Twenty Five Years too Late

Greenville, NC was booming in the early 1990’s. A growing college campus, a regional hospital and pharmaceutical companies were making the area of Pitt County NC a destination for many new people.

The United Methodist Church saw the growth and new that a new congregation would be the best way to tap into the new people coming into the area. After several months of ground work by a planting team, Easter 1992, they launched their new service of Covenant UMC in a local Boy’s and Girls Club.

By the summer of 1992, the attendance at Covenant had hit 800 and was climbing. The pastor reached out to Duke Divinity School for a summer intern and somehow I ended up going there for the summer before I started my first year of seminary. It was a dream placement. I got to see the church at its most exciting. New people were coming to faith every week. Folks who had fallen away from “Church” finding their way back. The pastor was dynamic. Their music was phenomenal. And the felling around the gathering of this new congregation was one that was filled with hope – there was nothing God couldn’t do.

I was given the opportunity to preach a couple of times at Covenant that summer. On the first occasion, I had slipped into my white alb prior to arriving at the Boys and Girls Club and was just out mingling with the folks showing up for worship. I felt a tap on my shoulder and then a voice in my ear said quite clearly, “Hey, where’s your hood?” And then they laughed and walked off.

I didn’t get it at first. I wondered why anyone would need a hood in the humidity of Greenville. After a couple of steps and watching the end of my white alb sway as I walked, I froze at the realization of what this man meant. I couldn’t believe this came from one of our wonderful new congregation members. How could they possibly think that this sacred outfit was “that kind of robe.”

But they did. That is exactly what they saw.

I never wore it again in Greenville but I was quite comfortable wearing it once I returned to West Virginia. Had I been given the chance, I would have worn it to my ordination. But alas, in those days, we had to wear black robes.

This week, I saw the alb hanging in my office closest and thought I might bring it out for this week’s worship service in Princeton. It had been a while since I had worn it.

And then Friday night happened in Charlottesville. And then Saturday’s horrors.

I took the alb to the sanctuary Sunday morning but I was not wearing it. I simply hung it up where it could be seen.

The text I preached on that morning was Matthew 11:22-33. You may know it as the one where Jesus walks on water. And the one where Peter sinks. The disciples all get called people of “weak faith.” What had struck me that week was the fact that Jesus used people of weak or little faith to build the Kingdom. As I thought about the weekend’s event and my holding onto that symbol that could be so easily misunderstood, I realized that I too was a man of weak faith.

I told the story of that morning in Greenville and my inability to say anything in return. I told my congregation that I was a man of little faith. Then I picked up the alb and ripped it in half and placed it on the chancel rail of the church. Here is a picture of the destruction for now. Here is a link to the video…It is silent, but I think it speaks louder that way – you already know the story!  https://vimeo.com/229491973

Torn Alb

I know that not every white person in our churches see albs and think immediately of the Klan. But some of them do. Some of them do. I did not want anything of my already white privileged life to become a confusing symbol to anyone. Anyone. We have allowed symbols to lead to hate. Hate lead to speech. Speech lead to the disaster that hit a beautiful college town in Virginia. I will no longer wear a symbol even closely resembled to white hate in any way. I hope to find somewhere, some way that I can send the pieces of this alb to be refashioned into something of peace. Don’t know if that’s possible but I’m open to ideas.

I also offer a challenge to my fellow white clergy anywhere.

Ditch the albs.

Sure, I know they have other meanings. I know that they symbolize so much. But I also know that our actions here could speak much louder than anything else. Ditch the alb…Take up the preaching robe with love, justice, and peace. Let’s make a change that no one can miss. It took me twenty five years to gain the little bit of faith I needed to make a statement with this piece of white clothing. I pray it takes you less.

Thanks for reading. Thanks even more for joining me if you wish.

To see the entire sermon…go here.

 

Take A Breath: Reflecting on Two Conferences (Guest Post)

The following post is by my daughter Erin Sears. Erin just completed her sophomore year at Marshall University. She is spending this week at the West Virginia Annual Conference both as a member of our General Conference delegation and a member of the communications team. Although the feelings and opinions are hers, I just happen to agree with them. She has a good message here.

Erin pauseOn Tuesday of this week, overwhelmed with preparations for Annual Conference, I set out for an afternoon walk around the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College. A rain storm changed my plans, and I shortly found myself nestled in the quiet of the Meditation Chapel. For the first time all week, I allowed my mind to wander and settle into the familiar thoughts that seemed to consume me these days.

The thoughts began a year ago this week when the 2015 West Virginia Annual Conference elected me as a part of the delegation to General Conference. As I sat in the Meditation Chapel, I remembered those moments as if they were yesterday. I had been filled with awe at first because the people of West Virginia had affirmed the calling I felt from God last year at Annual Conference. However, the awe was tainted ever so slightly with fear. I wondered if I would be able to handle the enormous responsibility of being a delegate to General Conference.

The emotions of last year’s Annual Conference faded away.

My mind jumped to this past January, when I held the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, the workbook for General Conference, in my hands for the first time. I was oddly giddy for a college student who had just received an additional thousand-page reading assignment for the spring semester.

The work of General Conference seemed real for the first time. It was not just talking anymore. That first night I spent hours skimming through the various petitions and resolutions. My excitement faded, and anxiety crept back into place, again. The deadline that once seemed so far off started rapidly approaching.

As I digested petitions and resolutions, I began to worry I lacked all the knowledge I needed to make the right decisions for the global church. I felt backbreaking pressure about the importance of each decision.

The anxiety and pressure remained with me when I arrived in Portland, Ore., for General Conference. The time was now for the United Methodist Church to show its true self. Each decision we the delegates made could define us, the church.

My mind raced through the events that unfolded over the course of General Conference. I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I did not know what I felt. Each day was an emotional rollercoaster. One moment I experienced pure joy. The next, devastating sadness.

Fast forward to this week.

I could not focus on my emotions anymore. Instead, my mind turned toward the decisions that the delegation was preparing to report at Annual Conference. A long list scrolled through my mind – the bishops’ proposal, episcopal tenure, Imagine Abundant Health, withdrawal from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice – and anxiety overtook my confused emotions. I wondered how the Annual Conference would handle the news of all the decisions from General Conference and how they would see me afterward.

Would the Annual Conference, still see me as a young lady called by God?

As I wondered, I looked around the Meditation Chapel. My eyes drifted towards the stained glass window beside my seat. I was taken back by the sight in front of me. I had placed my full water bottle in window sill when I had walked into the room. Etched across the tumbler was the General Conference logo “Therefore Go.” The logo pointed directly to the cross.

Then I realized that I must go and set aside my anxiety and be filled with the living water Christ offers.

That living water began to flow through me as glimmers of hope from General Conference emerged in my mind.

After one intense session, I walked into the hallway on the brink of tears. Someone gently ushered me toward Bishop Larry Goodpaster, one of the several bishops offering prayer outside the plenary hall in the Oregon Convention Center. As Bishop Goodpaster poured out a prayer, I felt God’s presence enfolding me and filling me with love and hope.

Another glimmer of hope: During legislative committee, my group spent time seeking to understand one another and the various contexts of our ministries. The dynamic of our conversations about petitions changed because of this process. Although we did not all agree, we worked respectfully with one another and left continuing to develop relationships with one another in spite of our division.

Yet another glimmer of hope: One morning, I met a fellow delegate while in line at the coffee shop inside the convention center. As we worked our way up to the front of the line, we shared a little bit about ourselves. He offered up encouragement that I needed to hear that morning and graciously bought my coffee.

Even in the mess of emotions of General Conference, God kept showing up like a breath of fresh air.

However, my anxiety had covered up those movements of the Spirit. I allowed something other than Christ to consume me. When I laid that down at the cross, I was refilled with something greater and more satisfying than that which consumed me – the living water of Christ.

May it be so with us.

 

On Unity


Do the actions of a few United Methodists threaten the entire denomination?

 

(A note to my readers: I have recently been engaging in quite a bit of debate with another United Methodist brother and blogger, Joel Watts, at unsettledchristianity.com over many of the events taking place in the UMC. After a protracted conversation over our first posts carried out on Facebook, we agreed to each write a post on “unity” and what that entails. I often say to Joel that I am not the theologian that he is. I am a pastor first and my theology grows from that work as a pastor. Like I say in the introduction to my blog, “Grace leads and I stumble along.”)

 

We can read about it in both national news and denominational resources. The United Methodist Church is struggling in the midst of learning how to be in ministry with people who are already in our fellowship. I refuse to say that we are struggling with the issues surrounding LGBTQ people because in my heart that reduces people to an issue. People are never an issue. People are children of God. As a church that affirms the sacred value of all persons, we recognize LGBTQ Christians as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

At the very same time, during a period when our denomination prepares for our quadrennial global gathering to work
on church doctrine and polity (re-write our Book of Discipline), there are events taking place among our churches, and by our clergy and bishops that some believe threaten the very unity of the church. In the last decade, a growing number of churches have become Reconciling Congregations. Lay people and pastors, such as myself, are joining support groups to understand how to best minister with this new community of believers and to become fully inclusive in our ministry. Some Clergy and Bishops are going against church polity by performing same gender weddings.[1] In other places, entire Boards of Ordained Ministries are ignoring the prohibition in our shared Book of Discipline prohibiting the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” In recent days, fifteen current or soon to be ordained clergy have proclaimed that they are homosexual and seeking continued appointment with the United Methodist Church.[2] Some Bishops and episcopal candidates are saying in “somewhat nuanced” ways that they are not going to uphold the Discipline in all cases.[3]

I have proba
bly not even come close to listing all the recent developments in our denomination concerning our relationships with LGBTQ people. But it gives us a place to start.

Some people believe that all of these actions, actions which some claim belittle our Book of Discipline and break the very vows that certain people made to uphold said Discipline, show that we are far from the “United” Methodist Church. A better name for us could be the Untied Methodist Church.

I graciously disagree.

Maintaining ou
r vows before God at baptism, confirmation, holy matrimony and/or ordination are an extremely important part of living our lives as Christians. However, I am yet to meet one Christian – even in the mirror – who has managed to keep those vows perfectly and without fail.

Does the parent who fails to bring up their baptized infant in the church show such brokenness that the unity of the church is called into question? Does the young adult who lays aside their vow to reject evil in all forms while they buy a pair of tennis shoes made with child labor show such brokenness in our Discipline and vow keeping that the entire unity of the Church is called into question? Does an adulterer who divorces one spouse and marries another so disgrace the body with their broken vow that our church lo longer hosts the presence of Christ? Does an Elder who lays aside the vow to keep the Discipline of the Church in order to pastorally proclaim Good News to a same sex couple sow such brokenness into the body of Christ that our very existence as a church is called into question?

No. No. No. And, no again – with all the grace I can muster.

I think we are better served to look at what it is that unites us in the first place – our first love, Jesus Christ. If you like the book of Revelation, read the letter to the church of Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7). This congregation was in danger of losing the very presence of Christ from their midst because they forgot their first love – the grace that Jesus had given them. Sure, they were facing terrible persecution at the hands of the Romans and could easily survive by “turning coats.” This historical church in Asia Minor gives us a great hint as to what it takes to completely lose the light of Christ within a body of believers. It is not lack of discipline, the loss of a Temple, broken vows, or even smashed tablets of stones. It is forgetting what unites us in the first place – Jesus!

Rev. Wesley, one of the founders of our movement known as United Methodism, said in his sermon “Cathol
ic Spirit”:

Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.[4]

Rev. Wesley realized that we may never be of one opinion despite the fact that he worked hard to make sure that the “people called Methodist” shared in some common doctrine, polity, and worship even as they existed in the break-away or shunned Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. He provided this group with “The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America” which included Rev. Wesley’s “revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, ‘rectified’ and reduced to twenty-four in number.”[5] Did Rev. Wesley somehow break his vow as an Anglican Priest by providing these “rectified” Articles to the new congregations forming apart from the Church of England? That argument could be made, however, it would not reduce for one moment what truly made the Methodists in the North America a body of unity. That was due to the love and presence of Christ in their midst and in the midst of the Church of England. Rev. Wesley’s ability to maintain his Church of England ordination and help establish this new denomination shows that shared “discipline” has little to do with the unity of the body of Christ.

A further look into Rev. Wesley’s life and advice to the Methodists under his care in England gives to me the hope I think we need to weather the storm that we are in right now. Throughout England there were priests who were so hopelessly corrupt and such terrible preachers that Wesley would often recommend that they be avoided – except when it came to receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

…people should not hesitate to take the Sacrament, even if administered by a wicked minister. He pointed out, from a practical point of view, that many (if not most) of the minister
s in his acquaintance for the last half century did not measure up to his basic criteria; they had ‘not been eminent either in knowledge or piety’ (Sermons, 3:471). But his principle in the matter is clear: ‘The unworthiness of the minister doth not hinder the efficacy of God’s ordinance. The reason is plain; because the efficacy is derived, not from him (sic) that administers, but from him that ordains it” (Sermons, 3:475). This statement was not only in keeping with Article XXVI of his own Church, but also had been fixed in Western Christendom as early as Augustine’s response to the Donatists.[6]

The presenc71761641_e5f3a60973e of Christ unites us. And that has not left the building, the gathering of delegates at General Conference in Portland or the denomination that is known as United Methodist. The one who ordained the Sacrament of Holy Communion still presents His body in one
piece and then offers it to us, broken, just as we are broken. Does the fact that we all receive just a part of this offering destroy the unity of the symbol of Christ’s Body that is presented in the Eucharist? No.

And neither does the brokenness that embodies the congregations called United Methodist. We will continue to receive the grace of Jesus and offer that grace to others just as scandalously as it has been given to me, to you, to all who have received Christ.

[1] I think it is important to note that our current Discipline prohibits our clergy from participating in ceremonies that celebrate same-sex unions or holding such ceremonies in our churches. However, this prohibition says nothing of weddings and marriages between same-sex couples. Some may think this is “splitting hairs,” however, many believe that there are great differences between the two.

[2] http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/15-united-methodist-clergy-candidates-come-out-as-gay1

[3] http://revjameshowell.blogspot.com/2016/04/our-united-methodist-book-of-discipline.html

[4] “Catholic Spirit” by Rev. John Wesley as found in John Wesley’s Sermons, An Anthology edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, page 301.

[5] Wesley and the People Called Methodist, Richard P. Heitzenrater, proof copy, Abingdon Press, 1993, page 289.

[6] Ibid, pp. 296-297.

 

Profession NOT Possession

A sermon for Princeton First United Methodist Church, September 13, 2015…

Mark 8:27-38

041314_1740_ACrossBetwe1.jpgI was standing outside the “Princess Playhouse,” the local community theater in Mt. Hope. I was waiting on others to arrive for the rehearsal scheduled that afternoon and evening. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time and really didn’t expect much to be happening on the streets while I waited.

To kill time, I decided to look over the copies of the playbills that were displayed on the walls outside the entrance to the Princess. I read one from ten years before and then started to look at the playbill for the production of Count Dracula we had performed the previous Fall.

In the midst of my reading and daydreaming I suddenly heard a loud voice behind me say, “Friend, do you know Jesus?”

I’m not sure if the two young men who had snuck up behind me thought they would get extra points for sending a teenager straight to heaven by scaring him to death or if they thought this was a particularly effective evangelistic approach. I can tell you from experience, however, that they were much closer to succeeding on the former than they were ever going to get on the latter with me.

After composing myself I turned around and gave them my best United Methodist Youth smile and said, “Why yes. Of course I know Jesus. I go to the United Methodist Church just over the hill there.”

“Well,” the young man who had not scared me said, “you may have learned about Jesus in Sunday School but do you know him?”

The other joined in as he opened a Bible he was carrying, “The Bible tells us that all have fallen short of the glory of God.” He let me glance at the moving Bible page. “And it tells us that Jesus came into this world to save us from our sins but we have to accept him in our heart and confess him with our lips.” He flipped through a couple of bookmarks he had in the Bible and let me see the words blur by my eyes.

“So,” the second one asked again, “do you know Jesus well enough that if you stepped off that curb and got hit by a car that you would be assured that you went to heaven?”

I just blinked at them a couple of times and said, “Yes. I do.” And I turned around and kept reading.

I heard their feet shuffle a few times and then finally one of them said, “We will be praying for you, brother.” Thankfully, he said this as they were leaving.

This text we just read from Mark’s gospel is one about some people who definitely “knew” Jesus. At least, it is about those people who were closest to him, who shared their lives with him, who witnessed the work that he did and gave up all they had to follow him.

In a conversation with them as they are walking along some road Jesus asks them, “Who do the people say that I am?”

I’m sure that those who knew Jesus so well wanted to show that they were paying attention to the crowds around him and they offered the many answers that they heard.

I imagine that there was bit of silence – not really silence but more of just the sounds of people walking for a few minutes while those answered hung in the air – before Jesus asked his second question, “Yes, but who do you say that I am.”

I can almost hear the gravel sliding as Peter comes to an abrupt halt on the roadway and answers Jesus, “You are the Messiah.”

The whole group stopped when Peter said this – at least in the way that I see it happening – and Jesus kinda nods and then does something rather odd. He sternly orders them – not asks them nicely, not laughingly tells them – but sternly orders them to tell no one about him.

There is another account of this conversation in another Gospel that tells us a bit more about Jesus’ response to Peter but that didn’t matter much to Mark. At least not enough for him to include it in his account, so we will go with Peter’s answer that he knew Jesus well enough to profess him as Messiah and Jesus sternly orders the whole group not to tell anyone about him.

A rather odd way to get a movement going, don’t you think? Don’t tell anyone about it.

Scholars have used gallons of ink and preachers like me have thrown around millions of words about this whole idea of Jesus telling the disciples to be quiet about who he is. I have been and obviously am going to be another one of those participants today.

I think the key to understanding why Jesus said this is in the several verses that follow this warning. The ones where Jesus explains exactly what being the Messiah meant to him. The ones where Peter tries to treat Jesus like a child and scolds him about saying such things. The ones where Jesus calls Peter Satan for just thinking about himself and human things rather than the heavenly, kingdom things. You hear it also as Jesus says to the disciples, “If you want to follow me, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”

Deny yourself – means setting aside your own agenda. Take up the cross means that we acknowledge when we are following Jesus things are not going to be so clear and easy, they are going to be messy. Things are going to get rough.

It is clear from these words that follow Jesus’ order to the disciples to not talk about who he was that Jesus was worried that maybe disciples have a hard time figuring out how to explain Jesus and they do much better when they just follow Jesus.

In other words, for disciples then and now, this lesson from Mark is telling us that our profession of faith must never be one in which we take possession of Jesus – instead, our profession is to possess the cross. We are to give up our own agendas, our own thoughts of what God should be and let Jesus be the leader, no matter what.

Peter and the rest of the first disciples had a difficult time with that way of living. Jesus knew it and thought it best to tell them to be quiet.

Disciples today? Well, I think if we are honest, it is still a struggle sometimes.

The pastor was happy to announce to the small country church that an anonymous donor had given a gift to the church in order for the Trustees to outfit the church with chandeliers. The Trustees would hold a meeting later that afternoon to decide whether to accept the gift or return it to the donor.

The meeting time came and people who felt both ways about the gift came ready to fight.

“If God had intended for chandeliers to be in this church, we would have had them a long, long time ago,” said one side.

“God means for us to have these chandeliers, or else he wouldn’t have put it on the heart of someone to donate them,” said another side.

The arguments went on and on. Neither side willing to budge even after an hour or so of debate. The resorted to name calling. They resorted to questioning the faith of one another, the donor and the pastor. The arguments went on till it began to get dark outside and darker inside.

Finally, the one person who hadn’t said a word throughout all the meeting cleared his throat and said, “Folks, I don’t know much about chandeliers – don’t know nothing about them actually, but I will tell you this. What this church needs is some light!”

Sometimes, the church does need some light. Especially when they fight with each other over earthly things rather than focus on the heavenly, kingdom things of being one in Christ.

Over the past several weeks, many of us have witnessed a battle which has caused mind-numbing damage to Christianity. The battle took place in a circuit clerk’s office and in courtrooms in Kentucky as well as in front of the watchful eye of the entire world.

First of all, I know that many people have feelings about whether Kim Davis should issue marriage licenses or not. Many people have strong feelings about the whole same sex marriage issue that has risen to the forefront of our society. Our church has been engaged in conversations about sexuality and faith for almost my entire life – and people feel very strongly about things one way or another.

Second, I have restrained from saying anything about this latest battle because I know how easily it is to be misunderstood when someone already disagrees with me. It is hard to speak when we don’t know if anyone is really listening. I know it is equally difficult to listen when I don’t like what someone is saying to me.

However, regardless of how we feel about same sex marriage and the battle continuing in Kentucky, I hope and pray that we can all see why sometimes Jesus tells us to just keep our mouths shut when it comes to telling people who we think he is.

On the same sex marriage side of these demonstrations, I have heard people completely disown their brothers and sisters in Christ who choose to act differently than they would in these circumstances. I have heard vitriolic, hurtful name calling. I have seen hate filled signs from the side of this argument that starts their position by saying “Jesus loves all sinners.”

AND, on the side of Kim Davis and her supporters, I have heard people completely disown their brothers and sisters in Christ who choose to act differently than they would in these circumstances. I have heard vitriolic, hurtful name calling. I have seen hate filled signs from the very people in this argument who say Jesus is their Savior and Lord.

You see, the saddest part of all this is that both sides lay claim to Jesus as Messiah. And they do so loudly, so all the world can hear.

Is it any wonder that sometimes, sometimes, Jesus just looks at the disciples and sternly tells them not to tell anyone who they think he is.

The only one winning in this battle in Kentucky is Satan, because all of us Christians just can’t seem to keep from dragging Jesus into our battles.

A person I follow on Twitter, an author named Doug Bursh, made this comment this week: “I think we might need fewer reformers and more repenters. Perpetually pointing out the sins of others makes us annoying.”

I believe we have seen Christianity take a mind-numbing blow in the hearts and minds of many people who have not yet met Jesus. And it is going to hurt us all in the long run.

Our profession of faith must never be one in which we take possession of Jesus. Instead, our profession is to possess a cross and help one another carry it when necessary.