Asbury First United
Text: Philippians 1,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.