That They May All Be One: A Case for Financial Support of the United Church of Christ (John 17: 20-26)
That They May All Be One
A Sermon Preached at North Congregational Church, UCC, Middleborough, MA, May 12, 2013
Text: John 17: 20-26
The period following World War Two and the Korean Conflict was among the most dynamic in the history of religion in America. Historians point to a dramatic “Religious Revival” as churches of all kinds were packed with returning veterans and their growing families. Church attendance reached record highs, churches expanded their mission efforts at home and abroad, denominational coffers were full, new church construction was taking place everywhere, as churches added educational wings to accommodate burgeoning Sunday School enrollments Billy Graham and other evangelists were packing sports stadiums around the country. The “Eisenhower era” seemed good for religion.
Looking back at this era, most scholars have concluded that the so-called revival turned out to be pretty thin. Sure, lots of people found their way into church for a time but it’s hard to argue we saw many lasting changes either in the churches or in members’ lives. I’ve always felt the novelist John Updike did the best job of analyzing these times, especially in his “Rabbit” novels that tracked the spiritual angst of Harry Angstrom.
The post-war period did bring something very dramatic to the life of our churches in the form of reform movements. The Second Vatican Council, under the beloved Pope John XXIII, threw open the windows of the world’s largest church and changed not only the Catholic church but other religious traditions as well. One can argue that Rome did not change enough but I’m convinced that the fact that Rome could change at all would lead to changes in other churches as well. Through the windows of Protestant churches in America new winds would also blow: the empowerment of the laity, acceptance of once-excluded groups into the ministry, new forms of music and liturgical experimentation, much greater transparency around money and finance and a rethinking of the churches’ mission at home and abroad.
This era also saw the reunification of some of America’s divided religious groups. Methodists and Presbyterians who had been divided into northern and southern branches since the Civil War came back together. Lutherans who had been divided into numerous ethnic branches came together as the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
In 1957, a new church was born in the United States that did something that had never been done before. It brought together two national churches of different ethnic backgrounds with very different theological and organizational backgrounds. That is the year the Congregational Christian Churches united with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ.
It was a long and difficult courtship. The Congregational Christians were mostly of British origin and placed the local church at the center of their polity. The E&R Church was mostly German in background and practiced a presbyterian form of government. Both were the product of earlier mergers and each had a strong culture.
Sociologists and historians at the time commented that this merger should not work. There were too many differences. The Congregationalists dated back to the Puritans and Pilgrims and had at one point been the founders and the established church in much of New England. They were proud of their activism, having led the effort to end slavery and secure equal rights for women. They were founders of colleges and universities, mostly for people who would never become church members. The Evangelical and Reformed Church has also mission-minded and built its own institutions, mostly for its own members and for German immigrants.
The pundits were wrong. The new church came into being. It succeeded because its founding premise came from the Gospel of John and the prayer of Jesus “that they may all be one,” which would become the motto of the United Church of Christ.
Jesus knew that the power of his message, the power of the gospel, would depend on the church’s ability to witness to its oneness in Christ and in its unity.
Verse 21 is a complicated but important one.
Jesus begins with the phrase,
As you, Father, are in me
and I am in you
may they also be in us,
so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
He goes on:
The glory that you have given me
I have given them
So that they may become one
as we are one.
I in them and you in me,
that they may be completely one,
so that the world may become completely one,
so that the world may know that you have sent me and
have loved them even as you have loved me.
The men and women who brought the United Church of Christ together believed in Jesus’ words. They knew in their hearts that a divided church is a scandalous, even heretical idea. The church is one as Jesus and God are one. The unity or oneness we know is not of our own creation; it is the glorious gift that God has given to Jesus and Jesus has passed on to the church. Without that gift of unity the church loses its credibility; its witness is compromised. The gift of unity is the sign to the world of the love made known in Jesus and, through the church, to the world.
The United Church of Christ sought to embody Christ’s prayer that they/we may all be one.
Some hoped this would be the first of many denominational unions but for various reasons this hasn’t happened.
Does this mean the grand experiment of bringing together churches of diverse backgrounds was a failure?
I don’t think so. The world has become more complex and, one could argue, less united since the late 1950s. The new United Church of Christ was forced to deal with the multiple revolutions – racial, sexual, generational and others – that came upon us in the 1960s and beyond.
I think it’s too early to judge how well the UCC and other religious bodies have adapted to those changes but I am proud of what our church has accomplished during this time.
We are no longer a church that caters solely to the needs of upper middle-class Americans of British and German backgrounds. Much of our growth today is among persons of color and new immigrant populations. I preached at our church in Centerville last Sunday, a fairly traditional congregation, and was delighted with the Moderator’s opening words to the congregation: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
We have found new ways to proclaim our faith. We are becoming known as the “God is Still Speaking” church, proclaiming in our own day what John Robinson said aboard the Mayflower when the Pilgrims set off for our shores: that God hath more light to break forth from the Holy Word.
