For a Week Like This: Sermon Based on Matthew 14:22-33; Romans 10:5-15

For the scripture texts, go here: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Romans+10%3A5-15&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
and here: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Matthew+14%3A22-33&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
          For decades the best news many heard each week was from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” I bet many would’ve been thrilled this past week if our biggest news was that there were too many tomatoes in people’s gardens. Instead we’ve had a steady diet of bellicose bombast from US and North Korean leaders and updates from Charlottesville about the most recent protest by KKK members, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists, and news of subsequent deaths and injuries. If we ever needed to hear different news, especially the odd and radically different good news of the Gospel, this would be it.
          But at such a time, today’s assigned texts seem irrelevant, even ludicrous. Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans is part of a larger, three chapter long soul-searching struggle: if Jesus really is God’s main man for setting things right between God and us and showing us how to live truly with one another, why haven’t Christ’s own people and Paul’s faith family bought in? If Jesus really is true, why don’t God’s chosen and favored people, the Jews, see the light?
          This isn’t a little mind game for Paul; it causes him anguish, grief. The Jews are God’s uniquely chosen and adopted; they experience God’s glory and presence in a matchless relationship of worship and commitment; he says, “to them belong the promises, the favored faith ancestors; from them has come the chosen Messiah who is over all, God blessed forever.”
          How did things go wrong? A few verses before our reading Paul affirms that his fellow Jews have real love and devotion for God. The problem is that they don’t truly get who God is or how to be in a right relationship with God. The truth is that often we don’t get it, either.
          Paul says there are two ways to be right with God and each other. One is to keep the rules, cross all the t’s, dot all the i’s. In other words, prove we’re worthy of God’s love and deserve special favor and treatment. Paul writes, “Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the law, that the person who does these things will live by them;’” or as another translation puts it, “a person can become acceptable to God by obeying God’s Law in scripture; if you want to live you must do all that the Law commands.”
          At my age I go to lots of funerals; I often hear about how great and good a person was, so there’s no question: they’ve earned their heavenly reward. On the other hand, many young folks believe in so-called moralistic therapeutic deism: there is a God who created everything and watches over us but isn’t too involved in life, except when we need help with a problem; this God wants us to be good, nice, play fair, be happy and feel good about ourselves; and if we do that we’ll go to heaven when we die. Truth be told, many learned that in Sunday School and in countless children’s sermons. And in between youth and age, it’s tempting to believe we’re God’s favorites because we work hard, or get the best grades or the most Instagram likes, or live in the right area or are the right color or gender or live in the best nation or chose the right religion; we even believe that people are poor because they deserve it, which means I deserve being well off. I’ve earned it, by God. We create a world of winners and losers, them and us, insiders and outsiders, chosen and rejected. But it’s life on a very shaky foundation. If we’re not always and everywhere the absolute best bringing our A Game, then confidence and entitlement evaporate. What if we’re not good enough, smart enough, hard working enough? There’s no rest or real joy; we only have disquiet, stress, fear as we anxiously look over the shoulder at who’s catching up. There’s no real community of care because you’ re a competing threat; we can live glibly together, but in a crunch you can soon become my enemy. It’s a helluva way to live.
          But God intends another truer way, a more blessed way. In Romans Paul describes another righteousness that comes from faith, trust, and confidence in God, not in ourselves. The God met in Christ loves us, is for us, cherishes us simply because we are, is always at work for the good of all of us, and simply will not leave us or forsake us or abandon us to fend for ourselves. Your pastor got it right in his Easter sermon this spring: there’s absolutely nothing you can do to keep God from loving you. This is the faith of Jesus; he lived his life all the way to the cross and beyond, trusting in God and God’s loving care above all else. And God said “Yes!” to that kind of trusting faith and blessed it as the right way to live by raising Christ from the dead. The Risen Christ is alive in our midst and not far off. And the great good news is that I am most alive when I learn by heart to live trusting in that God, too. Best of all, Paul says that blessed better way is for all: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; everyone: Jew and Gentile, American and North Korean; white and person of color; anyone will be saved who trusts and believes that God loves and forgives and accepts and shows mercy toward all and wants abundant life for every last one of us.
          Now that’s not me just saying the right thing or having the right feeling in my heart. To say Jesus is Lord means no one or nothing else has first place in my life: not my race or nation or a political leader or ideology or tax bracket or anything else. And believing that in my heart is not cozy warm fuzzy feeling. If I confess from the heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, that means I stake everything on trusting that is the way to live and commit body and soul to doing so. I will not be ashamed to live like that. No matter what, I will give myself to living that way, come what may. That is the Jesus Way. The world’s dying to see us live like that’s true and real. What a blessing to lay down the burden of proving our worth; to experience joy and live lighter. It is God’s gift to us.
          I’ll spend my whole life learning to receive and trust the gift fully. I’m like Peter in today’s gospel story. I want to trust that Christ is near and step out in faith even in the dark; sometimes I actually do so. But when life’s storms threaten or fears batter I quickly can sink in doubt. Thank God, Christ still reaches out today to save me and help me walk in faith and trust again.
          Today while the governments of North Korea and the US play a cosmic size game of chicken, Christians in both North and South Korea are united in praying, as they do every August, for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Those prayers from the hearts of countless Koreans north and south, on both sides of he Demilitarized Zone, are being joined by many other Christians connected globally through the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance. Jesus people trust it is more holy to live from mercy and grace than fire and fury; we know the Lord of all is generous to all who call to him.
          This week a friend asked prayers for her nephew Jason Kessler, the young man at the heart of yesterday’s Unite the Right event in Charlottesville. She’s pained that Jason’s alienated from his whole family, angry and hate-filled. They were all worried, disheartened and concerned for his safety. Jason’s aunt reported something remarkable: First United Methodist Church was Ground Zero for people of faith to gather to bear witness against hate, and one of the pastors at the church reached out to Jason to offer sanctuary if he felt threatened in any way. It is that odd way of Jesus, to trust that God wants life for all.
          In yesterday’s chaos and anger there I saw Christ as clergy and other people of faith stood between protesters and counter-protesters. In a photo they were linked arm in arm in an alternating pattern so they faced both sides as if, through them, God was calling all to turn and live and be saved. Tragically someone spurned his invitation; a life was lost and others maimed, by a hate-driven guided missile of a car. All the more reason for us to continue to bear witness to the truth we know in Christ.
          Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace it’s because we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.” Our wounded woebegone world aches to hear our good news. How beautiful our feet when we bring it, our mouths when we tell it, our lives when we live it. Amen.
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.

FOR THE LIFE OF ME: DEALING WITH DEATH IN A CHANGING LANDSCAPE: PART 3 – Is It Our Denial of Death’s Reality?

Two years ago, as I began my adventures as a Blogger, I promised (and intended) to write a series of three postings about death in a changing cultural context in which 1) fewer of us are actively engaged in the life of a faith community; 2) more death notices do not include any notice of a funeral, or any kind of ritualized recognition of the person’s death; and 3) when such occasions are identified, they are often identified as a “Celebration of Life.”  At that time, I managed to write two out of three, which is not bad for someone who tends to  think big but go small, or begins with great intentions but does not always follows through successfully.

Nevertheless, that third and final blog has often been on my mind, simmering on a back burner.  Now, two years later, I am ready to put this puppy to rest and complete the trilogy of thought about such matters.

To put this blog into context, and to read the two original posts, go here:

https://belovedbastard.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/for-the-life-of-me-dealing-with-in-the-changing-american-landscape-part-1/

and here:

https://belovedbastard.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/for-the-life-of-me-dealing-with-death-in-a-changing-landscape-part-2-is-it-our-fear-of-death/

What finally precipitated this blog was the opportunity to teach, at the local church I attend, a study titled Living Fully, Dying Well.  It is published by Abingdon Press (2006) and has drawn a group of 25 mostly older adults into conversation about what it means to live fully and richly, and what needs to be done to prepare well for death.  A recurring comment is that while they may be willing to talk about such matters and the necessary details, oftentimes their children or other loved ones are quite resistant.

Of course that is a hard conversation to have; I understand and appreciate reticence and the desire to avoid the topic.  To think about the death of someone we love is extremely painful; we have to imagine a world in which they are absent and we no longer have the gift and blessing of sharing experiences, hopes, memories, joys, and challenges with them.

Our culture doesn’t make it easy, either.  For a variety of reasons and in a multitude of ways, we enable such denial to take place.  Sometimes we participate personally by being dismissive of our own death.  As more people have instructed loved ones not have a funeral or any other kind of observance for them, I wonder if the one who has died doesn’t believe their life was that worthwhile, noteworthy, or significant.  Does the decision not to mark a death suggest that the one who has died believes their life had no meaning or purpose, or that their life was so inconsequential that it is not worth noting and mourning?  One of the great blessings of participation in a faith community is the affirmation that a life matters and has purpose and value; a person in such a community has heard that they  have a place in the community and in the larger cosmic reality.  But if we do not participate in that kind of sacred community and hear such a narrative, is it plausible to conclude that life and death are both inconsequential?  Are we so small in a great world and universe that we perceive our life and death to be no more important and meaningful than that of a flea?  What a disquieting and tragic contrast to the treasure of a faith community that, for example, trusts that God knows us better than we know ourselves (Psalm 139), or that even the death of a bird is noticed by God, so surely our life and death are even more precious and significant.  So perhaps one reason we deny death is because we deny life.  Our culture focuses on, and elevates the importance of the beautiful, the famous, the talented and skilled, the wealthy and exceptional, which can lead us to see our lives as diminished and unimportant if those attributes are not ours.  Ordinary people with ordinary lives can be tempted to believe that being ordinary means we are unimportant and beneath notice or appreciation.

