THE HERITAGE OF UNITED CHURCH
The United Church of Huntsville is a congregation of the United Church of Christ. Our history and tradition began with the first followers of Jesus Christ. In the beginning there was one church. Although within a very short time, that one church became a diverse organization. At first all Christians were Jews. But then Romans, Greeks, Iberians, Gauls, Germans, Celts, Arabs, Copts, Parthians – all ethnic groups within the Roman Empire and on the borders of the Empire – began professing faith in the gospel. The Christian Church quickly became multi-cultural, embracing a remarkable diversity of faith and practice.
This morning we are going to concentrate on the five major streams of tradition that have come together to make the United Church of Christ: the Congregational, the Christian, the German Reformed, the German Evangelical, and the American Missionary Association tradition of African American churches. The truth is, however, most members of the United Church of Christ come from some religious heritage beyond the five major streams of our denomination’s tradition. If you look at the “Origins of the United Church of Christ” diagram in your bulletin, you will see that if you grew up Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or any one of a hundred denominations, you still share in the roots of our heritage. This morning, because our time is limited, I want to concentrate our attention on a taste, both literally and figuratively, of the five historic streams of our heritage.
Our congregational roots can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation in England. For political purposes Henry VIII declared the Anglican Church to be independent of the Pope in 1534. Henry was a religious conservative and retained the Latin Mass and preserved most Catholic doctrine. When Henry died in 1547, however, Lutheran and Reformed theology invaded England from the continent. For over 100 years the English argued and fought over how “Catholic” or “Protestant” the Anglican Church should be. The most radical “Protestants” became known as Puritans, because of their desire to “purify” the Church of England of Roman influences and practices.
Some Puritans concluded that the Church of England could not be purified and sought to separate from the Church and formed a movement that became known as the “Separatists.” Congregationalism can probably be traced to the founding of “The Privye Church”, a Separatist congregation, in 1567. The Congregationalists were persecuted. One of their leaders Robert Browne was imprisoned 32 times and finally fled to the Netherlands. There other Separatists joined him. The Separatist community finally settled in Leiden, Holland and elected John Robinson as their Pastor. (This is a picture of the Church where the Pilgrims worshipped in Leiden.) Pastor Robinson and the congregation’s lay leader William Brewster formulated the vision of a purified religious colony in the New World to establish the Kingdom of God in America.
The youngest and most physically strong members of the congregation were selected for the rigors of the advance party of the Plymouth Plantations. Pastor Robinson remained behind with the majority of the congregation with the intention of following as soon as possible. (He ended up dying in Holland. This is a picture of a monument in Leiden erected in his honor.) As he bid farewell to the members of his flock who had boarded the Mayflower, Pastor Robinson, uttered these most important words that have shaped our spiritual heritage:
Bretheren, we are now erelong to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether I shall live ever to see your faces more. But whether the Lord hath appointed it or not, I charge you before god and His blessed angels to follow me no farther than I have followed Christ. If god should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth of my ministry; for I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his Holy word.
God’s revelation is in process, it is unfolding. Each generation must interpret and re-interpret God’s word in their own time and place. Sort of like the second half of the second verse of “Once to Every Man and Nation”: New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth; they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
In addition to a theological openness, our congregational tradition with its emphasis on the self-governance of the congregation contributed to the democratic ideals that led to the American Revolution. Our Congregational tradition was keen on issues of social justice. Our Congregational churches were very active in the abolitionist movement. Women were allowed to vote in the early congregational meetings, and the Congregational churches were the first to ordain a woman, Antoinette Brown, in 1853. Her formal ministry was short, for she soon married a physician, Samuel Blackwell, who was the brother of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician in America. The first woman minister and the first woman physician were sisters-in-law. Antoinette Brown lived to cast her first vote in 1920 at the age of 95. Another important lay woman in the Congregational movement for the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage was Julia Ward Howe who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As a musical taste of our congregational heritage let’s sing the first verse of “the Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The food we have chosen for our taste of congregationalism is New England Baked Beans and Brown Bread. We usually associate the Pilgrims with Thanksgiving Dinner. But Baked Beans and Brown Bread were the typical Sunday Dinner of the Pilgrims and Puritans. We must remember that these spiritual ancestors believed in strict Sabbath observance. Everyone, including women were supposed to rest on the Sabbath. On Saturdays the women would fire up their ovens, baking bread, pies, and other staples. At the end of the day the bean pot was placed in the oven, the door was shut, and the fire was allowed to burn itself out. Then in the heat left in the oven the beans were slowly baked until Sunday at Noon, when the morning worship ended. The still warm bean pot could be removed from the oven to provide a hot meal for the family.
White flour was scarce in early New England. Brown Bread utilized the ingredients at hand: corn meal, rye flour and molasses. Both Baked Beans and Brown Bread were foods that reflected the struggle for survival in the New World.
Our German Reformed Heritage came to America in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. Germany had been devastated by the 30 Years War from 1618 – 1648. Through war, disease and starvation the population had been reduced from 16 million to 6 million. In the face of those hardships German peasants began looking for a new life in the New World. Amish, Mennonite, Lutheran, Reformed they came to Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and North Carolina. Settling in great numbers North and West of Philadelphia these Germans began to gather themselves into congregations. At first there were no ordained clergy available and lay preachers conducted worship services. One of these lay leaders, John Philip Boehm, a schoolmaster, was prevailed upon by several congregations to conduct a communion service for the first time on October 15, 1725 at Falkner Swamp with 40 members present.
The American Reformed Congregations came under the care and benevolence of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Dutch sent ministers and money to assist in the formation of more congregations. In many rural areas there weren’t enough persons of Reformed or Lutheran background to form two congregations. So, many communities formed “Union Churches,” with one church building being shared by a Lutheran and a Reformed congregation. Sometimes these “Union Churches” even shared a pastor. Several of these “Union Churches” still exist today in Pennsylvania.
Unlike their Amish and Mennonite neighbors, the German Reformed congregations supported the American Revolution by providing soldiers, arms and money. When the British captured Philadelphia, Reformed farmers wrapped the Liberty bell and the bells of Christ Church in potato sacks and hauled them to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Pastor Abraham Blumer hid them under the floor of Zion Reformed Church.
Our Reformed Tradition has contributed a unique spirituality with an emphasis upon formal theology, the sacraments, a valuing of ancient creedal traditions, and an appreciation of liturgy. The Mercersburg Movement within the German Reformed Church was very “High Church,” cultivating worship traditions many congregationalists and Christian church people would consider “Roman Catholic.” For instance, at Salem United Church of Christ in Allentown, where I served for a short time, there were kneelers in the pews, and the congregation knelt for the prayer of consecration during communion. Much of the more formal liturgy found in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship and in the New Century Hymnal is an outgrowth of our German Reformed heritage.
For a musical taste of our German Reformed heritage let’s sing the first verse of “Lift Up Your Heads” found in the insert in our bulletin.
For our German Reformed food taste this morning we have several side dishes at our Heritage Dinner at Noon. We will have “Red Beet Eggs,” Shoo Fly Pie, Sauerkraut, Pickled Red Cabbage, and Chow-Chow. Now I know some people think Chow-Chow is a relish. But Chow-Chow is actually pickled vegetables. We have to remember that when the German Reformed People came to America there was no modern canning. Most food items to be kept for any length of time had to be pickled in crocks. When the first frost threatened, Pennsylvania Germans would pull everything out of the garden, cut it up, par boil it, and put it in pickling juice in crocks. That became Chow-Chow. The Pennsylvania Dutch claim that for variety every table should have seven sweets and seven sours.
Our Christian Church tradition traces its origins to the Frontier experience of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. In Virginia, Vermont and Kentucky the Second Great Awakening spawned revivals that transcended denominational identities. Many adherents of this movement rejected denominational competition and chose to identify themselves simply as Christians. The idea spread. Soon there were many churches on the frontier that were loosely connected. The first United General Conference of Christians unanimously affirmed six principles of faith:
- Christ is the only head of the Church.
- The Bible is the sufficient rule of faith and practice.
- Christian character is the only measurement for membership.
- The right of private judgment, interpretation of scripture, and liberty of conscience is to be honored.
- The name “Christian” is worthy for Christ’s followers.
- Unity of all Christ’s followers in behalf of the world is the goal.
