Friday, November 13, 2015

Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 5: The Interflowing Roles of People, Deacon and Elder

The role of the people is to live out the baptismal covenant fully and faithfully in their daily lives, including their interactions with the Christian community, the church.

The roles of deacons and elders are specifications of that fundamental role of all the baptized so that the baptized, organized in a variety of formats of Christian community (congregations, mission groups, organizations, discipling groups, etc) have the leadership and support in place to fulfill their role in all the myriad ways they have opportunities to do so in their daily lives and in our life together.

More specifically, deacons order their own lives in submission to the calling to help the Christian community focus on the application of the Word in the world, including but not limited to ministries that embody and bring forth compassion and justice.

Elders order their lives in submission to the calling to ensure the word is proclaimed and taught, the sacraments are duly administered, and the life and work of the community in their charged is as well-ordered for effective mission and service as possible.

While people, deacons and elders have more or less discrete foci for their lives and work as part of the wider Christian community called church, in no case are these foci left as solely the domain of one to the full exclusion of the other. Rather, these foci, or roles, constantly (and rightly) interflow among people, deacons and elders for the good of the body. And in a similar way, the foci for each of these (people, deacons and elders) are also interflowing, each supporting the other, and each unthinkable and undoable without the other.

For example, the roles the elder is authorized to perform are to preach the word, to administer the Holy Sacraments, and to order the life of the Church, all in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

All three of these (word, sacrament and order) are understood to be essential-- things that must be cared for by someone who ensures they are occurring and occurring well in the life of the congregation or ministry context where they are appointed to serve. Each of the three, while distinct, draw from or interflow with the other two. And all three are ministries not OF or solely BY the elder, but rather of the whole church led by its elder and involving its deacon, if that community is blessed to have one or more in their midst. (Congregations that lack access to an ordained deacon still need the role of the deacon to be performed but may need to find other ways to fulfill it).  

Ordering the life of the church derives from and interflows with the word rightly preached
and the sacraments rightly administered toward the greater end of the mission of the
whole church, discipling people in the way of Jesus for the transformation of the world. For the word to be rightly preached requires a community answerable to the word in their own lives (the people), and they in turn, to be answerable, need to be reminded regularly, and in more ways than a sermon, of ways the word being proclaimed is being lived out or calls us to live with compassion and justice in the world (the deacon). The fullness of life of a Christian community thus depends on the interflowing role of all three-- people, elder and deacon-- around the Word.

Administering the sacraments likewise derives from and interflows with the whole people being faithful to the Word proclaimed in their midst (deacon) and being ordered in their life and ministries (elder) to fulfill the wholeness of the baptismal covenant (people, deacon and elder). 

All of these three classic ministries of the elder (word, sacrament, order) are service-- service in the power of the Holy Spirit, service in the body of Christ, and service in the world as the nephesh hayah, the body of Christ, the church, lives and moves and has its being in God's saving mission.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Saint Nicholas Day Feast

Bishop Nicholas prevents girls being sold into prostitution. From the series,
The Life of Saint Nicholas, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, ca. 1332.
Public Domain.
December 6, 2015 is not only Advent 2 (or Advent 5 if you are keeping Extended Advent). It is also the Feast of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.

Yes, Saint Nicholas.

Or, Saint Nick, as some refer to a more popularized version of him today.

Saint Nicholas was the actual 4th century Christian bishop in a coastal town in Turkey upon whom the "legendary" character of Santa Claus was based.

The real "Saint Nick" did not ride a team of reindeer around Myra on Christmas Eve distributing toys to "all the good little girls and boys."

But he was known for his care for children in the community, and especially for taking action to prevent children from being sold into slavery or prostitution so their families, or the children themselves, could survive.

The painting above depicts one such story. A merchant in Myra could not afford to pay dowry for his daughters. Nor could he afford to keep them in his household. Selling them into prostitution appeared to be the only way for them, and him, to survive. Nicholas intervened, making sure the family had sufficient funds to afford the dowry.

The stories and paintings depict Nicholas himself tossing gold balls or gold bars into the window of the family's house by night to avoid detection. It is more likely deacons in the church heard about the situation, informed Bishop Nicholas, and together the deacons and the bishop arranged for this family, and no doubt many others, to be cared for with funds collected through the weekly communion offering.

