The First Disunited Disaffiliated Church of the AR-15

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Paula Reid (CNN Anchor): Many people argue that prayers aren’t cutting it.
US Representative Keith Self (R-TX 3): Well, those are people that don’t believe in an almighty God who has, who is absolutely in control of our lives.
May 6, 2023, 7:37 PM

“There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to solve.” – Miroslav Volf

There are over 30,000 verses in the Bible.  I’ve read all of them (at times) in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and English. So, finally, I’m ready to make a declaration. I’m sick of the killing and the violence. Whether it’s at outlet malls, schools, or in Canaan. I will no longer be an apologist for a violent, war-making God. Especially when the only response so many of my Christian brothers and sisters can offer to the epidemic of gun violence and subsequent child sacrifice it entails are “thoughts and prayers.” I also refuse to be told to be considered a Christian; I must believe in the evangelical version of an “almighty God” who answers all prayers in ways other than the common sense we could answer them for ourselves: make fewer guns available to fewer people. I am done. I refuse to believe in a God with so little respect for my life or the lives of others. I refuse to defend a God in public prayers, sermons, or as a pastor, who can only intervene to stop the slow-rolling massacre of humanity after the ineffectual prayers we mutter over the bullet-riddled bodies of children.

It is past time we stop killing each other. This level of violence is a spiritual, emotional, mental, and political problem. Each component plays a role in escalating the violence in outlet malls, elementary schools, grocery stores, and city streets. They cannot be separated from each other. Common sense gun reform must be undertaken to combat white nationalist extremist philosophies and ongoing mental health crises. Nothing can be done in isolation. Law enforcement, clergy, social workers, mental health professionals, and neighbors must work together to stop the murder on our streets.

We can stop this chaos, but it won’t be stopped with our thoughts and prayers, no matter how almighty we believe God to be. The almighty God of the Old Testament instructed Israelite men to kill the Canaanite men who inhabited the other lands they invaded. God’s chosen were directed to kidnap and rape non-Israelite virgins, co-opting into sexual slavery. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) The almighty God we expect to stop this wanton slaughter on our streets has a long history of violence. In 1st Chronicles 22, God uses pestilence (what we would call biological warfare) to kill 70,000 people in support of David’s efforts to carry out a census. Today, we’d call these actions war crimes.

Russian Orthodox priests use Biblical passages like these to justify the atrocities of the Russian army in Ukraine. This isn’t a theoretical argument about the primacy of scriptural authority or how middle-class conservatives and liberals in America regard the Bible. This is not about certain passages being inconvenient to our political sensibilities, woke, or hot button issues in America’s faux culture wars. People who take the Old Testament literally today are using it to justify genocide in Europe. Innocent Americans are dying while our “Rome” burns. I’m not sure this Almighty God is the God we need to pray to save our children from the weapons of war that find their way into the hands of those intent on mass murder (or stop Vladimir Putin). Are we, in fact, praying for more death? Given what we see week in and week out and the growing body count, it would seem so. Our prayers are falling on deaf divine ears.

I refuse to live or die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Jesus told his disciples not to carry weapons. I count myself as one of his followers, so I’ve resisted the urge to buy a Sig Sauer, M-4, or an AR.

I will no longer tie myself up in knots to explain away the violence inherent in the Old Testament to make the Almighty, who condones dashing babies’ heads against rocks, jive with a loving savior who tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I can’t do it anymore. This doesn’t mean I’m a snowflake liberal on scriptural authority. It means I’ve given up on making death and the Bible fit with a 21st-century ethic of life. It means I’m human. Call me names, but to quote Captain Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” All I know is the status quo isn’t working and the killing must end. Prayer won’t stop bullets. Prayer will comfort the grieving, but if that’s all we can do, we should admit it: we worship guns and violence, not a nonviolent Savior.

So change the signs as we drop the “United” from our name. Instead, why not add something that says, “Welcome to the First Disunited Disaffiliated Church of the AR-15.” Then, at least, we would be honest.

–Richard Bryant

And Just Who Is My Enemy?

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Do we see those who disagree with us, who hold differing theological positions, political agendas, or religious ideas, as “enemies”? Jesus wants us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. One of the preachers’ most challenging tasks is calling our congregations (and ourselves) to identify and love our neighbors. While scholars tell us that 1st-century definitions of who constituted a “neighbor” were narrower than our 21st-century Protestant concepts of the man or woman living next door, the idea is easy to grasp while hard to put into practice. We should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. However, our neighbors may be annoying, loud, of a different political party, and God forbid we may hold religious, racial, or social prejudices against them. Sometimes our neighbor, whom Jesus called us to love, might even be our enemy.

