Are We Alive?

On Thursday United Methodists from across the state will arrive in Hampton, VA for Annual Conference. Holy conferencing is in the DNA of those from the Wesleyan Tradition and we gather together in anticipation of the Spirit moving in our midst. It used to be that Annual Conference was a time for worship (and only worship) but over the centuries it has become a time of bureaucratic politicking with a little worship sprinkled on top. I have hope for our gathering this year, the moments in which God’s grace will shine brightly in the darkness, but I am also keenly aware that conferencing often shows the church at her best and her worst. 

Since the 1780s the Wesley brothers used Charles Wesley’s “And Are We Yet Alive” hymn to open society meetings, and the denomination has been doing it ever since. On Thursday the representatives from Virginian Methodism will lift up our voices and sing the same song. It is my hope and prayer that, this year, we might hold fast to the words of the hymn throughout our gathering and know that, no matter what, the divine “yet” of God’s grace is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

If you’re unfamiliar with the hymn, the lyrics are as follows:

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And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face? 

Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!

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Preserved by power divine to full salvation here, 

again in Jesus’ praise we join, and in his sight appear.

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What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, 

fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!

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Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by his love; 

and still he doth his help afford, and hides our life above.

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Then let us make our boast of his redeeming power, 

which saves us to the utter most, till we can sin no more.

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Let us take up the cross till we the crown obtain, 

and gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain. 

Strangely Warmed

John 17.23

I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Why the United Methodist Church?

This is a question that I receive fairly often throughout the comings and goings of my life. I’ll be sitting in the stands watching my son play tee ball when the subject of employment comes up which inevitably leads to why I serve in the UMC. Or, I’ll preside over a wedding with lots of strangers only to be bombarded with questions about denominational affiliation as soon as the service ends. Or someone will see me working on a sermon at a coffee shop with my clergy collar on and they walk over to ask, “So what kind of Christian are you?”

For what it’s worth, I am a Christian before I am a Methodist. Or, put another way, I’m a Christian who happens to be a Methodist.

I follow Jesus, not John Wesley. 

And yet, I find that Wesley’s understanding of the Gospel to be spot on. 

There are a great number of moments from his life, and even more from his sermons, that resonate deeply in my soul, but nothing quite compares to his Aldersgate Street experience when he was 35 years old. This is how we wrote about it in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley, May 24th, 1738

What makes his experience all the more profound is how little he felt an assurance before that moment, even though he had been ordained for a number of years!

I love the hymns we sing in the UMC, I love the connectional nature of our church and how we are bound together with other churches, and I love the incarnational focus of our ministries going to where the Spirit moves. But more than anything, I love the relentless proclamation of prevenient grace; God’s love precedes all things. 

While sitting at the society meeting at Aldersgate Street, Wesley experienced what I have experienced and what I hope every person will come to experience: There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s love except trust that it is true. And when we live into that trust, we are living in the light of grace which changes everything. It changes everything because it means all of our sins, past/present/future are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more. 

The work of Christ frees us from the law of sin and death so that we might live abundantly for God and for others. It is, quite literally, the difference that makes all the difference. 

If you want to know more about how God works in the heart through faith in Christ, you can check out the Strangely Warmed podcast which I host. Every week we bring you conversations about the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and we do so without using stained glass language.

What’s Wrong With The World?

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” and they asked for answers to their query. Hundreds of individuals responded with hundreds of examples. GK Chesterton, writer and theologian, simply responded with two words: “I am.”

There are many versions of Christianity in the world. And not just the different denominations you can find throughout your neighborhood like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, etc. Even within “one” church like the United Methodist Church there is a great diversity of opinion about what it means to be a United Methodist. 

But the one thing that might unite all churches, even more than our commitment to baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and as inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website, or a front lawn marquee, and you can find a self-imposed description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. 

In the UMC we like to say that we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.

What a righteous slogan.

The only problem is the fact that we regularly close off our affections toward certain people, we are clearly cemented in “the ways things were” rather than the way things can be, and more often than not the doors to the church are locked.

Inclusivity is the buzzword among most, if not all, churches these days. Though, we are not altogether clear about what it really means to be inclusive. True inclusivity, after all, is not just a matter of having different kinds of people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning; true inclusivity means a total and unwavering commitment to something that is frankly impossible for us: love.

I know that might sound strange: the impossibility of love in the church. But it is, in fact, against our nature. We can’t, or at the very least don’t, love everyone.

It’s like those churches with signs on the front lawn proudly claiming: “Hate Has No Place Here.”

That’s a worthy hope, but it isn’t true.

All of us have hate in us whether we like to admit it or not. And, to make matters worse, saying that hate has no place in church affirms that the church hates people who hate!

It is true that we are commanded, by God, to love one another just as Christ loved us. And yet, sometimes, I fear we confuse the two. That is: we assume that we have to love one another in order to get God to love us. When, in fact, the opposite is true: God loves us, and when we come to grips with how strange it is to be loved by God, we are then freed to love one another with the same reckless abandon that God loves us.

Notably, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another (as Jesus loves them) right after the foot washing. It’s this remarkable moment that encapsulates the humility (read: humanity) of God). And then, shortly thereafter, the disciples betray, deny, and abandon God to the cross. 

If the story ended with the cross, none of us would have ever heard about Jesus. But the cross is just the beginning because three days later Jesus is raised from the dead. And not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he returns to the same disciples who failed to respond to the commandment of love!

We worship an odd God. Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of unloving disciples to be the people through whom the world is turned upside down. In short: there is nothing that can ever stop God from loving us.

Therefore, if there is anything truly inclusive about the church it is not our love for one another, but God’s love for us. It is the triune God who opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. It is the triune God who opens up our eyes to view others in ways we never have before. It is God who opens up the doors of the church to be a new community where strangers now are friends.

The proclamation of the Gospel is that God loves us even though we are what’s wrong with the world. But, at the same time, the Gospel is an adventure in which God’s love actually changes us so that we might begin to love one another. 

Years ago I was asked to preside over the funeral for a man who drove me crazy. He was older than dirt and he treated people like dirt and just about once a week someone from the church would wander into my office in tears because of what the man had said to them.

And then he died.

In the days leading up to his service of death and resurrection I lamented the fact that hardly anyone would be coming. Even though he pushed all my buttons, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church in my robe ready to begin the service for a small scattering of people when, all the sudden, cars started streaming into the parking lot. One by one church members who had been so wronged by the man during his life paraded into the sanctuary for worship. 

The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the now-dead man’s insults and I grabbed her by the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him.”

To which she replied, “Preacher, don’t we worship the God who commands us to love our enemies? Didn’t you say, just last week, that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died? Don’t the scriptures remind us there is nothing that can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus? Then so be it!”

And with that she marched right into the sanctuary for worship.

Love one another just as I have loved you – easier said than done. But without love, we have nothing. 

The Methodist Blues

Garrison Keillor, of Lake Wobegon fame, once opined in song about what it means to be part of the people called Methodists:

I’ve been going to church every Sunday morn,

Still don’t know if I’ve been reborn,

I’m sixty years old, is there something I’ve missed?

Or is it just that I’m Methodist?

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

The organ is soupy and the pastor is bland

Leave afterward and I shake his hand

Sometimes I’d like to shake my fist

That’s what it’s like to be Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

The sound system’s bad, there’s a buzz in the speaker,

The budget is busted, the collection is meager,

This great big debt load we been carryin’

Maybe we oughta be Unitarian.

People gossip about who did what,

The ladies circle is a pain in the butt.

Want to slap their face or at least their wrist,

But I can’t cause I’m a Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

We’re not big on shows and dances,

Mixed drinks or big romances,

I’ve been hugged but never French kissed,

That’s because I’m a Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

Everybody wants to sit in the back pews,

Want the sermon to reflect their views,

Some of these Christians, they are the rudest.

What do you say we try being Buddhist?

The same ten people always volunteer,

Half of them old, the others just weird,

How do we ever manage to persist?

We do it by being Methodist!

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

People offer to help then they don’t remember,

It can make you almost lose your temper,

Sit and steam and clench your fist,

But you can’t hit them, you’re a Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

Everyone’s afraid of change.

Don’t like anything new or strange.

Or we get our underwear in a twist,

That’s how it is with a Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues. 

We were founded by John Wesley,

Not Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley,

We’re not so hip but we persist,

We go on being Methodist.

What does it mean to be Methodist? We’re currently in the midst of a confirmation class at church in which we attempt to answer that very question each Sunday with and for our confirmands. Ask the average Methodist on a Sunday morning what it means to be Methodist and you might hear something about John Wesley, or holiness of heart and life, or prevenient grace. But you’re just as likely to hear about casseroles, singing hymns, and being the via media between Baptists and Catholics.

The longer I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church the more I am convinced that, like with marriage, you can only figure it out along the way. One day you’ll be singing a hymn between the pews and realize, “Oh yeah, I do believe this!” Or you’ll walk down to receive the bread and cup and be overwhelmed by what Christ did, does, and will do. Or you’ll sit in the silence of a prayer and receive an assurance that, to use Wesley’s words, “Christ has taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Every denomination carries its own blues. We Methodists even sing about them at the start of every annual conference: “What troubles have we seen / What conflicts have we passed / Fightings without, and fears within / Since we assembled last.”

But that is only part of the song we sing. For it ends thusly:

But out of all the Lord

Hath brought us by His love;

And still He doth His help afford,

And hides our life above.

Then let us make our boast

Of His redeeming power,

Which saves us to the uttermost,

Till we can sin no more.

Let us take up the cross 

Till we the crown obtain;

And gladly reckon all things loss,

So we may Jesus gain. 

Let us therefore boast and rejoice even in our blues, knowing that Jesus is the difference who makes all the difference. 

Less Is More

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [C] (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-35). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange new worlds, Encanto, covenants, righteousness, living in church, narrative preaching, memorizing scripture, waiting on the Lord, the Apostles’ Creed, Mississippi, and the status quo. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More

A Modest Proposal

2 Corinthians 3.17

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 

My former professor Stanley Hauerwas likes to tell the story of how he hung a poster on his office door at Duke University. The poster was published by the Mennonite Central Committee, and it displayed a haunting image of two people in grief holding one another, and underneath the image were these words: “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” 

Hauerwas then explains how, for over twenty years, students (and professors) would knock on his door with anger and frustration. They would barge into his office and declare, “Your sign makes me so mad. Christians shouldn’t kill anyone.”

And Hauerwas would reply the same way every time: “The Mennonites called it a modest proposal – we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Last night Russian forces invaded Ukraine, assaulting by land, sea, and air in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two. Missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities and countless Ukrainian citizens are currently fleeing for their lives. 

And Christians here in the US have already floated around a bunch of possible responses from flooding the Ukrainian military with money, arms, and technology, to invading Russia to make them pay for what they’re doing, to praying for peace.

Jesus commands the disciples to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” which looks nice on a cross-stitch hanging on the wall in your living room until you start to see images of bombs exploding and parents frantically trying to rush their children to safety.

War is always complicated, ugly, and even addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few other things can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. Way conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness made manifest in machine guns. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “war” fails to express the frightening nature of the act. We so quickly connect the word “war” with the “righteous” outcomes of our wars. 

Can you imagine how differently we would remember and even think about wars if we called them something else? World Massacre II? The Vietnamese Annihilation? Operation Desert Carnage?

Part of the strange witness of Christianity, and an all too often overlooked aspect of the faith, is that Jesus rules in weakness. God in Christ reconciles the world through the cross. Our salvation is wrought not with the storming of the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the powers and the principalities with a mobilized military, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

As the images continue to flood in from Ukraine, as the talking heads on every news channel tell us how we should feel and think about the images, I find myself grateful (oddly enough) for the Book of Discipline in the United Methodist Church because it already outlines how we (Methodists) think and feel about war.

Namely, that war is incompatible with Christianity.

Paragraph 165.C:

“We believe war is incompatible with the teaching and the example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them.”

It might be a modest proposal, but we have to start somewhere.

Stuck Together

Ephesians 4.1-16

I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. There it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. 

The prevailing wisdom is that, when a newish preacher arrives in town, he or she should avoid controversial topics at all costs. At least, in the beginning. 

You don’t want to burn any bridges before they have a chance to be built in the first place.

But some things can’t be ignored – some topics demand our attention whether we want them to or not.

I don’t know if you know this, but the church is on the brink of schism.

On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it really truly seems as if there is no future in which we stay united.

One pastor put it this way: “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count… But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the ways things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”

Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belated particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this: “It matters not how we treat people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”

Have you heard people talk like that about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences?

Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer hold onto a common cause.

And, lest we grow apathetic about the possibility of ecclesial schism, lives are at stake.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you should. So, let me try to break it down a little bit. There is a sizable portion of the church that believes in the institution of slavery is a right given by God Almighty while the other side of the church believes that slavery and the ownership of human beings runs counter to the Good News of the Gospel.

So, friends in Christ, what should we do?

Or, to put it another way, which church should we align ourselves with?

Oh, I seem to have misplaced the notes for my sermon… I think I grabbed the one from 1844 instead of the one for 2021…

You see, the quotes I just read from different pastors were not shared on various social media accounts over the last few years – they didn’t come from the bitterness of recent denominational meetings in which theological dueling has become a favorite pastime. No, all of those are real quotes from pastors in 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And the matter at hand then, the decisive claim that actually split the church until 1939, was slavery.

I beg you to lead lives worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.

We don’t know all the details that required the writing of the epistle to the Ephesians, but it’s clear that not all of those who were part of the gathering, the ecclesia, were getting along.

There’s a good chance that it had something to do with Gentile Christians making claims about what the faith really looked like now that they were part of the covenant whereas Jewish Christians were holding on to the faith that had first grabbed hold of them.

Or, it could’ve been a little more like the church in Corinth that was constantly bickering about the nuts and bolts of community meals and how the unified church broke into different factions led by different leaders.

Or, maybe they were arguing about who was and who wasn’t compatible with Christian teaching.

We’re not entirely sure but, taking a step back for a moment, it doesn’t really make that much sense. How could a community founded on radical inclusion descend into rampant division? Why would a people who are commanded to love their neighbors have so much trouble actually doing it? What happened such that brothers and sisters in Christ had to be told to bear with one another in love?

Strange, isn’t it? 

What we do know about the church in Ephesus is that Paul felt compelled to write this letter, a letter we refer to as Holy Scripture, and Christians like us have been gathering together to proclaim these words for centuries.

I beg you to live with humility and gentleness, with patience, and bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Wow.

Who would’ve imagined that a scripture text could ever have so much to say to our current context…

And here’s the rub: Paul can exhort us all he wants to be worthy of the Gospel, he can list off in rapid fire detail all of the practical habits that define what the church can be. But, at the end of the day, we will never be worthy of the Gospel.

Never ever.

At least, not on our own.

We’re fickle and selfish little creatures, we humans. It doesn’t matter whether its the first century, or the 19th century, or today, we are consumed by, and addicted to, dividing ourselves into who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong. 

And yet, the church touts itself as a bastion of inclusiveness: open hearts, open minds, open doors. Ever heard of it?

Is the Gospel really for all?

I mean, what about those real sinners (let you imaginations run wild)? How would we feel if they started showing up on Sunday mornings?

We might bristle at the thought, but making the outsiders into insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. Which, when you think about it, is actually really Good News because the Gospel is the most inclusive thing around: At the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

To be clear: that includes each and every one of us.

And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.

Consider the seven ones that Paul rattles off: There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

We who we far off and we who were near have been brought together by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Christ is the reason, and the only reason, we can be one.

Warring cultures divided by heritage, and traditions, and moral codes, and even ethical expectations have collided into a new order, a community we call the church.

Paul’s prayer from last Sunday’s passage transforms today into a call to preserve the peace made possible in Christ. Paul literally begs us to see that even our myriad differences, great though they may be, they pale in comparison to the vast gulf between God and us. And yet God chose us!

Think about that for a moment. God, knowing full and well that we are a bunch of dirty rotten scoundrels, that we will regularly look out for our own interests instead of those in need, that, when push comes to shove, given the choice between life and death, we would choose to nail God to a cross, God still chooses to be for us!

In Christ, we encounter the incomparable new reality of God which both humbles us and exalts us, which knocks us down and builds us up, and that is our peace.

You see, peace, at least peace as defined by the Gospel, comes when we recognize our universal incompetence and our total need for someone to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.

God has claimed us. And, as Karl Barth put it, unity is the consequence of belonging to God.

However, there is a difference between the now and the not yet. Our sin-sick souls are stuck in this terrifying cycle of division and antipathy. But, as Christians, we are called to look beyond and, in so doing, reframe the now.

There are walls of division that threaten to divide the church, to literally break up the body of Christ. They existed in Ephesus, they were there in 1844, and they’re still around today.

Paul, across the ages, pleads with us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called, something we can’t actually do on our own, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

And, notably, the strange new world of the Bible reminds us again and again that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus.

The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people willing to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

Faith is always a journey.

Paul likens it to the way a body grows – it happens, in time, and it can be painful. And we can try all we want to resist it, but God is going to get what God wants.

It is therefore in the knowledge of the hope that is beyond our current circumstances that we find our peace. Peace is upon the mountain. We have not yet reached the mountain. But we can lift our eyes to the hills, from whence our help comes.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been particularly struck by this little moment in the Gospel right before Jesus’ crucifixion. Abandoned by his followers, betrayed by his disciples, condemned by the religious elites, Jesus carries his own instrument of death to the place called the skull, and what does he say?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The truth is, we still don’t know what we’re doing.

The United Methodist Church, the body of Christ for the world, is at war with itself over who can marry who and who can do what I do. But we’re also on the brink of schism in our community over politics, and education, and a variety of other subjects.

It’s terrifying how content we are to cut off our hands and our feet.

We still identify who is in and who is out based on categories that make absolutely no sense in the Kingdom of God. We view one another through names on bumper stickers, and through ill-advised Facebook posts, and through late-night ramblings on twitter.

And today scripture grabs us by the collar and says, “Listen! God has made us beautifully different! Unity isn’t uniformity! We bring together all of our differences and that what makes the one body we call church so amazing. So stop acting like children for God’s sake, literally. You move about with every new headline, and you give into to such shameful divisions. Listen! Speak the truth in love. IN LOVE! You don’t deserve to be part of the body of Christ. No one does. And yet God chose you anyway! We are not what we can be without you, and neither can we be who God is calling us to be if we keep cutting off our arms and our legs!”

At the end of the day, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever the they are, are wrong.

But again, the Gospel tells us something different – the Gospel tells us we’re all wrong! That’s why the Gospel is more inclusive than anything in existence! We don’t stand on our accomplishments or on our righteousness – none of us are righteous, no not one.

The only thing we stand on is the grace and love of God freely given to us in Christ Jesus.

Or, in other words, we’re stuck with each other because God has decided to be stuck with us. So be it. Amen.

Unity?

