Sunday we continue our “My Favorite Scripture” sermon series. This week we’ll be looking at Luke 9:57-62, focusing particularly on verse 62: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This Scripture is a favorite of Ann Wilhelm.
Ann found this Scripture inscribed in the cover of her father’s childhood Bible. Ann’s father, Fred, and his wife, Edith, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, bought a farm in Granby on which they raised Ann and her siblings. Today Ann and her husband Bill Bentley own and manage the family farm. This Scripture came to mind as Ann was thinking about FCC Granby and her role in the church’s transition to a new way of being.
For me, this Scripture points to the tendency of people and congregations in transition to hedge our bets. As the familiar hymn says, “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.” But we don’t want to let go of it all. We don’t want to turn our church over to Jesus and let him have his way with us. What if something happens I don’t like? What if I’m asked to give up something important to me personally? So there’s a lot of bargaining that goes on in church transition. Not surprising, since bargaining is one of the stages of grief. And transition always involves loss and grief.
But I want to hear Ann’s thoughts. And I want you to hear them, too. So this Sunday we will be doing something a little different with the sermon. Ann and I will be sharing the sermon as a “sacred conversation.” It’s a kind of semi-scripted dialogue in which together Ann and I will be reflecting on the Scripture and its connection to our life as a congregation. I look forward to a great conversation!
By the time you receive this I will have taken a couple days of meditation retreat. I’m grateful for the opportunity to go deeper spiritually so that I can lead the congregation in deepening our connection with God. Successful congregational transition requires that we go in two directions at once. We need to go deeper spiritually because transition is incredibly difficult and demanding. We need to get spiritually “fit” for the kingdom of God so that we can meet the demands of the work ahead of us. We also need to go outward relationally to connect with our neighbors. As I said this past Sunday: the future of FCC Granby lies with the people who are not yet members of our congregation.
Note: As always, this is a working text, not a transcription of the sermon as preached in the context of a worship service.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon Series: My Favorite Scripture
14 July 2019
Text: Psalm 121
This summer we’re doing a sermon series called “My Favorite Scripture.” Today’s favorite Scripture comes from Nancy Rodney. She chose Psalm 121. Nancy first learned Psalm 121 as a student at Northfield-Mount Hermon School, where she met Rob, the man who would later become her husband. She learned to read the Psalm as I did when I was a child.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.”
The Psalmist is in a valley. Maybe it’s literal. Maybe it’s emotional or financial or political. Certainly it’s spiritual. She is surrounded on all sides, boxed in. Can’t move forward. Can’t move back. How many of you have been in this place? What does it feel like? How did you respond?
The Psalmist responds by asking a powerful question: “From where will my help come?” This is a deeply spiritual question. It’s a soul searching question. It’s a question that arises from the gut when life lays you flat. It’s a humbling, maybe even humiliating question. I can’t get myself out of this mess. I don’t know about you, but I was taught from a young age that grown up solves his own problems. He doesn’t ask for help. It’s embarrassing. It shows you’re not self-sufficient. It shows you’re human.
So I tried to fix myself. And you know what? It didn’t work. The more I struggled, the deeper into the valley I sunk. If you’re like me, you may have had a number of peaks and valleys in your life. I won’t tell you about all of mine. We don’t have the time. But I do remember the time my dad came out to the family. I was 21-years-old at the time and home from college for the summer. We were sitting at the table having Sunday afternoon dinner following church, which was our custom. Dad was drunk. He told my brother and me to stop horsing around. He had something to say. Then he said it. “I have AIDS. I’m bisexual. I have been all my life.” It felt like a meteor dropped from the sky and crushed me. My vision went blurry. My had ringing in my ears. I remember us kids getting up from our chairs to hug dad. The rest of the story I’ve had to piece together over many years. But that moment sent me into a valley that I would never have found my way out of without friends, family, mentors, and a lot of therapy. That’s the thing about the valley: you can’t pull yourself out. Someone has to reach down and rescue you.
But the world tells us to be self-sufficient, to put on a brave face, to pull it together, and when the pain and lonliness get too much, the world is more than happy to sell us a limitless variety of ways to numb out. Nancy tells me that when she was older, she gained a new, perhaps deeper, understanding of this text. This deeper understanding came when she made a group pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. During Nancy’s tour one of the pastor-guides explained that in ancient times locals would set up shrines to their gods on the tops of the hills. So that when the Psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” what she is seeing is all of these little shrines to the little gods with their little spheres of influence and their little areas of concern: the fertility god and the rain god and the river god and the sun god and the moon god and the star god and the god of this tribe and the god of that clan and the god of this king and the god of that city, each one shouting: “I will save you. I will make you feel good. I will satisfy you.” Or maybe they’re mocking you: “You’ll never make it. You’re stuck forever. You’re my prisoner now. Try harder! Run faster. Work longer.” When you imagine this text, what idols do you see dancing on the hills?
But then another voice breaks through the cacaphony: “My help comes from the LORD, maker of heaven and earth.” The valley didn’t break the Psalmist. It broke her open. Have you known someone broken by suffering? They become bitter and small and angry. They lash out at people or become depressed. It’s an incredibly sad thing to witness. On the other hand, perhaps you’ve known someone who’s gone through suffering, who’s walked through the valley, and come out on the other side kinder, gentler, whose spirit has been expanded. They use that suffering to connect with other people, to build up community, to heal others and bless many.
I think for example of Edith Wilhelm, whose ashes we will inter in the Memorial Garden following worship today. Edith and her family were refugees of Nazi Germany. They were immigrants seeking asylum. Edith was just a child. Yet this country welcomed her and her family and aren’t we at First Church of Granby grateful that our forebears welcomed immigrants and refugees because what a blessing Edith and the Wilhelm family was as is to this church. Edith took her childhood experience as a refugee and used it to welcome others. She was one of the founders of the refugee ministry here at this church, which welcomed other families to the U.S. and expressed Jesus’ ministry of compassion in profound, life-changing ways. This country pulled Edith and her family out of a valley. She turned that experience around and made her life about lifting others up.
What is we made that our mission focus at FCC Granby. What if we become the community that extended a hand. Not simply with charity. When my dad came out, I didn’t need charity. I didn’t want charity. I needed support. I needed encouragement. I needed people who would talk less and listen more. Don’t you think there are people in this community going through valley times? What if instead of spending so much time focusing on ourselves and the people in this room, we turned our focus outward, to our neighbors? What if we spend our time getting to know them. What if, instead of expecting them to come to us, we went out to them?
I think this church is going through a valley time. One person who came to worship last week after having been away for a while said to me, “It seems like things at the church are falling apart.” My answer, “Yes, we are!” How we respond will determine whether this time breaks us and turns us into a small, depressed, and resentful social club or whether this time breaks us open. We can use this opportunity to go to our neighbors and say, “We’ve screwed up. We havent’ been there for you. Teach us how to be the church you need.” And see what happens. Like all declining churches, we can’t climb out of this valley ourselves. We need someone to reach in and lift us out. And those someones are the people who are not yet members of this church. From where will our help come? The LORD. Where will we meet our God? In our neighbor.
Leader: I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.
People: I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
Leader: Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
People: With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
Holy God, abiding faith is so difficult. We continually hedge our bets. With our mouths we say we trust in you, but in reality we continue to cling to tattered shreds of the familiar and comfortable. Teach us to let go. Teach us to seek first your Kingdom and its righteousnes. Teach us to exchange the tattered shreds of what once was for the unimaginable gift of what might be. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Funeral for Gerald Dickerson
13 July 2019
Gerald A. Dickerson was born in Dickinson, ND December 3, 1932. He on June 30–just over a week ago–after an 8 year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Jerry grew up poor in rural Montana. He and his brother were raised by a single mom who worked tirelessly to provide for her boys. Life was hard. Opportunities were few. Corrine commented that it was a miracle Jerry and his brother Dale didn’t end up in jail. Work provided the structure Jerry needed to move forward in his life. He was hardworking, high energy, and had a love baseball. In fact, he was a top pitching prospect until pleurisy, which he developed while working at a dry cleaner, ended his baseball career.
Jerry graduated Brooklyn High School, Brooklyn, OH, Class of 1940. After that he went to Baldwin Wallace College where he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps. After graduation from college, Jerry was commissioned as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He served in the USMC for over 20 years until his retirement in 1992. After his retirement, he worked with The Hartford Insurance Company and then Farmers and Trader’s Insurance Company in insurance sales and as a general manager.
Jerry is remembered as a fun and intelligent man, if not always super handy around the house. For example, one time he purchased a new lawn mower. He brought it home, got it out of the car, set it up in the lawn, and yanked on the pull cord ‘til his arm was sore. Frustrated, he called the place where he purchased it. They sent a service guy out to see what was wrong with the brand new mower. The service guy looked it over. Nothing wrong. Then he turned to Jerry, “Did you put gas in it?” You know what happens next.
Jerry had a large, loving family. His wife, Corrine. Five children, 11 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, who will miss him very much.
Earlier in the service Brenna read to us from Ecclesiastes. It’s a relatively well known piece of Scripture as far as Scripture goes. My guess this is due primarily to Pete Seeger, who wrote the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” based on this text back in the 1950s, which the Byrds then covered and made it into a hit.
What is it about this text that we love so much? It seems so matter of fact. No earth shattering truths here. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . .” and so on.
For me, what this text does is invite us to be present every moment to this very moment, to face whatever it is we’re facing, to feel whatever it is we’re feeling, to accept whatever gift the universe is offering us and embrace it as our life, our one precious life, to drink deeply, to live fully, to love completely, and then let go trusting that whatever season we find ourselves in–whether its a season of joy or grief of building up or breaking down, or planting or plucking up, of living or of dying, it is in this very season that we will find God.
Holy God, we look to our future and wonder where it’s all headed: climate change, shrinking churches, the ever widening gap between rich and poor becomes so great that resolving it demands ever more radical solutions. Where should we look for help? Send your Spirit. Free our minds. Draw our hearts to rest in this very moment. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
Holy God, as we offer our financial resources, help us examine how we invest our time and attention. Redirect our efforts toward growing your church. Amen.
This Sunday will feature the first in a “My Favorite Scripture” worship series. We’ve invited individuals in the congregation to identify their favorites Scripture texts and share what makes them their favorite. Then I design a worship service around that text.
This week’s favorite Scripture, Psalm 121, comes from Nancy Rodney. Nancy chose Psalm 121 in part because of a revelatory experience she had with the text. Nancy went to high school at Northfield-Mount Hermon School, an idependent boarding school in the Berkshires. At that time Scripture study was included as part of the curriculum at NMH. When she first encountered Psalm 121 at NMH, Nancy understood the famous first two verses of the Psalm as pointing in the same direction: God.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills–
From where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.”
The conventional reading, the one Nancy learned in high school, goes something like this: A person is wandering alone in the wilderness looking for help. Perhaps she is discouraged or downcast. She looks up and discovers that her help is found in God.
But later in life, Nancy learned another reading. She made a tour of the Holy Land led by a group of pastors. While on the tour she saw with her own eyes the Judean hill country: barren wildnerness hills not unlike the ones the Psalmist might have looked to for inspiration. She learned from one of the pastor-guides that in ancient days the indigneous people of this land would set up shrines to the various local deities on the tops of these hills. She learned that another, more historically informed reading of Psalm 121, might be an anitphonal one that points in two different and contrasting directions.
One voice says, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come?” This voice is pointing the reader to the hilltops where the local deities reside: the conventional gods of the day, the familiar places we turn to and the small comforts we cling to for security and help. Our 401k, the cup of coffee in the morning, the voices from our phones, TVs, and computer screens that reinforce our political and cultural biases, our job titles, our Instagram feeds, our social circles. The question: “From where will my help come?” The answer: Not here! There’s a note of despair: look at these hills surrounding me on all sides, more than I can count, stretching to the horizon, each one with its little god dancing on top, begging for my attention and loyalty and not one of them can help me! Not one can heal the depth of the wound in my soul.
The second voice (maybe another voice in the same person’s consciousness?) shifts the gaze from the hills and their small, ultimately powerless, idols and toward God, who is God not only of the high places, but of the low as well and every place in between. Question: “From where will my help come?” Answer: The Creator of heaven and earth who is not limited to this place or that, to this group or that one, to this political party, to that nation, to this religion, belief system, lifestyle, tribe, race or tradition. Either God is God of all or no God at all.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently gave an emotionally vulnerable TED talk about what he describes as a “time in the valley” following his divorce in 2013. During that time he went through many changes and developed some profound insights into what he calls “the lies our culture tells us about what matters.” These include: 1) Career success is fulfilling; 2) I can make myself happy or “the lie of self-sufficiency”; 3) the “lie of the meritocracy” or you’re worth more if you accomplish more. I imagine these lies and others as those idols dancing on the tops of those ancient Judean hills tormenting the Psalmist to the brink of despair. As an antidote to our culture’s lies, Brooks proposes devoting oneself to deep, authentic relationship. He calls folks who do this sacred work “weavers” and has founded an organization called “Weave” that supports this kind of holy community building.
In this time of tribalism and disaffection when people cast about for this silver bullet or that one, this savior or that numbing drug, when powerful corporations and noisy political leaders have unprecedented power to capture our attention and sell our identities, I wonder what would happen if we shifted our gaze from the “high places” to the every day places. I wonder what would happen if we devoted ourselves to our neighbors–the real flesh-and-blood people who live right next door or just down the street? I wonder what would happen if we took up the unglamourous work of looking closely, listening deeply, and making a genuine, human connection. My guess is that we would find the maker of heaven and earth right now, right here.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for Open and Affirming Sunday
30 June 2019
Text: Luke 9:51-62
No Looking Back
Many of you know my story. But for those who are new I’ll do a quick refresher. I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My family and all our relatives belonged to a conservative Christian denomination called the Christian Reformed Church. I went to Christian schools and graduated from a Christian college. On the surface we were a model family. Dad had a good job. Mom stayed at home and raised us kids. We went to church twice on Sunday. We lived in a nice, new house in a nice new subdivision. Mom and dad led Marriage Encounter weekends during which they coached other couples on how to make their marriages more loving, healthy, and intimate. Years later, after my dad came out as gay and my parents divorced, one of my high school friends who knew my family well put it this way: “The Oscar for best performance in a marriage goes to Bill and Jayne Yonkman.” Open and Affirming Sunday is many things to many people, but for me it’s this: Be out. Be proud. The only Oscars any of us should get are for the work we do in Hollywood, not the lives we live at home or in the church.
Open and Affirming originated with a 1985 resolution to the United Church of Christ General Synod that the denomination encourage all of its member churches to welcome LGBTQ people into all areas of congregational life including lay leadership and ordination. Since then 1400 UCCs have become Open and Affirming. Other denominations have followed the UCC lead in welcoming gay people including the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, some Baptist denominations, some Pentecostal denominations, the United Church of Canada, and other denominations in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Same sex marriage has been legalized throughout much of Europe, in some Latin American countries, and here in the U.S. Much has changed since my dad was growing up gay and shamed in 1950s rural Michigan. Open and Affirming Sunday celebrates the progress we’ve made as Christians and human beings on this planet to embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. It also recognizes how fragile this progress is and how far we have to go.
Open and Affirming is the UCC’s way of recognizing what the gay rights movement calls “pride.” The modern gay rights movement began at 1:20 am on June 28, 1969, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in NYC. This was a common occurrance at the time because New York, like most places in the U.S. at the time, had laws against almost any type of gay expression even in private. The affect, if not the point, of these laws was to shame LGBTQ people.
In order to be gay in 1969, you had to sneak. And what does sneaking do to the soul? What did the “Saint of Dry Creek” tell his son? “If you sneak, it means you think you’re doing the wrong thing, and if you run around your whole life thinking you’re doing the wrong thing, you’ll ruin your immortal soul.” In 1959 the Saint of Dry Creek told his son to be proud of himself and not to sneak. On June 28, 1969 the patrons of the Stonewall Inn resisted the police raid on their safe and sacred space, and out of that resistance, the modern gay rights movement was born. When an entire culture is set on shaming you, how do you resist? With pride. You resist shame by stopping sneaking and stepping into the light.
That was the power of the first “gay liberation march” organized a year after the Stonewall uprising in June of 1970. Several thousand LGBTQ people marched from the Stonewall Inn 51 blocks up 7th Avenue to Central Park in the middle of the day with signs and flags and chants–during the day. Even then, many felt like they had to wear masks in case their employers found out and they would be fired. In Central Park, they had a “gay-in.” It was basically a gay version of a “be-in, which was a hippie way to make a political statement by hanging out and be visible in this case as gay people. Every year since 1970 the NYC Pride parade and the LGBTQ rights movement has grown. Now Pride is worldwide. In many places around the world homosexuality remains a crime often punishable by death. Nevertheless, people once forced to live in the shadows are stepping out into the light risking their lives and livelihoods because they know that hiding, while it might preserve your privilege and in some cases be necessary to preserve your life, ultimately ruins the soul.
Open and Affirming in the UCC begins with the recognition of the negative effects that Christian teachings and behavior have had on LGBTQ people. We’ve been telling LGBTQ people to sneak when Jesus clearly invites all people to be true. You can’t do anything if you can’t be honest about who you are. To my LGBTQ brothers and sisters I want to say on behalf of the church that I’m sorry.
