First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen
“Finding the Time”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
March 3, 2019
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.
There was a grand bargain in the Presbyterian Church in the 1920s. A rift was growing between traditionalist and modernist; there was a great tension between progressives and conservatives; a growing distance between the churches that were rural and the churches of the burgeoning cities. Into the rift came a gentleman’s agreement.
The agreement or bargain was this: the progressives would be given the denominational leadership if the conservatives would not be harassed in the congregations. And so for more than 50 years the denomination advocated for and developed policies that were very liberal, but the individual congregations were not forced to accept them or adopt them.
This agreement was nearly broken when it came to the ordination of women, but it survived. It was tested and strained with the Vietnam War, with Roe v Wade, the peace movement, and the recognition of Palestine. The agreement, though, was broken in the 1980s when the progressive members of the denomination put forward a plan to include homosexual clergy. The agreement was broken because in order to do this the congregations and presbyteries would need to reject the tradition of biblical authority.
The breaking of this agreement was wildly miscalculated. Denominational leaders had no idea how conservative the majority of the churches were. And this miscalculation led to 25 years of persistent debate, rancor, splits, departures. The break was profound. After much blood sweat and tears we, as a denomination, have struck a new bargain. This time the bargain is not a gentleman’s agreement or a backroom deal; this time it was a public statement and a policy all had a chance to understand and offer consent of dissent.
The new agreement is this: we all follow our conscience. Congregations and pastors can ordain or not ordain, marry or not marry folks who are gay and lesbian. The power of this deal is not only a validation of our historic principle of mutual forbearance, it also has the leverage of money. If I follow my conscience and in so doing I am no longer seen as your pastor, you don’t have to pay me anymore. The same goes for congregations: pastors can leave. This was always the case but now there are no disciplinary hearing, defrocking, or otherwise forming of commissions.
Perfect? No. Better? Oh, yes. The better is that it affords us time to live together unto the kingdom of God.
Reading the paper this week, I felt like Yogi Berra. It was déjà vu all over again. The United Methodists voted to uphold the tradition and the authority of scripture this week. They voted the same way we did 25 years ago.
In essence, they rejected the bargain we just gained. This vote was greeted with tears and heartbreak for the progressives; this vote was greeted with relief by the conservatives. The tears will not last, nor will the relief. This vote will neither resolve nor satisfy the need to be the church. The lack of power is not because the vote went one way or the other; the lack of resolution is not because the winning side does not agree with me.
The lack of resolution is this: the vote will lead to decades of debate and challenge. Just lived it; can tell you all about. I can say with all certainty it will take time for the Methodists to discover that the power of the gospel is not a vote. The power of God is when the meek are glorified, the humble are exalted, the forsaken accepted, the outcast gathered, and the forgotten remembered. No vote does that.
I offer this perspective today not because I lived through 25 years of votes; I don’t offer this truth because the Presbyterian Church has found a way that I admire and have found possessing of freedom. My certainty is not in having survived. My confidence is that I know the outcome; I know the future so to speak, because it is the truth that lives between our two readings today.
Today we read the story of the transfiguration, as today is Transfiguration Sunday. And we read the traditional Palm Sunday passage. What connects them is glory. On Mt. Tabor Jesus is seen in glory; riding into Jerusalem Jesus is greeted with the glory of a king. Glory connects these two, but it also separates them. For the glory of the transfiguration is that that the meek will be exalted, the humble will be given glory; the glory of Palm Sunday is a fading, a fleeting moment of political consequence.
It’s not hard to see the glory in the transfiguration as positive. Moses and Elijah show up. That’s good. This is the law and prophets, the great span of tradition become realized in the life of Jesus. He is the Son of God. That’s a lot of glory.
In the Palms we can see the glory, but it may be hard to see the tragedy. Palm Sunday is not a moment of tragedy in our liturgy and tradition. This is the unofficial children’s Sunday. There is supposed to be pan cakes and fun and I love Palm Sunday. Yet, a part of me always has to keep the reading, keep the actual events a bit quiet.
Jesus rides in to Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey; the people strew palms and cloaks and shout hosanna. This is the joy of the palms, children laughing, and triumphant hosannas sung. What you don’t hear is the hard edge of political reality. On Palm Sunday you won’t hear how Jesus entering Jerusalem was a fait accompli; this was a moment of tragedy, not victory. You won’t hear the tragedy, you will hear Faure’s The Palms. It will be read as a fulfillment of scripture, not the beginning of political violence and machinations unleashed.
