Reflections and Prayer for United Methodists, Transfiguration Sunday 2019

Reflections and Prayer for United Methodists

Reflection: John Wesley’s guide for living has been distilled down to Three Simple Rules: 1) Do Good; 2) Do No Harm; 3) Stay in Love with God.*  On Tuesday of this past week, in St. Louis, the United Methodist Church walked away from one of our core commitments: “Do no harm.”  The actions taken at that gathering have done immeasurable damage to many, especially friends and family who are in the LGBTQ community and to the United Methodist Church’s witness among the young in future generations. 

Eight-hundred-sixty-four (864) delegates gathered to consider plans related to our stance on same-sex marriage and matters of ordination. Two-thirds of the delegates from the United States did not support this punitive and restrictive plan.  Even so, 53% of all delegates did.  Delegates from other nations voted overwhelming “to do harm” to millions.

Those gathered could not agree to join what this congregation has already agreed to do – which is to leave room for loving disagreement about how we interpret scripture.  Five (5) passages of scripture, out of 31,000, are cited to offer sanctions against same-sex relationships.  Those who voted in favor of the new restrictions believe these verses capture the entirety of God’s timeless will and purposes.  We know that scriptures have been misused in the past.  There are more than two hundred (200) verses on slavery.  There are dozens that have been used to marginalize women — even suggesting they should “keep silent in church.” (Can you imagine!?). In this congregation and thousands of others, we have studied, grown and learned – over the decades.  We understand that some beliefs reflect a limited cultural frame.  In some cultures, capital punishment may be practiced against those engaged in same-sex relationships.  We believe, in this church, just as our fore-bearers did regarding slavery, that there are truths that call us to a greater understanding of God’s purposes than the narrow reading of a few verses.

Sadly, those of us who are Centrists, or who seek a Generously Orthodoxy, or who are Progressive in theology, we who represent the clear majority of United Methodists in the US, are now left with a sense of being exiles in our own denomination.  This matter is not resolved.  It will take many months, probably years to sort out where the denomination is truly heading.  It is messy just now.  Here at SD – FUMC, as a leading congregation in the nation and in the west, we are called on to resist, to pray, to think, to give witness, to lead; but more than anything else we will display, here and now, the depth and breadth of God’s love for ALL people.

Our congregation IS NOT CHANGING.  We will not be turning back the clock.  We will resist being a church that does harm in this way.  We will not treat LGBTQ people as second class.  We will welcome everyone.  There has been much pain  — and much grace displayed this week.  I have seen tears and also heard whispers of hope for the future… hope that grows stronger and louder each day.  Of all the grace, the greatest I have comes from LGBTQ folks. 

Join one of the conversations next week or in Trotter Chapel tomorrow evening at 7:00.  On June 2nd, on Ascension Sunday, we will focus our worship on the gifts LGBTQ persons bring to the church and this congregation in particular. One final word to all our members, especially our LGBTQ members, their family and friends: I love you., we love you.  The great pain the General Conference has caused you is not who we Methodists in this place are – nor who we will be.

Prayer:  O God, even in our darkest hours, you surprise us.  You lead us into new glimpses of your glory each day… yet we often fail notice.  Often, we are caught up in the mundane musings of everyday routines.  Then, there are other times, when we overwhelmed by the brokenness of our church and the fractured realities of your world.  Today, our prayer is that we will experience a break through, a renewed awareness of your glory.  We commit anew to resist the forces that would exclude and harm – that we will stand on the side of faith rather than fear, of acts of love rather than rigid rules that exclude – and, even then, we will open our hearts to those who hold a different view.

We pray that you will give us imagination for the future, strength for our weakness, hope where there is fear, light for the way and grace in the times of trail.  We are called to be a people who love one another, a people of grace, a people who seek to do no harm, a people who now that our final home and hope is in your care.  Move us today from houses of fear to houses of love.   

Knowing that there are many burdens, joys and thanksgivings we bring today, we now pray in silence seeking to better know your purposes for our church, the church universal and our world. 

  • Silence –

Might we see the world with new eyes – We pray for your church, understanding that we are a small part of your people.  Forgive our arrogance for thinking our little disagreements hold any ultimate significance in your kin-dom.  Open our eyes and minds and hearts to your guidance.  Might we dream new dreams for the church, new openness to others in our ministry and new hope for the future.

Amen.

  • (See Rueben Job’s Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living.)

 

A Mess in St Louis

Thanks, Will Willimon for this honest confession and call. We elders will struggle to assist others in cleaning up the mess we have made. As an example of emerging wisdom, see the letter Rev. Mark Feldmier shared with his congregation, St. Andrew in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Mark Feldmier’s call to the future. 

