Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016...What a Wild Ride!

When I think back to 2016, I am surprised by the tears that fill my eyes. How does one sum up a year of so many emotions, changes, challenges, and new possibilities? How does one heart hold the prayers, hopes and love of so many? How can the mind comprehend the tectonic shifts that have occurred, both within one’s own life, the church and the world?

2016 began with my dad’s death. His health declined sharply at the end of 2015 and with the new year, he decided enough was enough. He died the way he lived: totally on his own terms. My relationship with Daddy was complicated, yet I am so aware of the gifts he imparted to me—my love of the outdoors, a mind that constantly questions, and a voracious appetite for reading and learning. Perhaps the greatest gift he gave was in his dying: it drew my sisters and brothers together in a deeper way than ever before. Divided by age (there is a nearly 30 year difference between me and the youngest), different mothers, and different upbringings, we found ourselves learning more about one another and delighting in our commonalities more than ever before.

I had a crisis of faith in the late winter-early spring. I have always been acutely aware of God’s presence and claim on my life. But suddenly, I felt adrift: where was God, and what did God want of my life? I began to hear that still, small voice, and began to follow, but WHOA! Was not expecting to be led THERE! On June 10, when Robin and I discerned together that yes, perhaps God was calling me to the episcopacy, the Holy Spirit burst in our lives in such a profound way and took over. The rest is, as they say, history.

My election meant a very fast transition, saying good-bye to a city that I have called home for 27 years. So many lessons learned there, friendships made, and experiences that have shaped me as a person and a pastor. These past 8 years, in particular, have been filled with so many lessons that have already served me well in my new ministry. The Glide community, so diverse, loving, and hopeful, have taught me so much. Folks invited me to share life with them, and opened my eyes and heart to worlds I would otherwise know nothing about. Daily, I had to confront my privilege. God kept showing up in the margins, and I learned more faith lessons there than in any seminary classroom.

Saying good-bye was hard, and filled our hearts with grief yet again. But it wasn’t the last time. Within days of moving to Colorado, Robin’s mother died unexpectedly. And then her dad had surgery followed by a small stroke. Yet, God kept showing up in the midst of it, surrounding us with a new community that spanned more than four states in the Mountain Sky Area. Robin and I regularly asked ourselves, “How did we fall in love so hard and fast with these people?”

2016…what a wild ride! Yet, through it all, I have only two words: “Thank you.”

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Sermon preached at St. Andrew UMC in Highlands Ranch, CO, after the US National Election, 2016


Mark 1: 40-45

            Two of the most challenging days I have ever had in my more than thirty years of ministry have been 9-11 and 11-9. when so many came to me for pastoral care. On Wednesday, November 9, the first call came shortly after midnight. An African American pastor called me in tears, her voice barely audible because of the grief that came from deep within her soul, “How am I going to tell my teenage son in the morning? The world has just become that much more dangerous for him.”

            I received an email from another pastor, asking if I can write a note to the queer young people her church serves, who are now afraid that the bullying they deal with on a regular basis will become more pronounced and violent.

            Several friends have talked about how the election has been a terrible trigger for them, surfacing memories of abuse they had hoped they would have long forgotten.

            Teachers told me of how they spent time soothing crying children, who are afraid that one day they will return home from school to find parents missing, having been rounded up and deported.

            Mothers and fathers asked me what they could tell their children, now that someone who has shown such disrespectful behaviors towards women has been elected a world leader.

            At a time when the global village is shrinking, it seems as if instead of feeling a greater sense of community and connection, more and more people are feeling pushed to the margins, outcasts, untouchables.

One of my favorite hymns begins with the line: Open my eyes that I may see.

Open my eyes that I may see.

I use this line as a prayer regularly, because it seems that a part of my human condition is to not keep my eyes open.  There are things I become blind to. There are those around me that I overlook. There are those whose suffering or state is too disturbing, and so I close my eyes. Do you know what I’m saying?

Open my eyes that I may see.

This is a basic and sad truth about human nature. There are things about each other that causes us to close our eyes to the other. Just about everyone in this place knows something about this: Whether it is our skin color, our accent, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have (or don’t have), our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our handicapping condition, our size, our addictions, our tattoos, our piercings, most of us have had the experience of being shunned, ignored, overlooked, not seen.

This is a most painful, dehumanizing, demoralizing experience.  The gifts and skills we possess and can contribute to the greater good go unacknowledged or unappreciated.  The hurts and wounds we carry that can be healed in community fester and cripple us.  We are pushed to the margins, sidelined from participating fully in the world, and our cries and contributions are unheeded.

But there is one who sees. There is one who hears our cries. In the book of Jeremiah, God speaks: Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away.” God hears the cry of resignation, of deep despair, of broken hearts. And how does God react? Jeremiah continues: “For the hurt of my poor people, I am hurt. Oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night.” The God who created us is a weeping God. A God who cries. 

A God who cries is one who cares and cares deeply about the world as a whole, and people, too, one by one.  God sees us. God is moved by us.

This commitment to seeing us fully and responding with compassion was embodied in Jesus. This is what made Jesus so dangerous. Jesus saw those who were overlooked. Jesus saw the outcast. Jesus saw the widow. Jesus saw the children. Jesus saw the immigrant.  Jesus saw the mentally challenged. Jesus saw the physically challenged. Jesus saw the physically diseased. Jesus saw those people whom the state had a vested interest in suppressing. Jesus saw those whom the religious authorities wanted nothing to do with. Jesus saw those whom the dominating class overpowered.  Jesus saw the rough and the raw.  Jesus saw the bleeding and wounded.  Jesus saw the crushed and defeated.  Jesus saw, and was moved to compassion and action.  And the most important action was to let those whom he saw know that they were central to God and God’s purposes. They were and are an exclamation point on the heart of God.

Our scripture today is one of the many stories we have of Jesus seeing the invisible. Leprosy in Jesus day rendered one an untouchable and forced to the figurative margins of society and the literal edges of the town. They were considered an illness to be avoided, a cancer that could be caught, an affliction from God that forced one out of community.

The leper comes to Jesus and begs to him, “If you touch me, you can make me clean.” People who are invisible or untouchable know what they need in order to be treated with dignity and restored to community. The problem is, most of the time we don’t listen. We tend to our own places of privilege or think we know best. But this leper, like so many marginalized folks I’ve known, knew exactly what he needed. And he wasn’t afraid to ask for it.

Jesus looks to the man. He SEES the man. He takes in his whole condition. He sees in him not only the diseased parts of him, but the parts of promise that are waiting to be loosened within him. Some translations say “Jesus took pity on him”. Other translations say Jesus “had compassion”. I go with compassion over pity any time. Pity keeps someone an object, something instead of someone. An issue instead of a person. A problem to be solved instead of a person worthy of wholeness.

To have compassion…oh, that changes everything. Compassion causes us to open our eyes and see the common humanity we share with another. Compassion causes us to be uncomfortable with assumptions we’ve lived with when we see how some of our life choices are detrimental to another’s life. Compassion moves us to action, because to do nothing would violate a central tenant of our faith, to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus has compassion and even though he has spent a long day healing one person after another, gets it together enough to do it one more time. He touches a man no one else is would touch and the man is cleansed of his leprosy. The very thing that kept him at arm’s length is removed and he is returned to community, a whole man.

We need to do this for each other.

I know some of us have been kicked out, kicked down one too many times.  Love has broken your heart to pieces and you are feeling beyond the reach of love. Your addictions have clouded your vision, keeping your eye on the one thing that will blind you.  Your voice, the work of your hands, your intellectual labor have been ignored, put down or owned by others.  You have been put in a corner where no one can see you for so long you have come to believe that that’s where you belong.

But you are an exclamation point in the heart of God. God weeps with you, for you. We are here to extend a hand to you, to see you in all your fullness, flaws and all, and let you know you are loved. We are here to do the work Jesus begun. To see each other fully. To love one another as completely as we can. To stand with each other. As the song “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” teaches us: We will stand with each other, we will stand side by side. And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

            As we face the days, months and years to come, Jesus calls to us. Jesus says, live as my beloved brothers and sisters. Care for each other. Heal one another. Protect one another’s dignity. Save each one’s pride. Live out your love so brilliantly so that no one will find themselves lost in the shadows, cowering in fear or languishing in oppression.

            I was speaking at a conference not too long ago, and one of the other speakers was from Zimbabwe. He told me about the traditional greeting in Zimbabwe which he says has no real English (and I would dare say American) equivalent. It is called “Chabadza” and it is always said when you pass someone and it means something like, “Hello, can I help?”

            Unlike here, where we say without even meaning it, “Hi, how are you?” in Zimbabwe they mean it. He said to me,  “When we say Chabadza, what we mean is ‘Greetings! Let me stop a while and help you with what you’re doing. We will work together and we’ll talk a bit and then I’ll be on my way.”

            Chabadza is the sharing of a moment, a participation in the task at hand and an acknowledgment that life is best when it is shared.

            Life is best when it is shared. As long as we live in silos that separate us by our differences, we don’t get to enjoy the best of life and in fact life turns deadly for those who are feared because of differences.

             As this critical juncture in our nation’s history, it is time we practice Chabadza. What would it mean for you to practice it in your office, in your community, as you walk down the street. How would your living change if you took the time to look others in the eye and say let me join you, side by side work with you, so I can learn from you and make your walk in this world a bit easier.

            This is how we heal the lepers of our current age. This is what is needed to heal a fractured nation. This is our task as we work for justice, fairness, and equality. This is what is required of us as children of God.

             So today and in the days to come, I invite you to walk in the world differently. To see people you often overlook. To stop and share life together. For that is when healing happens, That is when community is created. This is what causes compassion to well up within us and compels us to work for justice.

Chabadza. Hello. How can I help?

St. Andrew United Methodist Church
Highlands Ranch, CO
November 13, 2016
Bishop Karen P. Oliveto

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What if...?: Hard Questions for United Methodists

Author Anne Lamott has astutely noted that “the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty”:

“I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me--that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” (Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)

As we United Methodists approach General Conference, I have been pondering this quote. I have asked myself, “Where has my certainty caused me to stray from faith? Have I been willing to engage in the hard questions regarding my own understandings as I expect others whose views are different from mine? Am I willing to wade into the troubled waters of our beloved church and be open to and surprised by the Spirit’s work?”

I have been especially asking myself these questions in light of recent statements by bishops within our church. The bishops of Africa addressed our denomination. They highlighted two major concerns, global terrorism and homosexuality. These bishops have a front row seat to the brokenness, injustices and death that terrorism has imparted, reminding all of us of “the massive human rights abuses against innocent”

However, the very next paragraph chides the church for “drifting” away from this high calling for “God’s reign of peace, justice and freedom to all” due to the church’s pastoral ministry with LGBT persons:

“Over the past four decades, from 1972 until the present, we have watched with shock and dismay the rapid drift of our denomination from this Holy call to a warm embrace of practices that have become sources of conflict that now threatens to rip the Church apart and distract her from the mission of leading persons to faith and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. One of such practices is the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender).”

In the United States, one bishop, Scott Jones, offered an unprecedented exit strategy to Rev. Cynthia Meyer, a lesbian clergywoman. Should the 2016 General Conference retain current language prohibiting gay and lesbian clergy from serving openly, Rev. Meyer will be asked to surrender her credentials and “[I] will explain the process foundin ¶2548.2 to a church conference of Edgerton United Methodist Church . .. to assess their interest in withdrawing from the UMC and retaining Rev. Meyeras their pastor in a new denomination.” Bishop Jones is taking the GC 2016 theme of “Therefore Go” quite literally.

So I have been wondering, what if our certainty is preventing us from not only living fully into our faith, but also from recognizing how others are living into theirs as well?

I have been asking myself, as I prepare for General Conference, “What if I’ve been reading the Bible wrong? What if God really abhors homosexuality? What if it is a sin that automatically excludes one from participating in the life and ministry of the church? What if the loving relationships of gay men and lesbians are not reflections of God’s love?”

Now, to those who hold a view of homosexuality that is more restrictive than mine, you, too, must ask yourself the questions:

“What if I’ve been reading the Bible wrong? What if homosexuality is one more example of God’s creativity? What if homosexuality like heterosexuality really is a sacred gift, and those who are gay or lesbian are equal partners in creating God’s beloved community? What if loving relationships of gay men and lesbians are a reflection of God’s love?”

If I am wrong, what has been the cost in welcoming gay men and lesbians to the table as equal partners with straight men and women? How have I failed as a follower of Jesus?
If nothing else, by welcoming LGBTQ persons to the faith community, I have offered a group of people that have been kept at the margins a chance to experience the love of God. In addition, the church has benefited from the gifts of those who have participated openly in the life of the church (let’s be clear—the church has, is, and always will benefit from the service of lgbtq persons who are called to make The United Methodist Church their spiritual home. No amount of legislation will prevent the Spirit from calling people--including lgbtq persons--to ministry within our church).

However, for those who currently seek to maintain the restrictive policies regarding homosexuality and The United Methodist Church, what if you are wrong? What has been the cost in excluding gay men and lesbian from full participation in the body of Christ as found in the UMC? What have we lost? What has it done to the souls of lgbtq persons, and yours?

I, for one, would rather be faulted for erring on the side of grace.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

NO HATE IN OUR STATE: Decide to Love

Transcript of a speech given at a "No Hate in Our State" Rally, in response to the homophobic message of Franklin Graham, in Sacramento, CA March 31, 2016:

We are here today, because we want to show the world that Franklin Graham doesn’t speak for all Christians. We are here today because we are committed to a state and nation where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons and their families receive equal protection under law as straight and cis-gendered persons and families. We are here today, because we will resist evil, injustice and hatred in all the forms they present themselves, and we will fight back boldly and beautifully through the power of love.

The Christian faith I was born into and have committed my life to is one that embodies the great commandments that Jesus taught: to love God with all of who I am, and to love my neighbor as myself. We are to love God with all of who we are: in the fullness of our gayness or straightness, in the fullness of our whiteness or our blackness, in the fullness of our abilities. There is no part of us that should be held back or kept closeted, away from God. And we are to extend the love that we feel about ourselves to those around us, whether they are like us or not. To do anything less, is to fail to live into the faith that Jesus has set before us.

For God is love, and love is of God. When the church, when a faith leader, when Franklin Graham fails to see or recognize love, yes, even that love between two men or two women, I believe they have failed to live into the faithful example that Jesus embodied. Love is the heart of Christianity. It ought to be evident in the work we do, the positions we take, the relationships we build. It ought to manifest in breaking chains of hate and shame that have ensnared our brothers and sisters from living into their full selves.

We who are religious leaders have a responsibility to let folks know that they are beautiful, just as they are, and never beyond God’s loving embrace.

Franklin Graham is not leading with love when he calls marriage equality “detestable”. He is not leading with love when he says that when lesbians and gays live out their love openly it is “moral corruption.” He is not leading with love he claims that lgbt rights and advocacy are the works of Satan.

I will say this: Franklin Graham, who is on a Decision America tour, is right: it is time to make a decision, America, but not the decisions he thinks:

·       There is a decision to make, America: will we continue to fan the flames of racism or will we live into the beauty of diversity found in the human family?

·       There is a decision to make, America: will we ignore the cries of the poor or will we seek economic justice?

·       There is a decision to make, America: will we allow transphobia to become legislated into law, or will we seek to ensure that every person be allowed to live into their full gender expression?

·       There is a decision to make, America: will we roll back the great legal strides that the lgbtq community has made, or will we remain vigilant, so lgbtq children can grow up without fear, without shame, without bullying or violence?

·       There is a decision to make, America: will we build walls that divide, or will we build crosswalks of hope at the intersections of oppressions?

I will not allow hate to fester in our state. I will stand up and speak out, on this day and every day, for justice, for hope, for love.

Will you stand up and speak out with me?