This week continues our reading of the book of Galatians -- a community that was struggling with its identity in Christ and trying to figure out how to be a church together. They were putting conditions on what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, especially when it came to non-Jews who wanted to be a part of the community. Some were teaching that these non-Jews had to become Jewish first and follow all the rules and laws that Jews did before they could follow Jesus. Paul is writing them to remind them that they shouldn’t do this -- that God leveled the playing field for all. He’s reminding them of the message he proclaimed to them -- and what a life of freedom in God’s love looks like. Hear these words from Galatians chapter 3, verses 23 through 29. I’ll be reading from The Message.
Scripture - Galatians 3:23-29 - The Message
23-24 Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.
25-27 But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.
28-29 In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.
I had a completely different idea for this sermon when I was planning out this worship series a few weeks ago. Then last Sunday happened, and everything changed. The shooting at the gay bar in Orlando weighed heavily on my heart this week and the layers of issues - gun violence, homophobia, terrorism, racism - have all twined together into a knotted mess of oppression that has left me feeling angry, hopeless, and not sure what to do to in the face of all the hatred and violence that so many experience in our country.
My facebook feed was awash with people changing profile pictures to signify that they stood with Orlando. I read so many articles and status updates that extended “thoughts and prayers” to the people of Orlando who had been impacted by this violent act. I saw community after community host vigils for the victims, people standing against gun violence, or combating homophobia. And I continued to feel anger and frustration -- because while these words of care and compassion for the victims are good and while standing in solidarity with others is important, to me it didn’t fundamentally change anything. It frustrated me because we failed to take ownership of the fact that we as a society are complicit in creating this culture where these attitudes towards others are allowed to flourish.
To be fair, Omar Mateen represents a very small minority of the Muslim faith, but we have been quick to label him and those like him as the “other” without realizing the ways that our culture reflects and perpetuates attitudes that enable the seeds of hatred in any form to take root and grow and blossom into acts that yet again have us giving “thoughts and prayers” to the affected and holding vigils for the lost.
I read an article this week in Baptist News Global written by Miguel de la Torre, a professor of social ethics and Latino studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver - one of our United Methodist seminaries. He writes,
“A rush is on to call Omar Mateen, the “Other.” He must be the antithesis of Americans. He is evil, we are good. He is Muslim, we are saved. He is a foreigner, we belong. He is an external threat to our lifestyle, thus we must make America great again. And yet, when
America looks into the mirror, the image most likely to be reflected is that of Omar Mateen. The hatred Mateen manifested is the unchecked hatred that continues to saturate our politics and discourse.”
"And when we participate in character assassination rather than discourse; when we legislate exclusion of Americans from voting because they are different than us; when we ignore the cry of the poor; when we persecute the alien among us; when we maintain economic systems that transfer wealth upwards; when we embrace misogynist attitudes and laws; when we believe only we are saved and everyone else is going to hell; when we remain numb to the daily mass shootings; and when destitution, disenfranchisement and decimation are the consequences of our collective actions and thoughts, we are all Omar Mateen."
We are all Omar Mateen -- perhaps not always through our actions….but oftentimes through our inactions. When we fail to stand up and challenge the hatred and fear that runs through our society, when we sit on the sidelines and think that someone else is better equipped to speak out, when we believe that there’s nothing we can do to change our world for the good and so why even bother -- we are Omar Mateen.
What’s more than this -- I realized that the United Methodist Church is Omar Mateen.
Our Book of Discipline states that while all people are of sacred worth, that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and prohibits practicing LGBT persons from professional ministry and forbids clergy from officiating same-sex marriages. Our teaching and theology has created an environment of at the very best division and discord -- how can you say to someone that they are of sacred worth in one breath and then dismiss their very being in the next? When you can say God loves you -- but not this part of who you are that’s incompatible with Christian teaching.
It puts LGBT individuals and families on the outside, saying, yes you can be part of the church as long as you deny who are to do it.
This is only one timely example of how the church -- through its witness...through its teaching...has been complicit in creating this culture. And there are whole groups of people who feel disconnected and disenfranchised and devalued and dehumanized based on their experience of the church’s witness -- or lack thereof.
And here we have Paul -- in the letter to the churches in Galatia -- writing to this group of people who were really struggling with division and putting people into categories and labeling them for who they are and their place in society. Paul comes in and says, -- now, none of that here. None of that should matter anymore. Jew - non-Jew, male -- female, slave -- free -- we are one family. One family in Christ Jesus. We’re all God’s beloved children -- we all have this same connection to God. God doesn’t love one group more than another - God doesn’t favor one group over another - God doesn’t prefer these people to those people -- No -- you are all one family together. You can’t label someone else as the other -- and you can’t make someone else look and act like you before you let them in the club -- because you are one family. Jesus already made you part of God’s one family, and everyone gets to share in God’s goodness and God’s love.
This was shocking in Paul’s day. To say that men and women were equal in God’s eyes when the society in which they lived in men had all the rights and women didn’t? It was positively radical. To say that slaves and free citizens should be treated the same way - they they were part of one family - that they were on common ground with one another? It threatened the very fabric of the society of the Roman Empire.
But if we’re honest, we’re no better than the Galatians. The witness of the United Methodist Church continues to be that not everyone is welcome at the table...that not everyone is part of God’s family...that you have to change who you are to be truly valued. As a body, we continue to be part of the problem -- as a whole church, we cannot provide a healing witness in the wake of the violence in Orlando because of our stance.
