Sermon: Touching the Edges

"Behind Closed Doors," Jaybird, flickr

“Behind Closed Doors,” Jaybird, flickr

“Touching the Edges” 

(October 19, 2014) Jesus took the time to be really, deeply present with people on the margins, on the edges of his society. In this story, he goes out of his way for two women who others had written off as un-save-able. Instead, he touched them and let them touch him, too. Imagine how powerful that one act can be, for any person– most especially for a person living in domestic violence and thinking about reaching out for help. Can the church teach, model, and empower enough so that one day we are a reason people say WhyILeft an abusive situation? (Mark 5:21-43)

In this sermon, I quoted from a recent article by Dr. Christy Sim.

An Invitation from the New England Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church

Here is the full text of the motion I made, as amended and adopted by the 2014 session of the New England Annual Conference:

An Invitation

The New England Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church strives to be an inclusive conference that celebrates, develops, and affirms God-given gifts for lay and ordained ministry. We commend our District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Board of Ordained Ministry in their work of discerning wisely, fairly, and prayerfully the readiness and effectiveness of those seeking to be accepted as candidates, commissioned as provisional members, and ordained as deacon or elder.

Whereas, we oppose all forms of personal bias and discrimination, including institutionalized discrimination written into our Book of Discipline, as criteria in evaluating potential clergy members, even as we confess our complicity in systems of exclusion;

Therefore, be it resolved, that the New England Annual Conference affirms the following statement:

We believe God calls all persons to lay, and sometimes LLP, Associate Member and ordained ministry. We grieve instances of systemic discrimination, prejudice, and unjust practices that cloud the discernment of this call within The United Methodist Church. The New England Annual Conference extends our invitation to people who wish to explore if their call to ministry might be affirmed and/or lived out in the New England Annual Conference.

While we do not promise to accept such persons into candidacy or membership, we do promise to discern in the Spirit with justice, fairness, and consistent standards to the best of our ability, and we entrust our District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Board of Ordained Ministry to act accordingly.

Be it further resolved, that the New England Annual Conference encourages its churches, Board of Ordained Ministry, and/or District Committees on Ordained Ministry, upon request from a candidate/potential member, or an individual inquiring on their behalf, to extend a written invitation to individual ordination candidates or potential members, inviting them to apply for membership in the New England Annual Conference, in accordance with Disciplinary and Annual Conference requirements.

In the 18+ hours since this motion was adopted, I have already been moved and amazed by the statements of relief, thanksgiving, and joy from those who have been marginalized and harmed by The United Methodist Church. I’m thankful to have been part of this action of the Conference, and hope and pray that this might be the beginning of a new chapter for New England, for those living at the margins, and for The United Methodist Church. Justice and joy, friends!  – Becca

 

A Call for In-Home Separation

house dividedPerhaps I thrive in what others call “broken homes.” Not that I’ve had a lot of choice in the matter. A child of one divorce and a participant in another, it seems that separation is just part of my life. I can rage against it or not, but it simply is.

I live in a church home that’s divided too.

The United Methodist Church, like so many others, seems on the brink of another schism, this one over questions of homosexuality: whether open and partnered gay and lesbian persons can be ordained and serve as pastors, and whether United Methodist clergy and churches can participate in the blessing of “same-sex” (whatever we eventually decide that means) weddings. Recently, 80 mostly-anonymous traditional clergy people called for an amicable separation of the denomination, citing, like any good celebrity, irreconcilable differences. Responses have included people pledging unity, recalling the importance of honoring our vows, and calls for staying together no matter what, for the sake of our children (our ministries/the people being served by ministries).

Painful as it is for me to flog to death the metaphor of marriage and divorce, having traveled that road myself, there is something that I think we can learn from couples and families who try to live in their differences together as a way of avoiding, or of discerning in the lead up to, divorce:

The value of in-home separation.

For some couples, there are just a few things that they simply cannot talk about, work out, or engage in together, yet their shared resources, family, and life together might still work well. These couples opt for an in-home separation, sometimes as a time to work on their differences and attempt to come to reconciliation together, sometimes to remain in the same space while they do something for a time (like raise children, or run a business together), and sometimes when reconciliation fails, as a stepping stone to more literal separation. This typically involves some shared space and some individual space, and a set of agreed upon guidelines.

