Sunday, December 30, 2001

Sing We Now of Christmas!

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

All in a Lifetime

Like all births, Jesus' own occurs in the midst of trouble. He is hardly born before another dream befalls Joseph, the poor fellow, a man drenched in dreams, and commands the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. So the prophet had predicted.

Like all growth, Jesus' own develops amid controversy. Herod fulfills another prophesy by slaying the children of Bethlehem, who then as now are in peril every hour. So the prophet had predicted.

Like all childhood, Jesus' own transpires amid governmental wrangling, religious strife, and existential uncertainty. His family comes to make their home in Nazareth, down at the north end of the lake, and Jesus becomes a Nazarene. So the prophet had predicted.

Jesus is immersed in our full life. Jesus is our childhood's measure. Day by day, like us he grew. He was little, weak and helpless. Fears and cares like us he knew. And he feeleth for our sadness. And he shareth in our gladness.

He came that we might have life and live it abundantly. In the next century after his birth, Ignatius was to say, in summarizing his salvation: "The glory of God is a human being fully alive."

The birth of Jesus penetrates all of the seasons of life.

Even dear, dour Ecclesiastes, who found so little to celebrate in life, at least made space, in his otherwise saturnine perspective, to honor time, the passage of time, the flow of time, and the regular return of times and seasons (Ecc. 3: 1-9). As we pause between Christmas and the New Year (and so between past and future, youth and age, life and death, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come), perhaps we too can celebrate the seasons of life. For to every denomination, and a time for every perspective under heaven! Here is what I mean.

To Every Denomination there is a Season

You may not think much of the Presbyterians. They can be cold people, I know. 'God's frozen people', said one. You may never have wanted to wade in the dark, icy water of Calvinist despair. You may not see yourself through the lens of a Bergman film. But there is a time and a season. When Ash Wednesday arrives next month, we are all Presbyterians. Yes, if at no other point, on this day we do well to read Calvin. For we are dust, and to dust we do return, as both the Bible and Ignatius of Loyola taught. We do all sin, and do all fall short of the glory of God. We are fully mortal and utterly prone to harm others. In Calvin's favorite, winning phrase, a personal delight of my own as well, we are, simply, "totally depraved". His follower, Jonathan Edwards, described us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, held like filthy spiders over the pits of hellfire, and spared only by God's strong wrist, who in holding us to save us, nonetheless averts his eyes from the hideous sight. Yikes! That is serious Ash Wednesday stuff! Really to sense this, you need the mind of John Calvin, the voice of Jonathan Edwards, and the heart of John of Patmos. I admit, it is not a happy creed, but it is a sober one. Buy a Presbyterian lunch early in Lent, and appreciate the gifts of their season.

Speaking of Lent, you may harbor misgivings about the Jesuits. Perhaps you attended a Jesuit college, or teach in one. Maybe you have wondered about Ignatius of Loyola, born in Pamplona, a Spaniard and a warrior, who was converted through illness to a beatific vision of Jesus, the Christ, Lord and Savior. Believe me, in Lent we are all Jesuits. In the season of Lenten discipline and preparation, you know, March of ice and snow and cold, we rely on some form of Jesuitical discipline. You may not precisely use his "Spiritual Exercises", his daily devotion of silence and prayer and vision of Jesus. You may be sorry that he set loose the Inquisition and Index as tools of the Counter Reformation. You may feel he carried too much eye and too much military into a faith that is primarily auditory and irenic. In that, you would be a Lutheran, you Lutheran you. But in Lent, we are all soldiers in the Society of Jesus, ready to drill and train and prepare and exercise and submit. Everyone is a Jesuit, come Lent.

Since, though, you brought up Luther, we must also give credit where credit is due. Come Good Friday, when we survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, our greatest gain we count but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride. I know that the ground at the foot of the cross is pretty level, but the view of the cross that is best is found from the perspective of the Lutherans, who stoutly recall, with Luther, crux sola nostra teologia. The Cross alone is our teaching. Luther's grave is not found in Lake Wobegon, but you can see it from there. We need to remember, especially on Good Friday, that all of our best intentions fall short. Especially when we think we have it just right, whatever it is, we invariably have it just wrong. All our symbols, personal and familial and national and denominational, lie prostrate before the cross, all need right interpretation to avoid idolatry. Even the cross, our own central symbol, needs that interpretation, which is why we consent to a 25 minute sermon every week, even though the Baptists would rather shout and pray. Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing! When it comes to the Cross, "nobody does it better" than Luther.

I regret having mentioned the Baptists. It brings the camel's nose under the tent. They are always threatening to become the sideshow that ate up the circus. You give them an inch, they will take a mile. Speaking of miles, they are a mile wide and an inch deep. They give anarchy a bad name. But we must recognize that there is a season for everybody. Even the Baptists. For in June, or late May, when the world is young again, we will celebrate Pentecost, the day of Spirit. After 50 days after 40 days, that is 90 days from Calvin's ashes, we pause again to remember that God is with us. Wesley died saying, "The best of all is, God is with us!" (Relax, I will get to the Methodists, in due time.) No, the Baptists are all canoe and no paddle, all axe-murder and no sheriff, all fire and no hose, all hat and no cattle. God love 'em. All Spirit, whatever the Trinitarian Orthodox say. The Baptists are almost Unitarians of the Third Person of the Trinity! I tell you though, come Pentecost, that's the day, Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through. When that wind of God is blowing (I do not refer to your preacher sermonizing), then you need some Baptists around to shake things up a little. Rembert Weakland said that Christians are always in a little bit of trouble. You need to shout when the Spirit says shout!

Next door, to shift again, the Greek Orthodox do not do a lot of shouting on Sunday. Or on Monday. They're not big shouters, except during their festival, which happens to come, properly I think, about the time of Trinity Sunday. The more liturgical churches, Episcopalian and Catholic, remember this Sunday better than we do. This is the season when we remember that God is more than Almighty Creator (no matter what the Moslems say) and that God is more than Lordly Savior (no matter what the Holy Rollers say) and that God is more than Mysterious Spirit (no matter what the Californians say). God is three, three, three Faces in one. Leave it to the Orthodox to remind us. Their services last three hours. One for each Person of the Trinity, perhaps. When you come to June 15, go to the Greek festival and dance to the Triune God. Go ahead. Hug a Trinitarian in June! William Ellery Channing may be angry about it, but you go ahead and love your Trinitarian neighbor as your own self.

Now that we are knee deep in liturgy, let us honor the Roman Catholics. Every third member of our church today comes out of a Roman Catholic background. Our history, liturgy, nave, location and personality as a congregation have regularly made this more accessible to women and men of many different interests and backgrounds. On World Communion Sunday we are all Catholic! With the universal church we celebrate the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. With the universal church we acknowledge one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. With the universal church we recognize the global character of the Christian communion. It has been the Catholic Church, more steadily than most, that has defended the human body in our time. It has been the Catholic Church that has regularly regarded the poor and those of low estate. It has been the Catholic Church that has kept the long history of Christendom before us. Our liturgical ties to the universal church should not be loosened by the very real doctrinal differences we have with Rome. From our Anglican heritage, we are a moderate people. We know the value of an olive branch. On World Communion Sunday we affirm one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Did you notice how the Anglican or Episcopal tradition found its way into our seasonal review? Typical. You will usually find an Anglican sidling up alongside you in discussion, listening and careful in discourse. To the Episcopalian a smile comes before a frown, a "quite so" before a "not so". Anglicans are like everybody else-only more so. They revere the variety and diversity of the communion of saints. They agree to disagree, agreeably. They are peaceable people, nearly Quaker in character. Not for them the starch of Lutheran polemics, nor the bitter herbs of Calvinist dogma. A little sherry in the afternoon, a little Handel, a little wooly conversation-jolly good! Tallyho! Pip-pip! Cheerio! It is reason, rather than revelation alone, that has guided the Church of England, reason and a stiff dose of liturgy, including the veneration of Saints. One a soldier, one a priest, one slain by a fierce wild beast. On All Saints Day, we are all Anglicans. (And on Halloween, too!!!). They are princes of peace, these sons and daughters of George III.

Real peace, the waiting and quiet of peace in the heart, however, are ultimately the province of our Pennsylvanian neighbors. In Advent, you are a Quaker through and through. Oh, you worship God. You know that in heaven we will be greeted by St Peter, not by Benjamin Franklin; that we will walk the golden streets, not Market Street in Philadelphia; that we will hear the angelic choir not the Liberty Bell; that we are disciples first and citizens second. Still, the city of brotherly love, only five hours south, the American home of the spiritual descendents of George Fox, that Quaking Englishman, is the home of a radical quest for peace, a waiting for peace, a longing for peace, a season of quiet that is utterly Quaker in nature. "I have called you Friends", said our Lord. I tell you, when you have truly felt the power of the Society of Friends, you will be as ready for the peace of Advent as you were prepared for the discipline of Lent by the Society of Jesus. It is enough to make you sing like a Methodist! The Quakers may not have been always as nationally responsible as others may have liked. They may not have pulled their patriotic load. They may have stepped aside when others had to step forward. Still, it was to them that Ben Franklin turned at the end of his life, in 1792, to implore the young nation to jettison slavery, and they alone, prescient and right, stood by him. In Advent, we all are Philadelphia Quakers, eating Cheesestakes and Twinkies and sculling on the Scuykill River. We all await peace.

I saved the best for last. For now it is Christmastide. Sing we now of Christmas, Noel, Noel! A song greets the dawn. It is the singing of the birds before daybreak that heralds a new morning, and it is the singing of the church of Christ, in season and out, that heralds a new creation. The birds sing while it is still dark, and the church sings while sin remains. People do change, for the better, even when we are reluctant to notice. To come to Christmas, truly to come to Christmas, you must come singing. In church, in the shower, at a prayer meeting, in the choir, caroling, at youth group, by yourself. To sing is to be a Methodist. A singing Methodist, as our common speech declares. All sing, but none so sweetly. All sing, but none so vibrantly. All sing, but none with a list of rules about how to do so pasted in the front of a hymnal, whose reproduction every generation is the church equivalent of world war. All sing, but none with the theological bearing of singing with the Wesleys. To sing the Wesley hymns, is to plant one's standard upon the field of battle and roar: let the games begin! And what shall we sing? Carols of course. And which carols. Those of the English tradition of course. And which of these? There is but one of the first rank.

Hail the heaven born prince of peace
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark the herald angels sing!
Glory to the Newborn King!

Monday, December 24, 2001

Light a Candle

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2


It is dark as Joseph makes up the straw bedding upon which the Prince of Peace will be born. He fumbles a little in the demi-dark, his face dimly lit by a single candle. He remembers saying to Mary, early in the day, the words of confidence common to every domestic journey.

The trip is not long. Why, we are almost there. You will feel better when we get to Bethlehem. Tomorrow will be a better day. Loosen your tunic and sandals. Let the donkey do the work. I’m sure we’ll find someplace to stay. Things have a way of working out. I love you.

