Scripture: Acts 11: 1-18
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
July 30, 2017
In our summer series, we have been exploring other faiths in order to build community. And in our exploration, we have discovered that each religion brings a unique gift. Hinduism brings the gift of tolerance and diversity with it many gods and goddesses. Buddhism brings the gifts of compassion and mindfulness. Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheistic religion – the oldest religion that believes in one God. Islam shares the gifts of discipline with its focus on praying 5 times a day, almsgiving, and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Each religion brings its unique gift to the table of faith. Christianity is unique with its huge focus upon forgiveness – such as the forgiveness of sins. Yes, every religion offers a unique gift.
Likewise, each denomination within Christianity offers a gift. There are over 30,000 Christian denominations. When Michael Kinnamon, the former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, was asked about the purpose of denominations, he stated, “The purpose of a denomination is to protect an aspect of the gospel that but for them would be in danger of diminishment or extinction.” Or in the words of our General Minister and President, John Dorhauer, “If the United Church of Christ would disappear tomorrow, who would suffer for it? Who would miss us? What essential ministry would be left undone by our absence?” So, who is the United Church of Christ and why do we matter?
Sixty years ago, two historic bodies joined hands and hearts to form the United Church of Christ. The Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches. Each of these was, in turn, the result of a union of two earlier denominations. In essence, there are four branches to the UCC: Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed.
We call ourselves a people of “extravagant welcome”. Almost every Sunday morning, our worship leader says, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Jesus didn’t turn others away and so we don’t either. We believe that God welcomes all people and God loves all people. You may have seen several of our television commercials (show bouncer ad, ejector ad, no matter who you are ad).
As people of the “extravagant welcome” we seek to widen our circle – much like Peter in today’s scripture passage. Peter looks up and sees something like a bed sheet descending from heaven. It is covered with animals that he would have considered unclean at that time. The unclean animals are those who represent the outsiders, those who would be considered outside of God’s love. For Peter, the unclean persons, the outsiders would be non-Jews, the Gentiles. Peter would have understood the Gentiles to be inferior beings, pagans / heathens, those who did not worship Yahweh. The rabbis prayed, “Thank you for not making me a gentile.” Gentiles may have very well been the butt of Peter’s jokes.
But then Peter hears the voice of God. The voice says, “What I have made clean, you must not call profane.” In other words, God is challenging Peter to widen his circle, to offer an extravagant welcome to the outsider, to create a community where everyone matters, everyone is welcome, everyone is loved, no conditions, no exceptions — where all truly means all!
At the end of the scripture passage, the community was stunned into silence! It was clear to them that God was still speaking, that God had more light to reveal. And so we have a slogan in the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.” God has a lot more to say about the issues of our day, urging us to widen our circle, to broaden our understanding of those who may be considered the outsider.
The symbol of the “Still speaking God” is a comma. The comma is inspired by the late comedienne Gracie Allen’s quote, “Never place a period where God placed a comma.” The comma is a way to proclaim, “Our faith is 2000 years old, but our thinking is not.” The comma invites us to discover that God speaks not only through the Bible, but through nature, music, art, people, dreams, and in so many other ways.
As we widen our circle, as we seek to be a people of “extravagant welcome” we have discovered, that in many ways, we are “a church of firsts”.
As we look at our historical roots, we celebrate that we were among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. We ordained the first African-American pastor in a historically white denomination and elected the very first African-American General Minister and President in a historically white denomination. We founded the first school for the deaf. We ordained the first woman. We were on the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. We’ve been advocating for LGBT rights since the 1970’s. We are the first mainstream Christian denomination to ordain an openly gay man – and that happened before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from a list of mental illnesses. We are also the first mainstream Christian denomination to ordain a transgender person. We were the first church in America to endorse marriage equality.
We took on environmental justice as early as the 80’s and it was a UCC minister who coined the phrase “environmental racism” in 1982 – so we have been at the forefront of the Flint Water Crisis and Standing Rock – African Americans and Indigenous persrons are victims of environmental racism. In the UCC, we do justice. We care about climate change, fair trade practices, immigration, refugees, healthcare (no, we will not step over the poor in the emergency room). We care about racial justice, human trafficking, sweatshops, and work place justice.
On Wednesday, when President Trump imposed a total ban on service by transgender Americans in the United States Armed Forces, our General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ swiftly responded with a letter that strongly opposed such a ban. His letter states, “Discrimination in any form violates our values as followers of Jesus Christ and as Americans who believe in liberty and justice for all. Transgender citizens in uniform have proven time and again their dedication to this country. They deserve our support and respect.” Yes, we salute our 15,000 transgender persons serving in the military, putting their very lives on the line for our freedom.
In sum, the United Church of Christ is an Open and Affirming. Multicultural, multiracial, accessible to all, peace with justice, united and uniting denomination. We connect the heart, the head, and the hands. Michael Kinnamon states, “The purpose of a denomination is to protect an aspect of the gospel that but for them would be in danger of diminishment or extinction.” What is our purpose as the United Church of Christ? Our call is to build a just world for all. To take the gospel of justice to the ends of the earth.
We, in the United Church of Christ, will continue to be vigilant in extending an extravagant welcome, in widening the circle, in creating a just world until that day when God’s dream is fully realized. When all in the earth’s bed sheet are seen as clean! When all are treated fairly. And when everyone is blessed. I am immensely grateful for and honored to be a part of the soul-stirring, life changing this denomination, the United Church of Christ!