First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
John 17: 1-11 and Acts 1:6-14
Easter 7A and Ascension - May 28, 2017
Nearly every Sunday, we begin our worship service by remembering together that our congregation joins with others throughout the United Church of Christ in proclaiming that “no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey….we are all welcome here.”
What a bold thing to say!
Since we say it every week, I think we sometimes forget what a radical statement it is. I know many folks in this room have been in churches where such a statement would never be spoken aloud. This summer, I am celebrating ten years of ministry as a pastor in the United Church of Christ and in this decade of ministry, I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with people who are new to the UCC and astounded at this statement of radical hospitality..
I’ve heard people say things like, “Everyone’s welcome. Ooookay, but I’m divorced….but I’m bisexual….but I’m Catholic….but I’m atheist….but I have a lot of questions….but I am homeless….but I am mentally ill…..but….but...but…” And it has been one of my life’s greatest honors to be able to look all of these people in the eye and say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
This is not to say, of course, that all BEHAVIORS are welcome. Our congregations must be places where people can trust they will be treated with dignity and respect. There is no room for hateful behaviors in a Christian church, but there is grace and space as we work to be in right relationship with one another.
I may not say this enough from the pulpit, but I want to say it now: I love the United Church of Christ.
I am so thankful I found my way into this small corner of Christianity. The UCC opened itself to me through the good people of First United Church of Bloomington, Indiana - where I was a member before I later served as their pastor. David and I began worshiping with them back in 2005. We had recently moved to Indiana and, upon discovering that none of the United Methodist Churches there were fully welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ people, we decided we just weren’t willing to go back to being a part of a church without openly LGBTQ people filling the pews. We had spent three years at Northaven UMC in Dallas, Texas and had glimpsed a bit of the Beloved Community in that congregation. After years of ministering side by side with LGBTQ folks, we just weren’t willing to go back.
And so we decided we might venture out and try something new. This was hard for us. David was an at-least-fourth--generation Methodist and I had just graduated from a United Methodist seminary. At the time, I was feeling a bit adrift as a Christian. I had so many questions about God and the Bible and what it meant to follow Jesus. To be completely honest, I left seminary wondering if I could even call myself a Christian anymore. I didn’t know if the Church was wide enough for me.
So I sat at home and googled about the United Church of Christ because I remember Sue Zschoche, who had been my professor in college, telling me how much she loved her church, First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS.
That Holy Spirit is a funny ol’ gal isn’t she?
And David and I walked into First United Church on a fall day back in 2005 - a church that happens to be UCC and American Baptist, incidentally - and we felt the Spirit move there and the rest is history.
I loved the openness, the commitment to asking hard questions, the relentless focus on hospitality and social justice. I loved that people there came from every conceivable religious background. I loved that I was accepted - heresies and all - and that even a person who wasn’t quite sure if she was Christian anymore could struggle out loud and still be welcomed.
As I began to discern a call to ordained ministry, I learned a lot more about the UCC - my new home. I traveled to the 50th anniversary General Synod where I heard Bill Moyers and Marian Wright Edelman and not-yet-president Barack Obama speak. I came to understand more about the diversity of the United Church of Christ as I met people from much more conservative churches than the one I served. I had the veil pulled back a little as I witnessed some wider church arguments and began to understand the tensions of living together in covenant under such a big tent. And I marched in the streets of Hartford with others from all over the UCC who cared deeply about justice.
I learned that the official motto of the UCC is “that they may all be one” and that that statement comes to us on the lips of Jesus in a prayer. In John’s gospel, as Jesus is preparing for his execution, he prays….not for himself, but for his followers. And for us - those who would come thousands of years later. He prayed that we could all be one.
Christian unity is really complicated stuff. After all, how could we possible all be ONE when we have such different ideas about what it means to follow Jesus? And why would we even want to be ONE with those who preach hate in Jesus’s name?
