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What follows is a lengthy report, which, honestly, I would have made shorter if I could have figured out how.

Assembly and Synod – background

Both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ (which are commonly abbreviated as DOC and UCC respectively) are covenantally based; each congregation has autonomy to govern their own affairs and all the congregations live in covenant with the other congregations and expressions of the denominations. In the DOC, congregations are grouped geographically into Regions (we’re part of the Christian Church in Northern California-Nevada). In the UCC, congregations are grouped geographically into Associations (we’re part of the Bay Association) and the Associations are grouped geographically into Conferences (we’re part of the Northern California-Nevada Conference).

Both denominations have denomination-wide ministries. In the DOC there are the National Benevolent Association (that’s right, the NBA), Disciples Home Mission, the Council for Christian Unity, and the Division of Oversea Ministries/Global Ministries (to name just four of the at least fifteen General Ministries of the denomination. In the UCC there are Local Church Ministries, Justice and Witness Ministries, and Wider Church Ministries/Global Ministries (to name just three of the six National Settings of the denomination).

We are a part of the regional and general ministries of our denominations both because of our congregation’s covenant to be part of the denominations and because of our financial support of these ministries through our annual budget.

I spent the first two weeks of July attending the national/international gatherings of our two denominations. For the UCC, it is a national gathering because our churches are all within the USA. For the DOC, it’s an international gathering because we have congregations in both Canada and the USA. There aren’t very many DOC congregations in Canada so, sadly, much of the language used at the meeting tended to forget about them.

These meetings happen every two years on the odd numbered years. The UCC’s gathering is called General Synod and the DOC’s gathering is called General Assembly. Delegates to the UCC’s General Synod are selected by Conferences; I attended General Synod as a “visitor” and got to participate in banquets, worship, and workshops, but I didn’t get a voice or a vote on the resolutions that came before the Synod. Delegates to the DOC’s General Assembly are potentially all the pastors in the DOC plus delegates selected by congregations (typically two per congregation). We could have sent four delegates (me, Pastor Brenda, and two church members), but I was the only person representing the congregation at General Assembly.

Synod and Assembly – themes

General Synod was held in Baltimore and happened first. The theme for General Synod was “Make Glad,” based on a verse from Psalm 46. Psalm 46 is a scripture that is very meaningful to me and I will be preaching on it on August 20 when we mark the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination.

It seems to me that General Synod focuses primarily on the resolutions they consider. The whole resolution process is very involved. The resolutions typically come from Conferences or ministries in the national settings of the church. Then they are assigned to committees randomly made up of delegates from across the UCC. The committee can modify the resolution, wordsmithing it, hopefully improving it, and (in some cases) combining it with other similar resolutions that come to Synod. Once the committee has modified the resolution, it is presented to the whole Synod, where it is debated, potentially further amended, and voted on. It’s quite an involved process and it means that the schedule is different every day.

William Barber

There are some workshops that are offered. I attended one where the Disciple of Christ minister the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, spoke. Actually, I’m not sure Dr. Barber knows how to give a speech; he knows how to preach. He also spoke (I mean preached) at a Gala that night. It was one of two amazing sermons I heard at Synod. Dr. Barber is helping to organize a new, nationwide Poor People’s Campaign here on the fiftieth anniversary of the original Poor People’s Campaign organized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I will be preaching about this new Poor People’s Campaign in September.

Another highlight of Synod was a keynote conversation with Glennon Doyle, an author and the founder of Momastery, an online community where millions of readers meet each week to experience her shameless and laugh-out-loud funny essays about faith, freedom, addiction, recovery, motherhood and serving the marginalized. To be honest, I had low expectations, but Glennon was engaging, witty, and insightful. She has a YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/glennonmelton) that you might want to check out.

General Assembly was held in Indianapolis. The theme for this General Assembly was “One” and the focus scripture was John 17:20-21, a line from the lengthy prayer Jesus prays in the Gospel of John before his arrest and crucifixion. “I ask not only on behalf of these [the disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Some of you may recognize that the official motto of the UCC comes from these two verses: “That they may all be one.” I was amused that it was the DOC that was focusing on this verse.

