Asbury First United
Text: Matthew 4: 12-23
This year I am extolling the blessings of three, simple existential rituals. They probably do not reach way up to the height of Acute Sacramental Piety. Apologies to the Jesuits. Nor do they, perhaps, plumb the depths of Anabaptist Piety. Apologies to the Fundamentalists. They may work, though, for the broad middle stream of life, personality, temperament, culture, tradition and experience with which, for all our messy middle of the roadness, we have the most experience.
Breath. In and Out. It is a refreshing pause, and brings a healthy reminder that we are all creatures of our God and King-sheep in another's pasture. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are more human than anything else.
Listen. Hear and Overhear. While this is a matter of the ears not the lungs, of the soul not the body, it is the one single posture, a kind of relational bending of the knee, that represents our faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, who has listened to us, who has forgiven us, that we might, in Him, listen to others, that we might, in Him, forgive others. (Now look at that. Just like a preacher. Talking...about listening. Has there ever been a preacher who could listen?) We are Christians. American Christians, not Christian Americans. Methodist Christians, not Christian Methodists. Human Christians, not Christian Humans. Listen. It is who we are.
More on this in a moment.
Smile. Laugh and Sing. It is the response most befitting those made in God's Image and those forgiven in Christ's Death. We have nothing to defend and everything to share. It is what happens when you finally realize, catch the Spirit, get religion, find love, learn to sing, recline into God in Christ, become aware of what God has done for us. It makes us the singing Methodists we most want to be.
Over 47 years, we have had the rare chance to enjoy a wealth and variety of towns, and their subcultures, in the Empire State. One point of view, through which to see the subtly different environments in each village, can be found in the Staff Parish Committee of the local United Methodist Church. You will recognize you are in a farming community, if you are, because there the SPR is planted and fertilized, run very much like the Grange. If you move to a manufacturing center, and your church is largely blue collar, the same committee will take on the colors and hues of a union meeting. Or, if you serve the white color church, the committee will seem more front office, sales and marketing directed. Then again, along the Finger Lakes in a resort, or vacation spot, the committee may operate on principles gleaned from the Golf Club. In a college town, it is the Faculty Senate that provides the modus vivendi, and prospectus for the SPR. A military base in your town will shape the SPR for full dress review, month by month. Should you travel to a corporate community, the rhythms (and blues) of corporate culture become handy tools for the same work. If your town, or your part of your town, has within it several medical institutions, the engaging and somewhat idiosyncratic discourses and dialects of hospital life provide the chart for your work. I have never served in a ski resort, but I suppose that there the committee would draw on the insights and experience of the lodge and the lift.
One of my own first SPR chairs taught at Cornell. He was for many years a Dean of the College. He spent many hours and days following the trails and trials of troubled pre-veterinary men and women. Early in life he had suffered from polio, which left him lame in the left leg. John was one of the single kindest people I have ever known. I can picture him limping quietly across the Ag Quad, near retirement, thoughtfully smoking an ever-present pipe. His little church, of which he was the perennial SPR chair, Annual Conference member, financial patron, and sometime Sunday School teacher, had been built in the 1930's. Earl and Jeanne Billington were married there in 1945. When we arrived in Ithaca, he carefully showed us the Willard Strait Hall that eight years earlier had been captured by black militants.
John himself, I think, was the very best listener I have ever known well. He said repeatedly of the three generations of students he had served that all of them could over time sort out their problems, if they had someone who would truly listen to them. "They figure out their own solutions", he would say, "I just listen". When trust had developed enough to carry the freight, then help happened. He did say, more than once, his words carrying an ominous ring: "I have never met a preacher who could listen."
Some years later, long after we had itinerated out of Ithaca, John's life ended at a point and in a way of his own choosing. He had suffered a stroke, and in the dark aftermath apparently lost his way. I have never been able to fathom this now old loss for the church, but my admiration for John, the quintessential listener, continues undeterred. I carry some serious grief at the thought that he who listened to so many others as they found life, apparently had no one of his own to listen at the one point, perhaps the only point, at which he mortally needed a listening ear.