Christian Churches spread through Vermont, New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama. With the coming of the Civil War the Christian Churches split North and South. During reconstruction, several African American Christian Churches formed their own conventions. More and more, the churches that formed in protest to denominationalism began to look like denominations. Further splits occurred over baptism, communion, and scriptural inerrancy. The Christian Churches that joined with the Congregationalists in 1935 were the most theologically liberal element of the Christian Church Movement.
For a taste of music from our Christian Church Tradition let’s sing the first verse of “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.”
The food we have chosen from our Christian Church tradition is Revival Fried Chicken. Doctor David Shepherd was an important pastor to emerge from our Christian Church roots. He was instrumental in the gathering of the Southeast Conference. He also served as interim pastor here at United Church twice. And there is a story I like told by James Mason, who attended a Christian Church in East Central Alabama, where Dr. Shepherd preached more than one revival. James asked Dr. Shepherd why they always served Fried Chicken at revivals. And Dr. Shepherd looked at James and smiled and said, “because it’s so good.” We should also note that in the rural South, where people didn’t have much, most people kept at least a few chickens. So at Noon we will enjoy some of that so good revival fried chicken.
The German Evangelical stream of our heritage came to America in the 1840’s and 1850’s. This wave of German immigration settled mainly in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Missouri. Coming to America 100 – 150 years after the German Reformed Migration, these German Evangelicals had experienced the merger of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches into the German Evangelical Church in Germany. Many of these German Evangelicals came to America fleeing the oppression of the Prussian State. They quickly organized schools, hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages. Many German Evangelical Congregations joined the abolitionist movement, and sent soldiers into the Union Army. The German Evangelicals brought with them the spiritual warmth of German Pietism, cultivating personal devotions, and small prayer groups to nurture faith. Two important 20th century theologians arose out of our German Evangelical heritage: H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr. Both brothers were recognized for their work in promoting Christian concern for social issues. Reinhold is credited with having composed the famous serenity prayer, that I want to read in its entirety, since many people are only acquainted with the opening paragraph:
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next. Amen.
Evangelical piety radiates from that prayer, and is part of the warmth and depth of spirituality that our German Evangelical tradition brought into the United Church of Christ.
For a musical taste of our German Evangelical Tradition let’s sing the first verse of “We Plow the Fields and Scatter.”
For our food taste of German Evangelical Tradition we will have Sauerbraten and Potato Filling this morning. If you have never tasted Sauerbraten you are in for treat at Noon. Potato Filling represents the frugality of those German pioneers. Don’t let anything go to waste. Save the stale bread mix it with mashed potatoes and a little of this and a little of that and stretch your food supply.
The final stream of our heritage this morning is the American Missionary Association African American Congregations. After the Civil War, congregational missionaries came to the South to found churches and schools for freed slaves. Several great Universities grew out of that movement: Fisk, Talladega, LeMoyne-Owne, Huston-Tillotson, Dillard, and Tougaloo. Here in North Alabama the AMA founded a High School and what is today Trinity United Church of Christ in Athens. The AMA Schools and Churches have provided some of the most powerful leadership in the United Church of Christ. Presently, the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ is Trinity U.C.C. on the South Side of Chicago home to more than 8,000 members. Trinity U.C.C. was formed by alumni of the AMA colleges, who moved North, during the great African American migration of the early Twentieth Century. The African American heritage in the United Church of Christ provided important leadership to the Civil Rights movement and other struggles for social justice. The African American stream of our heritage has also provided a spiritual warmth and enthusiasm to our tradition at the same time emphasizing scholarship and education.
For a musical taste from our African American heritage I was tempted to chose a spiritual, but instead I would suggest that we sing the first verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This important song honors the contribution our AMA tradition made to the leadership in the struggle for Civil Rights for all Americans.
For a food taste this morning from our African American heritage we will have black-eyed peas and corn bread. Like the New England Baked Beans and brown bread, black-eyed peas and corn bread are good solid food of a poor but dignified people. All of God’s children got shoes. We are all loved by our creator. (Begin Fairest Lord Jesus)
United Church has members from every stream of our United Church of Christ tradition. We also have a wide diversity of members who grew up outside of the United Church of Christ. We are able to live together and enjoy the richness of our differences, because we believe and defend the right of each member to follow his or her own conscience. As we eat and sample the diversity of food in a few minutes feel what a rich and wonderful offering our United Church of Huntsville truly is – a gift of God to each one of us.
