All means ALL! To treat some as less than–or as an aberration or abomination–is in violation of the Gospel and incompatible with Christian teaching.
I preached these words at First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (website) on November 20, a pivotal Sunday in the liturgical year and in this congregation’s history.
Christ the King Sunday pivots the liturgical year from the culmination of Pentecost to the expectancy of Advent. Added to the significance of this particular Sunday was the fact that this was the congregation’s first opportunity to vote on whether to join the Reconciling Ministries Network (website). A “Reconciling congregation” openly welcomes all, including LGBTQIA+ people, into the full life and leadership of the church.
It is a pivotal period in my own life too! I just marked my 82nd birthday and my 62nd year of ministry in The (United) Methodist Church. It has been an ever-expanding journey from narrow provincialism, rigid moralism, and dogmatic exclusivism to a sense of mystery before an expanding cosmos created by a loving God; ongoing experiences of grace upon grace; and ever-deepening friendship with Jesus the Christ, who is “all in all.”
Since Christ is all in all and has reconciled all things, the usual categories by which we evaluate people and build dividing walls of hostility and exclusion no longer apply.
“There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free,” male or female, gay or straight, traditionalist or progressive, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican! All are one as beloved children of God.
Here is the link to the service. The sermon begins at approximately 39 minutes, but I encourage you to experience the entire service.
What an interesting coincidence that the violent attempt to overturn the presidential election of 2020 occurred on the day Christians celebrate Epiphany! On the first anniversary of that ugly day and as another Epiphany arrives, it seems appropriate to reflect on the relationship between them.
Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “appearance,” “manifestation,” or “revelation” and is commonly linked with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child (Matthew 2:1-12). The Magi, from the region of what we know as Iraq and Iran, were foreigners who studied the stars for signs of divine presence and revelation.
An implication of Matthew’s story is that the God made known in Jesus the Christ reveals God’s self in multiple ways and to ALL people. God’s saving presence is not limited to our religion, our race, our nation, our culture, our political party. God is sovereign over ALL!
Matthew portrays Jesus’ birth as a threat to prevailing political power. He specifically declares that the babe of Bethlehem is “king”! That’s an obvious threat to King Herod, who ruled the known world with brutality, violence, and cruelty.
Maintaining power was Herod’s priority and he would go to any length to hold onto that power, including killing members of his own family and innocent children. He was deceptive by pretending that he was only wanting to pay homage to the newborn king. His methods were calculated, brutal, and catastrophic.
Herod’s actions were motivated by fear of losing power and he considered instilling fear in others a necessary means of control. He was enabled by throngs of supporters who, too, were afraid and who had bought into the lie that Herod ruled by divine authority.
Matthew’s story of the nativity and Herod’s response is as contemporary as today’s news! It is about more than Jesus, the magi, and Herod. It is about the human condition and the exercise of power and control, especially political power.
Power is addictive! Fear fuels the addiction, the fear of losing control. It’s present in all of us to varying degrees. However, when maintaining power and control results in deception, coercion, bullying, and violence, the results are pervasive and lethal for individuals, communities, and nations.
The storming of the nation’s capital on January 6, 2021, was a blatant attempt to hold onto power and control. It was fueled by fear and a “big lie,” and it was enabled by some members of Congress, political advisors, and even some religious folk who believed that the former president was divinely anointed.
Jesus and Herod represent two “kingdoms” and two expressions of power. Herod represented the power of the Roman empire with its political and military clout. Jesus embodied “the kingdom of God,” the reign of love, justice, generosity, and peace/shalom. Herod was committed to the love of power. Jesus was committed to the power of love!
The insurrection in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, was an epiphany, a manifestation or revelation that Herod’s fears, methods, and abusive exercise of power remain with us.
Epiphany Day in the church year, however, reveals another kingdom at work in our world. It represents an alternative to the deception, coercion, bullying, and violence rooted in the fear of lost power and control.
That alternative is the way of compassion, justice, honesty, and service on behalf of the common good. It is the way shown to us by Jesus of Nazareth, about whom the Apostle Paul wrote: “. . . though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—-even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
May our celebration of Epiphany and the remembrance of the Insurrection of January 6, 2021, include renewed commitment to follow the One who transforms the world through the power of self-emptying love.
