Sunday, May 19, 2002

A Heart Strangely Warmed

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13

We come to the threshold of a great, new moment in life this morning. On this day, a holy day, several of our middle school youth, guided by their middle-aged parents, will receive the grace of confirmation and become full and responsible members of Christ's holy church.

Middle. You remember the swimmer who assayed to cross the English Channel. Diving in from the white cliffs of Dover he swam with vigor until he was halfway across. He was so tired, though, that halfway across, he decided that he could not make it all the way so he turned around and swam home. A climber went half way up the mountain, and paused, medio-crites, halfway up the hill. When you're only halfway up you're neither up nor down. It is hard to live in the middle of life.

Middle school youth are often quite concerned about relationships, anxious about performance, overly attentive to their changing appearance, and honestly uncertain about the future. You notice, I am sure, that in all these things they resemble no one as much as another remarkable age cohort seated near to them, sometimes referred to as their parents.

I think that particularly the issue of appearance, or appearances, which will dog both groups all their days, is of particular importance this morning. Now I think it is good to dress well for church, and particularly for such a special occasion as this. In fact, I tend to wish that there were rather more than less attention, across our time and land, to the matter of courtesy, manners, and dress. However, the Scripture lesson this morning acclaims in startling fashion a distinctly different truth, which is, simply said, that what matters is not how you look but how you sound. In the life of the Spirit, that is, what counts is not your face but your voice.

To become a person is to find your voice.

You may, and rightly, wonder why St. Paul would start down this rickety path with the shouting Corinthians. Why would the apostle to the outsiders, Paul, who had gathered dock workers in ancient Corinth, a city like New Orleans in its love of the love of the flesh, to a singular observation: God made them and gave them life; soon they would be dead; in the meantime they were a sorry lot; and Jesus Christ was raised from the dead to give them new life, community, heaven, meaning, love, and, oh yes, spirit. To this they responded with the chaotic shouting and disrespect of a wayward middle school class, all tongue and no taste. They shouted! They groped! They misbehaved! They went overboard! If nothing else, that is, it seemed that there was plenty of volume in Corinth.

This morning we are in earshot of part of Paul's lesson for the Corinthians. In a word, he is heard to say, you are mistaken to focus on what you see. What matters is how you sound. What do those around you hear and overhear in your voice?

I heard an editor at Random House explain how he could move through thousands of manuscripts very quickly, and know which ones to publish. "Oh, I can tell in a paragraph or two. Did you ever listen to someone sing? You can tell in a line or two".

Paul is asking his new born church to exchange volume for value, to listen for the good gifts that God is giving, to feel the heart beat of life and love in various forms of speech that are the whole content of the spirit.

Paul gives, too, a concrete, historical measure of spirit. Our middle school youth and middle-aged parents have come of age in a time in which the word spirit and its cousins are as exuberantly pronounced as they are unintelligibly defined. By contrast, for the Paul of 1 Corinthians 12 spirit means speech that does good. All of the gifts of spirit, he says, can be known and measured by one simple test: what do they do for the common good?

Notice the space Paul creates. There are varieties of gifts. Not one bouquet, but a meadow full of bouquets. Diversities, multiplicities, all the many-sided manyness that his Greek culture decried as the enemy of the true and the good and the beautiful - the oneness of truth - this diversity Paul celebrates.

God is giving us gifts all the time, but our ears are so muffled that we miss their value, their resounding power. The gifts which make up spirit are many and different, but are the bequests of a single spirit, Lord and God (incidentally, one of the earliest Trinitarian references in scripture and history). These vocal gifts are to be distinguished from their contraries by a single test: do they build the common good?

You are coming of age within the spheres of influence of many and powerful identity forming forces. Family is one, surely. School and friends are another, it is true. Soon these will give way to college or employer, to nation, to vocation, to community. Everyone will want to bend your ear in a certain direction, and you will not be able to avoid making the hard choices, in all these directions, by which you will become an adult. You will appear in society. School ring, passport, name tag - all these visible signs will begin to define you as an adult. None of them makes you a person. You become a person by finding your voice.

So Paul directs the Corinthians to listen for the arrival of the gifts of the Spirit. You receive your measure of them too. Take the time, over the next 70 years, to hear them and know them and know your part in them.

To one is given the logos sophias, the word of wisdom. Some of you will become wise before your time. Our age disdains wisdom. We prefer willpower. It is willpower, or the will to power, that distinguishes our age, from the raucous willfulness of our music to the undisguised willfulness of our politics. We love things not because they are right and true but because they are ours. Look at the marauders of 9/11? Were they wise? No, but they were willful, and in that combination of audacious imagination and utter willfulness, they symbolize much of our era. But the gift of the spirit is wisdom, the quiet capacity to see life as a whole. Listen for a word of wisdom.

