UCC Binghamton at Pride Palooza 2014

UCC Binghamton had a table at Pride Palooza 2014 on June 14th Pride Palooza ran from Noon to 8pm. This is the 10th year for Pride Palooza.  Pride Palooza is held on on Court Street from State Street to the Roundabout and then down Collier Street. Right in downtown Binghamton,NY.

UCC Binghamton table at Pride Palooza in Downtown Binghamton

For more information about Pride Palooza visit…

Binghamton Pride

A Moveable Feast


A Sermon by the Rev. Janet L. Abel
Preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014


Happy Pentecost!

This is one of our three big church holidays.  But does it really feel that way?  Christmas and Easter and Pentecost.  However, we really don’t do much for Pentecost.  There’s a hint of red out there in the congregation.  That’s one of the ways we say it’s Pentecost.  No Pentecost trees, no Pentecost gifts, and that’s probably a good thing.

It’s a holiday weekend, but there’s no need to rush home and put the ham in the oven or make sure everything is decorated.  Christmas is a lot of work.  I love it.  It’s my favorite time of the year, even though it’s work.  And Easter is glorious, but once again there’s some effort involved, not to mention that we get up very early for the sunrise service.

I really enjoy Pentecost and what it celebrates.  The Holy Spirit.  As mysterious as that can be, this is a celebration.  The church’s birthday is on this day.  The people gathered together, and they became one.  That is certainly something to celebrate.  It is a Moveable Feast because the date changes every year.  Some years we agree with the Orthodox churches, and this is one of those years when our Easter and Pentecost fall on the same days as theirs.  So why does it move?  We’ll be getting to that.

My Priest Has Never Told Me That!

A while ago, I worked with a lady who is a resident at St. Louise Manor, where I am on the staff.  She tried out my Bible Study group that meets there on Thursday mornings.  One day we got into a discussion about how Easter is fixed and why that date is so moveable.  Christmas is always on December 25th, but it moves around the days of the week, although the date always remains the same.

You’ll notice, however, that there’s a huge spread in the different dates when Easter is celebrated.  The dates can fall a month or more apart because of the way the specific date was decided long ago.  Over the centuries, the church fathers have called enormous councils to decide important religious matters.

All right, then, this is orthodox; this is what we’re all going to believe.  Because the dates are so spread out, and there’s no such thing as the printed word, we’re trying to get uniform dates down on paper.  (They didn’t yet have printing presses.)  People are disagreeing with each other.  They’re running around in all directions.  So we’re going to call these councils and get everybody on the same page.

One of those pages was to fix the date of Easter inasmuch as it was being celebrated all over the calendar.  Some people were celebrating it every week, and that was just too much.  But because Pentecost depends on Easter, how was Easter decided?  The church fathers decided to place it on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  This is a perfectly natural reason:  To celebrate new life after the first day of spring.

Well, my lady, who still resides at the St. Louise Manor, didn’t enjoy hearing this.  She took off her glasses and screeched, “My priest has never told me that!  You’re lying!”  And I said, “I’m so sorry I’m upsetting you, but this is the real reason.  Have you ever thought about why Easter . . . .”  “No, I’ve never thought!  I don’t question God!”  She was furious.  I’ll never forget it.  She hasn’t really spoken to me since, and it’s about three years now.

Some people have problems with their memory, but not this lady.  Oh no.  She’s the one who said Easter moves around.  And it’s got to do with the first day of spring, which sounds like goddess worship or something.  So she doesn’t come to Bible Study any more, as you can imagine.  What does that say about her faith?

If it moves, it’s not stable, is it?  It’s not believable.  It’s too human.  Yet I love the fact that the date of Pentecost moves.  Pentecost is based on Easter, 50 days afterward.  And because Easter moves, because spring moves, because the full moon moves, so does Pentecost.  They all move around.

What Is Pentecost?

Let’s look at our Bible story a little more.  What happened here?  After Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples are told to wait, and angels are there, looking up to heaven.  There goes Jesus, now what do we do?  The angels say, go back to Jerusalem and wait, and they did.

Ten days later, they’re all gathered together, and more people are obviously joining in.  There are a lot of people here, men and women, including Mary, and certainly more than 12 disciples, or 11 in this case.  There’s a multitude, the Bible says.

Then something major happened.  Hard to describe, but the Bible uses words as though it were like wind, a mighty wind that filled the whole house.  It was like fire, but not exactly, and it rested on each person.  Everybody started to talk.  The language was confused, but all understood that they were one.  And there were many symbols.  Wind and something like fire and words and languages from all over the earth, and yet there was understanding.  These were all symbols of the Holy Spirit, and now the church could truly be born.

There are many images for God used all the time.  A lot of them are from the Bible.  Last Wednesday, reading from The Jewish Annotated New Testament, we looked at some central symbols used for God.  “Handles” as Deb said in the children’s message, God’s big.  You can get a handle on it, you can get a piece of it:  Yahweh, Jehovah, Father, Mother, Abba, Breath, Spirit, Wind, Fire.

Also, the Holy Breath, Ruach in Hebrew, Wisdom from Proverbs.  Holy Wisdom is pictured as being with God at the Creation.  In John, the author picks up that thread in the prologue to his Gospel, which begins very differently from the other three Gospels:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Another image, the spoken word, and then John goes on to say that in Creation, God spoke, and the world began.  These images are helpers.  Somehow, God, one God, is understood and experienced in many different ways.

The Word Dwells Among Us, Filled with Wind and Fire

That’s what Pentecost celebrates.  Then John says in his prologue, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, filled with grace and truth.”  These images are used in our Pentecost story in something like fire and words in a speech, different languages becoming one.  Each image speaks a little differently about what the spirit is and how we might experience it.  I’ve used wind a lot to talk about God’s spirit in and among us.  Wind is something you don’t see, but it’s everywhere.

Have any of you ever gone on line to the Google Wind Map?  Up comes an outline of the United States, showing all the winds, how strong they are, and colored lines that get brighter while they’re moving.  It’s such a cool picture.  You see why our Midwest has so many more problems with wind than we do here in the East.  Nothing’s stopping that wind coming down from Canada, which is much stronger as shown by its patterns.

I looked at the Wind Map the day tornados were spinning in the Midwest, and you could see them.  Go to the East, and we have much gentler winds blowing across New York State and the eastern seaboard.  Look it up on a day of storm, and you’ll really see it.  You can’t see wind, but you can certainly see what it does if you watch television news.  You can see flags flapping; you can see trees and branches down and whole houses uprooted.  It can get pretty powerful and sometimes scary, as in a storm at night.

God’s spirit can be like that.  It can be like fire, warm to the touch, moving, passionate.  And God’s spirit can certainly be like words.  We use words a great deal in our church services whenever we gather.  We read words in our books, we hear the Word, we sing, we pray.  And notice the different languages becoming one.  There are all these languages, Parthians and Medes, and yet they all understand.  Understanding.  Connection.  And the Holy Spirit is everywhere.  It’s moving all the time, which is why it’s great.  Because Pentecost is a holiday that moves like Easter.  New life moves too.

But what does that say about our faith?  If it moves, are we like the lady at St. Louise?  It’s not stable.  It’s not believable.  It’s too human.

My Theology Is Dangerous; the Holy Spirit Is in Too Many Places

A long time ago, I went to seminary.  Not as long ago as Art, but we went to the same place, and I was there after him, ’92 to ’95.  I decided right in the middle of the three-year Master’s program that I would take the Presbyterian ordination exam in my second year rather than the third year.  Presbyterians have to take what they call ordination exams.  I should have skipped to the UCC right then and there.

But of course the Presbyterians believe in tests, and they are very hard tests.  They’re like the LSAT and the medical boards, so they’re similar to a board, a really difficult thing that must be passed.  It’s not so much that it’s hard, but you have to kind of agree with the party line.

Despite not having been raised Presbyterian and thus not really indoctrinated in Presbyterian theology, I nevertheless decided to take my theological board a year early.  So I took that test and guess what.  The essay was about the Holy Spirit.  Uh, oh.  When I got it back, I have to tell you with some embarrassment that, although it was a great lesson, I had failed it.

