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WV-logo_rgbIn the Church world, no matter what side you are on at some point this week you found this to be outrageous, embarrassing news.

First, World Vision, a global Christian non-profit announced it would no longer discriminate against married gay persons per the policies of their employees respective Christian denominations. Not to mention, World Vision is headquartered in a state (Washington) where gay marriage is legal, making WV a potential target for discrimination lawsuits and thereby jeopardizing the millions of children and impoverished people in the developing world aided by WV.

Not that that actually matters because droves of conservative Christians (or just plain old conservatives) responded by pulling their sponsorship of children in protest. Nice!

It’s not like Jesus ever said anything negative about those put ideological purity above compassion towards those in need.

Wait…well, crap, I guess Jesus did teach about it (See: Samaritan, Parable of)

But that’s why the epistles of Paul more important!

In response to the backlash- and understandably not wanting to throw the world’s vulnerable children under the partisan bus- World Vision reversed its decision.

That I’m sure their decision was carefully planned and discerned and backlash anticipated yet STILL the vitriol was such that they had to do an about face in 24 hours says a lot about the bullying in the American Church on this single, freaking issue.

I get that people disagree about issues of marriage, sexuality etc. I really do.

But let’s be honest.

Just the other night, I was watching the Ken Burns’ Civil War film with my boys.

Haven’t seen it since I was in Middle School. In the first episode, Sam Waterston quotes a Protestant pastor (Methodist, I think) in the South  (Virginia, I think) speaking about how due to the context of slavery the Church amended [willingly] its MARRIAGE LITURGY AND VOWS.

‘…until Death- or Distance- do us part…’

The idea that marriage has been a bible-based, a-cultural institution until only recently is patently, objectively false.

The suggestion that 2 gay Christians who are faithful to each other poses the gravest threat to said institution is repugnant when considered against other historical exigencies in which the Church as proved nimble in what constitutes “biblical marriage.”

Realizing full well that faithful Christians disagree about the issue of marriage and sexuality (as my denomination puts it), the World Vision clusterf#$% prompts me merely to point out this black/white, no wiggle room Bible Math:

# of Times the Poor Mentioned in Scripture: 400+

# of Times Homosexuality Mentioned in Scripture: 2*

*4 if I’m in a generous mood

 

r662738_4757386Perhaps not surprisingly, my sermon 2 weeks on (homo)sexuality in the Church prompted quite a few people to ask me for names and titles of reading on the matter, readings with substance and depth. My first answer is always Rowan Williams‘ 10 page essay ‘The Body’s Grace.’ It’s the best theological reflection on sexuality, marriage and grace out there. The nuance of Williams’ argument points out Stanley Hauerwas‘ contention that the Church should stop arguing about homosexuality until it figures out what we mean by ‘marriage.’

Here, Williams’ examination of sexuality through the lens of grace reveals how little popular, ‘biblical’ books on sex and marriage like Mark Driscoll‘s Real Marriage pay attention that most central of Christian doctrines.

imagesHere’s a snippet. You’ll have to click over to read the rest. It’s worth it.

But is should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body’s grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures.

There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another.

The worst thing we can do with the notion of sexual fidelity, though, is to “legalise” it in such a way that it stands quite apart from the ventures and dangers of growth and is simply a public bond, enforceable by religious sanctions.

When we bless sexual unions, we give them a life, a reality, not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved, true; but we do this so that they may have a certain freedom to “take time,” to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can.

We should not do it in order to create a wholly impersonal and enforceable “bond”; if we do, we risk turning blessing into curse, grace into law, art into rule-keeping. In other words, I believe that the promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for understanding the full “resourcefulness” and grace of sexual union.

I simply don’t think we’d grasp all that was involved in the mutual transformation of sexually linked persons without the reality of unconditional public commitments: more perilous, more demanding, more promising.

Yet the realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.

Decisions about sexual lifestyle are about how much we want our bodily selves to mean rather than what emotional needs we’re meeting or what laws we’re satisfying. “Does this mean that we are using faith to undermine law? By no means: we are placing law itself on a firmer footing” (Romans 3.31): happily there is more to Paul than the (much quoted in this context) first chapter of Romans!

I have suggested that the presence or absence of the body’s grace has a good deal to do with matters other than the small scale personal. It has often been said, especially by feminist writers, that the making of my body into a distant and dangerous object, to be either subdued or placated with rapid gratification is the root of sexual oppression.

I cannot make sense of myself without others, cannot speak until I’ve listened, cannot love myself without being the object of love or enjoy myself without being the cause of joy.

Thinking about sexuality in its fullest implications involves thinking about entering into a sense of oneself beyond the customary imagined barrier between the “inner” and the “outer” the private and the shared.

We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in the relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy: we belong with and to each other, not to our “private” selves (as Paul said of mutual sexual commitment), and yet are not instruments for each other’s gratification.

There is something basic, then as Freud intuited, about how we make sense sexually, basic for the fabric of corporate human life. But beyond the whole question of how the body’s grace is discovered is a further, very elusive question.

Sex is risky and grace is not discovered by all; and there is something frightening and damaging about the kind of sexual mutuality on which everything comes to depend – that is why it matters to locate sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything.

But, as I hinted earlier, the body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption.

To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.

lt is perhaps because of our need to keep that perspective clear before us that the community needs some who are called beyond or aside from the ordinary patterns of sexual relation to put their identities direct into the hands of God in the single life. This is not an alternative to the discovery of the body’s grace.

