Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15
A few days ago, I was speaking with a colleague who’s serving as one of the UCC’s 38 Conference ministers, he mourned: “It’s a tough week to be UCC.”
He was referring to recent derogatory comments Franklin Graham and Rick Santorum made about President Obama’s faith.
The Washington Post summed their critique up this way: “Last week, the Christianity police… came forward to discredit the president’s religious beliefs. First, Santorum called President Obama’s theology “phony.” Next (Franklin) Graham refused to accept Obama into his Christian band of brothers. (Graham’s grudging comment was:): “He has said he’s a Christian, so I just have to assume that he is.”
Are these doubts a backdoor way of fueling the crazy rumors that Obama’s really a Muslim. And what if he were?
Obama wasn’t raised in the church. Rather, he grew up to be one of those young adults Old First is hoping to open the doors of the church to– helping them to see how faith and service can add to their lives.
Obama wandered into Trinity UCC in Chicago at age 27. He later wrote that there the holy stories of faith — of survival, freedom and hope — became his stories. He met Jesus and was baptized.
Obama held membership at Trinity for almost 20 years, the only church he’s ever belonged to, until he resigned during his first run for president over the firestorm that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright became for his campaign.
It’s interesting to me: Obama’s faith became an issue in first election… mostly, I think, to play the race card without every actually having to admit that’s what was being done.
Many in the Euro-American public reacted with surprise and offense or hurt to learn that a predominantly Black congregation and its activist pastor could have a serious and sustained critique of racism in our country’s history and present. And many were unnerved to hear of a North American form of Black Liberation Theology… (The Black community, it seemed to me, was left scratching their heads, confused that white folks were so out of touch with their experience, opinions and feelings.) Raising the issue of Obama’s faith 4 years ago was trying to paint him a dangerous Black radical, even separatist.
This time around, religion is being used again, but now to focus a spotlight on another cultural divide. Perhaps because race didn’t have enough punch last time around? Now the issue is sexuality. Women’s reproductive health and queer folks’ rights.
The right wing’s smear campaign against the liberal church only works, of course, because the UCC comes down firmly, even effectively, on what the accusers insist is the wrong side of truth, the Bible and faithfulness.
That doesn’t mean we are either of one mind in our pews, nor marching in lock-step any place else on these topics. We’re UCC, so we don’t have to be!
But our denomination has been supportive and activist for women’s right to choose for themselves the medical care they believe is right — it’s between a woman, her doctor and God. Recently, in response to the current assault on women’s right to birth control, I’ve been seeing stickers pop up all over the internet: “I’m UCC and my church supports Women’s Reproductive Health.”
Likewise, the UCC consistently stood for and fought for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks right to love, adopt, marry, work, lead… the rights of queer folks to be and do everything else that others take for granted. Since 1972 when it ordained Bill Johnson, the first openly gay minister in modern times.
This week we celebrate the 1000th UCC congregation, Pillar of Love UCC in Chicago, that has made a public declaration that as a church, because of its faith in Jesus, it won’t discriminate against, but, instead, affirms folks… (Old First was the 178th congregation in the UCC to declare itself ONA.)
UCC faith is less about someone deciding for everyone else what is right and good and of God. Instead, we lean towards freedom– because people are sacred enough in and of themselves to deserve it. At least that’s what God seems to think. But also because we believe it’s necessary for faithfulness, which after all is a commitment one makes for oneself to follow Jesus as a disciple.
One of you asked me this week if like Catholics, UCCers aren’t supposed to eat meat in Lent. I explained:
“For us, no overarching rules like that — no legislation from on high, wherein someone else dictates to you… Instead of just accepting someone else’s answer, we’re exhorted to the freedom/responsibility of developing — with God (and the support of Christ’s church) — our own personal answers…
If some other commitment or practice would be more helpful for you keeping the nature of God’s self-giving love first & foremost in your heart, mind and life, then that’s what you’re to do…”
Beloved, being UCC is about celebrating a freedom wherein we can be responsible to no lesser authority than God! Santorum and Graham, with their accusations that we’re essentially not even Christians, clearly don’t get this. We’re not even sure sometimes how our own faith tradition works! And I doubt that any of us can agree with the church on all the positions it takes!
But on these two issues (since they’re the ones that have called out faith into question), if you do agree with the church, well then you should tell someone else that your church is different, and explain how…
And if you don’t see things the same way, that’s ok too, but you should make it your responsibility to figure out how others in the church get to the position they do. And tell them how and why you believe differently.
We don’t have to agree, our covenant together as the church is to listen to one another deep enough to be challenged by one another. (And I’m around to talk about this stuff if you like…)
So now — in the great UCC tradition — I’m going to differ with my conference minister colleague who mourned being UCC this week… I think this is the best time and situation in which to be UCC.
You see, church, Santorum and Graham are pretending they can divide right from wrong. It’s a tired, old and damaging religious game — who’s in and who’s out. Ultimately who’s saved and who’s condemned.
Interestingly, as is usually the case in these situations, the real concern isn’t about eternity, but about who’s on top in the here and now.
But we’re also called to be concerned with what happens in the world. And so we are also called to be loud and proud about what we believe. And about the commitments that faith moves us to make…
If this morning I’ve sounded more like an op-ed piece in the paper than sermon, I have put on our church’s website an Op-Ed piece from the Ohio Conference Minister, Bob Molsberry of Ohio. (Incidentally, he wasn’t who I was speaking with.)
But let me now finish with two pastoral concerns and the Scripture:
Tim Hermann isn’t here this morning. We’ve sent him to Warminster UCC, a congregation that’s considering becoming the UCC’s 1001st ONA congregation.
Tim’s in Warminster as our missionary. To tell the story of how the church he grew up, taught him being gay was wrong. For Tim that contradiction — between the church he loved and who he grew up to know himself to be — became painful, overwhelming, self-destructive. Tim’s going to tell the folks in Warminster how God through Old First helped free him from that…
My prayer is that we could do the same for two others I’ve talked to in as many weeks— young people trying to figure out how to be themselves in the face of their church’s or their family’s condemnations.
The other pastoral concern has to remain nameless. Last Sunday, one of our high schoolers, as we were walking down the stairs, leaving church, said to me, “Michael, will you pray for my friend. She’s going through a pregnancy scare.” How many women, the young and the not so young, are dealing with their sexuality and facing their lives without the support and the health care they deserve?
Now remember our Mark passage. How the heavens are torn open so that God can send a comforter down. And how Jesus hears a clear voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”.
What if through this church, young people struggling — those young people feeling condemned over being queer and that young woman fearing she’s pregnant — what if folks struggling, and the not so young too, what if all people could heard from us clearly, decisively the echo of an affirmation from heaven: “You are my Children… beloved… with you I am well pleased.”
Or as one of you summed up the Genesis passage after I hinted where I was going with this sermon: “Ah yes, God gave ONA the rainbow sign as a promise. Not more hating; it’s belonging this time.
I love creative interpretations! But I suspect Judy Garland and the Wizard of Oz gave gay pride the rainbow. But God’s promises and a constant, transformative and Divine desire that we all be free — they are certainly in the mix some place too.
Welcome home, all you who fear you are far off: Jesus’ good news is that God’s come close, and there’s no reason you cannot also be close to God too. Amen.