Today is the end of my rope in this gospel: the raising of Lazarus ... four days rotting in the tomb Lazarus. I’m fond of the King James Version here. “Take ye, away the stone!” Martha replies, “But Lord, he stinketh.” “Now you will see the glory of God. Lazarus, come forth!” He does, grave clothes and all. Mummy style. “Unbind him and let him go.” Lazarus is free and I am lost. It is not a miracle that I comprehend. I can’t imagine being at table with Lazarus for the rest of this gospel: risen from the dead, four days decomposed. I also can’t get over the fact that Jesus could have stopped this whole charade before it got started.
Everyone in this text knows that Jesus could have saved Lazarus while he was sick. After all, Jesus healed a random beggar, blind from birth. Mary and Martha send for Jesus. Jesus replies, “No, it is for the glory of God.” Jesus returns to his meal. “Lazarus is dead.” “Now let’s go.” This passage doesn’t help me to believe. It makes me angry. This isn’t glory; it is a journey into darkness. Today many are sick. Many have died and there is much darkness that threatens us all.
Jesus loved his friend Lazarus the texts says. Mary and Martha love their brother. I have always imagined Mary and Martha angry confronting Jesus. Anger is a part of grief. Martha wants to have a little talk with her friend before he gets to the funeral home. Mary repeats the same words later: “Lord if you had been here, my brother, would not have died.” Those are the sort of words uttered in the heat of emotion that you later wish you could take back.
I want to pause here, for a moment, and point out an important fact about love. It is not possible to love without suffering, at least on this side of the last day. To love someone means, in part, to be subject to their suffering. It means to open our hearts to the sinking of their hearts. It means to sit beside them when they weep. And yes, sometimes it means to walk away to protect ourselves: our self whom we are also called to love as a sacred gift of God. One can choose not to love, I suppose; but if God is love, as this gospel and the whole of the Bible seem to imply, then God is not omnipotent, God is vulnerable, vulnerable to us.
Jesus arrives and sees everyone weeping. It is the moment when many of us cry at a funeral or visitation. I have seen it many times. A family member greets a friend just arriving as she enters to the door. The narrow viewing room is lined with chairs; a few of them now are filled and gentle music is playing in the background; the lilies and roses and air-conditioning not quite mask the sharp chemical smell of embalming. It is such a long walk from that door to the casket. “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.
It is interesting to me, that this verse, lies at the very center of this long chapter. The revelation of the divine presence in Jesus occurs before this verse, nearer to the beginning. This verse now sits within it, like a wounded lamb embedded in the throne of God. We have been assured, much more directly than in the other gospels that Jesus is the presence of God with us. Almost literally in John, Jesus is Easter walking around the open pages of Scripture. “I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.”
I find it to be an odd twist in this story, that after we place our trust in Jesus, we are led back into darkness. We would prefer faith that dwells in the light. A faith that is Easter only. Largely this has been the faith of the church in Christian history, a faith in the church triumphant. It is not the faith of the Bible, Old Testament or New. In both testaments God suffers because God chooses to love ... and love is vulnerable. When the church has been in a position of power, our God has been unmoving and omnipotent, and our love masquerades as certainty, victory, and control.
Douglas John Hall has said: “As it has turns out, a faith that is accessible only in the night is not the religion that the world wants. But if darkness is indeed humanity's real situation, then a religion that leads us away from it into realms of light is nothing but a deception. The only light worth having is light that illuminates the darkness.” The church that follows its God is a church that lives in solidarity with the suffering of the world. God choses not to be God without the cross. Jesus wept.
Following this God is not easy. I’m not sure I want to. My experience in these texts these last four weeks is of being relentlessly pursued by Jesus, God’s light-giving Word. Wherever you are on your journey in faith, know that God is after you, relentlessly pursuing you, calling you to new life, whether you want it or not. Francis Thompson, a 19th century poet, describes the experience of being chased by God in his poem, The Hound of Heaven: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him.” Lazarus has found a way to escape; he is sealed behind the stone cold door of a tomb.
If you have been following John closely, we have been hunted by the living God on every page. Nicodemus hid in the shadows; he was almost a believer, but afraid of what the world might think of him. Jesus called him to be born from above, to step into the light of life. The Samaritan woman at the well, to avoid the ridicule of her peers sought water at a time of day when she knew she could be alone; Jesus met her and gave her the eternal water of God’s acceptance. The blind beggar was minding his own business, not asking to be healed or for the consequences; Jesus made him whole.
Now. Lazarus. Lazarus, finally finds an escape from the relentless pursuit of God. He’s dead, four days in the grave. Dead to Life. Hiding from the hurt of the world, hiding from the demands of loving. Whatever else it may be. This is spiritual death. Locked away from God. All of us have been there. Friends, not even the grave itself can stop Jesus from finding you. This is the promise of the gospel. Come out of your tomb and live. The Christ is that force in the world before whom you are called to life in all it’s fullness. On the last day surely, but just as surely today. Now. Awake your souls! Dead bones live! Be light for the world!
Each of us will die one day. And I know in the face of this pandemic that is our deepest fear. But that’s not the point of today’s text for me: the question before me today is have I lived? Have we made our lives count for the good? New every morning is your love, great God of light. Jesus is that presence in the world before whom we are called to life, life in service to God’s steadfast loving of the world. Surrender to it. Lazarus, come forth!
Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey in faith today, no matter what you have done, no matter what you have left undone, no matter what private burden you carry. Jesus is here, calling you to come out of that tomb of self loathing to new life. When I was young, it bothered me that Lazarus for the rest of this gospel would live with the signs of his death on his hands, his feet. Then, Jesus called me out of my death to new life. At 43, I came out as a fully alive human being well past the age our glamorous culture values. When I did, my friends can tell you, I looked like a wasted away man. Skin and bones. On the other side of this pandemic the church will look different; our world will be forever changed. My well washed hands already look like 50 year old sandpaper. Friends, don’t worry about your scars, your imperfections, your age. For heaven’s sake, Lazarus was four days decomposed. Can these bones live? In the presence of a Lord like this who can keep them in the grave!
-- Pastor Mark
A Man Born Blind Receives Sight (John 9:1-39)
9 As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18 The [leaders] did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid … for the [leaders] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of their [community]. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir?f Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Now I See
It is safe to say Southern California is “on brand” for an apocalyptic weekend. For once, the world can’t blame California. It is not only our earthquake, fire, or flood; we are all in this together. My hope is that we will emerge from the novel coronavirus crises a stronger humanity, more cooperative and compassionate with one another. Our base instinct is to assign blame and refuse to see.
In my last church, the morning after the devastating earthquake off the coast of Japan, I was awakened by a phone call from my sister (in Missouri) at 6:30 AM. She asked if I was in tsunami danger. I assured her, miles from the coast, that I was not. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep. I could not, of course, so I checked the news. At 8:30 AM a two meter swell was expected in Redondo; naturally, I pulled on some warm clothes and went to watch ... with many others as it turns out.
There were several hundred people gathered along the strand; news helicopters circling overhead. It was a scene. The young woman standing close by had a similar phone call with her mother from Florida. After a bit of small talk she said, “Yeah, mom said the quake was because of the gays.” We laughed, awkwardly. I wasn’t clear about the logic; but, fortunately, I had a newspaper to defend myself. I turned to it, quickly, to read the morning news. The tsunami never appeared and I certainly didn’t mention that I was the pastor of that big church up the hill. Few people in the world at that moment knew the deeper irony of the conversation. I had just come to the hard fought conclusion that I was gay from birth.
The fourth gospel enjoys irony. Today’s passage begins in the reality of physical blindness and by end we understand that we are actually speaking of religion and a new way of seeing. This one thing I know, once I was blind, now I see.
Our text today begins with a search for an explanation to a remarkable thing. Jesus brings a man born blind to sight. There is a problem. Our ancestors believed that blindness was blamed on sin. By that logic, this man was conceived a sinner because he was blind; not only that, Jesus cured the man on the Sabbath. It is not an uncommon parallel with some Christians today: we hate the sin, love the sinner. Jesus was a sinner. He broke sabbath law to heal the beggar on the day of rest. It was an act of compassion outside the box. A sinner was healed by a sinner. It didn’t fit their understanding of the world. It never occurred to them that they could be wrong. Instead of responding in religious awe and genuine humility at such a fact we ridicule and humiliate him.
Human beings search for explanations to things. In my way of looking at the world, that is what science is for. It is one of our most astonishing gifts: intellectual curiosity, to be able to seek, predict, explore and understand. I remember as a kid watching, awestruck, Carl Sagan’s science series “Cosmos.” The proper religious response to our discoveries about the universe is awe. Sagan once said that human beings are the universe’s way to think about itself. I like that. It fills me with wonder.
Unfortunately, our human search for explanation often morphs into the quest for certainty, power and control. When those temptations become confused with religion, faith becomes at best a dead end, at worst, deadly. When something happens outside our world view, instead of thinking to revise our faith, folks become unhinged. We blame our plight on the gays, the jews, the outsiders, immigrants, or the poor in our midst. The best scientists work to revise their theories in the face of overwhelming facts. Faithful Christians seek God with awe and humility grounded in wonderment for the sanctity of life. We celebrate with gratitude the vast surplus of meaning given in our cosmos (the Greek word translated world, as in “God so loved the world.”).
In today’s text, Jesus is calling the religious to witness a reality we should see: that the God who walks the earth is a God who loves the world, even this blind beggar, a supposed sinner from birth, even me. I altered the translation of the word “the Jews” in today’s text, because of the horrific history of “Christian” bigots using John’s text as an excuse to hate. It is easy to understand why so many see religion as the problem. It can be. And I hope you understand, and forgive me, for burying my head in the paper that morning instead of standing up for myself and my faith. No longer. For there is one thing I know, once I was blind, now see!
In today’s text, the blind beggar doesn’t have a choice. Jesus just walks by and heals him and there is nowhere to hide. His new life is obvious to everyone. He was minding his own business reading the Braille edition of the Jerusalem times. Jesus mutters something about “I am the light of the world,” rubs mud in his eye, and wham, new life, hope. Poor guy, he didn’t ask for the healing, or for the consequences; he has nowhere to hide. He is put on trial. He is a violation of the Book of Discipline. His mere existence is a prophetic word. He is called in. His parents are called in. He is called in again. Finally, the newly made witness to grace is driven out for his faith. I can’t explain it. There is only one thing I know: once I was blind, now I see.
Faith is testimony to the astonishing reality of the love of God for the wold, unexplainable, unearned. Jesus and the healed, these seeing sinners should not exist, but they do. In fact, they aren’t sinners at all: they are light. We are called to be light. The pool where the man was healed is called “sent.” Here I am, Lord. Send me. We are sent to be love by the love which funds the cosmos. Wherever you began, we are now in a text about seeing God, honoring one another, humbled in the face of mystery. I’ll paraphrase Jesus’ words to make the matter clear: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who cannot see may see, and those who think they see, become blind.”
If you spend some time thinking back over the course of your life, I’m confident that you can find at least one moment of underserved, unearned, unexplained kindness, forgiveness, love in which you were healed in body or mind. If not, may your time in this text this morning be that moment for you. Jesus is here, slapping mud in your eyes too.
My friend Jim was a second career seminary student, a former security guard in Dallas, Texas. As he tells the story he was a hater: homosexuals, long-haired punks, anyone different from his peers, then one day the Lord walked by him and healed him. Jim went to seminary. I met him in the seminary choir. He’d spent quite bit of time running security at arena rock concerts. He couldn’t hear very well or match a pitch to save his life, but he wanted to sing and he wanted to preach. So I sang into his one good ear and he taught me see. He preached with his life.
He would enter into campus debates that I didn’t have the courage to; he defended gays, folks others thought the bible condemned — including yoga teachers. He had a heart as big and wide as his Texas shoulders. I asked him for an explanation. He told me he had gone to an Emmaus walk: an intentionally shaped retreat that I had dismissed as manipulative religion. Jim met God there; Jesus put mud in his eye there and taught him to see. He didn’t have much in the way of explanation, and I was hard pressed to figure it out. All he had was this one thing: “Once I was blind, now I see!”
This is my suggestion: take your religion, take your faith like Jim, like Jesus, like the once blind beggar — as Luther once said we are all beggars at God’s table of grace. Use your life to bear witness to the unexpected and unexplainable reality of the love of God for the world. It may be that we are the way the universe thinks about itself, but I also believe that we are sent to be the way the universe loves itself. It is up to you. You can bury your noses in your morning papers, iPads, and nooks, or we can shout and protest and stand together for what we believe in the light of day. Do what you want, but I can no longer hide. For there is one thing, only one thing I know for: once I was blind, now I see. Oh Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! And to God alone be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
First read: John 4:1-30
There was a phone call. The young girl’s voice on the other end of the line said, “This is Mary, is John home?” John was in second grade. It was the first call she had taken for him from a girl; curious, she stayed on the line — silently. “John, you have a phone call!” He picked up the phone upstairs, ‘Hello?’”
Mary had been in his class, but had recently moved to another town. His was one of the few names she remembered. She had asked her parents to look up the number. Their conversation was awkward and halting, but then she made the comment that went to the heart of the matter. She said, “‘Nobody knows me anymore.’”
John didn’t know what to say. He quickly brushed her off and hung up the phone. She was calling to hear a familiar voice – someone she knew and whom she believed knew her. He was just seven years old. His mother was devastated. She knew what that little girl needed, but couldn’t say a word. (1)
No one knows me anymore. We have all been there; sometimes we’ve spent whole periods of our life there. A new school, a new job, a new city. We may be at a party and the only person we know is the host. Then there are the more painful crises in life: a trauma, a death, or a shameful secret we feel we must keep. Even those closest to us don’t know who we are. Today we are all contending with fear. It is okay to admit you are afraid. We are afraid. That admission, in the open, can draw us together.
As much as we long to be known, for a knowing that makes us whole, we spend a good part of the energy of our lives hiding, hiding the most personal part of ourselves from others. For good reason: it can be an unforgiving world, a world constantly trying to make us into someone else. You can usually find the current vision of who that is by watching television commercials, scrolling though instagram, or carefully observing high school cafeterias. Where I grew up that was pretty well defined: athletic, popular, pretty as the movies define pretty, or friends of any of the above. We gather as human beings often to the exclusion of “others.”
It is about noon, and a Samaritan woman has arrived to draw water. The fact that she is here alone tells us something. She is an outsider. The event of drawing the day’s water in the cool of the morning is a social activity for women in the ancient world. She comes at time when she is sure to be alone. For me, the bucket she brings has become a symbol of some quiet burden she carries — guilt, rejection, grief, shame — whatever it is that makes her feel different or excluded.
When I was first coming to myself as a gay man, I drove every Monday an hour to a Starbucks in West Hollywood, mid-morning, when most people were at work and I was assured to meet no one who knew me. The first two times I just circled the block and drove the hour home. That was enough. The third week I finally had the courage to enter a coffee shop — patronized by a gay male majority — to sit and read. Eventually I would feel more at home there than at home. My bucket, the burden I carried, was fear of being truly known. What is it for you? [Fear of the unknown might do well enough for today.]
Jesus is here, sitting by the well, thirsty and without a bucket. The disciples have gone for food. Jesus does the unthinkable for a male teacher in the ancient world: he speaks to her directly in a public place. He asks for a drink. I think she is a strong woman … and bitter. She speaks frankly. Centuries of hatred between Samaritans and Jews stand between them. “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” It is a question with an edge.
“If you knew who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” It is an unusual answer; seemingly not an answer to the question asked. “If you knew me, you would have asked and I would have given you living water.” This will be a conversation about knowing.
In ancient Greek “Living water” is fresh running water, a step up from the kind she expects to draw from this well. It is a strange offer from someone without bucket. She tells him so. Jesus’ response is even more intriguing. “Those who drink the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Friends, what is it that you thirst for? Deep in your soul. What burden do you carry that you would like to be rid of, or at least share with someone so that you do not feel alone. It is hard to tell exactly what she hears in these strange words, but it is something she needs. “Sir, give me this water,” she pleads, “so that I will never be thirsty … or to keep having to come here.”
A step closer. Jesus says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” She has had five and currently lives with another. We don’t know the circumstances. We may now understand why she is here alone. She is avoiding the judgment of her peers. That is how centuries of male interpreters have judged her. Patriarchal men of influence that stood in pulpits as I do. In fact she could be trapped. According to custom when a brother died, the next eldest was to marry his spouse. Perhaps she has existed in a life strung with tragedy and the last man has finally refused her. Perhaps this is her shame. We do not know. Before you judge her too, there is no condemnation from Jesus, only the refusal to turn from her.
“I have no husband.” Jesus lays open the story of her life. He knows her. Her whole self, her authentic self, not the mask she wears to pacify the world around her. Friends this is the gift: the living water of God’s life giving acceptance. It is an awkward moment for her; she changes the subject. “I know that the Messiah is coming,” she says. “I am,” Jesus replies, “the one who is speaking to you.” “I am” That is what God answered, when a stuttering shepherd encountered a burning bush. Tell them: “I am.”
The gift of God knows us just as we are, knows you just as you are and doesn’t turn away. For the first time in her life, this woman is touched by Grace. She is born again, born from above. As are each of us, each time we encounter such a moment in our lives. Whether it be by religion, or through the simple kindness of a friend; whether we have called that grace by the name Jesus or not. If you have not known this gift before, let today be that day. Here, now, quench your thirst. In this church find home.
Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians of the last century, wrote this. "Grace strikes us when … we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear …. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks our darkness, and it is as though a voice were crying: “You are accepted.”(2)
After such an experience we may not be better than before and you may not believe more than before, but everything is changed. Nicodemus, the faithful, stayed in the darkness, fearing to be known. The Samaritan woman accepts God’s gift: she lays her bucket aside and walks into the glorious light of a new life. Hear me. Jesus is here, patiently waiting for you. Won’t you accept him today. You are beloved!
I have felt the searing light of day myself. I have carried a burden and in the face of Jesus quenched my thirst from the well of waters of life. Oh, it is well with my soul! Dare to be known just as you are. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter how far short you fall from that person the world would like you to be, drink from this well and you will be changed. You may not look any different, you will still mistakes, but you will be free. And to God alone will be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
(1) Thomas K. Watson, adapted from the author’s personal anecdote in “As We Are Known,” The Clergy Journal, February 2005.
(2) Paul Tillich, “You are Accepted,” in A Chorus of Witnesses (ed. Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 99-100. Paraphrased for context.
I See A New Church
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess, June 2019
The following is the text of my brief part in the LGBTQ led worship service at the 2019 session of the California-Pacific Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. I was grateful to be there. Many others could have offered testimony longer fought and much more deserving to be heard than mine.
The humor in the moment was intended to disarm fear, namely mine. There was, however, strong intentionality to the sermon. My concern is that wesleyans will continue to argue polity when the primary need is to return to the Bible with renewed theological vision and rigor. Without this, I fear, our conferencing is futile.
“Witness” is, I believe, the primary genre of the Bible. My own witness here was intended to be an example of a gay man taking scripture very seriously. As John Wesley admonished his preachers — “speak as the oracles of God” — in a brief space I make a number of allusions to the speech and stories of the Bible, both obliquely and directly. In order to read the biblical witness well, one must also be aware of the way the ancients pulled the stories of their ancestors into their present in order to comprehend and interpret God’s action in their lives. I conclude by doing the same: interpreting my own story of “coming out” to renewed vision told through the lens of Jesus’ encounter with the beggar born blind (John 9).
I have come to believe that the original sin of the Western Christian tradition — so deeply imbedded as to be indistinguishable from the way we do theology — is our obsession with universal truths which in the end are the universals imposed by those with power. Universal truth is God. God created a world of astonishing plurality. The incarnate Jesus was not a universal human being, but a particular one. Unique. In becoming this Word made flesh God hallows the peculiar dignity of each and every one of us. We are being called, today, to a conversion of sorts: from seeking purity in conformity to beholding the holy in the astonishing beautify of otherness and in the universal God who greets us hidden beneath the face of each and every human soul.
As noted in the text, I am significantly indebted to several authors who have guided me to these thoughts: Emmanuel Levinas as read through my teacher Dr. William Greenway, The Reasonableness of Belief: Why God and Faith Make Sense (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015); and the brilliant commentary of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who has essentially retaught me how to read the Torah, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, revised (London: Continum, 2003). I am confident that Jesus had something to do with it too.
I See A New Church
I see a new church. A new church must be built upon a renewed biblical, theological foundation. God gathers us.
After my first Annual Conference 17 years ago, my plan was to not speak on the floor of Annual Conference until my retirement. I’m here early, unless this goes badly. I am grateful to be here — and grateful to that generation of queers who came before me who made this possible — but this was not the plan.
I am a Presbyterian preacher’s kid from rural Missouri — note, Methodist not the plan; preacher, by no means! When I completed my undergraduate study in Chicago, my plan was a lucrative tech job, loving wife, nice house in a tree lined suburb, and two and a half kids. I remember saying to self, “Self, I’m willing to pursue this dream anywhere, but please not California.” You see, Midwesterners look with a great frown in this direction: “land of fruits and nuts.” We are a people willfully, even proudly, different. Yet, here I am: Californian, Methodist, gay, single at 50, no children, and the only asset to my name is this peculiar work.
I am not willfully different: I am just God given peculiar. We all are, though, aren’t we? An ancient rabbi said that when a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same, but when God creates in God’s image each and every one is different (Sacks 60). Each person is unique, a unique universe of experience and story. Each one of you is irreplaceable. This is the gift of God we are called to behold in a new church.
Each and every move of my life challenged my world view, a world view formed in the idea that one should strive toward universal ideals: some Christian, some American, all certainly right. That view was challenged by my life, a life far more complex and beautiful than any labels I had for it. Chicago was not Higginsville Missouri; and then, my first employer in Chicago sent me to this God forsaken land. In any given visit to a Southern California mall I overhead more languages in one place than I’d heard my whole life. It was Pentecost at Macy’s! This terrified me.
The first wedding I attended with my Latina fiancé was that of her best friend, a second generation Mexican wedding a black man from South Central Los Angeles in a Baptist Church. It was the tensest wedding I’ve ever attended. Soul food on one side, Mariachis on the other, neither family pretending it was their choice to be there; and me, cowering on the edge of God’s great wedding banquet: one piece of bologna on Wonder Bread. Those two families warmed to each other, eventually. You know what it was? It was the first grand child: it was a child who strangely warmed their hearts. God does so often save us by reaching up out of the manger of our humanity with a tiny, vulnerable hand.
Our God, made vulnerable to us, gathers us.
As it turns out, our “isms” — our prejudices and fears of difference— are not healed by abstract talk, or logic, or obedience to a book. In reality, we don’t learn to love the Other in general, we learn to love by first being loved by someone unique and special before we have the good sense to resist (Sacks 55, Greenway 149f, 1 John 4:10).
A child reaches out to hold your hand. A tearful, courageous son comes home and pleads, “Dad, please use the pronouns she and hers.” . The challenge before us as a church is to behold the image of God in the person not like ourselves (Sacks 60). [If you cannot love the person you have seen, you cannot love the God whom you have not (1 John 4:20).] Even in this place when you look to your East or West, North or South — you will see a person, a fathomless irreplaceable mystery very different from yourself; and that person is, in the light Christ shines upon the world, holy. This is after all the heart of John Wesley’s theology. When I became a Methodist, I actually read Wesley. Have you read Wesley? In Christ, Grace heals the heart so that it may behold the image of God in every soul that has breath.
The Bible predicts our behavior in a tower called Babel. We have a tendency to desire to gather all people into one place, or one language, or one book of discipline and impose unity on God’s given diversity (Sacks 51f). When humanity gives birth to an “ism,” we put one particular image of ourselves at the top and rank all those lower on the tower as lesser. Colonial racism puts the white male at the top; rationalism puts secular reason at the top; fundamentalism puts certainty at the top; homophobia puts reproductive sex at the top. Every once in a while God comes down, laughs, and throws the whole thing to the ground, which is exactly where we are supposed to be because that’s where our God, our universal God, walks, hidden beneath the particularity of each and every human soul.
God gather us.
When I came out, I finally did meet the love of my life. It was unexpected. Not my plan. He was no one’s ideal, but a universe to me. Many middle eastern men are tall, dark and handsome. He was not. He was shorter than most, didn’t bathe enough, unkempt, his body wasn’t born of a gym, but of the poverty of a day working family. And when they crucified him it wasn’t a heroic death. He died quickly. His arms weren’t strong enough to hold him for long. The soldiers didn’t need to break his legs.
I wish it wasn’t something I could see, but he had walked by me one day, touched me. I had been blind from birth, but now I could see. I could behold a new world of astounding beauty and grace and senseless suffering. I beheld a new world and a new church. Annual Conferences all over the world argue that I shouldn’t exist. Yet, here we are. It’s not my plan.
God Gather us.
The only thing I’ve got, the one thing I know for certain is that once I was blind and now I see.
Shepherd us O god, beyond our fears, beyond our wants, from death into life.
[the refrain is sung]
A wise Bishop once explained to me that “Methodists have always fought their theological battles with polity not theology.” Polity is a word which stands for the rules and principles by which we order ourselves as church. We were studying the church spilt prior to the American civil war. As I watched this year’s historic called General Conference, I remembered that lesson. How true it remains. We know no other way than to attempt to solve our problems through rules of order. That way has brought us about as far as we can go.
On one hand, pragmatism has been Methodism’s unique gift to the church catholic – granted, occasionally we act and talk as if we invented the church ourselves. At our most Methodist, we set our doctrinal differences aside for the sake of mission; we organize and reorganize as needed to serve the world’s hurt in our unique time and place. This is an essential observation to understand the layer upon layer of rules in our Discipline. There is no one theology of the church that makes sense of it — though occasionally someone tries and makes even more of a mess of that pedantic book.
Historically, Methodist’s organize to advance mission, not for the sake of theological clarity or rhetorical elegance. On the other hand, when we do arrive at an impasse that is theological — our words about God and our lives in relationship to God — we have little other precedent or recourse but to talk and debate order; we throw the words 'accountability', 'biblical', and 'holiness' around, sounding confused enough at it as not to be convincing to anyone.
This General Conference was a battle over plans of order: polity. Polity happens through politics and politics is always about power (and money); whoever manages a majority pretends themselves to be the victor and arbiter of truth. At the height of the American Civil War, even Abraham Lincoln knew better than this. Robert’s Rules of order assume that a conversation is a battle, that a majority wins, and a minority voice (if it is at least a 3rd of the body) is heard. Robert's Rules are the work of a wise Army general. They are not equipment for theology. For that we need witness, humility, reverence. In theory we are called to be witness to the Word of a lone prophet, a minority of one, who spoke truth to power and was put to death for the sake of good order.
I was amused by the professional parliamentarian who was hired to bring to us some sense of decorum. He said – I paraphrase – “Friends, we need to talk. I’ve read your transcripts, two General Conferences worth. Your favorite thing is to rise to a ‘point of order.’” When a delegate raises a point of order, it is to claim an infraction of the rules has occurred; a foul serious enough that proceedings should stop and the error be corrected. We loooove doing that; mostly as an excuse to make a speech. As I watched the live debate, I longed for a way to rise to a point of theological order; to press a big red button and claim that an egregious foul had been committed, one worthy of pausing and sorting out a bit. I’m going to take some space in this and another post or two, to throw a flag on the play – to use an American sports term -- at key moments that rendered the parliamentary process theologically incontinent.
Here it goes; my first. And this was in a friendly action: a speech for one of the inclusive plans; pro gay, sort of. An earnest pastor from the south, a former district superintendent, rose to a speech in favor. As I remember it, he argued that human sexuality was such a small part – holding his fingers together in the “teeny weeny” gesture – of who we are and what we do that we should be setting aside our differences about LGBTQ sexuality so we can do the principle work of the church. Foul! I'm going to call a flag on that play. Maybe we should pause there, sisters and brothers, and talk about that a bit.
We are believers in a Word made flesh, as I recall. Salvation came and comes to us into this world, through enfleshed existence. Jesus said, I came that you may have life in all its fullness. The vision of the end the bible gives is not an escape from this world -- Plato gets this wrong -- it is God coming into this world, making all things new. Behold, our sexuality, our sensual orientation to this enfleshed world conditions everything we see and know and respond to as human beings. It is not a tiny part of being human; our sexuality is the warp and woof of our being. One of the church's first bishops, Irenaeus of Leon, put this vision of enfleshed salvation perfectly, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Let me give a witness.
I am a gay man. I came out when I was 43. I have been blessed. I am grateful beyond words for those who have loved and cared for me. We did the best we could. However, ever since I was a child I have been haunted by a recurring nightmare. (Be at peace, I wouldn’t be telling you something this personal if I didn’t know exactly what it meant). One of the worst things I could imagine as a boy was getting into trouble: I was a preacher’s kid; small town; rural community. My goal was to be the best little boy in the world. Good boys weren’t gay. I was haunted by a dream. I would go into the basement, my basement, my house, my room and discover that there was a dead body buried there. I would be blamed. I wake up horrified, terrified, trembling. This dream, night and again, throughout my life until I was 43.
To make a long story of Calvinist providence and Wesleyan whimsy trivially short, I eventually found my way into the pastorate, or it found me. The revised common lectionary, Lent Year B, is a series of extraordinary texts from the gospel of John. The grace of the risen Christ stalks us on every page, challenging the reader to accept it. It was the penitumite Sunday, the Sunday before Palm Sunday. Lazurus dead, 3 days stinking dead. Mary and Martha angry. Jesus wept. And finally, there, I heard my savior’s grief stricken call: “Lazarus, Come Out.” That terrified gay child I had buried in the basement of my being, answered. I walked into the light. I was finally whole; awkward as anything, but fully alive. My sexual being united with the rest of me. I never had that dream again. Granted, my body that had been wracked by stress and anxiety, felt at midlife, like I was born again with 3 decades worth of stink. Yet I was finally whole, saved by the voice of my Lord. The acceptance of our sexual orientation toward God’s glorious creation is an essential, non negotiable part of salvation, wholeness of life, shalom We deny it to all we entomb with shame and ignorance, and to all those whom we have murdered, physically or spiritually, through our bigotry and violence.
Recounting this story, through that biblical lens, helps me to have compassion for those who have not yet opened themselves to this truth. To accept it one must stand at the grave of all those LGBTQI children who are dead because you have arrived too late. It requires us, as church and culture, to weep at what we have allowed to happen, to admit the harm we have done. Jesus wept. And so must you.
In reality, I am poor at theological argument. I detest conflict. But I am going to stand with Mary and Martha, angrily, and demand we come to the tomb of our gay children and weep. For it is only there that this church can bear witness to the grief stricken voice of her Lord who calls us out into the fullness of life and makes us whole. Some folks say I have courage, I don’t. Like the blind beggar of John 9, I didn’t ask for this life, or for this healing. At this point, I'm just a beggar at the Table of grace looking for someone to love. Interrogate me all you like. There is just one thing I know; it is the only thing I know for certain: once I was blind. Now I see.
And I dare you, double dog dare you, to claim that I am not taking the Bible seriously. Next time, we are going to call foul on that play.
As you have read in the headlines, the General Conference of the The United Methodist Church met in St. Louis this week, with the intent of resolving three decades of conflict over the subject of human sexuality. They did their work. And? We have an expression in Missouri, "You cain't put lipstick on a pig." So I won't try. A minority of US delegates and a majority of international delegates succeeded in passing legislation which tightens enforcement of already existing restrictions against LGBT clergy and marriages; the legislation keeps intact discriminatory language about LGBT persons.
The implications of the decision remain to be seen. The legislation must pass through the Judicial Council (the Supreme Court) of the UMC before it becomes church law. That meeting will occur this April. It is likely all or part of the legislation passed will not be in compliance with our existing constitution (The Book of Discipline). There remains wisdom and protection in the Discipline preventing our exertion of power over one another. However, with the outcome of this General Conference, we see those restrictions breaking. Depending on the outcome of the Judicial Council rulings, the traditionalist legislation would certainly be redrafted for the 2020 General Conference session.
This decision came as a shock to many of us. It has been traumatic for LGBT Methodists, and those who love us, and our vision for an inclusive church. I was asked this morning "Are you okay?" My answer is no, I'm not okay. The reality is in the near term nothing will change; there is a sense, however, that we have turned a corner. The last floor speech at the General Conference opened a door to a new future. Through the chair of the Western Jurisdiction leadership and delegates, Rev. Donna Prichard, your representatives to this General Conference spoke, "Rooted in Wesleyan tradition, grounded in Scripture and committed to mission and ministry, the Western Jurisdiction intends to continue to be one church, fully inclusive and open to all God's children, across the theological and social spectrum. . .We also know there are others who feel the same way today, so we invite you to be in dialogue with us as we move forward together into a future with hope."
