Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Orchard Secedes from United Methodism

Rev. Dr. Bryan Collier, Lead Pastor at The Orchard
"You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit."
Matthew 7:15-20

The Orchard Church of Tupelo, Mississippi became the first congregation to officially secede from the United Methodist Church in the current controversy over same sex relationships.

A press release by the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a traditionalist “renewal” group within the United Methodist Church, began this way:

“The Mississippi Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and The Orchard have announced that negotiations have been concluded between them, resulting in the withdrawal of The Orchard from The United Methodist Church. The Orchard is one of the 25 fastest growing churches in the United States. Dr. Bryan Collier is the senior pastor of The Orchard and a member of the governing council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.”

Bishop James Edward Swanson, Sr. and the Mississippi Annual Conference “negotiated” an amicable separation in which Orchard Church would pay an exit fee of $69,000 and keep the church assets. The bishop and the conference effectively waived the “trust clause” included in all United Methodist Church deeds, which provides that if a local congregation closes or otherwise ceases to be a United Methodist Church, the property reverts to the Annual Conference.

Obviously, the trust clause is supposed to have serious meaning in terms of dollars and cents, but it is also about connection, accountability and community.

Orchard Church will walk away with a $7,000,000 property on which they have a mortgage of $5,000,000. They will also walk away from more than $200,000 in unpaid apportionments over the last five years. And, apparently, they will not repay the Annual Conference for the funds used to purchase the property when the church was started.

For a more detailed discussion of the terms and conditions, please check out Jeremy Smith’s excellent blog post.

The website for The Orchard is wonderful. It is inviting, encouraging, and uplifting. If you are looking for a church home, they present themselves as a welcoming possibility.

For starters, “The Orchard” is a great name. They will not be confused with the stuffiness of a thousand “First” United Methodist Churches all over the country.

I could not find anything on their website to indicate that they had ever been part of the United Methodist Church, or that they had withdrawn from the denomination. Or that they were leaving because they believe that the UMC has not been firm enough in punishing those clergy who have acted against the UM Book of Discipline by officiating at same sex weddings, or in disciplining bishops who have ordained and appointed gay pastors.

In a section called WHAT WE BELIEVE, they have this statement:

“The Orchard is a place devoted to the cultivation of fruit for Christ’s kingdom. We remember that Jesus said to his disciples, “I chose you and sent you to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last.” (John 15:16) At The Orchard we are trying to live up to this challenge. We focus on our “cultivation” efforts by Growing Deep and Branching Out. Growing Deep means that we commit ourselves to deepening our love of God and helping others do the same. Branching Out means that we reach out to others with Christ’s love. We are called to live as faithful messengers of God’s grace and hope in the world.”

The statement is almost universally applicable to churches all across the country and all across the spectrum of theological perspectives. But it isn’t boilerplate.

In a section called BRANCHING OUT, they tell us:

“We believe each of us are uniquely gifted by God. All Christians are ministers and are called to serve together, learn together and discover innovative ways to communicate the Gospel to the world. At The Orchard, we seek to discover and use our gifts with excellence as we Branch Out to serve God and others.”

Clearly, they know what they are doing. At the most basic level of presenting the message in ways that are attractive and inviting they do a much better job than most churches. They have a lot to teach us.


If I were a gay man searching for a church home, there is nothing to warn me that my spouse and I would be warmly welcomed by people who would love us even though they believed that our “lifestyle” was a sinful abomination.

The Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Bryan Collier, is a member of the governing board of The Wesleyan Covenant Association, which describes itself as “an association of congregations, clergy persons, and laity who desire to cooperate in the mission of the WCA to promote the ministry of the gospel from a Wesleyan theological perspective within The United Methodist Church and kindred bodies.” The WCA advocates for the “traditional” biblical understanding of same sex relationships as incompatible with Christian teaching and the prohibition against ordaining or appointing “practicing homosexuals” as pastors.

