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Inclusivity Devotional: Ephphatha – Open Up

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

In this reflection, I offer to you a prayer of illumination. Feel free to use it in your worship setting, and do not feel obligated to offer me credit.

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for September 5, 2021

Gospel Reading: Mark 7:24-37

“Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors,” has been the promise of the United Methodist Church since 2001. For twenty years the UMC has used this as a slogan in billboards, commercials, and websites. Today, if you go to umc.org, you will see the slogan at the very top of the page.

If you are anything like me, you have had misgivings about using the slogan. For many inside the United Methodist Church, it feels like false advertising. The exclusionary practices and policies of the United Methodist Church toward the LGBTQ community makes many wonder if the people of the United Methodist Church truly have open hearts, minds, or doors.

I still use the slogan, but I no longer think of it as a description. Instead, I see it as a prescription. I do not consider the word “open,” to be an adjective. Instead, I express it as a verb.

Today our passage includes Jesus healing two people. In the first story it seems as if Jesus himself is the one who is opened. This is a troublesome thought to many. They will use many dubious explanations about the diminutive form of “dog” to avoid what is clear in this story: Jesus acts in a closed-minded way. Yet this woman – a foreign woman from a foreign land – challenges Jesus and helps open his mind to the Gentile mission.

This is particularly poignant because this comes right off the heels of Jesus criticizing the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Now Jesus is confronted by a foreign woman and he does the unthinkable – he changes. In the second half of this passage Jesus is confronted with a man unable to hear or speak. Jesus takes him aside, gives him a holy wet-willy (not really, but it is shocking how physical this sign is when the previous one was done at a distance).

“Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” (Mark 7:34). With this word, the man can hear and speak. Despite Jesus’ best efforts to keep this miracle quiet, word about him spreads even more.

These are two stories of opening. First Jesus’ mind is opened. Then the man is opened. Sometimes open is a verb. Sometimes we are called as a church to do the opening. This is where the power of our slogan truly lies. It is our role as pastors, lay people, and Christian ministers all of us – to open up pathways to God’s power. We are to open our hearts and the heart of others. We are called to open our doors. We must always be willing to open our minds.

In my congregation, we say this prayer every Sunday before the reading of the Scripture. It is our prayer for illumination and keeps us mindful of our task as a church: “Holy Spirit, open our hearts to the story of your love. Open our minds to new ways of knowing you. Open our doors to all whom you would welcome.”

Many of us have been challenged by our own versions of the Syrophoenician woman. We were forced to open up our minds through encountering people who we may have at first considered “other.” Many of us have been opened up by Jesus himself. We were given ears to hear and words to speak by the power of the Holy Spirit. May all our closed spaces be touched by the grace of Christ. When I think of the United Methodist Church, I can’t help but look up to heaven, sigh, and pray, “Ephphatha.” Open up.

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Inclusivity Devotional: The Armor of God

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for August 22, 2021

Second Reading: Ephesians 6:10-20

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the devastating loss of human life, the threats to human dignity, and the fear of a looming humanitarian crisis cast a dark shadow over the reading of Ephesians this week. War metaphors to describe faith in Christ should always give us pause. This is especially so this week.

As we read the author of Ephesian’s language about putting on the armor of God, it is impossible not to think about the wars waged in the name of Christ over the centuries. My mind also goes to old Sunday school posters showing a man in armor – often anachronistic medieval armor – with each piece labeled.

While the labels were things like “peace” and “righteousness” and “truth,” I can’t help but feel like images of the warrior with shield, sword, and a full knight’s steal armor were painting a more lasting image than the words that went along with them. The lesson was simple: we are to be warriors for God, and if this means fighting an actual violent war, then so be it.

It is easy to read this passage and quickly presume that we are the warriors of God, and that all who oppose us are “the rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.” It is a short step then, to name those forces of evil. Once they are named, they can then be vanquished, and the armor of God can help us achieve this. For far too long and far too often, this passage has been used to justify militaristic, protectionist discrimination against those considered to be the “forces of evil” and the “darkness of this age.”

