Asbury First United
Text: Mark 12: 38-44
On August 28th I left my car for servicing outside Hamilton, and took a long morning jog through the little lands of my hometown.
Lights were on already at the newspaper office, the Mid-York weekly, a dubious publication, begun in 1828. Four men were drinking coffee at McDonald’s. I saw a dad walking hand in hand with a four year old daughter, who had in her hand a teddy bear.
This matter of hands deserves some thought. Hands once held now let go. Handlebars once gripped now are balanced by knees. Handshakes and handclasps replace the teddy bear of childhood. Is God’s hand upon us? Are we in God’s hand? If Jesus, “by the finger of God” does mighty works, are we ready again to be his hands?
A friend flew me across our region some years ago. We took off from Rochester. We followed the Genesee. We flew east and then north. They do look like fingers, Canandaigua and Keuka and Seneca and Cayuga and Owasco and Skaneateles and all. They do. But fingers imply a Hand! And here in hand is today’s gospel: in Christ we are in God’s hand, Christ is God’s hand and those opening their hands in Him (like the poor widow) are also God’s hand. This is the word in a word today: Hand.
Drive, fly, across our region. The hand of God is upon us, blessing us, opening out a future for us, loving us, touching us, helping us! The hand of God is upon is in slim fingers that beckon us into God’s future.
At the south end of Cayuga lake there is a college. I forget the name just now. You know that one famous alumnus is EB White, the writer. Like Mark composing the words of Jesus a generation later, White went back to his notes from English 101 and composed still the best book on writing in American English, Elements of Style, by transposing his teacher’s lectures. Did William Strunk say “omit needless words” or was it White? Did Jesus say “she has given more than all the others” or was it Mark? Did William Strunk say “vigorous writing is concise?” or was it White? Did Jesus say, “she has given her very life” or was it Mark?
I honor White and the lakes and the hand of God upon us today and this fall. Read his story, about love and death and opening your hand to the future. It is called: “Once More to the Lake”. It is about that moment when you realize that you do not have all day. I think the widow of Mark 12 so realized: That Rome was not built in a day, but it was built. That it is a great life but few of us get out alive. That there are things that need doing and saying. That our hands, too, are meant for freedom and grace and open life. I think his little story, “Once More to the Lake” is the finest I have ever read.
Look at this beautiful land we have been given. The Hand of God, from Canandaigua to Skaneateles, the Hand of God is upon us!
Running again, I saw that someone had bought Hogg’s house and needed a dumpster to clean out the attic. Seven Oaks was busy I could see at various points. The Robert Trent Jones course winds its hidden way around the back side of town and college. Of course I had to use the willow walk. And ascend library hill. And admire the quad. And notice that the artesian well is buried.
Coming down the hill I had a religious experience. This happens to me, running through town, and running through the stereoptic, bifocal experience of hurting jogger’s knees in 2003 and bright happy memories of 1963 which, I must say, of the two, knees and memories, the memories were more present.
And I was thinking of you and this fall. I had a desire to see the Gospel of Mark interpreted for our time and especially our setting, along the lakes of our region, so strikingly similar they are to the Sea of Galilee. More: I wanted to preach the full Christ of grace and freedom with you again. In love. Not some partial version from loony left or rowdy right, but the Name that is above every Name, Jesus Christ. The Christ of Gospel and Lake, of Heaven and Earth.
Christ is our Health: before this Healer your health matters! Christ is our Height: He asks of us a certain height so when at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far we may take Him as our star to stay our minds on and be staid! Christ is our Home: he makes open space, heart and mind and door for us and all by saying, “whoever is not against us is for us”! Christ is our Hope: he gives us realism with eyes and ears and inspiration to enter a new future in our region of glacial geography, exciting meteorology, progressive community, compassionate history, flourishing spirituality! The Finger Lakes are the place to be, right in the Palm of God’s Hand! Christ is our Heart: whoever first taught you about power, Christ fixes power in the heart of those who with Him have a passion for the common good! Christ is our habit: virtue is formed by habit and faith by practice, practice, practice! Accept no thinner substitute! Accept the full Christ of health, height, home, hope, heart, habit, and, last, hand.
Meanwhile, back on the jog….
It was a jolt to “wake up” running downhill from Colgate Chapel House and straight into the tidal arrival of the class of 2007. Tuesday, August 28th, 2003, 8:45am.
