The First Sunday in Lent
Big Decisions – In light of the upcoming Special General Conference I preached on using John Wesley’s four lenses of scripture, experience, tradition and reason when making decisions. I then gave a brief summary of each of the three plans developed by the Commission on a Way Forward and how they will affect the local church.
After being encouraged by several people to share this sermon more widely I have decided to provide the transcript, which I normally don’t do. Here it is.
Sermon for January 27th 2019 – Big Decisions
The Third Sunday after Epiphany
Last Saturday I attended the Delegate Discussion held at Camp Hill UMC and since then I have been weighing how to present what was shared with you all here. I have spoken several times about the Special General Conference coming up next month in Saint Louis but my comments have generally been prayer requests for wisdom and guidance for those that will be voting. Very few of you have asked questions or made comments regarding the decisions that will be made, so this leaves me wondering where people are and what they think about it. Of course, there is also the possibility that many just aren’t that interested in what happens at the level of the global church, and I can understand that, too. After all, we are a small rural congregation that will most likely be unaffected to any large degree by the outcome of those decisions. However, after being prompted by the conference and the wider church to discuss these matters with our congregations I do feel compelled to speak more specifically about what is going to be happening during the conference. My decision was also reinforced after reading through today’s scripture lessons a few times. The more I read the passages from Nehemiah, Psalms, 1st Corinthians and Luke, the more convinced I became that this Sunday might be the perfect Sunday to address how we as Methodists approach difficult decisions in our church.
John Wesley developed a method for Christians to follow that was designed to guide us through our lives and help us through our journey of growing more and more holy. As part of that method he encouraged his followers to approach theological questions through four lenses, scripture, tradition, experience and reason. These four lenses provide a framework that we can use to structure debates over practically any topic that may come up for discussion in the church. Over the years, Methodists have emphasized some of the lenses over the others, but Wesley always insisted, rightly so, that scripture is the primary source of wisdom and knowledge about God and God’s intentions for creation. This morning’s reading from Nehemiah reminded me of that central truth. When Ezra brought out the book of the Law of Moses the people present listened attentively to the words that he spoke from early morning until mid-day. There weren’t breaks in there, they didn’t stop to sing hymns, they listened, and for quite a while I might add. I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but I wonder how many of us listened attentively to our readings this morning. Were you truly focused and attentive to Nancy’s voice as she read from 1st Corinthians? I’ll be honest, that was a long reading.
But regardless of how long our attention spans are this morning, the people listening to Ezra knew the importance of listening to the scriptures. For those people, the scripture was literally the law and they couldn’t just look it up and read it any time they wanted. We have the luxury in this day and age of modern printing and mass reproduction that allows us to have more Bibles in this small church than copies of the scriptures that were in many towns of ancient Judea. Add to that the ability to read the Bible on a computer or smartphone. I have a Bible app on my phone that gives me access to more translations and editions of the Bible than I could ever hope to read, and those are just the English ones. I even have access to several versions in ancient Greek, should I choose to read them. At the same time, how often do most people read the Bible anymore? I know that most of you gathered here today read it daily, but many Christians don’t and Biblical knowledge seems to be at an all time low in our society. And oftentimes, those that do read their Bibles don’t understand what the Word of God is saying because they haven’t received the proper instruction. In this morning’s lesson not only did the people listen to the scriptures being read, they were also taught the meaning of the words.
So what does this mean for the church today? Scripture is a gift from God that we have been given and when we choose to ignore scripture and look entirely to other places, such as experience, history and reason, we risk forgetting who we are and to whom we belong. The words in the Bible should serve as a constant reminder of that and everything that we do should be in accord with the Biblical narrative of God’s love for us and our need to follow God’s word. At the same time, we sometimes need help understanding those words, and that is when Wesley’s other lenses come into play. Experience, history and reason must come after scripture, they can help inform our understanding of scripture but they cannot replace it. Let’s take a look at the other readings from this morning to see how that plays out.
