Sunday, April 14, 2002

Jesus and Religious Leadership

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 23: 23-27

One of the cable channels carried in March two hours of documentary footage of Malcolm X speaking in the last years of his life. Through much of the film he is standing under a makeshift tent, in a Harlem park north of 125th Street. He speaks directly, rhythmically, nodding his shaved head and peering out from his spectacles. He accuses his immediate audience of enjoying their chains, like house pets. He excoriates his wider white audience, naming them "those pale old things". He holds the audience for hours.

Fear not, the sermon today keeps the classic form and rule, "No souls saved after 22 minutes". It is hard for us to hear the prophetic speech of the Bible, and to connect it with our own experience. We have few benchmarks. Matthew has stylized what clearly is traceable, through Q, and through its softer parallel in Luke 11, to the apocalyptic preaching of Jesus. It is this kind of statement that caused his crucifixion.

Life is full of inevitable collisions. In a way, you can chart your course on the roadway of life from collision to collision, day by day. They are inevitable, given the differences in life. Young/old, rich/poor, liberal/conservative, male/female, religious/secular, strong/weak, Republican/Democrat, urban/suburban. Collisions are sure to come.

It is the ethic grace, empowered in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, to live to soften the inevitable collisions of life. We buried a man this week who, especially in later life, did so live.

Word of Judgement

Today's sermon arises from a collision of a passage we passed by in Lent, Matthew 23:27, and promised to revisit, with news from this month about clerical crimes. Has there ever been a time when religious leadership was viewed with more suspicion? Has there been a time in our churches when religious leadership has had more stress, less authority, more publicized troubles, less communal influence and less support than today?

To some degree, by participation in the church of Christ, you are involved in this issue. It is not a Catholic issue only, not a celibacy issue only, not a clergy issue only. It is yours and mine too. It is our issue as American Christians in a time of clerical scandal, religious reformation, and cultural decay.

The angriest picture of Jesus in all the Bible is found in Matthew 23, a little ice patch from an older document called Q, in which are frozen forever a few choice words about lay and clergy leadership. Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for religious leadership (Matthew 23:27): "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you are like whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness". Luke's version, perhaps truer to Jesus, calls them unmarked graves, over which men walk, ignorant of the horror beneath their feet (Luke 11:42). As George Buttrick said, "was hypocrisy ever pilloried in a more stinging simile?"

Like most of Scripture, this verse cannot be served up raw, but needs some cooking for comprehension. Jesus here makes the hardest possible attack on the scribes (clergy) and the Pharisees (laity) of his time. The stylized refrain "scribes and Pharisees", not found in Luke nor at all in Mark, is probably Matthew's contribution, as are other bits and pieces of these wore oracles. Still, the very virulence of this sentence makes it almost certainly authentic, otherwise the clergy and laity of the emerging church would have erased it. It is the kind of speaking that brought crucifixion.

In Jesus' time the central religious issue involved keeping clean, ritual cleanliness. For the ancient Jewish community, the primary concern, the concern for salvation, what life is all about, was articulated in a discussion of cleanliness. The Bible repeatedly reports this. How could a good man stay clean, stay honest, when the Romans put their eagles in the temple and their stamp on culture? Who was safe from uncleanliness, with sickness and foreigners and women and gentiles and especially dead men's bones all about? To eat with hands defiled, to live with the wrong company, brought damnation, the worst possible fate. Of all the sources of uncleanness, which the ancient Jews feared, none was more shocking, harrowing, and chilling than encounter with a dead body. All the passion stories about cross and empty tomb only make sense in this light. The least clean point in the already befouled circle of life for these folks was the entombed corpse.

Now the thrust of this innocuous verse perhaps becomes clear. Jesus stands and looks at the religious leadership of his day and says: "You fear what is unclean. Fine. Let me tell you what is unclean. Not the Romans, not the foreigners, not women, not the Gentiles. What is unclean? You. You are unclean, in the extreme. What most befouls life is not Roman athletes, not foreign legions, not menstrual blood, not Greeks nor Egyptians. You are what most befouls life. You are like graves, like tombs, full of death, of bones, unclean, unclean."

There should be little doubt about why Jesus was crucified. He said something deeply offensive to the laity and clergy of his day, who then had civic power. In fact, he said the unsayable. Whited sepulchres, unmarked graves, full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. To some degree, we simply lack the capacity to feel the power, the harsh and raw and savage force of this one verse.

Any of us who lead, now or later, need to beware of this stinging judgement. Nor do we have any trouble following out its consequences: "You lock up the kingdom of God, excluding by what you say others have to say and do, by requiring a certain viewpoint, a certain way of using words, a certain experience. Your converts are prone to bigotry, too many answers and too few questions; they speak with charm and ease and venom. You are addicted to religion not refreshed by it. You spend too much time in church. You emphasize the tiny, the trivial. Trifles take center stage".

Jesus judges religious leadership for not living life, not wondering, not strolling, not kicking up leaves, not hurting over real injustices. Jesus judges us too, for too little simplicity, too much activity. The abused become the greatest abusers. Somehow, religious leadership is particularly prone to this form of death. Somehow, religious striving and service warp, crush, kill the soul. It is hard to stay spiritually alive in the ministry. It is hard to stay spiritually alive as a leading lay person. Harlots, harlots, enter the kingdom more easily.

This is a hard saying! But those who may have been harmed by lay or clergy misdeeds will not hear it as too hard at all. For those who may have suffered so, wherever or however, the pastoral ministry of this church continues to be available for you, including the powerfully healing service of Holy Communion offered each Sunday at 10:00 A. M.

But Jesus would not speak so harshly if there were no grace and no health to be had. He cares enough not only to save the damned but also to save the saved. He loves the soul. Not our politics, not our religious perspective, nor our worthy deeds, not our devotions, nor our churches. Not the outside of the cup, but the soul. He enters the heart, where he finds a stuffy little room with shades drawn and lights low and no air moving, a dank, dead space that time forgot, and he barges in like a bull in a china shop and throws on the lights and casts apart the curtains and jimmies the windows open and decrees, "a clean wind will blow through this soul".

Word of Grace

In grace Jesus meets us to clean the inside of the cup, and to open a window so some air can get in, and to prop us up in the face of a difficult future. It is not easy today to enter ministry, and it is not easy today gracefully to bear lay leadership. But Jeremiah bought his land when prices were down. Jesus spoke of light and salt on the way to the cross. I have to believe we are headed for a sea change sometime soon, a sea change in religious leadership. The religious leadership of the future, if it starts with the inside of the cup, has always the grace of Jesus to count on.

Religious leadership, lay and clergy, has only one primary responsibility, to cleanse the inside of the cup. Your own….there are various words…your own…inner life, soul, spirit, health, wellbeing, integrity, posture, voice, example, faith…before anything else, this is your responsibility. There is so much amid the collisions of life that we cannot influence or control. But our own person, here we can invest some attention. It is not selfish, far from it, to attend to the salvus, the health and salvation of your own being. It is not self-centered, far from it, to look for the ways you can get yourself out of the way. It is not greedy or myopic, far from it, to spend some time and energy and money listening to your own heart. What good is it to live as somebody else's best version of you? That is not the divine image. You are given life. You. Not somebody else's idea of you. Everyone you meet will have a version, ready to edit and print, of who you might best become according to their perspective. Some of this matters, but none of it counts like baptism counts. Baptism is the divine imprimatur, protecting the integrity and uniqueness of what is made in creation and restored in new creation. There is only one John Smith. What a tragedy to sculpt that unique John Smith into somebody's version of John Smith. From such tragic sculpture comes much misery.

But to wash the inside of the cup means several decidedly difficult experiences. It means looking inside. Most of us opt out right there. It means noticing the less than fully cleansed features inside, those clinging cloying versions of you, abusively even if accidentally administered by well meaning or not so well meaning fellow humans, against which baptism battles and battles. It means rubbing off the dust and film which has inevitably accrued, through the collisions of life. It means having the time and leisure and courage to attend to the above. It means realizing that every day we will be some part saint and some part sinner, some part forgiver and some part forgiven. We are not perfect, because we are not perfectible. We are human.

The great grandfather of the little girl we baptize this morning grew up along the St. Lawrence, the son of a border guard. In his long and faithful life he became an engineer, he became a husband and father, he became a noted leader and ran the water system for a large nearby city, he became a churchman and a Christian, he became who he was meant to become, himself. We met him just before Jan gave birth to Christopher. From his five feet of height, he looked up and said, "Can I just call you Bob?" He became something like salt and something like light, not perfect but healthy. May she too.

When the cup is close to clean something else can happen. You may find your vessel filled with a clear calling, a definite mission. I am too veteran now to say much about this. It happens when it happens and it only happens now and then. Why I do not know. But when a person has found their calling, you can see it a mile away. I can point to many examples in this church. You can see it as she stacks the slacks. You can see it as he cooks the cakes. You can see it as she sings the songs. You can see it as he teaches the teenaged.

I never knew Margaret Wilcox. But she had been found by her ministry, her calling. She and Clint visited our visitors in their homes every Sunday afternoon. Many of you are here today because you answered the door, when you might have stayed in bed, or watching the ballgame. She had a calling to do calling. You could see it a mile away and I who never knew her can see it from this side of resurrection. If every one of us cleansed the inside of the cup, and were filled with a distinctive mission, the city of Rochester could not handle the spiritual blaze.


I heard the new Pulitzer prize winner from Buffalo recite one of his more atheistic poems.

It reminded me of Robert Frost:

Yield who will to their separation
My object in living is to unite
My vocation with my avocation
As my two eyes make one in sight
Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future's sakes.

Saturday, April 13, 2002

Coming to the Temple

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Palm Sunday
Text: Psalm 127

Passion or Palm?

When last we gathered here, and heard read the 137th Psalm, I confess my own spirit was taken rather low. All of the services this Lent have carried an emotional undertow, but last Sunday morning brought along a moment of melancholy, unexpected and atypical and profound. Perhaps it was the long winter taking its toll. Personal demons, I suppose, may have haunted the hour. Certainly our month of war, its images wide cast into our homes, has influence. Most centrally, the lingering bitterness of the lamenting Psalm was at work: “by the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept…”

The mood stands out very clearly in retrospect. As time passes, in contradiction to most of what is written and much of what is practiced in our churches, I find the remembrance of worship past more important than its present time experience. The tune of a hymn sung on Sunday and whistled on Thursday…The power of an anthem lifted on Sunday, whose refrain enters the mind again on Wednesday morning…The jolting truth of a prayer fitly offered on Sunday, brought home again along a Friday hospital bed…The sermon’s announcement, leaned on again five days later…I begin to think that what we carry away from worship, or what carries us away in enchantment, matters most. Entertainment lasts a moment, enchantment shapes a life. This may be why children enter worship so easily, and teenagers with such difficulty. My grandmother admonished her preacher, our Ann Williams’ brother, and “give us something to take home”. It slowly dawns on me what she may have meant. What we can carry is what carries us.

Jesus Coming to the Temple

How different, and exciting, and happy even, to be coming to the temple with Jesus in triumphal entry! Jesus rides into Jerusalem to the adulation of the whole crowd, and before Him are strewn signs of victory, the branch of the palm tree. Our last Psalm for this Lent captures the two spiritual elements of Palm Sunday, the entry to the city, Jerusalem, and its central house, the Temple; and the centrality of children, our arrows in the quiver of the future. It is vital, crucial, that, year by year, we walk the way that Jesus walked, coming to the Temple. The 127th Psalm was used to celebrate the temple at the feast of booths, year by year. Its single pronouncement is certainly sufficient for this Lord’s Day: it is foolish to leave God out of account, as Elmer Leslie wrote long ago.

We want to walk with Jesus, to come to the Temple with him, in a chorus of song. If last week we encountered the melancholy of the Passion, soon to come, this is a joyful entry Sunday, and rightly should be every passing year. We want to walk with Jesus, to celebrate the feast of Passover, and a remembrance that the faith of Israel was forged in the furnace of failure.

When it can be done without oversimplification, a little brevity helps in life. I like people who can explain things clearly. Like the man who told me, long after I had the course, that Trigonometry, such an imposing title, is the study of Triangles. Or the woman who explained, long after the formulas, that the calculus just measures the area underneath a curve. Or like Caesar telling us that all of Gaul is divided into three parts. Or like a children’s hymn, reminding us that Christianity is about love. Well, the story of Jesus’ people, coming with Him to Jerusalem, is about the Temple. The sons of Jacob go to Egypt, and at last are freed to enter a promised land. After many generations they build Solomon’s temple. They do so to remind themselves to depend on God and to teach their children to depend on God. But they forget, and so, in 587 BC, their city and temple are destroyed by invaders from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Stone by stone the temple is destroyed. They sing, as we heard last Sunday, the song of lament for two generations, and then, by the hand of Cyrus of Persia, they are freed to return. And what first thing do they do? They rebuild the temple, under Ezra and Nehemiah. This second temple remains all through the life of Jesus. According to Luke, Jesus as a youth went up to the temple to teach the elders. All the Gospels show him there, as an adult, cleaning out the money changers. 40 years after his crucifixion, the temple is permanently destroyed by the Romans. The faith of Israel circles around the temple.

We want to walk with Jesus this week, to follow him up the secluded staircase of a borrowed upper room, a sacred space. We want to walk with Jesus out later into the Garden of betrayal. We want to walk with him before Pilate and before the Sanhedrin. We want, in mournful tred, to walk with him, feeling his burden, to the hill of Calvary. We want to walk with Jesus to the end, until “it is finished”. We want to walk with others who carry him to the place of the skull. And then, when the time is fulfilled, we want to run to him, whose mysterious presence and absence fill Easter morning. This morning Jesus rides into the holy city, and ascends the path to the temple.

Our Coming to the Temple

Our temple Psalm takes four of the crucial features of life, so important to us, and brings us with them to the temple. See them in reverse order.

Do we enjoy the gift of children, daughters and sons? They are a heritage of the Lord. As a former pastor said, they are loaned to us for a time. We do not own them. For a few years we bathe them. For a few years we lift them. For a few years we hug them. For a few years we teach them. Then, they fly.

On Thursday at about 5:30, our Trustee chair and I were walking the campus, and looking at the space that may become our future gathering area. There was Ellen Donovan, our daycare director, with the sunlight dappling, so welcome after such a harsh winter. Several children trailed her and mimicked her, as she made her arms flap like a bird. “Harder, you will take off!”, we said. With the grace of the gospel, itself the freedom of a bird in flight, she continued her gliding path, teaching her children to fly. One day they will. Today, they practice in the sacred space, the open safety, of this church.

Do we build? Unless the Lord builds the house…This is a very timely Psalm for our congregation.

Our Children Coming to the Temple

Planning, careful and painstaking, we are ready to decide about such an investment.

I am personally excited by and passionately committed to this investment.

It is an investment in the future. In the future of Christianity. In the future of Asbury First. In the future of Methodism in this region. In the future of our city and county. Especially in the future of our children’s children. In the future ministry of welcome and invitation and generosity. It is an investment in the future.

Most of us have received much from the investment of another generation in the building of this temple. Now it is our turn. We have received and we have maintained. Now it is our turn to build. But as we consider what we shall do, let us take to heart the wisdom of this Psalm: unless the Lord builds, those who build labor in vain.


I close with a memory. This may be the only Sunday in ministry on which I will preach in the wake of a nationalchampionship by our beloved SU Orangemen. For those of us who suffered through defeats in 1975 and 1987 and 1996, it has been a long, cold wait. But faith is forged in the furnace of failure. Yet, when I see young people learning and playing across such an expansive campus, I remember the investment that made Monday night possible. In 1870, the Methodist church decided to build a college. They well recited Psalm 127. They had been good stewards of what they had received. They found some land where the vale of Onondaga meets the eastern sky. They had a charge conference and they prayed. They made a decision. It is not my alma mater, so I am not overly emotionally engaged. But I remember how it was built. The first dollars were raised, in 1871 and 1872, through the conference, and a decision that all the clergy would donate ½ of their already meager salaries for those two years. That is sacrificial giving. I am not recommending exactly that strategy here, by the way. But the spirit of the investment—the forward look, the steady planning, the moment of choice, the sacrificial giving—the spirit of the investment can be ours as well.

Sunday, April 07, 2002

The Last of the Mohicans

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 20: 19-28
Opening: Survival

Escape, survival, deliverance in the face of real danger-these quintessential Easter themes are found at the heart of daily life, at the center of careful thought and very often in the core of great books of all kinds. Take our upstate classic from which today's title was stolen, for example. James Fennimore Cooper, after he was expelled from Yale and after he went to sea for a few years, settled into his father's estate near Albany. In 1820 Cooperstown was still a frontier of sorts. And Rochester was the Wild West! In Albany they ate with forks, in Rochester with knives in 1820. In Albany they read by candlelight, in Rochester they were not reading in 1820. In Albany they lived in frame houses, in Rochester they had heard of houses in 1820. George Eastman was still 50 years away from being born in 1820. I tell you, it was a different world!

Anyway, in the long winter nights around the great hearth beside the Otesaga, Cooper read aloud to his family. He was a Yale student-did I mention that? In exasperation, one night in late winter, when the ice was melting and the evergreens carried that late winter bluish hue, he threw down the book he was reading and exclaimed, "I can do better than this!" His wife said, "Why don't you?" So he did.

His novel of 1826, The Last of the Mohicans, became the first American novel to receive wide readership in Europe. It is a thrilling tale of adventure, along the Mohawk, of escape and survival and deliverance. The hero Hawkeye (Natty Bumpo), who respects the customs of the native people, Chingachgook (whose son is the last of the Mohawk tribe), the duplicitous Magua ("Le Renard Subtil"-the Cunning Fox)-all are involved in a great journey of survival, amid the calamitous battles between the French and the English.

Did you ever feel like you were the last of the Mohicans? That you alone had survived some set of calamities? That you had made it and were safe when so many others had not? That you alone remained to tell something of the time before? And, while you may be thankful to have survived, you may almost inevitably feel the strange, irrational but very human sense of "survivors' guilt". As a people, confronted this year by calamity that has befallen some but not all, we may still be partly frozen, stuck, in that same irrational but utterly human contortion of guilt about just surviving.

The Easter gospel for you, last of whatever tribe you happen to be in, is that you can survive survival. So you have survived 9/11/01. Good. Now hear the good news: you can survive the fact that you survived. Having survived, you will prevail.

I am not a psychologist, nor the son of a psychologist. But I know that "survivor's guilt" is real. Do you remember the film "Ordinary People" (based on Judith Guest's novel), about two brothers who capsize in a boat? One dies and one survives. Mary Tyler Moore oversees a spotless home where "everything is in its proper place-except the past." Berger, the counselor says at one point: "a little advice about feelings kiddo, don't expect it always to tickle." Conrad, the survivor, very nearly takes his own life, saved at the last by wise, loving, intervening words of his counselor, and friend, who asks repeatedly, "What is it that makes you feel so bad?" The answer, at last: "I survived."

You, too, have survived. Something. Three years ago we were grieving the Columbine tragedy. The kids there testified, truly, that a strange guilt followed their grief. This is the tragic guilt of the innocent, survivor guilt. Megan hid her tears behind sunglasses: "I just feel so lucky to still be here." Greg Martinez said, "You almost feel guilty, about you know, having your kid get out." Their counselor said those who feel guilty for making it out alive "need to be reassured that they can celebrate their survival." (AP, A Levinson, 4/99).

Here is a description of the effects of survivor's guilt: "general anxiety, depression, inability to sleep, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing tasks, an inexplicable sense of guilt." (Borgess).

That sounds a lot like human life in general! This is our condition. "Like the beating of the heart, it is always present." (Tillich). It? Tragedy, estrangement, sin, unbelief, hubris, concupiscence, separation, guilt, meaninglessness, despair, anxiety. Existential survivor's guilt. "It is experienced as something for which one is responsible, in spite of its universal, tragic actuality." (Tillich).

In the light of Resurrection, we find the power not only to survive but to prevail. We find the power to enter a new life, to change, to risk. We find courage that will take us beyond mere survival.

In Toronto there lives the great Jewish teacher, and Holocaust survivor, Emil Fackenheim. Once he was asked, "How can you practice faith in God after the horror of the Holocaust?" (That may be the single most important theological question of our time.) His reply: "I practice faith, in the face of Holocaust, "In order not to permit Hitler any posthumous victories." He survived, and survived his survival.

To prevail beyond survival is to walk in the light. We learn to walk in the light in our own experience, which is the claim and role of Thomas.

1. The Testimony of Thomas

The gospel of John contains several idiosyncratic features. So many are these different differences that one of the great Johannine scholars of our time, John Ashton, has described the book as only marginally Christian-not anti-Christian, not non-Christian, but sailing out beyond the emerging buoys in the bay of second century orthodoxy. John is far more different than we have yet, in Christianity, allowed him to be.

Among these particular peculiarities is the figure of Thomas. Thomas, the twin, was the favorite disciple among the gnostic writers of John's time, near the year 140 A.D. At this point, as at so many, the fourth gospel enters full sail into the cove of gnosticism. The writer enters, though, in order to steal away with the patron saint of his opponents. Thomas has a collection of sayings named for him, sometimes called a gospel, though it lacks the pattern common to gospels. Thomas appears centrally in gnostic writings of the first five centuries of the common era. It is Thomas who embodies what was still possible in John's time, dual citizenship in church and gnosis. Like James stealing Paul's exemplar of faith, Abraham, to make him an exemplar of works, John has stolen Thomas, the exemplar of gnosticism, to make him an exemplar of faith.

Thomas has a crucial role to play in interpreting the resurrection. Like we, and like almost all of the community of faith, Thomas was not at the tomb. He, like we, must rely on faithful reports, and, more especially on faith itself. In this instructional, spiritually moral, or morally spiritual lesson, John fixes him at center stage, just at the end of his gospel to acclaim this Easter message: finally we must know resurrection in our experience, our taste, our touch, our sight, our life. We who have walked away from various crosses, surviving to tell the tale, now need to find the power to survive our survival, to get on with living, to translate the tradition we have received into insights for effective living here and now. Otherwise, all the Gospels, including the most fanciful of all, the fourth, in their resurrection accounts, become entertaining fables like those of Hans Christian Anderson. It is not enough, intones Thomas, that Mary, John and Peter may have seen something. Good for them. Somehow, I must "see" too. I must find, or rather be found in, my own ministry. What is yours? We do so as survivors by courageously living to prevail.

2. Surviving the Survival of Failure

Judaism may have been built on the shoulders of Moses who slew an Egyptian and handled molten tablets, bestowed by the divine. Islam may have been born out of the energies of the warrior Mohammed, the great equestrian prophet. Confucianism may have come out of the mind of the wisest of all Asian philosophers. Buddhism can trace its origin to the unmatched self-restraint of the Buddha. But Christianity, by utter contrast, emerges out of the failure of Peter to avoid his predicted denial. It is one thing to fail three times, another to do so when just a moment earlier you were warned. I should think this would make us think twice about failure.

At Easter, it is centrally Peter who faces trauma like this. He has left all. He has followed. He has stayed. He has loved. He has waited in the dark courtyard. But then-his singular existential trauma-he has denied his Lord thrice. And Jesus has died and Peter has survived, watching the death of his Beloved.

At some point, you are going to fail. Yourself. Your vocation. Your family. Your friends. Most of us today have already survived failure and can tell about it. The question is whether we will survive the survival. Whether we will, with Peter, move on in the resurrection power of faith, to confess our failure, and then to let it be, drop it, let it drift away into the mist of the past; or whether we will make our failure our nametag for the future. Easter offers the power to survive the survival of failure.

3. Surviving the Survival of Loss

You can tell, in John, that John, the beloved disciple, is the most heartsick at Jesus' death. This I believe is the reason he runs first to the tomb but enters second. So excited to believe, he outruns Peter. So fearful of being disappointed, he lets Peter enter first.

We stand with families who have suffered loss, the death of the closest of loved ones. Mother. Father. Brother. Daughter. And there is this feeling, hard to name. Why should he be gone and I remain? What have I done to deserve to survive? So we have survived but we are faced with the question of whether we can stand it. The question is, having survived loss, whether we will survive our survival of loss. Whether we will, with the beloved disciple John, move on in the resurrection power of faith, to grieve our loss, and then move on. Could this be what Jesus meant: let the dead bury the dead? You have survived. Now try your wings, and jump, take the leap of faith and see whether you can survive your own survival. Or would you rather make this loss your permanent nametag into the whole future? Just who do you think would benefit from this? Easter offers the power to survive the survival of loss.

4. Surviving the Survival of Calamity

After 9/11/01, I think there is something we still need to name and tag, as a people. It is this. We have survived. Most college students in 1988 survived the crash of Pan Am 103. 200 did not survive. The rest sensed some survivors' guilt. Such is tragic, irrational, and nonetheless very potent. Most Americans survived 9/11. 2800 did not survive. The rest of us carry around something like national survivor's guilt. We have survived. Now the question is, can we survive our own survival? Can we shake free of this existential angst, at least enough to continue to become the creative, forgiving, helpful people we were made to be, and that we shall have to be with all our power, if we are as a planet to survive? Can we face and name the horror and hurt, clearly enough to move on? I compliment the New York Times for running those obituaries. More than anything else, that has brought honest attention and reflection to this calamity which have survived. You have survived 9/11. Like John's community survived their expulsion from the synagogue, their greatest calamity as a congregation, we as a people have survived. Now the question is whether we can survive the fact that we have survived, not become crippled by resentment and vengeance, continue to bring order with justice, and move forward. Or will 9/11 define our future? Having survived, if we cannot survive our survival status with integrity and balance and grace, then terror has really killed us. Our greatest peril is not that we will succumb to terrorists, but that we will become terrorists. We have survived! We are able to breath, to listen, to smile! Easter offers the power to survive the survival of calamity, to prevail.

How will this occur? In church. But the church is so…. Yes, the church is always both a representation and a distortion of the divine. But how can you love God and hate the things of God? How can you come near to God at a distance from the grace of God? How can you experience God without praying, singing, communing, hearing, giving, serving? No, you will have to find a church. Maybe not this church, but a church.

5. Surviving the Survival of Betrayal

It is still the betrayal of Judas, more than the failure in Peter's denial, more than the loss of intimacy to the beloved disciples, more than the calamity in New York or in Ephesus that lingers in our minds. I listened a while ago to a good friend recounting hurts from 15 years ago. He had survived them all, and survived the survival with one exception. He could not fully get over the sting of personal betrayal. "This night you will betray me." Is there a more chilling sentence in the whole of Scripture? Yet, the church survived Judas' betrayal (not without some serious rage and even revenge as bloodily recounted in the happy book of Acts), and having survived, survived its survival to go on to march under the banner of forgiveness.

There are women and men here today who have suffered serious betrayal. By friends, spouses, teachers, pastors, colleagues. I have not taken a good survey, but I doubt few of us have been untouched by betrayal. Yet all of us have survived. All of us are here, breathing and waiting for the sermon to end. Having survived that awful betrayal somewhere in the past, the question now looms: Can you survive your survival, or do you want to live wishing the betrayal had shipwrecked you? Can you make steady, responsible, honest peace with the abusive fickleness of others, whatever that takes, and then move on without making "betrayed" your eternal name-tag? Doesn't your salvation depend on surviving not only the betrayal but also the survival of the betrayal? Every day you let that betrayal be front-page news, you have given the devil a posthumous victory. Be angry, yes. But let not the sun go down on your anger. Or at least, not too many years worth of suns. Otherwise your betrayer will have defined you. Easter offers the resurrection power to survive the survival of betrayal.


In the cross, we learn to die. In the resurrection, we learn to live.

Our spirit is that of Julia Ward Howe:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy let us live to make men free
Our God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat
He is sifting out the heart of men before his judgment seat
O be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet
Our God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave
So the world shall be his footstool and the soul of wrong his slave
Our God is marching on.

Our gospel is that conveyed in Faulkner's famous words: "I decline to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. It is the poet's privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help his endure and prevail."