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.