Thursday, May 31, 2012

Women Should Be Silent In Church, Part 2

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  Although technically the text was Acts 2:1-21, it was really on 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36:

This morning we conclude our look at Paul’s reported injunction from 1 Corinthians which says “women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate.”  Last week we spent a long time looking at whether this passage was original to Paul, or whether it was added into the text later.  The argument against it being original is based first on the fact that the passage is not always found in the same place in our manuscripts.  Second, if this passage is removed from its location, as if it didn’t originally belong there, it doesn’t make the surrounding text harder to read but in fact makes it easier to read, and finally this passage contradicts things that Paul has already said in 1 Corinthians about women praying and prophesying in church, two roles which would require them to speak.  It also contradicts statements that Paul has in many other places which indicate that women were clearly leaders and involved in the communities founded by Paul.  I also discussed the possibility which is that rather than making this statement himself, that Paul is instead quoting something that was being said by others, which he then rebukes.  Now we spent a long time looking at these issues, and I apologize for dumping so much on you, of being “very technical” which is what Linda told me, and I promise I will not make it a regular practice, but I thought it was very important to look in detail at this text since it has very real application and import for more than half of the people sitting here this morning.

I believe that all too often we try and simplify scripture.  I’m sure you’ve heard the statement, “the Bible says it, I believe it that settles it.”  The problem is that it doesn’t really settle anything, because rarely does the Bible say something.  A much more appropriate statement would be to say scripture says, or even better, the Isaiah says, or Paul says, or the Book of Leviticus says, because the Bible is not one cohesive whole, instead it is a series of books that are in dialogue with each other, and sometimes not in support of each other.  As we saw earlier the Book of Ruth is in dialogue with the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in fact they stand in stark contrast to each other.  In addition, as we touched on last week, the lens through which we read scripture has enormous impacts on how we interpret scripture.

So, returning to where we ended last week, for the sake of argument, let’s say that this statement is Paul’s own statement, that he truly said that women should be quiet in church, and not just in one particular instance, which is what some people want to claim that this only applied to whatever was going on in Corinth that prompted this letter.  But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this is a universal statement that says that women should be silent in all churches, at all times.  The question we must ask is how we should read and interpret that statement in light of other scripture with which it might be in dialogue?  And we must also ask how we interpret it based on our understanding of Christ’s mission, as well as if our understanding of the world, and in particular how we view the genders, changes our understanding, like what we have done with slavery, for example?

My argument, and hopefully you are beginning to see the pieces fall together from the stories of the women in the Bible that we have already encountered, is that we can absolutely read this in a radically different light and interpret it differently.  As Methodists we are called to read scripture through what is known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral.  Although Wesley did not specifically articulate the quadrilateral the way we understand it, he did propound the pieces, which are scripture, tradition, experience and reason.  I actually don’t like the term quadrilateral because that would imply that all four parts are equal.  Instead I prefer to think of it as a three-legged stool and scripture is the seat.  Scripture is primary, but tradition, experience and reason all help support our understanding of scripture, and the other parts are all necessary.  Wesley would in fact claim that those who would attempt to approach scripture by itself, as if that could actually be done, are “rank amateurs.”  Scripture is the primary source of Christian authority, but it is not the only source, and we must interact with it in meaningful and important ways using tradition, experience and reason.

It is clear, as we saw from when we looked at Mary Magdalene, that Jesus’ had female followers.  There were women who not only supported him and the disciples financially, but who also followed them around, including to Jerusalem for the final week.  After all the male disciples had fled, it was women who were at the cross.  It was the women who went to the tomb, saw it was empty and who were sent by Jesus to proclaim that he was raised from the dead.  And we have today’s story of Pentecost, which we recognize as the birth of the church, with the gift of the Holy Spirit that comes upon the disciples like tongues of fire.  When the people accuse the disciples of being drunk, even though it was only 9 in the morning, and Peter answers, quoting from the prophet Joel, saying that God will pour out the Spirit on “both men and women.”  And as we know, and as this story tells us, when you are filled with the Holy Spirit that you cannot contain or control it, you have to tell others, and thus cannot be quiet no matter what people say.

We also know that there were women involved in other ways in the early church.  Paul has interactions with several women who not only sponsor him, but who also host churches in their homes.  Probably the most interesting list of these women come to us from the last chapter of Romans, which if you have your Bibles with you, I would encourage you to turn to chapter 16.  Paul greets a list of people in the closing, some he knows and some he doesn’t.  Of the ten who are only indirectly known to Paul, 2 are women and 8 are men.  But of the people Paul knows, 9 are men and 8 are women; of the people with whom Paul routinely works almost half are women.  As we covered last week, there is Phoebe, who is delivering his letter to the Romans, who is called a deacon, which is clearly a leadership position in the church although it is not clear this early exactly what they do.  There are Prisca and Aquila, presumably a married couple, who he says “risked their necks for my life.”  What is interesting here is that Prisca, the woman is listed first, and if you remember back to the message about Mary Magdalene and also Zelophehad’s daughters, you might remember that the person listed first indicates a position of prominence.  Finally there is Andronicus and Junia, again possibly another married couple, who Paul says are “prominent among the apostles.”  Junia, a woman, is prominent amongst the apostles.

In addition to Paul’s letters, we also have other sources which tell us about the role of women in early Christian church.  In correspondence from around 120 between the emperor Trajan and Pliny, who was governor of one of the territories, Pliny reports that he has arrested and interrogated the leaders of one of the local Christian communities and they are women, slave women.  As the church began to grow in numbers and prominence, the fact that there were women in positions of leadership, let alone slave women, would not have been seen as a positive by many people outside the church and inside as well, and I believe that one of the reasons why statements limiting the authority and role of women in the church were made.  Nearly every movement as it gains in popularity wants to begin to conform to the culture in which it resides in order to become more acceptable to outsiders, especially those which begin and grow on the fringes of a group, as Christianity did.  And so those things which do not conform to the wider society begin to be controlled and tamed, and I think that is what we see happening with women in the early church, because the same thing happened within Methodism.

In the early Methodist movement, there were some women, in particular Mary Bosenquet, who came to John Wesley, and said that they believed they had been called to preach.  Being a man of his age, Wesley didn’t really know what to do with them as he supported Paul’s injunction, but then received a letter from his mother.  Susanna Wesley was incredibly influential in his life, as were his five older sisters.  Susanna, who was very educated for her day and also advocated the education of women, told John that the women should be known by their fruits.  If they could bring people to Christ then it would prove that God had called them, and if they didn’t then they should be removed, just like his male preachers. This caused John to change his mind and to write, “I do not believe every woman is called to speak publicly, nor more than every man to be a Methodist preacher, yet some have an extraordinary call to it, and woe be to them if they obey it not.”

But as the movement grew and spread, and as it sought more respectability, women began to be excluded until they were once again forbidden from preaching.  The first woman to be ordained in the Methodist church in America was Anna Howard Shaw, a graduate of Boston University’s school of theology who was ordained in 1880 by the Methodist Protestant Church, but the other annual conferences and other denominations refused to recognize her ordination, and many local churches also refused to receive her as a minister.  But, with pioneers like Dr. Shaw, women did not receive full ordination rights until 1956, and even still women clergy face an uphill battle.

I have been blessed to have had several women clergy be very influential in my life, but I have also seen how they are treated by some.  I routinely hear derogatory comments about women clergy by some of my male colleagues and others, and I know that appointments for women in this area are very difficult.  You have yet to have a woman appointed here and I really wonder how they would do and how they would be received, not because I believe you would not be incredibly gracious and welcoming, just as you were with me, but because this area is so impacted by denominations which are not welcoming to women in leadership positions.

So, to come to a sort of conclusion on this question, I believe that the key thing we have to deal with in looking at this question is whether we have to continue to see things the same way that they were seen in the 1st century, and we don’t.  Just like with Zelophehad’s daughters, laws change with new realities, and regardless of where you stand on this issue the simple truth is that we see the genders very differently now than they were seen at the time that any of the scriptures were written.  The ancients did not see men and women as equal parts of one hole, of just two different manifestations of humans.  It was not like two sides of a quarter, where they are both parts of the quarter, but instead men and women were like a quarter and a nickel, they might both be coins but are obviously not one and the same thing, and you’d rather be a quarter than a nickel.

Plato believed that only men were given souls and Aristotle said that “women are defective by nature,” they were not exceptional enough to actually become men as they developed in their mother’s womb.  There was a prayer said in synagogues in which men would thank God for not making them women, and in the Gospel of Thomas, which is a non-canonical text, in the last saying, which is about Mary Magdalene, Jesus says “Look, I will guide to make her male…. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I don’t think this is an authentic statement of Jesus, but it definitely serves to illustrate how men and women were viewed within the ancient world.  It wasn’t that men and women were different parts of the same whole, but instead that women were something entirely different from men that really only men could be considered human.  So it is that understanding of women with which statements like this from 1 Corinthians and from 1 Timothy would have been understood.

The simple fact is we fundamentally have a different understanding of men and women than they did in the ancient world.  I have known several misogynists in my life, and while they would clearly argue that women are the weaker sex, and that they can’t do some things men can do, not one of them would say that they are not equally human.  Now, I am not arguing here that men women are the same, because there are differences.  When a woman talks about highlights, she is usually not talking about something she just saw on ESPN, and when men say they are going to hang a rack up in the house, it usually has nothing to do with spices.  We are different, but that does not mean that we are not also equal.  Just as our understanding of slavery changed, which changed how we viewed scripture, our understanding of gender has also changes and our reading of scripture must change to recognize that reality.  Things change, realities change, and when that happens the laws, even God given laws, also change.

We saw that God said that what the daughters of Zelophehad had said was right that they as women were entitled to inherit the land, and so the law was changed, and then was changed again by Moses.  Moabites and their descendents to the 10th generation were forbidden by law to enter the tent of the meeting, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, but King David, whose grandmother Ruth was a Moabite entered into the tent.  Jesus told the Canaanite woman that she was a dog and what he offered was not for her, but she told him that even the dogs eat the food from the master’s table, and a new reality that Jesus’ mission was for Jews and Gentiles, which was integral to Paul’s mission, came into existence, and even though the testimony of women was not to be trusted, it was the testimony of Mary Magdalene which announced that Jesus was risen and she became the apostle to the apostles.  Paul radically changed the Christian understanding of the law, and I think that understanding continues to change and as we have seen time and time again, God participates with us in that change.

Very recently Jimmy Carter left the small Southern Baptist church where he has been attending since he was an infant, and where he has been teaching Sunday school for most of his adult life.  He left because he could no longer reconcile the denomination’s position on women with that of his own or the new realities of the world, of what his experience and reasons showed him to be true.  “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women,” Carter said.  “They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the later.  Their continuing choices provide the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.”

In my opinion I don’t think that Paul actually wrote the passage that we encounter in 1 Corinthians.  But even if it is original, even if Paul did say that women should be quiet in church, I do not think it is an injunction which applies to us today simply because we live in a very different world.  We now view men and women through very different eyes then did those of the 1st century, and we can see that God calls women various vocations, including entering into the ministry and being leaders in Christ’s church, not our church, but Christ’s church, and Christ welcomed women into his ministry just as much as he did men.  But the women do this not by becoming men, but by being who they are as women.

And so as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is poured out by God on both men and women, we remember Mary Magdalene and her proclamation that the tomb was empty, we remember the Canaanite woman who expanded Jesus’ ministry, we remember Ruth, the foreign woman who began the family line which leads to king David and then to Jesus, and we remember Zelophehad’s daughters who had the temerity and the tenacity to not only challenge a law given by God, but even won, and we celebrate the witness of the women we find in scripture and the women who have made such a difference in all of our lives, especially those who have spoken even when told that they were not allowed to speak.

I believe that we are called to see God’s word as a living document, something that is still meaningful and relevant to our lives, something that can be lived out and applied today, but that also means that we have to allow for and be open to new interpretations and new realities.  As Methodists we understand this to be played out in our lives by using experience, tradition and reason as we engage with scripture, and when we do that, then I believe we come to a new understanding of the role of women in the church and we will stop blocking God from being able to call all of his children into the ministry and leadership in the church and in the world.  May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

Friday, May 25, 2012

NY Times Scoops Times-Picayune On Their Own Story

The New Orleans Times-Picayune will be making large staff cuts and then limiting their printings to Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.  All other news material will be on their website.  This will leave New Orleans as the largest city without a daily paper.

But what is truly amazing about this story is that it was not reported first in the Times-Picayune, but instead in the New York Times.  The Times got the scoop on a story about another newspaper, and so employees of the Picayune found out through sources other than their own paper.  That's pretty bad.

Now people have been discussing the demise of newspapers for quite a while, and I do have to say I have some concerns of who will be funding the investigative journalism that is done by the papers.  But what I also wonder is why newspapers have not tried some format changes.  I can't stand the fact that I begin a story on a-1 and then I have to go to a-9 and sometimes even then to other sections, and then I have to flip back to page a-1 again for another story and then to a-3, or c-3, to complete it.  One of the reasons that I stopped reading papers was because of this very thing, and reading it online was simply much easier because I can see a headline, click on it and read the whole article all in one place.  Much more convenient.

I'm not really sure at this point that even a format change will make a difference, but wonder why no one even tried to do something different by talking to the demographic group they needed to attract in order to survive.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gendered in the Sixth Grade

Yesterday I went to see my daughter "graduate" from kindergarten, which is actually a rather ridiculous thing, but that's another post.  Anyways, the 6th graders were also graduating from elementary school in order to cross over to the other side of the building to enter middle-school.  The teacher did sort of a short bio on who each child was by giving a series of adjectives to describe them, and then sort of flushed them out.  But, what was glaringly obvious to me, although maybe not to others, was how gendered her descriptions were.

She described all of the boys (there were 9 of them) as smart, but only three of the seven girls were described as smart.  I think all of the boys were described as athletic, although none of the girls were.  She talked about what careers some of the children should pursue, including becoming a doctor, but this was done only for the boys.  Not one of the girls had a possible career described.  I will say that fortunately she did not use "cute" or "pretty" or such adjectives to describe the girls, although one was called "small" but she truly was.  The boys descriptions on average also tended to be longer than those for the girls.

Later during the service they wanted to point out how much the boys didn't like losing in sports and how well they were doing as a team, and then had them, again just the boys, stand up so we could applaud them, although three of the boys did not stand.  I guess they get excluded from wanting to win.

Now I know that I am living in a more conservative area of the state, but this was still a little shocking to me.  As I discussed it with my mother-in-law who came in for the ceremony, and who was also a teacher, she said she noticed it too, although not as much as I did, and then wondered if it upset me.

I said it did not only because you would hope that we were somewhat moving past this and the tremendous impact that this reinforces in the girls that boys are better and have more opportunities in life.  But it also upsets me because I am the father of two daughters and I don't want them to be subject to this very subtle feedback about who they are and what they can be.  Children pay attention to this stuff and they pick up on the subtlest of cues especially from those in positions of authority.

I am still trying to figure out the most appropriate way to address this.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Women Be Quiet"

Here is my sermon from Sunday .  The text was 1 Corinthians 14:33-36:

Today is one of those days in which saying after the scripture reading is done, “this is the word of God,” leaves me and others a little bit queasy, for others it leaves them feeling a little justified and they want to yell out “see I told you so, it’s right there in scripture.”  And still others want to yell out even while I’m doing the reading to tell me to stop.  This is one of the passages we find in the Bible with which many in the church don’t want to have to deal or even admit is there.  So, for example, this passage is not included in the lectionary, which are the recommended readings for each Sunday of the year.  But we don’t have to go very far in order to to find churches that still use this, and other passages, especially from 1 Timothy, which we will get to in a bit, to justify denying women not only ordination but even leadership positions in the church, and so I think that in the mainline churches ignore these passages at our own peril.
Today’s sermon is going to be a little different than what I normally try to do which is to try and make the scripture applicable, so that we might learn something from it and live that out in our lives.  I know that I do not always accomplish that goal, but that is what I at least try to do most of the time.  I’m not going to do that today, because I am going to try and unpack this passage, to provide some background and some perspective on this passage.  
Originally today was to be the conclusion of our sermon series on women in the Bible as we concluded with this passage.  But when I sat down to write the sermon I ended up with 15 pages, and that was without even talking about all the things I could address.  A normal sermon is usually around 8 pages, so rather than trying to edit out a huge chunk I decided to spread this issue over two weeks, although at the end of today’s message some of you may want to say you know exactly which parts I could have taken out.  I’ve never done this before so we’ll see how it works.  So if you want to hear some good illustrations, be uplifted and look at how to apply the scripture to your life, please come back next week.
Now maybe since today we are giving our third graders their bibles and honoring our graduating seniors I should instead be giving some uplifting message, but I think today is important because of those events since it will give them, and us, the beginning to understand that there are some things in scripture with which we are going to disagree and to also understand that some things have changed over time, and to recognize the lens through which we read scripture has as much to do with our understanding of scripture as the words on the page do.  So, for example, if we were to read the passages found in scripture that relate to slavery and we did so two hundred years ago, we would read them very differently than we do today. Our understanding and interpretation of those passages, and the lens through which we read them, has changed radically in the last few centuries.
Now I think Paul is one of the great misunderstood people in the history of the church, and a lot of that has to do with how Paul’s words have been used throughout the history of the church to hurt and suppress people.  In The Good Book, by the Rev. Peter Gomes, which was hugely influential in my accepting the call to the ministry, Gomes quotes another black theologian who said “Paul never met a status quo he didn’t like.” (p. 89)  Adam Hamilton, who is the minister of the largest Methodist church in the country, recounted a time when he was stopped by a teen girl one day while he was walking down the hall and she asked him what he was going to be preaching on that Sunday, and he said he was doing something on Paul, and she replied, “uh.”  When he asked her what that was for, she said, “I don’t want to hear about Paul, he’s a misogynist.” 
These are both statements with which I would have originally agreed, but the more I read Paul and the more I come to understand Paul the more I see that he was not someone who normally supported the status quo, not to say that he was not a man of his own time, because he was, but that in many, many ways he was a true radical.  But his texts have been used to support the status quo, or maybe better put, as Peter Gomes says “scripture is invariably used to support the status quo, no matter what the status quo, despite the revolutionary origins and implications of scripture itself.” (p. 47)  and that is certainly true for Paul.  We don’t have the time to go into who Paul was, but in two weeks, after we celebrate Pentecost next week, we will begin a series looking at who Paul is.  Some have claimed, and I think rightly so, that besides for Jesus that Paul is the most important person for the formation of Christianity, just in scripture this is true as 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament claim to be written by Paul, and others are about him or reference him, so in two weeks we’ll try and understand Paul and some of his writings.
Now there are some scholars who believe that this passage was not actually written by Paul, but was instead added by a scribe later.  This is called an interpolation, which simply means that a later text was added to an earlier text.  If you were looking at the bulletin insert from this morning, you may have noticed that the passage we read was in parenthesis, which indicates that the translators of the New Revised Standard Version do not believe it is authentic, but they also don’t want to remove it and so they try and give some indication that marks it as different.  Now you may be asking how do translators decide if something is authentic or not?  Well I’m glad you asked.
There are numerous things they take into consideration, but the first and most important thing is whether the passage is always found in the different manuscripts we have that are used for translations and always found in the same place.  Now it should be noted that for most of scripture there is little debate about whether it is authentic or not, although sometimes there are differences in words used, and good translations will make note of this, but there are some passages that are found in different locations within a text, and there are even some that are found in different books and not in the book we know the passage from.  If there is question of whether the passage is an interpolation, the second thing scholars look for is whether the texts before and after are impacted by the passage, that is would they be easier or harder to understand if the passage was removed.  And the final thing is to look at whether the passage matches the rest of the document, or other writings by the same person, or if it stands in stark contrast.  By those standards, today’s passage fails on all three accounts.
The first problem is that the passage is found in some manuscripts where we find it now when reading 1 Corinthians, but in other manuscripts it is found after verse 40.  When translators find this occurring they have to try and figure out not only why this is occurring, with one of the immediate questions being whether it is original to the text, but also to try and figure out where the passage might originally have occurred.  In this particular instance, the majority of scholars believe that these sentences probably came in as a margin notation made by a scribe at some point and it was then added into the text by other scribes.  
Now just because it was a margin notation does not mean that it is not authentic, because often margin notations are made because when a scribe was copying a document they made a mistake and skipped some lines and so they get added back in on the margin.  But, as I said, the majority of scholars who don’t that is what happened here.  Instead they believe that a scribe made a margin notation based on a summary of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, the main portion of which says “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (11-12).
Even though 1 Timothy claims to be written by Paul, and therefore might give substantial support to today’s passage being authentic, there is almost universal agreement among scholars, both conservative and liberal, that 1 Timothy was not in fact written by Paul.  When I say near universal agreement, best guess is that more than 90% of scholars who study these texts for a living believe this was not written by Paul, and again in a few weeks when we look at Paul we will look specifically at how and why letters might be attributed to Paul that were not in fact written by him.   So what some scholars speculate is that as a scribe was copying this letter and saw that Paul was writing about order in the church, they thought that clearly women speaking brings disorder to worship, and so made this margin notation referencing the 1 Timothy passage and then it got added into the text when later scribes copied it, but since it was just in the margin they weren’t sure where the passage was supposed to go and so it’s been added in at two different places.
The second point that translators look at is whether the passages before it and after it would make more sense if the passage was not there.  I have included some verses before the passage and after it in the insert so you can see this, or if you have your Bible with you today I invite you to turn to the passage so you can see it there.  Paul is talking about prophecy, and he says “you can all prophesy” with no distinction made about gender as long as they follow the rules for order in worship.  This understanding that it is both men and women matches exactly to an earlier passage in chapter 11 in which Paul specifically addresses women prophesying and praying in church, with which he has no problem, as long as they have their heads covered.  This is actually one of Paul’s radical claims, since only married women of the right order had the right to cover their heads, but Paul gives this right to all the women in the church, which is an equalizing move among the women, as well as how they would be viewed by men in the congregation.
Then this passage comes in, which tells women to be quiet, then immediately Paul goes back to talking about those who claim to be a prophet and that they need to follow his commands.  If you are looking at the insert or in your Bible you will see that if you remove this section, which is in parenthesis, not only does it not make the passage more difficult to understand, but that it in fact makes it easier.  It makes more sense without it there then it does with it there, which again makes some scholars believe it is not original to the text, or perhaps it has been moved, which might say that it should come after verse 40 as a new thought.
There is one other possibility that could be used to argue that the passage is in fact authentic to Paul.  One of the biggest problems in looking at the ancient Greek manuscripts in order to do a translation of the New Testament is the fact that no punctuation is used, not even periods, as well as the fact that the words tend to run together, and so translators have to decide what punctuation should be used.  For centuries, people have believed that in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote that “all things are lawful” and later in the letter that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.”  
But, most scholars now believe that Paul didn’t actually say this, instead he is quoting something that was written to him or relayed to him that members of the Corinthian church were saying.  So these are not Paul’s words, but instead he is quoting what they are saying in order to reply to them, usually to refute them.  Most translations now show these two phrases, along with some others, in quotations.  The Corinthian community would, of course, have understood this because they were part of the conversation, which is what we to remember is that these letters represent a dialogue, often an ongoing dialogue, of which we have only one side.
So some have proposed that the same thing should be done for today’s passage, that Paul is not saying that women should be quiet, but instead is quoting this as something being said in the Corinthian community to which he is responding, not in affirmation but instead in rebuke.  So, what some scholars propose is that verses 34 and 35 should be in quotes, and then verse 36 is Paul’s response. If we want these words to be authentic to Paul this might be a reasonable conclusion to make for several reasons.  
The first is that we know that things like this were certainly said in synagogues, and therefore can assume that they were also said in some churches.  The Talmud, which is a collection of rabbinic teachings says it is “a shame for a woman to let her voice be heard among men.”  And Rabbi Eliezer, who was a contemporary of Paul, is recorded as saying, “Let the words of the law be burned, rather than that they should be delivered by women.”  
If today’s passage is a statement that Paul is quoting, rather than saying himself, it would also clear up one of the more troubling aspects of the passage in which it is claimed that the “law” says these things, but the problem is that nowhere from Genesis to Malachi is there any law which forbids women from speaking in church.  There are certainly rules and laws which put women in a subordinate position, but nothing about their speaking in church.  The other problem is that whenever Paul does reference the law he always specifically stipulates what law he is talking about, which is not done here.  
If this is a quotation, then the rebuke which follows in verse 36 also begins to make more sense.  Traditionally this has been seen as a rebuke against the women who are now being told to be quiet, although that is difficult interpretation to see based on what is actually said.  What makes more sense is that the rebuke is not to the women, but instead to the men who are making such a claim.  When the passage is read in that light, it actually begins to make more sense.  But it still doesn’t make much sense with what comes before or after since it seems like an interruption of what Paul had been talking about.
The final problem in seeing this as authentic to Paul is to understand it in relation to many other statements that he has made about women, not only in 1 Corinthians, but in his other letters as well.  The one passage that people who want to object to this passage want to hold up is his statement in Galatians chapter 3 verse 28, where Paul says that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” for we are all one in Christ Jesus.  That’s a great passage, but the problem is that there is not a sort of hierarchy of passages so that one has preeminence and all others get judged against it.  Doing that with the Galatians passage is no different than those who do the same thing with passage from 1 Timothy.  
This is one of the great dangers when we don’t read scripture with integrity.  Instead, each passage must be taken into context with the entirety of Paul’s writings, and in particular with what he has already said in 1 Corinthians, which includes instructions for women on how to pray and prophesy in church, as well as how prophets, all prophets not just male or female, are to deal with their revelations while in worship.  These statements would all seem to indicate that Paul does not in fact have any problem with women speaking in church, as long as they follow the rules and are orderly, the same as the men in the congregation, which would seem to indicate that this passage is either a quote, which Paul then rebukes, or is not in fact original to the text but was added in later, and therefore needs to be interpreted and understood in that light.
It is clear that there were women speaking and doing things in church which at least some people were upset about, otherwise there would be no need for anyone, including Paul, to issue any instructions or restrictions on this behavior.  We also know from numerous sources, Paul being one of the most important, but certainly not the only one, that women played important roles in the early church.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes reference to several women, including Phoebe, who is called a deacon, and to Junia, who is said to be “prominent among the apostles.”  Because some translators have had a problem with a woman being called prominent with the apostles, her name has often been changed to a male name, a male name it should be noted that didn’t actually exist, in order to try and solve this problem.
I’m assuming you can already guess what my opinion is on this passage, not only with what I have just said, but with what I’ve already said as we looked at women in the Bible.  But I would still say that in order to deal with this passage with integrity we must ask, even knowing all the stuff I just dumped on you, what if this is authentic to Paul and he actually did say that women should be quiet while in church. What does that mean for us today?  Does it mean the same thing in a 21st century context as it did in a 1st century context, or can we see it and interpret it differently today?  That is what we will look at next week.
Clearly today’s passage has impacted the church for nearly two thousand years, and still impacts us today, so how do we approach scripture with integrity, even scriptures with which we disagree?  We have looked at the lives of several women who have changed the law, changed the faith and changed our reality, including Mary Magdalene who is called the Apostle to the Apostles.  How do we reconcile their witness, along with the witness of other women in the faith, with some of the injunctions that we read in scripture?  
Reading scripture is hard, it is difficult and it is also life changing and life giving.  When we shy away from difficult texts then we short our faith and we short the witness of scripture, but when we refuse to see the text as a living document that still speaks to us today because God still speaks to us today, because the Spirit still speaks to us today, because Jesus is still with us today, then we also do scripture and our faith an injustice, so I hope you will continue with us on this path as we seek God’s wisdom and knowledge and guidance in our lives.  May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wasting Our Time

