“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Grace to you this morning, we are well into the holiday season, the holy holiday season. And I have not been speaking to you, my people across the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church much lately. Time and again, I have thought I want to give a good word, to share good news with the people that I serve with. And yet, the words have not come.
So, I want to start this morning just by saying thank you again. I hope you’ve heard me say thank you before. This has been an awkward and difficult and trying season and you have kept alive, most of you. And we mourn those who have not made it through this pandemic for reasons of COVID or other life circumstances and health circumstances that have taken their lives.
But those of you who are listening to this message, who are hearing this message today, you are alive and you’re serving and you’re caring, you’re struggling at times. Thank you. God works through us. Whether we feel up to the task or not. People find blessing in us. And so, we get up each morning, we greet the sun, and we go on, as best we can, spreading love and hope and tenderness to the people that we encounter. So, thank you. Thank you, God bless you and keep you.
It is a strange and disorienting time, though, isn’t it? Don’t you find it so? I certainly do. There are so many urgent matters to give our attention to, to open our hearts to, to learn about, to respond to with compassion and understanding. Every time I think about bringing you a good word, I find myself caught.
Shall I speak about the climate and the flooding and the wildfires and the need to move away from fossil fuels and find new sustainable sources of energy?
Shall I speak to you about COVID and the deaths and the dangers and the trials of not being able to gather and sing together?
Shall I speak to you of January 6 and the divisions that seem to be separating us as people in our nation and threatening the very foundation of civil society?
Shall I speak to you about racism and the trials of Rittenhouse and the people who killed Ahmaud Arbery and Charlottesville and the danger of losing voting rights?
Each time I think about what to speak to you about, I think, if I speak one word, it leaves unspoken those other words, and we carry it all, all at the same time. And yet we can’t speak of it all at the same time. And so, I have found myself in a season of silence. Not because I don’t feel deeply, not because I’m not attuned with what you’re struggling with, with what the world is struggling with. But I find myself unable to speak because it is so broad and so deep and there’s so much, it’s hard to know where to begin.
I turned to scripture, into prayer, deeply in the last couple of weeks to prepare for this message and what I found there were two great stories in the Gospel of Luke of people being drawn into stillness.
The first is from Luke 1 and it’s the song of Zechariah. You remember Zechariah is married to Elizabeth and Elizabeth becomes pregnant with the baby that will become John the Baptist. And Zechariah receives this announcement and is puzzled by it and doesn’t quite trust it. He and Elizabeth are older and not sure they can have children. And so, he questions the angel that brings him this news. And the angel strikes him silent, takes his voice away for doubting the word from God.
And he sits in silence, then until you recall that Elizabeth gives birth, the baby is born. They’re going to name it Zechariah after his father, and Mary says, “No, his name is John.” And that people turn to Zechariah and say, “What do you say about this? What do you think, shouldn’t the baby be named after you?” And Zechariah gets his voice back, his voice returns. And he says, he doesn’t say I want to name him, John. He doesn’t say I name him John. He says, “His name is John” as if it comes from beyond. It’s a powerful moment in the scripture.
And then I’m drawn also to Mary. And all that she pondered in her heart as the world was swirling around her and she had given birth to this new baby and shepherds and angels, and the sky opened up and prophets are speaking, and she speaks a word. But then she ponders it all in her heart.
The writers of the Bible, know what we’re going through – the fear, the disorientation, the danger, the displacement, exclusion, betrayal, the plagues. They know it all, it’s all in the story. It’s not a happy Christmas Eve story with babies in and animals in a barnyard and halos. It’s also a story of deep displacement, disregard, flight. And yet, it’s a story that invites us to wait, to find our own silence, to anticipate, not to wait passively, but to anticipate and watch for and prepare for, and live in hope.
Because the core of the scripture is the message that what’s going on around us what we see with our eyes, what we hear with our ears, what we experience in the complex and unpredictable social lives we lead isn’t everything, that beneath it, there is a spirit. There is a place where our souls live, there is a place where God who watches and tends the whole complexity of our lives, tends to us, plans for a good future, and invites us to partner in creating that future.
So here we are. We’re invited into this season of Advent which is all about coming. Advent means coming. It’s about God coming into the world, yes, in the baby Jesus. But God coming every year as we celebrate Advent, every day, as we awaken to the dawn, to lead us in new ways, to teach us new things, to invite us to participate in our own lives in the world with open eyes, and new awareness.
I want to read to you Psalm 46 this morning. You can hear this as foolish optimism, superficial wishful thinking, or you can hear it as an invitation to look for where the goodness and the hopefulness that God promises is alive and being born in the world.
Our defense is sure, our shelter and help in trouble, God never stands far off. So we stand unshaken when solid earth cracks and volcanoes slide into the sea. When breakers rage and mountains tremble, the Lord of cosmic power, Jacob’s God, will shield us.
A river delights the City of God, home of the Holy One most high. With God there, the city stands. God defends it under attack. Nation’s rage, empires fall. God speaks, the earth melts. The Lord of cosmic power, Jacob’s God, will shield us.
Come, see the wonders God does across the earth. Everywhere stopping wars, smashing, crushing, burning all the weapons of wars. An end to your fighting. “Acknowledge me as God,” God says. High over nations, high over Earth, the Lord of cosmic power, Jacob’s God, will shield us.
And so, in the season of Advent, we wait. We anticipate. We prepare. We hope for what the scripture tells us is the truth we sometimes cannot see.
Be still. Be still with Zechariah. Be still with Mary. Be still with Job. Be still with Jesus in the garden.
Don’t be consumed by what you see on television or on social media. Watch for help in trouble. Notice where our world, our city, our neighborhoods are being made glad.
Pray with me this breathing prayer. Come, Jesus, be born in us today. Come, Jesus, be born in us today. Come, Jesus, be born in us today. And see if you can get up about seven in the morning or a little bit earlier and to look outdoors, find a place that looks east and see if you can see the sun rising.
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
May it be so for you, for your congregation, for your neighborhood and for God’s amazing wide world.
Episcopal Address Part II (Part I) | September 8, 2020
In faithfulness to Jesus’ model of inclusive love and justice, as bishop of the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church I am committed to leading United Methodists in the Alaska Conference, Oregon-Idaho Conference and Pacific Northwest Conference to make dismantling systemic racism within the church and throughout society a long-term missional priority.
The Original Sin is taking what isn’t yours.
After studying the scriptures and observing how people abuse their power in many inventive ways, I have come to believe that the original sin is taking what isn’t yours. Think of Adam and Eve in the garden abundant with food, animals, plants, provided by a generous Creator. Good climate. Good company. And all God asks of them is to leave one tree alone. You can have it all. Enjoy everything in this garden — just don’t eat the fruit of this one tree. But they couldn’t resist temptation. They picked the fruit that wasn’t theirs and ate it. By this one small act, the entire balance between creator and human creatures was disrupted.
Taking what isn’t yours is not only the original sin, it is the pervasive sin throughout the human family. What is rape or sex trafficking if not an invasion and claiming of rights to another person’s body, privacy, autonomy? What is the refusal to acknowledge a person’s self-knowledge and identification as LGBTQ? Doesn’t child abuse rob the child of innocence, trust, security? What is the confiscation and removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands and repression of their languages and cultures if not a taking? The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Armed invasions and occupations. Think of the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Employers callously take workers’ health by exposing them to pesticides, coal dust or COVID-19. Human beings are cunning in the ways they deny each other the fullness of life Jesus came for us to enjoy (John 10:10). The thing about original sin is that it is hard to give up the sweet taste of the stolen apple.
Today I want to talk with you about the original sin of enslavement and its enduring legacy of racism, especially, though not exclusively, anti-Black racism in America.
A prophetic word for my siblings who are targeted by systemic racism
11 O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted,…. 13 All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the prosperity of your children. 14 In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you. 15 If anyone stirs up strife, it is not from me; whoever stirs up strife with you shall fall because of you…. 17 No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord and their vindication from me, says the Lord.
Friends, I speak first to you who suffer at the hands of oppressors – you, who have not been shown dignity and respect, and afforded the rights God breathed into every member of the human family at creation. I address, particularly, those who bear the accumulated burden of centuries – generations – of white supremacy, and who daily feel the eye of distrust, suspicion, accusation, exclusion, hatred, rejection.
