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General Association 2010: Moderator's Address

by the Rev. Ken Peterkin

I’m Rev. Ken Peterkin and I’ve lived here in Connecticut for just over six years now. My geographic path to Essex, CT where I now serve as the Sr. Minister started in the town of Avon Lake, Ohio a western suburb of Cleveland where I attended the Avon Lake, UCC, was baptized, confirmed and ordained. I am of an age that I have lived my entire life as a UCC member. From Avon Lake the path stretched to Berkeley, CA where I attended Pacific School of Religion meeting my wife the Rev. Suzanne Personette who is also ordained and now serving as an interim minister at the West Haven UCC. I followed my wife to her first call in Indianapolis, IN where I also received my first call. Then our path took us to Saline, MI a city adjacent to Ann Arbor, MI where I was the minister at St. Paul UCC. I then received my call to come here to Connecticut.

In my travels from Ohio to California to Indiana to Michigan to Connecticut I have been impressed by the diversity of views expressed and practiced by parishioners and the general public alike in regards to the opening question expressed in this year’s brochure for General Association, -- “Who was Jesus of Nazareth?” If I were to ask that question of many of the folks both in and out of my parishes along my path, I am unconvinced that many would be able to place Jesus into the context of his birth and life as a Jewish peasant born at a time of imperial Roman occupation of his homeland. But what I am convinced of is the vast assumption of some or part of another statement of this year’s brochure when it avowed, “The affirmation that Jesus was the Incarnate One whose death and resurrection brought salvation to humanity is the central affirmation of the Christian faith.” Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your goals in ministry and community building, these two statements for me as a UCC minister become highly problematic.

I understand that many if not most people I have been associated with at my churches have a longing to affirm that Jesus IS the Incarnate One, and yet the ramifications for such an assent of belief often proves to be a starting point of conflict both within the rational mind of the believer and amongst their friends who are either fellow church members, or are not church goers and would describe themselves as agnostic, interfaith, atheist, or disengaged.

This summer I was on sabbatical and some of the travel I did was back to Ohio where I officiated at one of my niece’s wedding. Never mind that she has never set foot in a faith community of any conventional kind, Molly wanted her Uncle Ken the minister to officiate. Okay, maybe she didn’t—probably her mother/my sister thought it would be a nice thing to ask me to do. Never mind that my sister has a suspicious view of religion and an undeclared relationship with God, she, like so many other mother’s of brides coming to my church for weddings express some sort of desire to interact with the maybe, kinda possible, sort of I hope it’s true God of love and ethical goodness to bless their child’s marriage.

As it so goes my sabbatical topic is exactly the topic covered in the brochure’s first statement, “Who was Jesus of Nazareth?” Actually it’s more in the line of “who is Jesus to you?” The last third of my sabbatical and continuing into the fall season I have been visiting parishioners at their homes and will continue to do so until I have visited all that will allow me to cross their home’s threshold. I’m finding that most people are very willing to answer this question though some are to some extent judgmental about their own belonging in a Christian community of faith. And still yet some others are adamant to express that their belief system is something that I as their pastor is just something I’m going to have to accept because that’s the way they are and no one can tell them different, not especially you pastor Ken! I assure them all that I am perfectly comfortable with each of their answers.

Whether it’s in Southern Ohio where I officiated at the wedding where a favorite saying of the locals is “turn or burn”—turn to Jesus or burn in hell—or Berkeley, California where the psychic noise from the diversity of belief and practice rivals a stadium filled with rabid football fans, or right where I reside this day in Essex, CT there is a shared constant in humanity’s search for the divine: even with those persons who declare themselves atheist or scientific are wrapped up in an image of a god. Marcus Borg describes a moment when a student tells Borg how engaging the class is all but for one problem, the student doesn’t believe in God, to which Borg replies, “tell me of this God in whom you don’t believe.”

With such diversity and often conflict within the Christian faith as to the origins and purpose of its central figure Jesus, I find it very attractive to hear from other faith sojourners of their personal encounters with the person and identity of Jesus. For my understanding it is central to Christian practice that individuals express their own understanding of Jesus with others; that there be a dialogue and not just a monologue; that in Jesus’ words “wherever two or more or gathered” his presence is then most powerful. My understanding is that Christianity cannot exist in a personal vacuum and it is our call as clergy and spiritual leaders to assure laity and the public alike that differing viewpoints are only natural and ultimately beneficial.

But as a local pastor I am troubled by the conflict nurtured within my flock by exclusivist teachings of their past and the effects of that exclusivity on their worldview and upon their self image. Inner conflict and insecurity breeds aggressiveness in inter-personal and international relationships. But as our friend and teacher Rev. Da McCallister preached on this past Sunday morning that it’s with every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year of every decade that each of us can change the world. I pray that we do not give up and instead we grow closer to God and one another in dialogues such as this General Association’s topic.

Friends, welcome. And thank you for your time.

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