(March 8, 2015) Not only do we tend to resist being told what to do, but we strip faith of its power when we reduce it to a series of do’s and don’t’s. What if, instead, we viewed the Word of God as a promise and a vision of who we are called to be? Might we see it not as something that constrains us, but as something that helps us grow and flourish? (Exodus 20:1-17)
(March 1, 2015- 23rd anniversary of the burning of Lebanon UMC) Church member Jeanette H. remembers the burning of the church more than two decades earlier, and the congregation that worked together to rebuild afterward. As we reflect on loss, we hear again God’s promise of hope– sometimes the hardest promise to hold on to in the face of loss. Can we see the promise of the future in one another? (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16)
(Feb 15, 2015) The disciples encounter a revelation of who and what Jesus is on the mountaintop, but this is not the only story of God’s revelation in Jesus? Can we expand our understanding of God and of ourselves by hearing and telling multiple stories? (Mark 9:2-9)
This sermon (preached with a substantial cold) is based on the Huffington Post piece “Forsaking the Whiteness of the Transfiguration” by Keith Anderson, and the TED Talk “The Danger of the Single Story” by Chimamanda Adichie.
A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to the offices of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church. There I participated in a Consultation on the Social Principles, one of eight planned meetings “to consider a process about how to make the United Methodist Social Principles more succinct, theologically founded and globally relevant.”
At these consultations, participants looked at the Social Principles– statements The UMC makes on various topics (read the text online here) in small groups and asked:
- What role do the current Social Principles play in enhancing the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church?
- How much or how well have the current Social Principles served to empower mission and ministry in your geographical area?
- What might globally relevant Social Principles look like?
The consultations in Washington were live streamed and recorded, and you can view much of them online at this channel. I can’t find the place where we discussed marriage, sexuality, and abortion, so I can’t link directly to that. If you’d like to hear me rattle off on some other stuff, you could jump to 57:00 in the 1/16 11 am session (ecology), 19:55 in the 1/17 morning session (corporate responsibility), or 28:55 in the 1/17 afternoon session 2 (restorative justice). Although for my money, the winner for the whole consultation was Sunny’s “Social Principles for Texans” in that same video, 34:30.
It’s actually fairly easy to summarize what our group in particular and I believe the consultation overall thought about these questions.
1. What role do the current Social Principles play in enhancing the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church?
On almost every issue, we felt that the ministry and mission of The United Methodist Church were enhanced by the Social Principles because they indicate that our church says something about important challenges in our world. We gave thanks that ours is a church that clearly and emphatically opposes the death penalty, that defines abuse as verbal, psychological, and sexual in addition to physical, that calls for just economic practices and so on. However, in nearly every social principle, we found ways in which the ministry and mission of The UMC was harmed by either not being strong enough on a position, by being too United-States-centric, or by using language and upholding positions that are hurtful and inflict harm on people.
2. How much or how well have the current Social Principles served to empower mission and ministry in your geographical area?
Again, on almost every issue, individuals could point to examples of using the Social Principles to educate and advocate in their contexts. We heard from one another about opposition to gambling, calling out usurious lending, advocating for organized labor, and on and on. We gave thanks for the 1908 Social Creed of The UMC, and the rich history of our denomination in the struggle for justice in labor and economics particularly. Again, however, we also heard examples of places where the Social Principles have undermined local ministries, most notably and predictably, by driving away and harming LGBTQ persons in our communities and circles of beloved ones.
3. What might globally relevant Social Principles look like?
Our first and simplest answer to this question: SHORTER. Our group felt that in order for the Social Principles to be relevant worldwide, they would need to
- Be shorter— less is more
- Name values (principles), not behaviors (positions)
- Be positively worded— state what we believe, not what we oppose or fear
- Be statements that incorporate theology and human dignity— we can’t just re-state a universal statement of human rights, but say something unique to us as people of faith
- Contain only that which is applicable cross-culturally or world-wide
We do feel that this is possible, and that there is much The United Methodist Church specifically can say about most or all of the issues named in the Social Principles. In addition, the current Social Principles contain specifics about living out these principles (where we manage to articulate them) in ways that are contextual. As I describe at 32:45 in this session, our group suggests that we have this shorter, worldwide set of principles and then hopefully many books of resolutions (The UMC currently has one Book of Resolutions), specific to different contexts and cultures, including United States’ culture(s), which are contextually written, time-specific, and give relevant examples.
Finally, it is important to note that the goal of these Consultations is not to amend or re-write any of the Social Principles. The feedback from these Consultations is being summarized and crafted into a proposal to the next General Conference (in Portland, OR, in spring of 2016), to then develop a plan for how to update, amend, or re-write the Social Principles. Yes, we all just love the glacial rate at which institutional change happens. Fortunately, nothing stops any United Methodist anywhere in the connection from writing and submitting their suggestions for re-writes and changes. My experience at the Consultation convinced me of the need for shorter, values- and theology- driven, positively stated, world-wide relevant re-writes to each and every Social Principle.
