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In order to expedite posting the worship services here on our website, we are reducing the transcript to just the scriptures used and the message. Union Grove UMC in partnership with Southland Books & Cafe, began holding Second Sunday Community Church in January 2023. Second Sunday Community Church takes place at 3 p.m. ET the second Sunday of every month, meets in-person at The Bird & The Book, and is also live-streamed on Facebook. Holy Communion is offered at every Second Sunday service. If you are worshipping on Second Sundays online whether during the live-cast or through on-demand viewing, you are encouraged to have bread and juice or wine available as you watch the service and to participate in communion just as if you are present with us.
God, open us to hear and receive your scriptures today as you would have us hear them, understand them as you would have us understand them, and to act upon them as you would have us act upon them.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
*Scriptures this morning come from the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition.
MESSAGE – What Did You Drag Me Into?
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer, and may you see fit to use me as a vessel from which you pour out your Divine Word.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
In today’s Daily Meditation from Fr. Richard Rohr, Forthtelling, Not Foretelling, Fr. Rohr writes:
“Prophets do not foretell the future, but they do seem to anticipate futures that are shocking to the rest of us:
Most of the prophets seem to be ordinary people who find themselves with a gift. Prophecy in the Bible is not a matter of foretelling, but—to play with the English language a bit—it’s forthtelling. Prophecy is speaking with such a forwardness of truth, direction, and passion that, after the fact, we say the prophet foretold it. It’s not that they’re really predicting something, it’s just that they have immense spiritual insight. The original Hebrew word for a prophet meant simply that: one who sees. A prophet is a seer who sees all the way through.
The reason prophets can speak so clearly and strongly in the now is because they judge the now from, of all places, the future. Prophets have seen the future. In other words, they have seen where God is leading humanity. They have seen and drawn close to the heart of God and they know God is leading us somewhere good. Since they know the conclusion and where it is that we’re heading, they become impatient and angry at the present state of things. If we know where history is going and what God is leading us toward; if we know what our lives could and should be, why are we wasting time with all this violence and all this stupidity?
The prophets judge the present by the perspective of the future. Perhaps that’s how we began to think that prophets foretold the future—because they forthtold the future. They were the original futurists. The fancy, theological word for this is eschatology. The prophets live out of this futuristic vision of God’s dream for the world, where God is leading history, and where it’s all headed. Prophets become so infatuated with that final ideal goal and vision that they become passionately sad and angry about what we’re doing now. Once we experience the universal being of God, the present becomes so dissatisfying and disappointing. We wonder how people can be satisfied with so little and content with such tawdry lives.
Another way to say it is that the prophet gives us a direction and vision of the whole. For most people, history was circular; it wasn’t going any place in particular. But the prophet gives history a goal, aim, and direction and calls history forward. This is essential because if we don’t have a sense that history is going somewhere, we will go in circles and our lives will become meaningless. We enter a kind of existential absurdity with no direction in which many people become caught. Without an eschatological sense of time, we become trapped in the now. Without the word of the prophet, religion becomes no more than a legitimation of the status quo.”
I would offer that we are in a time of many prophets rising up from the most marginalized of communities, the most oppressed people … as it should be. As it always has been. I would also offer that, as they always have, prophets are not prophets by choice but by the ability to see past all the bull manure and self-righteous blustering of the status quo, the “moral majority,” the “traditionalists” to a more whole, more complete, more equitable and inclusive future; not just individual wholeness, but societal and even global wholeness.
Y’all know that I’m Methodist, that Union Grove, the church I pastor is Methodist, and you probably know that we Methodists were the result of the work of John Wesley. Wesley believed that there were three levels of grace: Prevenient grace, the grace extended to us before we wake up to a higher power and higher purpose; Justifying grace, the grace we are under after that wake up to the higher power and begin to understand that higher purpose; and sanctifying grace, the grace that carries us to or at least toward what Wesley calls perfection.
Grace is the forgiveness, the mercy that God, that the highest power extends to us when we get off track. Wesley defined perfection as, while difficult to sustain, something that is, indeed attainable. By perfection, Wesley does not mean “academic perfection” or “angelic perfection,” but rather perfection “under the law of love,” and for Wesley, it was all about love – love of God, the highest power, and love of one another. Sola Sancta Caritas – only holy love.
Wesley knew it was impossible for a person to achieve the kind of perfection found in angels or in the first inhabitants of the Garden of Eden before taking a bite of that fruit from the tree of wisdom. He also knew that, even when we are able to achieve his definition of perfection, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to sustain it permanently. We’re not, as he says, “immune to ignorance, and error, and a thousand other infirmities.” It’s worth noting Wesley’s words here: ignorance, error, and a thousand other infirmities.
Mistakes and ignorances are part and parcel of humanity, but they are not, according to Wesley, impediments to perfection. For Wesley, perfection is about complete orientation to love, and not an “ends justifies the means” functional rightness. Wesley believed one can be understood to have attained Christian perfection while still experiencing “infirmities” or committing mistakes out of ignorance.
“This is the sum of Christian perfection,” Wesley says. “It is all comprised in that one word, love.” Love is at the center of any scriptural or traditional account of perfection: having the mind of Christ abiding by the Greatest Commandments, manifesting of the fruit of the spirit, and renewing the image of God in the person.
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop claims that Wesley’s “deepest conviction was that man could be saved from sin here on this earth and in this life and live in the atmosphere of love to God and man. It was a practical concern, a joining of the traditional theological doctrines of the church with the subjective experience of people’s everyday lives.
Wesley’s definition of perfection based on his reading of Scripture, is “pure love filling the heart, and governing all words and actions.” To be motivated always and only by love above all defies the dominant or ruling culture’s structures of our world. The binaries, norms, and restrictions that govern our Western culture in particular, specifically with regard to gender and sexuality and their assumptions and implications, are set up in service of patriarchal domination, capitalist rule, and racist oppression. The chief motivations that perpetuate these societal systems are fear and greed. To act from a heart filled with love, that is, true concern and care for others, whom we se and know to be valuable simply for their common existence, will always work against the normative powers.
Queer love in particular challenges these unjust structures because it is doubly resistant. Unreproductive, unafraid, unfazed by the restrictive demands of how, for example, romantic relationships should work for the reproduction of our oppressive society, queer love lets love make the calls, and so embodies the ethos … the character of Wesleyan perfection.
I would interject here, also, that … for those who are or have deconstructed, for those who have walked or even run away from forms of Christianity that are toxic, legalistic, nationalistic, that in their doctrine, their beliefs, their interpretations of scripture, do not profess true and sincere love for all God’s children, do not follow or practice what Christ taught in his three years of adult ministry … that you also embody the ethos, the character of Wesleyan perfection in your sheer resistance to “ignorance, error, and thousands of infirmities.”
“Perfection,” to Wesley, Wynkoop says, “was to be defined rationally, biblically, ethically, socially.” It is apparent chiefly in relationship, revealed in right treatment of others, witnessed to in the Scriptures, and consistent with reason. It is not to be found in a personal pietism, but rather, because its basis is love, perfection is necessarily toward … the other. Perfection acts up … and acts out. The person who has been cleansed of sin and filled with perfect love will ever be working toward justice, which upends the normative systems of evil that dampen, obscure, and otherwise negate the primacy of love in the world.
Wynkoop insists that we should not confuse perfection with perfectionism. Perfection is not a moral perfectionism which substitutes external and amoral demonstration for inward grace.” Perfection is not a moralism defined by rules or piety … let me say that again for those folks who like to scream scripture bombs on street corners … Perfection is not a moralism defined by rules or piety … but rather an orientation of the heart, provided by grace, toward love. This orientation is worth noting, since some say things like, “oh you can be gay, but you can’t ‘engage in homosexual activity’ …”. First off, what does activity include? Holding hands? Kissing? Sex? These days, does that include holding or attending Pride events, performing drag and reading story books to children? Finally addressing your true gender identity instead of the biological identity based on your private parts? One would think so, these days, anyway. And this pre-occupation with body parts and personal relationships is something I don’t get, something I’ve never really understood, especially since we don’t hold heterosexual people – especially or, more accurately, specifically heterosexual men – to the same strict standards of behavior and morality that we hold women and the LGBTQIA.
If he were here today, I don’t think Wesley would get it either. For Wesley, intention is the key. The action is the outpouring of the intention, and it’s either all sin or all not. If, having been cleansed from sin by the Spirit, the orientation of one’s heart is toward love, and one’s action is the outpouring of this love, then there can be no sin here. I want to say that louder for those folks out there on those street corners – you know who you are – If, the orientation of one’s heart is toward love, and one’s action is the outpouring of this love, then there … can … be … no … sin … here.
Thinking about perfection in terms of love brings it from the ethereal impossibility portrayed in other traditions into the reality of actual life, able to be experienced by actual people. It was precisely that Christianity tended in Wesley’s day to disregard the implications of Christian living now that urged him on to delineate “holiness” as love – practical, real, here and now. Because of the practical here-ness of love that must be worked out in the messy mundane of real life and actual relationships, there are no hard and fast rules for getting to or living out perfection. It is relative and looks different for everyone.
Just as love does not just look one way or manifest as one thing, perfection has many values and is unpredictable. We are made holy by the wild and wily love of the Spirit, which cannot be controlled, defined, or contained. So perfection, just as love, will do and look and be as it wills.
Some folks claim … and love to espouse prolifically that perfection … Christian perfection … is impossible to attain. We’re all broken sinners who should be forever groveling at the foot of the cross, begging forgiveness, so on and so forth, thereby employing shame and guilt in order to keep people in line.
Wesley claims that “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,’ [and] ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ is as express a promise as a command.” If God commands and indeed requires perfection from us, then God also promises to make it a reality. God would not “mock his helpless creatures, calling us to receive what he never intends to give,” therefore God “turns all the commands into promises.
Some folks claim it is impossible to be “sinless” while a person is “in a sinful body.” (that pre-occupation with the flesh rearing its ugly head again). Wesley does concede that we can never be as perfect as the original pair in the garden before they bit into that fruit because, while we are in the body we cannot be wholly free from mistake,” and we are still “liable to judge wrong in many instances.” However, the mistakes and infirmities that are part of the condition of a post-fall … as in the fall of those two in the garden … are not to be considered sins properly so-called, for they are not willful transgressions of a known law, that is the law of love. To be mistaken in judgment cannot be said to be sinful or unloving in the same way as proper sins.
Further, Wesley rejects that a body can be sinful at all! “No body,” he says, “or matter of any kind, can be sinful.” Sin does not reside in the material stuff of creation but rather in the spiritual. Sin is not in the heart that beats, but in the soul; it is not in the brain, but in the mind. So because the body is not inherently sinful, or sinful in itself at all, it does not preclude a person’s capacity for sinlessness.
OK, everyone take a breath. I know this is a lot, but it’s important. See in Western Christianity, especially Protestant evangelical traditions, there is a distrust and ultimate negation and denigration of the body that has crept into the Christian imagination over time, and which has taken especially strong root in evangelicalism, with its emphasis on purity and piety. Thanks to Paul and to Augustine, both of who evangelicals seem to follow a lot more closely than they follow the teachings of Jesus, the body became not the site of the image of God in humanity, but rather the site of sinfulness. 1 Corinthians 15:50 – “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” a belief of Paul’s that pretty much flies in direct conflict with what Christ said in the Beatitudes, but I digress.
Suffice it to say, it was the vilification of the body that went hand in hand with the heightened focus on sexual sin. The Protestant evangelical preoccupation with bodies, sex, and sexuality has become more apparent in the wake of increasing visibility and awareness (as well as acceptance and inclusion) of LGBTQIA+ persons.
So, now we know how the haters out there came up with the justification for their hate … 1700+ years of one-way thinking. By labeling LGBTQIA+ bodies primarily by sexual proclivities or activities rather than by the indwelling of the image of God within them, queer bodies are wrongfully marked as inherently sinful. Pamela Lightsey says that “only when we can imagine our bodies fashioned as good rather than only in terms of sexual acts will we be able to usher in a healthy discussion on the sacred worth of queer bodies.”
You know that old saying when you point your finger at someone. One finger pointing at me is three pointing back at you? The pre-occupation with sex has had broad implications for all people – heterosexual cisgender persons are often labeled primarily in terms of sex even insofar as they are perceived to be the “default” – and so such hangups regarding the sinfulness of the body will limit everyone’s capacity for embracing holiness. And those who “deviate” from the norm will feel the negative effects most acutely and suffer for it. This is why queer liberation is truly liberation for all: if everyone is suffering under the original sin of forced strictures of heteronormativity, then the policing of those brave enough to resist it lends power to those who conform to sin and punishes those who attempt to free themselves into wholeness and holiness.
So where am I going with this? How many times have you heard that you’re sinners, that someone loves you, but not your sin, that you only need to “choose” to be something you’re clearly not? How many times have you heard that it’s not possible to be queer and Christian?
Well, I have some questions for the folks that you’ve heard say those things. Why are you so adverse to holiness? Why are you so unwilling to keep the two greatest commandments? Why is it so necessary for you to cling to sin, to be so pre-occupied with sin … especially other people’s sins rather than your own? What good has that pre-occupation ever done you?
Surely a Christian who believes in the grace of God and the promise of holiness and love would wish for as many people as possible to experi9ence and participate in this sanctified life!
And now I have a word from Elizabeth Edman for all of you here and you watching … all my queer and deconstructing and exvangelical siblings: The risks queer people take in coming out, in simply being themselves in the world, in challenging the norms of heteronormative society is a queer virtue. Here that again. The risks you take are a virtue. “Risk is what happens when you have something that you value and you take a chance with it, hoping to achieve something of greater value, and that “identity-based risks involve putting on the line something that is part of you, hoping to get a return on that investment that will also be a part of you.
For far too many in the church, giving up the gatekeeping on holiness and the holding on to sin is a risk. To let go of their traditional understanding and regulation of salvation involves a loss of control that many in the church are not eager to make. If only the understood that the reward for doing so is so much greater than their complacent comfort of control … that the reward is the fresh, sweeping, generative rush of the Spirit. A revival we might say.
Your inclusion in the enlivening work of God, or more rightly, the recognition of the Spirit’s work in love that is already being done among you is an invigorating possibility far greater than the stagnant judgment of the misguided monotony of safe, scared sameness. To embrace queer perspectives and queer experiences … to embrace the experiences of those who’ve deconstructed and are now freed from dogma and toxicity in the Christian life and understanding of holiness opens up an expansive horizon of opportunity for God to do a new thing.
And that’s where I’m going with this. A declaration that we will embrace your experiences, we will respect your authentic soul-selves, we will wrestle with you through your questions and doubts, and together, we will both experience and be the materials with which God does a new thing.
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