The really big thing that happened at General Assembly was the election of a new General Minister and President. Sharon Watkins completed two six-year terms so it was time for someone new. We elected Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens as the new GMP. Terri is the first African American woman to take a leadership role like this in an historically mainline church in the USA. She may even be the first African American woman to take leadership of any denomination in the USA. I think her election points to the strides the DOC has made in addressing racism within the denomination and how the General Assembly’s theme, ‘One,’ is being lived out in the church.

Assembly has a higher emphasis on education and worship than does Synod (at least that’s my experience) and maybe that’s why there seem to be more visitors at Assembly. Instead of spending so much time on wordsmithing resolutions, the Assembly either says, “Yes, this is the sense of the Assembly” or “No, this isn’t the sense of the Assembly” or “This needs more work before we will vote on it.” This allows the Assembly to talk about the issues rather than the wording, but I still noticed a lack of voices of opposition to issues being discussed. One of the issues we discussed was how to include more voices in the discussions about the issues, both before Assembly within local churches and during Assembly. No decisions were made, but it is something that the DOC is seeking to do. And it is a reminder to me that we need to find creative ways to make sure all voices are heard when the church (in all its settings) seeks to understand God’s will and call.

Synod and Assembly – Resolutions

I guess it’s not surprising that similar issues came before both the Synod and the Assembly. Both gatherings adopted resolutions calling both the church and the nation to grow in our welcome of immigrants. Both bodies adopted resolutions condemning Israel for its treatment of Palestinian juveniles arrested in the occupied territories. Both bodies made amendments to their organizing documents (the Constitution and Bylaws in the case of the UCC and the Design in the case of the DOC); the amendments to the UCC’s Constitution still need to be ratified by the Conferences.

Both the Synod and the Assembly adopted resolutions on climate change, though their foci were different. The Synod resolution focused on the prophetic role of the church in addressing climate change. In addition to calling on the church to continue learning about and advocating for policies that address climate change, the Assembly resolution calls for members, congregations, and ministries of the denomination to become carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon positive by 2035. This is a bold invitation and I hope we will take it seriously. I think our biggest challenge as a congregation will be figuring out how to make up for the carbon we release by burning natural gas to heat the church.

The Assembly adopted the resolution endorsed by our congregation, repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. I spoke in favor of this resolution, telling the Assembly of your endorsement of it. The UCC had adopted a repudiation a few Synods ago. The Synod adopted a resolution on the economy that calls for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

The Synod adopted a resolution that will change the way some of our denominational ministries do fundraising. I am not yet clear on the implications of this resolution for our congregation. It will be interesting to see how it is lived out. Meanwhile, the Assembly received and commended to the congregations a study document on “Stewardship as a Spiritual Discipline,” a document I hope we will engage with in the coming biennium.

Synod and Assembly – the non-meeting (the really good) stuff

While I’m always fascinated by the process of writing, (in the case of the UCC) amending, discussing, and voting on resolutions, they are not the only important thing that happens at these events for me. The most important thing for me is the sense of connection attending brings me. I am reminded how we, our congregation and each of us, are part of something bigger. I get to hear stories about what’s happening at other churches, what’s going well and what they’re struggling with. I am reminded that we are not alone.

I also treasure the opportunity to hear great preaching. Sometimes this happens at the formal worship services. Sometimes this happens at banquets and rallies. Banquets may be too strong a word. Eating cafeteria scrambled eggs off of plastic plates (yeah, I’ll be complaining about the plastic plates) at 7:00 in the morning is hard to think of as a banquet. Still, it is worth going because you never know what you’ll learn. Two of the best sermons I heard were at breakfast banquets. And even when there isn’t a great preacher, the banquets are interesting. They are sponsored by one or two of the ministries or special interest groups of the denominations and they are one of the best ways to network with people in the denominations who are passionate about those issues and ministries.

Traci Blackmon

I got to hear the Rev. Traci Blackmon (who was elected one of the executive ministers of the UCC at Synod) preach at both gatherings. Her sermon at General Synod was built around an image that I may well use sometime in the future. Her sermon at General Assembly (at a breakfast meeting, really) is making me rethink protesting and nonviolent tactics. And as I mentioned earlier, I got to hear the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, a few times at the meetings. Every time he spoke about a resolution being considered by the General Assembly (and I think he did three times), the whole assembly knew they had heard the word of God.

