Thursday, February 15, 2024

Thinking Out Loud: How United Methodists Read Scripture

    Sometimes I think of my years in ministry as a long quest to share with others my love affair with the Scriptures. I’ve always hoped people would see in me what I saw in my Old Testament professor, Fr. Roland Murphy. What students of his recall is that he would read something from the Bible, and then make a deep, guttural Hmmmmm, like a bear having just swallowed a delicious hunk of meat. The best thing about me is my abiding affection for this book.

   How puzzling, slightly offensive but mostly exasperating then to find myself and so many friends who share my love characterized by those disaffiliating from our denomination as lacking reverence for or taking a dim view of Scripture, or recklessly believing what we wish while shoving Scripture aside, or resorting to twisted interpretations. We United Methodists revere the Bible as the inspired Word of God.

   We are honest, humble, and even hopeful as we acknowledge that faithful Christians can and do disagree on how Scripture speaks to us, the church and the world. Being fallen, sinful creatures, we Christians have a nasty habit of reading our biases into the text; we have blind spots, which is good reason to seek and delight in disagreement. We read, and listen with humility, intense curiosity, wary of agendas, especially those that mimic the political ideologies of the day.  {Parenthetically, a new and wise theology of how to interpret Scripture that spans the gap between conservative and progressive biases – and is winning prizes now from both, is Christopher Watkin’s brilliant Biblical Critical Theory.}

   Many of us pastors were schooled to adopt a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” For me, I have suspicions about how we’ve harmed others in our spin on texts, and about how we may have mis-read things unwittingly – or self-indulgently. Marilynne Robinson perceives a “hermeneutic of self-protectiveness,” which is ultimately a “hermeneutic of fear,” a “hermeneutic of other-ing,” which does not long for and is not open to fresh winds of the Spirit.

   Ours is a “hermeneutic of grace,” or at least we strive for this. Like a Geiger counter seeking out good (Fr. Greg Boyle’s image), we look for reasons to embrace, to encourage, to welcome any and all into the family of God – which we see clearly as the heart of Scripture. “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). And so we never weaponize the Bible. It is bread for the hungry. It is, as Luther envisioned, the swaddling clothes in which the Christ child is to be found.

   God gave us Scripture, not as a blunt instrument of judgment, or a batch of escape clauses for modern people who want to live as they wish. The Bible is an invitation to holiness, to the freedom the Spirit gives us to be who we really are. How do we discern the Bible’s perspective on this or that issue? The Bible, clearly, engages in conversation with itself. We do our darnedest to weigh all of Scripture, Scripture interpreting Scripture, to nose out the heart of it all, the big canvas, not just one brushstroke.

   In the Bible’s conversation with itself, we regularly notice a wariness of the Bible as a smorgasbord of rigid rules and judgments passed. To ask How do we read Scripture? is actually to ask, What kind of Church is God asking us to be? Many churches, over the centuries, have assumed God is asking us to be the Moral Police of the world. We’re no good at being the Moral Police, and truth be told, no one out there is waiting for the church to dictate to them what is right and what is wrong. No one is listening. Many out there will forever be alienated from such a church that reads the Bible for such a purpose.

   What kind of Church is God asking us to be? The documentary, “Finding Harmony,” follows choral conductor David Brown as he shows up in Springfield, Ohio, tacking up signs in windows saying “Come and Sing With Us,” with date, place and time. He invites passers-by, the checkout guy, the waitress, any and everybody. All kinds of people show up, old, young, white, black, conservative, liberal. They sing – together. He gets them talking, and people are surprised to find themselves listening to stories they’d not heard from people like themselves, and sharing stories with former strangers. They listen, they love, they sing – and they work on a Habitat house together.

   God asks us to be a Church that joyfully says “Come and Sing With Us,” a church that listens, shares, and digs into the Bible together, not looking for ammunition, but a meal to be shared. This is how we can reach the disenfranchised, the skeptics, the non-believers, the jaded, the wounded. The Bible is all about finding them and bringing them to the table, as Jesus tantalizingly portrayed things so marvelously in Luke 14. It is only reading Bible well that will help us get beyond the polarization in all those debated terms, like racism, inclusion, immigration. Scripture unburdens us from the endless debating with the simple affirmation that, in God’s realm, there are no debated people.

