Sermon by Don Portwood, June 2007
We are 50 Years Bold
50 years ago, in 1957 two men shook hands in the Music Hall in Cleveland Ohio, symbolically bringing together two denominations to form the United Church of Christ. Today we celebrate our 50th birthday as a denomination.
But why preach this today rather than next week? Chance to look at our history as a church…with encouragement (if you have a computer and internet access) to spend just a little time next week watching some of the webcast of the General Synod meeting in Hartford. There’s a schedule of what’s happening in your bulletin. My hope is that something in this sermon will peak your interest to see what’s happening in our denomination today.
Though we are 50 years bold today, our history goes back before that. Quoting from Everett C. Parker,
“From the earliest days of Christianity, every church has subscribed to Paul’s declaration in his letter to the Galatians that we are all one in Christ. Yet, beginning with the split between Constantinople and Rome, Christian bodies, world-wide, have seriously guarded their independence from each other, based upon their forms of government. Governance by bishops has been common since New Testament times. Reformed churches have opted for presbyteries of ministers and elders drawn from a district’s churches. Only a few denominations, especially Congregationalists and Baptists, have governed themselves democratically, with the power to own church property, to call and dismiss ministers, and to adopt articles of faith and forms of worship lodged in each local church.
In the last century, a number of church mergers occurred in the United States. The Methodist and Presbyterian churches, North and South, re-united, ending a split caused by the slavery issue. Congregationalists united with frontier Christians, who cherished the same local church freedom, in 1931. Perhaps the most significant merger was the 1934 union of the mostly German Reformed Church in the U.S., and the Evangelical Synod of North America, established by German refugees from the Thirty Years War, which formed the Evangelical and Reformed Church. But this too, was a union of like and like.
So, 50 years ago, it was truly a unique demonstration of Christ brotherhood and sisterhood when Fred Hoskins and James Wagner enthusiastically reached out to each other in the handshake that birthed the United Church of Christ. Their act was unique, also, because it was the first time since World War I that two leading American bodies, one of German, the other of British background, joined hands in respect and devotion.”
The United Church of Christ – made up of the Congregational Christian churches that merged in 1931 – with the Evangelical and Reformed Churches that merged in 1934. And Lyndale Church, founded in 1884 – was from the congregational stream of the United Church of Christ.
But just a minute, sure it’s our birthday, but why is this so important….looking back…why preach an entire sermon on it?
Because looking back at who we are….always gives us an idea where we’re going. We are a wonderful and exasperating amalgam of denominations with a rich history, one that has taken stands early and often on justice issues. We need to remember that. People need to know that. On the UCC Website is a list of UCC “Firsts”. This blend of four traditions, Congregational, Christ, Evangelical, and Reformed each have left a mark on U.S. religious and political history. Here are some of our “firsts”.
1620: Pilgrims seek spiritual freedom
Seeking spiritual freedom, forbears of the United Church of Christ prepare to leave Europe for the New World. Later generations know them as the Pilgrims. Their pastor, John Robinson, urges them as they depart to keep their minds and hearts open to new ways. God, he says, "has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word."
1700: An early stand against slavery
Congregationalists are among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. The Rev. Samuel Sewall writes the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, "The Selling of Joseph." Sewall lays the foundation for the abolitionist movement that comes more than a century later.
1773: First act of civil disobedience
Five thousand angry colonists gather in the Old South Meeting House to demand repeal of an unjust tax on tea. Their protest inspires the first act of civil disobedience in U.S. history—the "Boston Tea Party."
1773: First published African American poet
A young member of the Old South congregation, Phillis Wheatley, becomes the first published African American author. "Poems on Various Subjects" is a sensation, and Wheatley gains her freedom from slavery soon after. Modern African American poet Alice Walker says of her: "[She] kept alive, in so many of our ancestors, the notion of song."
1777: Reformed congregation saves the Liberty Bell
The British occupy Philadelphia—seat of the rebellious Continental Congress—and plan to melt down the Liberty Bell to manufacture cannons. But the Bell has disappeared. It is safely hidden under the floorboards of Old Zion Reformed Church in Allentown.
1785: First ordained African American pastor
Lemuel Haynes is the first African American ordained by a Protestant denomination. He becomes a world-renowned preacher and writer.
1839: A defining moment for abolitionist movement
Enslaved Africans break their chains and seize control of the schooner Amistad. Their freedom is short-lived, and they are held in a Connecticut jail while the ship's owners sue to have them returned as property. The case becomes a defining moment for the movement to abolish slavery. Congregationalists and other Christians organize a campaign to free the captives. The Supreme Court rules the captives are not property, and the Africans regain their freedom.
1840: First united church in U.S. history
A meeting of pastors in Missouri forms the first united church in U.S. history—the Evangelical Synod. It unites two Protestant traditions that have been separated for centuries: Lutheran and Reformed. The Evangelicals believe in the power of tradition, but also in spiritual freedom. "Rigid ceremony and strong condemnation of others are terrible things to me," one of them writes.
1846: First integrated anti-slavery society
The Amistad case is a spur to the conscience of Congregationalists who believe no human being should be a slave. In 1846 Lewis Tappan, one of the Amistad organizers, organizes the American Missionary Association—the first anti-slavery society in the U.S. with multiracial leadership.
1853: First woman pastor
Antoinette Brown is the first woman since New Testament times ordained as a Christian minister, and perhaps the first woman in history elected to serve a Christian congregation as pastor. At her ordination a friend, Methodist minister Luther Lee, defends "a woman's right to preach the Gospel." He quotes the New Testament: "There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
1897: Social Gospel movement denounces economic oppression
Congregationalist Washington Gladden is one of the first leaders of the Social Gospel movement—which takes literally the commandment of Jesus to "love your neighbor as yourself." Social Gospel preachers denounce injustice and the exploitation of the poor.
1943: The 'Serenity Prayer'
Evangelical and Reformed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr preaches a sermon that introduces the world to the now famous Serenity Prayer: "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
1957: Spiritual and ethnic traditions unite
The United Church of Christ is born when the Evangelical and Reformed Church unites with the Congregational Christian Churches. The new community embraces a rich variety of spiritual traditions and embraces believers of African, Asian, Pacific, Latin American, Native American and European descent.
1959: Historic ruling that airwaves are public property
Southern television stations impose a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. asks the UCC to intervene. Everett Parker of the UCC's Office of Communication organizes churches and wins in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. The decision leads to a proliferation of people of color in television studios and newsrooms.
1972: Ordination of first openly gay minister
The UCC's Golden Gate Association ordains the first openly gay person as a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination: the Rev. William R. Johnson. In the following three decades, General Synod urges equal rights for homosexual citizens and calls on congregations to welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual members.
1973: Civil rights activists freed
The Wilmington Ten—ten civil rights activists—are charged with the arson of a white-owned grocery store in Wilmington, N.C. One of them is Benjamin Chavis, a social justice worker sent by the UCC to Wilmington to help the African American community overcome racial intolerance and intimidation. Convinced that the charges are false, the UCC's General Synod and raises more than $1 million to pay for bail. Chavis spends four and a half years in prison but is freed when his conviction is overturned. The UCC recovers its bail—with interest.
1976: First African American leader of an integrated denomination
General Synod elects the Rev. Joseph H. Evans president of the United Church of Christ. He becomes the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline church in the United States.
1995: Singing a new song
The United Church of Christ publishes The New Century Hymnal—the only hymnal released by a Christian church that honors in equal measure both male and female images of God. Although its poetry is contemporary, its theology is traditional
2006: Lyndale United Church of Christ becomes the first congregation in Minnesota to vote for Marriage Equality, allowing only blessing ceremonies for same and opposite gender couples on their property.
2010: Lyndale United Church of Christ, partnered for nearly 5 years with Salem Lutheran Church, becomes the first United Church of Christ in the Lyn Lake area to move into a re-modeled green friendly ministry center with Salem, in Salem’s historic sanctuary.
Looking back at who we are….always gives us an idea where we’re going. We are a wonderful and exasperating amalgam of denominations with a rich history. We need to remember that. People need to know that. God is still speaking. We can too.
To help us speak that others may know, I’ve arranged for each of you to have a “party favor”. They’ll be passed out now. A fun reminder that we have a story to tell…that people may be longing to hear. Let me read you the first section as they’re passed on…then read the rest after worship. [Read first section.]
Let people know about Lyndale Church and the United Church of Christ. We are 50 Years Bold……be bold, let our light shine.