Palm Sunday, the most political Sunday of the liturgical year is upon us. Of course, I realize such an assertion is anything but obvious to a good number of Christians. Jesus came to die for our sin; Christianity isn’t about politics, surely some of you are thinking. If it’s indeed the case that Christianity is about religion and not politics, that Christ died as a sacrifice for sinners not as a victim of the Power of Sin, then why in the hell does Jesus die on a cross?

If the death of Jesus is a religious death, then why is not stoned to death?

The late Dominican theologian and philosopher, Herbert McCabe, cautions against any understandings of the cross that are exclusively religious or theological. The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly. McCabe writes in God Matters:

chagall

“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

Virtue Signal

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 12.1-8

For God’s sake, don’t lie. 

Admit it. 

You think Judas is right. 

Of course, if you’ve spent any time at all in church, then you already know that you’re not supposed to identify with Judas. Judas is the traitor. Judas is the villain. Judas is the Judas. 

He’s the bastard who turns around right after today’s text to rat out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, which according to the prophet Zechariah was about a day’s wage. 

A day’s wage. 

According to the Book of Exodus, thirty pieces of silver is the cost of an average slave. 

Judas sells out the Son of God as though a slave.

So we know we’re not supposed to identify with Judas but, be honest now, we think Judas is right, or at the very least he’s reasonable. If you saw a line item in our church operating budget for nard you’d be PO’d too. In case you’re not a first century Mary Kay agent, nard was a perfume from the Himalayas. Amazon Prime still doesn’t deliver to Bethany so how this much nard ended up there is anyone’s guess. Who knows how Mary got her hands on it, but you can be sure this nard was not gained on the cheap. 300 denarii is what Judas guesses it would go for on the open market. 

Just to help you locate your place in the story here today: 300 denarii was the rough equivalent to $45,000.00. 

The nard cost Mary more than a Tesla Model 3. 

Wanna come clean now?

You think Judas is right on the money about the money. For HimalayanObsession?! At that cost, it would be better to rub Jesus down with some $5.99 Old Spice and give the rest of the five figures worth to the poor. 

Or, why not Axe Body Spray? For ten measley bucks she could spray some sexy on Jesus and then they’d still have approximately $44,990.00 for do-gooding. 

And doing good is what it’s about, right?

After all, Matthew’s account of this anointing occurs right after Jesus lays down every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable— the one about clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the prisoner. Judas has just heard Jesus drop the boom about eternal punishment so how can you blame Judas for wanting to get reckoned a sheep rather than goat? 

If we’re honest, it’s hard for us to see what Judas got wrong. 

Christians ought to be on the side of the poor. If Christians fail to capture the cultured despisers’ respect and imagination isn’t it largely because of our inability to live lives that correspond to Christ and his teachings (perhaps especially his teaching about the poor)? 

What’s more, isn’t Judas’ the better strategy for the Church to survive in a pagan nation like America? After all, Americans may not believe that Jesus is Lord of anything but pious hearts, but they at least believe we probably ought to help the poor. 

Isn’t Judas’ the smarter strategy in a secular age? Surely, serving the poor is a way for us as Christians to win friends and influence people. And while we’re truth-telling, let’s be honest. Believing what Christians are required to believe is no easy thing. Believing that the infinite took flesh in Mary’s finite womb, believing that three days dead Christ was dead no more, believing that he now and forevermore sits at the right hand of the Father— believing what Christians believe is no easy matter. 

We’re not even sure what it means to say someone sits at the Father’s right hand. 

Handouts to the hungry though? Let’s be honest. It’s just easier. Helping the less fortunate— it makes sense, which likely explains why it’s not distinctively Christian.

If you’ve seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian then you already know. In first century Israel, “poor” was a political category. The poor weren’t lazy or left behind. The poor were the oppressed. Money’s tight when you’ve got to foot the bill for your own military occupation— that’s why the Christmas story kicks off with a census. 

Just read your Old Testament if you don’t believe me— it’s not a minor theme in scripture— the poor were poor because they were oppressed. 

If you don’t understand the relationship between poverty and oppression you won’t understand Palm Sunday. You won’t understand how the Messiah they anticipate with shouts of hosanna produces first their disappointment and then their betrayal when the “Messiah” they get turns out to be the Messiah named Jesus. 

Judas isn’t simply suggesting that this down payment’s worth of perfume should’ve been shared with the poor; he’s arguing that it’d be better spent on the cause. 

Judas isn’t griping that they should’ve given the money to feed the poor. 

He’s saying they should’ve used the money to free them. 

To free the poor. To liberate the oppressed. Judas’s point is not just about charity. Judas’ point is also about justice. After all, he’s named for Israel’s most famous armed revolutionary. 

Like today, Judas’ language about the poor is political language. It’s a campaign contribution’s worth of cash Judas watches Mary rub into Jesus’ calloused feet. 

“Why was this nard not sold for almost fifty grand and the money given to the Democratic National Committee?” That’s a better way to hear what Judas says. 

“Why was this perfume not sold and the money donated to Make Israel Great Again?” Is another way to hear him.

“What’s she doing? What a waste! Don’t you people know your Micah 6.8?! Do you know the kind of change we could make with that much cash?”

Even if we’re too chicken to admit it, Judas makes sense to us. But we’re right to pretend otherwise. Think about it— Judas is sitting at the supper table with Lazarus, a guy who’d been dead for four days. 

Judas had watched graveside as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, stinking with death and tripping over his burial clothes he was so surprised. In fact, Jesus had commanded him to be dead no longer: “Lazarus, come out!” 

From dust he came and to dust he returned and then he returned again.

Now Judas is eating with the guy who was wormfood a few days ago, but as soon as Judas sees Mary pull out some some five figure Chanel No. 5 he’s back to thinking in terms of scarcity.

Which puts Judas (and thus, puts us) in the same camp as Caiphas—another name we know better than to identify. 

In the text just before today’s text, John tells us that a crowd of Jews, having witnessed Jesus speak Lazarus forth from the dead, began “believing into Jesus.” 

Some of these bystanders, John says, went and tattled on Jesus to the Pharisees and the Pharisees went and tattled to the chief priests and the chief priests went and tattled to the Chief Priest, Caiphas. 

And how does Caiphas respond?

“If we let him go on like this,” Caiphas worries, “everyone will believe into him, and the Romans will come and destroy our nation.”

Sit with that for a second—

When the chief religious leaders of God’s people hear about Jesus’ power over the Power of Death, their immediate worry is not religious. It’s political. 

Like we do, Caiphus had been towing the God and Country line, but as soon as the Living God shows up our true colors come out.

When Caiphas hears Christ can raise the dead, he doesn’t cripe about commandments. He worries about the two things over which you most worry too. 

Currency. 

And country.

Jesus is hiding out here in Bethany because just after Jesus produces Lazarus alive from the tomb, Caiphas plots to kill Jesus because Caiphas worries that Christ’s power over the Power of Death will upset the political arrangement of the powers-that-be. 

Don’t forget:

This is the same Caiphas who on Good Friday will condemn Jesus to a cross on a charge of blasphemy while pledging to Pontius Pilate what exactly? He says what no Jew should ever say: “We have no King but Caesar.” 

But since Messiah and King and Caesar all name in different languages the same word, Caiphas basically says “We have no Messiah but the King you call Caesar.” That’s where the Old Testament grinds to halt. It ends there with “We have no Messiah  but Caesar.“ Christ’s passion is the price to secure Caiphas’ political promise to Pilate. 

“Forty-five grand! We could’ve donated that money to MoveOn.org— think of the justice work we could do with that much money.” Judas says. 

“Power over Death? But only Death makes our economy of scarcity possible. Resurrection, it’ll ruin the nation.” Says Caiphas.

You see— Judas and Caiphas, their failure is not primarily one of faithfulness. Their failure is a failure of imagination. Their failure is a failure of political imagination. 

In order to see their failure as a failure of political imagination, however, we must first swallow our squeamishness about what Jesus says to Judas. Even if we’re too cowardly to admit we think Judas is right, we should at least be able to acknowledge that Jesus’ response to Judas embarrasses us. We wish Jesus had not said what Jesus says: “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me.” 

Just try that verse out on a woke, unbelieving Bernie supporter and see how they react. Talk about religion as the opiate of the people. What Jesus says to Judas seems to legitimate the sort of apathetic, pie-in-the-sky Christianity for which non-Christians critique Christians. 

Maybe it’s because “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” embarrases us that we seldom stop to notice the fact that the one who said “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” is himself poor. 

Jesus is poor. 

Jesus is oppressed.

And very soon, Jesus will be the naked without any clothes. Jesus will be the parched who’s given gall. Jesus will be the stranger shunned. Jesus will be the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. Surrounded by goats, they’ll be the only sheep at his side for the Last Judgement that is his Cross.

Don’t you see?

This is the point of it all— this is why Caiphus plots to kill him.

We think Judas is right, but we miss how right Caiphas really is.

Jesus is a threat to our politics.

Jesus does intend to end the world as we know it. 

Mary upends our categories of helping the poor and the oppressed by lavishing a Mercedes C-class worth of money on a single poor person (who also happens to be the incarnate God).  And Jesus praises her for it. It’s a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to do what she did. 

Judas has got his mind stuck in the grave— he still thinks that change-making comes in terms of charity and campaign contributions, but Mary’s response to Jesus’ power over the Power of Death is to shower two-thirds of our entire mission budget on a solitary poor man living on borrowed time. Judas lacks Mary’s imagination.

Only when you understand what Mary understands will you understand what Jesus means when he says to Judas that we will not always have Jesus with us bodily but we will always have the poor with us. 

Jesus is not implying that we should be resigned to the way of the world. On the contrary, we will always have the poor with us because the Church, the Body of Christ, is the People God has put in the world who know, by the sacrament of the resurrection, that the poor and the prisoner, the naked and the shunned, are to celebrated. 

The Church is the People God has put in the world who know that we can afford to love the poor with lavishment because Christ is a gift that can never be used up. So of course we’ll always have the poor with us. Because the Church is the Body of him who is poor. We will always have the poor with us because the Body of Christ is for them.

“Leave her alone,” the poor man said to Judas, “she bought it [she bought it—for $45K!] for me.” 

“She’s done the better thing,” the poor man adds in Matthew’s account. 

Jesus praises Mary because Mary understands that Jesus makes a different politics possible. To put a finer point on it, Mary understands that she-and-her-nard constitutes the different politics which God has made possible in the world in Jesus.

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth and who remains my north star, wrote:

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity and Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

Barth liked to point out how when the devil temps Christ in the wilderness by offering him the governments of this world the implication is that the governments of this world are the devil’s to give. They belong to him. 

Barth, who was one of the only German Christians to stand up against Hitler’s Nazi regime, was not being hyperbolic.

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity—and—Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

It’s the and there that’s problematic. Just as soon as the church begins to ponder how its Christianity can inform politics, Barth argued, you can be sure the church has lost the plot. Such a church might be a church of great sincerity and zeal. Such a church might be a church of fervent devotion and good works of charity. Nonetheless, such a church will be a church that’s failed to understand that it is the way God has chosen to love and redeem the world. 

Whenever we talk about Christianity and Politics, we risk forgetting that the way God has chosen to heal his creation is through his particular People— that’s a promise that goes all the way back to Abraham. 

The way God has chosen to heal his creation his through the witness of his People. 

Not the House or the Senate. Not POTUS or SCOTUS. Not with bills or billboards or hashtags. Not through political policy. But his People. The Church. The Body of Christ, sent by the Spirit, is God’s virtue signal; that is to say, the Church doesn’t have a politics the Church is a politics. 

I’m sure right about now that some of you (if not all of you) are thinking Well, gee Jason, that sounds nice but what in the hell do you mean“The Church doesn’t have a politics. The Church is a politics?” 

I’m glad you asked.

Yesterday afternoon we celebrated a Service of Death and Resurrection for a man here in the community, Gordon. 

Gordon was a Vietnam vet. The cancer that killed him likely came from Agent Orange that killed others. A couple of days before he died, he called me to his bedside. In addition to wanting to profess that Jesus is Lord and give to Christ what remained of his life, Gordon also wanted to confess his sins. 

“I want to confess,” he told me staring at the ceiling, “what I had to do in the war— it was necessary, but it was still sin.” 

Think about it—

He was dying. He didn’t know how quick. Time was a precious, valueable commodity to him. Time was a gift, and Gordon wanted to give it, to lavish it— some would say waste it— by giving his confession to Christ. 

In a culture that ships our soldiers off to do what is necessary and then, when they return home, we insist that they not tell us about what we’ve asked them to do, Gordon’s confession— what the Church calls the care of souls— that’s a politics. 

It’s how God has chosen to care for the world.

During the funeral service, Gordon’s son spoke candidly about his often difficult sometimes estranged relationship with his father. 

In a culture of sentimentality and pretense, the sort of truth-telling that this sanctuary makes possible— that’s a politics.

Later this afternoon, a group from church will go up to Sleepy Hollow Nursing Home to worship with elderly residents who may not be able to hear it or comprehend it. In a culture like ours that is determined to get out of life alive— a culture that worships at the altar of youth and achievement— the old are very often cloistered away and cast-off. 

It’s a simple thing some of you will do at Sleepy Hollow, offering them prayer and presence and touch. But

But make no mistake, it’s a politics.

A while ago, I read a story in the paper about the California Prison Hospice Program. The unintended consequence of stiff prison sentences doled out in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s is that now many penitentieries must double as nursing homes. 

Already underfunded, many prison systems have recruited and trained convicts to serve as hospice workers to care for and accompany aging inmates as they die of cancer and other causes. 

It might not surprise you to hear most of the prisoners who volunteer to care for the dying are Christians. 

“It’s what God’s given us the opportunity to do, to pour out our love on them” one prisoner— guilty of a gang bang in his youth— told the New York Times. 

It might not surprise you to hear that most of the hospice workers are Christians, but it might surprise you to hear that of the hundreds of prisoners who’ve worked caring for the dying and later been released not one of them has returned to prison. 

They have a recidivism rate of 0%. 

In a culture where even Democrats and Republicans can agree our criminal justice system is broken, a simple unimpressive act, Christian care for the dying…zero percent— that’s a politics.

At the end, the Times article unintentionally echoes St. Paul:

“Within the walls of the prison hospice, all the invisible boundaries of the world have fallen down. Black men give meal trays to [dying] white men with swastikas tattooed on their faces, Crips play cards with Bloods, and a terminal Latino with cirrhosis gets his hair cut by an Asian with whom he previously wouldn’t have peaceably shared a cellblock.” 

The way God has chosen to heal the world is the Church— that’s what we forget whenever we argue about the Church and Politics. 

We’re the nard that God has purchased at great cost to himself to lavish Christ upon the dying world. 

You see—

It’s not that grace— what God has done for us in Jesus Christ— makes what we do as Christians incidental or unimportant. 

It’s that what we do as Christians should be unintelligible— an expensive waste, even— if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Calvin said the human heart is an idol factory. Augustine said our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. DZ of Mockingbird Ministries and the author of the new book, Seculosity, says we’re more religious than ever before we’re church “in church” in different ways.

Love, politics, parenting, technology, fitness are not secular alternatives to religion. They are, says DZ, secular ways of being religious. We’re never not in church now says David, but because the Church of Politics or Soul Cycle are inherently religions of Law, we’re increasingly exhausted, self-righteous, and cruel. We’er searching for “enoughness” from gods that, without the promise of grace, cannot bestow it.

Check out his work at www.mbird.com and grab a copy of his book over at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

And after you do David a solid, pay it forward by helping us out at the podcast to keep delivering you conversations about faith without using stained-glass language. Go to our website (www.crackersandgrapejuice.com) and click on “Support the Show” to become a patreon for chump change.

For our Wednesday evening eucharist service, I decided to write a homily on Matthew’s version of the Sunday Gospel lection:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus tells his disciples, but specifically Peter, just after calling Peter “Satan” for tempting Jesus with a fate other than cruciform destiny.

 

Perhaps because Jesus’ statement about our needing to lose our lives in order to gain them occurs within the context of Peter balking at the notion of a crucified Messiah we mishear Jesus as suggesting that we too must seek a cross if the Kingdom is to be added unto us.

 

But the Risen Christ is no nihilist. When Jesus says we must lose our lives to gain them, he’s not recruiting kamikaze Kingdom warriors, for the word “lose” in Matthew 16 is the same word Matthew uses just after Jesus tells us about the sheep and the goats.

 

The word “lose” is the same word in Greek for “waste.”

ἡ ἀπώλεια αὕτη

apoleia

“For those who want to save their life will waste it, and those who waste their life for my sake will find it.”

 

Matthew uses that same word ‘waste” a few chapters later when Jesus visits the house of Simon the Leper for supper— Jesus might as well ask the Pharisees and chief priests to kill him. 

 

Two nights before Passover, two nights before he dies, Jesus goes to Simon’s house for dinner. They’re eating dessert and drinking coffee when in walks a woman. She doesn’t have a name but she does have a crystal jar filled with expensive oil— about $45,000 worth. 

 

This woman, she break the jar and she pours the oil over Jesus’ head and body. 

 

Just like the psalm about the good shepherd in the valley of death— just like King David, whose kingdom God promised would be forever— she anoints him. She anoints him for his death, for his cross will be his enthronment, thorns his crown, and the jeers of onlookers his acclamation.

 

And Jesus, he praises her for not holding back, for sparing no cost in pouring out her love on him. 

 

Meanwhile the disciples look on in anger, and all they can do is grumble over all the “good” they could have done with that much money. I mean, don’t forget Jesus had just laid every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable on them— the one about the sheep and the goats. 

 

So here, watching this woman who shelled out a year’s worth of wages for perfume, they virtue signal, estimating the number of hungry that could’ve been fed, the naked who could’ve been clothed, the poor they could’ve served. 

 

If she hadn’t wasted it. 

Yet Jesus praises her. 

 

The disciples look at her and they get angry at the waste. Jesus looks at her and sees a holy waste. He praises her for lavishing love and devotion on him, who—don’t forget— is poor and will very soon be the naked without clothes, the thirsty who’s given gall, the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. 

 

Lose. 

Waste. 

 

You see when Jesus tells us we need to lose our lives to gain a life in the Kingdom, he’s not talking about crosses. He’s talking about something even more reckless. He’s recommending the example of this woman— he’s urging us to lavish love and devotion— to spare no cost— on him. 

 

This woman at the leper’s house knows that Jesus is not a means to some other end. Rather devotion to Jesus— worship of him is a good in and of itself.  

 

An economy that the world cannot help but see as a waste and which ironically may lead the world in its economy to crucify us. 

For the Wednesdays of Lent we’re doing an evening eucharist service where each week I preach a homily on one of the Comfortable Words. The Comfortable Words are a collection of promises from the New Testament, compiled by Thomas Cranmer for the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer wanted to guarrantee that having confessed our sin and been confronted with the demands of God’s Law God’s people never left a service of Word and Table without having heard the promise of the Gospel.

Here’s my homily on John 3…

“If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’ 

You must be born again. Or- You must be born from above. Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else. Except- That you in “You must be born again” is plural.  It’s “You all must be born again.” 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says. And Jesus answers with “You all…” We are in that you. Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God. 

Being born anothen- It’s something God does; it’s not something we do. Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind— the Holy Spirit— blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” 

Being born anothen, Jesus says, it cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me. You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?  

That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…” Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God. What is flesh, i.e. you and me,  is incapable of coming to God. You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given. Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does. But Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters:  It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God. 

    ———————-

Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says. We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us. 

This Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John in his prologue, is about the arrival of a New Creation. And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit. 

Skip ahead. 

To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.” 

 And what does John show you? Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate. And what does Pilate say? 

“Behold, the adamah.” 

And later on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you? 

Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit. And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you? Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity. 

     

Water and the spirit, the sixth day. 

     

And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you? Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.

Then Easter, the first day of the week. And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what? For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.

Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them. Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day. He breathes on them. Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life. 

They’re made new again. Anothen. 

And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right. 

The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit. 

And it’s ours.

     

Here’s a long review I wrote for the latest issue of the ChristianCentury, out today:

Crippled Grace: Disability, Virtue Ethics, and the Good Life.

By Shane Clifton. Baylor University Press, 285 pp., $49.95.

One summer Sunday this year, after the last few worshippers trickled through my line to receive the sacrament, their hands outstretched like beggars, I carried the body and blood of Christ to Mary. In the early stages of multiple sclerosis, she sat behind the back pew in her wheelchair next to her husband James. 

I broke off a piece of bread and placed it between her clenched fingers. “The body of Christ broken for you, Mary,” I whispered. She chewed slowly, as though she knew better than us that her life depended upon what lay within it. James waited calmly. I watched the clock nervously. When she finally swallowed, James and I guided the cup to her lips. “The blood of Christ poured out for you, honey.” He’d stolen my line. Some of the wine dribbled out of her mouth and onto her blouse. Unwrapping the cloth from the stem of the chalice, he wiped her face clean and blotted the stain on her shirt. 

“I admire you for the way you are with her, your patience and tenderness,” I said to James.

He looked puzzled and replied, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

“Our marriage has never been better,” Mary slurred with a smile. Chastened, I carried the chalice and the crust back to the altar table as the congregation finished singing “O love, how deep, how broad, how high.”

It reveals my own handicapped Christianity that I assumed Mary’s illness and consequent disability was a hardship to bear rather than the labor pains through which she and James were becoming new creations. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say in stubborn denial that one day we may indeed find ourselves as someone like Mary—and oblivious to the possibility that, finding ourselves like her, we might discover it’s not the tragedy we suppose but is instead an occasion for grace. 

My particular surprise at Mary and James’s experience of grace stems, Shane Clifton argues in Crippled Grace, from our general reluctance to come out of the closet and live openly—vulnerably—as finite, contingent creatures. The author of Husbands Should Not Break, Clifton teaches theology at Alphacrucis College in Australia. Having been a teacher of the church’s virtue ethics tradition, from Thomas Aquinas to Alasdair MacIntyre, Clifton became a student of it after he suffered an injury while jumping a bicycle. It rendered him a complete (C5) quadriplegic.

Depression and despair followed seven months in the hospital for Clifton, but eventually his dark night of the soul yielded to happiness. Or rather, his injury and resulting disability led him to find happiness under the new conditions of his life. The good life is discoverable, Clifton shows, not in spite of his struggles with sexual function as “a crip” nor in spite of his daily “dealings with the messiness of piss and poo.” The good life opens up to him in the midst of them—because of them. 

To be disabled, Clifton observes, is to be in a near constant state of dependency upon others. Such dependency usually strikes us as an ordeal to be avoided at all costs. Says Clifton: “We hear of a person rendered a quadriplegic, and we think to ourselves ‘They’d be better off dead.’ So we say to our loved ones, ‘If that ever happens to me, turn off the machine.’” As common as such assumptions may be, Christianly-speaking they are incoherent. If that ever happens to me is unintelligible as Christian grammar since the content of Christian revelation discloses that we are dependent, contingent creatures. Those who are disabled cannot help but make visible the truth that the rest of us, crippled by fear or pride, prefer to hide: we are not in control of our lives. 

The imagodei, we too often forget, is firstly not a resemblance to the Creator; it’s the confession that we are created. As creatures, we are dependent upon our Creator, contingent in the fragile world God has wrought. In contrast to Descartes, who posited the human as primarily a thinking thing, Clifton asserts that “to be human is to be subject to the vulnerabilities of finite life.” This view offers a fresh perspective on what constitutes the human creature, since dependence and vulnerability are largely absent categories in moral philosophy. It also allows Clifton to conceive of disability in terms contrary to the prevailing notions about it. For Clifton, spinal cord injury doesn’t mark the impoverishment of his life as a human creature. Quadriplegia proves instead to be the crucible through which he becomes more human. Spinal cord injury becomes the occasion for Clifton to discover the truth of Christian speech: weakness is not the opposite of strength. 

Nor are disability, happiness, and faith contradictory terms. Clifton uses his own experience as well as the testimonies of others with disabilities to bring virtue philosophy and disability studies into conversation with Christian theology. The layered approach, marrying first-person memoir with multiple disciplines, recalls the work of another virtue ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas. Like Hauerwas’ own work, Crippled Grace has wide-ranging implications beyond the specificity of its topic. This is not a book about disability. It’s a book about mortality—about how those of us who came from the dust conceive of happiness before we return to it. 

If what constitutes us as human creatures is contingency amidst the vulnerabilities of finite life, then disability is not a specific subset of human life. It is, as Clifton writes, “symbolic of the human condition.” Disability is a lens through which all of us can understand the good life. 

The way the church engages people with disabilities is often analogous to the way the church engages people living in poverty through short-term mission projects. They become the means by which we or our children learn to count our blessings and to be grateful for our lives. Frequently people with disabilities are considered problems for the church to solve in terms of facilities and accommodations. Or they’re occasions for self-congratulation when we successfully welcome and include them. Or people with disabilities become our source material for lessons about dealing with adversity, what Clifton calls “inspiration porn.” 

CrippledGrace thrusts a very different conversation upon the church. It argues for the possibility that disabled people possess a happiness, hewed by hardship, that the abled, in their avoidance of vulnerability, have yet to countenance much less attain. 

Clifton begins the book in the same way his experience of disability began: with an attempt to make sense of suffering and the problem of pain. His experience as a sufferer thrusts him into a community of sufferers where the traditional theodicy question takes on surprising qualifications. “Why is there suffering in the world?” becomes a more ambivalent question when you discover, as Clifton did both personally and in his reading about disability, that many quadriplegics report that they would not trade their crippled life for another. The experience of disability, Clifton found, has enriched many people’s lives as “the catalyst for self-discovery.” That good can from an experience of suffering like quadriplegia does not justify or excuse God, Clifton rightly concedes. However, that good can and does come from an experience of suffering—even from an experience of suffering like quadriplegia—should give us pause before we posture ourselves like Job to rage against the mysteries of existence. The questions of theodicy we ask out of empathy with disabled people may inadvertently do sufferers great harm, tacitly dismissing the happiness they have found through the harrowing of their suffering. What for many of us is an imponderable privation in God’s good creation is simultaneously the means by which some of God’s impaired creatures discover the good life. 

Clifton understands his own accident matter-of-factly as “a contingent event that is part and parcel for what it means to be a creature of the earth.” Following MacIntyre, Clifton assumes that vulnerability, affliction, and dependency are not so much mysteries to be plumbed as they are facts of the human condition. Precisely because they are facts of the human condition, they are corollaries for any account of human flourishing. The givenness of vulnerability, affliction, and dependency in a world of contingency is the necessary condition for the balance Clifton achieves as he explores the virtues in light of disability. 

Virtue especially arises, he suggests, as a response to hardship. Therefore, the very vulnerability we lament and avoid as contingent creatures is ironically the ground necessary for us to find happiness. Those who are disabled cannot avoid the kind of dependency that the abled so skillfully avoid. This reality gives disabled people a particular and acute perspective on what the virtue tradition teaches about the good life. 

Friendships, for example, are central to human flourishing. People who are severely disabled, Clifton notes, literally cannot negotiate their day-to-day lives without relying upon the care and compassion of friends. Moreover, intimacy and mutual vulnerability constitute the fruitful friendships we call marriage. The struggles and shame, acceptance and eroticism that many disabled people experience under the covers with their partners gives them a particular wisdom about intimacy and mutual vulnerability. 

If nothing else, Clifton convinces me that people who are disabled have much to teach the church. If humility and patience are virtues, then there is no catechesis quite like the daily letting go that comes with relying on others to move you, feed you, and clean you. Luther said that the Christian life is a constant return to one’s baptism in the sense that it involves a daily dying to self. Clifton’s account of the daily dependency of disability puts skin on Luther’s claim. The dependency of those who are disabled, counterintuitively, can be empowering—for grace is the power of God that perfects our broken nature. 

