Asbury First United
Text: Matthew 8:20
In the exuberance of youth, a scribe comes to Jesus and throws in his lot with the disciples: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus’ response is startling. No encouragement, no congratulations, no thanksgiving. Jesus rebukes the scribe by telling him how homeless the Christ is, in this world: “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head”.
These words, dripping with nature imagery, cast in Aramaic grammar (“birds of the air”), proverbially arranged, and centering as they do on Jesus’ favorite self-reference, “the Son of Man”, surely come from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth. What a marvel, a miracle really, to hear his voice some 2000 years later! Yet, we know that we today need not only to hear what Jesus said, but also to know what this means for our life together. The verse “simply” reminds us that Christ is not at home in this world.
Christ is not at home in the lives of institutions, when people must forsake honesty for loyalty. The displacement of honesty by loyalty is inevitable in institutions. It goes with the territory. Of course, we must do our part to support meaningful, healthy institutions. It takes skill to run an institution: a family, a school, a church, a corporation, a government. But Christ is not always at home in institutions. Even—how painful this is—the church, for which Christ gave his life, sometimes places loyalty over honesty. I remember the old saw about a grandfather with his grandson at an ordination. They sat in the back of the large sanctuary; the boy slept for much of the service, but perked up when the Bishop began to lay hands on the candidates. As a hush fell, the boy whispered, “what are they doing with their hands on his head?” Grandpa crustily replied, “they’re taking out his spine”. Christ is not at home where loyalty displaces honesty.
Christ is not at home in a society that domesticates dreams. The relentless push for order in our society inevitably crushes dreams. When a dream dies, so does Christ. What happens to a dream deferred? Consider the case of Walter Lee Younger, who is building his life and dreaming his dreams on Chicago’s south side. He works as a chauffeur, but dreams of owning his own store. One morning, in the hectic breakfast hour, he tries to share his dream with his wife. She frowns on the plan, and they argue. In exasperation she says, “ Oh Walter, eat your eggs, they’re gonna be cold”. Walter says: “That’s it. A man says to his woman, ‘I’ve got a dream’. His woman says, ‘Eat your eggs’. A man says, ‘I’ve got to take hold of this world’. But his woman says, ‘Eat your eggs and go to work’. A man says, ‘I’ve got to change my life, I’m choking to death’. And his woman says, ‘Your eggs are getting cold’.” Says Walter, “Well damn my eggs…damn all the eggs that ever was!” That as you know is part of "A Raisin in the Sun", a story of a dream deferred.
Nor is Christ at home in a culture focused on comfort. A towering Rochester hero, Christopher Lasch, wrote: “American youth culture is not a medium that initiates young people into adult life, nor even prepares them for it, but is a quasi-autonomous culture organized around the pursuit of fun and thrills.” Christ is not at home in that kind of mellow world. How could one who knew the cross conform to a world of comfort? Rather, we hear in his life the rhythms of Auden’s poem:
Follow him through the land of unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth
You will come to a great city that has expected
Your return for years.
He is the Life
Love him in the world of the flesh
And at your marriage all its occasions shall
Dance for joy.
Christ is not at home in the darkness of this world: to the extent that we are Christians we are homeless too. It is our job to remember this and to remind others. The Christian community’s joy is to point to…God…to confront a secular world with…God. We may not point well. In fact, we may be close to inept. But the pointing is what counts.
Christ is not at home in a time that forgets the littlest. Our Bishops wrote a wonderful paper a few years ago, “Children and Poverty”. At Asbury First we say “yes” to children in so many ways: Sunday School, Nursery School, Day Care, Scouting, Caring Center, Youth Group, Student Fellowship, and more. But children in our urban centers, children in the third world, children in pockets of hurt and poverty in many places—these littlest keep the Christ Sleepless, Roving, Wandering, Homeless. As Winston Churchill said, "A culture is judged by how well it cares for the oldest and the littlest." How do we measure up?
Christ is not at home in a world that denigrates diplomacy. No wonder we serve such a sleepless Savior, nowhere to lay his head has he, when the great world around makes such little space for the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove.
In the 1990’s everything was negotiable. Today nothing is negotiable. Both denigrate diplomacy. Diplomacy is the art of balancing the one with the other.
In the 1990’s, as was regularly decried from this pulpit, everything was provisional, up for sale or rent. The long shadow of the White House of Never Ending Negotiation both reflected and shaped our culture. A night in the Lincoln Bedroom—negotiable. Daily routines and deadlines—negotiable. Land in Arkansas—negotiable. Fate of the welfare poor—negotiable. Use of the Oval Office—negotiable. Personal morality—negotiable. The definition of “is”, “good”, “sex” and other timely terms—negotiable.
Today the opposite is true. Nothing is for sale, but nothing is flexible either. The long shadow of the White House of Never Employed Negotiation, itself a creation of our revulsion at its predecessor, both reflects and shapes our culture. The goodness of lowering taxes—non-negotiable. The subservience of the environment—non-negotiable. The invasion of Iraq—non-negotiable. The daily timetable—non-negotiable. The death penalty—non-negotiable.
