Lamp representing the light of God Newton Highlands Congregational Church
  Home Calendar Visiting NHCC Contacting NHCC Picture gallery
  Worship information Education Music Staff information Small group ministries

Based on the Scripture readings:
Deuteronomy 30:15-30

2007 September 9
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
NHCC Recovenanting Sunday
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Choosing Church

Twenty years ago I was in Florence, Italy looking for a church. This is a true story, and it has something to do with the news this summer and us this fall, but I have to look backward a bit to go forward.

In 1986 my sister was living in Rome for awhile, and I went over to travel with her, and we journeyed up to Florence, where a friend of a friend led the local Episcopal church. But this was in the years before the Internet and even decent phone service, so I had to do some old-fashioned legwork to find him.

I began by looking in the yellow pages under "churches," but there was no mention of his parish, nor was it listed by name in the white pages. I went to a city directory and examined the church listings but still found nothing, even though I knew this was a pretty big place. I tried an information kiosk, asked for help at a phone center, and still could find nothing about St. James Church. Finally, in a small hotel catering to Americans, I found a listing of houses of worship, so I went to find my friend, Sam Hartman.

At his home, I told him this story, since his parish was centrally located and 120 years old, and I asked why it was so hard to find? "Ah," he replied. "It's simple. You were looking in the wrong places. It Italy there is the Church and its churches, and there are altra-culti. These are other cults. You had to look us up there. We're a cult."

On July 10th this summer, the new Bishop of Rome said that there is still one true Church in the world, and everyone else is, in his term, intrinsically defective. Here in 2007, Protestants -- Back to topeven Episcopalians -- are not members of the Church.

Now there was a lot of ink spilled over this during the summer and a certain amount of hand-wringing and Christian family relationship counseling to be done, but I think that my favorite response came in an editorial in the Christian Century. It offered the philosophical equivalent of that somewhat less-than-articulate, one-word summary made popular by Homer Simpson, duh, and here is what the editorial said:

Of course Protestants are not Roman Catholics. It doesn't mean that many of us didn't grow up that way, or don't have family members in that wonderful Church, or love its mission and liturgy and grace and wisdom. It doesn't mean we aren't in relationship and reverent and rejoicing about our shared history, but the Pope only stated the obvious: we do not follow the authority of Cardinals and Bishops or Popes, we do not insist that the Eucharist absolutely means the real presence of Christ in our bread, and we modify ancient tradition with honest Biblical witness and ongoing revelation. We affirm women's full rights, like ordination. We embrace gays and lesbians. And we do all of this because of our systematic theology, our earnest prayer, and our fundamental belief that the Holy Spirit is very much on the move. So, we are very catholic, with a small "c," which means embracing. But not slaves to tradition. And Fr. Benedict didn't state anything that we don't already proclaim: ours is a progressive faith, loving the Catholic churches, but free, as Paul said, to new life. Ours is a disciple church, not a doctrinal or dogmatic one: concerned as much about the verb of God as the nouns of ancestry.

To me, that is a wonderful place to begin our fall, our reunion and re-covenant: with a reminder of the blessings in our midst, the challenging call of God, and the joys of relationship with others who seek to follow one God. To me, our whole faith starts with this.

We've just heard two amazing scriptures: one of them a central text in our history and the other an entire book of the Bible. One of them comes near the end, the climax of two generations of travel and struggle to be free from the slavery of Egypt, and the other comments on freedom and slavery in the new faith that follows Jesus.

Both of them are about intentionality. Both of them are about choice. Both of them look forward. Both of them ask us to choose the ways of freedom and new life while at the very same time saying that there is no such thing as freedom which does not include covenant, obedience to God and community, Back to topand care about all of the dimensions of creation.

Walter Brueggeman says that the followers of Moses who were at the border of Israel were still in the midst of dangerous distraction. Two generations away from the habits of slavery and the comforts of empire, they were literally in the midst of what he calls "Canaanite technological manipulation and consumer indulgence." And he's talking thirty-five hundred years ago. At any rate, the heart of God and the voice of God knows that these free people may yet be found, as the Bible says, to worship other gods or to turn away their hearts from Yahweh. So, says Brueggeman, God takes initiative and asks for our intentionality. He adds, intentionality is running risks for the sake of the future.

Behold, I have set before you this day life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse. Sounds old-fashioned, but is it hard to understand? Two roads diverged in the wood. I heard a little voice in my head. I remembered my mother's advice. Life and death stand before us: blessing or curse, and God does not push us one way or the other or save us the pressure of deciding but says if you want life, choose life, as you can.

And so says Paul to Philemon over a thousand years later. We followers of Christ are free, he says. We've gone from slave to sibling, if you will. Again to quote Brueggeman, business as usual is the way to shriveled life. But God in Christ calls us to abundance.

