Monday, February 24, 2014

Jesus Called It an Abomination

A servant cannot serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
Luke 16:13-15

The 85 richest people in the world have about the same amount of money as the poorest 3.5 billion people. Jon Stewart listened intently as a news clip played, explaining that the total wealth of half the world’s population was barely as much as the richest 85 people.

“JESUS CHRIST!” he exclaimed, sounding as if he could not help himself. And then he paused before finishing the sentence, “. . . would be very unhappy.”

Yes, Jesus would be very unhappy.

According to the Gospel record, Jesus used the word “abomination” exactly once. Wealth, he said, is “prized by human beings,” but it is “an abomination in the sight of God.” After that exchange he went on to tell the parable of the rich man and the poor man (Luke 16:19-31) and he made it clear in the parable that the real problem was the dramatic inequality between the two. As far as we know, the rich man did not get his money dishonestly. The problem was simply that he had so much and the poor man had so little.

The poor man “longed to satisfy his hunger with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table,” but he got nothing.

Pope Francis expressed a similar sentiment when he commented on the failure of “trickle down” economics. “The promise,” he said, “was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger and nothing ever comes out for the poor.”

Luke says that when Jesus talked about wealth and poverty, the wealthy people “ridiculed him.” The same thing happened to Pope Francis. The same pundits and commentators who were totally on board with Roman Catholic teachings on gay rights and abortion were quick to say that the pope should stick to spiritual matters. One can only assume that they have never read the Gospels.

In one sense, the pope’s critics are right. The economic problem is symptomatic of a deeper spiritual problem. It isn’t about economics as much as it is about theology. Jesus said that we cannot worship wealth if we want to worship God. The worship of wealth is idolatrous. In our time the worship of wealth is buttressed by the conviction that a free market will provide a fair and just distribution of wealth and income. We believe that the distribution is fair because it is determined by the market. And we know that the market is fair. We “know” this even though the numbers tell us that it isn’t fair at all.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Trials and Temptations

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:1-3

On January 15, the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Scott Jones began his address to the clergy of the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church by asking them to focus on two questions:

“How do we live in the tension of upholding our covenant to follow and uphold the discipline of the United Methodist Church while disagreeing with some positions of the Discipline?” and “How do we respond with grace and love, both corporately and personally, when a colleague decides she/he can no longer live within that covenant?”

The answers, it turns out, are simpler than the questions. First, we need to follow the Discipline. And second, if we cannot uphold the Discipline then we need to leave. This is what he calls "Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace." Apparently, we can only maintain our “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” by continuing to discriminate against our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

When the bishop talks about upholding the Discipline, he doesn’t really mean the whole Discipline. He means the part of the Discipline that discriminates against LGBTQ persons. And when he talks about covenant, he doesn’t really mean the whole of the clergy covenant. He means the part of the covenant that relates to upholding the Discipline.

The Discipline has always been a flawed document. In spite of John Wesley’s crusade against slavery, the Discipline condoned slavery until 1844. It condoned segregation and even created a segregated system of jurisdictions until 1968. The Discipline did not include women in ordained ministry until the middle of the twentieth century. The Discipline is revised every four years. Most of the time those revisions are improvements. But the Discipline is not a sacred document. As in the initial case of slavery, the Discipline has sometimes simply codified the prejudices of the fallible human beings who wrote it.

In our present situation we have two basic problems with the Discipline. The first is that it discriminates against LGBTQ persons. It says that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” it bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals from the ordained ministry,” and it prohibits clergy for officiating at same gender weddings or unions. The second problem compounds the first by making it a “chargeable offense” for clergy to bless same gender unions or preside at same gender weddings.

The Discipline endorses the teaching of evolution and finds in it no threat to our theology. But it provides no penalty for those who disagree. If a pastor wants to preach in favor of creationism, or tries to get creationism introduced into the local school curriculum, or becomes a candidate for the school committee on a creationist platform, there is no penalty. If presiding at same-sex weddings were not a chargeable offense, we would be having a very different discussion.

Similarly, the practice of homosexuality is a chargeable offense for clergy. Theoretically an unmarried heterosexual clergy person could be removed from the ordained ministry for having sex with his or her partner before they were married, but to the best of my knowledge, that has never happened.

In my favorite section of the bishop’s address, he writes:

Someone asked me “Bishop, what if 100 of us do same-gender unions?” My answer is this: “Then there will be 100 suspensions from ministry during the supervisory response followed by 100 trials.” . . . . But you should know that holding a trial is a major drain on our leadership and resources. In addition to the distraction from other priorities and the conflict they cause within the conference, trials are expensive. I am told that some conferences spend $100,000 on just one trial, and that the defendant may be spending up to $50,000 of personal money. Yet, not to hold a trial when a chargeable offense occurs and a just resolution cannot be achieved is to violate our United Methodist identity.

First, it’s just plain crazy to think that it would be worth $10 million to bring those clergy to trial. But the money is only a small part of the total cost. He talks about the “distraction from other priorities,” but still misses the larger point. Trials are a public relations disaster. They make us look stupid and medieval.

And look at that last sentence again.

“Not to hold a trial” would “violate our United Methodist identity.” Seriously. That’s our identity? Not grace? Or love? Or practical Christianity? What an inspirational message the bishop offered to the clergy of the Great Plains Conference: Our sacred covenant is with the Discipline and our identity is preserved by clergy trials to uphold that Discipline.

Some people think that “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” is too simplistic, but it’s way better than “Trials ‘R’ Us.”