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"Finding Common Ground"

A Sermon based upon Matthew 5:20-26

This is the Sunday of our Annual Congregational Meeting – something that has happened here in Alpena for 157 years … and has been going on in America since the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 – that’s 400 years ago, come next year! WOW.

What we are doing here today – (1) receiving reports on the “state of our church”, (2) electing our officers, and (3) setting our budget for the New Year – are the basis for what were called “Town Hall Meetings” in colonial New England -- the very birthplace of our democracy -- and helped set the pattern for the rule of local law in America. (I hope you feel some pride of ownership of so many American values born from the Separatists who fled Europe.)

This annual gathering of our membership is much more than just a functional meeting required to do our business as a church. (!) It is that, of course, but its historical roots are much deeper -- intertwined with the concept of autonomous community leadership, which is our God-given right and which entails the intentional responsibility of us working together (in Jesus’ name, for God’s sake) to the best of our ability, trusting the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and empower us.

Last week I pointed out that our Congregational tradition casts a wide net of inclusion. As we say every Sunday: “whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” That used to be the “American” way. It certainly is still part of being U.C.C!

In my little ditty of a song, I said: “You are welcome any day, if you want to come and pray, in the first church of Alpena, Michigan”… and “You know you’re in a special place that welcomes you!” Yes, welcoming all people, inclusion instead of exclusion, is our hallmark!

The historical marker that’s out on our front lawn notes that our founders in 1862 wanted a church that would be open to people of all faiths. Differences of beliefs, of doctrines, of ethnic origin, or of social class would not be given priority over “working together” as one community in faith and fellowship in Alpena. It was true then; it’s still true now!

As a result (as I said in my sermon last Sunday): we are all mixed up together, side-by-side, trying to get along in a “polarized” society.

In the United Church, there is no “one size fits all” set of beliefs. (!) We are a “non-creedal” church. In fact, that’s one thing that sets our kind of church apart from others! To be a “free” church -- not beholding to higher authorities, nor to mandated creeds -- is a big part of the reason those “Separatist” Pilgrims left the Anglican Church (and the Lutherans and Calvinist Reformed, and the Roman Catholic institutions) behind in Europe!

Now… we do work collegially with all other churches (at least, those who are willing to work with us!) -- collaborating with Methodists & Presbyterians & the Community of Christ; with First Baptist, and the LARC churches (Lutheran, Anglican Episcopal, & Roman Catholics). On this coming Wednesday we will celebrate the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” up at St. Anne’s Catholic Church.

And (even though we are a non-creedal church), I did write a musical version of “the Apostle’s Creed” (which I sang for you this morning) because those words mean a lot to all those other churches and it expresses many things that I also believe.

So… as Congregationalists, we’re not “against” any other church, denomination, or religion -- as a matter of fact, we even get along with many a good atheist and “secular” humanitarian. The official motto of our United Church of Christ is Jesus’ prayer for the Church (in John 17:21): “That they may all be one!” We are a united and a uniting people.

Unlike other more narrowly-defined Christian denominations and independent Evangelical churches, we put a high value on maintaining harmony in the midst of our diversity. Our slogan from more than a Century ago is (as I said last Sunday): “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; and in all things, charity.” Love is 1st!

I wanted to follow up on those thoughts this morning by hearing a snippet of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”. First, his advice about getting past the tendency to be angry with people -- insulting them, and calling them “a fool” -- any & all of which makes a person liable to judgment (according to Jesus!). And, second, his example of reconciling with your adversary before you take each other to court!

In the first case, “God fearing” people thought they had done enough when they refrained from killing their adversary! (“Thou shalt not kill,” you know?) But according to Jesus, it’s not enough to think that you are okay in God’s eyes because you did not actually kill that person who makes you so angry; that one whom you enjoy insulting; that one whom you have (publicly) called a “fool”.

No... if Jesus is to be believed, it is holding such attitudes in your heart -- and expressing them though abusive language in public -- that puts you in the wrong. It’s not in the killing, but in the public disrespect, that the initial sin arises.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going on nowadays! Ad holmium attacks on opponents, rude language about adversaries, and personal insults seem to be “the new norm”!

Just last Saturday, for example, Rachel Marsden (a syndicated columnist in The Alpena News) wrote: “In Washington DC, partisan

politics takes precedence above anything else -- including pragmatic and constructive solutions to problems.

People will cross the street to avoid someone with the opposite ideology. This mind-set has diffused into American society. … Outside of Washington, it’s more common to find that someone can disagree with another person’s ideology while still respecting or appreciating that individual.”[1] The very next page, in an editorial from The Grand Haven Tribune, I read: “The shameful name-calling and political poking at each other is certainly distracting from the task at hand, and that’s running this country in the most efficient and safe manner as possible. It is truly shameful that grown men and women can’t do what they are elected (and highly paid) to do.”[2] Politicians give “politics” a bad reputation!

On the very next page in the newspaper, I read about “a group of five black men shouting vulgar insults while protesting centuries of oppression. Dozens of white Catholic high school students visiting Washington DC for a rally to end abortion. And Native Americans marching to end injustice for indigenous peoples across the globe who have seen their lands over-run by outside settlers.

The three groups met for just a few minutes Friday at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, an encounter captured in videos that went viral over the weekend – and again cast a spotlight on a polarized nation that doesn’t appear to agree on anything…

“It was an ugly encounter of spewed epithets,” wrote Jeffrey Collins of the Associated Press, “but one that nevertheless ended with no punches thrown or other violence.

Still, the videos were all over social media, again appearing to illustrate a nation of such deep divisions – racial, religious, and ideological – that no one was willing to listen to the others’ point of view.” -- Get that? No one was willing to listen to the other’s point of view!

In a follow-up article in last Wednesday’s paper, I read that the Covington (Kentucky) Catholic High School (where the boys were from, who had laughed derisively at an older Native American who was drumming last Friday) temporarily closed down as a result from the fallout from the media images.

The President tweeted on Tuesday that the students from Covington Catholic High School “have become symbols of Fake News, and how evil it can be.”

However, Albert Running Wolf, a Native American from Fort Thomas (Kentucky) referred to Nathan Phillips (the Indian drummer who was accosted during the event) as “an honorable man” who was trying to be a peace-maker, but ended up being verbally attacked. He said that Phillips deserves an apology for what he endured: “It doesn’t matter what color they were; what political factions they were. It was disrespect – straightforward.”

For his part, Nathan Phillips offered to visit the boys’ school for a dialogue with them about cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures. “Let’s create space for the teaching of tolerance to happen,” he said (according to the Cincinnati Enquirer). “I have faith that human beings can use a moment like this to find a way to gain understanding from one another.”[3] That’s taking the high road. I say “Bravo!” to that sentiment.

On Saturday, The News’ Managing Editor Justin Hinkley wrote (in relation to users of their Facebook account):

“Cursing, name-calling, and hurled accusations serve no one, not even the people doing the cussing. Unverified accusations do not further the public’s understanding of how to make their community safer, healthier, or more prosperous. Name-calling does not help the public press its elected officials to further justice.