The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Luke 13.1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners that all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Jesus gets pushed into situations like this all the time in the gospels.

Hey Jesus, what do you think about this – What happens to the woman who remarries over and over, who will her husband be in heaven? Hey Jesus, is this kid suffering because of his own sins and or because of the sins of his parents? Hey Jesus, are those people over there the worst of the sinners?

And, frankly, the questions make sense. We happen to live in a really senseless world and it would be nice is Jesus could illuminate for us the truth of what’s going on. Behind all the questions, whether the questioners are trying to entrap Jesus or not, is this inquisitive nature that is so at the heart of who we are. 

And this particular scenario aimed toward the Messiah about the worst sinners – is just so human.

The delegates at the Special General Conference were given opportunities to stand and speak in favor or against particular motions regarding the church’s opinion about human sexuality. 

There were, of course, the classic arguments – God made us male and female for one another, citing Genesis. And we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, citing Jesus. There were even appeals to cultural shifts and being obedient to God’s word. 

It went on for days.

But now, about a month later, there are a few moments that have really stuck with me. I’ve previously shared about the exact moment of reaction to the Traditional Plan vote in which some people fell to the ground in tears while others danced around in celebration, a moment I believe will haunt me and the church for the rest of our days. 

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But there were two speeches made prior to the vote that have been ringing in my mind.

Early in the debates a woman from Pennsylvania stood to speak in favor of the Traditional Plan. She used the same talking points as other people had, but as her time was winding down she ramped it up a degree. She said that Jesus was very clear that it would be better for someone if a millstone was hung around their neck and cast into the sea than to continue living in sin.

And then she sat down.

For a moment the entire convention center just sat in bored and passive observation, but then the wheels starting clicking. 

Was she just implying that the time had come to drown gay individuals?

Within thirty seconds the room, largely quiet until this point, increased in decibels as people called for her to apologize for saying what she said. 

Apparently, to the woman who spoke at the microphone, homosexuality warrants consideration for a death sentence.

Later, in a what felt like a different moment, though similar to a degree, a pastor from the Great Plains conference stood up at the microphone to speak against the Traditional Plan. He too relied on some of the same talking points as other people had, but then he ramped it up a degree as well. 

He said he wanted to talk about biblical interpretation – Paul, he mentioned, talks more about women keeping silent in church, praying with their heads covered, not teaching men, women submitting to men, and women not wearing jewelry than he does about same-sex relationships. 

And yet, he continued, the proponents of the Traditional Plan support women in ministry even though Paul commands them to remain silent. 

The room grew very quiet at this point. Was he implying that we should remove women from places of pastoral power?

But then he went on to say it was interesting that the highest priority for items to be discussed at the conference were the pensions, even higher than the Traditional Plan itself. Which, is even more interesting given that Jesus said, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.” And he ended with this: If you really believe the Bible is clear, then I invite you to turn in your pension funds before you do anything else.

Apparently, to the man who spoke at the microphone, hypocrisy warranted greater reflection than other sins.

I’ve thought about these two moments a lot because it seems that we haven’t moved very far since the time of Jesus.

Self-righteous anger was with us in the beginning, and is still very much with us today.

Lord, do you think those Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans?

No. But unless you repent, you will die like them.

What a graceful and hopeful word from the Lord!

Robert Farrar Capon says that good preachers, and I would say good Christians, should be like bad kids. They ought to be mischievous enough to sneak in among dozing churches and steal all their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the toilet.

Why? Because the church has drugged itself into believing that proper behavior is the ultimate pathway to God. And yet we don’t know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about good behavior because we constantly point at everyone else’s bad behavior.

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It’s why we are forever comparing ourselves to others in such a way that we are superior to their inferior morality, ethics, and even theology. 

The crowd’s conversation with Jesus about the greater sins in others hints at our continued fascination and obsession with guilt. 

If the God we worship were to punish and reign judgment down upon us for the sins we’ve already committed, then few, if any of us, would be left to worship in the first place.

But guilt, whether we feel it or we want others to feel it is like an addiction. And we Christians think that is good and right for us to think about and talk about guilt. It’s how more than half of the Christian world works! Make people feel guilty enough for how bad they are, scare them enough about the punishment of hell, and they’ll show up in droves to church on Sunday morning.

Right?

But the Bible, you know this book we keep talking about, it’s not obsessed with guilt like we are. No, if it’s obsessed with anything, it’s obsessed with forgiveness.

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!

The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!

So what should we make of Jesus’ quip about the need for repentance? Of course there should be repentance. But repentance is supposed to be a joyful celebration, and not a bargaining chip we can cash in to get God to put up with us. 

Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.

God isn’t waiting somewhere far and beyond until we muster up the courage to fix all of the problems we’ve created. Instead, God meets us in our sins in the person of Jesus Christ. 

