This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 29 June 2003. The Scriptures are 1 Samuel 17: 1, 17 – 27, 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15, and Mark 5: 21 – 43.
I will be the first to admit that I am not a prophet. I do not possess the ability to see the future clearly or even have an idea of what might be the future. But, as we meet here today I fear that at this time next year we may well be seeing the end of the United Methodist Church. Next spring’s General Conference promises to be one of, if not, the most divisive conferences in the history of the church. The church that comes out of General Conference next spring will not be the church that went in. There will be a United Methodist Church, I am sure, but it will no longer be united and it will be only be a struggling remnant of what it once was with only a dim hope of being what it could be.
There are in the United Methodist Church a number of people who feel that the only way to revitalize the church is by returning to the original thoughts and desires of John Wesley. But many of these reformers use Wesley’s words to enact their own version of a Bible-based denomination. I believe that in their zeal to revitalize the church and with their desire to return to a more fundamental interpretation of church doctrine, their efforts will result in an irreversible split in the church.
But I am sadden and frightened, not by what might next year, but what is happening and has already happened. The United Methodist Reporter reports that more than 70 members of this church have decided to leave the Grove, KS, United Methodist Church and are being sued by the Kansas West Annual Conference. There is a restraining order on the front door of the church barring some from even worshipping there. The court hearing to decide the fate of the church was last Thursday and I am waiting to hear the outcome. This group has drafted a position statement saying that they support “original specified doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church,” but believe that the annual conference and national leaders have violated these standards.
From what I read, the group’s actions were in response to the removal of the pastor by the Bishop. The district filed a court petition against the group claiming that the conference will suffer further irreparable harm without court intervention. The results of the court action are to determine who owns the church building and who can use the name “Methodist” in its name.
Now, there will be those in attendance at next spring’s General Conference who will seek compromise. When it comes to setting policy in the church, the United Methodist Church as a political body is second to none in compromise. All one has to do is read the minutes of past General Conferences and the policies printed in the Book of Discipline to know that on every issue that this church has dealt with, compromise has ruled and no effective statement of belief has resulted. True to its history, this church takes stands but they are always tempered with caution or fear of offending those who do not hold the same view.
But I do not believe that compromise will work this year. Those seeking reform are not willing to work for a common ground and hold those in opposition to their views with contempt and distrust. And in seeking change and reform, or more to the point, a return to traditional policies, those seeking change have caused others to view them with the same contempt and distrust. That is why I fear the outcome of next year’s General Conference.
Now, this is not the first time the Methodist Church has split apart. At the beginning of the 19th century, a group of Methodists split from the church in protest over the issue of lay leadership. Concerned that the episcopal form of governance and leadership ignored the wishes and desires of the laity, the Methodist Protestant Church was found. Though a serious question for church leadership, it was only a minor issue in the scope of things.
By the 1840’s, slavery was the foremost political and social issue in American society. And like other individuals and groups in the country, the Methodist church was forced to deal with the issue. Following his experiences in Georgia, John Wesley had come out strongly against slavery. He encouraged others to speak out and act in opposition to the traffic in human souls. Many of the early abolitionists, both in America and England, were Methodists and followed Wesley’s lead, denouncing participation in the slave trade and slave holding. But as the topic divided the nation, as economic and political pressures increased, the church sought ways to be against slavery while allowing members and church leaders to own slaves.
The issue came to the forefront in the 1844 General Conference. Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia had inherited his deceased wife’s young female slave. Though forbidden by Georgian law, he sought ways to give this woman her freedom. But at the General Conference, the majority of delegates (mostly northern) voted to relieve him of his duties as bishop. Claiming that this action was against church law, the southern delegates essentially walked out. To settle the impasse, a Plan of Separation was enacted and two Methodist Episcopal churches, one North and one South, were created.
This schism in the church lasted until 1939 when the two branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited to form the Methodist Church. But the heritage of the split is still seen today over the doorways of the church. Even the church where I was a member in college, the 1st United Methodist Church of Kirksville, still has “Methodist Episcopal, South” carved in stone above the doorway.
We are faced with a dilemma. Whether it was the issue of slavery in the 19th century or some other issue in the 20th and 21st centuries, there are verses in the Bible that can be used to support our viewpoints. The supporters of slavery could use “Slaves, be obedient to your masters” while abolitionists would use the story of Exodus and the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt as a mandate to free the American slaves. So too does it seem that all reformers today use the Bible to justify their actions and desire to return to a more fundamental approach to religion.
We must first understand what the traditions of the United Methodist Church are. When Wesley began the Methodist movement, he emphasized four things:
- A faith that was both informed and warmly experienced;
- A religion that was intensely personal but also shared with others;
- A concern for the spiritual, physical, and social condition of all persons;
- An affirmation of belief in one God as revealed through Jesus Christ, but with an appreciation for a variety of ways in which that affirmation can be expressed.
The Methodist revival was one of the first movements to bring education to all people. This was because Wesley and the early founders of the church felt and understood that one could not understand the Bible unless one was able to read it. One of the early doctrinal battles of the church dealt with free will and the implications that it had for belief.
If there is free will, then it is our responsibility to understand what the message of the Bible is and not have someone else tell us. Somewhere along the line, this point has disappeared. The problem is that the Bible is full of contradictions and we must be careful how we apply the rules of the Bible because of that. And that I think is the fly in the ointment, as it were. Those who seek Biblical justification for their actions do not see the whole picture and take much of what they want done out of context.
If we are to say that we are Christian, then we must include both the Old and New Testament in our lives. Most of those who seek a fundamentalist approach to live only use the Old Testament. But in the Old Testament is the promise of a New Covenant and it is in the New Testament that the New Covenant is enacted. Christ’s death and resurrection give us a new life with a new set of rules. To use only the rules and regulations of the Old Testament is to ignore this very tenet of our religion.
If Jesus had lived according to the rules of the Old Testament, he would never have allowed the woman in today’s Gospel reading to come close to him, let alone touch him. She was considered “unclean” by society and those who came in contact with her were also considered “unclean”. And until such time that you were purified, if you were “unclean” you were barred from social contact with anyone. Normally, such periods of time were limited but this woman had been barred from social contact for over twelve years. One could only imagine the loneliness and isolation she must have felt.
But Jesus did not scold her, berate her, or enact any of the punishments that society would have imposed. He did not shun her or push her aside. Rather, he commended her for her faith and for her actions. Now, we would not have shunned this woman today, for we have a better understanding of what her problem was. But we do shun or ignore people whose own illnesses were acquired through behaviors or lifestyles that we do not approve. How is our judgement of others today in line with what Jesus was doing then?
I am reminded of the case of Ryan White, the young man in Indiana who got AIDS through a blood transfusion. He was only eleven or twelve when he contracted the disease. He was a hemophiliac and got the virus because one of the units of blood that he needed for survival turned out to be infected. At that time, we were still learning about the disease and were not aware that it could be transmitted in that manner. But he became infected and was treated by Indiana society as a pariah, as someone to be feared. But you cannot get AIDS by being in the same room with someone who has it. I have always found it curious that each healthy individual who might have met this young man was more a threat to his health, because of his diminished immune system, than he was a threat to their health. But he was still treated with fear and treated much like the lepers of Jesus’ day.
We are commanded in the Bible and as Methodists to be literate and understand what the world is about. Our fear of the world comes from our ignorance of the world and we cannot overcome that fear by condemning that which we do not understand.
I know that there are those who find fault with Paul. I am sure that one could find better role models. But no matter what he believed personally, he was always challenging the members of the churches with whom he was associated to find a path more in terms with the one Christ walked. All we have to do is realize that he was asking each reader to come to Christ individually, just as he did. As I mentioned earlier, it is the personal relationship with Christ that dominates our belief; it is not the imposition of how we came to believe but rather the simple fact that we came to believe in Christ that we should share. And that was what Paul did time and time again, challenge people to find Christ and to share that finding with others.
Now, each time you read one of Paul’s letters you find that he is trying to settle some issue threatening to divide the church. His solutions always challenge the reader to find the path that Christ would have walked, not the paths others would have walked. The letters to the Corinthians are prime examples of this. Paul was continually settling arguments amongst the members of the church, whether they were about the conduct of members towards each other or what the church was all about. And in many of his solutions, he pointed out that neither side was totally in the right.
