It’s Still Not the End of the Story

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
July 20, 2014 (Fifth and Final Sermon in Stained-Glass Window Series)
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

It’s Still Not the End of the Story

Old Testament Reading: Hosea 14:5-7

I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon. His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive tree. … They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

Gospel Reading: Matthew 28:18-20

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Good morning! Today we conclude our sermon series on our stained-glass windows. These windows have taken us, so far, through the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, from (1) his birth to (2) his baptism and his discipling a group of followers who would carry on his message, that mandate to (3) “love one another” as the church, to (4) his temptation in the wilderness and his crucifixion (where we left things two weeks ago). That “Temptation and Crucifixion Window” is by far the darkest, the most somber of the windows, because, indeed, that is the darkest part of the story of the life of Christ. Literally dark.

Try to imagine it. Put yourself in the place of the disciples. You have followed this man for three years—believed him to be the one who would change the course of history—the one who would deliver the people from the bondage of their oppressors—and now he is gone. Snuffed out. The world has suddenly become a very dark and desperate place—so desperate that even God had to turn his face away. And in the face of the tragedy of it, you can do nothing but wail … <<Bill Otto sings from behind the wall.>>

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

This, the final window, takes us from that place of wailing, rendered so movingly by Bill Otto just now, to the place of victory. Because that fourth window, the Crucifixion Window, was not the end of the story.

Rev. Nick Natelli says in the video, A Community Cornerstone, “This is the Resurrection Window, the Easter Window, and it’s the story of what our faith is all about.” Amen. Our faith is all about resurrection, victory, new life. That is the gospel Jesus commanded us to preach. Were you there when God raised him from the tomb? Yes, we were. We still are. For it is in the triumph of that moment that we as Christians have our hope. We are loved. We are forgiven. Our future is secure, in this life and the next, because God raised Jesus from the tomb and conquered death—for us.

The symbol of the lily, which we see in three places on this window, has become for Christians the symbol of new life. In the words of Rev. Natelli, “It’s new birth, rebirth, joy, the symbol of Easter.” The lily is rarely mentioned that way in the Bible, but I found one such reference in the prophecies of Hosea, our Old Testament reading today. This passage uses a variety of images—not just the lily, but also the forest of Lebanon, the olive tree, the garden, the vine, and the fragrance of the wine. All of these images are about life, growth, thriving, fullness, richness, maturity. God’s best hopes for humankind, coming to fruition. And we see God’s hand again in this window reaching down to the hands of humanity, conveying the lily, the image of the gift of new life in Christ.

The other prominent symbol in this window is the logo of the United Church of Christ—our denomination. We see in the logo the world at the bottom, the cross rising from it, and the crown, symbolizing that Jesus is the king of the world.

Notice again in this final window, as in the first one, the pieces of green glass laid together along the edge. As in the first window, those green pieces represent this community—the Black Forest. In the first window, we had Jesus being “born into” the Black Forest, and now we have this church, a UCC church, bringing that gospel into this community. Thank you, Al Wynne, for reminding us that we are the UCC church of the Black Forest. No other church in the Black Forest has the same rich and prophetic history as our church has. No other church in the Black Forest has the potential to be the same positive and powerful force in people’s lives as our church does. Because no other church in the Black Forest hears God in exactly the same way that our church does. Those are bold statements, I know, but I believe the slogan that the UCC adopted several years ago: God is still speaking. God is still speaking, and this is still not the end of the story. We are the UCC church in the Black Forest, and we have a particular identity, a particular call, a particular mission, because of that.

Now I am aware that some say the UCC has lost its way, that it has become too political, that it is no longer the church that it once was, that it needs to get back on track. Well, let’s take a look at nearly 400 years of history and see what kind of church the UCC has been.

