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."

Rocking

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
Rocking-rocking
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."

Prayer

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.

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