Monday, May 13, 2024

General Conference 2020 / 2024

In this past week, following the United Methodist General Conference, numerous summaries, reports, and characterizations have been offered. True Metho-nerds will have read or watched many of them, from the most celebratory to the most forlorn. I have no reason to expect you to read mine.

But here it is, anyway:

The 2020 General Conference, rescheduled for 2024, marks the beginning of a revival in the United Methodist Church. We are in full reform mode, and history will show that these past five years were a season of tilling and planting. And now, the garden is about to bloom!

We have repented of our colonial structure, and have begun to atone by creating more regional autonomy. We have repented of our discriminatory rules, and have begun to atone by removing restrictions on ordination and marriage for people in the LGBT+ community. We have repented of our divisiveness, and have begun to atone by leaving the season of disaffiliation behind.

Now, I do not mean we have attained perfection, only that we are on our way there. To be sure, the Spirit is still working on us, and there is much to do before the world looks like God wants it to. But now, more than any time in my experience, there is an openness to the Spirit's work. It is this openness to the movement of the Spirit that inspires me.

REGIONALIZATION - In the future, there will be a General Book of Discipline and a General Conference to deal with matters that are important to the entire denomination. Connectional ministries, doctrine, ecumenical relationships, and those kinds of things. And there will be Regional Conferences that will create policies and procedures specific to the regions. Every current Central Conference will become a Regional Conference, and the United States will be a Regional Conference, bringing a level of equity to our system. A team has been created to work on the initial U.S. Regional Conference. For now, there will still be Jurisdictional Conferences in the U.S., but some have suggested changes to that structure, also. Time will tell. And although the plan passed overwhelmingly at GC, it requires amendments to the UMC's constitution, so it must be ratified at the Annual Conferences. Every AC votes, and when all votes are tallied it must pass by a two-thirds majority. That is what is known as an "aggregate vote." We will not know if the plan has passed for another 18 months or so.

REMOVAL OF RESTRICTIONS - As of the end of this General Conference, sexual orientation is no longer a restriction on a person seeking ordination. Also as of the end of this General Conference, there are no longer any restrictions on clergy performing same-sex weddings, nor on congregations hosting them. No requirements were passed, meaning the decision to marry a couple still resides with the pastor. The effort was very much like the "Simple Plan" that was offered in 2019 in that it simply removed restrictive language. Such restrictions were scattered throughout many different sections of the Book of Discipline, and so removing them all required dozens of petitions. (Petitions can only deal with one particular paragraph of the Discipline.) Almost all of these changes passed so overwhelmingly that they were a part of the Consent Calendar process. It only takes twenty people to remove an item from the Consent Calendar in order to debate it on the floor, meaning had there been any serious resistance to the changes it could easily have been brought to floor for debate. There wasn't. And they weren't.

DELETION OF DISAFFILIATION - "Paragraph 2553" was created and passed in 2019 at the special called session of General Conference held in St. Louis. It allowed for congregations to disaffiliate from the denomination if they did not agree with denominational positions on marriage and ordination. Ironically, it was written to allow more progressive congregations a gracious exit, but was used almost exclusively by traditionalist congregations. This paragraph was officially deleted from the Book of Discipline, and every petition seeking to extend this disaffiliation time to allow for more disaffiliations was "rejected in favor of" the petition to delete paragraph 2553. Calls for unity won the day. That's not to say that the UMC is monolithic - far from it. We are as diverse a denomination as we ever were. We simply seem to have lost our appetite for divisiveness. A new spirit of connectionalism is emerging.

There are a dozen other things I could mention. Ordained Deacons now have sacramental authority. The United Methodist Church will soon be in a "full communion" relationship with the Episcopal Church. There will be fewer bishops in the United States, saving the denomination millions of dollars. There is a new retirement plan for United Methodist clergy. There was a lot!

But the headline for me is reform. After 2019, the denomination awoke. What happened at the General Conference in St. Louis did not align with our identity as Methodists. The years of disaffiliations were both heartbreaking and clarifying. Decades of struggle for justice and equity brought us to this kairos moment, and the future ahead seems very bright.

In many ways, the denominational reforms we saw happen in Charlotte were just a matter of playing catch-up to where the people already were. That's how reform always happens, seems to me - from the bottom, up. It is a good time to be United Methodist, and I cannot wait to see what God does with us!

Sunday, May 05, 2024

If I Was Preaching Today

If I was preaching today, I would proclaim the Gospel, for there is a Gospel to proclaim, and I am called to proclaim it.

