May 7 2023 “Or Can I? The Unwritten Fifth Act”
Thursday I was at Park Shores sharing Communion with some of our members and their friends who live there, and we were talking about what we all believed about the resurrection. Boo Bremner was there and she told a story she gave me permission to share. Once she was here in church with her preschool-aged grandson, and the priest had just gotten done talking about the bread being Jesus’ body and the cup being Jesus’ blood. When it was time to come up for communion, Boo’s grandson just said, “You go ahead grandma, I don’t want to eat any of that stuff.”
It was a funny and poignant way for us to face some of the parts of our faith that can be hard to know what to do with in an age of science. I was talking with someone a few weeks ago about her daughter who is LGBTQ, and how she wants a church community for her daughter that is welcoming and affirming to her, and so of course I told her about St. John’s. Her daughter would soon be in confirmation class, so this woman asked if her daughter and their family would be welcome here even if they weren’t sure if they believed any of this stuff. I told her they would be in good company, that Episcopalians wrestle honestly and openly with an expansive and intellectually robust Christian faith and every part of it. This does not mean we don’t believe in the transcendent power of God in many ways. We do. And we have the freedom to allow our understanding to grow and change, and to recognize we will never be able to fully explain the power and being of God.
But when I was at Park Shores on Thursday, we were talking about what we believed about life after death, and it wasn’t only an intellectual question. Most of those among us were over the age of 75, and our own mortality was staring us in the face. When Jesus asked Martha if she believed in the resurrection in today’s gospel reading, it wasn’t a doctrinal question, it was a question right in the midst of her terrible grief and the loss of her brother. At Park Shores on Thursday, I was really touched and moved and inspired to hear what people believed about life after death, what a wide range there was in the wisdom of people who had lived many decades.
Rachel Held Evans is the author of a beautiful book called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. In it she talks about her own background as an evangelical, having loved the Bible and memorized lots of it and read it every day. Then she describes the moment she realized that for her Bible could no longer be a neat rulebook for life, that she couldn’t believe every detail of its stories literally, and the critical questions that follow: so what is the Bible for us? What do we believe and how does any of that help us? She said that there is a lot of ground between one end of the spectrum, which is a literal belief that everything in the Bible happened exactly as it was written, and the other end of the spectrum, which she described as a “safe, disinterested liberalism” that disavows all magic, all mystery. She said that we should not try to make the Bible what it isn’t and can never be – a neat and orderly and well-behaved rulebook for life. Instead she said we should accept it for what it is, which is a “messy, troubling, weird, and ancient library” whose contradictions and questions don’t ask to be solved but engaged and debated, wrestled with, and made one’s own.
N.T. Wright is a scholar who compares scripture and belief to a 5-Act Play. He called the first four acts Creation, Fall, Israel, and Church, and we might even debate with him about the titles of those acts. But the critical piece is this: he said the fifth Act is unfinished; that we ourselves are writing it, we are living it, in conjunction with the Holy Spirit.
So you see, on Thursday when I was sitting in Park Shores with these beautiful people in their seventies and eighties and nineties talking about what we believed about life after death, jumping off from Jesus’ question to Martha in today’s gospel story, we are doing exactly what we should be doing. We are not meant to sign on the dotted line under a statement of doctrinal belief, even if it might seem like it when we recite the Nicene Creed or the Affirmation of Faith every Sunday along with millions of other Christians across the globe. We are meant to wrestle with the same questions the Bible wrestles with. We are even meant to argue with the Bible about what questions to ask in the first place. We are not meant to hold belief and the Bible at arm’s length from a superior and slightly bored distance. We are meant to play in the mud, get mad, howl with grief, and experience the utter joy of connecting with God in ways that work for us. We are meant to live the unfinished fifth act, the next chapter in a story in which God is still speaking. As our siblings in the United Church of Christ say, we should not put a period where God has put a comma.
I genuinely feel that the way we have come to understand the word “belief” in today’s Western Christianity has more to do with empire and institutional control than it does with anything Jesus the compassionate healer meant when he talked about belief in his native Aramaic language two thousand years ago. I think what Jesus meant is closer to what Carl Jung meant when he was once asked if he believed in God. Jung paused for minute, then he just responded simply, “I don’t believe. I know.”
What does belief mean to you? How are we at St. John’s writing this chapter of God’s Five- Act Play?
This past weekend our vestry went on retreat at a beautiful place on the St. Croix River. The vestry is kind of like St. John’s board of directors, our church council made up of members. Each of us this past weekend had brought a sacred object and a story of a time we felt most alive or inspired. It was really moving to hear what everyone shared – some deep, painful, beautiful, scary, funny stories. Susan Tapp gave me permission to share part of her story. She said she had always been pretty conservative about making big moves. At one point she was a volunteer at a museum in what is now the Landmark Center. The Director asked her if she wanted to quit volunteering and start a paid job as the Assistant to the Director. Her first reaction was, “I can’t do that, I can’t afford to do that.” Then she found herself saying, “Or can I?” And she ended up taking the plunge.
And that “Or Can I?” became a repeated theme throughout our vestry retreat. We are prayerfully reflecting on St. John’s future, our own next steps, our efforts to connect with what God’s Spirit is doing among us and experiment and play with what futures are possible for us as a church in the 21st century. Even a tiny spark of imagining that something is possible we previously thought was impossible is part of what belief means. It means hope, a courageous opening to mystery and to a power greater than ourselves, and then a willingness to step out in faith based on the hope that is in us.
Let me ask you this. Where in your life are you stuck?
Do you see places where we as a church are stuck?
What if we believed that healing and aliveness and growth are not only possible, but God’s ferociously loving will for us?
What if you believed that change is possible where you have been stuck?
What if you experienced that God’s presence is already very near to you, closer than your own breath? What if the energy of God, far from being a judging parent who is never satisfied, is always about unconditional love, about filling you where you are hungry, giving you peace where you are scared, and granting growth and birth and stretching and life where there has been decay and numbness and death?
We are living the unfinished next chapter of God’s never-ending story, and God is still speaking, we are alive, Christ is risen and is present with us, God’s Spirit is always making everything new. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Amen.