Tuesday, June 28, 2011


All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
II Timothy 3:16-17

The question recently came up in a Bible Study group: Can scripture passages be applied out of context? It is an interesting question, because it focuses on the very heart and soul of how we approach the biblical witness.

Since the Bible was written across many different centuries by many different writers, the original contexts are complex and varied. When we apply any biblical passage to a current situation, we are taking it out of historical context. Whether we are looking at a short phrase, or a verse, or a particular episode, or a book, or a testament, or the Bible as a whole, we are taking it out of historical context.

The goal of biblical interpretation is to determine what a particular passage means to us, nineteen hundred to three thousand years (give or take) after it was written. Which ideas or concepts or teachings are time-bound, and which ones have universal and timeless application? Understanding the original context can help us better understand what the passage might mean to us today.

The text does not change, but our understanding of it does.

At the same time, there is a long tradition of rabbinic interpretation which holds that even the smallest phrases can be taken out of context and stand alone. In the smallest detail, there is still a measure of inspiration from which we can learn.

The passage above provides a wonderful illustration of the relationship between context and meaning. It is sometimes used as “proof” that the whole of the Bible is literally and directly inspired by God, as if God dictated the text to the biblical writers. Among the many problems inherent in that interpretation is the fact that it was written long before what we call the “New Testament” was part of the Bible. Taken literally in context, it says that the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the “Old Testament” is inspired by God, and it makes no claim about the New Testament.

And then there is a larger point that transcends the historical context: the passage is about the purpose of studying scripture. The purpose is, or should be, to open ourselves to the message so that we will be “equipped for every good work.” That idea works, even out of context.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Rev. Amy DeLong: the Verdict

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Matthew 10:16

It’s over.

The strange and sorry and embarrassing trial of the Rev. Amy DeLong is over. And in the end it was a victory of sorts for the forces of light; a reminder that the moral arc of the universe does bend toward justice.

And congratulations to my friend and colleague, the Rev. Scott Campbell, who was Amy’s defense counsel, and the person most responsible for bringing a measure or grace to this strange episode.

Rev. DeLong was charged with two instances of violating the United Methodist Book of Discipline, by officiating at the Holy Union of a lesbian couple, and by being herself a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” She was found guilty on the first charge and innocent on the second, and she was sentenced to a 20 day suspension of her clergy credentials and required to write a reflection on how what she had done affected the clergy covenant.

The first part was a slam-dunk for the prosecution. Amy had reported performing the Holy Union in her annual report to the District Superintendent and the Bishop. And Scott stipulated the same in his opening statement.

One might think that the second part would also have been just as clear. Amy and her partner Val have a “domestic partnership” under Wisconsin law. They are in a committed same sex relationship. They have been honest about their love for each other.

But it’s not that simple. Under the Discipline, it’s the practice of homosexual sex that is banned and it is the practice which must be “self-avowed” for conviction. It is not surprising that Amy never said anything about that in her reports on the relationship she shares with Val.

At the trial, the counsel for “the church” tried to overcome this obstacle by asking Amy if she and Val ever had “genital” contact. Honest, that really happened. Amy’s response was that she would not share the intimate details of her relationship with someone whose only purpose was to do her harm.

So the jury of 13 clergypersons from the Wisconsin Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church found her “not guilty.”

On one level it defies common sense. And it seems like a bizarre technicality.

At a deeper level it represents the triumph of rabbinic argument. Traditionally, Christians have made great sport of rabbinic arguments, which often seem to us to be based on strange and arcane analyses of what appear to us to be insignificant details. But the genius of rabbinic reasoning is that God is in the details, that justice is sometimes found in the most obscure places.

One simple interpretation of that “not guilty” verdict would be that those who wrote those prohibitions into the Discipline a few decades ago left a loophole. A different interpretation might be that the loophole was itself one of the best examples of the Methodist soul: the gift of grace. In the loophole we see not a mistake, but what ought to be. It is the truth. Unintentional, to be sure, but still the truth.

To use a Scott Campbell phrase, it is “an open door.”

And maybe by exposing the whole policy for the embarrassing sham that it is, this verdict will bring us closer to a vision of grace and truth that represents real faithfulness.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where Are the Jobs?

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

“And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’

“When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Matthew 20:1-16

The traditional interpretation of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is that it is about the grace of God. It is also about what Luke presents as “the great reversal,” the idea that in the Kingdom of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first; the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down.

But at its most basic level, it is a story about jobs and employment.

In his commentary on this passage, William Barclay observes, “There is nothing more tragic in this world than a man who is unemployed, a man whose talents are rusting in idleness because there is nothing for him to do.” He notes that a great teacher used to say that the saddest words in all of Shakespeare’s plays are the words: “Othello’s occupation’s gone.” Workers stood idle in the market place in the late afternoon because no one had hired them, and in his compassion the owner of the vineyard hired them “because he could not bear to see them idle.”

