Sunday, December 21, 2003

Gentle As a Nurse

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 1:39-45

I Thessalonians 2:7


The birth of Christ places before us a new possibility.

We can live in a new way.

“Christ is alive and goes before us, to show and share what love can do. This is a day of new beginnings. Our God is making all things new”.

You can continue to live in the old way.

Or you can live a different life, beginning today.

Paul’s Christmas Gospel

Paul of Tarsus rarely is mentioned at Christmas. He never saw Jesus and knew almost nothing of the birth. Of Christmas, he says only: “born of a woman, born under the law”. A human birth, still in the dark shadow of religion.

Paul is our earliest, best witness to the primitive Christian church. Yet he says nothing about any of the things we take for granted in this season: Mary, Joseph, manger, Bethlehem, shepherds, Kings, Herod, Rachel weeping.

In fact, I have ruminated a little about how Paul might have approached this reading from Luke 1:39-45, composed some thirty years after Paul’s own (legendary) death in the Roman coliseum. How would the celibate rabbi have thought about Mary and Elizabeth and their communicative wombs? How would the patriarchal first century Jew have thought about the authority vested in these women? How would Paul have interpreted Mary’s walk in the hill country and Elizabeth’s historic greeting, “blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”?

More basically, more biologically, how would a man like Paul have connected, if at all, with these multiple nursery scenes?

You will admit, if pressed, that there are few things more bemusing than listening to men talk about child birth. All the gospels and almost 2000 years of Christmas sermons fall beneath this judgment. What do we know about it?

And Paul?

How can men--how could Paul--possibly fathom the pain, change, and transformation of childbirth? Especially when this birth is not just birth but--Incarnation?

Paul has had a hard ride for 50 years. In an age of civil rights, his common first century passive acceptance of slavery in Philemon has not gone unnoticed. In age of revolution in the status and role of women, his direction to the Corinthians—albeit truly a matter of order not gender—that women should not speak in public has not gone unnoticed. In an age of gradual acceptance if not recommendation of gay rights, his flat rejection of homosexuality in Romans 1 has not gone unnoticed. In an age of fuller acquaintance with the abuses of power, his later command to the Roman church to be subject to governing authorities has not gone unnoticed. In an age of democracy, dialogue and vote, his apostolic, authoritarian claim to have the Mind of Christ has not gone unnoticed. In short, Paul has been persona non grata for 50 years. From one angle he is seen as a confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, authoritarian, hierarchical, Tory crank.

Which brings us to Christmas 2003 and the stunning news that Paul, more than all, “gets it”! Better than virtually any other piece of the New Testament Paul names the Christmas Gospel with utter precision in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 I bring this up on Christmas Sunday to stake out a claim on you. If Paul can “get it”, if Paul can receive the grace of Christmas, there is hope for everybody. Especially for you this morning if you feel at some distance from the Christmas traditions, the old stories, the church’s habits and patterns. Especially if you feel, that is, a little on the outside. Actually, Christmas is all about God’s love for the outside.

In the earliest piece of our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, as he describes his happy relationship with one of his first churches, Paul offers us a glimpse of the gospel. It is Christmas testimony that we can live in a new way!

This Paul, this same confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, hierarchical Tory crank, has been given the grace to live in a new way, and to show others the same. The spirit of the Risen Christ has changed Paul. From Pharisee to freedom fighter. From lawyer to preacher. From religion to faith. From law to gospel. He was been given the “wings of the morning”. There is no other way to interpret his self-designation, a Christmas nametag if ever there was one, here in 1 Thessalonians.

Paul refers to himself and his way of living as “gentle as a nurse”. Gentle? Paul? Apparently so, at least now and then. And then, “nurse”. The word does not refer to white gowns, medical degrees, stethoscopes, or medications. It means the other kind of nurse and nursing, the nurse-maid. We learn this, even without reference to the Greek, from the rest of the verse, a “nurse caring for her children”. The word means wet nurse or nursing mother. The image so jarred an early copier that he added an extra letter to one text to “clean it up” and change the meaning. Paul is staggeringly clear, however. He describes himself as like a wet-nurse! Paul, that is, is referring to his own new way of living as a kind of nursing, as intimate, physical, personal, vulnerable, self-giving. As in, nursing a child.

I find this astounding, that one who could say of his opponents in Galatia that they should castrate themselves (surely a remnant of the old Paul) could understand himself by analogy with a mother and child in the moment of nursing. If the birth of Christ can move Paul that far, how much more can Christmas do for you and me!

A generation ago, I discovered, James Clarke had a similar insight:

Here is conversion in great might. It is easy to think of Paul as the missionary who made Europe and Asia his parish and lifted Christianity out of its Palestinian cradle; as the warrior who fought the good fight of faith and whose sword seldom rested in its scabbard; as the statesman who conceived vastly and executed daringly; as the theologian who handled the huge imponderables and grand peculiarities of the faith with ease and judgment; as the personality, powerful and decisive, who cut his signature deeply into the life of his time, and beside whom his contemporaries were but dwarfs; as the mystic who beheld the faraway hills of silence and wonder, and whose great theme was “union with Christ”. But it strains the imagination to picture him, who was so imperious, in the gentle and tender role of nursemaid. Truly there is no limit to the converting power of God in Jesus Christ.

Yet Walker climbs only half the mountain. Yes, it does astound our imaginations to picture Paul as a mother with a child at the breast. What is doubly astounding, however, is to realize, fully to intuit, that Paul understood himself this way! That Paul, at his most converted, could see his life in a new way, a radically new way, as different from all he had lived before as a nursemaid is different from an imperious religionist.

Paul may not have known the account in our reading today Luke 1:39, or for that matter any of these uniquely Lukan tales. He may not have had any more idea than we do about the exact nature and detail of these birth narratives. I confess that I think he would have been somewhat surprised by their imaginative peculiarity. Do fetae regularly communicate, tummy to tummy?

But the meaning of Christmas he fully knows.

Your Christmas Gospel

And so may you, ESPECIALLY, if you are not easily or closely enthralled by magic stories, birth miracles, speaking wombs, nursery rhymes, and angel voices. Paul hears the truth of it all, and his life changes. Yours can too.

Paul may not have known the Christmas stories we do, but his pastoral life embodied the incarnate love of God in Christ, physical.intimate, personal, vulnerable self-giving, gentle as a nurse-maid.

Yours can, too. You can live in a new way. You can.

It is the way of the turned cheek, the offered cloak, the second mile. It is the way of love for those who are not lovely. It is the way of the love of enemies. It is the way of forbearance. It is the way of tenderhearted forgiveness. It is the way of prayer for those who persecute. It is the way of God, who is kind to God’s ungrateful and selfish children. Gentle as a nurse…

I heard a famous leader, last Thursday, scornfully disdain the “turn the other cheek approach”. I had to wonder whether his Methodist Sunday School had shown him the source. Maybe he was absent that day.

Christmas gives birth to the daily, very real possibility, starting again for you at noon, the real potential that you can live in a new way. Christmas gives birth to the life and death decision for or against Jesus, for the new path or the old.

If Paul can “get it”, all can. This is the change that God works (GOD works) in the human heart. The God who said “let light shine out of darkness…” It is the gift of faith. Faith comes by hearing. Hearing by the word of God.

We live in age of violence, even global and extreme violence. But this is Christmas. With Luke we may marvel at the mystery of Christ. With Paul we may practice the partnership of the Gospel, living as gentle as a nurse with her children.

We can live in a new way. The world does not lack for promise, but only for a sense of promise.

Three Applications

First. We can live as those who look forward to a gentler world community. I mean all of us here this morning, liberal and conservative, hawk and dove. We can all share the horizon of hope for peace on earth, good will to all. We can look out for ways to “soften the collisions” that will come in our time. As Inman says, in Cold Mountain, life is riddled with “endless contention and intractable difference”. Collisions are virtually inevitable. But they can be softened.

My guide here is the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin:

Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened. Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached: in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force—so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established.

Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair—that alone is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way. A little dull as a solution you will say? Yet there is some truth in this view.

Second. More than you know, disciple, you transform the culture around you with every act, every choice. I saw last Saturday 900 people stand, without command, to honor the Hallelujah Chorus. They came to worship the Messiah, in their own secular way, the babe, the son of Mary.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.

He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.

And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

And all flesh shall see it together.

Since by one man death came, so by one man shall come the resurrection of the dead. (my favorite)

Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him!

So they receive Christ. Here is a door held. There is a criticism softened. Here is a preparation made. There is a courtesy extended. Here is a listening ear. There is a gesture of welcome. As we follow our course let us not become coarse.

Lily Tomlin once produced a single actor play. One night a street person stumbled into the theater and was treated roughly. She made the paper by stopping her performance, guiding the man to center stage and quietly addressing the audience: “Let me introduce you to a fellow human being.”

At our best, Rochester and this church both set a fine example of acculturated gentility. (That is a compliment, by the way. Just so you know.) It is not just what you do that counts; it is how you do it.

At our best, we can live together, watching over one another in love, and treating one another “as gently as a nursemaid”. Men and women both. I can be even more personal. The Christmas Gospel in its Pauline cast directs me as a minister. It gives me the courage to be, to be a pastoral administrator, and to be so with gentle care. Now I will admit that the phrase, “pastoral administrator” is something of an oxymoron, two words that contradict each other. Like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist. Either you are pastoral or you are administrative, tender or tough. But here is Paul, the Great Tough Apostle to the Gentiles, identifying his way of being with that of a woman, a tender mother, breast feeding her kids. That means time spent. That means some tolerance for untidiness. That means a willingness to admit imperfection, some fruitful slobbery sloppiness. That means a habit of being that is more rounded than rectangular, more organic that engineered, more maternal than mechanical. That means to worry when things aren’t perfect and not to listen when others want them immediately perfect. Life is messy. Church life particularly messy. That means a willingness to go the second and third mile, as you would for your infant. That means risking getting bitten. That means burping and wiping and holding. And especially that means a fierce focus on the future of new young life! That sounds like hard work! Manger work. Nursery work. New Creation work.