I had never failed anything this important.  But I failed logic in college; that was a big mystery to me.  And some of my labs.  I hated chem lab.  Anyway, I failed the Presbyterian ordination exam and was shocked and chagrined.  One’s ordination rides on this.  I had a whole year more, but I sat on the steps just crushed.

And I have to tell you one of the quotes from my examiner.  Presbyterian ordination exams are sent out across the country to various people who grade them.  The Elder who reviewed my test had scrawled a big remark on the front:  “Well, I am not passing this person.  She puts the Spirit in way too many places, and her theology is dangerous.”

I never forgot that.  I did install the Holy Spirit in too many places.  I put it everywhere.  (But the Holy Spirit did not face me down for my presumption.)  What the Elder was looking for, however, was in the pulpit, in the Bible, in church, and that’s pretty much it.

You know you’re starting to get kind of dangerous if you think the Holy Spirit is just down the street.  It could be anywhere then, right?  In a bar, on a beach, in some other book besides the Bible.  In some other office, in a song, in nature.  How could the Spirit be there?  You’re likely to get into dangerous places that way.  Newton, New-Age philosophies, Paganism, you name it.  So she doesn’t get ordained.

Luckily, I had a whole year to read a book called Christian Doctrine by Shirley Guthrie.  It is a classic about Presbyterian theology.  Since I was raised Baptist, I really needed to steep myself in what the examiners wanted to hear.  And I passed with flying colors, I want you to know.  My very next year, I took all the ordination exams together.

What was the Elder afraid of?  What made my theology dangerous to him or her?  What made this person seem like the lady at St. Louise who doesn’t want to hear that the Spirit could possibly move around, just like Pentecost and Easter.  It’s unstable, unbelievable, and not human.

Theology Hardens, Gets Put in a Box

The history of the Jewish people is instructive.  We learn early on in the Old Testament, in Genesis, that the Jews are worshipping all over the place.  They set up rocks by a river, there by a stream called a wadi, maybe on a mountain because mountains remind people of God, so they go up there to worship.  But then Moses comes along with the people, and they are being driven out of Egypt, out of bondage at last, to go to Israel.

On the way, Moses gets word that he is to build a tent to house the Ark of the Covenant.  This is where the Jews are going to worship.  The tent’s very fancy, all right, and there are a lot of instructions.  I’ve read the Bible a couple of times and found lots of descriptions about the linens and stuff that must be in the tent.  Now what is it about a tent?  Is it in one place?  No, you take it down, and you move it around.  That’s how God’s sanctuaries started.

It was much later that the Temple was built, and that’s where God is.  The Ark of the Covenant is like a throne where God rests, and that’s the holiest place within the Temple.  The mountains where the Samaritans go?  Well, they’re just plain wrong!  How could God be there when Solomon built this beautiful Temple?  It’s something you do, isn’t it?

When Christianity became legal in 313 A.D. and Emperor Constantine was converted, what happened to all those places where Christians were meeting with people who were so new they called themselves “The Way”?  They were down there in the catacombs, in caves, in people’s houses.  Baptismal fonts have been found in regular houses.

What happened to all those places?  They were closed, right?  Churches, big beautiful cathedrals were built.  And that’s where God is.

Sorry, Canon’s Closed; the Age of Prophecy Is Over

It’s the same thing that happens to theology itself.  Over many years, our thinking about God gets hardened, put in a box.  Church councils have been part of that, we’ve got to agree.  We must have one doctrine and one canon.  We’re going to pick this Bible, this is the Holy Bible.  This other stuff, well, does it make it into the Bible?  Canon’s closed.  That’s it.  The Age of Prophecy is over, some have said.  Is the canon closed?

Is there any other book, any book you’ve ever read that speaks to you about God or faith or soul in a real or profound way?  Any person you’ve ever heard speak who has done the same thing for you?  A piece of music that’s moved you and spoken to you of the Divine?  Have you ever been out in nature?

We had a big church meeting in Niagara Falls, Canada, and it’s beautiful there.  I remember once driving into Canada and feeling how arbitrary the border is between the United States and Canada.  Someone put it there, though.  Either it’s a river or a mountain range or something that’s fixed.  Doesn’t move around.  It’s human to do this, but things really do move.

Things are sometimes in very surprising places.

The Mighty Comma

One of my most fundamental reasons to become a UCC pastor is the comma.  It’s simple and profound.  We were quoting Gracie of Burns and Allen, and she said, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.”  So I put on my big Comma pin this morning.  Commas move around.  They’re not stable.  Not always.  As Kim said in Bible Study, commas can save lives.  You know, “Let’seatgrandma.”  Or, Let’s eat,      grandma.”  We’re grateful for that.

Commas are very helpful, but sometimes we’re much more comfortable with periods.  That was then.  The Age of Prophecy is over.  The canon is closed.  But never put a period where God has put a comma.  So we celebrate profoundly on the day we approach the mysterious movement and workings of the Holy Spirit.  God is still speaking.  God moves around.  God is human and in us and among us, still at work in us and the world.

Pentecost is a Moveable Feast, as we are, as the church is, and may it ever be so.


Franchising Christ


A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Arthur M. Suggs
On Sunday, April 6, 2014


I have attended church all my life.  As a kid, my parents took me to St. Andrews Presbyterian on the northwest side of Indianapolis.  Then as a college student, the first thing I did was to look for a church, found one a few miles outside of town, and attended that for the seven years I was there.  After that, off I went to seminary, where I served two different churches while there, one of which was fascinating, the chapel at Fort Dix, New Jersey.  Then I entered the ministry.

The Decline of the Church Universal

One of the great sadnesses of my life, after fifty to sixty years of being involved with churches, is that the reputation of the Church, not any particular one but the Church universal, has declined over those decades.  Among the causes have been the drop in the number of people who come to church, the scandals that have plagued the church over those years, and the impaired reputation it now has.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been at a cocktail party, meeting new people, and they’ll ask, “What do you do?”  When I reply, “I’m the pastor of a church,” they’ll say, “Oh.”  It’s like they stop themselves before they can say, “I’m so sorry.”  They feel as though they need to send me a card or something.  It’s sad that over the years the reputation has continued to decline.

I was ordained in 1984, and the middle of the 80’s was sort of a formative time for me as a brand-new minister.  I was enthusiastic, idealistic, and optimistic as all get-out.  I was also clueless, with no idea what I was getting into.  And one of the things that has affected me deeply came in 1986, when I’d been a brand-new minister for only two years at that point.

Infidelities in the Church

In 1986 televangelist Jimmy Swaggart began making on-air accusations denigrating other televangelists, notably Marvin Gorman and Jim Bakker.  You might not have heard of Gorman, but he was well-known, and you all remember Jimmy Bakker and Tammy Faye.  I’m not sure how he did this, but Swaggart had uncovered the fact that Gorman had been having an affair with a woman in his congregation.  Swaggart decided to tell about it on his television show.  He also helped to expose Bakker’s infidelity, which actually was arranged by a colleague.  It was a sting operation when Bakker was out of town.  These exposures, you will remember, received unbelievable media attention.

Gorman retaliated in kind – now these are Christian ministers, mind you – by hiring a private investigator to look at Swaggart’s life and found out that he had been using prostitutes.  Swaggart was subsequently forced to step down from his pulpit, only for a year, and he made a tearful televised apology in February 1988.  And I quote; it’s a great quote.  This guy’s good.  “I have sinned against you, my Lord, and I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God’s forgiveness.”  Gosh, what I wouldn’t give to have that kind of talent.  Forgiveness comes when you apologize, I suppose.

Swaggart was caught again by California police in 1991, only three years later, with another prostitute.  Her name was Rosemary Garcia, riding with him in the car when they got pulled over because they were going the wrong way down a one-way road.  The cop asked why she was with Jimmy Swaggart, and she replied, “He asked me for sex.  I mean that’s why he stopped me.  That’s what I do.  I’m a prostitute.”  So this happened during my formative years, and I guess I’ve been damaged ever since.

