Generation to Redemption

We have been exploring Jesus’ family system. We have been exploring our own on Monday. Here is the simple truth of life: we are because others were.

This building stands because others built it. We are maintaining their work. Our liturgy looks the way it does, because others developed the rituals that transferred meaning. The past isn’t even past, the present is what the past is doing now and the future will be what the past will be doing then.

Yet we have choices. Jesus was tempted in the desert. He was tempted with wealth, fame, and power. He resisted all. Unlike one story we heard last Sunday. David, once a humble shepherd, now a king. Some say the best king Israel ever had. But he was an adulterer. He abused power. He was caught up in wealth, fame, and power. Unlike David, Jesus said no. There are no abandoned women and children in the life of Christ, in fact… quite the opposite. Jesus picked up the outcast and abandoned and invited them back into community. While this should be the bedrock of our faith, it seems the modern church is bent on making outcasts than welcoming them. We seem to have lost the plot. Folks aren’t joining church like they used to and largely see us has a exercise in vast hypocrisy.

Where do you turn when you lost your identity?

We are because others were. When we lost our identity as a nation, great leaders of our past returned us to our founding document. According to historian Heather Cox Richardson[1], when faced with a national crisis we returned to the Declaration of Independence. The phrase, “All men are created equal” is a radical phrase.

All people being equal is the American experiment. There is no caste system, no monarchy, no authoritarian who will tell us what to do and who we are. Noble blood means nothing here. Great talent can come from anywhere. Great ideas and great leaps in society come from average everyday people who hear a call and pursue it with abandon. All people are equal, and we govern ourselves. This is the great American experiment.

In the Civil War or what Fredrick Douglas called “The Slave Owners Rebellion,”[2] Lincoln returned us to our founding phrase in the Gettysburg Address… “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”[3]

Vice President Alexander H. Stephens of the Confederate States vehemently disagreed with Lincoln, and stated in 1861 that “the great truth” is “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”[4] There are many who still believe this in our day.

Deep in the unrest of Jim Crow, and the return of America’s original temptation of believing some are better than others, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had a dream. One founded in America’s original promise and our founding statement which he mentions twice in his speech, but the most famous part “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”[5]

When we are unsure, we return to the original promise of our country: Everyone is created equal. We may fight over exactly what that means, but that is the original statement as to what we’re about as a nation and as a people.[6]

I believe our Congregationalist ancestors would agree. We had enough of the arguments of popes and kings. We wanted a simple faith. We wanted the Bible in our own language. Congregationalists wished to strip away the bloated tradition and find Jesus at the center of our faith. The pioneer and perfector as it is written in Hebrews 12:2. We wanted Jesus as the sole head of the church as written in Ephesians 1:22 among other places.

We the church searching for unity in Christ. Working out our faith with one another as we respond to the needs of our local community. It’s a radical statement of faith and one that led us to leave our homeland of England and land on these shores. It was this faith that led our ancestors to ordain the first black man, the first woman, the first gay man, among many other firsts.[7]

This is our story. We haven’t gotten it all right. We have had some missteps. It is the promise of the UCC that is compelling to me. Having been raised in the church and wounded by it, I thought I was done. I thought I’d join the fastest growing religion in our country, “The Nones.” People who don’t attend or identify themselves with any religion or denomination. Yet we stumbled upon the UCC, and we’re still captivated 20 years later.

We were founded before this country. Our operating system was designed before streaming services and the demands of school and travel sports. I once read of a church that debated having a potbelly stove in their meeting house. They decided against it. They didn’t want their people becoming too comfortable, as the Christian should seek austerity and simplicity. Pot belly stoves would be hedonistic, and having a warm church would remind congregants of the fires of hell and not the promise of heaven. The Congregational church in the next town did have a pot belly stove, and people ended up going there. The first church closed. The other provided a warm welcome. Back in that time, one might not have enough wood or food at one’s house, but the church would have both. It was preferable to spend the evening hours in community than cold and hungry at home.

Many of us no longer have that problem. We have opposite problem. We would rather stay in our safe warm houses where we can control whatever we want to see. We can stream any movie and any album. This choice and freedom has left us with the feeling that it’s safer to interact with screens than with people. Yet this hyper individualism has left us more anxious, more lonely, and more without a solid sense of purpose.

David Brooks has indeed critiqued hyper-individualism in contemporary societies in The Second Mountain and a few articles in The Atlantic. He argues that an excessive focus on individualism, where personal desires and aspirations take precedence over communal values, can have detrimental effects on both individuals and society as a whole.

It’s important to note that Brooks is not necessarily advocating for a rejection of individualism altogether but rather a balance that incorporates a sense of communal responsibility and shared values. His critique encourages a more holistic understanding of well-being that considers both individual and collective flourishing.

