Monday, June 28, 2004

"Incompatible with Christian teaching..."

First of all, a disclaimer: I happen to love the United Methodist Church. In my early days of seminary at St. Paul School of Theology, women and men of great power and spirit like Susan Sonnenday Vogel, Tex Sample (my very first ministry professor!), Eugene Lowry, and other mighty pastors and theologians gave me a great sense of what it was to "do ministry," and to carry Christ to the world. Even in my current life as a student at LSTC in the Lutheran tradition, I still owe much of my call, and the ministry I have done up to this point, to the training I received from ministers of the United Methodist Church...for which I will be forever grateful.

However, the General Conference of the UMC has declared, under Paragraph 304.3 of their 2000 Discipline, that certain practices are "incompatible with Christian teaching," and that those practices "are a chargeable offense under ¶ 2702.1(b) of the 2000 Discipline." (Click here if you want to see the text of their decision.)

Hold onto that bit of background knowledge... and shall we open our online pew bibles to Matthew 25:31-46? (Click on the link if you want to see the text.)

If you're not familiar with Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that the measure of how we follow him - whether we end up as "sheep" or "goats" - will be on the basis of some very basic things:
-Feeding the hungry
-Giving drink to the thirsty
-Welcoming the stranger
-Clothing the naked
-Caring for the sick
-Visiting those in prison
Jesus is anything but subtle at this point; he says to those who do NOT do these things, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels..." (v.41) and "'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (v.45-46). When Jesus talks about "the least of these," he's pointing out the people who are least likely to be able to get food, drink, clothing, healing, and comfort on their own - the ones who need help from us.

Call me a radical...call me a liberal...call me "soft on sin," or a sloppy interpreter of Scripture. (You can just get in line behind a whole lotta folk on those topics.) But I'd propose to you that Christians who aren't actively involved in doing those six simple things "to the least of these" are living lives that are much more "incompatible" with Christ's own teaching than the people to whom the Methodists (and others) would call attention.

So here's the interesting question: why isn't the UMC prosecuting ministers, and churches, who are not promoting (or even suggesting that we follow) the commands of Matthew 25? Why is the failure to care for our fellow women and men not "incompatible with Christian teaching"...but other practices are? Is it because ignoring those in need is something we're all used to doing (even if they are things that Christ commanded us to do) - and certain other practices are just culturally taboo?

Why aren't our churches (yours and mine) joining every single Christian church of every variation and denomination in demanding, with one voice, that these six commands of Jesus be followed universally? Regardless of what we believe about worship, or preaching, or "the real presence of Christ" in communion, or musical styles, or any other supposedly-central thing - why are we as the united body of Christ not locked arm-in-arm over this?

I'm afraid I know why. I am terribly afraid that the church of Christ has allowed itself to be defined and redirected by the media, and a few loud voices, according to one issue which Jesus never, ever addressed in his ministry. At the same time, we have allowed our hearts and minds to be turned away from the weeping, the hunger and the thirst, the nakedness and the sickness and the isolation which Jesus specifically spoke out against - again, and again, and again.

The church throughout history seems so eager to schism over whatever the hot-button topic of the day might be. But are we willing to unite over what Jesus himself called the issues that would separate the sheep from the goats? Are we willing to stand with Christians of every race, creed, denomination, and orientation (and non-Christians as well!), and take to the streets on this topic with the same passion that some folks would demand that we focus on their favorite hot-button topic?

Why is it that church members can raise tens of millions of dollars to build a mega-barn for worship, but can't raise a tithe of that for poverty relief? What would happen if every denomination mandated that out of every ten dollars spent to the glory of the worship experience, we sent one dollar directly to those serving the poor?

Will we ever see so-called Christian broadcasters sending out millions of pieces of direct mail clamoring for money for "the least of these," the way they do in their fight against "them"?

Will we say "NO MORE!" when it comes to suffering and need in our own society...in our own back yards?

I can only hope. And pray.

To Pastor Terry Boggs...Heidi Neumark...Ed Chambers...Kim Bobo...Dick Hoehn (the leaders and challengers of my LSTC "Leadership Development for Public Life") seminar:
Thanks for planting the seeds of these thoughts for three weeks last January. I've been doing a slow boil about the injustice around me since then, but all those seeds are germinating now. God alone knows what they will grow into...hopefully something that brings change, and unity, and signs of God's love into the world.
And to Tex Sample, Sally Geis, John J. McNeill, Ted Menten, and all those who have shown the way to be bold and resistive in the cause of compassion - thank you for your leadership, and your example. You have been, and continue to be, a gift from God to me.

Happy Pride....

3 comments:

dave p said...

Well Steve, I don't know what to say exactly. It seems the legalists just love their OT and Pauline Scripture but for some reason never pay as much attention to what Jesus said.

provoked said...

dave... don't I know it. I read someone say that Christians spend too much time filtering Jesus through Paul, instead of Paul through Jesus.

In fact, just last week on a forum I participate in a guy told me that Jesus wasn't a good example for us because he was only here to set up the church. While we were talking about leadership models specifically I asked him if he applied that to all areas of life... no answer.

I found myself getting angry, in fact I feel myself getting angry just talking about it.

And good stuff, rags. Didn't want to leave you out.

terry hampton said...

I'm late to the party, but amen to this! The Church's focus is so incredibly strange. How did we ever get so far away from what Jesus said and intended? And how will we ever get back?