I attended the Wesley Theological Seminary commencement yesterday at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, to see my dear friend, colleague, and compatriot become the Rev. Dr. Oscar Sinclair, - and it was indeed a celebration of ministry. I noticed, of course, how different it was from my own at Union Theological Seminary - where Union is unaffiliated, Wesley is still deeply Methodist.
So I was surprised to find that the address (it was a sermon, really) by Methodist Bishop Thomas Berlin, captured my attention and imagination.
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Berlin began with a meandering story that led to a rich discussion of the idea that the greatest commandment - according to the Gospel of Mark’s version of Jesus, anyway - is to love God, love your neighbors, and love yourself.
Where Berlin captured me was this: he reminded us that Mark is writingin the midst of violence and conquest from the Romans, who are hellbent on destroying the center of life and worship for those who followed the religion we now call Judaism. This was a horrible, horrible time, with a real enemy wreaking havoc.
So of course the people in and around Jerusalem were infighting.
It was the end of the world as they knew it, and they were bickering and fighting with one another.
Goodness, that sounds familiar. What the heck are we doing fighting amongst each other, when the enemy is OUT THERE? And why have humans been doing this for probably tens of thousands of years?
It’s at this point in the sermon…I mean address… that Berlin reminds us of the infighting many of us see in our congregations, with people hellbent on destroying freedom, liberty, and liberation for all. And he reminds us that in Mark, Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself.
Loving God (however you understand that concept of mystery), loving your neighbor (anyone that isn’t you), and loving yourself (that’s you) - that’s the key to dealing with “that one guy” (the woman next to me leaned in and said “oh yeah…Bob.”) who seems to cause most of the strife in the congregation, and we all know who that one person is, right? To Berlin (and as I have learned, to Methodists in general), that’s all it takes: love, love, love. We have to love Bob.
I was waiting for the “and” of Berlin’s argument…
…and there wasn’t one.
What he didn’t say, and I think should have, is this:
We can love, love, love all we want to/can manage to. But if Bob doesn’t love, love, love in return, he’s out of relationship. We’d say out of covenant.
Too many people forgive Bob for “just being Bob - we love him, but he’s like that.” And thus, Bob is let off the hook - again - and can not love, love, love all he likes, and cause strife and infighting all he likes, because he knows our love, love, love is too wishy-washy to do anything about it.
LOVE IS NOT WISHY-WASHY.
If you love Bob, you’re going to be honest with him. You’re going to tell him when he’s not loving, loving, loving to others. You’re going to ask him to repair relationships with the people he’s hurt. You’re going to make space for honest, truthful, loving conversations that heal wounds so we can do what’s necessary to draw the circle of love wide.
We’ve got to stop being wishy-washy about love. We’ve got to stop being afraid of telling someone when they’re not being loving, not being kind, not being in good relationship. We’ve got to stop letting Bob be Bob and encourage him to grow with us.
That’s the part of the address I wish Berlin had delivered, because to me, that’s the more important (and harder) call for those called to lives of service to faith.
We’ve got to stop the infighting. The enemy is at the gates.
It is more than likely the texts that make up Mark were told orally first and at some point written down; this is why Mark seems stark in contrast to the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke. Yet it is the earliest gospel, telling the stories and events as handed down over just a few decades after Jesus dies.
Apologies to all the amazing Bobs out there - including the two colleagues named Bob that probably read this - it’s just that the woman next to me had a problem with a Bob, so Bob, you’ve got a rotten apple in the barrel of Bobs.
Yes, yes, yes. When Bob is allowed to treat the congregation as his personal playground, countless others suffer. That's what we found when our "Bob" (who isn't named Bob) finally left in a huff. Years of saying "oh that's just the way he is" and "we're Universalists, so we must love him no matter what" had resulted in a well-trod back exit, used by all the people he'd hurt, insulted, and belittled over the years. Those folks most assuredly weren't feeling the love.
This piece resonates with something my covenant group was mulling over just last night , about the often difficult work involved in reconciliation. Many of us want to just hug, hug, hug and then everything's good. That kind of papering over just further harms the wronged party.