Sunday, September 29, 2002

By What Authority?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 21:23-32
A Biblical Question
The other day I stopped at the Seven Eleven for a paper. Three of us waited while a new cashier, perhaps from India or Pakistan, grappled with the mysteries of her computerized register. Her customer was not pleased. He had asked for a pack of cigarettes, which she haltingly produced. The computer did not cooperate. She apologized. He fumed. At last the register registered his bill. He did not have, or could not locate easily in his jeans, enough money. Angry, nettled, embarrassed, he hurled the cigarettes back, scooped up what money he had, and raged on out. The pick-up truck squealed as he shouted and gestured a form of valediction. Our service provider returned to her struggles. The day inched forward. Somewhere, though, the question lingered about our angry white male customer: who died and left him boss? By what authority does one hurl judgement at another? And what one of us has not done so?

The Gospel of Matthew, we understand, was composed, part by part, to meet the needs and answer the questions of the third generation church. Now Jesus has gone. Now Paul has died. Now those whom Jesus gathered have gone. Now those whom Paul inspired have died. Tell us, Matthew, the good news in truth about living together as a church. Tell us about your passion for compassion. And tell us, too, about children and their place in life; about marriage and divorce; about money and its ills and blessings; about heaven; about leadership; and, so today, about authority. What Jesus has said Matthew has noted in ways that are helpful to his church.

At the end of the first century, when this Gospel was written, the still new Christian church, spread out across the Mediterranean, needed answers to big questions. Is the gospel meant for some or all? How shall we determine the truth about this and other issues? Where can we locate the authentic words of Christ? Who will have authority in the church and of what kind will that authority be? Matthew teaches about authority a dozen times in the course of his gospel. Today we traverse the path of one point in his teaching.

A Personal Question

After the Seven Eleven paper debacle, I was reluctant to enter another store. Shopping, in any case, for me is stepping into the forecourt of hell. I need little excuse to avoid it. In any case, I had a sermon to imagine. I had agreed, though, to pick up some more paint. We are painting our empty nest. It is good therapy in an odd season. For the first time in twenty years I can get a good night’s sleep on Saturday night. You would think the sermons would improve. Entering Sherwin Williams, I paused to let another fellow, clearly a professional and experienced painter, or at least an energetic and swashbuckling painter, in any case, one self-painted from head to toe, pass by as we headed for the counter. I needed two gallons of the interior latex paint on sale for $18.00. I knew this coming in. It was my only planned and only needed purchase. A two minute deal. One attendant greeted us. Who is first, his eyes asked. I deferred, to my contestant, in the way you do when you know that both of you know that you were there first. Of course though out of courtesy, you are giving way you know and the other knows that you were first and he will of course readily say so and demur, deferring back. He did not. I waited as 5 different gallons of specially mixed, exotic paints were prepared over many minutes. I fumed. I paced. I glared. I looked up and outside, and there, working in the hot tar and paving the parking lot, was the disappointed cigarette purchaser, and colorful valedictorian, of the Seven Eleven. Now he was outside, calm, pouring tar, and I was inside, pacing, nettled. 25 minutes later my contestant, the professional painter, paid the bill, still looking down, not sheepishly, or at least not sheepishly enough. Somewhere amid brushes and drop cloths and rollers, though, a question lingered. Who died and left him first? By what authority? By what authority, too, did I silently hurl judgment upon him? Who made me judge and jury?

The lectionary harms us again this week. Following from the two parables read September 16 and September 23 comes this dark tale of unresolved authority. With only our public reading of the gospel, you would never know that St. Matthew has just a moment ago, in Chapter 20, delivered a remarkable sermon about authority. It bears frequent repetition. It might well happily, that is, have been included in the lectionary. But no. We shall have to cut and paste.

You remember that in Matthew 20 the mother of the sons of Zebedee asks that they be given special position, when Jesus brings the kingdom. But Jesus takes aside James and John to say that it is to be different among his people. They are not to lord it over one another. They are not to find authority in power, but power in authority, not authenticity in power, but power in authenticity. They are to watch over one another in love, but to remember that responsibility shared easily becomes responsibility shirked. Everyone’s business is no one’s. As Paul told the Galatians in verse 2 of his last chapter, “love one another and so fulfill the law of Christ”; or, as he then interpreted himself in verse 6: “each man must bear his own load”. They are to define authority by hardworking service, by responsible self-giving. Who would be greatest, must be servant of all - slave of all, with a little self-awareness thrown in. As T. S. Eliot wrote: “who would serve the greater cause may make the cause serve him”. Authority raises a personal question.

A Religious Question

My Saturday continued, unaware that its unsuspecting contours would later be fitted to the flow of a narrative sermon. Using the historic present: I park for a moment to be inspired again by the spire of this church. I wonder if the congregation will take the preacher at his word the next day and invite someone to come along, whether or not the invitation is accepted. 24 hours later I am to be jubilantly impressed at how many have done so. It is good exercise. Asbury First is like Bermuda, an enchanting combination of physical visual beauty, and personal verbal courtesy, the best of nature and architecture and culture and posture. An oasis, of sorts.

There is a rising tide of discourtesy flowing over us, to be sure. But it is what comes out of a man, said Jesus earlier in Matthew, that defiles him. I suppose I am too sensitive to this question about authority. In the well nigh radical sphere of freedom that is the open expanse called church, there are hourly authority issues. By what authority? A firmly and rightly posed question. The Protestant churches have hundreds of years of experience trying to balance the needs for order on the one hand and the inevitable corrupting influence of ordering power on the other. So Luther split the church in twain, over authority. So Calvin retranslated and reinterpreted the Scripture, over authority. So Wesley ordained Coke and Asbury, to work in this country, over authority (telling them never to call themselves bishops). So in our time, the endless struggles over theology and order devolve so often into contests over authority. We rightly, from the perspective of the tradition of this church, delicately weigh all assertions about authority.

Otherwise we fall victim to a form of religious blindness. See: like the lectionary, the Pharisees have missed the whole point. Jesus knows they are trying to trap him, to see if he will commit blasphemy. Jesus here falls in behind John, as he did in their births to Elizabeth and Mary, as he did later along the Jordan river at the outset of baptism, as he did in the prophetic preaching of the 1st century in recollection of the prophets of old, as he did in avoiding the charge of madness (“he has a demon—behold a glutton and a drunkard”), as he did at last in death, the baptist beheaded well before the crucifixion.

But the church for which these words were meat and drink, Matthew’s church, and the many others who used his collection, did not miss the point. Jesus had something to say to them about authority. He had known and dodged the dangerous challenges of political and religious authorities. He slips out, slips by, at least for now. It would not be hard to imagine how encouraging and inspiring the scene might have been, remembered in the year 90 AD.

If nothing else, as practical help this week, let us with Matthew and his church admire and smile and chortle at the creativity, imagination and enterpreneurial cunning with which Jesus evades the cops. The middle gospels, Luke and Matthew, are written near and during the reign of Domitian, a Caesar who sent out an empire wide persecution of atheists, that is of Christians, and of others who did not worship the Roman Gods. They also were dodging and weaving in the face of civil and not so civil authority. Some were perhaps being taken, and some dying.

Here is how our gospels came to life:

Faced with the care of widows and orphans, Matthew remembered Jesus’ teaching about the poor and the young.

Faced with the need to raise another generation with discipline and compassion, Matthew remembered Jesus’ teaching about a house built upon the rock.

Faced with inevitable dilemmas related to money and resources, Matthew remembered Jesus’ parables and sayings about God and mammon.

Faced with the desire to share his own fierce passion - saving the lost, reaching the outsider, welcoming the stranger, churching the unchurched—Matthew remembered Jesus’ own parables and manners and patterns of welcome.

Faced with the vital questions of how to arrange and manage the affairs of a nascent organism, a church body, Matthew remembered that Jesus had something to say as well about authority, and that Jesus had run his own risks in the face of authority. Authority raises a religious question.

A Political Question

Meanwhile, along the roads in Rochester, my shopping duties done, I had finally meandered into the office. Coffee on, e-mail dispatched, desk cleared, ah, a moment to meditate and to write. Writing and visiting, two joys that keep me in the ministry. Another of the real joys of ministry with you is the thrill of anticipating our gathering on Sunday. From the layer beneath the skin, in the old bone structure of this church, there is a physical mind that is ever alert, ready to sense, beneath all our pageantry, a full sacrament of love. A Presence. All of the symbols of our common life, even in the great and beautiful space of this sanctuary, are symbols of servant authority. A pulpit: filled by a servant of the Word. An altar: prepared for the eucharistic sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. A robe and stole: worn to signify the yoke of Christ, a burden and light. A cross, a cross, a cross….GONG! My reverie was suddenly interrupted. The Saturday doorbell rings, and in comes an unknown neighbor to comment on the playing of the chimes—is there something wrong with your bells? No. Apparently we were playing some unfamiliar hymns. (Like our sermon hymn today.) We would love to see you in church. Oh, I am distant from religion. Even so, he listens, and stops to question the ringing authority that somewhere, somehow means something to him. He leaves, and in the quiet of a Saturday I am again left alone to murmur and ponder the people of God in worship, to see the faces uplifted in hymn and affirmation, to sense the hidden struggles, to admire the silent courage under duress, to be humbled again by the individual acts of kindness and goodness embodied on the Lord’s day. Here you are. You are beautiful.

I lollygag. The paper bought at the outset of the day and the onslaught of this narrative episodic sermon lies unread. I flip - now a habit—to the op-ed page. I skim - now a habit - the last two paragraphs of each editorial. A Yale teacher is wondering about authority. Can one nation act alone and unilaterally? Now, paper before me and a sermon for eight days hence to consider, I can see and overhear an anxious concern in the hearts of our people. It is related to the question of authority. In August our staff committee met and I listed three concerns I could see on the horizon for the fall: staff development, building issues, war and peace.

War and peace. Ah, yes. Coffee brewed, radio tuned, here is what I wrote last Saturday. Over time, I would covet your responses: In most of our churches, people of faith have usually assumed one of two traditional positions in the face of armed conflict, or as is often the case, a kind of wisened situational combination of the two: pacifism or just war. Often, too, the chief job of the pastor in such a time is to help the congregation think clearly, and also to maintain space for a variety of views within one body. There is much space here at Asbury First. Think of it as an expansive village green. The pacifist position depends upon Matthew, in verses like Chapter 5: 38: You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The activist position does too, in verses like Matthew 10: 34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” How shall we think about this?

I know, given the stature and venerability of this pulpit, that many of you have heard these points rehearsed many times, and engaged wisely and sensitively in the past. Perhaps there is little that I can add. You remember that there have been five basic criteria, from Augustine to Aquinas to us, in the so-called just war theory: just cause in response to serious evil; just intention for restoration of peace with justice, not self-enrichment or devastation of another; last resort; have legitimate authority; have a reasonable hope of success, given the necessary constraints of discrimination and proportionality. I am indebted to my friend Phil Amerson for this summary in a recent Oxford paper, available in our church office. These are difficult times and serious questions. Shakespeare: “Who the sword of heaven will bear must be as holy as severe.”

Response…Restoration…Last…Authority…What has caught me, at least, unprepared this fall, is that it seems that our current course as a country moves in a third way, apart from both the pacifist and activist positions in the history of Christian thought. It seems, at least, that some of our moral debate has now taken leave of the history of Christian ethics altogether, leaving behind both the pacifist and the activist, both the non-retaliatory and the just war positions. What Congress now debates, and is apparently ready to approve, is not a response but a preemption; not a restoration but a dislocation; not a last but an initial resort; not an act based on a communal authority, but a nearly unilateral act. We are told that this is a new age, that patience must be balanced with realism about the threat at large, that in due time we shall be shown the proof for the need of this new doctrine. But let us be clear: preemption, destruction, initiation, usurpation—these have little basis or foothold in the history of Christian thought, to this point. None, in fact, that I can locate, though am eager to learn from you and others. (No proof more profound can be found to show that truly we live in a post-Christian age). We are left, as disciples of Jesus Christ, either to redefine the expanse of Christian ethics developed over 2000 years, or to reconsider our current debate.

