Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Day of Confession, Repentance, Prayer and Commitment to End Racism

Reflections on the Lectionary Texts
by Taylor Burton-Edwards
The Background
Bishops of The African Methodist Episcopal Church have asked all Christians to make this coming Sunday, September 6, 2015, a day to preach about racism and call for acts leading to its eradication in the United States.

It’s a bold call. And it’s one United Methodists are already committed to, both in our baptismal covenant and in our official resolutions. In baptism, we pledge to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin” (not just feel sorry, but change our ways), and, “accept[ing] the freedom and power Christ gives us, … resist evil, injustice and oppression in every form in which they present themselves”… “in union with the church which Christ opens to people of all ages nations and races.” If that weren’t enough, we say, flat out, “The UMC is committed to the eradication of racism”, and we call for “every annual conference, district and local congregation within the US have a strategy and a program which educates and supports systemic and personal changes to end racism and work multiculturally,” even requiring those preparing for ordination to participate in multicultural education and anti-racism training (Resolution 3374, 2012 Book of Resolutions, pp. 453-454). And we even have a general agency, the General Commission on Religion and Race, to lead the way in helping us all acknowledge dismantle racism wherever and however it manifests itself.

On paper then, at least, and in our baptismal commitments, we are “on this.”

And this Sunday, so is the Revised Common Lectionary.

This Sunday and these readings provide a reality check to see whether we are actually on this, and what next steps we need to take to become more on this than we currently are.

Our Full Communion Partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has developed additional worship resources you may find helpful.

The Texts

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Where the Proverbs speak of “rich and poor” they also speak of privileged and oppressed. Racism in America is in part a system to maintain the privilege of those already privileged, primarily those of British and Western European descent, and to ensure those who are not in the privileged caste, primarily persons of African and indigenous American descent, can never have access to the full benefits of the privileged that racist systems protect.
Racism does exactly what Proverbs 22:22 calls us not to do. It robs the poor (whom we have systematically made poor) because they are poor, and crushes the afflicted at the gate.

This is what policies and processes that make it harder for the poor to escape poverty systematically and effectively inflict. Reducing investments in public transportation, increasing barriers to getting needed assistance (medical, financial or psychological), and both gerrymandering and restrictions on voter registration system all lead to keeping the poor stuck in poverty and making their voice to reverse these possibilities increasingly unlikely to be heard.

On top of that, in many places we, in effect, criminalize poverty. Requiring drug testing as a condition of receiving financial support treats all the poor as if they were criminals.  Laws or enforcement policies that disproportionately target the lives of the poor make it much more likely more of the poor (African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American) will be arrested. And the penalties assigned to those of the poor found guilty are often far more stringent than those assigned to persons of privilege (Euro-descended, middle class and up).

Look around you. Who are the poor and afflicted? In the US, the largest number of the poor are in fact of European descent
1, in part because the largest number of people who live here still are. But the percentages of African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic/Latino Americans who are poor or in prison are dramatically higher. The 2014 Current Population Survey Data show that while 9.6% of persons of European descent live in poverty, 23.5% of Hispanic/Latino and 27.1% of African Americans do2. This is not the result of a defect in the character of persons of these ethnicities. It is the result of either blatant disobedience or appalling ineffectiveness in fulfilling our baptismal calling to renounce, reject, repent, and resist the evil of racism in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.  

Today is a day to renew our commitment to our baptismal calling. Renounce, reject, and repent of the evils of racism in which you participate. Receive and use the freedom and power Christ gives you to resist this and every form of evil, injustice and oppression. And commit to making sure your local congregation, district and conference are actively working to dismantle racism where you are.

James 2:1-10, 14-17

Racism as we know it did not exist as a phenomenon during the time of Jesus and the early Christians described in the Bible. Racism is a social construction that developed to underwrite and support European supremacy during the era of international European colonialism over the global South beginning in the 16th century. In the US, it has manifested as a caste system to ensure the supremacy of the mostly Western European colonizers of North America, particularly against the indigenous peoples (Native Americans) and the African slaves bought and sold to reduce the labor costs for its expanding agrarian-industrial economy for the benefit of the upper castes.
Racism did not exist in early Christianity. But James makes clear that prejudicial treatment against the poor (who in our context in the US are also disproportionately the targets of racism) and preferential treatment of the rich did exist even among early Christians. And he makes it equally clear that both are sin.

Indeed, James indicates these sins of preference and prejudice call into question whether we are Christian at all. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1, NRSV). James is not playing. He’s quite serious. If we give any preference to the privileged (in the US setting, “white privilege” and the privilege of those who are wealthy) and treat the poor (in our context, both the targets of racism and the poor in general) we have “become judges with evil thoughts” (verse 4).

We aren’t believers. Our thoughts are evil. 

James doesn’t stop there. We’re lawbreakers, too, having broken the “royal law” (2:8) of loving all neighbors as ourselves by showing partiality to some and supremacy over others (2:9). Indeed, he says, this sin makes us accountable for having broken
all of the law (2:10).

And James still doesn’t stop. If we expect to have mercy shown to us by our Judge, we must show the same mercy to all, and especially to those who need it most (2:13). And we must actually show it, not simply have good intentions, or offer words of blessing to those in need. Unless we are actively supporting our neighbors who are poor, overcoming the effects of racism in their lives (and ours!) and dismantling racist systems where we can, whatever faith we think we have is dead.


We have work to do.

We must follow the royal law, and actually love our neighbors, all of them, as ourselves.

We must end the deference to the privileged and all actions and attitudes of supremacy over the poor and the targets of racism in this country in our own hearts and congregations.

We must show mercy to all, always, and especially to those who for whatever reason find themselves in the most vulnerable position—the poor and the targets of racism.

We must actually believe what we say we believe, that “God has chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that [God] has promised to those who love him” (2:5, NRSV).

We must honor the poor, and all those whom racism actively dishonors.

And to do any of this, we must entrust ourselves to the mercy of God, that God may enliven our dead faith, free us from the power of racism and predisposition to honor the wealthy and dishonor the poor, and convert us into conduits of mercy to every neighbor as each has need.

Mark 7:24-30 (31-37)
Racism as we know it did not exist in the time of Jesus and the early church, but sexism and nationalism did (and still does). Sexism, like racism, builds social systems that elevate one group (in this case, males) and oppress or subjugate the other (in this case females). And nationalism asserts people of one’s own nation or tribe are superior and worthy of greater attention from God and the wider world than those of others.

We see both of these at play, and we see Jesus ultimately acting to dismantle both, in the first part of today’s gospel lesson.

While on vacation in Tyre, a Gentile city in the Gentile country of Syro-Phoenecia, an ancient enemy state of Israel, a Gentile woman, also Syrophoenician, asks Jesus to deliver her daughter from a demon.

Even Jesus struggles with this, it seems. He puts her off with the typical nationalist answer, that his own people deserve his attention before he deals with the needs of the Gentiles (Mark 7:27).

But she does not let him get away with that. She rejects the nationalist excuse. She presses on, noting that in fact even the dogs are fed at the same time as the children as crumbs fall from the table of the children (7:28). In other words, nationalism may treat some as less than human, but God makes sure all are fed.

We do not know why Jesus said what he said, other than that he really didn’t want to be bothered at all on this trip. He was genuinely trying to get away from everyone for a while (7:24). What we do know is he saw this Gentile woman had remarkable faith in the very kingdom of God he had been proclaiming elsewhere, a kingdom in which salvation was in fact brought to all people, not just a chosen, privileged few. And he announced the child was delivered from the demon. Indeed, when the woman arrived home, she found her daughter was set free.    

Jesus broke at least two socially constructed barriers here. He broke nationalism, by announcing the deliverance of a Gentile. He broke sexism, by ultimately responding to the need brought to him by a woman—the first time we see that happening anywhere in Mark’s gospel. When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, this appeared to be at the request of Peter and the other male disciples, not her request (1:30). And when the woman with the issue of blood was healed, it wasn’t something he apparently had voluntarily chosen to do (6:30). He’d even refused to deal with a request from his own mother after she had tracked him down because she was concerned about him (3:31). Now, for the first time, confronted by a foreign, pagan woman asking for help for her daughter, he responds directly to her, and deliverance flows. 

Perhaps Mark told this story in part to that Jesus grew in awareness of the scope of his mission, message and ministry over time, just as we see the early church growing in its awareness in Acts.

If so, then this story can be good news for those of us who may have been unaware of the scope of our own baptismal calling, and that it includes taking direct action that resists every form of evil, injustice and oppression as part of a church that Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races.

When the woman pressed her case, challenging his nationalist rhetoric and sexist dismissal of her, Jesus acted, breaking both.

If we accept the freedom and power he offers us, as we promise we will at baptism, we, too, can, and will, do the same with racism.