It’s one thing to have neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. It’s another thing altogether to have enemies. Who has enemies? Superheroes have enemies and nemeses. Regular people who work ordinary jobs with kitchen table issues and pay taxes to the IRS don’t have enemies, do we? Maybe we do and don’t realize it. Perhaps we do, and do we recognize them? That’s what scares me.

The Bible talks a great deal about enemies. The plural form, enemies, is found eight times in Matthew’s gospel and occurs 140 times in the New Testament. Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, seems to assume that we all have enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” That’s a beautiful verse. I’ve quoted it thousands of times. Yet now, I’m starting to think about it a bit more deeply. To someone who lives in Ukraine and may see the Russians as their enemy and feels persecuted because they’re being bombed daily, I know that verse possesses a veracity I’ve never felt. Sure, there are people I don’t like and those who don’t like me. Maybe I’ve been picked on a time or two but never to the level that would meet the persecution standard, as Jesus (or your average Ukrainian or Sudanese caught in a civil war) would know it. It seems trite to quote the verse. After all, I’m a white man living in the United States. What do I know about persecution or enemies? Nothing. Who or what is my enemy? The inevitability of prostate cancer.

In this time of global, national, and denominational polarization, we are conditioned to think of “the other” as our enemy. I believe considering anyone as our enemy currently is a little odd. For example, China may be the most significant geopolitical adversary to the United States, but we still shop at Wal-Mart. Our two economies are interwoven, and we cannot survive without the other. So even China isn’t our “enemy” in a traditional secular sense.

Jesus asks us to love our enemies, yet we haven’t found a better word to use for people we don’t get along with other than a word dripping with negativity and militaristic connotations. The word “enemy” carries lots of baggage. It’s a word steeped in the imagery of war, violence, death, and destruction. We are primed to kill, conquer, and destroy our enemies. The last thing we want to do is love our enemies. Yet, this is what Jesus calls us to do. He says, “Those emotions are probably inside each of us, somewhere, directed toward some people, somewhere. That’s an unhealthy way to live. Try love instead of hate. Look for the good in people.” Maybe he chooses “enemies” for a reason, because our self-described enemies are the most demanding people for us to love. And real Christ-like, authentic, cross-Centered love is hard. If you can find the Beatitude where Jesus said it would be easy, I’d love to see it.

–Richard Bryant

A Letter to Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (2023, April 1). In Wikipedia

(April 9th (Easter Sunday) marks the 78th anniversary of the death of noted theologian and martyr Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. To honor his memory, I have written him a letter, in the tradition of his famous work, “Letters and Papers from Prison.”)

Dear Dietrich,

May I call you Dietrich? I’ve known you for 27 years now. I’ve walked through your home in Berlin and stood at the place in Flossenburg Concentration Camp where you died. Your books line my shelves. I feel like I know you. It feels strange to call you Pastor Bonhoeffer. You are my friend, Dietrich. But at the same time, you are also a pastor to me.

In my darkest moments, I remember a letter you wrote from prison in which you said, “…my grim experiences often follow me into the night, and the only way I can shake them off is by reciting one hymn after another, and that when I wake up, it is generally with a sigh, rather than with a hymn of praise.”

You tell it like it is. We need to hear from a pastor who’s not afraid to speak the truth when he has good and bad days. I’ve tried to do the same. You taught me not to give up, even when you feel like you have one Good Friday after another.

The anniversary of your death coincides with our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection on Easter. Knowing you as reasonably as I think I do, I believe you’d say that to mention your death, in any way, at the same time we celebrate the resurrection, isn’t something you’d want us to do. It’s not about you. I can hear you telling us. It’s a story that begins and ends with our giving voice to the Good News and forming an ethical Christian community. We shouldn’t lose focus by talking about you. I do admire your humility. However, my brother in Christ, you were and are one of the most important martyrs of the Christian faith. This year, the anniversary of your death falls on the day that we proclaim our most powerful message. I, for one, couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t say “Thank You” for your words that continue to inspire my preaching and witness.

Dietrich, we are in a difficult and divided time. America, like your Germany, is on edge. It is not as you experienced in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, but the forces of fascism, totalitarianism, violence, and evil are surging in familiar ways. Antisemitism is on the rise. School shootings are becoming a regular part of American life. I turn to your writings on ethics and the Sermon on the Mount to expound on Jesus’ teachings and help others understand that the dominant culture of despair and hopelessness is not the kingdom of God. Because as you said, “we only know who we are in the light of God.” We must keep the light shining, even from places like Flossenburg, Nashville, Uvalde, and Sandy Hook.

About a year before you died, you wrote, “You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to… What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, for us today.”

Then you continued, ““We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…

“And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?” “Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?”

My life changed forever when I read those words. You said something I’d been thinking about and could not describe. Bonhoeffer could not understand how people could continue to call themselves Christian and confess Orthodox beliefs, observe its moral codes, and follow the accepted behaviors and practices of the Church while simultaneously committing unspeakable horrors. We saw the same thing in the American south with racism and lynching. Now we are witnessing Christian nationalism on the rise throughout our country, which advocates strict doctrines while easily “othering” those in society they deem as unworthy of God’s love.

Perhaps, you proposed, religion was the problem with Christianity. Was it possible, you asked, to practice Christianity if it was divorced from Jesus’ command to love our neighbors if religion got in the way?

You never got a chance to answer the question. One week after you died, the camp was liberated.

Finding the answers, your answers, it’s up to us.

I, for one, am ready to keep trying and searching.

You stay safe, my friend.

Peace, my brother,


Ending Lent Like Jesus

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Lent isn’t quite over. For some of us, it feels like Ash Wednesday was only yesterday. Yet, for others, Lent may seem like the most protracted liturgical slog in history. We want it to be over. When will Holy Week be here? I’m calling for patience. A Holy Lent can still be found, even in these waning days. If we stop, take stock, find the energy for one more deep breath, and look around, we might realize how far we’ve come and the potential for changing our lives in Holy Week. We cannot take these last few days of Lent for granted. How do we make the most of the time remaining? Instead of practicing further acts of self-denial, we can make an act of pilgrimage. We can resolve to live more like Jesus. We can follow in Jesus’ footsteps as we round the dusty corners toward the Mount of Olives and prepare for Lent’s conclusion. We can be more like Jesus.

  1. Find and confront your local Pharisees. Do your best to challenge the religious status quo. Start using parables and rabbinic wisdom like John Wick wields Japanese jujitsu to knock down the religiously inspired hypocrisy, bigotry, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
  2. Spend time with sinners. Seek them out wherever you can find them. Share the expansive love of God with people the church would prefer to exclude.
  3. Bring God outside the Temple (Church). Whether you’re in the checkout line, the gas station, on a walk, or anywhere other than the church: bring God, a smile, and a willingness to listen to others with you. That’s what Jesus did.
  4. Have your character and conduct attacked by other religious people. Jesus was always on someone’s poop roster.
  5. Know the value of a small group, Christian community, friendship, and fellowship. When the chips are down, those people are going to be the ones who pull you through.

–Richard Bryant

Thank God For Monday

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Yesterday was a long day. Most Sundays are demanding. This one was a humdinger. In addition to the standard stuff and nearly 70 in worship (yes, we keep going up each week), we had one of those meetings in the afternoon. You know the kind of meeting I’m discussing: a disaffiliation meeting. Following our annual conference procedures, our church council hosted a question-and-answer session. Well over fifty were in attendance between those in person and on Zoom. The purpose of the meeting was for the council to take the congregation’s temperature on disaffiliation. If the council decides there is enough interest, they will pull the trigger (so to speak), and we will go forward with the process. If not, the status quo will hold.

Two weeks prior, the church council began to collect questions from the congregation about the disaffiliation process. They placed a heavy wooden box in the narthex and set up a specific email address to receive questions. We weren’t overwhelmed with questions. However, there were plenty of good queries to occupy the council, and all gathered for the planned two hours.

The chair of the council (and I) sent the questions out to the entire church, saying these were the questions we’d received and would attempt to answer at Sunday’s meeting. Early Sunday morning, the council chair received an additional e-mail; a new story was floating that I, the pastor, had written all the questions to shape the debate. Oh Lord, these people watch too much of one television network whose name I will not say. Are we not able to check the conspiracy theories at the door? For the record, the people who wrote the questions self-identified in the meeting, and I made it clear I was used to having a target on my back (as pastors often have) but questioning my integrity made me mad as hell—my day got worse from there.

Disaffiliation is my kryptonite. The closer I come to it, the weaker I become. I’ll come right out and say it. It’s a soul-destroying (also a local church, friendship, and family destroying) process that steadily erodes my faith, my faith in humanity, the church, and other people from the inside out. That’s not pessimism; that’s reality. I didn’t attend seminary to become a paid shill for the United Methodist Church. I wanted to become a pastor, preacher, and poet of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I love his biases and opinions. I work daily for them to become wholly and entirely mine. If I seem one-sided for any position, it is for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I have a personal agenda. It is for love, grace, and forgiveness. I push the Beatitudes, day in and day out. I have this phrase I like to ask people on Sunday morning, “How would this look through Jesus’ eyes?”

How would our disaffiliation process and the quest for self-righteous division look through Jesus’ eyes? Frustrating. Of course, I’m biased. I can’t think the guy who said the Beatitudes would believe that any of this is a good idea. I’d bet everything, while loving us and forgiving us, he wants us to do much better in the loving our neighbor department. Again, I’m biased-for Jesus. What do I know?

