Wednesday, October 23, 2013

“Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord”

Mandy Sloan Flemming
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
Sunday, October 20, 2013

“Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord”

1 Samuel 16:1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

One: The Word of God, for the People of God.              ALL: Thanks be to God.

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

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sermon: Ruth 1:6-18, 4:13-22, "To Err on the Side of Love"

To Err on the Side of Love

Ruth 1:6-18, 4:13-22, NRSV

6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ 11But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ 16But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
   or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
   where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
   and your God my God. 
17 Where you die, I will die—
   there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
   and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’ 
18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ 16Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, 19Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.

One: The Word of God, for the People of God.              ALL: Thanks be to God.
            My friends, this has been a monumental week for us. Saint Mark has always been a beacon of light and hope for the marginalized communities, and this week, the Supreme Court of the United States of America announced two rulings that put an issue close to our hearts into the headlines. Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in the state of California, was thrown out based on standing. And, the Defense of Marriage Act (known as DOMA) was struck down. Signed by President Clinton in 1996, DOMA allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other states. Until Section 3 of the Act was ruled unconstitutional on Wednesday, DOMA, had also effectively barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as "spouses" for purposes of federal laws, or receiving federal marriage benefits. With its repeal, thanks to the courage and determination of Edith Windsor, the  83-year-old plaintiff, same-sex marriages will now be recognized at the federal level in the states in which they are legal.
            If you don’t know their story, Edith and her partner, Thea Spyer, were together 44 years before Thea passed away in 2009 of a heart complication after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis many years prior. Their life was beautiful, and they were the subject of a powerful documentary entitled “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement.” It chronicled their life together and their decision to marry legally in Toronto in 2007, after more than 30 years together. When Thea passed away, Edie was required to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes on her inheritance of her wife's estate simply because their marriage was not recognized. It was this injustice that led her to file suit against the federal government in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, where Windsor sought a refund because DOMA singled out legally married same-sex couples for "differential treatment compared to other similarly situated couples without justification.”
            Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion, which was handed down on Wednesday. In the Supreme Court decision, Kennedy writes that "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity…By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
            I was driving to the church after dropping off my boys at baseball camp on Wednesday as I listened to the news coverage of this decision. I will always remember where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt. This is the first time the US Government has taken a side for equality of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. President Barack Obama has taken a strong stand in favor of marriage equality, and President Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA into law, has argued for its repeal. There is still more work yet to be done. I, for one, would love to see the day when marriage equality comes to all 50 states (and the US Virgin Islands). And, I will weep tears of joy when I am permitted to officiate at one of these ceremonies. The church and state have a long way to go, but this week marked a huge step in the right direction for the personhood and dignity of the LGBTQ community.
            I spent most of Wednesday in a haze of Facebooking joy, and was glad to see so many positive responses to the news. The one argument that consistently came to my ears as journalists interviewed “church leaders” who opposed the ruling, were those who argued that this was a rejection of “Biblical marriage” and “the way God intended the family to look.” I dare say that fewer things have brought my blood to boil more than these arguments. It made me think, strongly, about what Biblical marriage was. I didn’t get very far into Genesis before running into the story of Rachel, Leah and Jacob. If you remember this great story from Genesis 29, Jacob (son of Isaac, brother of Esau) leaves his home after he swindled the birthright of his older brother from their father. Esau is furious, and threatens to murder Jacob, so Isaac sends him to take one of Laban’s daughters as a wife. Laban was his mother, Rebekah’s, brother. So, Esau sends him to marry his first cousin. Biblical marriage sounds great so far.
            When Jacob arrives at Laban’s house, he falls in love with his cousin Rachel and promises to work for Laban for seven years for the right to marry her. At the end of those years, Jacob asked his uncle for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Laban tricked Jacob, and sent his elder daughter, Leah, into the marriage tent, and when he awoke the next morning, Jacob discovered that he had been deceived. So, he served Laban for another seven years for the right to marry Rachel. 
            Unfortunately, the Lord saw that Jacob preferred Rachel, so God closed her womb. Rachel was despondent, and she gave to Jacob Bilhah, her maid, that she might have children on Rachel’s behalf. So, Jacob took Bilhah as his wife and she conceived and bore him a son, Dan. This is three wives that Jacob has wed, simultaneously. In the meantime, Leah had stopped bearing children (she and Jacob had already conceived Ruben, Simeon, Levi and Judah), so she sent her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob, who bore him two more sons, Gad and Asher. Leah prayed again to God, and with Jacob she bore two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and for good measure, a daughter named Dinah. Then, God remembered Rachel, who bore Jacob a son, Joseph (he of the Technicolor dreamcoat) and, later, Benjamin (during whose labor she died). Four wives, 12 children, and a history of deceit and broken trust (Jacob’s son, Ruben, also took the handmaid Bilhah as a wife). Yet, Jacob is the man with whom God wrestled. God changed his name from Jacob to Israel. His children are the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel, and it is upon this family that the foundation of our faith is built. Yet, I would argue that none of us would uphold the Jacob saga as being the guidepost for “traditional” marriage. And, this is just one story of many.
            Several of the Christian opponents of same-sex marriage have quoted a line from scripture that comes to us in both the Gospel of Matthew and Mark. The quote is as follows: “6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’” (Mark 10:6-9). This is what gets cited as the argument for marriage between one man and one woman, time and again. The trouble with this passage is that Jesus isn’t talking about marriage. He’s talking about divorce. The Pharisees ask him in verse 2, so as to test him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus responds, “What did Moses command you?” They answered “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal to divorce her.” But, in verse 5, Jesus says, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” Jesus isn’t making a statement explicitly about the nature of marriage, he’s reminding the Pharisees that a woman cannot simply be cast aside simply because her husband writes her a certificate of divorce. The covenant of marriage is more sacred than that. The two have become one flesh, and what God has joined together, no one should separate. This is not a condemnation of same-sex marriage, it’s a reminder that our vows are sacred and not to be taken without serious cause.
