Updated: Apr 18
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
January 15, 2023
Micah 6:6-14 NRSV
6 “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall
I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?
9 The voice of the LORD cries to the city, Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
10 Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked
and the despicable false measure? 11 Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest
weights? 12 Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies with tongues of
deceit in their mouths.
13 Therefore I have begun to strike you down, making you desolate because of your sins.
14 You shall eat but not be satisfied, and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you; you
shall put away but not save, and what you save, I will hand over to the sword.
What does God require of you? That gets right down to it, doesn’t it? I mean if you
believe in God, if you want to live a Godly life, that is the 100-million-dollar question.
What does God require of me. The prophet answers that question simply. Three
simple phrases: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Then comes the equivocating, the caveats, the interpretations. Oh, we are ok
with the sound of “love mercy, walk humbly with God.” That “do justice” thing is
often a deal stopper though. The Bible speaks about it again and again, we can’t
ignore it. It always comes down to these things: care for the widow, the orphan, the
poor; treat the foreigner and immigrant among you compassionately, and do not amass
wealth by unethical means, and do not let judges render unjust judgments against the
poor. Those words about “wicked scales,” and “dishonest weights?” That was the
basic definition of unethical in Biblical terms.
Our problem with “doing justice,” usually one of two things: We don’t think
“justice” is a religion thing, or it makes us uncomfortable because to confront or to
challenge injustice is a scary thing. Neither of those things is true or necessary. The
Bible makes it clear that “justice” is a “God-thing.” The prophets constantly speak of
this issue and speak of it in front of and to Kings, Queens, rulers of government and
religion. And while I admit I would love to have a religion that never makes me
uncomfortable or challenges me to grow – and there are a LOT of those options out
there, my friends. Feel good religion is the norm in American churches. And as much
as I would prefer to only think happy thoughts on Sunday as well as the other six days,
even Jesus speaks about these things.
In Matthew 23:23 he tells the self-righteous religious people of his day that
although they tithe down to their spice rack – dill and cumin and all – they use
religious excuses to deny the fair and Biblically required support to their own parents.
He says to them, “you ought not to neglect the former [ tithing ], or the latter [ doing
what is just to others ]. So, in my mind that makes justice a very central part of our
faith. Or as some like to say, “If it’s good enough for Jesus, its good enough for me.”
In our exploration of the history and theology of the United Church of Christ I
am rather proud to say there are an extraordinary number of examples of the people of
our denomination doing justice while loving mercy and in so doing, walking humbly
with God. See what I did there? That is to say, they integrated all three of those
“required” elements in their faith work. Let me share several examples. [ generally directly
quoted from the ucc.org website ].
Congregationalists are among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery.
In 1700 Rev. Samuel Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, “The
Selling of Joseph.” Sewall laid the foundation for the abolitionist movement that comes
more than a century later.
That moment involved the schooner La Amistad which was transporting black
slaves off the coast of the Spanish colony of Cuba in 1839. One of the captives,
Cinqué, led an uprising against the crew. Two navigators were spared on condition
they help sail the ship to Africa. The Spaniards predictably betray them and instead sail
into U.S. waters, where the ship was stopped by a U.S. coastal patrol ship, and those
who had been captured for slavery were arrested..
A complicated legal battle followed. President Martin Van Buren manipulated
the court proceedings and the appointment of judges to favor the pro-slavery American
interests. Remember that part about just rulings and courts I mentioned earlier? In the
midst of the debate, Cinqué abruptly stands and demands, “Give us, us free!” Moved
by Cinqué’s emotion, the Judge rules that the Africans are to be released, and that the
navigators who betrayed them are to be arrested and charged with illegal slave-trading.
Under pressure from Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who
represented the slave-holding interests of the American South, Van Buren appeals the
case to the Supreme Court. Cinque’s lawyers seek out former president and
Congregationalist, John Quincy Adams, and after meeting Cinqué he agrees to
represent the Africans before the Supreme Court. Adams’ impassioned and eloquent
speech convinces the court to confirm the judgement and release the Africans.
Throughout the process Congregationalist churches in New England kept up a steady
and intense pressure for the courts to do the right thing and to acknowledge that
Cinqué, and thereby ALL persons of color, are full human beings and deserving to be
In the wider panorama of racial justice the United Church of Christ’s history
includes publishing the first African American poet in 1773. Phillis Wheatley, a young
member of the Old South congregation, authored “Poems on Various Subjects.” It is a
sensation, and Wheatley gains her freedom from slavery soon after. Modern African
American poet Alice Walker says of her: “[She] kept alive, in so many of our
ancestors, the notion of song.”
