Open and Affirming Sunday
Man. It’s good to be back. I missed being here with you all. From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of my family, I thank you for that sabbatical. We needed it, for a number of reasons, both professional and personal. So thank you for making it possible. I am very grateful to our Pastor-Parish Relations Team (Eileen Duffy, Mark Miller, Beth and Dave Long-Higgins) who made the suggestion in the first place, to our Church Council (Mike Hornberger, Alan Cory, Sharon Patterson, Michael Tucker, Sue Frederick, Sean Griffin, Carrie Poel and Joyce Schott), who wholeheartedly approved the idea, and to you all for graciously endorsing it. I want to thank our music director Brian White for his continued leadership and giftedness in our midst, and especially for his flexibility and creativity in outdoor worship. I want to thank Pastor Fred Arzola for his consistent presence and his humor and his wisdom as your sabbatical pastor during my absence. And I want to thank our guest preachers, many of whom are members of our church family. I have heard from folks how much you all enjoyed the summer of stories. I trust that these testimonies have made us all better equipped to notice where God is at work in our own lives because we’ve had a glimpse of how God works in the lives of other people. Everyone has a story.
In three weeks, on September 11, we will return to worship inside our sanctuary and begin a new cycle of the Narrative Lectionary. That’s a four-year cycle outlining which scriptures we read and study on Sundays. It’s followed by thousands of congregations of different denominations around the world. I like it. I find it very useful and have heard from you all how much sense the Bible makes when we study it that way, so we’re going to use it again this year. But we have three weeks until we start that. And so I thought it would be good for us to spend a few weeks talking about our church’s mission statement which is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Because if you’re going to bother having a guiding statement for your organization, it’s a good idea to talk about it every once in a while. I say it every week; you hear it; most of you could probably quote it. But we need to dig a little deeper into it. So that’s what we’re going to do for these next three weeks.
This statement is not only our mission statement. It’s also a plan for discipleship, for how we expect that people will grow in their faith. As we become more mature, we will all grow in our capacity to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. If we lean in to what it means to live as Christians, to do the following of Jesus and not just think about it or talk about it, these three things should start to show up more and more in our lives.
These three ideas are interconnected, and that’s represented by our logo. Doing justice is the red circle, that’s a global idea, a corporate idea, a group idea. Loving mercy is the blue circle, that’s an interpersonal idea, how we interact with each other. Walking humbly with God is the gold circle, and that’s a personal idea. Personal, interpersonal, global. All the arenas of our lives, and they interact with each other. Our logo suggests that you can do any two without doing the third, and that if we do, something key is lost. As we do all three, we move closer and closer to the very center where all the colors blend together. It is in that very center that we find the person of Jesus, the spirit of Christ alive in us.
This logo is also a subtle, maybe a not so subtle rainbow, which is a nod to a key identify of our congregation, which is that we are an Open and Affirming congregation. We acknowledge that every week, but we celebrate it in particular today. On the third Sunday in August in 2008, this congregation officially became Open and Affirming. That’s a specific designation in the United Church of Christ, not all UCC churches are Open and Affirming. There’s process you have to go through and be recognized by the national office. Many churches say they have the value of “welcoming everyone” but don’t go through the official process, maybe because they don’t want to bother or maybe because they know it will cause conflict in their congregation. Because not everyone is on board with a public commitment to cherish all people, specifically including LGBTQIA folx. Becoming Open and Affirming or ONA for short, is not just about welcoming everyone. In order to be officially recognized as an ONA church, you have to be specific. And the reason we have to specifically include LGBTQ folx is because they have been so specifically excluded, and continue to be so in many congregations.
It’s common to say, “Oh everyone is welcome” and what’s really meant is “Everyone is welcome up to a point.” You can be gay and attend, but you can’t work in the nursery. You can be trans and attend, but you can’t serve on church council. That’s very common and people have told me what an incredibly hurtful bait and switch that is. So, here at Zion we have decided that we do not discriminate in employment, membership, or leadership. And we say that right up front every week, because if someone doesn’t share that value, they won’t be happy here and we would be glad to point them towards a church that’s a better values match for them. It’s the first thing I tell people when I talk about our church. I want them to know. And on the third Sunday of August each year, we spend some time together remembering that decision and reaffirming our commitment to it.
This is a progressive Christian congregation. We are all in different places theologically, believe it or not I’m pretty middle of the road, which means for some of you I’m a radical and for others of you I’m theological dinosaur. But with our ONA commitment, with our obvious affirmation of female leadership, with the way that we try to be careful with our language, our public profile is a progressive Christian congregation. Definitely Christian, but not strictly traditional ideas. And that puts us in a Christian camp where “doing justice” is cool. It’s the thing to do. Obviously we would do justice. Or at least obviously we would talk about doing justice. Everyone wants to go to a church that does justice. I want to pastor a church that does justice. Theoretically. The hard part comes with the actual practice.
The concepts of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God come straight out of the Bible. The Old Testament prophet Micah chapter 6, verse 8 says, “God has told you, human one, what is good. What God requires of you is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” We will dig more into the scriptures in the next few weeks. This morning I want to spend a little more time talking to you about the concept of justice.