We take so much for granted, beginning with our very lives. We are busy with the journey, the road, the arrangements, so busy that we become blind to what is really happening all along the way.

Now Joseph sees his breath cloud the manger with mist. He shivers against the cold. He looks for a long, long, silent time into the flickering candle.

The birth of Jesus Christ touches the circle of life with the straight eternal line of Almighty God. As line touches circle, so heaven touches earth at a single point, a candle lit manger. Jesus-he will save his people from their sin.


Some of you have walked down Broadway toward Wall Street this fall. You have told me, or tried to tell me, about your journey. You have spoken about the Chapel of St. Paul, untouched as giant buildings crashed around it. There you saw the memorials-flowers, photos, notes, gifts, poems, keepsakes, anything that could make such horrid death more personal, more approachable, more survivable. We have survived, as others did not. Now we continue to press on to survive our own survival.

We are crystal clear this autumn about the human being’s capacity to hurt, to kill, to sin. It is as plain as the nose on your face. To be human, and so to be free in the image of God who is Perfect Freedom, is to have the power to maim, to sin. There are many dark places tonight, from Bethlehem to Bogota, but none darker than Lower Manhattan. Darker than 100 mid-nights down in a Cyprus swamp.

Into this dark world Jesus is born. Into this dark world comes the divine presence. Into this dark world, sodden with sin that is both personal and pervasive, comes the Prince of Peace, of the increase of whose government and peace there is to be no end.

We too went to the smoking ground zero, there to kneel and there to pray and there to ponder again the wondrous love willing to enter such a place as this and to walk under the looming specter of death. I can feel the hard pavement on which we knelt and on which so many died.


We also saw a play that weekend. This musical was much like the Puccini opera, La Boheme. I happened to hear the Puccini piece, sung by Robert Merrill, on July 15, 2001. It is about young artists, in a cold, dark garrett, on a bitter Christmas Eve. This modern musical is equally powerful and darkly beautiful.

Midway into the story a young woman appears at the door of her neighbor. Both are poor, lost, penniless and lonely. Like all of us, especially on this holiest of nights, we long to connect with others, with our own truest selves, and with God. She knocks on the door, looking for a match with which to light her candle, for just a little warmth, just a little light. And she sings, “Will somebody light my candle?” Since that day ground zero, since that night on Broadway, I cannot get the smell of the one and the sound of the other to leave me. Perhaps our clarity about the dark downtown helps us truly see the promise and the utter necessity of the light at midtown. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a young man wondering about profession, marriage, meaning. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a young mother, raising children alone. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a man, or woman, alone now for the first time at Christmas. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a grandfather listening for news of his grandson in the service, far away. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a preacher wondering how on earth the hopes and fears of all the years will ever be met tonight. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here you are, on the brink of faith, just about ready to accept your own acceptance, to connect with your own connectedness, to survive your own survival, to live in the peace of God.

At the close of this service we all will be invited to light a candle. This year, especially, may our tradition be infused with gospel and grace. I mean, do not light the candle unless you mean it. Light the candle if in the lighting you are ready to walk in newness of life, to live in faith, and to act accordingly.

“People know my faith”, you may mutter. “What has a candle to do with it?” How easily we so reason.

“My children know I love them” Really! How can they unless you tell them, show them, say so, give to them?

“My parents know how I feel about them.” Really! How can they unless you visit them, write to them, speak to them, show them.

“My staff knows how much I appreciate their work.” Really! How fortunate you are to be surrounded by such clairvoyant folks. How can they unless you say so, act so, give so, show them.

“My community knows how much I care.” Really! How would they unless you vote, pay taxes, participate, and share?

“My church knows how much it means to me.” Really! How could that be unless you worship, tithe, invite, serve?

“My Lord knows my faith.” Really! And how could He see it unless you live it? At least make a start. Go to that first Sunday service. Speak that first word of love. Attend that first AA meeting. Try that first tentative prayer. Befriend that first foreign, different person. Read that first passage. Write that first check. Take that first step, on the road to Bethlehem. And let the candle lit tonight be your personal, public declaration of intent so to do!

Listen, folks. Like dark Manhattan needs a candle lit, so those around you need to see and hear your commitment. Light a candle tonight, but only if you mean it. “Will somebody light a candle?”


A heart can be changed on Christmas Eve. It is in that way perilous to come to church on this night. You may be in for more than you bargained for. It is not the Methodist minister’s mellifluous monotone that changes hearts. That power and authority ride just on top of the preached word, coming home in divine presence, in holy, holy, spirit. God wants you for God’s own, and God will speak God’s word for you and to you in God’s own time and in God’s own way, including here and now.

You are the light of the world. Let your light so shine before others that they may give glory to God.

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.

If we walk in the light as He is in the light we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sin.


Maybe the difficulties of this autumn caused the beauty of one wedding this December to shine. We married here in the nave a handsome young couple, happy and deeply in love. They are just fine people. They both came from Pumpkin Hook. As they finished their vows, accepting both the commitments and delights of marriage, they watched as in the darkened sanctuary all their family and friends lit candles with them. I know that in the marriage of heaven and earth, as Jesus Christ takes his betrothed Church to himself, there is no need, really, for others. Christ and his church, the bride of Christ, are by grace embraced. But he offers us a place in the service, a seat in the nave, a word to speak, a candle to light. He gives us something to do to respond to His magisterial Love. What a great shame, a tragedy it would be, not to light such a candle!

My friend Sam Davis reminded me of the Auden Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being:

He is the Way
Follow Him through the land of unlikeness
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures

He is the Truth
Seek Him in the kingdom of anxiety
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years

He is Life
Love him in the world of the flesh
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

Sunday, December 23, 2001

Children of the Dream

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2: 1-10

Hands and Eyes

The great, early Spanish realist, El Greco, captured Christmas in a magnificent painting of Shepherds. Under the glowing angel, these ruddy men are all hands and eyes. Their hands flow on like clouds or seas, with fingers that are like lakes and streams. They know how to do things, to work, to love, to hold, to give, to take. I think they are loving hands, and I think the painter thought so too. All hands. It is their eyes, though, that make the breath stop. I saw the painting twice in Madrid, with a space of four years in between. The eyes, the lit eyes gleaming with the sight of something new and good, rest on this world still. The eyes painted 600 years ago, by a Greek Spaniard, are the same enchanted, wondering, awestruck, mystic, numinous, childlike eyes that gleam with a real Christmas dream, a dream of something new and good, a dream of progress, peace and personality.

A Great Dream

The great Asian teacher Lao-Tse said, “The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it.”

We know, with him, that a man’s name is found in a man’s dream. You tell me your greatest hope and I will tell you who you are. More than anything else, we are defined by our dreams.

Keep alive the courage to dream! I asked my friend, who loves Christmas and giving and gifts and receiving, how her shopping progressed. “We decided to give stocking gifts this year”, she confessed, with a little sorrow. “That does not sound like you! How are you coping.” Her eyes brightened: “Well, after I thought about it, I went right out and bought the single biggest stocking I could find! And I mentioned that hardly any jewelry box would fit right in!” Where would we be without our dreams?

Robert Frost taught that a great poem moves from delight to wisdom. I would try to say the same of sermons, they move from delight to wisdom. The Christian year, from Christmas to Easter, takes the same path, from delight to wisdom. And your life, carried on a dream, it may be, moves from the delights of youth to wisdom of age.

How we need to remember whose dream does sustain us, in a time of turbulent troubles! You are children of the Christmas Dream! A dream that we rehearse every Sunday: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven! A dream of heaven on earth, prepared in a process of progress toward truth, prepared in a passion for peace, prepared in a protection of the priceless gift of personality! A dream foreshadowed by kings (process) and shepherds (peace) who visit the Christ (personality).

Maybe it will help to remember, at this Christmas time of extended family gatherings, those rich uncles and aunts of faith, in whose light we see light.

1. Los Angeles

This dream took Ernest Cadman Colwell out of the comfort of his Chicago libraries and study, his books and students, his independent work on the Gospel of John, and flew him out to California, to build our United Methodist Theological School at Claremont. He had a dream, to make way for a little bit of heaven on earth. Some is there, just where he built it, along Route 66, between LA and the mountains. The hour is coming-AND NOW IS! From his dream was born the finest development of process thought in religion. His little school produced a generation of great dreamers, great scholars, great ministers, all hungry for the reign of God, “on earth as it is in heaven”. Colwell taught my own teacher, Fred Wisse, and directly influenced my own work through Wisse. Colwell taught Ted Weeden, and directly influenced your life through Weeden. Colwell taught Rosemary Ruether, and directly influenced our women through Ruether. A little sunshine, a small campus, a beautiful chapel-all nice, but nothing compared to the dream-ON EARTH as it is in heaven.

At his inauguration in 1958, Colwell spoke about flying over the intersection of four states-Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. He then envisioned a community of learning that would similarly provide the intersection of four “states”-Intellectual Adventure, Social Construction, Artistic Creativity, and Congregational Life. What a great hope! Said the current President, Dr. Phil Amerson, who spoke from this pulpit two years ago, “For Colwell, the future was to be grasped with two-fisted glee.” He hoped for a kind of existential highway, where truth and transcendence intersected.

At Claremont, the influence of process thought began to touch Christian teaching. Process, at its best, in the work of John Cobb and others. Process that does not avoid product. Process that does not avoid system. Process that does not avoid vision. Process that evolves out of a vision and through systems to create products. At the heart of the process view of life and God is the hope that over time truth becomes clearer and clearer. So “Pomp” Colwell must have reasoned, perhaps relying on his beloved Fourth Gospel, and therein especially the verse at 8:32: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” On this view, sin is a refusal to grow, as Gregory of Nyssa said in the sixth century.

There is a self-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe.


This dream kept Ernest Fremont Tittle preaching and teaching at the Garrett Evangelical Seminary, our United Methodist Chicago area Theological School. Tittle preached peace in season and out, keeping his pacifist faith through the whole Second World War. Vern and Ruth Lippit met in his student fellowship, and were influenced for a lifetime. Think of their combination of personal faith and social action, their combination of heartfelt piety and mental acuity, their investment of the doctrine of the church in the development of culture. Chris Evans and I both have been indirectly touched by Tittle. His is the last truly great Midwestern pulpit voice in our denomination, with echoes of Peter Cartwright and Francis Asbury and John Wesley. He taught peace. His voice is as fresh today as it was 60 years ago, and even more contemporary. And while I still find more of my own thought in the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, I find myself shifting, slowly, as I age, closer to Tittle. He was born two generations ahead of his day. It is as clear as a dead Palestinian child on the Mount of Olives that nationalism alone, even patriotism alone, will not finally provide the next generation with the mental and emotional resources necessary for the future of the planet. Tittle saw that earlier and better than any other preacher of his day. So I have been glad to follow him on our study of Luke this autumn.

In the 1930’s Tittle organized a listing of 1000 preachers who, like him, were committed to the principles of Christian pacifism. While his dream was submerged during the Second World War, nonetheless his hope lives on. His work reminds us that citizenship is always subordinate to discipleship, that the first commandment against idolatry presides over all the other nine, that while the separation of church and state is a quintessentially American and necessarily Christian understanding.

