Tuesday, December 24, 2002

From Presents to Presence

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Christmas Eve
Text: Titus 2:11

From behind the counter of a nearby store I heard, not long ago, a muffled remark that bears just a moment of consideration tonight. A middle-aged salesman, perhaps working a second or third job, surrounded by hasty customers, knee-deep in wrapping paper, was writing orders with his left brain and speaking on the phone I suppose with his right brain, and so peddled tennis rackets, swimming goggles, skies, basketballs, running shoes with measures of patience and good humor through it all, until it seemed that something snapped. Suddenly he wheeled around and muttered in response to life, history, the universe, Christmas: “This is unreal”. This is unreal.

Perhaps, recently, you have thought or said the same. Christmas is a wonderful time, richly to be honored and celebrated. With the season comes a raging tide of letters, phone calls, meetings, parties, memories, hopes, presents to buy and promises to keep. Every aunt, grandparent, father or friend who is heading home tonight to make a few last minute preparations, to find a last minute present or two, has our fraternal sympathy. Hovering over tab a and slot b, you too may snap and wheel around and mutter in response to life, history, the universe, Christmas: “This is unreal”. This is unreal.

It does raise the question of the moment: just what is real?

We may want to take the 12 days of Christmas that stretch out before us and ponder this matter in our hearts. What is real? Presents or Presence?

At the conclusion of the 12 days we will honor the visit of the Magi, the wise men of the east, who travel to the manger bearing presents. So in these feast days, following the discipline of Advent, we shall wonder a little about what is real. For giving gifts is good, even when the stress and strain of the season makes a grown man groan, “This is unreal”. The kings, if we could conjure them up tonight, as they begin their 12 day trek west to the manger, would agree. This late December production may be, simply, religion at solstice gone wild. Or, it may be the opening for you to a way of salvation. The kings bring gold and incense and myrrh in order to say something about what is real and what is not real. This familiar world of gifts and Christmas chaos, but also of basketball and maternity wards and police cars and fingers and meals and taxes and the New York Giants and harness bells and woods that are lovely dark and deep: this world, in the unwitting preachment of the Rochester merchant, by comparison, is itself unreal. The presents of the kings point toward the Presence that is ultimately real, and in comparison to which, everything else is ever so greatly or slightly unreal.

What is real? By comparison with this birth, this invasion and all it portends, everything else is comparatively unreal. The love of God in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality. Everything else is penultimate, slightly unreal. We lay our gold and frankincense and myrrh in the mud and stench and cold of a poor manger, and tomorrow’s gifts under the tree are the latter-day, shirt-tail cousins of these. What is real, what is important, what is reliable, what is valuable, what is lasting, what is rock solid is not the presents under the trees of this life-pageant that so intrigues and beguiles us. This is real: the love of God in Jesus Christ.

The presents remind us of the Presence.

The gold, and similar modern gifts, remind us that Jesus Christ, right now, for his real life, uses our wealth, our resource, our energy and our labor, as He will, to save us from our own worst selves. He is pulling us out of danger. He is saving us from ourselves. The Prince of Peace is at work in the way of peace to save us from holocaust. Will we labor with Him?

The incense, and all similar modern gifts, remind us that Jesus Christ, right now, for his real life, desires our imaginations, our minds to dwell on him. Jesus is saving our souls. Titus: “God has revealed his grace for our salvation”. This is real: it means that alcoholics really recover, that prideful people really are made humble and whole, that families move out of disfunction and really learn forgiveness, the aged really die with the assurance of undying love. The Great Shepherd is at work in the way of mercy to save us from our sin. Will we labor with Him?

The myrrh, ah the myrrh. This is the most important present pointing to the Presence Divine. The myrrh reminds us that Jesus really dies upon a cross, in this world. Myrrh is medication for the sick, balm for the wounded. For His real life, Jesus Christ dons the cloak of human pain, tonight. Sorrow, loss, hurt, fear, pain are his garments. The Great Physician is really saving us from the sickness of this world. Will we labor with Him?

Think again tonight about just what is real. Presents or Presence?

Monday, December 23, 2002

The View from the Manger

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Christmas Sunday
Text: Luke 1:47-55

George Austin feathered out straw bedding for his livestock in the last week of his earthly life. The makeshift manger, before which he stood, ladling out the straw, afforded a beautiful view off the neighbor’s pond. This was the week before George died. He may have had a premonition. He had made some arrangements. But he found himself looking out at Foster’s pond, enjoying this view from the manger. He grown up and grown old around that pond. Foster’s pond is down the Genesee valley, that hotbed of Wesleyan religion, a part of the old burned-over district. George grew up and grew old farming a piece of land near Houghton College, and yes this is a true story.

The week before his funeral, his eye wandered down the valley to gaze at the pond, a pretty, spring fed pond with a couple of oak trees near the bank. What a spot! What a place! A swimming hole in the summer, a skating pond in the winter, a place for private meetings in the harvest moon. George Austin found himself day-dreaming beside his makeshift manger. He leaned on the pitchfork, now and then. You are entitled to lean on the pitchfork, now and then, when you are in your last week. Or year. Or decade. Or…


The weeks before Christmas provide four Sundays for worship and teaching. The ancients used one Sunday each on four doctrines dealing with the future: death, judgment, heaven, hell. It may be that this story of George Austin and the neighbors’ pond will illumine these points for you.

Leaning for a moment, George recalled an Epworth League breakfast that had been held, one summer Sunday morning. The preacher had all the young people meet at the pond at sunrise. The class that morning dealt with death and resurrection. He remember they were asked to recite 1 Cor 15., and as he ruminated he heard all the old questions and answers again, even after 70 years.

What do we mean by the resurrection of the body?
We mean that God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being that we may live with Christ in the communion of saints.

The class went on. Woodsmoke, bacon, and coffee: he could smell them again as he remembered. He peered at the pond. The face and scruffy hair of a 15-year-old boy looked back at him. His reflection. He wondered what God’s reflection would look like. He glanced at the manger. A phrase pierced him: “all flesh is grass. It withers and fades”. Again he looked at the pond. He imagined his reflection looking back at him. He thought: maybe I am a reflection and my real self is looking down at me from heaven.


George Austin snapped open the twine on another bail. He filled another part of the manger, and then paused to look again downhill. A light snow filtered out over the pasture. He gazed again at the pond. He loved the way the land rolled around it. Leaning on the rake, his memory settled on an autumn night: a full moon, a full barn, frost on the pumpkin. As he reminisced, he could feel again the chill of the October night he remembered. He was alone by the pond. A young man now. He had never felt more alone in his life. Something had gone wrong. There was nothing to be done. It was too late. He had hurt someone, not intentionally but consciously and culpably. It was not the sort of thing that would put him in jail. It was not something that people would know about. But he knew. Again, a verse: “be not deceived, God is not mocked; as a man sows, so shall he reap”. The old confirmation catechism questions came back to him:

What do we mean by the last judgment?
We believe that Christ will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.

He looked down the length of the long pond. “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” George’s eyes moved around Foster’s pond, as he remembered how he had learned to ask for forgiveness.


That week before he died, George Austin was laying hay in a manger, feeding his horses and cattle. He stopped again to look at the pond. In a way the little circle was the center of his life. Along its banks he had known both heaven and hell. At sunrise, with the Epworth League, in his youth he had learned the teaching of the church. But life itself had put clothing on otherwise skeletal words:

What do we mean by heaven and hell?
By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God.
By hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God.

He thought about a cold January afternoon. Below zero in the Genesee valley. Snow falling. Trudging over the drifts toward a well frozen pond. He remembered the sight: the pond covered with skaters, hats and scarves blowing, a bonfire under the oak trees. He couldn’t wait to get down to the bank and put on his skates. He had met someone here the week before, and he prayed all week that she would be back again. He remembered sitting on a log and lacing his skates. He looked up and there she was: red cap, red scarf, and red cheeks. Snow, wind, fire and the sense that God had given him someone if he had the courage to accept. He could feel the numbness in his toes, still, as he remembered that heavenly day—a heavenly, snowy, heavenly, snowy, heavenly day. The girl in red he married that summer.

A Frost poem came to mind: “I’m going out to clean the pasture spring…” The manger was full, and the view from the manger, down to Foster’s pond, was full too. George knew another memory would come, unwanted. Hell is the absence of God, our rejection of God, the dark tragedy that somehow shadows all of life. Neither can we understand it, nor can we fully escape it, at least in this life. There is an abiding, tragic dimension to life, which no amount of religion even can erase. The horses took satisfaction in their manger meal. Passingly George thought about the famous manger of Christmas.

Now the dark hurt of life was before him again. He looked at the pond. This memory was not of heaven at all. Not of the presence of God at all, but of God’s unfathomable silence, absence, distance. A memory, in that way, hellish and hard. It was a frightening, bitter memory. Again the pond, now in early spring. A group of men gathered at the shoreline. A boy skating on the pond in the March air had fallen through and had not survived—7 years old, his. George remembered the feel of the warmer wind, the sound of car doors, the bluish tint to the early spring conifers, the sound of car doors, the murmuring of the men fumbling to offer condolence. He had known the silence of God at Foster’s pond. Somehow, by grace, he had survived.

At the end of his life, George looked out on what he had experienced. Here is his view from the manger: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. All are future realities. How shall we live, in view of the manger? Shall we not sing with Mary:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my savior
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
In remembrance of his mercy,
According to the promise he made to our ancestors,
To Abraham and to his descendents forever.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Living With Limits

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text:John I

The other night our car would not start so I called AAA. Triple A remains one of life’s great good deals. I could think of it as an almost universally useful last minute Christmas gift. Just a thought. It is highly effective, dependable, crucially necessary, and cheap. You know, it is what we can do together, when we eliminate the crushing need for greed. From each according to his automotive ability, to each according to his automotive need. All for $50.00 a year. Think of it. You can insure your driving support, nationwide, for almost nothing.

