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United No More

 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Matthew 10:13-14

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), its governing body, recently voted to affirm and strengthen the church’s current prohibitions on the ordination of practicing homosexuals and disallowing the performance of same sex marriages by UMC elders or in UMC facilities. A council of UMC Bishops, seeking a way forward from the denomination’s stalemate over issues of sexuality, developed several proposals for consideration. The “One Church Plan,” which allowed individual congregations and pastors latitude in their practices to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ, was defeated. The “Traditional Plan,” strengthening the church’s current position, passed.

I am blessed to have formed relationships with a number of LGBTQ family members and friends before any of them came out as gay. I witnessed the spiritual gifts each possessed and knew them as genuine, loving people of inestimable value long before I could be tempted to think they deserved less than others because God gifted them with a different sexual orientation than I. It is through this experiential lens that I view the UMC’s decision.

The UMC’s statement of belief, from its website, reads:

As United Methodists, we have an obligation to bear a faithful Christian witness to Jesus Christ, the living reality at the center of the Church’s life and witness. To fulfill this obligation, we reflect critically on our biblical and theological inheritance, striving to express faithfully the witness we make in our own time.[1]

I find this statement consistent with Jesus’ oft-repeated instruction, “Follow me.”[2] Jesus, likely intentionally, left much leeway regarding the specifics of how best to follow him, and I respect those whose well-reasoned practices differ from mine.

Here is the crux of my disagreement with the UMC’s Traditional Plan (also called the scriptural option): In my study of the life of Jesus, and in my opinion, following Jesus and following scripture can lead to different positions. For example, in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery,[3] scripture mandated that she (and her partner) be put to death.[4] A group of Temple devotees asked Jesus for his thoughts. His response, a significant deviation from the scriptural mandate, was “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”[5] Elsewhere in the Gospels, he selectively quotes from scripture, leaving out passages he apparently disagrees with. For example, in Mark 4:18-19, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, but skips the middle of verse 2, “and the day of vengeance of our God,” before reading the remainder of the verse. In addition, Jesus reinterprets scripture, even when it is unambiguous. For example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’”[6] Then he alters its focus: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[7] Finally, consistent with his focus on love over condemnation and inclusion over exile, Jesus lumps the concrete mandates of scripture into two statements with broad and imprecise applications: Love God and love your neighbor.[8] My belief is that following Jesus requires far more than a literal application of scripture. When scripture and Jesus diverge, whose authority do we follow? My reading of the UMC’s statement of belief is that Jesus, as “the living reality at the center of the Church’s life and witness, is primary.

No church I am aware of follows scripture to the letter. Everyone, certainly the UMC, picks and chooses which parts to emphasize and how to apply them. For example, scripture states that women should not speak in church,[9] nor are women allowed to teach or have authority over men.[10] One would expect that a church following the letter of scripture would not ordain women. In addition, given what Jesus said about divorce and remarriage,[11] such a church also would not ordain anyone who was divorced and remarried. Thankfully, the UMC does not prohibit either of these from occurring. Yet somehow, the UMC justifies singling out LGBTQ persons for special exclusions. There is no record of Jesus addressing homosexuality or gay marriage. Rather, his apostle, Paul, reminds us that “…in Christ Jesus (we) are all children of God through faith.”[12]

Those who preached the letter of the law and ignored grace were the targets of Jesus’ harshest criticisms.[13] He called them hypocrites. I find every reason to believe Jesus’ application of scripture was selective and conditional – not random, but purposeful, inclusive, and reconciling. He used scripture to encourage us to look within, not to judge others. The hallmark of Jesus’ ministry was the inclusion of those exiled by the government, church, or society. He openly welcomed tax collectors, adulterers, lepers, foreigners, thieves, and those possessed by demons. I find no Jesus-based reason to exclude anyone from full inclusion in the church, including those in the LGBTQ community.

Being united means bringing persons of difference together around a common purpose. It implies harmony. When one part of a body imposes rules prohibiting another part from carrying out its sincerely held beliefs regarding witnessing to Jesus, there cannot be unity. Today, the UMC is neither united nor harmonious, and should it persist with its current position, a respectful, amicable split will be in order. Those of us who feel exiled by the overreaching rules of the UMC will let our peace return to us, shake the dust from our feet, and move on in love.

Disclaimer: I am a lay member of the First United Methodist Church of Lawrence, Kansas. I do not speak for or on behalf of my church or the global United Methodist Church.

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[1] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/basics-of-our-faith, sourced February 28, 2019.

[2] Matthew 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, 16:24, 19:21; Mark 1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21; Luke 5:27, 9:23, 9:59, 18:22; John 1:43, 12:26, 21:19, 21:22.

[3] John 8:1-11.

[4] Deuteronomy 22:22

[5] John 8:7.

[6] Matthew 5:27.

[7] Matthew 5:28.

[8] Matthew 22:37-40.

[9] 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11.

[10] 1 Timothy 2:12.

[11]Matthew 19:9.

[12] Galatians 3:26..

[13] Matthew 15:7, 22:18, 23:13, 23:15, 23:23, 23:27, 23:29; Mark 7:6; Luke 12:56, 13:15.

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Follow Me

 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Mark 1:16-17

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35

The childhood game of Follow the Leader consists of one person – the leader – acting in certain ways while the other players do as the leader does. If the leader takes 3 steps forward, twirls around, takes 2 steps back, and then does a somersault, it is up to the followers to copy the leader’s actions. In a way, Jesus invites us into a game of Follow the Leader. He says, “Follow me,” and we are to do as Jesus does. One foundational habit of Jesus, found throughout each Gospel, is going to a quiet place to pray. Some of us pray before meals, at bedtime, and in church with a congregation, but how well do we follow the way Jesus modeled prayer? First, Mark says Jesus got up while it was still dark. We receive so much visual stimulation from our surroundings that darkness is foreign and frightening. Yet, how can we expect to focus on God’s presence when the seductive lure of visual distractions constantly bombards us? We may be better able to commune with God in the dark. Second, Jesus went to “a deserted place” to be alone with God. When was the last time we sat alone, longing only for God’s company? Jesus found solace and rejuvenation in his prayer life. Do we?  Perhaps we are not comfortable with prayer because we have not fully entered into it the way Jesus did. Following Jesus, I believe, begins with grounding ourselves in prayer.

In the context of Jesus saying, “Follow me,” it is important to remember he did not say, “Worship me.” Jesus worships God the Father, the one so far beyond our earthly comprehension that all we can do is fall on our knees in reverent submission. God is unknown and unknowable to the human mind. On the other hand, we can know and love Jesus as we would any other person. God came to earth in the person of Jesus, as one of us, so we could know God through him and follow. There is an important distinction between worshiping and following. We can only worship and/or fear that which we cannot comprehend. One appropriate response as we consider the vastness of God is astonishment and awe – like standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon or tracing the path of the Milky Way on a clear, dark night. God in Jesus, however, was comprehensible. Sometimes we act as if he were not in order to ignore the personal obligation to follow him, which can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. We are to worship God, but we are to follow Jesus. Following is an act of presence, dictated by the circumstances of the moment. The Gospels help us understand what Jesus did in his day and, through that understanding, to project how Jesus would likely act today.

Some Christian churches, my own included, spend a lot of time and energy on issues that Jesus apparently never addressed. To our knowledge, Jesus did not mention homosexuality, gay marriage, women in the priesthood, or practicing LGBTQ persons serving as clergy or being welcomed into Christian fellowship. Regardless, these issues define and divide many churches today, both between denominations and within congregations. I suspect these divisions in the church named for him make Jesus weep. Remember, there were no “Christian” churches in the time of Jesus, who was a Jew. The followers of Jesus formed the Christian church because they desired a new forum within which to more faithfully follow him. How far have we strayed from following our leader?

Most of what we know of Jesus’ actions on earth fall into the categories of loving, teaching, healing, or including. He brought acceptance and grace where there was judgement and condemnation. He gave knowledge where there was ignorance, and healing where there was illness. He reached out to those condemned to the outskirts of society and brought them in. What does it mean to follow Jesus? One thing it means is for us to provide love, knowledge, healing, and inclusion wherever we find hatred, ignorance, illness, and exclusion. To do so requires a centered presence with and attentiveness to the life around us. A regular practice of quiet time alone with God, as Jesus modeled, is a good place to begin.

This is the 35th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Repent!

 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”   Matthew 4:17

The first instruction from Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark is to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15). This line is exactly what John the Baptist is quoted as saying earlier in Matthew (3:2) and occurs after Jesus has been baptized by John and spent 40 days in the wilderness. It seems safe to assume these words hold a special significance, since they mark the beginning of his ministry. What does it mean, exactly, to repent? The current understanding has largely to do with being sorry for poor behavior. In Catholic traditions, parishioners can attend confession, where they admit to a priest where they have fallen short in the recent past: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” Certainly, confessing our shortcomings and seeking forgiveness is a healthy practice, but the fuller meaning of repentance goes beyond being sorry for less-than-stellar behavior.

Dictionary.com1 defines repent as “to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better” (emphasis added). The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means “a transformative change of heart: especially, a spiritual conversion.”2 To repent is to turn around or to make a conscious choice to change the direction of one’s life. It goes to the core of our being and seeks to change us from there. Much more than saying, “I’m sorry,” to repent is a determined, sustained, and conscious action to chart a different course for one’s life. This, then, is Jesus’ initial instruction for those who wish to follow him.

For me, there is an Advent-feel about repentance in that it invites us to prepare for something magical and mystical. It is magical in that the life Jesus calls us to is largely foreign to our daily routines. It is mystical in that it cannot be explained or foreseen except by faith. In Luke 3:4, John the Baptist, echoing the prophet Isaiah, says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John’s Gospel records the words as “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23). To the extent that John’s words are a call to repentance, it is a call to a process and not a single event; a preparation for an extended journey, as opposed to a specific destination.

This directive from Jesus for repentance is about a new focus for our lives. Jesus offers a bridge to this new life, but the first step of this journey of the heart is ours to choose. In a recent daily meditation, Richard Rohr wrote, “You cannot know God the way you know anything else.”3 This journey is not one of becoming upwardly mobile in order to rub elbows with the societal elite. There is not anything wrong with upward mobility, per se, except that is not an orientation conducive to finding God. Its motivations are wrongly placed. Our deepest essence cannot be focused on material gain and also upon God. In fact, the journey Jesus invites us to is more likely to take us among those society rejects. We, along with Mary and Joseph, must make the long heart-journey to Bethlehem and find our way to the dark of the stable. The Christ within will not be born among the lights and parties at the Inn with everybody who is anybody. There is no room there for this birth. The Christ within is born in the simplicity, solitude, and minimal provision of the stable.

To repent is to change our priorities. We focus less on ourselves and more on others. We are less concerned with accumulating stuff and more on acquiring useful items for those in need. Our priorities shift from success to meaning. This change is not something forced upon us, that we are guilted into beginning, or even something that is possible without our willing consent. As we turn our faces toward God, we are naturally pulled in a new direction, a direction an earlier version of ourselves likely would have shunned. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

 

This is the 2nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 1  Dictionary.com, Sourced January 8, 2018.                                                                                                             2  Merriam-Webster.com/dictionary/metanoia, Sourced January 8, 2018.                                                       3  Richard Rohr. Daily Meditations,cac.org. Published and sourced January 9, 2018.

 

 

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