Sunday, April 16, 2006

Something Happened

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Easter Sunday
Text: I Corinthians 15:1-11


Some time ago, a family assembled around the bedside in the last hour of their loved one’s life. One said, “I don’t know if I believe in heaven.”

How are we to think about heaven?


One way to think about something is to think about its opposite.

Our Bible uses the word heaven in opposition to the word earth. Heaven is up there. Earth is down here. ‘Heaven and earth are full of thy glory’. ‘As the heavens are high above the earth’. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ Heaven represents the ultimate or penultimate reality of the physical world in the Bible, as it does in the ancient philosophers.

But we are today reluctant to think that heaven is up there. For we know that ‘Up There’ is the moon, the Milky Way, and the expanding, even infinite, universe.

Our Bible also speaks of heaven in contrast to hell. Now the comparison is not between up and down, as much as it is between lasting good and lasting bad. Heaven is good. Hell is bad. But we also have some question about these inherited, mythological accounts of hell, as well as similar accounts of this Heaven. Harps, wings, clouds…fire, forks, tails…Good we acknowledge. Evil we acknowledge. Hell as the absence of God, or of good, we acknowledge. But hell as eternal torment, administered in punitive ways by a divinity of somewhat unpleasant temperament, this hell we question.

Here is a third contrast. Not heaven and earth, nor heaven and hell, but heaven and hurt. It is at the heart of Corinthians and the marrow of the Easter gospel that ‘something happened’. Not up and down, nor good and bad, but now and then. This contrast is built on time, rather than on space or on morals. Heaven is then, earth is now. A belief in heaven, then, is a trust in what is ‘taking place’ over against a knowledge of what is ‘in place’. What is taking place, contrasted with what is in place. What is at hand as contrasted to what is in hand. (I am indebted here to the work of my teacher, Dr. Christopher Morse). Now we see in a mirror dimly, then face to face.

Heaven is both near and different, utterly close at hand, yet completely different from anything in hand. ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ ‘The reign of God has come near to you.’ ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’. ‘The Lord is at hand…’And yet…there is nothing in our hands like what God hands us. The resurrection is Christ’s victory over death, when no other victory avails.

1 Corinthians 15

1 Corinthians 15 prepares us for the lifelong work of response to the question of heaven, in the form of Paul’s long chapter on resurrection, a portion of which we heard just a moment ago. We have begun with reference to an actual experience in life. Paul tells about resurrection largely on the basis of experience. And while heaven and resurrection are not equivalent terms, in the basic sense of freedom from death they do go together.

The Apostle Paul writes in the year 54ad. This text addresses the following questions in the life a frisky congregation.

We are in a time of transition. What kind of person should lead the church? How shall the church be lead?

What is true wisdom?

What do we mean by ‘spirituality’?

In what may we take pride?

How do we figure out how to treat people who mistreat others and so discipline misbehavior?

What use is the court of law to us?

Is marriage bane or blessing, sinful or soulful?

May one eat food sacrificed to idols, and otherwise enjoy the larger culture (movies, theater, wine, clothing, trips)?

What is the extent of freedom?

How much disorder is good in worship?

What is the relationship between women and men in the church?


The Bible may be more relevant than you think…

Last, Paul writes to address an argument in the church about resurrection. (This is utterly fascinating in itself, since it shows that not 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion there was already church disagreement about resurrection!)

Paul sits at the bedside, in earshot of the question of knowing and believing, of heaven and resurrection. He takes your hand and remembers your experience in receiving an inherited tradition: dead, buried, and raised on the third day. He mentions to you, hand on shoulder, the centrality of resurrection to the whole of Christian preaching. When your mother dies, things get very personal. He pauses to place this account of resurrection into an apocalyptic frame, which he probably brought with him from Judaism, but notices your flagging interest in the history of religions. So, as he did with circumcision in Galatians, and as we are perhaps inclined to think he often did in polemic, Paul lets the whole Gospel ride on this one point, at this point. He recites names of people you also have heard of—Peter, James, others. With you, perhaps asking for your experience too (what is your actual experience of life, death, love, the numinous?), he recounts experiences of others, who have known an appearance, apostles, individuals, and groups, even himself. (This is our one and only primary source reference to a personal experience of the Risen Christ). He points to popular religious practices (the experience, apparently known in the Corinthian church, of baptizing in the name of the dead). There is a lengthy pause. Then he dramatically asserts his own experience of suffering, and risks of death, as sure evidence of the power of resurrection. He pointedly equates denial of resurrection with license to do as we please. Paul even takes up, less intelligibly, and more mystically, the further question of how resurrection happens. He then more philosophically, and lengthily, assesses our experiences of the glories of nature, the created order, the firmament, the physical body. The passage is based on experience. While he starts with his own experience, he leans heavily on yours.

