Saturday, January 27, 2001

Personal Correspondence

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 1: 18-25
Learning from Loss

The sermon today begins and ends in Princeton. Those, some minutes hence, who await relief, will be able to sense its proximity, when again we approach New Jersey. As Weldon Crossland did like to say: "After my sermons some arise inspired and others awake refreshed."

Twenty-five winters ago two carloads of seminary students left New York City for New Jersey, to play in a basketball game, Union vs. Princeton. The game was part of a makeshift league involving the students of Henri Nouwen at Yale, Richard Norris at General, Cornel West at Union, Charles Rice at Drew and Ernest Gordon at Princeton (we meet him again, a bit later).

Because we were bringing an urban game to the suburbs, and were undefeated, the ride out the Garden State Parkway exuded levity and confidence. Our confidence was further enhanced when we reviewed, across the gym, our competitors: smaller, fewer, lighter, and including some women, one of whom was one of the starting five. Easy work.

What does the Bible say, "Pride goeth before a fall." They killed us. They slaughtered us. We were crushingly worsted. It was humiliating.

To that point, the winter of 1977, it was the single most dramatic public defeat ever handed by more cautious Christianity, to the leaders (or future leaders?) of liberal, that is to say old line, Protestantism. The exegetical Biblicists walloped Union's finest in what might have been a harbinger of things to come, in the demise of liberal Protestantism, over the next quarter century. A little historical foreshadowing? Instead of grumbling and explaining, as we rode back through the Lincoln tunnel, we might have done better to ask: "What can we learn from the more cautious, Presbyterian Princetonians, from the exegetes the Biblical Scholars.

It is a good Epiphany exercise. In the quiet breathing space of January, may we listen again for the true, the good, the right, the lasting. Can moderation learn anything from analytical zeal? Can Union learn anything from Princeton, life from text? Can moderation learn anything from caution? Most: Can Epiphany throw any light on Christmas?

Our lectionary leads us through St. Matthew this year. So let us carefully take a Princetonian, attentive look at the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose birth is accounted in the first chapter, which includes the first sermon, in Matthew.

Wonder and Awe

How easily, mouths so warm, we try to say what really cannot be spoken. We are generous in our estimate of our own speaking, even of our estimate of the preaching of the church of Jesus Christ. How generous were even the earliest accounts, in their matter-of-fact, generous self-estimate. Look back with me, just a little, at the ground we have covered since the feast of Christmas.

"The birth of Jesus happened in this way." How quick we are to speak, to stare, to decide, to judge. To know. Or think we know. One teacher said to one student: "Your abundant knowledge stands in the way of your real education." How firm, much too firm, is our ostensible grasp of the ineffable, the wondrous, the real. Our reverence, unlike that of the Holy Scripture, too often lacks the discomfort of travel, the fear of the unknown, the quaking before angels, the conception of, let alone by, the Holy Spirit. Kings, shepherds, Joseph and Mary. Look back a few weeks. If we are not careful, it all becomes so familiar, so cozy. And the newer habits of hokey worship, near and far, do not help us.

The Scripture tells another story. Unlike the series of familiar events, which make up our habituated rehearsal of Epiphany, the Bible tells a strange story, a difficult story, even a stern story. This may help us more than all manner of cozy familiarity, if only to engage us when at last or at first we realize that it has never been easy to lead a Christian life. Such a life, as Ernest Tittle constantly repeated, is meant for heroes and heroines. Listen to this unfamiliar Epiphany: a virgin is with child; a husband, who is no husband, resolves not to take revenge; an angel appears in a dream; the angel, in the dream, interprets the Scripture: (we will want to come back to this); the man obeys an angel voice; the man further accepts the angel's name for what his wife, not yet truly a wife, conceives. A virgin birth, a resolute husband, an angel voice, a trusting woman, a name transmitted in a dream. This is strange, unfamiliar territory. We do not live in a world of virgin births, resolute husbands, angel voices, trusting dreamers, or names dropped from on high. Our world is rather the world of our own choices, our own creation.


Late one night a few weeks ago snow was falling lightly north of Watertown. They have some snow over there, on the Tug Hill. Coming over the border from Canada, and down south from the river, one enters a barren, flat land. At 1 A.M. on a winter night, the residents of Alexandria Bay and Clayton and Lafargeville are asleep. The dark moonscape surrounding the road, pock-marked with valleys and an occasional farmhouse, lies silent. Fallow northern fields, farms all dead. These fallow northern fields lie strange and difficult and stern in the moonlight. With pelting flakes covering the windshield and darkening the moon, nature makes a seamless shroud, "blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp". To step aside from the world of our own doing puts us out into the dark, the scene of angels. To find ourselves outside the world of our control and comfort, puts us out into the cold moonlight, the place of the uncanny, strange and unfamiliar territory. A return to church can be such a place. A sudden diagnosis can be such a place. An unplanned revisit to old anger can be such a place. Unemployment can be such a place. Loss of breath can be such a place. The desire to end something before it is really ended can be such a place. A shooting war, on the ground, not from the technological safety of many thousand feet can be such a place.

Beyond the stream that imports information, sustenance and comraderie into our homes and lives, there is this darkness. It is a wondrous darkness, for all its unfamiliarity away from the blue haze of the television. Here is the Good News of Epiphany: Jesus Christ is our personal correspondence, in this darkness, from Almighty God.

Angel Sermon

It is fitting that the first sermon, the first interpretation in the Gospel of Matthew that we are going to follow this year, is offered by an angel. What other voice would be fit to herald such news? Yes, an angel. How strange this account appears when carefully studied! The angel interprets the prophet Isaiah. Because this sermon purports to tell us about the meaning of Epiphany, and so, this is the magisterial claim, about the meaning of life, we shall want to bear down, quietly, and listen.

I confess that there is nothing more personal for me than preaching. I would rather hear or read, discuss or plan a sermon than do almost anything else. That day in Princeton we passed the chapel, where Ernest Gordon, the chaplain preached for 40 years. I love sermons. What the crack of the bat is to the little leaguer, the mist of April 1 to the trout angler, the humming tuning of violins to the musical devotee, the roar of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd are to the dramaturgy, the winter boat show to the water skier, the new catalogue to the shopper, the sound of the locomotive to the train buff, this is what the moment after the sermon hymn feels like to me. Please accept heartfelt thanks for your addressability, and early apology for anything less than helpful.

Now Isaiah had said that the child, God's personal correspondence should be called 'Emmanuel' or, "God." God present. Emmanuel. Come Emmanuel. How could any sermon, any interpretation, even by an angel, improve on this?

A student who read Genesis for the first time this week said, "This is so different from the way we think. No one is that awestruck by God." And the polls confirm it. 90% of our people "believe in God". As in 1952 so in 2002, it is fashionable to profess this general belief. God is with us. The pantheist, the spiritualist, the nationalist, the literalist, and many a Methodist can agree. How easily is such an Epiphany, such a belief celebrated! God is with us. In nature, in the occult, in the fatherland, in the Scripture, in the religious organization. God is with us. A tidy tale. God is all and everywhere, with us, Emmanuel. We find God whenever and wherever. Audobon, McClain, Jefferson, Jerome and Asbury equally serve as guides. God in trees, in dreams, in politics, writings, in religion. It is the same. God is everywhere! God is with us. His name shall be called, Emmanuel. This is familiar and cozy.

The angel gives another name, though. Read the account as represented by Matthew. Here is another name, not just Emmanuel, not just Christmas, but a name fit for the travel, darkness, fear of Epiphany. It is a name spattered with the blood of history. It is a name that fits in a manger. It is a name that cries out for response. It is a winter name, a name that sends a fierce, cold wind across the unbroken heart. We feel a chill. It is a name that burns a bright flame for every kind of love. It warms us now. It is a name that charms fears, opens, prisons, brings music of life and health and peace. The Epiphany angel gives another name, particular, not universal, a name that means one thing, not everything, a hedgehog name not a fox name. A name that is above every name. Whose birth did we celebrate anyway?

"His name shall be called Jesus, for He shall save his people from their sin."

Jesus is a personal name, a personal correspondence. The angel of the Lord gives a sermon, interprets. The angel replaces Emmanuel, and gives the name Jesus, which means, being translated, "he will save" or "God saves". Mary did not give birth to the object of an airy belief in the general proposition that God is with us, somehow, somewhere, anyhow, anywhere. She bore a son, Jesus, who saves from sin. This is a different, strange, stern name. It has profound meaning for you and me.

It means, simply, that God enters your life to get you free from your besetting sin. Not in trees, dreams, votes, words, or committees, but in personal correspondence. He will save his people from their sin. You will know him - if he be known at all - as He saves you. Christ was born to save.

To save a world from the sin of nuclear holocaust,
To save a nation from the sin of military pride,
To save a generation from the sin of greed,
To save a church from the sin of self-congratulation,
To save a man from alcohol, a woman from suicide,
a boy from drugs, a girl from Aids, a family from disaster,
To save his people from their sin,
To save souls, to set us on the road to heaven.

