A while ago, I was poking around in my office and I came across an envelope I didn’t recognize – it’s a big office. Inside was a pile of pieces of paper with ideas for St. Andrew’s. It was interesting to look through the stack. There were of course, lots of pieces of paper suggesting we get more people to come to church; there’s good news and bad news on that suggestion. The good news is there are a ton of new people ready to come to St. Andrew’s. The bad news is that they’re waiting for you to invite and bring them!
There was also a common theme that we should let go of the past a bit and try new things. I think this is a great idea and one way we’re going to do both of these things, new people and new ways of being a church comes from another suggestion that was make 8 years ago – that we become an affirming congregation. This discussion started long before I started serving as your minister and one of the things I hear quite often is, “I thought we were already affirming.” Well, yes and no.
First, for those of you that don’t know what this means, I’ll give you a bit of the background. In the United Church, we have a long history of being welcoming. We’ve long tried to remove barriers that may prevent people from worshipping and working with us. One of the ways to celebrate this is to recognize those congregations that have intentionally worked to make a place for all people who wish to join us as we follow the Way of Christ. As a part of this celebration, we’re listed on the Affirm United web site and most importantly, we get a sticker.
What’s the big deal about the sticker you may say. It reminds me of the stories my grandmother told about living in Winnipeg during the depression. Apparently, people who were down on their luck would leave a mark on people’s fence posts when they were given a bit of food or treated with respect. This mark would show those who were in need, “these are good people.” This sticker will be added to our sign outside and it will be our post marker saying, “these are good people and you’ll be welcomed here.”
Becoming affirming means that no matter who you are, whether you are rich poor, young, old, straight or LGBT, have a past you’re proud of or whether you’re struggling with regrets, you’re welcome here. So are we affirming? Yes, we are a welcoming warm place that works to make space for all. We just haven’t made it official.
While becoming an affirming church means welcoming people from all walks of life, I know that the biggest challenge for many is still sharing our pews with our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender siblings. This can be a challenge for many reasons – maybe it’s what our parents taught, or maybe you just don’t understand and I’ll have to leave that to you to reconcile. Where I can maybe offer some clarity is in what the Bible teaches us.
First off, the Bible is a really big book full of stories and histories and of course rules. Depending on how you count, there are about 6 verses in here about same sex relations – just 6. And of these 6, there are two challenges we have to address.
The first challenge is language. In the Bible, there is no words to describe loving committed same sex relationships. The idea of same sex marriage hadn’t even been conceived since the idea of marriage for love wasn’t a thing. Marriage was an arrangement between families for the sake of property rights and safety. What has often been seen as verses about homosexuality is actually about prostitution that was a part of pagan worship. It is also about the greek practice of wealthy men keeping underage pleasure slaves who were sometimes boys. Of course this was prohibited as it should be – but it has nothing to do with adults entering into loving relationship.
The second challenge is context. There is no doubt that in ancient Israel it was considered a sin for men to be intimate. First off, this was because it didn’t lead to having children and growing the kingdom was of profound importance. If we move this into today, it would be like saying that marriage without children is invalid, even the 22 years of wedded bliss Jen and I have shared.
These laws also had to do with the status of women. Women were property. It’s right there in the 10th commandment, “you shall not covet your neighbours house, wife, servant or anything else that belongs to your neighbour.” For a man to lower himself to the position of a woman was a grave dishonour in a culture where honour was everything. I hope none of us would see women in this way today, so why would we judge our LGBT siblings by these outdated standards?
I could go on and on with a verse by verse analysis but you don’t want a 5 hour sermon. Instead, let me make an invitation to you. If you do have questions about a particular part of the Bible on this or any other topic, you know where to find me. In the mean time though, lets talk about why becoming an affirming church is rooted firmly in the Gospel.
There are certain themes that come up time and time again in the Gospels. The age to come is the most common; Jesus is always talking about the realm of God but within that, he talks about the qualities of this age: undivided devotion to God while forsaking the false gods of wealth and power; care for the sick, poor and outcast; the equality of all God’s children; and of course, Jesus has a lot to say about hospitality. The reading we heard from Luke is one of those examples – when you have a dinner, invite those who cannot repay you and you will find your reward with God. The letter from James is similar. The community he writes to is obviously showing preferential treatment for those in their community who are wealthy but here we’re told to make no distinctions.
What if we viewed our own church like this? In those suggestions that I talked of earlier, there was the desire to attract new people and young families. I’m sure this is a desire of every church in the world and so it should be. Of course we want new families to come. With that though, if we’re staying true to the Gospel, there should be just as much desire to bring in those who can offer us nothing in return – if you’re too poor to drop anything in the plate, if the stresses of simply surviving another day mean you can’t volunteer on one of our committees, we desperately want you here.
How we attract young families is a worthy question but so is, “how do we attract the poor, the broken, the lonely, and those who have been turned away from every other door they’ve tried.” This is what it means to be an affirming congregation. It means that in any one of these pews, we’ll find people who are rich and poor, gay and straight, people who have their lives put together and those who are just trying to get through another day. It means providing assistance for those who cannot hear, a gender neutral bathroom for those who don’t fit the either/or model of biology, a lift for those who cannot manage stairs. Being an affirming congregation means that no matter how much division, and fear, and hatred their is in the rest of the world, when we step into this place, this sanctuary, we live out the call to love our neighbours as ourselves. When we enter this sanctuary we live out a small piece of God’s realm where the face of Christ is recognized in every face. When we step into this sanctuary we welcome all people to join in the songs of praise and thanksgiving to the one God who is the parent of us all.