Then his conclusion. Listen for what is not said, too. Paul also, for all the experiential assurance of the chapter, clearly announces that he tells of a…mystery. Not a fact. A mystery. Not a miracle. A mystery. Not a wonder. A mystery. Not evidence or verdict. A mystery….Behold I tell you a mystery…

To announce this mystery, the New Testament in general, and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, convey three different accounts of resurrection. Peter (representing the first three gospels) emphasizes a physical resurrection, an empty tomb, more than resuscitation, to be sure, but physical nonetheless. Paul emphasizes a spiritual resurrection, known in revelation. John announces an existential resurrection, one that fills all of life and creation, that was presaged by the raising of Lazarus, one that makes the cross itself a glorification, a completion. Peter shows us an empty tomb. Paul blows the trumpet of heaven. John acclaims a full heart. All three emphases, perhaps providentially provided to reach the varied hearts and minds of various women and men, all the spots on the personality map, affirm that something happened. Something for dreamers, doubters and doers. Something for engineers, philosophers, and politicians. You may ask if they are all on the same page. In good Methodist fashion we reply, “They are singing out of the same hymnal: Sings Peter, ‘ours the cross, the grave, the skies’; sings Paul, ‘my chains fell off, my heart was free’; sings John, ‘he walks with me and he talks with me’.”

What the church has tried to name, over the centuries, on Easter, is that something happened. Something physical, something spiritual, something experiential. There is room for your particular temperament here. To some measure, they must all be true. For the physical resurrection, the resurrection of the body, at the least is attested in the ongoing life of the church. And the spiritual resurrection is at least attested in the preaching of the faith. And the existential resurrection is at least attested in unexpected, undeserved, real love. Something happened….The church is alive. The future is open. Love is real. Look at the difference heaven makes..

1. An Empty Tomb

First, the church is alive.

Especially when we come to celebrate the life of a dear sister or brother in faith, we have a powerful experience of the church alive across the river of death. The church is the body of Christ. We affirm a bodily, physical resurrection, tasted for a time in church.

W S Coffin taught many of us this physical resurrection truth through the power of faithful preaching, and the power in preaching faith. This week he died. With his burial, his voice and words move out of the swirling eddies in the river of life and loss, and out onto the higher ground of memory. His words carry at least as well from the other side as they did on this side of the river…

There is more mercy in God than sin in us.

To age is grow from passion to compassion.

When my son died God’s heart broke first.

The separation of church and state is not the separation of a Christian from her politics.

Lent is the time to get rid of your guilt.

I’m not OK, and you’re not OK. But that’s OK.

Courage is the most important virtue because it makes all the other possible.

Rules are signposts not hitching posts.

The woman most in need of liberation is the woman in every man.

Hell is truth seen too late.

The trick in life is to die young as late as possible.

The longest, most arduous trip in the world is the journey from the head to the heart.

It is often said that the Church is a crutch. What makes you think you don’t limp?

Good preaching is never at people, it’s for people.

To me it is hard to believe a loving God would create loving creatures that aspire to be yet more loving, and then finish them off before their aspirations are complete. There must be something more….

Of course life after death can no more be proved than disproved. ‘For nothing worth proving can be proved, nor yet disproved’, as Tennyson said. As a child in a womb cannot conceive of life with air and light—the very stuff of our existence—so it is hard for us to conceive of any other life without the sustaining forces to which we are accustomed. But consider this: if we are essentially spirit, not flesh; if what is substantial is intangible; if we are spirits that have bodies and not the other way around, then it makes sense that just as musicians can abandon their instruments to find others elsewhere, so at our death our spirits can leave our bodies and find other forms in which to make new music. (Citations from memory and from Credo).

Made like him, like him we rise
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies

2. A Trumpet Blast

Second, the future is open.

There is a spiritual resurrection in your future.

In March, we met a psychiatrist who said his work is to offer the possibility that stories might have a different ending. You know that story of your life at its worst, the one that seems to have the same ending no matter how you live and how you tell it? That story can have a different ending, another conclusion. It can.

Your repeated narrative of inherited addiction can be overcome in sobriety.

Your national adolescence in forgetting the limits of power can be overcome in a more collegial, more humble, more mature foreign policy.

