Rooted by the Water, Loving Enemies and Judging Not: General Conference 2019

The Revised Common Lectionary is a calendar of scriptures used by many churches that follow the liturgical calendar. Each Sunday, the program includes an Old Testament Text, a Psalm, a Gospel text, and a selection from the Epistles. The lectionary is meant to give a sense of unity and comprehensiveness to the church in general. We can’t just stick to our favorite texts. We cycle through sections of the Bible and look for the “living word” to speak to us, and what it might be saying to the church at large. We don’t “hole up” in some corner with like minded people, we read the texts in a larger community. The lectionary is followed all over the world, and thus worshiping Christians in Tulsa might be hearing the same texts as worshiping Christians in Tijuana or Tokyo. Myranda used to enjoy speaking with a co-worker in Ft. Smith about the sermons they had heard the previous Sunday. The co-worker was Lutheran, but Myranda and Janice always enjoyed that they were hearing from the same texts and could discuss what they had heard and thought. The lectionary is a wonderful tool for this reason.

So, what a good resource to turn to in the midst of the divisive climate of the United Methodist Church at the moment. The lectionary–a resource that fosters collective wisdom and unity and protects against selective attention and myopic arguments. Wouldn’t it be something if the lectionary, which was created long before the Special Called General Conference of 2019 was ever dreamed up, spoke to the General Conference? God can be funny like that, you know?

On this past Sunday, which was the beginning of the week that ends with the start of the Special Called General Conference on Saturday, February 23 at 9am, the Old Testament text (Jeremiah 17: 5-10) and the Psalm (1) echo the image of the faithful person being “like a tree planted by the water.” The virtues of the faithfulness and “trusting in the Lord” are contrasted with the folly of trusting in “mere mortals,” or the “the flesh” or “the heart.” Instead of being like a shrub in the dry desert, I envision our General Conference being a delegation of leaders from all over the world rooting themselves by one of the largest streams in the world. How fortunate that our General Conference is located this year in St. Louis, gateway to the West on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. I think the location might hold valence for where I believe God is leading this General Conference. Rooted by the water of God’s dynamic presence, delegates have an opportunity to display fruitfulness and life in the face of stagnation and death. We are poised to venture out into the unknown like those pioneers who headed west in search of a better life or simply an opportunity to survive.

Many expect the General Conference to accomplish nothing, remaining stuck in the midst of the swamp of an argument that has bogged down the church for 50 years. Others expect the General Conference to be the death of the denomination as we now know it, and have planned a divergent conference (the “Wesleyan Covenant Association”) to immediately follow the General Conference to begin the process of “dissecting the body.” The Council of Bishops have recommended a plan (as the last General Conference “asked them to lead us”) that seeks to preserve the unity of the church in the midst of our diversity. I’d say it is the church polity version of the lectionary. A prescription for each church to follow, but each pastor and church to interpret in their own context. Called the “One Church Plan,” I believe it is the best way forward. It’s not perfect. I don’t love every aspect of it. (See my reflections on that here) I think there is a better plan (called “The Simple Plan”). But I don’t always love the lectionary either. It’s not perfect either. Often, I think there are “better scriptures” to hear from in a given moment. The lectionary and the One Church plan are imperfect models for unity–but unity is of the “mind of Christ,” (John 17: 20-23) while division is the way of the world. (Ephesians 2:14)

As if the Holy Spirit were trying to hammer home this sentiment utilizing the Revised Common Lectionary, the Sunday in the midst of General Conference finds us in the Gospel passage we so often prefer to ignore, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27) Unfortunately, many delegates are undoubtedly preparing to head to St. Louis to “do battle” with “enemies” rather than meet in “Holy Conferencing” with covenant friends. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it?” asks Jeremiah (17:9). Yes, the heart prompts us to count as enemies those who disagree with us. In this polarized era of tension and spite, we fall into the trap of divisiveness. Christ cuts the head off the snake. Even if someone really is your enemy–here’s my law: “Love them. Do good to those who (you like to think) hate you.” This law blows up the bunker mentality we otherwise withdraw into. It seeks real conversations and healing. It’s like a river flowing, nourishing, moving forward. Beside this river might grow trusting and fruitful trees.

And what’s the secret to this impossible sounding law of love? How does Jesus propose we do that, exactly? “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6: 37-38) It’s time to stop judging people as unworthy because of who they love. It’s time to stop judging people as small-minded bigots because they have reservations about gay people being treated the same as straight people in the church. My own experience and reading of scripture have led me to believe that the Spirit is moving our church to be completely open and affirming to gay and lesbian people. But, not much good happens in my heart and mind when I judge you for disagreeing with me. Therefore, I pray for the mind of Christ, one that is free of the burial cloths of judgement and condemnation and resentment. I pray for this resurrection mindset to coexist with the hope and trust I have in the God who seeks justice, especially for those who have been marginalized. May we all be like trees planted in the beautiful prophetic vision of the young man Jeremiah, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”

May our fear for the future be met with a sense of purpose, conviction, openness to all, and resentment of none.