“ROOTS AND WINGS”
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 ucc.org 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.