After 20 minutes the AAA truck arrived. Out tumbled a heavy set middle aged man, in a stubbled white beard and crimson work shirt. His truck was full of packages, piled in the dark. He reminded me of the Santa Claus we had seen the night before. In fact, I wondered if he had two jobs. We walked to the car, lifted the hood, poked around, fiddled, fussed, and started the car. He did his job—automotive medical care. I did mine. So, I asked, “How are you?”

“Terrible. I hurt all over. I am really sick. And my tooth hurts bad. I have a bad toothache. I have no insurance. So I can’t see the doctor.”

But I heard him declare, as he drove out of sight: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Over the next two days I found it troubling that this little scene would not leave my mind. We are all aware of the level of pain present at the holidays. Sometimes a particular incident will illumine the whole landscape; a toothache will illumine a whole world of hurt.

But the trouble with the moment did lie deeper. You have already guessed it. It took me longer, though. Here was a jolly happy elf, in the employ of one of the last truly communal agencies, bringing help in the moment on the cheap, who walked and is probably still walking, in dental pain. The one representing automotive insurance had no medical insurance. We insure our vehicles, efficiently and frugally. But not the human body. We have limits. There are limits to what we find that we can do. Which brings us, by the direction of the lectionary, for the second week to John the Baptist. The lectionary is a set of regularly used readings, collected in a three-year cycle. One year is based on Luke and another on Matthew. The third is left for Mark, with interruptions from John. John takes the older material, similar to that in Mark, and, like a jazz musician, plays a brighter, newer tune. He adds his own riffs. Today’s is a word on limits.

For the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is the master representative of limits. Like a river needs banks to be a river, life needs limits to be life.

In the Gospel of John there is no single way of talking about God’s personal truth, that alone sets us free. The salvation which John preached called for many words, different words, a variety of ways of acknowledging the Lordship of Christ. Maybe John sensed idolatry in ways of thinking that limited people to just one set, and thus deadening, confession. No. There is more than one way to skin a cat. And if what is pointed out is nothing short of a truth fit for salvation, can we blame him for pulling out all the stops on his organ? Bread of Life! Word of God! Good Shepherd! Light of the World! Lamb of God! John dares to try them all. He has to be daring. He is trying to offer those who hear his voice (and now, from this moment on, that includes you) a reason for living, and a way of living with limits.

I take it that “growing up”, if it means anything, at least means learning how to do some things, perhaps even how to do some things well. You are a baker. He is a builder. She is a musician. John the Baptist has a voice that rings with maturity and truth, party because he is assessing what he cannot do. “I am not the Christ…nor Elijah…nor the Prophet…” This too is maturity: learning one’s limits. A river with no banks is a very shallow river. But John’s life has banks to flow through. He knows what and who he is not.

The Baptist is a man who knows who he is not. And while you cannot build a life on whom you are not, you can start there. Part of living is living with limits.

Over time, one begins slowly to hear the rare rhythm of meaning in the Gospel of John. His is a strange cadence, repetitive, and complex. Again and again, in these 21 chapters, the various authorial hands at work in this ancient compilation will return to repeat their various themes. In this text, the theme is limits. And John the Baptist is the representative of the limits of life.

He stands at the edge of the raging Jordan.

He speaks at the end of the long tradition of Hebrew prophecy.

He inhabits the outer edge of the wilderness.

He comes up on the shadow of divinity.

John the Baptist is out there.

But unlike the other Gospels, this one has an extra interpretative point to make: make no mistake, John is not Jesus. I worked with John Kennedy, I knew John Kennedy, I was a friend of John Kennedy, and you are no John Kennedy.

Perhaps because of early religious competition, either between Christians and Jews, or between Christians and followers of the Baptist, this passage hammers away at what John is not. It celebrates his limits.

John was not the light. He bore witness to the light, but he was not the light. He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light.

He said: “I am not the Messiah”. He confessed it. He did not deny it. He confessed it. Do you see what I mean by repetition?

There is a lot more that John also is not. Is he Elijah? No he is not. Is he this figure the mysterious prophet? No he is not.

So, they asked him: You are neither Messiah, nor Elijah, nor Prophet. So why are you here? Why do you baptize.

One has the very distinct feeling that the traditional answer (water\spirit, not worthy to untie thong) falls flat for John.

Do you see the way that the fourth Gospel has jazzed up the story of John the Baptist? This is like Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet and singing with syncopated menace some very old hymn or tune, “America” or “Rugged Cross”. It is like what Frank Lloyd Wright did to houses, for good or ill. It is like Fran Tarkenton or Doug Flutie changing the role of the quarterback. It is like the black church in worship, singing "Marching to Zion," but not in Isaac Watt’s 4/4 time.

I think this is why the lectionary reads us Mark, on the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and then John, on the voice of one crying in the wilderness. John gives us soul.

We get our soul from our limits. The limit line of death makes life frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of evening makes the day frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of failure makes daily struggle frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of winter makes our annual journey frightfully precious and deeply meaningful.

Humility is giving credit where credit is due. But humility is also facing your limits. Have you faced them? John the Baptist seems to have done so. And you? Here are some.

  • You cannot choose your family or genetic inheritance.
  • You cannot reselect another epoch in history in which to live.
  • You cannot add a cubit to your span of days.
  • You cannot force other people to behave the way you would.
  • You cannot become another gender, at least not easily.
  • You cannot determine your children’s lives.
  • You cannot control what the preacher will say next.
  • You cannot single handedly erase a recession.
  • You cannot make it stop snowing.
  • You cannot become a gorgeous blonde or New York Yankee by wishing it so.
  • You cannot choose your choices.

But there is a bit of good news here, too. You can live with limits, by naming them and admitting them and accepting them and accounting for them.

I wonder if this Advent period is meant for a survey of limits in life. I believe there is a limit to the number of gifts we want to give to our children. I believe there is a limit to the number of people we should leave off of the health care roles. I believe there is a limit to what we can do, unprovoked, as a military power. Even in the Wild West they didn’t shoot a man who hadn’t drawn his gun. At least that’s what I see in the movies. I believe there is a limit to what finally we can do for one another. And crossing any of these and multitudes of other limits frequently means idolatry—trying to play God. And we frequently do.

Here is where John the Baptist, in the Johannine version, is so helpful. He says: here is what I am not.

Most of us here today are not musicians. Once a season we live with this limit by sitting still before a group of people who are musicians. They remind us, with their beautiful voices, of what we are not capable of doing. And we do our part by saying quietly, “Thank you, God, for able musicians such as they, for I am not one.”

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Wading In. . .

Asbury First United Methodist Church

A Sermon In Four Voices
Susan Shafer, Margie Mayson
Bryant Oskvig, Robert A. Hill
Text: Mark 1:1-8

You cannot come to Christmas unless you cross the river Jordan…

Between you and the 12 days of grace in the feast of Christmas there runs an icy river…

You cannot get across alone, or without cost, or without preparation, or without getting wet…

This beginning is like all others—uncertain, difficult, scary, hard…

In these weeks there is set aside a time of preparation…

The voices of faith cry out in our wilderness experience…

In today’s reading, four distinct voices resound. The voice of the prophet Isaiah. The voice of Malachi, the later prophet, God’s messenger. The voice of John the Baptist. And the voice of St. Mark, the creator of the first gospel and its beginning.

The voices come out of the great, distant past, cloaked in antiquity, hooded in mystery, shrouded in the misty past, covered by the winds and dust of time.

Listen, in love…

Isaiah (Susan)

The year is 540 B.C.

In the dark days of exile, the second prophet Isaiah recalled for his people the nature of faith.

How difficult it is to be away from home, to be alone, to be cut off from the people and places that mean most to you. All travelers know this, as do all human pilgrims.

The preparation for good news may even begin in the dark lost hurt of exile. Isaiah could hear the early singing of the birdsong of hope long before any of his contemporaries. The people of Israel, through a series of bad decisions guided by a series of sorry leaders, found themselves enslaved to a foreign king. Our story of the Prince of Peace is born out of a strife-torn experience. Our confidence in the God of Hope is born out of a record of nearly hopeless moments in the community of faith.

A song needs a singer. How blessed is the one who can sing in a time when the songs just won’t come. This is the church’s vocation, that of all prophets and preparers, to give singing lessons (B Birch).

What makes hope possible in a time of exile? What makes hope possible in the wasteland of a desert?

Hope comes from a mixture of memory and imagination and vision.

This is what a song does for us. It frees us to hope for what is not yet seen. A song well sung frees us from the tyranny of the present, the oppression of the right now, the slavery of the moment. We get free to dream of another time or two.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a newfound capacity to hope, to hope against hope, to hope for what yet cannot be seen, to hope and to hope and to hope.

All: The voice of one crying in the wilderness
Prepare the way of the Lord
Make his paths straight

Malachi (Bryant)

The year is 450 B.C.

What Isaiah hoped has,in fact, happened. Israel has come home. The people who walked in darkness did see a great light. Cyrus of Persia (“the Christ of God”) freed the Hebrew people from the chains of Babylon and they walked home along a corridor that, including today, has known very few walking years, years of easy peace.

But when they got home, they found that life was still hard. Only a remnant returned, the others staying to mingle in Persia. The land gave fruit grudgingly after years of lying fallow. It took 90 years, 90 years, 90 years, to rebuild the temple from Ezra to Nehemiah. Everything took a long time. And, most disheartening probably for Malachi, his own work of prophecy was disappearing. There were no preachers any longer in the land.

In this time of discouragement a fearful question cannot help but come to mind. Where is God? If God loves us why does not God not show it? If God is just, where is justice?

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ may involve endurance of steady discouragement, for many years, with no apparent way forward or way out. Preparation may involve waiting, awaiting the promise of another arrival:

All: Behold I send my messenger before thy face,
Who shall prepare thy way;

Baptist (Margie)

The year is 30 A.D.

It takes a peculiar spiritual strength to find the grace to step aside. John the Baptist created a commotion with his call to confession of sin. He called and the people came. They had a common mind, at least to the point of acknowledging their need.

John came out of tradition—the tradition of the prophets. His role and work were not alien to the long history before him. So when he went out in his rough clothing, into a harsh desert, to speak unpleasant words of warning and judgment, he did so out of a common understanding that prophets might come along every now and then. They might call the city of Jerusalem to repent every now and then. They might direct the people of Israel out to the river every now and then. They might point to God every now and then.

John spoke directly to his people. He challenged his generation to look hard at the way they had lived, and with a plumb line to measure themselves according to the law of God. What one has no sin to confess? What one has no fault to regret? What one has no desire to be made clean? What one would not, given the chance, wash in the Jordan and start over?

But the lasting word of the Baptist is not about his own work at all. Like the church to this day, finally, he exists to point to Another, the thong of whose sandals none is worthy to loosen.

For all his accomplishment, at the pinnacle of human endeavor, right religion, John finds at the right time the grace to step aside. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a willingness, at the right time, to step aside.

John felt a nudge, the grace to step aside, and so he cried out:

All: After me comes he who is mightier than I,
The thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

Mark (Bob)

The year is 70 A.D.

With others, Mark could have found a more pleasant way to begin his gospel. He might with Matthew have offered a long list of names of great saints and sinners past, and then told a story about wise men from the east. Or he might with Luke have started with thrilling birth stories, retelling the birth of the Baptist and of Jesus, to Elizabeth and Mary, and then recounted the advent of the Son of God among humble shepherds, in a humble inn, in a humble town, on a humble night. The Gospel of John begins with the beginning of time and Jesus rounding the unformed cosmos as the divine word, logos.

As plain as the nose on your face, though, Mark starts simple and bare. There are no frills, no varnish, no make-up, no extras. Like Paul, Mark says nothing about the birth of Jesus, or young man Jesus, or the family of Jesus. He begins with the river Jordan, and John, a man dressed in camel’s hair.

This gospel begins with a barren, bleak moment in the icy dark, along a cold river.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may well involve just such a cold, and foreboding start, a beginning that in that way is like all beginnings, from the infant cry at birth to the coughing susurration at death, and every new venture in between: a little quiet, a little cold, a little wild honey. And hovering somewhere nearby the divine possibility of a divine possibility. So Mark writes,

All: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God.

(Each declaims, then as the hymn starts, wades into the water and self-baptizes, and then moves stage right)


With Isaiah, in a time of exile, I will face down the loneliness I feel, and will explore a newfound capacity to hope.

Verse 1: There’s a Voice (Susan HuppĂ©)

With Malachi, in a period of discouragement, I will accept the courage and the capacity to wait, to wait without idols, to wait for the living and true God, whose messenger will come in the fullness of time.

Verse 2:

With John the Baptist, in a period of anxiety, an age of anxiety, when my own service has been rendered, and my own work is done, I will look for that saving willingness to step aside, the grace to step aside, to make way for Another.

Verse 3:

With John Mark, in an age of persecution and dislocation, when change in work or health arrive, I will face the harsh difficulty of a cold beginning.

Verse 4: (all sit as this is sung)

With Malachi, in a period of discouragement, I will accept the courage and the capacity to wait, to wait without idols, to wait for the living and true God, whose messenger will come in the fullness of time.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

In the Hands of the Savior

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Stewardship Sunday
Text: Luke 10:25-37

Once upon a time there was a humble fellow who left the great city of Jerusalem to travel south, to descend, to go on down the road to Jericho. I invite you today to place yourself in his position, to identify with his journey and his need. For you are the visible church in this place and this time. You are in the hands of the Samaritan.

Change is hard, and real change is real hard. Descent of any kind is that kind of hard change. No one likes to descend down through the ranks of work and life from which depths at one time one had ascended. Who truly enjoys the trip down into loss and grief, the lonely road of emptiness and longing? Victory has a thousand parents. Defeat is an orphan. Did the children of Israel relish the harsh forced march into the wilderness? No. They complained bitterly to Moses: “Are there no graves in the land of Egypt that you have brought us here to die?” Did their forgetful descendents appreciate the exile to Babylon in 587bc, chained and roped as they were taken into generations of slavery? No. In Jeremiah they expressed their Lamentations. A quiet killer of an Old Testament book. No one wants to descend like that. It hurts too much. When I see Elie Wiesel photographed in Rochester, I hear the voice of Jeremiah, ringing out on the down road away from Jerusalem.

In our own history across this land we too can remember the experience of descent, from Jerusalem to Jericho, if you will.

Washington’s army hobbled south into Valley Forge, or was it Jericho? A dusty backed Robert E. Lee left his sword as he left Appomatox: was he riding to Jericho? The native peoples left one temporary campground for another, striking tents from east to west, so that today there are 100 Oneida Indians left in New York, and 15,000 in Wisconsin. It is a long walk from Oneida to White Fish Bay, from Jerusalem to Jericho. I saw a clip again of the last survivors flying out of Saigon in 1975, many wailing on the rooftops and left behind-their Jerusalem in flames. We have known all manner of displacement, from center to periphery. In the winter I hope time will open up for another reading of the Grapes of Wrath. The road from settled security to uncertain unknown can run from Jerusalem to Jericho, or from Oklahoma to the Pacific Ocean. The road from religious complacency to social injustice can cover a year in the first century, or a decade, the 1930’s, in the twentieth century.

I remember my uncle saying that every birth creates a new family, because everyone is in a different position. So it goes on the road to displacement.

You may be on the road to displacement today. Displacement, replacement, out placement. It is a hard road. Jerusalem is so much more settled, secure, serene. There is a temple in Jerusalem, a statement in stone of the affirmations of a people. In Jerusalem there is a King, Herod, and a Proconsul, Pilate. They embody authority and exude stability. There is tradition, that of Ezra, there is history, that of Amos, there is glory, that of David-all to be found in Jerusalem. Why would anyone ever leave? Hardly any ever do, by choice, on their own.

About 40 years ago - such a biblical number - we set out on the same kind of descent. We, too, in this country have long since left Jerusalem, that “city set on a hill” which Governor Bradford described on the Massachusetts Bay. We no longer attempt to build Jerusalem here. Hardly any of our leaders would recognize the rhetoric anymore. This has become a country that requires car insurance but not health insurance. Ours is a land of smart bombs and ignorant children. We live in a country less fearful of doing wrong than of getting caught. Oh, we can be scared, occasionally, into justice, but we are not eager to build Jerusalem. Our debt maims our future, our priorities maim our children, our Promethean power combined with willful arrogance now threatens the whole inhabited order. We are the stewards of nuclear powder keg, and seem impervious to the dangers of preemption, what Robert and John Kennedy would have called, “Pearl Harbor in reverse”. Jerusalem is behind us, and fading in the distance. And in the distance, not a city set on a hill, but our next appointment-Jericho.

The trek toward Jericho began in about 1965. We have made a good headway out south in 37 years. The hiker with the least strength, bringing up the rear if you will, straggling on down the road of the last generation, is the historic church of Christ. The church is the metaphorical canary in the cultural mine. When the canary stops singing, you know the atmosphere has changed, and there is danger on the horizon. Or, think of it as a column in march. The weakest bring up the rear-the church, the home, the school. Others have tripped on down the road far faster than we. We straggle along, at a distance from the larger culture. It is getting dark and we are alone along the road. Evening falls.

In the best tradition of banditry, thieves have swept down upon us, seizing the weakest and last in the cultural column, stripping the church, beating the church, using the church, stealing from the church, and leaving the church half-dead.

This phrase in the gospel, half-dead, always gives me pause. Which half? It is like those impossible questions: would you rather lose your sight or your hearing? Your mind or your strength? Your daughter or your son? Could you go on with no job if you had your family, or would it be easier to see your family leave and hold your job? Leaving the church half dead, the thieves fled. Which half? In these forty years, there have been moments of numerical strength but no depth of root. There have been times of spiritual fervor but no lasting power. There have been epochs of growth in breadth, without the developing of spinal column seen in the vertebrae of tithing, imprisonment for cause, and decisions for the ministry. A church may have all the flabby flesh available, but without spine it is not a body. How many of us tithe? Who has gone to jail for justice? How many preachers have we produced? If we give birth to no preachers, why should we expect to have any? In short, over 40 years, a biblical back forty, thieves have done their worst. The church has been moved from cultural center to cultural periphery, as hard as that is to keep in view here along East Avenue. We do not set the beat. The steeple bells do not call the tune. The symbols of the church have grown cold for the culture and so are ignored or replaced by warmer, falser calves of gold. Sunday is not a day of rest from commerce, but just another part of the endless flow of colorless time, one thing after another.

The thieves have done their worst, and for some time, the historic church has been left by the side of the road, stripped, beaten, and left half-dead. If you doubt it, compare those entering the seminaries today with those of forty years ago. In any case, the parable does not stop to reprimand the thieves. The story assumes that in certain circumstances, some people will steal from others. The Gospel is not about right and wrong, first, but about life and death, first. First the mystical. Second the moral. So the Lord on Golgotha can say, to a thief: “This day you will be with me in paradise”.

Thieves have battered the church, the littlest and weakest of institutions, like home and school. You can name them better than I. Swelling social changes in availability of time. A temporary economic boom that becomes a prolonged bust. Spiritual surges, now and then, that take no part in service to widow and orphan, what the bible singularly calls “real religion” (James). All these, though, the church might readily survive.

Our time has born witness to another, profounder thievery. It is spiritually important, when you have been burglarized, to be able to list and name the items stolen. I have been swimming at the LeMoyne College pool for 15 years, never locking my belongings. This fall someone stole $65 from my unprotected wallet. You, too, have lost things and it is important to name them. The naming marks the time we live in. What has been stolen from American Culture in this post-modern or post-Christian era is a sense of presence. Gabriel Vahanian, again, saw it most clearly, though no one quite “got it” 40 years ago. We are living through a time when the sense of presence, divine presence, has been taken from us. We live numbly like rape victims who repress to some degree the loss. We live in atmosphere of functional atheism, in which even the great symbols and signs of historic religion are made to serve a nether God. We live in a time that has lost its ear for the music of God. An age tone deaf to the cadence of the Holy. So we are tempted to fill our sacred hours and space with noise and chatter and irreverence. Thieves have fallen upon the church.

