Asbury First United
Text: Luke 17: 11-19
Our friend arose early one Sunday morning last month to work on his sermon. His wife found him on the couch, as she came down stairs. From the kitchen she called out that the time to go to church was past. He did not hear her. He was dead.
His body was laid out in an old Auburn funeral home. The irrepressible sociability and fellowship of many Methodists, and many of them ministers, in that old funeral home, in a venerable Empire State city, all the talking and talking, could not muffle the stark arrival of the last day.
Too early…Unexpected…Unfair…Terribly sad…
The preacher is familiar with the line of death. Few of us go up home right in the midst of writing a sermon, but most sermons are written and given with that sense of portent. Luther said, “I preach as a dying man to dying men.” The preacher knows the quaking fear of the matador, looking across the stadium as the bullfight begins. She knows the sudden terror of the private detective, alone in the dark, who comes upon an unknown intruder. The preacher circles backward in the ring, a boxer avoiding a knockout blow. Matador, Private Eye, Boxer—the preacher is struggling for life in the face of death. I remember thinking of Sophie Phillips, a parishioner in midlife, passing her on the aisle in the benediction on Sunday, only to preach her funeral on Friday. It is a strange vocation to speak about God and about 20 minutes every Sunday, never knowing for whom this Sunday will be the last.
One could take some real pride in being laid to rest almost anywhere in the Empire State. Auburn is no exception. Here with the modern reason William Seward heroically opened the future. Here with a post-modern praise of justice, before its time, Harriet Tubman lived the latter half of her life. Here Lester Schaff found a great open space, an emblem of a global goodness, now a Methodist campground, which was given for the future, a village green in life, Casowasco.
Luke’s portrait of a grateful heart is so Lukan. Concern for the sick, the foreigner, the ritually unclean, the measure of mercy. He looks back 60 years, through the fog of time, and picks up some slight traces of Jesus material, hardly to be considered fully historical, and places them toward the end of his 10 chapter personal emendations to the gospel, chapters 9-19, and in the heart of his economic advisements, including the dishonest steward and Lazarus and Dives. We might say, Auburn in view, that a grateful heart, emerging from this memory, needs the mind’s reason, the will’s justice, and especially the soul’s imagination. Reason is God given. Will is God driven. But imagination is God’s heaven. Actually, when you pull out the training wheels and attach them, you could think of this as a three point sermon on the well springs of gratitude—part reason, part will, part imagination. One part for modern science. You come too. One part for post-modern will to power. You come too. But one better part mystical and open and gracious and bucolic and spirited and free and open and plebian and all village green and ‘better than sex cake’ and, well, call it for lack of better term…love….
In the first place, by all rights, William Seward should have been President. He had the experience and pedigree. He had served as governor of this state. He had lead in the creation of the Republican Party. He had been consistent and unequivocal in his witness to the freeing of the slaves. With a careful reason he had written about a higher law, a law transcending the limited, partial and faulty human laws, even of his own young and native land. He developed and tested his powers of reason as a politician and lawyer. Seward was one of the first to use the insanity defense, in his work on behalf of a freed slave. He reasoned that the investment of $7 million in Alaska would benefit the country, and stood by his decision through all the harsh, short term criticism that his decision occasioned. Seward could not countenance indentured servitude, and in March of 1851 took to the floor of the US senate his carefully crafted sentences. Can you hear his voice?
I know that there are laws of various sorts which regulate the conduct of men. There are constitutions and statutes, codes mercantile and codes civil; but when we are legislating for states, especially when we are founding states, all these laws must be brought to the standard of the laws of God, and must be tried by that standard, and must stand or fall by it. This principle was happily explained by one of the most distinguished political philosophers of England in these emphatic words: There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law; the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity, the law of nature and of nations. So far as any laws fortify this primeval law, and give it more precision, more energy, more effect by their declarations, such laws enter into the sanctuary and participate in the sacredness of its character; but the man who quotes as precedents the abuses of tyrants and robbers, pollutes the very fountains of justice, destroys the foundations of all law, and thereby removes the only safeguard against evil men, whether governors or governed; the guard which prevents governors from becoming tyrants, and the governed from becoming rebels.
Come let us reason together, says the Lord. We need the goods that reason brings. Like Tom Sawyer convincing Huck to paint his fence, and to pay for the privilege with a juicy apple, we need the native hue of reason and influence, at all levels, to open our future.
Peter Drucker, who died last week, spent a lifetime chronicling and celebrating the reasoned contributions of careful managers. Managers who know that the bottom line is not the only line. Managers who know that employees are a resource not a cost. Managers who know that meeting is not working, “one either meets or works”. Managers who know how to lead: “the only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction and malperformance”. In other words, reason gives us both the leadership of Lincoln and the management of Seward, and we need both.
At the end, Seward opened the future with the purchase of Alaska, a village green moment.
In the second place, our preacher friend has further good company in Auburn’s graveyards. Harriet Tubman was buried in March of 1913, right there in the Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery. She was buried with military honors, even as, after much red tape was cut, she was justly given a military pension. By night, and over a decade, she led 300 slaves to freedom, from 1845 to 1860. In the city of Boston, a new statue of her likeness, called ‘Step on Board’, is found in the South End. Go over some time to Auburn and take the tour and see the home and learn the history. Take your kids.