There is a clergy alliance group in the biggest town closest to me, which fortunately I do not participate in.  But several of the Methodist ministers in that town do, and so I get to hear about their activities when we get together.

Last July there was a gay-pride parade in the town, the first ever, and this caused most of the members of the alliance to get very, very upset.  Since that time it appears that every meeting of the alliance has been spent talking about this event and what should be done.  At the last meeting they were working on a statement in opposition to this, as well as the president's recent remarks on gay-marriage, and that work still continues because they ran out of time.

As they were relaying this information to another Methodist minister who serves in another town, and therefore does not have to take part in this group and is as happy about that as I am, he said "that sounds like an enormous waste of time."  That had been exactly my thought as well, because what they decided to do once this statement is created is simply to read it to their congregations.

These are Southern Baptist, and Church of Christ, and Missouri Synod Lutherans, for the most part, so it's not like these congregations don't have any idea what the church's position is on this topic.  I strongly suspect that these ministers have also preached, and routinely, on the "dangers of the homosexual agenda."  So what exactly is this supposed to be accomplishing.

I know why they are upset, even though I disagree with them, but it seems to me they are totally missing the point of the gospel and wasting their time.  There are certainly major issues affecting their communities which a joint gathering of the clergy might actually try to do something about, things like poverty, jobs, education, race issues, homelessness, housing, hopelessness, drug use, things that actually impact real people in real lives, not imagined ones.

Everyone knows what they think, and their statements are not going to change anything.  We, and I do mean all of us, like to spend time tilting at the windmills, making bold, meaningless statements, wasting our time on these things, while the very reason that we are called to be church and to be disciples of Christ get pushed aside so that we can feel good that we have "done something" even if what we have done is to waste our time and the time of others and accomplished exactly nothing.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kids Say The Darndest Things - Afterlife Version

One of the saints of our little church died two weeks ago. My daughters knew and liked this person, and they even accompanied me to the hospital on two occasions to visit with her and her family before she died. This has left them talking about death more than they probably normally would.

Last night they were playing together and my youngest said "My mommy died, and now she's in Texas."

I will provide no further commentary on what that might mean, because it's likely to get me in trouble, but found it very funny nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ruth: Faithfulness and the Other

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Ruth 1:1-18, 22:

My youngest daughter goes to the Nazarene preschool in Clovis.  This past week they held their spring concert and one of the classes, after singing their song, had the students recite some of the bible passages they had learned.  As they went down the row, that got to a little boy who couldn’t remember his line.  His mother was sitting down front and so she was trying to give him clues so that he might remember, but nothing was working so finally she just said, “I am the light of the world,” and so the little boy beamed and with great feeling and a clear voice he said, “oh yeah, My mother is the light of the world.”

Today we celebrate Mother’s day, and we celebrate not just those we call mom, but all the women in our lives who raised us and cared for us and were important in our development, for making us who we are. The idea was first proposed by Julia Ward Howe, who is best known for writing Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Howe wanted women to join together for a day of peace and a call for disarmament.  But, the first Mother’s Day as we know it was first celebrated at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, the precursor to the United Methodist Church, in 1908.  Anna Jarvis wanted to create a day to honor her mother, and through her to honor all mothers.

At the 1912 general Conference, which is the administrative body of the Methodist church, they called for Mother’s Day to be celebrated at all Methodist churches, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared the first national celebration as a day to recognize all the women who had lost sons in war.  Unfortunately for Jarvis, by the 1920’s the holiday had become so commercialized in her mind that she began to regret having created the holiday.  But regardless of Jarvis’ feelings about the day she created, it is still the day in which we remember all the significant women in our lives, and today it is also the day in which it might be said that we reach the height of our sermon series on women in the Bible by looking at the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi.

Of the stories we have looked at so far, besides for Mary Magdalene, Ruth might be the best known, and she is significant for many reasons.  She is one of only two women to have a book in the Bible named after her.  The other is Esther, and since the women’s group is currently doing a study of that book, I really thought about covering Esther, but decided against it because the women would probably know more than I do and so would have to correct me after worship, and so I wanted to have to avoid that, for them and for me.  And so I went with Ruth, who is important to us as Christians because she is an ancestor of Jesus, and is listed in his genealogy, one of the few women included.

Others will know Ruth, even though they don’t know they know her, because of the famous words we heard this morning, “where you will go, I will go; where you will lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”  That quote is often used in marriage ceremonies, and maybe appropriately so, except for the fact that it does not come from a wedding but instead from Ruth’s pledge of loyalty to Naomi, delivered from one woman to another, but that statement is really at the heart of this story of dedication and motherhood.

The story begins very similarly to other stories we find in the Bible, especially in stories of the patriarchs.  There is a famine in the land, and so some families are leaving in order to survive, but this story is a little different because this family is living in Bethlehem, which literally means “house of bread.”  There is no bread in the house of bread, and so Elimelech takes his wife and two sons to a foreign land.  The story begins by focusing on him.  Naomi is his wife, and it is his sons, but then there is a sudden change, and Naomi becomes the focus of the story, so that Elimelech is now referred to as her husband, and then it is about her sons.  She becomes the center of the story; indeed she is the referent by which others are referred, which marks this story as unusual.

But we are already given a hint that this is a story that is going to be about the women because we are told that the family are “Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.”  It is believed that Bethlehem was founded by the descendents of Ephrath, but Ephrath was not a man, she is a woman, and so we are again being given clues that this is a story about women and the descendents of certain women, and women of significance.  The only other time this phrase about Ephrathites is used in the Bible is in reference to David.  There is also a sort of ironic meaning to this usage as well, as the word Ephrath comes from a root word which means fertile or productive, and at the moment neither the land nor the sons are matching that description, although by the end of today’s reading, where there is a barley harvest, and by the end of Ruth, when she gives birth to a son, Obed, there is fertility in the land.

Elimelech and Naomi take their family to a foreign land, but it is not just any land that they go to, they go to Moab, which is the land occupied by historic enemies of the Israelites, even though they are also related to the Israelites.  In Genesis we are told that Lot is the nephew of Abraham.  After Lot escapes from Sodom and Gomorrah, his wife is turned into a pillar of salt, leaving him with his two daughters in the wilderness.  For some reason the daughters think that they are alone in the world, and so they get their father drunk and have relations with him in order to bear offspring.  The children born from this incestuous relationship are Moab and Ben-Ammi, the fathers of the Moabite and the Ammonites, two of the enemies of Israel.  Can you imagine either Obama or Romney accusing the other of being from an incestuous relationship?   This is the ultimate political slander.

