As a United Methodist pastor I cannot count the number of times I have made the typographical error whereby I accidentally renamed the denomination. It has never been intentional. My fingers simply change the order. I have accidentally typed “Untied Methodist Church.” Yet it seems somehow apt.
Our church is ever more divided. We once embodied through our connection a united church, today it is easy to find parts of the church that are becoming more untied, that is disconnnected, from the rest. We mirror the changes in American culture; our country is divided between political parties, conservative and liberal, historical and progressive. The discussions I used to hold with fellow clergy and church members included amazement at how others in our connection seemingly pushed the envelope further. The challenge with this is that there is the law of diminishing returns. What at first amazed me now only makes me shake my head. I am no longer surprised or amazed. I am concerned and troubled. The challenges of our church’s divide have most recently come to my annual conference as well. All of the open disobedience to the Book of Discipline and the willful breaking of clergy vows has strained relationships, both between churches and clergy.
The discussions are no longer about how far others will push the envelope. The questions have turned to how long. How long can the church continue to exist with such great differences? The UMC has existed for 48 years with great diversity since the merger in 1968, yet the gulf between the disagreeing parties has widened as the progressive groups have increased their open disobedience. Contributing to the disparaging feelings of those considered conservative are the clergy who have openly broken church rules yet have not been held accountable. With such problems becoming worse, many conservatives have started to wonder how long should we continue to hold a covenant with others who willingly break it? How long can the church continue to focus on its main mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ if it has been sidelined and distracted by a peripheral issue of sin?
I have one message for those who talk with me. I have one message for the church:
I began a new sermon series this year in James. We started in the first chapter. As I have meditated on these words in the past few weeks I have come to the conclusion that what we need most is endurance. This path we walk is not an easy one.
My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4
Christian history tells us that the church has faced many trials. Government persecution, various heresies, cultural changes, wars, corruption, and other problems have challenged the church for generations in certain places. Yet each time the church faces these problems we see a common theme: those who remain faithful through it endure. Considering internal problems, such as heresies, we see the church comes through the problem as stronger, better able to define our beliefs and mission. For example, the Nicene Creed was created to define the church’s core beliefs to combat several heresies, including Arianism. The church was not built on people who left when times got rough. The church is built upon disciples who risked their jobs, families, property, and lives for the Gospel. None of the problems we face seem to be quite as perilous as those.
At every wedding I perform I always share that a wedding does not make a marriage. A marriage is a relationship. That relationship is defined not so much by the easy, fun days of celebration such as that one. Marriages are defined by the trials that couples grow through as they learn to trust and work together. Ask a couple married for over 50 years how they did it and they won’t tell you how wonderful the wedding ceremony was. They will share about how they grew through all the changes and problems over the past 50 years. Yet many marriages do not make it. Many marriages fail. What do we do when it seems the relationship is falling apart?
Don’t grow weary.
One of the greatest tools the enemy uses is fatigue. Satan tempted Jesus after he spent 40 days in the desert without food or water. Satan knows our weak points. He knows when we are most tired and burned out that he has the best chance to wear us down and take advantage of the situation. Yet God calls us not to be fatigued. We are to take these tests as occasions for joy.
Our true source of joy is the Lord. When we are tested, as the church is tested today, we know it will produce endurance through our faith that will help us as disciples grow into spiritual maturity. I am calling for our church to strive for maturity and completion. To put it another way, we need to pursue Christian Perfection. How else does God perfect us but by trials?
I see the challenges we face as we go into these few months before General Conference. I know the number of disobedient acts will continue to increase. Instead of focusing on the problem, focus on the solution.
Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith. Galatians 6:9-10
The solution is Christ. So many of the solutions and plans that have been presented are focused on figuring out how to lead the church through this trial. No matter what is passed (or not passed) at General Conference, the solution is and always has been Christ.
There is wonderful, awesome ministry that God is doing every day to grow his Kingdom. Disciples are being made each day. Churches are baptizing new Christians. Instead of worrying about the denomination, let us do the real work that built the Methodist Church in the first place. As a movement Methodists have never been focused on a any one social justice issue. We have always been focused on a single issue: sharing Jesus with the world. If poverty stands in the way of people knowing Christ, we will work to end it. If healthcare stands in the way of people knowing Christ, we will work to heal them. If education stand in the way of people knowing Christ, we will work to teach them. We have built schools, hospitals, and churches that have worked on all of these issues and much more. The church works through social justice to extend the Kingdom, because no one comes into the Kingdom of God unless they know Christ and the power of his resurrection. Homosexuality, the LGBT agenda, and the disobedience of others will not stop the Kingdom of God from growing in our churches unless we become distracted from it.
Focus on Christ. He is the singular relationship that is most important. Before we concern ourselves with what others have done, let us work on our relationship with Christ and pursue the maturity and obedience to God that we find in Scripture. Our actions speak much louder than our words. Those on the other side can disrupt meetings, protest, and make headlines. We should be known by our love. We should be defined by Christ. It is that relationship with him that will undergird our church through these trials and give us endurance. That endurance will give us joy, even in the midst of the persecution. Our churches, clergy, delegates, and leaders are in my prayers that God might give them all joy.
Hold on. Don’t grow weary or tired of doing good. We are planting seeds that we will harvest. Galatians 6:10 reminds us to work for the “good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of God.” The United Methodist Church may feel somedays like the Untied Methodist Church. Our connection may crumble due to the actions of some. Yet our connection with God does not crumble. Our faithfulness to God will yield a harvest. Hold on in these difficult days. Remain in the church to do good at every opportunity. Love others even when they are unlovable, just as Christ first loved us when we were unlovable in our sin. Meet every disagreement with grace. Hold others accountable in love.
Remember that we are in this together. We are a church united not by a denominational name or even by a connectional system of organization. We are a church united in Christ. Hold on because God is holding onto us. Remember these final words.
The best of all is, God is with us. -John Wesley
So be it. Amen!