One of my professors, Letty Russell, a premier feminist theologian of our generation, died this summer after a full life. She wrote many things, among them this simple call to life to our community. She said, "The role of the church is to overcome the fear of difference and break the bars that keep us apart." 

You have come to look for a church. A cult will not satisfy you. But this year, here, with God's grace and scripture's guidance as well as the spirit that lives in a community thinking and praying together, we will address the fears of our day and break the prisons that restrict us. This year, here, we will consistently seek ways to choose life, beyond the political limitations of that gracious Biblical phrase. This year, here, we will affirm our catholic, inclusive spirit and rejoice in our diverse heritage and our common hope. We will struggle with Canaanite manipulation and indulgence, and we will risk something for the sake of the future. We will share our freedom in commitment to one another, to our neighbor, and to God.

We are standing at the boundary of a promise and a presence. And God is calling us in, calling us together, calling us to life. I look forward, always forward, to a great year as Christ's church.


Copyright 2007 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
Back to top

Parent page ] Sermon "Sacred Vessels" ] Sermon "No System to Save" ] Sermon "Entitled to be Thankful" ] Sermon "Welcome Food" ] Sermon "Waking Devotion" ] Sermon "Sitting at the Welcome Table" ] Sermon "Table Manners" ] Sermon "Speaking of God" ] Sermon "Singing New Songs" ] Sermon "Prepare the Way" ] Sermon "Here-ing God" ] Sermon "The Possibility of Possibility" ] Sermon "Sweet Creations" ] Sermon "Not at All Dead" ] Sermon "Planning, Praising and Pondering Palms" ] Sermon "March for Life" ] Sermon "Imagination, Dreams, and Vision" ] Sermon "Following the Magi" ] Sermon "Pushing Christmas" ] Sermon "Forecasts" ] Sermon "Ready for Christmas" ] Sermon "God in the Middle" ] Sermon "The Days to Come, the One to Come" ] Sermon "Earthly Healing" ] Sermon "Digesting Communion" ] Sermon "The Change of Prayer" ] Sermon "Unbreakable Body" ] Sermon "Seeing Clearly" ] Sermon "Right for Present" ] Sermon "A Change Agent" ] Sermon "What is Sabbath" ] Sermon "In Memory of Hope" ] Sermon "These Baptisms are Killing Us" ] Sermon "Wanting Prayer" ] Sermon "Last Minute Gifts" ] Sermon "Praying Well = Praying Much" ] Sermon "Peace Repent, Peace Remember" ] [ Sermon "Choosing Church" ] Sermon "A Model Church" ] Sermon "The Empire Struck Back" ] Sermon "Love is Patient and Primary" ] Sermon "Manifestations" ] Sermon "The Green Grace of God" ] Sermon "Signs of Sacred Things" ] Sermon "A Deal with the Future" ] Sermon "Free from Fear" ] Sermon "To Carry Each Other" ] Sermon " With God in Death; with Each Other in Dying" ] Sermon "Healing Prayers" ] Sermon "Facing God's Miracle" ] Sermon "Finding All Three" ] Sermon "Controlling Christmas" ] Sermon "Finding Jesus" ] Sermon "God as a Baby" ] Sermon "What Does It Mean" ] Sermon "Katrina's New Covenant Call" ] Sermon "Elevate your Expectations" ] Sermon "See: the Healing" ] Sermon "Lifeless Chaos and Living Creation" ] Sermon "Rapt Gifts" ] Sermon "Welcome to Reality" ] Sermon "Offering Up Thanks" ] Sermon "Blue State Blues" ] Sermon "Are we not entitled to thanks?" ] Sermon "Ancient Pieces of Peace" ] Sermon "Noticing Neighbors" ] Sermon "A Summer Day of Renewal" ] Sermon "A New Thing" ] Sermon "Breath of New Life" ] Sermon "Easter" ] Sermon "Sin: Currently Tense" ] Sermon "Why Are You Angry?" ] Sermon "Anxiety over Sin" ] Sermon "A Marriage Grade in Heaven?" ] Sermon "Isn't Marriage Gay?" ] Sermon "Expanding the Body of Christ" ] Sermon "Miracles:  Seeing More in our Midst" ] Sermon "Turning to God" ] Sermon "Why are You in Churchl" ] Sermon "Remember your Baptism" ] Sermon "Every Day Spirituality" ] Sermon "The Cross and Joy of Love" ] Sermon "Welcome Back" ] Sermon "Living Together" ] Sermon "Transforming Destruction" ] Sermon "The Work of Healing" ] Sermon "Peace" ]Back to top