Either that dialogue advances the GC in 2020 to a new spirit or we are seeing seeds for a new church, grounded in the inclusive vision of the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC. You are and will be part of that. It is essential for you, Los Altos UMC to not be swayed, or discouraged, but ever more resolved as I am to be a witness to God's love for all people.
-- Peace, Pastor Mark
Rev. Mark Sturgess
Faith is the seeking response to whatever it is that human beings gesture at with the word “God.” There is a surplus of meaning in the human experience that moves our hearts to wonderment and gratitude. Monotheistic religions name this reality God; their spiritual traditions teach that the human quest for meaning is filled in seeking this One in whom we live and move and having our being.
Christians are those who look to Jesus and his way in the world to know God. We believe that the story of ancient Israel’s journey with God, and the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a reliable, essential witness to the mystery of God, and God’s healing power in the world today. To be Christian is to place our trust in this gospel — this “good news” — and to seek to live our lives shaped by this story.
Christian Faith is a relationship of trust in God through Jesus Christ, lived in community in service to the world (church). At Los Altos United Methodist Church we invite you to live your life in the light of this Holy Mystery. We do so with open minds and welcoming hearts.
Our faith is not about certain answers. An answer is a solution to a puzzle. Mystery is an inexhaustible question. Faith is about having patience with what is unresolved in your heart and learning to love the questions themselves.1
As one theologian has written, we are confronted by mystery in all the central affirmations of the Christian faith: the wonder of creation; the shocking humility of God in Jesus Christ; the transforming and healing power of the Holy Spirit; the miracle of forgiveness; the astonishing gift of new life in communion with God and one another; the call to mission; the Resurrection promise that evil and death are not the final word.2 These affirmations are the map to a journey with God left to us by Jesus and our ancestors in faith. Though at moments we may be confident in what we believe, we also acknowledge that God is bigger than one tradition or faith can encompass.
In the Wesleyan tradition of Christian faith, we believe that to be “saved” is to know that you are a beloved child of God, and that there is nothing in life or in death that can separate you from that grace. Grace is knowing you are worthy of love, that you are enough. In the light of this love, we are called to honor the sacred worth and seek the welfare of every person that has breath.
We also believe that the image of God is seen in the diversity of the world. At Los Altos United Methodist Church, we honor the dignity of difference. We cherish the sacred worth of all persons regardless of their gender, sexuality, age, race, or physical limitations. Each human being is uniquely beautiful. In Jesus Christ, we understand this is how God loves. To love as God loves: this is life. Salvation is a journey in the image of Jesus, a human journey full of failures and forgiveness, doubt and wonder.
The first Christians were called the people of the way. This seeking way encompasses the whole of our lives, the whole of ourselves. When Jesus was asked about the meaning of life, he said, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” At Los Altos United Methodist Church, we offer a full range of opportunities to journey together, explore our faith, and know the assurance of God’s love for us, as we seek to make a difference in the world God so loves.
1Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.
2Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 3
"Only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has a chance of changing the world."
--Father Gregory Boyle
As we made our way through the book of Ephesians this summer in worship, I found myself preaching a common theme: as a church, the spirit in which we do something is more important than what we accomplish. I am convinced of this.
Charitable work, social justice advocacy, music education and performance, family services, can be accomplished by anyone. In fact, there are a host of organizations in our society providing these services at a higher capacity and competency than we are. This is as it should be. Our unique work, by God's grace, is the transformation of the human heart as a vessel of God's healing love. Wesley identified the presence of this spirit of gracefulness most often using Galatians 5:24: "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control." These "holy tempers" are the identifiable characteristics of Christian community. When these are replaced by perfectionist critique, complaint, and correction, a church becomes an institution like any other.
Early in my years in ministry, I was derided by a colleague as I held fast to the conviction that congregational health is more important than growth. Sadly, that person burned out of ministry quickly. In our time growth is an idol; so is fear of "decline." A joyful, compassionate, graceful body, may numerically grow or it may not. The essential thing is a spirit rooted and grounded in the love of God. Such a community has a presence of infectious joy: we are quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to take offense. I worry when the first words I encounter at the close of worship is a complaint about a hymn, a misprinted announcement, or an incorrect date. I rejoice when we share the experience of simple, quiet joy: then stale coffee, served on year old out-of-season napkins will quench thirst as if drawn from a well of the water of life. It is a people's gracefulness and tenderness that speaks the word: welcome.
I suggested Sunday, another way to approach this same point. The number of our days are short, where should our best energy be spent? Wesley gave a remarkable sermon on the subject that is nearly a compendium of his teaching about the church. He describes our work in the church in concentric circles. The center is the love of God and of every life that has breath. Shaping this love in the grace of God -- moving outward (see diagram)-- are the "holy tempers", acts of mercy, acts of piety, then our membership in the church itself (I put administration here too). We should be increasingly "zealous" for that which lies closer to the center. I leave you with Wesley's words and invite us into a conversation in the weeks ahead on how to live them in our work together.
