It was a sad walk… seven miles from the Holy City. It seemed like it was finished. The disciples scattered to the wind. When the reporter asked, “what happened?”, I stumbled for my words, stood still, and looked sad. Grief steals our best words. What happened? Well, Methodist delegates from 136 nations gathered with two tasks: church unity and human sexuality. The Bishop’s plan did not make it out of committee. A well-organized group voted to double down on the denominational prohibitions, 25 votes made the difference. We failed our own baptismal liturgy “that we are all incorporated in God’s mighty acts of salvation, which is God’s gift offered to us without price.” St Louis comes as a cross.
What do we do with what happened? As much as we might enjoy “carving our names on the Conference’s leather seats and taking a Louisville slugger to both headlights”, we would wake up to see that Ebenezer is worshiping at the Conference Office and the Conference’s only truck is used for camp and disaster relief. This past week feels like a death to me. I have cried with our people every day, so maybe Lent comes as a grace. Maybe Lent reminds us to comfort the hurting, while we consider how to uphold the church by living into our baptismal vows to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form it presents itself. St Louis was evil, unjust and oppressive. It must not stand. Hear, this all of us, LGBTQI or sis, we are all beautifully made in the very image of God. And God is beyond gender- the Trinity is about community. Marriage is about love, not sex. Marriage is about holding a partner’s hand at a parents funeral, unpacking a moving van, getting that extra blanket out at 4 am, or laughing about some twentieth-times-told family tale. And a Sovereign God can call whoever Gods wants.
What do we do with what happened? Perhaps Luke, the physician, offers us prescriptive words: “Cleopas and his friend were talking about everything that had happened. As they were walking and talking, Jesus, the Risen One, came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing Christ, even as when the Hidden Jesus asked, ‘What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?’” Walking together and talking together heals grief.
On Tuesday night, Belmont’s Executive Committee gathered as General Conference live-stream ground to a halt, so the monster trucks could take over the St Louis arena! We wept together. We argued a bit about exact tactics. We all affirmed our resolve to live out Belmont’s Welcome Statement. It is our guiding star and the light our neighbors need. :
“We believe every person is of sacred worth and created in God’s image. We commit to Jesus’ example of inclusive love, care, and intentional hospitality with persons of every race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, faith story, physical or mental ability, economic status, or political perspective. We respect our diversity of opinion and expressions of faith. Therefore, as God loves us, so let us love and serve in the name of Christ.”
As we prepared to leave, Jennifer Bagwell spoke up, “It was hard to walk into the building tonight, but to come into this room and see your faces”… the tears that crept into her eyes seemed to focus her resolve as she leaned into the circle… “to walk into our church and see your faces filled my heart with joy, for this is our church, our hope, and together we will be okay.” God’s love shines in the face of church friends. There is grace in simply being together. When two or three gather together, Jesus promises to be present with us. (Matthew 18)..
Now the hidden Jesus plays dumb, prompting the disciples to go deeper , “What are you talking about?” Do you hear the anger in Cleopas’ reply, “Are you the only visitor to the Holy City that is unaware of what took place over the last few days?” I considered setting up some money changer tables for us to flip over in a righteous-anger workout. Or perhaps a sacred fig tree for us to all curse. The Psalms teach us to howl and lament. The Crucified One cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Somehow, in honest angry release, God comes alongside us, holding as a Divine Mother.
Luke gives a lot of print-space to the disciples grief, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know … the things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet, mighty in deed and word before God and us, and how our chief priests and leaders handed Jesus over to be crucified. Oh, we had hoped. We had hoped that Jesus was the one to heal our broken nation. And besides that, some women from our group astounded us. They went to the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said that Christ is risen! We sent a delegation to the tomb; but they did not see Jesus.” Lets example Luke’s prescription.
Jesus was a prophet. What things? The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet! The church has trouble with prophets. We love the law, once we know the rules we can start using the rules to restrict God’s influence over our lives. If we give ten percent, we think we can spend the 90% as we please. We struggle to catch the Spirit! We kill the prophets, “Woe to you, religious experts and lovers of rules, hypocrites! For you build churches honoring the prophets, and say, ‘If we had lived back in the day, we would not have killed that prophet.’ Jesus roars, “You testify against yourselves. God sends you prophets, sages, and teachers, some of whom you will crucify, and some you will rip apart in church trials, and others you will drive out of the pulpits in the name of your spiritless orthodox.” (Matthew 23) The law is always less than the prophets, for the law arises from what was once prophetic insight. There is a prophet-law tension cycle: The Spirit speaks through the prophets, the church resists and crucifies, however: the Spirit keeps speaking until what was once the prophetic edge becomes church law. Repeat. The Bible is not a book of rules, it is the story of people encountering the Spirit and being transformed!
The two on the Emmaus highway unload “how our chief priests and denominational leaders handed Jesus over to be crucified.” When church leaders fail us, the cut goes deeper. But we had hoped that… And besides all this, there’s more: Some women from our group stunned us. Early this morning they went to the tomb early and told us they had seen a vision of angels proclaiming, “Christ is risen!” Some of us checked it out, but did not see Jesus.”
Hear the Good News: there is a Minority Report- it is first rejected by the disciples. Hear the report by visionary’s women: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! The minority report always saves the church! In time, Peter, James and John will accept the Minority Report- even get credit for “Christ is Risen”, but the church will not fully accept the female messengers until 1956. Should we go on to mention other minority reports like: the New Testament, worship on Sundays, inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles, pork barbecue, the earth rotating around the sun, shrimp boils, blended sweaters, or the abolition of slavery?
Now Jesus, having just ordained those sisters earlier that morning, does not take too kindly to the church discounting their voices, so the unseen Jesus roars, “Oh, how dull you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” Oh, dull of reason and hardhearted around experiences we are. We struggle to catch the spirit! We love the old wine and resist how the Spirit ferments new understandings that stretch the boundaries.
Listen as Jesus corrects our dull theology: “Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into God’s glory?” Is it possible God calls us to suffer to save our church? Can a market driven, need-fulfillment, consumer church understand redemptive suffering? If we come to church “to get something out of it”, will we ever pick up Jesus’ cross that can saves us? Will we mistake the cross for an ancient token to get into Heaven, or use it as a tool to build “on earth as in heaven”?
A seven-mile hike with Passover gear likely took the better part of the day, so I love how Jesus pretends to go on. But they urged Jesus-Come-As-Stranger strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So Jesus-Yet-Unseen went in to stay with them. If you are struggling to see Jesus right now- welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, shelter those without homes, forgive enemies, make peace, protect immigrants, absorb insults, stand up for justice, listen to the downcast, release the oppressed and Jesus will show up. If you want to see Jesus revealed, drive the van to pick up Golden Triangle teenagers, pass out Popsicles at Pride, write a message of love on our sidewalk, work with homeless, sing in the choir, teach children, come converse with an ESL student, engage with NOAH, go to the capital Wednesday at noon for Open Table’s Ash Wednesday service, join advocacy, raise your voice, help us build an outdoor Stations of the Cross, tutor at Edgehill, take Communion to a shut-in, go with a team to Mexico and if we want to keep offering an inclusive witness to our neighborhood stick with us as we resist this evil. Love your neighbors and Jesus will show up.
And so, when Jesus-Come-As-Stranger was at the table with them, as Jesus took the bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, their eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus; and the Risen One vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while the crucified one was opening the scriptures to us?”
And I love Luke’s closing, for after walking away from community, and not believing the minority report these two once downcast disciples run seven miles back to Jerusalem. There the church is crowing, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” It is okay to groan a bit that the church believes the one whitish man, not the three women. And then our two friends tell what had happened on the road and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. And while they were talking about this, Jesus, fully God and fully us, stood among them and said, “Peace be with you,” and then he breathed forgiveness upon them and sent them out to change the world.
Friends, we know who we are. We know who God calls us to be. We will not stop being Belmont. We need to share that word! So let us love our neighbors confident that Jesus will be with us, for we know in due season, God will show us the right ways to resist and overcome the harm done in St Louis. Amen