            But nothing, not in Genesis and not in the Gospels, says more to me about “Biblical marriage” than the story of Ruth and Naomi. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, it is likely you’ve heard the words exchanged, “Where you go, I go. Where you lodge, I lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.” These words were spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, who had lost both of her sons and her husband. When her sons died, she told her daughers-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to return to their homeland of Moab. Orpah kissed Naomi and bid her a heartfelt farewell. Ruth, however, responded by taking these vows to her mother-in-law. Vows that we use today in our (heterosexual!) Christian marriage services. Vows that make promises to remain steadfast, loyal, and faithful to a God that was not her own. These are mighty promises, and Ruth makes them to Naomi, a woman committed deeply to her own sadness. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, the whole town comes to greet them, but Naomi refuses to answer to her name, and insists that they call her Mara, which means bitter, for that is how the Lord has dealt with her.
            Over time, Ruth meets Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman. Ruth gleans in his fields and he takes a special liking to her, allowing her all the space she needs and permission to drink from their well without trouble.  Upon hearing that Boaz has been kind to Ruth, Naomi encourages her to find him in the threshing room floor, and “uncover his feet,” that he might decide what to do with Ruth. It is clear that he would like to take her for his wife, but to do so, he must consult with the next-of-kin, who would be set to inherit the land that belonged to Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, as well as the hand of Ruth in marriage. (To be clear, Biblical marriage was often arranged as a result of land acquisitions. See what progress we've made!). When the next-of-kin said that he could not redeem it for himself without damaging his own inheritance, he exchanged sandals with Boaz (thus confirming the transaction), and Boaz became the proud owner of Naomi’s land and Ruth’s hand in marriage. The witnesses at the gate of the city praised Boaz, and said, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who built up the house of Israel.”
            This brings us to the conclusion of Ruth and Naomi’s story. Indeed, Boaz took Ruth to be his wife and she bore a son. What happens in the text is worth noting, “Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel. He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:13-17).
            What is most remarkable about this story is not just that Ruth demonstrated such an unabashed fidelity to her mother-in-law, it is that God used these women to create a new family. When the child is born, he is not praised as Boaz’s son. No, he is attributed to Naomi, who becomes his nursemaid. She and Ruth raise the child, vows solidified and God’s blessing upon them. It is not my place to surmise anything about their relationship other than what is in the text, but what the text tells me is that they have found a new way, a beautiful way, to create a family together. They “define their own understanding of kinship and responsibility to one another” (Mona West, “Ruth” in The Queer Bible Commentary). The best part is that this child is referred to later on, in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1, which is the genealogy of Jesus. This genealogy begins with Abraham and concludes with Joseph, the husband of Mary, to whom Jesus was born. The only other woman named in this genealogy is Ruth, mother of Obed (Matthew 1:5). The vows that Ruth and Naomi took to one another were about more than just establishing a next-of-kin for a woman who had lost everything. This child, Obed, is the son of women who loved each other dearly; this child, Obed, is in the lineage of our Messiah. He was King David’s grandfather, the father of Jesse about whom we sing at Christmastime. This child was no less important to us than all the tribes of Israel. This child, this son of Ruth and Naomi, was meant to be. He is a part of our salvation history, the means through which God came to be one with us in the flesh of Christ Jesus. I have a firm enough faith in God’s providence to believe that this was always what God intended – for Ruth, for Naomi, for Obed … and for us.
            When Matt and I were first dating early in our seminary career, he served on a panel to discuss the issue of homosexuality and its theological understanding. The panel included students and faculty from both sides of the issue, and we listened patiently as each person told their story. Matt was invited to speak, and he told the story of his older brother, John, who came out to their family when John was in his 30s. The response from their family was overwhelmingly positive, and today, he and his partner, Mark, who are celebrating 16 years of marriage this summer, are the proud parents of two boys who are now, unbelievably, in high school. As person after person spoke about their perspectives on the issue, Matt told the story of what it was like to watch his beloved older brother endure the pain of coming to terms with his sexuality, and watching as his acceptance turned into a beautiful life together with a wonderful partner. Matt lived with his brother during the summer that John and Mark were married, and he proclaims proudly that he was in a gay wedding before gay weddings were cool. At the end of his conversation, Matt told the audience and other panel members, “I respect your opinions and your thoughts on this issue. But for me, this isn’t an issue. It’s my brother.” Matt’s argument was that the Bible says things that we are given the gift to interpret, and if we are to interpret some things literally (like the passage in Leviticus that states that a man laying with another man is an abomination), then we cannot choose to interpret other passages figuratively (like the passage in Leviticus about how eating shellfish is also an abomination). We must establish our hermeneutic, that is, our way of understanding scripture, and read the text with that hermeneutic consistently. This means we will make choices in our understanding of the Bible. But, if we are to err, Matt told us all, we should err on the side of love. (I think it goes without saying that I knew at that moment he was the man I wanted to marry.)
            My sisters and brothers, this is our call. To love God, love one another, and to do all we can to choose love above all else. It is my call to love you, which is easy. It is also my call to love my enemies, who are much more difficult to love. But, we saw some remarkable things happen this past week. We saw the shut-down of ex-gay reparative therapy organization, Exodus International, which publicly apologized to gays and lesbians for "years of undue suffering and judgment at the hands of the organization and the Church as a whole." The slow, steady move toward equality for the LGBT community is happening right before our very eyes. Now, it is up to us to continue the push, slowly and confidently, with the tenderness and compassion of Edie and Thea. With the quiet yet ever-present witness of Bill and Matthew or Don and Dave. With the faith and steadfastness of Ruth and Naomi. It is up to us to keep pushing, and always, always to err on the side of love.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pride Is Us: an Incredible Weekend, an Incredible Story

