Today we hear from a prophetic text, Luke 4, regarding Jesus and his home town community, and we hear it following a good week of good words about a modern prophet, a patriot preacher, Martin Luther King, our BU alumnus. As Ernest Freemont Tittle said, ‘the preacher can find always something innocuous to talk about’, but do not time and text require some prophetic word for us, from us today? If we are to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, we shall then need to summon the courage to listen and speak with courage, and to do so regarding not only the endless circle of concern around us, but also the smaller circle of influence, the community in which we live.
I will bear witness. Born a Methodist, ordained to the Methodist ministry, I will die a Methodist, a superannuated Methodist preacher. All the lastingly good things of my life have come as gifts of grace, in and through this very church. Name in baptism. Faith in confirmation. Community in Eucharist. Deepest friendship in marriage. Job in ordination. Daily pardon in prayer. Eternal hope in unction. I am a singing Methodist and will continue to greet life with an openhanded Methodist handshake. And my grandaughter’s mother, grandmother, two great grandmothers, and great great grandmother all married Methodist ministers. I love my church and I am part of a multi generational investment in its preaching ministry!
That is, I pray to speak as one who speaks for my people, and so, I hope, has earned the right to speak to my people. If you speak for people, then you can speak to people. God is for us, so God’s word can speak to us. I love the Methodist church. Any church though is human, very human. As Tillich wrote long ago, ‘the church is always both a representation and a distortion of the divine’. This past year has proven that again.
Some background. Methodism lives on four levels, or through four forms of conference. (A conference, incidentally, is a time and place in which to confer with one another.) Each of the four has one discreet, specific task. Our general conference, 1000 global delegates gathered once every four years, is responsible to write and rewrite our Book of Discipline, our church law. The jurisdictional conferences, split up regionally across the country, meet every four years to elect general superintendents, our bishops whose job is to appoint clergy. The annual conference, a smaller gathering of representatives from hundreds of churches, in each jurisdiction, has the single job of recruiting and retaining ministers, and ordaining them every year. Our charge conference, our local church, is in the work of making disciples, people of faith who love and give in the spirit of Jesus. Disciple, Minister, Bishop, Discipline: these are the products of our conferences.
A. And Are We Yet Alive?
One: Our general conference met in Tampa, in late April. Rather than affirming the full humanity of gay people, and granting the 10% of children who are gay all the graces I have happily received (see above), the Conference wrote a Discipline that excludes them from marriage and ordination. We have learned the horrific habits in this country, of finding ways to fractionalize the marginalized. It has been heavy lifting over decades to affirm that all people are people, imbued with integrity by the grace of God—former slaves, women, the poor, people of color, the stranger, the otherwise abled, all. Integers not fractions. The US constitution before amendment accounted some as 3/5 human. No wonder that great Boston abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, called the document, ‘a compact with the devil and a covenant with hell’. I wonder what he would say about our 2012 General Conference and Discipline? But I must ask, in reflective discernment: where did Tampa come from? Some of Tampa, our General Conference, came from the results of the other conferences, over many years.
Two: Some of it came from our Jurisdictional conferences. In July, our jurisdictional conferences met in five cities across the country to elect general superintendents. In some cases they were chosen on the basis of proven ability, leadership experience, measures of churches grown or people rescued or dollars raised or buildings constructed, ministers from strong churches and significant pulpits, who had shown the ability to speak well to large groups and to lead complex organizations. But in some cases elections were based not on ability or proven strength, but on representation, to show a ‘rainbow’ of representative general superintendents, apart from preparation or capacity to do the job, and, ironically, even tragically, in consequence, whether or not their tenure will have any positive impact for underrepresented others. The gospel is about redemption, not representation. Now I will continue to speak for, and so to, the inclusion of all at every level of church life–that is part of the redemptive work of the Spirit in the church. But in what other walk of life do we select significant leadership on a narrowly representative basis? Dentists? Pilots? Surgeons? And what good will it do to open up the church, especially for those most in need of such openness, if the church itself shrinks, ages, weakens and dies, for lack of building up? Our jurisdiction has off loaded 60% of its membership since my confirmation at age 13 in 1968. The chief reason for this is poor leadership, starting with the top. It is not somehow God’s will to shrink the church we love. That is a direct consequence of our poor leadership: moribund preaching, mediocre pastoral care, and unimaginative congregational life.
