The Heart of the Matter

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve had this strange sensation in my neck.  To me, it feels like my pulse is a bit off of rhythm, like occasionally it skips a few beats, or does a few too many in a row.  It isn’t a constant thing, and it was pretty random until Thursday.  On Thursday afternoon, this thing, whatever it was, happened multiple times all afternoon long.  It doesn’t hurt, but it was kind of freaking me out so I got in to my doctor later that day.

They took my blood pressure, we did an EKG, and ran some blood tests.  Everything came back perfectly normal and my physician isn’t concerned… aside that I need to exercise more.  

While on the one hand, I’m comforted by the knowledge of what it isn’t, I also don’t necessarily have an answer either.  I found myself yesterday second guessing the way I even described the problem.  Maybe it’s not my pulse I’m feeling, but a twitch in my neck.  Maybe it’s all in my head and I’ve just had too much caffeine.

 

As we enter this season of Lent, we are going to be exploring some of the ways that both the United Methodist Church and our congregation have found ourselves searching for explanations and diagnosis.  And we are going to be honest about some of the symptoms that we see, the realities of our lives together. 

In the larger denomination, we are in the midst of a time of disunity that really reflects the culture we find ourselves in.  And the UMC is also numerically declining… we have lost a million members since 2006!  But simply looking at those symptoms, like the strange feeling in my neck, doesn’t automatically tell us what the problem is.  Is it that our older generations are dying out?  Are we having less children?  Is there too much competition?  Are we irrelevant?  Theologians and church leaders keep offering their explanations and no one seems to be able to put their finger on “the answer” to the problem.

 

Bishop Thomas Bickerton wrote the book that is the backbone of not only our worship series this Lent, but also our life group conversations we’ll be having.  (Quick plug: if you haven’t signed up for one yet, you can join this morning’s classes at 9:45, go to Java Joes on Monday nights, or join the one here at the church on Wednesday evenings!)   He thinks in many ways that we are like the church in Ephesus who had forgotten who they were called to be. 

Our scripture this morning comes from a letter Paul wrote to this church and at this time, the church was just on fire for God.  They had started as a small group of committed people and when Paul showed up and ministered among them, the Holy Spirit started working.  God did amazing things through them… impacting the entire city.  Temple prostitution, idolatry, magic, all of these things ended because people instead turned to Jesus.  When the Ephesians experienced the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, God accomplished abundantly more than what those first twelve disciples in Ephesus could have asked or imagined!  

Kind of like the United Methodist Church.  We started with a small group of people at Oxford University who wanted to know God better.  They were committed to the gospel and to Jesus and their faith took them across an ocean to start a church.  John and Charles Wesley could never had imagined the way that God would use them, but their little bands started healing the sick, taking care of the poor, preaching to those who would never have set foot inside the church, and before you know it, the UMC was a world-wide denomination!

You would think that kind of energy can be sustained forever, but it takes work.  We can get ourselves in ruts and we forget the power that got us started in the first place.  In the letters to the churches of Revelation, one of them is written to the people of Ephesus and God praises the work and the labor and endurance of the people, but God also says that they have let go of the love they had at first.  They are urged to remember the high point from which they had fallen.

Maybe the United Methodist Church, maybe our church, has let go of the love we had at first.  Maybe, like the Ephesians, we have a spiritual problem.

 

Bishop Bickerton points to what he calls the “Five I’s” to help us discern a bit about our spiritual reality and where we might be lacking the love of God.   

He notes that the church is a bit low on our INSPIRATION – that we tend to grumble and complain more than we focus on hope.  We need to remember where God is leading us and get excited about it again!   

He sense a lack of INTEGRATION  between what we say and what we do.  I actually have been fairly proud of Immanuel in this sense, because not only are we willing to talk about things that are happening in the world, but so many of you are out there caring for the homeless, visiting the sick, and living your faith.  

Bickerton also points to the dangers of ISOLATION.  Once you disconnect from a community, it is hard to find ways to become part of the group again.  On the back table as you leave, you’ll notice some names and some cards.  We want to reach out to folks whom we haven’t seen for a little while with a phone call or a card… and if you recognize a name out there and are willing to make a connection, take a card and put your name down!

The fourth I is INDEPENENCE.  This world tells us that we have to do it ourselves, but the church reminds us that we are better together.  We don’t have to do it alone because we all can do our part.  

Finally, INVITATON.   This is actually one of the goals of our church today. When we are excited and transformed by the work of God happening here, then we are going to want to pass it on, to reach out and bring people along with us.  

 

At Immanuel, we have had a vision that has sustained us for the last four or five years.  Say it with me:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

But one thing our leadership has realized is that we are called to not just be and exist and look to our past, but to continue actively working towards our future.  What are we fighting for? also means What are we fighting to accomplish?  What will be different because we have loved, served, and prayed?  What is inspiring us to move forward?  What is going to challenge us in a way that we simply can’t do it alone and need to invite others to join us?  

As our leadership has discerned, we are feeling God pull is in a new direction and we are excited to share it with you over the coming weeks and months.  

But the heart of the matter, the deep question that faces not just us, but the UMC, and the Ephesians, is whether or not we really want to tap in to the power of God.  The love so strong, so wide, so long, so high, so deep, that God is going to do abundantly more than what we believe in our hearts is possible… if we know where we are going.  If we know what we are fighting to accomplish.    

Claiming Our Inheritance

When I came home from our United Methodist General Conference in May, I shared with you these words:

Over these last two weeks, we very nearly split our denomination into pieces.  Our differences are stark. Our life together is marred by conflict as much as collaboration.  And I’m going to be honest… I’m not quite sure yet what comes after General Conference.

I went on talk about why that was:  how the source of dilemma lies in being a global church, in the way we make decisions, and the reality that we can’t agree on some fundamental basics of what it means to be church together, like what we mean by covenant or how we interpret scriptures.

 

This month, our bishops have not only announced the members of a special commission who will help us find a way forward, but they have also announced their intent to call a special session of General Conference in 2019… one year earlier than we would typically meet.  The purpose will be to allow this commission to do their work and then the delegates of our last general conference will gather back together solely for the purpose of discussing and voting on their recommendations.  Many imagine that if we cannot agree to a way to hold our differences in creative tension that our church will split at that time. 

 

For the last few months, there has been a tension in my shoulders that I can’t quite shake. 

I’m worried.

I’m worried for my country.

I’m worried for the United Methodist Church.

I’m worried for this church.

 

And the root of that worry is less about who wins on Tuesday or what kind of church we will be on the other side of 2019 or how many people stayed home from worship last weekend…

I worry about how we treat one another and whether or not we see the person sitting across from us as a person of inherent worth and dignity… and that we seem unable to set aside our thoughts and opinions for long enough to actually listen to the truth of another person.

I think the antidote to the worry we collectively are bearing might be found in our scripture this morning.  

 

One of the radical messages of Ephesians that is lost to modern readers of the scriptures is the fact that Paul reaches out and give thanks for people who are outside of his faith.

Historically, the early church experienced great tensions between Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ.  They had different backgrounds, different traditions and practices, and yet all claimed to have accepted the good news of God.  There was infighting and arguments about who had to give up what part of their heritage in order to be part of the community.

And so when Paul, a Jewish scholar and leader of the church, writes to this Gentile community at Ephesus, it is remarkable that one of the first things he does is emphasize unity.

We have obtained an inheritance”, Paul writes.

And then he goes a step farther… “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”

Paul specifically reaches out to people who are very different from him… people he has never even met before… and tells them that he is grateful for them.

This letter to the Ephesians is fundamentally about unity. 

That is our glorious inheritance.

Unity with God in Jesus Christ.

Unity with the saints who have gone before us.

And unity with one another in this present moment. 

And as Paul teaches us in these first few verses that you can’t have unity without gratitude. 

 

As we light candles to remember the saints, we are reminded that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we remain connected and unified with all of those saints who have gone before us… and with all who will come after us. 

As we break bread, we sing and feast with the saints.  This meal is an act of unity. This meal and the hope it instills in our souls is our inheritance. 

And as we remember, we give thanks for eight people from our congregation who died this past year:  for Lois.  Becky.  Viola.  Ruth.  Gary.  Mildred.  Sharon.  Marcia.   Thank you, God.   

But we also give thanks for the many people, friends and family, who have gone before us. 

