Saturday, June 18, 2016

Rationale for the Resolution on a Call for Non-Conformity With the Book of Discipline in the Cal-Pac Annual Conference

Today, the California-Pacific Annual Conference voted overwhelmingly to approve A Call For Non-Conformity With the Book of Discipline:

WHEREAS, according to The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, "all persons are of sacred worth" and "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching" (161.F); and

WHEREAS, United Methodist Church doctrine calls for inclusiveness in which “all persons are open, welcoming, fully accepting, and supporting of all other persons, enabling them to participate fully in the life of the Church, the community, and the world” (140); and

WHEREAS, a candidate's sexual orientation and gender identity should not be considered as criteria for fitness or effectiveness in ministry; and

WHEREAS, the Book of Discipline encourages “a respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree, to explore the sources of our differences, to honor the sacred worth of all persons,” and acknowledges that “we do not see the ‘Discipline’ as sacrosanct or infallible” (Episcopal Greetings, p. v); and

WHEREAS, ordained clergy seeking to navigate the inconsistencies within United Methodist Church doctrine face extraordinary penalties by ministering fully to the LGBTQIA children of God, and charges have been made and trials held against ordained clergy for conducting marriage ceremonies; and

WHEREAS, Bishops have publicly and privately opposed recommendations for such charges, and spoken out against trials and penalties for ministers officiating at these marriages; and

WHEREAS, by scripture, God’s covenant extends to all persons, as made living by the Christ whose command was to love God and neighbor, teaching radical inclusion, and through our Church mandate to gather all persons of faith into the community of the body of Christ;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED the California-Pacific Annual Conference urges the Bishop and Cabinet to state publicly they will not deny appointments based on sexual orientation or gender identity; urges the Board of Ordained Ministry to declare its intention not to consider sexual orientation and gender identity in making decisions in regard to commissioning and ordination; urges trial boards not to convict for chargeable offenses pertaining to being "a self-avowed, practicing homosexual," as well as for those clergy who officiate at weddings for couples regardless of the gender of the partners, and that these matters would be addressed through "Just Resolution."

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED the California-Pacific Annual Conference and its members are urged to not participate in or conduct judicial procedures related to The Book of Discipline's prohibitions against LGBTQIA persons.

**Because I was one of the authors of this piece of legislation, I was able to take the opportunity to speak in favor of it. Below is what I shared on the floor of Annual Conference: 

Bishop Carcaño, my name is Rev. Mandy Sloan McDow, clergy from the North GA Annual Conference, appointed to serve the faithful congregation at Laguna Beach United Methodist Church.

This resolution borrows language from our sisters and brothers in the New England Annual Conference who, yesterday, affirmed a similar piece of legislation. It uses strong language – the language of non-compliance – because this is the time in which all eyes are upon us, to see how this Conference will respond as we wait and hope for the work of the Bishops’ Commission to begin.

As one who watched from afar for many years, I am keenly aware of the gift of this Annual Conference’s continual work for justice and inclusion. But, I will tell you that people are hurting. In the days following General Conference, I heard from my LGBTQIA congregants a great wail of “How long, O Lord?”

I stand here as the pastor with a broken heart. I have loved and cared for, ministered to and provided the sacraments for my LGBTQIA siblings as best I can. But my best isn’t good enough, because I serve a denomination that is so entrenched in bureaucracy that it cannot move forward fast enough. So, I am left with the awful truth that my beloved congregants and friends – my family in the body of Christ – may leave. I am heartbroken that I have come to a time in which I cannot be the pastor to those whom I’ve been serving, because they cannot stay in an abusive relationship with our denomination any longer.

This title of this legislation is strongly worded, because the actions needed to restore the trust of our LGBTQIA siblings in Christ are strong. But, this piece of legislation doesn’t ask any more of this Annual Conference than what you’ve already done, for you have stood on the right side of history. Bishop Carcaño, you have demonstrated radical hospitality to those who have been rejected based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, and you have acted with grace to those clergy who have risked their credentials to officiate the weddings of same-sex couples. You have always done what was right.

