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)

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