The Fires of Justice

(Posted by Andrew Krinks)

A sermon delivered at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Wednesday, October 15, 2014.

Lectionary Reading

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

* * *

Let us pray.

Life-giver, death-dismantler, how long will death prevail? We are weary. Weary of white hands strangling black lives. Weary of bloodstained pavement. Weary of concrete cages. We are weary of the quick death. Weary of the slow death. How long, O Lord, will Death prevail? How long will we let it linger? How long, O God, until moth and rust destroy razor wire and concrete walls? How long, O Redeemer, until the waters of justice crush the temples of living death on Cockrill Bend Boulevard? How long until the ever-flowing stream washes away the squad cars and munitions in Ferguson, in Brooklyn, in Nashville? How long, O Liberator, until the captives find release? Or is this outer darkness, O Lord, this weeping and gnashing of teeth, our lot? Hear our cry. Come quickly. Amen.

* * *

Our gospel passage this week is one that most of us—if we’re honest—would probably rather leave alone. I confess, when I agreed back in August to deliver our sermon this week, I turned to the lectionary to see what the gospel reading was, and as quickly as I saw “The Parable of the Wedding Banquet,” I moved on, crossing my fingers for a good Old Testament text. And it is a good one! The first fourteen verses of Exodus 32: God’s people, weary, tired, looking at their watches, waiting on Moses to come down from the mountain already, finally lose their patience for the whole thing. So they gather their jewelry, they put it to the flame, and they make their own god: a golden calf, a god far more manageable than this elusive “I am who I am” character, this unpronounceable One who liberates from slavery only to relocate us to poverty. To hell with him, they decide. We’re better off with a god we can handle. And so, the Psalmist writes, “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.” YHWH’s anger burned hot against his people. But Moses interjects, dissuading YHWH before he brings about the destruction of his idol-worshiping people.

I love that ending, so wonderfully Jewish: The chosen one of God is so convincing that he can even change God’s mind! But I have to say, in a time like ours, a time of Ferguson, a time of death sentences, a time of living death sentences, I’m left somewhat unsatisfied by such an ending. Yes, lately, I must confess, I have been surprised to find myself ready—eager, even—to let my own anger at the world burst into flame. I know I wasn’t the only one whose heart leapt at the sight of that young black man in Ferguson hurling that fiery teargas canister back at a police force that had just murdered another young black man in the street. I know: flaming metal is not the answer to racist police violence. I know. But I also know that there comes a time when the death-dealing ways of the world become so senseless that hurling flaming metal back at the death machine from which it came is the only thing that makes any sense to me. Yes, there is a time for rage that burns.

And so, because I cannot help but thirst for such fire in the face of such senselessness, I returned to this parable, so impossible to preach, in the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel. With the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, we find Jesus late in his ministry trying, once again, to illuminate for his listeners what this “kingdom” he’s been speaking of is all about. And as we heard a moment ago, it is a rather grim account.

A king throws a feast for his son, but the guests refuse to come, killing the ones sent to invite them. So the king sends an army to kill and burn the city of the ones who murdered his messengers. After the king sends his slaves to the streets to invite anyone they can find to the party, the house is finally filled with guests. But the king spots a man who is not dressed in a way befitting the occasion. So the king has the man bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Clearly, parables are a different kind of story: they’re designed not to relate some hidden allegorical message, exactly, but rather, to utilize the unexpected in order to dislodge the hearer into some new understanding. As Flannery O’Connor put it: “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” So what is it that Jesus is shouting in this parable about the nature of the kingdom? And what might he be shouting at us?

For starters, Jesus’s hearers live in a culture in which to refuse an invitation to a banquet or feast is to refuse the dignity and honor of the one who invited you. Moreover, his hearers know that a feast is a sign of God’s provision, of the abundance of God’s reign, where all have what they need to live and to thrive. And as we see in the final round of invitations in the parable, God welcomes all to this table—but not without expectation.

To accept an invitation to the king’s feast requires that one orient oneself to the occasion, and to its host—or, in the language of the parable, one must dress the part. Conversely, to wear something less than befitting the occasion is to reject both the occasion and its host. Simply put, Jesus is telling his listeners that God invites all into God’s kingdom of abundance and justice. But as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, this gift also sets a task.

Indeed, to accept the invitation to God’s feast is to reconfigure one’s whole way of being in the world, it is to allow oneself to be transformed such that one becomes aligned with the character and shape of this table—this table at which everyone has what they need to survive, where the poor are filled with good things, and the lowly are lifted up. To wear the right clothing to the banquet, then, is to “clothe” oneself with righteousness, to allow oneself to be re-oriented according to God’s healing, restorative, and transformative justice. As Revelation 19:8 reads, “Fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”

The man thrown into the outer darkness, then, is not cast away because he picked the wrong outfit; he is cast away because he did not act according to the character of the feast the king had prepared: he did not clothe himself according to the just ordering of God’s kin-dom. In the parable, the king’s army burned the city of those who refused to come to God’s table at all, who even killed the ones sent to invite them. Like YHWH in Exodus, God’s fury burns hot against those who refuse the invitation to order their lives around this table of justice and abundance and healing. There is a time for rage that burns. But from where will the flames come? And which side are we on?

We, too, are invited to this feast, to this table. Which means that we too must orient our whole lives around it. But perhaps God is also sending us, God’s messengers, to invite this world of injustice to God’s table, to a reconfigured way of moving and being, to a justice that does not respond to violence with the violence of death sentences and living death sentences, a justice, rather, that engages in the hard work of accountability, communal healing, and provision for all; a justice that dismantles death and fosters life wherever death prevails. If we are to be, with our very lives, the messengers of God’s kin-dom of justice, we must carry with us the flame of hope for the wholeness of God’s future, a light that shines in the darkness, in the darkness that does not overcome it.

But the flame of hope alone will not suffice in our times. Indeed, perhaps God is also calling us to carry the flame of resistance, the flame that burns down the walls that uphold the houses of retribution, of execution, of isolation, of criminalization. Perhaps God is sending us out to char the kingdoms of death-dealing injustice, of the powers that marginalize, contain, and terrorize whole communities and generations. Perhaps God is calling us to set ablaze whatever brings about the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I am reminded here of my friend Kevin. He gives the warmest hugs, and his prayers roar like thunder. He is also the property of the state of Tennessee, sitting on its death row, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Gathered around a table with Kevin and others a few years ago, I asked Kevin what he would say, if he had the chance, to the system that dehumanizes him daily. With fire in his eyes, he pointed his finger at the concrete wall, and said: “I am NOT who you make me out to be.” To make Kevin a piece of property, and to kill him, is to refuse God’s invitation to the table of healing, the table of justice. A year later, shortly after it was announced that executions would resume in our state, I sat in a circle of prayer next to Kevin. He held my hand so tightly it almost turned blue, as he shouted in prayer, imploring the God of life to dismantle the machinery of death. Kevin’s fire is the fire of hope; Kevin’s fire is the flame of resistance.

Wielding the fires of justice—the light of hope and the flame of resistance—carries its risks. But perhaps the greater risk is refusing the invitation to the feast of God’s righteousness altogether. Not because we would be choosing punishment instead of reward, but because participating in God’s abundance in communities of hope and resistance is already God’s gift and God’s task for us. It is salvation, liberation, and healing. Until God’s kin-dom comes in its fullness, it is only by the light of hope and faith, and by the flame of resistance—the fires of justice—that we may see. May God give us eyes to see, hearts to hope, and courage to resist, by the fiery, unquenchable power of the Spirit.

Amen.

Benediction

In the words of the prophet Johnny Cash,

San Quentin [and all houses of injustice], may you rot and burn in hell

May your walls fall and may we live to tell

May all the world forget you ever stood

And may all the world regret you did no good

 

Until that day, the coming of God’s kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven,

When the power of death in all its forms is finally undone,

May our rage burn as bright as hope, and as hot as resistance.

May the gift of healing come to those who suffer violence and loss

May the gift of liberation come to those who suffer a wounding captivity

May the gift of courage embolden our resistance

And may the gift of hope lighten our path and so enable our love

In the name of the God who is love and who is life,

Amen.

Wade in the Water

wade in the water3posted by Lindsey Krinks

Last week, after another long day, I got the frantic call. No, the floodwaters had not destroyed the camp and neither had the police. The camp residents were destroying one another. Tensions were high, nerves were frayed, words were said, and then one of them picked up a 2×4 and beat the other, slamming the wet wood into forehead, face, limb, and body, again and again. I left our house within minutes of getting the call like a bird in flight, my heart beating and frenzied like wings.