Or perhaps we deny death and minimize its importance because our life seems fatally flawed, and beyond redemption or repair.  There is that hard reality that many of us are profoundly and deeply flawed (OK, all of us are, if we will be honest).  There are those habits, attitudes, actions – past and present – that are our shadow side; our personal aspects that we regret or that leave a residue of shame, guilt, or sorrow. Perhaps it is easier to deny or excuse such aspects of ourselves when we are younger, but as a friend inelegantly but truthfully put it, “My life is covered in shit, and I don’t know how to get it off.”  Again, if you live in a culture that is loathe to admit failure or error, to ask for forgiveness or make an apology, to hide shortcomings because they are signs of failure and weakness, some of us may conclude that there is little or nothing to celebrate.  If that is the only way to mark a life and a death, it is better to err on the side of caution and not try to fake it, or have those who remember us only remember the good and go dark on the more complete picture of who we truly were in all our terrible beauty.  Again, our culture is impoverished, as well as those who die in it, when we both live and die falsely, and when our lives and self-understanding are devoid of the promise and hope of the mysterious wonder of mercy and grace that comes from beyond ourselves, which a faith community can provide.

In her recent book Hallelujah Anyway, Anne Lamott calls to mind, with a caveat, “the five Buddhist remembrances: I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.  I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.  I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.  I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.  I am the owner of my actions; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.  Except, I might add as a nice Christian girl, through mercy” (Hallelujah Anyway, Riverhead Books, 2017, p. 70). Receiving mercy and grace, free and undeserved, and knowing how utterly essential they are to us, enable us to live and die in peace fully and honestly, embracing both whatever light we have been able to reflect while also, with Prospero in The Tempest, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” (Act V, Scene 1).

What is most disappointing to me is how the church itself contributes to the denial of death, even among its own.  Euphemisms abound to shunt aside death’s reality; when speaking of the dead, in addition to such familiar phrases as “passed away” or “entered into rest” or “slipped away,” church folks and pastors conveniently skip over the reality of death and jump immediately into “claimed the promise of resurrection” or “entered into glory.”  In my United Methodist tradition, the official title for a funeral or memorial service in The United Methodist Book of Worship is “A Service of Death and Resurrection;” but these days that name has often been supplanted by “A Celebration of Life.”

But a death has occurred.  Scripture calls death the last enemy, and even when death comes as a mercy to the suffering, it still robs us of one we love and robs them of life. We may want to gloss over that truth, but it is true nevertheless, and faith is as much about speaking truth as it is anything.  This is not something new in our contemporary context, but we have taken denial of death to a new level, and the church has become even more complicit.

My father died in 1987.  On the morning of the funeral, my two sisters and I were at the funeral home when one turned to the other and said, “There must be something wrong with us; for the last two days people have been saying we look just like him (i.e., our father), but he’s dead and wearing a lot of make-up.”  It was humorous, but it was also a recognition of a fundamental difference and reality: we were still living, and he was not; we were living and he was dead.

Nearly 45 years ago, Robert E. Neale laid at least some of the onus of death denial at the feet of the clergy when he wrote, “During a funeral the minister will be circumspect about death according to the standards of ‘good taste.’  Once when I was younger and a little more foolish than now, I spoke of death during a funeral, saying, ‘The man lying in this casket is dead.’  As you may guess, the statement caused no end of consternation.  It…is striking that although the scripture read at funerals speaks clearly and boldly of death, it is not considered proper for the minister to do so in modern English.  At the one time when death is most obvious to a Christian community, the Church flees into dogmas of eternal life.  That little item in between life and eternity gets lost” (The Art of Dying, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 13).

As a seminary student, I remember a professor saying he could do a funeral for Adolph Hitler or any other person, because Christian funerals do not focus unduly on the goodness of a person but on the goodness, grace, and mercy of the God to whom all life ultimately belongs and who is able, even in the worst of us, to be at work for good.  Our worship focus, as always and forever, should be not on us, but on the Triune God, and to acknowledge, confess, and speak truly of life, death, sin, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and even judgment, which ultimately does not belong to us, but to the all-wise One who knows us best and loves us most fully.  Trusting in that God, we need neither deny nor fear death, and that is a treasured gift the faith community has to offer especially to this culture, still.

Healing Donnie, Son of Christ

We are four months into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, son of Fred Christ Trump (yes, President Trump is Christ’s son).  Often I find myself sputtering and fuming incoherently in response to his most recent Tweet or Executive Order or policy proposal. This weekend I have felt something different – pity and sadness, wondering if there is a little boy stuck there in a man’s body.

Three images last week brought me to this place.  First was the strong, enduring handshake between France’s Emmanuel Macron and President Trump.  This certainly is not the first longish handshake between Mr. Trump and another; each one has lasted an extended time and has reminded viewers of tugs-of-war, or a modified form of arm wrestling, in which a winner must be determined.  In this instance, it appears that Mr. Trump was the one who cried “Uncle.”  But that is not the point; keep reading.

The second image was of the prime minister of Montenegro being pushed aside by President Trump.  It is true that Montenegro’s prime minister downplayed the scene, but I also know how tempting it is to tell a teacher about a bully, “No ma’am, nothing happened; it was nothing – really.  He was just playing with me.”  At least to me, the possibility that more was going on between the two is glimpsed in the way President Trump shoulders past, never looks at the other, and then thrusts out his chest; I really expected him to thump a time or two as he lifted his head and looked at the camera.  That appears to me at least to be Alpha dog behavior, putting another in his place while strutting victoriously and powerfully over the foe.  Never mind that President Trump never speaks or makes eye contact, never apologizes or even “sees” the other.  The prime minister of Montenegro is made invisible and inconsequential, of no regard.

The final image again involved France’s Macron as he walked toward the gathering of G-7 leaders.  As he draws nearer, Macron seems headed directly for President Trump; when Mr. Trump begins to extend his hand toward Macron the French leader suddenly veers away, leaving Mr. Trump’s hand grasping…well, nothing.  He has been publicly shunned and humiliated, as Macron intentionally goes toward Angela Merkel, warmly greets her, then another leader, and finally shakes Mr. Trump’s hand briefly and moves away.

Why do I dwell on these images?  Because they all could have taken place on a playground with 8 year old boys in various ways seeking to assert supremacy, or being knocked down a peg or two.  While President Trump has won his previous arm wrestling matches with other world leaders, he didn’t seem to win against President Macron and he certainly was brought up short in their other encounter.  On last week’s power playground, Mr. Trump was 1-2, and he only managed to eke out a win against a much smaller foe; after all, how many of us can even find Montenegro on a map, much less expect its leader to take on the leader of the Free World in a shoving match?

But whatever Mr. Trump’s win-loss record from last week, he seems always to feel the need to win; never to back down or admit error or defeat; when attacked, to swing back harder; to demean, diminish, dismiss, or demolish any and all opponents; and to exude emotions of aggressiveness, anger, braggart brashness, confidence, cockiness, intimidation, and unrelenting stubbornness – all of which combine to create a certain hard, stony harshness to his persona.

How did he become this person?  I wonder if there were there wounds received earlier, frights or experiences of falling short that led to stumbles or painful scars that hardened previously soft tissue?  I know very little about his parents or his growing up years, but when your father’s middle name is Christ, I wonder if that would feel overwhelming or intimidating to a small boy who looked up to you for love, acceptance and approval.   In my mind’s eye I see a little boy, too young to be a Donald yet, a small youngster named Donnie.  Would you feel like you had to please, but could never quite do so as fully as wished or expected?  Would acceptance and love feel like it had to be earned even if it was offered freely; would recognition seem a bar too high, a bridge too far?  Like the triumphant and distant Pantocrator Christ in the dome of an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, would that young Donnie’s father Christ feel distant, demanding, unapproachable; and even if he wasn’t, could that have been that little boy’s perception? Or did this Christ teach his son to feel superior and always to be tough, no matter what the cost?   We know that President Trump’s brother died at a relatively early age, his life shortened by alcoholism (this is one reason the President does not drink, and he is to be commended and honored for that discipline). But did his brother drink because he was too soft and tender, and was overwhelmed by life or his father or expectations for hard, unforgiving toughness?  Did that young, small Donnie see what happens when you are tender or too gentle, and decide that the only way to survive is to be tough, never to back down, never to be vulnerable or open to a wounding blow?  I have no idea at all, but I did wonder these things this past week.

During this presidency, I confess I have been greatly troubled by what I perceive to be outrageous, hurtful, illegal or unconstitutional, belittling and dismissive words and actions by President Trump.  And I have also been stunned by his sudden and unexpected changes in direction or opinion.  Even members of his own political party don’t seem to know which way he will go with any change of wind, or whether his words today will be trustworthy or reliable, or have any cache tomorrow.  He seems to be untethered, unmoored, unanchored, so much so that his words, demands and promises seem light, airy, impermanent, diaphanous, ephemeral, insubstantial gossamer nothingness.  There is no there there.

This past week what came to mind was T. S. Eliot’s  “hollow men,” or C. S. Lewis’ “men without chests.”  Mr. Trump’s reluctance to engage in self-reflection seems to suggest a disquieted fear that if he ever did so, he would find no one home.  Where there should be heart and substance, there is only straw and empty space.  What is missing in that vacuous emptiness is heart, love, acceptance, the sense of being cherished for who you are, not for what you have.  And while Mr. Trump may laugh on occasion, it is never at himself, and he seems not to know joy, or happiness, or authentic peace.  He is a troubled soul.

Buddhist philosopher Ken Wilber, in his book, A Brief History of Everything, describes modern people as Flatlanders who think the only thing that is real is what can be counted, measured, possessed.  It is a shallow and superficial existence that fails to notice or experience the great depth and mystery of the richer, thicker, substantial, spiritual entirety of the Kosmos.  Wilber believes we can all experience this spiritual depth and reality, but often we are wounded and crippled by previous experiences and get “stuck” in early, immature positions that block and impede further growth and deepening of life.