Although Dr. Collier is no longer serving a United Methodist Church, and has led his congregation to secede from the denomination, the WCA board recently voted to maintain him as a member of their leadership and to continue the Orchard as a member congregation. In a press release, they explained,

“Some have raised a question about whether Dr. Collier's continued service on the WCA Council is consistent with the WCA's emphasis on covenant-keeping within The United Methodist Church, and our deeply-held conviction that promises - especially those made at ordination - must be kept. We believe that it is, and that our remaining connected to Dr. Collier and the Orchard is a sign of the hope we have for the future of the global Wesleyan movement.”

Think about that.

And consider the fact that Bishop James Swanson, who blessed the agreement with The Orchard, was the featured preacher at a recent gathering of the WCA.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association emphasizes “covenant-keeping within the United Methodist Church” and has a “deeply held conviction that promises – especially those made at ordination – must be kept.”

One wonders how leaving the United Methodist Church can be seen as covenant keeping within the United Methodist Church, or how Bryan Collier’s decision to lead his congregation out of the denomination that ordained him and in which he made his vows of ordination can qualify as keeping the promises he made at his ordination.

Apparently, what the WCA believes is that acting against one small part of the Discipline by offering the ministry of the church to a same sex couple asking to be married is worse than throwing away the whole book and the whole church.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Parable about Healthcare in the United States

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney holds a copy of the 2018 budget proposal.
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 
. . . . “Stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Mark 2:1-5, 11-12

This story is a wonderful parable about some of the key issues in the current debate about healthcare in the United States.

But I need to begin with a footnote.

The healing stories in the Gospels are always problematic texts for preaching, because all of us know people who have not been healed. At least, not in the way that they would wish. 

And it is important that Christians never, never burden those who are already suffering with the notion that if they had more faith they would, in fact, be healed. The healing power of God must always remain a mystery. And the forms of God’s healing must also be a mystery. But in spite of that caution, these stories speak to us in a profound way about our need for healing and about God’s vision for our lives.

In those days, in Palestine, houses were often made with a mud and thatch roof. Sometimes they were built into the side of a hill, so that you could actually around he side of the hill and up on top of the roof. And that’s what they did. When they couldn’t get in through the door, they went around the side and up the hill onto the roof. Then they set their friend down and began digging through the thatch and the mud.

The scripture says, “He was teaching them the word,” which probably means he was teaching Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Pentateuch, the Books of Moses). 

Suddenly, things begin to fall from the roof. 

Things begin to fall. First dirt and dust sifts down. Pretty soon Jesus can’t even tell his story. Everyone is looking up at the roof, and by now large chunks of things are falling on them. People scramble and cover their heads. And then the roof opens up. 

Jesus looks up there where there are these four guys looking down, probably pretty proud of themselves. What a great opportunity! They have been able to engage in an act of vandalism and do a good deed, a mizpah, at the same time. It just doesn’t get any better than that!

Before Jesus can say anything, the four guys are lowering a fifth guy down into the house right in front of Jesus. They lean down as far as they can, and then pass him to those in the house.

Jesus is amazed at what he sees. Mark observes, “When he saw their faith . . . .” Not the faith of the paralyzed man. He is marveling at the faith of the four guys who carried him through town and ripped up the roof. 

What a risk they took! 

“When he saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” 

Somehow, Jesus understands that what is paralyzing this man is an overwhelming sense of guilt. There may be fear also, but guilt apparently plays a major role. He is so scared and so guilty, that he cannot even move. Jesus understands that the only way for the man to be healed is for him to feel a sense of grace and forgiveness. 

Jesus turns to the paralyzed man and says, “Take up your mat and walk!”

The man stands up. And takes his mat. And walks out of the house. People are in shock. The crow gathered around the house saw the man carried up onto the roof, and now they see him walking out the door. They are excited and amazed, and they shout, “We never saw anything like this!” Which is the only proper response to the church in action. 

When the church is really the church, when we are really being the people God has called us to be, the only proper response is, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” It is always amazing to believers and non-believers alike. 

In terms of the current healthcare debate, the story makes at least three important points.

First, when people can’t walk, we need to carry them.

The basic theory of health insurance is that the healthy people carry the sick people. And when we are dealing with serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease, where the costs of treatment are measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars, we need a lot more than four healthy people to carry one sick one.

The proposed American Healthcare Act, says that healthy people should not have to carry sick people, at least they should not have to carry as many or carry them as far. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 23 million people would lose their health insurance under the AHCA.

In a Sunday editorial, The New York Times describes it this way:
“Consider the fate of Medicaid, a program that provides health insurance to more than 74 million people, among them 60 percent of nursing home residents and millions of people with disabilities. Trumpcare would slash Medicaid spending by $834 billion over 10 years, according to the C.B.O. The president’s budget would take a further $610 billion from the program under the pretext of reforming it. Taken together, this amounts to an estimated 45 percent reduction by 2026 compared with current law, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says.”
Second, some people cannot be healed unless we carry them.

Jesus’ first response is not to the paralyzed man but to the guys who are carrying them. It is their faith that moves him to bless the paralytic.

If they had not carried him, he would not be healed.

The Times observes that the proposed AHCA, “would make it impossible for millions of people with pre-existing conditions like heart disease or diabetes to buy health insurance. That’s because the law would let states waive many of the requirements in the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 law known as Obamacare. It would also greatly increase the cost of insurance policies for older and poorer people, no matter where they live. By way of illustration, a 64-year-old earning $26,500 a year and living in a state not seeking waivers would have to pay $16,100 a year for coverage, nearly 10 times as much as she would under Obamacare.”

We can debate the exact numbers, but we know that without health insurance thousands of  people will die sooner and a much larger group will have their quality of life reduced dramatically.

And this will be done in order to reduce the burden on those who are healthiest and wealthiest. The healthy and the wealthy will not have to carry as many poor people.

The third point is counter intuitive.

In the parable of the paralyzed man the happiest and healthiest people are the four guys carrying their friend. Human beings are happiest when they are helping others.

To be fair, the four guys are probably happy about more than helping a friend. They get to parade him through the village against his will, and they get to rip up a roof and terrorize the people inside the house, and be praised for it. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The theory behind the AHCA and the budget being proposed to congress is that the happiness of the wealthy and the healthy can best be achieved by doing less for others and keeping more for ourselves. As the Times editorializes:
“Apart from inflicting hardship, what would Trumpcare and the president’s budget achieve? Mainly a windfall for wealthy families. The administration has not provided enough information to make good estimates, so it’s hard to say how much the rich would gain from the budget, although it would be a lot. We know more about Trumpcare. The Tax Policy Center estimates that almost all of the tax cuts in that legislation would flow to the rich: The top 1 percent would take home an average of $37,200 a year, while people with middle-class incomes would get a measly $300.”
Maybe Jesus is wrong. Maybe what really makes us happiest is having more money and doing less for others.

But I don’t believe that’s who we really want to be as individuals or as a country.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mark Tooley, Bishop Sprague, the IRD and False Doctrine

Bishop C. Joseph Sprague addressing the Caretakers of God's Creation Conference

"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 7:3-5

Jesus’ admonition to “judge not” and the companion illustration of the speck and the log first caught my youthful attention when I was an early teenager.

I thought it was brilliant. And I thought that it perfectly explained the wrongness of my parents’ propensity to point out my faults, while ignoring their own. How could they be so blind, I wondered, to the logs that so obviously obscured their vision of me?

It took at least a decade before I understood the irony of my judgment.

In a recent blogpost on “Methodist Bishops and False Doctrine,” Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and ardent critic of most of what I love about the United Methodist Church, took aim at retired Bishop Joseph Sprague for preaching what Tooley calls “False Doctrine.”

Tooley plays a theological game of “gotcha” that is no more helpful in the church than it is in secular politics. In both cases it distracts from deeper issues and questions that might move us farther along toward new understandings.

Of course, in Jesus' terms, I am judging Tooley for judging Sprague. 

It is no excuse, but I just can’t help myself.

