Archive for August, 2014

JOB DESCRIPTION: MIDWIFE. Other duties as assigned.

Monday, August 25th, 2014

*The following sermon was preached at Lexington United Methodist Church on Sunday, August 24, 2014 by MFSA executive director, Chett Pritchett*

So often when we turn to Scripture, we find a lot of unnamed people, especially unnamed women
    -the woman at the well
    -“Lot’s wife”
    -the many woman who were behind the scenes at feast and festivals
    -and last week, I’m sure you heard all about the Canaanite woman, whom Jesus called a dog.

It wasn’t Jesus’ most shining moment.

That’s why this week, I’m happy to say, our text from the Hebrew Scriptures, presents us with two women whose names are known to us: Shiphrah and Puah.

Now I’ll admit it – I like saying their names: Shiphrah and Puah.

For me it’s kind of like when the hyenas say “Mufasa” in The Lion King. I just want to keep saying those names over and over again.

Shiphrah and Puah were two midwives in the Egyptian court. Their boss was Pharoah. And whatever Pharoah says you do.  It’s sort of like that line we see in so many job descriptions these days. It’s usually the last line and it states: Other duties as assigned.

Now the Pharoah wasn’t just a demanding boss. Pharoah was ruler over all of Egypt.

Now in this time, the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt. They were forced to build temples, pyramids, and other great structures for the benefit of their captors.

But as what often happens in the acts of migration, children are born. Generations multiply prolifically, and those at the top of the food chain start to get nervous. Pharoah – which incidentally means “great house” – was afraid his house would no longer be great.

And so, a decree went out to the midwives. “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”

Every time I read and re-read this passage over the past few weeks, I would laugh.

I would laugh, not because this is a story that is funny. Or a story with great humor.

I laughed because poor, poor Pharoah just didn’t get it.

You see Pharoah thought that greatness was passed down through male lineage.

Shiphrah and Puah, those midwives, they knew differently – Jewish heritage is passed down maternally.
So faced with Pharoah’s decree, Shiphrah and Puah already saw a flaw.

If greatness wasn’t tied to male lineage, then killing newborn boys wasn’t going to assuage Pharoah’s fears. Or accomplish anything really but turn malice into rage.

Our reading of Scripture tells us the midwives ignored Pharoah’s command because they “feared God.” Throughout both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures we hear about people “fearing God” – I suggest this is a poor translation – instead of literally being afraid of God and belief in a God of vengeance, a better concept is “trusting God” – a God of goodness and grace and love – a God who seeks to be in relationship with the world.

Pharoah was the one filled with fear. Shiphrah and Puah were filled with trust.

What’s amazing about Shiphrah and Puah is this – we don’t know if they were Egyptians – or Hebrews – or another religious persuasion. But we do know they were skeptical of what Pharoah asked of them, and they had trust in the same God in which the Hebrew woman had trust.

In fact, they had so much trust in this God, they chose to be resistors against a temporal expression of injustice in favor of an expression of divine justice.

Shiphrah and Puah became resistors of oppression.  Their risk provides opportunity for transformation.

Oh, friends, oh how I wish our world today did not present us with opportunities to be resistors of oppression. And yet every day we see it in our newspapers, our Facebook feeds, and for many of us, right outside our very own doors.

Like Shiphrah and Puah, we live on the edge between risk and transformation.

As a gay man, I have come to learn the difference between “friends” and “allies” in the movement for LGBTQ justice in The United Methodist Church. You see, friends are the people who say “you know where I stand, but I just can’t be seen as choosing a side.” Or “I’ll be more vocal once I get ordained.” Or “You need to understand, I’m a bishop for the whole Church.” Some friends those are.

But allies…allies are the people who “get it.” They’re the one’s who say, “I have privilege because of your oppression.” Or “I will use my privilege to make sure your voice is heard before mine is.”

No matter their identification – Egyptian or Hebrew – Shiphrah and Puah used their position of privilege – as midwives with direct communication from Pharoah to be allies to the enslaved Hebrew people.

Over the past three weeks, police violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson have brought conversations of race and racism to water coolers and dinner tables across America.

Now, More than ever, our world needs allies, instead of friends.

Again and again I have heard friends say, “Now Chett, you should know there are two sides to every story.”

Others have said, “We don’t know the real story, so we’re not going to comment.”

Even leaders in our own United Methodist denomination have been painfully slow to comment – and when they have we see words and phrases like “de-escalate” and “we don’t know the truth.”

