Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Questioning the Silence

News about the Judicial Council's re-affirmation of Rev. Drew Phoenix's appointment has spread far and wide. Even NPR posted a feature story on their main web page proclaiming that the United Methodist Church's historic vote to "keep a transgender pastor."

Yet, while this is good news for Rev. Phoenix and for our Reconciling movement, the silent gaps of the Judicial Council's rulings leave an ominous hole that some in the coming General Conference will surely seek to fill by including explicit prohibitions against transgender pastors. While the Judicial Council explicitly stated that a change of name needs no special action of the General Conference, the Council made clear that this decision does not determine "whether gender change is a chargeable offense or violates minimum standards established by the General Conference." In making this statement, the Judicial Council leaves a wide open space for the General Conference to make such a determination when it next meets this coming spring.

Likewise, the decisions regarding funding for reconciling campus ministries did not directly challenge the unjust prohibitions of funding for welcoming ministries. Rather, the Council found that there was no evidence that conference funds supported activities that "promoted the acceptance of homosexuality." Implicit in both the rulings is that if evidence were to be found of conference funds used for ministry with LGBT persons, future funding would be cut and disciplinary action of some sort taken. In fact, the direction to the Western North Carolina committee on finance and administration to "investigate" the matter appears to give the green light to groups who want to play watchdog and police the activities of any and all church affiliated groups that seek to be in mission with LGBT persons, their friends and families.

While we celebrate the affirmation of these ministries, we must be careful to recognize the silent gaps that pave the way for further prohibitions as we near General Conference 2008. Sometimes that which is left unsaid is far more important than that which is actually said.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Judicial Council Issues Its Latest Rulings

Today the Judicial Council posted its rulings (1073-1088) for this past week's sessions that considered important issues such as the eligibility of transgender persons for clergy appointment, the use of funds for welcoming campus ministries, domestic partnership benefits for non-clergy conference staff and resolutions regarding inclusivity and membership.

In a historic decision, the Judicial Council reaffirmed Rev. Drew Phoenix's re-appointment in the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. Reaffirming Bishop Jon Schol's ruling that a gender change poses no barrier to re-appointment to elders in good standing, the Judicial Council clearly stated that elders in good standing cannot be terminated without administrative or judicial action.

In regard to the availability of funds for welcoming campus ministries (1081 and 1084), the Judicial Council left that determination up to the conference Council on Finance and Administration (CF&A). In the case from the Pacific Northwest, the Judicial Council ruled that the conference CF&A had thoroughly investigated the matter and found no violation of the Book of Discipline. However, in the case from the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, the Judicial Council charged the conference CF&A with investigating the matter and issuing its report to the Council within 60 days. Funding for campus ministries and the North Carolina Council of Churches is still at peril, depending on the investigation and report of the annual conference's CF&A.

The Judicial Council also ruled (1075) that domestic partnership benefits for non-clergy annual conference staff did not violate the prohibitions regarding homosexuality in the Book of Discipline since the funds for those benefits were supplied by the participants themselves and not by the annual conference.

The Council did not rule on the resolutions on inclusivity and membership brought by the Northern Illinois Annual Conference (1080) because they lacked jurisdiction. The Council stated, they could not rule since "
the requests for declaratory decision were not separately debated and voted upon, but rather, were handled en masse as part of a consent agenda."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Catholic Spirit

2 Kings 10:15
Matthew 5: 43-45
John 13: 34-35
1 John 3:11

The verses above are the texts that John Wesley used in writing his sermon “A Catholic Spirit,” a sermon which eloquently calls for unity in Christian love. It is from this sermon that comes the famous Wesleyan quote, 'If your heart is as my heart', 'Give me your hand.' What many of us in the church never realize is that these words are not of Wesley’s own creation…they come from a particular verse in scripture.

As I prepared for this sermon, I went back to Wesley and the scriptures he quoted. The subtitle of the sermon is the verse from 2 Kings, the central verse of his sermon. But it is interesting to note that he does not begin there. Instead, he starts his reflection with a beautiful summation of God’s call to love found in the Gospels listed above.

