Sunday, September 19, 2004

Two Brides

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: John 2:1-11

“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).

I look out at the back hill which rises out from our summer home. The hillside once offered pasture to Holsteins and Guernseys, but now simply watches over valley and lake. To climb it, though, low as it is, does require energy and strength.

This year we will scale a far greater 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. More personally, this Gospel helps those who struggle with dislocation and disappointment. The Bride in Cana experienced dislocation, and so have you. The Bride of Christ experiences disappointment, and so have you.

John features Jesus in mortal combat over all of these. 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 brings 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 two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues, the two existential battles in your 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.

The Bride in Cana: the Battle with Dislocation

Every wedding includes two brides.

Some years ago after a particularly warm July wedding, we had the opportunity to join newlyweds, families and friends at an evening reception. A wedding folds two worlds into one new creation, and does so with alarming speed. It is quite amazing what can happen in forty minutes. During dinner a round, large man accosted me to say: “Nice service Reverend. But I have two words for you: ‘air conditioning’.” We then enjoyed the round of food and drink, of dance and music, none of which really has changed very much since Jesus went up to Cana in the north country of Galilee. Roles have changed. Power shifts have occurred. The age of betrothal, the economics of the household, the rhythms of procreation, the status of women, the frequency of divorce—all these have changed. The wedding banquet is about the same. It was in this sort of universal spirit that my new, large and round friend offered his second wisdom saying. Like most epigrams, its context has long been forgotten. In fact I may not have been listening closely enough, given band and dance and cake and all, to have grasped the context in its origin. I just remember my head snapping back when he stated, in the flat, easy sense in which someone remarks about a universally held belief: “of course, all men hate all weddings”.

I took some offense to this, as a man who has spent a good percentage of summer weekend life at weddings, and not hated, at least not all of them. Whatever was he thinking? What did the wedding represent for him that was so recognizably hateful? Perhaps it is the inherent element of falsehood as several people publicly put forward their best feet, Perhaps it is the flummery. Perhaps the very time, tedious and full, that such an event requires. Perhaps the recognition of mortality, the sense of ending and the ending or at least the limits of personal freedoms.

The genius of John is to have used the words and images of his culture, and the language and imagery of his religious setting, to reframe the lasting good of news of Jesus the Christ.

I have struggled some to find a way to convey just how radical a linguistic shift this was. Let me see if I can transpose the music to a contemporary key. The religious language of the second century Greco-Roman world was Gnosticism. Hence the fourth gospel is linguistically, at least, Gnostic. “Gnostically and emphatically anti-gnostic”, said one. Our language is electronic. Had John written today in North America, he might have, might have, written like this:

In the beginning was the Web, and the Web was with God and the Web was God. He was in the beginning with God.. All things were developed through him, and without him was not anything developed that was developed. In him was light, and the light was the light of all people.

I am the network, you are the work stations. He who is connected to me, and I to him, produces much bandwidth, for disconnected from me, you have no power. If a man is not connected to me, he is shut down and discontinued, and these old work stations are gathered and destroyed.

I am the password. Those who enter by me will go in and come out and find bandwidth.

Yet a little while and I will send you another webmaster to be with you forever, even the spirit of truth.

The Bride of Christ: The Battle with Disappointment

Life, faith, truth, the Fourth Gospel and our experience over time tend not to favor grand schemes, universal structures, elaborated entities. They fall away. In their place? The strange and messy beauty of the morning. The odd surprise of the noonday. The experience of God at eventide. Every Hegel finally falls before some stubborn Kierkegaard. It is the particular that saves. Every Hegel finally falls before some stubborn Kierkegaard. It is the particular that saves.

The second great battle of salvation is with disappointment. One of our current disappointments, as a people, is with the general lack of simplicity in life. Try as we might, we just cannot escape the Bible, and the Bible’s nuanced, historic, balanced, realistic, proven assessment of our condition. Things just are not that simple. We wish they would be. We wish all information would come in just the right way at just the right time. It doesn’t. We wish that we did not have to deal with two thoughts at once. Yet, so often, there is more than one truth on the table at a time. We wish that things could just be settled, clear, simple, as they once were, somewhere, on that mythic home on the range, where the deer and antelope play. Not so. We wish that we did not have continually to return to our own mixed and mixed up experience, to learn again what the Bible says.

This is what makes weddings, in Cana and elsewhere, so interesting. Things are just not ever simple. I do not believe that there is much of anything that might happen in the course of a wedding that would at all surprise me. Not any more. I have had bomb threats, no shows, late shows, sickness, faintings, forgotten rings, electrical problems, plumbing problems, family fights, and neglected fees. Once a groom paid me four dollars for a wedding Jan and I hosted in our living room. My own daughter’s wedding, according to a close friend, hit several records: longest, hottest, most music, most attendees, most faintings, and most memories. It is hard to imagine a setting more apt to disappoint the hope of simplicity with the reality of life. Maybe that is why the first recorded sign in John occurs at a wedding. One in which the simple task of buying the right amount of wine apparently was too much for somebody to do right. I Corinthians 13, so often read at weddings, should give us a clue.

I expect many of you could recite portions of this chapter. Speak with tongues…men and angels…noisy gong….bears, believes, hopes, endures….faith, hope and love abide…the greatest of these is love…But as a speaker at Riverside Church said in late August, we may too often miss the most important verses in the whole chapter, the next to last. Faith, hope and love abide…yes, wonderful. But do you remember what comes before them? Words to live by in the complexity of life. Words to live by in the confusion of marriage. Words to live by in the strange, twilight condition that is ours. Now we see in a glass darkly, then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know in full. Along with the tide of fear that we spoke of last week, there is an undertow of simplicity around us. We want things simple. They are not. We are disappointed.

Discretion is the better part of valor. Measure twice, cut once.

Do not fire until you see the whites of the eyes. Look before you leap.

Remember the Christian virtues: prudence, temperance, courage, wisdom.

In 1989, three days before Christmas, our son Ben suddenly proclaimed a hankering for a train set. We had already bartered for the season’s gifts, and Christmas being what Christmas is in a parsonage, we made a mental note for next year. Next year, a train, for Ben.

I remember that at our staff Christmas party on December 23 I had mentioned this desire of Ben’s, as some sort of illustration of some now fully forgotten interpretation of the Incarnation. So it goes.

At 1 A. M. on Christmas Eve, or rather morning, we return down the slope of Acorn path and entered our garage, walking toward the backdoor. There on the steps we found a big box, wrapped in a red bow, “for Ben, from Santa”. Ben loved his simple, new train. In January I spent many hours coaxing, cajoling, thanking, pressing my staff about who had given Ben the train. Our organist, former supervisor of music in Onondaga County, G Frank Lapham: he loved kids, surely he had brought the train. My friend and student minister, now Bruce Lee-Clark, whose own train set covered his basement in full: he loved trains, surely he was the one. My dearest colleague, Al Childs, now 85 and four years from death: he was just the kind of guy to do such a thing. My sweet secretary Jo Stewart, then 80 and looking 55, she loved Ben liked the son she always wanted: it was she.

But they all denied it. To a man. Vociferously, they denied it. They seemed puzzled that I was sure it was they. I hate secrets and surprises, so I would not let it go. I was still at it the next Christmas. Finally, Al took me out to lunch and said, “Bob, drop it.” So I did.

Until this summer. At a June graduation party in the old neighborhood, something marvelous happened. Marvelous like Spirit, full of surprise. Marvelous like real church, beyond any naming or denomination. Marvelous like life, true and good and present. Marvelous like love. I ran into Sue, who asked about Ben, and then said that Stan, her husband, a lawyer, a sometime Catholic, a quiet, quizzical guy, the last person on earth you would call religious, she said that Stan would like to know about Ben, for a host of reasons, and, as she ended, “well, all the way back, you know, to the train that Christmas…” Stan was really angry with Sue for spilling the beans. I, though, I was grateful.

This is what we are hoping for, what we imagine at our best: an experience of being alive, an experience of love, an experience of God.

We have much to do. Jane Addams said it of our nation, but her insight now fits our world: “The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent. The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life”. How prophetic her words do sound this week.

The Gospel of John is not focused on ethics. There is only minimal ethical teaching here. One looks in vain for a sermon on the mount or plain. One searches without result for a parable with a point. One hungers without satisfaction for a wisdom saying, an epigram, a teaching on virtue. In John we have the teleological suspension of the ethical. Only the command to love remains.


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

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 fight through dislocation, like that known by the Bride of Cana, and discover your own courage to be. This week you can fight through disappointment that things aren’t simpler, like that known by the Bride of Christ, and learn to simply live.

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, September 12, 2004

Two Battles

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 1:1-18


“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 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 Matterhorn 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.

Dislocation and Disappointment

Today we celebrate our togetherness in ministry, and we will recognize those ordained, itinerant clergy among us. But we are all existential itinerants. Traveling. On a journey. Sent. On the road.

Recognitions are delicate affairs, rarely without some wrinkles in time, and often some humor.

I remember the account, historical and hysterical, of the preacher who was about to move from one pulpit to another. His community arranged to recognize him at a chicken dinner.

(Chickens have paid dearly for our love of fellowship and our native in frugality in the Methodist church. They seem to be the right bird at the right price somehow. Before we finish our ministry and building here, I wager many more chickens will meet their creator.)

The local florist agreed, free of charge, to provide a table bouquet. After the usual florid comments, the bouquet was presented to the preacher and his family. All were amazed to read its banner: “Rest in Peace”. The preacher reddened, and then laughed, and then said something about the next appointment needing resurrection. The florist was mortified, but readily and joyfully forgiven. The festivities proceeded along their clumsy way; as such things do.

Our local florist, however, was sullen. The preacher asked him again to let it go, but like Rachel weeping for her children, the florist would not be consoled. At last he confessed the reason. “Rest in Peace” he could easily live with at the ministerial recognition. But he had to admit the other bouquet had been sent to the graveyard where a group was gathering for burial, a floral piece meant to honor the deceased. And he could only imagine their disappointment and shock when they opened that arrangement and read its banner: “We hope you will be happy in your new location”.

This is a story of dislocation and disappointment. Your life is such a story too. In fact, these are the two battles of salvation, the two great battles of the salvation we work out daily in fear and trembling. The Gospel John brings grace for dislocation and freedom in disappointment, and hence is great and good news!

The Battle for Identity

There is bitter hurt in this sublime chapter, caused by a break with the first identity, a cutting of the umbilical cord, a leaving home, a separation from the family, a dismissal from the synagogue.

The religion of origin said, “In the beginning, God…” Replies John, “In the beginning was the Word”.

Inherited religion said, “In the beginning God created…” Rejoins John, “All things came into being through Him.”

Old time religion said, “God created the heavens and the earth”. Retorts John, “In Him was life”

Inheritance said, “God said “let their be light”. Rebutts John, “In Him was life and that life was the light of all peoples, which shines in the dark.”

Tradition honored prophets from Moses to John the Baptist. Rephrases John, “there was a man named John”.

Old time religion was law and prophecy, culminating in the great Baptist. Says John, “He came as a witness…to testify to the light…the true light that enlightens everyone. He himself was not the light (in case you missed the point made three times before).

Inheritance said, “there was evening and morning, one day”. Replies John, “the world came into being through Him.”

Old time religion said, “We are his people the sheep of his pasture”. John retorts, “He came to his own people and his own people did not accept him.”

The community that formed this Gospel has been given the heave-ho, shown the door, given the bum’s rush, given the wet mitten by their former community. You are listening to a family feud, 19 centuries old. This Gospel is born in dislocation. The Gospel of John is written in the pain of dislocation. In John we overhear the bitter pain of the church being thrown out of the synagogue.

Dislocation is a part of healthy growth.

I return from summer vacation to find a thriving community, and growth, and dislocation. A growing service to the hungry—and some dislocation. A new ministry to the homeless—with a little dislocation. A new baroque organ—did some of you sense dislocation? A completely re-colored Sunday School—laborious dislocation. Time now to build—and the dislocation of invitation.

What issues challenge you most? Loss, defeat, death, vocation, sexuality, pride, sloth, falsehood, disorientation, illness, hunger, loneliness?

“The true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world”.

It is the Gospel of John that most profoundly addresses our ongoing need to develop as persons.

Dislocation visits every age and place.

The past decade of dislocation in Rochester has yet to find full expression. Corporate dislocation: I thought this job was for life? Medical dislocation: were we not the pride of the country in health care? Economic dislocation: someone threw a recovery party and forgot our upstate invitation. Geographical dislocation: I left two generations to the west or east to come here, now what? No wonder we think of Ma Joad now and then.

The Fourth Gospel focuses on your need to become who you are.

Overheard at Colgate

One freshwoman sat last week between her mom and dad, having a sandwich at the Colgate Inn. They were tightly seated, mom and dad and daughter, although the room was not full. They huddled together, like geese heading for the water. Mom and Dad drank coke and spooned soup, wordless, mute, silent. They never dared to catch each others’ eyes, so filled were each others’ eyes. They spooned and listened. And waited, for that last trip to the room, coming you could tell after dinner, and that last hug and that last gift and that last goodbye. There are no atheists in foxholes, and all parents pray when they leave the freshman dorm.

