Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Start of Something New

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 13:33

Chris: We are about to interpret, to translate, a mysterious teaching. Jesus taught in parables--stories or comparisons. The story of the mustard seed is found in Mark, in Luke, in the Gospel of Thomas, in the preaching of the church for two millennia, and here in Matthew. In each case, the parable has been given a slightly different thrust, depending upon the needs of the community for which it was remembered. Of all, Matthew may contort the passage the most, as he tries to use, or misuse, its imagery and language to help his church face persecution. Yet in its origin, after what we have learned about it this week, the set of parables probably had to do with mystery, with the mystery that is at the heart of the start of something new, with the surprising mysterious gift that is every day and that is at the heart of every day. It makes the matter of interpretation itself somewhat mysterious. Now that you are getting older, Dad, I thought maybe now and then you could use some help, especially on hot Sundays.

Bob: Which reminds us of the story of Jorge Rodriquez. Do you mind if I tell a supposedly humorous, quite old story?

Jorge stole money from Texas banks until at last a Ranger caught him. But the Ranger spoke no Spanish and Jorge no English. So the Ranger found a translator. A very enterprising, entrepreneurial translator. The Ranger said “Tell him if he does not tell me where the money is I will shoot him dead, blow his head off, right here, right now”. On translation of this Jorge immediately said, shaking, “Tell him the money is at my house under the back tree behind a stone.” After a little delay, the cagey translator turned and said to the Ranger: “Mr. Ranger, this is a very unusual day. Jorge is a very brave bank robber. He says he is ready to die. He is not afraid to die”. (courtesy Bill Ritter, John Claypool, and a cast of thousands). That is: translation can be a matter of life and death.

Chris: I wonder if this saying of Jesus is meant to help us enter more deeply into the mystery of being alive. I have been reading David Hempton’s book, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, this summer, in which he explores the mysterious growth of our church, especially in circumstances of harsh confinement—sailors on shipboard, prisoners in cells, soldiers in confined barracks, poor settlers in small prairie dwellings. There is a mystery at the start of something new. You have been reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, in which Mr. Farebrother’s preaching explores this mystery and is “ingenious, pithy, and delivered without book”. Our world is reeling in the throes of mysteries tragic and comic both. Maybe that is one reason we come to church on Sunday. To be invited again into mystery through the beauty of the sanctuary. To be impressed again by mystery in the telling of the Gospel. To be immersed in mystery again in the music of the church. To be inspired by mystery in silence. To be intrigued again by mystery in the lives of others around us.

Bob: Mystery drenches us, stem to stern, day and night. Like mountains overshadowing our ordered days, ranges of mystery overshadow us.

How is it that a sense of interest becomes a deep calling in life? How is it that a friendship suddenly blossoms into romance and romance into love? How is it that a regular attendance on church life catches fire, some summer Sunday, and a man enters church a churchgoer and leaves a man of faith?

How did the universe bang into something from icy black nothing? How did the stars and planets find placement? How did some 6 billion breathing humans find, after the last contraction, the cry of life? How is that, one day, a woman realizes that not only will all people die, but one day, she will too?

How does a woman find courage, on a Sunday afternoon, to leave her abusive and alcoholic husband, saying, ‘God did not mean for me to endure this and neither did my parents raise me to endure this”? How does a one time, half million dollar act of charity, rise up as a pretty good imitation of heroism, in the midst of an ordinary summer?

Why are some healed? How does it happen that an unexpected phone call changes, utterly changes, the path of a life, and many lives?

Really, breakfast to late news, we are drenched in mystery. These sayings of Jesus, arranged and edited by Matthew, if nothing else cause us to consider good news today: mystery lies at the start of something new; the start of something new is clothed in mystery. What do you make of this my son?

Chris: Before we take up the parables, I would like to point out something, a mystery of a different sort. Jesus was a young man. His earthly life, cut short at the cross, was, other than his growing up years, spent as the life of young man. His ministry was purely that of a young man. Now age 30 was not as young then as it is now, but young it was nonetheless. The one transcript in time of God in eternity is the figure of a young man! I take that as something of an affirmation of the young men in any age, and of the young men here today. Not to exclude women, or older men, like you, but just to notice the mysterious fact of Jesus’ life: he preached, taught, healed, suffered and died as a young man.

Bob: Thanks for sharing, but you had better be careful in the age of AARP and feminism not to dwell too long on this young man theme. After all, I was once a young man, and the older I get, the better I was. And your mother, sister, aunts, pastors, teachers, might take offence if you sound exclusive, rather than inclusive or pluralist.

