Saturday, December 24, 2005

Holy Night

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2: 1-21
Christmas Eve

On this Holy Night God makes space for forgiveness. The Christmas peace is a peace of pardon, grace and forgiveness.

We may want to pause just for a moment to reflect upon the glad tidings of great joy.

To do so, we need to clear away the straw and brush of some stress.

As the pastor responded, when asked by his civic club to speak about the miracle of Christmas, and the mystery of the incarnation, “Why certainly. It would be my pressure…I mean pleasure”.

There is much pleasure coming to this Holy Night. But there is pressure as well.

You may consider the strange chaos of this season, for a moment of limited peace tonight. You may wonder about the stress of the holidays. Why so stressful? Their mixture of high expectation and low experience? Their year end blizzard of financial and social obligations? Their sudden reconfluence of families and generations? Their odd rhythms and paces? The dark? The night? Whence the stress?

Our ancient texts suggest another source of our anxiety, if we have such on the very night of peace. It is this. Christmas places us unmistakably before the presence of the Holy God, of all that is Holy, upon this Holy night. The pressing of this moment, our stress, comes from our vague premonition of God, our sense of the Holy. It is an awesome and terrifying moment to find yourself in the presence of all that is Holy. The shepherds can tell us, out of their fear. Do you feel tonight the presence of the Holy God?

The ancient Israelites would understand, and recall our need to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

The prophet Isaiah would understand, and recite again his vision of the temple, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, heaven and earth are full of God’s glory”.

The virgin Mary would understand, singing, “My soul does magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.

The apostle Paul would understand and record, “It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

The evangelist John would understand, and teach, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God.”

Every mystic and part-mystic from Dionysius the Aereopagite, to Amoun of Nitria, to Santa Teresa of Avila, to Howard Thurman would understand, and affirm, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

Rudolph Otto said it for his generation, “the mysterium tremendum et fascinans”. The sudden sense of God, present.

And thou?

To be alive on Christmas Eve is to quake with the Shepherds.

Before all that is Holy, then, a question, a question of soul inevitably arises. Hence our stress. How am I living? Have I asked too little of myself or too much of myself? Or have I asked too much for myself or too little for myself? The awesome wonder of this Holy night provokes a mortal question: “Have you asked enough of yourself, and have you asked enough for yourself?” In the presence of all that is Holy, we can, we must, come clean. Thou before whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit that we may more fully love thee and more worthily magnify thy Holy name…

Some of us ask too much of ourselves. We work 80 hours when 60 would be better, wrap 10 gifts when 4 would suffice, do 100% of our relational work and 30% of every one else’s. You ask too much of yourself.

Some of us ask too little of ourselves. We pass through life unaware of the bruising our narcissism inflicts on others. We do not pray in the morning, or worship on Sunday. We have not climbed the front step of faith which is tithing, nor knocked on the front door of faith which is giving away annually 10% of what we earn, nor entered the front room of faith which is discovering the joy of a tenth given. We do not keep full faith with our partners, spouses, friends. You ask too little of yourself.

Some of us ask too much for ourselves. So we create a world that is post-Christian. A world of pervasive materialism, preemptive war, limited literacy, flat spirituality, inherited entitlement, shallow sexuality, Machiavellian leadership, computerized e-buse, and disrespect for elders. We crowd the malls at 5am on the day after Thanksgiving, hungry for a sacrament in consumption that merely consumes the consumer. You ask too much for yourself.

Some of us ask too little for ourselves. The Christmas vision of peace gets dim. The reality of love is blurred. The singing moments of joy are lost in the shuffle. We forget who we are meant to be. Are we lovers anymore? You ask too little for yourself.

How will any of us ever get this balance right? Before all that is Holy?

You will never get it right. Not fully.

A person who lives in isolation, neither giving or receiving, may ask too little of himself.

A young woman struggling with issues of identity and behavior may ask too little for herself.

A young man raised in a morally heightened atmosphere, where expectations are very high, may ask too much of himself.

A woman at midlife, who has enjoyed much, too much pleasantry, may ask too little of herself.

A man, who has worked hard, and also was well placed in life, may ask too little of himself.

It is the conscience, of course, and the dark night, too, that place us, creation and conscience, before the Holy God.

Nor is there even one among us who has fully balanced, rightly balanced, the question of what we ask of ourselves with what we ask for ourselves.

Some of us tonight need to lean back and ask a little less of ourselves. Some of us tonight need to lean forward and ask a little more of ourselves.

While we do, though, perhaps we could remember the good news of the Holy Night. This news of glad tidings and great joy is a matter of full health and salvation for you, and trusting this gospel with life, your life, is a matter of life and death.

You see, if there is no pardon or peace in the universe, then we had better get everything exactly right, or we are doomed. If grace is like Newton’s gravity, and once you fall you keep on falling without pardon or peace, we are doomed. If grace is like Marx’s history, and “moves with iron necessity toward inevitable results”, we are doomed. If there is never any forgiveness available, before all that is Holy, we will never be able to be at peace, to act with grace, to live any other than fear ridden, guilt obsessed, self centered lives. Hell. On a cold Holy Night. What a life that would be.

This is why John Wesley asked his one question. Do you know God to be a pardoning God? Not, do you believe, only, or hope, only, or feel, only, but do you know…

He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free. His blood can make the foulest clean, his blood availed for me.

On a cold, dark night, that word unfitly spoken, that event not foreseen and not forestalled, that deed you wish you could revisit, that memory from an autumn morning, or a midnight dream—they all engulf, and overwhelm, unless…

But in fact, dearest friend, the Holy Child of Bethlehem is God’s own pardon, God’s own peace, God’s own love to embrace you whether you lean backward or forward or both. As Howard Thurman, a some time mystic wrote,

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.

We should not let the beauty of Thurman’s poetry obscure the wisdom of his theology. The work, here, is God’s. The work is work done in Jesus the Christ. Oh, we may help, like the 3 year old helps his mother to set the table. He drops the fork, and breaks the cup, and spills the water. But she has the meal in hand. The feast is prepared, the table is spread. A word of grace is said. Kitchen, and dining room, and table are all prepared.

You are forgiven. You are accepted. You are healed. You are work done in Jesus the Christ. Oh, we may help, like the 3 year old helps his mother to set the table. He drops the fork, and breaks the cup, and spills the water. But she has the meal in hand. The feast is prepared, the table is spread. A word of grace is said. Kitchen, and dining room, and table are all prepared.

You are forgiven. You are accepted. You are healed. You are loved.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Rochester: Colorama

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2:1-14
1. The Christmas Vision

Behold the Christmas vision, a realistic vision, a realistic vision incarnate in Jesus Christ!

This vision is meant to adorn every day of your life, like a great and beautiful image of what life can be. The Christmas vision is this world’s Colorama!

From 1950 to 1990, every harried New York commuter was fed beauty, at Grand Central, through your Colorama, Rochester. Every young woman or man in love at Christmas, racing to Macy’s for that one surprise gift, was showered with hope, through your Colorama. Every last overworked Joe on Manhattan at least could look up at the end of the day and see a vision of something really great….

There are three children tugging at parental sleeves, hauling their way uptown to FAO Schwartz. There is someone just arrived from South America, and looking, and watching. There is a young woman, bright eyed, waiting under the Colorama, and walking slowly toward her a young man who fingers, feverishly, a small square box, hidden in his pocket.

The age of aviation has deprived us of anything quite like Grand Central Station. The heart of the city that is the heart of the country that is the heart of the globe, a cosmopolitan village green of life, spiritual and material beings coursing their way through time and space.

Its glory is diminished, though its grandeur and centrality remain. You may place yourself for a moment along the wall of the great corridor. Hear the rush of the wind as the doors close and open. Feel the rolling pounding of the trains inside and underneath, going south and north and west. Smell the street, the peanuts, the pretzels, the hot dogs. If you are just young enough and just old enough you can stand there, here, and have an experience of really being alive, which is what faith is all about.

Spencer Tracy, in the old film, was saddled with this question: “What happens to men when they get old? Do they forget what it feels like to be young, in love, eager, excited, afraid, on tip toe? What happens to men when they get old?” But he has the last word in that moment before dinner with, guess who. He remembers, in full. And so do we.

There, on the grand concourse, you can see a child and know that one day, you may have a child.

