Sunday, June 04, 2006

God at Dawn

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Valedictory Series #2

Text: Acts 2:1-21


I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment ‘when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’, but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

So Marilynn Robinson finishes Gilead. At dawn, with an aching heart, a full chest weight of the sense of …the unnameable. Radiant. Good. Wonderful. Song. Joy.

Have you forgotten the love you had at first? When did breathing become such an ordinary thing to your mind? And prayer? Have you begun with the spirit to end with the flesh? Has the vocation, the sense of self and soul that is the real marrow of Pentecost given way to drift, ennui, languid doldrums?

Wake up! It is morning! Dawn is breaking! Come Pentecost…

In our Scripture lesson today, Luke is surely reminding his church, and reminding us, of the love we had at first. Every single one has a tongue of fire given, that makes effective connection with others. Every one is called, has a vocation, a measure of spirit.

Jacob finally won his name at dawn: Israel, he who wrestles with God.

David wrote of dawn as the feeling of a groom after the wedding night.

The disciples enter the tomb at dawn.

John ends with breakfast at dawn, and a catch of 153 numbered fish.

For some, this call has been a call to the ministry.

The sermon today is an unapologetic, unabashed, direct appeal to you to consider whether, come Pentecost, you are meant to preach. Has a flame got your tongue? Were you meant to be in ministry?

Two dozen women and men have been called and sent into the ministry through you in the last 10 years.

They heard the wind of Pentecost, and the call at dawn. Early some morning, and no they were not drunk, at least not most of them, they heard something, and heeded.

Would that all God’s people were prophets

Prepare for a profession that does not yet fully exist…

Where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need…

Where your deep sadness meets the world’s deep greed…

How shall they hear without a preacher?...

Let your life shine…

Be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for the human race…

Who told you who you was?

If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he didn’t get there by himself…

Prepare to depart this life ‘in the friendship of Christ’…

Some read RM Miller on E Tittle, some R Lischer on small church ministry, some Bernanos and the life of a country priest, some Hempton on Methodism, some BB Taylor on the preaching life, some R Hill on ministry in the Northeast, some P Palmer on calling.…

Pentecost is God at dawn. This morning is the morning of tongues of fire, of firey tongues, of speech that burns, heals, warms, enflames, inspires.

How shall we rightly admire the prairie dawn? How shall we sense whether, and how, we are called? How do you know what you are called to be and do?

Things that really matter are ultimately relational, whether that relationship is with others, with self, or with God. Our friends give us ourselves. Our instincts give us ourselves. Our sense of presence gives us ourselves.

1. Close Relationships

Here is one account, one testimony, no worse nor better than any other.

We learned to love Jesus in the simple rhythms of the ordinary. We learned to love Jesus in the pause before meals, with grace in his name. We learned to love Jesus singing hymns to Him, in church, at camp, in the car. We learned to love Jesus as we read about his life in the Bible. We learned to love Jesus by celebrating his birth in snowy December, and his destiny in snow melting April. We learned to love Jesus by seeing older people love him, really love him, with their hands, and their money and their time and most especially with their choices, and within that, with their choices about things not to say, not to be, not to do. We learned to love Jesus like we learned to speak English, one lisp at a time, one dangling preposition at a time, one new word at a time. The music of Jesus played the accompaniment to all of the growth and decay of life around us. There was no wall of separation, neither artificial, nor sacramental, nor communal, between our life and his. His was our life, and our life was his.

This sounds romantic, but it is not meant to be. Conflict, envy, hurt, gossip, anger, misjudgment, unfairness, tragedy, hatred, fear, abuse, neglect, betrayal, addiction, and loneliness sat around the table too—around the kitchen table, around the picnic table, around the coffee table, around the communion table.

Still there was a closeness in the Christ who raised us—a pine needle Adirondack Christ, with the dawn scent of the forest primeval, a sunlit Finger Lake Christ, a blue collar Erie Canal Christ, a blizzard Christ, an autumn peak Christ, a high summer Christ, a Christ with mud on Easter shoes. You could say that we were more Gospel people than Letter people, more Peter than Paul, more good Samaritan than justification by faith, more Methodist than Presbyterian. There was no forced or feigned distance between Jesus and us, between his life and our own.

He was with us in school. Our teachers attended church, and when they scolded us for talking or not wearing our eyeglasses, Jesus walked past us and smiled.

He was with us at home. Our parents entertained college students, all then of just one gender, with sandwiches and pickles. The men stood when their hostess entered the room. They wore ties. Jesus sampled the pickles, with us.

He was with us in the summer. He felt the glow of a warm campfire on a cool mountain night. When the ministers worried whether there was too much kissing, too much holding hands, Jesus worried too, and then you could see him, almost, holding a young couple as they held each other.

He was with us when we grew up and became teenagers ourselves.

He was with us when all hell broke loose. When older boys, or younger men, went off in pressed uniforms to someplace on a map we had seen in school. When some came home, and when some partly came home, and when some did not come home, He wept.

He was with us in college, at marriage, in studies, at work.

You go with your friends. So if your friends go off to college, you may too. If they enlist, you may too. If they take a job in the south, you may too. It is a natural thing.

If people you know and love go into the ministry, you may too. If you respect somebody who is in the ministry, you may be inclined to preach. If your parents, with pride, have the pastor to Sunday dinner, you might think about taking that seat, and holding that fork, and intoning that prayer. If you grow up with Rev. Jones, and sense he is a real human being, you might try to become one such yourself. If the kind of people who are your kind of people enter Christian service, you might, too. And if your mother, father, grandparents, spiritual aunts and uncles, and a boyfriend or two study for the ministry, you may too.

Trust your experience. Honor your instincts. Listen to your heart.

Your relationships are crucial, crucial in the dawning of a sense of vocation.

In eighth grade the choir director, Ruth Tubbs, commented on the resonance in my speaking voice, following the usual desultory youth service. In college, the chaplain, Jim Leslie, took seriously my interest and gave advice. At church camp, Lou Broadbent and Jim Legro showed me you could be a minister and still be a real young man with heart and life. At home both parents somehow said just enough without saying too much. After college, Bob Homer gave me two churches, and checked in on me and checked up on me. It takes a long time to grow a preacher. Relationships hold the key.

Hold that thought. You might want to continue to dance with the one who brung you. For as crucial as our relations and relationships are at vocational dawn, they are more significant, even as the sun begins to rise.

2. Work Relationships

So now you are beginning to work, to hold a job. What counts in your work relationships? Can you honestly list what is meaningful and what is not about what you do? There are clues here, terribly important ones. Do not, do not enslave yourself to something that diseases your soul.

It is Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class that gives me hope about the future of the culture, the church, and the ministry. He surveyed people about what they want in work—a kind of white collar Studs Turkel. Regarding work, he found, the question ‘what?’ is often secondary to the question, ‘with whom?’ People prefer the hair salon to the machine shop, for relational reasons. Hear his report on surveys of what people most want in work:

I. Responsibility: Being able to contribute and have impact. . .Knowing that ones work makes a difference. . .Being seriously challenged.

II. Flexibility: A flexible schedule and a flexible work environment. . .The ability to shape one’s own work to some degree.

III. Stability: A stable work environment and a relatively secure job. . .Not lifetime security with mind-numbing sameness, but not a daily diet of chaos and uncertainty either.

IV. Compensation: Especially base pay and core benefits. . .Money you can count on.

V. Growth: Personal and professional development. . .The chance to learn and grow. . .To expand one’s horizons.

…cut new ground…feel at home…be creative…design your own work space…define your own role…have peer recognition…enjoy a work\life balance…

Now hear the good news! The ministry gets A+ in four of these five. There is no greater challenge or responsibility than shepherding souls. No one has more daily flexibility in determining one’s use of time. As an itinerant preacher you are guaranteed a pulpit—somewhere. Reading a book a day, or the equivalent, is a guarantee of personal growth. Responsibility! Flexibility! Stability! Growth!

The culture around us is starting itself to move away from the rank materialism of an earlier time. The deep sorrow we have at the suicide of the church meets the deep falsehood of our culture, here. It is false that an ever bigger mortgage will make you happier. It is false that several credit cards to the maximum will bring joy. It is false that accumulation of things will bring peace. It is false that $100,000 of college debt is a doorway to nirvana.

So, we get a D in compensation. This is a real issue, particularly for those acculturated to see the bottom line as the measure of worth. It is no accident that the church struggles to attract young, heterosexual, middle class, white males. We must do what other generations have done, and make this an opportunity for heroic living. You learn the value of a dollar. You learn to make every opportunity count. You learn the danger of debt. You learn the power of giving. You learn the shrewdness of frugality. You learn to hike, hard with a heavy backpack. See it as a physical challenge, like a 7 mile run in the winter, at 10 degrees. Add a little snow. And some wind. Yes…

Growing segments of the population work for challenge, enjoyment, to do good, to make a contribution, and to learn. Such motivations will eventually eclipse compensation as the most important motives for work … People on their death beds never wish they had spent more time in the office. (Robert Fogel)

3. A Relationship with God

A longing deeper than the relationships of belonging in family, and the relationships of meaning, in work, exploded from human hearts on Pentecost. This dawn day of spirit! This dawn day of fire! This dawn day of translation, interpretation, preaching, ecumenism! This dawn day of world Christianity! This dawn day of the church! This early morning dawn day! A deeper longing burst forth on Pentecost. Theirs, and ours, is a deeper longing, a longing for a relationship with God.

St. Augustine of Hippo at long last found himself, his soul, and his true vocation, by finding a personal relationship to God. Yes, Augustine entered the ministry. He became priest and bishop in North Africa about 400ad. He wrote 500 letters, 200 sermons, 2 great books. In an age, like yours, of intercultural conflict, Augustine made sense of faith’s highest vision…the city of God. In a culture, like yours, that wore the nametag of Christianity without fully understanding its meaning, Augustine celebrated…the grace of God. In a political climate, like ours, that honored highly individualized freedom and the power to choose, Augustine praised God’s freedom to choose, and acclaimed…the freedom of God. In a highly sexualized age, like ours, Augustine colorfully confessed his own wandering, his own mistakes, which, he attested, did test but did not exhaust the …patience of God. In a religious climate, like ours, which buffeted a truly biblical belief, Augustine praised his maker, and so reminded the church of the proper…praise of God. His Confessions—perhaps part of your summer reading—his great autobiography, is a prayer—for the city of God, by the grace of God, in the freedom of God, to the patience of God, as the praise of God. Augustine found a relationship with God and was ordained. And vice versa.

It may be that the only way God has to relate to some of us, to get our attention, to mute our pride, to kindle our affection, is to get us into the ministry. Baptism and confirmation suffice for most. But for the real hard cases—the guy who wrote the book on pride, the gal whose picture is alongside the dictionary definition of sloth, the one who embodies real falsehood—like us, like Augustine….like you?...God keeps ordination in reserve.

Long ye for God? Preach. Preach until you believe it, then preach because you believe it. Long ye for God? Preach.

At dawn, God called. Some answered…

et tui?

Thirty years ago today I preached my first sermon, in New Hope, New York. It does not take long to go from being a young turk to becoming an old turkey. Who will come along to take our places?

Think about it…

No comments: