21 May 2012

at least one guaranteed appointment!

the united methodist general conference met a few weeks to discuss matters related to the church. i am thankful for our faithful north texas conference delegates, clergy and laity, who worked very hard, and endured unbelievable frustration, on behalf of the church. watching online was painful; i can't imagine what it would have been like in person.

one of the unfortunate outcomes of the general conference was the removal of so-called "guaranteed appointments" for united methodist elders. this was one of the benefits of full-time leadership in the church. an elder in full connection was guaranteed to be appointed somewhere, unless circumstances made an appointment impossible. there were disciplinary steps in place to assure accountability among pastors in the annual conference. but the general conference felt these steps did not go far enough. the judicial council, the church's equivalent to the supreme court, will rule this fall whether this decision violated united methodist polity. personally i believe the decision will be overturned.

today i received an email from our bishop confirming a rumor many had voiced for nearly a year: paul rasmussen will become the senior pastor of highland park united methodist church upon the retirement of mark craig next summer-- 2013. the bishop used words like "unusual" and "unique" to describe the announcement a year in advance, and said this would eliminate clergy competition for the post or representatives from the church from checking out prospective successors for mark craig. our district superintendent, dr. clara reed, thought this could be a model for clergy transition in larger churches. i was reminded of the situation at frazer memorial united methodist in montgomery, alabama, upon the retirement of senior pastor john ed mathison. it makes absolute sense for those senior pastors to have a voice in the leadership of the church after their retirement.

my question: why only large churches? pastors who serve medium sized churches or small ones still know their congregations better than anyone else. and the congregations themselves are certainly aware of their needs. should we not be concerned with fruitful transitions for churches of all sizes? i have no problem with the highland park situation at all; if h.p. and mark craig and the bishop and cabinet think paul is the right guy, great-- but what would happen if senior pastors, congregations, and cabinet were consulted on every appointment at the same level as this instance? how much stronger could our churches be-- of all sizes? i love my appointment to oak lawn, and i can confidently say it was an inspired move last summer. but when my tenure here is ending-- 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, 25 years from now, how can we best promote stability here too?

20 May 2012

Love Never Ends: A Message on Marriage Equality

Last week I received an email from a guest who was here last Sunday with his partner and his partner’s mother for Mother’s Day. He was very upset that on Mother’s Day we would discuss political matters, and made it very clear that he would not be back today for marriage equality—he assumed that since we are a church and we’re speaking on the issue it would be hostile. I invited him back, assuring him we would take a broader approach, that if Christians do not speak about issues in the world it leaves only the loud, obnoxious ones to speak for everyone, but never heard back from him. I hope he’s here somewhere!

I intentionally formulated the issue today as marriage equality, as opposed to homosexuality in general, for several reasons. The primary reason is this: homosexuality, as I understand it, is not an issue to be debated—we’re talking about people here. There are all sorts of theories and ideas about homosexuality—where does it come from? Is it a choice—a lifestyle—or is there some sort of natural inclination toward the same sex that a certain proportion of the population has? Is it learned behavior—and if so, can it be unlearned? Is it a sin? Is there a conspiracy within the gay community that threatens the rest of us? Should gay Christians be celibate or should they embrace their sexuality? Is there a fundamental difference between married  couples and unmarried couples in committed, long-term relationships—gay or straight? These issues, and so many more, could fill up weeks of sermons, and at the end we would probably feel about as frustrated as many of us do today. I am not a sociologist, so all I can say based on my limited understanding and research is that there is no consensus opinion out there about the sociological and psychological roots of homosexuality. What we know is this: homosexuality is not a modern invention—it’s an established reality in the history of human sexuality. There is some evidence of tendencies showing up early in some children. And it is virtually impossible for a person to change their sexual orientation. I can say, based on conversations I have had with parishioners and friends alike, the universal response to the question of choice or lifestyle has been absolutely no, that they were... Wait. I will not quote Lady Gaga in a sermon!

Last summer we offered a sermon series called “Christians Behaving Badly.” I read the book UnChristian, which studied statistics and demographic trends of young people. The author’s conclusion—let me note that he is a conservative, evangelical Christian—is that young people think of Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay. He argues in the book that this impression must be changed for the future of the church—the reality is: gay rights is a non-issue for younger generations. Yet in the book the pastors and leaders he interviews for strategies going forward all shared a similar theological perspective as the author: of course homosexuality is a sin, but Christians are all sinners in need of forgiveness. Everyone should be welcome to hear and accept God’s grace and love regardless of who they are. I kept raising my hand to the book, and another one I read this week, to ask: is it possible to have a sound theological argument that does not conclude with sentences like, “Of course homosexuality is a sin, the Bible says so.”?

There are a handful of scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments, that seem to forbid same-sex relations. The tendency with regard of these scriptures of those within this debate is to either throw them at their opponents, or, for those on the other side, to dismiss them outright. I’ve said this before many times: any time someone begins a sentence with “The Bible says…” duck. Run for cover. Seek shelter immediately. I heard someone say recently that Leviticus 20:13 is the only commandment anyone notices from the entire book today. Does that mean we should throw out the whole thing? Or the wonderful book of Romans—one of my favorites—should we throw out the whole thing based on 1:27-28? We cannot do that. We affirm that the Bible has ultimate authority in our pursuit of God, and contains all we need to know for our salvation. But sometimes we place burdens on the Bible that do not properly belong there. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books of truth about God, and each book represents a community from its own context and history. People today try to pin their own need for understanding on the Bible, and unintentionally force it to perform a function not of its purpose.

