Sunday, December 24, 2000

Christmas Presence (2)

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2:1-20

Christmas is a time for stories because we begin again, at this time, to make the saving connection between our one story and the eternal story of Jesus Christ, our Christmas Presence.

When we were little, Jan and I lived out in the west, together under the Big Sky, though we were not to meet for another 15 years. She was a toddler while her dad read Paul Tillich for a PhD dissertation in Denver, at the Illiff School of Theology. He went there, after a degree in electrical engineering, on the strength of a Life magazine article titled, "They're training a new kind of preacher in Denver." At the same time, I was a toddler in the desert sands of Las Vegas while my dad was a chaplain at the Nellis Air Force Base. He went there, after undergraduate pre-medical study and divinity school in Boston. They were leaders. One the captain of the football team, the other the President of the senior class. They came of age when leaders who wanted to make a difference headed away from engineering and medicine, and toward the ministry. This was 45 years ago.

Paul Tillich is probably the last and only name of a modern theologian that more than 10% of our nation could recognize. Maybe 5%. His was the last great theological attempt, in simple language, to connect the story of life with the story of Christ, and to do so in a way that would work, as Luke says, "for all the people". I laughed last week when I read again his forward to the 1957 volume: "I hope to receive much valuable criticism of the substance of my thought, as I did with the first volume…But I cannot accept criticism as valuable which merely insinuates that I have surrendered the substance of the Christian message because I have used a terminology which consciously deviates from the biblical or ecclesiastical language. Without such deviation, I would not have deemed it worthwhile to develop a theological system for our period."

As Jan, at age 3 and 4, fingered the bulbs and lights of a tree in the parsonage of Onega, Kansas, her dad read Tillich, on the train home from Denver. He read, I know he must have, how Tillich translated the old words about faith to words more current and true. They are still true, and hearing them tonight can mean your lasting health, your eternal salvation. Said he, we receive the Christmas Presence in three modes. By participation. By acceptance. By transformation.

First, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story by causing you to participate in his story. This is the whole substance of Christmas, the reason for the season, and the reason you are here tonight, participating tonight. It is the reason the choir frets over carols, the altar guild arranges flowers, the ushers urge you to be careful with candles, the preacher offers a 10 minute homily, and in the beauty, the silence, the majesty of this nave, the most beautiful in American Methodism, you participate. Christ has surrounded your hurt and desire, with his healing and love.

Second, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story, somewhere along the tough road of life, by whispering to you: "you are accepted." If only you will accept the fact that deep in the heart of the universe, call it the Ground of all Being if you must, there is a happy acceptance of just who you are, the real you, the authentic only you, your one story. God loves you. God accepts you. You have things you regret. Welcome to the human race. God accepts all that. You are not perfect. Welcome to the human race. God accepts that too. You are prone to error and certain to die. Welcome to the human race. God accepts your error and mortality. Because: God accepts you. Someday you are going to feel, believe, trust, know, understand and ACCEPT your acceptance by God. May it be tonight. You are in the region, first trodden by shepherds and lowly folk, near Bethlehem of Judea, when the news broke: God accepts, God loves.

Third, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story, over time, by transforming your life from one of self-centered striving, to one of centered selfhood, that frees others and loves others and gives to others. You will be surprised how steadily this transformation develops, which has occurred in potential by virtue of your simple participation tonight, and whose power is felt in your own acceptance, and your accepting your acceptance, and may that be tonight, too.

There is something new, loose in the universe, a Christmas Presence which saves us by causing us to participate, by freeing us to accept, by changing us into loving people.

And maybe, after he assembled the tricycle at Christmas in the mid-50's, Jan's dad made a sermon note: joy of participation! Joy of acceptance! Joy of transformation! Peace, good will to all.

That same night, a few hundred miles to the southwest, the midnight communion service on the Air Force base was ending. After the last candles were dosed, a humbler, perhaps truer, quiet ritual of Christmas Presence began. It was the determined habit of the provost marshal on that base to spend Christmas Eve and the wee hours of Christmas morning visiting those lonely airmen who walked the perimeter guard, around Nellis Air Force base. This particular night was a crisp, starlit Christmas Eve, but very cold out in the desert. Robert Redford's Desert Bloom beautifully depicts the location. The provost marshal asked the chaplain to go along. They took with them in the VW van canisters of coffee and cocoa and cookies baked by the major's wife. Through the night they drove, all around that base, a site then for nuclear testing during those early cold war years.

They visited 18 posts. At each the routine was the same. The major offered the refreshments to the men (only men then) and then shouldered the man's weapon and walked off into the desert to take the man's turn at walking the half mile along the perimeter. The provost marshal walked each man's post, while the chaplain talked to the airmen.

I had heard this story many times growing up, but I had forgotten it until this summer, when my Dad and I were talking about the North Star, a sign of promise, and our experience with the night sky.

That night was a beautiful night. The stars beckoned from horizon to horizon. And cold! You forget how cold it gets out on the desert after the sun goes down. Finally the base marshal and the chaplain came to the flight line. Well past midnight, they drove on by acres of airplanes worth millions of dollars. Jets, prop planes, all.

Along the fence, guarding these millions of dollars worth of government machinery, there stood a 19 year old airman second class. The major repeated the procedure - offering refreshment, shouldering the weapon, and walking off into the cold desert, leaving the chaplain alone with the young man.

It did not take long for the chaplain to discover that this particular 19 year old was not going to be easy to talk to. The chaplain tried everything - a joke, a question, a comment, a verse of scripture, everything he could think of to draw him out. Nothing worked. Probably the chaplain in a First Lieutenant's uniform, and being a little older, was intimidating to the boy. So, they just stood there. In the silence. In the cold. In the silent still cold. The chaplain shivered, the airman second class drank his cocoa, and there was black, dark quiet. They gazed at that remarkable sky, and shivered and sipped….

Until, at last, the boy began to talk. First a little information. Then a little more about his family. They shared some of his dreams for the future. Then a word about his mom and his dad and his younger brother and his baby sister. And there was moment of communion, I and Thou. A hand on the shoulder, a word of prayer, a moment of participation and a little acceptance, and the beginnings of transformation, out in the desert.

What a blessing that lovely starry sky, the warm beverage, the cookies, the two older men and airman second class.

Now, 45 years later, I know that what Jan's dad read in Denver is the gospel truth. I have seen it with my own eyes. The Christmas Presence changes people beginning with participation, continue into acceptance, and completing us by transforming us. Now 45 years later, I know the meaning of that Nevada story, and I know its truth. The Christmas Presence heals us, beginning with participation, continuing into acceptance, and completing us in transformation.

I just have to ask you, here in the dark: can you accept your own acceptance?

Christmas Presence (1)

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2:1-20

You may think you have heard the Christmas Gospel before. Have you? Faith comes by hearing. When you have heard, your life is changed, transformed into a part of the New Creation which is God's invasion of this dark world, in the Presence of Jesus Christ.

Listen again, with the soul alive to God. You are saved as the one story of your life is carried off into the Great Story of Christ Jesus.

a. "In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…"

Jesus is born in the midst of a great governmental count. This was the first count, not the second, not the hand recount, just a simple little census of the whole inhabited world - at least that governed by Rome.

He is conceived in one place, Nazareth, and born in another, Bethlehem. So it is with your life. Great love may be conceived in one place, only surprisingly to be born in another. Your pet project conceived at your desk? The vice-president gave it birth in the annual report, page 9. Your desire that the church have a cosmic vision, as you conceived it 30 years ago? Some youngster gives it birth two generations later, without even a footnote. Your young conception of what married life could be? At last, doddering, you see a little of it born in a grandchild's home. Great love may be conceived here in Nazareth only to be born there in Bethlehem. Let it go. We are all just traveling around a swirl of counts and recounts anyway. Life is short. Learn early to love: yourself, others, your community, your God.

b. "And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered….there was no place for them in the inn."

Have you truly, simply, connected your heart with the saving story? I do not think we have, yet.

The Christmas Presence, Jesus in mud and straw, arrives outside. Others swing easily through life, held in a golden bubble of mirth and confidence. You stand at the holiday party, unhappy and alone, on the outs. Others are the in crowd. You are outside. Others have the cocksure, rockhard certainty of religion—JESUS, WORD, SALVATION. To you it sounds vaguely sickening, and utterly false, and you are outside the religious inn. Your family hates you, because you have had the courage to cut the Gordian knot and live outside that dysfunctional mess. You are living on the dark side of the moon in your work, outside in the cold.

You are outside. Jesus is born outside. To the manger He brings his saving presence.

Have you heard the story?

Once you do, then, gradually, you will have daily and disciplined sympathy for the outside. You will tithe, not out of duty, but for the excitement of connection by giving with others who are outside. You will be in church on Sunday, not driving to watch the Buffalo Bills or driving to the Eastern View Mall to shop, not out of duty, but for the excitement of listening for the army's advance into the outside. You will keep faith by loving those closest to you, not out of duty, but for the excitement, the glow in the dark manger, that comes with love in the cold, outsider to outsider. The person next to you in the pew is just as anxious, hurting, ashamed, and fearful as you are.

Let's get with it: tithe, worship, help.

c. "And in that region there were shepherds…and an angel of the Lord appeared to them."

But, you complain, angels do not appear to me. I have never seen one either, and I do not expect to in this lifetime. You listen to this as if it were the children's time, Mr. Rogers in a clerical collar. But this is apocalypse. What other language would you suggest, though, by which to convey the splintering of time and the tearing of eternity? What other imagery would you propose to describe the wrenching birth stretch of the Invading Holy One, set upon taking back the creation, which had been stolen by sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness?

Look again at the paintings of the shepherds, given to us through the ages. Look again, for one, at El Greco, and his rendering of the bony cheeked, long limbed, fine fingered fear of the shepherds, who know enough to know enough.

Now there is Presence, a real and lasting and good and demanding Presence. The doxa kupiou, the glory of the Lord.

"Not everything can be said easily, except claims of absolute affirmation or denial. In time, most things can be said clearly, at least. And some of these things are so important that we should do everything we can to make them clear. Presence is one of those things. It is not a word that we should allow anyone to rule out of our vocabulary." (Ralph Harper, 120)

Blaise Pascal: "We never keep to the present…We anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does. Thus we never actually live, but only hope to live."

Pursue Presence this year, work out your salvation in fear and trembling, come alive. My God, every breath is a miracle! And you, each of you, has the makings of an angel, some more than others.

St. Augustine leans out a window, speaking to his mother, "There we talked together, she and I, in deep joy, and while we were talking of His Wisdom and panting for it, with all the effort of our heart we did for one instant touch it."

Alain-Fournier casts the net of another phrase over the same elusive moment, calling what they shared, "a secret understanding."

Cathy and Heathcliff, knowing each other so well, experience a "shared understanding, an emotion they could not have defined, an extraordinary sense of well-being, an almost intoxicating serenity, the certitude that the goal was in sight, and that they had nothing but happiness to look forward to."

John Wesley, more deeply insightful than we admit, weeping over and admiring his poor Methodists, of whom he said, "They are happy in God."

I saw one once, one of these Methodists happy in God. She was playing the organ, and I could see that "imperious radiance of sheer presence." It was falling from her fingers, and streaming from her cheeks, and resonating all around in sound. Why, I think some of you were there, as Marion Craighead played. The sermon that day explored Psalm 16. She said, later, "it is my favorite." And I perceive why it was her favorite, for it ends with an angel voice, "in Thy presence is fullness of joy." In thy presence is fullness of joy. In thy presence…

d. "Behold I bring you good news of a great joy, which will come to all the people."

Have we heard the Gospel? To all people. Including those who do not acclaim a born again experience. Including those who are political conservatives. Including those who come to church on Christmas and Easter only. Including those who enter the church for daycare but not for Sunday School. Including those who eat our dining center meals to save money. Including those who hear the Gospel only during the glorious singing here of Handel's Messiah. Including those who will not accept the insensitivities and injustices of any religious organization. Including poorly educated, barely employed, simple shepherds.

The church comes alive when it ceases to be religion and becomes instead the invasion of the New Creation, bursting into the world around and transforming the culture around into the good news of great joy, which shall be to all people.

The announcement was not made in the temple. The announcement was made in the field.

Thank goodness we have the 21st century, again to move toward what Bonhoeffer probingly called "religionless christianity", what Paul called "faith working through love", and what Asbury First can become - the heart and soul of this county.

e. "Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace…"

We have come full circle. On earth, peace. In the world of Caesar Augustus - and Bush and Gore, in the world of Quirinius - and Bill and Hillary, in the world of Bethlehem - and Rochester. Have we listened? In our world, fraught with endless contention and intractable difference. What it takes, finally, to bring peace on such an earth will take a whole Gospel to tell. By the way, that includes miracles unappreciated, messages unattended, parables unaccepted, instruction unlearned, and then, suddenly, a bloodstained cross, a hasty burial, and a cold tomb. This is the way of peace, down the path of unearned suffering.

Behold the Christmas Presence, hidden underneath His opposite. Birth amid death, joy amid poverty, divinity in straw and mud, angels serenading sheep, the all-powerful God embodied in a sucking infant, the universe's King made to sleep outdoors in the winter.

Have we heard the Gospel?

If so, we shall have no longer any single ordinary day, any single ordinary encounter, any single ordinary relationship, any single ordinary task, any single ordinary moment. All, by Jesus, are shot through with Presence.

As G.K. Chesterton said, "the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder."

Behold the Christmas Presence!

Sunday, November 19, 2000

Thanks Be To God

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 6:25-33

I picture you driving somewhere on Thursday. Over the river and through the woods. Pray as the windshield wipers swish and swish. Pray for real Thanksgiving. Real Thanksgiving means lifting our hearts to God.

I remember viewing the various display tables at the World Council Assembly in Vancouver, 1983. It startled me to come upon a secular organization, straight from Texas, source of so much trouble. The table offered brochures promoting a new project, "Americans united in Thanksgiving". One of ten signers, Albert Outler, a magnanimous Methodist, one of my heroes. Surely we can be thankful for people who have shown us thanksgiving in their lives. We might give thanks for big hearted people, and try to emulate them.

Hold on a minute, though. We are on shaky ground. Magnanimity is not as ubiquitous today as it was fifty years ago. Our time with it chronic ailments and post-Christian ethos dampens such spirit. We grow up more slowly and grow and grow out less gratefully than our two older generations. Big hearts are hard to find. And when found, they are too often human, frail. Thanksgiving is not finally in other people.

The windshield wiper swishes and swishes, to grandmothers' house's we go.

Were can I find real Thanksgiving? I look to the church, whose eucharist blends with the eternal liturgy of the angels. Has there ever been such a thankful splendid mix of people? Surely we may give thanks for church, our church, our consecration of work and life, our communal summary of what means most to us.

Hold on a minute, though. We are on shaky ground. If for this only we are to give thanks, we may question our need to do so. After all, notice where the church falls short. Thousands of neighbors have not come to the banquet. Our church has miles to go, yet, in worship for the 21st century, in evangelism from Park Avenue to Henrietta in modeling a dimension of racial harmony, in standing for the life and welfare of children, in teaching tithing. Many more are absent than present on Sunday, particularly color, students, the poor. And, of all those absent on a given Sunday, our overly cozy celebration can make the absence of the transcendent God the most painful absence of all. Said one Lutheran, reading the new Methodist hymnal: "They still celebrate themselves." We bring with us on Sunday a bit of the functional atheism of the week.

No matter what we build in work, in liturgy, we are on shaky ground. I sat with my friend Bill 10 years ago. He runs the Presbyterian College in Montreal. We looked out his window at what remained of a beautiful modern chapel. Built in 1960, remodeled in 1985, this chapel took years to create. Years of fund raising, committee meetings, hard decisions, color coordination, architectural design. It was finally finished in 1988, and I worshiped in it for these years. One Saturday night in October, an arsonist burned it down in two hours. There is creativity in destruction: he planned his move, turned off the alarm, set the fire and ran. But Bill, a gentle fellow, made this remark: "It is trite but true. It takes so long to build something, and no time at all to destroy it."

You know there is more than one kind of arson. The building of years and lifetimes can be creatively destroyed in a moment, with a word, out of one action. No, the secret of Thanksgiving is not in our liturgy, either. Our church, our finest common work, is too fragile for that. Here "wheat and tares are together sown, unto joy and sorrow grown." For the church, the day of the Lord can come like a thief in the night. Beware.

Swish, and swish again, the windshield wipers move, it is a gray Thanksgiving, a day of reverie.

But is there not in life itself much for which we may be thankful? Witness our material well-being, our sweaters and jewelry. Surely we are grateful for our jobs. And what fine homes we have, even the humblest in our congregation has the makings of a palace. We can at least be grateful for health, hearth, home. These have been 10 prosperous years. All is well, isn't it?

Hold on a minute. We are on shaky ground for real Thanksgiving. Life inspires both gratitude and ingratitude. Our progress has been at a fantastic social and environmental expense. The nuclear potential of the age brackets all optimism. And though you may be cozy and happy Thursday, many will not be. Many will stare blankly at T. V. with no hand to hold but their own. Others will return to the fractious family that bore them. Still others will sharply realize the loss, through death and divorce, of 2000. Of course, we can be thankful that it isn't any worse.

The wipers swish, to and fro. Swish, swish, swish! And the sun also rises.

