Sunday, November 16, 2003

Once More to the Lake: Hand

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 12: 38-44

Hands Free

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?

The Hand of God

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!

Hand to Hand

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.

The Land of the Open Hand

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.

Hand Off

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.

Widow’s Hand

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?

Hand of Christ

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

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Once More to the Lake: Habit

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Stewardship Sunday
Love is...

Skaneateles Lake runs south ten miles past Mandana and New Hope and Scriba, to rest in embrace of the Allegheny plateau. Down there some years ago a man told how he came to faith:

It was in those years of too few dollars and days, and too many deliveries and diapers. We seemed to be always at odds, kids crying, not a dollar or an hour to spare. I had signed up for a morning prayer group in our church, every Wednesday. It got that I dreaded going. I was tired; the meeting was chaotic, attendance spotty. I like things done right. One morning I didn’t go. The next Wednesday my wife kneed me out of bed. Our deal was to pray and then to take a card from a pack the pastor had of service needs. So I took mine: “Boy needs ride to Sayre Hospital tomorrow”. That was the straw, or almost the straw: “this is a whole day, not an hour—I didn’t sign up for this!” I huffed out. Sometimes though after I blow off some steam I think different. That little card rode around in my jacket during work. When I got home I made the mistake of telling my wife about it. She didn’t say anything, but she had that look and that jaw set back and that, you know that attitude. About 11pm I called the home and said I’d take the boy.

Early Thursday I drove across town. He was already there on the curb, alone and with a little suitcase. I was still so frosted about the whole thing I just kept silent for a while. I watched him though from the corner of my eye. He took some cookies from the bag and offered me one. He watched the scenery. I saw him read a note that was wrapped around the cookies. He was about 5. With our four girls I realized I didn’t have much practice at talking to a boy. After a while he told me about his leg. It was something he was born with. The operation was going to help him walk right. They had to postpone it until his mother got work again. She had just gotten another job and was so grateful. Then he asked me the most surprising thing I have ever been asked: “Mister, are you God?” He asked so sincerely that I stifled my laughter and asked what he meant. He said:

“Last night after dinner I got ready for bed. My mom was really upset. She said she had to go to work today or we would lose our house, but that I had to get to the hospital or my leg would not ever be right. She came into my room and prayed, “God please help us. God please take my boy to the hospital. God help us somehow for tomorrow.” When I got up this morning she told me God was helping us. So that is why I asked you: Are you God?”

You ask how I found my faith? I found my faith by practicing my faith.

Virtue is formed by habit. Faith is formed by practice. Habits form virtue. Practices form faith.

Said the tourist to the violinist, at 50th and 9th Ave, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice…”

You would like to have self-control? Practice restraint.
You would like to be gentle? Speak gently.
You would like the gift of faith? Act faithfully.
You would be good? Do good.
You want to become kind? Live kindly.
You desire patience? Practice the arts of prayer.
You hunger for peace? Live peaceably.
You hope for joy? Sing and practice singing.
And love? One who would know love must love others.

Dr. Lohmeyer long ago, rightly in my view, identified the original setting of this controversy story along the Sea of Galilee. Its positive depiction of the Pharisees, its rough directness in speech, its colloquial character, and its willingness to see Jesus receive the praise of his Jewish neighbors all argue so. The careful readers among us will note that Mark already has us in Jerusalem. Yet the original setting for this crucial teaching on love was, probably, the lakeshore. No surprise. Half the gospel happens upstate.

A powerful summary of the law is here rendered for the first time in history. How are we to live? By loving God and loving our neighbor. Who first connected Deuteronomy and Leviticus? Mark? The early church? Jesus? All we can say is that we have the teaching as our Word of God.

As Flip Wilson’s Geraldine told her\his boyfriend "Killer": “What you see is what you get”. The gospel in a word is love. And what is love?


