March 1, 2020
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
How many of you know our denominational mission statement? If you know it, say it with me, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It was first adopted by the General Conference of 2000 but at that time it was shorter, stating the mission as simply “To make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Over the next 8 years, a movement, and some would say a backlash, against the statement ensued. The outcry charged that the mission statement was too simplistic, that the making of the disciples couldn’t just be an end in itself, so in 2008 the “for the transformation of the world” part was added.
I confess to you I’ve never been a fan of this mission statement. I can work with it, but it requires me to do several mental translations and work backwards from where I live in my ministry and faith to get to this statement. Taken at face value, to me it smacks of triumphalism, colonialism, and exclusivism. It was changed to its current and final form the same year our campus ministry in Davis opened the multifaith living community, after 9 years of development work. In advocating for the community and building support for its passage through city council, I’d labored carefully to translate the Christian message into terms that didn’t trigger my campus and progressive college town communities, to communicate that we had shared hopes for the world with our Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish siblings. The United Methodist mission statement was, at that particular time for what we were trying to do in faithful ministry in Davis, an unhelpful addition.
The hope of course with this statement was to get us away from practices that had veered too far from the core purpose of our tradition, to get away from those activities that scholar Elaine Heath says are called tradition, but “refer primarily to the habitual in our own contexts—traditions of sorts, but with a small t.” But I’m not sure it has helped us engage with others in the 21st century nor does it express what is essential and life-giving in Christian faith for us in a way that might compel others to join us. In fact, I think it triggers people who think of Christians as dominating and rigid.
Some of you may embrace the denominational mission statement. It may work for you and express precisely what it is you believe we are called to do together. And this is great! I celebrate that! Because it’s not so much the ideas contained in the mission statement but the way they are stated. And it seems to me we run into language landmines more and more these days. This is why the phrase “trigger warning” was invented, to say to those who might be sensitive to particular words or phrases or descriptions to watch out and maybe avoid the person or the writing altogether. And it’s created a level of anxiety when we talk with each other that I believe has rendered to silence some folks who just don’t possess the approved vocabulary. In some cases, even in spaces of discourse where we are trying to figure out the most faithful way to proceed, there are times when we’ve taken things we need to talk about off the table for fear of saying the wrong thing.
Now please don’t misunderstand me. I do think we need to use language consciously, and I do think we need to be engage in education about how our language can harm, perpetuate stereotypes, and further misunderstandings. We need to be intentional, empathetic and careful in our conversation. But we also need to be able to have difficult discourse, to talk about things that are hard in order to go deeper with each other and deal with complexity. I believe we need to hold our beliefs passionately, knowing what in our practices and traditions is life-giving for us, but not rigidly, so that someone else’s life-giving language, practice and tradition can also be honored.
One of the most thoughtful and ethical persons speaking today, in my opinion is Bay Area writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. When someone suggested that she proceed her statements and posts with trigger warnings, she responded simply, “Consider me a walking trigger warning.”
Some might call the apostle Paul a walking trigger warning. In his letters to the new churches of Asia Minor, he takes on faith, truth, repentance, inclusion, and he takes on subjects that were at that time taboo to talk about, such as sexuality and the role of women. Some of what he said 2000 years ago we reject now but there is scholarship that shows that even what we now reject represented a radical inclusion for that time.
In Paul’s letter to the church of Galatia, we see a Paul who has been transformed through an incredible conversion. Paul, a former persecutor of the church, a violent legalist, has been opened to the beauty and truth of God who exists far beyond what is considered right and what is considered wrong and who is in and who is out. Paul’s method in establishing churches was to invite new people into the same conversion that he had experienced. His was a transformative spiritual awakening made possible by the amazing presence of God, the power of the holy spirit and an openness to the world that lay beyond the legalism, perfectionism and “rightness” of his own Jewish tradition. Paul, a former enemy of Christians, had the incredibly freeing experience of realizing that the God he loved, as scholar Elaine Heath says, “was much bigger than he knew. God has never been bound by our theology or traditions.”
But as we catch up with Paul in our scripture for today, the old legalisms have crept back in, and Paul has gotten word of a church anxious to be right and determine who is in and who is out. What had started out openness in the church at Galatia as a radical to the vast love and abundance of God had dissipated in Paul’s absence. You can imagine how the church began, hearing this new message of radical love, compassion and regard, preached by Paul. There was surely a sense of freedom and possibility. As they formed as a church, the Galatians heard in Paul’s message from Christ an honoring of the power of the Holy Spirit as transcendent over laws that bound people. What joy must have been present in those living out this new message.
But in a matter of just months, anxiety has taken hold. You see, true freedom, especially at first, is hard to live with. It requires patience, engagement, forgiveness, wisdom, maturity. It requires a willingness to sit with paradox and to step out onto an uncharted path. The Galatians may have felt, “This is too chaotic! I don’t know what to think or who to talk to or how to even speak about all of this!” So they went back to the judgments, the rules, the lines. In the Letter to the Galatians is a calling of these new Christians back into the dynamic peace of God, where confidence and assurance are found in faith—not in rules and lines--and that faith is strengthened and bolstered by a dynamic engagement with freedom and inclusivity. Paul is calling these new Christians, and us today to a recognition that only God has the whole truth, and it is our job and blessing as a community of faith to seek that truth together, humbly, acknowledging that as humans we all have a piece of the truth, and we all hold a piece of the untruth as well.
Maybe what most bothers me about our denominational mission statement is that it purports to have the Truth, the key to world transformation, that others don’t have. That others aren’t acceptable until they become like us. But what if we reverse this statement? What if instead of “to make Disciples for the transformation of the world” the statement instead read, “To be transformed by the world and become a disciple of Jesus Christ?” In fact, this reversed rendering of the mission statement finds corroboration in Romans 12:2 where we read, “Do not be conformed by this world, but transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and discern what God’s will is.”
What if instead of needing to be right and get others to join our team, which can feel toxic in its zeal and insistence, we realized that God is revealing Godself to us constantly, and it is our job to be amazed, to receive that blessing and point others to that same blessing. What if instead of converting the whole world we sought to bless the world through our respect, honoring, invitation and love? Our job isn’t so much to convert as it is to be converted, over and over again.
This Lenten season our theme in worship and in several of our small groups is “Wisdom for an Anxious World.” We’ll source this wisdom from our scriptures and traditions, re-discovering ancient antidotes to a state of being that is not unique to us in 2020. Anxiety comes from needing to be right, and insisting that others be like us, in holding rigidly to our habits and defending that hold by naming it sacred. We loose the grip of anxiety by realizing the sacred is already around us, that Jesus came to us as one of us to make that point. In each person, there is God, whether they are a disciple of Jesus Christ or not. Paul, and Christ, call us to be transformed by the beauty and miracle of this world, and to have the courage to live in the freedom God gives us through our regular and humble engagement with each other as members of the Body of Christ.
As we share in holy communion this morning, may we accept the freedom and power God gives to us to go, together, into unknown territory as we seek ever to be the ongoing Body of Christ on earth, pointing to a reality of love and miracle beyond our understanding or containing but real nonetheless. There may our anxieties find solid ground.