Thursday, November 21, 2013
In my childhood, the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors held a special place. The idea that his jealous brothers would throw him into a pit and then sell him into slavery was terrifying. But in the end, Joseph came out on top. He rose from slavery to be a trusted advisor to Pharaoh and a powerful leader in Egypt. He warned of a coming famine and insisted that the country should store up grain to get them through the shortfall. He saved Egypt from catastrophe, and because Egypt was able to help other nations, he basically saved the world.
Much later I learned that his “coat of many colors” was a mistranslation. What his parents really gave him was a coat “with sleeves.” The sleeves were a big deal, but a coat with sleeves is not nearly as evocative as a coat of many colors, which sounds like a rainbow flag made into a coat.
But it is still a great story. Even after we look closely and realize that Joseph did plenty to annoy his brothers, and make allowances for the unfairness of his parents’ favoritism.
The best part of the story is the ending, when his brothers come to Egypt in the midst of famine looking for food. They find out that Joseph, the brother they sold into slavery, is in charge of the disposition of the grain they need and they are terrified. They beg forgiveness and fear the worst, but Joseph is more than ready to forgive.
He has his own interpretation of what happened. His brothers intended to do him harm, but God intended that good should come out of it. “So have no fear,” says Joseph, “I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” It is a wonderful moment of grace.
I have been meditating on this story as I think about the church trial this week in Pennsylvania. Rev. Frank Schaefer’s clergy brothers and sisters did not sell him into slavery for celebrating the same sex wedding of his son, but they did throw him into a (metaphorical) pit. Bishop Peggy Johnson of Eastern Pennsylvania seemed intent on making sure the pit was a deep one with a letter which seemed to clearly indicate her intent to uphold the actions of the trial court.
But that was not the last word.
Joseph’s gracious declaration that by God’s grace an evil intent had led to a good result came back to me as I read a pastoral letter from Bishop Sally Dyck of Illinois. It is an impassioned plea for love and inclusion.
A colleague called it too little and too late, but I don’t think so.
The trial has been a public relations disaster. We don’t need secular critics to show the world that Christians (United Methodist Christians) can be petty, judgmental, and toxic, we are eager to do it ourselves. Our Wesleyan theology, which has always been more about grace than judgment, was turned upside down. And our claims of “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.”, look foolish and hypocritical.
But I see hope.
I see hope in the outrage of folks who were once silent and can no longer keep still about a policy that is self-destructive, anti-Christian and just plain hateful in its implementation. I see hope in the bishops who have been silent for so long, and are now speaking out.
At the end of his autobiography, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. writes:
"I am hopeful. By this, I mean that hope, as opposed to cynicism and despair, is the sole precondition for a new and better life. Realism demands pessimism. But hope demands that we take a dark view of the present only because we hold a bright view of the future, and hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible."
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
I John 4:16-21
As soon as we hear the words, “Church Trial,” we know we are in a strange place. It echoes of the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. In a time when our culture is increasingly secular, this is one more piece of evidence that the church is irrelevant at best and toxic at worst.
As United Methodists, we tend to think of ourselves as fairly modern folk. We are practical and pragmatic and down to earth. We’re not strong on doctrine, but we are big on tolerance. The John Wesley theme verse is “God is love.” We believe in grace over judgment. We build hospitals and universities. Our slogan is “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” We like to think that we are inclusive.
So the very idea of a church trial sounds wrong to us.
But here we are. The Rev. Frank Schaefer was convicted this week of officiating at the wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts in 2007. We are in the news all over the place. And that’s not a good thing.
I won’t go into the odd structure of church polity and unlikely coalitions that has led us to this sad spot, but this is where we are and we need to find a way out.
Few of us were surprised when the jury of thirteen clergy from Eastern Pennsylvania found Rev. Schaefer guilty of violating the Discipline by officiating at the wedding. But most of us were shocked by the penalty. He will be suspended for thirty days. That in itself is not a big deal. But this is how Bishop Peggy Johnson states what happens after the suspension:
“If at the end of 30 days, Rev. Schaefer has determined that he cannot uphold the Church’s Discipline in its entirety, he must surrender his credentials.”
If it were not so serious, it would really be quite amusing. If you have read even part of the Book of Discipline, then you already know that there is no one who “uphold(s) the Church’s Discipline it its entirety.” There is a lot in there. The Discipline supports gun control, unions and collective bargaining, a woman’s right to an abortion, and the United Nations. It is against war, gambling, torture, and the death penalty. Beyond the big and controversial issues, there are hundreds of rules about how we do our business. Most of us can find something in there that we do not want to “uphold.”
But of course they don’t care whether he supports the Discipline in its entirety. They only care about one thing. Will he promise not to celebrate another same sex wedding?
The great Methodist preacher of the mid-twentieth century Henry Hitt Crane used to call this “majoring in the minors.”
Do we really believe excluding gay people is the big issue of our time? Is this where Christian faith rises or falls?
I often get smiles and snickers when I explain the United Methodist position on gambling. And it is hard to see the connection between the social harm of gambling addictions and a church raffle. But at least we don’t conduct any church trials over raffles.
I used to think that maybe in the not too distant future we would look back on all of this foolishness and have a good laugh. But that’s not going to happen. When we look back we will be in tears. We will weep for the lives we have damaged, the people we have hurt, and the incalculable damage we have done to our Christian witness.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
In October of 1960 Melvin Talbert was a seminary student in Atlanta, Georgia, and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Atlanta to participate with the students in the first sit-in demonstrations in the city, and he was arrested with them. They spent three days and three nights together in a jail cell. Talbert said that event was one of the formative experiences of his life.
This past October, Bishop Talbert traveled from his home in Nashville to Center Point, Alabama, near Birmingham, to celebrate the wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. The two men were legally married in Washington, D.C., but they wanted a Christian wedding. And they asked Bishop Talbert to officiate because of his support for the rights of LGBT persons, especially within the United Methodist Church.
For Bishop Talbert, the sit-in and the wedding are related. In both cases it is about civil rights.
Before he went to Alabama to preside at the wedding, Bishop Talbert notified Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference, of his plans. She responded by requesting that he not perform the ceremony in the area where she serves. She consulted with Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Wenner convened the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops. The Executive Committee issued a statement requesting that Bishop Talbert not officiate at the wedding. They reminded Bishop Talbert that, “The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline.” They also pointed out that, "Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies" are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church (¶2702.1.b).
There are deep ironies in this.
It is not that long ago that this same Book of Discipline, to which Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett give allegiance, prevented women from being ordained, let alone becoming bishops in the church.
The Discipline is an imperfect evolving document. It did not condemn slavery until 1844, when what was then the “Methodist Episcopal Church” split and the “Methodist Episcopal Church South” became a separate denomination, which tolerated the institution of slavery. When the two denominations reunited in 1939, provision was made for a separate “Central Conference,” where African-American churches were segregated from white churches. And that segregation was approved until 1968.
The Discipline is revised every four years at what we call a “General Conference” that brings together representatives from United Methodist conferences around the world. The language on homosexuality will change soon. Maybe in 2016. Probably no later than 2020.
As the Council of Bishops likes to remind us, we are a world wide church. On this issue the African bishops stand against any change because they fear that if they do not maintain a strong opposition to homosexuality it will put them at a disadvantage in their cultural struggles with Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. If the church is to hold together there will have to be some sort of compromise that allows for the different cultural realities in Africa and North America while still affirming basic human rights.
In the meantime, the Council of Bishops, after meeting this week, called on Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett to file charges against Bishop Talbert.
In explaining their actions, the bishops said that, “The purpose of the Council of Bishops is to lead the church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Did anyone laugh at the irony of that statement? How can we transform the world if we cannot transform the church? It would be more accurate to say that their purpose is to lead the church in maintaining the status quo. And let’s be honest, making disciples of Jesus Christ and maintaining the status quo are mutually exclusive.
The bishops did take a step forward by publicly acknowledging that the church is not of one mind on this issue, and that the Council of Bishops is not of one mind. They go on to note that “pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them.” What they fail to say is that the pain is not equal. The pain felt by those who are excluded is not the same as the pain felt by those who want to do the excluding and feel like their ability to exclude is being eroded.
After telling the parable of the widow who pleads for justice from an unjust judge, Jesus asks, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” Bishop Talbert lived out that parable when he was arrested with Dr. King, and he has lived it out again more than fifty years later in confronting his colleagues on the Council of Bishops. The good news is that ultimately, he knows how the story will end.