The Christmas vision, like the Colorama, is meant to adorn every day, to brighten and embolden and illumine every day. It is a vision, in a word, of peace. Peace in the heart, and peace in the world. This is God’s gift to you. The peace of the heart that resists every force of fear. The peace of the heart that resists every wave of guilt. The peace of the heart that outlasts every unhealthy claim of the self. This peace frees you from fear and guilt and self. Nor is the prospect of peace meant only for the soul, but also for the world soul. The hope of peace may seem very dim. But like the great image across the great concourse of Grand Central, this vision still stands. A day when the lion and the lamb shall lay down, and the lamb shall be able to sleep. A day when the violence of this age will give way to the victory of the age to come. On earth. On earth as it is in heaven. A day when the children of Moses and of Jesus and of Mohammed and of Buddha and of Krishna and of Confucius will sit down at the table of brotherhood. At least on Christmas we may sing with Longfellow:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth
Good will to men

We are fed and clothed, in spirit, by a vision of a time and place where weeping will be no more, an open space where people grow to become fully human, where none is God and all know God, where meeting and greeting and loving are the essence of all that is. Yes, this is a dream, and it is a vision. It is the Christmas vision: good news…great joy…all people….a Savior…glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. It is to be the emblematic decoration of every day and every way. It is the land which we are meant, at last, to inhabit. With ears to hear, you could feel it in the anthem last Sunday. Close your eyes and see:

Say to them that are of fearful heart
Be strong, fear not, behold your God will come and save you
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad
And the desert shall rejoice
For in the wilderness shall waters break out
And the parched ground shall become a pool
And the thirst land springs of water
And the ransomed of the Lord
Shall return with songs and everlasting joy
And sorrow and sighing
Shall flee away

Ernest Fremont Tittle wrote of this passage, “The New Testament lives in an atmosphere of wonder…The Christmas vision has to do with the final reality and power in the world…This vision of the love of God can be maintained on the day after Christmas and every day after that.”

Behold the Christmas vision, a realistic vision, a realistic vision incarnate in Jesus Christ!

Is there a better city than Rochester in which to preach about vision? You need all the gifts of Empire Spirit in order to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. You need hope, truth, faith, wisdom, courage, freedom, health, generosity, and grace. But you need vision too. Without vision our little hearts become raisins in the sun. Without vision the people perish. Without a positive, happy, honest, loving and true vision of what life can be like, we end up angry, disappointed, fearful, guilty, and self absorbed. You people of Monroe County are vision people. It is your gift, and so your task. It is your talent, and so your responsibility.

For once we may remember Pope’s hopeful vision:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee
All chance, direction which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood
All partial evil, universal good.

We have been from Albany to Buffalo. Now for this last Sunday we are home in Rochester for Christmas. Here our Empire series ends. Have we saved the best for last? You might say so, though I certainly could not comment. Here in Rochester we enjoy wonderful waterways, gracious neighborhoods, fine schools and colleges, the best of living, and the world’s greatest cheeseburger. We also have our problems. Here we remember the visionary women and men of the past. Keep Frederik Douglass and his north star as a daily inspiration: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, rain without thunder and lightening, an ocean without the awful roar of its waters”. Honor the vision that sustained Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible”. Respect the vision that has put endurance in the spine of Matthew Clark: “ours is an open church”. Recall Rauschenbusch and his voice for justice. Keep the vision high!

Here is your Colorama: ¾ of the portraits shot by Kodak staff photographers, including our own Norm Kerr…. Autumn in Vermont, Taj Mahal, 1000 Islands, Niagara Falls, Bryce Canyon, Surfers at Malibu, the San Diego Zoo…We remember thaa picture is worth 1000 words…Yes, these vistas evoked a ”rebirth of human spirit after WWII”…lifestyle, travel, space…They ”cast a colorful spell over Grand Central Station…” And, fascinating, this, the vision, the image gave people a place to meet! “After work, meet me at the Colorama!”

It is as fit an image as can be named of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. God became human that we might become divine. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself. Christ is the image of the invisible God. You are made in the image and likeness of God. Here is the Christmas vision. You are meant to see and be a glorious Colorama, salt and light for the rest of the world. Keep the vision high, present, beautiful!

2. Realistic Vision

Yet any vision of the future that is to last must be realistic. Too much of our reflection at Christmas stops before the story is fully told. Uniquely, we in Rochester are also ready to affirm and illumine an understanding of a realistic vision.

But then in grief I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth good will to men.

Our too familiar text this morning places what is most earthly, the blood of childbirth, against what is most heavenly, the glorious singing of angels. If we were not so immersed, so familiar with the passage, we might read it again aright. A Christmas vision, realistic and incarnate. Luke has his reasons for assigning the account of the birth in his own way. In the midst of cataclysmic and empire wide change, this Gospel writer essays a careful reminder, to faithful early Christians, and to us: to us a child is given, a vision of good news of great joy, so real that you can smell the stable, hear the oxen, feel the straw, and, blessed are we, in the flesh.

Furthermore, the utter inconvenience of the marriage of heaven and earth does not escape us, in Luke’s imaginative utterance. The whole world is in turmoil, as our Iraqi sisters and brothers would attest today, while Joseph goes for enrollment. The family is torn away from home, as our New Orleans sisters and brothers would attest today, as Mary travels with child. The little body of Christ comes forth outside, unattended, and at risk, as our congregation would attest today, while we are laid again in an uncertain manger. Why don’t things happen with better timing?

When earth and heaven meet there is blood on the ground. Here at the intersection of time and eternity, where the line segment of the divine touches at a single infinitesimal point the circumference of human existence, in the smoking cradle of Bethlehem, there is blood, the blood of life. Birth foretold, death foreshadowed, new life forecast. A brush with the Holy leaves the same tender bruising and bursting life. When you are deeply disappointed, and yet you live. When a friend betrays you, and yet you live. When someone moves your religious cheese, and yet you live. When the cuts come and you are on the list, and yet you live. When there is that brush with the Holy, and yet you live to tell the story.

Life is hard. Nothing worth having ever came easy. There are severe and serious limits to what we may expect of ourselves and others. You may be one who asks everything of yourself and nothing for yourself. You may see your children growing in your shadow, and in turn they ask everything of themselves and nothing for themselves. That is unrealistic. We are all more human than anything else. Isaiah needed visionaries and realists too. Every church needs both dreamers and doubters. (It’s nice to have some doers too). We need the gifts of faith, as the Erie Canal has taught us, because our vision is made real in life. And that takes Spirit. It takes an Empire Spirit of Hope, Truth, Faith, Wisdom, Freedom, Courage, Health, Gratitude, Grace…and Vision.

New York City: The View from Ellis Island: “the joyful memory of past deliverance gives the power to withstand current confinement”

Albany: Crossing the Hudson: “Let us cross over the Hudson, from the quiet eastern shore of what is good and partly true, to the capitol city of what is great and really true”.

Utica: The Far Side of Fear: “We are delivered from captivity, from the power of fear, in the announcement of the Gospel. It is the word of faith that delivers us from enslavement to fear. From separation anxiety, survival anxiety, performance anxiety, anxiety about anxiety. The good news carries us to the far side of fear.”

Ithaca: After the Fall: “Failure is a part of life. Wisdom teaches us to admit it, assess it, and accept it.” Lake Placid: A Survey of Freedom: “The Bible is a book about freedom…God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.”

Syracuse: Wind at Midnight!:

Elmira: The Saving Power of an Intervening Word: “You may just hear that today, the saving power of an intervening word”.

Auburn: A Grateful Heart: “I want the unforeseen future to have the slight but real influence of my gratitude, right here and right now”

Buffalo: By Your Leave: “How you leave something is just about the most important thing you do.”

Rochester: Colorama: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.

I mean no disparagement of the great 19th century Rochester luminaries when saying that for the future, for a global village green, it is Christopher Lasch, whose trenchant, sober, honest realism brought a needed correction to some of the more wooly thinking of the last generation. Yes, he shared, before his 1994 death, an abiding vision of a ‘true and only heaven’. But he did so with care, and with caution. Every community—every church—needs some equivalent of his realistic vision. Here is some introduction to what Lasch wrote. Lasch is at his Arnoldian best when he observes that tolerance for diversity does not require a lowering or selective application of standards…”the spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion." A person with "a proper understanding of religion," he says, would see it not as "a source of intellectual and emotional security," but as "a challenge to complacency and pride."…"The latest variation on this familiar theme," he writes, "its reductio ad absurdum, is that a respect for cultural diversity forbids us to impose the standards of privileged groups on the victims of oppression." What this amounts to is "a recipe for universal incompetence.” It is also a prescription for spiritual anemia. Partisans of "cultural diversity" reject the idea that there are "impersonal virtues like fortitude, workmanship, moral courage, honesty, and respect for adversaries.” But Lasch is right that if we believe in these things, we must be prepared to recommend them to everyone. "Unless we are prepared to make demands on one another, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life." …Common standards "are absolutely indispensable to a democratic society," not least because "double standards mean second-class citizenship” (New Republic)

3. A Realistic Vision Incarnate in Jesus Christ

So now where do vision and realism meet? Where the intersection of heaven and earth, of divine life and human frailty? Where the incarnation?

Here let us pause for a moment with the shepherds. They listen. I love that about them, the wonder and waiting quiet that El Greco paints upon their silent faces. They listen. Do you know people who really listen? Listen….

There is Mr. Haxton, whose window adorns the balcony, whispering from another realm, “peace on earth, good will to all…”

There is your family, your mom or dad, whose gifts lifted this great roof, whispering from another realm, “peace on earth, good will to all…”

There is dear Weldon Crossland, thirty years of building and thirty months to enjoy it, whispering from another realm, “peace on earth, good will to all…”

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote recently of the utilitarian mega churches that she has studied: “they constitute a realm drained of all transcendence and beauty”. How sad. Your forebears lived otherwise.

The people who gave us this great nave built for others. They did not build for themselves. They built for others. They built for the whole county, all 980,000. They built for the century to come with Indiana limestone to last forever. They were thinking of others when they built this church. Some of your parents built this church so that you could enjoy and enhance it. They were building for others.

Funny, in Methodism we used to do well two things every day before we even had breakfast. We preached with tongues of men and angels, and we built and built and built and built. Churches, schools, hospitals, colleges, seminaries. Sturges Hall at OWU was built in 1855. They didn’t have anything in the middle of Ohio in 1855! Except a building to house a small Methodist college for small Methodists. In losing our voice we seem also to have lost our hammer. We preached and built and then had breakfast and the rest of the day.

You are building for others too. Some of us won’t be here to see it finally finished. Some will enjoy it for only a short while. Most of those who receive the welcoming grace of a new space are not here yet. They come from across the county, and they come in year 2040. And after all the bongo drums are back on the curbs, and all the horizontal worship spaces have reverted to Walmarts, there will be a place for immanence and transcendence both, a place for the Holy and the healing both, a space for grace and love. The future will have the slight but real influence of your building, your generosity. Life for others, in the spirit of the One whom Bonhoeffer called “a man for others”.

Where is the vision of peace, this realistic vision tamed by limits, ever to be found? Where is the incarnate Christ? He is here. We have celebrated his incarnation for ten years together:

1995: “For all its hideous trauma, the holiday time does cause some people to try again…Where love is, Christ is…Joseph found the courage to dream and to live out a dream…”

1996: “Faith is the courage to start over…When it gets dark enough, you can see the stars”

1997: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, rain without thunder and lightening, an ocean without the awful roar of its waters…Christ is the image of the invisible God…To search diligently for your heart’s desire means work and loss and failure.”

1998: “It is a harrowing prospect to hear that a leader thinks he can be truthful and ‘evasive’ at once…In Jesus Christ God indulges God’s love for us, for who we are—not for what we accomplish.”

1999: “The mystery of Christmas is wrapped in the swaddling clothes of the mystery of life…There is something about the entrance of God into the world that God has made that inspires a change of heart…

2000: “At Christmas we see the imperious radiance of sheer presence…Can you accept your own acceptance? Can you connect with your connection?”

2001: “There is a self-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe…Will somebody light my candle?...He is the way, follow him in the land of unlikeness, you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures…”

2002: “Think again tonight about what is real—presents or presence?...We get our soul from our limits…”

2003: “Without a confidence in pardon we would always, for our safety and salvation, always have to be right…Christmas gives birth to the daily, very real, possibility that you can live in a new way.”

2004: “Boredom is rage spread thin…Hell is to love no longer…The location of peace is on earth…Christmas is the quiet restatement of what is…Too late I loved you, O Beauty, ever ancient and ever new”

Across the expansive concourse of this city and county, there is to remain one great and good image, the image of the invisible God, the Christmas vision of peace, realistic and visionary still, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and know, best, in the Body of Christ, for all its humanity, still best place to find, to be found by, God. As Ernest Tittle said of the Christmas vision: “…It can be maintained on the condition that we do not neglect the heavenly vision but undertake to live by it. This condition must of course be met. You can no more keep a heavenly vision if you do not live by it than you can keep a friendship if you do not cultivate it”

Then peeled the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor doth God sleep
The wrong shall fail
The right prevail
Of peace one earth good will to men.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Buffalo: By Your Leave

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: I Corinthians 1:3-9;
Mark 13:32-35

First Sunday of Advent
Preface: Buffalo

One happy experience every year at our United Methodist Annual Conference, now held in Buffalo, comes jogging out along Delaware Avenue. If you start at the Adams Mark Hotel and head east, you pass along a glorious promenade: the magnificent City Hall, the Statler Hotel, Chippewa Street, various great homes now in public service, a closed Methodist Church, Asbury, done in by deferred maintenance, beautiful lawns, street fairs, traffic circles, a modern synagogue, light blue high rises. Keep going. You will come to a great cemetery that has awaited your return for years. Jog along down its majestic roadways, its columbarium, its named graves—Urban, Holmes, Johnson—I found it breathtaking in its beauty, especially its central treasure. Down into the heart of the graveyard there is a rounded little lake, pristine and manicured. There is an island in the middle of the lake, supporting a statue of a child. One receives a flickering apperception, standing lakeside, of last things, of leaving, of ultimate concerns. A child surrounded by a lake surrounded by a green surrounded by a park surrounded by a city surrounded by a state surrounded by a country surrounded by continent surrounded by a globe surrounded by a solar system surrounded by a galaxy surrounded by a universe…surrounded by the mind of God.

Ultimate concerns, last things, are at the heart of faith, especially in Advent. Paul by sudden announcement, greeting the Corinthians, again identifies their spiritual location, and ours, as those who live by faith following the moment that our Lord has take his leave. Is it not striking that the central act of our religious tradition is forged in the hour of departure, of withdrawal, of leave-taking?

Word on Withdrawal

The world around us, the church we serve, the very proximate anticipation of our own mortality, all raise the matter of ‘withdrawal’.

One friend said in October, “How you leave something is about the most important thing you do”. He was not speaking about congressional debate regarding Iraq. Although, now that you mention it, he might have been. He was not speaking about the time honored rhythms of leaving a pulpit. Although he might have been. He was not speaking about dying a good death. Although he might have been.

How we leave, by your leave, is our Gospel today.

We are promised that “God will strengthen you to the end”.

Is there a saving word to speak about leaving?

1. An Historical Departure

It happens that our country, right now, is enmeshed in a debate about withdrawal, about leaving. If one leaves, it matters how one leaves. Is there any word of hope about our own dilemma of departure?

As a Christian and a pastor I was angry and saddened when we chose in 2003 to invade Iraq, primarily because our action violated inherited Christian just war theory. Now we are stuck in a tragic quagmire. What on earth are we to do?

Could our extrication from Iraq depend on a careful return to and employment of just war principles? I believe it does. Though I publicly and repeatedly opposed the initial invasion (see sermons 12/9/01, 9/29/02, 3/2/03, 6/29/03, 7/6/03, 1/18/04, 7/4/05), I do not see how we can simply leave Iraq in the mess we have created. Here is one alternative, in four parts.

1. Let the USA state clearly that we are not in the business of preemptive war, of attacking nations who have not attacked us. Let us foreswear another Iraq. This may give us some internal and external credibility to engage the following steps. President Bush, alone, with real contrition, could do this.

2. Let us return to the United Nations, and use every influence to gather the world community to share in solving a shared problem. Let us advocate an international, multi-lateral military force adequate to the task (about four times the current troop level). Why not name Bill Clinton and George Bush senior to share the UN work?

3. Let us make a national energy conservation policy law, with a one dollar per gallon gasoline tax, and shed any vestige of thirst for Middle Eastern oil. Our imperial conquest of Iraq can then be turned to self-defense. Assign Joe Biden and John McCain.

4. Let us give the world a deadline, a time line in the sand. We leave by…(x). Yes, we broke it. Yes, we failed to fix it alone. Yes, a new direction gives promise. Now the world community, to whom we have turned, apologized, appealed, and made reparations, must take the lead. The deadline could be a date (2008) or a count (5000 US dead). Ask John Kerry to hold the watch.

Our attack on Iraq violated Christian just war principles. It was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, and unforeseeable. In many minds it was thus post-Christian, immoral and wrong. But these same just war principles could be our salvation, our ‘extrication’. This extrication would then would be responsive, not preemptive; multilateral not unilateral; sacrificial not imperial; and predictable not unforeseeable. Our pacification could be built upon those venerable religious principles which our invasion rejected. The country would be united, the enemy defeated, Iraq stabilized, and the world made safer. For those of faith, such a course would further attest to the promise that God can bring good out of evil, that where sin abounds grace over-abounds, and that liberty and justice still are the ‘last best hope’ for this small, frightened globe.

2. A Vocational Withdrawal

But our spiritual lives are not lived, in the main, on the global scale. We are much more local, in our story of salvation, than that. We are caught up in shovels to buy, gutters to clear, presents to purchase, arguments to finish, investments to make, choices to confront—all in a very personal way.

Paul sees his feisty Corinthians as those waiting for the apocalypse, that is, the revealing of Christ. And though Paul’s world view is not ours (as was said some weeks ago), his world is ours (as was said some weeks ago). We too are waiting for vision, clarity, and revelation.

I remember leaving Hamilton, NY at age 12. We were counseled, standard Methodist advice, not ever to return to town, not to be in touch with our friends, not to linger, but to move, to change, to go on. The new person needed that space, we were told. His family needed space as well. And we would be a long way off. Actually, up route 46, it is about 20 miles, a long jog, but readily joggable in half a day, I now see some 50 years later. The distance was not geographical at all, but spiritual.

Here are some heretical thoughts, after five decades, about vocational withdrawal. They apply, if they apply at all, to the full communion table today, all of us, in all walks and changes of vocational life.

1. You can end a role and not end a relationship. You can. Grumpy superannuated traditional lore to the contrary. In fact, you probably should. Cut-offs, as the family systems people will remind us, are not healthy. Change the role, hold the relationship.

2. In addition, let the relationship live. Your boss is now your partner. Good. Roles have been left behind, but the relationship changes. Let it. Now he can get your coffee. It will do him good.

3. Feel two things at once. You can. You can feel two things at once. You can be happy, honored, proud, excited. And, at the same time, you can be angry, hurt, sad, depressed. Give yourself permission. Your daughter is getting married. You can be happy for her and what’s his name. And you can be really sad too that you are such a decrepit, old, has been, so old that your kids are getting married.

4. Ride the wave. You can stand on the beach all you want and holler at the tide to change directions. Try it if you must. Better to paddle and surf. Hang ten. Enjoy the ride.

3. A Good Death

Our open table, and the greeting in Holy Scripture, bring us, in closing, to our own personal leaving. By your leave…Such a gracious formula. But by your leave, your leaving, among nations, in vocations, and especially in your own life, you do something, and something profound. Think about it, and in advance.

David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, has recalled for us the high significance accorded by our forebears to ‘holy dying’. This spiritual inheritance lies at the root of your commitment, Asbury First, to worshipping well at death. You take death seriously, as you take life seriously. Your ministries of worship and pastoral care at twilight are of the finest order. Why? Because, in the bones, we know that how we die says something final about how we live and who we are. So, in the 19th century, journals were full of accounts of ‘a good death’. So, the way one left, left life, mattered to the living. So the full and recurring rhythms of valediction and mourning were at the heart of faith. It was not by accident that John Wesley widely publicized these early accounts of faithful dying. Nor was it by accident that after his long life, his very last hours were recorded in painting, and in poetry and in sermon and especially in memory. His last words, “the best of all is, God is with us.” Will yours like his be a good death? Perhaps at the rail this morning we can meditate a bit, by your leave, about leaving.

1. A good death needs a good life. A life of faith: regular worship, weekly study and prayer, active service in love, careful use of time and of money and of trust. Here is what you can do. Worship on Sunday. Lead or at least attend some caring group. Give of yourself in measurable and effective ways.

2. A good death needs a plan. Give it time. Summarize and reckon. See the good. Remember the kindnesses. Do some things: A will. Planned giving. A living will. A funeral folder. A set of conversations intentionally arranged.

3. A good death needs a Savior. Here is the Christ of Calvary and of Easter, whose love has shaped your best experience. Here he is to meet you and speak to you in bread and wine. Here is Jesus Christ, who hallowed the greatest departure in sacrament, and stands in the shadow of every great leave taking. By kneeling here today, we place our ultimate trust in Him.

And thou our sister gentle death
Waiting to hush our latest breath
O praise ye

Thou leadest home the child of God
And Christ our lord the way has trod
O Praise Ye
O Praise Ye

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Auburn: A Grateful Heart

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 17: 11-19
Thanksgiving Sunday


Our friend arose early one Sunday morning last month to work on his sermon. His wife found him on the couch, as she came down stairs. From the kitchen she called out that the time to go to church was past. He did not hear her. He was dead.

His body was laid out in an old Auburn funeral home. The irrepressible sociability and fellowship of many Methodists, and many of them ministers, in that old funeral home, in a venerable Empire State city, all the talking and talking, could not muffle the stark arrival of the last day.

Too early…Unexpected…Unfair…Terribly sad…

The preacher is familiar with the line of death. Few of us go up home right in the midst of writing a sermon, but most sermons are written and given with that sense of portent. Luther said, “I preach as a dying man to dying men.” The preacher knows the quaking fear of the matador, looking across the stadium as the bullfight begins. She knows the sudden terror of the private detective, alone in the dark, who comes upon an unknown intruder. The preacher circles backward in the ring, a boxer avoiding a knockout blow. Matador, Private Eye, Boxer—the preacher is struggling for life in the face of death. I remember thinking of Sophie Phillips, a parishioner in midlife, passing her on the aisle in the benediction on Sunday, only to preach her funeral on Friday. It is a strange vocation to speak about God and about 20 minutes every Sunday, never knowing for whom this Sunday will be the last.

One could take some real pride in being laid to rest almost anywhere in the Empire State. Auburn is no exception. Here with the modern reason William Seward heroically opened the future. Here with a post-modern praise of justice, before its time, Harriet Tubman lived the latter half of her life. Here Lester Schaff found a great open space, an emblem of a global goodness, now a Methodist campground, which was given for the future, a village green in life, Casowasco.

Luke’s portrait of a grateful heart is so Lukan. Concern for the sick, the foreigner, the ritually unclean, the measure of mercy. He looks back 60 years, through the fog of time, and picks up some slight traces of Jesus material, hardly to be considered fully historical, and places them toward the end of his 10 chapter personal emendations to the gospel, chapters 9-19, and in the heart of his economic advisements, including the dishonest steward and Lazarus and Dives. We might say, Auburn in view, that a grateful heart, emerging from this memory, needs the mind’s reason, the will’s justice, and especially the soul’s imagination. Reason is God given. Will is God driven. But imagination is God’s heaven. Actually, when you pull out the training wheels and attach them, you could think of this as a three point sermon on the well springs of gratitude—part reason, part will, part imagination. One part for modern science. You come too. One part for post-modern will to power. You come too. But one better part mystical and open and gracious and bucolic and spirited and free and open and plebian and all village green and ‘better than sex cake’ and, well, call it for lack of better term…love….

1. A Higher Law: William Seward

In the first place, by all rights, William Seward should have been President. He had the experience and pedigree. He had served as governor of this state. He had lead in the creation of the Republican Party. He had been consistent and unequivocal in his witness to the freeing of the slaves. With a careful reason he had written about a higher law, a law transcending the limited, partial and faulty human laws, even of his own young and native land. He developed and tested his powers of reason as a politician and lawyer. Seward was one of the first to use the insanity defense, in his work on behalf of a freed slave. He reasoned that the investment of $7 million in Alaska would benefit the country, and stood by his decision through all the harsh, short term criticism that his decision occasioned. Seward could not countenance indentured servitude, and in March of 1851 took to the floor of the US senate his carefully crafted sentences. Can you hear his voice?

I know that there are laws of various sorts which regulate the conduct of men. There are constitutions and statutes, codes mercantile and codes civil; but when we are legislating for states, especially when we are founding states, all these laws must be brought to the standard of the laws of God, and must be tried by that standard, and must stand or fall by it. This principle was happily explained by one of the most distinguished political philosophers of England in these emphatic words: There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law; the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity, the law of nature and of nations. So far as any laws fortify this primeval law, and give it more precision, more energy, more effect by their declarations, such laws enter into the sanctuary and participate in the sacredness of its character; but the man who quotes as precedents the abuses of tyrants and robbers, pollutes the very fountains of justice, destroys the foundations of all law, and thereby removes the only safeguard against evil men, whether governors or governed; the guard which prevents governors from becoming tyrants, and the governed from becoming rebels.

Come let us reason together, says the Lord. We need the goods that reason brings. Like Tom Sawyer convincing Huck to paint his fence, and to pay for the privilege with a juicy apple, we need the native hue of reason and influence, at all levels, to open our future.

Peter Drucker, who died last week, spent a lifetime chronicling and celebrating the reasoned contributions of careful managers. Managers who know that the bottom line is not the only line. Managers who know that employees are a resource not a cost. Managers who know that meeting is not working, “one either meets or works”. Managers who know how to lead: “the only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction and malperformance”. In other words, reason gives us both the leadership of Lincoln and the management of Seward, and we need both.

At the end, Seward opened the future with the purchase of Alaska, a village green moment.

2. The Courage to Be: Harriet Tubman

In the second place, our preacher friend has further good company in Auburn’s graveyards. Harriet Tubman was buried in March of 1913, right there in the Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery. She was buried with military honors, even as, after much red tape was cut, she was justly given a military pension. By night, and over a decade, she led 300 slaves to freedom, from 1845 to 1860. In the city of Boston, a new statue of her likeness, called ‘Step on Board’, is found in the South End. Go over some time to Auburn and take the tour and see the home and learn the history. Take your kids.

Here is an illiterate black woman, born into slavery, alone, untutored. One of many children in her own family, somehow she finds her own way to freedom. By inspiration, with the leading call to justice, she returns again and again, crossing the Mason Dixon line and risking death. She travels at night, along the back roads of Delaware and Maryland and Pennsylvania. She carries a pistol. She guides her frightened little groups by the light of the North Star. How can we really ever know the feeling of the cold night along a deserted riverbank? How can you and I ever capture the chill in the spine with the barking of a dog whose ears and nose have been alerted? What would ever give us a full taste of crossing, from radical injustice to real justice, from bondage to at least the first measure of liberty?

Catherine Clinton’s new, good biography of Tubman will help some. Take and read. Most arresting to this reader was the fact that Tubman’s work on justice did not stop with Appomattox. She settled in our neighborhood. She married. She worked in her Methodist church. She spent three decades using her name and notoriety to fund and build a home for poor elderly people, an early nursing home, named for John Brown, that continued to operate into the 1940’s. Here is what she came to on her first flight north: “I had reasoned this out in my mind: there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

Many in this congregation resonate more with the postmodern spirit of justice than with the modern insight of reason. You are more Tubman people than Seward people. You want to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and free the prisoner. But justice itself depends on a living faith in a just God, and the courage to stand and exist in that faith. Man does not live by bread alone, and the feeding of bread alone will not bring salvation. Seward is good. Tubman is good. The reason is good. The will is good. But the future belongs to neither. The future, our Christian future, lies with the imagination.

