Our congregation belongs to the United Church of Christ, which celebrates its 58th anniversary this weekend. But like Plymouth Church, the roots of the United Church of Christ go back further than just the 1950’s. We stretch back four hundred years to the Pilgrims landing in Massachusetts, 300 years to Germans settling in Pennsylvania, a wave of revivals 200 years ago in the Appalachian Mountains, and 150 years ago to another wave of Germans settling up and down the Mississippi River. Our roots go deep in American history.
But as deep as those roots go and as diverse as our spiritual ancestors are, one common theme often emerges. Our people, our United Church of Christ people, are often the first. We took the first stand against slavery in America when, in 1700, “The Rev. Samuel Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, ‘The Selling of Joseph,’ and set the foundation for the abolitionist cause.”
When the American Revolution came, our congregations held the first meetings of patriots, and in Philadelphia one of our congregations hid the Liberty Bell underneath the sanctuary floorboards to keep it safe from the British.
We were the first to publish an African-American poet and the first white denomination to ordain an African-American pastor, both before the US Constitution was even ratified.
We formed the first foreign missionary society in America and ordained the first woman to ministry, both before the Civil War.
We were the first to ordain an openly gay pastor, the first to speak forcefully for women’s reproductive rights, and the first predominately white denomination to be led by a person of color, all during the Vietnam War.
Ten years ago we were the first to call for marriage equality for same-sex couples. And throughout the country our congregations worked just as we did here at Plymouth to advocate and organize for marriage equality. In 2014 we became the first to sue for marriage equality; the UCC won the right for same-sex marriage in North Carolina based on its first-amendment ‘free exercise of religion’ lawsuit.
I’m proud to be part of a Christian movement that’s often first when it comes to questions of justice and liberty and freedom.
Our commitment to be first in freedom, to be early in the cause of justice, flows from our Biblical tradition. We heard it the story of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts (Acts 16: 6-15).
In the earliest days of the church, the idea of reaching out to gentiles, to people who were not Jewish, was deeply controversial. The first fight in Christianity centered on who could become Christian - just Jews or could even gentiles become Christian? And did gentiles have to first become Jews before they could become Christians? It’s hard for us to imagine the passion and the power of this debate because it’s been so long resolved. But at the time, this question of who could be included divided families, friends, congregations. It seems we Christians have always divided over who could be included.
The Apostle Paul stretched the boundaries of who could be included. First he took the gospel outside Jerusalem, then he took it outside of Israel, then he took it throughout the eastern Mediterranean. In our reading from Acts, Paul was in Turkey looking across the Bosphorus to Europe. He faced a decision: should he take the message of Jesus from a region populated with many Jews into Europe, into largely gentile lands? How far could Paul go to promote an inclusive gospel?
That night on the Bosphorus the spirit of God spoke to him. He heard a Macedonian man say to him, “Help us.” Macedonia, the homeland of Alexander the Great, the legendary conqueror of the world, a man as familiar to Paul’s imagination as George Washington is to ours; that Paul would dream of a man from Macedonia, when all remembered the man from Macedonia who conquered the world, symbolized the change and the expansion in Paul’s concept of the church. No matter the controversy it would cause for others, Paul was the first to know church needed to include everyone. Paul crossed into Europe, the first to commit himself to an inclusive church others couldn’t imagine, the first to say, “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
Our faith calls us to dream as boldly as Paul: to be disciples with ears open to hear the plea ‘help us’ and confidence strong enough to build a church whose boundaries always stretch to include the outsider.
I thought of Paul and our United Church of Christ while reading Justice Kennedy’s landmark decision on same-sex marriage. Of course the decision itself felt overwhelmingly awesome, an achievement I once thought an impossibility now realized across the country. Joy will remain with me. But I’m also impressed by the way Kennedy framed the questions the court faced in expanding marriage rights. It’s a decision, and a discussion, which can help us understand what it means to be a church of firsts, a church committed to expanding justice and building a more inclusive society.
Like Paul on the shores of the Bosphorus, Kennedy heard the cry of people saying, “Help us.” The situations of the plaintiffs affected him - a widower wanting dignity in the midst of his mourning, two women with adopted children left in legal limbo as a family, a soldier fighting for liberty abroad denied freedom at home. “Help us,” he heard them all say in their petitions. The commitment to being first in the cause of justice comes when we listen for those saying, “help us.”
But responding required Kennedy to go against history and tradition. In reflecting on this, he explained, “History and tradition guide and discipline this inquiry, but do not set its outer boundaries. That method respects our history and learns from it without allowing the past alone to rule the present.” Doesn’t that sound like the United Church of Christ? Every time we’ve been first in the cause of justice, we’ve acted with history as our guide but not our rule.
Change happens because a few people - Scalia would say hippies - decide to have history as a guide but not as a rule. Kennedy wrote, “Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.” His topic was marriage, but his insight applies to all sorts of issues - our society moves forward because a few people get it right first, and they work hard and face scorn, until we see their foresight. When Paul crossed the Bosphorus most Christians had been Jews, but within a generation a radical idea in Jerusalem had become a huge movement. When Rev. Samuel Sewall spoke against slavery he was a first lone voice, but his protest would grow til thousands and then millions joined his chorus. We sometimes get discouraged when we’re the only voice for justice, or when our voices seem too small, but Kennedy reminds us that great, monumental changes begin with crazy, lonely ideas. Justice Kennedy could rule for marriage because a church like Plymouth and a Pastor like Mary Ann Neevel had the audacity to marry Angel Arroyo and John Weise nearly twenty-five years ago.
We learn the full measure of liberty over time because some dared to stretch the boundaries. Kennedy, returning to the theme of history and change, said, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.” In these words I hear a reminder of why a movement like the United Church of Christ matters: we need people who will see new dimensions of justice, people willing to be first in learning the new meanings of liberty, congregations willing to dare to hear new pleas for freedom.
Recently I heard the Rev. Ben Guess, one of the top leaders in our national movement, recite the list of important firsts for the United Church of Christ. And then Ben observed, “We can’t just look back to our history, to say we were first. We have to ask, what’s next? We’re called to be the church of firsts and the church of next.”
It’s a comment and question I’ve heard in a variety of ways as marriage equality moved from dream to reality. What’s next for the LGBT community to work on? What’s the next justice cause we’ll take up? After Friday, what’s next?
In the past, we were first on issues of justice because we listened like Paul for the plea, “help us.” When I think of what comes next, I hear that plea in three ways.
First, I hear a plea about our own hearts. This May, after the riots in Baltimore, I went to a presentation by Mark Levine of UWM. He laid out all the demographic data on our city and in every statistic things here are worse than Baltimore. I don’t remember all the numbers but this one stood out to me. Levine found in Milwaukee that African-Americans earning over $200,000 a year were twice as likely as whites earning under $10,000 a year to live in a high-poverty neighborhood. We’re tremendously segregated. And it happened and persists despite the passage of countless laws and court cases. Long after red-lining became illegal, we remain segregated. I don’t think the answer is another law; it’s time to look in our hearts, to check the moral fiber inside of us, to see our own ways of perpetuating an unjust status quo. I hope a law is passed in South Carolina to remove the Confederate Flag, but I’d be even more interested in the church and each of us wrestling with our own privilege and power. The situation in our city and around our country pleads for us to tackle the issues of racism in our own hearts.
Second, I hear a plea about economic justice. Over the last decade or decades we’ve seen a rising economic inequality in our country, excellatored since the recession. When our country was last in a similar place of inequality, our congregation took a lead in founding organizations to meet human need, in leading the way in changing unjust laws, and in making clear the need for economic justice. Then we called it the Social Gospel. In our day the balance between capital and labor has again shifted dramatically in favor of capital; owners do better than workers, investors better than employees. I think we will need to talk as often about economics as we have about sexuality.
Lastly, I hear the plea for help from vulnerable youth in our community. Over the last decade I’ve become increasingly involved with homeless and at-risk youth. But during that time I’ve also seen the situation become worse. A few years ago the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated 400 youth a night were homeless in Milwaukee, but HUD now estimates there are 600 youth a night homeless in our city. These are kids kicked out for being gay, foster kids aging out of the system, youth trying to survive dysfunctional families, or just knocked down by poverty. I know Milwaukee; someone sees them walking down the street and they think, “thug.” But I hear their plea, “help me,” and I want to be about making a change.
Those are some of the pleas I hear in the night; and it leads me to wonder and to imagine what’s next. Because we’re not only a church with a history of being first, but also a commitment to what’s coming next, our church will organize a Justice Revival on Sept. 19th - a chance to become inspired by the justice needs in our community, to hear how people are saying “help me,” and to engage in the work of transformational change in our community.
Friends, on Friday Justice Kennedy told the nation same-sex marriage would be legal everywhere. This victory came because of all the daring work we and other people took on. But joy does not call us to rest, but instead to ask what’s next? This decision helps us to see more clearly and more deeply the meaning of liberty; but what pleas do we hear now, and how must we still stretch liberty further?
I pray we listen to those pleading for help and work to ensure there is yet more light and liberty to break forth. Alleluia and Amen.