Asbury First United
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.
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 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.
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.