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!"

Sunday, September 12, 1999

Are We Lovers Anymore?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 14:18-26, 1 John 4:7-12


Fifteen years ago this autumn, I paid a call on one of the inactive members of an inactive church to which we had been assigned. I confess that my motives were not mixed and not entirely selfless. I was calling to see whether the lady of the house, an inactive member, would like to return to the fold, to drink from the living water, to swell the ranks of God's army, —you get the idea.

Quickly, as I sat with husband and wife over tea—it was a hauntingly lovely autumn day, befitting John Donne's line that in heaven it is always autumn—it became clear that she had, yes, taken a different journey, followed a different spirit, and, wonder of wonders, had married outside the faith of her ancestors. She no longer worshipped in the loving embrace of Wesley, Asbury, Erwin and Crossland, but, alas, had married—a Presbyterian. And, to make matters worse, she was attending, however happily I cannot say, a church of that other, aforementioned, religion.

So, unshackled from our earlier roles as potential parishioner and prospective pastor, we could simply talk, and enjoy each other, which we did. He sat silent as a tomb, starched, archly observant, looking somewhat rigid and looking, well, like a Presbyterian. She spoke in words that remain a part of my lifelong canon, my personal bible. We all have one. I wish I had recorded her song. She was remembering the church of her youth. Listen, for I think her portrait resembles a photograph of Asbury First today.

The freedom and love in today's Scripture lesson provide an alternative. Authenticity, finally, is at the heart of any godly authority.

"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."

She stood up to bring more tea, and concluded: "I look back at that church and … how can I put it?…there was so much LOVE there!"

As she went into the kitchen, her husband and I sat silent. Men don't talk, do they? If you heard her reverie, her retrospective, her memory, as nostalgia—and initially I did too—listen again. "There was so much LOVE there…"

Not nostalgia, but longing filled her voice. I can hear it now, after 15 years, after more experience and perspective. She voiced what we, down deep, deeply feel—a longing, a craving, a desire, a hunger, a yearning—for love.


You have so many disparate claims upon your soul. Your past takes a chunk. Your future takes a bite. Your work takes a cut. Your family takes a slice. Your friends take a part. Your church takes a tithe. You are pulled and prodded by so many, all more or less good, so many forces well beyond human control. And you have grown up, most of you, in America.

It is easy to picture Henry James, that difficult 19th century writer, walking around his Grammercy Park in lower Manhattan, strolling, outlining his plots, drawing his characters. It is also quite easy for us to hear the ringing, native truth, of his epigram, "The purpose of life is to learn something interesting and to do something useful." To learn and to do. School and work.

And what about love? With all our learning and doing, are we lovers anymore?


It is a millennial question, perhaps the millennial question.

Hither and yon, today, you can hear various religious voices. Some apocalyptic…wars and earthquakes. Some theosophic…my karma ran over my dogma. Some moralistic…viva la culture war. All claiming a spiritual basis. There is a spiritual energy, one could say, afoot at the moment.

For the church of Jesus Christ, these spiritualisms are a mixed blessing. They can be a preparation for the Gospel, and they can be a perversion of the Gospel, and often they are both.

But the Gospel of John affirms the gift of the Spirit of Truth (Jn 14,15), the truth that sets free (Jn 8), that comes as a gift of God in the absence of Christ—another Counselor. It is this Spirit to whom we listen, especially, this autumn.

For the Gospel of John, a much later document than the other Gospels, replaces millennial hope with spiritual truth. Almost all the apocalyptic speculations of the Synpotics, of Paul, and of course of earlier Judaism—speculations on which everything from religious hokum to excessive Y2K anxiety are based—in the Gospel of John have receded into the background to make room for the real "millennial" guest, who is the Comforter, the Advocate, the Spirit, who will speak to us in truth, in Jesus' absence. Which would you rather have? The wild apocalyptic of Mark 13 or the brilliant, quiet beauty of John 14?

If nothing else, a calendrical interest in the new millenium, could at least give us a chance to affirm, and to enjoy the real presence, now, of the Spirit of Truth, which, according to the Christ of the Fourth Gospel, is pretty much all you get by way of apocalyptic thrill, at least until the very close of the age.

And what does this Spirit, of Truth, bring us as its gifts and fruit? The list for Paul and John, of course, begins with love.

The Great Commandment

And love is the heart of it all. "Love one another as I have loved you."(Jn 15).

