19 August 2014

Give your life, Live your life

Read John 5:30-47 (Daily Office’s Gospel Text)

I’m an Episcopalian, and last Thursday was, on our calendar, the feast day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, most people didn’t notice, or chose not to notice. I posted his photo and a link to his bio on my FaceBook and Twitter accounts, that post received fewer “likes” than a picture of my dog sleeping would receive a few days later.

Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a seminarian, like us.

He had arrived at the Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge Massachusetts, opposed to segregation, but following a traditionalist safe ideology; originally opposed to the idea of going to the south and joining in the civil rights struggle. However, after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, Daniels’ mind was changed and he put his education on hold to join the work in the south, specifically in Selma, Alabama. On August 14th 1965 he took part in a peaceful protest and was arrested. On August 20th he was released from jail along with an Anglo-American Roman Catholic priest and two African-American civil rights workers. The four young workers walked to a nearby grocery store, but as they arrived they were met in front by the owner yelling racist epitaphs and brandishing a gun. As the owner took aim at the African-Americans, Daniels pushed one of his friends out of the way and was struck by the weapon’s discharge. Daniels gave his life that day for the calling of God.

Daniels was the 26th civil rights worker to give their life in the south, and Dr. King believed that Daniels’ death gave a new awareness of the struggle to the north. Daniels would never finish his seminary education, he would never be ordained, he would never serve a parish, celebrate the Eucharist, perform a baptism, teach a Bible study, or do any of the other things people kind of think we go to seminary to do. Daniels was a leader and a martyr. The church rightly celebrates and remembers his faith, sacrifice, witness, courage, and testimony, as do I. The church needs leaders like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, and our world needs prophets like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, those who will give their life for the Good News.

After listening to yesterday or today’s evening news, as seminarians you may be feeling the call to go to the Selmas of our day; Gaza, Ferguson, or what have you. And I believe God is calling people to this work in those places! God needs people who will lead the struggle against wickedness in those places. God needs people who will stand with the oppressed, and, as I said, maybe, like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, maybe, God is calling you to give your life through the work, in that place, at this time.

But maybe God isn’t.

Yes, the church needs to take a stand, the church needs to be prophetic, but there are already more clerical collars in Ferguson than there are churches… and maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe we should have already been there; before someone was shot, before the looting, before the riots, before the current protests. Maybe we; the prophets, teachers, prayers and preachers shouldn’t wait ‘til things are out of control to show up. Maybe we shouldn’t wait until the streets are running warm with the blood of the oppressed, to march in the streets. Maybe we shouldn’t only question our government spending priorities or its militant overreach, when our silence has cost someone their life or liberty. Maybe we shouldn’t only show up loudly proclaiming the Good News of a different Kingdom, after the cameras and microphones are there to see and hear us.

The Church, with a capital C, should have been there to begin with.

Too many of our churches have fled the very areas that needed us, before they looked like war zones, because our tax-free property values were plummeting and it didn’t feel ‘safe’ anymore. We didn’t want to ask why these things were happening, and work there to change them, we just left. We acted like if we ignored the problem and moved away, the problem wouldn’t exist. We chose to ignore rather than address, we chose to pacify rather than prophecy.

So, rather than going somewhere else, possibly, God is calling you to preach, prophecy, work, serve, and give your life right where you are, right now, while you study. Because you see oppression doesn’t only exist in Gaza, and racism doesn’t only exist in Ferguson. Oppression, racism, and their ilk live and thrive everywhere that we, the church, ignore the systematic issues and policies that feed their malevolence. I promise you that there is enough of this sort of injustice and sin in our state to keep us busy, and there is just as much evil in every town that has a church where you are already serving or worshiping. In Lancaster, in Gettysburg, in Philadelphia, in Baltimore, in Harrisburg, in Washington DC and everywhere in-between… we really don’t need to seek it out further.  It is here. Hate, abuse, and prejudice exists unchecked everywhere we have a pulpit already stationed or a bible study meeting which is not speaking and teaching the Love of God and offering the call to action now, in response to a different way of thinking. A call to a New and Peaceable Kingdom, or as Dr. King called it, a Beloved Community.

In everyone of our towns where they spend more money on armored vehicles and semi automatic guns for the local police than they do on education and food programs. In every one of our diocese and synods where we spend more time on foreign mission trips and administrate conferences than we do on school supplies and job training centers.  In every one of our churches that spends all their time preaching about personal holiness, but saying nothing about social holiness. In everyone of our communities where there is a larger need for prisons and homeless shelters than for parks and gardens… there needs to be a prophet, there needs to be a church, and there needs to be a seminarian who will say I’ll give my life here. I’ll do the work here.

So maybe, like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, God is calling you to Selma. Maybe God is calling you to take a rubber bullet in Ferguson, or breath tear gas in Gaza. Maybe God is calling you to be a martyr in front of the television cameras. But, more likely, God is calling you to do this work right where you are, because there is work to do here also. Maybe God isn’t asking for another tv front man, or dead martyr. Maybe God is asking us to give our whole life to this work. Even in this place, while you are finishing your seminary education, maybe God is asking you to keep this town from becoming a Ferguson; by addressing and confronting issues of poverty, inequality, abuse, and hate, here and now… not there and then.