This legislation is necessary because people are looking to us to make a strong stand. People are desperate for us to do more than wait. People are watching for us to model grace, rather than judgment. It is our call, as the beloved children of God, to embody Christ’s love in the most radical and life-giving ways we can, and to put our faith, not in the law (which is not sacrosanct or infallible) but in the Gospel. For it is our call, to continue the push, with grace, compassion and mercy, for a church that errs not on the side of judgment, but on the side of love, just as you have modeled for us, Bishop Carcaño.

This resolution speaks to Christ’s life-giving love, and the desperate plea the world has uttered for the church to live into its baptismal promise and to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves (including the Book of Discipline). I humbly offer this resolution as my prayer for this power to be used wisely and courageously, urging this Annual Conference and the Board of Ordained Ministry to act with the same prophetic witness you have always shown.


Rev. Mandy Sloan McDow
Senior Minister
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Pulse: Massacre in the City Beautiful

Weeks ago, I planned a sermon series on the marginalized people in scripture. Today was the day I planned to preach on Jephthah's Daughter, one of the most notable "texts of terror." I've been dreading it. 

Then we awoke to the news that the deadliest shooting in US history occurred at The Pulse, a popular gay bar in Orlando. 

Today at Laguna Beach United Methodist Church, we rang 51 chimes for each of the deceased. We prayed for the victims, the shooter and their families. And, we listened to this dreadful text, which suddenly made sense in the wake of this terrible act. 

Jephthah's Daughter was sacrificed on the altar of her father's insecurities and fear. Fear is what cripples us. Fear is the way we limit God. 

No longer can the church be afraid to stand up for the rights of LGBTQIA people. We can no longer pretend that this community isn't the subject of great harm. We are no better than Jephthah if we continue to use our privilege to permit the destruction of the lives of others. 

This was a targeted act of hate against the LGBTQ community. This isn't an issue of religion or even a matter of lax gun control laws. This is a matter of homophobia, and it's beyond time for the church to do more, shout more, advocate more. Love more. 

We have work to do, because the Body of Christ is broken, and only love can heal it.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Sermon: Anything Less than Everything

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Anything Less than Everything

Luke 24:1-12
24But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Every preacher longs for this day, and dreads this day. Because it is the day we are to have the best words crafted together for the sake of all who have ears to hear them. And, this text, quite simply, is the beginning of our narrative as Christians. But, it’s not a recollection of Christianity’s first sermon. It’s the story about the people who preached it. Which means that what the women, Christianity’s first preachers, said… wasn’t what mattered. It’s not what they said, it’s what they expressed.

They expressed to the apostles something they believed to be “an idle tale,” and the apostles did not believe the women who preached it to them.

Except for Peter. Loving Peter. Peter, the rock. Simon Peter. The disciple, the denier, the saint. He didn’t preach a sermon about the resurrection. He went home, amazed, and told no one. Because sometimes that's all you can do with your amazement, is tuck it in your heart and let it sit for a while. 

Because what Mary, Joanna, Mary-mother-of-James, and Mary Magdalene said maybe the truest sermon ever preached. Mary, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t say, “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed,” but “I have seen the Lord.” Upon these five words hang all of our theology. "Resurrection is not a third person confession but a first person testimony. We don’t want to hear that the resurrection is a creed of the church -- we need to hear that the resurrection is a truth we might witness and to which we might give witness on a daily basis.”[1]

The problem with that is that the resurrection isn’t something that can be easily explained or paralleled, or even witnessed. It’s not a myth or a metaphor. Resurrection is, as we say, the great mystery of our faith. This is why Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51) There is no explaining it. We must live into it. But how?

I think we need to approach the story of the resurrection with a healthy dose of gumption and willingness to lean into our faith. Because, as Paul states, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (I Corinthians 15:17)   Perhaps it’s not the cross that’s salvific, but the resurrection. Maybe the cross was a means for God to enter into our suffering, but not what was necessary for salvation.

Maybe I’m a heretic.

But, what Paul is really asking, and what the women are telling the apostles is quite simply this: “What’s the point of anything less than everything?”

This is the reason for Christ’s resurrection.

It’s because, God knows, we crave a whole and complete relationship with our creator, with the one who loves us first and best.

This is what God is trying to tell us, through the intention of the incarnation and through every sliver of revelation we receive.

God is trying to tell us that God is in it – literally putting on flesh. "God has skin in the game because we have skin in the game."[2] And because God does, we can. We can look at death, which is going to do terrible, horrible things to our lives. Death will chase us, mock us, pursue us. Death will tell us we are unworthy or unlovable, but death will never EVER define us. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The angels said. This is the question for us all.

That's because we are not people who worship a God of absence. When the stone is rolled away, and Mary proclaims, “he is not here, for he has risen,” she isn’t speaking about the absence or distance of a savior who was once so real that she held his bleeding head in her lap as she anointed him with oil and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, just as she’d done when he was a baby. Not in a manger, but now in a tomb. This is not a distant God who exists only in comfortable ways. This is a God of food troughs and caverns. A God of hunger and scarcity. A God of anger at injustice. A God of righteous indignation.

THIS is the God of whom we speak when we say, “He is not here, he is risen!”

Christ has risen because anything less than everything wouldn’t be enough.

Anything less than everything would be what we are capable of.

But, aren’t we capable of more?

Aren’t we capable of more love, more grace, more forgiveness, more righteous indignation. And not always on our own behalf, but on behalf of others?

After all, how do you take a lifetime of small victories and a lifetime worth of sorrows and pull them together into a space that makes sense? How can we take the joys that are fleeing and the griefs that are abiding and hold them in the tender care of who we are, as children of God? How do we make sense of the narrative that sometimes seems more like struggle than it does like comfort?

We do it because this narrative is real and true. God didn’t defeat death by making us immortal; rather, God lived into the suffering. We worship a God who is unafraid to go hungry, who is not reluctant to get dirty, who is willing to get hurt.

My boys play baseball, and they have a teammate named Josh. He is eleven years old. The only brother of 3 sisters, a stellar athlete and a brilliant boy. He is good and kind, tenderhearted and compassionate.  And, he was diagnosed 8 weeks ago with an inoperable tumor on his brain stem.

And his cancer is aggressively growing. 

After reading one of the most recent updates, I sat and cried and shook my first at God with the demand to understand why this would happen to such a person. Why does a young child have to suffer like this? How can God ask me - us - *anyone* to preach faith in a good and loving God when the manifestation of evil that is Cancer is slowly and painfully robbing this boy of his life and this family of their wholeness. God may not have willed this but I want desperately for God to stop it. THAT is the great mystery of why I keep my faith.

But, this text reminds us: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here!” It’s because we expect something less than everything.

Two days after we got the most dire update about Josh, we received word that there was more news.

The MRI had been read incorrectly.

Josh’s tumor wasn’t growing aggressively. It was possibly shrinking. His cancer is still present, he is still fighting through the sedation, there is still a lot of wondering and hoping. But, his prognosis is much better than anticipated.

I want God to be a mighty force for good. I want the cancer gone. I want miracles of healing and hopefulness and to be right without a shadow of a doubt. I want Nothing Less than Everything from this God of all creation. I want the mystery to be about how his cancer disappeared without a trace.

But, sometimes what we get is a matchstick’s worth of light in the darkest of valleys. And, what we find is that it’s enough. It’s enough to give us all the light that we need to see what’s next. And, though we may want fireworks, God knows that we’d be overwhelmed. The soft glow of hope allows our eyes to adjust, to take it all in, and to focus as we see what’s next.

“Anything less than everything” is what we anticipate, but we are loved by a God who will do nothing less than everything to abide with us.