Let me ask us in the coming week to assess what we think is true by the mysterious measure of today’s scripture: “By what authority?”

And so...

The rest of this one day in the Day of God was consumed in the act of painting, together, across the quieter expanse of a now empty home. I had no illusions about the authority under which I was set to work. Like the children of Israel I labored a bitter yoke, struggling to accomplish what had been ordered. Mercifully the day ended as we had been invited to two social dinners, both by adult classes of our church and in our church. In the fellowship of this autumn evening we were again connected to our roots in faith. The welcome of a happy gathering, a good meal, a thoughtful program, a generous greeting, a confident service - all these greeted the end of this day. Particularly charming were the clear evidences, in both classes, of active and effective welcoming to newcomers, strangers, new friends. There is a form of authority that is not authoritarian at all. It is the authority of service, to which we are drawn as to our truest home. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant…Even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve.”

The servant welcome of the adult classes came to mind again in our men’s group as it studied "Service" Tuesday, early in the morning (ex libris Dallas Willard), “service”:

  • Comes from a relationship with the divine
  • Is often drawn to small service
  • Does not seek attention
  • Is free of the need to calculate results
  • Serves all
  • Disciplines feeling
  • Is a full life-style
  • Builds community, draws, binds, heals.
  • And now the evening falls. Support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us: a safe lodging, a happy rest, and peace at the last. Given our own abiding, still finally unanswered questions about authority, we can well understand why Matthew remembered this argument. Given our own abiding struggles, biblical and personal and religious and political, with authority, we can well appreciate the elusive ending to this passage. Jesus slips away. He is not cornered - biblically, personally, religiously, or politically. He stands among us, by spirit. He speaks to us, in preaching. He defends and supports and reassures and emboldens us, by grace. But He will not be had. And in that divinely gracious freedom, He saves us from our worst selves and keeps alive, ever elusively alive, the day, way, peace, freedom, the reign of God. It may be, may it not, that all our fuming about authority is only overture to what truly matters, which is not authority at all, but authenticity in the presence of One who asks of your soul and mine, “I will ask you a question: By what authority…?”

    Sunday, September 22, 2002

    What Are Our Patterns of Welcome?

    Asbury First United Methodist Church

    Text: Matthew 20:1-16

    A. The Generosity of Divine Welcome
    It is the generosity of the divine welcome that has placed us here this morning. The whole lesson today, and in fact much of the Gospel for everyday, can be stated as St. Matthew, at the end of this parable which he alone records, so states: “Do you begrudge me my generosity? Are you envious because I am generous?”

    Only a sense of pure excitement, biblical or personal, will do to announce the outset and onslaught of this autumn, this year, this high moment in which, for the first time in its nearly 200 years of life, Asbury First may become, by God’s grace, a welcoming community.

    A welcoming community is ready to receive divine joy, eager to accept divine help, hungry to be addressed by divine truth, prepared to accept divine discipline. A welcoming community is honestly committed to engage in divine service. We are boldly set to go where none has gone before.

    I feel sorry for those who sit, but not in church; who hear music, but not of this choir; who receive news, but not Good News. On Sunday I feel what Sondheim placed on the lips of Bernstein’s Maria (before he had gone down the dark paths of Sunset Boulevard): “I pity any girl who isn’t me tonight!”

    The Gospel according to Matthew, The Evangelist, by which we shall tour the Gospel this year, while not the earliest gospel (said honor belonging to Mark), and not the kindest gospel (said honor belonging to Luke), and not the oddest gospel (said honor belonging to two dozen documents which the church rightly left out of the Bible), and not the most spiritual gospel (said honor belonging to John), Matthew was the most popular Gospel. Hence its place first in the canon, its obvious presence in the earliest Christian writings, and its place of honor in church history. Matthew exudes confidence in divine grace: open, lively, and embracing.

    God is generous. Liberally so. Or so this parable teaches. Agathos is the word - generous, giving, good, loving. God is generous, even past the point of our grudging, reluctant belief.

    The churches use little bits of Bible, lectionary passages, like the one read earlier, on Sunday morning. There is much to commend this practice, which for a second year we are using too. But it has been the death of Methodist preaching, to some degree, because it focuses on the mouse and not the elephant in the room. So these weeks I have been interpreting Matthew, and his lectionary bits, from the bird’s eye view.

    The main point is that Matthew has a passion: invitation. He invites you to share the divine generosity.

    The main point is that Matthew is opening a gift wrapped package for this church, the relatively undiscovered passion for compassion, for sharing good news.

    The main point is that Matthew, in this parable as in virtually all, celebrates the generosity of the divine welcome. So, this parable is about that generous welcome, made in the teeth of economic justice. But aren’t they all, all the parables, really about this same announcement? God is like a man who goes out and sows bushels of seed. God is like a fisherman who casts out a net, wide and open, and catches the kingdom of heaven. God is like a patient king who forgives. God is like pearl giving, treasure finding hunter. God is like a boss who appreciates talents. God is like a shepherd hunting for a lost sheep. All these in Matthew! And when we add a prodigal son, a good samaritan, a lost coin - a Lukan parable set to match, it is the same astounding word: generous, generous, generous to a fault is the gospel of divine welcome. If we read Matthew right, in the large, he would rather learn from one bird how to sing, than to teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.

