Asbury First United
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.
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.
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.