Asbury First United
Text: Mark 8:27-38
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!
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.
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.
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?