Sunday, September 25, 2005

Utica: The Far Side of Fear

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Philippians 1,
Exodus 16
An Opening Prayer

Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Deliverance to the Captives

We are delivered from captivity, from the power of fear, in the announcement of the Gospel. It is the word of faith that delivers from enslavement to fear. From separation anxiety, survival anxiety, performance anxiety, anxiety about anxiety. The good news carries us to the far side of fear.

You may another selection, but to my ear there is hardly another text in the Holy Scripture more badly understood, and rudely interpreted than Philippians 2. In our time, it has been falsely accused of triumphalism and falsely used for religious one-upmanship. It has been cited as the basis for a kind of non-Biblical evangelism that has no common ground with the passage itself. Its last hymnic lines curl repeatedly and tiresomely from the lips of television preachers, whose work would be the very last thing the passage, its author, or its audience would affirm. A word of liberation has become, in the common hearing, a word of enslavement, of the very kind addressed and attack in the verses! Most ironically, the text of Philippians 2, and its pearl of great price, the Christ hymn of verses 5-11, is often regarded as a staunchly conservative, traditional, utterly biblical poem, when in fact it is pure Gnosticism, wholly composed, in its original frame, in a non-christian setting, only to be borrowed and used here, by Paul, to communicate with his formerly pagan Gnostic and newly Christian Philippians.

Paul is alone in prison. His own missionary work, as we can overhear from chapter 1, is under revision and redirection by others who claim he has failed in certain key areas. His own personal future is more than cloudy, including the possibility of death, and again, his ruminations in the first chapter bear this out. He acclaims deliverance for the captives, you and me, a saving drumbeat along the Mohawk river of life. He has a sight line to the far side of fear.

One little word will suffice to illumine the rest. Slave. Here the NRSV has got it much righter than earlier translations. He became a slave. What does this mean? That Jesus was an indentured servant? Hardly. Paul knows little and says less about the earthly Jesus, other than that he died on a cross. He hardly has any interest in placing Jesus in the circle of actual slavery, common as it was in his day. What then? It is a puzzle, without the floodlight of our knowledge of the main competitor religion of the day, Gnosticism. For the Gnostics to be human is to be enslaved. Every human is a slave.

The Gnostics sang hymns, like that in the Poimandres. In these hymns they celebrated a great mind in the universe. They acclaimed the forms of God. They spoke of emptying and filling. They especially and repeatedly compared human life to enslavement in these writings and hymns. To be human is to be ensnared by the elemental spirits of the universe, to be at the mercy of the cosmic, that is historical and natural, forces all around us. To be human is to be humbled by death, even ignominious death. They sang the praise of a Redeemer, who was once preexistent in the form of God, who came to earth in human guise, and who returned to the father’s house, preparing rooms for his followers, and being the most highly exalted. The name beyond all names, the light beyond all lights, before Whom all bow. Sound familiar?

Philippians 2 is a Gnostic hymn. Paul has lifted and used it, because his hearers know it and because it suits his message. It is a plundering of the Egyptians, a use of the cultural language of the day to convey great tidings of good news. You need not fear. You need not fear. God has broken in upon our fear, and invaded this life with liberation to live fully and lastingly! God’s beachhead is the cross. The cross is the presence of God in suffering. The cross is the love of God in suffering. The cross is the power of God in suffering, to free the slaves—every human being—from fear.

The Stooping Christ

I wonder if we can recapture, by the imagination, Paul’s decision to recite for himself and for his correspondents, a hymn to the faithful love of God that carries us over, to the far side of fear. Here is the outspoken leader of a religious movement charged with atheism, with rejecting the gods of the empire. Here he is alone in prison. Here he affirms what can only be affirmed by faith, the victory of the visible over the invisible, of God beyond the many gods, of Christ the failed messiah over the cross of his failure. He does so in measured, nearly serene tones.

His attention is captured by the servant Christ, here so like the figure in Isaiah. To be a human being, for Paul, is to be a slave under the control of malignant powers, to live in a world in which the human being has fallen prey to powers that are aligned and arranged against what is truly human.

As one himself immersed in fear, Paul, seized by Christ, is set to singing in his prison cell. Maybe today, given our fears, we may hear something of his happy news.

Today’s Enslavements

Of course, we do not share Paul’s world view, nor that of his Gnostic hymn writer, from whom he lifted this passage. Nor that of the Philippians. We do not believe in elemental spirits, or the cosmic star journeys, or the natural enslavement which grounds Paul’s thought, his worldview is not ours. But his world is. We live in the same world, and the Scripture, realer and harder than other writings, soberly so reminds us. We may not be Gnostics, but we know the same fears and failures that they did, and that caused them to say and sing what they did.

We are a people drenched in fear. It has been coming for a decade, increment by increment, so that now, every single initiative, every move, every dream is soggy with dread. 1998: “I did not have sex with that woman…”, and we begin to fear a famine of the word, a dearth of truth, and every public leader and statement falls under that fearful shadow. I preached in San Diego in 2000 and the woman in the pew with Jan said to her friend, “I wonder what his agenda is?” 1999: You have forgotten Y2K? We had a committee on it here. Will the ball fall on New Year’s at all? 2000: a forever election, still not resolved in some minds, causing a fear that ripples still about the reliability of counters and machines and institutions and courts. 2001: 9/11, and the smoke is still swirling in our nostrils. 2002: the ramp up of the case, el Qaeda, WMD, testimony at the UN, a darkening horizon. 2003: war, begun, ended, and endless. 2004: an election decided by the state of Ohio, bitterly contested, making good friends think thrice about which issues they will mention. And 2005: the rain fell and the flood came and the wind blew and beat upon the house divided against itself. Hurricane upon hurricane. Friends, that decade long cascade of fear is the best illustration I can give you of what the ancients meant by the enslavement of the human condition, the cosmic powers, the elemental spirits of the universe. They cause fear.

Things Fall Apart

From the days of Natie Bumpo to the hoola hoop, Utica succeeded. Nestled along the lovely Mohawk River, in some clear day view of the Adirondack foothills, this settled combination of waves of immigrants has had a storied history. Its older sections and neighborhoods still adorn and beautify like Cana of Galilee. Today, however, one would not necessarily point to Utica as a great shining city on a hill. It feels like a town whose best days are past. The older I get, the better I was, saith the preacher. It feels like a fear of the future has bought property in Utica, controlled the means of production there, been elected to school boards and hospital corporations, infiltrated the fire and police departments, been elected to high office, and generally set the rhythm, tone and beat in this once fair city. It would be nice to think that the dynamics there are unique to the state of New York.

We are within earshot of another word, another way of being. My teacher put it this way: Paul conceives of sin as a power, not as defilement or guilt. In the thoroughly real event of Christ’s crucifixion, God’s war of liberation was commenced and decisively settled, making the cross the foundation for Paul’s apocalyptic theology…God has done it!...You are to live it out!...You are to live it out because God has done it and will do it…” We truly can live it out, over against all the freeze tag fears that keep us in distress. Christ is with us! In Spirit! And Truth!. In kindness, in community, in dreams, in ingenuity, in hope.


Kindness helps us find the far side of fear.

My friend took his own rascally dog, Spot, to the veterinarian, and sat, among a dozen humans and another dozen canines in the waiting room. Spot was in like a shot and out like a shot, and howled like the hound he is. But as Spot and his weary owner were bidding the vet farewell, they saw a strange moment of blessing.

Up toward the examination room walked a nine year old girl, holding, like a temple offering, a motionless mound underneath a blanket. She walked to the doctor. She stopped. She slid the blanket aside to show a motionless, just breathing pet, utterly American, of 15 different blood lines. A mongrel, but her mongrel. The dog looked about 400 years old, ears drooping, tongue lax, eyes glazed, resting in some young but familiar arms. The looked at each other, the young woman and the old doctor. A long field of silence spread out between them, and gradually engulfed the whole waiting room. And her pleading eyes said, “Can you help?” And his weathered eyes said, with the reluctance of the heart, “I truly wish I could”. Then her eyes began to fill and to say all that we really cannot say without the laughter of love and the tears of tenderness. His eyes bowed a little to show respect, to honor. She found somewhere the strength to lift up the old pooch, up to where the doctor’s arms could enfold the dog. And he stooped down, down far enough to where he could take the blanket and all its precious treasure. He whispered to her ear, lightly touched her head, bestowing a hug and a kiss and what may have been her first real blessing, which was all that kept her solvent as she tumbled, headlong and convulsed, through the outer door. Those who can touch us at the hour of death do offer such a blessing.

A Community of Helpers

Others help us find the far side of fear.

The Oneida parsonage is an ante-bellum main street battleship with 2 living rooms, 3 floors, 5 bedrooms, 2 studies, and, best of all, balloon ceilings punctured at various places by preachers’ kids over the decades. Across the street is an acre lawn, which at age 13, and for a set price, I agreed to rake. The autumn days went by. Other things interfered. It rained a lot that fall. I sat watching the rain, under the balloon ceilings, knowing that once the snow came it would be too late. I feared that, and gripped by that fear I failed. I just never quite got at it, at the right time, and winter came, and failure and shame. Imagine the relief when, in the springtime, others and family and friends and church helped move the snow sodden leaves. I had to ask. But asked, they helped.

Dreams that Reveal

Dreams help us find the far side of fear.

This summer, after some days to rest, and once I could sleep through the night, to 6am not 4am, I had this dream. It was set in the Oneida parsonage living room, whose balloon ceilings carried the tell tale marks of childhoods past. Two of the most Christian women I have known sat beside me, in the dream, one from Syracuse and one from Rochester. They have never met but they share loyalty, love, fidelity, good humor, widowhood and some age. It is 6am and I wake up screaming at them, “I cannot do a week’s work for a day’s pay”. I shout it rudely and twice. Then I wake up.

Here is our fearful dilemma, which a now and then dream does reveal. You cannot sustain the ministry of the church for 10cents on the dollar, or one penny for seven. Dreams identify problems that then can be solved (a problem identified is a problem solved), and so show us the far side of fear.

A Little Ingenuity

Ingenuity helps us find the far side of fear.

Utica does evoke the fear of failure. Twenty years ago, though, long before the book Who Moved My Cheese, some Utican decided to fly a kite, to try something. He took the empty factories, and open streets, and remaining vacant parks, and civic need and added…sneakers and ingenuity. He created The Boilermaker, the world’s largest 15k footrace, which draws 12,000 participants a year, and ends with a Sunday morning celebration that includes nourishment, rock and roll, prizes, oranges, jet planes, fireworks, pins and mugs and hugs, all out behind the old Utica Boiler Factories. Rather than seeing only what was wrong, he bought some sneakers, took lemons, and made lemonade. And some other beverages. Monet was asked once what he added to his paints and oils to make such colorful beautiful portraits: “brains” he replied. A little ingenuity will carry us to the farther side of fear.


Historical perspective helps us find the far side of fear. As Wesley said, the clergy are meant to represent the unity and continuity of the church through the ages.

The cathedral in York, we felt, evoked the beauty of this Asbury First sanctuary. Certainly it carries more age, more expanse, more detailed artistry than our own dear church, and yet it still carries that spiritual resemblance that we do sense in one place for another.

So we might want to listen to a York voice for a New York minute. Practicing Christians and vibrant congregations are increasingly rare in Europe. A York minister, a priest in the Church of England, was confronted recently with this stark reality. Membership in decline, buildings in disrepair, programs in disarray.

The question he was asked might have been one I could have written:

“the church is dying, and what shall we do when it is gone”.

Oh, he said, unflappable, “Well, yes, that might could happen, given, you know, the currents of the times, and the, shall we say, less than spirited energy of our people for things other than the material, yes, my good fellow, it could so do.”

“Whatever then will you do?”

“Oh, I suppose then, why we will find a table, a loaf, and carafe of wine, and we will start all over.”

There is the persistence of faithful leadership. There is the process of faithful leadership. There is the purpose of faithful leadership.

Therefore, work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

Pastoral Prayer:

Gracious and Holy God, You who has enfolded us with Your Spirit, we are grateful that You created us free and curious persons, inhabitants of this beautiful earth. You have revealed Your love for us by giving us the capacity to make choices, the ability to heed Your guidance, and the constancy of Your Presence that can still our fears. We lay before You our prayers for our city, for our nation, for our world all with its sores and wounds, its soldiers that fight for freedom’s sake, its fears and frustrations, its ideals and its injustices, its affluence and its agony. Make us quiet before its needs that we may be moved by Your Spirit to respond from our hearts. We come in faith with even our most personal petitions; so we pray: let our love for one another be warm and tender and our compassion responsive and deep. Hear our soft tears when we weep for loneliness or out of fear; inspire us to pray and to respond to those left homeless and ever fearful because of storm upon storm; extend Your cool hand to quiet us when anger is a feverish illness; watch with us in our hour of death; bless the grieving with the comfort that every grief is known in Christ’s heart and safely shared in the company of Christ’s people. Change us O God from a fearful people to Your confident people, from closed to open, from shaken to courageous, that we might risk the work of establishing peace, justice and equality, right here, over there, everywhere. Grant us all some new hope and reassurance because we have been together to sing Your Praises, to hear Your Word, and to be strengthened once more to seek Your Will and to walk in Your way. We know that in all things You work to bring forth whatever may be good. Therefore, we open our lives to You with the yearning prayer of generations: Come Holy Spirit, Come. Grant us Thy peace. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Albany: Crossing the Hudson

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Philippians 1,
Exodus 16


There is a majestic bridge spanning the northern Hudson river as you drive west into Albany, a thin whisker of a bridge overcoming a great chasm—like the narrow gate, and the straight way that lead to life, and to the difference between the good and the great, and between the almost true and the truth. We call you today to cross over the river! Leave the east bank of the good for the capitol region of the great!

These rivers of freedom running across our state carry majestic chords of memory, as well: the defense of the revolution in Kingston and Fort Stanwix and Ticonderoga; the travels of Harriet Tubman, crossing the Hudson, to and fro, to meet with the abolitionists in Boston, with John Brown down from Lake Placid, with Gerritt Smith and others; the voice of Franklin Roosevelt, carried along from New Hyde Park, his place of childhood, of manhood, of debility, and of courageous physical renewal; and just a little bit east, in the White Mountains, the voice of our one poet, Robert Frost, who asks of us a certain height. These various river crossings carry a hint of liberty, a whisper of freedom, a twilight afterglow of the set free gospel which our passages today acclaim.

Hudson Moses

I pity those who cannot overhear, when the need arise, the steadying confidence of a physically broken, spiritually muscular, Albany formed governor, who became President in the afterwash of the various floods of the 1920’s. How much of Roosevelt’s empathy was forged in his polio? How much of that abiding concern for the least, the last and the lost came directly out of personal faith wrought in personal experience? And how much do we miss when we think that the divine can use only our wellness and not our brokenness? At the start of the New Deal: The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. Would you not have liked to have been at Chautuaqua in the summer of 1936 to hear one sentence: This generation of Americans has a rendevous with destiny. Or his last, fourth inaugural: We have learned that we cannot live alone at peace; our own well being is dependent on the well being of other nations. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community. Or his first, in the depths of the depression: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Strength in Weakness

We have lived long enough at ease with the pervasive materialism of our culture. We have abided long enough the distinguishing sense of entitlement which is the hallmark of our county. We have long enough appeased the abject loneliness of exurban America. It is time to cross the river, to cross the Hudson, to cross over to a disciplined, fierce commitment to the truth of the gospel, the faith of the gospel, as Paul says today. We may feel beset, before and behind. A tragic war. A horrific flood. Four years of images, in memory, we still have trouble imagining. Gas at $3 gallon. But it was not the might of the straggling Israelites which bound them to Yahweh. The bread of heaven, the mysterious manna, was given daily to a broken, cantankerous, cautious, doubting, stumbling crew of people, like every generation, brand new to the challenges of freedom. Nor was the might of Paul of Tarsus which bound him to Christ Jesus. The grace of the gospel came daily to a broken, lisping, epileptic, cantankerous, cautious, stumbling, short, tentmaker. Why do we think that the divine has use only for our strength? I draw your scrutiny to this easy to miss locution, “the faith of the gospel”, by which Paul addresses his Philippians. This is the lived truth by which the earliest Christians and you today find courage to cross over the rivers of life, from the Hudson to the Jordan. It is a faith and truth which occasions imprisonment, receives attack, and evokes opposition.

For many years our children’s great grandmother resided in an Albany nursing home. Her condition and her nobility in those years are somehow easier now to appreciate, with the advantage of some age and some distance. Her concern always to present herself with dignity, no matter what opposition, lingers like a fragrance. Her tenacious affirmation of the faith of the gospel, over against much physical opposition, remains clear in the memory. The price of freedom is vigilance, eternal vigilance. True for the physical life, and truer still for the life of faith.

One day, following the morning service, we visited a similarly dear saint in her home. She had been in hospital that week, and sat recuperating in her parlor. Her family was with her. And she had a story to tell.

That Tuesday, she prepared to be taken, by ambulance, from one hospital to another, for a particular procedure. She is a fine, older Methodist lady, so she prepared herself with what dignity one can muster in a hospital bed, robed in a hospital gown, and alone in the corridor of life. A little makeup, a comb and brush, some careful adjustments of remaining raiment, glasses perched, smile shining.

She could see the elevator door open, and her stretcher moving out. Then the attendants clearly mentioned her name as they signed the paper work at the desk. The nurse motioned across the hall in the general direction of her room. She poised herself, prepared to be a good, courteous patient. Down the hall the men came, and she waved. They returned the gesture. To her door they rolled—and then, remarkably, rolled on by! They passed to the next room, one inhabited alone by a frail, kindly woman who is deaf as a post. “Mrs. Smith?” “YES” she replied, her volume in inverse proportion to her accuracy. Into the stretcher went the wrong woman, and down the hall they moved. My dear parishioner called out, used her buzzer, flailed her arms like a gypsy at the campfire. But in a New York minute they were gone, carrying away the wrong person. On the way home, following the procedure, someone apparently had the presence of mind to look at the stretchered woman’s wrist band, name tag. I wonder how the reader felt not to see the name Smith. A rare moment of revelation. In this case, little lasting harm occurred. Our hospitals, in fact, to my eye, given their hourly commitment to excellence and attention to detail, put other institutions to shame. We all know the fear of the wrong arm amputated, the wrong knee replaced, the wrong woman put in the stretcher. Physician’s malpractice. But the news, good news, of medical malpractice is that you know soon—an hour, a day, a decade—what has happened, and you can endure it or correct it. So it goes with the physician’s malpractice.

Not so with the metaphysician’s.

Biological error lasts, at most, a lifetime. Theological error resides for three generations, or more. If, as ML King Sr. said, ‘it takes three generations to make a preacher’, then it also takes three generations, or more, to recognize and correct the effects of metaphysical malpractice. You cannot fully see its effect for 20 or 40 or 60 or 80 years. And it is a short way from birdie to bogie, from clean cuts to nicks and scratches in innocent organs, mistaken severations and amputations, blood spilled and shed in the wrong bed. Choose the physical mistakes, for the metaphysical are so much more insidious, more damaging, more real.

1. Representation is good, Redemption is great

We risk harm when we replace redemption with representation. Remember, friends, you are listening to a liberal of the liberals. But when we let the very worthy interests in representation eclipse the main work of the gospel, in redemption, we are making a surgical mistake. Direction, selection, election---shaping the future on the basis of representation, rather than redemption will not work, in the long run. Let us have Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, African Americans, women, gays, tall, short, and otherwise multiplicitous leaders. But let us not elect them on that basis, mainly or only. Let us learn from our experience. Can they preach? Have they done so? Is there fruit? Do they have experience, proven not just promised? If not, we fail them, we fail ourselves, we fail our God. We need to cross the river from representation to redemption!

2. Incantation is good, Incarnation is great

We risk harm when we replace incarnation with incantation. The gospel of John affirms the incarnation of the Christ, in the flesh. That is—children’s flesh, adolescent’s flesh, young couples’ flesh, people, people, people. The image of God. We have forsaken our passionate interest in people, young or old, fat or thin. Half our membership in the Northeast has been erased, since my ordination. Cataclysm. Apocalypse. A moment, maybe this one, when you look down at the stretcher and you see that the nametag is not what you expected. And you face failure. Face it. It won’t kill you. Denying it will kill more than facing it. We have decided to enjoy incantation, instead, the pseudo worship that has eviscerated many of our churches across the region. We, for the most part, have not wanted to do the hard work of preaching and liturgical preparation. We prefer easy incantation to the rich announcement of incarnation. People notice. We need to cross the river from incantation to incarnation!

3. Innocence is good, Integrity is great

We risk harm when we replace integrity with innocence. Innocence is not holiness, nor holiness innocence. While there are many facets to this single haphazard metamedical blunder, the matter of sex alone should make it clear. In our region we no longer talk about sex—a tragic silence given the unfiltered filth of the internet that has invaded most homes far beyond our poor power to add or detract. After the flames of the 60’s Jack Tuell and a couple of other Bishops sat over coffee and came up with the phrase, “in singleness celibacy, in marriage fidelity”. Given the chaos of the time, the phrase made some ordering sense. But today it has served to muzzle and muffle fully honest talk about sex. Tuell’s own confessional, repositioning sermon on homosexuality specifically mentions, and laments, the phrase. But the gays are the least of our problems. Our malpractice has caused fairly good people to mask their struggle for integrity, in failure as well as success, with a false innocence, assuming there can be no integrity without innocence. Our own area has had past denominational leadership that was struggling with personal identity and sexual expression. Is there any wonder that we have no significant conference or area work on human sexuality? We need to find our voice again, to honor God’s good gift of sexuality, and its best expression within the sacramental rite of marriage. We need to pull the scalpel out of the wrong intestine, and wash up and start again. We need a fuller conversation. You can have integrity and holiness without innocence. I might redact Tuell this way: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity. We are crossing a river from the east bank of innocence to the great capital region of integrity!

4. Independence is good, Interdependence is Great

We risk harm when we replace just war with just war, interdependence with independence. The 2003 invasion of Iraq jettisoned our inherited experience codified in just war theory. It was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, post-Christian, immoral, and wrong. Anybody with half a Bible could see that. But what did our pulpits say in 2002 and 2003? With a baker’s dozen exceptions, across the country, we said: not sure, don’t know, support the troops, what a world, hope it all works out, give it up to God… We had the wrong woman in the stretcher all along, but we just were too busy tuning our electric guitars to see so. Now 1900 are dead in Iraq, and hundreds more in New Orleans. It took 25 years, but the chickens did come home to roost. Let us cross over the Hudson, from the quiet eastern shore of independence to the brightly lit capitol of interdependence!

5. Christology is good, Theology is great

We risk harm when we replace God with Jesus. I love Barth, too, but Jesus is not all the God there is. We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity. Just when the gentle wisdom of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Huston Smith and so many others might have broadened our creaky Christomonism, we let in the Calvinists. Yes, we want to name the name. The name that is above every name. But that name does not drown the others, like a Gulf hurricane, or bomb the others, like a Desert Storm, or burn the others like a terrorist hijacking. When John wrote “I am the way…”, he meant that wherever there is a way-- there is the Christ, wherever there is truth-- there is Christ, wherever there is life-- there Christ is, too. The day I met the Clergy Session of Conference, at Syracuse University, to be passed on for orders, Huston Smith walked over to the session from his office on the other side of the quad. He stood by me, outside as I waited. I was nervous. He assured me I had no reason to be. We need that voice today! The mystery of God is greater than the measure of Calvin’s mind, and greater than the Christology of the Reformation, and greater than the purpose driven life. We are crossing over the raging river from exclusivity to particularity, from Christology to Theology!

6. Giving is good, Tithing is great

We risk harm when we replace tithing with giving. The Christian life involves specific, serious commitments with regard to time, to people, and to money. To be a Christian is to worship weekly, to keep faith in marriage and other close relationships, and to give away 10% of what one earns. Not more than 10% but not less either. Where did we go off the reservation here?

The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in tithing, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in tithing, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of exurban life receives its denial in tithing, not in mere giving. We have spent too much time trying to encourage people, bit by bit, to keep faith.

How would your spouse feel if you said, “You know, I was 40% faithful this year, a 5% increase from last year.” That would not fly in my home. Other things would fly (pans, knives, etc), but that would not! Nor can this euphemistic blather about “abundance”, a culture of abundance, last much longer. We need full affirmation of a culture of scarcity, not abundance, and the virtues, once our stock in trade, that come with scarcity: frugality, saving, temperance, industry, and, yes, tithing. Let us cross over and rest in the shade of the tithing trees!


This is the “faith of the gospel”, which carries us across the river of life. Robert Frost is not from Albany, but he was not far from Albany either. As the choir will now sing in Randall Thompson’s composition, we are guided by his great star, that asks of us a certain height…

It asks of us a certain height
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame to far
We may take something like a star
To stay our minds on
And be staid.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

New York:The View from Ellis Island

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Exodus 14,
Philippians 1

A Dream of Deliverance

The view from Ellis Island is your best perspective on 9/11. That is, the joyful memory of past deliverance gives the power to withstand current confinement. True for Moses, for Paul, for you, for all. It is the view from Ellis Island that saves after 9/11.

About 15 years ago, when the Carousel Mall was still new, a religious temple built, and now being rebuilt, for the gods of getting and spending and laying waste of powers, 400 people gathered in the Mall’s top floor room, to enjoy breakfast, the view, and the featured speaker, Mario Cuomo. He began with light banter, wondering how in the midst of state recession the local developers had found the capital to build, and teasing them about ‘looking into it’. He told about meeting President Reagan for the first time. As he crossed the room to be introduced the jolly President said, ‘You have no need to introduce this man. I would know him anywhere. A great American, leader, and Italian American. I am proud to greet Lee Iacocca at any time’. He spoke knowingly about the needs of central New York, but also had to spend time acknowledging the shortcomings that soon would bring his defeat. He began at 8:20 and I did not look at my watch until 9:15. I believe it is the most powerful public oration I have personally heard, and it was delivered without a single note. As George Eliot might have said: “ingenious, pithy and delivered without book”.

He concluded by talking, as he had in 1984, about Two Cities, one set on a hill, and one set far below. Two Countries, one rich and one poor. Two Nations, one for the many well to do, and one for all the others—the poor, the frail, the elderly, the disinherited, the minority. Two Realities, as different as night and day. After Katrina, his words sound very contemporary. You can hear his voice in the magic of the internet, 21 years later: Ten days ago, President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn't understand that fear. He said, "Why, this country is a shining city on a hill." And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill. But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate. In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can't find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city.

It was a striking kind of sermon to deliver, at the height of economic wellbeing in that part of the state, a sort of Robin Hood homily for the Sheriffs of Nottingham in the Carousel Mall. I only cried once, at the end, when he talked about his mother coming to this world across Ellis Island. “The young Italian woman and her small child stepped on U. S. soil for the first time at Ellis Island in New York harbor. The immigration official got her vital statistics and then asked her, “How much money do you have? “None,” she said, “Maybe a few dollars.” “How much education do you have?” “Not much,” she answered. “What skills do you have for employment?” "None,” she replied. “What does your husband do?” “He works in New Jersey in the trenches,” she said. “You mean he is a ditch digger?" he clarified. “Yes,” she replied. The official asked, “You are telling me that you have come to America, with no money, no education, no marketable skills, with a small son and a husband who is a ditch digger?” “What were you thinking?” “I was thinking that my son will grow up here and be the Governor of New York State,” said Mario Cuomo’s mother.”

That is the dream of Ellis Island, the spirit that made this state and country so great. That is the remembrance of our common faith, our confidence in a future, still as open and as terrifying as it was for a poor Italian woman, looking out at Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. That is also, and very much so, the heart of Exodus 14 and Philippians 1, the cry of the heart for deliverance from tyranny. The place from which to view 9/11 is Ellis Island. The way to think about the tragic horror of the Twin Towers and the other unspeakable hurts of that day is by the faith of Jesus Christ, the Son of the same God who fought for the slaves of Egypt, and prevailed, the Son of the same God who broke the spiritual shackles of Paul of Tarsus, and prevailed. This is your faith. For at our best, this country has been the last best hope, a city set on a hill, a place of liberty and justice, not only for some, nor even just for most. And those who know what they have received, by the power of God, and the expanding circle of freedom that is the meaning of Jesus Christ, can see things clearly-- from Ellis Island. That is the great insight of our best history, sung by Emma Lazarus—keep all the fine things and people, give us the poor, and little faith, and see what we can do!

It helps to have a reminder of our faith, from the life and voice of someone, like Cuomo, who has known height and depth, poverty and wealth, how to be abased and how to abound. The sociologists call such an one ‘status inconsistent’. Many early Christians, the first readers and writers of our New Testament, were ‘status inconsistent’, too.

That is, beloved, to get to the far side of terror, to get past 9/11, and all manner of similar tragedy, we truly will need, together, to rely on the faith of Christ, and to take the long view, and to take the view of deliverance, as did the slaves in Egypt, as did Paul in prison, and has have you, when the chips were down. The joyful memory of past deliverance is the key to withstanding current confinement.

A Day of Deliverance

Our passage from Exodus is the most important one in the Old Testament. It is so significant that it gets quoted in Joshua, rehearsed in Isaiah, remembered in Jeremiah, explored in the Psalms, and recited every Passover in the Seder meal. It is the basic frame on which the wonders and words of Jesus were understood in early Christianity. It is bedrock, hallmark, heart, core. The main thing. The one thing.

So it is somewhat surprising that surveys show that many do not know much about Moses, or the story just read of Moses, great Moses, leading his slave sisters and brothers in a great fleeing from Pharaoh.

Moses, as the story goes, hidden in the bulrushes, to be spared persecution, and was found and raised by the daughter of the great Pharaoh. That is about as ‘status inconsistent’ as it gets: an Israelite slave given the palace for his home. As a young man, worked in Midian to shepherd for his father in law, killed an Egyptian who opposed him, and suffered mightily the shame and hurt of his people. Moses rose up as a liberating leader of his people, and eventually led them out of bondage.

Up to the Red Sea they came, and the waters parted for them, returning to clog the wheels of the chariots of Empire. A paradigmatic power, not a naturalistic one, says Brueggemann, and he is right enough. God is not a meteorological manager, but meets us as the power of freedom scraping its way home in life. The memory of the Red Sea, now largely conceded to lie beyond any historical tracing, is the paradigm of our faith. God brings good out of evil. God sends grace to overabound sin. God opts for the poor. God makes a way when all you see is a wall of water. Are we not in a week when we can hear that? God is at work in the world, powerfully, to make and keep human life human, and your hands are doing that work. Out went the Israelites to the wilderness of Sinai, and down came the water that clogged Pharaoh’s chariot wheels.

The chariot wheels of Empire sometimes do get stuck the mud. The chariot wheels of order and rank sometimes do find themselves mucked up. The chariot wheels of great governments sometimes do find themselves halted and stymied. Then you need leaders who are not horsemen but chariot experts. And then Pharaoh and Empire are made to face what otherwise could stay in the shadows. That we forget the poor to our own damnation. By apocalypse, this past week, the central lesson of the Bible—real religion is never very far from justice—by apocalypse we have had to face this again. You do not break the commandments, especially 1, 3, 6, and 8 with impunity. You are broken by them. We thought somehow that our neglect of the lower 15% would go unnoticed in the universe.

Have you taught your children to remember the commandments? (Here, recited). Life, over time, will teach them, but experience is such a harsh teacher. There are so many things it is better not to have to learn from experience.

We may want simply to recall the basic contours of the Christian life: Praise God in private and public by daily prayer and weekly public worship; Be faithful in deed and speech to your partners and spouses; Give away a tenth of what you earn each year. Worship God, Keep Faith, Tithe. This is what it means, at a basic level, to begin the Christian life.

We have learned 9 to 11 religious lessons for and from 9/11:
• Religion matters
• Real religion is never very far from justice
• Religious perspective about heaven matters greatly
• We are woefully under prepared to think about world religions
• Religion involves hatreds as well as loves
• Religion, good religion, deserves our best dollars and hours
• Religion needs our best attention
• The great visions of religious perspectives, the utopian horizons, need to fuel our imaginations
• All of life is religious—even anti-religious postures and perspectives are fully, even sharply, religious
• We are not viewed with esteem from all the corners of the globe
• We face, across the globe, a violent, angry enemy, whose designs will not be resisted merely by the singing of hymns.

The children of Israel remembered, as they composed these verses during the later captivity in Babylon, that the joy memory of past deliverance brings power to resist present confinement.

A Declaration of Deliverance

Another status inconsistent soul greets us from behind bars, this morning. He too, in a time of terror, would have us meet the morning with joy. He is now somewhere near the end of his life. Thessalonians, Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans are in the rear view mirror. His imprisonment—could it have been something he said?—is for the sake of the good news, says he. Remember where he is…

The slammer, the joint, the tank, the hoosegow, the calaboose, prison, jail, the big house, up the river, in stir, doing time. There is a reason that Matthew 25 marks this condition alongside hunger, nakedness, loneliness, and sickness. The great prisoners, Socrates, Paul, King, Sadat, find a loosening of their mental shackles even in the grey bar hotel.

It is the imagination that most needs loosening, when one is caught in prison. And the imagination is everything for the future. After 9/11, we determined upon a military course, one part of which has our chariot wheels mired in Iraq. Our action was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, and in those measures stood alone, across our long history, in overt contradiction of inherited just war theory. Now the question is whether, as a people, we can summon the imaginative power to free up a shackled situation. Can we not wonder together, and imagine together, a shared resolution?