So Naomi and her family go to settle in Moab, the land of their enemies, and while they are there her sons marry Moabite women, but then Elimelech and her sons all die leaving Naomi, Ruth and the other daughter in law Orpah, not to be confused with the name Oprah, all alone.  In the ancient world, women depended upon men for their identity and their very survival.  Without a male around their world appears pretty bleak.  The fact that Naomi wants to sent Ruth and Orpah back to their mother’s tents, rather than their fathers tent, may also indicate that they do not have any other male relatives either.

Neither Orpah nor Ruth wants to leave Naomi, but she tells them that she has nothing else to give them.  She has no other sons for them to marry which is from the Levirate marriage where brothers are obligated to marry their sister-in-law not only to provide them protection but also to allow for his brother’s name to continue.  But none of that is available, and so Naomi is trying to do what she thinks is right for the daughter-in-laws, she wants to send them back to their families and their people with hope that they might have some future their because she doesn’t foresee any future for herself, there is no sense of hope left for Naomi.  She wants to do what she thinks is right in her role as their mother, she is trying to protect them, but they don’t want to go.

It might be easy to look down our noses, or to think less of Orpah for leaving Naomi, but she is not unfaithful in what she does, it’s just that she is judged against Ruth who goes the extra mile in staying, in clinging to Naomi and then in eventually wearing Naomi down so that she allows Ruth to accompany her to go back to Bethlehem with her.  The Hebrew word being used here for faithfulness is hesed.  It is a word often used to describe God’s unmerited acts of grace and mercy.  So, to do hesed, is to show loyalty or love far beyond what is expected, or what the law requires.  It might be said that both Naomi and Ruth are showing hesed to each other in this situation, although clearly Ruth’s hesed is over the top and so Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem, and they return at the beginning of the barley harvest, there is fruitfulness back in the house of bread.

Nothing is really said about who Ruth is until they return to Bethlehem, and then she begins to be referred to as Ruth the Moabite.  It is not clear why all of the sudden this distinction is made.  Is that how Naomi refers to her, or instead is this how the inhabitants of Bethlehem see her?  But regardless of why, Ruth is now identified as an outsider, as “one of those people.”  No matter what she has said to Naomi, no matter how much faithfulness, hesed, she shows, she is the other, she is a descendent of a group who are not thought of highly, and in fact in Deuteronomy we are told that Moabites and their descendents to the 10th generation are forbidden from entering “the assembly of the Lord.”  Being a Moabite in Israel would not be a good thing, and having been the foreign wife of an Israelite would put her in potentially an even worse situation.

There is a lot of debate about when the Book of Ruth was written.  Some say it dates to the time of David, and others put it to the time after the exodus at the time the Jews were returning to Israel.  In order to rebuild Jerusalem one of the things that Ezra and Nehemiah, who were the leaders of the people, did was to make foreign marriages illegal, and then tried to force Jewish men who had married foreign wives to abandon them and any children they had together.  They weren’t really concerned about Jewish women who had married foreign men, because they were sent away.  They hadn’t yet set it as Jewish law that you were born Jewish if your mother was Jewish, that comes later, although that law makes more sense than trying to look at genealogy though males.  You can read more about these activities in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. 

I am inclined to go with dating the writing to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah because Ruth stands in stark opposition to this other witness.  Ezra and Nehemiah are trying to say who is acceptable and who is not, and to try and purify the religion again.  But Ruth is sort of the minority report, or the dissenting opinion to what Ezra and Nehemiah are seeking to do, and the reason why it is the dissenting opinion is because what the book of Ruth tells us is that Ruth is the grandmother of David.  That is, the greatest king in Israel’s history is a descendant of a mixed marriage, and not just any mixed marriage but one with a Moabite, which is just about as bad as it gets.  But here it is nonetheless.  And, through David, then we also trace Jesus’ genealogy back through Ruth as well.  It turns out that God delivers the Israelites originally through this foreign woman.  This is one of those times in which we see that God does not break into the world through great miracles or supernatural events, but instead God breaks through one woman clinging to her mother-in-law and refusing to go back to her people, but instead following Naomi home.

The French are not held in high opinion by many people in this country today, but they have a historically important relationship with the United States, going all the way back to the Revolution.  In order to try and celebrate this relationship, French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi began a project to create and bring a sculptor to America which represented American independence and liberty.  He wanted it based on a roman figure of liberty and so began to look for a model to use for the sculpture, but he couldn’t come up with one with which he was happy.  Then he began thinking about what all people had in common, and that was mothers, and so he used his mother as his model.  His sculpture, as some of you know, is the Statue of Liberty, and lady liberties face is that of Bartholdi’s mother.  It is the mother’s face which represents the hope of a better future and the universality of all people.

King David descends from a woman, an enemy woman, who befriends a fellow widow and together they create a new future.  Naomi has no hope for the future when the story begins, which is the reason she wants to send Ruth and Orpah away, but Ruth refuses and she becomes the unexpected mother.  She becomes the unexpected form of salvation not only for Naomi but for Israel and through her family line she becomes the source of salvation for the world through Jesus Christ.  Ruth shows us the ways in which God’s providence manifests itself in ways that we could never possibly imagine, in ways that we can sometimes not even comprehend, and even in ways that we don’t think are acceptable.

There is not a single Jew, not a one, who, before this story, would have said that the greatest king, the head of a royal line that would bring the messiah, would be the descendant of any of the enemies of Israel, especially the Moabites.  For them, that would just be unheard of, unimaginable, that would not be God showing hesed to Israel.  But this is what happens, salvation comes from the most unlikely of people and the most unlikely of places, like a carpenter coming from a backwater village, who was executed by the Romans, who becomes the savior of the world.  It is an example of how God works in the world, and how God works through ordinary people.

The book of Ruth begins with a story of despair, and it quickly gets worse, only to be redeemed.  It is the story of two remarkable women who change their futures together, and through that change the future of Israel and then world.  They also represent a minority report that the attitudes towards the other, towards the outsider, are not held by everyone.  That there are some who consider these people friends and family.  They show us that while we can choose some relationships, that we do not get to choose our families, and sometimes they consist of the most remarkable people.

Isabella is a golden retriever who lives at the Safari Zoological Park in Kansas, and Isabella is the mother of three incredibly cute animals, but they are not three golden retrievers like their mother.  Instead they are tiger cubs.  The cubs were abandoned by their mother one day after they were born.  Tom Harvey, the zookeeper, said the cubs were wandering around their pen trying to find their mother, but she wouldn’t pay any attention to them, and so to allow them to survive, a new mother had to be found and that is where Isabella stepped in.  She had just recently weaned her own puppies, and took on the tiger cubs as if they were her own.  “The timing couldn’t be any better,” Harvey said, “and the mother doesn’t know the difference.”  Isabella not only nurses the tiger cubs, but also licks and cleans them, she, in fact, does everything that a mother should do for her cubs, or puppies.

Hesed means going above and beyond in faithfulness, loyalty and love.  One of the other ways that hesed sometimes gets translated is as saint.  Certainly we could easily include Ruth in that category because of her dedication, faithfulness and love expressed to Naomi.  Our own mothers might also qualify for sainthood, for hesed, for their dedication, faithfulness and love given to us.  But, I know that not all of us were graced with mothers who showed that dedication, some of us instead had mothers more like the mother of the tiger cubs, who, for whatever reason, could not express their love, could not give us hesed.  But, even with those who mothers were unable to express their love, I have yet to meet someone who did not have another woman in their live who didn’t take that role, who became like Isabella and took them under their wings, who, in many ways, became like Ruth, who provided us with new hope and a new future.

And so today we remember our saints, those who have been faithful, those who have given us unmerited love, those who have given us unending grace, and so I would like for us to take some time to name them, to name the women who have made a difference in our lives….

The story of Ruth begins in the midst of despair and tragedy and ends with the redemption of the people, and then the redemption of the world.  Ruth’s hesed, her dedication and love, even though she is the other, continue to be a shining example to all of us of what love, dedication and loyalty look like, an example lived it out in the lives of the women who have impacted us as well.  May we all take the time to express thanks to the saints in our lives, to lift their names up to God and to thank them for the difference they have made, and continue to make in our lives.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Third Grade Bibles

This weekend we will be giving Bibles out to our third grade students.  This probably should have been done in the fall, but as I am still learning how things are done at this church it passed by until someone said to me "hey, we didn't give Bibles to the third graders."