The complete statement from the Council of Bishops is printed below:
THE COUNCIL OF BISHOPS
On October 26, 2013, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert conducted a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same-gender couple in Center Point, Alabama. Prior to October 26, 2013 Bishop Talbert advised Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference, of his intention. Bishop Wallace-Padgett requested that Bishop Talbert not perform the ceremony in the area in which she serves. After conversation with Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, engaged the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops in a discussion about the proposed action. On October 21, 2013, the Executive Committee issued a statement requesting Bishop Talbert not to perform the ceremony in Bishop Wallace-Padgett’s area.
They said, in part,
“The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline. "Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies" are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church (¶2702.1.b).
The actions of Bishop Talbert raise considerable concerns and have stimulated much conversation, reflection, and prayer among the members of the Council of Bishops. The Council recognizes the deep divisions and pain in our church over these issues. United Methodists are not of one mind, and followers of Christ and people of conscience hold conflicting views. These issues require continuing honest and respectful conversation as well as prayer throughout the church.
The purpose of the Council of Bishops is to lead the church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To that end, bishops are also required to “uphold the discipline and order of the Church…..and to share with other bishops in the oversight of the whole church.” (Para 403.1.f) When there are violations of the Book of Discipline, a response is required. However, the General Conference has given the Council of Bishops limited authority for the task of holding one another accountable. Such authority and accountability resides in the College of Bishops and the Jurisdiction or Central Conference Committees on Episcopacy. (Paragraph 413.and Paragraph 403.1.f)
Therefore, the Council of Bishops, after much prayer and conversation, takes the following actions:
We acknowledge that we, the Council of Bishops, and the Church are not of one mind in matters of human sexuality; pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them. We express our pastoral concern and care for all people.
We affirm the October 21, 2013 action of the Executive Committee which requested that Bishop Talbert not conduct a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same gender couple in the North Alabama area.
We respectfully request that Bishop Wenner, President of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Resident Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, address the action of Bishop Talbert and file a complaint under the provisions of Paragraph 413 for undermining the ministry of a colleague (Paragraph 2702.1f) and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple (Paragraph 2702.1b) within the bounds of the North Alabama Conference.
We recommend that the Executive Committee initiate a task force to lead honest and respectful conversations regarding human sexuality, race and gender in a world-wide perspective in our shared commitment to clear theological understanding of the mission and polity of the United Methodist Church.
As a Council of Bishops, we affirm the theological task articulated in the Book of Discipline (Paragraph 105, page 87). “United Methodists as a diverse people continue to strive for consensus in understanding the gospel. In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God. Our task is to articulate a vision in a way that will draw us together as a people in Mission….. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God.”
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Pastor Frank Schaefer of the Zion United Methodist Church in Iona, Pennsylvania will go on trial next month for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding in Massachusetts six years ago. His actions almost slipped past the six year statute of limitations which the United Methodist Church has for such offenses, but a parishioner filed charges just before the clock ran out.
Our United Methodist Discipline (a book of by-laws) prohibits pastors from officiating at same sex marriages or blessing same sex relationships.
This isn’t the Inquisition. The worst case scenario for Pastor Frank is that he will lose his clergy credentials. But it’s bad enough.
Over the past few weeks, many of my colleagues have posted Facebook links to vigils for Pastor Frank or stories about the church trial. In response, someone asked, “What kind of a church puts people on trial?"
And that is the key question. What kind of a church are we? Or maybe more accurately, what kind of a church do we look like?
I could give a long explanation about United Methodist polity and the function of church trials in protecting the rights of clergy from overzealous bishops and district superintendents, but that really isn’t the point.
Pastor Frank’s son Tim came out in 2000, after contemplating suicide because his years of praying had not changed his sexuality, and he feared that he would be ostracized by his family and his faith community. Rev. Schaefer chose to affirm his son by officiating at his wedding, and now he is on trial for that.
As the political commentators like to say, the optics are not good.
Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, an outspoken opponent of equal marriage, told a reporter, “Sadly, our church is once again being led down the path of a costly and divisive trial by a pastor who chose to disregard the prayerful and consistent teaching of our church that Christian marriage is the holy union of one man and one woman. As a father, I share Rev. Schaefer’s desire to affirm his son, but there are ways of doing so that do not require a pastor to break the Discipline and the covenant that all United Methodist pastors agree to uphold.”
