Sunday, September 17, 2000

Can We Live With Promise?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Romans 12:3-13


Have we truly opened ourselves, and opened our common life, to the promises of God?

We were raised in the heart of a modest village, poor in things and rich in soul, forty years ago and just before the end of the Christian era. That village was arranged, and nicely so, around a commons, a town square. You can walk today, undisturbed because the town is empty, across the length of the common ground at the heart of the village. On Thursdays the high school band plays, 2 of 3 flutes keeping the right time, and a tired band director, still gay in a town that does not admit the existence of the category, and a loud drum. Sit for a minute on the bench, read a paper. Watch the light spill through the fountain. Have a cup of coffee. We have time. It's Sunday! Your mind wanders, as during a meandering sermon.

Here our children made their first dollars, selling bracelets at the Saturday market. Here 150 years ago Colgate was founded by 13 men with 13 dollars. Here in 1861 men from Sherburne and Earlville mustered and marched to the Utica train. Some came home four years later. Here Andy Rooney waited in 1941 to take a bus to New York and WWII. He did come home, changed. Hear the town gathered and later went to church to pray on November 22, 1963. Here we spent our wedding night.

The botched development of suburban America has left out town squares, and more generally any commons at all, other than the road and the mall, our witness to the gods of motion and consumption. We have fled for the hills, and the comfort and isolation of curbless streets. The town square has been eclipsed and repressed, almost everywhere, except behind the faces and masks of our daily selves. There, inside, lurks a love of the commons, and a hunger to live the free promise of God. I am trying to describe the topography of your souls, folks. A church bell here, a town square there - they represent the best of your emerging salvation, you wild children of the dream! Watch for the return of the repressed.

Common ground, and the town square commons, comes from a deep English tradition, centuries old, biblical and fierce in its old love of freedom, a tradition that protected the rights of the many by providing common space. On the commons, as in baptism and eucharist, all are equal and all are precious and all are free. See - an older couple, buying apples. See - three boys on scooters. See - teenagers, holding hands, gazing down, growing and beautiful. See - there you are! - speaking with another, as I to Thou. The town square is common ground, space glorious space, open to life and love and the other. Yes, a few have already guessed the next move…

The architectural form of common ground is the church. The literal and metaphorical space of the church is quintessentially the location of precious love and precious freedom. Salvation is about space. In my Father's house there are many rooms. As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions. There is a wideness to divine mercy, as wide as the sea. The church is the space opened by the invasion of what the prophets called hesed, covenant love, hesed, common love, hesed,

A Covenant Love

In the eighth century before Christ, as the kingdoms of Ephraim and Judah collapsed under the weight of external attack, the divine voice was heard first through Amos and then through Hosea.

Hosea understood his own personal life as an incarnation of God's redeeming love. Do we have the courage to see our pain and glory in the same light? For Hosea, the ministry was the message. Do we hear the words our deeds utter? In Hosea, redemption comes with a price. Do we dare to pay the price of promise?

Hosea took a wife named Gomer. What a name. Gomer became a prostitute, not only leaving and cuckolding her husband, but bearing children to him who were not his. He named the first Jezreel, a reminder of blood. The second he named, "Not pitied". The third he named "Not my people". But though Gomer broke the very marrow of the bone of promise, Hosea, bitter and angry though he was, continued painstakingly to pursue her, in a life, like yours, laden with love and anger. Hosea kept the covenant promise even though Gomer had not only broken it, but had abused, misused and dishonored the same promise. Isn't that astounding? Hosea, in the teeth of rejection, continued tenderly to love a harlot.

This is why. Hosea understood his ministry and life as a personal incarnation of the God's redeeming love. Did God promise to love? So would Hosea. Did God keep the covenant promise? So would Hosea. Did God persevere in love, in the face of human rejection? So would Hosea. Did God continue to love, though his beloved loved others actively and with a willingness to hurt? So would Hosea.

Hosea the prophet deplored his nation's harlotry, even as he persevered in steadfast love. He kept faith with the promise of a better day. He kept faith with the promise of a better day. Do we?

Years ago, our church was daily cared for by a retired woman, quite a successful business woman in her own right, who served as our housekeeper, and by hook and crook kept the church clean, overseeing the sextons, hectoring the pastors, scowling at the children. She especially watched the younger boys. They knew better than to unpack the daycare toys on Sunday and pull out the soccer ball for use on the newly waxed fellowship floor. Iva would be on the lookout. Iva would tend and care, pursue and love, even in the face of their rejection. One Sunday, the boys got loose. They found the ball and began to play, wisely posting a lookout at the door. One of the boys, the youngest, was the new kid on the block, son of a recently arrived assistant pastor. Suddenly, Iva was spotted. The boys ran for their lives, like Bobby Knight leaving Bloomington. The new kid stood in the middle of the floor, holding the ball, and wondering about the mass exodus. "Ben", I said, "what happened to him?" "Oh, Dad", said Ben, a wise man of eight years of age, "it was awful". "Awful?" "When Iva came, it was awful". "What happened to him?" "All I can say Dad was that he was, he was….Ivatized."

Relentless pursuit, persevering love, the daily reception of the covenant promise-this is the gospel of Hosea.

One Spirit, One Body

In Jesus Christ, a new day has dawned, the better day has come. Not "might come". Not "could come". Not "should come if we would do better". Not "has a chance to come". In Christ, there is a new creation. Now. Promised and delivered. Present. Hic et nunc.

The promises of God, which find their yes in Christ, make of us one body, with many members, guided by one spirit, of many gifts.

St. Paul exhorts us to love one another, genuinely. It is remarkable how easy it can be in life and faith to forget the main point. God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human. We are human when we receive and give love.

Spiritually, the best thing for the minister about vacation, is the chance to go to worship and sit in the pew and pray and sing, and fish around for money for the collection. In a smaller church, with a weaker choir and a minimal staff - but right there is the promise of a space for real life. Worship is the single most humanizing moment and hour in the week. We are bathed again in our own humanity.

Listen for the way Paul invariably calls his people to live in the promise of God. Spacious is God's grace: we are members of one body. Spacious is God's grace: we are indebted to one Spirit. Spacious is God's grace: we are set free to be free, and inspired by love to love. Spacious is God's grace: spacious is God's grace.

An Open Life

Beloved, if God has so loved us, then we also should love one another. If God has granted us such space, such running room, then we too should be spacious in our open living with others.

There is a clean wind blowing through our lives. Let us drive with the top down and enjoy it! There is a loving presence promised us. Let us open the front door and greet it! All the promises of God are fulfilled in Christ! Let us live the promise.

Asbury First is one of the few, perhaps one of the last county-wide town squares in our region. People come here, drawn by the precious love and precious freedom of the commons here. Since 1995 this church has grown by 20%. People are turning out to walk the village park, and to enjoy the space of God. There is a longing, lodged in our subconscious selves, for genuine community. We grope and hunt for spaces in which freely to love, to live the promise. In our time, let us expand the circle of love, rebuild the village green, and make wide the portals of heaven! Someone did so for us. It is the least we can do.

Someone gave us a weightless freedom. We have learned to float, like a beginner swimmer. We are space walkers, like Mr. Lu from Webster walking in outer space, hand in hand with an enemy.

It may take time. Vaclav Havel, 40 years a dissident, 30 years a playwright, 20 years an activist, 10 years in prison, still lived the promise. Now he is the freely elected president of a free Checkoslovakia. "Hope gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless…Without hope it is impossible to live with dignity and meaning."

As Lincoln said, "(Before Gettysburg) I felt my own weakness and lack of power knew that if the country was to be saved, it was because he willed it. When I went down from my room I felt that there could be no doubt of the issue. The burden seemed to have trolled off my shoulders, my intense anxiety was relieved and in its place came a great sense of trust, and that was why I did not doubt the result at Gettysburg".

I wonder. Can we live, truly live, with the spacious, mighty promise of God? Can we conform our own lives and our church life to such spacious hope? Can we welcome the hurting and touch the hurt with the hand of Christ? Spiritual and actual space for such welcoming are at the heart of our ministry.

North Star

I was witness, once to such promissory and spacious welcome. I remember one autumn, when a young man from our community went north to St. Lawrence College. Somehow it happened as the cold fell, he fell ill. He contracted meningitis, was misdiagnosed, and died. Eddie was a football player, a musician, and had been our patrol leader. He was a model for the younger kids. His dad was not a church goer. Like many, he had serious and creditable objections to organized religion. But I remember one night, let us imagine it a bright harvest moon night, with the North Star gleaming, seeing him walk toward the back porch and knock at our door. In he came, smoking a pipe. And there at the kitchen table, on a crisp starlit autumn night, I overheard a conversation that ultimately landed me in the ministry. At midlife I realize in hindsight that this simple promissory conversation, overheard from the next room, more than any other, convinced me of the priority of ministry, the place where we talk about love and death.

The two men sat at the table and smoked pipes in silence, a silence thunderous with the heart shout anger of loss, with the cry of the heart in the face of inexplicable tragedy, with the heavy emptiness of loss.

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?

What do you say to a man who has lost his son?

"Would you like some pie, Ed?"
"Pie is good."
More silence and more and more.
"Coffee and pie - good on a cool night."
"How about some cheese?"
"Cheese is good."
More silence and more and more.
"Another slice Ed?"
"Another slice is good."
More silence and more and more.
Now the pipes again, and spoons rattling in the coffee cups.
"How is it Ed?"
"Ah, you know…"
More silence. The silence of two men talking about death and love.
"I guess I'll have a little more pie Marcia."
"Pie is good. And this is good pie."

In an open space, with the welcome of an open door, with a sense of promise drawing one and guiding the other, two men didn't talk about love and death. There was a long and smokey silence and then a rustle of chairs, and a prayer.

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 rest, a happy lodging and peace at the last.

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