Third. Christmas too can become a season as gentle as a nurse.

Someone wrote:

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend myriad holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside decorating to kiss the spouse.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love bears, believes, hopes, endures all things, and never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust. Even that new motorboat that someone might give you will one day retire. The gift of love will endure.

A Time to Choose

This is the spiritual change that God (and God alone) works in the human heart. “Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth”. Here are the birth pangs of the new creation.

Are you ready to live in a new way?

For their parts, the ancients were caught off guard. So the Kings meandered, the shepherds shuddered, the cattle were low and lowing. There was no ready expectation of Jesus, a poor Messiah. No, there was no prepared expectation for God touching earth in a manger. “A smoking cradle”, said Barth, is all we have of Christmas. How about you? Are you ready for Christmas?

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Whatever Became of Repentance?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 3:1-6

Repentance, for the first place, means a change of heart.

When Karl Menninger wrote his best seller, a generation ago, “Whatever Became of Sin”, he still had time, back then, to have written a sequel, our topic today. He did not, and since then, through abuse and overuse and misuse, the word "repentance," has become almost irretrievable. Like other great and saving words—vision, for instance—the gears have been stripped, there is no traction left.

This is a part of the tragic sense of life, for our coming to God, our preparation for heaven, includes repentance. This too is part of God’s way of saving us. We come to the manger by way of the river, and to Jesus by the way of John, and to love by the way of repentance.

Whatever became, then, of repentance?

In the Gospel of St Luke we are told. Luke who loves the littlest (poor, women, children, stranger, ill, outcast, foreigner, all) with his left hand, holds Rome at bay with his right. Notice how he begins the story of Jesus’ ministry. As a Gospel writer, he must begin with John, but he circles his way. In the 15th year of Tiberius (no Augustus but a Caesar). When Pontius Pilate was governor (by whom Christ is crucified). And Herod rules Galilee (his spirit caught by our youth). Lest we not forget—the outskirts of north hill country—Lysanias, Philip, Ituraea, Trachonitis. And the temple, Annas and Caiaphas. Even John here is not “the baptizer” but “son of Zechariah”. Luke wants his gospel to fly under the radar of the Romans. He wants at every step to mollify the powers that be. Such an unctuous, oleaginous, Eddy Haskell tone. He is no Paul. No wonder E Kasemann said, “I hate Luke\Acts.” His church is Roman friendly, pacific, traditional, hierarchical. Gone is the Pauline punch: “born of a woman, born under the law”. The Pauline punch is protected but no longer pristine.

But even Luke has finally to tell us: in the wilderness. Notice the point of contact for the word of God. Not Rome, Jerusalem, Power, Temple. But the woods…

I think of years in the woods. The day Earl Friend shot a bear and hung it between two trees to drain. We have a photo of Emily looking dubiously at it. The day the car (red Ford Mustang convertible) froze up between early and late service, at 25 below zero, and sat at the corner of Routes 11 and 103, a sculpted witness to the power of nature. The night we had dinner with Sharon and Donnie (whose son attended her for some years) and went to witness a calf born, between main course and dessert. Here is life: messy, hard, frightening, push, pull, cry—and then, a new creation. Bruce Thompson was there with us.

Birth and death both receive a simpler, more dignified attention in the woods.

John heralds the birth of Jesus’ ministry and his own demise.

The wilderness connects John and us to Israel and her prophets. Israel came through the wilderness, forty years through, on the way from liberation to heaven. They found their way out from Pharaoh, only to wander and suffer in the woods.

The Hebrew word for repentance is “shaub”, to go back again, to return. With the prophets (notably Amos and Isaiah) John recalls that real religion is never very far from justice, no matter how hard the walk to justice. “Are there no graves in the land of Egypt that you have brought us out here to die?” The prophets brought a return, a going back to the memory of the wilderness, of what it meant to be poor and lost. Repentance is a change of heart, a daily part of our walk in Christ, by which we are given a heart for others.

Here is Hill quoting Tittle quoting Rauschenbusch, who wrote the paragraph not ten blocks from here: “Baptism at the Jordan was an act of dedication to a social movement. It was not received to save the individual by himself, but called all to repent of their way of living, to quit grafting, and to begin to live in fraternal helpfulness. Baptism was the dramatic expression of an inward consent and allegiance to the higher standards of life which were to prevail in the Messianic community. It was the symbol of a revolutionary movement.”

Repentance is this change of heart, to our days of poverty, to remember today’s poor and then to do something about poverty today.

ML King died in the wilderness of Memphis, 1968. Gone was the deliverance from Selma 1963. Ahead he could see a “promised land”. He died, where we still live, in the woods.

Kate Millet and others dashed through the Red Sea of patriarchy 30 years ago, a saving deliverance for both women and men. Now we are not in Egypt. Nor are we yet in Canaan, the land of milk and honey. We are forty years in the woods, finding our way, a path strewn with false starts, stone tablets, golden calves, multiple voices, and real losses.

Second graders in upstate city schools call us to repentance, a change of heart, about their need. They deserve to read and work and live, too. One day every valley shall be filled.

Dear God give us repentant hearts, changed in the wilderness by compassion for others.

Repentance, for the second place, means a change of mind.

I grew up in the atmosphere of fairly keen minds, probing for the truth. The interest was not just, “what do you have on” but “what do you have on your mind”, reality as well as appearance, salt as well as flowers. These preachers pushed each other, hard. McCune greeted my father and me saying, “It makes me believe in evolution.” Yes, they jousted. They could because they loved and they would because they cared. And then went off to dinner together.

Here is the spiritual discipline of repentance, to change one’s mind. This is repentance, to have regret, have remorse, show contrition, admit compunction. I was asked recently to name a fruitful failure. What is your most educational mistake?

I learned the hard way that hoping someone will do something does not make it so, that being right is not enough, that good intentions can have bad outcomes, that we all need supervision, that “figures lie and liars figure”. I cannot claim a spotless record in parenting, friendship, staffing, stewardship, communication, or life. Where is that river Jordan when I need it? We learn most from our failure.

This gives us reason for metanoia, “subsequent emendation”, “later knowledge”. On second thought. For the God of unconditional love is also the God of unconditional requirement.

Today I am not so much inclined to ask you for a particular change of mind as to beg us all to live with repentant minds. As Oliver Cromwell said, to no avail, as his head, like the Baptist’s, was being removed: “Pray Sir, consider you might be wrong.”

We come in our church to General Conference next year, debating homosexuality. I wonder why this issue is so prominent for us. Does it function, like an identified patient in a family system, to help us avoid other, more potent issues: evangelism, abortion, justice, stewardship, war, hunger?

Could we approach one another, across serious disagreement, as lovers? I am proud that Marjorie Suckochi is a Methodist: “Ours can be a church where no individual expects to see with absolute purity exactly the way things ought to be. Rather we are to expect a church where we are continuously ready to learn from one another—especially from those with whom we disagree. In this mutual learning, the one thing we should beware is a pretension, whether in ourselves or others, of absolute knowledge.”

It is the forgiveness of sin, the pardon of God itself that empowers us to change our minds. Without a confidence in pardon we would always have, for our safety and salvation, to be right. Pardon frees us to change our minds.

Dear God give us repentant minds, changed in the wilderness by the strength of forgiveness.

Repentance, for the third place, is a change of place.

We are on the way to heaven. What is true for heart and mind is true for body—self, soul—as well.

Repentance is the power that takes otherwise sober adults and gets them up early on Sunday. They come to worship, in the flesh. They bring their body and their children. And they change places.

Our life in the internet age will cause modification of our sense of place, our perception of space. What does it mean to “be there”?

The Latin “conversio” has a spatial dimension. To turn around.

We embody repentance at every Baptism, not because infants need repentance but because we do.

To the edge of the rail come parents. They are questioned in soft tone but harsh grammar. “Do you…” “Will you…” Here is movement of body and soul.

To the high altar, and the cross, we come. By invitation. All our children are marked early with the death of Christ. “Do you not know that all who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death? We have with him that we might be raised to walk in newness of life.”

To the pastor’s arms the child goes. Saving grace, best shown in infant baptism, is God’s gift, God’s action, God’s free bequest. We cannot earn, achieve, gain grace. We can receive, if our bodies will change places every now and then.

The symbolic movement of the child to the arms of the church is a mark of the cross, as, in our current tradition, is the long walk down the aisle and away from home. The children who cry “get it”.

I do not think it is accidental that John lives in the woods. We have to move out of our very predictable bodies of habit to hear him, and perhaps to hear our deepest selves. Repentance (in the light of wilderness, forgiveness, and baptism at least) means a change of heart and of mind and of place.

Elisabeth Sifton, in her moving memoir of summers with her Dad, Reinhold Neibuhr, writes about unrepentant hearts as she describes the ethos in which the Serenity Prayer was born, in the wilderness of Heath, Massachusetts:

“God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Once More to the Lake: Hand

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 12: 38-44

Hands Free

On August 28th I left my car for servicing outside Hamilton, and took a long morning jog through the little lands of my hometown.

Lights were on already at the newspaper office, the Mid-York weekly, a dubious publication, begun in 1828. Four men were drinking coffee at McDonald’s. I saw a dad walking hand in hand with a four year old daughter, who had in her hand a teddy bear.

This matter of hands deserves some thought. Hands once held now let go. Handlebars once gripped now are balanced by knees. Handshakes and handclasps replace the teddy bear of childhood. Is God’s hand upon us? Are we in God’s hand? If Jesus, “by the finger of God” does mighty works, are we ready again to be his hands?

The Hand of God

A friend flew me across our region some years ago. We took off from Rochester. We followed the Genesee. We flew east and then north. They do look like fingers, Canandaigua and Keuka and Seneca and Cayuga and Owasco and Skaneateles and all. They do. But fingers imply a Hand! And here in hand is today’s gospel: in Christ we are in God’s hand, Christ is God’s hand and those opening their hands in Him (like the poor widow) are also God’s hand. This is the word in a word today: Hand.

Drive, fly, across our region. The hand of God is upon us, blessing us, opening out a future for us, loving us, touching us, helping us! The hand of God is upon is in slim fingers that beckon us into God’s future.

At the south end of Cayuga lake there is a college. I forget the name just now. You know that one famous alumnus is EB White, the writer. Like Mark composing the words of Jesus a generation later, White went back to his notes from English 101 and composed still the best book on writing in American English, Elements of Style, by transposing his teacher’s lectures. Did William Strunk say “omit needless words” or was it White? Did Jesus say “she has given more than all the others” or was it Mark? Did William Strunk say “vigorous writing is concise?” or was it White? Did Jesus say, “she has given her very life” or was it Mark?

I honor White and the lakes and the hand of God upon us today and this fall. Read his story, about love and death and opening your hand to the future. It is called: “Once More to the Lake”. It is about that moment when you realize that you do not have all day. I think the widow of Mark 12 so realized: That Rome was not built in a day, but it was built. That it is a great life but few of us get out alive. That there are things that need doing and saying. That our hands, too, are meant for freedom and grace and open life. I think his little story, “Once More to the Lake” is the finest I have ever read.

Look at this beautiful land we have been given. The Hand of God, from Canandaigua to Skaneateles, the Hand of God is upon us!

Hand to Hand

Running again, I saw that someone had bought Hogg’s house and needed a dumpster to clean out the attic. Seven Oaks was busy I could see at various points. The Robert Trent Jones course winds its hidden way around the back side of town and college. Of course I had to use the willow walk. And ascend library hill. And admire the quad. And notice that the artesian well is buried.

Coming down the hill I had a religious experience. This happens to me, running through town, and running through the stereoptic, bifocal experience of hurting jogger’s knees in 2003 and bright happy memories of 1963 which, I must say, of the two, knees and memories, the memories were more present.

The Land of the Open Hand

And I was thinking of you and this fall. I had a desire to see the Gospel of Mark interpreted for our time and especially our setting, along the lakes of our region, so strikingly similar they are to the Sea of Galilee. More: I wanted to preach the full Christ of grace and freedom with you again. In love. Not some partial version from loony left or rowdy right, but the Name that is above every Name, Jesus Christ. The Christ of Gospel and Lake, of Heaven and Earth.

Christ is our Health: before this Healer your health matters! Christ is our Height: He asks of us a certain height so when at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far we may take Him as our star to stay our minds on and be staid! Christ is our Home: he makes open space, heart and mind and door for us and all by saying, “whoever is not against us is for us”! Christ is our Hope: he gives us realism with eyes and ears and inspiration to enter a new future in our region of glacial geography, exciting meteorology, progressive community, compassionate history, flourishing spirituality! The Finger Lakes are the place to be, right in the Palm of God’s Hand! Christ is our Heart: whoever first taught you about power, Christ fixes power in the heart of those who with Him have a passion for the common good! Christ is our habit: virtue is formed by habit and faith by practice, practice, practice! Accept no thinner substitute! Accept the full Christ of health, height, home, hope, heart, habit, and, last, hand.

Hand Off

Meanwhile, back on the jog….

It was a jolt to “wake up” running downhill from Colgate Chapel House and straight into the tidal arrival of the class of 2007. Tuesday, August 28th, 2003, 8:45am.

It was a majestic scene, worthy of Pickett’s charge, VE day, Palm Sunday, Dunkirk, the Crusades, Wolfe at Quebec, Napoleon at Waterloo, or the night Bill finally leveled with Hillary. A collision.

Picture this. A parent and child carrying together a used TV and luggage. 20 Sophomores with light blue tee shirts reading, “welcome frosh”. A small jet flying into Hamilton International. One coed carried like a latter day Chinese princess on a rickshaw, in the backseat of an Oneida city cab. Fraternity boys running up the street with a makeshift “we love Colgate” banner. Sorority girls leading an Indian signal, the “Rebecca Chopp” (Chopp, A UM clergy, and St Paul School of Theology graduate, is President of Colgate). Two streets full of fine, fine automobiles. From the south, up from Binghamton on 12B, largely with New Jersey plates rolled Cadillacs, Beemers, Audis, Lincolns. From the north, down from Utica on 12B, largely with Connecticut plates rolled Porsches, SUVs, high end Buicks, MGs. For once there was a traffic jam in Hamilton.

Without exception, vehicle to vehicle, the future Red Raider was asleep in the back seat. Dad was looking at the side view mirror. Mom was weeping. I found myself weeping too. One had to in the sight of this apocalyptic liminality. One woman, dressed in black, and perched on the curb seat side of a black SUV, was weeping uncontrollably, like Rachel of old.

Widow’s Hand

Tears bring us together. Abraham Heschel: “Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are the same.”

In Rome, under the thumb of Caesar, Mark has focused our attention on a poor widow’s hand as it opens above an offering box. We, Church, Mark, Jesus, All have paused for this Gospel moment, to observe the opening of a withered hand. Gathered in secrecy, hearing news of the toppled Temple, fearing impending persecution, the Roman Christians saw again the hand of God reflected in the courageous open hand of a poor widow.

This is a stylized story, a cookbook catechesis. Mix in one part each: teaching setting, Jesus, criticism of the Scribes, reference to money, and a single earth-shattering word. Stir. Serve hot on Sunday. This widow saw something and gave her guts to it, “her whole life”.

I have a bone to pick with our NRSV at this point. The original does not say she put in her living or all she had to live on. No one can live on a farthing anyway. It says she put in her whole life. ???s…ß??s…ß??s. Biology, Biosphere, Biodegradable …LIFE. She opened her hand and put her whole life on the nose of an invisible future. You have to have the gift of faith to open your hand to give and bless and let go.

God’s hand in the Finger Lakes is not a fist, not a grip, not a clap, not a curse. God’s hand is open. To give, to bless, to let go. That is the hand of love. That also is the hand of the poor widow. Like God, she has given everything, even her WHOLE LIFE.

We mis-hear the Scripture so often because we moralize when we should theologize.

It is only our patronizing attitude toward her—fed from the polluted springs of victimhood feminism and arrogant patriarchy both—that keeps us from the Gospel. In this story, the WIDOW IS GOD.

Where did we ever get the idea that older women are powerless? Widows fed Paul. Widows funded Mark. Widows fomented three cataclysmic Christian progressive movements in the 19th century Finger Lakes. Widows fund the Women’s Division of the UMC today. Widows, ‘babushkas’, kept the Russian Orthodox church open from Lenin to Gorbachev, from Proletariat to Perestroika. The story of the widow’s hand is the story of God’s hand, opening out in Christ to give, to bless, to let go.

Here is her hand, the divine hand in Jesus’ teaching: letting go as one dining center guest did this week of money; letting go as she sometimes did of spouse; letting go as she may have, in cruciform love, of her children. If you love somebody, you have to open your hand and let them go. This is the whole teaching of the Trinity: Father letting go Son, Son letting go Spirit, Spirit letting go church.

This widow has the courage and generosity to place her life on the nose of an invisible future. She has the courage to build something that does not yet exist. She has the guts to open the hand and execute. She hopes in the teeth of calamity. She gives to a temple that Mark knows is in flames. Is she related to Jeremiah?

Hand of Christ

Meanwhile, back on the trail…

At the swan pond I stopped beside a similar woman and her 10 year old son, who, with me, were watching the invasion. This is what I heard the poor woman and her impoverished son say. Or, this is what I think I heard. Or, what I imagine was said. Or, what could possibly have been said.

B: Mommy, what is all this?

M: Ah, it is college day son. The new ones are here.

B: Oh Mom look how sad it all is. College must be a terrible thing, like having your tonsils out. Everyone is crying.

M: Ach, faith and begorrah, son, you don’t know a fiddler’s finger about what you are saying. College is wonderful! You will go one day.

B: Ah, no Mam. I’m going to hold your hand. It looks terrible. Look at that woman there. She’s older than you and not so pretty either. Her face is all red and fat with crying. See. College is awful. It must be or they wouldn’t be crying so.

M: For the love of St Patrick, son, college is wonderful, it is a pot of gold at the rainbow. Listen. In college you will have your very own room.

B: Really. Mam, that sounds good.

M: And a TV all your own and you watch whenever you want.

B: You mean I don’t have to do my homework after dinner like at home?

M: Well…You…No…You have to do your homework. But you can eat whenever you want and the food is so wonderful. Your Uncle Francis went to college at 100 lbs and he weighed 280 at graduation.

B: You mean they have second helpings every night?

M: Every night son, every night. And you can eat whatever you want.

B: You mean not just macaroni and cheese and corned beef and cabbage?

M: Ach, son, this is what I tell you, you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. You can have meat and seconds and ice cream at every meal.

B: You mean hot dogs and hamburgers?

M: Yes. And steak.

B: What is steak?

M: Ah, steak is like hamburger dressed up for Easter Sunday, you’ll love it. It tastes like sweet heaven and melts in your mouth.

B: But every one will want some—there won’t be enough.

M: Son, you are getting on my nerves. You don’t get it. In college it is like an Emerald heaven. There is always plenty. No macaroni. No lack of seconds. But…To go you have to get a scholarship, so you keep doing your homework.

B: What is a scholarship?

M: Don’t they teach you anything at that Kendrick Ave school? A scholarship is like Christmas, like the angels touching earth, like the St Patrick’s day.

