Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Faith For All Seasons

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2:31-52
Ecclesiastes 2:1-8
All in a Lifetime

Like other births, Jesus’ own occurs in the midst of trouble. He is hardly born before another dream befalls Joseph, the poor fellow, a man drenched in dreams, and commands the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. So the prophet had predicted.

Like most growth, Jesus’ own develops amid controversy. Herod fulfils another prophesy by slaying the children of Bethlehem, who then as now are in peril every hour. So the prophet had predicted.

Like much childhood, Jesus’ own transpires amid governmental wrangling, religious strife, and existential uncertainty. His family comes to make their home in Nazareth, down at the north end of the lake, and Jesus becomes a Nazorean. So the prophet had predicted.

Jesus is immersed in our full life. Jesus is our childhood’s measure. Day by day, like us he grew. He was little, weak and helpless. Fears and cares like us he knew. And he feeleth for our sadness. And he shareth in our gladness.

The Gospel of the New Year is this: God has taken human form, entered our condition, become flesh.

He came that we might have life and live it abundantly. In the next century after his birth, Ignatius was to say, in summarizing his salvation: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

The life of Jesus penetrates all of the seasons of our life, and gives us a faith for all seasons. As we pause between Christmas and Lent (and so between past and future, youth and age, life and death, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come), perhaps we too can celebrate the seasons of life. For to every denomination there is a season, and a time for every perspective under heaven! Here is what I mean.

To Every Denomination There is a Season

A. Unitarians

Even dear, dour Ecclesiastes, who found so little to celebrate in life, at least made space, in his otherwise saturnine perspective, to honor time, the passage of time, the flow of time, and the regular return of times and seasons:

For everything there is a season
And a time for every purpose under heaven
A time to be born and a time to die
A time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted
A time to kill and a time to heal
A time to break down and a time to build up
A time to weep and a time to laugh
A time to mourn and a time to dance
A time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing
A time to seek and a time to lose
A time to keep and a time to cast away
A time to rend and a time to sew
A time to keep silence and a time to speak
A time to love and a time to hate
A time for war and a time for peace
For everything there is a season
And a time for every purpose under heaven.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Our son said, passing his old high school, “I wish more of my friends had found their way into our youth group.” He may regret that they were not more fully included. Yet ten years after the era of nick-names, they have been included in the embrace of love that is this church at its evangelistic best: an overnight here, a lock in there, a wedding here, a Christmas service there. In Epiphany, in full light, we are all Unitarians.

B. Calvinists

You may not think much of the Presbyterians. They can be cold people, I know. ‘God’s frozen people’, said one. You may never have wanted to wade in the dark, icy water of Calvinist despair. You may not see yourself through the lens of a Bergman film. But there is a time and a season. When Ash Wednesday arrives next month, we are all Presbyterians. Yes, if at no other point, on this day we do well to read Calvin. For we are dust, and to dust we do return, as both the Bible and Ignatius of Loyola taught. We do all sin, and do all fall short of the glory of God. We are fully mortal and utterly prone to harm others. In Calvin’s favorite, winning phrase, a personal delight of my own as well, we are, simply, “totally depraved”. His follower, Jonathan Edwards, described us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, held like filthy spiders over the pits of hellfire, and spared only by God’s strong wrist, who in holding us to save us, nonetheless averts his eyes from the hideous sight. Yikes! That is serious Ash Wednesday stuff! Really to sense this, you need the mind of John Calvin, the voice of Jonathan Edwards, and the heart of John of Patmos. I admit, it is not a happy creed, but it is a sober one. As my Scottish Presbyterian relatives from my mother in law’s side might say: “Bob, you are so often, so wrong!” Buy a Presbyterian lunch early in Lent, and appreciate the gifts of their season.

They say, ‘forgive us our debts’. Theirs is a recognition of the danger of debt. We have lost a ferry, a fast ferry, but an expensive one, to the danger of debt. A good Ash Wednesday lesson. But all the good things that brought us to that project are still there for the future: an international community around the lake, the chance to travel, a spirit of adventure, the willingness to try something new. Next time, less debt, smaller boat, a Calvinist reminder.

C. Jesuits

Speaking of Lent, you may harbor misgivings about the Jesuits. Perhaps you attended a Jesuit college, or teach in one. Maybe you have wondered about Ignatius of Loyola, born in Pamplona, a Spaniard and a warrior, who was converted through illness to a beatific vision of Jesus, the Christ, Lord and Savior. Believe me, in Lent we are all Jesuits. In the season of Lenten discipline and preparation, you know, March of ice and snow and cold, we rely on some form of Jesuitical discipline. You may not precisely use his “Spiritual Exercises”, his daily devotion of silence and prayer and vision of Jesus. You may be sorry that he set loose the Inquisition and Index as tools of the Counter Reformation. You may feel he carried too much eye and too much military into a faith that is primarily auditory and irenic. In that, you would be a Lutheran, you Lutheran you. But in Lent, we are all soldiers in the Society of Jesus, ready to drill and train and prepare and exercise and submit. As Teresa of Avila put it, “even when we are thrown from the mud-cart of life, God is with us.” Everyone is a Jesuit, come Lent.

We need the disciplines of the Christian life, of time and resource and attention. Come Lent, you may want to avail yourself of one or another of these. But why wait until Lent? Any day is a good Jesuit day. Especially days devoted to real church life: healthy systems and lasting habits. We saw many at our charge conference last week.

D. Lutherans

Since, though, you brought up Luther, we must also give credit where credit is due. Come Good Friday, when we survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, our greatest gain we count but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride. I know that the ground at the foot of the cross is pretty level, but the view of the cross that is best is found from the perspective of the Lutherans, who stoutly recall, with Luther, crux sola nostra teologia. The Cross alone is our teaching. Luther’s grave is not found in Lake Wobegon, but you can see it from there. We need to remember, especially on Good Friday, that all of our best intentions fall short. Especially when we think we have it just right, whatever it is, we invariably have it just wrong. It was Katie von Bora, a former nun, who in marrying Luther reminded him of his humanity and “brought out the most winsome traits” of the Reformer’s character. All our symbols, personal and familial and national and denominational, lie prostrate before the cross, all need right interpretation to avoid idolatry. Even the cross, our own central symbol, needs that interpretation, which is why we consent to a 25 minute sermon every week, even though the Baptists would rather shout and pray. Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing! When it comes to the Cross, “nobody does it better” than Luther.

They remind us that we can have faith in the midst of anxiety, that ministry is personal not individual, that all good things come with a measure of difficulty.

Come Good Friday, we will look out onto the world of hurt near and far, and know that in Christ Jesus, God has entered this world at its very depths, in order to bring full healing.

E. Baptists

I regret having mentioned the Baptists. It brings the camel’s nose under the tent. They are always threatening to become the sideshow that ate up the circus. You give them an inch, they will take a mile. Speaking of miles, they are a mile wide and an inch deep. They give anarchy a bad name. But we must recognize that there is a season for everybody. Even the Baptists. For in June, or late May, when the world is young again, we will celebrate Pentecost, the day of Spirit. After 50 days after 40 days, that is 90 days from Calvin’s ashes, we pause again to remember that God is with us. Wesley died saying, “the best of all is, God is with us!” (Relax, I will get to the Methodists, in due time.) No, the Baptists are all canoe and no paddle, all axe-murder and no sheriff, all fire and no hose, all hat and no cattle. God love ‘em. All Spirit, whatever the Trinitarian Orthodox say. The Baptists are almost Unitarians of the Third Person of the Trinity! I tell you though, come Pentecost, that’s the day, Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through. When that wind of God is blowing (I do not refer to your preacher sermonizing), then you need some Baptists around to shake things up a little. Rembert Weakland said that Christians are always in a little bit of trouble. Isabella Van Wagener (Sojourner Truth) said, “That man says women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him!” See what I mean?! You need to shout when the Spirit says shout!

We need to trust the Spirit this year at Asbury First. We need to hold onto one another and trust the Holy Spirit that is holding each one of us.

F. The Orthodox

Next door, to shift again, the Greek Orthodox do not do a lot of shouting on Sunday. Or on Monday. They’re not big shouters, except during their festival, which happens to come, properly I think, about the time of Trinity Sunday. The more liturgical churches, Episcopalian and Catholic, remember this Sunday better than we do. This is the season when we remember that God is more than Almighty Creator (no matter what the Moslems say) and that God is more than Lordly Savior (no matter what the Holy Rollers say) and that God is more than Mysterious Spirit (no matter what the Californians say). God is three, three, three Faces in one. Leave it to the Orthodox to remind us. Their services last three hours. One for each Person of the Trinity, perhaps. When you come to June 15, go to the Greek festival and dance to the Triune God. Go ahead. Hug a Trinitarian in June! William Ellery Channing may be angry about it, but you go ahead and love your Trinitarian neighbor as your own self. As Constantine’s mother, Helena, may have said on her many 4th century pilgrimages to Jerusalem, “let us remember well those who have revered God before us.” It is the Orthodox who have most carefully reflected on the doors of the Tsunami of a year ago.

As one scientist said, “the world is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine.” We are surrounded by a great ocean of mystery, in which our tiny islands of awareness sit dwarfed and humbled. Sometimes our God is too small.

G. Roman Catholics

Now that we are knee deep in liturgy, let us honor the Roman Catholics. So call this time ordinary time. Every third member of our church today comes out of a Roman Catholic background. Our history, liturgy, nave, location and personality as a congregation have regularly made this move accessible to women and men of many different interests and backgrounds. On World Communion Sunday we are all Catholic! With the universal church we celebrate the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. With the universal church we acknowledge one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. With the universal church we recognize the global character of the Christian communion. It has been the Catholic Church, more steadily than most, that has defended the human body in our time. It has been the Catholic Church that has regularly regarded the poor and those of low estate. It has been the Catholic Church that has kept the long history of Christendom before us. Our liturgical ties to the universal church should not be loosened by the very real doctrinal differences we have with Rome. From our Anglican heritage, we are a moderate people. We know the value of an olive branch. On World Communion Sunday we affirm one holy, catholic and apostolic church. We remember, among so many others, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose simple deeds of service to the poorest spoke volumes to her time.

