Sermon ? Open and Affirming Sunday

Second Congregational Church, Newcastle ME

June 29, 2014 by?Sharon R. Fennema, Ph.D.

I am grateful to be back with you all again after a year of teaching worship and directing the chapel at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley California.? It is good to be home!? And I am even more grateful for this invitation to celebrate and reflect with you about another year of living into what it means to be an open and affirming community of faith.

I want to tell you a story.? It?s a story written by writer, theologian and prophet of everyday wisdom, Robert Fulghum, who is perhaps most famous for his credo ?All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.?? It?s a favorite story at the Carpenter?s Boat Shop.? And it?s a story about a mermaid.? Fulghum writes:

Giants, Wizards and Dwarfs was the game to play.

??????????? Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parent-y things, I mustered my troops in the church social hall and explained the game.? It?s a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making.? But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on, or who won.?

??????????? Organizing a roomful of wired-up gradeschoolers into two teams, explaining the rudiments of the game, achieving consensus on group identity ? all this is no mean accomplishment, but we did it with a right good will and were ready to go.?

??????????? The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass.? I yelled out: ?You have to decide now which you are ? a GIANT, a WIZARD, or a DWARF!??

??????????? While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg.? A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a concerned voice, ?Where do the mermaids stand??

??????????? Where do the Mermaids stand?

??????????? A long pause.? A very long pause.? ?Where do the Mermaids stand?? says I.

??????????? ?Yes.? You see, I am a Mermaid.?

??????????? ?There are no such things as Mermaids.?

??????????? ?Oh, yes, I am one!?

??????????? She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf.? She knew her category.? Mermaid.? And was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall [and bow out].? She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things.? Without giving up dignity or identity.? She took it for granted that there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.?

??????????? Well, where DO the Mermaids stand? All the ?Mermaids? ? all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes, categories and pigenonholes??

??????????? Answer that question and you can build a school, [a church], a nation, or a world on it.

??????????? What was my answer at the moment? Every once in a while I say the right thing.? ?The Mermaid stands right here by the King of the Sea!? says I?

??????????? So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they roiled in wild disarray.?

??????????? It is not true, by the way, that mermaids do not exist.? I know at least one personally.? I have held her hand.[1]


To me, this story gets to the heart of what it means to be an open and affirming church.? Being open and affirming means that, in our community of faith, we are always ready to welcome the mermaids.? And, what?s more, we commit ourselves to standing with the mermaids, with those who are different, who do not fit the norm, who don?t belong.? And we commit to putting their struggles, concerns, and passions, at the center of our life as a community.

Draw the circle wide.? Draw it wider still.

Let this be our song, no one stands alone,

standing side by side.? Draw the circle wide.

??????????? Our scripture passage for today from Matthew comes at the end of a discussion Jesus has with the disciples on how to go out into the world to do God?s mission, to be the disciples God calls them to be and live as a community that follows Jesus? example.? These few verses are a summary of all that he has said before. They remind us that welcome is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. In these few short sentences, we are reminded that welcoming others is essential to who we are as followers of Jesus.? And when we welcome others, it is like we are welcoming Jesus himself, and the One whose love Jesus embodies.

Compassionate welcome or hospitality is a form of service to Christ.? It is part what it means to be a Christian.? And it is at the heart of what it means to be an open and affirming church.? Theologian Emilie Townes reminds us that ?Compassionate welcome means approaching each other through God.?? It is seeing each other through God?s eyes, accepting and affirming each other as beloved children of God.? ?Genuine [Christian community] emerges from putting the grace-filled hospitality of God?s love at the center of our lives and at the center of all our relationships.?? What Jesus tells the disciples here is that if we live into this generous welcome with each other, we will discover the reward that comes from the deep hospitality found in God?s welcome of each of us.

It is interesting that at the end of these verses, when Jesus says ?whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones?none of these will lose their reward,? the word that here is translated ?little ones? is the same word that in chapter 25 of Matthew?s gospel is translated ?least of these.?? Remember those verses??whatever you do to the least of these?you do unto me??? If we think about Jesus? words about welcome in these terms, we?re reminded that the welcome we are called to extend isn?t only to those who look like us or think like us or live like us.? We are called to welcome everyone and especially those who have been deemed ?less than? by society. ?Throughout the gospel we see Jesus welcoming all sorts of people into his band of followers.? From common fishermen to prostitutes and tax collectors, from lepers to Roman soldiers, Jesus proclaims a love and grace that encompasses all, especially those at the margins of society, those who don?t fit the norm, who are ostracized and excluded, the mermaids, if you will. Jesus embraces us all, and sets us to work putting out the sign: All are welcome here.

Draw the circle wide.? Draw it wider still.

Let this be our song, no one stands alone,

standing side by side.? Draw the circle wide.

?? ? ? ? ? ? The kind of welcome that Jesus challenges his disciples to extend in these verses is the same kind of welcome that we are called to extend as an open and affirming church.? It is a welcome that embraces our differences and sees them as gifts.? It is a welcome that challenges us to step out of our comfort zone and get to know and love people who our society tells us are not normal, not worthy, not the ?right kind? of people.? Being open and affirming challenges us to ?take the love that we have for our family, that love for our closest community, and extend it, extend it further and further still.? To welcome the stranger.? To welcome in the one whose life we hardly understand.? Not to change them, but simply because they too are God?s beloved ones.? ?To welcome in and stand with the mermaids.

Now we know that this welcome will not always be easy.? We may be welcoming someone new, unfamiliar and unknown into our lives, and, in doing so, we may have to open ourselves to new insights and hear new stories of faith that redirect our perceptions.? In fact, in the verses preceding these in Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples just how hard this kind of ministry can be, warning them that they may be hated, even persecuted for sharing this message of God?s unconditional love.? I know that the community here at Second Congo has experienced just how hard such a welcome can be.? But there is good news in this passage for us today.? You see, the welcoming that we do, we do in Jesus? name.? We welcome ?in the name of the prophet,? the ?righteous one,? in the name of Jesus the one who first loved us. That means that we need not rely on our own strength or ability, but on God?s grace.? It is that grace that enables us to do more than we can imagine.? It is that grace that empowers us to open ourselves to new people and new experiences.? We don?t have to rely on ourselves; we can rely on the Spirit of God that lives and breathes within us.? It is God who empowers us, who gives us the strength, courage and faith to welcome in God?s name.? No matter what changes or challenges may come from this extravagant welcome, God will give us the grace to open ourselves and affirm every person, every mermaid, who comes through those doors as beloved in God?s sight.

Draw the circle wide.? Draw it wider still.

Let this be our song, no one stands alone,

standing side by side.? Draw the circle wide.

?? ? ? ? ? ? It is probably apparent to you why I love Robert Fulghum?s mermaid story so much.? As a lesbian, I have often found myself in the position of that little mermaid, searching for the place where I could stand, assured of who I was, but not sure where I would find acceptance, affirmation, and love.? I grew up in a faith tradition, community and society that told me that being gay and being Christian were incompatible; there was no way to be both.? I was sure that whatever my place was in the larger world, there was no place for me in the church.? So much so, that when I came out nearly 20 years ago, I had decided to give up the faith that had been so central to who I was so that I could love the woman I loved, and I was devastated.? It would take years for me to develop a faith that integrated my identities as queer and as Christian, and even more years before I found a faith community that affirmed me for who I was.? It took a long time for me to really hear and believe the words from Romans 8, that nothing could separate me from the love of God.

That?s why belonging to an open and affirming community of faith is so important to me.? Not only because it gives me hope that I will be affirmed for who I am, but because it empowers me and all of us to extend that message of extravagant welcome to others.? Because this church is open and affirming, a teenager at Lincoln Academy will be able to see that they can be both gay and Christian.? Because this church is open and affirming, a transgender person need not worry that they will be rejected from their family of faith.? Because this church is open and affirming, a person in a wheelchair will know that they have a place in this sanctuary, front and center.? Because this church is open and affirming, parents of an autistic child know that they will be loved and nurtured by this community.? Because this church is open and affirming, a person with little economic means will know that they can contribute to our work for justice and compassion through their time and talent, if not their money.? Because this church is open and affirming, we send the message that we welcome all people, even the mermaids, in the name of Jesus, the one who first welcomed us.

To be open and affirming means that, by God?s grace, and with God?s help, we stand with the mermaids.? And we are called to live in ways that continually extend God?s welcome to all people.? So let us draw the circle wide, draw it wider still, declaring that no one stands alone.? We stand side by side with all the mermaids, all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes or categories, because all of us are welcome here. ?All are welcome in this place.? So may it be.? Amen.



As you go from this place,

May the extravagant love of God, Creator of infinite diversity,

greet you at every turn,

reminding you that you are a beloved child of God.

May the compassionate welcome of Christ, Servant of the last and the least,

compel you to welcome others,

extending grace-filled hospitality to all.

And may the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, birther of new possibilities,

empower you to stand with the mermaids,

wherever you may find them.

Go in peace, to love and serve our God.



[1] Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things (New York: Villard Books, 1988).