Only look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel, your articles of trade, your scales, your measures, and you will find this saying written on them. You will not be able to look anywhere where it does not strike your eyes. None of the things with which you deal daily are too trifling to tell you this incessantly, if you are but willing to hear it; and there is no lack of such preaching, for you have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools and other implements in your house and estate, and they shout this to your face: “My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his.”‘
– Martin Luther (1483-1546), writing on Christian Vocation
Like every other United Methodist clergyperson, I have been following with varied levels of interest/frustration/heartbreak the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland. What follows is a meditation on one of our most controversial issues: the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.
Let me begin by saying that much of what I am writing comes by way of one of my favorite pieces of prose: the essay “On Vocation” by Barbara Brown Taylor, which can be found in her book The Preaching Life, which everyone in the whole world should read.
Twenty years of ordained ministry, half of which I have spent on the Virginia Conference Board of Ordained Ministry has taught me a great deal about the life and work of clergy. One of those lessons is that ordination is most often treated as a privilege. It is a privilege to be ordained. It is a privilege to preach. It is a privilege to preside at font and table, for those clergy who do. It is a privilege to wear the stole. When one fails and ministerial orders are revoked, we generally think and act as though the offending clergyperson has “abused the privileges” of ordination and is therefore deemed unfit to continue the privilege of being a member of the set-apart body of the church known as the clergy.
This is very dangerous thinking. It is even more dangerous in practice. And before my inbox fills up, let me say that I agree with people in certain situations being relieved of their clergy responsibilities. It is the privilege part that gets me.
Which brings me back to Barbara Brown Taylor, who writes
“Somewhere along the way we have misplaced the ancient vision of the church as a priestly people-set apart for ministry in baptism, confirmed and strengthened in worship, made manifest in service to the world. That vision is a foreign one to many church members, who have learned from colloquial usage that ‘minister’ means the ordained person in a congregation, while ‘lay person’ means someone who does not engage in full-time ministry. Professionally speaking that is fair enough; ordained people make their livings in ministry, and lay people do not.
“But speaking ecclesiastically, it is a disaster. Language like that turns clergy into purveyors of religion and lay people into consumers, who shop around for the church that offers them the best product.”
Stay with me here: think about Annual Conference. Think about the pomp and (well-deserved) celebration we engage in each year for those who have made the long and arduous decades-long journey to licensing, commissioning, and ordination in the United Methodist Church. It is a big deal, and it deserves to be treated as such.
But here is the thing: it is absolutely, in no way whatsoever a bigger deal than when we baptize or confirm someone in the local church. It just seems like it is, and we ignore this fact at our peril.
I have seen it more times than I can count: someone in the discernment journey discovers at the local church, District, or Conference level that their call is to be a devoted layperson and guess what it feels like?
It feels like failure.
It feels like failure in part because of how easily we clergy-types allow ourselves to accept the kind of elevation that genuine servant-leaders are called by Christ to eschew.
And yes, I realize the irony of my saying that as the Lead Pastor of a church whose sanctuary has a pulpit that is just slightly shorter than the Eiffel Tower.
Again, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
“Almost five hundred years ago, a German monk named Martin Luther wrestled the same problem. In his day, clergy ruled the church like princes, selling salvation and getting fat off alms.’ They got away with it because they claimed a special relationship with God. They asserted the superiority of their own vocations and elected themselves to the highest offices of the church, until all that was left for the laity was to attend Mass as they might attend the theater, watching mutely as the clergy consumed communion all by themselves, and paying their dues on the way out. In his address to the German nobles, Luther attacked this farce. He made careful distinction between a Christian’s vocation and a Christians office, suggesting that our offices are what we do for a living-teacher, shopkeeper, homemaker, priest-and that none of them is any dearer to the heart of God than another. In our offices we exercise the diversity of our gifts, playing our parts in the ongoing life of the world. Our offices are the “texts” of our lives, to use a dramatic term, but the ‘subtext’ is the common vocation to which we are all called at baptism. Whatever our individual offices in the world, our mutual vocation is to serve God through them.”
All of which brings me to the issue of the ordination of LGBTI persons in the church.
If it is indeed true, and I believe that it is, that the ministry of the laity is no less important, no less vital, no less essential to the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in this world than the ministry of the clergy and, nod along with me, if you are a United Methodist, yes, we believe this like all good Protestants do, then when we say that LGBTI persons are not worthy of the privilege of ordination in our church, what we are in effect saying is that they cannot be laypersons either.
Why? Because ordination does not mean that the one who stands in the pulpit is any more important than the person who is working in the nursery, teaching Sunday School, or handing out the bulletins.
Thus, if we say that “homosexuals are welcome in our churches, but they cannot be ordained,” we have said something toxic and wrong about, not only what it means to be a part of the baptized community called the Church, but what it means to be a part of the ordained, and in so doing, we have erased 500 years of our history.
When we do this, we act as if ordination is a privilege.
And it isn’t. It was never meant to be.
That stole your clergyperson wears around her neck on Sunday morning symbolizes a yoke. It is a yoke, and not a pass or a badge. What if we could reclaim Luther’s idea that all Christians are ministers? What if the things that we treat as privileges of ordination were actually regarded as burdens, as things we must do because the Spirit of God has given us these responsibilities, and now we can do no other?
If LGBTI persons are not worthy of the privilege of being ordained, then United Methodists had better take a hard look at things like our baptismal theology. If each baptized Christian, clergy or lay, has a ministerial vocation, then how can we baptize infants who might someday come to realize that they are gay? If they are baptized, then they have a ministerial vocation.
If we say “No, God does not call homosexuals to ministry,” then we have reduced baptism to an empty ritual, devoid of mystery.
If we say “Yes, they have a ministry, but only among the laity,” then we have created a hierarchy where the ministry of the clergy is elevated above the ministry of the laity, which again, United Methodists do not believe.
Consider the biblical witness. With the exception of Isaiah, (who granted, was eager) and Jeremiah (who was called in the womb), most people God calls try like crazy to get out of whatever God is telling them to do.
Talk to the clergy you know. Ask them how long they fought off their own call to licensed, consecrated, or ordained ministry. In twenty years, I have heard more stories than I can count that follow this pattern. Church work is not easy, and most every single day, your heart breaks a little, or breaks a lot.
And yet, God continues to call broken, unholy people into this work of spreading holiness throughout these lands. Sure, the scriptures are hard on homosexuality in certain contexts, but it is also hard on riches, pride, and hypocrisy in others.
Still God continues to call broken people into the ministry of the laity, and the ministry of the clergy, broken people like me, and broken people like you, including people whose lives would be much, much, easier if only they could shake this burdensome calling, this love that will not let us go, this maddening God who persists and persists until we finally relent and obey, until we finally get out of the storm and onto the shores of Nineveh.
If I am to believe that my work as a clergyperson is any more important than the ministry of the people I serve in my current congregation at Reveille, or the people I have served in North Carolina, Newport News, Prince George, or Crozet, then I hereby surrender my credentials.
But I do not believe that, and on this frustrating and heartbreaking night, I am betting neither do you.
We are all in this together. All of us. Thanks be to God.