Sermon: Affirming Ministry Sunday, October 27, 2019
Genesis 9: 12-17 and Galatians 3: 26-29
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
click here for PDF of this sermon
This morning, we engage in worship, and discipleship, in celebration, and in covenant. We acknowledge the brokenness of the world as it is experienced, and the unifying grace of the Divine which is at the heart of our existence. We look to a God who gives and affirms the full spectrum of diversity, while calling us to reach beyond any distinctions that might divide us.
The colours of the rainbow are, quite appropriately, the primary visual motif for this day, as seen in the beautiful, dramatic fabric piece we have been loaned by Lakeview United in Calgary, and as integrated into the logo of Affirm United. We know, when we look to the sky, where rainbows come from: they come from water droplets, typically after a rain, interacting with sunshine. Good old Wikipedia has this succinct definition: “A rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky.” No matter how many times we’ve seen rainbows, they surprise and thrill us and make us want to share the joy, even with total strangers.
No wonder, then, that many cultures have looked to the sky at these wonderful, fleeting expressions of and discerned legends within them – some uplifting, some foreboding. A common understanding within many of these legends, is the full spectrum of the rainbow symbolizing the great diversity of nature and the great diversity of humanity, and some form of Divine presence within. And so we look to the rainbow as nature’s expression that the world God gives is not just greyscale, but filled with colour. And not just red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, but all the diversity within those colours. As a child I loved colouring with my Laurentien pencil crayons, and in the full set there were no fewer than eleven shades of green, ranging from “moss green” to “emerald” to my favourite, that nearly-black shade called “deep chrome green”. For graphic designers using the “Pantone” colour system, there are around 300 shades of green. The world of colour is an amazing thing, and those most attuned to earth’s diversity, the breadth of species and the range of human experience, are those who get the most from the gift of life.
Within our Judaeo-Christian tradition, the rainbow has another significance, which we heard in today’s first reading from the 9th chapter of Genesis. As our ancestors in the faith looked back and wondered about the origins of the world they lived in, our mythology developed, which we take as second-nature: creation in seven days, with the seventh day a day of rest; Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the great flood. Our spiritual forebears understood that the way things were, was not the way they were intended to be, and these stories attempted to shed some light on the gap between the harmonious intentions of God and the ego-driven ways of humanity.
The story of the rainbow, in our faith tradition, comes after the waters recede from the great flood, and Noah’s family and the full diversity of species re-start the story of life. God – pictured in very masculine terms in this story – takes his bow (think, bow & arrow) and hangs it up in the sky, never to be used again. From that time forward, no matter how ridiculous and destructive we might behave as a human race, we could move forward knowing that we were not living under the threat of an angry God; and every time we see a rainbow in the sky, it would remind us of that. Within Jewish practice there remains a tradition of saying a silent prayer when seeing a rainbow, “Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to His covenant, and keeps His promise.”
The reason I think it is important for us to remember this Biblical understanding of the rainbow, on this day of rejoicing, is its proclamation that if we carry with us a picture of an angry and domineering God, then we’ve got the wrong picture. Somewhere around 3,000 years ago this account of God’s war-bow being permanently mounted got written down, reflecting traditions thousands of years older than that, yet we still hear the name of God attached to angry denunciations: of the LGBTQ community, or non-Christians, or whoever else gets perceived as “them”. And how many of us, in various ways, grew up understanding God as a demanding parent with an emotional hair-trigger, who was basically angry with us unless we toed the line? We’ve had three thousand years to figure it out, not to mention the entire story of Jesus Christ and his embodied expression of complete love, replacing retribution with reconciliation as our primary motivator. This all makes me wonder how long will it take us, and what further evidence we will need, to finally let go of this notion of a God who is motivated by anger, and judgment, and conditional approval?
My hope, is that this day, when we are surrounded by rainbows, we will be freed from any vestige of this angry-God theology, and step into the fullness of God’s unbounded, universal love. A group here at the Church – comprised of folks from this congregation together with folks from St. Michael’s Anglican – has started studying a book entitled The Universal Christ by the Catholic contemplative Fr. Richard Rohr, and a quote from that book springs to mind. Richard Rohr writes (p.29), “Faith at its essential core is accepting that you are accepted! We cannot deeply know ourselves without also knowing the One who made us, and we cannot fully accept ourselves without accepting God’s radical acceptance of every part of us”. What an amazing, affirming concept: that the God of the Universe, is also the source and author of love in my life… that my relationship with God and with the world around me, is founded in unconditional love, initiated by God. There is a loving intention in all the universe that yearns to be recognized and embraced, and on this day we say a great big ‘yes’ to that. The rainbow reminds us, that love, not anger, rules the day, even as it reminds us that all human experience – all of it – is cradled lovingly within God’s ever-present care.
Our second reading this morning, from the third chapter of Galatians, assesses this broad-spectrum love of God and makes it even more explicit. In the early days of the Church, all manner of people were coming together in the name of Christ Jesus, in many cases people who would not normally have positive (or any!) social interactions. In answer to questions that were arising about how to handle this newly-experienced diversity, Paul memorably wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) None of the categories that so easily divide us, are points of division from God’s standpoint: not our ethnicity, not our worldview, not our social status, not our gender – or, I would add, gender identity or sexual orientation. I don’t think that the apostle Paul was saying that none of these things matter, for all of these things contribute to shaping our lives – but he is clear in saying that God’s desire is to break down hurtful divisions and hierarchies, rather than propping them up. In Christ, there are no second-class citizens, no advantages given to the wealthy or to those deemed to be ‘pure of birth.’ The love shown in the life, deeds, words, and ongoing presence of Jesus Christ, is without boundary and beyond measure.
In March of this year, Shannon and I experienced the blessing of attending The Universal Christ conference in Albuquerque, featuring, you guessed it, Richard Rohr, as well as Jacqui Lewis and John Dominic Crossan. At the opening of that Conference, we were invited and greeted with the beautiful words, “all of you is welcome here.” That, I hope, is what you are hearing in this time of worship and celebration, in the words of Genesis and the words of Paul to the Church in Galatia. The God whose loving commitment to all the world is remembered each time we see a rainbow, loves every aspect of your being. The God whose love was so powerfully embodied in the person of Jesus, engages all of the ways you identify yourself, and loves you – and your neighbour – more fully than you or they could ask or imagine. As an Affirming Congregation we proclaim that all of you are welcome here, and all of you is welcome here, and we once again take up Christ’s call to confront the injustices and inequities of the world, to affirm with our whole being the truth of God’s unconditional love in the face of all that tries to create winners and losers, approved and disapproved, entitled and disenfranchised.
A little over a month ago, this congregation overwhelmingly agreed to become an Affirming Ministry, publicly, intentionally and explicitly expressing our belief in a God whose love is full-spectrum. Also approved on that day, were a plan for how that would look within our congregation and in the broader community, and an Affirming Vision. These commitments will shape the way we respond to God’s call for radically inclusive love… so… on this day of celebration, I ask, as you are able, to rise and repeat responsively the words of the Affirming Vision of Ralph Connor Memorial United Church:
AFFIRMING VISION STATEMENT of RALPH CONNOR MEMORIAL UNITED CHURCH, CANMORE – a community of faith on the traditional lands of the Stoney Nakoda First Peoples:
We affirm Christ’s love and desire for justice, inclusion, and affirmation for all, and Christ’s identification with those who have been marginalized.
- We strive to be a community of faith in which all persons are fully included in all aspects of our life and work. We strive to publicly and explicitly welcome, care for, and learn from all persons, regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, social or economic circumstance.
We affirm the present RCMUC Mission Statement, which shapes the choices and priorities of this community of faith:
- “Ralph Connor Memorial United Church’s Mission as a Church Community is:
- to nurture the spiritual exploration and growth of all our members and adherents;
- to be an intentionally inviting Christian community that seeks, welcomes and embraces new members;
- to reach out and become an agent for social justice in our neighbourhood and in the global community”.
We affirm our need to connect and align with other communities, within and beyond our faith tradition, who desire to actively work for inclusion and justice.
- We will continue to engage in study, education and dialogue through workshops, advocacy, events and broader partnerships as we continue our journey.
We understand that these commitments are essential for a thriving, healthy Affirming Ministry.
In the name of our loving, gracious God, the artist of rainbows, the author of inclusion, may these words shape our life together. Amen!
Chein, Rochel. https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/931633/jewish/Which-blessing-is-said-upon-seeing-a-rainbow.htm
Colours of the Rainbow: Legends. https://www.colours-of-the-rainbow.com/legends.html
Colours of Laurentien Pencil Crayons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurentien_(art_supplies) and Pantone colours, https://www.pantone.com/color-finder#/pick?pantoneBook=pantoneSolidCoated
RCMUC Affirming Vision and Plan, https://ralphconnor.ca/inclusion/
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. NYC: Convergent, 2019.
Wikipedia: Rainbow. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow
© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church