"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

#CalledOut

[This is a letter I wrote to the bishop of the Iowa Conference of The United Methodist Church after a speech in which I talked of my faith as someone who is gay. It received no response. I share it for those interested in truthful conversation beyond the UMC’s continued practices of either outright rejection of LGBTQ persons or of glossing over our presence.]

June 10, 2015

Dear Bishop Trimble and Members of the Appointive Cabinet,

Greetings to you in the name of Christ who has set us free.

In just a two minute speech at Annual Conference, the text of which is included below for your reference, I offered a witness with consequences that I know extend beyond the parameters of a debate and vote on Action Item 106. While I am not typically so presumptuous as to imagine myself as the subject of high-level conversations, I also know that you take your responsibilities seriously enough that my words cannot simply be ignored. And so I write to you in order that I might elaborate my motivations for sharing with the Annual Conference my story of faith as someone who is gay.

It is important for me to make clear that I did not offer my testimony simply to be provocative. And though the timing did come just a year after my ordination, it is not the case that I was simply waiting for the protections of full connection before coming out. In fact, I have been out from the very beginning of my candidacy process. I suspect that just as many people overseeing and supporting my candidacy, provisional membership, and ordination knew as much of my personal life as would be the case for any straight person. Indeed, my intention was not to inflame further the tensions over the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. Rather, my motivations for making a statement in such a public way were twofold. Read the rest of this entry »

The Future of the Past

3 January 2016
Isaiah 60:1–6 / Matthew 2:1–12
Coon Rapids United Methodist Church

It might not be the most reverent place to start a sermon. Yet, there is perhaps considerable religious devotion involved, so I’d like to begin this morning by talking about college football. Now, the loss by the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl did take a little steam out of what I had planned for my opening vignette. But the Hawkeyes didn’t quit, so neither will I. Let’s give this a try. At the point in the college football season when Iowa started to look seriously poised to go undefeated, there came to be a lot of angst in the college football world. “What if Iowa were to make the playoff?” people wondered, as if that would somehow spoil the whole thing. One Twitter comment put the overwrought conundrum well. It went something like this: if this were the NCAA basketball tournament, people would be loving Iowa as underdogs, but for some reason with football people are only hating. The comparison is a striking one. I think the difference is that in the men’s basketball tournament, 68 teams have a shot to win the title. For the most part, there’s a basic understanding that the teams who deserve to be in the tournament make it, and then it’s just fun to see how things shake out. But in this new era of the College Football Playoff, only four teams ultimately play for a chance to win a national championship. With so few teams selected, the assumption is that these spots will go to traditional powers, teams we might already think of as potential champions. Generally speaking, when opportunities are perceived to be scarce, we tend to be quick and decisive in our judgments of who “deserves” them, and—no surprise!—the supposed “deserving” are those we already think of as “good.”

We like an underdog. Except when we don’t. It is always a matter of perspective according to what already are our preferences and what we perceive we have to lose or gain. There’s a fine, fine line between whether we will cheer or disparage and undermine an underdog.

The Bible is filled with stories of God’s preference for the underdog, from the exodus from Egypt, to deliverance from the Babylonian captivity, to the Resurrection. There’s a special challenge, then, of reading these stories as white Christians in the most dominant nation on Earth. We risk becoming like those football fans, explaining God and the world in terms that perpetuate the status quo, benefitting the team—or people and nation-states—at the top.

So what do we do? How do we read the Bible to inform our faith and the ways we live in the world, messy and complicated as it is? While I don’t think the Bible can or should function as an oversimplified blueprint for saying, “When X happens, do Y,” taking the Bible seriously attunes our hearts and minds to the good news of God’s love, mercy, and justice and the commission that we be bearers of that love, mercy, and justice in the world. Read the rest of this entry »

22 March 2015
Philemon
Ballard Vale United Church, Andover, MA

[The sermon was preached as part of the Lenten series “The Doctrine of the Incarceration.”]

How many of you upon hearing Philemon this morning wondered, “What in the world is going on, why is this in the Bible, and what it’s supposed to mean for us?” One of my favorite things in teaching is to encourage students to linger for a while in the bewilderment rather than trying to move directly to the “one right interpretation” (so if you’re hoping that I’ll tell you what this letter really means, it’s not going to happen, so let’s get that disappointment out of the way). Especially with texts held as sacred, we can both expect and desire a coherent message that is immediately and clearly meaningful for our lives. But I would contend that meaning is made, that what is meaningful is not always self-evident but becomes meaningful in the process of trying to figure things out. After all, our lives are continually unfolding processes of working to figure things out, figuring out how to makes sense of and live in the world around us.

And that’s where we might start with Philemon: in this text, Paul and Timothy write to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the assembly that gathers in their house as a matter of working out the dynamics of what it means to live in Christ. We might say that the prevailing question centers on what difference faith in Christ makes for living together. How are relationships and practices informed by the gospel? But here’s where I want to be careful. It is far too easy and far too common to jump immediately to the conclusion that Paul presents a glorious vision of equality and oneness in Christ. Maybe. Maybe that’s the idea in theory. But we might want to ask further about how that plays out in practice.