For example, the Book of Genesis begins with two creation accounts, which describe totally different understandings of God and humanity. Most Christians, not all, but the great majority—read Genesis not as a scientific account of creation, but as a poetic metaphor, highlighting the rightful relationship between a loving Creator and the created order, which includes us, a relationship ultimately broken by sin. So one could argue that the texts so often used as scripture bombs by one side or ignored by the other do not presuppose a modern knowledge of human sexuality but reflect the attitudes of a particular people in a certain time and space. For example, in the Romans 1 text, Paul condemns all kinds of abhorrent behavior he has witnessed in Roman society, a culture known for excess and moral depravity. Is it fair to Paul to say his words were meant to condemn people forever, regardless of changes in understanding of human behavior? One could reasonably make the argument that just as we do not consider Genesis a physics textbook we could also not expect Leviticus or Romans to be guidebooks for human sexuality. Does this diminish the Bible’s ultimate authority in any way? One could argue that using the Bible in ways it may not have been intended does more to undermine its authority. It should be noted here that for the great majority of Christians who oppose homosexuality or marriage equality on religious grounds this, not bigotry, is the primary issue: the authority of scripture. To be sure, there are Christian bigots who use the Bible as a weapon against others, and their behavior should be universally condemned as hypocritical and judgmental. But when those on the other side of the debate demonize and make caricatures of their opponents as bigots do they not commit the same sin?
The issue of marriage equality is complicated for Christians on all sides.

One of the primary reasons this question has received so much attention recently is the break-neck speed at which public opinion has changed about marriage for same sex couples. In your study guide there is a graph created by the Pew Research Center that highlights the changes. In just 2001, 57% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while 35% supported it. Look at today’s numbers—47% support, and 43% oppose. There have been dramatic changes across generations, except for my own, those born 1965-1980, which has consistently split 50/50 over time. The silent generation, those born 1928-1945, have increased their support of same-sex marriage by 10%. Baby boomers, born 1946-64, 7%; the biggest level of support is from the millennial generation, those born after 1981, who favor marriage equality at 63%. Support among Democrats and Independents has increased, 16% and 9% respectively, and Republicans increased by 2%. However, when people identified by persuasion rather than party, self-identified conservatives increased their support 7% since 2011.

We’ve heard lots of rhetoric about a war on traditional marriage; President Clinton even signed so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in 1996, which clearly defines marriage as between a man and a woman. State after state seems to be joining the fight on one side or the other. New York State began marrying gay couples last summer. A couple of weeks ago the state of North Carolina passed an amendment to its constitution banning gay marriage, but it was much more far-reaching than that—it gave its blessing to only married couples. So unmarried heterosexual couples do not enjoy the same domestic rights as married heterosexual couples.  There are several challenges to the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” making their way through the courts. Many proponents of marriage equality argue that until the federal ban is lifted, what individual states decide doesn’t really matter. My marriage to Christy is honored in all fifty states; however a same-sex couple that marries in Connecticut and then moves Florida loses whatever was gained at their marriage because of the federal law. I sat down with several same-sex couples here at Oak Lawn to hear their stories for this sermon. Some of these couples enjoyed the blessing of family and friends on their relationship, while others do not. They all echoed the same sentiment: none of them needs a certificate from the state to validate their relationship, but they all wish they enjoyed the same rights as heterosexual married couples. Same sex couples cannot file taxes jointly. If one person dies the other does not automatically receive the Social Security benefit of their partner. Determining insurance benefits for children or partners is difficult, if not impossible, where for me it’s a phone call or a couple of mouse clicks. If one becomes seriously ill, the other is not considered legal next of kin by the state. Imagine the horrifying life event of a family who does not support a relationship making decisions for their loved one without having to consult with that person’s partner. Should the state guarantee decision making rights for critical events like health care and children to some of its citizens and exclude others from the same rights?

For all the talk we hear of defending traditional marriage we’re really thinking about the modern conception of marriage. In other words, if you are a woman, you do not want a traditional, biblical marriage. Polygamy was practiced by many of the Bible’s leading figures. Marriages were often arranged. Women in biblical times had little rights, and what rights they did have were due to their relationships with men—husbands, fathers, and sons. A man could divorce his wife easily, but women were often forced to remain in abusive marriages. Adultery and divorce were a major issue in Jesus’ day—he spoke of both frequently, while he never said anything about homosexuality. Jesus himself never married, and neither did Paul. In fact, Paul, the one we turn to for advice in sexual matters, said we should not marry unless our sexual appetites were out of control. Paul had no interest in earthly rites that would distract the believer from the imminent return of Jesus. Marriage as we understand it today, in terms of a life-long commitment based on love and blessed by the church, only dates to a few centuries ago. If we want to protect marriage, let’s have real dialogue about the dangers of adultery and divorce. I’m not against divorce as a right of both parties in a marriage—but how can we work to reduce the 35-50% of marriages that end in divorce? Let’s consider whether it should be as easy as it is to begin—and end—a marriage. Defending an institution by excluding people who want to join it just does not make sense.

