Asbury First United
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Jim’s PassionThirty 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.
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.