Sunday, November 18, 2001

Gentle As A Prayer

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Philippians 4: 4-9

Lochran aigh nam bochd

In the autumn, Alistair McCleod's fictional brothers slept with loaded rifles under their beds. The three of them lived together, out in the woods, raising themselves in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, after their parents had fallen through thin ice and drowned. They were a rough crew, struggling to feed themselves in all seasons. In the fall, especially when the moon was bright and full, they slept lightly, guns loaded, waiting to hear the deer move in the moonlight toward their beleaguered garden. Hearing the rustle of leaves, they leaned out the bedroom windows, "straining to see along the blue-grey barrels of their rifles which glinted in the moonlight, straining to get the antlered head in line with the rifle's sights by the light of the lochran aigh nam bochd, the Gaelic phrase for the moon, "the lamp of the poor". A lovely way to speak of the moon, "the lamp of the poor".

If the shot were true, and the deer fell, they would race out into the field, under the light of the "lamp of the poor", skin the deer, pack the meat, and trudge back to bed, thankful that there would be something for three young Scotsmen to eat, in a hard life, along the Atlantic coast.

We are creatures filled with dreams, owls are we, children of light, living in the dark moonscape of hurt and hope across which we trudge. A dream comes alive at night, in the moon light. As we have said already this autumn, Christ is our own "lamp of the poor", in whose light, we see light.

In Praise of Gentleness

St Paul reads by the same moonlight grace, and so instructs his happy Philippians, and, by some extension, us. In the moonlight grace shining around us, we may benefit from hearing his words. It is the same world as it was in August, but our apprehension of some of its shadow lands is different. The world has not changed. But our eyes have widened in the moonlight to other features of the dark around us. We see a little better, even if what we see is a little worse than we thought. We are to rejoice always, Paul repeats twice. We are to accept the nearness of the Lord. We are not to worry, not about anything, for the peace of God guards our hearts and minds, though, apparently, not necessarily our bodies. We are to think about the divine gifts, all that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy. May it be so.

Our text makes one other commendation. "Let your gentleness be known to everyone". Veteran pew sitters, fond of the 1950 translation, "let all men know your forbearance", will sense a slight shift here, in the new version (NRSV). Our lovely new Bible brings just a little more moonlight to bear, here and there. Like here.

Broadcast your gentleness. Exhibit your forbearance. Advertise your equanimity. The light of Christ has fallen on your dreamscape, and made of you a new people, and this new gift, this thanksgiving prayer, this gentleness, of such good report, is for you to share, to name and proclaim and exclaim. In the heart of the church, gentleness moves, making of this royal priesthood, women and men who are gentle, forbearing, considerate, kind, gracious, reasonable, equitable, mature.

The Source of Gentleness

For Paul, writing to Philippi, and earlier to Corinth (2:10:1), this is the mark of Christ, the fitting, right, reasonable mark of Christ upon his people. But how does this mark find its mark? How is a violent race of humans gentled? We are changed, made considerate, by the pain of Christ who works in us and others by his spirit. He makes this change in us, by his spirit. This spirit is both renewing for the vulnerable, and restraining for the violent. So, in the same way, our human use of power, corporate and individual, takes, at its best, both renewing and restraining forms.

This is very hard for us, hard to recognize that for gentleness to have a future, some restraint of all that is not gentle is required. There are times, including our involvement in the restraint of terrorism in the Middle East, when violence must be restrained by use of force, in order we pray to prevent greater, further violence. Sinful, tragic, it is, but may be as necessary as it is inevitable. I believe our President had it right, as I said earlier on 9/16, 10/7 and 10/21: "We shall meet violence with patient justice." Every human judgment is prone to error, including this one. History and providence will finally judge.

But God creates a new world. He works this new creation, by water and word. He makes a change in the human heart, by the same power that separated water from water and said "Let there be light". "For it is the God who said 'Let light shine out of darkness' who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord." A real change in a real heart is real hard and is the doing of the divine.

