Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Same Spirit

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: 1 Corinthians 12:4-11
Pentecost Sunday 2005

Paul on Spirit

In the passage of I Corinthians read earlier, the apostle Paul has exhorted his energetic Corinthians to sense the Spirit.

Methodism could use a dose of Methodism, which is to say, that we could use a measure of Spirit, too. In this religious mudslide across the country that has deposited determinism, quietism, pessimism into our common life, we especially hunger for what Paul writes. We truly hunger to pick up what he is putting down here. Are you picking up what he is putting down? It’s not heavy.

The future? The future is open, and at least in good part the future of our planet will be forged by the freedom of individuals and groups to make choices for health and life. The present? The present is a good time. The best time to plant an oak tree is a hundred years ago. The second best time is today. The present is second best, and that is pretty good. The past? The past is not in charge. The past is not dead, and therefore not past, but the past is not ruling the roost. You are. What you choose not to do matters. That is why we continue happily to harp on the crucial centrality of tithing, and of inviting. Give away 10% of what you earn, and invite some person every week to church, and you will be like the child born on the Sabbath day: happy, witty, bright and gay.

It is the one Spirit, the same spirit, from which we drink this morning. You know this well, but a few reminders for those who may have been absent on Pentecosts past, or asleep like Elijah’s Baal, on Sunday’s past, or just not really interested in Spirit. First, for Paul there is absolutely no separation between spiritual life and life. Spirit is in life and the much prized division between material and spiritual, prized in ancient Greece and prized today here, Paul humiliates. The same spirit roves and ravages in what is said, what is predicted, what is healed, what is remembered, what is done, what is given. For him, there is no distinction between religious and secular. The same Spirit inhabits all. Second, the Spirit is the Lord. And the Lord is the Church. It is like a body. Many parts, one body. Did you notice just where you expect Paul to say “church”—so it is with...---he says Christ. For him the church is the body of Christ, in some mystical, magical, mysterious, miraculous way. Christ has actual feet. Yours. Actual hands. Yours. Actual muscles. His. Actual voice. Hers. Actual presence. Third, Paul distinguishes gifts from fruit. Fruit is general, lavished upon all—love, joy, peace….Gifts are individual, to one this, to one that. Fourth, the reason for the gifts. You have particular gifts. What are they? Name one. You have at least one, and Paul in no way means his glory hole collection list here to be exhaustive. I do find it compellingly interesting that his list is almost all related to hearing and speaking. It is curious, and not fully explicable, that he names faith as a gift that some have, and others, apparently, share by extension. You may go to church for many in your family and neighborhood, too. Fifth, the Spirit brings freedom the Spirit evokes grace, the Spirit spreads love. Sixth, and most significant, in the opening of the gifts of the Spirit, for Paul, all of these manifold gifts have one central purpose: the common good. The common good.

In most ways, the conditions in Corinth could not be more globally different from our own. They in tatters, we in Sunday best. They in a borrowed upper room, we in a fine Gothic nave. They in untutored simplicity, we in educated elevations. They in uproarious shouting, we in decency and order. They at the salt water edge of the Mediterranean, we fresh water fish all, along the Genesee. They expecting that the form of this world is passing away, we not expecting that, unless by nuclear incident. And what could we possibly have in common with such a community so torn by Gnostic speculations, incestuous relationships, lawsuits filed member against member, questions about the morality of marriage, selfish inhospitality at table, and a boundless enthusiasm that like earlier Methodism must have seemed “noise and nonsense” to those all around?

One thing we share. As a global village, and as a church, we are perennially threatened by the various shadows and filters that can muffle the sense of full, same Spirit of which Paul speaks here in Corinthians.

Our particularities, in church and nation, can become the sideshows that eat up the circus, the varieties that threaten to obscure the same Spirit at work in all.

The Sound of Spirit

Notice the vocabulary of the gifts Paul names. They all have voice. Our age has become one of email communication: visual communication. Email is a wonderful tool, as long as its visual features are kept in mind. It is immediate, indelible, irretrievable, international, infinitely transferable. And it carries no voice, no body, no sound. Paul has tuned his ear to the speaking of the Spirit, in many voices.