 

A Peculiar Prophet

Before the United Methodist Special General Conference opened on Saturday, we prayed. Perhaps God would miraculously grant a fruitful discussion among 800disputantswho have very little in common except our cross-and-flame nametags. We prayed for openness to different points of view, unity, communion, gracious listening, holy conferencing, empathetic feelings, and generosity of spirt.

It didn’t work.

At some point I shifted my own prayers to, “Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan.” This plan, recommended by the UMC bishops, aimed to give more discretion to local churches and annual conferences in LGBTQ inclusion, ministry, and mission. It was summarily trashed early in the voting; the rival Traditional Plan, which reaffirms the denomination’s prohibitions against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, was approved.

The Lord, as far as I could tell, had business elsewhere. In fairness to the Lord…

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Orphaned or Exiled?

Orphaned or Exiled?

This will not be long.  I have been avoiding adding to the verbiage surrounding the United Methodist Special General Conference in St. Louis.  Perhaps I know too much, or is it too little?  I awoke this morning considering the actions taken yesterday by the United Methodists gathered in St. Louis.  It is certainly one of the most painful days in my more than fifty years of ordained ministry.  Whatever, I was even more painfully aware of the ways my many LGBTQI friends have been spiritually brutalized by the language and actions of this gathering.

I saw it coming… and I understood what it will likely mean for the future.  As the conference voted to continue to exclude gay and lesbian folks from the full ministry of the church and to punish anyone who would join in seeking a more open church, I found myself wondering what has happened to the denomination I joined as a young man.  Yes, I felt orphaned by mother church… or, perhaps it is that I felt exiled.

Let’s just say that as an elected delegate to four General Conferences in the past, I have been in the room and seen the “sausage made.”  The result is our guidebook, the Book of Discipline.  However, words are insufficient to capture the whole human story and the ways God keeps leading the faithful forward.  This is, after all, evidenced in the unfolding story of our scriptures.  God’s people learn and learn again of God’s faithfulness and love.

John Wesley
John Wesley – Methodism’s Founder

More to the point, I have seen the ways we United Methodists have struggled to live our lives together over the past fifty years.  The intrigues, the deceits, the political distortions — yes.  I have also seen the affection and generosity of persons who come together from many places geographically and theologically to seek to discover what God had in store for a church that was willing to take risks — to be a messy church on the behalf of sharing the transforming love of Christ in the world.

 

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John Wesley suggested that Methodists should begin and end our work with a “watching over one another in love.”  Let me recommend a fine sermon by Dr. Robert Hill that looked at what is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience) as our way to know God’s will.  (see http://www.fumcsd.org)

N.T. Wright suggests that the church is merely the scaffolding for God’s Kin-dom work in our world.  This helps.  But not much this morning.  I confess to feeling orphaned in the face of decisions being made by this “special general conference” in St. Louis this week.  Or, perhaps it is an exiling that is underway.  This is a more helpful image — from scripture.  What shall I do? — well, it is time to listen, watch and look for new connections with old friends.  I think of the dozens, make that hundreds of churches where a Methodism of the heart and mind continue to be practiced.   I think of places like Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana, Illinois or… the list goes on, by the hundreds it goes on, in the U.S. and around the world.  Here gather people who are not afraid to think AND pray.  To welcome and include.  To be open to changes they need to make rather than seeking to make other fit into their categories.  Maybe there will be a gathering-of-orphans — or exiles — that will become the next chapter in our faith journey.  Would that I could stay in the familiar world of mother church.  Sometimes, however, we must leave home (or be pushed out) to grow in ways God would desire.

 

I Won’t be Attending General Conference But . . . .

Sacred work indeed. Methinks our hope may involve being near those we love in these days – some in St. Louis — some wherever the people of God live and work. Thank you, my brother.

Shifting Margins

UM-General-Conference1920x485-1024x259I’m going to miss an important event in Methodist history–the called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, February 23-27.

A lot is at stake as delegates wrestle with ways to deal with the important matters of homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture. The decisions made will chart the denomination’s future for decades.

Missing the conference makes me sad! I feel some guilt for my absence.  Although as a retired bishop I have no official duties,  I do feel responsible to be present in support of colleagues and delegates.

I know from previous General Conferences that significant things happen apart from the formal sessions. Old friendships are renewed and new ones formed. The vast diversity of the denomination is on full display.

Great music! Outstanding preaching! Challenging speeches! Profound worship!

I’ll miss all of that!

I must forego the experience. But, I’ll be pursuing my current primary vocational calling…

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Bishop Judith Craig

Recalling Greatness: Bishop Judith Craig

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So many memories, joyful ones, of Bishop Judith Craig. That laugh — so often laughing at herself.  Those hands on your shoulder as she teased or counseled or intermingled the two and you didn’t realize you had been “schooled” until the next afternoon.  Those eyes — that voice.  That wisdom — cutting through the antics of clergy or lay person who would seek to damage the whole. 

I think of her as one always open to delight — she lived with an expectancy of something better.  And could she preach and pray — yes, my Lord, she could!  Losing dear Judy in this hour in the life of our United Methodist Church is heartrending.  I salute you, dear sister and beloved friend.  May perpetual light shine on you.

I remember how moved I was when Judy was the first woman to give the episcopal address for the denomination back in 1996.  She called for a church that could be bigger than the narrow bigotry that entrapped us.  She was unashamedly a champion of full inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings.

At the time (1996), I thought the church would make a transition to a more accepting and courageous witness quickly.  I was wrong.  It has now been over twenty years of regressive movement.  Twenty years of narrow interest caucus groups using the scriptures and our guiding documents as a blunt instrument of exclusion and harm.  How can the good news of Jesus have been so disfigured into another kind of news?  What hermeneutic can justify this push to separate and move away from one another in a time when the gospel is so relevant to a hurting world? 

We seem to have been “trading down” as a denomination for these two decades. Giving away our legacy, our commitment to loving acceptance for all. Open hearts, minds and doors of welcome has been replaced by a move for the withering of the church by exclusion.  It is fostered by those who build fences of fear and use the very resources and structures of the church against it. The church has lost a great visionary leader.  She was mentored in East Ohio by another great, Bishop James Thomas. They were of an uncommon kind.  I see them together — one testimony to our church at its very best.  Both were able to stand tall for justice and piety.  Neither would sell out for a false sense of peace.  I saw both of them stand tall in difficult circumstances.  Each possessed a wisdom that would not accept the ill-considered proposal, the seeking of unfair advantage of others, or the mean-spirited tactics of a caucus group.

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Mary Oliver

Judy’s death comes within hours of poet Mary Oliver.  Two women, two singular voices.  I wonder if they ever met?  Let me suggest that Judy offered us the poetry of a life-well-lived and of poetry-in-action. Or, as Mary Oliver might say, Judy “didn’t end up simply visiting the world.” She was indeed “a bride married to amazement.

 

I give thanks for the witness, the joy, the friendship of Judith Craig… I now laugh through my tears.  I have been touched by greatness and I know her expansive witness will endure and thrive in places we do not yet see, no matter the petty politics of the current United Methodist Church.

Why Seek a King Cyrus?

Why Seek a King Cyrus When We have a King Jesus?

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Katherine Stewart writes of what she has been discovering among many right wing, Christian Nationalist groups.  [See Katherine Stewart, NY Times.]  Having read her thought-provoking report, I can’t help but wonder why Christians would seek the re-emergence of a King Cyrus when we have the far more appropriate witness in life, death and resurrection of King Jesus, as our guide?  

I also stop and consider what recent socio-cultural trends mean for the church.  While United Methodism has been distracted by folks seeking a heretofore undesired “doctrinal purity” on issues like “homosexuality,” our core message of multiple ways for faithful disciples to “Know God in Christ” has languished… and in some places nearly disappeared. All the while, our distractions have kept our attentions from the deeper cultural realities. Basic assumptions about liberty and faith provided by folks like the Niebuhrs, ML King, Jr., E. Stanley Jones, Georgia Harkness and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been undercut. A profound shift in understanding of the nature of Christian citizenship has eroded beneath our feet.

This, I believe, was (and continues to be) a well-planned, well-funded and well-executed effort by persons who have little or no interest in encouraging a Wesleyan spirit. I don’t believe many of my sisters and brothers caught up in the so-called “Good News” movement or the so-called “Wesleyan Covenant Association” intended this. Even so, they are in my view the seminal actors in this tragedy. I do also wonder, at the same time, if they (and we) haven’t “been played” by nationalistic and anti-democratic forces over the past several decades. Have we unwittingly made space for some to suggest that POTUS is a modern “King Cyrus?” Alas.

I believe our foolish warfare over welcoming our gay brothers and sisters has contributed, in some significant measure, to the current season of intolerance and authoritarianism that passes for Christianity. Can United Methodism recover it’s voice? Can we move back to a focus on living lives based on the teachings of Jesus? Can we again practice basic democratic, respectful and honorable civic dialogue? This was once a part of Methodist annual conference sessions — in many places in recent years it has been lost.  Can we mend the soul and witness of our church?  The soul of our nation may stand in the balance.

 

Where the Light Enters

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Where the Light Enters

Philip A. Amerson                                              Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:15-20

December 24, 2018                                             Christmas Eve 8:00 and 10:45 PM  

Welcome:

Beloved in Christ – we gather again on this evening to tell of the loving purposes of God and the glorious redemption possible for the world through Jesus Christ.  We gather to affirm our commitment to peace and good will across the earth, within and among our various denominations and faith traditions and within this great city and nation.   We remember those at the margins tonight: the poor, helpless, sick, cold, depressed, lonely and unloved; and those who know not God.  Before God, we join all who tonight celebrate the word made flesh – who through the Lord Jesus has shown us the way of peace and has called us to be one family.

Sermon: Where the Light Enters

Introduction:

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

(From Anthem by Leonard Cohen.  See also The Soul’s Journey, Alan Jones, p. 219)

Prayer: O Christ of Christmas, lite our way that we may see your pathways of hope.  Amen.

At 7:00 AM this morning, Elaine and I listened to the broadcast on BBC of Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge.  You might say it is our annual nostalgia bath… when revel to hear remarkable choirs and the retelling of the story of Jesus’ birth. As I listened, I couldn’t help wondering what does this story call upon me to do differently in the year to come? 

This evening you heard our own Bradley Ladrido singing the first verse – Once in royal David’s city, Wasn’t it lovely?  And what about you?  Are you called to anything different in the year stretching before you?

My guess is that some of you have come to one of the Christmas Eve services in this place for years, right?  Perhaps decades?   Or, perhaps this is the first time you have come to this place on the night before Christmas.  Whichever it is, WELCOME.  We receive anew the light of Christ, a light we so often fail to see.  What does this call upon us to do?

Dorothy Day said: “It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live to the end of the world have been born too late.  Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.” (Day, Dorothy, “Room for Christ” in Watch for the Light, Walden Publishing, New York, p. 176.)

2018 is a year of anniversaries:

  • Lessons and Carols from King’s College celebrate its 100th anniversary today.
  • It was 200 years ago Silent Night (Stille Nacht) was first sung in the St. Nicolas Church in Oberndorf Austria.
  • Our congregation FUMC is on the eve of celebrating our 150th anniversary in San Diego—next year is the year.
  • But there is one other anniversary we mark. [Show Slide of “Earthrise”].  

Fifty years ago, on Christmas Eve, William Anders, James Lovell and Frank Borman, the crew of Apollo 8, were orbiting the moon.  The first humans to do this, they broke into the evening news. Anders began: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send.”  And he began to read: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth… And God said, Let there be light: and there was lightLovell and Borman continued the reading ending with “and God saw that it was good.”  The Frank Borman closed: “And from the crew of Apollo 8… good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”  [Woods, David; O’Brien, Frank (December 27, 2008). Day 4: Lunar Orbits 7,8,and 9”. The Apollo 8 Flight Journal. NASA History Division.]

apollo8Later the crew sent a photo back to earth.  It was unscheduled, unplanned.  Yet, when they saw it, they knew it needed to be shared.  This iconic image, called earth rise, shows the glory and fragility of our planet.  The blue marble brims with life – a dot of beauty against darkness all around.

What does Christmas Eve mean to you in 2018?  What new traditions might you begin this year?  What questions emerge about our care for God’s creation, about how we can learn to live together on this precious galactic real estate?  How will we answer the ancient questions like: who is my neighbor?  [END SLIDE]

Some of us bring a brokenness of body or spirit tonight, some of us are ready to spread our blankets by the pools of narcissism so prevalent in our society, some of us bring doubt, some come with renewed hope and join the poet John Keats in saying: “There is a budding morrow in every midnight.”

Whatever your state of belief or attitude, you are welcome here – it is a time to begin again.  Time to recommit to following the one who first entered our world as an infant in Bethlehem.  Don’t be afraid – Jim Wallis points out that this is the most frequently spoken command in scriptures.  It appears 365 times – once for every day in the year to come.  How will you change in the year ahead – what new traditions will you begin?  What repentance will you make?  In the comic strip Broom Hilda she asks her friend Irwin about how to make a better world. “Start with yourself! He says… give up your bad habits.  Then… you’ll stand as a shining example to others!”  Broom Hilda thinks and responds, “O.K.  What’s the second best way?”

We all face changes, even as we hold to our traditions.  The world is changing, the church is changing.  My beloved tradition of Lessons and Carols is a part of a European encapsulated expression of the faith.  It is good.  However, the years ahead will require new expressions, new anniversaries, new ways of being church.  The growth of the church with people from the cultures from of Asia, Africa and Latin America.  How will we welcome them and learn from them?                                      

St. John’s Church in Edinburgh Scotland stands near the downtown rail station.  For decades it has been under construction.  On the scaffolding are two signs: One says: “Caution, Under Construction” and on the other are the words: “Business as Usual: Peace and Justice Center.”

We love our traditions – and well we should.  Even so, like us, are always under construction.  We celebrate our anniversaries, even so, the world is changing.  God’s purposes are seeking places where new light will shine through the cracks of what has been already present to illuminate the ongoing work of seeking peace on earth and good will among all.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.  For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9)

 Amen.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.                         God Bless Us, Every One!

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Howard Thurman:

I Will Light Candles This Christmas
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.

Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV)
9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.  9:3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  9:4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 9:5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  9:6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 9:7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.