In the name of the God who is with us, for us, and refuses to be God without us. Amen. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday: Meditation in Word and Art

Table by Rev. Dr. Beth LaRocca-Pitts
"The Crucifixion," James Weldon Johnson 

Jesus, my gentle Jesus,
Walking in the dark of the Garden --
The Garden of Gethsemane,
Saying to the three disciples:
Sorrow is in my soul --
Even unto death;
Tarry ye here a little while,
And watch with me.

Jesus, my burdened Jesus,
Praying in the dark of the Garden --
The Garden of Gethsemane.
Saying: Father,
Oh, Father,
This bitter cup,
This bitter cup,
Let it pass from me.

"Betrayed," Bobby Strickland

Jesus, my sorrowing Jesus,
The sweat like drops of blood upon his brow,
Talking with his Father,
While the three disciples slept,
Saying: Father,
Oh, Father,
Not as I will,
Not as I will,
But let thy will be done.

Salvador Dali, "Vision of Fatima," 1962

Oh, look at black-hearted Judas --
Sneaking through the dark of the Garden --
Leading his crucifying mob.
Oh, God!
Strike him down!
Why don't you strike him down,
Before he plants his traitor's kiss
Upon my Jesus' cheek?

"Jesus Before Pilate," Jan Richardson
And they take my blameless Jesus,
And they drag him to the Governor,
To the mighty Roman Governor.
Great Pilate seated in his hall,--
Great Pilate on his judgment seat,
Said: In this man I find no fault.
I find no fault in him.
And Pilate washed his hands.
But they cried out, saying:
Crucify him!--
Crucify him!--
Crucify him!--
His blood be on our heads.

"Via Dolorosa," Bobby Strickland

And they beat my loving Jesus,
They spit on my precious Jesus;
They dressed him up in a purple robe,
They put a crown of thorns upon his head,
And they pressed it down --
Oh, they pressed it down --

And they mocked my sweet King Jesus.

Graffiti Art, London

"Simon of Cyrene," Bobby Strickland
Up Golgotha's rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.

And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes, black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon,

And Simon bore the cross.

"This I Do For Love," Bobby Strickland

On Calvary, on Calvary,
They crucified my Jesus.
They nailed him to the cruel tree,
And the hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!
Rang through Jerusalem's streets.
The hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!

Rang through Jerusalem's streets.

"Stripping of Garments," Bobby Strickland

Jesus, my lamb-like Jesus,
Shivering as the nails go through his hands;
Jesus, my lamb-like Jesus,
Shivering as the nails go through his feet.
Jesus, my darling Jesus,
Groaning as the Roman spear plunged in his side;
Jesus, my darling Jesus,
Groaning as the blood came spurting from his wound.

Oh, look how they done my Jesus.

Weeping Mary,
Sees her poor little Jesus on the cross.
Weeping Mary,
Sees her sweet, baby Jesus on the cruel cross,
Hanging between two thieves.

"Heaven Weeps," Bobby Strickland
And Jesus, my lonesome Jesus,
Called out once more to his Father,
My God,
My God,
Why hast thou forsaken me?
And he drooped his head and died.

"Sealed," Bobby Strickland

And the veil of the temple was split in two,
The midday sun refused to shine,
The thunder rumbled and the lightning wrote
An unknown language in the sky.
What a day! Lord, what a day!

When my blessed Jesus died.

Oh, I tremble, yes, I tremble,
It causes me to tremble, tremble,
When I think how Jesus died;
Died on the steeps of Calvary,
How Jesus died for sinners,

Sinners like you and me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sermon: Advent II: The Path Is Illuminated: John the Baptist

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent II: Light and Life to All He Brings
The Path Is Illuminated: John the Baptist

Luke 3:1-6, NRSV 
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 

3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, 

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

One: This is the Word of God, for us, the People of God. 
ALL: Thanks be to God!

