Sunday, December 05, 1999


Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: 1 John 2:6-8, 19-28

Advent Anticipation

We come today to the end of the single verse which has occupied our attention since September, Galatians 5:22. With loving patience, and joyful good humor, and a kindly, gentle peace, you have faithfully endured a whole season of preaching dedicated to just one line.

Now, however, the time has come. The streetlights have been lit and the summer evening is ended. The whistle has blown and the train is headed out. The housemother rings the bell or flicks the lights and the date is over. The hour is coming (and now is!) John the Baptist is banging on the door, and it is time to move on, to Advent, to Christmas, to the Millenium, into God's open future.

And really, the whole of Scripture, is replete with last words. Joseph hears Jacob's last word and final breath. A last word. Deborah celebrates the end of a military victory. A last word. Moses, aging and toothless on Mt Nebo, gives his blessing to another generation—Joshua. A last word. Think of Elijah and Eliesha walking through every blessed Palestinian town until the heavenly chariot came down. A last word. Jeremiah, crippled, and on his death bed, taking the longer view. A last prophetic word.

And our Gospel today, St. John, is largely presented on the night of Jesus' betrayal. In fact, all Jesus says in John, with little remainder, he says on the last night, the night of betrayal. A dominical last word.

Just one word remains of our Fruit of the Spirit. It is, in fact, a word that John the Baptist, dressed in camel's hair and feasting on locusts and wild honey, would truly have appreciated. You know, John the Baptist has to be faced, and heard, every year before we can walk on to Bethlehem. Every year, on this Sunday, we brace ourselves to hear his wintry voice, his prophet's call, his voice that bears into our psyche what we may not want to hear but usually need to hear. One year, the theme is tithing. Another year, we wrestle with abortion. Still another Advent, we celebrate "precursors" like the Baptist in all of life. Last year, we heard about evangelism. So it goes, down by the river's edge, outside the city, in the cold dark, as night falls.

I picture him every year. He has such endurance, standing as he does just outside the city limits. John the Baptist waits down by the subliminal river, down outside the bright lights and big city, down in the riverside thicket of the subconscious, down in the dream world that sets the beat, far more than we ever care to acknowledge, for our waking, official life. Have you had a dream lately? Then you know his voice.

The voice of one crying in the wilderness.

It is fortuitous that he waits for us today. He would appreciate our struggle to understand this last mark of Spirit named by the great apostle to the gentiles, enkratea, "self-control", especially here at the end, at least from one accounting, of the millenium.


Perhaps the most striking feature of much millennial discussion this year, one could argue, is its familiarity, its bland predictability.

What is the great bogeyman of the month? Y2K? The possibility of technological failure. I honestly expect nothing unusual to occur January 1. But what is striking is that what some others fear, even if it happened, would be…NOTHING UNUSUAL. Do you see, to paraphrase Ecclessiastes, technological breakdown? Ah—it has been before. Your network has never gone down? Your computer has never blanked? Your car has never stalled? Your dentist has never made a slight error? Your preacher has never given a dull sermon? Failure? Human and mechanized?… NOTHING UNUSUAL. "To err is human", wrote Alexander Pope 300 years ago.

So we have a kind of millenial angst. We sing, "Have a holly, jolly Christmas.."

We might better sing,

Have an anxious, edgy Advent
To end the millenial year
The cold wind blows
With heavy snows
The nights are touched with fear

Have an anxious, edgy Advent
The darkest month of the year
O By Golly
Have an anxious, edgy Advent, this year.

Listen: If your fear is that Y2K will mess up your checking account, take it from one whose checking account has been in disarray since ordination—it's nothing unusual.

But our Y2K ennui goes deeper than a January hesitation, a January hiccup.

Listen, and you will hear it, abroad…

Why is our Poet laureate speaking to packed houses today, when he recites Frost and Auden, and asks people to read and write their own poems? Is it out of a longing, a yearning, a hunger—the new problem with no name—for meaning? Paul said freedom, in Galatians, but meaning will do.

There is a longing, a craving, a hunger abroad for a new creation.

Why is Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman playing with such force, 50 years after its writing? Is it because the consumption culture finally does not feed us? Or, as Paul wrote in Galatians, "if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another." Yes Willi, yes Mr. Lowman, attention must be paid.

There is longing, a craving, a hunger here for a new creation.

Why did Kevin Spacey choose to star in American Beauty, a millennial film about suburban emptiness and marital hell? Is it because we have in face, as Paul wrote in Galatians, been set free in Christ, and over time, down deep, we begin to recognize cages however gilded, as cages nonetheless.

There is hunger, a longing, a craving here, for a new creation.

Why did Bill Clinton's perjury and infidelity so rivet our attention and illumine our national landscape, with such costly, indelible, and pervasive consequences? Is it because, at last, a whole generation is waking up to the ironically confining, and paradoxically enslaving power of unmitigated self-indulgence? This is what Paul—however quaint and dated and sexist and heterosexist his earnest words now sound—was trying to convey to the Thessalonians, "that each of you learn to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor".

There is a hunger, a longing, a craving here for a new creation.

Spirit and Flesh and Law

Our human expectation is fear not hope, and usual not unusual.

All of this—Y2K, Willi Loman, Kevin Spacey, Bill Clinton—and what shall we make of the heavily masculine angst here?—is what Paul called "flesh", and the effects of the flesh.

It is this human penchant for competition, for pride and envy, this human tendency toward the impulsive desire, this human banality, finally, which is under attack today, according to St Paul and St John. Paul calls this "flesh".

Watch carefully. The Fruit of God's invasive Spirit is the antidote to "flesh", not the Law. It is the Spirit that gives life, not the law. It is Spirit, not religion, not compulsion, not athleticism, not achievement, not LAW.

Blake had it close to right:

When Satan firs the Black Bow Bent
And the Moral Law from the Gospel Rent
He Forg'd the Law into a Sword
And the Spill'd the Blood of Mercy's Lord

It needs to be said: Much American religion today resembles that of Paul's opponents in Galatia—biblical, traditional, ethical, disciplined, castrative, and above all, reverent before religion law. But Paul warns them and us—it is not law that will free you from flesh. It is not religious observance or self-discipline or harsh order that will free from flesh!

What must Paul have meant, then, by including in his description of Spirit—an actual, real, historical force—enkratea? What is this strange presence?

Self-control here means something other than what we think of as self-discipline. After all, for Paul these are fruit of the spirit, not merely human virtues. These are the gifts of the Gift of the living God! More than jogging, more than fasting, more than frugality, more than self-discipline is at stake here.

Nor are the many and helpful current lists of helpful habits what Paul has in mind. Enkratea means more than

Being proactive
Beginning with the end in mind
Putting first things first
Thinking win/win
Seeking first to understand then to be understood
Sharpening in the Saw

More than habits of highly effective mortal units is at stake here. As practical as Steven Covey's list is, Paul has bigger fish to fry.

Mission and Vision

You know, we can get so enmeshed in our own activity, our own mission in life, that the illuminating, enlivening power of God—the vision and purpose and meaning of life—can be obscured. The moon of human mission, even of very pious and very important and very religious and very churchly mission, can eclipse, for a time, the bright sunlight of Christ, in which we are warmed and healed and made right. But it is the Spirit that gives life! The flesh is of no avail. It is the fruit of the Spirit on which we are meant to feast as we face the open future.

We are living in a season of spiritual harvest! God has stepped onto the human scene and is waging war against all that enslaves the human being. And we are enlisted—you and you and you—in the army of liberation. God's Spirit is feeding us, if we will but taste and enjoy, and sending us forth into the new creation.

And to this part of the army of liberation, God has given a map of the new territory meant for us. You can take the bulletin home today, with the nine fruit listed, and use it as a map for your spiritual journey. Every pastor who goes to a new town quickly acquires a map of the county, which she reads and uses with care. Often, too, he just calls back to the office for directions. But the map serves to mark out the new territory. The City of Rochester. The County of Monroe. The Village of Pittsford. The Town of Brighton. Webster. Hilton. Spencerport.

In the fruit of the spirit, the Scripture gives us such a map, to mark out our real home, the place we were meant to live, for which we were made, the new creation set free in Christ. See—the city of love. Look—the county of joy. Watch—the village of peace. There—the town of patience. Over there—the suburbs of kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness.


Self-control simply keeps you pointed in the right direction.

A New Creation

This is the staggering news of Jesus Christ whose advent we await, whose Spirit feeds us like a wet nurse. Not religion, not law, not technological excellence, but a new creation, a totally new creation, is in our future.

Our heaven is too low, today.
Your heaven is not high enough, today.
Our heaven is too low, today

We await a little larger return on our investment, when the Spirit of God is making us soldiers who are landing on the beachhead of a new world.

The fruit of the spirit are locations within a new creational community. The works of the flesh are anathema, not because they show individual weakness, but because they harm community, the new creation. You may go through the list yourself in Galatians 5. Paul warns about the works of the flesh, not out of some hidebound killjoy religiosity, but because they keep us from our real native land, which is a wholly new creation.

Racism delays the new creation. Alcoholism delays the new creation. Self-indulgence delays the new creation.

"God does not want a new religiosity, but a renewed creation under the cosmocrator God." (Kasemann)

This is why the list of nine ends with enkratea, self control. The Spirit gives us the gift of freedom, which is "the gift to be obedient to God in God's presence." (Martyn)

So, the antidote to impulsive sensuality is not more self-discipline (law), but a new creation of love.

So, the antidote to wreckless consumption is not more frugality (law), but a new creation of joy.

So, the antidote to destructive competition is not more values clarification (law), but a new creation of peace.

It is a whole new creation that awaits us—in every direction. I believe that our church is a part of God's beachhead into the world of flesh. Here we can receive hands and lips with which to touch and taste the fruit of the spirit.

Endnote: Pear Trees from Augustine to Today

My grandmother Coons, a graduate of Smith college, born 28 years before women's suffrage, Sunday school teacher, homemaker, communion steward, and cook, was also a sometime gardener. In her little backyard she had a pear tree (like the one from which St Augustine stole in 370ad?), somehow planted and tended and guarded in our harsh climate. She kept a long handled pear picker in the garage, and once or twice a year we would come and take the pears, now ripe, and let them fall into the hoisted bag. You know, there are some moments that last forever, they just linger. Out behind her modest city home—very like our Rochester house in fact--I stand with the pear picker to take the fruit. I feel the sun of an autumn day. I hear the last of the insects buzzing. I see the gold and green of the pears. I hear the rustling in the nearby kitchen, a meal cooked to precede the newly picked dessert. I watch—there is no ending for such a moment—once the little picking chores are done, and a table is spread with linen and china and silver. Ruddy hands are carrying the serving plates, with potato and chicken and gravy. And there is the ripeness of the fruit, its scent and heft and color. And there is the family together at table, its care and intimacy and warmth. So I place the pears in a white bowl, and start toward the house. (Was it in such a garden and such a day that Augustine, at last, received the Spirit, take and read? Was it from such fruit that he received the gift, at last, of self control?) Hands are washed, and heads are bowed, and a prayer is offered and the meal stands ready. There, you see, in the middle of the table is the bowl, with nine good empire state pears. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

After my grandmother died, on All Saints Day, 1987, I was asked what from the house I would like, and, who knows why, I mentioned the pear picker.

It is our prayer that these sermons, all too human, will help you to pick the Fruit of the Spirit out of the tree of life, and so nourish you as soldiers of the new creational struggle, that God's day, in you, will come a step closer.

It is our prayer that the ministry of this church, all too human, will provide you with a spiritual pearpicker or two, in worship, education, care, spirituality, membership, stewardship, and communication.

So now you have the map. And now you hold the compass. And there is the New Creation. Happy hiking.

Sunday, November 14, 1999


Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Galatians 5:22

El Aqueducto

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord? To acquire such a taste for kindness, especially in 1999, especially for you, will mean a rejection of lesser tastes, and willingness forever to leave behind the little treats that mean-spiritedness does afford. A taste for life means a distaste for death.

The middle of one ancient Spanish town, Segovia, is parted by the hundred foot high remains of an ancient acqueduct. The Romans built the duct before the birth of Christ, and it channeled water through barren Castille until 1914. It stands now, parting the village and attracting tourists, its many stately roman arches raised like hands into the sky.

Beneath the acqueduct, at the corner of the town square, you find a small restaurant, "Los Alamos", which has little space, little atmosphere, little distinction. On Sundays they serve a roast lamb, a local specialty, tasty and rich. Some years ago a young American writer frequented "Los Alamos", writing in the afternoons on the broad pine tables, then sharing the town's evening paseo and conversation from the restaurant's porch. A writer's life is necessarily a lonely life, a constant and draining scrap with his craft. This writer found the evening comraderie, underneath the silent acqueduct, just the elixir his mind required, and in "Los Alamos" he wrote a great novel.

At the same time, as the novel progressed, he quit smoking. Writers and nurses seem to smoke more than anyone else, and quit less often. Underneath the two thousand year old Roman arches and carried along by a kindly people, the writer wrote his masterpiece and at the same time gave up tobacco.

Years later, Ernest Hemingway stood on the porch of "Los Alamos", just beneath the Segovian acqueduct, and remembered the writing and the fun, the tables and talks, and his newfound break from addiction. He was asked about the year he spent there, writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. "I remember at last having the will power to stop smoking. The local people were so kind. The local wines were so fine. The book was going so well. I realized one day that to live well and to write well and to be able to taste the wine as it deserved tasting, I would have to give up smoking."

A Torrent of Kindness

A native of Rocky Mount, NC, and a victim of Hurricane Floyd, wrote this fall about seeing his hometown underwater: traffic lights blinking red and green underwater; furniture and unearthed coffins floating underwater; homes full of childhood memories underwater. He wrote for the NY Times (10/2/99) though under the theme, "a torrent of kindness": "We Southerners invented the phrase 'the kindness of strangers'. But nobody ever talks about—the strangeness of kindness. I mean the curious intuition that lets one person imagine what might, right this second, help others the very most. When those jeopardized are our friends and neighbors, whatever class or color, when we see them stranded screaming in treetops, and if we happily own a boat that hasn't left our garage for eight months, and if there is gas sloshing in its outboard, we still know, not why this happened, but what to sort of do. In our millennial paranoia, we suspect that the Book of Revelation's last days are now quaking up among us, fault-finding. If you're scared the world is ending in fire, reconsider. May we, the waders of North Carolina (all these snakes) half-reassure your? It'll probably be water. But even in this catastrophe's toxic wake, we're inching toward the high ground of a glum communal hope. Some 19th century willingness to act is yet there, if called upon. People are still imagining each other so they can rescue each other. A strange, radical thing, kindness."

The Taste of New Wine

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord? You have no doubt acquired some habits along the way. The spiritual nicotines that we confront. Looking out for number one. Some secret pleasures. A lazy willingness to take the short view. A nursed and venemous grudge. Television. Delight in the downfalls of others. A willingness to minimize the good in others. Savoring gossip. A trained and rancourous irreverence for reverence. The arrogance high. We have our spiritual nicotines, which offer a present excitement at the expense of corruption to come. They make it hard to taste the fine wine of love. Your lips and tongue and psyche get so coarse that the good taste no longer differs from the bad. Mean words and thoughts, conversation and daydreams, cause us to lose over time a taste for God.

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord? Without such a taste you are dead, or nearly so, even now. With this taste alone, you come alive to real life. You can rejoice when you should and weep when you should and be patient, patient, patient with all your circumstances.

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord?

Kindness and Scripture

The Bible says that God is kind. The Bible is our measure for words about God, being itself the word of God. Hence our interest in the Bible, weekday and Sunday. A love for Christ and a love for Scripture go always together, siamese twins. A person who scorns the Bible scorns also Christ Whom Scripture attests. Said John Wesley, "Let me be a man of one book!" The Bible says that God is kind.

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord? You may be a member of the church, and yet not really turned on to kindness. You may be teaching children, and yet not convinced by kindness. You may be in the choir, a lover of the muses, and yet skulk daily in meanness. You may be a clergyman, and yet in all an unkind whited sepulchre. You may be new to the church, and waiting to test the church's kindness. You may be a hearer of sermons and a clever religionist, and yet still addicted to the nicotine of vicious spirits.

God is kind, says the Scripture. God is good, so sing to his name, for he is gracious (Psalm 135). He is a Mighty King, a lover of kindness and justice (Psalm 99:4). He is A God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Nehemiah 9). With everlasting love God will be kind to us (Isaiah 54). God is kind and merciful (Joel 2).

