A Sermon delivered by The Rev. Dr. John H. Thomas, President and Executive Minister of The United Church of Christ, on September 15, 2002.
Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12
Three years before arriving here in Columbus to be the pastor of this church, Washington Gladden published a poem in a devotional guide titled, "The Still Hour." It was soon set to music and, of course, became one of the beloved hymns of the church: "O Master, Let me Walk with Thee." In some ways, the quiet, meditative tone of this hymn doesn't quite fit the memory of the man who was known for the "Social Gospel." for his willingness to engage the church in issues ranging from labor relations, tax policy, political corruption, and racial bigotry. Yet there is in the text a readiness to listen deeply and with profound sensitivity to the strain of those who toil, the fret of those caught up with cares of a flawed and imperfect world. And the beginning of the second stanza offers a phrase that, at least for me, speaks of the church's enduring responsibility to offer a "clear winning word of love" in a world and, yes, even in many congregations, where many hearts are slow to move. Here we glimpse the piety of the pastor/prophet, and we sense the spirit of a church prepared to press its community toward justice with a clarion call to love, a love that is not sentimental or sweet, but challenging in its accompaniment of the victims of oppression and injustice and of the outcasts who live beyond our reach of our understanding, our compassion, our embrace.
Our text today from Exodus contains the mandate for the church's witness for justice, as well as a glimpse at the profound challenge that witness entails. The story of the crossing of the sea is well known to us. It has become the story of oppressed and enslaved peoples for centuries. Pharaoh's army is only the first of many personifications of evil in our world, and evil's demise in the much of the sea bed only one of many stories of vindication and victory. In the United Church of Christ we remember those who came to the aid of the Amistad prisoners, those enslaved men and women who struck out for freedom aboard the slave ship La Amistad and who, in part because of the persistence of our forebears, eventually returned to Africa. We remember the work of Andrew Young and others like him in the Civil Rights struggle, work supported by our denomination. We remember Antoinette Brown, the first woman ordained in North America by a major Protestant denomination, witnessing to the full dignity and worth of women in the ministry of the church. We remember delegates from our General Synod in 1973 leaving the meeting and flying to stand with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers during a particularly perilous time in their struggle. We remember a law suit brought against a Jackson, Mississippi radio station by the United Church of Christ, a law suit challenging the all white complexion of the ownership and broadcasting of media in the south, a law suit that literally changed the face of the media, giving access and voice to all. We remember the ordination thirty years ago of the first openly gay man by any denomination, witnessing to the full baptismal integrity and rights of all, regardless of sexual orientation.
We remember these stories and so link ourselves back across the generations to Moses who saw the enslavement of his people and the pursuing legions of evil and injustice, who stretched forth his hand and vindicated God's righteousness. A clear, winning word of love challenging all that diminishes and demeans, leaving evil strewn across the seashore. What we don't often remember, however, are the "slow of heart," to borrow your former pastor's phrase. Those reluctant to move even when the clear word is spoken. Moses himself, was reluctant to take up the lead, and beyond the sea his congregational would falter and fall into idolatry, complaint, and mutiny. When the journey finally arrived in Canaan, the liberated ones would become an occupying army, planting the seeds of the conflict we see in Israel and Palestine today. The clear winning word is always a contested word. It was so at the time of the Amistad and in every struggle since when some in the church have questioned the need to unsettle the way things are for the sake of the way they ought to be. Antoinette Brown voiced the experience of many who have sought to respond to the clear winning word when she wrote a friend shortly before her ordination: "People," she said, "are beginning to stop laughing and get mad."
The clear word has almost always been the contested word. Paul's admonition to the Romans reveals a new church struggling with contested opinions, quarreling over opinions. What kind of food should a Christian eat? Which day should be set aside for the Christian to worship? Here judgement is not being directed at injustice in the world, but at one another for our differences. Sound familiar? Clear words about right and wrong, good and evil, justice and oppression often lead to conflict and judgment in the church. This week after officers of the church began circulating a statement challenging the drumbeat of war toward Iraq, I received an email from one of our members telling that since I am obviously so unpatriotic, I would do everyone a great favor by moving to another country.
Paul is not afraid of differing opinions, of conflicting convictions. "Let those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God' while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to the Lord." Paul can have this perspective since he recognizes that "its not all about us." "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." Therefore, why do we pass judgment since we all stand before the judgment of God? Or, to put it another way, the clear word must, in the church, also be a winning word of love, a word that does not condemn those who differ, but seeks to win them with love, a word that seeks not just to be right, but to be a blessing.
Blessings are spoken and enacted in many ways. Your congregational decision last week to become an open and affirming church is, I believe, a blessing, one of those "clear winning words of love" that is both prophetic truth in a world of exclusion, and pastoral care to those who question God's love for them. This summer I heard a teenage girl who is a lesbian teen a group of UCC leaders that her church literally saved her life, for when everything else in the world cried out to her that she was unloved, unwanted, when suicide seemed like the best option, her congregation's open and affirming discernment began to tell her that God was not disgusted with he, that there were those who loved her, that she in fact was lovable in the deepest sense of the word. A clear winning word of love. A blessing.
On Tuesday, I was in Washington, DC at the end of a week long pastoral journey to visit clergy and laity in congregations in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Washington where the impact of 9/11 had been deeply personal. On Tuesday, I gathered with Jews, Christians, and Muslims at First Congregational Church in downtown Washington for a service of remembrance, healing, and hope. One of the speakers was a U.S. Navy chaplain, a UCC pastor who had been a mile from the Pentagon last year. In the days after the attack she was assigned to a team of doctors, nurses, and morgue workers receiving the mangled remains of the dead. As each body bag arrived, most often not containing a complete body and certainly not identifiable, the doctor would open the bag, officially pronounce the person dead, and then she would offer a blessing, a reminder that these terribly disfigured remains were in fact beloved by God know in whatever name. To bless what we cannot fully know. Indeed, she said at one point it occurred to her that perhaps she was blessing a terrorist. What a powerful image of the ministry of the church - to bless, offering a clear winning word of love without regard for the normally cherished categories of friend or stranger, enemy or ally.
And then there is the story of one of our missionaries, a dentist in Central America, who discovered that the blessing given, is often a blessing received. It was a terribly hot day in the village where the team had gone, and perspiration dripped off patient and doctor alike. Take this one." As one old man got into the chair, pointed to the one tooth left in his mouth, and said, "This one. Take this one." As they waited for the anesthesia to take effect, the dentist began wiping the perspiration from the old man's face, but then wondered whether this was embarrassing, the doctor wiping the peasants face. So he handed the man some gauze squares so he do this himself. The old man took the squares, and then gently began wiping the dentist's dripping face. A blessing.
"Help me the slow of heart to move by some clear winning word of love." Pharaoh is not absent from our world. His armies still pursue the innocent with violence, with poverty, with racism, with injustice. We see him in Columbia where the innocent are slaughtered or in Israel-Palestine where children are caught in the crossfire. We see him in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific contesting with people like the ones I met this week who are victims of radiation poisoning from our nuclear testing decades ago and who were in Washington as guests of our church begging for an extension of the government's meager health care program. We encounter him in the beautiful islands of Vieques off Puerto Rico which has endured over forty years of destruction as an unwilling test sight for military hardware. We sensed his presence in the tears of those who lost loved ones a year ago and we hear him in the drumbeat of impending war in Iraq. The clear word of the prophet on behalf of the innocent is needed now as ever, yet as Paul knew, as we know, the clear word will be contested, the source of bitter conflict and judgment even among us; often the clear winning word of love evokes only laughter and anger.
Yet this is our calling, our vocation. It has been yours for one hundred fifty years, reaffirmed week after week. May you continue to discern that clear winning word of love, to speak it and act it even as Moses spoke and acted at the sea. When it sets you against on another, may you remember the One to whom we live and die, who is Lord both of the eager and the urgent, as well as the slow of heart. And above all, may you continue to be a blessing in this community, in our world. Thus may you realize the dream of your old pastor/prophet, Washington Gladden, "in peace that only thou cans't give, with thee, O Master, let me live." Amen.
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