July 17, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Philippians 2: 5-11, UCC Statement of Faith
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Talking About the One Who’s in the Room
Here’s a question you might get asked sometime, especially if the conversation turns to where you go to church: “Tell me, what does the United Church of Christ believe?” There are hundreds and hundreds of Christian denominations in the United States; I can certainly understand why somebody would ask. Why not be Presbyterian or Evangelical? What makes the UCC distinct?
In the event that you’re confronted with this question, you would not be wrong to invoke our denomination’s tag lines. Officially, the UCC motto comes from a prayer of Jesus; it goes “That they may all be one.” More recently, we’ve adopted the tag line, “God is still speaking” which accompanies the comma and the quote, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma, God is still speaking.”
Now when somebody asks, “What does the UCC believe?” another approach is to name some of the values we have in common. We harbor a passion for social justice, for the freedom to interpret the scriptures thoughtfully. We hold a fierce commitment to welcoming those who are left out.
These are all good things to say, but the most honest answer to the question, “What does the UCC believe?” is “It depends who you ask.” The United Church of Christ celebrates a diverse array of perspectives, conflicting opinions on social issues, all-night wrestling with what is true about God.
Church of Peace welcomes this diversity too. There are people in this room who will say, “I believe Jesus died for my sins” and there are others of us who struggle with that. There are people here who say, “Because of my faith, I proclaim Black Lives Matter” and others of us who struggle with that. There are people who say, “Because of my faith, I am proud to be American” and others of us who struggle with that.
Friends, we do not all agree with each other. Probably everyone here knows the sharp edge of feeling like “I am the one who is different. I love my church, but what if I just don’t fit?” Let me tell you, if you have ever asked that question, you are not alone. So it’s tempting to avoid the controversy. “To each her own” we say. “Let’s focus on what we have in common!” Except maybe our differences really do matter. Maybe these differences are not what threaten our unity, maybe they’re actually our best hope in the work of following Christ.
Today we are beginning a new summer sermon series called “I Have Always Wanted to Know.” It is based on questions of faith that have come from members of the congregation, and today we are considering these: How feasible is it to be part of two or more spiritual paths at once? and What is the story of the UCC Statement of Faith? These are good questions.
Regarding two or more spiritual paths, my first impulse is to answer “Yes! Absolutely.” From its earliest days, the Christian religion has been shaped by other religions. Ours is a story of constantly borrowing and rejecting elements from other traditions, sometimes casually as though we were at an outdoor market picking and choosing, sometimes with schism-sized struggle.
Inter-religious dialogue is becoming a common practice for people of faith. By exploring multiple spiritual paths, we discover what different traditions have in common and where the deal-breakers lie. We broaden our thinking and learn how far we can stretch. We learn each other’s stories and there’s no way to do this without discovering how God is not the property of any religion. God is more.
But here’s the thing. The question is not asking, “Mariah, what’s your opinion on being part of two or more spiritual paths?” The question asks “How feasible is it?” Holding beliefs that connect to multiple paths, that’s one thing. Actually following two or more paths, practically, that brings distinct challenges. It might mean celebrating multiple holidays, or worshipping in different communities on different days of the week. It might mean moving between worlds and switching languages back and forth, constantly translating. Is it feasible? Yes, there are people who do it. Is it easy? Oh no.
There is an exciting tension between belief and practice, between our deepest held convictions and the things we do —serving food, giving money, singing praise. It might seem like a person should figure out their beliefs first then the action will follow, but really, it’s much messier than that. Our beliefs challenge and strengthen our actions; our actions challenge and strengthen our beliefs.
Paul taps into this vivid interdependence in his letter to the Christians at Philippi. He knows they are hearing mixed messages from questionable missionaries whom he calls “enemies of the cross.” He writes to encourage them to know the truth of the Gospel and stick to the right path.
Then right in the middle of his pleading with them, “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” he interrupts his instructions to quote from a well-loved hymn. If he were writing this letter to us, he might have said. “Dear friends, you know through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. It was grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
I imagine the early church gathered to hear this letter read out loud, and when the speaker gets to this passage, I wonder if her reading turns into singing, if the mood in the room changes, if there’s a shift from thinking about God to praising God, to letting the doxology rise up from the people.
Of course, when it comes to what this hymn is actually saying I, for one, take issue with some of the points. I believe that “obedience to the point of death” is a serious problem. There are instances when the suffering of Christ has been used to validate abusive relationships; I’d like to see different lyrics to that verse, thank you. I also disagree with the promise that every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I think that dishonors other religious traditions and beliefs.
I tell you, I could write a strongly-worded theological critique of this scripture, and maybe I could even persuade others to agree with me. Or, I could sing this hymn in the company of the people I love. Doing this changes me.
This is the poignant turning from talking about the LORD our God to singing to God who’s been in the room this whole time. Singing together shapes what we believe to be true. After years of singing this hymn, I might even learn how to believe in the promise that one day the truth of Jesus will be seen and known by all people, like all of us want to be seen and known for who we really are.
This tension between believing and doing holds sparkling creative possibility. It is why the New Century Hymnal is full of songs that have old familiar tunes but new words that challenge our thinking. Old melodies, new words, that is so UCC.
Given our denomination’s respect for the role of individual conscience, you would not be wrong to wonder, why do we have a Statement of Faith? The idea of such a instrument makes us protest: “But what if there is something in this Statement with which I don’t agree? Or what if the concept that is most important to me is missing from the Statement? How can I be part of this church if I don’t fully believe this Statement?” These are important questions!
It might help to consider the purpose of the Statement of Faith. Because it is not a test to see if you qualify to be a member of the UCC. It’s not a requirement you must consent to then sign on the line. There are statements of faith out there that include a signature line at the bottom with the expectation that you will believe it, and sign it, and live up to it. The UCC Statement of Faith operates differently. It is meant to be read out loud in worship, which is why it was revised from being a declaration about God to being a doxology, a song of praise we sing to the one who’s in the room.
The UCC Statement of Faith has been revised several times in the past sixty years, but turning from a declaration into a doxology was one of the best things that could happen to it. You see, the original version of the Statement was introduced to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ in nineteen fifty-nine, just two years after the denomination was formed. We didn’t even have a constitution yet!
A committee of half Congregationalist Christians and half E&Rs crafted the Statement of Faith then presented it to the Synod, and if I had been there, that is the moment when I would have taken a deep breath. I would have braced myself for a rigorous floor debate, for the work of picking apart every line, revising the language, entertaining ideas to add a longer section on salvation.
Instead, once the Statement was read out loud on the Synod floor, there was strangely no debate. After a beat of silence, the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith was approved unanimously. Then the assembly spontaneously burst into singing the Doxology. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
Brothers and sisters, we are a people who don’t all believe the same thing. When it comes to following Christ, we might be trying to do the same thing. Now our different positions and passions do not have to be our liability —the things we don’t talk about for risk of being controversial. Instead, these differences make it more possible for us to praise God who is God of protestors and police officers, Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Muslims, criminals and kindergartners.
I know the slogan“That they may all be one” does not seem to describe the condition of the world these days. Instead, it might be our call to action.
O God forgive us when we’re more inclined to argue about you than pray to you. You are still speaking; so this world you love still has a chance. May it be so.
 Gunnemann, Louis H. The Shaping of the United Church of Christ. United Church Press: Cleveland, Ohio, 1999. pages 68-70.