Devotional:

Romans 5.6

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 

Weekly Devotional Image

About a year ago I was sitting in the upstairs area of Wegman’s, sipping on a cup of coffee, while my computer, Bible, and United Methodist Hymnal were out on the table in front of me. I was there in the hopes of stringing together a worship service and a sermon, but I was distracted. My distraction stemmed from the, at the time, recent Special General Conference in which the UMC doubled down on its language regarding the so-called incompatibility of homosexual Christians.

Every time I lifted my hands to get something down in writing, I was at a loss of what to say.

So I sat there and I sipped on my coffee and I rested in my distractions. Until a man walked over from the other side of the space and asked if he could sit with me. I noted that there were plenty of other empty seats available, but motioned for him to sit down. He paused for a moment, and then asked, “Are you a pastor in the UMC?”

“Did the hymnal give it away?”

“That, and the glum disposition. I read about the big church meeting in the newspaper the other day. You know, I used to be a United Methodist once upon a time.”

“Oh really. But you’re not anymore?”

“Nope. I can remember when the church really was together on everything, as if we were all on the same page. But then it got so divisive that I just decided to call it quits.”

“That’s too bad. Well, what kind of a church do you go to now?”

“Oh. Um, I haven’t been to a church in years to be honest… Anyway, I’m not really sure why I came over but, good luck with the church. I think you’re gonna need it.” 

I’ve had a lot of interactions like that one over the last year, some with total strangers and some with people I’ve known my whole life. People who have approached me because of the United Methodist Church’s position on human sexuality, their struggling to come to any sort of conclusion about it, and their admission that church really isn’t for them anyway.

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I’ve found each and every one of those conversations to be remarkably enlightening. For one thing, they demonstrated that the church does remain in the cultural consciousness for those outside the church, though they tend to only think about it one-dimensionally. Secondly, people are hungry for conversations about things they do not understand, even if they can’t articulate it. And thirdly, a whole lot of people inside and outside the church believe the church can only be the church if the people in the church are unified.

Spoiler warning: The church has never been unified.

If it ever felt unified, whether it was last year or 1,000 years ago, it was because particular voices were being stifled or kicked out altogether. We, in the church, have often confused unity with uniformity, and uniformity is only achieved through suppression.

The church is a strange and wondrous thing. I have noted on many occasions that the church is the last surviving place where people willfully gather with people who are different from themselves – to be clear, not every church is like this, but there are some where the people in the pews on Sunday share one thing, and only one thing, in common: Jesus.

The church is at its best when we are all busy changing each other and being changed by one another. The church is not some static institution that was the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is a living and transforming thing that is guided by the voice of the Lord that continues to speak even into the wilderness of our sin. 

Or, to put it another way, the church gathers again and again to remember that while we were weak, Christ died for the ungodly. And, though it pains us to admit, we (all of us) are the ungodly for whom Christ died. 

If there is any unity in the church, let it be that. 

We Are (Not) United

1 Corinthians 1.10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

The church is on the brink of schism.

On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it seems as if there is no future in which we stay together.

One pastor put it this way, “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count. For a long time it was my friendships within the church that kept me with the church. But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live solely for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed, and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the way things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”

Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belittled particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this, “It matters not how we treat particular people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”

Have you heard people speak this way about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences? Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer remain together.

By the way, does anyone happen to know what year it is? I can’t quite remember. 2020? Oh, you’re surely mistaken. The year is 1844 my friends, how could you have forgotten!?

Those quotes I read, contrary to what we might’ve thought, were not shared over the last few weeks by pastors offering too much information on their respective Facebook pages. Actually, they are all from the year 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And what was the actual matter at hand? Slavery.

One of the great ironies in the church is that we call ourselves United Methodists and we are anything but united.

The church in Corinth was similarly divided. In Paul’s first letter alone we can count at least fifteen different problems the apostle had to confront including lawsuits, idolatry, prostitution, and a whole lot more. But here, right after his pronouncement of grace upon God’s people, he got down to the business of addressing partisanship – otherwise known as divisions.