I’ve got to get away from disaffiliation. The problem is that there’s nowhere to hide. Like the COVID pandemic that preceded it, this virus seems to be everywhere. God help us all.

–Richard Bryant

The Devil Next Door (Matthew 4:1-11)

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Every year, the first Sunday of Lent centers on one story: the temptation of Jesus, by the devil, over forty days in the desert immediately following his baptism. Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that retell this head-to-head story. Mark and John don’t include it at all. For some reason, they left it on the cutting room floor. Of the two versions, my favorite is Matthew’s.  Matthew gives us greater detail, dialogue, and imagery. I have always had an affinity for the Matthew passage. When I was in seminary, I was assigned this text. But instead of preaching it from the traditional perspective, the way most churches and preachers do it every year, I was given the more challenging task of retelling the story from the devil’s perspective. How would this story look and sound if you told it from the other character’s eyes? That exercise made me a better preacher and is one reason I look forward to the first Sunday of Lent every year.

The main thing I learned about the devil (specifically Matthew’s perspective on the devil) in preparing that original sermon was this: if the devil was going to tempt Jesus or us, he wasn’t going to be anything like the caricatures of evil or Satan we’ve become accustomed to seeing; images that were invented in the Middle Ages and became popular in renaissance art. You know the ones I’m talking about, the pointed horns, the red leathery skin, the pitchfork, the wispy tail. Whoever heard of a red devil anyway? This was back in the dark ages, before Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the greatest minds in history, discovered all devils were blue.

To be genuinely tempting, the devil would need to be quite ordinary, a little charming, unassuming, friendly, a little witty, someone you’d like to go to dinner with, maybe that neighbor with the big TV who’ll invite you over to watch the NCAA tournament, someone with whom you can relax. That’s who the devil is. The devil is cool, calm, and collected. You never see the devil coming, and when the devil asks you to make a moral choice or by the time temptation is placed before you, it doesn’t seem like temptation. It will seem like the right, normal, even natural thing to do. After all, this is your friend, that guy, your buddy; why would your regular next-door neighbor friend with all the same interests, kids in the same school, and a nice two-car garage lead you astray? The devil couldn’t look like one of us, could he? Could the devil be a mirror image of us? The devil is a narcissist whose greatest desire is to be loved and adored, but ultimately, he wants to fit in: seem typical, like us, and even ordinary. The devil seeks to seem normal; blending in and appearing average is his grand goal.  Who is afraid of the average? Average flies under the radar. The average is undetected. This is what makes the devil so diabolical. The devil is in the details.

What are the details of Jesus’ temptations?  You just heard them: turn stones into bread, throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship me to gain all the power in the world. The specifics may be different, but the temptations are essentially the same: when it comes down to it, the only person you can depend on is yourself. You can’t rely on God, others, your faith, or anything other than yourself.

Remember what I said about the devil fitting in and looking like us, even being the mirror image of ourselves? We are our own worst enemies. Ladies and gentlemen, we have met the enemy, which is us. Each of these three temptations is the same. You don’t need God.  You only need you. When you get to the heart of the matter, is that not the essence of every temptation we face as human beings? We can do it ourselves. Why trust God? Why listen to God? Why have faith in anything beyond ourselves? Why not take matters into our hands? After all, we have no idea what the future may hold, and we’re hungry now! The scriptures say the angels will catch us now, put God to the test now! We want to control our destiny now! Give into the devil’s offers of power and control now! Jesus can fill his stomach.

Jesus knows the scriptures say what they say. He knows he can rule the world.  But here’s the dirty little secret about Christianity: self-reliance may be the American way, but it’s not the Christian way. The secret to passing these temptations, Jesus teaches us, is that even though we can, and doesn’t mean that we should. Even though we can turn stone into bread, test God’s promises in scripture, or take the devil up on his offer to run our affairs, it doesn’t mean we should. Even though we can do many things, it doesn’t mean we should.

That’s the greatest trick the devil is always trying to pull; he makes what you think you ought to do sound reasonable, regular, logical, and the right thing to do. But, of course, you’re hungry, so why not feed yourself? He even cherry-picks scripture to make his point. Of course, the Bible says God will send his angels; it’s right there in the Bible, so why not put God to the test and show the world that the Bible is the true word of God. Throw yourself from the temple, and his angels will lift you; it will testify to the veracity of God’s word. Of course, you have the right to rule the world; you’re Jesus Christ; what could be wrong with that, worship me, and you’d still be in charge and calling the shots. He makes it all sound normal, natural, logical, and even scripturally sound.  That’s how you know you’re being tempted when the wrong thing feels like the righteous, holy, Biblical, and normal thing to do.