There is more. It is not just the cross of Christ, the grace of God in human form, that makes us new. It is the hope of his resurrection that keeps us new. For the earliest Christians, if we can trust some of their secular contemporaries to give apt reporting, it was faith in heaven that produced gentleness. In fact, this mark, call it forbearance or kindness or epiekes if you speak greek, was seen as an earthly counterpart of heavenly glory, a start to heaven, a beachhead into heaven, a foretaste, a downpayment. Heaven is here and now, especially as your gentleness is known to all.

In Praise of the Gentle Folk

Our church, the Methodist Church, has been a hotbed of gentleness, for 200 years. Here, liberal and conservative have learned to sit at the table of brotherhood. Here, a deep personal faith and an active social involvement have conspired together, and been combined to fashion Christianity in earnest. Here, the rhetorical ferocity of the far right and the ideological rigidity of the far left have given way, through the suffering forbearance of leaders able to survive some earnest, well intended pummeling from both, to a broad and open space, a place where there abides a hope of heaven, on earth as it is in heaven. Here freedom rings. Here freedom reigns. At least, this is still occasionally true. Here there remains a respect for what John Wesley called, "the liberty of an Englishman."

So we are people of the middle way, of the broad and great stream, a place hard to protect in the midst of a shooting war, literal or figurative, but the one kind of place we all most want to enjoy.

How does such a community live? By gentleness, by forbearance. This is your birthright, your name, your gift from God to neighbor, your best self, your sign of hope. This is who you are. "Let your gentleness be known to everyone."


In the winter last year, I spoke one Sunday about a woman in Michigan, sitting on her porch and looking out at the farm she had lived on for many years. One of our leaders had told me her story, how she rocks and watches, fascinated by the corn stubble buried in snow. I remarked upon her ability to find such wonder in a field of snow and corn stubble. Her image, rocking on the porch, somehow enchanted me, and does still. All being and no doing, she is there, gentle as a prayer.

No sermon is a monologue in content, though it may be in content, though it may be in form. A sermon speaks for as well as to the congregation. It is the mysterious interplay of voices, hearts, and dreams that make up a community.

Imagine my delight, then, when, a few weeks later, sometime before Easter, I received this note:

This was inspired by your sermon a few weeks ago. Perhaps you will recall, I spoke to you after church, saying you didn't understand about a field of snow. Though I grew up on a farm, I didn't stay there as a farmer's wife. I wrote this, trying to think how my grandmother would feel:

Sitting by my window-looking out at the field
This chair has been such a comfort for so many years
All the children were comforted in this chair
All grown and gone now
Babies-growing year after year
'Til they could go to the field to help
The fields-so green in the spring
Then the plough broke it up into beautiful brown earth
Worked over and over
Until the seeds had a wonderful bed in which to grow
Week after week growing
And then harvest.
We all went to the field for the harvest.
Sunrise to sunset
Day after day
Finished at last
Ready for winter
Now looking across the field at beautiful virgin snow
Like watching a baby sleep. So peaceful.
Happy for the quiet.
Anxious for the awakening
Start again
Sitting by my window
Rocking Rocking
(cbzahm 2001)

Gifts of Prayer on the Altar

In this enchanted hour, in this enchanted space, in this enchanted season, in this enchanted moment, come to the magnificent altar of Asbury First, and, in the moonlight, in a dream, lay your gift, your prayer, your gentleness upon it. What is your thanksgiving prayer?

David: "We shall be satisfied with the goodness of thy house, even of they holy temple".

John Wesley: "While we thank thee, we request, care continued, pardon, rest."

Tertullian: "Bless us, thou foreseer of human necessities".

Koert Foster: "We thank you Lord for this another day."

Irving Hill: "For health and strength and daily food we praise thy name O Lord."

Robert Pennock: "Bless daily bread in which we share; knit though our family close in prayer."

Harry Truman: "Always do what is right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest."


We use similes to express what is highest and best. These correlative constructions take us as far as we can go. In the eighteenth century, they made a game of it.

As bold as…brass
As safe as…a church
As pretty as…a picture
As rich as…Rockefeller
As easy as…pie
As happy as…a lark
As happy as …a clam
As old as…Methusala
As cold as…ice
As neat as…a pin
As tall as… a mountain
As fit as…a fiddle
As pretty as…a picture
As deep as…the ocean
As high as…the sky

To summarize this passage, for this Thanksgiving, with your permission, I believe we should create, write, a new simile. May it be the way our community is know, our church is seen, and our lives are measured. May it be the way we are named, by others.

Those people, that church, that man, his wife, he, she, they…they are gentle… as gentle as…a prayer.

Sunday, November 04, 2001

Come Down Zaccheus!

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 19:1-10

It is hard for me to tell, from this angle, which tree you are in. Given the guns of this autumn, it is hard for me to tell which tree I am in myself, day to day. Has life chased you up the tree of doubt? Or are you treed in the branches of loyalty? Is that you in the religion tree? Or are we shaking or shaking in the money tree? Jesus Christ calls us today, to come down out of the tree forts of our own making, and accept a loving relationship with Him. May measure all with a measure of love.

Doubting Zaccheus

Perhaps the presence of unexplained wrong provokes you to doubt the benevolence or the power of God. No one can explain why terrible things happen, as they do. But if you will come down a limb or two from your philosophical tree of doubt, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you may hear faith. God can bring good out of evil, and make bad things work to good. This is not a theological declamation, but just something we can notice together.

We played golf the other day. On the last hole, I pulled out a three wood and hit a grounder, that nonetheless rolled right to the green. If I had connected, I would have smashed the clubhouse window, for it was way too much club. Sometimes a bad thing, a worm burner golf shot, interferes with a really bad thing, a $1000 broken window.

Two Sundays ago Chris and I drove late to church. I usually run early Sunday and finish memorizing the sermon along the way, as I did on October 21. I just forgot the time. We raced here, and in so doing I cut a corner, literally, and so popped a car tire. I was not happy to hear my son say, “haste makes waste”. You know, though, both rear tires were thin. I had replaced the front in August, and forgot about the rear ones. I have to admit, it was good that I had reason to replace them, before I had a blowout, in a convertible, on the highway. Sometimes it happens that a bad thing prevents a really terrible thing from happening.

Joseph was thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery. He had to find his way, as a Jew, in the service of the mighty Pharaoh. He did so with skill, and rose to a position of influence, even with Potiphar’s wife chasing him around in his underwear. Then, a full generation later, a great famine came upon those brothers who had earlier sold Joseph down the river. They went to Pharaoh, looking for food. And who met them, as they came to plead? There was Joseph. He so memorably said, as written in Genesis 50: “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good, that many might be saved.” Sometimes it happens that a bad thing in one generation prevents starvation in the next.

In Jericho, as Jesus found the little man up in the tree, his fellows grumbled (vs. 8). Why would he take time with such a greedy, selfish person who makes his living off the sweat of others’ brows? That hurts, to see divine attention given to those who have harmed you. Why would he have a meal with someone who takes no thought for the hurt of God’s people? This is bad! And it is. We miss the power of the parable if we do not see this. This is Jesus taking up with those who have wished the church ill, who have used the church for their own very well intended but nonetheless self-centered reasons. This is Jesus consorting with sinners. But sometimes a bad thing in the little brings a good thing in the large. Zaccheus changes, and in so doing provides great wealth for others’ benefit.

Come down from this one tree, doubting Zaccheus. I know that bad things happen to good people, and as a pastor hardly anything troubles me more. Sometimes, though, sometimes-not always, just sometimes, a bad thing early averts a really bad thing late. I have seen it, and you have too. It is enough to give someone up the doubting tree a reason to come down at least a branch. Think of it as existential vaccination.

