Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope Francis and John Wesley

Pope Francis addressing a joint session of Congress 

"But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”
John Wesley

I love Pope Francis.

He is humble and brilliant, simple and profound, prophetic and brave, and he does not seem to care how others may judge him. He is faithful to the Gospel in such open and obvious ways that one can never doubt his passion and commitment.

Insofar as a pope can reject the trappings of his office, he does. He seems to have little patience with pomp and circumstance. He has great respect for the office he holds, and he seems to care deeply about his responsibilities as a faith leader, but part of that responsibility involves the embrace of his own humanity as a common bond with others. 

I know we disagree about many things: abortion, same sex marriage, and the role of women in the church come immediately to mind. Those are not small disagreements. In part, I accept those differences because I just like him so much as a person and respect him so much as a Christian. But I also know that as important as those issues are, they are not at the center of the biblical witness on issues of social justice.

From the Torah to the Hebrew Prophets to the teachings of Jesus, and throughout the life of the early church, the major biblical emphasis is on economic justice. This is the big issue at the heart of how human society is organized and it is the key component of how we show our love for one another.

I think I also love Pope Francis because he reminds me of John Wesley.

The visible similarities are striking. Wesley, like Francis, lived very simply and did not embrace the trappings of his office. Wesley, like Francis, embraced the poor and marginalized. Wesley, like Francis, was well loved by the common people. It was said of John Wesley that when he died he was the best loved man in all of England. And Wesley, like Francis, drew enormous crowds wherever he went. In common parlance, Wesley was, as Francis is, a rock star.

And beyond the visible similarities, they share a common message. Wesley’s sermon on “The Danger of Riches” is a foreshadowing of Francis’ critique of capitalism. The corrosive effects of unchecked greed are harmful to the soul and harmful to the social fabric. They harm the rich as well as the poor.

In his address to Congress, Francis declared that politics cannot be the slave of economics and finance, but must be “an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” He went on to say that he would not underestimate the difficulty of that endeavor, “but,” he said, “I encourage you in this effort.” Wesley did not make the connection between politics and economics as systematically as Pope Francis does, but he understood and advocated a connection between personal faith and social responsibility.

Wesley was outspoken in his criticism of ostentatious wealth and consumption, but he refused to be judgmental. Once at the dinner table a leader in the Methodist movement called Wesley’s attention to the obviously expensive rings worn by a woman dining with them. He asked pointedly, “Mr. Wesley, what do you think of that hand.” Ignoring the man’s intent, Wesley answered, “I think it is a very lovely hand.” In a similar way, when Pope Francis was asked about homosexuality, he answered, “Who am I to judge?”

In an essay on “The People Called Methodist,” Wesley declared as a first principle, “that orthodoxy, or right opinions, is, at best, but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all.” One guesses that Francis would never put that thought into writing, but one might also guess that he may well think it.

For Wesley as for Francis, the belief that “God is love,” is a core theological concept. Everything else flows from that central insight. It is simple and yet profound. As Wesley would say, it is something that everyone professes to believe, yet very few practice.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

More Thoughts on Shaming (Two Rights Can Still Be Wrong)

Jesus said, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly."
John 10:10b

In previous episodes:

Ginny Mikita, a Michigan attorney who was at that time a candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church, officiated  at the marriage of Rev. Benjamin Hutchison and his partner Monty. She did so using credentials obtained online through the Universal Life Church.

Three United Methodist clergypersons, from Texas, North Carolina and New Jersey, wrote to United Methodist leaders in West Michigan asking that Ms. Mikita be discontinued as a candidate for ministry and pointed out that by obtaining that online ordination she had “united with another denomination” and therefore should be discontinued as a member of the United Methodist Church. She was subsequently removed from candidacy and removed from membership.

In a strongly worded criticism, the Reconciling Ministries Network (an organization made up of United Methodists working for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the UMC) said that Ms. Mikita had been “excommunicated.”

In response, Dr. David F. Watson wrote a blog post in which he said that, “This kind of rhetoric has one goal: to shame. Its purpose is to shame the pastors and denominational leaders who were involved in this matter . . .”

