Sunday, March 27, 2005

Three Shades of Joy

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 20:1-11
Easter Sunday

The Lord is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

On this hallelujah day, we keep for ourselves the advice of one Missouri chicken to another about how to lay an egg on the highway: Do it fast and lay it on the line. So here it is.

The joy of Easter comes in three shades. The resurrection is “a transformation, a revelation, and a transition into newness.” So said Valentinus (Treatise on Resurrection), who had his own troubles with semi-organized religion, near the year 150ad. He may have been trying to summarize the earliest teaching on Easter, found in the then scattered books of the yet to be collected New Testament. He may have read what Peter, Paul, and, today, Mary had to say about the matter. Peter, Paul, and Mary. It has a nice ring to it. Hear the good news: The joy of Easter comes in three shades, and means three different things to three different kinds of people, or to you in three different hours of need. But count it all joy.

1. Peter

First, Easter is the resurrection of body. Of belonging in life. Today is the resurrection of the body, of community. You are not alone. Ortega was right: ‘Yo soy yo y mis circunstancias’. No man is an Island. It takes a village. Keep your friendships in good repair. Church is the worst sort of organization there is—except for all the others. The body needs the body to be the body but the family has a story too. Something happened. At dawn. Early. Out in the country. And why would an observant Jew like Peter say anything kind about a corpse, anyway, unless it were so? It is myth. It is truth. It is love. Here is the religious resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of the body. Now in the creed, this phrase, ‘the resurrection of the body’, can refer to the daily rebirth of the church, the ongoing life of the Body of Christ—the church. The church. The astounding remarkable, historical, actual fact of the church. The daily Easter miracle that the church survives. We have lived in 13 parsonages in 50 years, served 7 churches, and attended 40 annual conference sessions. I guarantee you this: it is a miracle, and not a minor one from what we have seen that the church survives at all. But it does! Against all odds. Beyond all comprehension. Well beyond any reasonable calculus of what ought to have happened. The church is God. And will be preserved to the end of time. Through the daily resurrection of the body. Of Christ. Easter is about genuine belonging that crosses the line of death.

We took our youth group to New York City 25 years ago. The drive was difficult, our lodging was imperfect, we were late arriving, the show we saw was “A Chorus Line”, full of words and gestures that I thought would have me defrocked before I was frocked. So at midnight we sat in a circle uptown to review the day. I expressed my concerns. No one said anything. Then Kathy Likens said: “I am just so glad to be here. I mean, I have never been here. I have never been in New York. And I have never been on Broadway. We were on Broadway! And here I am. And it is so great! I wouldn’t trade this for anything, to be here with you all. I will never forget it as long as I live.” It is a beautiful thing. To be. Here. Together. Hers was the joy of belonging.

Easter Morning and we are together in the Body of Christ. As Emily Gibbs would say, “all this is going on and we never noticed…let’s look at one another”. So I see you. Here. And by resurrection faith I see you downstairs. And listening along Lake Ontario by radio. And on the internet down in Sarasota. And in Australia by the same stream. Now it is just a further, short leap, symbolized by our memorial insert, to say that by resurrection faith I see you, too, just outside the wall of sight, the doorway of hearing, the threshold of touch. You can silently provide their names…

You need genuine love. You need real compassion. You need honest companionship. All of these you will find right here. In the church. He is risen! In his basin, towel, tears, stripes, agony, death and cross, an entirely divine seal has now been set. The empty tomb, and religious resurrection of Christ, Peter’s shade of joy, make it so.

2. Paul

Second, Easter is the resurrection truth. Of meaning in life. Words matter. Dollars matter. Decisions matter. You matter. You count. Here is the spiritual meaning of Easter. Over time, truth emerges. There is a self-correcting spirit of Truth loose in the universe. You can count on it. And it matters. So, Paul. If Christ be not raised from the dead, we are of all people most to be pitied. Because then nothing really, lastingly matters. There is no real failure. There is no real loss. There is no real consequence to anything. Yet, in fact, acclaims our earliest witness, things do matter. You do count. Christ is risen Resurrection is about life. Meaning. Truth. What matters. What counts. Your choices this year about sex, money, religion, vocation, work, family, politics—they matter. Or as the Apostle trenchantly puts it: “if the dead are not raised, why am I in peril every hour? If the dead are not raised, ‘let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’.

