“Falling in Love With the Annual Meeting”

I remember vividly the time when I fell in love with the annual meeting: It was in May of 1957, in suburban Chicago, at the Congregational Christian Conference annual meeting. In my previous denomination, the Disciples of Christ, regional meetings might be fun, or funny, but they were inconsequential. They did not matter. Here, in my new denominational family, was an annual meeting that mattered. “Whoa!” I said to myself (no, that’s not right, we didn’t say “whoa!” in those days, we said “wow!”) “Wow!” I said to myself, “Here is a church meeting where delegates care about the church and the world. Here is a church that is willing to speak and act on controversial issues. Here is a church meeting that matters. This is my kind of church.” So I fell in love with the annual meeting.

Thinking back on 1957 I am reminded of the Minnesota Conference theme for this annual meeting: “In each generation to make this faith its own,” important words from the preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ. While that’s the important part, the rest of that sentence is even more challenging, where it says, in speaking of this faith, “in reality of worship, in honesty of thought, and in purity of heart before God.” So I’ve asked myself how well my generation faired with making this faith our own, with real worship, with honest thought and with purity of heart.

My generation was the silent generation, too young to be in the greatest generation, too old to be baby boomers. Maybe we were silent because we were stunned. We were stunned at the aftermath of the war, especially the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We were stunned by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s vicious attack against communists and homosexuals in government, education and the arts. We were stunned by the Korean War, where we learned about warfare that never ends, further developed in Vietnam and now perfected in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were stunned by the nihilism and hopelessness embedded in existential philosophy and literature, totally abstract art, totally atonal music and the fear that there was nothing at all out there, just us humans alone in the universe.

So how did we do at making this faith our own? I think we did pretty well with honesty of thought; I’m not sure about reality of worship, even what that means; but we clearly failed purity of heart, since the deep inner self-examination prompted by existentialism, Marxism and psychoanalysis illuminated an inner life that required repentance and mercy. That is why my stunned generation is still hesitant about original blessing or the essential goodness of humankind.

In spite of all that, my generation was quick to fall in love, perhaps because of our existential loneliness. So, to return to my sermon’s title, in 1957 I fell in love with the annual meeting. If you have fallen in love, you know that falling in love matters, that it has consequences. And, in another sense, when you fall in love nothing else matters. When I fell in love with the annual meeting, I knew I would never miss another meeting. And I haven’t! You might ask, “How could anyone fall in love with the annual meeting? Could this be a sign of derangement?” Perhaps it is. But I can explain why I fell in love with the annual meeting.

To do that, though, I must confess a flaw in my faith that may be part of the explanation. Whenever I read or hear those words from Deuteronomy, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5), I know my faith is incomplete. I have not fallen in love with God, as I should have. And when I hear those same words repeated by Jesus in the gospels, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” (Mt. 22:36), I am reminded again how far short I fall in loving God.

Still I believe in God. I feel God’s presence and power in creation. I am amazed that the creator of the universe would come to us in the people of Israel, in Jesus, who teaches us the way, who shows us how to live and die, and be raised again. And I count on the energy and clarity of the Holy Spirit. I speak to God every day—words of gratitude, lament, anger, accusation, even whining—God seems to take my whining better than my earthly companions. I know I am loved by a grace I do not deserve and cannot earn, a grace in which I am made new every day. But I have not fallen in love with God. Could it be that I don’t have the right picture of God?

Several years ago one of my faculty colleagues at United Seminary asked me to state my image of God. (I sensed a gender trap in that demand.) “I don’t have an image of God,” I replied, “really.”

“Nonsense,” my colleague replied. “Everyone has an image of God. You’re just not willing to admit yours.”

“No, no, no!” I exclaimed, realizing I was losing it, but I could not stop. “I have many names and images. They are all good. But they can’t be squeezed into one image!” In spite of failing that oral exam, I think I was onto something then, about loving God, something that became clearer as I wrote my book on ecclesiology and polity in the United Church of Christ, and even more clear in the last two years as I wrote a short history of the Minnesota Conference. I have learned a new love of God in my heart which will have to suffice. I have not fallen in love with God, but I have fallen in love with God’s holy covenant. Covenant is the key word here, covenant as God’s way of entering into relationship with creation and with humankind.

Here’s how I’m working this out: God is so vast and mysterious that we can never comprehend more than a very small fragment of the divine. But in faith we experience this same God making covenants with creation and ourselves, promising love and justice, but requiring something of us as well, that we will take this great gift of covenant and walk humbly with God and act justly while seeking mercy. When we do that we are blessed and empowered; when we don’t we’re hunted down by that divine love that will not let us go.

An absolutely crucial piece of this divine covenant is community, actual human communities where divine love is the tie that binds. We are not alone. We are not meant to be alone. We are not made to be alone. Our selfhood is actualized only in community, not in isolating individualism. So if we say yes to the divine covenant when Jesus says, “Follow me,” we receive grace, mercy, forgiveness, boundless love, and we receive one another.

You may say to me, “Well, I’ll take Jesus and God and maybe even the Holy Spirit, but not these miserable people; they drive me crazy!” And I say to you, “Welcome to the church!”

If you protest and tell me you follow the desert mystics who lived in caves and prayed, I ask you, “Who brought them food and water? Who did their laundry?” Or if you say that modern well-meaning people want spirituality but not religion, God but not the church, good morals but not bad theology, I say to you, “It’s a package deal. Take it or leave it!”

I do not mean to be harsh with well-meaning people. They’re much better than mean people, of which we have far too many nowadays. But well-meaning people are missing something. Well-meaning people will say, for example, that we’ve made great progress in race relations. “We even elected an African American president!” People of the covenant will say we’ve got a long way to go to confront systemic racism and white privilege. “See how Obama’s race drives the hatred hounding him in the current campaign!”

Well-meaning people prefer a more gradual approach to marriage equality. “It will come in time if we don’t push too hard,” they think. People of the covenant know that it is time, that it has been the time for a long time, to embrace marriage equality, that divine love blesses all truly loving relationships, that God’s covenant requires justice and love now, not sometime later on.

Well-meaning people cling to a naïve belief that free-market capitalism is the best we can do to organize and distribute the food, water, housing, education and health care needed for a humane society. Any limits, any regulations, they believe, undermine initiative and creativity. People of the covenant, however, know that if anyone is hungry, if anyone is thirsty, if anyone has no secure place to live, if anyone is denied the essentials of life for any reason, something is fundamentally wrong. This cannot be allowed to continue. We must keep working to make a better and more just system, and stop thinking of reasons to justify an unjust system.

I’ve often thought I’d be much happier if I could be a well-meaning person. But then I would have to renounce the claim of the divine covenant on my life. I would no longer love the God I meet in the covenant of the annual meeting, in the covenants of my local church, of the Minnesota Conference, of the General Synod, and of the church ecumenical and universal. Perhaps that’s the best I can do. If I cannot grasp enough of God to say that I love God with all of my being, at least I can truly say I love the God of all these incredibly generous covenants. When at the end I must give an account of my life, that confession will have to suffice. I hope it is enough.

I wonder if those ancient church leaders meeting in Jerusalem at the first annual meeting, described in Acts chapter 15, fell in love with their annual meeting. I hope they did. They faced a huge question: will the followers of Jesus remain a Palestinian Jewish sect or become something more? And how did they answer? Not by sophisticated cultural and philosophical analysis; only by realizing that God’s covenant of hospitality in Jesus Christ welcomes everyone, with no conditions, no tests, and no added burdens. That was an annual meeting to love, for sure.

I’m confident that this annual meeting, the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ’s fiftieth annual meeting, 2012, will be one to love. I plan to love it. I hope you do too!