The opening lines of our scripture verse today seem to be throw-aways. They are the part that I always want to skip, so that I can get right to the good stuff. I want to make the crooked paths straight. I’m ready for the mountains to be laid low and the valleys to be exalted! I am desperate for the rough paths to be made smooth. These opening two verses are filled with nothing but ancient names, complicated pronunciations and outdated geography. But, these first two verses are there for  a reason. They establish the political scene in which this narrative is being told. In the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. The very beginning of this particular story reminds us that the context of our salvation is never divorced from politics. These names are not unfamiliar to us, and they will become critical to the story in a few short weeks as our narrative takes us from Christ’s birth to Christ’s death. Listen again:  

“In the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests.” The inclusion of this information names those in the political landscape who were to be held accountable for carrying out the actions that crucified Jesus. Under Tiberius’s reign, Pilate released Barabbus to the masses, and washed his hands of Jesus’ conviction. Herod had been chasing Jesus since the moment of his birth, when he sent the wise men to find the star at its rising, and ordered the slaughter of the innocents – all first born children under the age of 2. It was Herod who sought the title “King of the Jews,” and this was the conviction under which Jesus was arrested, tried and murdered. This is when Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to exile in Egypt, refugees in a foreign land, seeking shelter and safety. 

Friends, our faith is inherently political. Jesus was killed at the hands of the state. His family sought political asylum after his life, and the lives of so many other children, was threatened by the ruler. We cannot pretend that politics and Christianity are not deeply interwoven. What, then, are we called to do? 

The GOP was derided this week for inviting prayers for the victims and their families after the devastating shooting in San Bernadino, after the New York Daily News ran a scathing headline in condemnation of their passive response. The hashtag #GodIsn’tFixingThis began trending on Twitter, which means that millions of people are shaking their fists in outrage, either because their faith and its practices are being attacked or because there is the perception God has let us down. The problem is that both statements could be true.

This week, an Editorial ran on the front page of the New York Times for the first time in 95 years. It read, “All decent people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the latest slaughter of the innocents, in California… But motives do not matter to the dead. Attention and anger should be directed at the elected leaders whose job it is to keep us safe, but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.” Did you hear that? They borrowed our language, Church. The language we have used to describe the flight of Mary and Joseph to Egypt while Herod ordered the murder of all first born children is the “slaughter of the innocents.” They are using our words to discuss the world today, and we have an obligation to speak back. 

It is my best hope to stand in this pulpit, week after week, and try to offer theological insights into the text which can help us make sense of the world. And, week after week, there is a need to hold the text and the world in each hand, and weigh how one affects the other. Karl Barth reminds us that, “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need - according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper."

This week, we all sat with a newspaper in one hand, as we listened to journalists and politicians use the language of our Church to tell us what the world needs. If you think for a moment that your faith is irrelevant, or that the Church is unnecessary, this week will remind us all that the world is crying out for a word from us - the believers in an almighty God -  to make sense of the chaos. We watched as the GOP prayed for the victims and their families, and listened as Senator Chris Murphy replied, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again.”   But, strangely enough, that is exactly what our text is telling us to do today. 

This week, phrases like "prayer shaming’ were used to describe the rhetoric offered after one too many mass shootings took the lives of too many innocent people. But, prayer is what we do when we have no other way to move forward. It is how we begin. It is the origination of action. But, as journalists reminded us this week: Faith (including prayer) without works is, indeed, dead.

So, now, if we go back and read the text from Luke 3:1-6, we can see that John the Baptist’s cry from the wilderness is coming from a political landscape of corruption, greed and impotent enforcement of the law. It is in the context of this political backdrop that the text tells us, “John went into all the region, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Do you hear the subversive nature of this action? John, a prophet, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, leaves the safety of the wilderness to emerge into a dangerous political landscape, and preaches baptism and forgiveness, not condemnation and judgment. He preaches an actionable and gracious response: Prepare ye the way of the Lord! 

