Happy Birthday, UCC

On Wednesday, June 25, 2014, the United Church of Christ will turn 57 years old. My message today centered on that fact and why it is important to me. Oh yes, I am just a few months older than the denomination, so I will never forget its age. The scripture for today was Genesis 21:8-21, the story about Hagar and Ishmael being kicked out of Abraham’s house by Sarah and left to wander in the wilderness. The gospel was from Matthew 10:24-39, more on instructions to the disciples and Jesus assurance that he came to stir things up, not to make it all huggy and wonderful.

There are two spots where I went off the script and we looked at the UCC website for information about this denomination. I have included the links. I hope you enjoy. It is rather long, so if you opt to move on to something with more pictures and less text, I understand. If nothing else click on that history link. I think it is quite interesting.

Happy Birthday UCC

It seems like I am always talking about way back when I was in college, but I have to do it again today. I remember writing a paper for one of my religion classes that was titled, “Pride—the Great Sin.” I mention that paper today because, what I have to share with you today makes me prideful. It is one of the things in my life that I could as you say in the German-Russian dialect, fa-sindich, about. I could sin myself over this topic. The topic is our church. I am very proud of being a part of this church and its background.

Some of us belong to a church because we were born to it. Others belong to a church or a religion because they married into it. And still others belong because they have chosen to be there. And maybe for some of us it is a combination of the three, or more likely two out of three. I am part of this church because I was born here, but I would like to think that if I had been given a choice that I would have chosen to be here.

Actually, I guess we, and I say this for James and me and our family, we have chosen to be here because the easy thing would have been to attend some church in Herreid when we moved back there, but that was never a choice for us. We couldn’t do those other ways of worship, and I guess that is where the “fasindich” sort of pride comes into play for me. I don’t like the other styles, and I just can’t do it. It is not to say that others aren’t Christian. I have to believe that all Christians are Christian, but the emphasis is just …well let’s just leave it there.

You see in terms of numbers, we aren’t the biggest or even second or third biggest church here, there or in total. We are pretty small in terms of population or status, and you would never see us being depicted as the religion of choice on any television series or movie. In fact when you go to some of the Annual meetings, and granted I have only been to the ones in the Dakotas, we don’t present as the “All American” suit and tie/fancy dress clothes/mom and dad with 2.2 children sort of group. We are a little different. And because of that, I sometimes think we are a little hard to explain to those who don’t know us.

Here is another time when I have to say I have proof positive that God has a sense of humor, I am here, today and at this time in my life because God playing a joke on me. I have always been proud of my church and its background, but I have never been one to bother explaining it to others. It is one of those things that I keep off the radar, out of the conversation and something I don’t have a good answer about when asked. But here I am and here it is, and it is something I have to learn to do with certainty and accuracy. I have to be able to tell people who we are and why we are.

This brings me back to the days when I taught in Montpelier, North Dakota. It is a little town just about 15 miles south of Jamestown, North Dakota. Montpelier had one church, it was Lutheran. The school was made up of students from that church as well as a few who went to the Roman Catholic church about five miles to the south and west, and a few families of Seventh Day Adventists. When Jessica was in school in Montpelier, one of her classmates asked which of the three churches she attended, she had to say none of the above. Fortunately, she was able to say she went to the same church in Jamestown as a girl who was a junior there. It was Ipswich’s Rev. Enno’s sister, Leslie. She didn’t have to try to explain. Who are we?

Some days, I feel like we are sort of like the slave girl Hagar, who was used by Sarah and Abraham, and then when it didn’t suit their purposes, she was tossed out. When Sarah didn’t trust God to fulfill his promise to Abraham and her, she decided to work out the results herself. She is the one who gave the slave girl to her husband so that they could raise a child to fulfill the prophecy, but when Sarah gave birth to Isaac, she was afraid, and she insisted that Hagar and the boy leave. She was willing to let her husband’s child die in the wilderness to protect her own son. But God did not abandon Hagar, and God will not abandon us.

So who are we? I keep promising to tell you about the annual meeting and yet I feel the need to go back to the anniversary of the beginning of the United Church of Christ. In 1957, on June 25 at General Synod the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical Reformed Churches merged into one denomination. It was a merger of possibilities with the main idea held by all that Christ is the head of the church and with the hope that one day all Christians would come together in unison. Perhaps that is why they chose the motto: That they will all be one.