Happiness, Clifton shows, is not achieved so much as discovered. Happiness is the reward happened upon by those who do not avoid our human fragility but embrace it, daring to live as vulnerably as “those who need a push” in the wheelchair. Hauerwas jokes that “a God who doesn’t tell us what to do with our pots, pans, and genitals isn’t a God worthy of our worship.” Clifton ups the ante by demonstrating that those who live vulnerably—requiring others’ help with the doing of their pots, pans, genitals, and more—just may be the mosthuman of God’s creatures. 

The dependency that is the day-to-day given of disabled people is also grist for the making of happiness. The good life that emerges from disability is necessarily a shared life. A disabled person’s stories are necessarily stories that include others, notably those upon whom the person depends. 

Although I am not disabled, I live with an incurable cancer. I know firsthand as a patient what I’ve learned secondhand as a pastor: the partners of the afflicted are afflicted too. Caregivers bear a unique burden, and it’s one that is often harder to suffer. Opportunities to grieve can be spare amid the daily demands of care. It’s one thing to lament your own lot in life. It’s quite another more complicated, guilt-inducing thing to mourn the life you’ll no longer have because of the affliction that comes to your contingent spouse. CrippledGrace would be a fuller book, I think, if it included more testimony from the partners with whom disabled people are discovering the good life. I’ve got a vested interest, I suppose, but I’d like to hear the spouses of disabled people echo that they too would not trade their life for another. 

This is a minor critique that should not distract from how upending Clifton’s work is. My takeaways were greater than I anticipated when I first cracked open the cover. I expected to close the book with a better understanding of how I should serve people like Mary, the disabled woman in my congregation. Instead I walked away convinced that my congregation might be more fully Christ’s own broken body were we to listen to Mary about life as it is lived in her dependent body. By highlighting the vantage point disabled people have on the virtues, CrippledGrace imbues people with disabilities with an agency and a (non-patronizing) spiritual wisdom that is not only unique to them but is largely absent from how they are typically regarded. 

By examining the good life through the lens of disability, Cliftonexposes just how fraught are terms like disability and handicapped. Both terms betraythe extent to which we are captured by goods that are not the Christian virtues. They designate that certain people cannot perform certain skills—namely, doing and producing things for the marketplace—as well as other people can. 

But Christianly speaking, how is this a disadvantage, much less one that should determine how we understand a person? People who are disabled are not impaired from—and may be especially equipped for—extending forgiveness, expressing gratitude, offering hospitality to a stranger, showing kindness, giving grace, absolving sins, and loving. Words make worlds, Christians believe, and words can also undo the world as God has disclosed it to us. The way we typically speak about disability shows that we’ve forgotten a Sunday School lesson Clifton ably teaches: weakness and vulnerability are God’s way of pouring out power. 

I didn’t finish Clifton’s book with Mary on my mind. I closed Crippled Grace thinking instead of my two sons. They’re both active, able-bodied, teenage boys. As an aside in his conclusion, Clifton confesses his worry that he failed in the book to use disability as a particular metaphor for the fragility of life in general. It’s a striking moment of authorial vulnerability in a book about the importance of vulnerability. But he’s wrong. It’s a testament to the success of his endeavor that I came to the end of his work not thinking about the disabled people in my life but worrying about my boys, the world in which they’re about to make their way, and the church that will or will not be there for them. 

If Clifton is correct, if to be human is to suffer the vulnerabilities of life in a contingent world and if happiness and all its composite virtues comes by how we handle those vulnerabilities, then the culture my sons are entering appears designed to make them unhappy and less than human. Seemingly at every turn, their world tempts them to filter all their imperfections through a social media sheen and to posture a public self that, in its premeditated artificiality, is the opposite of vulnerability. Increasingly, theirs is a world where relationships are virtual rather than vulnerable, online instead of incarnate. Such a world is not prepared to train my boys for the burden of being dependent on another; in fact, it expects them to have become “self-sufficient” by the time they bind their life to another by vows and rings. Worse perhaps, it’s a world where they’re encouraged to maximize every moment of their schedule to raise their score and perfect their permanent record. Such a world does not well form them to be ready with care when another becomes dependent upon them. 

While Clifton’s account of authentic humanityleft me uneasy about the world that surrounds my children, it also lent me a clearer picture of the church needed in such a world. Clifton has convinced me that what my congregation needs is not wheelchair ramps and ADA-approved restrooms so much as a wrecking ball taken to its Sunday-best pretenses. This book has convinced me that the church in the digital age needs to become more like AA. It’s not that “Hi, my name is Jason and I’m…” is the means to a more inclusive church. It’s that such a hospitality for vulnerability may be the only means to a more fully alive congregation. Early iterations of the Book of Common Prayer used to invite worshippers to confess that “there is no health in us.” Crippled Grace helps us see, regardless of ability, that this sort of frank admission of brokenness—and a candid willingness to be dependent upon God or others—is the path to happiness. 

Jason Micheli is a pastor at Annandale United Methodist Church in Annandale, Virginia, and the author of the forthcoming Living in Sin: Making Marriage Work Between I Do and Death (Fortress).

The lectionary gospel text for this coming Sunday, I noticed, is the sphincter-tightening yarn Jesus spins in Luke 15– without exaggeration the most beloved and familiar of all Christ’s parables. Thinking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son(s) and/or the Parable of the Prodigal Father (see just the naming of the parables reveals their interpretive possibilities and all the pitfalls that lie therein) got me to thinking about how we preach what are themselves Jesus’ story-form sermons.

10. The Form of the Text Should Determine the Form of the Sermon 

What holds true for preaching on scripture in general is particularly so for parables: the rhetorical form of the scripture passage should determine the rhetorical form of the sermon. A sermon on a parable should not be 3 points and a poem; it should be parabolic with a counterintuitive narrative turn that surprises and offends enough to make room for the Gospel.

9. For God’s Sake, Don’t Explain

When pressed by his disciples and his enemies, Jesus seldom resorted to the kind of utilitarian explanation that fits nicely onto a PowerPoint slide. Instead Jesus most often told stories and more often than not he let those stories stand by themselves. Rarely did he explain them and rarely should preachers do what Jesus seldom did. A parable is not an allegory with simple equivalencies between its characters and figures outside the story. Besides dwelling too long on ancient near east paternal customs or the exact equivalency of a talent in order to ‘explain’ the parable is a sure way to kill the parable.

8. Show Don’t Tell 

Similar to #9, the converting power of Jesus’ parables is the emotional affect they elicit in the listener, and they hit the listener as ‘true’ even prior or without the listener being able to put the parable’s point into words.

Preaching on the parables should focus less on explaining what Jesus said and more on doing what Jesus did; that is, the sermon should aim at reproducing the head-scratching affect of Jesus’ parable rather than reporting on it.

7. Who’s Listening? 

Jesus’ closed parables, the stories he explains not at all, tend to be the ones told in response to and within earshot of the scribes and the Pharisees and, about, them.

6. Context is Key 

Where the evangelists have chosen to place a particular parable within the larger Gospel narrative clues one into how they at least took its meaning. Matthew places the Parable of the Talents, for example, just after a parable about waiting for the coming Kingdom but just before another about our care of the poor being love shown to Christ. So is the Parable of the Talents about anticipating the Kingdom? Or is it a harbinger of that story to come, that the 1 talent servant failed to do anything for the ‘least of these’ with his treasure?

5. Create Ears to Hear  

What has made parables powerful is also what makes them difficult to preach. No longer offensive stories, they’re beloved tales whose familiarity has numbed their subversive nature. Preachers need to create new ears to hear the old stories.

To be heard rightly, preaching on parables must play with them, changing the setting, modernizing the situation, positing a contrary hypothesis about the story, or seeing the story from the point of view of one of the other characters.

4. The Idiom is Important 

Jesus’ parables are largely agrarian in imagery because that was the context in which his listeners lived. Largely, listeners today do not share such a context. Not having the familiarity with that context as Jesus’ listeners did, it’s easy for us to miss the glaring omissions or additions that Jesus casts in his parables.

To do the work they originally did, preachers should rework Jesus’ parables into the idioms of our day and place so that we can hear ‘what was lost is now found’ in our own idiom.

3. Own It (Wherein ‘It’ = Hell, Judgment, Darkness) 

Many of Jesus’ parables end with arresting imagery of eschatological judgment: sheep from goats, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and torture.

Rather than acting squeamish about such embellishment, preachers of parables should remember that Jesus was telling parables, stories whose truth is hidden in the affect of the narrative. Jesus was not mapping the geography of hell nor attempting any literal forecast of judgment’s content.

The shock at the end of many of these parables is what helps deliver the shock of the parable itself. Rather than run from such imagery or explain it away, preachers should own it and be as playfully serious about it as Jesus.

2. They’re about Jesus 

Jesus’ parables do not reveal eternal truths or universal principles about God that are intelligible to anyone.

The parables are stories told to Jesus’ disciples even if others are near to hear. They reveal not timeless truths but the scandal of the Gospel and what it means to be a student of that good news. As Karl Barth liked to point out, the parables are always firstly self-descriptions of Jesus Christ himself. Christ is the son who goes out into the far country and is brought low. As Robert Capon argues so well, the parables are all stories Jesus tells about himself; specifically, stories Jesus tells about his death. The parables reflect Jesus’ passion for the passion.

As with preaching on scripture in general, preachers would do well to remember: It’s about Jesus.

1. Would Someone Want to Kill You Over a Story Like This?

The Gospel writers tell us that the scribes and Pharisees sought to kill Jesus in no small part because of the stories he told.

Preaching that renders the parables into home-spun wisdom, pithy tales of helpful commonsense advice or truths about the general human condition betrays the parables.

Preachers of the parables are not exempt from Christ’s call to carry their cross and preaching of the parables is one way in which we do so.

200 Episodes!!! Say what?!? Listen as the guys take a trip down memory lane to talk about their favorite episodes, their white whale guests and what’s to come for the podcast Crackers and Grape Juice!

Many thanks to all of you who make this project possible. Our audience grows with each conversation and new friends come into our lives each week. If you’re so inclined, visit us at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com where you can sign up to support the show.

Be on the lookout for guests we have coming down the pike:

My friend David Zahl on his forthcoming book Seculosity

Friend of the podcast, David Bentley Hart, on Universalism

Chad Bird, Amy Laura Hall, Kate Bowles, Nick Lannon and more!


A couple of years ago I got head-hunted for several senior ministry positions by Vanderbloemen, a private church-staffing company. Just as in many other industries, local churches contract with Vanderbloemen to find, vet, and recommend candidates for open pastorates and staffing vacancies. 

 

“How’d you find me?” I asked the head-hunter. 

 

“You’ve got a large platform— came across you on the internet— you’ve got executive experience in a large church, and,  most importantly, you’re a United Methodist. We need Methodists. These are United Methodist congregations for whom were conducting the search.” 

 

And so went my introduction to the reality across our denomination.

Those who pledge fealty to the itinerant system ignore that there already are and have been for some time multiple parallel appointive systems in the United Methodist Church.

 

Around the same time I got head-hunted, for example, a prominent large church pastor who was considering an episcopal nomination conceded that in the event of his/her election to the episcopacy his/her congregation would employ a private firm like Vanderbloemen to identify a successor. Meanwhile, in every conference in Methodism there are discrete groups of “limited itinerancy” clergy who will not be moved based on a spouse’s career, children’s needs, or other factors. Conservative clergy will never be sent to certain parishes in a given conference. Ditto liberal clergy.

 

I mean— does anyone seriously believe that when Adam Hamilton retires from Church of the Resurrection that the area bishop will simply select another pastor from the annual conference to be appointed in his stead? Why should only the large, leading churches be granted such autonomy over their future?

 

Every competent pastor knows that in a congregation “anyone can serve but leaders are chosen.” Of course, in a United Methodist congregation this maxim may be true for everyone but the pastor, whom no one in the congregation chose.

 

It simply is not true that United Methodism has a single appointive system for clergy called iterancy, and this is a poorly-kept secret for everyone but parishioners in local churches most of whom continue to accept that they have, at best, a limited and passive role in the pastor who will lead them. 

In light of the massive disruption the 2019 General Conference has visited upon local churches, the question of agency in the appointive process is not a minor one. Will Willimon says the governing ethos in the Book of Discipline since our founding in 1968 is “You can’t trust the local church.” Now however— no matter where folks fall on the question of human sexuality— the ham-fisted decision-making process at the 2019 General Conference has made plain that local churches would be foolish to trust the leadership of the larger church much less tie their future to it.

 

Why should local churches, whom the larger UMC does not trust and whom the larger UMC has just done irrevocable damage, rely upon the same institution to send them, unilaterally so, pastoral leaders? 

 

Unmistakably, the fallout from GC2019 has made the local unit of the United Methodist Church more essential than at any time since our founding as a bureaucratic entity. The brand is damaged. For about half the population, we no longer are automatically the people of open hearts, open minds, and open doors. We can’t even claim any more that “Methodist means mediocre” as the UMC has just proven quite adept at harming people. Now more than ever, local churches deserve the opportunity to be empowered to make leadership decisions for their congregations’ next faithful step out of this morass. 

 

As famed Methodist theologian Albert Outler argued back in the 60’s, the Book of Discipline’s appointive process encourages clergy who are concerned more with how they’re perceived by those who fix their appointments (district superintendents and bishops) than with their effectiveness in the local parish. A system, Outler said, where pastors are delivered to local churches by an annual conference produces pastors who think their primary duty is to deliver apportionments to their annual conference. At the same time, the current practice of appointment-making, where a 1/4 to 1/5 of all clergy in a conference are moved annually, requires an inordinate amount of time from cabinent members.

 

A friend who is a DS in another conference confessed to me at General Conference:

“No sooner is the appointment process done for the year than I’m back to talking with clergy about next year’s appointments. It’s a process that justifies the staffing necessary to sustain it.”

 

This same DS observed that as his position— and even the episcopal positions— become less attractive across the connection (because of capped maxium salaries, institutional decline, and barriers to effectiveness) more and more the appointments of pastors to local churches are in the hands of people who have no firsthand experience of having led healthy, growing congregations. 

