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.

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