Sunday, June 18, 2006

God at Dusk

Asbury First United Methodist Church
Valedictory Series #4

Text: Exodus 30

All of us are better when we are loved. In closing, these four weeks, we have announced the gifts of God for the people of God. The gift of God at night is faith. A two point sermon: faith is a walk in the dark. The gift of God at dawn is calling. A three point sermon: your calling is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. The gift of God at noon is work. A six point sermon: the fun in life is in planting and fishing, stewardship and evangelism. The gift of God at dusk is word. We live by the word of God. (By extrapolation this should be a twelve point sermon, but it is only eight. Fear not.)! A word of valediction in transition. A vesper hymn of love. A word of love. All of us are better when we are loved (BWL). Which reminds me of a story…
1. Word

I remember the account, historical and hysterical, of the preacher who was about to move from one pulpit to another. His community arranged to recognize him at a chicken dinner.

(Chickens have paid dearly for our love of fellowship and our native frugality in the Methodist church. They seem to be the right bird at the right price somehow.)

The local florist agreed, free of charge, to provide a table bouquet. The preacher wanted to thank every single member and friend. Thank you. And every single group—choir, class, study group, all. Thank you. And especially every group leader, the real shepherds in church. Thank you. After the remaining florid comments, the bouquet was presented to the preacher and his family. All were amazed to read its banner: “Rest in Peace”. The preacher reddened, and then laughed, and then said something about the next appointment needing resurrection. The florist was mortified, but readily and joyfully forgiven. The festivities proceeded along their clumsy way, as such things have a wont to do.

Our local florist, however, was sullen and would not be comforted. The preacher asked him again to let it go, but like Rachel weeping for her children, the florist would not be consoled. At last he confessed the reason. “Rest in Peace” he could easily live with at the ministerial recognition. But he had to admit the other bouquet had been sent to the graveyard where a group was gathering for burial, a floral piece meant to honor the deceased. And he could only imagine their disappointment and shock when they opened that arrangement and read its banner: “we hope you will be happy in your new location”.

The gift of God at dusk is a word, a valediction in transition, a valediction in transition. All of us are better when we are loved.

2. Biblical Valediction

The Bible is a long chain of valedictions in transition.

It is the gracious humanity of the Holy Scripture, its divine grace that is, which of course makes space for valedictory words. Listen again to Jacob, that dear old man, as he bids farewell to a host of progeny, ill fed, unlead, widely spread, nearly dead. Then listen to his favorite son—such a burden to be the favorite son—Joseph, as he bids farewell, as he says, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”. Is it an accident that M ML King, the last night of his life, quoted Moses, on the last night of Moses’ life? The words, the valediction from Mt. Nebo? Look out on the land of milk and honey, says Moses, Moses, the man of stone and commandment and prophecy and courage, who too bids adieu. What about blind Samuel, dear old man, warning against kings and those who want kings, that dear old man as he says goodbye? Are not the books of the prophets, all, at the last, a last will and testament, and a collection of how they would have their words remembered? Hosea—God loves. Amos—God makes just. Jeremiah—God reigns. Micah—God sees. It is as if, before these great people of faith must finally leave the world stage, they want with Hamlet to name their demons, their hurts, their truth, and their faith, especially their faith.

Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. Eli, Eli, lama sabach thani. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. It is finished. We remember the last words best.

From an early age we learn the importance of valediction. At odds with mom and dad, the eight year old decides to run away. He speaks his last word. He packs his suit case, and dons his cap. Out the door he goes at dusk. The family cat watches and purrs. Parents watch through the blinds. He sits under the lamppost, and night falls. And after a respectable time, he comes back inside, closes the door. His parents know better than to say anything. They wait, reading the paper and smoking the pipe. The cat purrs, and rubs a long brown tail against the boy’s legs. The boy has grown. Having said a real good bye in life, he is ready now to say a real hello to life! With the maturity of someone who has now said farewell, and survived it, he says, to show his adulthood, “Well, it’s good to be back….I see you still have the same old cat.”

All of us are better when we are…

3. The Voice from Mount Nebo

The valediction in transition—that Mosaic valedictory trajectory---from Moses on Mount Nebo reminds us of “a sense of dynamism of reality in the hands of a future creating God” (Brueggeman).

In our first sermon, July 9, 1995, we announced the same good news, “God keeps God’s promises”. Though their fulfillment is yet incomplete, though their fullness is yet more at hand than in hand, though we see now in a mirror dimly—the God of divine promises lives!

You may think it presumptuous to read about Mount Nebo in the closing service. “Who does he think he is, Moses?” Well, I refer to Woody Allen, who visited East Avenue earlier this spring. Allen who told us, “90% of life is showing up” (Good to remember on Sunday mornings…). Allen who wondered, “How do I find happiness and meaning in a finite world given my waste and shirt size?” Diane Keaton listens to him raving and citing Torah, and says, “Who do you think you are, God?” Allen responds, “Well, I have to model myself after somebody…”

Of course, there is only one Moses. There is one Moses and we are not him. Yet we know his experience, at dusk, of leaving at the river’s edge, leaving at the edge of something new—unforeseen, exciting, happy.

Two of the finest church organists in America during the late twentieth century had the same last name, shared the same post office address, and both lived, together, in Rochester, New York. They lived on the same suburban street, nestled in the leaves and furrows of the upstate lake region. In fact, they lived in the same house. As husband and wife, it seemed the right thing to do.

David Craighead brought his wife Marian, in the last month of her life, to sit one last time on her organ bench. It was a mortal struggle for her to make it from home to church, this last time, a trip that she had made with relative ease, hundreds of times, since 1960. The Austin organ had been refurbished, at her direction and with her supervision and on her approval. Before she died she wanted to sit at the bench and assess the work. They came in the afternoon of Ash Wednesday, 1996. Few words were spoken in the hour visit. She sat and looked and touched. She did not play. At last, with a lifted eyebrow, she summoned her husband to take her home. Home. As we left, in the deepest of pain that one loving human can have at the imminent departure of another, and in some tears, David said, “Watching her there…So hard…It is like Moses on Nebo…She can see the land ahead, but it will not be hers to enjoy…Like Moses, on Mount Nebo…” One heard that afternoon a distinctively faithful, distinctively loving, Christian way of speaking, the Biblical narrative summoned without preparation or pretense, to give voice and response to the day’s own trouble.

All of us are better when…

4. Moses’ Word

In Deuteronomy, Moses offers three speeches, at the edge of the river Jordan. Here his voice is remembered to carefully reinterpret the past. The Moses of Mt Nebo is bringing a word of challenge and change.

A community needs one leader for the journey, another for the arrival; one for the wilderness, another for the promise. One for the travel to the new space, another to inhabit and settle the new space.

Are you picking up what I am putting down?

Deuteronomy replaces holiness with compassion. Truth without love is brutality. Love without truth is sentimentality. You need both, both holiness and compassion. But the Bible, and the communities of faith it undergirds, lean toward compassion. James Sanders (once of Rochester) defined the ‘monotheizing tendency’ of the Old Testament. We might define an ‘agapetizing tendency’—a listing toward compassion—in the whole of Scripture. And its place of demarcation is the end of Deuteronomy.

Genesis to Numbers wants purity. Deuteronomy affirms justice. The former wants tidiness, the later righteousness. The first wants holiness, the second compassion. The Bible lives this tension, as does our church. Both are important, both are Biblical, both are part of faith. Remember, though, that at Mt Nebo, the concern for levitical purity, pronounced from Genesis to Numbers, gives way to the Deuternomist’s concern for justice.

Salvation is not only a state of mind—salvation is a state of affairs.

