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?

Sermon: Living Water

well stone close“Living Water”

(March 23, 2014) At the well, Jesus encounters a powerful theologian in the form of a Samaritan woman, and their conversation looks at the literal and spiritual needs for water. This day after World Water Day, how do we understand the intersections between the literal water crisis and the spiritual need for living water? What will we do about the water crisis? (John 4:5-15, 23-30, 39-42)

Resources about the water crisis:

Press release for World Water Day

World Water Day homepage

Informational Video about Water Crisis (World Water Day 2013)

Water.org (microlending and water credit to expand access to clean water)

UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (monitoring and resources toward goal of providing access to clean water for all)

UNICEF Tap program (donates money for clean water for every ten minutes you don’t use your phone)

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.

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.

The courage of couples

wedding rings 1Tim Schaefer takes the stand today.

Tim’s father, Rev. Frank Schaefer, was found guilty yesterday in a United Methodist Church trial for officiating at Tim’s wedding to his similarly-gendered partner six years ago. An inactive member of Schaefer’s church, angry because his mother and Schaefer had a disagreement which led to her being fired from her position as organist by the church’s personnel committee (SPRC, for Methopeeps), hunted down the marriage license and filed a complaint against Pastor Frank, just after his mother’s termination and just before the statute of limitations ran out.

Today, the jury will hear testimony to decide a sentence for Rev. Schaefer, which could range from a reprimand to being stripped of his credentials as a United Methodist clergy person.

Much has been made about Pastor Frank’s love for his son, which motivated him to officiate at the wedding. While this is beautiful and true, I rather think that all clergy should be motivated by their love of other people’s children as well. Nevertheless, Pastor Frank’s action is rightly heralded as heroic, courageous, and loving.

But what about Tim and his partner? What about the couple dragged into the spotlight for doing what couples everywhere long to do when they are in love and want to spend their lives together?

The sad fact is that when a United Methodist clergy person officiates at a wedding for persons who are of similar genders, that clergy person takes a risk with her or his livelihood. But the couple getting married takes a risk as well. Their names get printed online and flashed across TV screens. Their pictures are plastered on newspaper articles and church websites. Their marriage, relationship, sexuality, and very personhood are dissected, debated, shamed, and stigmatized. The counsel for the church yesterday used his closing argument to rant, not about a violation of church policy, but about the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality.

It takes a special sort of couple to be willing to subject themselves to such a spectacle, centered around what should be a celebration of their love and commitment before God and their loved ones.

I think this is why we see so many trials and cases in mediation involving pastors officiating for their children: Frank Schaefer, Tom Ogletree, Steve Heiss. The couple married have to agree to journey with their officiant into the dark pit of church policy, hateful rhetoric, and punitive judgements. It takes a trust that perhaps these children share with their parents. It takes courage on the part of the couples, to become the faces of the pain inflicted by the church’s injustice.

I have talked with similarly-gendered couples contemplating getting married, and we have discussed together (something I’ve never had to discuss with a heterosexual couple!) whether or not they are willing to be part of this frenzy, whether they want to take and disclose an action that could make their wedding day a political hot topic. Across the board, they have said that they did not want to be subjected to such public scrutiny, and I affirm their choices to maintain privacy and sacredness for themselves. The outcomes of those conversations are not mine to disclose; they belong to the couples themselves.

And so today I give thanks and I pray for the courageous couples who are so willing, who allow their love for one another to also be a call for justice, who invite the world to come barging into their relationships, so that God’s justice might one day barge into our church.

Today I give thanks for Tim.

RMN Convocation- What I Loved

photo 1(5)Earlier this month, I attended Reconciling Ministries Network’s biennial Convocation. This year’s event, Churchquake!, was held over Labor Day Weekend (hey, I’m trying to fit my thoughts in within the statute of limitations window!) in Chevy Chase, MD, and despite my long love affair with RMN, this was my first time attending Convo.

I loved it.

It wasn’t perfect, by any stretch (we’ll get to that in another post), but it was after all a reflection of people in beloved community, so how could it be?