It is the labor of faith to trust that where sin abounds, grace over-abounds. Even in this autumn of terror. September 11 is the quintessence of all things bad. I want to be very nimble, careful in what I say here, so that I am not misheard. This is a bad thing. But one of the redeeming possibilities in this disaster is the chance that as a result, enough of us, now, will become enough committed to the realization of global peace and justice, that these dead shall not have died in vain, and that their demise will be a warning to us that we do not have forever in the quest for peace on earth. Sometimes a bad thing in one part of history protects us from a worse thing in another part

Let us not lose sight of the horizons of biblical hope, as improbable as they can seem. The lion and the lamb. No crying or thirst. The crooked straight. All flesh.

The divine delight comes still from saving the lost, including the forgotten, seeking the outcast, retrieving the wayward sons and daughters of Abraham. God wants your salvation. Your salvation “has personal, domestic, social, and economic consequences” (Craddock). Jesus Christ saves us from doubt

So come down Zaccheus, come down from your perch in that comfortable sycamore tree, that comfortable pew, that skeptical reserve, that doubt. Come down Zaccheus! The Lord Jesus Christ has need of your household and your money, and He responds to your doubt

Zealous Zaccheus

Come down Zaccheus, down from your zealous leanings, hanging out on the branch of life. Idolatry comes when we make one or more of the lesser, though significant, loyalties in life to become a shadow of the one great loyalty, that which the heart owes alone to God. Zaccheus had governmental responsibility, community status, a welcoming home, a fine family, and we can suspect he was loyal in these regards. Curious as he was, up on his branch, he had no relationship with the divine. Into this relationship, Jesus invites him. More precisely, Jesus invites himself into relationship with a man up a tree. He is invited into a whole new life, a new world of loving and faithful relationships, that stem from the one great loyalty.

We need to be careful about lesser loyalties this fall. Again, I want to speak nimbly and not be misunderstood. To me, it is clear that there are times when police work, force and even the violence of some warfare tragically must be used to prevent, as we just said, even greater horrors in the future.

Our priorities, (“God, family, the Packers” as Lomardi said) become clear in a time of loss. Read with me one of the many obituaries posted in the New York Times:

This year, Sheila Scandole carved the pumpkin for Halloween, a job that had always fallen to her husband, Robert Scandole. But he is not here anymore, so with a little help, she carefully etched a spider on a pumpkin.

And when she took their two daughters out trick-or-treating in their Pelham Manor neighborhood in Westchester County, she could not help but think about him. “He would have been right there with us,” she said. “I felt horrible, but I tried to carve the pumpkin the best that I could. I wanted to make it real special.”

Mr. Scandole, 35, a trader with Cantor Fitzgerald, doted on the girls, Emma, 4, and Katie, 2. He worked on Wall Street, but he always clung to his old neighborhood, in Breezy Point, Queens, even taking part in a basketball league with some of the guys he grew up with. He and Sheila met at Breezy Point, where their parents still live. “I lost the greatest love of my life,” she said.

Yet all of this involves a lesser loyalty than the one owed to God. We can forget whose water we were baptized into, if we are not careful.

Do you see the danger? Come down Zaccheus, come down, before it is too late. Make sure your lesser loyalties - to government, family, home, all - do not cover over, do not shadow the one great loyalty.

Religious Zaccheus

Let’s talk for a moment about religion, shall we? Come down Zaccheus, come down! No amount of religious apparatus can ever substitute for what Jesus is offering today, and that is loving relationship. No amount of theological astuteness can ever substitute for loving relationship. No amount of sturdy churchmanship can ever substitute for loving relationship. No amount of righteous indignation can ever substitute for loving relationship. No amount of church music, instrumental or vocal, can ever substitute for loving relationship. No amount of formal religion can ever substitute for the power of loving relationship. Jesus invites us into loving relationship with him, and so with each other. That is salvation. Are we lovers anymore?