What’s Next
While we have no word at this point from other partners about specific follow up actions to this observance on September 6, Lent marks a wonderful time to do extended work around this theme. Lent, after all, is the season for preparing candidates to live out the baptismal vows, and, as we’ve seen already, our baptismal vows address racism and all other forms of injustice and oppression in a direct and powerful way. Several United Methodist churches in the Atlanta area are already in the beginning stages of planning a seven week Lenten weeknight series to address racism there, and there is some discussion about theming these weekly gatherings to address hands-on, practical applications of our baptismal vows.  

Certainly, one day to call attention to racism in worship is not nearly enough to fulfill our stated commitment as a church to dismantle it at all levels, including our congregations, districts, and conferences. If your church doesn’t currently have a plan and a program to work at this, perhaps your next step is to take the next several weeks or months to begin to develop one. If you have one, perhaps from now through the end of the Season after Pentecost you may make particular efforts to draw more attention to it and make it work more effectively than it now does.

As disciples of Jesus, we have no choice but to confess, repent from, resist and seek to dismantle racism wherever and however it appears. As persons filled with many gifts from the Holy Spirit, we have the resources among us and our neighbors to accomplish much.

So, let’s do it.

Or, as our General Conference theme for 2016 calls us:

Therefore, go!

Friday, June 26, 2015

#SCOTUS Ruling and UM Clergy in Same-Sex Weddings

Courtroom sketch by Art Lien. Used by permission.
BY-NC-ND 3.0.
Today, June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court announced its ruling that every state must issue licenses for the marriage of same-sex couples, and every state must recognize the rights inherent in marriage of all persons who have been legally married in any other jurisdiction in the United States.

The ruling of the US Supreme Court does not change church law. Only General Conference establishes the doctrine, liturgy and discipline of The United Methodist Church.

Under the current Book of Discipline (2012) United Methodist clergy are not permitted to perform marriages or blessings for unions of same-sex couples. General Conference may decide to change that prohibition at some future point, or it may not.

Our Book of Discipline also empowers bishops to be the chief interpreters of the provisions of the Book of Discipline within their Episcopal areas, subject to review by the Judicial Council if duly requested.

This means our bishops are authorized to determine in what ways UM Clergy may participate in ceremonies celebrating the marriage of same-sex couples short of functioning as the presiders of those ceremonies.

Several bishops have already indicated how they are authorizing their clergy to proceed. The lists are widely variable. Some are more and some are less specific. If you are considering how you may be called upon to participate in such ceremonies, be sure to know and follow the directions provided by your bishop.

Here is a list of links to these statements as I am currently aware of them.

I invite you to provide links to other such statements in the comments below.

William McAlilly, Nashville Episcopal Area
Scott Jones, Great Plains
Sally Dyck, Northern Illinois
Michael Coyner, Indiana
Ken Carter, Florida

Gary Mueller, Arkansas
Janice Riggle Huie, Texas
Mike Lowry, Central Texas
Michael McKee, North Texas

James Dorff, Rio Texas

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Gospel Reflection on Charleston

We know what happened at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night, June 17, 2015.

Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year old white male, entered the church, observed a prayer meeting for a while, then opened fire on the African-American people gathered to pray. His shots killed 9 of them, including the pastor, The Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

We do not know exactly why.

The FBI is investigating this as a hate crime. Some reports of a surviving witness corroborate the appropriateness of this approach to the investigation. It does appear Dylann was motivated by hatred for African-American people. What we do not know, still, is the next why-- why he felt such hatred in the first place.

Such is the mystery of evil. We may never fully know or understand why.

But we cannot deny the effects. Nine African-American sisters and brothers in Christ are dead. A Christian community is deeply harmed.

And healing.

All at the same time.

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The gospel reading for this coming Sunday may have something to say about all of this.

Jesus went with his disciples into what could very well and very quickly become dangerous waters. They were crossing the Sea of Galilee by night, "far from the peaceful shore." A storm rose, and it threatened to capsize their boat and kill them all.

Jesus was asleep.

They woke him, asking, "Do you not care that we are perishing?"

Jesus does not rebuke them for their question.

Note that. Jesus does not rebuke them for their question.

Instead he gets busy. He rebukes the wind and the waves.

Then, all becomes calm.

And then the disciples are truly terrified.

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Let me run through that one more time.

Jesus did not rebuke the disciples because when they woke him up.

They understood, rightly, that what was facing them was way too big for them to handle.

He handled it.

What had been their panic was now converted into mysterium tremendum at fascinans, the  bone-rattling and fascinating mystery of the presence of the Divine. "Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" 

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

A terrifying reality has descended on sisters and brothers in Charleston, South Carolina. A storm came into their midst, and killed nine people at prayer.

It's what happened next that is most important.

Did you see them on TV or Internet coverage? People gathered in circles, praying aloud, passionately, calling upon Jesus, calling for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The storm had come, and it was too big for them, and they knew it.

