25 years ago on a cold January evening, this congregation voted to make bold its openness to “people of faith or in search of faith, without regard to age, race, sex, economic condition, disability, or sexual orientation.” And further, that we “invite all to share in the worship, life, leadership and employment opportunities of the church.” As you can read on the insert in this morning’s bulletin, after more than 2 years of study, discussion, prayer, and deliberation, Second Congregational Church became the first Open and Affirming Congregation in Vermont. “There is no longer Jew or Greek,” as the apostle Paul wrote, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; there is no longer gay or straight [we might add], for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
“Be the church.” “Celebrate diversity.” But honestly, we are not the most diverse congregation in Vermont, as if there were a contest for that. We are mostly white, mostly older, mostly educated, mostly able to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. We have a little racial diversity, a little age diversity, a little economic diversity, a little sexual orientation diversity; and we are from a variety of religious backgrounds–quite a few former Catholics, some Presbyterians and Lutherans, an astonishing number of retired United Methodist clergy, a few who actually grew up in the United Church of Christ, and a number from, shall we say? “mixed” religious backgrounds. We are native Vermonters and quite a few flatlanders. We are from Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, from Italian, Irish, Scottish, British, and Polish ancestry. Some are even from Kansas and Oklahoma. “Be the church.” “Celebrate diversity.”
There are some who feel they are in a definite minority here, whose element of diversity is not celebrated, and that would be those of a more conservative political persuasion. Too often we make assumptions that everyone agrees with our assessment of a particular leader or policy and don’t take the time to listen to and learn from those with different opinions. I hope, though, that unlike the students at my alma mater, Middlebury College, we will allow others to speak and certainly not cause them physical harm.
When I came to this church some 22 years ago, I certainly knew that it was proud of its Open and Affirming stance, but it took me a while to figure out what difference it made. Yes, it takes a certain amount of courage to make a public statement of welcome, especially when there are churches who seem to go out of their way to condemn and exclude. And yes, I certainly experienced this congregation as welcoming and open, but then I’m straight, white, educated, with the female part being problematic for some–”You couldn’t find one good man??” I discovered that the few lesbian and gay members felt judged by many in the congregation, certainly not celebrated. So we have been finding our way over these 25 years, sadly given the opportunity to publicly witness when Matthew Shepherd was killed in Wyoming, testifying in hearings about civil unions, joining since in demonstrations at the Four Corners to affirm our solidarity with those who have felt particularly threatened in the current political climate. A rainbow flag hangs near our front door. New members are given Walter Wink’s booklet entitled, “Homosexuality and the Bible,” and as I tell new members we are Open and Affirming not in spite of the Bible, which only has about 6 verses that refer to homosexual behavior (and none of these on Jesus’ lips), but because of the Bible, whose overwhelming witness is one of love and breaking down barriers–”There is no longer Jew or Greek, …slave or free,…male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Of course, as our understanding of gender and gender identification grows, it is probably time to re-visit our statement that merely includes “orientation.” The range and spectrum and fluidity of gender we know now is mind-boggling, as the issue on Gender in National Geographic of a few months back explores. “Be the church. Celebrate diversity.”
We are called not just to strive for diversity. In fact, many experts in “church growth” will tell you that homogeneous churches–churches with less diversity– are more likely to grow. Clearly there is a growing movement in this country and across the world that argues for homogeneous nations, claiming that that is the way to reduce conflict and to make us “great.”
The thing is, a “small but growing body of research” is finding that “homogeneous groups…can be less creative and insightful than diverse ones. They are more prone to groupthink and less likely to question faulty assumptions.” [Moises Velasquez-Manoff, NY Times, 3/5/17] It’s not only true for groups but, intriguingly, for individuals as well. The research “suggests that [for example] multiracial people are more open-minded and creative….Being mixed makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of human history, and that are now resurgent.”
Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote in an op-ed piece in the NY Times a couple weeks ago that being aware that we all are made up of multiple selves–a daughter, a pastor, a mother, a swimmer, a dog-lover, a progressive, a friend–just to take some of my selves as an example–being aware and reminded of those multiple identities actually improved participants’ creative problem-solving abilities in a 2015 study at Duke University. “Somehow, having multiple selves–and especially being aware of them– enhanced mental flexibility.”
In other words, diversity–among people, and within people–may actually increase our ability to solve problems, to deal with the dizzying number of challenges we face today. So, as we strive to “be the church,” we are not just to strive for diversity, but to celebrate diversity. “Diversity isn’t easy,” though, as Velasquez-Manoff acknowledges. “It’s uncomfortable. It can make people feel threatened…That very difficulty, though, may be why diversity is so good for us. ‘The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise,’ Katherine Phillips, a senior vice dean at Columbia Business School, writes. ‘You have to push yourself to grow your muscles.’” [Ibid.]
“There is no longer Jew or Greek,…slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” “We will rise. We are strong, we belong, we are one,” the choir sang for us. We will rise like the dry bones in the valley Ezekiel prophesied to in his vision, rising up, adding sinew upon bone, and flesh to cover all that, and breath to give life…all those pieces coming together to make a nation great again. It’s the sentiment captured by a snapshot of Vishavjit Singh, an American Sikh man, dressed in a full-body Captain American costume, wearing a turban, and holding a sign, “Black, Muslim, Trans, Latino, Asian, White…We all Make America Great!” Be the church. Celebrate diversity. Prophesy to the dry bones–rise up, come together, be strong. Imagine the possibilities. Imagine that grace.
“Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed…Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing…[writes the great African American author Toni Morrison] After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, ‘Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.
“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.
“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and ground life shuddered under their feet.
Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and th dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Sugg, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.
She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.
She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it…It is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, stroke it and hold it up…The beat and beating heart, love that too…Love your heart…
Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for the deeply loved flesh. [Beloved, cited in Imaging the Word, vol. 2, p. 166]
Women, men, and children, young and old, gay and straight. Our diversity is beautiful, challenging, threatening, life-giving, creative, holy. One loaf, one cup. So let us be the church, and celebrate diversity.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark