May 12, 2019

My Divine Caregiver

Passage: Genesis 1: 24-27; Psalm 23

Synopsis:  Remembering our mothers on Mother’s Day is little more than sentimental kitsch if we fail to recognize the crucial role than women serve in creating flourishing communities. Empowering women, therefore, changes the world. This sermon also opens my series on human sexuality in response to our recognition that we’re not all on the same page with respect to what it means to welcome and include our LGBT sisters and brothers. We begin with the recognition than sex is an integral part of God’s good creation. For our discernment, we will use the standard Christian sources of authority that begin with the Bible and include reason-science, tradition, and experience.


A pastor friend always grumped about Mother’s Day, saying it was kitschy and invented by Hallmark. He insisted that it’s not part of our church calendar and thought we should ignore it. He had a point but, in my opinion, it’s better to embrace Mother’s Day while trying to redeem it from the most egregious kitsch. Remembering our mothers on one day of the year falls flat when we’re not serious about women’s concerns or if we fail to recognize the crucial role that women serve in creating flourishing human communities. If caregiving and fighting for flourishing homes and communities is our top criterion, we men come in a distant second. Too many of us have gone AWOL.


When I served with MCC in India, I discovered how crucial empowering women is for community development. A big part of our work was creating women’s self-help groups, which led to significant advances in income, health and education in poor communities. Melinda Gates, in her recent book The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, explains that when we lift up women we lift up humanity. She adds, “Sometimes all that’s needed to lift up women is to stop pulling them down.”[1] She explains:

In my travels, I’ve learned about hundreds of millions of women who want to decide for themselves whether and when to have children, but they can’t. They have no access to contraceptives. And there are many other rights and privileges that women are denied. The right to decide whether and when and whom to marry. The right to go to school. Earn an income. Work outside the home. Walk outside the home. Spend their own money. Shape their budget. Start a business. Get a loan. Own property. Divorce a husband. See a doctor. Run for office. Ride a bike. Drive a car. Go to college. . . All these rights are denied to women in some parts of the world. Sometimes these rights are denied under law, but even when they’re allowed by law, they’re still often denied by cultural bias against women.[2]


We could have a fruitful discussion about how women in our country are held down even though gender equality is legally protected. Churches are among the worst offenders. When I was a doctoral student at Catholic University, a nun on the faculty stormed into the lunchroom one day and told me, “Earl, our Catholic hierarchy will ordain you as a male Mennonite before they ordain me as a female Catholic nun who has served our church for many years. But I’m not leaving. The pope can leave if he wants to. This is my church.”


I thought about my encounter with that fierce nun when I read Bobby McFerrin’s paraphrase of Psalm 23 in honor of his mother’s shepherd-like care for him.  It reminds me of so many significant women in my life—including my mother. They naturally take on the roles of provider, caregiver, and fierce protector. And they have willingly accompanied me even through the darkest valleys of my life.


It’s this focus on the shepherd’s care for one person that gives Psalm 23 such intimate force. That’s why it has become such a favorite of people going through times of grief and loss such as the death of a loved one. It has also indirectly prepared the way for Jesus’ story of the shepherd who left his flock to search for one lost sheep. And it points to God as our divine caregiver.


Now I’ll make a shift in my sermon to begin addressing the topic of human sexuality. The issue of what it means to welcome and include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people came up during our pastoral search. To be honest, we’re still sorting this out and “surprise” we’re not all on the same page.


Our church council agreed that it would be good for me to discuss this in a sermon series and not leave it for our next pastor. I’ll try to do this in an open ended way that respects everyone and doesn’t seek to draw tight conclusions. I invite your feedback if you think I’m not adequately doing this. We’re all on a journey to greater understanding. None of us have arrived.


This is similar to me as a man preaching a Mother’s Day sermon about empowering women. I need to recognize that, as a man, I don’t completely get it. In the same way, I’m a heterosexual man who doesn’t completely get it when I talk with people who have a different sexual orientation. It doesn’t mean that I have nothing to say but I always need to listen to the experiences of our LGBT sisters and brothers.


I wish we had more time for feedback and group discussion and perhaps that can happen later in a different setting. A five-minute sermon response time is hardly adequate. Even so, you have my phone number and email address and are free to talk with me personally at any time. I welcome your suggestions about things to include in this sermon series.


We begin by affirming that our sexuality is part of God’s good creation. As such, it’s a wonderful gift and something to celebrate—not something to be embarrassed about and certainly not something that’s sinful. Sure, like all great gifts, it can be twisted and broken. There’s so much sexual abuse in our world but that’s a discussion for another day.


I love the Genesis story about God’s creation of our world. There are two things I want to emphasize. The first is that all creation is an interconnected ecosystem. We humans tend to think of ourselves as separate from the rest of creation and that leads to great harm if we think we can exploit nature for our own selfish purposes. We end up harming ourselves because our lives depend on our ecosystem.


The other thing is that all living plants and creatures are sexual. It’s part of the goodness that God intends for creation. Furthermore, God delights in the creation. In the book of Proverbs, wisdom proclaims, “I was beside him as a master of crafts. I was having fun, smiling before him all the time, frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race” (Prov. 8: 30-31).


We can, therefore, learn a lot about God’s design and intention by paying close attention to the created world. That’s what I love about being a gardener. I sometimes jokingly tell friends that it’s all about sex in the garden—and it’s not just the animals, the insects and plants are also into it. Plants entice insects and birds with their flowers so they carry their pollen from a male stamen to a female pistil to fertilize the ovary, which then produces fruit and seed. Other creatures, including humans, then eat the fruits and seeds, thereby spreading the plant species to new locations.  It’s a rather remarkable and delightful process that I’m deeply immersed in when I’m working in my garden.


This is the thing—the whole world testifies to God as creator. When we seek to discern God’s will and God’s purpose we turn to scripture as our authority but, because God created the world, the creation itself is another kind of authority. From the very beginning of the church, theologians have recognized our source of authority as a three-legged stool beginning with the Bible and including reason and tradition. Faith and reason can, therefore, never contradict each other.


John Wesley later recognized that our stool needs experience as a fourth leg. When I seek discernment on matters that lack clarity I always turn to this four-legged stool of scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. I begin by asking what the Bible says. As we all know, the Bible isn’t always clear or there may even be multiple voices in the Bible and it, therefore, needs to be interpreted. Still, this is my primary authority.


I then turn to reason and science as another related authority—remember God created all things so everything can inform us of God’s purposes. For instance, I will want to know what biology can tell me about sexuality and sexual orientation. Next, what can I learn from the long church tradition of faith and life, moral discernment, and agreeing and disagreeing in love.


Finally, what can we learn from experience? For Wesley this is rooted in our experience of God—what he called a heart strangely warmed. But it includes all our life experiences and relationships. It’s important to ground our discernment in experience because we have a tendency to live in our heads. That’s why we need to hear the voices of those whose lives are more intimately affected by whatever matter we’re discerning.


Pray for me as I develop this sermon series. I have some ideas but I’m still not sure how I’ll put it together. I realize that we can’t always avoid controversy (especially on a topic like this) but it’s not my goal to be controversial. I also realize that I can’t give clear answers to all our questions. Along with everyone else, I’m still learning. My more modest goal is to open the discussion in a way that respects everyone and hopefully helps guide us in our journey of being a welcoming and life-giving fellowship in the way of Jesus.


[1] Melinda Gates, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World (McMillan, 2019), 2.

[2] Ibid., 2-3.

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