My question is why do we do this?  I understand the importance of giving out Bibles and training children in reading it, but why third grade?  Why not give out really easy Bibles to 1st graders and then a new one in 5th? I'm not proposing that, just asking the question.

It seems that just about every church does this, and it had to have started somewhere and some time, so I just wonder when it got started and why.  Why has third grade been decided to be the best time to give children their bibles?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Romney, Bullying And Expulsion

On Friday, the Washington Post published a story about some of Mitt Romney's behavior in high school (although it was published electronically the day before).  Some of it was simply what goes on in high school, especially amongst boys.  But, Romney's statement that maybe some pranks went a little too far, and he's sorry (even though he "doesn't remember") is a stretch.  Getting a group of boys together to track down another boy, then hold him down and cut his hair, even though he was crying and screaming for help, is way beyond a prank.  It is assault.

Even though Romney can't remember it, it has certainly stayed with others, including Thomas Buford, the man who held the boy down, who said "to this day it troubles me."  Four others corroborated the story, which either means that Romney is lying about not remembering, my belief, or he is so shallow and callous that he actually does not remember assaulting and torturing this boy, which is something far worse.

Now I am not an innocent observer of this, like just about everyone else.  There was a boy that we tortured unmercilessly in grade school.  I'm not sure we knew the term homosexual, but we clearly had been taught what was acceptable for a boy and what was not, and Paul clearly fell on the wrong side.  He was very effeminate, and we called him Pauline and tormented him in numerous other ways, all, I might add, with the teachers having to know what we were doing to him. Although we never physically assaulted Paul, or at least I didn't, like Buford, this troubles me to this day.

Knowing now that a large portion of homosexuals die by suicide, I really wonder if Paul made it out of high school.  I also wish I could recall his last name so I could try and track him down and apologize for what we did.  I don't know that it would make any difference, but I hope it would.

Even though his campaign initially denied it, I think there is little doubt that this story from Romney's past actually happened, and I am again left wondering whether he is simply lying or if there is something worse about his character that this reveals.  He wants to make this a story that doesn't truly reflect who he is today, that it was nearly fifty years ago and he's changed, but that is certainly not what he is demonstrating.

I graduated from high school 22 years ago and I am clearly not that person any more, and I wish I could tell my younger self to stop.  But I can also admit and say that I am different.  So far Romney is unable to do that, which matches most things in his life.  I lived in Massachusetts when Romney was governor and I quickly came to the conclusion that he was an ethical eunuch, that is his ethics had been removed.  These stories might indicate that, in fact, he never actually had any.

But, the one element of the story that I don't understand and certainly is not getting any attention was how punishments at the school were handed out.  John Lauber, the boy who was attacked, was expelled from the school later in the year because he was caught smoking a cigarette by another boy.  He was expelled for the crime of smoking a cigarette, but Mitt Romney and a whole group of boys physically attacked Lauber and cut his hair but were never even punished, let alone threatened with expulsion.

How exactly did that work?  Was Romney protected because of who his father was?  Did the school give him and his compatriots special treatment?  Did they simply look the other way?  Why does no one seem to be talking about this issue?

Finally, one of the other former students consulted makes it very clear that there was a hierarchy at the school based on finances, with Romney being near the top, and while it was fine for Romney to associate with the other students while at school they were never invited home.  Everyone has their place, and clearly they didn't belong.  This certainly seems to match other statements and practices that Romney has shown, like his famous "I don't really follow NASCAR, but have several friends who own teams."

To some degree, boys will be boys and therefore I don't find some of the things the article highlights as being as problematic as they want to indicate, but clearly he was way over the line in his assault of Lauber.  This was way more than just a prank going too far.  But I am even more troubled by the fact that he didn't get in trouble, that he definitely saw class and acted accordingly, and that he is not dealing with these issues appropriately or honestly now, and that deeply worries me.

Friday, May 11, 2012

"Should I Stay or Go?" Why I'm Staying in the UMC

Following the end of the General Conference, the quadrennial meeting of the United Methodist Church, many of my colleagues are wondering whether they should stay or go.  This almost exclusively has to do with the church again not changing its position that homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teachings.”  This has been the official position of the church since 1972, and there is simply no indication that it will be changing any time soon, although I have always found it interesting that we state it is incompatible with “Christian teaching” and not “Biblical witness” or something like that, since teaching can, and has, changed over time.

But the refusal of the General Conference to make any changes to this position, including one that said that we are not of one mind on the issue, has left many of the progressive members of the church looking at other churches which have changed their stance on this, looking at the hurt this is causing to many people who feel, at the very least, excluded from the church, and wondering what the future holds and why they should stay.  I have been thinking about this question and wanted to give my own answer.

At the heart of the matter is really the fact that I am a Methodist, or more specifically, a Wesleyan in my theology.  What that means the most is that I believe in universal grace and salvation.  That is not true of most denominations, including those who are considered more progressive on the issue of homosexuality.  Many of them are from a Reformed tradition, or have a theology which is exclusivist, and that simply does not work with my understanding of God or of Jesus’ salvific work.  (And yes I do recognize that there are many in the UMC who do not take this same view, but at least at the moment they are in the minority, and hopefully before they become the majority we will do a little educating about what it means to be a Methodist and what we stand for.)

Second, in many of these churches, changing their stance on homosexuality has not radically altered the church or the people in it, just look at what is going on in the Episcopal and the Evangelical Lutheran Churches and you can see that they are not at peace with the issue.  You can change the rules to say that you are welcoming, but if the people and the clergy really aren’t then it doesn’t really make a difference.

This seems to me to be more important and more damaging than what people are really talking about.  Our words must match our reality.  Rachel Maddow recently said "symbolic value is important, but we want practical policies that help us (the gay community)."  Talk is cheap, but actions speak louder than words.

Just as an example to illustrate.  We should ask our African-American brothers and sisters who remember the central jurisdiction, which was an annual conference based on race rather than geographical area.  This was the compromise agreed to, by majority white vote, which allowed the Methodist Episcopal Church north and south to merge.  At the 1956 General Conference, a vote was taken that condemned “racial discrimination and forced segregation,” and also one that called for the abolishment of the central jurisdiction. 

In 1964 segregation was still a reality, and a goal was set of abolishing annual conferences based on race by 1967.  With the merger in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church no language remained about the central jurisdiction, but the conference remained a reality until into the 1970s.  For well more than 15 years the United Methodist church said they were opposed to racial segregation but still practiced it themselves.  They were striving in the right direction and saying the right thing, but did that rhetoric really make any difference in the lives of the African-American congregations, clergy and laity who were still segregated in reality and denied positions and resources because of the color of their skin?  No.  It was simply something written on paper.

Another example would be female clergy.  Women were officially able to have full clergy rights in 1956.  However, I still routinely hear offensive comments made about clergy women by my male clergy colleagues.  Female clergy are also still subject to lots of things that I as a male clergy never have to deal with, including bad appointments (not that we can’t get bad appointments too).  I know of a church in New England which is known as a clergy killing congregation.  For nearly twenty years every minister who was appointed there left full-time ministry when they left the church.  It also happens that all of them were also women.  So for twenty years the cabinet continued to appoint ministers to a church they knew would drive them out of the ministry, but never once appointed a man.  And that does not even begin to deal with what some congregations have done, regardless of the acts of the cabinet.  Not very good, but yet female and male clergy are supposed to be the same.

The simple fact is we are a denomination made up of humans, that means that we are going to be inherently imperfect.  We are, in Wesley’s words, moving on to perfection, but we are nowhere close to that as of yet.

Now I am very glad that we have the position that we do in regards to racial integration and female clergy, and wish that we were there on the issue of homosexuality, but let us not begin to imagine that changing our position on the first two has changed the position of the church or of our congregations, because it hasn’t.  You cannot legislate these things and expect everyone to instantly change, there will continue to be hurts felt all around.

But I also trust the system (and if you know me I know you will be shocked by that statement) because I trust God and I trust in Wesleyan theology which has built into it the ability to make these changes.  We believe in universal grace, we believe that there is nothing which can separate us from the love of God, and we believe in the Wesleyan quadrilateral which says that we approach scripture using tradition, experience and reason.  These, I believe, will lead us there eventually.  Will it come as soon as it should? No, but if our actions don’t match our words then nothing else really matters.

If we say we are welcoming to our LGBT brothers and sisters, but then exclude them or treat them as second class citizens, or worse, then our welcoming is pointless.  But even though the words of the Discipline say one thing, we can also be welcoming and open and prove the Discipline wrong, which in some ways is even better.  Jesus didn’t change the laws of Judaism, but his actions showed a different way and that is what made all the difference.