The Spirit speaks in any utterance of wisdom. Note, this is not any religious as opposed to unreligious wisdom, but simply whatsoever things are true. Truth finally needs no defense, even as falsehood finally has none. It is an utterance which Paul connects first with Spirit.

The Spirit also speaks in the utterance of knowledge. Paul does not equate wisdom with knowledge, a lesson for the knowledgeable to bear in mind. He may have in mind the knowledge so prized by his spirited opponents, the Gnostics, who like most predominant religious expressions in most ages, including our own today in America, gain adherence through certainty, whether knowledge of the stars, or the planets, or the spheres, as in Paul’s time, or whether knowledge of eternity, or calling, or determination, as in ours. There is a reason that determinist, certainty promising religions, Gnostic or sacramentalist or fundamentalist, generally do well. To certainty Paul opposes confidence, as in the next gift.

The Spirit also speaks in faith. Faith comes by hearing, hearing by the word of God.

The Spirit also speaks in healing, that is in words of healing: ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’; or, ‘your faith has made you well’; or ‘Lazarus, come out’.

The Spirit speaks in the dynamite of change, of miracle that is the unexpected, whether understood naturally or supernaturally. All nature sings…

The Spirit speaks in prophecy for the common good. The Spirit speaks in conversation about other speaking, discernment. The Spirit speaks, even, Paul allows here, in ecstatic utterance, glossallalia, as long as other speech is able to hear some meaning.

The sound of Spirit has reverberated in every rebirth of the church, from the noise of Pentecost day, to Paul and his noisy Corinthians, to Augustine and his noisy sermons, to the noisy whispering in the medieval monasteries, to Luther’s noisy shout, “I can do no other”, to Wesley’s noise and nonsense, as his detractors said, in band, class, meeting, conference, worship, sermon and music, all the way to Azusa Street and the birth of post-Methodism, the Pentecostals. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is noise, sound, freedom, speech. And this in great variety.

Varieties in a Spirited Church

We too have varieties of gifts, right here. We are gifted with various passions in our speech to one another at Asbury First. There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, varieties of service, but the same Lord, varieties of activities, but the same God. To one is given the gift of… music, mission, management, money, Methodism…all for the common good. Let each one match his passion for a particular gift, with the shared commitment to the common good, known in our faith by tithing and invitation.

There are 30 some 50 year olds singing right now in the Methodist House at Chautauqua. Yesterday morning, after breakfast, someone opened the piano. First one non-musician struggled alone to plunk out a tune. Then, along came an amateur pianist, who had not played for years, who said, “alright, but don’t count on the left hand…and you do the singing, I cannot play and sing at the same time”. One right hand, a half a left, and a croaking voice. Then, some time later, in pity perhaps, along came a man, and then another, and then a third, and then, by grace, half a room full, and a great sound and song. My Lord, what a morning. Shall we gather at the river? Are we yet alive. It is well with my soul. Saranam. Swing low. And, as a refrain, through it all. Singing, we stood outside for a photo, and the passersby asked for an encore. Which we gave. A piano, a hymnal, a willingness, a little improvisation. We could use, in this world, a little singing Methodism, a dose of Methodism, with its entrepreneurial freedom, mobility in itinerancy, flexibility in choices, enjoyment of people, and most especially its free, gracious, loving imagination for the future. The gifts of the Spirit are manifested for the common good.

Gifts Activated for the Common Good

When conviction is quickened by imagination there is action that makes a difference.

Jesus of Nazareth spoke by imagination when he said, ‘blessed are you poor, for God’s reign is for you’. John Wesley spoke with imagination when he said, ‘there is no holiness save social holiness’. Vaclev Havel spoke with imagination when he said, ‘Hope is not prognosis, but a willingness to work for what is right’.

We may differ in our choices of tactics. On supports governmental programs. Another advocates work by private companies and charities. A third prefers a blend. But all are supported by the same Spirit, at work for the common good. God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human. The world can work. It can. We need not discount environmental decay, nor nuclear accident, nor global warming, nor fundamentalist terror, nor rampant disease. All these and other horse folk of the apocalypse have long been spied. Still, the world can work. The future is open. The present is a really good moment. The past is not in charge.

