General Synod 32

Report on General Synod 32, Milwaukee Wisconsin, 2019

What is General Synod? General Synod is a gathering of the entire United Church of Christ that happens every two years. Synod is comprised of national staff, the board of directors, our ministry partners, honored guests, and around 800 delegates from across the denomination, of which, I was proudly a member. As a delegate my responsibilities included committee work on two resolutions, bringing these resolutions to the floor during a plenary session for approval, and voting on the issues that were brought before the entire body. (Remember, these are called resolutions and not “laws” or “rules” because the General Synod speaks to the local church not for us. In other words, these resolutions are recommended to the local churches for prayerful consideration, implementation, or action. But it’s the local congregations themselves who finally decide how to most faithfully respond to each resolution within their own context)

The 32nd General Synod passed a number of resolutions. We passed resolutions affirming our opposition to private prisons, religious bigotry in all forms, white supremist ideologies and racism of any kind, all forms of violence, the use of plastic foam products (i.e. Styrofoam), and the growing threat of nuclear war.

We also passed resolutions in support of the Energy Innovative and Carbon Dividend Act, the Green New Deal, an observance of “Break the Silence Sunday” supporting survivors of sexual abuse and assault, (The Break the Silence resolution came from the Wisconsin Conference!), for the protection of immigrants and their families, and to reestablish a relationship with the UCC in Puerto Rico.

The committee I served on considered and passed two resolutions that granted “historically underrepresented group” status (HUG) to the Mental Health Network of the UCC and The Colectivo De UCC Latinx. This status will give each of these groups increased representation by granting them 4 delegates to each General Synod as well as increased exposure across the denomination.

In addition, we passed resolutions of witness to lift awareness of forced global migration, to encourage the use of non-binary gender language in our churches, and to recognize opioid addiction as a local and national health crisis.

Finally, we sent the board of directors two resolutions for consideration and implementation. One to consider the relationship between our autonomy as congregations and our promise to be in covenant with United Church of Christ. This action constitutes the first steps toward creating a denomination wide Manual on Church. The second resolution sent to the board of directors challenges them to create a set of guidelines for the scope and type of materials that might be displayed in the exhibition hall during General Synod.

Now, on a more personal note. This was my first General Synod and I didn’t really know what to expect. But it was a great experience! I was filled by four unique and wonderfully arranged worship services, inspired by some the best preaching I’ve ever heard, educated in workshops on Environmental Justice and alternative vespers worship, and enriched by new and renewed relationships within and beyond the Wisconsin delegation.

I was honored to serve the national setting of the United Church of Christ in this capacity and I thank you for the opportunity. Now, delegates are chosen to serve at two General Synods, therefore, I must conclude by saying, “Kansas City here I come” for General Synod 33 in 2021. Blessings and Shalom, Pastor Phil

Pick Up The Mantle

Luke 9:51-63

A few years back, I decided to expand my culinary expertise. And by that, I mean learn how to cook something more exotic than mac & cheese. So, I learned how to make a pot roast. I kinda followed a recipe, loosely, sort of, but what I created was awesome! The problem was; however, I could never reproduce it. I always used the same ingredients, but it was never the same dish twice.

Discipleship is kind of like that. Today’s text gives us the ingredients necessary to be people of faith, but the end result may vary. But here’s the thing. Unlike cooking this is a good thing. It’s a goo thing because each of us brings something to the mix. We all have unique experiences and perspectives; we all bring the pain and suffering we’ve endured along with our joys and triumphs; and when we take the ingredients Jesus has given us and add it to our uniqueness, we get a wonderful, diverse, person of faith, a person created in the image of the Living God, loved, and ready to share that love.

This past week I attended our UCC General Synod, a gathering of delegates and leaders from across the spectrum of the United Church of Christ. And the consistent theme across all the sermons, across all the business of the national church, within the work of my committee and implicant in our final resolution, and, I would say, even when we marched on and temporally shut down the ICE office in downtown Milwaukee to protest of caging of children and the mistreatment immigrant families seeking asylum in our nation; the consistent theme was, you guessed it! Discipleship! All of these ingredients when combined with our live experiences, constitutes what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in 2019.

And this is where our lives intersect with the life of Jesus. Luke shares a story with us today about Jesus and his disciples as they continue on their journey. A journey of discovery, a journey of faith, a journey that challenged Jesus followers to consider what it means to be a disciple. In the narrative, Jesus invited someone, who had come alongside them, to join their movement. But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” To which Jesus responded, “Let the dead bury the dead. But instead of that, go and spread the Good News of God’s Reign.” Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my household.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for this kind of work.”

Let’s stop here for a moment and think about the implications of these exchanges. Does this seem kinda harsh to anyone else? What in the world is the matter with suspending your journey for a brief moment of mourning for your dead father or to properly say goodbye to your loved ones? These seem like reasonable requests. Right?

But, (you know there’s always a but) But… if we focus our attention on the surface of story, then we are missing the deeper meaning of this passage. Folks, Jesus isn’t some kinda of “meany” here, he isn’t disrespecting grief or family; the deeper point is one of urgency. The need is immediate. Jesus’ earthly existence is nearing its end and he can read the writing on the wall. So, his call to discipleship is immediate, imperative… it’s urgent. And because this is an urgent call to action, Jesus was inviting his closest followers to bring their whole selves to this calling.And the same is true in our context. Our invitation to discipleship is also urgent and we have been invited to bring our whole selves into the mix as well. We have been invited to continue to be and become on an even deeper level, disciples of Jesus.

Wow. You might be saying right now, that’s a little scary. What if I can’t do it? What if my skills aren’t enough? What if I’m not enough? All valid questions, but unnecessary. My friends, we’ve been given the all ingredients we need for success. And like my pot roast, that success will not be the same for all of us. Each of us will pick up the mantle of God’s call to action in a different way, serving God as best we can in our own unique way. That’s what Jesus means by discipleship!

But while your call to discipleship might look different from mine, its’ important to remember that both are valid, both are equal, and both are urgent! Here’s what I mean. Your call to discipleship might not be to preach, but you might excel at sharing the good news through active listening. Your call to discipleship might not be to visit those in prison, but you might liberate your neighbor by driving them to the doctor or to church. Your call to discipleship might not be to march in a protest rally, but you stand against injustice when you provide a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Your call to discipleship might not be to serve as a missionary in a foreign land, but you are the hands and feet of Christ as you serve in the food pantry, (or work at the Second Chance Sale), or when you give of your time and talent and treasure to the myriad of social justice causes we support and act upon. Your call to discipleship might not take you to the cross, but you take up your cross every day as you stand up for those on the outside looking in, the marginalized, the oppressed no matter how unpopular that position might be.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? These things that you already do and the as-of-yet unknown things that you’re going to take on in the future, are possible because of the ingredients that God has already provided. In a nutshell, those ingredients are what the United Church of Christ has identified as the Three Great Loves: Love of Neighbor, Love of Creation, and Love of Children. And when we bring our whole selves to the mix, when we pick up the mantle of God’s love by loving our neighbor, God’s creation, and our children, it’s then, …it’s then, that we begin to create a “Just World for All.”

One final thought this morning. Back in our text, when some Samaritan villagers refused to welcome Jesus into their midst, James and John wanted “to call fire down from heaven to consume them.” Now, first of all, like that was an option! I don’t know, maybe it was, but it seems like they were getting a little pyro happy to me. And Jesus appears to agree. The text says that he “turned and spoke sternly to them.”