Jesus looks us in the eye from the pages of Luke and says, "Be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish."(Luke 6:39)

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord? I wonder.

Kindness in our Time

I wonder how deeply we trust that God is kind. I look out at the great sea of life and see much harshness, and of course this harshness washes over you, day by day. It is a rough and tumble world we are building. In our construction business, we are all to some degree in the world construction business, do we trust that God is kind? Is this kind of construction what pleases a God of kindness? Harsh realities surround us. Abducted children. Rancorous marriages. Abortion for sex selection. Child abuse and neglect. Racial misunderstandings and hatreds. All in the shadow of a nuclear arsenal that still could make this world silent and dark, darker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp.

It is no wonder then that on this harsh cultural sea, the religious sailing ships of our time have a harshness to them as well. These past ten years have seen the rise of harsh religion, the success of unkind religion. Violence in worship that parallels musical and political violence. We have grown gradually accustomed to religious talons and fangs, expecting such meanness as a price for success in the religious market. So, American Protestantism with Methodism its largest denomination, seems slightly antiquated in the new age. So much so that some, across our church, seem ready to discard the diplomatic arts of kindness in favor a more warlike approach to difference.

God is kind, yes. But have you really tasted his kindness? Isaiah had his lips tinged with holy fire when at last he saw the kindness of the Holy One. How about you? Are your lips seared?

Have you become convinced that no matter what else, at home or at work, your life is saved for the Master Jesus, and not meant for meanness? Paul says, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as also God in Christ has forgiven you." (Ephesians 4). God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.

How will I know if I have tasted the kindness of the Lord? Ah, here the Scripture answers with gusto. When at last this taste for the fine wine of loving kindness overtakes you, you will fall to repent, and so you will know. It is a shock, a mortal blow, to realize how terribly kind God has been to you. When it comes, then you know for you want to repent, leave off the nicotine, in favor of another finer taste. Paul says, "Do you think lightly of the riches of God's kindness? The kindness of God is meant to lead you to repentance." The kindness of Almighty God is meant to lead you to a kindly life.

Vision and Mission

We can become so invested in our own activity that we lose a taste for the New Wine of God's love. The moon of human mission can temporarily eclipsed the bright Sun of divine vision, the fruit of the spirit, today named kindness.

Every so often we sing:

Like a mighty army moves the church of God
Brothers we are treading where his feet have trod

We might better sing:

Like a festive party moves the church of God
Filled with royal kindness, all have tasted God.


A while ago we had lunch with a college student who was struggling through a conflict. A teacher with whom she studied was causing her grief. It was humbling to listen to her careful step through the reasons why, as far as she could tell, she could not manage to work well for this one professor.

"It's not just the willfulness, nor do I mind the rigor and demand, and it isn't even the aloofness. I guess what really bothers me is that there is no kindness, no kindness. I was raised with kindness, so I guess I expect to find it in others."

Dear John

John took pretty rough treatment growing up in his small town. People discounted him, and much worse, because they knew his parentage. It scarred him for life, these silent taunts, and much worse, and he grew up and left. His bright red hair and good looks took him quickly through education and into the work world where he made good. But the hurts of grammar school linger. Take heed you who watch out for young children. John developed a quick tongue to go with his congenital quick temper and he used it like a sword whenever he felt the slightest taunt coming his way. Over time the verbal sparring became second nature to him, and he took some energy and pleasure from it. Once, though, in a soft-ball game, something happened. The young pitcher for the other team was mowing down John's side, and mocking John to boot. John stood at the plate and glared at what looked like a younger version of himself. In baseball and in conversation, John liked to swing away, swing for the fence. And in baseball and in conversation he hit some homeruns. He also struck out alot at the plate and in his judgments. The third strike was just called when John threw down his bat and yelled at the young pitcher, "Go back to where you came from you no-good." He saw the boy redden and then turn away. John heard some murmuring and a little laughter from the opposing team's fans. And he recognized, keenly, that he had said more than he meant. This boy was growing up with the same harsh words he had known, and now John was himself delivering the blows!

Driving home, alone, John was overtaken. For some reason, in that one verbal strikeout, he became aware of all the meanspirited living he had ever done. What a thing to say! I of all people should know better! He began to think back a week. To a cute, hurting jest in the office. Back a month. To a play on words at another's expense. Back a year, to a full swing sentence that laid his cousin down in agony. John cried. Hard. The tears of someone that hasn't cried in ten years. He pulled the car over and wept at the wheel. "My Lord, all this time spent in parsimonious and niggardly talking. My Lord. How kind all this while you have been to me, as I, unkindly, have hurt others. I know better. I'm sorry."

Do you presume on the riches of God's kindness? It is meant to lead you to repentance. John left off the nicotine of verbal agility for a finer taste, the taste of kindness.

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord?

The fruit of his spirit is present by grace in persons and churches and nations. Kindness, in the Bible, is just this: It's that great experience of God's love, which is revealed in Christ and shed abroad in the hearts of his people by the spirit (Romans 5:6), and it works itself out in life and the church as kindness toward one another.

Deliver De Letter De Sooner De Better

The fruit of the spirit called kindness is found in people. Joe bears kindness. Joe is a mailman. At age 59, though, he has been a lot more than a mailman to his neighbors. They know his kindness:

"When my son was wounded in Vietnam he waited on the porch for me to get home to give me the news himself. He didn't have to do that."

"I was out at age 69 knocking down icicles. I lay on the walk for almost an hour. Then Joe came by. He saw me and ran to me and put me over his shoulder and carried me into my house. He called the doctor, too."

"I was in college and asked if there were any pretty girls on the route. Joe said yes, he set me up on a blind date. We were married two years later. Joe was at the wedding."

"As a little girl I would walk part of his route with him. Joe was my favorite. I swore that when I grew up I would be a mailman too. And I am!"

The fruit of the spirit is kindness. In people like Joe Corbin, walking his route in upstate N.Y. for 36 years. They call him "Joe". We call it kindness, God's spirit bearing fruit.

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord?

Even in Church

Kindness grows in churches, too. There is no kinder, gentler group of people than those in our own U.M.W. As pastor, I am an honorary U.M.W. member, and proud, very proud, to be so. At Christmas lavish baskets go out to the needy and shut-ins. On Sundays, flowers travel in kindness to hospitals and nursing homes. There is a monthly report made of the number of visits by each circle. But kindness is not just in deeds, it is a spirit, dwelling in kind hearts. Let's get busy and bear some fruit!

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord?


Is there not, though, a "kindness that kills"? An unwillingness to speak the truth, when only brutal honesty will do? An avoidance, for the sake of ease or safety, of the sterner virtues, in the name of this fruit, kindness? A reluctance, even to a dangerous degree, to ruffle feathers, let alone pluck those that need plucking? A distaste for pruning that finally leaves the garden overrun? Is there not a kindness that kills?

Yes, it is so. Odd, though, how we tend to raise this point in the first inning, when it is a ninth inning question.


But kindness is found in nations, too. You have to look a little harder, maybe, and discern a little more carefully. History shows us kindness in nations. Since we began in Spain, maybe we can end there, not far from that same porch and aqueduct, in old Castille, out in the hills north of Segovia. The year is 1938, and war tears the land apart. The Spanish Civil War was as cruel and brutal a war as the world has known, mainly because it combined internecine civil strife with 20th century weaponry. It was Bull Run with bazookas instead of bayonettes. And yet. In that utter darkness, the light of a spirit of kindness yet lived. Hemingway captured a look at such kindness in the figure of Robert Jordan, a teacher from Montana, who joined the Lincoln Brigade and went to Spain to fight Hitler. There he too was entranced with kindly people caught in the whirl of war. And there, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan died, giving his life as a sacrifice of American kindness, against the mean spirit of Hitler's Germany. (Quote ending?)

How about you? Is it time?

Are you ready to leave the spiritual addictions behind and taste at last the fine wine of Love?

Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord?

As Socrates meant to say, "The unkind life is not worth living."

