Date: Sunday June 26, 2016 United Church of Christ Anniversary Sunday
Scripture: 2 Kings 2:1-15
Sermon: Fifty-Nine and Counting
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Fifty-nine years ago this week, two predominantly white mainline denominations in the US merged to form a new church. The whole process was dominated by white men, mostly clergy. The Evangelical and Reformed Church had many congregants of German heritage. The Congregational Christian Church was strong in New England and the South. Both groups were the result of two previous denominations coming together. So this merger was seen as continuing a trend. The two churches had great differences in how they operated but were similar in their beliefs. They felt that their differences could be complementary. And so they came together to form a new organization of churches called the United Church of Christ.
They believed that their combined strengths would be even more effective in sharing the love of God and that this new union would be a spark to greater cooperation among churches. It doesn’t seem so earth shaking by today’s standards but at that time, it was an event that was rich in hope and possibility. It was bold and courageous.
It was a time in society of coming together. After World War II, the United Nations was formed. NATO was established. The World Council of Churches was created. And the National Council of Churches was formed. All of these efforts and more were aimed at bringing people together to work of the betterment of the world. Maybe after the divisions of World War II and the terrible destruction and loss of life, people wanted to try to cooperate instead of killing each other.
The formation of the United Church of Christ was full of expectation and potential. One of the primary dreams for this new church was that it would be the start of the merging of many churches and that the church, which had become very fragmented, would start to come back together. The formation of the UCC was to get the ball rolling and they were hoping for a snowball effect – expecting that the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others would eventually join in. The idea was that these two relatively smaller denominations would get things started and the bigger ones would join in. It was thought that together, the church united could have a bigger impact on the condition of the world and the future of humanity. This was a big, beautiful dream!
Anticipating this evolving unity was important to the thinking of those who worked on the forming of the UCC. This is why the verse from the Gospel of John, “That they may all be one,” was selected for the motto of the new church. This hope for continued growing cooperation was also part of why the new UCC was formed with adaptability and flexibility in mind. If other communions were going to be joining, they would need to be accommodated to feel at home. This would be easier if the church was created with an openness to change and adaptation.
The new United Church of Christ adopted a Statement of Faith that we will recite later in the service. This was a statement of common belief without being a creed, something that had to be attested to. So churches could continue to use the creeds they held dear while adding this new Statement of Faith that was part of the new church. Indeed there are still UCC churches today that regularly recite the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed, and also use the Statement of Faith.
The new UCC also incorporated congregational polity. This means that each individual congregation is responsible for its own affairs and can function as it chooses. The national church does not tell the local church what to do or how to organize itself. A church can have deacons, or a consistory, or a board of directors, of trustees, or a council, or advisors, or whatever the church thinks will work best. And the individual churches are responsible for what they do with their money, how they worship, and what they do for mission. It was felt that this would work best in terms of being flexible and adaptable to accommodating churches of greater variety. It also was important to recognize that each church was responsible for knowing what ministry was needed and fulfilling that need.
This flexibility and openness that was incorporated into the new church was very much in keeping with the teachings of the Bible. Jesus shows us how this works in his circumstances. We see how his ministry met the hungers of the people of his context both literally and spiritually. He looked at what was needed and responded. And he did not insist on fixed beliefs or dogma or proper theology from his followers. Jesus looked to God and kept that connection strong so that he would know what was needed of him. He was not constrained by the religious ideas of his day. He trusted the love of God and he adapted himself to that. The UCC was formed with that kind of intention. Religion was not to constrain us but to free us to live and serve in the spirit of divine love. There is a flexibility and adaptability to that. We never know what the need will be and we want to stay open and ready to respond.
The kind of openness that we see in the ministry of Jesus is also evident in the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures that tell stories of faith before the time of Jesus. We see this wisdom in the story of Elijah and Elisha that we heard this morning. Elijah has been a prophet of great renown and his ministry is coming to an end. His companion Elisha has been with him and is positioned to continue Elijah’s work. What will that involve? What will he be called upon to do? What will the circumstances demand? We don’t know. So, what does Elisha ask for to carry on? Money? A contacts list? Secret knowledge? A set of laws or principles? Five simple steps to eradicating other gods? Does Elisha ask for a piece of land? A book or scroll? No. Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. He wants that whole heart, that pure intention, that undivided loyalty to God. Elisha has no idea what the future will bring. He has no way of knowing what will be needed of him. But he knows that he needs to be flexible and adaptable, willing and ready, for whatever God may need of him. So Elisha asks for that spirit of openness and willingness and boldness going into the future. That is all he needs. That is all he will count on. Everything else will fall into place.
