Sunday, March 18, 2001

Third, Trust

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 13:1-9

This morning we take a third step up the Lenten trail. First, forgiveness. Second, salvation. Third, trust.

A Pasture View

A friend told me a story last winter.

He has friends who live on a farm in Michigan. The country landscape there is apparently similar to that in our region. This is a multi-generational family farm. If you were to visit this week, you would find three generations working together. The grandfather died a few years ago, but his sons, grandsons and great-grandsons still plow and harvest, milk and feed.

The matriarch of the family is now older and weaker. She was a typical farm wife of her generation, working alongside her children and husband. When plowing time came in the spring she would fix lunches for all hands, and deliver them into the fields. She delivered the meal, and while they ate, she would take over and plow. The same kinds of routines held for other seasons. The rhythms of seed and harvest, birth and decay set the beat for her life.

Now she is alone much of the time, in the old farm house. Her kids feed her breakfast in the morning and dinner at night. But every day, after breakfast, they settle her into a comfortable easy chair that rocks in front of an open bay window, from which she can look out onto the fields and forests and pastures of her home. Every day she watches, breakfast to dinner.

Now this is not an active scene. The barn and equipment are not in view. Most winter days there are no people to observe. A car on the road every half-hour is a lot of traffic. And snow lying on corn stubble looks about as exciting as it did one hundred years ago. Yet, she watches and looks. She seems to be deeply contented, as the late winter snow falls. She is eased and settled and comforted, looking out on a frosty field. There is something in that utterly ordinary scene that seizes her.

She has a sense, I think, of presence. Maybe she is weak and maybe she even has some mild dementia and maybe she doses every now and then, rocking in front of the window. But this ordinary winter story captivates me, because I think she is enthralled by something not quite visible to the naked eye, yet present. There is something there, something alive, something at work, just beyond our comprehension. She rocks and stays alert to presence. She has a hard won trust in Presence, a kind of trust for which life is meant and for which with all our hearts we do passionately long and hunger.

A Vineyard View

The lesson for today tells of another view, not a pasture view but a vineyard view, not from Michigan but from Palestine, not of wheat but of grapes, not in winter but in harvest. This is one of the parables of the fig tree.

Ah the fig tree. From the fig tree learn its lesson. You know what it means to be a fig tree in the New Testament. It is like being a turkey in late November, like the captured journalist chained to the Khmer Rouge in "The Killing Fields", or like being a helicopter pilot in a shooting war, or like being a green beer on St. Patrick's day. You know you are going down. It's like the American Airlines baggage attendant with whom we spoke after four days with no luggage and a wedding coming in the afternoon. "You will have to talk to my wife", I cautioned. "I understand", he empathized. "You do not understand", she retorted, "you do not. How would you like to go to a wedding dressed in your aunt's underwear?" (I actually was interested in how he might respond to this, but I couldn't hear). No, like the fig tree, you know you are going down.

People step aside when they hear that the story is about a fig tree. They step back ten feet, because they know what is coming.

Sure enough, at least at the outset, doom descends. In stomps the owner. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Fee fie foe fum. Yes, we know what is coming. I have seen this lousy, lazy, no good, flee bitten moth eaten, barren, fruitless, faithless, heartless, ruthless fig tree for three years, and nothing. Where is the fruit? Where is the beef? Show me the money! Yes, we have a sinking feeling about the old fig tree, having heard a sermon or three. Is there not fruit? And here it comes… Cut it down, throw it in the fire, off with their heads.

And in the other Gospels, that is that. One dead fig tree, and let it be a warning to us. I came not to bring peace but a sword. Not a jot or a tittle will pass away. Woe to you…

Which is, of course, what makes today's lesson so interesting. Guess what? It's not over, at least according to Jesus in Luke 13. No, it's not over, yet. This is the Gospel according to Yogi Berra. "It ain't over 'til it's over". With a little bit of Irish blarney, a little Woody Allen, a little cunning and creativity, a little psalmist and saint in him, this lowly vinedresser says, "Well, hang on a minute…" There is something there. He sees something. Something alive, something at work, just beyond our comprehension.

A Pasture View

Meanwhile, down on the Michigan farm…

It is this same trust that keeps the woman at the farm house window, keeps her there and alive and attentive.

Picture her, this week, if you need and want reassurance. She has seen life from both sides. Hail and blizzard. Silo accident and depression. Birth and death. Happiness in youth and tragedy in age. She has seen her husband grow up and grow old and die, as most wives do. She has cleaned out the barn, stretched a budget to fit over many children, and kept the sabbath in the process. And now she just watches. Today there is a light snow falling to dust the corn stubble, and the wind is strong.

I mean this. Whether or not she knows about heaven, she certainly knows about hell. She knows about regret and anxiety. John Paul Sartre said that hell is other people, a continental dyspepsia that I have never understood (except during the sessions of Jurisdictional Conference). Two shorter, better definitions of hell are regret and anxiety. Our rocking farm wife has known them, too. How could she not? Regret when the son leaves the farm for dental school. Anxiety over the crop planted but not harvested. Regret at trips to Florida never taken when grandpa was well. Anxiety over aging and care and dependence. Regret over misdeeds in youth and mistakes in speech. Anxiety about all that is yet to be, on earth as it is in heaven. Regret is hell in the past tense. Anxiety is hell in the future tense.

Nevertheless (a sermon in a single word), Nevertheless, she rocks and watches and is comforted by what she sees. To you and me, what she sees is Andrew Wyeth on a bad day. But she sees something else. There is something there. There is something alive, at work, just below the edge of our comprehension. Maybe it helps the vision to have a mild dementia. What heals regret and what tempers anxiety is what we are given--in trust.

A Vinyard View

Meanwhile, back in Palestine…

Trust is what the vinedresser in our parable displays. He has a certain confidence, perhaps a confidence born of obedience to a great and loving Lord, yet still a confidence that where there is a will there is a way, no matter what the immediate cornstubble evidence suggests.

I struggle to intuit why this altered fig tree parable was so important for Luke and Luke's struggling church. As we saw last week, all these chapters 10 to 20 Luke has added to Mark's asperity. They must have had singular meaning for Luke's church fifty years after Jesus' death and resurrection. Perhaps, perhaps, the parable is meant to give trusting patience to those who are waiting out what scholars call the "delay of the parousia", or the expected but not actualized return of Christ on the clouds of heaven (1 Thess. 4-5). "Give me just a little more time…" sings the gardener.

Let it be, he says. Let it be.

His is not a naïve view. No, he recognizes that there comes a time when it is too late in every venture. He recognizes that the power to kill and give life is not his own. He recognizes that human labor and human investment is required for any progress. He recognizes the messiness of manure and dailyness of water. He recognizes that trust for the future is trust, not in human wisdom, but in divine grace. He recognizes the rigid limits of nature and history. He is a realist.

But he trusts that there is something there, something alive, something not quite phenomenal, something just beyond our comprehension.

I could compare his sense, his trust to a March day when it is still winter. Yet, there is a sense, a feeling. There are geese flying past, v by v. There is a blueish tint in the evergreens. There is more light and better light. There is wind, but not with quite the bite. One can fairly taste the maple syrup brewing miles away. Spring is coming.

Give me just a little more time, he asks. Do you have the feeling that he will ask the same a year from now, if things are no different? I do. He harbors an inexplicable but crucial sense of trust that things will work out.

As a Methodist Christian, I want that trust in my heart as I see the left and right fight. Some of us talk from the left, and yet live from the right. Others talk from the right and live from the left. We talk a good social liberal game, but support all manner of segregation and injustice in where we live, how we live, as we live. Pounding nails for Habitat we will do, but don't ask us to live in that neighborhood or have our children in those schools. We talk a good moral conservative game, but support all manner of waywardness when our own rights are at stake. Great leaders, too many to count, preach about righteousness and justice and civil rights, and go right ahead fathering children out of wedlock. If I read Amos right, social justice and personal morality go together, and where you lack one over time you lack the other. It looks like snow on cornstalks, an ugly sameness. I want to shout: "Give me just a little more time! Another generation, some manure and water, that is a few good preachers and a basket of money, and you just watch the figs fall, too many to count!" I want that trust that there is something there, alive, incomprehensible, that may change the equation.

As an eagle scout, I want that trust in my heart as I see a tragedy looming for boy scouting. Just at the time when our culture most needs the kind of mentoring between fathers and sons at which scouting excels--I am its witness-- the scouts are racing headlong toward a tragic collision, a collision of social justice and personal morality. Where have we heard this before? Before the shooting begins, perhaps today's vinedresser can help us to find a way through, with a sense of trust. Give it a little time, manure and water. (Personally, I think the scouts need to look at some optional local decisions and empowerments, and to listen to their leaders under age 40). Yes, today it looks like another case of snow on cornstubble, ugly and unchangeable. I want that trust that there is something alive, incomprehensible, that may open up a different conversation, a new way that honestly respects both the plumb line of justice and the plumb line of righteousness, as well as the historical, organizational, relational and other peculiarities of the scouting program.

As an American, I want that trust in my heart as I see the tragedy of family life across this great land. A baby conceived today runs the gauntlets of abortion, addiction, poverty, single parenting, neglect and abuse. The statistics are grim. Our bishops were so right to focus in our time on children and poverty. Snow on stubble. I want that trust that there is something alive, incomprehensible, that may strangely bring fruit from a barren cultural fig tree.

As a pastor, I want to be able to offer a sense of trust to you. Right now. Realistically, yes, but personally and truly. In place of your heartfelt regret, carried like a millstone for months or years. In place of your frightful and human anxiety, carried like a millstone for months and years. The anxieties of youth and the regrets of age. May they be gone, or at least placed in a "lock box" (!), tempered and tamed and tethered by trust. I want that trust that there is something close to your heart, alive, maybe not quite comprehensible, that whispers…let it be…give it another year…maybe a little manure and water…let it be.

And as a middle aged white guy, stuck somewhere between regret and anxiety I want that trust, that simple trust like those who heard beside the Syrian sea, the gracious calling of the Lord, let us like them without a word rise up and follow thee.

A Pasture View

Meanwhile, down on the farm…

Think about her this week, alone and content, looking out onto a gray pasture.

What keeps her going? What helps her see? What makes her happy? What brings her comfort and peace?

Is it that trust, that human response to the faith of Jesus Christ, that loving trust that "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things"? (1 Corinthians 13)

One early follower of Jesus said, "One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus?" (Paul of Tarsus).

An Irish man, Patrick, a killer of snakes and a lover of souls pronounced the same blessing, of "Christ before me Christ beneath?" (St. Patrick's breastplate).

Listen to that medieval convent maiden's prayer, "and all will be well and all will be well?" (Julian of Norwich).

As they sing at Taize, "ubi caritas, deus ibi est"?

There is something there. Alive and untamed. Creating trust, trust, trust, deep in the heart.

Paul Lehmann taught us, "God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human."

Ralph Harper learned, "Presence suggests an alternate way of thinking about time and space".

In an early pastoral visit, I heard a homebound octogenarian, eyes gleaming, affirm: "I know whom I can trust."

David sang in the Psalms, "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?"

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes
That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake
I will never, no never, no never forsake.

Saturday, March 17, 2001

Risk Management

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 25:13-30
Divine Silence

If a sermon is about God and about 20 minutes, a parable, like this one on risk management, is a divine 2 minutes. What does this familiar autumn story tell us? Can we learn something here about divine silence, divine confidence, and divine generosity?

It may be that our ears turn particularly sensitive, today, at the mention of risk. How will we ever manage risk? We are swimming in a green pea soup of anxiety, certainly for the last couple of autumns, and theologically since the moment of another departure and another silence, during the walk out of the Garden of Eden. It is stunning, to some measure, that we have the energy to get here at all, Come Sunday. The church doors open, someone throws on the lights, and in troop young and old, naturally carrying heavy yokes. Perhaps our own job has not been removed, but a neighbor or coworker is on our minds in the invocation. Perhaps we have no illness trailing us, but there is a relative or friend whose face we imagine in the hymn. Perhaps today we do not attend weightily to Osama Bin Laden, but there are other days and other nights when worry takes the upper hand, and maybe, in the Scripture, we meditate on wailing and gnashing of teeth. Perhaps just this moment we are not anxious or fretful or fearful or worried. Perhaps not. The worship service has got the better of us for a moment. Good. Still, we know about fear. Silence and absence are the seedbeds of fear. And this season, at the opening of the 21st century is a season of fear.

Do you remember the autumn of 1999? Another autumn, and another range of worries. Eliot wrote that man is “fear in a handful of dust”. Roosevelt asserted, “ the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. In 1999, we prepared for Y2K. A woman preparing to preach last week in a workshop in Buffalo recalled that season. She had been a bank teller in December of 1999. She remembered the anxiety of very normal people. “Not just the crazies”, she remembered, but all of us, to some degree. Not to get to personal, but, think for a moment. Perhaps you didn’t take out any extra money that week - $500 or $5000 “just in case”. Perhaps you didn’t put a little extra gasoline in the tanks “just in case”. Perhaps you didn’t fill some extra jugs with water “just in case”. Or did you? I remember that at the last minute Jan and I decided not to take a quick trip to N.Y.C. on December 30th to see a play, “Wit”, that meant a great deal to me. We decided to stay home, “just in case”. A college student in Syracuse remembered that she was then 15, living with her grandmother, who had all her siblings sleep in the basement that night, surrounded, as she colorfully reported, by spam and canned corn. Number 10 cans. When the night passed, they went upstairs, until Dec 31st of the next year. Gramma thought maybe the traditional calendar was right and Y2K was really to start on 1/1/01. So they slept with spam and corn, one can of which had exploded in the cold sometime in the intervening 12 months. And in what exotic city did all this occur? Webster, NY. As Mark Twain said, “I have faced many dangers and troubles in life, most of which never happened”.

Y2K is probably as emotionally close as we will ever get in our time to the religious setting of this parable in the life of Jesus and the preaching of the church. The story comes out of a time of apocalyptic expectation. One verse from this era may stand for volumes: “the pitcher is near to the well, the ship to the harbor, the caravan to the city, and life to its conclusion”. As in all times, personal or collective, of all fear, so in Matthew’s church as in our culture, people swam in a green pea soup of anxiety. They feared an unknown future and sensed divine silence, even divine absence. We are not the first generation to know daily, edgy, fear.

This parable, on the lips of Jesus and in the teaching of Matthew, begins with utter realism. It is as if a man were going on a journey. It is as if the Master were to go away. It is as if the Master has gone away, off to a far country. It is as if a divine, thunderous silence were ours to face. The parable faces divinesilence, and encourages us to do the same. So we will begin to manage risk if we begin to risk management. The story emboldens us to name our fears, to admit our sense of ennui, to confess our apprehension. I believe there is a great and healthy good simply to naming, in prayer, morning by morning, what we fear. Otherwise, we may just allow our fears to overcome us. Going to worship, to be present in the divine silence of church, is one way weekly to overcome our fears. We can be honest about divine silence. No one has ever seen God. And would we have it otherwise? Would we truly want a God as plain as the nose on your face, a blasting search light of omnipresence, like a hovering mother unable to cut the umbilical cord, a shouting presence filling every space? In that there is no freedom, neither divine nor human. Thank goodness for the Biblical admission of divine silence.