Sunday, November 07, 1999


Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: 1 John 3: 1-3

Prayer: O Lord, give us an appetite for the fruit of your Spirit, we pray. We ask today, especially, for a taste of Generosity—surprising, spacious, seductive Generosity. Amen

Stewardship Sunday Morning…

"But I don't want to go…"
"You have to go. Come on. Get out of bed, and get dressed."
"I don't want to go to church today…"
"You have to go. Get dressed. Come downstairs. Polish your shoes."
"Do I have to go every week?"
"This is Sunday and Sunday is church. You are going to be late, hurry up and eat your eggs, they're getting cold."
"My friends aren't going today—I know they're going on a trip.
"But you have to go. Come on, out the door."
"Why do I have to go?
"Because. You're the preacher!"

So one can feel, especially in the first year or two of ministry. No seminary prepares any preacher for Stewardship Sunday. (Some people who teach in seminaries do so precisely in order to avoid Stewardship Sundays!) You have to learn, if you do learn, on the job. And what do you learn?

"I look back 20 years at that church. There were children in every nook and cranny growing up with God. The youth were loud and proud. Our Sunday school classes spilled out beyond any hope of fitting the already large building. My class met in the boiler room. I can still sing the songs, "I've got the love of Jesus down in my heart.." I can feel the hand of one older woman who sat next to us—she wore a hat with a bow—slipping candy into my pocket during the sermon. Once, in the winter, my parents and others slept outside in tents—I don't know why. I can smell the greens at Christmas and the flowers at Easter. A boy from the north side came to my prom, and of course we were married at that altar. I have my 3rd grade Bible over here on the shelf, and here is a photo of my aunt, at the women's bazaar."

Over time, you learn to love this day, almost more than any other. We savor, today, what the Scripture names as the Spirit's fruit—goodness, or, perhaps better rendered, "generosity", goodness that does some good, generative goodness, AGATHOSUNE, generosity.

This is the day, either literally or figuratively, in which the material world is invaded, assaulted, attacked, by Another Reality. The beachhead of this invasion is unmistakable, as real and sacrificial and human and costly -- and victorious-- as Normandy.

Tom Brokaw has written about the Greatest Generation. Tom Hanks has starred in Saving Private Ryan. But that kind of beachhead, won against frightful gunfire and destructive opposition, is also visible every November even in the lowliest church and even in the poorest parish. It goes simply by the name of generosity, and generosity is a surprising interloper, a fruit of God's Spirit, a visitation from Another Reality. With the enemy fire raining down, Generosity marches on.

Into the teeth of congenital selfishness, cultural stinginess, communal exclusiveness, and congregational sanctimoniousness, Generosity marches on.

Into the terror of rational question, too, Generosity advances. "You can't give like that now, you're just getting started. You shouldn't do that, you have little mouths to feed. Now is not the time, you are paying a mortgage. How can you give with kids in college? Better save now, your hair is receding and so is your bank balance. Your teeth are decaying and so is your portfolio. Your stomach is growing and so is your debt. Your eyesight is fading and so are your options. You'll need resources as you get older." Against all that, Generosity moves forward, into the teeth of the gale, the fierce enemy fire from hidden outposts.

But what is the character of the fruit of the spirit known as Generosity? How shall we know its taste in this season of spiritual harvest?

An Apocalyptic Moment

Last month I did have a Sunday off—what a luxury. We were in Phoenix, with sunshine and 100 degrees. I got up late, skipped breakfast, went to a church service someone else had prepared, ate lunch, and then headed out to see if I could get into a major league football game—Cardinals and Giants. I have followed the Giants since YA Tittle and Del Shoefner and Frank Gifford, but never have seen them live. So I got to the stadium, worried about a ticket. Scalpers had some--$100 dollars. No thank you. At last, the ticket booth, with a little crowd gathered. I stood and waited in line. Suddenly a Phoenix fan appeared, dressed in Cardinals hat, Cardinals shirt, Cardinals socks, Cardinals Buttons. He was a burly bloke, and not overly tidy in his attire. He also was quite a large person. He wore a beverage Container on his back that had a tube running to his mouth. His Cardinal hat was shaped like a bird, and had wings that moved up and down "in flight" as he walked. He wore size 13 Converse sneakers. He stood in the ticket area and said, "I have two $50 tickets that I want to give away. I don't want them sold, I want to give them away."

No one moved. No one spoke.

"I have free tickets here. Two of them. They're on the 30-yard line, 18 rows up. I want to give them away."

I don't know why, exactly, but no one moved or spoke. We couldn't believe it. "There must be something wrong—a catch."

Finally, exasperated, Mr. Cardinal slammed his tickets on the counter, and said to the taker—you give them away, at which point yours truly, not born yesterday, said, "Well, I appreciate your generosity-thanks for the tickets. May the best team win as long as its New York."

But we don't really appreciate generosity. We don't expect it so we don't see it. It stomps up to us and bites us and we still don't see it.

I was given a place at the table, a seat at the banquet, a ticket to the game—space, entrance, inclusion.

So armed, I walked to the turnstile and realized I had two tickets but only needed one. So, I walked over to a group nearby and said, "Listen, I have a free ticket here. I don't want it scalped. Who would like it?"

Guess what? Dead silence. "Hey. This is legitimate. This was given to me-it's yours for free." Nothing.

I turned to leave, when an older man said "OK, OK, I don't know what your angle is, buddy, but hand it over." Which I did.

So on a 100 degree Sunday off in the southwest I was given a free ticket, and also, as the game progressed, and my mind wandered, an apocalyptic insight into the nature of the fruit of the spirit known as goodness, generosity, in three particulars.

Generosity surprises us. Generosity makes space for others, especially for the stranger, the outsider, the other. Generosity seduces us, at last, into offering our own generous gifts.

A. Generosity Surprises Us

For Instance…

An elderly couple who met at Depauw University in 1926, but who never graduated, decided to leave that school their whole life savings, $128 million dollars. 75 students a year will attend that school with full scholarships.

Surprising generosity. A person visits our office and late that week mails in a check for $3,000 to be used "as you see fit". Surprising generosity.

A woman who does not attend our church is inspired by the work of the Dining Center and leaves that ministry a quarter of a million dollars. Surprising generosity. May her tribe increase.

A family needs a place to stay for a summer trip and, hearing the need, a brother in Christ provides a home for the visit. Surprising generosity.

A president is defeated at the polls after only one term, but goes on to live a faith both public and private, the Carter center thrives. Surprising generosity.

Someone is saved from psychic hell through the pastoral care of their church, and chooses to endow the expense of pastoral ministry. Surprising future generosity.

It is in the nature of the spirit to take us somewhat by surprise, and nourish us generously. So the Scripture teaches us.

I have to wonder whether some of difficulties we face in our denomination are due to the eclipse of vision by mission. We get so caught up in what we are doing that we lose sight of the great vision God has designed!

Psalm 33: The earth is full of the HESED (generous goodness) of the Lord.

Romans 15: You also are full of generosity.

Galatians 6:10: Let us be generous to all, especially to those of the household of faith.

Colossians 1:10: Be fruitful in every good work.

2 Cor 9: "The Lord loves a cheerful giver."

Romans 12: "Let love be genuine."

Matthew 6: "If anyone asks for your coat, give him your cloak as well. If he asks you to go one mile, go a second too."

Galatians 6: "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."

Or think of Jesus' parables of sowing and reaping, of mustard seeds exploding from tiny to great, of talents used and underused, of dishonest but generous stewards and of that haunting and joyous refrain, may it reach our ears at heaven's door! "Well done though generous and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little, we will set you over much. Enter into the joy of the master." How frightful, daunting, awesome, profound is our charge in this life to minister to one another so that we are ready to hear such a sentence pronounced: "…well done, thou generous and faithful servant.."

If we have savored generous surprise, then we may also sense that this form of the Spirit's fruit makes space for others.

B. Generosity Makes Space for Others

Look at Asbury First, flourishing because of the surprising generosity of hundreds of faithful people, who want the world to be a better place, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who understand that as the seedbed for wonder, morality, and future generosity, the church has a prior claim on our giving.

Let me push you a little here. I know it is appealing to give to many particular causes and special projects. But it is Another Reality, the fruit of God's own spirit known as goodness, which ultimately feeds all giving, and to which the church alone bears full witness. I think we run the risk of taking our church for granted. It will prevail into the new millenium only to the degree that another generation of young adults learns and chooses to reflect divine generosity with some of the human variety.

One day a veteran faithful member of our church commented to me about our ministry. In conclusion she said, and the words carried a depth of meaning perhaps even beyond her intention, "We don't want anyone left behind."