The church is to carry on that bold witness. We are to assess the hungers and needs of our day. And to bring the eternal, universal love of God to bear on the circumstances of our time. This requires constant change and flexibility and adaptability. And the faster society changes, the more prepared the church needs to be to tailor is mission and message to the times. We must be nimble and agile and creative. And the bigger the issues, the bolder the witness that is needed.
When we think about our individual life journey, we can see how we are changing and growing. We learn though experience and intellectual knowledge. Our ideas about God, ourselves, faith, the world, the Bible, change and evolve. We grow in wisdom and maturity. Changing times invite new awareness and understanding. To hold on to fixed beliefs and behaviors can stunt our personal growth. We remain immature. This causes conflict within ourselves, with others, and with the world. To be healthy human beings, we are expected to change and adapt in our consciousness.
We also see this constant change and evolution in nature. Tectonic plates are continually shifting. Land forms erode and amass. The beaches change. Animal and plant life adapt and change. Nature and creation are constantly in a state of change and adaptation.
So, of course, it makes sense that the church, as the body of Christ, would always be growing and changing and adapting to be an effective witness to the eternal universal love of God. A church with beliefs and actions that are not changing and adapting is dying, or worse yet, having a negative impact on society and the world.
Many in the church look to the past and want to reclaim the past. They want to go back. Or use the strategies, ideas, and theology of the past and apply them to today’s circumstances. That can be detrimental and destructive. Any church that preaches that homosexuality is a sin is contributing to a culture of intolerance and violence. Did Jesus promote intolerance? Hardly. In fact, he is known for just the opposite. Did Jesus promote violence? No, just the opposite. So the thinking of the past cannot be employed today without serious considerations of the consequences. And when those consequences are at odds with the way of Jesus, then the thinking and the message needs to be changed. The church exists to look at the world, to focus on the needs of the world today and tomorrow, and to bring divine love to bear in the world. This requires discernment, adaptation, and change.
The UCC has sought to be a church that is open and willing to be a witness to the God of love in the circumstances of today and tomorrow. As times change, as challenges emerge, the UCC responds. While we appreciate traditions, theologies, and wisdom of the past, we are not locked into that heritage. We learn from it and gain wisdom, but we are not tied to perpetuating the past. That is visibly demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus. He draws from the past but he extends it to meet the new circumstances and is not afraid to break new ground. “You’ve heard it said, but I say. . .” In the Hebrew prophets and in Revelation, we are told that God is doing a new thing. So our religion is devoted to a God that does new things, that changes, that expects humanity to evolve and grow in understanding and knowledge. As we say in UCC, we believe that “God is still speaking.”
Well, despite the grand hopes of the founders of the UCC, Christians have not joined together in this country to form one great church. There may even be more division among churches now. Many churches do not want to work with the UCC because we are considered too liberal. Too bold. Too unconventional. They prefer to be more tightly defined and controlled. Well, so be it.
But the openness and flexibility that the founders embraced has borne fruit in other ways. The UCC is able to make a bold witness and is not tied to perpetuating an institution but to living out a mission of universal love and community.
The founders of the UCC would never have expected the church they were establishing would bring a case to the Supreme Court of the United States to make marriage between people of the same gender legal. They could never have anticipated such a thing. When the UCC was founded, interracial marriage was illegal and gay marriage was not even on the back burner. It was unthinkable. And yet look what has happened in just 59 years. And yet maybe they would not be surprised because they were intent on forming a church that would be faithful and responsive to changing times. They wanted to be open to the spirit of God doing new things. They were hoping to embrace a theological openness and an organizational openness that would let God in and let love out – fully and freely without constraint.
Now in the UCC, we are expanding our understanding of our motto, “That they may all be one,” to the human family as a whole, and we are engaged in interfaith dialogue and working with other religions not just with other Christians. We are not staying tied to Christian exclusivity and superiority. We are welcoming God, still speaking, doing a new thing.
Like Elisha and like Jesus, the United Church of Christ is committed to the realm of God, one beautiful, diverse, human community living in harmony with creation. May we as a congregation be always willing, open and ready. Amen.