All those taking up the single vocation – whether or not they are, in the disagreeable clinical idiom, genitally intact – must know something about desiring and being desired if their single vocation is not to be sterile and evasive.

Their decision (as risky as the commitment to sexual fidelity) is to see if they can find themselves, their bodily selves, in a life dependent simply upon trust in the generous delight of God – that other who, by definition, cannot want us to supply deficiencies in the bliss of a divine ego, but whose whole life is a “being-for,” a movement of gift.

There is the great freedom of the celibate mystic in deploying the rhetoric of erotic love in speaking of God; and, even more importantly, there is that easy acceptance of the body, its needs and limitations, which we find in mature celibates, like Teresa of Avila in her last years.

Whatever the cost, this vocation stands as an essential part of the background to understanding the body’s grace: paradoxical as it sounds, the celibate calling has, as one aspect of its role in the Christian community, the nourishing and enlarging of Christian sexuality.

It’s worth wondering why so little of the agitation about sexual morality and the status of homosexual men and women in the Church in recent years has come from members of our religious orders. I strongly suspect that a lot of celibates do indeed have a keener sensitivity about these matters than some of their married fellow Christians.

And anyone who knows the complexities of the true celibate vocation would be the last to have any sympathy with the extraordinary idea that sexual orientation is an automatic pointer to the celibate life; almost as if celibacy before God is less costly, even less risky, for the homosexual than the heterosexual.

It is impossible, when we’re trying to reflect on sexuality, not to ask just where the massive cultural and religious anxiety about same-sex relationships that is so prevalent at the moment comes from; and in this final part I want to offer some thoughts about this problem.

I wonder whether it is to do with the fact that same-sex relations oblige us to think directly about bodiliness and sexuality in a way that socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual unions don’t. When we’re thinking about the latter, there are other issued involved notably what one neo-Marxist sociologist called the ownership of the means of production of human beings.

Married sex has, in principle, an openness to the more tangible goals of producing children; its “justification” is more concrete than what I’ve been suggesting as the inner logic and process of the sexual relation itself.

If we can set the movement of sexual desire within this larger purpose, we can perhaps more easily accommodate the embarrassment and insecurity of desire: it’s all in a good cause, and a good cause that can be visibly and plainly evaluated in its usefulness and success.

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace.

It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ?

The odd thing is that this sense of meaning for sexuality beyond biological reproduction is the one foremost in the biblical use of sexual metaphors for God’s relation to humanity.

Let No One Tear Asunder

Jason Micheli —  February 3, 2014 — 14 Comments

1391011150566.cachedThis weekend I concluded our marriage sermon series by reflecting on how the issue of marriage, in particular homosexuality, threatens to split the United Methodist Church.

In it, I tried to survey the four broad perspectives that exist within the larger Church and within my own congregation, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each view. Ephesians 2.13-22 was my text.

Here’s the audio. You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

 

A Case for Gay Marriage

Jason Micheli —  February 1, 2014 — 5 Comments

RogersThis weekend I will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the marriage debate in the larger Church and unpacking the divergent perspectives in a fair way.

To prepare, I thought I would post a pro/con series of posts by written by former teachers of mine at UVA whom I respect immensely and whose work has shaped me.

Today, it’s an argument from Eugene Rogers, whose book, Sexuality and the Christian Body, is the best theological treatment of marriage in general that I’ve discovered.

Rogers was my very first theology teacher, my very first religion professor. I didn’t go to college thinking I’d be doing this with my life and I wouldn’t be had he never entered my life and ignited my curiosity about God.

Here it is:

I want to consider gay marriage by first reflecting on the theology of marriage, and I want to reflect on the theology of marriage under the rubric of sanctification. This approach is consistent with the tradition of the Orthodox Church, which regards marriage as a way of participating in the divine life not by way of sexual satisfaction but by way of ascetic self-denial for the sake of more desirable goods. Theologically understood, marriage is not primarily for the control of lust or for procreation. It is a discipline whereby we give ourselves to another for the sake of growing in holiness — for, more precisely, the sake of God.

In this respect marriage and monasticism are two forms of the same discipline, as the Orthodox writer Paul Evdokimov has argued. They are both ways of committing ourselves to others — a spouse or a monastic community — from whom we cannot easily escape. Both the monastic and the married give themselves over to be transformed by the perceptions of others; both seek to learn, over time, by the discipline of living with others something about how God perceives human beings.

Rowan Williams has written, “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s [Son] makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created [and we marry] so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.” Like all forms of asceticism, this is a high-risk endeavor. It can expose the worst in people — so that it can be healed.

Sexuality, in short, is for sanctification, that is, for God. It is to be a means by which God catches human beings up into the community of God’s Spirit and the identity of God’s child. Monogamy and monasticism are two ways of embodying features of the triune life in which God initiates, responds to and celebrates love.

Monasticism is for people who find a bodily, sexual sanctification first and foremost in the desirous perception of God. Marriage is for people who find themselves transformed by the desirous perception of another human being made in God’s image. In a marital or monastic community, the parties commit themselves to practicing faith, hope and charity in a situation in which those virtues get plenty of opportunity to be exercised.

This way of understanding the Christian life obviously takes seriously the embodied character of human life. And embodiment implies diversity. The Holy Spirit characteristically rests on bodies: the body of Christ in Jesus, in the church, in the sacraments and in the saints. As the Spirit forms the bodies of human beings into the body of Christ, she characteristically gathers the diverse and diversifies the corporate, making members of one body.