We’re not entirely sure how it happened, or even why, but the Corinthian Christians factionalized behind different leaders. Some followed Paul, some Cephas, and some Apollos. And the disrespect they held for the rival leaders extended down to the individual followers as well, such that some of the followers of Jesus refused to break bread with one another.

It doesn’t make any sense.

I mean, how can an organization founded upon the principles of total inclusion descend into such rampant division? How can a people told to love their neighbors as themselves cease to love their literal neighbors? How can something as united as a church break down into different factions?

Those questions were asked in Corinth, they were asked in 1844, and they’re still being asked today.

The gospel itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I said last week, and will be saying over the coming weeks, grace is really really messy. It is not simple – For, what God did, makes no sense to us. It makes no sense to us because we would not have done what God did had it been up to us.

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The gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation made available to all, is so contrary to everything we think we know about the world and even, at times, contrary to everything to what we think we know about the church!

I mean, is the gospel really for all? What about the real sinners (let your minds wander), do they have a place in the church? How would we feel about the outsiders being let into the inside?

We might bristle at the thought, but we can’t ignore that making the outsiders the insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. 

Faith, whatever it may be, is confounding precisely because it runs counter to so much of what we’ve been taught to expect about the world. It is challenging to wrap our minds around which, incidentally, is why we keep coming back to church week after week in hopes that we’ll get a better angle on all this.

Now, of course, there will be plenty of other folk who will try their best to convince us that there are easy steps to Christianity, that if we follow a simple formula we will get our lives perfectly sorted out. Countless books are sold every year on that premise alone. 

There will always be Cephases and Apolloses vying for our allegiance.

But the word from scripture, and in particular within the Pauline corpus, is that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus. The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

It can take a lifetime of coming to the table over and over again before we really start to believe that Jesus would do what Jesus did, even for us!

It can take decades of Sundays hearing the gospel story before it finally starts sounding like good news.

It can take generations of patient faithfulness before we begin to see how foolish the message of the cross is, and how everything we do hangs on it.

Which leads us back to Corinth, and in a sense back to 1844, and back to the church today. All churches throughout time have fallen prey to the temptation of easy answers. And who can blame them? If people provide the answers we already want to hear, then why not follow them? 

There have been plenty of Apolloses and Cephases over the centuries. As Christians we so regularly self-identify around particular leaders who give us what we want to hear. Tribalism runs rampant in the church such that since the very beginning of the church there have been alternative modes of the church within the church!

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But the cross demands something different and something far more difficult.

Most of us here today have come of age in a world in which we are so comfortable with crosses dangling around our necks and adorning the top of our steeples, that we cannot conceive of crosses as anything but sterile symbols of something vaguely religious.

But the cross is, and forever shall be, a shocking thing. 

2,000 years of church life has made it next to impossible to consider how shocking it was to preach a crucified Messiah during the time of Paul. The next closest thing would be hanging hypodermic needles around our necks, or placing electric chairs on top of churches, or hanging nooses on the walls of our living rooms.

The cross is death. Which is why Paul can say, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The world doesn’t want death – it wants other signs of worldly power. And yet our King of kings rules from a cross, and one of his final pronouncements is not an exhortation about all we must do to earn a spot in his kingdom. Instead, Jesus uses some of his final earthly breaths to declare one of the strangest things of all, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

And, indeed, we have no idea what we are doing. We are a people at war – not necessarily in the conventional sense but we are certainly at war with one another these days. 

The United Methodist Church is battling about who can marry who and who can get ordained. We appear at the brink of schism, dooming ourselves to repeat 1844 all over again. 

Our partisan finger wagging continues to divide families, and friends, and co-workers. We identify who is in and who is out by the name of a candidate on a bumper sticker or by the avenue by which they receive their news.