To one is given the logos gnoseus, the word of knowledge. Paul elsewhere questions knowledge, but not here. Some of you will gain and share knowledge. Paul himself knew a great deal. He knew the Hebrew Bible well enough to use it, and recite it as a part of his heart. He knew the tradition of Greek philosophy, the Sophists and the Epicureans and the teaching of Plato, well enough to recall them with ease. He knew the cities of the empire well enough to traverse them with grace. He even knew enough of the craft of leather working to make his living, city by city, as a tent-maker, the original worker priest. I have no doubt that he would encourage our increase in knowledge, in many directions. But the knowledge to which he gives expression here is of a different kind. He means the knowledge that touches and warms the heart, that makes the heart strangely warm, the knowing word. You will know it when you have heard it.

Someone will take you by the hand and whisper, "I love you". Someone will ask you, pointedly, whether you plan to make something of your life. Someone will, at the right time in the right way, tell you to your face that you are forgiven for what you did and you should stop beating yourself up over it. Someone will point out to you a different possibility, a new alternative. Someone will invite you to come to worship God in a church like this one, I mean a real church, a church with history, a church with depth, a church with texture, a church with body. More to the point, some of you will have that voice, that knowing voice, that telling voice, the voice of knowledge. Listen for a word of knowledge.

To another is given the gift of faith. Faith comes by hearing, we know, and hearing by the word of God. As a religion Christianity has yet to come to terms, far and wide it seems to me, with Paul's blunt assertion that faith is a gift, a form of speech and hearing that is offered to some individuals for the sake of the common good. Perhaps the word of faith, upon your tongue, is the gift of the spirit to you. Listen for a word of faith.

To others are given the gifts of healing and energymata dunameon - energetic power. Words of healing and force, fitly spoken, that make a difference for the good, for the common good. Paul strictly measures the spirit, and spiritual gifts, according to a simple rule: does this make for the common good? Our middle school youth and middle aged parents have come of age in an age, over the last twenty years, that has disregarded, in lesser or greater terms, the common good. Our public spaces lack advocates. Our public schools, excepting wealthy suburban schools, lack advocates. Our public welfare lacks advocates. Please do not mishear this: I am proud of our support for ministry with the poor in food and clothing and housing and so on. We do these things because we know as Christians that we grow in our discipleship as we do so. But step back a minute and look at the long horizon here. The fact that the poor of this country are being left to the care of the churches, the single most under funded set of institutions in the land, is a tragic measure of our lack of support for the common good. Open Door Mission shouldn't have to provide beds. That is a public responsibility. Habititat for Humanity shouldn't have to build houses. That is public responsibility. Asbury First shouldn't have to use its resources to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, raise the young. That is a public responsibility, and our public life, starting with our governmental institutions, are not addressing the common good. Somewhere we shifted from a war on poverty to a war on the poor. I have no doubt that somebody from this next generation will find voice to heal and power to change this country's fiscally selfish condition. A few flimsy church programs here and there can never take the place of a communal commitment to the common good. We need to find the courage again to recognize that all institutions, including governmental ones, waste money, to some degree, but that we still need a good deal, a new deal, a fair deal for the poor. Listen for a word of healing power.

To still others are given the gifts of prophecy, discernment, speaking and understanding. I ask that notice only that all of these, like their predecessors have to do with speech, with voice. You become a person by finding your voice.

Our middle school youth and middle aged parents are confirming and living their faith in a Methodist Church. All of the gifts of the spirit, speech in service of the common good, are given to make faith a personal matter. You become a person by finding your voice. This emphasis on personal faith, followed by public involvement, is at the heart of our tradition. It is our prayer that your hearts will be strangely warmed.

The phrase comes from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley lived nearly half his life before he truly found his voice. In May of 1738, on an evening in London, Mr. Wesley went very unwillingly to a worship service, in which the preacher read from Luther's commentary on Romans 8. After the service, Wesley recorded in his journal, he found that his heart was "strangely warmed" and he did trust in Christ for salvation and forgiveness and heaven.

Sunday, May 05, 2002

The Lamp of the Poor!

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 14: 15-21

"After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, and having great authority", wrote John of Patmos so long ago.

I dreamed that such an angel lifted me and carried me to the heart of our home state.

Down toward Binghamton we flew. The angel carried me along the banks of the Susquehanna, "the crooked river", whose headwaters rise in the Otesaga outside of Cooperstown, and run, through many twists and turns to Binghamton. Near Elmira we passed Mark Twain's summer home, he who said his coldest winter was a summer he spent in San Francisco, that nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits, that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, and who preached, always do right, this will gratify some people and astonish the rest. Such a free voice, like the ones we are meant to have. No freer voice can we hear than that of the Christ in John, equable, serene, powerful.

The angel flew west, and carried me over the banks of the Chautauqua, the cradle of religious fervor, word and music and spirit. A vesper hymn we heard, "Jubilate". It is a vesper hymn that any urban church in the Northeast will sing into the next generation, a hymn to the faithful God as the streetlights come on in our communities, as the evening falls in our cities, as darkness descends. I mean the darkness of poverty-hospitals closing, property values in free fall, school systems in decline. It is twilight in Rochester. We have no control over the setting of the sun. But we can choose or not to sing the Chautauqua hymns, the vesper hymns, and to light a lamp. Where else, for God's sake, would you rather do so? It is our free option so to do. From Chautuaqua Lake we flew on, angel and daydreamer. The Christ of John 14 speaks at twilight, before the cross, and is remembered at twilight, before a cataclysm in John's church.

Now we came north to the Genesee River and remembered those buried near her banks. You can visit their graves on Mount Hope - such a fine name for the place in which rest Frederik Douglass and Susan Anthony and others. The Appetizer group is going to the cemetery today. Few of us go to cemeteries often enough. The North Star no longer circulates, but Douglass' voice, a voice of freedom, still does. Is the progressive spirit in Rochester to be remembered only from seasons of prosperity? Or will we find the double courage to be liberal in years, years that are coming, of penury? With the liberation songs of these honored dead in our ears we sailed on farther north still. 'This the Spirit of Truth…You know Him because he abides in you and will be with you'.

All the way north we went, north toward freedom, north toward the border, and there we saw, nestled against the foothills of the Adirondacks, the permanent grave of John Brown, buried near Lake Placid. Far enough north so that his opponents would find no easy way to invade his tomb. It seems so crystal clear to us, 150 years away from the Civil War, that slavery is an abominable horror, not ever to be countenanced by Christian souls. It makes you wonder, as you look down on the revolutionary's grave, just what liberties, now muffled, just what protections, now lacking will seem self-evident 150 years from now. Maybe in 2150 they will marvel, looking back at us, that there was any question of liberties afforded to persons of homosexual orientation. That society could not protect its youngest from abuse, when the abuse came from religious leaders. That very fragile life, in many forms-prenatal, postemployable, extracultural-- had no victorious champion, no advocate. That the mentally ill would wander streets alone, or be victimized in squalid nursing homes. That Palestinians and Jews could not strike what seems from on high to be a ready deal. That such great wealth could co-exist with such awful poverty. You wonder what will seem so crystal clear to our grandchildren. How good to hear, in the upward call of God to Truth that we are not alone, that we are not orphaned, that we are not to feel like a motherless child! We came close enough to Vermont and its exquisite Green Mountains to imagine the young Ethan Allen seizing Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, as we glided easily across the edge of Lake Champlain. Down below, in New Lebanon, we caught a glimpse of the old Shaker village, the homes of the shaking Quakers who sang with Mother Ann Lee, sang of a simple life, "Tis a gift to be simple". Is Mother Ann Lee the heart of our home state, I asked the daydream angel? "Tis a gift to be loving". I could tell the angel was close to saying yes. Those who love Christ are loved and do love, and so know Christ.

We looked west across the Mohawk, where it bends into the Hudson. Larry Hoffman told us, after he had bicycled from San Diego to Cape Cod, that the single most beautiful place in the United States, for him, was found along the Mohawk from Utica to Albany. We saw in the distance the great baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, that memorial to an American sport, and American "religious" experience. Read our seminary teachers, Evans and Herzog, on the depth of meaning in a sport that celebrates such words as home, safe, sacrifice, team. "Could not the sport that the Babe rebuilt be our heart here", I asked? It is an open space that Christ creates in life…but the angel flew on.

Coming toward Rhinebeck - such a beautiful landscape - we did look down onto the other side of the Hudson. There were cadets in formation, all along the West Point parade ground. One is an alumnus of our UMYF here at Asbury First, Scott Alpaugh. Back and forth they moved, preparing to police a dangerous world, in an uncertain age. (Jan and I had driven back from West Point on September 8 last year and in the middle of a hot and tense argument about life in the ministry along Route 17 we came upon a giant white billboard which read, only, "join the clergy!" Truth is stranger than fiction!) "I am coming to you…"

Down the Hudson we careered, coming upon the George Washington Bridge, and the lights of Manhattan. We could see the steeples of Riverside and Marble Collegiate, and recall the voices of Fosdick and Peale. Down the river we came until at last the angel held up and hovered in the New York harbor. A light wind, a gentle breeze caressed us two. There was a long silence. We looked north toward the changed skyline. Now, I thought, in awesome recognition of the confession of loss and recognition of sin, the angel must have brought me to the heart of the region. Is it there, there in the barely cleansed destruction of September 11? No, the angel asserted, no not even there. You had it right on September 9, folks. Your heart, you at your best, you as you want to be remembered, you as God made you, Christ restored you, the Spirit sustains you, the you underneath the other you stands out in the harbor. This is a female figure and a Christ figure-so offensive to some. This is a patriotic figure and a Christ figure - so difficult for others. This is a pre-modern figure and a Christ figure - so "yesterday" for others still. This is a truly Wesleyan figure and a Christ figure - so untidy for many. This is a religionless figure and a Christ figure - so impractical for some today. But this is where the angel ended the flight, hovering over the harbor:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The restless refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the tempest tossed, to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

All of us face our own mortal, personal twilight. We can see that horizon, the last horizon, the one to which God most especially tends, and at whose crossing we most need that Divine Love, all loves excelling. Our community, in a different way, senses dusk. Those who will sing a vesper hymn, will want to light a lamp or two.

Today's Gospel is Christ at night, in the borrowed upper room, on the eve of his crucifixion. Today's Gospel is the community of John the beloved disciple at night, in the face of their utter rejection by their mother religion, on the eve of that most frightening of moments, leaving home. Jesus the Christ stands with candle in hand, He the only truly final Statue of Liberty, He the only lasting Lamp of the Poor. And he speaks, at dusk. Like every great friend, He gives you back your real self. He names you as meant for love, and ready to keep the commandments of love. He promises a Spirit of Truth, so close that he has a sleeping bag stashed behind your couch, abiding, abiding, abiding with you. Love children are not orphans, but have different eyes. You, says He, will see, really see. And you will live, really live. Then you will know, really know. As you keep the commandments.

As V. Frankel said, "there ought to be a Statue of Responsibility along with the Statue of Liberty." In this Gospel, Frankel has his wish. Very simply, our mission is to develop disciples through worship, education and care. You accept your part of that mission by worshipping once a week, by learning in a group once a week, by caring for and being cared for once a week. Like my friend last week who came to worship, went to his adult class, and spent an hour visiting older folks to deliver flowers. And you can do all three on Sunday morning!

I wept to read St. Augustine quoted in the paper last week, in contrast to the troubled church: "When I summon up, before what might be called my heart's eyes, the intelligible beauty of Christ, whose mouth never framed the slightest thing false - then, though truth glows with intensity beyond intensity, unstringing my trembling nerves, yet love of that splendor flames through me, making me wish to renounce all human ties that pull me away from such truth".

This is Jesus Christ, the Lamp of the Poor!

For our time, a few pastoral suggestions about lamps and the poor may be in order. One: Get out of debt. Debt shackles, limits, hobbles. It is the very measure of how much your possessions possess you. Give up…your debt. All debt is bad, much is truly evil. Two: Participate in life by giving of your possessions. Give up…by giving away. Three: Grow in generosity, by percentage, in kind, through creativity. Give up…in increasing measure. Four: Maximize varieties and options in giving. Five: Tithe. Like marital fidelity is to relationship, it is the map, the compass of fiscal love. Give up…with discipline. So, therefore, give up your possessions: debt, self, sloth, doubt, ego. In this way, your life will radiate. You will become, yourself, a lamp of the poor.

And what if all 2167 of us did so? What if we met Jesus, God's Lamp of the Poor, by living individual lives that did shine like lamps for the poor? Then we could live the dream. We would walk in peace and joy along the Village Green of life. Here, take a lantern. It is nighttime. We leave the sanctuary. We walk through the spacious, open welcome area. Then (for this is only a start), we tour the expanded grounds of our ministry. At every turn, in this dream, there is a lamp lit. Look: just here is a new United Methodist conference office, for a combined upstate conference. Look: just here is a pastoral counseling center, which specializes in the needs of women, created and guided by a retired pastor. Look: just here you find a lamp lit on the porch of an Urban Retreat Center, spiritually led by a spirited minister committed to this cause. (And each of these projects tithes from their own budget back to the mother church that created them, thus providing the possibility of further growth. They learned to do so, over time, from the Storehouse, Dining Center, Nursery School, Daycare and others, who were inspired to do so by this sermon! Hey, why not really dream?) Look: just here there is the lamp of the porch of the county wide Wesley Foundation, a center for student ministry. Look: just here a lamp is lit over the door of a Hemispheric Hispanic Ministry Center, from Emmanuel to Amor Fe y Vida. Our lamp leads us further: just here you find a religious drama center, K-12, and an elder care program, and…..Behold Asbury First United Methodist Church, The Lamp of the Poor!

And what Emma Lazarus wrote? Perhaps she had Christ, she had you, she had this church in view:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The restless refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the tempest tossed, to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.