By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
(From a sermon preached at a meeting of the UMC’s Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops and Episcopacy Committee, January 30 ,2019.)
During the May 2016 United Methodist General Conference, held in Portland, Oregon, the Council of Bishops was authorized to create a Special Commission on the Way Forward for our denomination. They were to wrestle with our Book of Discipline’s prohibitions against ordained ministry and marriage for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters—whether to keep, strengthen or remove those prohibitions.
On a Sunday there in Portland’s “City of Roses,” I was invited to preach at a local church and then treated to a tour of the city’s amazing rose gardens. I learned on that spring day that the city had an excellent environment for cultivating roses.
I am known to be the ultimate “black thumb” of plant growers. Plants just look at me and die. I am the only person who can kill a snake plant; and as a child, I would pay my sister to water my part of the family garden plot. That said, I am fond of lovely flowers that someone else cultivates and grows.
As in plants, the art of cultivating relationships, even in navigating deep and painful church conversations, is an important art to me and should be to you as well.
In the 1400’s there was a bloody, protracted civil war known as “The War of the Roses.” Two competing, English families—the Yorks, bearing the symbol of a white rose, and the Lancasters, symbolized by a red rose—fought bitterly for control of the British crown for 32 years. It seems that our denomination’s at times bitter controversy over homosexuality and ministry and has gone on even longer.
Our jurisdictional College of Bishops, our international Council of Bishops, and leaders and parishioners throughout our global church have been discussing and pondering, praying and fasting, and yes, even fretting, as we approach our February 23-26 special, Called Session of General Conference.
I pray we will cultivate, in our decorum and discourse, some sturdy, beautiful roses in St. Louis, even in the cold of winter. Unfamiliar with the art of cultivating roses, I researched it using Google and found some important, transferable lessons for us:
Earth – balance of acid in the soil
Roses need a proper balance of acid and alkaline in the soil. There are many kinds of fertilizers designed specifically for roses; and it all comes down to achieving balance. Since not all soils are the same, the right fertilizer works to enhance what the soil is lacking, so that roses can thrive.
As we lead into this era of the life of the church, we need a balanced respect for all people and their hearts around human sexuality. Polarization happens when we stop listening and learning from the voices of all. Bishops are called to be bishops to all. So, we must strive to respect all and honor all.
We also seek the balance provided for us by the four values of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. What a gift this has been for us in navigating other struggles with acceptance or rejection of leaders based on their gender, race and marital status. The quadrilateral gives us grace to grow spiritually in our understanding of diversity.
Balance is not easy. It calls us to patiently listen and respect others and to humbly realize that we need both acid and alkaline to be the church that Christ wants us to be. We need everyone, even those who interpret scripture in different ways from us.
Irrigation – Water
Roses need water to thrive. Water is the most essential thing for life itself. It is why space explorers are so excited about finding water on Mars. One can live without food for a long time; but humans die quickly without water. When members of the General Board of Church and Society visited the southwest U.S. border last summer, the Border Patrol told us the first thing that people crossing the Rio Grande into Texas ask when they are picked up is, “Tienes agua?” “Have you water?”
Fundamental to the Christian faith is the water of our baptism. We all stand in need of the unmerited favor of God that washes away our sins and gives us new life in Christ. We not only find salvation through the cross of Christ; we also become one with our brothers and sisters: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We become one body with our many different gifts.
Our unity, no matter our stand on various social issues, is found in our baptism, our oneness in Christ, our shared salvation through the same Lord. Leading others effectively requires us to “keep the main thing, the main thing.” This is not easy, but it is by far the basic unifying factor for us to stress, teach and preach. The salvation of the world is our mandate.
Space – air
When landscapers came to plant Rose of Sharon bushes in the front of the parsonage we moved into last year, I noticed there was a great deal of space between the plants. It looked a bit sparse, I thought. Maybe a cost-saving decision to plant less. Was I ever wrong!
Rose of Sharon bushes grow and spread quickly. Had there been more plants placed closer together, we would have been pulling out some bushes before long. Roses need space to grow and thrive.
In the original call to the Way Forward Commission we bishops asked for as much mission, unity, space, contextualization as possible. Space, air or gentleness with differences is another key thing our bishops strive to lead into. We are well aware of the differences among us as a global church. Space gives a chance for the Spirit, the breath of God, to move among us. Prayer and the means of grace make space come alive.
How lovely was the letter of the early church after their “General Conference” in Jerusalem, read in Acts 15. The Jewish Christian leaders said to the Gentile Christians that they did not have to be circumcised and follow every letter of the Jewish law. That space allowed the church to thrive and grow in the Gentile context. This is true wisdom for us today as we strive to maintain unity.
Sun – fire
Obviously, a rose plant needs sun to thrive. The heat of the sun with its photosynthesis nourishment causes a plant to thrive.
In like manner, the church needs the fire of the Holy Spirit sending us into mission: mission among the poor, the neglected, the abused, the flooded, the burned up and burned out, the unemployed, the incarcerated, and the disenfranchised. Our leadership keeps the main thing the main thing as our faithful “why.” But it also calls the church into greater avenues of outreach, mercy and justice as the “how” and “what” of our faithful works.
My late father, who was a gardener, always said I was not part of his gene pool because of my lack of interest in plants. He used to work in a community garden in the retirement community where he lived. The wonderful thing about this garden was that everyone was in it for the mission of raising vegetables and those savory Maryland tomatoes.
Their methods varied, their backgrounds were diverse; but they would take care of each other’s plots when anyone was away for surgery or vacation or other reasons. Their common mission was the unifying thing.
Can’t the church of Jesus Christ find the grace to do mission together and work out our differences in other ways? Leadership can’t do enough of this kind of modeling.
May we cultivate roses in St. Louis: with a healthy balance of spiritual soil; with the living water of our unifying baptismal commitment to Christ; with the freeing air and space for grace that allows for various contexts to coexist; and with the consuming, cleansing fire of our passion for mission.