First, love is commitment. If you thought you would escape this service without hearing the word ‘commitment’ you are about to be disappointed. For when the Bible speaks of love it really means to speak of commitment. Commitment implies staying power, the power to see things through, the lasting strength that carries you beyond a valley to the next hill, beyond sickness to future health, beyond poverty to future wealth. Commitment in youth. Commitment, if God so blesses you, for children. Commitment through middle-age. Commitment as you take your places as working, caring members of the community. Especially a commitment to grow old in community. Then as the gray hairs multiply you will begin to see what love can mean. For “in this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us.” No mere infatuation this. For if God had been merely infatuated, how quickly he would have given up on us. Rather it is God’s own commitment that directs and encourages us to mimic him.

It may seem odd to quote the newest California, by the way easily the finest governor that professional body building ever produced. But I will. Asked how he could possibly manage a job like the one he now has he said: “I think it is like body building. First comes the commitment.”

Virtue is formed by habit, faith by practice.

We have sometimes worn better men’s clothes to become better men.

A judge wears a robe not because he is less human than we but because, being equally human, he needs to pretend to a higher wisdom. Children dress up on Halloween not because they are less human than we, but because, being equally human, they need to pretend to a greater imagination. Clergy wear vestments not because they are less human than others but because of the opposite, being equally human we need to pretend to a fuller spirit. Brides and grooms wear tuxedos and gowns not because they are already mature but, to the contrary, because they know their human limitation on the one hand and the mountainous nature of the commitment they are making on the other. So they dress up. So at least they can look the part. So they can pretend and—here is the point—by pretending, prepare, and by preparing, become….faithful.

Do all the good you can….And over time you just might become--good. In our church it is time to hear the wedding bells for the Bride of Christ. In this congregation we have plenty of courtship, some serious dating, even some engagements in faith. But there are some cold feet out here this morning. Now it’s time to come to the altar and tie the knot and make some commitments. I tell you, they will be the making of you. Faith is formed in the practice of faith.

I am told of a man stranded for a decade on a desert island. At last a ship came by and rescued him. The ship captain saw three buildings carefully made and asked about them. “The first is the house I live in.” And the second. “The second is the church I attend.” And the third. “The third is the church I used to attend.” Isn’t it time we settled in and made this our real home? To do that takes commitment.


Second, love also means delight. Times of sheer delight will come upon you when you least expect them. Take the time to savor them! They are meant to give you strength. Yes, the groom’s delight as he sees for the first time his bride’s beauty as she appears before him in the wedding gown. After some time together, the delight of a shared glance across a crowded room—perhaps a reception or party—as friends and partners in an instant know without speaking what is in each other’s minds. Let us warn you that life is not chock full of delight. For some the moments of delight are few and far between. But they come to us all. When they come, take the time to savor them. And hope that God on occasion even delights in us, his creatures. “For God so delighted in us that he sent his Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”

What clouds our native delight is the accretion of what the Scripture calls sin. Sin has many forms, but all of them mar the delight of the day. Our besetting adversary in Rochester, NY in 2003 is a pervasive spirit of entitlement. I breathe therefore I am. I exist and so I deserve. I live and so I expect. Our sin is a sense that life owes us. Something.

The economic sword of Damocles now hovering over us will cleave neatly, like Hitler through the Sudetenland, through generations of sloth and will burn out, like wildfire in San Diego, our besetting sense of entitlement. We will go backward in time. We will have to move 100 years into the past and 100 miles out into the lake country to recall the innovation, the risk, the frugality, the industry, the generosity, the commitment that built our home here. We will return to a time of hard work, modest income, limited budgets, requisite sobriety, daily gratitude, community spirit and the delight that comes daily with love. No, I do not relish the prospect. Its individual hurts, present in some measure this morning, I mourn and abhor. But there is one communal development that comes, if we will work with it together, from recession and trouble: a gradual spiritual movement from entitlement to gratitude.

Love has a way of delighting us. Remember Paul at his best?

Let love be…genuine!
Hate what is…evil!
Hold fast what is…good!
Love one another with…mutual affection!
Outdo one another in…showing honor!
Never lag in…zeal!
Be ardent in.spirit!
Be patient in…tribulation!
Be constant in…prayer!
Contribute to the needs of the...saints!