Now I have preached a thousand times from Matthew, John and 1 John. I mean who doesn’t like preaching on love? But the text from Kings, I confess, was less familiar. I had a general sense of the historical time period, but didn’t remember exactly what happened before and after this one verse. So, I opened my Bible and began to read…

“Jehu slew all who were left of the family of Ahab in Jezreel, as well as all his powerful supporters, intimates, and priests, leaving him no survivor.Then he set out for Samaria, and at Beth-eked-haroim on the way, he came across kinsmen of Ahaziah, king of Judah. "Who are you?" he asked. "We are kinsmen of Ahaziah," they replied. "We are going down to visit the princes and the family of the queen mother." "Take them alive," Jehu ordered. They were taken alive, forty-two in number, then slain at the pit of Beth-eked. Not one of them was spared. And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him. And he saluted him and said, “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart? And Jehonadab answered, “It is.” “If it be, give me thine hand.” Jehonadab gave him his hand, and Jehu drew him up into his chariot. "Come with me," he said, "and see my zeal for the LORD." And he took him along in his own chariot. When he arrived in Samaria, Jehu slew all who remained there of Ahab's line, doing away with them completely and thus fulfilling the prophecy which God had spoken to Elijah.” (2 Kings 10)

Christian love? My goodness.

From the context of Wesley’s sermon it is hard to believe that this verse is that which inspired him to write such a passionate plea for Christian love. Surely Wesley was no biblical slouch. He knew quite well the context of this verse, after all he reminds readers that Jehu was a “mixed character” at best and who tended to “drive furiously” in all things both secular and sacred (And here, we suspect “drive furiously” is a euphemism for slaughtering everyone in his way.).

Yet, still Wesley chose to use it as an example of Christian unity and love.

Wesley uses the interchange between Jehu and Jehonadab to illustrate the radical ways in which unity of spirit and love, can overcome diversity of opinions and practices. Even these two men, so zealous that they slaughtered those who differed with them, in this one moment overcame their own individual prejudices and predilections to come together. If these two could find common ground, perhaps it is not too much to ask of the church today that is likewise filled with vitriol and violence…in its own way.

It is a fact of life for Wesley that people differ in what they believe in religious, as well as common life. Diversity of opinions is perfectly normal, perfectly natural. And, for Wesley, there is nothing anyone can do to change that.

Some opinions will never change because they are held captive by what Wesley calls “invincible ignorance.” And by this, Wesley means the inevitable influences of social and cultural prejudices. He writes,

“Perhaps some cannot know. For who can tell how far invincible ignorance may extend? Or (what comes to the same thing) invincible prejudice; which is often so fixed in tender minds that it is afterwards impossible to tear up what has taken so deep a root.”

Invincible ignorance. No matter how hard we try to communicate with one another, there are some whose opinions, whether about secular things such as Republican or Democrat, Sox or Yankees, cats or dogs, or whether about religious matters of how to understand scripture, or be the Church or love one another, will never change.

Wesley reminds us that we cannot compel others to believe or act like we do. All we can do is strive in good conscience to live a life which embodies God’s love. It is our living out of God’s love in our life that will reconcile us to one another.

We have all probably at one time or another found ourselves in an argument with a fellow Christian, perhaps even a fellow United Methodist, going round and round about one or two verses of scripture, haven’t we?

“It’s sin.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is.”

These arguments get us no where. Invincible ignorance. To belabor the point is to waste our time and energy. Rather, there is a better way.

Wesley’s use of the bloody tale of Jehu and Jehonadab in conjunction with the verses proclaiming God’s call to love, tells us something about the overarching message of the gospel. Perhaps there is a better way, than arguing and brute force. Perhaps, there are instances, sparks, glimpses of divine love and compassion even in the midst of the most brutal of battles, both secular and religious, that lead us to a better way.

Rather than persuade one another of our right opinions and practices, Wesley urges us to unite together in love of God and neighbor. Do you love God? Do you love Jesus? Do you have a faith that is energized by love? Do you strive to love your neighbor? Do you work to make a difference? If so, our opinions are nothing compared to the great love to which God calls us.

Wesley wanted to unite Christians in a love embodied in a common mission, the mission of God. For Wesley, this meant “promoting holiness of heart and life.” This holiness was both personal and social and referred not to mere individual acts of piety, but rather a predisposition of openness, love and right relationship. Holiness for Wesley was creating justice…just lives, just relationships, a just world. This was the common vision to which Methodists have been called.

I believe, we can all sit at the table together. But we must first commit ourselves to acts of love and justice. We must first be united in love as Wesley taught. This means that while we might differ in our understandings of scripture, reason, tradition and experience, in order to sit together, all must have equal access to the table, all must be permitted full participation, and all must be valued and loved despite their invincible ignorance.

Our unity as United Methodists comes not from our opinions or even practices, but to the extent to which we strive together to create a world where there is more love and more justice.

Is your heart like my heart? Then give me your hand.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Peace Day

Today thousands around the world gather to proclaim a word of peace in the midst of a warring world. CWM and friends will join the masses at noon today as we gather on the Boston Common as part of United for Peace and Justice's National Mobilization to End the War in Iraq.