When imagination is quickened by conviction there is action that makes a difference. Imagine for a moment, a spirited moment directed toward the common good…

Wouldn’t it be nice if the prisons in this country were half-empty and the streets free of homeless vagrants?

Wouldn’t it be nice if every generation received a better education than the one that preceded it?

Wouldn’t it be nice if every man and woman who wanted a job could get one, and so we did not waste a single person or view any person as ‘redundant’?

Wouldn’t it be nice if schools and hospitals and churches and charities had more money than they knew what to do with?

Wouldn’t it be nice if men and women were getting along so well that abuse and abortion were virtually unheard of?

Wouldn’t it be nice if budgets, public and private, were set with a clear, frugal eye to the future, and without being based on borrowing from the next generation?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the measure of success in this great country were formed not against the question of individual achievement, but against the desire for the common good?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we really took seriously, really believed in a final judgment, the day of the Lord, in which hearts are sifted and measurements made—against the prospect of the common good?

Wouldn’t it be nice if warfare ceased, and if what remained only occurred within the bounds of Christian just war doctrine?

Wouldn’t it be nice if democracy, not only of voice and vote, but also of education and endowment and employment and environment were our song?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go to bed at night, not as those who all day have been rivals for position and power and privilege, but as those who have worn an easier yoke and a lighter burden, that of the broken Master, that of real community, that of the common good—I mean as those who have helped each other?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the criterion for medical care were simply, “how sick are you”?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the communal virtues, the gifts of Spirit that work for the common good, the very signposts of salvation—responsibility, industry, frugality, respect for authority, a sense of limits—replaced those of mere success?

Wouldn’t it be nice if every kid in this country had enough to eat tonight?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the love of Jesus Christ, and the fear of disappointing him, and the hope of meeting him in glory, and the joy of working in his fellowship were all that we really wanted and needed?

Wouldn’t it?

George Bernard Shaw, as usual, had it right: “You see things as they are and say ‘Why’? But I dream things that never were and I say ‘Why not’?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Spirit of Truth: Consecration

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 17

You are right to argue that the Bible is not only a series of farewells. In the Bible there are many and other forms found. There are epic tales of heroism in the Bible, like those of Samson and David. There are engaging stories of cunning and cleverness, like those of Esther and Daniel. There are sermons, lectures, prayers, hymns, poems, polemics, parables, genealogies, and even the occasional note of humour (“no graves in the land of Egypt that you brought us out here to die”?), all arranged with careless abandon in the glory hole of Glory, Genesis to Revelation. Your interest, and you have a point, is to make sure that the preacher in making a clear point does not obscure all the other points that might be made. You want the preacher to avoid letting the sideshow eat up the circus. Ah, you have become such careful listeners. Like Gretzsky, you skate to where the puck will be. So, no, one must admit, yes, it must be said, the Bible is not only, merely a series of valedictions, benedictions, farewells. There are more than final words here. There are traveling instructions, family tales, declarations of love, and the occasional inscrutable wisdom saying.

But consider this Ms. Gretsky. Mark this Wayne. We remember the last words best. Every spring we hear our senior youth intone their valedictions. We remember what they say. Martin Luther King, we remember, last said, “I have been to the mountain top and seen the promised land”. Douglas MacArthur told the houses of congress, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, “with malice toward none”, his last will and testament which we recall. Or Nathan Hale, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country”. At church camp, and at great revivals both, in Methodism it is Wesley’s dying sentence that is preached: “The best of all is God is with us.” Amadeus Mozart, at the end, with Solieri taking down his every whispered note—who could forget it? Why, after thousands of pages, and a lifetime of writing, does Aquinas’ last self-deprecation remain: “all my work, before Grace, is so much straw”? I can still hear Joan of Arc, and her powerful feminine cry for truth. Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. Eli, Eli, lama sabach thani. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. It is finished. We remember the last words best.

