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A Progressive Pentecost: The United Church of Christ

Speaker: The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

May 23, 2021

Sermon Pentecost Sunday 2021: May 23rd
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
First Church UCC Guilford, CT and Faith Community Church UCC Oakland, CA
A Progressive Pentecost: The United Church of Christ

What does this mean? I love any Scripture passage that ends with a question. It is perfect for a preacher! What does this mean!? Today, we have a story about the Day of Pentecost—my favorite holiday as someone who grew-up in an Assemblies of God megachurch. But today’s service isn’t about megachurches or unprecedented signs of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t about God giving us special skills to prove to each other how “great” or “spiritually mature” we are. That is what Pentecost often becomes in Pentecostal Churches—a competition. What does this mean? This passage, and I am giving away the conclusion, is about the power of being a diverse community (some might even call it a denomination) committed to being here for each other and open to God’s Still Speaking voice! “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”

After converting in high school to the UCC, the place where I have always found Pentecost - the Holy Spirit moving in the house - has been at General Synod. Synod this year, the meeting of the United Church of Christ that happens once every two years—our diverse, wonderful, love, justice, and joy filled family reunion, will be taking place online virtually this time in July. This is sad and happy news. The happy part is that everyone can make it really no matter who they are or where they are in life’s journey.

Synod brings-up some powerful Holy Spirit experience memories. Several Synods ago in Long Beach, California, I was on the Board of Justice and Witness Ministries (JWM). As such, I was a JWM delegate to General Synod on the floor, voting, on committees. It was an auspicious and funny year to be a JWM delegate because at the end of that Synod, we were asked to vote our board out of existence and vote ourselves out of the board as we approved the new Unified Governance. This was to save the UCC money and to make things more efficient. We complied dutifully but didn’t go away silently.

For this and other reasons, our JWM table and delegation was a particularly wild group that year. I spent the whole Synod seated next to Ate Lei or big sister Leian Cimarra—who is the Vice Moderator of Faith Community UCC in Oakland, California. I had learned so much from Leian over the years. I had learned that sitting next to big sister Lei from the Bay Area meant that we had a steady supply of ice cream brought to our table. I learned about the history and commitment and story of Pacific Islander & Asian Americans who are the heart of the UCC. I learned to see my own privilege and to follow. My time on JWM had gifted me with a UCC big sister, Ate Lei, from one of the most influential Filipino UCC churches in our denomination. I associate the Holy Spirit and Pentecost not with the Assemblies of God of my childhood, but I associate prophecy and power with Justice and Witness Ministries and the lessons from Ate Lei and others at General Synod of the UCC. “They were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” 

Today, Ate Lei asked if I could preach both for First Church Guilford, Connecticut and share the sermon also with the Zoom worship of Faith Community Church UCC in Oakland, California. Yes! How Holy Spirit perfect is it that on the Day of Pentecost two UCC churches, in two different states, with two different backgrounds, both committed to the Global Ministries and the justice and inclusion work of the United Church of Christ are sharing in worship! First Church meet Faith Community Church UCC.  Faith Community meet First Church  I love introductions! I guess it is part of being an extreme extrovert. You two have so much in common with each other and Pentecost. A short introduction:

This week is the 191st anniversary of the dedication of this third church building or meeting house, as they call them here in New England, dedicated in worship on May 19, 1830. But, it didn’t start out this way! Today, I am preaching in our third building, but First Church was a house church (a living room congregation) for the first 3 years of its existence. In August of 1639, two months after arriving as religious refugees from the violence of England, just down the road from this spot where I am preaching, the early members of this church built four first houses of what would become Guilford, Connecticut. One of those houses, today standing as the oldest Stone House in New England, was the home of the first minister, Rev. Whitfield. 

One historian and former minister writes, “Four of the houses were of stone, which includes the present Old Stone House, which was built by Mr. Whitfield as a home and used for a general meeting place…in 1642 a stone Meeting House twenty-four feet square with thatched roof was erected on the northwest part of the Green.” They would use that simple house and its living room as their place of worship for 75 years until a first real church-like building was built in 1717.[1] Literally, beyond the first three years in Rev. Whitfield’s living room at the Old Stone House, the first 75 years of First Church Guilford were religious refugees worshipping in a 24-foot X 24 foot living room. It all started with four houses, four living rooms, and then continued for 75 years in a house. “They were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”

Likewise, in 1999, four women founded Faith Community Church UCC in Oakland, CA as a place of worship, belief in Jesus, and love of community for Filipino immigrant families and friends. They worshipped in their living rooms at first, at another UCC church’s chapel for a while, at a United Methodist Church, and now safely in homes remotely through the pandemic. The UCC nationally recognized Faith Community UCC as a leader in the denomination in a recent online series! Founded in 1999 in four homes, Faith Community Church UCC in Oakland is a vibrant place where community is found, and the love of Jesus is known! “They were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” 

Only 360 years apart from 1639 to 1999, four houses started both First Church and Faith Community UCC.  Gathered as families, in homes, in a meeting house, and seeking the Holy Spirit is something we share in our story! This brings me back to the questions from Scripture for today, “What does this mean?” What is this young, funny minister getting at? 