As Richard Bass, the former editor at the Alban Institute argues: the itinerant, appointive system cannot survive a new iteration of Methodism in a post-Christian culture. Nothing frustrates the missional energy of a congregation like having no agency in who their leader is.”

 

Add to this the reality post-GC2019 that, with salary and seniority still a primary driver of appointment-making decisions, local churches, who now must stake out a position in the culture war over sexuality, must trust the larger church not to send them a pastor whose position is at odds with their own. The passage of the Traditional Plan and its subsequent furor makes it unavoidable that our itinerant system of sending pastors to churches will have yet another permuation to it; General Conference has made it inescapable that every conference will have parallel appointive tracks. Given that United Methodism has always had multiple systems for fixing pastors’ appointments and that General Conference will complicate this reality even more so…

Why would we not empower all local churches with the same agency that the Staff-Parish Relations Committee at Church of the Resurrection will be granted?

 

I say all of this too not as a gripe or with any grievance about how the present process has served me. I’m a reasonably competent, good-looking white guy. The process has served me quite well and, despite all of the above, I’m grateful for it.

 

Still…

The United Methodist Church’s present system of appointment-making is now incompatible with the mission of the local church. 

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019–

 

Free local churches to interview candidates (from a slate approved by the DS and Bishop) as well as candidates the local church solicits as well and make a selection in consultation with their DS and pending the final approval by the Bishop. 

 

Such a process would retain our Discipline’s tradition of appointment-making being by the authority of the bishop, yet it would also return us to the true, original spirit of itinernancy. Our vows, after all, frame itinerancy not in terms of fealty to the larger organization but to the spreading of the Gospel. The form is meant to follow the function not vice versa. Itinerancy is meant to guarantee adaptable clergy so that the Gospel may be served best in each local congregation; it’s not meant to serve the career interests of clergy or the current bureaucratic arrangement. 

 

As I see it, giving local churches more agency in the appointment process would require SPRC leaders to be more accountable to their congregations for their role in the church’s pastoral leadership no longer will be passive. It’s more likely the pastor and parish will be able to build an effective partnership for ministry since the latter will have invested time and effort to find the former. Thus it would force local churches to be intentional about their vision and missional needs and it would share more ownership of staffing those needs with the people who know them best. In addition, it would link salary increases and effectiveness measurements more closely to performance in the local congregation than with pleasing the hierarchy.

 

It would make the connection less dependent upon layers of apportionment-funded bureucracy, and it would force clergy out of our comfortable guild of guarranteed appointments (which is not sustainable anyways) and push clergy to be more entreneurial in our ministry, an attribute that will only benefit the church. Finally, in light of General Conference, such a process will require transparency on the issue of sexuality on the part of both pastor and parish. 

 

I went through Vanderbloemen’s interview process. Mostly, I wanted to learn their methodology. 

 

The staff person in charge of the search had first spent a month at the church in question, interviewing staff people, church leaders, former employees, and random people in the community. The questions I was asked to answer totaled over a dozen pages. I eventually demurred and removed my name from consideration, but had I not I would’ve been sifted through four layers of interviews before being interviewed by anyone from the congregation itself. This compared to the single form used in my annual conference consisting of a few boxes from which SPRC members are asked to check just before Christmastime.

 

I also learned the church paid the search company a fraction of what it normally sends in apportionments to its district office.

On the final afternoon of the United Methodist Special General Conference in St. Louis, the Traditional Plan having just secured passage with a comfortable majority of votes, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor.

 

They fell on their knees and wept, praying in protest and lament.

 

Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration.

 

It reminded me of how scripture reports the dedication of the Second Temple in the Old Testament. Some of the exiles, having returned home to a razed nation, celebrated the new temple. Others, scripture notes, knew this new temple was a bullshit knockoff and wept. Of course the chief difference between the Book of Ezra and General Conference is that in the former’s case the disparity in emotions was not produced by one party doing willful damage to the other party.

 

If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity, it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box in the former home of the St. Louis Rams— this doesn’t mean, however, that it’s incompatible with United Methodism as we’ve selected to order the life of our institution.

 

The fallout from General Conference obscures a basic fact of organizations and leadership.

 That is, every system gets exactly the results it is designed to produce.

 

That the decision-making mechanism known as General Conference produced such an acrimonious, callous, and (for the life of the local church) disruptive result should not be viewed as an aberation but as the expected outcome of the system as we United Methodists have arranged it since 1968.

 

What’s lamentable, in my view, is that the passage of the Traditional Plan has now tricked many centrist and liberal Methodists into believing that what ails United Methodism now is our denomination’s position on human sexuality.

 

Finally, at long last, Methodists on the left and the right poles are unaminous. Just as conservatives have long attributed Methodism’s decline to its liberal social agenda, now liberal and even moderate Methodists think our chief problem is that our denomination has the wrong stand on sexuality. An enormous amount, if not most, of our energy as centrist and liberal Methodists will now be channeled into correcting that stand rather than addressing the system which produced such a destructive, adversarial 50/50 vote.

 

Those who believe that all would be well in United Methodism had the One Church Plan or the Simple Plan passed are living in a fantasy.

 

To be sure, the passage of the Traditional Plan has given many local churches like my own little choice but to articulate an open and inclusive position towards those LGBTQ Christians in our congregations and communities, yet what’s even more regrettable in my view is that the United Methodist Church long has victimized LGBTQ Christians (and is now scapegoating conservative African Christians) to the end of ignoring the larger illness that ails us as a denomination. A shrinking tribe finds more issues over which to fight, and United Methodism has been in decline since its inception. We’d be unwise to assume that’s anomaly. Again, it’s leadership 101. Every system gets the results it’s designed to achieve.

 

The problem in United Methodism is not sexuality but the structure of United Methodism itself.

 

In nearly 20 years I have served a variety of congregations in Virginia and New Jersey, large and small, rural and metro, blue and red. In none of those settings has human sexuality been an issue. In all of those settings, the congregations, in fits and starts, showed the ability to negotiate with grace the inclusion and welcome of the LGBTQ folks in their midst. As I’ve told my present congregation, despite its marketing posture the Traditional Plan is inherently not conservative in that it has now foisted a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution to a problem most localities were finding ways to solve on their own as congregations.

 

This is ironic given that the first Methodists to push back on the disempowering, upside-down structure of the UMC were American conservatives in the 1990s.

 

The damage done by the Traditional Plan is but the clearest and most recent evidence, I believe, that the structure of the United Methodist Church is designed to serve the structure of the United Methodist Church and not the people of the United Methodist Church.

 

The structure of the United Methodist Church itself is incompatible with the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel in word, wine, bread, and deed.

And this is not a new or novel observation (though the nature of an appointive, itinerant system makes clergy and congregants reticent to voice it). The famed Methodist theologian, Albert Outler, the dude who literally coined the term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” argued as early as 1968:

 

the structure of the newly united UMC would arrest the growth of the Methodist movement, dissipate its evangelical power, create an isolated bureaucracy, and alienate and disempower local congregations.

 

As Will Willimon paraphrases Outler’s prophetic caution:

 

“Starting in 1968, distrust of the local congregation was sewn into the ethos of the denomination by the Book of Discipline.”

 

This distrust of the local congregation transformed what had been a Wesleyan movement into a United Methodist institution and flipped connectionalism on its head. Where connectionalism once named the very practical ways congregations pursued our common Gospel mission, now it names our organizational identity (“UMCOR does great stuff!”). As a consequence, fidelity to the organization is how we define what it means to be a faithful United Methodist; such that, pledging allegiance to itinerancy is required for ordination candidates but clear, compelling Gospel proclamation is incidental. The new structure of the UMC, Outler argued, replaced the local congregation as the primary unit of the Methodist movement. Beginning in 1968, the latent governing assumption of the UMC was that the General Church, with its bloated bureaucracy and agencies, was the “real” church whose work the local congregations were responsible to fund. This assumption was echoed doubly by the way in which the UMC then replicated the General Church structure in redundant forms at the Annual Conference and District levels. It’s seen in a detail as innocuous seeming as the red and green ink in which congregations are marked out in the conference magazine according to the level of its apportionment payments.

 

The General Conference decision in St. Louis is symptomatic of a larger, older illness; namely, that the structure of the United Methodist Church is not designed nor has it ever been designed to serve the people of the local church.

 

And now that structure has done damage to the people of the local church in ways that continue to unwind in our communties.

 

As many United Methodist pastors and parishioners are now discerning ways to be inclusive of LGBTQ families, just as many should be discussing how to turn the structure itself on its head and make the UMC more compatible with the mission and ministry of the local church.

 

One such way forward— make apportionments voluntary.

 

Starve the beast.

 

General Conference cost the UMC approximately $4,000,000.00. Next year’s 2020 GC will cost at least double that amount— why should faithful United Methodists continue to contribute to an organizational system that so clearly does not have the best interests of their local congregations in mind? Even the “good” mission and service work done by the larger UMC is work that many local congregations have no hands-on, organic relationship with other than as a donor— that donor relationship is how the General Board of Global Mission wants the relationship. And that’s the problem. In every congregation in which I’ve served, the mission and service work that parishioners are most impacted by and about which they are most passionate are the local service projects and the mission work they themselves have selected to engage hands-on. Even the more meritorious work of the larger denomination (mission) is not immune from Albert Outler’s original critique that it comes at the expense of the local church’s empowerment and fruitfulness.

 

The quickest way for local churches to do something about a structure that is not designed with them in mind is to stop paying for that structure.

 

Despite how it will be received, this is not to commit a Wesleyan heresy. 

 

Apportionments only began in the Methodist Church in 1918 (curiously, around the same time the income tax was instituted) as John Wesley’s movement was beginning to mirror corporate America with its aspirations of becoming a national bureaucracy.

 

Funded by apportionments, institutional creep followed until what had been voluntary became mandatory 62 years later when the 1980 Book of Discipline removed the right of local churches to vote upon the apportionments levied on them.

Today, in my current appointment— as in my previous appointment— apportionments total nearly 1/4 of the church’s operating budget.

 

Just a matter of practicality—General Conference has now created a PR problem for many churches in their localties that apportionment dollars would be better spent addressing. Here in my neck of the woods, $250K can undo a lot of PR damage.

 

Will Willimon says the dominant ethos of the Book of Discipline since 1968 is “You can’t trust local congregations” and that the involuntary nature of apportionments is the best example of that assumption. After GC2019 in St. Louis, in which the leaders of the UMC went into a destructive, 50/50 vote that no competent pastor would even allow to happen in his or her congregation, it’s pretty clear (indeed maybe it’s the only assertion liberal and conservative Methodists could agree upon) that “you can’t trust the General Church.”

 

If mandatory apportionments were the mechanism which reflected the former ethos, perhaps voluntary apportionments are the mechanism to assert the current reality of the United Methodist Church.

Micro-Aggression

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2019 — 1 Comment

Lent 2 — Romans 3.19-24

This is a while ago now—

I’d made a promise to Ali to take steps to save money. We’d talked about cutting costs, stopping the silly spending, and making an effort to be thrifty. 

“Are you on board?” she’d asked me. 

With this tongue, yours truly— a pastor, this professional Christian— said “I do.” 

As part of our mutual cost-cutting vow, Ali and I made the decision to liberate ourselves from the People’s Republic of Verizon. 

We decided to cut the cord and get rid of our cable so that, we would get zero channels on our television. Between Netflix and Tom Brady going to the Super Bowl every year what difference television does it make?

You can imagine how popular our decision was with our children (not). 

     Even though our boys still claim to hate us and curse the day I sealed our FIOS receiver in its box and shipped it back to Weimar Verizon, Ali and I think it was a good and even necessary decision. 

     For one, we thought it was ridiculous to keep paying the mortgage payment that is the People’s Republic of Verizon’s bill— I mean, do they think we live in aiport terminals with inflated prices like that? 

     For another, we didn’t want out kids exposed to a constant stream of advertisements that train them to want and want and want and want and want. We didn’t want them inundated with promise after promise after promise that this or that could solve all their problems. 

     Of course, if you asked my wife why we got rid of our cable, she wouldn’t mention any of those reasons. No, she’d tell you it was because her husband—me—is a complete sucker for informercials. 

      A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark. And it’s true. 

Make me a promise about giving me the power to unlock the better me inside me and I’m all yours faster than you can say shipping and handling not included.

     If I was surfing the channels and I heard the words “set it and forget it” fuggedaboutit, I was hooked, convinced I absolutely needed to be able to rotisserie 6 chickens at one time. 

     If I was flipping channels and came across the informercial for the Forearm Max, I’d spend the next 2 hours shamefully amazed that I’ve made it this far in my life with forearms as pathetic and emasculating as mine. 

     If I saw the commercial for the Shake Weight, my first thought was never “that seems to simulate something that violates the Book of Leviticus, something my grandmother said would make me go blind.”

     No, my first thought was always “that looks like something I need. That will solve all my problems.”

     So we got rid of our cable, but that hardly solves my condition. There are advertisements and advice and promised solutions everywhere. 

     A couple of years ago, near Valentine’s Day, Gabriel and I went to Whole Foods to get some fish. 

     At that point, having cut the cord, I’d been on the infomercial wagon for 18 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. But guess what I discovered they were doing back by the seafood section? 

     Uh huh, a product demonstration. 

And— truth be told— I thought about my promise to Ali. And I’d meant it, I’d really meant it.

     The person doing the demonstration was a woman in her 20’s or 30’s. 

For some inexplicable, yet very effective, reason she was wearing a black evening dress that reminded me of the one worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith, which, let’s just say, got me to thinking of myself as Brad Pritt in some extended, unrated director’s cut scenes

     “Hey, let’s stick around and watch this” I said to Gabriel, who smacked his forehead with here-we-go-again embarrassment. 

     In addition to the slinky dress, the demonstrator was wearing a Madonna mic which pumped her bedroom voice through speakers, which beckoned all the men in the store to obey her siren call. 

     The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix. 

     Have you seen one? Do you own one?

     If you haven’t or don’t: the Vitamix is the blender-equivalent of that new yacht recently purchased by Dan Synder. 

     Angelina pulled the Vitamix out of its box like a jeweler at Tiffany’s. And then in her sleepy, kitten voice she went into her schtick: 

“The Vitamix is a high-powered blending machine for your home or your office. It’s redefining what a blender can do. The Vitamix will solve all your blending problems. 

With this 1 product, you won’t need any of those other tools and appliances taking up so much space in your kitchen.”

     And as she spoke, I wasn’t thinking: “Who needs a high-powered blender for their office? Why does a blender need redefining? It’s just a blender.”

     No, I was thinking…

     “This could solve all my blending problems. If I have this, I won’t need anything else.” 

     I looked to my side. Gabriel was transfixed too. 

     The first part of her demo she showed off the Vitamix’s many juicing and blending capabilities. But then to display the diversity of the product’s features, she asked the crowd: “Who enjoys pesto?”

     And like a brown-nosing boy, desperate to impress the teacher, the teacher he has a crush on, I raised my hand and spoke up: ‘“I do. I am Italian after all.”

     And she smiled at me— only at at me— and she said: “I’ve always had a thing for Italians.”

     Aheh. 

“I went to Princeton,” I blurted out like we were speed-dating and the clock was about to sound.

     “Can you cook?” she asked me. And I nodded my head, like Fonzi, too cool for words. 

     “Even better” she purred. 

     And then she pretended to be speaking to the entire crowd even though I knew now she only cared about me. 

     “Have you ever noticed how the pesto you buy in the store never looks fresh? It’s dark and its oily.” 

And all of us men, like mosquitos headed stubbornly towards the light that will be their demise, we nodded like Stepford Husbands. 

     “But when you try to make pesto at home (and she held up her hands like this was a problem worthy of declaring a national emergency) food processors and traditional blenders just won’t do will they they?” 

     And then she looked my way, like I was a plant in the audience. 

     Hypnotized, I said: “No, they won’t do” even though I’ve been making pesto since I was 10 years old and I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem. 

     She licked some of the pesto off her spoon as though it were a lollypop or a popsicle or a Carl’s Jr commercial, and and then she said in her come-hither voice: 

“I’m not married (sigh) but if I was…this is what I’d want…for Valentine’s Day.”

     I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon. 

It was like I couldn’t help myself— like I was bound and determined to do the one thing I wanted not to do.

 

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This fall Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage in Cupertino to hawk the latest generation of Apple’s wearable technology. 

The series 4 Apple Watch was itself not really new or a noticeable upgrade over its precessors. 

What was new, what was distinct, was its promise in the sales pitch: 

“It’s all new. For a better you.”

The unveiling commercial at the showcase continued with the promise: 

“There is a better you in you.” 

There’s a better you in you and with this product you will have the freedom and power to unlock it. 

The new Apple Watch is but an overt example of the same promise pitched to us three-thousand times a day. 

St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans that the Law (what we ought to do, who we ought to be) is written not just on tablets of stone but on every single human heart, believer and unbeliever alike. 

Therefore, we’re hardwired to want to do and improve. 

You’re hard-wired to want to be a better you and to build a better world. 

Because the Law is written on your heart, you’re hard-wired to be a sucker for the promise of progress. 

You’re hard-wired by the Law on the your heart to be a sucker for the promise of a better you inside you. 

And so it’s not surprising that is the very same promise dangled in front of us three-thousand times a day. From our TV screens to our Facebook feeds, from our watches to our smartphone notifications, you and I are exposed to over three-thousand advertisements a day. 

Three-thousand per day. 

Every last single one of them relies upon the Law written on your heart. 

Three-thousand times a day— the same simple, seductive formula. They identify a problem— maybe a problem you didn’t know you had until they told you you had that problem. Then they make you a promise: With this product, you can solve your problem (and maybe all your problems) and unlock the better you inside you. 

Three-thousand times a day we’re promised what the Law on our hearts deceives us to believe. 

There’s a better you in you. 

What’s my point?

There’s a better you inside of you— very often, it’s the pitch Christians make too. 

Just invite Jesus into your heart, and you’ll unlock the happier you inside of you.Your marriage will be healed. Your kids will stay the straight and narrow. You’ll feel fulfilled. 

Worship, pray, serve, give— and you can unlock the Jesus-version of you inside of you, the you who’s patient and kind and utters nary an angry word. 

With just three easy installments of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, you’ll live like Jesus, turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy-times-seven, you’ll never commit adultery in your heart and the log in your eye— shazaam, never to return. 

Not only has my Apple Watch not liberated the better me inside me, it can’t even reliably distinguish between me sitting down and me standing up. 

It failed to wake me up on time this morning, and whenever I ask Siri to play Ryan Adams music (which I won’t be doing anymore) it always plays Summer of ‘69 instead. 

Likewise, what the Church often promises about faith being the key to unlock the better you inside you— to the buyer beware.  

————————

Here’s the lie behind all those promises we’re pitched. 

Here’s the lie the Law, written on our hearts, deceives us to believe.

Here’s the lie— the you inside you is not better. 

In fact, as Jesus teaches again and again, the problem out there in the world is what comes from inside of you.

The answer to what’s wrong in the world… is you, Jesus says.

As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “…there is no health in us.”

That’s why, St. Paul tells us today, our justification comes completely by Grace, entirely apart from the Law— because we have nothing to contribute to our salvation save our sin.

The you inside you is not better. 

You’re not basically a good person who just requires a little bit of help from your friend Jesus so that you can unlock the better you inside you and live your best life now— no, that’s an ancient heresy called Pelagianism and, though it’s the most popular religion in America, it’s a lie. 

The you inside you is not better. 

The you inside you is bound. 

The you inside you is bound.

We forget— God’s grace, God’s One-Way Love, reveals not just the character of the Giver but the condition of the Receiver. 

The medicine should indicate the disease; the prescription should betray the diagnosis. You don’t require some advice or a nudge in the right direction; you require a savior.

That you require the liberating, unilateral, one-way love called Grace should tell you something about your predicament. 

As Paul Zahl says, the New Testament’s High Christology— it’s view of who Christ is and what Christ has done— comes with a correlative Low Anthropology— a dim view of who we are by nature and the good we’re capable of doing. 

Notice, today—

Paul announces the invasion (that’s the word Paul uses in Greek, apokalyptetai) of God’s grace in Jesus Christ without a single “if” here in chapter three. 

For almost three chapters, Paul’s been raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our sins, implicating each and every one of us. 

The first three chapters of Romans— it sounds like Paul’s whipping you up for an altar call until what you anticipate next from Paul is the word if. 

If you turn away from your sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you plead for God’s mercy…

If you believe THEN God will justify you. 

No— there’s no ifs there’s just this great big but, what Karl Barth says is the hinge of the Gospel, the turning of the ages: “But now, apart from the Law, apart from Religion, apart from anything we do, the righteousness of God has been revealed…” 

The grace of God has invaded our world without a single if, without a single condition demanded of you, without a single expectation for your cooperation.

Because, Paul’s already told you, you’re not capable of cooperating with a single one of those conditions. 

As Paul told us at the top of his argument in verse nine: All of us are under the Power of Sin. And the language the apostle uses there is the language of exodus. All of us are in bondage, Paul says, under the dominion— the lordship— of a Pharaoh called Sin. 

This is a Power from whom we’re never totally free this side of the grave. 

Don’t forget the Paul who celebrates the baptized walking in newness of life just after today’s text is the same Paul who laments (just after that) how the converted heart remains a heart divided against itself; such that, we all do what we do not want to do and we do not do what we want to do. 

There is no health in us.

———————-

Here’s the dark but necessary underside to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love called Grace. And, brace yourselves, in our American culture with its high, optimistic anthropology, this is going to feel like a micro-aggression, so here it comes: 

You are not free.

I’m going to say it again because I know you don’t believe it: You are not free. 

You are not free. 

Your neighbor is not free. Your mother-in-law is not free. Your co-worker is not free. Your boss is not free. Your son? Your daughter? You might already suspect as much, neither is free. Your spouse— hell, every married person already knows this is true— is not free. 

Christianly-speaking, free will is a fantasy. 

Free will is a fiction. 

And that’s an assertion upon which traditional Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, concur. Christianly-speaking, your will is not free. 

Your will is bound. 

All those promises we’re sold three-thousand times a day— they’re pitched to prisonsers not to free people (that’s exactly why they work on us!). 

I realize this is the most un-American thing I could say but to speak the language of free will is not to speak Christian. Your will is not free. 

It’s right there in Romans, the book of the Bible that the Church Fathers put in the middle of your New Testament so that you would know its importance for our faith. 

Your will is not free. Your will is bound, doing the evil you want not to do and not doing the good you want to do. 

You will is not free. Your will is torn, between a Pharaoh called Sin and a Lord named Jesus Christ; such that, all of us who’ve been rescued by grace are like the Israelites in the wilderness. 

God has gotten us out of Egypt but we’ve still got Egypt in us. 

The shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love is your bound, unfree will. 

Now don’t get your panties in a bunch, this doesn’t mean you’re a robot. It doesn’t mean that every moment of your life is pre-determined— the only thing predetermined in life is UVA Basketball’s disappointing play in March. 

It doesn’t mean you had no choice this morning between sausage or bacon, jeans or khakis. No, when Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it means that your will is not free to choose (reliably) that which is good. 

When Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it teaches that no one— because of our bondage to sin—by sheer force of will can reliably choose the right thing, which is God, for the right reason, which is selfless love. 

You might choose the good and godly thing, for example, but do you do so for the right reasons? And are those reasons even always evident to you? 

Our love compass is off—that’s what the Church means by the boundedness of your will. 

As John Wesley’s prayerbook puts it in Article X of the 39 Articles: “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and God.” 

And if all of this sounds like so much theological hocus-pocus to you, consider that Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at UVA, writes that most of us only make free, rational decisions about 13% of time— a statistic that Pat Vaughn’s wife, Margaret, corroborates. 

Most of the time, Timothy Wilson argues, we’re exactly what St. Paul says we are. 

We’re strangers to ourselves. 

Our wills follow our hearts and our reason tags along behind. 

———————-

     

     I drove that Vitamix home from Whole Foods, and I showed it to my wife, presenting it to her like a hunter/gatherer laying his bounty at the foot of his woman’s cave. 

     And then I got back in my car and drove it back to the store in order to return it because, as my wife pointed out, I already had a blender and a food processor. 

“Who convinced you to buy such ridiculous thing?” she asked me, and I quickly covered Gabriel’s mouth with my hand. 

I shrugged my shoulders. 

“I couldn’t help myself.”

And she smiled and shook her head at unfree me. 

“I know you couldn’t” she said, “I forgive you. Now go return it.”

———————-

For over six months now I’ve been preaching God’s grace to you, Sunday after Sunday. And some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to get around to giving you some advice. Some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to tell you what to do. 

And just so you know— I’ll stop preaching God’s grace just as soon as you actually start believing it. 

I’m not going to stop preaching to you God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean God’s grace isn’t practical for everyday life. 

It is practical for everyday life because everyday everywhere you go everyone you meet has a bound, unfree will. 

So here’s some advice, advice on how to see other humans in light of the Gospel. Your bound, unfree will is the necessary, shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One Way Love, but it is not bad news. 

It is the birth pangs of compassion. 

The moment you understand the Gospel’s implication that people are not as free as they think they are, you’re able to have compassion and tenderness for them. Instead of judging them for doing wrong when they should be doing right, you can find sympathy for them. 

What the Gospel teaches us about the bound will is the grace-based way to mercy. 

It’s when you mistakenly think people are free, unbound, active agents of everything in their lives, choosing the terrible damaging decisions they make, that you get angry and impatient with them. 

It’s then that you judge them. 

And it’s then that you begin to confuse what they do for who they are. 

Just because Grace is a message about what God has done doesn’t mean it has no practical implications for what we do. 

Botton line—

Grace means we look at each other with the Savior’s eyes. 

Grace means we look upon each other as fellow captives. 

As those who never advance very far beyond needing Jesus’ final prayer: “Father forgive them, they still know not what they do.”

For this latest episode, I get to crush on talk with my hero Barbara Brown Taylor while talking with her about her new book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. The author of previous books like the Preaching Life and Leaving Church, Baylor University recognized Taylor as one of the most influential preachers in the English language. I think you’ll enjoy this one.

You can get her latest book here.

This goodness isn’t easy nor is it cheap. Before you listen, help us out:

Go to iTunes, look up Crackers and Grape Juice and give us a rating— it helps others find out about the podcast.

Like our Facebook Page— how easy is that?

Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click on “Support the Show.”

There you can sign up to be a monthly or one-time donor for PEANUTS.

 

Ash Wednesday — Romans 7

“We die the way we live,” says BJ Miller, a palliative care doctor at a facility called Zen Hospice in San Francisco, “and all of us are dying.” I heard Miller give a TED Talk a couple of years ago, and last winter I read a story about him in the NY Times. 

     When BJ Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University, one Monday night, he and two friends went out drinking. Late that night, on their way back, drunk and hungry, they headed to WAWA for sandwiches. 

     There’s a rail junction near the WAWA, connecting the campus to the city’s main train line. A commuter train was parked there that night, idle, tempting BJ Miller and his friends to climb up it. 

     Miller scaled it first. 

     When he got to the top, 11,000 volts shot out of a piece of equipment and into Miller’s watch on his left arm and down his legs. When his friends got to him, smoke was rising from his shoes. 

     BJ Miller woke up several days later in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital to discover it wasn’t a terrible dream. More terribly, he found that his arm and his legs had been amputated. 

     Turmoil and anguish naturally followed those first hazy days, but eventually Miller returned to Princeton where he ended up majoring in art history. 

     The brokenness of the ancient sculptures— the broken arms and broken ears and broken noses— helped him affirm his own broken body as beautiful. 

     From Princeton, Miller went to medical school where he felt drawn to palliative care because, as he says:

“Parts of me died early on. And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around my death, and I can tell you it has been a liberation. I wanted to help people realize the shock of beauty or meaning in the life that proceeds one kind of death and precedes another.”

