How I Went to Church and Was Convicted of Being Disingenuous (and That Was a Good Thing)

     Yesterday I went to church and was blessed with an awareness of how I had been disingenuous with my children over the years; how easy it is to be seduced by the Siren songs of our culture; and how daunting it is to be the disciple you long to be. I suspect I am not alone in that.
     Now rest assured, this insightful moment of conviction did not lead me to feel an overbearing load of guilt, or beat me down with a sense of being an utter screw-up. It was a grace-filled experience in which I could accept the truth of what I heard, acknowledge my failure to live into that truth, and experience the mystery of divine acceptance, nevertheless, providing hope that I can move on and be more honest and truthful in days to come.
     Moments like these again confirm for me why I need to be engaged in worship, prayer, scripture study, and Christian community on an ongoing basis, as I hear truth through the community and its means of grace I will not hear otherwise. There is a generous acceptance, and offer of ongoing transformation and sanctification that I would not necessarily believe, if I did not continue to hear of such things in such practices and among others who also are on this journey with me.
     When our children were little and restless in worship, I would often lean over and whisper to them, “Trust me; you get a better dad at the end of this time than the one you brought with you.” I don’t think that at their young age they had any idea what I was talking about, but it was true. At its best, Christian worship is an occasion for truth-telling, conviction, conversion, gratitude and joy for the offer of such gifts.  
     Yesterday was a day for such gifts to be offered. As is often the case, yesterday brought me to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, which provides a service of Eucharist each Wednesday. Typically the focus of the Word proclaimed is on a saint of the church whose feast day falls on or near a particular Wednesday. Yesterday’s gospel text was one of the tellings of Jesus’ teaching that if we want to gain our life, we must lose it by taking up our cross and following in the Jesus Way; it included the compelling question, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And what can they give to buy it back?” Or as the New English Bible puts it, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their true self? And what can they give to buy back their true self?”
     The priest told us that this particular text is often used for the feast days of martyrs throughout the liturgical year, and said that the saints are those who show in their lives what it is to live self-sacrificially. And then he spoke the truth that convicted me in a profoundly deep and compelling way.
     I cannot quote him exactly; preaching is such an in the moment, aural experience. But this is what I remember: the saints give the lie to what culture tells us about how to live well. We are told life’s goal is happiness, and we tell our children that all we want is for them to be happy.
     But in reality, he said,what we want for them is to be good and to enter into the life of God. And I thought, “Yes, that is true.”
     That is what I have ever wanted for myself when I have been my best self and most honest. And to be good, to participate in the true and beautiful, is to enter into the life of God who alone is true, good, beautiful, all-together right, just and merciful. At my best and and most honest, that is who I want to be. It is not something I can achieve on my own. It is not always an easy route and is not always a source of happiness. But to participate in that reality is to experience joy and fullness of life.
     Happiness is so ephemeral, fleeting, and transitory. What promises to give happiness today will be passé tomorrow, and a new source of happiness will be offered that also will soon fade away. I am persuaded that I can always be joyful, even in the most horrible of circumstances; but perpetual happiness is an illusion, and the quest for it as a permanent feature of life even is perhaps something unhealthy and foolish.        On more than one occasion I have told my children that all I wanted for them was for them to be happy. But as the preacher said yesterday, what I really wanted for them was that they would be good, and participate in the life of God.
     And what I mean by “being good” is not a bourgeoisie goodness that entails being nice, obedient, compliant with authority, and adhering to the rules of society. By goodness I mean a life characterized by the goodness of God, which includes mercy, grace, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, compassion for the poor and weak, advocacy for those demeaned or mocked or marginalized, a life of integrity and commitment to the well-being of all, even if that requires self-sacrifice. Such goodness produces a sense of wholeness and harmony of life that is seen in the wholeness and harmony of the Triune God known in the Christian tradition, and embodied in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ.
     And participating in the life of God is grander and broader than simply participating in the life of the church, as useful (and as maddening) as that may be. It is a good thing, a means to the greater end, but in and of itself ultimately it is not enough. Life in God is so much more. Our culture whispers that true happiness is found through self-actualization. Be the best you you can be, do whatever brings you contentment, whatever works for you. The problem is that such promises put me at the center of my life, and prioritizes my happiness above all other things, including what is good and life-giving for you and others who also inhabit this village we inhabit.
     What culture offers is an inversion or perversion of the truth told by the faith community. That truth is that I find myself by losing my self in the life of God so that, as St. Paul puts it, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me.” I may be able to reflect such life and goodness in my own life; that is what grace enables. But apart from a deep, intimate, and ongoing connection with God, in which God’s life continues to flow through me and nourish the goodness within, it will soon wither and fade, like a cut flower. As Jesus put it, “I am vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
     That’s really what I want for myself and my children: life abundant, i.e., living in God and being shaped and formed in that divine image and likeness. Happiness through self-actualization, as offered by the world, is a poor substitute for such glory. I believe true happiness and deep and abiding joy are possible in the Way lived by Jesus. I was convicted yesterday that I simply have been disingenuous and have not always told this entire truth to those dearest to me (ironically because I did not want to turn them away from this hidden joy); I pretended that I knew less than I really did.
     By God’s grace, I strive to be better; such blessing is priceless and too valuable not to speak with all truthfully, humbly and with grace, including those who are especially most precious. 
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A Sermon for Stephen Ministries Sunday, Based on Philippians 4:4-14 & Mark 10:46-52

