First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Long Beach, Calif.
Reading: Jeremiah 6:13-15
Welcome to the First Congregational Church of Long Beach, a United Church of Christ, a church with a great history and .. perhaps .. a great future. That part remains to be seen. This morning I want to put our congregational family into the larger context of what might be called the sociology of religion.
Today, the oldline, what used to be called the mainline, churches are dying. These denominations include UCC, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Disciples, and so on. These denominations are loosing members and their churches are shutting their doors. Culture watchers are even calling us ‘dinosaurs’. Recently, here in Long Beach, we went through a rash of closing churches. There are many congregations in our UCC conference with only 15 persons in worship on a regular basis.
Our mission dollars are shrinking, and we keep more here in the US and more in our local churches; but of course the US and our local communities are mission fields today. Look at the poverty in this country, and what we are doing to welfare. We are the mission, both our cities .. and our agricultural fields… The national UCC mission boards, along with those of the rest of main/oldline national churches, are dealing with continually shrinking resources. It is painful for everyone, but the worst effect is the entrenchment mentality that inevitably emerges.
Do I think denominations are important? Absolutely. Lone rangers have no accountability and they are scary. … I am an avowed, practicing, born-again UCCer, but to most folk these days, the particular denomination is unimportant! Furthermore, I’m sure many of you have read versions of the article, “Where Protestants part company.” There are all kinds of discussions going on about a major earthquake of some sort that will realign our denominations: the liberal [love] churches, [as this article puts it], in one cluster .. and the conservative [law] churches in another. And my guess is that the wishy-washy will continue to fade like that favorite pair of old jeans.
This morning I hope to be as honest as I can about this difficult subject. My thoughts on this have been challenged by our involvement in Mobilizing for the Human Family, including the conference we attended yesterday, and .. the day I spent recently as one of the speakers in dialogue with the Disciples of Christ.
The comparison of these two DIFFERENT efforts is striking.
The Disciples and our denomination, the United Church of Christ, are courting; but it seems to me we are hung up on some less than earthshaking issues, and so we are asking the wrong questions. For example, we struggle over reconciling our differences in the way we baptize and the way we serve communion! Will we be equipped to pastor churches in either denomination? I think these are sideline questions. Many of us are trying to learn all kinds of ways to serve communion; and child or adult, dunking or sprinkling, our style of baptism will NOT save us. I am sorry if that sounds shocking, but it won’t.
Can you imagine Jesus/Christ saying anything like: “No no, that’s just not the way you do it. No one is going to go to heaven that way!” Of course not! Dominic Crossan, one of the Jesus Seminar scholars, reminds us that, in the Bible, God never says, “I reject you because you do the sacraments all wrong!” Never! God rejects our worship because we do not do justice!
Now the reasons for this decline [in so many churches in the denominations familiar to most of us] …are many and varied. Nancy Ammerman acknowledges this in her book “Congregations and Community” where we were part of the study by her team member, Brenda Brasher. This morning, I simply want to offer my belief, along with more and more experts…, that we did not decline because we were too “flat-footed” about social justice. That is a common myth that is far too simplistic. It is just as likely that boredom, being wishy washy, and the fear of change are also responsible for this lack of [mainline church] growth, along with the rise of individualism, changing communities [neighborhoods in cultural transitions, the movement to the suburbs, etc.] and so on.
Certainly, some stay away from churches where justice is preached and practiced. I understand folk who don’t want to listen to a prophetic voice. I like my prejudices confirmed too. And yet, I am an optimist, and I do believe that most of us want to think. Let me state that another way. There is a place for congregations that will challenge our minds .. and hearts, and offer both the COST and the joy of Christian discipleship. These churches too can grow.
In this vein, The Mobilization, it seems to me, is asking the right questions. What does it mean to be a Christian today in light of the current injustices all about us? You see, successful or not, we are called to be faithful. I want to think we can be both!
Our Scripture lessons this morning are about community, living faithfully and justly! in society. And Jeremiah has this great line, “…’everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, THEY DID NOT KNOW HOW TO BLUSH. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,’ says the Lord.”
Do we .. know how to blush? Don’t you get the sense in our society today that “everyone is greedy for unjust gain” and that too many “deal falsely” and that we are “treating the wounds of the people, [our neighbors], carelessly?”
It is the social issues and our lack of willingness to deal with them, with anything substantive perhaps, that is, I believe, killing too many of our churches. Not all, of course. But I think we need to pay more attention to Jeremiah. Let me review quickly what we know we ought to be blushing about… Our world is dying .. from global warming, from wars all over the globe, including in our own cities with cross country rival gangs of which most folk my age are not even aware. We are caught in a terrible system that is killing us, but like that happy frog brought to a boil in the nice warm water, we don’t care; and we are willing to let ourselves go drugged through this long day’s journey .. into the night.
Our economic system needs broad and deep thought. I recently read an article in The Atlantic Monthly of February this year by George Soros, a prominent financier… who argues and I quote, “A free market undermines the very values on which open and democratic societies depend. Laissez-faire capitalism holds that the common good is best served by the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest. Unless it is tempered by the recognition of a common interest that ought to take precedence over particular interests, our present system is liable to break down.” His proposal that we become an “open society” as he calls it is very helpful, and he does not mean unbridled capitalism. Our churches must begin to educate us in the field of economics and we must be part of the mix as this huge area of our corporate life is molded. There is much we ought to be blushing about when we look at our country’s distribution of wealth, health care, nutrition and so on.
There are other tough issues as well. Too many congregations want to dismiss the recent Biblical scholarship, the rash of books and translations by the Jesus Seminar folk, for example. How much more interesting is to make them one more helpful strand in our studies. [Come and do that with Libby on Tuesday mornings.] There are very exciting dialogues going on about our theology. We are learning to be less threatened as Christians practicing one faith among many in this pluralistic diverse society. We no longer feel it is in anyone’s interest to try to convert faithful people of other respected traditions.
And as we well know, sexuality, particularly homosexuality, racism, abortion, the right to die, feminist theology and re-image-ing our faith are among the many concerns that should be on our churches agenda. If not, who will think through these really complex issues, and come to know whether or not we should be blushing. We participate in a democracy that is increasingly for sale. It is incumbent on us to dig more deeply into the complexities so that we can more wisely discern the truth. How about our country’s role in world affairs, particularly in the sale of warfare? What about violence, both corporate and physical? Isn’t there a mandate from our faith that says everyone should have enough to eat? I believe that the questions before us are not about how we baptize or how and when we serve communion! [We can figure that out congregation by congregation, and we must all be open to new possibilities and understand that there is no one correct way to offer the sacraments.] The questions that are really critical sound more like, “How might we address the tough topics of our day open and fearlessly?” “How do we take active stands on these social issues, including the recent dismantling of welfare?” “How do we articulate our positions, well, how do we arrive at our positions.. and then articulate them?” And most important, “How are our positions a reflection of our Christian faith?”
This congregation deals with these issues regularly, and over the summer, I hope we can continue to wrestle with these concerns in depth. We have several fine scholars from the Jesus Seminar coming in the Fall. We will look closely at what they are saying. In the next few Sundays, I will devote a sermon to what we have learned about the so-called Welfare Reform Act, how it impacts us, and how we might be involved. Those of us who attended the Mobilization for the Human Family yesterday will invite you to participate with us as a part of a Network of Advocate Congregations. We are going to attempt to really listen to those who are the most vulnerable and at risk in our society.. and in our neighborhood. Out of our discoveries, we plan.. to advocate for justice and to find ways to make resources more available to those who have so little. Many of you here have these connections, and I know we will all want to do what we can.
We will continue to think out-loud together about all of the specters that haunt our society. We will do so prayerfully and with great respect for differing opinions. And we will do so as we also look at prayer and how our faith practices as well as our beliefs impact these important areas of our lives.
Perhaps three things are crucial to all of this: honesty, thinking and the courage of our transforming faith’s convictions.
Our Christian faith calls us to honesty. We have not been .. very honest, and it is killing us, and I believe it is choking this country with guilt, an unexpressed guilt that is gnawing at our gut. Both Jesus and the Hebrew tradition that shaped him have a great deal to say about honesty, hypocracy and what it means to be truly righteous.
Our faith calls us to critical reflection. One of my heros, John B. Cobb, Jr., is on a crusade to get our churches to THINK. We know that simplistic answers, often to the wrong questions, are not helpful, as enticing and as slogan friendly as they may be. Loving God with our minds.. along with loving God with our hearts and souls and strength is a part of our faith requirement.
Third, all of this means having the courage of our transforming faith’s convictions. We are called to reclaim the passion of Pentecost, the power of God’s love and God’s justice, that can transform this world. We are called to allow the wind of God’s spirit to move us to prophetic action, and we are called to let the fire of God’s love enable us to live the gospel faithfully.
I believe that our churches can be places of honesty and thoughtfulness and grow at the same time. I believe that this church, among many in our United Church of Christ and in all the old/mainline denominations, can recover its prophetic voice. God is calling us into a great future as a faithful people. We can move out from dwelling on the past and from an entrenchment mentality. We can follow God’s call into the future, no matter how risky.
In an LATimes article recently, a punk rocker, Exene Cervenkova, is quoted as saying, “There seems to be an overall giving-in that I have never seen on such a large scale. To me, the Vietnam war pales in comparison to the war the corporations are waging on the environment and on the human soul. That’s the biggest war, and I just don’t understand why people aren’t fighting. Why people don’t fight this is beyond me.” Amazing! A punk rocker more insightful, more honest, more righteously indignant than most of our churches. May such a contemporary indictment as well as Jeremiah’s not be true for us. May we learn to blush as we respond to God’s call to do justice.
Called in 1988 to serve First Congregational Church (UCC) of Long Beach, Calif., Rev. Dr. Mary Ellen Kilsby was senior minister when the congregation voted in 1992 to become open and affirming, publicly declaring that it welcomed LGBT people into membership, employment and leadership. By 2005, 42 percent of its members were LGBT.