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.

The Great Divorce: Tension and Schism in the UMC

dreamumc-one-yearThis blog post is part of a synchblog today on the topic of schism in the UMC. Please share your thoughts here, on the DreamUMC website, on your blog or facebook page, and tonight at 9 pm eastern on Twitter as we chat together.

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Sadly, I have recent experience with splitting up.

It’s not easy, and it hurts more than anything I’ve experienced– a profound loss akin to the death of a loved one. A complex and roiling issue, filled with technical, procedural, emotional, psychological, and spiritual transformation: this is the road of divorce. It’s not an experience I’d wish on anyone.

At the same time, I can attest that sometimes a relationship becomes unhealthy, un-fulfilling, unloving. Sometimes, separation, while painful, brings new life and more beautiful, vibrant hope than either party has known.

I’ve never been a huge supporter of the idea of schism in The United Methodist Church. I recognize that there are many times when I exclaim “I’m done!” or “I’m getting out!” I see the efforts for inclusion thwarted again and again, and the uniquely Methodist understanding of grace eroded away. I hear my ecumenical colleagues lament struggles within their denominations, but talk openly about their sexuality, or see them tagged on Facebook, officiating weddings for their gay or lesbian congregants, and want to weep (okay, sometimes do). But I remain. I recognize that this urge to quit is born out of anger and pain, not my best place of discernment. I stay because I believe history is too full of schism over people of color and women, and I want this to be the time we learn to embrace God’s children as they are. I stay because I want to leave no one behind. I stay because there is much I love about the UMC, not the least of which is the love that binds us together, a deep commitment to engage in struggle together.

I suppose I say to myself, in the words of the Indigo Girls: “I still believe, despite our differences, that what we have’s enough. I believe in us, and I believe in love.”

I wonder, though.

I wonder, because my ability to minister effectively in my community and my context is being severely undermined by words in the Book of Discipline that do not offer love and grace, but condemnation and dehumanization. Even while my local church welcomes and embraces all persons, and even while I have vowed to officiate weddings based on the love, maturity, and commitment of the parties and not their genders, even so, simply calling my friends, loved ones, family members, congregants and community members “incompatible” makes it nearly impossible to extend the love and blessing of Christ. I wonder because so much time, effort, and resource goes into trying to change the Book of Discipline in a handful of paragraphs, or to stonewall any changes, that our witness and mission as a global denomination is hampered if not completely halted. Most of all I wonder because we cannot even agree that we are in disagreement. We can’t acknowledge our differences openly and with vulnerability (by saying, for example, that people of good faith disagree about homosexuality). If we can’t say we have differences, how can we believe Love is enough, despite them?

Weeks like this past one have me thinking maybe schism wouldn’t be so bad. But then I think about how it would play out. It starts to feel like arguing over china. But sometimes plates have sentimental value, and sometimes people need a way to eat. How would agencies and committees be allocated? Who “gets” the Board of Discipleship and its work? Who “gets” the Committee on Relief? Oh, we’d figure it out, I’m sure. But if the publishing house and the Board of Global Mission are plates and cups and wedding gifts, what I really worry about are the children.

I worry about people in local churches.

Take my local church. We are not a reconciling congregation, although every so often, the background conversation begins that we should do the work to search our beliefs and values and make a statement about sexuality and inclusivity. It would not be unanimous, but there would be large support. Mostly, I think folks haven’t’ done it yet because they don’t want to leave any loved ones out. So where does that leave this small but vibrant, progressive but cautious, inclusive of queer people and of traditionalists, congregation of beloved children as their parents argue and split and divide the shared property? I can’t answer that question, but it makes me heartsick.

There are a couple of reasons why I think we can remain together, and should at least try:

becca-at-protest1. Our strength is in our diversity. The nearest United Methodist Church to the one I serve is six miles away. It is a more conservative, traditional congregation with a more conservative, traditional (male) pastor (until July 1 anyway). My colleague and I can be found at the Vermont State House on marriage equality days, wearing our clerical collars and standing on opposite sides of the demonstrations. But on days when there are rallies for workers’ rights, economic justice, or health care access, we can be found side by side, partners in the religious and spiritual task of seeking justice. When someone comes to my office, expressing dismay that the church where I serve– or I myself– is too liberal, I gladly give them the contact information for the church in Barre. Every so often a person comes in to Trinity, having tried the church in Barre and finding it “too conservative,” and finds a happy home in our congregation. Together, these two United Methodist Churches serve the needs and build the gifts of people who are and may be United Methodist in this area. We need each other.

2. When I worked on the reproductive rights subcommittee at General Conference, we found that a great number of people from a huge variety of contexts, backgrounds, and beliefs could come to the table and discuss abortion in fruitful ways. We reached an impasse every time we tried to proscribe what doctors and patients should and should not do. But every time we refocused on who were were as United Methodists and how we were called to be in ministry before, during, and after crisis pregnancy, we were able to reach a closer consensus despite our vast differences. When we listened to each others’ stories and asked what our proactive, loving, spiritual response should be, we could live in harmony. Despite our differences, Love was enough.

Here’s what I think we should do.

1. I think we need– right now, at the next General Conference– enabling legislation to create a United States Central Conference. This will allow The United Methodist Church to hold some things in common– our articles of faith, our boards and ministries, our local congregations, and yes as of this most recent General Conference, our Social Principles. It will allow every Central Conference to amend the rest of the Book of Discipline, and the way is is lived out, to take into account their local context. I think Jurisdictional Central Conferences could work, but that leaves a lot of southern progressives in a tough spot, in strange solidarity with northern conservatives. It is the only way I believe we can remain united, however, allowing us to hold essentials in unity, non essentials in liberty, and all things in deep grace and love. This change necessitates a second, no less important one…

2. We need to remove all proscriptive language from the Social Principles. As the UMC tries to make the Discipline more global, this is the only way forward. As a positive example, this is what we found about discussing abortion. We could all mourn the circumstances that might cause individuals to consider abortion, but we could not make any statement with consensus about calling for an end to practices, supporting or not supporting organizations that provide access to medical care including abortion, and so on. Let that be a local, contextual response. So, while paragraph 161 of the Discipline says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and I imagine we would keep arguing about that, it cannot further state that “self avowed practicing homosexuals shall not be appointed to serve as ministers in the UMC.” See the difference? The latter is proscriptive, and is more rightly a conversation for a more local context.

3. Consider this a trial separation. Can we give one another the space to live and serve in love in our contexts, equipping each other but not constraining the ministry that needs to happen? Or has too much damage been done? Can we live with or change the “incompatibility” language? Can we live with the liberty of our siblings in the movement? Can we heal the pain of the past? If not, can we use this breathng space and the time and space we need to more amicably consider how we would move forward together and apart?

Today, for now, I hold on to hope. Love is my favorite name for God, and so when I consider our divisions, I have to hold out for the power of Love. Despite our differences, what we have is and can be and I hope will be enough. I believe in Love.

In Loving Tension (of Ogletree, McLee, and the UMC)

dicipline ipadI get headline notifications on my smartphone from both NBC news and the AP. This means that I can have Olympic results spoiled, know who won a country music award for music I dislike, and be in the know about the deaths of celebrities I’ve never heard of, all in nearly real time (which is about 2 hours behind Twitter). Huge, huge news happened this week, but I noticed something curious.

My smartphone was silent about it.

I didn’t receive a single update about the three states voting on marriage equality this week. I can’t help but think that giving equal rights to all people has become something of a given. A less interesting headline than which animal won the Kentucky Derby (I hear it was a horse of some kind).

Sadly, not in all places.

