Waking up on June 27 felt like the day after. The day after a big blowout when the head pounds and the mouth is parched. The day after a celebration that only comes once in a lifetime, where the partygoers let it all hang out. General Synod 26 was that kind of event. The UCC celebrated the best way we knew how. We let our light shine. Yet, after five glorious days together, a temptation looms. We can forget.
Journalist extraordinaire Bill Moyers brought us to tears with his prophetic words about the state of America. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama provided hope for a future in which progressive faith plays a critical, yet responsible role. Marian Wright Edelman spoke powerfully about the suffering of America's children, while Lynn Redgrave gave a moving personal witness to the church's healing role in her battle with cancer.
All of this could cause us to forget that big, well-orchestrated events are not where the gospel calls us. We could forget that we are not called to the hallways of a secular temple, but to the streets of the neighborhood. Thankfully, our lectionary reading for Sept. 2 provides us a point of remembrance. The theme for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, derived from Hebrews (13:1-8, 15-16), is "Let's be the church." This scripture, written for first-century Jewish Christians, is a word to a community in pain. Originally living in Rome, this gathering of "Hebrews" was thrown out of the city by Emperor Claudius in A.D. 49. Thus, they are on the run, acutely aware of their powerlessness, yet implored to be true in their worship. In Hebrews, as in the UCC, "true worship" is "lived worship."
Such lived worship begins with love shared among the gathered faithful. The "kingdom that cannot be shaken (12:28)" is realized, first and foremost, in the relationships within the Christian congregation (13:1), where God's "beloved community" is found. Christian discipleship, we are reminded, is not an individual endeavor.
Lived worship is also made manifest in "hospitality to strangers (13:2)." This is a great priority of our denomination, but a tricky one. In the early church "hospitality to strangers" likely referred to the welcoming of itinerant Christian teachers who depended on local churches for their sustenance. Today, this call to hospitality pushes local congregations to anchor their identity firmly in Christ. When we live out of Christ's love, the barriers of race, class, gender and sexual orientation disappear.
God's extravagant welcome is made manifest, and hospitality to strangers becomes foundational to all that we do. While there are social walls that divide the church, real physical walls exist that divide the human family even more. Hebrews 13:3 implores readers to remember both "those who are in prison" and "those who are being tortured." This concern was probably a summons to solidarity with other firstcentury Christians persecuted for their faith. Today, this call speaks directly to Christian responsibility toward the millions in our prisonindustrial complex. Even more so, prisoners of the war on terror — held in places like Abu Graib, Guantanamo and elsewhere — are not to be forgotten. As Jesus made clear from the beginning, he came "to set the captives free." For first-century or 21st-century Christians, it is a charge central to our faith.
Finally, the letter to the Hebrews has some powerful words to say about the most intimate details of our lives: how we handle sex and money. Harking back to the holiness codes of Leviticus (chapters 19-20), sins of greed and lust are incompatible with the holiness of the community. Hebrews 13:4-5 points to the fact that selfishness is at the base of both sexual immorality and greed. Such selfishness destroys individual and communal life, leaving the Christian community, both then and now, at the mercy of personal integrity.
General Synod 26 was a celebration of our history, but also a recognition that success is defined by God's terms. As we reach out to the poor, work for the release of the captives and welcome the stranger, let us do so with an abiding love for one another and a personal integrity unmatched in our largely fallen world.
The Rev. Thomas I. Warren is pastor of Pleasant Hill (Tenn.) Community UCC.