She roamed the world by cell phone, while her parents spooned soup. A friend in Milwaukee, was it? Can you hear me now? High school sweetheart in Boston. Can you hear me now? Sister in San Diego. Can you hear me now? I could not hear her, but I can hear her now. She was not about to let her geographical dislocation become a matter of relational disorientation. By glory, she was carving out her own virtual dorm, her own telephonic suite, her own cyber city. What they faced in despair, she addressed in anxiety. As you know, both were doomed. The dislocation would come, soon enough.

The great and surprising good news of Jesus Christ, in this Gospel, is that grace may be found, may especially be found, in the upheaval of dislocation. Students or parents, hear it well. Future students or grandparents, hear it well. All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.

You can do it. You will get through it.

Oh, prayer will help, and reading of the Scripture and a church family and the habits of generosity and service. All will help. You can do these. Please do. But it is largely and lastly Grace that will see you through.

Out they walke--the dislocated trio--arm in arm, into a dark and unforeseeable future. Is that not grace, the faith to walk into the dark?

The Battle for Imagination

One battle with dislocation. A second with disappointment.

I believe it is very difficult for us to appreciate the courage in John, the theological courage of this writing.

One of the most precious beliefs of the earliest Christians resided in the confidence that very soon the world would come to an end and the Lord would return for his people. This expectation of the end governs the letters of Paul and the first three Gospels. It was, if you will, the bedrock belief of the primitive church.

Had not Jesus preached, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”? Yes he had. And he was wrong.

Had not Peter left nets, family, homeland and life itself on the expectation of the apocalypse? Yes he had. And he was wrong.

Had not Paul predicted, “we the living, the remaining, will be caught up together with him in the clouds”? Yes he had. And he was wrong.

Only John faces this grave disappointment with utter honesty. The others hold onto the old religion, the expected return. John admits delay. John has the guts to say to his people: “What we once believed is clearly not true. Let us look about us and see what this means.”

And behold…In place of parousia, we find paraclete. In place of cataclysm, we find church. In place of speculation, we find spirit. In place of Armageddon, we find artistry and imagination!

When finally we stop chasing what is not to be, and wake up to what is, we may be utterly amazed.

John 1 and the Courage to Change

Seasoned Religion said that the end was near. John says the beginning is here.

Old Time Religion saw the end of the world. John preached the light of the world.

Inherited spirituality waited for the coming of the Lord. John celebrated the Word among us, full of grace and truth.

Old Time Religion feared death, judgment, heaven and hell. John faced them all in every day.

Traditional Religion clung fiercely to an ancient untruth. John let go, and accepted a modern new truth, and hugged grace and freedom.

Our inheritance, and Matthew and Mark and Luke and Paul and all looked toward the End, soon to come. John looked up at the beginning, already here. They said with Shakespeare, “All’s well that ends well”. John replied, gut begonnen hap gebonnen, “well begun is half done”.

John alone had the full courage to face spiritual disappointment and move ahead. So we memorize 8:32: You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free! Copernicus knew that truth. Galileo knew that truth. Darwin knew that truth. And Robert Lee (OWU) caught that truth on the lips of Clarence Darrow: “The Bible is a book. It is a good book. It is not the only book”. All faced the need to change from inherited untruth to new insight and imagination.

World Truth Center

Perhaps our greatest present disappointment is 9/11. We face new truth: the world is smaller and starker than we wanted to believe. We have not yet found our way out of the psychic rubble of that dreadful day. We are trying, and we are moving, but the almost unspeakable disappointment of that moment remains. Here is why: we have to change our understanding, our philosophy, and even our theology. We have to face the hard fact, that the future is open, freely open, both to terror and to tenderness. And here is John, he who wrote in the ancient rubble of dislocation and disappointment, telling us something wonderful and good: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is in the spirit of the Fourth Gospel that we affirmed three years ago on this Sunday:

Terror may topple the World Trade Center, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ. The World Trade Center, hub of global economies may fall; the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niehbuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.


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

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

I have been preparing for this series of sermons for thirty years and I am not ready. I have studied in two great universities and two world cities, focusing on this text, and I am not ready. I have written an impenetrable book about this Gospel (no home should be without it), and I am not ready. I have been warming up for this all my life. But I am not ready. Who am I to interpret the greatest Gospel? Such an admission bears with it dislocation and disappointment. Friends, we need your help this year, for our preaching of Grace and Freedom. We need your prayers, your ears, your tears, your fears. We need the great work of listening, and using those five key words: “I applied it to myself”.

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.

Tomorrow morning. Which will it be? “In the beginning…” What? Creation…or Grace? Covenant…or Freedom? Law…or Love? An eye for an eye…or the second mile, the coat and cloak, the turned cheek? “In the beginning…was the Word”.

All of us are better when we are loved.