I am learning to hear and see that in America, systems that we call equal, just and fair – equal opportunity, criminal justice, fair housing – have injustice and bias baked into them. I am learning to hear and see that implicit racial bias, [i] pervasive among white people in America, ensures that white police, teachers, judges, parole officers, congresspersons, election officials, parking lot attendants, neighbors and strangers carry into their work and lives, suspicion of people of color, and preference – not for the poor and outcast, but for white people. This is what is called white privilege.
I am learning to hear and see that for more than 500 years, the Christian church has granted European explorers permission “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” all Muslims, pagans and enemies of Christ, “the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery….and to convert them to their use and profit.” [ii]
I am learning how in America, enslavement of Black bodies didn’t end with the abolition of slavery and emancipation of enslaved people, but that enslavement continued through Jim Crow segregation and the denial of the vote to Black citizens. When the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts dismantled Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, control of Black bodies and lives wasn’t eradicated, it became embedded elsewhere: the War on Drugs, stop and frisk, disproportionate arrests, convictions, and sentencing of Black citizens, especially men, and in the denial of access to public assistance programs, and the right to vote or serve on a jury for convicted felons. [iii]
Smart phones and social media have opened a window on racial oppression in America; denied, hidden and ignored for generations.
I remember and say their names again: Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and many more that never made the headlines. George Floyd’s desperate last breaths, caught on video, and the relentless cruelty of the officer of the law who took his life tell an undeniable story. Eight minutes and 46 seconds; when the officer’s knee pressed George Floyd’s neck into the pavement, there was plenty of time for the officer to pause, think, and re-evaluate the situation. It was time enough to recognize that Mr. Floyd was no threat to him, to recognize that the suspected offense was a trifling compared to the death sentence the officer carried out – plenty of time to hear God’s voice, and the bystander’s voices shouting – “STOP! This is my beloved son. You are killing him.” And Ahmaud Arbery, hunted down by men who had a plan, stalked him, and killed him. Rayshard Brooks, shot and killed by police at a Wendy’s drive-thru. Breonna Taylor, in her own home asleep. Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back. His shooting was followed a few days later by a white vigilante, armed with a semi-automatic weapon, shooting and killing two protesters and wounding a third. He returned home without ever being confronted or questioned by police.
A prophetic word for my white siblings
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
God looked at God’s chosen people and saw their sin. He named it and called them to account. As I read this passage, I hear the voice of God speaking to dominant culture Americans and to me in this season of anti-racism uprising, saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are not your ways.” The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth (Luke 3:5). Leave the crooked path you have walked all these years. It’s a severe charge. It’s hard to look back over your life, over the teachings of your family, school, church and say, “Wait a minute. Maybe we’ve got this wrong. Perhaps we need to look again, think again, listen anew. Maybe the way our world has been ordered, all the things we take for granted aren’t right.”
I am learning to hear and see that the standards, norms and habits I was taught to value are not universally shared by all people from every culture. Slowly, I am learning that as a leader, that if I simply, unconsciously, lead the Church according to the cultural norms that are natural to me, I will inadvertently, unconsciously perpetuate ways of working and relating that do not work for many of its members. I will continue practices that silence the gifts, insights and wisdom of people raised in different cultural contexts. I am learning to recognize that white people and Black people do not share the same life experiences or the same generational memory and interpretation of history. These differences mean that we view the ways of the world we share very differently. And when I hear someone say something from a different perspective that doesn’t make sense to me and is contrary to how I have always thought of it, I may want to say, “that’s ridiculous!” “You’re crazy.” “Let me show you how you are wrong.” “The world just doesn’t work that way – it can’t work that way!” “Let me teach you the right way.”
You see, until I learn to have ears to hear, I cannot see beyond my own cultural perspective. This is what is called cultural normativity. [iv]
An Eye-Opening Moment
Late one night, I found myself riding in a car we had borrowed from a Native American friend, who had borrowed it from a relative. The driver was a Black male colleague with a blonde, white woman in the passenger’s seat. I sat with a young Filipino man and a young gay Hispanic man in the back. On a dark, remote rural Oklahoma highway, we were pulled over for a broken tail light. None of us was from Oklahoma. No two of us were from the same state. We didn’t know the name of the person the car was registered to. In that moment, I experienced something I knew nothing about – driving while Black. Our suddenly serious and vigilant driver’s training kicked in:
Be quiet and respectful
No-one speaks but me
No acting up. No jokes
No quick movements
Nothing bad happened that night, but it was easy to see how it might have, if the car registration or the driver’s license had been expired, if there was an unpaid parking ticket, or there hadn’t been several clergy in the car. Suppose our driver had been alone in the car. Suppose the officer had been in a bad mood. Who would have known and told the truth? I will never doubt the real danger and fear of driving while Black.