Here is an illiterate black woman, born into slavery, alone, untutored. One of many children in her own family, somehow she finds her own way to freedom. By inspiration, with the leading call to justice, she returns again and again, crossing the Mason Dixon line and risking death. She travels at night, along the back roads of Delaware and Maryland and Pennsylvania. She carries a pistol. She guides her frightened little groups by the light of the North Star. How can we really ever know the feeling of the cold night along a deserted riverbank? How can you and I ever capture the chill in the spine with the barking of a dog whose ears and nose have been alerted? What would ever give us a full taste of crossing, from radical injustice to real justice, from bondage to at least the first measure of liberty?
Catherine Clinton’s new, good biography of Tubman will help some. Take and read. Most arresting to this reader was the fact that Tubman’s work on justice did not stop with Appomattox. She settled in our neighborhood. She married. She worked in her Methodist church. She spent three decades using her name and notoriety to fund and build a home for poor elderly people, an early nursing home, named for John Brown, that continued to operate into the 1940’s. Here is what she came to on her first flight north: “I had reasoned this out in my mind: there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
Many in this congregation resonate more with the postmodern spirit of justice than with the modern insight of reason. You are more Tubman people than Seward people. You want to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and free the prisoner. But justice itself depends on a living faith in a just God, and the courage to stand and exist in that faith. Man does not live by bread alone, and the feeding of bread alone will not bring salvation. Seward is good. Tubman is good. The reason is good. The will is good. But the future belongs to neither. The future, our Christian future, lies with the imagination.
At the end, Tubman opened the future with the construction of a nursing home, a village green moment.
In the third place, waiting in the funeral parlor to bid farewell to my brother preacher, and to offer his wife condolence, and intermittently irritated by the far too jovial, too ordinary comportment of the throng, I looked south, in the mind’s eye, to an open space, part of the one great spiritual village green that is the reign of God, to our retreat center, Casowasco.
Here is a place where our own mothers and daughters have recently experienced the mystical Christ, along a kind of village green. Here is a space where our men, following 9/11, debated and discerned the nature of just war, along a sort of village green, the great outdoors of the Christian tradition. Here is a place where young people meet and fall in love, where younger grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God, where older allow memory and hope to coalesce, as decade unfolds to decade.
Reason brings some healing to the human condition. William Seward teaches us so. Will brings some healing to the human condition. Harriet Tubman teaches us so. But the Gospel is more than science and justice! Not less than science and justice, but much more! No reasoned advances will make life more human without a human faith in a loving God, personal and powerful. No marches for justice will last, nor prevail, without connection to the one great march to Zion. Our century needs a grateful heart, a kindled imagination, to temper reason and to sustain justice, and to open future life onto a spiritual village green.
As an infant I with others crawled along Casowasco’s lakeside green. The property and buildings were a gift, a healing gift. Owned by the Case family, whose fortune, like some of those in Rochester, was made in the film industry, the beautiful lawns, hiking trails, spacious lovely buildings, and grand waterfronts were a gift to God and the future, made by the Case family, of Case\Fox, later 20th Century Fox. The Auburn District Superintendent, Dr. Lester Schaff, met with the family and suggested the gift. I would like to think he said the following, though no one knows. But he was a good preacher and a Union graduate:
Friends, in gratitude for what you have been given in life, why not make a gift that opens life for others? Space for children to grow. Space for youth to find faith. Space for young adults to fall in love. Space for singing, for laughter, for prayer. Space for worship and learning and love. You have been given many things. You have been “healed”. Now why not stop, prostrate yourself before the Risen Christ, and praise God. Say thank you.
Whatever he said, it worked. It takes heart. I don’t about you, but I saw and heard some of that kind of heart right here, at Asbury First, in our own Fellowship Hall, as our new mayor, Robert Duffy, spoke. You could see it, hear it, feel it. But he can’t do it alone! He needs the future vibrancy of this great congregation pulling behind him to rebuild Rochester! Of course with you I am also pondering this passage and its meaning for Asbury First. With this we shall conclude. At the end, Schaff opened the future with the gift of Casowasco, a spiritual village green moment.
What’s That You Said?
Albert Schweitzer said once, “Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.”
Huston Smith remembers morning prayers with his Methodist missionary parents and household in China, read and spoken in Chinese and English. He today recites the Lord’s Prayer as easily in Chinese as in English. After the lesson and the singing, they turned to kneel in front of their chairs, elbows and the seats, and they prayed. They gave thanks. In that missionary circle, on the Chinese mainland, hearts were warmed and formed and made grateful. Here is Smith’s simple creed: “We are in good hands and in grateful recognition of that fact it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens” (repeat).
You have been healed. You are here because you love Jesus. So you must do something for him: turn back and say thank you.
Your heart is ready—the imagination is closest to God. It is your mind and will that take some tugging.
You are in worship, in front of God. Your heart is warming. You know the truth of things, on a day like this. Yours is a grateful heart. You do have a grateful heart. Sometimes you just need an hour or a sermon to remember.
What’s that you said? I listen. It is your heart thumping, talking….
I want to leave something of myself right here, for others. Like Seward did with Alaska. Like Tubman did with her nursing home. Like Case and others did with Casowasco. His reason, her will, their imagination. I want to leave something of myself right here, right in Rochester, so that another generation of children can be baptized, read the Bible, sing their faith, fall in love, grow up, and learn to love Jesus. I want to leave something of myself right here. I want to give of myself. I want the world to open up a little, with my walking the lawn. I want the future to be a little more gracious, after my time on the green. I want the unforeseen future to have the slight but real influence of my gratitude, right here, right now. I want to be that guy, that tenth guy, the Samaritan, the one who remembered to say thank you and did something about it.