Sermon UCC Identity 2014

Date: June 22, 2014
Scripture Lesson: Genesis 21:8-21
Sermon: Faith and Freedom
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In 1839, a group of Africans who had been brought to Havana by Spanish slave traders were sold at auction. They were being transported down the coast of Cuba when they revolted. The boat they were on, the Amistad, eventually ended up off the shores of Connecticut. The saga of the capture, imprisonment, and legal battles went on for years. Former President John Quincy Adams argued the case before the Supreme Court. The Amistad was constantly in the papers, trinkets were sold, masks of the Africans were on display, people came out to see them and were charged a fee to do so. Members of the Congregational Church, a predecessor to the United Church of Christ, became involved helping the Africans to ultimately attain their freedom and return to Africa. This case provided a great deal of publicity and inspiration for the abolitionist movement in the US which ultimately succeeded in dismantling the slave system in this country.

The United Church of Christ formed in 1957 and its 4 predecessor denominations have deep roots in this country and in Europe linking faith and freedom. Yes, there was support of the abolitionist movement. There was empowerment of former slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War. Over 500 primary and secondary schools were started by the UCC ancestors as well as numerous colleges including Tougaloo, Talledega, LeMoyne-Owen, Fisk, Dillard, and Houston-Tillotson. The focus was on education because of the belief that knowledge sets you free.

The UCC and its predecessors have worked for freedom for women supporting voting rights, reproductive rights, ordination, and equal pay for women.

The UCC has worked for freedom of the airwaves. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the UCC and asked that we come up with a strategy for getting black people and the civil rights movement on the news and on TV. The UCC took the issue to the courts and won. The airwaves were public property and had to reflect the diversity of the population.

The UCC has promoted freedom for sexual minorities supporting civil rights, social rights, and the freedom to marry. The UCC was the first mainline denomination to support equal rights in marriage for same gender couples and continues that ministry through the court case in North Carolina today.

The UCC and its predecessors have worked for freedom for Native American Indians, Asians and Pacific Islanders, as well as other ethnic groups and cultures.

Why is freedom so important to our faith and specifically to the UCC faith tradition? Again and again, our scriptures show us a God committed to freedom. Judeo/Christian creation myths tell of a God that gives the human species free will. There you have it. Freedom from the beginning. God chooses in freedom to give free will to the people. We are intended to be free. Again and again in scripture we see the freedom of God. God freely choosing to forgive. God choosing to change God’s mind. God choosing to share in human life and human history. God liberating people from limiting circumstances and social constructs that deny dignity, take advantage, and abuse. Our faith tradition shows us a God that freely chooses involvement with humanity in ways that promote freedom. And we, the human species, are created in the image of that free and freeing God.

We listened to a beautiful and awful story of God and freedom this morning. Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are in an untenable situation. God chooses Abraham and Sarah to be the forebears of many nations. But no babies come. Sarah, getting up in years, gives her personal maid to Abraham as a surrogate mother. Thus Ishmael is born. He is the apple of his father’s eye. Until, years later, Sarah does have a child, Isaac. Then Isaac is the favored one. And Sarah wants to protect Isaac’s interests, his inheritance, and his position. So she treats Hagar and Ishmael miserably. While all that goes on is well within the social constructs of the day, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Finally, Sarah demands that Abraham put them out – of the home, of the family, of the clan, of the future. And Hagar and Ishmael are abandoned to the wilderness.

There, Hagar laments the impending death of her teen age son, Ishmael. But a well of water appears, a sign that they will not die. Hagar cares for Ishmael, finds him a wife from her home country of Egypt, and Ishmael becomes an expert hunter. They not only survive, but they are able to thrive. Tradition holds that they become the forebears of a great nation. From Hagar and Ishmael come Islam and the Muslim tradition.

Yes, Hagar and Ishmael are banished into the threatening wilderness. But the Hebrew verb used for their situation is also the same verb used in reference to the Exodus and the Hebrews leaving slavery in Egypt. As Pharaoh sent away the Hebrew slaves, so Hagar and Ishmael are sent away. They too, will wander in the wilderness and be sustained by God. In other words, they are banished but they are also freed. For one thing, they are freed from the painful, abusive family context they were in. They are freed from being slaves to Sarah and Abraham. They are freed from being cheated by the favoritism shown to Isaac. They are freed to create a new future for themselves. They are freed to become the ancestors of a great people. God’s hopes and dreams are realized through Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael as well as through Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. Both families are blessed. Abraham does indeed become the parent of many nations, the 12 tribes of Israel, the Christian community which emerges from Judaism, and the multitudes of Arabs and others who embrace Islam. God freely fulfills God’s promises to Abraham through Isaac and Ishmael. God is not confined by national or tribal boundaries. God blesses not only one stream of people, but many streams of people, religions, traditions, and cultures. God is a god of all, all people and all creation. God is free to love all and is not limited to caring for one people or one group or one place. In freedom, God acts in new, unexpected ways that outpace our imaginations.

In the gospel of John, we are told that Jesus teaches, “The Holy Spirit blows where it wills.” That unpredictable, uncontrollable Spirit is at work in the world. Doing new things. Fanning the flames of justice, integrity, dignity, peace, and compassion. In seeking to be open to that Spirit, the United Church of Christ desires to be a church that is free, open to the future, ready to act, responding to the needs of the world. It is a church seeking to be receptive to the magnificent scope and creativity of God’s blessing.

While we are a relatively new denomination, a mere 57 years old this week, our commitment to freedom lies deeply in the predecessor churches from which the United Church of Christ was formed. Our ancestors in the United Church of Christ were committed to freedom – of belief, of conviction, and of conscience.

The UCC has its roots in several reformation and separatist movements that were seeking greater freedom in the expression of their faith. Among them the Protestants of Germany and Switzerland who came to this country bringing their versions of Christianity including the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Church. There were also the Pilgrims and Puritans of England seeking a context in which to practice their faith freely. We all learn in school of the Pilgrims traveling from England to Holland where they were targeted by the Dutch. Then they determined to come to this continent, this wilderness, self exiled from the confines of their former culture, seeking the freedom to live out their faith. We learn of the trials and hardships they faced. And yet they were sustained on their journey. God provided through the help of the Indians who taught these refugees, these immigrants, to hunt and fish and farm. We have our roots among those who have been seeking to embrace the liberating spirit of God.

As a blend of four different denominations and many cultures and ethnicities, the United Church of Christ offers an expression of Christianity that reflects the freedom of God to bless in many ways. An important part of the freedom embedded in the UCC is theological freedom. When the UCC was formed in 1957 from its several streams the decision was made not to insist on a creed for this new communion. Instead, there would be a statement of faith; an affirmation of belief without insisting on personal commitment to a specific set of theological tenets which would include some people and not others. There would not be insistence on only one right way to believe. So, in the UCC we have the Statement of Faith that shares a version of how God is known. This Statement was originally written with masculine language for God. That was customary in the 1950‘s and early 60‘s when it was written. But as the awareness of God’s freedom increased the church moved away from exclusively male language for God in the 1970’s. A new version of the Statement of Faith was prepared that is in the form of a hymn of praise in which God is referred to as “you”, in the second person – no gender specific pronoun necessary! Again, this is an example of the UCC embracing the Spirit and the new things God is doing to promote freedom and blessing.

In the spirit of freedom, the UCC promotes debate and encourages inquiry and exploration. We are a church seeking to integrate the many new developments in science and technology as well as in theology and culture.

At a local UCC clergy gathering several years ago, someone asked who believed in the resurrection of the body of Jesus. Guess what? The group was split about 50-50. So not only do we have diversity in terms of ethnicity and culture, we also have theological diversity as an expression of our freedom.

