Delivered at First Christian Church on July 14, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Is all of that really what we want? Yes, I know that we want a just world, but do we really want all of the rest?
Sometimes I think that what I might really want more than to love God with all of my heart, is to know that God loves me even more than my heart is capable of. And welcoming all, loving all—those sound really good, really admirable, positions to aspire to, until I think of who and what it really means.
I’ll start with an example from the national gathering of the United Church of Christ, which happened just a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it will speak to our Disciples hosts today as they prepare for their upcoming national gathering this coming week.
Let me start by saying I was not at this event, so my account comes from reports made by the UCC and by colleagues of mine.
The story is that a group of youth representing one of the regional bodies of the UCC proposed a resolution that would ban a UCC interest group, for lack of a better term, from having a booth in the General Synod marketplace. The marketplace is just what it sounds like: an enormous space with booths that include national ministries and seminaries as well as fabric artists and booksellers. Anything remotely connected to the UCC or of possible interest to UCC-ers is there.
The group under fire is called Faithful and Welcoming Churches (of the UCC). The Faithful and Welcoming Churches organization describes itself as a space that encourages “churches, pastors and members who consider themselves evangelical, conservative, orthodox or traditional in their views to stay in the denomination.” Now, I can place myself into most those categories, so this group could be for me and for many of you here.
For example, I consider myself evangelical in that I give witness to my faith outside of church; I am orthodox in centering my faith on scripture; and if you’ve been in our worship down the street, you know I have a strong streak of the traditional. I’m not conservative in any way I can think of, but I’m still at three out of four. So why would pastors, churches, and members of the UCC like me not want to stay in the denomination?
Their answer is in the fine print: The tenth item in an eleven-item list says that “Faithful and Welcoming Churches advocate for an historic understanding of sexuality and marriage.”
The snark in me responds to that with something like, “Oh, they must be interested in returning women to the status of property and advocating for the polygamy and sexual violence of the Bible.” But of course, that is not the sexuality and marital arrangements they are talking about: it is the gays in our great rainbow of variations.
The Faithful and Welcoming Churches want not only to hold onto but to promote pre-Stonewall, pre-DSM IV, pre-United States v. Windsor readings of scripture and practices of liturgy. In their materials for the discussion around this resolution, the group states that they support queer civil rights and have “no objection” to historically underrepresented groups having a voice throughout the UCC, they just want to make sure that what they feel is their own “under-represented voice” is not silenced.
So what do you think? Should the Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the UCC be allowed to have a booth at the national gathering’s marketplace? Why or why not? What do our vision, mission, and purpose require of us?
(At this point the gathered body had a discussion.)
I have yet to hear an answer to whether we would allow a group that wanted to deny the humanity of people of color a booth. Or whether we would allow a group that wanted to deny the humanity of women one. Because it is the same thing: discrimination on the basis of biology.
CAMPS AND RIGHTS AND JESUS
In the grand scheme, this example is pretty innocuous. How much damage is really done if one booth is in a sea of hundreds? How much will the UCC hurt if those pastors, congregants, and churches do leave the alliance? It isn’t ultimately much of a test of our vision, mission, and purpose. So, let’s turn to some things that are, like today’s immigration raids and the detention facilities for migrant children at our southern border. Then there’s news that leaders of our nation want to revisit the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that responds in part to the atrocities of Nazism. They seem to think that rights have been shared too freely and should maybe be hoarded by a few once again.
Do we welcome the leaders of and the collaborators with those actions and ideas into our lives? Do we have to love them?
We can turn to Jesus and think, yes, of course we must. Jesus loved and welcomed women and Romans and tax collectors, so imperialists deserve love as much as the oppressed.
But that isn’t really the story of Jesus.
Jesus only loved women and Romans and taxmen who were devoted to him and to his understanding of God.
When Jesus sent the disciples out to convert others to his understanding of God, he did so with a lot of specific parameters in place. In Matthew 10, Jesus sends the male disciples out to their fellow Israelites—carefully instructing them to avoid other religious and ethnic groups—to tell them that God’s kingdom is present, and to heal. If people will not welcome the disciples or hear their words, Jesus tells them to “shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
At this stage in the story, Jesus put limits on love and welcome. There is only one group to welcome, and rejection ends the work of love. Neither are absolute positions but targeted to a specific group and contingent on the response of the other.
Of course, that is just one story from the accounts of Jesus, and others are completely contradictory. So, I have to resist the temptation to offer you a clear and tidy answer to the question of welcome and love of the ignorant, the raider, the jailor, and the politician. Instead, I will go back to my original question: Do we really want to practice unconditional love and welcome?
Today I cannot say for sure that I do.
And so I know I need to go back to God. I need to go back to what I know I do want, which is to love God with all my heart and all my mind and all of my self.
I think that all of our answers are there, there in our commitment to the contradictory, lively, revelatory, and at times oblique divine multiplicity of our scripture and our lives.
If we can but love God not just because God loves us, but love that wild and uninhibited holiness with an equal degree of boundlessness then surely no booth, no jail cell, no detention camp wall, no legal barrier, could even be erected, let alone stand.