“Part of Something Bigger: Exploring our Heritage” John 17:20-26
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
June 16, 2019
It was 1943. World War II was raging. The United States military – still segregated by race – was now an active part of the war. Word was starting to get out about the horrors taking place in Germany, only later to be called a Holocaust. Allied forces triumphed in Italy, yet as the year ended it would be another year and a half before the war would end.
Life at home was lived to the tune of the Glenn Miller orchestra. More and more items were rationed: shoes, canned foot, meat, cheese, butter, cooking oils. Factories that used to employ men making cars were employing women making bombs and plane engines. And even though it would be four years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line and Black players were allowed in Major League Baseball.
Some church leaders got together that year, representatives of the Congregational Christian Churches (of which Lyonsville was a part) and the Evangelical and Reformed Church (of which Burr Ridge UCC’s predecessor congregations were a part). They were looking out at the world and didn’t like what they saw. Death, destruction, and division were the themes of the day. I’d add depression too – 1943 is the year the Great Depression was officially ended, so it wasn’t far from anyone’s mind. Church life didn’t seem to be offering anything different to the world. People were scarce with so many men overseas; money and resources were tight. The church was just as divided as the world. So some church folks got together, and asked “is there a better way we can be doing this?”
Their answer was yes. They decided they should do church together, and create something new, something called the United Church of Christ. They wrote a document called the “Basis of Union,” and it began like this:
“We, the regularly constituted representatives of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, moved by the conviction that we are united in spirit and purpose and are in agreement on the substance of the Christian faith and the essential character of the Christian life; Affirming our devotion to one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our membership in the holy catholic Church, which is greater than any single Church and than all the Churches together;
Believing that denominations exist not for themselves but as parts of that Church, within which each denomination is to live and labor and, if need be, die.
Confronting the divisions and hostilities of our world, and hearing with a deepened sense of responsibility the prayer of our Lord “that they all may be one”;
Do now declare ourselves to be one body, and do set forth [this] agreement as the basis of our life, fellowship, witness, and proclamation of the Gospel to all nations.”
I am amazed at the hope, in the midst of World War II, that oozes from these words. We don’t often talk like that as church anymore. And that hope came in the midst of the pain and loss of institutional death.
It would be fourteen years before this new church was formed. There was a lot to figure out; a lot of struggle and dreaming and back-and-forth and wordsmithing. Lots of decisions about power, authority, money, and of course beliefs. But it began with the conviction that it is better to be together than to be apart. Later this document expresses a hope that more and more bodies would join in this new United Church. In the decades since we developed agreements with many other churches that have brought us closer together.
The prayer mentioned in that document, “that they may all be one,” comes from today’s reading from John’s gospel. Jesus came before God in prayer for the last time, preparing for his death. And in the midst of death he offers a prayer for those who would be his followers, for that community created in him called the church. Of the four gospels, John’s is the latest, and really the only to be written when there was much of a sense of “church.” And, believe it or not, there was struggle and division in the church as it was trying to figure out what it was about.
It’s a long and winding prayer. It starts reflecting on the difficulties of the world and how things are going to be hard for his followers. It hits its peak where we started: “I ask not only on behalf of these [these being his first disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word [the next generations, including us], that they may all be one.” In the midst of all kinds of death and division, destruction and depression this was Jesus’ main prayer for his followers.
Oneness doesn’t mean we’re all the same. In Jesus’ prayer it’s about togetherness: Just like Jesus is together with God, Jesus prays that we would be together with God and with one another. And not just for the sake of being together, but so that the love of God may be in us, and that the world might know God’s love through us.
Jesus prayed for the oneness of his followers as a sign to the world that God is about something different than the world. The world will divide people based on gender, race, culture, and wealth – and name some groups more worthy than others of God’s love. The world leaves millions of God’s children – those Jesus called the least of these – impoverished, naked, and hungry. The world tells us to take how much we want of whatever we may want, even if it hurts ourselves and others. The world is endlessly at war, constantly spilling blood. The world is constantly dividing us into this group or that group – us and them – and telling us to fear each other if we’re at all different. And so often, the church mirrors the divisions of the world rather than transcending them.
But the UCC responded to Jesus’ prayer for unity with hope, not for just another denomination but for a God-sized mission of a church united and uniting, facing the division of the world by building a community transcending it all,
proclaiming a new way of being human that fundamentally transforms the world, serving as a sign of God’s power to reconcile and unite people and things that were previously divided. This is about the love and justice of God – the Kingdom of God- being made known to the world by the way we live with one another.
This is part of the heritage we share; we are not simply Lyonsville Church; we are Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ. And as the year goes on we’ll be spending a lot of time on the “Lyonsville Congregational” part but I don’t want us to lose track of the “United Church of Christ” part either – because it can give us strength. Our ancestors didn’t have a human-sized mission; they had a God-sized mission. They weren’t looking to create just another denomination, they were looking to renew and unite the whole church in service to God’s mission and knew that it starts with us and how we live with each other. That is starts by offering something different in here than what we can get every day out there.
I hope that we, too, might look past a human-sized mission for a God-sized mission. No matter what path forward we take as a church, there will be loss. Will the loss be for a human-sized mission or for a God-sized mission? Are we willing to seriously ask what must die if Christ’s prayer for a church of unity and love is to be realized in us? Are we willing to face the pain of change and death if that’s what’s necessary to better serve the Crucified and Risen Christ?
I believe that it is time to reclaim a God-sized mission, “confronting the hostilities and divisions” that continue to tear our world apart, bringing the love of God to all people. If we are willing to die to our human-sized desires and fears, we must be willing to let go of the need for what’s next to look like what came before, and most importantly we must be willing to die to the idea that what we want is the most important thing. We are not a collection of individuals. We are one body, united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. What matters most is what God wants for us, And if we can allow ourselves to die to those human-sized things – and yes, it is so painful to do that – God will bring us into new life. This is the story of our church, and it is the story of our faith.