Isn’t it interesting. When the disciples wanted to punish people for not welcoming Jesus, he scolded them. I believe he did this because Jesus understood that hate only begets more hate. So, as we go about co-creating this “just world for all” that we are dreaming of, there might be some push-back. Not everyone’s in the same place. But the lesson here is to respond to push-back with grace, respond to negativity with positive energy, respond to hate-filled words with tones of love and compassion and faith. My friends, creating a just world for all means just that: a just world for all people, even those who disagree with us. It won’t be easy, nor will it be quick. But, if we are willing to mix the ingredients that God has provided; if we are able to pick up the mantle of justice; then we will continue to be and become to an even greater extent, disciples of the Living, Loving God. And that, my friends, is the best tasting pot roast you’ll ever eat! Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

Gathered & Scattered

John 13 & 20 – Pentecost & Confirmation Sunday

What a beautiful week this has been. After a cool, late spring, this week was fantastic. Yes, there was some rain, there were moments of warmth and some cooler weather. But mostly, it’s been sunny and pleasant. Now, sunny and pleasant, to me anyway, means time spent in the garden …finally. And as I was in my garden this week, and as I was thinking about today’s message, and as I considered the sermon title: Gathered & Scattered, I was struck by the order of the words. Gathered and then scattered. On first blush, I would have put those words in the opposite order; especially when thinking about our faith …right? Don’t we want to seek the scattered and then gather them into the church?

But as I thought about it some more, and as I continued to work the soil, I decided that I like this order. We must gather before we can scatter. Whether it be seeds or knowledge or faith or people. Before we can be disciples, we must gather the tools needed to reach-out beyond ourselves. Before we can scatter the seeds of hope, we must first find hope ourselves. Before we can forgive, we must be willing to forgive others. And before we can scatter the seeds of love, we must first realize that we are loved, unconditionally, loved, by God.

Now, the text that we heard from John 13 this morning is finally inseparable from the John 20 passage that I read earlier, and, indeed, from Pentecost itself. I say this because these texts both invite us not only to “gather” an experience of the Divine through the Spirit, but they show us how to “scatter” that experience beyond ourselves. Yes, In Pentecost the Sprit has come, and the Church was formed, but how do we (including our confirmands, maybe especially our confirmands) make the Church new, fresh, and relevant for our generation and for generations to come?

That’s the big the question posed to the wider Church today. How can we be relevant in people’s lives? Well, there are any number of ways to go here and believe me, there’ve been many a book written, visioning plans formed, and new ministries launched hoping to solve this problem. But I think, sometimes, in order to solve a new problem, we need an old solution. Jesus’ solution? He says, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

My friends, if we would like to see our beloved church continue to grow, and I don’t mean just in numbers, but in spirit, in compassion and grace, in how we live-into our faith; then this New Commandment, “Love each other as I have loved you” must be our bedrock. But notice something here. Jesus doesn’t say, “My new commandment to you is to go out and try to save everyone” He doesn’t say, the Greatest Commandment is to judge those who don’t believe as I do, or speak the language I do, or love the one I think they should love. No. Jesus said, “Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.” And loving one another, loving one’s neighbor begins, first of all with humility. It begins by understanding that we all fall short in one way or another. Love continues to grow when we decide to meet people right where they’re at. And we gather more and more individuals when we scatter the seeds of love beyond just our own faith community. How? By being inclusive of everyone, consistently faithful, and open to change.

This is where John 20 & John 13 intersect. In this text, like I said before, we have John’s version of Pentecost. “…he breathed on them and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’” I’ve made this association before. Rhuwa in Hebrew and pneumatos in Greek both mean “Breath, Spirit, & Wind” Three related concepts all encapsulated in a single thought. So, when Jesus breathed on his disciples, he imparted to them the gift of the Spirit; and, in the more familiar Pentecost account in Acts where the flames are accompanied by wind, we see a more demonstrative demonstration of the Breath of God.

