"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.

 

It’s Complicated

29 December 2013
Matthew 2:13–23
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa

This past October I completed a significant step in my doctoral work. I had come to the moment when I needed to prove that I know generally what I should know about the New Testament and Early Christianity. This process came in the form of four exams, called general exams at Harvard and referred to at some schools as comprehensive exams. The point is that I needed to showcase a satisfactory level of general or, dare I say, comprehensive knowledge. I’ll spare you the details, but that all went well, and I felt pretty smart for a while—wicked smart, to use the technical Bostonian term. And then I got lazy because it’s somewhat acceptable just to watch lots of TV for a while after exams and before gearing up for the dissertation, so you don’t need to be too impressed.

Even as I’ve been officially certified as generally knowledgeable about the early days of the movement in Christ, still one of my favorite things to say when asked questions about the Bible is, “Well… we don’t really know much about ancient Christianity.” My point is to say that you might think I have a lot of answers, but there’s a lot that I don’t know. And it’s not just because I forgot everything when I refilled the space previously made available in my brain for general exams with episodes from the latest season of Parks and Recreation. It’s because there are many gaps in the historical record, and even where we do have evidence, we are faced with the challenges of making sense of a world so different from our own, with its own sets of questions and concerns that do not necessarily translate clearly today.

The point in saying that we don’t know much isn’t actually to claim that nothing is or can be known about the earliest period of Christianity. It’s a provocative way of resisting easy answers and insisting instead upon asking questions with an attitude of openness to the unexpected and to the unknown. We often want religion to provide clear solutions and so turn to the Bible for such guidance. Truth be told, there was a time I’d flip open the Bible hoping that God would address an issue weighing on my heart by guiding me to the right page. Sure, such a method can bring about creative readings that might even have some sort of value. But if I open the Bible and point to Mark 14:51-52 and read that “a certain young man was following [Jesus], wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked,” what deep meaning am I supposed to get from that?! Even still, in seriousness, we certainly can approach the Bible with questions about living faithfully in this world and be encouraged, edified, and even challenged by the wisdom it contains.

But the reason I often start my answers to questions about the Bible and the Christian tradition by acknowledging that there are gaps in our knowledge is because I think there is great value in having the first response to our searching to be, “It’s complicated.” Discovering and making sense of ancient history is complicated. Translating the past for the present is complicated. Answering the biggest and even smallest questions of existence is complicated. Because life is complicated. And the Bible, if it is indeed the Living Word, is complicated too. And so I start with the answer that “it’s complicated” because I believe that this is crucial for affirming and addressing our own complex circumstances.

In today’s reading from Matthew, we are startled by a narrative that complicates our celebration of Christmas. Or at least it should. Perhaps it’s become so familiar as part of the Christmas story that we don’t think too much of it, or we simply gloss over it. I’ll admit that I can sort of forget about it. I happened to be preaching here three years ago when today’s texts last came up in the lectionary (the three-year cycle of readings we follow), and I remember being so focused on the passage from Hebrews, which we heard again this morning, that I was rather surprised and bothered to read aloud the Gospel text.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

“The slaughter of the innocents” this is often called.  Innocent children murdered because Herod was upset. His pride was wounded, and he feared the loss of his power. This is one of our important Christmas stories. Here in this joyous season we call to mind evil, unchecked power that deploys violence as a mechanism of control. Read the rest of this entry »

The Freedom of Faith

30 June 2013
Galatians 5:1–25
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa

You may have noticed that the Galatians reading this morning was more than what was printed in the bulletin. That was a mistake on my part, and though it was longer than it was supposed to be, I’m glad it happened because we had the chance to hear what surely sounds weird to our modern sensibilities. If you’ll bear with me and embrace confusion for a while, it’s my hope that there might be something gained by diving headfirst into the weird. The language the apostle Paul uses from the start is familiar enough to us: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Freedom—check. That’s a word that resonates in the context of our revolutionary, democratic history. But then Paul starts talking about circumcision, and what to us is quite an odd discussion takes off: “Listen! [Paul knew that people would be falling asleep in the pews.] Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”

You know how people say that you should never bring up religion or politics in conversation? Well maybe we should add genitalia to that list because circumcision seems a strange, uncomfortable topic for polite company. And yet, this was an important and serious issue for the earliest communities in Christ. From the time of Abraham, circumcision was taken as a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. For the Jewish followers of Jesus, this would have been standard practice. But here Paul is addressing people from the Roman province of Galatia in Asia Minor, which is in modern-day Turkey. For non-Jews in the audience, perhaps the majority, the males would not typically have been circumcised and the idea of being required to do so might have been a deal breaker.

