Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Location of Peace

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2: 1-14

We can become so immersed in Christmas imagery that we lose track of what the symbols mean. Shepherds, Kings, a Virgin Mother, Cattle, the Manger, Angels. What on earth do these images stand for?

Our culture does not give us much help. Our country begins the day with Katie Couric, a sweet soul, and ends the day with Larry King, a kind man. We are comfortable in the easy world of images. Our visual culture, though, makes it more difficult for us to deconstruct our own cultures, to think critically and carefully about the way we have been formed.

Our ancient writers were trying to teach their churches, and all churches, the meaning of the birth of the Messiah. They were not content with the basic fact, reported by Paul: “born of a woman, born under the law”. A Jewish baby boy. Period. No, they needed to identify and interpret the full meaning of the moment.


“Let there be peace on earth”. We sing this hymn with gusto, and as a call to arms, so to speak, it is quite fitting. Yet, do you notice its location of peace? Peace is in the future. Something yet to come, for which to work, toward which to travel. The location of peace is in the unforeseen future.

“The peace of God which passes all understanding”. We so bless one another at the close of an hour for ordered worship. Now, the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ. As a blessing, this too is quite apt. As the younger preacher was told of his first sermon: “It was like the peace of God” (it passed all understanding and endured forever). Yet, do you notice its location of peace? Beyond us. Beyond our ken or comprehension. The location of peace is beyond us.

“Peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives”. So the church receives encouragement from the Risen Christ. Not the world, though, but the church. As a gift to the community, this is very special and lovely. I confess with you that the lastingly good things in my life have come through the church. We have had a lively discussion, over the last generation, about the Reign of God and the Church of God. For one, I affirm both, and the Scripture carries both. But do you notice this location of peace? Inside, not outside.

“Oh Day of Peace that dimly shines”. That is found at 726 in our once new hymnals. May swords of hate fall…Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb…The hope of peace shall be fulfilled…As a prayer for what we have yet to receive, this is altogether satisfactory. And as a hymn it is unsurpassed in beauty. One Day, O Lord. How Long? Yet do you notice the location of peace? Then, not now.

Pierre Laclair and Jean Lebeuf went camping in the Quebec woods. Late at night they heard the scratching, scrabbling claws of a bear on their tent.

Pierre, we are lost! It is a grizzly bear. The meanest and fastest animal in the forest. He will eat us alive.

Pierre quietly laced his boots.

My friend, it is no use intending to run. This animal is more agile than a rabbit, faster than an antelope, quicker than a snake. If you run into the forest he will catch you. If you climb a great evergreen he will trap you. If you try to outrun him he will stop you. We are lost.

My friend, dear Jean Lebeuf, to be saved I do not need to run into the forest, nor to climb a great evergreen, nor to outrun this bear. To be saved I do not have to run faster than the grizzly. No, to be saved, I just need to run faster than YOU.

Peace Keeping and Building

It is a mystery, for sure. For, to our way of thinking and seeing, any sort of peace needs keeping and building.

Our service men and women, named again in our worship program, are committed with risk to keeping the peace. They are peace keepers. You will find their names printed for pray support in our bulletin insert. This week we e-mailed many of our young people in military service. Two responses came recently. Jason Kreutter sends his Christmas greetings, his affection for the congregation, his intention to worship among us on Christmas Eve, and signs off “very respectfully”, Jason. Scott Alpaugh sends his Christmas greetings, his sense of feelings about the next year, and his expectation to miss holidays, birthdays, and families. Scott greets me as “TC”, a nick-name he gave me on the basketball court, because my red and white patterned shorts reminded him of a table cloth. Scott hopes to be with us on the Sunday after Christmas, and looks forward to greeting and speaking to friends after worship on that day. Today, Christmas Sunday, we remember and honor those of our church family who are working to keep the peace, of whom Jason and Scott are fine examples.

Our missionaries, whether supported directly or indirectly, anonymously or by name, are committed with risk to building the peace. They are peace builders. In 1985 we met a young couple who were giving two years of service in campus ministry, through Intervarsity Fellowship. They opened their home to students. We liked that. They came and worshipped with us. We liked that. They gathered two weekly Bible Studies, and included our church. We liked that. They went once a year to Honduras, with a dozen students, to build houses. We liked that. They loved their neighbors, especially the poorest in the hemisphere. We really liked that. After a few years, we asked if we could join their ministry! They liked that. In 1992 we went to Honduras for the first time. Now, by grace, the strong muscle of Asbury First has been harnessed to the things that make for peace in Tegucigalpa, through this same couple, Mark and Lynn Baker.

