Let us pray: God Most High, thank you for the signs of your power and grace, shown to us even in the wilderness. Give us courage to stand firm in your Word in every time of trial and testing, that we may enter the land of your freedom and receive the salvation you so generously give; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[1]

During the last week of February, approximately 800 delegates from The United Methodist Church in the Philippines, Europe, Africa, and the United States gathered in St. Louis for the special called session of General Conference. The conference began with day set apart for worship, for singing, for confession, and for celebrating communion with one another. The intent, as I understand it, was to set the tone for Holy Conferencing. The hope going into this special session was that the delegates could enter into a dialogue and use the following guidelines:

  1. Every person is a child of God. Always speak respectfully. One can disagree

without being disagreeable.
2)   As you patiently listen and observe the behavior of others, be open to the possibility that God can change the views of any or all parties in the discussion.
3) Listen patiently before formulating responses.
4) Strive to understand the experience out of which others have arrived at their views.
5) Be careful in how you express personal offense at differing opinions. Otherwise dialogue may be inhibited.
6) Accurately reflect the views of others when speaking. This is especially important when you disagree with a position.
7) Avoid using inflammatory words, derogatory names, or an excited and angry voice.
8) Avoid making generalizations about individuals and groups. Make your point with specific evidence and examples.
9) Make use of facilitators and mediators.
10) Remember that people are defined, ultimately, by their relationship with God — not by the flaws we discover, or think we discover, in their views and actions. [2]

In other words, the hope was that as members of the Church and as members of the body of Christ, that the delegates could and would engage one another in a manner reflective of the Gospel which we all claim.

Sadly, the end of worship on Saturday in St. Louis is what I imagine the end of worship on any given Sunday, in any given church feels like to any given person. *Check* I have attended worship for this week. That task is done. Now, on to the business at hand. What developed in St. Louis is the most human and most disappointing church conference I have ever witnessed. Persons on both sides of the issue of human sexuality standing up and speaking ill-will against others who held a different position. Live feeds cut so that those of us watching at home could not see the disruptions that broke out. And the piece de resistance, a building surrounded by police cars as the conference ended in order to maintain peace. The special session of General Conference appears as if it was anything but the Body of Christ.

Preaching last Sunday at Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York, the Reverend Dr. Stephen Cady lamented that it seems as though the delegates at the special session of General conference had forgotten 200 years of Biblical scholarship.[3] In other words, while the delegates brought their positions and their opinions, they seemingly left their theology at the conference center at the end of worship on Saturday.

We can resonate with that, can we not? I often joke that there is a reason why you will never find one of those Christian fish magnets attached to any vehicle I drive. While I strive to be better, the truth is that I still get frustrated with the driver who pulls out in front of me and the proceeds to drive 10 miles below the posted speed limit on a sunny, clear day. The truth is that my children can tell you that I am quite capable of yelling at them for not listening within minutes of reminding them how beloved they are by God. It’s not that these are mutually exclusive, it’s just that when our lives become busy, when our schedules dictate our priorities, when life hands us a mess that we think will consume us, we tend to relegate God: our study, our prayer, our practice, in essence our theology to the back burner.

This is what the author of Deuteronomy reminds us today. Deuteronomy is a historical narrative that includes many rules for how the Israelites were to live in relationship with God and live in relationship with one another. It is in this book that we find the She’ma; the prayer that reminds us that there is no other God but God and that we are to love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We also find one of the versions of the Ten Commandments. The other version is in the book of Exodus. Our narrative today, though, is about worship. It is about remembering and celebrating our covenant relationship with God. The first action the people of God are called to is gratitude. To thank God for the land which they were given to settle, the people are to take the first fruits of all the ground that is harvested. This is where we get our idea of a tithe, or 10%. It is interesting to me, though, that the Israelites are directed to give their first fruits. Deuteronomy does not say, “Wait until the harvest is complete, and then give a portion.” Rather, the Israelites are called to offer the first fruits in recognition and in celebration that God is a God of providence, that what God promises, God fulfills. After presenting the offering of first fruits, then the Israelites were called to recite a prayer to the priest. This was not an insignificant ritual, but it was a retelling and a remembering of the Israelites’ story. In recounting how the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, how God heard their moans, how God delivered them from the hands of Pharaoh, and how God delivered them to a land “flowing with milk and honey (26:9). Remembering the goodness of God and God’s activity in our lives and in our world provokes us to a response of gratitude. Remembering our stories and recalling the places where God has been present in our midst calls us to celebrate all that God has done not just in worship with our church, not just in the home and in the community where we dwell, but with the people who have no one else with whom to see the presence of God working in their lives.

On this past Wednesday about 20 or so people gathered in this worship space and received an invitation to observe a holy Lent. Remembering that in the history of the church, Lent was observed as a time of preparation for baptism and a time for those who had committed serious offenses to be reconciled to the communion of saints through repentance and forgiveness. It is easy for me to look at the institution of The United Methodist Church and say, we are in need of observing a Holy Lent. Yet, what is even truer, is that I am in need of observing a Holy Lent. We are in need of observing a holy Lent. We have been given the gift of these days of preparation, during which we will worship together, celebrate communion together, study together in the hope that we, too, might lend our voices to the story of a God who does not forget us and whose love will not let us go. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1]               Long, Kimberly Bracken (ed.) Feasting on the Word: Worship Companion, Liturgies for Year C, Volume 1. (2012) Westminster John Knox Press, 103-4.

[2]               www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/guidelines-for-holy-conferencing-what-god-expects-of-us (accessed 3/8/2019).

[3]               https://www.asburyfirst.org/worship/video-archive (accessed 3/8/2019).