Sauntering down the same road have come both Priests and Levites, liberals and conservatives. The undercurrents of thievery in culture find religious expression in the liberal priest and the conservative Levite. I caution us not to use the church for lesser ends, however good. Not to use the church for social action or private revelation, however important both are. The liberal, over 40 years, found the church a convenient cudgel for political change, whether related to war or race or justice. This priest though - ecce homo - found no abiding interest in personal ethics or traditional teaching on intimacy, or reverence for marriage, or discipline in finance, or other personal disciplines. Passing by on the other side of the road, the liberal priest left the church bleeding, crying, hurting and half-dead. We still haven’t said which half. Likewise, some years later, there came the conservative Levite, who also found it seemingly easy to pass by on the other side. The conservative found in the wounded church, so hungry for humans, a convenient haven from the righteous demands of economic justice, what Wesley might have called social holiness. Just having individual belief, being saved, thrice or twice born, allowed one to pass by on the other side of the secular road, and to live without the historic church, whether in Bible Fellowship or roadside chapel or Crystal cathedral. Love your neighbor without! Love the neighbor within! Two shouts, one liberal and one conservative, and both faithless.

You notice that Luke has entered our autumn meditation. Sometimes you need a little humor to get through life, a little hope to get through hurt, a little horizon to get through valleys, and a little Luke to get through Matthew. You recognize that last Sunday’s lesson is also here - love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew leaves it there. But if we follow the textual trail to Luke we are offered something more. Just who is my neighbor? And while Luke’s parable of the Samaritan has often, and rightly, been read as an encouragement to good deeds, its fuller sense is Christ, and puts you in the hands of the Samaritan.

For the third traveler to journey past the half-dead man, this dear body of the church, for which odd, numinous and impractical reasons we so cherish, is, as it happens, a Stranger, a Samaritan. An unexpected lover, a stranger to the church laying in the ditch, to the anxious church leader awaiting stewardship help from on high, to the liberal priest and the conservative Levite.

In this sermon I commend to your spiritual attention, the Samaritan in whose hands the half-dead church now rests. I announce with you his presence this day. A church is such a fragile organism, the larger the more fragile. In the Gospel we announce the model Neighbor, who in tradition is Good, as God alone is good. On the road down to post-Christian Jericho, in our hurt, he has found mercy for us. This strange lover of the church - who resists in the cross all our lesser desires to use the church for lesser ends-is only barely visible in the mists of worship and counseling and dinners and committees. Here, this Stranger stoops to us. Stooping is most christological gerund in English. Stooping he comes to show mercy where the priest and Levite saw only a half-dead body. He stoops. He binds up wounds. He pours on oil and wine. He puts the church on horseback. He carries to the inn, that is, as Cervantes and Luke both know, the only real Inn, which is the heart.

It is a strange presence, unexpected, that generally ministers to the church. In flat stewardship terms, over many years and miles, it means that the church has been healed and helped by those you would least expect. Tithers: widows, retired school teachers, recently arrived members, people of lesser means, preachers, retired preachers, those, I guess, who have known a little of what it means to be on the side of the road.

Oh Strange Samaritan! I overhear I suppose some of your Samaritan musing, but it falls on my ears as a foreign tongue, at once sensible and nonsense. In the mist of a party, one mentions: “Our community needs more community - I will be in church this year”. I sense the hoofbeats of a Samaritan. In the confusion of a wedding, one says, “You know, I may have something to offer this year”. I sense the rustle of a Samaritan. In the hospital room, that place of no repose, one asks, “I expect you could use more help for children over there. Count me in.” I sense the money pouch of a Samaritan. On the doorstep, in muted measure, one states, “We have had to stay away for a time, but the music beckons and I can help your choir.” I sense the whistle of the Samaritan. At the little service, 10:00 A. M., in the rush of benediction, one affirms, “I have felt somehow summoned here. I think I can make a strong contribution.” I sense the goodness of a Samaritan. Oh Good Neighbor Christ! For all the dangerous fragility of this autumn, I feel your love for the beaten body of the historic church!

Rest assured, robbed one. Here is good news. The historic church is in the hands of the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 20, 2002

What Is the Way of Wisdom

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

Middle Aged Wisdom Sayings

  1. We are because I am; I am because we are.
  2. God will give you everything you need, but won’t put it in a bag for you.
  3. Gold that is hard sought-after is twice as precious.
  4. When you’ve reached the end of the rope, tie a knot and hang on.
  5. All things work together for good to those who love the Lord.
  6. A leader is a person with a magnet in his heart and a compass in his head.
  7. The Lord helps those who help themselves.
  8. The essentials of life are hidden in plain sight.
  9. Look before you leap.
  10. Pick battles that are big enough to matter and small enough to win.
  11. Horses don’t kick if they’re pulling and don’t pull if they’re kicking.
  12. Change has no constituency.
  13. The greatest challenge facing the Asbury First congregation is reaching the unchurched.
  14. Inattention to, underestimation of, disregard for divine faithfulness, can lead to human tragedy.
  15. You can do too much.
  16. You can do too much for others.
  17. The opportunities you didn’t get you probably didn’t want.
  18. There is a kindness that kills.
  19. Rebuilding is much harder than building, and this is true for staff and program as much as for brick and mortar.
  20. For the artist, material that is resistant also holds the potential of support. Resistance and support go together.
  21. God reigns, is Christlike, and is persistently involved in history.
  22. Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not in just some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Sunday, October 13, 2002

What Voice Do You Hear?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 22:1-10

Presence in an ordered service of divine worship, your presence here today for instance, is one sign of trust that in this life we are being addressed from beyond. Your presence this morning is an indication, a witness if you will, to your intimation or confidence or something in between, that you are hearing voices, that you are called, spoken to, addressed. What voice do you hear? What characterizes the voice you sense from beyond the bounds of time and space?

By the way, this sensibility created Methodism. Our movement was given voice in this question. Wesley put it a little differently: “Do you know God to be a pardoning God?” What voice do you hear in the reading today? The parable of the wedding banquet, retold in Matthew from a kinder Lukan version, rests on this conviction of a divine beckoning and calling. Here the call is part invitation, part warning, and part summons.


Do you hear a voice of invitation?

I think we seldom recognize what a powerful thing an invitation can be. In composing this point I had to stop for a while to let the flood of memory subside along the riverbank of understanding.

In late 1978 we were beginning to adjust to the thought of a first child on the way. Some of you are adjusting to that thought today. Later that winter Jan fell ill and was hospitalized at six months. Surgery was required to remove an ovarian cyst. We were very frightened - at such invasive action, at the prospect of a child lost, at the possibility of even greater danger. We relied on families and friends and young faith. We prayed like you do when you have nothing else. In the time that followed, in the weeks of recuperation, I had a call from an old friend, Bill Swales. He had been thinking about our condition. He called to invite us to take a church in Ithaca. “You can finish school long distance. Forest Home is not much of a church, but it is open. And we want you to come home.” On the strength of that invitation, carried along the veteran voice of trusted superintendent, we changed our plans, and 25 years later the formative power of that humble human beckoning looms very large indeed.

We know the power of an invitation when we hungrily receive one heartily desired. Nothing in all the world ever happened between persons without invitations. Every sermon is in some way an invitation to decision for Christian discipleship.

You receive today, again, a personal invitation. The invitation is meant for you, sent to you, an event for you. You are invited to attend the wedding of heaven and earth, to lead a godly life, to lead a life worthy of God, to live in faith and by a conviction, which is a trust, faith is a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth, if we had all proof we want we would not have all the faith we need. Will you come to the banquet?

The voice of invitation is an enticement, a coaxing, a luring, a courting. The board is spread, the meat and drink are prepared. All is well in the house. This open invitation is the mark of Christianity at its best. This invitation is a sign of respect for the diversity of the creation, lived out in tolerance of differences. And what is tolerance but to listen, listen, listen? This church, for all our faults, exemplifies such an openness and tolerance of difference. All too often a church is made up of “moral people who have not time for Jesus, and little interest in the joyful news of the kingdom of God.” This invitation is not only open and far-flung; the invitation also goes out with a note attached: “the food will be tasty”. In this kingdom there is concern for quality as well as for quantity. There is something satisfying to be had at this meal. We are not always fully awake to what is available within the tender web of human relations.

You remember that St. Matthew, the Evangelist, has a passion. It is evangelism. The point of the Gospel of Mathew the Evangelist is that he is an evangelist. This is his love. His first love. To seek the lost, gather the dispersed, church the unchurched. And it is a passionate love. I can see your passions in the red cheeks, changed breathing, throbbing temples, scowls and sighs, angers and fears and hopes and dreams that attend them. Music, architecture, history, homily, mission, symbol, country, group - these inspire passion. Mostly good. Matthew offers the gift, divinely wrapped, of another, different passion: sharing a first encounter with Christ with those who do not know a single verse, cannot recite a single psalm, cannot describe baptism and communion, do not have a favorite hymn, and have no experience of church committee meetings. This is the great joy of faith, to share it. We only have what we can give away.

The fun of teaching knots is to show the tenderfoot the square knot. Everything else is derivative. The joy of coaching swimming is to help someone learn to float. All the rest is a corallary. The excitement of instruction in a language is the alphabet and the first declension and the initial vocabulary. All the rest is subordinate.

Matthew’s passion, offered to Asbury First as a new gift this autumn, is invitation. This is the gift that truly keeps on giving. Find the joy of a treasure in a field, a lost coin found, a prodigal fed, a seed planted, a mustard seed nurtured, and a wedding feast celebrated, and you have found St. Matthew’s passion.

The capacity to offer a genuine invitation depends on the measure of verbal kindness, and so personal trust, within a community. Let me ask you to pause for a moment and think about the way we speak.
• What words are on our lips in worship?
• What goes into our conversation at the dinner table?
• What do we say to each other over morning coffee?
• What do we tell our children as we tuck them in at night?
• What news do we share during commercials?
• What is the quality of our discourse?