But here in New England - things are changing. In the tradition of the abolitionists during the civil war who challenged the Methodist Episcopal church’s stance on slavery, the New England Annual Conference - which was held this past week - took an active stand against these hurtful and discriminatory statements.
It began on Thursday morning, when, instead of business as usual, a floodgate of witness and testimony burst forth with person after person coming forward and sharing deeply personal stories of struggle and pain in their relationship with the United Methodist Church and in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting. I was able to be there to hear what was shared, and my heart broke...hearing from LGBT and allies alike...from friends and colleagues and strangers. People expressing fear for their safety….fear of their livelihoods being taken away...fear for their very lives. People advocating for justice, for full inclusion, for change so that the church can be the church - open and welcome to all persons. We were invited to receive sackcloth and ashes as a sign of our repentance for our complicitness in creating this culture.
This outpouring gave way to defiance of the church’s official policies and practices -- and over that evening and much of Friday, the Annual Conference discussed and debated a statement of non-conformity, saying that The New England Annual Conference as a body affirms our commitment to a fully inclusive church, and that we as a Conference will not conform or comply with the parts of the Book of Discipline that discriminate against LGBTQ persons, including marriage, ordination, and officiating at weddings -- and that we as a conference would commit to not put pastors on trial for their orientation or for marrying same-sex couples. And two other conferences have since followed suit in adopting their own non-conformity statement.
This is a step forward in combating the culture of hate and fear that so many LGBT persons experience. It is a step forward in saying that our conference will not conform to the discriminatory policies of the greater church. It is a step forward in saying that yes -- everyone is a part of God’s family, that in Christ, we are all bound together, and that our call to follow Christ is greater than our call to the policies that bind us.
Because around Jesus Christ -- male and female, slave and free, gay and straight, young and old, white and black -- we are all one in God’s family.
And so I think about our church….here on the island. We’re a welcoming place. Everyone knows this. But I think it’s time for us to open the conversation about saying it intentionally -- that we are a congregation that welcomes everyone - no matter what -- and that we explicitly welcome those who identify as LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual). It’s important because it breaks the culture of silence that has harmed so many of our brothers and sisters and it allows us to be a witness to what it means to be God’s family.
This is where I am. I know that this is an issue where there has been struggle in the past, and it can be a challenge to have honest, loving conversation together. Maybe some of you have come to a different place on this journey. I know what that looks like, as even in my own life and in my ministry I have shifted over the past 12 years from a different understanding. I believe it’s important to honor and hear that we may be coming from different perspectives, so I’d like to invite conversation with me if this is something you struggle with and hear where you are coming from and what has shaped your beliefs.
The way we welcome others is an important part of what it means to be the church together. As an example of what this could look like, I want to read to you the Welcome Statement from AfterHours Denver -- a United Methodist Church that is pretty unconventional. You’ll see what I mean when I read the statement. They meet in bars throughout the city, and serve communion to the homeless in parks. They understand themselves as church for people who don’t do church. I love their vision statement as well -- Love more, Laugh more, Judge less. Here’s the statement:
All Welcome Here
We think it’s ridiculous and oh so sad that the CHURCH, of all places, needs to create a welcoming statement. Having said that, we KNOW how many people have been harmed by churches that SAY they are welcoming and then tell ya you’re goin’ to hell either thru their words or the way they treat you.
Let AfterHours be crystal clear:
When we say we welcome all…we mean ALL.
This means we welcome families of every size (including families of one), every shape and every make-up. Every financial scenario including the homeless and the millionaire.
We also welcome the convict, the junkie, and the broken…in whatever way you feel broken.
We welcome those that think they have it all figured out and those that don’t even know if they believe in God.
We welcome straights, gays, bi’s, transgender, any gender, and every variation of sexual orientation or leaning, even if you don’t KNOW what category you fall under.
We welcome those that enjoy throwing back a few adult beverages and those stay away from the stuff for a wide variety of reasons. We welcome all those in any stage of recovery from any and all addictions.
We also welcome the able bodied and those that don’t get around nearly as well.
We welcome any and all colors of skin, and hair color. If you are tattooed, or pierced, have gauges or implants of any kind…you have a home with us.
We also welcome the liberal and the conservative; those that voted blue and those that voted red and those that didn’t vote at all. The red meat eating and the vegan are also welcome as well as those that are hungry and don’t get to eat.
Even if the wheels you own are on a Hummer, a Prius or a shopping cart…your home can be with us. After all, either all means all…or it doesn’t.
We welcome the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal. (H/T to the Breakfast Club.)
If we didn’t cover you in the above, know you are welcome too.
We do this because we think that is how Jesus rolled and we are trying to be like him. Simple as that. We hope you come and hang out with us to be kind to others and struggle thru life together.
We think following Jesus is simple.
It’s just not easy.
What I love about it is that it really means all are welcome -- that God’s love expressed through the church isn’t just for some -- for progressives or conservatives, for the rich or for the poor -- but for everyone. And that you need to have everyone at the table - a wide circle - to really be family together around Christ Jesus.
And sometimes, people just need to hear that they are welcome. And that they are loved. And that their presence means something to the wider community.
I offer this as one thing for us to consider as we vision together. What we say about who we are makes a difference -- and what we don’t say makes and impact as well. We are one family here at this church - with old and young, gay and straight, rich and poor, male and female, democrats and republicans, summer and year-rounders. Let’s be sure that everyone knows that they are welcome here. Amen.
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Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.