If I was preaching today, I would use Psalm 98:1 and entreat the church to "Sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvelous things." I would talk in particular about the marvelous things God has been doing in our denomination for the past five years, since the United Methodist Church woke up in February of 2019. Marvelous things that came to fruition in Charlotte over these past two weeks.

If I was preaching today, I would do all I could to convey the vibrant diversity present in the United Methodist Church, diversity that was on full display in Charlotte at General Conference. I would celebrate the Methodist ethos that unites us across the globe, even as we navigate the contextual particularities that make us unique in our various regions. 

If I was preaching today, I would have a renewal of baptism as part of the service, leaning into Acts 10:47, in which Peter asks, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing those who have received the Holy Spirit" and I would invite as many deacons as I could find there to celebrate. I would ask people to start fresh from today, knowing that the Holy Spirit has set our denomination free from decades of bitter animosity.

If I was preaching today, I would read 1 John 5:3: "For the love of God is this, that we obey God's commandments. And God's commandments are not burdensome." And then I would talk about the many "burdensome" things that the United Methodist Church has just removed from our Book of Discipline, eliminating restrictive and harmful rules that prevented LGBT+ people from seeking ordination and getting married in their own church. 

If I was preaching today, I would have people stand for the reading of John 15:9-17 and center in on what it means to love one another as Jesus loves us. And point out that Jesus loves us like the Father loves him, that is, so intimately and unconditionally that the two are all but indistinguishable from one another. Which means that we are to love one another the same way, intimately and unconditionally, as friends of Christ, who unites us in spite of our attempts to disaffiliate from one another.

If I was preaching today, I would celebrate the hope and joy of a new day for United Methodism, and encourage the church to follow the Holy Spirit as she leads us into freedom in community together. There is still so much work to be done, and by God's grace this church is doing it. This is a pivotal moment for this denomination, and congregations all over the world are gathering to celebrate. 

Truly, this is the day the Lord has made! And we are called to rejoice, and be glad in it! Alleluia, Amen!

Sunday, March 24, 2024

"But the Lord Helped Me"

Palm Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Lent, is a cry for help.

In churches around the world, the words of Psalm 118 will be heard in worship services this week. One word in particular will predominate - "Hosanna." It comes from Psalm 118:25, a word that comes to the English language through a few other languages from its likely place of origin, two Hebrew words that in combination comprise a powerful request of the Lord: "Please, save us now!"

For expediency's sake, many worship services will abbreviate the Psalm, including exclusively the verses prescribed in the lectionary, verses 1-2 and 19-29. When we do so, we skip over some very important ideas, verses that actually inform the subsequent cry for salvation, verses like 10-14:

All nations surrounded me;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me like bees;
    they blazed like a fire of thorns;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
    but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

Listen to the pain the poem describes. The Psalmist has felt such intense, relentless trauma, like bees buzzing in an angry swarm. They describe their experience not just as trying to walk through a patch of thorn bushes, but a patch of thorn bushes that are also on fire! They have been pushed hard, pushed to the point of falling. 

And at the same time, listen to the strength, the resolve, the power of the poem here. "I cut them off! ... I cut them off! ... I cut them off!" A repeated refrain, a statement that celebrates an act of overcoming, made with a slashing gesture through clenched teeth.

And notice, it is not the Psalmist whose power was at work here. No, it was the Lord's. God is the one doing the saving, then, now, and always. The adversity was cut off "in the name of the Lord." The Psalmist does not celebrate their own strength, but rather that "the Lord is my strength." 

I am not strong, says the poet, but God is. And God's strength is sufficient to get through what needs getting through. Even if it is a forest full of burning thorn bushes. 

And of course eventually, Psalm 118 gets us to the "Hosanna" and the "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord" and the "Bind the festal procession with branches" stuff. And it is so good to celebrate this sacred day - the ushers handing out leaves purchased from a worship supply store, you self-consciously waving the leaves above your head during the opening song while the kids self-consciously parade around the room, then not quite knowing what to do with it for the rest of the service, (or if you are a kid smacking your sibling with it when your grown-up isn't looking), picking it up again for the closing hymn and waving it again but a bit less energetically, taking it home with you and putting it on the kitchen counter until it gets dry and brittle and then throwing it away. You know, the Palm Sunday liturgy. It's all good.

But maybe this year, when you receive that store-bought palm, maybe you can recall a time when life felt like being surrounded by a swarm of angry, buzzing bees. Maybe the slender points of the leaflets will call to mind a season when your life required you to walk through a burning hedge of thorn bushes. Maybe for you this year that "Hosanna" can mean something deep, something you feel at the very core of your being. 