     After medical school, Miller found his way to Zen Hospice in California where their goal is to de-pathologize death; that is, to recover death as a human experience and not a medical one.  

     They impose neither medicine nor meaning onto the dying. Rather, as Miller puts it, they let their patients “play themselves out.” Whomever they’ve been in life is who they’re encouraged to be in their dying. 

     For example, the NY Times story documents how Miller helped a young man named Sloan, who was dying quickly of cancer, die doing what he loved to do: drink Bud Light and play video games. 

     Talking about Sloan’s mundane manner of dying, Miller said this- this is what got my attention: 

     “The mission of Zen Hospice is about wresting death from the one- size-fits-all approach of hospitals, but it’s also about puncturing a competing impulse: our need for death to be a transcendent experience. 

Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.” 

     They’re going to feel like there is something they must be doing that they’re not doing. 

They’re going to worry that they’re doing something wrong or they’re going to fear that they’re not doing enough. 

     “The dying are still very much alive and we are all dying,” BJ Miller tells the Times writer, “we die the way we live.” 

———————-

     We die the way we live. 

     He means- 

     Just as many die thinking that there’s something more spiritual or profound or meaningful they’re supposed to be doing and worry that they aren’t doing it or aren’t doing it right or doing it enough, we live with that same anxiety. 

It’s same anxiety the crowds by the lakeshore put to Jesus: “What ought we be doing so that we’re doing the works of God?” 

St. Paul says earlier in his Letter to the Romans that the Law (what we ought to do, who we ought to be) is written not just on tablets of stone but on every single human heart, believer and unbeliever alike. 

Therefore, you’re hard-wired to think that there’s something else you should be doing for God. 

You’re hard-wired to think there’s somone else you should be for God. 

In a way, it’s natural for you to think that Jesus came down from Heaven, cancelled out your debts upon the cross, but now it’s on you to work your way up to God, climbing up to glory one commandment at a time. 

The Golden Rule may not justify you before God, but with the Law written on your heart it’s not surprising you think the Golden Rule makes a good ladder up to him. 

With the Law written on our hearts, it’s natural that we live in the same exhausting manner in which BJ Miller says so many of us attempt to die. 

Indeed St. Paul writes in Galatians that this way of living is a ministry of death— it kills us. 

It kills us because tonight’s scripture, I believe, is the only empirically verifiable, objectively true claim in all of the Bible. 

Paul’s confession here in Romans 7 is an indictment of us all. None of you really know the stranger you call you. The good you want to do is very often what you do not do and the evil and damage you want to avoid is very often the very evil and damage you wreak. 

As Thomas Cranmer puts Paul here: What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants. 

We’re hard-wired to do, Paul says, but such doings end up deadly because we are all strangers to ourselves.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

———————-

Tonight, we answer Paul’s question with ash and oil. 

The way we live and the way we die— it’s natural. 

But the Gospel is not natural. 

The Gospel must be revealed. 

Because the Law comes naturally to us while the Gospel does not, we can never take the Gospel for granted. We need to remind ourselves of the Gospel over and again. So tonight we make the Gospel message plain on the best ad space available to us, our faces. 

     Even though what we’ll say to you tonight, “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return,” sounds like a micro-aggression, the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick in a Romans 7 sort of way, it is the good news of the Great Physician. 

What we make plain on your face tonight is the Gospel. 

“Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” is Gospel because for you the only death that matters is the death you have behind you. 

I’m going to say that again so you’ve got it: “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” is good news because for you the only death that matters is the death you have behind you. 

Don’t let the props get in the way— what’s important about the ash-and-oil cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross. 

    The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes. 

      We mix up our metaphors on Ash Wednesday, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt. 

     Or the sprinkling of water.

   While the words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die, the cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you already have. 

     The cross on your forehead isn’t a symbol of your sin. 

     The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death.

Your death to sin. 

     That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism. 

     “To dust you came and to dust you shall return”—- you’re gonna die— is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died the only death that ultimately matters. 

     You will die, sure. From dirt you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the Medicare runs out or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely get planted right back there. 

     But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night— meeting God in the good you wanted to do but did not do and the evil you did not want to do but did— the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died. 

     You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned. 

    What you have done and what you have left undone— what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font. 

     By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death. 

     The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away. 

     We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.

     The dust on your forehead says: “You, wretched man, were dead in your trespasses.” But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been rescued, baptized, into his death for your trespasses.” 

     The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news. 

     Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you. 

     The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple. 

———————-

    What’s miraculous, BJ Miller contends, more miraculous than empty, contrived spiritual gestures,  is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything. 

      What’s miraculous is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything, the freedom just to play themselves out.

     “My work,” Miller says, “is to unburden them from the crushing weight of unhelpful expectations.” 

     The Law comes naturally to us but the Gospel does not so tonight if the ash and oil doesn’t do it then let a triple amputee agnostic working at crunchy Buddhist hospice hospital on the Left Coast remind: it’s the work of the Gospel to unburden you from the crushing weight of expectations. 

It’s the work of the Gospel to unburden you from the accusations of all the Oughts and Shoulds and Musts— the Law— written on your heart, a heart which— at best— you know only dimly.

The Gospel is that, though what’s inside of you is about as beautiful as what we smear on the outside of you— though you are every bit as broken and busted up as those sculptures that rescued BJ Miller— nonetheless you are forgiven and justified and loved exactly as you are…FULL STOP.  

     The work of the Gospel is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question which the Law on your heart naturally compels you to ask: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?” 

     The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful: 

What are you going to do with this faith of yours now that you have the freedom not to do anything? 

What are you going to do with this life of yours now that you can live— free—with death behind you? 

What are you going to do for your neighbor now that— with death behind you— there’s nothing more for you to earn.

What are you going to do now that you have the freedom not to do anything? 

     It’s fitting then that crowd is always smaller tonight. 

Like hospice, it’s not for everybody.

The ash and oil tonight is like palliative medicine for those who are already dead in Christ.

It’s a visible, tangible reminder that you who, lives with death behind you, you’re free to play yourself out. To learn the art of living posthumously.

The ash and the oil— it marks you out as one like those busted up sculptures without the noses and the ears, broken by the Law but declared beautiful by the Gospel.

And you’ll leave here tonight not practicing your piety before others— as Jesus wants us not to do. 

You’ll leave here tonight like one of those broken sculptures inviting another broken person to discover themselves beautiful.

    

I know, it’s Ash Wednesday.

Whatever. We’re working our way through the alphabet and we thought “Trinity” would be a little unwiedly for a 20 minute conversation. So this week’s word is Transfiguration and as always Johanna is asking the hard questions. Let’s just hope her comparing Jesus to Freddie Mercury doesn’t get her struck by lightening.

 

 

Here’s another by my brother from a different mother (at least, I hope so or both of our families are f@#$#@).

I give you Drew Colby…

 

It all started one Sunday in 1787. On that day, Richard Allen, a Methodist preacher licensed to preach at the 1784 Christmas Conference, was forced by a church trustee to leave a “whites only” section of a sanctuary. Try not to read this as a commentary on the character of church trustees. Instead, read it as a sin, and a great loss, in the family history of the Methodist Church.

 

Just a few years after the American Revolution Allen and other African-Americans formed a new fellowship; but when some of them wanted to join other denominations, Allen insisted they remain Methodist, saying “there was no religious sect or denomination [that] would suit the capacity of the colored people as well as the Methodist; for the plain and simple gospel suits best for any people.” And so, after some legal battles, the AME church was formed.

 

Looking back, it is clear that Allen and the congregations that followed (AME, CME, etc.) maintained the holiness of the church by splitting, in faith. If we could go back and do this over, I believe Methodists like me would have been right to follow him out. If measured in average worship attendance and budget, the United Methodist Church has been more successful in the intervening years. If measured in righteousness, we would not fare as well.

 

More recently, in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting in a historic Charleston, SC AME church, our St. Stephen’s congregation wanted to do something to honor this church. They were not only victims of a massacre, and not only other Christians; they were fellow Methodists. They were family– estranged family–but family nonetheless.

 

We decided, for one Sunday, to use the AME communion liturgy for our own communion. It would be a way of learning from them, and of honoring the communion we believe we have in Christ. It was a holy experience for me.

 

In fact, as we prepared, I noticed how much more Anglican that liturgy actually is. So, I dug deeper into AME liturgies and their Book of Discipline. In some cases I found that this tradition has stayed better in touch with the tradition of Wesleyan Methodism than the United Methodist Church has. And, being an anglophilic liturgical snob, in many ways I liked their stuff better than ours! And so, I grieve at the effects of estrangement over time. I wish we could have kept in touch. I wish we could have stayed together.

 

Since that day I have pondered a sort of thought experiment. As the UMC considers and (mostly) tries to avoid a schism, what is to happen if a schism occurs? What if it is determined to be unavoidable–or even the will of God? Personally, I hope against hope that God will make a way forward where there seems to be no way. Nonetheless, I do wonder where everyone will go. Will one “side” get the “spoils” of trademarks, logos, pensions, Hymnals, and the Book of Discipline? Who will get “custody” of these things? And what if It is not my side that “wins,” whatever that means? Where will I go?

 

Ponder this with me: if I found myself ecclesiologically homeless, or orphaned, from the United Methodist Church, do you think the AME church would take me (back) in? Would the church that my church put out take me back? Even after we did her wrong? Is reconciliation after a split possible? Or, more broadly, is reconciliation instead of a split possible?

 

The answer may be no. For a number of reasons, it would probably be too awkward or difficult for some sort of pan-Methodist union to be born. And, let’s be honest, it would probably be even more awkward for me to become an African Methodist Episcopal pastor (I’m white, by the way). Our estrangement means we have grown terribly unfamiliar with one another, and we’d make strange bedfellows.

 

But, what if the answer were yes? What if what came out of this whole project was a re-united United Methodist Church? Imagine that. What if instead of schism, our minds were instead set on reconciliation?

 

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing Bishops’ Commission, I pray that the commission itself, and its aftermath, can be an opportunity to practice humility, repentance, and openness to the reconciliation revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. May we be open to confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation in order to experience the Easter life. I can’t help but think that my 18th century ancestors would encourage all of us to consider the negative effects of estrangement over time. To avoid these effects would be prudent. To heal them would be a miracle.

The Church’s One Foundation: verse 4

’Mid toil and tribulation,

And tumult of her war,

She waits the consummation

Of peace forevermore;

Till, with the vision glorious,

Her longing eyes are blest,

And the great Church victorious

Shall be the Church at rest.

For the record—

I think opposition and resistance to the Traditionalist Plan in the UMC need not equate to a progressive (I hate that term— it’s elitist) United Methodism. In fact, I think if opposition to the TP leads to or becomes synonymous with a progressive Christianity then GC2019 will only hasten our decline. Theologically speaking, I am not progressive. 

I happen to think that, on the one hand, the Traditionalists are not really traditionalist in that their chief concern, sexuality, is not a matter of creedal confession and, on the other hand, the justification of the ungodly is the most inclusive and traditional doctrine possible. A bare-knuckled, unapologetic Pauline understanding of grace makes our holiness-enforcing and bickering over inclusion unintelligble as Christian speech.

Masked by the Traditionalist Plan’s regressive treatment of gay United Methodists is the larger structural problems in the denomination and the longer historic acrimony of which GC2019 was but the latest skirmish.

As Diana Butler Bass shared at a gathering of pastors and laity in my home this weekend: “Those who think that if the One Church Plan had passed all would be well in the UMC are living a fantasy.”

Had the One Church Plan passed a different 50% of the UMC would now feel aggrieved and victimized. That the math and the felt outcome would not have changed— and that the council of bishops were unable to avoid any other outcome— shows the extent to which the UMC is broken. 

Christians are good at burying the dead. 

Christians are seldom good at giving a funeral to church programs or polity.

Brad Todd, a good friend and parishioner, shares these thoughts on GC2019:

“The United Methodist Church has finally admitted this week that it’s not united at all but what’s worse is that few in the nation’s second-largest (for now) Protestant body seem to even understand why. 

After a divisive global gathering of the denomination to sort out policies on gay ordination and gay marriage, I have been more dismayed by the way my fellow Methodists have reacted to the conference than by anything that was decided at the conference – and I think I’d be saying that no matter which side ended up on the 47 end of the 53-47 vote. That event was ill conceived and destined to fail no matter how the votes fell. Almost all American Methodists speaking out this week express angst about the church’s future – but these emotions, on both sides, are mostly unconstructive and not aimed in the direction of our problem.

The United Methodist Church’s unfixable rot has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with polity.

For the purposes of argument let’s totally set aside for the next 1,200 words what I believe is a symptom of our problem – the debate over church’s positions on homosexuality – and focus on the tectonic plate structure that ripped us open at that specific fissure. It’s not that I don’t think the debate over sexuality is one we can respectfully have, but I think people like my pastor Jason Micheli have accurately noted that the Methodist left and Methodist right have both pursued this legalistic question far outside the dominant shadow that should be cast by our shared commitment to spreading a theology of sin-cleansing Grace, and only sin-cleansing Grace. 

So for a moment, let’s assume both sides on this question have enough sin and wrong to go around and look behind the way we got to this food fight.

And while we’re at it, let’s junk the faction labels crudely borrowed from secular politics (my chosen profession, incidentally) and use centuries-old, value-positive religious analogies instead – let’s call those who want to change the Book of Discipline’s policies on gays “reformers” and those who like the current policies “orthodox.” 

For decades in the last century, orthodox Methodists protested the drift of the UMC on societal issues and personnel policies but their objections were beaten back by the majoritarian, procedurally rigid, top-down polity of the denomination’s quadrennial conferences. 

An insulated, career-tenured church bureaucracy functionally ignored the unrest in the years between conferences. But eventually, as mainline American Christians began making church a thing of their memories and not of their lifestyles, the numbers got away from the old majority in the UMC – and the people I’m now calling “reformers” became outnumbered by a booming population of orthodox Methodists in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. This week in St. Louis, those globally-diverse orthodox Methodists used the same rigid majoritarian polity to stuff all notions of reform on gay marriage and ordination policies.

Too few got the irony of a mostly-white losing faction using rainbow avatars to deride the lack of inclusiveness of a real rainbow coalition on the orthodox side.

This omission once again should have proven that the problem is polity and not people.

The United Methodist Church as we know it was forged in the post-war era dominated by national brand conformity and big, top-down, bureaucratic solutions. From government to beer brands to department stores, the age that spawned the UMC created national behemoths in almost every consumer category. But today, Sears & Roebuck is in bankruptcy and Amazon is creating a hundred million different, individualized department stores on the smartphones of a hundred million Americans. In politics, a reality show act with a can’t-miss Twitter account created an organic movement that blew up both political parties in the 2016 election. In The Great Revolt, the book I wrote with journalist Salena Zito, we attempted to put that election in the light of every other change that has happened in our economy in the 12 years since the smartphone was introduced. This Methodist failure should also be put on that timeline.

Why should United Methodists think our musty, unresponsive, hierarchy is going to fare any better in this moment of individual empowerment than any other fat, slow post-war monstrosity? 

You simply cannot force people to change their minds or trust your brand today. 

Organizations that dictate from the top are doomed to fall in consumer-led coups. 

Sometimes those coups elect Donald Trump, sometimes those coups nearly nominate Bernie Sanders, sometimes those coups send your company to bankruptcy, and sometimes those coups split your denomination.

The likelihood of this failure in Saint Louis was entirely foreseeable – the numbers are the numbers. But the bishops and ordained church leaders and staff who cooked up the one-sided reform plan ignored the denominational dynamics they’d put in place over the last three decades, and chose to never look in the mirror. Now they seem shocked that the orthodox delegates wouldn’t accept what they smugly dubbed the “One Church Plan” (a title reeking of “do this or else” sentiment) crammed down their throats. The back up Connectional Plan – which would’ve split the church into three quasi-autonomous strains – raised so many long-lead constitutional questions that it had no chance among the delegates, reflecting the fact that it was proposed ten years too late. But tone deaf bureaucracies are always late to the party with the answer that would work. It’s the nature of the arrogance of unchecked power.

The inherent impossibility of running a bottom-up religion with top-down bishops and winner-take-all conference showdowns is the crisis Methodist now must address if we are to quit sniping at each other long enough to get back to the work of spreading the good news of Christ – together or apart.

Next year in Minneapolis when Methodists gather again for the regular global conference, this reform of our polity should be the only item on the agenda. Let’s blow the whole thing up and replace the cathode-ray tube governance model with a digital-age grass roots structure that puts congregational work first.

It might look something like this:

  1. Make a denomination wide commitment to evangelism, above all social activism and even the good work of the church. A shrinking army argues more than a growing one, so it will be good for governance and has the added benefit of being the one thing Christ compelled the church to do (sarcasm intended.)
  2. Allow any UMC church that wants to leave the denomination with its property to gracefully do so, provided they assume any debts associated with the property. Deed over all other church properties to the congregations that remain. Make it clear that no congregation is held captive. The mother church must earn the trust of its congregants every day and a land-poor mother church will be a more responsive mother church.
  3. Make the job of bishop a 5-year, one-term job to be completed at the end of a ministry career. Refashion the job to be a congregational consultant and ministerial mentor instead of the current role of administering a needlessly complicated system of itinerancy and moderating parliamentary procedure.
  4. Dismantle the bulk of the central denominational staff via generous early retirement packages. Every other industry has right-sized itself in the last decade – and many of them gave up middle management layers that were less flabby and failed than ours. Devolving power away from the central organization of the denomination is essential to sustainability in the new age of smartphone connectionalism. Keep only the departments and agencies that provide direct services to congregations, and trim even those. 
  5. Spin off the mission functions of the denomination to separate entities that are sustained only on voluntary subscription payments from congregations. As Christians we believe we are all called to mission – so our denomination should trust Christ to adequately do the compulsion.

Critics of my plan will say that this is incompatible with the inherently catholic notions of pastoral authority that have been embedded in Methodism since our founder John Wesley came from the Anglican tradition. They are right. But Bible-centric orthodox Methodists will surely agree that this pastoral authority model has few plausible New Testament roots and modern reform Methodists have to admit that this system no longer works for any of us no matter how we got it or how long it took them to realize they will never again have the numbers to run the machine.

Dueling speakers on the floor of the St. Louis conference extolled, in alternating speeches, the need for Methodism to focus on the teachings of the Bible and on the need to reach a new generation for Christ. They are both right. We need a new polity to achieve both – or either – aspiration.

Our secular politics has devolved into a poisonous frenetic cycle in which the second line of any dialogue is either: “you’re a bigot” or “you’re a traitor.” Now we’ve let those same slurs come to define how church people talk to each other. We have a better model than that.

Forgive us of our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

 

 

Exodus International

Jason Micheli —  March 3, 2019 — 1 Comment

Transfiguration Sunday — Luke 9

    If you’ve endured more than a handful of sermons in a United Methodist Church, then, chances are, you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go. 

     I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus all wrong. 

If you’ve sufferd through a few sermons on the Transfiguration, then you already know I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience instead of rolling up his sleeves and going back down into the valley of life where we are called to serve the least, the lost, and the left behind (which, for the record— just so you get to know your pastor a little better— is my least favorite Christian cliche). 

But that’s how preaching on the Transfiguration is supposed to go, right? 

The way down the mountain is almost always a descent into moralism— about how discipleship is about going back down into the valley, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and embrace the outcast and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm in front of their non-Christian co-workers. 

     If you’ve endured more than a few Sundays in the mainline church, then you already know that’s usually the way preachers preach this text on the Transfiguration: Don’t rest in Christ.  Go back down the mountaintop, back into “real life,” and do like Christ.

     Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think that’s the only  option allowed. 

——————

     Except- 

If Peter is wrong, if this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, then when Peter professes “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” why doesn’t Jesus correct him? 

     Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

     Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about resting in me. It’s about doing like me, for the Son of Man came not to serve but to send you out to serve?” If Peter’s suggestion that they rest there is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does just before this scene and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’ If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?  It’s not an idle question.

      In fact— pay attention now— here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him. 

You got that? This is the only instance in the Bible where someone says something to Jesus and Jesus doesn’t reply. 

—————-

     Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, most of the time we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice. 

     There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this preview of the Gospel message into moralism. 

     Just think- 

     What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching— how we should go and do what he doesn’t seem to understand he should go and do? Which is but a way of making ourselves the focus of this story. 

     Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down. More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that the takeaway from the Transfiguration is not what we must go down and do for God through our good deeds or holy living. The takeaway from the Transfiguration is what God is about to go down and do for us. 

For ALL of us. 

For ALL of us. 

I’m going to say it again— for ALL of us.

The Transfiguratin is about what God is about to go down and do.

Once for ALL. 

The Transfiguration— it is a preview of the Gospel. 

————–

Luke spells it out for you:

Just before this scene, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the super-pious holiness enforcers, and get crucified by an angry crowd taking the only democratic vote in scripture (“We want Barabbas!”)

Next scene, today’s scene: 

Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, are there on this mountaintop “speaking with Jesus about his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

Accomplish. 

Luke doesn’t say Jesus was about to experience something unfortunate or unintended in Jerusalem. He says accomplish.

It’s vogue among preachers today to downplay the crucifixion, but when you read the Gospels straight through you discover that not only does Jesus talk about his death all the time, he speaks of it as a necessity. 

He speaks of it as a mission he will accomplish.

Luke says here that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a departure that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  

And the Greek word Luke uses for departure? Any guesses?

Exodus. 

They’re talking about the exodus he will accomplish in Jerusalem.

You see, what St. Luke shows you here on the mountaintop is what St. Paul tells you in his Letter to the Romans: that our baptism into Christ’s death— it is our exodus from the Pharaoh called Sin.  In case you miss that point— Luke piles on the clues. He tells you about Jesus’s shining happy people face and his bedazzled Rick Flair clothes.  And Luke tells you that Moses and Elijah appeared there in glory.  And that Christ became it. Became the glory That Christ was transfigured before them into glory.

————–

Luke doesn’t throw around glory as just any generic adjective. 

It’s like Indiana Jones asked in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” 

In the David story, the glory of God is what spilled forth from the ark of the Law and struck an innocent bystanding boy named Uzzah dead. That’s 2 Samuel 6. That’s why Indiana Jones tells Marion to close her eyes when the bad guys open up the ark— he knows the Uzzah story.

And likely, Indiana Jones knows too that the glory of God is what dwelt in the Temple. 

In the holy of holies. 

Behind the temple veil. A veil that was there— pay attention now— not to protect the holy God from sinful us.  A veil that was there— by God’s own mercy and design— to protect sinful us from the holiness of God. 

Elijah and Moses appeared to them on the mountaintop in glory, Luke tells us. 

The glory of God transfigured Christ, Luke tells us. 

And Peter and James and John beheld the glory, Luke tells us. 

Notice what Luke doesn’t tell us— they lived. 

They lived. All three of them, they’re like Harry Potter. They’re the boys who lived. 

Peter and James and John— sinners all, Peter maybe most of all— beheld the umediated glory of God, loosed from the Temple, in the flesh in the transfigured Christ, and they did not receive the wage their sins had earned them. 

They were not struck dead. 

They lived. 

That’s why they walk away dead silent. 

They were dumbfounded by this preview of the grace of God where another’s death will do for undeserving sinners. 

————–

    All the news in the United Methodist Church this week, all of the acrimony over inclusion and acceptance, on the one hand, and sin and holiness, on the other hand— it can obscure a basic presupposition of the Bible that’s implicit here in the Transfiguration. 

What even Indiana Jones knew that all those folks at General Conference in St. Louis seemed not to know is this basic Gospel grammar:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

(So who are we to draw lines?)

What makes you a child of God isn’t anything inherent to you or achievable by you. Not a one of you. All of us— the gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. So great, in fact, that when we even begin to argue about whether this or that is a sin is to have lost the Gospel plot. 

     You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

     You have to be rendered acceptable. 

     You have to be made acceptable. 

You are a child of God not by birth but by adoption— an adoption that St. Paul calls an exodus, our baptism into Christ’s death.  You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are— not a one of us. That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple where glory lived, and it’s the assumption that leaves Peter and James and John speechless after they run into that glory on the mountain.  

To understand this you have to go back to the Book of Leviticus. 

Once a year a representative of all the people, the high priest, would draw the short straw and venture beyond the temple veil, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the glory of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord. Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord. Acceptable to be counted among God’s People.

     After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

     And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away into the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God. 

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God veiled in glory as alien from the New Testament God we think we know. But, as Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. 

    We’re meant to see them as preparation. 

We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice. 

That’s exactly how the New Testament Book of Hebrews frames Jesus’ death: 

As the perfect sacrifice for sin. 

    One sacrifice. Offered once. 

The temple veil is no longer needed. 

The glory of the Holy God need be feared no more.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

Such that now our justification before God is based not on who we are or what we’ve done but on who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ. 

Because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice— because of our exodus, our baptism into his sacrifice offered in our stead— our acceptablity before God— for all of us— must always and forever be spoken of in the past, perfect tense. 

It has been accomplished.

It is finished.

Ephapax is the word the Bible uses to describe the sacrifice, which Luke here calls an exodus. 

Ephapax: “once for all.” 

For all sin. 

For past sin. For present sin. For future sin. 

Ephapax. 

Once for all sin. 

Once for all those believers adopted by the baptism of his blood.

————–

So why in the hell are some arguing in the United Methodist Church about who is and is not compatible with Christian teaching? 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

According to the survey I sent, there’s two dozen LGBTQ people in this congregation.

If you think they’re the ones incompatible with Christian teaching, you need to read your Romans, or try the Sermon on the Mount on for size (Be perfect?!). 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching. Why are we dividing Christ’s Church by arguing over who is acceptable? None of us— not a single one of us— are acceptable. All of us have been made acceptable.

Don’t you see—

The cross of Jesus Christ already contains everything conveyed by a rainbow flag.  

God judges not a one of us according to us. God judges every one of us according to Christ— according to Christ’s perfect (once for all sin, once for everybody) sacrifice. 

Such that, now, by grace alone— not by what you do or who you are— by grace alone— now, like those three disciples on the mountaintop today, you and I (though sinners we are and sinners we always will remain)  We can sleep easy before the glory of God.

We can sleep easy before the glory of God. 

Luke shows you in their sleeping what St. Paul tells you: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…there is therefore NOW NO CONDEMNATION…NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS.”

Why are we arguing when all of us— gay or straight, liberal or conservative, married or divorced, addicts or clean, racists or sexists or homophobes, skinny or not so skinny, black or white or brown, male or female (or somewhere in between), old or young, rich and poor, even people who actually like Maroon 5…all of us sinners have been made acceptable.

Not by our behavior.

Not by by our belief.

But by our baptism.

By our baptism into his departure, his exodus, his once for all death accomplished for you, for your sin…by our baptism, you and I— still in our sins— we can sleep easy before the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel. 

Everything else— every single other thing we can say—is the Law not the Gospel. 

And Christ is the end of the Law, scripture says. 

For freedom from the Law, Christ has set us free, scripture says. 

That’s the other takeaway Luke wants you to see in this preview of the Gospel. 

Jesus appears there with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, because the Law— with all of its demands for holiness, all of its expectations of a lifestyle compatibile with its commands— the Law ends in Jesus Christ. 

Full stop. 

Moses and Elijah appear there in glory but their glory fades. 

The glory of God is the Christ who delivers grace. 

You see—

Christianity is either all grace (what God has done for you) or it’s all works (what you must do for God). 

Grace and Works— they’re mutually exclusive. 

That is the insight of the Protestant Reformation. 

If it’s not all of the former, it is all of the latter— no matter the lip service you might pay to grace.

Any attempt to balance or blend grace with works destroys the very notion of grace. 

It muddles the Gospel with the Law. It creates a kind of Glawspel, which is exactly the sort of toxic religion I witnessed this week in St. Louis. 

Everything that is not the Gospel of grace is the Law.  

And as soon as you make Christianity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands— it’s funny how, as much as we fire off scripture at each other, we don’t much quote that scripture. 

As soon as you make Christiantity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands. And thus far, only one guy has been able to clear that bar. He was as perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. 

So why don’t we worry about proclaiming what Christ has done for us— for ALL OF US— instead of yelling at each other about what we think the other ought to do for Christ?

————–

Whenever you make Christianity about the Law— about living a life compatible with the commandments— you become a debter to every single one of its demands. 

Don’t you see?

That’s why this is the only place in all of scripture that Jesus doesn’t reply. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t rebut him. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t say “Get behind me, Satan.” 

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here— at least, it should be.

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here. 

It is good for us to see that the Law, according to which not one of us measures up, ends in the glory of his grace; so that, the Law is fulfilled in us not through our pious deeds or holy living but through faith alone. 

Faith alone in the Gospel of grace is what reckons to you the credit of a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching. 

That’s not just good news. 

That’s the good news.

So Peter is right.

It is good for us to be here. 

Because the Church is the only place in the world— at least, it should be— twhere we can lay down all our burdens of what we ought to do but don’t and what we oughtn’t do but did— this is the only place where we can lay those burdens down and rest. 

Rest in his grace.

————–

On Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, after the vote, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept.

Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration. 

If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity— it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.

Peter is right. 

Until we learn to lay down the Law and go cold turkey from commandment-keeping and holiness-enforcing, until we learn to rest in Grace, every journey back down the mountain will be a descent that leaves the Gospel behind. 

So come down to the Table. 

And roll up your sleeves. 

Come down to the Table. 

Where Christ invites you not to serve but to be served. 

Wine and bread. The Body and Blood. The tangible promise of grace. 

Come down.

Taste and see the goodness of God  that is yours. 

Not as your wage, something you earn. 

But as your inheritance, something that’s yours by way of another’s death, something that is yours as an adopted child of God. 

       

     

The podcast team caught up with Emma Green from The Atlantic to talk about the implications of what occurred at the Special General Conference in St. Louis. Emma argues the storyline coming out of #GC2019 is a common storyline being experience throughout the United States: a breakdown or inability to live in community with people who we disagree with. This struggle to maintain community is causing fracture throughout institutions that once held up our communities.

Emma Green is a staff writer at ​The Atlantic, where she covers politics, policy, and religion.

https://www.theatlantic.com/author/emma-green/
https://twitter.com/emmaogreen

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Like scores of other United Methodist pastors, I wrote the following letter to my congregation on my way back from General Conference in St. Louis. I thought it might be helpful to share it here as well.

Hi Folks, 

If before this week you had been paying only minimal attention to matters in the larger United Methodist Church, then you’re likely well-aware that something happened this week. Many of you have forwarded me articles from the NY Times, NPR, Washington Post, et al about the General Conference here in St. Louis. Even more of you have reached out to me over email and text to express confusion, saddness, and anger. Some of you have conveyed that you’ve either decided or are considering leaving the United Methodist Church. Some staff even have acknowledged that this makes them reassess their work relationship to the UMC. 

I understand.  

Ask our last bishop, I’ve never been a company man. I don’t intend to start now. 

So before I communicate anything else about General Conference’s decisions and what they mean for Annandale UMC, let me clear: we’ll still be having church come Sunday morning; that is, what happened here in St. Louis in no way changes the ministry of Annandale UMC. What Annandale UMC did last week to proclaim the Gospel of grace in our context is what Annandale UMC will be doing next week to proclaim that same message. And I believe— to the point where I’d get another job were it not so— that the Gospel of grace is unintelligible apart from the good news that all are welcomed by Christ and, by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, all are incorporated into Christ. 

I often joke that the Church would be healthier if church people, pastors especially, actually read Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I’m not in a joking mood today, but I’ll double-down on my point. It makes absolutely no Gospel sense to me to divide the Church according to who’s in and who’s out when Paul tells us in Romans that by our baptisms we’re all already in Christ. We’re not speaking Christian when we draw lines according to some righteousness equation when Paul tells us unequivocally in Romans that not one of us is righteous. We’ve muddled the Gospel into G-law-spel when we presume to have achieved a righteousness of our own through our holy-living or right-believing. Paul tells us in Romans that for all of us righteousness is not achieved but received— through our baptisms. We have been have been gifted with an alien righteousness— Christ’s own righteousness. It’s been given to us not through the Law but through Grace. And Grace is always an undeserved gift because Grace grants what you could never earn. What makes us a “child of God” is not anything inherent to us by birth nor anything we accrue in life; what makes us a ‘child of God” is our adoption by Christ through his death for us.

I wish more Christians would actually read Romans because it’s there God gives us the most inclusive of all doctrines:

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

As I repeat all the time to you on Sundays: Christ came not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or salvage the salvageable. Christ came to raise those who are dead in their trespasses. God’s Grace isn’t cheap; it isn’t even expensive. 

It’s free.

It turns out that it’s costly when we forget that Grace is free. Indeed I fear our Gospel amnesia has broken the United Methodist Church.

These past few days have only confirmed for me how easily we end up with a toxic form of Christianity when we fail to make this distinction between Law and Grace.

What I witnessed at General Conference in the tit-for-tat of weaponized parliamentary procedure was a whole lot of people preaching the Law at one another, liberals and conservatives alike. The Law of Inclusivity vs. The Law of Biblical Authority with all the unsurprising talking points and proof texts marshalled to their sides. All this Law-laying left no room for Grace. Without Grace, there can be no charity, and without charity compassion remains only a concept.

I realize all this sounds overly theological compared to what you’ll read in the Atlantic or USA Today this week, but theology matters— especially now. 

What I witnessed from the press box in St. Louis is a theological failure. Over the last four days, 864 delegates have argued (in often unholy and callous tones) about what constitutes a “lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not only is this unfortunate, it’s unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because the Gospel truth is right there in Romans as plain as the nose on your face: 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

So, before I get into the weeds of what the hell happened I want you to know that you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re LGBTQ, you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. Notice, I said still. The unfortunate part of this decision is that it fails to appreciate how local churches already have, in fits and starts, figured out ways to be inclusive. Speaking of inclusivity, if you’re an outright, unapologetic homophobe you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church, too. If you’re somewhere between those poles still working out your own convictions on this question, you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re conservative, you’re welcome. If you’re liberal, you’re welcome. We’ll take you if you’re too skinny, if you thought Green Book actually deserved Best Picture, and even if you post annoying status updates whenever you’re exercising at the gym. 

If all Christ requires of you is your need, then we as a church need nothing from you in order for you to participate fully in the Body of Christ. 

While we’re on it, recent events have made it so I can longer be coy in my own beliefs: I believe marriage and ordination are very clearly vocations through which we live out our baptism. The liturgy makes that point crystal clear. And most Methodists get baptized long before they’ve figured out their sexuality— so if you’re LGBTQ and feel God is calling you to one of those vocations, I want you to know that you’re welcome here with me to discern God’s call upon your life. It’s been my experience that Jesus, in his great humor, persists in calling queer people and I’m enough of a biblical literalist to think we ought not tempt God by thinking we can put up barriers to God’s work in the world. 

Bottom Line—

No matter what a handful of bureaucrats and lobbyists in St. Louis insist, I say all of you are welcome here because the Gospel says the basis for your inclusion is not your goodness but your ungodliness. All you need for admission is your sin and I’ve been your pastor long enough to know that you all, gay and straight, have got that covered. 

Take a deep breath because I’m about to pivot to Church business, and the business of the denomination couldn’t be further from the Gospel. 

On Tuesday afternoon, as you’ve no doubt read in the papers or heard at your kid’s bustop, 438 delegates to 384 (53% to 47%) voted to adopt the Traditionalist Plan. As a pastor, I would never allow such a close, divisive vote to happen in our congregation but that’s exactly what happened here because both sides in the UMC have been playing this brinksmanship, winner-take-all game since before I became a Christian. The General Conference also considered several and approved one plan that would allow for churches to exit from the United Methodist Church with their assets and property.

After the vote, many wept and gathered to pray in the center of the floor in protest. Meanwhile, another group— only an arm’s distance away— sang, clapped, and danced in celebration. The mutual hostility and callousness were bracing.

If you don’t believe in original sin and low anthropology, this would have convinced you.

The Traditionalist Plan not only keeps our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language about homosexuality, it aims to ramp up enforcement of it, expediting the punishment of pastors, bishops, and congregations who marry or ordain LGBTQ Christians. Covering the General Conference as press for my podcast, I can tell you how I was surprised by the sheer number of gay clergy and gay clergy couples in attendance. In other words, parts of the United Methodist Church have found ways, despite the Book of Discipline’s restrictive language, to marry and ordain LGBTQ people. The One Church Plan would’ve protected this reality while respecting traditional norms in other contexts and cultures of the global Church. The Traditionalist Plan does more than maintain the Book of Discipline; it eliminates what has become a norm in many parts of the Church in America. 

This is what my friend Bishop Will Willimon (who is nobody’s idea of a progressive) meant when he said to the Washington Post:

“This is not a victory of “tradition,” but another lurch toward punitive, exclusionary practice.”

The finance department of the denomination, for example, had cautioned the delegates before this week’s General Conference that the Traditionalist Plan was the one option before them that would break the UMC’s pension system because the new degree of loyalty to the Book of Discipline it will demand from churches and pastors likely will mean an exodus of centrist and progressive pastors and churches from the denomination. 

Just last night, Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest church in the UMC, announced that he’d be convening a gathering of like-minded pastors and lay people after Easter to begin discussions about a new form of Methodism in America. Meanwhile, the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC is preparing to leave the denomination. The New England Conference has already announced it will not abide the decision. I realize all this could sound alarming, but I think I owe it to you to tell you what I know. Pending a Judicial Council review of parts of it, the Traditionalist Plan will go into effect in January 2020. If the Judicial Council overtuns the Traditionalist Plan, a real possibility, then it is probable that the traditionalist wing of the denomination (the global, but not American, majority of the denomination, keep in mind) will exit with their property and assets. General Conference was already scheduled to meet this time next year so the fight will continue. However, because of the rate of growth in the global church, the traditionalist delegation will only be greater moving forward. 

How Methodists have structured ourselves as a denomination for these past decades is clearly broken— that may be the only observation on which the General Conference delegates would concur and would require no translator. And it was no small part of the sadness I heard from older pastors. Of course, we’ve only structured our Church this way for a relatively short amount of time and, truthfully, United Methodists have never really been all that united. As Will Willimon put it:

“what’s passed for church unity for the last 40 years in the Methodist Church is a kind of bureaucratic, rule-driven, top-down, corporate-America type unity. If that unity is disrupted, that puts us back to where we’ve always been: That’s a gathering by Christ of all kinds of people that make up the church.” 

Any honest United Methodist pastor or parishioner who’s not been in a coma during our institutional gatherings already knew the way things have been cannot be for much longer. The status quo needed disruption. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, by giving the United Methodist Church this disruption, has actually blessed it. 

What’s the way forward now that the Way Forward has brought us here? 

All this House of Cards-like ecclessial maneuvering gives you, Annandale UMC, three possible responses. There’s probably more, but three sounds biblical. 

1. You can celebrate the passing of the Traditionalist Plan. 

2. You can watch for the Judicial Council’s ruling on its constitutionality while aligning with like-minded congregations to amend it, undo it, or resist it.

3. You can discern if you want to stay within the United Methodist Church. I’ll get in trouble for acknowledging number three but I’ve told you I believe in transparency, and the reality is other churches will be talking about it so you may as well know it’s on the table.

The survey about the Way Forward I asked you to complete in the fall tells me that most of you don’t have the stomach for number three. Likewise, it tells me that even the traditionalists among you aren’t going to much like the tone of the Traditionalist Plan. That puts most of you somewhere in the neighborhood of number two. 

This isn’t a conversation a pastor with six months in a congregation would ever want to have with a new church, but I believe I would be a bad leader if I pretended like everything was fine and was going to be fine. 

The United Methodist Church is going to be different, no matter what happens. 

I don’t invite conflict into my life, but I’m not afraid of it. Moving forward, we’re going to need to have conversations about this as a congregation, and we need to be honest that not everyone will like that we’re having the conversation. Some may not like where it goes. And that’s okay— after all, what got us into this mess was the expectation for uniformity of belief. What’s not okay, from a leadership perspective, is to wait passively for events to unfold and roll like a tsunami against your church.

However you feel about #1-#3 above, no matter if you would’ve voted at General Conference for the Traditionalist Plan or the One Church Plan, here’s what we should all be able to agree upon. The headlines in the news outlets coming out of General Conference have portrayed the UMC as a prejudiced, bigoted, and homophobic institution. Many in our community won’t take the time to learn the ins-and-outs of our polity to understand how and why the vote went as it did. They likely won’t even read the story. They’ve just seen the headlines shared across social media.

Like it or not, we’re now going to have a perception problem, made all the more tragic because it’s a perception I do not think corresponds to the character of our faith community. 

Whatever is the way forward, I believe it begins with us, both individually and as a congregation, being the local PR in Annandale for the United Methodist Church. We need to find ways to communicate clearly and tangibly the good news:

God’s Grace does not require us to have a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching.  We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching.

After this week and its unhelpful media blitz, I think that work of welcome should probably start with the LGBTQ folks in our pews. If you’re reading this, I want you to know that God’s Grace is for sinners, which makes you every bit as welcome as me*. 

Jason

*Actually, I’m clergy. Next to lawyers, we’re always the bad guys in Jesus’ stories. So you’re probably more deserving to be here than me. 

The team caught up with Diana Butler Bass on the eve of the conclusion of the UMC’s Special General Conference. She offers thoughts about the historical and theological significance of a denomination’s discernment over human sexuality.

Also, while I’ve got you check out some of the other interviews we’ve done here at General Conference in St. Louis: digesting the first surprising news about the failure of the One Church Plan with Christy Thomas and a conversation with Jeff and Steve Mullinix, a married couple from Ohio.