Before we file the papers for the Great Divorce of The UMC, I’d call us to deeply consider how we might live together in one home, in the midst of our divisions. As Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck writes, “Having watched countless couples work for an amicable separation, it doesn’t look like too many can pull it off when it just involves two people, much less 11 million.” Perhaps it’s worth it to try for something less than full separation, at least at this time. I think there are several ways to accomplish this (and that’s fodder for plenty more blog posts), but to me the most promising involve the creation of an United States (or Jurisdictional) Central Conference/s, and a two-volume Book of Discipline, with the option of emending the second volume in each Central Conference. Kind of a way, I hope, of holding together those things we do well– our ministry and mission, our Social Principles (SOME of them– I’ll get to that), our ways of funding and equipping local ministries across the globe– and allowing one another the grace and space to carry out our ministries in our contexts. As Wesley would say, in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.

How and when does in-home separation work well?

  • When all parties agree to it (this could take some time to accomplish)
  • When there are agreed-upon, possibly mediated, guidelines about whose space is whose (like which powers belong to General, Central, Jurisdictional, and Annual Conferences) and how those guidelines will be respected
  • When there is the possibility to put on hold conversations or arguments that the parties know they can’t resolve now. If a couple cannot discuss sex without screaming at one another in front of the children, then they need to take a break from discussing it outside of the structured counseling/mediation setting until they grow up have some new perspective.
    THE SAME IS TRUE OF THE CHURCH. 

When is in-home separation not a good idea?

  • When abuse is present.
    And I think we need to ask ourselves if such an in-home separation is possible, because in the church, the maltreatment of LGBTQ persons is abusive and dangerous. Many persons who are LGBTQ and allies have already left the “home” to escape the abuse suffered there– in local churches, in Conference structures, in the Social Principles– and avoiding all conversation while the patterns of abuse remain unchallenged serves the abuser, not the abused. Can an in-home separation be wide enough to create space for safety? Can there still be conversation to address, call to question, and begin to change the unjust and harmful dynamics of this relationship? I hope and pray it’s not too late. I hope and pray we stop yelling long enough to find out.

What do you think? Can we children of a broken home give one another the space to live together?

What’s Next?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOne of my favorite parts of the tv show “The West Wing” that seems realistic to me is the refrain “what’s next?” Used to change the subject, to close a conversation, to carry on with work, to recommit to tasks at hand, these two words return again and again in the script as the characters move from one seemingly completed hurdle to the next one already bearing down on them.

That’s my question today: what’s next?

Much of the progressive and moderate United Methodist Church world rejoiced today as the New York Annual Conference took a bold step. Before them: the matter of Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree, the scholar, theologian, elder, and father who officiated at the wedding of his son and son-in-law. In this case, however, although the matter was referred to trial, it was sent back to the counsels for the church and for Ogletree (Revs. Tim Riss and Scott Campbell, respectively), for a just resolution. That resolution was announced this morning.

In summary, as part of the resolution, Rev. Dr. Ogletree has relinquished his right to a trial by his peers, and New York Annual Conference Bishop McLee has made a statement calling for the cessation of trials. Bishop McLee will convene a forum on human sexuality, and Rev. Dr. Ogletree will attend, his health permitting. From the resolution, and as I blogged at NewWineskins (a project I’m working on with many others in the New England Conference of The UMC– you should check it out!), they said:

“As the Bishop of the New York Annual Conference, in consideration of my responsibility to provide spiritual, pastoral and temporal oversight for those committed to my care, I call for and commit to a cessation of church trials for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-gender wedding ceremonies and instead offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical conversation.” -Bishop McLee

“In recognition of Bishop Martin McLee’s publicly stated intention to approach the matter of marriage equality in a non-juridical manner, but instead to offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical reflection, I hereby relinquish my right to a trial on the charge that has been brought against me for officiating at a same gender wedding ceremony. I further agree to make myself available, health permitting, to participate in the above-mentioned Forum that Bishop McLee will convene.” -Rev. Dr. Ogletree

And there was much rejoicing.

Or was there?