Without the videos, the brazen police actions we witness in cities across America would never have seen the light of day. A story would have been woven that “justified” unjustifiable police actions:
the suspect was menacing
police acted in self-defense or thought there was a weapon
evidence is lost, tampered with or suppressed
the witnesses aren’t credible
or they just don’t show up to testify
Since smartphones have become commonplace, individuals can shine a light on a pattern of abusive power that has gone unacknowledged and unaddressed for far too long. Endemic, systemic racism now confronts white Americans who have been able to pretend it didn’t exist or have explained it away.
This year, in this season as we watch protests that continue after four months, each one of us has to decide whether to pay attention to the evidence and re-evaluate whether or not racism is alive and well in our world, or whether we will continue to kid ourselves by denying the evidence.
Will we continue to minimize the role of racism in the events we see, and adopt conspiracy theories that protect us from having to face a deep, hard sin in our society?
This is why I am talking to you about this today. America has been broken since there was money to be made by kidnapping, imprisoning, shipping like cargo across the ocean and literally delivering people with Black bodies from Africa to the New world to be marketed to enslavers who built the wealthiest nation in the world on their backs. And all these years later, the deep wounds caused by that original sin have not healed.
But we have a chance today, in this generation, to learn to hear and see what we have not wanted to admit – that our nation is not fair, rights are not equal, and systems are not just. And we have the opportunity to journey with Jesus on a straight path that might lead to a just, equal, fair and beloved community.
I want to be part of that project! Don’t you?
And yet, even as I say that I want to be part of the project of dismantling racism in the Greater Northwest, in The United Methodist Church, in the human family, I can feel a little fear rising in myself. I will have to give up something for justice. Justice would not have given me all the advantages I enjoy. God’s justice will lift up the lowly and humble the rest of us (Luke 1: 52).
What if I – if we – venture outside the values, beliefs and ways of living that I have spent a lifetime learning? What if we can’t find a way forward? What if it’s a wilderness and not a promised land? Well, friends, we’re in the wilderness already, wouldn’t you say? Were the Israelites right to leave slavery in Egypt in search of something better?
And you know what God says to our fearful selves? Don’t be afraid of the wilderness. You have been there before. There is a better way than the way things are now. I will show you the way. Take a step on the path of right relationship.
Fear not. Perfect love casts out fear.
Your cabinet members and I are stepping out in love, and I hope that United Methodists in Alaska, British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon and Washington will join us on a walk from fear to love.
Dismantling Racism and Creating Beloved Community
Phillipians 2:1, 3-5
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
When Boise First United Methodist Church, known as the Cathedral of the Rockies, was built and dedicated in 1960, it included was a stained-glass window with the image of Robert E. Lee alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Robert E. Lee was the Civil War general who led the fight to protect and preserve the legal right to enslave people in the United States. In recent years lethal attacks on Black Americans brought renewed attention to this widow and raised the question whether it was appropriate to elevate Robert E. Lee to the company of Washington and Lincoln.
After George Floyd’s cruel death, as the public display of Civil War monuments and confederate flags was challenged across the country, criticism of the window at Boise First flared up on social media. Church leaders decided the window should be removed. In July, Clint and I drove to Boise, Idaho, to participate in a small, socially distanced gathering to deconsecrate this window as workers removed it permanently. [v]
At the deconsecration, I issued a call to United Methodists in the Greater Northwest Area to enter a season of self-examination, confession, repentance and housecleaning in our churches.
A Call to Dismantle Racism
In the Greater Northwest, we recognize and strive for “inclusion” as one of three practices of a vital, healthy church. As I lead the church in its mission of helping people become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, I call upon the United Methodist clergy and laity of the Greater Northwest Area to promote greater cultural and racial equity and inclusion in our communities of faith. I call every pastor and lay member of the Annual Conferences to lead their church(es) to:
Learn the history and current reality of racism, anti-blackness, Native American exclusion, anti-immigrant attitudes, implicit racial bias and white supremacy.
