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)

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Two Biographies

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: John 4:1-5

“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.” John 20: 31

In Old Castile, northwest of Madrid, out on the arid, brown central Spanish highland, you may look toward the mountain range once toured by Robert Jordan and his munequita, before his fictitious but nonetheless atoning, salvific, christlike death, at the hands of Franco’s soldiers.

The mountain range, high and in its own way majestic, looks very much like a woman asleep. So the Segovianos call her or it or the mountain “la mujer muerta”. As I and Robert Jordan and perhaps you also have found, it is a day’s long hard hike up into the Castilian Mountains.

The Gospel of John is such a mountain range, high and lifted up. It challenges our endurance. It tests our orienteering. It measures our preparation and execution. There is an exacting and perfecting quality to this Gospel, similar to the exacting and perfecting character of fellowship at Asbury First.

I remember a lunch of cheese and bread and wine under the cedars of that gorgeous mountain range. And I remember my companion. It does not surprise me that Robert Jordan fell in love north of Segovia.

With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you in the midst of two crucial battles, those of dislocation and disappointment, with the good news of grace and freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination.

I realize belatedly that the most lastingly formative aspect of my theological education, at Union Seminary in the City of New York, in the years of the Carter administration was the preaching of William Sloane Coffin. Not the superior theological teaching of C Morse, nor the profound exegesis of JL Martyn, nor the bubbling homiletics of J Forbes, nor the psychological honesty of Ann Ulanov—though without these and other guides I could not have appreciated Coffin.

In his recent collection of wisdom sayings, Coffin has a typically urbane, piercing word to say about hypocrisy. It is as close to the mind of Jesus in John 4 as I think you can come: “I am a little clearer now on the issue of hypocrisy. Of course we all pass ourselves off as something we are not, but not anything we are not. Generally we try to pass ourselves off as something that is special in our hearts and minds, something we yearn for, something beyond us. That’s rather touching”.

We all have at least two life stories, the one we publicize and the one we privatize. They both have meaning. Nor should one be eliminated or the other. In this chapter, following on the opening given in our lesson today, Jesus addresses the two biographies of a woman from Samaria….Go call your husband…I have no husband…You are right in saying you have no husband for you have had five husbands and he whom you now have is not your husband…” As people and as a culture, we have more than one story to tell, more than biography. Two biographies, like the woman at the well. Our best foot and then the other foot. The gospel this morning, a saving and healing truth for you, is that Jesus the Christ knows both biographies, all our stories, and loves us still.

“We put our best foot forward, but it is the other one that needs the attention” (W.S.Coffin).

John has always more than one opponent or contestant. He is fighting always on two fronts. So much for tradition, so much for culture. So much for depth, so much for breadth. So much for Hebrew, so much for Greek. So much for church and so much for community. So much for memory, so much for experience. John contrasts the freedom of Christ with fragile, formulaic faith. Things do not always fit into little boxes. The Hurricane winds of change rearrange every manner of dwelling. Such great winds are not confined to Florida. You know them too.

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is not easily blended with his counterparts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Rather than projecting our own needs for uniformity out onto these ancient, holy, mysterious, puzzling and powerful writings, we first to listen to them. Listen. We need to let the Bible speak to us, as Robert McAffee Brown used to say. The Jesus of John 4 sees into other’s minds. He knows things without being told. He divines the secrets hidden in the heart. He stands alone and in public view, with a woman, a Samaritan woman, a troubled Samaritan woman. This Jesus is guided along in a lengthy mystagogical conversation, full of riddles, double entendres, hidden meanings, mysterious silences. He offers living water. In none of this does one find a single correspondence with the earlier three quests for Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s is an entirely different Jesus. So, asked a bright teenager in September, which is true?

And here is my answer. They all are. They all truly represent the actual historical experience of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, which various little communities in his fledging church did have of him. All four are historically accurate. With accuracy they describe the Jesus known in the actual lives of the communities of Mark, 40 years after Calvary, Matthew, 55 years after Calvary, Luke, 60 years after Calvary, and John 90 years after Calvary. They give us grace and freedom to sense Jesus, as they did, present among us, as He was among them. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

The account of the woman at the well provides one of two eyes needed to see. The other is the experience of Jesus, crucified and risen, which John knew and felt and preached. This Jesus, in 120 ad, knew his people. They felt his knowing presence. They felt his probing spirit. So do we. They faced his clairvoyant candor. So do we. They acknowledged his healing voice. So do we. A voice like no other--equanimous and serene. They sensed his love. They preached his love. They shared his love. Even across ranges of personal, intimate, generic confusion. And so do we. It is not the water of the well that slakes our thirst for salvation, but the water of eternal life. This water bathes both of our feet, both of our biographies, both the one we put forward and the one we hold back.

Grace During Dislocation

Young soldiers in their first year of service, at home or abroad, know about the dislocation that comes with growing up. So do their parents and aunts and uncles. Young women and men settling in at college, for the first year, know about the dislocation that comes with developing that second identity, that real self, yourself. At mid-life a man finds that he is ready to make up his mind to change his mind. Dislocation is mainly, but not only, the work of salvation for youth. Ask the 80 year old who sells her house. Or the 90 year old who keeps his. Salvation is not a matter of chronology, only, but of ontology and theology and psychology. Sachel Page was right to ask: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?”

Our lasting health will rely in part on Grace uncovered during dislocation. That John’s Gospel emerges out of the tide, the great sea change, of dislocation is itself a profound affirmation of grace. If this community, disoriented and discarded and dismembered amid Jews and Gnostics in 120 ad, could receive courage in change, then so can we. We need not fear change. You need not fear change. For down in the depths of dislocation, John discovered grace.

The most pervasive social change of the last thirty years, across our culture, lies in the rearrangements related to gender and to sexuality. The social distance between me and my grandfather is dwarfed by that between my grandmother and my daughter. My grandmother learned to drive using a buggy whip and sitting behind a team of horses. My daughter flies across the continent week by week. Elsie was born 30 years before she gained the right to vote. Emily rocks the vote. Gramma was one of a very small percentage of women to graduate from college. Emily runs the place. Elsie raised children, cooked meals, supported the church, and listened. My daughter works, leads, earns and speaks. Women are still undergoing the tears and strains of pervasive social dislocation. Nor is feminism finished. Nor is equality achieved. Nor does freedom fully ring, not for women in America nor certainly for women around the globe.

Yet with this righteous dislocation, every bit as necessary as that which liberated John, has come an undertow of anxiety, much of it related to our understanding of sexuality. Sex, physical genital intimacy, is not what it used to be. And women are still largely paying the bill. In the great sea of sexual dislocation, certainly alive in the text of John 4, is there any grace to be found?

As the fellow stumbled and said when he was asked to speak about sexual ethics, “It would be my pressure—I mean pleasure”

What are we teaching our children about sex? Do we happily and strongly affirm the covenant of marriage? Do our sentiments and advisements short of marriage lead, for the most part, to preparation for healthy marriage? Across the gender divides, can we still be responsible not only to but also for one another, without yet patronizing or prevaricating? Why are young men so largely absent from our churches?

To a global village conception of human sexuality, each one may contribute his part of green, space for grace and time for freedom. I have no word of the Lord on this, but what insight I have I share.

You are a grandfather or grandmother. With rosy cheeks and a smile, before dinner, you may recall a harvest moon, an evening of affection, with gentle hints at what chivalry can mean, did mean, will mean.

You are a mom or dad. Books with information can be bought and shared. But priceless and purchasing power is what comes next. Your sense of gratitude for life. Your honest joy, happiness and pleasure in intimacy. Your witness to the vulnerabilities of such closeness. Your conviction that God made humans as sexual beings and means to help us as sexual beings to become as humane as possible. Then stop. Look. Listen. Listen. Listen.

You are an aunt, uncle, teacher, neighbor, youth counselor. Bless you. Do you realize that you are, in trust, a safe space and trusted freedom for a younger person who may need to rely on you?

You are such a youth. Remember these 5 things: You are made in the image and likeness of God. You are precious. You know the difference between loving someone and using someone. You need not be afraid to stand apart from the crowd. You have right to sense how you are feeling, what you are thinking. Does this seem right to me? Does this feel right for me? If you make a mistake, well, remember forgiveness, consider what you have learned, shake the dust from your feet and move ahead. And you can also, if the moment is right, quote Anne Lamotte: “No is a complete sentence”.

You are a church on East Avenue. Say this: “Jesus is among us, speaking and healing. His grace tells us that the Word became flesh, that we are made in God’s image, that physical pleasure and sexual intimacy are God’s good gifts, that we can live with integrity, that we can become self-aware, that we can learn from but not be defined by our mistakes, that the covenant of marriage provides the best and surest and healthiest and safest location for sex, amid the great dislocations of our time”.

The Da Vinci Code, for all its many failings and inaccuracies, at least dwells imaginatively on the Incarnation.

Life is good. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the ringing affirmation of the Fourth Gospel. Physical life, in all its panoply of intimacy and estrangement, is good.

Freedom Following Disappointment

Now that we have come to chapter 4, we need to name and regret a biblical disappointment. If we are going to read John at all, and hear the gospel of John together, then we need to be honest about a scriptural disappointment. As with all of our lives, the Bible itself, the very Word of God, does nonetheless harbor disappointments. We can find freedom following violence, lack of vision, the immutability of the past. Here the good news: there is even freedom following religious disappointment.

Sometimes our great strengths occasion our most glaring weaknesses. If John is the Bible’s great strength, it would then be possible that here too we might find great weakness. And we do.

It is a hard disappointment to face the hard truth that things went wrong and that there is no way to change what happened. But we can learn from hard disappointment. Sometimes it is our very success that carries within it a seed of failure. It is our strength itself that calls out of the deeps to an echoing weakness. Strength and weakness are sometimes strangely conjoined.

Why is strong man A Schwarzenegger’s best movie “Kindergarten Cop”, a visit to childhood and weakness? Two different kinds of biographies.

Why did the extremely tough, hard, rigid, JE Hoover also, we now know, live out a second biography in the shadows?

Why does the figure of Elmer Gantry, and his not so fictional and very current cousins today, provide an odd combination of religious power and personal weakness? Two religious biographies.

Why did Mr. Clinton, the most adept, strongest politician of his generation, at the height of his influence, stumble irremediably into as impolitic an imbroglio as one could imagine. Two very different biographies.

Why did ML King, a holy, just leader, nonetheless succumb to the basest, or most human of passions? Here is a second biography too.

Why does an extremely intelligent person, a scholar, make what must only be called, in technical terms, “a stupid mistake”. Two biographies.

Do you know someone who is an extremely careful exerciser, committed to physical health, who nonetheless every now and then goes on an eating binge of mammoth proportions? Me and my shadow, strolling down the avenue.

Or what about that highly ethical, religiously prim and proper, sharply buttoned down woman or man, who, for a moment, throws all caution to the wind? Two biographies for every person: we are born to disappointment as the sparks fly upward. You did not marry a God. You did not give birth to a God. You do not work for a God. You do not relate to any God but the God of Jesus Christ.

Oh, I give no ground with regard to the truth of Scripture. The Bible is freedom’s book, the pulpit is freedom’s voice, the church is freedom’s defense. It is also occasionally true that the Bible is a holy disappointment. Nowhere in Scripture is the height of Christian freedom more powerfully depicted than in John, and yet, at the same time, nowhere is the Bible more of a disappointment.

This gospel is anti-semitic, at least to our ears after 1940. It was composed in the white heat of one small group leaving a synagogue in order freely to worship what the synagogue could only understand as a second God. It was the charge of ditheism, though denied and controverted, which moved John’s little church out into a free and frightening future. So the Gospel of John speaks roughly of its Semitic mother religion, of its own tradition. The living water is meant to surpass the dead water of Jacob, of Jacob’s well. Notice the way the writer refers with oral scare quotes to “the Jews”, like Robert E Lee calling Yankees, “those people”. Notice the dismissive explication, here and elsewhere of Jewish rites. Notice that even though salvation is from the Jews, his own people “received him not”. Notice Jesus saying “all who came before me are thieves and robbers”. We have an obligation to notice. And to regret, to express contrition and compunction. These words from this gospel have done immeasurable harm, from Augustine to Luther to the Third Reich to today, and that is a spiritual disappointment. As Christianity puts its best foot forward, it is really the other one that needs attention. We have two biographies ourselves. That of persecuted, and that of persecutor. Of all religious bodies, we have the most work to do with regard to anti-Semitism.

How are we to find freedom following such spiritual disappointment? By facing facts, by learning from our experience of success and failure, by moving ahead: the fact is that Christianity has been pervasively guilty of latent and patent anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John has been one of its sources. We have and can learn from this failure, by carefully monitoring our use of religious language. Be careful with religious language. And we can move ahead. John is guiding us toward a global vision, an ecumenical spirituality, a universal Truth, a global village green, space for grace and time for freedom. And our Jewish brothers and sisters can teach us to continue, with Jacob, to wrestle with God.

Our neighbor, a great leader in Toronto, Emil Fackenheim, was once asked how and why he could practice his faith after the holocaust. His reply: “I must. I refuse to give Hitler any posthumous victories”.

In 1978 Jan and I had dinner with Elie Wiesel in the home of Robert Mcafee Brown. Wiesel survived the death camps and spent 10 silent years in Paris before writing Night. Its pathos, its witness, its question, its challenge needs to stay before this generation as well…Where is God? Where is He?...The third rope was still moving, the child was still alive…For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed…Behind me I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?... and I heard a voice within me answer Him…Where is He? Here he is—He is hanging here on this gallows….


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.

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, October 10, 2004

Two Births

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: John 3:1-16

“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.

The interpretation of the Gospel of John is a dangerous job. Luther recalled most carefully what the church has realized most generally, which is that for the Bible to be rightly heard, for the preacher to handle the word of truth, one first needs some understanding of what the passage meant in its first hearing. What did its writer mean to say, and what did its hearers or readers first hear or read? To the extent that we have some handle on this first incarnation of truth, we may be able to apply the meaning of the Bible to our own time and place.

It helps us to understand the prophets of Israel to learn the history through which they lived. We can appreciate the wisdom books when we know a little about their background. The first three gospels become meaningful to us, as we come to grips with their historical struggles. The letters of Paul take existential shape for us when we know something about his life, his missionary journeys, his relationships with others.

John’s history is in many ways the toughest for us to understand.

Two primary theories have been advanced in the last hundred years, and I am an interpretative child of both. One emphasizes Judaism, one Hellenism. One emphasized Gnosticism, one apocalypticism. One emphasizes space, one time. How are we to judge? This year I propose we use them both and hope for the best.

Grace During Dislocation

Nicodemus is a ruler of Israel. He has stayed by the mother tongue, the mother tradition, the mother religion. He has stayed in the womb. He never left home. But you cannot become yourself if you never leave home. To become who you are you have to go somewhere else. Not always geographically. Jesus never traveled more than fifty miles from Bethlehem.

Nicodemus is a teacher, a religious leader.

John is concerned with Spirit, not speculation, with the artistry of the everyday, not with Armageddon, with the church not with calamity.

You have already learned the heart of this text: that Nicodemus and Jesus are representative types of religion—past and future, law and liberty; that the word for Spirit and wind is the same word and that John can and does mean both; that the command to be born from above is plural, you all, or as they say in the south, “all you all”.

John turns his gaze now away from inherited religion, to focus on culture, away from Judaism to address the Gnostics, who wanted fervently to be saved by knowing “whence we come from and whither we are going”. Says Jesus…the Spirit where it wills…

Cultural religion says, “You know whence you came”. Spirit says, You do not.

A pre-Christian culture says, “You know where you are going”. John says, not so: Those who are born of the spirit, of them you do not know whence or whither.

John’s neighbors affirm: we know whence and whither. John replies: not so of those born of the spirit. You are left with confusing liberty, the assorted decisions of a complex life. You are free. In Christ, you are set free. In Spirit, you do not know….you believe…

Here stands Nicodemus, a man in full. A religious leader, really a representative of the best in spiritual inheritance. He ventures out at night, choking from the challenge of truth, new truth, full truth. Where he has been will not take him where he needs to go. He is a person on the edge of a great dislocation: he is about to make up his mind to change his mind about something that really matters.

Some years ago the Christian Century ran a series of articles by nominally great religious leaders, titled, “How my mind has changed”. A disappointing series. One found really little significant change of mind in any of them. Typical of preachers—stubborn, self-assured; it takes one to know one.

But here stand Nicodemus, a courageous soul. He is facing the great heartache of maturity. You face it too. He is facing out over a great ravine, a great gorge, a great precipice. On a matter of mortal meaning, he is making up his mind whether to change his mind. That takes real courage.

