Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sermon: Pentecost Sunday, “As the Father Has Sent Me, So I Send You”

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Pentecost Sunday

Peace Be With You. As the Father Has Sent Me, So I Send You

John 20:19-23 

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked [for fear of the Jews], Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

One: This is the World of God for us, the People of God. 
All: Thanks be to God. 

Let us Pray: Holy God, Peaceful Christ, Mighty Spirit… be with us. Amen. 

            Today marks my final Sunday at Saint Mark United Methodist Church. I began my ministry here on Pride Sunday, 2007. Seven years is a long time, certainly, but it feels as though our time together has flown by. When I was a college student at Oglethorpe, the end of each academic year was marked by a different professor offering his or her “Last Lecture.” The idea was that the professor would give the lecture they cared most about teaching, unbound by a syllabus or course description. It was a great experience each year to hear the passions and interests of our professors as they spoke with joy and excitement. It was also meant to serve as the vessel for the final thoughts they would like to share. Today, I wish I’d had a “last lecture” years ago. Because offering my last sermon here seems too difficult. It shares the same burden with a first sermon: it needs to incorporate every good word I’ve ever hoped to share. 
            I was thrilled when I realized that today was Pentecost. This holy day in our church season has always been something of a mystery to me. I have never fully appreciated what it was we were celebrating: fire, spirit, the birth of the church. You’ll see on the cover of your bulletin a strange looking photo, in which it appears as though there is a cauldron burning in front of the altar rail. That’s because there was a cauldron burning in front of the altar rail. In 2008, on Pentecost Sunday, we offered an opportunity for everyone to write on small pieces of paper their prayers and petitions after General Conference. It had been a particularly painful session, with little progress to change the harmful language in the book of discipline, so we had a lot of prayers to offer. So many, that Lily Berrios marched down from the choir loft, armed with a fire extinguisher. You’ll see the word “HOPE” on the altar. It’s ironic, because it was meant to point us to a time in the future when we would see our prayers answered. Rather, it became our mantra as we hoped that we didn’t burn the sanctuary down. 
            This is but one of the memories that defines my time here at Saint Mark.  I wish that I could tell you today, that after seven years of ministry together, we have seen a shift, but the progress we are hoping for is slow. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when 80 conservative pastors in the United Methodist Church proposed a schism. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, retired pastor, author, and seminary president writes, “There are conscience-bound persons who find it impossible to live in The United Methodist Church as we presently define ourselves in relation to human sexuality. Others could not live in The United Methodist Church if the present position of the church on human sexuality were changed. Forty years of wrestling with the issue is enough.” I never, ever thought that I would say this, but I agree with Maxie Dunnam. We do not agree, and it’s time we admit this. As you can imagine, there are many, many people who do not agree with Maxie Dunnam, or any of the other pastors who have proposed a schism. Here in North Georgia, trusted colleagues, allies, friends and faithful servants have drafted a response to the proposed schism, pleading that there be a path to unity. Many of them have said, “if the United Methodist Church splits
, I will have no home.”
 Sisters and brothers, my family in Christ, this is how I know I’ve changed. Years ago, I would have agreed with them. But in the last 7 years, I have met dozens of people who were gifted, called and ordained into ministry in the United Methodist Church, then had to rescind their ordination credentials simply because they were gay or lesbian. My first day working at Saint Mark, I met Beth Stroud, a pastor in Pennsylvania who had been called up on charges because she decided after much prayer and discernment to come out to her congregation. This Wednesday, at the North Georgia Reconciling Ministries worship service at annual conference, I’ll have the honor of presiding at the communion table after we hear from Frank Schaefer, the pastor who was defrocked in December for performing the marriage of his son and husband. Look around this room, and you’ll find a former clergy person on every other pew. And the painful vision of Phillip’s stole sitting on this altar will never dull. I have heard my friends, who mean well, say that if the United Methodist Church splits, they will no longer have a family.  
 But I tell you, as a life-long United Methodist, who is grateful for the people in every congregation who have raised, taught, nurtured and loved me, this denomination is not the sort of family I hope stays together. If this “family” is comfortable seeking the maintenance of the institution over the restoration of the pastors and members who have been excluded, unwelcomed and defrocked, then it is too dysfunctional for me to hope it can be saved. This is not an issue of scriptural interpretation, which is a luxury and a privilege for those with the time to debate it. This is an issue of justice for me, because it is an issue of justice for all of us. If this “family” cannot agree to welcome all who earnestly seek Christ, then Maxie Dunnam and I can peaceably shake hands and go our separate ways. 
 The illusion that we can create “unity” in a church that is already broken is misguided. We, as pastors or laity, do not create unity. It is Christ and Christ alone who can do that. For too long we have talked and argued and disagreed about the interpretation of 8 passages in the Bible, none of which occur in the Gospels, for the sake of determining how sinful or abominable people are because of their sexuality. I think the work of making Disciples for the transformation of the world is about much more than this. This is the beauty of our Pentecost story. Our text from Acts describes the day of Pentecost, with the new disciples of Jesus all together in one place. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability…Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
            What does it mean, indeed? The story of Pentecost is marvelous and wonderful because all who were gathered spoke different languages, but were able to understand one another. This is not a “correction” of what happened at the Tower of Babel. Rather, it is the gift of hearing what is being said. This is the truest celebration of our differences, an affirmation of diversity.  
            Friends, please do not hear me saying that I think that we should abandon the United Methodist Church. This is not true at all. I have a deep love for our theological tradition and many of the ways in which our denomination functions. I have been blessed beyond measure by the appointments I’ve been called to serve, and I will continue to do so as long as I am able. What I am saying is that it’s time to fight, even harder. We can only do that together. Saint Mark, you are a special congregation. You are all here for the same reason. You are all here because you have a deep love of God, a passion for Christ and a willingness to follow the Holy Spirit. You are also here because this church is special. This church was the first to welcome immigrants in the 1950s, African Americans in the 1960s, the destitute in the 1970s and the GLBT population in the 1990s. Saint Mark is the “bellweather” church of the southeast. You are people that have made this statement true generation after generation. We have always been the congregation that has demonstrated what it truly looks like to have “Open Minds, Open Hearts and Open Doors,” and that message has not grown stale. Keep preaching it! 
        Keep telling people why you come here. Keep sharing our story, and how your story is woven into it. Just as every Sunday is a “little Easter," in which we celebrate the Resurrection, every Sunday should be a "little Pride," in which

we actively seek to celebrate who God made us to be, in the multitude of qualities that

we possess, with no fear or shame. The only thing that gladdens my heart when I think of

leaving is the joy to consider all those who haven’t yet come to see the beauty of this

congregation. John Turlington is in for a wonderful surprise when he and Anita arrive in a

couple of weeks, and I don’t just mean because of the drag show for missions. This is a

church like no other. You are people like none other. The gifts that John will bring to you will

edify you in ways unimagined, and you will change him, as well.
Christ said to his disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” So, keep Christ’s peace with you. Go forth into the world to continue making disciples of Christ in the name of love, acceptance and justice. The Miracle on Peachtree is still happening, my friends! The Miracle on Peachtree is not an event from 25 years ago. It is today. It is now. It is tomorrow. Go forth and keep living it. 
I love you. 
I thank you. 
I encourage you, now and always, to be the church God has called you to be. 
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, mother to us all. Amen. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Remarks Article: Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled

Friends, this is the last newsletter article I shall write as a member of the pastoral staff here at Saint Mark. Not one day has passed that I wasn't grateful to serve here. It is a privilege, a blessing, and your witness to me has changed me forever. When I arrived at Saint Mark on Pride Sunday 2007, Matt and I had two toddler boys with crazy heads of curly hair. You welcomed us with open arms and as I marched in my first Pride parade, I knew that my life would never be the same. I've never known such joy and gratitude. In our 7 years here, you have nurtured us from a family of 4 into a family of 5. You have become our friends, guiding us and our little family as we all grew together. 

As we begin the painful and difficult process of packing and preparing to move to California, we have been flooded with love, support and well wishes. The leaving of a place that has become more than a community - it is our home - is never easy. I find myself overwhelmed with emotion at the simplest of things: driving down Ponce, admiring the friendships my children have formed, coffee. This is because my heart is so full. 

I have stumbled on a strange truth in the story that my family and I are living. God's faithfulness is beyond my comprehension. The last few months have not been easy as we've waited and hoped. But, here is what I have come to know: you have prepared me for what is next. I don't just mean taking on a church as the senior pastor. You have prepared me, uniquely, for the work that God needs to be done in Laguna Beach. Were it not for my ministry here, I would not have been shaped in the precise way that would be necessary for me to advocate for the LGBT community. My call is now, and has always been, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but I never could have imagined that my vocation would allow me to serve as an advocate for all in such mighty ways. Our work is not yet done. And now, I have the strength, wisdom and insight to fight even harder for full inclusion. This may mean some painful times ahead, but I will fight for and with you as long as I am able. 

To say that my heart is broken to leave is an understatement. But my heart is more full than it has ever been with the love and assurance from you, that our ministry together will not cease, it will simply be done thousands of miles apart. My family in Christ, my beloved Saint Mark, thank you. Thank you for being who you are. Thank you for being courageous. Thank you for shouting, singing and witnessing to the truth that God's love is now and has always been the tie that binds us. 

In this, my heart rests. My heart is not troubled. I am so grateful. My love, peace, and gratitude are yours always, 

Rev. Mandy