What Does it Mean to be the Church? What Does it Mean to be UCC?

A joint sermon given by Rev. Dr. Peter A. Luckey and Kansas-Oklahoma Conference (United Church of Christ) Minister Edith Guffey


Rev. Dr. Peter A. Luckey

This morning we’re beginning a series of five sermons on discipleship. It is so fitting we do a series on discipleship during the season of Lent – that is, the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, excluding Sundays. Fitting because Lent was created by the early church as an opportunity to teach and to prepare new Christians for being baptized into the faith on Easter Sunday. They would train for these forty days, then on Easter Sunday, they’d be baptized and brought into the church as new Christians. How fitting we would explore what it means to be a disciple here at Plymouth for the next five weeks.

Here are the themes we’re going to be talking about: Today we’re going to be talking about “We are the church,” for clearly, it is the church that forms disciples. Then, we’re going to be talking about that we are called, we are committed, we are chosen, we are equipped, and finally on April 2, we are commissioned.

Today we begin by talking about the church, that we are the church. I’m going to take just a few minutes and talk about church universal – church as we say it with a big “C” – the entire church. What is the salient thing you need to know about the church in terms of forming disciples? Then, after I’m finished, Edith Guffey, our conference minister with the United Church of Christ, is going to talk about what it means to be grounded in our particular tradition and heritage of Plymouth Church – of the United Church of Christ.

If you were to ask me “What is the most misunderstood aspect of the life of the church? What is it that people don’t get about the church?” here’s what I would say. I would say what people don’t understand about the church is the church is a both-and place. It’s not an either-or place. It’s a both-and place. What do we mean by that? We mean that it is a place of grace, of love, of selflessness, and compassion. And it’s a place of flawed, fallible, petty, judgmental human beings. It is both-and, friends. It’s not either-or. If you want to choose the former and ignore the latter, you do so at your peril because you will be quickly disappointed when you come and expect it to be all love and goodness. On the other hand, if you choose the latter and ignore the former, the community won’t last very long. That’s not a sustainable model.

Paul put it so beautifully to his church in Corinth when he said, and he used the metaphor, “The church is a heavenly treasure, but it’s carried in an earthen vessel.” Do you see the distinction? And how appropriate that we’ve had this dichotomy – this tension – since the very beginning. This is not a new insight. But right since the get-go, look at it. Look at the fact Jesus chose Peter to build the church. He said, “I tell you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” Well, the word Peter in Greek is petros, and petros is also the word for rock. That’s also where we get the word petrified, as in petrified rocks. “I tell you, you are Peter and upon this rock we will build the church.” Think about how interesting it is that Jesus chose Peter to build the church, to be the foundation of the church. Peter. Peter, who denied Jesus three times in the courtyard. Peter, who fell asleep at the crucifixion. Peter, who wanted to walk on water, and he began but sank.

How it is that Jesus chose an ordinary person to do an extraordinary thing. And friends, it has been this way for the church throughout two thousand years. It’s really improbable the church began at all, if you think about it. Jesus came and proclaimed a message of a new world, of God’s dream, and then people thought there was going to be a revolution. There was going to be a new day, a new nation. Then Jesus was killed by the Roman authorities and the Jewish collaborators. Most likely, it would have been the end of everything. And yet, the followers of Jesus upon his death, got together. They gathered together, and what they experienced was not the absence of Christ, but they experienced the presence of Christ. They experienced Jesus as a risen presence among them, life-giving. And if there’s one word to use to say what that presence was, the word would be love. It seems as if the message that Jesus proclaimed, a message of love, the spirit came upon Jesus and said, “You are my beloved Son, upon you my favor rests.” This message of love, this message of inclusion, of forgiveness – even forgiving those who tormented him, and he said, “Forgive them for they know not what they do” – this message of love is what permeated the life of His followers. It seemed so powerful and palpable, this love, that it had a power in it that could raise even the dead to new life. Out of death came new life, and came the life of the church through the power of God’s love.

