United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds May 20, 2018

Pentecost Sunday Year B

color_red.jpg

Lectionary citations:
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Worship resources for Pentecost Sunday Year B are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Acts 2:1-21

Focus Theme:
Alive in Love

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews and Mark J. Suriano

Among the many things I packed up in my office when I retired was a set of two plaques, with the words, "Do everything with love...a fierce firey love: the love by which God pursues us." (I'm sorry that I can't provide a source, but I see online that others have the plaques as well, and I'm grateful to the artist who produced them.) I found those simple lines inspiring each day that I spent at the UCC Church House, and I was reminded of them when I read the Pentecost readings once again for this Sunday.

Our psalm reading for this Pentecost Sunday speaks of God sending forth God's Spirit in a creative burst that is both productive and renewing. In our story from the Acts of the Apostles, it must have felt like creation all over again, with wind and fire, and something new bursting forth. Then there was the amazing linguistic experience of speaking in other languages yet being understood by people of many different languages and lands, the names of which represented the known world at that time and have caused no small anxiety to worship leaders in every time.

All people were one

No matter: in that moment, all the people were one in their hearing, if not their understanding of the deeper meaning of what they heard. Despite their differences, they could all hear what the disciples were saying, each in their own language.

Fire, wind, and humble Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing a new thing that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place. Maybe it was a little frightening, something people would want to explain away, or to contain with cynical comments that blamed it all on drunkenness.

This isn't the first time

There have been manifestations, remarkable displays of God's Spirit in the Bible before, of course, with sound and light and amazing "special effects," as we call them today. But those events, like Moses on the mountaintop and Jesus transfigured, were reserved for only a few witnesses, the most inside of insiders. Here, at the dawn of a new era, on the birthday of a church called to spread to the ends of the earth, the display is for everyone.

Not just the disciples, gathered in a room, getting themselves together after Jesus is once again departed. Not just the holiest or the most faithful or the most learned, not just the believers, not just those who were with Jesus on the road or witnesses to his Resurrection. No, in this case, at this moment, "all flesh," male and female, old and young, slave and free, are invited and included--and they're not just invited: they're expected to prophesy and dream, too!

Sent out into the world

And just to make sure that they know they're included, the formidable obstacle of a multitude of languages is overcome by a sweeping wind, an uplifting Spirit that drives those disciples out, out into the world beyond their walls, beyond the theoretical but fragile safety those walls provide. Out into the world, and compelled to spread the Good News of what God is doing in a new day.

On Pentecost, a Jewish feast that celebrated new life and new crops by offering a gift of first fruits in gratitude and praise, Matthew L. Skinner tells us, these Jewish "ignorant, backwater folks" (a stereotype conveyed by the term "Galileans," but lost to us today as we read the text) become impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation is drawing near (New Proclamation Year B 2006).

Joel spoke of a Stillspeaking God

This reading is particularly powerful for a church that proclaims wholeheartedly that God is still speaking, and Skinner makes a case for that claim as he focuses on Peter's alteration of the text from Joel, saying "in the last days" instead of "after these things." In fact, commentators agree in pointing out that Joel was speaking ominously of destruction and death, while Peter speaks of the promise of new life.

In Peter's interpretation, Skinner says, Scripture speaks in a new day about "new realities and challenges." Peter, according to Skinner, does what we too need to do today. Right in the midst of these astounding and undoubtedly confusing events, he interprets them as he experiences them, relying on Scripture to help him understand what God is saying in that new day (New Proclamation Year B 2006).

Rooted in the tradition

Mark Suriano, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, writes eloquently about this remarkable day: "Those disciples gathered in Acts 2 were faithful Jews looking for a Jewish messiah, and when the Spirit came they became ambassadors of a more universal experience of God that found its roots in some of the later prophetic traditions of the Bible. Their experience and anticipation of what it was to be a follower of Jesus were enfolded by this renewed appreciation of that tradition, perhaps over and against other more militant and exclusivist traditions. The effect of the first Pentecost, then, may not be new birth, but rebirth, not a new covenant but a renewed covenant that would change the hearts and minds of the disciples and renew the face of the earth!"