To get the full picture of this armor, we must take this letter in its context. This is not meant to be turned into a recruiting poster for God’s army. This is not a rallying cry for Christians to attack and belittle those with whom we disagree. This is certainly not a letter for those living comfortably within the dominant culture.

The letter to the Ephesians was a letter of encouragement to a people facing troubling persecution. Ephesus was a cosmopolitan city with important temples and pagan institutions. It was growing much more difficult to participate in the commercial and social life of the city while still following Christ. This letter was meant to remind the Christians how to live in a pagan, oppressive community.

This still feels like a call to arms for Christians who feel they are under attack. The enemies they may name today are secularism, atheism, and liberalism. Many fear the “gay agenda” or buy into conspiracy theories about powerful cabals of child-trafficking predators who are trying to run our government, steal elections, and inject the mark of the beast into our arms. Many Christians feel as if they are fighting a valiant spiritual war by denying the full humanity of LGBTQ people, long-term effects of institutional racism, the existence of a deadly virus, and the efficacy of a vaccine that has proven safe and effective.

It is important to not fall into the same trap and demonize and dehumanize others. People cannot be easily categorized or labeled. Terms such conservative, traditional, orthodox, liberal, and progressive do little to describe humans who care, love, hurt, and learn. The only path we have is to stand firm, but to stand firm with loving kindness. The armor of God is truth, justice, and peace. So, how do we live in a world of increased polarization, misinformation, and vitriol?

The writer of Ephesians does not offer a solution but does give us some guiding principles. Stand firm, but not obstinate. Do not react in anger against your neighbors. Do not respond to violent and militaristic oppression with violent militaristic opposition. Who is my enemy? Not people deceived by misinformation, but forces of oppression, consumerism, addiction, racism, sexism, and homophobia which can be found inside ourselves as much as they are found in others.

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” ~ Nelson Mandela

“Somehow, we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race, which no one can win, to a positive contest to harness humanity’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a peace race. If we have a will – and determination – to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Inclusivity Devotional 1 (Luke 18:9-14)

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. As the Communications Director for IGRC for Unity, I compose a weekly email with news, resources, and reflections. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.
The lectionary texts for October 27 include Luke 18:9-14. This is Jesus’ parable about two people praying: the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus told this story about two people praying to a group who “convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust” (Luke 18:9 Common English Bible).
The prayers of these two are vastly different, but in one important way they are alike. They are both praying the Psalms. The Pharisee is praying Psalm 17:3-5 “If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress…” The tax collector is praying Psalm 51:1 “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy…”
The mistake the Pharisee makes is when he compares himself to the other. He creates a hierarchy, placing himself above the tax collector. Jesus’ Kingdom is not about hierarchy. It is not about social strata, or placing one above the other. Like Mary had sung in the beginning of the Gospel “He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” (Luke 1:52-53)
Like most parables, we are invited to see ourselves in these characters. It is easy to see yourself as the tax collector and others as the Pharisee. The surprising thing is though, that while the tax collector is “justified,” the Pharisee is not condemned by Jesus. The high is brought low, but not cast out. We must be careful in these divisive times, realizing that both progressives and conservatives can fall into the trap of the Pharisee:
  • Thank God I am not that godless, politically correct, unrealistic liberal…
  • Thank God I am not that close-minded, judgmental conservative…
Instead, focus our prayers on our own shortcomings, our own sin, our own celebrations, triumphs, and victories. This does not mean we ignore others, but we never place ourselves above others. God does not pick and choose. God welcomes and loves all.
PRAYER: O God, show mercy to us, sinners all. Forgive us for missing the mark of your love. Forgive us for the times we have looked upon others with scorn, disgust, or apathy. Help us to see others as fellow pilgrims to be encouraged, not as sinners to be condemned. Empower us to be righteous without being self-righteous. Strengthen us in our weakness, and help us to see all humanity as beloved and created in your image. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

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