The heart of Christian mission’

Enduring no straightening or eclipsing thereof

Connecticut Conference Annual Meeting
United Church of Christ
May 14, 2005
Wallingford, Connecticut

John H. Thomas
General Minister and President

Two weeks ago I found myself unexpectedly moved by the retrospective reports on the end of the Vietnam War thirty years ago. The war shaped my generation in profound ways. The cherished friends of my youth, especially those in Pilgrim Fellowship at First Congregational Church in Stamford, spent their young adult years serving in the Marines, protesting on college and seminary campuses, challenging our pastors to confront enormous moral questions from the pulpit without fully comprehending the cost such discipleship would require. I remember coming home from college to Stamford thirty-five years ago in the spring of Kent State, asking my pastor and mentor, Ray Shoup, to allow me to read a statement of protest from the pulpit. Filled with outrage and with all the untempered certainty of youth, I shared my pain over the war, all the while quite oblivious to the place I had put Ray. But he never flinched, and preached a sermon on the honor and dignity of protest in our theological and political traditions. I still remember the title, challenging Nixon’s famous bumper sticker slogan, “American, love it or leave it.” Ray’s response? “If you love it, you won’t leave it.” What did unsettle me was the presence in the pews of the parents of my best friends, Steve and Andy. Both were in Vietnam, both being affected by the war in ways that I couldn’t and can’t fathom. Yet Bob and Eleanor were the first to greet me after that emotional Sunday, embracing me as their sons’ best friend, indeed as one of their own “sons” in the youth fellowship they had helped to advise. Never before, or since, has the word grace meant more.

A few years later, as the associate pastor here in neighboring Cheshire, I began an amazing journey with a family from North Vietnam. Chen, Mui, and their three little boys left Vietnam as unwanted ethnic Chinese spending weeks in a small boat on the open sea, then months in Thailand in a refugee camp. With the help of Church World Service members of the Cheshire church opened their homes to the Voongs, negotiating with them the red tape of immigration, helping them slowly but surely negotiate the challenges of refugee resettlement in a strange land. Before long Chen had a job, and then more relatives arriving, until the church had eventually helped resettle over thirty Vietnamese in this land of steady habits. Only later did we learn of Chen’s carefully hidden terror of making some terrible mistake that would bring the police and a return to Asia. But for us, the remembrance of those first months is marked by amusing recollections of careful greetings to church members using an English-Chinese dictionary, the only means of communication in those early weeks: “Hello elderly woman” Chen carefully and respectfully pointed to in his dictionary to a mature, but hardly elderly church member. She took it gracefully! A photograph in our parsonage living room early in their time with us shows three cute little Asian faces sitting with their new American friend, our son, Andrew, as blond as they were dark haired, speaking a language they had never heard before but eager to share his treasure trove of matchbox cars.

Bob and Eleanor Mellor’s embrace on that emotionally and politically charged morning thirty five years ago, Ray Shoup’s courage in allowing a brash young, full of himself in-care student access to the pulpit to deliver what would undoubtedly be an unwelcome word to many about the deceptions of his day, the Cheshire church’s embrace of a refugee family, all of these rehearse what is, for the church, the enduring struggle to welcome the stranger, to embrace painful difference, to offer citizenship to the alien. This was the church I knew in Stamford and Cheshire in my youth and young adult years. Is it the church today? Sometimes nothing seems more countercultural. We vote to leave the covenant when grace is offered in ways that seem indiscriminate or undisciplined. We withhold citizenship, not only in the church, but also in our land, when the stranger is deemed too different, too alien, too strange. Is there a word for us?