Rev. Phillip Thomason, my children and me in the Atlanta Pride Parade, Oct. 2012

My very first day at Saint Mark United Methodist Church was on the occasion of the Diversity Dinner and service in June 2007. I had barely finished moving my books onto their shelves and re-arranging the office before a kind face knocked on my door. It was Rev. Beth Stroud, our speaker for the evening, who was looking for the sanctuary. Rev. Stroud served as an ordained United Methodist pastor for six years before losing her clergy credentials in a 2004 church trial. In the trial, Beth was found guilty of “practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teaching” because she acknowledged living in a committed relationship with another woman. She remained on staff at Germantown UMC in Pennsylvania for several years, and, here she was, knocking at my door. Though I had nothing to do with her coming to be with us, it was an honor to represent this marvelous church and our story to her.

I have been humbled and grateful to serve here since that time, and I will never forget diving into my first Pride Parade that year – filled with fear and trembling, and a great, great excitement. Jackie Watson walked with me, and as we waved to the shouting masses, she asked, “Is this your first parade?” I sheepishly admitted that it was, because I’d never had an invitation or place to walk before.
Now, 5 years later, I have had the privilege of representing you in many parades. It was a joy to ride with Phillip on the back of Cheryl Thompson’s car, this time with my 3 children accompanying me. Many of us have noted how many children we see at the Parade and festivities now, and what a change that is from the past.