Examine the visual images present in worship spaces and facilities, newsletters, for imagery that is culturally biased or exclusionary.
Reflect on traditions, decision-making, and communication styles that assume and privilege Euro-centric culture and values.
Examine the values and people prioritized in church budgets and activities.
In word and deed, intentionally to appreciate and honor the God-given goodness of a diverse human family.
Intentionally to welcome the wide diversity of God’s children into full, authentic voice and leadership in our churches.
Initiate and enter into partnerships with groups in the community that are not now present in each congregation.
During Charge Conferences this fall and winter, district superintendents will work with congregations to begin to engage these challenges. God has opened a door for us listen, to grow and to honor people who bring varied experiences of life in America. God is leading us in this work, to make us whole, and to help our churches deepen their discipleship, broaden their engagement with the racially diverse people in their communities, and become places where the inclusive love of Jesus Christ will be evident to people from all races and walks of life.
We can do this. God is in this work. Jesus leads the way. The Holy Spirit is with us for encouragement. We must do it.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky Greater Northwest Episcopal Area
[ii] “The Bull Romanus Pontifex, English translation: www.doctrineofdisovery.org/dum-diversas/, cited in Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 2019 page 15.
[iii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York, The New Press, 2010.
The following is the prepared text of Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky’s sermon on February 3, 2019 to the congregation of First United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington.
CLICK HERE if you would prefer to listen to her sermon.
People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:15-17 (NRSV)
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Ephesians 4:1-7 (NRSV)
A word to Seattle First UMC
I give thanks for you and your ministry, and for your joyful engagement with your community. For the 16,000 meals served at the Shared Breakfast in 2018; for your advocacy for a social safety net that protects the most vulnerable as you raise a voice for justice on immigration, gun violence, care for creation, and homelessness; for your faithful participation in the United Methodist connection financially and in so many other ways.
And I give thanks for your pastor, Jeremy, his family, the staff of the church, and all of you, who bring this place to life on Sundays and throughout the week. May God bless you and keep you and send you to places of sorrow and pain.
A word about General Conference
Your pastor may have told you about the General Conference coming up at the end of the month, where United Methodists will decide whether to stay United, despite deep divisions over sexual orientation and identity. Well, that’s the context for my message this morning. This conflict, which has wracked the Church for nearly 50 years, sends me back to scripture and leads me into deep prayer. So, I’m going to treat you to more-than-your-average Bible this morning.
Reading the Bible
When it comes to the Bible, people make choices about how they listen to what they find there; which stories they let shape and inform their lives, and which they let fade into the background of timebound inscrutability.
Everybody who engages the Bible does this: brackets and underlines, and highlights, and writes question marks in the margins. Thomas Jefferson even took a scalpel to cut out passages he didn’t think belonged. People are looking for a biblical story to emerge that deserves to be called “good news.” And when they go searching in the Bible, some passages speak to them, and others they set aside. Who, for example, gets upset about wearing clothes made out of blended fabrics anymore? But the Bible says, NO! We just don’t pay attention.
There’s all kinds of stuff in the Bible: invasion, war, and rape. Murder and betrayal. Wickedness, treachery, revenge, enslavement, bigotry, kidnapping, sexism, incest, as well as kindness, justice, healing, hospitality.
God and God’s people have seen it all. And they have told the stories—good and bad—from generation to generation, until they wrote them out and collected them in what became our bible. And it’s so thick and has so many stories, you can find almost any message there.
If you open your Bible looking for a straight and narrow way of life with rewards for good behavior, and punishments for bad behavior, you can find it.
If you are looking to justify your sense that you deserve to possess what is not rightfully yours, you can find that justification in the Bible.
If you are looking for God’s condemnation of a world of “total depravity,” where people are powerless to resist evil and seek good, you can find that there, in the Bible.
And, if you are looking for a way of life that offers, a path of peace and joy, a light in the darkness, you can find that there, too. It’s in the Bible.
The challenge for people like you and me is to find the Good News in the Bible. When we find that, we can let the rest recede into the background—at least for the moment.
When you’re reading your Bible, you’ll notice that when people of faith hear bad news, they keep listening, because the bad news is never the final word. In the Bible, there is no judgment without forgiveness. Even a cold stone tomb cannot contain the life given and tended by a generous God. When people of faith hear bad news, they keep listening—there’s always Good News coming.