   As Christians, we are blessed by listening carefully to how non-Christians read our texts. If I confer with a rabbi friend in sermon preparation, I'm always wiser. Then also, as Christians, we take Jesus as the key to our hermeneutic. What in Scripture is in sync with Jesus, who is the heart and embodiment of God, and what is out of sync? No genocide, no burning of adulterers, no passing judgment on others, all in Scripture - and why? Not because we don't like it, but because it's just so out of kilter with all Jesus was about.

   We aren't fundamentalists, or literalists - although we try as best we are able to read a given passage as it was literally intended. Of course there are mistakes, dates, some misspelled names, and even theological confusions - which we know based on Scripture's own conversation with itself! 

   We United Methodists resonate with what Rowan Williams wisely wrote – that what is in the Bible is what God wants us to read and hear – which doesn’t mean Jesus is endorsing everything that every character in the story says or thinks. God is saying “This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; Where are you in this?  We do not have to work on the assumption that God likes those responses.” Genocide, polygamy, slavery and the devaluing of women are all supported by voices in Scripture. But we know God doesn’t like those – not based on our feelings, but on the rest of and the heart of all of Scripture.

   To the issue of the day: is LGBTQ+ inclusion only possible if we set aside Scripture? Or do we welcome and bless them (or affirm they are already blessed!) by our reading of Scripture? Conservative rabbis, who read Scripture way more fastidiously than any Christians I know, affirm same gender relationships based on the same book many Christians use to debate and judge them.

   For us, we state at the outset that we are speaking of holy people striving to follow Jesus, and holy relationships of commitment before God. We see the fruit of the Spirit on clear display in the lives of our LGBTQ+ members and couples. We need one another in church, reading Scripture together.

   All of Scripture leads us to a robust theology of Creation, and a deep trust and delight in its diversity. Willie Jennings (in his Acts commentary): “Differences among people do not occasion God’s anger but God’s delight... Difference is not an impediment for relationship , but the very stage on which God will create a deeper and richer reality of communion with the divine life…. Pastors and church leaders have made themselves the high priests of segregationist practices. They have settled for the love of their own people instead of a love that creates a people.”

   And he is careful to clarify that we aren’t jettisoning holiness as the singular pursuit of life with God. What might the Spirit reveal to us about what is holy and what isn’t? “Obedience must take flight with the Holy Spirit into an uncharted world where distinctions between holy and unholy have been upended, in a moment where purity is expanded to cover what had been conceived as impure.” This is the project of the entire New Testament, isn’t it?

   There’s no avoiding the fact that the Bible which we love so dearly was written on the other side of the planet from where I live, and 2000+ years ago, in a very different culture. The average listener to Paul, at the mention of homosexuality, would have thought of those Romans who creepily endorsed older, wealthy men having a young slave partner. And, of course, some United Methodists would conclude this fits into Rowan Williams's category of things Bible writers simply heard wrongly. But if we are talking holy, committed relationships, then we are willing to err, humbly, on the side of hospitality.

   I suspect many, though not all United Methodists would resonate with the way Paul Chilcote summarizes things: “With regards to our siblings in the LGBTQIA+ segment of our family, scripture reveals three things in particular. 1) All people, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity, are God’s beloved. 2) Relationships based on love among our siblings in the LGBTQIA+ community can be expressed in sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy. These high standards apply to all those created in the image of God. 3) As beloved children of God all LGBTQIA+ siblings are invited to use their gifts to the fullest possible extent in the embodiment of God’s vision of shalom. Just as in the case of women, the doors to ministry in the life of the church should be opened to these faithful siblings as well.” Such is our best, humblest and most hopeful reading, taking hospitality in hermeneutics and ecclesiology as the indispensable key.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Uncantankerous Christians: a Reply to Marilynne Robinson

    Recently I’ve been devouring the great novelist Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant and wise essays – including one in which she laments the hijacking of the term “Christian” by the extreme, shrill, far right “ranters and politicians.” This newfangled version of religion is, like most of our public chatter nowadays, vapid, vulgar, and even violent. It’s not that Christianity has been watered down; it has somehow transmuted itself into something nationalistic, militaristic, very white, angry and judgmental, anti-immigrant and pro-guns. The poor are reviled, books are banned, and science is ridiculed. Alternatives are greeted with a sneer.

   Robinson is puzzled, not just by this perversion of “Christian,” but that “the old mainline,” the “learned and uncantankerous,” while objecting strenuously to all this, are “unaccountably quiet about it. She suggests they must feel lonely, and their inefficacy is obvious. She wishes they would speak up.

   As a mainline guy who is uncantankerous, I suspect we are quieter than we should be. Why? Is it a kind of courtesy toward others, thinking religion isn’t a topic for pleasant dinner conversation? or a restraint on arrogance, a humility that expects and finds wisdom all over the place, not only among those who believe as we do?  

   Let me be one to say out loud that we grieve the toxic travesty that masquerades as Christianity. There are Christians, and Churches, and in large numbers, that aren’t angry or cocky. We refuse to bow down to the idols of political ideology. We care that, in our Bibles, the poor are never vilified or blamed; the poor are blessed, and we are responsible to care for them and walk with them. Immigrants, strangers, and refugees are never despised in the Bible; ours is to welcome, help, share and understand. We treasure life in the womb, and are passionately committed to what unfolds after birth – and for all.

   “All” seems to be one of God’s favorite words, if the Bible is any indication – as is the word “with.” God is with us. We are to be with others, not against them. The “ranters and politicians” Robinson worries about want power to impose their agenda, and they will do anything to stay in power. Voter suppression is a weapon for the far right to stay in power, as is gerrymandering. Show a gerrymandering map to a child, and she will laugh. Lines aren’t drawn to bless all. Lines are zigzagged like a slippery salamander so the gerrymanderers might cling to power. The Christians who forged this country wanted a representative democracy and a balance of powers, not curtailing who gets a say, and never concentrating power on any one person.

   God does not gerrymander. God does not look down and draw a squiggly line: “These guys are in. Those are out. These get the blessings. But nope, not those over there.” God’s map is deep and wide, including and empowering, not suppressing, all.

   How can we be sure that mainline, uncantankerous Christianity is truer than that of the ranters and politicians? Noting the agenda of the far right, Robinson wryly declares “I am moving toward the conclusion that these Christians, if they read their Bibles, are not much impressed by what they find there.” Jesus wanted swords put down. But they are sure Jesus and his disciples would carry automatic firearms and thus avoid his violent end.

   Doesn’t the Bible say “If you have the world’s goods, and see someone in need, but close your heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” “The Samaritan is your neighbor.” “Love your enemy; turn the other cheek.” Robinson reflects on the Bible’s ideas that “the first will be last” and “judge not,” and the company Jesus kept, she can only conclude that “We have it on good authority that prostitutes and sinners might well enter heaven before us. It is difficult to respond to this with a heartfelt Amen if one has found comfort in despising people in whom Christ clearly finds great value.”  

   God gave us the Bible, assuming we’d be willing to let it correct our ideological confusions and our personal delusions. The push to shift funding from public schools to private Christian academies? Isn’t it truly Christian to want every child to become as educated as possible, not just Christian children? Fretting over how history is taught? Aren’t the lessons of the marvelous achievements and also the embarrassing flub-ups together what we all need to learn and ponder so we might rise up and improve not just ourselves but all of us and the world? Bible people fear no knowledge, trusting our leader’s promise that the truth will set us free. 

   There are many Christians and Churches who delight in human difference, delighting in God’s creative wizardry as a gift to liberate us from narrow-mindedness and to make us wise. We aren’t terrified by other religions, believing God has strewn wisdom all over the place, and trusting that when all religions are their truest, best selves, antagonisms fade, and peace might just happen. We know what we don’t know. We are curious. We strive to be hospital, humble, and grateful. Our biases aren’t enshrined, but suspect. Sacrifice for others is holy. We are neither angry nor judgmental, which is to say we are not entirely given over to our fears. We believe beauty matters, that love is always the way to life. We are Christian.

Monday, May 15, 2023

On Being a Patient: My 2 Week Hospital Stay

   Given my profession, a place I often go is the hospital, where I’ve spent countless hours and much love, care and tears. Never though, until April 19, did I find myself admitted as a patient inside one. Instead of ministerial garb, there I was in the blousy green gown with a gaping opening in the back. Hard to discern whether to cling to your tattering shreds of dignity, or just surrender to No shame.

