Saturday, December 24, 2005

Holy Night

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2: 1-21
Christmas Eve

On this Holy Night God makes space for forgiveness. The Christmas peace is a peace of pardon, grace and forgiveness.

We may want to pause just for a moment to reflect upon the glad tidings of great joy.

To do so, we need to clear away the straw and brush of some stress.

As the pastor responded, when asked by his civic club to speak about the miracle of Christmas, and the mystery of the incarnation, “Why certainly. It would be my pressure…I mean pleasure”.

There is much pleasure coming to this Holy Night. But there is pressure as well.

You may consider the strange chaos of this season, for a moment of limited peace tonight. You may wonder about the stress of the holidays. Why so stressful? Their mixture of high expectation and low experience? Their year end blizzard of financial and social obligations? Their sudden reconfluence of families and generations? Their odd rhythms and paces? The dark? The night? Whence the stress?

Our ancient texts suggest another source of our anxiety, if we have such on the very night of peace. It is this. Christmas places us unmistakably before the presence of the Holy God, of all that is Holy, upon this Holy night. The pressing of this moment, our stress, comes from our vague premonition of God, our sense of the Holy. It is an awesome and terrifying moment to find yourself in the presence of all that is Holy. The shepherds can tell us, out of their fear. Do you feel tonight the presence of the Holy God?

The ancient Israelites would understand, and recall our need to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

The prophet Isaiah would understand, and recite again his vision of the temple, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, heaven and earth are full of God’s glory”.

The virgin Mary would understand, singing, “My soul does magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.

The apostle Paul would understand and record, “It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

The evangelist John would understand, and teach, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God.”

Every mystic and part-mystic from Dionysius the Aereopagite, to Amoun of Nitria, to Santa Teresa of Avila, to Howard Thurman would understand, and affirm, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

Rudolph Otto said it for his generation, “the mysterium tremendum et fascinans”. The sudden sense of God, present.

And thou?

To be alive on Christmas Eve is to quake with the Shepherds.

Before all that is Holy, then, a question, a question of soul inevitably arises. Hence our stress. How am I living? Have I asked too little of myself or too much of myself? Or have I asked too much for myself or too little for myself? The awesome wonder of this Holy night provokes a mortal question: “Have you asked enough of yourself, and have you asked enough for yourself?” In the presence of all that is Holy, we can, we must, come clean. Thou before whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit that we may more fully love thee and more worthily magnify thy Holy name…

Some of us ask too much of ourselves. We work 80 hours when 60 would be better, wrap 10 gifts when 4 would suffice, do 100% of our relational work and 30% of every one else’s. You ask too much of yourself.

Some of us ask too little of ourselves. We pass through life unaware of the bruising our narcissism inflicts on others. We do not pray in the morning, or worship on Sunday. We have not climbed the front step of faith which is tithing, nor knocked on the front door of faith which is giving away annually 10% of what we earn, nor entered the front room of faith which is discovering the joy of a tenth given. We do not keep full faith with our partners, spouses, friends. You ask too little of yourself.

Some of us ask too much for ourselves. So we create a world that is post-Christian. A world of pervasive materialism, preemptive war, limited literacy, flat spirituality, inherited entitlement, shallow sexuality, Machiavellian leadership, computerized e-buse, and disrespect for elders. We crowd the malls at 5am on the day after Thanksgiving, hungry for a sacrament in consumption that merely consumes the consumer. You ask too much for yourself.

Some of us ask too little for ourselves. The Christmas vision of peace gets dim. The reality of love is blurred. The singing moments of joy are lost in the shuffle. We forget who we are meant to be. Are we lovers anymore? You ask too little for yourself.

How will any of us ever get this balance right? Before all that is Holy?

You will never get it right. Not fully.

A person who lives in isolation, neither giving or receiving, may ask too little of himself.

A young woman struggling with issues of identity and behavior may ask too little for herself.

A young man raised in a morally heightened atmosphere, where expectations are very high, may ask too much of himself.

A woman at midlife, who has enjoyed much, too much pleasantry, may ask too little of herself.

A man, who has worked hard, and also was well placed in life, may ask too little of himself.

It is the conscience, of course, and the dark night, too, that place us, creation and conscience, before the Holy God.

Nor is there even one among us who has fully balanced, rightly balanced, the question of what we ask of ourselves with what we ask for ourselves.

Some of us tonight need to lean back and ask a little less of ourselves. Some of us tonight need to lean forward and ask a little more of ourselves.

While we do, though, perhaps we could remember the good news of the Holy Night. This news of glad tidings and great joy is a matter of full health and salvation for you, and trusting this gospel with life, your life, is a matter of life and death.

You see, if there is no pardon or peace in the universe, then we had better get everything exactly right, or we are doomed. If grace is like Newton’s gravity, and once you fall you keep on falling without pardon or peace, we are doomed. If grace is like Marx’s history, and “moves with iron necessity toward inevitable results”, we are doomed. If there is never any forgiveness available, before all that is Holy, we will never be able to be at peace, to act with grace, to live any other than fear ridden, guilt obsessed, self centered lives. Hell. On a cold Holy Night. What a life that would be.

This is why John Wesley asked his one question. Do you know God to be a pardoning God? Not, do you believe, only, or hope, only, or feel, only, but do you know…

He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free. His blood can make the foulest clean, his blood availed for me.

On a cold, dark night, that word unfitly spoken, that event not foreseen and not forestalled, that deed you wish you could revisit, that memory from an autumn morning, or a midnight dream—they all engulf, and overwhelm, unless…

But in fact, dearest friend, the Holy Child of Bethlehem is God’s own pardon, God’s own peace, God’s own love to embrace you whether you lean backward or forward or both. As Howard Thurman, a some time mystic wrote,

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

We should not let the beauty of Thurman’s poetry obscure the wisdom of his theology. The work, here, is God’s. The work is work done in Jesus the Christ. Oh, we may help, like the 3 year old helps his mother to set the table. He drops the fork, and breaks the cup, and spills the water. But she has the meal in hand. The feast is prepared, the table is spread. A word of grace is said. Kitchen, and dining room, and table are all prepared.

You are forgiven. You are accepted. You are healed. You are work done in Jesus the Christ. Oh, we may help, like the 3 year old helps his mother to set the table. He drops the fork, and breaks the cup, and spills the water. But she has the meal in hand. The feast is prepared, the table is spread. A word of grace is said. Kitchen, and dining room, and table are all prepared.

You are forgiven. You are accepted. You are healed. You are loved.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Rochester: Colorama

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2:1-14
1. The Christmas Vision

Behold the Christmas vision, a realistic vision, a realistic vision incarnate in Jesus Christ!

This vision is meant to adorn every day of your life, like a great and beautiful image of what life can be. The Christmas vision is this world’s Colorama!

From 1950 to 1990, every harried New York commuter was fed beauty, at Grand Central, through your Colorama, Rochester. Every young woman or man in love at Christmas, racing to Macy’s for that one surprise gift, was showered with hope, through your Colorama. Every last overworked Joe on Manhattan at least could look up at the end of the day and see a vision of something really great….

There are three children tugging at parental sleeves, hauling their way uptown to FAO Schwartz. There is someone just arrived from South America, and looking, and watching. There is a young woman, bright eyed, waiting under the Colorama, and walking slowly toward her a young man who fingers, feverishly, a small square box, hidden in his pocket.

The age of aviation has deprived us of anything quite like Grand Central Station. The heart of the city that is the heart of the country that is the heart of the globe, a cosmopolitan village green of life, spiritual and material beings coursing their way through time and space.

Its glory is diminished, though its grandeur and centrality remain. You may place yourself for a moment along the wall of the great corridor. Hear the rush of the wind as the doors close and open. Feel the rolling pounding of the trains inside and underneath, going south and north and west. Smell the street, the peanuts, the pretzels, the hot dogs. If you are just young enough and just old enough you can stand there, here, and have an experience of really being alive, which is what faith is all about.

Spencer Tracy, in the old film, was saddled with this question: “What happens to men when they get old? Do they forget what it feels like to be young, in love, eager, excited, afraid, on tip toe? What happens to men when they get old?” But he has the last word in that moment before dinner with, guess who. He remembers, in full. And so do we.

There, on the grand concourse, you can see a child and know that one day, you may have a child.

The Christmas vision, like the Colorama, is meant to adorn every day, to brighten and embolden and illumine every day. It is a vision, in a word, of peace. Peace in the heart, and peace in the world. This is God’s gift to you. The peace of the heart that resists every force of fear. The peace of the heart that resists every wave of guilt. The peace of the heart that outlasts every unhealthy claim of the self. This peace frees you from fear and guilt and self. Nor is the prospect of peace meant only for the soul, but also for the world soul. The hope of peace may seem very dim. But like the great image across the great concourse of Grand Central, this vision still stands. A day when the lion and the lamb shall lay down, and the lamb shall be able to sleep. A day when the violence of this age will give way to the victory of the age to come. On earth. On earth as it is in heaven. A day when the children of Moses and of Jesus and of Mohammed and of Buddha and of Krishna and of Confucius will sit down at the table of brotherhood. At least on Christmas we may sing with Longfellow:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth
Good will to men

We are fed and clothed, in spirit, by a vision of a time and place where weeping will be no more, an open space where people grow to become fully human, where none is God and all know God, where meeting and greeting and loving are the essence of all that is. Yes, this is a dream, and it is a vision. It is the Christmas vision: good news…great joy…all people….a Savior…glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. It is to be the emblematic decoration of every day and every way. It is the land which we are meant, at last, to inhabit. With ears to hear, you could feel it in the anthem last Sunday. Close your eyes and see:

Say to them that are of fearful heart
Be strong, fear not, behold your God will come and save you
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad
And the desert shall rejoice
For in the wilderness shall waters break out
And the parched ground shall become a pool
And the thirst land springs of water
And the ransomed of the Lord
Shall return with songs and everlasting joy
And sorrow and sighing
Shall flee away

Ernest Fremont Tittle wrote of this passage, “The New Testament lives in an atmosphere of wonder…The Christmas vision has to do with the final reality and power in the world…This vision of the love of God can be maintained on the day after Christmas and every day after that.”

Behold the Christmas vision, a realistic vision, a realistic vision incarnate in Jesus Christ!

Is there a better city than Rochester in which to preach about vision? You need all the gifts of Empire Spirit in order to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. You need hope, truth, faith, wisdom, courage, freedom, health, generosity, and grace. But you need vision too. Without vision our little hearts become raisins in the sun. Without vision the people perish. Without a positive, happy, honest, loving and true vision of what life can be like, we end up angry, disappointed, fearful, guilty, and self absorbed. You people of Monroe County are vision people. It is your gift, and so your task. It is your talent, and so your responsibility.

For once we may remember Pope’s hopeful vision:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee
All chance, direction which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood
All partial evil, universal good.

We have been from Albany to Buffalo. Now for this last Sunday we are home in Rochester for Christmas. Here our Empire series ends. Have we saved the best for last? You might say so, though I certainly could not comment. Here in Rochester we enjoy wonderful waterways, gracious neighborhoods, fine schools and colleges, the best of living, and the world’s greatest cheeseburger. We also have our problems. Here we remember the visionary women and men of the past. Keep Frederik Douglass and his north star as a daily inspiration: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, rain without thunder and lightening, an ocean without the awful roar of its waters”. Honor the vision that sustained Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible”. Respect the vision that has put endurance in the spine of Matthew Clark: “ours is an open church”. Recall Rauschenbusch and his voice for justice. Keep the vision high!

Here is your Colorama: ¾ of the portraits shot by Kodak staff photographers, including our own Norm Kerr…. Autumn in Vermont, Taj Mahal, 1000 Islands, Niagara Falls, Bryce Canyon, Surfers at Malibu, the San Diego Zoo…We remember thaa picture is worth 1000 words…Yes, these vistas evoked a ”rebirth of human spirit after WWII”…lifestyle, travel, space…They ”cast a colorful spell over Grand Central Station…” And, fascinating, this, the vision, the image gave people a place to meet! “After work, meet me at the Colorama!”

It is as fit an image as can be named of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. God became human that we might become divine. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself. Christ is the image of the invisible God. You are made in the image and likeness of God. Here is the Christmas vision. You are meant to see and be a glorious Colorama, salt and light for the rest of the world. Keep the vision high, present, beautiful!

2. Realistic Vision

Yet any vision of the future that is to last must be realistic. Too much of our reflection at Christmas stops before the story is fully told. Uniquely, we in Rochester are also ready to affirm and illumine an understanding of a realistic vision.

But then in grief I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth good will to men.

Our too familiar text this morning places what is most earthly, the blood of childbirth, against what is most heavenly, the glorious singing of angels. If we were not so immersed, so familiar with the passage, we might read it again aright. A Christmas vision, realistic and incarnate. Luke has his reasons for assigning the account of the birth in his own way. In the midst of cataclysmic and empire wide change, this Gospel writer essays a careful reminder, to faithful early Christians, and to us: to us a child is given, a vision of good news of great joy, so real that you can smell the stable, hear the oxen, feel the straw, and, blessed are we, in the flesh.

Furthermore, the utter inconvenience of the marriage of heaven and earth does not escape us, in Luke’s imaginative utterance. The whole world is in turmoil, as our Iraqi sisters and brothers would attest today, while Joseph goes for enrollment. The family is torn away from home, as our New Orleans sisters and brothers would attest today, as Mary travels with child. The little body of Christ comes forth outside, unattended, and at risk, as our congregation would attest today, while we are laid again in an uncertain manger. Why don’t things happen with better timing?

When earth and heaven meet there is blood on the ground. Here at the intersection of time and eternity, where the line segment of the divine touches at a single infinitesimal point the circumference of human existence, in the smoking cradle of Bethlehem, there is blood, the blood of life. Birth foretold, death foreshadowed, new life forecast. A brush with the Holy leaves the same tender bruising and bursting life. When you are deeply disappointed, and yet you live. When a friend betrays you, and yet you live. When someone moves your religious cheese, and yet you live. When the cuts come and you are on the list, and yet you live. When there is that brush with the Holy, and yet you live to tell the story.

Life is hard. Nothing worth having ever came easy. There are severe and serious limits to what we may expect of ourselves and others. You may be one who asks everything of yourself and nothing for yourself. You may see your children growing in your shadow, and in turn they ask everything of themselves and nothing for themselves. That is unrealistic. We are all more human than anything else. Isaiah needed visionaries and realists too. Every church needs both dreamers and doubters. (It’s nice to have some doers too). We need the gifts of faith, as the Erie Canal has taught us, because our vision is made real in life. And that takes Spirit. It takes an Empire Spirit of Hope, Truth, Faith, Wisdom, Freedom, Courage, Health, Gratitude, Grace…and Vision.

New York City: The View from Ellis Island: “the joyful memory of past deliverance gives the power to withstand current confinement”

Albany: Crossing the Hudson: “Let us cross over the Hudson, from the quiet eastern shore of what is good and partly true, to the capitol city of what is great and really true”.

Utica: The Far Side of Fear: “We are delivered from captivity, from the power of fear, in the announcement of the Gospel. It is the word of faith that delivers us 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.”

Ithaca: After the Fall: “Failure is a part of life. Wisdom teaches us to admit it, assess it, and accept it.” Lake Placid: A Survey of Freedom: “The Bible is a book about freedom…God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.”

Syracuse: Wind at Midnight!:

Elmira: The Saving Power of an Intervening Word: “You may just hear that today, the saving power of an intervening word”.

Auburn: A Grateful Heart: “I want the unforeseen future to have the slight but real influence of my gratitude, right here and right now”

Buffalo: By Your Leave: “How you leave something is just about the most important thing you do.”

Rochester: Colorama: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.

I mean no disparagement of the great 19th century Rochester luminaries when saying that for the future, for a global village green, it is Christopher Lasch, whose trenchant, sober, honest realism brought a needed correction to some of the more wooly thinking of the last generation. Yes, he shared, before his 1994 death, an abiding vision of a ‘true and only heaven’. But he did so with care, and with caution. Every community—every church—needs some equivalent of his realistic vision. Here is some introduction to what Lasch wrote. Lasch is at his Arnoldian best when he observes that tolerance for diversity does not require a lowering or selective application of standards…”the spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion." A person with "a proper understanding of religion," he says, would see it not as "a source of intellectual and emotional security," but as "a challenge to complacency and pride."…"The latest variation on this familiar theme," he writes, "its reductio ad absurdum, is that a respect for cultural diversity forbids us to impose the standards of privileged groups on the victims of oppression." What this amounts to is "a recipe for universal incompetence.” It is also a prescription for spiritual anemia. Partisans of "cultural diversity" reject the idea that there are "impersonal virtues like fortitude, workmanship, moral courage, honesty, and respect for adversaries.” But Lasch is right that if we believe in these things, we must be prepared to recommend them to everyone. "Unless we are prepared to make demands on one another, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life." …Common standards "are absolutely indispensable to a democratic society," not least because "double standards mean second-class citizenship” (New Republic)

3. A Realistic Vision Incarnate in Jesus Christ

So now where do vision and realism meet? Where the intersection of heaven and earth, of divine life and human frailty? Where the incarnation?

Here let us pause for a moment with the shepherds. They listen. I love that about them, the wonder and waiting quiet that El Greco paints upon their silent faces. They listen. Do you know people who really listen? Listen….

There is Mr. Haxton, whose window adorns the balcony, whispering from another realm, “peace on earth, good will to all…”

There is your family, your mom or dad, whose gifts lifted this great roof, whispering from another realm, “peace on earth, good will to all…”

There is dear Weldon Crossland, thirty years of building and thirty months to enjoy it, whispering from another realm, “peace on earth, good will to all…”

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote recently of the utilitarian mega churches that she has studied: “they constitute a realm drained of all transcendence and beauty”. How sad. Your forebears lived otherwise.

The people who gave us this great nave built for others. They did not build for themselves. They built for others. They built for the whole county, all 980,000. They built for the century to come with Indiana limestone to last forever. They were thinking of others when they built this church. Some of your parents built this church so that you could enjoy and enhance it. They were building for others.

Funny, in Methodism we used to do well two things every day before we even had breakfast. We preached with tongues of men and angels, and we built and built and built and built. Churches, schools, hospitals, colleges, seminaries. Sturges Hall at OWU was built in 1855. They didn’t have anything in the middle of Ohio in 1855! Except a building to house a small Methodist college for small Methodists. In losing our voice we seem also to have lost our hammer. We preached and built and then had breakfast and the rest of the day.

You are building for others too. Some of us won’t be here to see it finally finished. Some will enjoy it for only a short while. Most of those who receive the welcoming grace of a new space are not here yet. They come from across the county, and they come in year 2040. And after all the bongo drums are back on the curbs, and all the horizontal worship spaces have reverted to Walmarts, there will be a place for immanence and transcendence both, a place for the Holy and the healing both, a space for grace and love. The future will have the slight but real influence of your building, your generosity. Life for others, in the spirit of the One whom Bonhoeffer called “a man for others”.

Where is the vision of peace, this realistic vision tamed by limits, ever to be found? Where is the incarnate Christ? He is here. We have celebrated his incarnation for ten years together:

1995: “For all its hideous trauma, the holiday time does cause some people to try again…Where love is, Christ is…Joseph found the courage to dream and to live out a dream…”

1996: “Faith is the courage to start over…When it gets dark enough, you can see the stars”

1997: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, rain without thunder and lightening, an ocean without the awful roar of its waters…Christ is the image of the invisible God…To search diligently for your heart’s desire means work and loss and failure.”

1998: “It is a harrowing prospect to hear that a leader thinks he can be truthful and ‘evasive’ at once…In Jesus Christ God indulges God’s love for us, for who we are—not for what we accomplish.”

1999: “The mystery of Christmas is wrapped in the swaddling clothes of the mystery of life…There is something about the entrance of God into the world that God has made that inspires a change of heart…

2000: “At Christmas we see the imperious radiance of sheer presence…Can you accept your own acceptance? Can you connect with your connection?”

2001: “There is a self-correcting spirit of truth, loose in the universe…Will somebody light my candle?...He is the way, follow him in the land of unlikeness, you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures…”

2002: “Think again tonight about what is real—presents or presence?...We get our soul from our limits…”

2003: “Without a confidence in pardon we would always, for our safety and salvation, always have to be right…Christmas gives birth to the daily, very real, possibility that you can live in a new way.”

2004: “Boredom is rage spread thin…Hell is to love no longer…The location of peace is on earth…Christmas is the quiet restatement of what is…Too late I loved you, O Beauty, ever ancient and ever new”

Across the expansive concourse of this city and county, there is to remain one great and good image, the image of the invisible God, the Christmas vision of peace, realistic and visionary still, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and know, best, in the Body of Christ, for all its humanity, still best place to find, to be found by, God. As Ernest Tittle said of the Christmas vision: “…It can be maintained on the condition that we do not neglect the heavenly vision but undertake to live by it. This condition must of course be met. You can no more keep a heavenly vision if you do not live by it than you can keep a friendship if you do not cultivate it”

Then peeled the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor doth God sleep
The wrong shall fail
The right prevail
Of peace one earth good will to men.