Monday, September 17, 2012

What We Say (sermon, September 16, 2012)

[Our seminarian, Reina Ueno, a native of Sendai, Japan, was the reader of scripture for the morning's service. To hear her reading Isaiah 50:4-9 and James 3:1-12, please listen to the audio version of this sermon.]

"God is still speaking,"
The scriptures we have heard today I think are unusually apropos of our particular moment in history.

Furthermore, for a church in a denomination which asserts that “God is still speaking,” these readings are pointedly significant.  And to have them spoken among us by one whose first language is not English I think may add light to just how important what we say can be.  Then to be aware that the language in which the letter of James was written was not English but Greek, and that even though translated from Greek into English, the letter (by evidence of some untranslated Hebrew or Aramaic words in it, such as Gehenna) probably was collected from sermons preached in Aramaic by James full of the Holy Spirit, it is entirely fitting to our purposes today that a non-native English speaker should be working so diligently to make James's message understood.

As to this moment in history...

Of course what I am referring to is, when an anti-Islam radical in Hollywood made a scandalous motion picture about the Muslim prophet – of whom their holy book and tradition insists that no image (graven or otherwise) shall be made. Muslims with perspectives similarly limited as the radical producer’s reacted violently.

I have heard speculation that the producer of the film is probably a Coptic Christian with an agenda to humiliate Muslims as he remembered having been humiliated for his Christianity growing up in Egypt.  But he ought to have resisted the temptation to do what he did.  “Not many of you should become teachers,” the apostle James once said, “for you are judged more severely.”  What that producer expressed in fourteen minutes... what he said incited violence to the extent that innocent and genuinely good-hearted, helpful people got killed.

Now, the fact that good people got killed indicates that what you say may not be the only concern we ought to have as we seek to restore the whole, which of course is the focus of our new Sunday School curriculum.  No, also, what you do is significant, and next week’s sermon is titled, “What You Do,” so I’ll get to the murderous mobs next week (I imagine that will still be timely.).  What we say is enough of a topic, for now.

Over time, we have always acknowledged that things we say carry weight, even power.

Christianity includes a very important clause, in the law on which our practice of faith is based, namely the commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

That law is in our holy canon, because we know deeply – having as one of our myths of creation a story in which what God says causes things to be – words have power.

That law (“You shall not bear false witness.” (Exodus 20:16)) is there, because we affirm in that creation story, that words have power.

That law (“You shall not bear false witness.”) is there, because the power that words have originates with the speaker.

That law is there, because we who speak claim to be people of an invisible Creator whom we give substance!  We are God’s physically existing representatives, and when we misrepresent God by saying something as scandalous as to disrespect someone else’s religion, someone else’s prophet, we invite God’s judgment upon us and the world’s judgment upon God.

Even if some members of that religion deserve to have God’s judgment brought against them because they once persecuted you simply for being a follower of another faith tradition, our law says that it does not give you the right to bear false witness against them.  The things one knows to be untrue, and the things one only speculates are true, and the things that one just really, really wishes would be true – all of which appear to have been contained in the testimony made against Islam in the fourteen minutes of video available about that crazy movie on the internet – are false witness, once you say them.

“Brothers and sisters,” James said, “not all of you should be teachers.”

What we say as people of God – and by virtue of our baptism, there is never a time in our lives when we are not the people of God – what we say has potential for a profound effect, to do what God’s words can do – to bless or to destroy.

What we say may not only have a profound effect on others; it can affect us, too.  Words are powerful, and at their best our words give sound and substance to a silent Spirit waiting to be revealed.

But church people over the past many decades have begun to stay away in droves.  Christian communities have seemed more interested in delivering a good message than in allowing that message to activate with power.  We struggle as faithful people to demonstrate the power we have experienced God’s word to have in our lives.  I witness daily the perseverance with which you all endeavor to make your lives resonant with the power you have found in the word you have received.

It’s the word of life, and it has restorative potential.  What choice do we have but to respond, thus demonstrating that not all church people are hypocrites!

To the end of presenting a new and vitalized word for others to speak, theologians will revise concepts of the divine, or propose new interpretations and patterns of those concepts, in order to get to the heart of God’s pure message.

The Rev. Dr. Charles McCollough at work
Our friend Charles McCollough is here, this morning, with the express purpose of visualizing God’s word anew, through his sculpture.

Our friend Libby Reimers is encouraging us to invite others to re-envision their search for faith in a Wednesday morning series, starting October 10.  In that study, some very creative writers and illustrators and videographers invite us to consider our beliefs in new or innovative ways.

