WCA Leaving Regardless? It Seems Possible

StillUMI have not been very quiet about my issues with the Wesleyan Covenant Association ever since I realized their tactics. Recently, I met with someone who is high in the WCA leadership at the conference leadership and we had a nice long chat over coffee. I do appreciate his willingness to meet with me and I do believe he earnestly listened to my concerns. He was very sincere in his answers as well. I still felt uneasy about WCA after our meeting so I have maintained my distance.

Ever since Rev. Brian Collier was allowed to remain part of WCA’s leadership council in spite of WCA’s insistence that it existed to strengthen orthodox ministry within the United Methodist Church and in spite of the fact that Collier led his congregation (The Orchard) out of the United Methodist Church, I felt like some of my suspicions were correct. At the time, I felt that WCA was likely planning to form a new denomination and to leave the UMC at some point.

I hate to use the term “I told you so” but, well, I told you so.

Last night, Mainstream UMC released a letter, purported to have been sent out by the North Alabama chapter of WCA, detailing plans for WCA after the specially-called session of General Conference in a couple of weeks. It would seem that unless WCA gets their way – or even if they do get their way – they are planning to take their ball and go play in a yard that they will make. Also, as of this moment, no one from WCA or WCA itself has refuted the contents of this letter (if this happens, I will edit this post to indicate such).

WCA has set April 25-26  as the dates for the convening conference of the “Next Methodism.” Further, they have apparently had a team of leaders working together on how the denomination will be set up, core beliefs, etc. Many of these were adopted at WCA’s last gathering. So, what are the chances of WCA actually leaving? Per the letter:

If the One Church Plan is passed, there is a 100% probability of calling the convening conference. Our current evaluation is that the proponents of the One Church Plan do not have the necessary votes to enact that plan.

If the special General Conference adopts neither the One Church Plan nor the Modified Traditional Plan, or adopts a Traditional Plan with no enhanced accountability provisions, there is a 70% probability of calling the convening conference. Our current evaluation is that this is the most likely outcome for the special General Conference.

If the special General Conference adopts the Modified Traditional Plan with the enhanced accountability provisions, there still may be churches which are intent on departing from the United Methodist Church. The WCA will work with those churches to transition into a new Methodist movement. Those churches which indicate a desire to be part of something new will be invited to a convening conference. Other churches would be given the opportunity to move to what is new at a later time, if they decided that became advisable. Our current evaluation is that there is a higher probability of the Modified Traditional Plan being adopted than the One Church Plan being adopted.

So, basically, WCA – or at least a significant portion of their organization – will likely leave no matter what happens in Saint Louis. In other words, they have already broken covenant.

Now is not the time to be making plans for departure. WCA has maintained that they were only making “contingency plans” but this is far from a contingency. This is a certainty at this point. I further believe that once the rubber meets the road, WCA is not going to have as much support as they believe they will. I personally know several conservatives who will not be joining them. I know many congregations that hold orthodox beliefs that will not be joining them either. Of course, I could be wrong but I truly believe that that limb they’re going out on is going to be a little lonely. None the less, I do believe that a lot of clergy and laity are going to depart with them. May God be with them and with us. I will not, however, be joining them in WCA or whatever WCA becomes.

I, for one, believe in actually keeping covenant.

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The Judicial Council (Mostly) Got It Right

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818Today, the #UMC hashtag on social media has been abuzz with conversation about the Judicial Council’s ruling on the plans put forth for consideration at our special session of General Conference in February. The Council of Bishops had asked for a ruling on the constitutionality of the three main proposals in order to avoid any confusion and in hopes of as little conflict as possible in the voting process. Today, the ruling came down and I believe they got a lot of it right while I wish they had ruled differently on other things. But, this is why they are appointed to interpret our church law and why I am not. You may read the full ruling here.

I have been outspoken on my objection to the so-called One Church Plan because I feel that the proposal would seriously alter the polity of the United Methodist Church. Currently, we are a connectional/episcopal church, which means that we are bound by common doctrine, church law, and standards (at least we are supposed to be). Certain powers are given to the Annual Conference and to the bishops to administer rules but ultimately it’s the General Conference who makes decisions on matters that impact the entire church. One Church, as it has been presented, would open the door to a “local option” whereby Annual Conferences and congregations would be able to decide for themselves on matters that are normally left up to the General Conference to decide. The Council found that One Church is mostly constitutional except for a few minor provisions that are mostly inconsequential to the larger body of the plan. Regarding One Church, the ruling states,

As a primary principle in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church, connectionalism denotes a vital web of interactive relationships—multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust—that permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality.

In other words, the ruling is that the constitution of the church allows for “contextualization” as is the practice for many of our African and European central conferences. I understand what they’re saying and they are correct. But I still wish that we would not potentially be allowing annual conferences and congregations to decide on their own what they will and will not do on decisions relating to human sexuality. This impacts the entire church and serves to only further fragment the body. Ultimately, this defeats the purpose of and undercuts our current polity. I hope that the delegates to General Conference will take this matter into consideration.

Regarding the Connectional Conference proposal, Judicial Council essentially said that they have no grounds to rule on this proposal as it contains the necessary amendments to the Constitution to make it legal.