Learn more about this national day of action, initiated by United for Peace and Justice, a 5-year old coalition of 1,400 groups.

Below are selections from the United Nations Peace Poem. Every primary (grades k-6), middle (grades 7-9) and secondary (grades 10-12) school (including homeschools) around the world was invited to submit, via e-mail, two lines of poetry about peace to the United Nations. Once collected, the lines were collated together into one long Peace Poem, and redistributed to all participants as well as posted on the Web.

In the spirit of this day, read the words of our children, prophets of peace in our own time:

Let the sun shine in the night time and please no more dying.
Please let us have peace and no more fighting. People are dying.

Southwest Elementary
San Antonio, TX, US

As I look around the world I sigh,
And think, We could at least give peace a try.
Exeter-West Greenwich Junior High
West Greenwich, RI, US

Peace without
Comes from peace within.
Glenala State High School
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Peace remained by my side until I understood
what she wanted from me—that I be free
Parque Ecologico
Porangaba, Brazil

Let it blow in your direction
Let it touch you, melt you and mould you
SOS-Hermann Gmeiner International College, secondary school
Tema, Ghana

There comes an army; here comes another.
They meet in the middle and declare PEACE.
Holy Cross Primary School
Western Cape, South Africa

Peace is in the waves at sea.
Peace must begin with you and me!
Gander Middle School
Gander, Newfoundland, Canada
Peace is something the world should share
It’s all about loving, we dare you to care!
Elmcrest Elementary School
Liverpool, NY, US

The condition of the heart can alter the perspective of a person.
The condition of the hearts of a nation can alter the state of humankind—PEACE.
Walnut Ridge Middle School Library
Walnut Ridge, AR, US

From my mother’s womb I came out yelling for life.
It’s great I am surviving—but there’s no peace.
Joseph Nabbingo Primary School
Kampala, Uganda

Peace is the seed that sprouts all light,
We must lower the greed, and start the fight.
Silver Sands Middle School
Port Orange, FL, US

I wish I could have stopped what caused the first human
to be violent to another.
Then maybe the world would still be living in peace.
Asir Academy
Khamis-Mushayt, Saudi Arabia

In the sky we see a dove
The dove means peace, the dove means love
Canberra Church of England Girls’ Grammar Junior School
Deakin, Australia

If only PEACE were understood,
What couldn’t be now, in the future could.
Milwaukee German Immersion School
Milwaukee, WI, US

Judicial Council Update

This note comes from Rev. John Oda, a pastor in the Cal-Nev conference and a board member of Reconcilling Ministries Network. He has been an integral part of the planning and preparations for the Reconcilling witness at this week's Judicial Council.

He writes:

"I wanted to send out a quick note about the Reconciling Witness which took place yesterday evening, in conjunction with the UMC Judicial Council meeting.

We had about 70+ people gather at Justin Herman Plaza in downtown SF where we held a moving "Remembering Your Baptism" worship service. Troy provided a powerful introduction to remembering our baptisms. We then marched 1.5 miles with candles aglow to the Hilton Hotel where the Judicial Council was meeting. It was a beautiful sight to see this long row of faithful UMC's marching as dusk fell. I led the group which is closest I'll ever come to being Moses.

After arriving to the Hilton and a brief prayer, we visited the "Reconciling Witness" meeting room; directly across the hall from the Judicial Council meeting space. The Judicial Council was just adjourning from their meeting. It was an interesting moment but as we crossed paths we welcomed them to SF. Most of the Council members acknowledged our presence. Some people had longer conversations with some of the Council members.

Karen Oliveto should be praised for her leadership in pulling the Reconciling Witness together. Keep us in your prayers as we keep a prayer vigil and hold nightly worship services at the Hilton. Keep the Judicial Council in your prayers as the deliberate on a number of important issues including: (1) Are transgendered pastors in full standing entitled to a church appointment if they want one? (2) How much should campus ministries reach out to LGBT students as LBGTs? (3) Should domestic partners of lay church employees be eligible for church health plans? (4) Can churches, as they declare that they welcome all families, include LGBT families?



Friday, October 26, 2007

Wesley's Dual Ecclesiologies and Contemporary Conflict

Albert Outler is famously quoted as saying, “To the question, Is there a Wesleyan ecclesiology? The answer ‘yes’ is too much, the answer ‘no’ too little.”[1] As a revival movement turned church, Methodism has struggled to define its ecclesial identity vacillating between notions of “church” and “sect,” neither of which are satisfactory.[2] It can be said that this struggle for ecclesial identity stems from Wesley’s own ambiguous articulation of the ecclesiology of the people called Methodist.

As a practical theologian more concerned with the pragmatics of ecclesial life than the articulation of systematic doctrine, Wesley’s ecclesiology is at best a mélange of insights and influences from the religious landscape in which he lived.[3] Over the years scholars have attempted to organize Wesley’s ecclesiology by untangling the various strands of his ministry to illustrate the complexity of his ecclesiological practice.[4]

In the aforementioned essay, Albert Outler claims that rather than a doctrine of the church, the Methodist Church inherited a “interesting amalgam” of ecclesiological features that when strung together give a practical, yet not systematic vision of the form and nature of the Church. Outler understands that for Wesley the Church was best understood as an “act,” as part of the larger mission of “spreading scriptural holiness” and as such did not necessitate a systematic theological articulation. After all, the Methodist movement was part of the larger Church of England whose ecclesiology was clearly stated in Article XIX of the Anglican Articles of Religion. Although Wesley’s ecclesiology begins rooted in the ecclesiological tradition of the Established Church, his ecclesial practices reveal various other ecclesiological strands and influences. Outler notes that layered upon his Anglican foundation Wesley added practical innovations drawn from the liturgical and devotional influences of the Catholic Non-Jurors and Puritans, Latitudinarian insights on ecclesial administration, and a vision of reformed religious societies from Continental Pietists (including both Lutherans and Moravians) and English High Churchman.[5] Outler claims these various strands were woven together not as a systematic reformation of traditional Anglican ecclesiology, but rather as necessary means of adaptation to the evolving Methodist movement.[6]

This kaleidoscopic ecclesiology described by Outler was later further organized by Collin Williams into three distinct lines of influence – the Free Church, Classic Protestant and Catholic traditions. [7] In more recent years the varying strands of influence within Wesley’s ecclesiology have been refined into a general two-fold relationship between Wesley’s Anglican heritage and his pragmatic appropriation of Free Church ecclesiologies. Scholars such as David Lowes Watson, Howard Snyder, Ernest Stoeffler and Frank Baker have successfully argued for this vision of a dual ecclesiology in Wesley.[10] On the one hand, Church was for Wesley as the Anglican community envisioned, the historical institution maintained by a clerical order responsible for duly preaching the Word of God and administering the sacraments to all those made members by baptism. While on the other hand, Church was also a fellowship of believers who shared the apostolic experience of God's living presence and a desire to bring others into this same personal experience practiced by those in the Free Church movement.[11]

Wesley’s ecclesiology is best understood as a careful balance of the tension between the Anglican concept of the integrity and authority of the visible and universal church and the radical Protestant notion of the gathered church. Wesley joined together the idea of a gathered church, purposively elected by God for the renewal of the institutional church, with the concept of a wider, inclusive body of the universal church marked by a “catholic spirit.” The holiness of the Church depended on both the objective presence of Christ in the Word and sacraments and the subjective holiness embodied in a living response of believers. The Church was not complete unless the objective holiness evoked in the life of the community of faith a subjective response embodied in concrete acts of holiness.[1]

While the gathered church emphasis of these communities of renewal (manifest in his system of societies, classes and bands) was important, Wesley could not conceive of these smaller ecclesiolae outside of the larger church universal. He balanced these two distinct ecclesiologies by structuring a system in which individuals had the opportunity to attend voluntary small groups in which spiritual discipline was taken seriously. These groups were drawn from the wider membership formed on the basis of baptism and profession of faith. For Wesley both were necessary in order to balance the unity and continuity of the Church with its mission to spread scriptural holiness. Colin Williams notes, “These emphases only become wrong when one is separated from the others.”[2]

This balance between these dual ecclesiological visions provides a helpful framework for assessing Wesley’s own ecclesiological commitments embedded in his ecclesial practices. Any analysis of Methodist ecclesial practices must keep in mind the delicate balance Wesley sought to maintain between a vision of the church as an historic institution whose membership is constituted through baptism and a vision of the church as a gathered community of believers seeking to manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit working in their lives through worship, evangelism and holy living. Without such a framework it would be easy to place undue emphasis on particular aspects of his ministry and ecclesiology giving a biased and inaccurate view of Wesley’s core ecclesiological commitments.

