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September 2, 2018
Rev. Paula Degree
James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


My first reaction to the Gospel lesson is simply, “Jesus, would you please tell your disciples to wash their hands before eating and after they go to the bathroom too!” And gosh, I hope they wash the dishes, please! I’d love to sit with all of them and have a meal, but really!

But the objection of the Pharisees wasn’t based in simple table manners – I can still hear my mother – “Mabel, Mabel, get your elbows off the table!” No, it wasn’t manners nor even cleanliness, but all about ritual purity and following the rules. If you really want to read the rules, Leviticus would be a good place to start. A lot of those rules made sense in biblical times, from a public health point of view. Others may have been based in their erroneous perception of public health and others were just, well, rules. Regardless, the disciple’s transgression was that they didn’t wash in the prescribed method of religious tradition.

And while it would be nice to wash hands before eating, I don’t really recall seeing people rush out of worship to do a ritual hand-washing before last Sunday’s picnic for Terry and Marcia. The Pharisees were complaining to Jesus, not for being mean or cruel to someone, not for some injustice, but for breaking a tradition carried down through the religious establishment.

Our celebration of Holy Communion is one of our own church rituals. If I make a small mistake, however, I’m not expecting any uproar over it. When I was preaching regularly, I was always getting the order of service mixed up, there were typo’s in the liturgy I’d created, and embarrassingly, a couple

of times I’d gotten through the whole service only to realize I’d forgotten the Lord’s Prayer! Not good. It was embarrassing for me, and perhaps distracting and even upsetting to some in the pews. But it was tradition I’d messed up, not God’s laws. The people in that church forgave me that. Instead, some didn’t like that I’m transgender. That’s not one of God’s laws that I know of.

By the way, I’m all for maintaining some tradition. However, as Jesus explained, don’t get things so twisted you’re following all the human tradition but ignoring God’s Word for us. Beyond that, James says we can’t just hear God’s Word, we have to be “doers” of the Word. We’ve got to live it. And we are reminded that God’s greatest commandment; God’s most important Word for us is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” “And love your neighbor as yourself.” Those are the rules we need to follow. Most of us seem to accept that our neighbor is everyone in the world; not just family; not just friends; not just people who are easy to love.

So, if we’re to be doers of the Word, then what does it look like to love everyone? Our Open & Affirming status calls us to welcome everyone without condition. We wrestled with that a bit as the ONA committee went through our Open & Affirming deliberations. Who might we not welcome? Even now, what type of person would make you feel uncomfortable by their presence in our church and could you overcome that discomfort? Our Church’s conclusion, as worded in our ONA covenant is “We will turn away no one whom Christ would welcome.” In other words: No. One.

I do feel we’re doing a wonderful job of welcoming people – all people – into our worship services and into the life of the church. I love this church and all we’re doing. That said, as our ONA committee worked through our process, we came to the conclusion that in adopting our ONA statement, the work would not and should not end. Being Open & Affirming is not something we have on a piece of paper and we then tuck it away – or even frame it and hang it on the wall. **By the way, how many of you know where that paper is framed and hung? ** But no, it’s something we need to continue to think and pray about and consider how we might expand our inclusion in some meaningful ways.

Terry spent no small amount of time telling us what a wonderful, healthy congregation we are, and I agree completely. As healthy as we may be, though, Terry wasn’t ever one to sit back and relax. Two Sundays ago, he said something in his sermon that gave me thoughts for this sermon. The text was about Samuel as a child hearing the voice of God repeatedly calling him in the night. And Terry suggested that as we move forward, we should be listening for God’s voice as well. In my mind, that is so very important. We could have meetings on meetings on meetings and toss around plans for our church’s future, but if we didn’t listen for God’s word and pay attention to God’s commandments, would we be working toward God’s goals or our own human thoughts? That’s precisely what Jesus was railing against.

Listening for God’s still-speaking voice isn’t always easy, or comfortable – especially for us New Englanders. We feel we know best; we like to be in control and we don’t like to think we need help. But I’d like to suggest that we would do well to

focus on what God’s will might be for this church; what does it mean to love our neighbor and what will it mean in the times ahead? How might we want to add to the list of those we remind ourselves to welcome and how would we do that?

At one point Terry and I informally exchanged thoughts on having someone sign our services – interpreting our worship using sign language. The conclusion was that at this time it wouldn’t be practical and we didn’t think that it would be needed at this point, but that it might be at some future time. While no action was taken, I think discussing possibilities like that are important enough to do on an intentional basis.

Now I would like to consider going a step further with ONA. We ARE Open & Affirming to all those who come to us here, but I wonder if there’s a way we could extend our Open & Affirming attitudes out into the community? We already do this when we serve meals as part of the Faith Family meal program and when we welcome people from Hyannis into our church for Hospitality Sundays. We do this with our monthly targeted donations and with quite a few of our mission outreach programs for those financially disadvantaged. What of others?

I’m very impressed that our Stewardship Committee this year has chosen the theme “Changing Lives Here and Beyond”. I’ve got a good feeling that we do this and do it well in many respects. However, I’m suggesting today that we explore God’s will for changing lives beyond the doors of our church for the entire scope of those in our ONA covenant. What can we do to create a more loving, accepting and affirming environment out in the community for those in all the categories of people we name in our ONA covenant?

Without suggesting any action at this point, as an example I want to mention Ballot Question #3 in November’s voting here in MA. It is NOT about politics. It is more of a bipartisan issue. And it’s about my rights. To that, I say, if you think my civil rights are politics, maybe you ought to rethink your politics... and maybe your interpretation of “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Ballot Question 3 asks if we should affirm and continue the law passed two years ago granting Transgender Rights of Public Accommodation. A yes vote sustains the law, while a no vote would rescind the law. As an ONA church, how might we feel about this ballot question? You’ve warmly accepted Sarah and myself into the church but what about when we step out into the public? Is there a way for us as a church to reflect our ONA status out into the public sphere in some way in relation to that ballot question?

This is pretty clearly something of great concern to me, but again, I’ve mentioned it as an example. Let’s remember that our ONA covenant, in addition to lgbtiq considerations, speaks to race, ethnicity, age, physical or mental ability, family structure and economic circumstances. It does not single those out as the only targets for our missions either, but rather it’s a vehicle to examine what we plan and what we do in living out the commandment to love one another.

So today, I’d like to suggest that we consider a systematic, intentional and ongoing process of listening for God’s voice telling us how we can be even better than we are now about loving our neighbor. Specifically, how can we be intentional about extending our ONA covenant out into our community, our region, nation and indeed into the whole world to change lives through God’s commandment to love our neighbor?

Let’s listen for God’s Word for us. We might well hear God telling us “DUC, you’re ok. You are doing more than ok. I really like what you’ve been doing.” What a wonderful affirmation that would be! But unless we listen, we might miss hearing God nudging us to expand our love for ALL beyond our doors in ways that will reflect God’s will. Let us listen for God’s Word and let’s be doers of the Word. Amen.

Rev. Paula Degree

September 2, 2018