The Judicial Council was most critical of the Traditionalist Plan. I have not said as much about this plan but I have had many concerns about this proposal. Basically, I am not comfortable with the idea that boards of Ordained Ministry and district Committees on Ministry would essentially be asked to engage in witch hunts and that anyone who is even potentially a homosexual could be tossed out without recourse. I have had some grave concerns about these aspects of the plan and, apparently, I wasn’t alone. Out of the 17 petitions that make up Traditionalist Plan, the Judicial Council found issues with nine of them. Seven of them were found to be unconstitutional in their entirety. It’s safe to say that the Traditionalist Plan is effectually been gutted. From the ruling:

Under the principle of legality, the General Conference can prescribe or prescribe a particular conduct but cannot contradict itself by prescribing prohibited conduct or prohibiting prescribed conduct. It can require bishops, annual conferences, nominees, and members of boards of ordained ministry to certify or declare that they will uphold The Discipline in its entirety and impose sanctions in case of non-compliance. But it may not choose standards related to ordination, marriage, and human sexuality over other provisions of The Discipline for enhanced application and certification. The General Conference has the authority to require that the board of ordained ministry conduct a careful and thorough examination to ascertain if an individual meets all disciplinary requirements and certify that such an examination has occurred. But it cannot reduce the scope of the board examination to one aspect only and unfairly single out one particular group of candidates (self-avowed practicing homosexuals) for disqualification. Marriage and sexuality are but two among numerous standards candidates must meet to be commissioned or ordained; other criteria include, for example, being committed to social justice, racial and gender equality, and personal and financial integrity, that all should be part of a careful and thorough examination.

TL, DR: We are not allowed to pick and choose which parts of the breaking of covenant can be scrutinized and which can continue to be ignored and swept under the rug.

Many have said that the Traditionalist Plan is now dead but I do not see it that way. Anything and everything can be amended when General Conference convenes at St. Louis in February. General Conference can adopt any plan that has been proposed, make their own plan, or adopt no plan at all (which I feel is unlikely). I am glad that the Judicial Council addressed many of the concerns I have had about the Traditionalist Plan.

I have no interest in witch hunts and will not take part in them.

Regardless of how you may feel about the proposals, I urge you to be in prayer for the United Methodist Church as the future of the church is very much at stake. Dialogue with your conference’s delegates and express (kindly and civilly) your views.

Above all, let’s remember that we are the church and act like it.

 

Anxiety is Sin? Tell That to My Brain

EDIT: Rev. Moore has reached out to me to apologize for her tweet and she has removed it. I have accepted her apology and held/hold no ill will toward her. To be clear: My problem was never with her but with what she tweeted. There is a major difference. – Jonathan

Yesterday a prominent evangelical pastor within the United Methodist Church made a tweet that I and several others took exception to.

Yes, she has said that chronic anxiety stifles the work of the Holy Spirit and is sin.

So I responded, pointing out that by her logic I am deep in sin and I encouraged her to rethink her position. This is her response:

Sigh…

This conversation points out a few vital points for us – both as Christians in general as well as clergy – to remember when dealing with matters of mental health.

First, scripture does not address matters of mental health. There was no understanding that mental disorders are medical conditions beyond one’s control when the scripture writers were putting pen to parchment. Let me be clear: This is not me doubting that the scriptures are divinely inspired but we also must acknowledge that the writers were human and wrote based on their context. Because there was no knowledge of the chemical imbalances that often occur in the brain, mental health problems were thought of as a spiritual condition as opposed to a chemical one. That was then, this is now. We have the medical knowledge to confirm that mental health issues are most often caused by conditions beyond one’s control. We need to get away from this notion that one displaying anxiety is in sin or that depression is a sign of being deep in sin. To employ such a notion means that I and lots of other pastors are not fit for ministry and that many in our congregations are not truly faithful just because they struggle.

Second, we as pastors need to remember that our words have power and carry a lot of weight. The people in our congregations see what we post, share, and like and they form their opinions of us based on those posts. Is that fair? Probably not. No tweet or post tells one’s whole story but does give a glimpse into our hearts and in what we value. If a parishioner whose faith is strong in spite of struggling with mental health issues for their entire lives follows their pastor on social media, how are they going to feel when their pastor puts up a tweet saying that anxiety is a sin and quenches the Holy Spirit? As I said above, scripture was never intended to address mental health conditions and we should not use scripture as a way to explain conditions like anxiety and depression.

People once believed that people who we now realize were displaying symptoms of manic depression were possessed by demons. There was also a belief that people who we now realize were displaying symptoms of anxiety disorders had weak faith.  People who we now realize were displaying symptoms of depression were said to be in sin. With the knowledge that we now have about mental health, can we please get away from having such toxic and damaging viewpoints about mental health?

I would like to think that Rev. Moore meant no harm in what she tweeted. But, this needs to be called out and rebuked because these are the notions that add to the stigma of mental health and why more people – especially Christians – don’t seek help or hide their conditions until they finally break. These statements are what cause people to harm themselves or even to commit suicide. These statements are why people are looking at Christians as cold-hearted and irrelevant.

We should do better. We must do better.

Learning about Outreach from Sears

gettyimages-810465192Although this quote is often attributed to the great Albert Einstein, it was actually a resource from Narcotics Anonymous that first contained the phrase, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I find this statement coming from a group that works with addicts interesting. Addicts are addicted to a substance and will do anything to score their next fix. They do this to feed the need inside them but also to keep up their status quo. People with addictions become so focused on getting their next fix that they ignore ways to truly remedy their situations and to get lives back and keep on looking for their fix. One of two things will happen: They will kick the addiction and begin living better lives and maintaining healthy habits or they will literally kill themselves trying to find the next fix.

Unfortunately, much the same can be said about the church.

Today, Sears – once a mainstay of the American economy – filed for bankruptcy protection to restructure its debt. This move will result in at least 142 stores being closed which means many people will be losing their jobs and some towns will be losing yet another storefront. There are plenty of reasons for Sears to be in this position but what all of this boils down to is that Sears kept doing the same things they had always done in order to keep their loyal customers without reaching out to new ones. The management of Sears refused to modernize their operation in order to appeal to new people and to meet their needs that were being met by the likes of Walmart and Amazon. Sears would have been wrong to change their core, which was selling things at reasonable prices while providing stellar customer service but had every opportunity to change how they practiced this core function. Instead, their strategy consisted of denial and continuing to seek their next fix in order to maintain their status quo.

The American church is in a similar situation. I grow tired of reading article after article decrying the church and of how we are decreasing in relevance every single day. Most congregations thrive on trying to maintain their status quo and fail to adequately reach out to others in their midst who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Often, their idea of “outreach” consists of keeping tabs on people who have left and inviting them back. This is necessary but when such is the main focus of outreach activities, this misses the mark of what outreach is supposed to be.

The message of the gospel should never be changed or altered in order to sound more appealing. The core teachings of the church should remain unchanged. But, the way in which the church seeks to reach out to people with the gospel should be up for consideration of how it can be done more effectively. Gone are the days when people flock to their neighborhood church just because it’s there; those days are never coming back. Now, the church has to find ways to go to the people instead of expecting people to come to them. The church has to discern ways to meet the needs of people today and not the needs of people 40 years ago. Doing what worked 40 years ago but doing them better may sound like a good idea but look no farther than Sears to see that that is a terrible strategy.

We have biblical and extrabiblical examples of the need for the church to go to the people. Sprinkled throughout the gospels and much of the New Testament are examples of the people being approached by the church rather than the other way around. Jesus drew crowds but the people were not making pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Bethlehem to see him. Instead, he and the twelve traveled extensively to minister to people. Jesus also sent the disciples out to minister. He never once uttered, “build it and they will come.” Paul likewise traveled extensively to preach the good news and establish house churches. John Wesley, at a time when doing so was not seen as appropriate, went to the fields and market crosses in small towns to reach the people that the church saw as inferior.

Somehow along the way, the American church got the idea that people would come to them. This worked for a time. But now that being part of a church is no longer socially necessary, many people are not as apt to go to the church without an invitation of some sort. That invitation often comes in the form of substantial, prolonged, and personal outreach. The church must go to the people. The church must embrace the people in their midst without expecting them to look and act just like them. The church must live out the teachings of Jesus Christ.

While the mission of the church should remain the same, the method needs tweaking.

HT: Shannon Blosser

Toxic Tribalism In the UMC

It began innocently enough. I responded to a tweet about how fears that a traditionalist viewpoint does not equate to a desire to do away with the ordination of women and that claims to the contrary are fear mongering. I decided to respond. Below is the original tweet followed by mine:

You can read the rest of the tweets that ensued if you are so inclined but what ensued was a nearly day-long Twitter back and forth between me and some others who were not originally involved in the conversation but chose to chime in. The result was largely attacks against my integrity and one tweeter even went so far as to question my faith and further attack me personally. As you can see – and verify on my Twitter account – my response was not in reference to any leader within any of the traditionalist renewal movements (WCA, IRD, et. al.), yet it was assumed that these people were who I was talking about. I was not. As I later made clear, this was based on conversations that I have had with people over the course of several years in several settings. These conversations happened with both lay and clergy persons within the United Methodist Church.

It was demanded of me to name names. I refused because, frankly, it’s none of anyone’s business. What’s more, I’m not going to inject people by name into such a conversation when they have no means by which to defend themselves (many of these people are not on social media as far as I know). Because I would name “name just one” as one person tweeted at me, I was called everything from a gossip to a liar, all because I refused to “out” people who held these views. As I made clear multiple times (which seemed to go unnoticed), my tweet was a general statement intended to express that there are people within the UMC who are against women being ordained into pastoral ministry. While I have no knowledge of anyone currently in a leadership position within the major traditionalist renewal movements holding these views (women are involved in leadership, a point that I have never challenged because, websites, etc.), such people can conceivably have high influence over those who do have leadership titles, or can conceivably gain those positions for themselves. My point was to be on guard and not blindly think that such people don’t exist and would not push their views if given the opportunity. Nothing more, nothing less.

And I was ridiculed for it.

I can handle anyone disagreeing with me. Anyone is welcome to at any time. What I will not tolerate is being disrespected or personally attacked in the course of that disagreement. What happened today was proof that civil discourse has gone the way of the dodo and has given me cause to consider whether or not I will be as quick to weigh in on these subjects. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s worth the uptick in my blood pressure. And as I told someone offline just today: I have to wonder if this topic is even one worth spending so much energy on, if that hill is really worth dying on.

But what I believe today has further shown me is a reminder of the toxic tribalism that exists in the human sexuality debate in the United Methodist Church. I have further been reminded of the danger of one finding themselves in an echo chamber. I have noted people on both extremes of the human sexuality debate being stuck in these chambers, unable to fathom an argument that is contrary to theirs. They refuse to hear it and engage in ugly forms of debate when they are challenged. Moderates like me – someone who dares to hope that we can find a way to continue to coexist in spite of our differences – often find ourselves stuck in the middle because we refuse to place ourselves in these chambers. We see both sides, we engage with both sides (or, we try to). And more often than not, assumptions are made about our intentions or we are reminded for the millionth time that we need to pick a side.

If we hope to be the kingdom on earth, we have got to figure out a way to engage in dialogue without resulting to attacks on a person’s character and even their faith. It’s unchristlike to engage in such tactics. If you want to know why many people are starting to think that the church can’t be trusted, look no further than Twitter. We have all got to go to the table, engage with one another. In order to do that, we must leave our echo chambers, disband the tribes, and commune. Is there a time to go our separate ways? Perhaps. But we need not engage in behavior that is inconsistent with that of a disciple int he process.

Meanwhile, I cling to Christ. I further cling to the hope offered by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the church at Galatia:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. Galatians 3:26-29 NLT

It’s time for us to start acting like it. I’m looking at you, fellow United Methodists.

Why the One Church Proposal is Bad for the United Methodist Church

tug-o-warAs we awaited the final report to be published from the Commission on a Way Forward, I resolved to not pledge support to any of the proposals until I had an opportunity to read the reports for myself. With all of the rumors and speculation about what the plans will and won’t do swirling around on social media and elsewhere, I found this difficult to do but I held on to this because I feel that the future of the United Methodist Church is too important to base opinions on some tweets or the views of bloggers (which may be a bit ironic seeing as I am a blogger). So, I continued to wait. Finally, my and everyone else’s patience paid off.

I have had an opportunity to review all of the proposals. I have to admit, I have a hard time supporting any of them. For example: The “traditionalist plan” is not specific enough for me. With the accountability models proposed, I can see a lot of potential for abuse and for witch hunts to ensue. This is not something I can support. I can see a day where clergy are called to the carpet and questioned for basically anything that could even be potentially considered support for homosexual marriage and ordination.

I don’t want a bunch of wannabe Delores Umbridge-types running the church.

The proposal I have the most issues with is the One Church Plan. This may be surprising to read since I consider myself a moderate and One Church has been touted as the proposal that moderates can get on board with. In a nutshell, One Church provides for a local option. Annual conferences and congregations would be able to decide for themselves whether or not they will allow homosexual marriage and homosexual clergy. This is a terrible idea and a proposal that needs to be soundly defeated.

Here are the reasons why I believe One Church is bad for the UMC.

  • One Church would change the polity of the UMC. The United Methodist Church has a connectional and episcopal polity. In a nutshell, this means we have a body – General Conference – that decides matters such as doctrine and theology and sets the official positions of the church. The Bishops oversee the congregations within their assigned annual conferences, appoint pastors, and so on. Congregations are not allowed to decide their doctrine and annual conferences are not allowed to decide which clergy they will and will not accept. This authority rests solely with General Conference. One Church would change this by giving congregations and annual conferences the ability to decide their doctrinal positions on homosexuality for themselves. This may sound like a good compromise but this is a Pandora’s box that should not be opened. If a congregation or annual conference is able to make decisions on human sexuality for themselves, what’s stopping them from deciding that they will not ordain female clergy? What about going against infant baptism? The polity of the United Methodist Church is not congregational. These matters are not for congregations and annual conferences to decide.
  • The United Methodist Church will only be more divided. Congregations that decide they can not abide by the doctrine decided by their annual conference will be given a way to leave the denomination or affiliate with another annual conference of their choice. This will only sew the seeds for further discord and schism within the United Methodist Church. The issue of human sexuality has been very polarizing and tribalism is very strong within the church. We see this with caucus groups such as the Reconciling Ministries Network and Wesleyan Covenant Association and all of the fighting that members of these and other groups have engaged in. One Church will do nothing to support unity and will instead increase division within the United Methodist Church.

Make no mistake: The future of the United Methodist Church is very much hanging in the balance and General Conference 2019 will be a pivotal time for the church. One Church is not going to solve all of the problems and will only increase them. One Church is not “a moderate’s dream come true” as someone stated on Twitter. One Church will only increase the division and tribalism that we are seeing.

But let’s be real: Regardless of which proposal is passed – or if none are passed (yes, that is possible) – we have only seen the beginning of the drama. Congregations and clergy are going to leave the church no matter what. The only question is which ones. I predict that ten years from now we will still be fighting over property and pensions from those who do leave. I have no idea what the “ideal” solution will be but one thing I know is that One Church is not it.

God help us.

Hello, Druid Hills UMC and Lost Gap UMC!

To the folks at Druid Hills and Lost Gap UM churches in Meridian: If you have been googling your new pastor, you may have found this blog. To you, I send greetings! My wife, Jessica, and I are looking forward to joining you all for worship on July 1st where we will start to get to know one another, share in Holy Communion as a sign of our new ministry together and hear about how much God loves us no matter what.

I’m Jonathan Tullos and I grew up in Philadelphia; yes, the one in Neshoba County! Meridian is more or less home and I look forward to being back in the Queen City and Lauderdale County. I was born at Anderson Hospital and after graduating from Philadelphia High School in 1999, I attended MCC and graduated with a degree in Broadcast Communications Technology in 2001. I was also a member of Eagles’ 2000 national championship men’s soccer team as a student assistant. I spent several years in radio working at Q101 and, after two years at a radio station in Fort Wayne, Indiana, returned to work part-time back at Q101 (although at that point it was on 95.1) and eventually worked at WZKR (103.3) when it was a country station. I decided the time was right for a career change so I became an EMT and eventually a paramedic (I graduated from ECCC’s paramedic program in 2011). Most of my paramedic career was spent working at Metro Ambulance after working as an EMT at Wayne General Hospital in Waynesboro. As you can see, I have spent most of my adult life working in and around Meridian so I have gotten to know the area and the people very well.

Currently, Jessica and I live in Kentucky where I currently serve as the pastor of Shiloh UMC in Stanton (www.shilohumcstanton.org). We moved to Kentucky in 2015 when I enrolled at Asbury Theological Seminary and I was appointed to Shiloh. Prior to this, while completing my undergraduate degree online, I served Oak Grove UMC in the Clarkdale community for three years. I have a few classes remaining at Asbury, which I will complete online (with the exception of one class which I have to return for a week in July for) during my first year at Druid Hills and Lost Gap. Assuming no major hiccups occur, I will graduate with my Masters in Divinity in the spring of 2019.

Jessica and I have been married for nine years and will celebrate ten years as husband and wife in November. Jessica hails from all over south Mississippi as her father is an ordained elder in the Mississippi Annual Conference. She is a graduate of USM (bachelors in biology) and MSU (masters in biology) and has taught high school science for nearly fifteen years. She will be teaching at a school in the area (we will be able to share where soon) while I serve at Druid Hills and Lost Gap. Jessica is a gifted, passionate, and award-winning educator and considers her career a calling. Jessica loves crafts, especially scrapbooking and crochet! Together, we have a daughter, Hannah, who unfortunately died soon after she was born. In spite of our loss, we are thankful that Hannah’s all-too-short life has had a lasting impact, as a scholarship fund was established at Camp Wesley Pines in her memory that allows children to attend camp who may not otherwise be able to.

I am excited for what God has in store for Druid Hills and Lost Gap. Know that I am praying for you and for Brother Richard during this transition. I look forward to meeting you all in a couple of weeks! God’s grace, peace, and mercy be with you all.

In Christ,
Jonathan

Sermon: Stories of the Saints

slide-5-communion-of-saintsHere is today’s sermon from Shiloh United Methodist Church in Stanton, KY. We are doing a series based on material from the United Methodist Church Disciple Ministries regarding the saints. In the UMC, our understanding of saints is not the same as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We believe that saints are all of those who lived for Christ and have gone on to their reward in glory.

This sermon is based on verses from Joshua 24 where the prophet tells the people that they can not serve two gods and to choose carefully who they will serve. He begins by relating the story of Abraham and how they, as a people, came to be through his lineage. The stories we weave as disciples are important and can also reflect on all believers. Thus, it’s important for us to make our story the best one it can possibly be.

I hope you find some hope and inspiration in these words. May God bless you and yours. – Jonathan

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 (NLT)
Then Joshua summoned all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, including their elders, leaders, judges, and officers. So they came and presented themselves to God.

2 Joshua said to the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors, including Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River,* and they worshiped other gods. 3 But I took your ancestor Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him into the land of Canaan.

14 “So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. 15 But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.”

16 The people replied, “We would never abandon the Lord and serve other gods. 17 For the Lord our God is the one who rescued us and our ancestors from slavery in the land of Egypt. He performed mighty miracles before our very eyes. As we traveled through the wilderness among our enemies, he preserved us. 18 It was the Lord who drove out the Amorites and the other nations living here in the land. So we, too, will serve the Lord, for he alone is our God.”

19 Then Joshua warned the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy and jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you abandon the Lord and serve other gods, he will turn against you and destroy you, even though he has been so good to you.”

21 But the people answered Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!”

22 “You are a witness to your own decision,” Joshua said. “You have chosen to serve the Lord.”

“Yes,” they replied, “we are witnesses to what we have said.”

23 “All right then,” Joshua said, “destroy the idols among you, and turn your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

24 The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God. We will obey him alone.”

25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day at Shechem, committing them to follow the decrees and regulations of the Lord.

Last week we began a series on saints, but not the ones from New Orleans or ones who we might celebrate on certain holy days. We began to hear about the saints, ultimately all of those who are in Christ and have gone on to their reward and those who are currently in Christ and will go on to glory someday. We heard about the clothing that a saint might wear – how do we identify them? The white clothing placed on them by Christ certainly does much to show us who these people are – their everyday way of living. Today we hear their stories. What do we hear about from the saints? What ist their story?

There is a song that came out several years ago that contained these lines: “What’s your story about his glory? You gotta find your place in his amazing grace.” Recently I heard this song again for the first time in several years and I began to ponder these words. On first look, I have my faults. Every single day I do things that perhaps at the time I don’t realize are displeasing to God. This could take the form of anything from being rude to someone or not doing something that I know God would want me to do as a disciple. But I also know that I love Christ and I seek to grow in his grace every single day, to do better than the day before, to continue to be transformed into a completely new creation. I desire nothing but Christ and to walk in the Holy Spirit. My goal is perfection and I am, as John Wesley asked his pastors when they were being ordained, earnestly striving for and going on to perfection. But how I live my faith – the outward everyday testimony that I give – tells a story that will be my legacy. I hope to make it a good one.

