FIRST THINGS FIRST
© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine
University Congregational Church
September 9, 2007
Reading: Matthew 5: 25-33 (NRSV)
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” Or, “What will we drink?” Or, “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things. But strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
We are gathered this morning to inaugurate a new church program year. Sunday school classes have organized. Your new minister is in the pulpit. The choir has returned. The church is buzzing with new hopes and plans for the future. There are many decisions to be made about next year’s budget, stewardship, program growth and development, worship, and outreach. I am hoping that after we have received the survey from the Hartford Seminary we will take time to digest its contents and analyze its meaning. I hope it will inform us about the strengths, needs, and hopes of our congregation. I hope that we will take that information along with the years of experience that are represented in our church’s leadership and create a ministry plan with specific, achievable, and measurable goals for the next three years. You can bet that I am more than eager to get started! I am excited about the future we will forge together.
My temptation is to rush forward with plans and activities without reflecting on the purpose of the church and its ministry; without some thought as to the foundation of our church’s mission; without a recovery of the formative values that define us. I think churches are sometimes like the airline pilot of a trans-Atlantic flight. After a few hours into the flight he announced to the passengers, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have some bad news and I have some good news. The bad news is that we are hopelessly lost. The good news is that we are making excellent time.”
Steven Covey argues in his book, First Things First, that we have become addicted to urgency and we spend much of our lives responding to what is urgent. The computer beeps when a new email has arrived and because it has beeped we feel compelled to check the email and respond to it – and while we are at it to search the web for various and sundry information. Our wristwatch or palm pilot sounds an alarm and we scurry off to the next meeting. The cell phone rings and we feel obligated to answer it, regardless of what we are doing, even if it is in the middle of dinner, or the theatre, or an intimate conversation, even in church! We keep telling ourselves that these are labor saving devices and that they help us multi-task. We think we are more efficient. But I wonder if we are just making excellent time while we are hopelessly lost.
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Covey argues that it is essential for individuals to know what is the focus of our lives. What are the “first things” that we must order and attend to, rather than the autonomic responses of someone else’s emergency? What is the most important thing for a man or woman to do? “Knowing and doing what is important,” he wrote, “rather than simply responding to what’s urgent is foundational to putting first things first.” While the dynamics change for an organization, I think that we too must know what are the “first things” of our congregation’s mission. What is the inner fire or focus that determines our ministry? Or, are we simply going to respond to every emergency and human need that demands our services? Trust me, a week does not go by that an emergency knocks on the door of our church or the pastor’s study. I am asking if that need, or program, or organization, or personal agenda is at all compatible with the “first things” of University Congregational Church. Are we going to be a church that operates on a crises management model or a church that is mission centered with focused outcomes of that mission?
What are the “first things” of University Congregational? The answer is found in the church’s constitution as the purpose and covenant of the congregation. Part of it is printed on the order of service. Let me read the entire covenant:
In the love of truth, and in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ, this church exists to serve those who believe that the Christian faith affords our clearest insight into the nature and will of God. Accepting that faith as our guide, we join one another to worship and work so that peace, justice, and brotherhood may prevail in this world.
Our covenant has identified us as a congregation that affirms the life, teachings, and ministry of Jesus. By such lights we dare claim something of the nature God and God’s purpose for life. We do not claim exclusive knowledge. We do not presume that other faith traditions are in any way defective. We freely admit that this is our clearest insight. We do not presume the insights of others. This is the faith path that defines us. And as we claim it, so are we claimed. This covenant makes a connection to the life of Jesus and the call to worship and work in the world so that human life may be whole and just. We are a people of faith called to the ministry of transforming humanity into a family of peace and justice.
Those are the first things of University Congregational Church. We further stipulate that all persons who affirm this covenant are welcome to membership. The covenant does not say a word about your race, nationality, gender, gender orientation, ability, or age. The covenant does not say a word about your political party affiliation. The covenant is without doctrine or creedal formula that requires your loyalty. The church’s constitution states quite clearly, “University Congregational Church shall welcome into its membership all persons who accept the Covenant of this church.”
I want to tell you this morning that your covenant is one of the reasons that I became interested in the position of senior minister. It is a fine covenant and one that I freely and wholeheartedly embrace. I was also compelled by the ad that your search committee placed in The Christian Century. It stated that you are an inclusive congregation and hinted at progressive tendencies – right here, in Wichita, Kansas. To the best of my ability, it is my commitment to serve you toward the fullness of our covenant. I am honored to take my place with you in the pledge of faith that promotes the welfare and security of the entire human family.
