Tuesday, June 20, 2023

HOMILY: "Love Reveals All Things"

A Meditation on 1 Corinthians 13
Sunday, June 18, 2023
Community Church of Durham


When I was asked, 25 years ago, to participate in the wedding of my dear friends Simon and Charlie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I was a little nervous. Not because I worried about Simon and Charlie or their marriage. Because they were solid and committed and ready. But I was nervous. Not because weddings in particular make me anxious. And not because I worried about breaking some kind homophobic church protocol…because we’d already done that many times by 1997. But I was nervous that afternoon because it was a big, big wedding; with hundreds of dear friends, and a dozen beloved seminary professors, and even a couple of Broadway stars in attendance. On the Upper East Side. It was one of those weddings, high profile and lots of beloveds attending, and I worried about embarrassing my not-so-sophisticated self in front of a big city New York crowd.

Which, of course, I most certainly did.

It wasn’t that I had a lot to say or do. All I had to do that afternoon was celebrate communion. Rejoice out loud in the Feast of all feasts, the sacrament that gathers God’s children from the north, south, east and west to SIT together at a table of justice, peace and love. To SIT together. Except that’s not exactly what I said, that afternoon, in front of all those teachers and so many friends and a couple of Broadway stars. I said: Let us all rejoice to SIT—well, not exactly “sit”; I got dry mouth distracted at that just point. In front of all those folks. My lips and tongue all stickied up and jumbled. Let us all rejoice to, rejoice to, well it rhymes with SIT, sounds a lot like SIT, but involves something more bowel-related than feast-related. It just didn’t come out right. You get the picture. You hear the audio. I invited God’s dearly beloved…on a gorgeous day in the city…in a wildly diverse circle of celebrants…to you know…POOP together in the Kingdom of Heaven.

It wasn’t one of my finer liturgical moments.

And yet, and yet, in response to my extraordinary gaffe on that extraordinary day in that exquisite setting, the whole church laughed. Even roared. There was a huge contingent of seminary professors and ordained clergy in the room. Could be a fair number of them had made similarly silly mistakes in worship. But they all found my vision of the Kingdom of Heaven immensely and improbably funny. Joyfully bizarre. And they loved it. The two wonderful grooms shining in the front row. The systematic theologian giggling in the fourth. The Broadway star tearing up in the sixth. When we consecrated the wine and passed the bread around, the congregation rippled with laughter, delight and joy. A wedding we’ll all, always, remember!

And Simon said to me later: “Maybe the key to this whole business of the incarnation is not taking ourselves so seriously.” And Charlie said: “Maybe we laugh and love our way into the Kingdom of Heaven.” And that last line struck me that day—and still does 25 years later—as just right. “Maybe we laugh and love our way into the Kingdom of Heaven.”


Through that whole wedding ceremony, and particularly that raucous celebration of communion, I was keeping an eye on Charlie’s parents. They were from a small town in Nebraska, his dad a car salesman and his mom a second grade teacher out there. And they’d never been to a wedding anything like Simon’s and Charlie’s. The Upper East Side of Manhattan. Celebrants from all walks of life. Two grooms. A couple of Broadway stars. And at the table, a pastor inviting the gathered to POOP together in the Kingdom of Heaven. It was a lot. Let’s face it. It was a lot.

At the party following the wedding, I sat with Charlie’s parents and they were glowing with gratitude and pride. Simply beaming with joy. Each in turn weeping through long stretches of our conversation. What they told me surprised me, thrilled me and confirmed what I thought I knew about the church itself. What the church could be. What the church could do.

They told me they belonged to a little Presbyterian Church out there in Nebraska. And they said the church had maybe four years before called a new pastor, a young woman from Chicago. And that new pastor had set up a study group, almost right away, to faithfully explore God’s gift of human sexuality, right there in the church. In Nebraska! And what a gift that was—to peel back whole layers of Christian angst about the body and ambivalence about sexuality; and to celebrate in church the joys and wonders of the body, and the God-given blessings of sexuality itself. And on top of all that, the pastor brought in resources and theologians, and she encouraged her new church to fully and wholeheartedly embrace members of all sexual orientations in ministry and lay leadership and every dimension of the church’s life. Charlie’s parents told me that every session was like a revelation, a chance to heal from sadness and hurt they’d carried around for decades.

Now this was happening in the early 90s, but not everywhere, and certainly not very often in rural Nebraska. The group got Charlie’s parents thinking about Jesus in new ways. Got them thinking about scripture in new ways. Got them to shedding some of the fears, some of the biases they’d grown up with in that very church. Helped them connect more deeply, more bravely with their faith. And with their bodies. And then, just as powerfully, with their son.

Now this was a couple years before Charlie, their beloved Charlie, came out to them. Maybe they knew. Maybe they didn’t. But the group at church invited discernment around a truly beloved community—where everyone is honored, where everyone is gifted and called, where everyone is created for loving relationship and vital communion in the life of the whole. It changed the way they experienced church, Charlie’s parents, and the way they worshipped with friends on Sunday morning.

So when Charlie showed up a couple years later with Simon, when they made the long trip out to Nebraska for a week of vacation, when Charlie sat down to tell his parents about his love, about his life, about his commitment and engagement to be married; when he came out to them, they weren’t just open to it all, they weren’t just tolerant and acquiescent, they were thrilled! They rejoiced! Right there in the kitchen. At the table over coffee and doughnuts on a Saturday morning. Charlie’s mother told me that she got up right then and did a little jig around the table. She grabbed Charlie, lifted him out of his seat and insisted he dance too. And they rejoiced and they wept, and they embraced both Simon and Charlie as sons, as beloved, as family! In a small town in Nebraska.

Now here’s a little postscript that shines a little light on what we’re doing here, this morning.

The guide that young Presbyterian pastor found in Chicago, the guide she used for that study in Nebraska, the resource she picked out for their deep dive into human sexuality was out of our own United Church of Christ. One of the very first books, one of the very first resources for churches intending to address homophobia head on and heal the church of its prejudice. I believe that guide was called “How to Become an Open & Affirming Church and Why it Matters.” One of the very first study guides to the Open & Affirming Process, to the Open & Affirming Movement. A template that was soon used by other denominations, other communities the world around. And for that little church in Nebraska, it unlocked a world of affirmation, hope, love and faithfulness. It sure did that for Charlie’s parents. As it’s done for us here, and in almost two thousand UCC congregations across the country since. And many others in many other traditions and communions besides.

At Simon’s and Charlie’s wedding reception, Charlie’s parents smiled broadly over their lasagna. “It was that group, it was that pastor,” they told me. “It was that study that opened our hearts. It was that church that made us the parents we are today!” And you know the best part? A little later on, Charlie’s mother grabbed Charlie with one arm, and Simon with another, and they did a little Presbyterian jig together. (Is there such a thing? A little Presbyterian jig?)  To the wild acclaim of seminary professors, Broadway stars and the pastor who couldn’t get his words right at the communion table.


Paul says to his friends in Corinth: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love doesn’t insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it doesn’t rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth.” And then this, this summation of it all, this bit of poetry by which the whole of our tradition and its many adherents should be judged: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

The best way to understand Jesus isn’t to learn Greek or go to seminary or read a thousand books. The best way to understand Jesus and see what he’s about is to love like that—and then to see where it leads you, what it does to your heart, to your life, to your church. Paul was indeed a complicated cat, and his ministry was no doubt shaped by complicated currents and cultural forces. But on this count, he was profoundly and forever right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And what all that means is this: Love reveals the face of God, the intention of God, even the power of God in the midst of our very vulnerable lives; the power of God in the midst of our very imperfect communities; the power of God in the midst of our heartbreak and hope. I hope you experience some piece of this—maybe even a big helping of this—every time you come to worship here at the Community Church. Love reveals the heart of God, and shines a light even in the darkest days for the children of God to walk by, to live by, even sometimes to dance by. Love is God. And God is love. And love never ends. To welcome that kind of love in your heart is to live eternally in the here and now. To see your hands as sacraments of that love, to experience your body as an instrument of that love—this is to experience the Christ in the here and now. In your flesh. In your heart. In your life.

We have so very far yet to go, my friends: as churches, as nations, as human beings. So let’s be really clear. As an Open and Affirming Congregation. As a Beloved Community. As friends of Jesus today. Those who would terrorize trans teens in America—because they fear them so, and because they’re undoubtedly frightened by their own sexualities—those who terrorize our trans friends: they do not love. And their brand of contempt shines no light in the darkness; it offers no hope and peace to the world. Those who would ban books—about two women falling in love or a boy wearing a dress to school or two dads raising kids—they do not love. And their brand of cruelty insists only on its own way; it is both irritable and resentful; and it offers no hope and peace to the world.

Is that what Jesus intends for the world? For the church? For our children? Have any of these folks even glanced, just once glanced, at the Sermon on the Mount? I doubt it. I really, really doubt it. Which is only to say that I pray for them. I do. I pray that the Holy Spirit of God might heal them of their hate, open their hearts to the light, and relieve them of the fear that hardens their hearts. Their hate has no place among us, or among our children. There’s so much love to be enjoyed in the world. There’s so much loving to be done in the world. There are mountains to climb and avocados to peel and poems to be written. I pray the Holy Spirit might open their hearts to the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. She can do amazing things with our broken hearts. But only Love is the answer!

So this morning, we renew our covenant—with God and with one another—to embrace the diversity of the human family; not simply to tolerate that diversity; but to embrace it, to affirm it, to celebrate it right here in Christian community. It’s a wonderfully important moment for us, for our church. It speaks to the heart of the faith we share, and the gospel we proclaim. This morning, we renew our covenant—with God and with one another—to overcome the hatred that still stirs in too many hearts and institutions. And we renew our covenant—with God and with one another—to love every child, every teen, every young adult, every greying adult, every balding adult, every elder and every single human being on the planet with Godly love and generous patience and boundless hope.

We are an Open and Affirming Church—not because it makes us better than others, or smarter than others, or more saved or holy than others. (As if that’s the point of all this!) No, we are an Open and Affirming Church because God is Love—and we see God and honor God and delight in God most fully and most faithfully (and most wonderfully) when we love one another. All of us. All of us. All of us.

And that love never ends.

Amen and Ashe.

Note Two Opportunities:

Pre-Pride Pizza Party (PPPP!)--6 pm, Thursday, June 22 at Community Church of Durham--Meet friends and allies from UCC churches across the region, as we gather to prepare for Pride festivities, make posters and get to know one another!  All are welcome!

March with Us--11:30 am, Saturday, June 24 at North Church (UCC) in Portsmouth--Meet us in Market Square on the church steps, as we march together, a united witness to faith, inclusion and the justice-seeking church!