Here’s a question that’s good to wrestle with from time to time: If I were to depart this world for glory right now, would my story as a disciple of Christ be one that’s worth being shared by others? Every single one of us will be remembered in some way by the people we leave behind. Another sure thing is, some will remember us differently. Some will remember us for the way we made sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving or for the way we told jokes around the fireplace on Christmas Eve. Some will remember that we did some heroic thing one year in a blizzard that kept everybody and everything frozen in place for a week. These, of course, are examples of the good things that someone might remember about us. Let’s hope there are many more of these sorts of stories than the other kind.

A saying that is popular among those in sales is that it can take a very long time to gain a customer but only a very short time to lose one. Likewise, it can take someone years to obtain a good reputation while it may only take a split second to have a bad one. The bad stories that may be recalled about someone after they have departed, unfortunately, can outweigh the good one. We have all seen it. Someone with a bad reputation can die and all some people will talk about is how much of a jerk they were, how badly they treated their spouse, beat their kids, did drugs, or any number of other things. Nevermind that that person could have once saved a building full of school children from a fire, it will be the vices and other bad things that will be remembered the most. Research has proven that negative events and traits can have a larger impact on our memories than positive ones. This may seem counterintuitive but the numbers do not lie. We tend to remember the bad stuff and forget the good stuff.

This is why it’s all the more important for every one of us who are in Christ to strive every single day to leave a positive legacy and to make sure that the story told about us is the best that we can possibly make it. Not only will this story reflect our life but can also reflect on all disciples of Jesus Christ.

Stories are exactly what we are reading about in this passage from the prophet Joshua. Of course, by the time Joshua is talking to the people about their stories as we pick up his story this morning, it has likely been well over three centuries since Abraham had lived and died. His name and some of his stories had been carried forward through the ages. But the first thing Joshua wants to tell the people about their ancestor as he is about to finish his work among them is that Abraham was not always connected to the God they knew as their God. He had served other gods, as his family before him had.

And the second thing he wanted them to know about Abraham’s story was that first our God made a choice, and then Abraham did. Our God chose to call this man who was not serving our God, and Abraham chose to pay attention and devote his life to following where our God led him. God acted first. God called. Then Abraham forsook all other allegiances and followed.

That’s our story, too, isn’t it? John and Charles Wesley would call this preventing, or prevenient grace. Before we were even trying to pay attention to what our God was calling us to do, even before we couldpay attention to such things, God called, and kept calling.

For many of you, you heard that call and you followed. You made a pledge at your baptism, if you were older, you would renounce all other allegiances, and serve Jesus as Lord, accepting the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. And over the years, you’ve learned what it means to rely on grace to keep you connected to God and to others in the body of Christ, the church, and to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world.

This is our story. We were serving other gods. We were following our own way. Even if we were “good Christian people” and “in the church,” and for some of us, even if we were confirmed and meant it at the time, we still hadn’t completely broken all those prior allegiances. Just being “in the church” may not really have been enough of an influence to do what the church promises to pray for us at every baptism– “that we may become true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”

Hear this good news. God keeps calling. The Spirit keeps striving. Prevenient grace is still very much a thing! Even when our story is that we’re ignoring God, God doesn’t ignore us. Indeed, God is calling us toward the fullness of life in Christ even then, even when we’re actively serving other gods or ends.

Hear this even better news. We don’t have to keep ignoring God’s call and God’s promise. We can “choose THIS day whom we will serve.” And in making that choice, our story can become more like that of those robed in white.

Joshua told the people an ancient ancestor story to speak of a God who made them a people –in effect–out of nothing, out of no prior allegiance.

They responded with their allegiance to their God who had done something even more remarkable than that. It would have been enough if God had simply called Abraham and given him descendants. But their story was their God did more. Their God delivered these descendants from slavery and cruel oppression at the hands of the Egyptian empire, brought them through a long journey, and enabled them to settle in a new land. Their God wasn’t just out to get them started, but to see them through whatever would come and work for their good. How could they not pledge sole allegiance to their God?

That’s the story of the saints, too. It’s our story. Some of us may have found ourselves caught in literal slavery and cruel oppression from others. Racism and white supremacy still exercise sway among us. Some of us may struggle with other forms of slavery and oppression such as addiction or other diseases beyond our apparent control. Probably all of us have struggled with patterns of selfishness or habits or actions or attitudes that destroy our relationships with God and neighbor and ourselves. And in our struggles, we may forget the best news of all. God really is out to save us.

God is out to save us.

And save us to the uttermost.

The story that we proclaim and that we weave for ourselves must be one worth telling and remembering. This is especially vital in the age in which we find ourselves. As I mentioned a few moments ago, we all have other gods whom we have been serving and at some point, those of us who have taken membership vows have professed before this or some other congregation that our allegiance is first and foremost with the risen savior Jesus Christ. What we see playing out in certain circles around us is nothing short of evil and idolatrous. We are more polarized than ever and we are also in a place in our nation’s history where we see many people throwing away what they know is morally correct and in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ for the sake of political gain. We are seeing people use scripture to justify everything from racism to pedophilia. We are seeing people equate allegiance with this or that politician or party with being a Christian. It makes my soul ache to know that such is the story that we are collective weaving about the witness of the church of Jesus Christ in the United States. Political gain and the setting aside of morals for the sake of political clout is not why Christ died on the cross. This is not why our veterans offered themselves up for us and why some gave literally everything they had. We can do better than this, we must do better.