B: Look at these cars Mam, I don’t recognize any of them. They’re not like ours or the Risley’s. They’re big. And new. And the windows are all dark. There’s no red rust on their doors. What is that?

M: You spell it C_A_D_I_L_L_A_C. It is the name of an Indian chief.

B: Do you think I could go to Colgate?

M: Ach, son, you will get a scholarship to the greatest Universities in the world. You will shake your feet from the dust of Colgate. You will go to Harvard or Oxford or Yale or Tubingen or Princeton or Salamanca or, if you are really lucky, Ohio Wesleyan.

B: Mam, what is that shirt like thing the big woman is wearing? It looks like clothes, but it doesn’t cover her.

M: That is the devil’s own work, avert your eyes. That is a halter top.

B: Ah, a halter top. That’s what Father says he loves about summer, the halter top. He says he kissed the calendar on July 1, the birthday of St Halter.

M: That Father of yours should be horsewhipped for saying such things.

B: Mam, if college is so good, why are they weeping?

M: Well son, you know, to grow you have to leave and move and change and let go of your mother’s hand. There is no growth without change and there is no change without leaving. And there is no leaving without letting go of the hand. It is the way of life. Things and people who don’t change, who won’t let go, they die.

B: Mam, school starts Tuesday. Coach Franklin says I need new sneakers. And Mam, Mam, Craig and Kris are going to play hockey this year. I am the second biggest boy in the class after Andy Migonis and they want me to play wing. But I need skates.

M: Ach, son, skates are expensive. We have you and your sisters and come October a little brother maybe and wouldn’t you rather have a baby brother than skates?

B: If you say so Mam. I guess so. Maybe I can have skates next year. Maybe I can play hockey next year.

M: Maybe, son, maybe next year. But I am going to leave you now. St. Mary’s and the Methodist church are having their sale. I know they have sneakers, and your size too.

B: High tops?

M: High tops, and some shirts, too, they had, and a new pair of pants and a good heavy coat and some galoshes...

B: I don’t like galoshes.

M: …and a raincoat and if we’re lucky Mrs. Howe will save us Byron’s sport coat for church. And speaking of Mrs. Howe, I have a surprise. In their book bin I saw Huckleberry Finn, and I had her keep it out for you. If you finish your chores early, you can spend all the afternoon reading it and won’t your sisters be jealous!

And she took his hand, and she let it go. And God takes our hand and God lets us go.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Once More to the Lake: Habit

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Stewardship Sunday
Love is...

Skaneateles Lake runs south ten miles past Mandana and New Hope and Scriba, to rest in embrace of the Allegheny plateau. Down there some years ago a man told how he came to faith:

It was in those years of too few dollars and days, and too many deliveries and diapers. We seemed to be always at odds, kids crying, not a dollar or an hour to spare. I had signed up for a morning prayer group in our church, every Wednesday. It got that I dreaded going. I was tired; the meeting was chaotic, attendance spotty. I like things done right. One morning I didn’t go. The next Wednesday my wife kneed me out of bed. Our deal was to pray and then to take a card from a pack the pastor had of service needs. So I took mine: “Boy needs ride to Sayre Hospital tomorrow”. That was the straw, or almost the straw: “this is a whole day, not an hour—I didn’t sign up for this!” I huffed out. Sometimes though after I blow off some steam I think different. That little card rode around in my jacket during work. When I got home I made the mistake of telling my wife about it. She didn’t say anything, but she had that look and that jaw set back and that, you know that attitude. About 11pm I called the home and said I’d take the boy.

Early Thursday I drove across town. He was already there on the curb, alone and with a little suitcase. I was still so frosted about the whole thing I just kept silent for a while. I watched him though from the corner of my eye. He took some cookies from the bag and offered me one. He watched the scenery. I saw him read a note that was wrapped around the cookies. He was about 5. With our four girls I realized I didn’t have much practice at talking to a boy. After a while he told me about his leg. It was something he was born with. The operation was going to help him walk right. They had to postpone it until his mother got work again. She had just gotten another job and was so grateful. Then he asked me the most surprising thing I have ever been asked: “Mister, are you God?” He asked so sincerely that I stifled my laughter and asked what he meant. He said:

“Last night after dinner I got ready for bed. My mom was really upset. She said she had to go to work today or we would lose our house, but that I had to get to the hospital or my leg would not ever be right. She came into my room and prayed, “God please help us. God please take my boy to the hospital. God help us somehow for tomorrow.” When I got up this morning she told me God was helping us. So that is why I asked you: Are you God?”

You ask how I found my faith? I found my faith by practicing my faith.

Virtue is formed by habit. Faith is formed by practice. Habits form virtue. Practices form faith.

Said the tourist to the violinist, at 50th and 9th Ave, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice…”

You would like to have self-control? Practice restraint.
You would like to be gentle? Speak gently.
You would like the gift of faith? Act faithfully.
You would be good? Do good.
You want to become kind? Live kindly.
You desire patience? Practice the arts of prayer.
You hunger for peace? Live peaceably.
You hope for joy? Sing and practice singing.
And love? One who would know love must love others.

Dr. Lohmeyer long ago, rightly in my view, identified the original setting of this controversy story along the Sea of Galilee. Its positive depiction of the Pharisees, its rough directness in speech, its colloquial character, and its willingness to see Jesus receive the praise of his Jewish neighbors all argue so. The careful readers among us will note that Mark already has us in Jerusalem. Yet the original setting for this crucial teaching on love was, probably, the lakeshore. No surprise. Half the gospel happens upstate.

A powerful summary of the law is here rendered for the first time in history. How are we to live? By loving God and loving our neighbor. Who first connected Deuteronomy and Leviticus? Mark? The early church? Jesus? All we can say is that we have the teaching as our Word of God.

As Flip Wilson’s Geraldine told her\his boyfriend "Killer": “What you see is what you get”. The gospel in a word is love. And what is love?


First, love is commitment. If you thought you would escape this service without hearing the word ‘commitment’ you are about to be disappointed. For when the Bible speaks of love it really means to speak of commitment. Commitment implies staying power, the power to see things through, the lasting strength that carries you beyond a valley to the next hill, beyond sickness to future health, beyond poverty to future wealth. Commitment in youth. Commitment, if God so blesses you, for children. Commitment through middle-age. Commitment as you take your places as working, caring members of the community. Especially a commitment to grow old in community. Then as the gray hairs multiply you will begin to see what love can mean. For “in this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us.” No mere infatuation this. For if God had been merely infatuated, how quickly he would have given up on us. Rather it is God’s own commitment that directs and encourages us to mimic him.

It may seem odd to quote the newest California, by the way easily the finest governor that professional body building ever produced. But I will. Asked how he could possibly manage a job like the one he now has he said: “I think it is like body building. First comes the commitment.”

Virtue is formed by habit, faith by practice.

We have sometimes worn better men’s clothes to become better men.

A judge wears a robe not because he is less human than we but because, being equally human, he needs to pretend to a higher wisdom. Children dress up on Halloween not because they are less human than we, but because, being equally human, they need to pretend to a greater imagination. Clergy wear vestments not because they are less human than others but because of the opposite, being equally human we need to pretend to a fuller spirit. Brides and grooms wear tuxedos and gowns not because they are already mature but, to the contrary, because they know their human limitation on the one hand and the mountainous nature of the commitment they are making on the other. So they dress up. So at least they can look the part. So they can pretend and—here is the point—by pretending, prepare, and by preparing, become….faithful.

Do all the good you can….And over time you just might become--good. In our church it is time to hear the wedding bells for the Bride of Christ. In this congregation we have plenty of courtship, some serious dating, even some engagements in faith. But there are some cold feet out here this morning. Now it’s time to come to the altar and tie the knot and make some commitments. I tell you, they will be the making of you. Faith is formed in the practice of faith.

I am told of a man stranded for a decade on a desert island. At last a ship came by and rescued him. The ship captain saw three buildings carefully made and asked about them. “The first is the house I live in.” And the second. “The second is the church I attend.” And the third. “The third is the church I used to attend.” Isn’t it time we settled in and made this our real home? To do that takes commitment.


Second, love also means delight. Times of sheer delight will come upon you when you least expect them. Take the time to savor them! They are meant to give you strength. Yes, the groom’s delight as he sees for the first time his bride’s beauty as she appears before him in the wedding gown. After some time together, the delight of a shared glance across a crowded room—perhaps a reception or party—as friends and partners in an instant know without speaking what is in each other’s minds. Let us warn you that life is not chock full of delight. For some the moments of delight are few and far between. But they come to us all. When they come, take the time to savor them. And hope that God on occasion even delights in us, his creatures. “For God so delighted in us that he sent his Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”

What clouds our native delight is the accretion of what the Scripture calls sin. Sin has many forms, but all of them mar the delight of the day. Our besetting adversary in Rochester, NY in 2003 is a pervasive spirit of entitlement. I breathe therefore I am. I exist and so I deserve. I live and so I expect. Our sin is a sense that life owes us. Something.

The economic sword of Damocles now hovering over us will cleave neatly, like Hitler through the Sudetenland, through generations of sloth and will burn out, like wildfire in San Diego, our besetting sense of entitlement. We will go backward in time. We will have to move 100 years into the past and 100 miles out into the lake country to recall the innovation, the risk, the frugality, the industry, the generosity, the commitment that built our home here. We will return to a time of hard work, modest income, limited budgets, requisite sobriety, daily gratitude, community spirit and the delight that comes daily with love. No, I do not relish the prospect. Its individual hurts, present in some measure this morning, I mourn and abhor. But there is one communal development that comes, if we will work with it together, from recession and trouble: a gradual spiritual movement from entitlement to gratitude.

Love has a way of delighting us. Remember Paul at his best?

Let love be…genuine!
Hate what is…evil!
Hold fast what is…good!
Love one another with…mutual affection!
Outdo one another in…showing honor!
Never lag in…zeal!
Be ardent in.spirit!
Be patient in…tribulation!
Be constant in…prayer!
Contribute to the needs of the...saints!

Third, love is wonder. God so wondered at the world’s possibilities that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.

“The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder”: G K Chesterton, poet, playwright and Englishman, had it right, as he usually did: we long for a rekindled sense of wonder. From Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to right now: what this world needs is a sense of wonder!

And for this rebirth of wonder, this new rebirth of wonder, we come to worship

This gracious and lovely space itself inspires wonder.

The music, choral and organ and solo and congregational, does too.

So do the sturdy lines of venerable liturgy, hundreds of years in use, by kings and commoners alike, all who knew, as John Wesley said of himself, “how to prize the liberty of an Englishman”.

We are certainly heartened by such a gathering, too.

Sometimes I scratch my head and wonder, in a more reflective way, about what is becoming of life. I see women and men plunging headlong into existence, and laboring under heavy yokes. I work therefore I am. I earn therefore I am. I earn therefore I am. I have therefore I am. I control therefore I am. I think therefore I am. But the great Apostle to the Gentiles warns us about all these and more. They will cease. When we finally hear that, we pause, as we do right now. And when we do, we are truly thankful for those who keep hope alive, those who keep drama alive, those who keep dreams alive, those with a sense of wonder.

For much of life we end up seeing what we expect to see. I do so every day. I need the reminders that come and the blinders that go with wonder.

“You see things as they are and ask ‘Why’. We dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’ My generation thought Bobby Kennedy had written the line, but he did not. Actually, he did something better, he lived it. Actually, he did something even better still; he gave the last full measure of devotion to it. What was that about love being giving not taking, giving not using? You truly have only what you fully can give away. No, the line comes from the hand of a great Irish playwright, GB Shaw: “you see things as they are and ask, ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were, and I ask, ‘why not’? (repeat).

Sometimes I find myself leafing through the imaginary photo album of doubt, leaves, you could say, from the photo notebook of an untamed pastoral cynic. I wonder: just how much has the human race learned in one generation? I lament: Are we dreamers anymore? And then I come to church. And I feel a rebirth of wonder. You take the world and make it young again! I remember David Mamet’s admonition: “Train yourself for a profession that does not yet exist. That is the mark of an artist—to create something that formerly only existed in his or her heart”.

Remember Robert Frost: “Yield who will to their separation, my object in living is to unite my vocation with my avocation as my two eyes make one in sight. Only where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes, is the deed ever really done, for heaven and the future’s sakes.”

You see. The world does not lack for wonders. Love is wonder. Love is commitment and delight. And love is wonder. Wondrous Love! “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Go and Live

Yes, there is a sense in which every Sunday is a return to the altar where vows are taken and then lived.

I encourage you to tithe primarily because of what it will do for your character, your temperament, your personality, your spirit, your soul. And you can start today. Maybe you already made out your pledge card. But you can take another and add a zero. We will know which one to count.

Our habits form whatever virtues we have. Our practices form our faith. Do good until you become good. Preach faith until you have faith. This is what John Wesley, of all the Christian tradition, best taught.

At one of our seminaries there lived a professor and his wife who for many years, every Sunday evening, gathered a group of young clergy for dinner. The dinner began at 5pm and their table was always full. After retirement his mind left him, and she lived the 36hr a day illness, which some in this room know far better than I. As he weakened his students would come to visit. He muttered unintelligibly, listening hardly at all. His wife explained, offered tea, and graciously received the prayers of her visitors. Through such an hour the professor made no sensible statement, a stunning reversal for such a brilliant teacher. His mind was gone. But not his heart and not his faith, formed in years of practice. As the visitor was about to leave he would stiffen, sit formally forward, his eyes would brighten, and his own voice would return, as with earnest deliberation he would say, as he had for fifty years prior, “My wife and I are glad to have met you. We would be ever so pleased if you would be our guests this Sunday, for dinner. Come to our home at 5pm. You will honor us with your presence.”

Virtue is formed by habit, and faith by practice.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Once More to the Lake: Heart/Leading from the Heart

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 10: 35-45

Who taught you about power?

Who taught you by precept or example about the use of authority?

Think for a minute, or for a good stretch of a lifetime, about those who modeled for you the spiritual dimensions of leadership. Unreflectively we follow their lead if reflectively we do not assess their example. And every one of us has power, exercises some authority, and leads, especially in our example.

Carlyle Marney used to ask us: “Friend, who told you who you are?”

The Gospel today asks of us a narrower question: who taught you about power? The Gospel today tells us that authentic authority, real responsibility are a matter of the heart. What are your models of power?

Shaker Simplicity?

Is one the heartfelt happiness of simplicity? Heartfelt leadership is ultimately very simple.

Said John Wesley, repeatedly, “if thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand”.

And Calvin: What is the chief purpose of human life? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.

There will come a day when you wake up to the purity of the heart that, as Kierkegaard said, is to “will one thing”. That is conversion, often wrought in power struggle.

You may come to a morning hour, even this one, in which you sense a new opening, a desire to live a life that makes God smile. You will become kinder, happier, more generous, more forgiving. This is the purpose of being alive, to speak and act and be in a way that brings a smile to the divine countenance.

It is intriguing that the Gospel lessons about living, in Mark, are set in the humble reaches of the lake country. Writing in Rome in trouble in 70AD, there must have some comfort, some folkloric encouragement for the persecuted urban Christians in these polished memories of Jesus teaching along the shores of Galilee. There is beauty along the lake. There is calm along the lake. There is peace along the lake. There is serenity along the lake. Along the lake there is space and time to sift, reminisce, remember, sort.

Who taught you what you know about power?

Along our lakes and rivers in this lovely region there arose a utopian sect, first in Albany and then in Cleveland, who embodied the simple life. In their work, their dress, their furniture, their devotion, their relations, the Shakers lived simply. The heart of their simplicity, and ours at our best, is the desire to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called”. Every renewal in Christian history has had this feature: Paul mending tents, Augustine chaste again, Luther and Erasmus cleansing Rome, Wesley and his coal miners, Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human church.

Who are you trying to please? And how? And why?

Think of someone you have known who lived with a heartfelt, powerful simplicity.

Who taught you about authority?

Ambrosian Authority?

Is another model the heartfelt affirmation of the common good?

Mark 10:35 is one of the few spots in the earliest gospel at which the emerging institutional needs of the church are visible. Christianity wrestled with formational questions in the first century: For whom is the gospel? What are the definitive texts? And especially, who shall hold authority. What, How, Where. And Who?

As this passage shows, from the outset it has been terribly difficult for the Christian church to maintain its own authentic form of authority, over against the lesser models abroad in every age. I emphasize the little phrase, slave of all, or servant of the whole. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.

We saw the film “Under the Tuscan Sun” last week. It was beautiful. Aristotle taught us to attend to the true, the good, the beautiful. In the late fourth century there emerged a good, great leader of the church, Ambrose of Milan. In just eight days he went from unbaptized layman to Bishop. His rhetorical skill, musicianship, diplomatic agility and attention to the preparations for Baptism provided the power behind his lasting influence in Northern Italy. Above all, Ambrose used his authority for the common good. Notice in the Scripture there is no avoidance of the need for leadership. Authority may be shared but responsibility is not to be shirked. What lasts, what counts, what is true and good and beautiful, finally, is what “builds up”.

The greatest teacher of the earlier church, Augustine of Hippo, came to Milan a non-Christian. From the influence of Ambrose he left baptized and believing and worked a generation to set the foundations for the church over a thousand years to come.

I find some striking parallels to the story of Ambrose in a now popular book by Jim Collins, "Good to Great." Here are the qualities of those in authority in companies that became great when they had before been good: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings—a plow horse not a show horse. A lot of progress can be made when we do not linger too long over who gets the credit.

Some years ago I went to a church meeting near Potsdam on a very cold night. It was led by our Bishop. For some reason I was not in a very happy mood, nor was I very charitable in my internal review of his remarks that evening. I do not recall his topic or theme. I remember clearly seeing him help to move hymnals, borrowed from other churches for the large crowd, so they could be returned. Snow, dark, long arms carrying a dozen hymnals into the tundra.

Who taught you about power?

Think of someone you have known who lived with heartfelt passion for the common good.

Who taught you about leadership?

Servant of Servants?

Is another the example of deliberate and deliberative service?

Clint and I drove down through Ithaca in July. It was wonderful. Our two older kids were born there but I really have not been back in over twenty years. I believe there is a physical dimension to mind, to memory and maybe even to hope. It is important to be in certain places in order to receive certain insights, past and maybe even future. That is why reunions can be so powerful. Forgotten familiar spaces can evoke long buried memories. (It happens that just as this sermon was finished yesterday, a group of Doublers came to visit their former classroom next door to my office.) I remembered powerfully the experience of discovering, in a simple pamphlet in the Ithaca library, the graduate program that would form 10 years of our lives in Montreal. It was one of those uncanny moments when you feel that something beyond you is taking you by the hand and putting you somewhere.

Going north meant that I would not learn from Charles Rice at Drew. But I followed him through the years. A few years ago he spoke about the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox Church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel, then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon. Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image, making it clear again. And he had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. And through him I did too. Maybe it will work for you. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety. Service that lasts is deliberate and also deliberative, it is body and mind.

My friend Henry told me a while ago that when his new leader came he helped the man put on an old frayed black robe. But by the time he retired, the man was wearing a white, purple, ostentatious gown. Henry felt like something had been lost.