So I’ll be over here, working on just that.
I’m offering these reflections honestly, as part of my own thinking and growing, and to share what I see. I’m claiming no special awareness or insight, and I really don’t want to compare how enlightened I am to anyone else. Spoiler: not very. You probably have more non-white friends than I do, and that’s cool. My self-reflection is about what I can learn about myself, and how I can do better.
As part of my preparation for the Board of Ordained Ministry meeting next week, I read this article, which in turn references this study, and states “in a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one black friend.”
This made me curious. I used my Facebook friends list, which inflates my friends in both number and diversity, by including people who would otherwise be separated by geography. Still, it’s a sample set I could easily identify. I know it’s not a perfect or scientific exercise, but it’s a place to start.
I have about 840 friends (excluding duplicate accounts, people’s pets, and group pages)
35 people– 4%– are people who are black. An additional 41 people are non-white members of other ethnicities (5%). In total, 76 of my Facebook friends (9%) are not white.
As I reflect on this, several things come to mind.
1. My shelter and privilege– and loss– as someone who has lived primarily in 95%+ white communities. I grew up in a town of less than 1000 people. In seminary, I looked back at some demographic information from the 2000 census in the larger town nearby, the place where I went to high school. There were listed on that census “African American: 6.” Six people. In the whole town. I knew the names of all six. I don’t think that’s a good thing; homogeneous communities don’t help individuals learn about much beyond their own experiences. And while I did learn a little from the experiences of at least three of those six people– black men as close as family– nothing can undo the whiteness of my childhood. It’s not bad, per se. It just is. Compared to my friends who have lived in more populated and diverse areas, I start farther back on the line when it comes to seeing, owning, and dismantling my privilege and racism inherent in homogeneity.
2. The tremendous gift of friends who have shared their experiences with me so I can see beyond the blinders of my social location. I’m embarrassed, looking back, by the ignorance of my questions and lack of understanding when I did venture into the wider world. In college and then again in seminary in the Boston area– my first and only daily contact with an actual city– I was a well-intentioned but largely naive white girl. I know that no one was under any obligation to be patient or loving with me as I blundered my way through that early awareness. And yet, time and time again, I’ve been met with people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds who have been patient, kind, long-suffering, and honest, people who have let me make mistakes and called me out gently but clearly. That’s not the responsibility of people of color, to educate and pull along their friends and classmates and peers. Each time, it is a vulnerable, unmerited gift. Thank you.
3. Where I see color, and where I don’t, and what that might mean. This is not something I’m proud of by any means, but it’s something I observed. Fascinatingly, as I was going through my friend list, person by person, looking at profile pictures and calling to mind friends by name, I noticed that there are some people whose ethnicity I instantly think of, while others I only was able to identify as non-white after thinking intentionally about it. Family members topped the list, followed by friends who are bi/multi-racial, and then followed by Facebook friends who I know in a particular role or function. What does this say about the times I “forget” the ethnicity of persons in my circle? That the role of family or of function is the primary category for my brain while skin color is secondary? That bi/multi-ethnic persons suffer the same erasure in my consciousness that these friends have also reported in their lived world experience? No conclusions here, but a hard thing to look at for me.
4. The choices I have made and can still make about where and how I make and keep friendships that shatter my echo chamber. Living outside Boston in a duplex instead of as a single person in an apartment downtown, trying to make friends “as a couple” with my first spouse, being immersed in the dominant cultures of the towns in which I’ve lived: these have increased the number of friends I have who look (and think and act) like me. Intentionally staying in touch with people I’ve met on travels, getting out on my own, looking for the people on the margins of my communities with whom I might actually have more in common: these are choices that have increased the diversity of my friendships in every way when and where I’ve made them. And the good news is, I get to pick how I approach the world, so I can continue to do the latter.
But number five is the beauty.
5. The church is the place where I have broken out of my echo chamber. I realize that for some, the church is a homogenous, white, straight, middle class institution. Certainly for some, the church is less diverse than the rest of their lives. But for me, the church, The United Methodist Church, is a place where I have come in contact with and relationship with more people unlike me in every way, including ethnicity. When I look at those 76 people who are not white, nearly all of them are people I know through church— mission trips, the worldwide UMC connection, local connections and friendships that bring me into places and into the lives of people where I might not otherwise go. The church has made my life richer and fuller, given me colleagues and friends that I would not otherwise I have met, and opened to me a world of connection and grace that would never have been possible for me without it.
