Asking For a Seat at the UMC Table

The United Methodist Church is in the news.  NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, and many others.  They have been meeting in General Conference, where elected delegates from the global church debated whether to maintain prohibitions on LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church, or to eliminate some of those prohibitions, or to put into place further restrictions and prohibitions.  By a slim margin the further restrictions and prohibitions ruled the day. 

This morning I awoke to a message from a family whose children were in the Christian education program I led several years ago.  When the news came late yesterday about the UMC General Conference decision, they called their local church and withdrew their names from the membership.  They refuse to be part of a church that excludes people.  They want to be part of a church that invites everyone to the table, that embodies grace for all people.

I was raised in the United Methodist Church.  I remember clearly my baptism in 1969, just a year after the denomination was formed through the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  I remember clearly my Confirmation classes.  I remember clearly the Sunday school teachers and choir directors who taught me the songs and scriptures of the faith.  I remember the mission projects of the United Methodist Women and our youth group.  I remember worship with the Spanish language congregation in our town.  I remember hearing the words of resurrection hope at my father's funeral in the same United Methodist Church, his coffin at the rail where I knelt to be baptized, where I knelt for communion, where I first heard the call of God into ministry.

Bible studies with diverse groups of people have played a key role in my ongoing formation as a disciple.  More times than I can count, I have been in studies on the book of Acts.  Always we ponder the diversity and differences in the early church, and how the church began to understand itself and its mission.  In Acts 10 there is the story of Cornelius, a Gentile who worshiped God.  His prayers open him up to receiving a vision, in which he is told to send for Simon Peter.  Peter meanwhile, has a vision of his own, in which all kinds of food are lowered by a sheet before him.  He refuses to eat, citing his adherence to Jewish purity laws.  A voice from heaven said: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."  Before he can puzzle out the meaning of this vision, he gets the call from Cornelius.  When he enters Cornelius' house, full of Gentiles worshiping and praying, Peter tells them that it is unlawful for a Jew to visit or even associate with a Gentile, "but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."

Every time I study the book of Acts, this passage causes me to ask myself - who have I put into that category of profane?  Who am I refusing to associate with or visit?  Who do I refuse to invite to sit next to me at the table?  Examination of my own heart is an essential practice, a way to open my heart to the work of sanctifying grace, the movement of the Holy Spirit.

God's table is open to all.  When LGBTQIA+ persons call to the church, they are like Cornelius, faithful in their prayers and asking to have a seat at the table.  When the church refuses to recognize them, they are closing a door that the Spirit holds open.  The church throughout history has often closed doors, treated people as less-than, ignored the cries of those who want to be welcomed around the table.

At the World Missionary Conference of 1910, the majority of the delegates were men from Western Hemisphere nations, men who controlled the missionary agencies.  Of the 1,215 delegates only 19 represented non-western countries.  One was Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah.  V.S. Azariah was one of the founders of the National Missionary Society in India.  Azariah was one of the few non-western speakers at the Conference.  His words have proven to be a conviction of the missionary movement, and its inability to see where it ignored the cries of those who wanted to be welcomed as equals around God's table. Azariah's words regarding racism in the missionary movement still call the church today to examine itself, to see where it does not invite everyone to sit at the table.

"The exceeding riches of the glory of Christ can be fully realised not by the Englishman, the American, and the Continental alone, nor by the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indians by themselves - but by all working together, worshipping together, and learning together the Perfect Image of our Lord and Christ.  It is only 'with all the Saints' that we can 'comprehend the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.' This will be possible only from spiritual friendships between the two races.  We ought to be willing to learn form one another and to help one another.  Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest to the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body.  You have given your goods to feed the poor.  You have given your bodies to be burned.  We also ask for love.  Give us FRIENDS!"

Dr. Brian Stanley comments on Azariah's speech:  "...the riches of the glory of God will be appropriated by the Church only if all the saints inter-relate in Christian fellowship.  No one ethnic group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ.  If the church is not multi-racial, its Christology will actually be distorted."

No one group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ.  By cutting out a group of people who are begging to be given a seat at the table in the UMC, we are distorting our image of Christ.  We are denying ourselves the opportunity to discover more deeply the glory of God.  We are cutting off the opportunity to learn together, to make room for the Spirit to move in our hearts as sanctifying grace.

If the political structure of the UMC closes a door, then it is time for the missional movement of the UMC to open more doors.  Through prayer, we can be open to the leading of the Spirit, we can be ready like Cornelius and Peter to see and hear where God is calling us to meet with others, to form Christian friendships.  It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to seek out diverse ways in which to pray together, sing together, worship together, work for justice together.  It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to be the church that Azariah calls us to be, united in Christian fellowship, offering space at the table to all people, listening and learning from each other, looking for the glory of God.  It is time, mission-minded United Methodists.  It is time. 

 

Stanley, Brian. The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids. 2009.

Quotations from page 125

Love Is Our Guiding Ethic

When I was young, I read to my little brother.  We had an extensive collection of children’s books, but as children often do, we read our favorites over and over.  One of them was a collection of Dr. Seuss stories.  I was always puzzled by the story of The Zax.  The north-going Zax walks straight into the south-going Zax and there they argue.  Each one demands the other move aside, and each one refuses to budge.  So there they stay, through wind, rain, snow, and eventually a city grows up around them and they stand, refusing to budge, under a freeway interchange.

The Zax is a story about not listening to each other, about refusing to learn or change.

 Outrage and Refusal To Budge

A friend of mine shared a blog post about the exchange between Omaha Nation elder Nathan Philips and a group from a Covington Catholic School in Kentucky.  The blog post suggested that the high school boys should return to school and “be educated” about why their actions were viewed as disrespectful to a Native American elder and Marine Corps veteran.  Education efforts are to be commended, but they are a minority voice among all the shouting and outrage since videos of the exchange hit social media.

This incident follows another one just a month ago, in which a young American man persisted in traveling to visit the Sentinelese people despite Indian laws forbidding any outside contact with these people.  The laws exist to protect the Sentinelese from the risk of contracting modern disease, and to protect visitors from the violent response of the Sentinelese which meets anyone who tries to cross their shores.  This exchange also caused an immediate reaction on social media, again resulting in strident voices standing firm in their opinions.

They were racist.  They weren’t racist.  They were provoked.  They weren’t provoked.  They should be punished.  They were just kids.  They were victims.  They were mocking.  He was wrong.  He was faithful.  Mission is colonialism.  Mission is a calling.  He broke the law.  He was a martyr.  North-going Zax refusing to budge.  South-going Zax refusing to budge.

 Holding Space For Listening and Learning

While the full range of reactions to these incidents included moderate voices, those who were angered and those who were defensive were the loudest.  In such an exchange – outrage or indignation followed by defensiveness – there is not room for listening and learning.  What is critical is to hold space in which people involved can reflect upon what happened, listen to each other, and learn new ways of living out our call to be people who are known by our love.

The person who wrote that the Covington Catholic School boys should be taught history, sociology, cultural intelligence and morality has the right idea, but the process of education takes more than stating “people should learn”, and more than just a classroom.  The process of education requires that we stop shouting past each other as though we are the Zax, refusing to budge.  Listening to each other and learning from each other requires that we set aside outrage and defensiveness.  This is not easy.

What the exchange between the Catholic high school students and the Native Americans at the Indigenous Peoples March shows us is that humans tend to stand firm in their opinions rather than listening to each other.  Dr. Seuss was really on to something about our human tendency to refuse to budge rather than listen.  Jesus told his disciples that people would know them simply by the witness of their love for others.  Love is the guiding ethic that drives all of our encounters with others.  Love requires that we set aside our self-defenses and listen to each other.  Love requires that we learn from those we meet – and in mission love means that we learn from those we hope to serve.

 Love Is Our Guiding Ethic

The exchange between Nathan Phillips and the Covington Catholic School students could have been quite different.  What would it have looked like if teachers, parents, mentors, chaplains and chaperones had instilled in the students the guiding ethic that love guides every encounter with another person?  What if the students had simply walked a short distance away from another group of protestors who were yelling at them?  What if love had determined how the school viewed student chants at athletic events?  What if love was the fundamental ethic that guided discussions about other cultures?  About our history?

Learning takes time and it takes vulnerability.  Learning requires that we ask hard questions and listen to the answers.  Learning requires that we open ourselves to the possibility that we need to change.  Consider how I learned about a particular racial slur.  My high school French teacher was near retirement age and often drifted off topic.  When he taught a lesson on the French national anthem, he went off topic and discussed his experience as a soldier in World War II, culminating in a brief and muttered commentary about Japanese people.  He used the word “Japs”.  I’d forgotten this incident until I turned on a classic movie channel a few days ago and Clark Gable appeared on the screen using the same word.  The movie must have been filmed around the same time as my teacher was enlisted in the war.  The term was in common use, no one thought anything wrong with it.  But to my ears in the early 1980s, it was shocking (as it was again this week).  I asked my older brother’s best friend about it.  His father was American and his mother was Japanese.  My brother’s friend was over at our house quite often and I thought of him as another brother, so I asked the difficult questions – and listened.  Yes, he said, that’s a racial slur.  Don’t repeat it.  After all these years I don’t remember all the details of our conversation, but what I remember is that we held space for each other to listen and to learn.  It was uncomfortable.  A bit like a Zax stepping to the side.  But worth it.

Learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  With Christian love as our guiding ethic, we can admit when we need to change and build bridges of understanding.

I’ll write more about the young missionary and his encounter with the people of North Sentinel Island soon, and how listening to each other is what is needed at this moment in mission practice.