As with any compromise, everyone gets a little of what they don’t want. For traditionalists, the lack of trial seems like a weak slap on the wrist or lack thereof; there will be no punitive consequences for Rev. Dr. Ogletree, and he is asked to share his opinion and expertise. For progressives, queer United Methodists and allies, and those hoping to see the church’s language overturned, this stops short of such action and returns us to the rhetoric of conversation, which has been the painful status quo for the past 40 years in the church.

And so it is a mixed bag today. A huge step forward. Charges dismissed. Relationship valued over legalism. An active Bishop joining the ranks of those calling to stop the trials. That Bishop now bound by this agreement to find just resolutions moving forward.

But. Sometimes trials push an issue that needs to be addressed. Many feel the time for talking is long gone. And the discriminatory language of the Book of Discipline remains, and with it the prohibition not only against ministry to LGBTQ persons, but the ministry of those persons. There is so much work to be done.

Until the love and ministry of all persons is recognized on an equal basis, until the Discipline does not call people sacred in one breath and incompatible in another, perhaps even until no more bodies of lesbian couples are found by dumpsters, no more teen boys take their lives for fear of embracing an identity, and a transgender person can have a life expectancy equal their cisgender peers, we have work to do.

So let me be clear: yes, charges have been dismissed against Rev. Dr. Ogletree in favor of a resolution involving more conversation. It’s a huge day in the UMC, and a big step forward. AND there is still work to be done. Conversation about 40 years of discrimination is not enough; stopping trials for people who officiate (while trials are pending for people accused of being homosexual) is not enough; maintaining discriminatory and dehumanizing language in the Book of Discipline is not acceptable. There is joy, and there is work to be done.

Alleluia. And, what’s next?

Let the penalty fix the “crime”

shame hands face coveredHere we go again…

A month after the Board of Ordained Ministry in Pennsylvania stripped Rev. Frank Schaefer of his ordination credentials for officiating at his son’s wedding and refusing to state he would follow the entirety of the Book of Discipline in the future, the United Methodist Church is back at it again.

The New York Annual Conference announced the date of March 10 as the beginning of the trial of Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree. Like Rev. Schaefer, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is an ordained United Methodist Elder. Like Schaefer, he has a son who is gay. Like Schaefer, he officiated at his son’s wedding. In addition, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is a former professor and Dean at a Divinity School in Connecticut, oh, right, Yale, and before that Drew. Where he taught such irrelevant courses as theological ethics and Christian social ethics. And literally wrote the book in the church’s witness to the world– Oh, just read about him here.

At least one friend has compared the coming trial to that time that the Ministry of Magic tried to interrogate Professor Dumbledore. Not a bad comparison.

I don’t want to get in to all that right now.

These trials have a sort of fatalistic nature to them. We all assume that the persons on trial will be found guilty. I’m not sure this should be the case– after all, the church says we can’t officiate at same-sex weddings, but does not take time to define sex, or explain how, in the absence of legal background checks, medical screenings and examinations, hormonal and chromosomal lab results and so on, a pastor is supposed to determine such. But I digress.

Let’s assume for a moment that Rev. Dr. Ogletree is found guilty of violating the unjust law as laid out in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. Where the real interest lies is in the sentencing.

Some clergy members who have been found guilty of such violations have their credentials revoked, as was the case with Rev. Schaefer (legal or not). But in 2011, the jury in the Wisconsin Annual Conference sentenced Rev. Amy DeLong (found not guilty of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” but guilty of officiating a same-sex wedding) with a twenty day suspension, and then charged her to research and write a paper addressing the nature of the clergy covenant, how it has been harmed and how it might be healed.

The old saying goes, let the punishment fit the crime. But DeLong’s “punishment” seemed more intended to fix or at least address the root problems in the alleged “crime.”

What if the jury in Rev. Dr. Ogletree’s trial took that approach? What if they used this opportunity not to punish Ogletree or scare others into compliance with laws they find unjust (how’s that working for ya?), but to address root problems in this issue?

Specifically, I would like to see the jury, should they find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty of a violation of unjust church law, instruct him to create or propose a system for dealing with charges that persons are self-avowed practicing homosexuals or have officiated at same-sex weddings, in ways other than trials. Church trials are a waste of time, money, human resources, and spiritual strength. They show the watching world that The United Methodist Church is divided and broken, and no better able to live together in difference and brokenness than middle schoolers on the playground. Yes, they highlight the injustices in the system and as such become a force for eventual change, but I fear there won’t be much of a church left by the time they’ve accomplished that work. If only we had a former Dean of a theological school, a professor of Christian ethics, an author who has researched the church’s witness to the world on social issues, and a pastor and parent with life experience to reflect with us on these things!

