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“The DNA of Hope” – a brief intro to UCC History and why it matters

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Today, we continue our Lenten journey toward Easter.

With resurrection on the horizon, we’re venturing into the past this season, considering our origins, and how they’ve shaped us to be who we are.

Last week, we talked about reading the Bible as an act of compassion.

We considered that reading the Bible might not be about finding the one “right” interpretation of scripture, but instead about finding what God is communicating to us. Reading the Bible has the potential to be conversation with God and with one another, and perhaps reading this holy and ancient text is an opportunity to practice having compassion for people, these ancient biblical characters, who are so different from us, and yet so alike. In practicing compassion for them, perhaps we will get better at living compassion for one another.

Today’s text is a text that really stretches us to practice that compassion.

Because Paul’s words, at first glance, seem SO antithetical to who we are as Christians.

He sounds like an unhealthy modern-day politician or talk radio host.

Worse, actually.

I gave the invocation at the NM House of Representatives this week, and I had the chance to stay for a while to hear the business of the house.

And at our state house, anyway, I was impressed with the civility of the dialog.

No one said anything without first addressing the house and the person they were speaking to with “Kind gentleman” or “Kind gentlelady.”

Gentlelady is the equivalent of gentleman, in a congressional setting, by the way. So next time you see Rep. Bash, feel free to address her as such.

Okay – back to the text.

Paul is a bit more harsh than our congressmen and women.

When he speaks about his opponents, he says their destiny is destruction and their god is their stomach and their glory is their shame.

And then he elevates himself. THEIR minds are set on earthly things, but OUR citizenship is in heaven.

And to make it even worse, he begins the whole thing saying “follow my example.”

Well, I really don’t want to, Paul.

You come across as divisive and arrogant and condescending.

And in my mind, that’s not a very Christian attitude.

Of course, neither is my judgy approach to Paul.

So let’s consider that Paul was surrounded by people who really didn’t understand him.

That people were attacking him and the church at every turn.

Which, historically, we believe they were.

Perhaps this is not a man speaking from a place of authority harassing his inferiors, but rather a misguided victim of constant bullying, who is trying to reassure his close friends and followers of Christ that their walk of faith, their difficult, counter-cultural walk of faith, is worth it in the end.

Because instead of feeding their earthly needs for acceptance and wealth, they’re working toward a greater good.

It’s not easy to get there, but I feel like if I really work at it, I can hear where Paul is coming from.

I don’t like his tone, but I understand it.

That’s one of the great values of scripture, remember. It works out our compassion.

And that drive to understand one another, despite the chasms of dogma and culture between us, that drive for unity and grace—THAT is at the center of how we became the UNITED Church of Christ.

It wasn’t easy, of course.

From the very beginning of the Christian community, divisions came easily.

Whether it was the split between Peter and Paul, or the split between East and the West.

Or the split between Catholic and Protestant, then later, the many splits in Protestant churches, and the formation of totally new churches.

What makes the United Church of Christ unique, is that it formed not from a split, but rather from the coming together of several different churches.

There’s a chart in your program that gives you an overview.

And it’s a much longer story than we have time for today.

But the short story is that…

In 1931, two large denominations came together.

<We call church groups denominations, by the way. Denominations include Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc.>

So in 1931, there were two denominations – Congregationalists and Christians that merged.

Congregationalists in the United States traced their roots to the Puritans.

And the Christians or the Christian Connection was a denomination that rejected denominationalism. Ironically.

We’ll learn more about them in weeks to come, but basically, they thought everyone should just call themselves Christian and forget about all of the denominations brought over from Europe.

In 1931, the Christians joined with the Congregational churches to form the Congregational Christian Churches.

Around that time, there were two other groups, the Reformed Church in the United States and the Evangelical Synod of North America, both with German immigrant roots, and they came together in 1934 to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

In 1957, the two newly-merged groups, the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church came together to form the United Church of Christ.

And tada! You have the UCC!

We agreed that ultimately, we have the same roots – scripture, Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit. From there, the only thing we agreed we HAD to agree about was how we organized ourselves.

And how were going to disagree.

Like any married couple or government or team of people anywhere, we knew we would probably have the same arguments over an over again throughout the history of our relationship.

Disagreements were inevitable.

So from the start, we agreed on the way we would disagree.

We insisted on radical grace for one another.

And we set it up so that the local congregations were autonomous.

We’re connected, through wider and wider covenant bodies, groups that hold each other accountable.

We generally agree, as a group on the standards for ministers, and we support each other as churches. We’re not little islands that never interact.

But ultimately, when it comes to how we hold our worship services, who we call as our pastors, how we set up our local boards, whether we hang a rainbow flag outside or not, how we celebrate communion, whether we do baptism by sprinkling or immersion or both – those choices are up to the local church.

And the national setting of the church, we agreed, would always have a say, but their role would be to speak TO the congregations, not for them.

We do meet as whole body once a year at a big meeting called “General Synod,” and there, delegates from every region vote on resolutions, which local Conferences and churches are asked to “seriously consider.”

But they’re non-binding, because again – the national setting speaks TO the local church, not FOR the local church.

From the beginning, we believed that local churches should be able to listen to scripture and the Holy Spirit and make their own choices.

But we also believed that together, we could accomplish more than we could apart.

Here’s one Congregational Christian minister, the Rev. Fred Hoskins, who wrote at the time about why he wanted to join the UCC:….. (p. 50, Living Theological Heritage).


The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ, Vol. 7 (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 2005), p. 50
Makes sense to me.

The process didn’t happen overnight, of course.

True to our new organizational structure that valued the autonomy of local churches, the UCC allowed each local church to vote on whether or not they wanted to join.

There are still a handful of Congregational Christian Churches and Evangelical and Reformed churches that did not join the UCC.

Even though the UCC was officially founded in 1957, by the 1960’s, there were still churches debating the merge.

Some churches, especially those founded in New England and elsewhere over 200 years ago, struggled with the change. One I worked with took years to come up with a compromise. Their congregational identity was over 150 years old, so joining a new denomination was not an easy decision for them.

Ultimately, they decided to join, but they never added UCC to their name. They are still just the Congregational Church in town.

And they’ll tell you – they got married but decided to keep their maiden name.

Our church here, which was founded in 1959, didn’t struggle in the same way.

It was founded, officially, after the UCC was the UCC. But it was planted with money and a from the Texas Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed church.

When the changeover happened, we didn’t mind becoming a UCC church, but it had a significant impact on our finances….

<story about Orp kicking out the Conference staff when they told her that even though the E&R funded us, the UCC would no longer fund our church plant, then the board gathering to figure out how to make things work>

We’ve always been an independently-minded church, but also one that values grace and unity.

Even in the face of challenges, we’ve strived for unity, even with people like Paul, who are difficult, at first, to embrace or understand. We’ve strived not to demonize those who would oppose us, but rather embrace them and do our best to work WITH them, uniting with them, knowing we can accomplish more together.

We didn’t have that financial hit and decide to leave the UCC. No – we went deeper, got MORE connected, and worked to reform and shape the UCC.

This is part of our spiritual path – to be reformers and unifiers.

Both in the church and outside of it.

I want to close with a story from one of our members, who went to a local neighborhood association meeting recently.

He said a large piece of the meeting was taken up arguing about zoning for a bed and breakfast in the neighborhood.

He came away shocked and saddened.

Our city faces poverty, drug addiction, and crime. And here these people were, putting all of their energy into fighting for zoning for one building.

I can have compassion for them. Sure. But I don’t need to join them.

As we continue our journey into this Lenten season, my challenge to us is to consider who in our lives might we be wasting energy fighting. Where in our lives are we choosing battles that are unnecessary? We have large issues to address. Hunger and poverty. Injustice. Emergencies across our city and globe.

Let’s take a lesson from the United Church of Christ and consider what more we might be able to accomplish together…

Speaker: Rev. Sarah TevisTownes
March 18, 2019

Philippians 3:17-4:1

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