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:
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.
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.
This is my wording, based on a loose rendition of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Matthew 13:10-17
This Trinity Sunday sermon, preached at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Williamsburg, VA, is deeply informed by Fr. Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2017) and Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996). The appointed readings for the day are Genesis 1:1-2a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; and Matthew 28:16-20.
Ira was one of mentors, an ordained United Methodist clergyperson who was a religion professor and Dean of Students at Randolph-Macon College when I was a student, and active in the life of the congregation on that campus historically related to The United Methodist Church. I was privileged to be Ira’s pastor the last two years of his life, when I left the William and Mary Wesley Foundation and moved to Ashland. Every Friday morning we met at the campus rec. center to power walk and discuss matters great and small, including Bible and theology. It was meat and drink for my soul even if someone’s nerd alarm just went off.
One of our liveliest ongoing conversations was about the Trinity. There goes that nerd alarm again. But for us it was no holds barred wrestling match that true friends can have who deeply trust each other. Ira would get so exasperated; he didn’t see the point of an idea that was just too complicated and obtuse and impossible to understand fully or well.
I get that. A Lutheran campus ministry friend said that she loved Trinity Sunday because it was a yearly chance to hear another preacher get it wrong. But my comeback to Ira was to say that of course it’s complicated and impossible to understand well. We humans can’t fully grasp the reality of God or God’s inner life. It’s not for us to whittle God down to human size, or to squeeze God into boxes that fit our brains. That’s why it’s called a mystery.
That’s what I love about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is mystery, beyond our total grasp or comprehension. We confess that we believe in a God who somehow is Three in One and One in Three; I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more but in the home of metaphor, images, poetry. It’s also a call to humility. Another friend thinks thinking about the Trinity is a waste of time because it doesn’t make any sense to him. I get that; but I asked playfully and seriously, “Do you think the flea on my dog knows there is a dog? Or that my dog has an owner? Or that my dog and I are part of something even larger and greater called Therapy Dogs International? Maybe before the great mystery of God’s inner life and being, we’re the flea; just because our flea brains can’t take it all in doesn’t mean those greater realities aren’t true.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes in his book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, “Mystery isn’t something you cannot understand – it is something that you can endlessly understand!” That divine mystery is interwoven into creation’s very fabric.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Over the years on more than one occasion when I acted ridiculously in my daughter’s eyes, she’d ask my wife with exasperation, “Did you talk to him before you married him!?” I think it mostly in good humor, but there’s also bemused confession that sometimes I am a puzzle to her. But that points to the reality that marriage is itself mystery. For us Christians something of God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and long-suffering patience comes to us through the mystery of a couple’s life together. There’s wonder and delight as a couple begins their life together, but at the heart of every dynamic relationship there is an endless unfolding understanding, revealing, flowing together, deepening and intimate knowing in the mystery of two made one. And if two can be made one, cannot three also be one?
But seriously you still may be saying on this Trinity Sunday, “So what? Why bother? What’s the big deal?” Right now you that nerd alarm may be primed to go off again, but humor me. At the worst you can tell Pastors Andy and Cheryl that after having a United Methodist preach you’re really glad you’re Lutheran.
But on this Trinity Sunday, I want to invite us into some “what if” questions.
What if the relationship that exists within the Triune God means we also are most fully and truly ourselves in relationship? What if that’s what Genesis means when it says we are made in the image and likeness of God? Isn’t interesting that God says there, “Let us make humans…” Can we be open to that as a poetic expression of God’s rich, deep, multi-faceted reality of God as one and yet mysteriously divine community? What if the Triune God is known most fully as community and in community? And if that’s true for God, what if we are most fully like God and reflect God’s image more richly in community with one another? A widowed friend on the verge of new marriage said, “God has it right; it is not good for us to be alone.” Our life is not ours alone but shared with others, in love and intimacy, like God’s love and life is a sharing among and between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And what if this mystery known as the Triune God points us to a reality that permeates creation itself? What if, from top to bottom, dynamic interplay and relationship are the warp and woof of reality itself. Fifty years ago, in his book The Ghost in the Machine (New York: Macmillan, 1967), Arthur Koestler coined the term “holon.” As defined by him, a holon is “a whole and a part at the same time.” An atom is entire and complete of itself; at the same time it can be part of molecule, which is entire of itself and can be at the same time part of a cell; keep going and you can say the same of a planet as a whole and at the same time part of a solar system which can be whole yet part of a galaxy; you get the idea. The mystery of the Triune God is a holon. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – each a whole and a part at the same time. Each is a revelation of God and each is also a vital part of the whole holiness of God. What if from top to bottom the intricacy and wonder of creation bears witness to this God who is part of it all and is in all? In the words of the psalmist, the heavens are telling the glory of God; and another asks “Where can I flee from your Spirit?” Nowhere. From atom to universe, God’s mystery is made known.
And what if that mystery also points to the wonderful reality that there’s unity in diversity? A variety of atoms make a molecule, a variety of cells make a living being, a variety of living beings make a community; unity without uniformity; diversity as a blessing from God to be honored and celebrated, not a nuisance or a curse. The divine is expressed and experienced in diverse ways as Father, Son and Spirit, beyond, beside and within us. What a gift and blessing that there’s room for us to encounter and experience that God in many diverse ways. As Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.
And what if the Triune God is a witness that some realities and truths that don’t fit into neat little boxes. 1500 years ago, St. Augustine described the Trinity in human terms he hoped we’d understand. One human can think, will and act. Where’s one end and another begin? In a car I think about today’s Greek Festival, I will to go, and I drive there. One person, three related but distinct aspects. Augustine also described the Triune God’s inner life as the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love among and between. Here’s a question: if two people are about to kiss, when does the kiss become a kiss? In the thought, the desire, the act? Or is the kiss something that exists between and because of the kissers? We can’t really check just one box for where God may be found or known; God is too great and wondrous and not that small.
And finally, what if the Trinity is best described as a dynamic dancing circle of three moving in responsive relationship and interplay, moving to and fro, in vibrant communication and intimate communion; God as both dancers and the dance itself. What if this lively dance at the heart of God fills creation with divine energy, creativity, openness, as love’s invitation to join the dance – not just to look on, but to be touched and be part of God’s holy movement. In the 15th century icon, The Holy Trinity, three angels are gathered around a table. The icon is huge – five feet high and four feet wide – and is inspired by the Bible story of Abraham providing hospitality for three angels, who Abraham realizes are God present with him. They lean into each other, clearly in intimate communion. If you’re looking at the massive icon that almost dwarfs the viewer, you’re also near the table; there’s a open place for you at the table, as if the holy One in Three welcomes you not to be an onlooker, but to enter into their communion, to become one with them, even as they are one with each other. Here, now at this table today, we’re met and welcomed by the Three in One and One in Three. We’re invited to say yes and join the dance and be drawn into holiness, wonder, mystery; into the very life of God.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
Your pastor Meghan told me that during this Easter season she’s preaching on the early church as described in the book of Acts and what that might mean for us today. One of her guiding questions is this: Was the early church perfect and have it all right?
The quick and easy answer is of course it wasn’t perfect and didn’t have it all right. After all, if the early church was perfect, we wouldn’t have most of the New Testament; much of Paul’s letters deal with problems in his less than perfect churches. Even in the book of Acts and its pretty picture of the church, there are problems to be faced and addressed.
You may be surprised that not only is there a perfect church, I know where it is; I saw it a few years ago during a William & Mary Wesley Foundation Spring Break mission trip to Atlanta. The Perfect Church had a large sign above the main door reading, “The Perfect Church,” so it must be perfect, right? You wouldn’t lie about that, right? What was interesting was that the carved sign “The Perfect Church” had a crack in it, so The Perfect Church sign was, well, imperfect.
It’s true that we have ideas of the perfect church, whether in Atlanta or here or elsewhere. And people do look for it. On YouTube, search for “Church Hunters” and you’ll find a comical spoof of HGTV’s House Hunters; a couple looks for the perfect church with just the right blend of hipness, convenience, music, branding and star preaching. For others the perfect church has every seat taken on Sunday, the budget’s easily met, there are enough volunteers so I don’t have to do much, young families, children and teens are everywhere but old people are still mostly in charge, the preacher is young with 40 years experience, serious and totally funny, always available anytime to me but dedicated to her family, preaches from the Bible in a way that’s always relevant and tells it like it is but is never offensive or controversial. Perfect, right?
Today’s reading in Acts follows the Pentecost Day birth of the church when 3000 become believers after a powerful, Spirit-filled sermon by Peter. We now see the Jesus community evoking awe and marked by signs and wonders. It sounds picture perfect; I’d like to be part of such a church, wouldn’t you? More importantly, could Salem be such a church?
But before we hear about that “perfect” church in Acts, we might honestly think that “perfect” is too strong a word, too impossible, too flawless for Salem. But here’s some good news: in the Bible perfection doesn’t mean utterly pure or unrivaled or faultless or beyond compare. The Greek word teleios simply means doing what you’re created to do, being what you were made to be. For example, my lawnmore is teleios; it’s perfect, not because it dropped straight out of heaven, or there’s none like in the world, or it’s better than yours. 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, put it in gear and voilà, it runs smoothly on all cylinders and grass gets cut. It was made for grass cutting and that what it does. It’s awesome, perfect.
So what are the marks of the perfect church in Acts? Listen to today’s report from the book of Acts:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
They seem to be joyfully caught up in a new kind of life rooted in the Holy Spirit and constantly devoted to worship; there’s continual learning about God’s great works in Christ and what that means for faith and life; they eat weekly in homes and around the Lord’s Table; there’s habitual and fervent prayer, and sharing a common life deeply. Not just the good and easy things are shared, but shared struggles and failures, needs and fears, along with gratitude and victories. In that community there is caring honesty, healing, hope, joy, active love, and sacrificial compassion so no one is in need, and all have enough. What strikes me about this picture especially is that it doesn’t sound like it is legally enforced, but Holy Spirit-enabled. There’s s mutual agreement and a shared commitment to live in such a way; they didn’t take a vote with majority rule winners and losers; they were drawn to this way because they couldn’t imagine another way to share life in love with God and each other. Such a life together brought them such unaffected joy that they had to praise God with glad and generous hearts, and others were drawn to it because it had such magnetic power and evoked their goodwill and awe.
Can Salem be such a perfect church? Yes, not because you’re great but because God is; and because God is good and desires it for you. Here’s an extraordinary promise: the same Spirit that empowered the church in Acts can still act here. Constantly hold up that mirror of church, reflect it here, and by grace you will become what you see. The God who raised Christ from the dead can raise you to such a life. Church, that’s the Easter life good news, even here.
Here’s why it matters. Today Meghan and Josh give baby James up for adoption. They’re bringing him to the baptismal font to give him up to God, his rightful owner, and giving him over to you as his faith family, because they know they can’t do this faith thing all on their own. They need your help, just like you need theirs to keep close to Christ and to help James take on a Christ-shaped life. They’ll make promises to do their best by grace to show Christ to James in their lives, and they ask you to do the same so James can grow up with a greater knowledge of what it means to hunger for Christ and to love God and others. In the language of the old Methodist baptism service for children, they hope that together you’ll “live a life that becomes the gospel” and makes it real and true and attractive, so in time James will also choose Jesus because he won’t be able to imagine any other way to live. That would be perfect, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
“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:
- Both males and females are made in the image of God as we reflect something, but not all, of who God is.
- We each bear within ourselves both maleness and femaleness, since attributes or characteristics of both are exhibited within the Godhead.
- 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.
- 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.).
- 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.
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.