Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky’s General Conference Blog Installment 5 | February 26, 2019
After a discouraging heart-breaking day yesterday when the General Conference chose NOT to move forward rejecting the One Church Plan in favor of the Traditional Plan to cling to the church’s policies of exclusion and marginalization of LGBTQ people.
At 8 pm last night, nearly 200 people gathered at a spontaneous gathering of people from the Western Jurisdiction and friends. It was a battered but joyful multi-colored, multi-languaged, LGBTQ-friendly community that sang the songs of the faith, prayed, shared words of encouragement. The gathering became a reminder and a foretaste of the One Church we strive to become.
God bless the grass that grows through the cracks…
Today we await the judicial council decision about the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan, and a Minority Report in support of the One Church Plan. By the end of the day all petitions before the body will have been acted on, and delegates will turn toward home as the bishops prepare to meet tomorrow.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ — not even the Church!
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky’s General Conference Blog Installment 4 | February 25, 2019
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall 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. Luke 1: 78-79
I’m writing to people who awaken to shadows this morning, after yesterday’s actions at the General Conference. I’ll address the rest of you another time. I care about all of you, and I have worked to ensure that there is space for a wide diversity of people in our United Methodist Church. But today, I suffer with those who suffer.
We knew yesterday that the prioritizing process would give an indication of the will of the Conference. It did. Wespath proposals for the future of pensions received highest priority, not apparently because we care more about pensions than mission, but because we can all agree that we care about pensions, but not about how we care about mission. Of the various plans put forward, more than half of the delegates indicated that the Traditional Plan is the priority that should be considered first. While it is not determinative, this likely indicates strong support for adoption of some version of the Traditional Plan, which would preserve the statement that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and prohibitions against same-sex weddings and LGBTQ clergy.
The action to consider the Traditional Plan first was deeply harmful to LGBTQ people, and all who support their full inclusion in the Church and its ministries. It suggests that our global church is not ready to extend the recognition and blessing of the Church to LGBTQ people, or to recognize their monogamous, covenantal relationships as holy and blessed by God. Many LGBTQ clergy and laity feel betrayed by the church’s apparent willingness to use and abuse them as long as they are closeted, but not to embrace and affirm them.
General Conference will reconvene this morning in a day-long legislative session, beginning by perfecting the Traditional Plan, followed by consideration of all the other petitions that are properly before the body. Protests and lamentations will undoubtedly erupt. Common wisdom is that, while these are understood and tolerated in a North American democratic context, they are seen as disrespectful and further polarizing to delegates from other parts of the world.
So, the walls do not seem likely to come down today, though I am eager to be proven wrong!
Questions that come to my mind are:
Do delegates from around the world understand the cost of adopting the Traditional Plan—how it will weaken the church’s institutions that maintain global mission initiatives, disaster relief, educational, health, economic and agricultural initiatives?How it will weaken the credibility of the Church in America, where more than 70% of people accept homosexuality and homosexual marriage.
How should and will United Methodists around the world who have waited and worked for a step toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people react if the Traditional Plan is adopted? Will they be defeated? Defiant? Will they leave? Will they stay? Will there be more church trials? Fewer trials?
Having done its best to find a way forward, how do I, or any of us, live in, and lead the Church if all it can do is double-down on policies that have divided us for decades?
How do we continue TODAY to bear witness to the way we have seen God at work in and through the lives of Christian LGBTQ siblings? How do we stand in solidarity as they are once again told they are unworthy?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not without hope. But I am sobered. And I am keenly aware that it is possible that we will fail to move forward.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky’s General Conference Blog Installment 3 | February 24, 2019
By the end of today, the General Conference will have decided which of several plans for “a way forward” it will prioritize for consideration. The day starts with worship, followed by a presentation of the three plans developed by the Commission on a Way Forward (CoWF). Under consideration will be:
The One Church Plan, with the strongest support from the CoWF, the Council of Bishops and a Coalition of Uniting Methodists, Mainstream UMC, the Reconciling Ministries Network, and several other groups
The Connectional Conferences Plan
The Traditionalist Plan
The Simple Church Plan
And a variety of other related proposals.
At stake will be whether to split into groups that uniformly embrace or marginalize LGBTQ people, or whether we make space for United Methodists in different cultural contexts and with different theological understandings to adapt in different ways while remaining united.
The prioritizing process today will give a strong indication of which plan will be perfected and adopted.
