Some of you know that I spent May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon for the United Methodist General Conference. I was elected as the 1 Clergy/pastor delegate to serve alongside our 1 Lay/Church member delegate from our Yellowstone Conference which includes all United Methodist Churches in Montana, Northern Wyoming and 2 churches in Idaho. For 2 weeks we worked with delegates from around the global United Methodist Church including the United States Europe, much of the African Continent, the Philippines, and parts of Eurasia. It was an incredible experience and many of you have asked me to share parts of my experience with you all. I am going to work to do this in multiple ways, including today and next week in my sermons here at St. Paul’s and at Covenant. To help get you all a sense of what General Conference feels like and the pace at which it moves I am going to share with you all a 5-minute video that attempts to encapsulate the entire two weeks, because in the scheme of things the 14 hour days made it feel like it all flew by in about 5 minutes.
The video can be found here:
Each morning for two weeks I got up, got ready, and headed down to get on the light rail train in Portland. I would take a 10 minute ride from my hotel to the Oregon Convention center, which had been taken over by United Methodists. Each morning on the train I could almost guarantee the people I didn’t know, but that got on with us were United Methodists. You couldn’t always tell, but then you would catch a glimpse of their nametag. We all had them…so we were pretty identifiable.
I had some great conversations on the train with people who were in Portland to try and listen to God’s direction for our church and wanted to learn about others. However, I always knew when I got on the train and I had met a pastor of a large church. One way I knew it was they were generally male, which is still a big problem in our church. Very few women still lead some of our largest congregations. However, I also knew they were large church pastors because the second question after asking where I was from was, “How big is the church you serve?”
They got to skip over the question about whether I was a church member or a pastor because I had my collar on everyday. The collar is kind of a giveaway. They always asked the how big is your church question quickly. I always knew that the next 5 minutes at least would be listening all about their church. The reason is the big church pastors are taught that you have to be good at your elevator speech; in this case it was their train speech.
Now I need to be honest I am getting pretty good at my elevator speech too, I have my faults too. The crazy thing I realized during this time is how little these conversations about the size of churches really let me know about people. A few of the people I heard elevator speeches from I got to know better over the few weeks of General Conference, but it wasn’t by learning about the size of their ministry.
Today’s scripture is the Apostle Paul’s train speech about the work he is doing in the church, in fact we are lucky because we just get the first half today.
Galatians 1:1-12 CEB
1Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
10Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. 11For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s message at the beginning of Galatians is one I continually struggle with because it always feels like he telling the people exactly what they must here, and not leaving room for dialogue. I have heard biblical scholars argue that conversation is not the point of Paul’s letters. Paul’s letters are meant to be one-way communication and therefore we have to take them as instructions about how we live out God’s kingdom on earth.
Paul made some mistakes though, and I think we have to own them to find the gospel in his message to us. So, I am following the suit of Biblical scholars that try to reconstruct Paul so we can have a conversation with him. This methodology helps us to comprehend that Paul’s ministry is rooted in the understanding thought he would see the end of time. For Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection was not about the miracle of that alone, but was a sign of the coming of the end. He saw the role of the Jewish people as being the bearer of an invitation to all nations to become part of God’s holy family. That by inviting the others nations to join Israel in the work of connecting to God then the world would be made whole in time for the God’s coming.
There is some challenges in this thought. The world did not end. Some 2,000 years later we are still here even though Paul thought it would end in his lifetime. Often seeing Paul as some apocalyptic preacher is enough for me to sometimes want to toss Paul out the window on the shaping of my understanding. However, Paul despite his mistakes usually has some wisdom buried in his writing.
In the case of scripture wisdom is buried within Paul’s speech, wisdom about whose approval we seek: the world? or God? While Paul’s understanding of the end times didn’t happen the way many scholars believe he intended, he organized incredible communities of Christians to begin living differently, and seeking God’s wisdom. Paul encouraged the people to stop seeking worldly approval, but to seek the approval of God.
When we serve up elevator speeches to the world, it becomes hard to listen to what God is saying because we have to work to get our entire life story into 5 minutes. When we try to cram our agenda into that time it sometimes makes other people want to toss us out a window because they feel like there is no room for them. People want a chance to participate with us and learn with us, God wants a chance to participate with us and work with us, and not just hear us cram our agenda into every 5 minutes offered to us. Elevator speeches that cram God and other people out are all about gaining the approval of the world and very little about seeking God’s understanding.
The United Methodist Church like many other denominations continues to struggle with questions of Human Sexuality. Specifically our larger church is trying to understand its future in regards to accepting people of different sexual orientations and gender identities into the full life of the church, including ordination and marriage. St. Paul’s has prayerfully considered its future and continues to seek ways to open its doors to all people. The larger church has not come to this conclusion and continues to struggle through the conversation. Human sexuality becomes a challenging conversation to have across global cultural boundaries, through different languages, and amongst people who are entrenched in their opposition or support for change.
At General Conference this time the years long debate on human sexuality was to be moved into small group discussion, in hopes that we might find a way forward together as denomination. We were going to implement a process nicknamed “Rule 44” to help us discuss, understand each other by listening in small groups, and then have a small group of delegates take the data from these groups to create legislation that might help us work this all out together. This process was named “Rule 44” because it was the last rule added to a list of 43 other rules, but was based strongly on a process the Uniting Church of Australia used. The entire idea was to listen to each other, pray with each other, and to learn from each other as we sought direction for the church.
We didn’t pass the rule, and the entirety of the special process did not happen. In fact if you read news articles about General Conference it appears as if we passed the buck on the whole conversation. One article used the analogy that we gave the whole human sexuality debate a “cold shower.” An analogy I think is too extreme and not very appropriate to what actually happened.
Those of us present saw that we didn’t trust each other enough to try a process like “rule 44.” We knew we had to seek another way to engage in this topic, or else the church was going to split. Instead we asked our Bishops to lead us by seeking a common solution to present us with. People stood up on the floor of General Conference and pleaded with our Bishops to give us leadership and direction. The Bishop’s did just that, they all went away and you know they did because for the afternoon of our work that day the entire long stretches of bishop tables were empty. They came back with a proposal for us to form a commission to seek a way forward, which we adopted and you can read about more in the news. The important thing to know is that the General Conference will probably meet again in a special session to just address the future of the church around human sexuality.
However, something else happened as a part of the voting on this process. Our Bishops, our episcopal leaders forced us into a small and tiny version of “rule 44.” For 45 minutes they said we are going to ask you to talk with one another. To listen to one another, that day I was thankful for the tactful leadership of our Bishops.
Nothing miraculous happened in those short minutes talking with people from other places. However, something good did happen. Instead of elevator speeches I experienced getting to know people I disagreed with. Instead of trying to please the world we actually talked about the things that were dividing us. I ended up at a table that all thought I was wrong on the issue, but I got to know them and we slowed enough to create space for God in our relationships. I got to know who people were and what they were struggling with. Most everyone at the table, including myself left with questions unanswered. The conversation has to continue, and the relationships are where change might come from.
There is something else in Paul’s theology, which he got wrong a little, but is very helpful for us today. Paul believed in calling the gentiles(the outsiders) into the Christian faith because by doing so he was preparing for the end times. However, in his need to invite the outsiders in he also created a theology whereby we are all children of God, and all members of one family. This theology of uniting us together is core to the Christian faith and it is core to seeking God’s vision for us all.
On the final day of General Conference Bishop Elaine, our Bishop was preaching. During this challenging task of preaching on the final day of a long two weeks she showed a picture of one of the light rail trains wrapped in the United Methodist logo, and on it read the words “United we help millions.”
She said, “What kind of witness would it be if we came saying, ‘United we help millions.” and we left a divided church.”
The day before on Thursday morning, Bishop John Yambasu; Sierra Leone Episcopal Area shared this story with us.
On a plane flight that was very long and hot a passenger had hidden in his carry-on several very dangerous snakes. Well the snakes got out of his bag and began to terrify, injure and harm passengers. (My friend turned to me as this story started and said, “So Hollywood got the theme for the movie Snakes on a Plane from this folk tale.”)
The pilot of the plane called to the person in the control tower and said, “I need to make an emergency landing, there are people getting hurt and could perhaps die because of snakes attacking them.”
The control tower responded, “Negative on emergency landing, fly higher.”
The pilot radioed back and said, “Excuse me control tower, but I have 25 years of experience, I can land this plane in any condition, I believe the best way to solve this problem is to land now.”
The control tower responded, “Fly higher.”
The pilot did not understand. However, the other thing his training had taught him was to always, “Trust the control tower.” If a pilot doesn’t trust the control tower then they risk colliding with other planes, or flying into unknown obstacles.
The pilot listened and started to fly higher. As the plan got higher in altitude the snakes began to become inert and passive. The passenger quickly contained the snakes back in their container.
You see science has told us that snakes can only survive at certain altitudes; go too high and their bodies are unable to function.
Bishop Yambusu reminded us that sometimes we need to listen to the control tower, because God knows what is really happening. We need to fly higher. We need to pray and listen to God and seek God’s approval and direction for our next steps.
Some of my most powerful experience of God’s presence at General Conference is when I felt powerless to change things. In a very real sense I felt like a child in a strange element during certain times and during these times are when I most often found myself in prayer. As I reflect back on these moments it was at these times of prayer and in a sense of powerlessness that I felt most like a child trying to make sense of what my next steps were. Paul’s work invites us to remember that we are all children of God and sometimes we need children to remind us to listen and enjoy each others company again.
Crystal and I went on a train trip about 7 years ago. On our way home we sat behind a young couple with a young boy, probably about 2 years old. The father took the son to the bathroom.
As the boy came back to his seat, he said, very loudly, “I peed in a sink mommy.”
Crystal, myself, the mom and the Dad all had to break out laughing hysterically. The mother was embarrassed and yet the boys comment was so vulnerable and genuine we had to laugh. He was so good at telling the truth and being himself that he had to let his mom know what had just happened.
The boy didn’t stop there he was curious and had to follow-up, “What is so funny mom?”
“You are very funny?” replied his mother.
“Yes I am,” said the little boy and he began to chuckle.
Paul reminds us through his mess of human work that we are all children of God, and like the young boy on the train God still supports us when we run around saying silly things. On the train that day the boy’s comments were silly and provided some much needed humor. The boy’s service to all of the adults was to remind us to take life less seriously. However, sometimes we say things without knowing we are hurting other people. If we truly listen to God and the people of God all around us we learn from our mistakes and our service come from asking forgiveness of our mistakes and learning how to move forward. I am convinced after General Conference that this only happens if we learn to listen more deeply to the teachings of Jesus and to the Holy Spirit among us.
Only if we listen can we truly serve the world.
We are called as people of Christ to first be by listening to the truth that we are children of God and to listen for our God’s still small voice. God will provide us the space to be ourselves, to be vulnerable, to be human, to make mistakes, to have success, and to learn how to live life to the fullest together.
We are then called to serve the world by listening to the God who lets us be. Our service must be centered in the life of Christ, which begins by listening for God’s presence and then sharing the Grace and love of God with the people around us.
Only if we listen can we truly serve the world.