Sunday, May 20, 2001

The Great Embankment

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 24: 44-55

Beloved: we are on a path together. Together we are taking a journey! Confirmation is not a location but a direction. Confirmation is not a spot but a trajectory. We’re walking the path prepared for us by God’s Grace.


At age twenty, some of us had the golden opportunity to study together in old Castile in the center of Spain. You know some of their traditions, eating dinner, la cena, from 11:00 PM to 1:00 AM, and later the needed tradition of la siesta the next day from two to four in the afternoon. But when the shops closed at 7:00 PM in this and in most communities, the town would gather for what was called el paseo, the walk. Together they would walk and shop and talk and stop for a coffee or other refreshments or a pastry. It was a time of conviviality.

One evening my friend Ed, from an Irish family in Ashtabula, and I stopped with some in the town and they began to sing songs of Segovia. After they finished, they asked if we would each sing a song that told them something about our identity, about our background. Well, I didn’t think Ed was a very good singer, and I knew I wasn’t so we were a little scared. But do you know, Ed, after the quiet, began to sing surprisingly, beautifully, a song about Molly Malone in Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty. And again the quiet came and I realized it was my turn. So I began to sing what came to mind, “Had a mule, her name was Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.” We translated roughly and our hosts said, “Is this the difference between Ohio and New York? He sings about a woman and you sing about a mule?!!”

Our imagery today is canal imagery--our home turf. Walk with me three steps, if you will, along the towpath. We could imagine ourselves somewhere between Pittsford and Bushnel’s Basin, with the canal on the right and the moorings on the left. We’re following the towpath. Step one as you are confirmed:

I. Believe

Confirmation gives us the grace to believe. To become a Christian this and each day means to believe in a certain way, to believe in almighty God. Whose power is known in the created order. Whose personality is seen in the face and mostly in the voice of Jesus Christ. Whose presence is trusted as our helping, saving spirit, day by day. We believe in a certain, specific way in almighty God. The Bible says: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved”(Rom 10:9). We believe---as the creeds express in a variety of ways. You know there have been creeds from the beginning of the Church. We are not a creedal denomination, but we use them, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. The one regularly we use here is taken from the United Church of Canada: “We believe in God, who has created and is creating, who has come in the true person Jesus to reconcile and to make new”. Our Confirmands for this day, have written their own several creeds. You know baseball players, now and then, give off a little bit of wisdom. We remember Yogi Beara saying, it’s a good word for confirmation, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Sachel Page saying, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” But today, perhaps we could remember from thirty-two years ago, Tug McGraw, the great Mets pitcher saying, “You gotta believe, you gotta believe.” To become a Christian in confirmation means to believe.

II. Belong

Take another step with me will you along the canal path. On our left hand there are moorings where the canal boats once were tethered. In our life together, these can be images of sacramental rights, baptism and confirmation, communion, ordination, marriage, forgiveness, memorial--all very important means of grace. Not the center, the path, the journey is the center. But the moorings are still very important helps and provide security. To become a Christian means not only to believe but also to belong, to belong to the body of Christ, the church, The Bible says that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers”. There are no freelance Christians. We need one another! One person sharpens another like iron sharpens iron. And so in this great church we try week by week to summon the finest features of Christianity from every part of the globe and blend them together: Catholic tradition, Anglican sacraments, reformation faith, puritan discipline, pietist feelings. Yes, to be a Methodist (a Methodist is just like everybody else only more so) it’s a blend.

III. To Behave

To become a Christian means to belong to the community of faith and live among God’s people, to be refreshed and restored. But take a third step along the path with me if you will, for to become a Christian also means to behave in a particular way. You know, along the canal path there are the moorings to the left and there is the canal itself to the right. And times of sheer delight come upon us in our life together, so savor them. That moment at summer camp in the evening, that quiet prayer hour when you heard a voice, that crusade in which you were converted for the first or second time, that moment at the communion rail when God’s grace touched your heart deeply.

We are calling our young people, this and every generation, to behave in a certain way. Paul taught the Romans that they should love one another with “mutual affection” and so we say simply to our Confirmands, go to church, love your neighbor, tell the truth, keep your word, save your money, hug your father, kiss your mother, feed the poor, hear the hurt, learn to tithe, respect your body, and so live to the glory of Almighty God. To become a Christian means to behave in a certain set of ways.

The Great Embankment

Now if we go far enough out on the canal we’ll come just toward Bushnel’s Basin and there as we’re arriving we’ll find ourselves on “the great embankment.” You know, in 1822 our forbears, these courageous pioneers, found a way to carry water, canal water, over water, the Irondequoit creek. Fearless they were, and so they put over a mile long and 70 feet in the air this great embankment upon whose path we are walking today (in the mind’s eye).

Christ Jesus is our great embankment, carrying us in the water of faith across the river of life. Christ Jesus is our great embankment carrying us in the water of baptism, through the river of struggle, not only to the left and to the right but especially along that central path which we journey. Maybe this afternoon our young adults and their parents will go out to the Burgandy Basin and walk the canal and sense again the great embankment, but if we do today and every day let us do so especially listening for that one voice, that saving voice so equable, so pure and so serene: You know it well.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, let your light so shine before others that they may give glory to God in heaven. If someone asks you to go one mile, go two of them as well. If you’re asked for a coat give a cloak as well. You have heard it said love your neighbor, hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemy. So you will be children of the most high who is kind to the ungrateful and to the selfish.

Store ye not up treasure on earth, where moth and rust doth consume and thieves break in and steal; but store up treasure in heaven where neither moth or rust consume, nor do thieves break in and steal. Judge not, that ye be not judged, for the measure you give will be the measure you get. Ask and it shall be given, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door will be open. For enter in at the narrow gate, for broad is the gate and wide is the way that leads to perdition and many there be who go thereby; but narrow is the gate and straight is the way that leads to life and few there be who find it. To what shall we compare those who hear this word and heed it? They are like a wise man who built his house upon the rock and the rain fell and the flood came and the winds blew and beat upon that house but it did not fall because it was founded on the rock. To what shall we compare those who hear the word and do not heed it? They are like a man who built his house on the sand and the rain fell and the flood came and the wind blew and beat upon that house and it fell in and great was the fall of it.

Beloved, we are on a path, a journey together. Let us take three steps this and each day to believe, to belong and to behave as we become together in the body of Christ. Happy Confirmation Sunday! Amen.

Sunday, May 06, 2001

A Glorious Liberty

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Revelation 7:9-17

1. A Question For This Morning

Are we living to the glory of God? Is the freedom we so dearly prize a glorious liberty or a glorified libertinism? Are we living to the glory of God?

A hundred years ago my grandmother grew up in the farm country near Cooperstown. Her family had been there long before Lexington, Concord and the shot heard around the world. It is not so long ago that we, most of us, came out of the physical life, to take our place peering into others' teeth and scouring others' tax returns and providing others' entertainment and investing others' funds. I wonder how much of our current ennui, in the midst of a culture that still 'languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise' (Weeden), is related to our longing for the physical life, now two generations behind us?

One summer in her childhood the Baptists and the Methodists both needed roof repairs. Both had need, and one had money. I guess the Baptists had the money. Maybe it was the Methodists. Let's say it was the Baptists, though. Summer came and in between the first and second cuttings of hay people took a break. Maybe it was between the second and third cuttings of hay. Let's say it was between the first and second. The Baptists hired a young man from Oneonta to replace the church roof. He came in the midsummer and worked steadily along, finishing a good job in good time. The roof was excellent. With one slight problem. He managed to replace not the Baptist but the Methodist roof! Right roof, wrong church. It is not recorded whether this mishap helped or harmed ecumenical relations in the Cherry Valley. Isn't it remarkable how much confusion we infuse into life?

In that same region, and in that same era, a preacher came to town who related well to young people. My grandmother had returned from Smith College to teach in a local, one room, school. This little yarn is one of the few religious, repeatable tales I know from that era, now long ago and somewhat far away. The town held a harvest dance. Usually the Baptists went, but the Methodists stayed away. Or maybe it was the Baptists. No, it must have been the Methodists, due to that older Methodist prohibition, before Prohibition, of card playing, swearing, jewelry, ostentation, smoking, drinking, and, of course, dancing. It would be another 20 years before the Methodist discipline allowed dancing. It would be another 10 years before women, like my then 20-year old grandmother, received the vote. I think of this, now and then, that my own mother was born just 8 years after women's suffrage became law.

Anyway. With the dance approaching, the Methodist young people in the valley were caught on the horns of a dilemma, a conflict, classic in form, between church and culture. Their hearts, or at least feet, and their generation, or at least friends, were ready to boogey. Their church said, "sit down". She went to the new preacher, the one who related so well to the young people, to discuss the matter. Their short dialogue lingers with me over the years.

She: "Would it be all right if some of us went to the dance?"

