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.

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