Divine Confidence

The divine silence carries another gift. For fearful folks such as we, the measures of divine confidence narrated today should be truly encouraging. It is a tremendous vote of confidence in human capacity for good that lies at the heart of the mysterious universal Silence. Has this confidence been bruised and abused? The era of Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Tet, Lockerbie, and 9/11 may seem to make such confidence seem ill-placed. Still, the confidence, conveyed in the wide range of human freedoms, remains. For all the possibilities for evil and ill that lie before men and women, nations and states, there are more possibilities for good. Einstein could look relativity and quantum mechanics and their shrouded interplay straight in the eye, and still affirm, “God does not play at dice”. He may not fully have internalized the randomness of life. Maybe no one does. Yet his often-cited affirmation is a reflection of divine confidence in the human being, free to love and free for love. The Master of this story goes away. Before leaving, though, he commits Himself to the welfare of his servants. He leaves things in their hands, confident that they will manage risk by learning to risk management. He gives no instructions. He provides no direction. He includes no briefing, no game plan. There is no briefing from the heavenly White House. He takes his leave, confident. Those who will learn to manage risk will learn to risk management. There is only one way to live with freedom. Freely. As confident as a bridegroom leaving his chamber, ready to run his course with joy. This is the confidence of the sun coming up bright and golden on the morning horizon and saying, ray by ray, “Day is breaking. Light is shining. Life is good, and what is good is what lives.” Maybe the silence of the divine in our time is the clearest speech possible to declaim the eternal confidence in what human beings can become. Maybe the divine absence of our time is the fullest presence possible to embody the eternal confidence in what human beings can become. I admit the audacious risk.

There is fear and risk aplenty today. I know the fear of a 401K becoming a 201K, and the risk of searching for peace in a nuclear jungle. But look east. Dawn is breaking. A great orange sun. Spectacular. The sun will rise upon whatever we do, just as God’s creative power will continue. The rays of this orb will travel to us whatever we do, just as Christ’s forgiving grace will continue. The sweet touch of this SON LIGHT upon our cheeks, winter and summer, will continue whatever we do, just as the Holy Spirit cannot stop loving you. Behold the divine confidence, entrusting this global village to human hands.

Colin Williams, an English Methodist, ran the Yale Divinity School a generation ago. Here is his view of Sunday morning: “THE ESSENTIAL WORK OF PREACHING IS TO GIVE PEOPLE A BASIC SENSE OF SECURITY FROM WHICH THEY ARE FREE TO CREATE CHANGE AND TO WORK IN THE WORLD.”

We are burying a generation of saints who learned this and taught it and knew it in their bones. They have a confidence that has not curdled into certainty. This reflects the divine confidence acclaimed in the talents parable. One of our recently deceased Christian Gentlemen, Forrest Witmeyer, as a young man was a close friend of Norman Vincent Peale, while Norman preached in Syracuse, and just before he met Ruth Stapleton, a young co-ed at SU. Here is a lifetime, 95 years, of preaching summed up in Peale’s 7 words: “You can if you think you can.”

The divine confidence is meant to wash out all that prideful pseudo-humility we somewhere pick up, in moving to adulthood. Better, far better, especially in earshot of Matthew 25, better to hear the admonition attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not in just some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Divine Generosity

To this moment the divine silence and divine confidence do not come empty handed. A talent, as you have often heard, is a year’s salary. A talent is a lot of money. And five? And two? The point of tale is clear: there is no divine parsimony at work today, no heavenly harsh frugality. Grace is lavish, uncritical and personal, and generous to a fault. There is no counting out of coins or measured calculation of donations. All are given a windfall, a fantastic endowment, a greathearted present. Most of us, as our behaviors readily show, already are given far more than we know what to do with. And the gift is free of charge. To each is given according to his ability. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Karl Marx took up the slogan about the time the church pawned it.

Sometimes children, like those receiving the strange world of the Bible today, live out ahead of us. You can see at Halloween. Here they come, up the path, ready to shine and receive. A nurse, a cowboy, a superhero, a monster. In our neighborhood this year we were cordially visited by Judas Maccabeus. (We live among Jews and Gentiles both). I also saw the best Halloween costume ever, a boy dressed as left over spaghetti: red suit, stringy attachments, meatball nose, and cullender for a hat. Into each bag free generosities are placed, and off they go into the future to invest the kindnesses received in youth in the use of talents in adulthood. The 2 year old nurse will manage Rochester General one day. The six year old cowboy will manage a Texas oil drill one day. The superhero will manage a communications company one day. The monster will manage to teach high school one day. Judas Maccabeus will manage to become a Rabbi. And Mr. Used Spaghetti? - definitely headed for the minstry. Gotta be. What do you say to the children who have a costume but cannot name it? And who are you? I cannot say. And what are you? I do not know. One day, we pray, they shall. They shall hear, on earth as it is in heaven, “Well done, though good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. We will set you over much. Enter into the joy of the Master!”

And A Matthean Warning

What do you do with someone who will not receive what is given? Is that sin—the refusal to receive what is given? Is that sin - the mortal fear of using what is given? Is that sin the existential rejection of generosity?