We give thanks for all of the saints who shaped our lives. 

And we give thanks for the multitudes of saints and the historic church that is our foundation.  When it feels like the weight of the world is upon our shoulders and that the church will live or die based upon our decisions, it is good to remember that God’s church has been around for two thousand years.  It is built upon the prophets and the apostles.  The church is far bigger than this congregation or even this denomination.  And for that I give thanks…

And I also pray that we might claim this inheritance and that somehow we might be part of passing along this faith to generations yet to come. 

 

Sarah Birmingham Drummond reminds us that the unity we experience is not only across time and generations, but also for this present moment. “Paul’s message of unity was radical in its day, as it suggest unity across divisions that were woven into the fabric of daily life.  This suggests that the early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.”

Let me repeat that. 

The early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.

After all, Paul was reaching out to people he didn’t have a whole lot in common with to give thanks.   His letter reminded not only them, but also himself, of the unity of Christ that brings all of us together. 

That is our inheritance, too.

 

Today, we will break bread not only with the saints, but also with people who will vote differently than us on Tuesday. 

We worship every Sunday morning with people of different ages. 

We worship with people who prefer different types of music. 

We worship with early risers and people who long to sleep in on Sundays.

Yet overcoming division is part of our mandate as people of faith.

Being a people who overcome difference in order to be in community… that is our inheritance. 

That is the faith that has been passed down from generation to generation.

 

No matter what happens on Tuesday. 

No matter what happens in 2019 with our denomination.

No matter what tension we feel as a result of our worship times or classes or studies.

Our responsibility is to look around this room and to give thanks for each soul and get busy making a difference in this world.

That is the inheritance we can claim, right here and right now. 

 

And we do so… we claim the inheritance of Jesus Christ across generations and across divisions because we believe that God’s mission is built upon a church united to transform this world. 

Because we believe that God needs all of us… past, present, and future, to bring healing and hope to a broken people. 

Because our differences are small when compared to the call God has upon our lives to claim our inheritance. 

Because we believe in the immeasurable greatness of God’s power to truly make a difference… right here and right now.  

Reflections a week after General Conference… #umcgc

As Psalm 146 reminds us: human leaders and human institutions aren’t everything.  They won’t save us.

We are finite and we make mistakes.

Only God is forever faithful.

Yet, any denomination or tradition comes from God’s followers attempting to live out their faith and their discipleship together.

Fully knowing that we are not perfect, we nevertheless seek to do the best we can to respond to God’s movement and calling in the world in a given place and time… based on where our forefathers and mothers have led us and based on where the Holy Spirit is calling us anew.

That is what we tried to do at General Conference.  Over 10 days, we attempted to be faithful to God’s leading and yet we are not God and our plans are just that… ours.

Over these last two weeks, we very nearly split our denomination into pieces.  Our differences are stark. Our life together is marred by conflict as much as collaboration.  And I’m going to be honest… I’m not quite sure yet what comes after General Conference.

We asked our Bishops to help us find a way forward out of our predicament and that way forward is still vague.

So rather than making predictions, maybe it would be better to share who we are and how we got to this place.  I think fundamentally, there are three key things to keep in mind as we wrestle with what it means to be the United Methodist Church.

 

First, I think it is helpful to understand that the United Methodist Church is a global church. 

We are the only protestant denomination that is worldwide.  Our churches span from Manila to Legos to Moscow. And, while the church in the U.S. has been declining, the global church is growing exponentially.

In the last ten years, the U.S. has declined in membership by 11%, while the church in the Africa Central Conference grew by 329%!

42% of United Methodists now live outside of the United States.

One of the most important things we do at General Conference is listen to one another, try to understand more about our contexts, and find ways to help ministry flourish all across the world.  And that is not an easy task.

But because of our global partnerships, we can do amazing things like Imagine No Malaria and our United Methodist Committee on Relief is the first to arrive on the scene of disaster and the last to leave.

And we can learn from one another.

I remember listening to a committee four years ago debate the process for closing a church.  A woman from Liberia stood and said that she was extremely confused as to what we were talking about… not because of a language barrier, but because she simply couldn’t comprehend why we would close a church. The church in the United States needs that passion for the gospel that is growing so fast we can’t build enough churches!

As we continue to debate the inclusion of LGBTQI people in the life of our church, I also heard clearly from our African delegates, like my new friend Pastor Adilson, that their contextual struggle is not with homosexuality, but with polygamy. Rather than asking if same-gender marriages are allowed in their churches, they are struggling with how to welcome and include a man who has four or five wives.  Does the church ask him to divorce all but one?  What happens to the other wives?  Or the children?  How is the entire family welcomed?

We are also learning to reframe our conversations to be more global than United States centric.  One of our debates this year was about a resolution for health care that referenced the Affordable Care Act.  When 42% of United Methodists live outside the United States, these kinds of statements need to be broader in scope.  It was hard to be talking about a system that only applies to some of us, when so many people in that room had little to no access to care, much less health insurance.

One of the realities of being a global church is that multiple languages play a role in all of our meetings. While we have four official languages as the UMC: French, English, Portuguese and Kiswahili, we had simultaneous interpretation in Russian, German, Spanish, and many others.

An ever present reality is also that in many of these global areas Christianity arrived along with colonialism.  “Most Africans teach their children that Jesus and other biblical characters are muzungu (Kiswahili, “white”) notwithstanding the fact that Jesus would likely have been dark complexioned because he was born in the Middle East.”  (http://unitedmethodistreporter.com/2016/05/11/are-africans-grown-a-response-to-bishop-minerva-carcano-dealing-with-wounded-united-methodist-church/)

We, as a church, have tried to combat colonial impulses by allowing the conferences outside of the United States to adapt our Book of Discipline to their local contexts.  However, that means that 42% of the church doesn’t have to abide by all of what we vote on… and that we need their votes in order to make changes to the rules only we follow.

 

Second, it is helpful to know how we make decisions.  

The roots of our church lie in England, but we were born during the American Revolution.  And our polity, our government is modeled upon our national government.

Just like the government, we have a judicial branch and a Judicial Council.

Our Bishops function as the executive branch.

And the General Conference itself is the legislative branch… just like Congress.

864 of us were elected as voting delegates to represent the worldwide church and we were half clergy and half laity.

The General Conference is the only body that can speak for the United Methodist Church and everyday people like you and me are the ones who make the decisions.

So those of us gathered there had the responsibility of pouring over legislation and making changes to our structure, rules, and positions… four years worth of work condensed into two weeks.

I believe that to discern the Holy Spirit, one has to be humble, empty yourself, and allow other voices to influence you.

The first week of conference is largely spent in legislative committees and in those smaller groups some of that discernment could happen.  I had truly transformative experiences in my committee and the work felt good and holy.

But all of those relationships and trust falls apart when an item comes to the floor of the plenary session.  There, the decision making process moves away from consensus building and instead creates winners and losers.

On the FIRST DAY of conference… we spent hours debating the rules that we would use in order to debate. We used and we abused Robert’s Rules of Order.

And when we were presented with an alternative decision making process (what you might have heard as Rule 44) to use for particularly contentious issues, we debated it for two days and then voted not to use it.

But we did accomplish some things.  We approved the creation of a new hymnal for our church.  We strengthened our process for the affirmation of clergy.  We created new pathways for licensed local pastors.  And we added gender, age, ability, and marital status to the protected classes in our constitution.

 

Third, it is helpful to understand that while it appears that our conflict as a church is centered around the inclusion of LGBTQI people, our division is deeper.

Our church is a very broad tent and the likes of both Dick Cheney and Hilary Clinton call our church home.  This is one of the things that I love about the United Methodist Church.

But I think what came into focus for many of us at this General Conference is that our disagreements may no longer be sustainable.

Perhaps fundamental to our conflict is how we interpret scripture. For some, scripture is absolutely central and the only tradition, reason, or experience that matters is that which scripture can confirm.  For others, scripture is absolutely central and yet we have to interpret scripture through the lenses of our tradition, reason, and experience.  That shift might seem subtle, but it can make the difference between allowing women to be ordained or not in our church.

We also fundamentally disagree about whether we are a church of personal piety or social holiness. Of course, John Wesley thought it had to be both… but where we place our emphasis determines how we engage with the world and the moral stances we choose to take.

All of this difference is floating beneath the surface of any conversation about how LGBTQI people are included or not in the life of our church.

