The discussion at Theology on Tap this past Thursday night centered on a single verse, an exhortation from the apostle Paul to the Thessalonian congregations: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you. [I Thessalonians 5:17-18] How in the world are we supposed to do that?!! As if the verse itself isn’t challenging enough, I thought of it again on Friday, when news of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade came down; something for which I neither rejoice nor give thanks.
But beyond any particular issue, I have been pondering how truly impossible it is to practice Christian faith. Right?! I mean, Love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you. Really? How many times shall you forgive your neighbor who offends you? Seven times? I say to you, seventy times seven. Come on! Go, sell what you have and give the money to the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Welcome the refugee and immigrant for in so doing, you welcome Jesus.You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. For these there is a phrase which speaks to the sheer absurdity of the command. When pigs fly. Oh, that will happen…when pigs fly. That is to say, never. Out of the question. Simply impossible. So what are we to do with faith that calls us to the unimaginable?
It was tempting to glide right over the Old Testament lectionary text this week, with its supernatural, woo-woo narrative of the prophet Elijah’s departure into heaven and the authorization of his successor Elisha. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if it contained exactly the word we need to hear today. Look, Presbyterians have always interpreted Scripture contextually and beyond its literal translation. You know how we affirm science and human knowledge; and affirm the hand of God in natural processes like evolution and the Big Bang Theory. We use our minds to ask questions, invent and create and innovate, and probe the mysteries of life. But sometimes, dear friends, I think that may limit us. If reality doesn’t transcend what we can measure and define, then it leaves no room for resurrection, no room for grace that defies logic, no room for surprises beyond our wildest reckoning…and no flying pigs. So…here is a reading from the second book of Kings, in the second chapter, reading verses 1-2 and then 6 through 14. Listen for God’s Word to weary, earth-bound souls who believe themselves powerless to act in the face of forces beyond our control. [II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14]
Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home…yes, the Black spiritual of deliverance drew on this sacred text of the prophet Elijah’s homegoing. A fitting end to his career as God’s prophet, calling out idolatry in the ruling powers and encouraging the people to serve God and follow the covenant agreements to care for the vulnerable poor. Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home. A comforting vision, assurance of God’s eternal care and safekeeping. For Elijah. But his death would leave a gap in leadership. Who would continue to serve as God’s prophet, speaking the Divine word and calling the people to faithfulness? The text spotlights Elisha, commending his devotion to his teacher and mentor and symbolically passing the mantle of his authority and power to him. It’s a process. Elisha understood the challenge of the prophetic role–he’d worked alongside Elijah for some time. He prayed for the Divine Spirit that had given his predecessor strength beyond his own. His glimpse of the fire and wind was a kind of initiation rite (a baptism by fire similar to the one John the Baptist foretold that Jesus would offer). And then Elisha exercised a choice: to pick up the mantle and accept responsibility for this new role. You can read succeeding chapters in Second Kings to learn the many marvelous and miraculous deeds carried out by God’s servant.
Friends, it’s my belief—no, conviction–that when God calls us to do something, God also gives us what is necessary to accomplish that thing. God doesn’t call the equipped. I always remind those brave souls who agree to serve as elders and deacons: God equips the ones God has called. Equips us with vision to picture what is not yet reality. Equips us with creativity to do a new thing or do an old thing in a new way. Equips us with strength to persevere against all odds, even when things get tough and the cards are stacked against us. Equips us with the necessary financial resources. Equips us with love, greater than the love we could gin up on our own. True love, transforming love beyond niceness or pleasing folks or reinforcing the status quo. And that love, which is part of the Divine DNA imparted to us from creation, becomes the lens through which to see pigs fly.
Here’s the thing, friends. We don’t have to engineer flying pigs. No, our part is to take up the mantle and choose to do the impossible work that by God’s grace will give us wings.
… our part is to take up the mantle and choose to do the impossible work that by God’s grace will give us wings
Upon hearing news of the Supreme Court ruling, I did three things: I reached out to friends and siblings just to feel connected and grounded in love. I contacted Central members who are medical professionals and asked them for their experienced perspectives on how the decision will impact community health and well-being. I called the local chapter of Planned Parenthood to learn about plans for serving the influx of women into Colorado whose states have restricted or banned abortion. Several of you volunteered a spare bedroom for overnight guests. Several shared personal experiences of abortion decisions made with gratitude for bodily autonomy as an inalienable right guaranteed by the Constitution, and a desire to restore that right. In this week’s pastoral letter via email, I’ll share a link to a video from the Presbyterian Church (USA) with leaders calling the church to prayer and action. And something else. People of good faith and caring differ about the ethical questions that are part of reproductive choice. Some of you online and in person today may have rejoiced in the pigs you saw flying after the Supreme Court decision. So we are called to love, to listen past our differences, to seek understanding and perhaps even to develop shared practices that honor divergent viewpoints. Advocacy for reinstating child tax credits, so effective for lifting families up from poverty, for example; support for “Adoption Options” an outstanding adoption nonprofit organization that assists adoptive families in counseling and financial support; donations to Central Visitation Program aimed at stabilizing parents and children in crisis.
And please hear the uniform support for abortion access as equitable public health policy among members of the medical community I spoke to from Central. One said, The ruling will punish poor women, especially of color. Women won’t stop choosing abortion for many reasons; now many will be consigned to life-threatening ones. One doctor explicitly cited the tragic consequences of restricting access to abortion on women; well-documented in studies showing significantly higher mortality of women and much higher rates of mental health issues, burdens also inequitably born by women of color.
Another doctor prefaced his perspective with personal experience: There is no more consequential and personal decision than the choice of bringing a child into this world. I became a father at a time when I was fully capable and prepared to be a parent. It was a decision we made consciously as a couple. The births of our children were profoundly transformative–reordering our lives in ways we could have never imagined…we were ready and eager to be parents–financially secure and surrounded by supportive family and friends. And yet, pregnancy is not a blessing for everyone. Despite decades of decline, in the US last year 630,000 unwanted pregnancies ended in abortion. 85% of those pregnancies happen to single women who would otherwise be raising the child alone, and six times more likely to live in poverty than married women. Over 30,000 of those pregnancies were the result of rape. Ironically, areas of greater access to reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion, actually registered fewer abortions…It is profoundly difficult to raise a child in poverty in the US. Among developed nations, our nation ranks last in policies supporting children and families. [this, and previous statements were part of emails sent to me from Central members and medical professionals]
Inequities and harsh realities that constrain freedom also become barriers for love to work its magic. And that is the space into which the people of God are called to step. To pick up the mantle of the prophet and speak truth to power. To pick up the mantle of Jesus and work to bring forth the Kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven. In a sermon he preached at the opening of the General Assembly, Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson challenged the church to examine how we are creating ways and means for the gospel of Jesus to live inside of people; how we are helping shape the world we share according to the values of God’s Kin-dom. A Kin-dom in which every person grows and thrives in beloved community. A Kin-dom of rejoicing and thanksgiving, where the line between heaven and earth is blurred and porous.
Yeah, that’ll happen when pigs fly…
…and by God’s power and grace exercised through the love of God’s people, they do.