Asbury First United
Text: Philippians 1,
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.
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.
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.