We seem to be stuck in a world in which we foolishly feel like we have to earn God’s love and mercy and grace. And, even worse, we do this in the most paradoxical of ways by pointing out the so-called greater sins in others. We want to blame everyone else for all of the ills in the world. It makes us feel superior. It makes us feel right.

And then comes one of the most confounding truths in the entirety of the Bible: God has consigned all to disobedience in order that God may be merciful to all.

We can certainly feel guilty about our sins, we probably should. But feeling guilty about our sins doesn’t really do anything. In fact, if feeling guilty does anything, it usually just leads to more sinning.

Attempting to overcome our sins, to leave them all behind, is a worthy goal but a far greater task than we ever really realize. 

The only thing we can really do with our sins that does anything, is admit them. Naming and claiming the truth of our condition is part of the necessary work of putting everything into perspective. When we can claim own our sins, when we can admit that we are no better than the crowds wanting to know who the worst sinners are, then we begin to see that we are all sinners and then we can celebrate knowing that those sins are nailed to the cross in Christ Jesus. 

Parading out the self-righteous judgments against others for their sins being worse than ours is to perpetuate a world in which the right get righter and the wrong get wronger. It leaves little to no room for reconciliation. And it is a complete denial of the good gift, the very best gift, that is God’s grace.

Grace works without requiring anything from us. No amount of self-help books, no number of piously repentant prayers, no perfect family or perfect job or perfect paycheck or perfect morality or perfect theology earns us anything. Grace is not expensive. Grace is not even cheap. It’s free.

And, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, grace is like manure.

It gets dumped onto the fruitless fig trees of our lives and gets all co-mingled in the soil of our souls. Manure is a messy and strange tool that is so completely necessary for our existence. Nothing is quite as ironic as knowing that another creature’s excrement is often required for us to eat. 

But, of course, we don’t like thinking about that. It’s why we so quickly identify with the man with the fig tree. What happens when something is no longer bearing fruit, whether it is a literal tree or not? We are quick to cut it down and replace it with something else.

And, assuming that we’re not growing all of our own food, we’ve grown remarkably comfortable with a world in which we don’t ever have to think about what was required for us to have food on our plates. We are either ignorant, or blissfully unaware, of the struggle that is at the heart of the production of our consumption. 

We don’t like thinking about manure being spread all over the ground so that we can have whatever we want in our kitchens. 

Its the same reason we like to think about Easter without having to confront the cross.

The cross is the manure of grace that is spread into and throughout our lives. It is a frightening thing that we’d rather ignore or dismiss, and yet without it we are nothing. 

And still, the manure that is grace is offered to our lives even when, and precisely because, we are not bearing fruit!

We worship a God of impossible possibilities, a God who offers more chances than we ever deserve, a God who willingly drops manure on our lives over and over again.

The cross is like manure; it is good and bad and ugly. 

But it is also our salvation. Amen. 

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (of Annual Conference)

Every year the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church meets for holy conferencing. This is an event whereby lay and clergy representatives from the entire conference meet to discuss pertinent matters facing the denomination in our particular geographic locality. Additionally, the Conference has a memorial service for clergy and lay representatives who have died in the previous year, we learn about campaigns and initiatives like “Imagine No Malaria”, we celebrate the licensing, commissioning, and ordination of clergy, and we worship together.

Every Annual Conference is filled with moments of holiness in addition to sinfulness. We are a church of broken people; therefore we fall prey to our own desires and forget to pray for God’s will to be done. At times, our “holy conferencing” brings out the best in us and the worst in us. Below are three categories of experiences I had from last weekend. And let’s go backwards…

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The Ugly

After joining together in one voice to proclaim the powerful and dynamic hymn “And Are We Yet Alive” (The traditional first hymn to be used since nearly the beginning of the Methodist movement), we jumped right into the business of Annual Conference: The presentation of the Rules Committee. This makes complete sense of course, we need to re-establish the rules of conference every year before we get to the important stuff, but this year we spent the first 45 minutes of our time as a denomination arguing about the color of our name badges.

Depending on one’s conference relationship, there are areas that are forbidden from being voted upon. For instance: last year I was a provisional elder which meant that I could not vote during the clergy session, or on constitutional amendments. But now that I am “an elder in full connection” I am granted to the right to vote in the clergy session and on constitutional amendments. In order to streamline who can vote on what, different name badge colors were distributed. And this resulted in chaotic responses in the forms of Robert’s Rules of Order. Specific representatives (both lay and clergy) were livid not about their name badge color, but that the conference did not trust them to know what they could and could not vote on. (even though it took ten minutes for the clergy to figure out where they had to sit in order to vote during the clergy session [something we do EVERY year]).

During the name badge debate I was sitting next to a couple that were attending Annual Conference for the very first time. I witnessed them shaking their heads in astonishment and disbelief for most of the 45 minutes and when all was said in done I heard them say, “No wonder people complain about coming to this every year.” What does it say about our church to new people when we can go from a beautiful hymn to an argument about name badge colors in the blink of an eye? What does it say about the future of our denomination when our first priority becomes the color of our name-tags?

Later during the conference a motion was made from the floor to propose a resolution regarding the recent tragedy in Orlando, Florida. The resolution called for all churches in the conference to be in prayer for the victims and their families from the shooting, to pray for the greater LGBTQI community, and to pray for our Muslim brothers and sisters so that they might not be lumped into the violent identity of the shooter. While the majority of the conference voted in favor of the resolution, there were a decisive number of people who vehemently opposed it. We might not think alike about the LGBTQI community or the Muslim community, but the least we can do is pray for them in the midst of such a horrific tragedy. So what does it say about our commitment to loving others the way Jesus commanded while some of us would rather remain silent?

Finally, our conference had the good fortune of hearing the proclaimed Word from Rev. Eun Pa Hong who is the senior pastor of Bupyeong Methodist Church in Incheon, Korea. Rev. Hong is one of the most dynamic leaders in Korean Methodism and under his leadership for the past 35 years his church has grown to include 5,500 people most Sundays. Rev. Hong spoke in his native tongue and was translated into English while he preached. And while I walked around later in the day, I overheard delegates complaining about having to listen to someone speak in Korean. What does it say about our church, when some cannot stand to witness the diversity that makes us who we are? What does it say about our future when we’ve forgotten the most beautiful part of the Pentecost story?

 

The Bad

The church continues to decline: Lack of new professions of faith, lowering numbers of baptisms, and more churches closing. Or to put it the way I heard someone else reflect on it: “Annual Conference is all about death.” The report of the Conference Statistician offers bleak prospects for the future and causes anxiety for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. At the same time we were reminded over and over again about the power of fear, and how is has limited us as a denomination without offering hope for new vitality. The frightening statistic that the average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years was mentioned on more than one occasion without any examples of how this statistic is being combatted.

Moreover, fears about the recent General Conference were made apparent through muffled conversations, uncomfortable responses to the General Conference report, and the apathy toward institutional change. More than ever, Annual Conference focused one what we have to fear, than what we have to be hopeful about; it felt more like crucifixion, and less like resurrection.

 

The Good

There is nothing quite like singing together in one voice with thousands of other United Methodists. As Garrison Keillor has noted, singing is part of our DNA. And so, when at the beginning of Annual Conference, thousands of us joined together with those faithful words: “And are we yet alive, and see each others face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!” you can’t help but feel the Spirit’s presence. When we mourned the loss of life over the last year, when we sat in profound silence in memory of the victims in Orlando, when we watched as new pastors were licensed, commissioned, and ordained, we felt the Spirit’s presence. Worship is always part of the “good” of Annual Conference. In worship we remember that God is God and we are not. In sermons and prayers and hymns we hear God saying, “Yes!” even though our hearts say “No.” In worship we let our baggage and preconceived notions start to fall away and we truly become Christ’s body redeemed by his blood.

Additionally, we celebrated the fruits that came from our commitment to “Imagine No Malaria,” we rejoiced in new faith communities that are planting seeds of faith across Virginia, and we recognized the 20th anniversary of the Order of the Deacon. All of these events witnessed to our commitment to serve the needs of others and the ways that we are making God’s kingdom manifest here on earth.

On Thursday night, before Annual Conference officially began, a group of United Methodists gathered for Pub Theology led by the minds behind the podcastCrackers & Grape Juice.” We met for an informal conversation about theology, toxic Christianity, and the future of the denomination. During that gathering a number of young people made it clear that they believe in the future of the United Methodist Church even while some of us remain anxious. In their willingness to articulate how their local churches helped nurture them in the faith, their witness blessed us all. Later we heard from voices largely missed at Annual Conference and all of us were reminded about the strange and beautiful diversity of this thing we call “the church.” As I was leaving, a young man told me (with a smile on his face), “This is what Wesley must have felt like when he gathered with his friends.” It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.

On Saturday evening I was privileged to join an Ordination class of some of the most gifted pastors and deacons I have ever met. We submitted ourselves to the yoke of a stole over our shoulders and covenanted to serve the church with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. I witnessed countless people rise when names were read before the conference and I was reminded about the great communal effort required in identifying effective clergy. In the ordination service I saw the bright future for our church; not in our bureaucratic commitments to Roberts Rules of Order, not in our debates about nametag colors, not in our frightening statistics, but in the local church where the heart of God is revealed each and every day.

I have hope for the future of the United Methodist Church because the new clergy leaders believe in the power of the gospel to radically transform the world. They recognize that the local church is where disciples are formed (not Annual Conference). They see the bread and the cup of communion as our spiritual food necessary for the journey of faith. They have given their lives over to this strange and wondrous calling and will bear fruit for years to come.

But most of all, I have hope for the church because it does not belong to us. It belongs to God. The more we remember that we serve the risen Lord, the more we learn to pray for God’s will and not our own, the more our church will become what God is calling us to be: the body of Christ.

 

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