In the UCC, our commitment to freedom extends to every congregation in the form of congregational polity. Each congregation is responsible for its own affairs. The wider church does not tell the congregation what to do, how to worship, how to be organized, what to do with its money, what curriculum or hymnals to use. None of that is dictated to the local church. The local church is responsible for listening and discerning its calling and fulfilling God’s dreams for that church in its service to the world. The local congregation has the freedom to fulfill God’s intentions for that congregation.

At our recent orientation for new members, we noted certain things are customary in the UCC overall but are done differently at LUCC. For instance, it is customary in the UCC for communion to be open to any and all baptized Christians. Here at LUCC, we welcome everyone to participate who would like to. We don’t draw a line at baptized Christians. That is our choice as we feel led to embody the universal love of God in Christ Jesus. And we are free in our tradition to do this. There is a UCC church in Oregon with an ordained UCC pastor that meets weekly for worship on Monday nights for a drum circle and Reiki for those who would like it. In the UCC we have this freedom because our wider church family has entrusted to us the responsibility to be who God calls us to be. So we encourage freedom – in our social ministry as well as our theological orientation and our practical engagement.

The prophet Jeremiah gives us the image of clay being shaped and used by God. Our tradition seeks to be an expression of flexibility and adaptability in changing times. A church willing and receptive to integrating the sciences as well as the arts with faith is a free church ready to respond and grow and carry the gospel into the uncharted territory of the future while learning from the past. A church willing to listen to many differing voices is a church ready to serve the world in whatever ways God intends. We seek to be malleable, open to God’s leading and shaping of us as individuals, as congregations, and as a wider church so that we may be used by God to meet the needs of the world in each and every age and location.

Hagar and Ishmael, were trapped in a bad situation. They saw no hope in their future. There are many people, the world over today, who feel trapped in a society and cultural context that is hopeless. There are many, even in our communities and neighborhoods who feel they have been abandoned in the wilderness. We are being strangled by greed, consumerism, self absorption, poverty, and violence. We are trapped by economic systems, social attitudes, and even religious beliefs that are outmoded and outdated for our time. We are overwhelmed with information and yet unable to apply our morals and principles to our decisions as individuals or as a country. The speed of change in our society makes us feel like aliens and strangers in our own context because we cannot keep up. We are trapped by the confines of hierarchy and patriarchy. Outmoded thinking does not keep up with new developments in and out of the church. Many, many people today are untethered, wandering, and feeling disconnected despite ubiquitous access to the Internet. This is not freedom. This is abandonment and alienation.

Yet in this situation, as God provided for Hagar and Ishmael, God provides the church to sustain people on their journey. As God provided water for the Hebrews in the wilderness, for Hagar and Ishmael, and for the Samaritans of Jesus’ day, God is sustaining us today. Through the church, God provides us a home, a place to belong, an oasis, a foundation, direction for our lives. In freedom, God chooses to offer the church as a place to feel rooted and yet to grow. The church liberates us from the confines of social and economic systems that promote abuse and harm. The church has good news for the world.

My brother is a UCC pastor, and at a recent conference, he was in conversation with a theologian and church leader with extensive knowledge of the church in the US and world wide. This expert, who is not UCC, told him, that among Protestant churches, the denominations that would have staying power for the future were the Episcopal church and the UCC. The Episcopal because there are people who simply love the liturgy. And the UCC because of the horizontal, egalitarian, democratic character of the church that makes the church nimble, flexible, and able to offer the gospel in ways that have authenticity for a specific setting.

And guess what? In the latest Still Speaking Magazine put out by the UCC, I read: “More new congregations have been welcomed into the United Church of Christ in the last 7 years than at any time since the 1960’s.” [Still Speaking Magazine Spring/Summer 2014]

Faith is that living water, that water of blessing we celebrate at baptism, that pool of refreshment that sustains us in the freedom to co-create a world in which all can enjoy the blessings God is giving to the whole world in ways beyond our wildest imaginings. The well is deep. The water is free. Happy anniversary UCC. May there be many more good years ahead. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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