Today after church there was a quick town meeting about the current trials vexing the United Methodist denomination.
I was impressed by the demonstration of maturity from members as they shared their views and convictions. There was passion, but it was from a general posture of humility and openness. As Pastor Mark shared his hope for a “third way” beyond conservative and liberal warring in the denomination (and in local churches), there seemed to be glimmers of that very thing among the congregation. At one particularly powerful moment, one brother shared his own unfolding journey and a revelation that occurred while reading Acts 10 as the liturgist one Sunday. He fought back tears while urging that we can’t call “unclean” what God has made clean through faith.
Still, the dilemma of what is happening in the United Methodist Church on the whole was not entirely solved. Mark was honest in revealing the opinion of his colleague, who is a strong LGBT advocate in the denomination, to the tune that churches will have to go one way or the other on this and be willing to show those with the opposite view the door. Toward the end of the meeting, I felt, for the first time in a while, like the Lord might be speaking to me. I didn’t get a chance to share this with the group, so here goes.
First, I thought about Moses.
Specifically, I thought about that time he killed the Egyptian slavedriver for beating one of the Israelite slaves. This was an act of courage; it was an act of justice. In its visceral solidarity with those grossly oppressed by the empire, it was, almost, admirable.
But as an act of cold-blooded violence, it was wrong.
And in a way I have honestly never thought of before, it set into motion the chain of events that would lead to thousands of Egyptian boys being slaughtered overnight, and thousands of Egyptian men being drowned in the Red Sea some hours later. I have always seen the Exodus as the grand act of God’s justice and power triumphing over the unjust empire – and certainly our tradition teaches us that it is. But in the pew this morning I wondered if it might also have been the full-flowering consequence of Moses’s one impetuous act of violence – that if he had chosen to bring justice and change in some other way, it could have all been different, with far less blood in the water, as it were.
Like David whose violent nature prevented him from building the great temple, Moses was plagued by an impetuousness that ultimately prevented him from entering the land of promise. If we take both things – temple and promised land – as metaphors for the church, perhaps the disunity and schism which so often marks it is quite properly caused by the impetuousness and violence of those advocating their side of various issues.
This happens on the right and on the left.
And sometimes, it is very much an act of courage and solidarity with the oppressed.
The question, though, is whether there may be such a violence involved, or at least an impetuous rush to judgment, that greater damage may be caused in the act than what is really necessary for a greater justice and peace to take root. It occurred to me this morning, as I sensed the Spirit speaking, that this may be the case with advocates prescribing a line in the sand for an ecclesial movement currently in the throes of tension, crisis, and discernment. What would Moses say? Might there be something better than simply doing away with the slavedriver? Could there be a kind of patient discernment and peaceful subversion more in keeping with the Way of the Liberating King?
The Exodus that Jesus accomplished was, after all, markedly different-looking from the one in the ancient Egyptian empire. Instead of the firstborn Roman sons being slaughtered, it was the only-begotten Son of God slaughtered by the Romans. Instead of a raised staff followed by horses and riders thrown into the Sea, Jesus was lifted up on the cross with an offer of forgiveness to the very soldiers enacting the empire’s grossest oppression.
I am not saying that Jesus just took it from the oppressors. Instead, he achieved a more dramatic and decisive victory over them without ever killing them. The Lamb, with his robe dipped in his own blood, destroyed the Roman beast by the word of his gospel, not by the sword. And in the most subversive act of triumph imaginable, he rose from death to prove that the unexpected way, the way beyond wars between right and left, is, in fact, the way to the everlasting justice and peace of the kingdom of God.
As someone new to the United Methodist conversation, I see the violence involved in religious trials that seem to conjure striking images of the very trials Jesus was subjected to. But embracing an equal and opposite violence, with a call to schism or lines in the sand, would, in the opinion of this writer, be shortchanging the greater justice and unity that might be worked by the Spirit in the church. The third way, as Mark said this morning, is the better way – and the hardest way.
But I wonder what it might have looked like in Egypt, had Moses chosen that way.
And I wonder what it might look like for such a large, worldwide family of churches as the United Methodist movement.
Perhaps all the media attention focused right now on vexing trials could be subverted, as a greater demonstration of patience, understanding, and unity takes shape.
Perhaps, the word of the gospel of the kingdom could overcome and have the final victory.
That would be truly unexpected – kind of like a resurrection.