The United Methodist Church is in the news. NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, and many others. They have been meeting in General Conference, where elected delegates from the global church debated whether to maintain prohibitions on LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church, or to eliminate some of those prohibitions, or to put into place further restrictions and prohibitions. By a slim margin the further restrictions and prohibitions ruled the day.
This morning I awoke to a message from a family whose children were in the Christian education program I led several years ago. When the news came late yesterday about the UMC General Conference decision, they called their local church and withdrew their names from the membership. They refuse to be part of a church that excludes people. They want to be part of a church that invites everyone to the table, that embodies grace for all people.
I was raised in the United Methodist Church. I remember clearly my baptism in 1969, just a year after the denomination was formed through the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. I remember clearly my Confirmation classes. I remember clearly the Sunday school teachers and choir directors who taught me the songs and scriptures of the faith. I remember the mission projects of the United Methodist Women and our youth group. I remember worship with the Spanish language congregation in our town. I remember hearing the words of resurrection hope at my father’s funeral in the same United Methodist Church, his coffin at the rail where I knelt to be baptized, where I knelt for communion, where I first heard the call of God into ministry.
Bible studies with diverse groups of people have played a key role in my ongoing formation as a disciple. More times than I can count, I have been in studies on the book of Acts. Always we ponder the diversity and differences in the early church, and how the church began to understand itself and its mission. In Acts 10 there is the story of Cornelius, a Gentile who worshiped God. His prayers open him up to receiving a vision, in which he is told to send for Simon Peter. Peter meanwhile, has a vision of his own, in which all kinds of food are lowered by a sheet before him. He refuses to eat, citing his adherence to Jewish purity laws. A voice from heaven said: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Before he can puzzle out the meaning of this vision, he gets the call from Cornelius. When he enters Cornelius’ house, full of Gentiles worshiping and praying, Peter tells them that it is unlawful for a Jew to visit or even associate with a Gentile, “but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Every time I study the book of Acts, this passage causes me to ask myself – who have I put into that category of profane? Who am I refusing to associate with or visit? Who do I refuse to invite to sit next to me at the table? Examination of my own heart is an essential practice, a way to open my heart to the work of sanctifying grace, the movement of the Holy Spirit.
God’s table is open to all. When LGBTQIA+ persons call to the church, they are like Cornelius, faithful in their prayers and asking to have a seat at the table. When the church refuses to recognize them, they are closing a door that the Spirit holds open. The church throughout history has often closed doors, treated people as less-than, ignored the cries of those who want to be welcomed around the table.
At the World Missionary Conference of 1910, the majority of the delegates were men from Western Hemisphere nations, men who controlled the missionary agencies. Of the 1,215 delegates only 19 represented non-western countries. One was Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah. V.S. Azariah was one of the founders of the National Missionary Society in India. Azariah was one of the few non-western speakers at the Conference. His words have proven to be a conviction of the missionary movement, and its inability to see where it ignored the cries of those who wanted to be welcomed as equals around God’s table. Azariah’s words regarding racism in the missionary movement still call the church today to examine itself, to see where it does not invite everyone to sit at the table.
“The exceeding riches of the glory of Christ can be fully realised not by the Englishman, the American, and the Continental alone, nor by the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indians by themselves – but by all working together, worshipping together, and learning together the Perfect Image of our Lord and Christ. It is only ‘with all the Saints’ that we can ‘comprehend the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.’ This will be possible only from spiritual friendships between the two races. We ought to be willing to learn form one another and to help one another. Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest to the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us FRIENDS!”
Dr. Brian Stanley comments on Azariah’s speech: “…the riches of the glory of God will be appropriated by the Church only if all the saints inter-relate in Christian fellowship. No one ethnic group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ. If the church is not multi-racial, its Christology will actually be distorted.”
No one group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ. By cutting out a group of people who are begging to be given a seat at the table in the UMC, we are distorting our image of Christ. We are denying ourselves the opportunity to discover more deeply the glory of God. We are cutting off the opportunity to learn together, to make room for the Spirit to move in our hearts as sanctifying grace.
If the political structure of the UMC closes a door, then it is time for the missional movement of the UMC to open more doors. Through prayer, we can be open to the leading of the Spirit, we can be ready like Cornelius and Peter to see and hear where God is calling us to meet with others, to form Christian friendships. It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to seek out diverse ways in which to pray together, sing together, worship together, work for justice together. It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to be the church that Azariah calls us to be, united in Christian fellowship, offering space at the table to all people, listening and learning from each other, looking for the glory of God. It is time, mission-minded United Methodists. It is time.
Stanley, Brian. The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids. 2009.
Quotations from page 125