A Parable of Jesus for The United Methodist Church Today
by Michael Coyner, United Methodist Bishop (retired)
As we move toward the special session of the General Conference of our UMC in 2019, many of us desire a “word from the Lord” to guide our church through these difficult times. As someone recently said to me, “I just wish Jesus would tell us what to do.” Perhaps we already have the answer that Jesus wants us to hear, in one of his many parables about seeds and growth, known as The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. Here it is in the NRSV version from Matthew chapter 13:
24 Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
The parable is about living with ambiguity. It is about patience. It is about trusting God for the ultimate judgement. It is about living through an uncomfortable present while we wait for a future result.
Perhaps Jesus wanted his disciples then, and perhaps Jesus wants us United Methodists now, to be patient and to trust that God is the One who ultimately judges and evaluates our efforts. What is the “right” answer to the issues of human sexuality being considered by our UMC? Perhaps only time will tell. Instead of trying to convince one another about a particular “answer” to the issues of human sexuality, Jesus would tell us to wait, to see the results, and to trust God to make that final determination.
On a personal level, I have been praying for years about this dilemma in our UMC, and I have been asking, “God, what do you want us to learn from this?” Again and again the answer I have received to my prayer has been, “Patience.” I don’t like that answer, and yet I sense its spiritual authenticity. I remember during my years as Bishop in the Dakotas Area a time when our Cabinet could not seem to find an answer for a particular pastoral appointment. One of my Superintendents observed with great spiritual insight, “If the answer is not apparent, then the answer is for us to wait.”
Personally it is difficult for me to hear the answer, “Be patient. Wait. Trust God. Give it time.” I tend to want answers now, and I sometimes have made wrong decisions just to get a decision made. I notice that the disciples of Jesus were like that. They wanted Jesus to bring in his Kingdom right away (and James and John even wanted places of honor in that Kingdom). The disciples were jealous of others outside their group who used the name of Jesus for good works (Jesus’ response was “Whoever is not against us is for us” Mark 9:40). Perhaps Judas betrayed Jesus to force his hand and try to cause him to defeat the Romans. It was not and is not easy to be patient and to live with ambiguity.
Many in our UMC today are eager for answers. There is an allure to quick answers, simple solutions, and what some have called “bumper sticker religion.” But this parable of Jesus reminds us that God is in charge, that the ways of the Kingdom of God are often subtle, and that the timing of God is beyond our control or understanding. Even mental health experts tell us that the ability to live with ambiguity is a sign of maturity, while seeking instant results is a sign of immaturity – especially when our desire for instant results is coupled with our desire to “win” the argument. This parable of Jesus could be a powerful message to our church, to our national political rhetoric, and to our interpersonal conflicts.
If this parable of Jesus is indeed a message to the General Conference, then some version of the One Church Plan may provide the best way for us to live with that kind of ambiguity. The One Church Plan allows for local freedom to make decisions about whether or not to conduct same-gender weddings. It allows each Annual Conference to set its own standards for ordination (within certain limits). It allows the “space” for the various existing divisions within our United Methodist Church to show whether or not they can bear fruit. Instead of pushing our UMC to make final decisions now about human sexuality, the One Church Plan is the one proposal which provides time and space for modifications in the future.
By contrast, the Traditional Plan wants the General Conference to declare a “winner” and to help the “losers” to exit – even if it is a so-called gracious exit. The Connectional Conference Plan wants the General Conference to declare an end to our debates by dividing the church into three separate and loosely-connected wings. Neither one allows for the time that we apparently need to continue our dialogues, to seek God’s wisdom, and to discover which approaches bear “fruit that endures” (John 15:16).
Is the One Church Plan perfect? Far from it. Does it need to be amended in certain ways to avoid the constitutional issues identified by the Judicial Council? Yes.
In many ways the One Church Plan returns us to 1980, when the General Conference considered various rules and regulations about human sexuality but voted, “The UMC has moved away from the prohibitions of specific acts, for such prohibitions are endless. We affirm our trust in the covenant community and the process by which we ordain ministers.” Unfortunately the General Conference of 1984 reversed that decision and began adding more and more rules about ordination, ceremonies, and sexuality in an attempt to control decision-making in local churches and on the Annual Conference level. The General Conference has passed additional rules and restrictions over the years since 1984 which have only added to the conflict and division in our UMC, and General Conference itself has become increasingly dysfunctional and “top-down” in its thinking.
The One Church Plan is the only plan coming to General Conference which allows for time and space for us to evaluate the fruitfulness of various approaches to the issues of human sexuality. Given that the huge majority (some studies have found it to be 80% or more) of United Methodist people do not believe we should divide the church over the issue of homosexuality, the One Church Plan offers the best way for us to continue living with ambiguity, watching for fruitful growth, and waiting for God’s ultimate judgement.
Although I don’t have a vote (not even in the Council of Bishops where retired bishops do not vote, and certainly not at General Conference where no bishops can vote), I support the One Church Plan or some similar model as our best way of living into this Parable from Jesus.