I hope that you realize that our covenant is not a covenant of creeds. It is a covenant of deeds. We do not offer the sure and certain assurance of faith without question. We will not wave the Bible at the human condition and hope that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. What we will do is worship God with such integrity of heart and mind as we can offer. From this sanctuary we will return to the world to engage the human condition in all of its glory and degradation. We will walk through valleys of death, fear, indignity, and terror to restore a bloodied and paranoid world. Where there is oppression we will work for freedom. Our covenant reminds me of the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred let us sow love;
Where there is injury pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
I cannot think of a prayer more appropriate for a congregation whose vow it is to work so that peace, justice, and brotherhood may prevail in this world. This is a “first things” prayer. This is what we are about. This is what we are called to do.
Commitment to such a covenant makes University Congregational Church unique among many members of the Body of Christ. For some other denominations membership means a commitment to a set of beliefs. This is called orthodoxy, or right belief. If you were to join a United Methodist Church or an Episcopal Church your membership would require you to affirm a set of faith statements. For example, in the Episcopal Church the Baptismal Covenant requires you to answer a series of questions. The first is: “Do you believe in God.” The appropriate answer is, “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” The second questions: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The correct answer is: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilot, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
You recognize this, of course, as the Apostle’s Creed. My hunch is that if I asked you to recite with me the entire Apostle’s Creed some of you would not. Others of you would probably edit. Something like: “I believe in God, Jesus, crucified, died, buried.”
Please understand that I am not in any way criticizing the Episcopal Church. They are also committed to many of the issues of peace and justice that we are. I am only observing that the basis of membership in the Episcopal Church follows the orthodox path of faith. University Congregational Church follows a different path of faith within the Christian communion. And let there be no doubt that we too belong to the Body of Christ. Our path is the path of orthopraxis, meaning, “right practice” or “right behavior.” That is to say, UCC is focused on just relationships, ethical discernment, and moral agency as understood in the life and teachings of Jesus. This is the heart of our covenant and what it means to be a member of this church.
I believe that is what the ministry of Jesus was all about. The term that he used was “the kingdom of God.” I believe that Jesus offered a radically inclusive community of faith that invited everyone to the table of life. I believe that faith with Jesus means that if someone is lost we organize a search party and find them. If someone is hungry we set another place at the table and feed them. If someone is thirsty we give her a glass of water. If someone is lonely we go and sit with him. If someone is in danger we protect her. If someone is disenfranchised from the economic and political life of the community we empower them to all the institutions of freedom.
Christian religious educator, Thomas Groome has written that the church is meant to be the sacrament of the Jesus message in the pursuit of peace, freedom, justice, and life. He declared:
“To be a credible sign of the Kingdom, it (the church) will have to embody within its own structures the values it preaches. Further, it will have to harness its ministry and whole way of being in the world toward helping to create social/political/economic structures that are capable of promoting the values of the Kingdom..”
These are the first things, the order of values that shape the ministry of our church. For these reasons the University Congregational Church joins other congregations in the annual Crop Walk. We share our resources in the building of a Habitat for Humanity house. We scoop up the family of Tameka Gross and provide her with the means to raise her own three children and those of her murdered sister through education, housing assistance, and hygiene needs. This we understand to be the way of the cross. These acts of compassion form our way of being church and affirming the values of the Kingdom of God. This is what we understand to be our “Christian lifestyle.”
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is identified as that place where we love our neighbors. How do you know you are in the Kingdom of God? Because in the Kingdom the people love one another; they love the children; they love the disposed and the disinherited; they love the ones that everybody else has given up on. In fact, Jesus taught us that when you love these little ones, the broken ones, the frightened ones, the scarred ones, the wounded and bitter ones you love God. As a matter of fact it is not possible to love God in the abstract. The only way to love God is to love the neighbors – all of the neighbors!
The brothers Grimm told the story of the old woman whose husband had died. Her own health was failing and her eyesight dimmed. At last she was forced to move into the home of her son and daughter-in-law. Her health continued to decline. With such poor vision and the shaking of her feeble hands she began to make a mess at the table. She would spill her food on the floor or on her dress. Soup drooled out of the corner of her mouth and down her chin. The sight of all of this disgusted her son and his wife. So they decided to move the mother into a dark corner of the house where she would be out of sight. At every meal she ate alone, tears running down her cheeks. Sometimes they might say a word to her, but it was usually to scold her for making a mess.
One day the son and wife were watching their little daughter playing with her building blocks. “What are you making?” the son asked his daughter. “Oh,” she replied, “I am making a table for you and mother so that you can eat in the corner when I am bigger.”
That evening the grandmother was brought back to the family table. She dined there until the day she died.
In the Kingdom of God no one is excluded from the table of life. It is our mission as a congregation to bring everyone to the table. Our covenant with each other is to break the bread of justice for everyone who hungers for it; to share the cup of peace for everyone who thirsts for it; and to celebrate the human family and to honor everyone’s place within it. This is our covenant, and welcome to University Congregational Church!
 Steven R. Covey, First Things First (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 34.
 Thomas H. Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1980), p. 47.