Abuses of Charitable Funds

All this came bubbling back up for me last week, when I heard a story on the radio.  NPR was telling about a ministry, which it called a “church” in quotation marks.  I’m not sure if it really is a church or not.  But it is some type of ministry that over the last two to two-and-a-half years has brought in $210,000,000 in donations and out of that has given away $30,000,000 to all sorts of ministries, relief efforts,  and various projects.

This ministry has nonprofit status because it is technically a “church.”  But bear in mind, it has no sanctuary, no congregation that fills it up, no weddings, no funerals, and no baptisms.  There’s no fellowship dinner, no popcorn for the local parades, no hospital calls, no nursing-home visits.  Just a studio that promotes beautifully what this ministry has done with the $30,000,000.  No doubt it can do a lot of good with $30,000,000, but you’re never told about the full $210,000,000 and how, with generous contributions, it could do so much more.

I’m so mad about this abuse of charitable funds that I can hardly stand it.  I can scarcely see straight, and I almost have to pull to the side of the road because I’m so upset.  I’m thinking the same thing you’re thinking.  What about the $180,000,000 remainder?  What happened to that?

Searching for God in the High and Low Places

Sometimes I skip church completely when on vacation.  It’s as though I’ve had it with church.  But other times I attend to different religious needs that I have.  I like the way we do church here.  But there’s a twin impulse that I like to satisfy when on vacation.  One is that I often go to an Anglican church, an Episcopal church, where there’s a procession and every single word said from the pulpit is being read.  It’s been preprinted, the sermon is read, the liturgy is read, and it’s all very well organized.  Very high-church.  I like that now and then, once a year.

And then I’ll also go to the other extreme by attending an Assembly of God church, a Pentacostal sect.  I wave my hand, praise Jesus, and get that kind of thing out of my system.

The Hidden Secret of Megachurches

Once, while on vacation, I went to a megachurch.  It was a smallish megachurch, with only 700 or 800 people, but still a megachurch.  And what an experience that was!  The music was awesome – somewhere between 40 and 50 voices, good voices, and they sang beautiful anthems.  On multiple screens, the words of the anthems showed up in video.  Along with beautiful scenery, panoramic views, and with the words of the anthem came the experience of not just listening to and seeing the choir but also beautiful images and highlighted words.

Then came what we would call a Minute for Mission.  It was an extremely professional Power Point presentation about one of the ministries that this church promotes.  Once again there were different images that went with this very proficient talk that the Minute for Mission person put on.

Finally came the sermon.  Now I care about sermons.  I pay attention to them.  They’re part of my business.  So I listened to this sermon very closely and found it almost perfect technically.  Never a misspoken word, never an “uh” anywhere in it.  The theology was exactly what you would expect – 100 percent orthodox evangelical Christianity, which is that you are going to Hell.  But there’s Jesus.  If you believe in Jesus as your lord and savior, you’re in luck.  You don’t go to Hell, and you can then have a better life.  So the minister highly recommends calling Jesus into your life as lord and savior.

So that was the gospel message, but I detected something vaguely unsettling in the sermon.  It occurred to me there was nothing in it that had to do with this particular congregation and nothing that had to do with this particular minister.  I noticed it but didn’t go down that road.  So I left the service with an overriding feeling of envy.  Good grief!  The time it takes to put together and rehearse a technically perfect sermon, the time it takes to put together a Minute for Mission, the time it takes to integrate the anthem music and several other pieces of music with the message.  All this must be a prodigious undertaking, so I felt envious.

How do they pull it off?  It was later that I found out how, and boy, did I feel stupid.  Many megachurches subscribe to a DVD service.  They are part of a franchise.  You pay a fee to a company that provides music for the anthem a month or two ahead of time.  You get the music to the choir.  It comes with the text for the Minute for Mission and the Power Point to accompany it, so all you have to do is play that and find a well-spoken person to deliver the text in a compelling way while the video shows.

Exactly the same thing for the sermon.  The sermon is there in the DVD.  Print it, and the minister reads it ten, twenty times, and practices the text three, six, nine times until the sermon is down pat, almost memorized.  The minister is then able to deliver it convincingly without having to write it, research it, or integrate it with the Minute for Mission or the music.  The megachurch is thus a franchise.  It is told what to say.

