Living Into a New Story of Interdependence and Hope: The State of the Massachusetts Conference, UCC – 2014

Living Into a New Story of Interdependence and Hope: The State of the Massachusetts Conference, UCC – 2014

Massachusetts Conference Minister and President The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal gave the following address at the 215th Annual Meeting of the Conference on June 14, 2014, in Sturbridge, Massachusetts: Read the text below and/or watch the video recording.

“Living Into a New Story of Interdependence and Hope” from Mass. Conference UCC on Vimeo.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these…” – John 14:12 (NRSV)

Jesus is always taking things one step farther. Isn’t that the truth? Can I get an Amen?

It would have been enough for Jesus to tip us off by telling us that if we believe in him, we will do the works that he does.  Don’t you think?  Surely that would have been enough!

But Jesus takes it a step farther.  He declares that we will do greater works than what he himself has done. My goodness...!  The letter to the Ephesians puts it well: this is more than we can ask or imagine! -- Ephesians 3:20 (NRSV)

And that’s just the point. That’s what prophets do. They push us to go beyond what we can imagine.  They extend the horizon of our vision and expand our hope – and suddenly, even the most ordinary lives are filled with meaning and renewed purpose. Why?  Because someone made them believe they could take a step which they themselves could not imagine. Isn’t that what happened 30 years ago?  In 1984, Church of the Covenant brought to this Annual Meeting a resolution that was authored by Marnie Warner, Susan Harlow, Margarita Suarez, and the Rev. Rosi Olmstead.  Rooted in Jesus’ testimony of God’s inclusive love, this resolution invited the Conference and our churches to go beyond what we had imagined.  That resolution coined the term “Open and Affirming.”  It inspired General Synod to pass a similar Resolution in 1985, and over these 30 years, 140 congregations in the Mass Conference and 1,200 congregations in the UCC have voted to claim their call to be Open and Affirming congregations.  30 Years ago, no one imagined that the courageous proclamation of a few prophetic visionaries would help give America and the world the revolution we are experiencing in GLBTQ rights and marriage equality.

If we are to believe Jesus when he tells us that we will do even greater acts than he, we need to surround our souls with humility and discipline, even as we boldly proclaim possibilities that most of us cannot yet imagine.
  • In 2010 when we announced our first Super Saturday, no one imagined that 5 years later we would welcome 650 people from both Massachusetts and Connecticut to attend 45 workshops and hear Diana Butler Bass.
  • Another example is the way our congregations fund the wider church. Fellowship Dues and OCWM go back longer than anyone can remember.  Although the system makes no sense, most agree that changing it would be unimaginable.  But gradually, over the past 4 years, the Finance Committee began meeting with Church Treasurers, Mission Committee Chairs and Pastors.  These conversations were governed by humility and discipline, and fueled by imagination and hope.  And lo and behold, later this morning, this Annual Meeting will vote on whether to adopt a new funding system we call United Church Mission.
  • And a final example revealed itself a week ago when the Andover and Essex Associations held a joint annual meeting. And after years of intentional experimentation and discernment, all the while nurturing relationship and trust, they embarked on a shared journey, voting to merge into a single Association of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.
When Jesus invites us to move beyond what we imagine to be possible, he’s not only speaking to the Conference and the Associations, he’s also speaking to congregations.  And we have many congregations and new ministry initiatives who are heeding Jesus’ call.

Take the time to read the beautiful 2014 Annual Report (and when you’re finished, hand it off to the Moderator of your congregation!)  In it, you’ll discover stories of churches engaging new and previously unimagined possibilities through a variety of Church Redevelopment Initiatives offered by your Conference.

We believe that every congregation should regularly engage three key questions:
  • Who are we today?
  • Who is our neighbor?
  • Who is God calling us to be and become?
The first two focus on assessment—and given the pace of change in our world and culture, congregations must reassess their circumstances at least every 3-5 years.  The third question—Who is God calling us to be and become? – focuses on vision leading to action.
  • Is it time for your congregation to join the sixteen congregations which have already engaged the Crossroads/New Beginnings program? You’ll have your chance in November!
  • I would guess that your congregation might want to take advantage of the other opportunities the Conference is offering thanks to our new relationship with the Center for Progressive Renewal.
  • What about your church beginning to explore a partnership with one of our Hispanic congregations?
Take time to read the Annual Report and pray over these questions as you and your congregation discern Jesus’ invitation to do even greater acts.

Now I want to take a moment to lift up our friend, colleague and brother in Christ—Andy Gustafson. Later this afternoon we will remember him with conversation and singing and prayer.  But as we remember Jesus’ invitation to do greater acts than he, I can’t help but recall Andy’s cheerful optimism, and the impact he had on congregations and their leaders to pull together and do things they did not know they had in them.  I have lost count of the number of church leaders who have shared with me over the past month a particular story of how Andy helped this or that congregation to go beyond what they imagined to be possible.
  • His faith enlarged our faith.
  • His hope expanded our hope.
  • His vision extended our vision.
There could be no more fitting tribute to Andy’s life and ministry than for each of our congregations to continue to enlarge, expand and extend our understanding of God’s call to a life of generosity and a ministry of abundance.

Now – back to Jesus’ declaration: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these…”

So far, I've offered an obvious interpretation: following Jesus will inspire us to take on challenges and opportunities we could not otherwise imagine.

But there’s something else here. This is not a conversation about some task at hand.  It’s a declaration about what the disciples are capable of in the days and months and years ahead.  It’s about what they – and we – “will do.”

Jesus is inviting his disciples to step away from the unexamined conformity, low expectations, and limited hope of their ordinary lives so that the power of the Holy Spirit might take hold.  In saying this, Jesus saw what the disciples could not imagine: that their transformation would accelerate as they launched the greatest mass movement the world would ever see.

For the early church, the vision articulated in the Gospels became the people’s expectation.  And as it did, their hope became anticipation.

As I have said before, I believe that this is how the future is written – that this is how history is made: by envisioning new possibilities and acting on them as if they were inevitable.1
  • That’s what this Annual Meeting did 30 years ago when we passed the first Open and Affirming resolution.
  • And that’s what we did last year when we passed the resolution to divest from fossil fuel companies.
Now make no mistake – envisioning and acting on such possibilities isn't easy.  All of us resonate to the truth captured by one of our greatest living theologians, Walter Brueggemann.2  Almost 20 years ago (1997) he wrote:
It is abundantly and unmistakenly clear that we are (living) in a (time of) deep dislocation.... The old certitudes are less certain.... The old institutions (governmental, educational, judicial, medical, (ecclesial)) seem less and less to deliver what is intended and long counted on.... The old social fabrics of neighborliness are eroded into selfishness, fear, anger and greed.
Maybe it’s because every one of us—and every one of our congregations—are struggling with this displacement – maybe this is why we can hear the power and possibility in Jesus’ assurance that we WILL do greater works than these.

One of the ways I have taken Jesus’ assurance seriously is a vision—a measure—I have put before your Conference Board of Directors for nearly two years.  As leaders of this particular Conference of the United Church of Christ – facing as we are the many societal challenges Brueggemann and others articulate – I believe that – in addition to leading our congregations to fulfill the mission of the Mass Conference – it falls to your Conference Board to assure that 20 years from now, a transdenominational, progressive church movement is thriving in America – a movement rooted in UCC values and guided by our polity.3

For those of you who were unable to hear Diana Butler Bass last March, I think she’s exactly right when she says we are in the early stages of a Fourth Great Awakening  – and I quote: “a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understanding ourselves, and expressing faith are being (to borrow a phrase) ‘born again.’” She goes on, saying we are in the midst of “a ‘Great Turning’ toward a global community based on shared human connection, dedicated to the care of our planet, committed to justice and equality, that seeks to raise hundreds of millions (of people) from poverty, violence and oppression.”

An early sign of this movement was when the Connecticut Conference joined us for Super Saturday last March.  And this October, the Rhode Island Conference will join us.  Another early sign took place earlier this year when the Conference Minister of Connecticut – Kent Siladi – met with your Mass Conference Board, and then I met with the Connecticut Conference Board.  And in November, the Boards of the three Southern New England UCC Conferences – CT, MA and RI – will meet together. All of this is to say that the UCC in Southern New England is amplifying our recognition of interdependence.

Now – it’s important to emphasize that this is not limited to the UCC.  Many of you recall that a year ago, 11 days after the marathon bombing, the first signs of a trans-denominational climate movement were evident at the “Climate Revival.” Geoffrey Black and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church preached, and well over a dozen bishop level denominational leaders from throughout New England signed a strong climate statement. And then, a month later, one of the Episcopal Bishops from Massachusetts was addressing the 105th Annual Meeting of the Mass Council of Churches. He began by noting how wonderful it was as a new leader to have been included in such a profound witness as the Climate Revival. And then he invited us to imagine a time in the not too distant future when the Episcopal Church and the UCC in Massachusetts might be one.