In 1662 our Puritan forebears in New England struggled with the question of baptism, of who might be baptized and granted citizenship in the household, the commonwealth of God, of who might appropriately be excluded. The specific question was whether the children of adults who had been baptized, who were faithful in church attendance and discipline, but who had never experienced regeneration in a way that might be testified to among the deacons of the congregation, whether those children might receive baptism and share, as they grew up, in the covenant of grace. The conclusion of those Puritan divines is instructive:

Baptism, which is the seal of membership in the church, the body of Christ. . . , is not to be made a common thing, nor to be given to those, between whom and the Godless licentious world there is no visible difference: This would be a provocation and dishonour to the Holy One of Israel. On the other hand, we find in Scripture, that the Lord is very tender of his grace; the he delighteth to manifest and magnify the riches of it, and that he cannot endure any straitening or eclipsing thereof. . . . Hence we dare not exclude the same children of the faithful from the covenant. . . Neither dare we exclude the same children from membership when they are grown up. . . . God owns them still, and they do in some measure own him; God rejects them not, and therefore neither may we; and consequently their children also are not to be rejected.

“The Lord is very tender of his grace, he delighteth to manifest and magnify the riches of it, and he cannot endure any straightening or eclipsing thereof.” The language is archaic, but the meaning clear. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. The Half-Way Covenant did not extend to all the baptized the privilege of the Table. That remained reserved for those regenerated, for the “visibly elect.” Thus it was “half-way.” Even so, the authors recognized they would be exposed to criticism from all sides: “We are not ignorant that this our labor will be diverse by diversely censured; some will account us too strict in the point of baptism, and others too lax and large.” Sound familiar?

It’s not just in the church that Americans have struggled with the question of whether to extend citizenship. In spite of the welcome carved in the foundation of the Statue of Liberty, “the tired, restless poor yearning to breath free” have often been rejected from our shores or received with ambivalence. The same New Englanders who found a way to lower the fences around the baptismal fount in the 17th century, and then around the Table in the18th century, lamented the arrival of the Irish and the Italians in the 19th century with their different culture and their priests and bishops. Political cartoons portrayed those immigrants as reptiles crawling from the sea onto the shores of Massachusetts and Connecticut, their crocodile jaws formed in the shape of Catholic bishops’ mitres. The framers of the Chinese exclusion acts in the late 19th century described the Asians they had brought to California to build the railroads as sub-humans favoring filthy squalor in opium dens in San Francisco, men and women who would cavalierly offer their children into slavery. An editorial in the Butte, Montana newspaper, opined that “The Chinaman’s life is not our life, his religion is not our religion, he belongs not in Butte.” When Great Falls made a bid to become the capitol of Montana, its slogan was , “Great Falls for the Capitol. No Chinese.”

In the middle of the twentieth century Jews seeking to flee the holocaust received, for the most part, a cold shoulder from the United States; many who were refused sanctuary here had to wait years to be liberated from the camps by soldiers of that same nation. Many, of course, never survived to observe the sixtieth anniversary of those liberations this past week. Today our southern borders continue to fence out the poor; the fortunate ones who elude the border patrol face dehydration in the desert or abuse in migrant labor camps all across the land. The central narrative of our history, and its deepest shame, is the forced migration of Africans, welcomed as slaves or, if they were lucky, as partial citizens, constitutionally deemed only a fraction of the worth of native born. Arguably the defining struggle of America has been the transformation of some of God’s children from being perceived as property to being perceived as citizens, a struggle that still continues. The Amistad event, battled in the churches, the courts, and the public square, and the American Missionary Association that carried this struggle forward in the face of segregation, separate and unequal schools, lynching, denial of the right to vote, and back of the bus, was all about the pilgrimage from property to citizenship. The journey across the bridge toward Selma was about claiming citizenship. The March on Washington was about the descendants of property claiming the divine rights of citizenship. Today’s Patriot Act is not just a reaction to 9/11, a strategic response to terror, but is in fact part of the ignoble heritage of our nation’s long trajectory of reluctance to extend citizenship to the stranger, the alien, to those who are different, a reluctance often manipulated by fear. At best we have been ambivalent. And too often the church has followed suit. Sometimes not even half way.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians turns on this very point. Could Jews extend to Gentiles “citizenship” in the covenant? Could Gentiles extend to Jews hospitality? Could the “far off” as Paul describes them, “be brought near?” And could the hostility be brought to an end? Could the dividing wall be broken down? Paul reminds the Gentiles that they were at one time “aliens from the commonwealth, strangers to the covenants of promise.” Now, in Christ, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Could those who are alien, strange, different, indeed in some sense repulsive, be brought near from the safety of a far distance? Could citizenship be extended?