"For instance, all that truly fear God should be zealous for the Church; both for the catholic or universal Church, and for that part of it whereof they are members . . . At the same time they should be more zealous for the ordinances of God; for public and private prayer, for hearing and reading the word of God, and for fasting, and the Lord's Supper. But they should be more zealous for works of mercy, than even for works of piety. Yet ought they to be more zealous still for all holy tempers, lowliness, meekness, resignation: But most zealous of all, for that which is the sum and the perfection of religion, the love of God and [humanity]." (From "On Zeal" by John Wesley)
-- Rev. Mark F. Sturgess, Los Altos UMC Newsletter column, August 23, 2018
In the summer of 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following from his Prison Cell. (1)
"I discovered and still am discovering right up to this moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith … By [in this world] I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures … In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That I think, is faith: [that is repentance]; and that is how one becomes a human being and a Christian."
Bonhoeffer would shortly be executed for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer is the exemplar of a reading of our tradition that I have been attempting this Lent. If indeed, in Jesus Christ we are meant to see the life of God, then the Christian path is not an escape from this world to a better one among purer people; rather, to be truly alive is to follow God into the midst of the world we have.
Along with Bonhoeffer and others, I do not understand the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice of a perfect human to satisfy the wrath of an angry God. Rather in Christ’s suffering, I see the life of God made vulnerable to us in solidarity with the world. It is a great mystery, but if our faith is true, God has chosen to hide God’self in the midst of compassion for the world God loves.
(1) This quote and this reflection is inspired by Douglas John Hall, Waiting for the Gospel: An Appeal Dispirited Remnants of the Protestant ‘Establishment’
One young adult from my congregation has continued to practice her faith by becoming involved in a bible study group at her university. She is having difficultly, but remaining in conversation with her friends. She attests to the deep truth of the opening chapters of Genesis — as do I — but not the historical fact of the narratives. Her friends are unconvinced: if Adam and Eve didn’t really exist, then the Bible can’t be true. It is my hope that their friendship will be more important to their faith than the argument. It is not a dispute easily solved.
When discussing Scripture these days, it is most often not the text which is at issue, but our underlying, unexamined assumptions about what the text is. As I suggested in my last post, this is the case with modern “conservatives” and “liberals” alike. As faithful Christians we all agree that the Bible speaks of truth, but truth in our time — in a trajectory beginning in the mid-16th century — is clearly understood to be “facts”: historical, scientific, certain knowledge.
I have been privileged to be in ministry with highly educated sophisticated readers, PhD’s of all varieties, voracious readers. Yet Bible study is often difficult, if not held in suspicion. The importance of searching the scriptures as a means of grace — of encountering the One who is truth — has been lost in our mainline churches. It was not until half-way into my twelve years of ministry, that I came to understand that the problem in reading the Bible (on the left and right) was much deeper than I realized.
In any other context, a talking snake would be a clue that we are reading some genre of literature other than history or science. We would not discredit the writer or the text. We would simply read it differently. We might even read it well, if led by a good teacher. If Genesis 3 were approached as a classic piece of literature in a book not called the “Bible,” we might easily discover that this truth telling narrative is a powerful testimony to the consequence of our lack of humility (in aspiring to God-like knowledge), and that shame emerges in the midst of alienation from God and one another. In other words, the text is not about ancient history, but about our relationship with one another and the One we gesture at with the word “God.” I have found it very difficult to move Christians to this way of reading, because when our understanding of truth and ultimate reality are at stake, as stated on edges of ancient maps, “Here be dragons.”
A retired engineer once told me of a discussion he had with his college roommate. He pointed out to his roommate that the scientific evidence seemed irrefutable that the world was not created in seven days. His roommate punched him. It was not a rational reaction: it came unthinking from a place of deep fear and anxiety. The question and the evidence struck at the core of his world view and what he believed to be true. This is exactly what is at stake in our time about homosexuality and the bible.
When our core understanding of truth and identity are at stake, a solution will not be arrived at by logical argument or parliamentary procedure. In fact, for most people I would suggest, the argument over homosexuality will be settled not in Scripture, but in coming to know and love a homosexual. The engineer I spoke of, will bring the psychological scar of his roommate's fist into every dispute over scripture. The scar was the violation of a relationship; the Bible, or a particular, brand of Christian will be blamed. Just as is the case for every man or woman who has been labeled a Sodomite, or told that God hates their very being. Not only do we approach Scripture with unexamined assumptions about truth, we also come to the text, with deep hurts, fears, and personal stories that will shape our conclusions, long before we pick up the text.
In “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection,” the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, makes a remarkable confession: “I have come belatedly to see, in my own case, that my [interpretive] passion is largely propelled by the fact that my father was a pastor economically abused by the church he served, economically abused as a means of control. I cannot measure the ways in which this felt awareness determines how I work, how I interpret, whom I read, whom I trust as a reliable voice.” (1)
This leads Brueggemann to one of the most important observations about Biblical interpretation I have ever read:
The real issues of biblical authority and interpretation are not likely to be settled by erudite cognitive formulation or by appeal to classic settlements, but live beneath such contention in often unrecognized and uncriticized ways that are deeply powerful … And if that is so, then the disputes require not frontal arguments … but long-term pastoral attentiveness to each other in good faith. (2)
When our unexamined assumptions, and personal stories of hurt and hope are acknowledged and allowed to speak, our Christian conversation may truly become a source of healing. As Wesley contended, Searching the Scriptures and Christian Conferencing are means of the saving grace of God. But when we fight our battles by majority vote, I fear, little is accomplished beyond deepening our hurt. At General Conference there is much at stake, even in the debate on how we are going to debate.
-- Rev. Mark F. Sturgess
(1) Brueggemann, Placher & Blount, Struggling with Scripture, “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection” (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 23.
(2) Brueggemann, Placher & Blount, 10.