Our Sermon for September 10, 2017: Letting Loose and Doing No Wrong, Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14
Letting Loose And Doing No Wrong: Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
Our town is named after John Winthrop, a charter member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, former governor of Boston, and preacher of one of the most influential sermons of the early European colonization of New England. Though he was not a preacher, his sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," helped to inspire early Puritan colonizers to understand the community they would build on this continent as a city on a hill, a shining example of God's light in the world. As he and other English Puritans rode together on the ship Arbella, bound for the place we know as Massachusetts, he reminded them of the words of Matthew, sayings of Jesus referenced in today's reading from the book of Romans. He told them that their goal as people of faith was to love God and love one another, to shape their whole lives into reflections of God's love. He believed that how they lived in community should demonstrate something about who they believed God to be. And, if they did not live lives that truly reflected the God in whom they believed, Winthrop was certain that their colony would fail. God would make sure of it.
Anne Marbury Hutchinson was a Puritan, like Winthrop, who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, after convincing her husband to follow their minister, John Cotton, to the colony. She was a nurse and a midwife. Her father had been an Anglican clergyman who had pushed so hard for reforms in the church that, according to one scholar I read this week, he had developed quite the reputation as a troublemaker. After being expelled from his parish for insubordination, he spent most of Anne's childhood tutoring her and her siblings. All of his children, girls and boys alike, learned scripture and theology. As a child, Anne was her father's brightest pupil. As an adult, John Winthrop would describe Anne as the "sorest tryall that ever befell us since we left our native soyle." What on earth could she this once promising student have done to be perceived as such a threat to the city on a hill? Preach, apparently. She preached.
Much of the information I'm sharing about Hutchinson's life comes from the research of Anna Carter Florence. According to Florence, John Cotton, that preacher that Anne and her husband followed to Massachusetts, had often encouraged his congregants to be attentive to the ways that God worked in their individual lives and to publicly share these stories of divine grace. After the deaths of three of her children, through much prayer, study, and fasting, Hutchinson received what she described as an "immediate revelation," an encounter with the Divine much like those described by her pastor, Cotton. This revelation convinced her that God's grace alone was sufficient to save someone from despair and that it was not possible to perform enough moral duties to entice God to save you. God just saved you as a gift. This revelation also empowered her to share her new theological understanding with others, which, again, was not out of line with what she had been taught to do at church. She grew certain that God was guiding her, as she spoke with her neighbors and friends, as she delivered children, and she convinced her husband to follow their pastor into New England.
Hutchinson thrived in Boston. She was well-connected in her community, serving as a trusted midwife. Her kindness, competence, and faithfulness led many people to attend Bible studies in her home. Women met there three times a week to discuss Cotton's sermons, a common practice in their broader faith community. What was not common was how popular these meetings became. At one point, nearly every woman in Boston, and a good portion of the men, crowded into the Hutchinson home to hear Anne expound upon John Cotton's sermons. It was often standing room only... sometimes 60 people stuffed into their house to hear her share her interpretations of Scripture, to participate in discussions of other preacher's sermons, and hear her exposition on theology, including places where she disagreed with Puritan doctrine. The religious and political leaders grew suspicious and began to publicly denounce her and the people who studied with her. They called these gatherings "disorderly, and without rule." But, that did not stop her, or the people who respected her, from meeting.
John Winthrop was both appalled and confounded by her popularity. He could not understand why so many people, especially men, found her so compelling. According to Anna Carter Florence, Winthrop was already leery of the expansive ways that non-clergy Christians had been empowered to interpret Scripture and their lived experience in his beloved Puritan movement. Between old cultural arguments in England about how much authority minsters and the church should have and a deep theological commitment to rigorous personal study of Scripture that had become very important in Protestant circles, many people who came to the colony did not assume that ministers, by virtue of their training and vocation, automatically had the right to override theological points made by everyday people. It wasn't just Hutchinson who thought she could, simply by rights of her Christian faith, speak of matters of faith with a measure of authority. In her mind, she was simply living out the faith that she felt God had revealed to her in a manner consistent with the practice of her religious community. She was respected because she was better able to communicate her faith than most of her neighbors. And, if she didn't respect the ministerial office quite as much as Winthrop would have liked, apparently, many of her neighbors didn't either.
If Anne Hutchinson had been a man, it is possible that she would have been seen as, at most, a congregant who was kind of a hand full for the preacher, always asking hard questions, but ultimately, still welcome in the community. Or, maybe, her fierce intelligence and engaging demeanor would have caught the attention of a mentor who would have encouraged her to become a minister herself. But, she wasn't a man. She was a woman who assumed God gave her the power to speak seriously and deeply about faith, to critique the words of male preachers, and disregard the opinions of political leaders who did not approve of her gatherings. She was, therefore, declared disorderly and out of rule.
She was brought up on charges and tried. Her own beloved pastor, John Cotton, would denounce her. Winthrop appointed the church and court authorities who ultimately banished Hutchinson from the colony in 1637 and excommunicated her from the church in 1638. Even through this painful trial, she never submitted to their authority, never allowed them to shut her faithful testimony down. They punished her for her audacity. One of her judges said, "I would commend this to your Consideration that you have stept out of your place, you have rather bine a Husband than a Wife and a preacher than a Hearer; and a Magistrate than a Subject." You have stepped out of your place, they said. My, weren't they certain they knew what her place was. After settling with close friends in Rhode Island for a few years, upon her husband's death, Anne would eventually settle in Long Island. She and six of her children were killed in a raid by some indigenous people who had first lived in the area. Apparently, John Winthrop was pretty sure that Hutchinson's terrible death was proof that he had been right all along.
With hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes rattling over this earth, I remember the story of Anne Hutchinson and how John Winthrop though her preaching might bring destruction to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hearing the news of possibly 800,000 young people who had been eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals now being faced with deportation from the only country they have ever known, I remember how Anne's family was sent away, and how they ultimately died far from the place in which they had intended to build their new life. And, when I heard that a preacher whom I respect, who has gotten national attention for his public stance against white supremacy, chose to resign from his congregation when the weight of the attention he was receiving seemed to be too great for that community to bear together, I am reminded of all of the trouble that can arise even in the midst of a community that is trying to root itself in love of God and love of neighbor.
John Winthrop was right about one thing. I do think how we serve and worship together says something about how we understand the nature of God. I think that's what Jesus was talking about when he was trying to help his followers have more grace-filled conflict mediation in Matthew. All his talk of "binding on earth, and binding in heaven; loosing on earth and loosing in heaven," that's all connecting our actions here with God's actions, explaining that at our best, we strive to have our actions mirror God's. But, this is not easy. John Winthrop's actions remind us that actions that may have been intended to be holy, may, in fact, be destructive. It is easy to make such a mistake when you are as certain as I think he was (and I can be) that he knew all the bounds of God's grace.
I'm certain that John Winthrop's not the only one who has ever been certain that he knows exactly what God wants him to do, and was willing to punish those who's notion of grace was a bit more expansive. This is a temptation many of us have. That's probably why Paul had to remind us so forcefully that love does no wrong to neighbor. It's like he knew we would need the help and tried to give us a standard to measure our actions by. It has always been difficult to balance grace and accountability in Christian community. It was in Jesus' time, in Paul's time, in Hutchinson's time, and our time, too. I pray that we can hear the lessons our forebears have taught, and strive to live just a little more fully into God's grace. May we step out of our place, and more fully into God's loving community.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
It's always good to read original sources. I encourage you to take the time to read Winthrop's sermon and Hutchinson's trial testimony. These are both important works in our denomination's history:
Stanley Saunders: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3392
Eric Barreto: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2164
Kyle Fever: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3401
Elizabeth Shively: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2156
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3320
Robert Lee: https://www.onscripture.com/gathering-resolve-hate
Barbara K. Lundblad, "Proper 18," from Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Kim Hill, "Female Preachers in Early America," American Spirit: November/December 2007, vol 141, No. 6
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.