A Plea for Unity
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Opening Worship, North Central Jurisdictional Conference
“A little child shall lead them.” This sentence is part of a “not yet” if not improbable scenario coined by the prophet Isaiah.
I say, “Not yet,” because Isaiah claims, “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the goat,” not yet because “the calf, lion and the yearling shall lie down together and a little child shall lead them.” A school of biblical scholars might say Isaiah’s “not yet” with respect to “a child leading” will never materialize unless we posit the fulfillment of Isaiah’s “not yet” in the birth, childhood, life, death and resurrection of a young adult known to us as the Anointed One, Jesus the Christ.
Over the cacophony of voices and legislation related to human sexuality at General Conference in Portland, a contemporary “not yet” emerged. How many of us took to heart the Young People’s statement read by Ann Jacob, a young adult reserve delegate from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference? It was the “substance of things hoped for,” and the prophetic imagination of millennials and Gen-Xers. To recall the moment, listen to this excerpt.
“There has been increasing talk of schism of the United Methodist Church in recent months. Many say the issue of homosexuality is so contentious that it will inevitably split our Church. We, as the young people of the United Methodist Church, would like to say we do not desire a divided Church. ‘The Church that we have taken our places in is called to a ministry that includes so much more than one issue…As (John) Wesley said ‘May we not be of one heart though we are not of one opinion? “We urge everyone to seek solutions that promote our global unity as the United Methodist Church of Jesus Christ, rather than focus only on the issues that divide us, so that we may faithfully live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
General Conference gave our young people a standing ovation. Why? Was our applause designed only to make them feel good about speaking to power? Had we simply congratulated ourselves for including the burgeoning church of today in our business? Or, had we taken seriously an assumed leadership role for our children, nay our young people prophesied in Isaiah’s statement,” …a little child shall lead them?”
Coined by over 300 of our United Methodist Young People from 34 countries attending the 2014 United Methodist Global Convocation in Manila, Philippines; our church press labeled the witness “A Statement of Unity.” To me; it was much more namely, “a Plea for Unity.” Listen to their plea again: “We urge everyone to seek solutions that promote global unity as the United Methodist Church of Jesus Christ, rather than focus only on the issues that divide us, so that we may faithfully live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
In Ephesians 4: 1-6, the apostle Paul makes a plea for unity to the church at Ephesus. “Live your life according to God’s call,” says Paul. Yes, he tells us how to act. Instead of giving prime attention to the rights and privileges of gentiles and Jews, idolatry, dietary laws, and other wrongs that need to be made right, Paul advocates or pushes for people in the church change their behavior. Label his quest “behavioral unity” marinated in the greatest commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, etc. Second, love your neighbor as yourself. And who is my neighbor; e’rebody.
Paul believes that seeking the things of God first creates community and the will to solve more problems than we can “imagine or think.” This approach to unity does not leave a divided, justice seeking church dancing in the streets. Protracted conflict over whose group agenda is first seems paramount. True. Why seek church unity if the hurts, the hopes, the injustice and other barriers between Jews and gentiles in the body of Christ do not receive adequate attention? Disagreement will ever be. It’s a product of our free will. Choose we must, our way or God’s way.
Paul’s plea for unity in the church flows from his understanding of God’s call upon his life. Hence, he writes “Live your life according to God’s call.” This is the clarion call of a man of faith who understands the problems diverse groups of people face living in Ephesus. Yet Paul places the highest priority on behavior God expects of God’s people 24/7, even when our issues are not fully addressed. For Paul, loving God and loving the neighbor stand as God’s non-negotiable. Quite frankly, Paul had not always maintained that position.
When we first encounter Saul of Tarsus in the New Testament, he functions as a one-issue person. The man is a hater, a terrorist, a persecutor of the Christians. Eugene Peterson’s The Message gives Paul’s words contemporary dress-words that leave no room for doubt in Acts 22. “I went after anyone connected with this Way, went at them with hammer and tongs, ready to kill for God. I rounded up men and women right and left and had them thrown in prison. (All because they believed in Jesus). You can ask the Chief priest or anyone in the High Council to verify this, they all knew me well. Then I went off to our brothers in Damascus, armed with documents authorizing me to hunt down the Christians there, arrest them, and bring them back to Jerusalem for sentencing.” Before this, Saul approves the killing of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:60).
How does Paul get so locked into one method of opposing Christians? Persecutor is not who Saul has been trained to be. Esteemed rabbi by title, few of his peers know more about God in the Jewish Testament than Saul of Tarsus. Faith and praxis in Holy Writ guide his words and deeds. Sadly, Saul loses his way. Approval for the torture and torment of Christians does not come from God. Saul lives his life according to the dictates and blessings of the Chief Priest and the Sanhedrin, not God. Are these actions a response to Jewish synagogues losing members to the Way, total disregard for the rite of circumcision and dietary laws? Are members of the Sanhedrin so full of heretical rage over the claim that Jesus is the Son of God and that he hails from Nazareth-a city that the public deems worthless-that it cannot conceive of Nazareth producing the Son of God; the long awaited Anointed One, Jesus the Christ, that it must stamp out all vestiges of the new movement?
To the most dispassionate observer, it is clear. Saul’s prosecutorial mission to the Gentiles is misguided by that perception. Two communities remain divided, distrustful, fearful and bitter enemies; heads “bloody and unbowed.” All this changes when Saul saunters down the Damascus Road armed with a stack of arrest warrants from the Chief priest to incarcerate followers of the Way.
The Damascus Road experience destroyed Saul’s single-issue approach to serving God. Knocked off his horse by a blinding light, arrested by a God voice for persecuting the gentiles, taken to Jerusalem, blind, thirsty and life at a standstill, Paul was sent on his way by Ananias. Through God’s amazing grace, Paul recovered his sight. He was fed. He was baptized and informed by Ananias that “God chose (him) to be an instrument (for e’rebody) specifically…to bring God‘s name before Gentiles and kings, before the people of Israel.” Going forward, Paul became a major leader in the new Christian movement.
Second, he was called to help unify Jews, Gentiles and kings. Last but not least, Saul was tasked with the challenge of using any non-violent means necessary to encourage, teach and lead the church at Ephesus to make God’s mission and ministry their priority. Strong arm tactics had to be left behind. To repeat, God changed Paul’ agenda. Are we open to that?
As a converted Christian, Paul began to live his life according to God’s call. More importantly, Paul had to model this behavior in his leadership of a divided church. For better or worse, striving for behavioral unity, marinated in the love of God and neighbor took priority over simmering concerns, hurts and inequities in the body of Christ. Are there any lessons or signs of hope in a behavioral litany calling for people of faith to live our lives according to God’s call, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Here are four possibilities.
Flying home from the NCJ UMW Quadrennial meeting in Grand Rapids, Mich., I met a young woman from Cleveland, Ohio. She did not seem a day over 25. Informed that she was a chemist with the coroner’s office, I wondered if cold case detective work was part of her job description. Had she envisioned where she would be in five years: on the same job, elected the new coroner or in another career? Her responses were compelling and a bit surprising.
First, working as a chemist in the Coroner’s Office was her dream job. Second, she hoped her job as a forensic chemist in the Coroner’s Office would last for a lifetime. “It’s my calling,” she said. How and why this young woman connected the call to be a chemist working in the Coroner’s Office never was revealed. I’m certain her call had to do with the joy of serving others. Maybe she had come to grasp a real understanding of the Ministry of all Christians. An Internet ad recruiting forensic chemists offered this perspective. “If you have a strong desire to shape the world of justice by using science to solve crime puzzles, then a career in forensic chemistry could be for you.” Whatever her reasons for her employment as a chemist for the Coroner’s Office in Cleveland, Ohio, her three-word testimony was enough for me: “It’s my calling.”
By the end of this Jurisdictional Conference or before, some of our episcopal candidates will discover that the Episcopacy is not their calling. Consider yourself blessed even if you don’t know it. In 1988, the late Maurice King was an endorsed candidate for the episcopacy from East Ohio Conference. He left Cleveland planning to run. King arrived in DeKalb, Ill., and never ran despite the endorsement. How do I know? I was the third Bishop in East Ohio that Maurice King helped endure the rigors of the Episcopacy, my family included. He told me so as he beamed about his responsibility and privilege of helping a rookie Bishop make it in 1996 and beyond. “It’s my calling,” said this consummate servant of God.
If the truth be told, the late Rodney Glen King III had an instantaneous albeit situational call to ministry. Reactions to those who beat him within an inch of his life resulted in the worst riot in American History. Dozens of people lost their lives. Thousands were injured. Millions of dollars of businesses went up in flames. Fires were everywhere. Witnessing this carnage, Rodney King felt “something within that holdeth the reins…something within that he could not explain.”
On the third day of the riot, King, a man in trouble with the law asked for and received television time to speak to LA and the nation. Five little words are remembered from his speech of eight minutes 24 years ago, “Can we all get along?” oft misquoted as “Can we all just get along” or “Can’t we all just get along?” He said more. “Can we stop making it horrible for women and kids…I could understand the first -upset for the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on like this…it’s just not right.” In response, people poked fun, ignored, assassinated his character and/or put Rodney down for a passionate plea rooted in our biblical heritage. Can we all get along is another side of Jesus’ command to “love God and love neighbor.”
The behavioral question plagues our communion. We see fires burning across the connection minus the ilk of Pentecost. Fires are burning over the trust clause and who should obey the Discipline. Fires are burning over filing of complaints, apportionments and gun violence. We know fires are burning over abortion, human sexuality and the question of the Council of Bishops upholding or forsaking the Book of Discipline.
Fires are always burning on race. We just cannot admit it until the unspeakable horror of Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas forces us to speak. Was W.E.B. DuBois correct in his prophecy, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line? Now that social media has taken over our lives, sniping at one another via computer has allowed daily combat with unseen neighbors in front of a screen. Setting theological fires, name calling, threatening to leave, etc. have become commonplace 24/7. How many of us watching church pyrotechnics or the state of the church are left to wonder, “Can we all get along?” Are we really “one in the spirit and one in the Lord?” How many of us are willing continue our struggles for what we think is right by any non-violent means necessary? Paul is right, “If I speak in the tongues and men and angels and have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
At the beginning of the sermon, I read an excerpt titled “Statement on Unity” drafted by over 300 young people from 34 countries attending the Global Convocation for Young People in Manila, Philippines. Wants and don’t wants were shared. First, Young People don’t want a divided church, specifically a schism; don’t want our church to focus only on the issues that divide us. “The church that we have taken our places in is called to a ministry that includes so much more than one issue,” our young people said. Second, some Young People believe we can be of one heart though not of one mind; want solutions that promote Global Unity; and want to live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
What young people want for the church probably won’t be accomplished. Why? In adult subconscious minds there remain time honored rubrics like “seen and not heard, naïve, unrealistic, we have bigger fish to fry, show me the money or wait your turn.” Some adults may be upset by the call to focus less on the issues that divide us and spend more time on issues that unite us, e.g., Imagine No Malaria, Africa University, developing principled Christian leaders, beating swords into ploughshares, lay empowerment and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Just last week, results of an on-line survey of young adults aged 18-34 were reported in the United Methodist press. Done by the Barna Group on behalf of United Methodist Communications, a number of observations were shared. Young Adults aged 18-34 who don’t go to church and are not committed to a church listed two issues that would move them to attend church, namely spiritual growth and community. Like their counterparts at the Global Convocation, young folk in the study desired to be around folk growing in their faith and living in a caring community. Those findings do not suggest that young adults 18-34 avoid wrestling with issues of race, immigration, human sexuality, gun violence or the war on terrorism. For them, spiritual growth and community are necessary precursors for a deeper engagement in personal and social holiness. To the foursome who will be elected Bishops, what are you going to do about the clarion call from young adults in your first 90 days? Don’t ignore them.
Remember, a young man between the ages of 18 to 34 who walked into his hometown synagogue of Nazareth in response to God’s call. The man shared a list of ministerial initiatives he thought his religious community ought to take seriously. Folks ran the young adult and his interpretation of Isaiah 61 out of the synagogue. If he had not passed through their midst; parishioners would have thrown him off a cliff to his death. Before the congregation turned on their native son, this young man pleaded with them to join him in his call to ministry. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Who was this young man so wise and so bold? We know him as Jesus the Christ, the Fairest of Ten Thousands, the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star, the Bridge over Troubled Waters.
If we do not take seriously one of the ways Paul saw himself, we won’t understand his plea for unity, the charge to “Live our lives according to God’s call” or the commitment to be faithful unto death. According to the preamble of the book of Ephesians and Philemon, Paul saw himself “a prisoner of the Lord” or “a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” Visit any jail or prison and the pattern plays out. When the inmate eats, sleeps, plays, recreates, receives visitors or does anything, it is under the command of the warden and his guards. Compliance is required or punishment follows. Consistent with what happens to folks behind bars, Paul makes up his mind to do what God wants him to do even if it causes him to suffer. He is a prisoner of Christ.
Some of Paul’s greatest ministry occurs behind bars. Prison epistles written behind bars include Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon and II Timothy. Not only do we read these letters for spiritual growth and development, they help us understand how God used the jail cell to accomplish the work of Christ. Martin King found that out with his famous letter from the Birmingham Jail. Paul told the story of Christ to all the guards; some of them came to Christ. On one occasion, one frightened guard asked; “What must I do to be saved?” All I am trying to tell you is that the Damascus Road experience did a job on Paul. Like a Prisoner of War, he was never the same. As a result, Paul brought all his talents to bear on the mission of Christ and his church. That’s the way it is with Paul and Christ. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Yesterday, one of my friends from East Ohio said as much. “When I invited Christ to be a part of my life; I told him; I will be your servant,” she said.
On July 12, 2012, I began my NCJ sermon with a lament concerning LeBron James. I want to conclude with some more of the story. When King James took his talents to South Beach in 2010, fans were heartbroken. Heartbreak gave way to vilification by fans and the owner. Ohioans sounded a lament heard in days gone by “but we had hoped that he would be the one to restore Cleveland to basketball glory.”
Down in Miami, James takes the Heat to the NBA Finals every year earning MVP honors twice. His personal mission of winning NBA championships is accomplished. However, “something within” begins stirring his soul. Something within that success cannot quench. Something within says; “I don’t like how I left home. It was all about me and not about family, friends and a city that brought me up.” Something within says: “I’m going home. I pray they will accept me back.”
Lee Jenkins, writer for Sports Illustrated offers this soul-bearing quote about LeBron James’ decision to come home. “Coming home is not about the roster or the organization,” says LeBron. “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have the responsibility to lead in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.” James mentions at least two goals: to win a championship for Cleveland; and to raise his family in Northeast Ohio.” (See article by Lee Jenkins in Sports Illustrated).
James returned home in 2014. On June 19, 2016, the Cavaliers won the NBA Championship coming back from a 3-1 deficit; a dream was fulfilled. A different LeBron James returned. Finally, he became the one who led Cleveland to basketball glory. Out in the street, in basketball arenas, behind computer screens, and on radio, red, yellow, black and white celebrated together. During one of his NBA Finals Interviews, LeBron didn’t mention that he won another Most Valuable Player award. Instead, he held up the trophy and announced “Cleveland, this is for you.”
It’s amazing, a young adult between the ages of 18-34 unified a lot people in Cleveland, Akron and the country playing basketball. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we who claim God’s call upon our lives could unify the church by bringing all of our talents to Christ for his use crying not my will but thine? It sounds like a pipe dream, I know. So does truly loving God and neighbor in the body of Christ. “Grant us wisdom. Grant us courage for the facing of this hour, and for the living of these days.” Amen.