This type of bias is evident in contemporary debates and discussions regarding the nature of the Church. The recent controversy over membership outlined in previous chapters reveals the dangers of emphasizing one ecclesial vision over the other. In the case of Judicial Council Decision 1032, these dual ecclesiologies were pitted against one another by the differing poles of the Church. As manifested in the written position papers during the 2007 consultation on ecclesiology, those who supported Decision 1032 based their interpretations on an ecclesiology formed primarily by the gathered church model of a distinctive community called to witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives and marked by a uniform adherence to a particular moral disciplinary code. On the other hand, those who voiced dissent with Decision 1032 formed their arguments based on an essentially Anglican view of the Church as a historic institution into which persons are admitted, not based on a set of particular behaviors, but rather by God’s grace as poured out and recognized in the ritual of baptism. Just as in Wesley, the ecclesial practices of the contemporary United Methodist Church must achieve a delicate balance between the dual ecclesiologies of the Anglican and Radical Protestant traditions if they are to remain both effective and faithful to their Wesleyan heritage. Historically as the Methodist tradition moved from a society to an institutional church, it struggled to reconcile the disciplines of the societies with the life of the larger, “great congregation” of life in the universal church.[3]

[1] Williams, p. 149.

[2] Williams, p. 153.

[3] Williams, p. 153.

[1] Outler, Albert, “Do Methodists Have a Doctrine of the Church?” In Doctrine of the Church, Dow Kirkpartick, ed. New York: Abingdon Press, 1964, p. 11

[2] Abraham, William. “Judicial Council Decision 1032 and Ecclesiology,” p. 3.

[3] Carter, David, Love Bade Me Welcome: A British Methodist Perspective on the Church, London: Epworth Press, 2002, p. 6.

[4] While this chapter will explore those scholars who note multiple ecclesiological influences in Wesley’s understanding of the Church, there are others who focus on particular strands, pulling one out above the others. Kenneth Rowe, in his edited volume, The Place of John Wesley in the Christian Tradition (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1976, p. 3) outlines work by scholars that trace ecclesiological influences in Wesley to various religious traditions including George Croft Cell and Franz Hildebrandt who trace Wesley to the Continental Reformers; Martin Schmidt and Clifford W. Towlson who link Wesley to Continental Pietiem; Jean Orcibal t the Western mystical tradition; Maximin Piette and John Todd to Roman Catholicism; Horton Davies, Robert Monk and John Newton to English Puritanism; Arthur M. Allchin and Marcus Ward to Eastern Orthodoxy; and Ole Borgen, Garth Lean, Lawrence McIntosh, and J. Earnest Rattenbury who all label Wesley as essentially Anglican.

[5] Outler, pp. 14-15.

[6] Ibid, p. 27.

[7] Williams, Collin W., John Wesley’s Theology Today, New York: Abingdon Press, 1960, pp. 141-166.

[8] Wesley, John, An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Par. 78

[9] To this three-fold formula, H. Ray Dunning adds a fourth mark of discipline, which like the mark of living faith comes from Wesley’s contact with the Free Church movements. (See his article, “Toward a Wesleyan Ecclesiology )

[10] Watson, David Lowes , The Early Methodist Class Meeting, Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1987; Snyder, Howard, The Radical Wesley & Patterns for Church Renewal, Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980; Stoeffler, Ernest, “Tradition and Renewal in the Ecclesiology of John Wesley” in Traditio-Krisis-Renovatio aus Theologischer Sicht, edited by Berndt Jasper and Rudolf Mohr, Marburg: Elwer, 1976; Towlson, Clifford W. Moravian and Methodist: Relationships and Influences in the Eighteenth Century, London: Epworth Press, 1954.

[11] Baker, p. 137.

[12] Baker, p. 137.

[13] For example, Howard Snyder argues that Wesley’s ecclesiology was fundamentally shaped by his interaction with and appropriation of Moravian radical Protestantism. In the contemporary debates over homosexuality and membership, one can see the way in which the two opposing poles highlight either Wesley’s Anglican or Free Church ecclesial practices to support their differing claims on membership and ecclesial identity. See Chapter 3.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Live Streaming of the Judicial Council

If you would like to keep updated about the events happening at the Judicial Council meeting this week, you can watch live streaming videos sponsored by Affirmation, here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Prayers for the Judicial Council

This week the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church gathers in San Francisco to hear and rule on cases brought before them. Comprised of nine members elected by the General Conference, the Judicial Council is the highest judicial authority or "court" within the denomination. As such, it is this body that determines the constitutionality of acts or proposed acts of the General, Jurisdictional, Central, and Annual Conferences.

In the recent past, the rulings of the Judicial Council have been hotly contested...most notably its controversial 2005 decisions on the issue of membership (Decisions 1031 and 1032) that upheld the decision of a local elder to deny membership to a "self-avowed, practicing homosexual." Given that there is no legal basis for this decision in the current Book of Discipline, this issue has become the focal point of much legislation for the 2008 General Conference as both more liberal and more conservative factions within the Church attempt to shore up their position with concrete pieces of legislation that define the limits and boundaries of ecclesial membership.

