Sunday, March 31, 2002

Two Responses to Resurrection

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 20:1-18

While it was still Dark…

When the student assigned last week to give his oral report in my college class did not appear due to illness, I asked the others if any were prepared and eager to report in his place. From the front row came this response: "I am prepared…but not eager."

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

Prepared, but not eager, Mary Magdalene, alone in John is alone at the tomb, early on the morning of the first day. While it was still dark, notes the author of the Fourth Gospel, who will provide four accounts of resurrection in this 20th chapter (we hear two), and who includes such remarkable details. Look at these singular memories from the first account. While it is still dark, Mary arrives. The unnamed beloved disciple arrives, with Peter. The beloved disciple looks in but does not go in, at first. Peter and he race to the tomb. The head cloth is not with the other linen. The beloved disciple arrives at the tomb first, but enters second. The disciples go home. In the second resurrection account, which probably at one time stood alone in the memory of the church, Mary again sees things. Look at these singular memories from the second account: Mary bends over to look. The angels sit on the crypt. She is startled from behind. Jesus looks to her like the gardener. We hear theological terms, Rabonni, ascent, Father, God. Mary goes and speaks to the disciples.

The two men go home, eat breakfast and nap. The woman goes over to her neighbors' house and talks. Typical. Two responses to resurrection. Listen with me, for a few minutes this morning, to the Easter Gospel, stepping backwards through the sermon title: first a word about resurrection; second a thought about responsibility; and then, third, a couple of responses to resurrection.


But what is resurrection?

Amid all the disappointments of life in general, the way of the cross, the crucifixion itself, the failure of the mission to the Jews and the delay of Christ's return, it is the universal affirmation of the earliest Christians, of the 27 books of the New Testament, of the martyred many in the pantheon of patristic saints, of the body of Christ the church, and of you in your own words today that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. On this single affirmation of faith, through which God's freedom becomes our responsibility, stands or falls the whole weight of the Gospel. John 20 narrates two responses to resurrection, in the witnesses of Peter and John, on the one hand, and Mary Magdalene, on the other. But these are not the only witnesses.

The law and prophets of the Hebrew Scripture bear witness, of a sort, to the coming resurrection of Christ. "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps 23). "After two days he will revive us, and on the third day he will raise us up (Hos 6:2)."

Paul of Tarsus bears witness to the resurrection. "Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, he was buried and he was raised on the third day." "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied". (1 Cor 15)

The Gospel tradition, both synoptic and Johannine, both testamental and extratestamental, bears witness to the resurrection. This witness includes the mystical, vocal bodily resurrection as announced in today's reading. This witness also includes recognition of appearances by the risen Christ to a certain few. This witness further includes the regular cadence of prediction, on the part of the Son of Man (surely an historic self-reference by Jesus the apocalyptic preacher), to a vindication in resurrection of his coming passion. This witness emphatically includes, in harmony with the expectations of Jewish apocalyptic which would have found any so-called spiritual resurrection a full contradiction in terms, a reverence for the body, the body of Christ crucified and raised, the bodily resurrection and the body of Christ his church. In fact, the Gospel tradition is only about the cross and resurrection. Whatever we may choose to think, those who developed, wrote and heard the Gospels in the original setting, preached and believed without exception in the resurrection, the bodily resurrection, of Jesus Christ, Son of Man Son of God.

Following, in history, the earliest Pauline witness, and the somewhat later Gospel record, the epistles of the New Covenant literature, without question and without compromise, further bear witness to the resurrection. The secondary Pauline letters do so in a manner that blends finally toward a Platonic Greek affirmation of the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection remains central, bodily and unquestioned. The letters bearing the name of John and the Revelation to John bear similar witness, appropriating and subverting the spiritualizing language of the Gnostics, who were their closest friend and fiercest enemies, parallel in discourse to Jesus' loving hatred of the Pharisees. Acts, James, Hebrews, Peter, and even the gnostic apocalypse of Jude, while saying many strange other things, are united in this if only in this: Christ is Risen.

In the next century, Ignatius went to his lion's den death acclaiming the resurrection; Polycarp, martyred Bishop of Rome, who met the same grisly death, did the same. Irenaeus, in Gaul, arguing with the later Gnostics, began, amplified, and ended his writing in Resurrection. Even the heterodox, gnostic and ebionite and millenialist and others, bear inverted witness to the powerful centrality of resurrection in their often stunningly creative attempts to rearrange resurrection for their own agendas (see Valentinus' Letter to Rheginos).

The resurrection of Jesus is more than resuscitation--but not less. The witness of the church, of this church too, is that God has decisively acted in history by Christ to forgive sin and to vanquish death. Nor is Christ's being raised a form of healing, only, or translation, only, like the experiences of Lazarus or Elijah. No, this is the first fruit of the new creation, the beginning of the new age, whose outpost is the church. God's invasion, beachhead, incursion into history, the divine d-day is announced today. The name of God's act is resurrection. Without it our faith is in vain and we are still in our sins, trapped, enslaved, the creatures of various conditions beyond our control or understanding that steal our freedom, and so our humanity. Without resurrection there is no response, because there is no responsibility at all.

It is in this vein, 100 years after the first Easter, that our fourth Gospel writer preaches. All the aforementioned, bodily resurrection, he receives and assumes. But he has other fish to fry, morally spiritual fish to fry. For the author of John, the accounts today of absence and presence have become moral stories. Directions for some to believe and go home, for others to recognize and say something. 100 years is not that long a time. Last Sunday 6 of us sat together, two of whom could remember, clearly, the personality of the minister in this church, Rev. Brown, who preceded Ralph Spaulding Cushman. Cushman was here in the 1920's. There is a "finesse" to venerable memory that, in its delicate lightness, touches truth more truly than younger recollection. John, in the 20th chapter, shows us some of this kind of "finesse".


Some historians avoid an historic, that is bodily, or mystically vocal resurrection, because they focus on causation. Resurrection is not a historical category in the general sense. Many, like Marx, believe that "history moves with iron necessity towards inevitable results". Others too, philosophers, sociologists, scientists, cannot fathom resurrection, because it challenges the basic categories of their work. Which it does. Many others, avoid resurrection for another reason, the primary reason for the rejection of the Gospel in any case. Resurrection creates responsibility. If we are all merely creatures of biology, sociology and history, conditions over which we have no control and upon which we have no influence, then we are not free and therefore we are not responsible. We are not subjects. There is a reassuring side to this thought. While we receive no praise, we also avoid any blame. Nothing much changes anyway. Our conditions cause our behavior. "I really do not want to go to church because I know at some point somebody will ask me to do something."

But conditions are not, necessarily, causes. Our sinful human condition is not necessarily a warrant for ongoing sin. Our mortal human condition is not ultimately an unalterable death knell. Easter means forgiveness and heaven!

Contrary to historical determinism, in the historic teaching of the church, on resurrection, the opposite is true. God has freely acted in raising Jesus, and has thus opened the way for response. We are free to respond. And there is the rub.

It is not, finally, we who have the power to question the resurrection. It is the resurrection that questions us.

As one for whom Christ died, and for whom God has raised him from the dead, now in the hearing of this good news, you have responsibility. You are free, free to go straight to hell, as Bishop Tutu says. You have the power to respond. Our past has been forgiven and our future has been opened (Christ has overcome sin and death). But that leaves you holding the bag, if not the burial cloth. Ability to response, response-ability, is forever set loose on Easter.

Two Responses

Today, we hear of two such responses to resurrection. Following the Scripture, we will address the men here today with one and the women with another. Notice: in John 20 it is the men who tend the hearth and the women who change the world. The men believe and go home. The woman recognizes and says something.

Peter and John, seeing and believing, go home. This is not a highly revolutionary move on their part. It is not perhaps what we most would expect. It is, though, how they respond. Strange as the text is at this point, could we not listen for a moment as to whether it carries truth?

One response to resurrection, men, is to go home. You have response-ability. You can go home, again. You can go to your prayer closet and shut the door. You can wake up to the mystical strangeness of the breath itself, and begin to accept response-ability at home.

A. I talked with a young couple not long ago, just after their son was born. Early in the morning the contractions began. Panting and blowing and praying and waiting, the birth progressed. Suddenly-miracle! - ruddy and pink and crying and blinking there appeared a new born. You can revisit that moment, that sense of the miraculous.

B. I heard devotions in our building meeting, given by a young man who has a telescope. When he was nine his neighbor taught him about the heavens. On a clear night he would call over next door, "Mikey come on out. I've got my scope. It's clear. Let's listen to the stars." Listen to the stars…

C. I read Isaiah Berlin on his life mission. "Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened. Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached; in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force-so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, and so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established." Is there a year in history in which, given the preeminant image of 9:45am on 9/11/01, we would have been more receptive to the mission of softening collisions?

D. Men, your home needs you, somehow, now. So does your church home. Asbury First will not survive unless we learn ourselves and teach our children to tithe. You will live to see the church closed, unless, against the prevailing cultural wind of our community, we can sail freely from the spirit of entitlement to the soul of generosity. Asbury First will need $10M more of endowment, either all in cash, or $5M in cash and $5M in building, before 2010, if we are to continue our ministry in the city of Rochester. Are we to become the spiritual village green for this troubled county? Is Christ to be lifted here, the Lamp of the Poor? You have response-ability. The future is open, and will take shape depending on decisions you freely make and choices you freely take. I can take responsibility for the pulpit. You can take responsibility for the future of the church. Our freedom, should we choose to take responsibility, is to hand over to another generation what generously was given to us. We are not there, we are not doing it, not yet.

E. Nor can we afford to ignore our global institutions today. In the teeth of Moslem/Jewish hatreds, is there not suddenly again after 50 years a tremendously influential role now possible for our World Council of Churches? Where is the John R. Mott of the 21st century? Christians are free of law to extend grace in all directions. To do so before the planet self-destructs will take some home front, institutional development. I haven't heard a plea for the WCC in 25 years. So here is one! Too late? No. The best time to plant an oak tree is 100 years ago. The next best time is TODAY!

The Lord is Risen! He is risen indeed.

A second response to resurrection, women, is to say something.

John and Peter experience the resurrection as Christ absent, Mary experiences the resurrection as Christ present. One is a more religious and one a more secular habit of being. One builds for the future by building through the institutions of the future. The other enters the future singing. One responds in prayer, the other in voice. One emphasizes being, the other doing. So, women, what have you to say? What response do you lift to Easter? If nothing else, the bodily resurrection meant for the earliest church a vocal resurrection. It meant the preaching of the church, bearing witness that something happened.

We may not know exactly the details we would like to know about Easter morning. To explain, though, the birth of the church in the midst of profound disappointment, we know that-something happened.

A. We may not have all the words we would like, but we have the sense of what Robert Frost meant:

When to the heart of man was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things, and to yield with a grace to reason
To bow and accept the end of a love or a season?

We have the sure sense that something remarkable happened.