Since I am now serving in a much more conservative area then when I served in New England, even though the Discipline says one thing, I can still be the progressive example because even with the Discipline we are still ahead of other churches in the area because we at least see the LGBT as people of sacred worth.  It may not be much, but it is something.

I do truly wish that the General Conference had done something, and sooner or later they will (we have to take into consideration that this is to a very large degree a generational thing, and look who has the time to take off two weeks to attend committee meetings, let alone who wants to.  Outside of younger clergy who have the time, because it’s work time, it tends to be dominated by those over the age of 50 or more.  Here is a poll from Pew on opinions on gay marriage based on age. )

I know that we, as a church, are causing pain, that we are not being the witness that we can be, but we can still be welcoming even if the Discipline says we aren’t, just like some won’t be welcoming even when the Discipline says they should.  I have been caused pain by this situation, which I will write more about in a few weeks after I am ordained, but I am not ready to leave the denomination because of it.  In fact it helped me to trust God even more in what is going on.

I would not leave the state in which I live because of its stand on this issue, so why would I leave the denomination?  Plus I can always do more good to make change from inside then I can from outside, and if people begin to leave in large numbers over this issue to go to other denominations then I fear for the future of the church universal in America. 

In the 1810s and 20s, you were just as likely to find anti-slavery people in the south as you were supporters, and the same was true in the north.  But as the arguments became more strident, people moved around and the country began to divide along this issue.  I hear people wanting to do the same thing in the church, but after the churches divided along pro and anti-slavery positions (the Methodists in 1844) most people knew that the union could not survive, because if churches couldn’t get along what chance did anyone else have?

I wish the church had changed its position, and I have faith that they will someday, in fact I know they will someday.  Will it happen very soon?  Probably not, but it will happen.  The question is will it still be the United Methodist Church when it happens, although that’s a question that’s only peripherally related to this issue. 

I know that I can do more to help in that by being inside the church then I can by being outside.  I cannot simply turn my back on the UMC, and that has more to do with my theology, and the theology of the church, then it does with anything else.  How could I possible go to another denomination that might be more progressive on this issue, but, from their reformed position, believes in limited atonement?  I don’t think I, or anyone else, gains something from that.  In fact I think I would lose. 

In addition, making this change will not radically alter the church.  We are not going to be suddenly flooded by members of the LGBT community because we’ve written something on paper.  Our actions will always speak louder than our words.  If we truly want to be welcoming, then let’s be welcoming, regardless of what the Discipline says.  If we want to offer Christ to the world then for God’s sake let’s do that, but it has nothing to do with being able to show someone some statement, but everything to do with modeling Christ for them, of giving them unconditional love, because that is what God has done for us. 

John Wesley said that the only appropriate response to accepting Jesus’ saving work on our behalf was to act on that in the world, so let’s act on that.  Let us be Christ to the world.  Let us welcome, no, let us invite, the “sinners and the tax collectors” to our table, or take the table to them, and offer them the bread of life and the light of the world.  When we do that then people will know what we are about. 

As Methodists we have always believed more in orthopraxy, right practice, than orthodoxy, right belief, so let us act on that.  Let us be Christ to the world.  Let us have people come to know us because of what we do not because of what we say.  Let us live into the hymn so that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Voice of Fenway

Yesterday it was announced that Carl Beane, the public address announcer at Fenway Park, who was known as "The Voice of Fenway Park," died in a car accident.  I met Beane once and he seemed like a wonderful man.

I was officiating at a wedding and the bride's father was very good friends with Beane and so he did the introduction of the bridal party to the reception in his best Fenway voice.  The bride's father was also a Yankee fan, and therefore a wonderful person, and so as a present Beane gave him a game used bat from one of the former Yankees.  I believe it was either Bernie Williams or Paul O'Niell, I can't remember, and I got to hold it, which was very cool.  My wife, who is a huge Jorge Posada fan, also sidled up to him to talk about the Yankees and ask him to announce Jorge coming to bat, which he was gracious enough to do, along with Derek Jeter.

Whenever I think of Yankee stadium I hear Bob Shepherd's voice in my head, and when announcing players it is his cadence that I use, so my thoughts and prayers go out to Carl Beane's family and to Red Sox Nation, Fenway will never be the same.

Update: It's not often I can say that the Red Sox organization has done something classy, because they usually don't, but to honor Carl Beane, during tonight's game Fenway went quiet.  There was no public address announcer, no announcing of players, or anything else.  Very nice job Red Sox, truly a classy act!

The Movement Of The Spirit

Last week as I got up very early Sunday morning, after having struggled writing my sermon the day before, I realized I had not spent much time in prayer in preparation for that sermon.  So I said a short prayer, apologizing and asking for God's assistance in making sure that I was saying what needed to be said, and then went off to practice my delivery.  I ended up making a few more changes to my sermon than I normally do, including adding in an illustration that I wanted to use but couldn't see to fit in.

As I almost always do, before the service at my first church (I serve two churches), I said another prayer asking for God to be present and to speak through me.  At this church we do a hymn sing before worship begins from a much older hymn book, and so I asked what songs they wanted to sing today.  Someone yelled out a number, and I opened up my hymnal right to that hymn.  After that song was over I asked for another, and there was, as usual, a long pause and I thought to myself we should sing "He Lives," and sure enough that was the next hymn requested.Then during the offering, the pianist played "I'll Fly Away" which was the favorite hymn of a parishoner at my other church who had died that week.

It was one of those moments when you could feel the movement of the Spirit, even if no one else even knew it was going on.  I have let myself get very tired and burned out lately, but at the same time have not had the time or space to catch back up.  I have also felt distant from God during this time.  I know my work was being impacted by this and I was not taking the time to do what needed to be done, like praying to God for assistance with my sermon, let alone other things.

This was God saying "Hey, I'm here, always remember that, and make sure to ask, remember to pray, remember to read scripture, remember that there are other things more important going on in your life."  And so I thank God for the movement of the Spirit and for this little reminder.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Zelophehad's Daughters: Thinking Outside The Tent

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Numbers 27:1-11:

If you had asked me when I began my career as a minister if there was one book of the Bible that I might never preach from, my answer probably would have been numbers.  It’s not that there aren’t some good stories; it’s just that to get to them you have to read through the census’ for which the book is named.  If you think genealogies are bad, the census is even worse.  While I am sure there are people who would find this interesting, I am not among them.  But, even though I never really think about Numbers when I’m thinking about what to preach on, it was really today’s passage from which began my thinking about doing this sermon series on women in the Bible.

Someone had asked me to talk about the role of women in the church and household, but I wasn’t quite sure how to approach that question, and to be honest I was a little afraid to tackle it, but then something strange, or maybe fortuitous, happened.  Within a short period of time, two different people made mention of this story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  The first was someone I went to high school with who is now an atheist, although knowing something about the church he grew up in I can certainly understand how he ended up the way he did.  I don’t know how he heard about the story, but he found it exciting and definitely wondered why it had never been covered in his church growing up.  Then shortly thereafter someone else passed on info on a blog being done by someone who was reading the entire Bible and then blogging his thoughts about each story and what made her pass this blog on to others was when he got to this story. 
So within less than two weeks two people had commented on this rather remarkable story, which I didn’t even remember having ever encountered.  But what’s even worse is that the story of Zelophehad and his daughters is not covered only once, but instead is actually mentioned five times in the Bible.  So I thought that having this appear had to be more than just a coincidence and so I began working on this passage and this series.
Now some want to make much more of this story then what we can find in it by turning it into a feminist text.  I do think there is a lot here about seeing women in a new light and of women being given something which before they were not entitled to, but to make it somehow more than that is to read something into it that’s not there.  This is still, ultimately, a patriarchal story.  But, the biblical writers clearly think this story is important, which is why it’s mentioned five times in the scriptures, and also want to make sure that we know the names of these women, that we know the names of Tirzah, Milcah, Hoglah, Noah and Mahlah.  There are 956 men named in the Bible but only 188 women.  So, for all five of these women to be named is significant. They represent 3% of all the women named in the Bible.  The scribes could have simply referred to them as the daughter’s of Zelophehad, but they made sure to name all five of them, and they don’t just name them once, but in fact they are named several times.
The Book of Numbers gets its name from the censuses that are conducted and which are listed in great detail.  There are actually two censuses conducted.  The first is done two years after the Israelites have left slavery in Egypt, and we are told that there are 603,550 people.  Although that number is not quite accurate, because the census is done in order to know how many people they have available to be in the army. So, in fact, the census includes only males, over the age of twenty.    That means that all women are excluded, and all children, male or female, under the age of twenty are excluded.  This sort of begins to give us some indications, not that we really need any, of who and what is important.
In Judaism, books in the Bible are named either by the first word of the book, or by something significant in the first sentence.  So, for example, the book of Genesis is known in Judaism as “In the beginning.”  So another name for Numbers, and how it is known in the Hebrew, is as “in the wilderness,” because in addition to the census Numbers also tells us about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, including stories of some of the many things that they do wrong, which is what prevents the first generation from being able to enter the promised land.  One of those stories is about the revolt of Korah, which is mentioned in today’s passage.  Korah, along with Dathan and Abiram challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron.  They do this by going to stand at the entrance to the tent of the meeting, which mirrors what is going to happen with the five daughters.