Doing the work before it explodes into an international story probably won’t get you a feast day on the church calendar or a pundit spot on cable news. However doing the work at the local church, in the local community, on your local street might see a person who would otherwise be trapped in oppression, live a life to the fullest.

Wherever God is calling you, Go! If it is a call to the front lines of the struggle in a far away place, in the middle of a food bank in town, at a community job skills training facility, in the back row of a school council hearing, behind the curtain of a voting booth, or from the pulpit of your church; whatever, wherever, go give everything you’ve got, go give your whole lived life.

In the Name of Jesus of Nazareth, the one we call Christ; Go, give, and live your life.

Let us pray;

“O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one.” Amen.

22 June 2014

A Charge to Keep I Have...

During Advent I received a letter from the Wilmington District Committee on Ministry of the Peninsula Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. In that letter I was informed that I would not be allowed to continue in the ordination process if I held to my current beliefs on a solitary issue. Specifically my profession that I would not turn away same gender couples meeting all the same requirements of opposite gender couples, seeking a legal marriage in Delaware and Maryland. I had requested the DCoM deliberate now on whether I should continue my journey before I spent additional years in the United Methodist ordination process only to be turned away from ordination in the end because of this single issue.

Annual Conference and District leadership, both clergy and laity, encouraged me in private to just leave this issue alone. They told me just to keep quiet while I completed the ordination process, as they had done and then work against oppression. They pleaded with me to not cry out for justice in public, but work behind the scenes with them. They extolled me to suppress my views until I was finished this journey and not openly proclaim Christ’s welcome to all. They explained to me in private what they feared to say in public; that they agree that The United Methodist Church is wrong on this issue and that they were being secretly subversive. I was invited by members of the committee to recant of my views, at least publicly, in order to continue my ordination journey. But I could not join them any longer in the dark corners of an annual conference closet.

My issue is that I actually believe in the church’s mission to evangelize and make disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world, but I also believe that our silence and inaction on issues of equality continues to drive people away from God and the church. I believe the Articles of Faith, but also believe that a public affirmation of the church’s discriminatory words enshrined in the Book of Discipline, in order to keep jobs and protect pay checks continues to contribute to the oppression, abuse, and suicide of hurting LGBT people. I believe this is literally a matter of life and death, and I therefore, must choose life. Public silence and private affirmation while working in the shadows does real harm to the least among us; those hurting, scared, and scarred. Those who need most to hear about God’s love, healing, and light. I was reminded, when being asked to not speak publicly, of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said; “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Let me affirm, I will always be a Methodist. I love John Wesley's teachings and Charles Wesley’s hymns. While not perfect, they represent to me a firm foundation for Christian faith formation. I believe in scripture, I believe in tradition, I believe in reason, and I believe in experience. I believe in the prevenient Grace of God that justified me and is helping me move on toward perfection through sanctification. I believe in connectionalism, I believe in personal and social holiness, I believe in the ministry of the small rural church, and I believe in the work of large urban churches. It is because of these beliefs that I also believe in marriage equality and full inclusion of LGBT believers in all aspects of the life of the church.

In 2012 I intentionally moved back to the east coast and began working on my Masters of Divinity degree in order to take part in the ordination process in the Peninsula Delaware Annual Conference. After the 2012 General Conference in Tampa I transferred my membership from West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, where I had attended and served while working for almost a decade at the United Methodist Publishing House, to the small rural congregation in Maryland that I called home.

The Peninsula–Delaware Annual Conference was my home; it is there that I was baptized and confirmed in the rural three point charge named West Cecil Parish, It is there where God first spoke to my heart and it was strangely warmed, it is there where at Camp Pecometh I spent weeks of my youthful summers growing in my love of the God who created this wonderful world, it is there that I experienced African-American churches working alongside Anglo-American churches teaching me to seek deeper justice and work harder for diversity, it is there I became a disciple of Jesus Christ moving on toward perfection, it is there that I first experienced the Call of God on my life to vocational ministry, it is there that I preached my first sermon in morning worship when I was a teenager at Zion United Methodist Church, and it is there I hoped to continue to serve, lead, and grow with others in these types of experiences and more.

However, a few months ago I was told that the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church did not want someone like me. That solely because of my public and direct refusal to follow one set of discriminatory laws in our Book of Discipline if ordained, my candidacy process would not be supported any longer. I was told that the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church was no longer my home if I was to pursue my God given calling. I had been publicly honest, and for this honesty I was cast out of my home.

After much prayer along with council with friends, family, and spiritual advisors during Advent, Christmas, and Lent; I met with the Rector of the local Episcopal Church during Easter to begin the official move to a tradition seeped in historic liturgy, common prayer, and the central influence in the lives of many Wesleyan/Methodist forerunners. Today I was welcomed into the Episcopal Church by The Right Reverend Robert R. Gepert with a service of Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation at the historic and vibrant Saint James Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Here I have begun to find a supportive home again. A home in which to live out my charge, my call to vocational ministry; to publicly proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, both crucified and risen, to all people! 

"A charge to keep I have, A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save, And fit it for the sky.

To serve the present age, My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage To do my Master’s will!"

~ Charles Wesley, 1762

Asa David Coulson
The Feast of Saint Alban, martyr

June 22, 2014