So, as I enter February, the special session of the General Conference looms large, when United Methodists will decide whether we will continue as one church or split apart, I’m looking for some Good News to carry us through. And I think I’ve found some. So, I want to share a few nuggets that I think the Holy Spirit made sure were buried in there for us to uncover.
Nugget #1 – All Means All – Luke 18:15-17
Some leaders in our Church are asserting that homosexuality is a sin, and that people who choose a life of sin should not be fully accepted in the Church. Their marriages should not be recognized. Their calling and gifts should not be recognized and put to work in ordination. And people who allow these things should be punished. No, expelled. That’s what’s before us. A proposal not only to ban same-sex wedding in our churches and performed by our clergy, and to ban ordination of LGBTQ people, but a requirement that leaders sign a pledge to obey and a promise to punish people who don’t obey. It is a desperate attempt to define once and for all who is “inside” and who is “out” (no pun intended). They have a few, brief Bible passages to support their position.
But in the Bible, in the “good news” section of the Bible, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them…” It doesn’t say let the good little children come to me. The well-behaved little children. The little children who do what they are told, who keep quiet, who pay attention, who sit still, who play by the rules. He gives a broad instruction: let them come. Do not stop them. There is no need to say “all” the children.
And what about the birds of the air? Jesus says, that the smallest seed grows to a tree, so large that the birds of the air come to make nests in its branches. The smallest of seeds—not the biggest, not the best, not the most fertile of seed—produces a tree of life, where the birds of the air—not the fastest, or the
birds with the nicest song, or with the most exotic feathers. No, the birds of the air—whatever bird flutters by. Whatever bird is looking for a place to land, to build a nest. A small seed provides shelter to the birds of the air. All of them.
And the Bible doesn’t stop with children and seeds and birds. The Bible makes room for all kinds of people, too. Some Christians read the Bible looking for a purity code that defines who is acceptable and who is not. But the Bible breaks every exclusive barrier. Remember Jesus? He invites tax collectors, a woman with a flow of blood, a lame man, a blind man, raving lunatics, lepers, women of questionable reputation, people on their death beds, Samaritans—back in the day, before Jesus showed us that Samaritans could be good, they were the hated, despised, impure, foreign. A Roman military commander, an Ethiopian Eunuch.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
And in the final words of the Bible, we read this:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
Revelation 22: 17
I guess that’s why I’m a Methodist. We do not teach that creation is utterly depraved. We teach that human beings can be partners with God in sharing a good word. We teach that God reaches out to us in every circumstance and guides us into the way of peace. We teach that there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. We teach and believe—and we find it in the Bible—that God has embedded in every child, bird, searching soul the good intention of the Creator, and that Christ reaches out with an open hand, and a warm invitation to each one and everyone, and that the Holy Spirit invites us to look for Christ’s presence in each one we meet, looking for the gift they bring. In this way, God works in us and through us, to guide us toward loving with a perfect love. To be made perfect in love in this life.
Children. Seeds. Birds. All kinds of doubtful people. God in Jesus embraces them all. What’s next? What about creation? In Genesis, we hear of God’s mighty acts of creation out of a void: the heavens, earth, light, dry land, seas. Plants bearing seeds and fruit. Sun and moon to rule the day and the night. “Swarms of living creatures,” sea monsters, winged birds. Land animals: cattle, creeping things, wild animals. Finally, human beings in God’s own image. And after all that creative activity, the Bible reports that God sat back and looked at all of creation, and said, “Now THAT is very good.”
How much did God say was good? Everything. Everyone. Anyone.
All means all.
Nugget #2 – One Means One – Ephesians 4:1-7
How does one baptized Christian say to another baptized Christian, you do not belong? You don’t qualify. Your experience of God’s love doesn’t count, because you are flawed. How does one baptized Christian get the authority to make this judgment against another?
I was taught that baptism makes God’s family our family. That in baptism, we don’t get to choose who our siblings are—God gives them to us. Does that mean we don’t all need to grow in God’s love? Does it mean we don’t sin? No. It just means we are invited and expected to stay in relationship with one another as we take our walk with Jesus. And our privilege, our joy, is to gather around the Communion Table of Grace to discover how God is working in one another’s’ lives, to receive each other as God’s good gifts, and to try to find a way to live together in peace. I was taught that eating at the table is a means of grace. That as we know each other, and care for each other, and challenge each other, it is Christ at work in us, shaping us in the image of our Creator.
