Happy in God

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1 Corinthians 15: 12-20

Luke 6: 17-26

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At age 85, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was asked the ‘chief end’ of being human, the meaning of life.  He responded: You are made to be happy in God.  Today his Methodist church is roiling in unhappiness, heading toward a special General Conference in St. Louis next week, to struggle, as has every such meeting since 1972, over the humanity of gay people.  Two modes of reflection beyond the procedural, administrative, governmental, disciplinary, and connectional ones that tend to dominate or predominate in these meetings deserves some sermonic attention. One is theological and the other is pastoral.

Theological Perspective

First, at theological perspective.

I am grateful for the open, broad minded traditions of our church, especially our theological traditions, the spiritual waters in which we have learned to swim, from prone float to butterfly, and especially the Wesley quadrilateral, that four verse hymn to Jesus as our beacon not our boundary.

As we prepare for this 2019 conference, we could perhaps give shared attention to our sources of authority across the United Methodist Church.  At our best, our love of Christ shapes our love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience.  We are lovers and knowers too.  Yet we are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine.  In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love.  We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of faux certainty.  It is tempting to substitute the security and protection of certainty for the freedom and grace of confidence.  But faith is about confidence not certainty.  If we had certainty we would not need faith.

Errancy

Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture.  You love the Bible.  You love its Psalmic depths.   Psalm 130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange names.  Obededom comes to mind.  You love its proverbial wisdom.  ‘One sharpens another’ comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom.  The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus.  His embrace of children comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life.  Galatians comes to mind.  You love its strangeness.  John comes to mind.  You love the Bible like Rudolph Bultmann loved it, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as the medium of truth for the practice of faith.  Around our common tables in family, church and community we share this reliance and this love.  We all love the Bible.  I have been studying and teaching the Bible for four decades.  The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of perspectives present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture.  We may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s aspiration:  homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

But. The Bible is errant.  It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of historical-critical study just did not happen.  They did.  That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us.  In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to re-mythologize the Bible too.  It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear that will open the Bible to us.  We need not fear truth, however it may be known.  Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight.  John includes the woman caught in adultery, John 8, but not in its earliest manuscripts.  Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.  Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church.  The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality.  The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples. Did you ever try to get the list just right?  Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and after that it is a free-for-all.  The various ‘twelve’ listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the synoptic Gospels.

Our discussion next week in St. Louis does not occur within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority.  We are not Baptists nor are we Calvinists  We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition.  The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative.  As an example, many synoptic passages present an idealized memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore.  Luke is writing 55 years after the ministry of Jesus.  What do you remember from 55 years ago? Nor were they written for that kind of certainty.  They were formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.  They are, as W. Brueggemann once put it, stylized memories.

 Equality

You love the tradition of the church as well.  Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth.  One central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’.   Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others.  The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.

Our linkage of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry, however traditional, falls before grace and freedom.  We roundly cajole our Roman Catholic brethren for requiring universal combination of the gifts of celibacy and ministry for ordination.  ‘You may love God or a woman but not both at the same time.’  But then we turn around and by the same logic require universal combination of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry for ordination.  ‘You may love God or your partner but not both at the same time’. It is theologically tempting to shore up by keeping out.  But it has no future.  Equality will triumph over exclusion, just as gospel ever trumps tradition. Gospel first, tradition second.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

 Evolution

You love the mind, the reason.  You love the prospect of learning. You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind. You love the reason in the same way that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason.  You love its capacity to see things differently.

Of course, reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust.  Learning for its own sake needs the fetters of virtue and piety.  More than anything else, learning must finally be rooted in loving.   Do we still hear the one thing requested in Psalm 27?  To inquire in the temple.  Inquiry!

The universe is 14 billion years old.  The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion.  400 million years ago plants sprouted.  370 million years ago land animals emerged.  230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago).  200,000 years ago hominids arose.  Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells.  Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a, is the, reasonable hypothesis, says F. Collins, father of the human genome project,  author of The Language of God, and, strikingly, a person of faith.  Yet 38% of Americans reject evolution (Gallup poll, May 22, 2017).

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety.  They go together.  The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption.  Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty.  But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience.  And their conjunction waits for us on the shore line of the new creation.

 Existence

You love experience.  The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ.  You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too. You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

But a simple or general appeal to the love of experience, in our time, is not appealing or loving.  It is not experience, but our very existence which lies, right now, under the shadow of global violence.  We are going to need to move our focus toward a balance of religious experience with existential engagement in our time, in our culture, in our world.  For example:  to have any future worthy of the name we shall need to foreswear preemptive violence.  How the stealthy entry of such an ethical perspective could enter our national civil discourse, 2002-2019, without voluminous debate and vehement challenge, is a measure of our longing for false certainties.  Our existence itself is on the line in discussions or lack of discussions about violent action that is preemptive, unilateral, imperial, and reckless.  One thinks of Lincoln saying of slavery, ‘those who support it might want to try it for themselves’.  Not one of us wants to be the victim of preemptive violence.  We may argue about the need for response, and even for the need of some kinds of anticipatory defense.  But preemption?  It will occlude existence itself.   Our future lies on the narrower path of responsive, communal, sacrificial, prudent behavior and requires of us, in Niebuhr’s phrase, ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’.

There are indeed theological temptations in an unbalanced love of Scripture, tradition, reason or experience.  Let us face them down.  Let us face them down together.  Let us do so by lifting our voices to admit errancy, affirm equality, explore evolution, and admire existence.  The measure of ministry today, in the tradition of a responsible Christian openness, is found in our willingness to address errancy, equality, evolution and existence, in our rendering of the meaning of traditions.

So, first, a theological perspective.

 Pastoral Perspective

Then, second, a pastoral perspective.

I am grateful for the magnanimous, loving people whom we have known in the experience of pastoral ministry, who have embodied and awaited the new creation.

Jan and I went to London in late August 2017 to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary.  We had not been there for several years.  Yet the memories and ghosts of earlier visits quickened quickly, once we had landed. We had taken a church group through London in 2000.  One parishioner,  then in her mid-eighties, along with her husband struggled to move her luggage along through customs, back then.  I could feel her alongside us in customs again this summer.  She sang in the choir; she led in the service ministry; she volunteered to answer the office phone.  In her early years she had ridden along with her mother to Methodist gatherings in New Jersey, to sort out the shape of the WSCS.  She remembered the mission work in China before it ended.  When asked about her service, her giving, her happy singing, and her faith she invariably said, ‘We just don’t want to leave anyone behind’.  That was her way of speaking about the divine inclusive incursion into the orb of the human condition, by the way of the guidance to leave no one behind.  She very much meant, by the way, to include gay people in the loving evangelism and stewardship of the church, in its own frail attempts to live into the new creation—‘we just don’t want to leave anyone behind’.

On our recent London excursion, once we were settled into a hotel near Westminster Abbey, other ghosts and memories emerged. Alongside, by the mind’s eye, sauntered long dead Ralph Ward, our one-time general superintendent, who took a group of us in 1972 to London and into the Abbey.  He made sure we saw the Methodist sites.  He arranged a dinner at Methodist Central Hall, recalling Leslie Weatherhead.  The superintending minister of Central Hall moved us, moved us to tears, even those of us only 17 at the time, speaking of the Second World War.  Central Hall, he reminded us, had hosted the birth of the United Nations.  This summer, Jan and I worshipped at Westminster Abbey, our feet resting on the memorial to William Wilberforce, and then went across the street to see the Hall again.  In 1977 or so, Ralph Ward, by then removed to New York City, hosted some of us who were by then seminarians in the same city, at a Friday evening gathering at Washington Square UMC, to support ministry with gay people.  He and his Manhattan DS, (if memory serves, the Rev. Bernie Kirkland), presided with grace and love: ‘this work is crucial to the future life of the church’, said Ward.    Some years later, after his retirement, Jan and I saw Ralph and Arlene in the narthex of Riverside Church, after worship which concluded that day with the singing of ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’. Finish then thy new creation…

We also sang that hymn at the funeral of Arlene Chapman in Watertown, N.Y, in 1989.  Her husband Bruce (BU undergraduate, Yale Divinity), along with my Dad, took me to my first major league baseball game at age 8 in Cooperstown, NY. (The last place teams, Al and NL, were conscripted to play once a year upstate, as punishment for their losing ways.  One of the teams was, of course, the Mets).  Driving home, I foolishly waved my new Mets hat at a passerby on Route 20.  The wind blew it away.  But Bruce turned the car around and we found the thing.  In 2011, at Annual Conference, Bruce spoke quietly and gently into the microphone, “In 1980 and 1984 I was a General Conference delegate.  I opposed the inclusion of gay people in orders and marriage.  Others did too.  How utterly wrong I was.  How foolishly wrong we were.”

Bruce still supports Boston University, with an annual gift to Marsh Chapel.  Tom Trotter was the first person to preach at Marsh Chapel, after it was finished in 1949. Today Tom’s grandson is an intern at the same chapel.  Both Bruce and Tom were at BU during the Thurman and King years.  As a pastor, Bruce could tell you what every pastor knows who has at least five years of good working experience:  virtually every extended family system in Methodism and beyond has, somewhere, at least one gay person in it.  I asked Bruce a year ago what he would teach seminarians about ministry, after his own 60 years of experience:  ‘Stay close to your people’, he said.

Jan and I have had the honor to serve in ten churches, one district, one University pulpit, and several general church efforts, including several promising ones in preparation for the 2019 General Conference.  Every congregation we have served has had gay women and men in it, or in the extended families therein.  That any of these good people have stayed at all in connection with our connection given our exclusion of them is truly a wonder.  I love my church and am staying with it.  Born and baptized a Methodist, I will so die and be buried.  I am not giving over the church I love to a mode of exclusion contrary to the heart of the church in which I was raised, and have lived and served.  But we should be mightily circumspect about what bigotry against gay people has already done–to us.  I pass over the innumerable women and men who have left ours for ordination in other denominations.  I pass over the hurt to evangelism and stewardship that comes with ribald exclusionary doctrine.  I pass over the diminishment of membership, particularly in the congregations of the US north and extended north, due to young adults, especially millennials, who sense the homophobia in our sanctuaries and find another place.  Here is what I mean:  this is a spiritual issue, not one of numbers, a theological issue, not one of members, a biblical issue, not one of bodily strength, a homiletical issue, not one of disciplinary interpretation.  This cuts to and cuts into our soul.  Gay people are people, but we preach otherwise.  God loves gay people, but we teach otherwise.  In Christ ‘there is no male and female’, but we argue otherwise.  Such spiritual, theological, biblical and homiletical malignancy and mendacity is crippling us.

Nevertheless, a lifetime in pastoral ministry has provided Jan and me with many snapshots of grace touching the lives of gay people, that grace being the beachhead of God’s incursion into life:  here is a young man, age 19, in the rough, poor rural upstate NY border country, realizing his identity, struggling with his family, his church, and himself, and talking slowly to a novice minister, in the snow of February, 1982;  here is that same pastor, a bit older, attending a community dinner in his city neighborhood, seated with 8 women—no, he suddenly realizes, seated with 4 bright, happy, earnest, loving couples, September 1991;  here is the minister calling on a recently retired school teacher, and her partner, long time and long suffering servants of God and neighbor and members of a United Methodist church, listening as they are crying and crying out in bitterness over the ignorance and exclusion they have known in a large, purportedly accepting city, 2004;  here is a minister of the gospel, new to University deanship, employing and deploying an openly gay campus minister to serve across a large campus, one with a liberal history and spirit, that nonetheless had never hired such a person for such a position, 2008. And here he is in September of 2017 offering prayers, at the BU School of Public Health for those who ministered to and those who died of AIDS thirty years earlier (often without willing pastoral care from their churches). To repeat: any competent pastor who has done the minimum two dozen or so weekly visits over at least five years knows full well that almost every family system, near or far, has within it gay women and men.  This issue is not somehow out there, long ago, far away, foreign, peripheral or minimal.  Unresolved, the issue will hobble the ministry of the church, across the globe. The preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, starts with God’s love.  A preliminary incision to curtail the divine love, and thus the church’s mission, by excluding, dehumanizing, and imprisoning gay people in a pseudo-biblical jail constitutes the articulation of another gospel, not that there is any other gospel. Then, second, a pastoral perspective.

At age 85, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was asked the ‘chief end’ of being human, the meaning of life.  He responded: You are made to be happy in God.  Today his Methodist church is roiling in unhappiness, heading toward a special General Conference in St. Louis next week, to struggle, as has every such meeting since 1972, over the humanity of gay people.  Two modes of reflection beyond the procedural, administrative, governmental, disciplinary, and connectional ones that tend to dominate or predominate in these meetings deserves some sermonic attention. One is theological and the other is pastoral.

May the spirit of the living God fall afresh on us!

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

 

 

 

 

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