Still, the point is clear: Nicholas was especially known for caring for children and families living on the edge.

A Family Story
As my wife and I were raising our two sons, we wanted to give them more of a connection to the real Saint Nicholas, the one known for caring for children in need, than the consumer-driven Santa Claus portrayed so widely in US culture during Advent and Christmas Season.

We decided to do this by keeping St. Nicholas Day, December 6, as a family.

Observing St. Nicholas Day for us meant developing a series of family traditions. Our boys would wake up to stockings filled with nuts and chocolates. We'd share a family breakfast together. Then we'd go somewhere where we could directly serve with or for poor children and families in our community. One thing we found even our smallest child could do was ring bells with Salvation Army. 
Over lunch we'd compose parodies of secular Christmas songs (something we all enjoyed doing) that we'd send to families and friends. After that, we'd go shopping for gifts for others, both family members and a family we would sponsor. Part of that shopping trip was picking up a Christmas video we'd watch that afternoon or evening together, and usually one about Santa Claus. And that evening we'd put up our Christmas tree. So we did not completely divorce St. Nicholas from Santa Claus and Christmas. Instead, we invested Santa Claus with the story of the Christian bishop and saint, whose care for the poor and children we'd been practicing throughout the day.

As time went on, and both our children's school schedules and our work schedules became more hectic, it became impossible to celebrate the full day as we had when they were younger. Some years, it meant we'd "transfer" our observance to the weekend. Eventually, we simply couldn't do much of it at all.

But the good memories of it remain.

A Saint Nicholas Feast for Your Congregation

As we've noted above, this year, 2015, Saint Nicholas Day falls on a Sunday. Perhaps you might consider using this occasion to help your congregation keep Saint Nicholas Day and connect it with the Song of Zechariah that lies at the heart of the readings for Advent 2.

Here are some suggestions for doing this, based on our family's experience. Feel free to adapt this as may make the most sense in your context.

1. Host an actual feast after worship on December 6. Decorate the space with images of the real Saint Nicholas (you can find many on the Internet), or symbols, like balls of gold, that help remind of his story. As part of the feast, invite youth to research and then creatively tell or dramatize some stories of the real Saint Nicholas.

2. Give stocking filled with appropriate snacks and perhaps small gifts to all of the children present.

3. Schedule activities either at the church or in the community (Salvation Army bell-ringing is a great way to do this!) that enable whole families, including young children, to participate in helping others in need.

4. Set apart set hours for shopping for simple and useful gifts for-- or better with!-- children in families in need.

5. Gather again at the church in the evening for cider and sandwiches, and hear the stories about what folks did and learned, and especially the stories of the children.

6. Consider whether you might want to decorate your church's Christmas Tree together as part of this event-- or at least put it up, and maybe put some lights and some gold balls on it.

7. Conclude with evening prayer with a homily that helps connect the activities of this day with the Song of Zechariah, especially the last stanza:

"Through your merciful compassions, our God,
you will bring the dawn from on high to visit us,
to shine upon those kept in dungeons and the shadows of      death
and to guide our feet into the pathway of peace."

You may want to sing Zechariah's song, too, as part of this.
Several versions are available in The United Methodist Hymnal (208, 209), Mil Voces para Celebrar (78), and the Upper Room Worshipbook (10-12).

Share What You Did

My family's Saint Nicholas Day practices certainly were a significant time of bonding, good memories, and hands on mission for us as our boys were growing up. I think hosting something like the Saint Nicholas Day Feast I've described above could be for your congregation, too.

A Saint Nicholas Day Feast could feed bodies, minds and souls both in your church and your community. It can teach about the Christian saint. It can help folks create an experiential connection with to the biblical themes of the day and of Advent. And, perhaps above all, it can provide an occasion for the church family to gather and serve across generations, and have some fun with it, too!

If your congregation tries a Saint Nicholas Feast this year, I invite you to share what you did and what you learned in the comments on this blog.

Friday, October 9, 2015

When Should You "Hang the Greens"?

Evergreens and holly. Photo by Petr Kratochvil.
Used by permission. CC BY-SA 3.0.
A service or activity of "hanging the greens" has become increasingly popular among Protestants in the US during the past 20-30 years.

The United Methodist Book of Worship provides a service for this activity. Discipleship Ministries also provides one that more directly incorporates children.

Frequently around this time of the year I receive questions about this ritual, and the most common among those I receive from new pastors or from congregations that hadn't yet taken it on is, "When should we do it?"

The best answer to that question is, "It depends."

And what it depends on is why you are doing it in the first place.

Are you doing it to get ready for Christmas?

Or are you doing it to enhance your congregation's celebration of Advent?

Getting Ready for Christmas

As I look at the descriptions of how many churches actually practice the Hanging of the Greens, it appears to me they tend to think of it as a way to get ready for Christmas.

Indeed, that's how this practice started in Europe and continues in many churches with European heritage to this day. Evergreens were brought into the sanctuary at some point after services on Advent 4 to prepare the worship space for the services of Christmas Season, beginning with Christmas Eve. Evergreens in the sanctuary were a symbol of the eternal coming to dwell among us as Word made flesh. They were also a sign of life and growth overcoming and flourishing in the midst of the dead of winter, and so of the resurrection of Christ. Over time, additional and more specific attributes were given to specific evergreens that might be included, as we hear in the carol, The Holly and the Ivy.

Why bring in the greens so late, after Advent was over?

Ritually, it's because they were intended to support the celebration of Christmas Season, not Advent. Advent was not about incarnation or the birth of Jesus, but the second coming of Christ. It was kept with a degree of austere solemnity as a season of penitence and baptismal preparation, parallel to Lent in late winter and into spring. So during Advent, as during Lent, the decoration of the sanctuary was intentionally more sparse than lavish.

And practically, it's because when these practices started in the late middle ages, artificial greenery did not exist. If you wanted greens to stay green throughout Christmas Season, you needed to cut and place them at a time much closer to Christmas Eve. Either that, or you'd have to keep taking down the dried and browning greens and replacing them with fresh ones.

To Enhance the Celebration of Advent

If you look carefully at the language of the rituals for the Hanging of the Greens in the Book of Worship and on our website, you'll notice they are designed to enhance the celebration of Advent more than simply "get ready for Christmas." The "coming of the King" for which we "prepare this house" in the opening of the Book of Worship ritual points to the second coming of Christ. The version on the Discipleship Ministries website is even more explicitly focused on the Advent setting of the "greening." The hymns and songs suggested in both are primarily for Advent, not Christmas.

We do have artificial greenery available now, so if it is desired to use these greens throughout Advent to point to Advent themes, as the Discipleship Ministries version consistently does, there is neither ritual nor practical reason for this not to be done, perhaps as a special service during the week between Christ the King and Advent 1.

Then, after or at the conclusion of services on Advent 4, perhaps an additional service incorporating more of the Christmas themes (including parts of the Book of Worship ritual) might be offered to correspond with the addition of live greens that will be used throughout the Christmas season.

The Key: Be Clear about Why You Are (and Aren't!) Adding the Greenery

So, why do you hang the greens?

Is it primarily to celebrate Christmas Season and the Incarnation, as the rite of Hanging the Greens started out and in its originating traditions continues?

Or is it primarily to call greater attention to the Advent theme of anticipating the second coming and consummation of all things in Christ?

It's important for you to be clear about why you do this, so the meaning of these symbols is clear in your worshiping community.

If you don't make it clear, the result is likely to be confusion. Such symbols do not speak for themselves. They need and invite interpretation. If you don't provide your interpretations, others you may not intend will be supplied.

After all, evergreens feature prominently in the cultural "Christmastime" narrative, a narrative played out in ads, in music, on the Internet, in stores and in public places everywhere starting no later than late November each year. That narrative is about Santa and presents, not about the second coming of Christ, the culmination of all things in Christ, or during Christmas Season itself, the birth of Christ and the mystery (and threatening implications!) of the Incarnation. That narrative is about comfort and consumerism. Our narrative is about God breaking the powers of oppression and injustice and breaking into our world through Incarnation to make a people who join God's mission until God's mission is fulfilled and all things are renewed.

If our symbols look just like the cultural ones, and we're not being clear about how we're using them, while the cultural narrative is quite clear, we may be underwriting a cultural narrative that both opposes and silences the one we intend to proclaim.

So, if it's valuable for you, by all means hang greens.