They make accusations against Moses and Aaron and challenge not only their right to be leaders but also whether they are God’s chosen leaders.  In response, and you can find the full details of this in chapter 16, God opens up the land on which their tents are located and swallows all of them, and then the earth closes over them, so that they, in the words of the text “went down alive into sheol.”  So challenging the authority of Moses and questioning him appears to be a very bad idea, and in chapter 12 this is also emphasized as Miriam, who is Moses’ sister, is punished for questioning Moses.  But, we are also told later that the sons of Korah did not die, they are not punished for the sins of their father, and this is important.
In chapter 26 a second census is taken, this time with a dual purpose.  Like the first census, this one is done to see how many males, over the age of twenty, are available for military service.  This time the count is given as 601,730, but then Moses is told that the census is to be used to divide the land they are to enter amongst the different tribes.  But of all of the people named in this census, only six of them are not clan or tribal leaders, and only five of them are not men. 
The number seven is very important in scripture, and in the censuses, the seventh tribe listed is that of Joseph.  But in the second census not only is Joseph listed seventh, but there are seven generations listed.  This is the only one of the tribes for which this is done.  Zelophehad, who is not a clan leader and therefore should not actually be included, is listed as the sixth generation, and then his daughters, who are again listed by name, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.  They are the seventh generation.  The seventh generation of the seventh tribe.  This structural set-up indicates that these women are important, even without the later stories we have this listing would show them to be significant.  What is also interesting is that the order of the names of the daughters changes, which would seem to indicate that they are all viewed as equals.  Indeed, we are not told that one of them spoke, but instead that “they” said these things.
This book wants to be about precision.  There is precision in numbers.  2+2 always equals four, 7 times 7 always equals 49.  You can count on that, and that type of precision is what it wanted here.  The censuses want to say exactly who is there, how they are all related and exactly how many there are, or at least how many of those who matter.  In addition, the way that the camps are all arranged is precise as well.  Each tribe is in one area, which is then divided by clan, all in one area, and everything is based with the tent of the meeting in the middle.  It tries to go with the old saying, a place for everything and everything in its place.  The first half of Numbers wants to model this, but then the daughter’s come on the scene.
It’s not exactly clear what it is that they making issue about, because there is nothing in the existing law dealing with inheritance.  This is one of only four situations in which there is an ambiguous legal situation that requires special revelation.  But, what we do know is that the land, which is should be noted they did not yet poses, was being divided and they were concerned that they were not going to get their portion, or as their argument is their father’s portion.  In an agricultural community, to be without land is to be marginalizes, and so the daughters go to Moses and Eleazar, who replaces Aaron as chief priest following Aaron’s death, to make an appeal.  Notice that they really don’t ask anything for themselves, again this is not sort of a proto-feminist appeal.  Instead, they want to claim the land because if they don’t, since they have no brothers, then their father’s name will be lost.
They don’t really make any claims that they, as women, are entitled to the land.  They also make very clear that their father died, as they say, “of his own sins.”  He was not part of the Kohar rebellion, and therefore they shouldn’t lose anything because of that.  What this is also claiming is that the sins of the father, die with the father, they should not be passed on to future generations.  This too is a radical claim, although one that will be re-emphasized in the very next story in which Moses is told by God that he will not be able to enter into the promised land, not because of the sins of the people, which is what we are told in Deuteronomy, but because of his own sins.  Remembering also that we are told that sons of Korah are not killed, nor lose their right to the land, because of the sins of their father.  So people’s sins die with them, and are not passed on to their offspring, children are not punished for the sins of their parents.   This challenges the law given in Exodus.
But even still what the daughters are doing is particularly bold and risky.  There have been plenty of women who have tried to get what they wanted, just think of all the things that Rebekah did to make sure that Jacob got what she thought he deserved from his father, but they all did so behind the scenes through trickery or conniving.  But the daughters of Zelophehad are not working behind the scene, instead they are going right to the source and asking for help to challenge a law apparently given by God, to challenge God’s justice, but to get what they want they need some help and that’s where Moses comes into play.
Moses could have done several things.  He could have just ignored them and hope they went away.  He could have said that women had no right to speak at the tent of the meeting and sent them away.  He could have also said that women have no right to own property, after all women themselves are property, so how can property possibly own property, therefore they have no right to own appeal and sent them away.  Moses could have just taken the easy way out, and said that the law is the law and there is nothing which can be done about it and sent the women back to their tents.  Or, another option, which is the one he took, and really is the most shocking of the options, is to take the request seriously and to ask for a ruling on it, because what we really have here is a legal situation looking for some clarification.  So Moses goes to God.  And God says that the daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they ask for and then a new set of inheritance laws are expounded which begins to take in lots of different scenarios, although, as it will turn out, not all of them.
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah take a significant risk in what they are doing, especially in challenging a law, but the results are even more amazing.  What we find out is that laws, even God given laws are not absolutes, that they can be changed, and we even find out that they can be changed by people other than God.  In the last chapter of Numbers, some men come to Moses and say that if the daughters of Zelophehad inherit the property and then marry men outside of their tribe, then the land will pass on to those outside and the tribe will then lose some of its overall inheritance.  Moses, without consulting God this time, says that what they are saying is correct and so makes a new stipulation to the law that the daughters must either marry members of their own tribe, or if they marry outside then they cannot inherit.  So we end up with a law that is stipulated, then an appeal made to the law so that God modifies the law, and then another appeal so that Moses changes the law, there is a modification to the modification.
Bishop Jack Tuell says “the God we worship is not a static God, capable only of speaking to us from two, three or four thousand years ago.  Rather, God is living, alive in this moment, revealing new truth to us here, now.”  Of course as Christians we should understand this because in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “you have heard it said” and then he stipulates one of the laws, and then continues, “but I say to you” and he changes the law.  What the daughters of Zelophehad show us is that the law is not static, it is not something which is stipulated and then never ever changes, instead it is something that gets adjusted as new realities present themselves in order to that justice might be done.  What we see is that change is built into the tradition, indeed if you know anything about Judaism and the role of the rabbis, then you already know this to be the case.  What the daughters of Zelophehad do, and what they accomplish, and the lesson we learn from them really has little to do with inheritance law, but instead has to do with “its modeling of social change.”
Like with the story of the Canaanite women that we looked at two weeks ago in which she changes Jesus’ mission to include gentiles as well as Jews, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad changes our understanding, and even Moses’ understanding, of the law which becomes a living source of inspiration and guidance.  What they also show us, just like with the Canaanite woman, is the power of actually standing up, or at the very least of asking for what is right.
Benjamin Coady, who is 13 years-old, recently made a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which is one of, if not the premier art museum in the world.  Coady considers himself something of a history buff, and so while at the museum he was in the Byzantine gallery and looking at the museums map of the Byzantine Empire when he found what he thought was a mistake in the boundaries of the empire.  Before leaving the museum he told someone that the map was wrong.  “[They] didn’t believe me,” Coady said, “I’m only a kid.”  But Coady’s information was written down.  A few months later he received an email from Helen Evans, the MET’s curator for Byzantine art who informed him that he was correct that the boundaries of the map for the Byzantine Empire under Justinian were incorrect and the museum would be correcting it.  He was even invited back to meet with Evans in person.  When asked what he learned from the experience Coady said, “If you have a question, always ask it.  Always take chances.”
When we believe that we have voice, no matter what, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  When we believe that we can make a difference, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  When we believe that laws can, and indeed in many cases must, be changed, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  When we believe that God cares about us, even when others say we are not worthy, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  When we believe that we can shape history, that we can influence the future and that we can make the future better for others, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  This story shows us how law evolves over time, even the laws of God, but more importantly it shows us that even those who face million to one odds, which is just about what Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, Tirzah, and Mahlah faced, when they are willing to stand up for what they think are just and right can make a difference for all of us. May it be so my sister and brothers.