A Sermon preached by Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Ash Wednesday, 2/28/01, dedicated to all persons who grasp diversity in Christ and have welcomed others in the unconditional love of Christ and always to the glory of God!
Diversity in Christ"
Part I of VII in the Lenten/Easter series:
Diversity in Christ: Weaving the Tapestry of God's Love"
I John 3:11-24
Ever since the Open and Affirming Task Force submitted its report to Church Council in the Spring of 2000, I have wanted to preach on diversity in Christ. I have literally put this series on hold while we formulated our long range vision plan as a congregation. Clearly, Goal #7 of our plan speaks to this series which begins today: Goal #7 reads: "We will become a more richly diverse and inclusive congregation." Diversity and Inclusiveness form a rich and beautiful tapestry of Christian faith woven by sacred threads - threads of peace, hope, grace, and love. Today we will begin a faith journey through the Lenten Season - a journey of inclusion and diversity. We will examine God's tapestry which is woven together in love. It is an exciting journey. I hope you bring your friends, family, co-workers - some of whom have felt excluded by the church and in the church. This journey is dedicated to those who have felt and/or have been excluded. The journey is mapped out for those of us who have participated - either silently or actively in the exclusion of others - so that we may be opened up and broadened and they may be welcomed.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
As a child growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I was aware that my community was homogeneous. I was also aware that my family welcomed and encouraged global awareness and inclusivity. My parents often brought missionaries and students from Europe, Africa, and Asia to our home. Our dinner table conversations were alive with laughter, stories of exotic lands and peoples, and the awkwardness of not what to say to someone who spoke a very foreign language. Through these and a multitude of experiences in sports and church mission in the heart of Philadelphia, I have memories of diversity in a sea of seeming sameness.
As the years have passed, I have discovered that even in the sea of seeming sameness (based primarily on skin color) in my church and local community growing up, there was much diversity. In the 25 years that have passed since leaving home, several family friends have "come out" as openly gay and lesbian, while others have remained "closeted" - never speaking publicly of their sexual orientation for fear of retribution, but have shared privately that they were gay. Another childhood friend struggles each day with schizophrenia, while another battles MS. Two have died of AIDS contracted in the 1980's while in gay relationships. One high school friend became Buddhist, while another became a fundamentalist pastor (sadly, but deservedly ending up in prison for child molestation). One has become blind and others are now in wheelchairs. Some of my hometown friends have interracial families, while others continue to reflect the sea of seeming sameness I left in 1976.
I share these images and sketchy portraits with you to show that my family and my hometown friends - like many of your families and hometown friends - although often appearing outwardly to be a sea of seeming sameness - are in fact filled with colorful islands of diversity and pluralism in the midst of our lives.
Here in our own family of faith at First Congregational Church, we have a colorful array of persons in the beautiful tapestry that God is weaving. We come together from vastly ranging socioeconomic levels, racial and family system blends, ethnic and cultural blends, blends of theological and religious differences (Islamic and Christian; Jewish and Christian, and various shades and blends of atheists, agnostics and Christian! We have family members here and in our extended families who are gay, straight, and bisexual; rich and poor; young and old; Afro-African, Euro-American, Asian-American; Hispanic-American; Native-American; gifted and challenged physically, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually.
The warp, weave, colors, hues, and finally the tapestry of God's love of our diverse fabric of faith called "Christian" is one which I believe must be woven on the loom of tolerance, acceptance and unconditional love. As such through the proclamation of God's word, through music, through teaching, through personal and powerful stories of faith and brokenness, we will be weaving the tapestry of God's love in Christ.
Today (tonight) I offer four foundational principles of diversity in Christ Jesus. Sunday I will offer seven steps which need to be taken to break down the dividing walls that separate from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
FOUR PRINCIPLES OF DIVERSITY IN CHRIST JESUS
1.The God we worship and proclaim is a God of inclusion, wholeness and shalom. We say we believe in one God. Our One God has fashioned a creation marked by wondrous complexity and a single human family marked by natural diversities. These diversities include, multiplicities of race and sexual orientations, gender differences, physical, emotional, and mental abilities. Throughout the creative process that we have come to know in Genesis, God created and called the creation "Good." Thus, the varieties of diversity created by God are properly understood as "Gifts from God." The One God who loves us is a God who creates us through love as beautiful and good. Although we may not fully understand why God has gifted some of us with certain gifts, and not others, we have faith that God who is all Wise, all knowing, and all loving in God's infinite wisdom and love understands the complexities of God's own creative genius! Therefore, the challenge we are called to is grasp and grow in our acceptance of God's marvelous gifts to each of us and to others in God's glorious creation.