According to Tooley, Sprague has denied the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the atoning death of Christ, as well as Christ’s eternal existence. And in a recent sermon at the United Methodist Women’s environmental conference he told a story about giving what Tooley sees as a very vague and doctrinally suspect answer to a question about his “ultimate hope.”

Historically, one of the great strengths of our Wesleyan tradition in United Methodism is that we are not a doctrinal church. We do not insist that everyone should believe the same thing. We do not have anything like a doctrinal catechism. Part of our heritage has been a valuing of the individual faith journey, and the recognition that our journeys are not all the same. We have a lot in common, but we also have a great diversity.

If we take more than a glance at these “false doctrines” we can see that the label is highly problematic. 

The thoroughly orthodox biblical scholar William Barclay, writing in the middle of the last century, observed in his commentary on the birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel that the church has never insisted that everyone should believe in the virgin birth. He gives some biblical reasons in favor of believing it and other biblical reasons against it. And then he suggests that the wording in Luke and Matthew may reflect the common Jewish understanding of the time that every child had three parents, a father, a mother, and the Spirit of God.

When it comes to bodily resurrection, atonement, and the eternal nature of Christ, those are not simple concepts. People believe them very differently.

The resurrection narratives speak of a “bodily” resurrection because they want to insist that something really happened. They are not talking about a ghost or a spirit. This is not an illusion or a memory. But it is also not a story about a resuscitated corpse or a flying body. One of the consistent details in the resurrection stories is that the disciples do not recognize him. If he had appeared post Easter in his earthly body they would surely have known who he was. And Paul would not have claimed that the appearance to him was the same as the appearance to the original disciples. It is after all a mystery.

We  will fast-forward to the issue at the heart of Tooley’s critique: a supposedly vague and non-traditional answer that Sprague remembers giving to a woman in prison. According to Tooley, the woman had asked the bishop for “his ultimate hope.”

But that was not the question at all.

This is the story as Bishop Sprague actually told it in his sermon:
“On Fat Tuesday, I met with 80 participants in the multi-faith Horizon Prison Initiative at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. . . .

“As the participants delved into their personal religious traditions, experiences and values, while learning to better understand and respect the differences among them, they expressed growing interest in learning more about the intersection of faith and practice in the public arena. Truth be told, they wanted chapter and verse regarding the social justice involvements of the president of Horizon.
“To honor their invitation, I presented a litany of a lifetime of social justice involvements in church, nation and world. At the conclusion of this narrative, an insightful young participant responded, “You’re an old man, who has done a bunch of things. When you look around at today’s mess, was it worth it?”
“With this, the blunt young woman opened the trapdoor to the dark night of my soul. And, I suspect to that of many activists in today’s church. Was it worth it? Has my life counted for much of lasting value, given the increasingly reactionary state of the church and the tragic folly of a Trump-led nation? I am not sure. I admitted to the young woman and her other Horizon participants that sometimes despair and situational depression creep up the back stairway of my soul.”

And then later, as Sprague worked his way toward the conclusion of his sermon, he said:
Let us return to that brutally candid, young Appalachian inmate at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, “OK,” she said in response to my confession, “but when you are down, and believe me, we here in prison know down, what do you do?” 
Pensively, I responded, “I try to immerse myself in beloved community; to push my too proud self back into the care and company of intimate friends and fellow travelers that I/we might be helped to remember potent empowering stories and ponder anew the Eternal Yes in the heart of the Great Mystery made normatively visible in Jesus.”

The question was not about “ultimate hope,” it was about the hope that gets you through the day and the week. It was about the hope that keeps you going. And Sprague answered with deep faith.

Then he went on to give several illustrations of what he say as the “Eternal Yes in the heart of the Great Mystery made normatively visible in Jesus.” It was, in spite of Tooley’s attempt to belittle it, a great sermon. It was challenging and inspiring and uplifting.

He closed with some familiar lines from Emily Dickinson.

Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops at all . . .

