Did anyone catch my comment in this week’s eNews that the season of Epiphany in which we find ourselves this year is loooooong? Epiphany, that season of “ah-ha” moments triggered by the arrival of the magi and the revelation of the Spirit in a star, a toddler, and the Holy Dunking of Jesus in the Jordan River, continues through Ash Wednesday which falls on March 6 this year. We are “here,” in what our liturgical colors deem as green, “ordinary time,” capturing snippets of Holy Imagination scattered in our midst.
In our ordinary time, we will gather for our Annual Meeting today following worship at 10 am. A time for us to pause, celebrate, and ponder, the Spirit in our midst. An opportunity to reflect on the ministry we have shared in over the past year… and this congregation’s past 101 years… and listen to where God is leading up into the future.
And get ready, for we have… 4 more… weeks of this “Ordinary Epiphany” time ahead of us. It seems like a good time for us to lift up ourselves as a faith community—look at ourselves as Jesus followers—and ask: Is this us? Who do we proclaim that we are? How do we proclaim that we are? What rings true? What needs to be amplified? Of what do we need to prayerfully let go?
So listen. Today and over the next 4 weeks we will explore facets of our faith community that we publicly proclaim on our website page entitled “Who We Are.” We will not be making up anything new just yet. But we will be taking time to rediscover “who we are,” or who we say we are, and having conversations, all taken from our own website. For 5 Sundays we will focus on the broader topic of Love in Action, and lift up one of these 5 words embedded the assigned scripture passages: Rediscover, Remember, Renew, Rejoice, and Reveal.
Subsequently, this week we take time to REDISCOVER. This “rediscovery” IS a part of who we are, embedded deep in our biblical lineage. Texts we heard read from Nehemiah today, scripture is rediscovered. Taken together the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which our Bible splits into two, tell the story of a community coming together following a time of exile. This is part of a larger narrative about who is God, and where is God, and how is God, when a society has been torn apart. How do, how can, how will, 2 disparate groups of people, those whom have remained in the area in and around Jerusalem while Temple, political, and economic leaders have been forcibly exiled in Babylon for the past 50-60 years… How will that generation of “those who return” and “those who stayed behind” discover God? In these texts, Ezra and Nehemiah do present thoughts around boundaries that this community thought should exist around them, to keep them from outsider, that we might push back on in our own time. Yet in their rebuilding of the Temple and the walls around Jerusalem, we also hear great hopes of rediscovery. Of hearing God’s Word revealed anew. What was lost, found. Here, in an outdoor gathering, the sacred was held, and opened, and seen… and heard… by all. This was something old made new. A new generation of people who listened, interpreted, and responded to sacred text.
(and… next time you think that the worship service lasts a little too long… remember that in this story Ezra read from their scriptures from early morning until noon… Nehemiah 8:3. Just saying…).
Centuries later, “filled with the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14), it was another scroll that was picked up in another gathering, in another place, the small town of Nazareth. Different words, but familiar words, read aloud. Interpreted. Jesus reading. Jesus teaching. Jesus revealing. Word again rediscovered.
So in all of that, who are we? In the rediscovery of God’s Word in our own time, what do we hear? How do we interpret? How do we… will we… should we… respond?
In the United Church of Christ, the preamble our constitution states in part that the UCC “…affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God…” Whether it is through a book, a scroll, a document, a website, an experience, a Holy Ah-Ha, how do we, in each of our many generations, make this faith our own?
I’d like to suggest that our current response to this rediscovering of God in each generation is found, in part, on Memorial’s website, on a page entitled, “Who We Are.” This is a space of proclamation. If you have not browsed Memorial’s website recently, I invite you to do so over the upcoming weeks. Just go to our main page. On the left-hand side there is a statement on which you can click that says, “Here’s a bit about who we are…” We will be delving into each paragraph on the “Who We Are” page, a paragraph at the time, for the next 5 Sundays.
So get comfortable. Open your heart. Open your mind. Feel your response as I read one of the paragraphs. Do these words this reflect who you would say God is calling you to be? This faith community to be?
The header to the paragraph opens with this:
Within the range of Christian churches, we fall on the theologically progressive side of the spectrum. We are a congregation and a denomination that takes seriously what we learn from the Bible and from our Christian ancestors, but we are not a church of litmus tests. The preamble to the constitution of the United Church of Christ puts it very well: we affirm the responsibility of people in each generation to make this faith their own “in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression and in purity of heart before God.” We are a place where people wrestle together with questions, doubts and new insights even as we all strive to live out Jesus’ teachings.
Memorial UCC, this is what we are being called to today as we gather in a moment for our Annual Meeting. The sacred space of purposefully rediscovering who we are as we follow Jesus in 2019. What are our questions? Our doubts? Our new insights?
I can give you one really good example, which was found in Memorial UCC’s constitution. Rediscovered, in a way. The story emerges through a simple comment that someone wrote on a Welcome Card a few months ago. And it is to this comment we will respond today.
In the bulletin each week you will find a Welcome Card. At the top of the card is our current Open and Affirming statement… almost. Take out your Welcome Card. What is different between the words you see, and what is found in the current ONA statement in our constitution?
This is the current wording: “We welcome persons of all ages, races, sexual orientations and church backgrounds to participate in the life and ministry of our church.”
Did you notice what is missing?
This is what was included at the top of the original Welcome Cards. Someone astutely noted that the phrase gender identities was not included and suggested that we should add it. This led to a new insight when I looked at the constitution. When Memorial UCC became and Open and Affirming congregation 15 years ago, the phrase “gender identities” was not included in the statement that was voted on. “ONA,” or Open and Affirming, “is the… (UCC’s) designation for congregations… which make a public covenant of welcome into their full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions” (http://www.ucc.org/lgbt_ona).
This moment of “rediscovering,” this insight will be before you today during the Annual Meeting. Times shift. New revelations occur. New insights emerge. At today’s meeting we will have the opportunity to prayerfully consider adding “gender identities” to our constitution. Being an ONA church is not just words, it is actions too, but words do matter.
And there is more of God’s Love in Action to be revealed. Of that I am convinced. For God does not sit still. May this faith community be a place where you, and I, and we together can wrestle with questions, voice our doubts, and take the risk to share new insights as to how God has been revealed for us.
And may we affirm the responsibility of people in each generation to make this faith their own… even if it messes up that with which we older generations are familiar… so that Jesus’ teachings can be lived into and followed anew.
Reflection on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21 offered on January 27, 2019
 “Menu.” Memorial United Church of Christ. Accessed January 22, 2019. http://www.memorialucc.org/who-we-are/.
 January 22, 2019 At 10:00 AM, and 2019 At 3:31 PM January 21. “Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ.” United Church of Christ. Accessed January 22, 2019. http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_preamble-to-the-constitution.