Unfortunately many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world continue to ruin souls by telling people–particularly LGBTQ people–that God wants you to sneak. So what do we say to those people?
In 2013 my wife and I had the opportunity to join Marriage Equality Rhode Island in bringing marriage equality to the state. As a part of that effort, I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The testimony lasted through the day, into the evening, and on into the early hours of the next morning. Many people spoke both for and against marriage equality. Amont those against it, I heard some of the many of the vile and hurtful slanders against gay people that I thought we as a society had left behind. But there they were, people shaming and dehumanizing other human beings in public in the name of Jesus. Needless to say, it was disturbing.
When my turn to speak came in the wee hours, I sat across from a state senator whom I knew personally, who was a Christian, and who himself said many of the hurtful things others had been saying. I shared my family’s story. I share my message to him with you as something you can say to Christians who do not share our Open and Affirming values. Here’s what I say: “I am a Christian. That means I follow Christ. Not Paul. Not Moses. I follow Jesus. And Jesus gave Christians one command: love everyone, period. You can’t both love someone and call them an abomination at the same time. If you are telling people that loving someone of the same sex is sinful, you are not loving them, you are shaming them, and in shaming them, you are not saving their soul, you are destroying it.” The result of that hearing and the work of many in the Marriage Equality Rhode Island coalition is that we won marriage equality for Rhode Island!
My family gave me the opportunity to experience the devastating effects of LGBTQ shaming up close and personal. I can say from my own experience that when you shame an LGBTQ person, when you demand that they sneak in order to survive, you commit spiritual malpractice not only against the individual but also against their families and everyone they love. The shame runs deep, and it takes a lifetime to heal. I’m still trying to heal from having a shame-filled dad who spent two-thirds of his life sneaking.
The good news is that healing is possible. And the irony is that I have found healing in the very Christianity whose institutions shamed my father and hurt my family. I had to leave the church of my childhood, but I’ve found welcome in the UCC, and for that I’m grateful. And a part of my ministry in the UCC is creating truly open and affirming spaces for LGBTQ people.
Jesus said, “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I am grateful Jesus has called me to this work of creating open and affirming congregations. I have put my hand to the plow. I am not looking back. I have left the small, comfortable world of my childhood where we pretended LGBTQ people didn’t exist. I’ve stepped into God’s wide world of love. And I hope you will, too. There is no place for shame in God’s house. That’s why it’s so important that we stand together as a faith family–gay, straight, and in-between–and take pride. Let’s raise the rainbow flag and step into the light with pride. There’s no looking back.
Growing up I attended Christian schools. Every morning we would stand by our desks, face the American flag hanging from a bracket on the wall, put our hands over our hearts, and recite the pledge of allegiance. I’m sure there were other morning rituals–taking of attendance, prayer, announcements over the intercom–but I remember most clearly reciting the pledge while facing the flag.
My education was intended to reflect a Christian worldview. English, math, social studies, science, phys ed–none of these subjects were beyond the purview of God, and, therefore, of the Christian faith. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we looked for hidden spiritual meanings in times tables or the condensation cycle. At times there were explicit Christian connections, for example, in learning about evolution as a “theory” incompatible with the Biblical teaching of creation, but most of the time the teaching was implicit: the logical beauty of math reflects the order of God’s good creation, the creation of art is humanity’s appropriate response to our Creator, history is the story of God’s hidden plan of redemption. What was the implicit Christian teaching behind our unquestioned ritual of honoring the American flag every morning?
Looking back as an adult, I would say the teaching around the flag was twofold: 1) that one can be both a patriotic citizen and a faithful Christian; and 2) a Christian’s highest loyalty is to Jesus and his teachings. Full stop. The practical result is an approach that honors every single one of my fellow American citizens as a child of God no matter our disgreements while at the same time critically assessing our nation’s history and current policies in the light of Jesus’ one commandment: love.
Many years of theological education at some of the finest learning institutions in the world have taught me to call this stance critical or “prophetic” engagement in public life. While I have left behind many of the beliefs of my childhood–denial of evolution, uncritical acceptance of whitewashed U.S. history, nearly complete obliviousness to subversive themes in art and literature–I carry with me the prophetic engagement that I was (perhaps accidentally) taught in my Christian upbrining.
Which brings me to the issue of the American flag and it’s place in church. Personally, I don’t need to have the American flag in church. It’s my view that we Christians show our faithfulness to our fellow Americans by being the kindest, most loving people we can be. No other expressions of patriotism are needed. Nevertheless, I take seriously the feelings some of my fellow Christians and fellow citizens have about the flag as a symbol of the sacrifice they and others have made in military service to our country. I also take seriously the feelings of those for whom the America flag is an irredeemable of symbol of colonialism and oppression. This seems to be how symbols in general function: they have the potential both to draw us together and tear us apart.
So at FCC Granby we have done a very church-like thing: strike a compromise. On Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day we will display the flag in the meetinghouse. The rest of the year it will be displayed in the narthex along with the Christian flag (which is another article for another time.)
Despite the attempts of some to weaponize the flag for culture wars, I continue to humbly respect the sacred sacrifce of those who have served while unflinchingly examining with clear eyes the full range of our past and present as a nation–from racism, slavery, and genocide to dignity, equality, and human rights. My faith tells me three things about America: 1) We are a a human creation and therefore temporary. We had a beginning in 1776, and we will have an end; 2) Like most human creations we are a mix of good and bad; 3) Like all things on this earth we are not beyond the healing power of God’s love.
This coming Sunday, June 30, First Congregational Church of Granby is celebrating Open and Affirming Sunday. Open and Affirming (ONA) is a designation created in 1985 following a resolution that was approved at the United Church of Christ (UCC) General Synod that year encouraging UCC congregations to welcome (or consider welcoming) gay, lesbian, and bisexual members. Following later General Synod resolutions affirming transgender members of the church, the welcome was extended so that, today, an ONA covenant typically welcomes members of any sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
The Open and Affirming program is administered by the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition, which supports congregations and other church settings as they consider the adoption of an ONA “covenant” and maintains the official registry of ONA congregations and ministries. The Coalition encourages UCC congregations, campus ministries, seminaries, regional bodies and other settings of the church to engage their members in serious study of sexual orientation and gender identity and to declare publicly their full welcome and inclusion of LGBTQ people. With more than 1,400 congregations, the UCC’s ONA program is the largest of several LGBT-welcoming church movements in U.S. and Canadian churches.
FCC Granby adopted an Open and Affirming statement in 2009. Here it is: “We affirm the dignity and worth of every person, regarless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, mental or phyiscal ability or sexual orientation. We offer sacraments and rites to all who enter our circle of faith. We celebrate the gifts that each person brings to First Congregational Church and invite them to share in all areas of its service, leadership, activities, responsibilities, and privileges.”
I’m new to FCC Granby. I was not around when our ONA statement was adopted. I was not part of the conversations, and I’m only beginning to understand what ONA means here. I find the people of FCC Granby warm and welcoming. There seems to be an easy rapport among people of different sexual orientations. This is all good. But I don’t think it’s safe to assume that everyone here understands ONA in the same way. And the statement leaves room for interpretation.
While it is good to affirm the worth of every person regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, and mental or physical ability, the ONA designation was specifically created to affirm and welcome LGBTQ+ people. When we broaden the statement it can create confusion. People interpret the statement to mean, “We just welcome everyone here.” So for example, when I recently had a Sunday morning off and volunteered to sing in the choir of my wife’s church, one of the choir members said to me, “It’s a good thing we have an ONA statement so that we can welcome you into the choir.” My response: “What do you mean?” The man’s face reddened. “You know, as married to the pastor.” “Oh,” I said. Another choir member jumps in for the save: “It’s just his weird sense of humor.” It was an interesting interaction. Is “pastor’s spouse” a marginalized category that needs special inclusion? Was he was using ONA in the “we welcome everyone” sense? Is the fact that I’m both a man and the pastor’s spouse a violation of this person’s gender role expectations? In the end, who cares. But this encounter, and many others that I’ve had with church people over the years indicates to me that people can be confused and uncomfortable with the ONA designation. Folks are frightened of being labeled “the gay church,” so they water the welcome down. I don’t want to water it down. I was to focus it up.
For me, the need to clearly and specifically extend welcome to LGBTQ+ people arises from the fact that churches as institutions as well as individual Christians have excluded, tortured, killed, made laws against, and have attempted to erase from existence LGBTQ+ people for thousands of years now. That’s a lot of hate to overcome. And the only way to overcome it is to apologize profusely, make amends, face our own homophobia, actively communicate to LGBTQ+ people that we want you here, recognize that every one of us lands somewhere on a spectrum of gay, straight, or in between, and celebrate Pride! Shame has no place in God’s house. God loves every part of you and every part of me. Let’s not hide who we are. Let’s be brave! Let’s be bold! Let’s be fabulous!