Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Location of Peace

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2: 1-14

We can become so immersed in Christmas imagery that we lose track of what the symbols mean. Shepherds, Kings, a Virgin Mother, Cattle, the Manger, Angels. What on earth do these images stand for?

Our culture does not give us much help. Our country begins the day with Katie Couric, a sweet soul, and ends the day with Larry King, a kind man. We are comfortable in the easy world of images. Our visual culture, though, makes it more difficult for us to deconstruct our own cultures, to think critically and carefully about the way we have been formed.

Our ancient writers were trying to teach their churches, and all churches, the meaning of the birth of the Messiah. They were not content with the basic fact, reported by Paul: “born of a woman, born under the law”. A Jewish baby boy. Period. No, they needed to identify and interpret the full meaning of the moment.


“Let there be peace on earth”. We sing this hymn with gusto, and as a call to arms, so to speak, it is quite fitting. Yet, do you notice its location of peace? Peace is in the future. Something yet to come, for which to work, toward which to travel. The location of peace is in the unforeseen future.

“The peace of God which passes all understanding”. We so bless one another at the close of an hour for ordered worship. Now, the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ. As a blessing, this too is quite apt. As the younger preacher was told of his first sermon: “It was like the peace of God” (it passed all understanding and endured forever). Yet, do you notice its location of peace? Beyond us. Beyond our ken or comprehension. The location of peace is beyond us.

“Peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives”. So the church receives encouragement from the Risen Christ. Not the world, though, but the church. As a gift to the community, this is very special and lovely. I confess with you that the lastingly good things in my life have come through the church. We have had a lively discussion, over the last generation, about the Reign of God and the Church of God. For one, I affirm both, and the Scripture carries both. But do you notice this location of peace? Inside, not outside.

“Oh Day of Peace that dimly shines”. That is found at 726 in our once new hymnals. May swords of hate fall…Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb…The hope of peace shall be fulfilled…As a prayer for what we have yet to receive, this is altogether satisfactory. And as a hymn it is unsurpassed in beauty. One Day, O Lord. How Long? Yet do you notice the location of peace? Then, not now.

Pierre Laclair and Jean Lebeuf went camping in the Quebec woods. Late at night they heard the scratching, scrabbling claws of a bear on their tent.

Pierre, we are lost! It is a grizzly bear. The meanest and fastest animal in the forest. He will eat us alive.

Pierre quietly laced his boots.

My friend, it is no use intending to run. This animal is more agile than a rabbit, faster than an antelope, quicker than a snake. If you run into the forest he will catch you. If you climb a great evergreen he will trap you. If you try to outrun him he will stop you. We are lost.

My friend, dear Jean Lebeuf, to be saved I do not need to run into the forest, nor to climb a great evergreen, nor to outrun this bear. To be saved I do not have to run faster than the grizzly. No, to be saved, I just need to run faster than YOU.

Peace Keeping and Building

It is a mystery, for sure. For, to our way of thinking and seeing, any sort of peace needs keeping and building.

Our service men and women, named again in our worship program, are committed with risk to keeping the peace. They are peace keepers. You will find their names printed for pray support in our bulletin insert. This week we e-mailed many of our young people in military service. Two responses came recently. Jason Kreutter sends his Christmas greetings, his affection for the congregation, his intention to worship among us on Christmas Eve, and signs off “very respectfully”, Jason. Scott Alpaugh sends his Christmas greetings, his sense of feelings about the next year, and his expectation to miss holidays, birthdays, and families. Scott greets me as “TC”, a nick-name he gave me on the basketball court, because my red and white patterned shorts reminded him of a table cloth. Scott hopes to be with us on the Sunday after Christmas, and looks forward to greeting and speaking to friends after worship on that day. Today, Christmas Sunday, we remember and honor those of our church family who are working to keep the peace, of whom Jason and Scott are fine examples.

Our missionaries, whether supported directly or indirectly, anonymously or by name, are committed with risk to building the peace. They are peace builders. In 1985 we met a young couple who were giving two years of service in campus ministry, through Intervarsity Fellowship. They opened their home to students. We liked that. They came and worshipped with us. We liked that. They gathered two weekly Bible Studies, and included our church. We liked that. They went once a year to Honduras, with a dozen students, to build houses. We liked that. They loved their neighbors, especially the poorest in the hemisphere. We really liked that. After a few years, we asked if we could join their ministry! They liked that. In 1992 we went to Honduras for the first time. Now, by grace, the strong muscle of Asbury First has been harnessed to the things that make for peace in Tegucigalpa, through this same couple, Mark and Lynn Baker.

In the long run, it is the work of justice, of healing, and of mercy that makes for peace. Mark, Lynn, Kim, Juan, Julio, all. Today, Christmas Sunday, we remember and honor those of our church family who are building peace, of whom Mark and Lynn are such fine examples.

In this way, two very different people, Scott Alpaugh and Mark Baker, a peace keeper and a peace builder, stand shoulder to shoulder. Of course we do honor and even revere the work of both. Yet, their work, and our prayer and support of their work, crucial work and prayer, by themselves do not carry us to the location of the Christmas peace.

The Location of Peace

The chorus of angels, standard Jewish apocalyptic fare, are made to greet—whom?


The great Kings of the Orient, who had so long oppressed the children of Moses, are made to visit—where? In a humble dwelling.

The woman who is to bear a child, the one who carries the traditions of queens, of Esther and Bathsheba and Miriam and Deborah, is to bring forth the boy—where? In a manger.

The ruling potentate, Herod the Great, who carries the historic power of the state, is caused to hunt down a lowly Jew—how? In fear.

The great lineage of Jesus, now turning oddly to the house of Joseph, this ancestral line that reaches to Eden, is made to include in Tamara and Rahab and others—whom? The unclean.

It is clear that for these writers, the Christmas Gospel identifies a stunning new location of peace. Not just in the heart. Not just in the future. Not just in the beyond. Not just in heaven. Not just in the church.

The location of peace is on earth. The location of peace is this earth. This earth is the place of peace. Thus peace is not, on the Christmas account, something to strain after. This peace is not something to be constructed. This same peace is not something to be awaited or to be pursued. This peace is not something that lies outside of or beyond earth. “On earth, peace”: this is the Christmas gospel.

Peace, on earth. The good news, the mystery of this feast of Christmas, lies in the strange announcement of the angels to the shepherds. There is peace, here. There is peace, now. There is peace, on earth. It is real, lasting and good. In fact, it is of God. It is God. Where peace is, there is God. Before we set off, with bayonets fixed or Bibles opened, to keep peace or build peace, let us listen with care. Already, God has made peace. God has set peace on earth. God has made space for peace. It is this New Reality, peace on earth, which holds all others. It is an eternal possibility, an unending reality. And wherever peace is, there is Jesus born. On earth.

We must admit that this possibility, this promise, so often seems so far away. Yet for all the difficulty we may find in embracing this New Reality, there is no mistaking what the ancient writers meant. Angels to symbolize heaven speaking to earth. Kings to symbolize the power of peace. The humble mother to make sure that earth, this earth, was central. And the shepherds to receive the great good news.

Here is the point of the Christmas gospel: the location of peace is not above us, not behind us, not before us, not dependent upon us. The peace of Christmas is the way of God, on earth. This is not about what might be, could be, should be, would be, may be. Nor is this mainly about what we keep and what we do. This is not a command, Thou shalt. This is not an imperative, Do this. Christmas is the quiet restatement of what is. Of the truly true. Of the really real.

Where shall we find this location? You will find the Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger…As much a mystery today as it was of old, on the Bethlehem road…

Here is Christmas to invite you once again, to seek his place among us. To move, to travel, to change, to journey, to walk, to discover the wholly unexpected. In Him. In his growth, among the elders at Temple. In his stories, of a sower and a seed. In his teaching, of those blessed now. In his healing, of the sick and sick at heart. In his friendship, among a small band of brothers and sisters. In his fellowship, quickened in communion. Here is Christmas to invite you once again, to seek his place, the location of peace.

May at last we come to peace, to say, even in the evening of life, as did Augustine of Hippo: “Too late I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Too late I loved you! And behold, you were within me, and

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Are You Ready for Christmas?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 1: 18-25

Be prepared! Otherwise, you just may miss something coming your way. In a form you did not expect.

A teenager came down from the garret with an old book, and headed for the trash. What have you found? It’s just an old book. Really—from where? Oh it was up that trunk. Just an old Bible. Anyone’s name on it? No nothing special, just oh some old German name. Can you read it? Oh, yes, its, gut …gut …Guttenberg.

This Advent, again, Matthew our teacher lures us into the mystery of faith by speaking of a Lover, a Beloved, and Love, as Augustine did later, speaking of Amans, Amatus, and Amor. GOD IS LOVE. The pulsing, driving, heart-changing career of this mystery continues to gladden struggling human faces, even as we distort its form. Carols in the shopping mall… Hymns appropriated for television… a Santa in the manger… drunkenness on Christmas Eve…a season of buying and selling drowning out quiet prayers… Still, still. The world of fear suspects the brooding presence of a God of love. And as any oriental King may tell you, love is for the wise. I ask you: are you ready for Christmas?

1. Are You Ready to Follow Love through the Thickets of Separation?Hear good news. Love is stronger than separation. Love will guide us through the thickets of separation. In August we bade farewell to may of our college students. Some will now return. They will have had some practical experience with separation.

Margie, my sister, has told a fine and humorous story, about an initial separation, a part of that journey to adulthood. The path to the second identity is never easy. A nine year old has determined to run away from home. He packs his suitcase, and carefully prepares his peanut butter sandwich. After dinner he ceremoniously leaves home, to take his seat under the corner lamppost. His parents nervously watch from the living room. The family tomcat purrs and paces across the floor. At nine o’clock he eats his sandwich. Then at ten his mom and dad hear that most blessed of night sounds, the latch of the front door. In he comes. Like Harry Truman returning with Bess to Missouri, he “takes his grip up the front stairs”. Then he comes to sit, weary from travel, in the front room. The cat brushes his legs. Now that he has been away, things are different. His father watches from over the edge of the newspaper. Then, to break the ice, the well traveled boy coughs, and says, “Yes, it is good to home again… By the way, I see you still have the same old cat”.

Home from their adventures they will come. Perhaps they will have a question in and for the church. Is there anything there for me? Which, for you, means: will you be present, available for them? They have lived with a potent mixture of energy, freedom, youth, inexperience, foolishness and rebellion--enough to produce some theological education. They are writing daily the chapters of a biography titled, “My first big mistake”; “How to tell if you have been used”; “A little learning is a dangerous thing”. Maybe that is why we love our young people so much. They are just like us. Only moreso.

I carry some memory of early waves of returning students. Those in the early sixties, crew cuts and blue suits, Lettermen jackets and records, standing courteously when women entered the room. And struggling with the thickets of vocation: will my life be lived for myself or for others? Those in the late sixties, no ties, no jackets, longer hair, Beatles albums, still standing at the right times, though a half-beat off. And struggling with the thickets of sexuality: how do we love each other without using each other? Those in the early seventies, just a few years later, but a world apart. Now the men had long hair and the women had crew cuts, Rolling Stones albums and nobody stood for anything or anybody. And struggling through the thickets of justice: with whose blood, and how much of it, will the future be purchased? Some mixture of all three struggles come home with our children this year.

Are you ready? To bear witness, some how, to Love that outdoes sin and separation? Are you ready for Christmas?

2. Are You Ready to Accept Love’s Acceptance in Loss?

We should listen, perhaps to our most veteran Christians. Voices from home and nursing home and hospital.

“My hands lie heavy on my lap, vein rigged and spotted. Once they were like white birds in graceful flight over the piano keys, stirring savory pots of food, gentling a crying infant. Agile, useful—never still. Now they too are reaching out…”

“My memory teases me, confuses me. I am in the kitchen to take my pills, and then I am transformed, in an instant, and once again, I am a bride at the altar, dressed in white, full of fear and hope. And I have lost my pills…”

“My ears keep me from sleeping. At night I hear sounds, muffled under the pillow of darkness. A window shade taps on and off. A tree rustles against the glass pane. A floorboard creaks. The furnace growls. And I am wide awake. It is 2am…”

You are a people of salt and light. You face defeat with grace and death with dignity. Every week of the year. You know, from Scripture and Gospel, that life has brutal limits, of which death is one. Nature takes us gradually, a little hand here, a little mind there, a little ear… Love clasps the inactive hand. Love commands the drifting mind. Love lends the ear its 2am lullaby. When we pray, we feel that someone is present (repeat).

Susan, my sister, told me this week of a humorous moment, with a man, not a member of the church, whose family had called in the hour of transition. She went to pray and come to know the gentleman. She wanted to come to know something of his life. Who was he? What were his dreams? What did he carry of regret? He awoke and asked in a weak voice for a pencil. She was so pleased that he was apparently intent on writing down something about his life. But they could find no pencil: not in the room, not in pockets or purses, not down the hall. At last a nurse came by with a long, yellow number two. He fingered the pencil greedily, then, rather than writing anything, used the long implement to scratch his upper back! Oh, he said, that feels so good…

Yet the pencil and bedside recalled a similar and far more poignant tale, from the pen of one of our age’s great preachers, Fred Craddock (I owe Bill Ritter the recollection of this story, which I have known and forgotten and now know again): Although Craddock became a preacher, his father had no use for the church. Every so often the minister would come by and talk. Dad would say, “All you want is another pledge and another member”. In the fall, the minister would come for a meal with the year’s evangelist. After dinner, the two would talk with old Craddock. But he would say the same, “All you want is another pledge and another member”. Fred’s mother would retreat to the kitchen and wash dishes and ring hands and cry.

Then one day the call came. His father lay dying in northern Tennessee. So Fred went home. He found his Dad in the VA, 74 pounds, throat taken, too late, radiation burns all around. All around the room, filling the room, there were flowers. Men’s Bible Class. Women’s Society. Youth Fellowship. Children’s Class. Pastor. Evangelist Society. Church Council.

Dad saw his eyes go to the cards. He picked up a pencil and wrote on the side of a Kleenex box, this line from Shakespeare, “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”

Fred asked his dad, “Dad, what is your story”. And the speechless man took the Kleenex box and wrote out a three word confession: “I was wrong”.

We all get it wrong, to some degree. Few of us have the courage of faith to confess it so honestly. We all get it wrong about the church, too, to some degree. I know I do, now and then. Maybe you do too.

Are you ready? Are you ready to bear witness that somehow love is stronger than death? Are you ready for Christmas?

3. Are You Ready to Work in Love amid the threat of Emptiness and the Confusion of Alienation?

Hear good news. Love fills emptiness, over time. Love breaks in on doubt. Our world has its empty ways of refusing providence; but Love is just more durable than boredom, emptiness, alienation.

Be a little careful with boredom. That sense that “what has been is what will be”. That sense of weariness, of emptiness. “All the rivers run to the sea”. The thought that life is about nothing, Seinfeld as theology rather than just humor.

Paul Tillich, who taught us about separation and limitation and alienation, also said: “Boredom is rage spread thin.” Poke around a little bit under the corners of emptiness and you will find anger. Not a bad thing, anger. The Bible says be angry, but don’t die with it, don’t let the sun go down with it.

You know, what makes the world work is trust. Trust in God, in self, in spouse, in friend, in boss. When trust melts, we have to resort to proof. Where there is trust, you do not need proof. But where there is no trust, there is never enough proof. Bryant, my brother, has arisen from Midwestern, Lutheran stock. There is not much humor in Luther. Yet, in response to a mailed set of complaints, laden with chagrin, and laced with bitterness, I heard him say, as he rode of sight, “Maybe I could get a ladder and help you down off of that cross?” One cross, not ours. One savior, not us.

George Bernanos’ classic story of a country priest in post-war France tells this Advent truth. A lonely, dispirited and alcoholic pastor ears the enmity and disdain of his leading layman’s wife. Although she attends mass every week, she regards the church’s teachings with a quiet bemusement. She knows better. While her husband practices law and leads the town, and shoots quail, she leads a quiet and empty life, disturbed only occasionally by her own religious questions.

She asks her pastor about hell. “Hell is to love no longer”, he answers. She grows older and more bitter. In a series of late afternoon conversations, she batters the priest with questions and insults, until one day near Christmas she produces the source of her emptiness. And her anger. May years ago she had lost a child at birth. She opens her purse and places a silver cartridge on the table. Inside are lockets of the child’s hair. For sixty years she has carried this burden of grief and it has emptied her life.

He takes the lockets and throws them into the fire. Love overpowers emptiness, over time.

Advent is the time to get ready. We live in a preventive, preemptive, abortive, prophylactic age, one highly suspicious of the unplanned, the unpredicted, the unforeseen, and the unexpected. We prefer what we can forecast to what surprises us. We lean more on what we can count than what we can count on. All of which is to say that Advent, in particular, runs counter to our culture. This season of unplanned pregnancy, of surprising announcement, of dreams filled and fulfilled—so at odds with the material world around us.

I went to conference in June to discover that my roommate was to be John Cooke, one of our Buffalo preachers. What a surprise and delight to learn how much he and I have in common! Friends in the North, the Payne family from Asbury, those who remember his father, George, a Rochester lawyer and conference chancellor. This Advent, unexpectedly, John sent a copy of his father’s daily Journal from 11/23/64: Asbury First Methodist Church celebrated the cancellation of notes signaling the end of all indebtedness on its $1,964,699 building project begun 12 years ago. Members of the congregation, named for Francis Asbury, chose yesterday to dedicate the entire complex of sanctuary, education wing and adjoining buildings. The cancelled notes were presented to the Pastor, Dr Richard Davey, by Nelson E Sheldon, president of the Board of Trustees. Bishop Ward said, “As Methodists we have some deep-seated feelings about smoking. But the holy smoke of the kind we shared here this morning, this is the kind of fire that shows something significant….Although we have gotten people into church, we still haven’t gotten the church into people. The church must speak more than out of its concrete and steel structure. It must speak out of its people.”

Under the surface of life there resounds a lasting question. Are you ready? Sometimes the question is put so bluntly as to be inaudible. Yet that call and anticipated response still hover under the surface. Are you ready for Christmas?

The United Nations has its troubles. Like any human organization, it carries the weight of sin, death and meaninglessness. What is remarkable is that through it all, Kofi Annan and others are willing to change, willing to help us think about what a doctrine of “anticipatory self-defense” might mean, and willing to risk for a peaceful future.

In all this they remind us of Dag Hammarskjold, one who was ready enough. A Christian? At least that. One who heard the question, in its breadth of profundity, and then lived it, to his untimely death in the Congo. Bill Ritter recently reminded me of his answer:

I don’t know who, or what, put the question.
I don’t know when it was put.
I don’t even remember answering.
But at some moment I did answer “Yes”
To someone, something.
And from that hour, I was certain that existence was meaningful
And that life, my life, lived in self-surrender, had a goal.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Two Beliefs

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 11:17-27

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

This year we have scaled a great promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination.

Two Level Drama

We have listened for the divine word in two dimensions, during this autumn, one the imaginative narrations about the person of Jesus, the other the historical reconstruction of the community which produced John.

The first dimension: John features Jesus in mortal combat over many issues. Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana. Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus. Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the well. Jesus heals a broken spirit. Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stereoptic, to a man born blind. Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and bring resurrection and life. He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness. He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism. He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt. He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia. He brings the church out of the closet of hunger. He brings the dead to life.

The second dimension: The two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues of salvation today.

The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre eminently embedded in John, is the movement away from Judaism. How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek? The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion.

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ. Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.

Two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of the parousia. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own. How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become? What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down the profound despair of nuclear twilight and break free into a loving global future? More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second.

Both mean choice. Both bring us to the summit of freedom.

We have the freedom to choose and to move:
1. From fear to love.
2. From congenital blindness to spiritual sight.
3. From life to spirit.
4. From isolation to community.
5. From home to health.
6. From rainbow to firmament.
7. From control to freedom.
8. From spiritual hunger to hungry spirituality.
9. From nationalism to patriotism.
10.From denominationalism to ecumenism.
11.From death to life.


In the Gospel of John we have found grace amid dislocation and freedom following disappointment (repeat). These are the twin gifts of this twilight gospel, grace and freedom, John Wesley’s two favorite words. In dislocation we meet grace: going off to college or military service; immersed in a new culture of electronic Gnosticism; on the cusp of the courage to change our mind; in the matters, intimate and crucial, of human sexuality; in the course of finding a new home; in the throes of struggles with our denomination. Yet all these foreground dislocations, and many others, really are meant to prepare us for the one great dislocation, death. What grace does the gospel give in this dislocation of death?

Our text today does not cast aside the primitive Christian hope, even in its most primitive garb. Mary says that she knows her brother will be raised, at the resurrection of the last day. John lets this hope stand, as does our traditional liturgy of committal at the grave. That is, whether we trust that in the hour of death we are translated to God’s presence, or whether in this apocalyptic hope we trust that at the end of time, with all the children of God, still, in both cases, grace is found amid the dislocation of death. This is our belief, our first belief. And whether the hope is traditional or contemporary in its expression, the courage of this belief is what gives us the capacity to be truly human.


I know that he will be raised at the resurrection on the last day…Here is an image to convey this ancient hope.

We lived for some years right across from a large cemetery which also hides a back entrance to the Carrier Dome. I used to keep count of how many friends, real friends, I had, and how many were on one side of Comstock and how many were on the other.

One late autumn Saturday, a football game day, our kids parked cars for $5 a piece in the backyard. Then all became quiet in the neighborhood, except for the strong wind of the day, and an occasional muffled shout, like heaven’s trumpet, from the dome behind the cemetery.

I had determined, wind or no, to rake, and so with my ears muffled and battened by wind, I set out to rake the front lawn. So quiet, so empty, that street, during a football game. Back to the cemetery I raked and raked, wind rearranging all my art and labor. Back again, and raking again. I was lost in worries about Sunday to come, or some other bother. I raked and mused.

Suddenly, I turned for once to face the graves across the street. There, standing shoulder to shoulder was an army of men and women, a great sea of orange, now in the wind ready to cross at me, hundreds, more, coming, streaming out of the graveyard, walking at me with no more warning than Lazarus gave his sisters. Lost as I was in reverie, I really did not know for sure, whether the resurrection of the dead was upon us, or more simply whether the game had ended early. The resurrection at the last day…

If we…

In less mythological terms, and more general biblical phrases, we express something of this same, first, belief, in future hope, in grace at the dislocation of death. As we said last week, during the memorial for one of our greatest saints:

If we believe that life has meaning and purpose
And we do
If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us
And we do
If we believe that divine love lasts
And we do
If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure
And we do
If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son
And we do
If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity
And we do
If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight
And we do
If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe
And we do
If we believe that God has loved us personally
And we do
If we believe in God
And we do
Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death
And we do
Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death
And we do
Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection
And we do
Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone
And we do
Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality
And we do
Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain
And we do
Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life
And we do
Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally
And we do
Then we shall trust that at death we rest protected in God’s embrace
And we do
Then we shall trust in God
And we do.

Grace amid the dislocation of death. Freedom following disappointment. We have known disappointment. Following disappointment we find freedom: following the terror of 9/11; after trials with the complexities of life; in the hard discovery that the past is immutable; through the shameful admission that Christianity, and the Fourth Gospel, have harbored anti-Semitism; subsequent to a Presidential election in which we knew half the country would be chagrined; facing the stunted theological imagination of the last half century. Yet all these foreground disappointments, and many others like them, are merely preparations for our encounter with the one great existential disappointment, which is our enduring condition, what the Scripture names as sin. Our distance from God, from depth, from meaning, from purpose, from love.

Prophylactic Age

Advent for centuries has been the time, these four Sundays, on which the last things, the Christian hope, has been propounded. Often a sermon each on death, judgment, heaven and hell.

Our time, our culture, our world do not readily prepare us for this season. This season of surprise, of hope hidden in the unexpected, this season in particular has a frightful time in a post-Christian world. We just do not handle the unexpected very well. This has been true for two generations, but clearly it has 9/11 overtones as well. We live in a preventive age, a pre-emptive age, an abortive age, a prophylactic age. We prefer, and this in measures that go out to the edges, what we can control to what we cannot control, what we can measure to what we cannot fathom, what we can account to what we cannot. What is planned, what is foreseen, what is prepared, what is arranged—these lie within our zone of comfort. It does make the word of resurrection somewhat difficult to interpret. We rely more on what we can count than what we can count on.

The greek word for guard is fulakh. Hence pro—before, phylactic—guard. This same Greek word, rendered guard, can also mean prison. That which we count on to protect us, also imprisons us. That behind which we hide, also hides us. We need to be careful about what guards, that is what prisons, we permit. It is like Aesop’s fable of the horse and stag. To defeat the stag, the horse asks the man to ride him. The man agrees, as long as the horse will accept a bit and bridle. He does, and he is protected—and imprisoned. Here is advent hope: that we may see clearly those things that protect us to the extent that they imprison us.

Flight into Rochester

The next time you fly into Rochester, think about the disappointment of sin and the power of freedom. Ours is a beautiful region, and ours is a small and lovely city. From a distance, especially, it shines. You can even make out the steeple of Asbury First as the plane wings its way home. How disappointing it must be, for the angels, to see what we also see, when we truly see. A county separated by economic distances. Some children raised in opulence, others is squalor. Some children raised in safety, others in peril. Some children raised in educational abundance, others in educational scarcity. Some children raised with all the comforts of home, some raised within homes of little comfort. Some children raised in earshot of resurrection and life, some left to fend for themselves amid the wolves of disappointment and dislocation. There will always be those who have much and those who have little. That is the price of liberty. You are people of resurrection and life, however, and you expect that those who have much will not have too much and those who have little will not have too little. That is the requirement of justice. That is, resurrection and life are here and now, not just there and then. Where you find resurrection, there is Jesus Christ. Where you find life, there is Jesus Christ.

Resurrection and Life

It is resurrection and life on which Beth Stroud and the Germantown UMC will lean, now that Beth has been “put out of the synagogue”. There has been disappointment. But there is a lasting spirit of freedom to continue the long, twilight march to justice.

It is resurrection and life on which the UCC will lean, now. Their own “open doors” campaign, similar to but more explicit than ours, has been treated to the injustice of Caesar’s justice, and “put out of the media synagogue”, at least by two networks. But there is also a spirit of freedom to continue the long, twilight, multi-generational march to justice.

It is resurrection and life that steadies us and carries us! Sometimes in mistaken condescension, we Methodists observe the Roman Catholic orders of ministry. “How sad”, we say. “How odd”, we assert. “How strange, how unfair. How wrong to take someone called to ministry and say, ‘Yes, you may be ordained to love God, but you must give up the love of a wife if you do so.’ Oh, we cluck, how shortsighted. How wrong.

Yet another, future generation will look back upon us, out of the next 50 years, and say of us Methodists today, “How sad. How odd. How strange. How unfair. How wrong to take some young woman or man, called to ministry and say, ‘Yes, you may be ordained to love God, but if you are gay you must give up the intimacy and covenant of human love, your love for your partner’.”


Most of ministry, these years, has been in snow. In smaller assignments, the snow fell often on afternoons given over to sharing the gospel, one by one. At the kitchen table. Over coffee. In a parking lot. Within a small office. At the hospital. At school. With lunch. In a nursing home. In the barn, at dusk, milking time. In the sugar house. On a tractor.

Snow swirled that day, as the Nursing Home hove into view. Gladys deserved a call, on the line between life and death, and the preacher came prepared, or so he thought.

Would you like me to pray with you? Oh, it is not necessary. Of course I love all the prayers of the great church, particularly, now that I see little, those I carry in memory from our old liturgy. But I am fine.

Perhaps you would like to hear the Psalms? My grandmother appreciated them read as she, uh… You mean as she lay dying? Yes. Oh, it is not necessary. I mean I do love the Psalms, and was lucky to have them taught rote to me at church camp so that they rest on my memory, like goodness and mercy, all the days of my life. But I am fine.

I know that you sang in our choir. Would you like some of the hymns recited for you? Oh that is not necessary. I do so love music! I can sing the hymns from memory to myself at night! I found my faith singing, you know. It just seemed so real when we would sing, when we were younger, around the piano, around the campfire, around the church. I knew in my heart, I knew Whom I could trust. But I am fine.

