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?

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Once More to the Lake: Height

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 8:27-38
To the Lake

In a few chapters Jesus will turn south to leave his native Galilee and its lovely long lake. His way to the cross will take him to the cross roads of a world city. The first half of his Gospel happens though along the lakeshore, upstate if you will. This fall the Jesus of Mark’s 70ad Gospel teaches us to the north beside the Lake of Genessaret. By spirit and interpretation we are privileged to hear these crucial lessons for living along our own lakeshores in the Finger Lakes. The Bible, as you have come to discover, in the main is not about Palestine, Jerusalem and Rome. Nor is it about Peter, Paul and Mary. Nor is it about temples, sandals or camels. It is about you. The Bible is about your life. The eastern shore of Canandaigua Lake (the chosen spot) is becoming some of the most valuable real estate in the country. How much more valuable are these lakeshore lessons which teach us about really being alive! They are some of the most valuable pedagogical landscape per sentence in literature. The first half of Mark, which is the model for all subsequent gospels, transpires upstate. Let us go once more to the lake!

A couple of years ago, in later autumn, our venerable 50+ class took a spiritual retreat southeast of Canandaigua at Watson Homestead. In their convivial embrace of one another, visible again in the careful plans laid out for their class’s worship, education and care this year, and in their convivial embrace of the scattered assortment of children from other churches in the region also in residence that week, I could see emerging a moveable village green. For two days I watched a couple doting on a pastor’s children from the southern tier. This too is Christ: a place spiritually to meet, spiritually to greet, spiritually to watch our children grow and our grandparents season. Together.

On return, in no hurry for once, we drove an alternate route and came northwest through Naples, toward the southern tip of Canandaigua, and into the Bristol “mountains”. It is Thomas, the twin, who exclaims in late John: “My Lord and my God.” His interest in seeing wonder murmured to us that day. How long has it been since you drove down an autumn day under the majestic cliffs in Naples. One of yesterday’s cyclists said, “It looks like Switzerland.” This glacially cut height! Height!

Yes, you may take the cable car from Gornergratt up the Matterhorn. That is height. You may drive up the dirt road from the Springs to Pike’s Peak (passing Lutheran Ralph Anderson’s new retirement home). That is height. You may climb Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks or Slide Mt in the Catskills. That is height. You may look out from the brown edge of the Grand Canyon. That too is height. But there is lake country height in Naples that bedazzles and bests them all. It is height with color. It is height with deep greens and blues. In the autumn with the large box of crayon colors! Height with grape pie for sale. Height at home. FDR pushed his wheel chair back from the canyon edge, puffing a cigar and offering that buoyant optimism which is the one quintessence of high leadership, to say: “This is nice, but take me home to upstate New York, to the green heights of my home. I like to see things grow.”

As we come today to the lake, the gospel in a word is height. We are addressed at one of the high peaks of the Gospel. Looking out from a cave in Galilee, near the lake, Peter—and Mark’s church in Rome in 70 and our church in Rochester in 2003—is stunned at last to see the Height of Christ!

1. The High Prize of the Upward Call of Christ

In the first place, our Gospel fixes Jesus’ place at the height of life. This is a stylized passage, honed in the preaching of 40 years from Jesus to Mark, from Calvary to Rome. Peter is dead. Paul is dead. A third generation of faith is born. The small church in Rome (are there 50 souls?) faces daily danger. Some danger comes from persecution. More, though, comes from amnesia. Hence the writing of the 16 chapters. Can you not imagine the profound reluctance of a community built on verbal resurrection, the ecstatic experience of life changing truth spoken and heard, heard and lived, lived and shared, to trap on paper what can only be said or sung? Only the frightful prospect of communal forgetfulness was worse. Hence, the documents. “Tell me again what Peter said!” “Where was it by the lake that Peter finally confessed his faith?” “How did the great fisherman put it—‘Thou art the Christ’?” “What does this mean for us amid Caesars, lions, catacombs, persecutions, coliseums and prisons?” (We add: what could it mean for us in Rochester, 2 millennia hence?”)

