Jesus Didn’t Turn People Away

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on January 30, 2022

Gospel Reading:   Luke 4:21–30  

Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Last Sunday a pop singer, a member of a church which says being gay is unacceptable, posted a video talking about his struggle to keep his faith when he yearned for a relationship that would be for him of the same quality as his heterosexual friends.  He wants to be married, but his church tells him he cannot marry unless he marries heterosexually.

He’s not the only member of his church; he’s not the only member of any of the number of churches which believe that marriage is only between one man and one woman.  He’s fortunate in one sense: his family has been supportive and loving.  

And I bet that at least one person, if not a majority of the folks here this morning, want to send him a note and invite him to come worship with us next Sunday.

That’s not everyone’s reaction:  In the Facebook article about this person’s announcement, one reaction said:  Same sex marriage is wrong on so many levels. The bible says that it is better for someone like that to die then to be in that kind of relationship.  Any number of people responded in protest…but the original poster never changed his position.

The United Church of Christ, our congregation, believes that God welcomes everyone.  Sometimes it feels so right, so natural, that we forget that in much of the world, even here in Middletown, our stance is still revolutionary, still provokes the same reaction as Jesus experienced when he preached in his hometown synagogue, still results in folks being driven out.  

When our denomination voted to be Open and Affirming, when our church voted to be Open and Affirming, we were practicing a kind of hospitality which was costly, even dangerous.  When the UCC voted to accept gay marriage, we lost one entire Conference.  Conferences lost churches, local churches lost members.  And yet, we persisted and lives were changed, lives were saved.  

And there’s more.  Because the kind of outrageous, courageous, radical, world-changing welcome we began at that point, changed more than our welcome of LGBT+ people.  At some basic foundational level, it pushed the denomination as a whole, and our church in particular to re-think what it meant to be welcoming.

Before that conversation, before that discernment of God’s leading, we’d not thought much at all about how God welcomes people.  That’s because, I believe, we simply assumed that the way things were was the way things should be.  So, God called leaders of the church from among the white men, particularly the white men who wore suits, white shirts and ties.  Women led, of course, in the Women’s Fellowship, the Mission Committee action teams and in Christian Education.  But, almost without exception, the voice from the pulpit was one of those white men.  Sure, there were occasional Black leaders, particularly with Black churches.  And every once in a while, particularly in remote rural areas, women led congregations.  There might be the occasional closeted gay man leading a congregation…. but basically, we took our world as it was, as the way it should be.  And we thought that welcome meant that new folks would take us as their model, so that they’d look like us, dress like us, sing like we did, eat the same foods…

But it turned out that becoming an Open and Affirming denomination changed all that.   It looks to me as if you say, come as you are, people come as they are.  And if you say, “we welcome everyone,” and you live into it, well, then you’re going to welcome people who come as they are.  And it’s changed even what “us” means, changed us right down to the foundations.

Being Open and Affirming was no longer just about welcoming your uncle, son, sister, co-worker, about welcoming people who, other than being LGBT+, were just like us.  It grew and grew, resulting in changes no one imagined, because as we listened to God’s call to welcome LGBT+ people, we learned more about what welcome looks like… and it’s not a seat in the back by the door, wearing the costume of a straight white man…

The act of welcoming one, the experience of opening to concerns we’d never known existed, to lives, and cultures, and ways of being that we’d never imagined, well, that opened us to the ways our open doors were really closed, unless… you fit the picture.  And when we saw our reality, we began to understand that we’d only taken the first steps into a new and fuller reality, one that’s so much closer to God’s vision for our world.

What had always felt like threat – welcoming the other might make us lose something of ourselves – and thus had made us fearful and angry, has become a kind of wonder and awe, as we realize that welcoming the other makes us more truly ourselves.  We thought God wanted us to all be the same.  We’ve discovered that God wants us all to be ourselves.  No longer crammed into costumes that only fit a few, and them not as well as they thought. we are growing into a life in which we wear the way of life which works for us, the one God calls us to.  It’s focused on love, not on “one right ways”  

It’s as if we’re moving from being the folks who drive Jesus out the door to being the people who aim to live by the words of I Corinthians 13:  

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, 
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, 
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, 
but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, 
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. 
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; 
as for tongues, they will cease; 
as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, 
I thought like a child, 
I reasoned like a child; 
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. 
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; 
and the greatest of these is love.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child