In the long run, it is the work of justice, of healing, and of mercy that makes for peace. Mark, Lynn, Kim, Juan, Julio, all. Today, Christmas Sunday, we remember and honor those of our church family who are building peace, of whom Mark and Lynn are such fine examples.

In this way, two very different people, Scott Alpaugh and Mark Baker, a peace keeper and a peace builder, stand shoulder to shoulder. Of course we do honor and even revere the work of both. Yet, their work, and our prayer and support of their work, crucial work and prayer, by themselves do not carry us to the location of the Christmas peace.

The Location of Peace

The chorus of angels, standard Jewish apocalyptic fare, are made to greet—whom?


The great Kings of the Orient, who had so long oppressed the children of Moses, are made to visit—where? In a humble dwelling.

The woman who is to bear a child, the one who carries the traditions of queens, of Esther and Bathsheba and Miriam and Deborah, is to bring forth the boy—where? In a manger.

The ruling potentate, Herod the Great, who carries the historic power of the state, is caused to hunt down a lowly Jew—how? In fear.

The great lineage of Jesus, now turning oddly to the house of Joseph, this ancestral line that reaches to Eden, is made to include in Tamara and Rahab and others—whom? The unclean.

It is clear that for these writers, the Christmas Gospel identifies a stunning new location of peace. Not just in the heart. Not just in the future. Not just in the beyond. Not just in heaven. Not just in the church.

The location of peace is on earth. The location of peace is this earth. This earth is the place of peace. Thus peace is not, on the Christmas account, something to strain after. This peace is not something to be constructed. This same peace is not something to be awaited or to be pursued. This peace is not something that lies outside of or beyond earth. “On earth, peace”: this is the Christmas gospel.

Peace, on earth. The good news, the mystery of this feast of Christmas, lies in the strange announcement of the angels to the shepherds. There is peace, here. There is peace, now. There is peace, on earth. It is real, lasting and good. In fact, it is of God. It is God. Where peace is, there is God. Before we set off, with bayonets fixed or Bibles opened, to keep peace or build peace, let us listen with care. Already, God has made peace. God has set peace on earth. God has made space for peace. It is this New Reality, peace on earth, which holds all others. It is an eternal possibility, an unending reality. And wherever peace is, there is Jesus born. On earth.

We must admit that this possibility, this promise, so often seems so far away. Yet for all the difficulty we may find in embracing this New Reality, there is no mistaking what the ancient writers meant. Angels to symbolize heaven speaking to earth. Kings to symbolize the power of peace. The humble mother to make sure that earth, this earth, was central. And the shepherds to receive the great good news.

Here is the point of the Christmas gospel: the location of peace is not above us, not behind us, not before us, not dependent upon us. The peace of Christmas is the way of God, on earth. This is not about what might be, could be, should be, would be, may be. Nor is this mainly about what we keep and what we do. This is not a command, Thou shalt. This is not an imperative, Do this. Christmas is the quiet restatement of what is. Of the truly true. Of the really real.

Where shall we find this location? You will find the Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger…As much a mystery today as it was of old, on the Bethlehem road…

Here is Christmas to invite you once again, to seek his place among us. To move, to travel, to change, to journey, to walk, to discover the wholly unexpected. In Him. In his growth, among the elders at Temple. In his stories, of a sower and a seed. In his teaching, of those blessed now. In his healing, of the sick and sick at heart. In his friendship, among a small band of brothers and sisters. In his fellowship, quickened in communion. Here is Christmas to invite you once again, to seek his place, the location of peace.

May at last we come to peace, to say, even in the evening of life, as did Augustine of Hippo: “Too late I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Too late I loved you! And behold, you were within me, and

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Are You Ready for Christmas?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 1: 18-25

Be prepared! Otherwise, you just may miss something coming your way. In a form you did not expect.

A teenager came down from the garret with an old book, and headed for the trash. What have you found? It’s just an old book. Really—from where? Oh it was up that trunk. Just an old Bible. Anyone’s name on it? No nothing special, just oh some old German name. Can you read it? Oh, yes, its, gut …gut …Guttenberg.

This Advent, again, Matthew our teacher lures us into the mystery of faith by speaking of a Lover, a Beloved, and Love, as Augustine did later, speaking of Amans, Amatus, and Amor. GOD IS LOVE. The pulsing, driving, heart-changing career of this mystery continues to gladden struggling human faces, even as we distort its form. Carols in the shopping mall… Hymns appropriated for television… a Santa in the manger… drunkenness on Christmas Eve…a season of buying and selling drowning out quiet prayers… Still, still. The world of fear suspects the brooding presence of a God of love. And as any oriental King may tell you, love is for the wise. I ask you: are you ready for Christmas?

1. Are You Ready to Follow Love through the Thickets of Separation?Hear good news. Love is stronger than separation. Love will guide us through the thickets of separation. In August we bade farewell to may of our college students. Some will now return. They will have had some practical experience with separation.

Margie, my sister, has told a fine and humorous story, about an initial separation, a part of that journey to adulthood. The path to the second identity is never easy. A nine year old has determined to run away from home. He packs his suitcase, and carefully prepares his peanut butter sandwich. After dinner he ceremoniously leaves home, to take his seat under the corner lamppost. His parents nervously watch from the living room. The family tomcat purrs and paces across the floor. At nine o’clock he eats his sandwich. Then at ten his mom and dad hear that most blessed of night sounds, the latch of the front door. In he comes. Like Harry Truman returning with Bess to Missouri, he “takes his grip up the front stairs”. Then he comes to sit, weary from travel, in the front room. The cat brushes his legs. Now that he has been away, things are different. His father watches from over the edge of the newspaper. Then, to break the ice, the well traveled boy coughs, and says, “Yes, it is good to home again… By the way, I see you still have the same old cat”.

Home from their adventures they will come. Perhaps they will have a question in and for the church. Is there anything there for me? Which, for you, means: will you be present, available for them? They have lived with a potent mixture of energy, freedom, youth, inexperience, foolishness and rebellion--enough to produce some theological education. They are writing daily the chapters of a biography titled, “My first big mistake”; “How to tell if you have been used”; “A little learning is a dangerous thing”. Maybe that is why we love our young people so much. They are just like us. Only moreso.

I carry some memory of early waves of returning students. Those in the early sixties, crew cuts and blue suits, Lettermen jackets and records, standing courteously when women entered the room. And struggling with the thickets of vocation: will my life be lived for myself or for others? Those in the late sixties, no ties, no jackets, longer hair, Beatles albums, still standing at the right times, though a half-beat off. And struggling with the thickets of sexuality: how do we love each other without using each other? Those in the early seventies, just a few years later, but a world apart. Now the men had long hair and the women had crew cuts, Rolling Stones albums and nobody stood for anything or anybody. And struggling through the thickets of justice: with whose blood, and how much of it, will the future be purchased? Some mixture of all three struggles come home with our children this year.

Are you ready? To bear witness, some how, to Love that outdoes sin and separation? Are you ready for Christmas?

2. Are You Ready to Accept Love’s Acceptance in Loss?

We should listen, perhaps to our most veteran Christians. Voices from home and nursing home and hospital.

“My hands lie heavy on my lap, vein rigged and spotted. Once they were like white birds in graceful flight over the piano keys, stirring savory pots of food, gentling a crying infant. Agile, useful—never still. Now they too are reaching out…”

“My memory teases me, confuses me. I am in the kitchen to take my pills, and then I am transformed, in an instant, and once again, I am a bride at the altar, dressed in white, full of fear and hope. And I have lost my pills…”

“My ears keep me from sleeping. At night I hear sounds, muffled under the pillow of darkness. A window shade taps on and off. A tree rustles against the glass pane. A floorboard creaks. The furnace growls. And I am wide awake. It is 2am…”

You are a people of salt and light. You face defeat with grace and death with dignity. Every week of the year. You know, from Scripture and Gospel, that life has brutal limits, of which death is one. Nature takes us gradually, a little hand here, a little mind there, a little ear… Love clasps the inactive hand. Love commands the drifting mind. Love lends the ear its 2am lullaby. When we pray, we feel that someone is present (repeat).

Susan, my sister, told me this week of a humorous moment, with a man, not a member of the church, whose family had called in the hour of transition. She went to pray and come to know the gentleman. She wanted to come to know something of his life. Who was he? What were his dreams? What did he carry of regret? He awoke and asked in a weak voice for a pencil. She was so pleased that he was apparently intent on writing down something about his life. But they could find no pencil: not in the room, not in pockets or purses, not down the hall. At last a nurse came by with a long, yellow number two. He fingered the pencil greedily, then, rather than writing anything, used the long implement to scratch his upper back! Oh, he said, that feels so good…

Yet the pencil and bedside recalled a similar and far more poignant tale, from the pen of one of our age’s great preachers, Fred Craddock (I owe Bill Ritter the recollection of this story, which I have known and forgotten and now know again): Although Craddock became a preacher, his father had no use for the church. Every so often the minister would come by and talk. Dad would say, “All you want is another pledge and another member”. In the fall, the minister would come for a meal with the year’s evangelist. After dinner, the two would talk with old Craddock. But he would say the same, “All you want is another pledge and another member”. Fred’s mother would retreat to the kitchen and wash dishes and ring hands and cry.

Then one day the call came. His father lay dying in northern Tennessee. So Fred went home. He found his Dad in the VA, 74 pounds, throat taken, too late, radiation burns all around. All around the room, filling the room, there were flowers. Men’s Bible Class. Women’s Society. Youth Fellowship. Children’s Class. Pastor. Evangelist Society. Church Council.

Dad saw his eyes go to the cards. He picked up a pencil and wrote on the side of a Kleenex box, this line from Shakespeare, “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”

Fred asked his dad, “Dad, what is your story”. And the speechless man took the Kleenex box and wrote out a three word confession: “I was wrong”.

We all get it wrong, to some degree. Few of us have the courage of faith to confess it so honestly. We all get it wrong about the church, too, to some degree. I know I do, now and then. Maybe you do too.

Are you ready? Are you ready to bear witness that somehow love is stronger than death? Are you ready for Christmas?

3. Are You Ready to Work in Love amid the threat of Emptiness and the Confusion of Alienation?

Hear good news. Love fills emptiness, over time. Love breaks in on doubt. Our world has its empty ways of refusing providence; but Love is just more durable than boredom, emptiness, alienation.

Be a little careful with boredom. That sense that “what has been is what will be”. That sense of weariness, of emptiness. “All the rivers run to the sea”. The thought that life is about nothing, Seinfeld as theology rather than just humor.

Paul Tillich, who taught us about separation and limitation and alienation, also said: “Boredom is rage spread thin.” Poke around a little bit under the corners of emptiness and you will find anger. Not a bad thing, anger. The Bible says be angry, but don’t die with it, don’t let the sun go down with it.

You know, what makes the world work is trust. Trust in God, in self, in spouse, in friend, in boss. When trust melts, we have to resort to proof. Where there is trust, you do not need proof. But where there is no trust, there is never enough proof. Bryant, my brother, has arisen from Midwestern, Lutheran stock. There is not much humor in Luther. Yet, in response to a mailed set of complaints, laden with chagrin, and laced with bitterness, I heard him say, as he rode of sight, “Maybe I could get a ladder and help you down off of that cross?” One cross, not ours. One savior, not us.

George Bernanos’ classic story of a country priest in post-war France tells this Advent truth. A lonely, dispirited and alcoholic pastor ears the enmity and disdain of his leading layman’s wife. Although she attends mass every week, she regards the church’s teachings with a quiet bemusement. She knows better. While her husband practices law and leads the town, and shoots quail, she leads a quiet and empty life, disturbed only occasionally by her own religious questions.

She asks her pastor about hell. “Hell is to love no longer”, he answers. She grows older and more bitter. In a series of late afternoon conversations, she batters the priest with questions and insults, until one day near Christmas she produces the source of her emptiness. And her anger. May years ago she had lost a child at birth. She opens her purse and places a silver cartridge on the table. Inside are lockets of the child’s hair. For sixty years she has carried this burden of grief and it has emptied her life.

He takes the lockets and throws them into the fire. Love overpowers emptiness, over time.

Advent is the time to get ready. We live in a preventive, preemptive, abortive, prophylactic age, one highly suspicious of the unplanned, the unpredicted, the unforeseen, and the unexpected. We prefer what we can forecast to what surprises us. We lean more on what we can count than what we can count on. All of which is to say that Advent, in particular, runs counter to our culture. This season of unplanned pregnancy, of surprising announcement, of dreams filled and fulfilled—so at odds with the material world around us.

I went to conference in June to discover that my roommate was to be John Cooke, one of our Buffalo preachers. What a surprise and delight to learn how much he and I have in common! Friends in the North, the Payne family from Asbury, those who remember his father, George, a Rochester lawyer and conference chancellor. This Advent, unexpectedly, John sent a copy of his father’s daily Journal from 11/23/64: Asbury First Methodist Church celebrated the cancellation of notes signaling the end of all indebtedness on its $1,964,699 building project begun 12 years ago. Members of the congregation, named for Francis Asbury, chose yesterday to dedicate the entire complex of sanctuary, education wing and adjoining buildings. The cancelled notes were presented to the Pastor, Dr Richard Davey, by Nelson E Sheldon, president of the Board of Trustees. Bishop Ward said, “As Methodists we have some deep-seated feelings about smoking. But the holy smoke of the kind we shared here this morning, this is the kind of fire that shows something significant….Although we have gotten people into church, we still haven’t gotten the church into people. The church must speak more than out of its concrete and steel structure. It must speak out of its people.”

Under the surface of life there resounds a lasting question. Are you ready? Sometimes the question is put so bluntly as to be inaudible. Yet that call and anticipated response still hover under the surface. Are you ready for Christmas?

The United Nations has its troubles. Like any human organization, it carries the weight of sin, death and meaninglessness. What is remarkable is that through it all, Kofi Annan and others are willing to change, willing to help us think about what a doctrine of “anticipatory self-defense” might mean, and willing to risk for a peaceful future.

In all this they remind us of Dag Hammarskjold, one who was ready enough. A Christian? At least that. One who heard the question, in its breadth of profundity, and then lived it, to his untimely death in the Congo. Bill Ritter recently reminded me of his answer:

I don’t know who, or what, put the question.
I don’t know when it was put.
I don’t even remember answering.
But at some moment I did answer “Yes”
To someone, something.
And from that hour, I was certain that existence was meaningful
And that life, my life, lived in self-surrender, had a goal.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Two Beliefs

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 11:17-27

“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 have scaled 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.

Two Level Drama

We have listened for the divine word in two dimensions, during this autumn, one the imaginative narrations about the person of Jesus, the other the historical reconstruction of the community which produced John.

The first dimension: John features Jesus in mortal combat over many issues. Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana. Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus. Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the well. Jesus heals a broken spirit. Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stereoptic, to a man born blind. Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and bring resurrection and life. He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness. He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism. He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt. He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia. He brings the church out of the closet of hunger. He brings the dead to life.

The second dimension: The two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues of salvation today.

The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre eminently embedded in John, is the movement away from Judaism. How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek? The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion.

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ. Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.

Two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of the parousia. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own. How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become? What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down the profound despair of nuclear twilight and break free into a loving global future? More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second.

Both mean choice. Both bring us to the summit of freedom.

We have the freedom to choose and to move:
1. From fear to love.
2. From congenital blindness to spiritual sight.
3. From life to spirit.
4. From isolation to community.
5. From home to health.
6. From rainbow to firmament.
7. From control to freedom.
8. From spiritual hunger to hungry spirituality.
9. From nationalism to patriotism.
10.From denominationalism to ecumenism.
11.From death to life.


In the Gospel of John we have found grace amid dislocation and freedom following disappointment (repeat). These are the twin gifts of this twilight gospel, grace and freedom, John Wesley’s two favorite words. In dislocation we meet grace: going off to college or military service; immersed in a new culture of electronic Gnosticism; on the cusp of the courage to change our mind; in the matters, intimate and crucial, of human sexuality; in the course of finding a new home; in the throes of struggles with our denomination. Yet all these foreground dislocations, and many others, really are meant to prepare us for the one great dislocation, death. What grace does the gospel give in this dislocation of death?

Our text today does not cast aside the primitive Christian hope, even in its most primitive garb. Mary says that she knows her brother will be raised, at the resurrection of the last day. John lets this hope stand, as does our traditional liturgy of committal at the grave. That is, whether we trust that in the hour of death we are translated to God’s presence, or whether in this apocalyptic hope we trust that at the end of time, with all the children of God, still, in both cases, grace is found amid the dislocation of death. This is our belief, our first belief. And whether the hope is traditional or contemporary in its expression, the courage of this belief is what gives us the capacity to be truly human.


I know that he will be raised at the resurrection on the last day…Here is an image to convey this ancient hope.

We lived for some years right across from a large cemetery which also hides a back entrance to the Carrier Dome. I used to keep count of how many friends, real friends, I had, and how many were on one side of Comstock and how many were on the other.

