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---
"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?
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.
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.
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.
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.