How the UCC Can Be a Church: Old First E-pistle 07.26.19

How the UCC Can Be a Church: Old First E-pistle 07.26.19

This E-pistle is what last Sunday’s sermon would have been had the elevator gotten fixed! 

When the elevator repair man reported late last Friday afternoon that the new digital board was  installed and working, but there were unexpected problems with the relays, and the elevator would not be operational on Sunday… When we got the disappointing news that worship would be in the Social Hall for the third week in a row, we began thinking — ‘with the bulletin already’ last minute! —  what could we do differently THIS Sunday? We had known both possible locations but had wanted to plan for being back in the Sanctuary. 

This sermon, er, this  E-pistle, was replaced in the last minute adaptations we made. 

Have you noticed we have taken advantage of our unplanned worship sojourn in the Social Hall? Each Sunday, we’ve tried something slightly different in worship. God CAN work through all things! We miss the beauty and sanctity of worshiping in the Sanctuary. But I am proud of our commitment to worshiping in a place accessible to all, tinny upright piano notwithstanding!

Worshiping so close together in the Social Hall does leave some feeling a little vulnerable and exposed— there’s less anonymity (particularly for newcomers) and privacy than in the Sanctuary where we can spread out and not have to look at each other. (I told someone today that if we worshiped in the Social Hall every Sunday, without any effort, Old First would end up a more tightly knit congregation of deeper relationships).

Why not look for silver linings, when we don’t have much choice anyway? Why not explore how sitting in the round can change the dynamics of  worship? Why not try other ways of being in our worship life together? I know I like having you all closer. It makes interacting more natural. Worshipers volunteer more in the social hall, even uninvited. I feel that when I am preaching, but also during prayers. So over the last few weeks, you served one another communion, and you moved around to sit with different people during worship. Once we did the Affirmation of Faith as a call and response. Last Sunday, we created our Affirmation of Faith impromptu out of your individual, in-the-moment witnesses. And each week, prayers have  flowed more freely, and people who would never stand up front participate.  

And last Sunday we substituted a “Stump the Pastor“ session for the planned sermon because… why not? The congregation speaks more readily in the tighter, encircled space. That session turned out to be about how free will makes room for suffering. But this is the sermon I would have preached. We had two readings for Sunday: 

Amos 8:1-12 that, frankly, I found rather threatening in light of the current, common and apparently national disregard for taking care of ‘the least of these.’ Can you read God’s being fed up with and unwilling to further overlook Israel’s wrongdoing without fearing God’s shaking God’s head over the wrongdoing in our land, the disregard, the mistreatment and the demonization of people in our nation today? 

Luke 10:38-42 where Jesus seems to prefer Mary’s contemplative piety over Martha’s active service. I confess my own bias with this story: sitting at Jesus’ feet, rather than sounding like a rewarding devotion, often sounds to me like a bit of escapist spirituality. Perhaps, that means I’m a Martha Christian, and Jesus is talking directly to me? 

When I planned the preaching schedule, those two lessons seemed to contradict. The first making clear God cares about our doing what’s right AND needed such that we help create a situation in which justice is serves and people’s needs are met. The second seemed to suggest that sometimes everything that needs to be done, even the most basic and necessary, must be put aside in order that we can be only with God. 

That apparent contradiction reminded me of a concern a couple came to see me about earlier this year. They were new to Old First and struggling with our focus, ethos, style. Or, in their experience, our lack of concern over and attention to “what are in faith the important things.” They explained that in all the other churches they had participated in, there was great emphasis on “right theology.” There was strict attention to detail and definition, exact words, even hair splitting. I know of these churches in contemporary America. 

But as my friends were describing this experience of church to me, I was reminded of my church history class in seminary and a theological division that went on for 7 centuries — between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Church in the West over the addition of one word, filioque, to the Nicene Creed! Broken down to the simplest, the argument was whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father AND the Son.

Maybe it’s because I am UCC (?!?!), but really, could this theological fine-point — minutiae even — could it make that great of a difference? I mean, could we ever know, and isn’t unknowability a signal of unimportance? Did anyone need to divide, much less fight over an 8-letter Latin word in a 4th Century creed until the 11th century? In the UCC, we borrow from Augustine, and relax into “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” But in the history of the church, the Filioque Controversy became a sort of ethereal holy war about orthodoxy, anathema and the power of who gets to decide. 

My friends kept impressing upon me, “It felt like, ‘if your faith was just a little off, if you didn’t know and believe whatever right belief was, you’d miss the proverbial boat and never make it to that other shore…”

My friends were not wrong in their perception that the UCC is different. We are a church that doesn‘t worry much about orthodoxy. I don’t think there’s much faith around Old First in orthodoxy being able to save us! …That’s probably a good thing since orthodoxy is somewhat rare in these parts.  

In the contemporary UCC, we are inheritors from the Congregationalists’ foundational commitment to freedom. Their logic was that one has to be free of all outside, worldly authority so that one is compelled to follow nothing BUT the Holy Spirit’s leading. That understanding of the crucial role of freedom in a faith life developed out of a dissenting movement from a hierarchical church with power to determine how and where and when and what people could assemble over religiously. In time, the commitment to freedom developed from the local congregation as a self-determining Body of Christ free from the control of Bishops or even church tradition to a fairly untethered, individual freedom of conscience. (It’s not total historical chance that Unitarian Univseralism develops out of the Massachusetts Congregationalists!) 

This is where we land as a non-creedal Christian community. We don’t think that differences of theological understanding need to separate us in different camps or communions, churches or congregations. Some can believe in the virgin birth, while others do not. People I love and trust in our church believe that life ends when our bodies die, and I believe that God loves us too much to let death be the end of us. We aren’t concerned that we need creeds as tests; they are rather affirmations and statements of faith. If our relationship to Jesus is enough to cause us to want to worship and serve and live together as the body of Christ, that is, by God’s grace be more than enough. 

But were my friend trained by the dogmatic side of the church aisle going to be able to make heads or tails of such minimalist theology? Was “Jesus alone” going to be enough for them? Or was our theological openness going to feel like we didn’t care? Or weren’t really church, or Christian? I was left with a decision. How best to explain our position to someone who is coming out of a more conservative church background? I have had people in the past confess (or complain?) that when they started at Old First, we didn’t always feel like church to them. 

They come from church settings whose immediate objective was impressing upon people the ultimate choice before them. Worship was often organized around a life or death decision. The whole, holy point of church was to get people to see and believe what‘s right. Or who’s right. And often along the way,  who’s not. And that is not so much how we go about faith. Rather, we try and create some space for grace where God can work on us. Our focus tends to be more on what God is doing because we know painfully the limits of our own abilities. If there is hope, it’s not so much in what we can pull off, but what God can do despite us. You seem this same difference of focus in the theology between infant and believer’s baptism. And I often point out that Christianity is less about who is right and more about how much you love. I might be even more on point if I were to conclude that formula by saying “it’s about how much you are loved.” 

How could I explain meaningfully how our Christian community is less concerned about orthodoxy, our choices and our getting it right? I could talk about and explain as I already have about our non-creedal Christianity. But is faith without a common “We believe…”  going to make sense to someone for whom Christianity is about a certain  faith that saves us? I could try talking about how I suspect that UCC is practically a universalist church community. But I suspect that might just sound beyond the pale… that we’re preaching something that for my friends might not be Christian anymore. 

Anyway, both those tacks are really tautological — just using descriptions of what results from the way we are to explain the why behind the way we are. Maybe the only way really to understand is for someone, if they can, to stick with, to live into, even unsettled and uncomfortably, until it starts to sink into them and make sense? Isn’t all faith more of a lived logic than an intellectual argument anyway? We believe in living into God’s grace, not so much so that we can change ourselves, but that we are changed by that grace almost despite ourselves. It’s about exposure and time and being changed, often little by little.  

More grace than law. That’s when I realized how I might explain being UCC to our newcomers. Paul opens the third chapter of his second letter to the church in Corinth inviting us to be ministers of a new covenant. In 2 Cor. 3: 4-6, Paul writes: 

“Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God,  who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

After reading them that passage, I asked my friends, “You know how the letter of the law can get… far from, even disconnected from what God wants? And you know how we church people can get when we get too caught up in the letter of the law?” 

They both nodded. 

“Well,” I continued, “at the risk of what sometimes is called ‘sloppy Agape,’ we are a Christian community that focuses on, is organized around, tries to live into the Spirit of the law. Because Christ is somehow mysteriously in our midst. And it’s his Spirit we mean to draw from and lean into. It’s not the letter we have to worry about. It’s not trying to get ourselves just perfect. That always backfires anyway. Rather, we’re trying to let go of so much of our striving —  that keeps us from Jesus anyway — and let ourselves go, let us get carried away by the Spirit. It is really a different way about going about church, but we believe it’s a faithful way to try and be Christian. Or at least to let God work on us and work in our lives.” 

They stuck around; I think that made sense to them. Or at least, they gave us enough time that our church makes sense to them…

See you in church,