Then in 1785 the Congregational Church ordained the first African American
pastor in a mainline American church. Lemuel Haynes, in 1776, in the midst of the
fight for liberty in which he enlists as a soldier, also authored a defense of the
liberation of African Americans from slavery: “Liberty, Further Extended.”
Following up on the work in support of justice for women and the publishing of
Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry, the United Church of Christ was the first to ordain a woman
into the ministry. In 1853, Antoinette Brown was ordained by the Congregational
Church in Butler, New York. Although her family discouraged her and Oberlin
Theological School denied her the degree she had earned, Antoinette Brown sought a
call to pastor a church for three years. It finally came from that Congregational Church
in Butler. Her activist stand persisted for the abolition of slavery, for the promotion of
temperance, and for the establishment of biblical support for equality between women
and men. She wrote nine books and in 1920, at age 95, cast her first vote. By 1921, the
year of her death, there were 3,000 women ministers in the United States. Her
ordination itself had major implications.
As the United Church of Christ’s theology and sense of Biblical Justice evolved,
we became the first major Protestant church to ordain an openly gay man in 1972. The
UCC’s Golden Gate Association ordained the Rev. William R. Johnson. In the
following three decades, the UCC’s General Synod urged equal rights for homosexual
citizens in church and in society. In 1969 our Council for Christian Social Action, a
forerunner to the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries adopted the “Resolution on
Homosexuals and the Law.” Then, in 1985, the UCC’s General Synod declared itself
to be “open and affirming” and called upon all settings of the church to become
similarly poised to welcome LGBT persons as full members of the church.
Although not everyone in the UCC is of the same mind concerning human
sexuality, the Open and Affirming movement for full inclusion of LGBT persons
continues to spread throughout all aspects of our denomination’s life and witness.
There are now more than 1,700 Open and Affirming – ONA for short - churches in the
United Church of Christ.
Coral Isles Church voted to become Open and Affirming in 2001. Copies of the
full statement they adopted are in the back if you would like to read it. In part it
affirms that Coral Isles Church “is one that welcomes and affirms the rights and value
of any person who wishes to join us as a member or friend.” It not only accepts
persons who identify as LGBTQ but also proclaims it goes beyond our sexuality to
include persons of any race, persons dealing with addictions, even persons who “have
different ideas from ours about God and spirituality.” We have extended this with our
recent decision to intentionally do our best to welcome people dealing with mental
health issues. This is not being “woke” or “giving in to the latest fad.” It is about what
is right and wrong Biblically and morally. While most of “Christianity” has
condemned homosexuality it has been done based on Scriptures that have been
misinterpreted, mistranslated, and even passages infected not with God’s spirit or
leading, but human prejudice.
Let me finish by saying sometimes these things make us uncomfortable. As I said
at the beginning, the prophetic voice was and is often one that makes us uncomfortable
when we are wrong. We sometimes get mad when the preacher says something that
we don’t agree with politically. We try to invoke the “separation of church and state.”
It doesn’t apply to God’s call to the church to hold the economic and political systems
accountable to do what is just. When the church fails to do this, it becomes irrelevant
and ignored. This is in fact the reason so many American churches are dying. People
see they have nothing to say that is important.
If we want to truly follow Jesus Christ we have to remember that in the face of
injustice and actual evil, the prophets of the Bible and Jesus himself called out not only
the political leaders, the economic powers, but the religious leaders who had sold out
to self-promotion, or political expediency. If I am silent on evil and injustice I am
violating my call to preach the Word, in season and out, which doesn’t refer to the four
meteorological seasons, but to what may be popular or unpopular.
The good news is when we are uncomfortable it usually is an opportunity to grow
spiritually. It is an opportunity to see things in new ways that can bring us closer to
God in our hearts and in living our lives. The prophetic voices of Isaiah, Ezekiel and
others, as well as Jesus himself calls out to us to be true to God’s love for all people.
The United Church of Christ works at this intentionally and so I, for one, am proud
to be part of that work, a minister of this denomination, and pastor for a church that is
willing to listen to those prophetic voices and respond faithfully. Do justice, love
kindness, walk humbly with God. That is what God requires of us all. God bless you,
God bless Coral Isles Church, and those we serve in the name of Jesus the Christ.