I can only imagine what a wonderful affirmation that would be.
Even if we don’t care about the civil rights issues, and even if we assume that Tim Schaefer would have gotten over his disappointment if his father had refused to officiate at his wedding, this would still be very bad.
I am a United Methodist for lots of very good reasons. I believe in John Wesley’s theology of grace and his emphasis on practical spirituality. But this is the church at its worst. It makes us look stupid or irrelevant, or both.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
One Sunday morning, in my first year out of seminary, my Sunday sermon was interrupted by a crying baby. I paused and waited for the noise to subside. Almost as soon as I began to speak, the crying started up again. I looked over in annoyance, hoping that look would convince the mom to take her little one to the nursery. After a third interruption, I stopped and looked over and said, politely I thought, that we had a nursery and maybe the little one would be better off there.
After worship Elaine and I went to lunch with Percy and Mary Patriquin. They took us to lunch every Sunday for the two years we were in Mansfield. Their son was a Methodist minister teaching at a college in the mid-west, and they felt a special need to care for young clergy. At those lunches we talked about all sorts of things, but they never ever talked about church business, except after the crying baby incident.
Mary leaned across the table and spoke softly. “I remember years ago when Mr. Jones was the minister, there was a baby crying in church and the mother was so embarrassed she got up to leave, and he said, ‘You don’t have to leave, I have four children at home. If I can’t preach over one baby, then I just can’t preach.’ And so she sat back down and he continued his sermon.” Mary sat back in her seat and smiled. “So,” she said, “what shall we have for dinner?”
I didn’t much care what the preacher with the four kids said, but Mary’s gentle reproach was compelling. At the age of eighty, she still empathized with the young mom. Mary passed away many years ago, but whenever a baby cries in worship, I think of her.
I thought of Mary Patriquin when I read a recent blog about crying babies in church. The writer told of attending a conference where the speaker interrupted his sermon to ask that a noisy infant be taken out of the sanctuary. The blogger was of the opinion that “the crying baby test” separated preachers from performers. Those who cannot tolerate the occasional crying infant are not really preachers; they are performers.
My own view is that preaching is always a performance. It is more than a performance, of course, but a good performance brings the message alive.
This morning I find myself reflecting on how odd it is that we should worry about babies crying in church, when they are tired, or bored, or hungry, or just want to be noticed.
Hungry babies in church are inconvenient. But this morning I am thinking about hungry babies who have no food. One of the casualties of the government shutdown is the program for Women, Infants and Children known as WIC. According to an article by Clare O’Connor, a staff writer for Forbes Magazine, 9 million moms and babies are at risk across the country.
She quotes Mary Saunders, who oversees the WIC program for Chicago and Cook County:
“America is not realizing how many low-income pregnant women and children we have in this country,” she said. “They have no safety net. These women are trying to have a healthy pregnancy, and they’re asking, ‘how am I going to feed my family?’ It’s a terrifying moment, and it’s beyond my control. At our agency, we have no cushion. If our funding stream stops we will temporarily suspend service.”
Judie Fedie, a staffer in Wisconsin, says that she is worried about many things, but at the top of the list is support for women who are breastfeeding. A can of formula costs $15 in her area and she worries that if women have trouble breastfeeding, they will have to make some painful choices. Fedie explains, “Small town America doesn’t have a lot of these resources,” she said. “Our WIC clinics are the first places women will go. We have hospital breast pumps here. We have support for babies with special needs. These aren’t available easily in some communities.”
“There are health consequences when mothers cannot provide food and nutrition for their kids,” said Rev. Douglas Greenaway of the National WIC Association, a non-profit. “There’ll be no infant formula and no breastfeeding support. If the baby doesn’t latch, that’s it.”
The blog I mentioned earlier argued that if one is a preacher rather than a performer, he or she should be able to preach in spite of the occasional crying baby. But there are other babies crying, beyond our sanctuaries, and their cries really should interrupt our preaching.
Monday, September 16, 2013
God has made us ministers of a new covenant,not of letter but of spirit;
for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.
