In a divergent time, leaders cannot waste energy attempting to foster unity and uniformity; rather, the leader aspires to have the congregation muddle through with enough people on board and a good-enough, workable consensus. Gil Rendle says that consensus is not everybody in agreement, but rather everybody realizing that all the voices have been heard and all agreeing to muddle forward, in spite of continuing disagreements.
After a disastrous special General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), I preached a Lenten sermon on Mark 8:31–33, in which Jesus baffles and shocks his disciples by predicting his death. When Peter expresses his confusion, Jesus rebukes him. Jesus doesn’t elaborate; rather, he keeps walking and talking and the disciples keep walking and listening. The disciples don’t understand; they have no consensus among them- selves, no clue what’s going to happen to them in the future. They just keep muddling through with Jesus, which was the title of my sermon.
What’s going to happen to our church after this General Conference vote? I don’t know. I expect there will be schism, posturing by this group or that. Some will leave hurt and angry; some will stay, though they will be miserable and make everyone else so, which is sad.
But the amazing thing is that, even though you don’t know the future for our church, and you don’t know what comes next, here you have come to worship again this Sunday. In that, you are like Jesus’s first disciples. They couldn’t understand his talk about the trials ahead. A crucified Messiah? It’s unthinkable.
So they just kept listening, just kept talking and arguing, just kept walking with him. And so have you.
Thus my proposal for you this Sunday: Let’s muddle through together, with Jesus.
As we muddle on, I promise you: No vote will be taken here that intends finally to silence dissident voices. I plead with everyone to keep talking—more importantly, to keep listening and learning. We will not decide any- thing once-and-for-all; we’ll keep walking with Jesus and expect him to keep working with us. We’ll keep check- ing in with each other, keep evaluating, willing to ditch plans on the basis of what we will learn tomorrow, pray- ing for openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We won’t expect everyone to agree in order to move forward, but rather that we all agree to muddle on, even with our differences. We won’t spend time attempting to control, constrain, or coerce any of you into abandoning your positions, but rather we all agree to be on the way toward possibly different positions. And through it all, we agree to continue to break bread together at the Lord’s table.
Now, let’s refocus on the most important thing that Jesus asks of us. Let’s accept Jesus’s invitation to join with one another at his table, invited not because we hold the correct or consensus position on some issue, but rather invited because he loves us all, even in our differences.
Then, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent of the same year the assigned gospel is John 12:1–8. Word had reached us that some United Methodist churches were threatening to take their expensive church property and bolt from the denomination. After narrating Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet with “expensive perfume,” Judas (“one of his disciples”) makes a perfectly valid objection that this much money should be “given to the poor,” whom Jesus loves. Jesus responds, “Leave her alone,” predicting, “You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
I concluded my sermon that Sunday with the following:
Our church is in a mess, and maybe always has been. With Jesus, sometimes it’s not crystal-clear what faith- fulness is supposed to be. We build this costly building to worship a Savior who loves the poor. Jesus’s closest disciples are also his most heinous betrayers. The one who raises the dead is on his way to die on a cross. Was Mary right in her extravagant devotion to Christ, or was Judas right in his objection to her act and his advocacy for the poor?
I don’t know. Perhaps John tells this story with deliberate ambiguity because maybe that’s the way it is with discipleship—when it comes to faithful discipleship, we just don’t know for sure. If Jesus Christ, the soon-to-be- crucified Messiah, is also the Light of the World, there will be gaps in our understanding, disagreements among us about just which way is the path that Jesus wants us to walk.
What are we to do along the way with Jesus? Maybe the best we can do is what I suggested a few Sundays ago: muddle through, keep walking, keep talking, keep listening and learning from one another and from Jesus. Even after we get to the cross and the empty tomb, we’ll have more questions, there will be ambiguity— especially there.
Let’s muddle through in the faith that at the end of our Lenten journey, we’ll get something better than clarity and answers; we’ll get Jesus, who stands there to say, “All you muddlers who don’t always do right, or know right, I love you, still.”Leading with the Sermon, pp. 90-93