Your preemption can give way to response. Your isolation can give way to community. Your imperialism can give way to justice. We can learn lessons from our experience.

Your religious amnesia about what is fun in faith—giving and inviting—can be lifted like a fog at dawn, and you can sing our your soul.

Things can, and will in Christ, be better for you and for us. That repeated tale of employment and unemployment, love and loss, relationship and rejection. The cycle can be broken, when what is in place is invaded by what is taking place.

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond---
Invisible as music—
But positive, as Sound---
It beckons and it baffles—
Philosophy—don’t know—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity must go (E Dickinson)
My chains fell off
My heart was free
I rose, went forth and followed thee

3. An Existential Awakening

Third, love is real.

Love is not façade, but God, an experience of God, an existential resurrection.

One hot afternoon, a meeting of 30 Methodists was squeezed into a room fit for 25. I ended up crowded over against a dear elderly woman from New Orleans, 2-5pm. The room was full of flesh that one only reluctantly added any spirit or word. Side conversations disappeared with the disappearance of personal space.

After the 3 hour meeting and sauna, though, I was given a religious experience. If you need evidence of resurrection, consider the unlikely prospect of a religious experience in a church meeting. It is a remarkable thing to be given a religious experience at a church meeting. I over hear in it the resurrection distinction between what is in place and what is taking place. In place are all the systems and structures of a world that forgets the poor, children and the isolated. Taking place, as heaven’s future moves toward us, here and there, are foretastes of glory. Not many. Not planned. Not finished. Not overwhelming. Here and there. Now and then.

My seat mate is Nancy Carruth, a longtime lay leader in southern Methodism. She has lived her life in New Orleans, which the gracious solemnity of her slow speech would clearly tell you. As the room emptied, we got acquainted. She unraveled a long chain of stories about her beloved city. About unspeakable devastation. About the profound sense of Good Friday loss still holding her region. About the eclipse of places of memory. About the swamped Hotel Ponchetrain. About hearing, a month earlier, her first symphony since the flood, held in the sports arena. Her account was given with grace…

I was stunned when suddenly her narrative moved a continent away and two decades into the past. She readily began to tell me about the whole miraculous creation of Africa University more than twenty years ago, to which she had given so much. The initial dream. Tom Trotter’s dream. The scores of meetings. ‘Some even in rooms more crowded than this’. The attempts to raise money, for a new venture, in an aging church. The conflicts. The decisions of the United Methodist Church to build a continent wide first class university in Zimbabwe. Imagine getting 10 million people to agree on something… The planning. The diplomacy. The gradual excitement. And then a moment in time, when what is taking place, heaven, invades what is in place, here and now.

I loved Tom Trotter and thought the world of him. I will never forget the day we rode for the first time toward the site of Africa University, after so many years of long distance work. We came around the bend—and there it was…We saw the new buildings, shining…I was just overcome. I was so emotional. Tom wasn’t any better, sitting right next to me. Just a puddle of tears. Such a moment…. I will never forget it….’

And I will never forget her. She is so like so many of you. In faith she named what is ‘taking place’ (God’s future)—Africa University, in contrast to what is in place (our hurt)—Katrina. Her self forgetfulness, in story and in life. Her joy at the radiant memory of giving, without denying the hurt of loss. Her natural testimony of faith, which placed the radiant memory of a resurrection moment, like a garment on top of a hard experience in the present, as a means to confess…as if to say…

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning… In the cross of Christ I glory, towering oer the wrecks of time…

Suffering produces endurance, endurance character, character hope, and hope does not disappoint…

He walks with me and he talks with me
He tells me I am his own.


The church is alive. The future is open. Love fills the heart. Something happened. Foretastes of heaven. Call me crazy, but if the heavenly banquet has this menu, perhaps we need over these few earthly years to acquire a certain taste for certain things, faith and hope and love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;

It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect;

But when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

God Bless You

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Palm Sunday
Text: John 12:12-29

Juan Hernandez stood in front of teeming poverty in Tegucigalpa. Smiling, flecks of gray decorating his dark hair, he said to us and to you, “thank you and God bless you.”

A pastor stood this week over the bedside of a very ill friend, praying in the face of death, and saying, “God bless you.”

Norman Rockwell’s memorable painting, ‘Breaking Home Ties’ (its original suddenly rediscovered this week), shows a boy eager to leave home, and his father’s furrowed brow, as they sit on the running board of an old Ford. Dad’s eyes say, “God bless you.”