"Love your enemies…"
"If you love those who love you, what reward have you…"
"God so loved the world…"

Maybe a wisp of a murmur of a rumor of a reminder of such a vision of love is just what we need in our mission oriented age. Oh, no one, from local church conference to the new and shiny intergalactic conference being designed by our church hierarchy, is more committed to mission than we: our mission is to develop disciples, in worship, education, and care. That is the great commission. In the words of a hymn many like, "Lord you give the great commission, 'heal the sick and preach the word', lest the church neglect its mission, and the Gospel go unheard." Mission is what we do. Good for us.

But it is vision that makes who we are! It is vision that sings to us! It is vision—something God packs into our rucksack along the trail, like manna or eucharist—that makes our hearts full and glad and ready to love!

As important as our mission, the great commission can be, it is nothing compared to the Great Commandment, God's vision of love. Rather, we should sing---

Lord you give the Great Commandment,
"love your neighbor as yourself."

Lest the church neglect its vision
And the Gospel lose its health.

Help us to enjoy your presence
With renewed humility.

With the Spirit's gifts empower us
For the love that sets us free.

Lord you call us to your bosom
"I have called you all my friends."

That the world may see your beauty
Joy abundant meant for each.

Give us all new rest and leisure
Closer in community.

With the Spirit's gifts empower us
For the love that sets us free.

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!

Are we lovers anymore?

When you bathe in the morning, remembering the water of your baptism, do you see in the mirror a learner and a doer, only? Or, behind that aging furrowed brow, is there something else God has given? Can you name yourself, first, a lover?

Try this, while shaving:

"Today, I am a lover. I have the vision of love God has given. I want to be loved and to love, for I am the beloved child of the living God and nothing short of true love is good enough for God or for me."

Can you sign the love card in the morning, and check your score in the evening?

Robert Frost

Or perhaps all this prattle about love seems too sentimental, too unreal. But love has grit. How surprised I was to hear our Poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, this summer recite a short poem, his favorite, by Robert Frost. A love poem—but tough, hard, true.

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear
And when at last that seemed too much
I lived on air.

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of – was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.
I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault
I crave the stain.

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand.

The hurt is not enough
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.

No, love is powerful. Love is as strong as death and as hard as hell (SS6). Joseph loved his betraying brothers, from neither sentiment nor whim. Jeremiah and Job did so too, out of decisions to love. Hosea loved through infidelity and cantankerous selfishness.

Asbury First

Twenty years from now, someone who marries a Presbyterian may remember something about this church, at the turn of the millenium. Will she recall Spirit measured by love? Will she say, at the last, "there was so much love there?"

If we speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but have not love, we are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Even if we have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if we have faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, we are nothing. If we give away all that we have and deliver our bodies to be burned, but have not love, we gain nothing.

Our vision is the fruit of the spirit called love. This is my experience:

Asbury First is patient and kind.
Asbury First is not jealous or boastful.
Asbury First is not arrogant or rude.
You do not insist on your own way.
You are neither irritable nor resentful.

Together, you bear all things, believe all things, hope.
All things, endure all things.
You have faith, hope and love, but the greatest is love.

I need that reminder. For there are administrative moments, opportunities, even in the church—surprise, surprise—that challenge us. I think of the scene in "Patton" where George C. Scott finds his whole army held up by one recalcitrant mule, and ten men trying to move it—he drives up, dismounts, pulls out his white handled revolver, shoots the animal, and the army marches on. That is efficiency, but not love.

And we are called to a vision of love.

Grovers Corners

Thornton Wilder knew it

Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at 'm very often we all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names and it ain't earth and it ain't even stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings…There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being."

Are we lovers anymore?

Most everybody's asleep in Grover's Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable, somebody's setting up late and talking—Yes, it's clearing up. There are the stars—doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven't settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk..and fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain is so bad, that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest…Hm…Eleven o'clock in Grover's Corners—You get a good rest, too.

One Day

For one day, in the fullness of time, Love will reign.

One day there will open space, luxurious freedom for all manner of difference, all kinds of kinds. One day, the Old Testament says, the lion will lie down with the lamb.

One day, the New Testament says, there will be no crying anymore, nor grief anymore, nor tears, nor shall hurt any or destroy.

One day…and why not start here, and why not begin now?…there will be a real community of gracious love.

The darkness shall turn to the dawning and the dawning to noonday bright and Christ's great kingdom shall come on earth, the kingdom of love and light.

At the new millenium, let us be known that here, with us, it has got to be love all the way, love all the way, love all the way.