But what we can't get from a self-help book or a weekend seminar or a long silent retreat is the messy, noisy, life-saving grace of community. At its best, the communion of saints is a community of mutual support and accountability. We need the communion of saints to support us in our search for God and to hold us to a higher standard as we try to live for God. You see, we can’t be saints in single file. We can’t be holy on our own. Wesley said that “Christianity is essentially a social religion” and “to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.” [“Sermon on the Mount IV”] Me-Myself-and I is a pretty sorry substitute for the communion of saints.
In 1984, Leontine Kelly served this Conference as the first African American woman bishop in any major Christian denomination. Last year, our own Karen Oliveto, was elected as our denomination's first openly lesbian bishop. And on Friday night, we ordained our denomination's very first Fijian elder. The President of Fiji was there, along with the Queen of Tonga. I couldn't help but think about how much poorer the Body of Christ would be without all our diversity. And so it is beyond me how any church or group within the church thinks that it can be the whole Body of Christ all by itself. Only together can we Christians love God with enough heart, enough mind, enough spirit and enough strength to be Christ for the world. The Church is either catholic or it is pathetic.
In Ezekiel's vision is our lesson. At some point in our adulthood we are going to come to a place where we are the dry bones left on the battlefields of life. Some of us will have no sinew, no flesh, and our skin will have been stripped away. And even for those of us who will appear to be perfectly healthy, there will still be no breath in us. The new life that Jesus promises us and the Spirit gives to us, will come, but it can be a slow process. Yet it isn't all that complicated. In fact, it's as easy as breathing. So listen to your meditation teacher: Focus on your breath. For when we focus on our breath, we become more aware of the one thing that is even closer to us than breathing. We become more aware of and we begin to sink deeper into the presence of God.
The Apostles' Creed is one early summary of the faith. It talks about believing in the Father and the Son and the Spirit. But there is no explanation of how that equals believing in one God. The Nicene Creed is later and longer, but no more helpful. The truth is that fancy theological formulations don't do much for us. If we really wanted to define the Trinity, we would need a very simple, very universal and very precise kind of language. And there is no language more precise, more universal, more fundamental than math.
Well, my friends, fifty years after the Summer of Love, hate is on the rise again. We are living in a world of hurt. We are living under a regime of fear and intimidation. Peace and justice, compassion and mercy, truth and integrity, humility and decency—so many of our values are taking a beating; so many of our hopes seem to be receding. It's a good thing that Godspell came back to Broadway a few years ago and Superstar is going live on NBC for Easter 2018. But we have a dire need to dream some new dreams, see some new visions, find a new language and write some new songs to teach a new generation about the radical love of Jesus.
God is even more awesome and unpredictable than Everest is. No matter how many times we've been up to the summit, God cannot ever be conquered or tamed. God will always be a test, a life or death proposition. God will always require the most of us and, even if we can get to the top of that mountain, will leave us breathless every time.
From the beginning to the end of the Bible, rivers come from God, and deep in our collective consciousness is the notion that going down to the river to pray will bring us closer to God. It worked for Jesus when he was baptized in the River Jordan and the heavens opened and a voice said, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased." If you, too, want to be a beloved son or daughter of God, if you want to get closer to God, come down with me and get to know a river.
So on these several Sundays after Easter, I wanted to share with you some reflections on what nature can teach us about the nature of God. As it says in the Song of Songs: "Come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come..." [Song 2:10-12]
Now some will doubt that the Creation is endowed with anything like intention. They won't buy the idea that the earth had a part to play in witnessing to the resurrection. But the more sensitive souls among us just might be open to the suggestion. The 14th-century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said, "The Father speaks the Son from his entire power and he speaks him in all things. All creatures are words of God." [Sermon One, in Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation, ed. by Matthew Fox, 1980] If Meister Eckhart is right, if all creatures can tell us something about what God was speaking in Christ, then the earth has quite a story to tell. Let's listen:
I've been talking about the stages of faith for weeks now and what I've learned from James Fowler is that we have different needs at different times in our life. So it is no surprise that our understanding of Jesus changes as our needs change. Like every other truth we encounter in life, we get to know Jesus in stages. The crowd that lined the parade route in Palestine was made up of people of all different stages of faith and they had very different ideas about Jesus.