Worship celebrations offer blend of hope, encouragement
July-August 2003

 


Sinikathemba, an HIV-positive choir from Durban, South Africa. W. Evan photo.
 
General Synod is much more than a big business meeting; it is a worshipful celebration of God's mission. Through the diverse gifts of Christ's gathered community, worship at General Synod is one of the highlights of the five-day gathering. The vitality of the church comes alive through hymns and sermons, rhythm and movement, color and pageantry, liturgy and community.

Opening night: All at table

During the opening worship on Friday evening, July 11, the Rev. Yvette Flunder, pastor of the 600-member City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco, challenged listeners to reset the table of Christ. Building on Jesus' parable of the feast in Luke, she said, "When are we going to offer a feast that the people from the whorehouse and the crack house can sit down with the people from the church house?

"Who's going to bring reconciliation to the table? We can't do it until we bring Jesus and justice to the same table."

During exuberant congregational singing of the South African freedom song, "Siyahamb' ekukhanyen' kwenkhos," brilliantly colored, 12-foot puppets joined the evening's presenters in circling the huge meeting hall in the Minneapolis Convention Center. A giant "comma" dominated the podium as a visible reminder of the UCC's identity slogan, "God is still speaking."

As the first communion meal was prepared for the 2,500 delegates and visitors, the table reflected much of what Flunder was seeking. A liturgical dance by Katharine Harts, Heather Iriye and Beth Staiger, all from Arizona churches in the Southwest Conference, included a dancer who moved gracefully in a wheelchair in the presentation, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Coalition Choir offered the evening's anthem.

The worship included a significant first for the UCC when the General Synod heard special music by the Transcendence Choir, "the first transgender gospel choir in the world," Flunder said.

Earlier in the evening, the firstever, all-General Synod, sit-down community meal provided nearly 2,500 guests with food for body and soul.

Sunday: Embrace justice

Hundreds of UCC members from the Minneapolis area visited General Synod on Sunday, July 13, to take part in the afternoon worship service. The service began with music from Bob Gregory-Bjorklund and the Spirit Voices of First UCC in Northfield, Minn.

The Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian and Anglican priest who serves in Israel and Palestine, spoke about efforts for peace in the region. "Genuine peace must be founded on justice," he said. "Justice is the key to all that we aspire. Only justice produces peace. Only justice leads to security. Only justice opens the way to reconciliation."

He asked the UCC to help dispel myths about the people from the Middle East. "People assume that all Arabs are Muslims," he said, "when in reality there are 15 million Christians in the Middle East, most of whom are Arabs."

People frequently ask, he said, "'When were you converted?' as if Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, Pa., and Christianity were a Western religion."

"Very often the media and negative propaganda have painted all Palestinians as terrorists," he said, "which seek only the destruction of innocent and peace-loving Israel." Ateek appealed to the UCC to "help shatter and decimate those negative stereotypes. Take time to learn more about our people and their longing for justice and peace."

Following Ateek's address, the Synod shared in an experiential form of worship that included jazz music, liturgical movement, biblical storytelling and artistic imagery projected onto the hall's two large screen monitors.

Later on Sunday, the day's business session concluded with a recognition of the ministry of Dale L. Bishop, departing executive minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, at which time music was offered by Sinikathemba, an HIV-positive choir from Durban, South Africa.

Monday: Live joy

On Monday night, July 14, the Rev. Lillian Daniel, pastor of Church of the Redeemer UCC in New Haven, Conn., invited listeners to deepen their understand of Jesus' words in the Gospel of John: "Abide in me."

"What does abiding mean? You're not just visiting. You're not dabbling in Jesus," she said. "When you abide in Christ, you're a homesteader, not a renter. You're a registered voter, not a vacationer. ... You're not fooling around, you're living there."

She said that abiding ÂÂ living together ÂÂ is not always easy. "This abiding thing, it is going to be a relationship," she said. "Sometimes we'll be living together like newlyweds, and other times we'll be putting up with each other like college roommates who have a fight the first semester and still aren't speaking the second semester, because the life of faith is not easy."

Daniel poked fun at the idolatry of popular culture and our mixed-up priorities, then she called us to live in true joy, not "joy lite."

"Sometimes there will be sacrifices as we abide together," she said. "Jesus told us that on the cross."

Special music was offered by the General Synod Choir under the direction of Thomas Mustachio, minister of music at First Congregational UCC in Minneapolis.

Closing worship: Act the word

The General Synod's youth choir gathered the assembly for closing worship, as the people came together singing, "Come, all you people, come now and worship your God."

The Rev. Felix Carrion, pastor Euclid Avenue Congregational UCC in Cleveland, sent the UCC members out to "love the world," saying this the essence of Jesus' words in the Great Commission.

In baptism, "we are reborn new creatures. This is the biology of baptism," he said, and this new identity "supercedes and even supplants identity as citizens. Our cosmic identity is that of children of God, and identity makes us citizens of the world. In baptism, we begin to say, 'God bless the world.'"

He challenged nationalism as contrary to the spirit of the Christian faith. "Jesus belonged to the world," he said. Carrion said our relationship with Christ must affect and impact our relationships with one another and with world "socially, politically, economically, spiritually."

The service concluded with reaffirmation of baptism. As a soloist choir sang the words "you are mine," liturgical dancers poured water from large glass bowls. Members of UCC's Collegium of Officers, among others, processed through the crowd, using leafy branches to sprinkle water on the heads and faces of more than 2,000 worshipers † a sign remembance, renewal, unity and hope for our life together in Christ.

Grace-under-fire Synod press room volunteers Tim Kershner, Michelle Carter, J. Martin Bailey, and United Church News editor J. Bennett Guess contributed to this article.

General Synod 24 offering totals

Opening Worship, Friday $10,547
for the Jeffrey Paul Radford Scholarship Fund, Trinity UCC, Chicago

Monday $6,125
for the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition and the Africa Initiative of Church World Service

Sunday $11,242
for the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery

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