We have been a consistent witness for peace and justice in our world. Wasn’t it great to see Rev. Nancy Taylor of Old South Church in Boston in a leadership role at Boston’s memorial service for the Marathon bombing victims as she reminded the congregation that “God has not forsaken us.”
We have trusted our congregations and their leaders to make just and responsible decisions. Last week The New York Times told the story of the charges being brought against the former dean of Yale Divinity School by the United Methodist Church because the retired minister presided over the wedding of his son to another man. That doesn’t happen in the United Church of Christ because we trust our congregations and their leaders.
I am proud to be a member of a church tradition that is not afraid to be the first to do the right thing:
the first denomination to ordain an African American (Lemuel Haines 1785)
the first denomination to grant full ordination to a
woman (Antionette Brown in 1853)
the first denomination to ordain an openly gay persons to
ordained ministry (Bill Johnson 1972)
Last weekend I presided at the memorial service for a retired UCC minister who died at age 93. After the service I was approached by a woman and her daughter. The daughter had asked her mom, “What is this United Church of Christ he was talking about” and her mom wasn’t sure about the right answer. So she asked me, “What is the United Church of Christ?”
My response: “The United Church of Christ is one of the Protestant churches that brings Christians together to do God’s work in the world. It puts a lot of emphasis on freedom and justice and trusts individuals and local churches to do the right thing without outside oversight and control. We’re the heirs to the traditions of the Pilgrims and Puritans of early New England.”
That wasn’t a bad answer but it was somewhat incomplete. I’ve known the UCC to be what I would all an “open family” for people like you and me and congregations like this one. It’s a family of choice. People join because they want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves. Congregations join because they know the work of the church is not limited to their particular neighborhood or community. Just as individuals are free to leave a congregation when it no longer meets their needs, churches are free to depart and to take their buildings and resources with them.
I’m seeing that sense of family in my work with the United Church of Christ in New Orleans. We have a great tradition of work in that city. At one time the UCC had 26 churches there. Now, post-Katrina, we have only six and many of those churches are struggling.
Two years ago some of the leaders of the UCC asked me to see if there might be something we could do to help those churches move “from surviving to thriving,” so I’ve spent a fair amount of time in New Orleans. I could tell you about a couple of success stories but I’m most impressed by something that has happened that no-one really expected.
During my first visit I discovered that many of the lay leaders of the churches were burned out and lonely. It’s not easy being a church leader in New Orleans
So I suggested that a couple of leaders from each of the churches might want to get together for dinner one a month to support one another and share strategies for renewal. They agreed to my idea and have now been meeting every month for two years. I connect with them by phone from my basement office on Cape Cod.
I can’t tell you how important that little gathering has become for those lay leaders. We laugh and pray and strategize together. They get to eat good food and I get to listen to them tell me how good the food was!
Most of those churches have a much brighter future than they had two years ago. For the first time in a long time, they have hope. It’s not because they have a great outside consultant. What’s more important is that they have found one another. We’re building a family of churches whose backgrounds and values are very different in some ways, but they have a sense of community, of unity, that they haven’t had before. In their own way they are living the prayer of Jesus that they may all be one. They are living the dream that brought us the United Church of Christ.
In the past week or so you received a little yellow sheet of paper inviting you to make your pledge of support for NCC in the coming year. There is a line on that sheet that asks each of us for a contribution of $18.85 apiece for what are known as “Fellowship Dues.” Our Fellowship Dues go to support NCC’s membership in the Old Colony Association and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.
That money, along with other gifts from churches and individuals, supports the work of the United Church of Christ. The dues portion is our share of the costs to maintain the conference’s basic operations.
Much of what this makes possible is invisible to most of us. What do you suppose happens when a local church pastor runs into trouble in his or her personal or professional life? Where does a church turn when the conflict levels get so high that the church’s future is at risk? What happens when a local church gets a really good idea – as we did last fall about bringing youth groups together for a concert with Hailey Reardon to tackle issues of bullying and self-esteem? Where does a church turn when members get excited about helping out when a disaster strikes – like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina? Who oversees the process through which persons called to ministry move toward ordained status --- as we have seen in recent years with Cleo, Barbara, Eric and Sean? How do we ensure that churches will have access to strong theological schools and retreat centers and urban ministry programs as our youth have access to for their mission trips? How do we support members of the wider church family – like those struggling churches in New Orleans – who run into rough times? How do we make our voices heard in the aftermath of the Marathon bombings and on public issues that demand a progressive Christian ethical response?
Those are but examples of ministries that span the globe. Over the years Linda and I have had opportunities to view those ministries first-hand. I’ve had the privilege of seeing that work in all 50 states of the US and we have traveled together to places like Turkey, Indonesia the Philippines, the Samoas and West Africa. It is good work being done well, always with local partners in mission and ministry.
All of those things – and more -- are possible because of those checks for $18.85 a year and the thousand or so dollars in NCC’s budget. Together with thousands of members of United Church of Christ congregations in Massachusetts, NCC and you and I share in the mission of the whole church.
I’d like to think that through those gifts we also live out the prayer of Jesus: that they/we may all be one.