Monday, June 29, 2009

A Call for Change

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and in recognition of the many ways that equal rights for all people are being fought for all over the world today, I am sharing the text of a sermon I preached two Sundays ago. 

The text being referenced is Acts 8:26-40, where Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch on the road.

For the audio of this sermon, see Episode 7 of The Truth As Best I Know It Podcast.

Annual Conference begins today in Brentwood, and we have a lot of work to do over the next few days. The 2008 General Conference approved a number of amendments to our Constitution, and kind of like amending the US Constitution, these amendments have to be ratified by a majority of the Annual Conferences to take affect.

One of the amendments that is being voted on changes some of the language about inclusiveness in our denomination. The change would state that all people are eligible to become members of the United Methodist Church. Sounds like a no brainer, right? All people are welcome in the church! The thing is, though, that there are a lot of people who are opposed to this amendment, but their argument is a bit hard to understand. The folks who oppose the inclusiveness amendment say that stating that all people are eligible to become members of the church would change the church’s stand on homosexuality. That’s not even remotely true, but that’s what they’re arguing. The amendment saying nothing about sexual orientation, and our social principles remain the same. They’re doing this not because they actually think that the amendment has anything to do with issues of sexual orientation; they’re doing it because they know by brining up the gay issue people will get very emotional and they’ll be able to trick them into voting the way they want.

Recently I received a letter from the Clarksville Ministerial Association inviting me to a meeting where a speaker would be informing of how a hate crimes bill that is now before Congress would supposedly make preaching about homosexuality a hate crime. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t go to the meeting. But once again we see someone bringing up the gay issue as smoke screen to scare people into agreeing with their position. These are just two examples of the way we see dialogue in Christian circles devolving from actually talking about issues into misinformation and fear mongering. And as a pastor I’m forced to ask myself why this is.

Now, before I go on, let me say that I’m not here today to tell you what you should believe about issues of sexual orientation. Good, faithful people who love God and consider the Bible to be authoritative come down on all different sides on these issues. There are those who read certain passages in the Old Testament and believe that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin. And there are those, myself included, who read those same passages, and looking in light of the historical and cultural circumstances in which they were written, conclude that the Bible doesn’t really say anything about what we currently understand as same gender attraction. Like I said, my goal today is not to tell you what to believe, so I bring this up only to say that there are good and faithful people on all sides of these issues.

Since there is genuine disagreement among Christians about these issues, we should have honest and open dialogue about them. What we can’t do is keep things going the way they are now, because it’s absolutely killing us. We’ve retreated into our mutual camps and lob rhetorical bombs and hollow soundbytes at one another, and a lot of people are getting hurt in the process. People who are gay have suffered tremendous emotional abuse at the hands of the church, and many people who see this kind of stuff go on want to have nothing to do with Christianity.

There was a book that came out two years ago called un-Christian, and it talked about the results of a massive study that the George Barna group conducted about people’s perceptions of Christianity. They found that 91% of non-church-goers and 80% of church goers under 40 perceived Christianity as hateful towards gays and lesbians. The perception wasn’t that Christians had a respectful disagreement, it was that they hated gay people. Of course, there have been a lot of people who have been quick to point the finger at the media, saying that the media is liberal and anti-Christian, but you remember what grandma used to say when you pointed the finger at someone else? You’ve got three more fingers pointing back at you. We can’t blame our image problems on anybody but ourselves.

Now I realize it’s a bit strange for me to say “we” and “us” in this conversation, because I’m largely preaching to the choir here. In the two years I’ve been your pastor I’ve never heard anyone engage in any bigoted or hateful speech against any group, and I proudly tell my colleagues that. Not participating in the evils of bigoted and hateful speech is certainly a good start, but we can’t stop there. Again, I can’t tell you what to believe about these issues. What I can say is that the way we as Christians talk about these issues has to change. We have to take a stand against hatred, because hated has no place in the church that bears the name of Jesus Christ.