Paul was not a disciple. He was an outlaw not an in-law. Paul misses all the family stories: shepherds, kings, Mary, healings, sermons, temple, parables, all. He never heard Jesus say, ‘I by the finger of God cast out demons’. In fact, he never heard Jesus say anything, as far as we know. No wonder he never got the word, or accepted the word, about the empty tomb. Which he did not.

Paul does not mean, by resurrection, an empty tomb, a talking corpse. He says otherwise. The filthiest thing on earth for an observant Jew is a corpse. Who would want one raised? No. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, says Paul. For those this morning who hear the tradition of Peter, and his shade of joy, and the account of the empty tomb, and say, ‘Why can’t some people just let a story be a story?’ there is a further joy. What a friend you have in Paul. Who knows and says nothing about an empty tomb. He’s your man. He says ‘resurrection’. And what does that mean? The incursion of grace, the invasion of heaven, the apocalypse of love, the end of the old world, the opening the new, a new heaven and earth. “To live by such faith, it is clear from the biblical depictions, is to be on trial as part of a mission in the earth that remains countercultural insofar as the culture embodies the powers of domination opposed to love and freedom that the power of Resurrection brings”. (C Morse)

But Paul, how are dead raised? You yourself have said no to flesh and blood inheriting the kingdom. Just what do you mean?

It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.

OK, Paul. I understand physical body. I mean, I know losing sight, hearing, memory, daily deterioration—that I got. I am with you. But what do you mean by spiritual body? And don’t say it’s a mystery.

Lo, I tell you a mystery.

I knew you would say that. I mean I just knew you would use the word mystery. It is so like you to do that. What does it mean? And don’t use that metaphor of sleep, how we emerge from sleep, as from a dream.

We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.

See, I knew you would do that. I mean honestly, when I think about the difference, the daily transition from sleeping to waking, I am amazed. I think about the dreams I can remember. How colorful they are. How creative. How real. How strange. And how totally unlike the waking world. And yet they are real. In some ways fiercely so. So you talk about change. Good. I guess. And what may I say is that? But please don’t use another metaphor, and no philosophy please.

The perishable must put on the imperishable. See, there you go again. Perishable\imperishable, weakness\power, dust\heaven, mortal\immortal. And how is that to be?

The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised and we shall be raised imperishable and we shall be changed!

Paul, Paul, Paul…I guess I see what you mean…. Who are we, really, to question the resurrection? Easter is the solemn assurance that it is not we who question resurrection, but resurrection that questions us.

Some of our younger adults this morning are truly wrestling with this matter of meaning. Is it true? Is the faith of Christ true? Is it to be trusted, held, affirmed? If it is not, if not resurrection, then what? Adolph von Harnack viewed our Scriptures as sources not norms. Sources of historical information, not norms of spiritual faith. He also carried this warning, that the greatest danger may not be doubt, but entrapment. If you become trapped in a truth too small, you are in greater danger than that which some doubt about a truth much larger may inflict. Better what he called a measure of ‘persistent uncertainty’ than a full measure of unqualified belief. Better the freedom of honest doubt than the prison of false certainty.

The truth of the Gospel, and the spiritual resurrection of Christ, Paul’s shade of joy at Easter, make it so.

3. Mary

Third, Easter is the resurrection of possibility. This is resurrection in its most personal mode. It is John who knows Easter best because he needs it least. He leaves Easter to Mary and the garden. For John, the cross alone has accomplished the mission of Christ. It is finished. And the great waves of grief that the community then knew are overwhelmed by the joy of faith.

In our passage: We begin in the dark (world)…We see the Magdalene …Peter and the beloved disciple engage in a foot race!... Peter and the one Jesus loved….the beloved disciple—who in case you missed it had reached the tomb first….believed…John gives us four resurrection accounts in chapter 20: Absence, Presence, Recognition, Mission….And here is Mary Weeping…they have taken away my lord …grief…in the ordinary, in the voice, in the name, in the garden, in the gardener, when your name is truly called MARY!...seen…blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe…It is the percipient beloved disciple who sees that the way the clothing lies (present not absent, lying apart not bunched) indicates that there has been a bodily transformation, from material to spiritual…

The whole of the second half of John is shot through with grief. The good news of Easter is that grief is succeeded by joy, a joy as mysterious and full as our grief has been real and shared. And this is the whole record of Scripture as well…

Wise men from the east at last find a star and a child and they rejoice with great joy.

Common shepherds hear tidings of great joy, meant for all people, and are shaken to their boots.

Some seed falls on good ground and…you and you and you…receive the word with great joy.

A servant is faithful over a little, and is set over much, and enters…the joy of the master.

There is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over 99 who lack nothing.

Even the evening of his death, Jesus sings with joy his affection for his disciples.

And early women go to the tomb, and finding it empty are turned upside down and leave with fear and great, great joy. For Mary it is not the belonging, nor the believing of resurrection that are paramount. It is the joy of becoming! Every morning is Easter morning! Every day is resurrection day! The glory of God has already been made manifest—on the cross. There Jesus says, ‘it is finished’. There the full measure of love and gift are shown. There the real potential and lasting joy of faith are displayed. So the Fourth Gospel can tell four straight stories, all different, of resurrection, all in chapter 20: absence, presence, mission, faith. Easter, by Mary’s report—and who would know better?—is the unkillable possibility of the Christian life, the power and empowerment of authentic human life, the unmaskable potential in every space for love. There is not a sanctuary that begins to be big enough for this possibility. There is not a budget large enough for it. There is not a denomination healthy enough for it. Nor a pulpit high enough, nor a choir sonorous enough, nor a ministry humble enough, nor a crèche colorful enough, nor a lily pretty enough!

But some of it is “up to you”. As Augustine said, “the God who made you without you will not justify you without you.” The resurrection is personal possibility, for you.

On any Sunday, and this is a Sunday, one comes to church hungry for community, another thirsty for meaning, another longing for empowerment.


The joy of Easter comes in three shades, and means three things to three different kinds of people, or three people in different settings, or three moments in the lives of various people, or three sets of ears on three different days. Resurrection is the transformation of community, the revelation meaning and the transition into newness that is possibility. Communion, Meaning, and empowerment. Easter is community for those seeking belonging. Easter is truth for those hungry for meaning. Easter is possibility for those seeking faith. Believing, belonging, becoming—revelation, transformation, transition into newness. All arise from the dead on Easter morning.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed. Amen.

Oh, I almost forgot… One other thing…. Just a thought. Take it for what it is worth.. …If love can prevail in a culture of grotesque selfishness…If truth can survive in a world of mendacity…If faith can persist in a time of pervasive fear…

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? It makes you wonder…it makes you think that maybe there is a heaven after all.

Just a thought.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Deliver Us From Evil

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 12:12-19
Palm Sunday

Joan Humphrey grew up on a farm in Kansas. She was born, the third of four children, to Donna and Jake Humphrey. The Humphrey farm of 480 acres, near Woodlawn Kansas, raised cattle and crops. Joan attended a one room school there until the eighth grade. She was a cheerleader at Sabetha High School. She also was an officer in her school’s chapter of ‘Future Homemakers of America’. She graduated second in her class. A class of 48. Here is the caption under her yearbook picture: “keen sense, common sense, no room for nonsense”. *

Joan then attended Wheaton College, because her pastor was a graduate. Later on, she entered law school at Northwestern University. Her classmates there teased her about her slow prairie speech. They also envied her lack of stress over exams. In law school she met a boy named Michael. They worked summer jobs on behalf of the poor: disability benefits, evictions, food stamps.

Joan and Michael were married in 1975. He wore a white suit. She wore daisies in her hair, and a white Moroccan caftan.

Joan and Michael then began to raise their own family of four daughters. Every morning, he brewed coffee. He pre-heated her cup with boiling water, filled it with coffee, and carried it to the bed where together they could talk about the day to come.

Joan’s life had two paradigms, professional woman and devoted mother. She cooked dinner every night. She established a daycare center in the courthouse where she worked. She packed lunches for four daughters, making sure to use Tropicana orange juice to limit the girls’ sugar intake. The newspaper quoted Joan two weeks ago as saying, “I wanted my family to be a family that shared their food and the mom could cook like my mom could cook.”

Joan’s temperament and industry brought her, in the year 2000, to the federal bench. She became a judge in the US District Court in Chicago. It was the culmination of a fine career, a position that had eluded her on other occasions. Then in 2002, one of her rulings angered white supremacists. One of these was convicted of plotting to have her killed. They did not succeed. But on February 28, 2005, three weeks ago, Joan’s husband Michael and her mother, both on crutches, were murdered. They were both shot in the head and chest with .22 caliber bullets.

Holy Week, every year, brings us to the precipice of a most disturbing question. At some point, we grow up or wake up enough to ask the question that Joan’s daughter Meg asked her last week. “Mom, why is the world so evil?” Holy Week—with its fleeting laud and honor, its temple conflict, its night of betrayal, its day of trial, its hour of tragedy, and its subsequent, lasting silence—brings us right to this matter of evil. Why? Why Mom? Why is the world so shot through with evil—sin, death, the threat of meaninglessness?

After 250 of his students died in a plane crash near Lockerbie, Scotland, Chancellor Melvin Eggers brought the question, via a newspaper interview, to his religious leadership at Hendrick’s Chapel. I will never forget his interview, the pain of it, the grief in it, the troubled angst of it, which never left him over the few remaining years of his life.

After 2500 died on 9/11, that next Friday, hundreds of people filled this sanctuary, without invitation or liturgical preparation. Here they were, truly hunting for the language and heart with which to assess the same question. What in the world is wrong with this world?

After 250,000 were lost in December on the day after Christmas, 2004, out of a numbed and fogged stupor, there has gradually emerged a serious question, a question about bearing, perspective, and, ultimately, about faith. What kind of world is this? Who is the God who has breathed life into such a place? “Mom, why is the world so evil?”

The same reckoning can arrive in a far more cotidian fashion. One middle aged morning in the winter you may wake up to list the smaller showers of estrangement that meet us every day, long before we ever are drenched in the great thunderstorm of evil:

Premature resignation

Partial self-awareness

Indirect criticism Cold honesty Inflated responsibility Excessive enjoyment Needless worry Wasted time Careless haste Misguided loyalty Postponed grief Avoided maturation Partial planning Unconscious entitlement Pointless earning Self-serving posture Thankless reception You meet them every day… In our time, people of conscience are truly alive, suddenly and earnestly alive, to this question, which is, again, the whole content of Holy Week. It is a question that, in the main, is a matter of grief, trouble, and loss. Which is, of course, the whole content of the church’s experience and memory of Holy Week. It is a matter of deep, abiding grief to face the gone-wrongness in life. And, while we have tried, in our churches, to feed the hunger in this question, to slake the thirst in this question, to provide compelling responses to this question, to a great degree, across the land, we have failed. And failure is the whole content of Holy Week. It is a grief to this preacher that our pulpits, including this one, have thus far failed to meet the grief and loss and especially fear that pervade our time like a mist in London along Aldersgate Street, like an invisible unholy ghost, just on the edge of our awareness. Like a dawn that just will not come. We have not been able robustly and preparedly and piercingly to remember, to call to mind our biblical, Christian, tragic sense of life, when most we have needed it. To hear Job on the ash heap: “What is my crime?”; and Second Isaiah: “A man of sorrow, acquainted with grief”; and Jeremiah’s lamentations; “all the rivers run to the sea”; and the tears of the David, “all flesh is grass”; to evoke Ecclesiastes, speaking of 9:11, “the race is not always to the swift….but time and chance happen to them all”; and the affliction of Paul, “persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed”; and best of all Jesus himself, “if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me”. You cannot read all of Barbara Brown Taylor on Job the night of 9/11. It has to be read ahead. You cannot do all of Werner Lemke’s course on Jeremiah the night after Tsunami. It has to be read ahead. You cannot absorb all that Lou Martyn says about Galatians, the afternoon of Lockerbie. It has to be read earlier. In wrestling we used to make weight, trying to lose 5 pounds in two hours by jogging in sweatsuits through the school showers. Bodily life, Christian life, does not easily allow such last minute maneuvers. This morning, we try again: Jesus meets us today along this very road of tragedy in life: of evil, grief, loss, estrangement, and failure. His church, this church, lives still as a community that knows in its bones how to face evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. H R Niebuhr warned his generation to suspect the false sense that somehow a “God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”. Oddly, it is the starkness of the cross, the coarseness of Jesus’ death, the tremendous sense of loss and failure and grief of Holy Week (so boldly evoked in our youth production last weekend) that is your best gift to a frightened world. His cross truly names the tragedy of evil. His cross permanently enfolds that tragedy in the larger goodness of life and the lasting goodness of God. His cross, especially, of course, in John, radiates a thin measure of hope, that there is life beyond brokenness. In our passage today this is carried on the word “glory” and the dismissive treatment of resurrection—of Lazarus, the only reason for the quisling gathering of the counterfeit parade. Remember your baptism and confirmation. The world is good, the good handiwork of a divine goodness that passes all understanding and endures forever. Yet, the world is just not right, but somehow off track, wrongheaded, with something ‘loose’ rattling around in side it—the shadow of sin, the specter of evil, the sorrow of death. We have to face both and to pray for deliverance from the latter to the former. So we teach our children to say both of these phrases: Hallowed be thy name…and…Deliver us from evil. Robert McAfee Brown said so memorably (how I miss his voice): “Friends, this is God’s world, but it is a crummy world, and we have to live with both realities”. To Meg’s question “Why?” I have no answer for you. But the good news is that you have an answer for me. And if you think I do not see it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not appreciate or admire it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not respect it you are mistaken. You live your answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith. You meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. You carry yourselves in belief. You remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion. You remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion… and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure. But the cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: Deliver us from evil… Maybe that is why Joan Humphrey—you know her by her married name, Joan Humphrey Lefkow—she like Dorothy Gale of the Kansas farm, she like Billy Graham of Wheaton College, she like Ernest Fremont Tittle of Northwestern University, she like your own mother in kitchen and coffee and packed lunch, answered her daughter’s question (sursum corda!) in faithful witness (hear the Gospel!) to tragedy and goodness and hope. I confess that I read her statement, weeping, in the middle of an utterly boring Board meeting, and was for several moments unsure of where I was, or whether these few sentences were read from the printed page as human comments, or were resounding in the mind and heart as divine utterance. Which is this voice? Human or Divine? You be the judge. Joan says to her daughter, and God says to us: I am so sad…It is a human tragedy…Honey, most people are good, most people would not think of doing this…Remember the sermon years ago at the Episcopal Church in Evanston, where you girls sang in the choir and I made sandwiches for the homeless once a month…The priest said, ‘Some things are just broken…they’re broken…just broken…They’re broken and you go on from there…Don’t think you can repair them but get up and go on from there’…But whoever did this, I want to look them in the eye and say…How could you?...How could you do that to me and my family?” *New York Times, 3/10/03, pps. A1, 20

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Spirit of Truth: Conversation

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 14:15-17,25-31
"Let us preach You without preaching;
not by words but by our example;
by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to You."
(J H Newman)

1. The Spirit of Truth

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. To be set free. By knowing. Truth.

Know the world…Know God…Know others…Know thyself…All these are overshadowed in John by knowing…the spirit of Truth, which liberates, heals, saves, and makes new.

The divine spirit captures our fullest selves, our heads, our hands, our hearts. This is the spirit, the advocate, whom Jesus here introduces, through the preaching of the early church, to the wounded needs of the early church. ‘I am going away’. That, in retrospect, the Johannine Christians could interpret. We get it too. This is the hour, the moment, the glory, the cross. For John, on the cross, ‘it is finished’. It is the other phrase that may have puzzled, and still may. ‘And I am coming to you’. Here is the hard Scriptural evidence of truth, sent, truth, coming, truth, expanding, truth in the spirit, truth on the move. Jesus makes way for the rest of the truth. The Holy Spirit will (future tense) teach you (plural) everything (boundless expanse). Our imaginations may be kindled today. Our hands may become instruments of love today. Our hearts may be inspired today. All through the same of Truth, known in this chapter through ongoing conversation.

John replaces Armageddon with Truth. Here, just where veteran readers of Gospels would have come to expect apocalypse, after the ministry and before the passion, John affirms the Spirit of Truth. Mark 13 and the wars and rumors of wars are gone. Matthew 25 and the future judgment of sheep and goats are gone. Luke 26 and the children snatched from the rooftops are gone. The earliest hope of the primitive church ‘came a cropper’. The apocalypse never lypsed. The end did not come, not after two, three, four generations. And so, dear John.

In place of Armageddon, he puts the artistry of the spirit. In place of eschaton he places the ecclesia. In place of apocalypse, truth. The world is going on for a while, maybe even an eternity. And what we once thought has more depth than once we thought! Heaven is not only a matter of the last day but of every day! Hell is not only a matter of the last day but of every day! Judgment is not only a matter of the last day but of every day! The last day is today—live every one as if it were your last because it is. As Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, “What is more demanding, to believe that on the last day we will stand in the presence of the Lord, or to believe that every day is lived in the presence of the Lord?”

John remembers and rejoices in this truth, in the depths of heartache. The color of these chapters is muted, the tone is mellow, the rhythm is the blues. Grief, profound loss, is the background of John 14. When you carry curiosity and worry about someone who just seems to be running here and there, with all sail and no rudder, all river and no bank, and you grieve the mess of life, rent Citizen Kane. See all the way from Xanadu to the boy in the snow on the prairie clutching his sled, Rosebud. And notice how often dislocation and disappointment and grief and loss are under the surface of life.

This is loss remembered, the cross of Christ. This is more so loss lived, the loss of community, the loss of home, the loss of inheritance, the loss of relationship, the loss of safety. Your loss finds its depth right here, whatever your loss may be. Jesus teaches in a conversational mode today, across the dinner table, before the evening is over, to console, to help, to comfort, to guide. No other voice in literature has anything of the timbre of his, here: Love me…keep my commandments…this is the Spirit of truth…he abides with you…peace I leave with you…Do not let your hearts be troubled…do not let them be afraid.

It is the lasting Spirit of truth which teaches us today, in the mode of a conversation drenched in grief. If you have come today with the tremendous burden of loss across your heart, hear great good news: there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe to save and heal and make new!

2. Head: You Ought to Give Iowa a Try

Here are some examples of voices that carry truth, to save and heal and make new. They all come from Iowa. You know, there is something windswept and real about Iowa. Not so red nor so blue, just real and true. As a matter of fact, You ought to give Iowa a try. That, as you know, is not a recorded sentence out of staff conversation in the offices of John McCain or Hillary Clinton, with reference to 2008. No, it is an old song. You ought to give Iowa a try.

Of Iowa…We remember summer green and rolling hills, beans and corn, trees, and rolling hills. Earth is dark earth, soil is black, roads are straight and gravel…summer humid and hot, smell is pigs coming across Mississippi…spring comes earlier…daffodils coming soon…May baskets on the doors and run…flowers came earlier…blue skies…in March it is like the wet dirt in the unplanted garden…from tan to black, sense of fertility…tractors, repairs, when is the last frost?, who will start first without having to replant… from silence to activity…waking from slumber…silence but you know that something is just about to happen (Hallelujah chorus)…in March we remember basketball, white fields, mud, beauty…

When you carry the faithful anxiety of serious love for the church, and you grieve over needless losses and unnecessary hurts, You ought to give Iowa a try. You will find Marilynne Robinson’s precious novel, Gilead, with its steady, scriptural happy but not maudlin reminder that life is good. Morning is good. Prayer is good. Grace is good. Love is good. Family is good. God is good. All the time. She writes: I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment “when the morning stars together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view (246).

