(November 13, 2016) Poet, singer, and songwriter Leonard Cohen reminds us: “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light comes in.” We see in our community, our nation, and our world many places of brokenness, many cracks and many places in need of love and light. May we as the people of God be those who bear the light, who carry God’s love, to all the broken places of the world. (Luke 21:5-19; Isaiah 58:5-12)
At our Bible Study last week, I was challenged to write a prayer for after the election. This is what I came up with. What would you pray?
Prayer for November 9
Hope of every tomorrow,
Healer of shattered dreams and fragmented peoples,
boundless Lover of all the unknowns,
the too-close-for-comfort and too-close-to-call,
the contested and exhausted,
those who lose no matter who wins,
the poll workers, pundits, and politicians too:
Today we begin to build ourselves into a people again.
Today we decide if Love knows a party,
if Grace can spring up where yard signs were planted.
Today, we need you. Maybe more than we did yesterday.
Maybe more than we know.
For what we have done: forgive us.
In what we have said: help us forgive one another.
With your grace and lovingkindness, heal the rifts and wounds, the anger spilled like bloodshed, the distrust sown like weeds.
Beyond any grudges, and broken hopes, and fears for the future that we harbor, help us glimpse a wider vision.
Encourage us to cling not to ideologies, but to one another,
in common peace,
in shared humanity.
Grounded in your Love which knows no end, may our hearts beat together in your song,
the rhythm of another new beginning.
On Monday, Governor Maggie Hassan (NH), issued this statement through her communications director: “The Governor believes that the federal government should halt acceptance of refugees from Syria until intelligence and defense officials can assure that the process for vetting all refugees, including those from Syria, is as strong as possible to ensure the safety of the American people.”
As a concerned citizen, as a Christian, as the New England Annual Conference chair of the Conference Board of Church & Society, I wrote this letter to the Governor, signed by twelve United Methodist clergy in New Hampshire. An abbreviated version will also be appearing in the Valley News in the next few days. The letter is being sent by mail, and by a link to this post, to the Office of the Governor.
Dear Governor Hassan,
As United Methodist faith leaders in the State of New Hampshire, we write to urge you to reconsider your position, which calls upon the federal government to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees within the United States and, by extension, our state.
We want to thank you for your deep concern for the safety of the residents of the U.S. and of New Hampshire in particular. As one of our elected leaders, it is clear that you take your responsibility to public safety seriously and thoughtfully, and you are to be commended for that.
There comes a time, however, when the cries and the suffering of our siblings in the human family cannot be ignored or denied; our response cannot be delayed or deferred. Recognizing the unity and interdependence of humanity, we are obligated to respond from the greatest parts of ourselves, not from the fears which would restrain us. These are the very fears on which terrorism seeks to prey.
It is fear that would check our compassion, fear that causes us to withhold our welcome. As a nation, our process for screening and evaluating those seeking amnesty as refugees already is thorough and arduous. Halting the resettlement of refugees to re-examine that process, at this moment when the need is so great, is a fear-based reaction that delays justice—and justice delayed too long becomes justice denied.
But fear does not have the final say. There is another way: the way of love. Love drives out fear. Loves sees the children and adults fleeing violent regimes as our own children, parents, siblings, friends. Love moves individuals to open their homes, schools to open their classrooms, faith communities to open their piles of donated clothing and household goods, and yes, government bodies to open their borders. Love refuses to sleep at night in the “Land of Opportunity” while huddled masses of people yearning to breathe free are held back behind miles of red tape. Love refuses to enter a season of celebration—of community, of family, of the presence of the Divine with us—while those most in need of that embrace are told there is no room for them at any inn.
As we prepare in our communities for even the possibility of receiving refugees, we find in fact that we are drawn closer to one another—faith communities, service organizations, public institutions, and individuals work collaboratively to extend hospitality and welcome in our homes, towns, and regions. The people of New Hampshire are strengthened by this work, not diminished. We are at our best, strongest, most resilient, most connected, and most compassionate selves when we are working together for the good of others.
Governor, we hope and we pray that you will continue your deep care for the well being of the people of New Hampshire, and will extend that same, unrelenting compassion and passion for justice to those who are not yet among us. We hope that you will be moved by love beyond the fears pressing around us, and will boldly lead our State in wise, thoughtful, open-hearted welcome to those refugees who seek, like all of us, to live in safety and peace.
Rev. Rebecca Girrell
chair, New England Conference Board of Church & Society
pastor, Lebanon United Methodist Church
Rev. Dr. David Abbott, New Hampshire District Superintendent,
New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
Pastor Marilyn Ayer
pastor, Chichester United Methodist Church
Rev. Sharon Baker
pastor, Moultonborogh United Methodist Church
Rev. Casey Collins
pastor, Milford United Methodist Church
Rev. Virginia Fryer
pastor, Bow Mills United Methodist Church
Rev. Tom Getchell-Lacey
pastor, First United Methodist Church of Gilford
Rev. Barbara Herber
United Methodist clergy, retired, Gilford
Rev. Philip Polhemus
United Methodist clergy, retired, Meredith
(and 3 other active and retired United Methodist clergy in the state of New Hampshire)
Signing this online version:
Rev. Geisa Matos-Machuca
pastor, First United Methodist Church, Manchester
I love Annual Conference.
No, really. I always have. I love gathering with laity and clergy from the New England region, reflecting together on what it means to be faithful United Methodists in this time and place, praying and worshipping together, caring for the life and order of our church together, laughing and crying and singing and venting– it can be a bit of a Holy Chaos, but usually one somehow imbued with the Spirit.
This year was different. This year was like nothing I have ever seen.