At the end, Tubman opened the future with the construction of a nursing home, a village green moment.

3. A Village Green: Lester Schaff

In the third place, waiting in the funeral parlor to bid farewell to my brother preacher, and to offer his wife condolence, and intermittently irritated by the far too jovial, too ordinary comportment of the throng, I looked south, in the mind’s eye, to an open space, part of the one great spiritual village green that is the reign of God, to our retreat center, Casowasco.

Here is a place where our own mothers and daughters have recently experienced the mystical Christ, along a kind of village green. Here is a space where our men, following 9/11, debated and discerned the nature of just war, along a sort of village green, the great outdoors of the Christian tradition. Here is a place where young people meet and fall in love, where younger grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God, where older allow memory and hope to coalesce, as decade unfolds to decade.

Reason brings some healing to the human condition. William Seward teaches us so. Will brings some healing to the human condition. Harriet Tubman teaches us so. But the Gospel is more than science and justice! Not less than science and justice, but much more! No reasoned advances will make life more human without a human faith in a loving God, personal and powerful. No marches for justice will last, nor prevail, without connection to the one great march to Zion. Our century needs a grateful heart, a kindled imagination, to temper reason and to sustain justice, and to open future life onto a spiritual village green.

As an infant I with others crawled along Casowasco’s lakeside green. The property and buildings were a gift, a healing gift. Owned by the Case family, whose fortune, like some of those in Rochester, was made in the film industry, the beautiful lawns, hiking trails, spacious lovely buildings, and grand waterfronts were a gift to God and the future, made by the Case family, of Case\Fox, later 20th Century Fox. The Auburn District Superintendent, Dr. Lester Schaff, met with the family and suggested the gift. I would like to think he said the following, though no one knows. But he was a good preacher and a Union graduate:

Friends, in gratitude for what you have been given in life, why not make a gift that opens life for others? Space for children to grow. Space for youth to find faith. Space for young adults to fall in love. Space for singing, for laughter, for prayer. Space for worship and learning and love. You have been given many things. You have been “healed”. Now why not stop, prostrate yourself before the Risen Christ, and praise God. Say thank you.

Whatever he said, it worked. It takes heart. I don’t about you, but I saw and heard some of that kind of heart right here, at Asbury First, in our own Fellowship Hall, as our new mayor, Robert Duffy, spoke. You could see it, hear it, feel it. But he can’t do it alone! He needs the future vibrancy of this great congregation pulling behind him to rebuild Rochester! Of course with you I am also pondering this passage and its meaning for Asbury First. With this we shall conclude. At the end, Schaff opened the future with the gift of Casowasco, a spiritual village green moment.

What’s That You Said?

Albert Schweitzer said once, “Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.”

Huston Smith remembers morning prayers with his Methodist missionary parents and household in China, read and spoken in Chinese and English. He today recites the Lord’s Prayer as easily in Chinese as in English. After the lesson and the singing, they turned to kneel in front of their chairs, elbows and the seats, and they prayed. They gave thanks. In that missionary circle, on the Chinese mainland, hearts were warmed and formed and made grateful. Here is Smith’s simple creed: “We are in good hands and in grateful recognition of that fact it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens” (repeat).

You have been healed. You are here because you love Jesus. So you must do something for him: turn back and say thank you.

Your heart is ready—the imagination is closest to God. It is your mind and will that take some tugging.

You are in worship, in front of God. Your heart is warming. You know the truth of things, on a day like this. Yours is a grateful heart. You do have a grateful heart. Sometimes you just need an hour or a sermon to remember.

What’s that you said? I listen. It is your heart thumping, talking….

I want to leave something of myself right here, for others. Like Seward did with Alaska. Like Tubman did with her nursing home. Like Case and others did with Casowasco. His reason, her will, their imagination. I want to leave something of myself right here, right in Rochester, so that another generation of children can be baptized, read the Bible, sing their faith, fall in love, grow up, and learn to love Jesus. I want to leave something of myself right here. I want to give of myself. I want the world to open up a little, with my walking the lawn. I want the future to be a little more gracious, after my time on the green. I want the unforeseen future to have the slight but real influence of my gratitude, right here, right now. I want to be that guy, that tenth guy, the Samaritan, the one who remembered to say thank you and did something about it.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Lake Placid: A Survey of Freedom

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Philippians 4
Bible Sunday


Travel for a moment to Lake Placid. Take the trail up along the ridge of Whiteface Mountain (5000ft). Stop for an autumn moment, in the sun. East, West, South, and especially due North, here is a natural survey of mountainous freedom, symbolic of the Bible—its main theme freedom, and its four compass points of faith, fact, fairness, and future. The Bible is a book about freedom.

Life does not lack for holiness, but only for a sense of the holy. We today place in our children’s hands the gift of Holy Scripture, in an hour to worship the Holy God, in a space and place devoted to what is highest and holiest in life. So Paul can call his Philippians those “whom I love and long for”.

These moments matter. It matters how many children are baptized each year, and more, how many others could have been. It matters how many youth are confirmed each year, and even more, how many others could have been. It matters how many receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, season by season, and still more, how many others could have done. It matters how many sentient women and men hear the Good News preached on Sunday morning, and still more, how many others could have done. These things matter.

It truly matters how many of our boys and girls in Rochester are handed a Bible, and so given that priceless perspective, that eternal excitement, that reliable reservoir of the Word of God. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. The pulpit is freedom’s voice. The church is freedom’s defense. And the Bible is freedom’s book. The Bible is a survey of freedom.

Now there are other ways in which to survey the strange landscape of the Holy Scripture. What James Smart decried a generation ago, “The Strange Silence of the Scripture in the Churches”, is true of you as well. All books suffer in a video culture, including the Good Book. You may yourself continue as literate (not one who can read only but one who does), but your grandchildren are stumbling about in other thickets. So if the content of the Bible is ever stranger and more foreign in an increasingly illiterate (not those who cannot read but those who do not) culture, then how much greater is the lack of capacity to interpret the book whose contents themselves are distant relations.

The old levees of biblical understanding have given way to the great flood of video culture, whose hurricane forces have carried in the disease of Biblicism, the destruction of literalism, the rampant looting of Providentialism, the tidal crash of unbiblical bibliolatry. These levees cannot be rebuilt in a New York minute. They have to be painstakingly renewed, Bible Sunday by Bible Sunday, church school by church school, campground by campground, Disciple class by Disciple class, and sermon by sermon. We are doing some of this today. We are placing a library of liberty into the hands of another generation. We did so 15 years ago, right here, in this same sanctuary. One of those boys is in Iraq this morning. One of those girls is practicing medicine today. One of those boys is in missions today. One of those girls has her own girls today. With them, either in fact or in memory, goes the Holy Scripture. What kind of book have we given them? In what key is the music of scripture best played? What is the Bible about? From what angle of vision do we best see the Bible?


Turn East. We see the Bible with the eyes of faith. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. The righteousness of God is from faith to faith. Abraham had faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Yes, we may affirm, the Bible is a survey of faith. Faith is trusting reliance upon God. Says Huston Smith: “we are in good hands and in recognition of that fact it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.” You are committed, as Methodists, to a combination of a deep personal faith and an active social involvement. Holiness, personal and social. Ruth had faith to leave. Esther had faith to speak. Eudora and Synteche had faith to work. Faith is the courage to shake off sleep and worry and get to church on Sunday. Faith is the courage to tote up one’s income and give away 10%. Faith is the courage to keep faith with one’s partners, through thick and thin. Faith is a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. Yes, the Bible is about faith. We give our children the grammar of faith, the language of faith, the mother tongue of faith, when we give them their Bibles. Whether or not they choose to speak is their decision. Here is Paul’s testimony of this faith: “Do not be anxious about anything but in all things by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

For 2000 years women and men have found faith in the hearing of the Scripture. These are the stories and events that give us the courage to face death with dignity, disappointment with honesty, and failure with a steady hope. In the apocalyptic language of the New Testament, this faith is revealed to us. It comes by inspiration, imagination, invocation. Faith is being grasped, being seized by a love that will not let go. As Karl Barth said, visiting New York City, and asked to state his faith: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

But faith alone, with due respect and apologies to Luther, is not the whole story. In fact, such a reading of the Bible can become the Bible’s undoing. The Bible is not to be memorized, but interpreted. It is not meant only to be repeated, but to be read. It opens its pages best not to faith alone but to faith seeking understanding. In our tradition, the Bible is not the only source of truth, primary though it be. There are many places where the Bible may be theologically though not historically accurate, which leads to another thought.


Look South. We understand the Bible with the mind of reason. The Bible is, second, a book of fact. For more than 200 years, generations of scholars have critically studied the 66 books of the Bible. We have learned a great deal about its languages, history, geography. We have seen the four different hands at work in the writing of the books of Moses. The Greek influences on Ecclesiastes we now appreciate. Isaiah’s three different modes we comprehend. Jesus meets us in these wondrous pages, and the few facts of his life of which we are certain we can list, as James Sanders did years ago. We know that Paul probably did not write 2 Thessalonians, any more than he wrote 3 Corinthians, a document from the third century. The Revelation to St John we now understand, if that is the right word, in the context of similar apocalypses from antiquity. The withering inspection and criticism of the Scripture since 1750 have borne fruit. Law, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, Letters, Apocalypse: all six parts of the Bible have factual features. We have searched the Scriptures for 200 years. Here Paul names names: two women, one man, many co-workers. Facts. Earliest Christians. Facts endure. Here Paul discloses his worldview: time is short, the end is near, the day is at hand, as Dave Brubek would put it: ‘its later than you think’. Or, in verse: “The Lord is near”. It is a fact that Paul’s worldview is not our own. But his world is, and that too is a fact.