If you would like to see photos from General Synod, check out bit.ly/2uH94NR. I’m not aware of a central gathering of photos from General Assembly, but if you do a photo search on Facebook for #docweareone or search for that hashtag on Twitter, you’ll find some.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, September 9, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 34:1-6 and Mark 7:24-30
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I can’t help but wonder how Moses felt there on Mount Nebo, looking over the Promised Land.  I wonder how he felt knowing that he had led his people through a desert, through the wilderness, right to the door of the land that they believed was supposed to be theirs, knowing that they were about to enter it, but he would not be.

I imagine him, there on the mountaintop, looking over the Promised Land, chatting with God, learning that he was going to die.  Had discussions with God become old hat for Moses?  I suppose I’d be filled with awe to have God saying to me, “Look over there and over there.  Look all the way to the sea.  Yep, that’s the land I’ve set aside for you.  Pretty cool, huh?  Oh, by the way, you know that part about you not being able to enter that land?  I meant it.”  Well, I’d be filled with awe right up to that last part, then I’d probably be pretty ticked with God.

Moses had one heck of a roller coaster of a life:  Born into slavery at a time when Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew male infants were to be killed when they were born; hidden in the bull rushes, only to be “found” by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought into Pharaoh’s house to be raised as her son; committed homicide when he killed an Egyptian overseer and fled the country to escape prosecution; got married and while tending sheep, had an encounter with a burning bush; called into a special mission and returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves; led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, transforming the people from a collection of freed slaves into a community of faith, a people of covenant; led the people right up to the border of what was going to become their new land.  And then God tells him, “Sorry, but you’re not going in.  You’re going to die instead.”

Jewish Midrash is filled with stories about Moses and God having a discussion about all this.  One goes like this.[1]
God:  “Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?”
Moses:  “But you killed all the first born in Egypt!”
God:  “Do you resemble me?  I cause people to die and I also revive them.”
I love the image of Moses arguing with God.

But I can’t read this passage without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr.  One of his speeches, perhaps the second most famous of his speeches has been called his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech.  King delivered it on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (the Church of God in Christ headquarter) in Memphis, Tennessee.

Most of his speech was about the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike.  King talked about the workers and their strike.  He talked about racial justice and civil right.  He talked about the power of boycotts and nonviolent protest.  And he finished his speech by talking about himself.

“And then I got to Memphis.  And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out.  What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?  Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t really matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live  a long life; longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy, tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’”[2]

The next day, King was assassinated.

Here we are, on the edge of something new.  This is not as momentous as the Hebrews entering the Promised Land.  This is not as earth-shaking as the assassination of one of American’s prophets.  But we are here, just on this side of finalizing a merger we’ve been exploring and considering for seven years.

There have been times when these seven years have seemed like a long time to me.  I’ve felt, at times, like we’ve been going in circles, not making progress.  There have even been times when I’ve wondered if it was worth the effort.  But most often, I’ve watched relationships grow and trust build and vision take hold and hope blossom.

Pardon me for being redundant, but there is something very special about the work we’ve done and this promised land we are about to enter.  All the literature I’ve been able to find about congregational mergers has been about mergers undertaken as a matter of congregational survival.  Neither Niles Congregational Church nor First Christian Church needed to merge into a new church.  But each congregation discerned that we could do more for the realm of God together then we could do separately, so we decided to merge and form Niles Discovery Church.

We decided to create a church that would be known for its extravagant welcome.  We decided to create a church that is united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  And so we’re creating a church[3] where we follow the path and teachings of Jesus to draw us closer to God, even as we acknowledge that other paths work for other people; where inclusivity means welcoming conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and those of all classes and abilities; where we know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe, and where we find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes; where we strive for peace and justice among all people; where we strive to protect and restore the integrity of our earth; and where we commit to each other and to God that we will continue on a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

I believe that this vision we have for our church is a biblical image.  One of the things that’s striking about our Gospel lesson today is the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.  We squirm a bit when Jesus, our loving and tender Savior, tells a desperate mother that she and her little girl are like “dogs.”  “Our discomfort – with Jesus’ humanity and his perspective as a faithful Jew – trips us up on this exchange, even though things turn out well in the end.”[4]  But Kate Huey suggests that this story might be an expression of one of the challenges the early church faced:  do we allow pagans (non-Jews) to be part of the church?

She points out, “Just before Jesus leaves on this little break from the crowds, he has shocked the religious authorities by declaring all foods clean and by focusing instead on what lives in our hearts.  Now, whether he wants to or not, he encounters a tenacious, determined mother in search of healing for her little girl, a woman who will not be turned away from the table of God’s grace, even if all she gets is the crumbs that fell to the floor.  She uses her wits in a culture that values riddles for figuring things out, and she wins both the argument and the healing she has requested of this teacher from another religion and another land.  Borders are crossed, hearts are opened, and so is the Christian mission, as Gentiles (and women) embrace the good news of the gospel.  Just as Jesus declared all foods clean, then, he declares all people ‘clean,’ acceptable, included at the table.”[5]

Take in this moment.  Be aware of this day.  Right now, we are on this side of the border, and in a few moments we will take the votes that are necessary to cross the “T”s and dot the “I”s so we will become a fully merged church, a new church for a new day, Niles Discovery Church, united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exception.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 1585.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm (8 September 2012).

[3] Based on the 8 Affirmations of ProgressiveChristianity.org, http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/8-points-flyer-2011-version/ (8 September 2012).

[4] Kate Huey, “Weekly Seeds” email from the United Church of Christ, commenting on this Gospel lesson, emailed 31 August 2012.

[5] Ibid.

I just wrote a letter to the editor of my local paper, The Argus, in response to a letter that ran in Thursday’s paper, essentially denying global warming.  Wonder if they’ll publish it.  Anyway, here it is:

Apparently Mr. Ken Birch doesn’t understand the science of global warming (letter “Exposing the wizard,” 2/3/11).

Warmer air holds more moisture.  When this warmer, wetter air hits cold air, the moisture comes out as snow.

A warmer atmosphere is more energetic and this energy displays itself as severe weather (the snowstorms in the US and the cyclone in Australia, for example).

The weather is doing exactly what the scientists have been warning us would happen.

Unabated, this warming will also lead to climate changes – and that’s the real moral issue.  But you can hear me speak about that during worship on Sunday, February 13, at Niles Congregational Church, 255 H St., Fremont, at 10:00 a.m.

Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
Fremont

            Preaching is a big part of my job.  I probably spend a good 10 hours a week on worship and sermon prep.

            Most of my preaching is pretty direct.  I have an idea of what I want to say, usually something that’s come out of my Bible study preparing for worship and preaching.  Then I try to find a way to say it, clearly and directly.  But not always.

            I went to college in Minnesota and after four years in a city not too far from the prairie, I left for seminary on the Pacific coast feeling like a part of me is connected to Minnesota.  When I (finally) heard Garrison Keillor share his “News from Lake Wobegon” on A Prairie Home Companion, not only did I feel like he was talking about a place I knew well, I often felt like I was listening to a sermon.  But not an ordinary sermon.  He was telling a story, perhaps even a parable (especially if we don’t think of parables as allegories).  I thought, “I’d like to do a sermon one day that’s like Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon.”

            Well, a few years ago, I decided to tell a story instead of preaching a sermon.  I decided to tell a story about my “home town” of “Mount William, New Hampshire.  It’s a fictitious town and the stories, for the most part, never happened.  But I’m fond of saying, about stories like that, “This story is true, even though it never happened.”

            I read a magazine article a couple weeks ago about literature and awards.  The writer made a comment about sermons not receiving literary awards.  The article went on to say that there is a difference between a typical sermon and a story.  A sermon is shaped like an “O” and a story is shaped like a “C.”  A sermon has all the pieces; a story is missing a piece that the listener gets to fill in.

            I’ve come back several times to Mount William and shared more news from my “home town” and will continue to do so.  Are they sermons?  I’ll let you be the judge.

Copyright © 2009 Jeffrey Spencer

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