Three: Some came up from our annual conferences. My own annual conference, a new and unformed body across New York State, met in June. Two overarching issues should have been engaged, because they affect dramatically the present and future quality of the clergy. Other than my questions, posed in the few minutes still allowed at annual conference for conference, that is, for a time to confer, no one addressed them. The first is the proposal, supported, let it be starkly recalled, by every north eastern bishop, to eliminate the security of appointment, or guaranteed appointment, a modest form of tenure, for ordained clergy (who have 4 years of college, 3 years of seminary, 3 years of supervised work—all before ordination; who earn a modest annual salary plus housing; who agree to move, potentially every year, at the direction or whim of the general superintendent and cabinet; who are responsible to raise apportionment dollars equivalent to 25% of their church budgets (even the Mafia is kinder in percentage pickup); and who will work, if they are to be effective, 60-80 hours a week, 48 weeks a year, for 40 years: and we cannot even tell them that they somehow, in whatever tiny rural parish or other, will at least be able to feed, house and care for their children?) The second is related. Unwilling to invest in elders, the superintendents are driven to hire non-elders, people who are not trained, not educated, not ordained, not in covenant, not traveling elders. In our yet to be fully born conference, this means that 540 of 931 pulpits are occupied, occupied by good hearted people, but people who have not studied the Bible in depth, do not know the history or teaching of the church, have had no preparation in counseling, in sacramental understanding, in worship and preaching, in administration, in pastoral care. It is one thing to have laity Sunday once a year. But every Sunday? Do you go to laity Wednesday when the emergency room lets people who would like to be doctors administer drugs, set bones, and use ct scanners? Do you go to laity Friday when people who would like to be bankers get to open and close the vault, establish accounts, and make investments of your savings? How about housing? Do you sign up aspiring carpenters, who think they might have some talent in digging foundations and setting roof lines to build your house? Is it OK with you if the principal of your daughter’s junior high school never graduated from high school himself? Granted: education alone is not enough. Heart and head we need together in the influential, delicate, personal, salvific work of pastoral care and preaching. Not 540, but 40 non-elders is all we should accommodate. Have the elders preach multiple times: better one good sermon preached 7 times, than 7 bad ones once each. Our annual conference provides everything but the one thing needful—a chance to confer. Our annual conference attends to everything except its job—providing excellent clergy.
Four: And some came too from our local charge conferences. I went for worship this summer to a beloved church. In 1995 this was a vibrant congregation, 230 in worship in 2 services, a 7 day full building, the second strongest salary in the conference, a warm formal worship service not unlike ours here at Marsh, and, most proudly, a fine parsonage.) What did we find that Sunday? We found a worship service that is hardly a worship service, at least to my mind, with 60 present, and learned that the church was in the process of selling the parsonage. They need the money and lack the vision to hold on to it. And worship? I grieve to ask: Is it worship when the minister roves the sanctuary (ceiling paint peeling, by the way) with a microphone, like Phil Donahue? Is it worship when beautiful four part hymn harmonies are ditched in favor of follow the bouncing ball screen pseudo music? Is it worship when the sermon is a potpourri of miscellania, unrelated to text, to setting, to mission, or to soul? Is it worship without a choir, without order, without reverence, without silence, without offering, without a sense of Presence? No, it has become a hodgepodge of vain attempts to be entertaining, which are not even entertaining. And enchantment? Gone. People do not need the church to be their Rotary Club, their neighborhood cookout, or their reality TV show. They need the word of God rightly preached, the sacraments duly administered, and service rendered to the poor. When this happens, Sunday by Sunday, then churches grow. You cannot preach without theology, and you cannot worship without preaching. In short the general conference in Tampa had wellsprings, of sorts, in jurisdictional, annual and charge conferences.
B. Methodism 2013
So what are we in my beloved church to do in 2013?
After Tampa, in May, I determined to spend six months in prayer, and visitation. By phone or in person I spoke with 31 trusted friends. I meditated on their counsel, and came to only four fairly meager conclusions. 1. We need steady ongoing conversation, conference among elders, in season and out. 2. We need to follow the money. 3. We need to focus on pastoral care for gay people. 4. We need to focus on pastoral embrace for lay people. Many young elders are leaving the church. Many middle age elders want to split the church. Many older elders are using covert, hidden means to address the situation. I will not leave, split or dissemble. So that means finding another path. I will have to go deeper. Four thoughts.
One: There is something in this journey that will call me out and down further into faith. The language of the psalms fills my heart. I prayed and heard this: You will have to go down deeper.
Two: One part of the path is in regard to our ministry, the other part, regards money. In a way, the first part is easier. That is, most churches over time can come close to doing what we do regularly here at Marsh Chapel: marry gay people, hire gay clergy, minister directly to the gay community, and speak frankly, as today, about the full humanity of gay sisters and brothers. The second part is harder, about money. We will need means to keep from sending money, by apportionment, to fund the dehumanization of gay people, whether in America or in Africa. Fortunately, our general funds are several, not single, and local church treasurers, at the direction of the lay vote in the charge conference, can send to some and not to others. This will take some careful planning. My own investment will be to continue to lift my voice, to continue in eight words that form the future for my church: Gay people are people. Lay people are people.
