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

Posts tagged ‘justice’

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. (more…)

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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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The Other Side of Fear, or The Critique of Hope

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.

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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God Will Delight…

Last Sunday morning, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women celebrated its 40th anniversary in worship. The service was uplifting and inspiring as witnesses gave thanks for the work faithful United Methodists have been carrying out toward the empowerment of women in the church and world, at the same time that they raised challenges and urged the church to press onward still toward the vision of gender justice.

I led the reading of the day’s psalm and so was up on the platform throughout the service. From there, I watched as the gathered community streamed through the lines to receive communion. My eyes welled up as I watched friends and fellow sojourners pass through, some of whom I have gotten to know through our work together on the board of GCSRW these past four years, some new friends, and some old. I gave thanks that we journey together, sharing gifts and offering grace as we learn in connection what it means to be the fullness of the Body of Christ.

I cannot quite explain the tears, for they fell with more than gratitude. I am not sure what it means yet to say this, but I felt also that this was a sort of good-bye. After 40 years, it appeared the General Conference was poised to close down GCSRW, combining it with the General Commission on Religion and Race and reducing its status to that of a committee (which indeed came to pass on Wednesday, May 2).

But also, I felt some sense of farewell with respect to the whole church. I do not mean that I intend personally to leave. Rather, The United Methodist Church I have known is no more.

This General Conference has been marked by a fear of the future, by fear that there will be no future without changing course. Imagining a new path forward has largely centered around institutional restructuring and the development of new practices aimed at equipping local churches for vital ministry to transform the world.

There is another shift, however, that may very well change the culture of The United Methodist Church. We have known deep divisions on many issues throughout our Methodist tradition, and perhaps the defining debate at this moment is around sexuality. This is not new. But what has begun clearly to develop is the opportunity for those opposed to any change of the status quo to consolidate power as the number of African delegates, who tend to be socially conservative, increases with the growth of The UMC in Africa.

At this General Conference, efforts not just to maintain present policies but to make them even more restrictive have been finding success. Quite surely there are those who believe that this will allow the church to be more faithful biblically and theologically. And for such persons, this General Conference may seem good news, perhaps even a building block to growing the church once again.

But there are many faithful United Methodists who know God’s love and grace in and through the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. We know from scripture that the work of true disciples will bear good fruit, and so we recognize as holy the goodness that is evidenced through the lives and ministry of LGBT Christians.

Though the General Conference has once again refused officially to acknowledge our division on this issue, the disagreement is undeniable. Thus, seeking greater constraints of the full and equal participation of LGBT persons in The United Methodist Church seems an effort to wield the power of majority votes in order to dominate others and silence dissent.

In this way, I sense the spiritual death of the church, not just because people do not agree with me but because our differences are effaced. If we are organized not so as to live in the richness of our diversity but in order to enforce “unanimity,” if we seek further to alienate our LGBT neighbors and friends, if we cannot commit significant resources to the work of gender and racial justice, if we cannot engage one another theologically but talk past each other with the knowledge that we do or do not “have the votes,” then we have failed to be the Body of Christ. And we have ceased to live biblically insofar as we find modeled in the bible the holding together of disparate ideas and practices.

This feeling emerged most palpably for me during one of the communion hymns at the GCSRW worship service: “For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table.” The refrain declares with unshakable hope, “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion, and peace. Yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy.”

I could not sing through the sobs that these words brought. Gathered in that place were so many who have struggled and continue to strive to bring justice and joy into the world. However, in this context, at a conference marked by the consolidation of power and domination, I wonder if The UMC can be a church doing work in which God will delight. I wonder if The UMC will have room at the table that I might sit with those who read this and are not of one mind with me, who are satisfied with the actions of this General Conference. I do not wish for a place in which our differences would be erased but in which they would be honored and through which we might know more fully the vibrant, dynamic diversity of creation.

And so I mourn for a church that feels to me like it has lost its soul…

Yet still, as Christians we believe in a God who brings new life out of death. If the death of The UMC is what we fear, perhaps it is time to expect resurrection.

At the end of the day, Church happens in community. Real life happens, not in a political conference, but in the interactions of neighbors, in the ways we find both joy and pain, encouragement and struggle, hope and despair as we work out what it means to live in relationship with God and with one another.

The policies enacted by the General Conference will have formative and constraining effects on the lives of individuals, churches, and organizations, and this matters greatly. But as always, what matters will be the ways we engage one another in our daily lives when it is not winning a vote that is at stake but coexistence. It will be away from General Conference where we will or will not make choices to form bonds of mutuality, care, and understanding.

The real soul of the movement of people called Methodists will always be known in and through justice and joy when they are made manifest. And in these moments, God will surely delight.

Who is Being Compromised?

Coming into the 2012 General Conference, delegates had before themselves various plans to restructure the institutional church so as to most “effectively” create and sustain “vital congregations.” (I use quotes because I begin to lose the sense that such words have any meaning as they become cliché. Nevertheless, the issue of restructuring to meet the needs of the 21st-century church is truly important work.)

The legislative committee charged with making a recommendation rejected every single plan (some in the last fifteen minutes before the enforced conclusion of committee work). They rejected compromise proposals. So this week, around 1,000 delegates will start at nearly the same place the smaller committee began.

If I seem to be lacking faith in the process, my sentiments are being read correctly. The fact of the matter is that now back-room deals have been made to come up with compromises that delegates might approve.

But who is at the table? And who is being compromised? I will wait to see the names associated with the proposal, but the answer as to who has been engaged in this process will probably not satisfy those who are committed to inclusion and justice.

The compromise proposal that was submitted this afternoon so that delegates can read the petition tomorrow and vote on Wednesday combines the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the General Commission on Religion and Race and essentially strips all of their functions except monitoring. That is, this new “Committee on Inclusivity.”

But there are compelling, significant reasons not to compromise GCSRW and its work.

First of all, reducing GCSRW to a “committee” undercuts its ability actually to monitor the church effectively. A small office, lodged under a larger Center, cannot speak truth to power at the highest levels of the church and hold the churchwide structures accountable (especially not the Center overseeing it).

Secondly, the compromise proposal fails to deal adequately with the need for the church to enact comprehensive sexual ethics policies and practices in order to prevent and address the problem of sexual misconduct. GCSRW has been facilitating this work now for years and has become a trusted partner of bishops, district superintendents, local churches, and, importantly, victim-survivors. No other agency of the church is equipped to seek fair process for both victim-survivors and the accused since other entities are primarily invested in protecting the clergy or church assets. When people feel that they have been treated fairly, they are less likely to sue the church. And with a current budget of less than $1 million per year, if only one lawsuit is prevented, GCSRW has paid for itself. Reducing GCSRW will save the church little and could cost it significantly.

Third, GCSRW was formed 40 years ago because the UMC committed itself to the idea that gender justice is not just women’s work but the work of the whole church. Addressing gender discrimination and institutional sexism is not nearly complete, especially as the UMC grows in places of the world where women are not always permitted to participate as full and equal members. If we are to be a global church, we have a responsibility to continue and even expand efforts to empower women worldwide.

When considering this structural compromise, the UMC ought to be prepared to answer, “Who is being compromised?” and then to respond out of a Gospel commitment to be in ministry with and for all, especially the most vulnerable.

Rest assured that the staff of GCSRW is working hard with delegates to maintain the Commission as a free-standing, independent monitoring and advocacy agency.

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