This week's rulings are guaranteed to be no less controversial as the Council takes up cases related to the issues of inclusivity and sexuality. On the docket for this week are cases that consider the eligibility of transgender persons for ordained ministry, the use of funds for campus ministries that welcome and include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, the openness of the church to persons of all sexual orientations, and domestic partnership benefits for annual conference employees.

These are serious decisions that will in many ways define not just the limits of who is in and who is out of the Church, but perhaps more importantly, the limits of our denomination's ability to fully embody the Body of Christ. The question at the heart of all of these issues, is not whether or not one sexual orientation or gender identity is "sin," but rather whether or not excluding persons from Christ's community is sinful. Can we continue to proclaim to be the Church when we dis-member Christ's body?

If the ideologically driven decisions of the recent past are any indication of how the Council might rule on these controversial cases, we may be in for more draconian prohibitions and restrictions on ministry within the denomination. At stake this week is the ordination of transgender pastors, funding for campus ministries that welcome LGBT persons, just benefits for church employees, and our tradition of open membership. The Judicial Council and the Church needs your prayers. Will you pray with us?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Our Holy Calling

“THE GUNFIRE AROUND us makes it hard to hear. But the human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else. Even when it's not shouting. Even when it's just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard - -over armies... when it's telling the truth.”

This quote from the 2005 movie, The Interpreter, is the inscription to a book written by the fictional African dictator, Edmond Zuwanie, at the rise of his political career as a liberationist fighting for freedom in Africa. Now nearly 25 years later in the aftermath of decades of corruption, genocide and tyranny at the hands of this same man, Silvia Broome, a revolutionary turned UN interpreter from Zuwanie’s fictional country of Matobo, re-reads these words, words she once treasured. The human voice is different…

The movie follows Silvia as she uncovers an assassination plot to murder Zuwanie during his upcoming testimony to the United Nations regarding the indictment against him for crimes against humanity. Despite the fact Zuwanie long ago abandoned his ideals of liberation for power, turning the guns he once carried against the colonial exploiters toward his own people, despite the fact that he is responsible for the deaths of Silvia’s parents, brother and lover, despite the fact that she herself was once part of a rebel army seeking to destroy him, Silvia believes that violence and death are never the solution, not even when turned against the world’s most notorious dictator. And so she reports the plot, trying desperately to stop yet another act of violence in a world already so broken.

In the course of the film, Silvia is interrogated by the agent sent to protect her. Why in the world is she so committed to protecting the person she once sought to kill? It makes no sense to this American consumed with his private thoughts of vengeance and retribution. Why would someone risk their own life to protect that of genocidal tyrant?

This is Silvia’s reply: “I walked away from Africa with nothing. No brother, no family, no lover, nothing. Just a belief that words and compassion are the better way. Even if it's slower than a gun.”

Silvia put down her gun years ago to work at the United Nations where she believed truth, reconciliation and peace were possible. Words and compassion are the better way, even if they are slower than a gun. As the movie progresses Silvia must choose between her way of words and compassion and the world’s way of violence, retribution and death, struggling to hold fast to her belief that one human voice can make a difference in a world of suffering.

I think it is hard for many of us to hold fast to that belief. Isn’t it? While the movie revolves around a fictional country and dictator, it is not hard to see the transparent parallels between the strife ridden Matobo and the current crisis in Zimbabwe. The name, Matobo comes from the Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe and the symbol on a fictional anti-Zuwanie demonstrator’s poster is the same open-handed symbol of the main opposition party in Zimbabwe, The Movement for Democratic Change. Moreover, the similarities between the fictional Zuwanie and the Zimbawean Robert Mugabe, are unmistakable. Like Zuwanie, Mugabe was once a respected freedom fighter, a teacher turned revolutionary turned brutal dictator. Both face charges of crimes against humanity by international leaders and both have engineered their own assassination plots to maintain power and control. In fact, the similarities between fictional Matobo and Zimbabwe were so overt, that the President’s Office in Zimbabwe banned the film from showing in Zimbabwe.

We don’t have to stretch our imaginations very far to envision a country like Matobo, where people are terrorized by their own government, oppressed under the threat of death, disappeared into mass graves. We see the oppressive hand of violence everyday in our headlines…not just in Zimbabwe, but now in so many other places around the world. Ethnic cleansing in Darfur, persecution of monks in Myanmar, continued conflict in Israel and Palestine, daily bombings in Iraq.

