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.


Remember That You Are Dust…

I love Ash Wednesday.  I love its irony – the Gospel lesson urges us to practice our piety (prayer, fasting and generosity) in secret, and then we are given a smudge of ash on our forehead for all to see as we go from worship into the world.  Surely that must bring a smile to the Lord’s countenance.

But I love the public display of ashes on my forehead because at least on this one day every year, I am particularly mindful of the witness I offer through words and deeds, lest I give cause to anyone to cast aspersions on the name of the One I seek to serve and follow every day, or to give room for doubt or stumbling in faith because of the inconsistency between the mark of the cross on my brow and the marks of discipleship in my life.

And I love the yearly call to face my mortality and to continue turning to the Author of Life.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Repent and believe the gospel.”  These are not simply words, but concise truth.  I remember the Ash Wednesday I marked a man’s forehead and the beginning of Lent with ashes, and the following Wednesday I attended his funeral.

This year’s Ash Wednesday was markedly different and unique, in that I received the gift of ashes at the end of a Roman Catholic Order for a Christian Funeral, also known as the Mass for the Dead.  The service was squeezed that day between a morning chapel led by the priest and the students of the parochial school, and the next, 12 Noon service.  Even as we mourners were departing, the faithful were gathering for that service.

“Media vita in morte sumus –  In the midst of life we are in death,” has been professed in worship by Christians for more than a millennium; that phrase came to mind as in the midst of grief and loss of some, it was an ordinary day (albeit a sacred one) for most who came and went.

The 6th century Rule of Benedict teaches the faithful, “Keep death ever before your eyes,” as an everyday reminder of our mortality;  in that spirit Steve Jobs rightly observed, “If you live each day as your last, one day you’ll be right.”  Or as children chant without necessarily understanding, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”  Daily consciousness of one’s mortality does tend to focus the mind and heart, and can be an excellent filter for discerning what matters and how best to use the fleeting moments loaned to us before our life is returned to its true Owner and Author.

This Ash Wednesday especially led me to be mindful of my mortality. My recent retirement both confronts me with the stark reality of how this next life chapter ends, and affords new opportunities for reflection, solitude, and discernment.  So on the day following Ash Wednesday, I wrote my obituary as part of a process of funeral planning to aid and guide my loved ones when at last, my last day arrives.

When my dad died in 1987, my mother took that occasion to make her plans for her own funeral and to express her own wishes and desires.  I affectionately called it her “lay away plan,” but deeply appreciated her taking the time to do so; at her death she made my life so much easier.  My experience has been that most of us don’t necessarily know what songs or texts have shaped a life of faith; prior to her planning I could not have named those most formative for my mother’s discipleship.  But when I reviewed them in planning her funeral, it was abundantly clear how influential those texts had been for her; while they did not always shape her as fully as they might have, clearly their imprint had been left on her life.

I knew this was something I wanted to do for my own loved ones.  But it is still an odd thing to ponder your own death and to give expression to your heart’s desires for how to observe that passage.  So after years of telling others the value of such planning, I finally prepared my own “lay away plan”last week.

The process was both a challenging and rewarding opportunity for sifting and sorting.  How does someone who loves music, hymns and sacred songs, and who was part of a church choir before he was literate, select what shall be used to sing him over?  How does someone steeped in scripture choose particular texts as parting words of witness?  How do you choose from a brace of kinsmen, companions and friends those who have so particularly blessed and graced your days that you want them involved in your final day?

It was not an easy task, but as clarity arrived I found myself truly grateful for each relationship noted, and confident that the songs and scripture selected were at the core of who I am and am still becoming.  Every choice and stated desire – who to contact initially; what I wanted as attire and what kind of container I wished for my mortal remains; where I wanted folks to gather and where I wished to be laid to rest; putting into writing my desire for the expressions of affirmations of faith manifested through Eucharist, Paschal candle, funeral pall, simplicity of clothing and casket; condensing a life into a death notice – all became sacramental and sacred.

Yesterday, on the first Sunday in Lent, the preacher reminded us that Wednesday’s cross of ashes is superimposed on the cross made at our baptism on our heads, hearts and lives.  Every day affords the opportunity and challenge to bear witness that our lives are not our own and to show forth in our lives Christ’s love, mercy, grace, passion and life.  And that watery cross mixed with ashes is a comfort and promise that all our days, from first to last, are lived in God’s care and compassion, so that in life and in death, we need not be afraid.

“In the midst of life we are in death.” The United Methodist Book of Worship’s Service of Death and Resurrection follows those words with this haunting question and bold affirmation, “From where will our help come?  Our help is in the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.”  I used my mother’s obituary as a template for my own; it begins, “David Meredith Hindman, husband of Terrell (Teri) Linkous Hindman, died peacefully, unafraid and in the hope of resurrection on Month Day Year.   The month, day and year are italicized to indicate they are to be completed with those specifics in days to come; in the same way “peacefully” and “unafraid” are italicized to indicate my permission for family to tell how I really died in case I am, in the end, anxious or fearful.  The statement is aspirational, not wishful thinking.  Whatever that day brings I hope and trust I will faithfully and humbly live and die into it, trusting in the One who gives life and takes it away, and has given Christ as a model for life and death, and life beyond death.   What does remain constant and unequivocal in that opening sentence is the affirmation, “in the hope of resurrection.”

The first question and answer posed in the  Heidelberg Catechism (1563) sums it up well:

What is your only comfort in life and death?

That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.  He has fully paid for all my sins…and has set me free…. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Amen.  Thanks be to God.