Sunday, September 10, 2000

Do You Hear the Promise?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Together in Ministry Sunday

Text: Amos 4:1-2, 2Corinthians 1:15-22

1. Spire and Pulpit: Baptist Church

The bells are tolling this morning, singing out from the spire of a little church on a little street in a little town. In the town in which we were raised, during the bucolic years of the New Frontier, the beat and cadence of life were set by the Baptist church bells. Hourly they rang, and on Sunday they pealed out the call to faith like a rural minaret, a country shofar, the invitation to the living to hear something of the meaning of life. I noticed that they are repairing the roof and steeple again this year. For a church born in 1793, you expect some repairs. Colgate graduates like Harry Emerson Fosdick and Adam Clayton Powell worshipped in the worn pews, sitting before a simple and stern old regular Baptist pulpit. Like Rochester, Hamilton is a Baptist town, its deep structures still fixed according to the original, pilgrim design, and beginning with a place for a word fitly spoken.

1. Spire and Pulpit: Love of Words

This is a little town that is steadily filled with a kind of twilight breeze. The Baptist church bells there ring every hour, sonorous and stately. It is a quiet place, forgotten except for its college. Most of the farms around it have grown up to brush again. There is not a lot of activity in the park, or on the main street. But it is a place where words matter. Growing up, our mailman was a Colgate graduate. So was the barber. Some of the farmers who lead and funded the church were, too. There is a gentle hum of words fitly spoken up and down the little lanes of Hamilton, and the day ends at twilight with a sense of rest and deep gratitude, especially for what has been heard and for what has been said. In that village twilight, the magic of language so enthralls its citizens that they are its permanent captives, listening for a word of promise, trusting in a word of promise, walking toward the promise star, Polaris.

1. Spire and Pulpit: Still Small Voice

For all our vaunted material and visible power, the march of armies, the conquest of lands, the construction of cities, the stewardship of industry, the care of crops, the oversight of houses of worship, there is a still small voice, whispering at the edge of time and space, and speaking silently from the stars above, whose mute promise silences all else. How powerful is a word of promise! The prophets regretted promises broken. The apostles acclaimed a promise kept. Our souls stand or fall by words of promise. Today, this week, listen for promise!

2. A Famine of the Word: Promises Unkept

Our Holy Scripture, truer to life than is our own experience, enshrines divine promise. Our promises fail sometimes, or fail in part much of the time. It is the mighty theme of the God who keeps God's promises that is carried in the pages of the Bible. The Prophets of old, like Hosea and Amos, who were hurt by broken human promises, held out a longing - no, a yearning - for the Kept Promise of God.

This our condition: life amid fractured promises. Recently a church group planned over a fortnight in advance to gather for a serious, probing discussion of punctuality at the beginning and ending of meetings. The meeting began at 6:30 A. M. I woke up to see the clock at 6:40, and arrived at 7:00 A. M. In other words, I showed up late to a meeting about punctuality! That's like carrying a banana split into weight watchers, or going drunk to AA! But this is our condition, life amid punctured promises.

How did Shakespeare put it?

Men were deceivers ever
One foot in sea
And one on shore
To one thing constant never

2. A Famine of the Word: Amos Speaks

Eight hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Amos confronted Israel with broken promises. I have been in Rochester 5 years, and in these years, our nation has come more and more to resemble the Israel Amos rebuked. Amos asked his countryfolk to peek courageously underneath the comfortable quilt of prosperity, and see their impending doom. You have forgotten the poor. You are personally immoral. You trust too much in your military might. And your religion is a shallow as a mother in law's love. Said Amos. To Israel.

Amos prophesied that all manner of ill would befall the seemingly prosperous folks doing business in Jerusalem in the time of Jereoboam. He asserted that their prosperity was chimerical, and fleeting, and about to end. He forecast all manner of doom for his people. The God of covenant keeps his promises, he preached. Beware.

To the women:

Hear this you cows of Bashan
Who are in the mountains of Samaria
Who oppress the poor
Who crush the needy
Who say to their husbands
'Bring that we may drink'

The Lord God has sworn by his holiness that
Behold the days are coming upon you
When they shall take you away with hooks
Even the last of you with fish hooks

To the men:

Woe to you who are at ease in Zion
The notable men of the first of the Nations
Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory
And Stretch themselves upon their couches
And eat lambs from the flock
And calves from the midst of the stall
Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
And like David invent for themselves instruments of music
Who drink wine in bowls
And anoint themselves with the finest oil…


But at the end of his mighty litany of trouble - all of which eventually befell his people, though they prospered and ignored him in his lifetime - Amos predicts that a penultimate tragedy, unspeakable in its horror, will also befall Israel.

For Amos and for Israel and, though we laugh at it, for us, this is the worst of tragedies. Amos predicts a time when, for a time, there will be no promissory speech, no word of life. When the silence of God will be empty and void. Worse than slavery, worse than slaughter, worse than the bitterest of physical suffering - hear Amos's foreboding of life without promise:

Behold the days are coming says the Lord God
When I will send a famine on the land
Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water
But of hearing the words of the Lord.

A life without a word of promise, words too of promise, is a life of dust and ashes, it is a living death.

10 years ago this summer, my closest cousin, Chuck was killed in a tragic work accident, leaving three preschool children and a traumatized widow. For a long time, then and after, all the words of prophecy and promise from faith and funeral and family went unheard, at least for me. His inexplicably random and tragically horrible death left a part of my heart cold and ear turned deaf. So it is with a famine of the word.

3. The Joyful Message Hearing Promise

To be healthy and happy, to be saved, to be set free, to hope for heaven, we need promises that are kept. 90% of this message is a simple reminder: God keeps God's promises. 10% is a not so simple reminder: we are most fully human when we try, though we are sure in part to fail, nonetheless to keep our own promises too

How are we ever going to do this?

Not alone we are not.

But there is One in whom Promise lives.

3. The Joyful Message Pauline Promise

Our Holy Scripture, truer to life than is our own experience, enshrines divine promise. Our promises fail sometimes, or fail in part much of the time. It is the mighty theme of the God who keeps God's promises that is carried in the pages of the Bible. Then in the Joyful Testament, we are told of Jesus Christ. Do you remember how Paul put it? "For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preach among you, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. "For all the promises of God find their Yes in him." (2 Corinthians 1.) We will listen again this fall to Paul. Jesus Christ is the Kept Promise of God. On him we cast our gaze, toward him we set our sights, by him we mark our progress, to him we walk by faith.

Jesus Christ is alive and busy in our world and your life. He may though have other interests than your current passions. See: he is nursing the weakest of newborn children. Look: he prays at the soup kitchen table of the poor. Watch: you will find him among the quiet giving people of the church. Listen: He speaks through the Holy Scripture and through the word rightly handled. But he does not coerce, he does not force, he does not rape. He speaks a word of promise.

Do you hear the promise?

3. The Joyful Message Promise Lives

His voice still rings out, now and then, in prophetic utterance.

It is the memory of biblical prophecy that causes many in our time to rue the lack of truthfulness on the part of those entrusted with the highest and most powerful offices in the land. We feel the fear of the word famine. But the voice of truth, the spirit of Jesus Christ, will not be stilled! Sometimes you have to listen closely, but it is there!

Recall two years ago, this week, a prophetic voice, in the tradition of Amos, was heard: "I fear the President has undercut the efforts of millions of American parents who are naturally trying to instill in our children the value of honesty". Over Labor Day, a Connecticut Senator and a Democrat had listened to his family, and alone went to the well of the Senate on September 3 1998 to make a powerful speech, recalling the prophetic utterance and the need for truth telling. I think I read somewhere that he is now a candidate for the Vice Presidency!

Remember also (to be bipartisan) this summer's Republican Convention when in a great moment of oratory, one leader decried our neglect of poor children, with a rhetorical gem, a golden phrase. "Woe" he said, "to those many who practice the soft bigotry of low expectations" and in a flash a dozen of life came to mind, pleadings with the stone faced administrators of our city schools, appealing for a measure of safety of discipline of respect, and having - almost always in the eyes, and sometimes on the tongue - to hear this comment over the sea of mostly brown and mahogany and chestnut faces: "You know, Rev, these kids…you can't…I mean…they won't…you just can't expect them to behave and learn…OH, NOT YOUR KIDS, REV, but these…" The soft bigotry of low expecations. I only object to the word "soft". There is promise of truth told, by a political leader. I think I read somewhere that he is now a candidate for the Presidency!

4. A Daily Promise: Your Promises

Our lives, when we are at our best, are filled to the brim with promise. We learn to depend on each other, and to trust another's promise. "Will you meet me after the game so we can talk?" Yes. "Can you pick me up after work?" Yes. "Can I tell you something in confidence, just between us?" Sure you can. "Will you marry me?" I will. "For better for worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health?" I do. "Promise me you will tell me when I make a fool of myself". I promise. "If I don't make it through surgery, will you watch out for my kids?" I will try. "What do think, really, is there love and life after death?" I believe it is so. "Promise me you will be faithful." I promise.

4. A Daily Promise: The Promise of a Better World

This summer in Prague, we saw the simple apartment where the Chech president lives. This is Vaclav Havel, 40 years a dissident, 30 years a playwright, 20 years an activist, 10 years in prison, now ill and dying, but through it all, a witness to the promise of a better world. In 1987, long before the wall came down, and after 40 years of failed struggle, he could write: "Hope is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed." Havel, an agnostic, is part of the community of love and hope, a citizen of the North Star.

He reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not a state of mind, but a state of affairs, not spiritual but historical, and not here yet.

For ancient travelers like Hosea and Paul were guided at night by the North Star. There is a venerable tradition, many hundreds of years old, that connects Jesus Christ to the North Star. Our north star. He is the fixed point, the promise on which we base our lives. We live by trusting his promise. I think of Harriet Tubman and of Sojourner Truth and of Frederick Douglass and of countless slaves, running ahead of death toward freedom. They came north to freedom. They followed the North Star as they ran and walked and hid out and prayed. Some slept in houses and barns in our county, as they went north toward Canada.

This year, this fall, we will take another step or two, under the gleaming gaze of the North Star, in whom "it is always Yes."

5. The North Star

Yes it was ten summers ago we were finishing a feast of corn and beef. That was a hot August 1990, and we had part of mind, at 9 pm to go for a swim under the clear later summer sky. We could see Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and the great North Star on the latter's tail. We saw Draco the Dragon and Queen Cassiopia in her chair. We saw the milky way, a filmy haze and dusting. The stars gleamed and beckoned. And then the phone rang bringing that hard news, that report, that my cousin Chuck had been killed in a work accident. He and a fellow phone company line man had been electrocuted. Because he was my closest cousin, because of his relative youth, because he left three toddler children, and because real loss means real grief, I bitterly prayed a doubting prayer that night, underneath the North Star.

Later that the week the funeral came, and with it a sermon, brief and good that I dismissed in my anger. "Awful as this is, better days are coming", the preacher promised. "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning", the Scripture promised. "In the seed a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free", the choir promised. "We will get through this", the Word promised. I looked over at his widow and kids and cursed and doubted.

Jesus Christ is God's promise kept, by the ministry of the cross and through and struggling out through the real pain of life. Faith gives us power to withstand even when we do not understand, and to press on trusting in the promise: "A better day is coming. Hang on." A part of that day has come, at last. Today.

Today at 3 P. M. by God's grace, I will officiate at the wedding of Chuck's widow, taking vows of promise with a good man, not a replacement but a husband, and 3 teenagers will be bridesmaids and groomsmen. It took ten years, but a part of the promise has been kept. A measure of stability and happiness and joy has returned, a decade late(r).

When you gaze at the North Star tonight, remember the God who keeps God's promises.

As Unamuno wrote, "Warmth Warmth Warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness! It is not the night that kills, it is the frost."

As Paul wrote:

Do I make my plans like a worldly man, ready to say Yes and No at once? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God. But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.

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