They cried out to Jesus.

They're still crying out to Jesus, all over this land.

And if you ask these people who have been praying in this way, calling on Jesus because this is too big for them to fix in any way, what they're feeling as they pray like this, they will tell you.

Some may say, "Peace like a river."

Others may say, "Power. Evil has come upon us, and it has been thoroughly rebuked in the name of Jesus."

Some will say, "Love. Look at all these people coming together and praying with us!"

Sounds like Jesus.

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

Some may see coverage of the people gathering in prayer and have no reference point for it. For some, these prayers, calling on the Spirit, calling for rebuke of evil, calling even for forgiveness and mercy and healing (as well as justice) for the killer and for his family, are mystifying. What is this?

Skeptics may say, "What good is your God when your God allowed this to happen?"

Some others may be a bit frightened by the passion and power of this praying. What is this?

Some who had not expected it may catch a glimpse or the smallest inkling that as these people are praying, someone or something actually is shutting up the voices of evil and tearing down their strongholds.

Those praying know. And they feel it. That's what this is. That's exactly what Jesus is doing. 

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

Jesus sent his disciples into that storm. And he was with them in the boat.

When they acknowledged what was happening was too big for them to handle, he rebuked the wind and the waves. And there was utter calm.

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I thank God Jesus was in the boat with them.

I thank God the disciples of Jesus recognized when the storm was too big for them.

I thank God Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves.

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Jesus is in the boat with us whenever he sends us into dangerous places.

Jesus rebukes the storm when we recognize it's too big for us and cry out to him for help.

When he does-- and yes, he does!-- we may be skeptical, or surprised, or even terrified.

But last night, and today, and every night or day that sisters and brothers gather to call on the name of Jesus and the power of the Spirit to rebuke the storm, he also fills us with awareness of the answer to those first disciple's awestruck, terrified question: Who is this?

Praise God, it's Jesus.

Friday, February 20, 2015

2 Things to Do, and 2 to Quit Doing in Maundy Thursday Services

2 Things to Do in Maundy Thursday Services
File:Christ washes apostles' feet (Monreale).jpg
Jesus washes his disciples' feet. The Latin inscription
above is "Mandatum" meaning "Commandment." Public Domain.

1. Do wash feet... or hands

The heart of Maundy Thursday, as the church has kept it for centuries, is about following the example and obeying the new commandment of Jesus when he washed his disciples' feet. The "new commandment" is to "love one another as I have loved you." And Jesus says he has set the example of washing his disciples' feet with the expectation we will wash one another's feet.

Washing feet regularly was a  necessary in the time of Jesus. The basic shoe was a sandal, and nearly all roads and even many floors in homes were dust. It became a basic act of hospitality to make sure that guests in homes received a footwashing, typically from a child or a servant, as part of their welcome into the home. 

In modern US and European culture, shoes generally protect from dirt and dust, and roads and floors are relatively dust-free. Many use their hands far more than their feet. For those who work on their feet all day, or lack protective shoes, footwashing remains a powerful sign-act because it is also needed. For others, perhaps hand-washing may be the more needful basic act of physical care.

2. Do celebrate Holy Communion.
Though Holy Communion appears nowhere in the text Christians read from John's gospel this night, Maundy Thursday is an occasion to celebrate around the Lord's table. The one who washes us, also invites us to dine with him.

There is long Christian practice of fasting beginning after receiving from the Lord's table on this night until receiving again from the table at the Great Vigil of Easter (Saturday night after sundown) or Easter Sunday morning. As we watch and pray with Jesus during these three days (Thursday, Friday, Saturday), we allow ourselves to be sustained by this meal of bread and cup, remembering the night of his commandment and betrayal until we receive the bread and cup anew in celebration of the resurrection of Christ.

2 Things to Quit Doing in Maundy Thursday Services

1. Re-Schedule Re-enactments of the Last Supper

The Church observes Maundy Thursday not primarily to recall the last supper, but instead,  to hear and obey the new commandment of Jesus. We may easily miss this as the focal point if we overload a service primarily about the new commandment and footwashing with a re-enactment of the Last Supper as well. Worse, there is a temptation to substitute re-enactments for the actual Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, turning the prayer of the church into a play.

For several centuries, the Church in the West tried to sustain a focus on both events on this night-- both the founding of Holy Communion and the giving of the new commandment. Ultimately, it became clear this was too unwieldy. Neither was getting the focused attention both deserved. So the Western Church established the separate observance of "Corpus Christi" in the 13th century (set for the Thursday after Trinity Sunday), and this is still observed by Roman (and other) Catholics, as well as some Lutherans and Anglicans to this day. By having two different services at different times, the new commandment and footwashing on the one hand, and the commemoration of the founding of Holy Communion on the other, could each have its own service without either focus getting in the way or threatening to upstage the other.  

All fine and good, but United Methodists don't celebrate Corpus Christi. And we have, in many places, developed a tradition of re-enacting the last supper, often on Maundy Thursday. So how do we honor our own tradition in this matter without that getting in the way of what we're supposed to be doing in the Maundy Thursday service?

It's a matter of scheduling.

There may be other occasions during Holy Week when re-enactment of the Last Supper may make much better sense. A service of Tenebrae, either immediately following the Maundy Thursday service or on Friday night, may be one of them. A simple re-enactment could be offered immediately before the beginning of the reading from the passion narrative as background before the reading. Or you might have a Holy Thursday program that includes re-enactment along with a simple meal, all set in a fellowship hall, prior to the actual Maundy Thursday service in your worship space.

2. Quit Doing Christian-Hosted Seders

The United Methodist Book of Worship has this to say about United Methodists and Seder practices:

"United Methodists are encouraged to celebrate the Seder as invited guests in a Jewish home or in consultation with representatives of the Jewish community, thus respecting the integrity of what is a Jewish tradition and continuing the worthy practice of Jews and Christians sharing at table together. Celebrating the modern meal without a Jewish family as host is an affront to Jewish tradition and sometimes creates misunderstanding about the meaning of the Lord's Supper" (p. 351, emphasis added).

Why is our General Conference-approved official guidance on this matter so strong?

The answer is because it is simply true. Christians
hosting a Seder is offensive to many Jewish people, and does nothing to promote deeper understanding either of Judaism or of the Jewish roots of Christianity. 
And historically, there are important historical and biblical reasons that Christians today should not be presuming to celebrate this festival as if we had some reason to do so.
First, any specific connections between the Last Supper and Passover ritual in the time of Jesus are
impossible to establish. There are no reliable texts describing Jewish Passover practices until the third century, and there is no way to demonstrate that these texts, which are themselves rather sketchy on some points, reflect what first century practice would have been. Thus, trying to recreate a first-century Seder or imagine what it may have been is just that—an act of imaginative speculation, not an act of responsible historical or liturgical interpretation.

Second, what is typically done by Christians in "recreating" a first century Seder with Jesus
at the table is to read the more or less current Seder texts back into the first century, with Jesus as host. However, Jewish Seder practice today is not based even on the third century texts that might have been closer to the practice at the time of Jesus. Instead, Jewish Seder ritual today, as it has for centuries, consciously embraces the later history of the development of this rite beginning in the late middle ages and into current times. 

Third, Jesus chose perhaps the most non-distinctive elements of the Passover meal -- bread and wine, common to all meals -- as the signs and bearers of his body and blood in all the biblical accounts of the last supper in the gospels and I Corinthians. Given conflicting accounts between Luke and the others about which cup of wine Jesus used to designate his blood, there is no way to conclude decisively, on biblical grounds, what the meaning of that cup would have been related to a first century Seder, even if we had access to a definitive text.

And that's if we think the last Supper was a Seder. Or that the Christian Eucharist was modeled on the Seder in any meaningful way.

Which brings us to the fourth and fifth historical problems. The earliest forms of Christian Eucharistic prayers we have bear almost no resemblance to
anything we see from the third century, much less late medieval  or modern Jewish Seder texts. They actually bear far more resemblance to first or third century Jewish thanksgivings for meals in general or for Sabbath meals (Q'iddush).

Fifth and finally, John's Gospel, which we read on Maundy Thursday, describes the events of this night as occurring before the festival of the Passover (John 13:1), while the synoptics (including Luke, which we have read on Palm/Passion Sunday) place the Last Supper as a Passover meal. Passover themes are certainly present in all the gospel accounts and provide some kind of context for the story of the last meal the disciples shared with Jesus. However, these differing accounts in the gospels should make it clear that trying to press any specific actions into any particulars of Jewish Passover ritual of that or any time is problematic at best. 

So, if you want to celebrate a Seder, you can do that
in one of two ways. You can ask a Jewish family or congregation if you might join as a guest. Or your congregation can partner with a rabbi or a Jewish congregation and they can host you at a Seder. If you want to celebrate Maundy Thursday, trust and use our official liturgy or the alternatives on your Discipleship Ministries website. These reflect the wisdom and scholarship of centuries of Christian faith and practice. Christian-hosted Seders do not.