Sunday, November 19, 2000

Thanks Be To God

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 6:25-33

I picture you driving somewhere on Thursday. Over the river and through the woods. Pray as the windshield wipers swish and swish. Pray for real Thanksgiving. Real Thanksgiving means lifting our hearts to God.

I remember viewing the various display tables at the World Council Assembly in Vancouver, 1983. It startled me to come upon a secular organization, straight from Texas, source of so much trouble. The table offered brochures promoting a new project, "Americans united in Thanksgiving". One of ten signers, Albert Outler, a magnanimous Methodist, one of my heroes. Surely we can be thankful for people who have shown us thanksgiving in their lives. We might give thanks for big hearted people, and try to emulate them.

Hold on a minute, though. We are on shaky ground. Magnanimity is not as ubiquitous today as it was fifty years ago. Our time with it chronic ailments and post-Christian ethos dampens such spirit. We grow up more slowly and grow and grow out less gratefully than our two older generations. Big hearts are hard to find. And when found, they are too often human, frail. Thanksgiving is not finally in other people.

The windshield wiper swishes and swishes, to grandmothers' house's we go.

Were can I find real Thanksgiving? I look to the church, whose eucharist blends with the eternal liturgy of the angels. Has there ever been such a thankful splendid mix of people? Surely we may give thanks for church, our church, our consecration of work and life, our communal summary of what means most to us.

Hold on a minute, though. We are on shaky ground. If for this only we are to give thanks, we may question our need to do so. After all, notice where the church falls short. Thousands of neighbors have not come to the banquet. Our church has miles to go, yet, in worship for the 21st century, in evangelism from Park Avenue to Henrietta in modeling a dimension of racial harmony, in standing for the life and welfare of children, in teaching tithing. Many more are absent than present on Sunday, particularly color, students, the poor. And, of all those absent on a given Sunday, our overly cozy celebration can make the absence of the transcendent God the most painful absence of all. Said one Lutheran, reading the new Methodist hymnal: "They still celebrate themselves." We bring with us on Sunday a bit of the functional atheism of the week.

No matter what we build in work, in liturgy, we are on shaky ground. I sat with my friend Bill 10 years ago. He runs the Presbyterian College in Montreal. We looked out his window at what remained of a beautiful modern chapel. Built in 1960, remodeled in 1985, this chapel took years to create. Years of fund raising, committee meetings, hard decisions, color coordination, architectural design. It was finally finished in 1988, and I worshiped in it for these years. One Saturday night in October, an arsonist burned it down in two hours. There is creativity in destruction: he planned his move, turned off the alarm, set the fire and ran. But Bill, a gentle fellow, made this remark: "It is trite but true. It takes so long to build something, and no time at all to destroy it."

You know there is more than one kind of arson. The building of years and lifetimes can be creatively destroyed in a moment, with a word, out of one action. No, the secret of Thanksgiving is not in our liturgy, either. Our church, our finest common work, is too fragile for that. Here "wheat and tares are together sown, unto joy and sorrow grown." For the church, the day of the Lord can come like a thief in the night. Beware.

Swish, and swish again, the windshield wipers move, it is a gray Thanksgiving, a day of reverie.

But is there not in life itself much for which we may be thankful? Witness our material well-being, our sweaters and jewelry. Surely we are grateful for our jobs. And what fine homes we have, even the humblest in our congregation has the makings of a palace. We can at least be grateful for health, hearth, home. These have been 10 prosperous years. All is well, isn't it?

Hold on a minute. We are on shaky ground for real Thanksgiving. Life inspires both gratitude and ingratitude. Our progress has been at a fantastic social and environmental expense. The nuclear potential of the age brackets all optimism. And though you may be cozy and happy Thursday, many will not be. Many will stare blankly at T. V. with no hand to hold but their own. Others will return to the fractious family that bore them. Still others will sharply realize the loss, through death and divorce, of 2000. Of course, we can be thankful that it isn't any worse.

The wipers swish, to and fro. Swish, swish, swish! And the sun also rises.

The secret of Thanksgiving is hidden, strangely enough, back in the Scripture read. Ever since Adam, Eve and serpent held their theological seminar in the garden, yesterday, we have been putting our questions upside down. We do so now. We try to find Thanksgiving in the question "For what are we thankful?" and the answer is ambiguous, as is life itself. The Bible, telling Jesus' gospel, has it otherwise.

Not for what, but to whom are we thankful today?