It is the regularity of worship, the steady reliability of our worship life that guides us over the long haul. We need the nourishment of Sunday worship, in the next year, Asbury First, as we continue to paddle our little boat across the mighty rivers of change: build the building, appoint the pastor, evaluate the past.

H. Anglicans

Did you notice how the Anglican or Episcopal tradition found its way into our seasonal review? Typical. You will usually find an Anglican sidling up alongside you in discussion, listening and careful in discourse. To the Episcopalian a smile comes before a frown, a “quite so” before a “not so”. Anglicans are like everybody else—only moreso. They revere the variety and diversity of the communion of saints. They agree to disagree, agreeably. They are peaceable people, nearly Quaker in character. Not for them the starch of Lutheran polemics, nor the bitter herbs of Calvinist dogma. A little sherry in the afternoon, a little Handel, a little wooly conversation—jolly good! Tallyho! Pip-pip! Cheerio! It is reason, rather than revelation alone, that has guided the Church of England, reason and a stiff dose of liturgy, including the veneration of Saints. One a soldier, one a priest, one slain by a fierce wild beast. On All Saints Day, we are all Anglicans. (And on Halloween, too!!!). They are princes of peace, these sons and daughters of George III. They are optimistic people! Said Queen Victoria, “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat”. I saw a gathering of saints in our fellowship hall last Sunday. Salt and light together—a great gathering.

One gay young man said of his parents: “They do not understand my life. But I am trying to honor their way of thinking so that they might honor mine.”

I. Quakers

Real peace, the waiting and quiet of peace in the heart, however, are ultimately the province of our Pennsylvanian neighbors. In Advent, you are a Quaker through and through. Oh, you worship God. You know that in heaven we will be greeted by St Peter, not by Benjamin Franklin; that we will walk the golden streets, not Market Street in Philadelphia; that we will hear the angelic choir not the Liberty Bell; that we are disciples first and citizens second. Still, the city of brotherly love, only five hours south, the American home of the spiritual descendents of George Fox, that Quaking Englishman, is the home of a radical quest for peace, a waiting for peace, a longing for peace, a season of quiet that is utterly Quaker in nature. “I have called you Friends”, said our Lord. I tell you, when you have truly felt the power of the Society of Friends, you will be as ready for the peace of Advent as you were prepared for the discipline of Lent by the Society of Jesus. It is enough to make you sing like a Methodist! The Quakers may not have been always as nationally responsible as others may have liked. They may not have pulled their patriotic load. They may have stepped aside when others had to step forward. Still, it was to them that Ben Franklin turned at the end of his life, in 1792, to implore the young nation to jettison slavery, and they alone, prescient and right, stood by him. In Advent, we all are Philadelphia Quakers, eating Cheesestakes and twinkies and sculling on the Schuylkill River. We all await peace. We remember Mother Ann Lee and the shaking Quakers singing, “in truth simplicity is gain, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed; to turn, turn will be our delight, til by turning, turning, we come round right.”

Let us live simply that others may simply live.

J. The People Called Methodists

For now it is Christmastide and Epiphany. For a decade, whatever the season, here at AFUMC we have emphasized incarnation, as much as possible. This is our gift to the symphony of seasons. A song greets the dawn. It is the singing of the birds before daybreak that heralds a new morning, and it is the singing of the church of Christ, in season and out, that heralds a new creation. The birds sing while it is still dark, and the church sings while sin remains. People do change, for the better, even when we are reluctant to notice. To come to Christmas, truly to come to Christmas, you must come singing. In church, in the shower, at prayer meeting, in the choir, caroling, at youth group, by yourself. To sing is to be a Methodist. A singing Methodist, as our common speech declares. All sing, but none so sweetly. All sing, but none so vibrantly. All sing, but none with a list of rules about how to do so pasted in the front of a hymnal, whose reproduction every generation is the church equivalent of world war. All sing, but none with the theological bearing of singing with the Wesleys. To sing the Wesley hymns is to plant one’s standard upon the field of battle and roar: let the games begin! And what shall we sing? Carols of course. And which carols. Those of the English tradition of course. And which of these? There is but one of the first rank. It is the doctrine of the Incarnation, more than those others from Crucifixion to Resurrection, which so marks the people called Methodist. So the Wesley’s adored the Gospel of John, and “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. So they hoped for a new creation, finished, pure and spotless. So they built churches, great and beautiful, but just for appetizers to the real meal---orphanages, mission societies, colleges, universities, medical schools, hospitals, including Africa University in Zimbabwe, which mission, the greatest Christian mission of our time, your apportionment supports. So Susanna Wesley bore 20 children, one of whom, John, died saying, “the best of all is—God is with us!”

Hail the heaven born prince of peace
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark the herald angels sing!
Glory to the Newborn King!