Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Grapes or Giants?

This sermon was originally preached at Our Life Together, a continuing education gathering of Indiana clergy, on February 23, 2016. The theme for the event was "The Wilderness Experience."  

The most powerful book I read last year was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes a letter to his teenage son about race in America after the young man has an emotional breakdown in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. Today I’m borrowing his concept as I write a letter to my two-month-old daughter about The United Methodist Church as we approach seminal moments for our future. Let’s pray together.

Faithful God, help us to be such master of ourselves that no matter which wilderness we're wandering, we may be your servants to all other people. Take our minds and think through them; our lips, and speak through them; and then take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen. 

My precious daughter, you arrived in this world, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, innocent and open, at a time when it seems our community, our country, and our world are wandering in the wilderness. How do we grapple with injustices in race and class? How do we welcome the stranger? How do we love our enemies? How do we open wide the table of God’s grace? This isn’t the first time God’s people have been meandering.

Once upon a time, God was enraged with a nation called Egypt where a mean old Pharaoh had enslaved God’s special people. God raised up leaders named Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, who led the former slaves out of Egypt and to the east (but not without a fight and plagues and the Red Sea parting so they could pass through before it washed out Pharaoh’s army). Before God’s special people could enter the promised land, they had some learning to do, in what Daniel Erlander calls the “Wilderness School.” Here they learned some important lessons – God gives manna for all, hoarding stinks, and resting is essential. They received a covenant gift of rules to guide their friendship with God, with each other, and with the land around them.

God’s people spent 40 long years learning these lessons, which is about the same amount of time it takes to become a United Methodist pastor. Sometimes they succeeded and brought glory to God. Other times they failed their exams by complaining and hoarding and abusing other people and the land. In the book of Numbers, chapters 13 & 14 tell an amazing story about God’s special people before they left the wilderness. Watch carefully, little girl, and you’ll see Brick Testament tell the story.

Before God’s special people could graduate to the promised land where they would live the way they’d been taught in the wilderness, God commanded Moses to send 12 spies to survey the territory, including Caleb and Joshua.


Moses said to them: What is it like? Are the people strong or weak, few or many? Is the land in which they live good or bad? … Be courageous and bring back the land’s fruit. It was the season for the first ripe grapes. (Numbers 13:17-20).

After 40 days of exploring, the spies returned to Moses and Aaron, hauling in huge bunches of grapes, and gave their report.

Yes, the land was full of milk and honey and fruit. But you know what else they saw, sweet child of mine? Huge, powerful people living in big, strong forts. Giants controlled the promised land! Caleb, who was more courageous than the rest, believed they could go up against these giants and take over the land. But the others who were with him weren’t so sure: “We can’t go up against them because they are stronger than we.” 

They started a rumor about the promised land, telling all of God’s people that these giants could devour them. 

They felt like tiny little grasshoppers compared to these big, fierce giants!

Little one, can you imagine what all of God’s people did next? 

They stayed awake the whole night crying and complaining to God! If only we had died in the wilderness! Why is God bringing us to the promises land only to be killed? Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Egypt? Let’s pick a leader and head back! 

Moses and Aaron were so upset they fell on their faces. Caleb and Joshua tried to smooth things over, to reassure them the promised land really was good and God really would give it to them, but the entire community threatened to stone them.

Baby girl, you’re only two months old, so you’re still sweet and smiley. But I promise you there will come a time in our life together, be it as soon as your toddler years or certainly during your teenage years, where you do something that makes your daddy and I so angry that you think, “Now I’ve finally gone and done it.” That’s how angry God was at these disrespectful people! How long will they doubt me after all the signs I performed among them? I’m going to strike them down and disown them. Then I’ll make a great nation, stronger than they. But Moses begged God, “The Egyptians will hear, for with your power you brought these people up from among them. They’ll tell the inhabitants of this land. They’ve heard that you, Lord, are with this people. You, Lord, appear to them face-to-face. Your cloud stands over them. You go before them in a column of cloud by day and in a column of lightning by night. If you kill these people, every last one of them, the nations who heard about you will say, ‘The Lord wasn’t able to bring these people to the land solemnly promised to them. So the Lord slaughtered them in the desert.’ Now let my master’s power be as great as you declared when you said, ‘The Lord is very patient and absolutely loyal, forgiving wrongs and disloyalty. Yet God doesn’t forgo all punishment, disciplining the grandchildren and great-grandchildren for their ancestors’ wrongs.’ Please forgive the wrongs of these people because of your absolute loyalty, just as you’ve forgiven these people from their time in Egypt until now.” (Numbers 14: 11-19).

Guess what happened next? God actually listened to Moses, changed God’s mind, and forgave the people! Now, there were consequences for their bad behavior. Only Caleb and Joshua would see the promised land. Everyone else who refused to listen to God wouldn’t make it there. They would die in the wilderness, and their children would be stuck in the wilderness for 40 years. Our story doesn’t have a perfect ending where you can tie everything up with a bow.

Real life is like that, my child. It doesn’t always have a happy ending. But God is merciful, faithful, and loving. No matter the wilderness we’re wandering, God is with us. You’ve been born into a time when it seems the Church is wandering the wilderness. We’re no longer center stage in our country or communities. Our own denomination is shrinking on the vine in America while bearing fruit in other places. What kind of Church will you inherit -- a grape or a raisin?

It all depends on what you believe about the land God is promising us.
  •         If you believe the spies, then you’ll see violence and injustice looming large. You’ll believe the lies that some lives are worth more than others. But if you listen to Caleb and Joshua, then you know we can conquer giants like gun violence and poverty and human trafficking in your lifetime if we choose. As the Body of Christ, we can create a culture of peace and abundance and freedom where all lives matter, regardless of race or class or ethnicity or any other category.
  •        If you believe we are tiny grasshoppers, then you’ll latch onto the political rancor that says we need to build higher walls to protect ourselves. But if you believe in God’s promises, then you’ll remember we aren’t to hurt or oppress strangers, because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. As God’s people, we are a global church. We welcome immigrants and refugees with open arms, especially our Muslim friends around whom we’ve created such a cloud of fear.
  •        If you believe in the giants, then you’ll also believe our church is stuck in a wilderness of division when it comes to human sexuality. The world is watching how we respond as a church and how we treat one another in our disagreement. If there are grapes in the promised land, then you know I’m striving for a more open church where all people are welcome at the altars of marriage and ordination, no matter who they are or whom they love. But even more importantly, I hope you see how God’s vision of the promised land forces me to love and respect the people who disagree with me. As you grow, you’ll discover how dark the wilderness is when you’re trying to love people who see a different promised land. No matter what happens at General Conference or in the years to come, may love still be the tie that binds us. 
Little one, what will you see in the promised land? There are a lot of God’s special people here today. What they believe about the promised land will shape the Church you inherit. I wonder what they will see?

In a few minutes, we’ll break special bread at a really holy meal. Before we do, we’ll have a chance to confess our sins and brokenness. I hope we’ll remember all the lies we’ve believed about the promised land and ask for God’s grace and forgiveness. Because when we feast on the Body of Christ and share the cup of his blood, we’re empowered by his grace to envision a new future for the Church. Will we be just? Peace-filled? Welcoming? Open? Which will it be – giants or grapes? May the sweet taste of the grape juice linger on our tongues and prepare us for the land to come. Amen.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Horror and Hope (Judges 11:29-40)

artwork courtesy of Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber 
The Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on tot he Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the door of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to met him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites. And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of the two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
-- Judges 11:29-40 (NRSV)

Bible stories like today’s are the reason some people avoid church altogether. They’re also why many Christians dismiss the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). Yet the God of Israel is also the God of Jesus. If we’re going to follow Jesus, we have to explore the Scripture he knew, even the difficult parts. We have to understand the Bible is less of a road map or an instruction manual, and more like a mirror that reflects the horror and hope of the human condition.

So far our series on Joshua and Judges has highlighted heroes of the faith. But Judges also mirrors the tragedy of human life with terrible stories of violence against women and children. To hear and tell stories of terror is to wrestle demons in the night. Where is God when the virgin daughter of Jephthah is sacrificed? Or when the unnamed concubine is raped, murdered, and dismembered? We struggle with God in our own pain. Today we’ll learn how these stories from the past may enable insight into the present, inspire repentance, and against all odds, yield new beginnings. I’m thankful to Jewish theologian Tikva Frymer-Kensky and Christian theologian Phyllis Trible for their faithful interpretations of these stories. Let’s pray together.

A cycle of violence

The deep irony in Jephthah’s story is his own broken past as a victim. His mother was a prostitute. His brothers rejected him and forced him out. Then the elders select him to lead the army against the Ammonites. Scripture says the Spirit of the LORD comes upon Jephthah. Rather than acting with conviction and courage, he responds with doubt and demand. Battle oaths were common in his day, but Jephthah makes a very strange one to God. If the LORD delivers the Ammonites into his hand, then he will sacrifice as a burnt offering the first thing to come out of his house. An animal? A servant? His own daughter? We now know the answer. With this vow, Jephthah unfaithfully binds God rather than embracing the Spirit. He is all about control, not courage. Notice God makes no reply for the remainder of the story.

Jephthah wins the battle, and his one-and-only daughter comes forth from the home with timbrels and dancing. Jephthah is horrified. He has opened his mouth. Words, once spoken, cannot be taken back. The daughter insists he must pay his vow, even though he will pay it with her body. Blame overwhelms the victim as Jephthah bewails the calamity she brings upon him.

Before she fulfills her father’s vow, Jephthah’s daughter demands two months to wander the mountains with her friends and mourn her violent death and loss of a future. Notice this act becomes a ritual in memory of her. In a society where women had few choices, rituals from childhood to adulthood would be an opportunity to alleviate their anxiety or at least endure what life would hand to them in the control of fathers and husbands. But this story isn’t merely about ancient puberty rites. This story is about the appalling nature of child sacrifice. God’s people were sacrificing their children in this day, in spite of protests from prophets and priests. Horror toward child sacrifice is why we hear about this story. As listeners, we wait for the moment of salvation. Why doesn’t somebody stop the sacrifice and rescue the daughter? In the more famous story of the binding of Isaac, God intervenes at the last moment with a ram in the bushes. Where is the lamb for the slaughter? My God, my God, why have you forsaken her?

Where is God?

Jephthah’s daughter has every right to cry out to God. We can imagine God hears those cries and comforts her in the mountains with her friends. We can pray God gives her strength for the horror to come. One of my friends knows someone whose first experience with God happened inside a dark closet, where she would hide to escape her abuser. While many people would feel abandoned by God in those circumstances, this little girl very much felt the presence of the Holy One surrounding her and giving her the strength to go on, even in the darkest times.

From the perspective of the authors of Judges, the book takes place in the darkest of times where God no longer intervenes to save individuals like in Genesis and Exodus. At this time, God is active on a national scale, bringing first conquerors and then redeemers. The world of the book of Judges is more like our world. God is present with us, but God is not a puppeteer. God gives us the freedom to choose, and sometimes we choose poorly. We become perpetrators of abuse. Or worse yet, we remain silent when it happens around us. We can’t expect God to appear to save family members when we endanger them or fail to speak out. In the absence of God’s direct intervention, human beings and their social system must prevent such horrors. Instead, we must ask: Where were we when these horrors happened?

  • Where were we when 5 year-old Marie Pierre was abused to death by her cousins? 
  • Where were we when a 6-month-old was found to have a sexually transmitted disease? 
  • Where were we when a Ball State student was sexually assaulted, only to have her suspected rapist mistakenly released from jail a year ago? Where were we, church? 
The social system of Judges had no way to prevent the tragedy. There was no such thing as CPS, no CASA volunteers, no crisis hotline, no formal criminal justice system. The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter is a sign that something is terribly wrong in Israel. Society is unraveling. Violence against women and children is a symptom of a basic social flaw. The weakness that resulted in violence against Jephthah’s daughter also caused more widespread war. We won’t explore all of that today, but suffice it to say the situation worsens. In chapter 19, we have the story of the Levite’s concubine, an unnamed woman who is offered to a group of enemy men and brutally raped and tortured all night long. When the Levite finds her on his doorstep in the morning, he chops her up into 12 pieces and sends her body throughout the territory as a sign of the vengeance to come. Consequently, war breaks out among the tribes. The rape of one woman leads to the violation of 600 more by soldiers in battle.

Where are we?

Violence and vengeance are not just characteristics of the pre-Christian past. They affect our communities today. Jephthah’s daughter and the unnamed concubine are the stories of many women, men, and children in our own community who have been offered upon the altar of our violence. We still sacrifice the most vulnerable among us -- sometimes by our direct action, but most often by our silence, especially in the church. To take to heart these ancient stories is to confess their present realities. These stories are alive, and all is not well. But our confession is only valid as long as it leads to repentance, to a literal “turning around” of our lives and communities so that we can say to every woman, man, and child who has been a victim: “Never again.”

Ian Tolino has said “never again.” As a senior at the University of Maryland, he’s known around campus as “consent bro.” When he was a freshman, someone in his fraternity was accused of raping a woman. When someone displayed a T-shirt from his fraternity as part of a sexual assault awareness effort, he knew he needed to take action on behalf of his brothers. He now educates male peers across campus on respect, consent, and boundaries as part of the Campus Advocates Respond and Educate to Stop Violence. Ian has said, “Never again.”

One of my clergy colleagues has said “never again.” As a little girl, she was molested by a trusted member of her family. Wounded beyond belief, she has undergone years of therapy that has brought healing to much of her pain. She now lives in a town with few resources, and the closest domestic violence shelter is 45 minutes away. She’s been trained in crisis response, and the local hospital and police department call on her to be present with women and families in crisis. Her scars have given her a place to minister quietly and compassionately to those in pain until the day we all can say, “Never again.”

I wonder what “never again” looks like in your life. Perhaps you’ve been the victim of terrible abuse or assault. Please know we want to be part of your healing journey. Our prayer is you will find God right there with you, even in the darkest closet of your pain. Maybe you’ve been the perpetrator. We are people of forgiveness. We want to offer you God’s grace that calls you to turn your life around and begin again. Perhaps you’ve been the witness. We want you to help give you a voice to speak out. You’ll find community resources on the back of the bulletin to help you speak out. They will also help you share and serve until the day we all say, “Never again.”

Several hundred years after Jephthah’s daughter and the Levite’s concubine, God’s people were once again facing a very dark time in exile. The prophet Isaiah spoke a comforting word on God’s behalf: See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. (Isa 43:19) Light in the darkness. Hope in the horror. Healing in the pain. A new beginning for all of God’s children. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Place At the Table

I was given 365 seconds to share an epistle to the 21st century church at the Lion & Lamb Festival, a gathering on hope, peace, and justice in Ft. Wayne this weekend. Here are my thoughts based on Philippians 1

To the churches of Indiana: Grace and peace from God our creator and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I give thanks to God for your faithfulness to the Gospel. I’m deeply passionate about ensuring a place at the table for everyone, and I celebrate the ways you’re making room. Thank you for visiting my friend Marie while she was in prison for 20 years and helping her make a smooth transition upon her release. Thank you for taking in the Buhendewa family after their frightening escape from the Congo and empowering all six children to succeed. Thank you for finding a buddy for Thomas so he could experience Sunday School with all the other children. Thank you for showing up en masse this year at the state house to push for the right of all people to marry whom they love. Thank you for doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. 

Yet living our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ requires us to look around the table again to notice who’s missing, who hasn’t been invited, or who’s been rejected. Kevin Light and Frances Rogers tell a story about Stephen, who loves going to the Sanctuary every week. Stephen can’t always connect with conversations or laugh at jokes. He’s sometimes difficult to be around. But at the Sanctuary, the people love Stephen for who he is. He’s accepted without question. They laugh with him (not at him) and include him in their stories. They enjoy his presence. They offer him good food. They make him feel welcome, despite his awkwardness and brokenness. On Saturday nights, all of these wonderful things happen when Stephen goes to the Sanctuary, the bar down the street. When Stephen goes to the church on Sunday morning, it’s a totally different story (Right of Admission Reserved)

I wonder, Hoosier Church, how we stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel to reach the Stephens all around us. To create space for Stephen, we must let go of the table manners we’ve been taught. A recent Barna study found 51% of American Christians have actions and attitudes that align more with the Pharisees than Jesus. Only 14% of us are Christ-like in our attitudes and actions. The rest of us remain in between. To reach Stephen, we have to shed our Pharisaical rules and expectations. We can no longer base admission to the table on whether you use the right fork or talk with your mouth full or put your elbows on top. As he dined with tax collectors and “sinners,” as he healed the sick and touched the untouchable, Jesus turned our table manners upside down. There is room at the table for everyone

To connect with Stephen, we have to welcome him authentically to the table. There’s a reason Stephen is more comfortable at the bar down the street. It’s a place where everybody knows his name and embraces him as he is. They aren’t trying to drum up a program to attract him or make a small group just for him. They invite and include him in daily life. Broadway United Methodist in Indianapolis has many beautiful slogans. One of them is, “Nothing about me without me.” In other words, don’t build a community garden in my neighborhood unless I’m tilling the soil right alongside you. Don’t create an after-school program for young people unless they’re involved in the leadership. No more top-down charitable efforts. We’re striving side-by-side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel, as Philippians reminds us. 

Finally, if we’re seeking a place for Stephen, we have to move the location of the table. For too long, our tables have been anchored like immobile altars to our sanctuary floors waiting for people to walk in our doors. Yet the Gospel stories reveal repeatedly how Jesus engages in a movable feast. He meets people where they are -- from the poorest leper to the richest Zacchaeus -- and they are transformed by his itinerant encounters. He doesn’t ask for their health insurance cards or green cards. He doesn’t test if they’re infected with HIV or Ebola. He doesn’t verify their criminal records or sexual history. He reaches out. He touches. He heals. He provides. He loves people unconditionally right where they are. Once we’ve identified the absent people, let go of our rules, and built relationships, we have to move the table to new places. I hope we’re setting up tables in prisons and domestic violence shelters, in rehab programs and gyms, in local schools and bars down the street, in hospitals and border towns -- everywhere and anywhere we can make space to encounter Christ in others. 

At the end of the day, our table talk and walk will only matter to the degree our lives are grounded in the meal that shapes us. Wherever we are right now on the journey, may we stop long enough to recall the grace and sacrifice Jesus offered to include everyone of us at that same table. A crusty piece of bread and a sip of the fruit of the vine that welcome us into the reign of God. A movable feast that beckons us to create space at that same table. A word of hope that feeds us: Do this is remembrance of meMay it be so in our lives.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Praying for Princeton

“Only the wounded healer can truly heal.” -- Irvin D. Yalom

Compassionate God, descend upon your people of Princeton in our grief. Our hearts break for the woman gunned down outside of Los Aztecas. We mourn her tragic death, and we weep with her family and children. Remind us that nothing -- not even the worst acts of violence -- can separate us from the love of Jesus. Lord, have mercy. 

Prince of Peace, surround the alleged perpetrator and his family with a blanket of mercy. Their lives are also interconnected with ours, and we ask that a web of forgiveness may be woven, strand by strand, when the time is right. Lord, have mercy. 

God of Hope, guide us as the “Why?” of this situation overwhelms us. As we linger with the questions, show us your path of shalom. Remind us how you bore the violence of the world on Calvary so that we might become a new community of peace. Christ, have mercy. 

Risen Lord, reveal to us your scarred hands. Touch the violent places in our lives with your grace. In the midst of our scars, may we bind up the pain of our community. Grant us the wisdom to see that only the wounded healer can truly heal. Guide us on the path of hope. Lord, have mercy. Amen. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

You Are A Promise

“You are a promise; you are a possibility. You are a promise with a capital ‘P.’ You are a great big bundle of potentiality. And if you listen, you’ll hear God’s voice. And if you’re trying, [God] will help you make the right choices. You’re promise to be -- anything [God] wants you to be!”                                     
 -- “I am a Promise” by the Bill Gaither Trio

“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.”                       
-- Psalm 139:13-14

My sweetest niece Hadley, 
We were thrilled to meet you last week! Being an aunt and uncle is the best gig in the world. We get all the fun of spoiling you without the full responsibility. I could snuggle you all day long and marvel at the miracle of life that brought you to us.  You came with your own unique characteristics -- an extra long thumbnail, a voracious appetite, strong arms (ready to throw for corn hole), and glorious chubby cheeks. You’re a wonderful gift we unwrap each day as we get to know your personality, your preferences, and your delights. 
I pray all babies in this world would be as welcomed and beloved. That each child might be cradled and nurtured and given the opportunities you will have to learn and grow. You’re a great big bundle of potentiality wrapped in a blanket dotted with pink hearts.  Our tender hearts hope you’ll become anything and everything God wants you to be. We will do our best to help you listen to God’s voice. We’ll love you even when you make the wrong choices. We’ll always be there, urging you as you crawl, catching you as you toddle, and encouraging you as you drive away from home someday. 
I also hope this world will become more welcoming and loving because of babies like you. Perhaps your generation will help us eliminate poverty and provide equal opportunities in education and jobs. Maybe you all will find a cure for AIDS and cancer. You could turn us to nonviolent ways of solving our conflicts. Or you might swing wide the doors of our hearts so people can love whom they love, regardless of gender or race or religion or class. There is so much possibility in you just waiting to unfold. 
You are a promise, my dear niece. 
Love you with all my heart, 
Aunt Lisa