Today, Paul has been forced to remind the members of the Corinthian church that they had promised to help the church in Jerusalem through a collection. At the time of the writing, they had not forwarded the money. What Paul was doing was reminding them that other churches in the area, churches that were not as financially viable as the Corinthian church, had already met their obligation. I think Paul was very subtlety suggesting that it was the pride of the church members that was stopping their efforts.
There was no doubt that the church has the resources. But it was also clear that they felt that such actions were beneath them, even if it was the right thing to do. Paul used the example of the Hebrews wandering in the desert to illustrate that all were a part of the same community. Each Hebrew, no matter how old or young they were, no matter if they were healthy or sick, was required to collect their daily share of manna. But one was not shut out from the sharing of the manna simply because they could not collect enough. All got their share, even if those stronger or healthier had to do a little more work.
I began this morning by expressing my fear that the denomination is in trouble. We cannot have churches closed by court order because of splits about how one believes. But we also must face the reality that, as a denomination, the United Methodist Church is dying. Each year the membership goes down and each year there are congregations that must face the reality that this will be the last year in their history.
And to some extent, it is the church’s fault that this is happening. Whether it is collectively or individually, each church has failed to meet the needs of those who most need the church. People come to church seeking the Christ that they have heard about or read about. The Christ they seek is one of peace. But if they come to a church where there is division or strife, caused by local differences or national issues, they will not find it. And if they do not find peace in the church, they cannot find peace in their own lives.
In the same newsletter that brought me the news about the church in Kansas was also a story about a United Methodist Church in Iowa. This is another church beset by internal strife and division. The district superintendent had attended a meeting of the church and heard differing views about the pastor. The district superintendent wrote a letter to all the members of the congregation in which he said, “When will you stop the blaming, negative and unhappy persons among you from tearing down the spirit of Jesus Christ among you?” He also wrote the members to acknowledge that there was “the spirit of Satan” at work in that church. The persons to whom those actions were attributed have filed a defamation suit against the church and district.
People will not come to that church because if there are fights among the members, there can be no peace. The growth of the more fundamentalist based churches comes more from the structure that people find in those churches. With structure comes a certain kind of peace but it is not a peace built from within. That peace can only come from Christ.
In the selection from the Old Testament for today, David speaks of the love that Jonathan held for him. It was a love based on loyalty and devotion and came because Jonathan knew that David was God’s chosen heir to the throne that Saul, Jonathan’s father, held. In today’s society, and perhaps even back then, Jonathan should have been bitter and angry that what should have been his was going to someone else. But that was not the way he lived and that was not the way he acted. And David wanted the people of Israel to know this and act accordingly.
We are not in a position to settle issues in churches elsewhere. All we can do in regards to the General Conference next spring is to let our delegates know what we feel and trust that they will act in a manner befitting the actions of Christ. (I would also add that I believe that our own Dennis Winkleblack is an alternate to the General Conference but I do not know who the others are or how one communicates with them.)
But in the meantime, there are things we can do. Those that came to the tomb that first Easter morning came expecting to find the body of Jesus for they still believed and lived according to the Old Covenant. But Jesus was not there and was in fact alive.
Today, Christ is found in the hearts and actions of all whom have accepted him as their personal savior. If there is to be a future for this church then it will be because we have taken the challenge of Paul to find that path of Christ. Certainly, there is no doubt that the path that each of us walk is different from the rest; it is not the path we walk that matters, it is the destination.
It is a path that is guided and directed by the Holy Spirit and shown to us in the actions of Jesus Christ so long ago. We are faced with many tasks, some of which we do not want to undertake. But it is those tasks that we must do if we are to reach our common destination. Like Christ, we should seek out those on the fringe and bring them in, not shun them just because they are different or because we disagree. Like Christ, we should find ways to help all people, not just the ones we happen to agree with at the time or who happen to disagree with the same people we disagree with.
And like Christ, we need to love all that we meet and work with, not just a select few. The tasks before us are great, it is true but the rewards for the completion of those tasks is so much greater.