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

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