Both his generous life and his tragic death are a clear warning to us about the centrality of listening.
When we went to Europe a summer ago, because we were to visit Prague, I read a book by Vaclev Havel. Curiously enough, he included one of the few honest and true paragraphs about suicide that I have ever seen.
I have never been able to condemn suicides. I tend to respect them, not only for the undoubted courage needed to commit suicide, but also because suicides - in a certain sense - place the worth of life very high; they think that life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, without hope. Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren't sad guardians of the meaning of life.
We are reluctant to risk the encounter that may occur with real listening. We risk, in that encounter, a deep dive down into the real and the hard undercurrents of life. We would rather not risk that. We are not always courageous enough to risk that.
I remember coming to Rochester in 1995. Early on we needed to find a new accountant, which with some help we did. An initial meeting was arranged for transfer of past tax returns and other information, as well as for the chance to become better acquainted. The office was spacious and tastefully appointed. My new financial advisor appeared promptly, spoke courteously, listened patiently, and was dressed impeccably. We had only to meet for twenty minutes. The grandeur of the setting and his own earnest bearing made me reluctant to risk a real encounter with him, which I could have engaged. He had on a nice white shirt with button down collar. He looked dressed for success…with a single exception. One of his two collar buttons was undone, and, with the otherwise beautiful backdrop of setting and sartorial splendor, the lone loose button stood out like a sore thumb. "Who dresses you?", I thought. But I did not feel close enough to reach over and button his shirt for him, or even to mention this little imperfection. I hastily left. I will never forget coming back to the office, and pausing for a moment in front of a mirror. Imagine my surprise to see my own suit, tie, and shirt, all passable at least, and presentable…with a single exception. I too had been wearing a white shirt with a button down collar, one of the two buttons from which was undone. "Who dresses you?" he must have thought, as I ambled away. So there sat we two, human separated by a common unwillingness to listen and respond, both thinking of the other, "And who dresses you?!"
A part of listening is responding with honesty and kindness. In fact, we may not actually be said to have listened if there is not some minimal response, in love.
At some point, late or early, the magisterial gift of life in freedom, and our capacity to help and hurt along the way, become truly present in our psyche. Again, as I have said for the past several weeks, these are utterly intimate, personally individual apocalypses of meaning. Your moment to tune into the universe may be my siesta. Your sermon time siesta may be my moment to be born again. I would rather expand than contract the space for diversity of handclasps into salvation. Your real, actual, ordinary, daily experience - that is holy enough, wild enough, strange enough, deep enough. Leave the mountaintops for Moses, Elijah, Peter, and next week I want to remember Laurie.
I was given my own personal copy of the 1904 Methodist Episcopal Book of Discipline by a funeral director. It happened in the following manner. One Sunday, a young woman made her first visit to our country church. After service she lingered and then came over to the parsonage for coffee. It was deep winter, and when she was ready to leave her car would not start. I remember leaning over the motor as we somehow fixed the machine. My tie picked up a little dirt, which greatly, greatly troubled Laurie. Too greatly. Something was wrong. I had much schoolwork that week, along with the pastoral duties. On Friday, I drove to the library in the afternoon to work on a book report on the work of Robert Grant, the University of Chicago church historian. I passed by Laurie's house on the way, and for a moment thought about stopping in to visit. In the early evening I passed again coming home, and more clearly considered going in to say hello and to greet her parents and to encourage them all to come to church the next Sunday. But I had other things on my mind too. When I got home the phone rang. Laurie had killed herself that afternoon.