Three: Gay people are people, at least 5/5 human, endowed by their creator, and ours with Life, liberty, happiness—they deserve to enjoy these too, including ordination and marriage. Jesus can teach us this if we will let him. Remember he said to consider the lilies of the field, and how much God loves even these slight floral creatures in God’s garden. Gay identity is creation, not fall, God’s gift, not human sin, as is straight identity. Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself. Try to imagine what it must be like to be a 9 year old, who knows he is in the sexual minority. Paul can teach us this if we will listen to him. Paul? Yes, Paul. He places the pinnacle of the good news at Galatians 3:28: ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female’. And no gay and straight. The gospel is about redemption, not about tradition. Gospel finally and ever trumps tradition. Gay people have integrity, are beloved, by God’s grace, just as you are and just as you do. John can help us, if we will read what he says. He says there will be another advocate, even a spirit of truth, which will lead us, lead us out into further truth, which is not in that gospel, or, even, in the Bible. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe. Truth involves continuity with past teaching and also discontinuity through new insight, by the gift of the spirit of truth. Our failure regarding gay people is theological. Our doctrine of creation could use a recollection of Jesus. Our doctrine of redemption could use a re-reading of Galatians. Our doctrine of the Spirit could use the voice of John. Gay people are people: the Bible tells me so. This is not only an issue of justice, nor only an issue of clerical integrity, nor only an issue of theological truth. It is most profoundly an issue of pastoral care. The physician has responsibilities to many institutions—her practice, her board examinations, her hospital, and her community. But in the end, all these and others are eclipsed by the care for the patient, the health of the patient. The pastor also has many responsibilities to institutions, or conferences—charge, annual, jurisdictional, and general. But in the end, all these are eclipsed by the requisite care for the parishioner, for the 8 and 9 year old children who are among the sexual minorities. Gay people are people.
Four: Lay people are people. Beloved, it will do us no good only to open up the church. We also have responsibility to build up the church. The needs, longings, reports and voices of lay people count, matter, last, and have meaning. The church exists for mission, as fire for burning. Fishing and planting, evangelism and stewardship—these are the joy of faith. And the fun, too. Lay people deserve and desire enchanting worship. We have every reason to provide vibrant, warm, ordered, traditional worship. Sixty minutes of fire and love, every Sunday. We will want to draw on the deep well of tradition—not traditionalism but tradition. Listen to the lay people. They have no need for bongo drums, shallow hymns, neglected liturgy, or bad music. They respond to excellence. They deserve it. Traditional worship is what we owe them. Likewise, lay people deserve loving, intelligent, devoted, competent pastoral ministry and preaching. We once knew that so deeply we needed no reminder. Traveling preachers, taking grace and freedom and love from post to post—this is what we once did best. Please: no more lay pastors, local pastors, deacons than absolutely necessary. Give us excellent ministers, educated and ordained, the brightest and the best! And are some of these local pastors excellent? Excellent! Then educate them and ordain them. Put up or shut up. And lay people deserve the best that money can provide, and the best exemplary teaching about money we can provide. If nothing else, our tradition provides stellar disciplines about giving. Our people need to be taught, by the example of the clergy, to tithe. Well led, they will and do well follow. Tradition in worship, Traveling elders in the pulpit, Tithing all day long—I cannot begin to tell you how much difference these three currently neglected features of spiritual life make when they are practiced, and especially when they are practiced together!
Let us open up the Methodist church by living the gospel: Gay people are people. Let us build up the Methodist church by living the gospel: Lay people are people. I plan to slog ahead. I will find means to advocate for the disciplinary inclusion of all people, like the ministry we have here at Marsh. I will gather a group at some point for further conference. I will find ways to encourage the real leadership of the church to be identified and selected for leadership, just as we are doing here at Marsh. I will find words to convey my ongoing respect for the noble calling, the challenging adventure, that is, gospel ministry, in my annual conference, in the same fashion we do here at Marsh. And I will continue to grow the churches of the church, to live up to the Harry Denman evangelism award, and to appeal to all who have received seven helpings of faith, once in while to think of inviting a neighbor who has not had the first course of the religious meal, to come worship at Marsh.
I take heart from voices I overheard this week.
Walter Fluker: ‘We need fresh water to swim in.’
Melvin Talbert (quoting Burke): ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’.
Sonya Chang-Diaz: ‘When you pray, move your feet.’
Deval Patrick: ‘People may be of limited means, but of limitless possibilities’.
Elizabeth Warren: ‘When (the President) makes his solemn oath, I will make my own silent one in my heart’.
Barack Obama: ‘Freedom is not just for the lucky, nor happiness for the few…From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall…our journey is not complete…we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect’
Rev. Luis Leon: ‘Que Dios Os Bendiga’
So that one day, as was said of old, it may be said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. (Luke 4: 21)
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel