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.