Craigville Tabernacle Sermon September 2, 2012

                  Every Life Has a Lesson: A Craigville Story


A Sermon by Bill McKinney

Craigville Tabernacle, Craigville, Mass.

September 2, 2012

Text: James 1: 17-27

Every life has a lesson — not so much in its external events as in its internal strugglings and changes. It would be useful to know, in some cases, what agencies have conspired to produce the particular development of character before us; — what books have given a turn to the thoughts, — what influences have wrought for good or for evil?
—Extract from an address by Austin Craig

These are words from Rev. Dr. Austin Craig, after whom Craigville was named in 1882 when the village needed to declare an official name for its post office. Craigville still has its name and its post office, even though it lost its formal status – and, alas, its zip code 02636 – several years ago.

“Every life has a lesson.” And we learn that lesson less from the official record – the “who, what, where, when, how” of the journalist -- than from its internal strugglings and changes. What has “conspired” to produce the particular development of character before us? “What books have given a turn to the thoughts, -- what influences have wrought for good or for evil?

Even in the beginning, Craigville -- this village --  never pretended to be a church. It has been a place that encourages religious and spiritual exploration but it has not tried to impose a particular set of beliefs and practices. This would have been anathema to those early Christians, who didn’t have a lot of anathemas.

But Craigville has been a place that sought to be informed by Scripture. Dr. Craig asked “what books have given a turn to the thoughts” that shape our character? Certainly the Scriptures have been paramount among them.

This morning’s Lectionary lesson from James’ letter is appropriate for a community like this one. James reminds us that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.” We are not the creator of what we have or the author of our own destiny. God gave us birth “in fulfillment of God’s own purpose.” We live in God’s world and we live as stewards of God’s creation.

That simple confession has practical consequences for living our lives in community with a certain humility: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Good advice then and now.

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

Some have interpreted James as suggesting a kind of works righteousness but I don’t think that is what he is saying here. Those who look to God for guidance in life or as James put it, “those who look to the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.”

Our calling is to live lives that transcend the deception of our own hearts but that look to the service of others.

This theme would have resonated with the early summer residents of Craigville who gathered here on Christian Hill. I’m not sure where Austin Craig preached these words but they capture their meaning. He talks about character and the tree in the following words: "The particular character is in the tree before it bears any fruit. We know by its fruit. We can trace it back to one created tree in the garden. If the tree is in some way injured, its seed-bearing power is injured, and it becomes depraved. So it is with man."

When we look not to our own interests but to the perfect law our lives blossom and we are transformed. Indeed, all of life is transformed. And that’s as true of communities as it is of individuals.

Over the past couple of years the Christian Camp Meeting Association has been involved in an effort to re-articulate its mission. A special committee produced a new mission statement that was formally adopted a year ago: "The Christian Camp Meeting Association in its stewardship of the Craigville community provides opportunities for spiritual growth, worship, service, learning, fellowship, retreat and rest -- in a unique place of grace by the sea."

The committee did a fine job. We are now living into the promise of our mission. The new statement will enable Craigville to move ahead.

The process has prompted me to think a bit about Dr. Craig’s question. If every life has a lesson, what is Craigville’s lesson? What is Craigville’s character?

The finest brief statement I’ve heard of what Craigville is about – about its character -- came from this pulpit several years ago, not from a well-known preacher or theologian but from Dave Gavitt. Dave, of course, was a long term summer resident of the village and one of the all-time stars on the Craigville tennis courts. He died just a year ago and he is missed here in this village.

Dave Gavitt pointed to three foundations of life here in Craigville: “Faith, Family and Friendship.” This was Dave’s credo, which is remembered in a memorial rocking chair on the new beach portico.

No-one was more articulate about the place of this Tabernacle in our life as a community than Dave’s father-in-law the late Ray Garraghan. Ray told me one time that as far as he was concerned “This Tabernacle points to the God who is bigger than any of the human divisions we have erected in God’s name.”

Faith has been central to the Craigville experience from the very beginning. We were born, after all, as the camp meeting grounds for the churches of the Christian Connection. Don Overlock and Willis Elliott have written extensively of this remarkable group of non-creedal Christians who practiced openness and tolerance long before these were commonplace in our society.

Many of the 19th century summer campgrounds have struggled in the past several decades as rising property values and increased secularity have brought dramatic changes to their character. But over time the prominence of this Tabernacle has been a symbol of the fact that Craigville remains a place for “spiritual growth, worship, service, learning, fellowship, retreat and rest in a unique place of grace by the sea.”

I think much of the credit for the continuing role of faith in our common life is the presence of the newly-renamed Craigville Retreat Center, which brings into our midst each year hundreds of religious seekers of various stripes who find in this place fresh ways of being in relationship with God, nature and one another.

But there are other internal strugglings and changes that have, in Austin Craig’s words, “conspired” to produce the particular development of Craigville’s character.

One, I think, is the fundamental ecumenical and inclusive passion of those early Christian settlers. Theirs was a faith that broke open the rigid orthodoxies of their time. Dr. Craig once wrote that “Christ brings to light the idea of the equality of souls. There is no difference, not only between Jews and Samaritans, but between the sexes.”