One late autumn Saturday, a football game day, our kids parked cars for $5 a piece in the backyard. Then all became quiet in the neighborhood, except for the strong wind of the day, and an occasional muffled shout, like heaven’s trumpet, from the dome behind the cemetery.

I had determined, wind or no, to rake, and so with my ears muffled and battened by wind, I set out to rake the front lawn. So quiet, so empty, that street, during a football game. Back to the cemetery I raked and raked, wind rearranging all my art and labor. Back again, and raking again. I was lost in worries about Sunday to come, or some other bother. I raked and mused.

Suddenly, I turned for once to face the graves across the street. There, standing shoulder to shoulder was an army of men and women, a great sea of orange, now in the wind ready to cross at me, hundreds, more, coming, streaming out of the graveyard, walking at me with no more warning than Lazarus gave his sisters. Lost as I was in reverie, I really did not know for sure, whether the resurrection of the dead was upon us, or more simply whether the game had ended early. The resurrection at the last day…

If we…

In less mythological terms, and more general biblical phrases, we express something of this same, first, belief, in future hope, in grace at the dislocation of death. As we said last week, during the memorial for one of our greatest saints:

If we believe that life has meaning and purpose
And we do
If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us
And we do
If we believe that divine love lasts
And we do
If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure
And we do
If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son
And we do
If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity
And we do
If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight
And we do
If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe
And we do
If we believe that God has loved us personally
And we do
If we believe in God
And we do
Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death
And we do
Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death
And we do
Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection
And we do
Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone
And we do
Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality
And we do
Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain
And we do
Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life
And we do
Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally
And we do
Then we shall trust that at death we rest protected in God’s embrace
And we do
Then we shall trust in God
And we do.

Grace amid the dislocation of death. Freedom following disappointment. We have known disappointment. Following disappointment we find freedom: following the terror of 9/11; after trials with the complexities of life; in the hard discovery that the past is immutable; through the shameful admission that Christianity, and the Fourth Gospel, have harbored anti-Semitism; subsequent to a Presidential election in which we knew half the country would be chagrined; facing the stunted theological imagination of the last half century. Yet all these foreground disappointments, and many others like them, are merely preparations for our encounter with the one great existential disappointment, which is our enduring condition, what the Scripture names as sin. Our distance from God, from depth, from meaning, from purpose, from love.

Prophylactic Age

Advent for centuries has been the time, these four Sundays, on which the last things, the Christian hope, has been propounded. Often a sermon each on death, judgment, heaven and hell.

Our time, our culture, our world do not readily prepare us for this season. This season of surprise, of hope hidden in the unexpected, this season in particular has a frightful time in a post-Christian world. We just do not handle the unexpected very well. This has been true for two generations, but clearly it has 9/11 overtones as well. We live in a preventive age, a pre-emptive age, an abortive age, a prophylactic age. We prefer, and this in measures that go out to the edges, what we can control to what we cannot control, what we can measure to what we cannot fathom, what we can account to what we cannot. What is planned, what is foreseen, what is prepared, what is arranged—these lie within our zone of comfort. It does make the word of resurrection somewhat difficult to interpret. We rely more on what we can count than what we can count on.

The greek word for guard is fulakh. Hence pro—before, phylactic—guard. This same Greek word, rendered guard, can also mean prison. That which we count on to protect us, also imprisons us. That behind which we hide, also hides us. We need to be careful about what guards, that is what prisons, we permit. It is like Aesop’s fable of the horse and stag. To defeat the stag, the horse asks the man to ride him. The man agrees, as long as the horse will accept a bit and bridle. He does, and he is protected—and imprisoned. Here is advent hope: that we may see clearly those things that protect us to the extent that they imprison us.

Flight into Rochester

The next time you fly into Rochester, think about the disappointment of sin and the power of freedom. Ours is a beautiful region, and ours is a small and lovely city. From a distance, especially, it shines. You can even make out the steeple of Asbury First as the plane wings its way home. How disappointing it must be, for the angels, to see what we also see, when we truly see. A county separated by economic distances. Some children raised in opulence, others is squalor. Some children raised in safety, others in peril. Some children raised in educational abundance, others in educational scarcity. Some children raised with all the comforts of home, some raised within homes of little comfort. Some children raised in earshot of resurrection and life, some left to fend for themselves amid the wolves of disappointment and dislocation. There will always be those who have much and those who have little. That is the price of liberty. You are people of resurrection and life, however, and you expect that those who have much will not have too much and those who have little will not have too little. That is the requirement of justice. That is, resurrection and life are here and now, not just there and then. Where you find resurrection, there is Jesus Christ. Where you find life, there is Jesus Christ.

