Tuesday, December 24, 2002

From Presents to Presence

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Christmas Eve
Text: Titus 2:11

From behind the counter of a nearby store I heard, not long ago, a muffled remark that bears just a moment of consideration tonight. A middle-aged salesman, perhaps working a second or third job, surrounded by hasty customers, knee-deep in wrapping paper, was writing orders with his left brain and speaking on the phone I suppose with his right brain, and so peddled tennis rackets, swimming goggles, skies, basketballs, running shoes with measures of patience and good humor through it all, until it seemed that something snapped. Suddenly he wheeled around and muttered in response to life, history, the universe, Christmas: “This is unreal”. This is unreal.

Perhaps, recently, you have thought or said the same. Christmas is a wonderful time, richly to be honored and celebrated. With the season comes a raging tide of letters, phone calls, meetings, parties, memories, hopes, presents to buy and promises to keep. Every aunt, grandparent, father or friend who is heading home tonight to make a few last minute preparations, to find a last minute present or two, has our fraternal sympathy. Hovering over tab a and slot b, you too may snap and wheel around and mutter in response to life, history, the universe, Christmas: “This is unreal”. This is unreal.

It does raise the question of the moment: just what is real?

We may want to take the 12 days of Christmas that stretch out before us and ponder this matter in our hearts. What is real? Presents or Presence?

At the conclusion of the 12 days we will honor the visit of the Magi, the wise men of the east, who travel to the manger bearing presents. So in these feast days, following the discipline of Advent, we shall wonder a little about what is real. For giving gifts is good, even when the stress and strain of the season makes a grown man groan, “This is unreal”. The kings, if we could conjure them up tonight, as they begin their 12 day trek west to the manger, would agree. This late December production may be, simply, religion at solstice gone wild. Or, it may be the opening for you to a way of salvation. The kings bring gold and incense and myrrh in order to say something about what is real and what is not real. This familiar world of gifts and Christmas chaos, but also of basketball and maternity wards and police cars and fingers and meals and taxes and the New York Giants and harness bells and woods that are lovely dark and deep: this world, in the unwitting preachment of the Rochester merchant, by comparison, is itself unreal. The presents of the kings point toward the Presence that is ultimately real, and in comparison to which, everything else is ever so greatly or slightly unreal.

What is real? By comparison with this birth, this invasion and all it portends, everything else is comparatively unreal. The love of God in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality. Everything else is penultimate, slightly unreal. We lay our gold and frankincense and myrrh in the mud and stench and cold of a poor manger, and tomorrow’s gifts under the tree are the latter-day, shirt-tail cousins of these. What is real, what is important, what is reliable, what is valuable, what is lasting, what is rock solid is not the presents under the trees of this life-pageant that so intrigues and beguiles us. This is real: the love of God in Jesus Christ.

The presents remind us of the Presence.

The gold, and similar modern gifts, remind us that Jesus Christ, right now, for his real life, uses our wealth, our resource, our energy and our labor, as He will, to save us from our own worst selves. He is pulling us out of danger. He is saving us from ourselves. The Prince of Peace is at work in the way of peace to save us from holocaust. Will we labor with Him?

The incense, and all similar modern gifts, remind us that Jesus Christ, right now, for his real life, desires our imaginations, our minds to dwell on him. Jesus is saving our souls. Titus: “God has revealed his grace for our salvation”. This is real: it means that alcoholics really recover, that prideful people really are made humble and whole, that families move out of disfunction and really learn forgiveness, the aged really die with the assurance of undying love. The Great Shepherd is at work in the way of mercy to save us from our sin. Will we labor with Him?

The myrrh, ah the myrrh. This is the most important present pointing to the Presence Divine. The myrrh reminds us that Jesus really dies upon a cross, in this world. Myrrh is medication for the sick, balm for the wounded. For His real life, Jesus Christ dons the cloak of human pain, tonight. Sorrow, loss, hurt, fear, pain are his garments. The Great Physician is really saving us from the sickness of this world. Will we labor with Him?

Think again tonight about just what is real. Presents or Presence?

Monday, December 23, 2002

The View from the Manger

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Christmas Sunday
Text: Luke 1:47-55

George Austin feathered out straw bedding for his livestock in the last week of his earthly life. The makeshift manger, before which he stood, ladling out the straw, afforded a beautiful view off the neighbor’s pond. This was the week before George died. He may have had a premonition. He had made some arrangements. But he found himself looking out at Foster’s pond, enjoying this view from the manger. He grown up and grown old around that pond. Foster’s pond is down the Genesee valley, that hotbed of Wesleyan religion, a part of the old burned-over district. George grew up and grew old farming a piece of land near Houghton College, and yes this is a true story.

The week before his funeral, his eye wandered down the valley to gaze at the pond, a pretty, spring fed pond with a couple of oak trees near the bank. What a spot! What a place! A swimming hole in the summer, a skating pond in the winter, a place for private meetings in the harvest moon. George Austin found himself day-dreaming beside his makeshift manger. He leaned on the pitchfork, now and then. You are entitled to lean on the pitchfork, now and then, when you are in your last week. Or year. Or decade. Or…


The weeks before Christmas provide four Sundays for worship and teaching. The ancients used one Sunday each on four doctrines dealing with the future: death, judgment, heaven, hell. It may be that this story of George Austin and the neighbors’ pond will illumine these points for you.

Leaning for a moment, George recalled an Epworth League breakfast that had been held, one summer Sunday morning. The preacher had all the young people meet at the pond at sunrise. The class that morning dealt with death and resurrection. He remember they were asked to recite 1 Cor 15., and as he ruminated he heard all the old questions and answers again, even after 70 years.

What do we mean by the resurrection of the body?
We mean that God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being that we may live with Christ in the communion of saints.

The class went on. Woodsmoke, bacon, and coffee: he could smell them again as he remembered. He peered at the pond. The face and scruffy hair of a 15-year-old boy looked back at him. His reflection. He wondered what God’s reflection would look like. He glanced at the manger. A phrase pierced him: “all flesh is grass. It withers and fades”. Again he looked at the pond. He imagined his reflection looking back at him. He thought: maybe I am a reflection and my real self is looking down at me from heaven.


George Austin snapped open the twine on another bail. He filled another part of the manger, and then paused to look again downhill. A light snow filtered out over the pasture. He gazed again at the pond. He loved the way the land rolled around it. Leaning on the rake, his memory settled on an autumn night: a full moon, a full barn, frost on the pumpkin. As he reminisced, he could feel again the chill of the October night he remembered. He was alone by the pond. A young man now. He had never felt more alone in his life. Something had gone wrong. There was nothing to be done. It was too late. He had hurt someone, not intentionally but consciously and culpably. It was not the sort of thing that would put him in jail. It was not something that people would know about. But he knew. Again, a verse: “be not deceived, God is not mocked; as a man sows, so shall he reap”. The old confirmation catechism questions came back to him:

What do we mean by the last judgment?
We believe that Christ will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.

He looked down the length of the long pond. “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” George’s eyes moved around Foster’s pond, as he remembered how he had learned to ask for forgiveness.


That week before he died, George Austin was laying hay in a manger, feeding his horses and cattle. He stopped again to look at the pond. In a way the little circle was the center of his life. Along its banks he had known both heaven and hell. At sunrise, with the Epworth League, in his youth he had learned the teaching of the church. But life itself had put clothing on otherwise skeletal words:

What do we mean by heaven and hell?
By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God.
By hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God.

