Thursday, April 19, 2018

If the Church Were More Like Starbucks

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:33-34

After Starbucks announced plans for anti-racism and diversity training for all of their workers, one of the protestors held up a sign saying, “Too Little, Too Latte”

(Full disclosure: I am drinking Starbucks Coffee as I write this and I have been through more anti-racism workshops than I can count. I have actually been to the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks in Philadelphia where the incident took place.)

And lest anyone misunderstand, I do not think for a nano-second that Starbucks is any more racist than the rest of us. But that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Unless you have been subject to a news blackout for the past few days, you know the story. Two young black business men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were waiting for a colleague to arrive for a business meeting. 

Mr. Nelson asked to use the Rest Room and was told that it was for paying customers only and since he had not yet purchased anything he could not use it. 

No problem. He sat down with his friend and business partner to wait for their colleague to arrive.

Errin Haines Whack, AP National Writer, describes what happened next.
“A few minutes later, they hardly noticed when the police walked into the coffee shop — until officers started walking in their direction.
“’That's when we knew she called the police on us," Nelson told The Associated Press in the men's first interview since video of their April 12 arrests went viral.
“. . . Robinson said he thought about his loved ones and how the afternoon had taken such a turn as he was taken to jail. Nelson wondered if he'd make it home alive.”

A white customer recorded the incident on a cell phone and then posted the video

As outrage spread across the internet, the two men spent hours in a jail cell with no outside contact and no idea what would happen next, unaware of the storm generated by the incident on social media. They were released after midnight when District Attorney Larry Krasner declined to prosecute them for trespassing.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has met with the two men to apologize and hear their concerns. Johnson has also announced that 8,000 stores will be closed on the afternoon of May 29 so that 175,000 Starbucks employees can attend workshops on racism and diversity.

Some sociologists have expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of anti-racism and diversity training in curbing the implicit bias that white people have toward people of color.

They point out that the training may backfire as white employees may feel that it puts them down by elevating the status of minorities. And they note that sense of white victimhood was a factor in the last presidential election.

I don’t doubt that the skeptical sociologists know the data in ways that I do not. And I agree that real progress requires a lot more than a few hours at a seminar. But I believe this is a very good first step.

First, because it is big. And it’s very public. Without making any excuses, Starbucks is saying that they have to do better. 

And second, they are sending the clear message to their employees that racism and racial profiling are unacceptable.

Of course it’s also good publicity and it’s about brand preservation. Self-interest is always a motivating factor. (Thank you, Reinhold Niebuhr.) But that doesn’t diminish its value.

And it makes an important statement to the culture beyond Starbucks.

Thinking about the Starbucks response led me to thinking about the United Methodist Church. What if the church were more like Starbucks? 

Of course we still have lots of work to do on racism. We are Americans, after all. 

But I found myself thinking about our continued discrimination against our LGBTQ siblings.

We don’t have a CEO, but would it not be amazing (as in grace) if our Bishops and District Superintendents went to high schools and spoke to the local Gay-Straight Alliance (or other appropriate group) and apologized for the harm we have done—and for the harm done by other “Christians?”

What if we took an afternoon, or a Sunday morning, and dedicated that time to learning how to be better neighbors? Maybe we could learn to stop talking about the “homosexual lifestyle,” for starters. Maybe we could work to make sure that our LGBTQ siblings never feel like they are going to be “charged with trespassing” when they come to church.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Note to Pastor Snowflake: I Feel Your Pain

We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

Last week I read a commentary piece by a pastor in the United Methodist Church  who is feeling angry and burned out. 

The pastor identifies only as “Pastor Snowflake,” so we know nothing of gender or background, beyond a general impression that the writer is relatively young and new to ministry, but I could be wrong about that.

The first paragraph gives a fair indication of what is to follow:

“Being a pastor in the United Methodist Church sucks right now. And if you are reading this and the word ‘sucks’ bothers you, quit reading. It isn’t going to get better and you aren’t worthy of the point I’m going to make.”

The critique of the church and the denomination is neither surprising nor new: we are fighting over the inclusion or exclusion of folks based on their sexuality, while the world is going to hell. The congregation is apathetic and shallow. Denominational leadership doesn’t get it. Pastors are blamed for everything. 

There’s more, but you get the point.

My first response is that I hear you and my heart goes out to you. 

This morning we hosted the ordination service for the New England Annual Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

In his ordination sermon the Rev. Dr. William Watley told the ordinands they needed to understand that if they are in ministry they are going to be wounded.

United Methodists are not alone in their struggles.

But still, this is not an easy time to be a pastor in the United Methodist Church. It’s not easy to be a pastor in an age of both increasing secularism and increasing right wing politics among so-called Christians. Adding in the unique struggles within United Methodism and it can be overwhelming.

In the immortal words of Bill Clinton, “I feel your pain.” And for more than a few decades in many ways I have lived your pain.

Pastor Snowflake (my goodness, I do not like that label!), describes what led them to the present crisis:
“Lent is what my congregation needs more than anything. They need a season focused personal reflection and repentance. Because, we are a people who’ve fucked things up and fallen short of doing good most days. I need the season of Lent because the darkside of my soul has gotten pretty cranky and mean and I need to be getting back to the heart of God. 
“So, I preached my heart out during Lent and had a few of my best sermons. At the same time, I’m leading my congregation through a visioning process to do more focused and pro-active community ministry and discipleship. . . .  I did it because I believe in God and see the Holy Spirit at work in my community. I did it because the iconoclastic befoulment from the last national election demands that the faith community get it together!”

Reading the essay, I see honesty, compassion and confession. This is written by someone who is as clear about their own faults as they are about the faults of others.

They go on from local church issues to denominational issues:
“I’m especially tired of the ridiculous argument about gay people…  and I’m calling out both liberals and conservatives here! You are all being assholes!”
It is certainly ridiculous to argue about the acceptability of our LGBTQ siblings. And it may be true that at least some of the time we are “all being assholes.” 

But there is no moral equivalence between the two sides.

Years ago, when we debated women’s issues, I can remember the oft-repeated observation that “there is pain on both sides.” But the pain of those being excluded is not the same as the pain of those who feel ill-used because they are called to account for their advocacy of exclusion.

After a lengthy list of crucial issues crying out for the attention of serious and faithful Christians, Pastor Snowflake laments, “Good men and good women trying to put life back on track for themselves and their families while the church fights a civil war over the place and worth of gay people!”

Clearly, we should not be fighting over this. “The place and worth of gay people” ought to be obvious to every human being.

But until it is obvious, we can’t give up. This is an argument that may seem minor and irrelevant to cis-gender straight folks, but it is life and death to our LGBTQ siblings.

Yes, in many ways, “Being a Pastor in the United Methodist Church Sucks Right Now.” But it is much worse for those who are excluded and told that they are “less than.” This is not where we want to be, but it is where we are. And we need to do our best to find a way forward that is faithful and just.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

Resurrection: You Are the Body of Christ

Now you are the body of Christ
and individually members of it.

I Corinthians 12:27

In the days surrounding Easter I encountered many articles about the resurrection.

A recurring theme was the assertion that belief in the resurrection was essential to being a Christian, and that was followed by the insistence that believing in resurrection meant believing in “bodily” resurrection. And lest there be any confusion, the writers wanted to make it clear that by bodily resurrection they meant the literal, material body of Jesus.

Characterizing the resurrection in literal terms is theologically clumsy, but it is also biblically suspect.

If the resurrection is about the literal, material body of Jesus, then why didn’t Mary recognize him when she saw him in the garden outside the tomb? And how is it possible that Cleopas and the other disciple could talk with him for hours on the way to Emmaus and sit down with him at dinner, and still not recognize him? And when Jesus came to them on the beach, while they were cooking breakfast, why didn’t they know who he was?

Finally, if we can get by all of the strange contradictions, we come to the ascension. Can we really believe that Jesus literally rose up into heaven? Do we believe that his body levitated up into the clouds?

These are not mistakes in the narrative. The Gospel writers knew what they were saying. They were trying to describe something that was fundamentally indescribable. Biblical language is always symbolic. But there is more going on than can be explained in terms of symbolic language.

In order to understand what they were saying we need to read the story backwards.

The New Testament would not exist if its authors had not encountered the risen Christ. They met Jesus in the form of the risen Christ and then they wrote about how that came to be and what it meant. They were looking back and asking, “How did we get here?”

And that message transformed the world. Literally. 

The little band of fearful followers who went into hiding after Jesus’ crucifixion grew so rapidly that within a few hundred years they numbered between a quarter and a half of the population of the Roman Empire.

In an excellent essay in the WallStreet Journal on the day before Easter, Roman Catholic scholar George Weigel explains:
“How did this happen? How did a ragtag band of nobodies from the far edges of the Mediterranean world become such a dominant force in just two and a half centuries? The historical sociology of this extraordinary phenomenon has been explored by Rodney Stark of Baylor University, who argues that Christianity modeled a nobler way of life than what was on offer elsewhere in the rather brutal society of the day. In Christianity, women were respected as they weren’t in classical culture and played a critical role in bringing men to the faith and attracting converts. In an age of plagues, the readiness of Christians to care for all the sick, not just their own, was a factor, as was the impressive witness to faith of countless martyrs.”
True story.

Without the resurrection this would have been impossible.

Their encounters with the risen Christ convinced them that they could live differently. They lived as he lived. They recognized that the Kingdom of God really was among them and they lived that way. They lived the way that they did because they were convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

In the words of the angel in Matthew’s Gospel, “He is risen as he said.”

For the first Christians the resurrection was both the foundation of their faith and an event that they found to be thoroughly incomprehensible.

To speak of resurrection in literal terms reduces its meaning and ignores the biblical record. Resurrection is not about flying bodies or a resuscitated corpse. Easter transcends and transforms our normal categories.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus’ message was that the Kingdom of God was as hand. Weigel argues that the early Christians came to believe “that the cataclysmic, world-redeeming act that God had promised had taken place at Easter. God’s Kingdom had come not at the end of time but within time—and that had changed the texture of both time and history. History continued, but those shaped by the Easter Effect became the people who knew how history was going to turn out. Because of that, they could live differently. The Easter Effect impelled them to bring a new standard of equality into the world and to embrace death as martyrs if necessary—because they knew, now, that death did not have the final word in the human story.”

In his second letter to the Church in Corinth Paul proclaimed that “when anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. The old has passed away and a whole new world has begun.” (II Corinthians 5:17) Everything has changed. For the early Christians this was the reality of the resurrection. 

In his first letter to those same folks in Corinth, just before he launched into those immortal words about love as the most important characteristic of Christian living (even more important than faith), he reminded them of the meaning of the resurrection: “You are the body of Christ.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Fifty Years Ago

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28

The summer before my freshman year in college I received a letter from Wesleyan University asking whether I would mind having a “Negro” roommate. At the time, I was insulted by the question. What would make them think I was a racist? I rewrote the response card to indicate that I would not mind having a black roommate, but I did object to the question.

Looking back, the experience seems surreal. Did I really grow up in a time when we thought that white people needed to be asked whether they could share a room with a person of another race?

To be fair, Wesleyan was embarking on a new and precedent setting path. They were the first of the elite, private, traditional liberal arts colleges to actively recruit and admit a large minority population to the student body, and they were understandably nervous. Looking back, I am proud of Wesleyan’s leadership in that historic endeavor.

And I ended up with a great roommate; Stewart Malloy, a young black man from North Carolina. At a recent reunion we had a group discussion about racism and racial issues while we were at Wesleyan. I recounted the story of the letter I received before freshman year. When I said I was pretty sure that Stewart had not received a similar letter, he just laughed. But I was surprised to learn when I questioned the other folks at the reunion that no one else remembered getting a letter like that. Stewart was amused by what he thought was my naiveté. “Well, Trench,” he laughed, “I guess they wanted to put the poor black kid and the poor white kid together.”

As our freshman year unfolded, Stewart and I found ourselves living through a time of great racial tension and upheaval. The Wesleyan vision of integration was continually under attack from the larger white community, which wanted “more time” to do this more “gradually,” (that was before we had even reached “all deliberate speed”) and from the pressures of the growing Black pride and Black separatism movements on campus. Our room was, at least in our minds, like the eye of the hurricane. Stewart and I talked often about racial issues, but we never had a single argument on the subject. We listened to each other, and we learned. And like many other young people, we were busy thinking about how we could change the world.

Then one night, as I sat at my desk, Stewart came back to the room in tears. “They killed him,” he said. And immediately, I knew who the “him” was. Martin Luther King, Jr., the prophet of non-violent change, had been murdered. On campus and around the country, racial tensions increased dramatically.

A few weeks later, after a meeting with the Black student group, Stewart told me that we could no longer be friends in the same way. Nothing would change in our room, but outside we would not speak to each other. It was not personal. It had nothing to do with us. It was all about larger issues in the Black student community as they related to the racism in the country.

Freshman year ended and we went our separate ways. I don’t believe we spoke again until our twentieth reunion. Stewart was sitting on a stone wall in front of the College of Letters. We hugged and laughed and talked for a long time. It was as if our conversation had only been briefly interrupted.