When at last he sees, Peter sees the Christ. He realizes that this same Jesus who teaches and heals and loves is none other than the one of whom there is none other. He is the height. In this one sense Christ as King above our portal here at Asbury First teaches us well. Peter fumbles as he fumblingly tries to explain Messiah (Greek: Christ) to the Gentiles in Rome. Later, the church will settle on a very clear term to make unmistakable the height of him who commands loving allegiance, and the loving allegiance to him who so commands. Lord. But Peter initially grasps for the very highest term given him by language, culture and tradition: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” What if Christ had come not to Galilee but to The Black Sea or the Yangtze or Tibet or the Euphrates or the Finger Lakes? “Did those feet in ancient time…?” Had Peter grown up elsewhere, he would perhaps have spoken otherwise. A full platonic Greek like John will say, in a few years, Logos, Word. A shinto might have said, “The Silence”. A Confucian, “Wisdom”. A Moslem, “Prophet”. An Iroquois: “Spirit”. All mean what Paul meant: the name that is above every other name.

Our deepest longing, our truest hope, our finest action, our highest desire: these meet, across the human race, in the Christ of many names who is height, along the lake.

2. Christ Inspires Height

In the second place, Peter marks on Mark’s wall for all time, including our own, an inspiration to height. Mediocre means half-way up the mountain. Christ is at the top.

One August 19 we sat on Mt Tremblant, the height of the Canadian Laurentians and quietly read the paper. We were recovering from summer. I wonder if others read David Anderson’s column in the Times Sports section from that day? The dateline was Rochester, for all the world to read. All then news fit to print included that day a word about height. Anderson reviewed the PGA. He applauded the host city and its course at Oak Hill. He celebrated that older style courses “defense of par”. The pros fought the rough and the rough won. Then he quoted Tiger Woods, who knows something about height, and who has some right to speak about what is best. Here is what Woods said: “That is the hardest and fairest course I have ever played.” That is a measure of height. You can live in Rochester NY. You can work in Rochester NY. You can serve the Lord with gladness in Rochester NY, right along the Finger Lakes shores, upstate, and be the best. Anywhere. The highest point. Anywhere. If you were a school, you could provide the best language program. If you were a corporation, you could provide the truest ethics and culture. If you were a hospital, you could provide the cleanest environment. If you were a church you could provide the best welcoming space. If you were a family business, you could provide the optimal employee support. Galilee of the gentiles, the North Country, was the outback of a third rate, vassal state. On its lakeshores were delivered life’s sublimest lessons.

If you were Asbury First, which you are, you could provide excellence at the height of traditional worship, in the breadth of varied education, in the depth of missional care. You could become the spiritual village green of this county, the spiritual meeting place at the height of all things good.

What will it take for your institution to “defend par”? And what will it take for our church to “defend par”? What will it take for our dear church in worship and education and care to be the toughest and truest anywhere? Christ as height evokes height. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead I press on for the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

As the pinnacle of piety Christ is no stranger to and needs no defense from other mountain peaks: Buddha, Hiawatha, Mohammed, Moses, all: “in him shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find; his service is the golden chord close binding humankind.”

Sometimes you find the most height in depth, and the resurrection in a cross.

3. You Are Meant for High Living

In the third place, you are meant for some forms of height.

Sometimes our God is too small. JB Phillips crafted a fine little essay on that theme, years ago. Sometimes we hide ourselves behind a false humility that is really an inverted pride.

Have we forgotten so quickly the caring inspiration of the poets? “It asks of us a certain height….” (Frost)

Have we forgotten so quickly the hard won courage of the pioneers? “Your playing small aids no one..” (Mandela)

Have we forgotten so quickly the dedication of our predecessors? “Here lies one whose greatest gift was to have done the best of things at the worst of times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous.” (Crossland)

Have we forgotten Jim Collins, just a while ago, calling us to “a culture of discipline and an ethic of entrepreneurship”?

Have I forgotten Bill Coffin singing at the end of his first Riverside sermon: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine..?”

While it is true that sometimes we ask too much of one another and of ourselves, it is also true sometimes that we ask too little. Mark 8:27 is about height and cost and sacrifice.

We are led in faith to the open and ever new frontiers of what is true, honorable, just, lovely, excellent, of good report. New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, one must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. Those who live to the utmost for God’s highest praise are fearless before change, before newness, before adventure, before truth. And such a willingness is a virtue, like all virtues, formed by habit. Aristotle, Aquinas and Wesley all emphasized: virtues are formed by habit, daily ritual, weekly routine, virtues are formed by habit, as the spirit is nourished by reading a Psalm a day.

The past precedes but does not prescribe the future. Biology precedes but does not prescribe destiny. Family of origin precedes but does not prescribe identity. Home, hearth, culture, cult, church, school, town—they precede but they do not prescribe vocation. May we hear this as a word of faith? The past does not determine the future. There is always the open possibility of healing for past hurt. There is always the open possibility of forgiveness for past wrong. There is always the open possibility of liberation from past entrapment. This is what we mean by Christ. Thou art the Christ! “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come.” In the lasting and large, this is truly what we mean by resurrection.


Along the lakeshore our gospel today is height. Christ is the world’s height. Christ inspires height. You are meant for high living. Faith is a divine gift, but it is also a human choice. How are you going to live, high or low?

This flat, fearful one dimensional world culture all around us aches for authenticity, howls for height, expires for lack of example! I ask you Christian people at Asbury First in Rochester NY in 2003: please, do not hide your light under a bushel of mediocrity! You have never any reason to apologize for keeping your minds and heart on the newness of God, whatsoever things are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, excellent, worthy of praise! Faith is a divine gift. Faith is also a human choice, as Peter found, evoked at height and by height. How are you going to live, high or low?

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Once More to the Lake: Health

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 7: 24-37
To the Lake

Half of the Gospel happens Upstate! Jesus meets us this fall along the lakeshore, in the north country, by the Sea of Galilee. Are we holding up our end of the stick? Have we balanced the teeter-totter as promised? Are we alive to His Presence in Our Place? The first half of Mark’s Gospel, and thus all subsequent Gospels, happen Upstate.

The Sea of Galilee, to the north, resembles nothing so much as one of our own Finger Lakes. If you stand in Capernaum, at that Lake’s northern tip, and look due south, you see for ten miles an inland fresh lake, about 2 miles wide, resting in the sloping embrace of hillsides like our own here in Upstate New York. Jerusalem, the great city, is found due south. People go to Jerusalem from the north. Especially for festivals, as we go to the great city on the Island of Manhattan. Go south for Sukkoth or Macy’s Thanksgiving Party. Go south for Hanukah or the New Year’s lights. Go south for Passover or the Easter Parade. New York City is to Jerusalem as the Finger Lakes are to Galilee. Downstate, Upstate. Northern Kingdom, Southern Kingdom. Both have their place. But come to lakeshore for lessons about living.

I was encouraged in July by a good old friend to drive with him along the western shore of Cayuga Lake. It is a road from memory and youth, one on which I had not driven in 20 years. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I ask you, is there really a more beautiful summer sight than Lake Cayuga from its crest along route 89 south? Slow down for cyclists. Pass by the Blue Heron. Catch a glimpse of Taughannock. Bask, Bathe, Breathe in the pure health of deep greens and blues on a sun spangled jewel of a lake! We came near the hospital in Ithaca, a place of wondrous change, the house in which our two older children and so many others were born. Bernice Danks taught generations of nurses there, using particularly her favorite epigram: “we call things routine because they are the most important things we do”. Lay Leader, lead soprano, member to conference, Veterinarian’s wife, head of nursing instruction, Bernice embodied today’s gospel. As we come once more to the Lake today, the Gospel is health! Jesus heals. We know how to heal. Your health matters.

1. We Remember Jesus Who Heals

In the first place, let us firmly hold the centuries old memory that Jesus was a divine healer. Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, upon paths perhaps familiar to him from youth, Jesus (always here in Mark’s particular memory) preached and taught and healed. Jesus did more healing than anything else: by the time we reach Mark 7:24 Jesus has already banished an unclean spirit, cured Peter’s mother in law, cast out and silenced demons, cleansed a leper, stood up a paralytic, repaired a withered hand, exorcised the Gerasene demoniac whose name is Legion, brought Jairus’ daughter back from the brink of death, staunched by a touch a flow of blood, made alive the synagogue ruler’s daughter, “ and as many as even touched his garment were made well”. Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick do. The healthy beauty that is our home here Upstate lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel.

I worked for a man once who spent a third of his adult life in Switzerland, but he hated cheese and never wore a watch. You have heard of people who reside in our sister city, Buffalo, but have never seen Niagara Falls. I expect there are people who live in Rochester who have no interest in photography, and not the slightest appreciation for photocopies. We can name two people who live in Syracuse but have not ever shopped at the Mall. (I am one of them.). One man who lives in San Diego doesn’t own sunglasses and has never surfed and wouldn’t recognize a Beach Boys song. Are there Alaskans who despise igloos? Lord have mercy. Frenchmen who dislike wine? Saints preserve us. Hawaiians who won’t swim? Oh, pshah. Methodists who can’t sing? Heavenly day. What an earthly shame, all. I hope someone is shutting the windows of heaven whenever there arises such bald lack of appreciation for what has been given! Sin is refusing to receive what we are given.