Some have offered civil unions as a compromise—in fact, the governor of Colorado recently called a special session of the Legislature to consider civil unions instead of gay marriage—but it died in committee. Civil unions do not promise any of the benefits of marriage, but more than that they do not bestow the blessing of God upon the relationship. In our marriage covenant service we remind the couple of Jesus’ presence at a wedding in Cana of Galilee and that marriage is meant to reflect the love of Christ for the church. We pray these words: “Enable [the couple] to grow in love and peace all their days, that they may reach out in concern and service to the world.” “Send your blessing upon [this couple], that they may surely keep their marriage covenant, and so grow in love and godliness together that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace.” We end with these words: “God the eternal keep you in love with each other, so that the peace of Christ may abide in your home.” These words remind the couple, and all present, that marriage is a sacred covenant. It takes hard work to build a great marriage. The most rewarding work there is. If marriage is to be thought of as a sacred covenant, meaning it is rightfully practiced in the church, could we not consider a model I read about in Holland (I know, it’s Europe, but still…). All couples—gay or straight—go to a magistrate for a civil union. They are guaranteed all rights. Then if they want to be married they go to a church and the church decides if it will perform the ceremony or not. This preserves the church from the demands of the state, which cannot force the church to perform a service contrary to its doctrine.

Pastors in the United Methodist Church are forbidden to perform same-sex weddings or civil unions, even in those states where they are legal. Our recent General Conference unfortunately continued wording in our Discipline that defines homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” language that is almost as old as I am and has somehow survived. “Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained in the United Methodist Church. These are all stances I personally disagree with. I believe their theological understanding is limited. Yet I am charged with upholding the Discipline as an Elder in the church. I will do that. During the debate I was reminded of the words of Bishop Alfred Norris, who laid his hands on me at my ordination. He preached a sermon years ago, recalling a segregated Methodist church. He said, “I’m not leaving until we get this right.” Historically institutions are very slow to change, particularly when threats of division come from all sides. At the General Conference, even legislation basically saying the issue is very complicated and we don’t all agree on it went nowhere. As we read from Romans a couple of weeks ago, “Hope that is seen is not hope.” We wait with hope. Out of all the frustration surrounding General Conference there is a sign of hope. A service of healing from the brokenness at General Conference is being put together for Wednesday May 30, 6:30 p.m., at Grace UMC in East Dallas. The service is not particularly focused on homosexuality but on our denomination’s present state of being.  And it’s being organized by young, hopeful United Methodists—much younger than myself—who see brokenness and are unwilling to leave until we get this right. I plan to attend the service and invite you to do so as well.

There are several texts that are popular for use at weddings, one of which is from Romans 12: 9-18: “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Another popular text at weddings is 1 Corinthians 13, part of which says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Love never ends. Many same sex couples would say they do not need the state or the church or any individual to bless their relationships because they are grounded in love that never ends: God’s love for every single person, regardless of age, sex, race, sexual orientation, relationship status, or any other category we can imagine.

One could make the argument that the work on this sermon began not just when the series was conceived three months ago, but when the news came to Christy and me that we would be appointed to Oak Lawn UMC. One could argue that the sermon was written when a same-sex couple with children approached Pastor Kerry after my appointment was announced and asked if they would still be welcomed here. One could argue the message was written as I walked alongside our float in the Alan Ross Freedom Parade last September. One could argue that this message was formulated when, last October, we noticed messages quoting scriptures condemning homosexuality written on an upstairs dry eraseboard. One could say this message was being written when I sat down with the editor and a staff writer of the Dallas Voice a couple of weeks ago to invite collaboration between Oak Lawn and the newspaper. One could argue the sermon was written during the recent United Methodist General Conference, as the denomination’s official stance on homosexuality was continued. One could argue the sermon was written around a table with other like-minded pastors recently as we discussed the future of our denomination. One could argue the sermon has been written every Sunday as I stand before you to affirm that we do welcome, honor, and love everyone, and in every email I have received over the last twelve months saying something like, “I’ve been looking for a church like this where I could be loved and welcomed for the longest time.”

I’ve been present at several meetings recently here at the church where we’ve discussed how to generate more wedding business. Well…There are probably easier ways to do that than repealing federal law, changing the state constitution, and changing the policy of a denomination of eight million members. The absolute truth is: every Christian, individual, church, community, whatever, is soul searching on the issue of marriage equality. President Obama expressed his support recently and the NAACP endorsed gay marriage just yesterday. Public opinion has changed so rapidly—perhaps faster than any other issue in modern history—that churches must respond. Some will say, as Paul warned us in the text we read from Romans 12, to not be “conformed to the world.” Just because public opinion is headed in one direction doesn’t mean we should all jump on the train. Others will continue the quotation of Paul to finish: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.” Whatever our position on same-sex marriage, or the government’s position, or the denomination’s position, let us “outdo one another in showing mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” “If it is possible, so far as it depends on [us], let us live peaceably with all.” The ultimate goal, as we’ve said from the very beginning of the series, is to seek unity in a divided world. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Study Guide

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted April 4-15, 2012, finds that the public is divided over gay marriage:  47% favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, while 43% are opposed. In 2008, 39% favored and 51% opposed gay marriage, based on an average of polls conducted that year. In 2004, just 31% supported gay marriage, while nearly twice as many (60%) were opposed.