The real temptations aren’t drinking, gambling, or looking at porn online. No, the essence of temptation has always been buying into the devil’s big lie that we can do everything ourselves; we don’t need God (or each other) in our lives.  Have we bought into that lie? Do we believe the devil is telling the truth? Do we believe his lies that we can depend on our self-sufficiency? I can’t answer that question for us (or you). Only you know whom you’re listening to and whom you believe. Do you trust the man from Nazareth or this person asking you to make what sounds like a perfectly reasonable choice but compromises your morality on every possible level?

The devil wants us to sing a variation of his favorite song: “My Way/Your Way.”

–Richard Bryant

Another Mass Shooting, Another Valentines Day

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The only way I know not to become the victim of a mass shooting is not to become part of the masses. Even before Columbine (my last year of seminary), I’d never been comfortable in crowds. Over the years, the feeling has grown into an outright fear of being surrounded by large groups of people. I don’t know if psychiatrists have a “scale” for agoraphobics, as physical therapists ask their patients to measure their pain levels. If they do, I’d say, given the events of recent years, I’m a solid six trending toward a seven. A ten would never want to leave the parsonage and preach from behind a computer screen or bulletproof glass. It’s a scary time to be alive, and one can’t help but feel that life is a lottery. One day, we will be somewhere, and the bullets will start flying. Will a simple trip to the bank or grocery store be the day I don’t come home? I will either be the statistic or the person on the news calling for gun reform to which no one in Washington will listen. That’s how I feel.

The paralysis caused by gun violence, the easy access to guns, and the fear of the unknown cannot stop us from living our lives. Life must go on. But with an average of two mass shootings a day since the beginning of the year, it is getting harder to go outside, walk into a crowd, drive down the road, be passed by an angry driver on a double yellow line, and wonder: is this person mad enough to shoot me for going “to slow,” they were reckless enough to kill me with their car nearly? I guess I’m saying this: we’ve moved out of the theoretical realm. At a moment’s notice, any of us could be shot by an unstable person with a gun over nothing. These things happen so often, with daily regularity, and everywhere. It is only a matter of time before everyone in America will know someone who was in a massacre or is a victim of mass gun violence. One day soon, mass shootings may be so common they won’t even make the news.

I do not want to live in a world where that level of brutality touches everyone. Yet, here we are. What might we do?

I want “run, hide, and fight” to be something historians; hundreds of years from now, cannot believe our society imposed upon its children.

We must:

Stop the killing. In the name of Jesus Christ, who came to bring peace, that all may live, stop the killing.

Put the guns down. In the name of Jesus Christ, who came that no more might die, put the guns down.

Beat our swords into plowshares. In the name of Jesus Christ, who came that we might love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Beat our swords into plowshares.

Become the answer to our own prayers. In the name of Jesus Christ, become the change we want to see occur in our communities.

Live despite anything and everything. In the name of Jesus Christ, say no to the powers of death.

We shall not make for ourselves idols in the form of anything. In the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: stop offering worship and human sacrifice to the false idol of the Second Amendment.

–Richard Bryant

Our Mission: Set the Mood, Create the Conditions for Discipleship

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The mission of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Drawn from Jesus’ biblical injunction before his ascension in Matthew 28, what could be wrong with our mission statement? Here’s my question: do we make disciples? Isn’t God the one who makes disciples? We cannot make a disciple any more than the Large Hadron Collider can fully recreate the conditions of the early universe. The God particle is reproducible for only the tiniest fraction of a second, if at all. Like the physicists at CERN who seek to create the conditions present in the early universe just before the Big Bang, we in the United Methodist Church can only make the conditions where discipleship might occur.

We do not make disciples. God is in the disciple-making business. We are assistants, facilitators, and helpers in the process. To assume the primary role (I’ll deal with the scriptural mandate in a moment) gives us far more power and authority than we were ever intended to have, hold, or wield as members of the kingdom of God. We do not decide who gets to be a disciple, who gets in, who stays on the fringe, and who is eligible to follow Christ. Jesus made that decision. To hint that we have a lead role in that process is to understand why United Methodism is in the state we are in today. We’ve thought we’re the ones making disciples all this time. Nope, it’s not us. We help. More often than not, we’ve spent the better part of the past fifty years hindering the process. Our job is to help set the right conditions for discipleship to occur, like setting the mood on Valentine’s Day. We buy the roses, a thoughtful card, and some chocolate and make reservations at a nice restaurant. It’s God, however, who seals the deal. United Methodists do not make disciples. God makes disciples.

