What a wonderful day it is! This celebration of our Open and Affirming commitment has been a long time coming. I’m thrilled to be able to share it with all of you today. In the two years of our discernment process, there were many who said that “Open and Affirming” was already the spirit of our Congregation before we began thinking about writing a covenant or calling a vote. Having served this church for three years now, I would have to agree. I’ve been deeply impressed by how loving and caring this congregation is. There is a warmth and acceptance here whose history goes back way before I arrived.
I know that, for some among us, making a public declaration about our Open and Affirming-ness has gone against the grain. As much as anything, I believe there is a “New England Reserve” alive here that I do respect, even if, as an old California boy, it doesn’t come naturally to me. These days though, that “public declaration” is increasingly important. Current events make it abundantly clear: the rights and safety of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are not secure. For that matter, the rights and safety of women, people of other races, nationalities or religions are not secure either. Much as we would like to believe that progress on these issues is inevitable, we dare not take it for granted. So, it is a good thing, I believe, especially in these tumultuous times, that we make it clear where we stand.
The Open and Affirming project in our United Church of Christ denomination started way back in 1985. A resolution at that year’s General Synod invited our congregations to consider declaring themselves Open and Affirming. They invited. That’s how we do things. In the UCC, there is no power at the denominational level to force something like this on any of our churches. So, we were invited. Ever since then, a few at a time and then more and more, individual congregations across the country began taking up that invitation. They began engaging in discernment, writing covenants and voting, just as we recently did. Thirty-eight years later, there are now somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 Open and Affirming congregations, which represents about a third of our UCC churches, and we are one of them. This celebration has been a long time coming.
How did we get here? That’s an interesting question. For an answer, we could talk about the process we went through that has landed us here today; the conversations, the learning and the soul searching of the discernment period which led up to our vote on Thanksgiving Sunday last year. We could also see where we are today as part of the larger cultural changes that have taken place in our country over the last couple of decades; the gradual opening up of minds and hearts across our nation to the rich diversity that always was a better expression of what it means to be human.
But to me, how we got here is a much more personal question. It’s a question that brings to mind the people we have known who have touched our lives; people who have shown us that there is nothing to fear, and much to be gained, from those who understand their sexuality in non-traditional ways. A brother or sister, a wife or a husband, a child, a friend, or a mentor … someone, somewhere in our lives, who had the courage to come out to us, asking simply to be accepted for who they are. They are the faces and names that come to our minds when we get in touch with the deeper reasons of why we are here.
For me, there have been many, but the first was a man named John Rice. John was a beautiful and amazing man; full of life and energy, bright, creative, funny and playful, with a deep wisdom that saw blessings and beauty everywhere he looked. John was the youth minister at my church during my last couple of years of High School. When I knew him John was married. My mom told me she thought he was gay, but I said, “Well, how could he be. He’s married.” But mom was right. After I left for college I never saw John again, but he continued to have a deep impact on me. If it hadn’t been for John, I might never have gone into ministry at all. More than any other single person, he was the one who showed me what serving the church could be.
Throughout my early years of ministry, because of John, I think I would have called myself sympathetic, but not actively supportive. But years later, Matthew Shepherd was brutally beaten and left to die on a fence in Wyoming, and I had a profound change of heart. The images of Shepherd hanging on that fence were burned into my brain. For weeks, all I could think of was, that could just as easily have been John. I was working on a sermon series at the time, on the beatitudes. When I got to “Blessed are the Persecuted,” I put my feelings and my support into a public sermon for the first time.
So, John is a big part of my answer to the question of how I got here. And standing up here today, I know that each and every one of you could tell your own story of how you got here. I imagine most of those stories would have a lot in common with mine. They are stories of people we have known and loved who have given a face and a name to this struggle for justice. People who have brought to life for us both the joys and the suffering of those who dare to define themselves in ways that don’t fit our traditional binary standards. I thank God for bringing into my life a good many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, two of whom turned out to be my own children. And I thank God for a welcoming church, a place of worship that is determined and intentional about looking beyond our differences of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or what have you, knowing that we are all beloved children of God.
So, that is how we got here. The question for us now is, where are we going? That’s an open question. What it may mean for us to live into and up to our Open and Affirming covenant is something we are still learning. I’m sure there will be some fits and starts along the way. But I believe that the best path forward can be guided for us in much the same way as the process that brought us to our vote in the first place. Kindness and respect for one another, a desire to faithfully discern what is in God’s heart, and a willingness to remember the faces and the names of the people we have loved, who have opened our eyes, our minds and our hearts to a greater understanding of Openness and Affirmation.