Here is what I know about Ferguson, Missouri. Like many American suburbs, Ferguson has experienced “reverse white flight.” As it becomes more and more “hip” to live in urban centers, mostly-white, and probably mostly progressive, young people move in, driving property values upward. Those who can no longer afford to live in urban cores have moved to the suburbs for lower costs of living. Disproportionately, these are often people of color and those in immigrant communities.

Ferguson’s median household income is just over $37,000 a year. (To give some perspective, that’s about $100k less than the median household income here in Lexington). One-quarter of households are led by a single, female parent. Almost the same percentage of people under the age of 18 live BELOW the poverty line.

Here’s what I know about Ferguson: Things were bad long before Michael Brown was shot by a police officer. It didn’t matter if he was a good kid, or a smart kid, or a kid who was about to start college. True, Michael Brown didn’t deserve to be shot because he was a good kid or a smart kid. He simply didn’t deserve to be shot. Period.

Here’s something else I know about Ferguson: justice and reconciliation do not begin with being nice; they begin with deep, deep lamentation. No movement for justice in this world ever began with “kum bay ya.” They begin with weeping and gnashing of teeth, with walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Here’s what I know about Ferguson: there are two sides to every story. Justice. And injustice.

So when I hear my friends say “remember, there are two sides to every story,” or “we need to get all the facts," I can’t help but think of Shiphrah and Puah.

They didn’t have to “get all the facts,” they didn’t engage in rhetoric which calls the questioning of power and privilege “political correctness”; and according to Scripture, they didn’t even call into question if this was “smart” or “safe” or “wise.”

They did it because they know there is a difference between justice and injustice. And they chose to stand on the side of justice.

As a white male with some higher education under my belt, it would be really easy for me to throw my hands in the air and say, “well, that’s their problem.” Or “I pulled myself out of poverty, they can, too.” Or worse I could say this: (LONG PAUSE). That’s right. I could be silent.

Silence is the worst abuse of privilege I’ve ever encountered. We know systemic oppression happens every day, all around us. Or at least I hope we do.    

Shiphrah and Puah saw systemic oppression and they used their positions to flip their job descriptions. They still completed that pesky final line: other duties as assigned. Except it wasn’t for the authorities of this world filled with fear; it was for the God of all creation, in whom they trusted and experienced hope for a different kind of world.

In the Gospel lesson today, we hear Jesus ask the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
One of his disciples, Simon Peter, gives an answer. On the surface, Jesus seems pleased with this answer, but when we get to the end, Jesus does a little table-turning.

“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Wait. What?

That’s right. Jesus did some creative work on that job description – of what it meant to be the child of the living God.  Our expectations of the heavenly life cannot be separated from our experience of life on earth. Indeed, temporal, earthly authority does not get the last words where God is concerned.

Not Pharoah. Not Herod. Not Caesar.
Not the armies of yesterday or today or tomorrow.
Not Bull Connor. Not Ferguson Chief Thomas Jackson.
Not Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. Not President Obama.

The powers and principalities of this world do not have the last word. That’s the entire point of the resurrection, my friends! Christ has died – Christ is risen!

And indeed, Christ will come again.

The great social thinker of our time Cornell West says this:
“We are at a crucial crossroads in the history of this nation- and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.” (1)

While West’s words sound as if they were taken from today’s New York Times, he actually wrote these words 20 years ago. Indeed, time is telling.

As Christians in America in the 21st century, especially those of us who are white, we have privilege beyond belief. But there’s something in our faith tradition that confronts us with our privilege and makes us take note, even if it is an uncomfortable note.

I like to think of our baptismal vows as our “job descriptions” as disciples of Jesus.

We repent of our sin. Check.
We follow Jesus and trust God’s grace. Check.
We nurture. Check.
We believe. Check.
We “accept the freedom and power God gives us to reject evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

Now that’s the hardest part of the job description, isn’t it?

Because it’s all dependent on to whom we report.

Like Shiphrah and Puah, we have to ask ourselves –
    Do we fear the Pharoah’s of this world?
         Or do we trust in God?
    Do we let the powers and principalities of this world pass us by?
         Or do we help birth a new reality in our midst?

If our answer is the latter, we have to be brace ourselves for “a whole lotta ugly comin' at (us) from a never ending parade of stupid.” (You get points if you know what that’s from).

What I’m getting at is this: being a midwife is messy.

Birth is messy.
Even with the advent of modern medical procedures, there’s still blood

and tears

and pain

and love.

Major social movements have shown us this. From the American civil rights movement to South African Apartheid, we humans have frailty. Even when we try so hard to get it right, sometimes things go wrong.

But knowledge that transforming the world is messy business, should not – no – CANNOT inhibit us from transforming the world!

James Baldwin put it this way:
“If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: GOD GAVE NOAH THE RAINBOW SIGN, NO MORE WATER, THE FIRE NEXT TIME!” (2)

Either we are midwives to a new reality – or we are conduits to destruction.

The witness of Shiphrah and Puah modeled compassion and justice in ways that they likely didn’t know. Pharoah’s daughter had a heart of compassion larger than her Father’s. And the Hebrew child we have come to know as Moses, was not killed, but brought life for a people Pharoah once feared.

From the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Mississippi,
From Shiphrah and Puah, to you and you and you and you and me,
transforming the world begins with working through our job description and checking off that task which is ultimately never finished: other duties as assigned.

(1) West, Cornell. Race Matters. Epilogue to the 1994 edition.

(2) Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time, 1963.

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Chett Pritchett is Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.

Wondering About Supreme Court Decisions

Monday, August 18th, 2014

I suspect more than a few wonder if members of the Supreme Court ever wonder if some of the decisions they have made were very poor ones, no matter how reasoned and rational they believed their “arguments” were for their “legal” position, though their “arguments” often go against anything most would accept as common sense.  Every now and then you hear or see something about some retired Justice who has reservations, or even criticisms, about what is happening with the Court, but I suspect few of us read their books.  I think John Paul Stephens was the latest to write such a book (though it may have been someone else), which even had some specific recommendations to fix what are Constitutional legal issues that plaque us at this time in our history—like the Second Amendment. 

 

 

I specifically wonder if the “five old white guys” who carried the vote on the Citizens United decision have ever wondered if what they did is as much a major mistake as many of us think it certainly is.  The amount of money is unquestionably far greater than Justice Scalia seemed to think was all that significant, with his well publicized question at the last hearing on the issue, that led to another decision that even further widened the door to all the corporate funds now allowed to be spent for elections.  And it isn’t just the amount of money being spent that is threatening the essence of “freely” decided democratic elections, it is also the amount of money each side thinks/knows it has to raise to even possibly have the chance to get elected—thus making being a House or Senate elected “public servant” nearly a full time fund-raising profession.  The emails that hourly flood most of our email accounts asking, even begging, for money certainly demonstrates it is a full time occupation for at least the aids of such elected officials.  While I’m glad to know it at least means a nice paycheck for some folks who work in elected officials’ offices, the idea that all this money simply represents “freedom of speech”, with no connection to how these elected officials vote on issues that matter to those who have given them the money, is so absurdly ridiculous that it is completely and totally nonsensical.  How anyone supposedly intelligent enough to rise to the level of even being considered to be nominated to become a Supreme Court Justice, let alone actually becoming one, can make any rational or reasonable defending argument for this decision and its effects is silly to anyone with even a minor level of common sense.  That they supposedly made this decision on the basis that a corporation is equivalent to an individual only makes the whole thing grotesquely worse, and even more ridiculously illogical and irrational.

I also specifically wonder about the decision of these same “five old white guys” (who happen to all be Roman Catholic), in regards to the Hobby Lobby decision.  Will they ever be sorry that their decision changed the entire understanding and definition of religious freedom and rights, so that now a corporation’s religious beliefs can be used to overrule and overrun the religious beliefs of an individual who works for that corporation, going against the rational and reasonable understanding of individual religious freedom from the time of this country’s very beginning?  A nation whose founding leaders had the deeply wise idea that a republic of democratically elected representatives could best exist without the kind of religious allegiances and laws that almost always ended up imposing someone’s religious beliefs on someone else, and also, too often, led to serious tensions and/or violent conflicts between at least two groups of supporters of differing beliefs that each claimed were so sacred as to “have to” be believed by all, so that they became willing to kill and die in order for that to happen.  Those founders well knew that religious wars were far too often causing far too much destruction and death to any nation’s and its peoples’ lives to be something they wanted to cause any reason to happen in this “new” attempt to begin a new nation.  So they accepted the notion of individual religious freedom with no law ever to be made that would, in effect, create or respect any one religion or religious perspective.  That these “five old white guys” have now come along and changed this at least 90 degrees, or perhaps even 180 degrees, in the opposite direction is also irrational and unreasonable, and again ignores anything that can be understood as common sense.  While they tried to make it seem that this was a limited decision available for small, closely held “family” corporations, the immediate appeal by many other religious groups asking for exemptions based on “religious beliefs” to avoid paying insurance costs for people they do not “believe” are worthy of their financial support (or even to exist as they are)—like same-gender oriented people—means that the effect of the decision simply immediately opened the door to legally accepted, religious belief-based discrimination.  Exactly the kind of thing the founders knew was exceedingly problematic, as does anyone with even an ounce of common sense and tolerant decency toward others whose religious beliefs differ from their own.  A Supreme Court that is supposed to be above political partisanship appears, pathetically, sadly, not to be.

Now all this wondering on my part, or any one else’s of similar thinking, doesn’t solve anything at all, and cannot under our current political

situation—the gridlocked mess of maximalist partisanship that now “rules” the nation’s governing bodies.  But I want to think and believe that such wondering might lead us to decide to do more than wonder, and begin to demand something different of our elected officials, so that some solutions might actually be accomplished.  It’s possible—it’s doable—if we will make it so!  I certainly hope so—how about you? 

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Rodney Noel Saunders is a United Methodist clergyperson living in Alberquerque, NM where he serves as the Wesley Foundation Director at the University of New Mexico.

When Citizens Become the Nail

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

**Originally Posted at wheneftalks.com. Re-posted with permission**

Ferguson is a mess. If journalists can be arrested for no reason whatsoever, (hauled out of a McDonald’s, with their press credentials clearly visible) just imagine how average citizens of Ferguson are being treated.

Mistrust is at the heart of all that is happening there. Police are unwilling to answer even the most basic questions about the Michael Brown case. Only three of Ferguson’s 50-plus police officers are African-American. Seventy-percent of the population is African-American. You do the math.

Yes, the police do have a higher burden on them…to act responsibly, to de-escalate tensions whenever they can. Why can’t the police understand that their failure to release the officer’s name makes every officer, in riot gear, look like an accomplice? Why can’t the police understand that the very presence of these SWAT teams are escalating the problem? There’s no reason for a SWAT team member to aim rifles into a peaceful crowd, or to point it at the chest of a journalist. (Both happened yesterday…)

Yesterday was a day of peaceful protests in Ferguson. It was a de-escalation on the part of the citizens there. The police could have responded in kind, by de-escalating the scope of their SWAT-like response. They did not do this.

So, yes, there’s a racial component to what’s happening in Ferguson. But everything happening there is greatly exacerbated by the militarization of local police. First, the federal government gave grants to fight the “War on Drugs.” Then, they gave grants to fight the “War on Terror.” Police forces in peaceful suburbs now routinely train and use SWAT-style weapons for the hordes of Islamic terrorists descending upon them (turn your sarcasm detectors on).

I point you toward this excellent summary from Newsweek. Here’s the golden nugget in this story, which makes the point I am trying to make here:

    “Given the proliferation of military weapons and military training among America’s police departments, the use of military force and military tactics is not surprising. When your only tool is a hammer, after all, every problem looks like a nail.”

I point to these two additional resources. First, this report from the progressive ACLU. Then, a similar report from the conservative Cato Institute.

The militarization of local police in America brings fear to everyone. It’s a big part of what’s driving the fear of African-Americans on the streets of Ferguson. However, it’s also a big part of what drives the fear of White people espousing “Open Carry” here in Texas. Militarized police raise fear and anxiety in a cross-racial way.

The hostility and anger on all sides is palpable. Here’s an excellent essay from Salon, on the entire situation, that focuses on Black Anger:

    “Nothing makes white people more uncomfortable than black anger. But nothing is more threatening to black people on a systemic level than white anger. It won’t show up in mass killings. It will show up in overpolicing, mass incarceration, the gutting of the social safety net, and the occasional dead black kid. Of late, though, these killings have been far more than occasional. We should sit up and pay attention to where this trail of black bodies leads us.  They are a compass pointing us to a raging fire just beneath the surface of our national consciousness. We feel it. We hear it. Our nostrils flare with the smell of it.”

Ferguson is not Baghdad. It’s not even Cairo. Our citizens have rights. Our police have responsibilities. The police have made many tactical mistakes in these past few days.

And, most importantly, our citizens are not nails to be pounded by a SWAT-team hammer.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001.Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest.

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