So for thirty chapters (see how easy you have it, thirty minutes not thirty chapters) Moses reminds the people about those shackled in debt, about those shackled by unfettered public authority, about those shackled by poverty.

5. A Village Green

It is Moses’ later view, the second law view, that evokes a vision of a village green (our church’s vision), a place where all things lastingly good, spiritually enriching, religiously excellent from across Monroe county, converge. We have the center of the green nearly done. A decade from now, or two, we may own the block from East to University, and 1010 to Granger. Then we could live the dream. We would walk in peace and joy along the Village Green of life. Here, take a moment. It is dusk. We leave the sanctuary. We walk through the spacious, open welcome area. Then (for this is only a start), we tour the expanded grounds of our ministry. At every turn, in this dream, there is a lamp lit. Look: just here is a new United Methodist conference office, for a combined upstate conference. Look: just here is a pastoral counseling center which specializes in the needs of women, created and guided by a retired pastor. Look: just here you find a lamp lit on the porch of an Urban Retreat Center, spiritually led by a spirited minister committed to this cause. (And each of these projects tithes from their own budget back to the mother church that created them, thus providing the possibility of further growth. They learned to do so, over time, from the Storehouse, Dining Center, Nursery School, Daycare and others, who were inspired to do so by this sermon! Hey, why not really dream?) Look: just here there is the lamp of the porch of the county wide Wesley Foundation, a center for student ministry. Look: just here a lamp is lit over the door of a Hemispheric Hispanic ministry Center, from Emmanuel to Amor Fe y Vida. Our lamp leads us further: just here you find a religious drama center, k-12, and an elder care program, and…..

All of us come marked, BWL: “better when loved”. Good when made. Better when loved. Best when shared. All of us are better…

6. Gospel Valediction

But there is a gospel valediction that is rooted in the biblical word.

We remember the last words best. Every spring we hear our Senior youth intone their valedictions. We remember what they say.

Martin Luther King, we remember, last said, “I have been to the mountain top and seen the promised land”.

Douglass Macarthur told the houses of congress, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”.

Or Nathan Hale, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country”.

At church camp, and at great revivals both, in Methodism it is Wesley’s dying sentence that is preached: “The best of all is God is with us.”

Amadeus Mozart, at the end, with Solieri taking down his every whispered note—who could forget it?

Why, after thousands of pages, and a lifetime of writing, does Aquinas’ last self-deprecation remain: “all my work, before Grace, is so much straw”?

Did I neglect the greatest of historical valedictions? What would Lincoln’s Second Inaugural sound like today?

With malice toward none—including as he did those who have done us physical harm, and who pray in different ways to the One God.

With charity for all—male and female, poorer and richer, religious and unreligious, gay and straight, black and white.

With firmness in the right—that combination of charity and magnanimity that seeks first to understand, and then to be understood.

Let us to do all to achieve a just and lasting peace, for ourselves, and for all the nations.

7. Word at Dusk

We remember words at dusk.

We returned from four months in Switzerland in late summer of 1978. We arrived too late to attend the funeral of our sister in law, a twenty something red haired mother and husband, our MYF treasurer. At birth, you are old enough to die, we know, yet…

The family, widower, and toddler son went up into the Adirondacks to lick wounds following the funeral. We met them there. A hot summer night, corn and steak, a family in grief, at dusk. At dinner, something clicked and the little boy realized, maybe, what had happened. A little guy. He shrieked, he howled, he would not be consoled. No sermon can ever live beyond earshot of his crying at the summer table…Mom…At last Dad scooped him up and went down to the lake in the redolent sunset, a mountain cool dusk, with the woods and all creation groaning at the boy’s howling. Dad put him between his legs and rowed the old boat. The son’s heart howl and the dad’s feathering of the oars made a strange evening duet. A cry, feather the oars. A shout, feather the oars. A shriek, feather the oars. Until at last, the little boy fell asleep, his first night as a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…

There is no explaining such tragedy. Our faith gives us not the capacity to understand, but the power to withstand such hurt. Love is stronger than death. Last summer we say that boy, now, himself, a thirty something husband and father. Laughing, smiling, carrying his mother’s voice and charm into the unforeseen tomorrow. Thirty years later, and the word of love at dusk. He made it. There is no explaining the tragedy. Yet we can acclaim the salvation known in the love of God Love lifted. A dad’s love, in the boat. A family’s love, Christmas to Christmas. A community’s memory and love, graduation to graduation. And at every dusk, and through every howling cry, still, by mystery, a divine love, a love that outlasts death.

It is this primal word, this hymn to love, that is sung out in the benediction, and valediction of 1 John. We can all together confess how hard it is, day to day, to let love be our aim, to love and to what we will, to let love be genuine, to love one another, to love our enemies, to watch over one another in love, to let God’s love be completed in us…

All of us are…

8. Dusk

Four summers ago my sons and I sat, toward dusk, in Yankee stadium. New York and Los Angeles were playing, slow motion, moving toward a dull game end. We were driving home that night, to the cottage, and then on the next day to Rochester to participate in Berta Holden’s funeral. Her exemplary Christian life of worship, of education and of care, was very much on our minds. In a way, a life like hers is the goal. Discipleship in worship, education and care? Here is an example…

What we are all driving toward, you could say. A game at dusk, a drive at dusk, toward worship at dusk. About 9pm, in the middle of the sixth inning, we headed for the car, the game having apparently gotten about as interesting as it was going to get. We crossed the George Washington bridge at 9:30, and, expecting the game was about over, tuned in to the radio for the final score.

What a different experience we were given that evening! To our astonishment, the game really began in the eighth inning. We had road and dark and each other and a voice to tell the story. And that was all. A voice at dusk. The game went 16 innings. Four hours after we had crossed the bridge, and just as we arrived at Bradley Brook, the game at last ended. But all through that late evening, over Pennsylvania Mountain, Susquehanna River, Binghamton valley, and that glorious drive up route 26—the prettiest in the state—we heard the word. Oddly, it was the perfect way to follow the game.

It is the word, the word of God, that sustains us on the journey at dusk. Steel Magnolia said, “accessorize—it’s the only thing that separates us from the animal kingdom”. We say, “speak—speech alone makes us human.” More, we say, “preach—it is the word at dusk that carries us forward—the word of blessing, valediction, promise, hope”. If this is not worth doing, what is? One does not live by bread alone, but by the word—the word of God.

Now we Hill’s are leaving the great stadium, Asbury First. It would be a mistake to think that things are about as far along as they can get. The seventh inning stretch is a long way from home. Who knows what God has in store for this extra inning game? Who knows what sacrifice bunt you may provide, what strike out you may throw, what late night homer you may crunch, what double play you may execute? I tell you, this is going to be more than a nine inning game! You have extra innings in store! You have the thrill of an open future! And as Hebrews reminds, you have a heavenly cloud of witnesses, hanging on every call, cheering every hit, hearts dropping with every out and soaring with every run! You have a new pitcher on the mound, that noted southpaw Susan Shafer! You have Lubba at bat, and Olson on deck—and Duane Prill in the hole! And out there in midfield, there is somebody—who is it? It’s too dark to see right now---somebody warming up in the bullpen!

And out there, in Red Sox land, you have some fellow travelers, who left the game early, thinking it was time to go, and listening in by radio (and by internet and newsletter and telephone), as dusk falls. The night, and the road, and each other, and voice and word--this is all we have. But believe me, those of us listening in are with you. When you scrape your leg on a slide, we hurt. When you duck a fast ball, we get angry. When you are called out on strikes, especially that last one, low and outside if I ever saw a pitch, we feel indignant. And when the sweet spot of the bat puts the ball over the fence, we just shout and sing and soar!

All of us are better when we are loved…

All of us are better…

All of us…


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