The secret of Thanksgiving is hidden, strangely enough, back in the Scripture read. Ever since Adam, Eve and serpent held their theological seminar in the garden, yesterday, we have been putting our questions upside down. We do so now. We try to find Thanksgiving in the question "For what are we thankful?" and the answer is ambiguous, as is life itself. The Bible, telling Jesus' gospel, has it otherwise.

Not for what, but to whom are we thankful today?

Sunday, November 05, 2000

Don't Get Too Comfortable

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Micah 6:6-8

1. The Village Green Five and Dime

If you have some change in your pocket come with me for a minute. We are going into the village green five and ten cent store, to see what we can see. Don't you love this little store? For fifty years - even more - the shop has somehow survived, meeting the essential impermanent desires of the day. Here you buy pencils and notebooks for school, a scarf in the winter, a squirt gun in the spring, a yo-yo for summer, and come autumn again, something to wear at Halloween. John Wesley said his English people were "a nation of shopkeepers". So in our region, the small business, farm, store provide our backbone. The same scents and smells linger here, from so long ago: a mixture of newsprint and bubble gum and paint and perfume. The uncovered tongue and groove wooden floor creeks in the same odd places.

For so many years this store was the stage on which its owner performed. He wore a handlebar mustache, bright white hair, a stunning smile, and cackled with a child's laugh. He looked like the Wizard of Oz. Years later, when I sat next to him as a fellow Rotarian, he looked the same - the Wizard of Oz. His little world of tiny transactions, most of the purchases made by people who had to reach up to the counter, on tiptoe, somehow kept his soul lit. Of all people, I guess, he could have had the most reason to doubt his role. His customers were few and supported only by weekly allowances. The transactions involved pennies and dimes. The days were long, the hours demanding. But the sun streaming through his clean window touched most often a smiling, happy face. I can remember handing over some little coin in exchange for some little trinket. In that little sunlight, over the exchange of impermanent capital for impermanent goods, somehow, there lingered a graceful, spirited, permanence, too. Maybe that is what made the wizard so happy.

When Chris was 6 we went to buy birthday candles and a fishing pole. Chris also saw some candy. I turned to pick up the NY Times, and saw Chris reach up to the counter with his purchase. The wizard stood gleaming and ready. Then Chris took out his wallet and stared up. He fished in the little pouch, and found his coin. Then the wizard looked at Chris, and Chris looked at the wizard. The old eyes darkened with delighted understanding, and the handlebar mustache twitched and the wrinkled hand reached forward. And Chris held his ground and waited, fingering the coin, for that eternal moment that hangs between childhood and maturity. There they stood, matador and bull, boxer and champion, batter and pitcher, wizard and boy. As he had for decades, the shop owner patiently paused. At last out came the coin. The deal was struck.

I count it as one of the holy moments I have seen, as is any first experience, and especially any first experience of impermanence. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The wizard died ten years ago. His son runs the place now, a sallow faced sullen, serious, saturnine, somber, sad soul. Gone are the mustache and panache of his father. Why is he so dour, I have wondered over the years? I think I know. The son is my age. Young. He remembers those holy moments too, those experiences of entering the world, those moments when we learn about impermanence, those early exchanges over goods that are seasonal as, in fact, are all goods in this world. He remembers his dad reaching down to take the coin, to seal the deal, to shake with happiness in the sunlight streaming over all the little impermanence of life. And it makes him sad. He misses his dad. He misses his dad. And don't we all? And don't we all.

Once we begin to reckon with the impermanence of this life, so much paper and candy and seasonal needs, there comes a longing for an experience of God. There arises in the heart, a longing for an experience of God, for the lapping light of the morning to touch the cheek, for the full permanence of …grace, love, heaven…to enter our boyish life.

People come to church for an experience of God. You would be surprised to know how hard, even in the ministry, it can be to keep his truth in view. Men and women come to church, longing for an experience of divine love.

The son, the new shopkeeper, needs a church, a place where the longing of the heart can be fed, that "desire of the moth for the flame, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow." And don't we all? And don't we all.

2. A Prophetic Approach to Impermanence

The same longing we have tried to witness in the crowded aisles of the village green five and dime also pulses through the deep places of the Scripture. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Micah Ben Imlah did hunger and thirst, too. In the pain and tenderness of too much loving, he wondered how, if at all, such an experience could be his. With what shall I come before the Lord? What shall I do? Whom should I love? How should I walk?

Amid the piles and aisles of impermanent, seasonal goods, where an experience of lasting love?

A path toward the permanent, this is what Micah desires. In the uses of his resources, Micah believes, there lies hidden the potential for an opening into an experience of God. Underneath that apparently chaotic impermanence, there lies the potential for an opening into the experience of God. Micah advises us not to get too comfortable.

Do. We may learn to use our resources for the making of justice.

Love. We may come to love what cannot be seen, mercy, and then to use what can be seen, money, rather than loving what can be seen and using what cannot be seen.Walk. Because our transactions, most days, involve bills and not coins, we, unlike the shopkeeper, we are more tempted to take ourselves overly seriously.

3. Paul and Impermanence

In this same vein, the Apostle to the Gentiles teaches us again today about impermanence. Is this not a glorious and a liberating word? In treating a matter of moral discernment among the wayward Corinthians, Paul asserts the impermanence of this world. His blessed words are as strange for us as they are healthy to hear.

Paul advises us not to get too comfortable. Marriage, death, birth, work, life, all - these Paul asserts are themselves impermanent goods, seasonal items in the aisles of life's five and dime. Good, holy, important, and, at last…impermanent. Let those who buy do so as those who have no goods. Let them recall that first experience, reaching up to the counter, of impermanence. Let us treat our goods not in the form of this world, which is passing away, but in the form of the world to come.

Here is a great blessing, for those with ears to hear. Within the land of impermanence, there is the possibility of an experience of God. It is for that experience… that touch of the divine hand upon the hand of the child of God… for which goods and seasonal items and crowded aisles and everything from five and dimes to great corporations exist.

When we give, we open the possibility of experiences of God, not necessarily for ourselves directly, although that may be, but more often indirectly for others. Giving and generosity bless us because they open up the opportunity for an experience of God.

4. Impermanence Today

As stewardship Sunday approached this year, I began to pray about what to say.

A. Free Will Offering

I wanted to say something about the power and beauty of our free will system of giving and funding. You are free to give or not, to tithe or not. It is a rare and divine grace. So….

There is an anxiety about this day. This is my 23rd stewardship sermon, fall campaign and annual financial plan. Every one is an adventurous ride on the tide of generosity. We have no tax base in the church, like those which support schools. We have no product to barter, like those that support businesses. We live and die on the free choices, every fall, that raise a tide of giving. I wonder, sometimes, what would happen if we could not fund our ministry? What would happen to our efforts with children and older folks, our mission and outreach, our staff and buildings, our worship and music? Yet every year, we await the news of the tide.

In 1995, I was heading into another role, a district superintendency. I confess that one apparent minor happiness about that assignment was the prospect that there would be no pressure to raise funds every fall. I would just send out the note assigning the 20% to each church for apportionment, and wait for the checks to role in. A little ice tea, Oprah on the tube, wait for the mail to come. No need to worry. No attention to freedom for the giver. No anxiety about the amount.

You notice I didn't last very long as a DS. David Lubba said, "Come to Asbury and enjoy a great pulpit, a fine building, beautiful music, super staff, loving congregation, full mission. And, after five years, you can buy a slightly used new car." Yes, I said in a New York minute. Later I asked, "What about stewardship?" Yes, there is that…

Every fall the church waits for the tide, like surfers. We crouch along the board, out beyond the San Francisco Bay. The sun is high, the sky is blue, the air is warm, the day is fine. We feel the tide rising, and here it comes! We stand, and put our toes out on the board. We hang ten. And the tide rises, every year. Thanks to freely chosen gifts, thanks to you. Sometimes the tide is low, and we drift a little. Sometimes the tide is high, and we spin. The uncertainty that is the sign of real freedom for the giver and the gift is that warm and vivifying wind that feeds us. I wanted to talk to you about freedom in giving.

B. Developing Disciples

But then I realized it was not just free giving I wanted to address.

I wanted to celebrate the ministry of this church, its worship and education and care. This great church does so much good in the world! Here children learn of Christ, receiving Bibles from an adult class. Here the hungry are fed, and given a haircut. Here the worship of God resounds in high praise, as our radio congregation listens in. Here our mature members put young adults to shame with spiritual retreats that are real occasions of spirit. Here grown men pray at 6 A.M. Some of us are still groaning at noon. Here our frail elderly are not forgotten, but visited with a word of hope and prayer by a retired minister. Here fellowship and friendship can grow into adult classes. Here the Scripture is read and interpreted from a sturdy pulpit. Here Philippians 4:8 shines, things that are honorable, true, just, beautiful, of good report. There is a story a day to tell about Jesus Christ who inhabits, haunts and hallows this church! I wanted to talk with you about the ministry of AFUMC.

