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Fear and Power After Rev. Frank Schaefer is Defrocked

I and many other clergy in the United Methodist Church have also performed same-sex weddings, and we know very well that what happened to Rev. Schaefer could happen to us.
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I have to confess. The day a jury in Eastern Pennsylvania found the Rev. Frank Schaefer guilty of violating the United Methodist Book of Discipline for performing a same-sex wedding, I felt fear. You see, I and many other clergy in the United Methodist Church have also performed same-sex weddings, and we know very well that what happened to Rev. Schaefer could happen to us. We too could have our names dragged through the mud, our church's dirty laundry displayed to national media, and our careers ended. Even though I knew it could happen, watching the drama of it all play out in real time these last many weeks made me feel scared.

And that was exactly the intent of the institutional church. There was a moment in Rev. Schaefer's trial, when the prosecutor told the jury that they needed to come up with a penalty for Rev. Schaefer that would be "severe enough" to make other clergy afraid to break the clergy covenant. That guy was talking about me--he wanted me to be afraid.

Now, I was following the trial obsessively on Twitter. And, after I read those words from the prosecution, I defiantly tweeted, "I am still not afraid to do same-sex weddings. God's judgment is more important to me than a jury's. #ministryontrial". But I lied a little bit in that tweet. The truth is that I am afraid. When someone took a picture of me signing my first same-sex marriage license, I was afraid. When I saw photos of one of the weddings on Facebook, I was afraid. When I found out that someone had filed a complaint against me (which was later dismissed), I was afraid. And when I followed Rev. Schaefer's trial, I was afraid. I wish I wasn't. I wish I could walk through fire without flinching, but I am weak.

So I turn again and again to the old, old story. Not the part of the story we're supposed to be celebrating next week. Instead, I turn to the end of the story for that babe in the manger. The story of the day when the sinful world threw its worst at God. When we nailed into the flesh of the grown up Jesus the most horrific pain and humiliation that human beings could think up at that time. It is from this part of the story that Christians get our courage because--even when all our worst fears were hurtled at God--God still transformed every ounce of that pain and suffering and shame into victory. On the third day, Jesus walked out of that tomb stronger than ever. On the third day, the cross--the device used by the institution to make people afraid and subservient--became a symbol of God's victory. It became a reminder that, in Jesus and in our lives, there is no evil the world can throw at us that God cannot transform into good.

The night after Frank Schaefer was found guilty, I was reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. And I randomly happened to be reading Mandela's summary of one of the first campaigns of civil disobedience organized against the South African government. And he admitted that they made a lot of mistakes. It definitely was not a resounding success. But the most valuable thing that came out of that campaign was that a lot of activists went to jail. Before that campaign, jail had a stigma to it--it was a shameful place. Throwing you in jail was one of the worst things the government could do to you. But, after a bunch of these activists actually went to jail, going to jail became a badge of honor. And Mandela wrote, "This was a significant achievement, for fear of prison is a tremendous hindrance to a liberation struggle." How true it is that it is the fear of going to prison or being defrocked or going to the cross in any way which is the greatest hindrance to our liberation.

But, if we can get through that fear, if we can really believe that, no matter what comes, God has the power to transform it for good, then we have the power to do anything. You see, many of us--including Rev. Schaefer--have been afraid for years to do same-sex weddings or to be public about the ones we do. We were afraid of the great institutional trials and threats of defrocking. But because of those who have come before us who have courageously endured these trials--clergy like Rev. Jimmy Creech, Rev. Amy DeLong, Rev. Beth Stroud, and now Rev. Frank Schaefer--we no longer want to hide. We know that the institution can throw its worst at us, but it can never take our pastoral and prophetic call from God. It can never take our Christian integrity and longing for a righteous United Methodist Church. And, in this truth, we have found liberation and transformation and strength. So I do not count this week as a loss. I choose to look at the transformative witness of Rev. Schaefer rather than the sinfulness of the church on this day.

And, for any of you who are feeling fearful today, I want to remind you that our power comes from knowing that there is no cross on which anyone can hang us that God cannot transform into a symbol of our victory. So grasp on to, cling to that power, and watch this world change.

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