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Roots and Wings

Updated: Jan 29


a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.

January 8, 2023

Exodus 6:1-8 NRSV

6 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: indeed, by a

mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.”

2  God also spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YAHWEH.  3  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘YAHWEH’ I did not make myself known to them.  4  I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens.  5  I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians have enslaved, and I have remembered my covenant.  6  Say therefore to the Israelites: I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.  7  I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.  8  I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am YAHWEH.” 

Our faith ancestors were Pilgrims, literally and theologically. They were travelers

geographically, and their faith traveled from one place of belief to new places of

beliefs. This morning I want to share the connections I see between the Hebrew slaves

liberated from Egypt, and the Congregationalist Pilgrims as well as the Christian,

Evangelical and Reformed traditions that became what we call the United Church of

Christ. Nothing too ambitious for 15 or 20 minutes, right?

The story of the Hebrew slaves’ liberation from Egypt is familiar to most of us.

But the deep meaning of it is harder to get. We cannot appropriate the story literally

because none of us have suffered generations of forced labor. I doubt any of us has

suffered the kinds of abuse those slaves experienced, or the incredible courage to begin

a journey to freedom that took more than forty years of desert traveling. I don’t want

to minimize the heroic nature of this story by comparing it with others. My hope is

that we will at least recognize some of those values of freedom that drove the pilgrims

of Plymouth Plantation to leave England. They wanted freedom to worship and live

according to beliefs of their faith. Perhaps that will echo as we think of those Israelites

of the Exodus.

So let me turn to the story of the Congregationalists who made the exodus from

England to the shores of Massachusetts for the next part of our spiritual journey today.

The UCC website gives this history:

“Robert Browne, an Anglican priest, was the first conspicuous advocate of

Congregationalism in England.” Beginning in 1581, Browne gathered a congregation

in Norwich. Their faith centered on the “conviction 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 the church; the people were its governors, and would elect a pastor, [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.” Out of this movement a group of Pilgrims emerged

in England. The people who became the pilgrims to New England had chafed under

the theology and church laws of the Church of England. So they made their exodus

from the Church of England and came to these shores.

Now let’s be honest, there were strands of their life in New England in which

they became as oppressive to others as the church they left. The story of the so-called

First Thanksgiving is a glorification of their relationship with the natives they

encountered here when they arrived. They were not terribly inclusive of those whose

theology was different. But history shows that the descendants of these Pilgrims

evolved theologically because they knew that faith is a living thing that grows out of

the past, but does not make a false idol of man-made rules or become stuck in

theologies of the past just because they come from the past.

Part of that movement were “Puritans” whose theology was a desire to “purify”

their church from the false theologies they saw all around them. According to the

history on the site, these ‘Puritans’ believed in “the sovereignty of God, the

authority of scripture as the revelation of God’s will, and the necessity to bend to the

will of God. The Puritans regarded human rituals and institutions as idolatrous

impositions upon the word of God.”

In another sense each of the other strands of the United Church of Christ were

also “pilgrims.” Some journeyed from Europe, and some from previous denominations

they were part of here in the United States. The United Church of Christ is made up of

four historic denominations: the Congregationalists, whom we’ve already mentioned,

the Christian Church, and the Evangelical and the Reformed Churches.

The Christian churches were made up of several different strands of believers.

Some came out of Methodist Churches, again seeking independence from church

hierarchy and appointed pastors. Some came out of the Presbyterian Church where, in

parts of the country, the Sacrament of Communion was restricted not only to those who

were of their denomination, but only those who were members of that specific church.

This limit on the grace of God chafed them to the extent that they became pilgrims of

faith. They left those churches that seemed “enslaved” to bad theology and began new

churches for their faith journey.

The Evangelical and Reformed churches were mostly made up of European

immigrants to the United States. They had been part of churches in Germany and

Sweden that had come out of the Protestant Reformation. From these roots they had a

deep belief in the Bible as being the only rule of faith, in living a life simply rather than

opulently, in regular observance of communion. The Reformed side also differed from

the Lutheran understanding of communion. They believed it was more of a sign and

reminder of Christ’s presence spiritually than the actual body and blood of Christ. This

was similar to the beliefs of the English Congregationalists.

All this is probably way too little information and at the same time too much.

Perhaps too sketchy as well. We will discuss these things more in our Wednesday

night study group if you want more. Obviously, there is much more to this, but I want

to tie this in with our roots in the Scripture we read this morning and with our present-

day experience of the United Church of Christ.

Let me turn to my title, this morning: “roots and wings,” to illustrate. Most of

us think of God as a kind of spiritual parent. We may pray to God as “Father” or

“Mother.” I once heard someone say that a parent’s job is to give their children “roots

and wings.” Roots so that they know who they are and where they come from. Wings

so that they can fly to new heights and see new horizons. Roots without wings become

ropes that tie and bind us too tightly to the past. Wings without roots allow the

possibility of flying off on dangerous and flighty winds, losing our sense of place in

the world. We all need both roots and wings to live healthy, whole lives.

Our roots as Christians are in the story of Exodus with its powerful truth about

our relationship with God and God’s power to overcome evil, oppression, suffering

and injustice. Our roots as a church in the United Church of Christ tie us to pilgrims

whose own exodus was winging away from parts of the past that were believed to be

unfaithful and inconsistent with the Biblical witness to YAHWEH – the God whose

name reveals another side of roots and wings.

We understand God – YAHWEH – to be the Creator of all that is the “root” of

all that lives. We also believe the story of a God who gives wings to move past the

suffering of injustices. This same God – whose name means “I AM,” and even “I will

be who I will be,” calls us out to rise above the past when necessary. When theologies

and churches claim to hold the power and control of our lives in the name of this very

God but are unjust or oppressive, God calls us to rise up and go out. This is the great

blessing of the freedom that our United Church of Christ holds dear.

We believe in the roots of our faith, but we understand that humans often get it

wrong. We believe in a God who is Truth itself, but we know the limits of our human

mind to fully understand it. Even more, we know the limitless ability of humans to

twist it for personal power, control, and privilege. All these things help us realize faith

means living the questions as much as knowing all the answers. And we believe in a

God whose truth we are still unveiling, still knowing that we don’t have all the


This is the God we praise, the God we sing Hosanna to – which means, “Lord

Save!” So we trust the God we know only in part to be the root of our lives and wings

we need to reach newer heights of faithfulness, to break the chains of oppression that

hold our sisters and brothers all around us, and all over the world. We do not have to

make a geographical exodus to follow Christ. We often have to leave behind old,

incomplete, or simply wrong understandings of God to rise up on the wings of faith

that following Christ involves.

The song we sing reminds us that as we sing “Hosanna” “praise is rising.” By

following the way into the future we find our way out of chains that are not roots, and

find we have wings that allow us to fly to new heights of faith and love. Let us live as

those with roots in God and the wings of faith in Christ to live our lives praising God.

Hosanna! Praise is rising! AMEN.

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