Lately, on long days, long weeks, I’ve found myself drawn to bodies of water. Something in me needs to be near the troubled depths so I drift to the banks of the Cumberland, to Radnor, to Frederic’s Lake. I drift to the rivers and lakes seeking solitude, refuge, and healing. I drift to streams and brooks flowing through this land like arteries, rushing their way down, always down, singing with the voice of Sirens, wade in the water.

Last week the waters rose again with some of the highest levels we’ve seen since the flood of 2010. Everyone held their breath as the rains came down drenching everything that was exposed. Storm systems rolled through, the sodden earth opened its mouth, and the bloated Cumberland swallowed up everything low on her banks, giving our friends at the riverside encampment a mighty scare. She lapped at their pallet fence, she swirled across their gully trail. She was roiling and reckless, but finally, the rain dried up and the camp held. She drew back into herself, pulling silt and soil and song back down to the deep. Yes, wade in the water, she sang.

Lauren and Samuel met me at the camp and we started our work: survey the situation, make sure everyone is safe, tend the wounds. When we got out of our cars, our hearts still pounding, two of the residents were on the path and one was hiding in a ravine. We took the wounded one first. Most of the damage was internal, a concussion was definite. Soon, bruises would spread like sunset across his face, his body. He could not stay there for the night so Lauren administered first aid and made arrangements, opening up her home. Then we turned to the one with fresh splinters in his hands, also wounded in a deep way that came through in his eyes. And finally, we moved to the one in the ravine who Samuel found first. As soon as the 2×4 came out, he had a flashback that threw him back nearly 40 years to when his father use to beat his mother, his brothers, his sisters, and him with fists, with belts, with hoses, with boards. “If something happens, run and find a ravine,” his mother told him. “I’ll find you when it’s over.” And so he ran.

We weren’t interested in blame. This time, everyone was to blame or no one was. Or maybe it wasn’t about blame at all. “Tell us how you’re feeling,” we said to each one. “What is really going on here? What do you need to begin to heal? What would it take for you to be healthy and whole?” And the words and tears poured out.

“This isn’t who I am,” said the splintered one. He had learned to fight in prison. “When I was thrown into the general population, I didn’t have a choice,” he recounted. “It was either learn to fight or be crushed.” So he fought. He learned when and how to defend himself, learned that brute force meant power and power meant survival. Like a viper, he learned when and how to strike, and when he came out, he was a different man, a harder man. When he came out, he covered all his wounds with money, with drinking, with women, never forgetting the feel of a face bend with a blow, a bone snap, never forgetting the taste, the sting, of blood.

When I found the ravine, the third was hunched, his eyes swollen and wet with tears. Samuel sat beside him, holding him like a child and when I took his hand in mine, he held on tight. The ravine was small and we sat crumpled on the ground together like the last leaves of fall. I tried to keep from shivering, shuddering, weeping, as he told us the horrors from his childhood, as he told us why he ran. “I was scared to go home,” he said to me later, “I wasn’t sure what I would find.” We listened and held him, it was all we could do. We listened and held him as the dark waters swirled nearby, as they held the reflection of city lights, as they held the power of life and death in their depths.

These men on the river want to be free. They have been boxed in, beaten, caged, strapped down, and stripped of everything. Some grew up in abject poverty, some fought in condemned and horrific wars, and others have been branded by past mistakes and will never escape their charges. There is profit to be made when their bodies are behind bars and they are constantly fighting to stay out jail. Their barriers to housing, sobriety, and wholeness feel insurmountable. They are constantly fighting because the rivers of poverty, of homelessness, of mass incarceration, of death want to swallow them up. Anxiety and despair ravage their bodies and minds and when they are overcome, they turn to the bottle. There is profit to be made there, too, and instead of fighting systems and structures that oppress us all, they (we) fight one another.

harriet tubmanA different kind of river also calls to us, however. It is said that Harriet Tubman and slaves along the Underground Railroad sung “Wade in the Water” as a code to those on the run, advice to those escaping the horrors of slavery. Why wade in the water? Because it throws off the hounds hot at your heels. Why wade in the water? Because it will bring you a kind of healing and freedom you have never known. Yes, the Israelites also fled from bondage through the waters—waters held back with some holy force fierce like a hundred lions. Elisha and Elijah crossed the River Jordan before Elijah was taken into the sky by a flaming chariot and John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early Christians found their freedom through these waters, as well. So come to the cool waters and feel them ease over your ankles and legs, step down and feel the depths surround you, cleanse you, carry you to freedom. Yes, let us wade in the water.

In the 5th chapter of John, we find Jesus walking among the porticos of Bethesda where a multitude of the blind, lame, and halt lay on mats. They lay on mats waiting for days, for months, for years, for an angel to come stir and trouble the stagnant waters so they bring healing. Ease into the troubled waters in time and you could be made new. But if you were too slow, too alone, you were left waiting, longing to feel the cool, living depths cover you, heal you, and throw off the hounds of death and decay. As he was walking, Jesus noticed a man who had been ill for 38 years and asked him, “Do you want to be made whole?” Yes, but this man had no one to help him into the pool when the water was stirred up. “Take up your mat and walk,” Jesus said, and at once the man was made whole. What power did he feel pour into his limbs that day? What power straightened his legs, his back, his will? Whatever it was, it changed him, and he walked out of the porticos a different man, a healed man.

“What would it take for you to be healthy and whole?” we asked the men at the river. What would it take for all of us, for what Dorothy Day calls our “filthy rotten system,” to be made whole?

“Healing is impossible in loneliness,” says Wendell Berry, “it is the opposite of loneliness.” Hospitality, warmth, welcome, community, connection with the earth—these things bring healing and wholeness, he says. So my prayer on another long day is that we will all have the courage to find each other and start on the downward path. Let us go down to the earth, down to the river, down to where all the things we use to drown our sorrows cannot reach us. The water is right to be stirred, and when we see those troubled waters, let us wade. Let us bathe in the sunlight, in the moonlight, washing ourselves and each other clean. Let us throw off the hounds together and emerge from the waters changed.

(This entry was originally posted on http://www.drybonesrattling.wordpress.com)

Arrests and Re-member-ing: Maundy Thursday

Posted by Autumn Dennis 

I have been to several Maundy Thursday services over the years, but tonight’s service struck a very different chord for me than in the past. For the past few nights, homeless advocates in Nashville have gathered alongside homeless friends in camps around the city. Metro Police have threatened to raid the camps, and there have been recent instances where camps have been set ablaze by police. All day, I have waited to hear word or any sort of report on the state and condition of my friends in the camps. I have followed their posts and updates of staying awake in shifts to keep watch–to keep each other safe.

It is no coincidence that these night watches and raids fall on Holy Week. On this Maundy Thursday, these night watches are incredibly reminiscent of the disciples keeping watch with Jesus through the night as he waits for arrest–our homeless friend Jesus, who had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58). Just as Jesus is unjustly arrested, our friends on the streets are unjustly arrested for the crime of existing.

Do this in remembrance of me.

Tonight, as I sat in a Maundy Thursday service at Edgehill United Methodist Church, I meditated heavily on what it means to remember and see Jesus. Maundy Thursday is not only when we recall Jesus’s arrest, but also the institution of the Holy Eucharist as the central liturgy for Jesus’s friends and followers. When Jesus broke the bread and blessed the cup, he said to “do this as often as you can in remembrance of me.” My Latin is a little bit rusty, but the word “remember” always stirs up images of body limbs being stitched back together. To re-member. In the United Methodist tradition, we understand communion elements to not be the literal body and blood of Christ, but that Christ is present in the elements and in the act of communion. In our liturgy before we partake of the sacrament, we declare the mystery of faith:

In remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving
as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us,
as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.

Tonight, I got chills when we proclaimed the mystery of faith. In that very room, by the gathering of people of faith for the purpose of re-membering the body of Christ, Christ rose in that room. Every time we gather to partake of the holy meal, Christ comes again and again. The body of Christ is stitched back together as we share the bread and wine. The disciples saw Jesus in the breaking of the bread. As Dorothy Day wrote:

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know [God] in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. (The Long Loneliness)

Whether people of faith are gathered around an altar or a fire in an “illegal” encampment, we re-member Jesus in each other. Even when the powers and principalities continue to arrest Jesus through our friends over and over again, Jesus is risen again and again through the most beautiful act of resistance– community. We are not alone anymore. We are all walking the road to the cross, to the tomb, to the road to Emmaus, together. Jesus needs our company on this long night, to keep watch and pray. Pray and care for your friends on the streets and in camps this night. Amen.

Image

Photo by Lauren Plummer

Of paralytics and stretcher-bearers, of death and hope

elijahposted by Lindsey Krinks

Several mornings ago, I awoke to a faint dusting of snow. The air danced with specks of white fire, tiny fragments lit from the early light emerging from the dense veil of winter clouds. I got ready in a daze, my mind brimming with all the people I forgot to call, all the emails I forgot to send. On the way to our staff meeting, something dark up ahead caught the corner of my eye. At first, it looked like crows, but as I drove closer, I realized it was six to seven large, midnight-black turkey vultures crowding over some dead, frozen casualty. My car must have gotten within a foot or two of the carcass as I passed, but they didn’t flinch. Two hulked above the others on a fence glancing downward and the macabre feast continued. I shuddered at the thought of such terribly large birds silently feeding on death.

Last week, I dreamt that I was in some sort of cave. The lighting was dim and there was a fire burning near the center. In my dream, I was surrounded by dead bodies—40 or more—and my job was to anoint them. Not save them, not bury them… to anoint them. I remember feeling grave about this task, but doing it with intention and feeling some strange sense of meaning, like the task was one that needed to be done and done well.

When Samuel and I went to pick people up for the warming shelter the other night, it was late, already dark, and we only had 10 spots. A local musician was opening his home to our friends, even though the temperature was a little above 25 degrees. My task was to choose and pick up the 10 people. I made calls and sought out the most vulnerable. We arrived to the sight of canes and hospital bracelets, but “Kentucky’s” wheelchair was nowhere in sight. We found him nearby at the Citgo with “Chris” and “Jerry” (who were both a little more sober than usual). They both knew they couldn’t come in with us because of the lack of space, but they were determined to make sure Kentucky got in the van.

"This one is for the riders" found beneath a train trestle in Nashville, 2014 Kentucky hasn’t been able to walk for some time and can barely move. He gets a disability check, but hasn’t been able to access subsidized housing because he has a warrant out for his arrest in Mississippi. Kentucky used to hop trains and travel around the country. When he was passing through Mississippi, he said he once went for four days without food or water in a train car. “Hunger makes you do strange things,” he said. As the train neared a small town and slowed, he began passing fast food restaurants—Burger King, Wendy’s, McDonalds—but he had no money for food. Tired and half-starved he got off the train and went into a convenience store and stole a package of baloney. They caught him and he left town before he could be booked. And he now has a warrant out for his arrest.

Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980, once said that we are called upon to be “stretcher-bearers” in this world. He was drawing from the story in Mark of the paralytic man who was raised up to the roof of a house and then lowered down to by Robert LentzJesus to be healed. Romero was saying that yes, God still works to mend our wounds and heal the brokenness of our wayward, capitalistic society that feeds, like a vulture, on the death of “the disposables,” but that we are called to be the hands and feet that bring those broken, wounded, wayward things forward.

When I saw Chris and Jerry in front of the Citgo, straining with all of their might to pull Kentucky out of his wheelchair and raise him up into the van so he could get out of the cold, all I could think about was this story of the paralytic. And I wonder what the friends of the paralytic were like in the story. Surely they were resourceful, determined, willing to break the rules, willing to piss a few people off. I can’t imagine what kind of an operation it took to raise and lower their friend. I wonder if there were moments they thought they might not make it. If they were truly the paralytic’s friends, I wonder if they, too, were outcasts. I wonder if they, too, smelled of urine and filth. I wonder about how their lives were changed after that day, about the stories they told that evening. I wonder if they laughed among themselves when they thought about the shock and dismay on the faces of the scribes and those in the crowd when bits of roof fell in on them as they dug through and as Jesus showed them grace. I wonder what that day meant for their lives moving forward.

paralyticAnd I wonder what kind of healing Chris, Jerry, and Kentucky seek. At this point, they have all saved each other’s lives several times over. At any given time, at least one of them is sober enough to take care of the others. But what kind of healing do they seek? I heard last night that Kentucky’s feet were so frost-bitten that the doctors wanted to amputate them. And there is something deep in Chris and Jerry’s eyes (especially Jerry’s) that is so tender, so gentle.

The other night, after most people were settled into the emergency shelters, I took the church van out with our intern, Corley, and we drove around East Nashville looking for those guys. We couldn’t find them anywhere so we headed to the MTA bus terminal to check the benches and warming rooms for people who needed to come in. As soon as we walked in, I saw a wheelchair and realized it was Jerry and Kentucky. They were trying to get someone to give them a ride to a shelter but had no bus fare. They were beyond glad to see us, they almost cried. After we checked the other areas, we turned to the task of getting Kentucky from his wheel chair into the van. It took 10 minutes, at least, maybe more, but Jerry got him in.

Jerry is a 38-year old country boy born and raised in Nashville with black and gray speckled hair and a speckled beard. He looks much older than his years and has soft, sky-blue eyes. As we were driving down to check Broadway and 2nd Ave., Jerry said, “Miss Lindsey, you know I love this man. I’ve done things for him I never thought I’d do… things I couldn’t imagine.” He described how he has been one of Kentucky’s care takers and has helped him with everything—eating, clothing, bathing, going to the bathroom… As he talked, his eyes filled with sadness and disbelief. “We’ve got to get him off these streets,” he said.

Yes, we are stretcher-bearers, Jerry is a stretcher-bearer. We sometimes share the filth and sickness of others. We tend to each other’s wounds, search for healing, and push each other forward. We walk alongside those who are beyond help and anoint the dead with oil. We work daily to comfort the afflicted and break the yokes of oppression. We pass those who prey and profit off the casualties crushed by a system of war and greed, and with every ounce of hope we can muster, we cling to the faith that a better world is possible. But what kind of healing do we seek?

Jesus said to the paralytic, “I have seen your faith, pick up your mat and walk.” And with Chris, with Jerry, with Kentucky, with Romero, I cling to the hope that our people will somehow get up and walk.

(Originally posted on http://www.drybonesrattling.wordpress.com)

The Work of Christmas

Nativity Icon“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”
– Howard Thurman

A Time to Stay and a Time to Leave: An Open Letter to the UMC

This letter by Amos House Community member Autumn Dennis was originally posted on the Reconciling Ministries Network blog at http://www.rmnblog.org/2013/12/a-time-to-stay-and-a-time-to-leave-an-open-letter-to-the-umc.html.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”

With all due respect to Ecclesiastes 3, I feel there is one line missing that I would like to add: “There is a time to stay, and a time to leave.” I was not raised in the United Methodist Church, or in any church for that matter. My interest in the Divine emerged at the same time I was realizing I was gay, at the ripe age of twelve. My first experience with church was at a Baptist megachurch in Tennessee, where I have vivid memories of crying in the pews as I was told I was going to hell. The next few years were marked with me trying to pretend I wasn’t interested in God, because clearly this God hated people like me! These feelings drove me into an intense depression with strong suicidal thoughts. I admit that when I came to the United Methodist Church at sixteen, it was only because the girl I had a crush on invited me. However, the reason I stayed was because this particular church contained the first Christians I had ever met who didn’t immediately tell me I was going to hell. Instead, I found a safe space in their youth group where I was free to be who I was and to ask questions about God. Through my involvement in this church, I got a full scholarship to a great Methodist college.

As I was welcomed into the Methodist church, my campus ministry and local Tennessee Conference connection fostered my gifts and my budding call to homeless and prison ministry. However, I wouldn’t allow myself to consider a call to ordination, even though I felt one—I knew what the church said about people like me, so why even try? Whenever I had pastor friends affirming my gifts, graces, and fruits for ministry, I heard the institutional church say, “You are incompatible with Christian teaching” (Paragraph 161F of the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline). When my campus minister suggested I consider ordination as a deacon, I heard the institutional church say, “You will not be accepted as minister” (Paragraph 304.3). However, God’s calling soon overwhelmed the dirge of condemnation from the institutional church: “Yes, I am already ordaining you, you are not incompatible with me, and I will accept you as a minister.” When the Church reduced me to a faceless “homosexual”, I knew God saw me as more.

I decided to enroll in the candidacy process anyway. I began skating through the requirements set by my Tennessee Conference, believing that being ordained through the United Methodist Church could give me a greater voice for change in the church. I was proud to be a representative of the UMC. I felt that I was giving my church an opportunity to recognize what God was already doing in my life, ordaining me as a minister to the margins. However, over time, the pressure I felt from the UMC to hide who I was grew and grew. I began to be paranoid about who was a “safe” Methodist and who was an “unsafe” Methodist. I watched many of the Methodists that had first welcomed me into the church fight to uphold the same discriminatory passages of the Book of Discipline that were ruining my life. I watched cases like Amy DeLong’s, Mary Ann Barclay’s, and Frank Schaefer’s, wondering, “Who will rat me out?” Living a half life, I was stressed over whether or not the conference physicians and psychologists would ask me about my sexuality, worried about if I was dressing feminine enough for when I visited the Conference offices, and wondered if my voice was high-pitched enough for when I visited the head of the Board of Ordained Ministry. Pretty soon, I couldn’t focus on my call from God at all anymore; instead, I felt like I was in a perpetual den of Methodist lions.

The stress of this paranoia compared with the indescribable pain of recent events in the life of the Church became too much for me to handle: seeing the inflammatory language against me from the Book of Discipline in my candidacy guidebooks, witnessing General Conference refuse to even “agree to disagree”, observing the Council of Bishops condemn Bishop Melvin Talbert’s presiding over the marriage of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince, having my classmates and professors speaking insensitively about “the gay issue in the UMC” as if I weren’t in the room, and others. One of the most harmful things to me was seeing the open letter from my own Bishop Bill McAlilly condemning Bishop Talbert, upholding an idolatrous clergy covenant over God’s truth of inclusion (http://bishopbillmcalilly.com/2013/10/24/please-pray-and-display-christ-like-spirit-in-midst-of-our-disagreement/). I began to think about leaving the ordination process.

I decided to postpone my decision until I attended Exploration, the biannual event for United Methodist young adults considering ordination. During this event, the Council of Bishops sent us a video with President Bishop Rosemarie Wenner saying, “The Church needs you!” In my head I finished her sentence: “…Unless you’re gay.” More than ever, I felt like the church was repeating over and over a hollow lie. I felt like the church needed me to support its broken bureaucracy, but when I needed the Church, it wasn’t there for me. It threw me the bone of “Sacred Worth” and threw me away. As soon as I returned home, I saw the Internet explode with new stories of how Rev. Frank Schaefer was given a guilty verdict for presiding over his son’s wedding to his partner of the same sex. I felt like I could no longer go on rationalizing the state of the United Methodist Church; this was the last straw.

When I began the ordination process, I figured I would “see how far I got before the church kicked me out.” Never did I expect that the church would push me out before my District Committee even had the chance to expel me from the process. It is with immense pain in my heart that I confess to you, my beloved United Methodist Church, that I have to leave the ordination process in order to follow God. I cannot represent an institution whose idol is the Book of Discipline. I cannot pledge to uphold that abusive Book which has long since stopped being a source of illumination in how we connect with each other and God, but now is a glorified bludgeoning tool. I cannot join an order of ministry that is complicit in injustice. I cannot lie my way into an abusive clergy covenant or lie my way through the Historic Questions. I cannot pretend that my church has “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” when it does not. I cannot lie about who I am or what the Church is any longer.

However, there are “Reasons I Stay.” For all the ways that the United Methodist Church is incredibly broken, you are my dysfunctional family that I cannot leave. I still believe in the Church that welcomed me when no one else did, and I believe much more in that Church than I do in the same Church that is pushing me away. I still believe that our Methodist connection is something mystical and holy—something I wouldn’t exchange for the world. If I left this church totally, I would just be a Methodist sitting in another denomination. I need to be here to see this Church change. I need to be one of the people joining hands with all the other Reconcilers as we proclaim, “Love Prevails! Draw the circle wider still!” My liberation is bound up with yours, UMC.

(Oh, and one last thing—I’m still being ordained by God and I will find another church to recognize it. If you’re serious about getting more young clergy, make this is a church where we don’t have to lie about who we are in order to serve God. You’re better than that.)

The Lord be with you, and I’ll see you at the open table.

With grace,

Autumn Dennis

Tennessee Conference

 

Preventing Cold Weather Deaths this Winter

“Oh God, Let us not be rich while they are destitute, nor be in good health if we do not tend to their wounds, nor have enough food or covering, nor rest under a roof, if we do not offer bread to them, and give them something to wear and a shelter to stay in, as far as we are able!” – Gregory of Nazianzus

crutches, james fulmerOn a frigid night in early January, an un-housed man named James “Jimmy” Fulmer froze to death on the steps of an East Nashville church. The temperature was 25 degrees. Jimmy and the crutches he used were visible from the road. All he had was one blanket wrapped around his shivering body that another un-housed man bought for him. A week later, advocates held a public funeral procession decrying his death and the lack of affordable housing. A couple years before, an un-housed man named Carl froze to death just off Main Street. He was also visible from the road and no one stopped to see if he was okay.

Every year in Nashville, one to four people freeze to death on our streets and countless others get frostbite and hypothermia. In a city with a new $600 million dollar convention center and new luxury condos and high-end restaurants sprouting up in every direction, we don’t have enough shelter and transitional housing beds for everyone who needs them. There are also hundreds of people who can’t get into traditional shelters like the Mission or Room in the Inn—people who have pets, couples and spouses trying to stay together, people who have been banned from services, and people who can’t handle crowded, structured environments, most often due to mental health issues.

chris stainFor the last three years, our sister organization Open Table Nashville has filled this gap by opening Emergency Warming Shelters when the temperature drops below 25 degrees. For our friends, this is a matter of life and death. The people we bring in are often some of the most medically vulnerable and it will take ALL of us—as a city, as service providers, and as people of conscience and faith—to make sure that what happened to Jimmy, Carl, and others never happens again; to make sure that no one feels so hopeless and alone that they give up and let the cold overtake them. While we are opening these emergency shelters, we are also advocating for more affordable and accessible housing because the lack of affordable housing is one of the root causes of homelessness.

In order to ensure that no one else freezes on our streets, we need help. Please, please spread the word to everyone you know asking them to chip in and help in whatever way they can. We cannot enjoy the warmth of our own homes without responding to the dire needs of our brothers and sisters who too often shiver and suffer in silence in our own back yards. Our liberation is bound up together.

Here are some ways YOU can help:

Locations (email lindsey@opentablenashville.org if we can use your site!):
We currently open a combination of any of the following congregations (depending on which ones are available any given night), but we are in need of other locations that can accommodate 30-50 people: Hillcrest United Methodist Church, Barth Vernon United Methodist Church, Green Street Church of Christ, and First Church of the Nazarene. We will fully staff the sites, we just need warm, available buildings!

Volunteer roles (email regina@opentablenashville.org to get plugged in):
First Church, 11.24*Inn Keepers (spend the night with another volunteer, 8pm-7:30am)
Evening/Morning Transportation (drive a van to pick up our friend around 5:30pm and/or take them back downtown around 7am)
Kitchen Coordinator (make sure coffee is going and food is heated, set out, 5:30pm-8pm)
Laundry (someone to pick up the laundry in the morning & wash it for the next day’s shelter)
Sign-In Table (greet our friends when they come to the shelter 5:30-7:30pm)
Set Up Team (5pm) and Clean Up Team (6:30am)
Floater Volunteers (anytime between 5pm and 7:30am to help fill in the gaps)
Canvassing (driving around downtown and East Nashville to look for people who desperately need to come in, 6:30-8:30)

Donations (every little bit helps!). You can drop these items off at Metro Social Services at 800 2nd Ave. North in the Homeless Services Office Monday-Friday during business hours or contact lauren@opentablenashville.org:
– Sleeping bags, blankets, towels, twin sheets, air mattresses (can be gently used!)
– Hand warmers, hats, heavy duty gloves, thermal underwear, coats & scarves.
– Coffee, creamer, sugar
– Paper products (coffee cups, paper towels, paper bowls, paper plates, napkins, utensils)
– Cleaning supplies (Clorox Wipes, Lysol spray, Dish Detergent)
– Extra dinner and breakfast food (preferably food that can be stored for flexible usage)