          In my time at the Wesley Foundation, one of the yearly low-lights of orientation for new students was icebreakers: the important but endless activities helping students get to know each other and feel more at home on campus. By the end of orientation, students were too through.
          But one such icebreaker activity still stands out for me. It was done several times on a Sunday afternoon so every new student participated, but in smaller groups of 300 or so. It began with all the students on one side of the room; then the leader would call out a description and if it fit you, you moved to the other side of the room. It started out fairly tame: if you have blue eyes, move to the other side; if you’re from Virginia; if you’re Baptist; if you have siblings. Gradually the exercise dug deeper: if your parents are divorced; you’ve experienced the death of a peer; you know someone with cancer; someone mentally ill; someone with an addiction; is in an abusive relationship; who’s thought about suicide. Students became quieter, more pensive; they looked around to see who also moved with them, and saw they weren’t alone. Somebody knew the troubles they’d seen; there were tears, the occasional embrace or a knowing look; strangers saw they had more in common than they thought. True community began to form through the bonds of shared struggle. For me it was a moment of holiness born of vulnerability.
          It’d be interesting to get up right now and move into the Fellowship Hall to do a similar exercise, perhaps with other descriptions: if you’ve ever been bullied; concerned about health; dealing with dementia; in conflict with children or parents, or both. But we’ll have none of that; we prefer safe and predictable worship; we might go over an hour; oddly enough we fear the church is the last place to show our wounds, even as we claim to be disciples of the Christ whose wounds are still visible. But if we did such a thing and moved into that space, we probably would be stunned to see the wounds we bear. Some are still fresh; perhaps recently opened, or a scab’s broken-again. Even if our wounds are now scars, we know they’re there and some areas are still sensitive; all of us came limping here one way or another. And at least for some, there’s a lingering, longing wish that we were a community where wounds could be more easily shared.
          We live in a culture that tells us to be quiet, don’t make a mess, keep your troubles to yourself; we’re entered into an endless competition always to be the best, the brightest, the happiest, the most successful, the most beautiful and fit. That competition produces one of the most depressing parts of December: the Christmas letter from folks touting their great successes and accomplishments. Did you ever notice that when tough times came to folks’ lives, the letters stopped coming, too?
          For a younger generation the phenomenon of social comparison is linked to depression, low self-esteem, and jealousy. It’s the funk felt on Facebook or other social media when our humdrum lives bump up against our friends’ highlight reels of fun, parties with friends, and awesome vacations. Ugh.
          Thank God for another, more real and true story found in scripture. What a blessed relief to see that wounds are real; terrible things happen; life can be a mess; and that that isn’t the end of the story. As many a preacher has said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. We know Good Friday’s darkness, but Easter dawns. The Crucified Jesus is also the Risen Lord. An imprisoned Paul on his way to Rome and possible execution writes to Christians in the town of Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Do not worry about anything, but in everything let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus;” then he is bold to say, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We followers of Christ can sing this truth, “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack, in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)
          Sisters and bothers, it’s OK, even a blessing, to own our brokenness and our need, and to cry out for help, even when good people around us tell us that’s in poor taste, or to shush up. It’s a blessing, because that’s how healing and transformation happen.
          Imagine how unsettled the crowd is around Bartimaeus when he begins to howl for help, “Jesus! Son of David, have mercy on me!” A bunch of folks tell him to put a sock in it, but desperately hopeful people do desperately hopeful things so he just cranks it up a notch, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And then Jesus says, “Call him here.” Did you notice that? Jesus’ call doesn’t come directly from him but through the crowd. It’s the crowd that says, ”Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Healing comes from Jesus, but through the caring help of those around Bartimaeus.
          Think of what would’ve been missed if Bartimaus had just shut up and stayed in his proper place. The crowd would’ve stayed distant and removed; they would’ve missed the opportunity to help healing happen. They would’ve missed seeing God’s amazing power transform a life. Bartimaeus would’ve stayed blind, he would’ve stayed put, begging on the sidelines, and he would’ve missed seeing the face of Jesus and the adventure of getting up to follow on the Way.
          For this gospel, following on the Way is not just walking a road; it’s following Jesus, being a disciple.  In Mark’s Gospel, Bartimaeus sees what the disciples hadn’t: following Jesus is about serving, not being served, finding life by giving it away, becoming great through suffering love. Bartimaeus was never the same.
          And I suspect that following Jesus led him to see that becoming like Jesus meant helping others also to experience healing and hope and new life. And I suspect the crowd was never the same, either. Because of what they saw and said that day, they knew they’d had a part in God’s work of healing a life.
          That’s our calling and promise, too. What happened with that crowd and Bartimaeus can still happen here in this place, where Jesus also stands. Indeed, it happens, every week.
          When I left the Wesley Foundation to become the pastor of the United Methodist Church at Randolph-Macon College, I was thankful that dedicated Stephen Ministers were there; we became a ministry team as I offered first response to need, and they followed with long term care as I went to the next crisis. We knew that together we were the care-givers, but God was the Curer. Here too, each week, Stephen Ministry care-givers serve their care-receivers.
          But it isn’t one-way. Blessing comes to all. Any Stephen Minister will tell you they get as much or more out of the humble gift of being allowed into the most fragile parts of a person’s life. They know God guides and helps them; the ministry is simply beyond their ability. They’ll tell you it’s a holy thing to be Christ’s instrument of transformation in a life, and to sense Christ at work through their flesh and blood. Wouldn’t you want to experience Christ alive in such a way?
          And any Stephen Minister will tell you God works in their life through the care-receiver they serve. Every gift of the Spirit has grown in them, especially peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. This ministry’s changed them; they’re more open to others and willing to share their deepest selves, more ready to be still, to wait, to listen. One Stephen Minister confessed, “Christ has developed parts of me I didn’t know I had.” Watch out: put yourself at God’s disposal and you don’t know what’ll happen. But trust me, it’ll all be good, for others, and you. Perhaps God is working on someone right here and now with a challenge and call to let God do such things again. Maybe that call is to you.
          A Stephen Minister here told me she’d once been a care-receiver and it was such a gift in her need that she felt called to share that gift with someone else. Mutual blessing happens when we become wounded healers together in Christ. From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians, “It was kind of you to share my distress.” Paul had birthed that church and helped them come to Christ. Now in his need they were the ones to offer help as mutual care and ministry were given.
          Some years ago I was one of the pallbearers for a friend and mentor who’d died. We were seated in the church together and during the singing of the opening hymn, at one time or another each of us broke down in grief. But the song kept on; others sang for us until we could again join in singing when sadness silenced other voices. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ: sometimes we serve, sometimes we’re served; in all times and places we all join love’s sweet harmony; we hold the Christ light for each other until we can see clearly the Christ who helps us all follow the Way that leads to life, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

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.

Sermon Based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

     I love Jesus’ disciples; they’re so full of bluster and bombast, but generally are clueless boneheads. Today and the two previous Sundays, our gospel lessons have come from Matthew 13, in which Teacher Jesus tells parables about the Kingdom of heaven, what it’s like to live when God truly is in charge of our lives and creation. At the end, he asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they nod their heads, “Yes!” I imagine them saying, “Sure, Jesus, got it! Of course we understand; totally, no problem!” And then, as they move out toward toward the next town, I see them in clusters of two or three whispering, “Do you really understand?” and one or another confesses, “Not a clue; I have no idea.  Maybe, but I’m not sure.”
     If they understand, I’m envious.  I’m not sure I always do. Even if they do have a clue, there’s always more to understand, another thing to see; which is like going deeper into Christ. I was in a discipleship accountability group in which we agreed to particular practices, one of which was to be kind and considerate to everyone we met. That was easy, except when driving my car. Then I saw there was more to learn and new challenges to face in that arena.  Jesus says to love your neighbor; I’m good with that but then there’s my rude neighbor, my neighbor of color, my gay neighbor, that immigrant, those Muslims, that nutcase who doesn’t share my politics, my enemy. That’s when discipleship is more than we first thought, right?
     Jesus’ parables are like that; they open up new worlds, offer new insights and always challenge what we think we understand. In Emily Dickinson’s words, parables “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” They’re like a diamond that reflects light differently from different angles; no one by itself is enough, but each one points to a different aspect of what it means to live in God; each is a creative sketch of life that really is life.
So Jesus tells us that God’s Realm is a treasure that is both found unexpectedly, and a pearl to be sought after fiercely. It’s an unexpected and surprising gift, stumbled upon: the light comes on and we realize, oh, this is what it looks like.
     At a downtown church, both homeless folks and church members with suburban homes gather at a wintry midweek evening worship service when a guy comes in off the street without shoes. Nice folks scurry around the building looking for, but not finding any shoes for the poor guy, until another homeless guy comes in, sees the situation, gives away his shoes, and simply says, “I’ve got another pair at the shelter.” All those folks with so many shoes in their walk-in closets; and suddenly the blind see.
     And it’s something to seek fiercely. If I want to run a 10K, I can’t just think about it; if I want to lose weight, I have to change my eating habits. Both quests are good; a greater one is to find life in Christ, and that also takes more than wishful thinking:  constant and regular disciplines of prayer, silence, worship, serving the poor, feasting on God’s Word regularly and faithfully, cultivating the fruits of the Spirit: these are markers on the Way to where the priceless treasure of Christ can be found. Life in God: surprising gift?  wholehearted quest? Yes.
     Truth be told, I’d like my faith more cut and dry, simple and undemanding with less mystery, offered by a laid back Jesus who doesn’t ask much or cause any trouble or indigestion. But Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he was nice, but because he was a threat and a challenge. If we listen to his parables and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” we probably don’t understand them. In reality they’re subversive, scandalous, outrageous, and call into question things we take for granted and cherish a lot, because that’s how we survive in the world. So we think.
     So with the parables we hear today. We tame the mustard seed parable with pithy phrases, “From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow;” “Good things come in small packages.” That’s true, for sure. But what if Jesus said God’s Realm is like Kudzu? Kudzu: that awful weed we thought would help us control erosion, but took on a life of its own and is beyond our control; a pain, not a blessing. That was mustard in Jesus’ world; a tiny seed growing to take over a field.
     But here’s a mystery: we think Kudzu’s terrible, but the Chinese treasure it as an essential herb good for food and for healing. And that’s God’s Realm: beyond our control. No matter how hard we try it won’t go away; at times it’s unsettling but also the essential source of healing we need and crave. Jesus says that Realm runs wild with mercy and love, forgiveness and compassion, justice or peace, and he promises it will overrun the landscape of all creation for good: even us.
     Now here’s the odd thing in Jesus’ parable: mustard doesn’t grow into something all that great. Birds do nest in it; it grows to six or eight feet, but that’s no tree; it’s a bush. Elsewhere in the Bible cedar trees symbolize mighty and powerful empires where birds come to make nests. Compared to a cedar, a mustard bush is a joke.
     But maybe it’s God’s last laugh about what we think matters. Maybe God’s Kingdom is marked by great humility and service; the truly powerful and mighty kneel down to wash feet and forgive, or show mercy and offer compassion. What an odd Realm Jesus invites us to inhabit as our true home, now and always.
     Then there’s that baker woman.  She seems safe, friendly, homey. But think again: bread rises and is transformed into something marvelous by being pummeled and kneaded. My life isn’t easy when God’s strong hands lay hold; new life arises as I surrender, am worked on and pounded, humbled and formed and shaped crosswise into the image and likeness of Christ. But it’s a joyful thing to be touched by God’s hands to rise anew full of life, delightful to behold. And the result is nothing short of spectacular.
     Three measures of leaven would produce an enormous amount of bread, enough to feed 100 or more people. It’s beyond expectations, extravagant, more than enough; apparently God is an open-handed, generous host, holding nothing back and ready to provide for all who are hungry for something real and eternal. God’s banquet serves up heaping helpings of that bread of life that changes everything: mercy and kindness and grace and acceptance and forgiveness.  God welcomes us to sit and be at home there even here, even now. People hunger for such things.
     William and Mary students are very competitive, the brightest and best; and that can be a heavy burden if you think you’re loved for your achievements and not yourself. I often shared with them words from Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who left a teaching position at Harvard to live as a companion for a special needs adult in the L’Arche community. He’d written, “There is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests'” (Life of the Beloved). Nouwen had heard that voice, rising up against the many voices that tell us otherwise; it transformed him as he went a new Way with Christ. William and Mary students who heard those words also heard that voice with wonder and joy on their faces as they realized God offered them such a gift, too.
     I’m comforted by Jesus’ word that that life-bringing leaven is often hidden, doing its work unnoticed, mysteriously, quietly and not in plain view. But I saw it here a few weeks when a solitary woman at this church noticed I was a stranger in the crowd, sought me out spoke and acted with true hospitality that is not seen nearly enough in congregations; and I was grateful.
     Could such Kingdom-leaven hospitality work a different miracle? Next month in Charlottesville, white surpremacists will again gather. My bishop has asked United Methodist clergy to join in non-violent protest, and I think a colleague has a crazy wise way to go one more step. She suggests that Kingdom-bold clergy offer free food and drink to the Unite the Right group, to engage in conversation with them, to listen deeply, to humbly challenge in love when possible, and offer to pray with and for them. In that heated place of controversy and conflict, who knows what might arise from such leaven hidden among Christ’s followers that day; and wouldn’t it be worth everything to glimpse God’s Kingdom there?
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.

Sow Crazy: Sermon Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Note: Whatever flaws are contained in this sermon, they are mine. Some of the thought was informed by Brian Stoffregen’s Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks, and Elisabeth Johnson’s commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 found at WorkingPreacher.org.
     Today’s scripture’s a hard sell. We’ve heard it so much we don’t hear. “A sower went out to sow…” Boring. It won’t be easy to sow the seed of God’s Word to bring unexpected blessing before you stop listening and start thinking about lunch or the coming week?
     Remember first that Jesus’ stories are trickier than you think. Jesus says he tells parables to confound people to make them think more about things they think they already understand. He says, “This is why I tell parables: ‘seeing, folks don’t see, and hearing they don’t get it.’ The prophet Isaiah got it right: ‘The people are blockheads! They stick their fingers in their ears so they won’t have to listen; they shut their eyes so they won’t have to look so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face so I can heal them.’”* If we think we’ve figured out a Jesus story think again: maybe not.
     And remember that Jesus’ stories caused trouble. If we listen to a Jesus story and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” then we probably don’t really get it. His stories always have an edge; they take an unexpected turn to challenge our everyday day world and what we think. Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he nice, but because he and his stories threatened people.
     Matthew arranges his story of Jesus to show him as a new Moses, a new lawgiver and teacher of God’s way. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches with authority like Moses on Mt. Sinai; five blocks of teaching crafted by Matthew remind us of the Law in the first five books of the Old Testament. Today’s scripture is one of five parables Jesus tells in the third block of teaching, but they’re wedged between conflicts Jesus has with faith leaders, hometown neighbors, and his own family. Jesus’ stories go together with misunderstanding, challenge, threat. Today’s story is also full of puzzle and promise, if we have ears to hear.
     It answers a crucial question: if Jesus is so wonderful and truly God’s chosen, why don’t more people believe? Shouldn’t more people believe, and trust him, and live like him? The story’s told so we won’t fret overmuch that most folks simply won’t.
     Some hearts are just hard and unreceptive. For whatever reason some think faith is foolishness for losers and this Jesus stuff is just wishful thinking.
     Others start out well, but their roots in Christ aren’t deep so when trouble comes faith withers. Disappointment happens and they turn from God because they think God didn’t come through, so what’s the point?
     And some folks have the seed of Christ planted in them, but other things become more important. and discipleship dies. I knew someone on fire for God and the radically different life she believed Christ was calling her to live. But then she met and married a man with a very lucrative career and this world’s cares and wealth choked her life of faith.
     But there’s that fourth blessed group: the seed of God’s Word and life takes root to bear a rich harvest. But it’s only one out of four; an F- in school. A 25% success rate’s not that great; shouldn’t God do better?
     Maybe failure and lack of success are just part of the deal. Maybe God delights in throwing seed everywhere to see what happens and delights whenever and however new life comes. Fruitfulness matters; but so does faithfully doing God’s work, trusting that growth will happen, sometimes in surprising places. Maybe faithful failure and fruitfulness are both OK.
     We’re tempted to think we’re the good seed, the good soil, the ¼ bearing fruit. In God’s multiple choice test, we’re #4, the good soil, right? But maybe the more honest answer is #5, all the above. Our hearts can be hard and dismiss parts of the gospel as absurd: love our enemies? forgive those who harm us? trust God completely instead of military strength or retirement savings, or youth or beauty? There’ve been times when doubt got the best of me; I felt betrayed by God or God’s silence terrified me. We know what it’s like to be distracted by wealth or money worries or family demands. Maybe we should thank God that God’s seed somehow survived and we produced any fruit. Maybe it’s a miracle that God didn’t give up on us, but kept planting year after year. Even when met by failure and disappointment God kept hoping for something good, even in us.
     As a teenager I spent hours talking after school with Ben Nelson, my home church’s associate pastor. We talked about everything: relationships, issues of the day like race and war, faith. At times he could’ve thought I was a waste of time; I was such a blockhead, sticking my fingers in my ears not wanting to hear what Christ might expect of me, shutting my eyes to what following Jesus required of me if I took him seriously. But he didn’t give up, and I tell you that whatever fruit came out of my ministry came because God kept planting seeds through him week after week, month after month, year after year. Before giving up on others, thank God that God doesn’t give up on us. It’s a miracle of God’s amazing grace.
     Maybe this story is about a God willing to take risks even when results aren’t guaranteed. Maybe it’s about a reckless and extravagant God who sows seed without fretting over efficiency or effectiveness, but simply throws out seeds of life and blessing to see what happens. We disciples are to be like God, doing God’s work today. What if we become God’s faithful reckless risk takers who don’t fret over efficiency or effectiveness or what kind of return we get on our efforts? God seems to be OK with being faithful failures and things not always working out; Jesus’ God Jesus is extravagantly and wastefully generous, tossing the seed of life and rejoicing with what happens. Could we?
     Maybe God’s seeding and harvest of life through us is marked both by grand failures and successes; what’s surprising is where fruit is produced. In Jesus’ life it was the odd balls and misfits and rejects who got it, not the religious or proper folk – often their hearts were hard or faith was shallow. In his story maybe Jesus is challenging us to take risks that may fail, to try things that might not work, to see what God might do anyway. Do something for Christ’s sake even if it goes badly.
     Here’s some advice from successful business folks: be sure to create a sufficient number of excellent mistakes. If you want to succeed, double your failure rate; if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything worthwhile. Indeed, some things are so important they’re worth doing badly.
     In Jesus’ story, if the sower didn’t throw the seed and fail alot, there would be no fruit. Making mistakes, wasting time and energy are part of the creative process. Google headquarters has nap rooms and game areas and outdoor spaces for walking for a reason. Sometimes what looks like doing nothing is tilling the ground for unexpected breakthroughs to new life. Jesus advises us, “You received without payment; give without payment; you received as a gift, give as a gift.”
     What if this church decided to be God’s reckless risk-takers and committed 10% of the budget to sow God’s seed in wild and crazy ways, to experiment with reaching out and planting seeds of faith and living the gospel where you’re planted? What if you didn’t fret about being effective or efficient, but prayed fiercely simply to be faithful see what God might do?
     When a Chicago church received an unexpected $1.6 million windfall last year, most of the money went to ordinary things, like meeting a budget shortfall or needed building upkeep. But they also did something reckless and risky: one Sunday each of 300+ worshipers got a $500 check to do whatever they thought God wanted them to do with it. $160,000 to sow crazy for Christ. Some miracles happened, but certainly not always. But without sowing crazy, no fruit.
     In campus ministry I often saw the fruit of risky, reckless faith. Students tossed out ideas and tried crazy things, trusting all to God. Spectacular failures happened along with wonderful experiences of unexpected fruitful blessings. In late night movie discussions students suddenly got it and faith was born in new ways. Seemingly endless encounters eventually led to students becoming a pastor, a nurse, a special ed. teacher. Paying students to take Religious Studies classes led to deeper faith, not less. A casual walk across campus with a teacher from Russia led to years of connection and mission between students here and there.
     In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller tells of some young adults setting up a confessional booth at a mall. They invite passersby to enter the booth where they unexpectedly hear a Christian ask their forgiveness for the church’s sins: racism, homophobia, judgmental intolerance, love of power, focus on buildings instead of building relationships. Sow crazy! Sometimes nothing happened, but some gave grace and forgiveness to the broken Body of Christ and room was opened for new faith.
     Others sow crazy: a college town church hosts therapy dogs and food for 300 students during exams; a downtown church’s Bible School draws hundreds of children, most not from that congregation; another offers Sunday School for special needs friends and midweek worship for folks who work on Sundays; a church gives yearly blessings to new drivers, teachers, first responders, health care workers; another hosts a free community-wide block party with food, games and music; a congregation invests thousands of dollars helping working poor neighbors develop a two year plan to escape poverty; some Christians goes to Denny’s at 4 a.m. to share breakfast and blessing with Muslims from a local mosque as they prepare for their daily Ramadan fast. Sow crazy; you never know what fruit might be produced.
     Jesus says, “You will know my disciples by their fruits.” Seeing becomes believing as our good soil fruits help others “put together” faith, words and actions. A young woman went to church but finally became a Christian as she saw an older woman showing that following Jesus was fruitful, if not easy. The woman had a rough relationship with another in the church; as she worked to love and forgive frequently, she saw her nemesis as a fruitful gift and blessing as she confessed, “That woman will make me a Christian yet.” God’s seed in our lives might be the only Bible someone will ever read. Sow crazy, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
-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

Anna and Simeon Sightings? Two Poems in Praise of Ancient Saints

There is so much grace, mystery, wonder to be seen, and I mostly miss it, but today I saw a blessing.  An elderly woman was making her way toward the local Lutheran facility where the church gathers weekly for worship (St. Stephen, you may know of whom I speak); she looked frail and ancient leaning on her cane, and yet there she was making her way toward the place where she expected, by grace, to meet the God she’s forever known in Christ.  I suspect she was unnoticed  because this is who she is and what she does; most Sundays I have also missed her on the way but today I saw and marveled at her faith, her steadfastness, her enduring perseverance that was Spirit-inspired to move her toward worship once more.

Her witness reminded me of another moment of mystery and wonder I encountered in a small Methodist church building in Bournemouth, England in 2004, with a group of students from the Wesley Foundation at The College of William and Mary.  Worship was being led by Kara Cooper, a W&M alum, now a British citizen and Methodist chaplain at Lancaster University.  What I will remembers always from that Sunday was a trio of members coming forth, the middle an elderly WW 2 veteran aided and upheld by his fellow sisters in Christ who had come and brought him to the Lord’s Table.  There is a hunger and a thirst that only God can quench, that draws us until we draw our last breath, and is a blessing.  These poems respond to the epiphanies I was blessed to see today here and then, in England.

She creeps

Her three-legged crawl near imperceptible

By drivers passing on their way

Like a vine she moves

Carefully, cautiously, gently toward the Light

 

She grasps

Her outstretched hand feeling for the sign

Aptly marking the privileged place for her

Who no longer moves so fast or far

As others do and once she did

But blesses and is grateful for a place

Reserved for her

 

She steps

Shyly lightly curb-toeing her way up

Wondering not if it can bear her up

But if she can bear herself to that low height

Rocking back and up once twice thrice

The small swell of success waving her on

 

She processes

A one-woman band gliding toward the parade

Others also drawn toward the Light

Just inside the door

Where she expects to meet the Door

The Shepherd True Gate Way Life

 

She follows

The path paved every first day of life

A lifetime lifelong journey

She cannot think not going

Woman toward the well where the thirsty Savior waits

Thirsty to bless and be blessed

To feed and be fed

Welcomed Home once more grateful

 

II.

Call sounded

Invitation sent

Table set and prayer ended

Bread fractured Cup filled

They come

Hungry hearts anticipating

Empty hands filled with hope

 

The pastor stands

Dispensing grace

Ordinary ways ordinary folk

Mundane, ho-hum

Nothing new as always

Until he comes they come as one

Mystery on the move

 

An ancient man

Armed with two women

Who stand him guide him on

Lest he fall or fail

To reach the goal of God

No rush ever patient

They have eternity

Slowly shuffling

Feet sliding on holy ground

 

Once young guarding shore

Ludicrously armed with battle axe

Now feebly muscled yet faith strong armed

He comes as two stand guard and lead

The pastor ready at her post to feed and bless

A miracle seen at life’s ebbing shore

Old soldier at ease before the soul’s Guard

At peace and fed and blessed

By two by all by One

And blessing he because I saw

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

Mother’s Day Gratitude

I Thank My God for You

(words and music by Joseph M. Martin)

For a lovely choral presentation of this anthem, go to

I thank my God for you each time I think of you.

Each time I pray for you, I’m filled with thanksgiving.

For ev’ry word and deed, for helping those in need,

I thank the Lord for you and give Him the glory.

And even when we are apart, you are always in my heart.

We are bonded by God’s Holy Spirit for we are one in God’s embrace,

one in love’s unfailing grace.

We give voice to one great Alleluia.

I give thanks. I thank my God and give my praise. Alleluia.

I thank my God for you and each time I think of you.

Each time I pray for you, I’m filled with thanksgiving.

And when the day is done, and ev’ry race is run,

God’s perfect grace will bring us home.

We will be together. for ever and evermore.

I thank my God.

At the gathering for worship in which I participated today, this was the anthem, inspired by Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “ I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…” (1:3).  In our worship we celebrated the 5th Sunday of Easter, observed the secular Mother’s Day holiday, and The United Methodist Church’s Festival of the Christian Home.  In addition to a marvelously broad-stroked pastoral prayer, this anthem was a worship highlight for me, not only for its beauty of language and melody but because it led me to reflect on the thanks I give for my mother and the family into which I was welcomed, nurtured and formed.  

It is nearly two and a half years since my mother, Hilda Mitchell Hindman, died in her 100th year.  My father, Neville Millard Hindman, has been dead nearly 30 years.  Today marks the 35th year since I asked my wife to marry me; my parents celebrated 38 years of marriage and so I find myself being mindful of the brief, precious and beautiful  gift we receive in marriage and family.  No matter how many days we have, they are soon gone and we fly away; but today I sense my parents’ nearness in the great cloud of witnesses, and am especially thankful for them.  In the words of the anthem, Mamma and Daddy, “I thank the Lord for you and give him glory.  And even when we are apart, you are always in my heart.  We are bonded by God’s Holy Spirit for we are one in God’s embrace, one in love’s unfailing grace. We give voice (here and on that far shore and in a greater light) to one great Alleluia.”

What follows is not a perfect nor exhaustive listing, and it is not intended as a list of perfect family or parental gifts or characteristics.  It is simply my list of those things for which I give thanks to God for my mother and father;

I thank my God for you each time I think of you.  From you I learned

*the mystery, wonder and gift of faith in Christ

*to give God preeminence in all things, and to participate in the church, not because it is perfect but because it is beloved and cherished by Christ

*to give thanks to God every day for simple things like food, and to form the discipline of daily and regular prayer, lest I take life for granted or miss its wonder

*to be true to my word and a reliable person on whom others can surely count

*I am not at the center of the universe and to be content with what life brings

*one role I have in life is to help others and to be generous with time, talent and treasure

*music and song are beautiful and worth the discipline

*integrity, honesty, character are irreplaceable treasures to be enacted in small as well as great ways

*there is honor in hard work, perseverance, and determination

*to speak my mind without fear

*over the years that the above gift can be both bane and blessing

*to cherish family and remember that this is one of God’s best gifts

If this serves as a prompt for you to enter into a similar season of reflection and gratitude for those who welcomed, nurtured and formed you, all the better.  May your day be an occasion to say, “I thank my God for you each time I think of you.”

The Perfect Church: A Sermon Based on Acts 2:42-47, on the Occasion of the Baptism of James Eno Clayton

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.

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.