The Real Way Forward (March 3, 2019)
Isaiah 2: 1-4; John 13: 31-35; Matthew 28: 16-20
The Real Way Forward
As you know, this past week the United Methodist Church’s General Conference; those delegates that elected to be the leadership, both lay and clergy, by our various annual conferences; gathered together in St. Louis to discuss a way forward in unity. They sought to try and find a way forward in unity relating to our beliefs, and our practices, around the subject of homosexual people. I want to talk about what happened, what didn’t happen, and where I think we go from here; what I believe to be the real way forward for Spring Hill United Methodist Church, and for ourselves as well. I will warn you ahead of time here that I’m going to be frank and honest with you today. I want to remind you of my pledge that I will never preach at one of you in anything that I ever say, but there may be times where I wind up preaching to myself, or where I bring things to you that I believe God is saying to me. I will admit that I need this sermon. I think there may be some of you who need the sermon. And so I bring it to you.
And it is in that note that I begin by trying to remember where the ultimate goal is. We’re looking at where we go from here, what is our way forward in the immediate future? But, what is the ultimate destination? And for that I turned to the book of Isaiah, where God has laid out to the prophet Isaiah a vision of the future. That’s what we read today. This is a vision of the ultimate future, the way God wants the world to look, the vision that God has for the ultimate destination and for what the world will be. This is what God has in mind for future.
As we look at this vision, I am reminded that this is a vision of the world unified together. When you look here you can see that all nations, all nations, are streaming toward the mountain of God together. And furthermore, it is worth noting that they are coming voluntarily. We do not see them say here, “we have to go to the mountain of the Lord.” There is no begrudgingly here. They are saying, “let us go to the mountain of the Lord.” And they come in a mindset of not having all the answers, but wanting to learn from God. In this vision, the first thing they desire, the first thing they proclaim coming out of Zion, coming out of the mountain of the Lord, is instruction. Before anything, we receive instruction in this Utopia vision of the future from the Lord. The result of instruction is “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
This is the vision of the ultimate future from God. This is where we are going. And I love that in the United Methodist Church we are trying to make this happen by having all nations coming together in one church; that we’re trying to find unity between the United States, and Africa, and Europe, and Russia, and with delegates from Kazakhstan, and the Philippines, and all over. We are a believer seeking this vision.
But I’m also reminded today that this is a vision from God. Ultimately this is not the vision of humanity, this is the vision of God. This is a word that came to Isaiah from God, and God declares this will happen. Although we are to strive forward toward it, we may not be able to achieve it. But because God strives for it, it will happen one day; and it will happen one day regardless of human activity, or inactivity. That, I believe. That is what Isaiah tells us.
I also read this morning from the book of John. In these words of Jesus we hear what Jesus has to say to his disciples at the end. The Scripture comes from what would be the Last Supper narrative of the Gospel of John. These are the words that Jesus believes important enough to give on his last day, his last hours really, that he has with his disciples. And here what he’s doing is he’s leaving an important instruction to his disciples as to how they are act after he is gone. And in that act, in that that instruction that Jesus leaves for them, he leaves but a single commandment…a single thing that he expects his disciples to focus on with each other after he is gone. And that is: love. Specifically, that is to love as he had loved; in other words, love sacrificially, love until it hurts you, love your brother and your sister until it hurts. He says here that by this love, a love that is acted upon so greatly that it hurts the one who loves, the world will know that you are his disciples. It is through this love that we show our faith to the world. It is through this love that Jesus called us to spread the Good News. By showing our love to one another, a sacrificial love, a love where they are so greatly laying their life down for one another, that the world will look at us and wonder what they are doing and why they would do that, and listen to the Good News as an answer. But I will be honest with you, as I watched the General Conference live stream from St. Louis, that love was not on display from our leadership.
On the last day of the General Conference we had a time crunch. We had to be out of the arena that we were in by 6:30 PM because there was a monster truck show the next day and they were going to begin dumping dirt on the very floor that we were debating on. If we weren’t out at 6:30 the world would start dumping dirt on us. And I found that a very fitting metaphor for what I witnessed. What I witnessed in St. Louis, I believe, may well have been the funeral of the United Methodist Church as we know it. It certainly felt like it. The goal of this conference was to find a way forward where we could all go forward together. The goal of the past three years was to find a way that we could all move forward as one body together. And something was passed. But after watching it, it’s become clear to me that there is no way forward for all of us together as one. Now we may not schism today. It may be a year from now, five years from now, 20 years from now; I do not know. It may be loud or it may be quiet. But I no longer can see a future that is free from schism in the United Methodist Church.
I told you I’d be honest.
