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Psalm 27:1, 7-14 (The Inclusive Psalms translation)
1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (New Revised Standard translation)
Today we hold our annual meeting, a chance to revisit the year past and vision the year ahead, a time to enjoy good food and good company, another chapter in a tradition that has gone on for 70 years. Yes, 70 years! This year marks Fellowship Congregational United Church of Christ’s 70th year of existence and while we’re saving the big celebration for year 75, it does seem like a good time to briefly discuss the history of this church. We began in April of 1950, officially according to the paperwork in my office, gathered together from a split of Second Presbyterian Church. The split, source of many new churches, came from a disagreement over membership. See, the founding pastor of Fellowship, The Reverend Dr. Jackson Smith, had moved to Tulsa from a place where segregation was not as prominent as it was here in Tulsa. So, when some black folks began attending Second Presbyterian, he welcomed them and the rest of the church – or at least a lot of the rest of the church – did not.
The Presbytery, the larger governing body of that church, asked Rev. Smith to resign, but the congregation, despite vocal grumbling, voted against his resignation. Some began to develop a plan “B”, in case these troubles continued and, soon after, the Presbytery vetoed the congregational vote and Dr. Smith was ousted. So, Plan “B” kicked in and on March 4th, 1950, about 200 attended initial services at the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 9th and south New Haven. In attendance was the Rev. Royal J. Gibson, Conference Minister of the Congregational Christian Churches. And on April 5th, 1950, at an organizational meeting held at Temple Israel, at 16th and Rockford, Fellowship was born. The charter roll had 300 names. At the second anniversary on April 6th, 1952, the new church site was dedicated at 29th and Harvard, the contract valued at $60,000. The rest, as they say, is history.
But that’s not all. After the initial split, and the reason that Dr. Smith left Second Presbyterian, you’d think that racial division would not be part of the rest of the story at Fellowship. And you’d be wrong. It wasn’t but 6 years after the initial foundation of Fellowship that membership for an African-American couple was brought up again…and denied. It almost split the church once more until foundational values were reasserted and, in 1957, the congregation voted (not unanimously, mind you) to open membership to all persons regardless of race or class…a vote that would have to be revisited as we drew our circle wider. We also in that same year took in a displaced European family, the first of many families we would protect as refugees to this country, later ones coming from Cuba and Vietnam and Cambodia. All of these acts let us see ourselves in a new light, and re-imagine what it meant to be church.
A few fun facts I uncovered when I found a whole bunch of historical documents…
- In 1963, FCC hosted First Baptist Church North at a dinner – the start of a long connection between our two churches across the racial lines of Tulsa, until leadership changed at First Baptist Church North and we became open and affirming. We’ll have to re-imagine what such connections might look like in the future.
- In 1979, the tower that used to stand above the entrance to the north doors at the main building was removed due to repeated lightning strikes. I will let you make of that what you will.
- Then in 1995, we voted again on an issue that was not unanimous – we became an open and affirming church, one of a tiny few in Tulsa at the time, welcoming what we then called gays and lesbians, later LGBT, then LGBTQ and now LGBTQ+ as we expand that circle, always re-imagining our welcome.
History matters. It tells us not only who we were, but reveals some of who we are. We can see in even a brief glimpse that we are a church that values justice and, like all human endeavors, is not immune to injustice. A glimpse backwards can help propel us forwards, affording us a chance to do some re-framing.
I spent the end of last week at my alma mater, Phillips Seminary, for the Remind & Renew Conference, where, amongst others, the good Rev. Dr. Ward was featured heavily as he rounds out his tenure at Phillips. I do have to say that I am glad that Richard was not my preaching professor because I would have had to have spent the last 6 years staring at him – or him staring at me – during every sermon. However, I have grown increasingly aware of how good a trade that would have been as I witness his teaching for friends and colleagues, as I see his great skill and wish I could have had more of it shaping me…at least in an official manner, for I think I’ve learned a lot from you by proximity alone! I say all of that to butter him up a little because I’m getting ready to steal a metaphor directly from his talk right now.
Richard spoke of trips back to his home in South Carolina to visit his mother and sister and to kind of “go through” things since his father died last year. As they looked through pictures that had been sitting on shelves, perhaps for decades, they noticed that the frames were cracking, or the glue was separating on the corners, or the glass was broken. Of course they wanted to keep the memories that the pictures represent, so they had to reframe them, to move them from one set of boundaries to another …not so the pictures could be done away with, but so that they could be preserved in a new way.
A metaphorical reframing can come in lots of forms. Paul speaks of reframing, without ever using the word or metaphor in his letters as a critical component of following Jesus. He calls it dying to one life and being born to another. The reality of reframing is not a new thing to us, some of us have lost someone dear to us and had it change our identity as partner, parent or caregiver. Sometimes we lose a job, or we are moved by our parents, or we get the diagnosis, or we find some other transformational impact visited upon us without our choice. What is reframing like when it is something we are choosing? I mean, let’s be honest. None of us have to be Christian…or, obviously, we can choose to call ourselves Christian and not really adjust our lives at all.
As Paul writes these letters to his churches, he is not building a new religion, but rather trying to help the Gentiles – all people who aren’t Jewish – to be in relationship with God in the way that Jews are, only through this path that Jesus has set forth. He’s teaching people who are fed up and oppressed by the culture in which they live. He’s telling them, like Jesus did, that in order for them to see this new world, they must first have to believe it. It’s not as simple as going to the crafts store, getting the right size and undoing those little pins or the turny-things that fit into grooves to hole the picture in place. It’s not changing the curtains or repackaging the old way of being. Paul speaks of re-framing as soul repair, as repentance, as transformation. You can’t continue with the status quo and be people of the kin-dom. Somebody has snitched on you Corinthians, Paul writes. They say you are building factions, making a big deal out of which person baptized you instead of realizing what baptism is for in the first place. It sounds, Paul says in so many words, like you don’t get it. There’s no re-framing going on at all…you’re just shuffling around pictures on the mantle.
I think we’d do well to remember that these “churches” Paul writes to in his letters are nothing like ours. They have no brick and mortar structure, no mortgage or insurance payments, no parking lots to re-stripe, no HVAC units to replace, no argument about pews versus chairs. They aren’t places that people come to once a week to hear a good word. They are social change engines. They are base communities in the midst of an empire that doesn’t want them around. They are the resistance. Only Paul is informing them that they aren’tresisting…they’re just doing the same stuff with a different name. He gets mean…Paul calls them out on their warping of baptism and literally thanks God that he did not baptize them, though he remembers mid-sentence that he baptized Crispus and Gaius…and then remembers the household of Stephanas…and then admits there may have been more. The angry retort is kind of muted at this point, but who can remember all those baptisms? He just wants them to hear that if they’re looking for wisdom the way the world sees it, if they’re measuring their faith with the same metrics as culture, if they’re trying to “succeed” at following Jesus the same way they succeed as a Roman citizen, they’ve come to the wrong place. Paul looks around Imperial Rome and he sees injustice of the highest levels, oppression, inequality, suffering, and he believes that the kingdom, the new age being ushered in by Jesus’ resurrection, will be a kingdom of justice and peace that does not come at the tip of a spear. But in order to establish that kingdom, we have to live it. To be faithful, in Paul’s estimation, is to be resistant.
I wonder what Paul would be writing now, with a church having so much distance between what it says and what it does, when the words in red in our Bibles have been taught as the guidelines for life, and yet are ignored when they are politically inconvenient. And here we are, at Fellowship, where, for the past 70 years, we, too, have wrestled with how to be a Christian and live in Tulsa, Oklahoma which, despite all it’s grandiose claims, governs itself much more with the power of Rome than the power of God.
That assertion alone is why we ought to strive to treat one another differently, if only when we are in the walls of this campus. Our meetings run differently, our conversations a contrast to what we hear beyond, our decision-making impacted by the realities of the world, but driven by another set of values…at least on our best days. For this is what our history (and our now) say to us – we must still be about the work of re-framing…our selves, our church, our world.
The psalmist writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” It is an act of reframing, for the sentences around this statement reveal a person who is very much afraid, and likely for good reason. And here we are, with all of the uncertainty and angst around us, with the problems we can see daily running through our social media feeds or delivered on the news source of our choice, vying for our attention as we engage in a race to see who can be the most “woke” or the most outraged, and we often lose the chance to see the kin-dom all around us…a reframing that helps make the kin-dom real, and helps us be less afraid, for we have each other and a God whose promises are trustworthy.
This is what I see when I look at you, church. Not with precision or perfection…but with participation. I see you eagerly cooking food for the hungry, volunteering at the front desk of hospitals and shelters, collecting endless plastic bags to be woven into sleeping pads, talking with one another, building relationships with people who’ve never had a church that accepted them, visiting those who are sick or in prison, and seeking ways to talk about what matters.
The harvest is ready and the workers, it always seems, Jesus, are few. But we are here, at a place that has often sought a vision for the kin-dom, and been willing – albeit sometimes slowly – to draw it’s circle wider, to sacrifice for what is next and to look for the kin-dom all around us.
In his sermon on the 30th anniversary of his pastorate here, The Rev. Dr. Russell Bennett asked from this pulpit that the people of Fellowship use this church as a place to awaken their spiritual gifts. He, too, used Paul for the sermon, only a different cut from
1 Corinthians, one about many spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit. He asked people to seek those gifts in themselves, and to consider finding a home for those gifts in the church, because they “serve God’s purpose to heal a fragmented world.” “It’s why the church exists,” he wrote, “to be an instrument of God’s peace and justice. It’s why we pray for, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…And why we organize, have meetings, develop budgets and programs; it is that we might be a vehicle of God’s Grace in the world.” That, I would say, is reframing. We do the work here, the re-imagining here, the reframing here – so we can carry that out into the world and begin to see it there…so we’ll have the eyes for it.
This is a time for reframing, my friends. How will the reframing we have chosen help us to navigate the reframing that we are not choosing? How will we make meaning out of the noise that is going on around us and seek newness in the midst of turmoil? How will we seek the next chapter for us as a church, drawing our circle wider, growing in spirit and working for justice? I don’t know what the next year will bring for Fellowship, much less the next 70. But I do know that we will have to welcome again the Holy Spirit among us, teaching us, opening us to newness, showing us risks to take that, if we have the courage, will bring us closer to God.
May God be with us on the way. Amen.