 

If you asked me a month ago what was going to happen at General Conference I would have been full of optimism. You see, I’m a bridge builder.

And so I went to General Conference with all kinds of hopes about how we would make decisions to benefit the church all over the world and how in spite of our differences we would find a way forward together.

I don’t think it was naïve to believe this going in.

But in the midst of our gathering in Portland, something shifted. Something shifted in my own life and in the hearts and minds of countless other delegates.

We realized that we could no longer keep doing what we have been doing together as a denomination.

We realized that our differences were tearing us apart.

And in Portland, we made a very conscious choice to avoid the end of our denomination through our votes.  We voted to seek unity, to try to find a way to remain together for the sake of God’s mission in the world. But there is a phrase we kept using that I think is important.  Unity does not mean unanimity.

As we look at our differences, particularly in the three areas I named, for many, we avoided the end, but are only delaying the inevitable.

Maybe our global structure is unsustainable.

Maybe our decision making process has to change.

Maybe  our fundamental disagreements will only continue to allow conflict to rule our work together and we would be better to split amicably and allow each part of our church to be the most faithful it can be to God’s will.

The next four years as United Methodists will not be easy.  We have asked the Bishops of our church to lead us in discerning a way forward and that might mean that in the next two or three years we will call a special gathering to decide how to move forward… on what it means to be a global church, on our structure, on our polity, and on our stances regarding human sexuality.

I have about 45 more minutes of things I could share with you and I’m happy to continue to have conversations about our work.  But I want to leave you with this one request.

Pray for our church.

Pray for God’s will to be done.

Pray that we might follow the one who is faithful forever, who as Psalm 146 reminds us…

defends the wronged,     and feeds the hungry. God frees prisoners—     God gives sight to the blind,     and lifts up the fallen. God loves good people, protects strangers,     takes the side of orphans and widows,     but makes short work of the wicked.

In spite of all the good and all of the mistakes that we made at this past General Conference, I take comfort in the knowledge that God’s in charge—always.

Open. #umcgc

I haven’t posted much of substance the past few days. Mostly because there simply isn’t energy to do so.

Two mornings ago, the Council of Bishops presented us with a report we asked them to make.

We took a break and came back to discuss it and one word expressed how it is with my soul: open.

I think emptiness has a lot to do with openness. When you pour yourself out, there is a lot of space left to be filled.

For most of the remainder of the day, we found ourselves lost in parliamentary procedure, mistrust, debate, misunderstanding, chaos, and clamor.

In the end, we adopted the Bishops’ report by 23 votes.

Some of the stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance.

Is openness acceptance?
Am I, are we, collectively grieving the end of The United Methodist Church?

I’m tired and not fully prepared to reflect, but here are some initial asides to explore later:

1) it feels like we both avoided catastrophe.. and like we simply put off the inevitable.

2) Unity in Christ is bigger than unity in a denomination.

3) in spite of our differences, we do incredible discipling and world transforming work!

Format Aside

I serve on the Rules of Order Committee for our Iowa Annual Conference.  These rules are basically the organizing and structural principles that guide our shared work and life together – both within our 3-4 day conference sessions and for the rest of the year.

We’ve been working hard to clarify and “clean up” the rules.  We had stuck a number of standing reports within our Rules of Order at one point that really didn’t belong. And now, we are working to examine which of the rules help us to live effectively into shared ministry together, and which are hindering us from the work before us.  A colleague on the committee shared with lament:  “it’s like we didn’t know how to trust each other, so we just wrote all of these rules instead.”

Maybe you are familiar with the feeling.  An employee leaves under bad circumstances, so you change the job description before hiring someone new… so that all of the previous person’s faults can be avoided.  Or one person oversteps an unwritten boundary and the entire system reacts by making a complex set of rules.

Rules are good.  They guide and shape our life together.  They provide the foundation or the framework upon which our homes and churches grow and flourish.  Done well, they provide just enough support and instruction to enable us to be creative and joyfully share in our work together and then they get out of the way.

And I’m also acutely aware of the ability of rules to protect and defend the innocent, the marginalized, and the powerless.  Rules can keep us from running amok and forgetting to look around and see who we have neglected to create space for at the table.