We are invited to feast with one another. We are invited somehow to communicate to one another that the joy of the Lord is our strength.

You know that Jan and I spend much of the summer on a lake in Central New York. I have overburdened you in the past with reminiscence about a lovely college town nearby. There are other towns too. One is the little hamlet of Morrisville, whose banners carry the slogan, ‘One step ahead…’ I mentally add, “..of the sheriff”. Visually Morrisville offers little. It is a town that never really found itself. Like many lives we can name. You will notice there the sagging roofs, old buildings, gas stations and pizza shops and bars, and a struggling two-year college. It is nothing to look at. But I must bear witness also to what I hear in this visually vacuous village.

In the course of one hot afternoon, I am addressed with kindness. In the car shop: “the tires need rotating”. Neither greed nor pride, but honest concern. In the grocery, over bottles returned: “How are you doing without him?” Neither perseverating grasp nor idle curiosity, but genuine concern. In the hardware, “Did you hear about Bill’s wife?” Neither gossip nor chit chat but heartfelt worry. In the Town Hall, “It’s Rev. Hill”. Neither flattery nor false humility but genuine concern. For all its visual vacuity, one hears there a verbal beauty that is cultural prelude to the gospel. Those who have cultural ears to hear, may yet hear.

How many of us, by contrast, live lives that are visually beautiful but verbally vacuous? Maybe that is why Luke, in his telling of this parable, has the invitation go out to the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame. To begin to invite, let us begin by attending to the character of our conversation as a community.


But the master’s call, as Matthew’s darkening tale reveals, is not heeded. The invitation is “taken lightly”, or as Matthew puts it, “they made light of it, and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants and treated them shamefully.” As they had, we are meant to interpret the prophets of old.

The divine calling does not stop, but we now hear a second dimension of it. Here the call is not so much an invitation as it is a warning. One of the most startling points in the study of the parables is to notice the difference between Luke’s account of the story in Luke 14, and today’s reading. Matthew is angry. Here a man has become a king, those who refuse are not forgotten but violently killed, those who miss their chance are not worthy, and many are called but few are chosen. It is hard for me not to overhear some bitter church experience here, perhaps related to the persecution under the Emperor Domitian in the last decade of the first century.

While we may chafe at Matthew’s intensity, we can readily appreciate this new voice, a voice of warning. Jesus exists for us at some points as a warning. A warning that there does come a time when it is too late. All the parables have this element in them. The mercy of God is eternal, never ending, all pervading. But the time to accept the invitation is passing; the time to accept is the eternal now. There comes a time when it is too late. When we are sensitive, we hear this same warning all around us.

Here is a business leader, Charles Willie, warning of emptiness: “Those who would master the institutions of our society-a company, a community, or any other collectivity-must decide here and now to give themselves over fully to that which they wish to fully control. By so doing they also will forfeit some of their freedom and flexibility. Is mastery worth the outcome of an imprisoned personality that is efficient, well-organized, but constrained and unspontaneous?”

Here is a scientist, Charles Darwin, of whom a new biography was published recently, naming him the greatest Englishman of his age: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts…the loss…is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect and more probably to the moral character.”

Here is a philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, warning about motives: “The greatest evil comes not from selfishness but from selflessness in the service of a great cause”.

Here is a Methodist Bishop, Sharon Christopher, writing for all our Bishops this week: “A preemptive war by the United States against a nation like Iraq goes against the very grain of our understanding of the gospel, our church’s teaching, and our conscience. Preemptive strike does not reflect restraint and does not allow for the adequate pursuit of peaceful means for resolving conflict”.

Here is our Bishop, Violet Fisher, warning us about our present peril: “I ask us to turn over to God for healing the anger and the fear and the desire for dominance that would lead us to harm another human being or to acquiesce in harm done to another”.

Here are the sermons offered from this pulpit two years ago, along a village green, in which all the predicament of our present perils were forewarned.

There does come a time when it is too late. The parables shout this warning. We cannot play forever with life-threatening nuclear weapons. We cannot supply the world with arms and expect them never to be used. We cannot applaud forever a narrow nationalism ill suited to a global village. There does come a time when it is too late. The parables gracefully warn us of that time. Those of us laden with much property, much knowledge, much position may have a harder time hearing this than we would otherwise.

(The sad story which Matthew alone knows about the poor bloke who has no wedding robe apparently is a warning, either moral or spiritual. If moral, it is a warning that grace is free but not cheap. If spiritual, it is a warning that those invited to a daily feast should appreciate and celebrate.)


The call to the banquet is an invitation and warning, but in the end it is a summons. “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find…and those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” Gather them all! Good and bad together! Such is the kingdom of heaven. For the corporate community lives by its ability to make distinctions, this blending of good and bad is anathema. For a community that lives on its ability to produce excellence, this common mixture is anathema. “We cook for the common people” said even Origen.

An open, general summons goes out.

Last week, during the sermon before communion, we were invited to think about meals from our time growing up. I recalled in one of our churches long ago the memory of an elderly man, thinking of the summons of a school bell. Every morning he would prepare to go off into the cold, at age 6. For the winter he would cover himself from head to toe in layers of clothing. Then his mother would take a huge pancake from the griddle and put one in each mitten to keep his hands warm. The summons came. The bell rang. He dressed, prepared, and went.

I sat at the traffic light the other day and wondered whether we have the space to receive such a voice. I watched a woman across the traffic light.

Perhaps she is on the run from dawn to dusk. While the coffee is brewing, she throws in a load of wash. While the wash runs, she pours the kids breakfast cereal. While they eat she combs her hair and puts on the day’s war paint. Dressed for success, she drives to work, listening to the news and planning comments for the morning meetings. She remembers a football game 12 years earlier. While she types, she reviews the winter wardrobes (son needs boots, daughter a coat). Over lunch she writes a note to her mother: “thinking of you”. While mailing the note she realizes her high school’s 20-year reunion is next year. On the way home she stops to buy the groceries and gas. While fixing dinner, she calls a friend. A fleeting image of a happy day in the summer puts a catch in her throat. While on the phone, she mops up a spilled glass of milk. While serving dessert, she thinks about the evening meeting, remembering that she agreed to do the devotions. This produces a moment of terror. While the sitter bathes the kids, she heads for the meeting, realizing that the bottles need to be returned. Maybe tomorrow. While the meeting drones on, she plans tomorrow’s dinner. At home, she drifts off to sleep, wondering if the kids have clothes for the next day.

For her, for me, for you, this summons is delivered: work is not meant to drive out love. No, nor are any other penultimate passions meant to take the place of God, the God of love in our lives.

I am convinced that in Jesus Christ, light came into a world of darkness. In him we are called - invited, warned, summoned---into the kingdom of heaven. This call is not an abstract, universal bellow. It is a whispering that touches and knocks at the door of every human heart. Jesus teaches of a pardoning God, who is quick to forgive. Jesus tells us of a gathering God, who gathers good and bad together. In him has the light shown in the darkness.

What voice do you hear?

How will you respond?

Sunday, September 29, 2002

By What Authority?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 21:23-32
A Biblical Question
The other day I stopped at the Seven Eleven for a paper. Three of us waited while a new cashier, perhaps from India or Pakistan, grappled with the mysteries of her computerized register. Her customer was not pleased. He had asked for a pack of cigarettes, which she haltingly produced. The computer did not cooperate. She apologized. He fumed. At last the register registered his bill. He did not have, or could not locate easily in his jeans, enough money. Angry, nettled, embarrassed, he hurled the cigarettes back, scooped up what money he had, and raged on out. The pick-up truck squealed as he shouted and gestured a form of valediction. Our service provider returned to her struggles. The day inched forward. Somewhere, though, the question lingered about our angry white male customer: who died and left him boss? By what authority does one hurl judgement at another? And what one of us has not done so?

The Gospel of Matthew, we understand, was composed, part by part, to meet the needs and answer the questions of the third generation church. Now Jesus has gone. Now Paul has died. Now those whom Jesus gathered have gone. Now those whom Paul inspired have died. Tell us, Matthew, the good news in truth about living together as a church. Tell us about your passion for compassion. And tell us, too, about children and their place in life; about marriage and divorce; about money and its ills and blessings; about heaven; about leadership; and, so today, about authority. What Jesus has said Matthew has noted in ways that are helpful to his church.

At the end of the first century, when this Gospel was written, the still new Christian church, spread out across the Mediterranean, needed answers to big questions. Is the gospel meant for some or all? How shall we determine the truth about this and other issues? Where can we locate the authentic words of Christ? Who will have authority in the church and of what kind will that authority be? Matthew teaches about authority a dozen times in the course of his gospel. Today we traverse the path of one point in his teaching.

A Personal Question

After the Seven Eleven paper debacle, I was reluctant to enter another store. Shopping, in any case, for me is stepping into the forecourt of hell. I need little excuse to avoid it. In any case, I had a sermon to imagine. I had agreed, though, to pick up some more paint. We are painting our empty nest. It is good therapy in an odd season. For the first time in twenty years I can get a good night’s sleep on Saturday night. You would think the sermons would improve. Entering Sherwin Williams, I paused to let another fellow, clearly a professional and experienced painter, or at least an energetic and swashbuckling painter, in any case, one self-painted from head to toe, pass by as we headed for the counter. I needed two gallons of the interior latex paint on sale for $18.00. I knew this coming in. It was my only planned and only needed purchase. A two minute deal. One attendant greeted us. Who is first, his eyes asked. I deferred, to my contestant, in the way you do when you know that both of you know that you were there first. Of course though out of courtesy, you are giving way you know and the other knows that you were first and he will of course readily say so and demur, deferring back. He did not. I waited as 5 different gallons of specially mixed, exotic paints were prepared over many minutes. I fumed. I paced. I glared. I looked up and outside, and there, working in the hot tar and paving the parking lot, was the disappointed cigarette purchaser, and colorful valedictorian, of the Seven Eleven. Now he was outside, calm, pouring tar, and I was inside, pacing, nettled. 25 minutes later my contestant, the professional painter, paid the bill, still looking down, not sheepishly, or at least not sheepishly enough. Somewhere amid brushes and drop cloths and rollers, though, a question lingered. Who died and left him first? By what authority? By what authority, too, did I silently hurl judgment upon him? Who made me judge and jury?

