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Beyond Fear: Bridging Great Divides

this was adapted from a sermon was originally written and presented in July 2019


Ephesians 2: 12 – 22


Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So, he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So, then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

NRSV Translation

 

But don’t take any of this for granted. It was only yesterday that you outsiders to God’s ways had no idea of any of this, didn’t know the first thing about the way God works, hadn’t the faintest idea of Christ. You knew nothing of that rich history of God’s covenants and promises in Israel, hadn’t a clue about what God was doing in the world at large. Now because of Christ—dying that death, shedding that blood—you who were once out of it altogether are in on everything.


The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody.


Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.


That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.

The Message translation



As we begin today, I come to you as one afraid and seeking hope – afraid that the deep divides in our modern world cannot be healed. This passage comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The Church of the first century was not one body, at least not in the modern understanding. Instead, it was made up of small groups of followers of The Way of Jesus spread out all over the Roman empire. In some places, these believers were left alone to practice their new faith and to serve the greater communities, but in the majority of places, they were targeted by both Jewish faith leaders and Roman rulers. In fact, we have to remember that this was exactly how Paul, formerly Saul, entered the story. He was trying to eliminate Christians.


Paul's letter describes a deeply divided world. The passage focuses on the Samaritans, who are written as the anti-Israelites, with only a single Good Samaritan noted in Scripture. Samaritans were also descendants of the Israelites, from Ephraim and Manasseh – the two sons of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, great grandson of Abraham and Sarah, great nephew of Ishmael. In fact, modern Samaritans are closer genetically to Jewish populations all over the world than they are to modern Palestinians. Many Samaritans believe that their interpretation and faith practices represent the true faith of the Israelites. In the ancient world, the Israelites stood on one side and the Samaritans and other descendants of the twelve tribes on the other.


In 2017, Brandon Robertson reflected in a post-election sermon; “Our nation is really, really divided...I believe all of us at some level are feeling a collective tension, a fear that something deeply distressing has been exposed in our world and we are all wondering what exactly we can do about it. For so many of us, especially those with privilege, we have believed that our deepest divisions were actually healed. That we had solved racism in the 1960’s. That LGBT rights found its culmination in June 2015. That despite differences in worldviews, that we were pretty much on the same page. Now, we know that nothing could be further from the truth. Families have been divided against themselves. Sections of the nations. Churches. Denominations. Countries. Cities. Division is all around us, every single day.”


On that long-ago day when Paul penned the letter to the church in Ephesus, Jews were divided from Samaritans and Thessalonians and Ephesians, in the same way that those that those who live in the United States are divided today from Mexicans or Hondurans or Guatemalans. The way Minnesotans or Californians or New Yorkers are divided from Texans or Hawaiians or Alabamians. Christians are also divided over issues like how we worship, or which parts of Scripture are the most important, just like Jews and Samaritans.


We do not need to name all of the divisions, because we can see them when we turn on the news or pick up our phone or laptop to engage with others on social media, where it is easy to find dozens of other people who agree with us on every issue.


The body of this essay/sermon was written I returned from the UCC’s biannual national Synod in 2019, a Synod that saw the introduction of a resolution to restrict some organizations and groups from the exhibition spaces.


2022 will be the 50th anniversary of the Open and Affirming movement which began with William R. Johnson’s historic ordination in northern California. The UCC has declared itself to be an ONA denomination, but today just under 33% of UCC churches have made that same commitment. That often leads to misunderstandings for people who did not grow up in a congregational model. The commitments made by the UCC on a national level do not convey to automatic adoption of those things in every local church. Congregationalists believe each church should be allowed to decide for themselves. It is a historic polity that has perpetuated harm.


Healing division does not happen when one side is declared right and the other wrong. Instead, it comes through a commitment to allow others to hold their own convictions even when we disagree with them or find them offensive.


Some felt that the Coalition should be a cosponsor of that aforementioned resolution and indeed the Conference that submitted it used the Coalition’s own language to support it. Some of those who supported the resolution were hurt, and even offended, when the Coalition’s leadership team and staff opted to do exactly the opposite.


But in 1972, when the UCC voted on a resolution to allow individual churches to recognize and affirm LGBTQ people, many churches left or publicly opposed the initiative. The Coalition fought to be allowed to be in the exhibit hall, and after fighting for inclusion, felt it would be disingenuous to vote to exclude others.


Over the years, the number of ONA churches has grown and FWC churches (the non-affirming branch of the UCC) has shrunk. Today, the Coalition is certifying two new churches nearly every week, and fewer than 5 % of UCC churches remain FWC. While excluding FWC felt wrong to the Coalition, it soon became apparent that many, especially youth and young adults, wanted our denomination to take a stronger national stand in affirmation of LGBTQIA+ people. In the end the vote was to table the resolution for two years, allowing the national board to develop a set of guidelines and behavioral rules for the exhibit hall, but the debate revealed deep divisions within our denomination. Divisions over what we believe and what we want for the future.


It is not so easy to table the concerns the resolution brought up. The United Church of Christ has declared itself to be Open and Affirming, but LGBTQIA+ people are STILL likely to experience harm in sixty percent of the denomination's churches. LGBTQIA+ clergy, especially transgender and nonbinary clergy, are STILL likely to wait two or three times longer to be called to an ordain-able position than their cisgender-heterosexual peers with identical training and credentials. When those things happen, the person reporting the harm is told that because of polity, there is nothing that could or can be done.


In every denomination that has made a commitment to create safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ people, including the UCC, it often feels like it is more important to get more churches to vote on becoming ONA, then to actually do the much-harder work of treating others with full dignity and mutual love. We must ask ourselves - is it more important to declare you are an Open and Affirming church than it is to move and live in ways that are radically inclusive? Have we gotten it wrong by placing so much emphasis on what happens before that vote, while ignoring the needs of churches to actually fulfill their commitment?


We must ask - is this system not still othering LGBTQIA+ people?


Consider how the UCC treats racial justice. While each church can still decide to be actively anti-racist or not, any pastor preaching that people-of-color were sinners because of their race or ethnicity would face enormous backlash - both officially and unofficially. It is a minimum standard of non-discrimination not extended to LGBTQIA+ people in a supposedly Open and Affirming denomination. Pastors within the UCC are still preaching a message that same-gender-loving people are sinful. Even Open and Affirming churches have been known to hire staff members or call clergy who did not support inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people. I have been in churches where the pastor was misgendered, and the answer from the head of the ONA team was that the pastor understood how hard it was for people to make a change.


That means that even if the UCC claims to be Open and Affirming, even if churches have made a similar declaration, a claim that the UCC is safe for LGBTQIA+ people is false. The polity protects those who discriminate and until that stops, there cannot be safety. As the UCC gathers again for Synod, after a year of pandemic, it is past time to ask the most important question.


Could we do better?


Open and Affirming ministries have been here for fifty years. It is time for the entire denomination to decide - how do we deepen and adapt so that the Coalition keeps leading to new truth, not just centering historical success.


Can we come together to find a way to serve those who are still feeling oppressed, unheard or unseen in this denomination?


We have a call to look past those things that might divide us – to see the person behind the bruises and blood of their wounds – to love each other even when it is hard or when we disagree.


Healing division does not happen when one side is declared right and the other wrong.


As our focus passage declares: “For Christ is our peace who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart. In his own flesh, Christ abolished the law, with its commands and ordinances, in order to make the two into one new person, thus establishing peace and reconciling us all to God in one body that put to death the division between us.”


It is not the work of the body of Christ to declare one side the winner and the other the loser. Instead, our work is to look toward Christ and scripture to find a way to heal the division inside each of us so that we can prepare to help end the division in the world.