This is why we follow Christmas with Epiphany, to put a little light on the matter. Such is the name of Jesus, a name that cries out for response. A name that cries out for a people who can acknowledge and confess their sin, who learn the necessity of saying please, thank you and I'm sorry. Can we become that kind of people? A people who name God not everything but one thing, the way to freedom from bondage? Can we become that kind of people? A people who can share the joy of Epiphany, which is this: there is a transforming friendship through which all manner of entrapment dies. It is a lifelong process, and it is process of a gradually deepening friendship with Jesus Christ, who saves his people from their sin. Can this friendship be ours? I commend its path to you. Him whom Isaiah called Emmanuel, the angel further named, or renamed Jesus. Strange, difficult, stern. The wondrous news from the darkness, if you can hear and believe an angel, is not just that God is with us, but that truly God is for us.

Princeton Chapel

The good news is not only that God is with us, but also that God is for us.

That day in Princeton we passed Ernest Gordon's chapel. A week ago, he died. His obituary, reported worldwide this week, reported simply a man given to the service of naming Christ Jesus, who saves. You can see the story in the movie, "Bridge over the River Kwai". A Scottish pilot, Gordon was captured in 1942 and forced into slave labor in Burma. They lived on a lump of rice a day. Slackers were beaten. The sick were shot. Those who tried escape were executed. "We were treated worse than animals," he remembered.

Yet in that bamboo hell, Gordon found salvation. "Faith thrives when there is no hope but God," he later repeated in his weekly sermons. He survived, thanks to his comrades. He survived his survival, thanks to his Lord. He realized that "if he let himself be consumed by hate, he would be squandering the life that had been given back to him." He went to Seminary, immigrated to the USA, was ordained, preached on Long Island, went as chaplain to Princeton, opposed McCarthy, supported King, opposed Vietnam, supported Russian dissidents. In other words, he carefully read the Scripture, and tried to tell its truth about life and faith. "Faith thrives where there is no hope but God."

I wonder if power you are ready to grasp some of that transformational today?

Thursday, January 18, 2001

A Famine of the Word?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Amos 8:7-12
1. An Introduction

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (2 Kings 1:8, Matt. 4:4)

Not by bread, alone, but by the word…

We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Frank McCourt’s lovely bildungsroman, Angela’s Ashes, ends with the young boy escaping his past, escaping his family of origin, escaping the biology that threatens always to become full destiny, and feeding himself. He is so hungry that he finds trashed newspapers in which the daily fish and chips have been wrapped, and he licks the papers clean of scraps and bits and crumbs and oil, until the words on the paper fill his mouth. His whole book is about his deliverance, how he learned to live by reading, how he learned to love through words.

Not by bread alone…

The ancients knew this. Amos fiercely predicts that all manner of calamity will befall his 8th century BC countrymen. He saves the most horrific for last. There will come a time, he forecasts, given your wayward habits, given that so many so often are living a lie (this is sin, living a lie), when there will be no word. After which, as Jesus so often said, it is too late. Famine was the great scourge of antiquity, feared as today we fear nuclear holocaust. Said Amos, there is something worse. A holocaust of the word. When there is no word, no truth, no communication, no consort, no connection.

Are we living in such a time? Today? Has a famine of the word befallen us? A fit question for the memory of Martin Luther King, is it not?

2. A Time of Famine Today?

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? A few hours spent viewing Jerry Springer or Bill O Reilly or Friends or the Shopping Channel might make you think so.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? The great hopes with which television writing began, in the 1950’s, have given way to waste, a beautifully bedazzling--wasteland. And yet, there are exceptions, children of Rod Serling still found in the magic box. Here a little there a little, even on TV…You enter a new dimension, not of sight or of sound, but of mind and imagination.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? Look out at the internet, a sprawling universe of chat, governed by e-mail. E-mail: immediate, global, indelible, irretrievable, reactive. The medium of choice today. Does it play to our penchant for control and our slothful introversion? Like aerial bombardment, it puts a distance between aggressor and victim. I guess I fear I will come to love it, even though it brings out less than the best in me…And yet there are exceptions. A carefully composed, thoughtful letter, kind and honest, only sent over the waves after three editings. A joyful e-note from Europe or Texas or Iraq.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? I found cleaning out my wallet the other day that the Brighton library card and the divinity school card were both still there, unused in the recent past. The human being, to be human, needs space and time for being. Otherwise we become human doings, not human beings. For this reason God made winter. For this reason, of the making of books there is no end.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? Listen to our political discourse. We were led to war on the argument that prudence dictated immediate action. So we could act preemptively--though this was not our custom, unilaterally—though this was not our desire, imperially—though this was not our heritage, unforeseeably--though this was not our preference. So, an ostensibly Christian country could be led to prosecute a post-Christian war--because of the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Where are they? It is not fatal, for the government, nor for the vast majority across our congregation, county and country who have supported the war, if they are not found. We can survive that, as readily as we can their discovery. People know about mistakes, and thus about contrition, compunction, apology, learning. The discovered atrocities within Iraq provide some cover and justification. But it needs saying, doesn’t it? From the highest offices, doesn’t it? Or are we beyond telling the truth? Just how broad and lasting is the word famine? Are we still in the era of questioning the meaning of words like “is” and “sex” and “good”? I thought we voted that out of office. Los mismos perros con collares differentes.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? Listen to our church talk about gays. Why has this issue swallowed all others? I believe this issue is the identified patient in our dysfunctional family rhetoric. The perennially ill person in a family distracts (and protects) others from talking to one another, or about other things. A pastor learns to let the identified patient be, and to talk to the others, the so-called healthy family members. What (or whom) does his illness help others avoid? This issue helps liberals avoid other issues like evangelism, abortion, and stewardship. This issue helps conservatives avoid other issues like war, justice, and money. Really, homosexuality is the perfect scapegoat, both for liberals and for conservatives. It helps us in our daily preference of the anxiety of the known over the fear of the unknown. All you need is a willingness to let go of the truth.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? Someone should write a diary of our daily talk, like V Klemperer did in Germany from 1933—1945. What would such a diary record? What is the character of our daily conversation, to the extent we have time for it? How well do we listen? How carefully do we remember? How insightfully do we respond? How lovingly do we visit? Do we visit?

Turn down the television for a moment and see if, by speaking in an honest and vulnerable way, you may come closer to your family and to God. Turn away from the computer for a minute, and say something risky. Make it a responsible risk, covered in kindness and love, but make it. I know: “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth—and remove all doubt”. I know: I never regretted the things I did not say as much as the things I said badly. I know: omit needless words. Still, we have this day and this week on this green earth, to feed one another the word of life. Try and say what is on the heart, and try and tell the truth. And have faith and have courage: falsehood finally has no defense, and truth needs none!

3. Listening for A Prophetic Word Today

Amos spoke 800 years before the birth of Christ. He mourned the bitter loss of an only son, before that phrase would trigger theological reflection, as it does for us. He foretold a darkness at noon before that phrase titled an account of Stalin’s purge. He spoke of songs becoming laments before the poetry subsequent to 9/11. He comes before Jesus the Christ. Amos’s prophecy about a famine of the word may fit most or some of our current experience. I wager it fits more than we care readily to admit. But this is not the last word! The word famine is not the last word now!

We trust our life and future to Jesus Christ! It is his word, finally, that carries us, and his role as Prophet that means most for us. In him, the voice of the prophet continues, even in a word famine, to speak to us. His word lives as spirit right now right here among us.

There are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are varieties working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the spirit for the common good. To one is given through the spirit the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge through the same spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, to another gifts of healing by the same spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by the same Spirit who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

The other cold day I sat at the streetlight noticing the temperature. –2 degrees Fahrenheit. Here is a strange reality. There are great gulfs crossed between gas to liquid and liquid to solid. But those gulfs are numerically unheralded. They are not known by great numbers like 100 degrees or 0 degrees. No, they are found out on the arithmetical periphery, in forgotten minor numbers like 32 and 212. Celsius is so much more orderly. But Fahrenheit is peripheral like prophecy and lopsided like life. You find the word spoken in forgotten places. With Amos, in a little hamlet of Tekoa. With Jesus, up on the lakeshore. With Wesley, in coal mines. With King, in the black church. Voices, peripheral but clear…

Ellen Goodman still trying to make sense of the 70’s… Alistair McCloud naming male loss…Isaiah Berlin prospecting for peace… David Brooks reshaping the meaning of conservatism…Alexander Solzenitzn admitting that truth is elusive… Vaclev Havel hoping for freedom…Bill Ritter pondering suicide… Paul Farmer, healing the Haitian sick…

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. This is what Amos did, however unsuccessfully, for his people.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. This is what Lynn and Mark Baker have done, here and there, for the poor in Tegucigalpa. Mark wrote recently, “If people are not secure in God’s love, their alienation from God will lead them to live in ways that harm others.” (151)

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. Reinhold Niebuhr did so over a long life time of restrained, earnest engagement with life. I carry this paragraph of Niebuhr’s in my wallet: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” (Sifton 349)

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. So said Abraham Heschel, while he and Niebuhr, as older men, walked their dogs together on Riverside Drive. Wouldn’t you have loved to overhear their banter? Listen to his voice: “The demand in biblical religion is to be alert, and to be open to what is happening…Awe enables us to sense in the small things the beginnings of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and simple.” (Sifton, 332)

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. During WW II Paul Tillich took the subway downtown once a week to speak over Radio Free Europe, to speak to his German relatives. Listen to his radio voice: “…the Jewish question is the question of our own existence or non-existence as Christians and as human beings. It is the question of our redemption or our judgment…this crime means blood guilt for generations for those who are doing it and those who are tolerating it…taking place with ever growing cruelty in Poland…hundreds of thousands of innocent people are being hauled away to mass death and you are standing by!.” Listen to his radio voice regarding the National Socialists: “They know all about tragedy, for their creed educates for tragic heroism, it educates for death, but this is all Nazism knows, whereas democracy, socialism, Christianity all have something that stands beyond tragedy, a hope for the human race.” (Sifton 265). Do I detect here an insight and a probing characterization of some trends in our own country and in our own time? I believe I do.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. The generations deep hurt of people of color in these United States finally found full voice in the well tempered homiletics of Martin Luther King. In Christ, the divine voice has taken full throated residence in the heart of hurt. A voice to be heard needs loving connection with an addressable community. The prophet does not stand above or apart from his people. He abides, dwells, tabernacles among them.

Spirit tells us though that our calling is not to remember and recite, but to live and speak!

Our job is not just to remember that King said, “The great stumbling block is the white moderate more devoted to order than justice”. Our job is to be alert to the weighty matters of justice and mercy and love—of jobs and money and life.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”. Our job is to find that something.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. Our job is build that nation.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “let freedom ring” Our job is to make it ring, in our time, in the face of the fear of this time.

Our job is not just to remember that King said, “I just want to do God’s will (and) we as a people will get to the promised land”. Our job is to get walking.

4. Honoring Prophetic Speech

Up then and let us wait for the Word, waiting without idols, waiting without substitutes. And as we wait, let us honor the prophetic speech of Amos, of Jesus, of Wesley, of King. And let us act so in particular.

Let us prize the days in winter, the gifts of winter snow days, to read, to read ourselves, to read to our grandchildren, to invest in the joy and the spiritual grace of reflection that comes from reading. A literate person today is not one who can read, but one who does read. Let us protect and preserve the possibility of a divine Word, heard as spoken, by listening with intense glee, come Sunday. People have such remarkable, and shabby reasons not to worship. Not you, not we. Listen to the word of God.

Let us then speak ourselves, as we have spirit. At least in prayer. By visiting with one another (and that more than a broadcast e-mail). By writing down our views: in a journal, for a letter, as a letter to the editor. Numbers 11:29: “Would that all God’s people were prophets”.

Let us together assemble the spiritual gifts: the poetic spirituality of Ralph Cushman, the political engagement of Francis McConnell, the pastoral love of Earl Ledden, the homiletical energy of Ralph Ward, the administrative genius of Joe Yeakel, the cross-cultural insight of Hae Jong Kim and the joyful presence of Violet Fisher!

Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Great and Loving God, who is nearer than breathing, and closer than hands and feet, help us to draw near to you in sincerity and truth. Like the ancient prophet Amos, we confess that we are people who go astray. Individually and corporately, our speech has failed to be the truthful and redemptive gift it was intended to be. All too often we have criticized rather than encouraged, and we have cursed instead of blessed. We have been cowardly quiet when we should have spoken and we have been unthinkingly outspoken when we should have held our peace. Forgive us O Lord if our words have been tainted with racial slurs and sexual innuendos, if they have been tainted with anger, and if they have been diluted with untruths. Cleanse both our tongues and our hearts, and help us to communicate with godliness, purity, and power. Help us, O God of compassion to be all things to all people. Help us, in times of sorrow and difficulty, to be supportive and sympathetic. Give us the words to say in difficult situations; and if we cannot find the right words, give us grace simply to stand by with the warmth of our presence. Help us in times of happiness of others, to be equally supportive, which is often a more difficult task. You know, O Lord, how easily we begrudge others their success, and how jealous we can become of their honor. May we rejoice with those who rejoice as well as weep with those who weep. Give us guidance to know how to be of most help; when to be firm and when to give in; when to speak out and when to listen; when to encourage and when to reprimand.

We pray for those who have been chosen to represent the people in the halls of government, whose laws affect the life and welfare of all of us, whose decisions can make war or peace, injustice or justice. As we pray for our own country and the world, we pray for a great spiritual revival and wave of reverence and commitment to you and your ways. Where our sacrifices, or witness or service may aid your healing work, put us to the task. Speed the day when your kingdom is manifest in peace and prosperity, in mercy and justice, in faithfulness and obedience. All this we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2001

A Village Green

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 2:1-11


Last fall our 50 plus adult class went off on retreat. They spent three days in the woods, singing and praying and laughing and playing. Together. This was down at Watson Homestead. At meal time, our more mature group was joined by a young couple with two pre-school children, who were there separately on retreat. Our folks, one in particular, began earnestly and playfully to attend to these two unknown tikes, joking and riddling and goofing, kneeling on well used joints to speak nose to nose with the next generation. There on the broad expanse of the Watson great room - a kind of indoor village green - there emerged quite unplanned a communion across many decades. It was beautiful, delightful to behold.

Later, one said: "You know, there is hardly anyplace left in American where I can meet and enjoy children in this easy way." That night, journaling, I thought: that is what used to happen on the village green, and that is what can happen in the church.

What is happening now in our church? What is the state of our church? What vision for the future are we offered?

The Word of God about the Marriage of Opposites

Much of the malaise, the cultural doldrums of our time - perhaps about to lift? - arises from the clash of oppositions. We are keenly aware of the endless contention and intractable difference of life. Often the clash of opposites comes dressed in power polarities, or in truth triangles.

"May I see your license and registration please?" The sentence sounds, and is, different, depending on the gender, race, size, musculature, background, age of both speaker and hearer. Whatever the truth to be learned, there likely is a power polarity or two in play.

We do not know, yet, exactly what happened out in Henrietta, several weeks ago. The truth has not been told, yet, nor could it yet be told. There is time for that truth triangle to be tendered. But we know pretty surely where the power did lie.

"Step into the back room for a moment, please." The sentence sounds, and is, different, depending on gender, race, size, musculature, background, age, both for speaker and hearer. Whatever the truth to be learned, there is likely a power polarity or two in play.

We are not strangers to the clash of oppositions, dressed in power polarities, and truth triangles. The truth is that as a law observing runner, I have the right of way when I jog through the corner of Highland Avenue and Winton Road. In truth, if I have the light, I need not pull back my hood to watch the traffic. I am in the right. Run on, Bob, run on. But I also do pull back the hood, I always do pause, I always do watch the traffic. I may have the truth, but they have the power to kill me. The truth may truly reside with aging legs and bones. "I'm old but I'm slow." But life includes also the clash of power, which we deny at our peril. Power resides in metal and motion and the attitude of the driver.

It is in Jesus Christ that the marriage of opposites resides, heaven on earth.

Power and truth, married, at last, in the crucified. I ask you for a ruling, you jurors of faith: Is this not why Jesus, as his first miracle, enters public life at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. And not even the church ceremony, but rather the raucous post-marital party - this is the point at which, like a feudal baron, Jesus the Christ places his standard and unfurls his flag. Not for him, praise God, a faith unacceptable to culture, or a culture unacceptable to faith. Not for him. Here he is, striding like God upon the earth through the wreckage of opposites - life - to enact the miracle of the marriage of opposites. Holiness and Galilee - opposites. Son and mother - opposites. Water and wine - opposites. Purity jars filled with Bacchus, the god of wine - opposites. Understanding and misunderstanding - opposites. And in his presence, secular water becomes sacred wine, earthly water becomes heavenly wine. Jesus officiates at the marriage of opposites. And we have not even begun to speak of male and female.

For 180 years you have known and lived this truth, Asbury First. In Jesus Christ resides the marriage of opposites, heaven on earth. The divine space where faith attracts culture and culture attracts faith. Where faith and culture are married, until death do us part. This is not DUPC, not a space open to the demands of culture without regard to the concerns of faith. This is not Browncroft, not a space open to the expression of faith without regard to the culture of life. Rather, your abiding hope is for a faith acceptable to culture and a culture acceptable to faith. The marriage in Cana of Galilee.

Let us take a look at our current ministry.

The Trouble with Diagnosis

I am always a little uncomfortable with statistical diagnosis. Maybe you are too. The trouble with diagnosis is accuracy.

A man walks into his doctor's office, greets the secretary, and passes through to the examination table. There the doctor examines him and pronounces a full, sound report: "You are as healthy as a horse. I see no concerns or problems. Come back in a year or two." At which point, the man adjusts his tie and dons his coat. He walks to the door, opens the door - and falls forward, face down, dead. Again the doctor examines the patient. "Is he dead?", asks the secretary. "Yes, stone dead." "What can we do?" "There is nothing to do now….Well, maybe one thing. Perhaps we could turn him around so that it looks like he is entering the office, rather than exiting!"

The trouble with diagnosis is accuracy.

As we listen for God's word today, and look at the state of our church, our life together, let us strive for accuracy. And a little humility.

A Charge to Keep: Our Mission defined and executed

Our mission, stated and repeated, is to develop disciples through worship, education and care. To develop - such a good Rochester verb, fit for the city of image, the image capital. Carefully, gradually, truly, painstakingly to develop disciples of Jesus Christ, who brings together faith and culture. You have been doing so, since 1995. Notice a few relevant statistics:


*Attendance, 1995: 550; 2000: 700 (with summer at half speed)
*3 New Christmas offerings, 2 New Holy Week
*Place of Children affirmed
*Best: 10:00 informal, intimate, sacramental, new service, 42 present 1/7/01.


(see for yourself later today: youth, young children, music, future)
*Challenge: others' children - all children of God, all potential disciples who worship, learn and serve - we do not want to become a community where there is a tolerance for a disdain for children, especially different, other, poor children.

Recently our United Methodist Bishops challenged each congregation to measure our ministry with children. In a document title "A Church for all God's children, they listed 9 areas of ministry by which churches should be measured. Today, by one count, Asbury First excels in 7 out 9, passes in 1 other and is involved in the ninth, through the work of our community minister.


We can measure our mission by counting "Five fingers": $170,000 apportionment, support for use of campus throughout week- 1,000 a week at a cost of $100,000, our local ministries themselves - storehouse, dining caring center, nursery school, daycare, and others - $100,000/yr, designated giving - over $100,000/yr - Joy of Christmas, Easter, mission trips, special needs, and the pinky finger - outreach line in our plan (about $25,000).

Three Vital Questions for the Future

Can we be friendly and become welcoming?
Can we be giving and become generous?
Can we be caring and become inviting?

A Vision of Gracious Space: The Village Green

There is a way of living, of seeing and being, that rises above the unavoidable conflicts and unresolvable differences of any serious community life. To this sort of vision, I want to draw you today, beginning with a great Roosevelt story.

Eleanor, You are Perfectly Right!

In 1934, down in Warm Springs Georgia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received two important visitors on a single day. He was visited in the forenoon by Harry Hopkins, leader of the Works Projects Administration, who came to implore Roosevelt to make jobs the #1 priority of the new administration. FDR listened closely and with affirmation to his colleague, exuding that buoyant optimism for which he so fondly remembered. Hopkins concluded: "Mr. President, our first priority must be jobs." To this, lifting his chin and smiling broadly, Roosevelt replied, "Hopkins, you are perfectly right."

After lunch on the same day, in sauntered Harold Ickes, leader of the Public Works Administration, who came to implore Roosevelt to make buildings the #1 priority of his new administration. FDR listened closely and with affirmation to his colleague, exuding that buoyant optimism for which he is so fondly remembered. Ickes concluded: "Mr. President, our first priority must be the quality of the buildings we leave as our legacy -these will mark the memory of our administration." To this, lifting his chin and smiling broadly, Roosevelt replied, "Ickes, you are perfectly right."

As Ickes left, Eleanor, who had been listening from the sun-porch all the day long, came in and said, "Franklin, you have just told Ickes that he is perfectly right about buildings, when you told Hopkins this morning that he also was perfectly right about jobs. Franklin, you contradict yourself. They cannot both at the same time be perfectly right." FDR listened closely and with affirmation to his beloved wife, exuding that buoyant optimism for which he is so fondly remembered. For a while he was silent. Then, eyes gleaming, he turned to Eleanor and said, "Eleanor… you are perfectly right."

A buoyant vision sees beyond immediate conflict. An optimistic vision sees beyond immediate difference. A good vision includes, over much time, the marriage of opposites that is the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. People and buildings, both.

In the heart of that story is a village green, a spiritual openness to what is new and loving and good, over and above all the daily contests that are as inevitable as they are temporary.

Open Space

Ours is a relatively small city. A small town is a place where no one uses turn signals because everyone knows where everyone else is going anyway. In the North Woods, If Jane uses her turn signal it is ostentatious, because everyone knows she is going to see her cousin down the road as she does every Tuesday. Well, we too in our own ways are a small community. We have our local oddities - the inner loop, bowling, Halloween for dogoween, the Wolf publications, various waterways. All delightful and intriguing and ours. Spiritually, as a county community, though, we lack one thing, one thing is needful, and this need, I believe, Asbury First can supply over the next 50 years. We lack a spiritual village green.

The soul of our time and culture longs for, yearns for connection along a gracious open space, a spiritual village green. I notice out in the eastern suburbs a beautiful new housing development, several houses arranged carefully around a little green. What is that all about?

Marriage of Opposites

A place for the marriage of opposites-urban/suburban, male/female, musical/tone-deaf, religious/secular, tall/short, republican/democrat, rich/modest,fundamental/radical, Caucasian-colorful, corporate/collegiate, gay/straight, bohemian/buorgoise, classicist/modernist. A village green, on which the whole people of God may stroll together, and learn from one another, and remind each other of this simple truth: you are not God, and I am not God. We are not God together.

We lack that full county opening, that open space for love and grace and real community, that every small town worth its salt should have.