Moreover, for the first time in a Pew Research Center survey there is as much strong support as strong opposition to gay marriage. In the current survey, 22% say they strongly support allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally; an identical percentage (22%) strongly opposes gay marriage. In 2008, there was about twice as much strong opposition to as strong support for gay marriage (30% vs. 14%).

Why have people's thoughts on this issue changed so quickly?

Same-sex marriage is legally recognized only in Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Washington DC, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, Washington and Iowa.

Twenty-nine US states already have a ban on same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Census Bureau released recently new statistics on same-sex married couple and unmarried partner households. According to revised estimates from the 2010 Census, there were 131,729 same-sex married couple households and 514,735 same-sex unmarried partner households in the United States.

What are some areas of common ground where we can change our language to support marriage, rather than using terms like "gay" or "traditional" marriage? How does the overall society benefits a from healthy, committed, sanctioned relationships?

13 May 2012

"Here Is Your Mother." A sermon on immigration, May 13, 2012

 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

I recently read a story of a young man who grew up in Florida. As a child he was noticed as one of t he brightest in his class. Throughout middle school and high school he attended honors classes. He finished college and then went to Florida State University for his law degree. He passed the bar this past year. His case is now before the Florida Supreme Court. Here's the thing: he was not born here. He came to the US when he was seven. His parents dame here legally on a visa but never went home. What will become of this young lawyer? 

Millions of young people find themselves in a similar situation. The DREAM Act, now stalled in Congress once again, once had bipartisan support. It would allow children of immigrants to go to college and serve in the military. They would receive an expedited green card process- it could take only six years. When the DREAM Act came up for a vote last year in the Senate, I emailed both of our senators, offering some sound biblical support for the DREAM Act. Didn't happen. They both voted against. Now I am on John Cornyn's email list, which was unexpected.
 Our recent General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to support the DREAM Act, a rare act of unity in an otherwise lost two weeks.

Last Sunday, the family our was present at the consecration of the new building at Christ's Foundry United Methodist Mission, near Love Field.
 Foundry is a vision realized, due to the hard work of its pastor, the Rev. Owen Ross, and the faithfulness of the North Texas Conference members, who generously supported it from the very beginning 12 years ago. It literally started with this guy with an East Texas accent and a cell phone. Over the years, many donors and partner churches have pooled funds to make the vision a reality. Even my wife Christy worked for Foundry for a couple of years, managing its capital campaign and operating expenses. The church’s primary audience are immigrants. Services are in Spanish. There is a sense of joy about the place, even from the days of meeting above an apartment complex’s laundry room. Today Christ’s Foundry meets for the first time in its new building for Sunday worship.

The issue of the day, immigration, is a difficult one. We see it played out in politics and the media in a variety of ways, and emotionally many of us become exhausted. Some feel immigrants are here to steal American jobs, then turn around and send their income home, not even bothering to spend it here to support our own economy—that they benefit from. Others see immigrants as those leaving their home country in search of a better life for themselves and their family, often at tremendous risk. Immigration is sure to be a hotly discussed topic in this Fall’s election. During the Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry all faced the ire of primary voters for expressing compassionate views toward immigrants. One could argue the end of Governor Perry’s run began, not with the “oops” moment in a debate or the commercial about President Obama’s “war of religion”—his words, not mine, but at an early debate, Mr Perry was booed by the audience after defending a policy in Texas which gave tuition discounts at colleges for children of immigrants. He said, “If you don’t support this, you don’t have a heart.” He was booed for defending tuition discounts.

In your study guide you’ll find an interesting chart created by the Pew Hispanic Center which illustrates a drop in immigration recently. Over the last five years, we’ve seen a net downturn in the number of immigrants in our country. This is due to a variety of reasons, from a weak economy to stronger enforcement to more deportations. We’ve actually seen a net loss to Mexico among immigrants—more are returning home than staying here. It’s estimated that 5-35% of those returning home were deported. Many of these deportations are the unjust division of families. Imagine the heartbreak: a child, born in this country, is allowed to stay, while a parent, born elsewhere, is forced to leave. How can anyone support such a terrible practice?

Immigration is not just an issue in the US. Many are concerned about the rising of extreme right groups in Europe—some even identifying as Neo-Nazis—using hate toward immigrants as a way of advancing their beliefs. I read of the struggles of immigrants from Nepal seeking work in the Middle East in places like Kuwait and Dubai. They are considered to have less worth than cattle. Often they leave their home country unsure whether they’ll find decent work or end up in forced labor camps. Yet conditions in Nepal are so bad, with little opportunity, that some 25,000 leave every month for work. So immigration issues are not only focused on America, but the reality is we have a unique perspective on the issue. Roughly 12 million immigrants from Mexico are here. The population of Mexican-born residents of the U.S. is larger than the population of most countries or states. Among Mexican-born people worldwide, one-in-ten lives in the United States.

