Dying or Pregnant?
DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
12 October 2014 – 18th Sunday after Pentecost
This week a blog post entitled “Transition Hurts” (firstname.lastname@example.org) contained a link to a very insightful video. In 2011, The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a pastor of a small, vibrant church near Washington D.C., created a video response to refute a letter to the PCUSA in which several pastors diagnosed us as deathly ill (We Are Presbyterian 2011 – A New “Diagnosis” for the Church at: vimeo.com). They had all the numerical facts: declining membership, dilapidated buildings, fewer adult baptisms, etc., etc., etc. Rev. Dana admitted that she had no desire to argue with their facts. Instead, she questioned their diagnosis. When she considers our churches, she doesn’t see the metaphor of death with all the symptoms that go with it. And even if she did, would that be so bad? We’re the Easter people who worship the living God whose final surprise comes only after death. In God’s hands, it’s all going to be all right. Nonetheless, Rev. Dana likens what she sees among us not to death, but as a time in which we are pregnant. Gestating. Awaiting the birth of something new. Now, Rev. Dana was sensitive to the fact that not all of us will resonate with this metaphor. Some of us, or our spouses, never have been pregnant out of choice or heart-breaking circumstances. Some of us may not want to be pregnant – facing the birth of something new. Some of us grieve the loss of a child or are trying right now to give birth to something new in our lives. We need a sensitivity with one another about our experiences around pregnancy. Still, Rev. Dana jumped in to compare what she’s seeing among so many Presbyterian churches not to death, but to being pregnant.
Think about it. Fatigue is typical in pregnancy – something many churches are feeling these days. We know we have fewer people among us than we might have had at the height of American Presbyterianism in the 1950s and 1960s when people flocked to our sanctuaries each week. Many churches tire themselves out as they try to do and be what they did and were some 50 years ago. It’s exhausting trying to keep on being something we no longer are – which is something quite common to pregnancy when major changes are growing within a body. . . . Dana reminds that queasiness is a part of pregnancy – also known as morning sickness. She pinpoints this in the church. Our stomachs might be churning when we think about how we are to relate to this changing world. Everything from younger generations whose choices we can’t always understand, to technology we’re not quite sure how to utilize in order to reach them, to cultural values we believe to be contrary to the gospel. It can make us sick to our stomachs as we wonder how we are to live in this world without being co-opted by the ways of it? How we are to keep on giving witness to the good news of Jesus Christ among families, friends, neighbors, and strangers who seem to be so very different from us? And of course the anxiety. What parent really is ready for the birth of their baby? Will we be able to bring this new thing to life? Will we respond well to its needs? Are we able to guide this new thing into the fullness of its being as God intends? Every parent experiences at least a little angst along the way as many of us might be feeling these days about the future of the church. Pregnancy is a leap into the unknown – God alone being the One who knows what is being brought to life. . . . Considering the evidence, it just might be that we as a church aren’t deathly ill as so many fear in our death-phobic society. Perhaps instead, we are pregnant.
I can’t help but see the Israelites in the wilderness in this way. God is trying to make them into a new thing. Trying to make a covenant community out of a tribe of folks who had been slaves in Egypt. God wants them to be free for worship and service as they shine to bring light to all nations. They wander in the wilderness for 40 years – a lot longer pregnancy than any of us ever hope to undergo. But there they are those forty years in order to be made into a people who joyfully, gratefully rely upon the LORD God as their Sovereign, not Pharaoh. As a people they are in a time of pregnancy – awaiting the birth of the new thing they will become through the work of God among them. . . . Psalm 106 lets it be known that they would not allow God to be up to that work. Again and again in their trek to freedom, they fear death. They cry out against Moses and Aaron on more than one occasion. They whine that it was better back in Egypt. They even go so far as to do what they do as recorded in Exodus 32. A great lesson to us of what NOT to do when you are expecting. When Moses goes to be with God to hear what they need to know from God to be who God is making them to be, what do they do? They panic. They let their anxiety get the best of them. In fear they turn on Aaron in order to demand something now that they can see and hold and put in their midst in order to cling ever so tightly to it. It’s like they’re not willing to wait any longer for an obscure God and an absent leader. The Psalm puts it this way: “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (Ps. 106:20-22). The LORD God has been working tirelessly for their benefit; to make them into something beautiful for the sake of God’s will for this world. But they mis-diagnosis their situation. Demanding instead a golden calf, they do not allow the space for God’s good work to be brought to fruition.
It brings us back to Rev. Dana’s diagnosis. Pregnancy. Gestation. This time of awaiting the birth of God’s something new. . . . A few of us walked a Labyrinth this week. It’s an ancient tool for prayer. A circular path with a way in, a center for stillness, and a way back out. In case you missed it, NaCoMe has one, or this one we went to is outdoors and always available for use. The thing that struck me in walking the Labyrinth this week is that the path unfolds before you. You don’t have to worry that you’ll get lost along the way in a Labyrinth. All you have to do is follow, step by step, the path that unfolds before you. It helps to keep yourself attuned to the present moment: alert. Watching for the turns. Noticing those walking the path with you. Not rushing forward to get to the center before it’s time. Not running out to get away from it all. Just step by step. Follow the path as it unfolds. . . . Pregnancy works kinda like that, right? Step by step. We have no control over the process. Once that spark of the new life begins, it grows as it will.
Of course, there are things we can do when pregnant to ensure a healthy new life – practices we can be about as we wait. For the pregnant church, prayer seems key during our pregnancy. And I’m not just talking about the kind of prayer where we do all the talking to God. But prayer where we as the body of Christ today listen for God’s word to us. Hear how God desires to unite us with God’s will for the world around us. It’s like Mother Mary’s pondering. All the things God speaks to our hearts regarding the new life God desires to bring into being today. . . . And, in contrast to the impatient golden-calf-making-folks, we can remember. They forgot, but we must remember. Rehearse with one another the marvelous ways God has set us free from our bondage – free from our enslavement to lives void of purpose. Free from ways that keep us separated from God and one another. What if we began telling one another the stories of how God somehow made a way in our lives – individually and collectively as a congregation? I mean how many of us have been to those places where we felt totally shattered due to the death of our loved one, or the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job. All seemed a painful, joy-less end. Yet here we are. Somehow, thanks be to God, we’re still gathered to give God praise. We must remember – not only the stories of how God worked through our faith ancestors as recorded in scripture, but also how the living God has worked through our lives making a way when there seemed to be none. . . . That’s our way to have hope. To rest assured that all shall be well. Indeed pregnancy can be scary – so many things can go wrong. But what a time of joy. What a time of waiting to greet the birth of this new thing growing within whatever it turns out to be. What a time of hope for all the ways God will work through us yet in being the light of love in a world ensnared by hate. In being the light of unity among people who desire division. In being a people of joy in the midst of a world pandering for more, and more, and more. . . . Something new awaits its birth among us, O church. Let us be ready to greet it in great joy!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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