Rev. John Thomas, President of the United Church of Christ
There is in each of our souls, and in the soul of the United Church of Christ, an older brother who undermines our faithfulness as surely as the storm surge overwhelmed New Orleans’ levees. It is the older brother, at least as I interpret the parable, who grimly works on his father’s farm, never lifting his eyes to the anguish of a younger brother in the far country. It is the older brother who long ago dismissed the prodigal brother, who never stands eagerly waiting with his father, eyeing with hope the far horizon. It is the older brother who would never dream of going in search of that brother for fear of being tainted by the impurities of that alien and ambiguous far off place. It is the older brother who resents the celebration of his brother’s restoration to home. It is the older brother who never asked for his own party, who never understood the call to a vocation of gratitude for gifts already received.
Yes, there are those whose faith leads them convictions different from my own. Such diversity has been and continues to be honored in our church. We know there are those in our church who struggle out of their own sense of biblical integrity over the church’s welcome and affirmation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. But when I receive emails and letters from UCC members railing against such a welcome, angry that God’s gracious love is lavished on the unworthy, bitter that the church’s attention is being directed to the lost rather than to those who have faithfully tended the farm, then I sense the voice of the older brother in our midst. When I hear from UCC members and congregations who have assumed the role of arbiter over who has earned the embrace of the waiting parent, divine or otherwise, then I sense the voice of the older brother in our midst. When I receive emails and letters from UCC members and pastors furious because we have dared to speak on the way our political and economic institutions affect the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable among us, who demand to know why we mingle our faith with politics or economics, who wonder why we should sully ourselves in the pig styes of the far country, who admonish me and us to return to our proper work of managing the family farm, then I sense the voice of the older brother. When I receive emails and letters complaining that my witness against the war in Iraq is inappropriate because it places me or our church, as it did a couple of weeks ago in Washington, on stage with personalities that make us uncomfortable - and admittedly it was a colorful collection of characters! - and when those letters speak of no discomfort at the deception and death woven through the imperial project in Iraq and elsewhere, than I sense the voice of the older brother in our midst, calling us to the safe irrelevancy of the farm. When I receive, as I did yesterday, a message from a UCC member complaining about our Neighbors in Need promotion because it calls for a form of universal health care, and then goes on to question why we would consider health care a right, equating it to having a car or a cell phone, then I sense the voice of the older brother in our midst.
There is an opportunity being exposed by the challenges of these days in our life. It is the opportunity to invite our own members to a larger imagination, to a more gracious vision, to a time of rejoicing that there might just be a lost and lonely soul coming home to an embrace rather than a judgment, to a gospel understanding that grace is not something to be doled out as if it might run out, but to be spread and shared as if it will never run out.