Since the very beginning, the church has, in its best moments, been able to transcend the differences and misunderstandings that divide us and show us that our common unity as children of God is what really matters. That’s what is happening in the passage we just read from the book of Acts. Here we see Philip being led by the Holy Spirit to a place where he will encounter someone who needs him. This man is a eunuch from Ethiopia, and he’s a very important administrator for the royal family. A eunuch is somebody, probably a slave, who was castrated at a very young age so that he could have this administrative position. In many ancient societies it was believed that a eunuch was able to be trusted around women unsupervised because they wouldn’t have any, let’s say, “improper” motives. The thing about being a eunuch, though, is that while that status enables him to have such a powerful position, it also makes him an outcast to everyone else. In ancient societies that placed a lot of emphasis on male virility, a man who couldn’t reproduce was something less than human. And according to the Laws of Moses, someone who was less than a whole person, someone like a eunuch, couldn’t be fully included in the covenant community of Israel. So even though this Ethiopian man is passionately searching for God, even though he’s deeply immersed himself in the scriptures, even though he’s taken the time and expense to come to Jerusalem to worship, he’s not allowed in. Because of his sexuality, or lack thereof, in the eyes of others, he can at best stand on the sidelines and hope that God’s grace is much bigger than what he has been told.

That hope is answered in his encounter with Philip. Philip explains the scriptures to him, tells him about Jesus, and he believes. So the question the eunuch puts to Philip is a very important one. “Look, here is some water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He knows that the answer is probably “because you’re a eunuch, and if I did that I’d be violating the commands of scripture”. But Philip knows that the grace of God made known to us in Jesus Christ is a whole lot bigger than all of these divisions and misunderstandings that keep us apart, even divisions that end up getting codified in religious purity laws.

Philip baptizes the eunuch- an act that would be unthinkable to most Jews, and probably most followers of Jesus at the time. And in doing so Philip proclaims that all of God’s children are welcome in this family. He doesn’t resolve the questions about what he might need to do differently as part of his new life in Christ. Those are questions we see dealt with in great detail later on in Acts. But in this moment, Philip encountered a man who has been told all his life that because of his sexuality he was unacceptable and something less than fully human. So by baptizing this man, Philip says to him, “you are a child of God. You are acceptable. You are loved. You are welcome in this family.”

Today, just like two thousand years ago, we don’t all agree about what constitutes right and wrong actions in many areas of life, sexuality and sexual preference among them. We can and should talk about these issues, but the way we do it has to change. Instead of dialogue full of fear and hatred, half-truths and outright lies, we need to remember that no matter what our differences, each and every person on this earth is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image and that absolutely nothing can change that. I pray that this church will continue to be a place where everyone feels welcome, and that we will have the courage to take a stand against hatred and fear. For when we do that we are truly being the body of Christ in this world.

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Blast from the Past

Imagine my surprise when I checked my email and saw an update from Youth Ministry Today that said this week's featured article was written by me!

It turns out they published an article I wrote for Youthworker Journal back in 2003, when they were still affiliated with Youth Specialties.

It was originally called "An Introduction to Postmodernism for Youth Ministers", but the folks at YM Today have retitled it "Using the 'P' Word: Why Postmodernism Isn't Really A Dirty Word".

I wrote it during my first year of seminary, and if I wrote the article today I would probably do it a little bit differently. But overall I think it holds up pretty well. It was the first feature article I ever got to write, and being only 22 at the time I was really excited to get published.

Here's the link to the article, if you're so inclined. 

I wonder if YM Today owes me some money...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Reflections on Annual Conference

The most recent meeting of the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church wrapped up this past Tuesday. A few thoughts:

Conference occurred immediately after my ten year high school reunion, about which Jessica has blogged some interesting reflections. The reunion being back-to-back with Conference provided an interesting juxtaposition between my past and my future, a juxtaposition I'm still trying to wrap my head around. It will be the subject of a future post.

I was commissioned as a Provisional Elder at the Ordination Service on Sunday night. "Provisional" is the new language in the Discipline, replacing "Probationary". Oddly, enough, the certificate I received at the service said "Probationary". Read into that what you will. The UMC's language has been getting gradually more gracious. In Wesley's day, preachers were "on trial" during their first few years. We're still not where some other denominations are, in terms of language or practice (the Disciples call it "Under Care", for example), but it's progress.

Some have asked me how I felt about being commissioned since I was rejected two years ago. Does it mean more? Is it ruined for me? Do I feel vindicated? The truth is I have no idea. This past year during the process of applying for commissioning, I've felt very conflicted. Is my participation in this system an endorsement of it, even though I disagree with many of the things it has done to hurt people? But on the other hand, my participation grants me access, and thus the ability to influence the system in a positive way. 

I'm not 100% sure where I stand at the moment, but when I knelt in front of the Bishop and he laid his hands on me to pronounce the words of commissioning, I felt a tremendous sense of peace. And that's enough for now.

