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.

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