Well, what about Matthew 28? Didn’t Jesus commission the disciples after the resurrection, in his own words, “to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit”? Yes, that’s what the Bible says. Now, I’m going to say the quiet part out loud. Jesus did say those words, I don’t believe this nor do most mainstream New Testament scholars. They, like I, hold that the man we’ve come to call Matthew, writing fifty to sixty years after Jesus’ death, put those words into Jesus’ mouth. In short, the event did not occur. Jesus didn’t give these instructions while standing on a mountain after his death. It’s an important Biblical story we should reckon with because it has led to well-meaning church planting but also centuries of colonialism and slavery. However, we shouldn’t base our mission statement on a post-resurrection apocalyptic myth.

Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community lived under an interim apocalyptic ethic. They thought Jesus was coming back any day, especially after the Temple’s destruction and the leveling of Jerusalem. For the writer of the second gospel to update Mark’s unfinished ending with such a dramatic conclusion and clear instructions would provide hope to his people until the end finally came. We’re still waiting on that last verse to come true, “the end of the age”. Matthew missed it by a good two thousand years. He also misunderstood how discipleship worked and put words Jesus never said into a scene that never existed in an attempt to give hope to beaten and forlorn people. United Methodists have spent the past fifty years trying to do something we should have been partnering with God to accomplish instead of trying to do ourselves and look where we are.

Here’s an idea: change our mission statement. Even if the church doesn’t change it, change it for yourself. Let’s go back to letting God make disciples. We’ll create the conditions for healthy disciple-making. We don’t need to justify our disciple-making based on Matthew’s resurrection appearance. We’ve got plenty of “come and see” call stories down by the Sea of Galilee that work just fine. Fish for people, take nothing, have conversations, and build relationships. Create the conditions for good relationships and let God do the rest. Assuming the primary responsibility for disciple-making undercuts the very heart of the Wesleyan understanding of Grace. Do we even realize what we’re saying? No, we don’t. It’s time to abandon Matthew’s contradictory proclamations. Let’s get out of the way and let God do the work of discipleship-making.

–Richard Bryant

You Have Heard It Said – A Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

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When no one can read (and by that, I mean that most people are functionally illiterate), the phrase “you have heard it said” takes on a whole new meaning. People had probably heard a lot about what the scriptures said and didn’t say when it came to the law. Some of it, no doubt, was made up. Other parts were interpreted to fit the respective agendas of whoever interpreted the scripture. If the rabbis or teachers looked and sounded convincing, the crowds were liable to believe anything they heard. People, then as they are now, were susceptible to misinformation, disinformation, and believing in anything that sounded vaguely religious, as long as it had a few “thees” and “thous” sprinkled in.

Then comes this upstart young Rabbi out of Galilee, preaching up a storm, calling into question how everyone has heard, understood, and interpreted everything that came before him. He’s setting up a new paradigm for how people in his faith tradition should understand the law, the commandments, and the rules that have guided their people for over a thousand years. Because, as Jesus points out, and later on down the road, one of his most important followers would emphasize even further, a man named Paul, the law (and those whose job it was to make sure people followed it) had become a burden to ordinary people. Instead of freeing them for the worship of God and love of neighbor, they did the exact opposite. Following the law became their God. The law became more important than the God who gave it to them. That’s a problem. So the Sermon on the Mount is about one big idea, how do you reconcile the law (what you find in the Old Testament (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) with Jesus’ views of love, community, and wholeness? In other words, how do we walk and chew gum at the same time?

The first thing we need to do is recognize that Jesus is on a tear here. He’s getting wound up; he will use metaphors, humor, and vivid illustrations. We see Jesus teaching at his Rabbinic finest. He’s going to make some outlandish examples that are not meant to be taken literally to illustrate these points: you cannot be literalists when it comes to the law, no one can live up to every fine point of the law, it’s impossible to do, even those who claim they can do so. We are all lawbreakers. God is the only law keeper. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and Sadducees taught that every law mattered to God and carried the same weight, no matter how trivial that law seemed. In the 18th and 19th chapters of the Book of Leviticus, God prohibits homosexuality, shellfish, and mixed fibers. God draws no distinction between homosexuality, enjoying shrimp, or wearing polyester. God doesn’t do 1st, second, or third-degree commandments. (Remember, there are 613 total commandments in the Old Testament.) In the eyes of those who compiled Leviticus, one sin is as bad as the next. None of us have a high horse to rest upon. Jesus is about to make these examples. Have you ever heard of a church splitting over seafood? It’s in the Bible, right there beside the verses about homosexuality. But we like our shrimp and scallops, and we’re comfortable with double standards, no matter how small. I think this is Jesus’ question this morning. How can we be people of faith and integrity?

