One of Western Pennsylvania’s lay delegates to General Conference, Rich Hoffman, led our delegation early this morning in a time of prayer and reflection. Rich asked us to ponder a moment in 1 Kings 19 in which Elijah discovered that God was not in the great wind. Nor was God in the earthquake and fire. Rather, as Elijah learned, God was present in the “sheer silence” that followed the spectacle and drama. We began the day by being still together in that sheer silence, so that we might listen for the life-giving whispers of God that so often resonate in the chambers of our souls when we pause to listen deeply.
During our opening worship time, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey (from the Louisiana Episcopal Area) preached a powerful word on Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet (found in Matthew 22). In that parable, the King extends a wedding banquet invitation to just about everyone (after those who were originally invited fail to respond). Bishop Harvey suggested that that’s how God’s banquet really is. It is an open table to which everyone is invited. “God’s banquet becomes a world where loved ones are set free,” she proclaimed, “where addiction gives way to recovery, where acts of violence give way to the pursuit of peace, where women no longer feel the need to sell their bodies, and where all find their place at the banquet table…That’s the banquet that Jesus makes possible—a banquet that turns the world upside down!” Bishop Harvey concluded the sermon with an image that remains in my thoughts: “So put on your grace-lined banquet robe, because the Host is expecting you!”
So, what does wearing a “grace-lined robe” mean? Probably many things. For me, at the very least, it means living with an expanding awareness of the fact that every breath I breathe is an unmerited gift, and that my salvation is grounded in Christ’s atonement rather than my accomplishment. I have been thinking about that truth all day long.
To be honest, today’s legislative work was exhausting in its tedium. What we accomplished was important: We elected the new members of the Judicial Council (which has been described as United Methodism’s “supreme court”), the University Senate, and the Commission on General Conference. We approved portions of what is known as “the consent calendar.” (The “consent calendar” is a collection of petitions or resolutions that received an overwhelming support for the prevailing vote during last week’s legislative committee meetings. By approving the consent calendar, we act on many petitions and resolutions in a single vote, thereby expediting the legislative process by preventing us from having to deal with every petition and resolution individually.) We had important conversation about the possibility of translating our Book of Discipline and our Book of Resolutions into the languages spoken in our Central Conferences. So, our work today was important in its scope. But technological challenges, methodological confusion, and the slow process of various elections made it a slow and draining day.
One of the highlights of the day for me was the celebration of Zimbabwe’s Africa University, a United Methodist-supported institution, the work of which continues to provide life-changing education for thousands of African men and women. The Africa University Choir blessed us this afternoon with its wonderful ministry of music. The choir members’ music and the spirit with which they offered it was, for me, the most joyful and enlivening part of a long and challenging day.
Something difficult but significant happened today. In the mid-afternoon, a group of nearly 100 United Methodists facilitated an unscheduled demonstration. They paraded through the plenary room, chanting “Black lives matter!” and carrying a banner that read, “All Black Lives Matter: bisexual, transgender, poor, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, disabled, women, men, youth and children.” As reporter Jessica Brodie described it,
The marchers included members of various groups, including Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, the Reconciling Ministries Network and Love Prevails…They marched twice around the floor, chanting, ‘No more hate’ and ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia’s got to go.’ They ended at the center table for proclamation and song before marching out.
It was a moment that once again made clear the deep divide in our denomination over human sexuality in general and United Methodism’s stance on homosexuality in particular—a divide that will no doubt find further expression in upcoming legislative conversations.
Please, as you read my description of what transpired during today’s demonstration, I implore you not to allow yourself to become cynical, belligerent, or combative. Today’s demonstration, after all, came from the hearts of people who love Jesus dynamically and who believe wholeheartedly that the church’s current teaching on homosexuality is as harmful as it is misguided. Even if one disagrees strongly with their conclusions, one can at least be respectful of their deeply held convictions. I would greatly appreciate the avoidance of vitriolic debate in this medium (since I am already finding quite enough of that here in Portland). I describe today’s demonstration in detail only because I want you to understand with greater clarity the scope of what lies before us as a church.
During this afternoon’s demonstration, members of the Western Pennsylvania delegation, along with some guests, formed a circle, joined hands, and prayed silently. It was all we could think to do. The emotional intensity of the demonstration, I think, was starkly but meaningfully unsettling to all of us. For what did I pray in the silence? I prayed for a church that never loses its passion for both holiness and justice. I prayed for peace in our world, our nation, our church, and the plenary floor of General Conference. Most of all, I prayed that Jesus would continue to help United Methodism to find its way through our divisions in a manner that treats human lives with radical compassion; that honors Scripture with a spirit of attentive obedience; and that reflects a supernatural love that infuses even our most difficult relationships and conversations.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for praying. Thanks for being there.