When you carry the faithful anxiety of serious concern for the aging and the aged, our so-called older adult ministry, and you wonder if anyone really gets it, You ought to give Iowa a try. Our current poet laureate come to us from Iowa. I sense an Iowa rebound, a middle American renaissance. Here is Billy Collins on the tough hurt of aging:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

When you carry grief about the chances missed to relate to Dad or Mom, go rent again the best film of two decades, Field of Dreams, and remember the last scene. It is Iowa, Iowa City, I believe. Why did he build the field? To recapture youth. For sure. To see shoeless Joe Jackson? You bet. To redeem the Chicago black socks. Yes sir. But why? To find his father, again. Come on Dad, come out of the cornstalks. Come back, and let’s have that conversation. Let’s have a catch Dad, let’s have a catch…

When you carry the faithful anxiety of serious parenting, and you grieve over a youth culture that seems heavily material and falsely physical, You ought to give Iowa a try. Listen again to the voice of Mary Pipher, who spoke right in this nave last year. Her Reviving Ophelia is still on the money, and on the market, when it comes to reminding us of the challenges of growing up female in America. The spirit of truth is alive and well and abides and allows us, however stumblingly, to move forward as a people. To learn, from one generation to another. To grow, to do better. She says:

I was a teenager in Beaver City, Nebraska, a town of about 400 people. My mom was a doctor in that town. I knew everybody, and I knew the name of every dog in that town. And so when I walked around that world, I was moving among people who I knew well, and who knew me well. Increasingly, that's not the experience of children. They aren't growing up in communities of adults who care about them. They're constantly meeting strangers, and they've been socialized to be frightened of strangers. So they're moving among people they have some reason to fear. They don't get nurtured the way children were nurtured thirty years ago. And they don't get corrected and informed about their behavior the way I did. Now, some of the rules I learned were silly. Some of the rules I learned, I could hardly wait to cast off when I left home. But the fact of the matter is, there were a lot of adults deeply invested in my becoming a well-behaved civic citizen. And that's something children don't experience as much."

So loss of community is one thing.

When you carry grief and worry over how best to teach, and you wonder if the classroom will ever be the same, You ought to give Iowa a try. As Sarah Hall Maney wrote:

I am an Iowa Child
Part and product of the land on which I grew
Flat and open and straight, like
the farm roads that bordered the corn
Friendly and receptive, like the rich,
black soil that grows the corn
Simple, and plain, but productive,
like the fields of soy beans and hay

Yes, I am an Iowa child
There have been times when

I have kept it hidden
Pretending somewhere, something,
someone else
But today I stand with it
Drawing upon the strength of it-
Acknowledging the unique gifts
I share with it

Of course, an Iowa Child has not many
deep, intriguing forests within-
Not many clear, refreshing lakes to draw
No lofty, grand mountain peaks to soar from
no yawning canyons to descend-

And I know my Iowa child must live
And come to terms with the part of me
That is controlled, precise, yearning
to be perfect-
Like the squared-off, ruler-straight rows
of hybrid seed corn.

Perhaps I will never be
as exciting, as spontaneous,
as a tumbling Colorado mountain stream
As magnificent as a
crashing Califomia ocean wave
As serene and stately as a Minnesota pine tree
But no matter
I am who I am
An Iowa child

3. Hand: Gift and Task

This same spirit that illumines our imagination also takes us by the hand and puts our hand to the plow. That is, you have gifts. With your gifts come tasks. The spirit of truth is in both gift and task. Be a little careful here, careful of gifts and their stewardship…

You have the gift of music, and your hands run over the piano keys like birds in flight. What a wonderful gift. Seven, nine, eleven hours a day strapped to the bench, practice, imperfection, challenge, struggle. A wonderful gift. Or is it?

You have the gift of a listening heart. You have that rarest ability to listen fully in love until peace comes into another’s heart, by grace. What a wonderful gift. Hour after hour. Listening and absorbing. Day after month after year. One in ten returns to say thank you. A wonderful gift. Or is it?

You can speak with the tongues of men and angels. You have that gift of presentation. Good for you. What a wonderful gift. Year after year, learning slowly, that some of that light needs to stay under the bushel lest people say you are ‘slick’. How did Kipling put it? Don’t look too good or talk too wise. Yes, speech is wonderful gift. Or is it?

