Thanks for the Differences

by Rev. Scott Summerville

Luke 1:68-79

“…By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I was with my mother yesterday at the Methodist Home in Riverdale for the Thanksgiving Family dinner. It was a good day. We won the raffle. The 50-50 raffle. They handed us a wad of cash as we walked out the door. We talked it over, and decided we just didn’t feel right about keeping it; so we gave it back in honor of the auxiliary and the volunteers at the home, and that includes many people from this congregation who have given such wonderful loving service to the residents of the Methodist Home over the years.

I could have used that ten grand ……. actually the jackpot was $107.

At the dinner, over our turkey and stuffing my mother asked me what I was up to these days. I said, “The annual meeting (Charge Conference) is in less than two weeks. I have to make sure we get the officers and committees lined up, the budget put together, raise the pledges from the people to support the ministry, get everybody’s reports in, and assemble the annual report. That’s what I’m up to.”

She replied, “Well, is there anything I can do from here?” I smiled and said, “No.” But later I got to thinking. Maybe there is something she could do. How would you feel, if you got a phone call from my mother, because you did not have your report in on time? “Hello, this is the pastor’s mother calling…” It sends chills down your spine, doesn’t it? So, be warned, I have a secret weapon for anyone who does not meet the deadlines.

We are in a time of reflection and discernment in our congregation. This year we completed an enormous and exhausting three-year project of major building renovations. The work is done. We have turned a corner, and we now can focus our attention on how we use these facilities to the glory of God, in the service of our community, and in ways that are sustainable for our congregation over the long term. It is an interesting creative challenge.

At the same time, the trustees are in the process of preparing the parsonage for sale — that grand old Tudor mansion down the street that has house the parsons since the middle of the 20th century. It is time to replace it with something less enormous and more efficient to operate. That is an interesting and challenging project as well.

This month the Staff Parish Relations Committee has been meeting and exchanging emails. They are drafting a letter to the District Superintendent stating who we are as a congregation, what are critical ministries are, and what we need from the pastor who will serve us after the old guy retires. This is also an exciting challenge.

The women of the church have been meeting and organizing. They are rejuvenating the United Methodist Women for a new generation. Less than a year ago the United Methodist Women were taking stock, recognizing they were not getting any younger, and wondering whether it was time to close up shop. Instead of closing up shop, these elders have provided a platform and a model for the younger women that will allow women of all ages and with all sorts of work and home arrangements to have the opportunity to participate in the fellowship and service in the greatest organization on earth: United Methodist Women.

The men are moving more slowly; we want to complete our exhaustive statistical analyses and take a few more doughnut breaks, but will get there. Over the course of the next year we will develop a renewed men’s ministry alongside the flourishing ministry of the women.

This is also a time when we are reaching out to our congregation to say: where do you feel called to Christian service at this moment in your life? And also, are you called to ministry as a leader at this time in your church?

Leadership is the key to everything. None of the visions and dreams and plans of the people come to realization without dedicated, committed, skilled leadership. That is why the leaders made their stewardship commitments today, two weeks in advance of Commitment Sunday for the wider membership. The congregation is vital and flourishing only if those with the gifts and abilities and skills for leadership are willing to put their heart and their time and their money on the line and say, “Yes, I will take on this challenge, the challenge of leadership, out of love for the people and for God.”

Leaders, you are the key to the future. Your wisdom, your love, your faith and your commitment as leaders is the rock upon which the life of our congregation is built.

Our church is blessed with vitality. I felt it last Sunday when I walked into the meeting of United Methodist Women, filling the Fireside Room, engrossed in energetic conversation.

I felt this vitality when I walked into the children’s choir practice the other day; what an amazing delightful spirit of joy and excitement I saw on the faces of these children; what a sense of love and joy coming from their teachers.

I feel it when the children gather here for the children’s message — what a painfully beautiful bunch they are — and when I see the photographs that are taken of them with their teachers in their classrooms on Sunday mornings I see the same joy.

I feel this vitality when I see the extraordinary way the trustees have tackle overwhelming problems and keep coming back for more, and when I see the fruits of all their hard work.

I feel that vitality when I see the Lay Ministry Team meeting, reading and studying and discussing concepts of relationship and compassionate care, and offering themselves their steady ongoing way to build the caring ministry of our congregation.

I could go on, the list is long. The signs of vitality are there. Above all I see this vitality expressed in the love of the people. A visitor to our church a while back, after attending their first service and fellowship hour, said to me with almost a look of astonishment, “The people of this church seem to actually like one another. That wasn’t true in our last church!”

At this season of Thanksgiving we do have so much to be thankful for and to celebrate as a community. Even where some of our people are deeply hurting and facing all kinds of hardships and challenges; there is comfort in knowing that there is a loving community that stands with them.

We are looking to the future in a time of challenge and change and transition; but the possibilities ahead are rich and exciting.

A few years back, our congregation went through another extensive period of discernment. Historically Asbury Church had been through a transition from being an almost entirely middle to upper-middle-class Anglo congregation primarily drawn from the Crestwood neighborhood to being a congregation of extraordinary diversity drawn from a wider circle of the region in which we are located. At the same time our denomination was going through upheaval about its own identity and about who is truly part of us and fully to be embraced by us.

It was out of that time of discernment among our people that the Welcoming Statement was developed that appears on our Sunday bulletins. We adopted that Welcoming Statement by unanimous action of the Church Council, and we also made a formal decision to sign the document called A Covenant of Conscience, committing our church to minister equally to all persons. By making those affirmations we were taking a public stand, partially in defiance of our own denomination and its restrictions on LGBT persons.

Once we crossed that threshold, it was clear there was no turning back. For this congregation to treat one person different than anther based on any characteristic of their humanity is simply unthinkable. It is such a simple principle, and we have committed ourselves to uphold it.

We hold these principles and celebrate our diversity despite being part of the church where power is in the hands of those who do not share our vision, a power structure that continues to deny LGBT persons their full humanity and full place among the people of God. As long as that is so we shall continue to be in a spirit of happy defiance of those who would deny the rights of any person.

I invite you to turn in your bulletins to the welcoming statement and I invite you to recite it with me. In this time when we are discerning our future as a congregation, and in this time when our denomination is in a time of discernment, and truly when our nation is in a time of discernment, it is important to remember and to declare who we are:

All Are Welcome Here
Asbury United Methodist Church in Yonkers, New York, established in 1771, has long been a welcoming community. We strive to follow the example of Christ, grow in love and welcome into full fellowship persons of every race, gender, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity, economic circumstance, age, physical and mental ability,family and marital status. We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth.

What a simple, elegant and profound statement it is; it is at the core of who we are; loving one another in our diversity is the essence of our vitality as a community. It is something truly to give thanks for in this week of Thanksgiving.

Our Thanksgiving Sunday falls this year on the day of Transgender Remembrance. Remember those words of Jesus: “As you did it to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did it to me.” The way we relate to transgender persons in our society is a reflection of our relationship with Jesus, for most surely transgender persons are the least of these my sisters and brothers.

In case you are not clear about definitions: a transgender person is someone who is born with a gender identity that is different from their assigned sex. They may be biologically male or female, but their gender identity is the opposite.

Many, if not most, of these individuals suffer terribly. Very often they face family ostracism. As a group they are the most impoverished of any group of people in our society. As a group they suffer the greatest amount of physical violence. They suffer very high rates of illness, both physical and psychological. By many measures, they are the least among us.

I would add that at this very moment they are the most frightened people in this country. And why should they not be? They continue to suffer horrendous violence. In state after state they are singled out as a threat to the virtuous people, a threat to little children, a threat to society. The are many in the new administration who have espoused these very harmful untruths and feed the fears and ignorance of many.

Imagine, if you will, being born in a human body that is not yours, and then imagine being made to live in shame and even to face punishment and violence and ostracism because of the disconnect between who you are and your physical body.

Ignorance — ignorance and hard-heartedness clothed in piety have brought upon these souls such dreadful psychological and physical harm. They deserve to be remembered, and especially those whose lives were snuffed out must be remembered. Because these are beautiful children of God, complex and delightful individuals, human beings who have a unique experience of life that can truly enrich others, once the ignorance and prejudice fall away.

Today, along with the names of some of those transgender persons whose lives were taken brutally this very year, I have included in our worship service a beautiful hymn of life-affirming inclusiveness. I invite you to recite with me and to sing it together. You will recognize the tune: Joyful, Joyful!

Beethoven wrote that tune to celebrate human dignity in the face of tyranny. He put to stirring music those words of the poet Freidrich Schiller: Freude ! Freude! Alle Menschen werden Brüder – Joy! Joy! All men shall be brothers – which we can update to: all human beings shall be sisters and brothers!

In celebration of the vitality and splendid diversity of our own community and in solidarity with all those who faced discrimination, misunderstanding, rejection from family, rejection by their church, and even physical violence and death, we sing:

Celebrate All Human Beauty Shirley Erena Murray

Celebrate all human beauty, caught in color, form and face,
celebrate the human body, made to move with speed and grace,
celebrate the human spirit, leaping high to reach a goal,
celebrate our Maker’s wisdom, crafting body, mind, and soul.

Celebrate our own endeavors to achieve and to arrive
over handicap and hurdle when against ourselves we strive,
iron will and summoned courage sweeping obstacles aside,
working out our inner conflict to acquit ourselves with pride

Loving memory speaks a language universal, sensed and known;
in the sharing of remembrance new community is grown,
friendship found in common focus, effort turned to common goal,
honoring our Maker’s purpose: Life in body, mind and soul.


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