Benjamin Franklin found this courage when he left behind his beloved Europe and his confidence in diplomacy to take up arms with his fellow colonists. Abraham Lincoln found this courage when he finally moved to side fully with the abolitionists. Robert F Kennedy, then the junior Senator from the Empire State, found this same courage when he left the cold war mind of his own past and of his dear brother, to oppose the war in Vietnam. Sometimes you get to a point where you have to make up your mind whether to change your mind. To face facts, as Nicodemus courageously faced the works, signs, deeds of Jesus the Christ. It takes great courage to change your mind about something of mortal significance. In fact, it may not even be humanly possible. Apart from Grace. It means admitting error. We would sooner be proven sinful than stupid. John takes us to higher ground. We have an easier time receiving forgiveness for sin than we do receiving Grace for change.

Yet did not Samson finally see the error of his ways with Delilah? Did not David finally see his mistake with Bathsheba? Did not Peter break down and weep on the understanding of betrayal? Did not Paul find the courage, in earshot of unmistakable evidence, to cease persecution, and in fact, to suffer it, for Christ’s sake? The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of persistent failure, of persistence through failure, and of the grace to make up one’s mind to change one’s mind.

We can all chuckle at Ralph Cramden, constitutionally loveable a constitutionally unable to admit his error. We can all laugh with the ‘Fonz’ at his inability to pronounce the word “wrong”. But the good news finds entry, on this passage, where meek souls will receive it still.


Freedom Following Disappointment

The author of John had to drink the bitter cup of disappointment in its most bitter form. His form of hope collapsed. His dream died. It is hard to have a dream die. A dream deferred is like a raisin in the sun…

While every life carries secret sorrows, there are serious and lasting disappointments that can shake the foundations of life, heart, and soul. It is one thing to have your favorite team lose in the World Series, or to have your chosen candidate lose at the polls. It is another to face the lasting hurt of a dream deferred. What has happened has happened. And the way out of this disappointment is the way through marked by the road signs of freedom. Man is born to disappointment as the sparks fly upward.

Faced with hard news, individuals and groups may respond in one of three ways: blame, deny, ignore. Who is at fault? It cannot be true. True it is, but it does not matter. “This is her fault.” “Things are fine, you are mistaken.” “Oh, that doesn’t matter”.

Yet this Gospel offers freedom following disappointment. Freedom in emotion and confidence and vision.

Have you looked recently at your emotional life? Spelunking in among the damp stalactites and dank stalagmites of the visceral cave of emotion can bring exhilarating freedom. Have you shown a flashlight on anger, fear, sorrow, or joy lately? Emotion fires freedom.

So does confidence. What you lose in Christ in certainty, you more than recover in confidence. Confidence is born of obedience, the obedience of faith.

One of our greatest lasting disappointments is the hard truth that the past is immutable. What is done is done.

My cyclist friend went over his handlebars head first at 20 miles an hour. As he tumbled forward into bone breaking pain he thought: “this cannot be happening. Where is the rewind button on this tape?”

But facts are stubborn things, as John Adams said.

One man begins his group meeting by bowing his head and saying softly, “I always wanted a better past”. After a moment, he raises his head and affirms: “Now I have a better past, one day at a time”.

You cannot change the past and all its disappointment. But you can live in freedom from the past, by honestly facing it, and moving on.

Here is good news! John faced disappointment and so can we. John admitted disappointment and so can we. John replaced disappointment over the past with the freedom to decide for a new future. John had the courage fully to face the delay in Christ’s return, the disappointment of the earliest church’s highest hope. That same courage became the heart of his gospel: the courage to be, in freedom. This same courage can become yours as well.

A global village needs this for salvation: a global village green, full of grace and freedom.


Here is the point of John’s plundering of the Gnostics: the Gnostic dualism of fate has become a dualism of decision.

Faith’s freedom from the world is the decision, the choice, the selection, the predilection, the preferential option to love.

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.

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.

Love is faith’s freedom in the world.

Love is faith’s freedom from the world.

Love is faith’s freedom to transform the world

All of us are better when we are loved.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

What We Ought To Have Done

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: Luke 17:5-10
World Communion Sunday

Jesus meets us today to challenge us, to confront us and to inspire us with the hope of something new. Faith in Him, and love for his community, and a life directed toward a final hope—all these lie before us in this holy meal.

Some years ago, in our first year after seminary, a very small act of mercy on the part of a colleague began to show me the power of the new life, found in the doing of the faith. As the psychologists say, the heart follows the hand.

