If you remember the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, you may recall that Calvin and Hobbes create a treehouse club. One of the rules is that there are no girls allowed, especially girls named Susie Derkins. As for the other rules, Calvin and Hobbes fight about them all the time.
Some of this same kind of negotiating of ground rules is going on in the early Church. To understand some of what’s going on in this reading, it helps to know a little something about the context in which Paul was writing to the Galatians. The new Church was still figuring out the ground rules for being Church. It’s like when you start any new group—a book group, a club, a business—you have to figure out how to be that group, how to run that business. What are the rules for admission? Who can be part of this group? And when you know who’s in, what are the expectations? This is true for political parties, for any club membership. There are articles of incorporation, or rules for using this public facility.
In Paul’s day, the nascent Christian Church was trying to figure out first of all whether Gentiles got to be part of this new group. They decided that Gentiles could indeed belong. But then that generated a whole bunch of other questions. Did the Gentile men have to be circumcised? Did the Gentiles have to keep kosher and follow the other 600-plus rules from Leviticus and Deuteronomy? And thoughtful people disagreed. Paul’s argument was that in Christ everything was made new. The old rules were there to keep us on the straight and narrow until Christ came, but when he showed up, then we just followed him. And for Christ the most important things were to love God and each other. If you could do those two things, everything else would fall into place, right?
After Paul started the church in Galatia and traveled on, some other early Jewish-Christian missionaries visited that area. They said that converts did indeed need to get circumcised and follow all the old rules.
So when Paul is writing this epistle to the Galatians, he’s saying, “No, no, no! Do not be led astray! Because if you follow all the old rules, it’s as if Christ never came. So if you get all caught up in circumcision, etc., you are missing the point. You are getting bogged down in details that really don’t matter. Focus instead on matters of the Spirit, not the flesh. Free yourself up to love and serve God and each other.”
That’s all. Not much to remember. Sounds simple, but oh, so hard to implement.
Nowadays we don’t concern ourselves with questions about circumcision or keeping kosher in the Christian Church. But if we think we don’t have our own issues, we are fooling ourselves. We are still trying to figure out what it means to love God and our neighbor. And sometimes we get bogged down in the details. And sometimes it’s really complicated. Which neighbors are we trying to love? Can we love all of them, or do we sometimes have to choose? In order to love these neighbors, do we have to shut those neighbors out? Do we get to judge our neighbors in God’s name, tell them that God hates them and they’re going straight to hell?
Some people certainly speak as if they have that right, and they condemn their neighbors right and left. You undocumented immigrants are all rapists and gang members! You Native Americans are all savages! You women are all inferior to the men! You LGBT people are going straight to hell!
For some years now, the United Methodist denomination has been wrestling over the idea of fully welcoming LGBT people in their churches and in ministry. Other denominations have been wrestling with this as well, but the Methodists have had some extraordinary meetings complete with demonstrations that disrupt plenaries.
I have watched these unfold on Facebook through the posts of some of my Methodist clergy friends from seminary. And I gave thanks that the United Church of Christ kind of had this particular issue figured out. We have Open and Affirming churches that explicitly welcome people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, etc.—the whole spectrum of sexuality and gender identity. Prospect went through the process of becoming Open and Affirming back in the 1990s, very early in the Open and Affirming movement. This is ancient history now.
Until this past week at General Synod.
It is easy to forget, here in the bubble that is Seattle, that only 31% of UCC churches are Open and Affirming. And with some of those churches, they voted and then kind of buried the issue. You may have to explore their website a long time and click through a lot of pages before you find any mention of it. So what we think of as ancient history and “Are people really still having those discussion?” is only ancient history in pockets of the denomination. In other congregations, this is still a debate. How do we be Church? Which neighbors do we love? Is it our job to inform some of our neighbors that God does not approve of them?
Here’s what happened at General Synod. A resolution was brought to the plenary called “Stewardship of Exhibit Space as a Resource for a Mission of Justice.” Exhibit space? Surely this is not a big deal, right? Something about giving booth space in the exhibit hall to justice issues. Okay!