We can see the Holy Spirit working for a harmonious diversity as she hovers over the waters in creation. Let us suppose that “Be fruitful and multiply” applies to the commands “Let the earth put forth vegetation” and “Let the waters bring forth swarms” and “Let the earth bring forth everything that creeps upon the ground” (Gen.1:26, 1:11, 1:20, 1:24). In all these cases, the earth and the waters bring forth things different from themselves, not just more dirt and more water. And in all these cases, they bring forth a variety of things: one might almost translate the phrase as “Be fruitful and diversify.”

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke? Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons? Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit. But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side. It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness? Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others. Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another. Says Williams:

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

For large sections of various Christian traditions, blessing does not float overhead. Sanctification comes through concrete practices of asceticism, a discipline or training through which lesser goods serve greater ones. This asceticism is not a bizarre, antiquated Christian weirdness. Americans are already deeply if sometimes mistakenly invested in one kind of asceticism: dieting and working out at the gym are physical disciplines that are supposed to bring spiritual benefits. Indeed, they are supposed by some to bring the greatest of these, love. Surely there are more effective disciplines than those.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational. (The New Testament devalues commitments to one’s family of origin.) Even hermits and solitaries tend to follow the liturgy, the community’s prayer. The first hermit, Anthony the Great, emerged from solitude with an increased sociality, so that people were drawn to him. His “heart had achieved total transparency to others” (in the words of Peter Brown).

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

Christians will see such healing as the work of Christ. Many Christian traditions portray Christ as a physician who must probe people’s wounds in order to heal them. For example, St. Romanos the Melodist offers this account of Christ explaining his mission to his mother at the foot of the cross:

Be patient a little longer, Mother, and you will see how, like a physician, . . . I treat their wounds, cutting with the lance their calluses and their scabs. And I take [the] vinegar, I apply it as astringent to the wound, when with the probe of the nails I have investigated the cut, I shall plug it with the cloak. And, with my cross as a splint, I shall make use of it, Mother, so that you may chant with understanding, “By suffering he has abolished suffering, my Son and my God” (from On the Lament of the Mother of God).

For the risk of commitment to be worth it and to have the best chance of success, the community must have plenty of time and be made up of the right sort of people. Growth takes a lifetime. The right sort of people are those who will succeed in exposing and healing one another’s flaws.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires. The crucial question is, What sort of created diversity will lead one to holiness?

The answer is no doubt as various as creation itself. But certainly same-sex couples find the right spur to vulnerability, self-exposure, and the long and difficult commitment over time to discover themselves in the perceptions of another — they find all this in someone of the same sex. Theologically, says theologian David McCarthy, a homosexual orientation is this: “Gay men and lesbians are persons who encounter the other (and thus themselves) in relation to persons of the same sex.” Some people, therefore, are called to same-sex partnerships for their own sanctification. Opposite-sex partnerships wouldn’t work for them, because those would evade rather than establish the right kind of transformative vulnerability.

The difference between members of a same-sex couple is not “merely psychological,” but also an embodied difference, if only because sexual response is nothing if not something done bodily. Difference cannot be reduced to male-female complementarity, because that would leave Jesus a deficient human being. Jesus did not need a female other half to be fully human. (This point raises the issue of what singleness is for, but that’s a question for another day.)

If this account is correct, then it turns out that conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification. But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways. It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings. I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast to his son, and sent his servants to those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.” But they made light of it and went off . . . Then he said to his servants, . . . “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find. And . . . so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt. 22:1-13).

Not to celebrate same-sex weddings may also be morally dangerous.

1391011150566.cachedThis weekend we will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the current marriage debate in the larger Church, particularly around the issue of homosexuality. 
Adam Hamilton, author of Love to Stay, recently sponsored a motion at General Conference, the United Methodist Church’s international gathering, which stated that faithful United Methodists disagree on our understanding of homosexuality but that we’ll continue trying to find ways to work together. 

 
The intent this weekend will be to examine the various perspectives that exist within the larger Church and our own congregation, and to do so in a fair way so that those who agree with a particular position would recognize it as their own.
We hope that, by offering a charitable reflection on this issue, church members will be empowered to think critically about the merits and shortcomings of each perspective and to imagine a hopeful way forward as a community of faith.
 
For those with children, we want to convey our special assurance that the content will be thoughtful and theological, not explicit in any way. 
If you have questions about the issue that you would like to hear addressed, questions you think worth raising or points that you would like to hear articulated, we would love to incorporate your feedback into the sermon.

Send me a message or leave a comment below.

Because this is an issue over which United Methodists disagree, it’s all the more important to make this time a dialogue as much as possible. 

n-t-wright

ἀδιάφορα, or adiaphora to those of you who don’t use Greek, is the theological term for:

“things indifferent.”

How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?

As John Wesley is reputed to have said about Christians and their beliefs:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.

Of course, proving that we Methodists get our doctrinal slipperyness honestly, how do you determine what is ‘essential?’

Who determines what is essential?

And perhaps most important of all: how do they determine it?

Historically, essential doctrines have always been discerned and debated over time by means of ecumenical councils. Think Nicea or Chalcedon and the creeds which they produced as a result of their consensus.

Presently, as any sentient creature knows, issues of marriage and homosexuality divide the ‘big C’ Church with passion and biblical motivation on both sides and no small amount of fatigue in the middle.

As much as those in the middle would like to move on from the issue and get about the Church’s ‘mission,’ we can’t.

As much as those on the ‘progressive’ side would like the Church to hurry up and get with the times, we can’t.

And as much as the traditional side would like to persist in its tradition and ignore the segment of her Body which believes the Holy Spirit is leading in a new direction, we can’t.

That’s because marriage- and sex within marriage- is not ἀδιάφορα. It’s a belief about which the universal Church has always held a particular, universally-held view.

It’s too important a belief, in other words, for individual churches (or individual Christians for that matter) to chart their own path.

Likewise, it’s too important a belief to ignore what many Christians believe the Holy Spirit has persuaded them about the matter.

Marriage is not ἀδιάφορα; therefore, marriage is a belief that necessarily calls out an even more essential marriage: ours to Christ. The Church’s unity.

And so, like any marriage, we’re stuck with each other for the long haul and, as in any marriage, we need to figure this out together. In conversation.

Here’s how NT Wright put it in his final address as bishop:

“Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate; in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here. 

The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on. 

Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate. 

But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.

No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other…to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart.”

 

13TIMMETRODCbwThis past Saturday I spoke at the TIM Talks at Virginia Theological Seminary, a TED Talks homage sponsored by the Metro DC Synod of the Lutheran Church.

I haven’t been surrounded by that many reformed people since seminary. It turned out to be great day. Mike Gutzler and Kate Davidson, both young Lutheran pastors, organized and staged a provocative slate of speakers (myself excluded).

My contribution for ‘Ideas for 21st Century Ministry:’ The Priesthood of All Believers. I’ll post that presentation when it’s available.

Here are my three quick-ish takeaways from my experience:

  1. Theology Matters (to Lutherans):

Speaker after speaker, lay and cleric alike, on topics as diverse as glitter (seriously), elder care, chili-making and sexuality, repeatedly echoed the distinguishing feature of Luther’s theology:

Simul justus et peccator

‘at once justified and a sinner’

Each of us is simultaneously a woe-begotten sinner and justified by the grace of God offered in Jesus Christ. Each of us has within us an enormous capacity for (self) destruction and an enormous capacity for love. Each of us is always, at the same time, both sinner and saint.

Not one of us is earning our way into God’s good favor. Not one of us is climbing the spiritual ladder. Not one of us is ‘improving’ in any way that’s meaningful from infinity’s perch.

We’re all accepted just as we are by the grace of God in Christ. Sheer gift.

And the only way to respond to a gift is…gratitude.

In its worst forms, Luther’s theology can lead to a ‘it doesn’t matter’ attitude towards the virtues, spiritual life and lived faith.

In its best forms, on display this Saturday, it leads to Christ-centered humility, radical hospitality and parable-like inclusivity.

This single event is hardly an objective survey, but I did also spend 3 years of seminary with Calvinists, which leads me to this conclusion:

Theology matters to Reformed Christians in a way that it does not to Methodists.

This could be explained by the fact that John Wesley never set out to deviate from Anglicanism in any meaningful way or to the fact that he wrote only occasional, ‘practical,’ works and never sat down to compose a thoroughgoing systematic theology. But then, Martin Luther wasn’t really a systematic theologian either.

Whatever the reasons, the TIM Talks on Saturday couldn’t have been more different than most United Methodist conferences and the like which I’ve attended.

For Lutherans, their core theological convictions really do guide and inform their worldview. Typically at United Methodist gatherings what’s emphasized is not our theological identity.

Instead what you’re likely to hear emphasized is our ‘connectional system,’ the administrative structure which yokes all individual congregations together to accomplish the ‘big C’ Church’s mission- an administrative structure, it should be noted, that is shared by all traditions save Baptists and Pentecostals.

You’ll also hear themes of social justice lauded as distinctively Wesleyan which is demonstrably not true. To think Methodists have the corner on living out our faith is silly.

In our worst times, United Methodist gatherings will praise the itinerancy, the system by which pastors are sent (not hired or called by) to local congregations. I don’t disagree with itinerancy, but the TIM Talks on Saturday reaffirm my fears that we Methodists have made our methods of administration more determinative for our identity than our founding, core convictions.

2. German is Cooler:

Every denomination has its birth stories, its insider jargon and lame, churchy humor.

Methodists make jokes about circuit-riders and 3-point charges and ‘moving day’ (see above: itinerancy). Sophisticated Methodists might lampoon our belief in perfection.

The problem: all those insider jokes are in everyday, pedestrian English.

I recall enough high school German to think all of the above would sound infinitely more sophisticated in Deutsch.

Saturday, surrounded by Lutherans, I was also surrounded by insider jokes- particularly in reference to Martin’s famed constipation-induced, Reformation-provoking epiphany.

But in German…it all sounds cooler.

Plus, there’s the whole teetotaling (thank you United Methodist Women…not) vs. bier-drinking tradition.

3. The Gay (non) Issue:

No speaker wants to go last in a long line of speakers, and no speaker wants to follow a dynamite, creative speaker.

That’s what happened to me, but I’m grateful nonetheless.

The speaker before me was Rev. Megan Rohrer, the first openly gay clergywoman in the Lutheran Church. She works in San Francisco with the homeless. Again and again in her 18 minutes talk it was clear: she’s just an ordinary Christian doing ordinary ministry as an ordinary pastor. She doesn’t want or seek anything but the recognition given to every other ordinary person. Megan-Rohrer

My friend Morgan Guyton recently wrote that his experience in the ordination process gives him hope that the Church will be okay despite our differences.