The lectionary harms us again this week. Following from the two parables read September 16 and September 23 comes this dark tale of unresolved authority. With only our public reading of the gospel, you would never know that St. Matthew has just a moment ago, in Chapter 20, delivered a remarkable sermon about authority. It bears frequent repetition. It might well happily, that is, have been included in the lectionary. But no. We shall have to cut and paste.

You remember that in Matthew 20 the mother of the sons of Zebedee asks that they be given special position, when Jesus brings the kingdom. But Jesus takes aside James and John to say that it is to be different among his people. They are not to lord it over one another. They are not to find authority in power, but power in authority, not authenticity in power, but power in authenticity. They are to watch over one another in love, but to remember that responsibility shared easily becomes responsibility shirked. Everyone’s business is no one’s. As Paul told the Galatians in verse 2 of his last chapter, “love one another and so fulfill the law of Christ”; or, as he then interpreted himself in verse 6: “each man must bear his own load”. They are to define authority by hardworking service, by responsible self-giving. Who would be greatest, must be servant of all - slave of all, with a little self-awareness thrown in. As T. S. Eliot wrote: “who would serve the greater cause may make the cause serve him”. Authority raises a personal question.

A Religious Question

My Saturday continued, unaware that its unsuspecting contours would later be fitted to the flow of a narrative sermon. Using the historic present: I park for a moment to be inspired again by the spire of this church. I wonder if the congregation will take the preacher at his word the next day and invite someone to come along, whether or not the invitation is accepted. 24 hours later I am to be jubilantly impressed at how many have done so. It is good exercise. Asbury First is like Bermuda, an enchanting combination of physical visual beauty, and personal verbal courtesy, the best of nature and architecture and culture and posture. An oasis, of sorts.

There is a rising tide of discourtesy flowing over us, to be sure. But it is what comes out of a man, said Jesus earlier in Matthew, that defiles him. I suppose I am too sensitive to this question about authority. In the well nigh radical sphere of freedom that is the open expanse called church, there are hourly authority issues. By what authority? A firmly and rightly posed question. The Protestant churches have hundreds of years of experience trying to balance the needs for order on the one hand and the inevitable corrupting influence of ordering power on the other. So Luther split the church in twain, over authority. So Calvin retranslated and reinterpreted the Scripture, over authority. So Wesley ordained Coke and Asbury, to work in this country, over authority (telling them never to call themselves bishops). So in our time, the endless struggles over theology and order devolve so often into contests over authority. We rightly, from the perspective of the tradition of this church, delicately weigh all assertions about authority.

Otherwise we fall victim to a form of religious blindness. See: like the lectionary, the Pharisees have missed the whole point. Jesus knows they are trying to trap him, to see if he will commit blasphemy. Jesus here falls in behind John, as he did in their births to Elizabeth and Mary, as he did later along the Jordan river at the outset of baptism, as he did in the prophetic preaching of the 1st century in recollection of the prophets of old, as he did in avoiding the charge of madness (“he has a demon—behold a glutton and a drunkard”), as he did at last in death, the baptist beheaded well before the crucifixion.

But the church for which these words were meat and drink, Matthew’s church, and the many others who used his collection, did not miss the point. Jesus had something to say to them about authority. He had known and dodged the dangerous challenges of political and religious authorities. He slips out, slips by, at least for now. It would not be hard to imagine how encouraging and inspiring the scene might have been, remembered in the year 90 AD.

If nothing else, as practical help this week, let us with Matthew and his church admire and smile and chortle at the creativity, imagination and enterpreneurial cunning with which Jesus evades the cops. The middle gospels, Luke and Matthew, are written near and during the reign of Domitian, a Caesar who sent out an empire wide persecution of atheists, that is of Christians, and of others who did not worship the Roman Gods. They also were dodging and weaving in the face of civil and not so civil authority. Some were perhaps being taken, and some dying.

Here is how our gospels came to life:

Faced with the care of widows and orphans, Matthew remembered Jesus’ teaching about the poor and the young.

Faced with the need to raise another generation with discipline and compassion, Matthew remembered Jesus’ teaching about a house built upon the rock.

Faced with inevitable dilemmas related to money and resources, Matthew remembered Jesus’ parables and sayings about God and mammon.

Faced with the desire to share his own fierce passion - saving the lost, reaching the outsider, welcoming the stranger, churching the unchurched—Matthew remembered Jesus’ own parables and manners and patterns of welcome.

Faced with the vital questions of how to arrange and manage the affairs of a nascent organism, a church body, Matthew remembered that Jesus had something to say as well about authority, and that Jesus had run his own risks in the face of authority. Authority raises a religious question.

A Political Question

Meanwhile, along the roads in Rochester, my shopping duties done, I had finally meandered into the office. Coffee on, e-mail dispatched, desk cleared, ah, a moment to meditate and to write. Writing and visiting, two joys that keep me in the ministry. Another of the real joys of ministry with you is the thrill of anticipating our gathering on Sunday. From the layer beneath the skin, in the old bone structure of this church, there is a physical mind that is ever alert, ready to sense, beneath all our pageantry, a full sacrament of love. A Presence. All of the symbols of our common life, even in the great and beautiful space of this sanctuary, are symbols of servant authority. A pulpit: filled by a servant of the Word. An altar: prepared for the eucharistic sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. A robe and stole: worn to signify the yoke of Christ, a burden and light. A cross, a cross, a cross….GONG! My reverie was suddenly interrupted. The Saturday doorbell rings, and in comes an unknown neighbor to comment on the playing of the chimes—is there something wrong with your bells? No. Apparently we were playing some unfamiliar hymns. (Like our sermon hymn today.) We would love to see you in church. Oh, I am distant from religion. Even so, he listens, and stops to question the ringing authority that somewhere, somehow means something to him. He leaves, and in the quiet of a Saturday I am again left alone to murmur and ponder the people of God in worship, to see the faces uplifted in hymn and affirmation, to sense the hidden struggles, to admire the silent courage under duress, to be humbled again by the individual acts of kindness and goodness embodied on the Lord’s day. Here you are. You are beautiful.

I lollygag. The paper bought at the outset of the day and the onslaught of this narrative episodic sermon lies unread. I flip - now a habit—to the op-ed page. I skim - now a habit - the last two paragraphs of each editorial. A Yale teacher is wondering about authority. Can one nation act alone and unilaterally? Now, paper before me and a sermon for eight days hence to consider, I can see and overhear an anxious concern in the hearts of our people. It is related to the question of authority. In August our staff committee met and I listed three concerns I could see on the horizon for the fall: staff development, building issues, war and peace.

War and peace. Ah, yes. Coffee brewed, radio tuned, here is what I wrote last Saturday. Over time, I would covet your responses: In most of our churches, people of faith have usually assumed one of two traditional positions in the face of armed conflict, or as is often the case, a kind of wisened situational combination of the two: pacifism or just war. Often, too, the chief job of the pastor in such a time is to help the congregation think clearly, and also to maintain space for a variety of views within one body. There is much space here at Asbury First. Think of it as an expansive village green. The pacifist position depends upon Matthew, in verses like Chapter 5: 38: You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The activist position does too, in verses like Matthew 10: 34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” How shall we think about this?

I know, given the stature and venerability of this pulpit, that many of you have heard these points rehearsed many times, and engaged wisely and sensitively in the past. Perhaps there is little that I can add. You remember that there have been five basic criteria, from Augustine to Aquinas to us, in the so-called just war theory: just cause in response to serious evil; just intention for restoration of peace with justice, not self-enrichment or devastation of another; last resort; have legitimate authority; have a reasonable hope of success, given the necessary constraints of discrimination and proportionality. I am indebted to my friend Phil Amerson for this summary in a recent Oxford paper, available in our church office. These are difficult times and serious questions. Shakespeare: “Who the sword of heaven will bear must be as holy as severe.”

Response…Restoration…Last…Authority…What has caught me, at least, unprepared this fall, is that it seems that our current course as a country moves in a third way, apart from both the pacifist and activist positions in the history of Christian thought. It seems, at least, that some of our moral debate has now taken leave of the history of Christian ethics altogether, leaving behind both the pacifist and the activist, both the non-retaliatory and the just war positions. What Congress now debates, and is apparently ready to approve, is not a response but a preemption; not a restoration but a dislocation; not a last but an initial resort; not an act based on a communal authority, but a nearly unilateral act. We are told that this is a new age, that patience must be balanced with realism about the threat at large, that in due time we shall be shown the proof for the need of this new doctrine. But let us be clear: preemption, destruction, initiation, usurpation—these have little basis or foothold in the history of Christian thought, to this point. None, in fact, that I can locate, though am eager to learn from you and others. (No proof more profound can be found to show that truly we live in a post-Christian age). We are left, as disciples of Jesus Christ, either to redefine the expanse of Christian ethics developed over 2000 years, or to reconsider our current debate.

Let me ask us in the coming week to assess what we think is true by the mysterious measure of today’s scripture: “By what authority?”

And so...

The rest of this one day in the Day of God was consumed in the act of painting, together, across the quieter expanse of a now empty home. I had no illusions about the authority under which I was set to work. Like the children of Israel I labored a bitter yoke, struggling to accomplish what had been ordered. Mercifully the day ended as we had been invited to two social dinners, both by adult classes of our church and in our church. In the fellowship of this autumn evening we were again connected to our roots in faith. The welcome of a happy gathering, a good meal, a thoughtful program, a generous greeting, a confident service - all these greeted the end of this day. Particularly charming were the clear evidences, in both classes, of active and effective welcoming to newcomers, strangers, new friends. There is a form of authority that is not authoritarian at all. It is the authority of service, to which we are drawn as to our truest home. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant…Even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve.”