But as I read through the resolution text, something came to the fore of which I had been unaware. There’s a subgroup within the UCC called the Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the UCC. I knew nothing about this group. Not on my radar at all. They had a booth in the exhibit hall at General Synod in 2017. I attended General Synod that year, and I don’t recall seeing this booth, but there were lots and lots of booths.
It turns out that, where we at Prospect might be considered in the more progressive, liberal end of the UCC spectrum, the Faithful and Welcoming Churches specifically identify themselves as the evangelical, conservative, orthodox, or traditional congregations in the UCC. Were you even aware of this range of theologies within our own denomination?
So I went and checked out their website. Here are a few of the things they list as important to them:
We seek to encourage and connect with UCC people who….
So this resolution comes to General Synod saying let’s not allow the Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the UCC to have a booth. Their stands against LGBT people and against marriage equality are out of sync with decades of UCC resolutions in support of LGBT rights.
And apparently (I wasn’t there) in the discussion of this resolution, things kind of blew up. People were all over the map, even within the LGBTQ community. It turns out that, just like Paul and the other early missionaries and the early church in Galatia, we’re still trying to figure out how to be Church.
On the one hand… we want our LGBTQ members to know they are fully loved and accepted.
On the other hand… if only 31% of our congregations have gone through the process to become Open and Affirming, do we push out the other 69%? The UCC motto is a quote from John where Jesus says, “That they may all be one.” How is this “being one” if we fragment into Us and Them?
On the one hand… it’s all very well to be tolerant and accepting, but not on the backs of a minority that sometimes pays for intolerance with their lives.
On the other hand… how do we expect more congregations to become Open and Affirming if there is no dialogue, if we all never meet each other?
On the one hand… if the discrimination was around race instead of sexuality, would we even consider allowing such a booth at General Synod? No.
And on and on. Ultimately there was so much division around this resolution that the delegates voted to table it, and it died when General Synod adjourned. You can read the whole resolution, in its amended forms here.
So the resolution died, but the underlying question does not die. How do we be Church in the UCC? All of us? This denomination was formed by a series of mergers of at least four separate denominations, the main ones being portions of the Christian Church, Congregational Church, Evangelical Church, and the Reformed Church. The way they were all able to come to the table back in 1957, when the United Church of Christ was born, was to grant each congregation a lot of theological and administrative autonomy. Each congregation gets to decide for itself how it does church, how it does worship, what hymnals to use, how to address God—is God “he” or “he/she” or something gender neutral? Is God “thou,” or do we move on to more modern language? Each congregation gets to choose whether to become Open and Affirming, whether to become a “Just Peace” Church, and there are other designations as well.
There is freedom in this amount of autonomy. Paul said in our reading today, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) We are free—but we are still connected to the UCC denomination. All of it. We are free, yes, and in that freedom there is also responsibility to continue to be in relationship with the whole. There will always be an inevitable tug of war as thoughtful people of faith debate and disagree.
It would be easier if God would just part the clouds and say, “Here’s how it is, people.” But in the UCC, we are called to do the wrestling, given the freedom to think for ourselves and come up with our own best answers. In this congregation, we decided long ago to be Open and Affirming, and there is no turning back. It seems incredible to realize that other UCC congregations are not in step with our thinking, because we know it to be life-affirming. And a few of us are even making noises about marching in today’s Pride Parade representing this congregation. I can’t tell you how important that is to those witnessing that affirming presence of communities of faith.
So I invite us to keep listening to others who are elsewhere in their God journey, to keep our hearts and minds open and tender--and to keep standing up in support of our LGBTQ members, friends, and neighbors. I wish everyone understood how important this is. My heart breaks to think that others still exclude LGBTQ people in the name of God. We are all of us beloved children of God. Jesus did not cast anybody out. So we must wrestle with how to remain in relationship, even as we disagree about how to be Church. This is not trivial, not about who gets to have a booth in the exhibit hall. This is life and death. Always has been.
Paul says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”
We will not be consumed by one another. We will continue to love our neighbor, continue to stand for God’s love as we know and experience it, continue to march in the Pride Parade, continue to proclaim God’s love for everybody. We can do no other. May we always be so bold. Amen.