Sunday, April 11, 2004

A Resurrection Spirit

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Easter Sunday
Text: Mark 16:1-8

Our celebration at Easter arises out of the unlikely womb of betrayal. Rightly heard, the voices of Holy Week lament betrayal at every turn. Listen again to the words spoken since last Sunday.

The ancient community expected a warrior victor Messiah, a liberator, a King, someone to rid them of the Romans. Theirs is a voice of disappointment before betrayal: if he is the Son of God, let him save himself. Somehow, their experience has not matched their expectation. They feel betrayed. We assert that they were not betrayed, but blessed, and saved. But they feel betrayed. Providence has let them down.

Listen, as well, to Judas. We think of him as the quintessential villain, the one who betrayed Jesus. And that he did. True to life, though, the Scripture recognizes that those who betray often feel they have already been betrayed themselves. Judas acts on his disappointment. He has seen his people betrayed by the Romans and by their own leaders. One of the zealots of his time, he determines to fight, to act against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. He is a realist, a fighter, and needs the power that silver brings.

And Peter, dear Peter, our Peter. The good news of resurrection comes on the preaching of one who remembers and confesses betrayal of the highest order. “Before the cock crows a second time, you will have betrayed me three times.” And Peter remembered, and he broke down and wept. Yet we know that Peter, and the others, only partly internalized the unexpected humility of the Messiah, riding on a donkey. With their generation, they must have harbored some hope for an eleventh hour donnybrook, and historical victory. Feeling betrayed, he also betrays.

Pilate and Caiaphas crucify, but their procedural betrayals seem minor compared to the others.

Last we come to Jesus himself. He, in the garden, alone at prayer. Listen again to his pathos: “Please God, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.” “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The music of the passion is played in the key of b, betrayal.

You may have known something of betrayal. In life, work, friendship, partnership, relationship, marriage, citizenship. Have you? It is hard for me to name a more bitter experience. Without the theme of betrayal the Bible would be six books not 66, and Shakespeare would have written only sonnets and a play or three. Without betrayal, human and church history would have had little drama. Without betrayal, your faith would not have been stretched and tested as it has been.

“But I thought you said…”

“Listen, didn’t we have an agreement…”

“My parents worked here for 40 years…”

“How could you…”

“I didn’t vote for that…”

“I just feel so betrayed…”

In a lifetime we get to see betrayal from both sides. How did Shakespeare put it? "All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts."

All in a lifetime.

How does one find the far side of betrayal?

Can you, how can you, survive an experience, episode, or season of betrayal?

One finds the far side of betrayal by the breath of God in Resurrection Spirit—the breath of truth, the breath of health, the breath of mirth. The Lord of the Resurrection Spirit is risen indeed!

Our affirmation, “Christ is Risen”, comes from the heart of a story and a people who know about betrayal, for whom betrayal has been the seed bed of the future. A resurrection spirit will carry you to the far side of betrayal.

This is why the fourth gospel, more directly than the others, ties the resurrection to the spirit: When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you”. After this he showed them his hands and side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” A resurrection spirit is a breath of truth and of health and of mirth with which to survive betrayal! In a fully traditional sense, I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Feel the breath of God in Resurrection Spirit today!


First, in the Risen Christ there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.

Over time, and with much heartache, and by the long way home, the truth at last prevails. It is our experience, together, as a people, that ultimately reveals what is true. Truth needs no defense and falsehood has none, in the long run.

Our colleague William Russell wrote last week: In 1633 Galileo was summoned to Rome and put on trial by the Roman Inquisition, under Pope Urban, for writing and teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, when the Bible clearly stated that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun circled it. Galileo was found guilty and forced to recant. The church’s decision didn’t make Galileo wrong and the Bible right. It simply made the church look foolish. Those who insist on a literal interpretation of values and opinions from seventh century bce and first century ce writers are more likely to make twenty-first century Christianity look foolish in the long term.

True enough. Easter is the celebration that truth needs no human defense. It is self-correcting and it is free. Loose in the universe. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is truth alone that finally sets free. Sin is the unhappy willingness to live a lie.

Think for a moment of a lonely teacher in Tennessee. What was his name? Scopes? And the year? 1925? And the crime? New truth?

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. Does not the Bible say that the earth was formed in seven days? Does not the Bible say that all flesh descended from Adam, and Eve?

The Bible is first a book about freedom, God’s freedom. We have learned, with Luther, to understand the lesser parts from the view afforded by the greater: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

Retired Bishop Jack Tuell of California recently said as much. He and others have carefully tried to open the hearts, minds and doors of our church to new truth. There are varieties of religious experiences, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of human identities, but the same Lord. There are varieties of sexual orientations, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one!

In our daily lives, too, this self-correcting spirit of truth is loose among us, loose in the universe. Given enough patience, enough space, enough attention, enough truth will emerge to lift us out of the swamp of betrayal. Stay close to the facts. As John Adams repeated, “Facts are stubborn things.”

This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on, time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.


Second, in the Risen Christ, there is a self-sustaining spirit of health loose in the universe. We also learn, slowly, in our collective experience, the things that make for health, as for peace. Resurrection announces that such health, like truth, does not depend on our full appreciation for its own sustenance. Health lives, however we choose to live. The potential for health, the possibility of safety and salvation—these are raised in Christ beyond assault. This health can take many forms.

John Wayne died of cancer, due to films made in Nevada in the 1950’s. Regular old cowboy and Indian adventures, filmed in the white dust and sand of the desert. The dust was so white, in part, because of nuclear testing near Las Vegas in the 1950’s, and those who rode horses, and dressed in chaps and spurs and war paint to play parts, also, apparently, at least in some cases, developed malignancy. I track these things, as one who also lived for a little while, in those years, in that desert.

Here is what I mean. Many of us do not remember a day before the threat of nuclear holocaust. While we very seldom stand in a place or find a moment of safety and courage sufficient to produce full reflection upon it, our condition, today, on earth, is tenuous, hanging under the shadow of possible holocaust. Civil defense shelters. Practice for air raids. Sitting quietly under the desk that was to protect from attack. These things are troubling memories.

Look at this. We have lived as a planet for over 50 years, in relative nuclear health. Not complete, and not completed. And we still may fail. But so far we have not failed. Whether we fail or whether we continue, fail-safe, the resurrection spirit is as spirit of self-sustaining health, loose in the universe. This spirit, the reality of the Risen Christ, abides whether or not we do. This is the real possibility of our lasting health. But this possibility inspires those who will to live within its circumference.

M. Frayn’s play, Copenhagen, is a daring review of the frontiers of nuclear health. He imagines the conversations between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, in the middle of the Second World War. The implication of the plot is this: that the relationship, meeting, conversation, friendship, and sense of health between the two saved the world. The author concludes: If, if, if…The line of ifs is a long one. It remains just possible, though. The effects of real enthusiasm and real determination are incalculable. In the realm of the just possible they are sometimes decisive.

In the realm of the just personal, these healthy attributes, enthusiasm and determination, also make a real difference. It makes a difference to live with the conviction that there is a self-sustaining spirit of health loose in the universe.

Several years ago Lee Atwater was completing the destruction of Michael Dukakis. He had lived for years with two driving goals, to be achieved before he was forty: one that he works for the President in a successful election campaign and another that he becomes chairman of the Republican National Party. By Election Day of 1988 he had achieved both goals. He was 39. Within a few months, Atwater developed an inoperable brain tumor. He spent 14 months battling for his life. In this period something profound happened to him. He did not describe it in religious terms, nor in terms of religious experience. He asked for healing, and none, at least of a certain kind, came. He prayed for a revelation, and none came. He even prayed for more white blood cells, and none came. But along the way, in the face of his imminent death, and his growing awareness of sin, something happened. I do not quote his words lightly, but honor them:

I was never a religious man… I still had no use for church. Still, I sensed a new spiritual presence in my life, something without my having to call it…I have always been terrified of being alone, but even back in April, while I sat by myself in that strange hospital room in the Bronx with radiation flooding my brain, I felt at peace…I found my self reaching out to fellow patients in ways that surprised me…I committed myself to the Golden Rule… and that meant coming to terms with some less than virtuous acts in my life…I am sorry for the way I thought of other people in general…I had been estranged from my dad for twenty years…I had had a pretty rotten relationship with my dad through my teens and twenties, then, to paraphrase Mark Twain, sometime after I turned 30 my father started getting real smart…we came together at the end…

What is missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood…that decade was about acquiring—wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want, and still feel empty…What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family?…What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with my friends?…It took deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay can learn on my dime…

Here is the way forward in personal estrangements. Find the health. To paraphrase Woodward and Bernstein, “follow the health”. Forgiveness, pardon, salvation—the things that make for health.

There is a self-sustaining spirit of healing loose in the universe.

For by the life and death of Jesus, God’s mighty Spirit, now as then, can make for us a world of difference, as faith and hope are born again.


Third, there is a self-generating spirit of mirth loose in the universe. Mirth, looth in the univerth!

Today is Easter! Wesley named his people “happy in God”. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, as Paul wrote. And even the heavens shall laugh, as the Psalmist did sing. What was it that Pope intoned, “All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye”. We see the world as we are, not as it is. Here are Peale’s seven most important words: “You can if you think you can.” Of all days, this is the day the Lord has made: we shall rejoice and be glad in it.

The ready mirth, the steady buoyant hopefulness of the people of God, revealed in mirth.

My two closest friends in the ministry are both dead. Goodness and Mercy. Dale Winter, I can hear still, preaching on the children in the marketplace, in our little Ithaca chapel: “to the market they came of old bringing livestock, fruit, vegetable, apparel—and their children: anything they could sell!” Mirth slips out. Al, Navy chaplain, pastor, never said a mumblin’ word, but did sometimes identify a difficult personality: “she is a test pilot in a broom factory.” Mirth runneth over, where the gospel is heard and preached.

There is Roy Smyres, who walked across Africa in the 1920’s: Christian, socialist, pastor. His son went on to be a DS in NYC. “I was a chaplain down at the Owasco Lake Empire Nudist Colony.” What was the worst thing there? “Wicker chairs.”

Here is BB Taylor, Anglican. “How am I able to write? I arise and work with coffee, from 6-10 at home every morning. I get to the office mid-morning. Yes, some say: nice timing, bankers hours, hope you slept well. I smile. I chuckle. I just take it.”

For Dee Wade’s ordination I dressed in black and wrote a ten page sermon, dull as beans, on the righteousness of God. Then an old preacher gave the charge by telling three odd stories, including one about a missionary, thrown into a cauldron to boil, who smiled and said to his onlookers, “I have managed to add a little unexpected seasoning to their soup.”

I heard one friend gently admonish: “let me help you get down off my back without hurting yourself.” Another rebuked a self-abuser: “Shall I get a ladder and help you down off that cross?”

The Resurrection Spirit is self-correcting, self-sustaining, self-generating. To preach Christ crucified and risen, such a spirit can use anyone and anything. God can use a dead dog to preach his Gospel. At children’s time last month the kids were asked, “Here is the Father, and the Son, and what goes here?” “The mother?” one replied. Mirth skips out, like a child in an Easter bonnet.

What a proud moment in time for you, Asbury First. You live Frost’s line, where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes. Now, in a time to build, you dare to dream, you dare to take your besetting sins, and choke them. In one project, you choke off the spirit of entitlement, and give breath to generosity, by helping us all double our pledges over five years to come. (The real question will be, how many will continue to do so after 2008?) In one project, you choke off the spirit of exclusion, and give breath to the welcoming Christ. (It is already happening, in anxious anticipation of new space.) What courage! You face and face down the challenges of this generation: stewardship and evangelism.

Then let us with the Spirit’s daring, step from the past and leave behind, our disappointment, guilt, and grieving, seeking new paths and sure to find.


In second century a Roman teacher declared: “The Resurrection is a revelation, a transformation and a transition into newness.”

A Resurrection Spirit is breathing upon you this Easter, a breath of truth, health, mirth. There is a self-correcting Spirit of truth, a self-sustaining Spirit of health, a self-generating Spirit of mirth, loose in the universe. As my children say, “deal with it.” Meaning: Crucified and Risen, Jesus Christ, in Resurrection Spirit, stands before us this day. Keeping it very simple: are you for him or against Him? Truth: for or against? Health: for or against? Mirth: for or against?

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

Sunday, April 04, 2004

An Upper Room

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 19:28-40

To be on the same page you have to be in the same room. So did Joseph’s brothers discover when they met with him in Pharaoh’s court? This is what Moses and Aaron learned as they gathered their people around the ten tablets in the wilderness. It was David dancing before the Ark, and gathering the people of God together that brought a glimpse of the future. Ezra built a whole temple, rebuilt that is an old temple, along these old lines. Jesus sat to teach the people, all gathered in one place. At the day of Pentecost, “they were all gathered together in one place” Jesus rose to feed the 5,000, all gathered in one place. Jesus rode to greet the people, all gathered, with palm branches, gathered in one place. And then they were all together in an upper room…To be on the same page you have to be in the same room. May it be an upper room, a room with a certain height and breadth and depth, something high and holy…

In Nashville we have an Upper Room. It is a prayer room. The little magazine of that name comes from the same place. Prayer can keep us on the same page, as people who know the value of an upper room. I keep Bishop Cushman’s prayer book, so long printed there, as a reminder of him, of you, of prayer. On the same page, in the same room.

You do not neglect your dinner table. You set apart that hour, with a full table, and some tradition, a table grace, a meal. All the laundry, sales calls, algebra, and skating lessons of the day give way for a moment. It is a holy moment. You are together. You see each other’s face. Time hurries on, but you are at rest. For a moment you are on the same page because as a family you are in the same room. Resolve to eat dinner together this week.

A marriage is not much fun without time to be together, alone, on the same page, in the same room. We went to a couple’s shower a while ago. One couple had left their little one behind with grandma. They have taught the child that every now and then, mom and dad need to “go out on a date”. Especially early on in a marriage, a couple needs space for grace.

Every now and then I look up from the endless paper, email, higher apportionments, budget cutting, denominational squabbles and custodial battles that make life complete and I notice things. You are gathering together! Here today. In several koinonia groups, last month—one had almost 50 in attendance. Neighborhood fellowship. Then I overhear the joy of ministry through our older adult council—communion gatherings in nursing homes, with pastors and laity and refreshment. The body needs the body to be the body. Same page, same place.

At lunch we as a church family will gather, to find our place on the same page in the same room. As the 27 present for Taize worship Sunday did hear, resounding the dark silence, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels…it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. We will sing together: ‘yet out of all the Lord has brought us by his power, and still he does his help afford, and hide our place above.’ All the on the same page, all in the same room.

We are building an upper room. A room to gather the multitude: from Victor and Spencerport; from the parties of Brooks and Johnson; from Nazareth and Roberts; Rush and Webster; Calvinists and Arminians; young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, to be, in Christ, on the same page and in the same room. For seven years to come, Jan and I are going to give $125/wk to make this happen. Our pastoral colleagues are doing the same or something similar. Most will give for five, but the slower among us will take seven. What is seven years—hardly a moment. Jacob loved Rachel and after seven years was allowed to marry her. He awoke in the bridal tent to fine Leah beside him. He pleaded for Rachel, and was told to work another seven years and then he would have her. And he did. The Scripture then says, “He worked seven years, and they seemed to him but a day, because he loved her so.” For the first time in over 40 years, we will be building something new! Together. On the same page, in the same room. We are a very middle class church. In our time, such a project by necessity will be shared work. No one will do this for us or do this to us. We will do it together. We will be able to look back or look down some years hence and say, “No one did this for us, and no one did this to us, we did it together.” On the same page, for the same room.

Later in April 1,000 Methodists will meet in the same room in Pittsburgh for our General Conference. The breadth of our Christology, the hospitality of our witness, the unity in our diversity, and the overarching need for leadership are the page we need to be on, together. I am going to listen with and speak to our conservative compatibles about Scripture and experience. Since we will all be in the same room, we have a chance to stay on the same page. Spiritual conversion does not happen by legislation, political maneuver, and vote. It happens, if at all, in personal relationship. The changes I desire are still 8 years away. Yet, who knows what the Holy Spirit will do? May the room be an upper room, high and lifted and good.

Then in July 800 Methodists will meet in Syracuse to elect Bishops. I am honored to be endorsed as a candidate for this role, to argue for the need to rebuild the church in the northeast. The chances of election are minimal. But my mother always said, “Do your best, come home with your shield or on it.” At least we will be in the same room, Hendricks chapel, a quarter mile from where I was born, another from where I was married, another from where I learned to preach, another from where our last child was born, another from where I will be buried. It is an honor to be endorsed, and with you I will receive the honor. Sin is not taking what is given. To get to the same page we need to sit in the same room.

Riding the Palm Sunday donkey, Jesus too is headed for a common room, a common table, a common meal. The multitude of his disciples are praising God along the Mount of Olives. He will gather the twelve in an upper room. Along the lake Jesus has taught them about health, height, home, hope, heart, habit, hand. Now the lakeshore is a distant memory and the shadow of the cross covers and hovers. If the issue of the 20th century was race, that of the 21st is space. Here is Jesus leading his people to an upper room, on the same page in the same place.

I grew up in a little church, a chapel really. I believe we have to regularly invade the reaches of our memory, our first naivete, when it comes to spiritual life. I distrust the emotional distance that can come in the later years. We learn too well to dissemble. That is why our children’s moment takes such an appropriate space in our service, to rekindle for all of us the love we had at first. In the church of my childhood—a very plain New England style structure—there was only one stained glass window. Like our rose window it stood above the altar. I see it as clearly as I see much of anything, even today. There is Jesus, lantern in hand, knocking on the door that has no outside handle. “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone will answer I will come in and sup with him and he with me.” To be on the same page, we must be in the same place.

This is why Jesus has come. To make our space his own, and his room our own. To enter the high place, the upper room of your heart. The place of childlike love. The place of joyful laughter. The place of frank talk. The place of fear named and faith received. The place of courage. The place of resolve. The place of risk.

Is there room in your heart for him?

Is there an upper room in your heart for him?