Suriano continues: "This is good news for 21st-century Christians as we approach the feast of Pentecost. The same Spirit of God that warmed the hearts of those disciples on the road to Emmaus and inspired the tongues of those gathered in Jerusalem is looking to inspire a rebirth within us. It is the same Spirit that led Isaiah to envision a holy mountain for all people, or John of Patmos to witness a city with no walls and no temple, that is breaking in to our cloudy consciousness and sending us out as ambassadors of a renewed earth."

Through the lens of Scripture

In what ways do you share Peter's experience, of interpreting the present moment in your life through the lens of Scripture, rather than the other way around? What are the amazing but confounding things God is doing in the midst of the life of your church, your community, this nation, and the world?

As you go along, when have you turned to your own past experiences, along with the tradition of Scripture, to interpret what God is doing now? Is the way the church interprets the Bible helpful to its members as we view our lives, past, present, and future, through the lens of Scripture? How does this text illustrate the way that God is still speaking today?

Clearly, the crowd is hungry for the word brought by the Spirit-filled disciples, even though some are immediately cynical and scoffing. Yet, we know from later verses that the church expanded from just over one hundred to three thousand in one day. A mega-church is born on a single day! What do you think is the heart of the message that brought so many new believers to the newborn church? What converted, and even transformed, them all--in a shared experience? What "good news" do you think people are hungry to hear today?

In line with the prophetic tradition

What do you imagine that energy felt like for the foreign visitors in town for the religious festival? This Pentecost experience was in continuity with the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people. Since the festival of Pentecost happened at the time of spring harvest, we too might experience this Pentecost event as a different kind of harvest, yielding life-giving fruits.

Think of the young people who are being confirmed this day in congregations across the United Church of Christ, perhaps in your very own church. They may come from many different places, if not geographically, then in other ways. What is it that draws them to the church at this time? What are the visions that these young people see, and what are the dreams that the "old" members still dream, dreams that they long to share and build on with the youth? How might their arrival bring a shaking up of the church, as so often happens with the creative and renewing energy of the Spirit?

Pentecost v. the Tower of Babel

The same Spirit that drew the little band of disciples out into the world also shaped them into a community. In your church, how do you balance, or integrate, both reaching out in service and prophetic witness, and nurturing within the congregation a vibrant spiritual life? How do these two impulses relate to each other?

According to Marcus Borg, the Spirit on this Pentecost undoes what happened on the Tower of Babel (in Genesis 11) as it brings back together the broken and divided community of humankind (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time). In what ways might your church and your community need to be reunited, brought together, and healed?

A universal language of good news

Borg's description of this Pentecost that up-ended the Tower of Babel story reminds us that the different languages of humankind have the power to divide people one from another. In the ancient world, there was a utopian ideal of one universal language, and this story provides an intriguing take on that dream. The Spirit of God has rushed in to empower many different kinds of people to do something astounding: communicate effectively with one another. (Can we imagine such a thing?)

Bridges were built and crossed in a moment, and the differences among them, instead of dividing, provided startling illustration of just how great the power of God is. Underneath the differences of nationality and language, there was a fundamental unity that was not only touched but enlivened and experienced, profoundly, by many who were there. Others scoffed and interpreted even the most amazing of events through the eyes and ears of cynicism, but those with hearts and minds that were open to the movement of the Spirit knew that a new day had come.

A birth is a messy affair

Births are rarely neat, tidy, or quiet, whether it's a human being or "something beautiful struggling to be born." The birth of the church is no different. The feast of Pentecost--of harvest--is an interesting time to think about pregnancy and birth, and the great crowd of converts is its own kind of harvest even as it leads to even greater possibilities of growth and new life.

In addition, the disciples, cowering and confused, experience their own kind of rebirth or transformation by the power of this Spirit who blows into the scene on the rush of a mighty wind, with great noise and even with fire. In this case, fire and wind bring not destruction but new life. As with birth, it may not be quiet or peaceful, but it is exhilarating and, in the end, a very good thing. Our focus theme expands our understanding of this wind and fire, experiencing both as signs of love, of new life, of being "alive in love."

The church then, the church today

Mark Suriano connects this rebirth long ago with what is happening in the contemporary church: "In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle reflects on what she sees as the regular 'garage sale' that the church experiences every five hundred years or so. She, and others, look at the church today and see the possibility that we are in fact in the middle of one of those inspired, cosmic rummage sales: a refocusing of our hearts and minds on what the good news means in our own day, while honoring the contributions of those who have gone before us."

