1 Corinthians 12:12-27
On the third Sunday of August 2008 this congregation officially became anOpen and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ. The folks who were here at the time made the bold commitment to publicly extend God’s extravagant welcome and affirmation to each and every person who walked through those big red doors. In the United Church of Christ, becoming Open and Affirming is a process that is officially managed by the Open and Affirming Coalition. 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, your covenant has to specifically include LGBTQ folx. 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. And so on the third Sunday of August each year, we celebrate Open and Affirming Sunday.
What you all have made clear to me in the six years that I have been your pastor is that your commitment to being Open and Affirming really does extend to any categories you can think of. In the past, the queer folk in this congregation have come to me to tell me that they don’t want a whole Sunday about being gay. And so on our ONA Sunday celebrations we don’t single out one group or another. We reaffirm our commitment to the full inclusion of everyone. Truly. Our oneness in Christ includes and transcends all our other labels. Everyone really is equal before God and one another. That’s what we celebrate today.
This is a key truth in scripture that turns out to be very hard for us to live out because we have real differences. And some of our real differences matter a lot to some of us. And if you think you welcome everyone, I invite you to think about how you reacted the last time someone shared a political opinion you didn’t like. The differences are real and we have to face that. We can’t go through our church life with rainbow-colored glasses. So what do we do with these differences?
For some ancient wisdom on how to answer that question, let’s read together from the book of First Corinthians chapter 12. This book was written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in the city of Corinth who were having a lot of problems, as churches always have had because churches are made up of people. The Christians in Corinth were struggling to find unity in the midst of their diversity and there were power struggles and some seriously unhealthy relationships and they were not taking care of the poor within their own congregation and they were not making sure that new converts were discipled well. Chapter 12 obviously comes right between chapter 11, which talks about how to reverently celebrate Communion, and chapter 13 where Paul waxes eloquent about how love is the most excellent way. So between community communion and love, we get this: 1 Corinthians chapter 12 verses 12 through 27.
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”1 Corinthaisn 12:12-27
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Notice the ways that Paul says people get it wrong, the ways we dishonor our differences.
1. Because my gifts are not like other people’s gifts, I don’t belong here.
2. Because your gifts are not like my gifts, I don’t need you. Or possibly, you don’t belong here. What’s interesting here is that you don’t actually need that other part in order to do what you do. But in order for what you do to matter on a larger scale, you do need that other person. Eyes can see perfectly fine without hands. But if eyes are not partnered with hands, the eyes can’t do anything about what they see. Which is a terrible way to feel.
3. Weaker but indispensable = pancreas, diabetes.
4. No divisiveness or jealousy, parts have equal concern for each other, if one part suffers, all parts suffer together, all parts rejoice when one is honored. (That shows up again in the love chapter.)
The deeper meaning of ONA is not just that we affirm that each individual is special in themselves. It’s that we affirm that each individual is essential for the whole. Each individual brings different gifts, different life experiences, different perspectives on who God is. And so if we say, “We don’t want any of those people here” — whoever ‘those people’ are — whether it’s trans folks, conservatives, or noisy little kids — if we say that, then we are going to miss out on a richer understanding of God and the world and ourselves, and we are going to miss out on some aspect of the ministry that Jesus calls us to do.
That’s why for us ONA Sunday is not about singling people out for their differences, even in a good way, but about including people in so that everyone remembers that everyone’s gifts are needed by everyone. This is one essential way that the church is different from the culture, or “the world” as it’s referred to in the Bible. Our culture worships in the cult of the individual and says we should focus on ourselves. The church values the whole body, the collective, the congregation, the community. There are other value differences as well, things in our culture that are unhealthy, that Christianity specifically does differently, and unless we are together especially in worship, we will get overwhelmed by the culture, by “the world.”
“The world” pressures us to be young and beautiful forever. The Church values the wisdom of the elders. The world either pities or ignores people who have a disability or are differently abled. The Church honors all as made in the divine image. The world values people based on our capacity for production. The Church affirms that God never values us for what we have or have not done. The world pressures us to win at sports, to be successful at business, to be better, faster, smarter. The Church doesn’t allow those pressures through the door. When we are together here you are safe from all of that. The world glamorizes lifestyles that cause harm. The Church upholds fidelity and sobriety in all their forms. The world glorifies violence as entertainment. Jesus insists that we live nonviolently. In every way Jesus’ values are different from the world’s values. And we spend 99% of our time immersed in the world’s values, especially through all the media we consume. Beloved ones, we need to be in worship together. We act like missing worship doesn’t matter, but it really does. The world gets into our heads even if we say we don’t agree with its values. We give our tacit approval through our participation and consumption. It’s rough out there, friends! And so we come here, yes, partly as a refuge. Not to be naïve or to put our heads in the sand, but because we want to live differently from the narrow list of options and categories handed to us by our culture. This is a space where we can do that. This is a safe place for everyone, where we can be affirmed that we are beloved by God and one another, that we are created with purpose and blessed to be a blessing.
At it’s deepest meaning, Open and Affirming Sunday is a celebration of the Church. It is a celebration of God’s extravagant welcome for everyone, of course including LGBTQ folks because everyone means everyone. Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. That means it’s our calling as the Church to be on the offensive. We’re not being attacked; we’re doing the attacking. Hell is like a city with walls and gates, trying to protect itself, which makes a lot of sense. Hell is bondage. Hell is closed off. Hell is oppressive. And we the Church, Christ’s body, are called to break down the gates of hell. The gates of hell will not prevail. Injustice and hatred and violence and addiction and suicide and abuse and a lack of love and homophobia and racism and sexism and toxic consumerism and environmental destruction and greed and religious hypocrisy and despair cannot prevail. They will fall before the advance of the Church. Military metaphor is perfectly appropriate here because we are in a real fight, not against people but against ideologies and systems. A real fight. A fight we can only win when everyone is included and all gifts are honored. That’s the meaning of Open and Affirming Sunday. Amen.
Each year on our Open and Affirming Sunday we renew our covenant together, and I invite you to do that as our time of reflection this morning. Would you rise in body or spirit? 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 good, there’s a place for that kind of statement. That’s our original statement. But we also have this 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, 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.