Studio of Love
Oh, my friends, it’s been awhile! It is very good to be back with you all and back here in our sanctuary. I love our church, not just this place, but who we are as a people and who we are becoming when we gather here to worship and pray and sing and learn together.
Summer is winding down. All the kids are back in school. We’re gearing up around here for a new program year, and so of course I’m thinking a lot about where we need to focus our energy.
If you’ve been around here for awhile then you know that I typically come back from my time away full of the latest and greatest ideas from the brightest and most innovative minds about how to “save the church.”
And this past summer, having gone to the U.C.C. Synod and having led a retreat for pastors on Star Island, I was pretty sure I’d have some brand spanking new initiatives to roll out upon my return.
But just in case that wasn’t enough, I also packed a big old book on how to be an innovative church leader in these uncertain times - you know, one of those books with a boat on the cover sailing into a big dark storm (It’s like a full on genre now) - packed it with the thought that I’d dip into every night before bed.
But I didn’t walk away from Synod or the retreat with any new programs to try and for whatever reason, I confess, I barely cracked the book. I tried a few times over the summer. I really did. But I just kept reaching for a novel instead.
Honestly, I think I’m kind of over it all. Not because I don’t care about the future of the church, but because I think that what we really need to focus on if we want to save our churches is as simple and straightforward as those words Bob just read to us from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
If we can learn to love like that, we’re going to succeed just fine.
And if we can’t, then why would we want to?
God knows there are plenty of big shiny churches out there that look great on the outside but are crap at following in the way of Jesus. Can I get an amen? The world doesn’t really need any more of those.
So I guess, if I learned anything this summer, I learned that we’ve got to start with that kind of radical love, or none of this is worth doing at all.
And I need to be frank with you, some of this learning was painful. In fact, I’m going to share a story with you today from Synod. But in order for you to feel the full impact of it, I’m going to need to repeat some very hurtful and hate filled words that were spoken by one Christian to another.
So please take care of yourself as best you can and if you think I could have done this better or should have done this differently, please talk to me after and I will try to do better next time.
The UCC Synod - our big bi-annual national meeting - was held at a large convention center in Indianapolis; so large that we were actually sharing the space with another denomination that is historically black and much more conservative.
The other church arrived a few days into our conference and one of my colleagues, a chaplain named Shellie, striving to be welcoming, held the door open for an incoming participant who was juggling his luggage.
She said something like, “looks like you’re here for your church conference. I’m here with the other church. Our churches are pretty different but we all worship the same God, right?”
And he said, “They sure are. We don’t have _______ (actually I can’t even say it. I can’t say words like that in church). We don’t have - insert the homophobic slur of your choice - We don’t have people like you in our churches.”
Those words were like a knife straight to her heart.
Thankfully, Shellie had been to a dinner the night before where our conference minister, the Rev. Darrell Goodwin, had lovingly and faithfully affirmed her in all of her queerness.
She drew deeply from that well, claimed her birthright as a beloved child of God, and calmly replied: "Yes, you do. We exist everywhere. They just can’t be authentic & visible among you. They will find a place to belong. Peace be with you.”
Talk about blessing those who persecute you. Talk about not repaying evil for evil, but taking thought for what is noble in the sight of all…living peaceably with all.” Shellie nailed it. But as you might imagine, the experience shook her to her core.
When she told a few of us what had happened we wrapped her in our arms and then went and found Terry, our area conference minister, to let her know what had happened. God bless her, Terry brought our concerns straight to the very top of the U.C.C. only to learn that this sort of thing had happened to a number of our people that day.
From what I understand, our denominational leaders stayed up late into the night discerning how to respond and then addressed the incident the next day from the floor of the Synod.
The Rev. Tracey Blackmon, wearing a “Love Louder” T-shirt, let everyone know what had happened and then she proclaimed that “all ‘isms are rooted in bad theology.” Now that is some food for thought.
Rev. Blackmon affirmed our love for our LGBTQIA siblings and said that there would now be allies posted at every door who would accompany anyone who didn’t feel safe around the convention center; accompany them to the bathroom, their hotel room, or anywhere else they needed to go. We prayed and lamented together. I actually sat with Shellie and wrapped my arms around her as all this was happening.
But it didn’t end there. Rev. Blackmon told us that our leadership had brought the issue to the leadership of the other denomination. That was a powerful step I had not anticipated. And because of that loving confrontation, something beautiful happened.
At our next session, we learned form the floor that their leadership had responded to us all with a formal apology and had called upon their people to repent and do better.
But that’s not the end of the story. At the very next session, we heard from the floor that black people within our own denomination now felt they were being treated differently because white UCC people were assuming they were part of the other church. Yeah. Not good! Which of course led to some serious soul searching amongst the white people on our end. We had to confront our own racism, repent, and pledge to do better.
Like I said, the learning was painful. There was plenty of guilt and hurt on both sides. But thankfully there was also a spirit of humility and grace, repentance and reconciliation.
I share all of this with you because this is what genuine love looks like. This is what it looks like when hate is loud but love is louder. It’s not always pretty. It’s rarely polite. The UCC woman who called the white folks out on our racism was angry, as well she should have been. She wasn’t up there being nice when she told us all to “check our racism,” but damn it all if she wasn’t up there being kind.
