Sunday, October 30, 2005

Lake Placid: A Survey of Freedom

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Philippians 4
Bible Sunday


Travel for a moment to Lake Placid. Take the trail up along the ridge of Whiteface Mountain (5000ft). Stop for an autumn moment, in the sun. East, West, South, and especially due North, here is a natural survey of mountainous freedom, symbolic of the Bible—its main theme freedom, and its four compass points of faith, fact, fairness, and future. The Bible is a book about freedom.

Life does not lack for holiness, but only for a sense of the holy. We today place in our children’s hands the gift of Holy Scripture, in an hour to worship the Holy God, in a space and place devoted to what is highest and holiest in life. So Paul can call his Philippians those “whom I love and long for”.

These moments matter. It matters how many children are baptized each year, and more, how many others could have been. It matters how many youth are confirmed each year, and even more, how many others could have been. It matters how many receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, season by season, and still more, how many others could have done. It matters how many sentient women and men hear the Good News preached on Sunday morning, and still more, how many others could have done. These things matter.

It truly matters how many of our boys and girls in Rochester are handed a Bible, and so given that priceless perspective, that eternal excitement, that reliable reservoir of the Word of God. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. The pulpit is freedom’s voice. The church is freedom’s defense. And the Bible is freedom’s book. The Bible is a survey of freedom.

Now there are other ways in which to survey the strange landscape of the Holy Scripture. What James Smart decried a generation ago, “The Strange Silence of the Scripture in the Churches”, is true of you as well. All books suffer in a video culture, including the Good Book. You may yourself continue as literate (not one who can read only but one who does), but your grandchildren are stumbling about in other thickets. So if the content of the Bible is ever stranger and more foreign in an increasingly illiterate (not those who cannot read but those who do not) culture, then how much greater is the lack of capacity to interpret the book whose contents themselves are distant relations.

The old levees of biblical understanding have given way to the great flood of video culture, whose hurricane forces have carried in the disease of Biblicism, the destruction of literalism, the rampant looting of Providentialism, the tidal crash of unbiblical bibliolatry. These levees cannot be rebuilt in a New York minute. They have to be painstakingly renewed, Bible Sunday by Bible Sunday, church school by church school, campground by campground, Disciple class by Disciple class, and sermon by sermon. We are doing some of this today. We are placing a library of liberty into the hands of another generation. We did so 15 years ago, right here, in this same sanctuary. One of those boys is in Iraq this morning. One of those girls is practicing medicine today. One of those boys is in missions today. One of those girls has her own girls today. With them, either in fact or in memory, goes the Holy Scripture. What kind of book have we given them? In what key is the music of scripture best played? What is the Bible about? From what angle of vision do we best see the Bible?


Turn East. We see the Bible with the eyes of faith. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. The righteousness of God is from faith to faith. Abraham had faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Yes, we may affirm, the Bible is a survey of faith. Faith is trusting reliance upon God. Says Huston Smith: “we are in good hands and in recognition of that fact it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.” You are committed, as Methodists, to a combination of a deep personal faith and an active social involvement. Holiness, personal and social. Ruth had faith to leave. Esther had faith to speak. Eudora and Synteche had faith to work. Faith is the courage to shake off sleep and worry and get to church on Sunday. Faith is the courage to tote up one’s income and give away 10%. Faith is the courage to keep faith with one’s partners, through thick and thin. Faith is a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. Yes, the Bible is about faith. We give our children the grammar of faith, the language of faith, the mother tongue of faith, when we give them their Bibles. Whether or not they choose to speak is their decision. Here is Paul’s testimony of this faith: “Do not be anxious about anything but in all things by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

For 2000 years women and men have found faith in the hearing of the Scripture. These are the stories and events that give us the courage to face death with dignity, disappointment with honesty, and failure with a steady hope. In the apocalyptic language of the New Testament, this faith is revealed to us. It comes by inspiration, imagination, invocation. Faith is being grasped, being seized by a love that will not let go. As Karl Barth said, visiting New York City, and asked to state his faith: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

But faith alone, with due respect and apologies to Luther, is not the whole story. In fact, such a reading of the Bible can become the Bible’s undoing. The Bible is not to be memorized, but interpreted. It is not meant only to be repeated, but to be read. It opens its pages best not to faith alone but to faith seeking understanding. In our tradition, the Bible is not the only source of truth, primary though it be. There are many places where the Bible may be theologically though not historically accurate, which leads to another thought.


Look South. We understand the Bible with the mind of reason. The Bible is, second, a book of fact. For more than 200 years, generations of scholars have critically studied the 66 books of the Bible. We have learned a great deal about its languages, history, geography. We have seen the four different hands at work in the writing of the books of Moses. The Greek influences on Ecclesiastes we now appreciate. Isaiah’s three different modes we comprehend. Jesus meets us in these wondrous pages, and the few facts of his life of which we are certain we can list, as James Sanders did years ago. We know that Paul probably did not write 2 Thessalonians, any more than he wrote 3 Corinthians, a document from the third century. The Revelation to St John we now understand, if that is the right word, in the context of similar apocalypses from antiquity. The withering inspection and criticism of the Scripture since 1750 have borne fruit. Law, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, Letters, Apocalypse: all six parts of the Bible have factual features. We have searched the Scriptures for 200 years. Here Paul names names: two women, one man, many co-workers. Facts. Earliest Christians. Facts endure. Here Paul discloses his worldview: time is short, the end is near, the day is at hand, as Dave Brubek would put it: ‘its later than you think’. Or, in verse: “The Lord is near”. It is a fact that Paul’s worldview is not our own. But his world is, and that too is a fact.

In fact, the factual limitations of the Scriptures have been the primary learning of the modern era. The world was not created in 7 days, unless by a day you mean 15 billion years. The human being was not made in a day, unless you mean by a day, the emergence out of primordial ooze that began 3 billion years ago, and is still continuing today. The words of Moses and of Jesus are not video recordings of speeches captured by unerring scribes, but are far more—words formed in the community of faith. Most famously, the scientific--religious showdown of the 20th century was captured early on in the Scopes trial of 1925. We remember or misremember the trial largely through the play Inherit the Wind which itself was more theologically than historically accurate. William Jennings Byrant was not the buffoon caricature of that fine play, nor was his enemy Darwinism as much as it was Social Darwinism, nor was the generally insipid cast of old time religion anything like accurate with regard to golden rule Christianity, then or now. Bryant is made to say, “I am more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the ages of rocks”, and is pilloried by the protagonist, Clarence Darrow: “the Bible is a book, a good book, but not the only book”. In the matter of fact, the Bible carries a more limited weight and role in our time.

But science, and its measured facts alone, can only carry a part of the sacred story. As Justice Holmes said, science gives major answers to minor questions, and religion gives minor answers to major questions. Science alone—as wonderful as it is—does not cross the bridge from fact to value, cannot swim the river from flesh to spirit, has not forded the creek from brain to mind, and cannot judge about the things that matter most—love, death, memory, hope, thought, desire, heaven and God. To the one most important question of life, God, science has no response. Because there is no conclusive evidence. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (H Smith).


Face West. We hear the Bible with the ears of fairness. The Bible is, third, a hymn to fairness. To justice, equality, the right and the good. In our time, African Americans and others have found again the liberating power of the Hebrew Scriptures, of Exodus and Amos. The suffering masses of Latin America and Asia have returned to, and been nourished by, the abiding picture of God in the Bible, God who has a preferential option for the poor. Most lastingly, the feminist movement has found in the pages of the patriarchal Bible, a warning about justice, justice delayed, and justice denied. The deep rivers of fairness and justice have been diverted to flow over the dry land of prejudice, injustice, and patriarchy. The Bible is a testament, on this view, to fairness. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God? It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. So, the Bible is a resource for liberation movements of many and good kinds, and the record of the churches in peace and justice is improved. Here in Philippians Paul asks for unity and peace. For fairness. He exposes his reliance on the kindness of strangers and the company of women. Paul had great regard for his partners in the Gospel, Eudia and Syntyche, whatever he may have written elsewhere about liturgical proprieties. “I urge Euodaia and Syntyche to be of the same mind…help these women for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel”. Beside. Not beneath. Not behind. Not before. Beside.

It is difficult to overestimate the crucial significance of this perspective on the Scripture. Real religion is never very far from fairness, from justice. Fairness does not always mean equality, nor justice always similarity. There are varieties of gifts. But the renderings of Moses, the citations of Micah, the meditations on Job, the pictures of Jesus, the readings of Paul and even the explorations of the Apocalypse which in our time have focused on fairness, and justice, have a penultimate power. “The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, said Martin Luther King. None of us fully ever deconstructs our own background, our own culture. We need, however, the whiter and maler especially that we are, to acknowledge our own privileges. The sense of limitation and injustice to which the Biblical measure of fairness responds is the gift of our time to the unforeseen future.

Still, fairness alone is not the full Bible.

Our children now see their Bibles, read with some understanding, and hear with concern. Bless their eyes and minds and hearts. Will they see the Bible in full through these lenses of faith, fact, and fairness? No, important and good as these views are, they are not the heart of the matter. They are not the heart of the Bible nor the heart of the church nor the heart of the matter. They are good, but not the final good. You will sense in them the predominant views of the Bible to date—pre-modern, modern, post-modern, or, traditional, scientific and liberal. Faith: the traditional view. Fact: the scientific view. Fairness: the liberal view. Let me show you a still more excellent way….


Head North. Follow the drinking gourd. The Bible is preeminently more than faith alone, fact preserved, or fairness defended. The Bible is a survey of freedom, divine and human. In a word, the Bible is a book about freedom. God’s freeing love, and our freedom in love. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. God’s way with us is loving and free, free and loving. You cannot coerce another into freedom, and you cannot frighten another into love. BUT NOTE THIS WELL: this freedom is mostly known as hope—hope for this earth and hope for eternal life, the future of freedom promised today.

Strangely, then, the Bible is fully and precisely the word we need in our emerging 21st century.

This is the heart of what Paul writes to the Philippians. Yes, with pre-modernity, his words celebrate faith. Yes, with modernity his words carry fact. Yes, with post-modernity, his words seek fairness. But if that is all you have heard, you have missed the marrow of his meaning. Paul is singing here a song of freedom. With the best insights in all of Scripture, these words of his carry us out into the open space of God’s future. Rejoice always…no anxiety about anything…whatsoever things are true…the Lord is near…Here is the radiance of resurrection, the freedom for which Christ has set us free. To the word of faith, Paul will say, yes, but work out your own salvation in fear and trembling. To the word of fact Paul will say, yes, but who hopes for what he sees? To the word of fairness, Paul will say, yes, but I know how to be abased and how to abound. The Bible is more than a source of inspiration, or of information or of insurrection. It is all those. But it is more. It is hope for the future! It is a survey of freedom, real freedom, the freedom from love and the freedom to love. The future holds an indestructible promise of freedom—of peace and joy in this life and of everlasting peace and joy in the life to come.

The Bible has the shocking temerity to recall for us our utter dependence on God and one another, our utter similarity before the cross, before death, before God. Personal faith, yes. Factual understanding, yes. The struggle for fairness, yes. But there is more. Our age has the chance to interpret the Bible in full, as a survey of freedom, divine and human. It is this shared gift of freedom that will deliver us from the evil of this age. We are free, and in the hands of the God of freedom. All of us. The same. In our time, we need, desperately need, to reclaim our religious commonality. Across this small planet, we are all more alike than we are different. And spare us, please, as Freud said, “the petty narcissism of small differences”.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

Ringing out—it is unmistakable in this text and on this morning and within this sanctuary—from the heart of the Bible is a transcendent hope of a future freedom, on earth as it is in heaven, but not for all that lacking in heaven. The transcendent beauty of this nave, the transcendent glory of this sanctuary, the transcendent loveliness of this music, the transcendent history of this congregation, the transcendent height of pulpit and depth of prayer here, hold a future freedom that will endure well beyond the days that all the bongo drums are in garage sales, and all the horizontal worship spaces have been reconverted to Walmarts.

This hope is for earth and for heaven. For a day when the lion will lay down with the lamb, and lamb will be able to sleep. Asbury First, this year, in a time of change, we truly need the Bible’s perspective, its survey of freedom. We need its steady affirmation of faith, to steady us when we are anxious. We need its craggy collections of facts, when we might be tempted to avoid the harder facts. We need its preference for fairness, when we might be happier to take an easier, less just route. It will take faith, fact, fairness and more for us to prevail in this year. And more. We have no words really with which to name this. But the survey of freedom that is the Bible rests on resurrection. On a reliable future. In the resurrection they neither give nor receive in marriage, but they are like angels in heaven…

Not so long ago, we gathered in radiant laughter and heartfelt tears, to sing farewell to our friend. Here is what we sang. I heard the organ play it. I heard you sing it. And I saw the courage and confidence with which you did so:

And thou our sister gentle death
Waiting to hush our latest breath
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God
And Christ our Lord the way has trod
O praise ye
O praise ye
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Howard Thurman could have spent his whole ministry absorbed in the inherited expressions of faith. He chose to move forward instead. He could have spent his whole ministry engaged in the science of history and psychology. He looked farther out. He could have spent his whole ministry upon the vital issue of racial justice. He saw a farther horizon. He saw, knew, felt, and heard the Bible as a survey of freedom. One night he spent walking the beach, wading in the surf, and listening to the stars above in a cloudless canopy. He wrote, “The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings,” wrote Thurman. “The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances. Death would be a minor thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace.”

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Ithaca: After the Fall

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Exodus 32:1-14,
Philippians 3:4-14
Ithaca’s Falls

Failure is a part of life.

If you play, you will lose. If you bat, you will strike out. If you keep your clubs and use them, you will put a ball into the sand trap. If you participate in life, you are surely going to fail…That anniversary date just slipped your mind…oops…Your husband’s birthday—that was last week…oops…

The rightwing of faith, of which Paul speaks today, brings the power to face failure: to admit it, assess it, and accept it, and then live with it. The question is not whether we will fall. We will. Trip, stumble, and fall—the fate of one and all. The question is how we live after the fall.

Like the cascading falls in Ithaca, beautiful they are, Taughannock, Treman, Buttermilk, and like the descending poetry of Ecclesiastes, soaring it is, life keeps the evening and the rain before us. “Evening”—such a multilayered, meaningful word. The Psalms and their cadence of movement from lament to thanksgiving do as well.

I missed the chance to cause our children to memorize Ecclesiastes. Pity. It is worth remembering that….all the rivers run to the sea…the sun also rises…in much knowledge is much sorrow…better is the beginning than the ending…do you see something that is new? It has been before…vanity, vanity, all is vanity…what gain has the worker from his toil?...the race is not always to the swift…time and chance happen to all

1. Admit It

We have a harder time speaking about failure than we do about money or sexuality. Yet failure is a part of life, like sunset and rain. We should be quite doubtful that we necessarily know, by the way, when we have failed. Unamuno wrote so long ago: “Truly I tell you, you do not know when you have succeeded”. Or failed, for that matter, we could add. Failure is something about which we all have direct knowledge.

It might make our children more open to their own true selves and actual experience, if we did not always expect that they be practically perfect in every way. They are human beings, not human doings, human beings, not divine. To err is human. To fail is too.

One of our less loquacious children decided, some years ago, to enroll in a high school photography course, on the mistaken information that it was an easy A. This misinformation, it happened, was powerfully mistaken in every direction. The teacher was a Prussian martinet, demanding to the nth degree. The syllabus had Latin subheadings. The reading list went nine pages. The papers were two a week and the projects two a month. There was no mercy, no forgiveness, nor grace. Only sweat, blood, and, subsequently, some tears.

Of course we knew none of this at the time. “How is your photography course?” O, fine. Good. Really. The teacher neglected to submit a midcourse grade. So, we just asked again. O, fine. Good. Really. Then the report card came, as it does, like autumn, like the stewardship appeal, like age itself. Relentless. And guess what. We had the experience of seeing the 6th letter of the English alphabet affixed under the name of one of our children. His first non A or B.


This helpful parental counsel was less than cheerfully received. As it turned out, the poor kid did have reasons not entirely of his own causation. We negotiated and moved on. But it might have been better for all involved, if the good news of the Christ who lives past failure had been more centrally on our minds. We all fail. Failure is embedded in life. If you choose to play, you will lose some. If you swing the bat at all, you will strike out. If you pay the greens fees, someday you will put one in the sand. If you decide to participate, you will fail at some point. You can bank on it.

And while our dear child may have failed, we also could truly see that we too had failed him, as had others. In hindsight. Failure, like success, is a team sport. It takes a village--to fail.

2. Assess It

One great advantage of failure admitted, is that once admitted it can teach us. We learn most from our failures.

Groups help us find the far side of failure.

We have a hard time admitting failure. Men in particular so struggle. We are quiet about our hurts.

After men’s group one morning a fine soul stepped over to me and said "Bob...your car...the Sebring...uh...did it...I mean did it, uh, die?..."

"Yah" I said...."jeez" he said..."Yah" I said...

It helps to have a small group with whom to share and consider loss, disappointment, failure. We love to succeed and we are in a success culture.

Yet our best moral exertions can, like over exercise, cause injuries, if our very noble and well chosen interest in success makes us fear, and fear failure, which is inevitable to some degree in every life.

Nothing succeeds like success.

If at first you do not succeed, try and try again.

Come back with your shield or on it.

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

Work conquers all.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….

But some measure of failure touches every one of us. And we learn some lessons:

*You will fail.

*It will not kill you.

*It will hurt, bad.

*You may learn from it.

*It may help to talk about it.

3. Accept It

The grace of failure admitted and assessed is the power to accept the past and move on. In a way, this is all that Paul is saying in Philippians 3. What he thought was success was not. What he thought of as worthless was priceless. What he once valued has been discarded. He now can rely on the health that comes from the faith of Christ. He has been set right. We may live on the basis not of what we have achieved but what we have received, not on the basis of what we have done but what God has done, not on the currency of religion but on the down payment of the spirit in faith.

Many of Flannery O’Connor’s stories make this strong point.

So, too, the great poets of our time. We just so reluctantly admit it. Here our reluctance, about unfortunate endings, hits its crest:

When to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things
And yield with a grace to reason
And to bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season (Frost)

In similar fashion, this great church stands, daily, as a powerful influence upon women and men who want to admit, assess, and especially accept failure. One comes after years of mixed experience, to return to the pew of this strong church, and to be strengthened by your strength. Another comes at the end of life, to sit in worship underneath the great pillars of the church, and to be strengthened by your strength. Another comes after abject failure, to be take a photograph in front of the great spire of the church, to be strengthened by your strength.

As your nave is like that of Yorkminster, your spirit is that of the York Anglican priest who, when asked what he would do if all the people finally left and the church collapsed, said, “Well, we would get a table and a loaf of bread and a chalice of wine and start all over again”.

That is the power that Christ gives, to live by faith, after the fall. It is the acceptance that allowed Paul, and allows us, to sing, this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.