Arenít We Already a Welcoming Church?
Last Sunday, at a well-attended congregational meeting, we voted unanimously to move ahead in our Open and Affirming discussion. We said it is time to create our own statement of what it means to be an Open and Affirming Congregation . . . so that some time in the not too distant future we can vote to either accept of reject the statement.
I know this sermon may raise issues that cause discomfort . . . because I know some are anxious and alarmed by discussion related to sexual orientation. I am also well aware that there are highly variant understandings of the implications of a church becoming open and affirming . . . and therefore much potential to divide. I have also had a number of people tell me we already are and always have been a welcoming church. I have been told that we would never turn anyone away. So why do we need to do this?
Why do we need to do this? Not because itís filled with fun . . . and certainly not because itís politically correct (as some have suggested). I believe we need to enter more deeply into this discussion because it is the faithful thing to do . . . it is central to faithful living to face directly those concerns which leave people out Ė and to seek to discern where God is in it and how God would have us respond.
Why do it? . . . because thatís who we are and always have been. Let me explain with this:
In our church, when we meet with wedding couples, we have always had some standard questions we ask (date & place of birth, names of parents, employment) . . . the facts for our records. The form we fill out hasnít changed in decades (I doubt it goes back to Thomas Brooks, but it could). One of the questions we ask is where the engaged live. When I came to Brookfield, some fourteen years ago, a good four out of five couples gave one address for the bride and another, separate address for the groom (some even gave different addresses when they already lived together, they apparently felt an obligation to try to fool the minister). The other 20% of the couples admitted to living together, either with an obvious embarrassment or with a defensive explanation of its financial necessity. Today, the tables have turned with a full 80% of the wedding couples I meet with already living together and they seem shocked when I ask if they have different addresses.
I was curious, so I asked one of these couples why they were bothering getting married. They had already told me they had long ago decided they would spend the rest of their lives together, they already had a joint bank account, already had a mortgage and they even had a child. What gave? Why the change? Why now? What possible difference could getting married make at this point? They told me it wouldnít change anything . . . and it would change everything. They told me they already knew who they were, how they cared for and loved each other . . . but they needed to say it publicly and with finality Ė to each other and to the world. It would be an affirming of what, in their minds, already was.
For me, thatís what becoming an Open and Affirming Church is all about. If we write an Open and Affirming Statement and vote to adopt it as a congregation, it would be an affirmation of who we already are. When two people get married, they, in part, are making a promise about who they will become . . . but even more, they are making a statement about who they already are. So it is, with Open and Affirming. I have long been convinced that we are a welcoming congregation, that we accept people for who they are, that we seek and want justice and fairness, and above all, that we wish to offer and even be the love of God to all people. If we officially designate ourselves an Open and Affirming Church, it wouldnít change anything . . . and it would change everything.
Consider our roots: As portrayed in the gospels, Jesus was the epitome of open and affirming . . . he welcomed every person as a child of God. That was one of the chief criticisms brought against him: the company he kept. Jesus lived his ministry with the most despised of his day: Samaritans, the poor, widows, orphans, lepers . . . outcasts of most every kind. He brought them all into his inner circle. He was ridiculed for those he welcomed in . . . but he did it anyhow, because that is what living in faithful response to God had to look like. Itís what it was about.
Consider our roots: Our Congregationalist ancestors, the Pilgrims and the Puritans came here in the 1600s seeking religious independence from persecuting political powers in Europe. They sought to be free from those who would impinge on freedom of faith. And they founded a church . . . and they created a society that affirmed the priesthood of all believers and each personís personal relationship with God . . . an Open and Affirming statement of the autonomy of each and every child of God. And they risked their lives to do it.
Consider our roots: Congregationalists were in the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery as early as 1700 (a full half century before this congregation was even gathered) and Congregationalists have continually stood firm in their affirmation of equality among the many colors of humanity. We were the first mainline church to ordain an African-American pastor in 1785, so many of our congregations were a part of the underground railroad, and we were instrumental in aiding the illegally enslaved Amistad captives in 1839. Relatively early in the civil rights movement, this church here in Brookfield voted a resolution in 1964 for the rights of all people regardless of race or color. We found it necessary to be utterly clear where we stood in the midst of racial turmoil . . . and stated it without ambiguity. And many of the members of this church were moved to act on that resolution. Open and Affirming of all children of God regardless of outward appearance.
Consider our roots: For so many years our country had legal barriers enforcing an inequality between the sexes. But some people of faith heard a word from God that said all people, regardless of gender are children of God and are to be offered the same opportunities and rights. And in 1853, Congregationalists were the first to ordain a woman into the ministry.
And women from this sleepy little townís church in 1920 were among the onslaught of women pushing for voting rights Ė suffragettes in our midst bringing about fairness for half the population left behind. And this church called a female minister in 1972, way before it became common practice. Open and affirming of both genders.
Consider our roots: Physical impairment and difficulty in hearing or seeing, traditionally meant an inability to share fully in worship. Grand sets of stones stairs at the end of long walkways told those who could not mount the steps that they were not welcome. Large sanctuaries with poor acoustics and those bulletins with fine print, told those who could not hear or see well that they had no place. And yet we have made financially significant physical statements that we welcome all . . . with hearing assistance devices, large print bulletins, ramps, accessible bathrooms, an elevator and rides for those unable to drive.
And for those who truly cannot leave their homes, we bring church to them: communion, videotapes and our services broadcast to their homes. Open and affirming of people regardless of physical ability.
We have long been an Open and Affirming church in Spirit . . . and countless times we have been challenged to live into who we were and are, to lay claim to our identity. For nearly 250 years the people of this church have been true to our covenant to be followers of Jesusí way of loving God and neighbor. And throughout those years we have held fast to our covenant to share with each other in the struggles of each new day, to discuss, debate, disagree, find common ground . . . and in the end be more fully the body of Christ thanks to the commitment to interaction -- community.
In first Corinthians we find those words of Jesus that seem to sum up the idea of faithful covenant, when he raised the cup of wine and said, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. (11:25) This covenant, is a suffering love . . . a love that is willing to bleed for the other . . . a commitment to remain in relationship. That was at the heart of Jesusí journey all the way to the cross. No matter how many times his followers betrayed him and were led astray . . . he remained true to the covenant to be in relationship with them, even to the death.
Like in marriage vows, where two people covenant to stand together, not to run away at the first challenge, hurt, fight or disagreement (they will and do happen) . . . instead to seek out all means of communication and sharing that the two might find that common ground upon which to stand --- like in marriage vows, so it is in covenant to be church together. Our commitment is not to hide from that which is difficult, but to face it head on together and try to make sense out of what our faith tells us about living in a world so filled with need and people of such a variety of shape, size, ability, look . . . and even attraction.
Our challenge in the weeks and months ahead is much like it has been for the past two and a half centuries. Our challenge is to lay claim to what it means to be a welcoming people of God. Our challenge is to lay aside each of our long held assumptions and really listen, really seek to hear each other in the fullness of what is being offered. Our challenge is to listen for what God wants from us and to lay claim to it. Thatís who we have always been . . . and thatís who we should always be.