Psalm 91

Joel 2.12-19

After the Mic Drop

Frist Sunday in Lent

            Usually the mic drop signals the end of something:  it’s a gesture that marks a successful finish, a combination of self-satisfaction and swagger.  President Obama famously dropped the mic at the end of the 2016 White House Correspondents dinner to signal the successful conclusion to his two terms in office.  My own mic drop story was not quite as impressive as his though.  Back in the 1980s I was invited to write and present a paper for the UCC’s Michigan Conference meeting; the topic was “Biblical Images of the Family,” and candidly, it was a pretty good address.  The Michigan Conference thought so; not only was there sustained applause when I finished, but the Conference decided to publish the paper in their newsletter.  But at the end of the address, with the applause still sounding, I acknowledged the audience and began to walk away from the podium when I was rudely yanked back by the wired microphone that was clipped to my shirt.  It was an embarrassing moment, and the applause turned to polite laughter.  You might say at that moment, the mic dropped me.

            But Kaji Douša has other ideas.  In our 2019 Lent Devotionals, Take Nothing With You, Kaji opens with a mic drop.  Who opens with a mic drop?  Who starts out with a gesture of triumph and success when we still have an entire journey to undertake, the entire season of Lent?  In her reflection, Douša equates the gesture or the mic drop with rending one’s garments, a gesture of remorse and penitence, as we heard Ed read from Joel:  “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.  Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  Perhaps what she is trying to say is that, although we still have the 40 day journey of Lent spread out before us, God has already promised the kind of triumph and victory associated with a mic drop; nevertheless, the journey is still ours to make.

            I had a difficult conversation with one of my colleagues the other day.  The Rev. Martha Epstein has been pastor at the Clinton United Methodist Church for less than a year.  My other colleagues and I have been holding Martha and her congregation in prayer for the past few months as we anticipated the United Methodist Special General Conference that was held last week.  When I saw her Wednesday, she was feeling pretty devastated.  As you’ve likely heard, the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to deny ordination to non-celibate LGBTQ clergy candidates, and refused to authorize same-gender marriages within its churches or by its clergy.  I feel for Martha, powerfully.  How on earth do you minister in the name of Jesus Christ within a faith tradition that has just decided by majority vote to exclude an entire population of God’s children, because of whom they love?  And an equally difficult question is how do you minister to those within your own congregation who believe this exclusion is pleasing to God?  I hope you had a chance to read Will Willimon’s article in the Christian Century that was linked in Friday’s email blast.  Willimon, a long-time professor at Duke Divinity School and a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, sorrowfully laments the decision of his denomination, and predicts, correctly I think, the mass departure of LGBTQ Methodists and their allies for other churches.  Who knows, a few might even find their way to our United Church.  But let me be clear about this:  the UMC’s loss is nobody’s gain; their loss is our loss as well.  As you have heard me say before, and I’ll quote Paul on this, when one member of the church suffers, we all suffer together.  That world out there has a tendency to paint the entire church with a single broad brush, and whether it’s fair or not, a lot of folks are going to hear part of the United Methodist’s story and make the assumption that all churches are intolerant of gays and lesbians.  This kind of guilt by association happens all the time, which is why I say the UMC’s loss is our loss as well.  As Willimon put it,

“In this Special General Conference we have now declared ourselves to be the church of the aged.  The average United Methodist is white and 61 years old.  Just like me, my church has got too much past and too little future.  I fear that this will be remembered as the week that the UMC decisively, openly turned away from ministry with anyone under [the age of] 40.”

He also wrote something that speaks indirectly about our own United Church of Christ: 

“The Holy Spirit doesn’t work from the top down.  The Spirit does good from the bottom up, through God’s hijinks in the local church… The question of LGBTQ clergy and same-[gender] marriage, insoluble at a corporate-style global gathering of 800 people, is more or less resolved in every congregation I know.”

Which is to say, we can trust the Holy Spirit to work through us at the local level, through individual people of faith who are gathered into a church.  Not every individual congregation will come to the same decision or conclusion, or even one that we happen to agree with, but we have discerned what God is saying to us and we have made ourselves responsible for that decision.  Nobody else made it for us.  This is the grace and beauty of our Congregational polity.

            Were you struck this week by how many of the reflections in our UCC Lent Devotional have spoken directly or indirectly to what happened among the United Methodists?  In her piece for Ash Wednesday, Douša wrote about the mic drop:  how many Methodists who voted in the majority to deny ordination and marriage to gays and lesbians took this as a moment of triumph and ratification of a divisive and judgmental Christianity?  In Thursday’s reflection, Quinn Caldwell wrote about God’s wings, the “eagle’s wings” our choir just sang about.  “How much room is there under a God-wing?” Quinn asks.  He goes on to say,

“Enough for me, says the psalmist.  That’s nice.  Enough for you, too, presumably.  I guess that’s also nice, but then I’m like, wait, does that mean everybody gets to come it?  There are definitely some people I think don’t deserve to be in here with us… because there’s this one kid from high school I do NOT want to find myself smashed up against in some smelly wingpit, no matter how divine it is.”

And isn’t that part of the challenge?  It’s easy enough to imagine ourselves, and perhaps most of our pew-mates, as part of the brood who find shelter under God’s holy wing, but there are definitely some people we may not think belong.  But that’s not really up to us, is it?  God will gather whom God will gather.  That’s part of the point of Psalm 91.

            Rachel Hackenberg’s piece for Friday about the Devil quoting scripture also finds purchase in the UMC decision.  Rachel wrote about using scripture as a kind of litmus test that determines who is in and who is out, as though God gave us the gospel so we could build walls with it.  You can bet your Bible that there were a lot of verses thrown around at the Methodist Conference.  As Willimon wrote, "The traditionalists… got to go back home proud of the way they had defended ‘scriptural authority,’ eager to roll up their sleeves and go to work tearing asunder the [very] church that produced them.”  I think Rachel’s prayer at the end of her devotion is both poignant and direct:  “May the words of our tongues, no matter how biblical… not become stones that weigh down and drown our siblings.”

            And this morning’s piece by Ken Samuel about the other, titled “Foreigners Included,” reminds us that when Israel finally reached the promised land, God commanded them to include the foreigner, the stranger, the sojourner, the immigrant and the transient in their celebration, because they themselves were once strangers and sojourners and immigrants and transients.  We don’t get to disinvite anyone from the party; God reminds us that we all belong to one another.

            So I grieve for the intractable situation in which Martha’s denomination has placed her and hundreds of her colleagues.  I grieve for a denomination that set itself up to create winners and losers, because in that scenario, nobody wins, not even those who had their biases affirmed.  Most of all I grieve for the untold numbers of people who have been effectively and unambiguously told there is no place for them in the church.  In their own church.  I can’t even imagine.

            As Kaji Douša’s piece about the mic drop really represents the beginning of the long season of Lent, perhaps the figurative mic drop that gaveled close the UMC Conference could serve, not as the end, but as the beginning of a new dialogue, a hope – a challenging hope to be sure, but a hope nonetheless - for a more inclusive future, or perhaps for a new reformation that exchanges winners and losers and Bible battles for listening and understanding and difficult prayer.  I don’t have a better solution, nor do I pretend to stand in judgment of another denomination.  The church has lived through many difficult days and likely there are more of them ahead, but the Spirit has never abandoned us, and I believe it never will.

            Two postscripts, if I may.   You may have read earlier this week that NBC news has obtained documents that show the US government has created a secret database of activists, academics, journalists and others tied to the migrant crisis at the Mexican border, and has placed alerts on their passports – meaning their travel has been restricted - without ever notifying them.  One of those secretly flagged is Kaji Douša, whose crime apparently was speaking at a UCC border rally for the rights of refugees and immigrants and attempting to assist them.  I hope Kaji wears that government sanction as the badge of honor that it is.  And the second postscript is that I wasn’t quite sure which scripture lessons to choose for this morning, although two of our UCC writers this week chose the 91st psalm as their text, both Quinn and Rachel, plus it’s part of the lectionary for today, so I guess it was a pretty safe choice.  But the choice was confirmed for me, oddly enough:  as I was coming out of Dick’s Sporting Goods the other day, there was a pickup truck parked next to mine with a bumper sticker that read, simply, “Psalm 91.”  The Spirit of God works in mysterious ways.

            Amen.

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