Parable of the Lost Children
SLIDE 5: PRODIGAL SON
As some of you know one of my favorite passages from the scriptures is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. For years I preached this story in its classical interpretation, the ne’er do well son comes home, and he is received by the all loving, all forgiving Father, while the elder brother stands outside in judgment of his younger brother’s behavior and his Father’s misguided forgiveness. And let’s face it this interpretation plays really well at United Church, where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. We are a collection of likable misfits and affable sinners.
SLIDE 6: THE OLDER BROTHER
The last time I preached this passage, however, I took a different approach, I asked us to focus on the older brother and appreciate the story from his point of view. He really had been a dutiful son. When his brother left taking a third of the estate with him, all of the responsibilities fell to him. And based on his complaint he never even got an “atta-boy” in return. He felt taken for granted, taken advantage of — disregarded. His decision to stay on the farm his sacrifice wasn’t valued.
SLIDE 7: LOST CHILDREN – CLUELESS FATHER
After reading Amy Jill Levine’s take on our Parable this morning, I realize I have missed the point of the story even more than I had guessed. The title of the Parable should be the Tale of the Lost Children, or maybe even the Story of the Clueless Father. Amy Jill begins by noting, first century listeners may have heard not contrition, but conniving in the younger son’s return to his father. Junior, while he is trying to eat the pig slops recalls that Daddy still has money, and he might be able to get more. Unlike the sheep and the coin, he has not been “found.” Rather he recovers his true nature — he is described as “coming to himself” — and that self is one who knows that Daddy will do anything he asks, because he has been the favorite like so many of the other younger sons of scripture: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon. Although Junior speaks of being treated as a hired hand, he repeatedly suggests that he still thinks of himself as his father’s “son.” The Vanderbilt professor of preaching David Buttrick concisely summarizes the prodigal’s strategy: “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.”
SLIDE 8: THE OLDER SON WAS LOST
We do well to see this father as a happy dad whose favorite son has returned. And so should notice who is not mentioned, who was not even invited to the party. No one was sent into the field to invite the older brother. “Some man had two sons.” Most of us, including the dad in the parable, had lost count.
The father did not know until this moment that the elder was the son who was truly “lost” to him. Once the recognition comes, he does what the shepherd and the woman do: realizing his loss, his lost son, the older boy, the one whom he has over looked, he seeks to make his family whole.
With the older son, however, years of resentment have finally boiled over and found expression. The son’s fidelity has been over looked. Once again, the problem child has received more attention, or more love, than the prudent and faithful one.
SLIDE 9: SEEK OUR OWN LOST RELATIONSHIPS
Jesus asks us to identify with the father and seek our own relationships who are lost. Is repeated pleading sufficient? What would be? What does a parent do to show a love the child never felt? The parable shows us that indulgence does not buy love, but withholding can stifle it. And so we search desperately, because our family is not whole. Sheep and coins are easy, children or other relationships less so.
SLIDE 10: DON’T WAIT FOR AN APOLOGY OR YOUR ABILITY TO FORGIVE
If we hold in abeyance, at least for the moment, the rush to read repenting and forgiving into the parable, then it does something more profound than repeat well-know messages. It provokes us with simple exhortations. Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.
SLIDE 11: FIND THE LOST IN OUR FAMILIES
Instead go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection — it is unlikely to happen twice.
We need to take count not only of our blessings, but also of those in our families, and in our communities. And once we count, we need to act. Finding the lost, whether they are sheep, coins or people, takes work. It also requires our efforts, and from those efforts there is potential for wholeness and joy.
SLIDE 12: IN OUR OWN FAMILY
Beth and I have found Amy Jill’s interpretation of this Parable powerful in our own lives. Just as we were studying the Short Stories of Jesus, our dutiful overachieving child, Jennifer, came to visit. Where her older brother had dropped out of High School three weeks short of graduation, Jennifer graduated from college, and earned a Master’s and Doctoral degree. She has gone on to become a tenured Full Professor at a University. She has been the responsible kid. And yet as we discussed during her visit, she always felt overlooked, because we paid so much attention to her brother who was in trouble — the affable sinner.
SLIDE 13: FAMILY DYNAMICS
The power of the Parable is that so many families share different but similar versions of the story. Family dynamics, sibling rivalry, dysfunctional households have been part of most of our growing up. And repeating patterns of messed up relationships seems to haunt even our best attempts at parenting. We swear and declare we will not repeat the mistakes of the generations before us, and then find ourselves falling into the same old family patterns, or sometimes creatively inventing new ways of messing up.
SLIDE 14: MOM ALWAYS LIKED YOU BEST
What relationships in your family are damaged? Are there old jealousies that continue to wound and block healthy relationship? Like the famous Smothers Brothers, Tom and Dick, and their signature routine “Mom always liked you best.” I’m reminded of my father and his sister, who stole the inheritance. We still don’t talk to that side of the family. Or my children trying to sort out their varied relationships made all the more problematical for our having been a blended family. Although I do feel good that we have come to the point where there are no steps or halves, we are just family, even in the face of those who would try to insist otherwise.
SLIDE 15: SHE IS MY SISTER
A few years ago a member of the church confronted Elizabeth asking, “Now Leah is your half sister?”
“No,” Elizabeth responded, “Leah is my sister.”
“Well, you know,” the person continued, “she’s not really your whole sister.”
“No,” Elizabeth persisted, “Leah is my sister, and in our family there are not steps or halves, we are just family.”
SLIDE 16: WHAT’S LOST, WHAT’S FOUND?
As you think about your own family today, are there children who have been overlooked? Are there people who are not speaking to one another? Are there relationships that are in need of healing? Who has been forgotten? These are all practical questions that apply to our 21st century families just as much as the people of the 1st century to whom Jesus was speaking. What’s lost, what’s found, and when we realize a relationship is lost, how do we recover it?
SLIDE 17: DON’T WAIT FOR AN APOLOGY, DON’T WAIT TO FORGIVE
Let me encourage you to consider this profoundly wise advice from Amy Jill Levine. Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.
SLIDE 18: CELEBRATE RESURRECTION
Instead go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection — it is unlikely to happen twice.
What’s Lost, What’s Found
SLIDE 3: SHORT STORIES BY JESUS
In her book, Short Stories by Jesus, Amy Jill Levine provides an important and refreshing look at the Parables of Jesus. Part of her interest is to separate the additions the early church made to the Parables in the 50 or so years after the death of Jesus. One of her motivations is to strip out the anti-Semitic tone that became part of the early church after the synagogue and the church parted company after about 60 C.E. Of course for those of us who are interested in trying to reclaim the historical Jesus as much as possible, rather than the early church’s version of Jesus, Amy Jill’s work is very helpful.
SLIDE 4: LOST SHEEP, LOST COIN
This morning with Amy Jill’s help, I would like to help us take a new look at two Parables about lost things — the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The Parable of the Lost Sheep can be found in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke groups the stories of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son all in chapter 15, and provides the following preface for all three stories:
15 1-3 By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.
SLIDE 5: LOVABLE MISFITS AND AFFABLE SINNERS
Luke’s preface turns all three stories into allegories about sin and repentance, or Jesus welcoming the outcastes. And of course in our congregation of lovable misfits, and affable sinners, we tend to identify with the Jesus who loves the outcastes and invites everyone to the Sharing Table. But Amy Jill challenges whether or not Luke got it right. First she notes the sheep may have wandered off, but it did not lose itself — the sheep was just a sheep not a sinner or a lovable misfit. If there is any fault in the story it lies with the shepherd. Levine also challenges Luke’s postscript to the story: “Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of repentance.” Are the ninety-nine really in no need of salvation? Aren’t we all invited to the Sharing Table, because we need the love and care of the community of faith that follows the way of Jesus? So Amy Jill suggests that while Luke may be reporting an original story of Jesus, he provides a context that may misinterpret the story.
SLIDE 6: AHA MOMENT
Also if we look at Matthew’s version of the Parable, the emphasis is different. Rather than sin and repentance the story focuses on God’s love for everyone regardless. “In the same way God is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” So we are prompted to ask, what was Jesus’ original intent in telling the story, what “aha moment” was Jesus seeking to prompt in his audience? In search of that meaning, let’s also consider the story of the Lost Coin.
SLIDE 7: MAYBE THERE IS SOMETHING OF VALUE WE HAVE LOST?