This last week I attended an annual meeting through which I saw again the freshened image of Christ in the person of our host. For a year he sent, monthly, carefully crafted letters about various aspects of our gathering, both to novices and “grizzled veterans” as he said. These epistles were beautiful overtures to the event to come. A month before the meeting he directed his staff to telephone those who had not fully finalized their plans. That would include delinquent me. He prepared lodging and meals, program and transportation. Every day those in attendance received a bag of information, treats and jokes. On the first day he spoke, at our beginning, with brevity and power about the need for attention to detail in our work. He spoke personally about his own father and some of the issues of authority and power there, and also of his own son who had died of suicide at age 30. He did not shirk responsibility and yet he did not horde authority. He set the beat and guided the conversation, no mean feat with 30 preachers and no agenda. He was up early with the details of hosting and stayed late for those last minute conversations. Every so often he inserted a brief, but telling comment to highlight or shade another’s thought. On the last day, he again spoke, before the Holy Communion, again with brevity and power, about Real Presence. He offered a prayer of consecration, broke the loaf and raised the chalice and placed them on the table, then stood back inside the circle saying, “no one need hold this”. We came one by one to bread and cup, prepared by a servant of the servants of God.

Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt service to the servants of God.

Who taught you about power?


Every one of us has some power. If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some authority.

Who taught you, by precept and example, how to use it? How much of what you picked up needs keeping and how much needs to be put out on the curb?

A simple passion for the common good of the servants of God is at the heart of leadership.

For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Once More to the Lake: Hope

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 10: 17-31

Jesus meets us today on the shoreline of real hope. At the edge of the water of life he invites us to wade out from the dry land of having and into the living water of giving. He is calling you from having to giving. He is inviting me to be a trustee of the future as well as the past. He is offering us a chance, a chance, a daily chance not only to conserve and protect but also to develop and enhance. Up here along the lakes.

The bright lights of a big city, Jerusalem or New York, may distract our attention from the 50% of Christ revealed along the lakeshore. Down south to Jerusalem the Jews went, including, we may suppose, those like Jesus and Mary and Joseph who lived ‘upstate’, for great autumn and winter and spring festivals (Sukkoth, Hanukah, Passover), as we go south to the Big Apple for the great autumn and winter and spring festivals (Thanksgiving, New Years, Easter). Mark remembers Jesus teaching, though, along the lake of Genessaret. Lessons for living along the lakeshore: once more to the lake! The Gospel in a word today is hope, past and present and future. We have a heritage of hope. Jesus Christ, today’s real presence, inspires hope. The future holds for us a collective hope.

1. We Have Heritage of Hope

In the first place, you are descendants of hopeful people.

Just to the north of Owasco Lake, in the historic section of Auburn, you may find time to visit the home of William Seward. Seward lived and practiced law along the northern shore of the lake. Unlike his Moravia neighbor, Millard Fillmore, he never became President, although he was the leader of the nascent Republican Party. He served as Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869, was nearly killed on the same day and by the same plan that took Lincoln, became a highly skilled international diplomat (how we could use his spirit today!), and was vilified in his own lifetime for an act of hope of uncommon proportion. William Seward, of the Finger Lakes, knew that hope is in the living water of giving not on the dry land of having, in the water of development not on the rocky shore of protection. He came from an upstate farm family, but he had the courage and genius to give, to generously invest in an unknown and unforeseeable future. More urbane leaders were more tepid. Not Seward. Like a poor woman with only a farthing to spend, he did spend; he did give, and did so with hope and grace. In a time of calamitous confusion—1867!—Seward bought Alaska for $7.2M, $2 an acre. For such courage he was persecuted and vilified. “Seward’s icebox”, the downstate press chortled. But his visionary generosity to the future, like that which built Asbury First, and that which will build our future, are gifts to an unknown future, and an unborn generation. Hope meets us at the shoreline of having and giving, at the point we wade out from conservation and protection into development and enhancement. Which brings us suddenly to Mark 10.

2. Jesus Inspires Hope

In the second place: Jesus the Faithful Presence inspires hope! In the city of Rome, under the thumb of Caesar, Mark in 70AD rehearses Jesus’ lakeside lessons. Gathered in secrecy, hearing news of a Jerusalem temple in flames, rightly fearing impending persecutions, Mark’s Roman Christians heard hope in these teachings, so frequently as today related to wealth. If you notice only one word in this passage, mark Mark’s inclusion of “persecutions” (vs. 30).

For there is an urgency to Mark’s passage that Matthew and Luke have left behind. Mark exudes raw energy under the pressure of apocalyptic expectation. Sell and give! Some will not taste death until they see the SON OF MAN. Notice the telltale apocalyptic marks: eternal life (the coming resurrection of the dead); this age and the age to come (the heart of Jewish longing); camel and needle (end of an age hyperbole); none is good but God (the apocalyptic distance of heaven from earth); the reign of God (the essential apocalyptic hope); persecutions (harbinger of the end); last become first (apocalyptic justice). But there is no mistaking the primary announcement: life is found in the lake of giving, not on the shore of having. Yes, you must honor the past, including the commandments (though Mark’s Jesus lists only the second 5). Yes, we must conserve and protect. But as LT Johnson told us this week: “the tradition of the church is meant to open the future!” Conserve what you can and protect what you must, then give—develop, give—enhance, give—and open the reign of God! This is what life is all about.

At the end of this month’s remarkable election in California, a Mexican American Democratic leader in LA memorably implored his people to look to the future: “Think of your future. Look to the next generation. See what is out ahead. Why if you vote for (candidate x) it would be like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders!” He could speak apocalyptic.

Speaking of apocalypse and chickens, it is like the old story of the Methodist Ham and Egg dinner. A hen and a pig stopped in to the church and were so impressed by their welcome and welcoming space that they offered to help. The pastor saw the hen and pictured eggs. She saw the pig and pictured ham. “Well, we could use you both, but for one of you this would be a significant contribution and for another it would mean real sacrifice!” She could sing apocalyptic.

Jesus spoke more about money than about almost anything else. Here as elsewhere he offers a word of hope. Giving does most for the giver. Over a lifetime you will be happiest about what you give. You only possess what you can personally give away. What possesses you, and the rich young ruler, you do not want. You want freedom, the freedom to give.

It is hard not to be had by what you have. So the good news counsels, “Store ye not up treasure on earth...” At a meeting Tuesday Tom Fassett quoted Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us, late and soon. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours. We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.”

Peter, the disciple whom Mark loved, provides the counter example to the possessed man. He has left everything and received everything. He has been inspired in Jesus the Christ to live in hope. Peter has found the hope to risk building a kingdom that does not yet exist. He is learning to swim on the lake of giving after standing for so long on the shore of having.

To learn to swim you have to trust that the water will hold you up. It will. We have a role as trustees of our church. All of us are trusted in our time with a future time. What becomes of this congregation in 2020 is being determined right now. As trustees we bear responsibility not only to conserve and protect the past but also and more so to develop and enhance the future. There is an irony here, too. The only way you can really conserve and protect the past is to develop and enhance the future. Like Jeremiah buying land as the city burned, Peter invested in faith as calamity overtook him. We can too. Let’s. Jesus inspired hope in Peter and he can do so in us today. Which brings us upstate in 2003.

3. Ours is a Collective Hope

In the third place, the good news gives birth, the Christian gospel gives birth, to the blood spattered, umbilically tethered, tiny cherub of hope, weekly, in its reading and hearing and interpretation. Over against our upstate economic malaise, we are forced by today’s reading to consider the horizon of hope for our region. This passage lays hold not of what is wrong but of what is right!

Hope is not optimism. Hope is realism with ears and eyes. Finger Lakes New York is becoming poorer by the minute. I have clippings from this calendar year of manufacturing demise in Corning, Binghamton, Oneida, Syracuse, and Rochester. Glass, computers, silver, air conditioning, caskets, film—let us conserve and protect as much as we can. Hope, though, has ears for what the future is saying too. Not only to conserve and protect, but also to develop and enhance.

Hope is realism with ears. Hope hears the analysis and knows its partial truth: our infrastructure is too old; our schools are too rowdy; our elderly are too expensive; our taxes too high; our manufacturers do not speak Chinese (literally, figuratively, or monetarily); our cities are too rusty; our farms are too rocky. We would be better off downstate, in Jerusalem, or in Diaspora, in Texas.

Hope is realism with eyes, too. Eyes that see a new future being born. It is a good lakeside future! With God all things are possible. Be grateful for what you have been given and so give to the future in hope! Here are five fingers of hope, like the slim fingers of the lakes themselves that beckon us in hope.

You have an exquisite, glacially sculpted lakeside geography like no other. Flaunt it!

You have a tough, varied, post-modern meteorology, including snow and ice, like no other. Market it!

You have a progressive, human friendly, Rockefeller republican culture like no other. Cherish it!

You have a proven, compassionate, historically liberal political heritage. Support it!

You have a flourishing, ecumenical, broad spirituality more vibrant than nearly any world wide. Invest in it!

Geography, meteorology, community, history, spirituality. Not wealth, perhaps, but just maybe treasures akin to those of heaven. Enjoy, savor, and appreciate, live!

Have dinner at the Aurora Inn. Buy some skates. Or skis. Read Reynolds Price along a quiet lake. Look up Vaclav Havel in a local library. Make a reservation at one of the following: Chautauqua, St Bonaventure, the Abbey of the Genesee, Colgate Chapel House, Jordanville Russian Orthodox Monastery, New Skeete Priory, Stella Maris, Casowasco, Willard Chapel in Auburn. New York State is Spiritual Smorgasbord and some people are going hungry! Here is another: Join Asbury First. And tithe!

I want to conserve and protect all manner of our manufacturing past as much or more than any other. In Webster, the next word below manufacture is manumission. Our future in Upstate New York is spiritual, though. Not only manufacture but also manumission. Manumission: freedom, liberation, emancipation, the reign of God. It would not surprise Hiawatha, or John Dempster, or Frederick Douglass or Harriett Tubman or Franklin Roosevelt.