And then I wrote a response to Dr. Watson in which I noted  the irony of calling the RMN rhetoric shaming. I said that “The movement to exclude LGBTQ people from full participation in the United Methodist Church is built on shaming. What could be more ‘shaming’ than telling a group of people that their lives are ‘incompatible with Christian teaching?’”

All of this led to an energetic exchange on a Facebook page called, “New Methodists,” in which a pastor from Illinois, wrote: 

“Please provide evidence that Ginny Mikita was actually excommunicated. Likewise, please submit evidence that the Book of Discipline ever says that anyone’s life is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’ I submit that both accusations are distortions of what was actually done and what the BOD actually says.”

My colleague from Illinois is right on both counts.

Ginny Mikita was not actually “excommunicated.” and the Book of Discipline does not actually say that the lives of LGBTQ persons are “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

I know, and I assume RMN knows, what excommunication means. Ginny Mikita is still welcome to attend worship in any United Methodist Church. She can still receive communion. She is not denied fellowship in any way. The RMN language was hyperbolic in order to make a point. Regardless of the ecclesiological technicalities, it feels like excommunication and to many United Methodists, it looks uncomfortably like something out of the middle ages.

Dr. Watson’s argument is that by requesting and accepting those online credentials, Ginny Mikita did “unite with another denomination” and thereby remove herself from membership in the UMC. That’s true. But we all know that the Universal Life Church is not a real denomination. And there are probably thousands of United Methodists who have obtained credentials online in order to officiate at a friend’s wedding. I know some of them, and you probably do, too.

The practical reality is that Ginny Mikita was removed from membership in the UMC as punishment for officiating at a same sex wedding. That is not changed by the technicalities.

Just for the record, I did not cite the Discipline as saying that LGBTQ lives are “incompatible with Christian teaching.” I attributed that to what I called, “the movement to exclude LGBTQ persons from full inclusion in the life of the United Methodist Church.” 

And I stand by that statement.

What the Discipline says is that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” So technically, you could be gay without acting on those feelings, and that would not be “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Let’s think about that. 

What is “the practice of homosexuality?” 

I guess we can assume that means anything involving the genitals is off limits. But what else is included among these unacceptable practices? Are some kinds of touching okay and others not? What about hugging or holding hands? What about writing a love letter? What about looking into the eyes of your partner?

I would submit that this is pretty close to telling our sisters and brothers that their lives are incompatible with Christian teaching. And to use Dr. Watson’s language, it is shaming.

And we should be ashamed. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Irony of Our Shaming

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Matthew 7:1-5

When I read that passage as a teenager, it immediately became a favorite. I was amazed that Jesus could so accurately diagnose my parents’ major problem in relation to me: they had logs in their eyes. They were looking for the splinter in my eye while totally oblivious to the logs in their own eyes.

It took several years before I realized that Jesus was not talking to my parents; he was talking to me. Of course, once I understood it, the passage was not nearly as much fun.

I talked about that experience in a sermon one Sunday morning. On his way out of church, a man told me how much he loved the sermon and then turned to his daughter and said, “I just wish your mother could have been here to hear it.”

H. Richard Niebuhr said that the church is a community that is always engaged in the mutual removal of logs and splinters. He noted that there are always more Christians ready to do the removing than to have their splinters (or logs) extracted.

The Rev. Dr. David F. Watson wrote a blog post called, More Thoughts about Christian Discourse, in which he criticized the Reconciling Ministries Movement and others for criticizing three United Methodist Pastors from Texas, North Carolina, and New Jersey, who were themselves criticizing some other pastors in West Michigan, for celebrating a same sex marriage.

You can read about the history of this in previous blog posts, by clicking here and here. As you might guess, I am about to add to the many criticisms with a criticism of Dr. Watson’s thoughts on Christian public discourse.

His central criticism of the people who spoke out against exclusion and in favor of the full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the UMC is not about what they said, but about the way that they said it. He writes:

“This kind of rhetoric has one goal: to shame. Its purpose is to shame the pastors and denominational leaders who were involved in this matter . . .”

This is the point at which the irony is almost unbelievable. 

Over the centuries, many groups have been cruelly oppressed, but few groups have been more consistently "shamed" than gays and lesbians. The movement to exclude LGBTQ people from full participation in the United Methodist Church is built on shaming. What could be more “shaming” than telling a group of people that their lives are “incompatible with Christian teaching?”

If this were a Seinfeld episode, Jerry would be asking, “Do you even listen to yourself talk? Seriously. Have you listened to what you’ve been saying?”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Please: Kim Davis Is Not Rosa Parks

Attempting to block integration at the University of Alabama, Governor of Alabama George Wallace stands at the door of the Foster Auditorium while being confronted by United States Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8

Yesterday I was driving south on the Maine Turnpike, listening to Margery Eagen and Jim Braude on Boston Public Radio, WGBH. I came into range of the program when they were inviting listeners to tell them, “What one issue would cause you to support or oppose a presidential candidate, and why?”

And the calls came in. One guy said that he wasn’t a one issue person but he was very concerned that there were people who knew nothing about guns, yet would support a candidate on the basis of his or her support for gun control. He thought that most people in favor of gun control had not owned a gun or fired a gun, and how could they possibly understand the issue.

And then.

A very well-spoken and seemingly intelligent man called in from Cambridge to say that he was supporting Mike Huckabee because of Huckabee’s support for Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who went to jail (she was released yesterday afternoon) for refusing to issue a marriage license to same sex couples. Davis, he said, was like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He said that people did not understand civil disobedience. If they did, then even if they did not agree with her views on gay marriage, they would support her actions.

Oddly, my head did not explode. 

Kim Davis has been called the Rosa Parks of Religious Freedom.

No. And, no. 

Arguments by analogy can be helpful. Often we can understand something new by the comparison with something we already understand well. But analogies are inherently imperfect and inexact. That being said, Kim Davis is not to Religious Freedom as Rosa Parks was to Civil Rights.

A better analogy for Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples would be George Wallace’s refusal to permit the integration of public all white schools and colleges in Alabama. Wallace was, as Davis is, a government official who refused to uphold the law.

Beyond that, it is hard to think of anyone who has done more harm to the Christian witness in recent months than Kim Davis. (I said, it’s hard, not impossible. And, yes, it’s a long list. There are other contenders.)

P.S.: On this date in 1963, Governor George Wallace was served with a federal injunction directing him to stop state police from barring black students from enrolling at white schools.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Latest Episode of Methodists Behaving Badly

Monty and Benjamin Hutchison, Ginny Mikita, Rev. Mike Tupper

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28

It may be hyperbole to call it an internet sensation, and it has not exactly “gone viral,” but it has a real following and a long tenure. I am referring to that wonderful internet reality show, “Methodists Behaving Badly.” It is not nearly as popular as its parent program, “Christians Behaving Badly,” which has been in the media (television, radio, and newspapers) since before we called them media. 

The latest episode of Christians Behaving Badly, starring Kim Davis, can be seen anywhere and everywhere. The latest episode of Methodists Behaving Badly is harder to find. It’s really a sequel to an earlier episode in which the Rev. Benjamin Hutchison was removed from his church when he revealed to his District Superintendent that he was in a committed same-sex relationship. He was removed in spite of the fact that his congregation overwhelmingly supports him and by all accounts he was an excellent pastor.

Our newest episode begins with the happy news that Rev. Huthison has married his partner Monty in a ceremony attended by supportive local United Methodist clergy as well as by church members. But then it all goes south.

Three United Methodist clergy, from Texas, North Carolina and New Jersey, wrote to the United Methodist leaders in West Michigan, where the marriage took place, and asked that those who officiated as the wedding be punished.

The first casualty was Ginny Mikita, a Michigan attorney and candidate for ordination in the West Michigan Conference of the UMC. She officiated at the ceremony using credentials she obtained online through the Universal Life Church.

Ms. Mikita knew that she was placing her candidacy for ordination at risk, but she was surprised when her District Superintendent, Rev. Bill Haggard, informed her that not only was her candidacy being terminated, she was also no longer a member of the United Methodist Church. This is what we used to call excommunication. The rationale was that when she accepted the online credentials to officiate at the wedding she had united with another denomination and was, therefore, no longer a United Methodist.