But that's it! No one is to be left behind, left out, left off the list, left outside. Not at least for those of us who worship the Jesus Christ of the manger, the wilderness, the borrowed upper room, the cross, and the empty tomb! Jesus lived and died "outside", to remind us on the religious inside of those still outside. So that all might have space, have a seat, have a place at the table. You and I have had seven courses of faith, when others lack even the appetizer. "We don't want anyone left behind."

Asbury First's current growth and future health are fed by Generosity, goodness that does good. Generosity makes space, in this church, for those who are not yet inside. Why? Why more? Why grow? Because God is generous, and we believe in God. Because the need of the county is great, and we care about that need. Because the future health of this congregation depends on our becoming, over a decade, welcoming, inviting and generous, and we love this church. Because when our own generosity is quickened, faith is less a dull habit and more an acute fever.

Amid surprise and extra space, the Spirit can seduce you, even on a Stewardship Sunday.

C. Generosity Seduces Us

For we learn over time. Sometimes the best gift you can give somebody is the opportunity for them to give themselves. That is what this sermon is about. We are trying today, in this season of spiritual harvest, to feast upon the fruit of the spirit known as Generosity. And the best gift you can receive is the chance to give of yourself.

A while ago friends were going on a trip and needed someone to watch their children. I heard the request and did what you would have done. I referred the idea to the spiritual leader of our home. Jan said sure. I wondered a little about it, but the day came and all of a sudden, we had again multiple teenage voices in our home. And what a treat they were, what a joyful presence, what a gift!

But if our friends had not had the courage and taken the risk of asking, of giving us the real gift of a chance to give, we would have missed a little bit of heaven.

So in that vein I am going to ask you to give today. This church can prosper if you will generously support it. It's entirely up to you. I invite you to give, to pledge, to pledge strongly and to tithe. I am aware that this is a very personal decision. And not everyone likes to hear, let alone preach a stewardship sermon. One wag said, "It's not that he preaches so badly about money, it's that he preaches about it at all!"

But the world is not going to be healed by token pledges and convenient giving. This is a giving church. It needs to become a generous one. That is your opportunity today. "Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church."

Remember your forebears. These are the people of whom Diognetus wrote in the year 130ad

They display to us their wonderful and paradoxical way of life.

They dwell in their own countries, but merely as sojourners.
Every foreign land is to them their native country.
And yet their land of birth is a land of strangers.
They marry and beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring.
They have a common table, but not a common bed.
They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.
They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.
When reviled, they bless.
When insulted, they show honor.
When punished, they rejoice.
What the soul is to the body, they are to the world.
What salt is to earth and light is to world, are you to this country, to this region.

The church stays open for people on whom almost all other doors have closed. For the poor. For the irascible. For the loony. For the difficult. You are sitting in the most open, and generously vulnerable public space in this county.

As Lorraine Hansberry wrote,

"When do think is the time to love somebody most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain't through learning, because that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in himself 'cause the world done whipped him so".

The mission may be the bit and bridle, but the great steed, the real horseflesh of life is found in vision, a vision of a healed and loving world, where there is space, real quality space, for all. We dare not let the moon of mission eclipse the sun of vision.

Now we sing

Take my life and let it be
Consecrated Lord to thee

We might better sing:

Take my life and let it be
Shaped by Generosity.

Jane Addams' Warning

In closing, maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams. She grew up 130 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide. But somehow she discovered her mission in life. And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far-reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen. Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman. Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world. So Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born. Addams organized female labor unions. She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety. She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants. She became politically active and gained a national following on the lecture circuit. She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

Addams wrote: "The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent. The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life."

Yet it was a Rochesterian who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams' fruitful generosity. This was the historian Christopher Lasch. Several times in the 1980's I thought of driving over here to visit him. But I never took the time, and as you know, he died seven years ago. Lasch said of Addams, "Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest."

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

I wonder, frankly, whether for some of us that part is our stewardship life, our financial generosity.

Is that part of you, the wallet area part, ready to be released today, and in so doing, to free up the rest?

I think with real happiness over the years of men who have, just for example, taken up the practice of tithing, and in so releasing themselves, have found the rest of their lives unleashed for God.

Is there, as there was for Jane Addams, some small part of your soul ready to be released today, which then will free up the rest of you?

Deep, real life change comes from apocalyptic insight and cataclysmic experience. "All who enter the kingdom of heaven enter it violently".

A sensual experience can reorient a life (Pablo Picasso). A religious experience can reorient a life (Ignatius of Loyola). A patriotic experience can reorient a life (John McCain). A near death experience can reorient a life (Christopher Reeves).

Sex, religion, nation, death all can produce such a cataclysmic release. All sticks of existential dynamite. Money is another. And today is Stewardship Sunday. "...oh we keep the rest for another day, yet knowing how way leads onto way…" I wonder about the verve and youthful zest of your lower wallet area? I wonder what condition your condition is in?

Is there a part of your soul which, once released, would free up the rest? A catalytic experience or moment? Is it possible, that such an experience is waiting for you, metaphorically speaking, in the lobby outside your bank? Not in sex, or religion or nation or peril, but in…generosity?

Meryl Streep is reminding us that music brings structure, focus and discipline to life. So does tithing, and moreso.

Maybe we can know, in the surpise of Generosity, in the space provided by Generosity, in the seductive attraction of Generosity, what made a man of God out of John Wesley, and helped him to live on a mere 60lbs sterling year by year for his whole adult life, and in the process build a cross continental movement for good, of which we are heirs and debtors. Go, tithers and future tithers, and live his motto:

Do all the good you can
At all the times you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can

Sunday, October 24, 1999

Age to Age

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: I Corinthians 13:13, Mark 4: 35-41, John 15: 1-12, Ephesians 6: 13-17

Beloved, Sisters and Brothers in Christ, our children bring us so much week by week. We also recognize that the parade in which they have been involved is one into which we are folded, day by day and especially week by week. As they are processing down the center aisle we too find our places in a parade of God's faithful, God's covenant people through many years and many places and at many times.

This is the parade of Abraham, and of Isaac and of Jacob. This is the parade of Deborah and of Ruth and of Esther. This is the parade of Peter and James and John and this is the parade of the people of God at Asbury First in the year of our Lord 1999.

We are invited by the scripture read today to remember ourselves as part of God's people in the world. "I am the vine and you are the branches" and through God's fruitful presence among us God's spirit is giving life to the fruit of God's spirit in love, joy and peace and kindness and goodness, especially today in faith and in gentleness and in self—control.

Yes, we are the people of God and we have joined together in this moving, on-going parade of faith through time.

Because the Bible speaks directly to us and we honor its place in our common life today, we have asked four lay witnesses to raise their voices and personally to bear witnesses to the fruit of the spirit, the gift of faith and I'm so happy to introduce to you first of all, Barbara Steen.

Barbara Steen

The scripture I have chosen for this morning is I Corinthians 13th Chapter, 13th Verse (J.B. Phillips Translation) ,"In this life, we have three great lasting qualities-faith, hope and love-but the greatest of them is love."

As some of you know, Tom, my late husband and I lost out two children-Susie and Tom. The greatest gift we have is God's love-the essence of the spiritual life is love-that's really our only security-everything else can be snatched away. The things that have helped me are my deep faith, my love of God, my prayer life and all the love and support I receive from my friends everywhere.

I always remember Tom saying to me and to his congregations: "Our children are loaned to us, that we might learn from them-they have much to teach us. In life we have to learn attachment and detachment, for we only keep what we give away."

God is very real to me-I believe in the Holy Spirit-and I do feel His presence continually at my side. I am grateful to Him for still have a zest for life! That doesn't mean I don't have sad moments and lonesome days-of course I do-but God is the One I depend on.

I have learned many things regarding my spiritual journey. I need to make sure that my inner life and outer life are going in the same direction. Gordon Cosby, a dear friend, said, "One of the great weakness of our lives today is that, while we have talked about the inward journey, I doubt if any of us has actually worked with the inner life in the depth that is crucial." I feel strongly that this church, Asbury First, has this as one of its top priorities. Right, Bob?

I will close with these thoughts that have great meaning for me, and that ties into the scripture I have chosen for this morning. Tom said at Susies memorial service:

"The love God gave today,
Must be spent today,
Not tomorrow, or the next day,
But today.