As we write the story of our lives and our witness, we must make sure that if nothing else is said about us, it is proclaimed that we placed God above all other things in our lives, period, full stop. That means that we must do everything that we can to serve him and to take every single opportunity to show others the love of Jesus Christ as often as we can. In the sermon titled “The Use of Money” John Wesley said, “Employ whatever God has entrusted you with in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree . . . to all mankind.” Do we do all the good that we can, in all the ways that we can, in as many places as we can, to as many people as we can, for as long as we ever can? And when we fail to do good and we cause some kind of harm, do we make amends by confessing, repentance, and amends to the person we have wronged? This is how we make our story as a saint one worth telling. Above all, we love God and then we love all people as Christ loves them. Leave a lasting legacy, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Amen.

Sermon: The Apostle’s Tale – Groaning

Note: This is, more or less, my sermon from this morning’s worship service at Shiloh UMC in Stanton, Kentucky. Last week I began a series called The Apostle’s Tale which mostly is based on readings from Romans 8. This series was designed to go along with readings from the Revised Common Lectionary from a few weeks ago but I was doing another series and began this one late. It worked out perfectly, as this sermon dealt with our responsibility as disciples in light of the suffering and evil in the world. Perfect timing. I hope you receive encouragement and food for thought.

 

Romans 8:12-25 (NIV)
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba,[b] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[c] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

Last week, we began this series with a backdrop of dystopia using examples from The Hunger Games and the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. We also touched on the dystopia all around us, a world where there is much fear and violence, always an “us” versus “them” mentality. We talked about people being oppressed and some people having while others go without simply because of issues such as social class, race, and any number of factors. At least to some extent, dystopia is all around us and, unfortunately, is not just the stuff of books and movies.

We have been seeing some of this play out over the last few days. The North Korean government has made threats of a nuclear strike against Guam and on the mainland of the United States.Kim Jong Un claims that his government is working on specific plans and once it’s completed he will sign off on it and that will be all that’s needed to launch a strike. Allegedly a nuclear warhead can be rocketed toward Guam and be there in 14 minutes. Because of these threats, there has been much anxiety and fear in Guam and elsewhere, mainly at not knowing whether North Korea is truly capable of launching such an attack or if they would actually have the moxy to make such attempt. And, “What if they do and they do it?” Fear. Dystopia.

Yesterday we saw a little piece of dystopia play out with the racial unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in what I feel is a true expression of evil. Violence irrupted and a few people have even lost their lives, ultimately because of racism. Neo-nazis gathered to protest the removal of Civil War monuments and also rallied against the acceptance of other races other than white. Let me very clear: Racism is evil. Violence with racism as the root cause is evil. Racism is incompatible with Christian teaching and should not be tolerated within the church. And yet, so many of these groups claim to be Christians, they claim that they are doing work for God, and they claim that the Bible endorses the enslavement of blacks and calls them evil. Their views are contrary to scripture – scripture does not say any of that. Their actions and words, while they may have the right to hold their opinions, are evil. It’s dystopia playing out on the news.

As Christians, we often feel that we should somehow be exempt from having to experience the evils of the world. Evil is really hard to avoid but we try anyway. We hide ourselves with whatever we think will shield us and we try to pretend that it isn’t there. This really is the complete opposite of what we should do. We can lament and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to me because I have Jesus and therefore I don’t have to endure it.” But we see that Paul tells is that part of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ means that we don’t look away from the suffering going on in the world. We simply can’t. We must acknowledge it and call it what it is. We must confront the sufferings head on.

So how do we do this? How do we keep our eyes on Christ and yet make sure that we see the evils which are happening in the world for what they truly are, something that simply should not being ignored? We do this by joining in God’s sorrow over the state of this world. We join in and take our place in the chorus of all of God’s creation as it groans. The groans are caused by the long pains of labor as God’s promised kingdom is birthed.

I remember a particular call when I ran when I was an EMT. I was working in Mississippi and had not yet enrolled in paramedic school. In fact, I had not been an EMT for very long at all. When the dispatcher called us she was obviously very upset when normally she was calm and professional. I won’t go into the details of the call for a lot of reasons but I will say that it was… gruesome. The patient was in terrible shape and severely disfigured. It was difficult to look at him but I had to force myself to. I had to care for him. I had to look at him and his injuries. Thankfully this was toward the end of my shift but the rest of it was spent in a daze. The sight that I had to force myself to observe was completely overwhelming. When I got home, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I simply had nothing left to give and I ended up sleeping most of the day… Well, when I couldn’t see his face in a dream. That was the price I had to pay but I had no choice. I had to force myself to take it all in and provide the best care I could for him.

Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes the reality that we simply must force ourselves to take it and to not ignore is so overwhelming that it takes all of our energy and we simply have nothing left to give.

Those of us who claim Jesus as Lord must pay attention to the goings-on in the world but we also need to make sure that we acknowledge the suffering and evil as well. We may want to ignore it and try to shield ourselves from it but we shouldn’t and, let’s be honest, we can’t. We can’t turn out backs on the suffering of our neighbors. We can’t turn our backs on heroin and opiate addicts. We can’t turn our backs on the homeless. We can’t turn our backs on the poor. We can’t turn our backs on racists and other bigots. We can’t turn away from threats from North Korea and other entities who seek to do our country harm. And we can’t turn our backs on people within our own borders who wish to do harm to our country. We must acknowledge. We must look. And we must act, even if that action is simply praying for God’s guidance and wisdom.

