Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
June 19, 2022
Most Sundays we begin our worship service by remembering together that our congregation joins with others throughout the United Church of Christ in proclaiming that “no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey….we are all welcome here.”
I think we sometimes forget what a bold statement it is.
This summer, I am celebrating 15 years of ministry in the United Church of Christ and in this decade-and-a-half of ministry, I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with people who are new to the UCC and astounded at this statement of radical hospitality..
I’ve heard people say things like, “Everyone’s welcome. Ooookay, but I’m divorced….but I’m bisexual….but I’m Catholic….but I’m atheist….but I have a lot of questions….but I am homeless….but I am mentally ill…..but….but...but…” And it has been one of my life’s greatest honors to be able to look all of these people in the eye and say, “God loves you and you are welcome here.”
I may not say this enough from the pulpit, but I want to say it now: I love the United Church of Christ.
I am so thankful I found my way into this small corner of Christianity.
The UCC opened itself to me through the good people of First United Church of Bloomington, Indiana - where I was a member before I later served as their pastor. David and I began worshiping with them back in 2005. We had recently moved to Indiana and were struggling to find a church. We were both committed United Methodists but none of the UMC congregations in Bloomington were fully welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ people. And that was a deal-breaker for us.
And so we decided we’d venture out and try something new. This was hard for us. David was a fourth--generation Methodist and I had just graduated from a United Methodist seminary. At the time, I was feeling a bit adrift as a Christian. I had so many questions about my faith. To be completely honest, I left seminary wondering if I could even call myself a Christian anymore. I didn’t know if the Church was wide enough for me.
So I sat at home and googled the United Church of Christ because I remembered Sue Zschoche, who had been my professor in college, telling me how much she loved her church, First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS.
That Holy Spirit is a funny ol’ gal isn’t she?
And so David and I walked into the United Church of Christ on a fall day back in 2005 and we felt the Spirit move there and the rest is history.
I fell in love with the openness, the commitment to asking hard questions, the relentless focus on hospitality and social justice. I loved that people there came from so many religious backgrounds. I loved that I was accepted - heresies and all - and that even a person who wasn’t quite sure if she was Christian anymore could struggle out loud and still be welcomed. I loved how people’s unique identities and backgrounds were honored - and that we could all be a part of something together even though we weren’t all the same.
As I began to discern a call to ordained ministry, I learned a lot more about my new denominational home. I traveled to the 50th anniversary General Synod where I heard Marian Wright Edelman and not-yet-president Barack Obama speak. I came to understand more about the diversity of the United Church of Christ as I met people from much more conservative churches than the one I served. I witnessed some wider church arguments and began to understand the tensions of living together in covenant under such a big tent.
I learned that the official motto of the UCC is “that they may all be one” and that that statement comes to us on the lips of Jesus in a prayer. In John’s gospel, as Jesus is preparing for his execution, he prays….not for himself, but for his followers. And for us - those who would come thousands of years later. He prayed that we could all be one.
Christian unity is really complicated stuff. After all, how could we possibly all be ONE when we have such different ideas about what it means to follow Jesus? And why would we even want to be ONE with those who preach hate in Jesus’s name?
I have no way of knowing what Jesus really meant. Maybe he actually envisioned a worldwide Church - one big happy family. But Jesus was a pretty smart guy and probably knew that wasn’t possible. So I tend to think he meant that we should remember we ARE ONE. And that doesn’t mean that we are all in agreement or that we like the same kinds of music or that we pray the same way or that we understand scripture the same. We aren’t the same but we are ONE. We are tied together in covenant with one another - whether we like it or not - because we are all a part of Christ.
I think this is the vision Paul is casting in Galatians. When we find ourselves in Christ, he says, we can’t continue to hold on to all the things that the world says divides us. We can’t be in Christ and, for example, continue to think that slavery or other forms of violence against our neighbors is okay. When we are in Christ, we must see one another as unique, diverse, beautiful reflections of the Divine. We are all one in Christ Jesus, says Paul.
On Juneteenth, we give thanks for Paul’s bold witness to the inherent dignity and worth of all people while also lifting up that we still have so far to go. Over the centuries since Paul wrote this letter, Christians have used his words to create a theological foundation for movements like the abolition of slavery and gender equity and religious freedom. But at the same time, we know that so many Christians have been at the forefront of hateful movements that glorify violence. Christians continue to prop up systems that harm. Christians have failed to live into Paul’s vision - Jesus’s vision - of a world where all people are given the honor that they deserve.
At times, when looking at the behavior of some Christians, it can feel downright impossible to want to call ourselves Christian, can’t it? It’s okay, incidentally, if you don’t call yourself a Christian. You’re welcome here. I mean, hey, Jesus wasn’t a Christian either, so you’re in excellent company!
Whether you call yourself a Christian or not - Whether you’ve been a lifelong UCCer or are new to this whole religion thing, you’re welcome here. This congregation - and the wider United Church of Christ - is a place where we come together to support one another on the journey of figuring out what it means to walk in the ways of Jesus.
And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for what that looks like, of course. Your path in following Jesus may look very different than the person sitting next to you. You know, when people are new to our congregation, they sometimes ask me, “What does the church believe about fill-in-the-blank - who wrote the Bible? The Trinity? Heaven and hell?” And I usually say, “Well, we don’t all believe one thing so I encourage you to get to know people around here and ask them.”
We call God by a tapestry of different names. We find beauty and solace in different types of worship music. We share different translations of the Bible when we gather around tables to study. We bring the uniqueness of ourselves and our experience of the Divine and, in doing so, our faith as a community is not diminished but enhanced. The UCC is a place where we can “all be one” without all being the same. Thanks be to God.
One of the things I love about the UCC is that we take covenant very seriously - this idea that we are called to be in relationship with God and with one another….and a very real understanding that this is not always easy.
We follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who did not promise an easy faith. Instead, Christ cheers us on as we strive for deep and abiding respect for others’ understandings of what it means to be Christian. When we are able to pray together even though we might disagree with the style of prayer - there is humility in coming together as one even as we respect each other’s differences. Your prayer doesn't have to be my prayer in order for me to be present with you while it is being prayed. And, in fact, praying in this new way might move me further along my own journey of discovering God and living more fully into the Ways of Jesus.
We seek a faith that is about connection, communion, covenant - remembering that we are all in this together. The way of Jesus is about remaining open as we listen for the voice of our Stillspeaking God not only in ancient scriptures but in the words of the person sitting next to us in the pew, in the Zoom Bible study, or on the park bench.
Part of being in Christ - part of showing the world what it looks like to try and follow in the Way of Jesus - is a spirit of openness, humility, and unity. Not that we are all the same or that we agree on everything….but that we recognize we are all connected.
Every living being on this planet is connected on some level and it is a life’s work to remember and honor those connections.
That we may all be one in Christ. May it be so.