You can't store up love,
Love has to be experienced day by day.
God only comes alive, as you spend
That which He gives you each day.
It is not given to hoard,
You have to love and serve God each day."

And you know what? That's where the blessing is! AMEN.

Rev. Robert Hill

These Beloved are the voices of the people of God, for one and all. Love is given and spent day by day. We receive God's grace like Manna in the wilderness, like euchrist morning and evening. Like the fruit of the spirit that is to be enjoyed, not enjoined. That is to be consumed not controlled. That is to be received, not achieved.

You are the people of God, your hallmark, your watchword is not I must, I shall, it is rather I may, I can. The world is full of potential. For freedom, Christ has set us free, and the Holy Scripture at 66 books together is a library about freedom. The bible is a book about freedom. So the pulpit is about freedom, and the church is the defense of the voice of freedom and the book of freedom.

We are celebrating today the glorious liberty of the children of God, and so from Age to Age we hear the voices of faith, faith is a gift we receive. Today we also have the honor of our high pulpit, fifteen feet above contradiction. A voice of the future to Jessica Dutcher who speaks to us about a boat and a storm and a Lord.

Jessica Scott-Dutcher

This scripture I chose was Mark 4: 35-41,where Jesus stills a storm. On that day when everyone had come he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side" and leaving the crowd behind they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great wind storm arose, and the waves beat the wind to the boat. So the boat was already beginning to be swamped, but he was in the stern, asleep in the cushion. And they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher do you not care that we are perishing? He woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, Peace, be still", and then the wind ceased and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" and they were filled with great awe and then they said to one another, "Who is this that did this? Even the wind and the sea obey him.

I've always liked this story, ever since my mom read it to me when I was little. In the book, "The Mouse's Story", the mouse lives on the fishing boat Jesus took out to sea that day. I can just imagine being the mouse on the ship, with the storm crashing and banging, and Jesus just sleeping.

I like this story because it reminds me that in the middle of our troubles, like the storm, Jesus can calm us down.

Rev. Robert Hill

In the midst of the storms of life Jesus can always calm us down by bringing to us the fruit of the spirit in this season of spiritual harvest. You are a people on a journey. You're a part of the parade of God's covenant folk. You also know at your heart, in the marrow of life that freedom is our great birthright, our living sense of God's presence.

But God also in the scripture gives witness to your life as a part of a community. The scripture is a communal book. It has a history, it doesn't fall from heaven without any intervening hand, it is human as well as divine it requires interpretation and so as the people of God we invest carefully and heavily in the interpretation of scripture. In the building and maintenance of a beautiful nave, in the setting of a high pulpit, in the support of clergy and other interpreters, the job of the interpreter, the main job is to be an advocate for that which is interpreted.

And so today we are a part of a community in which we know freedom, through which we parade in time. One among us, Robert Payne is going to speak to us about a parable and about a sower, I believe. Bob.

Bob Payne

In Mark 4:26-29 Jesus is explaining the kingdom of God to his disciples through the parable of the growing seed: He also said, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain-first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come." Earlier in Mark 4, Jesus referred to the seeds that had fallen on the good soil as multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.

As I was growing up, my parents had introduced me to this story, and as I look back, it seems that there was a lot of reinforcement of it throughout the years. Things like the part of the Lord's Prayer about being led not into temptation, things like the golden rule, and even a lecture by Stephen Covey about valuing personal integrity above personal gain. Some of you have heard me mention a little prayer about asking for direction amid some of life's trying situations. As I pass through middle age, I start to see evidence of the value of adhering to this guidance. But the harvest I am reaping isn't material. The real harvest is the overwhelming feeling of support around me in all of my activities and responsibilities, whether it is at work, during family time, or as part f the Stephen Ministry. Sure, some seeds will not ripen, but consistent sowing of the good seeds will eventually be rewarded.

And speaking of seeds, as the chairperson of our Stewardship Work Area, I have also planted some in the form of pledge cards in the ritual of friendship tablets, so that any among us who might need a little reminder about our current pledge campaign could help Asbury plan its ministries for the coming year. In an earlier announcement, I referred to opportunities facing Asbury that are dependent upon additional funding, and asked if we could all consider taking a step in increasing our pledge. One way that some could do this is to continue pledging at the level which included the roof campaign, even after the conclusion of the roof project mid-next-hear.

Keep planting! Share the joy of harvest!

Rev. Robert Hill

Thank you Bob. What a picture of the divine Bob has shared with us. Did you see it? A sower went out to sow.

God is not worried. God does not fret. God does not have a furrowed brow. What a picture of optimism! Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we worship Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The scripture is the story of the people of God, born for freedom. On parade in history, known in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior.

We meet today at the intersection. At the dawn of the east, with the twilight of the west, of the cool of the north, and the calm of the south, of the transcendence, presence and love of God with the imminent, humble, earthly Christ, of male and female, black and white, rich and poor, one and all here at ground zero.

The scripture reminds us of our identity, our names, our baptismal covenant in Christ Jesus. So today we hear two voices that are a little older than I currently am and two voices that are a little younger and our final lay witness is Mr. Jessie Welch who loves the scripture from Ephesians about the whole armor of God. Jessie has received his Bible today, let us give ear to this word.

Jessie Welch

Therefore, take a whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Rev. Robert Hill

Thank you Jessie.

And are we not on parade, and are we not freed by God's grace and do we not receive the gift of the spirit of God known in faith, are we not bound together in community do we not find our name in that name that that is above every name? Beloved let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast what is good, love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honor, never lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord, rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer, contribute to the needs of the saints. Practice hospitality. Amen.

Sunday, September 26, 1999

Peace Like a River

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 14:25-31

1. Be Reconciled

A man I know fairly well decided in the mid 1970's, after some struggle, to invest his work life in the working life of the church. As he was completing his college degree, he began to look for seminary programs, and also to consider their cost. A chaplain at his school apparently told him about the Rockefeller foundation, which for many years had provided full funding for at least one year of seminary education, especially meant for those who were struggling to find their way into the ministry.

After these months of heart wrenching deliberation and discernment—he knew that ordination constituted a kind of financial suicide—he was heartened to learn that some scholarship support might be available. He sent off the forms and waited. One day, an invitation came to interview for the Rockefeller grant. Eagerly, he drove to a nearby airport and met in a small hotel room with three people, a layman of color, a large female denominational executive, and a quiet Caucasian clergyman. The three reviewed his application, his Phi Beta Kappa award, his GRE scores and grades, his various achievements, and his personal statement. "You know, two years ago, you would have been an easy recipient of this award. For years, we have been looking for men like you. Your record, your statement and your interview have been fine. However, two years ago we made a decision to direct our funds mostly into hands of women and people of color who feel a calling to ministry. Since it is fairly late in the year, and you will have to make plans, we feel we need to be direct with you. We are sorry, but wish you well." And with a laugh, they added, "You just are not the right sex or color!"

My friend left the airport hotel ever so invisibly and ever so lastingly embittered. For years, he carried the mental photograph of the hotel room, Holiday Inn decor, the three New York foundation representatives, their wearied and joyless faces, their matter of fact rejection. Over the years, he saw them seated there, in the airport room. He saw them in seminary, late at night, when he worked a graveyard shift to pay for school. He saw them when others went downtown and he went to study. He saw them the night he barely got home from work in time to take his wife to the hospital, gravely ill in the 6th month of pregnancy. He saw them when one of the recipients came to him for help in Greek.

The scene haunted him over the years. He would bring it up with me at reunions, when we inspected what condition our condition was in. When Bishops were elected on the basis of skin color, he saw them. When appointments and superintendents were selected on the basis of gender, he saw them. When, across meeting rooms, it became clear that his voice, eyes, height, skin color, gender and orientation were working fully against him, he saw them. When colleagues welcomed him in spite of his sex and color, he saw them. When he lived for a decade under the watchful resentment of a supervisor, on the dark side of a dark moon, he saw them. When he paused to record the demise of the church during this same period of selective affirmative action toward others, he saw them. They sat perpetually in the hotel room memory, a kind of trinity for the tragic sense of life. And more than one ever could explain, they fed a kind of soul war, a dis--ease in work, ministry and life.

I had a chance to talk with him last year. With some fear and trembling, I asked him about the tragic trinity from the far off airport hotel.

