Sunday, May 5, 2013
Texts: Acts 16: 13-15 and John 14: 23-27
Today we at Open Table celebrated our transition from being a new church start in the United Church of Christ to becoming a church in full standing. Our Conference Minister, Rev. Tim Downs, and other special guests from the Southeast Conference worshiped with us. We are grateful to have made our home with them!
The word home, found in both New Testament readings for today, is a welcome word for us on this Sunday as we celebrate the home we’ve found in the United Church of Christ. In the mystical language of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he and “the Father” will make a home with those who love him. In the earthier book of Acts, Lydia, the first European convert, invites Paul to stay in her home. Making our home with others is sacred work. Making a home with God is a spiritual disposition of trust and union. Making a home with other people and with other parts of creation is our human calling of relatedness. Today, as Open Table formalizes our covenant relationship with the United Church of Christ, we are saying to one another, in the words from John’s Gospel, “We will make our home with them.” Making our home with another takes our relationship to a new level. It requires trust and presents risk but offers deeper connection. Today Open Table and the UCC officially move in together. Which will require us to exchange some vows in a bit.
In starting a church together, you and I have occupied several physical homes over the last four years. Initially we met in the Sims living room, then in a couple of store front buildings, and after that at two different host churches. At whatever point in our brief history you joined us, it took courage. Some of you risked disorientation by progressive theology that challenged old certitudes and invited you to ask questions. Some of you risked rejection if the radical welcome we touted proved insincere. Some of you risked your reputation as a proud skeptic by darkening a church door. All of you risked giving up valuable time and complicating your lives in relationships with folks who were different from you. None of us knew if this faith community would be worth any of the work and risks. But you were intrepid souls, and for those who returned a second time, and a third, you proved you are able to journey without a map, able to build a ship while sailing it, able to make a home with diverse family members, able to love others in the Jesus way. Regardless of where we’ve gathered, what has mattered is that we were growing in our love for God and others.
Besides determining from time to time where we would pitch our tent next, our founding group also had to discern with whom we’d make our home, denominationally speaking. Open Table’s story began when a then American Baptist minister invited a handful of folks into a relationship with one another, not into a relationship with a denomination. Our early members decided to start a church together before deciding if we would affiliate with a denomination. In our exploration of possible denominational homes, we soon came knocking on the door of the UCC, and Conference Minister Tim Downs answered.
(Knock knock) “May we come in?” we asked the UCC, in the person of Rev. Downs. “You’ve never met any of us before. None of us has ever been a part of the UCC. No one other than our pastor had even heard of the UCC until we started our research a few months ago. Our pastor is actually ordained by another denomination and that denomination has the word ‘Baptist’ in it. But we think we might like to make our home with you.”
God bless him. Tim didn’t blanch and didn’t blink. He didn’t twitch and he didn’t flinch. Not even when I had the effrontery to say, not quite this crassly, that another denomination offered us __ dollars for start-up costs if we wanted to birth a church under their banner. Tim and I had many conversations, and then he drove down from Atlanta to meet with us.
The more we learned about the UCC, the more we loved its proud history of social activism with courageous stands for justice and peace; its progressive outlook, radical inclusion, and diversity; it’s well-educated clergy and well-equipped laity; its congregational autonomy tempered by covenant relationships; its edgy yet warm and often humorous personality—if a denomination can be said to have a personality; its call to be a united and uniting church with a heart for ecumenism and interfaith understanding. Although the UCC is grounded in Christian tradition, we judged it to be the most forward thinking of Christian denominations and so the best prepared to understand and support a congregation aiming to push the frontiers of the emerging Christianity and pioneer progressive Christianity in, of all places, Mobile, AL.
Soon after Rev. Downs’ first visit, we threw in our lot with the United Church of Christ. We began the process to become, first, a ministry of the UCC as a new church start, and I began the process to convert my credentials and become a minister within the UCC.
Susan and Todd shared earlier what they appreciate about this denomination of the Still Speaking God. The UCC has already challenged us to live into these values. For instance, early on we were invited—not required—to begin the process of becoming an Open and Affirming congregation to make very explicit our welcome of folks regardless of sexual orientation. Through prayerful group discernment, we developed our ONA statement which is printed in every worship bulletin and on our website and elsewhere. While in other denominations a liberal fringe of congregations and members are urging their denominations to include LGBT folks fully, the General Synod of the UCC leads out to encourage its congregations and members to take difficult stands on, for instance, marriage equality. The UCC has already prodded us, Open Table, to make good choices for our congregational health and for those on society’s margins. I am thankful to serve in a denomination moving out there ahead of us or at least standing alongside us and not holding us back as we move into God’s hopeful future. I want a denomination that’s not lagging behind the people in the pews who see inequities they long to address. As the UCC has welcomed us into this denominational home, so we want to welcome others to Open Table with equal warmth and inclusion. Like Lydia, who immediately after her baptism invited Paul to enjoy the hospitality of her home, we, who’ve experienced the welcome of the UCC, want to invite others to make their home with us.
But if I may be so bold, I would also like to say that our small congregation has something to offer the United Church of Christ in this covenant relationship.
We—and other new churches like us—offer a spirit of experimentation that may be needed if Christianity is to remain vital. The UCC is ahead of the curve in terms of social justice and progressive theology. But how do our progressive values and theology get translated into the life of individual congregations? New churches like ours are experimenting with liturgy and polity in our new settings. New faith communities like Open Table are not mired in years of traditions, so we can consider new ways of organizing our “home” together: new ways of praying and singing and leading and serving, new ways of making decisions and learning and teaching, new implications for progressive theology. We actually like change (most of the time) because the life of faith is a spiritual adventure for us. And since we’re still small and young, we are agile. We can change how we do things more quickly than other congregations. We believe our denomination “gets” that about us and wants to hear reports on our experiments out here in the hinterlands. Churches like ours are already flavoring the UCC. But to make sure that we are really living in the same household, we’ll be careful to communicate well and fellowship often so that our geographical distance from Atlanta and Cleveland does not turn us into the crazy cousin who lives in the basement.
I’ve been speaking mainly about concrete ways we have been making a home within the United Church of Christ and within Open Table. Let me also speak of the mystical meaning of making our home with God. After all, our mission as a church is not to further the kingdom of the UCC, which is a spiritual means, not an end. Our aim is not to add mere numbers to Open Table but to grow by deepening our own spirits and strengthening our communion here as we serve others.
There’s so much to unpack in John’s notion that God makes a home in us. I have time to make this point only: the idea of God as our home is a mystical way of breaking down the barrier between God who is out there and God who is in me. Meister Eckhart, a14th century Christian mystic, said, “God’s being is my being and is the being of all beings. My me is God”[i] Locating God within is an experience of spiritual oneness. Jesus told his first disciples that he had transcended the notion of God being “out there”—in the temple, on a high mountain, separated from certain people. Instead, Jesus’s mystical experience of the divine taught him his own divinity. Which he wanted his followers to experience, also. God can make God’s home within you, too.
We’ve used John’s lofty Christology to deify Jesus, but John emphasizes that within each of us dwells the divine love, which is the realest power and ultimate goal. The Jesus revealed in John’s Gospel shows us that learning to love makes in us a home for God, which is a home that contains the whole world. In his “farewell address” from John 14, Jesus tells the disciples, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Then he says that, though he must leave them, God’s spirit of peace remains for them. So don’t be afraid, he says. Love creates in us a place where God dwells. Peace walks forth with us as we invite others into our home. Thanks be to God.
Prayer: You who welcome all, dwell among us as a community, that we may love more deeply. You who are our truest home, dwell in each of our hearts, that we may live out of our own sacredness and our union with all.
[i] Qtd. in Eternal Life: A New Vision by John Shelby Spong, p. 158 in Kindle.