You have the twin gifts of wealth and generosity. Your industry and frugality, or that of your ancestors, has produced the miracle of compound interest. And you enjoy giving, and you have means. Why, someone today could probably write a check for $100,000 to our building campaign and hardly miss it. You have those twin gifts, means and generosity. Great. The whole inhabited world has ideas for you to consider. Every day another request. Every month another balancing decision. Every year end another set of worries. Yes, these are wonderful gifts. Or are they?

You have youth on your side. Wonderful. All youth, no wrinkles. And you enjoy playing the part. You play it well. But you know, a decade later, you are, hate to say it, a decade older. Time flies? Ah no. Time stays. We go. A wonderful gift, youth. Or is it?

You have a keen mind and sharp tongue. Wonderful gifts. But over time you realize that when used in tandem, the room fills up with dead bodies. Carnage. Limbs and torsos cut to pieces. You can’t easily help it. That is your gift, truth telling. Wonderful gifts, mind and mouth. Or are they?

You are a church of 2300 members. Second largest in the jurisdiction. Teeming with ministry, actual and potential. What wonderful gifts! Year after year, though, suspected, used, criticized, envied, chastened, muffled. What wonderful gifts. Or are they?

You are a denomination, let’s say, for instance, Methodist. For 200 years your strengths have been in addition and multiplication. You have not had the most novel theologies, nor the most cutting edge or just plain cutting theories. You are moderate, mainstream people who love, first, and are happy in God. Only, ours is not an age of addition. Nor an age of multiplication. But an age of subtraction and division. And your gift is in addition, and multiplication! Leave the subtraction and division to others who are good at it. You keep on loving and adding and being fruitful to multiply and fill the earth. These are your gifts, and they are wonderful, if not currently fashionable.

You are a region, like this one. You are blessed with historic gifts. Opportunity and Innovation. Opportunity: civil rights, F Douglass, Susan B Anthony, Walter Rauschenbush, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Innovation: the Erie Canal, the steamship, air conditioning, the Kodak moment, the Xerox copy, and, praise God, the invention of Jello. What a wonderful set of gifts! Great gifts of inheritance. Yes. But they sometimes make the new needs of innovation, which means failure, and the new needs of freedom which means risk, seem impossibly daunting. Such gifts seem to require significant tasks. To whom much is given, from him much is expected.

Here is the spirit of truth in conversation with us today. With every gift there is a task. Gifts, to be good, take care. We are stewards of the mysteries of God, and our hands are meant to take up the excruciating (a good Lenten word) work of the husbandry of gifts.

4. Heart: Strangely Warmed

Truth attends to head and hands, but finally and firstly is a matter of the heart. Perhaps this is why the writer places all these marvelous verses in the context of conversation. A fireside chat. A back porch interview. The dinner table. Time talking and walking.

Faith is a choice you make. Faith is a decision you make. To live a certain life, say a Christian life. Very easy to describe and very hard daily to do. Wonder, love and praise. That is prayer, fidelity, and generosity. That is weekly worship, staying faithful to your spouse, tithing. The truth is that faith is a choice. Faith is first a gift, yes. But faith is a choice to open and keep the gift. BE CAREFUL. With every gift there are tasks. I refer you to the comments I made some moments ago. Faith is the daring decision to unwrap, use and take care of God’s gift.

“Lord, help me dare to love the enemies I have the integrity to make.”

How does a moment of faith come? A moment of decision? A moment of heart warmth? I remember Vernon Lee saying his whole Christology changed during an Ithaca youth production of Jesus Christ Superstar. So you never know. It can come on Sunday morning, in church, at the close of a sermon. It is an Iowa moment, a gift task, a longing. A moment of the spirit of Truth known in conversation and embracing the head and the hand and the heart. The spirit of truth invites you in the words of Meredith Wilson…

There were bells on a hill
But I never heard them ringing
No I never heard them at all
Till there was you

There were birds in the sky
But I never saw them winging
No I never saw them at all
Till there was you

There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No I never heard it at all
…Lord Jesus Christ…
Till there was you