Saturday, January 29, 2005

An Inkling of Glory

Asbury First United Methodist Church

A Ground Hog Day Sermon

Text: II Thessalonians 2:13-17

For over a decade you have listened for, and so given birth to, the announcement of good news of grace and freedom.

Said Gospel has been spoken in a traditional sermon of 22 minutes.

Its interpretation has scoured the several continents of the whole Bible: the gospels, Paul, John, the Apocalypse, the Prophets, some stories of the Law, some proverbs and ways of wisdom.

Your preached gospel, born in the longsuffering of presence and listening, has scoured the Scripture. We name its good: freedom and grace. A Methodist freedom to resist a purpose driven life. A Wesleyan grace to resist the certainties of an atheistic scientism. Saving grace, healthy freedom, both of which allow you to be confident even when you cannot be certain. Who needs faith if you already know all? Who needs faith if you are already that certain? If you are, already that certain that is, who needs the life of faith? Or prayer? Or friends? Or community? Or others? Or memory? Or hope?

No, you affirm that older, thinner, more Biblical inkling of glory, that confidence that is faith. Not arrogance, confidence. Not blind faith, confidence. Not bullheadedness, confidence. Not certainty, confidence. The confidence born of obedience, “the obedience of faith” of which Paul writes in Romans (as tasty an oxymoron as one can chew).

It is confidence that will get you to ask for a date, uncertain of the response. Confidence takes you to the altar, even if you are an uncertain bride or groom, and who isn’t at least a little? Confidence pries loose an investment in the future, though the project has uncertainties. Confidence empowers and evokes a slight criticism, friend to friend, though you are unsure it will help. Confidence fuels a career change, though any change is an uncertain walk in the dark. Confidence puts you into a nearly sure lose contest, for the glory of the gift of the try.

150 years ago, two brothers named Chafee, from the shores of our own Great Lake, went west. They found a corner of the desert underneath the torso of the San Gabriel Mountains, and under the forehead of Mount Baldy. They named their town ‘Ontario’. While it was still dust, they named it green! While it was still moonscape, they named it for your beauty, you Ontarians, you. And they lived to see it so. They were two days older than dirt when they died, and they died seeing green.

My dear friend…

If you have to be certain you will never live. Choose life. Certainty doesn’t love you like confidence loves you. If it did it wouldn’t break your heart. Certainty doesn’t love you, like confidence loves you. If it did it wouldn’t tear you apart. There is a reason the church finally set aside the highly intelligent and very compelling propositions of the Knowers, the Gnostics.

No, it was confidence, over ten years, that in your listening attended to the New Birth, the New Being, and the New Creation. In faith, you lifted a vision and a mission. In faith, you brought tithing to fend off the abuse of money, fidelity to fend off the abuse of sex, worship to fend off the abuse of time. In faith, you regretted and mourned the personal unholiness of one President and administration, and the social unholiness of another. In faith, you remembered the historic Christian teaching about war and peace. In faith, you moved from a Christ opposing culture to a Christ transforming culture. In faith, you honestly addressed a changing, shrinking denomination. In faith, you gathered the many contentious distinctions of a church to see, to work, to grow, to change, and to build. You met this past decade with a steady confidence. The next decade you will meet with steady confidence as well. But we hold this against you. For all this fulsome excursion across the Scriptures, you have not once visited II Thessalonians. Until today. We leave no stone unturned. Or, as the waif said the chauffeur, on pelting his car at the corner, “we leave no turn unstoned”.

Written in the dark years of the later 1st century, and written by a devotee of Paul, not by Paul himself, II Thessalonians has little to offer us. What Nahum is to the Old Testament, the sung Psalter to the Methodist hymnal, late January to the calendar, Baltic and Mediterranean to the Monopoly board, and Ground Hog Day to the pantheon of holidays—this II Thessalonians is to the New Testament.

Our writer has left behind Paul’s apocalyptic eschatology of a New Creation, for an early run at the ‘left behind’ series. He has given up on Paul’s vision of the church as a community of faith working through love, to deal with the necessary disciplines of an emerging tradition. Let him who does not work, not eat. He has ditched the earlier symbiosis with Judaism to hurl angry threats at the Jews. He is more Hamas than Fatah. Contest has given way to condemnation, and freedom has given way to order. (There are times like these). Yet even here, in II Thessalonians, in earshot of Nahum, inflicted with the sung Psalter, housed on Baltic, early on the morning of the week of February 2—today that is—even here there is an inkling of glory.

How would you like to be Ground Hog Day? Not even Labor Day, or Memorial Day. 2/2 is not even in the Book of Common Prayer, the book’s title notwithstanding. Ground Hog Day is not ‘chi chi’ enough for the Anglicans. But you are mere Methodists, fleeing from the wrath to come, and Ground Hog Day, that is any ordinary day (and where did we ever get the idea that any day is ordinary?), is enough for you and me.

Every book has within it an inkling of glory. Even Nahum. Every section of the hymnal has an inkling of glory within it. Even the sung Psalter. Every property has an inkling of glory within it, even Baltic and Mediterranean. Every Scripture has an inkling of glory within it. Even II Thessalonians. Every day, every holiday, every single day has an inkling of glory within it. Even Ground Hog Day.

Here are a handful of moments in II Thessalonians that exude an inkling of glory.

One is the author’s use of the term “brethren” (2:13), a reminder to us, of all genders, that the small groups of faith and life, those study groups, committees, choirs, bible studies, adult classes, and all that have a dozen members or more or less, are the settings in which we may watch over one another in love. Simple conversation, if genuine, if intimate, if caring, if honest, if kind, is a real power, the power of religion, not just the form. I worry about adults who have no place to let down their hair, no’brethren’.

Another is the author’s recognition of defeat (2:14). One thinks of the poverty within which so many children are raised. One wonders about the psychological impact of early life apart from visual beauty. The harsh poverty of East Louisville comes to mind. Yet, as the emergence from that neighborhood of Cassius Clay, ‘the greatest’, bears witness, there is an inkling of glory in the commonest space. It is in the nature of real good news that such formidable opposition to glory does not have the last word.

A third is the use here of the term ‘tradition’ (2:15). Paul likely would not have himself such use of such a term, he for whom Christ is the end of the law, and for whom gospel ever trumps tradition. Yet, there do come times when we need to hold on to, hold fast to what others have taught us. We live as others have inspired us to do. So we care for Asian tsunami victims, develop youth leadership, place a premium on community life, offer to build open space for the future. We find times when we need to stand fast, stand firm, stand up, stand out, and hold onto the good things of the traditions we have received.

One last such inkling of glory is found in the reference to resurrection hope (2:16).

Here we are drawn again to the encouragements Paul himself gave in Romans 12: 9-13 (here recited). May we live these, on every ordinary day. May the Lord take our ordinary lives and build them into an extraordinary future…

Our vision is a longing for a spiritual village green, a loving open space for all the county of Monroe, and for all that is lastingly good in that county.

To that end our mission is to develop disciples, especially in those areas of our greatest passion and need—worship, education and care.

Here we celebrate our regional congregation whose current home is in the city of Rochester.

AFUMC is the only regional urban UMC in NY State that is still alive and vital. The forces that have affected others affect us too. Either we will continue to grow, at least at the rate of the last decade (25%+), or we will, rather quickly, disappear.

To grow and welcome a rich diversity of people, who will drive 20-30 minutes, at $3 a gallon, we will have to offer excellence at every point (a to a-).

Given our imposing edifice we must be 200% as warm and welcoming as the average village or suburban congregation; likewise, given our urban setting, we need to be perceived as being 200% as secure as the average village or suburban congregation. Otherwise what the East View mall has done to downtown, the suburban churches will do to us (Greece, Webster, Fairport, Rush).

The massive mission outlays of our current program assume and require a steadily growing congregation.

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