I went on the website and printed off the page of What We Believe, and here is what it says…Note the parts not highlighted as what all or majority of Christian Churches would be expected to believe in. Now read (http://www.ucc.org/about-us/what-we-believe.html) who we are.)

In the passage from Matthew that we read earlier, Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. How do we take that? Jesus came to cause trouble? Here Jesus is letting his disciples and all of us know just how hard true discipleship really is. Really following Jesus at times can mean going against the norm. The verses we read even suggest that it could mean to go against family. In the Jewish tradition, family was the center of everything. Jesus tells his disciples that to truly witness for him, they need to put him before all else. Jesus needs to be the center of the family, not the afterthought, and not what we do when everything else is finished.

So how have the ancestors of our church carried out the teachings of Jesus? I also went on to the website to find information about our history. Although as an American Literature teacher, I knew the first few things already. I have just never been able to jump up in class and say, “Oh yea, that’s my church.” Here is what I found. You may know much of this already. I knew some, but not all of it. Read Firsts:  (http://www.ucc.org/about-us/ucc-firsts.html ). Those are some of the things that our church ancestors did with the thought of furthering the word of God. Of course not everything that they did was necessarily good, and I see from doing some extra digging that not everything is listed. The issue of the Salem witch trials was conveniently left off as was some of what the missionaries did in the guise of doing right. In particular look into the history of Hawaii and just to the west of us with the Dakota Association. But that brings me to some of what we learned from Rev Moos during the Saturday workshop time with him.

Some of us might look at those things that missionaries did in terms of colonizing and converting native groups to Christianity as not really so Christian, yet Rev. Moos said that certain cultures have approached the Global Ministry teams and the World Mission teams asking for help in writing their history of the times when the first missionaries came to their lands. To those who have asked for help in finding that history, the work of the missionaries was positive, and they want to celebrate it. And one of Rev. Moos’ major points was the work that has been done in health care and establishing clean water supplies. Those are perhaps two of the most important things that have been done for indigenous people in many parts of the globe.

This makes me think of the tornado right in the middle of our own state. Two of the first things mentioned in terms of relief on the news were where emergency health services were set up and where food was being served to those out of their homes and those helping as first responders. People reaching out to others in need, that is what church can be about, and over the years that is what our church right here, our little church has been about that work quite intently. All you have to do for the proof is look at the budget. It is my favorite political argument, and in this case it can be a statement of good, “follow the money.” In Matthew 6:21 Jesus said, “where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”

We don’t have to be a church in the forefront of society. We don’t have to be the biggest with the largest population of members. We just need to follow the teachings of Christ. It is about being a caring, compassionate people that fellowship together in the common mission of being Christ’s light here and now. We could do that all by ourselves, but by being part of something bigger than ourselves, we are able to share in the mission with others. We are able to pool our resources to reach more places for greater good.

We are part of a grand history. We are part of a history in this country and in this state, and yes, not all of it was good. We saw that at annual meeting when the land deeds were returned to the Dakota Association Churches. But we also saw a bend in that road, and we saw what possibilities we can have in the future as we go forward working together rather than beside each other in separate places.

We are a church that is ever looking to see where the spirit wants us to be. We are a church and a people who is about listening to what God has to say to us. We are about a relationship with Jesus and God and the Spirit that guides us as long as we keep the lines of communication open. That is our key, communication with and not just the kind where we do all the talking, but where we do some listening to hear what God is saying to us. May we continue to be about that business of open airwaves. Amen.

I have decided to include our prayer today. It seems to finish out the message.

Dear Lord:

We come today in humble awe of those who have gone before us doing your work. We only ask that when you send us to do your tasks that we have the ability to trust you to provide us the courage and the strength to do your bidding. We ask that you steer us in the right path for the right reason. We know there is still so much to do in your name, and we are lost as to where to start. Help us to know where to put our energies in the future. Now we ask your blessing on those gathered here today, those listening on the tapes and those who are away from us, but with us in spirit. We ask your healing for all those part of our prayer concerns. There are so many hurting in body and mind, we ask your special presence with them today and in the coming weeks. Now hear us as we offer our own silent prayers…Let us join in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, Our Father…Amen.

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