Delivered on New Member Sunday, April 24, 2016
Scriptures: Revelation 21:1-6
John 13: 31-35
We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
Electric word, life, it means forever and that’s a mighty long time.
Prince, may he rest in peace and rise in power, sums up why someone would want to join an ancient and complex and imperfect institution like the church in one sentence: to get through this thing called life. It’s not an easy thing to do, as so many of us know. So many of us came through these doors because we are grieving, or afraid, or depressed, or alone, or because this is our last attempt trying out a church to see if it will be different this time, or even our last attempt trying out this thing called life.
We need one another, but it takes bravery to admit that.
My friend, Paul, sat on our panel on Wednesday night at Eat, Pray, Learn to tell his story growing up gay and Southern Baptist. He summed up in one word why institutions like the church still matter.
His word was:
Unfortunately, like my friend, Paul, so many people learn the importance of this word by discovering, over and over again, the places where they don’t belong.
And so on this new member Sunday we celebrate today those of you who know deep in your bones that you belong here. We celebrate that you were brave enough to walk through those doors; to give the church one more chance. We celebrate that on some level you believe that a different world is possible; that you’ve decided to try and get through this thing called life with us. The ceremony we had today only makes “official” what’s already true. You belong here. You—each of you—make us a better church, and a better people. May we build a church worthy of your promise.
Congregation, can I get an amen?
We all belong here, in this particular and sometimes peculiar little branch of God’s family tree. Jesus, in our scripture today, sums up what it looks and feels like to belong in one loaded and beautiful word:
He says, “everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love is a squishy word. It means so many things, sometimes it’s hard to know what we mean when we say it. When Jesus says to his disciples: “love one another as I have loved you,” he’s talking about the kind of love that comes from the Greek word “agape.” According to the dictionary, Agape is the highest form of love, charity; the love of God for humankind and of humankind for God." Not to be confused with "philēo" - brotherly love , or eros, erotic love, agápē embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends that and serves regardless of circumstances.
So when we talk about this particular form of Love that Jesus is talking about--agape--it’s not, “OMG, I totally agape the peanut butter chocolate ice cream at Rota Springs.” Or, “you guys, I met this adorable accountant on match.com who is obsessed with Star Wars and I think I’m in agape.” Or “Agape comedy movies starring Sandra Bullock are my favorite.”
Agape love is how we show care and hospitality toward the people we encounter no matter who they are, simply because we are each and all universally and unconditionally loved by a God who transcends our human inability to love without condition.
In other words, agape love means showing care whether we want to or not--even to those we find unlovable, simply because we are each and all loved by God.
Jesus gives us an object lesson in agape love. In the Gospel of John that we read today, in the paragraphs before, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. Literally, not metaphorically, washes their feet.
Jesus, who loves our bodies, gets down on the dirt floor and washes the filthy stinkin’ dusty calloused feet of his disciples. He shows them that love looks like lowering yourself to the ground to tenderly serve your neighbor regardless of your status or theirs’.
This tender washing requires the recipient’s cooperation. And I don’t know about you all, but I have a complex about my feet. They are huge (size 12) and flat, and have a weird pinky toe, and as you know, they are not perfectly polished and pedicured, and I am embarrassed of them, and it’s vulnerable letting someone else touch them.
Well, Jesus, who calls us to discomfort in service of God, shows us that agape also entails accepting the care of others--exposing your ugliest parts, despite your discomfort. That’s love in the Jesus definition.
You’ll notice nothing in the act of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet suggests we try to judge whether someone is worthy of our love before serving them.
You’ll notice nothing in this act suggests some of us are too good to kneel at someone’s feet, and that some of us are too bad to be cared for like that.
We do not judge who is worthy of God’s love. That’s definitely not our job. That’s above our pay grade.
“When we judge people,” Mother Teresa says, “we have no time to love them.”
Judgment communicates a sense that there are conditions on God’s love, and that we can be deemed worthy or unworthy of it. The practice of agape Jesus commands us to is the communication of God’s unconditional love. The practice of agape communicates belonging in God’s family.
On Wednesday night, around 70 people from First Church and all over our little community came to our parish hall to hear the stories of some of our church members and friends who are gay, lesbian, transgendered, and Christian. Raise your hand if you were there. It was profound because in the storied past, this congregation has created barriers to this kind of belonging, and they are starting to crumble away one conversation at a time. There was much laughter, and many tears. There was a standing ovation at the end. There was joy.
My dear friend Paul said he felt tearful just walking into our church hall, because it reminded him of the overwhelming feeling of belonging he experienced at his own Wednesday supper nights at church as a child. Paul told his story of growing up in Georgia as a Southern Baptist. He told us that he and his family went to church every night and twice on Sundays. Whenever the doors of the church were open and the lights were on, Paul was there. He recalled to us the experience of getting older, and discovering he was gay. And he recalled to us being told in no uncertain terms that in order to continue to belong, he would have to change who he was. And he tried as hard as he could, going to so-called ex-gay ministries for months at a time, being sprinkled with holy water and oil, and prayed over—an attempt to exorcise his demons. He earnestly tried, for fear he would be cast out of God’s favor. It didn’t work. He was still gay. He sank into a deep depression. He finally left the Christian Church altogether, came out, and created a “chosen family” within the gay community where he could have the sense of belonging he once had in church.
We heard the story of our beloved new member Erin, bullied for being a lesbian in a women’s Catholic college before she even knew she was a lesbian, tortured by her fellow field hockey players, and told by the nuns in charge that they had no policies in place to stop her tormenters. She founded a group on campus for LGBTQ folks, and the college refused to recognize the group, saying they didn’t belong at a Catholic College. She found a home again as an adult in a UU church in Northampton, where she could slap her rainbow bumper stickers on her car and be celebrated for who she was. And Erin, too, has found a home here at First Church.
We heard the story of our beloved new member Sam, who tried to hide that he was gay as an evangelical Christian and pastoral psychotherapist, husband and father. We heard about how he finally felt forced to make a choice between his family, his work, his church, and the great exhilarating unknown of being honest about who he was. It was a disorienting and sometimes less than celebratory journey. He found belonging in the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus and the Arlington Street Church in Boston, and found himself in the process. And today he celebrates his belonging here, among us.
We heard the story of Kathie who works for the MA conference of the United Church of Christ, after many years as a public school teacher. She bitterly regrets never coming out to her mother before her mother died, and her struggle to forgive herself because of it. Kathie found belonging in working with and for the United Church of Christ’s open and affirming ministries, to give back to the church that accepted and loved her into wholeness.
We heard the story of Dani, born the son (now daughter) of two UCC pastors. She lost her relationship with her pastor brothers after coming out as transgendered. She managed to stay together with her spouse of 28 years despite her transition from female to male, is understood and affirmed by her two young adult sons, and manages to boldly claim who she is despite sideways looks of disgust. She found belonging in God’s everlasting love; in whose image she was made.
During the Q&A, one of the audience members asked the panelists who have been in both same-sex and heterosexual relationships, “Does the love feel different?”
I loved Sam’s answer. “Well, the plumbing is different,” he said, “but the love is the same. Love is always the same. Intimacy, mutual support, caring, belonging.”
Imagine if the Church became a place where love was always the same. Where there was love for all people without conditions because God is Love. Imagine if we all could be who God made us to be without having to hide, or change, or live in terror. Just imagine. Barriers to belonging torn down, wiped away. A glimpse of the new heaven and the new earth. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Beloved: welcome to First Church, where we are gathered in the spirit of Jesus, committed to creating heaven on earth. Welcome to all of who you are. We know that at times the church has rejected difference and denied God’s promises for itself and for others which is why we say WITHOUT RESERVATION that you are welcome here just as God welcomes you, as a beloved child.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.