The letter of Peter struggles with a similar theme, recalling that Jesus himself, while chosen and precious in God’s sight, is rejected by mortals, yet like a rejected stone at a building site, now chosen to become the cornerstone. Then Peter turns to the Christian community, aliens in the empire of Rome. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” A holy nation. Citizens. Once “not a people.” Now God’s people. For Peter and for Paul at the heart of the gospel is a welcome extended to the rejected, to the excluded, a welcome that reaches far beyond “half way” and that is not just about hospitality, but about citizenship.

This summer the United Church of Christ will once again take up this question of citizenship in two emotionally and theologically charged sets of resolutions coming before the General Synod. They deal with citizenship in the church, citizenship in the enduring covenants of the Abrahamic faith, citizenship in the commonwealth of the state. One set of resolutions deals with whether a marriage license can be given to same gender couples by the state and whether the church ought to bless those relationships as they would a marriage between a man and a woman. The second set of resolutions draws us into the challenging historical and contemporary struggles of Israelis and Palestinians to claim citizenship in secure and just borders in a land they share and contest. Once again, as with our ancestors, we are asked to consider what it means to be an alien, what it means to be a citizen, of who is “near” and who is “far” and how the Gospel of grace is to be lived out amid the competing claims of those who sometimes fight over where to establish the borders and boundaries of civil and ecclesiastical life.

Recently the State of Connecticut acted to extend legal recognition to the unions of same gender couples. In so doing, it declined to offer marriage licenses to those couples. For many these actions are an offense, for some because it went too far, for others because it did not go far enough. Others perceive an important milestone on a journey toward fuller acceptance, fuller welcome, fuller citizenship. The Connecticut Conference is to be commended for its courageous stance on this issue, particularly in the current religious context. What is also clear is that this debate is not only one that threatens to divide citizens, it is one that threatens the unity of the body of Christ, even the precious part we call the United Church of Christ.

At face value the heat in this debate is generated by competing interpretations of scripture, of how one is to discern God’s will for the contemporary church in a few texts of the Bible, so contested, for some so definitive, for others so minimal and obscure. The Biblical text is not to be excluded from the debates; the scriptures are the rule of faith and moral practice for the Christian community. But as was the case with slavery over a century ago, these interpretation debates often mask a deeper Biblical reality, namely, the reality of human sin and our profound ambivalence over “the other,” the stranger, the alien in our midst. The murderous jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the mortal combat between the two brothers, Cain and Abel, the makeshift clothing that Adam and Eve fashioned to hide what had suddenly become their shameful nakedness and their physical differences from one another, their hiding from the Creator in the Garden, even their desire to be “like God” and to forsake their “difference from God,” the journey back toward our origins and the dream of Eden reminds us that, at the heart of human existence, suspicion and fear of difference lurk close at hand. And one of the ways we put boundaries around difference is to withhold citizenship.

A birth certificate, a social security card, a driver’s license, a passport – these pieces of paper are more than bureaucratic documents. They signify in one way or another citizenship, belonging. Think about the meaning of a voter registration card in Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1963. A colleague of Davida’s and mine recently told the story of finding his German immigrant grandfather’s citizenship papers, saved as a cherished possession through the years. “No longer a subject of the Prussian emperor, now a citizen of the United States.” These documents portray status in the community granting certain rights and privileges but, above all, inclusion in the commonwealth. Few of us know what it is to be “undocumented.” To be without documents is to be without citizenship. Documents matter. Older members of our churches extended that to church membership. Those of us who make pastoral visits know well the experience of being shown ancient baptismal and confirmation certificates, carefully and lovingly preserved in the pages of a cherished old Bible.