Atrocious news from Duke was telecast in front of the University Chapel, its illumined gothic arches mutely conveying a muffled and besmirched word of life, “God bless you.”

On September 11, 2001, as we now see in last week’s newspapers, valiant efforts were made by telephone emergency call operators, each fumbling communiqué in the hour of crucifixion carrying the same message, “God bless you.”

Communication is a delicate art, most delicate when most needed, as in the Sunday sermon, the announcement of good news. The openness to hear or say a good word, perhaps a saving or intervening good word, while not a ticket to fortune or fame, may just be the path to life.

On the path of life, Palm Sunday, blessings abound. The happy church of Palm Sunday is a blessing. The remembered word of the throng, misunderstood and misspoken, “Blessed is he”, is another kind of blessing. The palms themselves, soon to become ash fodder, are a kind of Sukkoth physical blessing. This great church, Asbury First United Methodist Church of 1040 East Avenue Rochester New York, is a sacred blessing. You are a blessing. As your pastors, how proud we are of your ministry. In worship, as fine an offering of the praise of God as you will find. You have given yourself to vibrant worship, and so blessed your neighbor. In education, as creative a range of potentials for growth as you will find. You have given yourself to excellent education, and so blessed your neighbor. In care, as loving a set of services for kindness and justice as you will find. You have given yourself to real care, and so blessed your neighbor. (Bob, Laurie, and Paul will further challenge you at the end of the service.) Your real blessing for the future lies in a decision on your part to tithe, to sacrificially support worship, education and care. Tithe.

Yet the gospel for this day is a blessing of another kind. Palm Sunday, and the days of Holy Week, declare a blessing in the presence of evil. Here is the Sunday you tuck back into your pocket for that moment or memory of the worst thing that happens to you. “God bless you”—a promise held by faith when all is lost.

For generations you have blessed others by providing a setting for preaching—support, time, respect, expectation. You expect the preacher to translate the tradition into insights for faithful living. The week progresses, an hour of study for every minute in the pulpit, as Fosdick famously taught. Here a little biblical study. Now some history and theology. There a little news and philosophy. A time for prayer. Then the sense of something and an intention to describe. The sermon is envisioned, outlined, written, rewritten, titled, re-titled, memorized, practiced and delivered. As Erma Bombeck said of Thanksgiving dinner: 20 hours of work consumed in 20 minutes.


March 5 completed such a weekly cycle.

The alarm rings at four. By four-thirty the preacher is awake and rehearsing, for the last few times. Then a long morning jog to crystallize the message. At 8 o’clock he says goodbye to his wife who is using the exercise machine, and watching the news. Says she, “Oh, I just learned that …bai means ‘god bless you’.” News and excercycle muffle the report. “Did you say that Dubai means ‘god bless you’?” “God bless you”. “You mean the middle eastern country?” “IT MEANS GOD BLESS YOU”. How interesting! This newsworthy country has a name meaning ‘God bless you’…

I report that to the gathered clergy and laity before communion. They nod and look puzzled. I announce this moment of education before an afternoon koinonia group. They receive the news with some perplexity. Then, at the end of a lovely long Sunday, around a gracious table, as a fitting conclusion to the hospitality of table fellowship, I proclaim the same message: Dubai=God bless you. I turn in time to see Jan. Jan is gesticulating wildly, not pleased, red and upset. But since much of what I say and more of what I do regularly draws this very response, I think little of it and happily proceed down an even more elaborate pathway of religious observance and definition: Dubai means God bless you. The car door has barely shut when she shouts. ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t say Dubai means "God bless", I said, "Good Bye’ means God bless you….”

You see, communication is a delicate art. Nor is ‘goodbye’ such an easy word to say or define. A syllable of mistake can mean a long journey into misunderstanding. How we say goodbye, how we leave, can be just about the most important thing we do. And who knows how much we really hear each other anyway, particularly when we are eager to say a word of blessing in a time of trouble?