This, Sisters and Brothers, is a call to justice, a call to action! This is not a sit-back-and-watch sort of platitude. This is the reminder that we, the people of God, are called to help bring about the Kingdom of God, here and now. This doesn’t separate us from the implication that God is called to make God’s own self known in the midst of the turmoil. I am of the opinion that God needs to show up in big ways, especially when the tragedies occur. But there is a tie between the prophetic call of John the Baptist to the indictment that God isn’t fixing this. And that tie is us, the Church. 

We are the ones the world is observing now. Our God is on the line, our prayers are cast as weak, and our faith deemed irrelevant. But, you and I know that our response of grace and forgiveness is the only way to change the world. It is also the most difficult thing to offer. Because the crooked paths have yet to be made straight. We are waiting, just as those who heard the words of the Prophet Isaiah (40:1-5), “Comfort ye! Comfort ye, my people! Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that cries out in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

We live in a world where warfare has yet to be accomplished, where the valleys are low and the mountains are still insurmountable. But, we are called to be the ones who model what it means to be baptized, with water. This means we are imbued with grace - a gift freely given to us - and encouraged to share it. It means we must listen to those with whom we disagree. It means we must push those who need to be held accountable. It means we do the work to prepare the way for the one who is coming after us. We do so by letting go of our pride, embracing our enemy and relinquishing a love of war for a search for peace. 

Today, on the Second Sunday of Advent, our prayer is for peace. There is no week more desperate for a word of peace than this one. This is the day we look for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, when nation will no longer lift up sword against nation and we study war no more. Our salvation is woven into the fabric of political reality of the world. We are called to rise above it, to pray without ceasing, and to preach forgiveness and righteousness. 

So, Church, let us stand up and be the ones who answer the question, “Where is God in this?” Let us be the reason why people see God in the midst of the turmoil. 

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

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Importance of Being

Earlier this year, I met Ernest Hackmon, long-time Laguna Beach resident, and radio host of a show on Laguna's local radio station, KX 93.5. He was kind enough to ask me to be a guest on his show in February to talk about ministry for and with the LGBTQ community. He had me on the show again to talk about hopes for Thanksgiving, issues of faith, and what it's *actually* like to be a minister.

Thanks, Ernest. It's an honor.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon: Must I Read the Bible Literally to take the Bible Seriously?

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sunday, September 20, 2015

How Do You Read the Bible?
Matthew 5:17-20, 43-48
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
One: This is the Word of God, for us, the People of God.
Many: Thanks be to God.