It was a majestic scene, worthy of Pickett’s charge, VE day, Palm Sunday, Dunkirk, the Crusades, Wolfe at Quebec, Napoleon at Waterloo, or the night Bill finally leveled with Hillary. A collision.
Picture this. A parent and child carrying together a used TV and luggage. 20 Sophomores with light blue tee shirts reading, “welcome frosh”. A small jet flying into Hamilton International. One coed carried like a latter day Chinese princess on a rickshaw, in the backseat of an Oneida city cab. Fraternity boys running up the street with a makeshift “we love Colgate” banner. Sorority girls leading an Indian signal, the “Rebecca Chopp” (Chopp, A UM clergy, and St Paul School of Theology graduate, is President of Colgate). Two streets full of fine, fine automobiles. From the south, up from Binghamton on 12B, largely with New Jersey plates rolled Cadillacs, Beemers, Audis, Lincolns. From the north, down from Utica on 12B, largely with Connecticut plates rolled Porsches, SUVs, high end Buicks, MGs. For once there was a traffic jam in Hamilton.
Without exception, vehicle to vehicle, the future Red Raider was asleep in the back seat. Dad was looking at the side view mirror. Mom was weeping. I found myself weeping too. One had to in the sight of this apocalyptic liminality. One woman, dressed in black, and perched on the curb seat side of a black SUV, was weeping uncontrollably, like Rachel of old.
Tears bring us together. Abraham Heschel: “Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are the same.”
In Rome, under the thumb of Caesar, Mark has focused our attention on a poor widow’s hand as it opens above an offering box. We, Church, Mark, Jesus, All have paused for this Gospel moment, to observe the opening of a withered hand. Gathered in secrecy, hearing news of the toppled Temple, fearing impending persecution, the Roman Christians saw again the hand of God reflected in the courageous open hand of a poor widow.
This is a stylized story, a cookbook catechesis. Mix in one part each: teaching setting, Jesus, criticism of the Scribes, reference to money, and a single earth-shattering word. Stir. Serve hot on Sunday. This widow saw something and gave her guts to it, “her whole life”.
I have a bone to pick with our NRSV at this point. The original does not say she put in her living or all she had to live on. No one can live on a farthing anyway. It says she put in her whole life. ???s…ß??s…ß??s. Biology, Biosphere, Biodegradable …LIFE. She opened her hand and put her whole life on the nose of an invisible future. You have to have the gift of faith to open your hand to give and bless and let go.
God’s hand in the Finger Lakes is not a fist, not a grip, not a clap, not a curse. God’s hand is open. To give, to bless, to let go. That is the hand of love. That also is the hand of the poor widow. Like God, she has given everything, even her WHOLE LIFE.
We mis-hear the Scripture so often because we moralize when we should theologize.
It is only our patronizing attitude toward her—fed from the polluted springs of victimhood feminism and arrogant patriarchy both—that keeps us from the Gospel. In this story, the WIDOW IS GOD.
Where did we ever get the idea that older women are powerless? Widows fed Paul. Widows funded Mark. Widows fomented three cataclysmic Christian progressive movements in the 19th century Finger Lakes. Widows fund the Women’s Division of the UMC today. Widows, ‘babushkas’, kept the Russian Orthodox church open from Lenin to Gorbachev, from Proletariat to Perestroika. The story of the widow’s hand is the story of God’s hand, opening out in Christ to give, to bless, to let go.
Here is her hand, the divine hand in Jesus’ teaching: letting go as one dining center guest did this week of money; letting go as she sometimes did of spouse; letting go as she may have, in cruciform love, of her children. If you love somebody, you have to open your hand and let them go. This is the whole teaching of the Trinity: Father letting go Son, Son letting go Spirit, Spirit letting go church.
This widow has the courage and generosity to place her life on the nose of an invisible future. She has the courage to build something that does not yet exist. She has the guts to open the hand and execute. She hopes in the teeth of calamity. She gives to a temple that Mark knows is in flames. Is she related to Jeremiah?
Meanwhile, back on the trail…
At the swan pond I stopped beside a similar woman and her 10 year old son, who, with me, were watching the invasion. This is what I heard the poor woman and her impoverished son say. Or, this is what I think I heard. Or, what I imagine was said. Or, what could possibly have been said.