But that comment from my colleague keeps sticking with me.  Too often, because of distrust, or instead of doing the hard work of learning how to trust or trying  to build trust, we just create new rules. We fill our churches, our institutions, our Discipline, with do’s and don’ts.

As I pour over the nearly 1500 pages of legislation brought to the General Conference, that comment keeps ringing out in the back of my mind.

Is this piece of legislation a symptom of our distrust of one another?  Or is it a tool that will help us work together towards God’s future?

Over and over, I ask these questions.

Will this addition or deletion help us be more faithful to the witness of God in our world today as the people called United Methodist?  Or are we simply adding or deleting a rule because we aren’t happy with what Mr. Smith said at the last Ad Council meeting?

Does this legislation lift up possibility of God calling us in a new way?  Or is it filled with fear that holds us back from living out God’s dream?

I don’t believe our work at General Conference 2016 is to legislate trust.  We can’t “whereas” and “therefore” our way out of our disagreements.  So I pray for the God of hope to fill our proceedings.  I pray for a Spirit of direction that will help us to create a framework for ministry that can reach every corner of this globe.  I pray that the Living Word would be heard afresh so that God’s vision for today might be heard a new.

Reproducing in the Church #NaBloPoMo

I was sitting at a conference with some friends and the speaker kept lifting up the decline in membership of the United Methodist Church.

One of the reasons cited was United Methodists were having less children than we used to.

And the four of us all stole a glance at one another.

The speaker was talking about us.

We represented three couples that were intentionally choosing not to have children.

 

Of course, making babies isn’t the only way to make new Christians.

And, even if we had babies, that doesn’t mean when they grew up they would choose to carry on our faith.

 

So what does “reproduction” really look like in the faith?

One of the first things I thought of was the “each one, reach one” campaign in my district about 10 years ago.

The idea was simple:  Every person should try to bring one person to church in the next year.  If everyone took the time to bring one friend or family member or neighbor to church, we would quickly double in size.

Which is essentially the process of mitosis.

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We learn, grow, build our own faith, and then we pass it along to another person.

No, we don’t actually split ourselves in two, but the “each one, reach one” concept has the potential to multiply the church in the same way.

 

There is another important reproductive parallel here.

Because our role along the way, as we nurture someone into the faith, is to act like a spiritual midwife for them.

Midwives today are there to support during the entire pregnancy, but also provide care and advice months after a child is born.

And we can help guide someone into faith in the same way.

We can first make the invitation to church, but we have to be prepared to answer whatever questions they have in a non-judgmental way.

We need to not just invite them, but be there in a real and incarnational way: offering to pick them up, walk with them through the doors, sit next to them at whatever worship or church event or small group it is.

If we are taking ownership for truly nurturing someone into faith, then we can’t forget about them as soon as they have shown up once.  It’s a continual  process of support and encouragement.

As a pastor, I am actually probably more like a doctor who is called into provide medical assistance when necessary. Most of the work of bringing someone to the faith is done by the lay people, the midwives, who actively support and care for people as they become Christians.

(and, parents, this is how you help nurture your babies, too)

 

In my own church, I’m watching as our confirmation students go through the process with a mentor.  And what I’m discovering is that the personalized attention really impacts their growth, and the mentors are growing, too.  They are building new relationships and becoming stronger and more confident in their walk with God.

What if every one of us took on the work of inviting and mentoring one person in the faith?

We’d become a completely different church.

 

The Wheat and the Tares on the Micro-Level (NaBloPoMo)

In September, Bishop Ken Carter visited the Iowa Annual Conference and helped us to have a holy and grace filled conversation about leadership, change, mission, and the elephant in the room: human sexuality and the lives of LGBT persons.

One of the pieces I really appreciated is that he was careful to note that the macro level questions we have as a denomination shift when we turn to the micro or local church level.  Especially when we consider ethos and practices.  Using Acts 15 (The Jerusalem Council) he shared how the experiences of individuals who received the Holy Spirit (namely Gentiles), caused the church to think more about whether practices like circumcision were what defined the followers of Jesus.  How should leaders interpret law in light of a shifting missionary field?  What is essential and what can be laid aside?  What can be let go of for the sake of the gospel… for the sake of making new disciples? There is a big picture missionary focus to these questions, but there is also a very pastoral and personal shift that occurs in the local church.

It is the local church pastor who determines readiness for membership.  It is in the lives and experience of individuals that we start to ask: is the Spirit moving?

A great example is how John Wesley believed that the scriptures were against the preaching of women, but he believed some were “under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit” and near the end of his life ordained Sarah Mallet and Sarah Crosby as Methodist preachers. Because of that personal experience of the Holy Spirit, ethos and custom were set aside.  It wasn’t a shift for everyone… it was a micro-level change.

 

As Bishop Carter continued the conversation, he talked about how our current division needs a healthy dose of patience.  He used Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares to describe how we long for a church full of people like us and are tempted to purify the field and kick out everyone who doesn’t agree with us. As he shares in point 6 of this blog post:

I would encourage Christians who cannot accept gays and lesbians, in orientation or practice, to place the judgment of them (and all of us) in God’s hands.  As the Apostle Paul asks, “Who is in a position to condemn?” (Romans 8)  And I would encourage gays and lesbians to be patient with their brothers and sisters in the church who have not walked their journey.  This is not a justification for continued injustice.  And yet it is also true that sexuality itself is a mysterious, complicated and emotionally-charged subject, and rational conversation and dialogue will emerge only if those who disagree come to the table hearing the admonition of James:  “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1).

 

But, I wonder is if this is another place where there is a difference between the macro and micro levels.

And I ask this question knowing that Bishop Carter has stated that patience “is not a justification for continued injustice.”

On the macro level, denominationally speaking, patience and understanding and agreeing to wait it out and disagree in love makes some amount of sense.  I find my heart there on many days – wanting us to find some way forward together, knowing it will take time.

But then I turn to the micro level, to the local church level, and patience feels very different.

It feels different because I hear stories of young men and women being kicked out of their churches or homes because they are incompatible with Christian teaching. I hear stories of shame and abuse.  I hear stories about bullying. And telling these individuals to wait and be patient isn’t an answer.

20-40% of homeless teens on the street in our country are LGBTQ.

LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers.

Do they have a place in my church, your church, or not?

For some of these youth (and adults), our wrestling with ethos and practice is a life or death issue.

Some local congregations have decided that they can’t be patient any longer. They need to firmly and unequivocally state who they are. Either way.

EVERY local church needs to wrestle with this question, just as the micro level conversation had to happen about women preachers or circumcision.  In our midst are people this impasse affects, people we might not even recognize yet, and  maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat while we wait for wheat and tares to grow is no longer an acceptable answer in the local church.  Our decisions, to stand in one place or another or to not stand anywhere at all impact the life and calling and discipleship of individuals who sit next to us.

They need to know if they are welcome or not… so they can embrace their discipleship in that place, or shake the dust off their feet and hopefully find another home.

 

The Shepherd King

As each year draws to an end, another begins.

It is a cycle, an ebb and flow, watching and waiting, the birth of the promise, and then we watch as that promise is fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ.  We witness each year his life, his death, his resurrection.  We watch as the Holy Spirit blows among the people and how the people of God respond.

And at the end of every yearly cycle, we have a glimpse of the Kingdom.  We have a glimpse of the one who will rule forever, eternal in the heavens.

In our epistle this morning, Paul gives thanks for the faith and the love of the Ephesians, and continues to pray that they might know Christ, who sits at “God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future.”

You know…. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords that is promised in Isaiah.

And so today, the last Sunday in the church year, we celebrate Christ the King.  We remind ourselves of his power and glory and majesty.

And next week, the cycle begins anew as we return to waiting and preparation in the season of Advent.

Christ the King.

What does it even mean for Christ to be the king of our lives?

What kind of King will he be?

Some kings in our modern culture are ruthless dictators.

Other kings are figureheads who only represent power.

I might have been watching too much Game of Thrones lately, but when I think of a king, the first image that comes to mind is a ruler on the Iron Throne.

A leader who is a part from the people, indifferent to their plight unless it affects him personally.

I picture a king whose battles and wars are for his glory and power.

Other biblical images of kings find people who are full of both faults and incredible wisdom.  At times, we see them sitting in judgment over the people, much like we find Jesus doing in the vision of the end in Matthew 25.

