Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Spirit of Truth: Communion

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 13:1-11

Jesus meets us today in the communion of service, and the service of communion.

The strange world of the Bible includes no more mysterious, different country than these later chapters in John. If Antarctica is our most different continent in all the world, and the desert southwest the most geographically distinct region in our country, then, in like fashion, these chapters full of speech at the end of John are such a tract.

Our passage today makes two affirmations. One is about Jesus. The other is about his disciples.

Our passage reminds us of what we only with great difficulty continue to see: the Christ is incarnate in humility. For some reason, according to my gospel and yours, God has chosen the scandalous way of the cross, the path of humility in which to make God’s self known to us: a stumbling block to the religious spirit and sheer folly to the reason. Yet this is the witness of Scripture, tradition, and our own considered experience. It may have been that John, our latest Gospel (and much later in time, it may be, than has regularly been assumed) could already see the inevitable triumphalism that the sacraments would carry. The pride of place, the less than blessed assurance that can come with a signed, sealed, delivered grace, controllable grace, cheap grace. So John, throughout his Gospel, eliminates the sacraments. Almost no reference: to baptism by John the Baptist; to the baptism of Jesus; to the Lord’s Supper at the last supper; to the words of institution; to the memory of the upper room; to the revision of the paschal meal. Just here, as closer readers of the Gospel sense, just here where on the night of betrayal, and in Jerusalem, and in the quiet secrecy of the familiar gathering, just here where we are about to settle into another recollection of the sacrament of the last supper-- John turns a corner. Where the holy meal has been, we have the stark, searing, unforgettable humiliation of the footwashing. Jesus Christ is known to us in the scandal of real incarnation, not in the magic of a mystery cult. His presence is found in absence, his power in weakness, his authority in service. The great tradition of growth and strength, found more in the other gospels and notoriously celebrated in Acts, is here rejected. Here, nakedness. Here a towel. Here a basin. Here the humility of a servant’s work. Here the grime of feet. This is the word of faith, and for John anything, anything that stands in the way of the Word of faith, including the sacraments themselves, are to be burned. There is no Last Supper in the Gospel of John. There is only Jesus the Christ, incarnate in humility. For some, the greatest dimension of sin is falsehood. For some it is sloth. For John, here, the demon is the sin of pride. Christ, the real Host, is the Servant.

It will take some further chapters for the second aspect of this teaching in John 13 fully to emerge. Here in John 13, there is a service of communion that is the communion of service, not Holy Communion. Then in 14, the spirit of truth is known in conversation. In 15, the same spirit in commandment. In 16, the same spirit of truth in catechesis. In 17, the same truth in consecration. But here, in John 13, there is the divine hand on the human foot. Not only Judas the sword bearer, but also Peter, especially Peter, Peter whom the writer of the fourth Gospel deprecates, Peter, first among the misinformed, expects something else and is horrified. He expects—what? A place? A name? Authority? And he is presented an emblem of humble service. There is to be forever in the community of love, which is the church, a serving humility, a humble service: So the cross. So the bowl and towel on the altar. So the stole, an ox yoke, to mock religious garb, so the collection plate, so the call to prayer, so the serving of meals, so the wiping of children, so the profound service of listening, so the quiet willingness to forgive, so the acknowledgement of ignorance, so the capacity to empathize, so the tithe, so the disciplines of discipleship, so the modest art of politics, so the artless labors of administration, so the season of Lent, so the pathetic simplicity of bread and cup, so the actual, earthly, incarnate, humble replication and resurrection of One, who on the night he was betrayed, took a towel, and when he had blessed it, he took it to his disciples, saying, take, wash, this is my labor given for you, do this as oft as ye shall gather, in remembrance of me. Communion, real communion, is service.

A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Even as I have loved you, so you also ought to love one another. This is my commandment, that you love one another.