The irony of all this is that America prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, while many states are enacting rules regarding immigration, which make things difficult for everyone. You’ve probably heard of the law in Arizona which imposed harsh consequences on immigrants, and also everyone assumed to harbor them. It forces police to investigate anyone they assume is here illegally, and anyone giving aid to an undocumented person violates the law as well. Arizona law is before the Supreme Court now. Alabama enacted a similar law, which supporters and opponents both regard as the toughest of all. Alabama farmers have seen a steep decline in their labor force as a result of the law. Religious leaders on all sides of the theological spectrum—from liberals to evangelicals—fought against the laws in both states. Why have religious groups, including United Methodists, been opposed to them? What are the theological/moral issues of immigration? Well, the first is that these laws make it illegal to transport an undocumented person anywhere. What if there was a Bible study and someone had to go to the hospital? How can Christians share the gospel of Jesus, which is clearly for all people, if it is illegal to congregate with undocumented folk? Think again to Christ’s Foundry here in Dallas. How many times could my friend Owen have been arrested in Arizona or Alabama for doing the work God called him to do?

In addition to these practical concerns, there is a deeper theological issue at play here: one of memory. Remembering is one of the major themes of the Bible, especially throughout the first books of the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, God charge the Israelites to remember their circumstances in Egypt, where they were once slaves. They observe their laws and rituals as a perpetual remembrance of God’s deliverance. Exodus 23:9 says, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” I love that phrase: you know the heart of an alien. You were there once. Don’t forget what that was like. Remember the whips of the taskmasters. Remember the cries of those who were beaten unjustly. Remember. God is the one“…who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). Then this imperative: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). The Hebrew prophets constantly spoke against the kings of Israel for forgetting their covenant to be a people of justice, to care for the poor, the widow, the alien. 

If you’ve never read the wonderful Book of Ruth, it’s a story of immigrants. Naomi and her husband travel to a neighboring country, Moab, to find food. Her sons marry Moabite women, one of whom was Ruth. Then tragedy strikes: Naomi’s husband and sons all die. She decides to return to Israel, but warns her daughters-in-law to stay here. She wishes to be alone in her bitterness. Yet Ruth is determined to go with her. Now Ruth is the immigrant in a foreign country. She gleans in the fields after they have been harvested. This was an actual law of Israel: aliens were allowed to gather, for free, any crops that fell to the ground during the harvest. She is noticed by Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi, and a romance begins. Ultimately they marry and have a son, Obed. One of the most touching episodes of the Bible is when Ruth gives the boy to his grandmother Naomi. She experiences redemption from her bitterness and tragedy. Ruth is so important to the Christian tradition that the Gospel of Matthew lists her name in the genealogy of Jesus. An immigrant woman.

In one of the most powerful scriptures of the Bible, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what judgment will look like:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his throne of glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord when was it [that we did those things]…?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ And he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you did not give me food, I was thirsty and you did not give me something to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, I was naked and you did not give me clothing, I was sick and you did not took care of me, I was in prison and did not you visit me.’ Then they will answer ‘Lord when was it [that we did not do those things]…?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did not do it to me’”
 (Matthew 25:31-46). 

Notice that the reaction of the sheep and the goats is exactly the same: “When was it…?” “I was a stranger,” Jesus said. Earlier in the same gospel we read about the young Jesus and his parents fleeing to a foreign nation—Egypt—in order to survive oppression. Technically that makes the Holy Family refugees, not immigrants, but you see the point—hospitality to those from different cultures is valued in societies that live and breathe justice. Jesus not only taught us this way to live, he lived it himself. We are part of that tradition—it is our story too. We must remember. And we must act justly. The text from Romans today recalls the story of Abraham, himself a wandering nomadic person, travelling from country to country according to God’s direction. Abraham himself once offered kindness to travelers in his midst. They were angels who announced the coming birth of his long-promised son Isaac. So the Book of Hebrews challenges each of us to practice hospitality, because others have hosted angels unawares. Abraham’s story is remembered by Paul as one of great faith. He heard God’s call on his life and set out to an undisclosed future. This, Paul says, was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” He goes on: “It will also be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus, from the cross, looks upon his mother and the “beloved disciple” and says these words: “Here is your mother. Here is your son.” His concern is not just for his mother and his friend. Jesus creates community—church—by bringing these two together. “Here is your son, here is your mother” creates a relationship that did not exist before, bound by the love and grace of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are outside wanting to see him. “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” What are the implications here for the church with respect to immigration? Well, Jesus understood that people need each other. Whatever our stories, whatever our histories, whatever baggage we carry, whatever fears abide in us. The church is the place where all of that stuff is honored and given value. It’s a safe place for everyone to be who they are in the presence of a loving, forgiving family. This is the foundational issue for many in the struggles for a just immigration policy. We are part of a tradition rooted in memory. We claim as sacred those stories of travelers with great faith, who struggled to follow God on a new path. We participate in practices that remember the struggles of our ancestors and the faithfulness of God of justice, who raises no barriers, builds no walls, but creates space for all to call home. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

10 May 2012

Immigration Study Guide

The sermon will be delivered May 13 at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.

According to the Pew HispanicCenter, immigration from Mexico has stalled—even retreated—over the last few years: “The standstill appears to be the result of many factors, including the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rates and broader economic conditions in Mexico.

