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.

If I Was Preaching This Week…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After worship today, where all this happened: Worship Wonderings…

communion-2

It seems so naïve, ridiculous, pitiable, retro and nostalgic, and yet I do it weekly, and sometimes oftener: I’m gathered with others, many grayheads like myself, but others drawn as well to a Table, Font and Lectern, to do what has been done for 20 centuries and more by us who claim to meet there a once executed yet living One.

It seems madly, insanely absurd. And yet nevertheless we do it; I do it. We are foolish enough to know its wisdom and wise enough to see how foolish it must seem to those who wonder why:

I have a hunger that only holiness can feed
Time and space are simply too constraining and eternity is this near and only thinly veiled
Like all things well rooted, I need to be harrowed and tended, pruned and fed, watered and aerated by the Master Gardener
I come to profess for those who doubt some days, counting on that grace to be returned in my need
I am promised that here I can meet Jesus and that makes a difference I cannot bear to be without
I need to sing of something greater than baseball, or grander than this nation
To hear and learn by heart a true Story unique and unlike the illusory and false ones I mostly hear
To confess, give thanks, be still to listen, and remember others before God, trusting they do for me the same
My ears tingle for the Word beyond all words that confronts, challenges, comforts, and changes
I get confused and lost along the way and need a compass to find the Way home
In my darkness I find light and guidance that does not fail
Life is too grand, mad, terriying, beautifully mysterious simply to live its wonder unacknowledged
I gather with those who’ve gone before me and anticipate my gathering unto them
Being and doing, contentment and peace beyond knowing are offered freely but never cheaply
I am met by love, given hope, and fed by faith

And so I come, and go, and am blessed. And I am grateful.

When, Not If: Sermon Based on Matthew 6

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

On the Road to Another All Saints Day: Musings on Death and Resurrection

With some regularity, I receive email postings about the death of some pastor or other church leader, announcing, “So and so claimed the resurrection promise…” I don’t mean to be crass, but the image that comes to mind is of someone standing at the grocer’s deli counter ready to claim their turn at ordering cheese or meat, or a shopper at a holiday bazaar stopping by the information booth to claim their prize because their name was chosen and called over the public address system. Little or no grace is involved; everything is routine, almost contractual and obligatory and without surprise. Certainly no breathtakingly mysterious or stunningly unexpected awe is present, nor is there much overwhelmingly joyous gratitude.   “So and so claimed the promise of resurrection…” Yawn.

In a similar way I read obituaries in which it is confidently claimed that the deceased is certainly now in heaven, enjoying all the blessings of the eternal celestial realm. And in all these moments I wonder, “How do they know that?” What is the source of this certainty that leaves no room for doubt and simply takes for granted that the claims are true and this is, in fact, their new reality?

I ask the questions not to be a curmudgeon but simply because these assumptions and claims seem to be contrary to my understanding of Christian scripture and tradition. At the very least they exhibit a level of pride and confidence that exceeds the limits and boundaries we can take for granted as finite, mortal creatures.   Such claims take for granted assumptions I do not share as a person of faith, and I confess I believe to presume on divine prerogatives.

Truth be told, we Christian clergy share some of the blame for this spirit of entitlement in the face of death. Because of my age and station in life, with some regularity I attend funerals held in churches or led by Christian clergy who seemingly gloss over or ignore the reality of the death of the deceased. Typically, they glide quickly past naming the reality that the person is as dead as a doornail, leaving a hole in our lives or a ton of unresolved issues. Instead of praying for grace and mercy, there seems little or no need for such things because the deceased was such a stellar being. Instead of naming the truth that most of us are a mixture of good and evil, strengths and weaknesses, times of unmitigated failure and disaster as well as moments of triumph, the paradox of who we are truly is deleted and replaced with some holograph of pure light, joy and beauty.

That is not my life, and so such sentiments ring falsely hollow for me. I also know of funeral events in which I listened to glowing words about the deceased from friends who were utterly ignorant of the deep shadow side of the person in the coffin. These speakers needed forgiveness because truly did not know what they were doing; if they did they would have been much more cautious, humble and circumspect in their words.

Instead of proclaiming the remarkable gospel that acknowledges the awful truth of the death and destruction of our entire being as creatures and whose only hope of something more is by God’s grace and God’s gift of life, I often hear easy words that assure the gathered that of course this person has reaped a bonanza of life. We glibly are told we celebrate their life because they were so wonderful that we know without a doubt that they are now with loved ones, doing their favorite things, having a high old time – often in a heaven that seems to be remarkably devoid of God. Why would God be needed or even relevant to the life pleasantly assumed now to be lived by the dearly departed, when the prize is easily and readily claimed? This is an entitlement program that outshines all others.

Despite all these confidently expressed sentiments by clergy and other people of faith and good will, I am not so sanguine. Christian scripture often seems to acknowledge that we are finite creatures, bound by space and time, living souls who are but dust and return to dust. Unlike ancient Greek thought, in the Hebrew mind we are not immortal souls temporarily inhabiting physical bodies so that at death the body goes into the ground and the soul flies off to a spiritual realm. We don’t have souls, we are living souls inspirited and made alive by God’s Spirit, and when that Spirit is taken from us, we are entirely dead, utterly lifeless and, on our own, completely hopeless and powerless to change that reality. We are like shadows gradually vanishing as the memory of us fades among the living; all those who remember us eventually will join us in the realm of the dead until none alive will know us or remember the place we once filled in the land of the living.

Add to that the biblical concept that our lives are judged, weighed and assessed by the Eternal One who lives in light inaccessible, whose ways are not our ways and thoughts are not like ours. This Judge of all the earth seemingly measures our lives by the integrity and depth of our love for God and for one another. What seems to weigh significantly in the scales of divine justice is how we treat the most vulnerable and weak – the poor, the hungry and marginalized, the thirsty and naked, the sick and imprisoned, refugees and immigrants, our suffering and dying sisters and brothers who also are children of Adam and of God.

In contrast, my life is typically focused on getting and having and enjoying myself, and distancing myself as far as possible from the wretched of the earth as I secure my future on my own, doing as I please with my life without much regard for others or the Holy One who also gave them life. If my life is that misdirected on such a scale, how can I presume on God’s good graces just because I think God should do so? If all my days I have rarely or only peripherally focused on the things that make for life, how can I be assured of, or cavalierly presume I will spend eternity with One who is so Other than I?

The writers of the New Testament are seemingly more circumspect and humble in attitude. They speak of resurrection hope, not because they are entitled but because of God’s undeserved mercy, grace, generosity, love and unfettered freedom. St. Paul speaks of hoping to be raised with Christ to new life, but that humble hope is framed in the context of him also having suffered with Christ. Our life in life and death and life beyond death seem cut to the pattern of cross and resurrection, the style of suffering love wed to joyful trust worn by Christ.

For St. Paul in particular, it also seems that if there is a resurrected life it is lived as we are incorporated into Christ’s life. For him there is no life apart from the life of Christ into which he hopes one day to be mystically joined. That is why Christians can speak confidently of “the communion of saints.” That communion of the living and the dead is composed of all who abide in Christ and make a home in Christ. There may be a veil separating today’s enfleshed disciples and those who are asleep in Christ, but they all are one in Christ, and alive in Him. For us who claim that Christ is our life, there is no life apart from His life, and there is no communion of these living and dead outside of Him.

That resurrected life does not necessarily automatically and fully commence at the moment of death; in his most extended reflection on the resurrected life (1 Corinthians 15) St. Paul assumes that at death, all fall into the deep sleep of death until the end of time when at the final resurrection happens, finally death is defeated and those who belong to Christ are raised to life – but until then death remains our enemy even if vanquished by Christ alone (and no one else) when God raised Christ from the dead as the first fruit of resurrection (but not the whole harvest, for which we wait with hope).

St. Augustine suggests that in the realm of eternity time and space are no longer relevant and past, present and future collapse into one reality, but all this is mystery beyond my comprehension. What happens when we die? I do not know for certain. But I have seen something of the One who does know in the face of Christ, and so I can rest content in that mystery. I need not know, because I am fully known.

If there is resurrection, it is gift, unmerited favor and grace. We can await resurrection with humble hope, but not because we said the sinner’s prayer or we lived an exceptional life or we are entitled, but because of what we know of God. Our confidence is not in ourselves but in that God who is a God of life and love beyond our deserving; this God is full of surprises and able to do more than we think, dream or imagine. If we live in hope, it is not because we are good or great, but because God is, and has proven reliable to any and all who call humbly on God’s name and do not rely on their own strength but on the strength of the Holy One.

That seems a more fitting attitude for us who, even in our living, are in the midst of death. Come what may, in life or in death, whatever the future holds, we can rest confident that God’s love is great. We live and die in that love, and so we trust the mystery that all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well – even if we do not know the shape it will take in God’s good time and wisdom. Knowing we live in God’s love is all we have. But in life and in death and life beyond death (whatever that means), that is enough.  That also allows us to leave in God’s good hands the rest of the story for those who do not follow Christ but are also God’s beloved.  I am content to let God be God because I know I am not.

Instead of “claiming the resurrection promise,” perhaps a more appropriate aspiration would be for it to be claimed of us that we “died peaceful and unafraid, in the hope of resurrection.” So may it be for all who trust the God whose life and love we have seen in Christ Jesus, his Son, our Lord.

Mind Messing – at Church of All Places and on a Wednesday of All Times

I went to church today and once again, the Gospel and Jesus messed with my mind and heart.  And of all places, it was at an Episcopal Church and the Word was brought by an old white guy.  Who knew such miracles could happen!?

Each week Bruton Parish Episcopal Church offers a mid-week service of Holy Communion.  It’s about as traditional as you can get: Bruton Parish is located on Duke of Gloucester Street in the heart of historic Colonial Williamsburg and dates back to 1715; the liturgy is from The Book of Common Prayer with its florid language; the meal is wine and those dry communion wafers that have no taste, stick to the roof of your mouth, and sometimes remind me more of styrofoam than the Savior.

Today’s Gospel lesson and the homily (fancy pants word for a sermon) focused on St. Matthew.  In the Christian Church calendar, this is his feast day (the last time I went to Bruton Parish for this service, the focus was on St. Bartholomew’s feast day; I appreciate the Church’s odd sense of humor that a man flayed to death is the patron saint of leather workers – but that’s for another blog post perhaps).

The Gospel reading for today was Matthew 9:9-13.  Here’s the text, just in case you haven’t memorized the Bible yet:

 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.  While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (New International Version)

The presiding priest made the familiar point that as a tax collector Matthew would have been seen as an outsider to avoid, the scum of the earth in the eyes of many, someone not to be welcomed at anyone’s dinner table and definitely not someone whose party you would attend.

But Jesus is not just anyone, thank God.  He sees Matthew, apparently values him, perceives Matthew’s need and ability, and attends his party.  And when the local clergy association has a conniption fit Jesus says he’s come specifically for people like Matthew, and then gives them a homework assignment: learn the meaning of mercy (maybe that’s where Pope Francis learned some of his holy heart lessons).

The point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel?  There are no outsiders; all have value and are beloved; all count; all lives matter, including those we think don’t.  To build his case, the priest referenced today the end of Matthew’s story when Jesus calls his followers to go into all the world (Matthew 28).

And then came the slam dunk that left me reeling: he retold Jesus’ story of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25), which says simply that our eternal salvation depends on how we treat those we think don’t count – the hungry or thirsty, the sick or imprisoned, the naked or the stranger  All those outsiders on the margins matter to God and we more fully reflect the image of God when they become the focus of our care as well.

If there are no outsiders, if we are all in this together, if we are all embraced by God’s arms no matter who we are, then boundaries and borders disappear.  That sounds good, right?  Until it hit me upside the head.  That includes the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger at our border seeking a home, healing, and hope.  “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Oh, my good Lord.

There Jesus goes again, messing with my mind and heart, calling me to see things differently with new eyes, with God’s eyes.  And it’s Matthew’s fault this time (thanks to that old white preacher who just stood there talking while the universe shifted beneath my feet).  You see, Matthew’s Gospel is the one that tells about the birth of Jesus the refugee whose family must flee for their lives; Matthew’s gives us that sweet picture of Jesus the undocumented family member who shows up at Egypt’s border without a passport fleeing danger and death; Jesus the immigrant who will live in Egypt not knowing the language or customs or practicing that community’s religion; Jesus the suspect outsider.

What if Jesus, Joseph and Mary had been denied entry?  What if the Egyptians had built a fence to keep out strangers like them?  What if the police showed up one day at their house in downtown Cairo (you can visit a church in that city that is built over the traditional site of their home there) and deported them back to that fearful place they fled?

What if Jesus is still standing at our border, at the fence, his life in danger still?  The truth is, Matthew’s Jesus still is.  That thought, that image from today is what haunts me.

No wonder the political and religious leaders of his day put Jesus on a cross.  He didn’t get crucified because he was nice, but because he was a threat.  And today my preconceived notions and perspectives were threatened.  All I wanted to do was go to church and meet Jesus.  That happened, but not on my terms.  That’s why I am still in the process of conversion, still doing the hard homework of learning mercy in order to see with God’s eyes and to love with God’s heart and to let God set the agenda.  I am yet a work in process of transformation.

Pope Francis has called on all Roman Catholic institutions to sponsor at least one refugee family.  Maybe he’s assuming that if such hospitality is offered, Jesus will be there, too.  What if all of us who claim to follow Jesus were to take up that holy calling, and Protestant and Eastern Orthodox congregations, campus ministries, colleges and universities, hospitals and retirement facilities also offered their open doors, open minds, open hearts?  What kind of transformation and blessing would transpire, not only for the welcomed but for us standing at the door?    I think part of the appeal of the Pope is that he seems to take Jesus seriously; he is the fragrance of Christ (to borrow a New Testament image) in a stuffy, stinky world.  What might happen if the world saw Francis joined by legions of Jesus’ lovers, also open to seeing and serving this refugee Redeemer, the immigrant incarnating the Holy One, the stranger Savior?

When Jesus was crucified, it happened outside the city’s walls.  Ultimately, even to the end, Jesus himself was the outsider, the outcast, and cast-off.  And if I am going to find him today, I better go and stand there, too.  This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, thanks be to God.

 

Table Manners: Sermon Based on Mark 7:24-27

 Following the murders in Charleston, SC, of nine Christians engaged in Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the bishops of that denomination called on people of faith across our land to focus the weekend of September 5-7 on Confession, Repentance, Prayer and Commitment to End Racism.  As is often the case, the lectionary of readings for this Sunday provided a providentially apt set of readings relevant to this prayerful call by the bishops (which was echoed by Young Jin Cho, my own United Methodist bishop here in Virginia.  Here is what the Spirit brought me to say as I sought to bear witness to God’s Word yesterday at Highland Springs UMC in Highland Springs, VA.  

I have a confession to make – in 42 years of ministry I’ve never preached on this text. I avoided it because quite frankly, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Jesus. His table manners might’ve been socially acceptable in his day but they’re still rather crude and rude. If we like gentle Jesus meek and mild, always caring and kind, he’s not here. It’s troubling and unsettling and takes us where we’d rather not go.

In Mark’s story Jesus is traveling in the area of modern day Lebanon. He needs to recharge his batteries and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. But here comes this woman looking for help. Poor Jesus can’t get a break or a day off.

Mark describes her as Syro-Phoenician, a Gentile. The Greek says she’s a Hellenist; inMatthew’s gospel she’s even worse – a Canaanite. In other words she’s the worst kind of outsider. In the Bible Canaanites are always the bad guys; in Jewish history the Hellenists caused some of the worst persecutions Jews ever faced. And Jews weren’t really sure Gentiles were human, so Jesus’ harsh attitude toward this woman fit right in with his time and culture.
Add to that, she’s a woman. In Jesus’ day women and men who aren’t family just don’t deal with each other; women know their place and stay in it. But here she is, uninvited into the house looking for Jesus out to ask a favor.

Now she is respectful and humble; Mark says she falls atJesus’ feet to beg him to heal her little girl. Who could turn away and not feel pity for her? Apparently Jesus can.

And he does it in a rather crass and cruel way. In our reading Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t bother me or waste my time. I’ve got better things to dothan deal with people like you.” Ouch.

One more thing really stings and hurts here. We see dogs and puppies as cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy. We love them. That’s not how they’re seen in Jesus’ day. They’re wild scavengers; curs to be kicked aside and chased away. Dogs are more trouble than they’re worth. Basically Jesus calls this woman and her daughter dogs, female dogs. At its worst Jesus may be guilty of using the B word on them. Truth be told, Jesus sounds like a sexist racist.

But there is good news here. I love that Jesus’ is so human. We Christians claim a great mystery: Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.   Sometimes we want to smooth the raw edges in our picture of Jesus, but scripture says he was like us in every way, except without sin. He’s a creature of his own day and time; a first century Jew, part of a culture that sees women and non-Jews in a particular way. There’s no sin in that. The sin would be to stay that way when given a better, wiser way that’s more like God’s ways.

That’s what this woman does for Jesus. She opens his eyes wider to see more clearly. She’s the only person in the New Testament who gets the best of Jesus in an argument. I love that. Jesus rudely dismisses her; but she’s a Momma in need and won’t take “No” for an answer with her little girl’s life on the line. Jesus tells her, “It’ not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she comes right back, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Take that, Jesus. Even Gentiles, Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites, women and dogs have a place at God’s table of grace and mercy and healing and hope.

Just before this story, Jesus has a huge slap fight with Jewish religious leaders who are too focused on doing everything just so. Jesus rants at them, “You are so busy holding on to human traditions that you let go of God’s commandments.” And here’s this woman holding Jesus’ feet to the fire challenging him for doing the very same thing. Whoa.

Jesus is like us in every way except sin. The sin would be for Jesus to hold onto the human tradition of treating some better than others, as if there are 1st and 2nd class citizens. Thanks to this woman, Jesus’ very human eyes are opened to see that God’s ways are even greater and broader and wider than Jesus first thought. And Jesus changes his ways and his mind and his heart to match up to God.  He is converted and tells the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Typically Jesus connects healing with faith; here it’s the woman’s reasoning that produces the miracle. Her logic brings the change not only to her daughter, but to Jesus, too.

I love the way Mark tells his tale. In chapter 6 Jesus feeds 5000 Jews with bread and fish. In this chapter Jesus says the children’s bread shouldn’t be given to dogs but his mind is changed. That’s what conversion is. And in chapter 8 Jesus again provides bread to a crowd., but this time it’s Gentiles he feeds because he has compassion on them. Even Jesus can grow to see God’s ways in new ways; he’s blessed because of this woman God uses to make it happen.

