Be Celebrated, Not Tolerated
Well, you may have seen on the news recently that the Christian Reformed Church in America just a few weeks ago at their national Synod, voted to continue to classify gay people as sinful and immoral, and therefore intolerant in their churches. That's the word they used – intolerant – which means that LGBTQ people will not be tolerated or welcome in their churches. Now, I know that it seems crazy that here we are in 2022, and there there are still Christian denominations, not just the CRC, but many, that are still deciding and debating and discussing whether or not gay people are allowed to be a welcome in their churches.
Now, as I mentioned, at the top of the service, we are celebrating Open and Affirming Sunday in the United Church of Christ. And this is why we are celebrating Open and Affirming Sunday, because it's still necessary, and it's still needed for us to celebrate.
You know, today. June 26, 50 years ago, the United Church of Christ became the first mainline Christian denomination to ordain an openly gay man. His name is Reverend Bill Johnson, and 50 years ago, he was ordained as the first openly gay person in a Christian denomination. Now, we, here at Douglas UCC are celebrating 33 years of being an Open and Affirming church.
We are one of the very first churches in all of the United States to be designated as an Open and Affirming church. That's something to be so proud of. Again, it means we are a church that welcomes, affirms, and celebrates the LGBTQ community fully in our church's life and ministry.
Now, the Christian Reformed Church and the United Church of Christ are both Christian denominations. We both read the same Bible, and we both follow the teachings of Jesus. So how could we be so different? When you know, I looked it up the other day, I was shocked. There are more than 40,000 different Christian denominations in the world today, more than 40,000!
And we're all so different. Some are conservative, some are progressive. Some take the Bible literally. Others understand the Bible symbolically or spiritually. Some churches ordain women. Other churches say no, in the Bible, it says women are to be silent in church. Some of these churches welcome and celebrate the LGBTQ community. And others say no, gay people are an abomination. They're going to hell. And some Christian churches stand in solidarity with the poor, and they speak out against injustice. And other Christian denominations cozy up to the rich and the powerful, and they preach the Prosperity Gospel.
So which is it? I mean, that's my question for you this morning. Which Christian denomination is right? They can’t all be right, can they? Now I'm very proud to represent the United Church of Christ, but we are not perfect. What I love about the United Church of Christ is that our symbol is a comma, not a period. We say in the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.” We are still paying attention to the movement of the Spirit. And the Spirit always moves us forward, never backwards. We have another tagline in the United Church of Christ. It says, “Our faith is 2,000 years old, but our thinking is not.”
I really like that one. Now, although I found a home in the UCC, many of you know I grew up Roman Catholic. I was an altar boy, I went to 12 years of Catholic schooling. And when I was a boy, the most devout Catholic I knew was my aunt. My mother's sister. She loved being a Catholic so much, she didn't just go to church on Sunday. She went to church every single day, because she loved the Eucharist so much she received communion every day.
But when my aunt became divorced, she could no longer receive Communion. That's the rule. I remember one Sunday when I was a boy, we all went to church together, we took up a whole pew. And when it was time for communion, we had to step over my aunt, and leave her sitting alone in the pew. Even as a boy, I knew that that rule was wrong, I knew that my aunt was far more worthy of receiving Communion than I was. I knew the rule was wrong, I knew it was cruel. I knew it was unjust. But I never said anything about it.
Jesus got in trouble, because he spoke out to the religious authorities about religious rules that were unfair, rules that classify people as clean or unclean, worthy or unworthy. Jesus called these religious leaders hypocrites, because he said they were more concerned about following the letter of the law than the spirit in which it was written.
And sadly, here we are more than 2,000 years later, and there are still so many Christian churches, churches in the name of Jesus, who are more about the law than they are about the spirit, the spirit of love. Maybe that's why so many people feel so unwelcome in a Christian church.
You know, we could drive around West Michigan this afternoon, we'd see a lot of churches that have signs out front that say some form of “All are Welcome.” “Come as you are.” But then we could go into the church and we can ask, “Can divorced people receive Communion here?” “Can women be ordained in your church?” “Can a gay couple be married in your church?” “Can a transgender person be a leader in your church?” And the answer you'd probably get in most of those churches is no.
So really, that “All are welcome” sign in the front? It doesn't really mean much does it? It means you're welcome to come inside and sit in the pews. And, of course, we'd love it if you put money in the collection plate. But we do not think that you are worthy of being fully included in the life of our church, because of your marital status, your gender, or your orientation.