Because what we say about God and ourselves in relationship with one another gives the rest of the world a pretty strong impression about who we are and what ends we are seeking to accomplish.  And it says profound things about how we think of ourselves.

What we say as people of faith (and there is no time in our lives, once we have joined the church by baptism that we are NOT people of faith) will provide a centerpoint of focus for those who do not somehow know God.  It will further provide a centerpoint of concentration for those who are seeking to know God more fully and are trusting us to be accurate representatives... people like our children and others with formative minds and hearts.

What we say is important.  “Not all of you should be teachers,” said James.  “You bring greater judgment on yourself.”

But what choice do we have?  What choice is there?  Words have power, even if we don’t want to use them as if we were teachers.  We serve the word of God – Christ the word – spoken from the start of creation and still being spoken today.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Jonathan Sacks has said,
The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities, discovering a genesis of hope.  
He has used as evidence the parents in Israel and the Palestinian territories whose children have been killed in violent conflicts there, seeking reconciliation for the sake of future generations of children and for the continuation of their homeland in peace.  When they have been able to be vulnerable with one another, they have found new ground and invited others to it.

Perhaps on what you would consider a more mundane level, but which affects me greatly as a minister, if divorcing couples can talk together, maybe with a moderator present, and take the time really to speak from the heart and to listen from the heart, respecting and not insisting on one’s own way, the parting can be peaceful.  Thus, Rabbi Sacks has further observed, "It’s when you can feel your opponents’ pain that you're beginning the path to reconciliation."

We can underestimate sometimes just how crucial it can be to actually listen to somebody and to make yourself heard.  The premarital course of study that I share with couples includes a section that I emphasize probably more than they care to perform.  It’s called Assertiveness and Active Listening, and through it what I try to do is to strengthen the couples’ understanding of the importance of stating their hopes and dreams and feelings, and the equal importance of paying attention to what the other says.  It is the discipline of echoing what the other has said and checking in with the speaker that one has understood, and only then offering back one’s own feelings and thoughts, constantly checking in with the other about the vicissitudes of the human conscience and heart and spirit, until new ground is reached or familiar ground affirmed.  If we lose that, if we fail to allow the other to say what they need to say, if we fail to allow their words to have the power that they can have with our own, then we weaken and disrespect the other.

This way of speaking and hearing affirms what we all insist is true about the power of words, and as a fellow person of faith I think Rabbi Sacks is right.  If we can simply learn to practice respectful patterns of speaking and listening, affirming our own and others’ power of words, the world will be a better place.  "The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation."

Maybe the best we can do is to try not to forget how much power our words may have... and how important it can be to say them rightly, properly...  Maybe the best we can do is to live our speaking as Reina was having to live it a while ago: endeavoring to say the English words that represent the Greek words that represent the Aramaic speaker who sought to represent the heart of God.

We will not necessarily say our words with the same kind of precision that a foreign-born reader might be seeking, but we will be endeavoring to represent faithfully to our world One who speaks beyond words and, perhaps through us, with words, in Christ’s name.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Not a Snack

This the second in a multi-part series of articles evoked by my consideration and study of the Sacraments, prompted by a meeting of the Missouri Mid-South Conference Creative Faith Project (see also the previous article, "Water Wonders"). It is not intended to provide a definitive position for me or my church about what the Sacraments mean or ought to mean for Christians today. Nor is it intended to delimit the administration of the Sacraments. I encourage readers to respond with comments and questions for further discussion and consideration.

Here's something I thought might be of interest to my friends on the Creative Faith Project.

I plan to use this piece as a part of the ritual for tomorrow night's Sunday Night Light worship service at my church (6pm in the William E. Sample chapel, following dinner at 5 provided by Goodstock Soup in the Inglis Room).

I'd love to know your thoughts upon viewing it, in light of our conversation concerning the sacraments, a few weeks ago.  The song played in the background hasn't my favorite theology residing in it, so please turn down the sound if you find ransom christology objectionable.

I'd taken quite a stand in the meeting about the idea that the Eucharist could be administered as anything other than bread and wine (or, perhaps, a gluten-free alternative and grape juice, as we serve it at First - Webster Groves). Others had suggested that Twinkies and orange drink, or cookies and milk might be substituted for children.

"This is a meal we're talking about here," I insisted, "not a snack!" Later, initiating the ritual for communion, I said, "This is the meal by which all other meals are judged."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Incasts (sermon, February 12, 2012 - unedited version)

[SCRIPTURES for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany]

Listen to the audio of this sermon, by clicking here (*.mp3 file)!

Last week, our signboard created something of a sensation. I like to say that it "went a little bit viral."

In solidarity with the students at Clayton High School who were going to be picketed on Monday, February 6, by the Westboro Baptist Church, I posted a saying I had seen on a placard from a similar counter-protest of WBC, last summer at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas. The message on one side of each of our two signboards (on Elm and Lockwood Avenues), now reads:

As I went out to the parking lot to take that photo, I couldn't help but notice a passerby had pulled into the lot to take a picture of it too.

I don't know whether it was his photograph that made it onto the internet, but on Tuesday of last week, the office received a telephone call from an anonymous caller saying that a photo of the sign had been uploaded to and was generating quite a favorable response on the Atheism section of

And it sure was! Altogether, those two websites report 530,583 views on; 456 comments on’s “atheism” page.  Since last Sunday, we have registered 11 new "likes" on our Facebook page, mostly from strangers.  A separate posting of the photo on the Facebook page (and if I offend anyone by the name of the page, please excuse me:) "We survived Bush. You will survive Obama." now registers over 2,600 "likes" and 747 "shares."

And all of this comes with thanks to the Westboro Baptist Church for showing up at Clayton High School, this past Monday

I wish Fred Phelps was around, so I could give him a proper thank you and a smooch.

OK, so I don't really want to smooch Fred Phelps. Furthermore, I'm sure he wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of a smooch from me.

Which reminds me of a story, about another couple of guys who had some difficulty liking each other...

The story of General Naaman and the Prophet Elisha, believe me, is sort of a negative example of the kind of thing I want to talk to you about, this morning.

To a certain extent, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to build community, but the real emphasis is about the hazards of building a community of faith together.

And the Prophet Elisha here pretty clearly has no presumptions about building community.  He does not want to build community.  As a matter of fact, it’s pretty clear that he has no real interest even in healing a sick man, though that is what he is doing.

Naaman washes in the Jordan,
Naaman was an enemy, after all, to Elisha and to anyone who might have been hearing or telling this story the first few times it went around.  When King Jehoram of Israel makes his complaint that Ben-Hadad King of Aram has requested his holy man to cleanse Ben-Hadad’s general, it is because Jehoram perceives an attempt at provocation to a war that he is not ready to fight.

Furthermore, neither Naaman nor Ben-Hadad desires to soften international relations.  Both of them just want for the general to be better, so that he does not lose face (literally) before his soldiers and thereby diminish the strength and fighting capacity of an army centered on him and his prowess as a warrior.

Basically, nobody here wants the annoyance of handling anything that’s in front of them to be done.

No compassion.

No real caring.

Just a lot of power being bandied about: Naaman and Ben-Hadad bandying military power, Jehoram political power, and Elisha (of course) the power of God.  And none of this power, power to be trifled with.

By contrast there is Jesus in the story related by the gospel according to Mark, today – the occasion in that gospel in which the Christ the healer cleanses a person of leprosy.

“If you choose, you can make me clean,” says the leper, which evokes some sort of passionate response in Jesus.  In some early copies of Mark, the Greek word for Jesus’ reaction means literally, moved with pity.  In others, the word implies  moved with anger.  Suffice it to say, Jesus was moved by the statement of the ritually unclean person.

Jesus heals a leper
Pen and ink drawing; 14.7 x 17.2 cm; c. 1655-60
Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet
Next, Jesus does something truly, truly shocking.  He touches another human being, one with leprosy.

This is a big issue.  You have to understand: this is an ENORMOUS issue!  You don’t touch unclean people!  You just don’t!  If you touch someone unclean, you become unclean too – literally, guilty, and you have to report it to a priest and perform the appropriate sacrifices, and likely you’ll have to spend some time in isolation.  And who, but especially what prophet, can afford that!

So, Jesus shouldn’t be touching him.

Let alone the fact that maybe it wasn’t pity or compassion, but anger, that was the motivation for him touching the guy in the first place… and all because the guy had said, “If you choose to…”

I mean, what kind of attitude is that!  “If you choose to…”  C’mon, buddy, what is with that!  No wonder it’s confusing, to try and figure out whether Jesus was motivated by pity or anger to cleanse you!  You seem to be dealing with a pretty serious dose of self-pity, here!

How disappointing.

In most cases, it always seems, Jesus performs some healing, and tells the person, “Your faith has made you well.”

