Our Witness #GC2019

These thoughts were offered at Franklin United Methodist Church on Sunday, March 3, 2019. This message was based upon a reading from James 2:1-13.  This  message is part of a series, responding to the 2019 special called General Conference of The United Methodist Church.
     I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here.

It was the most beautiful act of solidarity I saw on the floor of General Conference last week.  On the last day, as the minority report that could have brought back the One Church Plan for adoption by the body… Just before it was to be voted on, the chair asked for a time of prayer; and, the bishops who were on the stage came to its edge, and the delegates got up from their seats and came forward so that bishops and delegates stood hand in hand with one another in prayer.  It was beautiful, a soaring moment that displayed both the diversity and the unity of the church. 

I was hopeful.  Convicting speeches had been given.  There was a glimmer of hope that the church might take the via media, the middle road, it has long been known for.  The vote was taken; and, the possibility of unity in diversity was officially killed by a margin of 38 votes (Vote was to bring it back: 374, Yes; No, 449).

What followed was a long parliamentary dual of trying to stall the vote on the Traditionalist plan by making points of orders and amending it.  Knowing they didn’t have the votes, some within the centrist and progressive camps tried to stall the clock.  There were some great speeches during this time.  And, there was one, that I thought was particularly interesting and its vote telling.

Kah-Jin Jeffery Kuan rose to make an amendment to the traditional plan.  He sought to add the words divorced, remarried, and polygamist, essentially, everywhere the word homosexual was used. Here’s a direct quote from his speech:

Bishop, I continue to be frustrated with our confused ethical standards based on the Bible.  We continue to single out homosexuality as incompatible with Christian practices.  We say nothing about divorce as incompatible not only with biblical teaching and practice, but accept remarriage as compatible with Christian practice and teaching… Jesus spoke much against divorce and remarriage. Moreover, polygamy is compatible with the Bible.  Persons with whom we hail as heroes, heroes of faith, Abraham, David, Solomon all had multiple wives!  What ethical standards are we using to determine what is compatible and incompatible with biblical teaching and Christian practices? If we want to single out one form of human sexuality, we need to capture all the others.  I have said this before and I will say it again, when are we going to stop our hypocrisy?[1]

Had the Kuan amendment passed, it would have meant that divorced, remarried, polygamous, and homosexual persons would be barred from candidacy and ordination in the United Methodist Church.

In full disclosure, the amendment was, I think, a parliamentarian delay tactic; but, the point Mr. Kuan made was something I’ve always struggled with.  Why is the church so laser-focused on homosexuality?  Surely our sexual ethics are deeper than simply making a statement about same-gendered relationships.  My thought has always been in line with the amendment. If people are going to pick up that line of thought, then they need to tow it. The amendment finally came up for a vote. It failed by a 2/3 vote (yes, 274; No, 545). One of the strongest votes at the plenary session.

It was in that moment that I realized, really for the first time. And, I fully acknowledge that I can be dense. Others have come to this realization long before me. For the first time, I realized that our current situation isn’t really about devising a comprehensive stance on human sexuality, this was and is all about homosexuality.  This wasn’t, as some have said, about guarding the sanctity of marriage and the traditional understanding of it as being between one man and one woman.  No, this obsession of the church and its continued denial of full inclusion really is discriminatory.  The church is selectively punitive in singling out homosexuals and turning a blind eye to others who, if the Bible were literally interpreted, are living opposed to the teachings of Jesus and the traditional understandings of the church.

And, in that moment, my heart broke for The United Methodist Church.

The Church should never be a channel for discrimination; but should always stand for and be a conduit of the indiscriminate love of God.

James warns about this in our reading for today.  Don’t show favoritism.  Don’t show partiality.  Let love be the royal law you follow as you show mercy and reserve judgment.  “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13d, New Revised Standard Version).

It is, I think, a similar call to Peter’s when he says, “Above all, show sincere love to each other, because love brings about the forgiveness of many sins” (1 Peter 4:8, Common English Bible

The Church should never be a channel for discrimination.  It should never be a place of partiality where we play favorites based upon appearances, size, gender, sexual orientation, and status.  Instead the church is called to be inclusive in its offering of love to all.  “Just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone,” commands Jesus, “so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:48, Common English Bible).  The church must not discriminate.

The assembly gathered by faith, says James, must act on the basis of another set of values.  Those whom the world most despises are to be regarded, in faith, as heirs of the kingdom and, therefore, honored by the specific hospitality of the community: its greeting, its body language, its space.  It is by this measure that the community is to be judged (2:12).  Woe to the church that does not meet this measure of mercy, for it will face merciless judgement (2:13) [warns Jamees].[2]

The church is judged not on how well it keeps the rules, but instead on the manner in which it welcomes and shows hospitality to all.

In the wake of General Conference 2019, I worry about the judgment laid upon the church by God and our neighbors.  The headlines–which are in our culture more important than the content of the article itself–are clear.  The United Methodist Church is not open all persons, its ban on homosexuality has been strengthened.

Whether or not you agree with the decisions of General Conference 2019, we must all acknowledge that our church, both global and local, has now been labeled as discriminatory.  Therefore, it behooves us to consider what our witness might be as a community of faith.

The labels rightly laid upon us—as unwelcoming, discriminatory, and exclusive—cannot be the last word about our denomination or us as the Franklin United Methodist Church. We have a responsibility, I think, to formulate a new witness, the question is how and what will it be?

Some have suggested that we adopted statements of confession and apology.  Others have suggested that we adopted new symbols. But, what will we do?

How can/should we help our community know that this church strives to be a place where all can come to know the saving love of God found in Jesus Christ?  The headlines about General Conference 2019 and The United Methodist Church are out and have, no doubt, left an indelible mark on the psyche of an entire generation.

How will we respond so that all persons might know their sacred worth? How will we respond so that all people know that their gifts can and will be honored and utilized for Christ’s sake and the glory of God?

Here’s what I think we need to be. We need to be an “out” church; and so,

  • I will be encouraging our Church Council, as the leadership team of Franklin United Methodist Church, to be bold, to come out, and adopt a statement of inclusion for itself.
  • We as a church must also come out and recommit to the process of becoming a welcoming and affirming congregation and seek to finish the process–hopefully before Advent this year.
  • And finally, we need to be a church that’s out in the community.  We need to be a living witness to the love of God for all.  In these days, more than ever, your witness…our witness…is needed because there are many who think that God does not and cannot love them and that simply isn’t true. And, if they’re ever going to know it, we need to model it for them.

We need to be an out church for the sake of Christ and the glory of God. Amen? and amen.

[1] Daily Christian Advocate, February 27, 2019, p508.

[2] “Reflections: James 2:1-13,” The New Interpreterj’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. XII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), p195.