31 At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”
32 Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. 33 However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. 35 Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”
The last time I was here with you, back in January, we talked about the possibilities of the then-upcoming February Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I explained our denomination’s history regarding the debate over human sexuality, the process leading up to this special General Conference, and the three plans that had been presented by the Commission on a Way Forward. It seemed that most of us in the room at that time agreed that the question of a person’s sexuality or gender expression is such a small issue in the grand scheme of our Christian faith that it is absurd how much effort, time, and money has been spent and how much deep pain has been caused by our denomination continuing to argue over it for so many decades. I could be wrong, but I sensed general consensus in the room that day that something like the One Church Plan could have been a helpful way forward to allow the UMC to move past this unproductive and frequently hurtful argument by proposing a future where we can agree to do ministry together in the name of Jesus Christ while acknowledging that we do not all believe exactly the same thing on every issue. I still think that this plan could have been a good step for our church, although it was far from perfect, but—as you probably heard or read on the national news—it was not to be. The One Church Plan was defeated by a majority vote not once but twice. Meanwhile, the Traditional Plan, which was meant to increase enforcement of biblically conservative stances on human sexuality and thereby provoke more liberal factions to leave the denomination, passed.
It is painfully frustrating that the one time that I personally can ever remember seeing the United Methodist Church featured prominently by news outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC, and pretty much every other prominent outlet, the headlines and story were broadcasting to the entire world the fact that our governing body voted to approve increasingly exclusionary and punitive church laws. For atheists, agnostics, nominal Christians, or others who don’t know much about the UMC, the dominant impression they will now have of our church is that we stand so strongly against homosexuality that we want to punish clergy and bishops who act upon their conscience to marry or ordain LGBTQ United Methodists. Not the
“Open hearts, open minds, open doors” that our slogan suggests. Not that we are followers of Jesus Christ who proclaim the good news of his resurrection. Not that we love God and love our neighbors. Not that we are passionate about working with the Holy Spirit for the transformation of the world. Not that we value building meaningful relationships with fellow believers across state, national, and theological lines, in the “Catholic spirit” preached by our founder John Wesley—the belief that it is more important to take one another’s hand in the ministry of Jesus Christ than it is to agree on every detail of church doctrine.
No. We truly have much to be proud of and thankful for within our Methodist heritage, but none of that was communicated to us as local United Methodist churches or to the rest of the world by the bitter legislative process and vindictive outcome of this General Conference. Instead, what we and the rest of the world saw was a desperately broken system of governance, embroiled in deep and hurtful divisions, in which decisions were made in typical political fashion of manipulation and name calling, us vs. them, and winners and losers. The Holy Spirit was called upon in name to “do something new” and to bring unity, but in practice, people’s minds were already decided, and their hearts were unwilling to let the Spirit move. Delegates and caucuses supporting both proposals failed to open their ears to the full diversity of voices that the Holy Spirit had brought into the room.
On Monday the 25th, I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me when I heard that the One Church Plan had already been voted down in committee. I had been so sure that the Holy Spirit was going to do something big, something new, and bring us forward out of our human-made mess of debate and division. I thought the One Church Plan was the answer. And when it was defeated yet again on Tuesday, to be supplanted by the Traditional . I could see the deeply personal harm and pain this General Conference inflicted on dear friends, respected colleagues, and other United Methodists I am grateful to know. Where was God? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit do something to fix this? How could it have gotten so bad? This betrayal, this brokenness, and this despair were so hard to try to process.
But then, barely a week later, Ash Wednesday arrived. The season of Lent could not have come at a more appropriate time this year. We as United Methodists are in the wilderness—a place of fear, of isolation, of pain, and of the unknown. During Lent, Christians spend these 40 days repenting of the ways in which we have sinned, remembering Jesus’ ministry as he journeyed toward his death on the cross, and praying for discernment of how God is calling each of us to live into our callings as followers of Christ. On a corporate level as United Methodists, this means we must now look inward in a more deliberate and, dare I say, painful way than we are accustomed to. We have now seen the extreme brokenness of our humanity, of our institutions, and of our fellowship. The status quo is shattered. In fact, it has been broken for a long time, but it took this painful mess of a General Conference to force us all to see the corrupt systems that were already there. I know that, for myself, this experience has been a wake-up call.
In today’s Lenten reading from Luke, we see Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem. Never before have those verses had such resonance for me as they do right now: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Luke 13:34). Jerusalem, or Zion, is for the Jewish people the epitome of their inheritance—the crowing glory of their identity as God’s chosen people and their spiritual home. And yet, this is also a city that has been conquered by foreign rulers, whose magnificent Temple was destroyed twice, and that holds the distinction of being the location where numerous Hebrew prophets—and later the Messiah himself—were killed. This city on a hill, the site of God’s promises to bring a new heaven and new earth, is also a place of shattered dreams and unrealized expectations; the home of hope in God is a place of .
Like Jerusalem, the United Methodist Church is deeply flawed. That is to say, they are both deeply human. This is not to say that either Jerusalem or the United Methodist Church is beyond redemption. Not with our God who is compassionate and merciful! Even in the midst of human sinfulness, Jerusalem is arguably the most religiously significant location on earth—central to three different major religions—and has produced inspiring leaders and teachings for millenia. In fact, it was at the Jerusalem Council where the early Christians made the monumental decision to welcome Gentiles into the Christian faith without requiring them to first convert to Judaism. In that historic moment, leaders responded to a divisive issue with prayerful discernment and unity rather than vitriol and division. And, like Jerusalem, the United Methodist Church today has the potential to do something different. Something groundbreaking. Even now.
In his weeping, Jesus expresses this. He longs to gather his people under his wing, just as a hen protects and nurtures her chicks. He is there, reaching out with his encompassing embrace—patiently, devotedly, inviting us to come closer. But he goes on in verse 35, saying, “you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned.” We as individuals, and we as the body the United Methodist Church, have strayed. Instead of moving closer to the source of our love, nurture, strength, and our very life, we have wandered off—aimless and self-absorbed like day-old oblivious chicks who leave the safety and love of their mother’s wing. We unwittingly and unwisely put ourselves in the paths of danger, of harm, and of isolation.
But, Jesus does not end there. In the very next sentence, he provides our way back: “I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name” (Luke 13:35). So when will we see Jesus, our mother hen, again? Only when we see differently: when we know where, and to whom, to look. Only when we leave our self-centered concerns behind, and turn back to the one who gave us life. Only when we look to the One and Only: the One who came to us to be closer to us than we are to ourselves. Our Way out of the wilderness is to return to the God who gave us birth. Our One, Triune, God—who took on flesh to walk among us—and who lived on earth to show us the Way of God’s kingdom that heals broken places and yields abundant, everlasting life.
When the Jerusalem Council realized the signs and wonders the Holy Spirit had done among the Gentiles, they concluded that the logical way forward was to welcome those believers gladly into the fold. While some leaders had argued that adherence to the Law was paramount, the gathered body “fell quiet as they listened” (Acts 15:12), and they discerned a different path. The Law was still important, but it was no longer the only means by which the Holy Spirit was reaching people. God’s faithful, steadfast love continued to bring life and light to the nations, but in new and unexpected ways. With their decision to refocus on the gospel through the movement of the Holy Spirit, these early Christians discovered a vitality of mission that quickly spread across the entire Roman Empire and beyond, and is still transforming lives 2,000 years later.
When John Wesley stumbled his way into founding the Methodist movement in 18th-century England, he was fighting against the same institutionalist tendencies that challenged the inclusion of Gentiles in the early church and that have caused such strife in the United Methodist Church today. When Christianity, a Spirit-filled movement of followers of a persecuted homeless rabbi in a rural town in an occupied state, became instead the religion of empires and the dominant force in the European political system, the church lost sight of the One who had started it all. The more we as humans fall into thoughtless routine and build up habits, or—even more so—build up wealth and power, the more we tend to forget where we came from. We forget that our Savior was born in a stable, to an unwed teenage mother. We forget that our Lord and Teacher challenged the status quo with every sermon, that he consistently dined with sinners, touched outcasts, and broke with tradition and Law to heal on the Sabbath.
Similarly, our founder John Wesley pushed the institutions of the church to take stock of what they were really doing. Who was being ministered to? Who was NOT being ministered to? Who was being called to preach? Whose voices were being silenced? Through his commitment to follow the Spirit’s call, even when doing so angered church authorities, his and his colleagues’ work gave rise to a movement that flourished in England, in America, and has now spread out and become an influential global church.
And yet, with that influence has come the ever-present human sin of pride, forgetting where we came from. Those in power within the UMC today have failed to look to the margins, to follow the example that Jesus demonstrated so decisively in his ministry. United Methodists from both the Traditional and One Church Plan camps fell victim to the hubris of power and privilege, assuming that our opinions were best and right and would have to win out.
Left out of the discussion were those for whom this entire debate hits straight to the heart: those LGBTQ United Methodists who grew up in this church, were formed and called in this church, were wounded by this church, and yet inexplicably could not shake the Spirit’s calling to remain in this church. For four days, hundreds of delegates from around the world gathered—only a handful of whom were themselves LGBTQ—to debate and vote on a world stage whether or not our LGBTQ siblings in Christ are worthy enough to be equals in our church. The results of that vote rang out with a resounding, “No, you are not worthy.” The passionate voices of these LGBTQ people, quite literally on the margins in multiple senses of the word, were drowned out both by legislative rules and by a devastating lack of commitment on the part of leaders who claim to be allies (such as myself) to intentionally engage their perspectives throughout the entire process.
So where does that leave us? Our denominational system, our legalistic governance, have lost sight of the Holy Spirit who gave our movement birth. As Jesus said to Jerusalem, “your house is abandoned.” The house, the walls and doors and ladders that we have built—those are human creations. The Holy Spirit, who brings the Incarnate Christ into our midst 2,000 years after he walked this earth, does not dwell inside these walls. But when we lift our gaze up, and look out beyond our walls and borders, our lines in the sand, we see something new. “Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.” It cannot be about power, or status, or wealth. It cannot even be about absolutist views of right and wrong.
This moment, for us as followers of Christ in the United Methodist Church must be about One thing, and One thing alone: our Lord, Jesus Christ. If we are not looking to Jesus, we are lost. Nothing else can support us; all other ground is sinking sand. But in Jesus Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, we can be the chicks who hear their mother hen’s coo in the wind and return to dwell within the warmth and safety of her wings.
In the words of the Psalmist for today, “I have asked one thing from the Lord—it’s all I seek—to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life” (Psalm 27:4a). May it be so. Amen.