Not this time, though: this guy is no paragon of faithfulness.  He’s like the psalmist in the middle of Psalm 30, wallowing in self-pity and seeming at least to accuse God of the miserable circumstances being dealt with:
to the holy ONE I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death
      if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
     Will it tell of your faithfulness?” (Psalm 30:8b-9)
Something like, “You show me your faithfulness, and I’ll show you mine,” the guy is saying.

I would not have been inclined to help this guy out.  There’s just too much on the line.  (Don’t look at me like that.  You think you would want to help him out?  He’s not down on his luck; he’s down on his life!)

It’s Boy Scout Sunday, today, and that time in which we annually celebrate the giftedness of youth involved in scouting, especially the young men who meet with their troop here at the church.  “Be prepared,” is their motto.  Be prepared.

And there certainly is much to be prepared for, when you are part of a movement founded by a man who would touch ritually unclean people without any compunction whatsoever.  One of the biggest circumstances to be prepared for, in fact, is the reality that you will be coming into contact – regularly! – with some pretty unpleasant people… present company excepted, of course!

And when you come into contact with all those other people, which is pretty often, you’d best be ready.  They’ll be wanting your help out of the trouble that they’re in… likely as not, trouble that they deserve, or that they don’t deserve but won’t take the advice to avoid.

Everybody is going to want a piece of you, because you have managed either to steer your way clear, or to work your way out, of the trouble they’re in.  What they don’t know is how much insight you have accumulated or gleaned along the way, and heeded, so as to avoid or step clear of the trouble they’re in.  Because the most problematic part about being part of a religion the founding statement of which was, “Repent and believe in the good news,” (Mark 1:15) is the fact that so very few people are actually willing to change their ways that need changing!

Maybe they’re just not able to change.  I mean, it is not as though our society makes change easy.  We like our slots, our pigeon-holes, our categories, our prejudices; they’re so informative about other people!  So often, poor people aren’t poor because they have brought it upon themselves or because they deserve it, but because their expectations of themselves and what they can achieve are so low!  They know society isn’t going to respect them and their efforts, so why try!

On this Racial Justice Sunday in our denomination, it is on the one hand simple enough to look about and learn the achievements beyond expectations of the host of African American and Asian and Pacific Islander and Latino and Native American people in our country, but it is far more common for us – no matter our ethnic origin or the color of our skin – to presume what any other African, Asian, Islander, Latino, or Native American is going to be like.  And our presumptions are likely as not to be established strongly in our learned expectations.

But this is also Lincoln’s birthday, the natal anniversary of a man who lived by that grand old Republican understanding that the equal creation Jefferson wrote about implies that all should have equal opportunity to assume equal responsibility.  That alone ought to be sufficient motive for any society to heal itself.  Ours hasn’t, but not for lack of opportunity.

And this is Charles Darwin’s birthday, too, you may know – a man whose whole life was dedicated to the understanding that creatures will adapt themselves over time to the environment in which they find themselves, or else will be destroyed by it.

We are our environment.  We create the circumstances in which other find themselves.  We have an inherent obligation, when those others are either defenseless or disarmed, to assure that they may succeed if they desire to.

That will mean, to a certain and very deep extent, that we are saddled with the responsibility to heal the environment in which we have found ourselves – the racial environment, the political environment, the economic environment, the cultural environment.  We are required to do as Jesus did, maybe out of compassion, maybe out of anger, but to do it because we are called to righteousness, justice, and peace.

We have been given a vision of what can be.  Jesus offered it.  He touched others with bold caring.  Those whom society either declared outcast, or rendered outcast, Jesus made (oh, let’s call them) incasts.  The blind, the deaf, the poor, the rich, the lame, the unclean, the stranger, the possessed, and the oppressed – Jesus liberated them all, by touching them.

He didn’t care what others thought.  He knew what God thought of these outcasts.  And he did something about it.

Now, I’m not here to disparage Elisha the man of God.  He was a good man, a fine prophet, a conduit of true power who lived according to that power.  You see, at many points, the Bible itself is not a book or a collection of books, about compassion.  In the case of Second Kings, it’s a book about nationalism and the greatness of the national deity, Yahweh, whose power is for the foreigner, even the enemy, as well as for us.

I’m just not satisfied, in retrospect, that – powerful or not – Elisha took no more initiative to set an example for others, of caring.  True, he did assure that the Aramean General Naaman was healed of his ailment and that Naaman would have no doubt that the God of Israel was the power behind the healing.  But the healing of the skin disease was where the healing ended.  Elisha did nothing to heal the rift between his country and its neighbor; he did nothing to calm the fears of his own king.  In fact, he may have exacerbated both!  Aram and Israel were at war, just a few short years later, according to Second Kings.