C. Faithful Saints

But then I saw that the ministry of the church alone was the heart of the matter either.

I wanted to tell about the faithful people here, who year in and year out generously, happily support the work of Christ here. One is an elderly man, gracious and loving, who learned at an early age to tithe. One is a fiercely able Trustee, who cares for the property and investments of the church, but who has a big heart for the poor in Honduras. One is a woman who has prayed mission into life, and has had the grace to live with surprising answers to prayer, answers other than what she expected. This is real stewardship! I wanted to tell the stories of holy people here today. How would I limit the list to fit the 22 minute sermon?

D. An Experience of God

But then I sensed that something more than this too was in my heart.

I wanted to speak to what you look for at church, an experience of God. People come to church for an experience of God. It is great blessing, that giving opens opportunities for experiences of God. They come in God's time and they come over time and they come to others. But giving gives the chance for such an experience.

A month ago I had a wedding here in the chancel. It was beautiful autumn day as so many have been this year. The service was wonderful. Duane played a version of "Love Divine" with bells that rounded off the service to perfection. I was proud to be here. Later, in the ready room, a woman who had attended the service asked about my family.

We talked, and I discovered that she was from the North Country, and had been raised with some difficulty by a single mother.

"Near Alexandria Bay?"
"In Alexandria Bay."

"Did you know Rev. Pennock, who was there in retirement?" (who is Jan's grandfather)?

All of sudden her face became red and her eyes filled. I wondered what I had said to upset her. This is the "joy" of the ministry - you enter a room and everyone is uncomfortable! You make small talk and women cry!

"No", she said, "you don't understand…When I was a young woman, I barely could go to college. Every semester I received a check from the Alexandria Bay Church, money that was to pay for my voice lessons…This kept me going in college, not just the money, which was significant, but more so the thought, the fact that somebody believed in me, could see me with a future, outside of my struggling family and small town, and invested in me…."

By now we were both emotional.

What does that have to do with me?

"I learned a few years ago that your wife's grandfather is the one who gave the money for those lessons! His gift formed my life!"

What are you doing today?

"I am the Director of Music for a Methodist church near Albany. The bride grew up in my youth choir. Music is my life."

Over all those years, and so many miles, across such a great existential distance, look what happened: I was given an experience of God, emotion laded and heartfelt and real and good, and even in church or at least almost, as a consequence of a gift made long ago and far away. The hidden blessing of generosity is that giving opens the world to the possibility of experiences of God. Rev. Harold Pennock is long dead. His wife Anstress is long dead. But here, after a wedding, in the late afternoon, his thoughtful kindness opened the world. I wanted to commend to you an experience of God.

E. Why Am I Here?

But then I realized there was even something more I wanted to say, more than the goodness of AFUMC, more than faithfulness of her people, more than the experience of God provided in generosity.

I wanted to speak, and that very personally, of the reason I am here.

What is lasting and good in my life has come from the church of Christ. Name and identity in baptism. Faith in confirmation. Community in eucharist. Wife and family in marriage. Work, and vocation, in ordination. Saving forgiveness in moments of pardon. Hope for heaven in the gospel of Christ.

Whatsoever has any permanence for me comes from the church.

So…I guess I would be lost in the fall without a chance to preach a Stewardship sermon. (I admit it has been 23 years since I have had the chance to be so lost!… but nevertheless.)

But I am here, really, out of a formation, long before adulthood, in the midst of people who knew that the form of this world was passing away. The superintendents who remembered to bring Christmas gifts, the Bishops who sat at the dining room table - they did so with an existential reserve, a freedom from the impermanence of this world, a joyful and sober sense that the form of this world is passing away. "Don't get too comfortable" they seemed to say in deed as well as word. They modeled an existential itinerancy that is far more important the mechanical one we know too well in which, as we say, Bishops appoint - and disappoint. The ministers who came and sang hymns in our homes, who laughed at and with each other, and who prayed for the salvation of the world - they dealt with the world as if they had no dealings with it. The people in our churches, churches supported then and now by the tithing of retired school teachers, who cared about the world and about the next generation - they knew the impermanence of the world around, and the brevity of our time here. They tithed, and so what remains of our church remains.

Those who raised us, who could have had many more the goods of this passing world, lived with an aplomb, a grace, a savoir faire that better than any sermon interpreted 1 Corinthians 7. Let those who mourn do so as if they were not mourning. The discipline of the Methodists - this is your birthright - comes from this presentiment about impermanence.

In our raising, you could have the courage to live on less, to itinerate at the direction, if not the whim, of a Bishop, to pull up stakes and make new friends, to know the hurt and the excitement of a gypsie life. How did they do this? Because they believed in their bones that what lasts is not the various goods and seasonal items of the five and dime, but the touch of the wizard's hand. That gracious experience of God that comes in and through the impermanent cacaphony of life, and is primed by giving.

I wonder if we are ready to open the world up to experiences of God?

5. An Invitation

Sometime later tonight, especially if the sky is clear and if the stars come out, I am going to walk out onto the back lawn. The moonlight glistening on the frosted hedgerows, the sound of squirrels scurrying with nuts to store, the smell of the dampened leaves, the taste of crisp autumn - the season of accountability - touching the tongue, hands clasped against the cold now beneath a gleaming North Star it is time to offer a prayer. I wonder if you would pray this with me tonight:

Dear God,

Help me to love you this coming year.

I am going to give away 10% of what I earn. I am nervous about doing it. I need your help. I want to tithe, but the coin seems to stick inside the wallet somehow. So I need your help. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2000

A Promise Before Dark

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Amos 9:11-15, 1 Corinthians 15:42-55

1. Streetlights

I meet you this morning, wandering along the meadow of the heart, walking closely in the village green of the soul. We must clearly identify, this morning, where we stand. I stand with you, speaking out of hope, standing in hope, dressed in hope. The preacher, apparently isolated behind a pulpit and robed in centuries of tradition, can stand in many places: in fear, in longing, in hunger, in happiness, in doubt. It is important today that we identify our meeting place. I am speaking out of a great hope today.

Sunday lets us pause and kick through the park leaves under foot. In the tolling of the Baptist bells, we hear the promise of words that have meaning (9/10). In the space of the green, we see the promise of God's capacious grace (9/17). In the little library to the left, we thumb through the promise of justice (9/24). In the depression era post office to the right, we read the promise of truth (10/15). In the humble Methodist church, we leaf through the altar Bible, with its promises of love and freedom (10/22). In Jesus Christ it is always Yes! All the promises of God find their Yes in Him!

Now the night is falling on our simple English commons, our Yankee green. The day is far spent and night is at hand. You remember that we have been told to come home before dark. This is the rule in our town, that at the end of the day, we go home. We tarry here, along the soul's village green, the green pastures of salvation, where the soul is restored, we tarry that is for a time, but we all are going home, come nightfall. We are free to love, and how we love freedom, but at last the twilight falls. On some hidden cue, right at dusk, all of the streetlights along the green are illumined. Six hours shalt thou play, but the seventh is a Sabbath unto the home, and thou shalt go home, when thou dost see the streetlights come on.

Is there a lasting promise that we may take with us, a promise before dark, that we may hold in our hearts as the leaves rustle underfoot, and as the streetlights brighten, and as we turn the last corner home? And is not our response to this one question, perhaps, the single most profound response we can give to anything or anyone? Have we hope for the future, hope for heaven, hope for life today?

2. A New Creation (Apocalypse): Amos Amended

A few weeks ago I went for three days to Dallas for an annual meeting. We stayed in the Fort Worth Texas Radisson. It happens that this is the hotel that President and Mrs. Kennedy stayed in the last night of his life, November 21-22, 1963. Our host pastor, had been at the same hotel early that morning. His dad took him to shake the President's hand as they left for that fateful automobile ride. Because they arrived at 6 A. M. and stood along the rope for hours, his was one of the hands touched. That night Kennedy gave his last speech. There are pictures on the wall from that evening, Jack and Jackie and others.

One of the ministers said, looking back to this date, and his own life at age 19 when the news came: "I remember the deep anguish and pain I felt over this tragic loss. It was probably the first time I began to ask God "Why? Why do such tragedies happen in this world? Why do promising Presidents get assassinated? Why do children die of cancer?" Perhaps that event was such a quickening event for you too.