    Methodism is at a crossroad. What is our passion, our reigning desire? We were born out of two proverbs: “the world is my parish”, and “go on to perfection”. Breadth and depth. Wesley said them both. They both have biblical merit, and traditional root, and reasonable appeal. But, in shove and push, which matters more? Breadth or depth? We have many deep passions: history, liturgy, architecture, music, education, service, through which are going on to wholeness, that rounded wholeness that is a sign of the holy, the perfect. Is this the love we had at first? Is this the spirit that conquers flesh? Is this the work of which Wesley said: spend and be spent in it?

    I asked Jane Amey, whose mother carted her around the creation of the unified Methodist Church in the 1930’s. Which is it, Jane, which is the more important? World or perfection? She thought a minute and, blessedly, said: “the world is my parish” is the more important, if you have that you may get the other.” So right, so good, so true

    B. The Promise of Human Welcome

    1. Welcome Space

    Therefore, we do believe in God whose gracious love is open, lively, and embracing. Hence we want to become a welcoming community, and to take the next step toward making our church home as fully welcoming as possible - welcome space, gathering space, youth space, family space.

    Let me pause to relate a short, possibly humorous story. Last winter an older man, a first time visitor, talked with a greeter and a pastor in the cloister. “Can you direct me to the rest room?” he asked. We started excitedly to speak to him about some future possibilities, including the hope that a new rest room might be located between where we stood and the parking lot. We began to describe the other welcoming characteristics of this new space: greeting area, places for coats, washrooms, space for fellowship and coffee, a library table, a movable altar for informal services, places for meeting and intimate conversation. He offered an elfin grin, complimented the plans, and said: “That sounds great. I’m impressed. But I really can’t wait that long - where is the men’s room?” To welcome the stranger is as central a joy, task, and calling as there is in the Christian life.

    We have experienced God’s lavish, uncritical, personal love for us, in the passion and presence of Jesus Christ, and we want to share that love as regularly and warmly as possible. The church leaders who have been assigned to address space issues for the future think that the time may have come to prepare our campus for the 21st century, especially in accessible welcoming, gathering, youth and fellowship space. In other words, it may be time for Asbury First United Methodist Church to add a welcoming area, a “family room” to our church home. Our house already has a “formal parlor” (sanctuary), a “dining room and kitchen” (Fellowship Hall) and “bedrooms” for individual groups (adult classes, Sunday School, choirs, campus based ministries, staff, denominational offices). We lack what is essential for welcoming, fellowship and family life: ample, gracious, open, lively, embracing space in which to welcome the stranger.

    People come to church with many needs and questions. Two are regular and primary. 1. “Can you help me find meaning in life?” 2. “Can you help me raise my kids?”

    Regarding our current plans, it seems to me that the welcoming space addresses the first of the above questions, and the youth space addresses the second.

    The gathering or welcoming area, in particular, allows the church space to “be”, to live together, to discover meaning in the simple and direct way of sharing one another’s life journey’s and life stories. Guided by the Holy Spirit and focused on the Lord Jesus Christ, we can help one another find meaning in life: in fellowship time on Sundays, in gatherings after and before services, in receptions occasioned by particular life moments, in smaller group sessions, in some devotional moments, in the interstitial connections that occur coming and going as a church, in enjoyment of art work, in the powerful experiencing of meeting another soul in the confines of a beautiful space. The new welcoming space would meet these needs.

    2. Gathering Space

    Our mission at AFUMC is to develop disciples through worship, education and care. This plan is designed squarely to address that mission as so stated. In worship, for instance, potential advances in the Sunday morning experience of worship as it is intertwined with fellowship are addressed in this plan: simply put, we would not build a church today without connecting the sanctuary with ample gathering space, so that vertical expression of God’s transcendence and horizontal trust in God’s immanence are both affirmed. Whether or not this plan meets that dual need, the congregation will need to say. Whether the need so met is worth the price, the congregation will also have to say. But the plan is directly aimed at the mission of the church at this worship/fellowship point. Likewise education, particularly youth discipleship, is addressed here, downstairs. Likewise care, especially in the full use of accessible spaces, certainly the gathering space for funerals, weddings, meals, small groups, is addressed here. In short, the whole plan was consciously and systematically created around the clearly stated mission of the church. Said one leader, “I think the basic issue is whether as a church family we want to add a family room or not. The last two places we have lived, as a family, one parsonage, and one our own house, we have done so. We have been glad we did, though we would not have ever gone into debt to add them.”

    Some general, further thoughts about our campus master plan (most of this most have heard before, or many times before):

    a. The building serves the mission of the church (see above), and supports the ministry of the congregation. We want a ministry-centered building, not a building-centered ministry. “A mighty fortress is our God”, not “our God is this mighty fortress”. Hence, any physical property issue is always a level B issue, not a level A issue.
    b. Our first priority is people: their health, nurture, safety, forgiveness, growth, discipleship, salvation, and eternal rest. Within this, our first priority is new people, those who are starting their course in faith, and beginning their walk as disciples.
    c. Further, as this plan comes forward, it is clear that we “could” do this. The question is, when and how does the needle move toward, “we should do this”. It is not a must. It is a may. When does it become a should?
    d. This plan is a high B. It touches the heels of level A issues like generosity, stewardship, welcoming, fellowship, evangelism. To enact it, we would have to become a tithing church. This is good. To desire it, would have to become an inviting church. This is good. To construct it, we would have to become a united church. This is good. All good, and all hard.
    e. On stewardship. For this plan to work well into the future discipleship of AFUMC, we would need to model good stewardship: no debt, every home committed, carefully planned, 50% of the money in hand before the full appeal to the congregation. At a minimum, this plan would cost the average giver 6 times the gift made for the roof.
    f. 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 nightime. 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) 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!

    3. Youth Space

    There is no one who appreciates and needs welcome and welcoming space more than a new teenager. Listen to the following testimony from one of our former youth group members:

    “Good Morning. Hopefully you have noticed so far that the theme of this service is the concept of a journey. If you haven’t, I’m telling you now. A journey can take on many forms: A journey is taking a trip, or finishing a novel. A journey is running in a cross-country race. For any of you that have run cross-country, you know that it is physically painful, and emotionally straining. Similarly, a journey is staying awake through an entire sermon on an early Sunday morning. Everyone encounters opportunity to journey every day. In thinking about this topic, I came to the conclusion that my life is basically a series: some good, some not so good, but all with something to offer. I want you all to look back about four years to the summer of 95. Ben Hill as a pre-freshman 14-year old. It may astonish some of you to know that I was not the robust man you see before you. I was about 5 feet tall with big glasses and a baseball cap. It was at the beginning of that summer that my parents told me that I was to go on a mission trip with 25 of the youth from our soon to be new church. Now, it’s not to say I wasn’t grateful for the invitation, but the idea of spending a week with 25 kids, mostly older than me that I had never met before, was not exactly appealing. Nonetheless, my parents insisted, and comforted me by saying “Everything will turn out all right”. Well I was glad that they believed that, because I sure didn’t. I remember arriving, and having an awkward conversation with Chris Zimbelman, who is now a close friend, while carrying boxes that I thought were pretty heavy, down to the youth room. I remember being embraced by one of the parents of a youth on the trip. For the sake of confidentiality, we will call her R. Barrett. The week that followed was one of the most interesting weeks of my life. For me it was like going to summer camp for a week, except that everyone else there had known each other for years. I couldn’t tell you who the first friend I made was on that trip, I don’t remember. It was as if I had been absorbed into the group through osmosis. I cannot begin to describe to you the importance of that journey. It increased my comfort in a new place, and allowed me to know someone in the hallway at school. When I look back, I can’t think about my start in Rochester, without thinking about that trip.” (For the sake of confidentiality, we will call the author Ben Hill)

    4. Family Space

    It may be that the time has come for Asbury First United Methodist Church to add a family room to our church home. As we said earlier, our house already has a “formal parlor” (sanctuary), a “dining room and kitchen” (Fellowship Hall) and “bedrooms” for individual groups (adult classes, Sunday School, choirs, campus based ministries, staff, denominational offices). We lack what is essential for fellowship and family life: gracious, open space, welcoming and inviting space, a space to meet and greet and watch our children grow, a place where men younger and older, women newer and more veteran, people single and married, children and grandchildren and great grandchildren can get to know each other, and where, before and after and outside worship, the people of God can justly welcome newcomers. Is it time to add on a welcoming, family room?

    5. Supporting Advantages of the Project
    a. The project advances our mission of developing disciples through worship, education and care. Our worship of the transcendent God can occur in tandem with devoted intimacy with one another. Our education of youth can receive needed new space. Our care of one another finds a place where we can, as a full congregation, “watch over one another in love”.

    b. The project enhances our vision of becoming a spiritual village green, the religious epicenter of the county.

    c. The project teaches good stewardship to another generation by encouraging tithing, rejecting debt, requiring 100% involvement, and perhaps using up to 10% for missions or for a missions endowment.

    d. The project is unifying for a broad and diverse congregation that needs more unity.

    e. The project helps us continue to grow, as churches across the country testify.

    f. The project expands our youth space.

    g. The project is difficult, and will cause us to stretch and use new muscles, and to get in good shape.

    h. The project builds on the care and maintenance of the last 7 years (new roofs, parking lot paved twice, Campus Care Coordinator hired, new sidewalks, Teak Room, new porch 1050, improved entrances to 1010 and 1050, upgrades in education wing, Dining/Caring Center expansion, refurbishment of 1010 and 1050 interiors, computer network installation and upgrades, 1010 apartment rehab, sound system twice, organ enhancements, carillon replacement, landscaping work, youth room improvement, etc.).

    i. The project meets three primary needs as identified by the congregation: accessibility, expanded youth area, and welcoming space.

    j. The project provides for a gathering space envisioned in the 1950’s, approached in the 1980’s and imagined again in the later 1990’s to be used for: welcoming newcomers on Sunday morning, deepening fellowship across generations,interests, and groups on Sunday and during the week, settings for informal fellowship weekend and weekday, place for alternative worship space for non-Sunday services, and in general open space like that provided by a village green in a small town.

    k. The project comes at a time of significant growth in worship attendance, membership, and ministry.

    l. The project honors and enhances the architecture of the past while addressing the emerging needs of the future.

    m. The four primary risks of the project are debt, discord, deflection, and decay. Debt can be avoided by raising the money before spending it. Discord can be avoided through laborious, careful and lengthy processes of discourse. Deflection from our mission can avoided by keeping the project in perspective. Decay in our future ministry will be avoided depending on the kind of leadership, primarily clergy leadership, in the next generation, which this kind of forward thinking project may rightly inspire.

    6. Thoughts on the Process Moving Forward

    a. As a subcommittee of the Board of Trustees, who corporately bear responsibility for our physical plant and invested funds, the proposed plan from the Master Plan Implementation Committee (MPIC) goes first to them for their consideration, rejection, approval, or emendation. It goes without saying that they may do what they want, as and when they want, with our work. I believe they both need and deserve to take ample time to analyze this plan that is fifty years in coming and will have 50 years of effect. (Completed 2001)

    b. Ad Cab next needs to see whatever report, in any shape they desire, that the Trustees would like to provide. Ad Cab too, from a broader programmatic and ministerial perspective, will want and need time to pray and think through the plan, as proposed to them. (Completed 2001).