On Palm Sunday I can’t speak of how the crowd that shouts hosanna will shout crucify him in five days’ time; I need to say, “bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all”; I can’t dwell on how Jesus came into the temple and it was empty and he looked around and went back to the poor people. No voices breaking the silence; no miracles and healings.
On Palm Sunday you talk about the victory. You don’t mention the disciples that walk with Jesus will flee or Peter who has just proclaimed him Lord and messiah will claim he doesn’t know Jesus in four days. On Palm Sunday you leap past the pending violence and usher in the glory of the soon to be Easter morning.
But today is not Palm Sunday.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday.
So, today I can tell you that the political forces unleashed by the vote of the Methodists will not be resolved any time soon. They will need to live through and experience the limits of what a vote can do. They will need to fall apart and tear each other apart because that is the nature of politics.
Today I can tell you that the political consequence unleashed on Palm Sunday would lead to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem forty years later. Today I can say it took our denomination almost three decades to find peace. And even then, it is shaky.
And this sounds dismal and terrible. And it is. But it’s not the conclusion of the gospel. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he rode in as the humble king, the prophet come to the City of God, the people’s priest who healed them and forgave them. It was a great moment and beautiful; but the entry opened the door to suffering. Jesus told them this would happen three times. It wasn’t a surprise to him.
This is why the suffering of the Methodists is not a surprise to me. They opened the door. They rode the donkey so to speak. Having walked through the door, all I can say is, it is a rough ride. It’s hard. But then it gets better.
The better is the glory of the transfiguration. Jesus is not the expectation of the religious authority, those who guard tradition. He upended their expectations. It would take a long time before his life would make sense, before his death would bring freedom. In the transfiguration story we see the other side, what makes the rough ride worth it. The transfiguration is the victory we know going into the battle. The lowly will be exalted; the humble will be lifted up and glorified.
I stumbled onto something this week that really made me smile. It is actually terrible, but it is inspiring when I think of how far we have come. The book of order has three parts. Government, Discipline, and Worship. I am doing some research right now on the worship part. I was looking for when the definition of worship changed. It changed in the 1960s. But listen to our policy, our polity of almost 200 years. Listen to how we defined entering worship in the Book of Order in 1951.
When the time appointed for public worship is come, let the people enter the church, and take their seats in a decent, grave, and reverent manner. In time of public worship, let all the people attend with gravity and reverence; forbearing to read anything, except what the minister is then reading or citing; abstaining from all whisperings; from salutations of persons present, or coming in; and from gazing about, sleeping, smiling, and all other indecent behavior. Book of Order Directory for Worship Chapter Two 1951.
For nearly 200 years this was the definition of decorum for worship in the Presbyterian Church. No gazing about, sleeping, smiling. Rough.
This changed in the 1960s. Gone was the admonition. In its place came a call for the movement of the Holy Spirit and adoration of God for “steadfast love.” Some twenty years later the call to worship was a direction to assemble at the appointed time and unite with one heart in all parts of public worship. And this gathering was a “family of God” to include children in worship.
The current description of how we are supposed to enter worship is quite far from 1951. “Worship begins as the people gather- greeting one another, praying in silence, sharing announcements, or offering music to the glory of God.” This is not so rough.
It would be interesting to bring someone from 1951 and have him or her join us in worship. I am sure some things would be absolutely the same; other parts of our worship would be quite shocking. Needless to say, if the person in 1951 were told that the pastor of the church was a woman, who was a lesbian, who was married to another woman, he or she might be a bit shocked.
Imagine helping that person walk through the decades of debate. Consider how the votes and fights would appear. Change is difficult especially when it contradicts the most sacred and trusted definitions of your life. This will be a rough ride for the Methodists. They are finding the real time of Palm Sunday. This is a tough row to hoe. But I believe in them. Mostly I believe they will find their transfiguration moment.
Someday, not today, but someday I hope they will exalt the meek instead of defending a tradition no longer yielding life. Someday they will gather the broken and call them beloved; they will say, listen to her. The voices of biblical authority will yield to the great commandment: love God and love your neighbor, forsake all the rest.
I don’t believe this because I have figured something out. This is not the conclusion of a vote. I believe this because I have found the time between the palms and the transfiguration. This is the time where salvation comes and we dwell in the kingdom of God. Someday, not today, but someday I hope our Methodist brothers and sisters will find this time together and with one voice they will “guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.” Amen.
- Mark 9:2 - 7
- Mark 11:1 - 11