Sermon related to Exodus 3:13-15
We are a tradition of continuing revelation. Spirit comes to us as an unfolding of new understandings of faith, new expressions of faithful living, and the opening of possibilities for compassion in action.
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”[a] He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[b] the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the Word of God within us
Thanks be to God
The Rev. Otis Moss the III stepped to the podium. Over 3,000 of us at our 2009 national UCC gathering quieted ourselves to listen. Starting off slowly, as is often the case with the style of preaching common in many African American churches, the Senior Minister of Trinity UCC in Chicago, picked up speed as he spoke of punctuation.
That’s right, punctuation. Isn’t that inspiring and exciting? Yes, punctuation; Semi colons, quotation marks, apostrophes, parentheses, and….hold on to your seat….. brackets!
But punctuation can be relevant and inspiring when the dominant story, the status quo power or culture or system insists on a period while the Good News of God insists on a comma. To the drug addict to whom the incarceration system says ‘three strikes and you are out,” period, the Good News of God says, comma, change your direction, comma, "God is making all things new." To the Hebrews enslaved, Pharaoh says work without rest or wage for the Empire, period, but the Good News of God says, comma, "together you shall walk out of bondage," comma, together you shall journey to liberation and a new way of community. To the teacher and healer and prophet Jesus, the Roman Empire said, your way is ended, period, the Good News of God says, comma, not so fast, comma, there is life and resurrection stronger than death, comma, stronger than violence and the desire to dominate. To the broken spirit whose inner critical voice says, that’s it, there’s no hope for you, no meaning, period, the Good News of God says, comma, “my Grace is sufficient,” comma, “nothing is impossible for God.”
This is the kind of proclamation by the Rev. Moss that had us on our feet by the end of his sermon as we felt the Spirit flow through his speaking that our God is in the comma business of making things new, healed and hopeful, and resistant to the period makers of the world, those who choose and serve a status quo of fear, hard-heartedness, injustice and cynicism.
I recently thought of that message delivered by Rev. Moss because it still lives in me, especially when I feel or I see the drift toward hopelessness and loss of possibility. I feel and see that drift now. Climate change marches on, women’s rights to control their bodies is curtailed, aggressive war mongers on the march, the weapons of war sold to angry and hopeless citizens and then tragically used for mayhem and mass death.
Over twenty years ago our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, was looking for a phrase to define itself. They found the perfect words from the late Gracie Allen, the wife and comic partner of the late comedian George Burns. A brilliant and perceptive woman in her own right, she left a message in her papers to be discovered by her husband after her death that has become the motto for the United Church of Christ: “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”
Gracie was encouraging George to remember that life had many chapters. George was 68 when Gracie died. Rather than place a period after his career, Burns went on to star in a number of movies, including playing God, twice. He died at age 100, having lived the life of the comma.
Our faith is that kind of faith. Our church is that kind of church. Because many of us come from other kinds of churches or may have few connections with the larger network that we are as UCC’ers, I’d like to share about how a characteristic way of being together as the United Church of Christ embodies more of a comma faith than one of periods, one where Spirit writes new chapters, where Spirit comes to us as an unfolding of new understandings, new expressions of faithful living, and new possibilities for compassion and justice in action.
There are threads of this comma faith woven into the UCC fabric from all the branches of our family tree that came together in 1957 to become one network. And it comes right out of our ancient faith stories in Scripture.
Our Scripture story today has Moses at work. Perhaps Moses just wanted an ordinary day at work, a simple day of watching and wandering with the sheep, period. But Spirit seemed to have a different plan. The bush that was burning, comma, but was not consumed, appeared to him and he turned aside to an encounter with God. In this encounter, Moses asks the name of God. In these ancient stories, having the true or secret name of the deity, gave power to the namer to invoke and use the deity’s power. And, here, God refuses to be boxed in by a simple title, a single nature or power, or even by time. The Hebrew wordplay here can be translated as “I am what I am,” “I will be who I will be,” or, most simply, “I will be whoever I will be.” God even refuses to box God’s Self in with a name. No periods here, just a commas. God is free to become and be.
This is all about commas, all about an openness to the Divine Mystery of what might be coming, what might emerge, what might be needed, what might be chosen, what new thing might be revealed.
While reflective and rational Greek philosophy leaned toward a more static even impassive understanding of the Divine (the all everything list), and that strongly influenced Christian tradition in the reading of Scripture, Hebrew understandings of God actually were more about the lived experience of God and were open to the Divine as moving, morphing, and changing. Like the Hebrew people themselves journeying to the Promised Land or back from exile, or like the families of Abraham and Sarah, or Ruth and Naomi, or Joseph and Mary, or like the Wise Ones from the East following a star, it seems the people were on an unfolding journey, discerning the new place that Spirit called them to go in order to serve life at that time, in that situation.
In Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where he is portrayed by Matthew’s community as the new Moses, you can hear the new being indicated by the phrase, "You have heard it said, (comma) but I say……" There is innovation here, going beyond something like "eye for any eye," which in its day helped stop escalating revenge cycles, to something that went into the inner work that stops cycles of revenge and separation altogether, "love your enemy."
You see, although our Bible has a back cover, and the tradition has not admitted new books into the Bible for over a millennium and a half, that does not mean that God is mute, that Spirit stopped moving or speaking at the time of Jesus or the time of Moses.
God is still Speaking, we say.
And we, as the UCC, are trying to listen. We have done it before.
In 1620, on their way to North America, pilgrims seeking spiritual freedom heard their pastor, John Robinson, say “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word." This is a statement of the continuing revelation that is characteristic of the UCC, the assumption that there is more understanding to come. It is a way of seeking and holding truth that keeps us open to reading our Scriptures and mining our tradition in new ways as our understandings and experience change. This kind of way has encouraged us, not exclusively, but characteristically to be on the cutting edge of social change in the church.
Congregationalists were among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. In 1700, the Rev. Samuel Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, "The Selling of Joseph" 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 in Boston to demand repeal of an unjust tax on tea and inspired what might be called the first act of civil disobedience in U.S. history—the "Boston Tea Party."
In 1773, a young member of the Old South congregation, Phillis Wheatley, becomes the first published African American author. Poems on Various Subjects was a sensation, and Wheatley gained her freedom from slavery soon after. In 1785, Lemuel Haynes is the first African American ordained by a Protestant denomination. In 1839, enslaved Africans broke their chains and seized control of the schooner Amistad. Their freedom was short-lived, and they were held in a Connecticut jail while the ship's owners sued to have them returned as property. But Congregationalists and other Christians organized a campaign to free the captives. The case became a defining moment for the movement to abolish slavery as the Supreme Court ruled the captives are not property, and the Africans regain their freedom.
In 1840, a meeting of pastors in Missouri formed the first united church in U.S. history—the Evangelical Synod. It united two Protestant traditions that had been separated for centuries: Lutheran and Reformed. In 1846, Lewis Tappan, one of the Amistad anti-slavery organizers, organized the American Missionary Association--the first anti-slavery society in the U.S. with multiracial leadership. In 1853, Antoinette Brown became the first woman since New Testament times ordained as a Christian minister, and perhaps the first woman in history elected to serve a Christian congregation as pastor. In 1897, Congregationalist Washington Gladden was one of the first leaders of the Social Gospel movement—which denounced injustice and the exploitation of the poor amidst a new industrializing and urbanizing society.
In 1959, Southern television stations impose a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. asked the UCC to intervene. Everett Parker of the UCC's Office of Communication organizes churches and won in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. 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 1976, General Synod elected the Rev. Joseph H. Evans president of the United Church of Christ, the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline church in the United States. In 1995, the United Church of Christ publishes The New Century Hymnal—the only hymnal released by a Christian church that honored in equal measure both male and female images of God. In 2005, the General Synod called for full Marriage Equality, marking the first time that one of the nation's mainline churches expressed support of marriages for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.
I share these not to boost our UCC egos, but to en-courage our spirits with so much of the country and some churches wanting to go backward, to fix the faith and the culture in a less inclusive and less just past with a period. I share this list to encourage us that the God of commas has been and is at work even amidst the current appearance of reactionary, restrictive, and violent forces.
And what about us? How is our comma faith? Where have we placed a period where God would place a comma? Where have we precluded possibility, or sidled up to cynicism, or jockeyed into judgment, or given in to impatience in such a way that we placed a period where Spirit was seeking a comma, a new way through, a re-visioned path, a resurrection?
My guess is that often we protect our hearts with the period placing energies of judgment or criticism, or of cynicism and passivity. Or we protect ourselves and calm our fears in the midst of the anxiety of change by focusing on too much order. We forget that God can work through all of this, even the right kind of chaos (“good trouble” the late John Lewis called it). We forget that God may have another timeline or another way to get where we are going.
I have not been here long enough to know the full history of Plymouth church and how you have found ways to do something and become something that others would have thought not possible. But, I did see a video on our website where the late Ray Becker narrates the story that recounted the German speaking ancestors of this church escaping Czar Alexander II leaving their familiar homes in Russia to come all this way, that showed them starting a church without a pastor, that showed them coming together with only 64 members to build a church building and then the faith years later to sell that building and move all the way out of town to Prospect Avenue where they built the whole shell of the church themselves, where we now worship, when they had 184 members. And now, to meet a challenge to support our comma faith ministry, we raised last Monday over $75,000 to meet that goal on Plymouth Gives Day.
My friends, I know some of you have had difficult days and there may be more for you and for this country and the world. But somewhere just after the necessary, appropriate, and healthy grieving of the disappointments of our world and our lives, there is a time, there is a choice to faithfully punctuate our stories with a comma, to re-envision new possibilities of manifesting God’s Realm here on earth in your life, in northern Colorado and in Plymouth church, in the world, and then to act into the new.
As our UCC promotions often say, God is Still Speaking. Our call is to be listening and discerning and following the Still Speaking God calling us into a faith where we are placing the life-giving commas of compassion, of courage, and of creativity, where others would place the death dealing periods of complacency and complicity and resignation. We are invited into an adventure of faith where the comma is always opening us to the renewing of our minds, the reconciliation of the alienated in ourselves and others, and a re-visioning of any way of being that is less than Shalom for all Creation.
As Gracie said,
Never place a period where God has placed a comma.