Chris: Thanks for the advice, pops. I just thought it fit with your opening about mystery. Here is an overlooked, simple fact, and facts are stubborn things: the life Jesus knew was that of a young man. The physical growth, the personal maturation, the spiritual and sexual development, the economic pressure, the longing for friendship, the family struggles, the passion, the energy, the idealism, the fire of being a young man. We have worked for thirty years to make space for women and men in life, leadership, church, and ministry.

Bob: Fair enough. Here is a chance for you and me to share in some interpretive leadership. Today’s Gospel states:: The kingdom of heaven is like a seed, like leaven, like treasure, like a pearl, like a net. What is it that Jesus might mean by this? We read about Matthew and his interests—protecting the church against coming persecution, teaching the third generation about their history and their new faith, organizing the many stories of Jesus into a five part drama, giving the community some shape, explaining their bitter and dark experiences in the late first century by reference to even more bitter and even darker predictions about the end of time, when bad fish and good fish are scaled together. But here, in chapter 13, for a moment, the voice of Jesus seems clearly and audibly to peek out of Matthew, free for a moment from the later, inevitable worries of the church. What a miracle! What a mystery, that after 20 centuries, here and there, we can still hear His voice. There he sits, yes, as you say, a young man, perhaps a poor young man among others so struggling. He looks across his Galilean homeland, and across his life experience. He feels and sees the start of something new. Call it a kingdom. Call it a reign, or domain, or space, or sphere or orb. He points to the start of something new. You have the feeling that Matthew records, here, better than he interprets. Matthew leaves the meaning a mystery. And perhaps that is the point, after all. With the warmth of a Palestinian summer about him, Jesus says to those he draws: “this is the start of something new”. It is like…It is like…well, it is like all things that start new, it is a mystery. But the mystery is good.

Chris: I can give you five adjectives that fit this teaching about the mysterious realm of heaven on earth. The mysterious start of something new is small like a seed, expansive like yeast, hidden like treasure, precious like pearls and open like an ocean full of fish. Like the things you learn growing up, before you even go off to school. Or like the things you learn in church or sports or from friends. Perhaps that is meant to give those who are here today a sense of hope about the start of something new.

Bob: Your adjectives have made me think whether perhaps some verbs would do more work.

Chris: Well, I can think of five verbs that tell about this mystery, too. At least “ing verbs”, if they count. The mysterious start of something new is like planting, like seasoning, like finding, like buying, like catching. But in that book you had me read by Dominic Crossan, he said something that really struck me: It is one thing to communicate to others conclusions and admonitions based on one’s own profound religious experience. It was this that the Pharisaic theology did so admirably at the time of Jesus. It is quite another thing to try to communicate that experience itself, or, better, to assist people to find their own ultimate encounter. This is what Jesus’ parables seek to do: to help others into their own experience of the Kingdom and to draw from that experience their own way of life. In my generation many are struggling with apathy, technology, fears from 9/11, indifference, scientific advances like stem cell research, really fast pacing, extreme specialization. Every generation has to find its own experience of God.

Bob: Mystery is at the start of something new, and that is good news for us today.

Chris: It is good news for you if you are ready to try a new job, but are aware of all the inevitable uncertainties.

Bob: It is good news for if you if you are thinking about making a commitment to a person or an institution, but are aware of all the possible perils.

Chris: It is good news for this congregation, as you move to a time to build: for the first time in 50 years to be not only renters but owners, not only maintainers but builders, not only inheritors but donors, not only receivers but givers, and yet you know that there will be struggles.

Bob: It is good news for you, too, if you are ready to continue the steady, long pull toward a life goal, and yet sense the unexpected uncertainties at every step. The mystery of something new comes as surprise and gift. We see it in the beauty of nature, and we sense it in the power of Grace. We see it in the ash groves of natural wonder, we sense it in the communal power of love and Grace.

Bob & Chris: May this service invite you to sense the mystery in seed, in yeast, in treasure, in pearl, in catch, to sense the mystery in the start of something new.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Color Purple

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 7:31-35

(In The Screwtape Letters C S Lewis brought the gospel of hope to Britain in 1942, using the device of imaginary letters sent from a fictitious arch demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a lesser demon, Wormwood. Today’s sermon borrows Lewis’s device, though of course the content and the interpretation of Luke 7 are fully the responsibility of the preacher of the day.)

My Dear Wormwood,

Again it is my pleasure to write your annual review, you devil you. No uncle was ever prouder of a nephew than I am of you, Wormwood, given the excellent, successful year you have had making devilry among the good people of planet earth. As chief representative of the fallen angels in this part of the universe, I have a close relationship with the Prince of Darkness Himself, our Father below. You may rest assured that news of your various nefarious victories will sink to his hellish level.

Your work, Wormwood, has been nothing short of masterful. I take my horns off to you, one devil to another, and salute your destructivity. You have kept them fighting among themselves, morning to night, like children in a marketplace, mainly sighting their own interests, assured that the one truth they each hold is the only truth, the only crayon, in the box. One questions the other’s sanity, as they did John the Baptist. The other question’s the former’s morality, as they did Jesus. Good: as of old, you have muffled both the word of repentance and that of forgiveness. So you treated the prophets before. Excellent, Wormwood, excellent. I could not have done better myself, even when I wore a younger devil’s tail. Keep at it, nephew, keep at it, set them one against the other, a man against his own house, rich against poor, red against blue, radical against fundamentalist, personal ethics against social justice, doing against being. Oh the thrill we have to observe such needless division! Good boy. With this letter I enclose your official promotion, commendation, and ribbon as demon of the year, with special commendation for inciting divisive hatred.

Now, Wormwood, it would not do for me, your affectionate Uncle, Screwtape, Superintendent of demons in the near Milky Way, to let you go without a little avuncular advice. Call it a little devilish Dutch uncle advice, to keep you on your way. Down below they celebrate this weekend, the great hope of a land of the free, and a home of the brave, a community with liberty and justice for all, a place where those who have much might not have too much, and those who have little might not have too little. Ouch! It cools the fires of hell to hear such loving rhetoric. We have destructive work to do, Wormwood. Here are some bits of wisdom from me, your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.

Be most careful, Wormwood, not to let any of these groups you have so carefully set upon each other, with daggers drawn, get the idea that wisdom is justified by deeds, that wisdom is justified by all her children, that wisdom comes in more than one color. Make sure the blue stay blue, and the red stay red. Flee the color purple, Wormwood, with its ringing cry of hope, its recognition of dialectical thought, its movement toward full truth, its bow before the sin they all share. Keep them fighting. Keep the Presbyterians denouncing pride, and forgetting about sloth and falsehood. Keep the Methodists denouncing sloth, and forgetting about pride and falsehood. Keep the Lutherans denouncing falsehood, and forgetting about pride and sloth. Yes. Excellent. Children in the market place. Varium et mutibile semper. Purple is dangerous to us. If the blue start seeing that the red have a point, here and there—your cause is lost. Keep them shouting at each other, like children in a marketplace, one group wanting to play weddings and another wanting to play funerals, pipes vs. wails, dances vs. weepings. Take the purple out of their crayon boxes. You want division, Wormwood, division: gated communities, the demise of public schools, lines of suburban\urban separation, racial disease and distrust, class separations, ideological fences, and a verbal war of all against all. Children in the marketplace, as their Savior, said, yes, Wormwood, well done.

Here is an example. I hear the good heart of one of their leaders saying something about “No Child Left Behind”. That is their President’s current idea. It troubles the devil out of me to hear such good loving thought. When he said, “we oppose the soft bigotry of low expectations”, it troubled me like the devil. When he said, “we will meet violence with patient justice”, that made me squirm like the devil I am. And now this heavenly notion of No Child Left Behind. Wormwood! Wormwood, this is peril for us! This is peril for the interests of Beelzebub everywhere. Be on the lookout! If that country ever got behind that idea, and every child had medical care, education, respect—oh, it worries me. Keep them pinned down, keep their leaders pinned down, Wormwood, in tragic conflict, in financial red ink, in culture wars. And be vigilant! Sometimes they get the idea! Why, just last week an 11 year old Boy Scout, Brennan Hawkins, was lost in the Utah Mountains, and 3000 searchers looked for four days until they found him! The lost was found! Curses. Oh, the joy they had in it, too! It is like the joy a Christian has at bringing a friend, relative, neighbor to church to experience love. There is no greater joy! It makes my blood freeze. The rescuer said, “I feel relieved and happy.” (NY Times, June, 2005) Oh Lordy. See, Wormwood, see what happens when they really mean it, “No Child Left Behind”. If they stick to it we will be out of business in your part of the hemisphere. Another example, Wormwood. We head devils hate to hear about people moving from poverty to well-being. We want a permanent underclass, so that we can then use it to foment division. But this country and its mainline churches, especially the Methodists, have always championed social mobility, like that in the churches of Paul, way back when. Paul’s urban Christians were status inconsistent, and so are the living churches today. That Paul was a thorn in my flesh, that Apostle to the Gentiles, but we got him at last. We need to keep people in their place. You remember how angry I became reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. That kind of stubborn hope makes my blood freeze. That poor, violated, forgotten, betrayed, downtrodden woman, Wormwood, she kept going—and with a vision of hope! That will never do, nephew. We need to keep people in their place. Walker wrote (oh it curdled my deviled eggs): “The gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one's people that has not previously been taken into account.” That kind of perseverance really freezes my blood.