It does not surprise us to find in Matthew a dark warning at the end of a great story. This is the Gospel of the wedding robe forgotten: “cast him into the outer darkness…” This is the Gospel of the sheep and goats: “you did it not to me - go away into eternal punishment”. This is the Gospel of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord - but those who do the will of …” This is the Gospel of houses built on sand and rock -‘and the rain fell, and the floods came…” This is the Gospel of maidens who trim not lamps - truly I do not know you; of a vineyard owner returning with vengeance - “put those wretches to a miserable death”; of a withering fig tree; of the miserly servant who is forgiven but does not forgive - delivered to jailers; and so on.

In these later parables, all of which end with a warning, as in the Gospel as a whole, Matthew has structured his teaching to carry this lifelong set of warnings. All 17 warnings (if I count them right) are the same. They are moral warnings: grace is free but not cheap. Straighten up and fly right. They are spiritual warnings: life is a tremendous gift! Dance don’t droop, celebrate don’t self-efface.

Perhaps, to finish today, we shall find faith and take courage from the divine silence, confidence and generosity proclaimed. If we do, we may be able to manage risk. The only way to manage risk, in this Gospel, is to risk management. The only way to manage our fearful risks is to risk management, in fear and trembling, of God’s silent, confident, generous gifts to us. If you are going to manage risk this week, you will then risk a little management. You will manage to take responsibility.

I’m a teacher. I couldn’t possibly help manage the school. I’m a worker. I couldn’t possibly run the place. I’ m a preacher. I couldn’t possibly manage a denomination. I’m an attorney. I couldn’t possibly manage a corporation. I’m a mom. I couldn’t possibly manage a nursery. I’m a doctor. I couldn’t possibly manage a practice. I’m a busy taxpayer. I couldn’t possibly manage a town.

But listen. The way the world gets better is when humble people manage the risk in life by risking their talents in management of a part of the world. Can’t somebody else go to all those meetings? Sure. Who?

We can manage risk together if we all do our part. You can manage risk. Here is how: risk management.

Sunday, March 11, 2001

Second, Salvation

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 13:31-35

This Lent we take several steps together up a high mountain. First forgiveness. Second, salvation. Let us pray.

Our Children

While the snow fell, quietly, on Tuesday morning, Jan and I sipped a little coffee in the living room. It is unusual to have an early weekday morning free, together, to sit in the living room with coffee. To talk, and remember.

We had a snow day. A snow day is like the grace of God, falling preveniently to interrupt our business, falling interruptively to quiet our anxiety, falling beautifully to hallow our time. Grace: prevenient, justifying, sanctifying. Says the snow to you and me: fiddle de de, fiddle de de.

The wind blew and rattled a loose shutter. A draft of clean, cold air stole in from the hallway. We talked, and remembered. Then the phone rang.

Jan remembered: "Five years ago, every time the phone rang, I used to pray it would be for Chris. Please, please, please, let someone reach out to him. Every time the phone rang, I prayed it would be for Chris." Just like a mother hen, clucking over the chicks. She went to answer, I ruminated…

David Lubba came to the door five years ago with a little gift. Jessica Perkins stopped once, with her mom, to recall summer camp days years before. Why, look, there she is, our neighbor Nancy, bringing her young boys down the street to visit…Nancy ... Nancy died that summer. Another mother hen, clucking over the chicks.

Please Lord, let somebody reach out….

I intentionally mention moving, now and then in sermons. Whether, like Flannery O'Connor, we live always in the very same little town all our lives, or like Peter Cartwright we itinerate all over the country, at a deeper level it is all the same. Existentially, we are all itinerants. Moving, moving, moving.

Jesus meets us today, in Luke's account, moving toward Jerusalem. These chapters are Luke's addition to the Gospel as Mark wrote it. Luke shows Jesus wandering around more, outside Jerusalem, and teaching more, on the way to Jerusalem. For Mark, it is Galilee and Jerusalem, thank you very much. Luke adds this middle ground, chapters 10 to 20 or so. We are glad he did. Here is the Good Samaritan. Here are instructions on how to live as a Christian. Here is the teaching about tragedy, the Galileans whose blood is mingled and the tower in Siloam that falls without warning. Most importatnly, here is a story about a lost sheep, and a story about a lost coin, and a story about a lost son. We are in the territory of the prodigal son today. Jesus, moving toward Jerusalem.

Moving is always easier than you think it will be and always harder than you think it will be. But we all move, all the time.

The question is how we do it. In our time the main issue is not "what" and "where". The main thing is "who" and "how". Who are you and how are you moving?

Our friend Granger Ward moved from Syracuse, where he was a city school principal. Such a gentle, tough African American man. Lonely, out of divorce. Committed, fiercely devoted to youth. Alive, an early morning birdwatcher with all manner of binoculars and cameras with which to hunt. When I visited him at Nottingham High School, it was all I could do in the midst of the utter chaos, the cacaphonous dinning swarming anxious epicenter of 1400 sixteen year olds, to hold in the mind the image of Granger at 5:30 A. M. that morning, silent, watching, waiting for a scarlet tanenger. There he sat, calmly, gently and firmly trying, trying, trying with each youth. Like a mother hen. Anyway Granger moved a while ago. We all are itinerant. Fear not those who can downsize the company, rearrange the org chart, change the map. Fear what can happen without a taste for truth. In "Thirteen Days" JFK says "it is immoral to ignore your own best judgment."

I saw Granger again on Monday night. He moved west, as it turns out, down near San Diego. You, know, San Diego: all year long, 72%, sunny, blue sky, warm ocean breeze, a certain cultural elan-HELLO, what kind of life is that? Granger is the superintendent of schools in a suburb out there.

I saw him on television. Maybe you did too. He was trying to explain the unexplainable. One of his schools, in Santee, erupted in gun fire Monday. Maybe you read about it.

Here is a young man, 15 years old. His name is Charles Williams. He has taken or been given the ironic nick-name "Andy". Nicknames are a big deal for teenagers.

Andy moved last year. We all move, whether or not we geographically move, we are all on the move. Andy and his dad moved, according to the Washington Post. They moved from Maryland to San Diego, the two of them.

They probably had their belongings trucked out. Maybe they moved all their things into the garage, and then gradually, over the year, filled up the house. Dad probably worked hard, keeping his end of the economy up. That is a separable phrasal verb, "keep up", is it not? They were separated by moving, and Andy seems to have been existentially separable and separated from all others. His mother said, "he is lost". Monday to Friday Andy came home after school. And there in all that ocean breeze, blue sky sunshine warmth, Andy sat. Maybe he sat waiting for the phone to ring.

I had to think about that, when Jan said, "That year every time the phone rang I prayed it was for Chris. I prayed someone would reach out to him." Cluck, cluck, cluck…

Probably there was some clucking for Andy Williams too. I hope so. I like to think somebody said a kind word. I like to hope somebody invited him to a party. I like to think somebody included him in a youth group. I like to think somebody touched him. I like to think somebody stopped by, maybe a kind mailman like the one who saved a woman from a snow bank here this week. I like to think somebody telephoned just to say hello…Hello again, hello…It's good to say hello…I think about you now and then…Hello. Click, click, cluck, cluck.

We are dimly aware, as a nation, that we are not doing it. We are not getting it. We are not getting it right. Blame the mercantilist men if you must. Blame the feminist females if you feel forced. (How is that for a couple of alliterative sentences?!) No. The truth is that we all have disregarded children for a generation, and the chickens are coming home to roost. We have somehow allowed a distance to develop between ourselves and our children. And they are all our children, and the responsibility is ours. These are human problems and they have human solutions.

You see the news of a school yard shooting, Columbine, Elmira, Williamsport, Santee, and of course you cannot help but weep. You weep. You feel like a mother hen who cannot protect her chicks. And you weep.

Jesus' Lament

There is a lot of weeping in the Bible. I still hear, how harrowing it is, the sobbing of Esau from last month, crying out to his Father over the raw deal he was given. Job loses his wife, and sings songs of raw lament, "songs in the night". David looks as his son Absalom, so much promise, so much potential, and…disaster. And he moans, he howls, he weeps. Absalom! Absalom! A little later in Lent, we will hear again the lamentation of St. Peter, alone in the Jerusalem courtyard, "I never knew him". But can we ever get out of our ears his crying, when at dawn he realizes what he has done? The shortest verse in the Bible, "Jesus wept". Sometime I want to hear a sermon titled "Bible Cries".

There is none more poignant than today's. Not even the cry of Golgotha, Eli Eli lama sabacthani. Today's lesson takes us to the very depths. Here Jesus is weeping over Jerusalem.

Why does he weep? Why does he moan? Why does he cry?

His cry erupts from the heart of the universe, and from the Ground of Being, and from the marrow of his mission among us. He cries at the failure, temporary but nonetheless terrible, of his purpose. His mission is to gather the chicks, all the chicks, every last lame little chicken. He comes to seek and save the lost.

That is, Jesus brings us salvation. Look with me carefully, as if your life depended upon it, look at the Jesus who meets us today, out of the pages of Luke's account. What do we see?


Do you notice something? Right at the beginning, Jesus is warned, helped, cared for by…by whom? Who warns him of the coming danger? The Pharisees, his arch rivals, his nemeses, his enemies - they warn him about Herod. This is startling. Neither his disciples nor his friends have warned him, but the Pharisees do. How loving Jesus must have been! How unmistakably good and loving Jesus must have been! How Godly and loving Jesus must have been, that even those who wished him most ill, could not help but warn him, could not help but love in return. Jesus' love is our salvation. Our enemies tell us the truth faster than our friends, sometimes. A while ago I asked a man who had left the church why he did so. He replied, "I heard the preacher say that the ministers of the church were primarily present for those who are not yet present. I didn't like that." An honest rebuke. Better such honesty than passive poisonous avoidance. Of course the shepherds care for the flock, but our main attention is meant to fall on the one lost, those not yet present. Jesus' love is our salvation.


Did you hear how Jesus spoke of Herod? "That fox.." Earlier he had taught that we should be wise as serpents, innocent as doves. Here He is, wordly wise. Jesus' wisdom is our salvation.


Have we truly heard his identification with the prophets? Jesus takes upon himself, in Luke's memory, the mantel of the prophets. Remember them from the autumn? Amos thundering justice. Hosea singing compassion. Isaiah revering holiness. Micah's message of mercy. Jesus clearly accepts the role of prophet. His religion, real religion, is never very far from justice. He goes to Jerusalem. It is hard to overestimate the significance of this move. Jesus is not content to stay at home, in the lay movement comfort of the Pharisees---study of the Bible, home and personal prayer, every table an altar and every home a temple, personal holiness par excellance. No. It is not enough to sing kum bay yah and read the Bible. Not for him a faith unattractive to culture, or a culture unacceptable to faith. He goes to the heart of the culture - economic, social, religious, political. He claims it all for himself. He shows us the courage to be alive, a man in full. Jesus' courage is our salvation.


Did you really hear, in the weeping, how Jesus' names himself? Even dour Bultmann admits that this is an authentic saying of Jesus. We suspect it is so, because it is so pithy, so apophthegematic, so rural, so natural, so earthy, so humble, so real. "As a hen gathers her brood under her wings…" Jesus uses a maternal image, a strikingly feminine metaphor, just at the very depth of his outpouring. He weeps for those who will not be gathered, will not be accepted, will not be included, will not be connected. The verb Luke uses, episynago, sounds like synagogue, and means to assemble, to gather, to meet. Jesus is gathering us under his wing, together. Human, he has a special love for his people, for his race, for his nation, for his religion. With the wings of love he covers our humanity with his own. Jesus' humanity, even his 'femininity', is our salvation.


Why was it so important for Luke, in the year 85, to remember Jesus' weeping? Why did Luke's church need to hear this word? Did they, like we, have those experiences that are "sighs too deep for words"? Did Luke preach this way to remind his fellows that Jesus, even Jesus, wept? That Jesus hungered to gather the lost? "As you have done it to the least of these…." "And when did we see you, Lord…?" Was it when you came to church as a visitor and I ushered and greeted you ceremonially, unctiously, officially, rather than with utter joy and real warmth? Was it when you came to my Sunday school class, and I nodded but did not speak, smiled but did not embrace? Was it when I filled my calendar with appointments for people I have known for 10 years, but made no space for an unexpected newcomer to take me to lunch? Was it when I took your phone call and offered curt content rather than kind compassion? Was it when I forgot what it means to be outside and alone? Maybe we should not come to church again ourselves until we have reached out at least once to invite someone else to come to the chickencoop with us. Jesus' compassion is our salvation.


I just do not think we will get anywhere without Jesus. Our salvation is in Him. I mean our earthly salvation, as well as our eternal rest! Jesus' love, wisdom, courage, humanity, compassion—these are our salvation. Our cultural salvation, the salvation of the next generation. Friends, you have the means of grace for the healing of a broken world. Share!

The one spiritual discipline, the one Lenten practice for which we need most practice is that clucking mother hen prayer, "Please, please Lord let the phone call be for him."

On June 18, 1995, a 90-degree late spring day, I was driving through the south side of Syracuse. That morning we had said goodbye to 11 years of loving relationship and hard work. At noon we celebrated what God's grace had done to expand the circle of faith in that church, over a decade. We were less than fully humble about it, as I look back at the newspaper article. We thought we had helped many, and perhaps we had. But at 5 P. M. I came home from the hospital and passed a mother with two 3 or 4 year old sons, not a mile from the church. It was one of those weeping, hard moments that I wish I could forget. She was carrying a gallon of milk up a long hill, hot and angry. Her sons were fighting, and she was yelling and more than yelling. A hot day, a long hike, and patterns of abuse. And I had to admit, in 11 years in that neighborhood of urban need we had only scratched the surface.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing."

Make a telephone call this week to someone who is not an immediate family member, or work colleague, or church friend. Call up someone who feels disconnected, unaccepted, alone, lost. There is a little mother hen in all of us, and Jesus is weeping because we forget it. The real fun of faith, the real laughter in life comes from inviting others to the feast. Half of Monroe County has not even picked up the fork or spread the napkin, while most of us are in the seventh course. Half of Monroe County does not have a favorite hymn, has no psalm memorized, cannot recite the Lord's Prayer, has no safe church home in which to worship, no church family to love, while most of us are in religious graduate school. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Jesus weeps because he wants to gather his own to himself, and we are getting in his way by not sharing what means most to us and what anyway is not ours to keep.

So we will be alive to real experience, even though it may be costly and painful. We will affirm our faith as did Bonhoeffer. Remember he said a Christian is a man "for Others". Jesus is that man for others, and we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. So we shall sing,

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
And confidently waiting come what may
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us as we pray.

Sunday, March 04, 2001

First, Forgiveness

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Romans 10:8-10

The power which has gathered us this day comes not from an idea about God, but rather from something God has done for us. Paul's eucharistic sentences in Romans, his words of CONFESSION and BELIEF, proclaim the story of this divine deed and tell us its meaning and effect for us. What the tongue receives in sacrament, the ear receives in faith by hearing.

In an age that hears much clamor about false pardons, we cross the river today into the sphere of Real Pardon. In an age which seems to trust that all is for sale, even pardons, we cross the river today into the scary saving space of Real Pardon, which is not for sale. It cannot be bought, because it is not for sale. A story, then, the One True Story, and its saving meaning for you.

First, The Story

God sent a message to the people of Israel which rightly understood was meant for all people. The message is one of comfort not of blame. The message is one of acceptance not of punishment. The message is one of blessing, good news. God has sent a message to us, carried in the person of Jesus Christ. In hindsight, it was clear that all the prophets of the ancient world had looked forward to Christ. The word spread first throughout Judea, the Holy Land. Strangely, the first inklings of the news were felt in Galilee, a territory uncomfortable with traditional religion. Galilee of the free-thinkers and party-goers. Galilee of the many nations. The early rumblings of God's message came through baptisms given by John, later known as "the baptist". John spoke to young people, along the River Jordan, pointing out their hurting ways, and pointing out that life ends. In that time there were many who avoided thinking much about the ways they had harmed others and about the impending prospect of their own funerals. Scared, some of the younger ones received his baptism. Humble John told them that Another, an Anointed One, followed him. This was Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was born of a woman and was empowered by God. On one hand, he was out of Bethlehem and Nazareth, out of a carpenter's home and Jewish instruction. He was a man. On the other hand, he was covered with Holy Spirit, and manifestly God. He was God. God was in Jesus. As a grown young man, Jesus too was baptized by John, hearing with other young people John's warning about hurt and death. After that washing in the muddy Jordan, Jesus went about the fifty miles by a hundred miles of Palestine. He went by foot, alone at first. He spent his time doing good and healing.

To do good, he shared a set of teachings about how one should live. He recommended rather less attention to money and rather more attention to people. He offered examples of good people. A poor widow giving all she had. A whining, importunate pushy woman who would not give up. An oppressed person who stopped along the road to help a beaten man. A dad who knew that sons need freedom to grow up, and need acceptance after they goof up. A sly investor, whose craftiness paid off. He made sense to those who heard him, and they remembered his stories. What mattered to him was not how people sang or prayed, so much as how they treated others.

To heal, he set about fighting with the demons of the age. He cured one woman of bleeding. He helped a man to walk. He used spittle and mud to give a blind man sight. He brought Peter's mother-in-law back to life after it looked like she was dead. He tussled with a demon filled wildman. He cured as many as were brought to him and was mostly remembered for these powerful healings. In fact, when he died, many marveled and said, "he helped others but not himself".

Jesus gathered a dozen students of his way of living. Peter was the main one. These and others actually knew Jesus. They ate with and drank with him, and saw the good he did and the healing he brought. They are witnesses. Witnesses. They witnessed his life. They witnessed his death. They witnessed his resurrection from the dead. They witnessed, from that point on, to the One picked by God to judge every person. Every person will be judged, living and dead, according to Jesus. SO WITH PAUL WE CONFESS.

Second, The Story's Meaning

Paul then tells us the meaning and effect of this story, a true story, on our lives. The effect of the story of Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophets' hope, that there would be a way to forgive. Jesus opens in life a way to forgiveness. We should say the way to forgiveness. All the prophecy, all the baptism, all the preaching, all the healing, all the good done, all the witnessing, all of the story of Jesus, especially its climax in suffering love bears this meaning for your life: you are forgiven. The effect of Jesus is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the central treasure of life. Forgiveness brings meaning to life.

The effect of faith on you is what you hear in preaching. The effect of faith is conveyed in preaching. In preaching one hears of the peace of God. In preaching the reconciliation won by Christ comes right home to you. In preaching - the same witness made to the Romans - you hear of real forgiveness. In preaching you are met, even now, by the cruciform news of God's acceptance of you, God's embrace of you, God's love for you, which is lavish, uncritical, personal, and undeserved. In preaching, the single most valuable word for your life is offered or given, the very remission of sins.

The effect of Jesus' love creates faith in you, which then allows you to receive forgiveness. By faith you hear and receive God's forgiveness. By faith you accept that God has accepted you. By faith you believe God forgives. By faith you confidently receive forgiveness. By faith you make forgiveness your own, you make it a hallmark of your life. By faith you let God's forgiveness work in you, cover you, wash you, change you, encourage you.

Today you are in communion with the same church, which since Paul has been witness to God's raising power to forgive sin. Jesus Christ came into this world to save people from the harms done by and done to them. He came to reconcile people to God, to plant peace in the heart and to create a movement of forgiven and forgiving men and women. He came, lived, died and was raised to convey to you this good news: you are forgiven.

I am a witness to this news. As a disciple I have my hours of failure. As a believer I have my days of doubt. As a pastor I run up against limits to what can be done. As a man I know both wonder and fear. With you today, I am one beggar telling a group of others where we can all find bread. Still: I am witness to the remission of sin. I am a witness, and so are you. Being a witness to forgiveness is an all consuming, life work.

People of faith, let us live in newness of life! Let us set aside our resentment of things past. Let us set aside our desire to even the score. Let us set aside our anger with our brother. Let us set aside our claims for repayment. Let us set aside our self-hatred as well as our hatred of others.

Let us pardon one another even as God has pardoned us. Let us receive others favorably, even as God has accepted us. And let us in faith take what is offered to us – Jesus Christ. Let us in faith receive the gift of forgiveness, the treasure of life itself. And as forgiven people, let us forgive others.