A lot has happened in the fifty years since Dr. King died. We have made great progress. But racism remains a major issue for us as Christians and as Americans.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Holy Week and Anti-Semitism

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.
But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

John 5:15-18

I can still see my high school principal standing with his hands on his hips, glaring at me, demanding an explanation for something I had done or not done. “I want a reason,” he shouted, “Not an excuse!”

And I can remember pausing as I thought to myself, “Actually, what you want is an excuse. I’ve got a reason, but you won’t think it’s an excuse.” Wisely, I did not try to correct his mistake. I mumbled something and he threatened dire consequences if it happened again.

There are reasons for the anti-Semitism in the Greek Scriptures, but they are not an excuse.

Perhaps the most insidious thing about the anti-Semitism is that we Christians are simply oblivious to it. The scholar James Carroll, who is himself a devout Christian, points out in his book, “Christ Actually,” the obvious but generally unrecognized anti-Sermitism implicit in our naming the two parts of the Bible the “Old” and “New” testaments.

“New” is always better than “Old.” One clearly supersedes the other.

Jesus was a champion of the poor and the marginalized, but we often portray that as in contrast to the Jewish perspective. Every affirmation of Jesus is matched by a condemnation of the Jewish faith that nurtured him. We do this in spite of the overwhelming evidence that Jesus stood in direct line with the Hebrew prophets.

Anti-Semitism is an underlying theme in Holy Week. And that theme is most evident in the Gospel of John.

John frequently uses “the Jews” the same way that Matthew, Mark and Luke use “the Scribes and the Pharisees.” He is talking about the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. The reference to Pharisees as a synonym for self-righteous hypocrites is historically inaccurate and implicitly anti-Semitic.

(We pause briefly to note first that the Scribes and the Pharisees are the same people. Second, the Pharisees were reformers. Third, that Jesus was almost certainly a Pharisee. And Fourth, that the Pharisaic reform movement gave birth to Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.)

John was writing at a time when the church and the synagogue were separating. Christianity began as a Jewish sect. The synoptic Gospels portray an internal conflict within the synagogue between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus. John characterizes the conflict as one between the followers of Jesus and “the Jews” who remain loyal to Judaism. Of course, the followers of Jesus were also Jewish. It was a sibling rivalry.

As a potential source of anti-Semitism, the verses from the fifth chapter are far from the worst passage in John’s Gospel, but they are bad enough. John says that “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him” for breaking the Sabbath and for blasphemy.

I was in college when I first met someone who had been called a “Christ killer,” by the (so called) “Christians” in his Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was appalled, but also perplexed.

The very simple version of atonement theology I grew up with said that Jesus had died for my sins. He had also died for the sins of the world. But the personal part was where we put the emphasis. The historical roles of Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, and the crowds, were all incidental accidents. The only theologically valid answer to the question, “Who killed Jesus?” was, “I did.”

Over the years I have grown into a very different theological understanding. Jesus died because his absolute faithfulness collided with the sinful violence of the empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as a just and non-violent alternative to the Roman Empire and to every empire. The Romans didn’t crucify people for religious crimes.

In many ways, anti-Semitism is our original sin as Christians. It is long past time for confession and repentance. Until we move past that, we cannot really understand who Jesus is.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

*This is a revised version of a post first published on 4-16-14.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Why Did Jesus Die?

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Mark 8:34-37

The most common (most frequent and crudest) explanation of Jesus' death on the cross is that God sent him to die for our sins. Someone had to pay for the sins of humanity. Jesus suffered so that I didn't have to. He was perfectly sinless and it was a perfect sacrifice.

That is a caricature of what is called the theory of "substitutionary atonement." I have deliberately used the caricature to make a larger point. In spite of the fact that it's the theology I grew up with, and it's still the most common theological understanding of the crucifixion, I am convinced it is wrong. It is wrong biblically, historically, morally, and theologically.

On Good Friday, Jesus was tried, and convicted, and tortured, and killed. It was a triumph for the powers of darkness, and there was nothing good about that Friday. Or so it seemed.

But in his death he exposed the moral bankruptcy of the Empire and the shallow religiosity of the chief priests and elders who collaborated with the oppressors. Good Friday is the story of a collision between the goodness of God in Jesus, and the evil of a violent empire.

Before we go any further, we need to clear up two major misunderstandings:

  • The Jews did not kill Jesus; the Romans did. 
  • He was not executed for blasphemy; he was executed for treason. 
The Jews did not kill Jesus. We know this as an absolute fact because they did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment. We also know this because if he had been sentenced to death by a Jewish court, he would have been stoned to death. The Romans were the only ones with the authority to kill him, and they did.

We know that the Romans executed Jesus for sedition because they crucified him. Crucifixion was a death reserved for those who committed treason against the empire. It was a form of state terrorism designed to torture its victims and terrify the populace. The Romans did it often so that the people were kept constantly aware of the consequences of defying the empire.

So why did Jesus die? And what does it mean?

I don’t believe that God sent Jesus to die. I don’t believe that it was God’s plan.

That’s partly because I think that speaking of God’s plan is too anthropomorphic. It imagines God as some sort of supernatural version of a human being. But it’s also morally suspect. It suggests that somehow God was sending Jesus on a suicide miss

Jesus died because he was completely faithful to God and his faithfulness collided with the sinfulness of humanity in the form of the Roman Empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as an alternative vision of how the world could be. Against the normalcy of violence, he proclaimed nonviolence. Against the normalcy of self-interest, he proclaimed self-sacrifice.

The commandment to love our enemies is about as subversive of what passes for normal as anything could possibly be. And two thousand years later, even those of us who claim to be his followers have a very hard time even imagining what that path looks like, let alone following it.

When he invited his followers to take us the cross, he invited them to follow the path of self-sacrificial love. And he promised that the way of self-sacrifice is also the way that leads to life.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

*An original version of this post was first published on April 5, 2015

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why Haven't You Left Already?

God has called us to be ministers
of a new covenant,
not of letter but of spirit;
for the letter kills,
but the Spirit gives life.

II Corinthians 3:6

In a Facebook group dedicated to dialog among United Methodists, one of the participants posed a question often asked by those who see themselves as “traditional” or “orthodox” in matters of human sexuality.

“If the rules that have been in place regarding homosexuality, good or bad, have been in place plainly since 1972, how is it that anyone after that was not aware that they were choosing ordination in a church that did not accept gay marriage or ordination?”
In other words, why are you still a United Methodist?

I take it as a fair question and I want to answer it in two ways.

The first point is about church history and the second is about our understanding of United Methodist theology and polity.

First the history.

When I was ordained on a very hot Sunday in June of 1973 in the chapel of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, the Book of Discipline did not say that as a pastor I would be forbidden to officiate at same sex weddings.

In contrast to the apocalyptic pronouncements of traditionalists today, the 1972 Book of Discipline made a very mild statement about same sex marriage: “We do not recommend marriage between two persons of the same sex.”

That’s the sentence. There was no prohibition; just a recommendation.

That Book of Discipline spoke of our need to understand the gift of our human sexuality and called upon “Medical, theological, and humanistic disciplines” to combine “in a determined effort to understand human sexuality more completely."

And then after a long section affirming that “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth,” and insisting that “all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured,” the Discipline ended with the disclaimer, “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

That unholy sentence about same sex relationships being "incompatible with Christian teaching" did not seem nearly as harsh then, coming after a long section on rights and sacred worth and expressing an openness to continued learning.

There was nothing about penalties for celebrating a same sex marriage. And the whole section carried within it the implicit assumption that we would gain more insight as we partnered with social scientists and clinicians in the study of human sexuality.

The second point is about how we do theology.

The Discipline has always been an evolving document and on that hot June day in the Mount Holyoke chapel, I was confident then that we would find our way in this matter just as we had eventually found our way on slavery and segregation and the rights of women.

I was not under any illusions about the nature of the church. I knew that I was taking part in an imperfect human institution. But I also knew that the church had done great things in the past and I believed that we would do great things in the future. I believed that part of my responsibility as a United Methodist was to lead the church into the future.

And I still believe that.

Aside from one bad sentence and one less than positive sentence, that 1972 Book of Discipline is an amazing document. There is a whole section affirming “theological pluralism” and a broad sense of the spiritual journey as unfinished business. When I read it I am reminded of why I became a United Methodist pastor in the first place.

The traditionalists are correct when they point out that across two millennia of Christian history the church has generally condemned and marginalized LGBTQ persons.

That is a sinful miscarriage of our responsibility as followers of Christ, for which we must repent. And we must ask the forgiveness of our LGBTQ siblings.

But we should remember that the church also condoned slavery for most of those same centuries. The future is supposed to be better than the past. We are supposed to learn and grow.

As Jeremiah proclaimed God’s vision: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)


Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

*Portions of this blog were originally published on 11/13/15