The next day we spent a marathon session debating and voting the proposed amendments to the Constitution of the UMC. Not surprisingly, Amendment 1 received the most attention. I think there were 25 speeches that addressed it, with a slight majority in favor of those who supported it. Although most of the amendments received a majority of "no" votes (I recorded TN's voting tallies here), there were more "yes" votes for Amendment 1 than I thought there would be. In a conference as conservative as TN, perhaps that is a victory in itself.

As an aside, here is an unofficial tally of how all Annual Conferences that have reported voting results thus far have voted, as reported by the Reconciling Ministries Network.

My friend and colleague Jay Vorhees blogged about considering Amendment 1 after the fact, and concluded  that the amendment addressed a very real problem, but painted with "too broad a legislative brush" and didn't address the real issue: the pastor's authority to determine a person's readiness for church membership. Although Jay supports the amendment, he suggests that the ambiguity on this issue could lead to problems in the future.

While I think Jay's analysis brings up some very good points, I can't help but wonder if Amendment 1 has become about much more than just Amendment 1.

Like so many other cultural milestones, Amendment 1 has come to represent much more than just itself. Rightly or wrongly, the voting on Amendment 1 has become a referendum on how inclusive the United Methodist Church really wants to be. Jay is correct in saying that the amendment is flawed because it is a reaction to a deeply flawed decision of the Judicial Council, but it has come to represent much more than that. For better or worse, the ultimate verdict on Amendment 1 will be statement by our church on our fundamental values as followers of Jesus.

I've blogged, preached, and podcasted about the larger issues at stake here, so I won't rehash all I've said there, except to say that the debate around Amendment 1 has quickly become about what we want inclusivity in the UMC to look like. Most of the speeches in support of and opposing Amendment 1 talked about these larger issues. 

One speech in particular has really stuck with me. The speaker, who opposed the amendment, cited the example of a 6-year-old girl who asked if she could become a member of the church. He told her she couldn't, and that she had to be older and go through confirmation. He concluded that if Amendment 1 passed, he couldn't tell that little girl "no", and that "we would have 8-year-olds being elected as delegates to General Conference and making policy for us" (those were his exact words).

I wanted to (and probably should have) gone to the microphone and told this pastor that if he didn't want that 6-year-old that my church would take her. In the UMC we have two different categories of membership- preparatory members and professing members. Preparatory membership is what that 6-year-old girl should have been offered, rather than being told she didn't know enough.

I cite this example not to insult a fellow pastor, but to show how much of the opposition to Amendment 1 has been rooted in fear based rhetoric. What would happen if we let just anybody in? Well, Jesus did that, and the early church did that. And it resulted in a worldwide movement where it became clear that God was in control, and that authority couldn't be contained within an institution or a small group of decision makers. Maybe that's the real fear: that we'd lose control. I, for one, am perfectly happy to give control over to the God whose grace is offered to all people.

This has been a rather long post, and I thank you for having read this far. I will revisit many of the events and issues of the past week as I have more time to reflect on them and try to wrap my head around them. These are my thoughts for now, and I welcome any feedback you have. God bless.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Podcast Episode 7- All God's Children

In this episode, Matt presents a sermon he recently preached, "All God's Children", on a proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United Methodist Church, which leads into a discussion of how the Christian community dialogues about issues of sexuality and sexual orientation, and a plea for civility in this dialogue. The sermon is based on Acts 8:26-40.

You can listen online through Podbean, who is kind enough to host us.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Any and all comments are encouraged. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

TN Conference Voting

The voting results on the Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the United Methodist Church from the Tennessee Annual Conference have just been released. Bishop Wills just read them aloud in session, so the totals I have listed below were typed in as he read them, and are accurate as far as I am aware. If somebody copied down different numbers we will have to check the official tally.

The voting totals from each annual conference are tabulated and added to the results from other annual conferences. There must be a 2/3 majority of votes from all annual conferences across the connection for these amendments to be adopted.

Here is a link to a PDF file of the proposed amendments.

