Following the scripture readings and before the sermon, the youth handed out rope to each person in the sanctuary. The rope tied into the Word and was used for visually representing our covenant together as a church community.
Courage to proclaim the Gospel. The Good News of God With Us. That eternal, ever present, extravagant Divine Love that weaves throughout time. Today we pause, noting that this October 31 will be… yes, Halloween… but also the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s radical act—publicly nailing 95 theses onto the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. The United Church of Christ’s Still Speaking Writers’ Group notes that:
“As with other historical movements, changes in technology were a key part of a cultural shift. In the late 15th century Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. For the first time something approximating mass production of books, including the Bible, was possible. The Reformation leader, Martin Luther, seized on the potential of the printing press by pioneering the translation of Scripture, previously in Latin, into the vernacular language of his time and place.”
In our own time and place, the reality of the changes in technology and cultural shifts that are swirling about cannot be ignored. Together, as a faith community, we celebrate our 100th anniversary as a congregation this year. And together we are shifting. We are shifting into the next 100 years. Next Sunday we will officially shift into our new ministry together as I am installed as your pastor and teacher. In all of these changes—in all of these shifts—we must, as Paul writes, “(have) courage in our God to declare… the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.” What reformation may need to occur here? Today? In church? In our community? In our world?
As we contemplate these questions, Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up and shares with us two commandments that are so tightly interwoven, that they are one. Look at the strand of rope that you have been given. Feel the texture in your hand. Turn to your neighbor. See your neighbor. Gathered here, for a moment, our ropes are separate. Individual. Separated in space. In the book of 1 John, the author tells us that from the beginning there has been this one, beautiful cord, so tightly twisted together from two threads—that it was created as one, inseparable commandment. I imagine the commandment being like this rope, threads intertwined. Parts that have been fused together from the beginning of time as one. The writer of 1 John emphases this everlasting intertwining in the second chapter with the simple phrase, “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning (1 John 2:7), God is light and in (God) there is no darkness at all (John 1:5b, NRSV), (and) this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11).
This commandment – our one directive in two parts- has been relational, intimately tied together and shared with us from the beginning of time. Turning to scripture, Sola scripture, we are reminded that these sacred writings inform our faith and practices as followers of Jesus. Recalling the Reformation, we affirm our history with our historical ancestors: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others. As a denomination that is reformed and reforming, we acknowledge that as the Church intersects and engages with the culture and technology in which it is immersed, it is inevitably changed. We are changed.
Phyllis Tickle wrote about the changes that the Church is experiencing in the 21st century as the Great Emergence. She points to Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop, who suggests that “about every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity…must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” Folks, we are living into that 500 year mark of renewal and new growth! Within the changes that mainline Protestant churches are experiencing in North America today, I agree with John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the UCC, when he states that:
“…whatever the Spirit is doing here—She can be trusted. I have no doubt that what is emerging all over the Church is not only something new, but something authentic…a true response to a missional calling of the Holy Spirit.”
Herein lies our threads. I believe strongly in covenant, and have a fiercely held belief that we are all knotted together through the Creator, each other, our neighbors, and all that is around us. We are a people of God’s covenant. God’s love. So often in the life of the church, we talk about “members”: Old members, new members, founding members, the number of members, and seeking more members. But I want to propose a shift. A change from identifying ourselves as members in something, something in which you expect to pay dues and get something in return for joining and becoming a member… to a shift in which we are connected here as “covenant partners.” Partners in the work of the Spirit. Covenanted with one another, and with God. In love.
Memorial UCC, what would happen if we were to make this shift, away from the concept of “membership” in the church, to becoming “covenant partners”? Covenant partners with God, and with each other? How might emphasizing covenant, change our participation in the life of the church? Our engagement in the community? Our faith development across our lives?
In a moment, we are going to physically and visually embrace our covenant with God and with each other. Then, next week we will gather on Sunday afternoon and affirm our covenant in this place, and with the wider church community, as I am installed as the pastor of Memorial UCC. The following Sunday, November 12, we will again celebrate our covenant as we commit our giving and our tithes to the life of the church on Stewardship Sunday. This, beloveds, is covenant—acted on today, tied to our biblical past and leaning into the future to come. It is the love of God, and love of neighbor. Intertwined with the Reformation of the Church in the 21st century, the Spirit—can be trusted.
People of God, as a representation of the weaving that the Divine does between and through us, I ask you to turn to a neighbor and tie an end of your rope with the person’s next to you.
Members and friends gathered for worship tied ends of the rope together. The tied together cords will be collected, and the process of knotting together a symbol of our community’s connectedness with God and with one another continues…
Now, hold onto a portion of the rope. These knots are a physical reminder that God’s commandments for us are relational commandments, inseparable in the cords intertwined through each of us, across all time. We, dear Church, are knotted together in covenant. In a church that is reformed and reforming: “…whatever the Spirit is doing here—She can be trusted. I have no doubt that what is emerging all over the Church is not only something new, but something authentic…a true response to a missional calling of the Holy Spirit.”