Scottish theologian and scholar, William Barclay, when reflecting on the meaning of the Day of Pentecost once proclaimed (imagine this with a Scottish Accent), “We may never know precisely what happened on the Day of Pentecost but we do know that it was one of the supremely great days of the Christian Church…the Spirit was the source of day-to-day courage and power…Peter’s courage and eloquence before the Sanhedrin are the result of the activity of the Spirit…The Christian courage to meet the dangerous situation, the Christian power to cope with life more than adequately, the Christian eloquence when eloquence is needed, the Christian joy which is independent of circumstances are all ascribed to the work of the Spirit.[2]

The gift of Pentecost is the power to cope with life more than adequately and joy independent of circumstances. We do this best together. This gift is what it should mean to be a denomination —to become the United Church of Christ. I love this take on Pentecost from Barclay! If you think about the holidays we focus on—Christmas, Easter, our birthdays, and even Halloween in modern times…they are all the holidays when we get gifts or at least lots of snacks! Why are we always ignoring Pentecost as secondary? Christmas is when it all starts. Jesus is born and God with us, Emmanuel, is here at last! Easter is when we learn that the Church cannot die, it survives, it lives on! But it is at Pentecost that we learn that we are all in this together, that humans can do the work, that God and Gospel are bigger than divisions of language and geography, and that we are resilient. Pentecost is when we find out that we are not alone on this. Pentecost is when we get the greatest gift of all—the Holy Spirit and the love of Christians beyond our own rooms is made known.

As I mentioned, I grew-up in the Assemblies of God or AoG, an historic tradition in the United States with a focus on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the AoG, the highlight of the church year wasn’t Christmas or Easter, but the Day of Pentecost! But it wasn’t until I found the United Church of Christ in high school that I really experienced the true meaning of the Day of Pentecost—people from many backgrounds, languages, cultures, beliefs all committed to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit sharing in worship and purpose. Ate Lei and Synod showed me the power of the collective identities united in hope and faith and policy and purpose. 

So... then…what does this Day of Pentecost mean for being a denomination in this exhilarating, diverse, inclusive, more equitable, and emerging new time? At First Church this week, we are working on the spiritual practice of mottos and mantras. This is part of a Spiritual Practice series we are doing during our Lead Minister’s sabbatical.

Since 1957, the motto of the United Church of Christ remains a citation from John 17:20-24, “That they may all be one!” One scholar once said that the UCC is a movement for ecumenism more than it is a traditional denomination. I take no offence at that idea. That they may all be one is a great motto for us to reclaim in this time of so much hate an anger in the world. We need the solidarity, we need the courage, we need the collective, the unity, the togetherness of Pentecost as Barclay says, “The Christian courage to meet the dangerous situation, the Christian power to cope with life more than adequately, the Christian eloquence when eloquence is needed, the Christian joy which is independent of circumstances are all ascribed to the work of the Spirit.”

The word “denomination” is not inspiring. It is not exhilarating. It is a dull word even in origin of etymology that comes from old French word denominacion.[3] The word simply means to give something a name, or a naming or classification. Being a denomination simply means having a name for a group, and our chosen name is the United Church of Christ. In this emerging-post-pandemic moment, I am more hopeful than ever about the Pentecost, Holy Spirit, united in name and motto and purpose of the United Church of Christ as a movement with a shared name. That they may all be one.

One scholar of denominations, Edward LeRoy Long, Emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in NYC and Drew University[4] concludes of the UCC, “The dialectical tension between the freedom of local congregations and the impulse to have a corporate denominational identity is not easy to maintain…That tension has been characteristic of the United Church of Christ from its beginning, and it is dealt with creatively and with goodwill in an ethos characterized equally by freedom and mutuality.”[5]

2,987.3 miles apart, 360 years difference in founding date, three time zones, two different communities, many languages, one in our purpose and motto, sharing a denomination, and both started as house churches. Freedom and mutuality—newly connected congregations—this is my Pentecost hope and the gift that is greater than any yet. New mutuality and connection. 

Technology has made this a Pentecost like none other. The Holy Spirit is a techy, a programmer, a computer wiz, and is using what has emerged during the pandemic to help the UCC finally live up to and live into its 1957 motto. I am honored that by the power and creativity of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost to preach both for First Church Guilford United Church of Christ Guilford, Connecticut and Faith Community Church United Church of Christ Oakland, California at the same time. Something new has emerged. Something good is happening. We have set the Holy Spirit free. Now, let’s see what God will do next! Hold on tight, because as our Scripture shows us today, we are in for quite a wild ride ahead! And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” Hold. On. Tight!

It has been years since we in the UCC have talked about this, our denomination in terms bigger than survival, downsizing, or budgets. I believe the pandemic, for all of its horrors, has saved the United Church of Christ as a denomination. It has given new meaning and purpose and reality to our motto, “that they may all be one.” 

Finally, we may together, as Barclay suggests, live the gift of community on Pentecost, “The Christian courage to meet the dangerous situation, the Christian power to cope with life more than adequately, the Christian eloquence when eloquence is needed, the Christian joy which is independent of circumstances are all ascribed to the work of the Spirit.”

“May they all be one,” from California to Connecticut and everywhere beyond and in between. Amen.

[1] Rev. William C. H. Moe, Lives and Times of Our Pastors 1592-1945 (Guilford, Connecticut: First Church Press, 1945), 6-8.
[2] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1978), 18-19.
[3] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=denomination
[4] https://utsnyc.giftplans.org/index.php?cID=242
[5] Edward LeRoy Long, Jr., Patterns of Polity: Varieties of Church Governance (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2001), 128.

The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

Associate Minister

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