Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

Matthew 9:35—10:23

The authority of Jesus’ ministry is today transferred to disciples, ancient and modern.

We meet Jesus on the hinges of the first Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel swings from Lord to apostles. In the announcement of this good news is included a measure of empowerment for each one of us. This is the kind of day on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we may be seized by a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven has come near to you. When that sentence makes a home in a heart, or in the heart of a community, a different kind of life ensues.

Capture in the mind’s eye for a moment the sweep of the gospel read earlier. First. Jesus has been about, teaching and preaching and healing. His compassion abounds. The endless range of needs about him he unblinkingly faces. Second. Jesus calls and sends the disciples, and empowers them, and by extension he empowers us. The gospel will have been read thus, as it is thus read by us. He instructs and directs them in their work, where to go, what to do, how to be. Learning, virtue, and piety together. Start at home, heal the sick, travel light. Third. Jesus expects and forecasts for them a less than utter victory in their work. They are to know how to shake dust from their feet. Fourth. Jesus warns that there will be a price to pay. The discipline that is the hallmark of the disciple here is named. Shall we not remember Jesus ministry? Shall we ignore the call and power offered here? Shall we forget the directions given? Shall we expect turn a deaf ear to the caution about consequences? We pray not. The main sweep of the gospel today is clear as a bell. Jesus gives power to his disciples. Hold that thought for a moment.

The devil is in the details. The material in our reading sends us into foreign territory. We have other words, whether only modern or both modern and more accurate, to describe unclean spirits. We recognize that the list of apostles or disciples differs from other lists. We are uncomfortably aware that Jesus himself, in other Bible pages, goes both to the Gentiles and to the Samaritans, and infamously so. We do not regularly meet leprosy. We carry no gold in our belts, nor silver, nor even copper. We are not pilgrim peregrinators who arrive in town and camp on a doorstep. We sense that the hard distinctions we make between disciples and apostles were not made by Matthew. We do not readily conjure up the vision of Sodom and Gomorrah. We sense that the time of Matthew and its persecutions under Domitian, 90ce, may have colored all or a part of this passage. Most glaringly, we know that the Son of Man did not arrive on a schedule coordinated with visits across the 50 by 150 mile area of Israel. The devil is in the details.

Nor are we to think that we should by tunics or money belts or sandals or travel through towns in Israel or prefer judgment fall on Gomorrah. This is impossible. Moreover, a confusion here will allow us to avoid the clear call of Christ upon our consciences in the main flow of the gospel. For the main point is crystal clear. To follow Jesus means to take up where he and his earliest companions left off.

Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.

Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to his disciples, his apostles. We have been seized by the confession of the Church; we are Christians. Now his ministry, this ministry, is ours. Which part of this ministry draws you?

We have come back from Buffalo this week, where flags are at half-mast to honor Tim Russert. Because his city, family, story and background are not unlike our own, I have listened with keen ear to the eulogies offered. Maybe you have too. ‘Mine is a face made for radio’, he quipped. Mine too. The details of life and illness will take some time to understand, but as with our reading today, the main point is very clear. Tim was a man for others. Tim Russert lived the life of a man for others. He brought baseball hats to kids on chemo. He came to weddings and partied, as, you know, ‘that guy’, the one guy everyone remembers from a party. He found ways to make a difference in the lives of poorer kids. He taught his son. He wrote a book about his dad. We do not know what a day will bring, but only that the hour for doing something with our life is always present.

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. I could argue with you that healing the sick has a medical degree of meaning, that raising the dead is about pastoral ministry in the Northeast where the church awaits resurrection, that cleansing lepers is about including those on the outside of the social fence, that casting out demons is reminding people not to fear, not to fear, after 9/11, not to fear. You could, rightly, challenge the interpretation.

Where does your passion meet the world’s need?

What are you ready to risk doing, to plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest?

What are you going to give yourself to, to offer your ability, affability, and availability?

Who calls you, who called you, to your own real life, your vocation? We began this spring to gather people here at the University to ask them this. Who gave you your sense of direction, vocation in life? Robert Pinsky revitalized poetry by asking communities to gather and read their favorites. We are trying to revitalize vocation by asking communities to gather and remember their mentors. Tim Russert had Big Russ. What about you? The world opens a bit when a teacher and disciple connect. Here are three examples.


Maybe we need to remember Albert Schweitzer.

