UCC worship bulletins this morning are saying it, banners hanging in hallways and sanctuaries are saying it, worship leaders and pastors and even whole congregations are saying it: No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
Our Fifth Smooth Stone, Free to Be, means much the same. And more.
This morning we draw to a close our sermon series on the five commitments that shape us as our area’s the most progressive Christian church.
Our series began with Love Wins, a shorthand way of saying that even when hate, indifference, fear, or violence would seem to have the upper hand, God’s love cannot and will not lose. Love Wins. Period.
Then we considered what we mean when we say This World/Life Matters. We are not here on earth to earn a place in eternity but rather are here to help Jesus establish heaven right here on earth.
Our third tenet affirms our God-given capacity to think, ponder, and learn. Bring Your Brain, we boldly say.
Last week we considered our fourth claim. We are a community that is both Spiritual and Religious. The scripture and traditions of our Judeo-Christian faith support, but don’t replace, direct experience of the Divine.
Now this morning we turn our attention to the invitation to be and become wholly ourselves. Here, we are each Free to Be.
When each one of us is truly Free to Be, we create the kind of community Jesus created: one in which no one is turned away, no one is shamed or judged for being who they are.
When we are Free to Be, we learn what it means to experience unity not because we are clones but because we are kin, different one from the other and yet all of us created in God’s image and bound together by the Holy Spirit.
If we are not careful, Free to Be can easily turn into a feel-good, kumbaya statement. The same could be said of the UCC’s “no matter who you are” claim, as well.
When we say Free to Be, we are saying more than “you do you.” We are saying far more than “we want you to make yourself at home here.”
What we are saying is that while you go about being yourself, the rest of us are committed to doing our very best to supply the warmth and embrace that gives our words of welcome credibility and heft.
More than this, while you are busy doing you, the rest of us are taking responsibility for our inner responses to you—including owning our fears or ignorance, even our dislike or distrust of you and people like you should those feelings arise.
Free to Be is not a “you” thing. It’s very much a “we” thing. To illustrate this, I want to tell you the tale of two churches I served, each of which had a male-to-female trans person come their way.
In the first church, everyone was glad Amber (let’s call her) was there. These were folks had for many years claimed as their own the UCC’s motto “no matter who you are… you are welcome here.” These folks were proud to be a place of hospitality for someone they knew the other churches in town would reject and perhaps even damn to hell.
But here’s the thing. While I was there, no one ever engaged Amber in meaningful conversation about her story or about the very real challenges she faced in that community.
By doing this, they didn’t just cheat Amber; they cheated themselves of the opportunity to be changed and blessed by Amber, her story, her struggle, and her ultimate triumph.
The second church did more for their trans member than make space in a pew or at a potluck. The second church created a safe enough environment for Barbara (let’s call her) to share her journey, her realities, her hopes and dreams and fears. The second church let Barbara know that she could bring all of herself to church, even as she was still learning who this self truly was.
One day Barbara confided that she lacked confidence applying make-up. These folks did more than nod; they threw a Mary Kay party where everyone would be trying on new looks and they invited Barbara.
In doing this, that church did much more than give Barbara a safe enough place to experiment with eye shadow. They entered into solidarity with her. They created a truly welcoming community, even though for some this meant being uncomfortable. As you might guess, Barbara was the first transgendered person many had ever met.
You might not know this about me but I love drag queens and most especially Superstar Drag Queen (yes, this deserves capitalizing) RuPaul.
RuPaul is much more than an entertainment icon. RuPaul is also deeply spiritual and very wise—and so when RuPaul speaks about what it means to be human, I listen. More than once RuPaul has said this—and I agree: “We are all born naked. The rest is drag.”
Don’t pigeonhole RuPaul here. He’s not speaking to a segment of society. He’s speaking to every single human being on the planet.
We all have images we try to project. Just as we have identities we work hard to protect. If we’re not careful, you and I, we can find ourselves unable to tell the difference between the face we present to the world and the person we truly are.
We are all born naked. The rest is drag.
Which is why it is so important that we be a community that makes space for every single person to be and become who they truly are. A place to try on new ideas, new attitudes, new ways of being. A place to peel out of whatever has grown too tight or too loose and try on other sizes, other colors, other ways of authentically being and becoming the person God has created us to be. This isn’t just a nice thing to do. It is, quite literally, the difference between life and death for some.
Where else but a church like ours could a person be this free? Work places? Only for the fortunate few. Families? Neighborhoods? Beyond the church, most relationships and places of belonging ask us to conform to their expectations and color inside their lines.
Sometimes I wonder if I would ever have gone on to become a parish minister had I not done my nine month internship in a church that made room for me to be utterly myself: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
When I landed in Lincoln City, I was still a bit of an outsider to the institutional church, not convinced there was room for someone like me in it. I was awkward and clunky, unsure and uneven, and still they loved me. Still I was free to be me.
Had the church been outwardly welcoming but inwardly judgmental, had they silently asked me to be like their profoundly gifted pastor, Charles, I would have sensed this. And I would have failed. Miserably. To try would have been like walking for nine straight months in shoes that pinched, rubbed, and hurt. They might even have crippled me.
In my freshman year of college, one of my professors shared something I’ve never forgotten. He said that the surest way to cause a three-year old profound distress would be to consistently call that child by a different name.
Call Jason Andrew all day every day. And call Jennifer Charlotte all day every day. By the end of the week, that child would be a basket case, acting out or withdrawing or behaving in concerning ways.
Even at three, a human being has a sense of who they truly are. To have this sense disturbed would be the height of cruelty.
I hope no one carried out a similar experiment on you. Although, if you think about it, we have all suffered it to one degree or another. What I mean is that we have all had to endure being related to in ways where we were as if we were someone we were not. A family sends their son off to college to become an architect but in his heart, he knows he was born to act. A workplace insists that because you’re a woman, you’re better suited to these responsibilities than those. A culture says look this way, speak that way, want this and this and that.
Free to Be isn’t a “me” thing. It’s a “we” thing. Together we create a safe enough environment for each of us to be and become who God created us to be.
Cheryl, not Sharon. Ted, not Fred. A brown person if that’s who we are, not someone asked to behave as if we were born white. A person of these particular inclinations and desires, but not those.
We are not our jobs, our sexuality, our birthplaces, our cultures, our educations, our histories, or our addresses. Even though all of these inform who we are, they do not define who we are. And they most certainly do not limit the way God sees us.
Our holy task is to be and become who God has created us to be. It’s a holy task, I said, not an easy one.
To say to one another that we want you to be Free to Be is only half of it. We say it to the world beyond these doors, as well.
As we do this, we grieve the countless ways our brothers and sisters and their communities are deprived of their freedom to be. We grieve homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, and all the rest. All of which leads us, in whatever ways we can, to give ourselves over to the work of liberation on behalf of anyone who is not yet Free to Be.
There’s a meme I’ve noticed going around. Maybe you’ve seen it too. Against a colorful backdrop of the night sky, it reads: “How cool is it that the same God that created mountains and oceans and galaxies looked at you and thought the world needed one of you, too.”
Until every man, woman, and child on earth knows this to be true, we have work to do. God calls a faith community like ours to something greater than merely being welcoming. God calls us to more than affirmation of others.
God also calls us into the ministry of solidarity. And sometimes, as with Jesus, solidarity opens onto sacrifice and suffering.
Jesus teaches us that we are not free, not really, until everyone else is free too. And freedom, as Jesus knew and as we have seen in our time, sometimes involves struggle.
You see now what I mean about this fifth smooth stone not being kumbaya?
Pray with me please:
Red, yellow, black, and white. Gay, straight, trans, bi. Feminine, masculine, nonbinary. Rich, poor, and everything in between. Citizens of the first world, third world, and developing nations. You, O God, love each of us and all of us. Equally. We pray and work for the day when all your children are free and each one’s substantial, beautiful, needed gifts to the human family can be freely and fully given. Including ours. Amen.