Text: Romans 8:18-27
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 5-14-2017)
The cover of the April 8, 1966 edition of Time magazine announced the death of God. From Time to Seminary campuses, as Vietnam dominated the nightly news and fire hoses blasted marchers in Selma, there was a relentless chorus that God is dead and that any hope to change a broken and decaying world rests with us. The movement drew its inspiration from the German philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche, who in the late 19th century pronounced, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (The Gay Science, section 125).
Sometime and somehow, almost inexplicably, God has made a comeback in the 21st century. Current pollsters tell us that God is very much alive in the hearts of many Americans today, and now it is not so much God, but the church, that is dead. Therefore, the only job of those of us called as pastors, educators, church musicians, and ruling elders is to give the church a decent funeral.
Sociologists love to describe the dying or dead church; they tell us how churches are closing at rapid rates and how a vast majority of people are staying home or doing anything else but worshiping God on Sundays, even in the Bible belt. Take a trip to most major cities in Europe and increasingly within the U.S. and you will find some of the best hotels and finest restaurants now situated in former church buildings. Why fly red banners and sing songs of the Spirit in a few weeks when we should be wearing black and singing songs of lament?
Now, it is true that there are some things that need to die in the church, from some of our arcane and mean theology to our frequent lock step with prejudice and racism in the name of Jesus to our repeated obsession with matters that matter little. It is not without a wealth of irony that I am preaching in a church this morning, when, in reality, we all have been told that the church is dead.
Before you and I are tempted to join the prevailing chorus of death, I would remind us that we are gathered here in the season of Easter. If Easter means something more than tasty chocolate bunnies and an annual dose of false hope for desperate preachers of booming crowds, it means that God has the last word when it comes to who and what is to be pronounced “dead” in the world. If the Pentecost story in Acts is clear about anything, it is clear that God brings to life some pretty dead or frightened communities.
In Romans 8, Paul suggests that any death call for God or for the church of Jesus, God’s beloved child, is radically premature. Paul offers us, instead, a much more evocative image for our theology, a markedly female image, but one that many males have witnessed close up.
It is the image of “labor pains” and Paul uses that image both for creation and for Christians. Paul tells the Romans that God is bringing something to birth in the Christian community and it will not come without excruciating consequence.
Lutheran pastor, Heidi Neumark, uses the Spanish term, Malabarrigato describe what Paul is saying in Romans 8. Paul says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” Heidi says, “In both pregnancies, I suffered a bad case of what the Puerto Rican mothers in the church call `malabarriga`, which translates as `evil belly`, and seems more to the point than the comparatively benign English equivalent.”
At the time of her two pregnancies, Heidi was pastor of the Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the Bronx, a church that when she arrived looked like it was on its way to the grave. It was dying and had Heidi accepted what was apparent she would have pronounced the last rites and given the church a good funeral.
Instead, Heidi believed that the Transfiguration Lutheran Church was hardly dying, but instead, was suffering a wicked case of malabarriga. In her marvelous book, Breathing Space, Heidi tells the story of what God gave birth to in that congregation in the face of so much death and dying. Writing about morning sickness in her pregnancy and the new life awaiting the people of her church, Heidi writes, “The doctor happily assured me that my belly was not cursed at all. On the contrary, the prodigious hormone level was a healthy sign of strong new life taking hold. This ‘malabarriga’ was a sign of blessing. It would just take time to adjust to the changes. And so it was at Transfiguration” (Breathing Space, p. 13).
Heidi refused to see the church as dying. Neither do I. She refused to be a prophetess of doom. Nor will I. Arguably, the church of the 21st century is suffering from a fierce case of malabarriga , nonetheless, it is a new church that God is bringing to birth despite all the premature announcements of its death. Just look at some faces of new life that make my case.
Look at the face of Pope Francis. Tell Francis that “the church is dead” and he will give you one of those impish smiles of someone who knows more than all the great prognosticators combined, who recognizes malabarriga when he sees it, and then kneels down to wash a Muslim’s feet on Holy Thursday. He gives daily witness to Christians of all stripes of the church that God is bringing to birth, often with a loud, birthing cry.
Look at the faces of the thousands of religious pilgrims who visit the tiny French town of Taize each year. People of all ages and colors and denominations kneel in prayer, in silence, and in song at Taize three times a day, every day of the year. They do not see prayer as the last ditch effort of Christians when all else has failed, but as the beginning of being quiet long enough to listen for the birth cries of the people of God. In the oftentimes, malabarriga type prayers of the Taize community, Christians align themselves with Paul’s profound words: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” These prayers propel the pilgrims in Taize and pilgrims in any pew to go into the world God so loves, as agents of God’s grace and mercy, advocacy and justice.
Look at the faces of students and faculty at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. These are the courageous souls for whom the prevailing narrative, “the church is dead” has been drilled into their heads, but even so, who choose to believe otherwise, choose to believe that our Easter God is doing something new, something extraordinary, choose to believe that the Pentecost Spirit of God is busy bringing new life to the church. Students are at Union are not being trained as hospice chaplains for a church on life-support, but as labor and delivery nurses for a church God is bringing to birth.
I wish everyone here could look at one face of a person who changed my life. Her name was Katie Bashor and she and her husband, Mark, were the moving forces behind the Night Shelter connected with the church I served in Atlanta. The Apostle Paul did not have any convincing to do with respect to Katie. She knew all about malabarriga and the church God is birthing in the world. Katie knew that God does not intend for God’s creatures to have no safe shelter and to be subject to the whims of the weather and victims of political leaders who have no use for the poor. She also knew that until God’s great birthing project is complete that she was going to exercise hospitality and would not be a part of any church that decided that for financial, security, or convenience sake there is no room in the inn.
I wish I could also transport you to the small island of La Gonave off the main island of Haiti. This time last year, my nephew Sean and I were there to assist in dedicating a new church in the mountain village of Trou Jacques. Ask Monsieur Bellegarde, the lay leader of the church there, if the church is dead, and he will give you a hearty laugh and point to the new church building filled to overflowing with children and youth and adults of every age and he would say, “The church is dead? A first world fantasy.”
What faces do you see that demonstrate the church’s malabarriga, pictures of the church God is bringing to birth? What faces have changed the prevailing moribund narrative for you that “the church is dead”? What faces would you paint on the front door of Cove that gives powerful witness of the Risen Christ and the Moving Spirit pushing beyond all the current harbingers of hate and prognosticators of death to usher in a reign of justice and peace that will not decay with time?
“God is dead.” “The church is dead.” Paul has no patience with such theological nonsense and if we pay attention to the faces of life all around us, neither should we. The church may be suffering an especially bad case of malabarriga, but from this suffering and struggling, God is bringing a new and transformed church to birth.
In a fit of glorious poetry, Paul says it this way, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the joy about to be revealed to us.”
The church is dead!
Not a chance. Not even close!
Thanks be to God!