    c. At the direction of the Ad Cab, an Advisory Council meeting could then perhaps be convened, for full church advice and counsel. Such a meeting could either initiate or culminate a traveling presentation of the plan, for consideration, comment and alteration, throughout the adult classes and group life of the church. The full leadership staff would provide one of these settings. (Completed 2002)

    d. At this point, a time of prayer, personal and congregational, well-developed and well-practiced, is crucial. Perhaps our Spiritual Life Committee could help guide us here. I have in mind a congregational letter, seasonal prayer vigils, and active work by the Intercessory Prayer Group, so that the whole process will continue to be immersed in serious prayer. The ‘MPIC’ devotions, so well crafted over these months, might at this point be compiled, printed and distributed for fuller use. (Informally addressed)

    e. If consensus seems to be building after steps 1-4, then a feasibility study (approximately 2 months, and $8,000) would be appropriate to test what real, measurable financial support, from the inside the existing congregation, is present and has developed. For a campaign of this size, scope and moment, I would not personally choose to proceed without a professional, experienced, autonomous feasibility study (a kind of ‘future audit’). The recent Sunday reading from Luke 14, on counting the costs and resources for projects, seemed to be oddly appropriate for us. (In process, Autumn 2002)

    f. Our District Committee, and the District Superintendent and Bishop, would need to review and approve, modify or reject the plan (assuming the cost of the work exceeds 10% of the current property value). I do not see this as a lengthy or difficult step, but it is an important one to keep in mind. (tbd)

    g. If at this point, the questions of “if”, “what”, “when”, and “how” have responses that carry solid consensual congregational support, then a plan, including a plan for funding, and a plan for building, would rightly come before a Church/Charge Conference, heavily communicated, and perhaps further prepared by another Advisory Council meeting, and other smaller group sessions. Such a conference would be at the request of the Pastor-in-Charge, and at the direction or discretion of the District Superintendent. There may be still other process issues (Preservation Board, etc), and some of these suggestions noted above may prove to be inappropriate, once we are underway. (tbd)

    h. In the end, whatever we do or do not do, may those looking back from 2010 or 2020 on our process marvel together: “See how they loved one another through it all, and see how the project further enhanced the church’s growth”.

    7. A Personal Word

    I believe that our plans, to the best of our ability to judge this sort of matter, are the right thing in the right way, and close to the right time. I support, personally and pastorally and publicly, the plan to add this welcoming space. Now it may take us a while to get finished. After all, in some sense this plan has been on the map for 60 years. So we shall have to gauge the time as we go. But let us make our start. As you well know, I cannot do this for you and I will not do it to you. Here is what I mean. I can think of a church that built a great building, but relied on their pastor to raise the money. He did. He did it for them. They missed the chance to learn to tithe, and went forward with generations of weakened stewardship. It will not help to do it for you. I also can think of a church whose minister made peremptory choices about symbols, choices that may have been right. He did. He did it to them. They continued for generations to harbor a resentment about and a distrust of pastoral leadership. It will not do to do it to you. But I am eager, and I believe we are eager, to do it with you. We can do it. We should do it. So let us begin. Let us this week, individually and in our groups, set apart times for discerning prayer about this question: “What are our patterns of welcome?”

    Sunday, September 15, 2002

    Where Is Your Passion?

    Asbury First United Methodist Church

    Text: Matthew 18:21-35

    Jim’s Passion

    Thirty years ago I was invited.

    I was that morning invited out of a European History class into an adventure called the future. I met that day a college admissions recruiter. With our best, all our heart and mind, we all represent something. In breath, in mind, in body, today, you represent something, someone. Who? What?

    Jim was perhaps 25, blond and tanned, dressed by the prep school model of the day, happy and easy, and he spoke quietly to me about college.

    What, he asked, was my interest? He asked, straight, as later I will ask you, straight, about your passion. Where was I interested in going? Tufts - academic strength. Air Force Academy - western and different. Syracuse - Methodist (sort of). He listened, and then quickly, joyfully, happily explained how I could have them all, on a full scholarship, at a small Methodist college in Ohio. He neither pressed, nor pushed, nor persuaded. But he did make an invitation: “Why not come to Ohio Wesleyan?” A small private, academically strong, midwesternly awake, and Methodistically straight. (As my friend’s daughter says, “A small Methodist school for small Methodists”). Kindly, honestly, with a real and cool passion for his mission, he invited and welcomed me. In a simple 30-minute talk, my life changed for the better, and that of my family for the better, and that of my children for the better.

    No one I knew had ever been there, none of my relatives were OWU graduates, nor any of my friends. But when the letter came, a month later, with the promised scholarship, and a note in red ink at the bottom, “Bob, I loved your essay - come to Ohio Wesleyan” - I just sent the card back in a moment, and accepted, in fact - see how nonchalant we were back then before the search for a college became the quest for the Holy Grail - I accepted though I had not even seen the place, or heard any other voice but Jim’s.

    I asked Jim that day if the school had a sailing club. “O yes,” he said, “I am the advisor.” You know a sailing club in mid-Ohio, where there are no lakes and very little water, is like a snow skiing club in Alabama or a mountain climbing troop in Iowa. Yet, for a month, until I found another sport, I paddled around with Jim and others in the brown mud of the Olentangy. At Thanksgiving, headed for Connecticut, Jim offered a ride and dumped me out at the Carrier Circle.

    Even then, somewhere down under, I knew I had been given a gift. And later my sister, now a lawyer, came too. And later my sister, now a mid-wife, came too. And later my daughter and son and son came too. All out of a cool passion and one simple invitation. And now with three children in Delaware, Ohio Jan and I should probably buy a house there and rent an apartment here.

    And a month ago, 30 years within weeks of my talk with Jim, our daughter took a new job, doing something for which she has real passion. Oh, I wish I could say that she has Jim’s desk, office, route, territory and sailing club duties. She hasn’t, much as that would have helped the sermon, which always needs as much help as we, in love, can give it. But she has something of his. She has his passion. And this week she will sit with high schoolers in Cleveland and Chicago, and with a cool passion she will ask about theirs, as I will today ask you one thing about yours. In just a moment. While I believe this word for you, plural, to be a divine word, that belief is not based on my so-called insight, imagination, experience or wisdom (Of which there is plenty to be sure!!!). The divine invitation to your passion emanates from this year’s evangelist, St. Matthew, from the long history of his Gospel in the church, and from your life today, potential though rather than kinetic. That is, this invitation to you plural, to you as a congregation, excitedly to unwrap the divine gift of a new passion, comes from text, from tradition, from today.

    The Passion of St. Matthew in the Text of the Gospel

    St. Matthew’s fiercest passion, hidden from you in this sermon for a moment in order to build some interest and suspense, wells up out of the scripture for these weeks in September. Matthew holds a very high view of the church, far higher than we expect, far higher than yours and mine, I could add. In waxing religion today, the church is largely an expedient - to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then, if there is time, to be loved. If the horse is dead, dismount, says one. In waning religion, the church is often also an expedient - though here for causes more progressive than traditional, interests more mental than physical - to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then perhaps loved. This the fundamentalists and radicals have in common. What did Augustine say? We use what we should love and we love what we should use. Yet for Matthew, the church is empowered: with the means of lasting forgiveness (emphasized in today’s harsh parable), with a mind for sound ethics, and especially with the real presence of Christ: did we really hear the word last Sunday, “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them”?

    Matthew trusts this risen Christ and this voice of the risen Christ to free him to follow his bliss, to succumb to his passion. And what is Matthew’s passion? What passion pulses through the parchment of this popular gospel? What force of energy is on the “kiviev” on the lookout, on the wing, hanging ten, parachuting in, ready to climax here today? It is the passion of an evangelist who finds every blessed possible way to connect a Jewish Jesus with a Greek world. It’s the passion of an evangelist who enlists an old missionary teaching tract (“Q”) to spread inspiration, truth, and joy. It is the passion of an evangelist who portrays your Savior among pagans, amid harlots, appended to the cross, about the resurrection work of compassion. It is the passion of an evangelist who sums up his Gospel this way: “Go make of all disciples”. Here is this year’s Gospel: the point of St Matthew the blessed evangelist is that he is an evangelist. The whole point of the gospel of St Matthew the evangelist is that he is an evangelist. He it is, not me, he it is, not we, who points you, Asbury First, to a new passion, one you plural have not intimately known. Matthew’s passion? Seeking the lost! Churching the unchurched! Expanding the communion of saints, the only real circle of divine love!

    This Passion in Tradition

    So Matthew has been read, now and then. I turn the historians among you to the poetry of Dionysius the Aeropagite, the archaeological preservations of St.Helena, the mystic fervor of St. Theresa of Avila, the fecundity of Susanna Wesley, the marvelous zeal of Sojourner Truth, the compassion of Jane Addams, the alacrity of Berta Holden, the diligence of Margaret Wilcox, the voluminous voice of Violet Fisher. Some men helped along the way too.

    This same passion moved Wesley from the Anglican tree, shipped Asbury out from Brittany, placed the Gospel in a far country, and saved the souls of you and me.

    One outstanding fact: by far and very far, Matthew is the most frequently quoted gospel in the first three centuries of the church’s life.

    Your New Passion

    I know the taste - I have savored it before. I can recall the landscape -I have seen it before. I want you to come with me. It is a long way from here and many days journey, some at night, and some in the rain. There are mountains to ascend and rivers to ford. Some grasshoppers will look, for a time, like giants. It may take up to 40 years. You will feel like you are in a wilderness. I cannot do it for you and I will not do it to you. But I can do it with you. You will have to follow, because as a church you have not been there before. You have been in many great lands - we have been in them together. The land of fine music, passionately played. The mountain range of excellent preaching, passionately presented. The high sea of fervent learning, passionately engaged. The broad river of mercy, in soup and socks, passionately provided. The stately garden of architectural splendor, passionately defended. The broad plain of investment, passionately guarded. The principality of excellence of care, passionately promulgated. The sphere of citizenship, passionately prepared. Yes, you are a great church, God’s chosen people.

    But have you forgotten the love you had at first? Have you begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh? Hear the Gospel! St. Matthew the evangelist, all this fall, will invite you to succumb to another passion, one you have not yet fully known. Not in the guilded age of progress? Not in the poetic artistry of Cushman? Not in the grand style of Crossland? Not in the programmatic varieties of the eighties? Not in the steady though stodgy growth of the last few years? No.

    There is a divine disappointment and, embedded there, a divine invitation to us, here today at Asbury First: Come to the land of milk and honey, the milk of compassion and the honey of welcome. Discover, careful now as you unwrap the gift, the pure joy of a passion for compassion, a desire, of the first water, to welcome the stranger.

    An Invitation

    Where is your passion?

    Here is a divine gift, Matthew’s evangel. Come to church having looked all week for a chance to invite another along. Come to prayer having prayed through the week for someone alone. Come sing having recruited another singer and having sung the praise of Christ. Come to enjoy those happy in God by making someone else happy too. You talk too much to people already well known to you and Jesus. Here: invite, invite, invite, invite, invite. You only truly have what you possess well enough to give away. You only truly know what you have the desire to share.

    This church is a rocket ready to take off. What is a rocket for? To polish and protect? To admire and praise? To dust off and inspect? To consider and critique? A rocket is meant for flight, and there is hardly anything in life more fun than the feeling of the rocket launched and sailing, on a saving trajectory, and we are on the edge, the cusp, the shoreline of such a launching! Houston, we are ready for the ignition that comes, and will come to this poised church rocket, when you risk with cool passion, an invitation to another. Let us agree, across the board, not to come to church again until we have invited someone else to come, too.

    Sunday, September 08, 2002

    What Have We learned?

    Asbury First United Methodist Church

    Text: Matthew 18:15-20

    My friend mentioned that this had been a splendid summer, hot and sunny, warm and exciting, splendid, with one exception. Exception? It ended.

    We go home in the summer. Home to past associations, home to tangled relations, home to memories, home. I spend some of each summer walking along a village green, attended by ghosts. We talk. It makes for some confusion among the ordinary population. The ghost of Marilyn Loop greeted me. There must have been some trouble there, I thought. In the fifth grade, she asked the teacher, Mrs. Klingensmith: “If God created everything, who created God?” A long pause. A pregnant silence. The clearing of the throat. “I guess we will have to ask the minister about that”. I have been waiting 40 years for the answer, with none apparent, and now I AM THE MINISTER. Hurt makes us ask things.

