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.

A Lawnmower, Three Questions, and an Exam: Sermon Based on Matthew 5:38-48

     It’s a sure sign of spring when our lawnmower goes to Ace Hardware for its yearly tune-up. I did that last week and soon I’ll get a call that it’s ready and we’ll be set for the summer. I trust the mechanic so I know it will be totally perfect. That doesn’t mean my mower dropped straight out of heaven, or that it’s the only perfect one in the world, or that I’m saying anything bad about your mower. It’s much simpler. My mower’s perfect because it does what it’s supposed to do, what it’s made for. I put in gas, crank it up, it runs smoothly on all cylinders, I put it in gear and voilà, grass gets cut. It was made for grass cutting and that what it does. It’s awesome, perfect. If I described it in New Testament Greek I’d say my mower is teleios. It does completely what it was created by its maker to do, no more and no less. It is what it is: a mower, exactly perfect in every way.
     Which brings us to Jesus’ teaching today from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew presents Jesus as the authority figure to follow him and give first place in our lives. Matthew does this in some subtle and creative ways. Again and again he calls to mind key Old Testament people and events and connects them to Jesus. Here Matthew wants to link Jesus to Moses, the most important person to Jews. Jesus is on a mountain, like Moses when he receives the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai. But here Jesus speaks with more authority than Moses. Five times Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…,” and follows with “But I say to you…”
     Clearly this Jesus is more important, a greater authority. His teachings on murder and anger, adultery and lust, vows and promises, revenge and enemies take us deeper – into our hearts and motives in a more radical way than a simple list of do’s and don’ts to stay on God’s good side. And the punch line comes at the end: we’re to be like God, the God Jesus shows us in his suffering love. Listen again, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There’s that word again: perfect, teleios: reaching your purpose and goal, aligned with God’s will and ways; grown up and mature with excellence in virtue, being all you were created to be. As another translation puts it, “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Common English Bible) or as in Peterson’s The Message, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you;” or as Luke’s Gospel puts this teaching in somewhat different words, “Be merciful and compassionate just like your Father is” (Common English Bible; Today’s English Version)
     Here’s Jesus’ call to us: we are children of God, so act like it. From the very beginning of the Bible story, that is who we are. In Genesis’ creation story God says, “Let us make humans in our image according to our likeness. So God made us that way and blessed us. And so to be perfectly who we were made to be, we are to be like God – loving, compassionate, merciful. As Leviticus says we are to be holy, like God is holy as we defend the weak and poor and watch out for those who have no one to watch out for them. When we live in the same wild and crazy way as this God who forgives enemies and is gracious and kind to both good and evil, we are perfect. We are who we are made to be: children of our Father in heaven.
     But you say, “Preacher, we can’t do that! We’re not perfect and never will be; it’s crazy even to try.” But then why would Jesus expect this of us? Is he setting us up for some cruel, practical joke, like Lucy challenging Charlie Brown and always pulling the ball away to show that we’re chumps? Or does Jesus really mean it? Does Jesus believe we can be perfect?
     John Wesley believed it. Our father in the faith often preached on Christian perfection or being made perfect in love or growing in holiness. Wesley said God would help us to become what God expected of us. Nothing is impossible for God so God can be trusted to help us become what we were created to be. Now that doesn’t mean that we’ll always do the right thing, or get every answer right on an exam or know the Pick 6 numbers. But with the Holy Spirit’s help and power at work alongside our deep desire, we can in fact be made perfect in love; our every action and desire can be driven by the engine of love for God and others. Even when we mess up, showing love to God and others will be the aim and purpose. That’s what holiness looks like; that’s being made perfect in love. Today every person seeking ordination in The United Methodist Church still answers questions asked of preachers for nearly 275 years, “Are you going on to perfection?” “Yes.” Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?” “Yes.” “Are you earnestly striving after it?” “Yes.” In an earlier time every Methodist was asked those questions with the same expected answers. As the bishop who ordained me asked, “If you’re not going on to perfection, where are you going?”
     Now it’s true: on our own we can’t be perfect. We are sinners, flawed, imperfect, missing the mark no matter how hard we try. But we’re not on our own. Wesley believed God’s grace and Holy Spirit are always at work in our lives and God’s grace can and will do for us what we can’t do ourselves. So Wesley asks, “ Do you expect to be made perfect in love?” That’s God’s work, God’s promise; as St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). Wesley believed such transformation could happen instantly but for most it was a gradual process; he was convinced he’d met Methodists who were living in a state of perfect love and holiness. I think I attended the funeral of one of those folks; for many years Millie Sunshine Cooper was the Virginia Conference staff person for youth. In the testimony of those leading her service yesterday and in my own personal experience, this humble and dedicated servant of Christ was always motivated and inspired by love for God and love for others on the job and in her daily living up to her last days. Millie may have been somewhat unusual; Wesley thought most believers would be made perfect in love at the moment of death. As I’ve been around dying folks, I’m persuaded he knew what he was talking about; I’ve seen countless folks become one with God in love and mercy at their end.
     But this morning I heard another report of someone who may be living in that state of holiness of life and perfect love. I assume Mohamed Bzeek of Los Angeles is a Muslim, and for the last 20 years he has served as a foster parent to terminally ill children. He has been by the side of nearly a dozen who have taken last breath in his presence. Who does such a thing? Perhaps someone hungry to be like God and to love others with that perfect love. (http://www.npr.org/2017/02/19/516064735/a-foster-parent-for-terminally-ill-children)
     God wants to work this mysterious miracle in our lives. God is on our side, ready to coach and encourage and equip us to become like God, to become love and live in love, to be holy as God is holy. God is not our enemy but a friend; God doesn’t believe we’re just doomed to be what we’ve always been. In high school biology, no matter how long I studied, or how hard I tried I was doomed to D grades. I think the teacher early on decided I was a D student and almost seemed to delight in giving me Ds. And after awhile, I became that D student. I saw myself as that teacher saw me and I gave up, because what was the use?
     I contrast that teacher to one I had in seminary as I studied to be a pastor. Every time I submitted a paper to that professor, there were always challenging questions, and a relentless push to do better. But each time there were also affirmations and encouragement along with new issues raised that made me think more and pulled me closer to excellence. And after awhile I became that student. I didn’t give up; in fact I worked harder, because I knew my professor was for me and saw something I did not see myself and would work tirelessly to get me there.
     That’s the God we see in Jesus, the God who calls us to be made perfect in love, to be the children of God we’re created to be, to do what we’re formed to do – to love God with all we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves with the same mercy and compassion and extravagant grace God has already shown us. It’s a lifetime adventure; we’ll need tune-ups and sharpening and regular upkeep. God will do God’s part; and we have a part, receiving and using God’s sanctifying grace to be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. My seminary professor tirelessly worked on me week after week, and slowly but surely, with guidance and help I became what I was created to be. In the same way God will work miracles in you and me, with help and guidance along the way. God helps through the church itself with our worship and scripture and prayer and opportunities to love even our enemies and put our faith on the line and into practice. We’re helped by small groups or soul friends who speak the truth in love, and challenge us to holy excellence. Every Christian needs such groups and a soul friend; none of us can make this journey on our own or alone. I didn’t know it then, but nearly 40 years ago here I first met my soul friend who still challenges and encourages me to be better, to be who I am created to be, to be a Christian in word and deed, to be like Jesus. And help can come through the Daily Examen, an ancient form of holy self-exam in the presence of the God who wants nothing for us but life and our good.** In God’s strong and loving arms, at day’s end we can take 15-20 minutes to be still, give thanks for God’s goodness, grace and guidance during the day, look back over a day and how well we lived for Christ or where we fell short, confess our shortcomings and our need for help, and look forward to tomorrow’s opportunities and challenges. It doesn’t seem like much, about as exciting and routine as cutting the grass. But in such ways, miracles happen and sometimes we even learn holiness and perfection, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
** To learn more about the Daily Examen as a devotional practice, go to http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen