Scripture: Romans 6:1-4
In 1919, Teddy Roosevelt died. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, authorizing Prohibition, was ratified. The U.S. Congress approved the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, though it would still be a year before women were granted the right to vote. In Boston, a great wave of molasses was released from an exploding storage tank, killing 33 people and injuring 150. The League of Nations was founded.
World War I had concluded the year before, but the U.S. refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. The Chicago White Sox threw the World Series. Automobile sales were booming and hydraulic brakes were invented that year. Air travel was growing by leaps and bounds, with two pilots flying non-stop from Greenland to Ireland. Jackie Robinson was born that year, as were Eva Gabor, Liberace, J.D. Salinger, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Pete Seeger, and Sir Edmund Hillary.
And here in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, two local churches decided to join together and unite as one. They had both been around for a long time. The First Congregational Society was the town’s first church, starting in 1835. Spreading from New England to here in the Connecticut Western Reserve, Congregationalists were committed to congregational autonomy and independence. They had arisen as a kind of dissent from the Anglican, now Episcopal, Church, so there’s a kind of ornery streak in these forbears of ours, not that you ever see it in us! The Congregational Church in town was built on East Orange Street in 1845.
The Disciples of Christ had their own congregation in Bentleyville. They moved to Chagrin Falls in 1843 and built their first sanctuary in 1853 on Walnut Street in the Village. Future U.S. President James A. Garfield helped build that structure, and later returned to preach there. And the two churches existed separately for decades.
And while there were distinct differences between the two denominations, there was also a commitment to some shared theological views and values. The Disciples of Christ were often known, and sometimes reviled, for their inclusiveness. And the Congregationalists vehemently protested slavery and strove for racial equality and integration. Values of inclusion and justice shaped both denominations.
So sometime in the early part of the last century, these two village churches decided to unite. They did so on land once owned by a third Chagrin Falls Church, the Bible Christian Church, or what was often called the English Church, a church that subsequently joined the Congregational Church. And that happened right here at 76 Bell Street, in what is now our Chapel. If you want to learn more, Todd Smith has written a wonderful, concise history that you will find in the cloth shopping bag you will be able to pick up after worship this morning.
One of the striking features of this building in its earlier days is that, for a number of years, there was, in the education wing of this facility, a tank in which baptisms could be performed. This was a holdover of our Disciples of Christ roots—Disciples baptize by full immersion—and the tank was there in order to do full-scale immersion baptisms.
I’m kind of sorry that tank is gone. There is something dramatic and vivid about baptism by immersion. When I was a pastor in Vermont, as I began in ministry, the church there was affiliated, in part, with the American Baptists, who also practice full-immersion baptism. A number of times in my pastorate, the church would pack up on a summer Sunday morning and head to someone’s lakeside camp where we would baptize the Baptists. Into the lake we would walk, those who were to be baptized and I, and I would dunk them under the water and bring them up again. It was an exciting, and usually bracingly frigid, experience.
Baptism by immersion is a tactile, physical enactment of something the apostle Paul was trying to convey to Christians in Rome in the early decades of the church. “This is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land” (Romans 6:3-4, The Message).
It’s really not a stretch to say that, as we begin our 101st year here at Federated, this is at the core of who we are—a “new country of grace—a new life in a new land.” It may be tempting to think that here we are about a building—that is after all what people think about when a church is mentioned—“Oh, yeah, it’s that place on Bell Street.” We can easily fall into the trap of thinking we’re a facility and land, both here and at the Family Life Center. Who are we without these physical structures? The truth, though, is that, as valuable as our facilities are, we are not fundamentally a building.
It can also be tempting to think that our programs are what define us. Look at our primetime ministry, our children’s faith formation, our involvement at St. Paul’s Church, our Angel ministries. Even more than our buildings, these ministries are of vital importance. They make an incalculable difference in our lives and in the lives of those with whom and for whom we serve. A church without ministries is lifeless. “Faith without works is . . . dead” (James 2:26). Programming and mission matter.
They’re not first, though. They’re not our foundation. At the heart of our life together is something even more fundamental than facilities and programs and ministries: baptism. ‘Baptism?’ you say. ‘Really? I certainly don’t remember mine. I don’t even remember my children’s. That’s just a rite of passage, isn’t it, just a cultural marker, not unlike a sixteenth birthday party or a graduation? It’s just one of those life steps that you mark off. It can’t really be more important than everything else in Christian faith—can it?’
It can be tempting to get caught up in the history and the buildings and the busy-ness of faith. Who would we be without a past and without facilities and without activities? And they are indeed a huge part of who we are as followers of Jesus. There’s something even more basic, though, even more fundamental, and that’s that we have been baptized. Baptism declares who we are. It reminds us of our core. It marks us in an utterly unique and distinctive way. In baptism, God says to us: ‘you are who I say you are.’ In our immersion under the waters, we drown to an old self, and in reemerging, we take on a revitalized new self. And that new self is the one God declares us to be.
Susan Pitchford, in her book The Sacred Gaze, reminds us that God is always gazing upon us with the kindest of eyes. The sacred gaze isn’t our looking at God, which is the way we usually think of the spiritual life. No, the sacred gaze is God’s beatific beholding of us. In baptism, God directs an adoring gaze at us and names us. And the name God gives us, every single one of us, is “Beloved.” “‘Beloved,’” says Pitchford, “[is our] family name” (p. 52). When Jesus is baptized, God looks at him and says, “You are my Child, the Beloved; in you I have taken delight” (Luke 3:22, NRSV and Joseph Fitzmyer). And the same is true for all of us. In our baptisms, too, God gives us that same name: Beloved. That’s who we are at our core.
And church, at its most basic, is where we remember that name. It’s where we recall our deepest, truest identity. The world gives us lots of other names. The driver blaring a car horn at you is calling you an idiot. The boss berating you for a mistake is calling you inadequate. The child rolling their eyes at you is calling you boring. The spouse irritatedly stomping around is calling you irresponsible. The world gives us lots of names, some unpleasant, many dismissive, and all of them finally less than adequate. It’s God who names us, nobody else. Beloved: that’s who you are. Remember that.
My clergy colleague, Shawnthea Monroe, who is today celebrating her last Sunday at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights, says, “When my cousin entered medical school, students were instructed to call each other ‘doctor’ from day one. They were not really doctors [yet], but people who were living, learning, and growing into this new identity as doctors. Using the title was a way to remind them of the goal toward which they were striving” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, p. 162). Calling each other “Doctor” from the very beginning was a way to remind them of who they were intended to be.
That’s what baptism is: it reminds us who we really are. Susan Pitchford quotes Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who says that, when we go to God in prayer, the appropriate stance is one in which we might begin this way: “‘All right, [God], I’ve opened, I’ve calmed down, here I am . . . now what?’ The answer God gives to that is, ‘Just stay there . . .. Sit still, because I like looking at you. I like the sight of you’ says God. ‘It’s not just about you contemplating me, in prayer’ says God, ‘it’s about me contemplating you . . .. The real you, not the you that is hiding behind your memories and your fantasies and your hopes. Not the you that is half buried by this enormous furry grudge you’re hugging to yourself, but you. The you I made, the you I redeemed, the you I love forever and ever. Just sit there and let me enjoy myself’ says God” (quoted pp. 53-54).
So the deep truth is that this is who we are. We are given the family name “Beloved.” Our primary work is to accept this. It’s to take in the truth that we are adored just as we are. The last 100 years of Federated Church is nothing if it hasn’t been rooted there. And the next 100 years will be nothing if it’s not marinating in that truth.
If we really take that in, then we have no worries about who we are or what we’re worth. If we really take that in, then we hold our own opinions and desires lightly, and are open to the movement of God in others. If we really take that in, we remember that our unity in Christ is far more important than factions or finances or church politics. Questions about buildings and policies and personalities take a step down the ladder. The only thing that really matters—the only thing—is that you and I are Beloved, and that all shall be well because of that. As my colleague Shawnthea reports, she “once knew a minister who always addressed his congregation as the ‘saints of God’ . . .. [J]ust hearing themselves called saints made them feel ennobled and reminded them of who they were” (Feasting, p. 162).
You and I are named Beloved. We are the saints of God. And it’s out of that realization that we are able to live out our mission joyfully, and with a lasting commitment to this world that God so loves. Here we will continue to worship and deepen our relationship with the God who adores us. Here we will support and embrace each other in all the richness of the lives we share. From here we will reach beyond ourselves to care for this delicately balanced planet on which we live. And in our life together, we will seek to be responsive to the opportunities and challenges and hurting people God puts in front of us. As Franz Welser-Möst, the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra said about the orchestra recently: “It’s not just that we want to continue . . .. We want to look at the bigger picture and figure out what role we have to play in this world. Our values here are more important now than ever” (http://plaindealer.oh.newsmemory.com/?publink=3d419ac74). And this is just as true of us here at Federated.
And what are the values of Federated Church? What is it we want to do with our “one wild and precious” shared life? If I could articulate a vision for this community of faith, I would say this: in these next 100 years, we seek to be a mouthpiece for God, as well as arms and legs of God. I want this entire community—the teachers, the shopkeepers, the businesspeople, the retired people, the children—all of them to know that their name is Beloved. I want them all to know that they are saints. A century from now, I want the members and friends of this church to walk and talk with that assurance, that confidence, that sense of blessing. And I want you and me and our successors to convey that belovedness, that sainthood, that grace to this community and to the world, welcoming all people, striving for justice, and humbly walking with God. May it be so.