In fact, the factual limitations of the Scriptures have been the primary learning of the modern era. The world was not created in 7 days, unless by a day you mean 15 billion years. The human being was not made in a day, unless you mean by a day, the emergence out of primordial ooze that began 3 billion years ago, and is still continuing today. The words of Moses and of Jesus are not video recordings of speeches captured by unerring scribes, but are far more—words formed in the community of faith. Most famously, the scientific--religious showdown of the 20th century was captured early on in the Scopes trial of 1925. We remember or misremember the trial largely through the play Inherit the Wind which itself was more theologically than historically accurate. William Jennings Byrant was not the buffoon caricature of that fine play, nor was his enemy Darwinism as much as it was Social Darwinism, nor was the generally insipid cast of old time religion anything like accurate with regard to golden rule Christianity, then or now. Bryant is made to say, “I am more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the ages of rocks”, and is pilloried by the protagonist, Clarence Darrow: “the Bible is a book, a good book, but not the only book”. In the matter of fact, the Bible carries a more limited weight and role in our time.

But science, and its measured facts alone, can only carry a part of the sacred story. As Justice Holmes said, science gives major answers to minor questions, and religion gives minor answers to major questions. Science alone—as wonderful as it is—does not cross the bridge from fact to value, cannot swim the river from flesh to spirit, has not forded the creek from brain to mind, and cannot judge about the things that matter most—love, death, memory, hope, thought, desire, heaven and God. To the one most important question of life, God, science has no response. Because there is no conclusive evidence. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (H Smith).


Face West. We hear the Bible with the ears of fairness. The Bible is, third, a hymn to fairness. To justice, equality, the right and the good. In our time, African Americans and others have found again the liberating power of the Hebrew Scriptures, of Exodus and Amos. The suffering masses of Latin America and Asia have returned to, and been nourished by, the abiding picture of God in the Bible, God who has a preferential option for the poor. Most lastingly, the feminist movement has found in the pages of the patriarchal Bible, a warning about justice, justice delayed, and justice denied. The deep rivers of fairness and justice have been diverted to flow over the dry land of prejudice, injustice, and patriarchy. The Bible is a testament, on this view, to fairness. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God? It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. So, the Bible is a resource for liberation movements of many and good kinds, and the record of the churches in peace and justice is improved. Here in Philippians Paul asks for unity and peace. For fairness. He exposes his reliance on the kindness of strangers and the company of women. Paul had great regard for his partners in the Gospel, Eudia and Syntyche, whatever he may have written elsewhere about liturgical proprieties. “I urge Euodaia and Syntyche to be of the same mind…help these women for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel”. Beside. Not beneath. Not behind. Not before. Beside.

It is difficult to overestimate the crucial significance of this perspective on the Scripture. Real religion is never very far from fairness, from justice. Fairness does not always mean equality, nor justice always similarity. There are varieties of gifts. But the renderings of Moses, the citations of Micah, the meditations on Job, the pictures of Jesus, the readings of Paul and even the explorations of the Apocalypse which in our time have focused on fairness, and justice, have a penultimate power. “The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, said Martin Luther King. None of us fully ever deconstructs our own background, our own culture. We need, however, the whiter and maler especially that we are, to acknowledge our own privileges. The sense of limitation and injustice to which the Biblical measure of fairness responds is the gift of our time to the unforeseen future.

Still, fairness alone is not the full Bible.

Our children now see their Bibles, read with some understanding, and hear with concern. Bless their eyes and minds and hearts. Will they see the Bible in full through these lenses of faith, fact, and fairness? No, important and good as these views are, they are not the heart of the matter. They are not the heart of the Bible nor the heart of the church nor the heart of the matter. They are good, but not the final good. You will sense in them the predominant views of the Bible to date—pre-modern, modern, post-modern, or, traditional, scientific and liberal. Faith: the traditional view. Fact: the scientific view. Fairness: the liberal view. Let me show you a still more excellent way….


Head North. Follow the drinking gourd. The Bible is preeminently more than faith alone, fact preserved, or fairness defended. The Bible is a survey of freedom, divine and human. In a word, the Bible is a book about freedom. God’s freeing love, and our freedom in love. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. God’s way with us is loving and free, free and loving. You cannot coerce another into freedom, and you cannot frighten another into love. BUT NOTE THIS WELL: this freedom is mostly known as hope—hope for this earth and hope for eternal life, the future of freedom promised today.

Strangely, then, the Bible is fully and precisely the word we need in our emerging 21st century.

This is the heart of what Paul writes to the Philippians. Yes, with pre-modernity, his words celebrate faith. Yes, with modernity his words carry fact. Yes, with post-modernity, his words seek fairness. But if that is all you have heard, you have missed the marrow of his meaning. Paul is singing here a song of freedom. With the best insights in all of Scripture, these words of his carry us out into the open space of God’s future. Rejoice always…no anxiety about anything…whatsoever things are true…the Lord is near…Here is the radiance of resurrection, the freedom for which Christ has set us free. To the word of faith, Paul will say, yes, but work out your own salvation in fear and trembling. To the word of fact Paul will say, yes, but who hopes for what he sees? To the word of fairness, Paul will say, yes, but I know how to be abased and how to abound. The Bible is more than a source of inspiration, or of information or of insurrection. It is all those. But it is more. It is hope for the future! It is a survey of freedom, real freedom, the freedom from love and the freedom to love. The future holds an indestructible promise of freedom—of peace and joy in this life and of everlasting peace and joy in the life to come.

The Bible has the shocking temerity to recall for us our utter dependence on God and one another, our utter similarity before the cross, before death, before God. Personal faith, yes. Factual understanding, yes. The struggle for fairness, yes. But there is more. Our age has the chance to interpret the Bible in full, as a survey of freedom, divine and human. It is this shared gift of freedom that will deliver us from the evil of this age. We are free, and in the hands of the God of freedom. All of us. The same. In our time, we need, desperately need, to reclaim our religious commonality. Across this small planet, we are all more alike than we are different. And spare us, please, as Freud said, “the petty narcissism of small differences”.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

Ringing out—it is unmistakable in this text and on this morning and within this sanctuary—from the heart of the Bible is a transcendent hope of a future freedom, on earth as it is in heaven, but not for all that lacking in heaven. The transcendent beauty of this nave, the transcendent glory of this sanctuary, the transcendent loveliness of this music, the transcendent history of this congregation, the transcendent height of pulpit and depth of prayer here, hold a future freedom that will endure well beyond the days that all the bongo drums are in garage sales, and all the horizontal worship spaces have been reconverted to Walmarts.

This hope is for earth and for heaven. For a day when the lion will lay down with the lamb, and lamb will be able to sleep. Asbury First, this year, in a time of change, we truly need the Bible’s perspective, its survey of freedom. We need its steady affirmation of faith, to steady us when we are anxious. We need its craggy collections of facts, when we might be tempted to avoid the harder facts. We need its preference for fairness, when we might be happier to take an easier, less just route. It will take faith, fact, fairness and more for us to prevail in this year. And more. We have no words really with which to name this. But the survey of freedom that is the Bible rests on resurrection. On a reliable future. In the resurrection they neither give nor receive in marriage, but they are like angels in heaven…

Not so long ago, we gathered in radiant laughter and heartfelt tears, to sing farewell to our friend. Here is what we sang. I heard the organ play it. I heard you sing it. And I saw the courage and confidence with which you did so:

And thou our sister gentle death
Waiting to hush our latest breath
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God
And Christ our Lord the way has trod
O praise ye
O praise ye
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Howard Thurman could have spent his whole ministry absorbed in the inherited expressions of faith. He chose to move forward instead. He could have spent his whole ministry engaged in the science of history and psychology. He looked farther out. He could have spent his whole ministry upon the vital issue of racial justice. He saw a farther horizon. He saw, knew, felt, and heard the Bible as a survey of freedom. One night he spent walking the beach, wading in the surf, and listening to the stars above in a cloudless canopy. He wrote, “The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings,” wrote Thurman. “The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances. Death would be a minor thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace.”

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Ithaca: After the Fall

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Exodus 32:1-14,
Philippians 3:4-14
Ithaca’s Falls

Failure is a part of life.

If you play, you will lose. If you bat, you will strike out. If you keep your clubs and use them, you will put a ball into the sand trap. If you participate in life, you are surely going to fail…That anniversary date just slipped your mind…oops…Your husband’s birthday—that was last week…oops…

The rightwing of faith, of which Paul speaks today, brings the power to face failure: to admit it, assess it, and accept it, and then live with it. The question is not whether we will fall. We will. Trip, stumble, and fall—the fate of one and all. The question is how we live after the fall.

Like the cascading falls in Ithaca, beautiful they are, Taughannock, Treman, Buttermilk, and like the descending poetry of Ecclesiastes, soaring it is, life keeps the evening and the rain before us. “Evening”—such a multilayered, meaningful word. The Psalms and their cadence of movement from lament to thanksgiving do as well.

I missed the chance to cause our children to memorize Ecclesiastes. Pity. It is worth remembering that….all the rivers run to the sea…the sun also rises…in much knowledge is much sorrow…better is the beginning than the ending…do you see something that is new? It has been before…vanity, vanity, all is vanity…what gain has the worker from his toil?...the race is not always to the swift…time and chance happen to all

1. Admit It

We have a harder time speaking about failure than we do about money or sexuality. Yet failure is a part of life, like sunset and rain. We should be quite doubtful that we necessarily know, by the way, when we have failed. Unamuno wrote so long ago: “Truly I tell you, you do not know when you have succeeded”. Or failed, for that matter, we could add. Failure is something about which we all have direct knowledge.

It might make our children more open to their own true selves and actual experience, if we did not always expect that they be practically perfect in every way. They are human beings, not human doings, human beings, not divine. To err is human. To fail is too.

One of our less loquacious children decided, some years ago, to enroll in a high school photography course, on the mistaken information that it was an easy A. This misinformation, it happened, was powerfully mistaken in every direction. The teacher was a Prussian martinet, demanding to the nth degree. The syllabus had Latin subheadings. The reading list went nine pages. The papers were two a week and the projects two a month. There was no mercy, no forgiveness, nor grace. Only sweat, blood, and, subsequently, some tears.

Of course we knew none of this at the time. “How is your photography course?” O, fine. Good. Really. The teacher neglected to submit a midcourse grade. So, we just asked again. O, fine. Good. Really. Then the report card came, as it does, like autumn, like the stewardship appeal, like age itself. Relentless. And guess what. We had the experience of seeing the 6th letter of the English alphabet affixed under the name of one of our children. His first non A or B.


This helpful parental counsel was less than cheerfully received. As it turned out, the poor kid did have reasons not entirely of his own causation. We negotiated and moved on. But it might have been better for all involved, if the good news of the Christ who lives past failure had been more centrally on our minds. We all fail. Failure is embedded in life. If you choose to play, you will lose some. If you swing the bat at all, you will strike out. If you pay the greens fees, someday you will put one in the sand. If you decide to participate, you will fail at some point. You can bank on it.

And while our dear child may have failed, we also could truly see that we too had failed him, as had others. In hindsight. Failure, like success, is a team sport. It takes a village--to fail.

2. Assess It

One great advantage of failure admitted, is that once admitted it can teach us. We learn most from our failures.

Groups help us find the far side of failure.

We have a hard time admitting failure. Men in particular so struggle. We are quiet about our hurts.

After men’s group one morning a fine soul stepped over to me and said "Bob...your car...the Sebring...uh...did it...I mean did it, uh, die?..."

"Yah" I said...."jeez" he said..."Yah" I said...

It helps to have a small group with whom to share and consider loss, disappointment, failure. We love to succeed and we are in a success culture.

Yet our best moral exertions can, like over exercise, cause injuries, if our very noble and well chosen interest in success makes us fear, and fear failure, which is inevitable to some degree in every life.

Nothing succeeds like success.

If at first you do not succeed, try and try again.

Come back with your shield or on it.

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

Work conquers all.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….

But some measure of failure touches every one of us. And we learn some lessons:

*You will fail.

*It will not kill you.

*It will hurt, bad.

*You may learn from it.

*It may help to talk about it.

3. Accept It

The grace of failure admitted and assessed is the power to accept the past and move on. In a way, this is all that Paul is saying in Philippians 3. What he thought was success was not. What he thought of as worthless was priceless. What he once valued has been discarded. He now can rely on the health that comes from the faith of Christ. He has been set right. We may live on the basis not of what we have achieved but what we have received, not on the basis of what we have done but what God has done, not on the currency of religion but on the down payment of the spirit in faith.

Many of Flannery O’Connor’s stories make this strong point.

So, too, the great poets of our time. We just so reluctantly admit it. Here our reluctance, about unfortunate endings, hits its crest:

When to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things
And yield with a grace to reason
And to bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season (Frost)

In similar fashion, this great church stands, daily, as a powerful influence upon women and men who want to admit, assess, and especially accept failure. One comes after years of mixed experience, to return to the pew of this strong church, and to be strengthened by your strength. Another comes at the end of life, to sit in worship underneath the great pillars of the church, and to be strengthened by your strength. Another comes after abject failure, to be take a photograph in front of the great spire of the church, to be strengthened by your strength.

As your nave is like that of Yorkminster, your spirit is that of the York Anglican priest who, when asked what he would do if all the people finally left and the church collapsed, said, “Well, we would get a table and a loaf of bread and a chalice of wine and start all over again”.

That is the power that Christ gives, to live by faith, after the fall. It is the acceptance that allowed Paul, and allows us, to sing, this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Utica: The Far Side of Fear

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Philippians 1,
Exodus 16
An Opening Prayer

Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Deliverance to the Captives

We are delivered from captivity, from the power of fear, in the announcement of the Gospel. It is the word of faith that delivers from enslavement to fear. From separation anxiety, survival anxiety, performance anxiety, anxiety about anxiety. The good news carries us to the far side of fear.

You may another selection, but to my ear there is hardly another text in the Holy Scripture more badly understood, and rudely interpreted than Philippians 2. In our time, it has been falsely accused of triumphalism and falsely used for religious one-upmanship. It has been cited as the basis for a kind of non-Biblical evangelism that has no common ground with the passage itself. Its last hymnic lines curl repeatedly and tiresomely from the lips of television preachers, whose work would be the very last thing the passage, its author, or its audience would affirm. A word of liberation has become, in the common hearing, a word of enslavement, of the very kind addressed and attack in the verses! Most ironically, the text of Philippians 2, and its pearl of great price, the Christ hymn of verses 5-11, is often regarded as a staunchly conservative, traditional, utterly biblical poem, when in fact it is pure Gnosticism, wholly composed, in its original frame, in a non-christian setting, only to be borrowed and used here, by Paul, to communicate with his formerly pagan Gnostic and newly Christian Philippians.

Paul is alone in prison. His own missionary work, as we can overhear from chapter 1, is under revision and redirection by others who claim he has failed in certain key areas. His own personal future is more than cloudy, including the possibility of death, and again, his ruminations in the first chapter bear this out. He acclaims deliverance for the captives, you and me, a saving drumbeat along the Mohawk river of life. He has a sight line to the far side of fear.

One little word will suffice to illumine the rest. Slave. Here the NRSV has got it much righter than earlier translations. He became a slave. What does this mean? That Jesus was an indentured servant? Hardly. Paul knows little and says less about the earthly Jesus, other than that he died on a cross. He hardly has any interest in placing Jesus in the circle of actual slavery, common as it was in his day. What then? It is a puzzle, without the floodlight of our knowledge of the main competitor religion of the day, Gnosticism. For the Gnostics to be human is to be enslaved. Every human is a slave.

The Gnostics sang hymns, like that in the Poimandres. In these hymns they celebrated a great mind in the universe. They acclaimed the forms of God. They spoke of emptying and filling. They especially and repeatedly compared human life to enslavement in these writings and hymns. To be human is to be ensnared by the elemental spirits of the universe, to be at the mercy of the cosmic, that is historical and natural, forces all around us. To be human is to be humbled by death, even ignominious death. They sang the praise of a Redeemer, who was once preexistent in the form of God, who came to earth in human guise, and who returned to the father’s house, preparing rooms for his followers, and being the most highly exalted. The name beyond all names, the light beyond all lights, before Whom all bow. Sound familiar?

Philippians 2 is a Gnostic hymn. Paul has lifted and used it, because his hearers know it and because it suits his message. It is a plundering of the Egyptians, a use of the cultural language of the day to convey great tidings of good news. You need not fear. You need not fear. God has broken in upon our fear, and invaded this life with liberation to live fully and lastingly! God’s beachhead is the cross. The cross is the presence of God in suffering. The cross is the love of God in suffering. The cross is the power of God in suffering, to free the slaves—every human being—from fear.

The Stooping Christ

I wonder if we can recapture, by the imagination, Paul’s decision to recite for himself and for his correspondents, a hymn to the faithful love of God that carries us over, to the far side of fear. Here is the outspoken leader of a religious movement charged with atheism, with rejecting the gods of the empire. Here he is alone in prison. Here he affirms what can only be affirmed by faith, the victory of the visible over the invisible, of God beyond the many gods, of Christ the failed messiah over the cross of his failure. He does so in measured, nearly serene tones.

His attention is captured by the servant Christ, here so like the figure in Isaiah. To be a human being, for Paul, is to be a slave under the control of malignant powers, to live in a world in which the human being has fallen prey to powers that are aligned and arranged against what is truly human.

As one himself immersed in fear, Paul, seized by Christ, is set to singing in his prison cell. Maybe today, given our fears, we may hear something of his happy news.

Today’s Enslavements

Of course, we do not share Paul’s world view, nor that of his Gnostic hymn writer, from whom he lifted this passage. Nor that of the Philippians. We do not believe in elemental spirits, or the cosmic star journeys, or the natural enslavement which grounds Paul’s thought, his worldview is not ours. But his world is. We live in the same world, and the Scripture, realer and harder than other writings, soberly so reminds us. We may not be Gnostics, but we know the same fears and failures that they did, and that caused them to say and sing what they did.

We are a people drenched in fear. It has been coming for a decade, increment by increment, so that now, every single initiative, every move, every dream is soggy with dread. 1998: “I did not have sex with that woman…”, and we begin to fear a famine of the word, a dearth of truth, and every public leader and statement falls under that fearful shadow. I preached in San Diego in 2000 and the woman in the pew with Jan said to her friend, “I wonder what his agenda is?” 1999: You have forgotten Y2K? We had a committee on it here. Will the ball fall on New Year’s at all? 2000: a forever election, still not resolved in some minds, causing a fear that ripples still about the reliability of counters and machines and institutions and courts. 2001: 9/11, and the smoke is still swirling in our nostrils. 2002: the ramp up of the case, el Qaeda, WMD, testimony at the UN, a darkening horizon. 2003: war, begun, ended, and endless. 2004: an election decided by the state of Ohio, bitterly contested, making good friends think thrice about which issues they will mention. And 2005: the rain fell and the flood came and the wind blew and beat upon the house divided against itself. Hurricane upon hurricane. Friends, that decade long cascade of fear is the best illustration I can give you of what the ancients meant by the enslavement of the human condition, the cosmic powers, the elemental spirits of the universe. They cause fear.

Things Fall Apart

From the days of Natie Bumpo to the hoola hoop, Utica succeeded. Nestled along the lovely Mohawk River, in some clear day view of the Adirondack foothills, this settled combination of waves of immigrants has had a storied history. Its older sections and neighborhoods still adorn and beautify like Cana of Galilee. Today, however, one would not necessarily point to Utica as a great shining city on a hill. It feels like a town whose best days are past. The older I get, the better I was, saith the preacher. It feels like a fear of the future has bought property in Utica, controlled the means of production there, been elected to school boards and hospital corporations, infiltrated the fire and police departments, been elected to high office, and generally set the rhythm, tone and beat in this once fair city. It would be nice to think that the dynamics there are unique to the state of New York.

We are within earshot of another word, another way of being. My teacher put it this way: Paul conceives of sin as a power, not as defilement or guilt. In the thoroughly real event of Christ’s crucifixion, God’s war of liberation was commenced and decisively settled, making the cross the foundation for Paul’s apocalyptic theology…God has done it!...You are to live it out!...You are to live it out because God has done it and will do it…” We truly can live it out, over against all the freeze tag fears that keep us in distress. Christ is with us! In Spirit! And Truth!. In kindness, in community, in dreams, in ingenuity, in hope.


Kindness helps us find the far side of fear.

My friend took his own rascally dog, Spot, to the veterinarian, and sat, among a dozen humans and another dozen canines in the waiting room. Spot was in like a shot and out like a shot, and howled like the hound he is. But as Spot and his weary owner were bidding the vet farewell, they saw a strange moment of blessing.

Up toward the examination room walked a nine year old girl, holding, like a temple offering, a motionless mound underneath a blanket. She walked to the doctor. She stopped. She slid the blanket aside to show a motionless, just breathing pet, utterly American, of 15 different blood lines. A mongrel, but her mongrel. The dog looked about 400 years old, ears drooping, tongue lax, eyes glazed, resting in some young but familiar arms. The looked at each other, the young woman and the old doctor. A long field of silence spread out between them, and gradually engulfed the whole waiting room. And her pleading eyes said, “Can you help?” And his weathered eyes said, with the reluctance of the heart, “I truly wish I could”. Then her eyes began to fill and to say all that we really cannot say without the laughter of love and the tears of tenderness. His eyes bowed a little to show respect, to honor. She found somewhere the strength to lift up the old pooch, up to where the doctor’s arms could enfold the dog. And he stooped down, down far enough to where he could take the blanket and all its precious treasure. He whispered to her ear, lightly touched her head, bestowing a hug and a kiss and what may have been her first real blessing, which was all that kept her solvent as she tumbled, headlong and convulsed, through the outer door. Those who can touch us at the hour of death do offer such a blessing.

A Community of Helpers

Others help us find the far side of fear.

The Oneida parsonage is an ante-bellum main street battleship with 2 living rooms, 3 floors, 5 bedrooms, 2 studies, and, best of all, balloon ceilings punctured at various places by preachers’ kids over the decades. Across the street is an acre lawn, which at age 13, and for a set price, I agreed to rake. The autumn days went by. Other things interfered. It rained a lot that fall. I sat watching the rain, under the balloon ceilings, knowing that once the snow came it would be too late. I feared that, and gripped by that fear I failed. I just never quite got at it, at the right time, and winter came, and failure and shame. Imagine the relief when, in the springtime, others and family and friends and church helped move the snow sodden leaves. I had to ask. But asked, they helped.

Dreams that Reveal

Dreams help us find the far side of fear.

This summer, after some days to rest, and once I could sleep through the night, to 6am not 4am, I had this dream. It was set in the Oneida parsonage living room, whose balloon ceilings carried the tell tale marks of childhoods past. Two of the most Christian women I have known sat beside me, in the dream, one from Syracuse and one from Rochester. They have never met but they share loyalty, love, fidelity, good humor, widowhood and some age. It is 6am and I wake up screaming at them, “I cannot do a week’s work for a day’s pay”. I shout it rudely and twice. Then I wake up.

Here is our fearful dilemma, which a now and then dream does reveal. You cannot sustain the ministry of the church for 10cents on the dollar, or one penny for seven. Dreams identify problems that then can be solved (a problem identified is a problem solved), and so show us the far side of fear.

A Little Ingenuity

Ingenuity helps us find the far side of fear.

Utica does evoke the fear of failure. Twenty years ago, though, long before the book Who Moved My Cheese, some Utican decided to fly a kite, to try something. He took the empty factories, and open streets, and remaining vacant parks, and civic need and added…sneakers and ingenuity. He created The Boilermaker, the world’s largest 15k footrace, which draws 12,000 participants a year, and ends with a Sunday morning celebration that includes nourishment, rock and roll, prizes, oranges, jet planes, fireworks, pins and mugs and hugs, all out behind the old Utica Boiler Factories. Rather than seeing only what was wrong, he bought some sneakers, took lemons, and made lemonade. And some other beverages. Monet was asked once what he added to his paints and oils to make such colorful beautiful portraits: “brains” he replied. A little ingenuity will carry us to the farther side of fear.


Historical perspective helps us find the far side of fear. As Wesley said, the clergy are meant to represent the unity and continuity of the church through the ages.

The cathedral in York, we felt, evoked the beauty of this Asbury First sanctuary. Certainly it carries more age, more expanse, more detailed artistry than our own dear church, and yet it still carries that spiritual resemblance that we do sense in one place for another.

So we might want to listen to a York voice for a New York minute. Practicing Christians and vibrant congregations are increasingly rare in Europe. A York minister, a priest in the Church of England, was confronted recently with this stark reality. Membership in decline, buildings in disrepair, programs in disarray.

The question he was asked might have been one I could have written:

“the church is dying, and what shall we do when it is gone”.

Oh, he said, unflappable, “Well, yes, that might could happen, given, you know, the currents of the times, and the, shall we say, less than spirited energy of our people for things other than the material, yes, my good fellow, it could so do.”

“Whatever then will you do?”

“Oh, I suppose then, why we will find a table, a loaf, and carafe of wine, and we will start all over.”

There is the persistence of faithful leadership. There is the process of faithful leadership. There is the purpose of faithful leadership.

Therefore, work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

Pastoral Prayer:

Gracious and Holy God, You who has enfolded us with Your Spirit, we are grateful that You created us free and curious persons, inhabitants of this beautiful earth. You have revealed Your love for us by giving us the capacity to make choices, the ability to heed Your guidance, and the constancy of Your Presence that can still our fears. We lay before You our prayers for our city, for our nation, for our world all with its sores and wounds, its soldiers that fight for freedom’s sake, its fears and frustrations, its ideals and its injustices, its affluence and its agony. Make us quiet before its needs that we may be moved by Your Spirit to respond from our hearts. We come in faith with even our most personal petitions; so we pray: let our love for one another be warm and tender and our compassion responsive and deep. Hear our soft tears when we weep for loneliness or out of fear; inspire us to pray and to respond to those left homeless and ever fearful because of storm upon storm; extend Your cool hand to quiet us when anger is a feverish illness; watch with us in our hour of death; bless the grieving with the comfort that every grief is known in Christ’s heart and safely shared in the company of Christ’s people. Change us O God from a fearful people to Your confident people, from closed to open, from shaken to courageous, that we might risk the work of establishing peace, justice and equality, right here, over there, everywhere. Grant us all some new hope and reassurance because we have been together to sing Your Praises, to hear Your Word, and to be strengthened once more to seek Your Will and to walk in Your way. We know that in all things You work to bring forth whatever may be good. Therefore, we open our lives to You with the yearning prayer of generations: Come Holy Spirit, Come. Grant us Thy peace. Amen.