Wednesday, February 27, 2019

... I was a stranger and you welcomed me ... Matthew 25:35

Just four days after my ordination to the priesthood in February 2008, on Shrove Tuesday, I had to make a difficult call to my bishop informing him that the mission congregation I was leading was likely going to close. I hadn't counted on my first call out of seminary turning into a hospice chaplaincy for fifteen faithful souls who had run out of money, energy and time - but here we were. The congregation entered a focused discernment and by Holy Week they had come to the conclusion that staying together was not the faithful option. We stopped worshiping as a community on Good Friday - the quintessential day for a death and burial.

Thankfully, the members of that community found homes in other churches and most even remained in the Episcopal Church. But for me as a newly ordained priest, this was not the optimal vocational move. Closing a church is every clergy's worst nightmare and having this as my first "resume item" had some pretty bad optics. Even though I was a "second vocation" priest having 38 years of Episcopal experience in ministry, I was still a "rookie priest" and it was 2008 ... remember what happened that year? By fall, the financial markets had collapsed and we were in a worldwide recession - honestly it was an economic depression but nobody likes to speak that truth.

Unemployed, and in the eyes of some unemployable, I was considering option of leaving the ministry already. Who knows? Maybe God's plan was to call me to close a congregation and then I was done. Maybe God was mad at me for something. Maybe I needed to go back to the choir and hang out there. Looking back, this was not my faith talking but my fears - it's what happens when you're unemployed. But I kept getting up and I kept showing up, mostly through the summer doing clergy supply - thank God for my fellow priests who needed vacations!

One September day, I decided to show up at the Frederick Ministerial meeting at Frederick Presbyterian Church. It was there that I reconnected with Pastor Ken Dunnington of Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick. We hadn't seen each other in awhile and he asked if I was still in search for a new call.

"Yes, but things aren't looking too good," I replied.

"Well, I may have something for you. Would you consider something part-time?"

"Sure. Part-time beats no time."

And that's how, on All Saints Day, I was called to be the part-time Visitation Pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick, Maryland. I also concurrently served a very part-time interim position at St. Luke's in the City in southwest Baltimore and a brief stint at my home parish - and I learned how two part-time calls are harder than one full-time one ... but I digress. My role as Visitation Pastor was to call on the home bound members of Calvary and bring them Holy Communion. In addition, I made hospital calls, preached on occasion and presided at many funerals. I served there for about a year after which I left for full-time employment as a chaplain at a local hospice - no question that my time at Calvary prepared me for that call.

During my pastorate at Calvary, I came to know many people whom I love and cherish as fellow pilgrims in the Jesus Movement and I came to more deeply appreciate the Wesleys - their passion for social justice, their deep commitment to the practice of praying the Daily Offices and regular reception of Holy Communion (they were the "high church Anglicans" back at the time of the Reformation), the beauty of their hymnody and music. I made some lasting friendships and ministry colleagues in Pastor Ken and his wife Sandy, Pastor Eliezar Valentin-Castenon and his family, Pastors Kate Heflin and Sarah Schliekert, Pastor Ray Moreland, and my predecessor (who would later become my successor) Pastor Harry Cole. This was all in addition to the remarkable staff and members who lived their Christian faith not only in the congregation but in the world. Like all churches, it had its ups and downs as we followed Jesus imperfectly and clumsily trying to be the Beloved Community and be the gospel in the world; but overall, I experienced a genuine and loving community filled with sanctifying grace.

In truth, I was a stranger and they welcomed me, this displaced Anglo-Catholic priest. I danced to a syncopated leitmotif in the UMC liturgy. I crossed myself during the Creed, bowed my head at the Name of Jesus, and when I gave the blessing made the unabashed (and rather large) sign of the cross over the congregation - and overall it was cool with them. When the Book of Worship was just so close in wording to the Book of Common Prayer (but not quite) that I stumbled, they were patient with me. When I prayed in "collect form" rather than a longer pastoral prayer - they accepted it. In turn, they taught me all the alto parts of the Wesleyan hymns, what it felt like to have your heart "strangely warmed", encouraged my preaching and teaching, and to be accepted as a "stranger in a strange land." I hold deep and lasting gratitude for my year long sojourn in the United Methodist Church.

This is why my heart is breaking for them this morning. Yesterday, their 2019 General Conference concluded after rejecting a way forward over the matter of full inclusion of LGBTQ members. The One Church proposal would have given local congregations the ability to make the decision about full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. This proposal failed in favor of the Traditional Plan which asserts that same-sex unions are incompatible with scripture and clergy in same-sex relationships and marriages are subject to discipline/removal. The unicameral, worldwide polity of the UMC is weighted the vote in favor of a very conservative approach as African and Asian churches have equal voice and are more conservative in their views of same-sex relationships. Today, many of my UMC friends are feeling like strangers in their own church but sadly not welcomed.

St. Paul spoke of he Church as the Body of Christ and said, "If one members suffers, all suffer together..." (1 Corinthians 12:26a). Today, one member is suffering and we all suffer together. Conferences and legislative processes can be antithetical to building community. Disciplinary measures and proof-texting of Scripture can become weapons used to purge the Church of people whose presence makes us uncomfortable - and all the while Jesus weeps.

My heart aches because my own Episcopal Church is no stranger to these kinds of divisions. We have been wracked by the same forces and arguments the UMC is now experiencing. We too have been the targets of the Institute for Religion and Democracy (which I would argue is neither for democracy or religion but rather a thinly veiled Christian Taliban promoting a narrowly interpreted theocracy) and we know what money and partisan politics can do to the Body of Christ. We have experienced the forces which would rend us asunder and the broken relationships which result. We grieve with you today and hold you in prayer.

So for my friends in the UMC on both sides of this painful issue, I am praying. For those who would exclude LGBTQ folk from ministry based on your interpretation of scripture, I pray your hearts may be soften (dare I say "strangely warmed") to listen deeply and humbly to the LGBTQ community remembering Jesus had much to say about self-righteousness (spoiler alert: none of it was good) that you may see there are other ways of interpreting scripture and that these beloved are created in the image of God as much as you are. For those in the LGBTQ community and your allies: I pray for healing grace to soothe your pain, to remember your are beloved of God, to remember the Church and Jesus are not one in the same, and that you may find rest for your souls no matter where Christ leads you in the future.

When I was a stranger, you welcomed me. I pray you find the way to welcome each other in the love of Christ.

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