A UCC pastor from Massachusetts recently wrote an article in honor of the 55th anniversary of the denomination. I was struck by her opening observation that despite 55 years of good work, we are nevertheless largely unknown.
“If asked to identify a UCC church, most people in our area simply look perplexed. A few may have seen signs with the UCC name, but most have no real knowledge of what the UCC is all about.”
Her urban, Massachusetts world and ours are not so different. Part of our conversation today, here, is about advertising, getting the word out. We are a remarkable denomination with a remarkable history; we are “doing church” differently, but for all many folk know, we’re a church more concerned with creeds than current events, more concerned with church order than the common good, more concerned with right thinking than with broad thinking.
The UCC is one of the newest denominations in the United States, formed by the joining together of four different denominations in 1957. But even that basic fact has a story that is representative of who we are today. The Congregational Church was one of the largest of the four denominations. In many towns, especially across New England, it was the church to which you had to belong, partly because if you wanted to have a role in community decision making, or if you wanted to vote, you needed to be Congregational.
Our status was reflected by our property – large, white and located in the center of town on a beautiful green.
It almost goes without saying, given our wealth and status, that a union was not easily accomplished. It took many years of intense conversation leading up to our birthdate in 1957, and it took many years of sometimes acrimonious debate after that birthdate for the UCC to reach some sense of security in our formation because the union was not only a union of a “powerful church” with smaller, much less powerful churches, and so a handing over of some power, but also a blending of traditions that are as different as catholicism is from protestantism.
The result of that decades long struggle between the four denominations was a union that defies easy description; but one that embraces difference of opinion and appreciates a central theme of the gospel – a critique of power and a willingness to abide Jesus’ insight that the first are, by and large, actually last, and that the last shall be first.
This saying, from our reading of the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Thomas is classic Jesus: in one short, memorable phrase, he turns everything upside down. This saying is also found in the Gospel of Matthew (20:16). In Matthew the saying follows the story of the vineyard workers who start work at different times during the day, agreeing only to a fair wage. At the end of the day the landowner pays them all the same liveable wage, no matter their start time. The landowner rebuts his challengers, with the line, the last shall be first and the first last. Many feel that the story and the saying don’t fit well together. I agree. It is quite likely that the story and the saying were not originally, in Jesus’s telling, put together. Perhaps Matthew thought he would make a rather nonmemorable story more memorable by appending this little saying as recorded by Thomas. No matter, both saying and story straightforwardly and significantly challenge the social script — that unconsciously followed path through life that is set by the social order of which we are a part.
If you were to ask me what I thought the common thread running through all of Jesus’ sayings and stories was, I might suggest it was that Jesus offered a critique of the common assumptions about how people ought to order their lives. The critique argues that bigger is not better; that the top is the bottom and the bottom offers more than you expect, that to gain your life, you have to lose it first, that richer is poorer and that poorer is richer.
This critique is based on Jesus’ awareness that the world is ours, not God’s. We take our cues from the world which will provide all the answers we need to our most pressing questions about living. Who am I? What will I do with my life? What should I value most? Whom should I love? Our social world (humanly created) can easily lay out the script for our existence and provide us with an identity and a purpose. And in fact, aims to provide a role for us. In the social setting, in our culture, we know our lines; we know where we should stand, and with whom and where not to stand and with whom we should not associate.
The reason Jesus held the imaginations of so many for so long, is that he had an important insight into this situation. He realized that the world provides a script for us to blindly follow. He realized that this script is not a necessary one — that we can, and usually should, break from it. Jesus realized that the script by which most of us run our lives is invented and because it’s merely human, leaves us wanting.
When the powerful congregationalists (our forebears) agreed to join forces with the German Evangelical and Reformed churches and various smaller associations known as the Christian Connection (which had their origins in Lyndon, Vermont), we were attempting to re-imagine the script. Arguing in word and deed that the acquisition of power and autonomy (that favorite congregational word) is not what we are about — but that living in covenant and unity is absolutely what its about.
It is therefore not too surprising to learn, if you didn’t know it already, that the UCC has always been among the first to call for actions on issues of inclusivity and justice. This is an important part of our heritage, and defines our social position not as liberal or conservative, but as bearing witness to the insight of Jesus that the last shall be first.
We were the first to ordain an African-American pastor, way back in 1785; the first woman in 1853; the first openly gay person in 1972; and first to affirm same-gender marriage equality in 2005 – all instances of challenging the script and of allowing the last the first spot.
One of the several interesting and well crafted mottoes of the UCC is that “our faith is 2000 years old, but our thinking is not.” It is precisely this wonderful combination of tradition and progressive thinking makes the United Church of Christ important in today’s highly scripted world and such a bearer of hope for so many.
What this means, aside from the witness to the very real possibility that the script handed you is not necessarily your lot, is that we take seriously the notion that truth is not predefined, but arrived at in conversation – conversation with good minded folk, who take seriously the notion that truth has nothing to fear from conversation.
Within our church, there are a wide range of beliefs, and there is room for them all in honest conversation.
If there is one thing that disturbs me about the current state of the United Church of Christ, it is its timidity in arguing truth. We are more and more likely to say that within the UCC there are a wide range of beliefs and that there is room for them all, without the important addition that there is room for them all in honest conversation. For the argument must be that we are not in fact an “anything-goes-church.” To accept the insight of Jesus about a script is to accept the requirement that evaluate one script, the script of the world’s with any other script we might freely choose.
We say that God is still speaking, not because we think that we should not be speaking, but precisely because the conversation is not locked up in some ancient books we call scripture, but continues in the good faith efforts of the people of God who want to communicate something about their experience of God’s hand in challenging the stifling script of their lives.
The fact that not all people in our church or our denomination agree on all aspects of faith or tradition, or have the same experience of God. That’s OK — in fact, that’s essential. We do not love and respect each other because we are the same, but precisely because we have differences.
There are too few places in today’s society that allow a safe space to speak the truth in love, to disagree, and still come together in worship, mission and fellowship.
Given this valuable role the UCC has to play in our society, I want to make a proposal.
One can only, authentically speak about the meaning of one’s chosen script, from that script. My script is not big enough and the conversation by which truth is discerned not present. So, I would like to honor the grand tradition we have of welcoming different, considered voices to the table by creating a process whereby you, if or when you feel moved, have the opportunity to lead worship with me.
Many congregations I’ve been a part of, have had lay leaders. I propose something more significant than that. I am hoping that together we might create a worship experience that engages your conversation with our tradition, using your script.
This proposal has the merit of addressing several of the issues facing our church:
- The first is that it invites direct involvement with our denomination and church. If the UCC is to survive — this involvement is critical. It is our denomination.
- Second it has the merit of letting others on our pews learn more about our pew mates. We should be more than names to each other. Such knowledge is vital for a congregation that wants to grow.
- Third the proposal might hook you into worship in a new way, by reason of simply having been involved in its planning and execution. Investment and commitment is active.
- And finally, of course, it allows for more viewpoints, which is critical to a church that believes that God is still speaking.
Like music, you have gifts to share, and we have enshrined that responsibility to share them in community with our motto, my favorite: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”