He: "Well…can you dance to the glory of God?"

And I never learned, or do not remember, no I guess it was I never learned, whether or not they danced. Because the response question is so much better than the lead question! Abraham Heschel, the greatest teacher of the prophets in the last century, invariably responded to his students' questions: "Yes, that is a good question, but is it the real, the right question?"

What you are about to do-is it to the glory of God? Are we living to the glory of God? Is the freedom we so dearly prize a glorious liberty or a glorified libertinism? Are we living to the glory of God?

2. The Revelation to St John: Singing Glory to God

Today's Scripture lesson, remarkably apt for such a musical Sunday, exudes glory. You may not be a fan of the Revelation to St John. Like Martin Luther, you may judge its contents, in general, unfit for the Bible. Yet, pause a few minutes before this breathtaking vision in chapter 7.

The scene is heaven. And earth. That is, this is a scene taken from heaven, to help earth. It is a place, again, where the church triumphant stoops to help you and me, the church militant. The writer, clearly a bit of an eccentric, sees, here, after seven variously fascinating seals have been opened and examined, a glorious liberty.

There is a throne. There is the Lamb - the crucified whose resurrection we praise. There are too many people to count. They come from every religion, every tribe, every tongue. They are not all Methodists. They are not all liberals. They are not all from the east coast. One thing only they have in common - a glorious liberty to sing praise to God, to give glory to God. This is their hallmark, a glorious liberty. There are angels and elders and creatures - like every congregation I have ever known. And we need all - dreamers, doubters, and doers. There they are, and what are they doing? They are singing….blessing and honor and glory!

They are dressed in white. The white robe is the robe of glory, the robe of resurrection. Are not some of them in red robes? Like our choir? Well, no, actually. But they are all singing, they give glory to God, all of them - angels and elders and creatures. Don't you wonder who they are? I do.

Do you live to the glory of God? Is what you do done to the glory of God? How you spend your time? How you spend your money? How you tend your soul? Do you glorify God by worshipping every Sunday, singing in church, and every weekday, by loving your neighbor? Do you glorify God by tithing your income on Sunday and practicing good stewardship all week? Do you glorify God by promising to be faithful on Sunday and then staying faithful through the week? Do you live to the glory of God?

We are made, to give glory to God, by becoming fully who we are, by giving glory to God.

Mortimer Adler taught Chicago's civic and corporate leaders about the heavenly vision some years ago. It was a Friday night 'humanities for business leaders' session.

One asked, "What do they do in heaven, all these angels and leaders and creatures?"

They sing.
"No work?
No work.
"No assignments?"
No assignments.
"No measured results?"

Infuriated, the student replied, "Sir, I find that…un …un…un… UnAmerican!

What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy God forever. Hardly news for a singing Methodist like you.

When we gather for worship and when we sing, as choir, as congregation, as Christians, we offer ourselves before the throne of a Divine Audience. It is Almighty God for whom we sing.

3. The Revelation to St John: Living Glory to God

But just who are these, dressed in white, gathered ad gloriam dei in the Presence, at the Temple, before the Throne? I guess we would have to assume, as in any congregation, that they are the best singers, existentially and metaphorically at least. In fact, this is the case.

In fact, take heart choir, their robes once were red. They have come through what the passage mysteriously calls, "the great ordeal". And they have washed their own robes for glory, the red giving way to the white of doxology.

They are martyrs.

The last book in the Bible, the Revelation, is written about the stern virtues of faith. Not only disciplined worship and consistent tithing and unvarnished faithfulness, but also…something more. They have been through 'the great ordeal'. GB Caird (whose commentary on the Revelation written while he was still at McGill is the finest even today) says of this odd phrase, that it refers to the "grim conflict of loyalties", which every Christian faces. We are going to face hours and days and decisions when the air hangs very heavy with the question, "Can you do this to the glory of God?"

For the generation of John of Patmos, it was sheer Roman persecution, being thrown to the lions that made up the great ordeal. Many early Christians paid for their faith with their lives. John wrote these lines sternly to remind others, who might face equally daunting and equally grim conflicts of loyalties, that…this is God's world, not Caesar's. Even though testimony, martureo, to this truth could mean suffering and conflict and even death.