So that’s my modest proposal for the jury in the Ogletree trial: Find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty if you must (although try to see if you can get your terms and concepts around sex and sexuality and gender and gender identity somewhat consistent if you can). But then consider the injustice of the letter of the law. Consider the pain to the whole church and the whole world for as long as the world is still listening to anything remotely called “church.” Consider the resource and gift of the person in front of you.

Seek the Middle Way. Remain in connection. Work for justice and for healing.

Let the punishment at least try to start fixing the crime.

Sermon: Christmas Miracles and Mystery Grumps

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 9.30.29 PM“Christmas Miracles and Mystery Grumps”

(December 22, 2013) One last sermon in a series about how love breaks into our lives. This time, it’s my story. God surprised me with love; Christmas came early this year for me, and opened my heart, bringing me joy. May you be surprised by love as well. (Matthew 1:18-25, Isaiah 7:10-16)

The Advent series this year is a look at how God breaks into our lives when we least expect it and whether we’re ready or not. We’ll look at seasonal grumps who find transformation breaking into their lives: The Grinch, who experiences love; Ebenezer Scrooge, who moves toward justice; George Bailey, who rediscovers hope, and a Mystery Grump, in need of some Christmas joy.

We Are Here.

dandelion seed 1I’m thinking of a Dr. Seuss story about Whos today.

No, not How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Although I’m feeling particularly non-Christmassy at the moment.

Let’s start there.

Remember Rev. Frank Schaefer? He’s the United Methodist pastor from Pennsylvania who officiated for the wedding of his son and his son’s husband in 2007, only to have an inactive church member file a complaint against him years later (and curiously, just after that inactive member’s mother had been fired by the church). Rev. Schaefer was found guilty of violating UMC polity by officiating the wedding and suspended for 30 days, at which point he was told he would have to either agree to uphold the entirety of the United Methodist Book of Discipline (whatever that means) or surrendered his credentials. This week, he refused to do either.

And so today, the Board of Ordained Ministry in his annual conference removed his clergy credentials.

Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus.

To be clear, I don’t even know if this is permissible under the rulebook Rev. Schaefer was accused of disobeying; the jury did not issue a sentence of defrocking, so it’s unclear if the board can apply that punishment now. And there are numerous other problems with the case. Rev. Schaefer says he will appeal.

But what hurts right now is that I’m trying, trying with all my faith and courage, to find some hope and love and peace and justice and joy this Advent and Christmas season. I don’t think I’m the only one. I think a lot of people need some hope and love, justice, joy, and peace. And I honestly believe the Christian church, even the United Methodist Church, has a faith to offer, a Christ to offer, a beloved community in God to offer, that can help us find those things.

And we’re not doing it.

We are, as Reconciling Ministries Network communication director Andy Oliver put it, choosing law over love, so unlike Joseph, who decided not to have Mary stoned as the law allowed, but to live into love.

Call me a Grinch, but I don’t like it. Not one little bit.

And yet, here we are. We are here.

On a day when the UMC defrocked a pastor for loving all people equally, for being a good pastor and a good dad, we are here. On a day when New Mexico ruled that it is in fact unconstitutional to deny marriages to same-gender couples, we are here. Just before the longest night of the year, when we most need our hope that love will be born in our world, we are here.

In the Dr. Suess story Horton Hears a Who!, the Whos (who live on a small speck on the puff of a flower) join their voices together so that they may be heard, not only by Horton, but by the cynics and doubters and narrow-thinking creatures as well. They chant and they call out, and they lift their voices, proclaiming the only thing they can say in their defense: we are here.

Only when every last Who has lifted a Yawp (a barbaric one, Walt Whitman?) are they heard.

For some reason, that’s where I am today.

Hope is hard, especially hope in my denomination. But then I wasn’t placing a lot of hope in the New Mexico Supreme Court and look at that. So I’m holding on. I am with Frank, and so many others, and I will not be moved. My one voice, joined with yours.

We are here.

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