He thought about a cold January afternoon. Below zero in the Genesee valley. Snow falling. Trudging over the drifts toward a well frozen pond. He remembered the sight: the pond covered with skaters, hats and scarves blowing, a bonfire under the oak trees. He couldn’t wait to get down to the bank and put on his skates. He had met someone here the week before, and he prayed all week that she would be back again. He remembered sitting on a log and lacing his skates. He looked up and there she was: red cap, red scarf, and red cheeks. Snow, wind, fire and the sense that God had given him someone if he had the courage to accept. He could feel the numbness in his toes, still, as he remembered that heavenly day—a heavenly, snowy, heavenly, snowy, heavenly day. The girl in red he married that summer.

A Frost poem came to mind: “I’m going out to clean the pasture spring…” The manger was full, and the view from the manger, down to Foster’s pond, was full too. George knew another memory would come, unwanted. Hell is the absence of God, our rejection of God, the dark tragedy that somehow shadows all of life. Neither can we understand it, nor can we fully escape it, at least in this life. There is an abiding, tragic dimension to life, which no amount of religion even can erase. The horses took satisfaction in their manger meal. Passingly George thought about the famous manger of Christmas.

Now the dark hurt of life was before him again. He looked at the pond. This memory was not of heaven at all. Not of the presence of God at all, but of God’s unfathomable silence, absence, distance. A memory, in that way, hellish and hard. It was a frightening, bitter memory. Again the pond, now in early spring. A group of men gathered at the shoreline. A boy skating on the pond in the March air had fallen through and had not survived—7 years old, his. George remembered the feel of the warmer wind, the sound of car doors, the bluish tint to the early spring conifers, the sound of car doors, the murmuring of the men fumbling to offer condolence. He had known the silence of God at Foster’s pond. Somehow, by grace, he had survived.

At the end of his life, George looked out on what he had experienced. Here is his view from the manger: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. All are future realities. How shall we live, in view of the manger? Shall we not sing with Mary:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my savior
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
In remembrance of his mercy,
According to the promise he made to our ancestors,
To Abraham and to his descendents forever.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Living With Limits

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text:John I

The other night our car would not start so I called AAA. Triple A remains one of life’s great good deals. I could think of it as an almost universally useful last minute Christmas gift. Just a thought. It is highly effective, dependable, crucially necessary, and cheap. You know, it is what we can do together, when we eliminate the crushing need for greed. From each according to his automotive ability, to each according to his automotive need. All for $50.00 a year. Think of it. You can insure your driving support, nationwide, for almost nothing.

After 20 minutes the AAA truck arrived. Out tumbled a heavy set middle aged man, in a stubbled white beard and crimson work shirt. His truck was full of packages, piled in the dark. He reminded me of the Santa Claus we had seen the night before. In fact, I wondered if he had two jobs. We walked to the car, lifted the hood, poked around, fiddled, fussed, and started the car. He did his job—automotive medical care. I did mine. So, I asked, “How are you?”

“Terrible. I hurt all over. I am really sick. And my tooth hurts bad. I have a bad toothache. I have no insurance. So I can’t see the doctor.”

But I heard him declare, as he drove out of sight: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Over the next two days I found it troubling that this little scene would not leave my mind. We are all aware of the level of pain present at the holidays. Sometimes a particular incident will illumine the whole landscape; a toothache will illumine a whole world of hurt.

But the trouble with the moment did lie deeper. You have already guessed it. It took me longer, though. Here was a jolly happy elf, in the employ of one of the last truly communal agencies, bringing help in the moment on the cheap, who walked and is probably still walking, in dental pain. The one representing automotive insurance had no medical insurance. We insure our vehicles, efficiently and frugally. But not the human body. We have limits. There are limits to what we find that we can do. Which brings us, by the direction of the lectionary, for the second week to John the Baptist. The lectionary is a set of regularly used readings, collected in a three-year cycle. One year is based on Luke and another on Matthew. The third is left for Mark, with interruptions from John. John takes the older material, similar to that in Mark, and, like a jazz musician, plays a brighter, newer tune. He adds his own riffs. Today’s is a word on limits.

For the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is the master representative of limits. Like a river needs banks to be a river, life needs limits to be life.

In the Gospel of John there is no single way of talking about God’s personal truth, that alone sets us free. The salvation which John preached called for many words, different words, a variety of ways of acknowledging the Lordship of Christ. Maybe John sensed idolatry in ways of thinking that limited people to just one set, and thus deadening, confession. No. There is more than one way to skin a cat. And if what is pointed out is nothing short of a truth fit for salvation, can we blame him for pulling out all the stops on his organ? Bread of Life! Word of God! Good Shepherd! Light of the World! Lamb of God! John dares to try them all. He has to be daring. He is trying to offer those who hear his voice (and now, from this moment on, that includes you) a reason for living, and a way of living with limits.

I take it that “growing up”, if it means anything, at least means learning how to do some things, perhaps even how to do some things well. You are a baker. He is a builder. She is a musician. John the Baptist has a voice that rings with maturity and truth, party because he is assessing what he cannot do. “I am not the Christ…nor Elijah…nor the Prophet…” This too is maturity: learning one’s limits. A river with no banks is a very shallow river. But John’s life has banks to flow through. He knows what and who he is not.

The Baptist is a man who knows who he is not. And while you cannot build a life on whom you are not, you can start there. Part of living is living with limits.

Over time, one begins slowly to hear the rare rhythm of meaning in the Gospel of John. His is a strange cadence, repetitive, and complex. Again and again, in these 21 chapters, the various authorial hands at work in this ancient compilation will return to repeat their various themes. In this text, the theme is limits. And John the Baptist is the representative of the limits of life.

He stands at the edge of the raging Jordan.

He speaks at the end of the long tradition of Hebrew prophecy.

He inhabits the outer edge of the wilderness.

He comes up on the shadow of divinity.

John the Baptist is out there.

But unlike the other Gospels, this one has an extra interpretative point to make: make no mistake, John is not Jesus. I worked with John Kennedy, I knew John Kennedy, I was a friend of John Kennedy, and you are no John Kennedy.

Perhaps because of early religious competition, either between Christians and Jews, or between Christians and followers of the Baptist, this passage hammers away at what John is not. It celebrates his limits.

John was not the light. He bore witness to the light, but he was not the light. He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light.

He said: “I am not the Messiah”. He confessed it. He did not deny it. He confessed it. Do you see what I mean by repetition?

There is a lot more that John also is not. Is he Elijah? No he is not. Is he this figure the mysterious prophet? No he is not.

So, they asked him: You are neither Messiah, nor Elijah, nor Prophet. So why are you here? Why do you baptize.

One has the very distinct feeling that the traditional answer (water\spirit, not worthy to untie thong) falls flat for John.

Do you see the way that the fourth Gospel has jazzed up the story of John the Baptist? This is like Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet and singing with syncopated menace some very old hymn or tune, “America” or “Rugged Cross”. It is like what Frank Lloyd Wright did to houses, for good or ill. It is like Fran Tarkenton or Doug Flutie changing the role of the quarterback. It is like the black church in worship, singing "Marching to Zion," but not in Isaac Watt’s 4/4 time.

I think this is why the lectionary reads us Mark, on the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and then John, on the voice of one crying in the wilderness. John gives us soul.

We get our soul from our limits. The limit line of death makes life frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of evening makes the day frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of failure makes daily struggle frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of winter makes our annual journey frightfully precious and deeply meaningful.

Humility is giving credit where credit is due. But humility is also facing your limits. Have you faced them? John the Baptist seems to have done so. And you? Here are some.

  • You cannot choose your family or genetic inheritance.
  • You cannot reselect another epoch in history in which to live.
  • You cannot add a cubit to your span of days.
  • You cannot force other people to behave the way you would.
  • You cannot become another gender, at least not easily.
  • You cannot determine your children’s lives.
  • You cannot control what the preacher will say next.
  • You cannot single handedly erase a recession.
  • You cannot make it stop snowing.
  • You cannot become a gorgeous blonde or New York Yankee by wishing it so.
  • You cannot choose your choices.

But there is a bit of good news here, too. You can live with limits, by naming them and admitting them and accepting them and accounting for them.

I wonder if this Advent period is meant for a survey of limits in life. I believe there is a limit to the number of gifts we want to give to our children. I believe there is a limit to the number of people we should leave off of the health care roles. I believe there is a limit to what we can do, unprovoked, as a military power. Even in the Wild West they didn’t shoot a man who hadn’t drawn his gun. At least that’s what I see in the movies. I believe there is a limit to what finally we can do for one another. And crossing any of these and multitudes of other limits frequently means idolatry—trying to play God. And we frequently do.

Here is where John the Baptist, in the Johannine version, is so helpful. He says: here is what I am not.

Most of us here today are not musicians. Once a season we live with this limit by sitting still before a group of people who are musicians. They remind us, with their beautiful voices, of what we are not capable of doing. And we do our part by saying quietly, “Thank you, God, for able musicians such as they, for I am not one.”

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Wading In. . .

Asbury First United Methodist Church

A Sermon In Four Voices
Susan Shafer, Margie Mayson
Bryant Oskvig, Robert A. Hill
Text: Mark 1:1-8

You cannot come to Christmas unless you cross the river Jordan…

Between you and the 12 days of grace in the feast of Christmas there runs an icy river…

You cannot get across alone, or without cost, or without preparation, or without getting wet…

This beginning is like all others—uncertain, difficult, scary, hard…

In these weeks there is set aside a time of preparation…

The voices of faith cry out in our wilderness experience…

In today’s reading, four distinct voices resound. The voice of the prophet Isaiah. The voice of Malachi, the later prophet, God’s messenger. The voice of John the Baptist. And the voice of St. Mark, the creator of the first gospel and its beginning.

The voices come out of the great, distant past, cloaked in antiquity, hooded in mystery, shrouded in the misty past, covered by the winds and dust of time.

Listen, in love…

Isaiah (Susan)

The year is 540 B.C.

In the dark days of exile, the second prophet Isaiah recalled for his people the nature of faith.

How difficult it is to be away from home, to be alone, to be cut off from the people and places that mean most to you. All travelers know this, as do all human pilgrims.

The preparation for good news may even begin in the dark lost hurt of exile. Isaiah could hear the early singing of the birdsong of hope long before any of his contemporaries. The people of Israel, through a series of bad decisions guided by a series of sorry leaders, found themselves enslaved to a foreign king. Our story of the Prince of Peace is born out of a strife-torn experience. Our confidence in the God of Hope is born out of a record of nearly hopeless moments in the community of faith.

A song needs a singer. How blessed is the one who can sing in a time when the songs just won’t come. This is the church’s vocation, that of all prophets and preparers, to give singing lessons (B Birch).

What makes hope possible in a time of exile? What makes hope possible in the wasteland of a desert?

Hope comes from a mixture of memory and imagination and vision.

This is what a song does for us. It frees us to hope for what is not yet seen. A song well sung frees us from the tyranny of the present, the oppression of the right now, the slavery of the moment. We get free to dream of another time or two.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a newfound capacity to hope, to hope against hope, to hope for what yet cannot be seen, to hope and to hope and to hope.

All: The voice of one crying in the wilderness
Prepare the way of the Lord
Make his paths straight

Malachi (Bryant)

The year is 450 B.C.

What Isaiah hoped has,in fact, happened. Israel has come home. The people who walked in darkness did see a great light. Cyrus of Persia (“the Christ of God”) freed the Hebrew people from the chains of Babylon and they walked home along a corridor that, including today, has known very few walking years, years of easy peace.

But when they got home, they found that life was still hard. Only a remnant returned, the others staying to mingle in Persia. The land gave fruit grudgingly after years of lying fallow. It took 90 years, 90 years, 90 years, to rebuild the temple from Ezra to Nehemiah. Everything took a long time. And, most disheartening probably for Malachi, his own work of prophecy was disappearing. There were no preachers any longer in the land.