The servant welcome of the adult classes came to mind again in our men’s group as it studied "Service" Tuesday, early in the morning (ex libris Dallas Willard), “service”:

  • Comes from a relationship with the divine
  • Is often drawn to small service
  • Does not seek attention
  • Is free of the need to calculate results
  • Serves all
  • Disciplines feeling
  • Is a full life-style
  • Builds community, draws, binds, heals.
  • And now the evening falls. Support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us: a safe lodging, a happy rest, and peace at the last. Given our own abiding, still finally unanswered questions about authority, we can well understand why Matthew remembered this argument. Given our own abiding struggles, biblical and personal and religious and political, with authority, we can well appreciate the elusive ending to this passage. Jesus slips away. He is not cornered - biblically, personally, religiously, or politically. He stands among us, by spirit. He speaks to us, in preaching. He defends and supports and reassures and emboldens us, by grace. But He will not be had. And in that divinely gracious freedom, He saves us from our worst selves and keeps alive, ever elusively alive, the day, way, peace, freedom, the reign of God. It may be, may it not, that all our fuming about authority is only overture to what truly matters, which is not authority at all, but authenticity in the presence of One who asks of your soul and mine, “I will ask you a question: By what authority…?”

    Sunday, September 22, 2002

    What Are Our Patterns of Welcome?

    Asbury First United Methodist Church

    Text: Matthew 20:1-16

    A. The Generosity of Divine Welcome
    It is the generosity of the divine welcome that has placed us here this morning. The whole lesson today, and in fact much of the Gospel for everyday, can be stated as St. Matthew, at the end of this parable which he alone records, so states: “Do you begrudge me my generosity? Are you envious because I am generous?”

    Only a sense of pure excitement, biblical or personal, will do to announce the outset and onslaught of this autumn, this year, this high moment in which, for the first time in its nearly 200 years of life, Asbury First may become, by God’s grace, a welcoming community.

    A welcoming community is ready to receive divine joy, eager to accept divine help, hungry to be addressed by divine truth, prepared to accept divine discipline. A welcoming community is honestly committed to engage in divine service. We are boldly set to go where none has gone before.

    I feel sorry for those who sit, but not in church; who hear music, but not of this choir; who receive news, but not Good News. On Sunday I feel what Sondheim placed on the lips of Bernstein’s Maria (before he had gone down the dark paths of Sunset Boulevard): “I pity any girl who isn’t me tonight!”

    The Gospel according to Matthew, The Evangelist, by which we shall tour the Gospel this year, while not the earliest gospel (said honor belonging to Mark), and not the kindest gospel (said honor belonging to Luke), and not the oddest gospel (said honor belonging to two dozen documents which the church rightly left out of the Bible), and not the most spiritual gospel (said honor belonging to John), Matthew was the most popular Gospel. Hence its place first in the canon, its obvious presence in the earliest Christian writings, and its place of honor in church history. Matthew exudes confidence in divine grace: open, lively, and embracing.

    God is generous. Liberally so. Or so this parable teaches. Agathos is the word - generous, giving, good, loving. God is generous, even past the point of our grudging, reluctant belief.

    The churches use little bits of Bible, lectionary passages, like the one read earlier, on Sunday morning. There is much to commend this practice, which for a second year we are using too. But it has been the death of Methodist preaching, to some degree, because it focuses on the mouse and not the elephant in the room. So these weeks I have been interpreting Matthew, and his lectionary bits, from the bird’s eye view.

    The main point is that Matthew has a passion: invitation. He invites you to share the divine generosity.

    The main point is that Matthew is opening a gift wrapped package for this church, the relatively undiscovered passion for compassion, for sharing good news.

    The main point is that Matthew, in this parable as in virtually all, celebrates the generosity of the divine welcome. So, this parable is about that generous welcome, made in the teeth of economic justice. But aren’t they all, all the parables, really about this same announcement? God is like a man who goes out and sows bushels of seed. God is like a fisherman who casts out a net, wide and open, and catches the kingdom of heaven. God is like a patient king who forgives. God is like pearl giving, treasure finding hunter. God is like a boss who appreciates talents. God is like a shepherd hunting for a lost sheep. All these in Matthew! And when we add a prodigal son, a good samaritan, a lost coin - a Lukan parable set to match, it is the same astounding word: generous, generous, generous to a fault is the gospel of divine welcome. If we read Matthew right, in the large, he would rather learn from one bird how to sing, than to teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.

    Methodism is at a crossroad. What is our passion, our reigning desire? We were born out of two proverbs: “the world is my parish”, and “go on to perfection”. Breadth and depth. Wesley said them both. They both have biblical merit, and traditional root, and reasonable appeal. But, in shove and push, which matters more? Breadth or depth? We have many deep passions: history, liturgy, architecture, music, education, service, through which are going on to wholeness, that rounded wholeness that is a sign of the holy, the perfect. Is this the love we had at first? Is this the spirit that conquers flesh? Is this the work of which Wesley said: spend and be spent in it?

    I asked Jane Amey, whose mother carted her around the creation of the unified Methodist Church in the 1930’s. Which is it, Jane, which is the more important? World or perfection? She thought a minute and, blessedly, said: “the world is my parish” is the more important, if you have that you may get the other.” So right, so good, so true

    B. The Promise of Human Welcome

    1. Welcome Space

    Therefore, we do believe in God whose gracious love is open, lively, and embracing. Hence we want to become a welcoming community, and to take the next step toward making our church home as fully welcoming as possible - welcome space, gathering space, youth space, family space.

    Let me pause to relate a short, possibly humorous story. Last winter an older man, a first time visitor, talked with a greeter and a pastor in the cloister. “Can you direct me to the rest room?” he asked. We started excitedly to speak to him about some future possibilities, including the hope that a new rest room might be located between where we stood and the parking lot. We began to describe the other welcoming characteristics of this new space: greeting area, places for coats, washrooms, space for fellowship and coffee, a library table, a movable altar for informal services, places for meeting and intimate conversation. He offered an elfin grin, complimented the plans, and said: “That sounds great. I’m impressed. But I really can’t wait that long - where is the men’s room?” To welcome the stranger is as central a joy, task, and calling as there is in the Christian life.

    We have experienced God’s lavish, uncritical, personal love for us, in the passion and presence of Jesus Christ, and we want to share that love as regularly and warmly as possible. The church leaders who have been assigned to address space issues for the future think that the time may have come to prepare our campus for the 21st century, especially in accessible welcoming, gathering, youth and fellowship space. In other words, it may be time for Asbury First United Methodist Church to add a welcoming area, a “family room” to our church home. Our house already has a “formal parlor” (sanctuary), a “dining room and kitchen” (Fellowship Hall) and “bedrooms” for individual groups (adult classes, Sunday School, choirs, campus based ministries, staff, denominational offices). We lack what is essential for welcoming, fellowship and family life: ample, gracious, open, lively, embracing space in which to welcome the stranger.

    People come to church with many needs and questions. Two are regular and primary. 1. “Can you help me find meaning in life?” 2. “Can you help me raise my kids?”

    Regarding our current plans, it seems to me that the welcoming space addresses the first of the above questions, and the youth space addresses the second.

    The gathering or welcoming area, in particular, allows the church space to “be”, to live together, to discover meaning in the simple and direct way of sharing one another’s life journey’s and life stories. Guided by the Holy Spirit and focused on the Lord Jesus Christ, we can help one another find meaning in life: in fellowship time on Sundays, in gatherings after and before services, in receptions occasioned by particular life moments, in smaller group sessions, in some devotional moments, in the interstitial connections that occur coming and going as a church, in enjoyment of art work, in the powerful experiencing of meeting another soul in the confines of a beautiful space. The new welcoming space would meet these needs.

    2. Gathering Space

    Our mission at AFUMC is to develop disciples through worship, education and care. This plan is designed squarely to address that mission as so stated. In worship, for instance, potential advances in the Sunday morning experience of worship as it is intertwined with fellowship are addressed in this plan: simply put, we would not build a church today without connecting the sanctuary with ample gathering space, so that vertical expression of God’s transcendence and horizontal trust in God’s immanence are both affirmed. Whether or not this plan meets that dual need, the congregation will need to say. Whether the need so met is worth the price, the congregation will also have to say. But the plan is directly aimed at the mission of the church at this worship/fellowship point. Likewise education, particularly youth discipleship, is addressed here, downstairs. Likewise care, especially in the full use of accessible spaces, certainly the gathering space for funerals, weddings, meals, small groups, is addressed here. In short, the whole plan was consciously and systematically created around the clearly stated mission of the church. Said one leader, “I think the basic issue is whether as a church family we want to add a family room or not. The last two places we have lived, as a family, one parsonage, and one our own house, we have done so. We have been glad we did, though we would not have ever gone into debt to add them.”