It sounds funny, but when we get nervous about having to stand up in front of the church and speak or make cookies or join a committee or whatever it is that a “good member” should do, we might remember our Galatian friends who were understandably nervous about whether a surgical procedure would be required to join the community. Some insisted upon the circumcision of all male believers (yes, this is one of those male-only issues, but in this case, that might not be such a bad thing for women!). “It’s in the rules,” such people surely argued. Others didn’t think circumcision should be a barrier to inclusion in the community of faith. That’s the assertion Paul makes, and his retort is especially awesome. Yes, Paul shares some profound insights, but we know he’s really serious when he declares, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Well okay then! Talk about a flare for dramatics!

I’m giving you this lighthearted history lesson for a few reasons. At the most basic level, it’s helpful to understand the historical context more fully in order to grasp what kind of teaching is being put forward. But more than that, I want us to allow ourselves to be surprised by the bible, to be confused, amused, annoyed, astounded, inspired—whatever arises when we really pay attention. It’s not all stuffy and impenetrable. The bible offers us glimpses of real-world issues with which people of faith have wrestled over the centuries. And, as we can find within the pages of our sacred texts themselves, the questions and concerns shift over time. Circumcision was one of the major topics of debate for the earliest followers of Christ. But if someone were to raise the same issue at a United Methodist conference today, I imagine there would be many dumbfounded, even irritated looks. We have our own sets of concerns about bodies and practices of faith that arise out of the multifarious ways people experience God and the world today.

If there is to be value in finding ourselves strangers to these ancient debates, it’s in learning from the processes by which earnest people of faith have been wrangling with vexing questions—sometimes the same, sometimes changing—for millennia. What wisdom might we glean from voices across the ages? Paul offers an elegant response that is at once clear and challenging: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision—[we might insert a contemporary issue]—counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” The only thing that counts is faith working through love.

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Beyond Marriage…

*Originally written for the Methodist Federation for Social Action blog and posted here

One of the biggest fights friends in my master of divinity program ever had erupted over same-sex marriage. The question was not if it should happen—all were fierce advocates for equality—but how and when. On one side were strategic minds worried that a case brought before the Supreme Court too soon could set equality back. On the other were persons from less friendly parts of the country where the lack of equality for all would continue to mean equality for none.

It’s challenging to be radically progressive and pragmatically strategic. We in the United Methodist Church know this well.

But here we are, just a short time away from finding out how this Supreme Court will deal with the questions of marriage equality before it. And beyond what my friends or I could have imagined just a few years ago, there are social and political indicators to suggest the U.S. is “ready” for a sweeping ruling (whether or not these justices will be so bold is another matter).

Even still, while I celebrate the progress and the potential in this moment, I also warily wonder what and, more importantly, who it is “victory” on marriage would represent. While an ostensibly effective strategy for allaying fears and winning popular approval of marriage equality might be to present same-sex couples as “just like us” (notice the continued privileging of the heteronormative position), it is important that we consider who is in view, who is not, and what is given up to appear “acceptable.”

Being strategic toward very particular change isn’t necessarily being radically progressive toward thoroughgoing justice.

We would do well to pay attention to the subjects put forward as acceptable, as not too threatening to the status quo: to notice their social-economic status, gender, race, ethnicity, abilities, etc. And if we are concerned for justice, we ought to pay attention to the persons and issues not addressed or served all that well (or at all) by marriage equality as it has been conceived, who are in fact obscured and left behind by relatively elite and conservative interests in perpetuating a nominally expanded institution of marriage.

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