Pastoral Letter on General Conference 2019

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Rev. 3: 14-22)

Friends,

I want to share with you some of the words I shared in worship at Gaither and St. Paul’s traditional service Sunday morning, March 3rd.  These are my own thoughts and feelings.  I make no claim to speak for anybody other than myself.  I am not speaking for the churches of our parish or The United Methodist Church.  I am only speaking for myself.  I don’t know where most of you are on this issue, and I don’t want to make assumptions.  I want to name and affirm that you may disagree with me.  I hope any disagreement between us can begin a dialogue.  But I want to be clear what I believe.  I am reminded by the scripture above that now is not the time to be lukewarm.

I have found this to be a very dispiriting week in the life of the United Methodist Church.  This is the church that I was baptized in, that I accepted Christ into my heart in, that I perceived a call to minister in, that I have given my adult life to service in, and that I will to continue to serve in.  But my church broke my heart this week.

A special General Conference met February 23-26, 2019, to try and address the 40-plus year debate we’ve been having about human sexuality in The United Methodist Church and to try and build church unity.  Leading up to it, I expected that nothing substantial would happen.  On a legislative level, that may end up being the case.  The news coming out of the Conference was that a so-called “Traditional Plan” passed that reinforced and strengthened the church’s prohibitions on homosexuality.  But much of that legislation has already been ruled to be in violation of the church’s constitution and no doubt will be again.  The rest remains to be seen.  Time will tell.

But it’s not true that nothing happened.  The language of the so-called Traditional Plan and its supporters was so extreme and exclusionary that immense damage has been done to gay and lesbian people and those who love them.  Immense damage has been done to our United Methodist witness to the world.  All week I’ve been fielding questions from members, friends who know I am a United Methodist minister, asking in brief: “What is going on?  I thought we were/you were a church of ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors.’”  They ask that question because in the language of the plan that passed, in the language and hopes of its supporters, United Methodists have presented to the world a picture of a church that has closed its doors to gay and lesbian persons and those who love them.

For any who have been hurt by what the church has said or done, please know how much you are loved by God.  I am sorry this has happened.  For your relatives, friends, and co-workers, please bear witness to them that God loves them.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to be talked about as if your presence were a problem for the church, or as if you were an issue and not a person.  I’m sorry.

I have taken comfort from the verse in Revelation quoted above.  It is one of seven letters written as from God to seven churches in Asia Minor.  You may have seen a version of a famous painting based on it such as Holman Hunt’s, “The Light of the World” that hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  An important symbolic detail of that painting is that there is no doorknob on the door.  This symbolizes that we are inside and have a choice.  Christ is standing outside at the door knocking, but it is up to us, inside, if we will open the door.  Christ wants to come in and be in relationship with us, to be with us, if we will only open the door.

Methodism has traditionally been a religion of the heart, and so we believe the most important question we could ask is “Will you open the door of your heart to let Christ into your life, to put your faith in him, to serve him as your Lord?”  That’s why we are called together by the grace of God to be a church.  We are here in the church to witness to Christ to a world that does not know him, so that all might open the doors of their hearts and welcome him in.

While that is sound theology, in Revelation, Christ is not described as knocking on the door to the heart of the believer, but the door to the church.  What we read about in that scripture is a picture of a church that has closed its doors.

I am disappointed in the church.  I am disappointed that United Methodists have presented to the world a picture of a church that has closed its doors.  Over and over again in these letters in Revelation, God says how disappointed God is in the church.  I take comfort in the thought that God shares my disappointment in the church.  I also take comfort in the idea that if the church ever closes its doors to anybody, Christ will be found, not inside that church, but outside those doors with those who are excluded, knocking, wanting to come in.

I disagree with the church’s stance that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” (Book of Discipline, ¶161.g).  I wish I could say what was on the table at General Conference was full and complete inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life and ministry of the church.  It was not.  I could make the argument that Christians can believe the Bible is authoritative for our faith and disagree with the church’s official position, as I do.  This is not the place for that.  What was on the table was the hope of most of the Bishops of the church that we could at least find a way live together in love, and disagree, and be in ministry to our world together.  That did not pass.  Clearly, that’s the conversation we need to have.  Can we keep Christ at the center of our hearts and our life together?  Can we be the church together?

It’s not clear what will happen next.  This is my hope.  I hope we can do here in the Sykesville Parish what the denomination could not this week.  I hope we can love each other without having to agree on the interpretation of every verse in the Bible because we all love Jesus Christ.  That has never been the Methodist tradition of scriptural interpretation.  I think we can have an honest disagreement about such things and love one another because we all love Christ.

I’m only responsible for my actions, and my first word has to be to those who have been hurt.  I know that if you have heard the message that you or people you love are not welcome, I have no right to ask anything of you.  I can only apologize again.  I have tried over the course of my ministry to treat all people, including gay and lesbian people, as God’s beloved children, fully welcome in the life and ministry of the church.  I will not stop doing so now.  If you have been hurt by the church, if you will allow me, I will be honored to continue to serve you as your pastor.  I hope we can love and serve Christ together in the church.

I hope that despite whatever hurt you have felt, we can be the church together, because it’s what I need in a church.  Before I’m a pastor, I’m a Christian who needs a church to support, encourage, and challenge me.  I’ve known gay and lesbian Christians, friends and colleagues, who love Jesus, who manifest the fruits of the Spirit in their lives, and who want to be a full part of the life and ministry of the church even when there are those who tell them they are not wanted there and worse.  It’s all too easy to be lukewarm in our faith, and my faith has been strengthened by being in fellowship with Christians who are so committed to Christ and the church that they are willing to face ugly behavior of fellow Christians to be there.

I’ve also known many Christians who love Jesus, who manifest the fruits of the Spirit in their lives, are a full part of the life and ministry of the church and who express a deep unease with homosexuality.  That was me at one point in time.  I do not hear in such people a spirit of hatred, but of grave concern.  They see we live in a society that excuses way too much behavior on the grounds that what people do in their private lives is private.  I need such people to be a part of my church because I need the reminder that the call to be holy as God is holy means that holy living must infuse all parts of our lives, even our most intimate relationships.  If that describes you, I want you to be a part of the church.  Your witness that our family relationships can create holy places is a gift you bring to our fellowship that strengthens my faith life.

I know some of you are probably also uncomfortable with this conversation.  Maybe you are thinking this is not what you want to sign up for in a church, this is more than you signed up for.  I need that in the church too.  I need that unease, that unrest, to keep me from becoming complacent.  I need those hard questions.  I hope you bring that to us, as well.

After my sermons I tried to speak with as many of you as possible, and I heard words of agreement or disagreement.  I appreciate your agreement, but I also welcome your disagreement.  More than anything, I want to know if we can be at peace with each other.  If you have been hurt, you may not have that peace to give.  I honor that pain.  But I pray the peace of Christ can abide in our relationships with one another.

I want to be the church with all of you.

I think we can all be a part of the church together.

I hope we can.

I believe we are up for the challenge.  Because I believe we can love Christ and each other and that when we open the doors of our hearts to Christ, we open the doors of our hearts to everyone who Christ loves.

Jesus is standing at the door knocking, and we have a choice.  He says that if we open the door he will come in and be with us and meet us around the Communion table where we share that sacrament of grace.  It was wonderfully providential that we closed our worship Sunday singing the hymn, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast.”  I can’t think of anything more traditionally Methodist than a Charles Wesley hymn about communion:

Come, sinners, to the gospel feast. 

Let every soul be Jesus’ guest. 

Ye need not one be left behind;

for God hath bid all humankind. 

Peace,

Doug.