Confronted with the reality of what is happening around the world and in our own country we can find ourselves overwhelmed by the immensity of suffering, paralyzed by a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness in the midst of so much pain. What can we possibly do about global conflicts for power and control? Who are we to change the world?

We are certainly not the first generation to experience such disillusionment. The letter from which we read this evening is addressed to a later Pauline community in the midst of a failing faith. It seems people in this community have been falling away from their faith in the face of mounting ridicule, marginalization and persecution. Scholars mostly agree that this letter was written in the name of Paul after his death. While it is unclear the extent to which the claims made in the letter are historically accurate, the author suggests that the whole of Asia has been lost as people have abandoned the gospel in disbelief of its good news in the face of so much struggle. They have become ashamed of a gospel that proclaims triumph in the face of defeat, life in the face of death, hope in the face of despair. How can these claims possibly be true when all else in the world testifies to the contrary?

The author urges the readers to a renewed faith beyond the present trials, encouraging them to let go of fear and embrace the spirit of power and love with which they were created.

“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our God or of me a prisoner of the Divine, but join with me in struggling for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9who saved us and called us with a holy calling… I am not ashamed, for I know the One in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure God is able to guard until that day.”
These words express a fundamental hope in God. God will save them despite all evidence to the contrary. Surely the people then, and we now, must ask how this could be said when Paul most likely died a terrible death in Rome? It doesn’t make sense.

How do we continue in a faith tradition that proclaims peace is more powerful than violence in a world of war? How do we confess a belief that justice will triumph will it seems oppression and injustice win the day? How do we hold fast to a faith that proclaims love is stronger than hate, reconciliation far better than vengeance, forgiveness superior to resentment in the midst of a world bent on prejudice and retribution? How do we confess a faith that proclaims life is stronger than death in the midst of a suffering and broken world? How do we hold to the faith that words and compassion are the better way, even if it slower than a gun?

The author of this letter to the community of Timothy would answer that even in and through such struggles there is a keeping which gives a deep sense of peace and enables us to go on, for the Holy Spirit has gifted us with a holy calling through the grace of God.

“Rely on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
We have been given a holy calling contrary to the ways of the world, a vocation of peace and justice, love and compassion, through the gift of God’s grace breathed into us at our birth and nurtured through our lives as we seek God’s kin-dom vision in this broken world.

The disciples, like this early Pauline community, were equally skeptical about their ability to do the gospel calling. This week in Luke we read their response to Jesus’ instructions to forgive sinners and love their enemies. In the face of seemingly impossible tasks, the disciples beg Jesus for an extra measure of faith, a stronger will, a more complete resolve to equip them for the daunting tasks set before them.

“Increase our faith!” they cry. Surely we cannot do all of this on our own, at least not as we are. Increase our faith! For God knows, we need help!

Increase our faith, sweet Jesus!

In response to such a plea, Jesus’ answer might seem callous and unsympathetic at first. There is no miraculous pouring out of the holy spirit, no dove descending, no thunderous voice of the divine, no magic hocus pocus to give the disciples the super-human strength they need to accomplish God’s vision of forgiveness, non-violence and love. Jesus denies their request.

Instead, it seems Jesus scolds them saying,

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Ouch. Yet, far from a stinging slap in the face, Jesus’ reply is a simple assertion of the truth. The disciples already have all that they need to do what God has called them to do. Just like Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz, who discovers she has had the power she needed all along, so also Jesus tries to tell the disciples what they need is not superhuman strength or will or resolve, but simple faith in their ability to create change one person at a time. Each time they choose peace over violence, love over hate, forgiveness over resentment, life over death, they make real God’s kin-dom one choice at a time. Little by little God’s love is made real in the world through individual acts of justice, kindness and mercy.

We no longer think only of an old woman’s charity, a prisoner’s hope, a farmer’s conviction, or a government worker’s dream. No, now we remember Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as global heroes whose actions made real God’s vision of peace and justice in the world.

While systemic change is necessary, it always begins with small acts of courage and kindness in a hope that the individual choices we make in our lives ultimately make a difference. When we choose non-violence, compassion and love, we contribute to God’s vision of peace and justice by incarnating it in the world around us, just like Jesus did.

We already have the power and strength we need to begin to create change in the world. Just as Margaret Mead has said,

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
It is through our humanity, having been created in the image of the divine, that we find our innate grace, a spirit of power and love that enables us to make real God’s kin-dom in the world. We have been given a holy calling, one that we fulfill one choice, one action, one day at a time.

“But the human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else. Even when it's not shouting. Even when it's just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard - -over armies... when it's telling the truth.”