In thinking about Wilber’s work, I wonder how many wounds Mr. Trump carries and how stuck he is with earlier pain and defensive responses from childhood or other early years of life.  What if, beneath The Donald’s suits and ties and insistence on being right all the time and need for recognition and take no prisoner mentality, there is still that little child Donnie, hidden away, scared, uncertain and hurting, just wondering what it would be like to be loved and accepted unconditionally?  What if the next time that hidden Donnie extended a hand to begin a power wrestling handshake, he was pulled into a warm embrace and held and comforted and reassured that his life mattered, regardless of wealth or success?  What if the members of the G-7 had surrounded that young hidden Donnie and provided a strong, caring, accepting, welcoming embrace that held him close and would not let him go as he was  told he didn’t have to be strong, and could stop trying relentlessly to prove himself because they would treat him with dignity and respect and honesty, period?  And what if I and 1,000,000 other people wrote him a letter, assuring him that we prayed for him and wanted him to be healed and whole, and that he didn’t have to be a bully or loud or pushy to get our attention.  I honestly don’t know, but I wondered this week if beneath all the bluster there’s still a little Donnie deep down there who doesn’t know how to get out, but would be so much happier if he could be set free.

Trans God? Queer God?

“God is Spirit, and those who worship God worship in spirit and in truth.” – John 4:24

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”                 –1 John 4:7-8

There are many things I love about being a WOMP (Worn-Out Methodist Preacher), but the nerdiest thing I am delighted to do is to read theological texts of many descriptions, some of which have been on my shelves for decades. These days I am more than half-way through Raymond Brown’s two volume (!) The Death of the Messiah, two-thirds into Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in preparation for preaching on Trinity Sunday I’m plowing through Jurgen Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom. Which leads to how this particular blog was birthed.

Moltmann’s reflection on the mystery of the Trinity, published in 1979, is not some new, avant-garde, radical, contemporary rant.  Indeed, what stopped me dead in my tracks was inspired by his reference to a 1300 year old statement of faith affirmed in the Council of Toledo in 675.  Moltmann is pondering the interrelationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the tri-unity of God, when he writes:

“[I]f the Son proceeded from the Father alone, then this has to be conceived of both as a begetting and as a birth.  And this means a radical transformation of the Father image; a father who both begets and bears his son is not merely a father in the male sense.  He is a motherly father too.  He is no longer defined in unisexual, patriarchal terms but – if we allow for the metaphor of language – bisexually or transexually.  He has to be understood as the motherly Father of the only Son he has brought forth, and at the same time as the fatherly Mother of his only begotten Son….According to the Council of Toledo in 675, ‘it must be held that the Son was created, neither out of nothingness nor yet out of any substance, but that He was begotten or born out of the Father’s womb (de utero Patris), that is, out of his very essence.'” The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 164 f. (my italics)

Be still, my heart.  Doesn’t that simply inspire with its thrilling, easy to follow verbiage?Yes, I am that nerd who thinks it’s awesome – difficult, dense, seemingly arcane and irrelevant to 21st century folks, not ready for prime time preaching, but an enriching blessing to me to be afforded the time to ponder.  But what I saw did seem to have deep relevance for us, at least worthy of a thought experiment.

Scripture clearly affirms that the Triune God is encountered as spirit and as love.  As Spirit, God is not exclusively male or female; indeed God is neither; whatever language we use for God is symbolic, metaphorical and poetic, not literalistic.  And because God is love, the Triune God has to be essentially relational and in relationship, because at the very least love requires lover and beloved.

Clearly Moltmann is both struggling, and playing with language as he delves into the interplay and relationship of Father and Son within the Trinity, when he puts forth the metaphorical language of God’s bisexuality or transsexuality.  At the very least, it seems to me that he is arguing that gender specific language is woefully inadequate to the Godhead, metaphors and images drawn from both traditionally male and female characteristics are appropriate (and necessary?), and that the mystery of God transcends all such images.

If that is so, then perhaps the following are true – or definitely worth pondering:

  1.  Both males and females are made in the image of God as we reflect something, but not all, of who God is.
  2. We each bear within ourselves both maleness and femaleness, since attributes or characteristics of both are exhibited within the Godhead.
  3. While maleness and femaleness are important and valued dimensions of being human and individual identities, if characteristics, images, roles, and metaphors assigned to each are transcended within the mystery of God, they do not have to have undue significance for us as humans who, regardless of gender identity, are all made in the image of God.
  4. Transgender and/or queer persons are valued, vital reminders to us of the utter mystery and wonder of God, who is at the heart of the universe and is not limited to, or bounded by our understandings, categorizations or endeavors to manipulate, control, legislate and reduce reality to our narrow expectations and comprehension.  The God we meet in scripture truly embodies a Reality that transcends gender and is queer (e.g., “My ways are not your ways; my thoughts not your thoughts;” “God’s wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of the world; God’s power is weakness”); crosses boundaries; will not be limited, nailed down, or confined to specific spaces (tombs or toilets?); and is encountered in the demeaned, mocked, ridiculed, condemned, outcast, marginalized, rejected and scorned.  How odd it would be of God, to be seen particularly clearly  these days in these, the least of our sisters and brothers (Matthew 25:31 ff.).
  5. Galatians 3:26-28 is even more radically revolutionary and relevant than Paul (or we) might have imagined: “[I]n Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This WOMP was reading Moltmann at the same time as the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church was ruling on a case involving Rev. Karen Oliveto, a married and openly lesbian who was elected a bishop last year and currently serves the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences.  This is the most recent significant action in the denomination’s long wrestle with sexuality, done in the context of the ongoing endeavor of the church’s Commission on a Way Forward discerning whether we can find a better way to live together with our diverse understandings of sexuality.  Following the Judicial Council’s ruling, the WCA (Wesleyan Covenant Association, a newly formed unofficial United Methodist group that holds church prohibitions against the practice of homosexuality to be part of Christian orthodoxy) responded, “We…call upon those who feel they cannot, in good conscience, abide by the doctrines and discipline of our church, to seek an honorable exit from our denomination.”

