Rev. Michael Swartz
First Congregational UCC
A Easter; 5/21/17
Link to Texts | Bulletin

I am a baby boomer and for most of my life I have been a city person.  Born in Indianapolis when the population of that city was about 750 thousand; grew up in Los Angeles when the number of students enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District was about 700 thousand; I graduated from a college of some 35 thousand students and after graduating from seminary I was assigned to two small churches in the San Joaquin Valley, of California.  The larger in a town of 5,000 and the smaller in a village of 1200.  And actually, for the most part, I had a good time.

I started compiling in my head a series of one liners of “You know you are a pastor in a small town when…”

  • My first one was “You know you are a pastor in a small town when you know the dogs by name.” I swear.  One day I was showing my assignment to my sister and her two daughters and driving down a lane and without thinking leaned out the widow and yelled, “Bart!  Get out of the road.”  And he did.
  • You also know that you are a pastor in a small town when you get tapped to sing a solo in the ecumenical Easter Choral presentation at the Baptist Church. I had always been in choirs, but never a soloist.  But the pickings were sparse and I was asked to sing an introduction to a chorus in the at-that-time-new Gaiter piece, “Because He Lives.”

Because he lives
I can face tomorrow
Because he lives
All fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
And life is worth the living
Just because he lives.

There is a big theme in the scripture concerning how a bunch of folks become a “people of God.”

  • For Moses this unification was forged by keeping the same rules – the Ten Commandments and the law of God.
  • For Solomon it was all gathering at the same religious facility in Jerusalem – coming to the Temple.
  • For Daniel and the exile community it was gathering a group of ten men to read the Scripture together and pray.
  • For the early church, as reflected in the Bible, there were multiple ways of forming a unified community of Christ.
    • The most significant was And some baptismal sayings address this unification explicitly:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ

 have clothed yourselves with Christ.

There is no longer Jew or Greek,

there is no longer slave or free,

there is no longer male and female;

for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

  • Another way was through prayer: We have all been taught a prayer attributed to Jesus, who asked us to pray this way – Our Father, who art …
  • Some writers reflect a mental picture of us all praising God together, using the same words, being gathered in a heavenly choir singing the hymn:

‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’

  • These are not mutually exclusive, but each takes a slightly different tack, a slightly different approach to what makes us one.
  • And of course, what is being promised in the Passage from John today is the coming of the Holy Spirit, which we mark at Pentecost. And it is this Holy Spirit that is the ultimate source of our unity.

There is also another style of talking in the New Testament that we can call “identification.”  This is sort of a mental and spiritual identification with Christ that connects our life with his life.  As we say in our “Thanksgiving for one who has Died” service:

When we were baptized into Christ Jesus,

We were baptized into Christ’s death.

By our baptism, then,

We were buried with Christ

And shared in Christ’s death,

In order that, just as Christ was raised from death

By the glorious power of God,

So too we might live a new life.

For since we have been united with Christ

In a death like Christ’s,

We shall certainly be united with Christ

In a resurrection like Christ’s.

In this theme of identification we are connected with Christ – and because we are all identified with Christ we are all identified with each other.  And also, we can be connected with Christ through our experience – as in the passage from Peter today, our suffering connects us with Christ’s suffering.  (Christ’s suffering is our suffering; Christ’s table fellowship is our table fellowship; Christ’s baptism is our baptism; Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection.)

This sounds pretty esoteric until we realize that we also experience this identification when we follow sports athletes – and so did the Greeks.  We wear the garb, we ‘represent.’  When our team looses we say, “We lost.”  And when they win we certainly say, “We Won!”  Identification is powerful and runs deep.  And goodness knows, when the Cubs finally won the pennant it vindicated the faith of those who had suffered with the Cubbies over the last century or so – (also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,).  The human spirit is pretty complex, and our identification is very powerful both for strength and unity and also for violence.  There are European soccer teams where the team goes to play and the fans go for street violence after the match.  We play with identification like playing with fire.

Is there a sermon here?  Is there a word from the Lord?

  1. At a basic level, it is important to remember that our connection as a faith community is rich and multifaceted:
  • We are connected through our baptism.
  • We are connected through our prayers.
  • We are connected through our hymns.
  • We are connected through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
  • We are connected through our identification with Christ – which goes beyond rationality alone.
  • And we are connected by the study of scripture, our house of worship, and our rules of conduct.
  • At the same time we are diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, age, background, circumstance, gender, orientation – the list is almost endless.
  1. Our identification can bring us together or pull us apart. In seventh grade, at public school 66 in Indianapolis, our civics teacher would have our class elect a president, vice president and secretary. These officers did next to nothing, so I think it was the process that he was going for.  Well we were Baby Boomers, so the class was large.  Something like 19 girls and 17 boys.  The boys colluded to win always.  (Early on we were forbidden to nominate only one girl and one boy.)  We would nominate two girls and two boys, but the boys, though a minority, would all vote for the same boy and the sweet girls would divide and vote for their friend.  I remember once that the one boy did not even vote for himself – it was something like 17 for the boy, 9 for one girl and 10 for the other.  I think the teacher was a little shocked and chagrined that his civics lesson kept turning out this way.  (I trust we 36 Hoosier students have moved on from that limited perspective.)

Voting can be manipulated to be only for one caste, or one race, or one gender, or one ethnic group. Identification.  It is clear that the early church was working to make identification with Christ transcend other identifications:

There is no longer Jew or Greek,

there is no longer slave or free,

there is no longer male and female;

for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

  1. The essential challenge for the United States of America has always been how to form a community made up folks of diverse backgrounds, languages, ethnicity and such. That is why the motto E pluribus unum, (from many one) has been emblazoned on our national seal since 1782 and on our currency since then. This identifying with one another is certainly not a slam-dunk in our world today, and there are places where groups with different identifications live in the same geographic proximity and kill each other from generation to generation.

Those who in our nation stoke divisive and competing identifications and pose questions, such as why “a 62 year old man should care about the maternal healthcare of a young woman” do so at all of our peril.  We need more ways to identify ourselves as a connected community of mutual concern. E pluribus unum.

Our spiritual ancestors in the Congregational Church and the United Church of Christ were all-in with the enlightenment, with rationalism and literacy, with science.  And that is all good.  But deeper still, there is a powerful theme of identification – loyalty with each other and with Christ.

We can affirm, “Because Christ lives, I live.”

We can also aver, “So long as I live, Christ is alive.”

And we can commit to each other, “what happens to you happens to me.”

Amen and amen.

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