominate America in the way that it once had. And in many ways that has held true. We are indeed a more pluralistic society. We are indeed I think a society which has increasingly recognized and incorporated other forms of religious belief, other forms of practice other life systems.
And I think that's a wonderful thing.
It's something that I feel passionately about helping our congregation, and helping our region, helping wherever I can… To it's to establish links of communication with these other forms of belief. But in other ways I think what's happened in America is the opposite of what Harvey has diagnosed there. Because indeed it seems that there is a strain of Christianity which has remained very dominant, and very I would say, chauvinistic, in its attitude toward others.
That's not the kind of Christianity we practice here. That's not what I want to put out into the into the world. But it is true that it does have a kind of cultural hegemony that I feel very strongly about countering in some way with a different kind of Christian discourse or a different kind of religious identity. So, on one hand yes, I think we're a different America than we were when Harvey wrote that.
On the other hand, there is this virulent strain of Christian thought which I think is preventing that pluralism from actually taking shape, and those dialogues and those conversations from actually happening. And I worry about that greatly.
What about the raw secular nature of our times that we're living in.
Well I would wonder how deeply secular the secular actually is.
When I look at American culture I see religion all around us I see forms of religion all around us that may or may not travel under the name of religion.
But I see religious orientations and beliefs happening all around us. Now whether or not that translates into our raw selfishness, I think is a really, really good question. I don't know necessarily that selfishness corresponds to the religious content. And I would say that I want to draw us as a community into these forms of religious expression that contest that form of selfishness.
I think the most perverse phrase in all of the Bible, “Am I my brother's keeper? Am I my Sister's keeper?” with the implication being that we're not attached to one another. We have no communal bonds we have no communal attachments. I want to say we do. They exist across our town lines. They exist across our national lines. They exist across our religious and cultural lines. We're attached to one another. And I want to figure out ways that religion and religious stories can help us connect in that way.
The Puritan leadership integrated their version of Protestantism into their political structure. What vestiges of Puritanism’s severe reputation actually linger in our communities today? And are they helpful to our spiritual growth in today's world?
Well I think Puritanism has gotten a bad rap over the years. And there is a strong piece of me that wants to salvage the reputation of the Puritans and do a kind of counter reading of the Puritans. Marilyn Robinson's novels have been really helpful in redirecting our public imagination back to the Puritans and helping us to understand that there's something there that's worth lingering with even if we're doing something different now. It's okay to do something different but it's also there's also something there so what are the vestiges…
Well, it pertains to some of what I was saying before: I think they did have a strong life of the mind. They were strongly words-centered so they believed in the power of writing, and the power of oratory, and the power of rhetoric, to shape lives to shape minds to shape communities. Thank God for the power of rhetoric. Thank God for the power of words they believed in the goodness of the world. Ultimately they thought that the world was God's gift and that they had a duty to use their lives well.
They were consumed with a sense of wonder and all at the natural world - again this is something that I think we in an age of climate change can learn from - there's this awe and wonder that many of them evince over the course of their discourses, that we do have from them. And again, they also have this sense that human beings and that human communities can sometimes be broken. And this is where they enter this language of sin. And it's not a popular language for many of us.
Now, however, I think underneath that word there's this sense that human beings are frail. We're prone to error and we're we need to remain humble and open to correction. I think that's a profound gift that the Puritans give to all of us in the world that we fail sometimes politically, personally, and that we need to be open to correction and open to new direction new openings.
There are some vestiges that I wouldn't want to bring into the modern world or bring into the contemporary world. They were more severe than I might have liked. They were more… Oh, I don't know, limited in their geographical, spatial imagination than I might have liked. Or their religious orientation than I might have liked.
But I don't know this is sort of an anachronism; to take our understandings of the, you know today, and project them back onto the past. Then you know they owned slaves. I mean one of the features of living In Old Lyme is to realize that there are gravestones where slaves are buried in the local cemetery. Here I live in a house across the street from the church where a slave lived in the attic.
This is a part of our history that I think we must grapple with. And we must grapple with it publicly. So, these are some of the vestiges not only of the puritans but of America.
What is the biggest challenge that you face as a minister in today's world.
There are enormous challenges and it's hard to even whittle down what the biggest one is. But if I had to if I had to pick one, I would say that it's the shrinkage of the imagination
…Of all of us, as Americans these days. And it might not just be Americans it might be the world where we somehow seem to be bounded by the borders - of our geographies, the artificial boundaries of nations, of towns, of communities, without the ability to imagine the lives of people who live outside of those borders beyond where we might exist.
We have a president right now who is declaring that our country is full; that our borders are full. And indeed, I think we're having to contest that sort of thinking on all up and down the chain. We're dealing with a problem right now here in our community where we have a food pantry that operates out of our basement, which wants to limit its distribution to the people only of a certain geographical region but not people outside of that region.
And so, what happens when these border crossings happen? Are we are we our brothers and sisters keepers or not? That to me is the biggest challenge to get people to imagine what it might be like living in South Africa. What it might be like living in Honduras, or what it might be like living in Mexico, or what it might be like living in Syria.
So, in order to help with that, we have done a lot of work around immigration over the last few years. We've done a lot of work in resettling refugees over the last few years, and indeed that's been a feature of our community's work for a long, long time now. It's to bring people here into Old Lyme who have had to flee their countries for whatever reasons whether it's food insecurity or war or economic insecurity.
They've had to flee. We try to be a place where they can feel as though they can rebuild their lives here. I want us to be a window to the rest of the world; to allow border crossings- if you will- to happen all around us wherever we go.
Steve, you've mentioned so many broad issues, complex issues. How does that distill down to your Easter message in 2019?
That's a great question for me.
Christianity, and my understanding of faith in general, is this sense of opening, this sense of continually being expanded. I call it stretch theology. I want to porousness in the boundaries of our theologies in the sense, and in the boundaries of our lives together. So, I understand it to be at the center at the heart of the Christian message.
So when it comes to Easter, I think about I think about the tableau of people that are described in that biblical scene where they go to the tomb on Easter morning. And there are several people there. And I think we're all invited to take a place among those several people.
And they look at this tomb which has somehow been opened and they don't know what to make of it.
And the scriptures tell us in particular the gospel of Luke tells us that Peter went inside the tomb went into this space of death and stayed there for a little bit. And witnessed what that space of death might look like, feel like, what it might be doing to him.
I want us his congregants on Easter morning to be willing to go into that tomb into that space of death, and consider all of the tombs all of the spaces of death that human beings are sometimes asked to enter and to live in, and then ultimately to try and get out of.
So, what I want to also then emphasize is that Peter at a certain moment turns around and looks at the open door of the tomb. There is an opening there. There is an opening out of the tomb. Out of that space of death.
And he exits. He goes out.
So, whatever it is that people might be struggling with whatever forms of social or personal metaphorical death that people might experience in their lives. I want to say that there is an opening out of it. I want to invite people to consider what it is to be inside that place, but I also want them to glimpse that opening that leads out of it, and into life, into community, into connection, into the best form of human life that we can we can imagine that we can exist in.
That's my Easter message. That's what I want to get at.
Well that's a beautiful message and we want to thank you for your thoughts and your wisdom that you've offered today.
Thank you it's so so good to be able to be in conversation with you Karen. And I'm grateful for the work that you're doing. So, thank you.
Thank you, Steve.