Paul tells us this – he tells us that we must look upon and acknowledge those places where the most pain and the most groaning by all of creation is happening. But here’s the tricky part, the part that we don’t tend to like: We must join in the suffering. We have to take the pain of others on ourselves and bear it. And even when we don’t see hope, we must never, never, never give up. When the enemy tries to drag us away and distract us from the suffering of the world, we have to dig our heels in deeper and stand our ground. We must be patient, we must remember that God is good and God is working to bring about his kingdom and that day will be here sooner than we think!

It’s natural to wonder where all of this evil and suffering comes from. A common question is “where did all of this come from? How did it start?” It seems to be counterintuitive to God’s intention for the world. And, really, that’s because it is counterintuitive to God’s original plan.

John Wesley talked about this in one of his sermons. He wrestles with the question of how it can be that God provides for all of creation and yet there is suffering.

Ultimately, he chalks it up to original sin. He begins by noting that God created human beings in God’s own image of perfect righteousness and love and gave humans dominion over all of creation, especially those lesser animals, or “brutes” as Wesley names the non-human animal kingdom. The difference between humans and brutes, for Wesley, is that humans alone were endowed with the capacity to obey their creator. Thus endowed, God’s original intent was that humans would ensure that no beasts under their care suffered: “All the blessings of God in paradise flowed through man to the inferior creatures, as man was the great channel of communication between the Creator and the whole brute creation,’ Wesley writes.

Unfortunately, as we all know, human beings messed up the transmission of those blessings in an irreversible way. This has affected not only all humans, but all the creatures under humanity’s care. Wesley laments that there is no way to know what suffering creation has endured because of original sin. All we know is that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; not only creation but we ourselves”

This is why we have evil. The downside of free will is that one is free to commit evil acts if we so choose – that is, if the enemy can fool us into thinking that we should do these things. This is why the neo-nazis and the dictators of the world are allowed to make their threats, shout their vulgar racial slurs, and to drive their cars into groups of innocent people.

Christians are not people of isolation. We simply can not and should not hide ourselves from the suffering of the world and simply remain in our bubbles. Maybe you’ve seen the movie, about the boy who was so sick that he could have absolutely no contact with the outside world? He literally had to live in the bubble. I feel that we Christians often hide ourselves in our bubbles to try and ignore the evil of the world but Paul tells us that we simply can’t do that. Christians are not bubble people! We can’t ignore evil and hope that it will go away because, at least until Christ returns, evil isn’t going anywhere. We must acknowledge it. We must name it. We must feel pain with each other and with our neighbors. We must join in the collective groaning of the world rather than ignoring it.

I want to remind us about the words that we heard last week after we confessed our sins just before having Holy Communion last week: “Hear the Good News! Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. This proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” And we celebrate that because of Christ, we have been set free from the law of sin and death.

This IS the good news of Jesus Christ! As the women would say in The Handmaid’s Tale, “Praise Be!”

But being saved from eternal suffering does not give us a pass to avoid the suffering of God’s creation. Rather, we are called to join with Christ in his suffering, just as we will also join in Christ’s glory.

I want to read the baptismal vows one more time. I want you to ponder them one more time. Are you all in and do you truly affirm these vows or are they just words?

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

If you do, say “amen.”

The Journey to Perfection

92aba00b06181159f052f909ec08e648-john-wesley-gospelI came to Mississippi to have my yearly meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (DCOM) where my ordination candidacy resides. On my way down from Kentucky, my car started having some trouble and it’s currently undergoing automotive surgery, therefore I have been spending some extra time down south. As I obviously was not going to be preaching at Shiloh today, I decided to worship at First UMC in my hometown of Philadelphia, MS. Their associate pastor, Rev. Ryan McGough, preached on the account of Nicodemus’ journey of faith as described in John’s gospel. One of the points Rev. McGough made was that, like Nicodemus, our faith journey is much more than a moment in time, it’s a life-long process of being perfected in the image of Christ.

When I was in paramedic school I was in the midst of my field internship shifts. I was so ready to be finished and to finally be a medic. I was riding with a crew from a rural service one day and I expressed these sentiments to my preceptor. He said, “Paramedic school gets you ready to pass the written test and to pass the skills check off. Getting through paramedic doesn’t make you a paramedic. When you get your gold patch, you are then a paramedic. But that’s all you are. From there, the real education begins. You will have a choice to make: Do you want to be a paramedic or a good paramedic? One will get you a job but the other will make you a better provider every shift and you will advance. Maybe you will go on to be a critical care medic or maybe even an instructor. But know this: The journey to being a paramedic doesn’t take long. The journey to being a great paramedic is a marathon, not a sprint.”

I’ve said such a few times myself and I will maintain this forever: The process of sanctification is a lifetime process, it does not occur overnight. Salvation is much more than a moment in time in front of an altar rail at a church or tent revival, it’s a journey with Jesus that we all take together as one body of Christ. Salvation is not as simple as punching our fire insurance card, it’s something we have to be invested in for the long haul. It takes faith in God to work in our lives, patience, and persistence.

Perfection in Christ has no express lane.

Persons who are being ordained as Deacons and Elders in the United Methodist Church are asked a series of traditional questions that John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and every bishop since have asked ordinands. One of them is this: “Are you going on to perfection?” Saying that one is “going on” to Christian perfection indicates that this is no one-time thing. This is a process. If you think that one sin too many is going to keep God from loving you, that’s just not true. As Rev. McGough said today, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Persist! Go on! You can do this through the strength of Christ!