In Christ, as Paul says, all is Yes. In Adam, as Paul says, all is No. For us, upon this earth, in the ongoing invasion of Adam by Christ, Yes and No are bedfellows. This is what makes life so real and hard. It takes great balance to run a marriage, a family, a business, a church, a government, and a world. It takes diplomacy. As John Kennedy said, in the presence of Robert Frost, on the happy day of Kennedy’s inaugural: “Let us never negotiate out of fear; but let us never fear to negotiate.” That is the kind of innocent wisdom and wise innocence that makes for a saving diplomacy.
Christ is not at home in a world collateral damage. I never will take for granted the regard of this congregation for the freedom of the pulpit. Most of you disagree, I know, with what I have said about the impending conflict with Iraq. Yet, you have graciously accepted what you cannot recommend, and you have graciously heard what you would not have said, and you have graciously protected what you would not have preferred. In my own ways, I will strive to measure up to your spiritual maturity in the years to come.
Once more: the opposition here voiced, over many months, to preemptory, unilateral, imperialistic, unpredictable military action continues. I have tried to show that such is outside the bounds of inherited Christian just war ethics. I have tried to argue that such is unreasonable when compared to the alternative of ongoing containment and potential retaliation. I have tried to calculate the consequences of first strike, non-multilateral, imperial invasion by one country of another. I have quoted Robert Kennedy, from another setting, that such would be “Pearl Harbor in reverse”.
What then do I say to the day that one of these terrorists further harms our people? They will. “We shall meet violence with patient justice”, and where we can bring justice, in response to attack, justice, in concert with the United Nations, justice that is a republic in defense not an empire in expanse, justice that makes for peace, even when this justice, to be temporarily achieved, may tragically involve the utter horror of war, then, let us say, we may have to act. That is 1991 and that is Afghanistan. But this new war is something else. Terror will continue. Our neighbor students died in Lockerbie, and that did not end it. The towers came down on 9/11 and that did not end it. Until a global tide of liberty and justice reaches the poorest Moslem hamlet in the most hateful Islamic nation, there will still be terror: to be met with patient justice.
Christ is not at home in a world where the innocent are judged guilty, when the powerless innocent are judged by the powerful, to be guilty though they be innocent.
At the very end of my friend T L Butts funeral sermon for our former pastor Dr. Andrew Turnipseed, we are graced with these lines:
“Near the end of Nelle Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a touching and unforgettable scene. Jean Louise (Scout), young daughter of the courageous Atticus Finch, has persuaded her father to let her come to the courtroom to hear the verdict in the controversial case in which he is defending a black man. She chose to sit in the balcony with the black people. The inevitable “guilty” verdict is rendered. It is over. Atticus Finch gathers his papers, places them in his briefcase, and begins a sad and lonely walk down the center aisle to the back door. Scout hears someone call her name, “Miss Jean Louise?” She looks behind her and sees that all of the black people are standing ups as her father walks down the aisle. Then she heard the voice of the black minister, Rev. Sykes: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, stand up, your father’s passin’.” Can you hear that? It begs to be heard.
"Hope is the capacity to work for something, not because it will succeed, but because it is good," said Vaclev Havel, 30 years before he had any success.
The Sleepless Savior, the Roving Redeemer, the Homeless Christ of this single sentence in our Holy Scripture—the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head—it is His presence and wandering on which you can rely when you also are sleepless, roving and homeless.
When you are crushed in institutional life between honesty and loyalty—just there, not later when things get better, but right there—you have the best of company, the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head.
When you see your dream of a lifetime domesticated in the world’s blessed rage for order—just there, not later when things get easier, but right there—you have the best of company, the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head.
When you watch your teenagers swamped in a sea of material excess and you wonder just how well they will swim—just there, not later when they and you are more settled, but right there in the necessary anxiety of faithful parenting—you have the best of company, the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head.
When you see children, far or near, marginalized and underattended—just there, not when the kingdom comes in full, but right there in the mud—you have the best of company, the Roving Redeemer who also sits up at night with children.
When you worry about a world that turns a deaf ear to the poetry of diplomacy, as we do today—just here, not when all is well later, but right here in our concern--we have the best of company, the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head.
When you lift your voice in sober concern about the collateral damage of war, as I do today, just here—not after the armistice, but right here-- we have the best of company, Jesus Christ, who has no place to lay his head.
When you weep at the sight of the innocent judged guilty, so often the voiceless innocent judged by the powerful to be guilty—just there, not in the heavenly courtroom but right smack in earthly defeat—you have the best of company, Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, who has no place to lay his head.
Stand up, stand up, He is passing by…
My daughter, who will be married this summer, is one of the greatest joys of my life. When she was little and the weather was nice, we walked in the Cornell wild flower gardens. She was a calm sort, except when she happened to see a bird in flight. Then she would tug my hand, and stamp her feet, and point to the sky and call out…”booties, daddy, booties”. She got the word wrong, but the spirit she got just right. The gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight! (Barth). It is the pointing to God, whether we do it well or poorly, with the right words or not, it is the pointing that counts. Following afar off, we point to a Homeless Christ, faith pointing to God’s future: the reign of Jesus in the heart, the reign of justice in the world. Until that day, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head….