A marriage license is, in a sense, but one more piece of paper issued by the state. In the rebellious days of the sixties young people scoffed at the need for this piece of paper, how could certification by the state be important in the face of the loving commitment of two people? How ironic, and how much things have changed, that now the most radical among us make the obtaining of a marriage license a mark of prophetic witness while the most traditional among us seek to withhold it! But is it just one more piece of bureaucratic paper? Is it not the one, last remaining tangible symbol of citizenship we are yet able to withhold from some among us? Is this really all about clinging to what the Bible says about marriage
(And friends, go down that path, particularly in the Old Testament, and believe me, you end up in some very strange places!) Or is it yet one more example of our deep historical ambivalence over the stranger in our midst, and of our reluctance to extend citizenship? Could it be that the great marriage debate which roils the political and ecclesiastical waves today is as much about citizenship as it is about what the Bible may or may not say about homosexuality and marriage?

Justice and peace in the Middle East may seem a long way, geographically and conceptually, from marriage debates. Yet it, too, is about citizenship. At the heart of the question is the horrible symbol of a wall, welcome security for some, an excluding and alienating kind of prison for others. For Jews there is the painful historical memory of loss of citizenship in Europe, for Arabs, the loss of citizenship in Palestine. Jews carry the memory of life as forced citizens of the death camps; Palestinians live today as residents of occupied territories, a refugee existence – undocumented, alien, not a people. For Jews there is desire to defend a state, a determined clinging to a prized and historically contested homeland. For Palestinians the mourning of a lost state, and the yearning for a homeland. For each there is a contested capital, Jerusalem. The stories are the same, yet they are also different. For Jews citizenship, even the availability of citizenship in a homeland called Israel, is a response to the assault on citizenship that reached its peak in the holocaust where legal citizenship documents were replaced by a cloth star. But that assault was only the final experience of anti-Semitic pogroms that marked the long history of Christian Europe that alternately welcomed and then expelled this stranger in their midst. For Arabs, Christian and Muslim, the possibility of citizenship in a place, a state called Palestine, is a response to the disgrace of military defeat, the loss of villages and homes and olive trees, the daily humiliation of having papers checked by hostile Israeli security forces who are, in fact, little more than border guards determining, often in the most capricious manner, which powerless Palestinian is to be granted some of the rights of citizenship. It is about being forced to live as aliens and strangers in a place called home.

We in the United Church of Christ have always affirmed the right of Jews to citizenship in a homeland marked by safe and secure borders. That is not subject to debate. We have even said that God’s covenant with the Jews, their citizenship in the commonwealth of God’s promise made to Abraham and Sarah, remains intact, inviolate, that it has not been superseded by the covenant we know in Christ. On this matter, too, we will not debate this summer. But we have also said that the denial of citizenship to Palestinians is an outrage that cannot be tolerated, a denial that, in the end, threatens the citizenship of all in the Middle East. To experience the crossings, even as secure Americans with passports, to see the assault on the dignity of elders by brash young security forces no doubt using arrogance to hide their own frustration and fear, is to feel the humiliation of those denied citizenship. To watch with Palestinians the security wall being constructed, dividing them from their ancestral homes and olive groves, depriving them of access to work and schools, is to feel the humiliation of the undocumented. To see enormous Jewish settlements relentlessly encroaching into the Occupied Territories is to feel the rage of citizens turned into subjects. To walk through Beirut’s Sabra and Shatilla camps where Palestinians have been pent up for fifty years, as in the camps in Gaza, unwanted by the world, is to sense the despair of citizens turned refugees; indeed it is to see a cauldron where citizens are lured into terrorism and the violence that threatens every innocent citizen, Israeli and Arab alike. And to know that all of this is bankrolled by huge amounts of American foreign aid is to be challenged in our own responsibilities of citizenship.

The debates we will have this summer as a church, debates about marriage, debates about the Middle East, will test our not only our view of particular Biblical texts and theological traditions, but our understanding of citizenship which is, itself, at the heart of Christian mission. Mission matters not just because of the things we do to educate or to heal, to nurture churches or to confront injustice. It is compassion and it is justice but it is more than that. It is nothing less than a witness to the mission of God, a great historical sending of God’s own self into the world to bless it and to redeem it. Mission is sending, the sending of Christ – born homeless, joining his family in Egypt as a refugee, a Jewish subject in a Roman empire, a criminal executed outside the gates – the sending of one who continues and completes the trajectory of blessing that begins with the call of Abraham and Sarah to be a blessing to the nations, the bringing of slaves to a homeland, and the return of exiles to their forsaken capital. The story of “not a people” who become “God’s own people.” It is nothing less than the breaking down of the wall of hostility, of reaching those who are near and those who are far off and making them one, no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens, members of the household of God.