The prophet Amos asserted that for Israel, too, the day would arrive when the chickens would come home to roost. His prophecy proved as accurate as it was chilling. In fact, the prophecy of Amos ends without any word of redemption at all: "I will set my eyes upon them for evil and not for good." But when the Bible was assembled, and this could have been during the time of the Babylonian captivity, a later writer added the words we heard this morning: "The days are coming…when the mountains shall drip sweet wine and the hills shall flow with it…I shall restore the fortunes of my people…"

This is the kind of promise that Israel associated with the Messiah. It comes from the time that the prophetic hope was modulating into apocalyptic expectation, a time much later than that of Amos himself. From this time, as Christian people, we continue to inherit a sense of hope and expectation that one day, one fine day, the earth will be full of the glory of God as the water covers the sea. Like Moses, we may not see it in our lifetime. Like Amos, we may not even print such an expectation in our personal prophecies. Like Jesus, we may look in vain for the fulfillment of this hope, this expectation, in our own time. Still, he has taught us to pray: "Thy kingdom come on earth." It is that prayer that lies at the heart of the appendix to Amos, read earlier. Thy kingdom come, for nations who lose promising leaders. They kingdom come, for families torn apart and put back together. Thy kingdom come, for communities uneasy about an uncertain economy. Thy kingdom come, for those hungering and thirsting and lonely and lost. Thy kingdom come, on earth, as already it is in heaven.

There is a horizon of hope that opens out in the voices of the prophets, that is not silenced but only amplified by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These promises, for the earth we know, seem so unlikely, so distant, so frail. Yet here they are. The lion will lie down with the lamb. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain. God will wipe away every tear from their eye.

For all our stumbling here in the foothills of life, we dare not ignore the great peaks of expectation, which more than we know give us our identity.

Heaven is out there, coming toward us from the completion of history.

So, with Paul Tillich we can have the courage to be, and with John Kennedy we can find profiles in courage, and with Parker Palmer we can muster the courage to teach, and with Albert Camus we can develop the courage to travel.

3. A Resurrection Body (Gnosis): Paul Attended

As G. Bernanos reminds us, the greatest sin is the denial of hope. While it is true that where there is life, there is hope, it is truer still that where there is hope there is life. Today we receive a word of hope, and a look to the future. Hope that is seen is not hope. Who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

As Paul completes his letter to the wayward Corinthians, he offers us again his account of resurrection, the resurrection, precisely, of the dead. We notice that Paul minces no words as he acknowledges our death. We perish. That perishing, as Madame Bovary discovered, can be difficult, even ignoble. We lose a physical body, or are planted as physical bodies. We are dust, and to dust we return. Says Paul: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.

For Paul, as for the earliest church in general, this great hope was expressed in the religious garb of his day, the language and imagery of apocalyptic.

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Hardly a single week passes in this church without the report that someone has "fallen asleep". Every such communication carries a weight, often as unbearable as it is unspeakable of grief. In the midst of life we are in death. As Paul said of himself, "We are perishing every hour".

Here blunt and terse, realistic and brief, the gospel summons is heard - A mystery, after all - is all we take with us before dark. Either we hold this promise, or we have nothing whatsoever at all. All the promises of God concludes in this Promise Before Dark. Love outlasts death. Earthly struggle bears a lasting heavenly meaning. Patent tragedy and injustice are part of a larger, longer, latent, loving story. Sin does not have the last word. So it is with the resurrection of the dead.

All that I have seen and known has given me ample cause to trust God for all I cannot see and do not know. Who are we to question God's resurrection it is rather the resurrection that questions us. This is our hope.

4. A Current Reality (Presence): Church

The promise of Christ also rests upon us in this present life and nourishes us with a glorious hope, long before the mountains drip with wine, and well apart from the mystery of resurrection and imperishability and immortality. Amos's uninvited editor looked out toward a day of heavenly earth. Toward this same far-off horizon we also walk. Paul's rhapsodic resurrection poem looks up toward a place of earthly heaven. Beneath it's same apocalyptic longing we also live. How thrilling our common life could become if we were perpetually infused with such hope, if every step trod toward heaven on earth and every breath awaited a location in Heaven! As those baptized in Christ, we have the least to fear and the most to desire. In Baptism we have already died. So we walk in newness of life, looking out and looking up. The mountains will drip with wine. One day. What is perishable will become imperishable, one day. Especially on those dark paths in history and especially as night falls for every one of us, such a hope shall guide us.

The confidence of Christ in his people testifies in the affirmative. There is a present hope of the Holy Spirit that lives just as truly as the future hope for the creation and the higher longing for redemption, the resurrection of the body. St. John (to him finally we must turn) said, "This is eternal life: to know Jesus Christ." Look out and look up, but look here too! Every so often, we have a radiant glimpse of the completion of time and space. Every worship hour can become such a radiant glimpse, as can a fellowship meeting, a word of service, a spiritual retreat, a joyful birthday, an hour of deliberation. Enough hours come along to keep us going.

But what about today? What about the ordinary, less than glorious, simple hours of yesterday and today and tomorrow? Is there "Heaven in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wild flower"?

5. A Friend's Story

Emory Purcell writes, "When I was a child, there were often missionaries or evangelists staying with us. One I remember most fondly was Mary Schlosser. About fifty years of age then, she had been a missionary in China for many years.

All of us have heard stories of how missionaries forced native people to give up their culture and become westerners; how missionaries were tools of capitalistic colonialism. Some were indeed. But not Mary Schlosser. All she talked about were, not her converts, but the boys and girls in her school in China: how bright and eager and loving they were. She had high hopes for each of them and had arranged for some of them to go abroad to prestigious universities to study. She knew that one day they were going to make significant contributions to their people.

Now, you never read about Mary Schlosser in Time. As a young woman she had had a promising career ahead of her. The call to China persuaded her to pour out her life there. After I knew her, Mary Schlosser spent many years in a communist prison camp in China and died shortly after her release.

I did read about Mary Schlosser a few years ago. A group of dissident students from China had been interviewed by a religious news editor. They talked about the missionaries who had taught their parents at a school in Kaifung. Among the names remembered were Clara Leffingwell and Mary Schlosser.

I have a sense that Mary Schlosser's resurrected life is only beginning. It is love, finally, that surpasses money and power; and overcomes tragedy. Mary Schlosser poured out her life in love for her boys and girls. Through her love, broken as it was, God's love poured through more and more to life down through the generations.

The thing I remember about Mary Schlosser is her radiance. Was she happy? I don't know. It is, in fact, an irrelevant question. Mary was radiant. In her enthusiasm and in the greatness of her soul, the sun shown on us. This is our hope.

Rudyard Kipling was once addressing students at McGill University in Montreal. The lure of having things and even the power of success all sound so good if you listen quick. Yet, powerful successful egotism is the ultimate failure. Kipling said:

Someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.

Over the years I have been privileged to know many people who are rich the way Mary Schosser was rich. Sunday school and public school teachers - parents and young people - bosses and workers. People who have poured out their lives in love so that God's love can bring life.

I want to suggest that is what has actually made America great: not all the things we have to be happy; but, rather, the generous people who pick up the cross of human need-people whose radiant lives testify to life beyond the cross."

6. Dark and Deep

Let us look out to the future, trusting the promise of hope.

Let us look up to the resurrection, trusting the promise of hope.

Let us look here and, trusting the promise of hope.

So, like the old county doctor, alone in the dark, we may trust whose earth this is, whose house awaits us in another village, whose promise it is we are to keep.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Sunday, October 22, 2000

A Promise of Freedom and Love

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 9:9-13

A Village Church

Down deeper than usually we want to swim in the dark pool of the subconscious and the soul there are saving longings for grace, rising up and taking ownership of the visible world. Imagine an ample village green. Church bells chime. Children enter a library. With cane in hand, a woman deposits a letter at the Post Office. We wander in the meadow, the commons, the gracious space of freedom and love, and now pause to knock at the humble door of a Methodist Church. No one is inside. We are alone before the simple altar and pulpit, and in sight of a stained glass window of Jesus, knocking, knocking, knocking with lantern in hand, knocking at the door of the soul. Below him there lies open a Bible, like the one on our altar, and like the ones we present today.

What is the Bible about? It is a question children and adults can both ask. The Bible is a pond shallow enough for toddlers to wade in, and deep enough to drown an elephant. What is the Bible about?

A Promise of Freedom: Hosea

In the first place, the Bible is a book about freedom, or better, a library of books about freedom, divine and human. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. It is freedom that is born, with heartache, in the Garden of Eden. It is freedom that is restored, with blessing, in the covenant with Abraham. It is freedom that is promised, through famine, to the brothers of Joseph. It is freedom that lies across the Red Sea, as Israel flees Pharaoh. Deborah sings a song of freedom! It is freedom that Moses glimpses, as he dies, sitting atop Mt. Nebo. It is freedom that Samuel desires, and Saul denigrates, and David defends, and Solomon defines.

It is freedom that Israel loses, when she ignores the prophets, and freedom that is resurrected by Cyrus who frees Israel from Babylon. It is freedom to worship the One God, with whom Jacob wrestled as Israel (one who wrestles with God), for which the Temple was restored. And it is freedom that Israel awaited as Israel awaited Messiah. In the first place, the Bible is a book about freedom. So when the Bible is used in ways that increase slavery and decrease freedom, beware. In those cases, even in our time, the teaching about the Bible is unbiblical.

John Wesley used the Bible to free coal miners from poverty. Abraham Lincoln used the Bible to free African Americans from slavery. Walter Rauschenbush used the Bible to free immigrants from destitution. Georgia Harkness used the Bible to free women from narrowed roles. Martin Luther King used the Bible to free blacks from segregation. Today many read in Galatians a further freedom of homosexuals from exclusion, and a further freedom of the pre-born from extinction.

Still, the freedom in the Bible comes with a high price, a heavy cost. For all the plaudits great leaders receive, freedom breaks out, one by one, heart by heart. So Hosea, heartsick over his lost love, imagined a similar divine grace, and roared: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings."

The prophets recall for us the divine desire that all, all might be included in the great open space of covenant love. It is this great promise of freedom that opens and closes the Bible, and that empowers men and women to get up in the morning and to face insurmountable odds, and unwinnable battles, and lost causes. Some causes are worth fighting for even though the outcome is foredoomed.

Here is a poem written by a man of color, remembering his youth and his father. One of our church members gave it to me last spring:

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Then with cracked hands that ached
From labor in the weekday weather made
Banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
And slowly I would rise and dress
Fearing the chronic angers of that house

, Speaking indifferently to him,
Who had driven out the cold
And polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?

(Robert Hayden)

Sundays are about setting children free by stoking the fires of freedom and polishing the shoes of liberty.

A Promise of Love: Matthew

In the second place, the Bible is a book about love, or better, a library of books about love, divine and human. God is freeing us into freedom and loving us into love. It is love that Jesus teaches as the measure of all activity. "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." It is love that Paul names as the presence of God in Christ to him. "The life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me." It is love that John commends as our only experience of God. "Beloved let us love one another for love is of God and one who loves is born of God and knows God for God is Love."

Matthew takes up the line from Hosea, placing on the lips of Jesus a great Greek verb, "thelo". We are told: go and learn what this means. A clue is given that Jesus has given the old verse a new spin. And indeed, in Matthew's hands, he has. Here is the meaning of this word, thelo: I desire, I delight in, I enjoy, I crave, I hunger for, I long for….Love is something we receive before it becomes the freedom we achieve.

Love is the power that operates to keep us whole when life splinters us into fragments. God is love at work to encourage us through illness. God is love at work to befriend us in loneliness. God is love at work to maintain us in sorrow. God is love at work to restore us from hate. God is love at work to forgive us our sin. We know love in retrospect.

I remember sitting in church one summer many years ago. The church was Trinity Church in Auburn, then and now an old, worn out building, supported, then and now, by an aged congregation. The choir consisted of three sopranos and one alto, singing "In the Garden." It was a hot August day. The sermon, in retrospect, in form and content was awful. Like the peace of God, it passed all understanding and endured forever. Yet, I hold that sermon, that lifeless malformed misfire of a rhetorical blemish, to have been the saving word of God. It was about forgiveness. That is all I remember. I doubt I knew, entering the worn out sanctuary, how much I needed such a word. If the word depended upon the skill of the servant of the word, I would have heard nothing. But God speaks God's word, and God can use a dead dog to speak if God so chooses. I suppose I am not the only 20 year old ever to have needed forgiveness. Perhaps you know another. Perhaps you are another. If so, may God's love be at work in your heart to mend you, for God is a pardoning God (Wesley).

And pardon is God's work. God does not need us to do God's work of pardoning love. Here is how John Milton put it, as he sat, the greatest of poets, blind and immobilized at his life's end:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide.

"Doth God exact day labor light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Sundays are about fixing forgiving love in the hearts of children and adults, and so giving real sight to the blind.

An Invitation

As our Bibles are presented today, let us dust them off, scrub them clean, read them closely, and peruse them under the bifocal promise of freedom and love.

Sunday, October 15, 2000

A Grain of Truth

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Amos 7:7-17, Galatians 2:1-5

Post Office

Picture for a moment the outline of a simple village green. To the left there stands a church, its bells ringing again with a Sunday invitation, a call to the living to hear something of the meaning of life: in your soul those bells ring too.To the right, a library stands in tribute to the power of words: your soul hungers for a word fitly spoken. Across the expanse green there is space, gracious space: in the soul's back reaches there opens out such a free, loving meadow too.If you turn - well you can turn any direction you want, after all, this is your imagination at work, not mine - you spy adepression era Post Office, once upon a time the communications center of village life: man does not live by bread alone,murmurs the soul.

They leave the Post Office open over the weekend, now, so that if you need stamps or post cards you can buy them. You takethem and leave the money in a little brown box marked "money". Isn't that a great way to mark a money box? "Money".The soul delights in such a pre-millennial simplicity, dating from the days when we did know what words meant (words like"is", "sex", "justice", "welcome"). We have a few little examples left in church. We call the collection plates thecollection plates, not "giving opportunity baskets". We call pledge Sunday, "pledge Sunday", not "community enhancementday". We call tithing, tithing, not "proportional dedication practice". Like the old village post office, and like yoursoul, the church has not yet ascended to the Olympian heights of post - Christian newspeak.

In the early 1960's we received mail the old way, without a computer. This, as I recall, included envelopes sealed withtongues and kisses, stamps selected for collector value, handwritten addresses, posted post haste or no haste and you couldtell the difference, sometimes, later, perfume scents and hints, and a return address. Every autumn, without fail, therecame a birthday card, with a Rochester return address, spelled out in laborious print: 30 Lilac Drive. The post officepromised and delivered, as does the spirit of love and freedom even today. Within the envelope there rode a birthday checkmade out to the number of years for that year's celebration. I realized that if I lived long enough I would be a rich man.That is still true. My aunt's consistent, dependable, regular, loving communication arrived on the village green everyautumn. Preaching is the communication of truth through personality. The church is the community of truth. The gospel istruth. As Karl Barth said, the minister is a mailman. Deliva de letta de soona de betta. May our souls receive anepistle of truth every now and then, sealed with a kiss. For though we are living in the Age of Deception, there is aself-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe.

Plumb Line

Truth hurts. That is how we know it is the truth. Humorously my dear son Ben recalls his first summer in Rochester. Wehad heard that Wegmans hired all the teenagers here, and sent them to college for free. So we sent Ben off for indenturedservitude, a bicycle ride away. He spent the summer parking carts, bagging melons, registering purchases. One day BobDimarco took Ben aside. Bob is the assistant manager in the store. "Ben, do you see the line of sixteen registers?"Yes Bob. "Do you see how straight the line is?" Yes Bob. "Do you see how the workers are all dressed with their tiesstraight?" Yes Bob. "Do you see how their aprons are all clean and tied at the back in a bow knot?" Yes Bob. "Do yousee how they all work in rhythm, efficiently and happily". Yes Bob. Then Bob paused for effect, and Ben paused intelling for fuller effect, and I pause for fuller effect still. He said: "I don't see that in you Ben!"

My friend says only your boss and spouse will tell you the truth. Once upon a village green he might have included yourpreacher. Real religion, for Amos and Paul and you, is never very far from truth. Amos was called to heel by the courtprophet Amaziah, who decried Amos' criticism of Israel:

Amos you country bumpkin. You unlearned, unpatriotic, unpolished hooligan. You embarrassment to God and man both. Howdare you assert such harsh negativity about religious and political leaders? Who died and left you boss? If you are sosmart why are you not rich? No longer tell us about defeat coming, about the king dying, about exile around the corner,about sons and daughters slaughtered, about unclean graves to sleep in, about trouble.

But Amos took a plumb line, the builder's measure of truth, and said only this: "Thus says the Lord: I am setting a plumbline in the midst of my people". The body, they may kill. God's truth abideth still. The devil, Belial, is the fatherof lies.

May we notice that Amos predicts a return to slavery. The Bible is about God's promise of freedom, and our perennialpenchant for rechaining ourselves. The ultimate outcome of falsehood, though it takes a generation to emerge, is slavery.

I set a plumb line in their midst. What is plumb, what is true, will last, and what is not, will not.

Gospel Truth

I have an old friend, now blind and ornery at 97, who said very little about religion in the years I knew him. He builthouses for a living, beautiful homes. In his evenings he bought church campgrounds, built chapels, prepared SundaySchool lessons, served on umpteen church committees. He had a gift for building the infrastructure to support communitylife. He built living rooms, as he said, "so that when the boy comes to pick up his date they have someplace nice to sit."He built sanctuaries that, as he said, "spelled church when you walked in". He built secular and religious summer campsfor kids who, as he said, "came from nothing like I did." Rarely did I hear him speak about his faith. Only twice, inall those years of faithfulness, do I remember him to lift out a spiritual comment. These are people you like to listento when they talk about truth. You listen when they occasionally speak. Once he said, during one of the seasonal religiousfundamentalist monsoons to which our denomination seems particularly prone, "I know the Bible is important, but I thinksome people read it wrong." That is another sermon. Another time he said, "You know, for some reason telling the truthfor some people is a long day of real hard work." That is this sermon. Truth eludes us if we are not vigilant anddiligent.

After laboring alone for 14 years, Paul of Tarsus went to Jerusalem for what we now call the Jerusalem Council. Some 20years after the cross and resurrection of Christ, Paul the apostle to the non-Jews went to confer with the mother church,Peter and James and all. How paltry are the little comments read earlier! What we would give now to know what happenedin the city of Jerusalem about 48 AD, as the varieties of earliest Christianity met together, Jew and Greek, male andfemale, slave and free, Paul and Peter. Luke in the book of Acts presents later an entirely sanitized version of thestory, perhaps holding no more information than we heard earlier this morning. In fact, though Paul clearly says in ourpassage this morning that Titus, a Greek, was not required to be circumcised, Luke in Acts 15, in order to cover over theearlier conflict, circumcises dear Titus. Literarily not actually. Paul fought "those of repute in Jerusalem". He foughtPeter in Antioch. He fought his Galatian competitor teachers in this letter. What for? I repeat that we are in the birthcanal of our faith with this letter that birth like all births, occurring with violence. What is all the shouting about?Says Paul, "That the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you." Such a stark phrase, "the truth of the gospel".Such an uncompromising phrase, "the truth of the gospel". Such a plumb line of a phrase, "the truth of the gospel".Paul composes a whole letter in which the content of Jesus Christ is the revelation of truth.

Do you find it humbling to recall how often the Christian church has turned a deaf ear to truth, to Amos and to Paul? Ourdaughter's first college play was about Galileo, forced to recant what was true. Or think of Martin Luther's friends,saying, in effect, "Yes, it is so, but could you not become a little more accommodating, a little more collegial, a littlemore pacific?" What of the Scopes trial, a humble teacher browbeaten over an expression of truth, attacked with, of allthings, the Bible? Even in the church, especially for the church, the truth takes time to emerge. But the truth willout. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth that is loose in the universe.

Truth vs. Order Today

What good news this is for us! For seven decades, religion and truth were muzzled in the Soviet Union. Yet AlexanderSolzenitsyn and others practiced religion and bore witness to truth. Before glasnost and perestroika, he wrote, "the worlddemands of us a spiritual blaze and a constant vigilance in defense of truth." You may fear that wayward regimes neverdie. They do. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe.

In the same period, Czheckoslovakia wallowed in the dungeon of untruth. But Vaclav Havel, 40 years a dissident, 30 yearsa playwrite, 20 years an activist, and 10 years in prison, practiced his agnosticism and spoke the truth. Today the poetis the freely elected President of a free land! You may fear falsehood empowered never falls. Fear not. There is aself-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe.

For almost 500 years, Protestants have shrugged with dismay at the untruths within Roman Catholicism (the celibacy of thepriesthood, the sacrifice of the mass, the infallibility of the Pope, and the sub-ordination of women. Will truth everagain connect us to our Roman sisters and brothers? Now along comes Garry Wills, a Roman Catholic historian, haswritten a book this year called Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit. He argues that while Medieval popes succumbed to thesin of avarice, modern popes have been overcome by deceit. Untruth! About what? The celibacy of the priesthood, thesacrifice of the mass, the infallibility of the Pope, the subordination of women. You may fear that religious authorityis unaccountable. Fear not. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe.

Of course, the comfortable way to read his book as a Methodist is to acclaim the criticisms of Rome that we pridefulProtestants have long known. The less comfortable way is to realize that his argument fits us too, by extension. There aresome things we just have a hard time saying to one another, in our denomination. You make your list, and send it to methis week. You may fear that our church has preferred order to truth, with regard to persons of homosexual orientation,and that our reluctance to recommend has spilled over into an unwillingness to accept. You may fear that the masculinist,conservative, interest in order and old morality may ever prevail. Fear not. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth,loose in the universe.

Or on the other hand, you may fear that our church has preferred liberty to life, with regard to the issue of choice.Perhaps you affirm our Book of Discipline and its protection of the mother's freedom, and yet you also recognize other,lingering, haunting features of veracity - the fate of the pre-born, the condition of the culture, the role of the father.And you may fear that the feminist, liberal interest in ideology and power may ever prevail. Fear not. There is aself-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe.

And what of our country? Chris read to me from the Federalist Papers the other night, that wise and promising set ofdocuments outlining a government meant to avoid both the dangers of King George and the dangers of the French Revolution.James Madison had an ear for truth. Do we? Perhaps you wonder, "Do we care anymore whether our chief executive lies tous? What kind of accountability can there be when the power of high office is used mendaciously, and then not called toaccount? In August of 1998, the military might of the United States of America was used to bomb two spots, one inAfghanistan and one in the Sudan. We were fighting terrorism with those bombs, remember? We killed two camels and burneddown a pharmacy. We never heard if anyone died. Oh, did I mention that those bombs were dropped during the week of Mr.Clinton's further false testimony about his earlier false testimony? Do we care whether we are lied to? Do we carewhether unsuspecting Muslims die to further the project of such a lie? Who have we become?" But look! I submit thatthe politics of this autumn, from all sides, has taken a much more serious look at truth. Fear not. There is aself-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe.

London Broil

This pulpit was constructed out of a respect for truth. For a long time, I thought that the many best and brightestministers who have left for other vocations, did so to have more free time, more money, more status. Now I wonderwhether our capacity to tell the truth, or our lack of truth telling has frightened away those bright and sensitive soulswho might well have weathered all the regular indignities of ministry, but for whom a truthless time proved too much.I need fear. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe, that over time again will fill ourpulpits.

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, we have voices of courage and truth to inspire us. Let us affirm those who, at cost tothemselves, lovingly and consistently tell the truth. You will know them by their manner of discourse, as well as theirsubstance. The envelope counts too, with its return address, and perfumed scent, and sealing with tongue and kiss.From Hyannisport to Oakland and back, the voices have been there.

In Hyannisport, beneath the North Star at night, you can see the park and monument devoted to Jack Kennedy. There withscores of sailboats bobbing at their slips, a short little line is chiseled in the stone:

I believe that America should set sail and not merely lie still in the harbor.

Across the country by the San Francisco Bay, on the Oakland side, and again beneath the North Star at night, you can seethe park and monument devoted to Jack London. There with scores of boats bobbing at their slips, a little longer line isframed under his statue:

I would rather be ashes than dust
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
Than it should be stifled to dry rot
I would rather be a superb meteor
Every atom of me in magnificent glow
Than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them
I shall use my time.

Jack London, 1876-1916

For here is our grain of truth: born in a manger, raised in the outback, matured in a carpenters' home, who preached and taught and healed, who wrote nothing and said everything, and who suffered so that in our suffering we might be loved,and who died, so that in our dying we might be saved.

Sunday, September 24, 2000

Can Promise Emerge from a Land of Plenty?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Amos 5:21-25, Romans 2:12-16

A Look into the Library

I wonder: is our 'God' too small? Have we fully appreciated the divine compassion for the needy, God's protective preference for the poor?

Walk for a moment back to the heart of life, that for which your soul yearns. A church bell rings. A village green beckons.Across the street you can see a library, an old house converted to stacks of books. Today the library hums with the quietconversation of the saints their watch keeping, to hear the night of weeping become the morn of song. Today we return booksthat are overdue, with the current fine of 8 cents per day per book. 40 years ago, in this town, the chief civicfundraiser, which built a hospital and a ballpark and too, this little library, was an annual book sale. Every autumn, onone October day when the weather was still warm, the school let out at noon, the businesses closed at noon, and the townswarmed to the library and adjacent lots and buildings to buy each other's books. I see The Hobbit, Harriet the Spy, TomSawyer, A Wrinkle in Time. The adults bought each other's dog-eared volumes, and skimmed along reading by way of eachother's underlined paragraphs. Someone else had cut the trail. Why not follow?

In the library, out in the center of the room, you can see a large dictionary on a revolving stand. Let's walk over, andpick up the magnifying glass, and browse for a minute. (Glasses?) Is…Sex…Juniper, junk, Jupiter…ah, JUSTICE: "the principleof moral rightness, equity".

The Prophet Remembers the Poor

Our spiritual library, a collection of 66 volumes, is the Bible. And in the older room, back in the second stack, justaround the corner from Law, we find a collection of prophets, starting in 750 BC with Amos.

Amos was an unlearned shepherd boy from Tekoa, a small town in the north. I wonder if Tekoa had a library, and I wonder ifAmos was a regular there. Maybe. Amos looked at the plenty of his people, and found it a mile wide and an inch deep. Hewas gardener, specializing in the trimming of Sycamore trees, and of course he had his sheep. He had time to think. Iwonder what he would think of our last decade: a tripled stock market, a booming economy, new internet commerce, expandingportfolios. I wonder what he would thing of our last decade: curiosities about worship modes, tunes for singing,alternative settings.

At a party last spring we met a couple who have a daughter and son-in-law in California. The parents cannot fathom their children! The young couple are dual professionals in San Francisco, frenetically busy and successfully prosperous.Their net worth already - and they are not yet 30 - is more than $1M. But they are anxious to retire soon, and they feelcompetitively and comparatively poor, when they measure against their coworkers. Somehow they sense that they are missingthe bus. What is it that truly gnaws at them? Is it concern for security? Or is, down in the caverns of the soul,rather the sense of broken promises, sleeping at the bottom of our opulent rivers of life?

Jon Voight wakes up sweating at the end of Deliverance, because he sees a hand emerging from underwater. The hand ofpromise, promise broken past and promise kept future, is going to emerge, sometime, in our history.

To a similarly opulent and religious people Amos, alone, hearing God's word spoke God's word:

I set a plumb line in their midst. What is plumb, what is true, will last, and what is not, will not.

Take away from me the noise of your church music
To the melody of your instruments I will not listen
But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness as an ever flowing stream

Intimacy with the God of Amos and Jesus is not to be established or maintained through hymnody, a word hard for a singingMethodist like me to hear. There is chumminess, a coziness to our God talk and song that ignores God's sovereignty, andGod's claim on human obedience. In age of flat religion, churches without sanctuaries, worship spaces without height -just here is Amos with a high word, justice.

After all, God had established a covenant. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David. For the people of faith, life may have meaning as it is an expression of the emerging promise, the will of God, especially tested by the way a people treats those whoare voiceless, shoeless, clueless. The unnoticed. We become so caught up in our own life project that we risk forgettingthe least, the last, the lost. Until, at last, we are brought up short. There is a day reserved for the bringing upshort of those long on religion and plenty - me and you. Are we living in hope that the Day of God, the day of justice, the day of righteousness will come to an end so that cheating and exploitation can resume (Heschel)? Is this what lurksbehind our current openness - listen to the autumn's political debates - to gambling, to building local economies 90 minutes east and 90 minutes west, on games of chance and the fecklessness of our citizenry? I thought I read something in our Book of Discipline about the corrupting influence of gambling. The divine delight arises from justice. Thedivine desire is prior to whatever may currently have become legal. What is legal is not simply and only what is rightand just.

Paul Promises the Reliability of Conscience

In Jesus Christ, according to the Apostle Paul, we are given a lasting, everflowing stream of connection to the divinejustice. This is good news, though sometimes it may not feel so. Paul names the invasion of Christ, just here, with the word conscience. He asserts that we all have a conscience, religious and unreligious both. And he makes hisassertion "according to my good news". It is the same voice, inner voice, intimate inner voice, on which the prophet Amos relied, to which Paul directs us today. This, for Paul, is the best of good news. The voice of the prophet, nowagain then again, emerges in the promise of Jesus Christ, an ever flowing stream.

Perhaps conscience is relegated to the back pew, to the periphery, to the subway walls and tenement halls, to the still listening young. Still, conscience lives.

A while ago, I asked a college junior, one of my best students, what he was doing after graduation. He thought for awhile and then said, " I would like to volunteer for a year, but my parents want me to get a job or study more." I listened and nodded and thought: Go Parents. Yes: job, study. One for our side. Driving home, though, like Amos amongthe sycamores and sheep, I had a little forced time to think. As I thought, I became truly ashamed. Paul described the life of the conscience, and my student voiced his conscience. I want to volunteer. I want to give to others. I want toseek the right. I want to work for justice. I want promise to emerge in this land of plenty and I feel the promise of God on my still open, young heart. Yes, I had implied with a wink and a nod, sure. But let's face it. Your parents areright.

Are they? Are we? Was I?

The voice of prophetic promise lives, but it is muted, left on the sidelines, given over to the young, ignored.

Paul of Tarsus, Paul of the letter to Philemon, Paul of Romans 13, Paul of the ongoing collection for the poor, Paul ofRomans 14 and the strong and weak - the Apostle asserts the ever flowing righteousness embedded in your conscience. You have a conscience both to accuse and to excuse, and so do I. Is this good news? "Disturbance of the soul, restlessmurmuring, cavil, and protest: such may be signposts to the peace of God which passes all understanding."(Barth). God sets upon us all the same just expectation and the same emerging promise. Just consult your conscience. Let yourconscience be your guide.

The Promise of Justice Today

One looks back over the past lucrative decade in this, the land of the free and the home of the brave, and one wonders.

What if, along this opulent river, our mantra had been not "economy, stupid" but "theonomy, dear". Not the law of thehousehold but the divine law?

What if, over ten years, our nation had been harnessed to the explosive dream of liberty and justice, for all?

What if our personal lives, across America, had been forged like steel in a white heat of compunction, reverence,self-discipline, frugality and generosity?

What if, in this ten year season of gain (a tripled stock market, a world-wide webbed economy, and rocketing portfoliosall around), we had been led by a vision of a great dream, of justice and liberty, for all?

We get the leadership we deserve. But what if we had seen the river of wealth across this land as a great surge towardjustice?

What if, in this smooth season, the harsh voice of Amos had been heard?

What if we had not settled, this last decade, for liberty and charity for all?

What if, in our time of ease, we had affirmed demanding leaders, strongly compassionate leaders, of the stature ofWashington and Lincoln and Roosevelt? If Roosevelt made a river in the desert of the '30's, what would he have been able to do with the 90's? If Lincoln brought the waters of union in the dust of the civil war, what could he have donewith the complacent opulence of the 90's? If Washington could forge a nation in the cold ice of Valley Forge, what could he have done with the sunny, steaming fantastic wealth of Silicon Valley?

A great watershed of prosperity has cascaded down upon this country. I recognize that not all of us have been drenched.For some it has been a sprinkle in time. But what as a nation have we made of it?

At the time of our greatest success and excess, we have frittered away precious time and precious money on personalpleasure, and our leaders, in high office and elsewhere, have cut the trail.

What if we had not studied the dictionary definitions of "is" and "sex", our focus so present tense and so personallypleasurable, and instead had looked into the J column, standing in the poor library of our heart of hearts, and grappled with mishpat and dikaiosune, justice and righteousness?

We forget the 10% of our people who have been left behind, at the very time when our resources could have allowed usstunningly to defeat poverty.

In southern Madison County today there are very few dentists because there are very few teeth.

In our weaker schools, there are very few excellent teachers because there are very few ordered, safe, disciplined,respectful classes.

In our pulpits, there are very few true voices, because in our pews we are sated with comfort, and no longer hunger andthirst for misphat, dikaiosune, justice.

Promise can emerge in a land of plenty, when none are left behind, no not one.

This August, I backed out of the driveway and nearly hit a finely dressed, six foot, gray haired, distinguishedgentleman. He carried a nice brown sweater, carefully folded over his arm. He had no idea where he was, lost in the forest of Alzheimer's disease, sure his wife was just around the corner, though he had been walking alone for threehours.

Promise can emerge in plenty, when justice prevails.

Suppose, for a moment, we had all the best qualities of our presidential candidates and none of their weaknesses. Nader'sutopian idealism, without any tendency to anarchy. Gore's sincere populism, without the repugnant mendacity, the moral relativism of his boss. Bush's lone star and high hat optimism, without regressive tax policy. Buchanan's openness tolife, without the disdain for others who maintain, with St. Augustine, a respectful agnosticism about such ultimate issues. We need the best of all these men, and others. But that misses the point! That misses the main truth! If wehad all this, it wouldn't add up to 10% of the promise that is smoldering in our well being, the promise that is seething in our prosperity, the promise that is about to emerge from our plenty.

Let justice roll down like waters…

Our 'God', as J. B. Phillips said, has become too small. No. We missed our chance in the 1990's. We will have to startover. And starting over is hard. Ask anybody who took a new job this week, or who went to AA for the first time, or who moved from one pulpit to another this summer. We will have to start over, and look again at the soul library definitionof justice.

North Star

In August we stood one night on the western edge of our country, at the San Francisco Bay. It is a beautiful, even amajestic set of vistas. We happened to be standing in Oakland, looking out at the summer sky, admiring, among other stars, Polaris, the North and promise star. We had finished a delicious dinner with a dear friend, who herself has had to start all over this year. It is hard to start over. To pack and unpack. To unsettle and settle. To leave the comfort of dozens of friends and, like a freshman in college or a camper in July, to walk to the dining hall alone.

When it comes to justice, when it comes to the poor, we as country will need to start over. That is hard.

With a slight summer wind wrapping us together, we walked to the statue of Jack London and in the starlight read these words, a fitting tribute to the promise latent in any new start:

I would rather be ashes than dust.