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Hearing the Cries for Sanctuary

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Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

I preached on this story in my first sermon in my first preaching class in seminary; and of course I’ve preached on it several times over the years as it came up in the lectionary. But as I have prepared this worship series on sanctuary, I’ve been looking at the story differently. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the inn.

When the Samaritan came along and found the man who had been robbed and beaten and left for dead, he didn’t run away. He bandaged his wounds, then put the man on his own animal, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The Bible doesn’t say specifically what “took care of him” means, but it clearly goes beyond just paying for the man’s bill. The Samaritan apparently needed to travel on the next day, so he paid the innkeeper the equivalent of two days’ wages, and he said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Again, this is not just prepaying a hotel bill. “Whatever you spend” implies that the man will need ongoing care. We can assume that the innkeeper agreed. So the inn was both a place of safety and a place of healing.

I have long thought that this should be the role of the church. We should be the place where the spiritually wounded can come for healing. The problem is, of course, that churches have done much of the wounding. The church in America has come a long way in the last thirty years, particularly for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. The number of congregations that are Open & Affirming, or who carry a similar label in their denomination, has increased many times over. But there is still so much work to be done. Just this past February the United Methodist Church chose to reinforce their ban on same-sex unions and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. This week nine United Methodist congregations in New England, including six in Maine, sent official notice that they are entering a period of discernment regarding leaving the denomination. These churches need our prayers for the difficult days ahead.

But this is happening in a denomination long considered part of mainline Christianity, not the conservative right. What is still happening in the fundamentalist world is absolutely appalling. When LGBTQ+ young people escape these churches—if they survive—they often want nothing to do with church whatsoever. That is understandable and we respect that. But for others, full healing will only come when they find a church that accepts them as they are, as God made them to be.

That is one reason this church became Open & Affirming almost 19 years ago. It was a huge process and a huge step and there was a huge amount of pain at the time. There were those who felt like their church was abandoning traditional beliefs—and therefore abandoning them. When they left, their friends who stayed felt that loss profoundly And then there were those on the other end of the spectrum, those who were gay and lesbian who had to listen to members of their own church say hurtful things about people like them. It was a painful time. And I know—not because I’ve asked him, but because I know him—that every single departure broke John McCall’s heart.

We’ve come a long way since then—my presence as your senior pastor being the most obvious example. Much healing has taken place since that time, and we are now known for being a welcoming place. But we must not believe we are done. There is still work to do if we are to be the inn where the wounded are brought for healing.

I copied the following from our church website. It reads:

On November 12, 2000, our congregation affirmed this conviction to be an Open and Affirming congregation in the United Church of Christ by voting to affirm this statement:

Like a beacon, First Congregational Church stands on Meetinghouse Hill. In the spirit of Jesus’ great commandment to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34), and Paul’s teaching of acceptance of one another (Romans 14:1-15:13), we, the members of First Congregational Church, welcome and affirm all persons of every race, age, gender, marital standing, physical or mental ability, economic status, nationality and sexual orientation or identity into the full life and ministry of this community of faith, including membership and leadership. We welcome and embrace the God-given gifts that each person brings to the life of our congregation.

 As an Open and Affirming church, we join our sisters and brothers in the United Church of Christ and all persons who are committed to the struggle for justice, love and inclusiveness, with the example and teachings of Jesus Christ as our guide.

It is a beautiful statement that I am sure was worked out with great care, and it was wonderful for its time. But now we need to be more specific. We need to add “gender identity and expression” to that list. The current statement lists simply “gender,” which for many of us would seem perfectly adequate. But remember that it was important for us to be Open & Affirming because saying “All are welcome” doesn’t mean anything. Any church can use that phrase and not mean that they are affirming of LGBTQ+ people. It’s the same with transgender issues. People who identity as transgender, including those who reject the male/female binary, need to see that they, too, are included. They need to be named.

This is one small thing we can do to make a big difference in our ability to be the inn where the wounded are healed, to be the sanctuary for all.