The decisions we will make this summer will not be easy. Extending citizenship does not easily translate into clear public or church policies about marriage and family life, or to clarity about how to use the church’s economic leverage most effectively and fairly to promote justice and peace in the Middle East. Some in the United Church of Christ are already telling us that extending citizenship in the form of marriage licenses to gay and lesbian persons will render them exiles from their own church. Jewish friends are warning us that to divest from companies doing business in the Occupied Territories for the sake of the citizenship of Palestinians is to deny the sense of shared citizenship we have struggled so hard to achieve following centuries of anti-Semitic violence and the unique and still almost incomprehensible horrors of the Holocaust. Not everyone will be able to embrace the challenging alien word with deep reservoirs of grace like my friends’ parents amid the angry debates over Vietnam. Whatever prophetic word the Synod may offer will need to be accompanied by pastoral grace. Discipleship is costly, even as it is joyful, and we will need to carefully weigh the cost – all the costs – for there will be costs no matter how we decide. But if we are committed to God’s mission, if we believe that mission matters, we will not shrink from these hard questions of citizenship, for they touch the very heart of the Gospel.

So I am comforted – at least a bit – by my Puritan forebears who struggled with these questions in the context of baptism, and found a way to extend citizenship, even if it was only “half-way.” And I am encouraged by others in the global Christian family who, in their own context, struggle with us. In February I had the privilege of visiting church partners in India. One Sunday we were in a declining industrial city called Durgapur, guests of a diocese of the Church of North India. We were there to dedicate a “Peace Center,” a conference center that your gifts to Our Church’s Wider Mission built, a center that will be a place for women to be empowered, for laborers to confront the increasing violence provoked by job loss, for religious groups often in deep conflict to enter into dialogue, for the region’s tribal communities to claim their identity and their dignity amid the Bengali majority culture. In a place of deep divisions, the Peace Center is conceived by the bishop as the focus of renewal for his diocese, a mission center living the mission of God that seeks to extend citizenship among those who are alienated and strangers. As we gathered for the huge worship service the tribal women – members of an old surviving indigenous culture that yet remains outside the dominant culture, people known as “scheduled classes” in the constitution because they only find themselves in the constitution as part of an appended “schedule,” welcomed me and others as honored guests by washing our feet, a sign of hospitality offered in indigenous cultures around the world since the time of Jesus and before. Yet even here, even amid the marvelous vision of the Peace Center, even in the festival of music and dance that followed incorporating tribal animist traditions and Hindu epics, even here there was something “half way.” As I preached to a huge crowd I saw the Bengali sitting toward the center, toward the front, while the tribal people, outside even the rigid caste system, stayed toward the back, or watched through the open windows. Even this partnership between a visionary bishop and the United Church of Christ seeking to extend citizenship bore the reminder that we are often, even at our very best, only half way.

Leviticus may seem an odd place to find a text for us to meditate on in these challenging times of costly decision and discipleship around the demands of citizenship. At the very least there may be a sense of delicious irony! Yet tucked in the midst of admonitions about witchcraft and making daughters prostitutes and respecting the elderly and being honest in the use weights and measures in commerce, comes this word: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt, (Leviticus 19.33-34).” Extending citizenship. A challenging vocation for us as Americans, for us as Christians. It is never something we do comfortably. Yet it is the very mission of God who is always making “not a people,” “God’s people.” And it is the legacy of our forebears, who struggled as we do today, who in the end, found in the Scriptures a God “who is very tender of his grace, who delighteth to manifest and magnify the riches of it, and cannot endure any straightening or eclipsing thereof.”

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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