Tittle’s hope for the future was based solely upon his allegiance to Jesus Christ:

Jesus, after 19 centuries, remains an object of wonder. There is something wonderful in the very fact that he has escaped oblivion. What chance, on any human reckoning, did he have to be remembered? A Jew, living in a small and remote province of the Roman Empire; an obscure Jew belonging to the peasant class; a man of whom the vast majority of his contemporaries never heard, and who moreover left no written record of anything that he had said or done or dreamed; a man rejected and repudiated by the leaders of his nation, and deserted at the last even by his disciples. Out of obscurity he came; and when, an object of hatred and derision, he was put to death on a gallows, it might well have been supposed that into oblivion he would go. But upon the contrary, the name of Jesus, in Emerson’s phrase, is “not so much written as ploughed into the history of the world.”

Tittle preached the Jesus of the prophets, of the peace, of the new creation, the hope that Isaiah did foretell. The special 8th century hope of Isaiah for Israel and her Davidic King, changes, is transformed, into a grand and lasting vision of the Christ of God, and the power of Christ to bring heaven to earth. Some of this change happens in Isaiah itself, as part I give way to Chapter 40 (II) in the exile, and the Isaiah of the exile is further decorated by the excitement of the last ten chapters, written during the restoration (III). To be clear: in Isaiah, a small, particular, national hope becomes a grand and universal vision of great hope, on earth as it is in heaven. Divine hope is honed in the struggle of Isaiah’s own life, in the predicted demise of Israel, in the brutality of exile, in the sweetness of liberation, and, at last, by your faith, in the advent of Christ. The ringing bells of hope, an eschatological bell choir of prophesy, make Isaiah so memorable (1,6,9,21,29,31,40,52,55,60,61). Tittle proclaimed:

“The pure exaltation of Christmas does not last: the angels go away into heaven. But the Christmas vision lasts if we undertake to live by it. The Christmas vision has to do with the final reality and power of the world. Hunger, cold, desperation, and chaos, greed, cruelty, tyranny, and entrenched injustice, these are among the realities of today’s world. But they are not the final reality. The final reality with which we have to deal is God-the God of Jesus Christ. Atomic bombs, guided missiles, secret bacteriological weapons of whose awful menace occasional hints are dropped, these are among the powers of today’s world. But they are not the supreme power. The supreme power with which we have to deal is the power that keeps the stars in their courses and, taking the form of servants, stoops to minister unto the children of men. This is what we see on Christmas Eve when candles are lighted and carols are sung and the world is strangely still and our hearts are stilled and lifted up.”

As with Tittle, our dream is that of Jesus the Christ, peace on earth, good will to all. The greatest spiritual challenge for Rochester, New York in the early 21st century will be to continue to move from a sense of entitlement to a sense of gratitude, from a culture of entitlement to a culture of gratitude. We have been on this path for many years already, and we have decades still to go. Tomorrow will not be like today. Life is changing our county, and we will hope to be faithful in our change with it. How does one move from entitlement to gratitude? There is only one route. The road lies through the cross. Through struggle, difficulty, unemployment, loss, frugality, hurt. It is already happening, and will continue. We will come out at the other end smaller, tougher, leaner, kinder, gentler, and much more grateful. This congregation has the chance to lead the county in this change, from entitlement to gratitude. It is the only one with the right mix of breadth, history, size and heart to do so. If we remember our dream, we will be able to lead our county to another day. If we do not lead, I do not see how the county will ever come out right.


This dream touched others at Boston University, School of Theology, where Howard Thurman preached and taught. Thurman was a great influence upon Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the dean of Marsh Chapel. With others there, he celebrated the gift of personality, building on the great tradition of the Boston personalists who came before him.

I should have known about Howard Thurman through my parents who were students at Boston when he was the dean there.

I should have known about Howard Thurman through so many colleagues for whom his writings have been helpful, and through his students like our own Bill Burdick.

I should have known about Howard Thurman through his connection to Rochester, and his teaching many years ago at our Divinity School.

I should have known about Howard Thurman through his love of poetry, his gift as poet, and his gentle, kind preaching voice.

I should have known about Howard Thurman, but somehow I never knocked on his door, until now. He voiced for us the liberating eschatology of an unchained life.

He lived with the “beats” and knew better than they the content of their creed. The term “beat” from the 50’s meant to put all your eggs in one basket, all your bet on one horse, to go for broke, to the shoot the moon, to throw a hail Mary. You know, what is defeated in one generation is reborn in another.

Thurman, in accord with the 50 years of Personalist theology taught at Boston before him, put all his heart into human personality.

He could see what we miss. People do change. He could understand what we ignore. People, as they are, are not always as they were. He could admit what we reject. We see people as they were, not as they are, as we think of them, not in terms of who they have become.

“Living in a climate of deep insecurity, Jesus, faced with so narrow a margin of civil guarantees, had to find some other basis upon which to establish a sense of well-being. He knew that the goals of religion as he understood them could never be worked out within the then-established order. Deep from within that order he projected a dream, the logic of which would give to all the needful security. There would be room for all, and no man would be a threat to his brother. ‘The kingdom of God is within’. ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.’

“The basic principles of his way of life cut straight through to the despair of his fellows and found it groundless. Be inference he says, “ You must not abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must no indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea-Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.

Here is Thurman’s Christmas dream:

When the song of the angels is stilled
And the star is gone from the sky
And the kings and princes are home
And the shepherds are back with their flocks
Then the work of Christmas begins

To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among all
To make music in the heart.

Every time you use the collection plate here, you participate in this dream, on earth as in heaven, through our United Methodist church apportioned giving, without which there would have never been nor would there now be a Claremont, Garrett, or Boston, a Colwell, Tittle, or Thurman, a dream of progress, peace or personality.

The birth of Jesus blesses the human personality, beginning with you. So every day determine to observe three easy yokes of spirit. Breath: it is the ritual of being human, that is made in the image and likeness of God. Listen: it is the ritual of being Christian, pardoned by Christ so that we may pardon others. Smile: it is the ritual of being Methodist, earnest singers who as Wesley said, if nothing else, are “happy in God.”


Somewhere a seed is sprouting
Somewhere a child is growing
Somewhere a hope is shining
Somewhere a dream is dawning
Somewhere a bell is ringing
Somewhere a star is gleaming
Somewhere a heart is beating
Somewhere a voice is calling
Somewhere a mind is churning
Somewhere a soul is forming
Somewhere a man is loving
Somewhere a girl praying.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.

It is all miracle, all
All of it is miracle and grace, all.

“The best of all is, God is with us. (John Wesley’s last words).

Sunday, December 09, 2001

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Isaiah 11: 1-10

1. The Basis of Life

A particularly happy enjoyment of preaching here in Rochester has come with the regular greeting offered by one of our fine physicians. He invariably comes through the line to say: "How is your protoplasm, Dr. Hill?" His greeting stands out as one of the most memorable in my ministry, and also one of the few regular moments when the two cultures of science and theology, truth and transcendence are jovially intertwined. For a moment, the despair in C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures is dissipated.

From general science class, in the awkwardness of adolescence, you recall, I know, that protoplasm is the chemical basis of life. All plants and animals have protoplasm. Even preachers, an uncertain species to be sure, have protoplasm (hence my medical friend's inclusive, magnanimous greeting). Cells are protoplasm and membrane. Protoplasm is nucleus and membrane, laden with protein and a few other things. Chemists can analyze protoplasm but they do not know why it lives. The same elements that are found in protein are found in non-living things too. But protoplasm lives, and breathes, and reproduces. Protoplasm is the physical basis of life.

Now I have a similar greeting for you. I raise with you the primary question for faith, and do so with reference, not to the chemical but to the spiritual basis of life. "How is your eschatology, Asbury First?" What is your hope? What is your dream? Toward what are you moving, with every step, day, breath, production, and reproduction? What is your last word, your eschatos logos? It is truly the most important question of this Christmas, after this autumn, as you move on to complete your life. Do not leave this sanctuary, I implore you, without making a further decision about your dream, today. Some say, "where there is life there is hope". I say: "Where there is hope there is life." Some say, "you see things that are and ask why?" I dream of things that never were and ask, "why not?"

2. The Far Horizon

One current popular perspective upon the terrorism of September, which hurled innocent civilians 100 stories to their death on the concrete of lower Manhattan, some of them flapping their arms in gruesome attempts, as they fell, to fly out of the clutch of this hideous, sinful, insult to humanity, is that the treachery of these murderous men should not be understand in religious terms, nor analyzed in theological categories, nor approached in a spiritual sense.

I disagree.

In my view, only a religious, theological, spiritual and, finally, eschatological perspective upon this mutilation of meaning can bring anything like light, salt, healing, and truth. As Elie Wiesel said, after he decided to speak and write about Auschwitz, "in each of these deaths, a little part of us dies too."

3. Anger

To begin, we are people awash in anger.

We did not do this. The young mothers of New Jersey and Rockaway Beach, who were incinerated in the World Trade Centers did not cause their own horrific murders. The young fathers, whose daughters were attending their first day of kindergarten, did not die due to some fault of their own, or some fault of their nation, or some fault of their race. Nor did we, in this sanctuary or in others across the land, somehow cause this monstrosity to occur. We are guilty of much, and culpable of much sin (I refer you to the several sermons of autumn, based on the prophets and delivered from this pulpit). But not of this.

This was done to us, skillfully, imaginatively, willfully, with malice of forethought, and with a clear eye as to the potential ongoing consequence of the action. It was done with a clear desire to take innocent life, and much innocent life, thousands of lives and more. It was done with a clear longing to provoke waves of anger, fear, bitterness and resentment, across a largely apolitical land. It was done with the hope that it would provoke, as it has, large scale military response, to further harm and hamper our already testy relations with Islamic nations. It was done with the fervent prayer that all the world would see these sights televised, as has happened. It was done with intention to mark indelibly in the memories of American children, the sights and sounds and smells of frightful, unexpected death. Whatever sin we are, as a people, to confess, and whatever guilt we are, as a nation, to bear, none of it, none of it, deserved the crucifixion of 3000 innocent human beings on September 11, 2001.

So, of course, we are angry, and angry beyond the capacity of language fully to convey the mood. Can we at least name our condition? For if so, we may be able to move forward mastering, not mastered by, our anger.

Our Scripture admonishes us "not to let the sun go down on our anger". Our tradition cautions us about seven deadly sins, of which anger is one. Our experience shows us that anger, often expressed in hatred, is always misdirected to some degree. It is more than kicking the dog after a bad day, or disrupting the school board after a bad year. Anger seizes us and controls us, if we are not careful. We begin to look for and to use scapegoats, if we are not careful.

We would not be human with no anger or resentment to confess. It is our condition. In the mean time, we need to take stock of our own stuff, too.

Maybe a somewhat lighter hearted illustration will help. A few weeks ago, two nameless friends asked after the first service whether I was "grumpy". They asked because during the children's moment I had told one of the children that I needed back a book I had shown her and others. "Give me that back, I need it for 11:00" is how I was quoted as speaking. So, these two, whose names I cannot divulge, did ask if I was "grumpy". I responded to them (I can give their initials if pressed), as I know you would have, too. I said: "NO I AM NOT GRUMPY!"

Looking back, though, after a couple of weeks, I must admit that their accusation (ok, their initials are Margie and Susan), while not exactly accurate or true (because of course I am of an unflinchingly irenic disposition, at all times), did have, shall we say, some small basis in fact.

Some of our December dyspepsia is just advent. You remember my advent carol, sung to a familiar tune:

Have an anxious, edgy, advent
It's the worst time of the year
The cold wind blows, with heavy snows
The nights are laced with fear
O by golly have an anxious, edgy advent, this year!

But most of our anger is a very human response to terror, hijacking, anthrax, and war. Anger is a great challenge for religion.

4. A Challenge to Islam

These assassinations were executed by religiously trained men. I was born in Syracuse, and I know the beautiful book of the Syracusan Huston Smith (the little elfin saint stood next to me for my deacon's interview), The Religions of Man, and I know the glories of Islam, and I lived for a decade five doors from a Mosque, and I am glad for our President's careful tolerance of religious difference which I also want to salute, and I can enjoy and affirm much about our sister religions. But the brand of Islam from 9/11 is about domination. Jesus is about empowerment. "You've got to be carefully taught to hate, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you have to be carefully taught." The 9/11 religion, however odd a form of Islam it may be, makes great space for domination. Domination of women by men. Domination of younger by older. Domination of poor by rich. Domination of man by God. You may assert, rightly, that Christianity has done the same. But there is a world of difference.

This religion is the result of a certain theology, a picture of God. In this Islam God is high not low, heavenly not earthly, powerful not weak, majestic not rude, orderly not human, dominant not servile. Reverence for this God produces the Alhambra but not Santa Teresa of Avila in her mud cart, the Taj Mahal but not Mother Teresa with her untouchables, disciplined prayer but not with women and men together. In short, this kind of Islam is God without Jesus. That is fair enough. But for some, on this view, the end justifies all means. Period. There is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. Before we simply turn over and allow all our great grandchildren to be sprung from the loins of Middle Eastern kings, let us reflect a moment. We take much for granted about Christmas, and the advent of the birth of Jesus. This year let us be crystal clear. It is the manger that makes 9/11 such a grotesquerie. It is the tiny frail God child of the manger, Emmanuel, who writes the "F" at the top of the term paper from 9/11. It is theology, and within it the Christology of advent alone, that can account 9/11 as the antithesis of a Kodak moment.

5. But What of God's Preferential Option for the Poor?

One (perhaps a seminarian) will object: Did not these pirates speak and act for the wretched of the earth? Were they not some blend of Robin Hood, Cesar Chavez and Jane Fonda?

No, they acted religiously, and out of a theological perspective, depending upon a certain spiritual sense. This is the point about domination. Nice guys finish last. He who laughs last wins. Here is the truly radical belief of Christians at Christmas in what Barth famously termed "The Humanity of God".

As Thomas Friedman wrote last week, "Although there is a deep moral impulse in Islam for justice, charity and compassion, Islam has not developed a dominant religious philosophy that allows equal recognition of alternative faith communities. Bin Laden reflects the most extreme version of that exclusivity...An internal struggle within Islam to re-examine its texts and articulate a path for how one can accept pluralism and modernity and still be a passionate, devout Muslim has not surface in any serious way. One hopes (my emphasis) that now that the world spotlight has been put on the issue, mainstream Muslims too will realize that their future in this integrated, globalized world depends on their ability to reinterpret their past." But I would add that this reinterpretation would require a new eschatology, a new hope, not a hope for earthly pleasure in a heavenly paradise, but the hope of Christmas, the hope of heaven on earth, thy kingdom come on earth.

But, you further suggest, aren't the inequalities of wealth and power, around the world, the source of this action?

Come on. Compare the Muslim murderers of 9/11 to the poor folks of Honduras whom you met on 10/11. Of the two, the Tegucigalpans have the greater complaint. These particular Moslems were wealthy, healthy, little demi-gods bestriding the American scene with freedom, unrestricted travel, wallets bulging with cash, luxury to stay in hotels and rent cars and buy plane tickets. There is an easily identified spirituality at work in this group. It has cousins in any ideologically laden philosophy of religion, including those most prevalent in Christianity on the far left and far right. Very simply, it is the spirituality of domination and ideology.

6. Eschatology 101

Which brings us straight to eschatology. Eschatology is the term in our tradition used to refer to the last things, to the ultimate horizons, to death, judgment, heaven and hell. Advent, for centuries, was the four Sunday period during which sermons were given on the four horsefolk of eschatology-death, judgment, heaven and hell. Coming toward the manger, the ancient church scoured its life with the scalding and smarting tonic water of eschatology. Dust you are and to dust you return. He shall separate the sheep from the goats. Depart from me you evildoers - I never knew you. Death, judgment, hell. And...Thy kingdom come...on earth as it is in heaven. Oddly, and with no apparent point of interest expressed from the slavering news media, it is this liturgical tradition, advent teaching upon eschatology, which explains the autumn horror.

The murderers of 9/11 lived with a certain hope. There is no life apart from hope, of some kind. They had theirs, and you have yours, and the two are as different as a fish and a bicycle. They had a religious, theological, and spiritual eschatology. They had a dream. More than anything else, we are identified, named, defined by our dreams.

