Thursday, November 21, 2013

Will you stay silent?

Anyone who reads this blog likely knows that a Pennsylvania United Methodist elder in full connection has been suspended for 30 days. He was convicted on Monday for officiating at a same sex union. His son was one of the people whose union was celebrated. The jury found that he did, in fact, violate the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church's law book. I think the verdict is insane because rather than revoke his credentials, they have given him 30 days to discern and then expect him to voluntarily surrender them if he won't uphold the discipline in its entirety. I hope he doesn't.

Jeremy Smith has shared a list of ways that many United Methodists don't uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety yet aren't having charges filed or facing trials for them. He's also written about some of the shady background of the charges being filed — which local secular press covered as well. I spent four years as what I now call a transitional United Methodist.

My time with the UMC was mostly outstanding — I was welcomed whole heartedly into a new youth group as a high school junior and participated in the Wesley Foundation through all four years of college; I worked for it for two of them even as an Episcopalian. I served on the Steering Committee for the United Methodist Student Movement for a year. I started my discernment for ordination process with the United Methodist Church.

While liturgical tastes/expectations/practices and the candidacy for ordination process (not set up for undergraduates who go to college outside of their district or annual conference) were much higher on the list of reason I left the United Methodist Church, my sexuality was number three. Ten years after Gene Robinson was elected, consented to, and consecrated bishop in The Episcopal Church the United Methodist Church is removing a man for marrying his son. I happily entertain discussion about covenant, rules, civil disobedience and biblical obedience; unjust laws being no law and all and juries having to follow laws rather than ignore the ones they don't like.

I understand that. I worked for a pastor who didn't baptize infants and rebaptized adults, too. The annual conference where my campus ministry was has an elder in full connection who performed a Skype "baptism" years ago and the video has been on YouTube since then, with vows omitted, thanksgiving over the water omitted, etc. And how many bishops, when they instruct ordinands to wear black robes, ignore the paragraph of the Discipline that mandates following the ordinal — which is really clear that ordinands should wear an alb?

I don't think that any of them would have been put on trial if I'd filed a complaint — but then again, I don't think that trials are the way to settle disagreements in the church, particularly if punitive justice rather than restorative is what is being sought, especially if the sentence lets the jury not feel like the punishment is on them.

What I don't understand, though, is those who are staying in the United Methodist Church and waiting for it to change around them. I am not the only who to have made the comparison between individuals' relationship with the institution as one of an abusive relationship. I have watched dear friends be subject to processes of unofficial investigation with due process violated as they hoped a trial wouldn't emerge who love the institution. I have seen friends fight to hide their sexuality at all costs. No, not even hide their sexuality, but hide anything that might give suspicion that they might be LGBT and always looking over their shoulder, concerned who saw what and who is or is not "safe."

I particularly don't understand it when they stay they want to stay in the institution to work for change, but don't work for change. More than LGBT people saying that (which they do) I don't understand so-called allies that will say nice things in small groups about their support for LGBT people but won't speak against anti-gay resolutions as their annual, jurisdictional, or regional conferences. One of the reasons I like Jeremy Smith and his blog so much is that as a straight ally he doesn't hide his support for LGBT inclusion.

As many have pointed out, and with whom I agree, not everyone is called to surrender credentials in solidarity, to come out and have them revoked, or to officiate at blessing same-sex unions. But if someone is saying that those aren't their calls, what are their calls? I don't believe that God calls any of us to have secret safe groups as the only places where we express our support, approval, or beliefs that are different.

After learning his sentence Frank Shaefer said, "I feel I have to be an advocate, an outspoken advocate for all lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people...I will never be silent again." For following his call, he's facing losing his credentials. If you are a United Methodist, what is your call in this? You can't be defrocked for publicly, vocally, advocating for changing the way things are. Your abstentions are just as hurtful as a no vote to the person you've just told you support completely.

If you are just way more Methodist than I am and staying with the institution to change it, how are you working for that change? Working, not just hoping. Are you organizing groups? Drawing attention to difference? Or hoping that someone with a little less to lose — or maybe even a little more — will do that?

This is probably a little heavy-handed, but I'm hurting. I'm hurting for my friends all over the church who love the church that keeps slapping them in the face and punching them in the gut. I'm hurting because I worry that staying in the system has turned into joining the system and that fear is beating love. I'm hurting, largely, because I'm wondering and worried when it will be someone I know who despite their best efforts at covering anything that hinted at queerness are found out and dragged through a trial. How are you working on this?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Congregational, transformational change

Two weeks ago I started a series I expected to write over the next week, and that didn't happen. It just didn't. I haven't lost it, though. Two weeks ago I wrote about expecting personal change, inviting people to tell their stories of it, and sharing one of my own. I said there would be three, and here is part two — about the congregation.