That’s good news for us, too, because we’re Gentiles. We’re the outsiders Jesus might have missed without her opening his eyes and heart.

And there’s more good news. If the Son of God can grow in his understanding of God’s ways, so can we. If Jesus can be blessed through the honest wise words of another, so can we. We need each other; we need church folks to be open and honest with us to challenge and stretch us to live more fully for God.  That’s what it means to be church, the Body of Christ together.

Some of us grew up in a time and place and that was deeply racist and sexist. There’s no sin in that. The sin is to stay there. Jesus doesn’t stay with his limited attitudeafter his encounter with this woman in need, and we don’t have to stay tied to old, small ways, either.

Our world still doesn’t fully reflect God’s broad bright ways; Jesus still groans as he heals. Racism and prejudice are alive among us, maybe in our own hearts. Some say we have to say “Black Lives Matter” because in many ways our culture says they really don’t matter.

After the racially hate-filled murders of nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Carolina, African Methodist Episcopal Church bishops asked Christians across US to join today in confession, repentance, prayer and commitment to end racism. Our own Bishop Cho made that call to us as well.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can’t stay deaf and mute to this cancer still eating at our soul. Healing comes as we listen and learn from those who are different, with different life experiences. Blessing comes as we allow ourselves like the Lord Jesus to be challenged and changed by truth heard in unexpected places.  In my own life I thank God for the honest hard words and the humble life of a guy named Ben Nelson, my pastor during my teen years. God used him to convert and change this narrow-minded racist boy toward the better way of Christ. It’s true – the gospel really is that powerful and wonderful.

This winter I talked with some Randolph-Macon College students of color about their life on that largely white campus. It wasn’t easy to hear what they said, but I’m glad they told me the truth. I told them not to stay silent, and one woman said that’s hard: white folks can feel guilty and she didn’t want to hurt our feelings. But I said I hoped she’d speak up anyway because that’s how healing and conversion and better days come.

Today we come to be fed today at this table where the Lord is again present. Let us confess and repent of whatever keeps us from walking God’s wide way of grace for all; ask for healing so we won’t be deaf to the stories of our brothers and sisters and silent no more in the face of racism or prejudice. Like the woman long ago let us fall on our knees and ask for mercy for us and our land and make a new commitment to the loving way of Jesus; then our table manners will be worthy of the One who calls and heals and welcomes us all, thanks be to God.

For the Life of Me: Dealing with Death in a Changing Landscape: Part 2 – Is It Our Fear of Death?

In 1900, life expectancy in the USA was 47 years; most people died at home, often in the company of friends or family. Since most were also born at home, birth and death were woven into the fabric of life.

And death was a familiar thread in the seamless garment of life. Go to any church or municipal cemetery with graves prior to the 1920s and you’ll immediately notice how many young lie buried there. Young adults, teenagers, young children, infants are mingled among those with longer lives. In the not so distant past, death was certainly mourned as “the last enemy,” but it was also familiar, acknowledged, and a more frequent visitor interposing itself into the normal routine of life.   While it was as unwelcome a guest as today, it was not shied away from or denied, and few sought to put lipstick on the pig to make it more palatable or less real. Indeed, oftentimes it was those closest to the dead who cared for them, treated their bodies with dignity and respect, and did all in their power to express the same love and care to the dead that was shown while they were alive.

In another time, the funeral home was not where a body was taken, any more than a pregnant woman would have been delivered to the hospital to give birth. Death, like birth and most of life, was an affair of home, hearth, and heart.

My maternal grandmother, who died in 1955 (I was 4 years old and hers was the first funeral and burial I attended), was the wife of a Southern sharecropper. To make ends meet, he also drove the school bus; she sold butter and eggs.

And she dressed the dead. When someone in the community died, she was contacted to clean and bathe the body, and fill the body’s cavities with absorbent material. She dressed it and made it ready for viewing and the final journey to the grave. She was a neighbor being neighborly to those in need and did it honorably and humbly. And I suspect that as she dressed each body, with the help of others or in solitude, she was greatly aware that one day she also would die, and someone would tend to her. In the quiet conversation of a few at work or in silence as she worked alone, she pondered the mystery and wonder of life and of herself, and assessed how she was living the measure of her days.

In 1960, my paternal grandmother died. True, the funeral home was called to the hospital where she had died to take her body to be embalmed. But when that undertaking was accomplished, she was brought home and laid out in the living room, with her piano to the right of the casket and the sofa to the left. Visitation was held (ironically, but appropriately) in the living room; I remember some sitting on the piano stool and others on the sofa, talking with family, friends and neighbors who came to pay their respects.

When all the guests had departed for the evening my grandfather, my parents and I went upstairs to go to bed. Grandma was in the sleep of death in the living room; we slept a briefer spell overnight in the room above. But from that day forward, I was never afraid of the dead; after all, the dead person downstairs had loved me in life, so why would she haunt me with terror now?

In my previous post (For the Life of Me, Part 1), I presented a variety of ways funerals and disposing of the dead can be done more simply, economically, and without as much involvement of strangers. I suspect that some (many?) may have found those suggestions troubling, unnerving, unsettling, and producing a bit of squeamishness. I doubt any would have produced the same responses among most folks from previous generations.

For them, caring for the dead was the last fine measure of devotion, care, friendship or family obligation. Tending a loved one was work too important to be left to strangers, as much as possible.

Such work is still holy, to be cherished, and not necessarily left to strangers. True, it is unfamiliar to us, to keep company with the dead. It is unsettling, disquieting, a potential cause for anxiety or stress.

But so is being a true friend or professing love; staying married or surviving divorce or giving birth; learning to ride a bike or getting on the bus for the first day of school; letting your child go off to camp or drive alone behind the wheel of a car; leaving home for college or going on a job interview; having a fight with someone you love or asking for forgiveness; dealing with sickness or failure or heartache;  growing old or coming to the end of our days. None of those life experiences is easy; few of them can be avoided.  Coming to grips with them is hard, yet each one provides unexpected potential for blessing and growth.

To face and embrace life’s challenges is to live larger, deeper, more fully. It is, to use an image of C.S. Lewis, to become men (and women) with chests.

It is to live with courage. Interestingly, courage comes from the French word for “heart.” To live with courage is to live both bravely and with love.

And it is to live with humility. Humility – a word that derives from the same root as low, down to earth, reminding us that we are mortal, earthbound, earth born, in-spirited, divine mud pies who also one day will wither, die and be blown away like the dust we essentially are. We are also stardust, but either way we are dust and to dust we shall return.

A friend has wisely said that to be an adult is to know that traveling down life’s road you have to look at the road-kill; you can’t avert your eyes, but you have to look unflinchingly, and keep going.

Perhaps if we learned to live with dying and the dead, we would be less afraid to look it straight in the eye and not abandon the dead to go it alone unattended, unnoticed, left to fend for themselves when perhaps they most need the company of friends and family, and not left in the hands of strangers.

How do we learn not to fear death, the dead, or deny the reality of our mortality?

  1.  St. Benedict, whose Rule has guided the life of Christian monastic communities for 15 centuries, wisely teaches us to remember every day that we are going to die. Or as Steve Jobs put it, live each day as if it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right – and hopefully you will be at peace as you encounter a familiar face.

2.  There is blessing in talking with family or friends about life and death, what truly matters to us, what frightens or brings us joy, what we wish to bequeath them (blessings and values, and not just the velvet painting of Elvis hanging in the garage), naming our wishes and desires for how we would like to be remembered, or what kinds of rituals at our death we think would honor our lives.

3.  In my last months of ministry, I began a new practice I wish I had done from the beginning. Whenever I was called to the home or hospital where someone was actively dying or had died, as often as I was able I stayed with the body until s/he was removed to the morgue or hearse. When possible I also helped to move the corpse into the body bag and accompanied it on the way. Each time the family expressed deep gratitude; I don’t think they knew how important it was to have their loved one accompanied and not left alone until I made to offer to remain. Each time I helped to move a body, it was an honor and an act of simple care and devotion. Each time I was left in the silence with the dead, I could not help but ponder my own life and imagine myself one day lying on a bed, breathless and still. To face the mystery of life and death is a holy thing that indeed tends to focus the mind, heart and soul.

4.  We show up at the funeral, the memorial service, the crematorium or crypt, wherever the final acts will take place to become familiar with the reality of death, to prepare for our own dying and funeral, and to accompany the grieving and the dead on the last journey of life. It’s the least we, the living, can do.

5.  Finally I must make confession.   For me as a person of faith who sees most clearly the face of God in the face of Christ, I learn daily not to fear death by going deeper into relationship and friendship with the God of the living and the dead, whom I have learned only wants good for me. Just as I learned not to fear the dead because it was my beloved grandmother asleep in death in the living room while I slept upstairs, so I am on the road to learning to trust the living God who never slumbers, never sleeps, who comforts us in our distresses, heals all our diseases, and like a mother cradles us in loving arms and sings us to sleep so we can rest unafraid until the morning comes.

Next Up:  Is It Our Denial of Death’s Reality?

For the Life of Me: Dealing with Death in the Changing American Landscape – Part 1

Last week I listened to a news item on NPR about Americans adopting a Buddhist ritual to mourn miscarriages or abortions.*   At the same time I am noticing more death notices in the local newspaper that lack information about any kind of funeral or memorial service; or they only indicate that one will be held at a later date (but how will people learn about it if they have an indirect or unknown yet significant connection to the deceased?); or I hear about the wish of the dying that there be no service to mark their end.

