Having faith in a sick institution

Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy
October 16, 2011
Covenanting service for A Covenant of Conscience
Mark 5 24b-34

It’s really an honor to be able to be here and even more so to stand before you and offer some words about what this covenant means. My name is Sara Thompson Tweedy and I have been in ministry for over 10 years now. While I do not serve a parish at this time, I have and I know the hard work that goes into it. Those of you who are here today represent congregations throughout the NYAC and our gathering today is testament to the faith that we share.

The scripture that we read intersects with what we are trying to do—which is to bring the marginalized to the center of the institution where our gifts can be celebrated and shared with the broader community. The writer of this Gospel told a story of a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for 12 years and that she had gone to many physicians seeking a cure. Despite all her efforts to be “normal” by the standards of her society, she was not any better off and, in fact, she was worse off.

I can only imagine what this cost her, not only in terms of money, which the scripture made clear she was flat out broke. But also the emotional, psychological, and spiritual cost. By design of the society in which she lived, she was considered “unclean” due to the hemorrhage. This meant that she was not to be touched, that she was not to participate in public religious rituals, furthermore, she wasn’t even supposed to be out in public in the first place. The traditions of the society in which she lived barred a woman like her from participation. As a result she was probably lonely, depressed, and wasting away in a culture that had pushed her to the margins and made her an outcast for something over which she had no control.

Beyond a few descriptors, the scriptures don’t tell us much more about her, but allow me some creative license. Imagine the possibilities of who she might have been without that hemorrhage. She might have been a delightful woman with the capacity to love someone deeply and unselfishly but she wasn’t allowed to. She might have been a talented artist—a painter or a potter—and might have been applauded by the religious institution (as long as she didn’t mention that hemorrhage). She might have been a wonderful baker or carpenter. She might have had the potential to be an amazing mother or business woman. But the society in which she lived would never know her gifts and talents because it refused to allow her to live her life fully.

All of this considered, one morning she got up and said ***** to her society. She stepped outside, when she wasn’t supposed to, she buried herself deep within in the crowd, when she wasn’t supposed to, and she sought a change in her life, when she wasn’t supposed to. She waded through the crowd and had the audacity, (or was it courage?) to reach out and touch Jesus’ cloak. You know in a crowd like that, this woman had to elbow, push, and shove her way through. According to her society, she was making a lot of people unclean in the process…

Now imagine being in the crowd and witnessing the transaction between Jesus and the woman. He knew someone touched him, he knew he healed somebody. But who? When he asked around, the woman finally came up and made her confession. You can bet that there were people who heard her talk about the hemorrhage who were like, “Oh my god, did she touch me? Am I unclean? Who does this woman think she is? What a mockery she has made of our institution!”

And how did Jesus respond? He affirmed her right to change her life. He upheld her conviction to do what she did and he even praised her faith. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace…” Jesus’ words are the equivalent of, “You go, girl.” Now let me ask you, if the writer of this Gospel were transported in time to 2011, the author would have told the story of a lesbian United Methodist, who wanted to get married in her church.

Like the woman, we are here because we have faith that we can change our society and our religious communities. The change we seek is simple—GLBTQ persons should not have to live unlived lives. Individuals should choose who they marry, not the church.

 What we get back is that these changes hurt our institution. The message that we hear is that our relationships aren’t valid, that our call to minister is not of God, that we cannot be ordained and that we shall not be married. How many lives go unlived because faith has been based on manmade traditions?

A couple of years ago, a woman in our conference who is an ardent supporter of the GLBTQ community drafted two pieces of legislation for our annual conference urging equality in marriage. I was asked and eagerly agreed to be one of the signers to this legislation. I don’t want to mention any names and I certainly don’t mean to disparage the leadership of our annual conference. But I was fighting mad when I was told that our legislation was hurtful to the unity of the New York Annual Conference by one of our leaders and who then asked us to rescind our proposals. Underneath the guise of his reasoning was a clear message that we should not upset those who don’t believe in equality. In this request, I heard him say it is more important that we uphold institutional protocols even when all around us in our society is the recognition that GLBTQ people should have the right to marry from Vermont, through New Hampshire, down to Massachusetts and into Connecticut, across to New York, and down and over to Iowa. And I felt mad, but I also felt pity. How foolish to believe that the oppressor is the oppressed!

So, on the one hand, you have people who threaten to leave the denomination if GLBTQ persons are allowed to be ordained or married. (And I’ll let you in on a little secret, the UMC can say it doesn’t ordain GLBTQ persons, but believe me when I tell you, it does!) But on the other hand, here’s how that plays out. Our institution requires that the clergy person who has baptized hundreds of people, got up every Sunday morning for the last 20 years and was in their pulpit, who attended every dreadful SPR committee meeting and every church supper must go home at night to an empty house because you can’t be partnered and called. Faithful United Methodists are told that their lesbian daughters and gay sons can be barred from membership in the church if the pastor thinks homosexuality is a sin. Our church requires that clergy turn away same-sex couples who want to get married even when those persons are the most faithful member of the parish. We put clergy in the position of choosing to celebrate those commitments or lose their job. What kind of church is that?

What kind of church roots out her GLBTQ clergy and tells the laity that they can share their gifts but don’t expect to be celebrate your relationships? What kind of church holds to doctrine that invalidates the lives of the GLBTQ community and the relationships we have? What kind of church destroys careers, families and lives for the sake of the institution? What kind of church puts the Discipline above the Gospel? What kind of church says oxymoronic things like, GLBTQ persons are of “sacred worth”, but not of equal value? What kind of church defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but never mentions trust, love, and faithfulness? What kind of church is that? A sick one! One that has put institutional protocol above her people. It’s sick, but I have faith that this institution can be changed.

We have gathered here today because we want all of us to get a good look at one another; to remember the faces of those who we are pledging to stand with and for; to speak clearly and unequivocally that we will not stand for discrimination; to demand that the definition of marriage has nothing to do with biology, but with faithfulness, trust, and commitment; and also to say that our faith, not our Book of Discipline, is what makes us well!

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for signing that covenant. Thank you for putting yourself on the line for your faith. Thank you for your courage and your audacity. Thank you for declaring to every GLBTQ person that they can be married in our churches and by our ministers! And while others may say differently, my faith tells me that we are moving this institution in the right direction.