Finding Our Way

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John 12:20-33

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Preface

From Limestone, Maine, to Churubusco, New York, to the shores of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, today sap is boiling.  Forty gallons of Maple sap for every gallon of syrup, boiled in the steamy hot house of March, with delicious doughnuts alongside.  The fire is stoked, steaming, warm, and beautiful.  We warm our hands this morning on that kind of fire, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, in Scripture and Doctrine and Application.

Scripture

Jesus’ fate as you know has now been sealed, just before our Gospel reading.  Unfortunately many times our lectionary lessons can be hard to follow, because they are cut away from what precedes or follows.  Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, a few verses back.  This seals his doom.  In John, it is not the cleansing of the temple that puts Jesus on the cross.  That has been done 11 chapters ago, an age in biblical time.  No, what gets him in ultimate trouble is resurrection, his power, his love, his presence, and especially his voice that brings people from one location to another, in this case out of one religion and into another, out of the synagogue and into the church, out of tradition and into gospel, out of law and into grace, out of discipline and into love.   For Lazarus, this is good.  For Jesus, not so good.  Voice can get you into trouble still.

Then Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.  Then Judas plots his downfall. Then Jesus rides the donkey.  Then Jesus calls the crowd, who saw what happened with Lazarus.  Then—notice—the Greeks come and ask for him (meaning, all the nations, meaning, all the unreligious, meaning the future of the planet).  Then Jesus prays for glorification, meaning crucifixion.  The cross is the turning point between past and future, death and life, miscommunication and understanding.  It is glory in John.  Even the ever so human quaking prayer of Jesus in the garden, ‘LET THIS CUP PASS FROM ME’ is gone in John.  What, shall I ask to be saved?  No, I have come for just this purpose, this HOUR (again, like glory, in John, HOUR is a code word for cross).

The Greeks, THE GREEKS precede the religious, like the harlots preceding the Pharisees in the other earlier Gospels.  “We would see Jesus” they say.  What happens is different.  They see, but more, they hear Him.  They hear a compelling voice.  They hear and heed a compelling voice, for which they have no other manner of description than to use words like heavenly and thunderous.   This is a highly charged, very meaningful passage, if very short, as R. Bultmann might have reminded us.  We are Greeks, ourselves, that is, not raised within Judaism, so our access to Jesus, and its depiction here, are crucial.

They, the Greeks, and we, also Gentiles, come to Jesus by way of the apostles, Philip and Andrew (not Peter and Andrew, Philip and Andrew—John has Peter on a pretty short leash all along).  That is, we come to life through a set of traditions, but the traditions themselves are not the life itself.   We have to translate the traditions into insights for effective living, if they are to allow access to life.

Then, the matter of what this closeness to Jesus means is considered.  And what is it?  It is not a heightened religious experience.  It is not a mystical reverie.  It is not an emotional cataclysm.   It is service.  One finds Him in service with and to Him.  One knows Him walking alongside him.  One gains access to him by loving Him and in Him loving others.  In His service there is freedom, even perfect freedom.  Service, step by step, and day by day, finally gives way to and leads to death, the rounding and finishing of life.  Have we together found our path, our shared ways of service?  Are we walking in the light?

With angel voices and thunder and a prophecy of being lifted up, the community of the beloved disciple sees, again, in retrospect, as we do each Holy Week and Easter, the paradox of victory in defeat, of life in death, of love conquering the ‘ruler of this world’.  The ruler of this world is not a reference to God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The phrase is ARCHON TOU KOSMOU, the ruler of this world, the demigod who in gnostic thought mistakenly and haphazardly created the world.  Jesus casts out the archon, the ruler of this world, and so can be offered to and understood by Greeks tinged with a hint or more than hint of Gnosticism.  I guess you could interpret this passage without reference to Gnosticism, but just how would you do that?   The service of love renders insipid and impotent the ruler of this world and all his minions.  Service in love is eternal, eternal in the heavens.

(Puzzling, though, is the phrase, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’.  What is this?  The second glory is the cross.  But the first?  Simply an assertion that the God of the future is also the God of the past?  I do not, all these years later, I do not quite understand it.)

At all events, in the community of the beloved disciple, people have found a way, much truth and new life.  A voice, heavenly and thunderous, has spoken to them, a voice given ‘for their sake’.   As last week, the judgment once reserved for the end of time or for the eternal realms, or for both, has come, is now.  The bottom line or cash value of resurrection is speech, the possibility of saying something that can be heard, of saying some saving that can ‘savingly’ be heard.  While not limited to preaching in the narrow, and certainly not limited to an ecclesiastical voice, still judgment and salvation, in the here and now, by this Gospel, and this chapter of this Gospel are a dire matter, a crucial matter of hearing and speaking.

Doctrine

It is then, as we move from Scripture to Doctrine, surely to speaking and preaching in the ministry of Jonathan Edwards to which we turn.  Each Lent from the Marsh pulpit we engage a Calvinist interlocutor, this year Edwards of Northampton Massachusetts, 1703-1758.

Jonathan Edwards preached the beauty of God, or God as ‘perfect beauty’.  In our time when the true and the good tend to outweigh the beautiful in preaching, this may be a healthy recollection.   He made full use of the psychology and science of his day, of Locke and Newton.  In our day when only sporadic connections between faith and science, preaching and Darwin and Einstein occur, this may be a fruitful reminder.   Edwards provided that rare combination, ‘an ability to reason metaphysically about human nature in subtle philosophical terms alongside a deep commitment to evangelism and church renewal (D. Brainard, ‘Princeton’, 294).   That is he could no more affirm philosophy without faith than he could countenance faith without philosophy.  Head and heart he distinguished from one another but did not oppose to one another.  I find this personally a welcome encouragement, along a trail that sometimes seems a bit lonely.  Jonathan Edwards, in concert with John Calvin, and to a full degree in concert with the great traditions of the church, understood the purpose of life to be found in seeking God’s glory.  So, a daily question would be, ‘Can I do this, or say this, or desire this to the glory of God?’  If I read him and his interpreters properly, though, Edwards did lean a little more fully toward the affections:  ‘feeling and sense make up the more profound level of human experience’ (here Edwards, W James, J Wesley, and S Kierkegaard, among others, agree).  We need most the beauty of holiness, that is, and ‘spiritual understanding consists primarily in a sense of the heart of that spiritual beauty’ (‘Princeton’, 113).  For our year long inquiry about spirit, we may take here from him the confidence that ‘ the Holy Spirit makes possible a new, sensible knowledge’ (ibid, 69).  Its consequence, a stout reminder to us:  ‘love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.  I find that a fair summary of Christianity.  To sum up, in the words of John Smith, ‘God wants out of the depths of his love to have in the creation a being capable of appreciating the beauty, the ‘excellency’ and the splendor of the divine Gloria as it appears in the creation.” (171)

Edwards spent his life speaking, and writing to prepare for speaking, and publishing both his thoughts and his senses.  He stands as a bulwark against any capitulation of the pulpit in the church to anything short of divine ‘excellency’, glory, beauty, and love.

Application

We go to Stockbridge MA, the location of Edward’s last pulpit, sometimes for a night or two.  It helps us to find our way.

In these Lenten sermons, talking with Edwards in light of the Gospel in Scripture, we have moved from Scripture to Doctrine to (as now) Application.   Edwards’s evocation of the beauty of creation, and his Johannine efforts in voice and speech, readily take us straightway to the issues of our lives.  Day by day, we are finding our way.

Fyodor Dostoevsky gives dear Alyosha one of our verses, as his signature in The Brothers Karamazov:  ‘except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.  In service, we are finding our way.

The little, daily death of service, the service of Christ, and the responsive service in Christ, is that which finally bears fruit.   We shall wonder on our way home about the performative adequacy of our service in Him.

For instance, the full humanity of gay people and current discrimination against them in the United Methodist church, of which from this pulpit we have spoken numerous times, continues to engage our service.

With some courage several church leaders this year published a book of divergent views regarding Christian faith and homosexuality in United Methodism, titled FINDING OUR WAY.   With respect for these writers, several of whom I know personally, and a couple of whom I count as real friends, and one of whom you have heard from this pulpit not so many years ago, I present a book review, attached to the print form of this sermon, and available on my blog, and also in copy form in our office today, along with a few copies of the book reviewed, and copies of a resolution that I have submitted which has approved for consideration in my home conference, Upper New York.

With respect, and out of love, I differ with most of what is written in FINDING OUR WAY. The review will give the details.  But the singular heart of that difference is the gospel itself.  Our gospel reading today, taking its place within the full gospel of John, and thereby within the eternal day of grace in Jesus Christ, celebrates the liberality of the gospel, the good news of a Father’s house in which there are many rooms.   A page over from our lectionary reading—they have to be read in context—we have the announcement, ‘in my Father’s house there are many rooms’.  This is the liberality of the gospel of grace, freedom, pardon, acceptance, forgiveness, mercy and love.   Many rooms.  One for the sisters, cousins and aunts of John Wesley, we hope.  But others for Mahatma Ghandi, Anwar Sadat, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, Pope John 23, and, yes, John Calvin.  There is no traction, no space in such a gospel for bigotry on the basis of status, class, race, gender, embodiment or orientation.  Many rooms.

After naming the rooms, in John 14, the Johannine Jesus goes on to say that he is Way, Truth and Life.  That is, wherever there is a way, wherever there is truth, and wherever there is life, there He is.  So no one comes to the Father except through a way that in truth leads to life.  And wherever anyone truly finds that way and truth and life, there and then they have found, or been found by Jesus Christ. We used to sing, growing up, give me ‘land lots of land beneath the starry skies above’.  That is a musical setting, it could be, for the liberality of today’s gospel.  In finding our way, the rest of the Bible can help us, and teach us, too. Jesus could teach us in Matthew 25, about caring for the least.  Paul could teach us in Galatians 3, about the end of social distinctions.  John could teach us, as he does today in John 12, and also later in John 14, about the priority of love.  That is, as we continue to pray and work for the acceptance and full affirmation of sexual minorities in our time and in our churches, we do so listening to and for the gospel.

Again, today, you will be puzzled that there is no ethical teaching in John, no moral exhortation, no sermon the mount or sermon on the plain.  None.  With one exception:  ‘love one another, as I have loved you’.

I grew up among people whom I think of when I go to the quiet mountains of Stockbridge, MA whence Jonathan Edwards was banished in about 1750. It is about half way home, I guess.  They were practical people.  They loved God by loving the things of God.  The loved Nature.  They loved Work.  They loved other people.  They loved OTHER people, people down on luck, different, in the minority, outside, excluded.  They loved Country.  They loved Church.  They loved Family.  At their best, their love was as high as Mt Marcy, and as deep as Seneca Lake, and as shimmering as Glimmer Glass, and as powerful as Niagara, and as steady as the Hudson, and as wide as Ontario and all outdoors.  They knew from harsh experience the brevity of life, the horror of loss in death, the stinging pain of grief.  They trusted the giver of life to give eternal life, and then tried to live eternal life here and now, in service.  I see them, these loving people, many now dead.   Instinctively they eschewed exclusion, owing to a dim memory of their own times of being excluded.  I wonder over time if we could see our way clear to do the same?

Coda

In a few weeks, most of the sugar season will end, the fires will be banked until another March, the snow will partly melt, the sap become syrup will be shaped into candies, and bottled and sold.   Some churches, poor by worldly standards, poor by urban standards, will hold a spring supper—the most delicious of foods—ham and beef and everything you can want or imagine.  For dessert they will bring you a bowl of snow, your victory over what you have battled all winter, now served up to you, to the victor go the spoils, you now Lord for a moment of nature and winter.  A hot pitcher of steaming syrup someone will pour upon the snow, and it will crackle and congeal and become a heavenly sweetness, and you will enjoy a foretaste of spring, as, we hope, on Sunday, in Scripture and Doctrine and Application, you savor a foretaste of heaven.

Attached the addenda promised above:

Book Review

Book Review:  Finding Our Way:  Love and Law in the United Methodist Church.  Rueben P. Job, Neil M. Alexander, eds. (Nashville:  Abingdon, 2014)

I move in five steps here:  summary, overview, review, conference\discussion, and concluding thoughts.

  1. Summary:  After a personal introductory frame from Job and Alexander, seven UMC general superintendents offer 10-20 page statements about Methodism and gay people, following which Job concludes with a call to prayer.  Two write directly about the full humanity of gay people, one in affirmation (Talbert) and one in denial (Yambasu).  Three offer administrative worries (Palmer—the discipline must be upheld),  (Lowry—the center cannot hold),  (Carter—the connection needs support).  Two offer mildly inclusive reflections on recent conference level experience (Ward, Wenner).
  1. Overview:  The most striking feature of this collection is its nearly complete lack of  theological reflection, biblical interpretation, and homiletical assessment.  Does the gospel offer grace, freedom, love, acceptance, pardon, and hope to sexual minorities or not?  Does the gospel disdain silent or spoken bigotry against sexual minorities or not?  Where do the Scriptures (John 14, Galatians 3, Ecclesiastes, Amos 5), or  the tradition (Bristol, Appomatox, Seneca Falls), or human reason (diagnostic library,  psychological research,) and experience (case studies and stories of gay children harmed by religious bigotry) intersect with these chapters?  Hardly at all, granted occasional interjections, more from Talbert and Carter than others.    One major exception is the attention Lowry pays to Acts 15 (and so Galatians 2, which he somehow neglects), the Jerusalem Conference.   He is right to do so.   His reading of the passages however is exactly the full opposite of their meaning  (see, for example, J. L. Martyn, Anchor Bible Commentary, Galatians, among many others).  Lowry argues that the point of the Jerusalem Conference was order.  It was not.  It was freedom, the freedom for which Christ sets free.  Other than our own current debate the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15, Gal. 2) is the historical high water mark of religious interest in detailed sexual debate—circumcision then, gay love now.   In the Bible, Paul leaves behind tradition for gospel and Peter accedes.   (Freedom not order.)  The uncircumcised are the recipients of the gospel (then) as are gay people (today).  Lowry:  ‘the famous debate at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a debate over order, the doctrinal discipline of the church’ (74).  No.  No it is not.  In choosing to leave behind religious order, textual rigidity and an inherited holiness code in order to preach the gospel to the ‘genitally unclean’, men who were not circumcised on the eighth day, the church decided that gospel ever trumps tradition, and grace ever trumps order.  It is the perfect biblical citation for this debate, only Lowry reads it upside down.  We will not ever ‘find our (administrative) way’ until and unless we first reflect theologically, interpret biblically, and assess homiletically.  In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is no male or female.  Nor gay nor straight.  Are gay people people or not?  5/5 or 3/5 human?  (We have a bad habit in this country, of finding ways to fractionalize the marginalized.)

We baptize, confirm, commune, forgive and bury gay people.  We somehow cannot find our way to marry or ordain them?   We baptize, confirm, commune, marry, ordain, forgive and bury those who have undergone surgical abortion, and offer the same to those who oppose abortion.  Can we not live ‘in all things charity’?

  1. Review:  Palmer’s distinction to affirm ‘uphold’ more than ‘enforce’ (his assigned theme), in interpretation of the book of discipline has some merit and more grace, and reflects his own sincere, irenic temperament.  Ward does honor the ‘brave witness’ of a lesbian couple who suffered the bigotry of the Mississippi conference to bear witness to their love for each other.  Talbert has said and done the right thing, well prior to this collection, and his essay is the truest of the seven.  He and his African colleague are the only two who directly state what they personally think regarding the full humanity of gay people.   (Carter rightly affirms that every person is created in God’s image, and laments theological incoherence.)
  1. Conference (that is, Discussion): Carter.  Carter calculates (perhaps accurately, but there is no documentation) that small progressive jurisdictions (we could read here, ‘northern’ could we not?) have more presence, voice, vote and leadership on boards and agencies than do larger and more moderate (we are meant to read here, ‘southern’, are we not?) jurisdictions.  Talbert.  Talbert simply and categorically states that the discriminatory language about gays in our church is wrong and cannot claim allegiance, loyalty or support.  The UMC today provides ‘liturgical resources for pastors who may choose to use facilities of congregations to bless animals, fowls, inanimate objects, and more.  Are not our LGBT sisters and brothers of sacred worth like all God’s creatures’? (37)  Yambasu.  Yambasu equates homosexuality with promiscuity, sexual slavery, and adultery, describes the Bible as infallible, and places the denigration of gay people on par with the venerable inheritance of the ten commandments (87).   The voice, or at least a voice, of Methodism in Africa.  To the extent that his view represents African Methodism, it is a communicative benefit to have his remarkable and disappointing perspective stated in the raw.   Lowry.  Lowry implores us to keep covenant with one another, as he stated in a recent interview, ‘covenant is Old Testament 101’.  Many would respond that the question is not whether to keep covenant, but in and about what to keep covenant.  If the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, requires the affirmation of the full humanity of gay people and the full rejection of bigotry against sexual minorities in the name of scriptural authority, then the point of covenant is mutually to commit to that gospel.  Covenant on behalf of rules of discipline that deny the gospel is false covenant.  In the recent interview Lowry admits that a substantial USA UMC majority now affirms same gender marriage and ordination for gay people; he speaks wisely and protectively of the guaranteed appointment; he deplores the waste of resources in time and money which are going into this ongoing debacle.  Wenner concludes: “I pray and work for a future where we will find ways to embrace diversity on many issues, including human sexuality, allowing us to think differently.  Perhaps we may even be able to live with different answers concerning clergy who live in faithful and loving homosexual partnerships and those who choose to conduct same-gender marriages.”

Thoughts:  1. The Book of Discipline affirms a moderate pro-choice position regarding abortion.  But when it comes to marriage and ordination, we do not exclude those who practice surgical abortion, nor those who reject such practice.  We have a position as a church.  But we allow for differences in practice, practices that both agree with and conflict with our stated position.  We do not deny ardent pro-life preachers ordination because they refuse to practice or affirm others to practice abortion.  Nor do we exclude from ordination women who have had abortions or men who have provided pastoral help to others in the course of such a procedure.  If we can find a way to live together, regarding marriage and ordination, when it comes to abortion, we should be able to do so regarding homosexuality.  2. The first task of an interpreter is to honor and affirm the texts interpreted.  In this case, rightly, our general superintendents, interpreters of the book of discipline, affirm the value of the book to be interpreted.   Once the general conference has passed off a version of the discipline for another four years, it falls to the bishops, along with others to interpret and apply it.   It may help our leaders to rehearse again some of the basic modes of interpretation of texts, biblical texts and others, taught and learned years earlier.  Most passages, including your favorite scriptural passage, parable, story, psalm or teaching, allow more than one faithful reading.  There may for sure be out of bounds readings, but multiple legitimate ones, too.   Simply on a non-literalist hermeneutic, diversity of readings of the discipline itself should be expected.   So the dozen affirmations in the discipline of the requirement of pastoral care for gay people may rightly be read as a requirement for pastoral ministry for gay people who are getting married or discerning vocations.  Gay marriage and ordination may be understood as not only permissible, but required, to the fulfillment of these paragraphs. 3. We further do admit that while all abhor war, some are pacifist and some are not and all are part of the UMC.  Why we can allow latitude regarding issues of life and death, abortion and warfare, but not regarding love and marriage, is a mystery and truly says much about the remains of the mind of the church (UMC). 4. Marriage:  UMCBOD Para. 340 2.a.3.a.  (Duties of pastor) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.  The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.  So.  Do we mean this?  Are we going to ‘enforce’ as Br. Palmer says ‘enforce the discipline’?  Here the burden of responsibility is clearly, unequivocally placed upon the pastor whose ‘right and responsibility’ it is to decide to marry a couple.  There is no shading here, no hem or haw.  The pastor decides.   After due counsel (pastoral care) and in accordance with state law and church rules.  No comment here is offered to the situation when state law and church rules, both of which are to be upheld, are different.  Rightly, the BOD leaves these difficult (pastoral) decisions in the hands of the minister.  “The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor”.  Not the General Conference.  Not the General Superintendent.  Not the District Superintendent.  Not the Charge Conference.  The pastor. As it should be.

Resolution Concerning the General Conference and Homosexuality

WHEREAS, according to The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and,

WHEREAS, two “agree to disagree” proposals were soundly defeated during separate votes by the nearly 1,000 delegates gathered for the United Methodist Church’s 2012 General Conference in Tampa, FL, therefore keeping the current discriminatory disciplinary language, and

WHEREAS, One defeated 2012 proposal would have changed the Book of Discipline simply to say that gays and lesbians are “people of sacred worth” and that church members “differ about whether homosexual practices (are) contrary to the will of God” and,

WHEREAS, at least 15 regional Annual Conferences have rejected the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, and

WHEREAS, 35 states now allow gay marriage, and the United Methodist Book of Discipline (para. 340 2a.3a) states that the decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor “in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.” and

WHEREAS, “one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends” (Kinnaman, David, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith), and

WHEREAS, many United Methodists in the United States, as well as persons from other countries, acknowledge that the church is divided on this issue but feel that current discriminatory disciplinary language is harmful not only to the groups that it attacks but to the future of the church, as such language is alienating to both present and future members, and

WHEREAS, a resolution very similar to this one was presented and passed by the North Carolina Conference in 2013,

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Upper New York Conference of 2015, gathered in Syracuse, NY, implore the 2016 General Conference to change the language used in The Social Principles, and to affirm the place of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) members within the church, including access both to marriage and to ordination.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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