Sunday, November 27, 2005

Buffalo: By Your Leave

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: I Corinthians 1:3-9;
Mark 13:32-35

First Sunday of Advent
Preface: Buffalo

One happy experience every year at our United Methodist Annual Conference, now held in Buffalo, comes jogging out along Delaware Avenue. If you start at the Adams Mark Hotel and head east, you pass along a glorious promenade: the magnificent City Hall, the Statler Hotel, Chippewa Street, various great homes now in public service, a closed Methodist Church, Asbury, done in by deferred maintenance, beautiful lawns, street fairs, traffic circles, a modern synagogue, light blue high rises. Keep going. You will come to a great cemetery that has awaited your return for years. Jog along down its majestic roadways, its columbarium, its named graves—Urban, Holmes, Johnson—I found it breathtaking in its beauty, especially its central treasure. Down into the heart of the graveyard there is a rounded little lake, pristine and manicured. There is an island in the middle of the lake, supporting a statue of a child. One receives a flickering apperception, standing lakeside, of last things, of leaving, of ultimate concerns. A child surrounded by a lake surrounded by a green surrounded by a park surrounded by a city surrounded by a state surrounded by a country surrounded by continent surrounded by a globe surrounded by a solar system surrounded by a galaxy surrounded by a universe…surrounded by the mind of God.

Ultimate concerns, last things, are at the heart of faith, especially in Advent. Paul by sudden announcement, greeting the Corinthians, again identifies their spiritual location, and ours, as those who live by faith following the moment that our Lord has take his leave. Is it not striking that the central act of our religious tradition is forged in the hour of departure, of withdrawal, of leave-taking?

Word on Withdrawal

The world around us, the church we serve, the very proximate anticipation of our own mortality, all raise the matter of ‘withdrawal’.

One friend said in October, “How you leave something is about the most important thing you do”. He was not speaking about congressional debate regarding Iraq. Although, now that you mention it, he might have been. He was not speaking about the time honored rhythms of leaving a pulpit. Although he might have been. He was not speaking about dying a good death. Although he might have been.

How we leave, by your leave, is our Gospel today.

We are promised that “God will strengthen you to the end”.

Is there a saving word to speak about leaving?

1. An Historical Departure

It happens that our country, right now, is enmeshed in a debate about withdrawal, about leaving. If one leaves, it matters how one leaves. Is there any word of hope about our own dilemma of departure?

As a Christian and a pastor I was angry and saddened when we chose in 2003 to invade Iraq, primarily because our action violated inherited Christian just war theory. Now we are stuck in a tragic quagmire. What on earth are we to do?

Could our extrication from Iraq depend on a careful return to and employment of just war principles? I believe it does. Though I publicly and repeatedly opposed the initial invasion (see sermons 12/9/01, 9/29/02, 3/2/03, 6/29/03, 7/6/03, 1/18/04, 7/4/05), I do not see how we can simply leave Iraq in the mess we have created. Here is one alternative, in four parts.

1. Let the USA state clearly that we are not in the business of preemptive war, of attacking nations who have not attacked us. Let us foreswear another Iraq. This may give us some internal and external credibility to engage the following steps. President Bush, alone, with real contrition, could do this.

2. Let us return to the United Nations, and use every influence to gather the world community to share in solving a shared problem. Let us advocate an international, multi-lateral military force adequate to the task (about four times the current troop level). Why not name Bill Clinton and George Bush senior to share the UN work?

3. Let us make a national energy conservation policy law, with a one dollar per gallon gasoline tax, and shed any vestige of thirst for Middle Eastern oil. Our imperial conquest of Iraq can then be turned to self-defense. Assign Joe Biden and John McCain.

4. Let us give the world a deadline, a time line in the sand. We leave by…(x). Yes, we broke it. Yes, we failed to fix it alone. Yes, a new direction gives promise. Now the world community, to whom we have turned, apologized, appealed, and made reparations, must take the lead. The deadline could be a date (2008) or a count (5000 US dead). Ask John Kerry to hold the watch.