    We deposited our last financial dependent at college. In the morning he met a classmate who had been in the same school for second grade. What brought Dad to Syracuse in 1988? I went that fall to work with the study abroad program. Oh, oh, oh my goodness. Yes, I still write to the families for my own sake. I agree. The Chancellor never recovered. There are so many questions about Lockerbie, about life. Hurt makes us ask.

    Jan and I had dinner with Elie Wiesel in 1978, before he was famous. He spent 10 years silent after Buchenwald, and then wrote his Night. He tells about a few of the deaths in the camps, out of millions. I tried to copy in his scene about the boy’s death, but somehow the words would not stick to the page of the sermon. You will remember the scene anyway, the hanging of a young boy. Tragic, evil, wrong. And how it ends: “Behind me I heard the same man asking: Where is God?” Hurt makes us ask.

    And now Lockerbie has become 9/11 and the Syracuse 200 plus the New York 200plus. What have we learned?

    1. Have we learned to revere freedom?

    In the past twelve months we have recovered a deeper respect for the temporal freedoms we have inherited in this great land, as citizens here: freedom from the tyranny of kings, from the bondage of slavery, from the threat of dictatorship, from the despotism of ideology, from the fear of terrorism. We continue to have before us our President’s fine phrase, “We shall meet violence with patient justice.”
    In the past twelve months we have also recovered a finer sense of the divine gift of freedom, from God who loves us into love and frees us into freedom. Desmond Tutu: “God must surely love freedom, for God will allow us freely to go straight to Hell if we so choose.”

    2. Have we learned to recognize sin?

    Sin may be out of our lexicons, but it is not out of our lives. The bitter biblical truth is clearer to us: there is something radically wrong with a world in which young mothers from Rockaway Beach and Union City go to work on time and plummet to their deaths. We get lost. It is our nature, east of Eden. We get lost in sex without love: lust. We get lost in consumption without nourishment: gluttony. We get lost in accumulation without investment: avarice. We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle: sloth. We get lost in righteousness without restraint: anger. We get lost in desire without ration or respect: envy. And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility: pride. If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance.
    But sin is not only personal. Sin is pervasive. Sin has a corporate, expansive, even institutional reality. We mistake its power, if we see only, say, several dozen individuals acting to destroy property and life in lower Manhattan. That of course is real, and true. But sin is the power of death, throughout life. Sin is the condition of life under which such treachery takes place. Sin is the absence of God. Sin is an orb of confusion in the world. Sin is the advance or retreat of a great thunderstorm, a frontal advance, though theological not meteorological. Sin is like a city blacked out, a power far beyond any individual lamp turned down, any individual light switch hit. Sin is a shadow, the one great shadow. Whatever is not of faith, is sin.

    3. Have we learned to regard suffering?

    Wiesel’s scene in the camps, following the question, about divine absence, ends with the retort: “Where is He, Here He is- He is hanging here on this gallows.” Jewish theologians - Fackenheim, Greenberg, others, have known for a generation that any real talk about God, after Auschwitz, centers on silence and suffering. They have long ago been driven to second Isaiah, to Lamentations, to Job. Now we too, in the Christian communion, will walk more readily toward the passages in Scripture that speak of divine passion. Can one speak of God after profound suffering? Where was God? Hurt makes us ask. If we are to speak truly to another generation we shall have to be brutally honest about God’s absence and presence. Where was God? By God’s choice, present in the broken hurt of the dying. By human choice, absent in the violence that begets more violence.
    There is much of Good Friday in this world on every day, and those of us who worship before a cross find God not in redemptive violence but in redemptive suffering.
    The real question, we could add, for every preventable catastrophe, is not Where was God, but where were we?
    • Where was love? Buried in hatred.
    • Where was joy? Underneath the rubble of pride.
    • Where was peace? Awash in desire.
    • Where was patience? Forgotten in the race to vengeance.
    • Where was kindness? Given up for power and wealth.
    • Where was goodness? Transfigured into willpower.
    • Where was faith? Replaced by a faith in redemptive violence.
    • Where was gentleness? Where indeed.
    • Where was self-control? Lost in ideology.
    God has chosen the way of the cross to bring love and freedom. In stark terms, that means that there is no divine goalie out there to stop the slap shot of nuclear misjudgment. We shall have to work out our own earthly nuclear salvation in fear and trembling. We have no time to waste.

    4. Have we learned to hold out hope?

    The Gospel of Matthew, which we shall follow this year, and beginning with today’s lesson, holds out a great, high hope for human life, especially expressed in the life of the church. The gift to us of God, in Christ, is expressly this wondrous gift of the church. The very existence of the church, including this church, is a sign of divine confidence in what yet may be, divine confidence in our human capacity to untangle relationships and restore justice, divine confidence in an open and promising future.

    We think of Ernest Freemont Tittle, who more than most in his generation fifty years ago, saw the contours of the future. Tittle: "…We of this generation are confronted with the revelation of divine purpose given in a human interrelatedness and interdependence that justifies the term “one world”…We find ourselves in a situation where no one nation can prosper unless all prosper, no one people can dwell secure unless security is assured to all …we have got to act with due consideration for the rest of mankind if we ourselves are to prosper and dwell secure… Something beyond us, a superhuman purpose and power, is working in history, bringing about the increasing interdependence of men and nations, so that our sheer survival becomes ever more contingent upon the establishment of justice and fair play in all our relations to one another.”

    Unlike the terrorists of 9/11, our hope is for the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. Our children just offered that same prayer.

    For us. One Day
    The wolf shall live with the lamb
    The leopard shall lie down with the kid
    The calf and the lion and the fatling together
    And a little child shall lead them.
    The cow and the bear will graze
    Their young shall lie down together
    The lion shall eat straw like the ox
    The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp
    And the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
    They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain
    For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    As the waters cover the sea.