Do the right thing!

Bishop Melvin Talbert

MIND lunch June 7. 2013

talbert-podium-croppedGreetings

To my colleague Bishop Martin McLee, officers and members of MIND, members, friends and guest of the New York Annual Conference, sisters and brothers, I greet you in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ, our Risen Savior and Lord. I’m grateful to the leadership of MIND for inviting me to address you on this special occasion.

LET US PRAY: Loving, Creating and sustaining God, thank you for     blessing us with life and for the privilege to gather at this time and in this place for reflection on the challenges before us. Use me as your vessel for proclaiming a word of hope and challenge in the opportunities for faithful witness and service now and in the future. In the name of Jesus Christ I pray, Amen!

Before getting into the content of my message, let me say a few words regarding the pending trial for Dr. Ogletree. FIRST, I applaud his decision to do the right thing when faced with the opportunity to be in ministry to his son by performing his same-sex marriage. Dr. Ogletree is a living example of Biblical Obedience, the action that I called for at the 2012 General Conference. The remaining question is, Will you as his colleagues choose to convict him using an unjust an immoral law, or, will you rise above that law and set him free to continue in ministry? That decision rest with you, his colleagues in ministry.

SECOND, I stand in solidarity with your Bishop. I met him a few years ago at a gathering in Boston when the Cambridge Welcoming Ministries, Somerville, MA, honored me with their Saint of the Year Award, April 19, 2009. He is a faithful ally for the cause of inclusion and justice for all people, especially GLBTQ persons, in our church and in society. What he did when faced with the complaint against Dr. Ogletree is precisely what I did with complaints against 68 clergy in the Cal-Nev Annual Conference in 1999. I referred it to the appropriate body that represented the Order of Elders. It was that body which chose not to turn the complaints into charges. As the Bishop, I did not choose to place myself in the position being judge and jury. I refused to let them or anyone else decide the issue or the cause for which I would place my life and future on the line. My sisters and brothers, your Bishop deserves your prayers and support. He should not be expected to stand in the gap for decisions that you make. You must choose and stand for yourselves. That’s enough for now. I’m open for questions later.

Using the passages of scriptures from Micah 6: 6-8; and Mark 12: 28-28-34, I invite you to reflect with me on the theme: DO THE RIGHT THING!

A look at scriptures

According to Marvin Chaney of San Francisco Theological Seminary, Micah 6: 6-8 is the most familiar passage from the Book of Micah. It is thought to be a brief summary of the theological under-penning for specific prophetic issues. He acknowledges that God is not the problem. “Rather, God seeks from human beings only to do what is “good” for all concerned (6:8) – to effect justice, to love covenant loyalty, and a making humble to walk with your God.”

I like Chaney’s translation of Micah 6:8) Listen again to Chaney’s rendition: “to effect justice, to love covenant loyalty, and a making humble to walk with your God.”

My sisters and brothers, on our journey of faithful witness and service, I encourage each of us to let this passage of scripture become a living expression of our total being as we live with and engage the people we are called and sent to serve, whether in a congregation, in a specific community, or in the larger society.

Mark 12: 28-31 is another familiar passage of scripture. Listen, again, to these words: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he (Jesus) answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

I chose to use this passage from Mark because of its historic significance in the development of our United Methodist way of doing theology. In addition to being central to our Christian faith, John Wesley took this passage and made it the focal point of his Doctrine of Christian Perfection. Throughout his ministry, Wesley preached this doctrine, continuously. For me, I understand Wesley to be suggesting that we may not achieve Christian perfection in this life. Yet, our goal in life should be to become perfect in becoming perfect.

But Wesley went a step further. He sought to make his call to faithfulness simple and practical. He reduced his faithful witness to three simple rules – “do no harm; do good; stay in love with God.” Bishop Rueben Job has written a small book entitled – Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living. If you don’t have a copy, it’s a must buy for your library. Three simple rules - “do no harm; do good; stay in love with God.” These words are easy to remember, but ever so challenging to do.

The occasion

We gather here today to reflect on what it means to commitment oneself to Biblical Obedience. Biblical Obedience is not a y’all come gathering. It is a deep struggle of the soul on the part of each individual as he/she makes the decision to do what is right no matter what. It calls to my mind the struggle I went through in the fall of 1960. I chose to be nonviolent, even if it meant losing my life.

In our last General Conference at Tampa, Fl, April 24-May 4, 2012, our theme was ”Making Disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World.” This is a daunting task and challenge. To succeed in our mission, I believe we must make the serious commitment to being transformed ourselves before we can effectively transform the world.

Historical perspective

As people called United Methodists, we are part of a great church with congregations and conferences in various parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, Philippines, and the United States. Our world-wide witness is phenomenal. For example, through UMCOR, we are present and making a witness at the site of every natural disaster in any part of the world within 24 hours. We are one of the first to arrive, and one of the last to leave. Through the VIM Program, teams of persons give themselves in service in a variety of work projects throughout this country and around the world. Through the “Imagine No Malaria” program, we are providing nets to save lives in various parts of Africa.  Our advocacy witness of justice for Latino Immigrants continues. Our church played a significant role getting the recent health care reform act passed in congress. And across the connection, new churches are being planted, and many congregations are growing and doing great ministry for God’s church.

But since those early years, our church has gone through many peaks and valleys. Becoming deeply embedded in the culture, we experienced a valley in 1844, when we split over the issue of slavery. In the merger of 1939, we experienced a valley when we created the segregated Central Jurisdiction for “colored people.”  And, we experienced another valley in 1972 when the General Conference placed the “incompatibility with Christian teaching” language in our Social Principles regarding persons with a different sexual orientation or gender identity.

I share this brief historical perspective as a reminder that we as United Methodists are not a healthy or perfect church, particularly in the US.  Yet, our future holds hope and promise if we choose to do the right thing.

The challenge

Much has been said about what happened during our 2012 General Conference at Tampa. Many issues and concerns were addressed, including the restructuring of the general agencies. When the compromise restructure voted by General Conference was declared unconstitutional and unsalvageable by the Judicial Council, I felt like standing and singing the Doxology. Personally, I think the proposed structure was not a mission strategy. Rather, it was a power move to control the prophetic witness of our church. But, we are moving forward with our same structure, with most agencies having reduced the number of members on their boards.

Following the debate and the vote not to remove the derogatory and discriminating language against persons with a different sexual orientation or gender identity from the Book of Discipline, many of us were deeply pained. On Friday, May 4, at General Conference, I was one of several speakers at the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. We met in the Tabernacle to reflect on the failure of the General Conference to do the right thing regarding the full inclusion of persons with different sexual orientation or sexual identity in all aspects of our church. Listen to this excerpt from my statement:

As I stand before you today, I declare that God has already settled this matter. All human beings are created in the image of God. There are no exceptions or exclusions. We belong to the family of God.

At the same time, I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in our Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience…

So, in the light of actions taken at this General Conference, I believe the time has come to call for and invite others to join in what I am calling “An Act of Biblical Obedience” based on the twofold commandment of Jesus.

Of course, I was speaking for myself as a retired bishop of The United Methodist Church. My sisters and brothers, I share this excerpt as a challenge to you, the clergy and laity of this annual conference. I challenge you to “do the right thing.” Stop giving your allegiance to immoral and unjust laws against those who dare to do what is right by being in ministry to and with all persons, especially our sisters and brothers of a different sexual orientation or gender identity.

In Nashville, I worship in a historically Black congregation. But, my primary focus for ministry is leadership on the Board of Directors for Reconciling Ministries Network. Yet, I have decided that, if in my normal relationships with that congregation I am invited to participate in or to conduct a marriage between same-sex couples, I plan to do it, because I intend to “Do The Right Thing.” And I might add, I’m at peace with God and myself for taking this stand.

A short time ago, I had a brief conversation with my 16 year old granddaughter. I wanted her to know what her “Papa” was doing regarding the issue of GLBTQ people in our church. I quickly discovered that her generation has gone beyond where we are. She said, “Papa, the church is talking about my friends.” My fear is that my granddaughter will not find our church open and welcoming to her multicultural, multiracial and gay friends. I’m fearful that our church will lose her and her generation.

Conclusion

My dear sisters and brothers, you are called by God to do the right thing in these turbulent times. Racism, sexism and homophobia are still alive and well in our church and in society. God has called you through your baptism, and your church is sending you to be in ministry for such a time as this. History has shown that the church has made its most valiant witness in difficult times.

As clergy ordained by a bishop, you were instructed to “Take Thou Authority.” In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare to you “Take Thou Authority”, and “Do The Right Thing.” Take authority to speak truth to power. Take authority to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Take authority to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; and your neighbor as yourself.” Take authority to “do no harm; do good; and, stay in love with God.” My sisters and brothers, this is what it means to be called and empowered by God to transform this world. As clergy and laity in this annual conference, I hope and pray that you are not allowing the immoral, unjust and restrictive laws of our church to prevent you from engaging in a rigorous theological discussion on this critical matter. Only as our congregations equip it laity for the challenges of prophetic leadership will our church as a connection be ready to embrace its future with hope. Jesus had only twelve faithful disciples, and they turned the world upside down. Think of the potential you have, if you open yourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit in your lives. With the power of God in your lives, there is no limit to what you can do.

Clergy members of this annual conference, I challenge you to remember this: you are called by God, and confirmed and sent by your church. You have a dual allegiance – to God and to your church. I assume you know to whom priority is given. There will be times when you will be called and challenged to choose between God and your church, because your church does not always “Do The Right Thing.”

It is my hope and prayer that you will be among the future committed prophetic and visionary leaders who will have the courage to speak truth to our church and challenge or condemn it when necessary. But at the same time, I pray that you will be among those who will make the commitment to stay and work within our church to enable it to be what God requires of it. For you see, even our church can be saved if it confesses its sin before God and chooses to “Do The Right Thing.” So, I leave you with this challenge – “Do the Right Thing” and God will bless you and grant you peace.

AMEN!