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."

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