The amendments were voted on individually, but allocated into five groups for the purposes of discussion on the floor of the conference. I have them listed below as such:

Group #- brief description
Amendment # (yes, no)

Group 1- Proposed Constitutional Amendments on the Worldwide Nature of the Church
4 (176, 458)
10 (177 yes, 466 no)
23 (176 yes, 456 no)
26 (173, 461)

Group 2- Proposed Constitutional Amendments on the Worldwide Nature of the Church (related name changes)
3 (177, 453)
5 (173, 456)
7 (176, 457)
11 (172, 457)
12 (176, 454)
13 (174, 458)
14 (177, 455)
16 (174, 457)
18 (178, 451)
20 (176, 454)
21 (177, 455)
24 (174, 457)
25 (178, 453)
27 (176, 455)
28 (177, 456)
29 (174, 454)
30 (171, 455)
31 (172, 454)
32 (170, 449)

Group 3- Amendment 1 Dealing with Paragraph 4 (Inclusivity)
1 (285, 340)

Group 4- Amendment 19 Dealing with Paragraph 35 (expansion of voting rights of Local pastors, Associate and Provisional Members)
19 (503, 138)

Group 5- Miscellaneous Amendments
2 (216, 409)
6 (222, 405)
8 (444, 189)
9 (422, 205)
15 (307, 323)
17 (374, 250)
22 (447, 176)

I will post again within 24 hours (Conference is still going on) with some thoughts on the voting and a few anecdotes from the discussion.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thoughts on the DC Holocaust Museum Shooting

By now we've all seen the sad news about the shooting yesterday at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Many of us have taken time to pray for the family of the slain guard, Stephen Tyrone Johns, and we shook our heads because we can't begin to understand how an 88 year-old World War II veteran and MENSA member, James W. von Brunn, could be so hateful and violent.

Over the past 24 hours, I've read and overheard some people say that it was a shame that the shooter is still alive, while an innocent security guard is dead.

With all due respect, while I understand and share the outrage behind those statements, I couldn't disagree more.

The image that is repeatedly being broadcast on the cable news channels of a team of paramedics working to stabilize von Brunn, shows us that the majority of these paramedics were African-Americans. Isn't that image alone a powerful refutation of this man's racist, hateful ideology?

Furthermore, the fact that von Brunn is alive means he will be charged with murder, and we can be certain that the national media will cover every detail of his trial. This trial is an opportunity to shed light on ideologies of hate, an opportunity to prove to the nation and the world that love and equality are superior to prejudice and hatred.

I remember when the US Holocaust Museum was first being built, and there were more than a few people that questioned why taxpayer money should be spent on a museum commemorating something that happened on another continent and addressing issues that they claimed were "over".

Yesterday's shooting shows us why the Holocaust Museum is necessary. We must never forget that violence motivated by hatred is real, and that it must be opposed.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The "death" of the emerging church conversation

It seems that the latest fad in the blogosphere has been to debate the state of the emerging church conversation. Specifically, regarding the seeming lack of direction at Emergent Village, some have been quick to declare the entire emerging church conversation "over".

Examples of such claims can be found here and here, while alternate viewpoints can be found here and here.

Given that people much smarter and more eloquent than me have already weighed in on this issue, here are my thoughts.

It's a bit of a misnomer to declare Emergent Village or the larger emerging church conversation "dead" because from the beginning, this whole conversation has not played by the standard rules of what we usually think of as "movements".

For example, most movements in the modern era have tended to coalesce around a particular individual or group of individuals who come to symbolize the values and goals of the movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the symbol of the Civil Rights movement. Jerry Falwell was the symbol of the Religious Right/"Moral Majority" movement. Reaching farther back, Martin Luther was the symbol of the Protestant movement. 

While some folks have tried to cast Brian McLaren and/or Tony Jones as the leader and symbol of the "emergent movement", both gentlemen have actively (and wisely, in my opinion) resisted such labels because the emergent conversation would be ill served by playing by such rules.

Instead of being a "movement" as such, the emerging church conversation has been an attempt to shine the spotlight on some thinking and practices that are emerging (hence the term) in different places and share some common characteristics. 

These characteristics include the tendency to question long held assumptions, deep suspicion of authority while not rejecting it outright, a fascination with ancient thinking and practices long forgotten by the modern evangelical movement (which generally does play by the rules of a "movement"), and an emphasis on conversation and learning from one another as opposed to promoting a set list of ideas. 

A couple years back there was some conversation about an emergent "statement of faith/orthodoxy", that thinkers like Brian and Tony resisted, because that would be playing by a set of rules that the whole conversation had consciously rejected since the beginning.

If anything, the emerging church conversation is deeply eschatological, in the sense that it anticipates something that has begun, but has not yet fully arrived. It acknowledges the stirrings of something new and significant, and resists bracketing it with definitions and statements of faith because the most significant work is yet to come.

