First Congregational Church


September 23rd | Modern Woodmen Park

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is having their annual 5K Walk to raise awareness about mental illness in the community and funds for ongoing programs in support of those with mental challenges and their families.  We will all be wearing our First Congregational UCC logo t-shirts. If you don’t have a shirt from last year, please indicate that on the form and we will provide you with one. Those who wish to walk should be at Modern Woodman at 9 am. Step off is at 9:30.  If you are unable to participate in the walk but would like to donate, you may do so by making a check to First Congregational Church and add in the memo “NAMI” or you can donate online.




Kids Against Hunger

This year the Kids Against Hunger event is on September 24th at 4pm!

Our Kids Against Hunger packing event is not just for Kids, its for everyone! Help package highly nutritious, life-saving meals for starving and malnourished children and their families in developing countries and the United States. In one hour, 50+ volunteers are scheduled to package 5000 meals…what an impact!
Kids and Adult ages 5 years and up are encouraged to help pack meals, those younger than five years are welcome in our staffed nursery.



Group Outings

A church is more than a building, it is a community. We offer monthly opportunities for members of the church, as well as their friends and family, to fellowship somewhere in the community outside of the church.

The outing for August will be a day at the ballpark cheering on our local minor league team, the River Bandits, at Modern Woodmen park. Along with a rousing baseball game against the Burlington Bees, the park also offers family friendly entertainment such as a kids play zone, a Ferris wheel, bumper cars and more. Stay after the game for fireworks over the river.

We will have 80 tickets available. To reserve tickets, call the office or email Taylor at The game starts at 6:30 and we hope to see you there!

Bix Sunday

16508932_1121698264601405_7576273495561928469_nOn Sunday, June 30th we will be joined by the Quad City Brass Quintet. This outstanding group will be providing special music for our service, both as part as our worship, but also to commemorate the life and work of QC legend Bix Beiderbecke. All are welcome to join in this special service, as well as the brunch following.

Because He Lives

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.

Sermon: Mother’s Day

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
First Congregational UCC
A Easter; 5/14/2017
Link to Texts | Bulletin


Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
First Congregational UCC
A Easter; 4/16/2017
Link to Texts | Bulletin

Good Friday

Rev. Michael Swartz
First Congregational UCC
A Holy Week; 4/14/2017
Link to Texts | Bulletin

What language shall I borrow?

Matthew 28 8 28%
 Mark 16 7 37%
Luke 24 5 21%
John 21 6 28%

The first four books of our Christian scripture, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John devote a very large amount of their account of Jesus to the events of Holy Week; those events between Palm Sunday and Easter.  It is a crude measure, but simply to look at the percentage of the chapters; Mark 37%, Matthew 28%, Luke 21% and John 28%.  This is a huge part of the gospel.

And the tradition of recounting the narrative in spoken parts may have been anticipated even by the Gospel writers themselves.

And we have all these world traditions from the Greek Passion by Nikos Kazantzakis, to  Oberammerau, Germany that take place, and the procession through the streets of Romance language nations of tronos or floats with scenes from the passion of Christ.

Is it possible to do justice to a narrative so holy, vast and significant?

The reading of the Passion, as we did this evening in church, dates back to the 4th Century of our common era.  It has been musically intoned from the 8th Century onward.  By the 16th Century it was being presented in musical settings composed by serious musicians, called Passions.

What all of these presentations have in common is that they enable participation at a deeper level than hearing alone.  They include both speaking and hearing the words, they invite actions, many presentations include embellishing the story and some dramatize through sculpture, acting and costuming.  The addition of music asks for deeper emotional engagement.  And there is poetry.  The truth of the gospel requires that we stretch our language.

The hymns in the service tonight are from the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, and Bach has used each of them at some point in a passion.  I was touched last Saturday by the Masterworks presentation of St. Matthew Passion, with soloists, chorus and symphony orchestra.  As our music director, Maureen Holmes, who was among the singers, said to me, “Bach is so church.”

This was in comparison to Handel’s Messiah, (from the same era) which deals with similar themes and is far more familiar.  “But Handel was theater,” Maureen continued.  For me, where Handel is heroic Bach is more reflective, tender, devotional and personal.  Bach is more religious.

The moments last Saturday that touched me especially were when a soloist singer and a soloist musician – violin or flute, would present a moment of reflective poetry about some piece of dramatic action.  As in, just after Judas betrays his friend Jesus.

Is there a sermon in here somewhere?

The Passion of Christ asks us to stop and ponder how imperial forces grind human beings for instructional purpose, to show who is boss,  and calls us to feel compassion for each person as a child of God.

Years ago in the basement of the Church of Peace there was a public community forum of candidates for judge and Walter Braud was one of those under consideration.  There was the typical “tough on crime,” question about young adults doing bad things.  And the question was asked by a Euro-American and Walter is African-American.

To his credit Walter said something like, “You know, I find it hard to make a general statement about what we ought to do with young people as a category.  When I am defending such a young man, and they usually are young men, I will often have a grandmother or mother or aunt call me.  They will say, ‘I know he did something wrong, but he is basically a good boy who got in with the wrong crowd.  He needs to learn not to do these things again, but please, don’t let it ruin his whole life.”

Well, Walter did not win the election to be a judge, but he was later appointed a judge, and he is a good one.

The passion narrative of Christ invites us to be reflective, devotional, tender and personal.  Each one caught up in the machinery of empire is an individual and child of God.  At our best we are considered not as a category of humanity; our fate should not be a matter for public spectacle to teach society a lesson.  – to show society who is boss.

As a teen I read the 1951 historical novel Spartacus by Howard Fast, and the moment I remember was when the slave revolt that Spartacus had led was defeated and 6000 slaves were crucified along the Via Appia, in 71 BC, stretching from Rome to Capua. This spectacle of state sponsored terrorism was supposed to be a warning, or as we moderns tend to call it, a “learning experience” for society – to show that the Roman empire was large and in charge.

There is no shortage still of those who witness public executions, or those who kill folks to make the point of how powerful they are.

While those who die as a learning experience for society may not be the Son of God, each is a child of God.  A person who has a mother and a grandmother.  One who should be considered reflectively, devotionally, tenderly and, personally.

The language of the Passion should guide us to Compassion.

Amen and amen.

The Hell of It: Maundy Thursday

Rev. Michael Swartz
First Congregational UCC
A Holy Week; 4/13/2017
Link to Texts | Bulletin


When I was a youngster in Indianapolis and was learning how to read I took pride in reading the comics in the newspaper, which we as a family called the “funny pages.”  But not everything was so funny.  We had Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” about oddities, and a frame called “Haley’s Inferno.”  This was about people in hell.  One I remember was nurses in caps and tight uniforms being chased around by devils with large hypodermic needles.  I did not like shots as a kid, and I think I responded to this notion of cosmic justice, karma if you will – nurses getting shots.

Last October when the Cubs won the pennant my favorite cartoon was a cold little devil, wrapped in a blanket and shivering.

I remember a cartoon which I saw as a teenager, and I don’t think it was in the daily paper.  A newcomer was standing next to a longtime resident of hell and they were both looking across a flaming divide at scantily clad women.  But it was a divide that could not be crossed, and the longtime resident was muttering to the recent arrival; “That’s the hell of it.”

What makes hell hell?  What is the key to the devastation?  What is the hell of it?

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us, shared our common lot, suffering sin and death and reconciled the world unto himself.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried, he descended into hell…

I intuit that this is more serious than a cartoon – what does our religious tradition mean when we talk about death and hell?

  • On its most basic level hell is separation from God. Jesus on the cross quotes from Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  If heaven is to be with God and those whom we love, if it revolves around Jesus promise, “In my father’s house are many rooms, if it were not so would I have told you ‘I go to prepare a place for you?’  and if I go I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”  Then hell is to be separated from God.
  • In the Gospel of Matthew the term that Jesus uses is “gehenna” or otherwise the Valley of Hinnon. But what is the significance of the valley of Hinnon?
    • Gehenna is outside the city of Jerusalem, but nearby. So it is outside the holy city of God.  That would make it connect with the notion of separation from God.
    • An additional possibility is that since in pre-jewish times gehenna was the site where babies were sacrificed to the pagan gods, it is a place of death. You remember that Abraham came to this general area when he had the notion that he was supposed to sacrifice his son Isaac?  So it was a place of killing and death for distorted reasons.
    • Further, by Jesus’ time this valley was the city dump. It would smolder and burn to get rid of the trash, 24 – 7.  No longer a place of killing.
      • This is where the translation “lake of fire” comes from. The eternal flames.  You remember Lazarus and dives?  “Put your finger in the water, come and cool my tongue, because I’m tormented in the flames.”  So flames equal torment and serious pain.
      • Some religious writers seem almost demented to me and they are way too interested in pain. But pain alone is not the worst thing.  It is pain without meaning.  I was asking two women who work at the church, who have had more than one child, how it was that they would decide to have a second child since childbearing is very painful.  And they did agree that it was very painful.  One said, “You know it took me over five years to let the memory dim.”  Another said, “I got lots of drugs.”  And then she continued thoughtfully, “and it was worth it to have a child.”  So the pain is contextualized by the meaningful and valuable outcome.  A dimension of mother-love.
      • Another possibility for the city dump is not so much the painful flames but rather the notion of “the trash heap of history.” Our trash is trash because it is worthless to us.  I think of this when getting rid of packaging material.  And I feel bad, and the packaging or wrapping is often even beautiful, but of no use or worth.  This is in sharp contrast to pain that has good outcome.  So hell could mean to be judged worthless, of no consequence or worth.
      • Another element of a trash heap that burns is the And “come to ashes” often signals good efforts and high hopes that have been frustrated.  January 1961 was the end of President Eisenhower’s term, and 40 years of public service.  We remember the somber tone of his farewell address where he identified the threat of the military industrial complex.  The National Security Council minutes of 5 January 1961 include this: The President then remarked that soon after Pearl Harbor, he was engaged in an operation which required him to have certain information which he was unable to obtain from the Navy, i.e., the strength the Navy had left in the Pacific. The President also noted that the U.S. fought the first year of the war in Europe entirely on the basis of British intelligence. Subsequently, each Military Service developed its own intelligence organization. He thought the situation made little sense in managerial terms. He had suffered an eight-year defeat on this question (of getting good intelligence) but would leave a legacy of ashes for his successor.  Is hell a legacy of ashes where our best efforts have come to nothing?

The traditional rendition of the Apostle’s Creed says: He (Jesus) descended into hell.”  Whatever was the hell of it, he went there and he came back again.  In cosmic terms he defeated hell, shattered and broke the gates of hell, and did so on our behalf.

  • So to the degree that hell is separation from God, Jesus grants reconciliation with God and with each other.
  • To the degree that hell is death, Jesus gives us eternal life with God.
  • If hell is pain, Jesus gives us comfort makes it worth it.
  • To the degree that our pain and suffering seem for nothing, Jesus renders our pain and suffering meaningful and worthwhile.
  • To the extent that hell is the experience of worthlessness, Jesus calls us each by name in our baptism and declares each of us a child of God, part of the family and of infinite worth.
  • To the degree that our good intentions and dreams seem to come to ashes, Jesus redeems our aspirations and gives them eternal value.

As we gather around the table to take within ourselves the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, the life of Christ becomes alive in us.  As we sang not so long ago, “And I’ll live in you if you live in me, I am the Lord of the dance said he.”

Whatever is the hell of it, it is history, and the future is open.  Thanks be to God.

Amen and amen.