The King is the final arbiter of the law.  When there is conflict among the people, the case is brought before him as their ruler for a word of justice.

Often, when we think of traditional ideas of kingship, the ruler is the judge, jury, and executioner who parse out sentences according to the laws of the land.

Laws that he probably wrote.

So, it is to be expected that when we come to the end… the end of the year, the end of our lives, the end of the earthly realm… that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will sit upon the throne and will give a final account.  He will determine who is worthy to enter the kingdom.

In Matthew 25:31-32: “When the Son of Man comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.  All the nations will be gathered in front of him.  He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

Just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

What are shepherds doing in this story?

Historically speaking, shepherds and kings belong on opposite ends of the social spectrum.

While kings have armies at their disposal, the shepherd personally protects the sheep. His very body is their first line of defense.

While a king leads from on high, issuing orders through his commanders and sending word through the land, the shepherd leads from the midst of the sheep.

I learned that there is a difference between the way we lead sheep here in the West and how they would have done it in Jesus time, and continue to do in the east. We often herd our sheep like a king would – pushing them forward towards their destination, often with the aid of sheep dogs or other animals. When they begin to go the wrong direction, we push them onwards, or the dogs nip at their heels, and eventually they get where they are supposed to.

In the East however, the shepherd personally led his flock. He would have stood near the front of the flock, but was always in the midst of them. As he walked, they would walk with him. Wherever he went, they would go.

Kings are often indifferent to the plight of their people, but a shepherd knows each one in his flock by name.  And a shepherd wouldn’t hesitate to leave behind the entire flock in order to search for one that was lost.

Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, judges us, calls us to account, in the way a shepherd would.

He gathers the flock together and calls them by name.

He speaks and at the sound of his voice, those who recognize him come running near.

 

But what they and we are surprised by is that Jesus doesn’t judge us by the laws of the church and the kingdom.  You know…. by how many times we came to church or even by holding us accountable to the 10 commandments.  He doesn’t ask if we ate shellfish or if we were circumcised.  He doesn’t separate the married from the divorced.  He says not a word about the tithe or ask how many times we lied.

He separates the people into those who fed and clothed the poor, who welcomed the stranger, who visited the sick and imprisoned…. And those who didn’t.

Jesus, our King, is a shepherd at heart.

Even at the end, his concern is always for the flock.  It is for the lost, and the least and the last.  It is for those who have been forgotten.

The rules are only good in so far as they have led us to be shepherds alongside him in the world.

You see, Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Shepherd of Shepherds and as his people, as his body the church, OUR task is also to care for the flock.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when the story came out a few weeks ago about Arnold Abbott who was arrested for feeding the homeless.  Abbott is 90 years old and has now been arrested twice for this act of loving his neighbor.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I learned of the death of Dr. Salia this past Monday.  Dr. Salia went to Africa to serve at the Kissy United Methodist Hospital in Sierra Leone.  He went to the sick, to offer his gifts and skills, and contracted Ebola while he cared for those who were ill.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think of the hundreds of people who have poured into Ferguson to stand in solidarity with a community that is frustrated and grieving after the death of Michael Brown… especially those who have worked to bring non-violent training to the young people who felt like they had no other options but violence. Today, I hold them all in prayer as they await the grand jury decision.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think about one of our United Methodist ministers here in Iowa, Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner,  who has had a complaint filed against him for officiating a same-sex marriage.

In all of these complicated and difficult situations, I feel the tension between the law and tradition and scripture and what we are supposed to do… and the call to be with and serve the flock, to tend the sheep, to care for the people.

 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

None of these are easy situations.  Our lives are full of complicated choices that can put us in danger or on the wrong side of the law or put us at odds with our neighbors.

But as Paul prays for the Ephesians, so I pray for us… here at Immanuel, in the Iowa Annual Conference, for the people in Ferguson, and for our brothers and sisters across this world who are hungry and homeless and sick and imprisoned:

“I pray that that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, 19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.”

Christ is our King. Christ is the head of our church and our lives.  Christ is the shepherd who is leading this flock.

May we turn our hearts towards prayer.  May we seek God’s wisdom and power and hope.  May we hear the voice of our shepherd and may we go where he leads us.

Amen. And Amen.