Our leaders called out the racism and the homophobia, the sense of pride and superiority operating on both sides. They didn’t give up when the going got hard or the conversation got uncomfortable.
No. In the face of evil, love showed up. Love spoke up. Love heard the voices of those on the edges. Love heard the pain of those on the margins. Love wept with those who were weeping and then (this next step was so important) and then went to the source of the hurt, confronted the cause of the pain, and asked those who had caused harm to repent do better.
Love didn’t just whisper: I’m here with you. That’s terrible what “those people” did. That’s horrible that they spoke to you that way or shunned you in that way. To hell with them. No. Love went the extra mile. Love named the wrong. Love called out the evil, and then made room for the restoration of “those people,” by giving them the space to repent and do better.
Which is so important because, my friends, at the end of the day, we are all “those people.” None of us gets it right all of the time. We can all love better. That’s the hard, messy, difficult work of the church. And if a church isn’t willing to do that kind of work, love in that kind of way, can you even call it a Church?
… except for the fact that if Romans 12:9-18 was the gold standard we all had to live up to all of the time, we wouldn’t have any churches at all, would we? That’s the other reason I share this story. I think it’s sobering to realize that Christians on both sides of that conference center - people so dedicated to their faith that they’d taken a week out of their busy lives to do the work of their denominations - still have so, so, so much to learn.
These über dedicated Christians - be they liberal or conservative- were messing up and fessing up right and left, because the truth is that none of us have figured out how to follow in the way of Jesus with perfect integrity.
In his reflection on this passage, Father Richard Rohr laments the fact that after 2000 years of meditating on Jesus Christ, we are all still so adept at avoiding the main things he taught us, the very things Paul is highlighting here.
“This is true, “ he says, “of every Christian denomination, even those who call themselves orthodox or doctrinally pure. We are all “cafeteria Christians.” All of us have evaded some major parts of Jesus’ teaching… If Jesus never talked about it once, the churches will tend to be preoccupied with it (think: abortion, sex, and homosexuality on the one hand and I don’t know, maybe preserving old buildings, institutions, and the status quo, on the other).
Whereas, if Jesus made an unequivocal statement about it, (such as “Love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, give all you have to the poor, do not worry about the tomorrow, love one another as I have loved you) we tend to quietly shelve it and forget about it…
Because most of the church has refused to take Jesus’ teaching and example seriously” he says, “now much of the world refuses to take Christians seriously” (https://www.jesusnotjesus.org/be-kind/archives/09-2017).
And one can hardly blame them. We all need to repent. We can all do better. And because we are only human, we always will. So I think that maybe the task before us is not to build a perfect church full of perfect people who always get it right, but rather to build a community where people can get it wrong and learn that thanks to the grace of God, that never need be the end of the story. What if we dropped the idea of perfection once and for all and embraced the idea of Christianity as a practice?
Brian McLaren has been talking about this for quite some time and asking us to re-envision our churches as places where we can practice the art of love together. For awhile there he was asking us to re-imagine our churches as schools of love, which sounded good.
But Brian soon realized that the analogy wasn’t quite right because schools are full of experts who are there to teach others, and he would be the first to admit that none of us our experts when it comes to living in the way of Jesus. I certainly haven’t mastered it yet.
And so rather than a school, he suggests we think of this place more as a studio. Only, instead of learning how to throw pots or paint or sculpt, we’d devote ourselves to learning how to love.
Imagine that. Imagine the church as a place where you could come and practice love like it’s an art form, a craft you could deepen and hone alongside others - always striving never arriving, always deepening never exhausting your knowledge, always perfecting never perfect, always growing, learning, striving - a studio where you could make mistakes, learn from them, and always, always, always start again in the midst of people as committed to the art of love as you.
At the end of our Synod there was no big kumbaya worship service where both denominations made peace, they became open and affirming and the the UCC rid itself of racism once and for all. We’ve all still got some work to do.
But because hate was met with genuine love, I dare say that good won out. There was a marked shift in the air and in our interactions with one another, interactions that were now charged with care and respect, honor and blessing.
I’d like to leave you with the words Shellie posted later that day on her Facebook page:
Let me tell you THIS story (she wrote). Ya’ll, only the Spirit transforms shouts of hate to a liturgy of blessings — and that’s something to actually shout about!! The transformative power of the Love that holds us, dwells with & within us, will and does bring about God’s kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven!! Now I had shared that myself & other queer siblings experienced hate speech from another church denomination also here for a conference …
And still LOVE is LOUDER. Today I’ve already had two beautiful, Spirit-filled exchanges with some of their folks that sounded like this:
Me: May the Peace of Christ be with you.
Her: May peace be multiplied forever.
And again. Me: May you know God’s ever present love & grace with you today.
Him: May the Lord God go before you, behind you, beside you all the days of your life.
… God is indeed renewing us, (wrote Shellie) making all things new as the Holy Spirit transforms each of us toward revolutionary acts of worship, witness, & blessings. So as my sister from another place of worship said to me today so I say to you — May peace be multiplied forever. May it be so. Hallelujah and Amen.”