Ten years ago, this church made the incredibly difficult and incredibly courageous decision to become officially Open and Affirming. This is a specific designation and commitment in the United Church of Christ to welcome all people, specifically including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Like all true commitments, this cost us something. It cost us actual members who could not reconcile themselves theologically to this decision. And while parting is painful and we hate to lose people, this congregation chose to go in the direction that the majority of the people were feeling led. As someone who has come to this congregation many years later, I am inspired by that decision. In a congregation as theologically and politically diverse as ours, I can only believe that such a decision was guided by the Holy Spirit. Our commitment to extravagant welcome is not simply a matter of personal opinion, but is grounded in Scriptures like the ones we will hear this morning. First John is full of affirmations that all who follow the Lord Jesus Christ are siblings equally in God's family. Also that our words mean nothing if we have no actions to back them up. God invites us to follow Jesus into the light, freely acknowledging our imperfection so that it don't control us. This morning, the author of First John challenges us with what it really means to love one another.
Scripture Reading 1 John 3:1-3,11,16-24 from the NIV
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
A few weeks ago Sam and I went to an art show at a gallery in Columbus called Art Outside the Lines (in fact, the founder of that gallery Mehri Davis is with us this morning.) Art Outside the Lines serves adult artists with developmental disabilities. The show that night was by a man named Joseph Greene, and while I admired his talent, his art wasn't really my style, except for this one piece, which I was just so taken with. I know you can't see it well from out there, but I'll move it where you can see it after the service. It's a painting of a bunch of birds in a tree. And they're a bunch of weird birds. Big ones and little ones and multi-colored ones. And this one has a super long neck and that one has two heads. I just liked it.
As I prepared for our Open and Affirming worship service this week, I realized that I like this painting because it reminds me of Zion. We can admit it, we have some pretty weird birds here. Colorful birds and brown birds, fat birds and skinny birds, all trying to share the same tree. But we're all birds! You see where I'm going with this. It's a simple message, one we all know and yet one we constantly need to be reminded of: we're. all. birds. So for the love of all that is holy, can we please stop trying to make some birds feel like they are less worthy of being in the tree?!
See, I suspected we would say "Yes" to that, because it resonates with our spirits. We know everyone should be in the tree. We know Jesus wants all the birds in the tree. And yet it is much easier to say it than to do it. What about the birds who don't fly? Do we say, "Well, you're just as much of a bird, but you can live on the ground." Or do we spend our time and money to make way for those birds to also get in the tree? Or, even more radically, do we all get on the ground?
You can see that I'm stretching the metaphor, but this is what being Open and Affirming is really about. Declaring ourselves to be an Open and Affirming church is a public commitment to continue asking the question, "How much are WE willing to change ourselves to make sure that any bird who wants to be in this tree gets to be in this tree?" (Some birds want to be in other trees, and that's fine, we don't have to worry about them.) The key part of that question is OUR willingness to change.
Here's what's NOT radical: you can be in our tree as long as you are exactly like us. That's how most trees already operate. If you can do the behavior of flying and if you believe that all birds must have wings, then you can belong in our tree. Behave like us, believe like us, belong with us. That's how the whole world works. Behave-believe-belong. But what if our tree were different? What if we said any bird who wants to be in our tree gets to be in our tree?
Have any of you ever heard of the moa bird? It was a large bird that is now extinct, but not only couldn't it fly, it didn't even have any wings! Now, here's what usually happens when birds hear about the moa: they immediately begin a theological discussion about whether the moa was actually a bird. And not until that discussion has come to a satisfactory conclusion does anyone remember that it started because the moa wanted to be in our tree!
What if we started by saying, "Moa bird, get up in this tree!" And then, as appropriate and for those who want to, we could have theological discussions. We do not have to choose between inclusion and deep reflection. We can do both. We just have to decide that we are going to do one of them first. As an Open and Affirming church, we have already decided. We have chosen inclusion first. With us, the order is belong-believe-behave.
If you want to belong with us, you belong with us. Period. We ain't never all going to believe exactly the same, so we'll deal with that as it comes. And we trust that if we are all growing in our love for one another, then the Holy Spirit of All Birds will be leading each of us to address any unbirdlike behaviors in our own lives.
Here again the scripture: "This is the message we have heard from the beginning: all birds should love one another. And this is how we know what love is, the Jesus Phoenix laid down his life for us, and it is our sacred duty to lay down our lives for one another. Dear Zion birds, let us not love one another with high-minded statements and squawking, but in reality demonstrated by our work."
At this point, I'd like to give the rest of my usual sermon time to another bird, whom you all know and love. As I prepared for this week, Mary Harris said she felt led to give a testimony on this Open and Affirming Sunday about her own personal experience. And even though she JUST HAD SURGERY, we decided to trust that God would help her say what the Spirit wants us to hear.
... Mary's testimony ...
Amen. In light of what we have heard this morning, I would like for our moment of reflection to be a recommitment to our Affirming Statement of Welcome. As we heard this morning, statements matter. But they ring hollow without actions to make them real. So as an act of worship, I invite you all to stand and proclaim the covenant promise written in your bulletin:
As the people of God who gather at Zion United Church of Christ,
we make a solemn covenant with one another:
We will extravagantly welcome everyone who enters here.
We welcome every race.
We welcome every gender.
We welcome every age.
We welcome every expression of faith.
We welcome every marital status.
We welcome every sexual orientation.
We welcome every political party.
We welcome every body.
We will not be divided by social issues.
We will not judge as the world does: by health, wealth, or skills.
We will not allow our past to define our future.
We will transcend all labels.
We will always seek to affirm one another with loving hearts and open minds.
We will follow in the way of Christ Jesus,
loving and being loved by both God and neighbor,
with the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.
We will love one another for exactly who we are.
We promise that whoever we are and wherever we are on life's journey,
we will extravagantly welcome everyone who enters here.
Amen. May God give us the strength and the courage to turn our statements into actions.