One example. Parker Palmer writes movingly of his salvation from depression in Let Your Life Speak. I thank my colleagues for identifying this book in connection to the footwashing. Palmer painfully records those many attempts to help that were not helpful. Well meaning but ineffective. Sympathy that only led to greater sadness. Positive advice that made him more depressed. Reminders of his many talents, which left him in greater malaise. Those who said they knew what he was going through, which, of course, no one ever does. He concludes: Having not only been ‘comforted’ by friends, but having tried to comfort others in the same way, I think I understand what the syndrome is about: avoidance and denial. One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to ‘fix’ it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery… Blessedly there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling—and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race. Bill rarely spoke a word. When he did, he never gave advice but simply mirrored my condition. He would say, ‘I can sense your struggle today’, or, ‘It feels like you are getting stronger’. I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful: they reassured me that I could still be seen by someone—life giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible. It is impossible to put into words what my friend’s ministry meant to me. Perhaps it is enough to say that I now have deep appreciation for the biblical story of Jesus and the washing of the feet. (64)

A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Even as I have loved you, so you also ought to love one another. This is my commandment, that you love one another.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Cold Mountain

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 17:1-9

It is in fact a cold mountain which we ascend today in the passage before us. With the disciples of old we climb, step by step, up a craggy path, into an uncertain future, toward the summit of life, who is the Christ. Cold is the mountain we climb today.

This passage obscures more than it clarifies. Are we to understand this as something which in fact happened, on Mt Tabor, in 30ad? Or was it, as Matthew interprets, a ‘vision’? It is like nothing we actually experience, on this or any other cold mountain. It is like nothing that precedes or follows it in Matthew. It carries the burden of material Matthew with some diffidence has inherited from Mark. To this Matthew has added his own lengthening touches. Stories grow as they age. One dinner table remark heard recently was this one: “Dad, your stories get longer as you get older”. One did not intuit in this sentence any manner of compliment. Matthew adds in raiment and light and talk and volume. But did this happen in Jesus life? Or was it meant as a resurrection account that somehow got misplaced? Here Jesus is not the teacher on the lake, not the prophet in the temple, not the healer in the house, not the brother and friend of Galilee. He is—the object of worship. All the gospels have this except John, who either does not know it, or omits it. Why would John omit something so profoundly Johannine? This is John hiding out in Matthew. John’s whole Gospel is one long transfiguration. And where is Andrew? And why this odd material about booths? And what has this to do with loving the neighbor? All very enervating. You see. Cold is this mountain of transfiguration, for those who would ascend it. Yet, we do benefit from the struggles of faith, and we do oddly benefit from the more obscure passages of Scripture, like this one.

We perhaps may be permitted this summary. At a minimum, the reading is about worship. The disciples, out of experience or vision, or something else, are set to worship, to go about the arrangement of worship. Worship in an exalted space. Worship in the presence. Worship with law and prophets. Worship with reverence for Jesus the Christ. Worship with all the human chaos and divine pathos of every hour of devotion. Mess and Messiah both. So let us receive the Gospel of Cold Mountain as a word about worship. We take several steps up a high and holy mountain when we assemble for worship.

We take a step toward God walking through thickets of personal need. Sometimes a particular need will bring us to worship. In this one particular we may sense again that ‘feeling of absolute dependence’. In the northeast, in this time, when someone under forty comes to church for the first time in a long time, there is epiphany, transfiguration, apocalypse. Something has drawn one here, often a need both personal and particular. A need for healing. A need for solace. A need for work. A need for relationship. A need for hope. A need for forgiveness. One step up the mountain cuts through the thicket of personal need. You know, we recognize this thicket every Sunday, at the outset of our worship, in the time of greeting.

We take a second step toward God in crossing the river of shared hurt. Tsunami stunned us, hurt us, angered us, chastened us, and, finally, in the voice of a tiny person, inspired us. This is a great step into worship, to recognize, really see, another’s need. To place ourselves in the hearts and hearths of others. Like the Prince and the Pauper, or Lazarus and Dives. It helps if prayerfully we can use our imaginations to cut across power divides. So that majorities listen to minorities, men to women, richer to poorer. This makes of us one people, a common people, a community, a book of common prayer. You know, we recognize this river every Sunday as we sing hymns, together, to recognize that we are all in this together.

We take a third step toward God in scaling up the cliffs of reason. We are to love God with all our mind, as well as heart, soul, and strength. We are to reason together, as the Psalmist says. We are to learn the arts of disagreement, and to be reasonable in doing so. We remember the 10 commandments, for example, some about the love of God and some about the love of neighbor. Then we think about the commandments, as Marilynne Robinson does in her novel Gilead, as a preparation for worship: There’s a pattern in these Commandments of setting things apart so that there holiness will be perceived. Every day is holy, but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of mother and father,; who usually labor and are heavy laden, and may be cranky or stingy or ignorant or overbearing…you see (them) as God sees (them) and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and Being itself. That is why the Fifth Commandment belongs on the first table (139). The mind can bring us closer to God. You know, we recognize this cliff every Sunday in the sermon, a word of interpretation spoken.

And a fourth step toward God comes when we jump over the gorge of the will. This is a rugged mountain all along the trail. Our choices define us, as Frankl and others taught. We become ourselves by deciding, by choosing, even, or especially, when we choose wrongly. By choosing you grow, you learn, you improve, you develop. Faith is feeling and soul and heart and intellect, but first faith is a choice, a decision, a jump. Either God has a claim on your life, or not. Either every day is a chance for love, or not. Either life is a joyfully serious business, or not. Either the way of love means particular consequent acts regarding time, money, body, community, or not. Decide! Choose! Jump! You know, we recognize this gorge every Sunday, in a moment of invitation, to devotion, to discipline, to dedication.

Now here we are, at the summit. It is cold at the top of this mountain. Brr… You can see your breath. We might listen again to the advice of Scripture and speaking about the divine: ‘let your words be few’. Cold, cold mountain…

The ancients, like Dionysius the Aeropagite, assembled their thoughts about the divine largely in negative terms. God is not. God is not. Their way, the via negativa, has its strength. One set of warnings may help us in this time.

We pray to the triune God. Yet each person, each of face of God to whom we turn can be distorted, and dangerously so. We are awash in a sea of a sour kind of outsized understanding of the divine. Here are three examples.

Be careful with a suggestion that the first person of the trinity is heavily providential. Providence has its place. But in our time there seems to have emerged a gigantic providence that is not Biblical. That is, what does God directly do in the world? Is everything that happens directly attributable to God? What about tsunami and other natural disasters? One cottage was struck by lightening on our lake this summer, owned by the most Christian couple in the community. God is not cruel, and does not intentionally take 200,000 lives in a wave. God is not absent, careless and unperturbed about tragedy. Yet you can hear televised and other statements about a great wave of warning to those who do not confess Christ. Who would worship a God like that? Not everything that happens is the direct action of God. Ultimately, yes, we affirm that God is sovereign. But up this path there are some kinds of providence that are more blasphemy than beauty. God is hidden, and there are numberless things that we do not understand. Now we see in a glass, darkly. Faith is the power to withstand, not understand. If we understood everything, we would have less need of faith. Beware an outsized providence.

Be careful, too, with the second Person. We also will want to be a little careful about passion. Soon we enter Lent, and the way of the cross. Our culture is drenched with violence. We are at many points seeing an apotheosis of violence, and we thus are numbed, to some degree. The Christian story of Jesus involves both Easter and Christmas, both cross and manger, both Gethsemane and Nativity. We need both, because we need both the faith to grow up and the faith to grow old; both the faith to leave and the faith to come home; both the faith to do and the faith to be; both faith in the travails of birth and faith in the trials of death. The Biblical account of the passion, however, is not about violence. When an outsized sense of the passion allows suffering to be eclipsed by violence, we need to be cautious. Remember the parsimony of the creedal words: suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead, and buried. In other words, we need to get the emphasis on the right syllable, not on the wrong syllable. It is not the suffering that carries the meaning; it is meaning that carries suffering. It is not the cross the bears the Love, it is Love that bears the cross. It is not the crucifixion that captures salvation; it is salvation that captures crucifixion. A small distinction, you may say, but it is a whisker on which the whole gospel hangs. Beware of outsized passion.

Most especially, be careful with the third Person, Spirit, Presence, Life. Be careful about predestination. Our popular non-theological word is purpose, here. Purpose. Purpose is very important, but as with all things, one can suppose too much of a good thing. One church lawn sports a banner: “WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF YOUR LIFE?” There is a place for such a question, and its answer, “to glorify God and enjoy God forever”, or something similar. But be careful. THE purpose? THE ONE purpose? God has a purpose for your life? One? Just one? Think what that might mean, if taken too far. Husband, but not father. Child, but not parent. Employee, but not citizen. And think practically of what that might cause you to fear. Was I to have arisen on the right side of the bed and not the left? I missed the purpose. Was I to have eaten corn flakes not rice crispies? Married Jeff not Steve? Entered law not the ministry? Retired last year not next year? Backed the Eagles not the Patriots? (The answer here is yes!) You can take this too far. Here is a cautionary slogan. Continue to seek purpose, but hear the gospel, too. The good news is not so much that God has a purpose for your life, but that GOD HAS LIFE FOR YOUR PURPOSES. Not that God has one purpose for your selection, but that God has one life for your election. There is more freedom in life and more grace in the divine than this truncated notion allows. You may have more than one calling, and more than career, and more than one conviction, and more than one direction. All in a lifetime. What did Shakespeare say? ‘All the world is a stage, and in the course of his life a man plays many parts’. God has a life, the true life of Jesus Christ, through which to ennoble, guide, use, invigorate and support your purposes. Go ahead and jump. We will be here to catch you if you fall.

This congregation knows in your own experience about such freedom and grace that temper disproportionate providence, passion, and predestination. You know the gentle laughter of free and loving saints. You know the kind loving example of laity and ministers who lived in God. You know it when you see it.

Two Saturdays ago some of us attended the funeral for our former pastor and friend Robert Sapp. Here was a man who knew the daily worship of God, who had climbed the cold mountain, who was transfigured by the transfiguration of existence, and came out kind and loving and good.

He was remembered: “loving and loveable, kind and one of a kind”. His creative ministry was fondly recalled: pretzel Sunday, devotional leadership, special needs Sunday school. His collegial presence was humorously remembered: in the covenant of the clergy, upstairs in the offices, in 19 years of ministry in Greece. Most exceptionally, his laugh, his laughter was remembered, with a reverent mirth and a holy gaiety that were just wonderful. Perhaps heaven is more about voice than vision. My friend had a portrait of Jesus with the children, and underneath this caption: “Where are the gentle people?” Bob was one. He lived with grace and freedom, a grace and freedom to temper inordinate providence, to temper inordinate passion, to temper inordinate predestination. Being summoned to chase a dog away from the office, Bob replied, “I wasn’t brought up here from New Jersey to be a dog catcher”. No, but his life did shepherd and temper some of our sharper edges. I only regret he had such a short retirement, during which he took a part-time church. In his laughter and his voice we may still hear: many things are hidden, it is love that bears suffering, there is life for many purposes.

Look out from the top of the mountain.

Let us worship God together. As you are doing, do so more and more.

Let us make it our earnest desire to worship God each Lord’s Day.

Let us make preparation for our ordered worship in daily prayer and reading.

Let us sing lustily, as Wesley taught, and pray with energy, and listen with care.

Let us do as OW Holmes regularly did with every sermon, ill or well though the sermon was: “I applied it to myself”.

Let us shake off our timidity and seize every opportunity to include others, friend and neighbor and relative in worship.

Let us savor the memory of Sunday all week long—humming familiar verses, reciting familiar phrases, chewing on various themes.

Let us expect and experience of love, of presence, of God.

Let us enter silence with grace and song with freedom.

Let us climb the cold mountain of life, aided and abetted by the things that make for peace in the worship of God.

Let us prepare to worship…

To Quicken the Conscience by the Holiness of God

To Illumine the Imagination by the Beauty of God

To Open the Heart to the Love of God

To Devote the Will to the Purposes of God