I brought communion for you in this old traveling kit. Oh, that is not necessary. We can have communion if you like. It is so meaningful to me. I can feel my husband right at my side, knee to knee. After he died, I could not hear anything that was said in your fine sermons for so long, my heart hurt so loudly. But I still could get grace in communion. But I am fine.

So the snow was falling, as it does in all ministry in our region. (You will say, surely not in the summer. I take the summer off, for that reason!). Snow on snow…flake on flake…Just like a preacher, nothing to offer, but to stand and wait and wring the hands…

Gladys, is there anything that I could bring you today? As a matter of fact, there is…Tell me about our church…I have been out of worship for so long… How is the church doing this Christmas?...Are the children coming and being taught to give their money to others? And what of the youth? Are they in church and skating and sledding and hayriding and falling in love? Tell me about the UMW and their mission goal. Did they make it? A dollar means so little to us and so much in Honduras and China. And tell me about the building… Are the Trustees preparing for another generation? It is so easy to defer maintenance…What about the choir—are they singing from faith to faith?...Tell me about your preaching, and the DS, and our Bishop…What is going to happen with our little church …Tell me, please, tell me about our church…It is where I find meaning and depth and love…That is what you can bring me today.

Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. She who believes in me, though she die, yet will she live. There are those places where what is beyond us enters among us. Where the line of death is smudged and crossed. Where it is not just so clear what is really death and what is really life. Worship, this hour, is such a moment, too. You can have an experience of God, right in church.

Howard Thurman Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

Good news: in dislocation, hold onto grace, the grace to be co-dependent no more; in disappointment, hold onto freedom, the freedom to walk in the light as he is in the light.

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (Frost). So too a sermon, and a life.

This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination. This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination.

Faith is personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.

Now is the time to jump.

All of us are better when we are loved.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Living With Thanksgiving

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Philippians 4:4-9

Three Missionary Journeys

The wily members of Tau Kappa Epsilon together had enrolled, that autumn, in a course titled New Testament Introduction, 2pm. They had signed up on the bungled information and misplaced laziness conveyed by someone who said it was an easy A. It was not. In fact, it turned out to be a blistering forced march through ancient history, psychology, sociology and philosophy. Thousands of pages! Which they did not read. Three term papers! Which they hardly completed. Pitched battle midterm! Which they failed. And the class itself, 2pm, affectionately known in the hallowed TKE halls as ‘Death in the Afternoon’.

Thanksgiving approached, and with it the specter of responsibility, the cavernous approaching maw of a final exam worthy of the Grand Inquisitor. The brothers, in fear and trembling, had stopped going to class. Some had written short notes home, before the holiday, indicating that, amazing as it might seem, they perhaps could predict, sorry to say, one failing grade to come.

As it happened, however, the fraternity that year was blessed with an optimistic president, who saw every problem as an opportunity and every terror as a challenge. Thus, the night before the moment of doom, he gathered his sorry brethren in the chapter room. They sang their school song, read from the holy book, recalled other days, and then heard a stirring presidential peroration: “Men. We have not yet begun to fight. We are not defeated yet. An exam is not about what you do not know, it is about what you do know. Remember: you can if you think you can. We are going to pass this course if we simply remember that. Now. I happen to know that this teacher for 29 years has given the same final exam question: “Trace the Three Missionary Journeys of the Apostle Paul”. And I am prepared, as your President, between now, 9pm and tomorrow morning at 5am, to teach you the answer to this question.” Leadership is so crucial. Up went the maps of Greece and Asia Minor! Out came the coffee and cigars! Dusted off were the unread Bibles and textbooks! As one man, the fraternity bent to their challenge, the three missionary journeys of the great Apostle. As dawn broke on D Day, the blinds were drawn back, and the coffee put away, and all the gentlemen of Tau Kappa Epsilon knew in excruciating detail the path of Paul, in Arabia, in Macedonia, to Rome, and on to Spain. Bloodied but unbowed, bluebooks in hand, they marched forward to meet their fate, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do.

Imagine their surprise, prepared as they were. Imagine their shock, set as they were. Imagine their pain, hopeful as they were. Out came the examination, and its singular question….

Analyze and Criticize our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount…

One by one, beginning in good biblical fashion with the eldest, to a man they presented themselves to their professor, whose spine and mettle they had sorely under measured, and confessed their sin. “I was not prepared”, I will see you in the winter. “I did not study”, I will repeat in the winter. “The wheels of justice grind slow but exceedingly fine”, I will enroll again. All so confessed, save one lone freshman, who sat at the back of the room and remembered his leader, his president saying, “An exam is not about what you do not know, but about what you do know. You can if you think you can.” To the amazement of his watching brothers, and the bemusement of his professor, this young, pale freshman tore into the first bluebook, and then into another, and then into a third. At three hours and thirty minutes, soaked in sweat and covered with ink, the young lad stretched, rose, smiled, deposited his document, and left, to rejoin his astonished fraternity. And what did he write?

We may imagine his initial page encased behind glass in the fraternity trophy room, beside paddles, and photos, and sorority articles. He wrote:

"Esteemed Professor, It ill behooves such a lowly person as I to take upon myself the moral weight of such a supreme question as the one you so elegantly and concisely pose. It would not comport with my low station in study and life, to presume to respond to this majestic question. Such an answer would lack all proportion, and all humility. After all, I am a lowly freshman, a mere pledge in my fraternity. How could I possibly analyze, let alone criticize, the most wonderful words ever spoken by a human tongue, divine words from the Son of God? I am not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under the table of this heavenly teaching. Your example and your precept regarding humility, dear teacher, your very life and vocation have taught me otherwise. I cannot, should not, must not, may not, will not presume to analyze or criticize Jesus. Instead, esteemed Professor, by your leave, travel with me in your imagination, as I dutifully retrace THE THREE MISSIONARY JOURNEYS OF THE APOSTLE PAUL…"

We See Paul Living with Thanksgiving

Paul concludes his writing, and we may suppose his earthly existence, on a high note of joy, a wing and a prayer and a song of thanksgiving. We meet him here, captured by the cross and also by the Roman guard, living and to the end with thanksgiving. How did he do this? How did this dyspeptic, polemical, cantankerous, argumentative man find the grace to write, “In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God”? It took him three journeys. And not the ones to the east and to the north and to the west, not the ones to Arabia and Macedonia and Ephesus. In the Spirit of the crucified Christ, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving.

First, he made a spiritual journey from law to liberty. He learned to savor the taste of freedom. He became the archangel of religious freedom. It was Paul who said, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is no male and female”. A taste of freedom. It was Paul who said, “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again.” A taste of freedom. It was Paul who wrote, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” A taste of freedom. It was Paul who said, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ”. On a spiritual journey from the valley of law to the hillside of freedom, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving. In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.

Second, he made a spiritual journey from success to faith. Oh, he had an eager interest in fulfilling, and that successfully, his vision and mission. To spread the good news throughout the known world. Still, he could see and trust that in the course of his labor, there would be failure, mistake, risk, hurt and loss. None of which would invalidate the great good news of which he was mysteriously made a steward. He could be afflicted without being crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. He could take a punch. On a spiritual journey from the colony of success to the homeland of faith, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving. In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.

Third, he made a spiritual journey from independence to community. For such a singular person, this may have been the toughest trail of all. Yet we see emerge in his letters an ascending sensitivity and sensibility about the miracle of fellowship, what he calls the partnership of the gospel. He can rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. And, most astoundingly, be patient with them all. He can observe varieties of gifts, but one God. And varieties of activities but one Lord. And varieties of workings, but the one Spirit. He can admonish the Romans, whom he has not yet visited, to let love be genuine, to hate what is evil, to hold fast what is good, to love one another with mutual affection….On a spiritual journey from the island of independence to the mainland of community, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving. In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.

Are We Living with Thanksgiving?

Perhaps, in these brief moments of worship, as we lift our hearts to the living God and as we rest in God’s presence and love, we might consider whether we are living with thanksgiving? There is much that is wrong. War, hunger, terror, poverty, immorality, illness, strife. There is much that is right, too. Life, love, hearth, home, country, church, grace, God. We have known dislocation and disappointment, but we also have known grace and freedom. On the journey from what is wrong to what is right, are we living with thanksgiving? Are we praying, as our storehouse leader does for every client, ‘God sees, knows, loves you and so do I’? Are we gratefully gathering others to church, as one busy young mother did in September, phoning a college student to bring her to church? Are we willing to accept risk and service, as one young person, thrust by change into a new leadership role did, without an audible gulp? Are we giving generously, as one young parent did when after church on stewardship Sunday she amended her pledge upward? (Someone today could probably write a check for $100,000 to further the work of the church). Are we breathing, and listening and smiling through every day? Are we living with thanksgiving? And if not, what will take to get us there?

We have a new stage in our education wing. It is beautiful. One September Sunday, following church, an adult passed by the room to see a half-dozen young women using the stage, developing a play, dancing to imaginary music, enjoying the moment, the space, the church, life—living with thanksgiving.

May the prayer of Howard Thurman be ours, too:

"In Your presence, O God, we make our Sacrament of Thanksgiving. We begin with the simple things of our days: Fresh air to breathe, Cool water to drink, The taste of food, The protection of houses and clothes, The comforts of home.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day! We bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that we have known: Our mothers’ arms, The strength of our fathers, The playmates of our childhood, The wonderful stories brought to us from the lives of many who talked of days gone by when fairies and giants and diverse kinds of magic held sway; The tears we have shed, the tears we have seen; The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day."

In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Two Beggars

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 9

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

This year we will scale a great promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination.

In John 9 we reach the summit. Here this morning is the crucial chapter within the Fourth Gospel. In it we see clearly the two level drama of faith which John acclaims. Said Luther, “preaching the Gospel is one beggar telling another where they both may find bread”.

Today we meet two beggars. One is a man lost in the mist of memory, who somehow recovered his sight at the pool of Siloam. The other is the church, John’s church, and by extension Asbury First, existentially lost, who somehow recover sight at the hand of Jesus the Christ. John has two eyes at work. One is trained on the distant memory of a powerful Jesus. The other is trained on the experience of the Risen Lord in the life of the church. Both see the healing action of the divine.

This blind beggar, and his healing, and all the trouble that such a good deed occasions, is important to John because in him John sees clearly what is going on in his own church. At Siloam, there was a lonely beggar. We are beggars too. In Jerusalem, one was powerfully healed. We have been healed too. With Jesus, a man’s sight, his most prized faculty, was restored. So too our spirit. So long ago, Jesus was heard to say, “I am the light of the world”. He is the light of our world too. Did Jesus of old bring healing to the needy? By grace he does so every week in our midst still! What the earthly Jesus did for the blind beggar, the Risen Lord does for the beloved church.

That’s the good news.

There is other news too.

At Siloam, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. We too have learned that the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around. In Jerusalem, there is immediate conflict over what this new Power means for old traditions. We too know the conflict between gospel and tradition. With Jesus’ healing there comes a division between generations. Such contention and difference is ours too.

Our gospel shows us two beggars, one in Jerusalem a long time ago. And one which is the church itself, to whom Jesus speaks, the Risen Lord speaking in the spirit through the very human voice of John.

Of the first beggar, blind in Jerusalem, we may say: He was visited by Jesus; he was exonerated by Jesus; he was touched by Jesus; he was sent by Jesus; he was commanded by Jesus; he trusted in Jesus; he was healed by Jesus; he was questioned about Jesus; he witnessed to Jesus; he told the truth for Jesus; and for this, and for his Lord, he paid a price. He was shunned. He was thrown out of the synagogue.

Of the second beggar, the community for whom the Gospel is written, blinded by dislocation and disappointment, we may say: They were visited by Jesus; they were exonerated by Jesus; they were touched by Jesus; they were healed by Jesus; they were commanded by Jesus; they trusted in Jesus; they were healed by Jesus; they were questioned about Jesus; they witnessed to Jesus; they told the truth for Jesus; and for this, and for their Lord, they paid a price. They were shunned. They were thrown out of the synagogue.

Two blind beggars, one a man and one a church. Expulsed, thrown out, shunned, set apart.

Most especially, in this crafted memory, the blind man given sight is then thrown out of the synagogue for consorting with Jesus. And this is the central communal dislocation of John’s church. The beggar was thrown out of the synagogue, and John’s church too, is like a beggar, wandering outside of inherited tradition. And we are, too.

The expulsion from the religious family of origin has two dimensions, one of sight and one of sound, one sociological and one theological. First, in actual experience, the little and poor community has lost its roots and its support. It is dislocated. Second, in the nature of hope, the community has now to find new resources, new ways of thinking about hope. It is disappointed.

(Why the separation? For the Jewish community, John’s high claims about Christ amounted to a breach of monotheism, a kind of ditheism, two gods. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one….” And the charge had merit. Now we can say so many years later, why this is minimal, look, by the fourth century the church acclaimed not one, nor even two, but three persons in the Godhead!)

Here is the greatest of good news, for us, this day! The Risen Lord addresses us through His Word and places us in earshot of saving grace and lasting freedom! By grace ye are saved through faith, and not by the works of the law! For freedom Christ has set us free, stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again!

And that is today’s gospel, in brief. Now we may ask, is there any application we may make to our life today? Given that 14 minutes still remain in the sermon time allotment, we may hope so! And in fact, two applications quickly appear, one of grace in dislocation and one of freedom following disappointment, one sociological and one theological, one of faith and one of hope, one for the church and one for the world.


For nine years we have worked hard to reconnect our congregation to the connection of the United Methodist Church. As you know, I am and will continue to be a life-long, committed, and loyal United Methodist. So we have worked for the future health of our denomination as strongly as possible. We have paid massive apportionments, and yet relationally we are somewhat shunned in our conference. We have instituted a connectional Sunday, sponsored a pulpit exchange, participated in youth ministries, and yet our voice is not fully heard for the future of the denomination. We have sent our clergy now every year to conference, and have taken our places, hours on end, in the Visioning Committee, on the Board of Ministry, on the Finance Committee, in teaching and preaching across the area, yet we are “put out of the synagogue” when the voting occurs. We have hosted the meeting of the conference, even, and yet in the gathering we are distant cousins.

John’s gospel can really help us, here and now. We are not the first to know the endless contention and intractable difference that are a part of all institutional life. There will be grace enough and to spare in this period of turbulence. We can be kind without being dishonest. We can be honest without being unkind. This week we gave over to God one of our greatest saints. A woman raised in the heart of the Methodist tradition, whose loving witness epitomized the combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement which Mr. Wesley taught…A champion of women’s ministry…A graduate of a Methodist school…A lover of people who also did all the good she could…A great hearted person who knew that institutional and spiritual needs, when true and real, are in full concert. Friends, as long as we have the healing presence of such insightful saints, we will be able to make our way forward, and to deal with dislocation. Yet, to move forward with health, we will need to confer and discern together, with kindness and with honesty.

Honestly, in these years I see now, by a sort of restoration of sight to the blind, which comes by the light of the world, that I may have acted the part of the co-dependent spouse, with regard to this connectional relationship. Our beloved connection, our conference, is, from my perspective, addicted to frightful outspending and overspending. This is the pattern of addiction. It is a systemic, not an individual dilemma. The co-dependent protects the addict from reality, through denial, through ignorance, through avoidance. How does the co-dependent become truly helpful? By recognizing the condition, and by engaging a full, careful process of honest, kind discussion. A special meeting, for which we can gently and carefully prepare, is scheduled with our superintendent for April 18, 2005.

Am I preaching only to myself? Or do you recognize some signs of co-dependency in yourself? At home, at work, in family, in community, in friendship?

Our story of sight restored will have to wait for its inclusion in the future life of our denomination. We can wait, until the time for speaking comes. We can wait, wait without idols, until the end of this particular word famine. We can wait, and be ready and happy to speak and lead, down the road, when there is a teachable moment, a readiness to hear. Truth, as Kierkegaard reminded us, is not so much known, as lived. And through it all, as we have done, we can continue to love, love, love, in thought, word and deed. But not in co-dependence.

Here, just here, right here in our communal need stands the Gospel of John, a moment in the Day of God and the Gospel of Christ: you will find grace for every time of need. In the supreme dislocation, the movement from dysfunction to well-being, from addiction to sobriety, you will sense and you will know real grace.

That is one possible application of this gospel to our life, John 9 at Asbury First. Here is another.


On Friday I was brought to heel sitting at the red light on Goodman and East. At the corner a man was being tutored in the use of a seeing eye dog. The old black lab, harnessed and steady, was ready to guide him across the street, and his care-giver, a strong woman, held him at the shoulder from the back. Green came for him and the dog pulled forward. But the noise was great, and the wind was blowing, and the traffic was heavy, very heavy, and drivers were zinging left and right, all in the shadow of the Lutheran Church. And this dear young man held fast in fright. He could not move. The dog pulled and the woman pushed and he froze. At last, she saw that he was not ready. And her arms went around him to a great hug from the back, and she pulled him back toward the safety of the sidewalk. I had no right to see the utter disappointment on his face and covering hers too. Yet I see there an autumnal holiness, a real freedom, a love. Her hands moving from his shoulders to cover his chest and enfold him told me, somehow, that one day, one day, one fine day, he would muster the courage to shake free of disappointment. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must take to trust a mute animal, a dog, amid the cacophony of urban traffic. But I know he will find it. Why I bet by today he has done so. Sometimes you just have to jump. You know. When you learn to swim, and let the water hold you. When you take a leap and take a new job. When you ask someone to marry you. When you decide to leave a relationship or a friendship. When you retire. When you join or leave a church.

Looking out over sixty years of theological imagination in this country and abroad, speaking now both of, and to, the liberal Protestant communities, it will have been in retrospect rather a disappointment to see that we have not moved beyond Genesis 9, and in particular that we have not made our way out six more chapters to Genesis 15, in these sixty years. We stand frozen at the intersection. It is Noah who receives the rainbow, the covenant of color; but it is Abraham who receives the firmament, the covenant of light!

Jesus says, I am the light of the world.

I love the rainbow too. I love what Bishop Roy Nichols used to preach, that the world needs a spiritual rainbow. I love what I learned across the rainbow from K. Koyama, and DJ Hall, and J. Cone, and G. Guttierez, and B. Harrison, and C. Heyward, and C. Morse, and R. Ruether. Yes, all this color, celebrated in our churches and in our consciousness for sixty years, from the day my dear parents sat at the feet of Howard Thurman in Boston, it is good. We can sing a rainbow. And we have. But Jesus here does not say I am the color of the world. He says light.

And all the rainbow colors behind the pieces of the other gospels, and the documents like Q behind them, and the stretches of independent writing like Luke’s midsection, and the authentic Paul, and the secondary Paul, and the little John letters, and James, and all the others, all the colors, they are good. But John reminds us of the light from which they are all refracted. And for the 21st century, we will need more light than color. W E B Dubois was right that the issue of the 20th century would be the color line. The issue of the 21st century is light. We will need the universal truth, the global gospel, the eternal dimensions of Christ, that John most celebrates, to carry us out of our very real, and very constricting particularities. Asbury First, with its crowned, regal, welcoming Christ, has everything to offer, as part of a global village green. Jesus said, “He who is not against me is for me.”

I like color. Indigo and Yellow, great colors. Orange, a personal favorite. You like blue, he likes red. Good for you. It is not easy being green. Believe me, I know. Color is great, as long as color remembers the light from which it is refracted. We are all far more human and far more alike than we have recently envisioned. It is John who fills our existential disappointment with a great, universal hope! That this world can work! That in Christ there is no east or west! That God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human!

It can be dangerous to focus too much on difference. Bishop Sharon Rader told this humorous tale. On a winding mountain two-lane, two cars pass. Coming down the hill in a convertible, a young woman, hair blowing, radio blaring, waves and shouts at the car climbing toward her: “Pig! Pig!” Scowling, the other driver, an older man, mumbles that everyone still thinks he is a chauvinist. What right does she have to honk and yell? She doesn’t even know him. He is no chauvinist pig. So he thinks, as he rounds the corner doing 60 and runs right into—a pig. Friends, we are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

And in the light of the light of the world, what of all our colorful difference? Perhaps we will in the 21st century come to say, of this, as did Aquinas of all his voluminous writing, in a moment of epiphany—“so much straw”.

It is the covenant of the rainbow that fascinates us still. We have not yet opened our eyes, or had our eyes opened, to the awesome bounty and beauty of the covenant of Abraham, the promise of firmament. We have been so concerned about who is in the car, and especially with where everyone is sitting, that we have paid no attention to where we are going. We have been so faithful to representation that we have ignored reality. We have so adored colors that we have forgotten numbers. We have been so eager to provide space for voice that we have neglected the body, the incarnation. To have voice, first you need a torso, lungs, larynx, mouth—body. We have been blind, blinded. The body needs the body to be the body. I love the rainbow too. Galatians 3:28. We miss though the global, expansive, covenantal promise that our progeny will be as many as the stars in the sky, and that the gospel undergirds the world! Galatians 6:14.

We need to leave the rainbow and gaze at the firmament, to leave the afternoon haze and the rainbow for the night sky and the blazing firmament.

“Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost.” (Unamuno). To leave the fretting about color coordination for the joy, the expansive great joy of welcoming the 50% of this county that has had no first helping of faith, no first exposure to the light. That is where the fun is.

Here is one great, freeing hope for the 21st century, that will move from Noah to Abraham, from rainbow to firmament, from difference to grace. Two Sundays ago our organist, somehow, caught two tunes, and made them one, an utterly Johannine thing to do. He started with “I can sing a rainbow”, and then he moved on to, “He will give me grace and glory”. May the next generation of theologians do the same: move happily from rainbow to firmament, from color to light, from varieties to common ground.


“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

Good news: in dislocation, hold onto grace, the grace to be co-dependent no more; in disappointment, hold onto freedom, the freedom to walk in the light as he is in the light.

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (Frost). So too a sermon, and a life.

One summer day in 1983, arriving late, I walked across a field in Vancouver, toward a tent at the edge of the ocean. The World Council of Churches was meeting in Assembly. Philip Potter, Robert Runcie, Desmond Tutu, Pauline Webb. I can hear the singing still, “In Christ there is no east or west…”

This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination. This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination.

Faith is personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.

Now is the time to jump.

All of us are better when we are loved.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

A Practical Guide to Stewardship

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: II Corinthians 8

G K Chesterton was once asked if he could choose only one book to have with him on a desert island which would he choose. I suppose his young, academic inquirer expected him to say The Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Milton, or Moby Dick. His response? A Practical Guide to Shipbuilding.

Whether Asbury First survives past the year 2020 depends today on two challenging issues, one of which is the subject of the sermon this morning. Your gift to the future will either move us off the desert island of the present, or will maroon us here for life—and beyond. We need to read just one hypothetical book, whose chapter headings follow, and whose title is this: A Practical Guide to Stewardship.

Chapter One: Waking Up

There is no longer any other Asbury First alive and well in New York State. We are the only remaining large, urban regional, historic, city located United Methodist church of any size. Central Park Buffalo, First Church Syracuse, Central Church Utica, Trinity Church Albany—two are closed and two nearly so. To thrive we must consistently draw people to drive twenty minutes or more, past several other churches, out of their cultural comfort zones in the suburbs, into an aging city, and ask them to poll vault their way into many generations of history, over high parapets of architecture, into layers of accumulated friendship—without clear direction for parking. We are a broad church in a narrow time, an English church in a German conference, a blended church in the age of red and blue. These years of steady growth, by God’s grace, sail across the prevailing wind of our denomination, which has its own struggles, and is therefore not much able to help or heed. We have not a dollar, hour, person or prayer to spare. This is the condition of our desert island, 2004.

Chapter Two: Giving Thanks

Somehow, God has blessed us with growth and health. From 2000 to 2300 members, from 550 to 720 in worship. You can list a dozen ways in which this great church excels: organs, choirs, adult classes, teaching, service ministry, architecture, building, new building, youth, program, staff, pastoral care, children’s ministry, management, endowment, fellowship, service. Let me emphasize one other: mission. In its apportionment, storehouse, dining caring center, daycare and nursery, Honduran mission, homeless housing, designated and other gifts, and in staff and physical support for these your church invests $400,000 or more a year. Is this enough? Easily. Is it too much? Maybe. Can we be thankful for this? Surely. Will it last? That depends. Every day, may it be firmly stressed, we see tremendous giving, creative generosity, abundant loving, in and through this church. On the day of the composition for this sermon, for example, I drove in past a new tree planted in memory of a loved one; I read a note of explanation about a great personal gift to our church; I remembered the promise at breakfast some days earlier of a new gift to come this year; I conversed about a stunning, astounding class pledge to our capital campaign; I was touched by a more elderly saint who described himself, even as he was making his daily contributions, as a “reluctant single”; I met again with a colleague whose own great generosity lives as an example for all; I reflected on the careful preparations made the evening before for our Taize service; I caught a glimpse of Ellen Donovan, Day Care Director; I heard about some community service provided by one of our members; I had lunch with a retired minister whose ongoing generosity is a daily inspiration; I thought about you, you all, all you all who make this church thrive. All in a few hours between breakfast and lunch, in the autumn of the year, along a beautiful avenue.

Chapter Three: The Joy of Giving

You have found a way, in a balanced and measured manner, to give to others. As a congregation you know the truth of Paul’s advice in giving. 1. You are excellent in so many other things, so you will want to excel here. 2. Real giving is always of one’s own free will. 3. There is a healthy comparative rivalry for growth in giving which we may affirm. 4. We give according to what we have, so that he who has much may not have too much and he who has little may not have too little. 5. Our measure of what is right, “honorable”, is found both in the sight of God and in the sight of others. 6. One who sows bountifully reaps bountifully. 7. Happiness, cheer is the mark of real giving. 8. God will provide what is needed. 9. The main blessing of giving is to the giver: You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God, for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God. Under the test of this service, you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others.

Chapter Four: The Present Need

We encourage you to give, to pledge, to increase your pledge, to tithe. Our congregation will grow as we find ways to move toward tithing. You know that the pastoral team and households are strongly committed to the support of this church. We give so because we believe in what you are doing and know that generosity is the highway to happiness. What distinguishes us as a people in Christ is largely our capacity to give of ourselves for the welfare of others.

Chapter Five: Three forms of Giving

We encourage all of our members to remember the church in your will. We encourage all our members to give to our capital campaign. We encourage all our members to pledge every year. You could look at your annual income and calculate a percentage of that income. 10%, 7%, 5%. Add your pledge and your annual capital gift together, and subtract these from the percent you chose. You earn $50,000 a year. You want to move toward tithing by giving 5%. That is $2,500. So, you pledge $1,500 for the year, and make an annual $1,000 gift to a Time to Build.

Chapter Six
You can give too much. Some of us probably need to be encouraged to be careful, to plan for the future, to recognize that we already are tithing, and so we should be moderate in further, future giving.
Chapter Seven: Tithing is the Christian Way

The careful use of material resources is as central to the life of a Christian person as is the daily fidelity to the covenant of marriage. Tithing and marital fidelity are both centrally important ways of keeping faith. In both cases, the question before is not about the past but about the future.

Chapter Eight: Our gift to the future will form a part of the future

Last Sunday was a great day in the life of this congregation. Music, youth, attendance, fellowship, education, luncheon, all. We further enjoyed an afternoon with our extended family. The festivities of Halloween followed, always a joy in our neighborhood, as they were this year. But as the evening wore on, and more and more children, older children, and many younger without any noticeable parental guidance came our way, in these later cases, many driven to our street from other, needier parts of the county, I began to feel a little differently about the day. All these children, so many of them, at least to my eye, seeming to be without much guidance, without much embrace, without much shaping influence. I wonder just how much more we could do for so many more if we really put our heart and muscle and financial discipline to work. Yes, we are doing well with some of the county. But how is the county doing, and the many needed children in it? By comparison with what might be done, what we are doing, while so very commendable, does seem to fall short. I say this not to be critical or negative. To the contrary. It is the very success we have had so far, juxtaposed to the current county need, that makes me wonder how much more we could do. Some years ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Camp Casowasco. We held a dinner in Auburn, and planned a night of celebration. All the former staff people came, many of the clergy and lay leaders who had worked for the camp since the mid-forties. Several of the original leaders and workers were there to be honored. We sang our hymns and ate our chicken and offered our happy remarks. I guess 800 or 900 youth had been to camp that year. I felt proud to have come of an age and into the ministry through such a place. At the end, though, Sheldon Stevenson, one of the young clergy in the forties, and then the pastor, about to retire from Ithaca St Paul’s in the nineties, stood up to speak. He complemented the work of the camp, and the evening. He expressed his faith in God. He told some funny stories. Then he paused, and said that in retirement he had been ushering for events at the Carrier Dome, many of them musical concerts, 50,000 youth together in the dark. He told about the issues and problems in such concerts. He admitted that he was learning about another age and culture. He said, “I see these tens of thousands of young faces, holding up their candles and flick lighters in the dark, swaying with the little flames lit, and I see such a hunger, and such a longing, and such a loneliness, and such a need—50,000 a night. I guess our 800 a summer is alright, but how much more we could do!” It is his sense of gratitude, but also his capacity for honesty, his sense of accomplishment, but also his acknowledgment of the tremendous untouched possibilities that I hope we will keep before us this year.

Chapter Nine: A Story

How do people learn stewardship? I wish I could say that the 26 stewardship Sunday sermons I have preached since 1979 have changed the world of giving. They have not. These practical guides only work when your heart is in it. When your heart is in it. How does that happen? That only happens when your heart is changed, warmed, healed. How does that happen? Usually it happens in a very humble way. It happens when you are ready to let it happen, and it happens then when you hear something. A word. Oh I do not discount the example that others set that makes us think and act, but we only come in earshot of such examples when our heart is changed. And that change comes whenever it does when we wake up to how much we have been given. As in this story from my friend Doug Mullins:

Belinda was a single parent, trying to take care of herself and raise five-year old Ryan. She was single because her husband had left her. One evening Belinda tucked Ryan into bed and was reading a book to him. He interrupted her to ask if she had bought that book for him. “Yes” she said. He then inquired if she had also bought the bed in which he slept. Again the answer was “yes”. Had she the bought the house they called home? Yes, she had. And what about the new sweater he liked so much? “Yes”, she said, she had bought that too. He thought about how good she had been to him, supplying his needs, and he finally said, “Mommy, get my piggy bank. There are seven pennies in it. Take them and get something you really want for you.” As is so often the case, we have much to learn from our children. Ryan realized that everything he had was a gift from his mother. His response was to offer her his seven cents, everything he had. Our relationship to God is just like Ryan’s relationship to his mother. Everything we have is a gift from God. Ryan offered his mother seven cents. It was not much, but it was all he had.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Two Blessings

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: John 6


“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

This year we will scale a great promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John.

John is Slide Mountain in the Catskills, Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks, Pikes Peak in the Rockies, Mt Everest in the Himalayas, the Matter horn in the Alps, Mt Fuji in Japan. John is the bride, the synoptics are the bridesmaids; John the groom, the others the ushers. John is the gospel for which the others were made. Before John, the rest is prelude. John courageously takes us from religion to grace, from apocalypse to freedom.

What a marvelous new cast of characters we meet in the Fourth Gospel! John the Baptist, mere witness. A Bride at Cana, witness to real wine. Nicodemus, courage to change. A Samaritan woman, with both public and private lives. Today, hidden behind the circuitous discourses of chapter 6, we meet the Ecclesiastical Redactor.

John’s Gospel is a many-leveled archaeological excavation. In our reading today we can see an old, well- told and well traveled set of stories; our writer’s edition and revision of them; an accidental reshuffling of the order of chapters; and then, later in chapter 6, the disciplinary hand of a leader in the later church, intent as were the first disciples of Jesus and the early students of Paul, to protect the text from misunderstanding.

Our New Testament was formed around questions that needed good answers in the life of the early church. The letters of Paul provide such answers to such questions. Will those who die before Christ returns be saved? Thessalonians. How do we teach those who have faith to live in ways that become faith? Corinthians. Must a Gentile become a Jew in order to become a Christian? Galatians. How are we to think about Jesus Christ? Romans. Is there a joyful way to live through conflict? Philippians. Does faith involve what one owns? Philemon. Paul writes his answers in the years 50-58, and he does so with no reference to Jesus. No parable, no teaching, no life incident, no birth story, no healing, nothing. On what does he rely? On the cross and resurrection, and on the spirit, and on his own experience and reason.

Some decades later the church had more questions. These found responses in the Gospels, narrative responses that used traditions about Jesus to answer questions of the day. How are men and women to relate? What is the place of children? Can we have any guidance about money? How and for what are we to hope? Who shall not have and who shall have authority? Does the Old Testament count at all? In answer to these issues and questions the churches of Mark and Matthew and Luke recalled what they could, many years later, of sayings about and a few sayings of Jesus. The Gospels were formed in the church, for the express purpose of answering saving questions.

John comes along many years later. He plays the old tunes, but in a new way. Did you ever hear Louis Armstrong play some of the patriotic hymns? Or Ray Charles sing the national anthem? It is the same, sort of. It is like Mark Trotter said about his 100 year old axe: “It is still the same axe, my grandfather’s axe. It has just had many different handles and many different heads. But it is the same.” Sort of.

So here in chapter 6, which originally may have preceded chapter 5, John plays the same traditional music, to a jazz beat. You know the one about…He relates again the very well traveled tales of miraculous feeding and salvation on the sea. A new manna and a new Jonah. But listen to his horn, with a New Orleans kick, to his piano, with a little bit of the blues.

He has something new to emphasize about two fish and five barley loaves. He has something new to report about a boat and a storm and a dark night. He has two blessings to deliver! The Fourth Gospel is really a stitched together series of sermons which emerged in a church that found freedom following disappointment and grace amid dislocation. He himself is gracious and free. If the earliest Christians could be free savingly to apply their tradition to new times, we can too! Two blessings are ours today, as well.

Katie Couric has written two children’s books this year. I found it startling, thinking as we are about the spirit of our time and our shared struggle for salvation, to learn that one book is about disappointment and one book is about dislocation.

Freedom Following Disappointment

A familiar story of nautical salvation is here altered to fit the new day. Peter is gone. The wind is somewhat stilled. The story is greatly shortened. The disciples’ fear has been reduced to one reference. And the story’s conclusion is a happy landing! Be not afraid. The same Jesus who stilled the waters and calmed the sea is with you. For all life’s real and brutal disappointments—wind in the rigging, water over the gunnels, sails a kilter, crew dismayed—there is a happy landing yet.

Here is the first of two great blessings, provided us today. There is freedom following disappointment. I believe that our salvation depends upon hearing and speaking this word. In the face of sin, death and the threat of meaninglessness. In the face, that is, of addiction, self-destruction, and apathy. You may be disappointed this morning, but this afternoon you will be free.

The church needs both freedom and discipline.

Sometimes churches, groups, families need the discipline of serious editing. Here is a young man’s confession: “In pain and with great disappointment I finally let go of my family. Everything among and between us had become toxic. Everything I tasted and touched had become a kind of poison. It was all unhealthy. I tried for years to help but my help was not helpful. There are just so many times you can cringe and cry when those you love make terrible, costly, irreparable mistakes, after you have warned and cautioned and cajoled. So the best, the very best thing I could do for all was to leave. And I did.”

Now that the curse of the Bambino has been fully removed, those in Boston may be able to focus on other more existential disappointments.

One columnist in New England did speculate that the loss of identity with the loss of constant loss might be hard for the region to handle. Who are we once we are free from the disappointment of the past? Some of the freedom of life comes simply in the willingness to receive it. Anyway, the columnist wrote, “I am afraid we are going to be disappointed not to be disappointed any longer”.

On a more sober note, in less than a week half of our country will be disappointed in the outcome of the next election. We know this for sure, but we do not yet know which half.

We can say three non-political things at the height of a political season. First, vote. However you choose let each one be clear in his own mind, but let us use our franchise and take care to participate in this freedom which we cherish. Second, take heart. If your candidate loses, he will not lose by much. That should perhaps tell us something, something good and hopeful about our future freedom. When a group is so cleanly divided it may mean that the hard balance we hope to achieve, across much difference, is close at hand. Every election we try to balance: right and left, liberty and justice, conservative and liberal, republican and democrat. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and if we are meeting in the middle, that may mean we are closer to truth than we think. Third, work together. We will want to shoulder together our future responsibilities, and work ever harder to find those points of common ground, those arenas of deep agreement, those vistas of shared hope that will sustain us as a people and as a part of the peoples of the earth. So will the next president.

I return to reflect with thanks on the mind and heart of Isaiah Berlin in these matters: Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached: in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force—so much liberty and so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation and 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…The best that can be done, as a general rule, is to maintain a precarious equilibrium that will prevent the occurrence of desperate situations, of intolerable choices—that is the first requirement for a decent society.

One of the most poignant memories of our deeply divided General Conference in May came on the last day, when a layman from Wisconsin went to microphone and pleaded, begged, and emotionally implored his fellows: Many of us are not on the right and not on the left. We are stuck here in the middle and nobody is speaking for us. Probably some of that is our fault that we don’t speak up. But I think some of the truth that we are seeking is right here where I and others are sitting, however silently.

And in that disappointment is when and where he found freedom. Abraham Lincoln’s life involved a long string of disappointments. Yet his voice for freedom is probably our most trustworthy, in spite of, or because of, his close personal relationship with disappointment. I suppose if he ever felt anything like full freedom, this would have come in 1865, with the war almost over, with a close election won, with a chance at last to bring the county together through the force of his mind and rhetoric and on the basis of his proven leadership. Listen to his valedictory, for its irenic spirit, its moderating tone, its wisdom its freedom. At 703 words, one of the shortest inaugural addresses still in American history. Of the war: all dreaded it, all sought to avert it. Of slavery: somehow the cause of the war. Of people north and south: they read the same Bible, pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. Of his enemy: let us judge not that we be not judged. Of the reasons why: the Almighty has his own purposes, which are different from men’s purposes (as he said later, ‘a truth which I thought needed to be told’, and at another point, ‘it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party. Of the happy freedom to forge a better future: with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.

This is why John says something very odd, but very true. Your work is not your work. Work is not the real work. Your work? Really? To believe. To have faith. To carry yourself and your inner being, and your soul, and your chin in a way that shows you and the world around you that you are going to live by faith. Oh, we need to do our work. Our stewardship and our evangelism. But it may be beloved that for all the work we have before us, left and right and center, our real ‘work’ is that affirmed today. To believe. To trust. To go forward with confidence. To keep your chin up. Your powder dry. Your sunny side up.. And don’t let anyone peep your hole card.

Grace During Dislocation

A very familiar story of loaves and fishes has been rapidly retold here, with John inserting the telling changes…He himself knew already what he was going to do…The people say, this indeed is the prophet who is to come into the world…They were about to come and make him king…

John has as little interest as we do in proving exactly what happened. He is preaching. And this is his sermon: you will get shoved and moved around in life, that is if you choose to participate in the contact sport known as life, and One greater than our capacity to name him, day by day, will feed you what you need.

Here is the second of two great blessings. There is grace amid dislocation.

Grace and freedom are the heart of the gospel. Grace and freedom are the marrow of Methodism. Grace and freedom are the twin peaks of the Fourth Gospel. Grace and freedom are all you want, what you need, the things most needful. Law came through Moses. Grace and truth—these come through Jesus Christ.

Grace is the space to grow up, to grow out, and to grow old. Grace is the needed power to pursue the opportunity to enter the human race, to become a real human being, to be yourself. Grace is the goodness of God placed on the map of life, and spread around. Grace does include physical space. The marriage bed. The communion table. The meadows of meaning and pastures of piety and fields of faith and plains of personhood that cry out with the spirit of truth: don’t fence me in.

John loves the start of things. Faith for him is a great, fresh new start, “a moment of discontinuity, comparable with physical birth, is essential.” (CKBarrett) His gospel addresses those who believe partially but inadequately.

I read again last summer through parts of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It is the greatest American chronicle of dislocation. There is a stubborn grace, a saving grace, a real and gritty grace in his characters, especially Ma Joad. Hers is the divine voice, the steady heartbeat of mercy along the road of change and hurt. You remember that they finally get some rest in a work camp in California. We’re Joads. We don’t look up to nobody. Grampa’s grandpa fought in the revolution. We were farm people until the debt. And then—them people. They done somethin to us. That police made me feel mean and ashamed. And now I’m not ashamed. These folks are our folks. And this manager, he command se an drank coffee an he says, Mrs. Joad…this and Mrs. Joad that..and How you getting on Mrs. Joad…And she stacked the last dish and sighed and said, Why I feel like people again

Writers need editors, and editors writers.

Our church is in the middle of a great dislocation. We will need the gracious courage of Ma Joad from our pulpits.

It is in and through the church, whatever its faults, that the grace of God is given and received. In Korea, it was said, General Macarthur fought the Pentagon, but General Ridgeway fought the enemy. Let’s keep to the wisdom of Matthew Ridgeway.

Jerome del Pino has recently said that “a global church needs global leaders”. Here are three characteristics he names: they are guardians of the connection; they are bearers of a new vision, a Methodist ethos; they are advocates for a learned ministry. I add: a global village needs a global village green, a church with space for grace and time for freedom. Here is a global village green, AFUMC: Honduran ministry, web stream worship, radio broadcast and television documentaries, children adopted from around the globe, an apportionment extending around the world; a ferry, fast or not so fast, connecting us to another sovereign country; and a sanctuary fit for the ages.

In John 6 food carries memory. Food, or more properly its consumption, often does so. The feast of Sukkoth, in Judaism, an autumn meal consumed under a partial roof, symbolizes a meal with memory. Surely the feast of Passover, with its herbs and vegetables and spices and questions conveys memory in a meal. One of three great meanings of Holy Communion is remembrance. Holiday meals, Thanksgiving and Christmas, to which we will soon attend, are meals laden with memory, more laden with memory even than with calories, if that be possible.

I turn again to Marcel Proust, whose thousands of print pages burst forth from the memory of a long lost moment of tea and Madeleine cakes, the cakes swirling dreamily in the tea. Meal and memory. The other day, because I had some coupons, I stopped at the Subway to by sandwiches for my class lunch. Fewer came to lunch than I had thought, so, later in the afternoon, the extra tuna sub did beckon sufficiently to be consumed. Somewhere in the late afternoon of a non-descript autumn Monday, I found myself slowly and a little guiltily enjoying an extra sandwich.

Did you ever find yourself just sort of in a strange reverie, carried along by an avalanche of physical memory, occasioned in a simple meal? The two fish and five barley loaves of this complex passage clearly continued to carry, for John, such a memory, whether his or his teacher’s or his church’s. Simple bread and fish.

When I was 16, in the middle of the autumn were dislocated or relocated to a new home by the remarkable ministrations of the Methodist church. It was November, and we all suddenly had a new house, a new neighborhood, a new room, a new city, a new school and new church and not a single friend. The school was a large urban school which was in the throes of serious unrest, some chaos and violence, and yet still with a fine building, faculty and program. I have not thought, or felt, clearly about those November days of 1970 in a long, long, time. Maybe I have never done so.

John too is looking back many years, through the lens of a tradition of a feeding and a boat ride. He makes his changes in the way the story goes. More than at first you might think. But it is the memory of the meal that carries him here. Two fish, five loaves, lots of people, all satisfied, baskets to spare. Grace. And the meal is the ticket.

For some reason the humble tuna-fish and bread carried me fully back…

There is a teenager alone in the cafeteria. For some days he goes alone to lunch, after trigonometry and before chemistry. He is not very artfully dressed. Some of that is the culture of the day and some is just who he is. He knows really no one. He is white in largely black school, over tall and awkward, hoping in vain against hope to make the basketball team, bright but not too eager to show it, curiously glad for a new and strange city environment and deeply lonely at the dislocation of the move. You can see him on these many days at the first lunch period. He sits with his back to the wall, close enough to some others not to appear solo. The school, and by extension the world around, run quite well without any recognition of his being there. He feels something that is hard and throat lodged and aching and chilling and strange. He is homesick for a home that no longer exists. He hurts too much to laugh and he is too tall and adult looking to cry.

In a month or so a group of other young men, Chris Bennett and Joel Burdick and Chris Heimbach will somehow oddly include him in lunch, as if he had been there for the previous ten years, which he had not. But right now he is out on the boat, and shore is a long way off. And a shared meal seems like it will never come and if it did it might just be too awesome and too wonderful to receive. So he leans the chair against the wall. He watches the racial tensions and hatreds. He memorizes the periodic table. He tries not to look conspicuous in any single way. He looks at the girls and wonders what he could possibly say to any of them. He looks forward to basketball. He feels what it takes a young heart really to feel.

Every day he carries to his back table a brown sack. This is a full meal, fairly hastily but utterly lovingly prepared in the earlier morning before the 2 mile walk to school. It is the same lunch every day. Bread and fish. Two full sandwiches. Some chips. Carrots. Cookies sometimes made at home. And it will take another 35 years for him to fully appreciate—to taste--what he could already feel against the cafeteria wall. At least here, in this meal, for all the depressing dislocation and frightening foreignness and leavened loneliness all around, here was something to eat. Prepared with love. As reliable as the sunrise and the seasons. Grace, in the midst of dislocation. The sandwiches come slowly out of their tight wrap. They taste the same, reassuringly the same. Maybe, day by day, this is really all we get, a taste.

What John is able to see, so many years later, is more than those 5000 could ever see. He could see the stature of a Christ whose grace lived in dislocation and whose freedom survived disappointment. He could begin to sense the marvelous self-gift of the God beyond God who was made known in Christ. He could ponder, generations later, the enduring influence and power of the Bread of Life, for whom even the cross, no especially the cross, is a moment of glory. He could accumulate the other stories of meal and memory, the other experiences of the earliest church, both the heart of Peter and the mind of Paul, and begin to piece together the puzzle of providence.

He could look back and see that through it Love did abide. This love…freedom in the world, freedom from the world, freedom to make the world a better place.

And so the teenager, now 50, can look back and see that through it Love did abide. He did not know it then. He could not. How could he?

How would he know? Look at him in those dungarees and long hair and faded shirt. How could that awkward teenager ever possibly have known, feasting on bread and fish, that the very pain of dislocation would give him his whole life: a real home, a girl to marry, a sense of purpose, a community of faith, a voice to lift, seven beautiful pulpits, 3 children, and a darn good jump shot. He could not possibly know that then.

Nor can you know now what Grace will emerge in the heart of your current dislocation.

This is why John says something very odd, but very true. Your work is not your work. Work is not the real work. Your work? Really? To believe. To have faith. To carry yourself and your inner being, and your soul, and your chin in a way that show you and the world around you that you may be the loneliest teenager in the world, but somebody packed you an awesome lunch, and don’t you forget it.


These things are spoken that you may believe that Jesus in the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (Frost). So too a good day, a happy year, a nourishing sermon, and a faithful life. Begin with delight, and end with wisdom.

This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination. This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination.

Faith is personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.

Now is the time to jump.

All of us are better when we are loved.

(Done this week as a refrain with choir, congregation and all)