It is the gracious humanity of the Holy Scripture, its divine grace that is, which of course makes space for valedictory words. So, while your point is taken, there is this response as well. The Bible is full of farewells. Listen again to Jacob, that dear old man, as he bids farewell to a host of progeny, ill fed, unlead, widely spread, nearly dead. Then listen to his favorite son—such a burden to be the favorite son—Joseph, as he bids farewell, as he says, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”. Is it an accident that King, the last night of his life, quoted Moses, on the last night of Moses’ life? The words, the valediction from Mt. Nebo? Look out on the land of milk and honey, says Moses. Moses, the man of stone and commandment and prophecy and courage, who too bids adieu. What about blind Samuel, dear old man, warning against kings and those who want kings, that dear old man as he says goodbye? Are not the books of the prophets, all, at the last, a last will and testament, and a collection of how they would have their words remembered? Hosea—God loves. Amos—God makes just. Jeremiah—God reigns. Micah—God sees. It is as if, before these great people of faith must finally leave the world stage, they want with Hamlet to name their demons, their hurts, their truth, and their faith, especially their faith.

In this vein, Jesus concludes his epic farewell discourse. Five terrific and dense chapters of evening speech are concluded with a single word. He closes with consecration. “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth…that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” The last private word, remembered for some generations now by this community, is this prayer of consecration. ‘I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth’.

You are alive, living, on this earth, breathing—and that only for the briefest of galactic moments—in order to be consecrated. We consecrate Bishops. But for John, every one of you has become a Bishop, consecrated, so this chair behind is for all. You are set apart to be holy. You are made into truth. You are to be devoted, entirely. You are to be dedicated. You are to make the ground holy. And what sentence leaps to mind? But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. You are alive to find what you can die for. There is no aspect of this farewell that makes out an interest in your becoming religious, let us note. Loving, yes. Truthful, yes. Able to do and live truth, though others howl and shriek, moan and decry. God pleasing not man pleasing. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all of falsehood against you falsely. Rejoice and be glad. So they treated the prophets before. At the last, Jesus offers himself. In truth, which is spirit. Or in spirit, which is truth. He offers us himself. Here I am. Love me.

And so, adieu. His love is most sharply heard and seen in his departure. You will need again to choose this week, whether you are His. He has chosen you. And now, the ball is in your court. But you say, how may I know him? I see him not. I hear him not. I feel him not. How may I know him?

Take His hand. Intertwine your five fingers with His, and we shall walk, consecrated. Hold, hold fast.

One for Scripture. I saw you this week. Studying the Bible. Learning its history. I heard you. Your music taught our children the faith of Esther. Consecration.

One for Sacrament. I saw you this week. In this chancel, receiving the bread and cup. You cried. Why would you not? Your music, hymns sung, taught the faith of John Wesley. I saw you in the nave, this week, to bid farewell to a young woman, and to trust the God of Resurrection in the face of death. You cried. How could you not? Your music, organ soaring, taught the faith of Charles Wesley. Consecration.

One for Prayer. I saw you this week. Steeling yourself, curbing your tongue. Someone did something that profoundly disappointed you. But you prayed, and you found grace. You prayed at meals—you shared meals—and prayed. You sang in church. Your twice prayer taught others the faith of John. Consecration.

One for sacrifice. I saw you this week. Once walking to a meeting. Once in a meeting. Once folding clothes, unheralded. Once on the phone. Once hovering over the checkbook. You hummed the hymns of the Sunday before. Your murmuring taught others the faith of Asbury. Consecration.

One, at last, for conversation. I saw you this week. Are we not in conversation? You listened, not only for what was said, but for the underside of what was more deeply and darkly meant. You gathered many from many places for a weekend of sacred space, consecrated life. Your trumpets, bells, voices, instruments, all—taught others the faith of Jesus. Consecration.

You may take Jesus’ hand, and be consecrated. With the music of Scripture, the music of Sacrament, the music of Prayer, the music of Service, the music of Conversation. Consecration.

Once we walked in the snow. Snow is far better for the soul than all this spring beauty, sunny April, warm and happy Eastertide. We slipped and skidded up the drift. Our son reached up and said, “Mom, let me take your hand”. Believe me, in love, should you decide to consecrate your way, there is a Loving hand reaching toward you, to intertwine five fingers with your own. Take Hold.

All of us are better when we’re loved.