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?

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