Maybe this year Palm Sunday will remind you that when you need help (and yes you do need help - all of us do), God will help you. 

I am not strong, but God is. "With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?" (v. 6) And so now I give thanks, for the Lord is good. God's steadfast love endures forever.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

"They Shall All Know Me"

"You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist." - Indira Gandhi

The fifth Sunday in Lent invites us to open up to what God has to give us, if we will allow ourselves to do so. 

...this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

 I love the symbol of the raised, clenched fist. It is a symbol of protest, of resistance. A raised fist says, "I shall not be moved." There are times to raise our fists in the face of evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.

But there are other times we clench fists. We do so to fight, to punish, to protect ourselves from our enemies and close ourselves off. We clench fists and flex to warn, to show that we intend to do harm. Fists clenched in anger and animosity are very different from fists raised in resistance.

It is difficult to receive an offered gift with clenched fists. Impossible to shake hands. Clumsy to caress a cheek. Bizarre to blow a kiss. 

The prophet Jeremiah wants us to know that God has something to give us, a new covenant, an unmediated connection, a true relationship. And apparently, God intends to just write it on our hearts, so that there will truly be no "haves" and "have-nots" in God's family. Every single one of us is getting this gift, given freely and directly from God.

Are we ready to receive it? Are we open to it? Are our hands, hearts, minds, voices ... are we uncovered and emptied out, laid bare and vulnerable enough to actually receive what God is offering us?

At our best, the church is a community in which it is safe to unclench our fists, to receive one another, to embrace our siblings without fear of judgment or betrayal. We don't always attain that way of being, of course. But we're working on it. Some would even call it "Reign of God" work, which is (as followers of Jesus know) already among us.

God has something to give us. All of us. ALL of us. (Did I say "all" of us?") Grace isn't something that God gave you and now it is up to you to give it to everyone else. "They shall all know me!" God has given everyone this amazing gift, and all you have to do is realize that, recognize it, and celebrate it. 

My prayer for you on this Fifth Sunday in Lent is that you would open yourself up to God, and allow yourself to receive the life-changing gift God is giving you. And then, to understand the implications of this profound truth - God is doing the very same thing for each and every person you encounter.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

"Look at the serpent of bronze and live"

 The fourth Sunday in Lent is a reminder that God is with us.

 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:5)

The complaint came to Moses as the people were making their way through the wilderness, having been liberated from slavery in Egypt but having not yet arrived in the Promised Land. There were some mixed feelings among the people, naturally. I'm sure there was a lot of joy for being free, and at the same time a lot of anxiety and fear; they knew neither where they were going, how long the journey would take, nor what to expect when they got there.

And so, they complain. Naturally.

Many have noted the contradiction: the people complain both that there is no food and that the food tastes terrible. This, of course, is more than just a fun detail of the story. The contradiction means that the complaint wasn't really about food. Theirs was a fear they could not articulate, for it was too big, too complicated, too difficult to name. And so, they complained about the food.

What happened next is so strange, it is almost comical. The Bible says that the Lord sent poisonous snakes that bit the people, killing many of them. And though there is nothing in the text that explicitly indicates a causal connection, we cannot help but read the killer snakes as a consequence of the people's complaining.

In response to the snake predicament, God has Moses make a snake out of bronze and attach it to a pole. The idea is that people look at the snake on the pole and they won't die from the snake bite. "Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it upon a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live." 

If we are being honest, this is completely hilarious and bizarre to think about. It offends our 21st century scientifically informed perspectives. Which is, of course, precisely the point. It is a mistake to try to resolve that offense, to ease that tension. There is something to learn there; it is the space into which the Holy Spirit speaks.

That snake-on-a-pole makes another appearance in the Hebrew Bible, when King Hezekiah was cleaning up the temple:

He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.(2 Kings 18:4)

It seems that the bronze snake had become more than a reminder of God's presence. It had itself become the object of worship. The people had forgotten the iconic, sacramental identity of the bronze snake. They had forgotten what the bronze snake pointed to. "Nehushtan" just means "a thing made out of brass." 

Rev. Dr. Katie Nix says that "the sin of this story is the belief that the people knew what they needed better than God did." It is always helpful to remember that God is God, and that we are not. And this is especially true during wilderness times.

In times of high anxiety and fear, when the future is uncertain, we rely on tangible reminders of God's presence. We lean into means of grace - prayer, worship, an image to look at or an object to hold, those kinds of things - as a palpable touchpoint that functions sacramentally, reminding us of God's active presence within, among, and around us.

And these objects or actions are so very helpful, but they are just reminders. The reality to which they point is much, much bigger. It is easy to slip into thinking that God isn't present when things are unfamiliar. When we are worshiping in a different sanctuary, or when we are grieving the loss of one dear to us, or when the very pattern of human interaction seems so completely different than it was a decade ago. 

It is in times like those that we cling to the bronze snake up on the pole and forget why Moses made it in the first place. So remember, this Lent, that God is with you always, everywhere, at all times. We may be afraid, anxious, uncertain, and yet the things around us are but nehushtan, and that God is present with us no matter where we are, no matter when it is, and no matter what. 

Sunday, March 03, 2024

"I Am the Lord Your God"

The third Sunday in Lent invites us to remember the story.

Exodus 20 is one of the two places in the Bible where we read what are commonly known as "The Ten Commandments," and it is the appointed lectionary text for this week.

In the past I have been asked if I support the posting of "The Ten Commandments" in public places. My answer has always been the same. Unequivocally no. But maybe not for the reason you think.

To be sure, posting "The Ten Commandments" in public places is problematic because the "public" who occupy those places do not all ascribe to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that should be reason enough. But for me there is another compelling reason to avoid the practice.

Posting "The Ten Commandments" in public places separates them from the story. It relegates them to a mere list of things not to do, rather than a chapter in the story of God's love for God's people in the world.

Writing on Exodus 20, Terrence Fretheim points out that "This covenant is a specific covenant within the already existing covenant with Abraham." The story had already begun, and was entering a new chapter. The beginning of Exodus 20, before the "commandments" themselves, is as important as the rest, and maybe more so:

"Then God spoke all these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery..."

The people are already "God's people" by the time they get to Mount Sinai. The story has already begun. God has already been at work to save the people, to redeem them from slavery in Egypt. In that sense, these "commandments" are not given as a way to earn God's favor. It isn't: "Do these things and God will love you." Rather it is: "God loves you so much and in response you should do these things."

Too often, we approach the commandments of God as if they are video game maneuvers. If we jump up on these platforms in this particular sequence and collect up these specific coins, we will be rewarded by advancement to the next level. But the love of God doesn't work like that. 

We are already in relationship with God. God created us. God has chosen us. God has set us free. And God is here, in our midst. 

That is our story, the story of our relationship with the Lord. But not only ours. It had already begun by the time we show up. And the story will continue long after we are gone. May we remember the story, and live in gratitude for our small part of it.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

"Sarah Shall Be Her Name"

"...Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her and also give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” (Genesis 17:15b-16)

The second Sunday in Lent is an opportunity for transformation. It is an opportunity to rise, a new creation, a phoenix from the ashes.  "Sarah shall be her name." It is a renaming, a simple change to a single word, yet that word is so intimately connected to our identity, to our very being. When someone calls your name, they are calling you

And for Sarai, it came after nine decades of life. Life with her husband couldn't have been particularly easy. She had to move from her home and wander around for much of her life. The Bible says she was beautiful. In Egypt, her husband asked her to pretend to be his sister in order to save his own life and Pharaoh took her as his own wife. (This story is not included in Vacation Bible School curricula for some reason.)

And we know that she was unable to have children. One time she devised a plan to ensure that her husband would have descendants; she had him marry Hagar, an enslaved Egyptian woman. It was a whole thing. Suffice it to say it did not end well.

Is it any wonder that after ninety years of such a life, the opportunity for transformation would elicit a chuckle?

And yet, there it is. It is literally never too late. The grace of God is always, always, always at work. Maybe you feel a sense that you are settled, established, maybe you feel like your life is a familiar routine that really isn't all that great but it's what you know so you're stuck with it. Maybe you know someone who feels this way. (Tip: You probably do.)

Maybe you've even come to a point in life where you're not sure who you are any more. You used to know, but little by little you have faded into someone else. It didn't happen all at once but these days when you look at yourself in the mirror there's someone new looking back at you. Someone you barely recognize. Or, maybe you know someone who feels this way. (Tip: You probably do.)

Maya Angelou said, “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That in fact it may be necessary to encounter defeat, so we can know who the hell we are. What can we overcome? What makes us stumble and fall, and somehow miraculously rise and go on?”

"It may be necessary to encounter defeat, so we can know who the hell we are."

Scripture says that "if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!" The Holy Spirit renews and restores so completely that the process is described as a second birth. And the possibility of being born again is an ever-present gift, there for us, waiting our response.

This Second Sunday in Lent is an opportunity for transformation. The grace of God is an opportunity to hear your name called, as if for the very first time. The grace of God is always working, always calling, always moving. This day is chance to know who you are, to miraculously rise and go on.