Our Vision of an “Open and Affirming” Community

Scripture: Galatians 3:28
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
January 24, 2016

The results are in.  They like Jesus, but not the Church.  Yes, a poll was taken among college students.  They were asked two simple questions.  The first question, “What do you think of Jesus?” and the second question, “What do you think of Christians (or the church)?”   I believe that there are answers reflect the beliefs of the culture at large.

In response to questions about Jesus, people’s eyes lit up and they smiled.  “He is beautiful; he is wise; he came to liberate women, he has some sort of unique divine connection . .I love Jesus!”  In today’s world, Jesus is respected by non-church goers.    In fact, there is Jesus paraphernalia everywhere displayed by non-church goers.  Jesus on t-shirts, Jesus in pop songs, Jesus on the cover of magazines, Jesus on lunch boxes and even sandals that leave the words “Jesus loves you” behind you in the sand as you stroll the beach.  It seems we can’t get enough of Jesus.  And how exciting is that!  (Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus But Not the Church:  Insights from Emerging Generations, 2007)

But when asked about the church, the responses are drastically different.  Outsiders say that the Christians are scary, angry, judgmental, negative.  In fact, some Christians are now calling themselves “Christ followers” because the word “Christian” has such negative connotations.  When interviewed, one person said this, “I did grow up in a church, but now I am a Buddhist.  When I became a mother, I wanted my daughter to have a spiritual upbringing.  However, I didn’t want her to become like the Christians in the church I knew.  They were always so negative and complaining about everything, and I wanted my daughter to be in a positive environment.  I became Buddhist since they are a much more loving and peaceful people than those in the church.”  Yes, the bottom line is Buddhists have a better reputation than Christians (Kimball, The Like Jesus….).

Over the years, there have been three primary complaints by outsiders against the church universal.  The first complaint is that the church oppresses females.  In many churches, women certainly do not serve as pastors or even as elders.  I shared the story with you a few months ago that when I was 15 years old, I was so excited about my call to go into ministry and my good friend at the time, Susan, who attended a very conservative, evangelical church said, “Jill, you can’t be a minister.  You are a woman.  That would be a sin.”  I said, “Susan, how in the world can serving God and the church be a sin?”  The next day, she handed me a scripture passage, that her parents had given her, a passage from 1 Timothy.  It said this, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission; I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety”  (1 Timothy 2: 11 – 15).  You could imagine what I was thinking, but even more imagine someone outside the church hearing these verses and thinking:  “What the heck is this?  Women must be silent?  Women can’t teach a man? Women will be saved through childbearing?  Is this a joke?  As a Christian, you really believe this?”  This passage seemed to be the antithesis of Jesus’ liberating view of women.  Fortunately, I went to my pastor at the time, Richard Blakeley, who put this passage in its historical context and affirmed my calling to be a minister, but others don’t have that opportunity.

The second complaint by those outside the church is that the church is homophobic.    For the past 18 years, I served an Open and Affirming congregation in Hillcrest – a neighborhood in San Diego.  Each year Hillcrest hosts the San Diego Pride Parade.  The parade went right past the church I served and so each year we had a contingent in the parade.  At the Pride parade each year, there are always a group of Christians who wave signs in the air:  “Turn or burn”, “You are an abomination”, “Islam is a lie!  Homosexuality is sin!” etc.  And one person in my congregation approached them and said, “I am a Christian too.”  One guy said, “Praise God.”  And then Dan said, “I wouldn’t be carrying those signs though.  I think it repels people from the message rather than drawing people to Jesus.”  The guy said, “Well, we can’t hide the truth, and if one person repents as a result of this shirt, it’s worth it.”  Dan asked, “Have you ever known someone to repent as a result of the shirt?”  “No,” said the guy, “but that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.  Our job is to get the message out there.”  Well, he certainly got the message out.  In fact, one year, there were some people who stood next to the Christians with the signs and t-shirts and held up their own sign:  “Jesus save me from your followers.”

The third complaint by those outside the church is that Christians arrogantly claim all other religions are going to hell.  When interviewed, one student said, “All I hear from Christians is that all other world religions are wrong and are going to hell.  I have tried to have intelligent conversations with them about this and discuss the beauty in other expressions of spirituality, but they go into this religious rhetoric and avoid the hard questions.”  Another student said this, “Eastern religions are more attractive to me, because they focus more on being kind to others, loving other people of other spiritual beliefs even if they are different from you, treading lightly and being humble.  I think that was similar to the message of Jesus, ironically, but that’s the opposite of what I experienced from church and Christians” (Kimball, The Like Jesus…).   

It is sad that many emerging generations often see Christians as fundamentalists, backward, oppressive, and narrow-minded.  Many are more aware of what the church is against rather than what it stands for.  No doubt it is time for the church to ask forgiveness for its religious abuse.  Ironically, the word religion is based on the root word lig, meaning “to bind or connect together” (as in ligament), so religion means reconnecting or rebonding broken relationships – with God, with neighbor, with stranger.  The purpose of religion is to heal broken relations – which is why churches like Redlands United Church of Christ play an absolutely vital role in bringing healing and wholeness to a fragmented faith tradition.

Not one of the three complaints that outsiders have of the church hold any water here at Redlands United Church of Christ.  We do not oppress women – in fact, the last two settled Senior Ministers of this congregation, myself included, are women.  

We are not homophobic, but we are open, welcoming, and embracing of all of God’s children.  In fact, not only are you open to women serving as your Minister, but you called a woman who is married to another woman to serve as your Minister. (Tell Search Committee story.)  Can I tell you how absolutely blessed and liberating it feels when you ask, “How is your wife?” and you don’t blink an eye?  This is unheard of in 99.9 percent of congregations.  Love is love regardless of gender, but most congregations do not get that.     

We do not claim that other religions are going to hell.  While we are certainly followers of Christ, there is a respect shared for other religions.  Since the recent uprising of Islamophobia, many of you have asked, “What can we do to support our Muslim brothers and sisters?”  And so we participate in Interfaith Worship Services and we held a “Pop Up for Peace” conversation in our Covenant Hall with Muslims.  I had the wonderful opportunity to sit on an Interfaith Panel at the University of Redlands on Tuesday night.  The coordinator of the event, Dr. Lillian Larson, said to me, “We were very careful about who we chose to sit on this panel.”  And I thought to myself, “I am brand new in this community.  This does not say as much about me as it does about the reputation of the congregation that I serve.”  You have a reputation for building relationships with persons from other faith traditions – so vital in our multi-cultural, multi-faith world where we seek to build cohesion and peace with one another.

Our scripture passage this morning is one of the most radically inclusive passages in the entire Bible.  “There is no longer male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Those were the three major divisions in the early church.  Those divisions that separate us are null and void, says the Apostle Paul.  We are all one.  That is the theology that RUCC promotes.  We are all one.

Our Vision Statement declares, “We are an Open and Affirming Community of faith, who value all people as the Family of God… We welcome all into the full life and ministry of this church.”   Community in this congregation is a kind of belonging that isn’t based on status, achievements, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or even religious perspective, but instead community in this congregation is based on a deep belief that everyone matters, everyone is welcome, everyone is loved, no conditions, no exceptions. Here, all truly means all!