(From a sermon by T.C. Morrow given at Mount Vernon Place UMC in Washington DC on October 16, 2016)
Good morning! It is a joy to be with you this morning as your congregation celebrates its 7th anniversary of becoming a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network. My great thanks to the Rev. Dr. Donna Claycomb Sokol for the invitation to be with you today. My wife, Logan, sends her greetings. We have enjoyed many activities here in your buildings over the years. Most memorable are a fundraiser for Foundry’s capital campaign and a 2010 celebration of marriage equality becoming the law in DC.
When I first prepared this welcome it said, “She is over at Foundry this morning, singing with the choir at the 9am service and teaching the high school Sunday School class.” However, flexibility and transforming expectations has been the theme of the year. On Thursday we got a call for an emergency foster care placement, and now we have two tweens with us. We had a high school senior placed with us for eight months this year and she is now in her first year of college. No joke, I rushed home from my examination by the Board of Ordained Ministry in January to get things ready for her arrival, since Logan had said yes to taking her while I met with the Board. My thanks to Logan for being with the kids this morning.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
We walked and walked around the communion table, “What does the Lord require of you?” Circle after circle around the table that brings many together, “To do justice.” One foot after the other, “To love mercy.” One breath in and one breath out, “To walk humbly with your God.”
When Mount Vernon Place joined the Reconciling Ministries Network, it joined a network that now numbers over 700 congregations, campus ministries, Sunday School classes and other small groups – including a youth group in recent days! The mission statement of RMN states: “Reconciling Ministries Network mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.” RMN’s mission and vision are not just about breaking down barriers based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Certainly that is a key part of it, but even more it is about actively resisting oppression in whatever form it takes. In that way, it’s about living out our baptismal covenant.
Toward the beginning of the baptism liturgy we find this question: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” God wants wholeness and fullness of life for all of God’s children – all of humanity. This part of the liturgy is about the power to confront oppression and injustice – to confront that which gets in the way of shalom, wholeness, completeness. As we see time and again in our scriptures and affirm in the baptism covenant, confronting injustice is a core part of our Christian life, not just an add-on. In the Hebrew scriptures we find texts like today’s passage from Micah.
The people of the prophet Micah’s time wandered from the covenant the scriptures tell us God made with their ancestors. The passages around the portion that Kristin read this morning report a society that we would probably only add to the list of items the prophet would be railing against if writing about our own time. The injustices include cheating in the marketplace and corruption. Micah calls the people to account and pushes them on what covenant living is all about.
The prophet challenges any idea of quick answers to restoring relationships with God and each other. Ok, thousands of rams or rivers of oil may not actually be easy to produce or quick solutions, but they are things where time and energy could be focused to ‘get something done’. After all, don’t we sometimes imagine that we need to rack up a lot of gold stars? The prophet Micah says that God doesn’t want showy religious tributes. God wants our lives. God wants our devotion with our very being, not just an hour or two on Sundays. We are called to wrestle with our faith in all aspects of our lives – no compartmentalizing.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
All the best words can be said, the nicest hymns can be sung, the most impressive cathedrals can be built. Thousands of rams can be sacrificed – or whatever you might imagine as a relevant equivalent for our day! None of this is what God requires. God requires a desire to be part of justice-making. God wants us to love kindness, to love hesed – more on that in a second. And God requires us to walk humbly with God, to remember that we don’t go at it alone.
A little more on that middle part – to love hesed. The phrase is variously translated including “to love kindness”, “to love mercy”, “to love faithfulness”, and “embrace faithful love”. The Hebrew noun hesed doesn’t have an adequate translation in English. One translation is “loving-kindness”. Psalm 26 asks the Lord to remember the Lord’s mercy and hesed. This is in line with other passages where it is connected to descriptions of attributes of God and connected to covenant and relationship. Following on the requirement to do justice, to love hesed adds in the covenant-type love and kindness and compassion.
“What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
On the next to last day of the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, it was clear that no changes would be made related to LGBTQ inclusion. There was not even enough support to state the obvious – that United Methodists are in disagreement about quote “the practice of homosexuality.” In the wake of some hope-filled and anxiety-filled moments during debate of proposed legislation, a group walked into the delegate seating area to give witness in support of the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church. The demonstration was organized by the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, a coalition made up of the Reconciling Ministries Network and several other organizations.
The group walked into the delegate seating area toward the communion table. They shared the cup and the bread, and they sang, “What does the Lord require of you?” They sang and sang and sang. In the midst of stagnation in terms of legislative changes, LGBTQ people and allies sang to the denomination they love and to themselves, “What does the Lord require of you?”
In one of the orbits around a table that symbolizes God’s reconciling activity through Christ Jesus, this tone-deaf child of God standing before you heard a word amidst the cacophony of sounds in the convention center: Stop waiting. Put yourself forward as a candidate for ordained ministry.
The text from Micah 6:8, sung over and over, served as a re-orienting experience for me. Ever since seminary in the early 2000s I had said, and only partially joking, “In 2012,” when people would ask me when I was going to start the ordination candidacy process. I thought that might be enough time for changes to The UMC’s rule book. I was baptized as an infant and confirmed as a twelve year old at what is now New Bloomfield United Methodist Church. In college and then the years as a student at Wesley Seminary, I discerned a calling to ordained ministry, a calling to stay in The UMC and a calling to not be in the closet during my ministry.
One gift of the Reconciling Ministries movement is continued affirmation that you don’t have to hide parts of yourself. You don’t have to sacrifice your dignity.
You don’t have to sacrifice your fabulousness for the sake of someone else’s comfort or ease. You don’t have to sweep away your reality because someone else would prefer it just doesn’t exist. And I am not talking just about LGBTQ people here, I am talking about everyone.
There are a lot of things that come to my mind here, but since it seems like a good week to state it, let me say: women are human beings too. Women are not second-class citizens who only deserve a sliver of humanity based on their status in relationship to a man as wife or daughter or sister or mother. Sexism is real. Sexual assault and abuse are real. May there be more people empowered in confronting these injustices and evils. There is a whole lot more that could be said, but we’ll leave that ‘til over a cup of coffee.
When I hear that a church is a Reconciling Congregation, I pray that they did not simply take a vote one day and forget about it. Being a Reconciling Congregation certainly means paying attention to being a church for and with LGBTQ persons, but it is an opportunity for mindfulness about a congregation’s inclusion and diversity across any boundaries. It is an opportunity for mindfulness about participation in the work of justice. I think at its best, being a Reconciling Congregation transforms expectations of what it means to be church. Relying on “we’ve always done it that way” isn’t an option.
Have you ever had an aha moment when you realized it was your expectations that needed the adjustment? Not just that you needed to be doing something better or differently, but a change of expectations. I imagine for some of us this is an everyday occurrence, but sometimes it is bigger adjustments. In the midst of the revolutions around the communion table that day in Tampa in May 2012, I received a transformation of my expectations: Stop waiting for a time when the way forward will have less obstacles. You were faithful in waiting but go ahead and do it.
It was not some clear vision of do this specific thing and this other specific thing will happen. It was rather a word to change my mindset on my expectations of the right moment to enter the candidacy process for ordination. I feel I had been faithful in my discernment up until then and indeed engaged in full-time Christian service since finishing seminary, but God said it was time for a change in the calculations of when would be the time to formally request to start a candidacy process for ordained ministry.
There was discernment on whether in The UMC denomination or not, and whether Elder or Deacon. Then several years of the candidacy process. Then receiving recommendation from the Board of Ordained Ministry for membership as a Provisional Deacon and commissioning. All this led up to a vote by the clergy in our regional body, the clergy session of the Annual Conference. There were not enough votes at the meeting this past June to approve me, though I’m pleased to say that upon inquiry, I have asked the Board of Ordained Ministry to submit my name again for next year’s clergy session.
Despite the vote, I felt great hope. Being a foster parent had provided important perspective and deep in my soul were words that shifted my expectations four years before and continued to give perspective: “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
My getting ordained one day is not an end in itself. Being a reconciling congregation is not an end in itself.
God invites us into relationship and with God’s grace we transform in the process.
May we ever be open to that transformation including a change of the expectations we hold for ourselves, for each other, and for God.
Photo by Steven D. Martin
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