As I understand it, they dreamed of death and instant translation to a paradise of sensual wonders. Beautiful women would minister to their every need. Their heroic deeds in the flesh would be rewarded with sumptuous feasts and eternal honors. The brutal sacrifice of life, theirs and others, would be a passkey into heavenly bliss. Their eschatological dream, as they murdered thousands on 9/11, was not for heaven on earth, but for some earthly delight in heaven. They looked forward to a kind of Valhalla according to Hugh Hefner.

They dreamed of destruction on earth as a means of attaining pleasure in heaven. Friends, this is a well known and well worn form of eschatology. Read the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Paraphrase of Shem. We find shadows of it even in the New Testament, both on the apocalyptic and on the gnostic fringes. Read through the Revelation to St. John. To some degree, both are related to ancient Zoroastrian, Persian dualisms, which viewed the created order with pessimism and disdain. Earth is simply a forecourt, at best of heaven and at worst of hell. Even my beloved Paul of Tarsus sometimes slips into this mode, though it is contrary to his own primary teaching: "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain...If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me...Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell...I am hard pressed between the two...My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better...But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account." (Phil. 1:21) Of course we share Paul's trust in heaven, but not his prison gloom despond in which he forgets the main point which he himself more regularly makes: "ONE LIFE AT A TIME!!!"

Look what happens when the rudimentary Christian teaching on eschatology is replaced by a pre and post Christian vertical eschatology, which takes no thought for earth. Life becomes very cheap, very fast. This fundamentalist eschatology (I assume not the norm for Islam) has counterparts in some forms of Christianity too. One has only to think of Jim Jones, and cyanide in Kool-Aid in 1978. Or of the neo-gnostics from Los Angeles who all took their own lives two years ago.

7. On Earth as it is in Heaven

As our doctor greets me on Sunday, "How is your protoplasm Dr. Hill?!!".

Today I ask you, "How is your eschatology?"

Let us, quietly, remember our baptism. In faith, though, we affirm our basic allegiance to God Almighty who gives us life, to Jesus Christ who calls us disciples, to the Holy Spirit who gathers the church. We worship God first, and love country second. We honor the Lord Jesus first, and our own land second. Our mission as a church is first to develop disciples, with citizenship and many other things second.

What is your dream? What is your hope? What is your picture of heaven? Assuming that you live every day as if it were your last, which it may be, what is your final desire? If it is not that of the suicide hijackers, and I trust it is not, then what exactly is it? We need to be able to say. 1 Peter 3: "be ready to give an account of your hope."

I remember Bishop Hapgood staring down a group of dreamy World Council youth and saying, "Yes, you have your dreams, but remember that there are in this world people who dream of forced labor camps, and the domination of the many by the few."

Our hope is affirmed every Sunday, from the time of our youth. Our eschatology could not be clearer. Our dream - simple but not easy. You heard the children acclaim it earlier..."on earth as it is in heaven."

Whatever else we must do and say in the aftermath of this autumn, let it be done and said, with the dream that Jesus gave us, with the hope that Jesus taught us, with the desire that Jesus shared with us- thy kingdom come...on earth, as it is in heaven.

In other words, your eschatology is the exact opposite, the converse of 9/11. You cannot take earthly life expecting some heavenly reward, because the expected landing place of heaven is precisely in the midst of earthly life. You cannot wantonly take human life expecting some heavenly honor, because human life is precisely the target of the impending reign of God. You cannot somehow trade a few measly earthly bodies for an expected heavenly glory, because you pray in the opposite direction: thy will be done ON EARTH.

On earth as it is in HEAVEN!

On EARTH as it is in heaven!

On earth AS IT IS in heaven!

We live one life at a time in this religion, this theology, this spirituality, this eschatology. We live on earth, hoping on earth to experience the reign of God as it is in heaven. The point of life is earth, and the point of earth is heaven on earth, and the Lord of earth and heaven came from heaven to earth to make of earth a form of heaven: you have nothing to do but saves souls, spend and be spent in the work.

8. Isaiah Once Foretold It

We long for the fulfillment of a multi-lingual dream. A Spaniard would say, "Dime como suenas, y te dire quien eres" (Tell me how you dream and I will tell you who you are)

A 16th century Spaniard did say:

Que es la vida
Un frenesi
Que es the la vida
Una ilusion
Una sombra
Una ficcion
Y el major bien es pequeno
Porque toda la vida es sueno
Y los suenos, suenos son

And a modern Spaniard said, "Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, it is the frost." We can endure and survive the night of uncertainty. It is the frost of fear that kills.

In the 8th century before Christ, there arose a great prophet in Judah. Isaiah heard, and spoke, the word of God. Isaiah insisted that the maintenance of justice is the chief obligation of the people of God. Isaiah foresaw unmitigated, ongoing difficulty for his people. Isaiah believed that the new obedience of God's people would come only after the experience of radical purgation - a sappling from a burnt out stump. Isaiah held out a high hope, connected with a future King, a hope of heaven on earth, where contradiction is swallowed in kindness, where difference is drowned in dignity, where violence is vanquished, where the innocent survive, where children lead, where the covering of the earth itself is green with God.

Today, again or at last, you will choose: is this your hope, on earth as it is in heaven? How is your eschatology, Asbury First?

One Day

The wolf shall live with the lamb
The leopard shall lie down with the kid
The calf and the lion and the fatling together
And a little child shall lead them

The cow and the bear will graze
Their young shall lie down together
The lion shall eat straw like the ox
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp
And the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.