God has a different, more modest, yet truly wonderful purpose for upstate. We are maturing. We can move from achievement to enjoyment, from manufacture to manumission, from materiality to spirituality. In our lifetime. We will earn less. We will have more jobs per home. One said: “I know the economy is getting better and there are more jobs because I have three of them now, not just one.” Well. The future will be different, but it will be good. This is the meaning in part of Mark 10: there is hope for our region.

Call to Faith

We may be less comfortable with real hope than we are with real despair. Things are much easier, in one sense, if there is no hope or future. We have no responsibility, then. If our regional future, or even part of our future, lies in spirituality, religion, faith, manumission, then this church is center stage, across the Finger Lakes, for century 21. Then we have a leadership role to play. Then we really do need to invest in the future. Then hope will involve not only conservation and protection but also development and enhancement. No, the canal is not coming through, nor the railroad, nor the highway. That is the past. But a canal culture of natural grace? A railroad of personal freedom? A highway of spiritual emancipation? Everything north of Yonkers is one gracious beautiful garden. You have the good news to share that will help a future generation to get off the highway of having and get into the garden of giving.

I have a hope that you will hope too. It is the hope that the spiritual, Christian love I have known at Asbury First, in all its liturgical, didactic, and missionary excellence, will be available for my grand children. Growth always requires the risk of change. And not small change, either.

50 years ago this month ground was broken for our sanctuary. Your pastoral team and households are making a challenge commitment to build our future calculated to remember these 50 years. It is our hope that with Peter of old we together can step out from the dry land of having and wade in the water of giving.


Sunday, October 05, 2003

Table Service

Asbury First United Methodist Church

World Communion Sunday
Text: Mark 10:2-16

Tables carry a wealth of memory and meaning. You can remember a table around which you were raised and fed, and another around which you raised and fed others. I remember a table on the south end of Skaneateles Lake, in a trailer, on which a good meal was provided: the table was a cardboard carton. I remember a drop leaf table on which as newlyweds we fed a visiting Bishop all the eggplant he could eat. There was a table in the north, between Trout River and Constable, on which hot tea was served, before a log fire: its house had no electricity, 50 years after rural free electrification. One table in one parsonage was an oak oval. Another had leaves that never quite dropped into place. At this time of year our Jewish neighbors annually borrowed a picnic table for their feast of Sukkoth, booths, the memory of the wilderness. At the World Council of Churches chapel in Geneva there is a simple table, perhaps mahogany, where I see in memory Jan playing the organ and Bertric Wood, a black congregational woman preacher, serving communion to Eastern Orthodox visitors who were learning a hymn new to them: “Let us break bread together”. Our tables here in Rochester are laden with memory and meaning. I can see a cluttered table near here where funeral plans are designed, a changing table blocks away where a girl is readied for baptism, a living room table covered with the flotsam and jetsam of a wedding party trying to get to the church on time, a formal table around which a will is read. Tables hold meaning.

Especially this is so for the Lord’s Table today. Our lesson from Mark remembers the meaning of Jesus resurrection and cross, which is to include the weaker parties at the table. The Gospel of Mark is not journalism. It was written forty years after the fact, after the cross. The Gospel of Mark is not history. It was written to announce the meaning of the cross and resurrection. It was formed, that is, by questions raised in the early church. In Mark 10 these questions are table top questions. The church in Rome was trying to find its way. So they posed their questions to the memory of the earthly Jesus and in the presence of the Risen Christ. Here is one: “Are we to bring justice to those, particularly women, cast aside in divorce?” Yes, says Jesus, the common neglect of women divorced in the Roman Empire is not to be your practice for there is a higher law than that of the state or even of religion: among you, there is to be a place for those cast aside. (This same principle, a concern for justice, can also produce a reluctant recognition of the need for divorce, as in fact it does in Matthew and in Paul) Here is one: “Are we to make space for children?” Yes, says Jesus, the common infanticide of the Roman Empire is not to be your practice, for among you there is to be a place for those who are smaller, weaker, voiceless, a place at the table. The Gospel brings us to the table with gratitude: “For what we have been given, make us truly grateful.”

For every gift there is a task. We are learning this anew, with joy, as in this congregation we ponder the meaning of the gifts we have received from the past and the task we have with our gifts to open the future. Did others sacrificially give to build for the benefit of others to come later? Yes they did. Shall we do so? Yes we shall. Can we strive in our time to triple our average pledge so that our average is $3600\yr? We can. Is that our primary challenge today? It is one of them for sure. What is another? Ah, another. Another, or perhaps the same one viewed from the top of the table, is this. Every gift implies a task. At the Lord’s Table we are given what we most need and cannot any way assemble on our own: meaning, joy, forgiveness, pardon, peace, hope, eternal life. This table of gift implies some other table of task.

What is your ministry? What is your Ministry? As we come to the Lord’s Table let us ask whether we have found our own table service. Has your ministry here found you yet? It is one thing to be in membership, another and better to be in ministry. For some, yes. For most, not yet. For when 80% of our congregation does table service, there will be a fire, a spiritual blaze across Monroe County.

I can show you a woman who spends hours, bent over a table, preparing clothes for the needy. At what table is your service?

I can point to a person who visits at the dining room table with others considering a gift for the altar. At what table is your service?

Here is a man running a table saw to care for a church building. At what table is your service?

A whole company of saints sits at meeting tables month by month to bathe the process of community life in considered, reasonable thought. At what table is your service?

There is a man who feeds the hungry at a table not a stone’s throw away. At what table is your service?

Is there a woman willing to sit with children in a daycare and read books by their table laden with cookies and milk and spilled milk and crumbs? At what table is your service?

Notice the favorite photograph of an older woman’s hands holding a Bible at the reading table. At what table is your service?

Take a moment and ask yourself as you come to the Lord’s Table: Have I found my table service? Something like 40% of our church may already have done so. And you? At what table is your service? I would not be hurt if someone used a prayer request card, just this one Sunday, to say: “I am ready to engage ministry and here is the table at which I will serve: Monday Morning Crew, Daycare, Stewardship Committee, Sunday School, Girl Scouts…”

When we came home from the practice field in the fall the evening meal was being prepared… and it smelled so good in the cooler air…. and we knew we were hungry and ready in the cooler air… and happy to be fed an autumn feast in the cooler air… and yet, and yet, and yet, as we came to this gift…we were offered a task, too. I guess this was a human voice speaking, but somehow, searching my memory and coming today to the Lord’s Table, I cannot be fully certain. Tables are so laden with memory and meaning. Hang up your coat. Help set the table. Put out the china. Fork on the left. Pour the water. Fold the napkins. Set out some flowers. Call your brother. Cut the bread. Take out the trash. I can almost hear Luke 17, “your field work is no substitute for your domestic duties”. What was more loving, the gift of the meal or the summons to service? I know which one I liked more. But which did I need more?

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Once More to the Lake: Home

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 9:38-41

Amid all the versions of our life pinned to us like unrequested name tags, day by day, it is heartening to pause in the Presence of Christ and the hearing of his word. Friends help us see ourselves in a truer light. Families help us see ourselves in a fuller light. Pastors help us see ourselves in a broader perspective. The gathered church does the same and more for each of us. Finally, though, it is Christ who powerfully casts away the false demons of our supposed identities, and places us, like a ripe apple in an autumn sun, in a better light. We feel, Sunday, that what is right and good and happy about us has come home to us or we to Him.

We are at home upstate, as Jesus was raised north of the big city. His teaching in the first half of the Gospel occurs along the lakeshore, to the North in Galilee of the Finger Lakes, Galilee of the country and the many nations, Galilee of natural beauty. You can take the boy out of the country but it is harder to take the country out of the boy. It is in the pastoral setting of the lake country that Jesus teaches lessons for living. Lessons for dying come later, downtown. Half of the Gospel is an upstate Gospel! Here, along the brilliant shining big sea water, you are not far from the kingdom of heaven!

You will recall the old saw about a Kansan who traveled across country, in this mythical tale, and found golden telephones in various churches. In Seattle, Austin, Michigan, Chicago, Milwaukee, Saskatoon, and Portland he located these fine phones, which were adorned with the sign, “$10,000 a minute”. Every preacher explained: “that is the cost of a personal long distance call to heaven.” Then he came to Auburn, NY, in the middle Finger Lakes, and saw the same phone, with a different sign, “25 cents”. “Why not $10,000?” he asked. The reply, “Son you’re in the Finger Lakes now. This is God’s country. It is a local call here.”

Not to put too fine a point on it. But. I have redundant purpose for my redundant reference, this autumn, to our lake side home, upstate. Everything north of Yonkers is one great sacred, secret garden! Have we truly appreciated what we have been given? Jesus hallowed his upstate home with teachings for living. Can we sense his Presence here? ‘Did those feet in ancient time…’ We spend so much ink and bile on rust around us that we miss the main gift of rest around us. We live in a great, grand, lake filled, forest covered, river beaded, mountain viewed, glacier cut, divine park. Let us tend our garden. Let us celebrate what God has given us: meteorology, geography, history, community, spirituality. We can lead a progressive life together up here in Galilee. We may care for toddler and geezer, woman and gay, Latino and Asian. We can mow and shovel. It is a gift to be simple. It may take an existential shift. From creation to recreation. From employment to enjoyment. From manufacture to manumission. From achievement to appreciation. From speaking to listening. From building to believing. From the empire state to the state of grace. Jesus leads us once more to the lake today.

Christ Brings Us Home

First. The Scripture today announces again for us the glad tidings that Jesus brings us home. What a feeling that can be to come home! Do you remember your first real homecoming? Stepping off the train in uniform. Debarking the ship at port. Swinging a duffle bag from the bus after the first semester. The open hearted love of Christ continuously calls us home to his way, truth and life.