The owner agreed to pay the first workers at the prevailing rate for a day’s labor. Those hired later in the morning were simply told that they would be paid a fair wage. And those hired at the end of the day were given no promise.

But in the end each of the worker’s was paid for a full day. Barclay writes, “The master well knew that 4p a day was no great wage; he well knew that, if they went home with less, there would be a worried wife and hungry children.”

Barclay concludes that the parable sets forth “two great truths which are the very charter of every working man—the right of every man to work and the right of every man to a living wage for his work.”

In his time, in the middle of the last century, William Barclay was the standard for biblical commentary. He seldom broke new ground, but he presented the biblical truths with simple and forceful clarity. His was the consensus of traditional Christian opinion.

In our time, I’m not sure that we have consensus on the two great truths of the parable:
1. The right of every man [person] to work.
2. And the right of every man [person] to a living wage.

Economists tell us that the recession ended almost two years ago. But where are the jobs? And more to the point, where are the jobs that pay a living wage? Some of the jobs have been lost to globalization, others have been lost due to a mis-match between the skills of unemployed workers and the training needed in new technologies, but there are other factors.

In the middle of the last century, when William Barclay wrote his commentaries, the pain of a recession was absorbed in three ways: lost profits, lost productivity and lost jobs. Today we still have those three categories of impact, but approximately two-thirds of the losses are absorbed in unemployment.

Half a century ago, some workers were let go, and those who remained typically did less work, resulting in less productivity and lower profits. Today, the workers who remain find themselves doing more work to make up for those who were laid off. And workers have responded by “doing more with less” and increasing productivity. This increased productivity has not resulted in higher wages, but in higher profits.

Economists will tell us that corporations have learned to manage the downturns more efficiently. But at least part of it is because we no longer have a consensus that people have a right to work and a right to a living wage.

These are not simple issues, but they are issues that should deeply concern us.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Exactly Enough

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Luke 9:57-62

A friend told me about hearing a sermon on this passage by a United Methodist bishop. In the sermon, pastors were admonished to follow Jesus by going where the resident bishop wants to send them. (We’ll leave aside the question of who wants to volunteer to explain to the Bishop that he/she is not Jesus.)

The Bishop affirmed that when we follow Jesus our needs will be taken care of, and illustrated that affirmation with a story about a clergy couple serving very successfully in a church. The District Superintendent and the Bishop assumed that this couple would serve there until retirement. But they also thought that these two pastors would be a wonderful fit for two churches that needed new pastors. And whenever they considered the needs of these two churches, they could not help coming back to this clergy couple. Eventually they asked the two pastors to move and amazingly, they said yes!

Later, one of those pastors called the Bishop to report on their experience:

"Bishop, just a week or two before you called us to move, we sat down with our kids at the end of their semesters at college and said, 'You have to quit college for a year. We're out of money... We're sorry. There's no choice.' But Bishop, in the new churches where we're going, the salaries are higher and there's EXACTLY ENOUGH MORE to allow them to keep going in school!”

“EXACTLY ENOUGH!" The Bishop repeated the phrase for emphasis, and then said:

"You see, when we open our hearts to follow Jesus to where we're called, our needs are taken care of!"

So Jesus “has nowhere to lay his head,” but if we follow him (by doing what the Bishop asks) then we will have enough money to pay for our children’s college education.

One of the most cherished misunderstandings of biblical faith is the doctrine of “Special Providence.” We want to believe that God loves us more and protects us more than others. Special Providence promises that God cares for me in a special and unique way. Of course, that is true in the sense that each of us has a unique experience of God’s care. But as Jesus said, the sun shines and the rain falls, on the just and the unjust, and God’s love is there for everyone.

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Straining Gnats and Swallowing Camels

“Woe to you, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!"
Matthew 23:23-24

This week at our United Methodist Annual Conference, our clergy session included the now annual call to faithfulness and accountability from a large number of our retired clergy. They are impatient with our perverse refusal to move forward toward the full inclusion of our GLBT sisters and brothers, particularly in terms of clergy ordination and same sex marriage.

Yes, there are those pesky six passages (some claim the number is seven, and I have heard another claim of ten, but the ten are a huge stretch), but I cannot help the feeling that we are straining out gnats and swallowing camels, and honestly, it’s embarrassing.

Our Bishop, whom I believe to be a very decent and faithful Christian, was counseling patience and restraint, and reminding us that we are not all of the same mind on this, and we have to think of the whole church. A friend asked, “Have they ever read ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’? I don’t know how to ask that question without sounding unpleasant, but I’d just like to know.” And for those of us who can remember, the rhetoric of patience is precisely what we heard from cautious church leaders during the Civil Rights movement of the late fifties and sixties.

In the Civil Rights era, as Methodists we had our share of segregationists as well as a large number of those who cautioned against rapid change, but our church leadership was almost unanimously on the right side of history. Sadly, that is not the case in the Methodist Church today. We have some prophetic leaders. We even have some prophetic Bishops. But we have way too many on the side of the status quo.

And it’s just embarrassing.

As a United Methodist minister, I am not permitted to marry same sex couples, or even to bless their relationships. I can bless an atomic bomb. I can bless family pets and homes. I can bless baseball games and graduations. But I cannot bless the loving relationship of two persons of the same sex.

At our clergy session many politely stated that this was a place where they would follow their consciences rather than the Book of Discipline.

In the midst of this there was a wonderful moment of grace.

A colleague stood up and asked a simple question. He asked it, not to stir debate or controversy, but simply because he is a pastor with a heart for his people.

He began by saying that as a conservative he was concerned about the Scriptures. “But,” he said, “I have several lesbian couples in my church and I am shaking in my shoes that one of those couples is going to ask me to marry them. And my question to you, Bishop, is, will I be brought up on charges?”

What this pastor was asking was, if I am faithful in my role as pastor to these couples, will I find myself in a church trial charging that I have disobeyed the Discipline of the church? It was so simply and beautifully put by someone who was not thinking about the church politics, but only about the people. Sadly, the answer was (as I knew) that if someone reports his actions to the Bishop, he will face some sort of disciplinary response.

Opponents of inclusion and equality will often tell me that this is not like the Civil Rights movement. The discrimination, they say, is not the same and the issues are totally different. Sometimes they will tell me that sexual orientation is a choice. (But they usually won’t give me a chance to ask, “When did you decide you were a heterosexual? Was it a difficult choice? How did you decide?”) Almost always, they will conclude by assuring me that they are in favor of Civil Rights.

They say that the army is always prepared to win the last war and seldom prepared for the next one. In the church we are certain about the last great issue, but find it hard to commit on the next one.

Enough already. It’s time to move on. We need to forget the church politics and concentrate on the people. Pastors need to be pastors.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thinking about Anthony Weiner

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Matthew 5:27-28

Anthony Weiner has had a very bad two weeks.

On the upside, he looks way better bare chested than anyone would have guessed. I thought he was just skinny. He’s got some muscle.

Unfortunately for Mr. Weiner, that’s the end of the good news.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, called for an ethics investigation into his conduct. “I am deeply disappointed and saddened about this situation,” she said. That’s what she said publicly. I would love to hear the private conversations.

Political scandals in America are media driven. It’s not so much about right and wrong as about what appears right and wrong. Eliot Spitzer lost his job for consorting with prostitutes, but David Vitter is still at work. John Ensign and John Edwards are both in deep trouble, not for having affairs, but for trying to cover them up. Larry Craig resigned (as far as the public story goes) for playing footsie with an undercover cop. Newt Gingrich managed to get Bill Clinton impeached (but not convicted) while he (Gingrich) was having an affair. And what exactly did Christopher Lee do? Go figure.

There is always lots of posturing about how “the media” treats conservatives and liberals differently. Someone always claims a “double standard.” One guy loses his job and another guy just marries his mistress and moves on.

Of course there is something they all have in common. They are all guys. Even Jimmy Carter admitted to “lusting in his heart.”

Jesus was called the “Son of David,” but in terms of sexual ethics they were not even distant cousins. David had a thousand wives and a thousand concubines and still couldn’t stop himself from going after the (married) girl next door. And then Jesus says he was wrong from the first time he looked.

When I was in seminary, Dr. Walter Muelder, who was Dean of the School of Theology and a Professor of Christian Social Ethics, noted in his discussion of the ethics of Jesus that he would not ask for a show of hands for those who had violated the commandment not to “look at a woman with lust.” He allowed us to infer that even our very proper dean had done that. At the time, this came under the heading of way too much information.

It is not easy for us to cultivate healthy attitudes toward sex. It is not easy for Americans, and considering the evidence, it is apparently harder for men than women. Or maybe men don’t try as hard.

Every day in a thousand different ways, we prove that we are uncomfortable with our bodies and uncomfortable with our sexuality. The positive result of that discomfort is that most of us are not likely to post indiscreet photos online. The negative consequence is that for some of us, the discomfort with our bodies and with our sexuality will find expression in ways that are damaging and destructive.

The Anthony Weiner episode will launch a thousand jokes. But it really merits some serious reflection.