So what is actually happening in this letter? What’s at stake “in practice”? Honestly, it’s not entirely clear. We know that Paul and Timothy send a letter to a group of people who meet together in a house, presumably for some kind of worship. We know that some man named Onesimos has been with Paul during a time of separation from Philemon and that some kind of relationship of affection and usefulness has developed between Paul and Onesimos during that time. But who is this Onesimos? What’s he doing with Paul? And why does Philemon care?

Onesimos is apparently a slave since Paul abjures Philemon to welcome Onesimos back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave” (v16, CEB). Onēsimos in Greek means “useful.” Calling someone by describing her or his functionality was a common practice for naming slaves. Paul even makes a pun of the name, saying that Onesimos “was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us” (v11). We’ll come back to this issue of how Paul and Philemon relate to Onesimos, but we should keep in mind the fundamental idea that Onesimos’s very name signifies that he is someone to be used, that he is valuable not on his own terms but as far as he is beneficial to another.

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Made Free

26 October 2014
John 8:31–36 / Romans 3:19–28
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Wilbraham, Massachusetts

[This sermon was the delivered on the occasion of the celebration of Christ the King Lutheran Church’s decision to proclaim itself a Reconciling in Christ congregation.]

I bring you greetings in the name of Jesus Christ. It is a blessing and honor to be with you this morning as we celebrate this church’s decision to join with a broad movement of communities of faith in the ELCA and beyond to declare the full welcome of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer children of God. When discussing with Nathaniel potential dates for this occasion, I did ask with some concern whether it would actually be all right to have a Methodist in the pulpit on what is also Reformation Sunday. Since I’m here, I guess you really are serious about making a radical witness to God’s inclusion! But still, I feel the need to assure you: after four years at Luther College, I do claim Lutheranism as part of my spiritual heritage. And to go a step further, perhaps the most important expression of religious devotion I could make to legitimate my place here likewise grows out of seeds planted at Luther, particularly during my first year when Nathaniel and I were roommates: I also claim a real love for the Red Sox. So all of this is to say that I think we should all get along just fine.

One thing you should know about me upfront is that I’m a doctoral candidate at Harvard studying New Testament and Early Christianity. That is to say that, at best, this sermon may be somewhat interesting. And at worst, it may be quite laborious and boring. We academic types are not known for scintillating public speech. But I’m going to try to hold your interest by starting with what may be a provocative assertion. It’s quite exciting and appropriate that celebration of your Reconciling status coincides with Reformation Sunday. You are bearing witness to the continued Reformation impulse toward faith known in direct relationship with God, not mediated by religious elites and ecclesial rules and regulations. But if the central motto of the Reformation might be expressed by Paul’s words to the Romans read this morning—”For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (3:28)—I would be inclined to say that the Reformation has been somewhat of a failure. We are still obsessed with the law; that is, Christians continue to be caught up in concerns for general rules that ostensibly help us sort out who really has faith and who doesn’t.

But then I’d also have to say something that is a kind of personal mantra for me—and a familiar refrain for us academic types: “It’s complicated.” Neither Paul, nor Martin Luther, nor most anyone who would advance the argument that we are justified before God by faith rather than works would say that absolutely anything goes, that there are no standards for what it means to live well in relationship to God and one another, that how we live doesn’t matter in any way.
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4 January 2015
Matthew 2:1–12
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa

It might seem like a strange thing to say after all my studies and training, but there are times when I find it rather disconcerting to look out at my students while I’m talking and to see them vigorously taking notes. I know I should be glad at their diligence, but there’s a part of me that wants to stop and ask, “How do you know I’m not just making stuff up?” Seriously! There are probably a few things going on there. On the one hand, while scholars may project confidence in their assertions, the competitive world of academia can generate some real self-doubt: will I ever know enough? will people actually believe what I’m saying? do I believe what I’m saying? This is why mental health centers on college campuses are so vital and so busy.

On the other hand, for real pedagogical reasons—that is, for serious concerns about the methods and processes of teaching and learning—I want my students to have a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion, to use a fancy term. A hermeneutic of suspicion (and now you should be taking notes!) is an interpretive framework whereby a person doesn’t just accept what is said at face value but wonders what stands behind and beyond an idea or expression. For example, for a long time it was assumed that women were not active in the earliest Christian communities because of such statements as the one in 1 Corinthians 14 that women should remain silent in the assemblies (v34). But appropriately skeptical readers of the Bible, especially women, started to say, “Wait a minute! If women were being told to be quiet, that probably means they were actually already speaking.” And from there, people started reading with different eyes to the texts, not assuming women’s absence but instead looking for their presence. For instance, in Romans 16, we find that Paul names Junia, a woman, as being among the apostles (v7), quite a significant designation, and Junia is just one among other women named for their essential roles in the earliest Christian communities.

All of this is to say that we can actually miss out on important details and misread the evidence of history when we take as final what is said rather than asking questions with a healthy amount of suspicion. Again, it’s odd to say it, but sometimes seeing my students furiously scratching down everything I’m saying makes me nervous that they’re taking me too seriously. Of course, it is possible to take notes (and it’s good to take notes!) and to ask questions too, and many of my students do both of these things quite well. But I still wonder, “What if I were just making stuff up?”