What a puzzling paradox: some people needing to find a way to express grief and loss for a life never lived outside the womb, while others seemingly are minimizing or glossing over the departure of one who lived for years, even decades, among us in this world.

For the life of me, I can’t figure it out.

For 50,000 years or more, we humans have marked through ritual acts and symbolism the reality and mystery of death, and have acknowledged the terrible tear in the social fabric and individual lives of the living who remain. It seems to be something we need at a deep existential level; why else would we bother to ache or mourn those miscarried or aborted beings and feel some deep need to note their existence, however brief? And if it is that important, why are growing numbers of our neighbors choosing not to do so in a ritualized and public way?

What’s going on here? I don’t presume to have the answer(s), but I do wonder if one or more of these are at play: financial costs; fear of death or denial of its reality; low self-regard on the part of the deceased; increasing secularization of our culture and lack of shared, meaningful ways to ritualize and mark this life event; other factors I have not mentioned or that are unknown to me?

In a series of blogs I will explore these possibilities, and finally identify how I think a Christian service of Death and Resurrection seeks to address the mystery of death, and why that matters. I would hope people from other faith traditions would look at their rituals surrounding death in the same way and do the necessary translation using the lens and language of their faith, but it would be arrogantly presumptuous (and naïve on my part) for me to do that for them. In addition, as our culture becomes increasingly secular and the traditions, practices, and languages of faith traditions become increasingly unfamiliar to more and more people, perhaps this will help them consider and create new ways to mark the death of loved ones or make sense of their own mortality.

Some would say the prohibitive cost of funerals is at play here.

Certainly this may be an issue for some families, as they look at expenses for the dead that could be well spent on the living.   But unless we are members of the Tana Toraja community in the southern province of Sulawesi, Indonesia, you still have to dispose of the body rather quickly and easily. (The people of Tana Toraja often wait months, and even years, to bury their relatives. In the months between biological death and the burial rites, family members interact with the deceased in ways Americans might think unimaginable — placing their skeletal remains in the house, bringing the deceased tea and food each day, and including them in family activities. But the practice has value – to slowly endure the process of transforming the relationship of the living to the deceased).**

But to me, this doesn’t seem a particularly compelling reason. On average a wedding in our culture costs $30,000 or more. A funeral is not nearly as expensive, and how much we spend eating out, attending sporting events or concerts, participating in leisure activities and other non-essentials is in the billions of dollars every year.

Nevertheless, if cost is an expressed factor, cremation is certainly an attractive option for reducing costs.

Another option would be to donate the body to science.

If neither of those is an appealing option, burial does not have to be as expensive as you mighty imagine.

Unless a body is crossing state lines, in Virginia the body doesn’t have to be embalmed as long as the casket is closed to the public, nor you do you have to pay for it to be transported at cost from the site of death to a funeral facility (that’s right, if money is the issue you can put your loved one in the back of the car, or someone else’s vehicle. The same goes for transporting the body to its final resting place, whether it’s in an urn or a casket).

A do-it-yourself casket kit can be ordered online; the least expensive I’ve seen is $79.00 (plus shipping and handling) for a wooden pallet and shroud.

In James City County, Virginia, where I currently reside, a county park shelter can be rented for as little as a $25.00 application fee for a gathering for family and friends, and even some form of ritual marking this significant life event (at least, it’s not prohibited on the County application for facility use). There are other, non-faith based spaces that can be rented or borrowed as well, and many faith communities would probably be willing to provide such space if asked; the funeral home is not the location for gathering around the dead.

If you own sufficient land or know someone who does (I know that in Hanover County, Virginia, it can be as little as two acres), you can bury the dead on your own private property.  A backhoe can be rented pretty reasonably to do the heavy digging (or recruit friends and neighbors to help with the work, and then share a meal afterwards as a sign of appreciation).

For a no frills funeral, costs could also perhaps be covered by family or friends contributing to the overall expense as well, or with the assistance of local faith communities of all stripes, or social service agencies. Who knows?  Crowdsourcing might be an option as well.  I know a couple who financed their honeymoon that way; why not honoring the dead as a community?

Regardless of cost, however, one way or another the removal of the body from among the living has to be done.  But the costs are not nearly as high as we think they are or they typically become in our culture.

* http://www.npr.org/2015/08/15/429761386/adopting-a-buddhist-ritual-to-mourn-miscarriage-abortion

**http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bradley-b-onishi/life-after-death-a-religious-studies-professor-becomes-a-student_b_7900490.html

Next up: Is It Our Fear of Death?

The Meat of the Matter: Musings on the Flag Especially Addressed to My Fellow Southern Family and Friends

I promise I won’t be blogging every day – that would be crazy.  And exhausting.  But just to try this out for fun, here’s something I wrote last week and posted on Facebook.  We’ll see what happens next.

For me, it’s all about the meat.

Today (Thursday, July 9), the South Carolina House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the State Capitol. Tomorrow at 10 a.m. EDT, with surviving family members of the slain at Mother Emanuel AME Church present, the flag will be lowered for the final time from the pole where it was lowered earlier by Bree Newsome as an act of civil disobedience.  The colors will be fittingly retired to a museum where they will be laid to rest, even though the controversy around it may linger for awhile.
Today, I am particularly proud to be a Southerner, and I am particularly proud of my fellow Southerners in the South Carolina legislature who are doing the right thing. It is not all that needs to be done. This single act cannot ease the abiding grief, ache, and loss of the left behind beloved of the martyrs killed for their colorful faith who were gathered in that basement Bible study when the killer stole into their midst. But it is an act of compassion, rooted in a desire to be part of a new and better day for the South, and for all Americans. And as a person of faith from south of the Mason-Dixon line whose ancestor accompanied Marse Robert all the way to the end of the road of rebellion, I am grateful for each small step on a different road of reconciliation.

I suspect some friends and family might be appalled or saddened, or even wondering if I have betrayed the best of my history and heritage. But for me, it’s all about the meat.

Like many Southerners, in addition to my history and heritage as someone hailing from this particularly precious part of God’s creation, I also am a person of faith who pledges allegiance first and foremost to the Lord of all creation, whose face I have seen in Jesus of Nazareth. While I will always be a child of the South, I am also first and foremost a beloved child of God and citizen of the Realm of God, what some theologians these days call the Kindom of God. In my baptism into Christ, I accepted the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression, and promised first and foremost to serve Christ as my Lord in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races (The United Methodist Book of Worship, 1992). And there’s where the meat comes in.

In the New Testament communities formed by the apostle Paul, at least two wrote to him asking advice about whether it was kosher for Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Even for a Southerner familiar with the beauty and wonder of hyperbole (especially when it comes to jokes, tall tales and fish stories) connecting Corinth and Rome to Charleston might seem a stretch; but stay with me.

The burning questions for those first Christians were 1) if I eat meat that has been sacrificed to a pagan idol, am I being disloyal to Christ, or at the very least serving and honoring two masters? and 2) if I believe these idols are false and non-existent, can I eat the meat conscience-free, despite another believer’s beliefs and misgivings about the practice? When in doubt, those early Christians thought it was wise to seek advice of a wiser soul and so they wrote to Paul, their elder brother in the faith. His counsel can be found in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8.

Paul freely confesses that he has no problem eating such meat; like his “more mature” siblings in the faith he knows the idols supposedly honored by the sacrifice that brought the brisket to the table don’t exist at all; they are illusory, and so there’s no harm in benefiting from the food’s nutritional value. In fact, when it comes to eating meat, you’re free to do as you please.

But Paul also knows his perspective is not shared by all, and his view might be a hindering stumbling block to his “weaker” kinfolk in Christ. And so he advises his correspondents to let liberty be trumped by love. All things are permitted, Paul writes; but not all things are helpful. And so he makes a commitment never to do anything that will cause another to stumble.  If that tasty morsel puts another’s faith and discipleship at risk, he won’t do it.  It’s as pure and simple as that.

Whatever we Southern white folks think is the meaning behind the flag, there is no doubt that it is a stumbling block to our black neighbors and kinfolk. Of course technically we are still free to fly it wherever we want on our private property – in our front yard, on the back of our pick-up truck, on our flexing muscles beneath our tattoo. In Christ we are indeed offered freedom.

But that freedom is always bracketed by the higher law of faith: love for our neighbor.  We Southerners can get antsy when someone tries to tell us what to do or we feel like our honor is at risk; but for those of us who have been marked first and foremost by the cross of Christ and not the St. Andrew’s cross on the Stars and Bars, humility and compassion for others are also noble virtues.  They are not to be taken lightly but lived fully as an act of love for our kinfolk and a sign of loyalty to the One who showed us the measure of true and abiding freedom by kneeling and washing his followers’ feet.  After all, the most free person is the one who doesn’t have to have his way but can make way for another to flourish and prosper.

So the meat of the issue for me is this: if that flag is is getting in the way of moving to a new and better day; if it’s a stumbling block to my Southern sisters and brothers for whom it is a symbol of terror, oppression and  even 1960s resistance to the Civil Rights journey toward Dr. King’s beloved community; then it’s time to furl and lower it forever – not simply from a flagpole in South Carolina, but from our hearts and lives so we can move toward a new future for all where we can all meet as sisters and brothers under the banner of love.