I confess I didn’t know the Church belonged to the WCA – or to the General Conference of The UMC, for that matter; my understanding from scripture is that none of us owns the Church but all submit to the Lordship of Christ who is the Head of the Church, which is his body.  Once again, I am thinking that we continue to make sexuality a false idol to which we give undue priority and turn our stance of homosexuality into a heresy by overstating and overemphasizing something, and thereby creating a false imbalance.  If God is surprisingly queer and/or transgender, perhaps we ought to lighten up, calm down and carry on, and revel in the mystery of God who continues to surprise us, lead us down unexpected paths, and reveal Godself in ways we could never have imagined.

If I Was Preaching This Week…

One of the most dangerous and prideful risks taken by a retired preacher (or any homiletician not preaching on a particular day) is to share publicly how they would engage with a biblical text if given the opportunity.  But as a WOMP (Worn Out Methodist Preacher) I have a certain liberty (or diminished sense of self-control) and much more free time to let my mind go where it will without having to meet that deadline my colleagues still face – the relentless return of the Sabbath.

Case in point: this week’s Old Testament lesson (5th Sunday in Lent) is Ezekiel 37:1-14 (http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Ezekiel+37:1-14&vnum=yes&version=nrsv).  It’s the story of the prophet Ezekiel being caught up in a divine dream/vision in which he sees a valley of dry bones and is questioned by God as to whether the bones can live again.  After following God’s commands to prophesy to the bones and to the wind/breath/spirit, the prophet sees the bones rise up as a mighty host, restored to life, at which God explains this is a vision of the the dried up, dead and hopeless people of Israel whom God will restore, reassemble and revive.

Rightly so and well done this week, the preacher I heard engage with the text named personal experiences of being dead, dried up and hopeless: loss of job or health or marriage, lost hopes for children, etc., and encouraged us to hear the promise that God is able to bring new life even to our most hopeless circumstances.  He also broadened the scope of the sermon to marvel at the ways a missionary in another country works among the poorest of the poor to bring hope, education and new life to children displaced by the government to live literally among garbage heaps.  Can these bones live?  Yes!   It was a word from the Lord, for sure, and I was grateful to be in a place to hear it.

But I hungered for more and found myself thinking, “If I was preaching this week what would I want to speak to God’s people?  What are the questions I would want to ask and what would God’s gospel be?

I am indeed a WOMP and the Christian denomination I love and that formed and shaped me as a follower of the Way is at risk of schism in a way we have not faced since the American Civil War.  Questions about right and proper attitudes and actions around sexuality, especially homosexuality, have been part of our theological terrain my entire ministry.  That is not surprising; it’s been the situation for many oldline denominations, most of which have changed their practices to be more inclusive of GLBTQ folks, including allowing for ordination and officiating at same sex weddings.

But such things are not sanctioned by The United Methodist Church and there are strong forces on all sides pushing and pulling to change or maintain the status quo.  Currently a special commission of our denomination is meeting regularly to discern if we can find a way forward to maintain unity in the midst of diversity, in preparation for a special called meeting of our General Conference to determine what changes, if any, we should make in our polity and practice around human sexuality, or whether we will break the heart of Jesus and sunder his Body once more.

Last month I had a conversation with another WOMP who is convinced that division of the denomination is inevitable, or we face a season of church trials and punishment of progressives by traditionalists.  My colleague is resigned to the death of the denomination as we know it, the consequence of a bridge too far for progressives and traditionalists; his  deeply sad words echoed for me the despair and seeming hopelessness of Ezekiel’s vision scene; if I was preaching this week, I would address the existential threat we United Methodists face and ask the question, “Can these bones live again?”  (Ironically, our Annual Conference has been asked to pray this week for the denomination as part of a systematic strategy of prayer as the commission seeks a way forward; where I worshiped we indeed did pray, but based on the way the prayer was framed I wondered if most of us gathered had any idea of how fraught our future is or what the issues are that evoked such a request).

If I was preaching this week, I would announce the hopeful news that even these bones of The United Methodist Church can indeed live as we confess the truth of our dry and barren faith, our lifeless worship and lack of zeal for the ways of God, our cheap grace and easy ways, our arid discipleship and lack of vibrant desire to seek and welcome all, our seeming lack of interest in being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ, our clinging to the familiar tradition that cannot have a vision/dream that God can indeed do new things beyond our understanding or comfort, our contentment with the status quo, and our reticent resistance truly to seek God’s will and purpose for us, no matter the cost.  We grumble about denominational decline, but seem to be more focused on membership and facile faith than costly discipleship or following a Lord who seemed to break barriers of division and prejudice with extravagant, graceful, holy glee.

