Does “Why” Matter?

All appropriate licensing on file in the First Church Office

First Church, Middletown CT, January 23, 2022                          

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10

. . all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.. . .  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. . . . So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

The United Church “is a teller of the Christian Story. . . . We have to get it straight ourselves before we can get it out.”  Gabriel Fackre, Abbot Professor of Christian Theology,  Andover Newton Theological School

There never has been a greater piece of nonsense than the notion that it doesn’t make much difference what a person believes. Christianity, some people say, is a doing kind of religion, and particularly in a time like ours. 

With so many evils to be tackled and so much healing and reconciling to be done, spinning your wheels over a lot of theology is a waste of precious time. 

The truth, of course, is the other way around. It matters enormously what a person believes. It matters enormously what kind of understanding a congregation has of the Christian faith. Everything we do or leave undone depends ultimately on what we fundamentally believe about people and issues and what we believe the purposes of God have to do with them.  – Oliver Powell, an excerpt from “The United Church of Christ: A Beautiful, Heady, Exasperating Mix,” A.D. Magazine (September 1975): 39–48. 

I’ve been aware of the fact that in perceiving difference we tend to judge the differences.  I wonder what it takes to get to the point where the realization, under certain circumstances, is that we’re different and that both of us might be right and both of us might be wrong, maybe at the same time.   Reuben Sheares II

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.

Maybe you’ve seen it, too…. but I’m betting that even if some of you have, we haven’t all… so let me ask… have you seen the video of a man named Michael Junior and the singer?   So, let me tell you the story. . . 

Michael Junior is giving a presentation at a meeting in a huge auditorium.  As the video begins, he’s just called on a man and learned that this guy is a singer.  So, Michael Junior asks him, can you sing a phrase from Amazing Grace for us?

And the man does, and does it very well.

But then Michael Junior says to him, “can you do it again? But this time, sing as if your father’s just gone to jail, as if you’ve just been seriously injured.”  And the man sang again… but this time it’s not just a really good rendition; it’s heart-breakingly passionate, beautiful, powerful.

And Michael Junior turns to the audience and says, the first time the man sang, he knew “what” he was doing and he did pretty well.  But the second time he sang, he knew “why” he was singing, and that made all the difference.

Knowing our “why” matters.  It matters that we know why we do what we do, why we make the choices we do, why we live as we live. 

Many people do what we do, and they do those things for many reasons.  Their reasons are important and real, but they are not our reasons.  It can be good to do  because it’s the right things to do; it can be good to do because it’s just plain good business.  We can do good because that’s what we do.  But for us, those reasons are not our reasons.

What we do as a church, how we live as individual believers, how we understand our world, grows out of our beliefs that God has made this world, that we have been set here to create, sustain and share a world built on principles of love, justice, mercy and generosity.

Our faith drives our life together.  Our “why” matters.  

But – we in the UCC have a love/hate relationship with the idea of talking about what we believe and why we believe it.  As the ad on the bulletin cover says, “Dogma?  We Don’t Do Dogma”.  and that’s true.  Our church family believes in testimonies of faith, not tests of faith.  We tiptoe backwards away from any conversation that looks like it’s going to say, dogmatically, that this is the right way to be, or the right thing to believe.

So, talking about our why is hard for us.  

We don’t want to have tests of faith, for sure.  But we do want to understand that there’s something there, that it’s worth the conversation, and sometimes even the argument, to talk together about our beliefs.  Today’s lessons will help us see how and why this conversation can enrich our lives even when we will not end up with one right answer to everything.

Our Scripture lesson for today tells us a story of a return from exile…. just to set the context… there had been a war, and the leaders of the Jewish kingdom had been forced into exile; over time many of them became important officials in the Persian kingdom.  Maybe a hundred years later, their descendants began to realize that Jerusalem, their ancestral home, was in tough shape, and Nehemiah has been given the responsibility of going back to Jerusalem, rebuilding the walls, and re-establishing a strong and healthy community in the city.

When the Hebrew leaders came back from exile into Jerusalem, they found the city populated by folks who had been left behind.  The current inhabitants had stories about their faith, but the stories, much like telephone tag, had been mis-told, misunderstood, and not really followed… 

And so, as our lesson begins, Nehemiah has gathered all the people at the Water Gate.  Then he began to have the Torah read to the people.  Right up until this moment, they had not known why they were doing anything….  But as the Torah was read, and explained, there was great joy in their new understanding.    It was essential for the renewal of their community that they know and understand their ‘why’.

We often avoid talking about our “why” because we’re so afraid we’ll fight.  So many of us have come to the United Church from other churches because, in those places, all they did was fight about beliefs, or because it was set up that if you couldn’t say yes to every proposition, you were thrown out the door.  

One of my theology professors, Gabriel Fackre, used to say that while there was one Christian path, it was wide, more like those wagon train trails with lots of alternative paths than like a one-right-road interstate.  Gabe said what was important was that we were all headed in the same direction, not that we were all on one right path.  And so he thought it was absolutely essential that we engage in conversation about where we were going and “why” so that each of us would understand our relationship with others and how we were travelling together.

It matters what we believe.  It matters what our “why” is.

Howard’s been reminding us about the many places where the United Church is engaged in mission by inviting our prayers each week for folks serving in faraway places.  But you may not have realized that our missions are one place where our “why” makes an enormous difference.

Some religious groups understand mission to be the act of reaching out to non-adherents of their group and engaging in activities focused on converting those people to their beliefs, establishing new religious groups, and so on.  We used to do missions that way; that’s why we went to Hawaii – to bring Christianity, bring salvation to a people who we understood needed that blessing.

But over the years, our “why” began to change.  Maybe it was that Congregationalist minister, Charles Sheldon, who wrote In His Steps and invited us to ask, what would Jesus do?, but however it came, our “why” began to be, because Jesus wanted all people to live in safety, to have enough to eat, to be openly and freely who God made them to be.  

We talked about it; we argued, we shared ideas, and our “why” became clearer and clearer.  Today, we understand that we do what we do because we are called by God to help create the world God wanted…. a world of  justice and mercy, a world where it matters why they’re hungry or broke, or abused or hated.  Then what happens to them matters, too.  

And yes, we’ll argue about the details, because this stuff matters.  You drink Pepsi, I drink iced tea, unsweetened – why on earth would we bother to argue about it?  But when stuff really matters, when it comes to how we understand and use power, or why people do bad things – well, those are important questions.  and important questions need serious, heavy duty discussion, and sometimes arguments.  Reuben Sheares, who was a leader of the UCC when I was first ordained used to say that he thought disagreement was essential for us, and would lead us to the realization that we’re different folks and that we could both be right and both be wrong at one and the same time.  Conversation, discussion, argument, all led to deeper understanding.  You can read more of what Reuben wrote in the essay in today’s bulletin.

Our “why” matters.

It’s worth talking about.

We may get into arguments, because this is important.

We need to dare to do it, to talk about hard things.

Because our “why” matters.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child