It is said, my friends, that in the early church days, the early church didn’t have to work very hard to evangelize. They didn’t have to do a lot to get the word out. They didn’t have to go on Facebook, they didn’t have to do any of that. What happened was, the early Christians would be gathered together, and someone would be walking down the back alley of Ephesis, and they would hear this group of people talking about the strangest things. Talking about a crucifixion. Talking about a man who was hung on a tree and an empty tomb. They’d see this group of people and they’d have no idea what they were talking about. They had no idea. They didn’t understand. But something about the way these people looked at each other, and the way they talked to each other, the way they cried together, and the way they laughed together – there’s something about them that was so appealing. It was like a bee being drawn back to a flower, and that person would walk a little farther down the alley in Ephesis. Suddenly, that person would be drawn back. They didn’t know what the group was saying, but there was something about them that they wanted to be part of it, like a bee drawn to a flower. It gave off what Keith Miller calls “the scent of love.”

The other way to look at the church, really, is that it’s a God thing. It’s not just about human beings who come together, but it’s about what God does and is doing through the power of the Holy Spirit, giving us a glimpse of God’s reign. We in the church are to be an embodiment of the love of God that’s woven through this universe. We ourselves are to be a glimpse of God’s reign, God’s dream for the world. I know when I talk this way it feels so lofty and idealistic, and you’re sitting there going, “Oh, Peter. Come on. This is the church. It’s church. I come into church and I sit in the sanctuary, and I find out I’m sitting in someone’s pew. I’m not always feeling the love.” It’s true. You don’t. But see, friends, it’s both-and, not either-or. It is both an embodiment of God’s love and it’s made up of human beings. Guess what? We’re flawed. We’re broken. We’re limited. This is the way God works. God came to Jesus as a human being to be the Word made flesh. It dwells in us, in this community. I believe that we in the church have the best shot of all of forming disciples, because it’s precisely in a human community where we’re flawed, and broken, and limited that we have an opportunity to learn what it is to forgive each other. And maybe, perhaps, to explore that fact that God’s grace has permeated through the life of a broken human community like the church. Maybe it’s precisely in our brokenness that we are then given an opportunity to receive the power of God’s grace so we can be the embodiment of God’s love, and we can be a glimpse of God’s reign that is still to come and yet is breaking out here now in the life of the church. We say thanks be to God for the both-and of the church. Amen.

Edith Guffey:

Good morning! When Peter first asked me to do this, I said, “Peter, you know, I don’t wander when I preach.” The other thing is, he said ten minutes, and that offends my Baptist sensibilities. But I will do my best.

When I joined Plymouth back in 1977, I knew nothing about the United Church of Christ. After being in leadership for many years, I think I’ve seen three core values that make the United Church of Christ the denomination that it is. Those three things are: a commitment to justice, extravagant welcome, and the fact that we are a church of covenant.

Now first, and perhaps the most difficult, is the commitment to working for justice. Now, I am sure I have talked about the difference between charity and justice here before, but let me say it again to make sure we’re all on the same page. William Sloan Coffin, who for many years was the pastor of Riverside Church in New York, wrote these words: “Had I but one wish for the churches of America, I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice. Justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice inevitably leads to political confrontation.” Understanding the difference between charity and justice is so important in the United Church of Christ because so many people join the UCC today because of our longstanding and continuing commitment to justice. And, so many people leave the UCC today because of our longstanding and continuing commitment to justice. If I had time, I could tell you action after action from as early as the 1700s, where the seeds for this commitment to justice were planted. Yet, it is a difficult commitment to live out, even today. I don’t have to convince anyone here that the church should be involved in disaster relief, or Habitat for Humanity, or food pantries, or crop walks, or any kind of charitable or mercy ministry. But disagreements come when we talk about justice in our pulpits, and when our faith takes us out of our pulpits and pews in an effort to make long-lasting, systemic change. Because it takes us into the political arena. Admittedly, sometimes the church has not done its theological work in helping our members understand that speaking out on issues of concern comes from our faith and who we feel called to be as Christians, and not from our politics. It’s an important distinction, and a very hard one, especially in our highly charged context today. Some will see speaking out about immigration and affordable health care, and supporting refugees, and public education, and the rights and freedoms of our Muslim sisters and brothers as only political issues. Now, I and so many others in the UCC believe they are also issues of faith. They are about how we care for our neighbors and welcome the stranger. They are about who we think Jesus is, and who we are called to be as followers of Jesus. The church must speak out not because members are Republicans or Democrats or Independents. The church must speak out as people of faith, period.