I tell you, nephew, it bothers me when liberty and justice break out, when I read about a young woman, Della Mae Justice, who was a 15 year old foster child living in a hut with a dirt floor, until her uncle came and found her and took her into his own home. He was an attorney in Kentucky. She said it was like little Orphan Annie going to live with the Rockefellers. Listen to this Wormwood, and see if doesn’t freeze your blood:

“It was not easy. I was shy and socially inept. For the first time, I could have had the right clothes, but I didn’t have any idea what the right clothes were. I didn’t know much about the world, and I was always afraid of making the wrong move. When we had a school trip for chorus we went to a restaurant. I ordered a club sandwich, but when it came with those toothpicks on either end, I didn’t know how to eat it, so I just sat there, well, staring at it and starving and saying I didn’t feel well.” (NY Times, May, 2005)

Her uncle educated her at Berea College, a school set up especially for hard working, children of the poor who want a fine education. Now she is an attorney in his firm. Wormwood! Be on the lookout! This kind of story will find its way into a pulpit if it is not snuffed out. See who we have on our side in the newspapers.

What would happen down there if this idea, no child left behind, took hold? You would have middle aged parents whose own children have grown up adopting others! You would have adoption outpacing abortion, so that abortion was not only safe, legal and rare, but rare, rare and rare! You would have liberty and justice! There would be understanding and space for gay children! Perish the thought, Wormwood, perish the thought. I hate kids and dogs, too.

And this war in Iraq. Good bit of work, there, Wormwood. Now, if you can just keep the purple crayon out of the box. My own fear is that there will emerge a consensus in the USA on how to fix this problem. Here is my suggestion: keep the blue critics of the invasion stuck in their anger over what, they judge, should never have happened—that will keep them from facing a clearly new and frightfully difficult situation with resolve, humility, and imagination; and keep the red supporters of the invasion stuck in defense of past confusions, misinformation and misjudgment—that will keep them from finding the resolve, humility and imagination needed to change course to finish the job; and keep them from talking with each other to find the purple ground—divide and conquer, Wormwood, divide and conquer. Otherwise they may find a way to gather the will of the country to finish what some judged should not have been started, and others claimed was already finished two years ago. They may find a way to invert the critique of the invasion into a plan for peace. Where the invasion was pre-emptive, the pacification could be responsive; where the invasion was unilateral, the pacification could be universal; where the invasion was imperial, the pacification could be sacrificial; where the invasion was unchartable, the pacification could be manageable. That would be our purple defeat, the defeat of all our devilry. Confusion, miscommunication, mistrust—these are your best allies, my shrewd nephew. They must not be allowed to remember a similar past conflict and its dual lessons. You helped them forget the first: they should never have gone in. Now help them forget the second: they should never have come out, until the job was done. Why, then America would be free, purple crayon in hand, to draw a picture of a nation where No Child is Left Behind.

Let me be blunt, Wormwood. When you see a red woman and a blue man determined to think together, learn from each other, and work side by side, and they have lunch at a table adorned in purple, burn the restaurant. We just cannot have that kind of synthesis going on. Thesis, yes. Antithesis, yes. But no Synthesis. Red we can stand, blue we can handle. It is the color purple that is our downfall. We cannot afford that kind of creativity, new creation, new thinking. I read that Bill Moyers and James Watt were going to have lunch to talk theology. That’s what I mean, Wormwood. Burn that restaurant.

Let me be blunter, Wormwood. When you see a church, the last place people actually gather, if they gather at all, across the red and blue divide, putting on a robe with a purple hue, weaken that church. A denomination that stands for children, for the poor, for social mobility, for justice, for Biblical, dialectical thought, not just the thunderbolts from far left and right drain that swamp. What you have done to the Methodists in the Northeast, eliminating half their membership in a generation, you need to do across the country.

I have one specific request, dear nephew. Keep your eye on that church in Rochester. They are growing. They are building. They are blue and red together. They love children. They are learning to tithe. They are starting to invite. Work on them, Wormwood. Make them fear the unknown. Make them tentative. Make them forget their children’s programs. Make them accentuate gender, race, ethnic, class divisions. Make them disagree wherever they can. I will check your work at our Halloween review.

Remember our theme song: When Satan first the black bow bent, and the moral law from the gospel rent, he turned the law into a sword and spilt the blood of mercy’s Lord (Blake).

Ah, Wormwood, so much lasting harm to do, so little time! So much opportunity for mayhem, so little time! Keep your dark side up, my boy.