The funeral home that handled most of the Protestant burials was run by an eccentric fellow, I realize that we would say now that he was a high level, functioning alcoholic, who nonetheless had a deep reservoir of kindness and a real love for children. He helped Laurie's family greatly as they grieved her loss. I have never seen, or felt, grief so sharp and so bitter since, even though her death is twenty years past. As the family sat and prepared for the service, I went into the office, to settle my mind, pray, and wait. On the shelf there stood a 1904 Discipline. For some reason, I took it down and began leafing through the pages. Just before I put the book down to prepare to lead the funeral, I was arrested by this passage. It is found in a simple, spare old methodical list of advisement's for the itinerant preacher. It comes just before this one: "3. The duty of the preacher is to preach, to meet the classes and to visit the sick". It comes just after this one: "10. Go into every house and teach everyone therein, young and old, to be Christians inwardly and outwardly". You can forgive me, I hope, if my eyes lingered on another line, and they linger there still: "9. We ought to throw by all the libraries in the world, rather than be guilty of the loss of one soul." The funeral director made of the book a gift to me. And I have known some libraries since, and I have known more living rooms since, and I have known much bitter sadness since. But the moment does not fade.
That 1904 Discipline came to mind in our staff meeting devotions a week or two ago, as we listened to Robin read Martin Luther King's account of his decision, after some years of study in Boston, to return to the pulpit. To "throw by the library". I found the reading to be very moving, for a variety of reasons, both clear and inchoate. King reviews the opportunities he had available - teaching, academic administration, preaching in the more integrated north. Then he tells about the final determinations that he made with Coretta:
Coretta too was hesitant about returning to the South. We discussed the all-important question of raising children in the bonds of segregation. We reviewed our own growth in the South, and the many advantages that we had been deprived of as a result of segregation. The question of my wife's musical career came up. She was certain that a Northern city would afford a greater opportunity for continued study than any city in the deep South. For several days we talked and thought and prayed over each of these matters. Finally we agreed that, in spite of the disadvantages and inevitable sacrifices, our greatest service could be rendered in our native South. We came to the conclusion that we had something like a moral obligation to return - at least for a few years. The South after all was our home. Despite its shortcomings we loved it as home, and had a real desire to do something about the problems that we had felt so keenly as youngsters. We had the feeling that something remarkable was unfolding in the South, and we wanted to be on hand to witness it. With this decision my inclination toward the pastorate temporarily won out over my desire to teach." Stride Toward Freedom, 20-21.
I realized gradually as Robin read that if you substituted North for South, and the condition of the church for the issue of race, the paragraph described compellingly a significant range of my own heart. And something remarkable, against all odds and appearances, is now happening in the Northern church as it did a generation ago in the Southern culture.
The best and most powerful listener most of us have known is Susan Shafer. Hers is a holy manner of listening. With you I honor and salute my beloved colleague and dear friend, and bring five suggestions from her library, about listening.
- The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is listen. Just listen. The most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. (Remen)
- It is little wonder that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us, that of hearing our neighbor's confession, if we refuse to give ear to our neighbor on lesser subjects. (Bonhoeffer)
- We should listen with the ears of God, that we may speak the Word of God. (Bonhoeffer)
- To 'listen' another's soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another. (Steere)
- By listening we bring others into God's presence. (Shafer)
Now it is time to say goodbye, for a while. We will carry with us a regard for listening. To listen is to love. To listen carefully is to love. To listen personally is to love. To listen earnestly is to love. To listen vocationally is to love. To listen spiritually is to love.
Once upon a time, as He began his ministry, Jesus called and Peter listened. I mean no disrespect for the calling when I implore you to take to heart the matter of listening. We are not told if Jesus knew them as he approached. We are not advised whether they had families. We are not taught whether Jesus is quoting Jeremiah 16:16, or whether Matthew views fishing, casting and mending as the norms for ministry. We are not told anything about how they feel, any of them. We are not given anything except this. They listened. Immediately. They listened. They heard and heeded. And in listening, they left something behind. You can tell when somebody has heard, because they have the courage to leave something behind, something precious and valuable and costly and dear. We are not given any more of the account, perhaps, because all such moments of salvation are utterly personal, as we said. It is their moment beside the Sea of Galilee. Our moment occurs elsewhere. Like here and now. Is this yours? If it is you will know it in hindsight, because you have found the courage to leave something behind.
Albert Schweitzer "threw over" his library and his organ, both Bultmann and Bach. He went to the jungle to serve. And you?
Page four hundred and three of his Quest of the Historical Jesus carries this concluding affirmation of faith:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.