Blessed Are You

Blessed are You

The Beatitudes

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

I want to start by thanking those of you who joined in the prayers for the General Conference. If, or when, those prayers were answered I do not know. As I followed the developments over the four days I became more and more filled with dread. I did not attend the Conference in person, but Sue Ann Spencer and Rodney Ward represented Grace UMC there. We’ll have a chance to hear their first-hand reflections next Sunday during the Sunday school hour. If you’d like to read our Bishop Mike McKee’s official response to General Conference I printed copies on the table in the hallway.

The purpose of this special General Conference was to resolve United Methodism’s four-decades long debate over human sexuality. This began in 1972, when language stating homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” was inserted into our Discipline. The official stance of the church is that openly gay and lesbian people, while considered “persons of sacred worth,” may not pursue ordination. Pastors may not preside at, and UM churches may not host, same-sex weddings-- even though this became national law in 2015. At the previous General Conference, bishops of the church were empowered to seek a solution. A task force was created which produced a model for more local autonomy on this issue, and individual pastors would be free to determine the boundaries they set for their ministry.

This proposal, while endorsed by the majority of bishops and most of the North American delegates, never made it out of committee. Instead, the so-called Traditional Plan, which would keep practices in place from 1972-- not sure how traditional that is-- was adopted. About half of the amendments to this plan were rendered unconstitutional by our Judicial Council, and the whole enchilada will be reviewed at the end of April. What makes the Traditional Plan stand out are the punitive measures laid out for bishops who ordain openly LGBTQ persons and for pastors who preside at their weddings.

This is being touted as a victory for conservatives, but that’s really not the case. For one thing, marriage is about the most conservative institution societies have, so why would you not want individuals who are committed to each other not make those commitments formal? And if a conservative person is religious, why would they want to confine a marriage to a civil practice? Why exclude God from the ceremony? Nevermind. I’m digressing.

A fundamentalist view of scripture may interpret the handful of references in the Bible to same gender encounters as anti-homosexual, but the United Methodist Church does not teach a my way or the highway view of scripture. Even if we did, sometimes the Bible works out its issues by itself. Compare, for example, the episode in Genesis 19 to its interpretation in Ezekiel 16. You’ll be surprised when you look it up. Oh ok, I’ll tell you-- the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was about injustice to the poor, not about homosexuality. Look it up. By the way, I understand the Pathfinders class is studying Ezekiel. That class is taught by the ever-faithful Nana Rylander. Try sitting in the back of the class and shouting her down with your references to 1 Timothy 2:12. See what happens. By the way, Methodists have ordained women as pastors since 1956.

The 800 delegates representing 12 million United Methodists endorsed the Traditional Plan by just 54 votes-- a 12% margin. Compare that to the 90% by which our congregation voted to acquire the seven acres outside of those windows just last week. I promise, if that vote had been anything less than 60% we would have delayed the purchase. This decision sparked hurt and outrage-- and not just from the denomination’s most progressive members. The punitive nature of the plan, and the process through which the plan was adopted, left many centrists-- where the vast majority of United Methodists identify-- feeling left out. Honestly, millions of us were shown the door-- just leave the keys to the building and your account balance sheets in the church office, thank you very much.

I don’t think so.

The United Methodist Church has significant issues, and whether we start ordaining gay people really has little to do with it. The median age of United Methodist adults is around sixty. More than 90% of United Methodists are white. We want to attract young persons and children to our churches, but here is the problem: the average 20s/30s/40s person does not look like or believe the same as the average person over 60. While United Methodists have become more accepting of LGBTQ persons in recent years, it’s at a much slower rate than younger generations. Think about these numbers:

According to Pew Research, the average person in the “Silent” Generation-- people 72-90, only 18% consider same-sex marriage a good thing. 38% were non committal, and 43% said it was a bad thing. For Millennials and Generation Z-- basically those in their 30s and school-age kids through college-- their attitudes are pretty much the same on social issues-- and exactly the opposite of their grandparents and great grandparents. 48% say same-sex marriage is a good thing. 36% are indifferent and only 15% say it’s a bad thing. That is a total reversal of attitude in 40-50 years. When 85% of millions of people the denomination desperately needs believes one thing, and the church says, “Yeah well, nevermind that! Change your way of thinking and everything will be fine!” What’s going to happen? And what will happen to those LGBTQ persons who have now been told for 47 years that they are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus-- what about them?