What factors have led to the decline?

States such as Alabama and Arizona have installed harsh laws aimed at enforcing immigration (Arizona’s is before the Supreme Court now). Why have religious groups, including United Methodists, been opposed to them? What are the theological/moral issues of immigration?

Why does the Bible—particularly the Old Testament—make such an emphasis on welcoming the stranger? Why are the Israelites told over and over again to remember they were slaves in Egypt?

Jesus, from the cross, looks upon his mother and the “beloved disciple.” “Here is your mother. Here is your son.” His concern is not just for his mother. What does Jesus create by bringing these two together—and what are the implications for the church with respect to immigration?

07 May 2012

"Not Even Death!" A sermon on capital punishment, May 6, 2012

Yesterday's sermon, delivered at Oak Lawn, from the "Holy Conversations" series.

From time to time I have created an all-time favorite movie list. At the very top, etched in stone, never to be removed, stand the first two Star Wars movies, A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). But then an interesting thing happens. #3 on the list, possibly also a permanent fixture, is 2008’s The Dark Knight. I am eagerly—and I mean eagerly—awaiting the release of the next installment of the Batman series, The Dark Knight Rises, which opens July 20, only 75 days away. The Dark Knight is a special movie in so many ways, but what I want to point out is a scene that plays out near the end of the film—Batman and Joker are not in the scene. If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight, I’m sorry about the spoiler, but it’s been four years, and I have never spoken of this in a sermon. It’s time. Stop by Blockbuster on the way home.

Two ferries, crossing Gotham Harbor side by side, stall. They are packed with people. One ferry carries regular passengers on their way home from work. The other one is full of prisoners, all wearing their bright orange jumpsuits, surrounded by armed guards. The boats are rigged with explosives. But each boat has the detonator for the other ferry. The Joker’s voice is heard by both boats over the loudspeakers. The Joker says one boat must blow up the other by midnight or he will destroy both. For the next fifteen minutes, both boats argue about what they should do. On the civilian boat, a woman says, “Those men had their chance. They made their choices. We’ve upheld the law. We shouldn’t have to die to save them.”

We’re continuing our sermon series on issues in the news today with an examination of the moral arguments surrounding the death penalty. This is an interesting discussion for Christians, because the great majority of denominations—basically every one except the Southern Baptist Convention—calls for an end to capital punishment. In your study guide at the back of the bulletin you’ll find what our United Methodist Social Principles say about it. While most of our churches officially oppose it a majority of our members support it. According to the Pew Research Center, 65% of Protestants support it, while 26% do not. White evangelicals and white mainlines Christians both support in greater numbers, 70 vs. 20%. Catholic voters break down 60/32%. It’s only when different races were asked do the numbers begin to change. Among black Protestants, 37% support, 49% oppose. Among Hispanic Catholics, it is evenly split—43/45%. For people who oppose the death penalty, a majority say the main influence in their decision is religion. Support among Republicans is very strong: 78/16%; Democrats 50/42%; Independents 62/30%. Nationwide roughly 62% of Americans support capital punishment while 30% do not. This number has trended downward over the last 10 years—indeed it’s the lowest number in nearly 40 years—after reaching its peak (78%) in the mid-1990s.

The most popular reasons for the decline in public opinion are exonerated inmates and the risk of executing an innocent person. Between 2000-2011, an average of five persons per year has been exonerated. The State of Illinois, which suspended the death penalty in 2009 and abolished it last year, had a 5% exoneration rate since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977—the highest in the nation. Among industrialized countries, the US is one of the few still practicing capital punishment. Of the so-called “G8” countries: Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada, Russia, Japan, and the US, only American still practices capital punishment. Russia suspended it in 1996, although a majority of its citizens want it reinstated. The countries where the death penalty is exercised, ranked by number of executions, go like this: China, which executes more than the others combined, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and America. If Texas were still an independent nation, we would rank 7th on the list. Amnesty International says last year death cases jumped 28%, primarily in the Middle Eastern countries I listed.

Despite public support, many states have changed their laws recently. Over the last five consecutive years, five states have repealed the death penalty, Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish just last month. Voters in California, which has the largest population on death row (22% of all death row inmates) will decide whether to abolish it in November (prisoners would be commuted to life without possibility of parole). Nationwide we’ve seen fewer executions and fewer death sentences. Even Texas, which has executed four times as many prisoners than any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in the late 1970s, has reduced its executions. Only 13 last year and only 10 are scheduled for this year. Death penalty proponents argue this is because of reduced violent crime, which shows the death penalty is a deterrent. Others claim one factor in less executions and less death sentences is cost. As strange as it sounds, many studies claim in the long run it is less expensive to house an inmate for life without parole than to execute one, because of automatic appeals, legal fees, etc. With the downturn in the economy, many state legislatures are saying we simply can’t afford the death penalty.