My time on Saturday, especially listening to Megan and watching the reception to her, also gives me hope.

I had friends in seminary who were gay and whose call to ministry was clear but whose eventual ordination, at the time, was highly in doubt.

I have Methodist friends in seminary who are gay and whose call to ministry is clear but whose eventual ordination, at this time, is in doubt.

What I do not presently have are clergy colleagues who happen to be (openly) gay. I’ve long believed that any Church that baptizes gay Christians into should be prepared to ordain them for ministry.

In my own denomination, the debate over sexuality continues all the while beset by a ‘what will come of the church’ hand-wringing.

Gay clergy strikes the majority of Methodist-casters as an extraordinary impossibility. Indeed ours is a denomination where even a vote aimed at acknowledging our denominational divide on the issue failed for fear of appearing to placate the ‘pro-gay’ agenda.

By contrast, the TIM Talks on Saturday were my first experience of a clergy gathering with gay clergy in attendance and other clergy who saw them only as colleagues and a bishop who thought their sexuality not worth even commenting upon.

Though the quality of her presentation was worth noting.

I’m under no illusions about how painful, difficult and costly was the path the Lutheran Church chose, but I can say that what’s on the other side of that decision isn’t extraordinary at all.

It’s very, very ordinary.

And that is exactly how they would like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pastorial_2425_Waselchuk1384735747Since so many of my peers, readers and FB friends occupy that rapidly evaporating niche of American culture that is United Methodism, I’ve got no firm grip on whether the rest of you have heard about the trial of Rev. Frank Shaefer in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Church trial, that is.

Aside: That the United Methodist Church has a judicial system that virtually mirrors, in every jot and tittle, not the Gospel of Matthew but the American system of justice should give you pause and is itself a good indicator of the problems besetting our particular brand of Jesus-following.

Rev Frank’s offense (sedition is a more apt term)?

Officiating the wedding ceremony of two gay men.

Oh- it might seem relevant to the empathetic among you- one of the two grooms is Frank’s son, Tim.

Whereas the Catholic Church makes news when Pope Francis kisses the cheeks of a modern day leper or some other Jesusy act, the UMC makes news when it asserts for the umpteenth time how much we don’t like gay people.

Just last year, for example, at our international gathering called ‘General Conference,’ we made news for being incapable of acknowledging publicly what everyone knows to be true: that Christians of good heart and faith disagree on the issue of homosexuality.

Now, I’m no liberal.

Typically, I have little patience for pastors with an ego-driven need to be ‘prophetic,’ derailing the Great Commission in their local congregation for their own activist mission.

What’s frustrating is that Rev. Frank appears to be an exception.

He didn’t marry his son to make a stand. He married his son because he loves his son.

What instead instigated the ecclesial trial is as depressing as it is cliche:

disputes between older, lifelong members of his church vs newer, younger members

traditional worship devotees vs contemporary worship aficionados

and- to the surprise of 0 pastors out there- the dismissal of a choir director

with more tenure and fans than the pastor

Rev. Frank didn’t make a stand by officiating a gay wedding. Months and months went by without any one in his church knowing he had done so.

Instead church people looking to undermine him, for reasons having more to do with liturgy than lifestyle, went digging for dirt.

The painting-into-a-corner result?

They’ve made Rev. Frank exactly what he was not the day he said ‘dearly beloved’ to his son and his son’s beloved:

an activist.

Issues of theology, biblical interpretation and sexuality aside….this is what I can say without equivocation:

News stories like this one piss me off.

Why?

My usual snark and cynicism aside, I actually believe the United Methodist Church- strike that, the Wesleyan tradition- is uniquely positioned to offer the 21st century a compelling vision of Christianity.

I actually believe we have a fruit-bearing future if only the Pharisees hell bent on safeguarding the UMC would stop and desist.

Unlike many other flavors of Mainline Christianity, Methodists believe in the Bible.

Nay, we believe in God, a living God.

We believe God speaks as much today as God ever did in bearded, bible times. And we believe the Bible is the reliable mode of God’s communication to us. Wherever else God may speak or appear or tease, we believe scripture is as regular and reliable as a bus stop.

But unlike so many brands of Christianity, Methodists don’t believe the Bible has to be interpreted woodenly.

It’s not a dead text; it’s a living text because we believe Holy Spirit is but another name for God. We Methodists, on our best days, are neither literalists nor cretins. We worship Father, Son and Spirit not page 3, 46 or verse 9.

Likewise, Methodists don’t believe God lies to us.

We believe all truth is God’s truth. If our intellect, if science, if reason, if our human experience, if the experience of other believers or non-believers tells us something about God’s world we don’t have to dismiss it as wrong, demonic, false or unbiblical. If it’s true, it’s true.

In a culture that increasingly sees Christianity as anti-intellectual, Methodism is a made to order alternative.

Contrary to many shy, mainline Christian traditions, we Methodists are a repentance-preaching, conversion-measuring sect. We expect that turning towards Jesus means you turn away from other things.

In an American culture captive to greed and individualism, Methodism could be a made to order alternative.

Distinct from our evangelical friends, Methodism is sacramental and liturgical (at least on paper).

We believe the prayers of the saints are probably better than a ‘Fatherweejust..’ prayer. We believe bread and wine are the best conveyors of God’s grace and should be taken as much as freaking possible. We believe in them Jesus makes good on his word and is really present to us in the Eucharist and unlike our Catholic friends we don’t bother trying to figure out how that’s possible. With God, after all, all things are possible and this, as luck would have it, makes Methodism the perfect tradition for a postmodern culture yearning for the mysterious and transcendent.

