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Declaring Interdependence – Proclaiming Hope

Rev. Jim Antal
Sun, Jan 26

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Text: Ephesians 4:1-6,25 and Matthew 15:32-39 

Grace and peace to you in the name of our still speaking God – who loves us just the way we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way!

I want to begin by saying how wonderful it is to be back in my home church—something I don’t get to experience often.  And how humbling it is to share in proclaiming God’s word on this special day in the life of First Church Cambridge. 

 As some of you know, my position as leader of the UCC in Massachusetts has me preaching all over the Commonwealth in one or another of our 374 churches.  But even though I’m not often in your pews, I’m well aware that First Church Cambridge is moving forward on many fronts.  After worship when we gather for Annual Meeting, I suspect we’ll all hear more about your evolving discernment of your congregational vision and how you might express it.  Earlier this morning, I listened in on the group which is focused on developing a plan for sustainable investing for First Church.  And of course you have a search committee that’s been hard at work!

 It takes a special congregation to recognize that rarely can we respond faithfully to God’s call in a linear fashion! Faithful discernment almost always prompts the body to move forward on many fronts, all at the same time.  So please receive my applause for the faithful way you continue to press ahead in numerous ways.

And let me add that the Conference is no different! Like First Church Cambridge, your Mass Conference UCC is pushing the envelope in a variety of ways.  Dick Harter’s years of leadership on the Conference Board of Directors helped us to see the importance of this.  And so does Wendy VanderHart’s leadership as an Associate Conference Minister.  Thanks for sharing such capable leaders with the wider church, and thanks as well for your generous financial support of the Conference and the UCC.

 Now: Just as you are recognizing the need to renew your vision, the leadership of your Conference – both staff and Board – have recently renewed our vision as UCC leaders in Massachusetts.  Our vision centers on depth, courage and bridge-building.  Let me just say that when new pastors come into the Mass Conference, they’re a little surprised to find that the leaders of the UCC here in Massachusetts have named depth, courage and bridge building as our focus – and that we hope all UCC leaders – in congregations, in our national setting, and in other conferences – might do likewise.

 Naming these vision qualities matters.  They provide direction and they help order priorities.  Here’s an illustration.  For two years now, I’ve been saying to the Conference Board that their mission is to assure that 20 years from now, a transdenominational, progressive church movement is thriving in America.  While I have no idea if the UCC will be around 20 years from now, I firmly believe that UCC values and polity can and must form the foundation for just such a movement. 

 I’d like to think that Diana Butler Bass is right when she talks about a Fourth Great Awakening[i]: “a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understand-ing ourselves, and expressing faith are being (to borrow a phrase) ‘born again.’” She goes on, saying we are in the midst of “a ‘Great Turning’ toward a global community based on shared human connection, dedicated to the care of our planet, committed to justice and equality, that seeks to raise hundreds of millions (of people) from poverty, violence and oppression.”

So it should come as no surprise that Diana Butler Bass will address our March 1 Super Saturday event (please consider yourself invited!).  And it should surprise no one that the Connecticut Conference UCC is co-sponsoring this Super Saturday.  Furthermore, the Connecticut Conference Minister and I have now attended each others Board Meetings, and we are well down the road in considering additional forms of cooperation.  Just as our shores gave rise to the polity and values we now call the UCC, I believe today’s leaders will give rise to the transdenominational progressive church movement.  As the Mass Conference and the Connecticut Conference amplify our recognition of interdependence, we are beginning to set this stage.

But this is not limited to the UCC.  Last April, twelve days after the marathon bombing, for the first time in history, almost all the Protestant Bishop-level New England faith leaders gathered for the Climate Revival I helped organize.  A month later, one of the Episcopal Bishops from Massachusetts was speaking at the annual meeting of the Mass Council of Churches – the oldest such Council in America.  He opened by saying how wonderful it was to have been included in such a profound witness as the Climate Revival, and then he said, “I can imagine in the not too distant future when the UCC and the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts will be one.” (You could have heard a pin drop!)

 In 1957 the UCC was founded after decades of negotiation.  And the scripture that best expressed our calling comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 17 verse 21: “That they may all be one.” How fanciful of our UCC forebears in the 1940s and 1950s – when denominationalism was at its zenith – that they should look past all the barriers that denominations and congregations had built between themselves, and see on some distant horizon a vision of unity without uniformity; a recognition that the God of many names calls all who would follow to lead lives of interdependence – affirming: our interdependence with God, our interdependence with current, past and future generations, and our interdependence with all of creation.

Now, let me at least mention that I am mindful of the pulpit I’m preaching from! This is the home of the Cambridge Platform – and if you’re a regular worshiper here, I’m guessing you’ve heard more than one mention of this foundational document of Congregationalism.  In 1648 it was voted unanimously after three Synods, and it “became the recognized statement of Congregational principles....”[ii] In it are the seeds of the centuries-long debate among congregationalists – and more recently within the UCC – the debate between our emphasis on covenant and autonomy. 

 While that’s a very important conversation – especially in UCC circles – I’m inviting you this morning to reflect on the emerging reality of interdependence and consider joining those who are beginning to align their lives with this emerging reality.

 What do I mean? Nothing more than what the field of ecology has been telling us from its beginning – distinct organisms, distinct species, depend on each other to prosper.

What do I mean? Nothing more than what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail[iii] and later from hundreds of pulpits:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

 And again, Dr. King’s interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan shines a spotlight on interdependence:

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But... the good Samaritan reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

Many of you know that I spend a good bit of time engaging the faith community on climate change.  In a way, it’s all about the need to live-into interdependence.  Here’s a summary of what I mean:

-     We need to realize that every person on the planet (along with every creature) is our neighbor because the distinctions between this neighborhood and that one – between this country and that one – are insignificant compared to the fact that we all breath the same air.  I like to say that we all live at the same address.  Our common address is – at the moment – 400; that is, 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.  And one thing more.  This place in which we are all living – this place with the number 400 emblazoned on every door and dwelling – this place is no longer “home.” Home is a place where the number on the door is 350; or (as it was for Mozart, or Mary and Joseph, or the earliest humans living in caves) 275.

-   And in response to that realization, people of every faith perspective need to live out the most basic moral instruction found at the core of every world religion.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves; and on this new E-a-a-r-t-h which is no longer home, we must recognize that future generations are no less our neighbors than those who live next door to us today.  I refer to this as Golden Rule 2.0.[iv]

       We’ve always had saints like Mother Teresa to remind us about the importance of interdependence.  She says: “The problem of the world is just that we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.”

So let us respond to Mother Teresa by reminding one another.  And with that in mind, let me say to those who are joining First Church today: I want to declare to you today that I can’t imagine the church without you! That may sound odd because I don’t even know you.  But here’s what I do know: I know that every person here matters.  You matter to each other and you matter to God.  Your presence is essential to create the faith community God is longing for, and to carry out the mission to which God calls you. 

 And this leads us to today’s Gospel reading—Matthew’s account of the feeding of the enormous crowd.  Let me begin by saying that this is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6: 1-14) – and in Matthew twice! And beyond the mystery of abundance, what’s the miracle in this story? The miracle is that the people in the crowd do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly.[v]  In this moment of need – this time of debilitating hunger –

-    Jesus had compassion with the crowd – he suffered with them – that’s what com-passion means;

-     Jesus used what was available;

-    He made the crowd realize that they had a role in their salvation; they would need to sit down on the earth, and wait patiently while honoring one another;

-    He gave thanks for what was available.  He didn’t ask for more.  And he did this in front of the hungry crowd, so that they could witness and participate in this expression of gratitude.

-     Then he broke the bread and the fish.  Surely Jesus himself was hungry, but he didn’t eat.  He broke the food, and gave the food to his disciples. 

-    And neither did his disciples eat.  They served the hungry crowd.

Sure, there’s an unexplained mystery as to how those seven loaves and a few small fish provided enough food to fill the stomachs of thousands – with seven baskets of left overs.  But the miracle?

 The miracle unfolds as each person in the crowd recognizes and then claims that their personal prospects are bound to what happens with everyone else.  Scripture doesn’t record it, but as Jesus takes the food, gives thanks, breaks the food and gives it to the disciples, I hear the voices of person after person on the hillside declaring:

-     “O.K.  I’m in!”

-     “I’m in!” [say it with me]

-     “I’m in!”

-     “Even though I don’t understand how this is going to work, I’m in!

-     “Even though I don’t know 99% of these people, I’m in!

-     “Even though I haven’t eaten in 36 hours, I’m in!

-     “Even though my spouse is expecting me to show up 2 hours ago, I’m in!

-     “I’m in.  My life depends on you.  I accept responsibility that your life depends on me.

 

And beyond what any of us can comprehend, Jesus’ ministry depends on us. Amen.



[i]. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion - The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (Harper One; NY; 2012), pp. 5-7 and elsewhere.

[ii]. Barbara Brown Zikmund, ed. The Living Theological Heritage of the UCC, Vol. 3 (Pilgrim Press, Cleveland; 1998), pp. 85-119.

[iii]. Written April 16, 1963.

[iv]. http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/do-humans-need-a-golden-rul... In this blog, Andrew Revkin tells of the 2010 PEN World Voices Conference which had a session on global warming.  The show was stolen by a novelist, Jostein Gaarder, the Norwegian author of  Sophie’s World. On intergenerational responsibility:

An important basis for all ethics has been  The Golden Rule or the Principle of Reciprocity: you shall do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the golden rule can no longer just have a horizontal dimension – in other words a “we” and “the others.” We must realize that the Principle of Reciprocity also has a vertical dimension: you shall do to the next generation what you wished the previous generation had done to you.

 

On the slow, steady, incomplete moral evolution of humanity:

The greatest triumph of philosophy to date may be the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights were not given us by the powers above. Nor were they pulled out of thin air either. They mark the end of a 1,000-year-long process of maturation.

               Ten years into the 21st century, the question may be posed: how long can we speak of our “rights” without at the same time focusing on our responsibilities? Perhaps we need a new universal declaration? The time is ripe for a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations.

[v]. Walter Brueggemann. The Christian Century, March 24-31, l999.  “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.”

 

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