As he convened the opening session, Bishop Christian Alstead (Nordic and Baltic Area) reminded us that the football stadium we are meeting in is Church for these three days. All Greater Northwest delegates are in their seats, ready to speak and vote their faith. Observers, staff, volunteers, and advocates are also here and taking their respective roles. Nothing can undermine the gracious and persistent shared life of the United Methodists of the Greater Northwest Area.
We pray with you for a good future for our Church, on this day that is different from all others.
Rev. Patricia Simpson | University Temple UMC, Seattle
Editor’s note: This blog piece, riffing off the same Brian Wren hymn Bishop Elaine wrote about earlier this week, originally appeared in the University Temple UMC Newsletter. It is reprinted with permission.
As we approach the United Methodist General Conference this weekend, I have a hymn stuck in my head. “Christ Loves the Church,” by Brian Wren, has these words in the second verse:
Christ bears the church, corrupted and conforming, obsessed with trifles, blessing greed and war. His love outwits us, spinning gold from straw, through saints and prophets, praying and reforming.
The triple meaning of “bears” is shaping my understanding of what’s at stake for The United Methodist Church.
Christ endures the church — putting up with our endless struggles over the full inclusion of Christians no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a sign of amazing grace that the expansive spirit of Jesus still inhabits our part of the Body of Christ.
Christ carries the church — as in that old poster of footprints on the beach. Why only one set of footprints? “That was the time you could not walk on your own, and I carried you,” Jesus says. Only that constant bearing-up can explain the endurance of United Methodists whose lives were declared “incompatible with Christian teaching,” who have stayed with the church through over 40 years of legislated discrimination. Christ has carried us, in the womb of mercy — along with supportive families, allies and reconciling congregations.
Christ gives birth to the church — This is my hope for the gathered body in St. Louis—that from the long, difficult gestation a new church will be born. Whether we take a just and inclusive stance together, or whether a separate denomination is born, new life will come forth.
So let us join the “saints and prophets, praying and reforming.” Check out the link below if you want to inform your prayers with news updates, or even watch the proceedings live.
I begin with a confession. When I signed up to write the Crossover Blog for this week, I really didn’t pay attention to the chapter or the date—I just wanted something away from Christmas and Easter. So, I picked February 24, 2019, and Chapter 26. As I was entering it into my calendar (so that I would be sure to complete my homework) I became aware of the fact that I had picked THE week of the year—the week of the special session of General Conference 2019!
I almost asked for a redo. Who am I to write this blog on the week of such a potentially world-altering event? What could I possibly say that would matter as we all await what will come on the other side of GC2019? How could I offer something significant, even inspirational at such a momentous and potentially devastating time in the life of the UMC and for so many who hold it dear?
Then I heard the Bishop’s voice and remembered what she said about God calling us to mission and ministry regardless of what happens at GC2019. I took a deep breath and I deleted my email pleading for a change of date and chapter and began to reflect and pray.
As I sat with the scriptures for this week, I was struck by the chords that seems to echo through them … faith, forgiveness, authority, breaking with tradition and institution.
Mark 2, Hebrews 11 and 1 John 1-2 are all about looking beyond what is expected, acceptable, and given the stamp of approval by the institution. They speak of faith—by faith we are forgiven, by faith we are healed, by faith we know and experience a new reality, by faith light shines in the darkness, by faith we know what is true and real.
As the beloved of God and Christ, we know that which claims our loyalty and allegiance—the grace, acceptance, and love of God made known to us by Jesus Christ. We know that institutions and religious authorities are often restricted in their ability to see beyond the borders that have protected us and kept us faithful. They cannot see the possibility that is being birthed because they are so focused on maintaining what is.
The Hubble Telescope has allowed us to look deep into the universe and back in time. We have been allowed to see new worlds being birthed and new stars exploding into life. If we look back in time, we can see that Jesus was such a moment of birth and light—the birth of a new cosmos. Where once peace came only through violence, now peace comes through justice. Where once rules excluded, now grace includes all. Where once forgiveness resided in the mythical hands of God, now forgiveness is available to all.
As we emerge from General Conference, we will be different. We must rely on the words we all know from Hebrews—“Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.” (Hebrews 11:1, CEB)—to help us move into the new road that will be created. I, for one, am not willing to give up hope that the new cosmos birthed in the life and teachings of Jesus will continue to grow and expand so that the grace and love of God will shine light over all people, places, and creation—even The United Methodist Church!
Pray with me for General Conference 2019 and for the road we are and will make toward God’s light and love.
Rev. Tim Overton-Harris serves as Superintendent for the Cascadia District in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. He is the current dean of the OR-ID Cabinet.
Credit: Original image by ESA/Hubble (M. Kornmesser), cropped.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky’s General Conference Blog Installment 2 | February 21, 2019
St. Louis is more than just the place where United
Methodists will gather this week.
We have to talk about genocide of Native Americans… This country was built on the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. That’s the foundation of this country.
That’s how genius filmmaker, Spike Lee, summed up the distorted image many Americans have of our nation’s history of discovery, exploration and manifest destiny last week. He was talking about his academy award nominated film, BlacKkKlansman, a documentary about a Black man who joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. But he also referred to his disturbing 2000 film, Bamboozled, which explores the traditions of minstrel shows and blackface, among other racist practices. United Methodists gather in St. Louis this week at a crossroads of America’s history of racial violence.
Gateway to the West Last night on the ride downtown from the St. Louis airport, the Gateway Arch shone in the night sky. It was built as a monument to American Progress and westward expansion across the American continent. But the “expansion” of European Americans across the continent depended upon the removal, displacement and genocide of the people whose home it already was. Cherokee people travelled through St. Louis when they were removed from Appalachia to Oklahoma, Indian Territory. And countless European-American migrants passed through St. Louis passed on their way west along the Oregon Trail or the Santa Fe Trail, claiming land that was not theirs. The Gateway Arch is meant to be a proud reminder of American Progress. Progress came at a cost that is still being paid by the suffering of Native Peoples who lost home, land, language, cultural integrity, social structure, independence, self-sufficiency in its wake.
So, here, on the banks of the Mississippi River, I remember
the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 in Colorado, led by Methodist minister, John
Chivington. And all the Methodist and other Christian Indian agents who started
Indian boarding schools, where children were ripped from their families and stripped
of culture and identity. I remember Father Wilbur, Methodist minister turned
Indian Agent in 1864, who built the boarding school at White Swan, Washington.
And I learn that just east, across the Mississippi River, eighty
Cahokia pyramid mounds mark the largest pre-Columbian Native American city
north of Mexico, a reminder of the great cultural heritage of the people who
were in this land before Europeans arrived.
Hands Up, Don’t Shoot St. Louis was a destination city during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South in the early 20th Century. Today it is home to roughly equal numbers of African American and White citizens. I remember Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old African American, shot and killed in 2011 by a police officer found not guilty. And, I remember unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, shot and killed in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Missouri, 15 miles from where I sit. I remember Hands Up, Don’t Shoot. And the Black Lives Matter.
The Church is Here for Healing Wouldn’t it be something if the Church came to this great city for healing, for peace, for restoration? This morning I pray:
Gracious God, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Put our hearts at peace so that we can see this city and all its people; this nation and all its people; this world and all its peoples. Heal our divisions so that we might be a healing presence to each other and your world.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky’s General Conference Blog Installment 1 | February 20, 2019
Who will we be in a week? What will become of The United Methodist Church at the special called General Conference that begins on Saturday, February 23rd? Elected lay and clergy delegates from across the United States, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Philippines will gather to decide the future of The United Methodist Church, after nearly 50 years of disagreement and antagonism over the role of LGBTQ persons in the Church, and in the household of God’s creation.
I’ll be flying to St. Louis by the time you read this, preparing to turn a corner as a church between Saturday and Tuesday. Over the weekend friends sent me off with a hymn by Brian Wren that speaks of God’s love of the deeply flawed Church. I share it today—#590 in your United Methodist Hymnal and also available online here on Hymnary—as a blessing for all who watch, wait, witness, and wonder who we will be a week from today. I travel with the promise that our God “outwits us, spinning gold from straw.”
Come, Holy Spirit, come. Make of us something we do not have the power to ask or imagine.
Jesus, Violence, and Power – what a perfect title for the chapter I’m to reflect on as I prepare to head to General Conference next week. It names so clearly what we are to crossover from. The chapter begins, “Once Jesus took his disciples on a field trip. There was something he wanted them to learn, and there was a perfect place for them to learn it.” McLaren is referring to their trip to Caesarea Philippi, first a site for worshippers of Baal, later of the Greek God Pan, and then a stronghold of the Roman occupation.
It was there, “in the shadow of the cliff face with its idols set into their finely carved niches” that Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say I am” followed by, “and who do YOU say that I am?” I can imagine them seeing Jesus in that place and wanting him to tear down the idols and throw out the occupiers and rise in victorious rule. When Jesus explains how different his path will be, they are horrified. “God forbid it, Lord.” Peter exclaimed. “This must never happen to you.”
A week later he takes the disciples to the top of a mountain where they are shown Jesus, shining like the sun, talking with Elijah and Moses—a Jewish triumvirate: the lawgiver, the prophet, and the Messiah. Peter offers to build tents for the three that they might dwell there, together. What would there be to fear with these three together? How could the empire withstand such power? This time it is God who rebukes him, “This is my son. Listen to him.” Jesus then leads them down the mountain, back into the chaos and towards his death, instructing them to tell no one what they saw until after he is raised.
Violence and Power – we are hard-wired for them. When we are afraid, when we are angry, when we feel protective of that and those we love, violence and power whisper, “This is how you can make things right, keep things safe, get things done.”
So if not through manipulation and force, how are we to contend with what feels wrong or even evil? Finding a new way is a major crossing-over in both adult and spiritual development. As in so many other areas, Jesus leads the way.
I’ve always been bothered a bit by that section of Ephesians 6 (verses 10-17) that talks about putting on the “whole armor of God.” Such a war-like image, it didn’t fit for me. But as I read through it recently, I understood it in a way that turned my earlier reading on its head. I see it now as saying that the way to withstand the evil in this world is neither through defensiveness nor aggression, but through the power of authenticity and vulnerability. “Take up,” it says:
The breastplate of righteousness: Righteousness is best interpreted as being in right relationship with God, with others, and with self. The protection the heart needs comes not from shielding it, but through opening it and being in relationship as Jesus practiced it – authentic, caring, differentiated.
The sword of truth: While caring deeply for others, Jesus spoke honestly. He didn’t soften his words to please others nor did he sharpen them to wound. His “yes” was yes, his “no,” no. He was open with his opinions, but was also open to learning from others. (Matthew 15:21-28 – the Syrophoenician Woman)
Shoes that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace: There’s an inner attitude that allows you to see not just the difficulty of the situation in front of you, but to stand firm in God’s hopes and possibilities for it. Jesus embodies this in the healing stories and in facing his own arrest and death. Living, dying and in resurrection, he proclaimed peace. “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
This vulnerability in the face of conflict and difficulty is a crossing-over that I aspire to. Of course, it gets dismissed as naïve. I’ve had people tell me, “you’ll grow out of it once you learn how the world really works,” (usually followed by the unspoken, but implied, “little girl”).
I pray I don’t.
Rev. Mary Huycke is the clergy delegate to General Conference 2019 from PNW and currently serves as the District Superintendent of the Seven Rivers District. Mary has authored several books on leadership and church renewal and is a founding partner of Courageous Space Coaching & Consulting. She lives in Yakima, Washington with her husband David and their three cats.
When I was growing up, I did Sunday School, confirmation, and youth group. When I was in high school, there was a group of us who got together on our own and did Bible study. We didn’t have any adult leaders or any commentaries. For that matter, we pretty much just had the Revised Standard Version of the Bible to work from. But we spent time together wrestling with tough questions.
The question I remember the most was about heaven and hell: If you have to be a Christian to go to heaven, then how is that fair for people who might never have heard about Christ? It just didn’t seem like a loving God would send people to hell who never had a chance.
As the years passed and my understanding evolved, I questioned whether God would send people to hell if they were Muslim or Hindu. Or atheist. Or even if they are a really bad person. Would a God who loves everyone really punish someone forever?
Clearly, there are many people who believe in that kind of heaven and hell. I received an anonymous piece of mail this week trying to make the Biblical case that homosexuality really is a terrible sin. It was full of bad biblical scholarship and worse science. It also contained this zinger: “Will you go to heaven when you die?” If you have broken any of the Ten Commandments, “…the Bible warns that one day God will punish you in a terrible place called Hell.” Of course, you can “repent and trust Jesus” and you will be saved. The threat of hell is still alive and well in some parts of the church.
As Brian McLaren points out, Jesus’ teaching gives us little help in understanding what heaven and hell are like. But he does give us a lot of teaching about who goes where. He pretty much shoots down the “if you’re nice and don’t break any of the rules, you’ll go to heaven” theory. In Jesus’ teaching, those people we tend to look down on may be the very people who will be in heaven. The people our society holds up as “blessed” may be the least likely to be there.
The bottom line here is not about who is going to heaven or hell, or each is like, or if these places really exist. It seems like a waste of time to speculate too much on this. What we really need to do is ask ourselves and our churches if we are we treating everyone like people who are worthy of spending eternity with God. Doing so may allow us to be pleasantly surprised to discover that God is working in places, and in the lives of people, we’d never expect.
And those surprises could turn out to be real blessings—even offering us glimpses of heaven here on Earth!
Jan Nelson is the lay leader of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and the lay delegate to General Conference 2019. In her previous life, she was a middle school math teacher.
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.