Now – almost like a Zen Master sharing a koan – he did not elaborate. He left it as a mystery for us to ponder: “... might be one.”

Does this remind you of anything?

In 1957 the UCC was founded after decades of negotiation. And the scripture that best expressed our calling comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 17 verse 21: “That they may all be one.”  How fanciful of our UCC forebears in the 1940s and 1950s – when denominationalism was at its zenith – that they should look past all the barriers that denominations and congregations had built between themselves, and see on some distant horizon a vision of unity without uniformity; a recognition that the God of many names calls all who would follow to lead lives of interdependence – affirming:
  • our interdependence with God,
  • our interdependence with current, past and future generations,
  • and our interdependence with all of God’s creation.
Now, what might that mean for your church? I’d suggest that you join the scores of churches from various denominations throughout the Commonwealth who are already recognizing that we are “better together.” The most important part of who we are is not what sets us apart from an Episcopal or Lutheran or Methodist congregation. What’s most important is what we have in common.
  • And the obvious place to begin is with Baptism!
  • And I’m convinced that beyond the history of denominational distinction, there are countless Christians who share our UCC values of
    - extravagant welcome,
    - ongoing revelation and
    - radical inclusion.
  • And there’s one more thing we have in common: we all breathe the same air – or as I like to say it: we all share the same home... and our “home” – God’s gift of creation – is no longer the same earth on which we were born.
  • And finally there is a religious call that we share with people of every faith perspective – we recognize that the earth is the Lord’s and we are called to be trusted stewards for future generations.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr famously explained what I am talking about in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail5 and later from hundreds of pulpits. He said:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
And likewise, Mother Teresa understands what I’m talking about when she says: “The problem of the world is just that we've forgotten that we belong to each other.”

The time is now upon us when faithfulness to Christ requires us to live into a new story.
  • What new personal story will you begin to live-out today in response to God’s call?
  • What new story will your church begin to live-into in the coming year as you respond to God’s call?
  • What new story will the Christian church begin to write in response to the imminent collapse of creation?
  • What new creation story will humans join God in authoring to restore the possibility for creation’s vital future?
Staying the same is no longer an option. God is calling us to join together in creating a new narrative. It’s a narrative where our lives, our missions, our resources must be bound with those of our neighboring churches, synagogues and temples. It’s a narrative in which we declare to one another: “I can’t imagine the church without you!”  Turn to the person next to you and repeat after me: “I can’t imagine the church without you!”

Now – if all of this leaves you wondering exactly what am I suggesting... I want you to know that I’m completely OK with that!  I think that’s exactly what the disciples must have been thinking when Jesus told them that they would do even greater acts than he!

God is calling us to create and live-into a story that exceeds what we can imagine. All that we can be sure of is that we belong to each other – we need one another – to write that new story.  And we can be sure of one thing more: that with God – all things are possible.  Amen.

1. This insight comes from Walter Wink’s lectionary meditation “These bones shall live - Living the Word” in Christian Century Magazine 1994. (Volume and date of issue unavailable).

2. Quote from Walter Brueggemann's article "Five Indispensable Conversations Among Exiles" contained in the collection Deep Memory and Exuberant Hope and originally published in The Christian Century, July 2, 1997.

3. See article by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, the Executive Religion Editor of the Huffington Post, “The Stunning Resurgence of Progressive Christianity” 6/4/2014.
Also note a survey on religion and politics that came out in July 2013from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)
showed the numbers: With each generation, the popularity of religious conservatism has declined. Forty-seven percent of the Silent Generation (ages 66 to 88) are religious conservatives, compared with 34 percent of Baby Boomers, 23 percent of Gen Xers and 17 percent of Millennials. During that time the numbers of religious progressives have remained pretty steady. As PRII director explained: "If you're using a generational snapshot today as a proxy for the future, it is is safe to say that religious progressives hold a stronger appeal among Millennials."

4. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion - The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (Harper One; NY; 2012), pp. 5-7 and elsewhere.

5. Written April 16, 1963.


Jim Antal
Jim Antal

Jim Antal is a denominational leader, activist and public theologian.  He led the 360 churches of the Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ from 2006 to his retirement in 2018.  An environmental activist from the first Earth Day in 1970, ...

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