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Much Ado About "Nothing"

“For I am convinced neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” -- Romans 8:38-39
When all is said and done, I will have added “nothing” to General Conference 2012. That is, the preamble to our Social Principles in the Book of Discipline will now say, “Nothing can separate us form the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” based on Romans 8:39. With tremendous help from my delegation, I made an amendment to an amendment in an attempt to move us from political posturing to a Scriptural statement about the God we worship. 
Here’s what happened: A majority report from Church and Society created a lengthy addition to the preamble of our Social Principles, which express our stand on difficult issues like abortion, the death penalty, and homosexuality. Many of the more liberal delegates supported this report because it specifically stated we are not of one accord on these issues. We voted for the more terse minority report favored by the more conservative delegates. This report said we affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the gospel. In an effort to compromise, an amendment was proposed: We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all and that neither belief nor practice can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
When this amendment was proposed, I mumbled at my table that Romans 8 says “nothing” can separate us from God’s love, not simply beliefs or practice. My fellow delegation members urged me to make an amendment to the amendment. At first I had the wrong color card, so the presiding bishop wouldn’t call on me. Finally, I got the white card and started jumping up and down by my seat to be recognized. When I made the recommendation for “nothing,” we took a vote. It passed by only 56 percent. 
Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up that only 56 percent of conference delegates believe Paul’s words that “nothing” can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. While I’m aware there was tremendous political posturing happening, I’m also troubled by the notion that we can’t even agree on this important verse of Scripture. At the start of our lunch break, I spent 20 minutes conversing with a delegate who believes that sin does, in fact, separate us from the love of God. I stood firmly on the prevenient grace of Jesus that comes before we’re even aware. 
It seems so small to have added “nothing” to the Book of Discipline during my 15 seconds of General Conference fame. One of my seminary friends joked that I’d soon be signing advanced copies of the 2012 Discipline for my fan club. But in all seriousness, that “nothing” may really be something. It may somehow be the gracious word of God’s love we all need to hear. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Dem bones

"As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." -- 1 Corinthians 12:20-26

I cast my first real vote today. We were deciding whether to amend our constitution to create a set-aside bishop who would not be assigned to a specific geographical area so as to have the freedom to concentrate on leading the Council of Bishops. The legislation failed to receive a two-thirds majority vote. 

The most difficult part of being on the floor is keeping track of what’s called the consent calendar, where we bunch legislation together and vote on it en masse. Once I figured out where we were, I tried to help the Congolese delegation at our table track the legislation and use the electronic voting devices. The instructions for the devices kept changing. Plus, they were listening to the instructions in Swahili, tracking with a French copy of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, and looking at an English version of the consent calendar. Oy vey!
Last week I grew weary of being part of a global church with the cultural differences, the language issues, and the different social realities, especially when it comes to the treatment of women and people who are homosexual. I still struggle to see how we can go forward together, especially on the issue of homosexuality. In some American churches, our stance of “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” prevents people from being part of our churches because they find us hypocritical and judgmental. Our Asian and African delegates have begged us not to pass open and affirming legislation because homosexuality is illegal or condemned in some of their cultures. One man even said his church told him not to come back if we voted to ordain people who are gay or lesbian. 
Tonight we broke into round table conversations about the global nature of the church, and I reflected on the people I’ve met so far. I remembered the Ivory Coast pastor who’s only been to one year of seminary because she can’t afford the other two. I recalled the superintendent from a “poor corner” of the southern Congo whose pastors earn $10 to $20 a month. I can’t imagine these realities either, and yet we’re called to be part of one Body of Christ. We can’t start cutting off eyes and feet just because we think we don’t need each other. 
There is no easy way to be a global body, just the reassurance that God has arranged us, one part connected to the other -- toe bone connected to the foot bone, foot bone connected to the leg bone, leg bone connected to the knee bone -- so that all of us dry bones may one day get up and walk around together.