Is Our Life Together Built on Law or Love?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on January 16, 2022

When the United Church (of Christ) developed its Constitution and Bylaws on the “Basis of Union” principles it did in fact develop a principle of order new in the American scene of denominationally organized church life, based on principles of reformed ecclesiology.  The new element was a covenanted relationship of autonomous units of church life – a relationship delineated but not regulated by a Constitution and Bylaws.
Louis Gunnemann: The Shaping of the United Church of Christ, p. 15,

found in the essay, “The Quest for an Apt Metaphor” by Reuben Sheares II; undated

I Corinthians 12:   Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 

I Corinthians 12:   Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.  You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

Worship Jan 16, 2022 All permissions on file in the church office.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

It was a few years ago, the day that John Dorhauer, who is president of the United Church of Christ, our denomination, came to the church I belong to.  He preached and then spent time with us afterwards.  I was sitting at one of the tables in our fellowship hall with a couple of friends.  They asked me, “who is this guy?  What do  you mean, he’s president of the church?” 

Like so many of us, they had joined our church from the Roman Catholic Church, and so I said, “well, he’s kinda like the Pope….”, except he has no power… and they were blown away by the idea that we all referred to him by his first name, and that he had no entourage, but was sitting at the next table, close enough to touch, with other ordinary members of the local church.

In the forty or years I’ve been in the UCC, I’ve never known a president of the denomination who wasn’t known to everyone by their first name.. Bob Moss, Joe Evans, Avery Post… right up through John Dorhauer.  The same is true of Conference Ministers… I’ve known quite a few, and with really rare exceptions, every single one of them was best known to his or her Conference by their first name.

You might think that doesn’t matter, or that it’s just a matter of personal preference.  But it’s more than that.  It is a living out of our belief  in the essential equality of all believers before God.  We don’t bow before the President of the Church; we sit down for a cup of coffee with Paul or Avery or John.  They are people like us, they are believers like us.

As it is with those prominent leaders of the denomination, so it is with us.  Steve is our Moderator, I am your pastor for the time being; we are met with respect, but we are not given that kind of public attention which accompanies Episcopal bishops or the elders of a conservative church.  Because we are all equals.  

We are all equals.  Look again at what Paul said in our Scripture for today: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Everyone has a gift. Every gift is important.  Everyone is worthy of respect.  We each bring something to the table.  We need every one of those gifts.  The church which constructs itself so that it can only welcome some people, or only hear some ideas, is a church with a severe hearing problem.  It will be too narrowly focused, it’ll suffer from an inflexibility of heart. And before it dies, it’ll hurt many.

No law, no formal structure compels us to be church together; we have willingly agreed to work together, first of all with one another, then with the churches of the Middlesex Association, and then the Southern New England Conference and the United Church of Christ.  

We have willingly agreed t to share our gifts with one another.  When the United Church of Christ was formed, in 1957, our ancestors took that longstanding Protestant belief in the equality of believers and formed a denomination that refused to be organized by laws which mandate actions.  Instead we created a new way of being church, one which put relationships above rules.

This matters.  It matters because it is the foundation upon which God seeks to build a world of peace and justice.  We cannot live, cannot thrive without the joy of working together, as equals, in God’s world. 

This is a particular gift that we bring to our community.  As we live out our belief that everyone has a seat at the table here in our church, we model that everyone has a seat at the table, out in the world. 

This is important because everyone does not share our beliefs, even within the Christian family:  I don’t know that we always understand how radical we Congregationalists are in the way we are church, but here’s an example of a church which lived in a different world:

For the past few weeks, on my drives over here, I’ve been listening to a podcast entitled “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”, a  megachurch in Seattle, Washington.  At one point, Mars Hill had an average weekly attendance of over 12,000 people, at several different locations in the greater Seattle area.  The folks who ran Mars Hill – their pastor, Mark Driscoll, and a board of elders – made all the decisions.  As the church grew and grew, the group of decision-makers shrank until it was basically just the pastor.  Without any constraints on his decisions – and with a basic belief that men were better than women, and pastors better than anyone else – Mark Driscoll grew into the role of a nasty, mean-spirited bully.  Driscoll was fired in 2014.  Organized in 1996, by 2015 the entire church was dissolved, though some members were re-organizing into smaller, more local congregations, none of which was associated with their former pastor.

Mars Hill did not believe that everyone had a seat at the table.  When you got right down to it, they didn’t even really believe that every member of a family had a seat at the table.  Men had seats.  Straight men.  Married men.  Married men with wives who didn’t work.  Married men with well-behaved children.  But not women.  Never women.  And don’t even mention the existence of non-binary, non-conforming, non-hetero people.  They weren’t even in the family, much less leading the congregation.   It took fifteen years for it to fall apart, and if you listen to the podcast, you’ll be horrified, as I was, at the pain their beliefs inflicted on so many people.  Their beliefs that some folks are better than others destroyed lives.

We believe that everyone has a seat at the table, that everyone has a voice in our life together, that everyone deserves respect, that no one is better than another.  We bring that gift to every place we live and work and play.

Our world needs our witness.  Let us share our gifts abundantly.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child