Monday, June 11, 2007

Rocking the Boat

Preaching is the thing I enjoy most about being a pastor. I love to stand before the gathered community of God, seeking to offer a Word that will be hopeful, helpful and formational. There are times when I stand before the people on Sunday, preach a sermon and then sit down and say, "Well that was a flop." There are other times when I preach a sermon and cannot get over the comments people share with me when they walk out the door, surprised to hear how the message impacted them. And there are other times when I am preaching to the gathered community of faith and then somehow find myself hearing the sermon, too. Yesterday was one such day.

It was the seventh sermon in a series called, "Why Does the Bible Include That?" Yesterday's topic was "Women, Children and Slaves vs. Men, Parents and Landowners: Am I Really Supposed to be Submissive?" As part of the sermon, I reviewed the history of Mount Vernon Place UMC, looking again at the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church South and how we were founded as the "representative church" for this denomination - a denomination that started over the issue of slavery because the Southern Church wanted to be able to hold slaves in 1844. Over $200,000 was sent to Washington in 1917 to build our monumental church - a structure that has stained glass in every window - including the windows in the bathrooms. This money came from people who believed that they were first class citizens while people of color were second class citizens. It came from people who believed that it was okay to wave the Confederate Flag or treat people of color like "less thans."

But then something happened. The congregation began to change. The people who made Mount Vernon Place their home began to do things that were against the cultural norm, let alone the teachings and beliefs of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Mount Vernon Place became one of the first places in the city where integrated audiences could enjoy the theatre together in a space below our sanctuary. Mount Vernon Place began to welcome people of color when no one else would. The people who joined this church rocked the boat! They knew what they were taught by their denomination and by the culture around them, but they did something else. They became a sign of God's Kingdom at the corner of 9th and Massachusetts.

We have recently been getting our finances in order at the church. What I have discovered is how different groups opened their own accounts at certain times in history instead of being part of the church's main operating account. One of these groups is the Social Concerns Commission. The Commission has played an active role in the church for decades. They once hired a full time social worker to be in community with the homeless in the neighborhood. Mary hosted Men on Mondays and Women on Wednesdays for the neighbors in the community. The Social Concerns Commission welcomed the poor, they fed the hungry, clothed the naked and gave the thirsty a drink. They were instrumental in hosting the Downtown Cluster's Geriatric Daycare Center in our building for many, many years. The Commission opened its own account, however, because they found the church to be too conservative. The leadership of the church would not allow them to do what they really wanted to do with their money. The leadership would not allow them to be the Body of Christ in the fullest possible sense of the word, so the Commission rocked the boat. They established their own account and their own budget in order to do the things Christ had called them to do.

I have just returned from the Western North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Western North Carolina is my home conference. It is the place where I first fell in love with being a pastor. It is the place that nurtured my call to ministry and told me about my gifts for ministry. It is the place where I have so many clergy colleagues with whom I have shared so much. It is a place that I love visiting and a place that causes me to be teary-eyed each time I leave. I love Western NC.

While at Annual Conference, we tended to the business of electing delegates to the General and Jurisdictional Conference. I am thrilled that the delegation includes more women than men and that it is a diverse delegation. These elections were exciting. The rest of Conference, however, left me sad.

One of the first pieces of legislation that we dealt with was regarding the amount of furniture that should be in clergy parsonages. It was clear that the Cabinet had spent a great deal of time on this matter. People argued over whether or not the required 4-bedroom homes should have furniture provided or furniture that the pastor brings with them. It seemed as though everyone took for granted the blessing of having a 4-bedroom home. Where I live, people who live in 4-bedroom homes are considered rich. In most places in this world, people with 4-bedroom homes would be considered extremely wealthy. In South Africa, anyone with an extra bedroom is expected to open it to the poor. However, the argument last week was not about whether or not our pastors need 4-bedroom homes or how best to be good stewards of our property by sharing it with those in need. The argument was sadly about furniture.

The majority of the petitions offered to the Conference dealt with homosexuality. Some delegates to the Conference wanted to affirm our church's position that our churches are welcome and open to all of God's children. Other delegates wanted to close the doors of our church a little tighter. We spent so much time and energy on talking about who could be excluded and who could be included.

I heard a lot about what "Jesus said" on issues that Jesus never once mentions in the Bible. I did not, however, hear what "Jesus said" when it came time to discuss matters that Jesus really said something about.

What would it look like to rock the boat today?

When is it appropriate to stand up and say, "I know what I have been taught, and I know what culture reinforces, but I just cannot believe that our church today is how Jesus intended it to be." When is it time to stand up and say, "Why should pastors be required to live in a 4-bedroom house?" or "How can we continue to be a prophetic church while paying our District Superintendents $92,000, providing them with a $17,000 housing allowance and a $3,000 utility allowance?" Does Jesus not have a word or two to say about wealth and stuff and possessions?

I am so thankful that the members of Mount Vernon Place rocked the boat. They cleared the path for the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic congregation that now gathers at Mount Vernon Place. Yesterday, our Minister of Music pointed out how we have someone in the congregation from Taiwan, someone from the Philippines, someone from Hungary, someone from Sierra Leone, someone from Japan, someone from India, and the list goes on and on. We have rich people and we have poor people. We have people who have it all together and we have people who are mentally ill. We have old people and we have young people. We are the Body of Christ.

God, help us to listen for your still, small voice again. Enable us to see your vision for your church. Forgive us if we have stepped too far away from the community you called us to be. Forgive us if we have been silent when we should have spoken up. Thank you for the men and women who have carried your Good News into places where they were not accepted but rather condemned. Thank you for people who have been instrumental in making sure that your Gospel was a liberating word - a word that set the captives free wherever they are. Lord, while I find it scary to ask you, I do humbly ask that you would help me to speak up and to speak out when your voice needs to be heard. Give me the courage to rock the boat when the boat has traveled too far from you. Give me the courage to rock the boat when the boat has been idle for too long. And please, Lord, be with your beloved United Methodist Church as we move towards General Conference and seek to discuss matters that tell others who we really are and whether our doors, our hearts and our minds are really open or too closed to the world around us. Amen.

A full text of yesterday's sermon can be found here.

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