Sermon from June 13

June 23, 2010

Look Who Came To Dinner?
Luke 7:36 – 8:3

It’s always good to go to Annual Conference with low expectations for what I consider to be progressive action, and my low expectations are usually fulfilled. In fact I usually come home feeling pretty depressed. Of course that’s partially due to the physical and emotional fatigue I feel from trying to have high quality conversation with a bunch of people I see about once a year. Just trying to call people by name without glancing at their nametag is exhausting for me. And there’s the time I spend time catching up with people who’s names I know well but don’t get to see often. For me, Annual Conference generally means I stay up late, I get up early, and I stay awake by attempting to write clever text messages to my friends about the less than clever reporting that goes on during the day.

But I came home with a strange sense of hope this year. It could be that had come home and slept in my own bed two out of the three nights, but I think it had to do with something that actually happened during our conference.

This morning’s scripture reading relates well to the dynamics of an annual meeting of a large religious body. This passage speaks to the tension that exists between institutional maintenance of proper policy and the uncontainable presence of God that was incarnate in Jesus and at work in the life of this woman who was labeled as a sinner. This is an old and possibly essential tension. It seems like a worthy endeavor for a religious community to establish standards and policies and to define proper order. Without such an attempt to create definition for a body of believers it would be easy to loose connection with the past and the wisdom of those who have gone before us.

I don’t regret that we religious people seek to be organized and methodical and to maintain tradition. It seems to me that the alternative would be chaos and disconnection on a profound level. I actually like being part of a body that has some rigidity to it, it’s sort of like having a framework of bones for our flesh. I like having a skeleton. It may be fine to be a slug or jellyfish or other life form without a rigid structure, but I’m grateful for the opportunities that bones allow.

So I don’t have contempt for the religious body that gives me employment and allows me the opportunity to promote and practice and talk about things that I consider to be of utmost importance. I cherish the sense of connection I feel when we come together from all over the state and beyond to celebrate and remember. It felt really good to me to see our banner in the midst of all the other banners in the procession of our opening worship service. We are part of something larger than ourselves, and that is what I experience to some extent when we come together for Annual Conference.

But that’s not all that I feel when I go to Annual Conference. As essential as I know the organization to be, it is a horrible creature in many ways. As surely as our framework maintains essential teachings and provides opportunities for essential work to be done, it also preserves unholy traditions, it values order more than creativity, and it often functions with a heavy hand. It’s a frightening body in many ways, and it has a tendency to hand out more judgment than grace.

I dare say the trip to Annual Conference is about as relaxing as an evening at Simon the Pharisee’s house when Jesus is coming to dinner. That just doesn’t sound like a good time for anyone who had any sense of the conflict that existed between how Judaism functioned at the time and how dysfunctional Jesus sensed that to be. Fortunately there was this woman who seemed to know nothing other than gratitude for Jesus, and she turned what could have been a bad time for everyone into an opportunity for God to be glorified. This didn’t really happen in a manner that Simon immediately appreciated, but who knows, that might have become an evening he grew to value.

None of us change our minds easily, but sometimes things happen that cause us to see others, ourselves, and our God in a whole new way. It’s rare, but by the grace of God it happens. This happened for me at Annual Conference this year.

It’s not easy to explain what happened without taking a long time to explain a lot of background dynamics, but here’s the rough sketch. A pastor denied membership in a church to a man he knew to be homosexual for that very reason. Someone brought charges against the pastor and it went to the United Methodist version of the Supreme Court which is called The Judicial Council. The Judicial Council upheld the pastor’s action in what has become known as Decision 1032.

The United Methodist Church meets every 4 years at what is called General Conference, and this is where various changes to our rules and order take place. The last General Conference was in 2008, and one thing that happened was that a word was changed in a sentence in regard to church membership. A phrase that once read, “any person in good standing in another denomination may be admitted into the United Methodist Church” was changed to read, “any person in good standing in another denomination shall be admitted into the United Methodist Church”.

So the proponents of equality for homosexual people, namely the Reconciling Ministry Network, put together a resolution that called for the Judicial Council to revisit their decision in light of this change in the Book of Discipline. So one of our church members, Harold Hughes, submitted this resolution to be considered by our Annual Conference, and he happened to have the resolution at a MFSA meeting which is what you might call a liberal caucus group, and a number of us became cosigners of the resolution.

OK, so resolutions are debated and voted on near the end of Annual Conference, and this is one of the only really live moments of the three day event. And it’s very controlled debate. Whenever a resolution is presented there are to be three arguments in favor of the resolution, three arguments against it, and then a vote.

I knew Harold was going to present the Resolution, but I didn’t know who else was going to speak in favor of it – you never really know. It depends on who is standing at a microphone and who the Bishop recognizes. I knew there would be plenty of people lined up to speak against it, but I figured since my name was on the resolution I should be prepared to speak to it, and I was prepared. Which is no small thing — it’s a pretty intimidating body to address.

There was a break just prior to the debate, and Harold and I generated a bit of a strategy. He was going to primarily argue that there was a technical conflict between Decision 1032 and a word in the Book of Discipline, and I was going to argue that the decision represented bad policy, that pastor’s shouldn’t be gatekeepers for membership. A friend came up from another church and said she had heard there was some organized resistance to the resolution. I told her it wasn’t like we expected the vote to go our way – we just wanted to make a good stand.

So when the time came, Harold was on his way to the microphone but this highly conservative man made it there first and began a speech that wasn’t easy to follow, but by the time he finished it was clear that he was opposed to the resolution. The Bishop then apologized to Harold for not allowing him to present the resolution before there was an argument. Harold went on to make his case, and he made a good presentation. He said he might be the only gay man in the building but he was determined to keep the United Methodist Church true to it’s claim to have open hearts, open doors, and open minds. He did point out the technical problem with the decision, but he didn’t hide the fact that this decision had been used to discriminate against a person who was openly homosexual.

So I was all geared up to give what I assure you was a remarkable speech, but I didn’t get to do because another pastor was recognized at another microphone, and he called for the question to be voted on. His motion carried, and there I was all geared up for battle and someone called off the war. I was really frustrated and I went to the microphone and declared my sense of frustration in a rather bungling manner, at which time I was invited by the bishop to sit down.

So at that moment I was frustrated, I felt like an idiot for expressing my frustration in a remarkably inarticulate fashion, and I assumed the resolution was about to be soundly defeated, but when he called for the vote the nays didn’t clearly have it. He had us raise our hands and it still looked to close to call, so Bishop Crutchfield had us stand, and to my amazement the resolution passed. I couldn’t believe it. I had experienced a roller-coaster ride of emotion.

It’s the first time I ever witnessed a vote at the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church that went in favor of the gay man. It’s probably good I didn’t get to give my speech. It was a powerful experience for me and I assume it was for Harold and Carole as well. It felt like the majority of people had literally stood up for a good cause, and as surprising as this sounds, this is not normal. This is not a gathering of people who are known for striking bold positions, but they did last Wednesday morning.

A really nice post-script to this event happened for me Friday when I ran into the man who had pulled the plug on our debate just prior to my speech. I don’t know him well, but I had always had good feelings toward him prior to that moment. I wasn’t happy with him and I wasn’t glad to run into him, but he came up to me and began making small talk. We were both cordial, and I was about to leave when told me he was sorry he had put an end to the debate last Wednesday. It was a truly gracious act on his part, and I told him I appreciated what he had just said to me. I left that conversation with an even greater sense of appreciation for my connection to this conference.

I guess the point of all of this for me is that the church is an incredibly flawed organization. I know the United Methodist Church as it exists in Arkansas is an incredibly stodgy body that rarely exercises anything that feels like bold action to me, but I felt like it took a step in that direction last Wednesday. I’m not raising my expectations too high, but I was moved by what happened last Wednesday and last Friday.

This business of religion is tricky. It’s not easy to get a bunch of people moving in the right direction. What is easy is for those of us who claim to love God and follow Jesus is to think that it’s enough to make the claim, but every once in while someone like the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar shows us what it looks like to actually express love for God and affection for Jesus.

I like to think Harold’s resolution gave us the opportunity to make such an expression last Wednesday. It wasn’t too costly on anyone’s behalf to cast a vote in the direction of inclusiveness, but I don’t think anyone would have predicted that outcome. It leaves me feeling that we actually have some flesh on the bones of our structure, and thanks be to God every once in while someone rubs some of that costly ointment on our feet.


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