You see where I’m going here. All of this harkens back to the second creation narrative in Genesis where God’s own breath becomes humanity’s breath and then, by extension, across the arc of time and space, God’s Breath, Gods’ Spirit, becomes ours. Our very breath contains a bit of the universe, and the expanse of the universe contains a bit of our being, our essence, …our breath

SO, what does all this mean? Well it means that we’re finally, all, interconnected! to my way of thinking anyway, if all things are interconnected then why in the world would we harm, or destroy, or defame? If we are interconnected with the earth, then why would we not take seriously and try to make a difference as the Global climate changes? If we are interconnected with all people, then why would we welcome some and close our hearts and borders to others? Why would we ever exclude anyone on the basis of religion, or race, or gender identity? In a very real way, whenever we exclude anyone, we exclude ourselves …and God.

How do I know this? Because the foundation of this interconnection, the glue that holds it all together, if you will: is Love. God’s Love. God Is love. “Love each other,” Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

Now, to you, the newest members of this congregation. There can be no lesson more important than “Love each other.” This is a wonderful congregation of people that you’ve joined here today; people who live-into that commandment every day in a whole variety of ways. You already know that. But today, the thing you must try to wrap your minds around, is the fact that you are now fully a part of, intrinsically intertwined with, this group of faithful people. And that’s both a joy and a responsibility. It’s a joy because you get to journey with all of these folks through thick and thin, hardship and celebration; they’ll be there for you when you need them, and you for them.

But there’s also a responsibility. In the United Church of Christ, as we learned in confirmation class, we have a saying: “Make the church your own in each generation.” As we move forward, and continue to grow, you will be the leaders of the congregation. You have the skill, the compassion, and the faith to make this congregation, indeed, the whole of the United Church of Christ, your own in this generation and in generations to come, of that I have no doubt.

So, this my invitation to each of you as you live-into the joy and responsibility of this your calling: Be kind. Be generous. Be humble. Be grateful. Be faithful. But above all else, be loving. Love each other, love your neighbor and the earth, and love God with all your being. And this is God’s invitation to each of us here today Gather kindness and scatter generosity; gather humility and scatter gratefulness; gather faith & scatter the seeds of love. Gather Love from each other, and scatter a love for your neighbor and for the earth, and, in the midst of it all, love God with all your being.

May it be so. Amen and Amen

Wisdom Calls

Proverbs 8 – Trinity Sunday

When I was in Seminary, one of the required readings was Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Edwards, he was one of the driving forces behind the “First Great Awakening” in the early 1700’s with his insistence that people recognize and repent of their sin. Now, Edwards was charismatic but to be honest, he was also a little bit scary. You see, the image of God in this famous sermon was not that of a loving God, or even a grandfatherly God, but one that seemed positively sadistic. Edwards depicted God as an angry God who dangled sinners over the fires of hell like someone might dangle a spider over an open flame.[i] Not a very attractive image of God. In fact, I’d say it’s an image that would drive you in the other direction.

But, fortunately, the Biblical view of God is very different. The Bible presents us with a God of love, a God of relationship, a God of community.[ii] Community. That’s an important word especially as we consider our understanding of the Trinity today. But why? Why is viewing God as three persons so important? Well, to begin with, we have to confess that know less about God then we actually do know, in this lifetime anyway. And since we can only imagine God from our limited human capacity to understand, then we must use human images and symbols to envision God. And one of these images, one very important symbol is love.

Now, we know as human beings that love is most fully expressed when there’s a counterpart; a partner or another. So, it should come as no surprise that God, who is actually love itself, has counterparts in the Bible; Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This is central to our faith, because the love it represents is the basis for everything God does; including both creation and salvation. [iii]

Now, recently, I read a book by Richard Rohr called the Divine Dance and the bases of this book, as the title indicates, is to recapture an understanding of God as Trinity by adopting the image of God as engaged in an unending dance. Creator, Christ, and Spirit ever-twirling, ever-dancing, ever-circling one another in the mystery of the Trinity. Rohr begins by reminding us that “…mystery isn’t something that [we] cannot understand.” Rather, that it’s something that [we] can “endlessly understand.” “There’s no point at which [we] can say, ‘I’ve got it!’ Always and forever,” Rohr says, “mystery get you!’” He then says, with this understanding of mystery in mind, that, “Circling around is an apt metaphor for this mystery that we’re trying to apprehend.”[iv] In other words, community among the three-persons of the Godhead and their coactivity, their movement, is both dynamic and fluid.

