by Donald H. Clark
As a relatively new member of this congregation, it is a privilege to speak to you this morning about welcoming new members to our congregation. I approached this opportunity with no small amount of trepidation, but welcomed the opportunity to consider in both a biblical and denominational sense how our outreach to and welcoming of new members fits into our faith and our responsibilities as members of this congregation.
Pastor Richard commented a couple of Sundays ago how he loved to prepare sermons…how exciting it could be when he found great insights. Well my experience in preparing this sermon was equally exciting, but it can only be characterized as an enduring lesson in humility, which I have no doubt that God intended for me. I find I can make no pretense at biblical scholarship. In fact, the more I pondered and searched for the appropriate scriptures and theological constructs, the more convinced I became that my faith as a Christian rests unadorned, but solidly on just a handful of lessons, bible stories and principles I learned in Sunday School by age 10.
Dit was kind enough to help me find some wonderful biblical references, but fundamentally we are proceeding here on the theological equivalent of “Everything you need to succeed in life, you learned in Kindergarten.” Let’s see if we – that is, you and I with the guidance of our still speaking God – can take a few steps forward in understanding and appreciating the joys and responsibilities we share as followers of Jesus Christ, as men and women created in God’s own image.
As reflected in numerous UCC sermons and denominational statements, we call ourselves a people of EXTRAVAGANT HOSPITALITY.
At least for me, “Extravagant hospitality” at first blush conjured up notions of Martha Stewart or something out of Southern Living. Admittedly, setting the perfect table is at least figuratively an important part of this hospitality, but fundamentally we’re talking about something much more profound, i.e., sharing God’s love and his extravagant hospitality in extending that love to reach and nurture each one of us. The ultimate gesture of hospitality and welcome, we find in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It may sound incredibly simple, but think about it. Is there anything in your life, no matter how extravagant the gift, that has made you feel more welcome, more loved?
As recipients of this extravagant hospitality, we are compelled to carry on the tradition. “Compelled” sounds like one those old fashioned command words, “Thou shalt not……Thou shall have no… etc,” but I say “compelled” not in the sense that Christ-died-for-you-and-you-should-sure-feel-guilty-if-you-don’t-get-out-there-and-round-up-some-new-believers. I also don’t say “compelled” in the sense that We-better-hurry-and-get-those-lost-souls-in-here,-otherwise-they’re-going-to-burn-in-hell. Our God, who is still speaking, doesn’t work that way.
Our extravagant hospitality is a lot easier, a lot more natural than that. God’s love, by its inherent nature, simply has to be shared. Once it has been shared with you, you realize it is not yours to put in a box, but rather yours to share as well. You don’t experience its splendor unless you share it. To do otherwise, is like trying to clap with one hand. God created each one of us in his own image, so we cannot fully experience God’s love just looking at one image, our own, in the mirror. That’s why we’re here in this congregation.
So many people think they’ve got it all worked out — just their “little light inside” and God. It’s a common mindset of many of our alienated brothers and sisters today, who insist they are “coping” just fine. You know the line: “Oh, I’m doing just fine. I’ve got it worked out between me and God.”
I don’t want to denigrate the importance of connecting with God, but settling for this solitary “coping,” I submit, is indeed a meager snack compared to the feast that is prepared for us, if only we open ourselves up to sharing and experiencing the many facets of God’s love. As the psalm says, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”
So let’s take a look at this hospitality, this extravagant hospitality, here at home. Our congregation is pretty good at this. Believe me, I am not here today to complain. Actually, first and foremost, I am here to celebrate with you our progress in extending God’s extravagant hospitality. As recent recipients of your extravagant welcome, Bruce and I can clearly testify to your generosity and how that changes lives.
Before I jump into the really good stuff, like the day one and half years ago when we walked in the doors of this church, let me back up and reflect on the years before that happy day, years that in retrospect we should have shared together with you. We can probably all learn something from that.
If during those years, we were searching for you, I have to admit that it rarely rose to a conscious level – just the occasional comment that maybe it would be nice to go to church. If you were welcoming and looking for us, that was also not at all apparent, at least until the last couple of years when the UCC ads and related press posed the possibility that the UCC, as a national denomination, was indeed welcoming. It seems remarkable, in retrospect, that in those twenty-five plus years I can recall no instance when anyone ever invited me or us as a couple to their church with the implication that we were welcome to join. Let’s look a little more closely at those years. If we are bound together in all ways to seek God’s truth as he reveals it to us, it’s probably helpful to understand what we have left behind.
As young gay men coming of age in the 70’s, it was simply a given that we were to function apart from society (including our churches), except of course when we were pretending to be someone we were not. Fortunately, with time notions of liberation and pride emanated from within the gay and lesbian community. We gained, at least among ourselves, a stronger sense of our legitimate God-given identity and the injustice of our exclusion from so much of life. It was really quite exhilarating, but our optimism was quickly tempered when, at the same time as our liberation, the first voices of an organized anti-gay movement weighed in – in the trappings of Christian dogma — to judge and reinforce the unspoken exclusion we had for so long faced in society as a whole.
At first it was the unlikely, formerly friendly and maternal types like Anita Bryant and Dale Evans, who gave public voice to homophobia wrapped in biblical rhetoric. Only later would the stern you’re-going-straight-to-hell types like Falwell and Robertson appear on the scene. But from the start, it was the faith that had nurtured us as children that was turned on us, that became the instrument for our continued exclusion.
What was is Paul said to the Romans? “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
As the excluded most frequently do, we developed the standard defenses about how self-sufficient we were and how we really didn’t need religion, or at least organized religion. In our secular way, we tried to create substitutes for faith communities, forming close networks of friends to lend each other support and hope. A few gay and lesbian-only religious groups were organized, but for most of us succumbing to that kind of ghetto mentality was worse than no church at all. We were going to go it alone.
We were really tested when, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, our community was ravaged by AIDS. Young men in the prime of life, our friends, our lovers, were falling ill and dying in breathtaking numbers. It was in such literally life and death moments, our community in crisis, that our exclusion from the comfort and support of church communities was the most striking and painful.
Without churches where we were welcomed as ourselves, even burying our own with dignity was practically and spiritually a major crisis. By default, we too often had to stand back while families (whom we had never met) swooped in from somewhere and either took our loved one away or orchestrated a funeral where — if we were fortunate enough to be included — we were offered seats in the back of the bus, so to speak. When we were in charge, we had to be inventive. We learned how to commandeer those “discrete” conventional, faceless Christian memorial services then available to us by proudly expressing at length our personal tributes and memories of the deceased. With time, we also found that the Quakers, God bless them, would let us in under almost any circumstances. When all else failed, we just made do among ourselves. In one particularly poignant instance, we had no choice but to hold a memorial service in our living room. We rearranged the furniture, I hauled out my old King James Version from Sunday School and we committed our dear friend to God’s hands right there at home at 1815 Belmont Road.
Although we derived great strength in that adversity, it would be unfair to paper it over too positively. Those were difficult, lonely and very formative times for the gay and lesbian community. Although much time and some progress has intervened since then, at some level, most of us still harbor a bitterness and skepticism towards our churches fundamentally because they were not there when we needed them.
What was it Paul said to the Romans? “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
For those generations who have followed, I am sure there is no dearth of similarly formative experiences. Although things may be better in some ways, many still face discrimination and exclusion at a very personal level in their families and among fellow students or co-workers. To compound this very personal pain, our exclusion has become the substance of nationwide political and religious debate. In a bizarre turn of events, the individual’s struggle to embrace his or her God-given gifts, including sexual identity, has been depersonalized, indeed nationalized, by the champions of exclusion. This struggle is now posed as some abstract decision about embracing a national agenda to undermine families, endanger children and otherwise strip America of her decency. As a mature adult, this for me is merely cause for outrage. I cannot fathom, however, what must go through the head of a teenage child or young adult struggling with the issue of his or her sexual identity today. They certainly need God and they certainly need us.
What was it Paul said to the Romans? “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”
We have made progress, but societal progress, in its initial phases, is usually only skin deep. Believe me, there are still plenty of bruised and fearful souls out there waiting for some church to tell them convincingly and sincerely: “No matter who you are, no matter where your are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
…………which gets me back to the celebration part of this.
In the Spring of 2005, Bruce and I walked in the doors of this church. We were proud but weary travelers. Although fearful that we would be met only with superficial smiles of Christian civility, we walked into the Miracle on 34th Street, the extravagant hospitality of God’s love reflecting from each one of you. Before the service started that day, we had met our pastor, Ken, and two or three other members. By the time coffee hour was over, we had been greeted by so many…. children, older church members and everyone in between. Overcome with this extravagant hospitality, it was clear that it was time to shed the hardened self-sufficiency, skepticism and anger of the past. It was time explore with and through all of you the many faces and facets of God’s love.
So, in a word, you are good at this. To be more accurate, God’s love is alive and well here and you know that sharing it is its own reward. We must be mindful, however, that such self congratulation carries the danger of complacency; the danger that we get pre-occupied with other aspects of stewardship or our own personal lives and find that we are “welcoming” in name only. In this regard, I have two challenges that I would like to leave you with
First, I ask this congregation to formally adopt a resolution proclaiming that it is Open and Affirming, joining other UCC congregations, in explicitly welcoming people of all sexual orientations in the full life and ministry of this church. Do this for those bruised, skeptical souls out there. You don’t need to do it for Bruce and me. We know that for us you were and are open and affirming! But we all need to think about going the extra mile. Ponder this and pray about this. I understand prejudice and phobias from both sides and all I can say is that God helps us get up and out of our “gut” on such issues and back up into our souls. Let’s move forward and dream of all those skeptical souls walking into our Miracle on 34th Street and being embraced by the warmth and radiance of our extravagant hospitality.
Second and equally important, I ask each of you to take the initiative and invite someone to join us for worship or for one of our other church activities this year. We all know someone who either needs or likely would respond to our extravagant hospitality. Although I completely understand and share with you that shall we call it “Congregational” reserve about not wanting to be too forward about this, but a friendly invitation to church sometime isn’t really intrusive. You can pull it off. Let’s not wait while they drive by this nice little church for 10 or 15 years like Bruce and I did, before walking in the door. The Miracle on 34th street is when you turn onto Lowell, park the car and walk in. The table is set and our extravagant hospitality awaits them.
I’d like to close with a prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer offered last year by UCC President John Thomas:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: so clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your name. Amen.