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We are an open & affirming church. In the language of the United Church of Christ, this means that we are open to all people, and at the time it was developed, the term meant we are open to people who identify as somewhere on the LGBTQQIAA+ spectrum that attempts to define human sexuality and gender expression. Our Open and Affirming Statement, adopted in 1995, reads like this:
Fellowship Congregational Church accepts the call:
- To share and to invite in Christ’s baptism, to eat at Christ’s table,
to join in Christ’s passion and victory;
- To love and serve God and others;
- To be a community of healing and hospitality;
- To resist evil;
- To be in covenant with faithful people without regard to age, language, race, gender, abilities, economic class, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
While the O&A language has been crafted around, and has largely confronted, bias and oppression of the LGBTQ community, we can all hear in the words of even our covenental statement the push to inclusion that demands we look at all the lines we draw…which is a never-ending process. We have lots of members who take active roles in the leadership of the church and identify as part of the LGBTQ community. We march in the Pride parade, like we will again this year…sign up in the narthex..and we house the Council Oak Men’s Chorale and we advocate for equal rights and justice in many ways. Until the strong winds blew it away recently, we flew a rainbow flag on the outside of our sanctuary…and will again. I don’t think it’s a secret that we are “gay-friendly.” But is that the end of our work for inclusion? And, perhaps more provocatively, is that all that “open & affirming” really means?
We have just come through a challenging and rewarding lenten study on the UCC’s “Understanding White Identity” curriculum, where we held a space comprised intentionally of white people and confronted things like privilege, the difference between intent and impact and the long reach of prejudice when it is mixed with power. In Wednesday night’s book study, we have just begun reading David Grann’s book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI”, which has opened our eyes to a story every bit as troubling and largely unknown as the 1921 Race Massacre once was to many of us. We are living in a time of great political division and conflict, and we are in the beginnings of a trial that will have an impact on our city, a trial that speaks to the ways that we can speak of inclusion but never actually listen to other people’s stories.
Inclusion isn’t a finish line we cross. Inclusion is more of a journey, not a destination. And it isn’t easy, but it is important…in fact, we list it consistently here as a primary value. And not, I think, just because we think it’s nice, or cool, but because this is what our faith story tells us. This is what we see Jesus practice and that means if we are following him, we practice it, too. On this holiday, we have to ask ourselves a difficult question – how are we inclusive? How do we make room for the many stories, not just the one…AND make room for the one. Because all of the stories are important, even if they just correspond to the so-called “typical.”
When Jesus speaks to his disciples in John’s gospel, he often speaks at a different level than his disciples. He thinks he’s speaking clearly and they don’t get it…perhaps we don’t, either. Otherwise we wouldn’t have an entire industry dedicated to deciphering this stuff, right? Take this segment read today…Jesus thinks they understand. You know the way, right? But like a PhD in Astrophysics talking to a third grader, the words are clear but the meaning is lost. Thomas says, “Rabbi, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the way?”
Jesus’ response to this question is one that has caused enormous suffering and harm through the centuries. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Of course, his answer doesn’t stop there, but that’s where it stops for so many. That’s clear, right? Jesus is the way. And if you try to get to God any other way, then you’re mistaken, or wrong…and then it’s a few easy steps to you being a heathen, or a savage…or an infidel. So you pledge your loyalty to Jesus with an oath, the Jesus prayer we might call it, and you get ritualized with water and you are in…and everyone who hasn’t is out.
But let’s read carefully. Jesus first says:”I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And then he says:
“No one comes to the Father, except through me.” Now, if we simply replace the “me” in the second statement with who Jesus defines “me” as –in other words, the “I am” in the first statement, we get this:
“No one comes to the Father, except through the way, the truth, and the life.” And, as David Ewart says in his commentary, “That statement, I think, is NOT grounds for slaughtering non-believers in Jesus, or forced baptisms, or worrying that non-believers have been condemned to everlasting damnation”, he writes. Instead it is a declaration that the way Jesus teaches, which includes lots of grace and forgiveness, and a fierce dedication to the challenge of inclusion, that’s what brings us to connection with the Divine, by whatever name you call it. The entire ministry of Jesus is a lesson in crossing boundaries and making available to all access to God. To take that ministry and make it exclusive is one of the biggest heresies of Christian history.
When John talks about “eternal life” he’s imagining the same thing that the other ancient authors of the New Testament, heavily influenced by Jewish thought, are imagining – a destination. A reality to come. A tikkun olam, the great healing of the world, not a heaven in the sky after we’re dead. For John, our eternal lives begin now, and they begin by living “The Way” that Jesus taught – nonviolence, seeking and doing justice, speaking truth – to each other and to power, defending the vulnerable, forgiving one and all; making room at the table. And that’s a lovely vision but, as the disciples say to Jesus in many ways, it seems immensely difficult…maybe impossible.
We value inclusion here. I say at the beginning of each service one of the slogans of our denomination, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” That also sounds nice. But is it accurate? Are we so inclusive that someone could come into worship, for instance, and play the bagpipes in the corner all service long? I mean, maybe 5 or 10 minutes, but not a full hour! And while we might not be challenged as a community by a drag queen coming to service, a person wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat would face at least a little pushback, right? We all have our lines, friends.
So how do we, in a church that does have it’s boundaries to cross, and on a day that leaves some people out and makes many feel more loved, make room for this spirit of inclusion? How do we make room in the ways that we talk to one another? How do we give one another the benefit of the doubt when we wonder why they aren’t participating in this or that, or why they don’t fulfill a certain role the way we want them to? And how do we, on a holiday like this, make room for the many stories that are motherhood?
There are many rooms, Jesus teaches us, in God’s house…a lot of room at the table. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, we’re going to build many rooms…there already ARE many rooms. It is as if Jesus is saying to us that the welcome and generosity is already there, we just have to use it. We have to believe in it, or as that Greek word pistis says more directly, to trust in it. That does not require our perfection, but our participation – heck, even Jesus screws up this inclusion thing, just ask the Canaanite woman seeking Jesus’ healing. But he trusts that inclusion leads to good places and so he listens, he makes an effort to hear other stories, and then he makes adjustments in himself because of them. He says oops when he has hurt someone…but still reaches for the kind of life that John says is so affirming that he calls it “eternal.” It’s more than just knowing the path, or agreeing to the path, or appreciating the path…it is walking the path.
Let us keep walking.