Eleven 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. Every week I say that we are Open and Affirming. But once a year we take a Sunday renew 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, celebrating the distinctive gifts and quirks that God has given to each of us. That’s why I picked the “three-ring church” image for this morning. In a three-ring church, every act is extraordinary. And in an Open and Affirming church, we recognize that extraordinary is normal. Everyone here has a gift. 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 what is easiest for us, and what is becoming increasingly common in our culture is for each of us to avoid and exclude anyone that we think is “different” from ourselves. But God invites us to live without fear, without worry, without anxiety. We do this not only through our trust in God but through the confidence and comfort we have from being part of a community. This morning as we continue through the Sermon on the Mount, we are going to hear some of Jesus’ most famous words about worry. “So let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading Matthew 6:25-34
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
In the 1950s sociologists coined the term homophily. If you know your Greek root words you can work out what this means. Homou meaning “same” or “together” and philia meaning “friendship” or “affection.” Homophily is the word used to describe the reality that humans have fewer negative associations with people that we think are “like us.” We feel more at ease with people that we think are the same as we are. The more similarities we perceive between ourselves and another person, the more positive assumptions we will make about that person. Homophily. Love of sameness.
This means that we also have a tendency to dislike, distrust, and actually fear people that we perceive as being different. Xenophobia, or fear of the stranger is a word that is often used. And honestly, researchers cannot agree on why we do this. It could be a biological wiring, it could be psychological, it could be sociological. But it happens, very easily and very often. Unless we check ourselves, our instictinctive reaction is to fear what is different. To fear WHO is different.
And yet, one of the most common invitations in the Bible is the invitation to “fear not;” “don’t be afraid;” or as this morning’s text says, “Don’t worry.” A more literal translation is “Be not anxious for your life.” Which sounds great, but how?
Interestingly, the antidote for worry that Jesus prescribes in these verses is the same one that researchers say is one of the best ways to combat fear between different groups: find a focus bigger than yourself. Jesus says, “Seek first God’s Kingdom and God’s justice, and everything else will fall into place.” Researchers have found that the best way to break down biases and stereotypes is for people who are different to cooperate together on a common goal.
And that is why we continue to recommit ourselves to being an Open and Affirming church. We know we are all different. There are all kinds of differences in this room: sexual and political and racial and economic and abilities and more. Some of these have been welcomed in churches in the past and some of them have been discriminated against, mainly out of fear. In an Open and Affirming church, we commit ourselves to focusing not on what makes us different, but on what we can accomplish together for God’s Kingdom. When we are focused on doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God, we will realize that we NEED lots of variety in this room because everyone has a different gift that they bring to the mix.
Does this mean we ignore what makes us different? No. We recognize it and we honor it. Because 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.
Now let’s be honest: it’s harder. It means doing what doesn’t come naturally to us. Some of us who are used to speaking up first or loudest need to listen more. And some of us who have been told to sit down and shut up need to take the risk to speak out. If we really believe in extravagant welcome, it might mean giving up some things that we like for the good of someone else. This is what we continue to figure out together as God renews our community through the breath of the Holy Spirit.
In an Open and Affirming Church, in God’s three-ring church, 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, I would like for you to hear from some among us for whom this value is especially meaningful. So I’d like to invite Kris and Anita Sparks to join me up here and share a little bit about what’s been going on in their lives since coming to Zion …
So, first of all, both of you tell us,
- If you were in the circus, who or what would you be?
- What was the spiritual or religious background of your childhood?
- How did you first come to Zion and when was that?
- After that first visit, what kept you coming back?
- What does it mean for you to be part of an Open and Affirming church?
- What has God been doing in your life lately?
In light of what we have heard this morning, I would like for our time of reflection to be renewing our vow to our Affirming Statement of Welcome. So as an act of worship, I invite you all to rise in body or in spirit and proclaim the covenant promise written in your bulletin and up on the screen:
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
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.