I teach a class on Thursday mornings. I have for a decade and a half at this place called Grace. It’s morphed a bit over the years as has my hairstyle and my clothes . . . well, maybe not so much the last part. Some folks have been attending from the beginning nearly every week, others come and go by virtue of the particular study or book, still others come when travel and family schedules allow. We’ve done Bible studies, video-based series, Lenten and Advent books, and often theological studies that are sometimes boring, sometimes controversial, sometimes life-changing, sometimes academically high-falutin’ and sometimes at the edge of even being read-able. A few folks are probably still carrying around some not-so-happy-with-the-pastor feelings about a study we did once called “Nudge” . . . let’s simply say the book was not written well and the content not worth the work. I hope it’s been long enough we can laugh about it now? Maybe??
Miraculously, there are folks who are part of this group that hang in there through the good book selections and the bad; through the days when the teaching is o.k. and other days when it’s not so much; in moments when we get into discussions that take us on rabbit trails from which we’re not certain we can return; to days when it’s simply irritating to go with an author on the track they’ve taken with which we absolutely don’t agree. Sometimes the teacher is also being the Chair of a committee meeting in another room and is a bit distracted, other times she cancels because of Conference commitments, other times there’s, well, winter, like this year, and it’s a week to week challenge whether we’re meeting or not and how long into the spring it will take to finish. And yet through all of that, learners continue to come, continue to talk so loudly with one another before the class starts that the less-than-small voiced teacher struggles to gain everyone’s attention. Sometimes people have to leave early for appointments, sometimes they have to come late, sometimes they miss a class meeting or two for outside reasons. Sometimes our middle of the class 7-minute break turns into 12, and sometimes the leader forgets the break until it’s close to too late. *snort* And yet for fifteen and a half years this Thursday morning class continues.
I’m guessing many of you have something like this in your life. A Sunday school class, a book club, a bridge group, a coffee shop bunch that meet at the same time and place, some group of people that started something somewhere years ago perhaps, that simply takes on a life of its own and gives life in a way that becomes the fabric of strength for everyone. The dynamics of these groups, as different as they may be, share a common base from a voluntary commitment that folks make with one another, often unspoken, that through the ups and downs, the agreements and disagreements, the life changes and world changes, that the meeting together continues to happen and the caring continues to occur, even when most difficult. And you know the person that’s most difficult, right? I’m guessing in whatever on-going group you’re a part of, you can point out the things in each of the other members, that get on your nerves. Whaaaaaat?!? Should we really admit this? You can call to mind times when most of the rest of you rolled your eyes, spiritually if not literally, at what that one person always says or always does or always asks that most of the rest of you simply want to ignore and move one and why do they always have to do that! And I’m also guessing you can also point out that same person’s strengths, their endearing qualities, those things that make you laugh even when they frustrate you, and what the group would miss if they weren’t there.
All of that is really my dream of church – large church or small, rural or suburban or urban, historical or mid-life or newly planted. We find in our meeting together for worship, our common connection in following Jesus and the journey of discipleship. If Jesus could have done his ministry alone, it would have been way easier and less frustrating than calling this group of disciples who often had more weaknesses than strengths. And yet he never gave up, never stopped teaching, never stopped having expectations of their growth in understanding and faith, and never stopped caring about them as family, even when he was most disappointed and distraught.
Sunday marks the beginning of the Called General Conference of the United Methodist Church to make decisions about our “Way Forward”. It will make the national news for a few days. Another large Protestant denomination struggling with human sexuality and how and if we remain the church in the midst of our inability to agree.
Please know this about Grace United Methodist Church in Olathe, Kansas, regardless of what the result is of which plan wins (there’s part of me that’s not sure anyone wins in this situation), Grace will continue to be grace. That means nothing will change in our welcome of all people in all the different ways we are created and made by a loving and generous and merciful God. We do not believe God made some people less-than-worthy because of who they are and who they love.
WE. ARE. GRACE.
We will not cease to be a congregation loving God, living like Jesus, and serving the world. I love the United Methodist Church and am a United Methodist on purpose. John Wesley’s balance of personal piety partnered with social justice simply makes so much sense to me in how to live a purposeful life of meaning and generosity. So when the controversy hits the national media for a relative second next week, and our witness is less about the great work we do and more about our inability to live together in differences, please take peace in knowing this United Methodist place called Grace continues to focus on how we best love God and neighbor as we grow our discipleship.
Take this quote with you into these coming days as I am:
“Though we cannot think alike; may we not love alike?”
“John Wesley differentiated between essential beliefs and nonessential beliefs which he called “opinions.” He believed that Christians should be unified in love but need not have identical beliefs or practice identical rituals. In his sermon on “Catholic Spirit” Wesley said:
But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”
-from Board of Discipleship, United Methodist Church