In the midst of the controversy in the early church about what was necessary for a person to be a member of the family of Jesus, Paul writes:
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known… This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus… Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith … is God the God of Jews only? Is God not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
Rom 3: 21-30, selections
And so we find in Romans and in Ephesians, Paul trying to help Jewish Christians and Gentile/Greek Christians find the common humanity that they share. He is trying to help them reclaim the unity that God gave in creation, when he says, “I beg you . . . to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and [Parent] of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Paul is trying to call us back to the unity in God that has the power to hold EVERYONE together, despite how fragmented humankind had become. The early Church was searching for the unity that was deeper than their differences. Isn’t that what we are doing today? Only our issues aren’t between Jews and Gentiles; circumcised and uncircumcised. The issues of who belongs in The United Methodist Church in 2019 are about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Well, I’ve sat at table with too many LGBTQ siblings; been shown the love and grace of Jesus Christ in their lives; seen Christ’s face in their faces—your faces—to be able to say it can’t be; it’s unclean; you are unworthy.
One means one. My baptism is no better than yours. My life experience is no better than yours. If I’m in, you are in. We’re stuck with each other. This is God’s gift!
Nugget #3 – Some means None – Hebrews 11
The Book of Hebrews in the Bible gives a long and glorious recitation of the mighty acts of God in the lives of generations of the heroes of the faith. And toward the end, it gets pretty close to ecstatic utterance:
By faith … people passed through the Red Sea … the walls of Jericho fell … Rahab did not perish … And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, … shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in [animal] skins, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy… Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:29-40, selections
Can you believe it? That God would hold back the rewards of the righteous, warriors and saints of the faith, “so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” Well… I guess we’re in this together. God’s promises can’t be fulfilled for just some. Nobody can enter God’s glory until and unless we all enter together and we’re not ready yet.
If I refuse to sit at the table next to a brother in Christ. If I refuse to receive the bread and the cup from the hands of a sister in Christ, I do violence to the body of Christ. We cannot grow in grace cut off from one another. We need each other to grow. We need each other for wholeness. Some means none. One means all.
That’s why I hope the special session of General Conference will adopt the One Church Plan. Not because it adequately embraces the fullness of God’s mercy as I understand it. But because it creates space for United Methodists who profoundly disagree with each other to stay in the same family, at the same table, and practice ministry as their faith leads them, while we continue our journey of faith together. It allows Seattle First UMC to host weddings between two people of the same sex and for LGBTQ clergy to serve in ministry. But it does not force clergy in the Democratic Republic of Congo to do so. I think God likes creative tension. It’s where the Holy Spirit flutters and broods.
And yet, I know that one person’s creative tension is another’s burden. And so, I want to tell you a story.
A Hopeful Story
In the Council of Bishops, when the bishops from the U.S., Europe, Africa, and the Philippines were sitting around tables trying to have this important difficult conversation among ourselves, at one point an African brother bishop I know well says, our concerns about sexuality in Africa are very different from yours in America and Europe. He continued to explain (paraphrasing): “In our churches, if a man comes to be baptized, and he has several wives, and they each have children, it does great harm if we ask him to renounce all but one wife and leave the others with their children destitute. You don’t have much to teach us about how to cope with this concern. This is a generational issue for us. We must teach the next generation while welcoming this man and his whole family… Maybe we don’t have much to teach you about homosexuality.”
My friends, where else could that conversation occur, except at the table where God has invited us all to gather? In that story is great hope that God’s children can learn from one another and from our very different life experiences. And if we don’t have to tear apart from one another every time we understand God’s will for creation differently, we might learn to leave space for more learning, more growth, more grace.
Please pray for our Church, all its leaders and that a way may open before us upon which we can travel in the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. I pray for you.
This is an uncertain time, but on the morning after General Conference, there will still be people who look to the Church to be God’s agents of grace and hospitality. There will still be people who need a good meal and fellowship. People will still languish in hospitals, and under bridges, and in loneliness. And God will still be looking and saying—these are good. They are my good children. There’s work to be done, but it is good work.
And together, the churches of the Greater Northwest will continue to follow God in faithfulness and service. Listen for the Good News. The story’s being written. With God’s help, we will help to write it.