He starts each illustration with these words, “You have heard it said.”  He knows what gets around. He knows what people prioritize as major laws and minor laws. He knows a great deal of finger-pointing and “at least I’m not doing that, Lord” going on in the crowd. Jesus wants to level the playing field. He starts with a big one from the ten commandments: murder. We can all agree that murder is wrong. You can see their heads nodding in the crowd. Oh yeah, murder is horrible; we would never murder anyone for any reason at all. Then he comes around and hits them with the one-two punch. Well, do you know what’s as bad as murder? According to the law, if you insult and call them a fool, “You will be liable to the hell of fire.” Wow! That went from zero to a hundred in an instant. Then, like the train Kenny Rogers is traveling on with the Gambler, the train got deadly quiet. Wait one minute, Jesus; we’ve all called someone a fool. Driving home from work, down at the docks unloading fish, in an argument with a family or friend person, you’re telling me the punishment for that is hellfire damnation? Maybe I need to rethink my position in this law business because it looks like I’m going to hell from where I’m standing.  Jesus says it’s a certainty.

A moment ago, I was good at casting judgment on murderers, but now, just being judgmental and calling someone a fool has landed me in Hell. Jesus has made his first point. If you’re going to enforce all of them and all of them equally, the law, that is, we’re all going to end up in Hell.  So maybe we better be careful when we start throwing around terms like “God’s law says” because we might be condemning ourselves. He goes on to make the same argument about debts, but it’s the next one where he casts the net wide and where it ought to make some of us, including me, uncomfortable.

Jesus goes back to the ten commandments. “You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery.” Again, I think we’re all on the same page that adultery is wrong.  He defines lusting in your heart as adultery.  Remember when Jimmy Carter talked about this one? Okay, we can accept that it’s probably not moral, but Jesus equates just thinking about another person in the wrong as bad as adultery itself. Then he takes it one step further. “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” He’s got me there. I’m done, for I’ve committed adultery. I’m a ten commandment violator. Do you want my ordination credentials, or should I mail them in after the service? I’m betting we’ve got some other adultery committers, according to Jesus’ definition, here this morning as well. That’s one of the big ones, one of THE 10 commandments.  According to Jesus, I’m living in a state of constant adultery. I’ve no plans to divorce Mary, and she tells me I’m stuck with her.

Is that what Jesus is saying? Does he deny the reality of divorce and broken marriages? Or is he saying no one can live up to the full measure of everything written in this book, and if you tried, it would result in total paralysis? And if you did, you’d be hypocritical by trying to call out the sins of others because you are breaking the ten commandments and consigning yourself to Hell just by getting out of bed in the morning! We’re all breaking the ten commandments in one way or another. So how can we get on our religious high horses and start condemning others for doing the same? This is what Jesus is saying. When you think you’re following God’s word and law, you realize you’re not and will never be able to.

Maybe, Jesus is saying we ought to find a better way to relate to the law rather than forcing (or ignoring that we are) ourselves to live as hypocrites and judge each other when not one of us can measure up to the rules outlined in the Old Testament. Do we want to pretend to be holy hypocrites or loving neighbors?  This is the contrast Jesus is trying to make. How do we keep the law from becoming a burden, a means of exclusion, that if we had any integrity at all, we would kick all of us out of the church, shut ourselves down, because none of us are sacred enough to be members of the church if we say, “its God’s word all or nothing.” We’ve all broken God’s word; we will keep breaking God’s word, and Jesus says you don’t have to be held prisoners by the “You’ve heard it said to those of ancient times” way of life.

Jesus is saying remember what I told you a few verses ago, not in ancient times, but right now: blessed are those whom the law would seek to mow over, condemn, judge, forget, deny, exclude, and perpetually ignore. Those are the people I’m trying to reach, the very fools for Christ, those cut off by divorce, broken by grief, death, and loss, and who live in fear for their lives. 

How do we live between these two guardrails? Jesus’ beatitudes and the excesses of the law, excesses that can cripple the spiritual life of believers if we let them. The answer, key, or clue, if you like, can be found in the last couple of verses. Jesus is trying to point us in the right direction to help us keep it on the road. Living this way, swearing by the law, and claiming falsely (like you could live by everything in the Old Testament) is just going to age you prematurely, turn your black hair white, or in my case, cause it to fall out.

The stress isn’t worth it; he’s ultimately saying.  He does, however, add this, if you want to be right with God and your neighbor, just let your yes be yes, and your no mean no. When you combine that with loving your neighbor as you love yourself, everything else will fall into place. You will gain a sense of perspective that’s not possible if you’re trying to nitpick each other on who’s following every commandment in the Old Testament or realizing you’ll never measure up to each point in the law. Jesus wants us to see the bigger picture, his perspective, and that we’re all doomed without his grace. We need him, not the law, and certainly less of our interpretations of Old Testament laws written for illiterate people living in Israel over 2000 years ago.

If we can’t be happy with him, we won’t ever be satisfied, and there isn’t anything I can do about that.

–Richard Bryant

A Better Way To Pray Part 3

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This is the third in a series of posts on prayer. In the previous two articles, I’ve explored my challenges with traditional models of prayer (in light of my father’s cancer diagnosis, the rising tide of global violence and war, and illnesses within my community and congregation) and my search for a “better way to pray.” Here, I want to explore the transactional nature of prayer practiced in most congregations and how addressing this long-ingrained perspective might be a first step toward a more authentic prayer life. These thoughts are intensely personal and do not reflect the views of the United Methodist Church or any congregation of the United Methodist Church. This is me, Richard, reflecting on God, prayer, and our need to be heard when we’re hurting, seen when we’re celebrating, comforted when we’re crying, and companionship when we’re alone.

When we pray, are we talking to a person? I’m not thinking about Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Instead, I’m thinking about God. We use the language of “divine personhood” when we delve deep into the weeds of Trinitarian theology. Yet, should we refer to God as a person in the same way you and I are people? Let’s take the word “person” off the table. It’s become more challenging for me to envision God as a person. It’s much easier for me to talk about God as a concept, idea, or something more extensive than the universe itself, the idea of God as a person no longer rings true. I also see a difference between “personal Gods” and the notion of “God as a person.” 

Humanity, Homo sapiens, has always wanted something to worship. However, this doesn’t mean God is a person. We do not have to borrow the language of psychology or philosophy to explain Trinitarian theology. Here we proceed cautiously; as Wittgenstein taught us, words matter.

Persons are limited beings, physically and intellectually speaking. God must be more than the total of our idea of all the traits of personhood. God must be more than we can imagine. To call God a person is to identify God as something less than God, an imitation deity, the “I can’t believe it’s Not God, God.” I do not believe in this traditional notion of a personal God any longer. Why? A personal God is not a real God. A personal God is a toy. A personal God is a reflection of us, our personhood, our self-interests, our limitations, our priorities, and our fears. A personal God is an idol. A personal God is a wholly owned subsidiary of the person you see staring back at you in the mirror. God is not a person. God is God. God belongs to no one. God may lay claim to our lives but we do not own God.

If God is not a person (in the traditional sense), then to whom are we praying? If God is not a person, how do we have a personal relationship (not my phrase, one I inherited from generations of church-going evangelicals who came before me) with an entity that is not a person but something that exists outside the idea of personhood? How do I ask something of, request, and insinuate that I need a favor from a non-personal cosmic entity operating on a scale grander than the number of stars visible to the naked eye? Maybe I don’t.

Is prayer just another transaction, albeit a spiritual one? Am I placing a call, sending an email, hoping that the person on the other end of the line receives the call or reads my message and decides to respond to my request? Yes, and yes. That’s how we approach prayer. In most of our congregations, this is how we do it. Think about the questions I asked last week concerning the Holocaust. Did the “person” on the other end of the line take the phone off the hook or refuse to answer their email for over ten years while 6 million people died? Persons said thousands of prayers in the gas chambers. Who was listening? What happened to those transactions? How can we even talk about the transactional nature of prayer when the answers (to those in particular) seem so haphazard and random? If God is a person choosing whom to listen to and whom to ignore, prayer certainly appears to be a gamble. How much time do we spend gambling, each week, in worship? If God is a person, we must either pray for everything or nothing. Suppose you intensely subscribe to the “God is personal” model. In that case, God appears to pick and choose who to listen to, and frankly, that’s depressing as hell. I’m starting to take that on-again-off-again approach to being a divinity, personally. I didn’t ask to be created but I sure would like to be listened to. I think the transactions I seek are worthy of God’s attention. What must I do to transact God’s blessings for my father’s health? I’d like more than word salad about free will, God’s plans, and how we don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.

What if prayer is not a transaction, a quid pro quo? What if prayer is not a “you say a name, hope God is listening, is in a good mood, and you’re in the spiritual black, so something positive might go your way kind of operation? What if prayer is a spiritual discipline, a holy habit, and a sacred conversation between persons on the faith journey? Now that might be a new way to pray. What if, instead of waiting on answers from God, we became the answers to our own prayers?

What if, in a spirit of vulnerability, we gathered to share our deepest concerns and our greatest joys with each other? What if we became comfortable with sitting in silence with one another? What if, in humility, we could express our fears and hear other members of the body of Christ? Would this not be a new way to pray? What if we read the words of those walked the journey before us, poets and mystics, the psalmist, and wisdom teachers? In listening to each other, are we not creating sacred personhood for those who dare to come to a holy place to know that their prayers are heard with a vital, emphatic, and loud AMEN?

–Richard Bryant