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?