At a time when around 60 percent of UCC churches have fewer than 100 members, nothing teases our imaginations about what might be possible in our own local church like worshiping God in a General Synod setting.
Our worshipers may not sing like a Synod congregation of 3,000 and we may not incorporate liturgical dancing or an original hymn in each service. But as people of God we are called to flex our imaginations, open ourselves to new possibilities, and invite our members to think anew about God and our place in the world where God has placed us.
This theme, example and challenge permeated Sunday afternoon’s General Synod worship service that began with children being invited to play in a large sandbox set up on the floor at the front of the auditorium. Situated in front of a stage floor painted as ocean and in front of a huge wall backdrop of Florida scenes, the liturgy acknowledged the Florida Conference as Synod’s host and blessed the worship space.
Recognizing the diversity of the UCC’s membership, the call to worship was in both English and Spanish. Rich symbolism was woven through the service and to stimulate worshipers’ imaginations. It included the “greening” of a large cross mounted on the stage, a new hymn “We Know that God is Speaking,” a communion option of “gluten-free” bread, and a “Time of Passage” litany.
This “Time of Passage” service recognized the contributions of three Collegium members whose time of service is coming to an end: Edith A. Guffey, the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, and the Rev. Stephen L. Sterner. Also, the Rev. John F. Gundlach, retiring as the UCC’s Minister for Governmental Chaplaincies, was invited to read the scripture.
The sermon was based on that text, Genesis 21:8-21, the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. As explored by the Rev. Laurinda Hafner, senior pastor of Coral Gables (Fla.) Congregational UCC, this melodrama became the venue for exploring the distances we put between ourselves and those we don’t want to hear or see.
“What is the distance,” she asked, “that we too often put between those who seek living water and those of us well-established and well-settled into the pews and fabric of our churches?
“Is it clinging to old familiar ways: hanging on for dear life to what has always been; keeping the lid on the pot by not boiling up the subversive nature of the gospel; or boiling everything down to a mush that will keep everyone full but far from fed?”
Quoting Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, she said, “The vocation of the United Church of Christ is to walk the theological frontier… No church that forces engagement with new thinking will ever appeal to the masses… Your call is to be a faithful church, a witnessing church.”
“Friends,” she concluded, “we need to stop thinking of ourselves as a dying denomination and start thinking about ourselves as a movement for living water change.”