Palm Sunday begins our annual hard look at evil, and our communication of truth about trouble. Reaching as we do, in this time, for a syllable of blessing in a season of brutality, we are perhaps doomed to some measure of mistake. The first Palm Sunday is an occasion of confusion, misunderstanding and maladroit definition. The crowd calls out a blessing, “God bless you!”…

John’s account is different from the other gospels. (Again, with this week’s discovery of a Gospel of Judas, we are reminded of the long tradition and history of reinterpretation in which, truth to tell, every sermon does stand.) Gone are the long scriptural citations. Omitted is the mention of the Mount of Olives. Discarded are the garments thrown in the other texts. Muted is the expectation of political triumph. Admitted are the misunderstandings of the disciples. Changed is the motivation for the parade—here it is the raising of Lazarus that has drawn the crowd. But the tradition of mispronunciation continues. It is in the hour of what John calls glorification, that is, in the hour of crucifixion, that the disciples remember. What they learn from this is not clear, at least not in this passage. Perhaps they learn that the moment of glorification brings the rain of humility onto the desert of pride, the fire of courage into the ice of sloth, the sunshine of truth into the fog of falsehood. That even in the inherited tradition, Jesus is the crisis, the judgment of this world…Towering o’er the wrecks of time…

Real Blessing

There are times when Christianity may seem too good to be true. Christmas, Easter. Then there are times when Christianity may seem too true to be good. Palm Sunday, Good Friday. In this church we assess evil with utter honesty, utter realism. We do not forget Rachel weeping for her children, in Scripture or in Tsunami. We do not avoid the destruction of the city, whether in Jerusalem or in New Orleans. We do not suppress reports of the slaughter of innocents, whether in the Roman Coliseum or in Iraq. In some inscrutable way, this week, we remember the glorification, the cross, which is the reach of blessing into, or at least toward, the worst experience of life.

Can the name of God ever be spoken after Auschwitz? Can a word of blessing ever be offered after 9/11? Can a word of blessing touch the memory or moment of your worst experience?

In this age of violence, we need to be careful in our pronunciation. In the cross of Christ we glory, towering over the wrecks of time. But be careful….

It is not suffering that bears meaning, but meaning that bears suffering.
It is not the cross that carries love, but love that carries the cross.
It is not Golgotha that defines Jesus, but Jesus who defines Golgotha.
It is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses—even—crucifixion.

As Bill Coffin, today himself mortally ill, so often said, “There is more love in God than ever there is sin in us.”

Nine Eleven

Our greatest collective experience of hurt is still 9/11. After three weeks of study and reflection, I find it stunning just how pervasive the unpronounced influence of this event continues to be. Globally, nationally, denominationally, congregationally, and individually, our choices have been influenced less by the intention to meet violence with patient justice, than by a reactive violence and impatient injustice, a hyper caution, and layers of undigested anxiety. 9/11 is our demon. May the demon be exorcised.

Last weekend the newspapers carried the communication of telephone emergency operators from that day. These valiant women and men tried to speak words of blessing in an hour of great tragedy. Some of their advice, in retrospect, was mistaken, but virtually all of it was tellingly and movingly given with an urge to bless, a longing to bless. Some offered prayer. A few named the name of God. One recited with his interlocutor the opening phrases of the 24th Psalm. Yes, there was much avoidance, mistake, denial, mispronunciation.

One operator found the courage though to speak a real word of blessing. Find and do what is helpful and true. When all else was said, before signing off, he simply advised, the broken grammar in fact making the blessing all the more memorable and compelling, “Listen…was you able to call your family?” What a world it would become if every one of us, in the face of tremendous tragedy, could summon the courage and faith to find some practical, particular, helpful, hearable word of blessing, which might bring at least some good out of evil, and so at that one point deny terror any further posthumous victory.

We shall meet violence with patient justice. We shall meet change with courage. We shall meet every dark corner of hurt with some sunlight of opportunity, some word of blessing.

Change is hard but good. God bless you.

It is terrifying to leave behind the zones of comfort. God bless you.

It is exhilarating to open a new chapter in life. God bless you.

Brutal poverty may mock God’s image in Honduras, but the word still is heard, in the voice of faith. God bless you.

Anguished reluctance may mar the necessary departures and breaks in life, but the word of blessing still is spoken, in a painted parent’s farewell. God bless you.

Tears of pure pain may mark the hour of a friend’s untimely death (and what death is ever timely?), but the word of blessing is still uttered, ‘we are in God’s hands’. God bless you.

Confusion and miscommunication may infect the preaching of the gospel, but the word of blessing stands, well or ill spoken. DUBAI. God bless you.

Fear, waves and layers of undigested anxiety filtering through all our days may fall like ashes from the towers of 9/11, but specific blessing, acts of genuine love, particular and imaginative are still possible. Find and do what is helpful and true. As did the one operator who said “Was you able to call your family?” God bless you.

Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure
By the cross are sanctified
Peace is there that knows no measure
Joys that through all time abide.