A woman has ten silver coins. In Jesus’ cash poor Galilee, ten silver coins was a lot of money, possibly more cash than many of Jesus’ listeners living hand to mouth may have been able to accumulate. Once any of us realizes we have mislaid say $200, we would stop what we were doing and go look for it, not because the money was sinful and needed to be forgiven, but because it is of value to us. So Amy Jill suggests that the “aha moment” Jesus wants us to experience is realizing there is something of value we have lost.
And so the Parable comes back to us today with the question, “what spiritual values have we lost?” Because I cannot answer that question for you, this way of looking at the Parables of Lost Things is not as nice and neat as claiming we are talking about sin and repentance. But allow me, based on what I see on Facebook and in the news cycle to suggest some things that maybe some of us feel like maybe we have lost.
SLIDE 8: LOST A SENSE OF SECURITY?
First, security, an awful lot of people this year seem to be voting out of a sense of lost security. We feel anxious about money and the economy, we feel threatened by Isis and terrorism, some people may even feel threatened by immigration, or strange new diseases from other places like zika. We’ve lost our sense of security. And if only our security was a lamb that had wandered off, or a silver dollar hiding under the refrigerator, then we could call our friends together and celebrate. But once it is lost, how do we find our sense of security?
SLIDE 9: LOST CIVILITY?
Something else that seems to have gotten lost especially in this election cycle is a sense of civility. And this election cycle is certainly an example of a lack of civility in our political discourse. For all of his rudeness and crudeness, however, the Donald is only a reflection of what has been going on in our larger culture. Consider all the emotional garbage that gets posted on Facebook or goes out over twitter. Why do people think they can get in each other’s faces and trash talk one another? If we want more civil discourse in our political life, then we are going to have to show more civility and courtesy in our behavior in our communities and in our life together on the internet. We need to think twice before we press send, or press post! Do we really need to say the things we are saying?
SLIDE 10: BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE
If we think civility has been lost in our social life, then what are we willing to do to help restore courtesy and respect in our common life together? Be the change we want to see in others, and maybe you will rediscover some lost things of value, that have been lost.
SLIDE 11: WHERE DID HOPE GO?
As we think about the shepherd in search of the sheep and the woman lighting a lamp and sweeping her house in search of the lost coin, what else do we have a sense maybe we have lost? What about hope? This spring I have ministered with many people who seem on the edge of losing hope. Sometimes it seems we can’t win for losing. Maybe it is opposing physical symptoms, where if we treat one problem we make another symptom worse. Or we try to get a little bit ahead, and darned if the garage needs a new roof, or the car needs new tires. Suddenly none of our doctors will take our insurance, or the insurance doesn’t cover the medication we need, or we find ourselves in a downward spiral of depression, and we wake up wondering where did hope go?
SLIDE 12: TRUST IN GOD
If only finding hope was as easy as lighting a lamp and sweeping the house. And maybe it is more like going in search of a stray sheep. We can look, but there is no guarantee hope will turn up. But then if there was a guarantee of finding what we were looking for, it wouldn’t be hope. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews points toward the relationship between hope and faith: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.”
SLIDE 13: FAITH AND GRATITUDE
Maybe in our search for hope, we have to find faith, and faith isn’t hiding under the refrigerator. Faith can be found in the cultivation of gratitude, and the acceptance and valuing of love. Both gratitude and love have to be unconditional. Remember a couple of weeks ago, we said wake up with a prayer of thanks on your lips, ten things for which you are thankful at the beginning of the day. We can’t wait to see how the day turns out before we offer thanks, that would be conditional gratitude. “Oh God, if you give me everything I want today, and if everything goes my way, then I will say thank you.” What kind of thanks is that? No, faith is starting the day with “thank you I am alive,” and closing the day with “thank you for seeing me through the day!” And until we can pray those prayers consistently hope will elude us, like the sheep who hears us coming and skips on ahead deeper into the thicket.
SLIDE 14: LOVING UNCONDITIONALLY
Finding hope and joy also means loving unconditionally. If we insist that God has to give us everything we want and make us happy, happy all the time, we won’t have much of a relationship. Rather, when we can learn that God is too kind to give us everything we think we want and when we grow up enough to know that life is not happy, happy all the time, then maybe we are mature enough for a daily walk with God.
SLIDE 15: ROBERT’S BONUS MOM
Allow me to share with you something that renewed my sense of hope last Sunday. Sometimes, when I see racism lift its ugly head in our nation, I am tempted to think, nothing changes. But then I remember, that our grandson Robert has a wonderful bonus mom Tracie. Last Sunday Tracie shared with us a beautiful story. She wrote:
SLIDE 16: GRANDMA ROSE LOVES HER LITTLE ROBERT
“I just wanted to share this beautiful feeling I have right now. As you know my Granma was in ICU. We were really close to losing her. The Doctors had her in an induced coma to get her vitals back up and allow her body to rest. Well, my grandmother loves her great grandchildren and Robert is no exception. After they revived her, we went to see her. Robert was really excited to go see Grandma Rose. When we got there, the first person she saw was Robert and the most amazing authentic smile spread across her face as she struggled to raise up and hug him. This morning they are moving Grandma Rose to a regular room and my father texted me to tell me she was glowing and talking about how much she loves her little Robert.”
SLIDE17: WHAT’S LOST? WHAT’S FOUND? FOR YOU!
When people love each other, the world changes. Robert has an African American Matriarch for a great-grandmother. Who would have guessed? Where love prevails the world changes and hope is found. What’s lost? What’s found? Have faith, hope and love and all can be found!
Living in Community
SLIDE 3: HOUSE CHURCHES
The church in Corinth was a naughty congregation. They were very bright, creative and contentious. Many members of the church in Corinth had issues, and whenever a disagreement appeared, they were all too ready to choose up sides and throw rocks at one another.
The congregation was also divided into several smaller house churches. Remember at this time the life of the early church was organized around the Sharing Table, people coming together to enjoy the evening meal, read the scriptures, pray together and share the Eucharist. So house churches comprised 40 or 50 members from three or four different households meeting in the atrium of a large home. Each little congregation had its own diverse and competitive leadership, and the rivalry between the house churches often led to ugly disputes about the right way to express their faith about Jesus or conduct worship, or organize the life of the church. Were they going to sing hymns from books or choruses projected on the walls. Were they going to use paper bulletins or use digital announcements, or what kind of food were people allowed to bring to the potluck. The competition in the church in Corinth became so destructive, Paul had to write to them:
SLIDE 4: ARE YOU NOT ACTING LIKE JEALOUS CHILDREN?
I Corinthians 3:3 For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not behaving worldly? Are you not acting like jealous children? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” are you not pursuing your own agendas, rather than the way of Jesus?
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? or Peter? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
21 So then, no more boasting and division about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Peter or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are followers of Christ, and Christ is of God.”
SLIDE 5: DIVERSITY IN COMMUNITY IS DIFFICULT
Diversity in community is difficult. We can talk about live and let live, and embracing and respecting our differences, but what happens when we really do disagree with one another, how do we make community work? The church in Corinth was bright, creative, diverse, passionate, often disagreeable, so I would like to suggest that we begin with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for some rules of thumb about living in community.
SLIDE 6: MEAT SACRIFICED TO IDOLS
In the market place in Corinth, meat that had been offered as a sacrifice in a pagan temple was selling for at least 25 cents a pound less than meat that had been simply butchered. There was an economic incentive to buy the meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan idol, and as Paul rightly noted, “Idols have no actual existence, because there is no God other than the one God. In strict logic, then, nothing happened to the meat when it was offered up to an idol. It’s just like any other meat.”
SLIDE 7: WHEN WE OFFER OFFENSE TO OTHERS WE ARE OFFENDING CHRIST
But Paul went on to admonish the members of the church, if there are people in the congregation whose conscience is offended by meat that has been sacrificed in a pagan temple, then for heaven’s sake don’t bring that meat to the church potluck. And if you are inviting people over for dinner whose conscience is offended by the meat offered to an idol, then don’t serve it to them. Each of us is able to use our own conscience to make up our minds about things like meat offered in pagan temples, but don’t allow our own freedom of belief to offend the sensibilities of others. For when we offer offense to our fellow church members, we are offending the Christ whom we claim to follow.
SLIDE 8: SENSITIVE AND COURTEOUS TO OTHERS
Paul summarizes in his letter to the Romans: When you sit down to a meal, your primary concern should not be to feed your own face but to share the life of Jesus. So be sensitive and courteous to the others who are eating. Don’t eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love. So first, rule of thumb, whenever possible do not offer offense to others.
SLIDE 9: BACON WRAPPED PICKLED PIGS FEET
Paul’s letter to the Romans raises further concerns about living in community. Paul had suffered a disastrous controversy in the church in Antioch. The congregation there had been split fairly evenly between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Everyone got along until a controversy about food brought to the congregational potluck erupted. Gentile Christians in honest ignorance began bringing non-kosher items to the church dinners: lobster, shrimp, country-fried steak with milk gravy, baby back ribs, bacon wrapped pickled pigs feet. The Jewish Christians at first just sort of ignored the non-kosher stuff, at the table, but then representatives from Jerusalem showed up and they were aghast.
SLIDE 10: SAINTS OF THE CHURCH ARGUING WITH ONE ANOTHER
Paul argued that if you were going to accept Gentiles into the church, then maybe you had to tolerate their food. There was an argument that broke out with Paul accusing Peter of hypocrisy:
Galatians 2:11-13 Later, when Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line. Here’s the situation. Earlier, before certain persons had come from James, Peter regularly ate with the non-Jews. But when that conservative group came from Jerusalem, he cautiously pulled back and put as much distance as he could manage between himself and his non-Jewish friends. That’s how fearful he was of the conservative Jewish clique that’s been pushing the old system of circumcision. Unfortunately, the rest of the Jews in the Antioch church joined in that hypocrisy so that even Barnabas was swept along in the charade.
14 But when I saw that they were not maintaining a steady, straight course according to the Message, I spoke up to Peter in front of them all: “If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?”
SLIDE 11: THOSE ROWDY CHRISTIANS
Life in the early church was certainly rough and tumble. Can you image these people we think of as Saints of the Church going after one another on the floor of a congregational meeting? Wow! They were rowdy Christians.
SLIDE 12: VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN CAN BRIDGE THE GAP
But even though Paul talks like he won the day in Antioch in fact he seems to have lost the argument and never returned to the City. So let’s fast forward to the church in Rome about ten years later. The Church in Rome had both Jewish and Gentile Christians. What food could be served at congregational potlucks with both Jews and Gentiles attending? One compromise was to go vegetarian. In fact, if you have to fix dinner for a mixed crowd including orthodox Jews who observe Kosher and Muslims who keep Halal, vegetarian is one of the best menus for not offering offense to anyone.
SLIDE 13: COMPANIONS IN LOVE
Knowing the controversy Paul had engaged in Antioch the church in Rome asked his opinion. And ten years later, I think we see an older more mature Paul:
Romans 14: 13-14 Forget about deciding what’s right for each other. Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is. I’m convinced — Jesus convinced me! — that everything as it is in itself is holy. We, of course, by the way we treat it or talk about it, can contaminate it. 15-16 If you confuse others by making a big issue over what they eat or don’t eat, you’re no longer a companion with them in love, are you?
SLIDE 14: DON’T IMPOSE YOUR OWN FAITH ON OTHERS
19-21 So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault. You’re certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God’s work among you, are you? 22-23 Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others.
SLIDE 15: WELCOME EVERYONE TO THE TABLE
So rule of thumb cultivate your own relationship with God, follow your conscience, but don’t impose your own interpretation of the faith on others. Be mature, compromise and remember that the essence of hospitality is not insisting upon our own freedom, but welcoming and helping everyone to be comfortable at the Table.
Now I know the examples so far have been about food. But this is United Church right? Also the Sharing Table open commensality, everyone eating together, was Jesus’ symbol of the Commonwealth of God. Living in a diverse community is difficult because we will not always agree. And all those other people are so different from us!
SLIDE 16: HOW CAN YOU SEE THE SPECK OF SAW DUST?
So let’s agree to use our energies in getting along with each other. Helping one another with encouraging words; not dragging one another down with fault finding. Remember the example of Jesus, “Why do you see the speck of saw dust in your brother or sister’s eye, when you can’t see the two by four sticking out of your own eye!” We’re certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper, or what’s in the budget, to wreck God’s work among us, are we? 22-23 Each of us is encouraged to cultivate our own relationship with God, and not impose our understanding of the faith on others.