Here’s what I loved most:

1. The People. They are, of course, the reason I went to Convo, the reason I’m part of RMN, the reason to do anything. The amazing, expansive, imperfect, deeply passionate, powerfully loving people of my progressive, queer, relational church life are incredible. Many folks I met for the first or second time at Convo, and in other cases it was like the best church family reunion ever.

2photo 4(2). Worship and Preaching. There is nothing quite like the gift of participating in worship rather than presenting it, and knowing that our shared understanding of the Holy is one where I can pray, sing, reflect, wrestle, and live before the God of my understanding without having to defend against language that erases me and my loved ones, distances me from the act of worship, or makes me feel like I have to defend God from the charge that “He” is a sexist, racist, homophobic, vindictive meanie. The preachers (some of whom I caught in person and some online after) were all good, but there’s something extra amazing about receiving the Word from a woman I know in person and deeply love and respect, as was the case for me with both Vicki and Karen. Beautiful.

3. Bible Study. Okay, I know this wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Our bible studies were a series of talks and monologues that were part scholarship, part art, and part entertainment. And yes, there were rough patches, and yes there are problems with suggesting that we rename the Book of Esther the Book of Eunuchs– but this is a great jump off place for talking about how minorities often compete for airtime in a majority-dominant place like the bible, and in a justice movement like RMN, so let’s look at how powerful women and sexual minorities vie for space and attention in Esther, and maybe how their struggles overlap and intersect and are at odds with one another (and maybe how powerful women are also sexual minorities?). In any case I like the approach, and I learned things I didn’t know.

I love that moment when the preacher is preparing to preach (Karen Oliveto)

I love that moment when the preacher is preparing to preach (Karen Oliveto)

4. Challenging Myself. I like learning new things and I like being pushed outside my comfort zone, because how can you learn otherwise? So it’s good that I’m not the most leftist, radical person at Convo, because I can learn new things. This came up especially when I was in a particular workshop, where I went to learn about post-colonialism in the UMC, because I think that’s an important topic in our quest to be a global denomination. But the workshop was a little on the 101 level for me and I got distracted looking at Twitter, where people were posting from the “queer sexual ethics” workshop. Some tweets intrigued me, some made me uncomfortable, and some were things with which I strongly disagreed, the latter two often about poly. I’m kind of all about monogamy, and I know that my approach to polyamory sounds just like the approach to homosexuality I fight against: “It’s just not what I think marriage/relationships/etc are.” So, I engaged in workshop polyamory, and decided it was time to spend time with the queer sexual ethics workshop because it was pushing the edges of my comfort. So that’s what I did. And I’m not going to go seek out poly relationships for myself any time soon (or ever, I imagine), but I learned a lot about new perspectives to me and I think I can be a better ally because of it. I love anything that encourages me to stretch myself.

5. Naming Intersectionality. This was tough, and is a growing edge, but I could really hear the awareness in the RMN leadership and in the way things were presented to try to address the intersections and overlaps of various kinds of oppression and of justice-seeking. It’s sticky and challenging, but we talked about gender and gender identity, sexuality and ordination, and a growing list of how these pieces overlap. We can improve on this, and I hope we do.

6. Coming Home. I don’t mean home to my house; I mean home to a church family I always had and where I was always welcome, but where I don’t get to gather in this way often (or ever before).

I have things I’d like to see improved (coming from a place of love and hope), and I’ll post those thoughts soon.

photo 5(1)

Sermon Manuscript: On the Other Side

shame hands face covered“On the Other Side”

rough manuscript, by Rev. Becca Girrell Clark – 7/21/13

A child was walking along the road from the convenience store to the suburb, when he was set upon by a man who wanted to be a hero. The man stalked him, engaged him– we do not know for sure how the child responded. And the man shot him, dead.

Neighbors heard the altercation outside, but they did not want to get involved and so the neighbors passed by on the other side. Police arrived on the scene, but the man with the gun said he’d been afraid for his own life, and so they did not book him, or take him into custody, or press charges against him, and the police passed by on the other side. The law of Florida retained that a person (although maybe not a black person and maybe not a female person, but a person) could carry and use a weapon, could use deadly force when they believed their life was in danger, and so the law of Florida passed by on the other side. A jury of this man’s peers, not the victim’s peers, not the boy dead beside the road’s peers, but the gunman’s peers, listened to the evidence, tried to determine if the boy had posed a threat to the man with the gun, and they determined the man with the gun was not guilty of murder or of manslaughter, and the jurors passed by on the other side (one of them stopping a day later to sign a book deal). Good Samaritans and Good Samaritans wannabees wept and wore hoodies and mailed empty packets of skittles from the comfort of their quiet neighborhoods and their safe roadways, and, grieving yet alive, passed by on the other side.

Martin Luther King, Jr said once that Sunday morning at 11 o’clock (or in our case 10 o’clock) was the most segregated hour in American Christianity, with people worshipping almost exclusively along racial lines. We give thanks that our congregation is blessed by each member, and that we are growing in diversity in many ways—racially, socioeconomically, politically, theologically, in terms of orientation and age and place of origin, and we give thanks especially for our children, who lead us in song and prayer and life together, regardless of the things adults might see as differences.

Even so, we recognize the comparative lack of diversity of our church, our community, our state. In 2012, Vermont was ranked as the second-whitest state in the country, falling just behind Maine and just ahead of New Hampshire, with more than 96 % of our population identified as white. This is not a criticism, or at least not one from which I can stand apart—I grew up here too. I’ve lived a life of such white privilege that I often don’t recognize racist jokes or slurs, and that I commit racist actions, on occasion without recognizing what I’m doing. It’s taken me years to come to see and understand white privilege, to acknowledge and see how my life is different because of the color of my skin, and how people make assumptions about me—almost always favorable—based on their perception of my ethnicity.

(example, ABC’s show “what would you do”- actors “stealing” a bike. The white actor is confronted once; the black actor by a crowd almost immediately. A pretty woman is assisted… Video from YouTube)

Steeped in privilege as so many of us are—the privilege of being white, or middle class, or from a loving home, and the list goes on—steeped in privilege as we so often are, it is our responsibility to recognize when and where we have privilege and power, and are therefore called to give it away.

That makes us turn to Jesus’ apparent motivation in telling this parable. We are familiar with the story, and we so often focus on the compassion and charity of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes we look beyond to the greater justice issue, standing yet again in the legacy of MLK when he said in “A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church, “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” In fact, in saving this text until after our guest preacher, this was what I had initially planned to preach about.

But that’s not what Jesus is saying to the lawyer who asks him this question about what it means to be a neighbor. That is not the point of the story. Not today.

We are not the Good Samaritan.  We want to be. We strive to be. We name our homeless shelter—that we keep in another town so we don’t have to look at it—after the Good Samaritan, but that is not us. And this isn’t a parable about how to be the Good Samaritan, or how to cultivate charity in our hearts.

We are not the robbers, whose situation we don’t know, what deprivation and fear they faced in their lives. We are not George Zimmerman. We are not, today, in this story, reflecting on the violence we do in our lives. That’s a powerful and important reflection, but it is not the point of the parable.

We are not the man on the road, the child walking back from the convenience store, robbed and beaten and left to die, stalked and shot and dead on the ground at 17. We are not Trayvon Martin.  In the days after his death, and again after the Zimmerman verdict, some people began posting pictures of themselves in hoodies and captioning or hashtagging “I am Trayvon Martin.” But then someone else began a tumblr—a site to share pictures and thoughts on a single theme or idea—entitled “We Are NOT Trayvon Martin.” People there post their recognition that none of us are actually this young man, and many non-black folks reflect on the privilege and safety they and their children enjoy, which the Martin family does not. It becomes an opportunity to confront the white privilege I mentioned earlier, and to reflect on the disparity and brokenness of our society. None of us, not even those of us of color, are Trayvon Martin. Some of us could be, or our loved ones could be. Be we are here and whole and alive. And so we cannot appropriate his experience or his family’s loss. Jesus is not talking to Trayvon Martin, to the boy on the sidewalk, the man on the road to Jericho.

Jesus’ caution to us, to us all, to all his listeners, to the lawyer that asked him the question, is that we are the priests. We are the judges, the police, the mild mannered citizens, the members of the jury, the neighbors failing to be neighborly, the travelers on the road, who see the man bleeding out on the pavement, and pass by on the other side.

Because we are busy. Because we are afraid. Because we are complacent. Because we have seen it too often. Because we have seen it not enough. Because we benefit from the privilege we have, we swim and breathe in it as a sponge in the ocean. And we don’t need to concern ourselves with children lying in pools of blood. We pass by on the other side.

We live and work and flourish in a system that is flawed and unfair and broken. A system that defends itself, protects itself. A system that last week did not fail. It worked. It worked to protect George Zimmerman, and the Stand Your Ground Law and the status quo and the culture of fear and violence and its very self.

It failed the Martin family but it’s not meant for them.

Anymore than it’s meant for Marissa Alexander, age 31, convicted in May 2012, three months after Trayvon Martin was shot, and about the time when Zimmerman’s plea of not-guilty was accepted at his arraignment, Marissa Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, when she fired a warning shot into the ceiling, in an attempt to get her abusive estranged husband to leave her home. Like Trayvon Martin, she is black. Like George Zimmerman, she pled not guilty and her defense argued that she “stood her ground” in a life threatening situation. Like neither, she will see her next birthday—and, unless there is a successful appeal, about 19 more of them—in prison.

(seen on facebook; missing citation)

(seen on facebook; missing citation)

Whole systems pass people by on the other side. Is there any wonder that children hold signs like these at vigils in remembrance of Martin? “Black Life Matters.”

And yet.

There is something I notice about the parable of the Good Samaritan: Jesus doesn’t give us any detail about the person on the road to Jericho, except to say that he is male, I suppose. We do not know the color of their skin, or what they were wearing, or whether or not the robbers felt the person was “a threat.” Jesus does not pause to make a case that the person beaten by the roadside is of sacred worth. It is presumed, as a given, that all people are sacred, that all people should not be passed by. This needs no argument. Not for Jesus. And for those who would live as his body in the world, not for us.

Black Life Matters. Life of all colors and ages and orientations and economic statuses and faiths and abilities matters. Jesus is asked to clarify what it means to be a neighbor—and there the distinctions matter, come into play. There it matters that the Samaritan, with very little privilege or power, gives what he has to the aid of a person in need, while the privileged, powerful, pious elite pass by on the other side. But when it comes to who the people in trouble are, who the people whom we must not pass by ARE, it does not matter. They are people, and that is all we need to know. Need is indifferent to color and status and privilege. The call to act is not. Those who have the greatest power and privilege are called to give it up on behalf of… on behalf of anyone. No distinctions, no exceptions.

Who do we see and value? Who do we rush to help? Who can we not leave on the roadside? Jesus assumes we already know the answer, and I think deep down we do. Everyone. In Christ’s eyes, in God’s eyes, we are all of sacred and profound worth, and we are called to see that in one another.

We, Jesus warns, are the ones with the power. The power to protect ourselves and our culture of fear and violence and the status quo. Or the power to lay down what we have for any single person in need, any creature suffering. The story, the reminder, is for us. There is no excuse. May we open our eyes, and never, or to the best of our ability never again, pass by on the other side.

Sermon: On the Other Side

shame hands face covered“On the Other Side”

(July 21, 2013) We are not Trayvon Martin, and we are not the person set upon by robbers on the road to Jericho, but the parable of the Good Samaritan has a powerful message and warning for us. For those with power or privilege– which, racially speaking, is more than 96% of Vermont– have the responsibility to take notice, and not pass by on the other side. (Luke 10:25-37)

In the sermon, I make reference to this tumblr.

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