I’ve stayed mostly silent through the latest Methodist debacle that was General Conference 2019. I didn’t want to contribute to the noise, and I still don’t. But the vote to reject a progressive approach to LGBTQ+ persons is something that I still have to address with my congregation of college students. Unfortunately, my opportunity to do that in chapel this morning was interrupted by a medical emergency with a student. Thankfully she seems to be fine, and that event did put the silliness of the Methodists’ posturing into stark relief.
Rather than shirk the larger discussion, however, I at least wanted to make the thoughts I was going to share available for those who might be interested. Below is the text of the sermon I would have given.
There’s an old kid’s song I used to sing for children’s sermons: at a time like this, I need the Lord to help me. Those of you who know anything about being Methodist probably know why.
For those of you who don’t know or who have forgotten, the United Methodist Church—the parent church of Dakota Wesleyan and the denomination in which I am a pastor—has been debating human sexuality for fifty years and out-and-out fighting for about the last twenty. Earlier this week, the official policy-making group of the Methodist Church voted to affirm traditional standards, meaning that the official church position is that LGBTQ+ persons are not compatible with Christian teaching.
As you might expect, this has thrilled some people. To say it disappointed others—myself included—would be an understatement. The process has already been ugly. It’s not likely to get better.
What does this mean for campus ministry at Dakota Wesleyan? I hope nothing. For a lot of years now, we have welcomed everyone who has walked through the doors. We have not disqualified people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some of us have more conservative beliefs and others are moderate to liberal. But we’ve managed to find a way to love one another and hold together through a lot of difficult stuff. We’ve managed to remain friends. And I think that puts us in company with Jesus.
Among the first things Jesus did when he began his earthly ministry was to gather friends around him. He called his disciples, but they were more than pupils. In fact, he tells them directly that he doesn’t think of them as servants, but as friends. He needed people to walk alongside him, to encourage him, to challenge him, to make him laugh, to remind him he wasn’t alone. On every step of the journey right up to the cross, Jesus kept his friends close to his side.
It’s no surprise, then, that as the cross drew near, Jesus would spend his last precious hours with his friends.
The story begins in earnest in John 11, when Jesus tells his disciples that their friend Lazarus is sick and that he wants to go see him. The disciples try to talk him out of it. Lazarus lives with his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany, which is near Jerusalem. The city was then as it is now—in a state of perpetual unrest. And Jesus was not a welcome figure. The religious leaders viewed him as a heretic and troublemaker. Word on the street was that they would kill him if he ever showed his face again. So in the disciples’ view, there’s no real need to visit Lazarus. Why not send a card? Maybe flowers.
But then Jesus explains more fully. Lazarus is dead. He has to go to Bethany, and he intends to go, whether he has any company with him or not. His friends look at each other, trying to figure out what to do. If they go with Jesus and Jesus is arrested, they likely will be arrested also. They could be killed. No one wants to do this.
When someone finally speaks, it’s Thomas. The room gets a little more tense at this point, because Thomas is not known for his tact. He’s the kind of friend who will tell you straight up if your fly is open or there’s a booger hanging from your nose. Thomas is the one who, when you ask if that girl is into you or not, says, “No, dude, she’s out of your league. Aim lower.” He’s the one who, when you ask if those jeans make you look fat, answers, “Yeah, mainly across your butt.”
We don’t have a record of Thomas ever saying those exact things, but when he does speak in John’s gospel, he’s always that kind of blunt. He’s the one who, when Jesus asks if what he just said makes any sense, replies, “Nope.” He’s a skeptic, maybe even a doubter. He’s certainly a guy that could use a better filter. So when he opens his mouth to respond to Jesus’ crazy idea of going to Bethany, no one knows what he’s going to say until he says it.
“Let’s go. If we die with him, we die with him.”
That’s the kind of friend you want to have—someone who, for whatever other character flaws they might have, including a big mouth—is ready to stand beside you, come hell or high water. He’s the kind of friend who doesn’t let outside pressures get in the way of his friendship. He’s the guy that has your back, and a good thing, too. Because before long, Thomas is going to need someone to offer the same kind of friendship to him.
The most famous story about Thomas happens later in John’s gospel. Jesus has been resurrected and appeared to his disciples, but Thomas is not with them. They tell him the story, but he says, “Guys, no. I can’t go there. Unless I see Jesus for myself—unless I reach out and touch him—I’m not going to believe what you’re saying.”
“Doubting Thomas,” we call him, but that’s not really fair. Honest Thomas, maybe. Loyal Thomas, absolutely. Why would we linger on his doubt instead?
Maybe because that’s what really scares us. We’re afraid of doubt. We’re afraid of being wrong, of losing face, of being hopeless. We’re afraid that, when the world falls apart around us, there won’t be a God with us who really cares. We’re afraid of losing faith, because that means we’ll be alone. It’s easy to throw shade at Thomas because he doubts. We’re just condemning the thing in him that we fear in ourselves.
But if Thomas embodies our fears, he also gives us the best example on how to deal with doubt. Because he does his doubting among his friends.
Not long after he tells the other disciples he needs to see to believe, Thomas does see Jesus. In fact, he does more that see. He makes a declaration—a political statement. He kneels before him and calls him “my lord and my God.” That was a title reserved only for the emperor. At this point, however, Thomas isn’t afraid of powerful men with the trappings of wealth. He’s ready to proclaim Jesus as the one true king, and to pledge himself to him.
Don’t miss the context in which all of this happened. Where was Thomas? Not out in the desert sulking in solitude. He was back with his friends. Even though he doubted, he didn’t do it alone. He hung around people whose faith carried his until he got it back.
Feelings are great liars. They tell us that what we experience is the great truth of the world, when in fact our feelings are only a reflection of the way we perceive the world, and sometimes even that is colored by the chemical workings of our brains. Sometimes—especially when our feelings threaten to overpower us—we need to put them in their place. As friends, we can help one another do that.
At a time like this, we need the Lord to help us. And we need each other.
Those at GC2019–some of them very powerful people–handed down a decision early in the week that they think the entire UMC will live by. But I have no intention of letting someone else’s doctrinal agenda scare or injure the flock I’m entrusted with. So let’s not allow other people’s passions to tear us apart. Let’s love one another. Let’s keep praying, even if it feels like no one is listening. Let’s keep gathering for worship, even though we are afraid of what the future holds. Let’s keep waiting for the Lord to reveal himself to us.
In time, I trust that he will–not to any bureaucratic gathering, but to his friends.