Like many of other Jesus brands, we believe we’re saved by grace through faith. Unlike many of those brands, we believe the proof is in the pudding. That you very likely do not have faith in God’s grace if you’re not practicing, embodying, doing God’s grace for others. For the poor.

In a culture that hungers to make a difference by serving others, by serving the poor, the followers of John Wesley are obvious candidates to take the Jesus torch into the next century.

The UMC is perfectly positioned for the century unfolding before us.

Except…

A simple Google search of ‘United Methodism’ earlier today resulted in a full 3 pages devoted to how we believe “homosexuals are persons of sacred worth” just as long as they don’t desire to express their humanity in any of the ways normal humans do.

Again, I’m no liberal.

Aside: when the US Military is more liberal than the UMC…

that’s saying something.

I believe in scripture.

I get the need for Church order. I get the need for ecclesial discipline.

But I also believe in a Savior who routinely violated his own church discipline (See: Mark, Gospel of)

And I get that this is a losing demographic issue for the UMC and, however you feel about homosexuality, being ‘right’ on this issue is not worth the cost of whole generations not hearing the Gospel because Google et all only communicate what/who we’re against.

Not what/who we’re for.

Rev Frank is only now being tried for a wedding that took place years ago.

My oldest son is a year or so away from puberty so let the UMC be warned…

Should it happen that he discovers he’s gay in the same unintended way I realized I wasn’t…and should it happen he finds love worth a lifetime…and should he ask me to…

There’s no way I’d say no.

And dammit, I don’t care what (you think) Paul said: I’m betting the house Jesus would understand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MaronitePentecostIcon

And it may not be one that you want to hear.

One of the perks of adding another pastor to our staff is that A) I don’t have to preach as much and B) I have the chance to teach an adult class on Sunday mornings during our contemporary service.

We’re working our way, bit by bit, through Mark’s Gospel. For his spare artistry, pregnant irony and subversive Jesus Mark’s Gospel is far and away my favorite of the four narratives.

Recently we tackled chapter 3.20 – 4.1, which contains this little stick of theological dynamite:

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

Needless to say, the idea of loving, compassionate Jesus categorizing a particular sin as ‘unforgivable’ less than a quarter of the way into the Gospel didn’t sit too well with the members of the class.

‘He doesn’t really mean unforgivable, does he?’

‘Jesus is just being rhetorical right? Exaggerating?’

‘I thought God forgives everything?’

When I asked them what they thought Jesus meant by ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ there was little variance in the responses:

‘Cursing God’

‘Rejecting that Jesus is the Messiah.’

‘Refusing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’

‘Resisting the Spirit’s work to make us confess that Jesus is God.’

All told there responses don’t deviate very much from the neanderthal Calvinist, John Piper, defines the blasphemy:

The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws for ever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven.’

My friend Morgan recently posted on this same topic, reflecting on how John MacArthur went off the rails and accused most of his Pentecostal brethren of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ by attributing words and directions to the Spirit that the Spirit did not give.

Certainly I’m sure there’s a good deal of such attribution in Pentecostalism but that would be called idolatry- or anthropomorphism- not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

What John Piper and John MacArthur and even the folks in my class failed to do was read Jesus’ words within the context of Mark’s early chapters.

In chapter 1, right after Jesus speaks on stage for the first time about how the Kingdom of God has arrived, he casts out a demon in church. By doing so, Jesus usurps the authority of the temple priests, whom, Mark leads us to surmise, had previously turned the possessed man away.

Jesus leaves church that day telling people to keep hush- not to keep his ‘Messianic secret’ but because now he’s a marked man.

And ritually impure to boot, which is why he retreats away.

Skip ahead to the end of chapter 2. Offstage the scribes apparently have been dispatched to follow Jesus, presumably for the purpose of finding a chargeable offense against him.

Jesus encounters a leper, who asks Jesus to make him clean.

Jesus touches him.

And only then cleanses him.

Both instances violating the law. The first renders Jesus ritually impure again. He’s literally taking on the sin of the people, making himself an outcast.

Oh yeah, and Jesus applies to himself the divine-political title ‘Son of Man’ in the heated exchange that ensues with the scribes.

In chapter 2, Mark tells us that Jesus is reclining ‘on his left elbow’ with sinners and tax collectors. Chilling with them, in other words. He’s accused of carousing with them, eating and drinking. This is the first time the word ‘disciple’ to reference Jesus’ followers.

In chapter 3, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, violating the law and presuming to possess the authority to interpret the law in one fail swoop.

Starting in the initial chapter, each of these encounters elicits increasing hostility towards Jesus- from the temple priests, from the scribes and even from his family, who think Jesus has gone insane.

The scribes, keepers of the ancient texts and the interpretation of them, presume they’re on God’s side. So they accuse Jesus of being demonic.

Those in power have the power to impugn the motives and character of those not in power.

Jesus turns it back on them with the little quip Abraham Lincoln made even more famous about a house divided against itself.

Jesus’ point is different from Abe’s: if I’m demonic how is it I could exorcise demons?

Conclusion: only someone on God’s side could exorcise demons.

Ergo: those who assume they’re on God’s side…aren’t.

‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ is the culminating, summary charge that erupts as the conclusion to the increasingly hostile encounters Jesus has with the keepers of the status quo.