The theme of our Conference was “Circle of Hope,” but we did not spend much time united in a circle, and I’m sure there are not many who left Manchester NH with much hope on Saturday. Instead, I came home with baggy, bloodshot eyes from days of tears (and not just the usual ones at the memorial and ordination services) and a throat hoarse from the many, many times I jumped to my feet and exclaimed “point of order!”
It seems like my colleagues, friends, allies new and old, and justice-loving circle of Methodists did a lot of exclaiming. There was much to exclaim about. The universal consensus seems to be that the worship was good (it was– the memorial service may have been the best ever), and that the business was horrible. There may also be a consensus that Becca and her friends were too loud, too engaged, too emotional, too often at the microphones, dragging out the business and discussion and amendments during the frustrating conference. I’m getting a lot of that feedback, Monday-morning-quarterbacking style.
But looking back, I can’t think of anything I’d change. I didn’t do all the things, but I was at the mic a lot, and my friends and I together made up most of the speakers at this year’s session.
Together, here’s what we did (skip the bullet list if this gives you a headache– more reflections below):
- We objected when the rules about voting were changed verbally to be other than what they were in writing (and questioned why and how this happened), especially since this change would have made it easier to “bullet vote,” a politicized way of voting for fewer persons than there are slots on the ballot, to drive one name toward the top without lifting up any others– this also comes with the suggestion that maybe there are only one or two people in the entire Annual Conference that the voter feels would be adequate to serve on a General Conference Delegation. The rules were suspended eventually and the more just (pre-published) rule of having to vote for a full slate was reinstated.
- We insisted upon discussion rather than a simple rubber stamp when the Conference Camping and Retreat Ministry Team reported on the painful recommendation to close Covenant Hills in Vermont– a decision made without input from a single Vermont United Methodist nor a single youth. We successfully tabled the motion to close the camp, but it was brought back, and we spoke against the misrepresentation of data under which the motion was reconsidered, the vote re-taken, and the camp discontinued. We offered amendments– in vain– to the way proceeds from a hypothetical sale of a camp would be used (a totally unrelated resolution, we were assured), to try to assure that a majority of funds would be designated for some sort of camping or youth ministry in the area of the camp that was sold.
- We objected when the Committee on Nomination/Leadership was gutted down to only the members of the Cabinet (for non-UM speakers: the Bishop and District Superintendents– clergy who already hold the vast majority of the power in the conference, including decision-making power over where other clergy are appointed) and the lay leader and nine lay people selected by the lay leader. This is the team that would then choose the next lay leader, and fill all the memberships of teams and committees in the entire conference. This change was approved with some sneaky moves last year, but never came with any corresponding changes to the rules. So we insisted instead that the rules which were in place had to be followed and that therefore Nomination/Leadership had to be the work of the (primarily lay) people of the conference, with massive representation from people chosen by their own racial/ethnic caucus to represent them, and could contain no more than two of the nine District Superintendents. That team did some excellent and fast work by the way.
- We passed a handful of legislation seeking to make the church and the world more just. One piece of legislation will make the lay leader and associate lay leaders elected positions with open nominations, voted upon by only lay people. For some reason, more powerful clergy people objected even to this.
- When it appeared that we would not have enough time for all the business before us (this was the shortest ever agenda for our Annual Conference, in a year with more, and more emotionally laden [ie camp closure] business than usual), we moved to consider an extra session, but that was tabled until a set time to see how much progress we made. That time mark came and went, the motion for an extra session not brought back as promised, and then a motion was taken to adjourn. We objected to the broken promise. Eventually we– along with more than half of the room full of exhausted frustrated people– voted (twice) against adjourning while there was an open motion on the floor, because process matters.
And that’s the thing. Robert’s Rules exist to protect the body from bad process, and to make sure that there is space for the discussion that needs to happen, empowerment for the voices that need to be lifted. Not everyone can navigate the rules or pull their thoughts together quickly. I have had dozens of people thank me profusely for speaking up because they were intimidated or didn’t know how, for holding us accountable and making sure the process was transparent. Yep, that’s my liberal agenda right there! It didn’t get me elected to General Conference this time (first alternate to Jurisdictional Conference), and that’s okay. It is still the cause of justice.
I’ve also had people critique me, scowl at me, offer veiled and unveiled criticism of me for knowing and using the rules and for being passionate and emotional about the many issues I spoke to. These folks are mostly part of the power of the conference leadership, while the ones thanking me are mostly the shy or marginalized folks.
But if you ask me, being emotional is not a bad thing (although it’s often a mechanism used to undercut the otherwise valid points of people who are marginalized due to their race/gender/sexuality, ala the hysterical woman, the angry black woman, the crying sissy boy)– in fact, it is an important part of what it means to be United Methodist, in the tradition of having one’s heart strangely warmed. And knowing and using the rules of order doesn’t make one Machiavellian (especially when it comes at personal loss), but makes one a good keeper of the order of the church in pursuit of greater justice, which happens to be a pretty decent paraphrase of part of the role of an Ordained Elder.
So, in case there’s still confusion:
Every time someone sidesteps or over-steps the marginalized, every time someone stifles holy conversation or the ministry of lay persons, every time someone uses the order given us not to guide and protect but to circumvent and then consolidate power and privilege, every time someone allows prayer or a call to follow Jesus to be hurtful rather than to build up the body, I will be there– objecting, amending, opining, and advocating. Every. Time.
I took a vow to “lead the people of God… to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people.” I took a vow to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” I am not overly emotional, or seeking attention, or overly ambitious, or just being obnoxious. I am an Elder in The United Methodist Church.
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.
Here is the full text of the motion I made, as amended and adopted by the 2014 session of the New England Annual Conference:
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
One 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.