Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Letter to the Editor

A month or so ago, I was in a meeting at my local church and we were collectively bemoaning the Texas Legislature and the draconian proposed budget. One person commented that it's interesting that you always hear the preachers on the news announcing how some hurricane is God's judgment against gays or liberals or feminists. But you never hear that it's God's judgment against those who aren't taking care of the poor or the widows or the children. I began to play with the idea and the following letter to the editor was the result. It was published on April 27 in the Austin American-Statesman.

“With all of the wild fires breaking out in Texas, I’m surprised we haven’t heard from our brethren on the right who are quick to see disasters as God’s hand of judgment against personal/sexual sins. So I’ll make a pre-emptive strike with an alternative scenario and with all due respect to those who have lost homes and family.

“God has seen how Texans are scheming to treat the poor, the widows, the immigrants, the elderly and has unleashed fire and flames from the heavens, in fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah: 'Woe to you who make unjust policies and draft oppressive legislation, who deprive the powerless of justice and rob poor people—my people—of their rights, who prey upon the widowed and rob orphans. What will you do on that Day of reckoning when disaster comes from far away?' (10:1-3)”

I added my church email address to the letter and so the emails arrived before I was even aware that my letter had been published. The responses divided about equally between those who agreed with the basic point and those who found it sadly wanting.

I received some truly wonderful compliments, including one person who had about given up on the church, but would be at University UMC soon to visit. Another came from an avowed “secular humanist” who said my letter had caused her to rethink her views.

Several came from conservatives who were unhappy that a “reverend” was espousing political views. (Can you get much more political than “the kingdom of God”?) And there were a few who misunderstood the intended satire and thought I really had it in for the good people of West Texas. (I don’t.)

Only one person who disagreed took up the verse from Isaiah, which I thought was telling. That verse typifies prophetic discourse, and it’s a line of thinking sadly ignored by Christians who must believe that free market capitalism, low taxes and no safety net are in the Bible somewhere. (And I suppose if they follow pseudo-historian David Barton, they may feel entirely justified in their fiction.)

Becky Garrison, a Christian writer and a satirist, understands satire as the jester to the king, the one who keeps those in power honest. There’s satire in scripture: Amos marrying Gomer. I wonder, though, in a period of such heightened tension between opposing sides, does satire have a place in Christian discourse?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Is Reconciling Reconciling?

I appreciate the opportunity to speak at this Reconciling Service. I’m grateful that you’ve created space for talking about what it means to be a “reconciling” church. One of the definitions of salvation in the Old Testament is the creation of a wide space and I hope that’s what we’re doing in our churches—creating that space for real engagement of what it means to be reconciling.

The very first thing I want to do is give thanks for the reconciling movement of lay people in Austin who have faced down so much opposition and so many obstacles to create communities of reconciliation in a city that, while progressive on the surface, has many deep pockets of prejudice and much work to do on reconciliation. I know that George Ricker and Chuck Merrill, my predecessors at UUMC took tremendous heat for welcoming gays and lesbians to University church and I’m forever grateful for their brave witness.

I hope you’ll forgive me if my “sermon” this evening is not a formal or even an informal exegesis of the second chapter of Ephesians. The quick and dirty version is that for Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s time, reconciliation meant that they would no longer be enemies, but in right relationship, in a mutually productive and enriching relationship. Ephesians 2 and so many other passages of scripture are the horizon toward which we head in any kind of reconciliation work.

Reconciliation is a gift from God, but it comes with marching orders: namely, to partner with God in creating the kind of community that we see in the life and teachings of Jesus. It’s difficult work, as those groups, for example, gays and straights, who have been separated learn how to be in a community, how to love and trust each other, how to worship and serve together, how to be healers and to receive healing.

Our beloved DS, Bobbi Kaye, says that all United Methodist churches are reconciling churches. Becoming reconciling should not be a scary project for us. The United Methodist church brings together so many different traditions, because reconciliation is in our DNA. Not that we’re done with it by any means. For all of us, even those churches that have been reconciling twenty years or more, reconciliation is still unfinished work; whether it’s our relationship with the GLBTQ community, with racial and ethnic communities, with the disabled and the poor, with all those who have found that they don’t have the right key to get in the front door of our churches, we are none of us done and now dear God please give us some other more meaningful work to do. I don’t think we’re done at University just because we had a vote; I know that I’m not done and I’m guessing that God has much work to do on each one of us.

At University church, reconciliation has taken concrete form in the work of the laity over the last 10 or 12 years. A small, active group of leaders have shared with Sunday school classes, home rooms, UMW circles, basically any group of people in the church who would listen, about the real life experiences of gays and lesbians. They fielded difficult questions, shared personal stories, shed tears together, prayed and over time, almost all of our small groups at University voted to become reconciling. Those reconciling groups were like the starter kit for the fermentation of reconciliation and without them becoming a reconciling congregation would have been a very different and much more difficult project.

