I realize that posting this here is kind of weird, but I have but one blog and it’s been a shitshow of a week in the denomination that I used to be a part of. And without my bumpy exit from said denomination, I never would have learned how to knit. So if you are just here for the yarn, give this one a miss.
Still here? I wrote this sermon after the end of General Conference 2016, which is more or less the precise moment I knew I could no longer serve as a United Methodist pastor. I never preached this sermon- it seemed too dark and too dire at the time, especially since everyone encouraged me to wait and see what happened at the called General Conference in 2019. In light of those events, it seems less dismal.
The Bloody Morning After
Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
Go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of heaven,
You can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing, come the judgment day,
And the bloody morning after,
One tin soldier rides away.
I woke up on the Sunday morning after General Conference singing this song from the 1970s movie Billy Jack. Because it felt like the bloody morning after. And it felt like the previous ten days had been full of neighbor-hating and friend-cheating, all done in the name of heaven.
I came to The United Methodist Church as a young adult and found refuge from my fundamentalist background: I found a community of people who believed that the Bible was not a collection of facts, but rather something else: a living, breathing document that gave us clues to what God was up to in our lives. I found a community of people who believed that faith should be put into action in the world: that personal salvation was only part of the story. I found a community of people who believed in welcoming all, no matter what. I found that the spectrum of Christian belief was wider than I had believed and that we could disagree about theology and still love one another.
I put myself back together again in the UMC.
I remembered that I had announced—at age nine, in a denomination that didn’t ordain women—that I was going to be a pastor.
And in The United Methodist Church, I became a pastor.
I knew from day one that the denomination’s stance that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings” was bullshit. I knew that it was damaging and harmful to LGBTQ people and that it did not square with the God I had come to know in the whole of Scripture and moving in my life. I knew that it was theologically questionable: after all, Jesus is the mediator of the Kingdom of God, not the Book of Discipline, so who died and made us God, anyway?
But I was also told it could and would change. I was told that I could change it. That we would get there eventually. That as a clergyperson I had the ability to make change and it would be easier to do so from within the system than outside of it.
I thought that we were better than this: that even if we couldn’t agree on the inherent sinfulness of homosexuality, we could agree that maybe it wasn’t our place to judge. That when a group of people is crying out for mercy, the role of the Christian is to show them mercy, not say, “You’re not hurt.” That we could agree to do no harm. That we could maybe be followers of Christ instead of Pharisees.
I was wrong. So very wrong.
In the last two weeks, I watched this denomination fail to be the church. The United Methodist Church is now something else entirely: a human institution with a thin veneer of spirituality.
I heard the word “unity” be bandied about, and I kept thinking about Mandy Patinkin in the Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Dear United Methodist Church: real unity comes from Christ, not from holding together an institution at all costs because it is just easier that way and doesn’t mess with anyone’s building or pension.
I saw the human need for certainty win out over the freedom of faith. I heard the Holy Spirit knocking—loudly—at our now-closed doors and I watched us turn away.
I saw what worshipping an institution instead of the Living God does. Turns out, that idolatry commandment really is spot-on.
“Are we yet alive?” I don’t think so. No amount of denial or life support or commissions to study the gays—again, or Vital Congregations or “church revitalization campaigns” or any of that is going to change the fact that this way we have done Methodism in America is done. And it may feel good to pretend that we are being “a witness” to a divided country, but I call shenanigans. We are an inherently sinful institution: we put ourselves in the place of God when we decide who is in and who is out of the kingdom of God.
I cannot see life for The United Methodist Church.
And the finality of death is a tough thing to come to terms with.
I have never understood Holy Saturday as much as I do this week.
As Christians, as we go through Holy Week, we know that there’s a happy ending and an upbeat singing of “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today” waiting at the end of it.
But as Jesus was laid into the tomb, the disciples did not really have much to hold onto. The Empire had won. Power had won. Injustice had won.
I would imagine that Jesus’ disciples got up on that Saturday morning and did what you always do after a loss: you go through the motions. Because what else can you do?
I got up on this Sunday morning and did what I do: I made tea. I put on my alb. I sang the hymns. I led the people of my congregation in prayer. I squished some babies.
And this is where I am. I am without any real, substantive hope for the future of this denomination.
But I have also been thinking about resurrection, because, despite insinuations that progressive folks are somehow automatically unorthodox, I hold pretty fast to the hope of the Resurrection.
True story: Resurrection is not the same thing as resuscitation.
Hospital chaplains are called in when a patient codes—when their heart stops beating. If the patient doesn’t have a DNR, doctors and staff snap into action to perform CPR, monitor the patient, shock their heart if needed. Codes are violent affairs with broken ribs and lots of people squeezed into hospital rooms.
I saw lots of things in my few months as a hospital chaplain—but I can remember every single code I attended.
Sometimes this flurry of activity resulted in the patient regaining a heartbeat. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes they would regain a heartbeat and then would code again later. Sometimes the patient would die after multiple codes in the same night. Sometimes there would be brain damage.
And family members, understandably, often would want to hold on. There was hope that as long as there were the physical signs of life: heartbeat, their loved one was all there and it was going to be okay.
But sometimes these physical signs of life were not signs of a full life.
I can’t help but think about codes in the hospital when I think about the United Methodist Church. We are willing to put so much effort into keeping the institution alive at all costs: the lives of women and queer folk, for starters.
But Christians are not a Resuscitation People. We are a Resurrection People.
Resurrection is not a continuation of the life that has been: it is something new. Jesus post-Resurrection is not the same as Jesus pre-death—he gets socially weirder, for one. He walks through walls and vanishes and says things like, “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me.” He makes breakfast for his disciples on the beach and is made known to them in the breaking of the bread. And then he gets tractor-beamed up into heaven.
Resuscitation is more of the same. Resurrection is Monty Python’s “And now for something completely different.”
And dear God. It is time for something completely different.
The people called Methodists are going to have to be brave enough to take the church off of life support. They are going to have to be brave enough to let it go. There may have to be a group of people who leave power and privilege and prestige and go and start their own thing.
And it will not be business as usual.
But the one who says “Behold! I am making all things new!” probably means it.
Let’s get on board, shall we?