One alternative would be to return to these same temporarily jettisoned principles, and find our way back home through them. To foreswear any future preemption: to say clearly and repeatedly that we are not in the business as a people of attacking others who have not attacked us or others. To actively engage a multiplicity of nations and organizations of nations: to recognize that for all the layers of inertia, the UN—which is both Kofi Annan and Dag Hammarskjold—or something very like it is a necessary tool. To forcefully eschew any advantage of natural resource, even in a time of shortage: our hands must be clean of oil. To set a clear time line: go in, finish, get out, soon. The just war arguments have proven, tragically, to be the stronger. Perhaps, together, across the older divisions of whether we should have or shouldn’t have gone, we may find our way home by observance of these centuries old principles. I believe we can. But I also believe we have about a year left, at most, to do so.

The phrase translated so weakly here, ‘your sharing in the gospel’, is one of my favorites in all of scripture. The RSV had it somewhat better, “the partnership of the Gospel”, but the original is best, the koinonia of the gospel—the mutuality, conviviality, priceless and freeing community of the Gospel! My brother minister, Ken McMillan, used the phrase to define his whole ministry—the partnership of the Gospel. Ken gave me the proverb, Plan for the worst; hope for the best; then do your most; leave all the rest! He gave the best succinct advice for happiness in ministry: care for your family first; preach with all you have; spare nothing in visitation—hospital, officey, home. He gave us a great family, from Los Angeles, Doug and Carol Major. But mostly he gave the light of this verse.

Paul sits in prison. His deliverance is another view from Ellis Island. He remembers the joy of past liberation, the freeing kindness of his Philippians, and he finds a way forward.

A Discovery of Deliverance

Our forebears in faith donned their faith in struggle. We all have our ‘status inconsistencies’. You have too. You may want, this special Sunday, when we remember a time of terror, to recall one of those points in life where faith did see you through. Not your own belief, but faith, the faithful love of Christ Jesus. Faith finally is personal. It is worked out, in blood, and in fear and trembling. To be yours it must be yours. That is why the document soon to appear which records the dozen lay witnesses from this summer is so central to our life together.

Our one city, New York, harbors crystal treasures, from the Cloisters, to Harlem and its new Dinosaur Barbeque, to Central Park—the mother of all village greens, to Little Italy and Wall Street and Battery Park. Your children need to see the inside of the United Nations. They should ride the elevator of the Empire State Building. They should walk Fifth Avenue, and eat a pretzel. In the writing of this sermon, there were barely reigns enough to keep the multiple horses of memory from stampeding all over the remains of the message. It is too much. We owe debts of spiritual gratitude to Reinhold Niebuhr for wrestling down Harry F. Ward, to Abraham Heschel for exalting Amos, to William Sloane Coffin for fighting off fundamentalism, to Paul Tillich for love of culture. New Yorkers all.

A humbler, darkened spot will forever, however, hold most power in our life. In our second year of marriage, the last year of seminary, and Jan was with child, we learned a little about deliverance. I was employed as a night watchman on 122 St, the requirements for the job, ideal for study, being height, weight and an unpleasant disposition. One late night Jan called in terrific pain. Something was wrong. We took a cab to St. Luke’s on 112 and Amsterdam. The doctor said to me, memorably, “I do not know how bad this is, whether she will make it, and especially whether the child (then 18 weeks or so) will either. Call your family”. That night my theological education began, in truth. The whole range of study and life took on a completely different hue. Alone, early in the morning, I found myself in a humble, dark spot, a pew in the back of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I prayed, if you can call it that. My mother in law came and made residence for a week. My classmates appeared, to me, to be on a different planet, and so, as well, for my teachers, with one exception. Gradually the hours passed, and more gradually deliverance came. The cyst was removed. Mother and child survived. Mother in law and son in law survived each other. We lived to another day, a different day. A quick move to an open, small church in Ithaca. Departure from a great city, a plan of further study, a range of some freedoms. Suddenly, all of the waves of responsibility—spouse, parent, pastor, neighbor—splashed ashore. And we made it out alive. This, too, is the view from Ellis Island, the long look forward into freedom following deliverance. The far side of terror. The new creation. New York, city of freedom for those in need, means for me a wife and daughter, a wife saved and a daughter given.

And in that sliver, as your experience also teaches, we know Moses, we know Paul, and we know the freedom for which Christ has set us free. There is something else in the remembered dawn light streaming through the windows of St. John the Divine. A sense, a confidence, that however the medical situation had concluded, somehow, someway, God would see us through.

A Declamation of Deliverance

The place from which to view 9/11 is Ellis Island. You, people of faith, take your stand on the shores of deliverance, on the coast line of liberty, along the moving tide of freedom, in the great surf of salvation. Emma Lazarus’s poem, in full, is your song. Sing it.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; >br>Her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep ancient lands your storied pomp”, cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door