By Rev. Dan Wilcox
“Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.”
Matthew 7 comes at the end of what is traditionally known as the Sermon on the Mount. This passage is one of the most concise collections of teachings from Jesus, which outlines what it is to be a follower of Christ. It starts with the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in hearts, and the peacemakers. It continues with our calling to be salt and light. It challenges us against worry, anger, falsehood, deceit, and retaliation. It encourages us always to seek God, show love for enemies, teach prayer and fasting, and avoid materialism.
While there’s more packed into these chapters, they end with “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on the rock.” It goes on to warn about building a house on sand – the sifting and ever-changing foundation that will not stand up to difficult weather – or challenging times.
As The United Methodist Church continues to see local congregations vote to disaffiliate, the passage above from Matthew 7 comes to mind. For those who haven’t been watching, some churches vote to disaffiliate; others fall short of the necessary margin, remaining United Methodist with much reconciliation and potential turmoil ahead of them. Whether or not a church is United Methodist or something else, when this is all finished, we must ask what lies at the foundation of what we hope to become.
One piece of the past few months that has been most discouraging to me is the reports of misleading and sometimes false information shared with local congregations about The United Methodist Church to guide them toward disaffiliation. Examples are used of individual pastors and, in some cases, bishops who have shared theology or biblical interpretation that appear to be outside United Methodist doctrine. Some are recent, while some are decades old. The intention is to suggest that The United Methodist Church has embraced beliefs outside of what some consider orthodoxy.
Many blogs and articles have been written refuting or supporting these claims. The reality is that changing the basic doctrine of the United Methodist Church is complex and, in some cases, not even possible. While there have always been individuals in the denomination (as in any denomination) that think differently, the core doctrinal statements of The United Methodist Church have not changed.
When I consider that some who disaffiliate do so intending to become part of a new denomination, I wonder about their foundation. Are they building on rock or sand? Is deceptive or misleading information a solid way to begin a new church? Even if our doctrinal standards and polity are as orthodoxically solid as we believe they should be, if we do not act with integrity and out of the love of Christ, what is at the foundation of the church?
And for those of us who stay within The United Methodist Church, we too must ask what foundations we are building upon. We can be entirely in the right and believe we are functioning out of justice, love, and welcome. Still, if we react through our anger with calls for retribution or judgment, our foundation is anything but the sacrificial love that Christ calls us to. Anger and sadness are natural and legitimate responses, but not if they lead us to bitterness or hate. Grace and humility must always be our response, even at the most disappointing and disheartening times.
In all things, we must allow hope to guide, peace to instruct, joy to fill, and love to be our solid foundation. Amen.
Rev. Dan Wilcox is an ordained elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference, currently serving at Christ First UMC in Wasilla, Alaska, and Palmer Fellowship in Palmer, Alaska. He also serves as disaster response coordinator for the Alaska Conference.