Suriano continues: "Tickle and others see this as a time of great renewal for the church and the churches, an opportunity for re-examination of the fundamental questions and a re-commitment to a renewed living of our faith. Is it perhaps a time for our 'sons and daughters to prophesy,' for our 'young to dream dreams' and our 'old to see visions,' for an outpouring of Spirit that calls from tomorrow overwhelming our preconceived notions and neat perceptions in favor of the expansive and inclusive reign of God?"

What brings us together, across the differences?

As we reflect on this story of the birth of the church, certainly we find ourselves in continuity with those earliest of Christians. Our additional lectionary reading, Ezekiel 37:1-14, draws our attention to the experience of looking around at what appears to be struggling, or perhaps even lifeless (like those "dry bones"), and then finding--seeing, hearing, feeling--God's power at work to bring new life in the most unlikely places.

There is so much time and energy spent these days on trying to "solve the problem" of churches shrinking in size (and, we must admit, in resources), even churches "dying," closing their doors, with deep sadness, many times after long histories of vibrant ministry. And yet Phyllis Tickle's metaphor may offer us that unexpected new understanding of God at work in marvelous ways, bringing life in new manifestations of "church."

Many different ways of being church

Perhaps our structures will "burst old wineskins" and become more varied, like the many different languages at Pentecost, including small-group faith gatherings, house churches (like the earliest Christians!), and online communities, among other expressions of spiritual communities. If these many and unpredictable works of the Spirit are truly "alive in love," they will be faithful responses to the call of God in a new day.

As N.T. Wright reminds us, "Your calling may be to find new ways to tell the story of redemption, to create fresh symbols that will speak of a home for the homeless, the end of exile, the replanting of the garden, the rebuilding of the house" (The Challenge of Easter). Our call today is not to bemoan the death of this or that manifestation of church, but to open our eyes to those new and fresh forms of church, those new, inspiring ways to tell the ancient yet ever-new story of God's love. We can tell that story, and live it out, with "that fierce firey love: the love by which God pursues us"!

Many different languages

Perhaps there are different "languages" in your congregation (literally or figuratively) that may divide the folks in your church, or at least make understanding, and therefore unity, more difficult to achieve. What have been experiences of deep unity, across differences? Differences can actually enrich and enliven what we share, if we can reach across what separates us, not only in language and culture but also in religious upbringing, economic class, educational background, and even basic personality types.

If we learn to communicate effectively, to hear what God is still speaking today, we will hear a call, together, that may astound us and gather us into something more effective and more amazing that we were before. What events and experiences have made us cower, have made us confused?

It requires the power of God, indeed, to draw us out of our "all together in one place" and send us out with courage and energy to proclaim the good news of the Risen Christ. If we are too closed up in our buildings, we may not hear the "loud noise" outside, calling us to new ministry in God's world. We may not feel the rushing wind if we ourselves do not move out into that world, open to God's leading in new and previously unimagined ways.

"New and improved"

We are a people no longer easily impressed: in an age of technological wonders, we've come to expect regular improvements in the "stuff" of our lives. (Consider, for example, the improvement in special effects in film. What amazed us twenty years ago looks almost silly today.) It takes more and more to astonish us, and yet astonishing things happen quietly in nature, in communities, in the life of our churches every day, whether we take note or not.

It's tempting, then, to prefer a church that's a safe refuge over a place and community where we are astonished and our safe assumptions up-ended. Perhaps we could "hear" our stories "in a whole new light," even if we are all speaking the same language. No matter how many differences among us, there is a basic unity that we share, in our congregations, in our denomination, in the wider church. Hopefully, a deep spiritual bond brings us together across every kind of barrier and difference; we need to meet the great challenge of appreciating and respecting our differences even as we seek and dwell upon that common ground.

Breathing in, and breathing out

Today's story is another one of those that belongs to all of us, not just to the early Christians. This is our beginning, what Michael E. Williams calls our "foundational story" of the new life, the New Age of which we are a part (The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Volume Twelve: The Acts of the Apostles). You can almost feel the wind pulling the folks together from all corners of the known world, and then propelling them back out to share the good news, like the Spirit breathing life into the young church.

The harvest festival of Pentecost, which came to remember the giving of the Law at Sinai, now marked the giving of new life and the gift of the church, a new way of living for those who would follow Jesus in every land and in every age. Not just some kinds of people, but all different kinds of people, in all different places, different languages and customs, different cultures and backgrounds and experiences, different abilities and gender and races and orientations, all different kinds of people, beloved of God and filled with God's Spirit, a new creation just as it could and ought to be.

"Drunk with new wine"?

The Pentecost story is one of the most familiar ones from the days of the early church, so it's easy to pass over the remark about "drunk with new wine" with perhaps only a chuckle, and miss a subtle but important point. Rebecca J. Kruger Gaudino makes a wonderful observation when she connects this scene to Jesus' own words about new wine and new wineskins in Luke 5:37-38, for these new Christians themselves are that new wine, "[bursting] the seams of convention" (New Proclamation Year C 2007).

This Pentecost story really is our story, too, not just something stupefying that happened long ago and far away. Therefore, we should not be afraid of stirring religious experiences, of being moved from our comfort zones, of receiving the Holy Spirit, breathed into us, and of responding by going out into the world that God loves as living signs of that love. Even if we burst conventions along with those old wineskins, so what? We will exceed expectations as well, in that great and glorious day. Do we feel like we are "new wine"?

A new mission field in each new age

Erik Heen observes that the apostles, from this day forward, will have the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all that they do, preaching the gospel to a very different audience that includes both Jews and Gentiles. In that way, the gospel is true to Jesus' own life and witness, and yet able to reach the hearts and minds in a mission field that changes in every age (New Proclamation Year B 2009).

What a marvelous diversity we face as well, in our "audience" for the gospel, with many cultures, languages, and backgrounds in a richly multicultural, multiracial world that is more linked together because of changes in technology and travel. We depend today on that same Spirit for guidance, and wisdom, that we too remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in ever more creative and dynamic mission efforts.

Mark Suriano closes our reflections with a blessing and a charge: "On Pentecost, may you find your heart singing with the spirit of God, your ears humming with the voice of the Spirit speaking in a language that reaches deep into your soul and wisdom dawning on your mind so that the shackles that have hardened around your mind may be broken, and God's voice and language set free. May your communities and churches experience the coming of God's Spirit, anticipate it with joy and hope, give in to it with love, so that when the day is done all the world may know the love of God because of you!"

Kate_SS_2017.jpg    markie.jpg

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

The Rev. Mark J. Suriano serves as Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Park Ridge, New Jersey.

For further reflection:

N.T. Wright, 21st century
"Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God's new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet."
and
"The church's task in the world is to model genuine humanness as a sign and an invitation to those around."

Henri Nouwen, 20th century
"Any dance of celebration must weave both the sorrows and the blessings into a joyful step....To heal is to let the Holy Spirit call me to dance, to believe again, even amid my pain, that God will orchestrate and guide my life."

Adelaide Anne Procter, 19th century
"Dreams grow holy put in action."

African Proverb, Ghana
"If you want to speak to God, tell it to the wind."

Catherine the Great, 18th century
"A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it."

Howard Thurman, 20th century
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

L.J. Suenens, 20th century
"I believe in the surprises of the Holy Spirit."


Lectionary texts

Acts 2:1-21

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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'"

or

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord God, you know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

O God, how manifold
   are your works!

In wisdom
   you have made them all;
the earth is full
   of your creatures.

Yonder is the sea,
   great and wide,
it is teeming
   with countless creatures,
living things
   both small and great.

There go the ships,
   and Leviathan
that you formed
   to sport in it.

These all look to you
   to give them their food
in due season;

when you give to them,
   they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
   they are filled with good things.

When you hide your face,
   they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath,
   they die and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit,
   they are created;
and you renew the face
   of the ground.

May the glory of God
   endure forever;
may God rejoice
   in God's works —

God who looks on the earth
   and it trembles,
God who touches the mountains
   and they smoke.

I will sing to God
   as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God
   while I have being.

May my meditation
   be pleasing to God,
for in God do I rejoice.

Let sinners be consumed
   from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.

Bless God, O my soul.
   Praise be to God!

Romans 8:22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

or

Acts 2:1-21

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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'"

John 15:26-27:16:4b-15

[Jesus said:] "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

"I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, 'Where are you going?' But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

"Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!