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.

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