No, I much prefer the lesson lived by Jesus, that we need to be prepared to touch the very people we may feel least inclined to, either because of our environment, our history, or our prejudice.

Because the resistance to make contact, the temptation to preserve someone else’s outcast-ness, is entirely our own: “If you choose to,” they will say, “you can make me clean.” And for as much wrong as we may be able to see about them, and for as obvious to us what their right track will be, they at least have the wherewithal to recognize that we have power ready to emanate from us, if we will but make contact… dare to touch.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Water Wonders

This will be the first in a multi-part series of articles evoked by my consideration and study of the Sacraments, during the meeting described below, and since. It is not intended to provide definitive positions for me or my church (well, maybe for me) about what the Sacraments mean or ought to mean for Christians today. Nor is it intended to delimit the administration of the Sacraments. I encourage readers to respond with comments and questions for further discussion and consideration.

I am part of a group from my church, participating in the Creative Faith Project of the Missouri Mid-South Conference of the United Church of Christ.

Led by Associate Conference Minister Marc Wessels and Conference Artist-in-Residence Cliff Aerie, the CFP has convened three meetings of about a dozen churches with groups like my church's during the past six months or so. The third of those meetings took place on Saturday, January 28, at Columbia UCC in Columbia, Missouri.

The CFP has been funded through a grant from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. For the most part, we consider together enhancements to worship that might be practicable in our local settings, and to share what enhancements have "worked" in our own churches and which have met with some resistance. That makes for a lot of discussion!

The topic for consideration on Saturday, January 30, was The Sacraments, and conversation was invigorating, often provocative, and occasionally controversial.

It might be helpful at this point to explain that, in the United Church of Christ (as in just about every Protestant church), there are two sacraments - Baptism and Eucharist, the latter also known as Communion. In one of our faith traditions - Congregationalism - these two were historically referred to as ordinances, because they were ordained by Jesus himself (baptism in Matthew 28:19; eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:24-26). And as far as most Protestants are concerned what makes a sacrament a sacrament is Christ's ordinance that practitioners of the faith ought to do these things.

In other Christian groups, but particularly the Roman Catholic Church, there are as many as seven sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Sacrament of the Sick, which was once known as Last Rites. In each of these cases, they are sacraments because they are "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace mediated by the Holy Spirit of God." In other words, they are occasions when God's presence is incontrovertible and action irreversible.

For most Protestants, especially those in the Reform tradition like the UCC, the sacraments are symbols of grace, though not so much the grace itself. God is present always and everywhere, and what God does cannot have anything added to it or taken away from it, thus making all of life sacramental. But sacraments are another type of thing.

What type of thing are they? the planners of the CFP event asked.
Discussion about Baptism was considerably talk about the ritual, and how it is conducted.

Clergy in the UCC tend to be very, very liberal in their understanding of the person and substance of God and therefore in their use of Trinitarian language. We will often forgo the words "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" in favor of words that are not gender-based. Thus, it is not unusual to find prayers and blessings spoken "in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Comforter" or of "God, Christ, and Spirit." I myself commonly substitute the word "Child" for "Son." Other clergy admitted to calling the Creator, "Father and Mother of us all," though I lean more toward the appellation, "heavenly Parent."

But the command at the end of the gospel according to Matthew is that new Christians should be baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (again, 28:19). And, somewhat with the intention being to prevent "making wrongful use of the name of YHWH your God" (Exodus 20:7), some who are more conservative theologically have determined to use only that invocation as the proper acclamation of the authority by which they baptize. We UCC ministers have found ourselves constrained by tradition and history, also to perform baptisms "in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit," if the baptisms are to be recognized across denominational lines.

Quite honestly, I'm not sure but that this is a good idea. Conformity is not altogether awful, and restrictions on creativity tend often to force greater work to flow. But a feminist and liberationist organization such as ours generally finds the reality simply distasteful, if not offensive.

We all were asked to consider the components of our rituals. Water, obviously I suppose, was the most common component for baptisms, but the location of the water was not necessarily common. I mentioned having performed five immersion baptisms during my career so far - one in the baptistry (pool) of a Baptist church, another in a recreational lake, and three in an Ozark stream. There was also an immersion remembrance of baptism I performed in that stream, but I would guess that the recipient is not referring to it as remembrance but rather as the actual event for him who was baptized as an infant - professional hazard, since you can only be baptized once.

