Sunday, December 21, 2003

Gentle As a Nurse

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 1:39-45

I Thessalonians 2:7


The birth of Christ places before us a new possibility.

We can live in a new way.

“Christ is alive and goes before us, to show and share what love can do. This is a day of new beginnings. Our God is making all things new”.

You can continue to live in the old way.

Or you can live a different life, beginning today.

Paul’s Christmas Gospel

Paul of Tarsus rarely is mentioned at Christmas. He never saw Jesus and knew almost nothing of the birth. Of Christmas, he says only: “born of a woman, born under the law”. A human birth, still in the dark shadow of religion.

Paul is our earliest, best witness to the primitive Christian church. Yet he says nothing about any of the things we take for granted in this season: Mary, Joseph, manger, Bethlehem, shepherds, Kings, Herod, Rachel weeping.

In fact, I have ruminated a little about how Paul might have approached this reading from Luke 1:39-45, composed some thirty years after Paul’s own (legendary) death in the Roman coliseum. How would the celibate rabbi have thought about Mary and Elizabeth and their communicative wombs? How would the patriarchal first century Jew have thought about the authority vested in these women? How would Paul have interpreted Mary’s walk in the hill country and Elizabeth’s historic greeting, “blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”?

More basically, more biologically, how would a man like Paul have connected, if at all, with these multiple nursery scenes?

You will admit, if pressed, that there are few things more bemusing than listening to men talk about child birth. All the gospels and almost 2000 years of Christmas sermons fall beneath this judgment. What do we know about it?

And Paul?

How can men--how could Paul--possibly fathom the pain, change, and transformation of childbirth? Especially when this birth is not just birth but--Incarnation?

Paul has had a hard ride for 50 years. In an age of civil rights, his common first century passive acceptance of slavery in Philemon has not gone unnoticed. In age of revolution in the status and role of women, his direction to the Corinthians—albeit truly a matter of order not gender—that women should not speak in public has not gone unnoticed. In an age of gradual acceptance if not recommendation of gay rights, his flat rejection of homosexuality in Romans 1 has not gone unnoticed. In an age of fuller acquaintance with the abuses of power, his later command to the Roman church to be subject to governing authorities has not gone unnoticed. In an age of democracy, dialogue and vote, his apostolic, authoritarian claim to have the Mind of Christ has not gone unnoticed. In short, Paul has been persona non grata for 50 years. From one angle he is seen as a confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, authoritarian, hierarchical, Tory crank.

Which brings us to Christmas 2003 and the stunning news that Paul, more than all, “gets it”! Better than virtually any other piece of the New Testament Paul names the Christmas Gospel with utter precision in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 I bring this up on Christmas Sunday to stake out a claim on you. If Paul can “get it”, if Paul can receive the grace of Christmas, there is hope for everybody. Especially for you this morning if you feel at some distance from the Christmas traditions, the old stories, the church’s habits and patterns. Especially if you feel, that is, a little on the outside. Actually, Christmas is all about God’s love for the outside.

In the earliest piece of our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, as he describes his happy relationship with one of his first churches, Paul offers us a glimpse of the gospel. It is Christmas testimony that we can live in a new way!

This Paul, this same confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, hierarchical Tory crank, has been given the grace to live in a new way, and to show others the same. The spirit of the Risen Christ has changed Paul. From Pharisee to freedom fighter. From lawyer to preacher. From religion to faith. From law to gospel. He was been given the “wings of the morning”. There is no other way to interpret his self-designation, a Christmas nametag if ever there was one, here in 1 Thessalonians.

Paul refers to himself and his way of living as “gentle as a nurse”. Gentle? Paul? Apparently so, at least now and then. And then, “nurse”. The word does not refer to white gowns, medical degrees, stethoscopes, or medications. It means the other kind of nurse and nursing, the nurse-maid. We learn this, even without reference to the Greek, from the rest of the verse, a “nurse caring for her children”. The word means wet nurse or nursing mother. The image so jarred an early copier that he added an extra letter to one text to “clean it up” and change the meaning. Paul is staggeringly clear, however. He describes himself as like a wet-nurse! Paul, that is, is referring to his own new way of living as a kind of nursing, as intimate, physical, personal, vulnerable, self-giving. As in, nursing a child.

I find this astounding, that one who could say of his opponents in Galatia that they should castrate themselves (surely a remnant of the old Paul) could understand himself by analogy with a mother and child in the moment of nursing. If the birth of Christ can move Paul that far, how much more can Christmas do for you and me!

A generation ago, I discovered, James Clarke had a similar insight:

Here is conversion in great might. It is easy to think of Paul as the missionary who made Europe and Asia his parish and lifted Christianity out of its Palestinian cradle; as the warrior who fought the good fight of faith and whose sword seldom rested in its scabbard; as the statesman who conceived vastly and executed daringly; as the theologian who handled the huge imponderables and grand peculiarities of the faith with ease and judgment; as the personality, powerful and decisive, who cut his signature deeply into the life of his time, and beside whom his contemporaries were but dwarfs; as the mystic who beheld the faraway hills of silence and wonder, and whose great theme was “union with Christ”. But it strains the imagination to picture him, who was so imperious, in the gentle and tender role of nursemaid. Truly there is no limit to the converting power of God in Jesus Christ.

Yet Walker climbs only half the mountain. Yes, it does astound our imaginations to picture Paul as a mother with a child at the breast. What is doubly astounding, however, is to realize, fully to intuit, that Paul understood himself this way! That Paul, at his most converted, could see his life in a new way, a radically new way, as different from all he had lived before as a nursemaid is different from an imperious religionist.

Paul may not have known the account in our reading today Luke 1:39, or for that matter any of these uniquely Lukan tales. He may not have had any more idea than we do about the exact nature and detail of these birth narratives. I confess that I think he would have been somewhat surprised by their imaginative peculiarity. Do fetae regularly communicate, tummy to tummy?

But the meaning of Christmas he fully knows.

Your Christmas Gospel

And so may you, ESPECIALLY, if you are not easily or closely enthralled by magic stories, birth miracles, speaking wombs, nursery rhymes, and angel voices. Paul hears the truth of it all, and his life changes. Yours can too.

Paul may not have known the Christmas stories we do, but his pastoral life embodied the incarnate love of God in Christ, physical.intimate, personal, vulnerable self-giving, gentle as a nurse-maid.

Yours can, too. You can live in a new way. You can.

It is the way of the turned cheek, the offered cloak, the second mile. It is the way of love for those who are not lovely. It is the way of the love of enemies. It is the way of forbearance. It is the way of tenderhearted forgiveness. It is the way of prayer for those who persecute. It is the way of God, who is kind to God’s ungrateful and selfish children. Gentle as a nurse…

I heard a famous leader, last Thursday, scornfully disdain the “turn the other cheek approach”. I had to wonder whether his Methodist Sunday School had shown him the source. Maybe he was absent that day.

Christmas gives birth to the daily, very real possibility, starting again for you at noon, the real potential that you can live in a new way. Christmas gives birth to the life and death decision for or against Jesus, for the new path or the old.

If Paul can “get it”, all can. This is the change that God works (GOD works) in the human heart. The God who said “let light shine out of darkness…” It is the gift of faith. Faith comes by hearing. Hearing by the word of God.

We live in age of violence, even global and extreme violence. But this is Christmas. With Luke we may marvel at the mystery of Christ. With Paul we may practice the partnership of the Gospel, living as gentle as a nurse with her children.

We can live in a new way. The world does not lack for promise, but only for a sense of promise.

Three Applications

First. We can live as those who look forward to a gentler world community. I mean all of us here this morning, liberal and conservative, hawk and dove. We can all share the horizon of hope for peace on earth, good will to all. We can look out for ways to “soften the collisions” that will come in our time. As Inman says, in Cold Mountain, life is riddled with “endless contention and intractable difference”. Collisions are virtually inevitable. But they can be softened.

My guide here is the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin:

Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened. Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached: in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force—so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established.

Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair—that alone is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way. A little dull as a solution you will say? Yet there is some truth in this view.

Second. More than you know, disciple, you transform the culture around you with every act, every choice. I saw last Saturday 900 people stand, without command, to honor the Hallelujah Chorus. They came to worship the Messiah, in their own secular way, the babe, the son of Mary.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.

He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.

And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

And all flesh shall see it together.

Since by one man death came, so by one man shall come the resurrection of the dead. (my favorite)

Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him!

So they receive Christ. Here is a door held. There is a criticism softened. Here is a preparation made. There is a courtesy extended. Here is a listening ear. There is a gesture of welcome. As we follow our course let us not become coarse.

Lily Tomlin once produced a single actor play. One night a street person stumbled into the theater and was treated roughly. She made the paper by stopping her performance, guiding the man to center stage and quietly addressing the audience: “Let me introduce you to a fellow human being.”

At our best, Rochester and this church both set a fine example of acculturated gentility. (That is a compliment, by the way. Just so you know.) It is not just what you do that counts; it is how you do it.

At our best, we can live together, watching over one another in love, and treating one another “as gently as a nursemaid”. Men and women both. I can be even more personal. The Christmas Gospel in its Pauline cast directs me as a minister. It gives me the courage to be, to be a pastoral administrator, and to be so with gentle care. Now I will admit that the phrase, “pastoral administrator” is something of an oxymoron, two words that contradict each other. Like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist. Either you are pastoral or you are administrative, tender or tough. But here is Paul, the Great Tough Apostle to the Gentiles, identifying his way of being with that of a woman, a tender mother, breast feeding her kids. That means time spent. That means some tolerance for untidiness. That means a willingness to admit imperfection, some fruitful slobbery sloppiness. That means a habit of being that is more rounded than rectangular, more organic that engineered, more maternal than mechanical. That means to worry when things aren’t perfect and not to listen when others want them immediately perfect. Life is messy. Church life particularly messy. That means a willingness to go the second and third mile, as you would for your infant. That means risking getting bitten. That means burping and wiping and holding. And especially that means a fierce focus on the future of new young life! That sounds like hard work! Manger work. Nursery work. New Creation work.

Third. Christmas too can become a season as gentle as a nurse.

Someone wrote:

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend myriad holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside decorating to kiss the spouse.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love bears, believes, hopes, endures all things, and never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust. Even that new motorboat that someone might give you will one day retire. The gift of love will endure.

A Time to Choose

This is the spiritual change that God (and God alone) works in the human heart. “Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth”. Here are the birth pangs of the new creation.

Are you ready to live in a new way?

For their parts, the ancients were caught off guard. So the Kings meandered, the shepherds shuddered, the cattle were low and lowing. There was no ready expectation of Jesus, a poor Messiah. No, there was no prepared expectation for God touching earth in a manger. “A smoking cradle”, said Barth, is all we have of Christmas. How about you? Are you ready for Christmas?

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Whatever Became of Repentance?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 3:1-6

Repentance, for the first place, means a change of heart.

When Karl Menninger wrote his best seller, a generation ago, “Whatever Became of Sin”, he still had time, back then, to have written a sequel, our topic today. He did not, and since then, through abuse and overuse and misuse, the word "repentance," has become almost irretrievable. Like other great and saving words—vision, for instance—the gears have been stripped, there is no traction left.

This is a part of the tragic sense of life, for our coming to God, our preparation for heaven, includes repentance. This too is part of God’s way of saving us. We come to the manger by way of the river, and to Jesus by the way of John, and to love by the way of repentance.

Whatever became, then, of repentance?

In the Gospel of St Luke we are told. Luke who loves the littlest (poor, women, children, stranger, ill, outcast, foreigner, all) with his left hand, holds Rome at bay with his right. Notice how he begins the story of Jesus’ ministry. As a Gospel writer, he must begin with John, but he circles his way. In the 15th year of Tiberius (no Augustus but a Caesar). When Pontius Pilate was governor (by whom Christ is crucified). And Herod rules Galilee (his spirit caught by our youth). Lest we not forget—the outskirts of north hill country—Lysanias, Philip, Ituraea, Trachonitis. And the temple, Annas and Caiaphas. Even John here is not “the baptizer” but “son of Zechariah”. Luke wants his gospel to fly under the radar of the Romans. He wants at every step to mollify the powers that be. Such an unctuous, oleaginous, Eddy Haskell tone. He is no Paul. No wonder E Kasemann said, “I hate Luke\Acts.” His church is Roman friendly, pacific, traditional, hierarchical. Gone is the Pauline punch: “born of a woman, born under the law”. The Pauline punch is protected but no longer pristine.

But even Luke has finally to tell us: in the wilderness. Notice the point of contact for the word of God. Not Rome, Jerusalem, Power, Temple. But the woods…

I think of years in the woods. The day Earl Friend shot a bear and hung it between two trees to drain. We have a photo of Emily looking dubiously at it. The day the car (red Ford Mustang convertible) froze up between early and late service, at 25 below zero, and sat at the corner of Routes 11 and 103, a sculpted witness to the power of nature. The night we had dinner with Sharon and Donnie (whose son attended her for some years) and went to witness a calf born, between main course and dessert. Here is life: messy, hard, frightening, push, pull, cry—and then, a new creation. Bruce Thompson was there with us.

Birth and death both receive a simpler, more dignified attention in the woods.

John heralds the birth of Jesus’ ministry and his own demise.

The wilderness connects John and us to Israel and her prophets. Israel came through the wilderness, forty years through, on the way from liberation to heaven. They found their way out from Pharaoh, only to wander and suffer in the woods.

The Hebrew word for repentance is “shaub”, to go back again, to return. With the prophets (notably Amos and Isaiah) John recalls that real religion is never very far from justice, no matter how hard the walk to justice. “Are there no graves in the land of Egypt that you have brought us out here to die?” The prophets brought a return, a going back to the memory of the wilderness, of what it meant to be poor and lost. Repentance is a change of heart, a daily part of our walk in Christ, by which we are given a heart for others.

Here is Hill quoting Tittle quoting Rauschenbusch, who wrote the paragraph not ten blocks from here: “Baptism at the Jordan was an act of dedication to a social movement. It was not received to save the individual by himself, but called all to repent of their way of living, to quit grafting, and to begin to live in fraternal helpfulness. Baptism was the dramatic expression of an inward consent and allegiance to the higher standards of life which were to prevail in the Messianic community. It was the symbol of a revolutionary movement.”

Repentance is this change of heart, to our days of poverty, to remember today’s poor and then to do something about poverty today.

ML King died in the wilderness of Memphis, 1968. Gone was the deliverance from Selma 1963. Ahead he could see a “promised land”. He died, where we still live, in the woods.

Kate Millet and others dashed through the Red Sea of patriarchy 30 years ago, a saving deliverance for both women and men. Now we are not in Egypt. Nor are we yet in Canaan, the land of milk and honey. We are forty years in the woods, finding our way, a path strewn with false starts, stone tablets, golden calves, multiple voices, and real losses.

Second graders in upstate city schools call us to repentance, a change of heart, about their need. They deserve to read and work and live, too. One day every valley shall be filled.

Dear God give us repentant hearts, changed in the wilderness by compassion for others.

Repentance, for the second place, means a change of mind.

I grew up in the atmosphere of fairly keen minds, probing for the truth. The interest was not just, “what do you have on” but “what do you have on your mind”, reality as well as appearance, salt as well as flowers. These preachers pushed each other, hard. McCune greeted my father and me saying, “It makes me believe in evolution.” Yes, they jousted. They could because they loved and they would because they cared. And then went off to dinner together.

Here is the spiritual discipline of repentance, to change one’s mind. This is repentance, to have regret, have remorse, show contrition, admit compunction. I was asked recently to name a fruitful failure. What is your most educational mistake?

I learned the hard way that hoping someone will do something does not make it so, that being right is not enough, that good intentions can have bad outcomes, that we all need supervision, that “figures lie and liars figure”. I cannot claim a spotless record in parenting, friendship, staffing, stewardship, communication, or life. Where is that river Jordan when I need it? We learn most from our failure.

This gives us reason for metanoia, “subsequent emendation”, “later knowledge”. On second thought. For the God of unconditional love is also the God of unconditional requirement.

Today I am not so much inclined to ask you for a particular change of mind as to beg us all to live with repentant minds. As Oliver Cromwell said, to no avail, as his head, like the Baptist’s, was being removed: “Pray Sir, consider you might be wrong.”

We come in our church to General Conference next year, debating homosexuality. I wonder why this issue is so prominent for us. Does it function, like an identified patient in a family system, to help us avoid other, more potent issues: evangelism, abortion, justice, stewardship, war, hunger?

Could we approach one another, across serious disagreement, as lovers? I am proud that Marjorie Suckochi is a Methodist: “Ours can be a church where no individual expects to see with absolute purity exactly the way things ought to be. Rather we are to expect a church where we are continuously ready to learn from one another—especially from those with whom we disagree. In this mutual learning, the one thing we should beware is a pretension, whether in ourselves or others, of absolute knowledge.”

It is the forgiveness of sin, the pardon of God itself that empowers us to change our minds. Without a confidence in pardon we would always have, for our safety and salvation, to be right. Pardon frees us to change our minds.

Dear God give us repentant minds, changed in the wilderness by the strength of forgiveness.

Repentance, for the third place, is a change of place.

We are on the way to heaven. What is true for heart and mind is true for body—self, soul—as well.

Repentance is the power that takes otherwise sober adults and gets them up early on Sunday. They come to worship, in the flesh. They bring their body and their children. And they change places.

Our life in the internet age will cause modification of our sense of place, our perception of space. What does it mean to “be there”?

The Latin “conversio” has a spatial dimension. To turn around.

We embody repentance at every Baptism, not because infants need repentance but because we do.

To the edge of the rail come parents. They are questioned in soft tone but harsh grammar. “Do you…” “Will you…” Here is movement of body and soul.

To the high altar, and the cross, we come. By invitation. All our children are marked early with the death of Christ. “Do you not know that all who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death? We have with him that we might be raised to walk in newness of life.”

To the pastor’s arms the child goes. Saving grace, best shown in infant baptism, is God’s gift, God’s action, God’s free bequest. We cannot earn, achieve, gain grace. We can receive, if our bodies will change places every now and then.

The symbolic movement of the child to the arms of the church is a mark of the cross, as, in our current tradition, is the long walk down the aisle and away from home. The children who cry “get it”.

I do not think it is accidental that John lives in the woods. We have to move out of our very predictable bodies of habit to hear him, and perhaps to hear our deepest selves. Repentance (in the light of wilderness, forgiveness, and baptism at least) means a change of heart and of mind and of place.

Elisabeth Sifton, in her moving memoir of summers with her Dad, Reinhold Neibuhr, writes about unrepentant hearts as she describes the ethos in which the Serenity Prayer was born, in the wilderness of Heath, Massachusetts:

“God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”