But as much as I’ve been thinking about the church as the inn in the Good Samaritan story, we can’t just be the inn. We can’t just stand in place and expect those in need to come to us. That’s not how it works. We need to be out there finding the wounded, and bringing them to safety. I think our involvement in the Pride parade and festival has been a great example of what we need to be doing. I’ve told you before about the amazing response we get to our sign that says “Our church apologizes for the hateful things done in the name of God.” What else can we be doing? How else can we meet the needs of the wounded, so that people know that this truly can be a sanctuary? I’m reminded of a story Betsy Parsons told of a church that delivered cookies to their local high school on the morning of every GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) meeting so that all day those cookies would sit in the school office showing every person that came in the room that the GSA was the place to be. I’m also reminded of churches in Hudson Valley New York that, during the height of the AIDS crisis, when most churches were running the other way or standing in harsh judgment, held monthly services for those affected by AIDS. Of course the wounded aren’t just LGBTQ+ people. I’m reminded of my friend’s church in Eliot Maine, where they have an ongoing and special support system for people whose lives are affected by opioid addiction.

I read a powerful story this week that started with the line “My mother was surprised I didn’t die alone.” The woman told about how she was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She was raised believing that everybody and everything outside of the Jehovah’s Witness was following Satan, so of course her entire circle of friends and support was within their church. Then she got a job working for a newspaper, and she interviewed a gay man who started opening her eyes to the world around her. But when she told her church that she was rethinking some of the things she’d been taught—and when she confessed that she and her fiancé were having sex—they kicked her out of the church. And the family. And every support system she had ever known.

She spent many years without a church. Why would she want to be part of any organization that was so hateful? Then she worked for a short time as the interim religious editor for her paper, and she met a local minister. They became friends. They would meet for breakfast before work, and she kept waiting for him to bring up religion. He didn’t. She kept waiting for him to ask whether she went to church. He didn’t. One day she brought up her church’s views on marriage: that life was a stormy sea and that everyone in the family should line up behind the husband as the captain of the ship. The minister replied, “Shouldn’t you line up behind the person who was the best sailor?”

She soon found herself a member of his church, and she found her spiritual “inn,” the place of healing and rest. Soon she became a deacon. And then she got sick. And her church rallied around her. Gathered around her in her dying were Christians, Jews, atheists, and agnostics—all taking the role of family. She wrote the article that told her story in her last weeks. She died on September 24. It was published the next day. “My mother was surprised I didn’t die alone.”

Lots of people are wounded and need a place of healing, an inn, a sanctuary.

When my last congregation went through the process of becoming Open & Affirming, we did the process differently than most churches. Because the statement would include more than LGBTQ people, we had Bible studies on every aspect of the statement. We had a study on what the Bible says about divorce because we knew we would be including marital status in the statement. We had a study on what the Bible says about disability because we knew that would be in the statement. We had a study on race and the Bible’s lack of condemnation for slavery. By the time we got to talking about sexuality, the people already understood how we read and interpret scripture, and how much of the Bible reflects the culture of the time.

There was one woman who had not been in favor of us becoming Open & Affirming. She thought it was enough that we were in practice; why did we need to name it? Then she attended the Bible study, almost every week. She shared about her divorce, and how another church had rejected her because of it. The day we took the vote, she stood up and said, “When we started this process, I thought being Open & Affirming was about you,” nodding to me as she spoke. “But now I know that being Open & Affirming is about me, too.”

It’s about us, too. We all need sanctuary. We all need a safe place. We just can’t keep it to ourselves. We can’t say “I got mine!” and not worry about those still out there hurting for whatever reason. It’s about us, all of us.

The man we call the Good Samaritan wasn’t only the vehicle for healing. Remember, he also was an outcast. Esmeralda’s prayer, sung so beautifully by Kim, says, “Yes, I know I’m just an outcast. I shouldn’t speak to you. Still I see your face and wonder, were you once an outcast, too? . . .

God help the outcasts, children of God.”

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