But most baptisms I have done, and most of them that my colleagues talked about, that day, like the one in the photo far above have been performed in the sanctuary of the church I was serving, at its baptismal font, during a worship service. Infants, children, teens, and adults I have customarily sprinkled from a stoop after saying a blessing over water poured from a pitcher or ewer into the basin.

Having the baptisms conducted in a worship service is in keeping with the United Church of Christ emphasis on community. It is in the community that the sacred may most surely be encountered. It was as community that the church was founded. And it is in the community that we live and grow.

So, in the course of a baptismal ritual, the faith community is called upon to support those who say vows. The church responds as a body, "We promise our love, support, and care" of those who are baptized among them.

Though there had been a longstanding, informal practice of UCC clergy performing baptisms outside of Sunday services, the emphasis in recent decades has been toward the reappropriation of the sacrament being as much an element of worship as the sacrament of eucharist has always been.

Strangely, the theological assertion that the Holy Spirit is most assuredly present when the community is gathered, almost eradicates the possibility of performing baptisms elsewhere than in the sanctuary! I say this is strange, because "believers baptizers" will focus on an image of immersion that Paul presents in the letter to the Romans, chapter 6 (vv. 3-5), as the reason why only immersion baptisms should be valid - they emulate death:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (emphasis mine)
Whenever I have performed an immersion baptism, the challenge has come from clergy colleagues, "But how shall the church be acknowledged?" I have always had to respond that I have to count on a broader definition of "church" than the gathering of the people in the sanctuary, and that under such circumstances my congregation - who simply cannot all be at an immersion baptism at once - will have to be represented rather than be in attendance.

Our community cannot trump scripture, not in this case. Lose the right to immerse because the location is inconvenient, and we lose a significant part of our heritage and a powerful symbol of the beginning of faith.

Monday, February 6, 2012

How to Start a Monday Well

I missed getting my daughter up and off to preschool, this morning, but had a pretty good time anyway.

Roger & Jan Barnes, Jane Porchey (at right in white cap), K Wentzien (just beyond Jane), and I headed for Clayton High School at 6:45 a.m. to be part of the counter-protest by that school's Gay/Straight Alliance of students and faculty against Westboro Baptist Church which had announced its intention to protest there, after having had the school on its "radar for quite some time."

The WBC spidey-sense may have been turned on when a son of Fred Phelps spoke at the school, last year, in support of the GSA.

WBC is a confusing organization for many people, protesting not only organizations that support equal rights for all citizens but also military funerals. Claiming homosexuality to be an abomination and an affront to God, they protest the funerals arguing that an American military defending the freedoms established by civil rights groups on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning people therefore deserve protest as well.

At Clayton High, our contingent was happy to meet two more church members - Kin & Peggy Lavender - and members of numerous other Open and Affirming churches. Kirkwood UCC's Pastor Betsy Happel (pictured at left, center) was being interviewed by local TV news when Evangelical (soon to be Peace) UCC's Pastor Katy HawkerSelf and I spotted her. Pastor Jeff Groene of Samuel UCC, Pastor Allen Grothe of Pilgrim Congregational - St. Louis, members of their churches, and members of First Congregational - St. Louis all were there in force (that last bunch identifiable below a sign that read, "First Congregational Supports Clayton HS Students!" I, of course, thanked the bearer of the sign for having represented First Congregational of Webster Groves as well.). Eden Seminary was also well represented by faculty and students in attendance.

The event included quite a range of demonstrators - from our humble selves to a student group silk-screening "Love Conquers Hate" t-shirts as the event went on, and with characters from a Wookie to a Pretty Pony to some fellow skipping in rainbow-striped socks and sneakers wearing a black hooded, full-length cape!

For the students there were commemorative "Love Conquers Hate" t-shirts sold in advance of the day and a "Phelps-A-Thon" website inviting people to make donations per minute based on the length of time the Westboro Baptist protesters either were scheduled to protest or on the length they actually stayed. Both of these efforts were designed to turn a day potentially fraught with hatred into a very positive event in the lives of all those who participated (in the counter-protest, that is).

At 8:04, the crowd of about 1,000 (by my estimate) observed a moment of silence, and the class bells rang to summon students at 8:05. The older members of the group then turned to the students. The young people walked off to their classes to the applause and admiring shouts of an appreciative admirers.

At 8:15, as the protesters departed, the remaining counter-protesters bade them a cheerful farewell with drumming.