My work as a diocesan staff person is not limited to working in the diocesan office, and I wouldn't let it be. I love being in the field, meeting with clergy and lay people of churches from around the Diocese of California. I hate to say it, but the people with whom I've met (although it's been at their choice and that may say something) have had a lot less anxiety about the kinds of changes I suggest and propose than leaders from congregations with whom I met in Provinces I and II while I was in seminary.

In my specific context and ministry I'm often advocating for a greater social media presence by congregations and encouraging them (enabling?) them to see that as part of their ministry to their flock and to those beyond the congregation. I can't count the number of times someone has said, "Well, no one in our church is on Facebook or Twitter." That is possible, if unlikely, but there are countless untold numbers who are on Facebook and Twitter and not in your church...and that's how I reply to that.

I met with a rector and a new staff member of his today, and the rector had a senior warden who used to say "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got." Talking about how churches need to change is nothing new and it's something that something of an echo chamber online right now, but I've often seen it in a context of desperation and fear of dying or death — rather than changing the world, and being changed ourselves.

A few months ago at a conference of lay and clergy leaders a priest ask where the requirement to be a baptized, confirmed member to serve on some governing body (I think her vestry) came from — if it was canon or tradition. She said, "Because I have great people who want to serve, but none of them is confirmed. How do we change the canon?" Yes, changing the canon would be a change, that's certain, but why can't we ask the people involved in leadership to be confirmed? If they want to be a part of governance do we not want them more invested and committed — and given additional grace and strength of the Holy Spirit to perform that ministry?

The Gerasene demoniac was bursting with the Good News of what Jesus had just done for him. I asked two weeks ago how we are doing that and how we're enabling individuals to do that. Now, though, I am curious how we're encountering a Christ who is changing our congregations, a Christ who sets us free from always doing what we've always done (and thus getting what we've always gotten). Rather than assuming things will never change, where do we look for change to happen and trust God that it will?

In April I attended the Episcopal Communicators conference, where the keynote speeches were on social media. Communicators at various levels of church leadership spoke from their experience and some spoke of the difficulty they've had with churches that struggle and refuse to embrace newer media (which I think also speaks to a refusal to embrace or welcome new people and voices, let alone look for or recruit them). Someone at one of my tables said something that I latched on to and loved — let the dead bury the dead.

There are tools available for trying something new. There are tools available for asking how we might be church differently, how we might learn to burst with Good News as a community of what Christ has done for us. I think that suggesting that the dead bury the dead is actually one place where we can be expecting change; rather than coddling let there be a call to change and know it will happen. If it doesn't, ask why — starting with if the people there knew the Risen Christ in their daily lives.

When we as congregations are bursting with this Good News, we have to tell (and in turn change) our communities, too. As I read new-atheist rants about how bad religion is, I note that most of them have never studied theology nor have they cared to look much into the past of religion, certainly the past of Christianity. There have been awful things done in the name of Christ, certainly, but hospitality as a Christian virtue — welcoming the stranger, even if she is sick — led to the beginnings of hospitals.

Romans thought that Christians' giving food to whoever came to their houses was dumb, that people were scamming them going from house to house getting as much as they can. Maybe they were...but maybe someone needed help to get going again. The Good News of Christ changes lives and it changes communities. How are our churches changing themselves into new contexts and how are they changing the world around them? What would be missing in a neighborhood if a church ceased to exist there?

In my work with priests and lay leaders, talking about communication and communication strategy I get to reference two outstanding resources that the Diocese of California has produced. One is on welcome, and the other on new member incorporation...though it deals with changing communities and changing the world. They are both available here in the be::community library. They are series totally about two hours each. The ones I most highly recommend (in this context) are those by Bishop Marc Andrus and by Cn. Chuck Robertson.

The congregation with which I met today does outreach to inmates on death row and to teen mothers. They support a food pantry, too. They are changing their community if bit by bit. Today we worked on how to share that and broaden the laborers of the harvest. How is your congregation laboring, changing itself (with God's help) and changing the world around it?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Every long run needs a water element

I am running the New York City Marathon in November. I haven't written about that here because I haven't been writing here enough. I'm running with Colin Chapman (and at his suggestion/intervention). We're running together with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which works to fight childhood obesity. This is immediately where my mind went yesterday when I heard the end of the epistle reading (to the Hebrews), "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..."