For my Bible nerds out there, I know you missed me, the Hebrew word for justice is mishpat. The meaning of that word changes throughout the Old Testament, but overall it means to do what is right. There are three kinds of laws in the Old Testament. One kind is ritual laws, how to keep the sabbath and stuff like that. The second kind are laws that are basically God’s “because I said so” laws, like you can’t weave two kinds of cloth in the same garment. Why? Who knows. Just because God said so. The third kind of laws are the ones that make sense to us, the ones that we could figure out if we thought about it. Those are called mishpatim, same root word as justice here. These are the laws about how we treat each other and how we build societies. Laws about how to treat immigrants and widows and orphans and the poor. Mishpat, justice, the right thing to do. Maybe not the thing you instinctively want to do, like giving things to others, but things that really you know are right.
Two things I want to point out this morning. The first is that having a value of doing justice does not actually tell us specifically what we should be doing as a congregation and as individuals. Being an ONA church is a key value for us. But you know what becoming ONA doesn’t do? It doesn’t say specifically how each congregation is going to live that out. Some people associate being ONA with only ever using gender neutral language for God. That’s not what we do. When creating new content, when I preach, we try really hard not to say “he” when talking about God. But we still say the “Our Father” every week. As a congregation we try to find a balance between honoring traditions and pushing forward into new ways of talking about and interacting with God. It’s not for everyone, and that’s OK. There are plenty of churches for people who don’t fit here.
Doing justice is a large concept and it is left to us to figure out HOW. Using our God-given reason, considering our tradition, searching the scriptures, taking into account our personal experiences, we must make decisions about how specifically we do justice in our personal lives and as a congregation. How do we bring about God’s desired state of wholeness in our world through what we personally and corporately do with our time, with our money, with our energy?
Honestly, this is something we have not yet fully worked out as a congregation. We hold the value, for sure. And we do some things. But we have not discerned together what God is calling us to do as a congregation in this city. There are many ways to do justice; the world is a hot mess and there are a lot of things we can work on. But we can’t work on all of them. For us is it going to be racial reconciliation and racial justice? Or is it going to be care of creation and environmental advocacy? Is it going to be affordable housing and the problem of homelessness? Is it going to be criminal justice reform and ministry in jails and prisons? It is going to be advocating for full access to healthcare including safe and legal contraceptions and abortions? Is it going to be taking a countercultural stand against the rampant consumerism fostered by our capitalist economy? What about mental health? Human trafficking? Domestic abuse and neglect? The threat of militant nationalism?
Every one of you resonated with one or more of those. And most of you are probably annoyed or worried that I even mentioned one or more of those! And some of you are miffed because I didn’t mention one that’s really important to you. Right? There’s so much that needs to be done! And I’m not saying we can only do one thing, by no means. But perhaps God has called and is calling together a body of Christ at Zion who together have the gifts and graces to really work on a few things. Discerning specifically what we are called to is something that Council has identified as a priority for us, and we are exploring ways to figure it out. Having a value of doing justice still requires that figure out what that specifically means for how we each and all live in the world.
The second thing I want to point out is what a trap it can be to talk about doing justice. We need to be aware of this because it is a spiritual trap of pride, which is the opposite of one of our other values: walking humbly with God. Talking about doing justice can become what is called “virtue signaling” or “performative activism.” If we don’t put real actions on it, then it’s just a buzzword that we feel good about using on social media. It’s a way to signal to other people that “I’m a good person. I’m woke. I’m not like those people.” I’m preaching to myself here. Pride is deadly for our spirits. The other thing we have to be careful of with this is that a lot of people who are highly focused on “doing justice” are not very joyful. Being the justice police is just as soul-sucking as being the morality police, which is a system that many of us used to live in. As we hold on to our value of “doing justice” we must be careful that it doesn’t devolve into a new puritanism where we are ready to put someone in the stocks if they don’t live up to our standard, ready to paint someone with a scarlet letter if they disagree with us. Jesus is very clear that pride and judgmentalism will be the spiritual death of us.
And that is why, dear ones, doing justice is not our only value. One way to discern specifically what we are to do and avoid the pitfall of becoming new puritans is to combine doing justice with loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Which we will talk about more in the next few weeks. I hope you will join us. Amen.
Each week we take some time to reflect and respond on this sermon and this morning I invite you all into a corporate reflection. Creating a worshipping community that is Open and Affirming is one way that we live out our value of doing justice. There are other specifics to work out but we do all agree that it begins with a specific extravagant welcome. To that end, each year on our Open and Affirming Sunday we renew our covenant together. Please notice that this version of the statement is not a statement of fact written in the passive voice, which would sound like “You are welcome here.” That’s fine, there’s a place for it. Instead, this a statement of covenant, written in the active voice. This is a commitment about what we each and all will do, not just what we hope is theoretically done somehow. This morning as a testimony and act of faith, would you rise in body or spirit and let us affirm again together this Open and Affirming Covenant.
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 type of 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 it be so, with the help of God.