Our attack on Iraq violated Christian just war principles. It was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, and unforeseeable. In many minds it was thus post-Christian, immoral and wrong. But these same just war principles could be our salvation, our ‘extrication’. This extrication would then would be responsive, not preemptive; multilateral not unilateral; sacrificial not imperial; and predictable not unforeseeable. Our pacification could be built upon those venerable religious principles which our invasion rejected. The country would be united, the enemy defeated, Iraq stabilized, and the world made safer. For those of faith, such a course would further attest to the promise that God can bring good out of evil, that where sin abounds grace over-abounds, and that liberty and justice still are the ‘last best hope’ for this small, frightened globe.

2. A Vocational Withdrawal

But our spiritual lives are not lived, in the main, on the global scale. We are much more local, in our story of salvation, than that. We are caught up in shovels to buy, gutters to clear, presents to purchase, arguments to finish, investments to make, choices to confront—all in a very personal way.

Paul sees his feisty Corinthians as those waiting for the apocalypse, that is, the revealing of Christ. And though Paul’s world view is not ours (as was said some weeks ago), his world is ours (as was said some weeks ago). We too are waiting for vision, clarity, and revelation.

I remember leaving Hamilton, NY at age 12. We were counseled, standard Methodist advice, not ever to return to town, not to be in touch with our friends, not to linger, but to move, to change, to go on. The new person needed that space, we were told. His family needed space as well. And we would be a long way off. Actually, up route 46, it is about 20 miles, a long jog, but readily joggable in half a day, I now see some 50 years later. The distance was not geographical at all, but spiritual.

Here are some heretical thoughts, after five decades, about vocational withdrawal. They apply, if they apply at all, to the full communion table today, all of us, in all walks and changes of vocational life.

1. You can end a role and not end a relationship. You can. Grumpy superannuated traditional lore to the contrary. In fact, you probably should. Cut-offs, as the family systems people will remind us, are not healthy. Change the role, hold the relationship.

2. In addition, let the relationship live. Your boss is now your partner. Good. Roles have been left behind, but the relationship changes. Let it. Now he can get your coffee. It will do him good.

3. Feel two things at once. You can. You can feel two things at once. You can be happy, honored, proud, excited. And, at the same time, you can be angry, hurt, sad, depressed. Give yourself permission. Your daughter is getting married. You can be happy for her and what’s his name. And you can be really sad too that you are such a decrepit, old, has been, so old that your kids are getting married.

4. Ride the wave. You can stand on the beach all you want and holler at the tide to change directions. Try it if you must. Better to paddle and surf. Hang ten. Enjoy the ride.

3. A Good Death

Our open table, and the greeting in Holy Scripture, bring us, in closing, to our own personal leaving. By your leave…Such a gracious formula. But by your leave, your leaving, among nations, in vocations, and especially in your own life, you do something, and something profound. Think about it, and in advance.

David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, has recalled for us the high significance accorded by our forebears to ‘holy dying’. This spiritual inheritance lies at the root of your commitment, Asbury First, to worshipping well at death. You take death seriously, as you take life seriously. Your ministries of worship and pastoral care at twilight are of the finest order. Why? Because, in the bones, we know that how we die says something final about how we live and who we are. So, in the 19th century, journals were full of accounts of ‘a good death’. So, the way one left, left life, mattered to the living. So the full and recurring rhythms of valediction and mourning were at the heart of faith. It was not by accident that John Wesley widely publicized these early accounts of faithful dying. Nor was it by accident that after his long life, his very last hours were recorded in painting, and in poetry and in sermon and especially in memory. His last words, “the best of all is, God is with us.” Will yours like his be a good death? Perhaps at the rail this morning we can meditate a bit, by your leave, about leaving.

1. A good death needs a good life. A life of faith: regular worship, weekly study and prayer, active service in love, careful use of time and of money and of trust. Here is what you can do. Worship on Sunday. Lead or at least attend some caring group. Give of yourself in measurable and effective ways.

2. A good death needs a plan. Give it time. Summarize and reckon. See the good. Remember the kindnesses. Do some things: A will. Planned giving. A living will. A funeral folder. A set of conversations intentionally arranged.

3. A good death needs a Savior. Here is the Christ of Calvary and of Easter, whose love has shaped your best experience. Here he is to meet you and speak to you in bread and wine. Here is Jesus Christ, who hallowed the greatest departure in sacrament, and stands in the shadow of every great leave taking. By kneeling here today, we place our ultimate trust in Him.

And thou our sister gentle death
Waiting to hush our latest breath
O praise ye

Thou leadest home the child of God
And Christ our lord the way has trod
O Praise Ye
O Praise Ye

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