In her history of Craigville, Marion Vuilleumier reminds us that on August 6, 1872 – 140 years ago -- the preacher was the Rev. Mrs. Ellen Gustin of Mansfield and that following the service the congregation walked together to the beach where four new converts were baptized.

In contrast to other camp meeting grounds, in Craigville there would be no religious test for purchasing land. Craigville would be rooted in one religious tradition but open to all. And we have lived that out over the years.

I remember being present at a Sunday night service around 1970 when the preacher was Monsignor Francis J. Lally, editor of the Pilot, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston in what was one of the first time in history a Catholic priest preached from a Protestant church pulpit.

Yes, ecumenical passion has been and remains a part of our character. Today that doesn’t sound like a very big deal, but at the time it was a major ecumenical breakthrough.

Linda and I came to Craigville as summer workers in the mid-1960s during the reign of Pierre and Marion Vuilleumier as conference center directors. These were tumultuous times and in many ways Craigville was very different from what it is today. In those days the conference center buildings operated both as retreat centers and as a hotel.

One of our responsibilities as staff was to sing in the choir on Sunday evenings when the Tabernacle hosted preachers of national renown. In many ways those Sunday evening ecumenical services put Craigville on the area’s religious map. Churches across southeastern Massachusetts would come by the carloads to be exposed to cutting-edge religious thought. They were also opportunities for liturgical experimentation and, under Elizabeth Kirk’s leadership, to expose people to new forms of religious music.

While Marion and Pierre were deeply embedded in the life of the United Church of Christ, they helped Craigville go far beyond its denominational origins.

I would point to a second source of Craigville’s character and vitality and that is the steadfastness and perseverance of its residents. Craigville has survived and thrived because it has brought forth leaders from its midst who have persevered through tough times.

We have had exceptional volunteer leadership.

I’ve doubt there is a village of ninety cottages anywhere on the face of the earth that has a more complex organizational structure. Think of it: CCMA, CCOA, Tennis, the Retreat Center, Shared Management, the Beach, the Post Office, the Bookies and the painters, Red Lily Pond. It is probably possible to sketch them all out on an organizational chart, but who would want to do that when most of us are here to escape such complexities? Remarkably, it works pretty well. Alice Brown reminded us this week in the Craigville Chronicle of Herb Davis’s description of Craigville’s ability to “muddle along.” It works because of the quality and generosity of our volunteer leaders.

That’s not to suggest Craigville has even been perfect or ever will be perfect. Part of our character, I would have to admit, is a tendency to gloss over some real problems.

For example, there have been times when from a religious standpoint Craigville has not always been terribly welcoming to persons beyond the Protestant mainline.

I can recall painful conversations over the years with Catholic friends who in spite of their crucial leadership roles in our village were made to feel like outsiders. I’ve been present at meetings where Catholics were told to their faces that “We’ve got to protect Craigville from being taken over by you Catholics.” That’s a lot better today, though such prejudice does rear its ugly head in subtle ways, and it’s better because we are perhaps truer to our founding ecumenical vision.

Craigville remains an uncomfortable place for some of its residents. It is hard, for example, for people who don’t identify as Christian to know just how they fit here. There are people in this congregation who know very well how uncomfortable racial minority persons have been made to feel as part of this community.

We are a pretty caring place, but I’m embarrassed to have learned well after the fact that some of my neighbors were suffering from a variety of physical and mental health issues that I learned of only after they had died. Craigville is a tight-knit community but it can be hard, even impossible for some of our neighbors to feel they belong here.

We are a good place, but we could be a better place. That will take couple of things.

One is a better appreciation of where we have come from and of the aspirations who first gathered here in the 1870s. But we need to be more than hearers of our history. We need, in James’ words not to be deceived by hearing of our past. But we are also to be doers of the word.

Back in the sixties and seventies Gabe Fackre provided leadership to a movement in the United Church of Christ to rediscover our evangelical heritage. This was not an effort to turn the UCC into proselytizers but Gabe helped all us appreciate the importance of conversion in the life of faith, even for social liberals.

All real change requires transformation of hearts and minds. It is, as Dr. Craig wrote, a product of internal changes and strugglings.

The church that Linda and I attend most of the year has started a monthly coffee house. We had a chance last weekend to attend a benefit performed by a friend of the church, the Nashville songwriter Jess Leary. One of her songs is titled “If You Have Not Love.” The song was inspired by a Sunday sermon she heard based on I Corinthians 13. I think she captures what happens in that moment of transformation that takes place when God’s word breaks forth in the midst of daily living.

Prayer Notes

On this Labor Day weekend, remembering those whose work goes unnoticed, in Craigville more enjoyable: especially those who make life enjoyable: retreat center staff, those who keep us safe on our beach and our streets, those who care for our grounds and who grow our food.

Prayers for those who seek work in these recessionary times.

For those in our community who suffer from illnesses, especially for Carl, Dottie, Davis, Nevin, Kirk, Ellie, Mark, Ruthann, Marion, Gabe and Fletcher. And for those who love and care for them.

For those who provide leadership in this complex place of “spiritual growth, worship, service, learning, fellowship, retreat and rest -- in a unique place of grace by the sea."

Blessing and honor to you, O God, our source of life and love now and forever.