God bless Monday.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

We Will Be Changed

(sermon, January 22, 2012)

I am intrigued that this year’s expectation for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been identified as “change.”
We will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51), the literature prepared for this year’s Week proclaims.  And it uses as its primary text the first letter of Paul to the church at Corinth, the fifteenth chapter (vv. 51-58).  Paul there describes his own experience in the faith, having put on for all practical purposes a new identity, having died, seen the end of his world, and engaged fully and completely a new beginning likened to Christ’s resurrection.
I suppose that the expectation ought to go without saying.  If you begin attending a church, either change has occurred to you – such as a move for work or to be closer to loved ones – or it’s been foisted upon you – as when crisis or disaster strikes, those sorts of things we have come to call an act of God, so that you need a new location in order to set things straight.
But sometimes, as in the classic sense, we will ourselves choose to connect with a faith community because we sense that there is something not quite right, or even entirely wrong, with ourselves, and we need to set ourselves on a new path to “get right with God” or our neighbor… or ourselves.
We will be changed.  Won’t we?
So, maybe the planners of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity are merely stating the obvious.  The planners, this year, were clergy from Poland, which is a country that has had more than its share of change, over the last decade and a half.
For they know, as few of us in America nowadays seem to, that unity will change us.
In the United States, perhaps ironically, unity has often been a fearsome prospect.  That was the great fear in the 1940s and 1950s of the Congregational churches across this country in anticipation of the formation of the United Church of Christ.  The hue and cry went forth, warnings of a loss of the Congregational Way in the face of the organic union forming this new denomination.  Try as we might to quiet our concerns with scripture by giving the new organization a motto from the gospel according to John – “That they all may be one.” (John 17:21) – the desirability of unity was problematic, because unity changes things.  We will be changed, sometimes whether we like it or not.
And now, 55 years later, we must admit it’s true.  Things have indeed changed.  We’ve kept a lot of our former trappings, but many have changed.  I’m wearing an alb, not preaching robes.  We’ve got new liturgies in our official worship books and hymnal, seeming more Episcopalian or Lutheran sometimes than historically Congregational... worrisome for a branch of Christianity founded by Pilgrims who referred to themselves as Separatists.
But we Separatists have at least given lip-service for centuries to ameliorating the differences between ourselves and others, for the sake of doing the most good wherever possible.
We were ecumenists from the start.  About a hundred years ago among the Protestant denominations that have come to be known as “the Mainline” — Congregationalists yes, but also Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Reform and Evangelical Christians of German and Dutch ancestry — there arose a movement that came to be called ecumenism.  The word comes from the Greek word for “to inhabit,” oikoumene, but includes an understanding of ordering a household.  The word “economy” is derived from it also.
We seek common ground, within our diversity and separateness, and sometimes in spite of it, for the purpose of expanding the realm of God. 
So, within the movement, there have been groups concerned with “faith and order,” or developing a visible unity across Christian boundaries.  A “life and work” movement also arose, promoting a combination of efforts for relief and care in trouble-stricken areas of the world.  Similar groups that instead promoted religious education and evangelism across denominational lines also formed.

Logo of the
National Council of Churches of Christ
in the United States

Eventually, in 1908, the Federal Council of Churches was formed in the United States, from churches favoring the Faith and Order and Life and Work movements.  In 1950, the Federal Council became the National Council of Churches.  The founding religious bodies of the United Church of Christ were constituent organizations of the National Council, and UCC members to this day hold positions of high standing in the organization.
Catholics joined the movement in 1966 as a result of Vatican II, but refuse to join either the U.S. National Council or the World Council on the principle that reunion needs to be a return of the Protestants and Orthodox to Catholicism.
Ecumenists were the ones most identifiable in leadership against slavery, alcohol consumption and the liquor trade, women’s rights, child labor, and unjust wars... and for the 40-hour work week (claiming, “8 hours of work, 8 hours of play, 8 hours of rest, for every day”) and minimum wage.  Recently, the Christian right has often identified ecumenists as socialists or even communists.  But how many of them would trade the strides we have taken, ecumenically?
The ecumenical movement has softened its emphases over time.  Faith and Order now finds little expression except in community Thanksgiving worship services, or in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18 – 25 each year.  Individually, our local churches celebrate World Communion Sunday on the first Sunday in October.
But the Consultation on Church Union, which now continues as Churches Uniting in Christ, was an outgrowth in 1960 of the ecumenical movement which had been seeking the goal of bringing under a single structure or banner the nine denominations that have participated in it, but now simply seeks to retain much of the same sort of dialogue to be found in the Faith and Order discussions of the National and World Council of Churches. 
Imagine! A reunion of Community Churches, various brands of Methodists, the Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the UCC.  We never quite made it, but we did develop a Common Lectionary, used by many of the constituent denominations and even our local church occasionally.
The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which we use in our worship services for readings, was translated by leading ecumenical scholars from various Christian traditions and is published by the National Council of Churches, as was the Revised Standard Version before it; and the American Standard Version prior to that by the International Council for Religious Education, which was related to the Federal Council of Churches.
We will be changed.  Won’t we!
In the year 2000 there were also concordats signed between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the American Episcopal Church, affirming that their celebrations of the sacraments are virtually the same and that their clergy may lift the chalice and paten together or interchangeably at the front of their separate constituencies.  Similarly, the same Lutheran body maintains a dialogue with the Reformed tradition churches in the U.S., including the UCC.  And a world alliance of Lutherans are advancing a program of talks with the Roman Catholic Church about commonality of purpose and practice.
Meanwhile, the strongest and clearest expression of the Life and Work movement here in the Saint Louis area is the CROP Walk for Church World Service, which is a hunger relief arm of the National Council of Churches and which we participated in during October.  But another, subtler version of that same fundraiser is the springtime One Great Hour of Sharing offering, collected by mainline churches for Church World Service on the third Sunday of March, each year.
So, dare we hope for a reunion of the Church to stand together again undivided?  Need we hope for it?  Is that what we want?  More importantly, is that what God wants?
Or, is it even something reasonable to hope for?
Well, the more that we look into the distant Christian past, back to the First Century shortly after the wonders of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection took place, the more we are able to see that the union which came in the Fourth Century under the Roman Emperor Constantine was the exception rather than the rule of the Church up to that time.  Christianity was in those first three hundred years pretty much as it is now, with communities that shared expressions of faith separated from Christian communities that had differing expressions or understandings of it.
Some were united by national interests, some by charitable ones, some by persecutions they were suffering, but all by the love of God they discovered through the Messiah.
So, maybe the variety is OK.  And it’s really up to us not to permit our lack of a monolithic, over-arching, all-encompassing organization to mean that we do harm to each other.  I mean, yes, theology is important; seeking to practice our faith rightly is important; endeavoring to correct the deceptions others have accepted may even be essential.  But not if we’re going to kill each other over it, or excommunicate or even exclude.  People are people, and though we may celebrate "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Parent of us all" (Ephesians 4:5), we sin against one another and against God, but most especially against our neighbor, if we make war or pitched battle with each other.  Let us open the eyes of our hearts to accept the diversity and wide-ranging understanding of who Christ’s people are, so that we can enjoy the reunion when it comes, or comes available!
I’m reminded of the story in John, chapter 2, of the jars of water at the wedding at Cana, which Jesus changes into jars of wine.  Once Jesus interacted with them, they changed from still, simple, unassuming water into water with such potency that the guests remarked that the host had saved the best for last!
Something you may know is that in the creation of churches, if they are to grow, one of the first things we have to do is to form small groups – interest groups, age-based groups, affinity groups, groups focusing on spiritual growth and social interaction.  We intentionally divide our congregations for the sake of growing them, demanding that group members invite newcomers to be part of their groups.  We use the groups, separated though they may be, for the sake of greater unity.
And maybe the Church in the world is the same way.  We started out as many different traditions – North African, Palestinian, Asian, European.  Then, with our acceptance by the Roman Empire, we made an effort at being one, giant, monolithic, over-arching group, and endured the painful reality of empire, how human power will be imposed and exercised by the few or the one so that commonness may be the order of the day.
We would eventually learn, despite the powerful… with the Great Schism of the 1100s and the Reformation of the 1500s: Separate jars contain the same wine.  Many gifts can emerge from the same Spirit.  Many denominations can make up the same church.  Many names can nevertheless assemble the same family of God.  Uniqueness actually can promote unity.  And, everywhere in that, we will be changed!
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for his truth in his excellent Word.
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled.
Fear not, I am with thee, O be not afraid!
For I am thy God and will e’er give the aid:
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause the to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to its foes;
That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I will never, no never, no never forsake.
("How Firm a Foundation," from K. Rippon's A Selection of Hymns, 1787)
We will be changed.
We will be changed, but we need not be afraid.
Whether that change is imposed by our environment, by our God, or by ourselves, we will be changed.
If there is one certainty in living, it is that.  If there is one requirement of unity, it is that we allow others to change us, and God to change us.  And if there is any hope for us, it is the very change we will engage.  For with that change we will require unity, maybe not of mindset, maybe not of ideology, maybe not of theology, maybe even not of worldview, but of spirit.  Of spirit.  Of Holy Spirit.
We do this, willingly, in Christ’s name.