Of Roses and Rainbows
A Sermon for First Church Somerville, UCC
Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash
May 19, 2019
Audio Recording, including music by the amazing Dr. Jolie Rocke which precedes and follows the sermon:
11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 11:2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 11:3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 11:4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,
11:5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 11:6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 11:7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 11:8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 11:9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 11:10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11:11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 11:12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 11:13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 11:14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 11:15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 11:16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 11:17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 11:18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.
Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)
It was a pivot moment for the early church.
They were still figuring out their sense of identity, figuring out who they were and who was part of their movement. In a fledgling community, when you’re establishing identity, you have a tendency to define insiders and outsider, us and them, and so the early church had done.
Despite Jesus’ own ministry with and among people of many cultures and religious backgrounds, his followers were mostly Jewish.
At Pentecost the Spirit moved among “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5)
Philip started moving the early church toward a broader ministry by going to Samaria and preaching there, and his encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 moved the way of Jesus toward a more inclusive identity.
Cornelius’ conversion and Peter’s vision expanded the church even further.
I propose to you that First Church has been through its own pivot moments, and I was privileged to witness one of them in the first few years I was part of this community. I walked in to this building in August of 1996, and things were a little different at the time.
To begin with, the address.
The building we are in right now – what is the address?
89 College Ave? When I walked through these doors for the first time, in August of 1996, the address on this building was 95 College Avenue. (Give me a little feedback if you hear something familiar.)
That’s the address of the recovery house next door, you say? It was the parsonage at the time. And all the mail – the mail for the church, the pastor, the pastor’s children, the pastor’s housemates, all came through the mailslot there.
The pastor’s office was there, too – where Jason Donnelly and I both came to talk to the pastor on the same day about wanting to go to seminary.
The chapel, if I recall correctly, still had pews and dark walls and Duhamel Hall wasn’t even called that yet. There was a stage used for dusty storage in the back half of the basement. (Can we get a shout out to the dozens of work weekend crews who have knocked down and lightened up the walls of this place over the years?)
The rose window, of course, was over there.
Davis Square was a little different, too, back then. It had not hit its renaissance period yet. It was still the inexpensive neighborhood. There was a social security office where elders waited for hours where the BFresh is. Bars still smelled like smoke, the Someday Cafe was the first proto-hipster coffee shop, and I only knew two cycle commuters – both of them, by the way, tall Canadian scientists named John.
As I walk this chancel, I can hear the whispers of the folks who first welcomed me here, in 1996, to this place.
Ralph and Ellen, who helped me practice adulting.
Peg, who had major questions for me when I first went on the deacons.
John, and Sara and Vin.
Kim and Virginia and Dibbie, Betsy and Dennis, Ellie and Bill, Neil and Beckie.
<Show two mugs, then ONA booklet>
Some of you longtimers will recognize this artifact from the 90s. It’s the ONA Booklet, from the spring of 1998, when we were prayerfully considering whether this congregation would specifically and publicly welcome of LGBT folks.
Becoming ONA was not obvious.
Indeed, digging through my email archives, I found a comment from someone who’d been on the ONA committee when they tried it in the early 90s – they tabled it because the church was dying, so what was the point?
(Y’all, this church has a habit of rising from the dead. Amen?)
In 1998 there were folks who said we were such a friendly church wouldn’t everyone just know they were welcome?
There were folks who thought it would be divisive.
There were folks simply afraid of change.
And the rainbow flag symbol itself was a challenge.
We had folks whose upbringing taught them a very specific notion of sin, folks who like the early church leaders in Jerusalem, wondered how we could minister with that kind of people.
And then we had folks who believed that every single person is created in the image of God, beautiful and worthy. Folks who believed it was an expression of God’s faithfulness and compassion for churches to be welcoming.
We had folks who were convinced the body of Christ was incomplete without making our welcome plain.
Folks who knew it was God’s will to minister to and with everyone, and God’s will that we proclaim it joyfully.
Folks who knew what a profound witness it would be to wave a beautiful, rainbow flag as if it were a blanket descended from heaven to say, everyone is welcome here. We mean it.
Folks who heard in Peter’s testimony their own belief:
“We truly understand that God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10:34)
“There is no distinction between us.” (Acts 11:12)
“Who are we that we could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)
We were, in late 1998, the 276th UCC church in the nation to become ONA. I know that seems….not very pioneering, not a lot to write home about, but keep in mind some other numbers:
Today, there’s 1500 or 1600 ONA congregations, nationally. We were, I think, 18th in Massachusetts – today there are 185 ONA churches in Massachusetts out of more than 350 UCC churches in the Commonwealth.
We walked in Pride that next spring, when there were only a few dozen of us from ONA Churches.
So, we weren’t first in line but we were on the early end of things.
We made this pledge to inclusion at a time when it seemed just as like to lose us people as to appeal to newcomers.
I wonder how different congregation would be, today, if the Friendly Church of 1998 had a different vision and had not become ONA.
Raise your hand if you would be here if this church were not ONA?
Because you are here, and you are here, and you are here, and you are here,
this local body of Christ is whole and perfect.
Back to Peter, and the early church.
Now, that gets a little complicated. In that pivot moment, the church went from a small group of Jewish folks to a movement that embraced people of many nationalities and religious backgrounds and we would like to just celebrate this and say Amen and move on to the hymn.
But I have to put in a couple of caveats to this pivot moment because Christian history is complex and one of the results of this moment was, when Christianity became the religion of empire, sharing the faith with people of all nations flat out turned into colonialism. When more and more Gentiles became Christian, it was not long before Christianity veered into the terrible terrain of supersessionism and anti-semitism. Repentance from these sins is our common work.
We are still figuring out what it means to be an Open and Affirming Church.
We are still figuring out how welcome without expecting folks to be just like us but with different pronouns. (I’m inspired and provoked here by this article by K. HawkerSelf.)
And we are still figuring out how to live into all the promises made in our ONA statement:
We…commit ourselves to welcoming all people into the full life and ministry of the church regardless of sexual orientation, gender, marital status, age, mental and physical ability, race, ethnicity, nationality, or economic status. We continue to commit ourselves to the struggle against injustice in all forms.
Our work toward welcome did not end in 1998. We celebrate same sex marriages here and we have updated our statement to reflect gender identity and to make clear our welcome of transgender folks, something only about 40% of ONA churches have done. (1) And there is surely more holy welcome yet to be proclaimed.
And more broadly, in 2019, our work is not done on justice.
Immigration; Women’s rights; Racial Justice, Environmental and Climate Justice, we are called to witness. All of these issues are about who is in and who is out, who has power and who does not, and any one of these could have been part of Peter’s vision, must be part of our vision in 2019.
Church, this is our ongoing and holy work.
Like Peter, we will continue (to try) not to hinder God.
Like Peter, we will not distinguish between people.
Like followers of Jesus we will declare everyone our neighbors.
We will aspire to be more and more welcoming, more and more affirming, more and more justice-seeking. Because this is our calling and our charism, in this congregation – as long as the rose window and the rainbow flag mark this place, it will be a church where all are welcomed and everyone’s dignity is upheld.
Thanks be to God.
“God is GOOD!”
“All the time!”
“Welcome everyone, welcome to First Church Somerville. Welcome to you if you are queer or straight, or a little bit of each. Welcome to you if you are young or old, or a little bit of each. Welcome to people of all colors, all genders, all body shapes and sizes. Because YOU are here this morning, this Body is whole and perfect. One of the ways we welcome one another here at First Church Somerville is through the passing of the peace. This is your opportunity to offer your neighbor your welcome, and the welcome of Jesus Christ, with a handshake, a hug, a holy kiss, or if you prefer a non-touch option, the peace sign. The peace of Christ be with you all!”