Foundry United Methodist Church

Bishop Joseph Sprague

 

 

 

Hope in the Midst of Seemingly Hopeless Circumstances

Sunday, October 9, 2005

 

 

Jeremiah 32: 1-15

Romans 5: 1-5

 

 

 

Preamble

 

Grace to you and peace in the name of the One who has created and is creating, in the precious name of Jesus our Savior and Liberator, and in the name of the ever-stirring life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

 

It is an absolute joy to stand before you today.  From some distance for many years I have admired the ministry and the witness of this congregation and am grateful to have been invited to be here with you on this special occasion. Let us pray.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

 

Introduction

 

To be theologically and politically progressive, let alone gay, lesbian or allies thereof, at such a time like this, both in the church and in this nation, demands an integrated perspective of hope lest cynicism mute the voice of prophetic sanity and despair stymie strategies for simple acts of kindness and justice. Thus, the words of the poet beckon us. “Hope,” she wrote, “is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

 

I. Text

 

But not only do the words of Emily Dickinson speak to our hearts, the example of Jeremiah stirs our imaginations. You remember the story. The great prophet was in jail at the hands of the King of Judah, his former friend. He had been placed in the bowels of the palace because he had the audacity to speak truth to power. While Jeremiah was incarcerated, Babylon was at the gate of the city; Jerusalem was about to fall; Judah would be no more. Talk about seemingly hopeless circumstances. Jeremiah is in jail. Nebuchadnezzar’s power is at the gate of the city. Judah is about to fall.

 

It was in that perilous context that Jeremiah sang his tune of hope, which tune is lined out in the story just read. Hear him melodically hum a tune of hope as he buys the old home place in Anathoth. He’s in jail, the nation is about to fall, Jerusalem is to be captured, yet audaciously he buys the old home place just a few miles from Jerusalem. No one else in the family would take it, so he buys it. Seventeen shekels of silver is dutifully counted. Then carefully, not one, but two deeds of purchase are created. He asks that those deeds be put in an earthenware jar, planted deeply that they might last for a long time. Jeremiah did not believe that the seemingly hopeless circumstances were going to pass quickly. He knew better! But Jeremiah did what he did because he trusted the tenacious faithfulness of the mysterious, transcendent One who had promised that houses and fields and vineyards would again, someday, be bought in this land.

 

Hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Hope as the antidote for immobilizing cynicism and paralyzing despair. Hope based not on transitory circumstances, but on the tenacious faithfulness of God.

 

Dr. King had it right when he said: “In the long run, in the long run, God’s arm always bends toward love and mercy and justice. “

 

II. Context

 

Now, I don’t stand here pretending to know about you. I have not been privileged to be a part of your wondrous faith community. But I do know about myself. What I know as a progressive citizen of this nation and as a follower of Jesus Christ who attempts to be a faithful bishop in the United Methodist Church is that cynicism and despair often come creeping up the back stairwell of my life, seeking to lodge themselves in my soul and in my heart.

 

To see the nation I love embrace an ideology of empire building that tramples on the least, the last and the lost, and to watch our beloved church all too often trivialize the gospel while remaining mute, save in the castigation of those who differ from the ruling elite whether in politics, theology or in sexual orientation, drive me oftentimes into the dark night of my proverbial soul where I am wont to say, “This is not the church I signed on for, or the nation I love, the land of the free, the home of the brave, where all are presumed to be created equal.”

 

There is not the time this morning to consider the immorality of the Bush Administration’s preemptive, first-strike ideology that plunders resources and bankrupts good will while clipping the wings of the angel of this nation’s historic goodness. But, on this occasion, as Foundry asks the important question: “Where do we go from here?” it is necessary, I believe, to take the time to remind ourselves, we who would be inclusive, we who believe not in the rhetorical but actual practice of open minds, open hearts and open doors, why it is that cynicism and despair lurk in such a time as this.

 

The General Conference in 1984 in Baltimore, the bicentennial celebration of our denomination, was the first General Conference at which I was an elected delegate. Whether by fate or providence, this then rookie ended up chairing the subcommittee that had the responsibility to formulate where the United Methodist Church would stand on abortion and homosexuality. Baptism under fire! It was by a 99 to 1 vote, 99 to 1, that our subcommittee recommended the language which remains the essence of our denomination’s very sensitive, quite informed pastoral position on abortion. But when we went to work on homosexuality, that was a horse of a different color. By a vote of 50 to 49, the subcommittee recommended to the General Conference that we retain and promulgate the exclusive statement: “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and find the practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

 

In the General Conference, chairpersons are expected to represent the decisions of the committees they chair on the floor of the General Conference. While I had not engaged in the debate about homosexuality or the vote, seeking to be an even-handed chair for all gathered, when the decision was made, I said to the group that I simply could not represent the majority position on the floor of the General Conference. Long before 1984, as a result of pastoral relationships with gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and the study of scripture, theology, the social and biological sciences, I had become convinced that our church was and is absolutely wrong on this issue. Even more painfully I was and am convinced that the UMC is guilty of abusing our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And so, instead of representing the majority position, I represented the minority position. Needless to say, you know the history, the majority position, the more exclusive position, held the day.

 

But, as we prepared to leave Baltimore, given the tenor of the debate, an example of exceptional civil discourse, and the private feedback I received from representatives of the so-called Silent Majority, I left believing that someday, someday soon, perhaps in the magical year of 2000, the church would get it: the United Methodist Church would become truly inclusive. After all, given the passage of time, we had finally gotten it regarding women and people of color. By 1984, women and blacks were in prominent positions of leadership. The Central Jurisdiction was no more. Surely, surely, we will get it by the magical year of 2000.

 

But then, after the increasingly strident General Conferences of ’88, ’92 and ’96, along came the debacle that was the General Conference in Cleveland in 2000. By then the IRD, Good News, and the Confessing Movement had captured the soul of the United Methodist Church. They had done so in such a way that gays, lesbians, and their supporters in frustration, while smarting from the abject rejection experienced, engaged in acts of civil and ecclesiastical disobedience. Many were arrested both outside the convention center and on the very floor of the General Conference.

 

The exclusive position of the United Methodist Church was not changed, but only hardened and extended beyond the principle statement to include practical matters of ordination, union services, and even education about this sensitive matter.

 

Then came Pittsburgh in the spring of 2004. Those who sought an inclusive church, one with open minds, open hearts and open doors, did not seek the many changes justice demands. Rather, a wise and winsome coalition sought only the acknowledgement by our church that we United Methodists don’t agree on this important matter. Yet, despite this meager request and the irenic spirit and solid theological and liturgical offerings of those committed to an inclusive church, the result of the General Conference vote produced yet another defeat. Despite the absence of Cleveland stridency in Pittsburgh, futility enveloped many as Pittsburgh became history.

 

No wonder, friends, that cynicism and despair lurk and often creep up the back stairwells of our lives. Thus, not unlike Jeremiah of old, we proponents of a truly inclusive United Methodist Church find ourselves incarcerated by fickle friends who are afraid to do in public what they say in private, besieged by neo-literalists and neo-cons who would rather win than open the UMC to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and by leadership that will not lead, but instead remains shamefully mute as the United Methodist room in the Jesus House shrinks in size for those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and allies thereof.

 

All this being the case, as I believe it is, the question I was asked to address becomes for us a terribly important question, namely: “Where do we go from here?” What do we do in the midst of such seemingly hopeless circumstances?

 

Dear friends, not because I pretend any absolute knowledge (consecration as a bishop does not bring with it any sense of infallibility), but because I do believe that integrated hope demands that we sing the tune without the words and never stop at all, I offer you the following in response to the query: “Where do we go from here?”