It was a Sunday afternoon before Christmas in the early 1970s. I was resting comfortably in the parsonage in Abingdon, Virginia, when the telephone rang. It was the owner of the local funeral home, a member of the church I was serving.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Kenneth, but I need some help. A man is here whose wife died and they have no church affiliation. He is from this area but has been away for several years. Would you be willing to come down and help him plan a funeral service?”
I readily agreed and made my way to the funeral home. I wasn’t prepared for what followed. There awaited a young father and two children, Patricia, age 5, and two-year-old Eddie. They were the same ages as our daughters, Sheri and Sandra.
The father was grief-stricken. His wife, whom he had married in Korea during the war, had died from cancer. He needed help in telling the children that their mother had died. How do you help young children understand that their mother is gone? Here it is a few days before Christmas and Patricia and Eddie have lost the one who gave them birth and cared for them. I don’t remember what I said. I just remember hugging them!
We had the funeral a couple of days later. Only a dozen or so people were present. After the service, I asked the father what they were would be doing Christmas Eve. He had no plans but to be with his relative. I asked if he would like Patricia and Eddie to spend Christmas Eve with us. Eddie decided he wanted to stay with his Dad, but Patricia was eager to be with Sheri and Sandra.
Linda rushed out and bought more presents to place under the tree as we anticipated having a special guest for Christmas, a little five-year-old who had just lost her mother.
The Christmas Eve celebration began with a service at the church. It was a simple portrayal of the Nativity as described in Luke and Matthew. I narrated the story from the pulpit while the shepherds, magi, Mary and Joseph, and angels made their way to the altar.
Linda sat on the front row with Sheri, Sandra, and Patricia. I heard Sheri whispering to Patricia throughout the drama. I suddenly realized what was happening. She and Sandra were interpreting the drama to Patricia. It dawned on me that she was experiencing the Christmas story for the first time, and she was hearing it from two little girls.
Following the service, we gathered at the parsonage for dinner. About the time dessert was served, Patricia got up from the table and ran to a bedroom crying. After a short time, I followed her into the dark room.
I cradled her in my arms as she sobbed. “You miss your Momma, don’t you? I’m so sorry. It’s okay to cry.”
Suddenly, the door opened and into the darkness came Sheri and Sandra. Sheri was carrying one of her favorite possessions, a jeweled box given to her by her grandmother. She reached it toward Patricia and said, “This is for you.”
Patricia’s tears stopped as she reached for her gift. She slowly returned to her dessert, holding onto her special present.
That Christmas, more than forty-five years ago, remains my most memorable and transformative Christmas. Amid the darkness of grief and loss, three little girls BECAME the Christmas story.
May we, too, become the Christmas Story amid the darkness of our grieving and suffering world.
It’s one of the ugliest and most deadly developments in our society: the normalizing of demeaning, dehumanizing, disrespectful, hateful, bullying speech!
I know, such speech has been around since humans developed language. What’s new is its growing normalization and acceptance by society, its being a favored discourse of the president and other public figures, and its pervasive dissemination on social media.
Dehumanizing and demeaning speech directed toward other human beings is more than a language problem. Words are formed in the heart before they make it to the lips! Jesus made that clear: “. . .what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight” (Matthew 15:18 CEV).
Such speech is more than bad etiquette. It is deadly poison that can lead to catastrophic consequences. Dehumanizing speech robs people of their inherent dignity, reduces them to enemy or worthless, and motivates rejection and potential violence.
I learned in an introduction to logic course in college that the use of personal insults in confronting issues is an old and popular fallacy in logic. It’s called the Ad Hominem Argument (also, “Personal attack,” “Poisoning the well”).
Attack and discredit the person and you don’t have to deal logically with his/her arguments. It’s a form of intellectual laziness as well as ill-formed character.
Multiple important issues confront our society and churches. Rising above specific political, theological, and ecclesial issues is the preservation and nurture of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.
May our language reflect our respect for the God-given dignity of every person and may we demand the same from our political and religious leaders!
This paraphrase of Jesus’s warning states it forcefully: “Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation”(Matthew 12:36-37 The Message).
I’m going to miss an important event in Methodist history–the called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, February 23-27.
A lot is at stake as delegates wrestle with ways to deal with the important matters of homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture. The decisions made will chart the denomination’s future for decades.
Missing the conference makes me sad! I feel some guilt for my absence. Although as a retired bishop I have no official duties, I do feel responsible to be present in support of colleagues and delegates.
I know from previous General Conferences that significant things happen apart from the formal sessions. Old friendships are renewed and new ones formed. The vast diversity of the denomination is on full display.
Great music! Outstanding preaching! Challenging speeches! Profound worship!
I’ll miss all of that!
I must forego the experience. But, I’ll be pursuing my current primary vocational calling, care-partner for my wife of 57 years.
What I will be doing seems small and insignificant when compared to the history-making decisions. Nothing I will be doing will get publicity or make the history books.
I’ll be doing little things–holding Linda’s hand, combing her hair, feeding her, brushing her teeth, assuring her she isn’t alone, just sitting quietly as she sleeps.
There are important connections between what I’ll be doing and what’s happening in St. Louis.
We both will be doing sacred work! Both will involve strong emotions, including grief and disappointment. God will be present with us!
Both have to do with what it means to love! Who to love! How to love! What it means to love faithfully, as Christ loves us!
Love isn’t an abstraction for me. She’s lying in the bed nearby, with her hand in mine. Love, in the final analysis, is an embodied practice rather than a pontifical pronouncement.
I hope love isn’t an abstraction in St. Louis. May it be embodied in
ears that listen attentively,
tongues that speak tenderly and truthfully,
hands that clasp and serve joyfully,
arms that embrace hospitably,
hearts that beat compassionately,
minds that exhibit the mind that was in Christ Jesus,
actions that manifest the breadth of God’s love and justice.
I won’t be trying to convince Linda that she is wrong, or less than, or inadequate, or sinful, or outside the norm.
Instead, I will be trying to empathetically enter her world, see the world as she is seeing it, assure her that she is valued amid her confusion, and loved unconditionally by God and by me.
I genuinely pray that what happens in St. Louis will be akin to what will be happening in our home, and in the countless homes across our world as people seek to love one another as Christ loves us, regardless of
sexual orientation, or
physical and intellectual capacities.
I won’t be physically present in St. Louis, but I’ll be watching and praying. . . . and continuing to love!
The nation is perilously divided along political, racial, economic, gender, and cultural lines. Hatred, disrespect, and cruelty toward “the other” have become acceptable public behavior and a normalized political strategy.
Tribalism and ideological warfare threaten any sense of commonality and mock the ideal of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Where is the church, particularly the denomination which has shaped my life–The United Methodist Church?
At the general church level, we are mirroring the divisions within the nation! Groups are quarreling over human sexuality and the interpretation of Scripture.
Local congregations and individual members are being pushed into ideological corners with secularly devised labels of “traditionalists” and “progressives.”
This isn’t the first time Methodists have mirrored national divisions. We divided over slavery and, thereby, the church became complicit in the violence of the Civil War.
Current arguments and rationalizations echo those advanced by preachers in 19th century. Once again the Bible is being used as a weapon of ideological warfare rather than as the authentic witness to God’s mighty acts of salvation, supremely in Jesus Christ.
Just at the time the nation and world need a model of unity amid differences, United Methodist leaders seek ways to separate; thereby, countering our “oneness in Jesus Christ” and weakening our witness to the Christian gospel.
Whatever rationalizations we may use to convince ourselves that we are defending truth and upholding morality, to the world a division will bear witness to our brokenness and hypocrisy.
Let us, instead, bear witness to the core gospel truth that God has already acted decisively in Jesus Christ to reconcile all things (Colossians 1:20). God has called the church to be instruments of reconciliation.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19 NRSV).
This isn’t about unity for unity’s sake! It’s unity as embodiment of witness to the gospel! God in Christ has already made us one! He has already broken down the dividing walls of hostility! That’s the gospel truth!
Failure to embody that good news in our life together as a denomination will mock the central message of the Christian Gospel: In Jesus Christ, God has broken down all dividing walls of hostility and claimed ALL as beloved sons and daughters!
The issue of homosexuality will not be resolved by legislation or denominational restructuring as proposed by any of the plans to be presented at the forthcoming called session of General Conference.
Resolution lies in living the oneness already existing in Jesus Christ by humbly struggling together to fully grasp God’s vision for the world and the church. “Traditionalists” and “progressives” need one another! A first step may be to do away with such simplistic labels and commit ourselves to God’s reign of compassion, justice, and hospitality.
It seems to me that the One Church Plan being proposed to the General Conference has the best chance of enabling United Methodists to pursue and live God’s vision for humanity expressed in Jesus’s prayer that “they might be one.”
Make no mistake about it: the world is watching! May our leaders bear witness to a unity that transcends uniformity, a unity God has already wrought in Jesus Christ.
Our daughter, Sandra Nash, is the director of social services at White Oak Manor, a long-term care facility, in Newberry, SC (here). She recently posted the following on her Facebook page:
Moments of Thanksgiving at Work
As many of you know, I work in a long-term care facility, White Oak Manor in Newberry. Today I had a couple of different situations that really moved me. As I was walking down the hall, I greeted one of our residents, “Good morning! How are you doing today?”
Instead of what I expected, just a short reply “fine,” he responded, “Good morning! I am so thankful to be here!” He said it with such assurance and like he really meant it!
Wow, here this man has had to give up his independence, many of his possessions, and is separated from his family and his reply was that he is thankful to be here!
In a separate situation, a resident was brought in by EMS after being in the hospital for a week or so. As he was being wheeled down the hallway towards his room, I heard him repeatedly say to staff members as he passed them how happy he was to be back. When I followed him to his room and talked to him, his eyes filled with tears. He emotionally said, “I am so glad to be home! I am back with my family,” referring to the staff and other residents.
These two men showed me how, no matter the challenges one may face, you can still find gratitude. How grateful I am to have found such a rewarding profession!!!
I’ve been pondering Sandra’s experience with my own sense of gratitude – gratitude for Sandra whose relationship with society’s most frail citizens is characterized by respect, compassion, kindness, and sensitivity, as well as skill and professionalism.
But her experiences with the two men also remind me of a profound truth: genuine gratitude springs from giving and receiving love! Exuberant gratitude isn’t the dominate expression one hears in nursing facilities where people are absent from families and where the institutional bottom line is often efficiency and finances.
What a difference it makes when staff members see residents primarily
as stories to be heard more than symptoms to be treated
as welcomed guests rather than sources of needed revenue
as beloved children of God with inherent worth and dignity instead of problems to be overcome
as participants in the Triune God’s dance of love as opposed to dreaded chores to be done
as persons with gifts to be shared more than as frail recipients of paternalistic care
The two men Sandra encountered live with gratitude because they know that whenever and wherever we are loved we are “at home.” May we all know such gratitude, and may we be means by which others experience “home.”
The normalization of dishonesty and deception threatens our common life. Lying has become an accepted political strategy and an applause line at public events. Whether done by Democrats or Republicans, it is just plain wrong!
Dishonesty destroys trust, rips apart the social fabric, and infects society with the deadly diseases of cynicism, corruption, fear, and animosity. Like an open infectious wound, lying contaminates the environment and threatens the health of others.
Honesty is an indispensable quality of character, and character does matter! Albert Einstein stated it succinctly: “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
Jesus said it long before Einstein: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Luke 16:10 NRSV).
We have a right to demand that our leaders tell the truth! Lying for political gain is dangerously corrosive to more than politics. It threatens the survival of civil society and diminishes our basic humanity.
Restoring truthfulness and integrity to our life together begins within our own hearts and relationships.
My prayer today is that God will deliver me from my own temptation to put personal gain above honesty and free me from complicity with the normalization of dishonesty.