Thursday, October 04, 2007

A Spirit of Power and Love: Rev. Kathleen Weber Comes Out

The Rev. Kathleen Weber told members of her congregation at Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church in Seattle this week that she is lesbian. During a sermon by senior minister, Rev. David Nieda, Weber told members she has always known this about herself. No longer willing to be closeted by our denomination's discriminatory policies toward gay and lesbian persons, she courageously chose to come out in a spirit of power and love (1 Timothy 6:6).

Supported by both her congregation and District Superintendent, Weber will remain as pastor at Blaine Memorial. Yet, we can be assured her story is not yet over.

Some in our Church will no doubt interpret her coming out as an affront to the denomination and a break in the clergy covenant. News releases, articles and blogs will rant and rage about the flagrant abuse of church doctrine and law. Calls will be made for charges, a trial and a defrocking. Weber's testimony will be submitted as evidence at the coming General Conference of the irreparable fissure in our denomination and plans for schism will once again surface.

Yet, all this raucous will be nothing more than futile scapegoating. Weber is not the reason for our dis-unity in the United Methodist Church, no more than any other faithful gay, lesbian, bi-sexual transgender person or straight ally. It is not our queer sisters and brothers who have broken covenant, but the Church itself.

The United Methodist Church ceased being the Church when it began to systematically exclude members of Christ's Body on the basis of their sexuality alone. It is the Church and not Weber who has broken covenant by failing to fulfill the promise made at baptism to love and nurture those blessed by God's grace and initiated into the community of faith. Rev. Weber, like so many other beloved lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, has already been grafted into Christ's Body. How can the Church separate them from what has already been made real through the power of God's grace?

“The exclusion of homosexual persons from the life, leadership, and rites of the Church threatens the very nature of the Church itself. It not only causes irreparable harm to the children of God but also to the Body of Christ itself. Each time a person is rejected or ejected from the “koinonia” fellowship of United Methodism, a new wound is inflicted and the Body of Christ is broken once again.”

Rev. Dr. Don Messer in an address to the United Methodist Council of Bishops, May, 2002

Monday, October 01, 2007

Mission Fund 2007 Kick-Off

Last night CWM celebrated its fifth anniversary in style. With over 150 people gathered for worship and praise, we celebrated five years of ministry and honored the saints among us.

Rev. Dr. Oliveto's sermon inspired us to no longer be content with the toxic crypts of the closet in which the world and church try to entomb us. Rather, recalling the story of how Jesus called out and unbound the man he loved (John 11:32ff), she urged us to unbind the death trappings that keep us locked in the tombs of racism, poverty, violence, addiction, heterosexism, and homophobia. (Check the blog later for the full text)

One of the ways we can begin to open the closet tombs of our lives is by participating in communities of faith and struggle, like Cambridge Welcoming Ministries. We understand ourselves as much more than a local congregation. We are a mission to both the church and world and hope that others will join us even from afar.

Last evening marked the kick-off for a brand new Mission Fund Campaign for Cambridge Welcoming Ministries designed to secure and grow our ministries over the next five years. This five year, $250,000 campaign seeks to expand the work we do in our community, annual conference and Church by focusing on four goals to:

Nurture New Reconciling Communities: Gathering monthly for spiritual renewal in the context of radically inclusive worship and bible study, these groups would form a supportive network for the work of promoting full inclusion.

Host Conferences on Pastoral Care With LGBT Persons: Clergy and congregations alike need opportunities for learning more about the particular needs of LGBT persons. Through an annual conference, CWM will help educate the Church on the needs of the LGBT community.

Develop Progressive and Inclusive Worship Resources: CWM’s weekly worship services offer creative ways to worship from a progressive theological perspective. We hope to create an accessible resource of our liturgy, adapted hymns and special services for use in other congregations.

Expand Pastoral Leadership: The current quarter-time appointment is no longer sufficient for the needs of our community. We will increase our appointment to half-time, providing for adequate pastoral leadership and guaranteeing an appointment from the annual conference.

In just one night we raised nearly $50,000 toward our goal!!

If you would like to pledge to our campaign you can do so on our church website,

You can pledge a one time gift or sign up for recurring gifts over the five year duration of the campaign. Just imagine, a gift of only $5 a week, (simply the cost of some of our favorite coffee creations!) would over five years add up to $1300 of mission funds to help us proclaim the Good News of God's Love with all persons. Remember to register for a PayPal account so that your full donation goes to CWM. WIthout a PayPal account 3% of your donation goes to processing charges.

Won't you join us in our dream of a fully inclusive church?

For a copy of of campaign case statement, please email me at