In part, what we learned was that we are divided. And we learned that our leadership is incapable of coming together in prayer and discernment to find a way forward and unity. Instead we hold motions, have committees, we have amendments, and we vote by majority rule. Ultimately what passed managed to pass by the very slim majority of merely 53% of the church in support, and furthermore is unlikely to stand the master of constitutional questioning (with our Constitution in our church, not the US Constitution). The last day of the General Conference alone there were from the floor: multiple personal attacks from one delegate to another; accusations of bribery; insinuations of adultery and sin; repeated questioning of the authority and/or righteousness of the episcopacy, and our leadership from the bishops on stage; a voting that was rushed on this important issue, and debate that was cut off, because the world needed our ground for monster truck rally; and the tip it all was the closing worship was cut off on the livestream, reportedly because police were needed to maintain order. And that was just the floor. Let’s not get into what it look like on Twitter or Facebook. I’m not claiming that I could’ve avoided doing the same if I were there or that I would not have succumbed to my own emotions. I too am human. But it broke my heart to watch.
So where do we go from here? How does Spring Hill United Methodist Church move forward from here? I can tell you that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and as I sat on Wednesday evening heartbroken, my son came up to me and hugged my leg. I said “I need my space, can you please go watch TV please? I need my space.” And he said, “but I need you, Daddy.” God works through mysterious vessels, and sometimes those vessels are three-year-olds. I can tell you that my heart began to mend in that moment.
Caleb is a baptized member of the United Methodist Church. He was baptized at the Annual Conference in 2016 by bishop Scott Jones. As he was baptized, Jennifer and I made vows to him, and to God, that we would seek to raise him as a follower of Christ, that we would seek to teach him what we knew, that we would seek to help him to grow into a man of Christ, that we would seek to help him become a Christian, and we would love him the way God calls us to love. And in that moment the members of the Annual Conference, on behalf of you, and on behalf of Bucyrus, and on behalf of COR, and on behalf of wherever else we might wind up also took a vow: that they would support us in Christian love, that they would seek to support him in whatever way they could, that they would teach Sunday School, that they would volunteer at Chippewa, that they would mentor him. As part of that baptism, we the church around Caleb promised to evangelize him, and to make him a disciple of Jesus Christ, or at least to take our best shot at it. And while what that looks like in the finer details we have always disagreed upon as a church, the essentials are clear. I believe the essentials come directly from Jesus.
First, Jesus says we are to love as he said in John, as he said in multiple other locations in the gospels, and as has been reiterated in multiple of the epistles. We are to love. We are to love as he has loved us. We are to love sacrificially: love until we don’t want to love that way any longer, and then love a little bit more. And secondly, we are to make disciples of Jesus Christ, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In the Methodist church for years now, we have proclaimed that it is through the making of disciples that we transform the world. I believe that wholeheartedly. The way in which we transform the world, the way in which we help the world become closer to that vision from Isaiah, is through the making of disciples of Jesus Christ. I still believe that, and I always will. This must be our primary focus: to love, and to make disciples. Everything else, everything else, is not essential. We turn all that over to God.
This is our focus. As it was before, so it is after. Our focus must be on love. Our focus must be on making disciples. The cold hard fact is it the majority of the people in this community outside the church do not darken the door of a church at any point of the year, not even a Christmas Eve or on Easter. And the majority of the city, Kansas City, has not yet become a disciple of Jesus Christ. There is work to be done. That is the work of the kingdom of God. That is the work that leads to the vision of Isaiah. That is the work that I will push for Spring Hill United Methodist Church to be doing.
The reality is the church has divided multiple times. By estimation, there are now 33,000 different denominational expressions of the Christian faith in the world. If indeed we split at some point as I believe, and make that number 33,001, we will not damage the Kingdom of God. The work of the kingdom happens in our brokenness as it does in our unity. And God will perform his work through his disciples whether they have a cross and flame and the words “United Methodist Church” on the sign outside of the building or whether they don’t. We are not so powerful as to stop the work of God. And I mean that as good news this morning.
John also said in our passage that if God has been glorified in Jesus then God will glorify himself again. Every week when we pray the Lord‘s prayer, we pray the prayer and make the request that God would “hallow his name;” that God would make it holy, that God will glorify himself again in the body of Christ. When you pray that prayer, do you believe it? Do you believe that God is glorified in the person of Jesus? For if we do, the gospel of John declares that God will complete the work that was started in Jesus. And we see that that work is a work toward peace, toward love, toward justice. And we believe, and we see that the Father is with us, that Jesus is with us, that the Holy Spirit is with us, even until the end of the age. We see that we are not alone until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at the heavenly banquet. Let that be so here today. Amen.