Brooks is asking us to look at our histories. To acknowledge the fact that we are, because others were. We here in the UCC call this a balance between autonomy and covenant.

We have autonomy. We have a responsibility to make our own decisions and live our own lives. Yet we balance that with covenant. We are bound to one another through a promise of the heart. To show up for one another. To pray for one another. To seek unity in Christ and occasionally find it.

When God came to us in Christ, God came through a genealogy. Giants of faith, and stories that we lost. Of names and places and people and four bold women. Unexpected people who did their best and wrote their stories… warts and all… into the DNA of God.

We are, because others were. We are here because our faith has been passed down to us by so many saints going all the way back to Christ himself, who we still acknowledge is the head of the church. Meghan and I are leaders here, but we cannot rule by authoritarian ways. We get no vote. We are alongside you. We can pray and walk with you. We can discern together what we should do, we will very rarely tell you exactly what to do. For one does not tell a congregationalist what to do.

David Brooks quotes a Unitarian pastor who writes, “we…need to learn the virtue of staying put and staying true, of choosing again what we chose before. In my view that’s one of the main reasons we come to church.”

“We’re here not so much to make spiritual progress each week,” he continues. “but that’s wonderful when it happens. Rather, we mostly come for consistency—for what remains the same from week to week: the comfort of the liturgy, the solace of the music, the reassuring sight of familiar faces, the enduring presence of ancient rites and timeless symbols. We’re here to remind ourselves of values that unite us and commitments that keep us heading in the right direction. We’re here to choose again what we chose before.”[8]

I choose you church. Again and again. I hope to stay put for a good long while for we have covered many miles together, but it feels like I’m just getting started here.

We must do nothing alone. In my ministry. In our way of doing church. We are in the UCC, connected to other churches who can form us and advise us. To engage our association, conference, and national bodies in resourcing where we may want to go. We are because others are. We can mine our past, our scriptures, our holy tradition going all the way back to the first century. We have riches galore! Yet as Christ said, “it is the wise who bring the old treasures out with the new.”

We can chose again what we chose before. Our ancestors saw the promise that all are created equal. No kings, no popes, no authoritarian hierarchy. The local church is the head of the church. We call our own shots.

We value all people. We value education. We value hard work. We value lifting up the voices of the outcast, widow, orphan, and stranger within our gate. For Christians are called to welcome outcasts, not make them.

We find our stories written in the bible. The bible is an amazing mirror, but an awful god. Many folks say they read the bible literally, every word and they don’t pick and choose. Yet I don’t see them stoning many for adultery or keeping a kosher diet. I used to think these stories were just an old book… so small when my life was so big. But as I grew and studied and faced both grief and celebration too big for me… I see that these stories are the underlying shape of reality. They are the scripts we repeat.

As we read these stories, they do their slow work on us… until one day, we have a mountain top moment. There are ancestors of our past standing right beside us. We see through the veil, and there is Jesus in clothes of white, dazzling us with the display of the divine that was really right there beside us all along.

We are because others were. We are love incarnate walking around. We are the living echoes of lives lived long ago. Abraham left and wandered in search of God’s promise. Jacob wrestled. Moses led his people on a meandering journey from bondage. We must make similar journeys and we can learn from them. Elijiah and his upsetting social critiques and his religious arguments. Yet the truth is, we are because they were.

The psalmist asked, “Soul, why are you so downcast?” Anyone here ever ask that question? David abused power. We can be tempted with the power given us to do the same. We can learn from how Nick North put it, “Shady ladies” of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Shady ladies not because what they did was wrong, but because some shade was thrown their way and they handled it well. Their lives can inform our own. We are because they were.

And Jesus. It all leads to Jesus. He is our way, our truth, and our life. His ways are the best. Meekness. Resisting temptations of wealth, fame, and power. He tells us puzzling parables. He takes us on a hike up a mountain. We’re complaining that our feet hurt, or asking “Are we there yet?” Like children do. Until we see Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses. We still are trying to puzzle all that out. We’re just as bewildered as Peter who stammers hospitality or frightened into silence like James and John. Jesus lit up and shining, displaying the fabric of our reality.

Friends, let us choose again what we have chosen before. The love of God, the way of Christ, and to follow the Holy Spirit. To learn to love one another as Christ loved us. To fully engage in our autonomy, for no one else will live our life for us. Yet to enter into covenant, for we don’t have to do this work alone.

This is the witness of our ancestors. And we are here because they were here. And in so many ways… they still are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Works Cited

[1] In her amazing book Democracy Awakening: Notes on the state of America, Viking Press, 9/26/2023.







[8] The Second Mountain, page 128

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