Also in the news this week, the United Methodist Church is charging a clergy person with violating the Book of Discipline by officiating the wedding for his son and his now son-in-law. Stop me if you’ve heard this one (or read about it on Hacking Christianity, or the New York Times).

The matter surrounding Rev. Dr. Ogletree yet again highlights the division and discrimination lurking at the heart of the denomination I love. But this case has hit me in a different way than previous instances, stirring up a multitude of emotions and reflections that I will flesh out in the next few blog posts.

dreamumc-one-year1. As ever, questions of trial and dissent call to the forefront discussion of schism within the United Methodist Church. This will be the subject of Monday’s blog post, which is itself part of a larger synchblog (many bloggers discussing the same topic on the same day), and a DreamUMC twitter chat that night.

2. I’m fascinated by the focus on the fact that Rev. Dr. Ogletree officiated the wedding for his son, as if this makes the action more pastoral and beautiful and blameless. I want to explore this.

3. Like my friend and colleague Vicki Flippin (see below), I too have a story about saying no– or at least not saying yes. It is time to confess and seek further healing.

4. I have various and sundry thoughts about what is and is not prohibited by the institution, and how impossible it is to uphold this unjust law, even if we wanted to.

5. I love people.

I’m going to start with #5.

The New York Times article referenced above names some elders in addition to Rev. Dr. Ogletree. In particular, it focuses on the response from Ogletree’s Bishop, Bishop Martin McLee, whose response has drawn heavy criticism from progressives. Additionally, the article cites Rev. Vicki Flippin, who offers her own love letter in response, as one of two clergy in the New York Annual Conference openly stating that they have officiated at same sex/same gender weddings.

Both Bishop McLee and Rev. Flippin are friends of mine. In fact, It sounds ridiculously silly to me to not use their first names.

Both Martin and Vicki are friends of mine.

Vicki and I met this past year as we were both Fellows is a young clergy leadership development program through the Lewis Center. Our group met three times over the past nine months, and have stayed in contact on facebook in between meetings. Vicki is compassionate and intelligent, with a quick and friendly smile and a deeply loving heart. After our first meeting, we each drew a name from a hat and prayed for that person until the next meeting. I was happy to learn that Vicki drew mine. She’s also a passionate voice for justice and inclusion, and I cannot wait to hear her preach at Reconciling Ministries Network’s Convocation in August. I’m proud to know her and so proud of her words and actions this past week especially.

Martin was a District Superintendent in my annual conference, and we served together on our conference’s delegation to General Conference last year. An alternate delegate, Martin was frequently my go-to person when I needed to step away from the floor (like right after this happened), and on at least one occasion– when the body refused to even discuss security of appointment, but summarily dismissed the concerns of women and persons of color– was the set of broad shoulders upon which I unabashedly cried. Long before the Northeast Jurisdiction got a chance to meet him as a candidate, our delegation interviewed Martin and heard his vision and passion for the future of the United Methodist movement. I was proud when our conference nominated him, and proud to support him as a candidate for Bishop. I told people of his passion for justice and inclusion, and I stand by that conviction still. I wept when he was elected, and consecrated, and then again, later and alone, when I realized this meant he wouldn’t be part of our Conference any more.

As I said above, I’ve said “not yes” to marriage equality, and it broke my heart. Knowing and loving Martin, I can only imagine how much this breaks his (I preached about this a little here).

I’m not excusing or condoning the way his response has played out thus far.

I’m also not saying that I feel betrayed and abandoned by him, either.

First and foremost, when I see this case, and I see Rev. Dr. Ogletree whom I don’t know but imagine I would like and respect, and I see Vicki whom I am so proud to call colleague and friend, and I see Martin whom I love as well, I can only stand with an open and hurting heart. No speculation, no elation or anger, no judgement or excitement, only compassion and complexity. This is the connection. This is the Church. These are the people called Methodist. Bound, in ways we can only begin to grasp, to a structure, to a movement, to the Divine.

And to one another.

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