Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Remembering Walter Muelder
The Lord said to Moses, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.
Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.
Walter Muelder died five years ago, on June 12, 2004, at the age of 97. He died of a sudden heart attack. He had not been ill. Like Moses, his mind was “unimpaired.” and “his vigor had not abated.”
He was passionate until the end about peace and justice, and civil rights. When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Boston University to pursue a Ph.D., Muelder was Dean of the School of Theology and a Professor of Christian Social Ethics. He was one of Dr. King’s teachers, and Muelder’s ethics made a deep impact on King.
The story of Moses being shown the Promised Land, but unable to go there is always poignant and painful. Dr. King used that same imagery before his own death. But in a larger sense everyone committed to the Kingdom of God will be in that same position. We know that where we are is not where we are called to be. And we know that as we journey forward there will be new challenges and possibilities. We are always looking ahead to the Promised Land.
On June 9, 2004, just three days before he died, Dean Muelder was looking toward another “Promised Land” of equal rights, when he addressed the retired pastors of our United Methodist Conference with this challenge:
We retired ministers have an ongoing role to play in the conflicts, such as those on homosexuality, which threatened to split the church at the last General Conference. We are in constant dialogue with clergy and laity who are rightfully troubled by these issues. We can help hold the church together by reminding people to think comprehensively and holistically about these questions. The positions taken by militant opponents are often narrowly based by appeals to the authority of single verses of Scripture as decisively conclusive.
We need to remind the whole church that Methodism has a fourfold basis for making authoritative positions, namely: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative. No literal appeal to isolated scripture passages is sufficient. We have to understand the historical nature of Scripture as a whole and relate any passage to the Bible as a whole, to the evolving tradition both within the Biblical period, to historical Methodism, to the best scientific reasoning, and to a comprehensive awareness of evolving experience. This fourfold coherence is essential for maintaining authoritative doctrine and practice.
As retired ministers we are constantly in contact with members of the contemporary church and hence we are part of its ongoing dialogue to maintain the unity of the church.
Within the biblical word, we have to use the whole Bible. Isolated texts can never be decisive. In the tradition of John Wesley, we have a fourfold basis for arriving at ethical and theological insights: scripture, reason, tradition and experience. And then that wonderful sentence, “It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative.” Muelder was convinced that a faithful study of scripture in the context of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, would lead us to the full acceptance of Gay and Lesbian persons in the church.
What a wonderful legacy for the church!