We write people off for Facebook posts and tweets and delight in our ever tightening tunnel vision about reality.

Our tribalism is going off the rails and, shockingly worst of all, it seems like we actually enjoy it.

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The word of the cross is not easy to proclaim. It wasn’t easy for Paul, it wasn’t easy for the church in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and it’s not easy today. 

The word of the cross is a stumbling block to those who call themselves religious and it is foolishness to those who delight in the rise of secularism precisely because the cross stands as a beacon to a different reality, a reality we wouldn’t choose for ourselves.

For as much as the cross is a sign to the world about the forgiveness of sins, it is equally a reminder that we have plenty of sins for which we all need forgiveness.

Or, to put it another way, we cannot look at the cross without confronting the inconvenient truth that we are the sinners for whom Christ died.

We confess, however, that we would much prefer to hear a different kind of message about the cross. Perhaps something a little more uplifting, or at the very least something optimistic. 

Ultimately, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong.

But, again, the cross tells us something different – the cross tell us we’re all wrong.

Jesus was put to death by the legitimate powers of his time – He was denounced by the Roman governor, flogged and beaten, and was taken along with common criminals to be executed outside of the city.

He was condemned to death by all of the best people of church and state, and was condemned for crimes against religion and government.

This is a challenging thing to confront – particularly for those of us who feel good in our piety, or happy in our political proclivities… Jesus went to the other side, he went to be with the people we would rather ignore, and he took his place upon a cross because we put him there.

We hate it, we don’t want to even get near it, here in the ivory towers of our own making. But Jesus, the one we worship and adore, Jesus is on both sides. He is on the side of the victims and on the side of the perpetrators. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He speaks to the powerful and to the weak.

That is why the gospel is so overwhelmingly radical – When we say Jesus is for all, we really mean all.

We are not united. We have plenty of divisions cropping up all the time that keep us from one another. But there is something that truly unites us – the gospel. It is radically inclusive in ways we can’t even dream of. Whether we like it or not the gospel refuses to divide the world up into the correct and the incorrect, the righteous and the unrighteous, the innocent and the guilty. Jesus takes all of that into himself and says I forgive you.

It’s foolishness according to the world, but to us it is the power of God. Amen.

War Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

Devotional:

Acts 10.36

You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all. 

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One of the great privileges, and challenges, of being a pastor is that people will often bring to me questions about how to respond to something as a Christian. They’ll have seen something on the news, or read an article online, and while wrestling with whatever the subject might be, they’ll bring it to me with hopes of coming out with an answer on the other side. I, like many pastors before me, will usually respond to their queries with a question of my own such as, “Well, how do you think we should respond as Christians?”

Most of the time responding to the question with a question gets us to some version of a faithful response and usually that’s enough. However, there are those time when, as we travel down the rabbit hole together, the answers move further and further away from what we might call orthodoxy.

War, without a doubt, is one of the questions that does this the most.

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The question of a Christian response to war brings forth thoughts about responsibility for those in need and our own need to assert control and dominance. The question of a Christian response to war often carries with it personal experiences of fighting in war, or family members fighting in war. The question of a Christian response to war forces those of us who follow Christ to wrestle with whether we are more captivated by the powers and principalities of this world or by the One who came to overthrow those powers and principalities.

Tensions between the United States and Iran are growing with each passing day, and the talking heads on the news and online are making it abundantly clear how they think, and how they think we should think, about war. And, though it is a rare thing, this is a time I am grateful for the Book of Discipline in the United Methodist Church, because it outlines how we think and feel about war.

Namely, that war in incompatible with Christianity.

You can read more about it here:

United Methodist Book of Discipline – Paragraph 165.C

“We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them. We advocate the extension and strengthening of international treaties and institutions that provide a framework within the rule of law for responding to aggression, terrorism, and genocide. We believe that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

So, as we continue to respond to escalating tensions, let us remember that Jesus came preaching peace, and not war.