Can these bones live again?  Yes, if we understand that life is restored as we heed and respond to the grand Story and Vision of God experienced in scripture (which means we also have to read, know, take seriously and be shaped by the whole of scripture), which from beginning to end is a story of radical trust and adherence to God’s ways marked by compassion, mercy, speaking and living the truth in love, forgiveness, accountability, commitment to healing, humility, sacrificial long-suffering, extraordinary hospitality, generosity, and counter-cultural risk for the sake of God’s Empire – even when that puts us at odds with the ways of the world and whatever empire(s) also want our allegiance and final loyalty.  Instead of trying to save an institution, dry bones come alive as fresh winds of the Spirit blow and take us where we are not in control or try to program and legislatively manipulate for our purposes, but pray, seek, listen, discern, and submit to God’s ways.  The prophet and we are blessed as we trust that our hope ultimately is in God’s good purposes, plans, and power, and not ours.  Instead of being actors, the bones live as we are acted upon because we know that on our own we can do nothing.

And as an American citizen who also is a Christ follower, 10 weeks into the new US administration, I would want to know if these bones of our civil society can live again. When political leaders claim (as has White House political strategist Steve Bannon) that they want to “deconstruct” the body politic, is that akin to scattering the bones of our life together?  Are we at risk of having the life sucked out of the body politic by dissembling, division and ill-will, disregard for one another (especially the most weak and vulnerable), and bullying and battering of one another and our most cherished values and commitments as a nation?  Are we at risk of losing what has truly made us great in exchange for a thin gruel of nativism, racism, Islamophobia, heterosexism, xenophobia and overly monetized values that cheapen our souls?  Can these bones live again?

Again, I would announce the odd, counter-cultural, radical hopeful promise that they can live and that we as people of the Cross have a special role to play by relentlessly and humbly advocating for the disadvantaged and marginalized (including the so-called “deplorables” who also are precious and beloved), speaking the truth in love to and about one another, believing the best of each other, praying fervently for our leaders, welcoming the stranger, living by the Golden Rule (treating other the way we would want if we were in their shoes), listening to all, and working fervently to find a way to live together that more fully resembles the Commonwealth of Heaven, where all are cherished, respected and valued.  The church  and other faith communities have great potential to be the one remaining place where people of differing political priorities and perspectives can come together united in the common purpose of serving God (and for us followers of the Way, emulating Christ who is Lord of all), speaking respectfully and faithfully to one another, and seeking together to work on the shared agenda of doing God’s will and not being beholden ultimately to any political party.

Those are hard words, not easily spoken or readily received.  But I wish I could have said them, or heard them this week.

When, Not If: Sermon Based on Matthew 6

          Last week life pretty much slid to a halt here with the gift of God’s special snow Sabbath. But in tens of thousands of churches around the world, other Christians gathered in worship focused on the story of Jesus’ baptism. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, many United Methodists, and other Protestants who follow the lectionary’s three year cycle of Bible readings were once again told Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism, how John the Baptist at first didn’t want to go through with it because he thought he was worthy and Jesus told him to do it anyway because it was the right thing to do, how after it was done Jesus saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend on him and everyone heard a voice saying, “This is my own dear Son and I’m pleased with him.”
          What happens next? That same Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, “where the wild things are” and the Devil’s waiting to test him, waiting to see what Jesus’ really made of, and if he’s really able live up to God’s expectations. In that 40-day exam period Jesus fasts and prays. I think that’s so weird: Jesus needs the most strength and to be at his absolute best, and he decides to go without the one thing we count on to fuel ourselves and keep us strong. He steps away from one source of power to be sustained by a greater food and a greater power.
          If that’s good for Jesus maybe it’s good for us, too. If we want to follow the Jesus Way, it’s wise to follow Jesus’ ways. He knows specific practices that help him stay true to God and live out God’s will and purposes. So those practices are going to be helpful to us as well, unless we think we’re smarter than the Teacher. Unless we think we’re stronger and truer to God than Jesus and don’t need his help, then we should stop, listen and learn.
After Jesus comes from the Wilderness testing time he begins to call disciples to follow him and learn from him what real life looks like; in Matthew, Jesus’ first big lesson plan is the Sermon on the Mount, which brings us to today’s scripture. Jesus himself fasts and prays and helps people in need. He’s always in the business of helping others; he prays regularly and at great length; he begins ministry by fasting and praying and at the end, at his final meal with his friends he says he won’t drink again until God acts in new and powerful ways. He’ll face arrest, torture, and execution dry as a desert, trusting God to satisfy his deepest thirst.
          So it’s not surprising that Jesus teaches us pupils how to fast and pray and help others in need; he assumes we want to be closest to him and will pay attention and do as he says. So Jesus says, when you do something for someone else, when you come before God, when go without food or practice some appetite-denying discipline; as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, when you give alms, when you pray, when you fast. Did you hear that? When, not if. Jesus knows from his own experience that if you want to build a life on a lasting foundation, helping, praying and fasting are essential interlocking building blocks. In this new year, you’re digging deeper into this teaching of Jesus so you can practice walking more closely with him and following his steps on the Way of life he sets before us.
          I want to give a shout out Lynne Baab, the author of the book Fasting you’re reading and discussing. She’s provided a very readable resource with good biblical and historical background, and lots of helpful suggestions and guidance. What I especially appreciated was how she helped me to see the how important fasting is inn the global church, especially in Africa, Asia, and South America. Not surprisingly, those areas are also among the most spiritually alive. And even here in the US, congregations and small groups and individuals growing powerfully up into Christ are also deeply committed to fasting and prayer and helping others in need.
          As I prepared for today I looked back on some of my own experiences of fasting, both good and bad, the helpful and what crashed and burned. Bob was the guy who first challenged me and introduced me fasting as something more than a Bible topic to read and discuss. I was working with the youth at Centenary Church in downtown Richmond and Bob was a 20-something, working for CROP, a Church World Service-sponsored ministry committed to feeding hungry people. He’d recently graduated from college and spent his summer working at a refugee camp somewhere in Africa; now he was back home organizing CROP fasts to raise money to feed folks. He was totally passionate, and after 40 years his story that day still haunts me. In that Church World Service sponsored refugee camp, Bob and others distributed food, but sometimes there just wasn’t enough; so over a period of weeks Bob helplessly watched two parents starve one child to death so their other children would get enough to eat. Each day they received enough for four but not for five, so the death of one brought life to the rest. That’s when I decided the church youth and I could go a day without food so a child could have a life.
          As has often been happened for me, those young folks challenged me to be discontent with a C average faith and to keep moving further in and further up into Christ. For years our group fasted and raised funds to feed the hungry and support other local work in keeping with the ways of Jesus such as housing the homeless or serving those in jail or showing gratitude to first responders. Later in life other young adults inspired me to fast for 30 hours with World Vision to feed the hungry; each time I saw Bob, those wretched parents and their starving child.
There are many ways to fast faithfully: a water or juice fast for one to three days; with an Orthodox fast or Daniel fast with a diet limited to fruit, vegetables, or perhaps dairy products, fasts can last up to three weeks. The longest water only fast I ever did was for 60 hours in 2003, when we were on the cusp of war. I fasted with others, which is often helpful, and it aimed to be an act of humble and faithful repentance and sorrow and a hopeful prayer that we might turn from violence. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.
          Then there’ve been the busts, the times I failed miserably. I gave up on the fast too easily or got nothing from it because I was doing it for the wrong reasons or just to lose weight. In thinking about those experiences, I had an important insight: There’s a reason Jesus teaches about helping others, praying, and fasting together. These disciplines help support each other and are especially beneficial when woven together to craft a stronger faith and discipleship. Fasting clears a space so in prayer I can listen better to God to receive guidance about best ways to help others. The fasting removes the clutter and clears the background static so I can get a truer reading on what really matters and focus more fully on where God wants me to be of help and service to my sisters and brothers in need.
          Think about this: when you go for an annual physical and the necessary tests associated with it, you fast so your doctor will get the truest and best picture of what’s going in your body. The fast allows for an uncluttered, clear picture of who you truly are, where you’re healthy, where you’re at risk, where you need help to be the best you can be. Fasting does the same thing for us spiritually. Trust me, if you fast you’ll quickly learn where your besetting sins are and where you need help to grow up into Christ.
          A year or so ago after I retired, I talked with my family physician about going off a medication I was taking to deal with anxiety. He thought it was worth a shot and I could go back on it if needed. When I asked how I would know, he said, “Oh, your wife will tell you.” And she did 🙂
          Fasting’s like that – it’s a way God tells us with love where we need help and repair for a whole and holy life. In the prayer that goes with fasting the Great Physician shows us the health of our soul and where we need change in order to spiritually healthy and whole; the Healer helps us move forward in a life focused on what really matters and where our help is most needed so this world looks more like what God intended all along.
          Last week I talked with a William and Mary Wesley alum getting ready to lead a study on the Sermon on the Mount. As we talked she wondered why the Sermon is put together the way it is. Is there a plan or purpose to the way Jesus organizes his thoughts and topics? It’s a great question at least in part because I wasn’t sure there’s a right answer. Her question stayed with me all this week as I prepared to preach on this part of the Sermon. And that’s how the Spirit spoke to me with the hint of an idea.
          You see, after Jesus speaks about helping others and praying and fasting, what follows in the rest of chapter 6 is a series of sayings focusing on trusting God and realizing what truly matters, what’s deeply and eternally important. Jesus talks about storing up heavenly treasure and not earthly riches; he describes our eyes as the body’s lamps concluding, “If the light inside you is dark, you surely are in the dark.” He tells us bluntly that we always have to make choices about whether we’re going to invest in money or God, because we can’t do both; and teaches us to stop worrying because it does no good, and ends with the challenge to make our #1 priority to be about God’s business and to serve God’s purposes, and everything else will take care of itself. My hunch is that Jesus wants us to pray and fast and help others to get clear about all of this, to see things we might otherwise miss, and to know truly and deeply what really matters and to walk that Way, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.