We had only been married a couple of years, and had more recently entered the working world. Some of you are there today, others remember, others expect. Our little house was gradually filling up, or being filled up, with the materials of early married life. A car in the driveway. Clothing on the line out back. A diaper bucket in the bathroom. Dog food bowls in the kitchen corner. Wedding and family photographs in new albums. It all happens so quickly! Marriage, degree, job, house, child, car, dog, clothes. All of a sudden. It hardly seems real, or possible.

One day during this period in our early life together there came a most surprising bit of information. This news was delivered in the course of a simple supper, as the dog barked and the drying clothes flapped in the breeze and the baby upstairs cried on to sleep. The information was in sum a medical bulletin, one of those little messages from doctor to patient to patient’s family, an insignificant bit of news as far as the televised world news was concerned, just another report, and a report on a lab report. Soon there would be another mouth to feed. What excitement! Hardly seemed possible, or real.

But reality did set in. And reality did set in, was ushered in, not surprisingly, by means of the checkbook. Ah! the checkbook. Stern reminder of the limits of life. Unerring measurer of the various pursuits of happiness. Implacable judge of the ways of humans. The checkbook. Clothes, dog, children, car and all finally had to be paid for, from one source. Reality did finally set in.

So it was in this period of early marriage, the period of judgment by way of the checkbook, when, I recall, a great kindness was done.

Among many other unmanageable expenses, our car needed new brake pads. I did check to see the price that would be charged to have them installed. I couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t afford it. Which is where things sat on a late summer evening, in a small cottage-like parsonage in Tompkins County, with the clothes flapping on the line, the diaper pail overflowing, the dog well fed and ill behaved and the baby crying to the moon above.

That evening I met with a new neighboring minister, a man about 15 years older than I. We did our work, and then set to talking about life in general. The topic of cars and brakes and brake pads somehow wiggled to the surface, and with it all the manifold cares and worries of this life, about which the Scripture says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. This fellow minister then suggested that the next day, early in the morning, I bring the car to his house, where and when he would teach me how to change the brake pads on the car. This we did together. In the course of the morning we also talked through various strategies open to young married couples to avoid the stern, grim judgment of the checkbook. There are ways, it turned out, and he had been there.

I know this backwater tale of an unimportant act of kindness done in Tompkins County in 1980 hardly constitutes earthshaking news. I guess it is just a matter of what we ought to have done, every day, as Christian people. Such a recollection of such a simple generosity hardly seems worth mention.

And yet it meant a great deal, and hovers in memory, twenty fours years later, as the very grace of God. Here is one doing what he and we ought to have done. Here is an act of compassion. Here is an act of mercy. Here is something new. Here is what Emerson meant: “virtue alone creates something new”.

Today, World Communion Sunday, I sense a hunger, a sharp hunger in the souls of women and men from all different walks of life. It is a hunger that does not abate with the ministrations of all that position and fortune and plenty can provide. It is a hunger that reaches for God. It is a hunger for God. There is a hunger for God today in the souls of men and women that will not be filled by anything else. It will not be filled by anything other than God. Finally, the hunger and thirst for righteousness—and I believe there is such a fine, fine hunger in your own heart—can only be filled by God. By the faith of Jesus Christ and by love for his community and by a life directed toward a final hope of glory.

We can and will proclaim this hunger from this pulpit. We can and will announce God’s gracious love from this pulpit. But in the end you will find it, or it will find you, in your own experience. One by one. Two by two. You are likely to be shocked to faith by no more than one real encounter with one real act of mercy at the hand of one real person. Or, said negatively, if one real kindness does not point you to new life, neither will a hundred, and neither will a thousand.

We have only done what we ought to have done, say the honest workers, who know well that their field work does not eliminate responsibility for their domestic duties. But life, you say, is so sterile, so bland. Faith, you say, is so far off. Is it? Perhaps you need to act and then reflect. Let your own hand guide your own heart. Act in kindness and you will find that you are kinder too. Act in generosity and you will discover a generous spirit within. Act with faith and faith will find you. Your heart will follow your hand.

These are such limited, timid, paltry reflections. We come to meet Jesus who meets us in deed, now, not only in word. He meets us in the central moment of life, the full giving that is real loving, the real loving that is full giving, the cross.

Are you ready to receive Him today?