Sunday, November 05, 2000

Don't Get Too Comfortable

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Micah 6:6-8

1. The Village Green Five and Dime

If you have some change in your pocket come with me for a minute. We are going into the village green five and ten cent store, to see what we can see. Don't you love this little store? For fifty years - even more - the shop has somehow survived, meeting the essential impermanent desires of the day. Here you buy pencils and notebooks for school, a scarf in the winter, a squirt gun in the spring, a yo-yo for summer, and come autumn again, something to wear at Halloween. John Wesley said his English people were "a nation of shopkeepers". So in our region, the small business, farm, store provide our backbone. The same scents and smells linger here, from so long ago: a mixture of newsprint and bubble gum and paint and perfume. The uncovered tongue and groove wooden floor creeks in the same odd places.

For so many years this store was the stage on which its owner performed. He wore a handlebar mustache, bright white hair, a stunning smile, and cackled with a child's laugh. He looked like the Wizard of Oz. Years later, when I sat next to him as a fellow Rotarian, he looked the same - the Wizard of Oz. His little world of tiny transactions, most of the purchases made by people who had to reach up to the counter, on tiptoe, somehow kept his soul lit. Of all people, I guess, he could have had the most reason to doubt his role. His customers were few and supported only by weekly allowances. The transactions involved pennies and dimes. The days were long, the hours demanding. But the sun streaming through his clean window touched most often a smiling, happy face. I can remember handing over some little coin in exchange for some little trinket. In that little sunlight, over the exchange of impermanent capital for impermanent goods, somehow, there lingered a graceful, spirited, permanence, too. Maybe that is what made the wizard so happy.

When Chris was 6 we went to buy birthday candles and a fishing pole. Chris also saw some candy. I turned to pick up the NY Times, and saw Chris reach up to the counter with his purchase. The wizard stood gleaming and ready. Then Chris took out his wallet and stared up. He fished in the little pouch, and found his coin. Then the wizard looked at Chris, and Chris looked at the wizard. The old eyes darkened with delighted understanding, and the handlebar mustache twitched and the wrinkled hand reached forward. And Chris held his ground and waited, fingering the coin, for that eternal moment that hangs between childhood and maturity. There they stood, matador and bull, boxer and champion, batter and pitcher, wizard and boy. As he had for decades, the shop owner patiently paused. At last out came the coin. The deal was struck.

I count it as one of the holy moments I have seen, as is any first experience, and especially any first experience of impermanence. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The wizard died ten years ago. His son runs the place now, a sallow faced sullen, serious, saturnine, somber, sad soul. Gone are the mustache and panache of his father. Why is he so dour, I have wondered over the years? I think I know. The son is my age. Young. He remembers those holy moments too, those experiences of entering the world, those moments when we learn about impermanence, those early exchanges over goods that are seasonal as, in fact, are all goods in this world. He remembers his dad reaching down to take the coin, to seal the deal, to shake with happiness in the sunlight streaming over all the little impermanence of life. And it makes him sad. He misses his dad. He misses his dad. And don't we all? And don't we all.

Once we begin to reckon with the impermanence of this life, so much paper and candy and seasonal needs, there comes a longing for an experience of God. There arises in the heart, a longing for an experience of God, for the lapping light of the morning to touch the cheek, for the full permanence of …grace, love, heaven…to enter our boyish life.

People come to church for an experience of God. You would be surprised to know how hard, even in the ministry, it can be to keep his truth in view. Men and women come to church, longing for an experience of divine love.

The son, the new shopkeeper, needs a church, a place where the longing of the heart can be fed, that "desire of the moth for the flame, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow." And don't we all? And don't we all.

2. A Prophetic Approach to Impermanence

The same longing we have tried to witness in the crowded aisles of the village green five and dime also pulses through the deep places of the Scripture. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Micah Ben Imlah did hunger and thirst, too. In the pain and tenderness of too much loving, he wondered how, if at all, such an experience could be his. With what shall I come before the Lord? What shall I do? Whom should I love? How should I walk?

Amid the piles and aisles of impermanent, seasonal goods, where an experience of lasting love?

A path toward the permanent, this is what Micah desires. In the uses of his resources, Micah believes, there lies hidden the potential for an opening into an experience of God. Underneath that apparently chaotic impermanence, there lies the potential for an opening into the experience of God. Micah advises us not to get too comfortable.

Do. We may learn to use our resources for the making of justice.

Love. We may come to love what cannot be seen, mercy, and then to use what can be seen, money, rather than loving what can be seen and using what cannot be seen.Walk. Because our transactions, most days, involve bills and not coins, we, unlike the shopkeeper, we are more tempted to take ourselves overly seriously.

3. Paul and Impermanence

In this same vein, the Apostle to the Gentiles teaches us again today about impermanence. Is this not a glorious and a liberating word? In treating a matter of moral discernment among the wayward Corinthians, Paul asserts the impermanence of this world. His blessed words are as strange for us as they are healthy to hear.

Paul advises us not to get too comfortable. Marriage, death, birth, work, life, all - these Paul asserts are themselves impermanent goods, seasonal items in the aisles of life's five and dime. Good, holy, important, and, at last…impermanent. Let those who buy do so as those who have no goods. Let them recall that first experience, reaching up to the counter, of impermanence. Let us treat our goods not in the form of this world, which is passing away, but in the form of the world to come.

Here is a great blessing, for those with ears to hear. Within the land of impermanence, there is the possibility of an experience of God. It is for that experience… that touch of the divine hand upon the hand of the child of God… for which goods and seasonal items and crowded aisles and everything from five and dimes to great corporations exist.

When we give, we open the possibility of experiences of God, not necessarily for ourselves directly, although that may be, but more often indirectly for others. Giving and generosity bless us because they open up the opportunity for an experience of God.

4. Impermanence Today

As stewardship Sunday approached this year, I began to pray about what to say.

A. Free Will Offering

I wanted to say something about the power and beauty of our free will system of giving and funding. You are free to give or not, to tithe or not. It is a rare and divine grace. So….

There is an anxiety about this day. This is my 23rd stewardship sermon, fall campaign and annual financial plan. Every one is an adventurous ride on the tide of generosity. We have no tax base in the church, like those which support schools. We have no product to barter, like those that support businesses. We live and die on the free choices, every fall, that raise a tide of giving. I wonder, sometimes, what would happen if we could not fund our ministry? What would happen to our efforts with children and older folks, our mission and outreach, our staff and buildings, our worship and music? Yet every year, we await the news of the tide.

In 1995, I was heading into another role, a district superintendency. I confess that one apparent minor happiness about that assignment was the prospect that there would be no pressure to raise funds every fall. I would just send out the note assigning the 20% to each church for apportionment, and wait for the checks to role in. A little ice tea, Oprah on the tube, wait for the mail to come. No need to worry. No attention to freedom for the giver. No anxiety about the amount.

You notice I didn't last very long as a DS. David Lubba said, "Come to Asbury and enjoy a great pulpit, a fine building, beautiful music, super staff, loving congregation, full mission. And, after five years, you can buy a slightly used new car." Yes, I said in a New York minute. Later I asked, "What about stewardship?" Yes, there is that…

Every fall the church waits for the tide, like surfers. We crouch along the board, out beyond the San Francisco Bay. The sun is high, the sky is blue, the air is warm, the day is fine. We feel the tide rising, and here it comes! We stand, and put our toes out on the board. We hang ten. And the tide rises, every year. Thanks to freely chosen gifts, thanks to you. Sometimes the tide is low, and we drift a little. Sometimes the tide is high, and we spin. The uncertainty that is the sign of real freedom for the giver and the gift is that warm and vivifying wind that feeds us. I wanted to talk to you about freedom in giving.

B. Developing Disciples

But then I realized it was not just free giving I wanted to address.

I wanted to celebrate the ministry of this church, its worship and education and care. This great church does so much good in the world! Here children learn of Christ, receiving Bibles from an adult class. Here the hungry are fed, and given a haircut. Here the worship of God resounds in high praise, as our radio congregation listens in. Here our mature members put young adults to shame with spiritual retreats that are real occasions of spirit. Here grown men pray at 6 A.M. Some of us are still groaning at noon. Here our frail elderly are not forgotten, but visited with a word of hope and prayer by a retired minister. Here fellowship and friendship can grow into adult classes. Here the Scripture is read and interpreted from a sturdy pulpit. Here Philippians 4:8 shines, things that are honorable, true, just, beautiful, of good report. There is a story a day to tell about Jesus Christ who inhabits, haunts and hallows this church! I wanted to talk with you about the ministry of AFUMC.

C. Faithful Saints

But then I saw that the ministry of the church alone was the heart of the matter either.

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?

D. An Experience of God

But then I sensed that something more than this too was in my heart.

I wanted to speak to what you look for at church, an experience of God. People come to church for an experience of God. It is great blessing, that giving opens opportunities for experiences of God. They come in God's time and they come over time and they come to others. But giving gives the chance for such an experience.

A month ago I had a wedding here in the chancel. It was beautiful autumn day as so many have been this year. The service was wonderful. Duane played a version of "Love Divine" with bells that rounded off the service to perfection. I was proud to be here. Later, in the ready room, a woman who had attended the service asked about my family.

We talked, and I discovered that she was from the North Country, and had been raised with some difficulty by a single mother.

"Near Alexandria Bay?"
"In Alexandria Bay."

"Did you know Rev. Pennock, who was there in retirement?" (who is Jan's grandfather)?

All of sudden her face became red and her eyes filled. I wondered what I had said to upset her. This is the "joy" of the ministry - you enter a room and everyone is uncomfortable! You make small talk and women cry!

"No", she said, "you don't understand…When I was a young woman, I barely could go to college. Every semester I received a check from the Alexandria Bay Church, money that was to pay for my voice lessons…This kept me going in college, not just the money, which was significant, but more so the thought, the fact that somebody believed in me, could see me with a future, outside of my struggling family and small town, and invested in me…."

By now we were both emotional.

What does that have to do with me?

"I learned a few years ago that your wife's grandfather is the one who gave the money for those lessons! His gift formed my life!"

What are you doing today?

"I am the Director of Music for a Methodist church near Albany. The bride grew up in my youth choir. Music is my life."

Over all those years, and so many miles, across such a great existential distance, look what happened: I was given an experience of God, emotion laded and heartfelt and real and good, and even in church or at least almost, as a consequence of a gift made long ago and far away. The hidden blessing of generosity is that giving opens the world to the possibility of experiences of God. Rev. Harold Pennock is long dead. His wife Anstress is long dead. But here, after a wedding, in the late afternoon, his thoughtful kindness opened the world. I wanted to commend to you an experience of God.

E. Why Am I Here?

But then I realized there was even something more I wanted to say, more than the goodness of AFUMC, more than faithfulness of her people, more than the experience of God provided in generosity.

I wanted to speak, and that very personally, of the reason I am here.

What is lasting and good in my life has come from the church of Christ. Name and identity in baptism. Faith in confirmation. Community in eucharist. Wife and family in marriage. Work, and vocation, in ordination. Saving forgiveness in moments of pardon. Hope for heaven in the gospel of Christ.

Whatsoever has any permanence for me comes from the church.

So…I guess I would be lost in the fall without a chance to preach a Stewardship sermon. (I admit it has been 23 years since I have had the chance to be so lost!… but nevertheless.)

But I am here, really, out of a formation, long before adulthood, in the midst of people who knew that the form of this world was passing away. The superintendents who remembered to bring Christmas gifts, the Bishops who sat at the dining room table - they did so with an existential reserve, a freedom from the impermanence of this world, a joyful and sober sense that the form of this world is passing away. "Don't get too comfortable" they seemed to say in deed as well as word. They modeled an existential itinerancy that is far more important the mechanical one we know too well in which, as we say, Bishops appoint - and disappoint. The ministers who came and sang hymns in our homes, who laughed at and with each other, and who prayed for the salvation of the world - they dealt with the world as if they had no dealings with it. The people in our churches, churches supported then and now by the tithing of retired school teachers, who cared about the world and about the next generation - they knew the impermanence of the world around, and the brevity of our time here. They tithed, and so what remains of our church remains.

Those who raised us, who could have had many more the goods of this passing world, lived with an aplomb, a grace, a savoir faire that better than any sermon interpreted 1 Corinthians 7. Let those who mourn do so as if they were not mourning. The discipline of the Methodists - this is your birthright - comes from this presentiment about impermanence.

In our raising, you could have the courage to live on less, to itinerate at the direction, if not the whim, of a Bishop, to pull up stakes and make new friends, to know the hurt and the excitement of a gypsie life. How did they do this? Because they believed in their bones that what lasts is not the various goods and seasonal items of the five and dime, but the touch of the wizard's hand. That gracious experience of God that comes in and through the impermanent cacaphony of life, and is primed by giving.

I wonder if we are ready to open the world up to experiences of God?

5. An Invitation

Sometime later tonight, especially if the sky is clear and if the stars come out, I am going to walk out onto the back lawn. The moonlight glistening on the frosted hedgerows, the sound of squirrels scurrying with nuts to store, the smell of the dampened leaves, the taste of crisp autumn - the season of accountability - touching the tongue, hands clasped against the cold now beneath a gleaming North Star it is time to offer a prayer. I wonder if you would pray this with me tonight:

Dear God,

Help me to love you this coming year.

I am going to give away 10% of what I earn. I am nervous about doing it. I need your help. I want to tithe, but the coin seems to stick inside the wallet somehow. So I need your help. Amen.