Romans 8:28-30 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Some time ago I was fortunate enough to serve as an Adjunct Professor in the Religion Department at a nearby college. I learned a lot about the world. See for the last twenty years, maybe most my life, I have been sheltered from all those people some surveys called unchurched. That changed when I began teaching at a local college; I had them sitting in my Introduction to the Study of Religion class room. There, I have had my eyes opened. First, I assessed the class and found that fully half have no church tradition and only attend church in the unfortunate case of someone near to them having died, or on the celebratory occasion of a wedding. This is in keeping with a poll by George Gallup that suggests that over 60% of the under 30 people in this country have never been to church on a Sunday morning.
Strangely enough my classes were not agnostic. I tried to limit my discussions with them to the intellectual study of religion and to a student they have refused. In response to the reductionist approach of Sigmund Freud in his book “The Future of An Illusion” they rebelled and nearly in a single voice cried out, saying,” how can he reduce religion to a coping mechanism?” To Max Weber’s study of Protestants and Catholics in the growing capitalistic economy of Western Europe in the late nineteenth century, they were offended. “How,” they wondered, “could Weber generalize Catholics into a labor and limited educational interest pigeonhole?”
I can understand their cynicism about scholars who study religion at an arms length. Their reaction reflects a deeply held but ambiguous belief in God that is a part of the fabric of our society. Also, the whole class attitude reflects a general ignorance about their own religious traditions. Catholics are not really sure how to respond to all these questions and concerns about a Spirit of Capitalism, and a protestant ethic. The Protestants are not even aware of how their tradition understands the Kingdom of God to be present in the world, thus making our own mastery of our lives and work a legitimate call from God. Although I share some of their ambivalence about the qualitative value of some religious scholarship, their airing of their gripes seemed little more to me than a general whine about someone else not taking their own feelings about God seriously enough.
One of the most heartfelt essays in the course thus far was from a young Catholic student who said for him that the ritual of Holy Communion could never, for him, be seen as a totemic ritual or an oedipal correction to some sort of collective guilt originating way back in the primeval horde. His grammar was terrible and writing style torturous, but though it all you could feel his own sense of sacredness of community and ritual that he experienced as he received the sacrament, as he said, “according to the tradition of his faith.”
But he is an exception. Most people have no idea about their religious heritage. Most of my students, and most people I meet, in church and out, don’t have a clue. I recently heard about a program in Hawaii in which kupuna (Hawaiian for grandparents or ancestors) train to counsel other ethnic Hawaiians.
They use contemporary psychological methods, but also traditional Hawaiian storytelling. And they begin with genealogy. “What might first seem like small talk is crucial,” one counselor has said. “Where is your family from? Who’s your father, your mother, your ohana [clan]? To Hawaiians that’s not intellectual curiosity, but the entire basis of trust, an unbreakable bond.
Having come from the outside to Berks County, I am aware of how much family ties matter. It is important to so many people that I can make a connection [even if it is through marriage] to the area and its people. But surely we know that trust and relationships are more than blood and DNA. It has to do with knowing who each other is, what sort of people, and if there is a pretty face on ugly bigotry, what we know about the dependable certainty of culture and belief is that it has been the fertile soil of the world’s worst societies if it leads to a ‘holier than thou’ attitude.
As American’s we want to be free to do whatever we want. So we have tried to shake off the shackles of religious particularities. There is a general sentiment that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are a Christian, and a particularly self-satisfying form of it. To be entertained, to be stroked, and to feel-good is (in my mind) the generic spirituality of our day. A popular writer tells of
…an interreligious conference of Buddhist and Christian monastics… (where) a reporter asked the Dalai Lama what he would say to Americans who want to become Buddhists. “Don’t bother,” he said, “learn from Buddhism, if that is good for you, But do it as a Christian, a Jew, or whatever you are. And be a good friend to us.
These remarks by the leader of another world religion are very important to us. They are to me the trailhead of the specificity of faith. Who we are is a combination of what we are born into and what we have been raised in. But what is most important is where the Spirit leads us now. So the changes people make these days, for example from a Presbyterian church in Michigan to a United Church of Christ church in Pennsylvania, is not as radical change as it once was. My religious inheritance makes few complaints of this change. My German Reformed ancestors went to that Presbyterian Church because it was the only ‘reformed’ game in town.
I have tried to champion the idea that the purpose of the church is to “make and support disciples.” To accomplish this the specificity of faith is necessary. Faith formation is not a cafeteria line where we pick and choose from various doctrines and disciplines. Like many educational processes, Faith formation requires the giving of a particular structure and as the students come to know this structure, it can gradually be withdrawn as a supportive measure as they are able to ‘stand on their own.’ Beyond rote learning, faith formation requires the offering of ‘practices.’ These practices, while secondary to the primary assertion of Christ as Lord, do shape our lives and are essential.
Specificity, at least to start, is important. The Holiness movement that emphasizes a millenialist perspective, that “speak-up-now or burn-up-later” mentality is not ours. Neither do we believe in a strict adherence to even biblical legalisms, but we do believe in the primacy of scripture. We do believe that God has yet more light to shed upon his holy word.
If you have ever wondered why we worship in the format we do, it is time for you now to learn something about the genealogy here. If you were confirmed in this church, pick up your old confirmation booklet, the Catechism, Confirming Our Faith, or if it was just last year, Affirming our faith. Worship is important. It is descriptively a way we communicate beliefs, it is also a pedagogical activity and so some expressions are appropriate for us and others are not.
The United Church of Christ is firmly footed in the reformed tradition, both in the Germanic and congregational clans. Our zeal for education and justice has been the hallmark of our ancestors, from those who defended the Amistad slaves, to the early missionaries serving on the Great Plains. All the while, United Church of Christ ancestors held up the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s small catechism, the Westminster Confessions, the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, as testimony of our faith. We do the same. And to the extent we have forgotten or ignored the specificity of our religious tradition we are impoverished.
I believe that it is important to reclaim our religious heritage. This is not a blind running away from new religious ‘nothing’ toward something old and comfortable. The best of our reformed faith has to do with the continuing reformation of protestant Christianity. It is why I try to put emphasis upon the covenantal relationship that holds us together in United Church of Christ. We have a fine tradition of faithfulness, no matter what the media chooses to emphasize, and it deserves our attention. Youth, and new members especially need to be more involved in UCC education. Lots of contemporary expressions of faith are not congruent with our tradition and how shall know what to reject and accept if we as a congregation have no sense of our past, no design on our future?
I believe we should take every opportunity to interpret our mission as a congregation and denomination in the United Church of Christ. Servants and Stewards is who we have always been, but not fascist Christians who demand conversion, but who offer, like Jesus, healing and wholeness because of our faith, not theirs. One emphasis that seeks to honor the past while being present in the here and now (that begins with worship and how we worship) is Faith Formation.
I have no desire to mold our expression of faith to be like some homogenized collection of disparate traditions. Rather I would choose to fervently demand that we more closely adhere to what it means to be a congregation in the German Reformed tradition, in the United Church of Christ, here in Wernersville; especially as a new generation comes through our doors. This is a question of where we have been, it will indicate what we believe, and the substance of that can be rediscovered through careful attention to the past. This is also a question of where we are going, for just as we no longer believe the earth is flat, there are new truths which the Spirit desires us to learn.
Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that we can have confidence in our future with God only because that future is in God’s hands, not ours. If it depended upon us, we could expect some of the same ridiculousness that demanded reformation in the past. Only because we believe God is already in control of our future, is our redemption secure. Only then is the cross sufficient. That is the gist of the last few verses in this text. That is the gist of the reformation. That is the substance of who we are.