"During the last 35 years of his life John has lived through a series of grim events which might well seem a challenge to the Christian belief in the kingship of Christ: the earthquakes of AD 60, the humiliating defeat of the Roman army on the eastern frontier by the Parthian Vologeses in AD 62, the persecution of Christians which followed the fire in Rome in AD 64, the four year horror of the Jewish war which ended in AD 70 with Jerusalem in ruins; the suicide of Nero in AD 68 and the political chaos which ensued as four claimants battled for the imperial throne, and for a whole year the Roman world echoed to the tramp of marching armies; the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 which had obliterated the luxury resorts of the Bay of Naples and created a pall of darkness so widespread that men feared the imminent dissolution of the physical order; the serious grain famine of AD92. John's vision of the four horsemen is intended to assert Christ's sovereignty over such a world as that." (Caird, 79)

For us, as a race, a nation, a county, a city, a church, the haunting conflict is over community. Are we one nation, under God, or several? Are we one church, with one Lord, or several? Are we one community, with liberty and justice for all, or for some?

Voices of faithful leaders, singing God's praise, bring hope.

I listen to our Mayor trying again, in the face of much pessimism, to address the scourge of racism in Monroe County. He gives me hope. I realize he is a leader who deserves more attention and support than I have given him.

I listen to our new divinity school President trying again, in the face of much challenge, to advance the formation of prophetic leaders for the church. He gives me hope. I realize he is a leader who deserves more attention and support than I have given him.

I listen to our Daycare board chair trying again, in the face of serious obstacles, to make this childcare program the best and the best lead in the county. She gives me hope. I realize she is a leader who deserves more attention and support than I have given her.

I listen to our Ad Cab chair, trying again, always encouraging water to run uphill, to grow this church, both spiritually and numerically, in quantity and in quality, in worship, education and care. She gives me hope. I realize she is a leader who deserves more attention and support than I have given her.

You may have to choose or choose again this week. Is this God's world, or a world owned by your now dead abusive parent? Is this God's world, or a world owned and operated by a raging river? Is this God's world, or a world owned by an untamed malignancy? Is this God's world, or a world owned by those who own the most? Is this God's world, or a world in which only visible success, tangible victory, physical strength matter? Is this God's world, or one for which there is no moral compass? Is this a world, as Wesley preached, where sin remains but does not reign? Or does sin reign and remain? Is this God's world? In one sense, it is a clear and simple choice. Yet ever fraught with a grim conflict of loyalties.

4. A Decision for Christ

You know this in your heart.

I took an informal survey this week, asking any number of you your favorite hymn and the reason it is your favorite. I was stunned. In almost every case, the hymn was connected to a great ordeal.

"Now thank we all our God". Deliverance from loss.
"In the garden". Deliverance from error.
"Hear I am Lord." Deliverance from malignancy.
"Where he leads me." Deliverance from dislocation.
"Guide me Great Jehovah". Deliverance from injustice.

You feel it. It is personal. It is heartfelt. It is real. It is good. It is, that is, the gift of faith. You know that there is something deeper, truer, purer, quieter than merely what the eye can see. So you sing. And though we may each select a different hymn as our favorite, we all can still happily sing out of the same hymnal. No creed, no catechism, no collection of rules, no clerical authority, nothing finally stands between you and a personal faith in God. Except yourself. This is the specific glorious liberty which belongs to a very accident prone people, the Methodists, who nonetheless with heart and voice proclaim the love of God in grace and freedom!

So when a swollen spring river drowns a teenager, you sing out to a higher authority. And when a childhood illness threatens your boy, you sing out to a higher authority. And when cancer comes in middle age, you sing out to a higher authority. And when life makes no immediate sense and you wander in the wilderness, you sing out to a higher authority. And when power trumps right, you sing out to a higher authority.

Your hymns, your favorites, they tell the tale. They keep hope alive. They keep faith fervent. They keep love the first option. Your hymns do not lie. They buoy you up, to live a glorious liberty. Even in loss, even when, at trial, you have been found guilty by a tampered and packed jury of life, and yet you know you are right, innocent and meant to be free. So you simply appeal - DOXOLOGY! - to a higher authority. You take your case to the next level. You take your brief to the next court. You take your plea to the great throne. To God and the Lamb.

We end. And we end this service, as every one, with a doxology. A word to glorify, to praise God.

A hymn loved - doxology!
An anthem enjoyed - doxology!
A cause supported - doxology!
A child loved - doxology!
A church tended - doxology!
An evil suffered - doxology!
A calling heard - doxology!BR>A check written - doxology!
A temptation avoided - doxology!
A slight absorbed - doxology!
An email deleted - doxology!
A meeting canceled - doxology!
A threat ignored - doxology!

Of you John wrote, "They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to the spring of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."