So is the emerging church conversation "dead"? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. 

It's going through an ebb and flow, yes, maybe something akin to Martin Luther hiding out at Augsburg and people wondering if he was alive, but it's not over. The best is yet to come, which has been the idea the whole time anyway.

Stay tuned...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

From Either/Or to Both/And

After listening to and reading through the transcript of President Obama's speech in Cairo today, I have to say that I was very impressed. Perhaps this is not much of a shock, since I identify as a Christian Progressive and tend to like Obama (even though I don't agree with all of his policies). What really impressed me was not so much the policy positions he put forth as what the speech reveals about the way he thinks and approaches complex issues. It is a way of thinking that I think is largely shared by most people, and yet is tragically absent from our public discourse.

This kind of thinking could be labeled as "Both/And" thinking. It is the kind of thinking that rejects the idea that all problems have only two solutions, and that these solutions are the polar opposite of one another. I supposed you could call this other type "Either/Or" thinking. "Both/And" thinking can see and appreciate many perspectives, and is not afraid to talk about the merits of postions with which they disagree. "Both/And" thinking's primary concern is not proving why one's position is always correct and the opposing position is always wrong. Instead, it attempts to put different strands of thought in dialogue with one another to achieve the best possible result.

President Obama's speech strikes me as an impressive display of "Both/And" thinking because it actively rejects the polarizing, "Either/Or" nature of the way our foreign relations were conducted during the last administration (as an aside, just as I don't agree with all of President Obama's positions, I didn't always disagree with all of President Bush's positions). In addressing the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, President Obama acknowledged that both Israel and Palestine have done wrong and caused suffering to the other, and that both sides have to make compromises for lasting peace to be achieved.

I don't think I've heard an American President ever criticize Israel in public remarks. I seriously doubt that all of the Presidents since Truman have thought that Israel never does anything wrong, but I believe they were keenly aware of the "Either/Or" nature of most political discourse and were afraid of what would happen if they ever dared challenge such polarizing thinking. Uncritical "Either/Or" thinking is largely responsible for many of the moral disgraces of the last decade, especially the use of torture against enemy combatants. One either unquestioningly supported the Bush administration's prosecution of the War on Terror, or they were unpatriotic and didn't love America.

Perhaps in another post I'll talk about how I see "Either/Or" thinking's destructive power at play in religious dialogue as well. For now I'll just say that regardless of our political affiliation, I hope we can all look to President Obama's speech today as a great example of "Either/Or" thinking and how it demonstrates a positive way for us to move forward and work out our differences together.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Do people care about theology?

One of the comments I often hear from fellow clergy, especially those who are heavily invested in church planting/growth, is the idea that "people don't care about theology". In other words, they just want to be Christian and actually live out their faith.

While I agree with their sentiment, I wonder if the statement is a bit misleading. Perhaps stepping back and considering the definition of our terms will help.

With apologies to my friends with copious amounts of graduate education, I don't believe theology is restricted to the ivory tower of academia. Everyone who thinks about God is a theologian, regardless of whether they've torn their hair out trying to understand the Summa Theologica or Church Dogmatics.

So if everyone is a theologian, then it doesn't make sense to say that people don't care about theology. What I think people mean when they say that is that people don't care about doctrine, more specifically, abstract doctrinal statements that are used to determine who is acceptable and who is not in the eyes of a particular faith community.

For example, most people in my congregation neither knows nor cares about the controversy over the filioque (whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son together): the doctrinal straw that broke the camel's back in the Great Schism of 1054. Most people I talk to are even tired of the modern doctrinal battles over biblical authority.

So while most people may not be too invested in doctrine (although it's certainly important), people do care deeply about theology because theology is how we understand our faith. How we respond when we learn that our government tortures people it considers "enemy combatants" is a theological issue. How we respond when a doctor who ran a women's clinic, and whose services included abortions, is murdered in a church is a theological issue. How we reconcile our belief in a loving and sovereign God with the reality of a broken and tragic world is a theological issue.

Am I being too picky and parsing words too much? Maybe. But I believe that people who understand themselves to be theologians who have something significant to contribute to the community of faith on our journey of understanding and following God will become more actively involved in their discipleship. And isn't making disciples the whole point of the church?

If the cause of discipleship is advanced by the work of theology, then we should care deeply.