An old friend of mine took up triathlons in college and referenced this passage on his blog. Yesterday it hit me for the first time how much better this imagery works now that I'm actually training for a big race that requites perseverance. It also works because I use the images of people who've donated to my fundraising goals to get me out of bed, off the couch, and keep putting one foot in front of the next. I have a cloud of witnesses that helps me run with perseverance the distance that has been set before me. I also rely on the strengths of people who taught me to run and were patient with me in the early days.

On my 8 mile run yesterday I had some other realizations. I ran through Golden Gate Park yesterday and realized as I passed the Prayer Book Cross and the waterfall behind it that my long runs need a water element. In baptism classes at Trinity, Wall Street I talk about how it's no accident that the church uses water, food, and drink as its primary tangibles. I regularly made mention of remembering my baptism as I ran along the Hudson.

I got to the Prayer Book Cross (waterfall, and creek) as my run was starting to get to me because I was doing a bigger distance. (I only realized later that it started to go downhill at that point which helped), and that's when I got the new mantra (which our running coach encourages) of "run with perseverance the distance that has been set before me." I just kept saying it to myself, too. All my long runs, really, have had a water element to them: the Seinne, the Liffey, the Hudson, the Golden Gate Straight, and now this little creek.

About this time, though I started to get to an area of the park that was foggy. Earlier in the day (in Oakland) I'd been anxious about the heat and humidity of my run. Running through the park was delightful, especially as I got to the fog. It was cool and made me feel cooler. It was also a nice visual for running into the cloud (literally) of witnesses who were supporting me — financially and emotionally, giving money to the goal and giving encouragement when I am discouraged, and harassing me to go for my run.

Later today I'm going to be messaging people who've supported me financially and ask them what they'd like me to listen to on my runs and race, a way of carrying them with me on my race, remembering who requested what song and thinking about them on my run, how they'd helped me and were continuing to help me run the race that had been set before me...and 26 miles is definitely going to need some perseverance.

If you'd like to join the cloud of witnesses helping me on my run — and helping to fight childhood obesity — you can donate here.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Personal, transformational change

I've been meaning to write these three (?) blog entries for about two months. In my mind they're going to be personal, community, and institutional levels of transformational change. What is lighting a fire under my today is the following quotation from Irreducible Minimum: pure snark as church messaging
Don't expect to be transformed. Like, at all. It's wicked expensive, and we have other things to do. Jesus is inconvenient.
On June 23 I heard a great sermon about the Gerasene demoniac. The line I remember most from that sermon — because I had to write it down — is that the demoniac, when Jesus refuses to let him go with him, proclaims throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. The preacher said that he was "bursting with Good News of what Jesus had just done for him."

In this same sermon, though (as I recall) the preacher told an Episcopalians light bulb changing joke. One version of this I've heard includes having one to mix the drinks, but most versions of this the numbers change, but one person does something (either changing the light bulb or calling the electrician) and then a variable number of others do the same thing: talk about how much they liked the old lightbulb or miss it.

Do we as Episcopalians (as Mainline Protestants) fear, resist, or expect transformational change, the kind of change that is eye-opening to others (if not immediate) and that is contagious of a new life. Do we expect sanctification, being made holy, or are we quite content with business as usual? In the tradition I grew up in, people shared stories about how their lives had been changed by knowing Jesus. Some people gave up drinking (what they felt they needed to do) and others had peace through difficult times.

As we bring people into our flocks, are we avoiding transformational change by lowering standards or are we praying for the transformation of souls, encouraging people to make changes, and then supporting them in their efforts with God's help (which can quite easily come in the form of community assistance). I don't think these transformations will all be immediate and dramatic, but I am asking if we expect them at all. Do we really expect people to be being made holy in this life?

If it doesn't happen, yes, grace. But I understand grace as not only forgiveness all the time, but also God molding our hearts, minds, and wills more toward that of Christ — and in so doing setting us free from the things that bind us. The Gerasene demoniac was freed not only of the demons, but literal chains, and couldn't wait to tell people about his good news. Do we ask people what their good news is? And do we tell what ours is?

One experiences of transformation in my life, a time where I have experienced the most grace and growth with God, was when I came out to God and then began a coming out process to people who knew me. I think it was summer of 2007 when I was living in South Carolina. Earlier in the summer I'd had an intense conversation with my mom about a friend of mine in Alabama that my step-dad had said spent the night at our house — he hadn't.

My mom asked if he was gay and then asked if I was gay. I said no on both counts. I lied to my mom because I wanted to have my summer in South Carolina; I didn't want her to call my uncle and tell him that he needed to send me home. I was carrying the guilt and shame not only of being gay, but also lying to so many people — including actively lying when I was asked.

When I've told people this they say, "Um, don't you think God knew?" Well, yes, obviously God knew. God created me in God's image, but words, especially spoken words have power. In middle school a relief for me and plenty of other people was online chatrooms. We could talk about our curiosity because typing it made it not real. As long as we didn't say it out loud we weren't stuck.

When in my prayer I said "God, I'm gay." It seemed as though God thumped my forehead and said, 'Duh. That's how I made you." This was after years of praying to have those feelings taken away, lying on the floor of my bedroom in high school in tears praying for me and another dear friend to be straightened out. When I heard/felt the closest I've ever felt to God audibly speaking to me, I was filled with Joy (as Lewis writes about it) and started to have bubbly laughter.

That thing that I'd been hiding, been so afraid of, been lying about — wasn't anything to worry about. It wasn't analysis of scriptures that changed my mind, it was the presence of Christ breaking the chains of shame and guilt that bound me. That's what started my real-life coming out process beyond just a few friends, and it's what really got rid of the fear I had around me. In John 3 Jesus says, "For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

I was set free and had to come to the light to show that my deeds are done in God — and yet there is change to come. I need to love more simply and rely less on others' opinions of me. I need to do a better job having patience and not getting so angry. I need to do a much better job putting my whole trust in Christ as Lord. I have known change on the personal level, and thus I expect that a relationship with Christ brings it. It won't always look like mine, but I expect that something changes; life changes, and the status quo doesn't remain in a life, when someone knows the Good News of God in Christ.

What are your stories of freedom and redemption? How have your chains been broken? What stories do you have to tell, and where do you tell them, showing the transformational change of Christ?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Of Mary, Martha, and Meyers-Briggs

The audio for the sermon I preached at St. Paul’s, Oakland on July 21, 2013 (Luke 10.38-42) is available for streaming here.

There was not a manuscript for this sermon, just the wind of the Spirit wrapped around meditation and study.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sermon on Luke 10.25-37 — Audio

Here is the audio for my sermon on July 14, 2013 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Oakland.

You clicking the above link or clicking here should open a new tab/window for streaming the audio. The manuscript on which it is based is available here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sermon on Luke 10.25-37

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
14 July 2013
Proper 10,C
Luke 10.25-37
           
The summer after my freshman year I worked for a non-profit called Alabama Rural Ministry. As are many summer camp type job experiences, it was one of the best, worst, and most transformative experiences of my college years. ARM is a non-profit in Alabama about mission camps and plugging youth and anyone else who desires into a meaningful way to serve. There are two sites that run, and one of them is only in the summer. ARM offers day camp for children in the communities it serves and home repair for people whose homes are in need of repair.

Youth groups, adult groups, whoever, come in and assist something of a skeleton staff each week during the summer. Some youth go to the day camp, others go to a construction site. The summer I served, our theme was “Love: the Unspoken Message.” We used the Prayer Attributed to St. Francis as a focusing prayer, and we used the story of the Good Samaritan as our focus text. St. Francis is said to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use word.”
            
Hearing this text, doing the same activities around it each week, doing the same foot washing, and hearing some awful examples of how we might be neighbors desensitized me to this text. It’s one that is read often enough and you’ve probably heard it myriad times. You may have heard the message boiled down to what seems self-explanatory from just the text, Juses’ admonition to “Go and do likewise.” Go do like the Samaritan did, go help your neighbors.
            
You may have heard it spun a variety of ways like why the priest needed to not touch the man because he would have become ritually unclean and wouldn’t have been able to serve the greater good. You may have been left with the question “How do you not help your neighbors? Who are those people you avoid when really you should be doing this great, generous kindness to?”
            
Now, that is certainly a valid tack to take on this text. It’s certainly worth pointing out that Jesus is baiting the elder of the law by having a Levite and a priest pass the man by, and then one of those awful Samaritans, someone outside of Judaism who surely couldn’t do anything right, help the man out. The elder of the law can’t even bring himself to say that the Samaritan was the man’s neighbor. The elder of the law can probably barely bring himself to say, “the one who had mercy on him.”
            
If you’ll look in your inserts, let’s look at the question and answer exchange a little more closely. The elder asks how to get into heaven, Jesus gives him an answer, and the man says he’s done that. Then the man says, “But who is my neighbor?”
            
In typical Jesus form, he doesn’t actually answer the question, he tells a story. Let’s pay attention to the end, though. Jesus says, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The elder of the law then replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” So if we take all of that story and back and forth it reduces to “Who is my neighbor?” with the answer not being “The person in need I help,” but “the person who helps me when I am in need.”
            
Do you see that? The man asks who his neighbor is. Jesus asks who the neighbor was. The lawyer answers the one who showed mercy. So instead of “We should all be helping our neighbors and not avoiding the panhandlers on the street” — which is certainly true — this text invites us to ask who the people who are helpful to us when we’re beaten and broken down. It asks us to think about those people who are our neighbors not because we reach out a hand of privilege to help them, but because they are with us and care for us when we are in need.
            
Taylor Burton-Edwards breaks down how clearly the Samaritan man was the beaten man’s neighbor by highlighting nine distinctive actions of the Samaritan man:
1.     He came near.
2.     He was moved with compassion.
3.     He went to him.
4.     He bandaged the wounds.
5.     He poured oil (a soothing agent) and wine (antiseptic) on the wounds.
6.     He put him on his animal.
7.     He brought him to an inn.
8.     He took care of him at the inn. All of this was what we (and Robert Lupton, in the book noted above) might refer to as "triage." These were things this man could not do for himself in his condition. So the Samaritan did.
 When he had to leave, he gave the innkeeper money to keep caring for him, promising to pay more if needed when he returned. This is a bit of triage, but also something more. The Samaritan wasn’t promising to come back right away and keep fixing everything for the man. Instead, he was making it possible for this man to have some kind of community, and supporting the basic support networks of that community, to get him back on his feet again.
Burton-Edwards points out that this is not ministry to, but ministry with. This is the bureaucracy of the incarnation — God coming to us and being in ministry with us in the person of Jesus. In this story on being neighborly, Jesus is inviting us to let ourselves be vulnerable to others’ help and to others’ hurt. On the cross Jesus modeled for us the ultimate vulnerability — not reacting to those crucifying him, but this was a culmination of his ministry of vulnerability where he shared his life with others. He didn’t have to give anyone enough information for them to betray him, but he did anyway.
            
To follow that example, to be in ministry with people, we have to get to know them, like Jesus the God-man living with humanity. Vulnerability — like Jesus voluntarily showed on the Cross or like the beaten man had forced on him — is not something that is valued in our culture today. Instead fear and self-preservation are often motivating factors.
            
We learned last night, as Andrew Cohen at TheAtlantic said, “you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime.”  
            
We don’t have to go to Florida to see that white privilege is a real thing. Friday night saw the premier of Fruitvale Station here in Oakland and around the Bay Area, a reminder that two white police officers held a young black man down and shot him at point blank range. This event from my senior year of college was much closer to home for those of you who lived here then and live here now.

Nor do we need to look only at Florida to see how vulnerability and interacting with one another work with and against one another — while not convicted of murder, that police officer was convicted of something. We may see through a glass dimly, but the Kingdom of God has come near

We see in the Cross, and in today’s gospel text, that it doesn’t come near in violence, self-preservation, or self-defense. It doesn’t come near in turf wars, in drive-bys, or pre-planned gun fights. And it certainly doesn’t draw near in fear or retaliation — fear of the Samaritan for not being good enough, so bad as to not be named; fear of the black boy who’d bought a pack of Skittles, or violent retaliation against a broken justice system that privileges people from charges to trials to verdicts to sentencing.

No, beloved, the Kingdom of God has drawn near in people who make themselves vulnerable to be in ministry with those around them, to assess needs from a built relationship and meet them as they are able, not because they are better than.

The Kingdom of God draws near as you help the Food Co-op, in helping the work of Senior Resources at St. Paul’s. Two instances where not only do people — you — show mercy to vulnerable, marginalized people, but those serving show vulnerability by letting themselves know the margins, by leaving their places of comfort to places of disease and discomfort. The Kingdom of God draws near when you stand at sites of shootings in this city and say that they are not okay — and when you work with perpetrators and victims for peace with justice.

The man in today’s gospel text was beaten to that place, and the one who helped him was dismissed because of his race. Jesus admonishes the elder of the law to go and do likewise, but only after he tells him that his neighbor is the one who opened himself to vulnerability. To whom are you being a neighbor in that way?