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Do You Know Who?

Updated: Jul 2


a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens

Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.

June 23, 2024

Mark 4:35-41 NRSV

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

There are a lot of people who say they know Jesus. It always sounds a bit too “buddy-buddy” to me. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings who believes this, but I’m always tempted to say, “Oh, really?” So you are smarter than the disciples who asked, “Who is this?” You know him better than the millions of theologians who spent their lives studying, thinking, and writing about him? Ok. I say I’m still working on knowing him. I’m still trying to figure out some stuff. If you’ve got it all figured out, would you let me know? I mean speak with me privately, I don’t want to be embarrassed by my ignorance or lack of faith in front of all of ya’ll.

The tag line of our Scripture reading is the question those who knew Jesus best asked: “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Isn’t that astounding? These guys who gave up their lives, their careers, maybe even their families did so without really knowing this guy better? I mean, who does that? That takes a lot of … oh, uh, faith? In the United Church of Christ we talk about faith as a journey, as a process. Most of us probably don’t feel like we are a finished product, do we? I’ve been doing this – that is Christianity – all my life and there are times I still come to new understandings of who this Jesus is. I do know some things, don’t get me wrong. And I’m sure you know some things, maybe more things, definitely different things in some ways maybe, than I do.

We say faith is a journey and I am always looking to grow and increase in faith. I don’t mean just blind faith, but a faithful faith, if you will – a righteous faith. That’s why I am glad to be in the United Church of Christ. This morning as we celebrate the 67th Anniversary of the organization of the UCC – as I will call it from now on – let me share some information about how this denomination has been on a faith journey and some of its mile markers of growth in understanding and in doing what is “righteous.” Remember I always say the Biblical use of that word “righteous” almost always refers to what we might call social justice as opposed to just personal goodness or sinlessness.

So let me give a bit of a history lesson. Forgive me if that is not your “jam.” We are a Congregational Church here at Coral Isles, but we are also a UCC church. The UCC was founded in 1957, but we have deep, deep roots beyond that. The Congregational Church dates back to the 1580’s. Much of what I will share and more can be found on the UCC website.

“Robert Browne, an Anglican priest, was the first conspicuous advocate of Congregationalism in England. In 1581, Browne gathered a congregation in Norwich.” He believed “that the only true church was a local body of believers who experienced together the Christian life, united to Christ and to one another by a voluntary covenant. Christ, not the king or queen, was the head of such a church; the people were its governors, and would elect a pastor, teacher, [and leaders], according to the authority of the New Testament. Furthermore, each autonomous church owed communal helpfulness to every other church. Browne was imprisoned 32 times and fled to the Netherlands.”

In 1620 a band of folks called “Pilgrims” left England for the New World on a ship called the “Mayflower.” They wanted the freedom to worship as they chose. At their farewell, John Brown sent them off, saying he was confident “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his Holy Word.” In other words, keep growing and learning about Jesus.

By the way shortly thereafter, “Concerned that there be educated leaders, the Massachusetts Bay Colony voted in 1636 to give £400 to establish a college in Newtowne (Cambridge). Colonist John Harvard contributed his library and two years later left the institution half his fortune. The college was, and is, called by his name.” Don’t judge their success in producing “educated leaders” by me. Just sayin’.

At around the same time, German Christians were beginning to turn toward a deeper personal spiritual life. War and poverty had left much of that nation dispirited. What was called “pietism,” emerged. This initiative came out of the new Protestant Church, which had left the Catholic Church under leadership of Martin Luther. Pastors and congregations emphasized things like, “abstinence from card playing, dancing, the theatre.” Before long many of these folks emigrated to the New World too and established what were called German Evangelical Churches.

Another German movement was the German Reformed Church, which also came out of the Lutheran Protestant Churches. A stream of German and German-Swiss settlers-farmers laborers, trade and craftpersons, many … who had sold their future time and services to pay for passage, flowed into Pennsylvania and the Middle Atlantic region. Refugees from … European wars, their concerns were pragmatic. They did not bring pastors with them… so at first [they were] sustained only by family worship at home, … informed by the Bible and the Heidelberg Catechism.”

Not long after, “in 1794 in Virginia [led] by a Revolutionary War soldier, James O’Kelley, he, with many other Methodists” left their churches “over their objection to bishops. Methodism, they felt, was too autocratical. They wanted the frontier churches to be freed to deal with the needs and concerns that were different from those of the more established churches. They declared that the Bible was their only guide and adopted as their new name, the Christian Church.” This group was joined by those from other denominations who wanted a more open communion table. Some churches required a person not only to be of their denomination but of that specific local church. They joined this group of “Christians” to form what was called the Christian Churches.

Then in the 1920’s a movement emerged to bring Christians of different backgrounds together, to seek unity as Christians. We call it ecumenism. In the 1920’s the Congregational and Christians Churches merged and shortly thereafter the Evangelical and Reformed German churches merged. Then in 1957, after long talks and complicated agreements to differences that were less important than unity, the two denominations merged to become the United Church of Christ. Even joining the UCC had differing forms. The Evangelical and Reformed Churches voted as groups called Synods. The Congregational Churches, ever the most adamant independent folks, voted congregation by congregation. Most did, a few didn’t. Many others have joined over the years since, coming from independent backgrounds or from other connections.

Here is something more I want to share. Our journey as a denomination was marked by many faithful firsts that we can brag about a bit, if we were to do such a thing. “Congregationalists were among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. The Rev. Samuel Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America. His work laid the foundation for the abolitionist movement that came more than a century later.” In 1785 A congregational Church ordained Lemuel Haynes as the first African American ordained by a Protestant denomination. In 1853 we were the first to ordain a woman to ministry. In addition to those firsts, in 1972 the UCC was the first “mainline Protestant” church to ordain an openly gay man to ministry.

We were the first to send out missionaries to foreign lands. That was a mixed bag, to be honest. We started in India and Hawaii in the 1800’s. Unfortunately, we were not enlightened enough to avoid being very Euro-centric. We demanded that the “natives” adopt Western European dress, customs, beliefs and sought to destroy the history, culture and religious roots, especially of those Hawaiians. We have since repented of that and sought to apologize. More importantly, we now have a very different way to be with and engage those we now work with throughout the world. We seek to work cooperatively and engage with practical work including working for economic justice, health care, development. In that way we share the good news of Jesus. Another sign that we have grown in our understanding of who this Jesus is and have changed for the better to follow Jesus.

I find this particularly inspiring: in 1817 a Congregationalist named “Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet introduced sign language to North America and co-founded the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s the beginning of a movement that will transform the lives of millions of hearing-impaired persons.” Obviously, that means a lot to us.

All of this tells me that if you think you know everything about Jesus, maybe stay open to new revelations. When the wind and the waves seem too great to survive - that might be at that very moment Jesus stills the winds and calms the waves – not just of our personal issues, but even larger ones like the challenges our nation and our world face today. Again and again, we can look back and see when Jesus stands up in the rocking boat and speaks the word that changes everything.

Who is this, that even wind and waves obey him? Sometimes it is easy to diminish what the Living Christ can do in our lives and in our world. When I am tempted to do that, I try to remember the promise of Scripture: “Behold he comes!” AMEN.

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