For all its faults, the church has given me the extraordinary gift of a life that is broader than my own context. It’s incomplete, but that’s a beautiful kin-dom.
(January 25, 2015) Sometimes, God calls us to our vocation with a fancy, funny, unavoidable moment; other times, with the long, slow, persistence throughout our lives. I tell the stories of my call from God, and invite us hear a call in all our stories. The real fun begins when we answer. (Jeremiah 1:4-10, Mark 1:14-20)
There are many voices lifted up this week in thanksgiving for the life and evangelism of scholar Marcus Borg. Perhaps all the stories that need telling have been told. But this one is mine.
The whole long post is now six and a half years old, and is worth the fun reading if you want to hear me riff on why I dislike The Chronicles of Narnia. I will, however, excerpt some highlights here.
My theological problem had always been very simple. I don’t like what most church says about God.
So much of what traditional church teaches is about how we need Jesus and Jesus is so good and loving, because God-as-Creator is so abusive and mean. God-as-Creator made people and gave them free will, and constructed a system of God’s own justice wherein those beautiful ones, created in the divine image, cannot receive forgiveness without blood, suffering, and death.
That’s not a god I could or can believe in, let alone preach.
Sometime in 2007 ish, I attended a lecture in Middlebury, VT at which Marcus Borg spoke. I don’t remember much, and the notes I copiously took are long lost. But I remember his gentleness and conviction. The audience was mostly church people, not scholars– pastors and lay people from a variety of faith traditions. He was speaking a lot about his then-recent book The Heart of Christianity, and about how it could be possible to teach a rich and subtle theology in Christian education, insisting that “regular” church people can and should think deeply about theology.
I know, what a concept. But it was radical to some of his audience, or at least what he was suggesting be the content was radical.
He handled the comments and questions and challenges with grace, and imparted this vision: that we everyday people could think and teach deeply, and that this would bring people closer to God, and deeper into faith. He demonstrated more than once his famous, humble not-knowing.
But what he said about atonement, as so many have said about so much of his writing and teaching, gave me a faith I could hold:
Borg completely re-explains Jesus as the sacrificial lamb in a way that removes substitutionary atonement from the equation, makes for a much more powerful statement of belief, challenges the systems of sin and forgiveness that require sacrifices in the first place, and is historically valid as a bonus.
It goes like this: by the first century, Jewish Temple worship was a well-oiled machine, and it controlled much in the lives of the common Jewish individual. Sin and being unclean were problems not only for the conscience, but for inclusion in the community; a person whose sin had not been forgiven or a person who had been/come in contact with something unclean (so that’s every woman every 28 days, and her husband, most likely) could not be part of ritual, community meals, or have any entrance into the Temple, and thereby entrance into the presence of God and relationship with God. Forgiveness and cleansing of sin/uncleanness required blood sacrifice of certain animals, offered by the priests on behalf of the sinner in the Temple in Jerusalem. So, those Jews who could afford the animals for sacrifices and the fees for the priests and the trips to Jerusalem could have their sins forgiven, could enter the Temple on the High Holy Days, and could stand in the presence of the Almighty. And the rest, well, too bad for them. The Temple priests held a monopoly on sin and forgiveness. They had become the ancient magic, not only demanding the sacrifices, but setting the fees, limitations, and means by which forgiveness and relationship with God were possible. One might say (although Borg did not, but perhaps I can stretch here) that the Temple claimed that they were the way to salvation, that no one could come to God but through them and the expensive sacrifices they required.
The claim, then, that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb is not a claim about the human blood required for the forgiveness of sins– that’s not part of Judeo-Christian theology in antiquity. It is a claim about the ritual sacrifice offered only by the Temple priests. To say that Jesus is the sacrifice, that he died and his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins, is to say that the sacrifices and rituals of the Temple are meaningless. No longer do you need to buy an unblemished calf or travel to Jerusalem or pay the fees for a priest to offer sacrifice on your behalf. Christ is that sacrifice, and the Temple monopoly on forgiveness is no more. Through Jesus, whatever we or others might claim separates us from God has been removed and no further sacrifice is needed. He has, in short, challenged the very authority– that of the Temple– which required blood sacrifice, shattering the barrier between the individual and God’s presence, grace, and abundant life (we see this symbolically as the Temple curtain tears at the moment of the crucifixion; the barrier is destroyed).
… If, as Borg insists, we can re-educate the adults of our churches and educate the children as they come through the Christian Education system with what was really meant by ‘Jesus is the sacrifice for sin,’ we have hope of reclaiming Christ’s radical message: that nothing stands between us and the God of life, and no intercessor is needed to stand in the presence of the Holy.
Thank you again, kind teacher.