"Well", he careful replied, "it is a privilege to live long enough to learn some things. Yes, I still see them and hear their laugh. But I see it all differently now. It was good for me to work nights. Whatever does not kill us makes us stronger! It was good for me to feel a little instance of what some feel every day, rain or shine—sheer prejudice. It was good to be forced to give up what otherwise I would have had to easily and perhaps not appreciated, and to see the open space provided for the talents of others. And I have now learned what good that enforced opening has done. I feel ashamed that so much feeling over so many years was attached to that one episode, when life is so teemingly full of good, of God. About a year ago, I saw the tragic trinity for the last time, and realized that I had no feeling when their mental image appeared. I have peace, like a river, flowing round about me there. Somehow God has given me that peace. In fact, I believe that God was trying for some time to give it to me, and to fix my heart, but I didn't want it. I guess I rather enjoyed my self-righteous bitterness. I was so busy with my mission that I lost the sight of God's vision of peace. What a gift is peace!"

2. I Love You

Several years ago, a young man grew up in the North woods, saying little, like his neighbors. In fact, he found that he was frightfully shy, especially around members of the other gender. But since he did show some academic ability, and twice answered questions out loud in 12th grade history class, he was recommended for border guard duty. He passed the exam in the summer after graduation, and for the next 35 years drove out to the river crossing, took up his post, and used the only English he ever needed, in four questions: "What is your name? Where are you from? How long will you be here? Do you have anything to declare?" These four interrogatives formed his whole volubility, his whole working life. He lived with his parents in Massena, and then when they died, he lived alone, until he retired.

Then he was seized after retirement with a profound desire. He could not name it, but he felt it just as well.

He traveled 30 miles east, and bought a plot of land looking down over the St. Lawrence. On the land, he built with his own hands a fine log cabin, with a porch facing northwest to catch both the river view and the sunset. He covered the house with a bright orange roof, like many he had seen down in Cornwall, on border guard training trips. He marked off a garden, and planted it full. He beamed with pride when the young pastor would bike by and say, " 'Love that orange roof."

One Saturday morning, as he finished breakfast on Route 11 at the Cherry Knoll restaurant, he found across him in the booth a two month old copy of Guns and Ammo magazine. Over coffee he leafed through it, absentmindedly, until he came to the back pages, where he discovered an advertisement—women from Asia were looking for American husbands! They were willing to risk marrying! Even someone whom they didn't know! Was he interested?! If he was, would he write to PO BOX 400 Vancouver, BC?! He was! He did!

Several months later, in the week of the January thaw, when the temperature swung up all the way above zero at noon some days, a knock came at the door of his orange roofed cabin. Putting on his shirt, he went and opened the door. There stood a middle aged, medium height, medium build woman, from China. She carried a single suitcase, and a purse. "Hello" he said. "Yes", she answered.

From that day forward, they lived and worked together like Adam and Eve. They kept the finest house. They produced the finest garden. On market days they wore the broadest smiles. Sitting silently in church they held hands, at a minimum. They were so evidently happy and so clearly enraptured, that they incited a certain amount of jealousy. She in particular was vilified in the neighborhood gossip, in which there was speculation about the rapturous nature of their love. But they cared not at all. They tilled their garden and trimmed their hedges and lived in love.

They never spoke. He wouldn't speak. She couldn't speak. So, they never spoke. They simply worked together and watched each other. At night, they would fry their eggs, side by each, and cook the Canadian bacon real tough, and pop open two cans of Labatts Blue. He would read National Geographic, and she would read her only book, a dog-eared copy of the Tao Te Ching. But as the sun set out to the west, trimming the frozen river with orange and red, they would stop, and look at each other, and then recite their evening litany, each to the other, before they silently slipped, on tiptoe, upstairs.

He: "What is your name"
She: "Yes."
He: "Where are you from?"
She: "Yes"
He: "How long will you be here?"
She: "Yes"
He: "Do you have anything to declare?"
She: "Yes. I LOVE YOU."

Then she would ask and he would answer…yes…yes…yes… "Do you have anything to declare? "Yes. I LOVE YOU." At night in dark he would think, "Now I am at peace. Looking back, I guess God was always trying to give me peace, but I wasn't ready to receive it." What a gift the Spirit makes in peace!

3. Endowment

Setta Moe had been a member of her own church, like many of those we honor today at our church, for over 50 years. In her youth, the church had grown to a great expanse, supporting the construction of a spanking new facility, and the advancement of the cause of Christ--as she liked to put it: "a combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement."

In those years, especially for some reason once the new building was finished, Setta's church ran into troubles, troubles. One day in church she looked into the stained glass windows beside her, and uttered a little prayer of grief. For some reason, her church had been saddled with pastoral problems. The various episodes came to her mind. One involved a painful personality conflict which threatened to divide the church. She prayed, "Lord why did that happen?" Another involved sheer sloth, end of ministry laziness by the church's leader. "Lord, why did you let that happen?" One involved real bad misbehavior by a minister, someone she had come to love and respect. "Lord, why did that have to happen here?" Another involved a marital shipwreck, painful to endure and equally painful to observe. "Lord, why did that happen?"

Setta laid all these hurts before God and looked across the sanctuary as the sermon rolled on. She could see her beloved sisters and brothers in Christ. They were listening. They were learning. And they even had grown to love their leaders, all the earlier betrayals to the contrary notwithstanding. Setta prayed again, "Lord, help us to listen and to learn and to love more. But Lord, I pray, Lord, help us also to trust, to trust our leadership."

Setta was quiet again. A thought jarred her. She looked up again at the stained glass, and remembered all that her parents and others had sacrificed, before the troubled years, to build the church. What gifts they made! It occurred to her that, just as her parents had endowed the congregation with a great building, she also might build trust and future ministry by endowing the expense of the minister's salary. She mused, "I wonder what it would cost to permanently endow, permanently cover the cost of one of the minister's positions? That would open a new day for ministry here—in part by the trust it would express in leadership for the future."

The sermon that day escaped Setta's attention. But her heart was full and her mind was resolved as she left worship. What peace, after so many painful years, so many hard hurts, what peace filled her heart! She reflected, "I guess God was trying for some time to give me such peace, but I wasn't ready to receive it. What an invasive gift of the Spirit is peace!"

4. Vision

I need to ask you a question that may be life and death, heaven and hell in the balance: Is God trying to give you peace? Are you listening?

One day, in the fullness of time, Peace like a river will reign.

One day, in the fullness of time, the Old Testament says, "of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end" (Isaiah 9).

One day, in the fullness of time, the New Testament says, in that great watershed verse of Romans 5:1, "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

One day, in fullness of time—and why not start this fall and why not begin in the bosom of Asbury First?—Peace like a river will attend our way.

One day, from the least to the greatest, all will know the peace of God—drowning past bitterness, embracing arms for embracing, building trust for future good—which, finally, passes all understanding.

The fruit of the spirit is peace.

Sunday, September 19, 1999

Surprised by Joy!

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Philippians 4:4-7


Plato, 500 years before Christ, described the world as a great cave, in which dim reflections of an external light sent figures and shadows dancing upon the dank cavernous walls of life.

You do not have to be greek or a philosopher or a greek philosopher to appreciate his thought. We have our own spelunking experiences, our own caves. I think we come to church, Sunday, sometimes just hoping that somehow, someone will light a birchbark torch for us, to put a little more warmth and brightness into our cave.

Do you remember the end of Tom Sawyer, when Huck and Tom disappear into such a cave? A child of ours dies, a neighbor is raped, a friend falls ill, a job falls through, a limb gives way, a theological certainty cracks and crumbles, a relationship rolls downhill faster than a barrel over Niagara, and we sit among the stalagtites and stalagmites, listening to water drip below or behind, shivering in the near dark.

Not long ago I attended a meeting, in which people I knew well and loved deeply, for some reason became--not themselves, ghosts really of their real persons. They were reticent, somber, afraid, defensive, touchy. I cannot say why. As a newcomer to that circle, I wondered, though, whether there were memories long-toothed but not forgotten that returned with the rejoining of that meeting. Memories of past things—hurts, angers, betrayals—that still hung like mold and mildew on the wet walls of that cave. It felt like we had all gone down into the earth, into a cave.

My childhood friend's father ran a slaughter house. Though we didn't go when the cutting was done, you could feel and sense the past brutality there—it hung in the air, it flew through the spirit like a bat through a cave.

Life can become one long stint of hard time in the calaboose.


St. Paul is writing to the Philippians, and so to us, from a cave. He is to be heard today, from the heart of the Roman prison, where he evidently awaits execution. The Bible records loving, wise and faithful responses to pain, hurt and failure, to exile, and to execution. Its remarkable trait is honesty about pain. Paul writes from inside a cave, Jonah in the belly of the provincial whale.

How stunning his word.

Paul, in Philippians, writes largely about joy.


All of the New Testament, but particularly the letters of Paul and especially the Gospel of John, bear witness to the earliest church's experience of Spirit. "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom", wrote Paul. And the Epistle of John, in a clear warning to those living in times like ours says, "test the spirits, to see whether they are of God." It is not enough to be full of spirit. Rather, the question is, which spirit? Which spirit?

Here again, the Scripture guides us. As we know people by their deeds, their fruits, so we are to recognize the footprints of the Spirit in the fruit she bestows, ripe in this spiritual season. The Spirit gives…joy.


The good news of Jesus Christ, toward which we are summoned today, is throughout a glorious expression of joy. We trust the Bible as it records this open secret. Joy is truly native to God alone, and in God's word this joy enters our life.

Wise men from the east at last find a star and a child and they rejoice with great joy.

Common shepherds hear tidings of great joy, meant for all people, and are shaken to their boots.

Some seed falls on good ground and…you and you and you…receive the word with great joy.

A servant is faithful over a little, and is set over much, and enters…the joy of the master.

There is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over 99 who lack nothing.

Even the evening of his death, Jesus sings with joy his affection for his disciples.

And early women go to the tomb, and finding it empty are turned upside down and leave with fear and great, great joy.

Jesus Christ

Furthermore, in this passage, St Paul reminds us that the Lord is at hand. Nearby. At hand but not in hand. Absent, yet close. It is the risen Lord whom we worship, in this and every age.

You are Christians, those for whom the pattern of struggle and rest, pain and glory known in Christ Jesus forms the basis of life. You are Christians, attentive to the Spirit who bestows such ripe fruit upon us. And we are in a season of spiritual harvest.

Where I run much of the summer there are apple trees. Most years, in summer, I have only been able to enjoy their sight. This summer, though, the fragrance of ripening fruit has been covering the dirt path along the lake for some weeks. The fruit is ripe, and surprisingly early. The fruit is ripe, and surprisingly ample.

The Spirit bears this fruit, of joy, into our common life, like a baby born into an expectant family. Yours is the family of Christ.

Which is, to put it less gently, to be reminded that we are Christians, not Jesusites. That is, we are Christians, not Jesusites. We worship Christ, the risen Lord, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. We are not enslaved, but freed. We are not Jesusites. We do not live in Palestine, nor do we feel we must. We do not wear robes and sandals (except at bedtime), nor do we feel inclined to do so. We do not travel by donkey or chariot. We do not, most of us, speak Aramaic. We do not read Hebrew. We are not in the synagogue on Saturday. We do not think that David wrote all of the Psalms, or that the world is flat, or that the Rock of Gibraltar is the end of civilization. And some of us are not celibate. We are not Jesusites.

The millennial question is not "What would Jesus do?" Rather, the question is "What does the Lord want me to do?" Where do I taste the fruit of the spirit? And blessed as we are with a mission to fulfill, it is the sun of vision, not the moon of mission, that awakens us to real life. God is giving us a vision of joy!

Surprised by Joy: Worship

Sunday can bring joy. Yes, there is routine and there is attention required. Someone asked my son a couple of years ago about worship in Rochester and he said: "Church is church." Well, yes. Surprisingly, though, joy can overtake us here. In fact, this is an hour meant for joy. In prayer, or worship, or devotion of any real kind we enter the presence of what is given us and leave behind the cloying grasp of what we make. Joy finds us here—freedom in fellowship, through all our silliness and sanctimoniousness.

Do you remember David's dance? King David had won battles, slain foes, built a kingdom, defeated both Goliath and Saul (fightings without and fears within), yet, perhaps due to his many achievements, he could reckon with their limitation. In his older age he searched for joy. Way up north, in the hill country, he found an old ark, a box, mysterious and potent. Last fall, we heard about the ark and its landlord, Obededom the Gittite. The ark still brings joy! And when David found the ark—the Presence of the Holy—he danced! He made merry! He worshipped with song and lyre and harp and tambourine and castanet and cymbal, clad only in an ephod, which lies somewhere between a napkin and a handkerchief. Since God is present, joy is in the air. Worship is the one time in the week when we don't have to celebrate ourselves.

Remember the tides of the sea that swell up along the east coast. And the twinkling stars that stand mute, seemingly motionless, light years away. The great brown fields of upstate New York. Another hand has given us our home and guided our history. Another heart speaks to yours in worship. We can say with Jeremiah, "O Lord, your word was unto me a joy!"

Surprised by Joy: Judgement

The invasion of worship by joy is nowhere near as surprising as the next invasive step in joy's march. For after worship, according to Scripture, joy inhabits judgment. Down under the happy word of joy, caused by God, is the awareness that sometime we will need to give an account for our living. Christians have never questioned this. Scripture and Life, to sides of one truth, conspire to remind us. We have exactly one life to live, one string of days, one complex of history and hope, one chance. Sometime, someday we will give an account of how we have lived.

Paul's letter points to the day of Christ toward which we run, and not in vain. You can approach any and all accounting with joy. All that is good will have its just reward. Nothing is ever as good now as it will be later, and nothing is ever as bad now as it seems. Or as Barbara Brown Taylor said this summer, "The bad news is that we do not get what we deserve. And the good news is that we do not get what we deserve. God is more than just. God is gracious." We can approach the border, every border, with a joyful anticipation.

Let us be honest that we are all equally in the dark as we approach ultimate borders.

For some years I traveled across the northern border of our nation almost every week day. I never lost completely a sense of anticipation and even dread at the border. One very cold morning, near 5am, down in the dark beyond Huntingdon Quebec, I stopped in the snow alongside a lost trucker. I lowered the window to catch his question "Ou est le frontiere?". When I had finally translated the simple sentence, "where is the border", I leaned back and haltingly replied in French, but before I could say anymore he caught my accent, or maybe it was my abysmal grammar. Sensing a common soul, and jumping for joy he said, "You speak English!" There is a surprising joyful anticipation, in faith, as we approach the border. At the border, the same language we have used for a lifetime is in use, the language of grace. We cross the same border with every confession of sin and every acceptance of pardon. We cross the same border with every awareness of idolatry and every word of forgiveness. We have crossed over before in the daylight, so that when night falls, we need not fear. We know what the Psalmist meant, we can hear it on the lips of Martin Luther King Sr at his son's burial, "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning."

Surprised by Joy: Persecution

More surprising still, even than joy's eruption in worship and Judgment, is the presence of joy in the hearts of people persecuted. Joy abounds in the fellowship of worship, in the prospect of accounting and a s promise for the persecuted. Mt 5:11 "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad.

This seems at first a hard word for us, partly because we do not think we know much about persecution, and partly because we doubt it as an occasion of joy. We sense masochism and recoil.

Yet, I think some of you have known more persecution than you think. Some have learned the hard way that real virtue is not always rewarded on this earth. Some have paid dearly for speaking and living a less than popular truth. Some have seen the cost of accepting a calling in life: a life with purpose is not necessarily one free of pain. Some have been exposed to the difficulty of having to choose between home and work, between friendship and honesty, between the short term and the long haul. Look back. I bet you are heartened most by the running you did with unfairly added leg weights. In the long run, there is sweet, sweet joy in choosing the narrow gate and the straight path. The altar of this church and its cross are signs of promise that when persecution comes it will also carry a kind of joy. You can read about it in Philippians, or in CS Lewis' book, Surprised by Joy, or, probably, by getting to know well the person sitting next to you in the pew.


One day, in the fullness of time, Joy will reign.

One day, in the fullness of time, says the Old Testament, the joy of the Lord will be our strength.

One day, in the fullness of time, says the New Testament, they that sow in tears shall reap in joy.

One day—and why not begin here and why not start now?—we will count it all joy when various trials beset us.

I tell you truly—and base your struggles upon it---"weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning!"