Asbury First United
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).