Third, love is wonder. God so wondered at the world’s possibilities that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.

“The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder”: G K Chesterton, poet, playwright and Englishman, had it right, as he usually did: we long for a rekindled sense of wonder. From Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to right now: what this world needs is a sense of wonder!

And for this rebirth of wonder, this new rebirth of wonder, we come to worship

This gracious and lovely space itself inspires wonder.

The music, choral and organ and solo and congregational, does too.

So do the sturdy lines of venerable liturgy, hundreds of years in use, by kings and commoners alike, all who knew, as John Wesley said of himself, “how to prize the liberty of an Englishman”.

We are certainly heartened by such a gathering, too.

Sometimes I scratch my head and wonder, in a more reflective way, about what is becoming of life. I see women and men plunging headlong into existence, and laboring under heavy yokes. I work therefore I am. I earn therefore I am. I earn therefore I am. I have therefore I am. I control therefore I am. I think therefore I am. But the great Apostle to the Gentiles warns us about all these and more. They will cease. When we finally hear that, we pause, as we do right now. And when we do, we are truly thankful for those who keep hope alive, those who keep drama alive, those who keep dreams alive, those with a sense of wonder.

For much of life we end up seeing what we expect to see. I do so every day. I need the reminders that come and the blinders that go with wonder.

“You see things as they are and ask ‘Why’. We dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’ My generation thought Bobby Kennedy had written the line, but he did not. Actually, he did something better, he lived it. Actually, he did something even better still; he gave the last full measure of devotion to it. What was that about love being giving not taking, giving not using? You truly have only what you fully can give away. No, the line comes from the hand of a great Irish playwright, GB Shaw: “you see things as they are and ask, ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were, and I ask, ‘why not’? (repeat).

Sometimes I find myself leafing through the imaginary photo album of doubt, leaves, you could say, from the photo notebook of an untamed pastoral cynic. I wonder: just how much has the human race learned in one generation? I lament: Are we dreamers anymore? And then I come to church. And I feel a rebirth of wonder. You take the world and make it young again! I remember David Mamet’s admonition: “Train yourself for a profession that does not yet exist. That is the mark of an artist—to create something that formerly only existed in his or her heart”.

Remember Robert Frost: “Yield who will to their separation, my object in living is to unite my vocation with my avocation as my two eyes make one in sight. Only where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes, is the deed ever really done, for heaven and the future’s sakes.”

You see. The world does not lack for wonders. Love is wonder. Love is commitment and delight. And love is wonder. Wondrous Love! “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Go and Live

Yes, there is a sense in which every Sunday is a return to the altar where vows are taken and then lived.

I encourage you to tithe primarily because of what it will do for your character, your temperament, your personality, your spirit, your soul. And you can start today. Maybe you already made out your pledge card. But you can take another and add a zero. We will know which one to count.

Our habits form whatever virtues we have. Our practices form our faith. Do good until you become good. Preach faith until you have faith. This is what John Wesley, of all the Christian tradition, best taught.

At one of our seminaries there lived a professor and his wife who for many years, every Sunday evening, gathered a group of young clergy for dinner. The dinner began at 5pm and their table was always full. After retirement his mind left him, and she lived the 36hr a day illness, which some in this room know far better than I. As he weakened his students would come to visit. He muttered unintelligibly, listening hardly at all. His wife explained, offered tea, and graciously received the prayers of her visitors. Through such an hour the professor made no sensible statement, a stunning reversal for such a brilliant teacher. His mind was gone. But not his heart and not his faith, formed in years of practice. As the visitor was about to leave he would stiffen, sit formally forward, his eyes would brighten, and his own voice would return, as with earnest deliberation he would say, as he had for fifty years prior, “My wife and I are glad to have met you. We would be ever so pleased if you would be our guests this Sunday, for dinner. Come to our home at 5pm. You will honor us with your presence.”

Virtue is formed by habit, and faith by practice.