As such, any interpretation of what constitutes such a blasphemy should be read in light of those exchanges.

The scribes for ideological reasons- and even Jesus’ own family- refuse to see the liberating work of God right before their eyes.

Refuse to see this new healing, liberating activity of Jesus as GOD’S WORK.

It’s not like they haven’t seen Jesus heal and exorcise and cast out. It’s just that their ideology, their interpretation of what God said or did in the past, doesn’t conform to what Jesus is doing in the present.

And so they reject Jesus and attribute the demonic to him.

After all, it’s not like the scribes were wrong in their interpretation of the law. Jesus doesn’t have the authority to heal in the temple. He shouldn’t be touching lepers. Who told him he could heal on the Sabbath…not God’s word that’s for sure.

To make it plain, what so many interpretations of what constitutes ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ miss is why Jesus would specify the Holy Spirit.

What is it about the Holy Spirit Jesus wants us to take notice?

This is where Trinitarian language always comes in handy. Because the Holy Spirit, we profess, is the revelation of God in our midst, in the present, in the here and now.

The Holy Spirit is what reminds us that God didn’t speak or work in the past.

God continues to speak and work in the present.

God can do a new thing.

And that new thing might even go against everything we’ve understood about what God did and said in the past.

God can affirm and welcome and ‘declare clean’ what God’s word once declared quite to the contrary.

If I have to connect the dots to make clear how this is a relevant issue today, I’ve not been nearly the writer my wife tells me I am.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit =

So reifying your understanding of how God willed and spoke in the past- in scripture- that you’re willfully blind to see the liberating, healing work of God in the present.

And if you’ve connect the dots and want to blow me off as a knee-jerk liberal then fine.

Except, be warned, Jesus says it’s unforgivable.

 

 

_44832997_churchwithrainbowbanner ”This story is the shadow side of the way the world works. It is, to me, the flip side of the coin of Phillip’s story. One pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his partner of 19 years when it becomes legal, and he must retire and rescind his credentials so as to live in peace. Another pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his mistress after being brought up on charges, and he is permitted to retire and serve a really great church. These things do not balance for me on the scales of justice.”

This is a snippet from a sermon by Mandy Sloan Flemmingreverend mama.icon

Mandy was one of the few Methodist compatriots I had in the Calvinist confines of Princeton. She’s a good writer and preacher. Here’s a sermon I saw her post recently, reflecting on the occasion of her senior pastor retiring- turning in his ordination credentials- in order to marry his partner of 2 decades, a union allowed by DOMA but forbid by the Methodist Book of Discipline.

Adding a needed nuance to the debate over gay marriage/ordination in the Church, Mandy contrasts the forced retirement of a gay clergyman who is faithful to his partner with the hushed shuffle and promotion of an unfaithful bishop she and I both served under in New Jersey.

Indeed, ironically, the adulterous bishop actually guest taught one of our United Methodist polity classes.

That is, he instructed us on the ins-and-outs of our Church’s laws.

Here’s her sermon. It’s worth the read:

———————————————

1 Samuel 16:1-13
            Friends, last week, we received some startling news. Even for those of us who might have known that our beloved Phillip Thomason was considering retirement, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the powerful vision of our beloved pastor taking off his stole and laying it on the altar. To be clear, this is Phillip’s choice, and one that he celebrates. He has gotten married to his beloved partner of 19 years, and they share this crazy and wonderful notion that they should be able to live together in holy matrimony for the rest of their lives. For those of you who don’t understand why he needed to give up his credentials, it is because the United Methodist Book of Discipline prohibits “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being ordained. You and I can talk all day long about the ignorance that’s implied in this description, but they are the rules by which we must abide for now. Phillip has gladly chosen to give up the credentials he has earned and honored; no one has taken them from him. It might have been unexpected, but “No one expects the Spanish inquisition!”
I am so proud of my colleague, but I am so furious at the Methodist church.
Much has happened since the last time I was in this pulpit, which was the Sunday after DOMA was struck down. Since June, we have heard of countless couples heading to California or Washington or … Provincetown to make their vows to one another. The only sad thing about this is that all of my beloved friends are holding destination weddings, and I keep missing them. But, this is the way the world is working right now. The IRS is officially more progressive than the church on this issue, which might be the most bizarre evolution to date.
But, the last time I preached, I told you about the story of Ruth and Naomi, and how these women took vows to one another, and managed to create a new family together. In Ruth, Chapter 4:13, we hear that, “Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! … 17The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.”
            Today, our story picks up during this generation, as we hear about the youngest child of Jesse, the handsome, ruddy boy named David who is anointed king. Since Obed was born to Ruth and Naomi, the Israelites have found themselves in dire need of someone to rule over them. They have begged the Lord for a king, that they might be ruled as other nations are ruled. They came to Samuel, who was the prophet born of a faithful, yet barren, woman named Hannah. She prayed for a child, and the prophet at the temple, named Eli, ensured her that God had heard her cries. When Samuel was weaned, she brought him to Eli at the Temple, where Samuel lived and served God.
When he was very young, Samuel heard God’s voice calling him, and he did not comprehend that it was God, and not Eli calling to him. Eli said, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’” (1 Samuel 3:9). From that time on, Samuel became the messenger of God’s will to others. After many years of defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the Israelites finally came to Samuel and said, “you are old, and your sons to not follow in your ways. Give us a king to govern us” (1 Samuel, 8:6). Samuel was despondent, fearing as though he had failed to be a leader for his people, but God said, “Listen to the voice of the people in all they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7). Because of this, God told Samuel to warn the Israelites that the king they would receive would be greedy, unyielding, self-serving. They refused to listen to this caution, and God anointed Saul as king.
Now, when evaluating the merits of leadership, a story cannot help but be political. Ten years ago in May, I was on the verge of graduating from seminary and was hopeful that a small, United Methodist Church in New Jersey would have the need for a pastor. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, and it is the heartland of American Methodism. Our annual conference gathering was so large it had to be assembled at the Convention Center in Atlantic City where the Miss America pageant was held. There was no shortage of people in New Jersey, and the last thing they needed was one more person trying to noodle her way into the conference.
And yet, one week before I graduated, I got a call from a woman who was serving as a District Superintendent. She had a church near Jackson, NJ that she was wondering if I would like to serve. A few days later, I met with the good and kind folks at West Farms UMC, and a month later, I was their pastor.
Now, I tell you this story because it relates, not to me, but to the leadership at that time. My District Superintendent was not dearly beloved by my congregation; they feared she was trying to merge them or close the doors of their tiny church home. But, she had some great gifts for ministry. She was an elegant writer and a beautiful pray-er. I have her to thank for entrusting me with my first pulpit, my first congregation. You can imagine my surprise when, two years later she retired and married our former Bishop. He had retired under allegations of inappropriate behavior, and now, they live in New York City, where he serves as the lead pastor for a United Methodist Church in the village. MG_5743-199x300
This story is the shadow side of the way the world works. It is, to me, the flip side of the coin of Phillip’s story. One pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his partner of 19 years when it becomes legal, and he must retire and rescind his credentials so as to live in peace. Another pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his mistress after being brought up on charges, and he is permitted to retire and serve a really great church. These things do not balance for me on the scales of justice.
But, if there is one thing we know about God, it is that God’s justice does not calculate like ours. In the story of Saul, God is persuaded by the Israelites to give them a king, and so he offers them a very poor choice. Saul does, in fact, attempt to lead the Israelites. He even builds an altar (just the one) to the Lord after decades of serving as king, countless battles with the Philistines, horrific bloodshed, and irrational behaviors (14:35). The Lord is unimpressed, because time and again, Saul is disobedient, following God’s commands only in part, leaving Samuel to come in and clean up his mess, account for his behavior, or do his awful, dirty work. There is no justice in this.
In the passage just before our text today, Saul receives word from Samuel that he is to “utterly destroy the Amalekites,” for what they have done to in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Saul summoned the people and killed every living soul, except for the valuable livestock, as well as the Agag, king of the Amalekites. The Lord is furious, and tells Samuel that Saul can no longer serve as king. When Samuel shares this news with Saul, he tries to defend himself, saying that his plan was to sacrifice the sheep and cattle to the Lord, but Samuel explains that “to obey is better than to sacrifice, for rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king” (15:22-23). It is then Samuel’s job to assassinate King Agag, a task he is mournful to complete. When Samuel retreats to Ramah, he grieves Saul and all that has occurred. More interestingly, the text tells us the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. God has regrets; God is mutable – changeable – persuadeable. God lives with guilt and grief.
            This is where we find Samuel, a tired and lonely prophet, who had done his best to stop the anointing of Saul and explain to the Israelites that they had no need for an earthly king, for the God of all heaven was already their king. But, God, who never ceases to listen and be moved by God’s people, allows another king to be anointed. He tells Samuel to cease his grieving over Saul, and to go to Jesse, Ruth’s grandson – the son of Obed  – a man from Bethlehem. One of Jesse’s children has already been chosen by God to be the next king of the Israelites. Samuel comes to Bethlehem with a heifer, so as to offer a sacrifice before the Lord, he finds Jesse and his sons.
The first son to greet him is Eliab, and Samuel thinks that this man will be the next king, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord!” But, God offers this insight to Samuel, his trusted prophet, “Do not look on his appearance or on his height, because I have rejected him; the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7). After rejecting Jesse’s seven sons, Samuel asks if he has met all of them. In a story that has a comical similarity to Cinderella’s, the young boy who is tending the sheep is brought to Samuel. It is David, young, ruddy, and handsome, who is in possession of the monarchical glass slipper, and this child is the one whom the Lord tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David, and Samuel departs for Ramah.
The story line we follow from Ruth to Obed to Jesse to David is filled with utter humanity and God’s never-failing attempt to stay in relationship with God’s people. But, there is something more than a monarchy that leads us from one generation to the next. It is the Prophet, the go-between, the means by which we hear both the word of God and the advocate for the people. This story is about God and Samuel. This relationship is the means by which God and the Israelites maintain their ongoing connection. Samuel is the faithful hearer and the brave voice.
It may seem, today, as though our beloved friend and pastor is being taken from us by an unjust system, but, my friends, there is something we have not yet considered. We, ourselves, are the faithful hearers. Phillip may be for us an irreplaceable voice of love and acceptance, but we have being willing to listen. So, what does that make us? The new king, ruddy and handsome, anointed to lead, and pray and dance before the Lord with glass slippers in our pockets? No, because we are not a simple Cinderella story. We are not the underdog, the unexpected, the overlooked. Perhaps, but what is true is that we are to be a continuation of Samuel’s lineage. We are to be the prophets, the go-betweens. We are to be the ones with the courage to speak up, to witness to injustice, to petition God with our prayers, and who are willing to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Amen and Amen.