Today, if you walk away with just one thing – at least one thing from me and one thing from Peter – I hope it will be that it’s absolutely impossible to work for real justice without engaging public policy and political systems, because changing the status quo requires changing laws and systems, which will always involve politics. I am able to stand in this pulpit today because people fought against the status quo. Slavery was the law. Sitting in the back of the bus was the law. Dismantling that unjust system required working in the political realm.

Let’s not rewrite history to make ourselves feel better. The church too often has been complicit in maintaining the status quo. Many people left the church – even the Congregational church and UCC churches – because their pastors and others were engaged in working for civil rights. Justice changes the status quo, and every time you push against the status quo, there will be resistance. There will be conflict. After working in the church for over twenty-five years, one thing that is abundantly clear to me, is the church is very uncomfortable with conflict. Working for justice is not easy. It is not popular. But it is Biblical. And it is a distinctive part of our UCC heritage; it’s core to our identity, and it’s woven throughout our denominational history.

The second thing that has become core to the identity of the United Church of Christ denominationally is that we are a church of extravagant welcome. We own that message here at Plymouth. Each Sunday, we say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Now, the message of extravagant welcome is closely tied to the core value and identity of justice. How could we possibly say we are a justice-seeking church and exclude people from our congregations and leadership?

The first openly gay man was ordained in the UCC in 1977. Now, some people knew that; others didn’t. But those who did began to find a home in the UCC. Once you have a diverse group of people that includes those often excluded, you begin to hear new voices and understand different perspectives. Hearts and minds are changed. And so, in 1973, a vote was taken at the General Senate – the governing body of the UCC – calling on local churches to fully affirm and celebrate the gifts that LGBT persons bring into the full life of the church. Then, in 2005, the General Senate took an historic vote to support same-gender marriage, long before the Supreme Court action. That decision really made the UCC more public about extravagant welcome, and it pushed the envelope for many of our congregations. Some left, most stayed, and churches joined the United Church of Christ because of that vote. But it was a very hard time in the denominational life of the church. But it mattered to people that the UCC had taken that action. Did you know that Don Holliday, the lead attorney who fought to legalize same-sex marriage in Oklahoma, is a member of one of our UCC churches in Norman, Oklahoma? He came to the UCC because of the welcome to LGBT persons in our communities. Today, in Kansas-Oklahoma, of the eight persons who are members in discernment seeking to become authorized ministers in the UCC, only one grew up in the United Church of Christ. Others have come to us because we are an open and affirming denomination. Not all eight of the members in discernment are LGBT, but they want to be part of a denomination that has said clearly and without question, that all are welcome, no matter who they are, where they are on life’s journey, and yes, who they love. There is no turning back. This is now a core piece of the identity of the United Church of Christ.

And the last thing that is core to the identity of this denomination, is that we are a church of covenant. There are no binding agreements, no church law that says what each of our churches or members have to believe. There is no book of discipline, no creed we have to recite. In some ways, that has worked in our favor, as the governing body – the General Senate – can identify and articulate a prophetic vision for the denomination, but there is no requirement that every local church adopt that vision as its own. So, each local church decides if it’s open and affirming or not. Each local church decides if justice is a key part of their identity or not. But even though we have that local autonomy, that doesn’t mean there are no expectations of UCC congregations. There is one. And it is abundantly clear in the bylaws. The one main expectation is that UCC churches be in covenant – with each other, with the conference, and with the General Senate. Local churches are expected to embrace being part of the body of Christ that is the United Church of Christ. And covenant means that we will listen, hear, and carefully consider the advice, counsel, and request of other parts of the body. Covenant means we promise each other we will stay at the table, even when we disagree. That we will wrestle with common concerns, that we will support, care for, and nurture each other. It does not mean we will all come out at the same place, but we accept that we don’t always have to agree to be in partnership and ministry together. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all model in the UCC. We know that our unity is in Christ, and in the end, it is the covenant that we have with one another that keeps us together as the United Church of Christ. A commitment to working for justice, a church of extravagant welcome, and our covenant with each other as the United Church of Christ. Now, I am sure someone else would name one or two different or additional core values. After all, this is the UCC. But I think these are pretty central to our identity. May God continue to guide and direct us as we embody these values in our churches, across the country, and across the state, but especially today here at Plymouth, in our lives, and in our world. Amen.

Comments are closed.