The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles state, “Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.” (Social Principles, ¶162.J)

The United Methodist Church also “deplore[s] acts of hate and violence against groups or persons based on … sexual orientation [or] gender identity.” (Social Principles, ¶162)

LGBTQ youth have disproportionately higher rates of suicide and homelessness. What does the General Conference have to say about that? They, like every one else but maybe moreso, need the unconditional love of Jesus Christ when their families, churches, friends have failed them. I want to be clear about something: the victims of this decision are not the straight, privileged folks whose theological understandings have been challenged. We are the advocates for those who have been hurt. Every baptized Christian should be a voice of compassion in the face of exclusion. It’s not a liberal or conservative position.

I’ve had the privilege of serving on several District Committees on Ordained Ministry. It’s our task to support, challenge, and encourage those seeking set-apart ministry in the church. Our job is to be the gatekeepers for the denomination. Does this particular candidate have gifts for ministry? Are those gifts best used via ordination or better suited within the local church ministry? Can this person articulate the Wesleyan way of salvation? Have they endured and survived the grueling, intense, expensive, time consuming preparations we expect? You may not know this, but ordination in the UMC is not a send in $19.95 plus postage and look for your certificate in the mail type of deal. Never once have I paused after answering yes to all of those previous questions and said, “But who do they love?” or “But will you commit to me today to never express love to anyone before retirement?”

I’ve loved the book we are studying in small groups. We are now halfway through We Make the Road by Walking. We’ll spend the entire month of March in the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. This week’s lesson on the Beatitudes is very, very good. Maybe the best so far. Here’s what Brian McLaren says this week:

[Jesus’] words no doubt surprise everyone, because we normally play by these rules of the game: Do everything you can to be rich and powerful. Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness. Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order. Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.

But Jesus defines success and well-being in a profoundly different way. Who are blessed? What kinds of people should we seek to be identified with?

The poor and those in solidarity with them.

Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss.

The nonviolent and gentle.

Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo.

The merciful and compassionate.

Those characterized by openness, sincerity, and unadulterated motives.

Those who work for peace and reconciliation.

Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged.

Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quiet down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed.

It’s been a terrible week to be United Methodist. Hey, I promised you from the very beginning of my tenure here I would be honest from the pulpit! Over my two decades in ministry I have marched in gay pride parades, prayed at the with persons in the hospital and their partners, baptized the children of dedicated same-sex couples, proudly affirmed that the church is about a radical, loving welcome for all people. The other day a small majority of people said, “Yeah but…” Well, they do not speak for me. The Wesleys never meant to start a new denomination; Methodism was a renewal movement of the Holy Spirit to invigorate people whose faith had become stale and to bring the Good News of Jesus to the vast majority of the population not being welcomed by the church. It started with a few spiritual friends calling themselves the Holy Club. They never intended the people called Methodists to be an exclusive Holier Than Thou club.

Grace UMC is a special place. It’s a place where warm friendships are nurtured, where people find ways to serve others: locally, nationally, and internationally. Later this month we’ll have a Sunday where we’ll spend more time serving others out in the community than in worship inside the building. It’s a congregation where people are known by the love of Christ and passionately want to share that love with others. Our vision statement reads: “Embrace All - Engage with Jesus - Expand the Kingdom. Embrace All. Not Embrace 95%. If you are wondering what to say to those who may feel excluded, go ahead and tell them: “Not at Grace. Here you will find a community, a pastor, a God who loves you and is for you.”

You may be thinking, hey we voted to buy land the other day-- should we hit the brakes on that deal? Absolutely not! More than ever, our neighborhood and parish needs to know about who we are. We need to grow our witness, not retreat in the face of challenges. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” This is our time to let the light shine out!

I am so proud to serve a congregation that is not shy about its love for one another and its setting. Grace people love and serve other people. It’s who we have been for nearly fifty years, and that will not change. It dawned on me the other day that this church was founded in the same year the denomination wrote its unwelcoming language into the Book of Discipline. After this week, I am finished looking backward. I’m resolutely pointed to the future. And the future is love. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.