Because they were going to ride with us, I wanted to tell my children a little more about what we were doing, what the Pride Parade was for, and specifically about the ministry of Saint Mark. What I heard from them as I told your story – our story – was their surprise at how people could treat one another, in God’s name. They couldn’t imagine that a church could be hateful, or that families could be cruel. They couldn’t reconcile how a loving Jesus would be used as an instrument for condemnation. When I finished telling this story of radical love, they looked at me with great sincerely, and said, “So THAT’S why we go to Saint Mark!”

My friends, this is what you are teaching my children: that Jesus is loving, and never cruel. That the church should be welcoming, and never exclusive, that we should love one another, friend and foe, stranger or guest. You have taught them exactly what Christ has instructed: to love God and love one another. It is shaping them to be the people who will help us live in a world where discrimination is a thing of the past, where we can all be free to live and love as God created us, without fear or apology.

Thank you. Thank you for living out the message of Gospel love in such a radical way. Thank you for modeling it to the children of our church and to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Thank you for your courage and your Pride. It’s changing the world.

Humbly yours,
Rev. Mandy

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sermon: The Most Important Things- Wisdom

Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sermon: The Most Important Things: Wisdom
Saint Mark UMC
January 29, 2012

I Corinthians 8:1-13

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.”Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by God.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as in fact there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whomare all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

“Food will not bring us closer to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

This week, I had the privilege of attending a conference at Columbia Seminary, where I served as a small group moderator. The conversation was based around a new book by Diana Butler Bass, the author of “Christianity for the Rest of Us.” In her new book, called, “Christianity After Religion,” she tackles the age-old question that Gallup likes to ask us every few years: Are you spiritual or are you religious?
Diana Butler Bass, who is a church historian, discovered in the course of writing her book that the answer to the “spiritual or religious” question has changed significantly in the last 13 years. In 1999 when this question was asked, 45% said they were spiritual AND religious. However, in 2009, 48% said they were religious, but not spiritual, and only 7% said they were spiritual AND religious. There has been a strange shift in how we view ourselves as people of faith, and the most notable thing is that we cannot be both spiritual and religious. Wedding these expressions of faithful members of an institution who also are individually moved by the Spirit is becoming more and more unlikely.
We can see this split happening in churches all over the country. Our faith communities cannot seem to agree on much of anything. In this season of political fervor, the differences are particularly pointed. The assumption these days is that the Republican base is made up almost completely of conservative evangelicals, and that liberal Democrats are secular. But, we know that these categories do not adequately describe who we are, neither as voters, nor as Christians. In this sanctuary alone, we could find a difference of opinion on every issue from abortion to same-sex weddings. But, this is a sermon on wisdom, and I am wise enough to know that talking too much politics would be very foolish indeed.
Paul is writing to the Corinthians in a particularly heated time, as well. It is approximately 25 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, and the early Christian community is at odds with itself on how it is to live. For millennia, the Jews have followed 613 laws guiding every aspect of life. There are 48 "positive" commandments and 365 "negative" commandments, and these have been the guiding principle for the Israelites since the time of Moses. However, Christ comes and turns almost everything they know to be true on its head. He is a Jew, a faithful follower of the law and prophets, but he also heals on the Sabbath and eats with sinners. Jesus’ ministry is filled with conversations with the priests and Levites who cannot understand this man, who makes radical claims and behaves even more peculiarly. However, his message is clear on one thing. He is cornered by a lawyer, one of the Sadducees, and asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” (Matthew 22:36-39). The point of the law, the hope of the prophets, is that love will be the guiding principal of God’s chosen people.
But this hope is difficult to live out. In our text from Deuteronomy, which you heard [lay reader] read, Moses tells the Israelites that God has promised for them a prophet, who will speak with authority because God alone has placed words in his mouth. This comes in the context of Moses’ great speech to the Israelites, which begins with the Ten Commandments, and continues to each and every aspect of daily life – what is forbidden, and what is permitted. More than once during this speech, Moses stops to remind the Israelites that the whole of the law, or the greatest commandment, is simply, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). Jesus uses this exact language to respond to the Sadducee. The Gospel message of love is not a new one, but resonates throughout the whole of scripture.
If this message is so simple, why do we have a difficult time understanding it? And why is there a need for such specific laws from both Moses and Paul in light of the greatest commandment?
It’s because communities are messy and difficult at times. It’s because people are different from one another, even when they strive to be alike. It’s because God has given us the freedom to choose and argue and make decisions. In this freedom comes the difficulty of potential disagreement. Do you remember the first argument you ever had with someone you loved? Do you remember thinking that it was all over? Some relationships cannot stand the tension of a disagreement and fizzle into nothingness. Even strong, long-lasting relationships can wither under the strain of an unresolved issue.
The Corinthians were in the heat of a contentious time when they receive this letter from Paul. Our text addresses the relationship between individual freedom and responsibility for a community’s overall health. Truly, Paul is addressing the age-old question of difference between the “religious” and the “spiritual.” The particular issue at hand is whether or not the meat given to idols may be eaten. As members of the early Christian community, the believers at Corinth all agree that idols hold no power, as they agree that “there is no God but one.” Therefore, as enlightened “spiritual” people, they may eat the meat, because they know this. But, Paul pushes them to remember that not everyone has this knowledge. Some have become so used to idols that they cannot change their perspective on why the food given to them cannot be eaten. These are the “religious” people, who are bound to the institution and what the community has always done. Sound familiar?
But, Paul is writing about this topic – not because the meat given to idols is particularly important – but because thepeople in the community are. If you’re like me, I am quick to judge the “religious” people who have a knee-jerk response to what tradition has dictated, especially now that the tradition serves no purpose. But, the “spiritual” people who claim that “food will not bring us close to God!” are becoming a problem. Paul writes, “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Our freedom to choose and to live and move in light of Christ’s sacrifice for us should not also persuade us to behave in ways that might cause another to lose faith. Essentially, it is not up to us – even if we believe that we’re very, very right – to correct the benign behaviors of those with whom we disagree. Rather, we are called to change our behavior that it might not cause problems in the body of Christ.
In the same way that someone who eats a lot of Mexican food cannot claim to speak fluent Spanish, neither can we allow our small bit of knowledge of an almighty God to wound others who do not share our perspective. Paul writes, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Anything we claim to know about God will be incomplete, because God is different than us. We are not omniscient, eternal beings. We are finite and foolish and self-serving. But, we were created in the image of God, who is infinite, wise and self-sacrificing. All we must do is claim the love that God freely gives, and share it with all whom we know. “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by God” (v. 2).
During our conference this week, I had a chance to share the story of Saint Mark and the Miracle on Peachtree. I always feel the weight of this story, because it is so powerful, so redemptive. It demonstrates a way in which the “spiritual” at Saint Mark worked in tandem with the “religious,” not for the sake of saving the church, but for the sake of building up the body of Christ by welcoming those who were in the most need of love and care. Since that time, we have seen thousands of people come to this sanctuary so that they might worship God in freedom and in safety. This is such a gift that you have given – to people you might never meet. Yet, that decision 20 years ago was a difficult one to make. But, the saints of this church decided to err on the side of love. In this, they demonstrated exactly what Paul is talking about: that love is greater than “knowledge.” Bill Harkins, who is an Episcopal priest and faculty member at Columbia Seminary, made the point this week that “It is more important to be in relationship than to be right.”
The aim of the Christian community is to build up the body, not to break it into factions. This does not mean that we are to silence our work as a prophetic body, but that we are to remember the source of our inspiration. The Miracle on Peachtree didn’t happen because we were trying to make the Baptists look bad. No, it happened because the faithful members of Saint Mark sought to do the loving thing in opening the doors to all who would meet Christ here. The risk was in choosing love, choosing acceptance, without fully understanding the consequences. In this, our congregation showed that "It's possible to love completely without completely understanding” (Bill Harkins).
Paul reminds us that, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whomare all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” The source of our work in the world is not to justify ourselves, but for the glory of God alone. In the same way that wearing your Sunday best is how you express your worship of God, others do not need to adhere to the same practice. These things are appearances, superficial, and do not get to the heart of who we are as Christ’s body.
The source of true wisdom is simple: Love is greater than knowledge. If we use love for God and neighbor as our guiding principle, as the answer to all of our questions, then the body of Christ will flourish. And, together, if we shed our claim to the “right way” of doing things, we will see the great reversal of religion and spirituality, which is a new vision of church, which leaves no one behind.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stationery card

