Sunday, June 18, 2000

An English Spring

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 3: 1-17

Immersed as we are in a kind of June monsoon season, rain and rain, with occasional relief, we can appreciate, deeply, the grace that can appear, out of the mist, out of any London fog.

Nicodemus presents himself to Jesus, appearing out of the misty shadows at night, to ask the location of real authority, he who is a figure of much authority. What constitutes real authority? Almost any religious text is a neighbor to this question, and here in the fourth Gospel, Nicodemus brings the question home. What is the shape of real authority?

Is it found in law, the ten commandments, the fierce fundamentalism on the rise in our time? Surely these commandments are the basis of good life, but are they the heart of life? Is authority found in order or structure, as in that of a church catholic with laity and deacons and priests and bishops and cardinals and a Holy Father (interesting title)? Surely the river of life needs some banks, otherwise all would be flood, but is order at the heart of authority? Are we left, for salvation, to choose between fundamentalism and Catholicism? In this monsoon, this rainy English Spring, let us listen again for the Word of God.

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

We once remembered that. It is the experience of freeing love, that ignited our church. At midlife, one enchanting night in the English Spring of 1738, John Wesley heard something said in church that warmed his heart for good. He had been on Aldersgate street that Sunday evening, going to chapel service more from duty than from passion, when he heard a preacher read Romans 8 and also Martin Luther's commentary on that passage. There is something so fragrant and so full about damp London in the springtime. As he left church, Wesley felt something new, a freeing love in the heart, which is the creation and work of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it. Authority is about freeing love.

We used to remember that. It is the courage in history of a real love of freedom, that has preserved our way of life, and that has us speaking English today, and not German. Wesley said he knew how to prize "the liberty of an Englishman". That fierce, pugnacious, relentless, John Bull, bulldog, dog with a bone love of freedom. At the right moment, one momentous English Spring of 1940, Winston Churchill faced down the more polished, better heeled, more popular and more experienced old Britons of his newly formed war cabinet, and steadily led his country away from their desire to compromise with Adolf Hitler. With Belgium defeated, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With France cut in two, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With 400,000 men stranded at Dunkirk and escape virtually impossible, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With the whole German airforce poised to incinerate England's green and pleasant land, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With Lord Halifax ready to seek terms and Lord Chamberlain ready to let him, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. Read this summer John Lukacs' Five Days in London, May 1940. He concludes: "Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War. In the end, America and Russian did. But in May 1940 Churchill (alone) was the one who did not lose it." Churchill's mother grew up south of Syracuse in Pompey. One wonders if some of his paternal love of freedom came from the winds of the Allegheny plateau. Authority is about love of freedom.

We used to remember that. It is the grace in family life of a sacrificial freedom to love that is the hallmark of your ideal authority. You as fathers, you as parents, risk much by setting an example, as Jesus taught Nicodemus, of the freedom to love. What is harder than to set your children free, in love, to serve others? What is harder than to see them go out of your sight, into a fallen and dangerous world? Why would you allow it at all? And support of church, and care of the less fortunate, and education and growth, as important as they are, do not finally turn the key. You buy airplane tickets for your sons and daughters-to college, to travel, to mission work, to service for country-you bid them farewell-why? So that they may learn, in their experience, the feeling of being born again into a freedom to love. Only that-their salvation-makes the risk and hurt worthwhile. Otherwise we might just all stay home every night and count our coupons.

I remember driving through Churchill's Pompey hometown one Spring dawn, a kind of English dawn over the rolling crests of Pompey Hill. Six of us had driven all night from Ohio at age 19, heading for the cottage and for a week of vacation. My dad had agreed to meet us there and open up the place. We had planned to arrive about 2 A.M. But somewhere on Route 80 in Pennsylvania, during a hard rain, the car went off the road and down a slope, caught, saved from a 100-foot drop by a lone guard-rail. All our belongings were strewn hither and yon. I had brought two white mice home from biology class for my sister. They had been thrown out of their basket. We were terrified, and with no windshield wipers and a dented car we inched up Route 81, through a long and frightening night. There was one humorous note. Somewhere near Scranton, the guy in the middle up front started to shout and scream wildly. It turned out one of the mice had survived after all and was crawling up his leg. All that night my Dad waited for us, stoking a fire in the Franklin stove, down at camp. I know now what he must have felt, waiting in the cold London like night, waiting and not knowing how bad the accident had been, where we were, what was taking us so long, were we safe…We feasted at breakfast and then went to sleep, early in the morning. I remember waking to hear the fire stoked, and the rain falling, and my own Father's singing voice, before he headed back to work. Every time I feel the Spirit, moving in my heart, I will pray…Authority is having the freedom to love and giving the freedom to love, even in the midst of a risky and dangerous world.

The Holy Communion today is an altar call for you. I propose that you come forward to receive the bread and cup, ready to accept Jesus in your life. So come, to experience freeing love. So come, to receive a love of freedom. So come, to give thanks for the freedom to love. For the wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with every one who is born of the spirit.

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