B: Mommy, what is all this?
M: Ah, it is college day son. The new ones are here.
B: Oh Mom look how sad it all is. College must be a terrible thing, like having your tonsils out. Everyone is crying.
M: Ach, faith and begorrah, son, you don’t know a fiddler’s finger about what you are saying. College is wonderful! You will go one day.
B: Ah, no Mam. I’m going to hold your hand. It looks terrible. Look at that woman there. She’s older than you and not so pretty either. Her face is all red and fat with crying. See. College is awful. It must be or they wouldn’t be crying so.
M: For the love of St Patrick, son, college is wonderful, it is a pot of gold at the rainbow. Listen. In college you will have your very own room.
B: Really. Mam, that sounds good.
M: And a TV all your own and you watch whenever you want.
B: You mean I don’t have to do my homework after dinner like at home?
M: Well…You…No…You have to do your homework. But you can eat whenever you want and the food is so wonderful. Your Uncle Francis went to college at 100 lbs and he weighed 280 at graduation.
B: You mean they have second helpings every night?
M: Every night son, every night. And you can eat whatever you want.
B: You mean not just macaroni and cheese and corned beef and cabbage?
M: Ach, son, this is what I tell you, you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. You can have meat and seconds and ice cream at every meal.
B: You mean hot dogs and hamburgers?
M: Yes. And steak.
B: What is steak?
M: Ah, steak is like hamburger dressed up for Easter Sunday, you’ll love it. It tastes like sweet heaven and melts in your mouth.
B: But every one will want some—there won’t be enough.
M: Son, you are getting on my nerves. You don’t get it. In college it is like an Emerald heaven. There is always plenty. No macaroni. No lack of seconds. But…To go you have to get a scholarship, so you keep doing your homework.
B: What is a scholarship?
M: Don’t they teach you anything at that Kendrick Ave school? A scholarship is like Christmas, like the angels touching earth, like the St Patrick’s day.
B: Look at these cars Mam, I don’t recognize any of them. They’re not like ours or the Risley’s. They’re big. And new. And the windows are all dark. There’s no red rust on their doors. What is that?
M: You spell it C_A_D_I_L_L_A_C. It is the name of an Indian chief.
B: Do you think I could go to Colgate?
M: Ach, son, you will get a scholarship to the greatest Universities in the world. You will shake your feet from the dust of Colgate. You will go to Harvard or Oxford or Yale or Tubingen or Princeton or Salamanca or, if you are really lucky, Ohio Wesleyan.
B: Mam, what is that shirt like thing the big woman is wearing? It looks like clothes, but it doesn’t cover her.
M: That is the devil’s own work, avert your eyes. That is a halter top.
B: Ah, a halter top. That’s what Father says he loves about summer, the halter top. He says he kissed the calendar on July 1, the birthday of St Halter.
M: That Father of yours should be horsewhipped for saying such things.
B: Mam, if college is so good, why are they weeping?
M: Well son, you know, to grow you have to leave and move and change and let go of your mother’s hand. There is no growth without change and there is no change without leaving. And there is no leaving without letting go of the hand. It is the way of life. Things and people who don’t change, who won’t let go, they die.
B: Mam, school starts Tuesday. Coach Franklin says I need new sneakers. And Mam, Mam, Craig and Kris are going to play hockey this year. I am the second biggest boy in the class after Andy Migonis and they want me to play wing. But I need skates.
M: Ach, son, skates are expensive. We have you and your sisters and come October a little brother maybe and wouldn’t you rather have a baby brother than skates?
B: If you say so Mam. I guess so. Maybe I can have skates next year. Maybe I can play hockey next year.
M: Maybe, son, maybe next year. But I am going to leave you now. St. Mary’s and the Methodist church are having their sale. I know they have sneakers, and your size too.
B: High tops?
M: High tops, and some shirts, too, they had, and a new pair of pants and a good heavy coat and some galoshes...
B: I don’t like galoshes.
M: …and a raincoat and if we’re lucky Mrs. Howe will save us Byron’s sport coat for church. And speaking of Mrs. Howe, I have a surprise. In their book bin I saw Huckleberry Finn, and I had her keep it out for you. If you finish your chores early, you can spend all the afternoon reading it and won’t your sisters be jealous!
And she took his hand, and she let it go. And God takes our hand and God lets us go.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time