Now, why have I told you this?  These are some of the big, successful church stories that are going on in our world right now.

Searching for God in Our Home Church

So I thought you’d like to know what you get here at our church.  This is where it’s important.  What you get is crystal-clear finances.  There is not a dime hidden anywhere in this church, unless it’s underneath one of those pew cushions.  You want to know where your money goes?  Just ask.  All the money that comes in and where it goes is significant.  Every single facet of our church’s finances is available 100 percent to every single person in this church.  We don’t always print it up for everybody because we’re trying to save a few trees, but it’s all available.  As to your Mission dollars, when you give a dollar, one dollar goes where you want it to go.  Not 99 cents, not 95 cents, not 50 cents.  A dollar.

Because the church pays for all of the overhead, your donations follow your wishes.  Have we made mistakes before?  Yes, but they have been corrected, and your intended beneficiary receives all of your allocation to it.

The sermons you get here – some are good; some are not so good.  I’ve seen yawns like you wouldn’t believe.  Big, contagious yawns!  But the sermons are real, they are born out of the life of this congregation and this minister, integrated into the gospel of Jesus Christ and the news of our day.

Another thing you get in this church is that, should you decide to kick the bucket, you will be buried by somebody who knows you and will strive mightily to say something good about you.  And your friends and family who attend your service will not have to endure an evangelistic message to a captive audience, which is one of the most immoral things that churches can do.

The last accounting of what you get here is not 100 percent true, but it’s mostly true.  And that is “Cheers.”  Like the TV show, this is a place where everybody knows your name.  It’s an extended family such that, when something really bad happens in your life, there are others who are there for you, like a deep bench, waiting to cry with you.  And if something really good happens in your life, they’re there to rejoice with you.

Fallacies and New Understandings About God

So that’s what you get, but actually that’s what anybody gets if they’re part of a reasonably healthy church.  And here’s something else you get, a kind of value added in addition to all the other stuff.  And that is you get a “God is still speaking” message.  What God is saying lately, integrated with what God has been saying in the past.  Part of what bothers me about the standard evangelical communication that you sometimes get at funerals is that the megachurch message is based upon suppositions that aren’t true.  Let me air a little dirty laundry here.  There are five fallacies about God:

  1. God needs something, as in God needs your obedience and your worship.

2.   God can fail to get what he/she needs.  So if you’re not obedient and you don’t worship right, God is sort of upset.

3.   God has separated you from God’s self because you haven’t given what God wants.  The Deity can’t tolerate sin, can’t be in the presence of sin, so God has separated himself/herself from the sinner.

4.   God still needs what God needed so badly all along, your obedience and your worship.

5.   God still requires obedience and worship from your separated position and will destroy you if you don’t provide it.

All five on this list are false.  All five are the basis of negative messages from many pulpits.

Reexamining Old Beliefs in the 21st Century

Let me give you another example of the kind of thing that God is saying of late:  God has been encouraging people all across the globe to reexamine some of our old beliefs, to entertain the notion, to permit ourselves to think that maybe what we have believed about God and life isn’t working and may not even be right.  God may be asking us to explore the possibility that there might be something we haven’t understood about the Deity.  Maybe we got something wrong about God and life, the understanding of which could really change things.

And then we must be willing to accept a new understanding of God and life to be brought forth, reluctantly and with much criticism, but nevertheless an understanding that could produce a new way of life on this planet without wars and intrareligion hatred.  We must be courageous enough to explore and examine new understandings.  If they align with our inner truth, our inner understanding, our inner knowing, we must have the fortitude to enlarge our belief system to include these new understandings.

Finally we must choose to live life as a demonstration of our highest and grandest beliefs rather than being in denial of them.

This, my friends, is new.  It’s of this century.  The Book of Hebrews says, “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves.”  Ministers have used that exhortation for centuries to encourage people to come to church.  Here’s why:  In the assembly, in the community, when you gather together, that’s where the healing takes place, that’s where the growth takes place.  We believe the image is so compelling that you can take all these rough stones, every single one of us, put them in a tumbler, and they come out polished.