The global United Methodist Church, some 12 million members worldwide, represented by delegates from each area of the United States and around the world, gathered in St. Louis this past weekend to vote on a way for the denomination to continue to be the church together across a widening divide of theology as it relates to human sexuality. Rather than vote to stay united under a large umbrella of differing views as the United Methodist Church has always done, the delegates voted by a 42 vote margin to adopt a plan that will not only exclude self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, but also more strictly punish those churches, bishops, and clergy that decide to ordain and marry LGBTQIA individuals. Let me be very frank with you. What happened this past week Tuesday at the United Methodist Church General Conference is a sickening virus at the very core of the institutional church. It is a virus that goes by various names. I name it as fear. Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear-based religion has a heat and a power that runs wild and strong. Reactionary, fear-based religions often understand themselves to be truly compassionate faiths, offering clear paths of authority and order in days that seem unhinged. When fear-based religion gains political power, all the sincerity and claims to love are words only. Grace flies out of the windows when fear-based religion takes over. Complete conformity to a singular interpretation of the Bible or Constitution or both—whether freely embraced or legislated or manipulated by those in power is then claimed to be the only way to health, happiness, and salvation.
History Is filled with fear-filled, backward-looking, violent believers. I’m not referring to the wars of religion vs. religion, like Islam vs. Christianity. I’m talking about the fear like the inquisitions, like the violence that happened in churches to indigenous people, to African American slaves and the institution of slavery backed up by religion, the need to control women, and now to seek out, condemn, and punish LGBTQIA persons. The decision to adopt the so-called Traditionalist Plan is not a way forward, but a way backward, a decision made in great fear, a virus that will kill the institutional United Methodist Church.
What do we do now? Let me first say a few things about our Scripture passage, a story of the last Sunday of Epiphany season. No matter if it is historically true or not, it is an epiphany story that time and space cannot contain. Just before this story of the vision we call the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop Peter claims he knows who Jesus is. In answer to Jesus asking the twelve, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. Then in today’s reading, Peter is one of the three disciples who witness the vision of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah about Jesus’ death and departure, what Jesus was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. With Moses there, the one who led the Israelites to freedom from slavery; with Elijah there, whose reappearance meant the Messiah was due; the three of them talked about how Jesus was going to set God’s people free from their fear of sin and death, which crippled them and us far worse than any other god of oppression ever had. I don’t know if the three disciples heard what Jesus, Elijah, and Moses talked about but they did see that epiphany. Peter saw them and wanted to go back to the old-time religion he grew up with when there was a feast of tabernacles. I think Peter caught the virus of fear when he said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. This is it. Let’s memorialize and institutionalize this moment as the truth.
While Peter was saying this, Luke writes that a great cloud overcame the disciples and Jesus, this time a dark cloud, not a cloud of dazzling light, but for God both clouds are the same, showing God’s glory. Out of the cloud a voice is heard to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Jesus needed this dose of glory in order to keep going. We need this story of glory to keep going on. Jesus had yet to go down the mountain and face the evil and oppression head on. He went through a sham of a trial, as we went through a sham of a conference. Jesus went all the way to being put to death.
What do we do now? We face the death of the UMC, and we listen. We listen for the voice of Jesus and we look for the way of Jesus who shows us the way to liberation from fear and death. A great cloud overshadows us, but God speaks in this cloud to get us through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus’ voice speaks loudest through the voices on the margins, through our Black family members, through our LGBTQIA kin, speaking that we are stronger in our diversity; that there is nothing to fear when speaking truth to power; that Jesus will not be divided from the church of compassion-based, grace-filled, speaking the truth of love to the power of fear. I dissent from and abhor any discrimination and continued harm against our LGBTQIA family. I lament the death of the United Methodist Church. I commit myself and the church where I serve, to a church that is not defined by our denominational affiliation. When we break from that affiliation, I will lead the way. I cannot dictate to you to stay with the Methodist Church. Nor can I dictate that you continue to support the United Methodist Church with your gifts, your presence, your service, and your witness. What I can tell you is that if you plan to separate from us that you please talk with me, and if you make the decision not to support the UMC, to please talk with me or one of the leaders of our church. I also want to tell you that I commit myself to follow the way of no fear when calling out evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. In a way we have been liberated by this General Conference decision. The pain is great, especially for the harmful message to our LGBTQIA kindred. For that, I am deeply sorry. I recommit myself for leading, being, and building a new way. There is no denying the Epiphany of this General Conference. God’s glory shone through the LGBTQIA delegates and observers who gave a powerful witness of speaking their truth. And the evil of fear and violence was revealed in the darkest of forms. Now is the time to listen for the voice of God in our marginalized family members. The voices of leadership for a new way must be the voices of the people of color, of the LGBTQIA community, of women and children, of young people.