Sometimes it is easier to see things in others. Let’s talk about Islam, shall we? I love Huston Smith’s happy review of the religion of Mohammed. We can certainly learn much from our Islamic neighbors. I commend our President for his tolerant care of our Moslem citizens, and, with some few exceptions thus far, our nation’s civility. We can do no less.

You remember your high school review of Islam. The word means ‘submission’, and Moslem is one who submits to God. The five pillars of Islam, like the ‘tulip’ summary of Calvinism, have shorthand value. You remember them: 1. One God. 2. 5 times daily prayer. 3. Tithing (2.5%). 4. Fasting at Ramadan. 5. Pilgrimage to Mecca. It is a worthy religion.

Without being critical, can we though be honest? Islam is a religion, like our own. But Zaccheus had religion, and that a good one. He even had God, the real God. But religion alone, even our own, is God without Jesus, order without freedom, authority without personality, transcendence without immanence, heaven without heaven on earth, and much masculinity without much femininity. O come down Zaccheus! Come down from certainty, whether of five pillars or five points, and walk the daily dusty path of the cross. No amount of religion can take the place of loving relationship.

Wealthy Zaccheus

Come down Zaccheus, come down, at last. Impediments to faith come through doubt and idolatry and religion, but none of these holds a candle to the harm that wealth can bring. In global terms and in historical terms, every one of us in this room is wealthy. Luke’s entire gospel, especially its central chapters, is aimed at this point. For Luke’s community, the remembered teachings of Jesus about wealth were most important. That tells me that the Lukan church had money, and so do we. This is what makes the account of Zaccheus, “one who lined his own pockets at other people’s expense”, so dramatic for Luke, and so Luke concludes his travel narrative with this clarion call: come down. Be careful as you do not to trip over wealth, power or health. We lose them all, give them all away, over time. They are impermanences. They go. Better that we see so early.

Wouldn’t you love to know what Jesus said to Zaccheus that caused him to give away half of what he had? I would. Especially on pledge Sunday.

It is in this light, three years later, that I still see my unsuccessful wrestling match with a boat hoist that resulted in a broken arm. Whatever else may have happened, at least, for once, I had the insight that comes with that kind of pain and ill health. I would wish it on no one, but there is no better way to see that this is a two handed world, than to lose one for a while. It is not only a two handed world. It is a western, white, male, educated, wealthy, healthy, heterosexual, middle class, two handed world. I need to be reminded of that. Come down Zaccheus, and feel the pain of others.

In our church, over 25 years, we have seen power pushed around from some to others, and taken by some from others, and given by some for others. Racism is not limited to whites, nor gender bias to men. It has been an important, and tragic time, both. I have seen some bitter things done, through the misuse of power. I am sure other institutions have the same troubles. The church, though, has a higher calling, and so our failings in this regard are worse. We should know better. I should have known better than to have said and done some of the things I have said and done over the years. Through the misery of black against white, north against south, male against female, clergy against laity, though, if nothing else, one insight inevitably emerges. Soon we will all be dead. Maybe we could find ways to use whatever power we have now to honor God, love our neighbor, reflect our mortality, and affirm the powerless. Come down Zaccheus, come down!

Before we left seminary, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1978, an odd event befell us. I worked nights as a security guard in those years (along with former President James Evans of CRDS, by the way), and would come home to sleep at 7am. Jan had the day off, and left to shop, but left the door to our little apartment ajar, by accident. About noon a street woman found her way into the building and up into our floor, and then into our room. I woke up to see a very poor, deranged woman, fingering rosary beads, and mumbling just over my head. Boy did I shout. She ran into the next room and I stumbled downstairs to call the police. By the time three of New York’s finest and I returned to the apartment, the poor lady was in the bathtub, singing and washing. They took her away. Jan came back at 3 and asked how I had slept. The moment has stayed in the memory, though, as an omen. Our wealth is meant for the cleansing of the poor of the earth. I think the Lord wanted me to remember that in ministry, so I have tried to. Come down Zaccheus, and use your wealth for the poor.