 

First, we must recover a long-term perspective in the midst of extreme, short-term circumstances. In the last two weeks, among the books I have read, are the newest biography of Medgar Evers and Karl Fleming’s uncivil memoir entitled “A Son of the Rough South.” Back in the 60’s, in the midst of civil rights work in Mississippi, I had the privilege of visiting in the home of Medgar Evers shortly after his assassination. I became convinced then, and I have continued to believe across the years, that Medgar Evers is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. Karl Fleming, you may know, was Newsweek’s on-the-spot reporter in the midst of all the milestones of the freedom movement. So, late at night, it was an exciting and soul-feeding experience to juxtapose and find confluence between the story of the life and death of Medgar Evers and the gutsy reporting of a Southerner who dared to tell the truth about those he knew best and loved most.

 

The confluence of the two helped me to recall that it was only yesterday in the civil rights struggle when everything seemed impossible. Yet today, when the impossible has been made possible, so many victories and societal changes are simply taken for granted. In God’s economy, God has a way of making justice come alive when seemingly hopeless circumstances threaten death. And so, by virtue of lives put on the line, of truth-telling, and of the irrefutable power of God, what was impossible yesterday is possible today. And what seems impossible today will be possible tomorrow!

 

Thus, first, I suggest to you out of this recent historic continuum, that it is important for us to re-develop a long-term perspective.

 

Second, we need to realize that this struggle is part of a larger one. It is in essence a struggle for the very soul of the church. The issues related to homosexuality in the United Methodist Church are indicative of deep theological matters related to the authority of scripture, the nature of revelation, the person of Jesus and the on-going human question of “Who’s on top?” That is to say: “Who is in power?”

 

To advocate for and to stake one’s life on the faithfulness of an inclusive church is to read scripture as a telescope which points to the transcendence of God and as a microscope which brings into focus the wondrous imminence of God. To read scripture correctly is not to treat it as a kaleidoscope – an end in and of itself which seemingly has all the bits and pieces if you just shake it right and hence see answers to the complex issues we face.

 

To advocate for and to stake one’s life on the faithfulness of an inclusive church is to affirm that God continues to reveal who God is through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is alive, still seeking to reveal more truth about love, mercy and justice. God’s power to reveal who God is was not entombed when the creeds were negotiated, politically I might add, or the Bible canonized.

 

To advocate for and to stake one’s life on the faithfulness of an inclusive church is to understand that Jesus in full humanity did so grow by grace through faith into that perfection which empowered him to love the least, last and lost and give his life on their behalf while at the same time forgiving those who had done all manner of evil against him falsely. He calls us to do the same.

 

To advocate for and to stake one’s life on the faithfulness of an inclusive church is to understand that self-serving power-grabbing is in and of itself corrupt, and that, instead, servant leadership garners the gift of authority which we share in community so that all might sit at one table of sisterhood and brotherhood. The struggle in which we are engaged is a struggle with powers and principalities. Dear friends, because it is deep, we need gird our loins as we seek to be servant leaders who would sit with all others at one table.

 

Thirdly, we need to practice and demand truth-telling. We live in a time when truth-telling is an oddity. Somebody speaks truth in public discourse and we scratch our heads: Can this be true? We need to demand and practice truth-telling. Truth-telling means creating opportunities for our oppressed gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to tell their faith stories in the midst of their life stories to those who have been carefully manipulated to accept caricatures of deviant behavior. Truth-telling means holding one another accountable across theological, color, and ethnic lines regarding fidelity in our most sacred relationships. Orientation is a given. What we do with our orientation is what really matters. Truth-telling means countering the false interpretation of scripture that is in vogue in the church today.

 

As the supposed curse of Ham was allowed for generations to be used to keep black people captive by racist persons in authority, while those who knew better, who had read the text and knew what it said, largely kept silent, so today too many seminaries, too many pulpits, too many classrooms and too many bishops simply remain quiet while neo-cons and neo-literalists suggest that there is a condemnatory position vis-à-vis homosexuality in the Bible when we know better. Anybody who has read the seven passages in question knows there is no such thing. What is in the Bible regarding sexuality is the clear condemnation of any sexual practice that destroys the sacred worth of another person, whether said practice is hetero or homosexual.

 

Truth-telling demands that we be willing to refute categorically the audacity of the so-called Focus on the Family nonsense which suggests that gay and lesbian people are somehow the culprits behind soaring divorce rates, absent fathers and heterosexual promiscuity. That is a non sequitur. It is a nonsensical polemic about which we need speak the truth, courageously.

 

Fourth, this means that we confront church bullies unequivocally. Bishop Jack Tuell just did that. The Confessing Movement came out with a published story stating that the United Methodist Church has locked down on the issue of homosexuality, that the General Conference spoke once and has continued to speak the same unchanged word. Bishop Tuell, lawyer that he also is, checked out the precedent, went back to the archives, brought forth the vote counts. I won’t bore you with all the statistics, but simply suggest to you that from 1988 when the vote for retention of the exclusive words was 761 for and 181 against, or an 80.9% vote, that in 2004 the vote was 527 for and 423 against, or 55.6%, a 25.3% shift! That’s hardly being locked down. It helps when cynicism and despair stalk us not to allow bullies to control the church playground with false assertions about the size of their muscle.

 

Fifth, the divisive talk about dividing the United Methodist Church into two parts, this talk about syrupy-sweet, amicable separation, must be resisted. How in God’s name in a divided and war-torn world, where Christians and Muslims must learn to respect and love one another, can we United Methodists minister in the midst of such perilous circumstances if, in the midst of our internal differences, we cannot stay together and open ourselves to new Truth with a capital “T,” Truth that God will grant if we open ourselves to new possibilities found in unity in the midst of painful diversity?

 

Finally, this means the development or the re-development of a vigorous congregational and personal life of passionate worship, sophisticated study of the scriptures and theology, intimate care of one another, and risk-taking mission and social activism in the world. All of this, yes, for the world’s sake, but also for our own souls’ sake – as we realize anew that God isn’t finished with us or with our beloved church either.

 

Conclusion

 

Two weeks ago, I went home again to North Broadway UMC in Columbus, Ohio. Thomas Wolfe and others have said that you cannot go home again, but we gave it a shot. The congregation where I was serving when elected to the episcopacy in ’96 was celebrating its 100th anniversary. It’s a “tall-steepled church” that has produced three bishops. You can picture it. You know what it looks like. In the sermon I described that congregation’s wonderful hospitality on the one hand and its demanding expectancy on the other.

 

In the midst of the sermon, I said: “Dear friends, in a recent question and answer period following a presentation, I mentioned that ‘I had never served a liberal congregation.’ To which a wag in the audience said, ‘Well, what about North Broadway?’ I quickly said, ‘Well, North Broadway is not liberal, it’s full of Republicans.’ The congregation laughed uproariously. And then I told them the rest of what I said: ‘Yes, full of Republicans, but not the kind of neo-cons who are taking this nation and our beloved church in absolutely the wrong direction. Rather, they are Republicans who believe in Jesus, who are open to the transforming power of the Christ and who have demonstrated over and over again that all are welcome in this congregation.”

 

I don’t say this immodestly, but I want to tell you that that sanctuary, filled to the rafters, broke into raucous applause. It was led by the former leader of the Republican Party in Franklin County.

 

Hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances. That’s what we have been given, that’s what we need, and that’s what we must integrate. The apostle Paul was right. Remember how he said:  “Hope does not disappoint us because hope has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

 

Dear friends, integrated hope even in the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances is that which no one or no thing, no power or principality, no denomination, no political movement, no caucus group can take from us. “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never (ever, by God’s grace,) stops at all.” Amen.

 

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