            This weekend, I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota called, “Why Christian?” The premise of this conference was that each of the 15 speakers who addressed us would be answering the same question: Why am I a Christian? The speakers were all women, many of them pastors, some were professors, and all of them were prophetic, honest and intelligent. My current pastoral hero, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans dreamed the idea of this conference up over a year ago, and after a few phone calls to some of the people they had come to know and respect, this remarkable event came together.
            I listened (and tweeted) with rapt attention as these women, these unusual, beautiful, odd, courageous, gifted, diverse and called women, told us the story of why they claimed the identity of “Christian.” The panel included speakers who were white, black, brown, Asian, Indian, Hispanic, gay, straight, genderqueer, trans*, short, tall, pregnant, mothers, single, divorced, musically gifted and overachieving. Many of them acknowledged that they confessed to be Christians, despite the hurt that the church had caused. Most of them acknowledged that they did so because they came to claim the Scriptures as the story of their very own lives.
            My friend and seminary colleague, Mihee Kim-Kort, was one of the speakers. She is a Korean-American Presbyterian minister, married to a super-Caucasian Presbyterian minister, author, blogger, speaker, activist, young adult pastor and mother of three (including a set of twins). In her spare time, she managed to answer the phone to say “yes” to the invitation to come and speak. She approached the question, “Why am I a Christian?” by re-framing it to ask, “Who do you say that I am?”
            This, of course, is the question that Jesus asks Peter. If you recall, Peter’s quick response is, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus proceeds to teach the Disciples about everything that is to come: that he must suffer and die. This is the story of our Incarnate God, friends. God chose this messy, fragile, earthen vessel into which to pour God’s very self, knowing that damage was likely and scars were a guarantee. This is the question we are posing for ourselves over the next several weeks: Who do you say that I am? How do our lives reflect the image of God in which we have been created? Would it surprise people if we told them we were Christians?
            Today, our primary question is about the Bible. Being a Christian has precious few requirements. There’s no surgical procedure at the hands of a rabbi on the 8th day, no dietary restrictions, no mandates about which direction to face when we pray. Being a Christian is a practice that requires only two things: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. We claim the name of Christian because we are able to do these things since it was Jesus, God in the flesh, who showed us how.
            In order to see how God did that, though, we have to return to the stories of our tradition. The problem is that the Bible is viewed as being as dangerous as the church, to many. The Bible is filled with stories of temptation, deception, lies, duplicity, arrogance,  murder, seduction, patriarchy, greed… and that’s just in Genesis!
            If I’m being cynical about it, I could confess that it seems as though the Bible is a collection of stories which tells us all about how much people reject God.
            But, if you catch me on a good day, I’ll tell you that truly, deep down, I know that the Bible is a collection of stories which tells us all about how much God loves us.
            The problem is: both things are true.
            The Bible says many things: it tells us about how God created the world and called it Good, and then… just 10 chapters later, it tells us about how God destroyed the world because there was nothing good left in it. God tells Abram and Sarai they are going to have a child in their sunset years, and then orders Abram – now Abraham – to take that precious, long-awaited child to Mt. Moriah and sacrifice him. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” as Job reminds us. So, how are we to read the stories about a God who seems less loving and more punitive, and hold them in tension with the stories about a God who loves the world so much that he sent his only begotten Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
            This is not a book with a very good editor.
            There are inconsistencies.
            There are stories that have clearly not been fact-checked.
            There are omissions, of names and people.
            There are exaggerations and probably a lot of plagiarism.
            So, how on earth are we to read this book, filled with mysteries and wonder and laws and rules. It is boring, it is fascinating, it is wonderful, it is horrible. It is like reading pages of tax code in conjunction with paragraphs of a Danielle Steele novel.
            Except, that this book isn’t a book. It’s words. And, these words have been spoken through the ages, from generation to generation. I have a lot of respect for stories that have hung around this long, because it means that these words were worth saying.
            But, let’s remember what we hear in the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That means these words have been around longer than the creatures who knew how to speak them. The Word existed before creation, before time. The Word was with God. The Word was God. If we are willing to consider the poetry of this, maybe it will begin to tell us how we are to read the Bible. Not as stories, not as myth, not as allegory, not as factual, but as words that are TRUE.
            If these Words were not true, if they didn’t resonate with the human experience, then we would have stopped speaking them a long time ago.  Let’s take our Gospel lesson for today, in which the Scribes and Pharisees are giving Jesus a very hard time, since it was their duty to defend the dot and tittle of interpretation of the Scriptures. Keep in mind, the Scribes were the ones who spent their days ensuring that the scriptures were recorded so that they could be kept and passed on. The words on the page meant a lot to them. It was their work, their vocation, their life. Their calligraphy was the blueprint of faith for the next generation. They were striving to answer the question, “What must we do to please God?” And they believed fully that the answer was contained in the words written in their careful and precise penmanship. These words on the page were sacred, and these words were theirs to defend.