God’s natural bounteous gift to Upstate is the Finger Lakes, a world class handful of beauty. It is natural setting for healing, for healthy living. In the Gospel of Mark, at every turn, Jesus meets us with healing. Before we begin too quickly to debate the theological nuances of the healing ministry recorded in Mark, may we look at the big picture? Let’s stand for a moment on the lakeshore and take in the whole beautiful body of water. However finally you understand the Gospel record, there is no mistaking the sharp thrust, the surgical cut, the saving remedy of today’s Gospel. Jesus is mightily concerned with health, with healing. Whatever else the earliest Christians remembered of his lakeside ministry, his upstate work, this much is sure: Jesus is mortally concerned with healing.

The lessons of Tyre and Sidon, here along the Sea of Galilee, are lessons in living that sharply engage Jesus in the hard work of healing. In fact, Jesus continues toward healing even across two prodigious boundaries. Here is what I mean.

The concern of second Temple Judaism for cleanliness included a significant wariness about interaction with non-Jews. There is no mistaking the abiding influence of these kosher codes in the text which may be Jesus’ harshest comment: “we don’t feed dogs”. If any dominical saying is historical this surely must be for it is so uncomplimentary, so unflattering. Every editor to Mark and beyond would have ample reason to erase it. We might have done it ourselves. Jesus is a person of his time: speaking Aramaic, thinking David wrote the Psalms, riding donkeys, wearing sandals, expecting the Apocalypse, picturing a flat world, and, yes, concerned about the cleanliness codes: “it is not fair to feed the children’s food to dogs”. But hold the good news! Remember Jesus the Healer! At this, the only point in Mark’s gospel that it occurs, Jesus stretches out beyond Judaism, beyond inherited religion, beyond cult and culture, beyond tradition. There is something more important to him. Health. Here is a mother who craves her daughter’s health. Jesus hears her voice, honors her need, heals her daughter. Health takes Him beyond the barrier of religion.

There is no mistaking the power of this pronouncement for the 70AD church in Rome, made up of Gentiles. They, we, all are included in the healing ministry of Jesus.

There is a still more personal barrier which Jesus also crosses today. As so often in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus hides. Have you ever noticed that? Read Mark again this afternoon, and it will jump off the page at you. A dozen times at crucial moments, Jesus hides. He heals a woman, then says “shh”. He gathers a crowd, then says “shoo”. He preaches with magnificence, then “strictly charges them to tell no one”. He tries, according to Mark, to keep his nature a secret. No one really has fully explained the Messianic Secret of Mark. We need not try this morning. What is astounding, however, is that Jesus will not let this personal barrier—his hiding—keep him from healing. There is something more important to him than his own safety. Health. A man begs, and Jesus heals.

Health is more valuable than religion and more precious than safety. Jesus heals. Says Mark.

2. We Know How to Heal

In the second place, we too know something about healing. People need more reminders than insights. Truth, saving truth, comes often in the guise of a forgotten understanding. Our friends, our church, our families, at their best, give us ourselves by reminding us of Truth we used to know well.

I understand that we have some ongoing struggles in health care around our fair city. I read about it in the paper. I hear about it on the phone. I learn about it in conversation. The Christian Gospel, though, is an empowering reminder to those sturdy souls, many present today, who are laboring in the corporate work of healing. It takes a community to heal a body. Real healing is holy, in the sense that whatever is holy is at least whole: real healing attends to the whole human being: body, mind, spirit, community. We know about this. Here.

We know how to heal. We know about healing, or at least we used to know. I have a clipping in my sermon box from a newspaper article in September of 1992. There is a heated political debate flooding the Presidential election. Disagreement and dissent abound. There were more points of view on healthcare then, than there are gubernatorial candidates in California today. But there is consensus, says this article, about one thing. There is at least one city in the country that knows how to do things right. There is at least one community, and this in the area of the Seas of Galilee—the Finger Lakes—that is a model for what might be. There is a point of promise, what one calls a part of the new covenant and the other calls simply a point of light. It is as if the whole country is seated around the TV together, watching the World Series. There is no agreement about anything, until, sitting on his haunches, Uncle Bill or was it Uncle George, says: “well, it can be done. I mean look at the way they do things in Rochester.” And all 260 million eat another potato chip and nod their heads in agreement.

I have no interest in going backward. Generally. Once though Jan and I were driving somewhere and, remarkably, we got lost. I know it is impossible to imagine. At some point it was suggested: “maybe we should turn around and go to where we knew where we were going.”