In this passage, Jesus answers a question about who can come home with the disciples. For whom is the good news? We receive teaching we want to receive, and usually only when we truly ask for something. Most preaching and teaching is lost because the hearer has back turned and face set in another direction. It is useless to holler people home. People will only hear you when they are coming toward you. As the disciples do this morning. Something has happened that is new and unplanned. The Gospel has taken off without them and they are worried. Others—others—are doing powerful deeds of good. Like Jonah under the castor oil plant, the disciples are disappointed to discover the uncanny, novel, expansive nature of God’s invasion. They had rules set and a plan and a way forward. Now something has happened that is not in the manual. Others have heard. Others. Notice that John is concerned that others are not following “us”, the disciples, though they clearly take the name of Christ, and do good in His spirit. There is a danger to breadth and there is a danger to narrowness. Here Jesus spanks out a clear word of inclusion. One papyri adds: “He that is not against you is for you. He that is far off today will be close tomorrow”.

Two Methodists, earnest and eager, met at dawn to kneel and pray: “Holy God, before you we are nothing. Nothing are we before you. You are great and we are nothing.” A Presbyterian came by, and knelt too. “Holy God, before you I am nothing, nothing.” Said one Methodist to the other, “Bob, hey, will you get this, look who thinks he’s nothing!” Religion carries an inevitable curse of exclusivism unless it is regularly nourished by expansive grace. There is a wideness in God’s mercy. More than one denomination will have a room in heaven. It is unshakable bedrock history that Jesus brought home, welcomed those outside: the poor, foreigners, children, women, the unclean, the sick. He is the Christ of the Open Heart!

Memorize his proverb: “He who is not against us is for us.”

You will lose the Gospel trail if you dwell too long on small differences. The first 200 years of the church’s life saw a wide, wild range of heterodox expression, able to include both Matthew and John, which lived and let live in non-essential things. The assumption in Mark 9:40 is one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. Neither East nor West, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. One.

It is in this light that the sad exposure of ongoing rhetorical racism in our fair county can best be seen. It is underneath saying that public utterances of the kind we have heard by radio have no place in our home. We have not fully forgotten F. Douglass, S. Truth, H. Tubman, G. Smith or the 600,000 who died to preserve the Union. We remember ML King carefully calling Indianapolis “up south”. Another generation is coming along that needs to hear the Gospel of the open heart! One poll showed 60% of this county largely untroubled by the virulent racism on our airwaves. The demon of racism needs still those who will cast it out, in the name of Christ. That is a job for you, disciples, as parents, employers, citizens. It is not only for those heroic leaders who expand boundaries by their presence: Bill Johnson and Violet Fischer and others. This is your job too.

My job today is to repeat that cultural prejudice and theological narrowness have no root in the Gospel. Jesus includes. Wesley had it right: “If thine heart be as mine, give me thy hand”. There is a lot of space on a spiritual village green. Matthew in fear reversed the saying (“he who is not for us is against us”). Luke in kindness whitewashed the disciples (“they did not follow you”). Mark honestly both names our penchant for exclusivity, and reliably records Jesus word. Remember it this fall: “he who is not against us is for us.” He is the Christ of the open heart.

Christ Settles Us “at Home”

Second. An open heart produces an open mind. In worship we regularly rehearse what we have heard before. Creed, hymn, text, prayer. In this practice, Christ settles us again so that we have that “at home” feeling about life.

Of all the losses in our time, it is this loss of feeling at home in life that is most crippling. Before 9/11 we knew we were east of Eden. Culturally now we are Far East of Eden. But Christ –those not against me are for me—settles us to the sense of being at home.

I know there is a hard side to feeling homesick. Yet Frederick Beuchner once used that sensibility as a description of faith. We long for home. When we settle in, when we feel a little confident, when we enter the presence of the Master, and sup at his table, then we can do all things through Him who welcomes us!

When we feel “at home”, in Christ, then we gain the freedom of the open mind.

I love the story of Hiawatha. 500 years ago this Onondogan taught 5 warring tribes a lesson: “he who is not against us is for us.” The Iroquois confederacy was born and lasted to the Revolution, along these same lakes. Longfellow had some of the history wrong, and his language is archaic, but even now you feel he had his pulse on the truth of Hiawatha’s song:

By the shores of Gitchie Gumee
By the shining Big Sea Water
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis

All your strength is in your union
All your danger is in discord
Therefore be at peace henceforward
And as brothers live together

Sat the little Hiawatha;
Heard the whispering of the pine-trees,
Heard the lapping of the waters,
Sounds of music, words of wonder;
'Minne-wawa!" said the Pine-trees,
Mudway-aushka!" said the water.

Saw the fire-fly, Wah-wah-taysee,
Flitting through the dusk of evening,
With the twinkle of its candle
Lighting up the brakes and bushes,
And he sang the song of children,
Sang the song Nokomis taught him:

"Wah-wah-taysee, little fire-fly,
Little, flitting, white-fire insect,
Little, dancing, white-fire creature,
Light me with your little candle,
Ere upon my bed I lay me,
Ere in sleep I close my eyelids!"

It takes a sense of confidence, of being at home, to think and live in a new way. Especially if that open mind leads to a serious change. I agree too with Peter Marshall that if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything. There is also a danger to breadth. Still, the burden of the Christian Gospel leans more against the danger of the narrow and the divisive and the exclusive than against the danger of the open and the broad.

To change and grow we need the confidence of a stable home. Our Bishop told once of children liberated from the concentration camps who even when they were fed could not sleep, fearing that tomorrow hunger would return. Some GI had the happy thought of putting a loaf of bread in every child’s hands at nightfall. They slept. They slept holding tomorrow’s bread today. That is being at home, holding tomorrow’s bread today.

It is fascinating that the only mention of John in the Gospel of Mark is here. The Gospel named for John is the most open minded of the four. In the teeth of trouble, John upheld the open mind of Christ. John faced two problems. He faced the theological problem of the delay of the parousia (the brute fact that contrary to the teaching of Jesus and Paul the end of the world was not at hand). He faced the religious problem of the challenge of Gnosticism.

It is astoundingly encouraging to recall that in the terrific disappointment of the loss of eschatological urgency in the second century, John discovered the courage to keep an open mind, and so he found the inspiration to celebrate not Apocalypse but Spirit. No other New Testament voice found the courage to do so. Matthew and Luke hid the delay of the end behind the missionary triumph of the church. The Montanists and Docetists took extreme side doors out. 2 Peter, an early creative accountant, introduced a new eschatological math, “one day for the Lord is 1000 years”. But John kept an open mind. He let go of one of three of four most cherished teachings of his inheritance: the nearness of the end of time. Oh, he kept the form and words here and there. One day, one day. But he celebrated Spirit and gave Apocalypse benign neglect.

And he found a completely new expression, a new language, for the Gospel. In the beginning was the Word. Would today he have written, “In the beginning was the Web”?

In our day, we need to keep an open mind, too. Some forms of Christian faith are no longer fit for a global village, and a spiritual village green. A narrowly exclusive expression of Christ, a cherished teaching from our inheritance, we must let go. Our faith in Christ, who settles us into our home, may be particular without being exclusive. Again, for all of his unfair enslavement to the opposing cause, it is John who best expresses Gospel breadth. Is it unfair to wonder whether some of that breadth goes back in Johannine memory to this moment along the lake: “who is not against us is for us”? We need to hear the real John of the open mind: “The true light that enlightens everyone, everyone, was coming into the world.” But did John’s Christ not say, “I am the way and the truth and the life?” Yes and by it he meant: wherever there is a way, there is Christ. Wherever you find truth, there is Christ. Wherever there is breath of healthy life, there is Christ. All who come home do so with these.

Christ Is Our Home

Third. The very Christ who brings us home and settles us at home is lastingly, finally our home. Our passage ends with a staggeringly universalistic promise of reward for any and all who have even slightly, even to the measure of a cup of water given, come alongside the mission of Christ. “They will not lose the reward.” This is a reference to heaven. He is the door to heaven. He is the Christ of the Open Heart, the Open Mind and the Open Door. “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will come in and go out and find pasture.”

In baptism we put on Christ. Already, by promise, water and spirit, we are home, beginning at baptism. Already, at baptism, we have drowned the Old Adam. Already, at baptism, we have faced our mortality and our selfishness. Already, at baptism, we have begun to reside in a house not made with hands, one in which there are many rooms. Lord, we may tarry here awhile, but we are going home.


One Monday, entering ministry, I remember a trusted mentor saying he had never in the ministry of faith ever seen anyone fear death. That gave me hope.

A Tuesday, years later, he said he did not fear death himself. He had some worry about getting there, but not the river itself. That gave me hope.

Then on a Wednesday, Henri Nouwen, now across the river, said he dreamed that at heaven he was greeted with an embrace, a question about his travels, and the phrase, “let’s see your slides”. That gave me hope.

Thursday a phrase caught up to me, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. And S Jackson: “Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.” That gave me hope.

Friday morning, one birthday, I learned a man of my own age had died the night before. I thought how impossible it is for us to imagine the world without us, or to imagine ourselves apart from our world. We live, daily, in an imaginative bubble of temporary immortality. But I also remembered the phrase, “love is stronger than death.” That gave me hope.

Saturday there was the memory of two boys playing trumpets, at evening, across the southern end of a Finger Lake. Call and response, Day is dying in the west…That gave me hope.

Come Sunday, that’s the day. Now to stand under the gaze of another One, who brings home, who settles us at home, who is our lasting home, the Christ of the open heart, the open mind, the open door. Today in his presence—Christ is with us, lift up your hearts—He gives me hope.

Heading Home…

It was an early feminist theologian, Dorothy Gale, another Kansan, who rightly said, “There’s no place like home”. So true. He is our home. Are you heading home? Jesus said, “Who is not against me is for me.” Are you against him? To announce a Gospel of freedom and grace we need preachers and laity who embody an existential capacity for grace and freedom. Who is not against me is for me. Are you for him? Faith is an act of personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. Will you live on his behalf? Will you live with an open heart and mind and door?