            So, when Jesus shows up and starts noodling with the interpretation of seemingly straightforward things like, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” they get a little bent out of shape. It seems as though Jesus hasn’t just moved their proverbial cheese, but he has unapologetically eaten it, too. He heals people on the Sabbath, and tells the diligent Scribes that they have no right to condemn him. They are perplexed by this man, because not only does he know their words, but he manages to use these words against them.
            This causes a fair bit of tension between them. They become the object of his teachings more often than not. Woe to those who are like the Scribes and the Pharisees! For they provoke the irritated exhale of the Son of God.  Something marvelous happens in this passage, though. Jesus finally stares into the eyes of the scribes and acknowledges that their work is critical. He takes the steam out of their locomotive by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” In telling the Scribes that their work is not unimportant, that it is necessary and essential for the law to be upheld, he honors their diligence in overseeing this archival project. But, he offers an important insight into his work on earth: he is here to fulfill the law.
            We all know that the work it takes to become a gifted attorney means to know the law so well that you can read it in new ways. All of our words require interpretation. It is one of the reasons we find ourselves arguing with our Christian sisters and brothers about the Bible in the first place: each of us can read the same passage and each of us will have a different understanding of its meaning. This is one of the blessed freedoms we are given, that all of us might be able to read these words and hear how they sound to us.
            In this passage, Jesus liberates us to read the scriptures in a new way. He’s pushing the Scribes to see that the solution to the great problem of interpretation is not shredding the scrolls and muting the Prophets. This would lead to a world without ground rules or history; there would be no parameters, no promise.
            Jesus says that he comes, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. To me, this means that Jesus demonstrates the fullness of the words on the page, not in the self-limiting way we interpret or translate them, but in the Spirit of what God is intending for us. Let’s go back to the example of Abraham and his long-awaited Isaac. Let’s consider that though this is a horrific story of the implication of obedience to God, at all devastating costs, it is also the story of the ram caught in the thicket. It is the story of God’s faithfulness and Abraham’s promise. What if this word is meant to tell us about the ways in which God offers provision for us, rather than the way God takes away what is precious to us.  The fulfillment of the law and Prophets in Christ means that we may reach a day when we no longer need them.
Jesus speaks these words to the Scribes and Pharisees:  Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This seems pretty pointed, given that the Scribes and Pharisees are sitting right there, but I’m willing to believe that the Word-Made-Flesh-And-Dwelling-Among-Us is probably choosing his words carefully. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Whoever breaks one of these commandments will go directly to the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Rather, he says, “whoever breaks one of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” This tells me that the kingdom of heaven might just be for all of us, even the ones who forget how to keep the rules.  And, I’d wager that being least in the kingdom of heaven is far better than being greatest in the kingdom of earth.
            Jesus goes on to use one of my favorite phrases in the Bible: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I love this use of language that only Jesus employs: You have heard it said… but I say... Only the Word Made Flesh could convince me that this new way of hearing might be acceptable. After all, it is much more in my nature to love my neighbor and hate my enemy. I’m good at that. I excel at it. I would be the proud victor of the Love My Neighbor Series. Make me a medal, commission the trophy, organize the parade. This is what I am made to do!
            However, theologians like to call this passage, “The great reversal.” If you read the Gospel of Matthew, especially the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see that it’s filled with crazy things like the last being first and the first being last. The great reversal is a terrible inconvenience to those of us who have raced to the front of the line, only to find that the concession stand is closed. The kingdom of heaven boasts a pretty fantastic banquet table, but we all need to remember that the ones who will be served first are those who are the hungriest. In this passage, Jesus is “starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and, at the very same time, redeeming this world that he loves and that will, in due time, put him to death.”[1]
            What, then, does this text tell us about how we are to read the Bible? After all, it doesn’t answer the question of whether or not we should take it literally or figuratively, with a grain of salt or with utter obedience. It hasn’t settled if this is the inerrant word of God or the inspired Word of God. What Jesus tells us in this passage is simply that we need to hear these words (after all, he didn’t come to abolish them). But, when we hear these words, we should do so with an understanding that they are our guide, the syllabic pathways of God’s persistent outreach to us in all possible ways. Through creation, promise, rainbows, steadfastness, prophets, providence, deliverance, forgiveness, and finally… incarnation, God employs all possible resources to continue to communicate the only Word that matters: love.
            So, Jesus, who do I say that you are? You have heard it said that you are John the Baptist, possibly Elijah. But, I say that you are the Word – the Word made flesh, and dwelling among us – and you are True.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] David Lose,