    Some general, further thoughts about our campus master plan (most of this most have heard before, or many times before):

    a. The building serves the mission of the church (see above), and supports the ministry of the congregation. We want a ministry-centered building, not a building-centered ministry. “A mighty fortress is our God”, not “our God is this mighty fortress”. Hence, any physical property issue is always a level B issue, not a level A issue.
    b. Our first priority is people: their health, nurture, safety, forgiveness, growth, discipleship, salvation, and eternal rest. Within this, our first priority is new people, those who are starting their course in faith, and beginning their walk as disciples.
    c. Further, as this plan comes forward, it is clear that we “could” do this. The question is, when and how does the needle move toward, “we should do this”. It is not a must. It is a may. When does it become a should?
    d. This plan is a high B. It touches the heels of level A issues like generosity, stewardship, welcoming, fellowship, evangelism. To enact it, we would have to become a tithing church. This is good. To desire it, would have to become an inviting church. This is good. To construct it, we would have to become a united church. This is good. All good, and all hard.
    e. On stewardship. For this plan to work well into the future discipleship of AFUMC, we would need to model good stewardship: no debt, every home committed, carefully planned, 50% of the money in hand before the full appeal to the congregation. At a minimum, this plan would cost the average giver 6 times the gift made for the roof.
    f. Then we could live the dream: We would walk in peace and joy along the Village Green of life. Here, take a lantern. It is nightime. We leave the sanctuary. We walk through the spacious, open welcome area. Then (for this is only a start), we tour the expanded grounds of our ministry. At every turn, in this dream, there is a lamp lit. Look: just here is a new United Methodist conference office, for a combined upstate conference. Look: just here is a pastoral counseling center which specializes in the needs of women, created and guided by a retired pastor. Look: just here you find a lamp lit on the porch of an Urban Retreat Center, spiritually led by a spirited minister committed to this cause. (And each of these projects tithes from their own budget back to the mother church that created them, thus providing the possibility of further growth. They learned to do so, over time, from the Storehouse, Dining Center, Nursery School, Daycare and others) Look: just here there is the lamp of the porch of the county wide Wesley Foundation, a center for student ministry. Look: just here a lamp is lit over the door of a Hemispheric Hispanic ministry Center, from Emmanuel to Amor Fe y Vida. Our lamp leads us further: just here you find a religious drama center, K-12, and an elder care program, and…..Behold Asbury First United Methodist Church, The Lamp of the Poor!

    3. Youth Space

    There is no one who appreciates and needs welcome and welcoming space more than a new teenager. Listen to the following testimony from one of our former youth group members:

    “Good Morning. Hopefully you have noticed so far that the theme of this service is the concept of a journey. If you haven’t, I’m telling you now. A journey can take on many forms: A journey is taking a trip, or finishing a novel. A journey is running in a cross-country race. For any of you that have run cross-country, you know that it is physically painful, and emotionally straining. Similarly, a journey is staying awake through an entire sermon on an early Sunday morning. Everyone encounters opportunity to journey every day. In thinking about this topic, I came to the conclusion that my life is basically a series: some good, some not so good, but all with something to offer. I want you all to look back about four years to the summer of 95. Ben Hill as a pre-freshman 14-year old. It may astonish some of you to know that I was not the robust man you see before you. I was about 5 feet tall with big glasses and a baseball cap. It was at the beginning of that summer that my parents told me that I was to go on a mission trip with 25 of the youth from our soon to be new church. Now, it’s not to say I wasn’t grateful for the invitation, but the idea of spending a week with 25 kids, mostly older than me that I had never met before, was not exactly appealing. Nonetheless, my parents insisted, and comforted me by saying “Everything will turn out all right”. Well I was glad that they believed that, because I sure didn’t. I remember arriving, and having an awkward conversation with Chris Zimbelman, who is now a close friend, while carrying boxes that I thought were pretty heavy, down to the youth room. I remember being embraced by one of the parents of a youth on the trip. For the sake of confidentiality, we will call her R. Barrett. The week that followed was one of the most interesting weeks of my life. For me it was like going to summer camp for a week, except that everyone else there had known each other for years. I couldn’t tell you who the first friend I made was on that trip, I don’t remember. It was as if I had been absorbed into the group through osmosis. I cannot begin to describe to you the importance of that journey. It increased my comfort in a new place, and allowed me to know someone in the hallway at school. When I look back, I can’t think about my start in Rochester, without thinking about that trip.” (For the sake of confidentiality, we will call the author Ben Hill)

    4. Family Space

    It may be that the time has come for Asbury First United Methodist Church to add a family room to our church home. As we said earlier, our house already has a “formal parlor” (sanctuary), a “dining room and kitchen” (Fellowship Hall) and “bedrooms” for individual groups (adult classes, Sunday School, choirs, campus based ministries, staff, denominational offices). We lack what is essential for fellowship and family life: gracious, open space, welcoming and inviting space, a space to meet and greet and watch our children grow, a place where men younger and older, women newer and more veteran, people single and married, children and grandchildren and great grandchildren can get to know each other, and where, before and after and outside worship, the people of God can justly welcome newcomers. Is it time to add on a welcoming, family room?

    5. Supporting Advantages of the Project
    a. The project advances our mission of developing disciples through worship, education and care. Our worship of the transcendent God can occur in tandem with devoted intimacy with one another. Our education of youth can receive needed new space. Our care of one another finds a place where we can, as a full congregation, “watch over one another in love”.

    b. The project enhances our vision of becoming a spiritual village green, the religious epicenter of the county.

    c. The project teaches good stewardship to another generation by encouraging tithing, rejecting debt, requiring 100% involvement, and perhaps using up to 10% for missions or for a missions endowment.

    d. The project is unifying for a broad and diverse congregation that needs more unity.

    e. The project helps us continue to grow, as churches across the country testify.

    f. The project expands our youth space.

    g. The project is difficult, and will cause us to stretch and use new muscles, and to get in good shape.

    h. The project builds on the care and maintenance of the last 7 years (new roofs, parking lot paved twice, Campus Care Coordinator hired, new sidewalks, Teak Room, new porch 1050, improved entrances to 1010 and 1050, upgrades in education wing, Dining/Caring Center expansion, refurbishment of 1010 and 1050 interiors, computer network installation and upgrades, 1010 apartment rehab, sound system twice, organ enhancements, carillon replacement, landscaping work, youth room improvement, etc.).

    i. The project meets three primary needs as identified by the congregation: accessibility, expanded youth area, and welcoming space.

    j. The project provides for a gathering space envisioned in the 1950’s, approached in the 1980’s and imagined again in the later 1990’s to be used for: welcoming newcomers on Sunday morning, deepening fellowship across generations,interests, and groups on Sunday and during the week, settings for informal fellowship weekend and weekday, place for alternative worship space for non-Sunday services, and in general open space like that provided by a village green in a small town.

    k. The project comes at a time of significant growth in worship attendance, membership, and ministry.

    l. The project honors and enhances the architecture of the past while addressing the emerging needs of the future.

    m. The four primary risks of the project are debt, discord, deflection, and decay. Debt can be avoided by raising the money before spending it. Discord can be avoided through laborious, careful and lengthy processes of discourse. Deflection from our mission can avoided by keeping the project in perspective. Decay in our future ministry will be avoided depending on the kind of leadership, primarily clergy leadership, in the next generation, which this kind of forward thinking project may rightly inspire.

    6. Thoughts on the Process Moving Forward

    a. As a subcommittee of the Board of Trustees, who corporately bear responsibility for our physical plant and invested funds, the proposed plan from the Master Plan Implementation Committee (MPIC) goes first to them for their consideration, rejection, approval, or emendation. It goes without saying that they may do what they want, as and when they want, with our work. I believe they both need and deserve to take ample time to analyze this plan that is fifty years in coming and will have 50 years of effect. (Completed 2001)

    b. Ad Cab next needs to see whatever report, in any shape they desire, that the Trustees would like to provide. Ad Cab too, from a broader programmatic and ministerial perspective, will want and need time to pray and think through the plan, as proposed to them. (Completed 2001).

    c. At the direction of the Ad Cab, an Advisory Council meeting could then perhaps be convened, for full church advice and counsel. Such a meeting could either initiate or culminate a traveling presentation of the plan, for consideration, comment and alteration, throughout the adult classes and group life of the church. The full leadership staff would provide one of these settings. (Completed 2002)

    d. At this point, a time of prayer, personal and congregational, well-developed and well-practiced, is crucial. Perhaps our Spiritual Life Committee could help guide us here. I have in mind a congregational letter, seasonal prayer vigils, and active work by the Intercessory Prayer Group, so that the whole process will continue to be immersed in serious prayer. The ‘MPIC’ devotions, so well crafted over these months, might at this point be compiled, printed and distributed for fuller use. (Informally addressed)

    e. If consensus seems to be building after steps 1-4, then a feasibility study (approximately 2 months, and $8,000) would be appropriate to test what real, measurable financial support, from the inside the existing congregation, is present and has developed. For a campaign of this size, scope and moment, I would not personally choose to proceed without a professional, experienced, autonomous feasibility study (a kind of ‘future audit’). The recent Sunday reading from Luke 14, on counting the costs and resources for projects, seemed to be oddly appropriate for us. (In process, Autumn 2002)

    f. Our District Committee, and the District Superintendent and Bishop, would need to review and approve, modify or reject the plan (assuming the cost of the work exceeds 10% of the current property value). I do not see this as a lengthy or difficult step, but it is an important one to keep in mind. (tbd)

    g. If at this point, the questions of “if”, “what”, “when”, and “how” have responses that carry solid consensual congregational support, then a plan, including a plan for funding, and a plan for building, would rightly come before a Church/Charge Conference, heavily communicated, and perhaps further prepared by another Advisory Council meeting, and other smaller group sessions. Such a conference would be at the request of the Pastor-in-Charge, and at the direction or discretion of the District Superintendent. There may be still other process issues (Preservation Board, etc), and some of these suggestions noted above may prove to be inappropriate, once we are underway. (tbd)

    h. In the end, whatever we do or do not do, may those looking back from 2010 or 2020 on our process marvel together: “See how they loved one another through it all, and see how the project further enhanced the church’s growth”.

    7. A Personal Word

    I believe that our plans, to the best of our ability to judge this sort of matter, are the right thing in the right way, and close to the right time. I support, personally and pastorally and publicly, the plan to add this welcoming space. Now it may take us a while to get finished. After all, in some sense this plan has been on the map for 60 years. So we shall have to gauge the time as we go. But let us make our start. As you well know, I cannot do this for you and I will not do it to you. Here is what I mean. I can think of a church that built a great building, but relied on their pastor to raise the money. He did. He did it for them. They missed the chance to learn to tithe, and went forward with generations of weakened stewardship. It will not help to do it for you. I also can think of a church whose minister made peremptory choices about symbols, choices that may have been right. He did. He did it to them. They continued for generations to harbor a resentment about and a distrust of pastoral leadership. It will not do to do it to you. But I am eager, and I believe we are eager, to do it with you. We can do it. We should do it. So let us begin. Let us this week, individually and in our groups, set apart times for discerning prayer about this question: “What are our patterns of welcome?”