In short, I hope this year to read two books, both as yet unwritten. You may write one, or both: one on what has happened to us in the last decade; one on what we can do in the next. Take heart. The day is coming when across this land, men and women will point to our city and say: “health—they know about that in Rochester”!

What is true of medicine is true of ministry. Spiritual health is a communal endeavor. We have come to a time to build in our ministry! To build space, relationships, habits of welcome, an open vibrant spiritual village green to focus all that is lastingly good across our county. Your church leadership is preparing to get some fresh air in here, to let a clean wind blow through a new century of ministry, to open up space and place for grace.

I wonder if a visitor here, today, hearing of our plans for a welcoming space, might particularly hear this morning’s gospel. You are sitting perhaps in the back pews, with a child or two. You hear that this church is setting out to build space to welcome newcomers. It dawns on you that many of the people giving most of the effort to this will not necessarily benefit directly from it. They are giving to an unknown future, an unforeseen generation. They are giving of their resource for people they don’t know, a generation yet unacquainted with Christ, a generous gift with no strings and no expectations. Given to you. You are being included! That is the feeling Mark’s church had to hear about Jesus healing a Gentile, one of them. In ministry as well as medicine, we have known what makes for health. Look what others gave us, no strings, no mortgage. It is time for us to do our part.

3. Your Health Matters

In the third place, these two healing accounts force upon us a therapeutic way of viewing the world. Staying again simply with the main thrust of these ancient readings, it is scarcely possible to hear Mark 7:24 and discount your own health. Health mattered enough for Jesus to break the barriers of religion and safety. Health has thus been central to the church’s ministry, and central to our city’s history. Which means this: your health matters. I suppose I could dress it up a little bit and make the interpretation a little more theologically obscure: “your personal and physical well-being are valued in this dominical periscope that defines the Markan presentation of the Christ”. Or, just, your health matters.

You were made in the image of health. You deserve health. You were created for health. You ought to have health. You need health. Your health matters.

The word salvation is a Latin root term, coming up from the noun “salvus”, which means, yes, health.

You will not expect, I know, that any interpretation of this Gospel can finally answer all of our questions about illness. We surely understand that the roots of disease are transgenerational, multicultural, and finally mysterious to a vast degree. Our Scriptures from the ancient world both veil and reveal insights about health. We can be more than joyful that our medical science is not that of first century Palestine. There is no way to explain why illness befalls saints and good health sinners. There is no way to understand the times and seasons for such episodes. You might as well blow against the wind, or stand on the shore and command the tide to turn.

And finally, the Lakeside Healer is the one who embraces us when, as is finally true for all, merely physical healing ceases.

But our gospel today makes a simpler and earlier affirmation. Your health matters. To God. To Christ Jesus. To the Spirit of Love. To those around you. To the mission of the church. You are meant for health! So, as you have breath and power: seek it, desire it, prepare for it, look for it, work toward, invest in it, share it, respect it, love it! How?

Spiritual health depends upon worship and prayer.
Fiscal health depends upon industry, frugality and tithing.
Relational health depends upon discipline, listening and awareness.
Physical health depends upon diet an exercise.
Psychological health depends upon friendship and rest.
Communal health depends upon justice and peace.
Professional health depends upon communication.
Sexual health depends upon commitment and fidelity and openness.
Religious health depends upon humility and honesty.

I was truly touched this summer to read my former teacher Elaine Pagel’s book Beyond Belief. Her reflections begin with the illness and then the death of her younger child. Midway through her review of the Second Century church, she makes a simple observation about those who came to Christ in this period. A great many, she notes, came because they were hurting, or ill. They heard in the preaching of the Gospel a healing word. And they responded quickly. Others, she also notes, came more gradually, not out of immediate need, but with a thirst for ‘living water’. Yet both earnestly desired health.

A Moment to Choose

We have affirmed the healthy lake setting of our region. First, we have heard the Gospel of Jesus who heals. Second, we have recalled our healthy tradition of medicine and ministry. Third, we have accepted that God loves us and that our health matters. There will be, on the minds of many, perhaps on your own, a thought now of a decision to be made, a choice to be entertained. The choice will be as varied as the congregation of several hundred here. It will be a choice as simple as leaving tobacco, or alchohol, or other addiction. As routine as a physical exam, a check up, a procedure. As challenging as a selection of care givers, providers, settings. As complex as a review of technical alternatives. Or, as sobering as the readiness to face the end of choices and the acceptance of God’s embrace that is Eternal Health itself. To this choice, now, in a moment of silence, I invite you today.