This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 14th, at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us! Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215. We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.
Sermon: “Be the Church:”. “Be the Church: A United and Uniting People”.
Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 15:1-29
Both our Isaiah reading and our Acts reading tell us of scattered and divided peoples becoming one. In Isaiah, we see the words of Deutero- or Second-Isaiah, an anonymous disciple of the original prophet Isaiah who prophesied after his death and after the exile of the Jewish people by Babylon. They see how their nation was destroyed, their royal palace flattened, and even their holy temple snuffed out. They see so many of its members become exiles and refugees from their homeland. Speaking from such a point of exile themself, this un-named prophet is inspired through their relationship with God to see their situation from a different point of view: now they have the opportunity to become friends, allies, and partners with those with whom they are in exile, tearing down the walls between them, so that they can come to understand the truth and light of God, just as the people of Israel and Judah have. They imagine a time when this time of being scattered refugees will end and all their people who are scattered will be able to be united again. This vision includes a home where even those not yet part of God’s covenant will be welcomed into God’s family, so even those who have been their persecutors will be gathered in and even those now scattered to the most distant islands not yet even listed in any map, shall be welcomed home. This vision probably is a part of what of what Jesus had in mind when, as a rabbi schooled in the words of the Biblical prophets, he said he had other sheep who were not of his fold of the disciples then with him, who must be brought in, and when he prayed of all these scattered ones that they all could be one as he and his Father were one, the very prayer which we in the United Church of Christ look to as our inspiration for our calling to be a united and uniting people.
In Acts, we see the church in its infancy struggling to live out Isaiah and Jesus’ hefty vision of the family of God’s people being a united and uniting people. We see the messiness and beauty that comes when they try to be ones who tear down barriers of division so that very different people with different perspectives can be welcomed and treating fairly. In striving to extravagantly welcome all people as the Spirit showed them and us we must, the early church had grown and changed. No longer was it a tiny group of Jews going to temple in Palestine, no different from those around them but in their shared faith in Jesus. Now the church began for the first time to resemble what archbishop Desmond Tutu once called “the rainbow people of God”. There are observant Jews who are committed to the way of Jesus. There are people who have never stepped foot in a synagogue, who have no clue how to keep kosher, and who more closely resemble in dress, speech, and music the people of their own lands, which include places as varied as Asia Minor, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Ethiopia. This movement towards extravagant welcome began for these early believers as it had for Second Isaiah, by tragedy and struggle. The church in Palestine went under attack by the powers that be for the ways it was counter-cultural and, in its words and actions, called into question the patterns of oppression in its day. So Christians scattered, spreading the way of Jesus with them, being the church wherever they went through their actions, welcoming into their communities their neighbors and friends, many of whom looked and spoke and acted differently than them.
When we join these early believers in Acts, this fledgling movement is threatening to come apart at the seams. Some long-time Christians who can date their faith in Christ to Pentecost itself, are worried about all these new folks joining up and calling themselves Christian. These new believers are people of cultures, races, and backgrounds very different than their own. As they join the faith, they are changing it, shaping it to reflect the needs and backgrounds of their communities and cultures. These new Christians and their churches don’t sing, prayer, worship, dress, or act like these original believers who can trace their faith to the days of Jesus. I can almost hear them sneering and muttering to each other, What is the church becoming? Among these new believers, some still keep some connections to the old time religion of the first Christians. Others are new believers in communities that have never seen Palestine, with no connections to the Jewish culture in which Christianity began. Some among them are happy to share their faith with these culturally Jewish believers, living and let live, accepting that some need the older more traditional ways of worshipping God; and others begin to feel they are the superior ones. “We aren’t hung up on their rules, stuck in the past, and are really open to the Spirit”,
In Acts 15, we find representatives of all these different groups of people coming together and, with great effort, finding a way to lay their differences aside, find common ground together in their shared faith in Christ, and discover how to work together without having to lay aside the essential truths about who any of them are. As a more modern voice of faith, the late James Baldwin, has said ““We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
The decision they come to makes room for the continued welcome of churches and Christians that are reflective of and relevant to new cultures and times who thus barely resemble church as it once was, while also respecting the needs of long-time believers who value time-proven traditions. The path they forge allows them all to walk arm in arm with other churches and Christians that understand Christ and worship God differently than they do. It takes work, it takes listening carefully to all sides, it takes not assuming any one person or group has all the answers, it takes being open to the still-speaking voice of the Spirit, to get to this point. To me, ultimately the way the decision is made, by listening to and valuing the many divergent and sometimes disagreeing voices in the church, is a living out of a principle Hindu faith leader and civil rights advocate Mahatma Gandhi once called “the many-sidedness of truth”. Rather than truth being one sided, like the top of a table, Gandhi suggests that it is many-sided like a diamond. To truly grasp the full truth of a situation involves looking at each possible facet, from every possible side or angle. What Gandhi meant is that God speaks most clearly through us listening to the multitude of perspectives as fully as we can and looking for the truth that unites them all. As Baldwin’s quote suggests, such listening ought never involve compromising on justice and fair treatment for anyone, especially a marginalized or oppressed person, but it does involve making space for all people to also be treated with such respect, even those you deeply disagree with, so walls can be torn down and reconciliation come.
In this gathering of leaders at Jerusalem, those gathered do just that. Ultimately they are stronger together through finding a way to make room for their differences, room to be reconciled to each other, and room to move together as one family in faith, expressed in many different ways.
In our own tradition in the United Church of Christ, finding a unity that reconciles us into one family in Christ without erasing our differences is the foundation of who we are as a denomination. Our denomination was formed when a number of very different denominations with very diverse ways of worshiping and believing chose to lay aside their differences which could divide them in order to be reconciled with each other. Stepping out in faith, these pioneers in faith chose to live together out of this unity their shared relationship with Christ brought.
Here in the South working to be a united and uniting church meant in the early days being counter-cultural by resisting the pressure for racial segregation by having historically racially divided churches cross racial lines to gather together for worship, training, and mutual support in our denominational gatherings, even when crossing such lines to stand as one brought threat and harassment.
This call to be tear down barriers, to seek reconciliation, and to embrace both what draws us together in common and also the beauty in our differences, without compromising the call to do justice, was beautifully pictured in the life of one United Church of Christ lay-woman, Annie Atwater of Durham. She was an active member of Mt. Calvary United Church of Christ in Durham and her faith led her to speak up against unfair treatment of poor members in her community in general and the inhumane treatment of people of color under segregation.
As is depicted beautifully in the recent film The Best of Enemies, ultimately this fight against segregation forced Annie to have to work side by side alongside the then head of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan, C. P. Ellis. As you can imagine, this outspoken activist for racial equity and this then leader of a racist hate group initially butt heads throughout the debate about the future of Durham schools. Eventually, though, since she never gave up on this relationship, her persistent Christian life of relating to Eliis and others with both what the Gospel of John calls truth and grace, both truth-telling and compassion erodes Ellis’s prejudices, and he concludes she and the families of color she represents deserve fair and equal treatment, being children of God like he is. He renounces white supremacy and racism, abandoning the Klan, and joining her in her fight for civil rights for all and tearing down of barriers to racial reconciliation. When many in the white community in Durham abandon C. P. Ellis for embracing reconciliation, the black community of Durham, including members of her United Church of Christ church, gather around him to give him aid and help him find his way.
I have to admit I hear echoes of this story whenever I hear how many of you here at Life’s Journey have, in the midst of some harassment and name-calling, chosen to stand side by side with members of our community of other races than yourself, as have some of you who have stood with the NAACP though you yourself are white, with people of other sexualities as some of you who are straight have by standing beside the LGBT community, and with people of other faiths as many of you have by standing beside groups like Burlington Misjad when they faced religious discrimination. We need to continue this work as a church.
Yet to be people who are united and uniting people we must not only continue in such areas of strength but also face into the fact that our community around us remains still deeply divided into haves and have-not’s, too often with much of the money and power in the hands of people of one race, one gender, one background. We must ask how we as a church together can work to tear down these barriers, working both for equal and fair treatment for all and a reconciling of all as one in our community.
We must also face into the painful truth that Dr. Martin Luther King named when he famously said 10 or 11 am Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America; and confess not much has changed since. We must look around our worship service and ask what we have done or have failed to do in order to make our church a place where people of all backgrounds come and experience reconciliation rather than division, a tearing down of walls rather than a building of them up. We must face into how much we might be still a segregated space and ask God’s help in learning our part in making our church become more and more a place where God’s kin-dom comes here on earth as in heaven by embracing reconciliation and diversity rather than what just goes along with the tide of the culture around us that further splinters and divides.
I close with words of Martin Luther King from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, in which he expresses the heart and vision we need to be committed to being people of reconciliation. He writes, ““In a real sense all life is inter-related. All … are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…” May we embrace this call to be ones who tear down walls of division, being people of reconciliation here in our church, and throughout our community & world. Amen & Amen.