The death penalty was once a partisan issue—Republicans tended to favor, Democrats opposed—but that trend is gone now. In fact President Obama has dramatically increased drone missile strikes against suspected terrorists, even ordering the killing an American citizen. Those actions typically do not fall in the death penalty discussion, but they raise serious moral questions. Even the death of Osama Bin Laden, the anniversary of which was remembered this week, brought to life interesting questions, particularly amongst those opposed to the death penalty. Are wartime deaths exempt from the discussion? What are the moral implications? Is the death of one person, which likely saved the lives of many more, an acceptable moral action? And when an execution is carried out—particularly someone who was especially a menace to the broader society—do we feel safer? Is what we feel more about revenge and hate? Does a person’s sinful actions forfeit their right to live? Doesn’t the state have an inherent duty to protect its citizens?

Last week in the “Holy Conversations” series we discussed the Contraception Debate. Thinking about Roman Catholic doctrine, I mentioned a “seamless garment” theology of human life espoused by some Catholic theologians.  It’s a reference to Jesus' crucifixion. When Jesus was crucified, the soldiers gambled for his clothing. But his outer garment, which was seamless, was not torn. In the same way, there is a consistent ethic of human life. It is the gift of a loving God, who alone is the just judge with ultimate authority. This includes all of human life—from the moment of conception through death—and it informs Catholic teaching regarding abortion, contraception, childhood poverty, the death penalty, and end of life issues. Many opponents of the death penalty point to the work and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in reducing the number of executions, as well as in those states which have recently abolished the death penalty. Many of those governors are Catholic. Is that a coincidence? Going back to the question we asked in the first sermon in the series: how does one live out his/her faith in the public realm? I’ve found it interesting recently when some Catholic politicians speak to the importance of their faith in justifying their positions, on say, birth control and abortion. But what about the death penalty? What about childhood poverty? Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who authored the House Budget for 2013, heard feedback from Catholic bishops, who argued the budget was immoral, cutting funding for poorer Americans while at the same time calling for tax breaks for wealthier Americans. He responded that his Catholic faith taught him that the government should not enable folk to be stuck in poverty. John Boehner, Speaker of the House and a fellow Catholic, said sacrifices had to be made or the entire safety net would be gone, and that would create a more serious moral problem.

So—what does the Bible say about capital punishment, you ask? Well, it’s complicated. On the one hand, proponents of the death penalty quote the verse, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (it’s found several places—Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy), but it’s not a text meant to justify the death penalty. Leviticus 24:17-20: “Anyone who kills another human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” These are texts that recall the time when the Hebrews were establishing a society of their own. They were wandering through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. They had no prisons, so death was often the default punishment. Strike a mother or father: death. Insult mother or father: death (forget your teenage years for a moment). Kidnapping: death. Murder: death. Touching the wrong kind of animal skin: death. Adultery: death . “An eye for an eye” was meant to establish a rule of justice, where the punishment for a crime fits the crime that’s been committed. People were taking the lives of others for crimes much less serious than murder and these texts seek equal punishment for whatever crime. But then Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, took things to a whole new level: “You’ve heard it said before, ‘An eye for an eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile go the second as well” (Matthew 5:38-42). Christians are called to forgive.

In the Book of Genesis, Cain, a son of Adam and Eve, murders his brother Abel out of jealousy. God approved Abel’s offering over Cain’s, and the shame he felt led him to take the life of his brother. Later that evening, God looks for Cain and Abel, but only finds Cain. Sensing something horrible, God asks Cain: “Where is your brother?” “How am I to know?” replies Cain. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God knows something horrible has happened. “What have you done? I sense your brother’s blood calling to me from the ground!” God is very angry at Cain and sentences him to a life of wandering loneliness. Cain then knows his guilt, but his emotion is not directed at his murdered brother, but at himself: “My punishment is too severe! Anyone who meets me may kill me!” “Not so!,” says God. “Anyone who kills Cain must suffer a seven-fold vengeance.” God places a mark on Cain—maybe the world’s first tattoo—which, in effect, says, “Cain’s life belongs to me.” Across the millennia, many people have interpreted Cain’s mark as a punishment from God. Everyone he met on his wanderings would know who he was and what he had done. But another way to think about the mark is protection. The mark affirms that God is Cain’s judge—no one else has authority over his life—and over all human life. While some affirm the state’s authority to kill in order to protect its citizens, many Christians argue that the state’s ability to kill supersedes God’s role as ultimate judge. Others argue the death penalty, while ending a human life, stops Christ’s role of redeemer of all sinners. It should never be too late to echo the words of one of the thieves crucified with Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” You’ll find this argument in our Social Principles. The mark of Cain reminds each of us that human life has its origins in God. And nothing can separate us from God.

Paul picks up this theme at the end of Chapter 8 of Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him give us everything else?” “Who shall separate us from the love of God? Shall hardship, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...No, in all these things 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 Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Let’s return to the scene from The Dark Knight where the two ferries float, lifeless, on Gotham Harbor. Both are loaded with people and explosives. One boat is filled with civilians, the other with convicted prisoners. Passengers on each boat have the power to destroy the other to save their own lives. If one boat does not destroy the other by midnight, Joker will destroy both. The civilian boat takes a vote, and decides to blow up the criminals. “They had their chances. They chose to do horrible things.” A man grabs the detonator. He puts is back down. On the other boat a large, intimidating prison approaches a prison official who holds the detonator, obviously struggling with what to do next. “You’ve never had to take a life,” the prisoner says. “Give it to me and I’ll do what you should have done ten minutes ago.” He throws it out of the window. Both boats have the earthly power to save their own lives at the expense of taking other lives. They would rather risk being killed. Life is too precious. Thankfully Batman stops the Joker before he can blow up both ferries. What if it we were on the ferry? What would you do? It’s a deep moral question that one does not expect in a super hero movie.

The Romans used the cross as instrument of death. Those criminals sentenced to die on a cross would linger for days, writhing in pain. Crosses were placed near the city walls so everyone walking past would see them. Signs were placed above the head listing the charges. The message was clear: do what this person did, and you’ll hang here too. But the power of God transformed the cross. It ceased to be a symbol of ultimate suffering, humiliation, and death, and became the ultimate symbol of salvation, grace, and love. Even victory. Like Cain’s mark, the cross is our sign. We wear it, kneel before it, stand in its shadow, and we know that our life has value. Our life belongs to God. And nothing can separate us from that love. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Frank’s Sabbatical Plans

June 5 – September 2, 2013
Rationale: United Methodist pastors, per our Discipline, are entitled to take up to three months off (does not count as vacation time) for renewal or study after ten years of full-time service. I am finishing my 11th year. I am requesting time away, which will include some renewal time, but the majority of the time will be spent working on a sabbatical project.

Purpose: I believe Oak Lawn UMC has the potential to be a prototype congregation for urban ministry in the 21st century. We are intentionally inclusive and welcoming of everyone. We offer hands on service opportunities. We excel in the worship opportunities we offer. Our facilities offer spaces that invite hospitality, are beautiful, and point to the beauty of all God has made. I want to use these months to explore, interview, question, observe, and participate in churches around the country that have lived out a similar mission and purpose for many years. The ultimate goal, working through the Church Council, is to establish a real, vital, tangible vision for Oak Lawn for the next ten years following the sabbatical period—2014 – 2023, leading us into our 150th anniversary (September 2024).

Funding: I heard recently that the Lilly Foundation provides grants for pastors seeking renewal/sabbatical leave. Reading more about the foundation, I discovered the deadline for applications for next year is this Friday, May 11! A completed application assumes: 1. Your enthusiastic blessing 2. My commitment to return to Oak Lawn as pastor for at least one year after the sabbatical (Duh!) 3. The Conference guaranteeing my appointment for that same year. 4. Oak Lawn pays my compensation during my sabbatical. Is Lilly funding necessary for the sabbatical? No. It will impact the scope of the sabbatical—but I intend to do what I can if I do not receive financial support from Lilly.

Churches I will explore: Foundry UMC, Washington, DC; Riverside Church, New York City; St. John’s UMC, Downtown Houston; GlideMemorial UMC, San Francisco; and Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago. These churches are urban, historic, in mid/up/downtown locations, are intentionally diverse and inclusive, and offer real opportunities for ministry for their members.

Pastoral Care for Oak Lawn during the sabbatical: I have every confidence in Pastors Kerry and Gregg. They are both gifted pastors and preachers. If I receive Lilly funding, part of that money is used to compensate interim pastors during my absence, not only for preaching but for pastoral care and support. Oak Lawn will not be lacking in attention to worship or its members in any way.

I hope and ask for your blessing on this project as your Staff/Parish Relations team has offered theirs. It will have lasting benefit, not just for me and my family, but for the Oak Lawn family. The lessons learned and observed—by me, staff and key leaders of OLUMC who will accompany me on some travels—will be challenging, exciting, and fulfilling. Since hearing of this possibility, more than one person has said, “Oak Lawn has needed something like this for a long, long time.” Everyone is invited to an information session this Wednesday, May 9, at 6:00 p.m. for further discussion. Thank you for your support.

04 May 2012

Capital Punishment Study Guide

Please note: this study guide accompanies the message to be delivered at Oak Lawn May 6.

What are the moral questions involving the death penalty? How does the Catholic “seamless garment” theology speak to an ethic of all of human life—from conception to childhood poverty to the death penalty? Do you agree with this “gospel of life?”

Does someone who intentionally takes a human life forfeit their own right to live? Why or why not?

Every General Conference since 1956 has opposed capital punishment—this year’s conference had not decided by publication time—yet a majority of United Methodists support the death penalty for murder. Should the church mirror the beliefs of its members?

Connecticut recently became the fifth state in the last five years to abolish the death penalty. California will consider abolition this November. Why are states reconsidering their positions on this issue?

Data from the Pew Research Center on Capital Punishment (September 2010):
Americans continue to express support for the death penalty for persons convicted of murder. Currently 62% favor the death penalty, while 30% oppose it. This is nearly identical to the level of support in 2007 but somewhat lower than earlier in the 2000s and especially the 1990s. In 1996, 78% favored the death penalty and just 18% were opposed.
Support for the death penalty is lower among Democrats than independents or Republicans, but even among Democrats, half (50%) are in favor of it.
There are relatively modest differences in support across religious groups, with majorities of white evangelicals (74%), white mainline Protestants (71%) and white Catholics (68%) favoring capital punishment. But less than half of black Protestants (37%) and Hispanic Catholics (43%) favor the death penalty.

What factors have caused public support of the death penalty to decline 10% recently?

What do the United Methodist Social Principles say about Capital Punishment?
We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide.
We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends.
We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.