Tooley makes a rather revealing observation when he writes that, “Sprague’s open defiance of core Methodist and Christian doctrine nearly twenty years ago illustrates that Methodism’s divisions and theological confusion are not new. . . . Liberal theology governed Methodism for most of the 20th century.”

So his point is that Methodism has ignored its own core doctrines for something  like 40% of its denominational life in the United States. Of course, I would give a much earlier start time to progressive theology in Methodism, dating back at least to the beginnings of the Social Gospel, when progressives and evangelicals were the same people. A strong argument can be made for going back to the Civil War, or maybe to the 1844 split over slavery. I’m sure I have many colleagues who would argue that it goes all the way back to old John Wesley himself. And still others would insist, not without reason, that it started with Jesus.

But even if we take Tooley’s assessment as correct, it is hard to see something that has been around that long as a passing phase.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Healthcare and Income Redistribution

"He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Luke 10:34-35

Maybe it’s not always about the money, but it’s about the money often enough to suggest that’s always a good place to start.

In Jesus’ famous parable, the last thing the Good Samaritan does for the man who was beaten and robbed is to leave money with the innkeeper for his continued care, and promise the innkeeper that if it costs more he will repay “whatever more you spend.”

In an article in Friday’s New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall outlines the effects of the American Health Care Act recently passed by the House of Representatives, and he begins with the money.

The bill cuts more than $800 billion from Medicaid over ten years and basically redistributes the money from those at the bottom of the income pyramid to those at the top. “By 2022, when the provisions of the AHCA would be fully effective,” he writes, “those in the bottom two quintiles would pay higher taxes, up to $160 annually, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Those in the middle of the income distribution would get an average annual tax cut of $240; those in the fourth quintile, a cut of $510; and those in the top 20 percent, an average tax cut of $2,830.”
“The distributional impact of the tax provisions is most apparent in the highest income brackets: those in the top one percent, whose household income is more than $770,000, would get an average tax cut of $37,220. Those in the top 0.1 percent, who make $4 million or more, would get an average reduction of $207,240.”
“According to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at the highest point of all, the 400 households with annual incomes exceeding $300 million apiece, the tax cut would be worth an estimated $7 million.”
The combination of repealing billions of dollars in taxes that were used to pay for the Affordable Care Act, and slashing the subsidies provided to those on low incomes means that when we compare the economic impact of the ACA with the AHCA we see huge redistributions of income in the House plan that flow from the poorest to the richest Americans. 

The politics in this are not nearly as clearly delineated as one might assume. Donald Trump was elected by white working class voters who voted for him overwhelmingly. That constituency was critical in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the key states in his electoral college victory. But the voters who put him in office are the very ones who will suffer the most under the repeal of the ACA and the implementation of the AHCA.

Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative democrat spoke with Mr. Trump about his home state of West Virginia, where Trump carried every county and won the state vote with 67.9% compared to 26.2% for Hillary Clinton. According to Manchin’s account, he told Trump:
“Mr. President, 172,000 West Virginians got insurance for the first time. These are working people, but they’ve got something they never had before. They don’t know how they got it, they don’t know who gave it to them, they don’t know the Democrats, nothing about, ‘It’s Obamacare.’ They don’t know any of that. All they know is they’ve got it. And you know what? They voted for you, Mr. President. The Democrats gave it to them but they voted for you. They’re going to know who took it away from them.”
One of the strangest observations in all of this is that so many Americans voted against their own self-interest. Lower income voters were overwhelmingly for Trump, while upper income voters were solidly for Clinton.

One of the reasons that working class white voters supported Mr. Trump is race. In his Times article Edsall cites a piece in the March 23 issue of Rolling Stone in which Bridgette Dunlap points out that manipulating racial and ethnic animosity is a tried and true political strategy. She called it “divide and rule.”
“The rich guy convinced much of the white working class that he would ‘take back’ the country from the rest of the working class and other undeserving non-white and non-Christian people, as well as the coastal elites giving those folks jobs and handouts at the expense of ‘real’ Americans. It’s a strategy as old as this country.”