B. We may still not have digested 9/1101, but Easter makes this affirmation lasting:

Terror may topple the World Trade Center, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies may fall, the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niehbuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

In such faith we recall: on Easter something astounding happened!

C. What say you women? Can we, with Hamlet, advise the tongues of another generation:

Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel

Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in,
Bear't that the'opposed may beware of thee
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice
Take each man's censure, but reserve they judgement

This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thous canst not then be false to any man

D. What a privilege to announce with you, from this unique pulpit, the basis for meaningful life, the raising of Christ from the dead! I stretch back to the Mary voices, now glorified, who said something. Mary Mack along Skaneateles Lake. Bernice Danks, who taught Ithaca nurses to attend to routine: "We call it routine because it is the most important!" Setta Moe, who rebuilt a sanctuary in the far north, individually raising money for Keck leaded glass windows, and who knew Almonzo Wilder. Ruth Childs, happy humility personified. Marion Moshier, the fullness of grace. Eunice Roudebush ( I didn't know her, but I do know she went to Ohio Wesleyan!), who so intimately taught the Bible that you felt Peter and Paul had been at dinner with her the day before. Carol Reed said something through her life, the last word is hers: "Each day when we awake, we need to re-discover, God is with us!"

Here are two responses to resurrection: go home, say something.
Choose one or more today!

The Lord is risen: He is risen indeed!

Sunday, March 24, 2002

Another Look at Disappointment

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 21: 1-11

This Week

It may be, in the odd mystery of all things, that we are truly ready for Holy Week 2002 in a way we have not been for many years, perhaps for more than a generation. It is in Jesus Christ, whose life is salvaged and named in full this week, that the tongue needed for the past year is found. Now, perhaps, more than at other times, we can hear the poignant cadence of the steps along the Via Dolorosa.

Over several years this church has developed a pattern of worship for Holy Week of which you may be justly proud. Depth, pathos, crie de couer-all are here for you. Every step along the way is a teaching moment. In fact, everything we truly know about Jesus is taught in this one week. He stands among us, clothed already in cross and resurrection. He enters the city today not only as mystic, teacher, and healer, but as eschatological, apocalyptic prophet. Thus He disappoints both the Jewish and perennial religious hope for an earthly warrior messiah and also the Greek and perennial philosophic desire for a soothsayer. He upends tables in the temple, disappointing for all time any more than penultimate estimate of religion. He withers a fig tree, a frightful and discomfiting cautionary tale. Like Jacob, who wrestled with an angel, like Jacob who thought he had taken Rachel and woke with Leah (more on this later), he encounters unexpected sorrow. He disappoints those who seek to corner his authority. He has anguished things to say about fruitless vineyards and those who do not remember the poor. He mentions the mortal disappointment of a poor sap who merely forgot to bring the right garment for a wedding. He gathers his company in a borrowed upper room for a simple meal, in secret and in hiding. He himself is disappointed, though apparently not surprised, by the betrayal of Judas. He is even more disappointed, though apparently not surprised, by the predicted denial from Peter. The ignominy of his death, hung on a tree, is as lasting a disappointment for any who have loved Him as ever there could be, the stunning event of Easter to the contrary notwithstanding. He is buried in a tomb, shut out from life and sent down into death, disappointed to be a disappointment. This week that begins with the sunshine of the palms, ends with the stark shadow of Golgotha, the place of the skull. Sol y sombra, as the Spanish say. We will not want to miss any step along the liturgical path this week.

The dismay of Holy Week appears in Matthew's appropriation of His word as well. Hear the disappointment in His voice: To the temple leaders: "You make my house a den of robbers"…To the fruitless Fig tree: "May no fruit ever come from you again"…To the teachers: "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do things"…To all: "When the vineyard owner comes, what do you think he will do to those tenants?…Cast him into the outer darkness, there men will weep and gnash their teeth"…To the disciples: "He who is greatest among you will be your servant"…To the clergy (we will revisit this verse after Easter): "You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness"…To his home and kindred: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not."

We meet Jesus today, only and always, as He stands in the Gospel. He meets us dressed in his native raiment, of cross and resurrection. We have no access to him apart from his announcement in the gospel. Only the barest skeleton of a historical outline for his life is available to us anyway. The Gospels preach his death. Whatever they teach of his life is only there to preach his death. This is as true of Mark as it is of John. If we try to pull away his clothing, this cross and this resurrection, we invariably also begin to pull flesh and bone from his being, and we fantasize a Jesus that we might see in a room full of mirrors: we see ourselves. What history we have of Him meets us in the liturgy of Holy Week, as he moves along the Via Dolorosa, the way of disappointment.

If nothing else, the pattern of worship in the coming week will underscore for us the utter dismay out of which came the faith of Jesus Christ, the new creation of the church, and the hope of the world in which we stand. Astounding is this verifiable history: the early church blossomed out of the rocklike disappointments of the crucifixion, the failure of the mission to the Jews, and the infinite delay of the parousia. How was this possible? This Holy Week gives us a good look at disappointment.

This Year

After last Sunday's evocative cantata had pronounced for us again the Gospel of the Cross, I found myself later in the evening browsing through the newspaper. The paper reported, movingly, about the last stages of excavation at ground zero. Those who have formed over this year a community of salvage and identification (one thinks of the church in these terms too), now are finishing their work and preparing to go home (one thinks of going home, in many senses, at Easter). Only some of the lost and dead have been identified, and, hence, there is profound disappointment for those whose work has ended but not been completed. They hurt with the hurt of loss, these workers in that formed community of identification and salvage.