Rest assured, I don’t just make things up, and I am honest with my students if I don’t know something. But the bigger point here is that, in these moments, I realize just how much my students are trusting me. They are looking to me as possessing some level of intellectual authority, as well as having power over their grades. I take quite seriously this issue of power dynamics and strive to be worthy of my students’ trust, at the same time as I seek to empower them to engage as full and equal participants in discussion, with their own knowledge, questions, and, hopefully, suspicions.

Our relationships of all kinds—between partners, siblings, friends, colleagues, civil authorities, and so on—are variously marked by sometimes minor and sometimes quite significant power dynamics. We recognize this when we consider the various ways we have the ability either to harm or help others, or the ways others can hurt or benefit us. Our words have power. Our actions have power. And so do the words and actions of others. We know this in our own lives, from relations with our closest family members to the consequences of governmental deliberation and action.

I am not sure there is any escaping the reality of differing dynamics of power, though we might work consciously to shape their effects toward the good. And indeed, power can be used well, from teaching that inspires to legislation that benefits people’s lives. But problems arise when we cling to power out of fear that we might lose it. And this is precisely what we find in this morning’s gospel lesson.

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Bridges, Not Walls

[This is the text of a speech I delivered for the Iowa Methodist Federation for Social Action march and rally for peace on June 9, 2014. The theme for the rally was “Bridges, Not Walls,” and I was one of five speakers addressing a range of pressing issues.]

We are all far too familiar with the walls that exclude and demean LGBTQ children of God. But we also know the bridges to a better future because we are those bridges.

When we who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer come out to ourselves, to God, and to others, we testify to the truth — a truth that I have come to know only by the grace of God and through the love of family and friends — that we are already made whole and are blessed by God.

When we who are clergy and lay profess publicly that we will be in full ministry with persons who are LGBTQ, we proclaim the good news of God’s love and mercy for all.

There is real harm and real risk wrought by our church’s policies of exclusion, but we do not have to wait for the action of the General and Annual Conferences and of our bishops to begin living into a more just and reconciling future now.

When we come out and are bearers of God’s radical grace and love, we are already building the bridge to a future in which those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer — young and old, will all know and will always know that we are whole, blessed, and a blessing to the church and world.

May it be so now.

[This is the text of a speech delivered at the Iowa United Methodist Annual Conference on June 7, 2014 in support of a resolution acknowledging the harm of the United Methodist Church’s policies prohibiting the ordination of lesbian and gay persons and the blessing of same-gender unions; recognizing that some clergy are nevertheless choosing to be engaged fully in ministry with persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ), including to perform marriages; and encouraging alternative solutions to church trails.]

It might seem that our response should be simple. It might be said that the Bible is clear and that the Book of Discipline is unambiguous. But we’ve been having this conversation for decades and are having it again here today because the gifts of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons — the ways LGBTQ persons are being blessed by God and are a blessing to others and to the church — raises a fundamental question with which we wrestle: where is God present, and how might we know clearly God’s calling?

Many of you likely feel settled on this issue, but many — perhaps more than we’d think — are uncertain of how faithfully to hold together the Bible, tradition, and the desire to act with love toward LGBTQ persons.

Blessedly, we’ve been having this kind of conversation from the earliest days of Christianity, from which we might learn for the present time. From the time Jesus walked the earth, some followers have said, “You cannot be righteous if you do not follow the food laws.” “You do not circumcise your boys as the law prescribes.” “You do not refrain from work on the Sabbath.” (Indeed, we are doing prohibited work on this day, the Sabbath). “Thus, you are not right with God,” it has been argued.

But we profess the faith we do as Christians today because of a trajectory of inclusion.* Jesus, Paul, and many of Jesus’s earliest followers looked at the same Bible and disagreed about all of the details of what it means to live in right relationship with God and one another. But they tended toward inclusion, trusting the idea that you will know the faithful by their fruits.

We are a church that is already ordaining LGBTQ persons. We are a church that is already blessing the love shared between people of the same gender. Not because we are rule breakers. Not because “anything goes.” Not because we can no longer name what is right and wrong.

But because we see the good fruits of LGBTQ persons. Because we are committed to honoring the blessing of those God has already blessed as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.

Because ours is a tradition based on the biblical principle that God’s grace is inclusive and available to all. This resolution honors that biblical tradition of both faithful disagreement and seeking to recognize how God is made manifest in the good, life-giving, faith-deepening love shared by and between God’s people.

[I concluded the speech here in consideration of time but had also written the following:
My own life has been enriched and my faith strengthened in no small part by the love and witness of faithful LGBTQ persons. I pray that our church will know the same blessing by finally coming out and naming it. Saying “yes” to this resolution would be a meaningful step toward witnessing to the world God’s love for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.]


 

*I would not wish for this to be construed as replicating the old, problematic notion of Jesus as inclusive over and against exclusive Jews. Rather, we would do well to think about Jesus as a prophet in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. My primary point here is that dominant articulations of Christianity we know today are possible in no smart part because of important ways the Bible was not read literally by early followers of Jesus.

 

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