In this time of discouragement a fearful question cannot help but come to mind. Where is God? If God loves us why does not God not show it? If God is just, where is justice?

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ may involve endurance of steady discouragement, for many years, with no apparent way forward or way out. Preparation may involve waiting, awaiting the promise of another arrival:

All: Behold I send my messenger before thy face,
Who shall prepare thy way;

Baptist (Margie)

The year is 30 A.D.

It takes a peculiar spiritual strength to find the grace to step aside. John the Baptist created a commotion with his call to confession of sin. He called and the people came. They had a common mind, at least to the point of acknowledging their need.

John came out of tradition—the tradition of the prophets. His role and work were not alien to the long history before him. So when he went out in his rough clothing, into a harsh desert, to speak unpleasant words of warning and judgment, he did so out of a common understanding that prophets might come along every now and then. They might call the city of Jerusalem to repent every now and then. They might direct the people of Israel out to the river every now and then. They might point to God every now and then.

John spoke directly to his people. He challenged his generation to look hard at the way they had lived, and with a plumb line to measure themselves according to the law of God. What one has no sin to confess? What one has no fault to regret? What one has no desire to be made clean? What one would not, given the chance, wash in the Jordan and start over?

But the lasting word of the Baptist is not about his own work at all. Like the church to this day, finally, he exists to point to Another, the thong of whose sandals none is worthy to loosen.

For all his accomplishment, at the pinnacle of human endeavor, right religion, John finds at the right time the grace to step aside. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a willingness, at the right time, to step aside.

John felt a nudge, the grace to step aside, and so he cried out:

All: After me comes he who is mightier than I,
The thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

Mark (Bob)

The year is 70 A.D.

With others, Mark could have found a more pleasant way to begin his gospel. He might with Matthew have offered a long list of names of great saints and sinners past, and then told a story about wise men from the east. Or he might with Luke have started with thrilling birth stories, retelling the birth of the Baptist and of Jesus, to Elizabeth and Mary, and then recounted the advent of the Son of God among humble shepherds, in a humble inn, in a humble town, on a humble night. The Gospel of John begins with the beginning of time and Jesus rounding the unformed cosmos as the divine word, logos.

As plain as the nose on your face, though, Mark starts simple and bare. There are no frills, no varnish, no make-up, no extras. Like Paul, Mark says nothing about the birth of Jesus, or young man Jesus, or the family of Jesus. He begins with the river Jordan, and John, a man dressed in camel’s hair.

This gospel begins with a barren, bleak moment in the icy dark, along a cold river.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may well involve just such a cold, and foreboding start, a beginning that in that way is like all beginnings, from the infant cry at birth to the coughing susurration at death, and every new venture in between: a little quiet, a little cold, a little wild honey. And hovering somewhere nearby the divine possibility of a divine possibility. So Mark writes,

All: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God.

(Each declaims, then as the hymn starts, wades into the water and self-baptizes, and then moves stage right)


With Isaiah, in a time of exile, I will face down the loneliness I feel, and will explore a newfound capacity to hope.

Verse 1: There’s a Voice (Susan HuppĂ©)

With Malachi, in a period of discouragement, I will accept the courage and the capacity to wait, to wait without idols, to wait for the living and true God, whose messenger will come in the fullness of time.

Verse 2:

With John the Baptist, in a period of anxiety, an age of anxiety, when my own service has been rendered, and my own work is done, I will look for that saving willingness to step aside, the grace to step aside, to make way for Another.

Verse 3:

With John Mark, in an age of persecution and dislocation, when change in work or health arrive, I will face the harsh difficulty of a cold beginning.

Verse 4: (all sit as this is sung)

With Malachi, in a period of discouragement, I will accept the courage and the capacity to wait, to wait without idols, to wait for the living and true God, whose messenger will come in the fullness of time.