Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Kind of a Church Are We?

“Woe to you hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” 
Matthew 23:27-28

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

Crying Babies and the Government Shutdown

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might bless them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

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.