Sadly, the Christian church has become a place where many people hear that there's something wrong with them, that they are bad and broken and sinful and in need of fixing. Especially the LGBTQ community. If you have friends who are a part of the LGBT community, or you yourself are and you grew up in the Christian church, you'll hear from most gay people who grew up Christian that it was the church that most deeply scarred and wounded them, made them feel shame. It was at church where they first heard that there was something wrong with them that needed to be fixed. It's because of the Christian church, that so many gay people were kicked out of their house, their families disowned them. And it's because of the Christian church that many gay people were sent off to conversion therapy camps, to try to fix them. And many gay people ended up taking their own lives because of the Christian church.
This is why designating ourselves as an Open and Affirming church is so important, because it's saying we are a member of the Christian church, and we are taking responsibility for the fact that our church has done great harm and damage to people. And we we commit to do better.
And it lets everyone in the community know this Christian Church is different from many other Christian churches. This is a church where everyone is fully welcomed, included, celebrated, and affirmed fully, because we believe what it says in Scripture. All people are holy and pious, perfect in God's sight. You are all wonderfully, wonderfully made in the very image and likeness of God.
That's what I think we need to be hearing at church on Sunday. We don't need to be hearing that we're bad, broken, and in need of fixing. People need to come to church on Sunday to be reminded of their divine magnificence. People need to hear “You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. The kingdom of God is within you. Those are all things that Jesus said about you.
That's what the Christian church should be telling people on Sunday. So why are so many Christian churches unwelcoming to the LGBTQ community? Well, if you ask them, they say, it says in the Bible, that being gay is a sin.
Doesn't say that in the Bible.
Did you know that the word homosexual didn't appear in the Bible until 1946. You don't believe me? Go home and look it up. Some of you were alive in 1946. So it wasn't that long ago. What most Christians point to is a line in the Old Testament, a book that was written by primitive people. There's a line that says, “A man who lies down with a man is an abomination, and shall be put to death.”
Now, this comes from the Book of Leviticus, which lists other rules, rules that allow for the whipping of slaves, rules that allow for throwing stones at women, rules that allow for sacrificing animals, and even rules that allow for the slaughter of unruly children.
Now, we don't follow any of those laws anymore. But they're in the Bible. We don't follow them anymore. Why? Because we have evolved as a people.
So if we don't follow any of those other biblical laws anymore, why are we still holding on to the so-called gay one?
As for Jesus, in all of his many teachings, about many various subjects, he never once, not one time, said anything about homosexuality. If it was such an abomination, that someone should be put to death for it, don't you think he would have mentioned it? At least once?
Jesus welcomed the marginalized into his ministry, those about whom the religious authorities said “You're bad. You're broken. You're unworthy. You're unclean.” Jesus said, ‘Hey, come join me.’ Jesus included them in his ministry, and he even made them leaders in his ministry.
And if we truly are to call ourselves Christians, followers of the way of Jesus, then we have to be about what he was about. But it's going to take courage.
You know, I love during Pride Month, when I drive around our town here, I see all the pride flags, it feels so wonderful. But we really need to get out of our little bubble, and to really pay attention to what's happening in our country. Just this year alone, more than 300 anti-gay bills have been introduced by lawmakers. These are bills that target gay parents, that target transgender people, and that target marriage equality. So when you hear people say, “Why do we even need Pride Month? Well, you can tell them all the reasons why.
We as Christians are called to build the kin-dom. a just world for all. People, we’re called to tear down the walls. And we're called to draw the circle ever wider. For all people are worthy. Someone's worth is not up to doctrinal debate. In his final discourse to his apostles in John's Gospel, Jesus gives His wish for us that they may all be one. Jesus wanted us to recognize our oneness. oneness with God and our oneness with one another. And so all my friends, the people of Douglas UCC, on this Open and Affirming Sunday, let us recommit ourselves to be Kin-dom builders, to tear down the walls that divide and separate, and to build a bigger table so that we can invite more and more people to it. For all are worthy and all are one.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
from the book Gay Spirituality by Toby Johnson
Being gay gives a perspective on human experience that is different from that of the great majority of people. There must be something special and useful to humanity about this perspective, since a disproportionate number of important artists, poets, religious leaders, and spiritual guides in the past were what today we’d call gay. Happy, flourishing gay people transform the world around them. Because the social condemnation of homosexuality is almost always couched in religious terms, this perspective necessarily forces gay people to seek to understand what religion really is. Indeed, gay perspective is itself a religious phenomenon. Gay people have an acute sense of the phenomena of transformation that is at the heart of mystical spirituality. Since the 1950s and ’60s, gay people have transformed themselves and their lives—and their place in society—by changing how they conceived their sexuality. Instead of thinking of it as illness or sinfulness, they chose to think of it in the way that's natural: as love and as attraction to beauty and joy. This shift in perspective has changed everything. Signified by the embrace and proclamation of the word "gay" as a badge of community pride, this shift in self-perception has transformed being gay from a terrible burden to a gift from God. No longer a sin, it is evidence of grace.
What did you think?