I have no way of knowing what Jesus really meant. Maybe he actually envisioned a worldwide church where we really all hung together as one big organization. But I think Jesus was a pretty smart guy and probably knew that wasn’t possible. So what I tend to think he meant was that we should remember we ARE ONE. And that doesn’t mean that we are all in agreement or that we like the same kinds of music or that we pray the same way or that we understand scripture the same. We aren’t the same but we are ONE. We are tied together in covenant with one another - whether we like it or not - because we are all trying to follow Jesus.
Now might be a good moment for a tiny vocabulary lesson. This idea of all Christians somehow being one - being connected - has a fancy name: ecumenism. So when you see Christians coming together you can say they’re doing ecumenical ministry.
This is different than, but related to, interfaith work. That’s the idea of people coming together across religious lines. When the Mennonites come to serve at Second Helping with us - that’s ecumenical. When we invite our Muslim friends to come and teach us - that’s interfaith. Make sense?
I am big fan of ecumenical AND interfaith work, by the way. As I know many of you are, too. And the UCC as a whole is committed to both of these things.
Churches like the UCC who enjoy doing ecumenical work often say “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” And this sounds easy and good. It is, of course, quite difficult in practice because who can say what the essentials are? That’s one of the questions currently ripping apart the United Methodist Church - is the question of human sexuality an essential? Or a non-essential?
But this difficulty over determining what’s essential for followers of Jesus goes beyond human sexuality, of course. There are some really big questions - Who wrote the BIble? Do you have to believe in the Trinity to be a Christian? Do you have to believe in God to call yourself a Christian? Many would say “yes,obviously,” but there was a big question about that just last year when Greta Vosper, a longtime pastor in the United Church of Canada, was eventually defrocked because she came out as an atheist.
And then there are smaller, but still important, questions - what hymns do we sing? What do we call God? What translation of the Bible do we use?
It goes on and on. As I’ve grown fond of saying over the years, it turns out Christianity is a big place.
The United Church of Christ is also a big place. Despite being small in numbers - our denomination has just over million members compared to, oh, 70 million Roman Catholics in the U.S. - we are incredibly diverse.
This is the case in our own congregation, too, of course. Just for fun, I want to do a little “raise your hand” exercise to highlight the ecumenical nature of our own congregation. Please raise your hand if you have ever identified as Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, nondenominational, Methodist, Baptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, Lutheran, Mennonite….what else am I missing?
And then, how about raise your hand if you’ve always been UCC (or one of our predecessor denominations)?
One of the things I love about the UCC is that we are trying mightily to live out Jesus’s call to “be one.” We take covenant very seriously - this idea that we are called to be in relationship with God and with one another….and a very real understanding that this is not always easy.
Last week in adult Sunday School, Sean finished up our class on understanding faith throughout the lifecycle by talking with us about James Fowler’s stages of religious development. There are six stages in this framework and the fifth stage is called “Conjunctive Faith.” The idea is that we are all hopefully working to reach the point where we understand we don’t have all the answers. We realize that God is much bigger than we could have imagined and that we are all on a journey of discovering that “unknown God” that Sue talked about so beautifully last week.
Those who have reached the Conjunctive Faith stage have a deep and abiding respect for others’ understandings of what it means to be Christian. When we are able to pray together even though we might disagree with the style of prayer - there is humility in coming together as one even as we respect each other’s differences. Your prayer doesn't have to be my prayer in order for me to be present with you while it is being prayed. And, in fact, praying in this new way might move me further along my own journey of discovering God and living more fully into the Ways of Jesus.
A Conjunctive Faith is about connection, communion, covenant. It’s about remembering that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not.
As we close out his Easter season and move into the time of Pentecost, we remember the story of Jesus’s ascension. When he flew up into the clouds, he told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Part of being witnesses for Christ - part of showing the world what it looks like to try and follow in the Way of Jesus - is a spirit of unity. Not that we are all the same or that we agree on everything….but that we recognize we are all connected. Every living being on this planet is connected on some level and it is a life’s work to remember and honor those connections.
That we may all be one. May it be so.