Hang artificial greens at the beginning of Advent, and be clear about how our use points to the second coming and culmination of all things in Christ.

Or hang fresh greens nearer Christmas, and be clear about how our use points to the incarnation and life of God made flesh and dwelling among us, beginning in the birth of Jesus.

Or even do both-- adding fresh greens nearer Christmas to the base of artificial ones provided during Advent.

Just be clear why.

And choose ritual elements that support the "why" you intend!


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Three Communion Practices to Quit Doing

What I'm about to share isn't news. It's not even all that new.

It's actually official teaching and guidance of our Church. In two of these three cases, these have been the official position of The United Methodist Church at least since we adopted This Holy Mystery (2004). In the third, originally stated in 2013 and renewed in 2014, the basis for the prohibition announced by the Council of Bishops is also to be found in This Holy Mystery

The thing is, I keep getting requests, lots of them, for resources or guidance about how to DO these things our Church actually forbids.

So, it's pretty clear at least some folks may not yet have gotten the word that these three things are in fact forbidden as part of our practice of Holy Communion in The United Methodist Church.

Without further ado, here's the list.

1. Preconsecration
The practice of consecrating elements ahead of time for the convenience of the pastor not having to go to small or remote congregations, weekend camps, or other such occasions is inappropriate and contrary to our historic doctrine and understanding of how God’s grace is made available in the sacrament (Article XVIII, The Articles of Religion, BOD; page 64). If authorized leadership is not available for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, other worship services such as love feasts, agape meals, or baptismal reaffirmations are valid alternatives that avoid the misuse of Communion elements. –This Holy Mystery, p. 32

I have quit being surprised by the number of requests for liturgies pastors may use to preconsecrate elements either for another church served by a person who is not authorized to preside or for a special event a group in the church is doing at a remote location. It's probably time I just write a generic response I can copy and paste each time.

The answer is actually very simple, as This Holy Mystery makes clear.

We are not to preconsecrate elements at all, ever, under any circumstances.

This Holy Mystery cites such actions as a violation of our doctrinal standards.  

Why? Because celebrating Holy Communion requires the gathered community with its authorized presider.

We always need both,  the community and its authorized presider, in real time.

What about extending the table? Isn't that preconsecration?

This Holy Mystery
says we are to extend the table to those unwillingly absent, and does not see this as an instance of preconsecration, nor an instance of "reserving" the sacrament, which is forbidden by Article XXVIII of the Articles of Religion. 

The Communion elements are consecrated and consumed in the context of the gathered congregation. The Table may be extended, in a timely manner, to include those unable to attend because of age, illness, or similar conditions. Laypeople may distribute the consecrated elements in the congregation and extend them to members who are unavoidably absent. (p. 22).

Note to whom the table is extended: those unwillingly or unavoidably absent from the celebration of the gathered community. This refers to people who are sick, imprisoned, or even whose work schedules may make it impossible for them to attend a regular celebration with the community. This does not include persons in other congregations, nor does it include those who willingly choose to meet where their authorized presider is not present. 

So yes, we SHOULD by all means extend the table to those unwillingly absent. This is neither preconsecration nor reservation. It's including those who could not be with us in our participation of the body and blood of Christ at the soonest possible time. Mark Stamm's book, Extending the Table, is an outstanding guide for United Methodist congregations seeking to establish, sustain and strengthen this ministry.

But the bottom line is this.  If you're missing an authorized presider, either find one, or do not celebrate Holy Communion.

And to my fellow elders or others authorized to preside:  Go where you're needed! We authorize you to preside WITH the community of the gathered faithful, not FOR it. 

Here's a shorthand way to remember it:

"Elders itinerate. Elements don't."

2. Self-Serve or Drop-In Communion

Both “self-service” Communion, where people help themselves, and “drop-in” Communion, where the elements are available over a period of time, are contrary to the communal nature of the sacrament, which is the celebration of the gathered community of faith.”
This Holy Mystery, p. 23

Requests for resources to guide Christmas Eve drop-in communion services tend to start coming to me by email or Facebook by mid-November each year. Sometimes these requests come from newer pastors who are just then learning that their congregation has this practice, check the Book of Worship, don't find any resources for it, and then ask if I or someone might create some. Sometimes they come from more seasoned pastors who simply want to try something different this year.

Again, the answer is simple. Don't do this. At all. And if your congregation has a tradition of it, simply let them know you, as a clergy person in The United Methodist Church, are not authorized to offer such a service.

The quote from This Holy Mystery provides a succinct explanation.

Holy Communion is "communal."

It's the work of the whole gathered congregation who offer themselves to God together as "the church Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races" in praise and thanksgiving, ask for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on all of them gathered as one body and on their gifts of bread and wine, and then share together, as one body, from the one loaf (or loaves) and the one cup (or cups) over which they have prayed the Spirit's outpouring to "make them be for us the body and blood of Christ." It's about all of us, not individuals or biological families or groups of friends who come to receive blessed elements on their own schedule.

If you want to have some sort of "drop-in service" or devotional practice on Christmas Eve or other occasions, you can certainly do that. Establish a period of time (perhaps mid-afternoon through early evening on Christmas Eve) in which you will offer prayers for healing, or prayers of blessings for families or groups or individuals. Then, at your Christmas Eve service that night, when the body is gathered together, celebrate Holy Communion as it is intended to be: communally.

 3. Online Communion

"As the practice of online communion is a relatively new experiment, the Council of Bishops called for an extension of the moratorium of the practice in its meeting on November 7, 2014."
  Reported here.

This is the second of two such (brief) statements from the Council of Bishops (the first was in 2013) calling for any and all practices of online celebration of Holy Communion to cease and for our churches not to begin any such practices until further notice.

While this is a very brief, even terse statement, it was based on the considerable work of a special consultation convened earlier in 2013 by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, The General Board of Discipleship (Discipleship Ministries) and the Office of Christian Unity and Interfaith Relationships (OCUIR). Papers presented at that consultation can be found here

Primary among the concerns raised among these original papers were that a physically gathered community is essential to the nature of the sacraments in our incarnational faith, that online practices of communion necessarily involve self-serve communion (which is already forbidden by This Holy Mystery), and that asynchronous celebrations (watching a communion service online at a later time and participating then) amounts to both self-serve and drop-in communion, also forbidden by This Holy Mystery. Along with this, we heard responses from members of the World Methodist Federation that permitting online sacramental practice would be damaging to our relationships with other Methodist bodies worldwide, and from our ecumenical partners that allowing such practices could destroy current relationships and make others nearly impossible to pursue.

After issuing its moratorium in 2013 in response to the request and the papers submitted by this consultation, the Council of Bishops also created a Task Force on Online Communion in connection with the Faith and Order Committee which held a discussion of papers presented by its members in January 2015. Those papers, which can be found here, overwhelmingly support the notion that online sacramental celebration is inconsistent with the nature of the sacraments and damaging both to our own churches and to our ecumenical relationships and should not be encouraged or allowed. The result is no legislation is forthcoming from the Faith and Order Committee proposing to modify denominational standards to make room for legitimizing online sacramental celebrations.

The online world, and social media in particular, are a significant venue for reaching and supporting people in a journey of discipleship in many ways. Indeed, the very first recommendation of the original consultation group was for the Council of Bishops to call for United Methodist congregations to learn and adopt the best possible practices for online ministry presence in every way they could. The Council of Bishops did issue that call when it acted in 2013. And we have many resources, especially through United Methodist Communications, to help all of us do that. At the same time, the initial consultation, the Council of Bishops, and the Task Force on Online Communion with the Faith and Order Committee have all concluded that celebrating the sacraments online is not consistent either with the nature of the sacraments or with what online ministries can do best. 

In Summary
: Do This, Not That

1. Do celebrate communion as a gathered community with your authorized preside, and do extend the table immediately thereafter to those of your worshiping community who were unwillingly absent. 
Do not preconsecrate elements for other congregations to use or for groups meeting offsite without an authorized presider to use.
2. Do find ways to offer prayer, blessings and ministries of healing for individuals, families and groups in your congregation.
Do not turn the celebration of communion into a "come when it's convenient for you" event.
3. Do create a compelling online presence for your congregation, and utilize social media, online tools and apps to maximize the effectiveness of its ministries.
Do not create opportunities for persons to "neglect the (physical) gathering together of themselves" (Hebrews 10:25) by offering sacraments online. When it comes to the sacraments, our physical presence to each other is essential to their very nature.

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