Rohr goes on to say that, “…this is not some new, trendy theology from America. This is about as traditional as you can get. The very mystical Cappadocian Fathers of fourth-century eastern Turkey eventually developed some highly sophisticated thinking on what we soon called the Trinity. It took three centuries of reflection on the Gospels to have the courage to say it, but they of this land, including Paul of Tarsus before them and Rumi afterward, circled around to the best metaphor they could find: Whatever is going on in God is a flow, and radical relatedness, and perfect communion between three; a circle dance of love.”[v] And here’s the really cool part. “God is not just a dancer; God is the dance itself.”[vi] And God is the dance of life from the very beginning.

This is where we encounter the Wisdom of Proverbs today. God created and continues to create everything from God’s desire to have a relationship with, to extend God’s internal community with, and to include all of God’s creation in …this circle dance of life. In other words, God is not “other-then” but rather around and within all things. Our lesson from Proverbs for today is a beautiful image of all this.  In it, God creates as a master craftsman, as a skilled artist. And like a skilled artist takes delight in a sculpture or a painting, God takes great delight in the whole of creation.[vii] (even mosquitos)

And surprisingly, though it, pre-dates Jesus by several centuries, there is already hint of God having a counterpart. Our lesson describes “Wisdom” as God’s companion in creation. But more than that, Wisdom is God’s counterpart, not only applauding with joy at every aspect of creation but also working with God to make sure everything fits as a “master craftsman.” might. [viii]  I like the way Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: “I was right there with him,” Wisdom says, “making sure everything fit. Day after day I was there, with my joyful applause, always enjoying his company, delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family”.[ix]

But what does all this have to do with us? Well, I suspect that in your everyday conversations the idea of God as Trinity doesn’t come up very often. Am I right? It seems like an abstract concept that only theologians and philosophers like to debate. But I’m going to propose that nothing could be further from the truth. The point of our belief in the Trinity is that God is a God of Love, and not just a Love that cherishes from afar, but a Love that acts for us and among us and within us. God is Love, a Love that reaches out to us and seeks a relationship with us; community with us. My friends, this is an image of God who takes great delight in the beauty of the natural world and takes great delight in the human family. And this is a God, our God, who invites each of us to join in the Divine dance, the ever-fluid, ever-moving, ever-flowing dance of life. A life lived here on earth and beyond this life, eternally, forever circling, with the Wisdom of the Creator, Christ, and Spirit.

Amen and the people of God said, Amen!

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[i] Edwards says, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire

[ii] Jürgen Moltmann, God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology, 101: The biblical image of God is “God in community, rich in relationships. ‘God is love.’”

[iii] Alan Brehm. God’s Delight. (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2013

[iv] Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington: Whitaker House) 2016

[v] Ibid Rohr

[vi] Ibid Rohr

[vii] Pheme Perkins, “Beside the Lord,” The Christian Century (May 17, 1989) 522: “The Lord rejoices in her [Wisdom] as she rejoices in all of creation, including the human race. This image of creation is very different from the mechanical putting-it-together activity that we might regard as part of making something. Creation is shared. It is an object of beauty, order and delight.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 311.

[viii] William P. Brown, “Proverbs 8:22-31,” Interpretation 63 (July 2009) 288: Wisdom is God’s full partner in play, and all creation is hers to enjoy. The world was made for her sake, for her Ibid Rohr God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, 9: “Through the energies and potentialities of the Spirit, the Creator is himself present in his creation. He does not merely confront it in his transcendence; entering into it, he is also immanent in it.”

[ix] Ibid Brehm