Sunday, March 19, 2000

Crossing the Threshold

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 2:1-11


O Lord support us all the day long of this troublous life
Until the shadows lengthen
And the evening comes
And the busy world is hushed
And the fever of life is over
And our work is done

Then in thy mercy
Grant us a safe lodging
And a holy rest
And peace at the last
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Ancient Thresholds and Identity Crises

A long time ago, in a foreign land, there lived a group ofwomen and men, followers of Jesus, who endured a change of identity. The landwas Turkey (perhaps the city of Ephesus), the time was 100 years after Jesus’death, and the group of people made up the church that gave us the Gospel ofJohn. This gospel came to life in their worship, as a venerable preacher,perhaps named John, presented sermons week by week, that were meant to help themendure their time of change, their transition, their crossing of a greatthreshold.

Crossing a threshold is a frightening experience. We mayassume that many of the thresholds crossed in John’s church are thresholds wetoo have known. Ask any young mother about giving birth for the first time.Speak with one of our teenagers today about growing up in the land of lust andgreed, one who, like Jesus in this passage, is creating some emotional distancefrom his parent. Are there adults among us, moving into employment, moving outof relationships, moving on to another stage, moving out on your own? Theseliminal moments come with a cost.

Today’s Gospel presents us Jesus immersed in thatquintessential liminal event, a wedding feast through which, walking or carried,two people cross over the threshold into a new existence. The ancient preachercannot have selected this setting by accident. In order to teach his troubledchurch about human courage and divine presence during transition, he painted awedding portrait. John’s church was itself in great need of courage andpresence during transition. For this small group of followers of Jesus wasenduring a great identity crisis. They were moving away from their mother. Nottheir mother tongue, and not their mother land, and not their birth mother. Theywere moving away from the synagogue, their mother culture and mother religion.All of this Gospel is written against the backdrop of a great and exceedinglypainful exodus, a movement "out of the synagogue".

John’s beleaguered friends were being thrown out of thesynagogue that had been their home, their nest, and their source of identity.For a time, their twin loyalties to Moses and Jesus had been tolerated. Then,for reasons unknown, they were forced to choose: Moses or Jesus. They came to adoorstep wide enough for their future but not wide enough for their past. Theycame of age, as people, moving away from the homey and happy comfort of Moses,their mother, and moving on to a new, open, and frightening future with Jesus,their brother. They moved away from familiar regimen, on out into a land ofrelationship. They had to sever and sunder, we can imagine, many close ties andintimate bonds. This gospel is written for and by a group of people who oncewere Christian Jews, and now are Jewish Christians. So it is a gospel thatspeaks with great power to all of us who are leaving a familiar past and movinginto an unknown future. I wonder if there are many here today, who are leaving afamiliar past and moving into an unknown future?

Each of the seven signs in the first half of the Gospelformed the heart of a sermon in that ancient church. The fourth gospel is astitched together series of sermons. Today Jesus changes massive amounts ofwater into wine. The water of the past is changed, by his presence, into thewine of the new future. He rebukes his own past, embodied by his mother. Healters the Jewish custom for purification, bringing the wine of relationshipforward, and pushing back the water of purification and religious ritual. Hesteps forward, and announces his presence and power right in the midst ofserious transition, liminal change, the crossing of a great threshold.

To announce this one saving presence, the ancient preacherrelates again an old story of Jesus’ power. Jesus presence in the middle ofexistential transition is unmistakable, he says. Why look at the great jars ofwater, he exhorts. And see the gallons of wine produced, he exclaims. It isunmistakable, unmistakable, he asserts—Jesus is with us, powerfully so, as wecross these scary thresholds of intimacy, of identity, of relationship and ofmortality.

I wonder…will we today hear in the Gospel a promise ofpresence that we can trust as we cross the thresholds of life?

Marital Threshold: A Longing for Intimacy

For instance, along the back roads and blue highways of ourland there lurks a hunger for intimacy.

Ironically, our very restlessness, which is the hallmark ofour history, our trek from Atlantic to Pacific over mountain and through forestbattling nature and the native peoples subduing waterways and carving faces ingreat mountain cliffs mapping a continent by dint of sheer restless energy andwill and determination, this restlessness impedes our approach to intimacy.

There is resistance in intimacy, and there is embrace too.Through all the anonymous dog eat dog and devil take the hindmost homo hominilupus crushing competition of the global village which moves some fromwelfare to work and others from welfare to death and some from home to thefarthest coast, still there survives, like a flower pushing through asphalt, alonging for intimacy.

You may be crossing the threshold of marriage this year. Asone carries another across the doorstep, the restless energy of anonymity meetsthe embrace of intimacy, for our hearts are restless until they find their restin intimacy, presence and love. There is a depth of human courage and a heightof divine presence across the threshold of intimacy. Remember that when youdisagree about money, or when you jostle one another in sexual love, or when youharbor different religious hopes, or when your mother or mother in law pointsout the lack of appropriate beverages. Christ is crossing the threshold withyou. Just here, he manifests his glory!

Developmental Threshold: The Crucible of A New Identity

I hope that the church of the future will make wide space for20 year olds. There is a new culture within our culture, new in the lastgeneration, made up of young adults twentysomething and on their own, muchlarger and much longer lived and much needier than their counterparts of 1975.Amid volleyball and rollerblading, connected by instant messenger and e-mail,alert and real and skeptical, your children and mine are crossing adevelopmental threshold, forging a new identity in the crucible of youth.

The novels of CP Snow, oddly, capture a similar moment inBritish culture of the 1950’s and 60’s. It is a new occasion, teaching usnew duties, a time that makes ancient good uncouth.

For a decade I have seen this wave pound in upon the shore ofcollege classrooms. One student spoke about her decision to return to church andto worship in a little catholic church every week. "There are only oldpeople and children there—you know. (After a moment I realized that she had mepresent as one of those two, and not the latter. Like the day you can no longerread the phone book, it is another kind of threshold)…They don’t speak to mevery much but they begin to notice me in the same pew, and I see the same olderpeople and the same children, and I feel a part of something now that I havereturned to my faith…that is the hardest part of being 25 in this city, justmeeting up with other people…its harder to do than in my small town…

She named her hometown. What great small town names there arein this empire state: Great Bend, Chasm Falls, Owls Head, Mountainview, WolfPond, Natural Bridge, Black River, Oswegatchie, Madrid, Barnes Corners, ColdBrook, Dugway, Grindstone Island, Horseheads, North Bangor, Point Rock, PrattsHollow, Sheds, Starkey, Wilawana, Middlesex, Eagle Harbor, Indian Falls, QuakerRoad, Chautauqua, Irondequoit, Ischua, Short Tract, Hemlock, Rush—andevery one has a little church or two in it, sending young adults into a newidentity, forged in the crucible of young adulthood. Christ is crossing thethreshold with you. Just here, he manifests his glory.

A Millenial Threshold: Religion Becomes Relationship

It may be that the Fourth Gospel was compiled after thesecond grief and glory, not the cross of Christ, but the death in great old ageof John the beloved disciple. This towering figure had guided the church out ofJudaism and into Christianity. So the stone jars in today’s reading representthe religious quest for purity which has been transformed to the wine of love inthe person of Christ. From Christian Jews to Jewish Christians.

This text speaks bluntly to us today.

It reminds us to watch for relationship first. We are movingfrom the water of ritual to the wine of relationship! We are moving from thewater of regimen to the wine of relationship! We are moving from the water ofreligion to the wine of relationship! KOINONIA!

Unamuno: Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold notof darkness. It is not the night that kills but the frost. The darkness oftheological uncertainty we can handle. It is the cold of relational clumsinessthat kills.

In your leadership at Asbury First, are you a ChristianAsburyite, or are you becoming an Asbury First Christian? It makes a difference,which noun and which adjective. Watch for relationship first. We do not importall of the ways of the world here, all of the forms of corporate organizationhere, all the speech of the culture here. We are Christians, not Asburyites. Soto some modes of discourse, some coercive styles of leadership, some bottom lineharshness, some worldly wisdom, we say at the threshold: "Abandon all hope,ye who enter here." That may work at Kodak, but this is not Kodak.

In our denominational conferencing, are we ChristianMethodists, or are we becoming Methodist Christians? It makes a difference whichis the noun and which is the adjective. Watch for relationship first. Thereneeds to be space, in our great church, both for "them"—the currentmajority, and for "us"—the emergent majority. There needs to bespace, in Cleveland, both for the conservatives who will have the votes thistime around, and for the liberals who will have the votes in 2008. We are movingout of religion and into relationship, if we hear today’s gospel. Let us becareful stewards of lasting friendships, especially with those who thinkotherwise than we. That may work in Washington, but Cleveland is not Washington,and we are Christians first, whatever pile of adjectives we later add.

In our life in Christ in the new millenium, are the followersof Jesus attentive, really attentive to relationship? When we talk about newspace, are we talking about new relational space? When we talk about newworship, are we talking about new relationships emerging? When we talk about newstaff, are we talking about new relational advances? In our common life, dopeople come first, or are we really interested in ideas, meetings, music,history, architecture, philosophy, and power? When Jesus comes, will he beimpressed with tambourines in worship in a land teeming with poor children?There was a time, call it 1965, when Christian Americans may have harbored lessinternal existential conflict between the substantive and the modifier, the nounand the adjective. But this is a new age. Like the new age behind the Gospel ofJohn. You are being asked, you Christian Americans, you are being invited todayto become American Christians. In fact, much of the turmoil of our churchlife, near and far, may simply be due to this millenial threshold. Today you areAmericans, Christian Americans. But you are becoming a new creation, AmericanChristians. Christ is crossing the threshold with you. Just here, hemanifests his glory.

A Final Threshold

Every threshold crossed prepares us for another that awaitsus. "My hour has not yet come… So he manifested his glory"…References for the preacher and church to the hour of glory—the cross. It ishard to know the meaning of hurt and struggle across many thresholds. Nor is itoverly helpful to misidentify such meaning. There is great, unexplained hurt inlife.

We do learn, though, through liminal moments, the power ofhuman courage and divine presence. Crossing one threshold prepares us to crossanother. And crossing that other prepares us to cross a third. And… Someinchoate presence gives the courage of intimacy, and we move on…Some mysticalpresence gives the courage of identity and we move on…Some uncanny presencegives the courage of real relationship and we move on.

Every one of the liminal foothills ascended prepares us forthe great mountain ahead. Every one of the liminal sandbars crossed prepares usfor the great ocean ahead.

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark

I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

Jesus adorns by his presence every single threshold, butevery single one prepares us for the last. And this may be some of the hiddenmeaning in every liminal struggle, every one a covert meditatio mortis,every one a foreshadowing of the cross of Jesus, every one a preparation for thefinal horizon.

We live as if we were temporarily immortal. So we findnothing odd in our relentless restlessness, our anxious activity. So we canforget we are human beings and become human doings.

And then we may be brought up short. A couple dies in murdersuicide, over the threshold of intimacy. A pair of Emilys, college studentsabroad, die over the threshold of identity. A 53- year old dies jogging (Margiehas gone to do her cousin’s funeral), over the threshold of relationship.There is a kind of shadow that hovers over the doorsteps of life.

Looming inside that shadow there stands the magisterialpresence of Christ. Christ is crossing the threshold with you. Just here, hemanifests his glory. And as we face the final threshold, we may do so, you maydo so, confident. You have crossed other thresholds and been inspired by humancourage and divine presence. Why should this last be any different? You haveentered other doorsteps and been inspired by human courage and divine presence.Why should this last be any different?

You believe in God…Believe also in me…In my father’shouse there are many rooms…I go to prepare a place for you, that where I amyou may be also…

All of this and more, thankfully, has been poetically statedin the most disturbing and inspiring film of our time, The Cider House Rules.

Intimacy, identity, relationship, life and death—they areall here, potently propounded. And yet what lingers, at least for this viewer,out of the shadow of that film, is the cadence of the evening prayer, offeredfor the princes of Maine and the kings of New England. And aren’t all ourprayers, prayers of the evening?

O Lord support us all the day long of this troublous life
Until the shadows lengthen
And the evening comes
And the busy world is hushed
And the fever of life is over

And our work is done
Then in thy mercy
Grant us a safe lodging
And a holy rest
And peace at the last
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, March 05, 2000


Asbury First United Methodist Church
Transfiguration Sunday

Text: Mark 9:2-9

Whence Saving Insight?

When and how does a moment of insight come? What are thesteps up along the mountain trail that give a moment of clarity that can saveus?

Peter must have heard our Lord’s ageless command: "Ifanyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, andfollow." (Mark 8: 32). Then Peter is led, step by step, up a high mountain,where something…unearthly…occurs. He sees what cannot be seen. And, fromthis mountainview, for a moment, there is insight and there is clarity.

When and how does such a moment arrive, a moment of claritythat can save us from an anger that leads to murder, or a heartache that leadsto suicide, or a despair over a gun-totting nation drenched in violence, or achagrin about a country that ever more closely approximates Fosdick’s verse,"rich in things and poor in soul"?

Today’s Gospel promises you a mountain view, clarity andinsight, found step by step along the rocky trail of life, that can lift us upabove sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness.

Walk along with me, if you will, for just a few minutes…upthe mountain path we go…and take, Come Sunday, a divergent road, like our Poetsaid,

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler
Long I stood and looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
Then took the other as just as fair
Though having perhaps the better claim
For it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that the parting there
Had worn them both about the same…
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood and I
Took the One less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

  1. Insight Through the Thicket of Personal Need
  2. One step toward insight lies through the thicket of personalneed. Careful, step carefully here. Here you recognize your mortality. "Itis a great life, but few of us get out alive." Here you admit that the actsof desperation in news reports come from conditions you also know. Fear, anger,jealousy, hatred, dread. Here, step lightly, you see the shadow, and your shadowin the greater shadow. One called this "the feeling of absolutedependence". Here we are confessional. We say, "Hello. My name is JohnSmith and I am an alcoholic." We say, "We have erred and strayed fromthy ways like lost sheep." We say, "There but for the grace of God, goI."

    Today’s Baptism reminds me of the first time I was leftalone with our first child, to give her mother a night out. She had been themost pleasant of children, happy and bright, sleeping through the night. Shehardly cried. But that hot August night, at the very moment the door closed andthe car drove off, she began to wail. Not to whimper or weep, but to wail andshriek and scream. Five, twenty five, fifty minutes. I was really shaken,terrified, angry and frustrated, at my wit’s end, and probably at the edge ofsome irrational behavior. Over the din of the howling daughter, I heard thedoorbell. In came our church’s lay leader, Bernice Danks, a veteran nurse andteacher of nurses who wordlessly took the child and somehow the howling ceased."Oh, I like to make a few house visits a week. It’s a little routine ofmine…You know I tell my nursing students that we call the things that are mostimportant, ‘routine’…and I came by the parsonage and for some reason Idecided to stop. I hope you don’t mind the intrusion…What a pleasant babyshe is!"

    When we are helpless, insight can come.

    Wesley is still with us to ask, "will you visit fromhouse to house?" From Brentwood to Brighton and beyond? Insight sees insidethe closed door of personal need, and measures the distance between publicappearance and private reality.

  3. Insight Over the River of Others’ Hurts
  4. A second step toward insight lies over the river of another’shurt. Here, we’ll jump the river at the portage path, where we bear each other’sburdens like canoes carried in tandem. A moment of clarity can come when youtruly see another’s plight, and feel it in your heart. Some insight comes fromserving others, some from sensing others’ hurt. It is really a matter ofunderstanding power, this insight about others. Think of the Prince and thePauper, or of Lazarus and Dives. Insight happens in the chorus of the commonlife, when we sing out, "so that’s what is like to be you…"

    The progressive tradition, theological and political, whichis Rochester’s hallmark (Rauschenbusch, Douglass, Anthony, and others) may becriticized as a "johnny one note" presentation. But if you have tochoose just one note to play, this is the one to pick. Jesus means freedom. Tolearn about the nature of power, and the effects of power, we listen to thepowerless.

    Men, listen to the women about whom you care, as theydescribe being pulled over on the thruway in a winter night. With red lightsflashing…sirens wailing…car door thudding…a tall male figure in uniformand wide brimmed hat…a revolver in the belt… "May I see your licenseplease?"…Men, listen to women.

    Majority, listen to the minority describe the feeling ofbeing stopped on the front porch step, at night, after a long day of menialwork, again with the lights flashing and the uniforms and hats and.."Gun!"41 bullets later a tragedy—unintended to be sure—has occurred. Not a gun buta wallet. Such a tragedy for all. But maybe it can help us to gain insight, tofeel what others feel. Majority, listen to the minority.

    Insight comes through the common song that recognizes another’shurt.

    You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sundayas we sing hymns together, to recognize that we are all in this together.

  5. Insight Scaling the Cliffs of Reason
  6. A third step toward insight lies over the cliff of reason."Come let us reason together" says the Psalmist. God has entrusted uswith freedom, and with minds to think through our use of freedom. While reasonhas its limits, it is reason, finally, that will help us learn the arts ofdisagreement—at home, at work, in church, in the community. We say, "tryto be reasonable". And reason often prevails. If you ever doubt the powerof reason to bring insight, remember the words of the Psalmist, and the voicesof great minds through the ages. Josiah Royce’s Sources of ReligiousInsight, which provides the outline for this sermon, comes to mind. Come letus reason together…

    You know, we recognize this chance for insight, this momentof clarity, every Sunday through a sermon, a word fitly spoken (we hope).

  7. Insight Across the Gorge of the Will
  8. A fourth step toward insight lies across the great gorge ofthe will. Look before you leap. We are here ever closer to the mountaintop. Realinsight comes in a moment of decision. Some say we learn to choose. But ourexperience is that we learn by choosing. Viktor Frankl spent his wholelife developing the "logotherapy" around this one conviction: we growby deciding. Choose. You cannot lose, in the fullest sense, and in the long run.Choose. Either way, you have learned, you will grow, you have changed, you willimprove, you have developed. Choose.

    Faith is not a matter of emotion or feeling or soul or heartor intellect only. First, faith is a decision. "If anyone would come afterme, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow."

    As Kierkegaard put it, "either\or"… Either Godexists or not. Decide. Either you see God in Christ or not. Decide. Either JesusChrist has a claim on your life or not. Decide. Either every day is a chance forlove or not. Decide. Either the way of love means particular consequent actsregarding your time, your money, your body, your community…or not. Decide.

    Faith is not as much thrill as it is will.

    You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday,in a moment of invitation—to devotion, to discipline, to dedication.

  9. Insight Upon the Summit of Loyalty

A fifth step toward insight brings us to the summit. There.Take a breath. Up here, the air is rarified. Up here, you may have a moment ofclarity. For the fifth step toward insight brings us to the altar of loyalty.

Forgive the use of archaic words—loyalty, duty, chivalry.Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience. On thecontrary! Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart’s chancel, lit with themixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignitedby the will. Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with theliberal hunger for justice. Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose.

Insight, real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty.Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what yousacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what altar you face, andI will tell you who you are.

And real loyalty is magnanimous. Real loyalty is bigheartedenough to honor an opponent’s loyalty. At the summit, there can be a reverentrespect for another’s loyalty, truly lived, even when it clashes with our own.Maybe especially then. US Grant felt this at Appomatox as he took the sword fromRE Lee. It is chivalry, this honoring of loyal opposition. We were once knownfor this kind of chivalry, a reverent respect for divergent loyalties, as longas they did not eclipse the one great loyalty.

Such a memory could help our political conversations,reminding us that at depth loyalties converge out of difference. Surfacedifference can occlude deeper agreements. Look at our supposedly variedpolitical leaders, for example. George W. Bush is a Methodist. Hillary Clintonis a Methodist. Bob Dole is a Methodist. Tipper Gore is a Methodist! Loyalty hasa magnanimous depth that honors other’s divergent loyalties.

One of the strangest turns in the New Testament is found in 1Corinthians 15. After Paul has reached the very summit of our faith, and singsof the resurrection in such heavenly tones, then, immediately, he turns to—doyou remember?—the collection! A matter of loyalty.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday,through the presentation of gifts, an expression of loyalty, at the altar ofgrace and freedom and love.


Several years ago, we worshipped in the tiniest church in ourarea. A little Adirondack chapel, at the end of the trail, high up in thenorthern mountains. Beyond Owl’s Head, and Chasm Falls and Wolf Pond, there isthe summit of Mountainview, with its chapel and pump organ and wooden pews andsimple pulpit, and humble service, still though a service like this one or any--- a chance for saving insight as we recognize personal need, others’hurts, the power of reason, the importance of will, the force of loyalty—inthe prayer of confession, the music of community, the preaching of the Word, theinvitation to decision, and the loyal offering of gifts.

Let insight abound on the curvaceous slopes of personal need!Let insight abound on the majestic mountains of social holiness! Let insightabound on the prodigious cliffs of reason and will! Let insight abound on thepurple mountain summit of loyalty—from every mountainview, let insight abound!So that, to paraphrase the spiritual, we might sing, insight at last, insightat last, thank God Almighty, we have saving insight at last.