Right here - and if not here, why not here? Right now - and if not now, when? Through us - and if not us, who? There emerges a translucent vision of a village green. See the fountain? Hear the band? Smell the roses? Taste the preserves? Touch the hem of his garment? Every lonely, self indulgent, confused, depressed, excluded person in the community of Monroe - they will stampede in ahead of us, like the harlots and publicans who enter the kingdom first.

It is a place where…

All the Promises of God find their Yes.

It is a place where(2000)….
You walk past a church steeple and feel the power of the Word. You stroll down an open meadow and are grasped by the spacious Grace of God. You pause inside the soul's Library and learn again the meaning of truth. You enter a Roosevelt built Post Office and get the message of justice. You find a little chapel, with a Bible on the altar, open to the words Freedom and Love. You spend some money at a variety store, and learn the joy of giving. And when the streetlights come on, and you have to go home, you walk away from the village green shrouded and drenched in the divine promise of life everlasting.(Word, Space, Truth, Justice, Freedom, Generosity, Heaven)

It is a place where(1999)…
You meet in others the Fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It is a place where(1998)…
A Thousand Tongues, Male and Female, are raised in hues pink and blue

It is a place where (1997)…
The apocalypse of God's spirit regularly invades our community life.

It is a place where(1996) …
After Thirty Years (or Forty): Again we can risk the expression, dead since the Death of God, of a Faith Acceptable to Culture, within a Culture Acceptable to Faith

It is a place where…
In Parker Palmer's words, the space is both bounded and open, both hospitable and charged, holding both individual and group voices, telling big and little stories, containing both solitude and community, both silence and speech.

Our Vision for Asbury First: A Village Green

This village green around us is becoming a safe place. Gracious, spacious, grace space. A place for you. For the real you, the emerging you, for the new, saved, free, healthy, happy you. For the next you. This church, an expanding circle of love, an expansive village green, is becoming a safe place.

In this meadow, this commons, who knows what may happen? Come, come on, come home, come out…You may well come out into this village green. Are you ready to come out of the closet? It takes courage, that it does. You are a person of courage. It takes courage to come out…out of the closet.

Maybe you are a closet bowler. Here your love of the lanes and pins and jukebox and camaraderie will flourish. You are loved.

Maybe you are a closet packrat. Here your love of things and hoarding and holding and memories will flourish. We love you.

Maybe you are a closet train buff. Here your love of cabooses and Casey Jones and curves and fills and tunnels will flourish. You are loved.

It takes courage to come out. It takes more than courage. It also takes a village green. The saving space who is God, Jesus Christ, the divine presence. A safe place. So you may come out and be healed, along the happy meadow.

Maybe you are a closet bigot. We will listen and love and you will change. Maybe you are a closet miser. We will listen and love and you will change. You can come out, here, along the commons. We will listen and love and you will change. Maybe you are a closet pessimist, Obadiah redivivus. Name, speak, share your melancholy. We will listen and love and you will change. Maybe you are, down deep, a closet volcano of anger. Do you know why I have fallen in love with this congregation? Because here, if you have the courage to come out, others along the green will listen long enough and love well enough so that you can heal. Over time. Oh yes, maybe you are struggling with your identity, even that profoundest part of personhood, your sexuality, and you are in a closet confusion. Around you are others who will listen and love and walk with you.

I have no idea whether or not it takes a village to raise a child. How would I know? We will address that over lunch. I am sure, though, that it takes a village green to cure a soul, to make the wounded whole. It takes that wide open, lovely, expensive, expansive safe space to cure and heal. Behold God's gracious village green in the community of Monroe!

You ask, now, How will I ever know if I have stepped onto Hill's interminable impenetrable village green? I answer: you will know. Your adult class will be more interested in visitors than in old members, and visitors entering will feel the class meant for them rather than feeling that they have interrupted someone's family holiday dinner. More: You will realize that last week, twice, you opened your living room for coffee and conversation with people you do not know well, including some neighbors who are also members of your church. And more still: your heart will open, steadily, to feel the brush of another's desire, and you will know it is so from the hurt shared. A village green church depends on open space spread out in adult classes, and living rooms and hearts. More open space for our campus ought only to come as a consequence of real open space in groups, in homes, in hearts. Otherwise, we would be trying to solve relational problems with architectural solutions - which seldom works.


Take my hand. Walk along with me for a few last moments. Around us, in the future, open space, wide and good. Splashing fountain. Sunlit walkway. Glassed atrium. An inviting bench, coffee. It is like an indoor village green! Look: there somebody's grandfather kneeling on veteran knees to laugh with somebody else's grandchild, the marriage of 80-year opposites.

Conclusion: Blake: Jerusalem