   I got my start in life in a hospital as a patient, sort of, if a baby in the nursery counts. And I may make my exit out of life in a hospital too. Such odd places, life and death, survival and decline mingled hauntingly in a single institution. I recall as a young pastor holding hands with an older gentleman as he breathed his last. Just as the nurse declared “He’s gone,” the violins (was it Brahms?) on the loudspeaker announced a baby had just been born. C’est la vie.

   In Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom tells of the day that his friend and teacher Morrie Schwartz was told he had Lou Gehrig’s disease. “Outside, the sun was shining and people were going about their business. A woman ran to put money in the parking meter. Another carried groceries.” Morrie was stunned by the normalcy of the day around him. “Shouldn’t the world stop? Don’t they know what has happened to me?”

   Not that you want others to know. In our culture, which idolizes health, progress, and quick fixes, there’s almost a sense of embarrassment that you haven’t just whipped this thing. I was in the hospital way longer than anybody anticipated, and I could feel both concern but also shock that I wasn’t home quickly. Tells us a lot about how good modern medicine is, and about how we therefore blanch over the idea of extended suffering.

   I’ve always loved hospital visitation, that holy chance to represent God’s church to people under duress; I knew never to stay long (rule of thumb learned day 1 in seminary). As a patient in some misery, I found myself super honored someone would stop by. But I could muster zero hospitality energy, and I asked Lisa to hold folks at bay. I texted one visitor later to apologize for being rude. She understood. I hope. A couple of visitors just poked their heads in and waved. I felt so loved! – and relieved.

   What to make of God and a long hospital stay? A lovely poem about illness by John O’Donohue speaks of “a courageous hospitality toward what is difficult, painful and unknown.” On day 1, tethered to equipment and flat on a bed, I thought, “I’ll pray a lot.” It’s embarrassingly difficult to pray when you’re fending off constant nausea and a splitting headache – and various professionals zigging and zagging in and out to run tests, poke, stick, listen, prod. I veered quite a few times toward utter despair. I do know enough to recall that the Bible is full of despair. It’s not something that mortifies Jesus. He is very close to us in our despair.

   One of those professionals turned a light bulb on in my soul. A new nurse introduced himself: Martin. He asked how I was. This was at my nadir, the worst day and maybe hour ever. I said “I’m despairing that I’m not getting better. I may never get better.” He said, “You’ll get better.” I asked, “Is that a promise?” He laughed and said, “No, it’s medicine.”

   Two things about that. We talk a lot about hope, or faith, as if it’s something in us we have to do, and strongly if possible. But we hope in God, we believe in God. It’s not our earnestness and positive thoughts about God, but God that saves us.

   And then: medicine. We pray for cures. And God knows I might have prayed for more sick people in my lifetime than anyone you’ve ever met. God heals most often through the smart, hard-working, valiant professionals we call doctors, nurses, the IV team, the X-ray and CT scan people who are God’s handymen, delegates, worker bees, elves… so don’t go as far as you can go with medicine and then ask God to overcome what they can’t fix. God is already there when after your physical, the internist orders up an extra test. God is even in you, God’s delegate, in your body, the Temple of the Holy Spirit: when you feel pain or discomfort (as I did to start all this), it’s God saying “James! James! I wired you with these warning signals! Go see my people down there who can help!”

   I have a friend who heard I was laid low, and said “God sure has a way of slowing you down.” I can’t think for a moment God thought “James is just wearing himself out being so busy! I’ll jerk this colonic volvulus thing in his gut, and then he’ll cool his jets for a while.” But there is a simplification, a cutting to the core of what really matters. O’Donohue’s poem suggests illness might become “a lantern to illuminate new qualities emerging in you,” and that this light might “release whatever has become false in you.” Once it became evident I’d be in the hospital for quite a few days, and I’d emerge sub-par whenever I got out, I cancelled a week of busy things to do in about ten minutes. Important and urgent, some of these things! But all tumbled rapidly off the table of what really matters – as did trips to Colorado and Peru planned for my sabbatical. Funny how little they mattered in the face of a health crisis!

   For me, and I pray I can cling to this more zealously than I clung to my last shred of dignity being prodded in that green gown, it’s understanding what really matters – that is, what it is to be human. To be human isn’t to make mistakes. To be human isn’t to consume or maximize fun. My fellow human temporary boarders in the hospital? Not one of us wanted to be there. Yet everyone one of us very much wanted to be there. Like life on earth: it’s a pilgrimage, we’re passing through – but gosh, it’s such a cool space. And it took me a week to realize I didn’t know the political or religious affiliation of any other patient or professional. Lovely. Calming. Healing.

   We are alive in these bodies. It’s precarious, always – which is what makes it such a treasure. I’m here. My wife and kids are hovering nearby. Life is good. Life is hard. Life is… life. I’m a person who matters, if only in this small space to not many people. Which is why I made it a point to ask every professional her or his name – and where are you from? No one responded with merely a city or state. Always a story. So many stories: people with jobs, but dreamers, lovers, with their own issues and gifts and glories. I might just wear this hospital wrist-band forever to remind me of just that. Being human. That’s all God asks of us. That’s all God asks us to ask of one another.

Monday, December 12, 2022

To my Disaffiliating Friends: Don't Believe What You've Been Told

    I was stunned, then I just shuddered and sighed the other day when I read an email from a member of a disaffiliating Methodist church in another part of the country, hurling ferocious and false accusations at me for staying United Methodist. The surprise is that this is someone I know, who’s been in my church for worship, and even went to Israel with me 13 years ago.

   It began “We thought you were a believer who preached the word and accepted Jesus as the divine son of God. But after learning you’re still in the United Methodist Church, we are shocked that you now believe Scripture is not the Word of God.” It went on to express disdain that I don’t accept Christ as my Savior and that I deny there’s a Holy Spirit, and that I don’t have any moral standards – and on and on, at great length.

   I share this, and my response to this friend, because it is a witness to why some Methodist churches are being duped into disaffiliating – and it’s just plain wrong to hurl mud at fellow Christians period, much less for what is a fabrication. I replied, “You know me, a real live United Methodist pastor who from your own experience is deeply rooted in the Scriptures. Yet you’ve swallowed the misinformation and caricatures being spread by those who are recruiting churches to disaffiliate. You’ve concluded I’m not a believer, I don’t lift up Scripture as the Word of God, and I deny the divinity of Jesus. False, false, and false. The Holy Spirit does not guide Christians into bogus, malicious ideas about other Christians.” I might have added that I know hundreds of United Methodist pastors, and I can't name one of them who doesn't take Scripture as of God, or denies the divinity of Christ or that there's a Holy Spirit - or that there are no moral standards.

   Trying to be gentle but clear, I suggested that the only place such misinformation might have come to them was their own disaffiliating Methodist church. Even knowing me, the emailer didn’t ask what I believe or if I’d changed, but simply parroted what had been spoonfed – so all I can conclude is that this well-known disaffiliating church teaches a smug, judgmental way of behaving, which is not of God or any moral standard that qualifies as Christian.

   Near the end of my friend Ryan Danker’s very fine book, Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism, he tells how in 1764, John Wesley wrote a letter to 40 or 50 clergymen, who were divided on issues, challenging those Methodists who were at odds with one another to “speak respectfully, honourably, kind of each other; defend each other’s character; speak all the good we can of each other.”

   So, if any disaffiliators are reading: stop the libel. Stop the falsehoods. Stop the misinformation. Stop the logical fallacy of finding some United Methodist somewhere who said something awry, and then inferring that, Aha, that’s United Methodism!

   And if you’re a United Methodist who’s sticking around, don’t get too smug either. Our sisters and brothers who are disaffiliating are more like us than we realize: operating out of hidden fears, we all rush to judgment against those who aren’t us. Wesley could be a harsh dude, but he was right on what God asks of us. We don’t assault one another’s character. We defend, we speak respectfully, always. And we always tell what really is the truth, and if we don't know, we just hush.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Pilgrimage to Turkey, September 2023

Join me as we return with yet another group to visit ancient Asia Minor, modern Turkey, the historic birthplace of worldwide Christianity! We’ll visit 6 UNESCO World Heritage sites, take in stunning landscapes and architectural wonders, and delight in Turkish food and culture.

September 17-29, 2023

  {We are still going! The earthquake, the death toll and the suffering for the survivors is an unspeakable horror. Travellers stimulate the economy - which they need desperately now - and the vast majority of this huge country was physically untouched by the catastrophe.}

Cost (as of today, could fluctuate a little due to flight variables): $4,444.

       $750 single supplement, and $545 for a 2 night extension in Istanbul.

           -- includes flights (US to Turkey, and short flights within Turkey), hotel, breakfast and dinner daily (almost), guide, driver, tips and taxes.

  Our guide will be Gülin Pazaroğlu, who has become a treasured friend to the Howells and others in our church family! She is an extraordinary guide and a great friend. You'll love her! 

  Our itinerary will be different from any other, beginning in the far east and heading west. We begin in:

   Originally, we'd planned to begin in Antioch, the cradle of Christianity in Acts. We explore the ancient “cave church” of St. Peter, and other biblical era remains, staying at the Museum Hotel. The cave church is just fine, as is the hotel - but the rest of modern Antakya was devastated by the earthquake. This is the one place we sadly won't be able to visit - sad for the people there way more than for ourselves.

   So we will begin instead in Tarsus, the birthplace of Paul, and Seleucia, the port where Paul and Barnabas sailed on mission. Then to:

  Urfa (ancient Edessa, the cultural center of early Christianity), taking time to visit Gobekli-Tepe, Zeugma and Gaziantep, among the most astonishing archeaological finds ever, rewriting all we’ve known about the early history of humanity. Then on to:

  Cappadocia, the geological wonderland, with cave churches; the home of the Cappadocian Fathers, the wisest of early Christianity’s leaders. We’ll stay at Cappadocia Estates, an unforgettable venue. After a stop in picturesque Aphrodisias, one of ancient Rome’s grandest cities, we’ll make our way to:

  Pamukkale, the visually stunning calcite deposits, with the healing waters of thermal baths, right next door to Hierapolis and Laodicea, excavated cities once visited by Paul, and recipients of the Book of Revelation.. We’ll stay at the lovely Doga Thermal Hotel. Then, with a stop at Sardis (another of the “7 cities of Revelation”), we’ll get to:

  Ephesus, the crown jewel of Turkey, where Paul preached and was imprisoned, where John and Mary lived out their days, the site of one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis, and its famous library. Finally, we come to:

  Istanbul, ancient Constantinople, which replaced Rome as capital of the empire, the home base of the Church for centuries, literally littered with great churches and mosques. This will be a shorter than usual visit, just a day - which is all many devote to Istanbul anyhow. The beautiful Chora church is closed, and the crown jewel, the Hagia Sophia, has scaffolding and covers over the Christian mosaics... which will be the way it is for years to come.

   *** To learn more or to apply to join this pilgrimage, email me at


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Christ was born!... so Methodists could vote?

     This morning, I woke up remembering how often I’ve said “A virtue of Methodism is it’s not in our DNA to wake up in the morning and think ‘We’re right, and everybody else is wrong’ – and how within Methodism, we can disagree without killing each other, or getting a divorce.

    This recollection probably drifted into my head because last night, like so many nights in recent weeks, I went to bed grieving questions that had come my way about some Methodist church or another ramping up to a vote on whether to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. When I hear this, I shudder, and try then to recall the humorous truth of a clergy friend of mine who will snap a photo of the crowd during an especially tedious, cantankerous and dull denominational meeting, and text it to me across the room with the caption, “Another unintended consequence of the resurrection.” I saw a Facebook photo of church I love holding hearings to help them decide. Not what Jesus had in mind.

    An unintended consequence of the resurrection? or since it's Christmas, of the incarnation? Jesus came so we could… vote? Zealously, I advocate voting – in the United States. In the church, it’s hard to imagine a more destructive activity. Quakers, and a great many other Christian bodies, don’t vote. They discern. And the kicker here is: United Methodists don’t have to vote. And shouldn’t vote. “Somebody told us we need to vote.” You don’t, and if they told you this, or recruited you, they are well-meaning, but misguided. If your church is gearing up for a vote, you can and should back up, take a deep breath, and not forge forward into what will inevitably be a church division – the worst conceivable witness to a skeptical world, not what Jesus had in mind when he came into Mary’s womb or went to the cross.

    An analogy: Lisa and I have stayed married for 36 years. What if, for Christmas, we entertained speakers on the virtues of divorce (“I finally found the love of my life,” “No more socks on the floor”) vs. staying married (“He’s getting creaky but he’s a dear”) – and then we took a vote on whether to aim for 37 years. Thankfully, we don’t have to vote. We have disagreed with one another on a great many issues (as has our church) all along. What I find, with her, is that when it gets tense and I am sure I am right, I quite often am wrong. Being right is way overrated anyhow. As best I can tell, it only hurts the other person, and puffs up my ego.

    Some say to me “We have to draw a line!” Did Jesus say this? Here’s maybe the single most important reason not to vote to disaffiliate: at the 2008 General Conference, I spoke from the floor and said "We have for decades declared that ‘We do not condone the practice of homosexuality.’ This has not prevented one person from being gay. It has, though, alienated tens of thousands not just from our church but from any church." Want to talk about an unintended consequence of the resurrection or incarnation? The question isn’t Who’s right? but, as in my marriage, Who’s hurt? I meet them all the time: people who used to go to church, don’t and won’t now, and the first or second reason they give is because the church is judgmental, and specifically because they judge and exclude gays.

    Those who lobby churches to disaffiliate argue “It’s not about LGBTQ inclusion.” I’ve been wrong in saying they are wrong. I’ve been right, in that Methodists have strongly disagreed and stayed together over dozens of huge issues – but it’s this one that has created congregational votes. And yet, they are right. It’s about how to be the Body of Christ in this moment in history, when division is little more than a mirror image of what’s going on in our country politically. Instead of healing America, voting Methodists are letting themselves be ruined by America.

    On sabbatical several years ago, I found myself in a pub, sitting next to a guy. I asked what he does in life. “I’m a shepherd.” This piqued my attention, so I quizzed him about shepherding, including this question: “Why are there always sheep and goats, never just sheep, never just goats.” He glanced upward as he stroked his beard and said “We just find that they do better together.” That’s United Methodism; we're better together. Instead of a smattering of broken-in-half churches all over this country, none thriving while all claim they are right, if we simply don’t vote, and stay with the one who brought us to the point, we can still be better together – an intended consequence of the resurrection and, since it’s Christmas, the incarnation.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Hope: Saving 1 Life. A sermon preached in Krakow, Sept. 25, 2022

   Watch here. Text below.

    Jeremiah 32, beginning with verse 1. The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar.  At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the guard which was in the palace of the king of Judah.  Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me: Behold, Hanamel your uncle will come to you and say, ‘Buy my field which is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’  Then Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘Buy my field which is at Anathoth.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.  And I bought the field, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver.  I signed the deed, sealed it, and got witnesses.  Then I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch, in the presence of all the Jews who were sitting in the court of the guard.  I charged Baruch in their presence, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware vessel, that they may last for a long time.  For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.’”

    Jeremiah. We know him as God’s great prophet during the darkest days of the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian army, destroying cities and killing the Israelites. But during his lifetime, the Israelites mocked him, laughed at him, and tried to ignore him. Nothing was more laughable than his one and only business deal, purchasing a little tract of land in the small town of Anathoth, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

   Jeremiah had grown up in Anathoth. When I was a little boy, my family lived in Savannah, Georgia. My favorite place was an old brick structure on a little spit of land sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean called Fort Pulaski. And my school was called Casimir Pulaski Elementary School. Pulaski, you may know, was born in Warsaw. He fought for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against – yes – the Russians. Then he came to America and fought against the British, until he was shot and killed in my hometown, Savannah.

   In a way, Pulaski was a failure. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fell. The battles in which he fought were losses. In America he had a few successes, but he died, only 34 years old, far from home. He had never married or had children. When he drew his last breath, he did not know if the war would be won or not.

   What is God asking of us? To succeed? To win? To see the fruit of our labors? No. God asks us to have some courage. God asks us to love. God asks us to hope. Hope isn’t some naïve belief that tomorrow ill be a better day. Hope is prepared is tomorrow is worse than today. Hope depends on God’s future. Vaclav Havel, when he was President of Czechoslovakia, said Hope is the ability to work for something simply because it is right, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not.

   In America, 70 years ago now, a Christian farmer named Clarence Jordan read his Bible and thought he was supposed to do what it said. So he created a commune where white and black people lived and worked together – in rural Georgia in the 1950’s. He got kicked out of his church, and the Ku Klux Klan (a racist terrorist organization) burned all of the crops just as it was time for the harvest. A news reporter stood in the burned out field with Jordan and said to him, “You have failed! What will you do now?” Jordan replied, “We’ll plant again. God doesn’t ask us to be successful. God asks us to be faithful.”

   About 800 kilometers from here is a small town in Lithuania called Birzai. Several times, I have visited there and stayed with my friend Regina. She grew up as an atheist, but then converted to Christianity as an adult. Her house is tiny, with no running water. I thought of her as poor. But one day she took me with her to the people she thinks of as poor, delivering food and medicine she could hardly afford for herself, praying with the poor, hugging them, reading to their children. The poor serving those poorer. I asked her, “Regina, why do you sacrifice what you really need for yourself for others?” She was puzzled by my question, saying “That’s just what Christians do, right?”

    Jeremiah purchased a field he couldn’t really afford, when no one was buying property, when its value would only drop lower and lower. He would get no return on his personal investment. It was a dramatic act of hope. His investment was in God’s future, not his own. He was revealing to skeptics that God was still God, that rough times were ahead, but in the end, God would reign. He was a man of tremendous hope. He didn’t need to see the return on his investment. But he knew it would come, someday, in God’s good time.

    The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime. Therefore, we are saved by hope.” To the world, hope looks like foolishness. What fool would purchase land during the Babylonian invasion? What fool would re-plant crops, knowing they probably would be burned down again? What fool poor person shares with poorer persons? The apostle Paul wrote about the “foolishness of the Gospel,” urging us to be “fools for Christ.” It’s God’s wisdom, this foolishness. It’s hope. It’s joy.

    Two things in closing. Jeremiah signed the deed and sealed it up in a jar – and we read about it, 2,500 years later, in a very different language, on the other side of the world. Jesus broke bread and shared wine with his disciples in a room in Jerusalem, and we have the audacity to believe we are there with him, with them, 2,000 years later, on the other side of the world. Next Sunday is, for us, World Communion Sunday. We are foolish enough to believe that, even though our group will be back in America, we will mysteriously and mystically be here, in this room with you at our Lord’s table. It’s a miracle. Skeptics may scoff. But we are one, across time and space. It’s God’s time and space. We are his Body, always together, separated only by miles and hours and language. We are One in the Spirit. Christ stretched his arms out to embrace you, and us, reaching around the globe, enveloping all of us in a love that cannot be crushed or lost. Foolishness to the world, but our good reason to hope.

   And then there’s this. Casimir Pulaski fought bravely, for a lost cause, and then for a winning cause he never witnessed. He probably saved several lives, but we know about one life he saved. At the Battle of Brandywine Creek in 1777 – which the Americans lost! – Pulaski saved the life of George Washington. If he had not saved that one life, America probably would have lost the war. America would not have had Washington as its first President. That one life mattered in ways Pulaski and the other Americans fleeing that battle just to survive could never have imagined. Jews often say that to save one life is to save the world.

    A few days after the Russians invaded Ukraine, I was talking with our Bishop here, Patrick Streiff. He reported to me that the Methodist churches in Poland were stepping up with great hospitality and courage to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Guests. Friends. He told me that a young woman got off a bus, walked into a Methodist church, and gave birth a few hours later. Everything we do, we together, the Body of Christ across this globe, our church and your church, really just one church in God’s heart, is about saving one life. That one child: who knows what that child will become? Maybe a future President of Ukraine. Maybe the one to bring peace to eastern Europe. Maybe a scientist discovering a cure for cancer. Maybe a pastor, or a parent. Maybe just a Christian, a faithful disciple of Jesus, another companion of Jesus, and my children and their children.

   I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt the other day that said “Hope addict.” We are hooked on hope. We invest in God’s future. We will be faithful. It’s just what Christians do. It includes all of us, and is bigger than us. It’s as big as just one child, like the Christ child himself, God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.