Selections from I John 3 and 4 say it this way:
"For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another . . . Whoever does not love abides in death. We know love by this - that he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. Little children - let us not love in word or speech, but in truth and action . . . Love is from God, everyone who loves is a child of God . . . The command we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters.
I have said that this principle centers us in a God who is a God of inclusion, wholeness, and shalom. If you have heard or read the Hebrew Scriptures, you know that scripture also speaks of a God of wrath, judgement and exclusion. In the Old Testament, God clearly calls the nation of Israel "my chosen people" and segregates and separates the twelve tribes of Israel and later Judah from the pagan nations of Palestine. This certainly is not inclusive! And I believe "the chosen people" language and laws of separation around which the cultures of Israel and Judah were formed have created distinctive blessings and curses for Judaism throughout 4,500 of history. I also believe the Jews of today could articulate and enumerate the blessings and curses of this distinction far better than I or any one of us!
While God leads a nation of liberated slaves through the desert and into the Promised Land by force and destruction and then establishes the nation through exclusive laws separating them from their conquered neighbors, I believe that the words and actions and truth of God, in the revelation of Christ Jesus, change everything.
Speaking of Jesus, God says, "This is my beloved Son! Do what he tells you!" The Gospel of John tells us, "God so loved the (whole) world, that God gave his only begotten (of the same nature as the Father!) Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16). In Christ Jesus, the essence of God's being, or God's nature is one who comes for love of the whole world, to save or heal all people, one who comes that all might have Eternal Life - these are elements of a God of shalom or "Peace internal, external, eternal"; a God of wholeness, a God of healing, a God of Inclusion. This brings us to the second principle . . .
2. "God with Skin on" - (in Christ Jesus )- embodies diversity and nonconformity. When people ask the question, "Is Jesus God?," they tend to assume that we know who God is. The question means, "Can you fit Jesus into God-picture? Well, the best Christian answer has always been, we don't know, off the top of our heads, exactly who God is; but we can discover God by looking at Jesus. At the heart of Christian faith is the view, not that Jesus is more or less God, but that the being we refer to as "God" was, and is, fully present, and fully discoverable, in and as Jesus of Nazareth (quoted in The Original Jesus, Tom Wright, Eerdmanns Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 1996, pp. 78-79).
God in Jesus Christ is passionate and compassionate; crying out in times of personal pain and fear; and he is equally vocal about injustice and oppression. He teaches timeless truths and heals broken bodies and souls. Yet, he doesn't stop there! He declares judgement on those who are unjust and those who reject peace. He reaches out from the confines of his Jewishness to Gentiles when others would rather "not go there." Jesus never backs away from speaking the truth in love. But, he also will not be contained by grave or death! Rather, following his brutal crucifixion, he is raised by God from the grave and returns to project his vision for a reign of God which goes on forever.
Jesus is God with a face! Jesus is God with skin on! He embodies God's disposition for justice, for peace, for prevailing truth, for powerful healing, for welcome which extends far beyond a small band of Galilean fishermen to a world yearning for liberation. As "God with skin on" Jesus is also a nonconformist. Paul tells us in Romans 12:2, "to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of your mind."
Paul Tillich writes of this transformation from nonconformity:
It is hard not to be conformed to anything, not even to oneself, and to pronounce the divine judgment against idolatry, not so much because the courageous act may lead to suffering and martyrdom, but because of the risk of failure. It is hard because something in our conscience, a feeling of guilt, tries to prevent us from becoming nonconformists.
But, even this feeling of guilt we must take upon ourselves. The one who risks and fails can be forgiven. The one who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being. That one is not forgiven, because he does not feel he needs forgiveness. (Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now, Macmillian Publishing, NY, NY, 1963, p. 244).
To be called "Christian," to reflect the Christ, we too must be for others, "God With Skin On." To be God with Skin On, we too must reach out across the divides of the human community in compassionate love to touch others who we are told not to touch. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, "I am not worthy to be called `Christian' until the day I embrace the leper and call him my brother!" That is nonconformity. That is Christlike.
We too easily become culturally captive - no matter what the prevailing culture is that captivates us. For example, conservative Christians are often captive to a culture of theological exclusion, separation and judgment. (Ironically, around the issue of racially mixed churches a recent study shows that only 2-3% of mainline protestant churches are integrated congregations. That number goes up to 8% for conservative Protestants and 20% for Catholic parishes! So, those with a theologically conservative bent are much more effective at integration than liberal theological folk! Largely this is reflected by the liberals unwillingness to change liturgy and music in order to welcome a racial mix of people!)
But, we as liberal Christians have a plank in our eye, too! The culture that captivates us is a culture of "sloppy agape" - love with no limits, a culture we call grace, but really often more reflective of no accountability in the face of unacceptable behaviors. This culture is as corrupt as the one which condemns others for behaviors. It is true, we need to be open and affirming of all people. But, it is also true that we need to hold people to the highest levels of discipleship or discipline in Christ. Now, that is a nonconformity in a culture which lacks accountability. To paraphrase Tillich's words, only by risking and failing may we then come to the point of needing forgiveness in our nonconformity.
3. Transformation begins at the lowest point. From Cross to Resurrection, from confession to forgiveness, from humility to unconditional love, we begin at the lowest point to reach to the highest point. I have lasted the whole sermon and I haven't mentioned the Holy Lands until now. Thirteen days ago, the band of pilgrims I was supposedly leading (I referred to my leadership as like a shepherd attempting to herd cats) made its way to the Jordan River valley just north of the Dead Sea which is 1350 feet below sea level. This is the lowest point on earth.
In this valley that Moses delivered the people of Israel to the edge of the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering. Shortly afterwards, Joshua led the people across the Jordan River to Jericho and began the first assault of the Palestinians. Here Hosea the prophet declared Israel was his jilted lover! The Essenes lived at Qumran, just a few miles away and there buried the Dead Sea Scrolls in 69AD. John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River in this section of the valley. In the high wilderness to the east - which are still below sea level! - Jesus spent forty days seeking God's guidance for the years which lay ahead. From the lowest point on earth he went forth to Galilee where after three years, he ended in Jerusalem and death on a cross - where history reached its lowest point on the hill of crucifixion just outside the city gates of Jerusalem. On Easter, three days later, history ascended to its highest point in the power of the resurrection.
From lowest to highest, from Dead Sea to The Ascension in Glory, the movement of diversity in Christ must be from lowest to highest. From the low points of our confess of sins to the high points of God's forgiveness and grace. From the low point of being humbled by our failures to accept others, to be tolerant of others, to the high point of our learning and living Christ's unconditional for others. From the low point of crucifixion and suffering unto death to the high point of resurrection unto life - the eternal now of God!
I challenge and admonish you in the fullness of Christ's love and grace to face your low points and know that God is there! It was at the lowest point on the earth that God delivered Promise! At the lowest point on the earth that God gave us the Son as Beloved and Blessed in Baptism! At the lowest point in human history, God gave us salvation in Christ! In each of these times and places - fully historical and fully spiritual - God delivered those who were present (and continue to be present!) To the highest point of faith, hope, and love. From lowest to highest - live in the face of God's delivering you always to Good News!
4. Finally, the Holy Spirit leads us from grace silence to joyful inclusion. As many of you know, the Holy Spirit is the forgotten person of the Trinity in our tradition. The Holy Spirit frightens some of us. The Spirit frightens us because we can't control it. We tend to be afraid of things we can't control - don't we? But, this fourth principle of diversity in Christ is a cornerstone principle. As we seek to become a more welcoming, more open, more affirming community of faith, we need to trust and call upon the Holy Spirit! The Spirit moves where it will! The Spirit is loose in the world (although we fail to feel and claim it often enough in the church!). The Holy Spirit is changing hearts, minds, souls, for Christ.
I ask you to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you. I pray that you will be moved from grave silence to joyful inclusion. What I mean is this: in places where you have maintained silence in the face of injustice and exclusion, may the Spirit move you to speak and act! In places where you see abuse and injury, may the Spirit move you to Speak the truth with love. In places where you see the church dragging its feet and refusing to change or be open to the blessings of God, the promises of God, the love of God - which is inclusive, diverse, and beautiful! - may the Holy Spirit give you strength and courage to speak the truth in love!
God needs strong, courageous, and Spirit-filled disciples in this day and age! Christ needs us to live with his face and skin on - for others, for all people! From the low points of the death valley where you encounter the silence of oppression and evil to the high points of the mountaintop resurrection where you encounter joy, God is calling you trust and call upon the Holy Spirit!
I must stop here! Sunday, I will share with you seven threads to break down divisions in Christ. Seven words that can (and will) help heal brokenness and exclusion in the body of Christ! Go in peace. Amen.
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