Know When to Walk Away and When to Run

“If that house will not welcome you shake the dust from your feet and walk away.” Those words from the Gospel of Matthew kept running through my mind as I followed the struggles of the United Methodist General conference last week. Leaving a significant relationship is never easy, but sometimes it is the best choice to make. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for almost 50 years. For all but 3 years of my entire ministry my denomination has been arguing over LGBTQ acceptance.

Like Charlie Brown I dared to hope that just maybe this time the General Conference wouldn’t pull the ball away before Jesus could kick a field goal. It pains me greatly that once again my denomination has failed to be the church. Isn’t 47 years long enough to wait for the UMC to produce good fruit? Far too many good people have been damaged by the judgmental policies of our church. Far too much time and precious resources have been wasted fiddling with this unwinable debate while the world burns from hunger, poverty, climate change, racism and rising nationalism.

The world is in desperate need of authentic ministry to the marginalized, the immigrants and oppressed, and a church that cannot even accept its own LGBTQ children so we can all join hands to care for God’s children is not a a church worthy of Christ’s name.

I will of course pray long and hard for everyone wounded again by this rejection and for the rejectors. But I will also be praying about my future relationship to the UMC. My decision may be easier because I am retired. It will be a much harder choice for others.” in active ministry. I will wait to see what last week’s vote for an even harder line rejection of my beloved sisters and brothers actually means. Like Congress church politics are messy and convoluted. Even those who were in Indianapolis at General Conference are not sure what the so-called “Traditional” plan means. Parts of it were apparently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council before the vote which probably means the battle will continue, and even more LGBTQ people and their progressive supporters will be alienated from Christ and his redeeming, inclusive love.

Even though we don’t know what the future holds, these things I do know for sure. God isn’t finished with us yet. For people of faith resurrection always follows death. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming! The Christ I have come to know and love says, “Come to me ALL (not just those we deem worthy) who labor and are heavy laden.” And in that verse from Matthew where it says to shake the dust from your feet, listen to Jesus’ final warning to those who refuse to welcome God’s blessed ones: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15)

Whatever emerges from the coming schism I for one am ready to shake the dust of judgement and rejection from my feet and align myself with those who are welcoming and inclusive. I don’t know yet what that looks like organizationally, but Jesus knows it’s not the name on the church door that matters. It’s the hospitality inside the fellowship of believers that makes us a church.

Radical Hospitality through Empathy

“15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:15-18)

This has been a remarkable and historical week in our country. In fact the two decisions handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 24 hour span are some of the most dramatic events ever in a city that thrives on drama. Yesterday the court upheld the Affordable Care Act by a surprising 6-3 margin, and today same sex marriage was ruled a constitutional right in all 50 states. To be clear, I agree with both decisions. If I were a member of the court I would have voted with the majority on both cases. The two decisions are cause for great joy and celebration by those who agree with the court. For many others they feel like a bitter defeat and cause for great alarm and concern.

Knowing those two radically different perspectives exist, the verses above from Romans 12 have been running through my head all day, especially verse 15, which says “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Notice Paul is not saying we have to agree with others or embrace their views; we just need to empathize and understand the feelings of others. These verses are in a section with the heading “Marks of a True Christian” in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and they lift up a high standard of radical hospitality. It’s easy to rejoice with those who rejoice if we agree with them. Everyone loves a good party. Likewise it is easy to weep with those who weep if we share their grief.

Where the hospitality gets radical is when we disagree, when we don’t identify with those who are celebrating or mourning something we don’t agree with. To have empathy for those with whom we vehemently disagree is very hard, but without respect and understanding for those we differ with, there is no hope to “live in harmony with one another” or to “live peaceably with all.” Those qualities of living in community define the very essence of Jesus’ teaching and of the early church described in Acts 2. So whether you are rejoicing or weeping over the recent Supreme Court decisions, the bigger goal of unity and peace in our diverse nation and world depends on our ability to be empathetic and understanding of those on both sides of the issues.

Empathy requires some creative imagination. I have been blessed with the good fortune by accident of my birth as a white male in a prosperous family and country to never suffer oppression. I have never been without adequate health care and my freedom to marry the person I am in love with has never been questioned or denied. So I have not experienced the realities that the people most affected by these court decisions have. Empathy requires me to make the effort to imagine what those experiences have been like, and even more so it requires me to get out of my comfort zone and spend time with people who have lived that life. Only then can I overcome my fear of those who seem different from me and discover and embrace the common humanity we all share if we can get past the exterior differences and stereotypes. Easy? No. Necessary? Yes, and we are privileged to be living in an historical moment when radical hospitality and empathy are calling us to live into the love of Christ.

Almost forgotten with the big news out of Washington is the latest terrorist attack at Emmanuel A.M.E. church last week. The 24/7 news cycle threatens to overwhelm us with input. Much has been said and will be said about the Charleston tragedy as the 9 victims are buried this week. I personally went through at least 5 stages of grief when I heard that news—disbelief, anger, sorrow, fear, and finally a resolve to move forward speaking out for justice, facing my own racism and prejudices, and refusing to let the forces of evil go unchallenged. Praying for the victims and the killer and his family and for our nation and world is good, but it is not enough. We must find ways to live our faith as disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who lived and died and rose again for all of God’s children.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that the name of the church in Charleston is “Emmanuel.” Emmanuel means “God with us.” It is a name we use to describe the incarnation of God in Christ. Most of all today it is a reminder that no matter what the tragedy or where we stand on controversial issues, or how divided we may seem as a nation and world, the one constant truth is that God is still with us, always, forever, and anchored in that presence we move forward with confidence and faith. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory.