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.

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