Technically, according to our Book of Discipline, the District Superintendent may be correct. But that is really beside the point. This is stupid and mean and fundamentally unchristian. 

If you have actually read the Discipline, (and before you start to make jokes about people with too much time on their hands, let me assure you that large parts of it are worth reading) you know that clergy violate the Book of Discipline all the time, almost always without consequence. 

But there is another side to the story.

We could call this other side, “Christians Acting Like Christians,” or even “Methodists Acting Like Methodists.” It will never attract as much attention as the Behaving Badly series, but it is at least as real. And it matters. In the long run, I believe, it matters more.

If you are keeping score at home, it’s important to note that although the Bishop and the District Superintendent are the heavy hitters, there were more Methodists lined up on the side of inclusion than against it. Pastor Mark Thompson of Faith UMC in Grand Rapids joined Ms. Mikita in officiating. As he explained to a reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazette, "I believe that Benjamin and Monty are very much in love and they deserve to be married and to celebrate the gift of love that God gave them."

There were nine UM clergy who wanted to sign the marriage license as a show of their support, but only two were allowed, Ginny Mikita and Rev. Mike Tupper. "I want to highlight the injustice, at the same time to witness to our inclusive God who does welcome all people and welcomes them whether they are gay or straight," Tupper said. "It's just another opportunity to celebrate and witness to our inclusive God."

Others delivered a protest to Bishop Deborah Kiesey.

As Ginny Mikita said, "I believe that there is a swell of support that already exists within the denomination” for Rev. Hutchison and for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. "It only continues to grow, and I think it was evidenced here by the number of clergy that showed up not only from West Michigan congregations and conferences, but I met folks that came from the Detroit area and Illinois to be here today to demonstrate their support."

As far as we know there have been no efforts 
to excommunicate her dog.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Bending the Moral Arc: The Season of Kingdomtide

The poor are invited to the feast. Luke 14:15-24
Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

At the end of the Selma march, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech titled, “Our God Is Marching On.” And at the end of the speech, he wove together a rich poetic tapestry of Bible verses with hymn texts by Julia Ward Howe and James Russell Lowell. Then he adapted a phrase from the great abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker and declared that although it had been a long struggle for Civil Rights, in the end they would be victorious because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

I don’t know whether King would see his phrase about the “arc of the moral universe,” as interchangeable with “the moral arc of the universe,” but I prefer the latter.

If we believe in the Kingdom of God, then we believe that the universe itself has a moral arc that bends toward justice.

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of God was already among them although it was not yet fully realized. This is what God is doing in the world. The moral arc is bending toward justice. Jesus called his disciples to join in what God is already doing, to share in bending the moral arc of the universe.

The liturgical season of Kingdomtide began last Sunday. That is, if we still celebrated Kingdomtide, it would have begun last Sunday. In the old Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.”  It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth. 

The loss of Kingdomtide is not a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the world, although sometimes it seems to me as if it is. And the loss of a liturgical season will not stop the bending of the arc or the coming of the kingdom. But it is still a loss. 

Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.” He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating. The idea of the Kingdom of God begins with Jesus, but it grows out of the experience of the people of Israel. And a primary theological component is the liberation of the Israelites in the Exodus.

For Jesus, this alternative community was a place where the poor were lifted up, where everyone had a place at the table, where love governed both individuals and institutions. It was a place of radical hospitality, egalitarianism, inclusion, mutual concern, self-sacrifice, and social justice. In this biblical vision, everyone has enough and no one has too much.

“Against the data,” as Walter Brueggeman would say, Jesus declared that this “Kingdom of God” was already among them. In spite of the Roman occupation. The world did not belong to the emperor, it belonged to God. And God was at work in the world. The disciples were invited to live into the new reality; this alternative community.

Although Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God occupies the overwhelming majority of his teaching, it has too often been ignored by modern Christians. The popular misinterpretation is that when he talked about Gods’ Kingdom, he was talking about heaven. But he wasn’t. He was talking about happens (and doesn’t happen, but ought to happen) on this earth.