II Corinthians 3:6
Recently, a woman from Georgia wrote a letter to United Methodist Insight, an online journal of news and commentary, to protest the promotion of literalism in United Methodist Churches. In the letter, she writes:
As Methodists, we vow to support the Methodist Church. Doesn't that support include teaching and preaching that which is in harmony with the Discipline and John Wesley's teaching? Why aren't preachers who call Holy Scriptures the Word of God and who dismiss reason brought before the Judicial Council? I can understand members being confused and mistakenly calling The Bible The Word of God and promoting the litany "The Word of God for the People of God. Praise be to God" after Bible readings. I can't understand why the clergy either remains silent or actively encourages those statements and ideas.
She contends that calling the Bible “the Word of God” and “dismissing reason is destroying the very core of Methodism.” Literalism, she argues, “leads to a deep pit of ignorance and radicalism.”
As any student of the Bible knows, from a biblical perspective, the biggest problem with literalism is not that it dismisses reason, (although that can be a huge problem) but that it is unbiblical. When the biblical writers speak of other passages in the Bible, they interpret them symbolically and theologically rather than literally. The Bible is about meaning; not history or science. The Bible is about deep things of the spirit, and literalism means swimming in the shallow end of the pool.
The woman from Georgia is clearly right in her basic points. Literalism is a menace. And reason is “the very core of Methodism.” The great Methodist preachers of the twentieth century, Henry Hitt Crane, Ernest Freemont Tittle, Harold Bosley, Halford Luccock, and a host of others, would be appalled to see the ways in which biblical literalism has displaced reason in many of our United Methodist churches, and in Protestantism generally.
Her letter also contains a mistake which is highly instructive; one which pastors and worship leaders should take seriously.
She assumes that preachers who call the Bible “the Word of God” are endorsing biblical literalism. But when we call the Bible the Word of God, we do not mean that it is literally “the words of God.” We mean that it is inspired.
Ironically, our letter writer takes the “Word of God” statement literally, when it is meant to be taken symbolically.
When the liturgist concludes the reading of scripture and says, “The Word of God for the people of God,” and the congregation responds by saying, “Thanks be to God,” that is not an affirmation of biblical literalism. But the problem is that to many of those in the congregation it sounds like an endorsement of biblical literalism.
For many years I did not believe this. I was sure that “everybody” knew that when we used that litany we were giving thanks for the inspiration of the Bible, not declaring it to be inerrant or meant as “literal” truth.
Eventually on a study retreat a colleague convinced of what my wife, Elaine, had been telling me for decades: “People don’t think that means what you think it means.”
Now, after the Bible is read, the leader says, “As we hear what the Spirit says to the church,” and the people respond, “May our hearts be open.”
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Last night I was at an emergency meeting for Project Outreach, a community service organization based at The Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church in Providence. Project Outreach is the largest single food distribution program in Rhode Island. In a typical month they distribute over 20,000 pounds of food to 450 unduplicated families. This includes 1400 individuals and about 200 visits per week. In addition to food distribution, Project Outreach also works with partners to provide medical care, job training, life skills, and advocacy.
The meeting, like many of our meetings, was focused on money. Compared to the work that gets done and the people who are helped, the budget is tiny, less than $75,000 per year. But raising money is never easy and raising money to feed poor people is particularly challenging, and we are behind. Way behind. Reluctantly, we had to make reductions in our staffing. The reductions will not balance the budget, but they will slow the flow of red ink.
This morning, I received an urgent message from Bread for the World, alerting me to a plan now before congress to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, by $40 billion over the next decade.
According to Bread for the World, this will mean:
- Across the country, 2 to 4 million adults without dependents would lose benefits. SNAP already has strict work requirements but this proposal would require individuals to find work at times when jobs are scarce.
- Nearly 2 million more people, primarily seniors and those in low-income working families, would lose benefits due to changes in eligibility rules.
- In 2011, private churches and charities provided approximately $4 billion in food assistance, compared to $98 billion provided by federal nutrition programs. Churches and charities would have to nearly double their current food assistance to make up the difference.
Food Stamps are, almost literally, the best thing since sliced bread.
But beyond all of that, for Christians this is a no-brainer.
Matthew tells us that in one of his last public appearances before his crucifixion, Jesus told a parable of judgment. The message was simple. We will meet Christ in “the least of these,” the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. And we will be judged by how we treat those who are suffering.
The House of Representatives will vote soon. If you want to influence that vote you can go to the Bread for the World website and use their convenient link to contact your representative.