  • In 1620, the group known as the Pilgrims left Europe for the New World in a quest for spiritual freedom. How does this relate to us? It was the Pilgrims who founded the Congregational churches, and the Congregational churches are, as you may know, one of the four denominations that later formed the UCC.
  • By 1630, the Congregational churches founded by the Pilgrims had spread through New England. The Congregationalists, in an early experiment in modeling democracy, declared that each congregation was self-governing and would elect its own ministers.
  • In 1700, the Congregationalists were among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. The Rev. Samuel Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, entitled The Selling of Joseph, thus laying the foundation for the abolitionist movement that came more than a century later.
  • In 1773, five thousand angry colonists gathered in the Old South Meeting House—a Congregational church—to demand repeal of an unjust tax on tea. Their protest inspired the first act of civil disobedience in U.S. history—the Boston Tea Party.
  • Also in 1773, Phillis Wheatley, a young member of that same congregation, became the first published African American author. Poems on Various Subjects was a sensation, and Wheatley gained her freedom from slavery soon after it was published.
  • In 1777, when the British occupied Philadelphia, they planned to melt down the Liberty Bell to manufacture cannons. But they couldn’t, because the bell had disappeared, safely stowed under the floorboards of Zion Reformed Church in Allentown. (The Reformed churches are, by the way, another of the four denominations that later joined to form the UCC.)
  • In 1785, Lemuel Haynes, a Congregationalist, became the first African American in the world to be ordained by a Protestant denomination.
  • In 1810, America’s first foreign mission society, the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM), was formed by Congregationalists in Massachusetts.
  • In 1839, when enslaved Africans broke their chains, seized control of the schooner Amistad, and were jailed, Congregationalists led the campaign to free them. The Supreme Court ruled the captives were not property, and the Africans regained their freedom—another defining moment in the movement to abolish slavery.
  • In 1846, Lewis Tappan, one of the Amistad organizers, organized the American Missionary Association—the first anti-slavery society in the U.S. that had multiracial leadership.
  • In 1853, Antoinette Brown, a Congregationalist, became the first woman since New Testament times to be ordained as a Christian minister, and perhaps the first woman in history to serve as pastor of a Christian congregation.
  • In 1897, Congregationalist Washington Gladden became one of the first leaders of the Social Gospel movement—which takes literally the commandment of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself” by denouncing injustice and the exploitation of the poor.
  • In 1943, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—a member of an E&R church (Evangelical & Reformed), one of the denominations that joined the UCC when it formed—preached a sermon that introduced the world to the now famous Serenity Prayer: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
  • In 1957, in contrast to the division experienced by so many churches worldwide, the United Church of Christ was born. The Evangelical & Reformed (E&R) Church united with the Congregational-Christian Churches and embraced a rich variety of spiritual and cultural traditions.
  • In 1959, when Southern television stations imposed a news blackout on the escalating civil rights movement, none other than Martin Luther King Jr. asked the UCC to intervene. The UCC’s Office of Communication organized churches and won in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private, property.

And this is where things may get a bit uncomfortable for some of you …

  • In 1972, the UCC’s Golden Gate Association ordained the first openly gay person as a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination: the Rev. William R. Johnson.
  • In 1973, the Wilmington Ten—ten civil-rights activists—were falsely charged with the arson of a white-owned grocery store in Wilmington, N.C. One of the Ten was Benjamin Chavis, a UCC social justice worker. The UCC’s General Synod raised more than $1 million to pay for bail, which was, when the conviction was overturned, returned with interest.
  • In 1976, the UCC’s General Synod elected the Rev. Joseph H. Evans as its president, making him the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline denomination in the United States.
  • In 1995, the UCC published The New Century Hymnal—the only hymnal released by a Christian denomination that honors in equal measure both male and female images of God.
  • In 2005, the UCC’s General Synod passed a resolution supporting same-gender marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of same-gender couples.
  • And this year, the UCC was the first major Christian denomination to file a lawsuit against a state government when it sued North Carolina for violating religious freedom, asserting that North Carolina’s ban on marriage equality is a violation of clergy’s free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. The outcome of this case is yet to be determined.

That’s quite a history—quite a track record of being in the forefront of a lot of social justice issues. Political? Maybe, but isn’t the root of the word “political” actually “people”?

Back in 1976, Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich coined a phrase that has since been seen on bumper stickers and tee-shirts throughout the free world. Ulrich wrote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” To this I respectfully respond, having looked back at 400 years of radical UCC firsts: “Well-behaved Christians seldom change history.”

If those first Pilgrims, way back in 1620, had sat back and agreed to shut up and be well-behaved Christians, where would we be today? If they had decided not to board their little ships in protest and head for a future quite unknown, where would we be today? As the Pilgrims departed, their pastor, John Robinson, preached a sermon through which he hoped to inspire them to keep their hearts and minds open to new ways. In that sermon, Robinson said his famous words, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.”

Yes, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” In other words, this is still not the end of the story. God is still speaking. Are we still listening? … Amen.