In some years at Church of Peace, the first Sunday in May is Confirmation Sunday. Alongside celebrating our young people, one of the things I love about this Sunday is it asks all of us —everybody in the room— to imagine ourselves making the same promises. Confirmation Sunday might make us remember why we chose to join the church years ago; it might make us consider if we ever would.
If you’re hearing this sermon, chances are, you’re here on purpose. Something in you cares deeply about our church or wants to care. Something in you cares deeply about God or wants to care. You know the shape of the longing that you are carrying. You know what is at stake.
Now imagine if there were a community in which we could each bring the shining of our longing. We could set these intentions down on the table like dishes at a potluck even if that means there’s going to be a fight. Because it’s not just that we disagree on matters of style or preference, that would be one thing. But if we try this, if we bring together what matters most and we disagree on that, well, you know. There’s going to be a fight, and maybe we’ll have to leave, or maybe they’ll have to leave, or maybe we’ll really get into it.
Maybe the Holy Spirit will shine through the struggle and save our lives, and we’ll see how the people in the room who we can’t stand are managing to represent the hidden side of grace, and maybe we’ll hear ourselves begin praising God. And well, that’s the church for you.
In Confirmation, we study how the United Church of Christ is a denomination that got formed out of faithful struggle. That’s true, but really all of Christianity got started this way. Way back before the Church was the Church, our ancestors argued over of justice and doctrine, how to help those who are vulnerable, how to dress… Struggle has always been our story.
In the scripture Bob read, we hear about one formative argument. We remember all the earliest followers of Christ were Jewish. Now, as the Gospel is spreading to Gentile communities, a new question has arisen: Is it necessary for a Gentile to convert to Judaism in order to be saved by Christ, specifically, does a man need to get circumcised?
We can imagine why some early Christians said Yes! Jesus told his followers that he had come, not to abolish the law of Moses, but to fulfill it. So if following Christ is a continuation of the Jewish faith then it makes sense that a person needs to get circumcised. That’s a sign of keeping the covenant with God! How can we let a person take a shortcut by skipping the whole foundation of our faith?! That’s one side.
The other side argued that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. You can’t earn it by going through the motions, even motions like getting circumcised. So if a Gentile wants to begin following Jesus, why should we impose additional obligations? That just interferes with what God is trying to do! Already the Holy Spirit has been at work even among the uncircumcised. This means, it’s our job to re-think the membership requirements.
Both sides sent representatives to the Council at Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas, Peter and James the brother of Jesus— they’re all on the same team, arguing that God does not require circumcision. And their side won the debate.
And the thing is, that was not a no-brainer. That was a fight. We had to come to terms with what was at stake for our side and consider what was at stake for their side. We had to search our consciences and change our minds, as though this struggle is part of peacemaking, as though —that’s the church for you.
A few weeks ago, a Gallup poll revealed that for the first time in eighty years, less than half of surveyed Americans identify as belonging to a church, mosque, or synagogue. As we’ve known for some time, the number of Americans who identify as having no religious affiliation, that’s on the rise.1https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx
One reason why people stay away from the church is because they’ve had a damaging experience or they’re afraid that they might. They perceive the church as dangerous and judgmental. Honestly, what scares me just as much —if not even a little more— is another reason why people stay away from the church.
It’s this: They don’t think the church matters. I mean no offense, they’re saying, but… what’s the point? And it’s not like they don’t care about anything. The problem is that kindhearted, brilliant-thinking, justice-seeking people don’t see how the church cares about what they care about. Really tell me, they’re asking: Why is it important to be part of a church?
I don’t know what your answer to that question is, but I think you might have one…
Something you care about has brought you here today. It might be the case that what’s at stake for you directly conflicts with what’s at stake for me, but it matters that we notice. It matters that we make it our mission to love each other, and struggle with each other. And what if my mind gets changed when I listen to you… And what if your heart gets moved…
What if there are people who need a community that will take seriously the shining of their longing —that we’ll take it so seriously, when we disagree we’ll tell them!— but they don’t even know that church is such a place. They don’t even know about us.
In the time I’ve been at Church of Peace, on three separate occasions, the congregation struggled together in open meetings then said out loud: Look. This is what we stand for. This is what we believe and what we mean to do…
In the spring of twenty-fourteen, we crafted and blessed our Statement of Identity and Purpose: We gather at the corner of Twelfth and Twelfth where we value our history and envision our future. We come together to give glory to God, and the statement goes on to name seven expressions of how we’ll do this.
In the fall of twenty-nineteen, we built onto the Statement of Identity and Purpose by adding five priorities. We’re the church of standing up for families. We’re the church of literacy and education. We’re the church of forgiveness, the church of peacemaking in the face of hate, the church of caring and service.
In January of twenty-nineteen, we voted on and passed the Open and Affirming Covenant which you’ll hear a little later in the service today. This tells folks who might find rejection from other churches: Hey. Church of Peace is different. This tells our church members: Hey. We’ve got to keep working to become more welcoming.
And here’s the thing about these three statements. They are not tests. There’s no membership requirement that says every person at Church of Peace must agree with every word! Instead, these three articles represent what we are trying to live toward together. They’re our shared testimony, the best way we know how to say it right now. These are the promises we’re wrestling with and growing into, and these statements tell the world the direction of our dreaming.
Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, there’s something in the shining of your soul where your own heart is moved. There’s a longing for a more loving world that you are standing on your tiptoes to see. And. We don’t all share the same perspective.
We don’t agree on the little things, and sometimes, we really don’t agree on the big things, but we’re learning to argue faithfully because in the struggle you keep helping me see something of God that I would not have seen before, and maybe I can help you see something of God. You know the Holy Spirit has gotten right into the mix, and there’s something of the shining of the Spirit that neither of us can see by ourselves, but once we see it together —you know what, we might hear ourselves singing praise to God like we can’t even help it. And well, that’s the church for you.
You might have heard this story before… In the earliest days of the United Church of Christ, crafting the constitution was a struggle— which makes sense! I mean, the Evangelical and Reformed side was maybe culturally opposite the Congregationalist Christian side. There were different theological commitments, wildly different notions about organizational power dynamics.
So both sides formed a joint commission to design our denomination’s Statement of Faith. Just think about that! These people were asked to identify the most important things you can say about God. You know, put the heart of your faith into a few sentences, on a single piece of paper, oh and get this, you’re working with people who don’t agree with you at all!
I can’t tell you how, but the commission did it. A Church of Peace pastor, Rev. John Schmidt was one of the reps from the Evangelical and Reformed side.
Now remember, we still haven’t managed to hammer out a constitution, but the time came for the Statement of Faith to get presented to the General Synod of Nineteen-Fifty Nine, and Ken and Dee Kuenning were in the room. You know everybody in the convention hall was bracing for a debate!
What happened was the Statement of Faith was read out loud: “We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our Father, and to his deeds we testify…” and on it goes. And the vote was called, and it passed unanimously. That’s when the crowd went silent. One person began singing the doxology, then the whole assembly broke into Praise God from whom all blessings flow…2Gunnemann, Louis H. and Charles Shelby Rooks. The Shaping of the United Church of Christ. United Church Press: Cleveland, OH, 1999. pages 68-70.
And well, that’s the church for you. Thanks be to God.