First Things First

UCC Series VII

The internet is both a blessing and a curse. We all know its curses. But one of its blessings is Bible study. I can look up scriptures in dozens of different English translations any time I want. I can also look up passages in almost any other language I can think of. And I can also easily find what any verse looks like in the original Greek or Hebrew.

Best of all, though, is how easy it is to look up something in the Bible if you can only remember a word or short phrase, but don’t remember where it came from. And so when I started writing this morning’s sermon, I looked up the word first to see how many firsts the Bible recorded. There probably aren’t as many as you might expect.

In addition to the fact that the first priest ever mentioned was Melchizedek, did you know that the first vineyard in the Bible was planted by Noah? And the first mighty warrior was Nimrod. And in the New Testament we discover that Christ’s followers in Antioch were the first ones to actually be called Christians.

Being first is often a great way to be remembered. But when we remember firsts, we often don’t give enough thought to how difficult their achievement was for them. Even in the case of these biblical firsts, we might pause and think for a moment about Nimrod. We don’t know what happened to him, but it can’t be easy to live with a bullseye on your chest. And Noah, the first to plant a vineyard, was also the first to abuse alcohol in the Bible. And what about those first Christians? It’s nice that they helped give us our name. But maybe we should consider that that might also have made them that much easier to identify when the persecution of Christians began in earnest.

And so when the United Church of Christ makes a big deal out of all the firsts in our history, I think instead of cheering, we should meditate on what that meant. Being the first anything usually isn’t about that one split second when somebody accomplishes a goal. It’s about the struggle that got them there. And it’s also about the struggle that continued afterward. And in just about every “first” we celebrate, there was, indeed a struggle.

In my last church, there was a gentleman in the congregation—he was actually the treasurer—who had himself been the first to do many of the things he did. When he did things as significant as going to Navy flight school or becoming a commercial pilot, being first was celebrated. But those accomplishments were fraught with struggle. And not all his firsts were recognized, but they were often no less of a struggle—such as being the first African American to move into just about every neighborhood he lived in, or trying to enter a whites-only waiting room at a train station in Alabama while on his way to serve his country’s military.

So now let’s talk about a few UCC firsts. One area where we claim to be first was in bringing democracy and spiritual freedom to the New World. Except there were already people here who had their own system of government and their own spirituality. We can’t comment on that, of course, because disease, warfare, and forced removal made traditional government and their ancient religious practices all but impossible. Perhaps the early New Englanders didn’t engage in as much persecution as other European Americans. But that’s actually picking at nits when we see the results.

Title Page of the Bay Psalm Book
Which brings me to another first, of which we’re justifiably proud, and that’s the area of publishing. The first book published in what is now the United States was the 1640 Bay Psalm Book of the Massachusetts Congregationalists. And the first Bible published in the New World was John Eliot’s translation in the Algonquin language. Once again, there’s no doubt pain in this accomplishment because of the spirituality that was native to this soil that the Christian Bible replaced.

One of the most painful aspects of life in the New World was the existence of slavery in just about all its regions. We can be proud, therefore, that the first stance against this evil institution was written by Congregationalist Samuel Sewall in 1700. It was an essay called The Selling of Joseph. This essay is made all the more painful because it was published shortly after Sewall had published something else of note: An apology for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials.

Phyllis Wheatley
Speaking of slavery, we’re also justifiably proud that another Congregationalist was the first published African American author. Her name was Phyllis Wheatley, and she was a slave at the time her book of poetry was published in 1773. Though emancipated soon thereafter, we should never forget that this was the work of a woman writing not as a free person, but as a rich family’s valued possession.

Another woman became a UCC “first” several decades later. Her name was Antoinette Brown, and she was a vocal abolitionist who was educated as a minister. After much unwillingness, the Congregational Church finally licensed her to preach, and she took over a congregation in New York, where in 1853 she became the first woman to be ordained in a Protestant church. This is wonderful news, but the discrimination she experienced before that event was actually overshadowed by the discrimination that followed it. Within a few years, she had left the ministry—not because of any personal failing, but because the establishment was simply that threatened by her presence.

William Johnson
The list, of course, goes on and on. But a more recent “first” is something that happened in the living memory of most people here. And that was the ordination of William Johnson in 1972. Bill was the first openly gay individual to be ordained in this country, and it happened in Southern California. And perhaps more than just about any of the other firsts, Bill engaged in the struggle for liberation not just before, but especially after his ordination. I don’t know if he openly sought a call to a congregation—I suspect he did—but he never received one. And during much of his career, he had to make his living doing things other than church work. But he never left the church behind and he never ceased advocating for equal rights or educating people on the LGBT struggle in the church. Life in such a fishbowl certainly can’t have been easy.

And so as we remember Melchizedek, and Noah, and Nimrod, and those first Christians in Antioch, let us also pause in our celebration and meditate on what it means to be the first. God was at work in the lives of these pioneers, and I think just as God called Abraham, and the promise made to him wasn’t fulfilled until long after he died, many of the church’s pioneers also failed to live to see the fulfillment of promises. But this doesn’t mean that they weren’t an important part of how those promises were kept. God’s promise is alive in each one of us, and as I look out there, I would imagine that there are some uncelebrated firsts. It’s even possible that some of us have accomplished a first that we’re not even aware of. But we all know our own lives. And we all know that every goal in our lives that we accomplish is preceded by struggle, and it’s followed by struggle. And yet, through faith, we persevere. As the writer of Hebrews put it:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’ They died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. —from Heb. 11
So let’s be on the lookout for people who are struggling with their own faith, let us support them in their struggle, celebrate their accomplishments, and move forward together with them into the Realm of God, promised to those who believe.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.