Open and Affirming Sunday (Testify, week 6)
Thirteen 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. This is something that the church should have been doing all along. So it’s good to clarify that when we “celebrate” Open and Affirming Sunday, we aren’t celebrating how great we are. We are celebrating the distinctive gifts and quirks that God has given to each of us. We are renewing our vow of full inclusion. This doesn’t mean that straight people vow to include gay people, or cisgender people commit to include transgender people. It means that each one of us renews our commitment to include everyone else. There’s no hierarchy of worth in God’s garden. Everyone here is a delightful addition to the dazzling bouquet. Everyone here brings a unique perspective. No one here should try to hide what is different about them because they are afraid of how other people will react. Our differences are what make us precious, especially in community.
Renewing our commitment to this is important because our tendency, our temptation is to avoid and exclude anyone that we think is “different” from ourselves. We talked about that earlier this summer. But that kind of separation does not honor God. In fact, it dishonors God. It’s a poor witness when the church is just as divided and segregated and prejudiced as the rest of the world. We must do better than that. And we can do better than that. This morning’s section of the United Church of Christ’s statement of faith tells us how. Before I share it with you, let me refresh your memories on where we’ve been.
The United Church of Christ’s statement of faith is not list of doctrines that we use as a fence to define our boundaries. It’s the campfire that lights our center. We don’t use it to exclude people. We use it explain who we are so people can decide whether they want to include themselves here. It’s written in story form, with an introductory section and then seven sections about what God does, because we affirm that God is active in the world. So here we go.
The statement begins: We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify:
God calls the worlds into being, creates humankind in the divine image, and sets before us the ways of life and death.
God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin. God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.
God judges all humanity and all nations by that will of righteousness declared through prophets and apostles.
In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole creation to its Creator.
And this week, the way to live out our Open and Affirming commitment: God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.
God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring us together, to gather all our individual blooms into one bouquet of riotous explosive stunning dazzling color. This is what the Spirit has always done for the Church, and what we desperately need the Spirit to continue doing because we are not very good at it by ourselves. On our own, our biased brains lead us toward simplicity and safety, easy answers and people who think like we do. Only God’s Spirit can expand our minds and our walls.
I often think of the Holy Spirit as God’s creative side. Throughout my life, God has taken things that I thought were disasters and brought something surprisingly good out of them. The theological word for that is redemption, and it requires a tremendous amount of creativity. The infinitely creative energy of the Holy Spirit is constantly at work to make beauty from the ashes.
This Spirit is at work in each of us and in all of us together. One way we see the Spirit’s creative energy is in the ways that God continues to renew the Church. It is the creativity of the Holy Spirit that helps the Church become who the world needs us to be for our time and our place. The gospel is always good news, but the way that we present it to people, the metaphors we choose, the language we use in worship, our music, our programs and events, our organizational structures, all of that needs to adapt to stay relevant to the people who need to hear the good news. Being open to the Spirit means being open to change. If we are doing what God calls us to do, change is inevitable.
Committing ourselves to being an Open and Affirming church means committing ourselves to change. Because it means committing ourselves to constantly welcoming new people. And when they come, we don’t say, “So glad you’re here, now sit down and shut up.” That’s not a a welcome. No, instead we say, “So glad you’re here. Tell us about yourself. Tell us about the gifts that God has given you to use in the world. Tell us what God is doing your life recently. Share with us your ideas.” We welcome the changes that new people bring.
Let’s be honest: that’s not easy. It’s easier to just keep things the same. It’s easier to keep the power centralized. It’s easier to just hang out with people who already agree with us. It’s easier. But it’s not better. It’s worse. It’s less like the Kingdom. And it lessens each of us. If I take the easy route, I am less than what I could be. If your life experience has been different than mine, I actually need you more than I need someone who is exactly like me. You have perspectives and experiences and skills that I haven’t had the chance to develop. We are better, stronger, healthier, more like Jesus, the more different we are.
Recognizing and celebrating our differences, even though it’s harder, that’s what it means to be an expansive church. That’s what it means to be a truly Open and Affirming church. As God’s Spirit renews us yet again I might have to give up some things that I like for the good of someone else. And that’s OK. I’ll be OK if things change, because I trust that God is changing us for the good of the world that God so loves.
In an Open and Affirming Church, in God’s garden, we affirm that we need everyone’s gifts in order to advance the Kingdom. No one is unclean. No one is unworthy of being used by God. In an Open and Affirming church there are no barriers to full life and leadership and using the gifts that God has given us.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. On Open and Affirming Sunday, we hear from some among us for whom this value is especially meaningful. So I’d like to invite Katie and Andrew Modras-Anible (and Shiloh?) to join me up here and share a little bit about their story …
1. What were the spiritual and religious experiences of your younger years?
2. How and when did you first come to Zion?
3. What keeps you coming back to Zion?
4. Why is it important for you to be part of an Open and Affirming church?
5. What has God been doing in your life recently?
Well, thank you Katie and Andrew and Shiloh. We are so glad that you are part of the Zion family and we celebrate your presence among us.
Being an Open and Affirming church means celebrating the gifts and graces of everyone that God brings here. And even in the midst of a global pandemic, God is bringing people here. This morning we are welcoming seven new adult members and three kids. (Carrie do you want to go get the kids?) Becoming a member of a church is not like becoming a member of a club; it’s like becoming a member of a family. When a family gets a new member, like a new baby or someone who marries in, that new member doesn’t just assimilate to the family’s way of doing things. The family actually changes because of this new member. So while our new members today will learn some of our family’s traditions, we will also be changed by our new members. We welcome their different perspectives, we will listen to their wisdom, and we will grow and change because of their gifts.
Church membership is not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about who wants to be in a relationship. In church, we are invited to share life with people who are different from us: theologically, politically, racially, economically, sexually. And when we choose to be together, even when we disagree, we all grow in grace and love and humility. This is the beautiful invitation of church membership.
So together let’s welcome these new members using the liturgy printed in your bulletins and on the screen.
I invite the following candidates for membership to stand as you are able:
Julie & Alan Cory
Ian & Madi Flading-Mayberry
Carrie, Dan, Leo, Andi & Raegan Poel
Friends in Christ, we all are received into God’s universal church through the sacrament of baptism. These people have found nurture and support in the midst of the family of Christ. Through prayer they have been led by the Holy Spirit to affirm their baptisms and to claim in our presence their covenantal relationship with Christ and the members of the church. They are here for service to Jesus Christ, using the gifts which the Holy Spirit bestows.
Hear these words from the Scripture: You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members God’s household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In Christ the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple. And in Christ you too are being built together to become a dwelling place for God in the Spirit.
Candidates for membership, do you consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus Christ?
Do you desire to affirm your baptism and be welcomed into this family of Jesus Christ?
Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and do justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?
I promise, with the help of God.
Do you promise to participate in the life and mission of this family of God’s people—faithfully attending services of worship, regularly contributing to the financial support of our mission, consistently participating in our life and work, and joyfully evidencing a Christian lifestyle?
I promise, with the help of God.
By your baptism you were made one with us in the body of Christ, the church. Today we rejoice in your pilgrimage of faith which has brought you to this time and place. We give thanks for every community of faith that has been your spiritual home, and we celebrate your presence in this household of faith.
Will the rest of the church please stand as you are able to affirm our mutual ministry in Christ? Normally at this point we lay hands on our new members, but we’re not going to do that this morning. So instead would each of you extend a hand towards one of these new members as we express our welcome? The affirmation of welcome is in your worship resources.
We welcome you with joy in the common life of this church.
We promise you our friendship and prayers as we share the hopes and labors of the church of Jesus Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit may we continue to grow together in God’s knowledge and love and be witnesses of our risen Savior.
In the name of Jesus Christ, and on behalf of Zion United Church of Christ I welcome you — Julie & Alan; Madi & Ian; Janet; Carrie, Dan, Leo, Andi & Raegan — into full membership with this local church. Together may we live in the Spirit: building one another up in love, sharing in the life and worship of the church, and serving the world for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen and Amen!
And now together as one body, let us renew our vow to our Affirming Statement of Welcome as an act of worship. Would you remain standing as you are able and proclaim the Open and Affirming covenant printed in your worship resources:
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 God give us the creativity and the courage to turn our statements into actions. You may be seated for a few announcements.