Sunday, February 25, 2001

Clear as a Bell

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 9:2-9

Whence Saving Insight

When and how does a moment of insight come? What are the steps up along the mountain trail that give a moment of clarity that can save us?

Peter must have heard our Lord's ageless command: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow." (Mark 8: 32). Then Peter is led, step by step, up a high mountain, where something…unearthly…occurs. He sees what cannot be seen. And, from this mountain view, for a moment, there is insight and there is clarity.

When and how does such a moment arrive, a moment of clarity that can save us from an anger that leads to murder, or a heartache that leads to suicide, or a despair over a velocity addicted nation drenched in violence, or a chagrin about a country that ever more closely approximates Fosdick's verse, "rich in things and poor in soul"?

Today's Gospel promises you clarity and insight, found step by step along the rocky trail of life, that can lift us up above sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness.

Walk along with me, if you will, for just a few minutes…up the mountain path we go…take five steps up the mountain.

My friend Ken McMillan says, "plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest".

Insight Through the Thicket of Personal Need

One step toward insight lies through the thicket of personal need. Careful, step carefully here. Here you recognize your mortality. "It is a great life, but few of us get out alive." Here you admit that the acts of desperation in news reports come from conditions you also know. Fear, anger, jealousy, hatred, dread. Here-step lightly- you see the shadow, and your shadow in the greater shadow. One called this "the feeling of absolute dependence". Here we are confessional. We say, "Hello. My name is John Smith and I am an alchoholic." We say, "We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep." We say, "There but for the grace of God, go I.

Last week I finished reading Don Snyder's book, his story of personal need, The Cliff Walk. With four children under 7, and a history of easy success in college and graduate school and writing and teaching, Don loses his job, and for the first time gets a pink slip, from, of all places, Colgate University. For two years he cannot find work and for the first time faces lasting unemployment, changeable housing, no health insurance, depression, and shame. He returns home to the physical life of his grandfather and father, hard day labor along the Maine coast. He had fled that life, not looking back, hoping for ease and plenty, as he says quoting Willie Loman, "on a shoeshine and a smile". Disaster overtakes him and he is nearly crushed. But then, something happens. Walking on a cliff out past South Portland, after a hard winter of nailing shingles in the bitter wind, downcast downeast, he realizes that for the first time in his life, he is happy, confident, self-employed. There came a moment, high on the mountain of personal struggle, that was clear as a bell:

I'm just a man who paints houses for a living, and who pays his own way through this world, and who takes care of his family and fears for his children's future and doesn't try to become something else and doesn't judge others and who lays down his tax money willingly because he can afford to help people who can't find their way anymore.

When we are helpless, insight can come.

Wesley is still with us to ask, "will you visit from house to house?" From Brentwood to Brighton and beyond? Insight sees inside the closed door of personal need, and measures the distance between public appearance and private reality.

Every Sunday in our worship service we hear the cry of personal need, clear as a bell, in our prayers.

Insight Over the River of Others' Hurts

A second step toward insight lies over the river of another's hurt. Here, we'll jump the river at the portage path, where we bear each other's burdens like canoes carried in tandem. A moment of clarity can come when you truly see another's plight, and feel it in your heart. Some insight comes from serving others, some from sensing others' hurt. It is really a matter of understanding power, this insight about others. Think of the Prince and the Pauper, or of Lazarus and Dives. Insight happens in the chorus of the common life, when we sing out, "so that's what it's like to be you…"

The progressive tradition, theological and political, which is Rochester's hallmark (Rauschenbusch, Douglass, Anthony, and others) may be criticized as a "johnny one note" presentation. But if you have to choose just one note to play, this is the one to pick. Jesus means freedom. To learn about the nature of power, and the effects of power, we listen to the powerless.

Some in our church are working in mission with a church in Honduras. Dr. Mark Baker, our friend and missionary, now teaching in California, has written about this moment when things are as clear as a bell, in his book Religious No More:

Living in Honduras led me to take a new look at the version of the Gospel that I grew up with, and I observed things that I had not noticed before…

Insight comes through the common song that recognizes another's hurt, and then learns by seeing through the lens of another's hurt, as did Mark in Honduras, and as we have been following him to Honduras.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday as we sing hymns together, to recognize that we are all in this together.

Insight Scaling the Cliffs of Reason

A third step toward insight lies over the cliff of reason. "Come let us reason together" says the Psalmist. God has entrusted us with freedom, and with minds to things through our use of freedom. While reason has its limits, it is reason, finally, that will help us learn the arts of disagreement - at home, at work, in church, in the community. We say, "try to be reasonable".

On the Mountain of Transfiguration, Peter sees Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Moses is the lawgiver, the reception to the divine and lasting truth in the ten words:

No other gods but me. Not that there are no other beings to worship - there are, humans enslave themselves regularly in their worship. For you? No. Only the one God who is one.

No graven image. Not even the golden bull which the hyper patriarchal Israelites are making for themselves even as Moses meets God.

No taking of the divine name in vain. There is a reverence before the Mystery of Being that is a part of the truth, all our new age religiosity notwithstanding.

Remember the Sabbath. At least 1/7 of our time is meant for rest and recreation. 52 days a year at least.

Honor your father and mother. Dad and Mom both. For all the traditionalism of the Scripture, there is remarkable space, early in history, for mom - Deborah, Miriam, Esther, Ruth, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel.

Do not murder. Are we as a culture moving closer to this word, or farther away? In sports? At both ends of the life continuum? Is it noteworthy that only one of the four major Presidential candidates opposed the death penalty?

Do not adulter. Mark Twain said it is not the things in the Bible we cannot understand that are so tough, but the things we can all understand, and easily.

Do not steal. We are careful about others' property. Are we also careful not to steal others' time?

Do not bear false witness. More than a civil law is involved with testimony to truth.

Do not covet. Be happy with what you have, what you have earned, what you will have.

On the high mountain, the austere place for wind, sand, stars and truth, we may know the truth in a way that is clear as a bell.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight, this moment of clarity, every Sunday through a sermon, a word fitly spoken (we hope).

Insight Across the Gorge of the Will

A fourth step toward insight lies across the great gorge of the will. Look before you leap. We are here ever closer to the mountaintop. Real insight comes in a moment of decision. Some say we learn to choose. But our experience is that we learn by choosing. Viktor Frankl spent his whole life developing the "logotherapy" around this one conviction: we grow by deciding. Choose. You cannot lose, in the fullest sense, and in the long run. Choose. Either way, you have learned, you will grow, you have changed, you will improve, you have developed. Choose.

Peter sees Elijah up on the mountain, too. Elijah is the grandfather of all the prophets, whose words about justice we heard again along the village green last fall. Moses stands for Law and Elijah stands for prophets.

For Elijah itself, the Voice came this way. He also, like Moses before, is alone upon a Sinai mountain, fearing that all is lost for his people. He holes up in a cave as night falls. Then a voice draws him out to the mountaintop. And he knew that God was present. There was a hurricane. There was an earthquake. There was a great fire. But God was found in none of them, rather, later, in "a still small voice." As Thomas Cahill says,

YHWH is not Baal the bull, not the storm god after all. He controls the weather, since he is its Creator, but he is not in any of its elements. He does not belong to the special effects. He is in us, the still small voice, the murmuring of personal conscience.

Faith is not a matter of emotion or feeling or soul or heart or intellect only. First, faith is a decision. "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow."

As Kierkegaard put it, "either/or"… Either God exists or not. Decide. Either you see God in Christ or not. Decide. Either Jesus Christ has a claim on your life or not. Decide. Either every day is a chance for love or not. Decide. Either the way of love means particular consequent acts regarding your time, your money, your body, your community…or not. Decide.

Faith is not as much thrill as it is will.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, in a moment of invitation - to devotion, to discipline, to dedication.

Insight Upon the Summit of Loyalty

A fifth step toward insight brings us to the summit. There. Take a breath. Up here, the air is rarified. Up here, you may have a moment of clarity. For the fifth step toward insight brings us to the altar of loyalty.

Forgive the use of archaic words - loyalty, duty, chivalry. Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience. On the contrary! Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart's chancel, lit with the admixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignited by the will. Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with the liberal hunger for justice. Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose.

Insight, real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty. Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what you sacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what altar you face, and I will tell you who you are.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, through the presentation of gifts, an expression of loyalty, at the altar of grace and freedom and love.

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