Resurrection and Life

It is resurrection and life on which Beth Stroud and the Germantown UMC will lean, now that Beth has been “put out of the synagogue”. There has been disappointment. But there is a lasting spirit of freedom to continue the long, twilight march to justice.

It is resurrection and life on which the UCC will lean, now. Their own “open doors” campaign, similar to but more explicit than ours, has been treated to the injustice of Caesar’s justice, and “put out of the media synagogue”, at least by two networks. But there is also a spirit of freedom to continue the long, twilight, multi-generational march to justice.

It is resurrection and life that steadies us and carries us! Sometimes in mistaken condescension, we Methodists observe the Roman Catholic orders of ministry. “How sad”, we say. “How odd”, we assert. “How strange, how unfair. How wrong to take someone called to ministry and say, ‘Yes, you may be ordained to love God, but you must give up the love of a wife if you do so.’ Oh, we cluck, how shortsighted. How wrong.

Yet another, future generation will look back upon us, out of the next 50 years, and say of us Methodists today, “How sad. How odd. How strange. How unfair. How wrong to take some young woman or man, called to ministry and say, ‘Yes, you may be ordained to love God, but if you are gay you must give up the intimacy and covenant of human love, your love for your partner’.”


Most of ministry, these years, has been in snow. In smaller assignments, the snow fell often on afternoons given over to sharing the gospel, one by one. At the kitchen table. Over coffee. In a parking lot. Within a small office. At the hospital. At school. With lunch. In a nursing home. In the barn, at dusk, milking time. In the sugar house. On a tractor.

Snow swirled that day, as the Nursing Home hove into view. Gladys deserved a call, on the line between life and death, and the preacher came prepared, or so he thought.

Would you like me to pray with you? Oh, it is not necessary. Of course I love all the prayers of the great church, particularly, now that I see little, those I carry in memory from our old liturgy. But I am fine.

Perhaps you would like to hear the Psalms? My grandmother appreciated them read as she, uh… You mean as she lay dying? Yes. Oh, it is not necessary. I mean I do love the Psalms, and was lucky to have them taught rote to me at church camp so that they rest on my memory, like goodness and mercy, all the days of my life. But I am fine.

I know that you sang in our choir. Would you like some of the hymns recited for you? Oh that is not necessary. I do so love music! I can sing the hymns from memory to myself at night! I found my faith singing, you know. It just seemed so real when we would sing, when we were younger, around the piano, around the campfire, around the church. I knew in my heart, I knew Whom I could trust. But I am fine.

I brought communion for you in this old traveling kit. Oh, that is not necessary. We can have communion if you like. It is so meaningful to me. I can feel my husband right at my side, knee to knee. After he died, I could not hear anything that was said in your fine sermons for so long, my heart hurt so loudly. But I still could get grace in communion. But I am fine.

So the snow was falling, as it does in all ministry in our region. (You will say, surely not in the summer. I take the summer off, for that reason!). Snow on snow…flake on flake…Just like a preacher, nothing to offer, but to stand and wait and wring the hands…

Gladys, is there anything that I could bring you today? As a matter of fact, there is…Tell me about our church…I have been out of worship for so long… How is the church doing this Christmas?...Are the children coming and being taught to give their money to others? And what of the youth? Are they in church and skating and sledding and hayriding and falling in love? Tell me about the UMW and their mission goal. Did they make it? A dollar means so little to us and so much in Honduras and China. And tell me about the building… Are the Trustees preparing for another generation? It is so easy to defer maintenance…What about the choir—are they singing from faith to faith?...Tell me about your preaching, and the DS, and our Bishop…What is going to happen with our little church …Tell me, please, tell me about our church…It is where I find meaning and depth and love…That is what you can bring me today.

Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. She who believes in me, though she die, yet will she live. There are those places where what is beyond us enters among us. Where the line of death is smudged and crossed. Where it is not just so clear what is really death and what is really life. Worship, this hour, is such a moment, too. You can have an experience of God, right in church.

Howard Thurman Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

“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).

Good news: in dislocation, hold onto grace, the grace to be co-dependent no more; in disappointment, hold onto freedom, the freedom to walk in the light as he is in the light.

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (Frost). So too a sermon, and a life.

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.