I will never forget bumping into my New Testament Professor on a train to Philadelphia. He lives there. It made sense for him to be on that train at rush hour. I wasn’t where I should be and it was completely unlikely that we’d be in the same car where we’d begin talking about denominations. I don’t know how the conversation started but I do remember how this pastor and teacher in the United Methodist Church told me that denominations were dead.
My stomach fell. I scrunched up my face while trying to be respectful to this man I so adored in the classroom. I thought he was wrong — and why shouldn’t? I was in seminary getting ready to be ordained in the United Church of Christ. I had just read the Basis of the Union in my UCC Polity Class and I was hooked. I loved this denomination with a fierce passion and I was not ready for it to die before I even got to really roll up my sleeves and dig into it.
Still, this wisdom has been in the back of my mind as I seek relationships within and beyond the United Church of Christ. In each relationship, I learn something new about how God moves — or how we think we understand God moving. I learn how people choose to speak about God and how we often fail to notice that God was there all along. This was rooted into me in seminary. Let’s be honest. In seminary, I couldn’t escape it. I went to seminary with Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Jews, Disciples of Christ, American Methodist Episcopalians, Unitarian Universalists and a few members of the United Church of Christ. Our conversations were always an exercise in understanding our own social location. We were trained to define our social location before we articulated our theology. Thus, it went something like this: Hi. I’m Elsa. I’m a white middle class woman (third wave feminist if you really want to know) with guilt issues and member of the United Church of Christ. I’m not sure how much I emphasized that last part. As I serve the church, as I read and study other Christians who don’t always share the origins of my particular spin on Christianity, I stumble when it comes to who we are and what we believe in the UCC. I know the historical pieces. I know where they are rooted in the past — but I’ve never been quite sure how to translate that into the ministry I’m doing with God’s people now.
Enter Barbara Brown Zikmund. While she shies away from this title, BBZ is the unofficial official church historian of the United Church of Christ. She wrote the Hidden Histories Volume 1 and Hidden Histories Volume 2 (both of which are awesome by the way) and well, she seemed to have written everything insightful that I read for my polity class in seminary. Whether or not that is true, this is a woman that I celebrate. This week, she came to the Maine Conference to talk about how we embrace the history of the past to proclaim it in the present. This morning, we shared a heartfelt conversation on covenant in which BBZ read four snippets from our past. She invited us to hear these words and listen to the silence between them. She encouraged us to hear what God might be saying in these words and I encourage you to do the same.
We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind our selves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.
God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. God calls us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be servants in the service of the whole human family, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table,to join him in his passion and victory.
Within the United Church of Christ, the various expressions of the church relate to each other in a covenantal manner. Each expression of the church has responsibilities and rights in relation to the others, to the end that the whole church will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. Decisions are made in consultation and collaboration among the various parts of the structure. As members of the Body of Christ, each expression of the church is called to honor and respect the work and ministry of each other part. Each expression of the church listens, hears, and carefully considers the advice, counsel, and requests of others. In this covenant, the various expressions of the United Church of Christ seek to walk together in all God’s ways.
This is the cup of the new covenant poured out for you.