This year has given us a look at disappointment. A preacher of the Gospel tries to overhear what is unsaid or said softly in the life of the people of God, like Kierkegaard's anecdote about overhearing the gospel. We are still a people drenched in disappointment, following 9.11.01. The newspaper account about the end of salvage and identification work at ground zero left so much unsaid, perhaps because in the language of our culture at large, there are not available, in full measure, the chords of existential lament, of spiritual despond, of personally profound loss that would, perhaps, begin to articulate, de profundis, this year's anguished disappointment. For these, we need the church and her Christ. As a preacher, I sense that we have been waiting again, waiting these eerily warm winter months, waiting together religious and secular alike, for the narrative and event of this coming week, to provide us salvage and identification for our disappointment. We, too, are coming to the bottom of the heap.

Like Julia Ward Howe, we can see Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps where they have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps. In the dews. In the damps.

Can you cleansingly name your disappointment? It is disappointing to sense that a great portion of the world takes a dim view of the country you love. It is disappointing to feel and hear the scorn with which many, particularly some of the most impoverished, view the land of the free. It is disappointing to sense that a decade after we took up arms against Iraq, we may feel forced to do the work all over again, with great danger and potential loss of life. It is disappointing mentally to revisit the carnage of 9.11.01.

I remember in 1988, when Pan Am 103 went down with some 200 students, most from Syracuse University. Then Chancellor Melvin Eggers, who spent his later life building buildings for that school, including the Carrier Dome, expressed dismay at the tragic loss of those young people, a precursor of our latest loss, which itself, we must face, is potentially the precursor of future losses. 200 becomes 2000. 2000 may become 20,000. I think 103 broke the Chancellor's heart. He was never the same, and died a few years later (more on this later).

By apocalypse, this year's trauma seems to have unearthed and spotlighted other anguish. The larger disappointments have accentuated others, both smaller and closer. We feel all too keenly the disappointment of losing a job after giving selflessly to a corporation. We recall all to promptly the disappointment of errors made in family life. We grieve and hurt, years later, over the profound disappointment in clergy who have done wrong, in leaders who have not kept faith. We find ourselves caught up in disappointment with our church, when something about which we feel strongly seems to go the wrong way. The wrong spending of a dollar, the wrong placement of a symbol, the wrong parsing of a sentence, the wrong choice of a program: onto these we may project some of the emotion of more inchoate anguish. Sometimes, it can happen, that deeper and harder to name disappointments become projected onto the screen of anguish about reachable people and institutions. Bill Barnett, my colleague at LeMoyne, said nationally through Gannett news service, regarding a survey he and John Zogby have just done of Catholics around the country, that many are "sad and annoyed" even as they "stick by their church". Let us readily confess that as with every religious institution, we too have clay feet, and know the sting of being described as "whited sepulchres". What is true of the catholic goose is in some measure true of the Protestant gander.

It is disappointing to sense others' disagreement about issues that matter. When it comes to debating the use of force in history, every church with any breadth at all will involve people who are disappointed that others do not share their pacifism, on the one hand, and people who are disappointed that others do not share their sense of the tragic necessity of just war. "Why did he not say…" "Why did she have to say…

Further, economically, we in the North are hurting. I heard our mayor state, in a radio clip, that the real property total value in the city of Rochester, on which the tax base rests, has fallen from $5.2 billion in 1990 to $4.2 billion today. I was trying to identify the emotion behind his now familiar, husky voice: It was something like disappointment.

I sat with a 75 year old whose voice I trust. He is wrestling, this year, as he puts it, with the question of "What went wrong". "We came out of the second war so optimistic, so hopeful, so ready to seize the future. I just don't understand what went wrong. It is disappointing."

If nothing else, this year, the months since we last entered Jerusalem waving palms to the donkey carried Christ have given us a good look at disappointment.

This Cross

I am a Christian more for the cross than for the resurrection. I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it is the cross that makes me His. You have had a look at disappointment this last year. You will have a look at disappointment this week. But we need to take another look today.

Another look at disappointment-take another look today. Faith is the capacity to endure disappointment, and that in every possible measure. More than that, faith is the capacity to sense in the depth of disappointment the truest seed of its opposite-the prospect of another day, another chance, another possibility. It is this gift that comes from Christ, and Him crucified, the One who loved us and gave himself up for us. This world needs to take another look. This country needs to do the same. You and I do as well. The cross, the only symbol fit for the faith of Jesus Christ, provides another look at disappointment. The way of the cross, the wisdom of the cross, the word of the cross, announce again that disappointment does not have the last word.

Jacob woke up, married to the wrong sister. Yes, he could have Rachel if worked another seven years. Imagine that-only after seven years receiving what you were originally promised! They had a custom that the older had to marry first. So he was deeply disappointed. But did that kill him? Did that end his journey? Did that make him celibate? He worked the seven. "And they seemed to him but a day, for he loved her so." Why, his utter disappointment was the surest sign of his love. Sometimes you only know what you have by losing it. Disappointment, ironically, is the surest sign of hope, faith, and love. Only one who hopes for nothing is never disappointed. And it is our hope that defines us: "The reality of a vessel is the shape of the void within it" (Lao-tse).

Chancellor Eggers gave a newspaper interview after 103 crashed. He contrasted all the building he had done with our inability to protect young students from terrorist evil. He despaired in print. He also expressed sadness and annoyance that the chapel program did not seem to do more for him and others. For years I carried that interview as a rebuke of religion, Methodism to boot, which in fact it was, a real disappointment. I see now 14 years later, something deeper. The Chancellor was so disappointed because he could feel that for which he deeply longed, the faith that endures, names, cleanses, outlasts disappointment. And his public naming of that longing was, in retrospect, as pure an affirmation of faith as one could ever desire from an electrical engineer and school president, far truer than many sermons.

The way of Christ is the Via Dolorosa, the avenue of dismay. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. There is not a loss, not a hurt, not a cataclysm, not a tragedy, not an inexplicable horror that can stand alone any more. Christ has made loss his home, his place: foxes have holes and birds nests, the Son of Man has no place like home. His way among us is the way of disappointment. "If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his disappointment, and follow." Christ has entered and suffered our condition, not at its sunny height, but at its shadowy depth. Where we have fearfully trod, he has already been, and in the nameless, unsalvaged, unidentified dust of all pain and all anguish and all dismay, there stands Jesus Christ, and him crucified. It is only the presence of Christ in cruciform that can give the courage to take another look at disappointment. On the way of dolor he is present. In the hour of accident, in the day of terror, in the moment of death, in the circle of pain-these he has chosen to take upon himself. Our disappointment over what we should not have been and should have done he has taken upon himself.

The wisdom of Christ is the wisdom of the cross as well. Disappointment, even the primordial disappointment of the cross, does not and cannot have the last word. Faith is the capacity to endure disappointment and to find the wisdom to move forward, after loss. Faith comes into its own in the wisdom of the cross. Remember this. Disappointment can only occur for those who hope. One who expects nothing is never disappointed. Only those who see what might be, what could happen, what possibly may emerge, what freely we might be able to do, only these are disappointed. The very gut wrenching anguish of dismay itself proves the potential for a better day to come. In an ironic way, it is the very cruciform experience of disappointment itself that points most tellingly to God. Who hopes for what he sees? We hope for what we do not see, and wait for it with patience. The earliest church admitted candidly its disappointment at the cross, its disappointment in failure to win the hearts of the Jews, its disappointment that Christ did not return suddenly and soon. And somehow, out all these unsalvaged and unidentified ashes, there came the church, the new creation, the kingdom of love and light. We can fully and openly admit our disappointments too, as Matthew's community clearly did, and recognize in them the very hint of a better way, another day, a new creation.

But it is the word of the cross, most of all that forces us to take another look. Christ Jesus did not come to us, heal us, teach us and die for us in order to offer some pithy word games among us. He came to save us from our sin, our worst selves, our most benighted, our mortal frailty. If we lived in another world, one without any possibility of 9.11.01, we would not need a crucified savior. If we sinned not, we would need not. If we died not, we would need not. Christ is calling us to take another look, at and through our year of disappointment, by walking the way of disappointment himself and by reminding us of the strange, uncanny, ironical hint buried in the tomb of disappointment, the hint of a better day, and by announcing his presence and calling us to himself. And he is calling. I was reminded this week that a calling is more a matter of when than what. "I knew the moment I saw you that we should be married." "Then why did you take seven years to propose?"

You can carry your past. You can handle your dismay. Faith is the capacity to endure disappointment. Faith is life after death. But to say more than this we will need to wait for Easter.

You will take your nourishment as you find it, day by day. As that quintessential romantic A Herzen wrote, "Art and the summer lightning of individual happiness-these are the real goods."

Disappointment-you can live with that.

I close with a little song. After a lifetime of loss and disappointment, and the recent deaths of their spouses, two very elderly folks fall in love at the end of a current musical (I Love You. You're Perfect. Now Change.) In the song, SHE SPEAKS, and he answers:

Well at our age that's understood
Flairs up in June
I'll get that soon. No matter. I can live with that.
Well I've had two
It looks nice blue
Well, people change. I find you sexy
No matter. I can live with that.
Sometimes I have to reminisce
It still does hurt, but not as long
Mine never leave
I tell tall tales
I drink skim milk
No matter. I can live with that.
I've got a garden, I grow some squash
I wake up late
No matter. I can live with that.
Next to my Sue is my gravesite
Someday I'll die
And I my Sue
You think I do?
(Together): No matter. I can live with you.

Saturday, March 23, 2002

Hymns of the Heart (2)

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Psalm 91

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High…

Today the psalmist lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity. He speaks from his experience. He teaches, like a grandfather teaching a grandson. Spinning a fishing fly. Boiling the sap down in the sugar house. Watching a basketball game. Watching the sun set. Where and how do grandparents and grandchildren talk today?

In the North Country I knew where I could find my men in a mood to talk. In March between milking times you could find a circle gathered in the sugar house, generations gathered. The shadow of the roof made all seeing dim. The steam from the boiling tank made of the hut a sauna, a steam bath, a welcome warming in the frigid March air. There is something so purely and pleasantly sweet about the scent of the boiling sap. Have a donut, dip the donut. Drink the syrup. Fathers and sons talking…

I do not recall that they recited the Ten Commandments to each other. Our lectionary asks us to remember them today: Exodus 20. But I remember a kind of instruction in wisdom, a little of taught, most of it caught, in the weathered physical closeness of the long north winters. The hymnist of Psalm 91 is exuberant in his desire to pass something on. His is a hymn of trust, one of three such psalms (16, 91, 131), a “trilogy of trust” (Leslie).

It takes faith to say “I do”
It takes faith for babies, too
It takes faith with a terrible two
It takes faith for a teenager, too
It takes faith to make a move
It takes faith to get a groove
It takes faith to build a church
It takes faith to trust your worth
It takes faith to live, beginning with birth

This psalm is called by the Talmud, the “song against evil occurrences”. “Almighty and Most High” are old words for God—archaic, lifting up a sense of transcendence”. The ancients knew of night demons. Waiting through the night. The devil quotes verse 11 (he will give his angels charge over you). Matt 4: 11

Remember some of the features of the psalms:

  • H. Gunkel’s five types of psalms are: hymn, lament, royal, personal, thanks.
  • Writers need editors need publishers: all are present in the Psalms.
  • Rhythm, Parallelism (synonymous, antithetic, synthetic): these give the psalms their beat.
  • There are 93 citations of the Psalms in the NT.
  • The Benedictines recite the whole Psalter in a week.
  • St Patrick, it is rumored, recited the whole of the Psalter every day.
  • Calvin: “an anatomy of the parts of the soul”.
  • The 91st is a psalm of trust, like 46, with some didactic qualities. How fully does the writer appreciate, we might ask, the complexities of evil? We have an easier time seeing evil in others than we do in ourselves.

Given the snares, illness, night terrors, disease, noonday destruction, evil, scourge, wild beasts of this very day, it could be that a sober reading of the 91st psalm, a trusting hymn of a faithful heart, will sustain us this morning. In this psalm you are promised divine deliverance.

1. Deliverance from snares…

Our singer is a person of simple faith. He has one, and only one, word for us: “You are covered.”

I could make, as you could, many complaints about his hymn. He has a dangerously simple view of evil, especially for the complexity of a post-modern world. He has a way of implying that trust or belief are rewarded with safety, a notion that Jesus in Luke 13 scornfully dismisses. He has an appalling lack of interest in the scores of others, other than you, who fall by the wayside. He seems to celebrate a foreordained, foreknown providence that ill fits our sense of the openness of God to the future, and the open freedom God has given us for the future. He makes dramatic and outlandish promises not about what might happen, but about what will be. As a thinking theologian, this psalmist of Psalm 91 fails. He fails us in our need to rely on something sounder and truer than blind faith. He seems to us to be whistling past the graveyard.

And yet, for those who have walked past a graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a country now at war, for a world searching to match its ideals of peace with its realities of hatred, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden traps, unforeseeable dangers, and steel jawed snares of life, there is something encouraging about this simple song: “he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler”.

2. Deliverance from illness…

Our writer is not a philosopher. He is a musician, perhaps, but not a systematic thinker. He has one interest: getting by, getting through, getting out, getting home. So he does not worry about the small stuff. In fact, I have a sense that the psalmist is desperate. His song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead and risk and jump. You have made your assessment, you have made your plan, you have made your study, then you have prayed. Yet you see all the pestilence about you in homes and institutions and nations, so you wonder, is it worth the risk? You are not sure.

This hymn of the heart is one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident. Not certain, but confident. You can be confident without being certain. In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure. Faith means risk. Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith? Our writer is at that point, the point of decision. Once you are there, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away. It becomes very simple. Either God lives or not. Either God is in Christ or not. Either God in Christ touches us by Spirit or not. Either we move forward in faith or not. Choose. And the Psalmist wants his student or grandson or parishioner to choose in faith. So he urges: the shadow of the Almighty (old word for God)…refuge, fortress, shield, buckler. “He will deliver you from the deadly pestilence.”

3. Deliverance from night terror…

Now that war is upon us perhaps we are more direct about our night terrors. Perhaps it is providential to hear this psalm this morning. For today our hearts are heavy. We are a people drenched in sorrow and worry. We are a world at war, a nation under arms, a country which has initiated an offensive invasion. A fortnight ago we may have faithfully differed about whether such an action, considered in the light of the faith this psalm affirms, might be a tragic necessity, as many judge, or an unnecessary tragedy, as others assert. Now the action has been taken, the die cast, the Rubicon crossed, or at least the Tigris. People of good faith and honest heart can have, do have, and will have sincere difference of judgment about these difficult matters. Tragic or necessary? Tragedy or necessity? Especially in this great, expansive and magnanimous church, along a spiritual village green, there is space for many and multiple viewpoints. Here is the liberty which together we cherish, express and protect. Of course we shall continue to counsel and reason together.

As you know, I deeply regret that we as a country have taken the course we have taken. Our leaders have taken us into a new and uncharted territory of preemption. At a minimum, such a profound change in national policy deserves more earnest congressional and communal debate than it has had. Perhaps this will be the preemption to end all preemption. May it be so. But the spiritual consequences of such an action are at present unquantifiable, and leave us in a dark woods. The lasting consequences will be generations deep. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”.

What can we do but go forward as Christian people? Our psalmist is speaking just here to our immediate need. Fear not the terror of the night. Go about your discipleship: pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree, every one be convinced in his own mind. The night is not as terrifying as you fear…“You will not fear the terror of the night”.

4. Deliverance from noonday destruction…

It is in the heart of the psalm that I sense the singer’s desperation. There is an irrational side to his message. Thousands will fall but you will be spared. It will not help us to ask about the ethics of this promise. Nor will it help us to question the sense of destiny involved here. I hear this psalm in another way. I hear it as a father’s prayer, or a mother’s dearest hope. I cannot help but think that this psalm perfectly captures the hope, the visceral hope that is on the minds of our own parents of soldiers and sailors: Noonday destruction will not come near you! I pray that noonday destruction will not come near you!

Every so often I see notes pinned to the coats and sweaters of our daycare toddlers. This psalm is a note pinned to the shirt of a loved one heading into danger. When there is nothing else we can give our daughters and sons we want them to have faith. Faith to go forward, bravely, without being sure of what they will find at noonday. And we are passionately desperate for one hope: that they will come home. And we sing the song without any chords of doubt, because we want to admit none. We make no uncertain sound because we want our beloved to carry no worry, but to be armed with the confidence of the Lord. This is a battle hymn. It is the kind of song you sing to yourself when all about you there is mayhem. If I were a chaplain it is the kind of psalm I might give to a soldier to memorize by day and recite by night in the face of mayhem. “You will not fear the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

5. Deliverance from evil…

The teacher implores his student to make God his place of dwelling, his home. To rest in God, so that all else is secondary. Evil will not befall, or at least will not define, such a one. How can someone escape all evil? We know better. We know that evil touches us all. But this misses the meaning of the poem. The writer is praying! In the same way we pray, every Sunday. Deliver him from evil! Not from some, or most, almost all evil, but from evil! Religion is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of the head. As Wesley said, the mind is the bit and bridle, but the heart is the great horse, the mighty steed of faith. “He will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

“I will deliver him…”

Our psalm ends, as does this sermon, at the edge of a remarkable announcement. Like lightening flashing over a darkened sky, or like a burst of sunlight separating clouds, the voice of the poem shifts. God speaks directly to you, to the human heart. It is a shift devoutly to be desired. All of the speaking, from teacher to student and grandfather to grandson, all of the instructional lines are now interrupted, and on a grand scale, and on a profound scale. Like Yahweh addressing Job, the psalm ends with a divine word. It is a shift, yes, devoutly to be desired. It is what we hope will happen with every one of our children. It is what we hope will happen in every one of our worship services. Frankly, it is what I hope will happen in every sermon. All the rest gives way to…God. Now the fumbling voice of the teacher is replaced by a divine voice. Now the Lord speaks in the first person, and his word is a lasting joy: “I will deliver him…I will protect him…I will answer him…I will be with him…I will rescue him…I will honor him”

When we have nothing else to go on, there is something irreducibly solid, something strong and good--the divine voice in the faith of Christ--to which we may cleave and cling. Finally, this is what brings you to the pew and me to the pulpit and us to the church, the hope that something may be said and heard that is divine, saving, satisfying and true. In the silence that follows all our speaking, like the priestly verses that follow the human voice in this psalm, we may hear something that changes everything. “More I cannot give you than to wish you find your love…”

Our faith is in Jesus Christ. The New Testament recites the psalms more than any other Old Testament book, 93 quotations in all. In Mark, they all refer to or are spoken by Jesus. May his voice touch and heal your heart today.

“Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”
“Hosanna! Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
“The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This was the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
“The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under they feet.”
“One who is eating with me will betray me.”
“They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.”
“All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.”
“They gave me poison for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
“My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?"

Sunday, March 03, 2002

All Of Us Are Better When We're Loved

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Romans 5: 1-11
Ride On

Tuesday, over lunch, a pastor from Buffalo told us about children at church camp. One 9 year old in pigtails chose horse camp last year. I didn't know Methodists ran horse camps. We do. But on Monday she fell off, or was frightened or something. She cowered through the week, unable to get back on the horse and ride. Her counselor just kept on encouraging. Friday was the rodeo. I guess that is horse camp graduation. All week she wrestled her fear of falling, grappling with her desire to be in the rodeo. Dawn broke on Friday, as it does. I loved, really loved, the way the minister told us about the rodeo. The girl in pigtails put herself on the horse. The old glue factory mare stumbled around the little circle made of six orange cones. First the girl hugged the horse's neck and kept her eyes closed. But then, after a little while, she opened her eyes. Then she looked up. Then she sat up. Then she leaned back. Then she straightened her back. Then she dug her knees into horseflesh. Then she clicked her tongue. Then she slapped the reins. The old glue factory mare plodded along. But the jockey beamed. She waved to the crowd. She nodded response to her counselor's encouragement. She rode around the circle again. And again. And again. The rodeo went 30 minutes over schedule. With a little encouragement, a little girl grew up a little.

All of us ride better when we're loved.

Swing Batter

It made me think, later on Tuesday, about encouragement. A few years ago somebody came up with the idea that the Little League champs should play their dads on Labor Day. A picnic was arranged, with watermelon and chilidogs. The right fielder's dad tried not to come. First he said he had to work. Then a trip was planned. Then he felt ill. But his son kept after him. Dad was at middle age and he had always been a simply terrible batter. He could not hit the broad side of a barn, when he was young. Now he was bald. And his glasses were thick, very thick. And, speaking delicately, he carried front side a bit, let us say, of a paunch. The thought of facing fast pitching made him squirm. His son, though, was not to be stymied. Dad prayed for rain, or a hurricane, or untimely death. Anyone's. But dawn broke on Labor Day, as it does. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. 72 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. It could have been San Diego. Distraught, Dad went. The dreaded moment came, his "ups". He stood in the box, remembering every strike out of 30 years ago. He thought of running. He adjusted his coke bottle glasses, and sweated. All of a sudden from right field he heard, in the full throated innocent confidence of his son's voice, "Come on Dad, you can do it, I know you can." He took a ball, and stood tall. "I know you can!" He took a strike and felt a little better. "Come on Dad, I know you can hit it." Over the plate came a fast straight pitch. Do you know how good he felt to see that little Texas leaguer dropping in behind second base? Rounding first, and stopping, he wiped his glasses. He felt good. Behind him a whisper, "I knew you could, Dad, I just knew you could."

All of us swing better when we're loved.

Be Like 43

For the first time since 1976 the Brighton High School basketball team competed in sectional semi-finals, last week. It is a mystery how this happened. A team shorter, skinnier, weaker, smaller, and less experienced than nearly every opponent, somehow succeeded. They grew steadily in ability and confidence. They failed and lost, and in this they learned. Sometimes they won, and in this they learned, too. Every so often you would see, as visible as a cocoon giving way to a butterfly or a snake shedding its skin or a calf standing after birth, one of the players find himself on the court. It was something to behold. The parents, as ever, attributed all losses to bad officiating, and all wins to marvelous genes. Before the post season, the coach sent a personal, hand written note to every one of his players. He thanked them for their willingness to play. He honestly commended their improvement. He admitted how much he enjoyed their company. Then he challenged them to rise to the post season challenge. They did. He wrote personally to one young man, number 43 on the team, "my own son is growing and learning to play ball, too, and when he asks me how to play and how to be, I just say, you look on the court and you watch 43 and what he does you do --be like 43". Dawn broke on the day of the sectional game, and they won.

All of us rebound better when we're loved.


In October of 1997 by brother and I trained to run in the Washington Marine Corps Marathon, around the Pentagon twice, through Georgetown, past every good monument, and out onto the peninsula. The day before I had breakfast with Phil and Joan Currie, encouragers they, at the Pentagon City Ritz Carlton, later to become infamous in another, Presidential and relational connection. Dawn broke on Sunday, a rainy cold morning. I thought I was ready. I was wrong. Maybe it was the driving 40 degree rain, or maybe I'm just older than I think. My brother finished more than an hour before I did. I hit the wall at mile 16. In the rain, I was passed by young men, young women, old men, old women, waddlers, craddlers, wigglers, people in wheel chairs, moms, soccer moms, and a man from Denver running backwards. It was not pretty. Somehow though, I finished. In part, looking back, through the encouragement of anonymous curbside exhorters. I was wearing a red Ohio Wesleyan sweatshirt. It was encouraging to hear a shout, "Go red guy!" It was more encouraging to hear, "Keep going Ohio!" It was even more encouraging to hear, "Good going, Ohio Wesleyan!" But most encouraging of all were the occasional alumni voices, "Go OWU!" The more personal, the more particular the encouragement, the more powerful it is. I made it to the Iwo Gima monument. Chris and I drove home.

All of us run better when we're loved.

A Real Church

At dawn I was thinking of our Bishop and our Superintendent. Violet and Ruthellen were here a few weeks ago. They preached and prayed. Mostly, though, they listened and learned. Then they had some kind things to say. On email, this week, from outside the church I received a kind encouragement. In a note this week, from a visitor last week, I received a kind encouragement. They said, all the above said, in a word, "good for you."

It takes a lot of love to build and maintain the community of faith.

You have already learned what Paul meant in Romans 12:9-13, "let love be genuine".

It takes someone to rock and hug babies. Good for you.
It takes someone to paint and repaint walls. Good for you.
It takes someone to hang doors that have fallen. Good for you.
It takes someone to visit the ill. Good for you.
It takes someone to mail the newsletter. Good for you.
It takes someone to run meetings. Good for you.
It takes someone to speak. Good for you.
It takes someone to listen. Good for you.
It takes someone to answer the phone. Good for you.
It takes someone to recruit someone for all the above. Good for You.
If you think marriage is hard, try church.

All of us serve better when we're loved.

Paul Writes to Rome

In similar beguilingly simple terms, Paul wrote to the Romans. Our reading today could well be memorized and recited, daily, for the course of a lifetime. Our reading this morning might properly be printed and framed for the office desk or the kitchen counter. Our reading this Sunday could rightly be imprinted upon the heart, written on every human heart. This is the great watershed of the faith of Christ, simply stated for you and me, for the dying.

What dim reflections we find of Love, here in the dark, come from the death of Christ. The great peaks in human history dimly reflect this love: Alexander the glory of Athens, Augustus and the pride of Rome, Michaelangelo and the beauty of Florence, Franklin and the birth of a nation. The great peaks of spirit do too: Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine's mother, Katie von Bora, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila. Love is not for the simple, only. Love is for the wise. One of ours, Carol, now dead, alone caught the humor of single phrase, years ago: we think of ourselves as 'temporarily immortal'.

You remember the basic points in Romans: 1:16, the Gospel of which Paul is not ashamed…2:21, our condition, foolish faithless, heartless ruthless…8:33, hope that is seen is not hope…10:9, if you confess with your lips…12:9, let love be genuine…

You hear and receive his basic terms in this central high peak chapter 5: faith, the gift of God in Jesus Christ; peace, the closeness of faith and the absence of barrier; hope, not seen; glory, heaven, yes, but also the full humanity for which we were made; spirit, that which confers conveys conducts all the above, and all of them circling agape, the initiative of God loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

Our business here is dying. Life is about learning to die. Call it, with the ancient church, meditatio mortis. How are we ever going to manage? Our almost interminable avoidance will not, in itself, cut it.

To be saved is to be incorporated "in Christ", that is , to belong to this new and heavenly order, primarily eschatological but even now proleptically present, just as the day is present in the dawn. (J Knox).

Love alone justifies. Love alone bring peace. Love alone provides space in grace. Love alone hints at glory. Love alone outlasts suffering. Love alone is stronger than death. Love alone stoops to give out for the weak and lost. Love alone bleeds on your behalf. Love alone reconciles enemies.

After 9/11/01 we might say, love alone has the grace and power savingly to soften the inevitable collisions (Isaiah Berlin) of personal and social life.

The first Christians even found in suffering something productive. It was their manner of suffering that impressed others. It was their manner of dying, it was Paul's manner of dying, perhaps in Rome, that others noticed:

All of us live and, especially, die better when we're loved.