For me, Psalm 19 speaks to the experience of being a Christian. The imagery of the heavens pouring forth their Glory to God, but not with words but with pure radiance of splendor. Like the sun bursting forth at dawn we also spread God’s word and glory, but not always with words, but our actions. St. Francis of Assisi is often mis-quoted as saying “Everywhere I go I preach the Gospel. Sometimes I use words.” What he actually said was “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” It was as much of an endorsement of showing Christ to others through our actions as much as it is a rebuke of those that claim to the Christians but act nothing like Christ commanded. Psalm 19 also emphasizes the importance of God’s word and tells of the goodness of the rewards for keeping God’s laws.The psalmist also asks God to keep him back from the insolent so that he won’t be led astray. As Methodists we are also called to be set apart from the world by our behavior. Our experience as we grow in Christ, our outward actions that we show to others, should always point back to God’s word.
This morning’s reading from Luke expresses the importance of tradition. When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth he went to the synagogue on the sabbath. When the time came for the reading of the scriptures, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. When I read this my mind immediately went back to Ezra reading from the Laws of Moses. There is a strong sense of following the traditions of the people that Jesus is participating in at this moment. Just as Jews still meet in synagogues today to gather and read from the Torah, and just as we gather together as Christians have done for two thousand years. There are traditions that we the church universal have been following since Christ instituted them, and those practices are sacred. As Methodists we also have traditions of small groups and being accountable to one another. John Wesley used the small group structure to encourage us to be in close relationships with each other. The tradition of accountability in the Methodist church is a longstanding one and it brings us closer to God. If we are not accountable to each other, then can we really say that we are a united church?
The last lense that we can apply is reason, and after reading the passage from 1st Corinthians several times I began to see Paul’s writing as a logical argument for unity. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul uses reasoning to establish something that we all know already, our physical bodies are made up of many parts and those parts all rely on each other to survive. He then builds upon this truth and makes his argument that the body of Christ relies on all of its parts working together. The church cannot survive with only one type of people. Who else has experienced the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen? Conversely, what have you seen happen to a church if no one has been gifted to preach, or play the piano, or greet people at the door? None of these things are more important than any other but the people of Corinth seem to have forgotten that. Paul’s use of simple reasoning helped show them why they were wrong, and Wesley encouraged us to use that gift which God has given us, too.
So, I said that I was going to talk about the Special General Conference. Before I get to the specific plans that will be presented and what they may mean to us as the people of Mount Zion I want to relate one way that the delegates will be applying scripture, experience, tradition and reason to the questions they need to answer as they make their decisions. During the Delegates Discussion they answered questions that came from the people in attendance. One of the questions was about the importance of scripture in the decision making process. As I said earlier, many Methodists have grown increasingly worried that we have used the other lenses to inform our theology more than scripture, and this question gets straight to the heart of that concern. The pastor answered the question in this way. There are six verses in scripture that speak directly to the question of homosexuality, and all of them speak against it. On the surface, that is a pretty straight forward answer. However, one of them says that homosexuals should be stoned to death, which is a practice that no one in the room considered reasonable. Well, at least no one was willing to admit it. The others, she told us, all refer to and condemn acts that happen outside of a loving, committed, and caring relationship. Our experience with God shows that we are called to be in relationship with one another and that includes an intimate relationship of love and commitment between two people. Of course, including same sex couples then conflicts with the scriptural definition of marriage between one man and one woman, so that becomes another tangled web of controversy. Finally, as Methodists we have that tradition of being a welcoming people that accepts anyone that truly wants to be in relationship with God. Some argue that if we don’t treat homosexuals as equals, we are not practicing that tradition of welcoming and accepting everyone, but we are instead being exclusive, to which others respond that we also have a tradition of being set apart from the world and its sinful ways. The arguments go back and forth, and that is just a taste of how complicated things can get from asking just one question that is only a part of a much larger discussion on the future of the United Methodist Church.
In struggling to answer those questions, the Council of Bishops created the Commission on the Way Forward. That Commission, made up of thirty two people from around the globe, put forth three proposals to be considered at the Special General Conference. They are the Traditional Plan, The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. Since then, others have submitted petitions and the Council on General Conference has approved seventy eight petitions that will also be considered. At this point, they have not disclosed how exactly all of this will happen, but we do know that there will be only one legislative body, meaning everyone votes on everything, and there are basically two days to do that voting. I’m not going to dig into the nitty gritty of the three plans, but I do want you all to have a basic understanding of them and what each means for the local church.
It’s easiest to begin with the Traditional Plan and the name pretty much sums it up. The language in the Book of Discipline regarding those in same sex relationships remains the same with only some changes to the definition of “self avowed practicing homosexual”. The major changes are the penalties for not following the Discipline. As of right now pastors that officiate over same sex weddings are being dealt with differently depending on which conference they are in. Some Bishops have not punished them, while other Bishops have. Some conferences have ordained practicing homosexuals, most have refused to do so. The Traditional Plan requires that all Bishops, Pastors and Annual Conferences certify adherence to the Discipline. There are ramifications for those that cannot agree which may include removal of their credentials, loss of pensions, etc. Local churches only get to vote if their annual conference chooses to stay in the UMC and they disagree.
The next plan is the One Church Plan, which was endorsed by the Council of Bishops. This plan offers the most freedom for decision making at all levels and offers protections when there are disagreements. It removes all language from the Book of Discipline that restricts same sex weddings and “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals”. Annual conferences can each decide whether they will ordain homosexuals or not. Local churches will each decide on their own policies when it comes to hosting same sex weddings and Bishops will take into account their stance on LGBTQ pastors when assigning a pastor.
The third, and most complicated plan to implement, is the Connectional Conference plan. To understand this plan it’s best if you have a good understanding of the church structure as it exists today. Currently, affiliations are geographical, very much like the government. Lines on maps determine who is in charge. Our nation is divided into 50 states, for instance. In the United Methodist Church our nation is divided into five jurisdictions and then into Annual Conferences. Outside of the United States annual conferences are in seven Central Conferences; Africa, Central and Southern Europe, Congo, Germany, Northern Europe, Philippines, and West Africa. The Connectional Conference Plan removes the five U.S. jurisdictions and replaces them with three connectional conferences. Those would be a Traditional Conference (based on the Traditional Plan), a Unity Conference (based on the One Church Plan) and a Progressive Conference. Once those are established, everyone gets to choose which Connection to join. The current jurisdictions, the annual conferences, the churches, the bishops, the pastors, every person and every entity will have a choice or a vote. Annual conferences outside of the U.S. may even join one of the connections, or form another connection, the plan allows for up to eight connectional conferences. Policies and procedures will be established to handle entities and persons moving from one connection to another. For instance, if Mount Zion starts in the Traditional Connection but in ten years wishes to move to the Unity Connection they could do so without losing assets. Similarly, if a pastor wants to change connections she will be able to do so without losing her pension.
Many people are asking the delegates which plan they will vote for and while some have publicly expressed their support for a particular plan, others say that they don’t know how they will vote until they are there in Saint Louis. Between these three plans and the seventy eight petitions that will alter them in ways we don’t yet know, it is hard to know what the outcome will be. None of these plans will take effect immediately, so there will be a period of growing into them. Some churches and pastors will decide to leave the United Methodist Church regardless of which plan is passed. There will be a time of uncertainty as we move forward. However, One thing we know for certain that was stated by one of the Bishops on the Commission on the Way Forward, and I am paraphrasing. Whatever the outcome on February 26th, on February 27th there will be hungry people that need to be fed, there will be homeless that need shelter, there will be prisoners to visit and there will be poor that need to be clothed. As Christians and Methodists we must be sure that we continue to spread God’s love, not just through our words, but also through our actions towards our fellow human beings. My prayer for the church is that we keep that in the forefront of our minds not just during the Special General Conference, but on the days, weeks, months and years that will follow, and I pray that you will join me in that prayer.