With Love Christmas Card
Add one photo or multiple to your Christmas cards this season.
View the entire collection of cards.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sermon for Advent 3: Testifying to the Light

Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sermon: John 1:5-8, 19-28
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
December 11, 2011

Testifying to the Light

John 1:5-8, 19-28

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

The Testimony of John the Baptist

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

This has been an awful week for news. Last Friday, the story broke regarding 7 year old Jorelys Rivera’s disappearance from her apartment in Canton, and the news that followed only grew more gruesome and horrible. It is the worst story I have ever heard, a nightmare. It is the kind of thing that makes me lose faith in humanity, and question God’s goodness. In this situation, evil has triumphed, and hope has been vanquished. To stand in this pulpit today seems absurd. How am I to preach of the good news that God is coming into the world, in the form of a tiny baby, when the fate that befalls the most innocent among us is so grim.
In the week that this story broke, there were other stories, as well. From this most tragic event to the sadness that my community of Decatur has felt in the sudden loss of two recent high school graduates, who were killed in separate incidents on the same day. The families of Drew Charter school are also mourning the loss of a girl who lived for 13 years with congestive heart failure, and died just three months after starting high school – her life’s goal. A family nearby is preparing to walk their 9 year old son through the last few weeks of his life after a battle with cancer. And this is just the headline news, the awful, heartbreaking news about the death of those who have gone too soon and for reasons too ridiculous for us to understand. The rest of us have been affected by the sadness of life-altering news that comes too regularly: a diagnosis of a disease that will change our lives, the loss of a job that we have had for decades, the absence of a loved one. All of it collectively tells a pretty convincing story that death and loss is more powerful than life and love.
And, here we are on the third Sunday of Advent. If you read my newsletter article this week, you’ll know that this is the Sunday that we are to be rejoicing, because we are halfway through the liturgical season to Christmas day. It is Gaudete Sunday, the day in which we proclaim, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!” I don’t know about you, but I am finding it very hard to do that today. To rejoice in the face of this heaviness is preposterous to me. How are we to do that when we live in a world where some have all they need and others go hungry? Where some children find love and acceptance and others are brutalized and rejected. How on earth are we to think that this season’s conclusion will be enough to eliminate the suffering of the world?
Our Gospel – our desperately needed Good News text – comes from John. It is the testimony of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin who was given the role to prepare the people for the coming of their Messiah. His work included baptizing and testifying to the one who was to come. This was troubling to the Jews, because it was unclear where his authority came from to do such things. So, they sent priests and Levites to Jerusalem to ask him who he was, what gave John this authority – to preach and baptize. Was he the messiah? Was he Eiljah? Was he a prophet? His answer to each question was no. So, they pressed him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
His answer is language borrowed from the prophet Isaiah. He responds, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (Isaiah 40:3). John Wesley points out that this is John the Baptist’s way of saying, “I am that forerunner of Christ of whom Isaiah speaks. I am the voice - As if he had said, Far from being Christ, or even Elijah, I am nothing but a voice: a sound that so soon as it has expressed the thought of which it is the sign, dies into air, and is known no more.”[1] It takes humility to be this sort of messenger. John’s message is not about him, but about what is coming. His life was spent living out this prophecy. His death was suffered because of it. John’s life is a testimony to something larger than him, and larger than us.
So, if we listen carefully to him, we hear that we have a job. “Make straight the way of the Lord,” John says. But, what does it mean to do this? How is this our responsibility? What does God expect of us as we prepare for the light of Christ to enter into the world?
As we reflect on the events of this week, this month, this year, or the course of human history, the story we share is one of a desperate need for a savior. The season of presidential campaigning is enough to demonstrate this. The OCCUPY movement has arisen to give voice to the imbalance of wealth in our country, but it falls short because it makes no claim on the imbalance of wealth worldwide. The 99% of the United States are truly the 1% of the world. We have watched this year as the Arab Spring gave hope and rejoicing to countries who had lived under inhumane dictatorships, and we celebrated as they reclaimed their freedom and rights, but watched in horror at the bloodshed that it took to make it possible. The world is crying out, and we are told that it is our duty to make straight the way of the Lord, that the crooked might be evened.
So, how are we to do that? If it is God’s responsibility to bring light into the world, how do we make the crooked places straight? We can look to John the Baptist as a model for this work. As Tom Long points out, “The meaning of my life is not in what you think about me, but how you respond to the one to whom my life points.”[2] This requires some adjustment for us. We are encouraged to think that it’s all about us. That how we work, act, play, live, love and do business is a reflection on us. But, what if we were to consider that it’s truly about the person to whom our life points. If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must re-orient ourselves that the center point is no longer our life’s worth, but Christ’s.
This re-orientation is our greatest challenge as people of faith. It requires us to trust that God, in Christ, has a plan, not just for us, but for the world. It means that we can become courageous to stand up against the injustice of the world, because we have nothing to lose. Any judgment or condemnation that comes to us for doing the right thing, and speaking out for those who need advocacy and protection is not a reflection on who we want to be, but the person God has called us to be. We are to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. In these acts, we are challenged to correct a society where unspeakable evil can befall a young girl. Where innocent people are gunned down. Where Troy Davis can be executed for a crime it was not clear he committed.
John the Baptist’s words remain a prophetic voice to us today. In the prologue to the Gospel of John, we learn that “he himself is not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” As we sit in the pews today, we are waiting for the light to come into the world. And, we need it to be big, dazzling, overwhelming light. We need it to kick the darkness in the tail, that it runs screaming in the opposite direction. In the cartoon version of “the light coming into the world,” the light becomes a fantastic superhero with tremendous blinding power that forces the darkness into oblivion. But, the first verse we heard today from the Gospel of John was something more straightforward: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Many years ago, I read a sermon entitled “Luminarias,” on this passage by Scott Black Johnston, who used to serve at Trinity Presbyterian Church here in Atlanta. He tells a story about a former colleague of his at Austin Seminary who had asked her students to prepare a lesson plan on Isaiah 9, which reads, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined.”

As part of her research into this passage, a student decided to try and find the darkest place on campus. After hunting around, she discovered a little-used racket ball court in the basement of the McMillan classroom building. It was accessed only by going down two flights of steps and through a few heavy doors. A good portion of the court was probably underground. This enterprising student discovered that when you got inside and closed the door and turned out the lights, it was really dark in there. There wasn't a single stray photon bouncing around that could make an impression on a human retina. It was, she said, totally dark. Scary dark.

When it came time for this student to lead her class through the lesson, she brought them down the stairs, through the doors, and sat them down around the edges of the court. Then she said, "You are people who live in a land of deep darkness." And she turned out the light. A few students gasped. Then it got pretty quiet. She waited. In the hush and in the dark, they sat. They sat and waited. After five minutes, five surprisingly long, silent, and absolutely dark minutes, she read the words, "Those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined." With those words she struck a match and lit a small candle. Now, as I understand it, by no means did that small candle fill the vast room with light, but all the same it changed things. It changed them radically. With the flickering of the light, people saw themselves, and they saw each other. They saw faces-surprised faces, puzzled faces, and even a couple of faces streaked with tears. For those in deep darkness, a little light made all the difference, all the difference in the world.[3]

“The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This is the only way I am able to stand in the pulpit today, and make any claim about the goodness of God and the power of Christ’s life. If God had elected to become incarnate in any way other than a tiny, helpless newborn, we would have been blinded and overwhelmed. We could not have seen or perceived God’s good intentions and gracious offer to come and live in this world as we live: prone to suffering, conflict, persecution and death. In God’s great wisdom, a child was born: a child that learned, as we have to learn, how to walk and talk; a child that had to run from death from the moment of his birth. Do you see the gift of God’s goodness here? That the light that is coming into the world is not a blinding flash, but a soft light that is not overcome even by the deepest darkness.
In this, Sisters and Brothers, we may put our Advent hope. The darkness is present and powerful. It shouts loudly at us, reminding us of its presence here. But, the light is more powerful in its gentleness than the darkness is in all its fury. Hold on to this truth. Testify to it. Even when the darkness rages, remind yourself that what the darkness brings has no power against God’s love. Death and sadness will not define who we are. The darkness is present in this world to be defeated. Let us proclaim, as Advent people, who are hopeful and waiting, that the light – the true light, which enlightens everyone – is coming into the world. And, because of this: We may bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; We may proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”[4]

Come quickly, Lord Jesus! Amen and Amen.

[1] John Wesley’s notes on the Bible:



[4] Isaiah 61: 1-3, 11b