This past fall and winter, our reconciling committee stepped up the pace in preparation for a vote on affiliating with RMN in February. They prepared some excellent discussions, held a movie night, visited Sunday school classes, even sponsored a lecture from Dr. L. Michael White on the clobber passages. We had over 250 people stay after church for a called Church Conference with our DS, Bobbi Kaye and almost 95 % of those in attendance voted to affiliate with RMN.

The opposition to the vote, which popped up along the way, was unexpected, at least from my perspective. With a few exceptions, no one who opposed “reconciliation” was opposed to the participation of gays and lesbians in every aspect of church life. I know … you’re wondering, well, if you’re okay with that, then why would you be in opposition to reconciling, right? Did I say that reconciliation is confusing and messy?

What I found was that the opposition fell roughly into two groups. The first group felt that we were already reconciling and saw no benefit from our participating in RMN. Our arguments that this was partnering with others, working against the exclusionary language of the Discipline, all of that fell flat. My pastoral intuition tells me that some of the opposition probably had nothing to do with any of this, but it’s difficult to suggest this to members of your congregation without sounding condescending.

The second group was opposed to making a public statement about who we are. Our arguments that proclamation is the essence of what it means to be the church, that we must say out loud where we stand again fell flat. One variation of this position was the idea that becoming “reconciling” would be a turnoff to young people. I actually found that the opposite was true—we have young people coming to University and wanting to be part of a declared reconciling community. Last week a couple who will join the church later this month told me that if we had voted against “reconciling” they would have continued their search for a church home elsewhere.
The recent book unchristian, by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnamon, used the Barna group research to detail the main reasons why young people in the age group 18 to 35 do not attend church anywhere. The perception that most churches are anti-gay is a huge turnoff to most young adults. Now I’m not sure I’m ready to write the book on reconciling as a church growth strategy, but it’s worth reflecting on all of this in these declining times.

When we became a reconciling church, two UM pastors, both of whom are intelligent and compassionate, made fun of the decision. One wrote to me: “After the decision, UUMC will still be the same white, upper middle class educated university church it was before. Nothing will change.” While on a very superficial level that may be true, it misses the powerful healing dynamic of welcoming others with open arms. That’s what folks experience in a reconciling church and to make that any less than revolutionary in our day is to deeply misunderstand the dynamics of reconciliation. To say that we accept you and welcome you, but … you must become heterosexual or you must live a life of celibacy, which is the stance of the vast majority of congregations … that is not welcoming, it’s barely toleration and it’s certainly not love. There is no other group in the church that we single out for this kind of attention. And for someone who perhaps has only recently begun to understand and accept their own sexuality, this stance cannot be anything other than judgmental and painful.

For reconciliation to happen, there is work for each of us to do. I think it’s time for the “gay issue” if it’s even appropriate to call it “the gay issue,” to come out of the closet in our churches and in our annual conferences. It’s time for us to study the stories of gay men and women who have been persecuted and taunted for their sexual orientation and who come to church for sanctuary and healing and find more hurt. If we’re ever to make any progress on reconciling, these stories need to be heard and the “Believe out Loud” curriculum should be standard curriculum for our adult Sunday school classes.

Over the years, I’ve found so many moving testimonies to the complexity of being gay or lesbian and navigating the church. Rev. Dawson Taylor is just one. Taylor was a UMC pastor, but transferred several years ago to the UCC, which has become an all too familiar scenario. This is part of an address that he made to the Texas Conference at a “Breaking the Silence” luncheon.

“The march for justice is long and tiring. I am certain that there are times when you can begin to wonder if it is making any difference whatsoever. But hear me out: When Michelangelo was asked how he was able to carve his great sculpture of David, he responded: ‘I saw the angel in the marble and chiseled until I set it free.” My friends, we see the Church that God intends in the marble and we must continue to chisel until we set it free. Every time you stand up to a heterosexist joke, you chisel another piece. Every time you tell someone that it is impossible to love the sinner and hate the sin, you chisel another piece. Every time you look into the eyes of a young gay person and say ‘I believe in you,’ you chisel another piece. Every time you make a stand that my Annual Conference, the birthplace of my faith, will not be in the grips of fear or untruth, you chisel another piece.”

I remain hopeful tonight, because each one of sitting here has moved along that toleration continuum, each one of us has, by the grace of God, moved from somewhere around mere tolerance or perhaps even rejection to appreciation and celebration of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. May God grant each of us the courage to take up our chisels, and guided by God’s spirit of truth and love, begin carving out a new path that truly reflects the all-embracing love of God for all of God’s children.

(A sermon given on Sunday, May 1, at First United Methodist Church, Austin, Texas at a Reconciling Ministries worship service.)