A child organ prodigy, a youthful New Testament scholar, a young principal in his Alsatian theological seminary, a man whose books and articles I used with profit in my own dissertation a few years ago, Schweitzer’s life changed on the reading of a Paris Mission Society Magazine.

As a scholar, he wrote: He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389).

What he wrote of Jesus became his life. He left organ and desk, studied medicine, and practiced in Africa for 35 years, calling his philosophy, ‘a reverence for life’.

Vocation leads to God. A decision about vocation leads to nearness to the divine.


Maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams. She grew up 130 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide. But somehow she discovered her mission in life. And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen. Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman. Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world. So Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born. Addams organized female labor unions. She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety. She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants. She became politically active and gained a national following on the lecture circuit. She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

Addams wrote: “The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent…The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Yet it was a Rochesterian who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams’ fruitful generosity. This was the historian Christopher Lasch. Several times in the 1980’s I thought of driving over here to visit him. But I never took the time, and as you know, he died seven years ago. Lasch said of Addams, “Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest.”

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

Vocation leads to God.


Maybe we need to remember Howard Thurman. The first page of his autobiography announces today’s gospel, that Jesus empowers his disciples, whose vocations lead to God:

At the end of my first year at the Rochester Theological Seminary, I became assistant to the minister of the First Baptist Church of Roanoke, Virginia. I was to assume the duties as pastor during the month that the minister and his family were away on vacation. I would be on my own. On my first night alone in the parsonage I was awakened by the telephone. The head nurse of the local Negro hospital asked, ‘May I speak with Dr. James?’. I told her he was away. ‘Dr. James is the hospital chaplain’, she explained. ‘There is a patient here who is dying. He is asking for a minister. Are you a minister?’

In one kaleidoscopic moment I was back again at an old crossroad. A decision of vocation was to be made here, and I felt again the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally, I answered. ‘Yes, I am a minister’.

‘Please hurry’, she said, ‘or you’ll be too late’.

In a few minutes I was on my way, but in my excitement and confusion I forgot to take my Bible. At the hospital, the nurse took me immediately into a large ward. The dread curtain was around the bed. She pulled it aside and directed me to stand opposite her. The sick man’s eyes were half closed, his mouth open, his breathing labored. The nurse leaned over and, calling him by name, said, ‘The minister is here’.

Slowly he sought to focus his eyes first on her, and then on me. In a barely audible voice he said, ‘Do you have something to say to a man who is dying? If you have, please say it, and say it in a hurry.’

I bowed my head, closed my eyes. There were no words. I poured out the anguish of my desperation in one vast effort. I felt physically I was straining to reach God. At last, I whispered my Amen.

We opened our eyes simultaneously as he breathed, ‘Thank you. I understand.’ He died with his hand in mine.

Vocation leads to God.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand when your passion meets another’s need. Jesus empowers his disciples. Vocation leads to God.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Day in June

Lectionary Readings

Preface: Light and Growth

And what is so rare as a day in June?

You are children of the light, children of the day. In the daytime of our active living, the daylight of our active yearning, we are present this morning. This is the season of growth. The liturgical seasons, laden with substantial significance they are, need not eclipse the real presence of the natural seasons. It is the natural seasons which provoke some of the questions to and toward which the liturgical seasons provide responses. June is the season of promise, of planting, of budding, of growth, including growth in faith.

And what is so rare, asked J R Lowell, as a day in June?

On this Day in June we trace four daytime stories and find three lessons for spiritual growth. Four stories and three lessons…

Four Stories: Abram, David, Paul, Jesus


Abram is given the courage to leave. Under the genus and genius of the courage to be one may find, or be found by, the species and specific courage to leave. When you most need the courage to leave, you will most appreciate its gift to you, by grace. People do not always find the timely courage to leave. For all the right and all the good reasons you can think of, sad to say, people do not shake the dust from their feet as frequently as you think…because to do so is difficult. Yet there come times when you ought to leave. Fortunately, Abram had Sarah along with him to put steel in his spine.

One of our public figures has recently taken a very public leave of his church. Separation has its time, a time there is for everything. Oh, I do not dispute the thundercloud of the gathering retort that it does no good to pull up the carrot every ten minutes to see if it is growing. But, you know, life is short, and when things are really wrong, harmfully wrong, dangerously wrong, it is time to pack. That is a form of the principle of reform, as messy as it makes life, and religious life. Messy is preferable to hellish.

Go. Go! From country…From kindred…From parent’s house…Go. Do so with grace, with tenderness, with humility, with suffering, but do what you need to do to breathe. Your suffocation profits no one.

Our passage from Genesis is the true genesis of Genesis. Genesis 12 opens the Bible. Brueggemann catches a part of the truth: “This cluster of promises becomes the originary principle for all that follows” (OTCCI, 41). He misses the heteronomy lurking behind both theonomy and autonomy. The word, that is, is a word both spoken and heard, and without the hearing the speaking does not carry. The first divine word heard in the human community of faith is…Go! New England struggles with the history of immigration which is our heritage. On the one hand we honor pilgrims, puritans, and various waves of arrivals here in the newer world. On the other hand, their own sense of journey, courage to leave, capacity to change, willingness to risk with responsibility is sometimes lost on us.

A settled minister, a settled Christian, a settled person of faith is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron--like ‘jumbo shrimp’ or ‘United Methodist’.

Go. Shoo! Go. In these verses which originate the story of Israel, all the rest is based on a decision to pull up stakes, sell the farm, list the house, put the furniture on e-bay, buy a storage unit, and say goodbye. A wandering, wondering Aramean was our father. Trace backwards the account of today’s Holy Scripture: The cumulative blessing of all the families of the earth depends on itinerancy. The blessing and protection of the faith family and community depends on itinerancy. The growth of faith in community depends on itinerancy. The honor of one’s name depends on itinerancy. The making of a great nation depends on itinerancy. The inheritance of land, space, promise, future—all these too depend on itinerancy. So, Abram went. Incidentally, the rest of the Biblical narrative becomes possible only on the heels of Abram’s departure, his courage to leave.

Do you need to summon a form of the courage to leave this week?


David did not write all of the Psalms, but he wrote some of them, and his name is legendarily connected to them all. I love the place David holds in our Bible, David the hymn writer. David may have started singing with Bathsheba, but he concluded his songs with songs of praise to the Living God. In New England we have amnesia about hymns. Jonathan Winthrop may have sung in the rolling surf of the Massachusetts Bay. The Puritans may have chanted their quiet hymns of faith. The tunes of Irish folk songs and Italian love poems may have made their way into our worship. But friends, across these six states united by a common love of the Red Sox, otherwise known as New England, we have forgotten a bit what it sounds like and feels like to sing hymns with six or seven hundred people in the same room. We have not taught our children to sing the four lines of harmony. We have not practiced the presence of God in the power of singing. I grant exceptions. But when people come out of Easter worship saying, ‘Wow. That was great. So many people. Such hymns.’, it is a measure of what we have forgotten. We could have that experience every week, if we all got out of bed on Sunday. We live in earshot, by the way, of Fenway park, and I do hear the festive tones of ‘Sweet Caroline’, win or lose, rain or shine, at the seventh inning. It sounds good. So I know you can sing. If you know the words. If you like the music. If you have others around you to guide and support. If you feel the moment.

Notice the specific amendments in Psalm 33 (a highly memorizable passage by the way). A new song… Played skillfully…On the strings… with loud shouts …rejoice…praise…make melody… with a ten string harp…

Notice the specific glories in Psalm 33 ( a highly memorizable passage by the way). Our soul waits for the lord. He is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him. We trust his holy name.

“God looks down upon humanity, searching their inmost being. What is in men’s hearts?’ (E Leslie, 86).

The heart of the Bible is hymnody. It is the Psalter, the hymnbook of the Bible that is its core and heart. Paul, Augustine, Luther, Wesley---all based their calls to faith on the book of Psalms. And David is remembered for many things, but he is revered as the legendary giver of the Psalms.


Abram had Sarah, and David had Bathsheba and who knows who else. But I cannot quite find a woman to set alongside Paul. Yes, I know about Priscilla and Aquila… Still…Perhaps Paul’s evocation, early and late, of the Holy Spirit herself might round out his story for us on this Day in June. It is the Spirit that frees Paul to leave his own religious heritage. It is the Spirit that opens Paul to another way of reading about Abram. It is the Spirit that settles into Paul’s mind the crucial centrality of promise. It is the Spirit that empowers Paul to lay down the law and pick up the Gospel, to lay down Torah and pick up grace, to lay down the experience of others, and to pick up his own. The law—any and all—is finally the experience of others. Faith is your experience not that of others. That is why faith is so utterly and incomparably personal.

Our reading again captures Paul’s sermon in Galatians, though most of the rest of Romans serves to reinterpret Galatians. We see the unvarnished Paul here—law or faith, there is no middle ground. Have you begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh? Paul calls us out. Your faith will not be yours lived in the shadow of another’s observance. To thine own self be true (that is not in the Bible by the way). Faith that is not utterly personal is not faith. Faith is personal and love is responsible.

How do we understand faith working through love? If we are not careful a kind of fatalism can creep over us, whether sacramental or biblical. For to read out only three verses from Romans 4, and leave them hanging in mid-air, out of context, out of grounding, out of place in the larger sweep—and a large sweep it truly is—of the Epistle to the Romans is not to understand but to misunderstand. Paul affirms faith, and justification by faith. But Paul also affirms faith, and the obedience of faith. Romans 3-8 has to be read within earshot Romans 12-16. Faith is faith working through love. Faith is personal, love is responsible. Faith means work.

Bill Muehl spoke once about Romans 4. (His is a name I have heard from mutual friends, but this one sermon is my only personal contact with him.) Muehl brings a tough, Pauline argument to our Pauline passage. He is trying to find his way through law and grace in a way that is real. He remembers a TV show in which a character says, of a woman of ill repute, ‘Prostitute is what she does not who she is’. Over several pages or minutes Muehl tears apart this false dichotomy and this false interpretation of Romans 4. He tears at and tears apart the false separation of being and doing, of who we say we are and what we do says we are, what we say says we are, how we act says we are. You become what you do. His point: personal faith is about what we do and who we are. I love his concluding illustration:

Some years ago a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to pick up their children after the last class before Christmas recess. As the kids ran from the classrooms, each one held in his or her hands the brightly wrapped package that was the surprise, the gift on which the kids had been working for some weeks leading up to Christmas. One little boy tried to put on his coat, carry the surprise, wave to his parents all at the same time, and the inevitable happened. He slipped and fell, and the surprise broke with an obvious ceramic crash on the tile floor. For a moment, he was too stunned to speak or cry, but then he sat up in inconsolable lament. Well, his father, in an effort to comfort his son, but also to try to mitigate the embarrassment of those present, went over to him and patted him on the head and said, ‘Now son, it really doesn’t matter. It’s not important son. It really doesn’t matter’. But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such affairs, went to the child’s side, knelt on the floor, took her son in her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal’. And she wept with the child.

Our God is not the careless parent, who casually pats us on the head and says…You are justified by your faith. What happens to you and what you do, these things are not important at all. Our God is the parent who falls to the ground beside us, takes up our torn and bleeding spirits, and says, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters eternally.’ (Muehl, “It Matters Greatly”, 262 Sermons from Duke Chapel).


Now we come to Jesus. Across the gospels, Jesus’ attention to women is manifest, and theirs to him. Across the gospels, Jesus’ attention to those needing healing is manifest, and theirs to him. Jesus healed. Those who touch Him are healed. Those whom He touches are healed. Matthew affirms a code of holiness, but even in Matthew, where holiness and compassion collide, it is compassion that survives. ‘I enjoy mercy’, says the Lord. Jesus heals on the way, and at the end of the road. Two healings are wrapped together in our passage, a resounding report of the power in Divine Love to heal earthly hurt. Do all the good you can!

You may not be able to say, with such amazing grace, ‘Take heart, daughter, your faith has made you well’, as did Jesus. But then, you are not Jesus. Yet one good, healing good, you can do this week is to let someone else know of a time in your own life when disappointment gave way to grace, when dislocation became the doorway to freedom, when what seemed like bad news turned out to be pretty good news after all.

Proust: So manifold are our interests in life that it is not uncommon that, on a single occasion, the foundations of a happiness which does not yet exist are laid down simultaneously with aggravations of a grief from which we are still suffering (RDTP, 292).

Perhaps our familiarity with this signature passage in the Gospel of Matthew occludes our view of its powerful call to healing. The Risen Christ, who suffered Golgotha and outwitted the tomb of meaningless death, passes by. Your Christ is passing, your Christ is passing, your passing by shouts the Gospel! One earnestly seeking healing reaches up and touches the garment of Pardon Personified. Do we notice—a generation of political theology to the contrary notwithstanding—Jesus’ attention to a ruler, to authority, to power, to leadership? Do we reckon that this leader—a generation of biblical theology to the contrary notwithstanding—may not have been of synagogue, in the redactor’s imagination, but of empire? (The word for ruler is archon, as valent a Greco-Roman term as one could imagine.

Where do ordinary hands reach out, desperate for pardon? I listen on the esplanade, as young mothers swing their toddlers. I listen at the ballpark, for conversations over hotdogs. I listen with guests at the dinner table. I listen at the coffee shop. I listen to talk radio. I ‘listen’ to common letters to the editor.

The paper yesterday brought this paragraph, a hand from the heart of a sickened people and broken land reaching up to touch the passing Christ:

Democracy can commit not just blunders but horrendous wrongful acts with disastrous consequences for another nation…(Our) chosen leaders abused the power of their offices to conquer and devastate another country that was not a threat to us. How can we redeem ourselves? What do we owe the Iraqi people? What can we say to the families of our dead and wounded soldiers? Can we continue to promote the virtues of democracy to the rest of the world? And we still have the daunting problem of extricating ourselves from the scene of the crime…(Benjamin Solomon, NYT, 6/7/08). redeem ourselves? We cannot.

How to be redeemed?

By reaching to the Person of Pardon, and allowing our prayers to be conformed to prayers of pardon, and presenting our lives to be shaped as examples of pardon. Do you know God to be a pardoning God? No promise without peace, no peace without pardon. Pardon us our sin as we pardon those who sin against us…

Itinerancy. Hymnody. Personal Faith. Compassionate Pardon. A church that could methodically convince its leadership to itinerate, its people to sing lustily, its preaching to emphasize personal faith, and its laity to heal every earthly hurt—imagine such a church! A church that could methodically energize a global network of clergy to move wherever need and talent meet, that could gather on every hill and molehill a thronging chorus of gracious singing, a church that could preach like the wind about the places in the heart, a church that could assign every baptized soul a healing ministry—imagine such a church! A church that could methodically spend itself in sudden moves and dislocations, in hymns of joyous beauty sung with gusto, in words read from the Bible and spoken from the heart, in service to the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame—imagine such a church! A church methodically built on these four stories of Abram, David, Paul and Jesus—imagine such a church! Itinerant ministers. Thunderous hymns. Personal preaching. Healing compassion. Hm…I wonder what we would call such a denomination? It would certainly be ‘Christianity in earnest’…

Coda: Three Lessons

Earnest souls, for our spiritual journey this week, what lessons do we learn, people of the day, in the season of growth in faith—what lessons do we learn on this Day in June?

1. First, there are many ways to keep faith. All four of these stories are utterly distinct, variegated, different, multifarious. Your manner of faithful living may not approximate any single other. Abram moved. David sang. Paul trusted. Jesus healed. And you? There are many ways of keeping faith.

2. Second, the expression of faith changes with the context of its time and space. There is serious discontinuity, from book to book and age to age, in the private and public practice of faith. J R Lowell’s other poem also is worth remembering. New occasions do teach new duties.

3. Third, over time there are lasting features of faithful living. One is the courage to leave. Another is the desire to sing. Another is the personal acceptance of responsibility. Another is the attention to suffering. Real religion is mobile, choral, real, and caring. With tender courage, in loving responsibility, let us sing:

(Oldest extant church hymn, Oxyrynchus Papyri 1786)

Together all the eminent of God

Let them be silent

Let the luminous stars not…

Let them hold back, rushing of winds, founts of all the roaring rivers.

And as we hymn Father, Son and Holy Spirit, let all the powers answer

Amen, Amen, strength, praise, and glory forever to God

The Sole giver of all good things

Amen, Amen

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Remembrance of Things Past: Communion Meditation

Matthew 7: 21-29

Today’s Gospel is the Earliest Memory of a verse of Scripture I have. I am four, playing in the desert sand outside a military base housing unit in Las Vegas. It is hot and hotter. The wind blows through the yard and sand, stinging the face and eyes. I am displeased that something built has been blown down. I hear my mother’s voice: ‘A wise man…’

You should Memorize. Memorize: the 10 Commandments, the Books of Bible, the Beatitudes, the Apostles Creed, Psalms (2), Romans 12: 9-13, Hymns (2), Lord’s Prayer.

Both imperatives like this and personal memories like these are verboten for some good reason in preaching text books. The indicative of God’s grace should precede and eclipse any imperative to human behavior, like the command to memorize. The personal illustration threatens to split the consciousness of the hearer, as the Gospel is announced. Mea culpa. It is good that we have the Eucharist today, for the sins of the preacher, in imperative and memory, to be cleansed.

Memories of breakfast are rare in the Holy Scripture. Famously the Gospel of John is concluded by breakfast with Jesus. The Psalmist exclaims that joy will come with the morning, which tarries through the night, but there is no morning meal mentioned in Psalm 33. Jesus shares meals, but they tend to be evening meals, as in a borrowed upper room, or luncheon meals, as with Zaccheus, or midday feasts, as in the 5000 feedings. It would be unfair to declare that the Bible dislikes breakfast, and yet breakfast does not appear to be a major biblical theme.

William Sloane Coffin once described the breakfast this way: ‘the worst hour of the day, the worst time of the day, the worst meal of the day, and everybody at their worst’. (Riverside Sermons, pamphlet) He presumably wrote this sour accolade early in the day. Maybe at the breakfast table.

I happen to like the breakfast hour. Coffee and a real paper newspaper and a time to think about the day. Yet I must admit to and accept the reigning judgment, biblical and experiential, that breakfast is a wholly unholy hour for many.

At age 13, on June 5, 1968, I can dimly remember breakfast. Siblings scraping at the elbow sharpen any memory, like iron sharpens iron. June and its examinations sharpen the memory, for of the writing of books and exams there is no end. A swirl of energy, cacophony, juice and cereal settles the memory of that morning. It was Proust, in THE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST, who best taught us to measure and mingle memory with taste….

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. (RDTP, 113)

So much recollection from a little cookie! So maybe breakfast has something memorable to offer.

That June 5 1968 breakfast, though, carries another valence. The phone rang amid pancakes and juice, sometime close to 7am. My dad was traveling that week, attending a conference in Chicago. He would call sometimes from the road, usually to talk to my mother. It was then a surprise to have the phone passed down to me.

“I know how much Bobby Kennedy has meant to you. So I wanted to make sure you heard, and heard from me so that we could talk, that he was shot last night. This is a terrible tragedy, a tragedy set among others. It will take many years for us to absorb its significance, and more to still to understand it, if we ever do understand it. Life will go on, under the aspect of a changed world. We can talk more when I get home.”

There is remembrance of things past which illumines and magnifies our current experience. We live out of the unforeseen, and we understand out of the unknown.

Thursday we played a recording, for the high school students of the Boston University Academy, RFK’s impromptu speech on the evening of MLKing’s death, a brief speech torn out of Kennedy’s personal reading and experience. You can ‘google’ it so I need not repeat it, except its key lines:

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

We come to the table of empowerment, belonging and meaning, the table of remembrance of things past. Take and eat. An imperative to be sure. Do this in remembrance. Personal experience to be sure.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Kyrie Eleison

Matthew 6: 24-34

Memorial Sunday

Dear Rebecca,

You may not remember Al, but he loved you. Even in his eighties he had an unerring capacity to relate to kids. You and your brother grew up while he finished his ministry. Al died one week after he stopped work as the assistant pastor of our church.

Al stood about five feet tall. He was bald, hairless as a billiard ball. He wore thick glasses. One friend, who never says a critical word about anyone, once said that Al was the homeliest person she had ever met, but no one ever noticed because he was so loving.

I met Al when I was myself a teenager. Actually, I had known him during my childhood, as an infrequent clergy visitor to our home, a large and foggy category of preachers, ministers, chaplains, priests, itinerants and other vaguely odd spiritual leaders who were vaguely connected to our parents.

In high school I went to Owasco lake for a week of summer camp. Al I think led the camp, or at least he was around. A few years later I was working there as the lifeguard and every summer, without fail, Al would take his volunteer week to work with high schoolers. I remember drinking beer with Al past midnight around a fire down on the shore. One young cleric was busy criticizing the nascent fundamentalists (a group for which Al also had some disdain). After the hot air faded, Al sipped and leaned forward to say to the young turk: ‘I suppose you are right, but those folks have had a religious experience—something you might want to have yourself sometime.’ He added later that clergy who were hyper active in liturgy or politics usually had never had a real religious experience. Those two categories pretty much included, one way or the other, all the fire lit faces around that midnight hearth.

Al knew you, and your brother, during the years I hired him at our church as my assistant. We paid him hardly anything. He and Ruth bought their first home, on at tree line street, at age 70, after he finally retired. He took out a thirty year mortgage, a daily source mirth for him, a mirth he contrived to share with all comers. In fact, though, he personally lived to pay twenty of those years, if I remember right. It is hard to convey how simply happy Ruth and Al were to have their own home. After five decades of life under the leaky roofs of various parsonages, and after five decades of life under the stingy thumbs of various parsonage committees, their thousand foot house and postage stamp lawn was their prize and paradise, their pride and joy. To think of it makes me ashamed of the times in life I have thought I should have more, or would like more, or deserved more. In the winter he died, Al hornswaggled a friend into redoing the kitchen for Ruth. He saw that the parsonage kitchen was redone and decided Ruth should have something just as nice. It was. She used it for a decade more, to good hospitable avail you can be sure.

Al loved you and your older brother, and your Mom and Dad, who loved him too. Sometimes Al would hold court in his front room, his big black dog between his legs, Al rubbing behind the years. You may remember that the dog’s name. Satan. Al smoked pretty heavily, well into his late eighties. I say that not as recommendation but as recognition, recognition of humanity. He also drank some beer. One neighbor on Scott Ave called the Bishop to complain that he saw the retired pastor drinking beer in the evening. ‘It’s nice to have people so concerned about your well being, isn’t it?’ This was Al’s wry comment.

I noted such Alphorisms. He called one of our great hearted lay leaders, Iva Gorman, ‘stormin’ Gorman’, and is the only person she would have allowed to do so. Sometimes he called Iva, ‘Iva the Terrible’, but not directly to her face. Another person, a female type woman as he would say, who shall remain nameless, Al identified vocationally as, to quote him precisely, ‘a test pilot in a broom factory’. Of those who seemed, to him, wrong spirited, he offered this proverb: ‘I don’t mind people being Christian as long as they are nice about it.’

In his parish, a good village church along one of the deep, great Finger lakes, one of the saintliest women in town, a recently retired single school teacher, was struck by lightning while she trimmed her roses. I am told that at the funeral, Al got up, tried to speak, cried, and cried, and wept, and, at last, said, ‘we have no idea why these things happen, we have no way to explain why these things happen’. Then he sat down.

I knew, during my own college years, that if I ever got into a pickle that I could not get out of alone, and could not discuss with my parents, I could go to Al. I never did, though I almost did once. But I had him in the back of my mind all those stormy years. While I gaze at that in memory I realize that that is just about the best definition of a pastor I could give. Someone you could go to, even if you never do, when the chips are down.

I had a good friend whom he counseled well, a young man who had been away from home, and came home to learn that his girlfriend had been dating other boys. The young man did not come to Al for counsel, but one evening Al found him on the street and told him a joke. ‘A man and woman die and go to heaven. St Peter gives the man a tricycle for transportation and explains that heavenly vehicles are based on the amount of dating activity you had on earth. The next day the man sees his wife driving a Cadillac.’ They laughed, and Al caught the young man’s eye, with a tear filled eye of his own. They laughed so hard they cried, Al crying the harder. While I gaze at that in memory, I realize that that is just about the best definition of a pastor I could give. Someone who accompanies you, overhears your pain, pierces your pain with wit and skill, drains your hurt, and walks away with you as you walk away well. The tricycle and the Cadillac lived happily ever after by the way.

Rebecca, you know the chapel at that old Campground on Owasco lake. You remember it is a rustic all wood Adirondack style Chapel, with a fifteen food window behind the cross, looking out at five miles of Finger Lake beauty. You grew up in the gaze of that chapel. You learned to swim two miles down from that window and cross. You got your boating license in order to run the motorboat back and forth past that campground, that chapel, that window, and that cross. You know the people who built it, or at least their names. (G Y Benton, Vivian’s uncle. L Schaff, who convinced the Case people to give the land for Methodist youth. C Skeele—he built the building, ‘Skeele-built’ he would say, add 10% to the price. Irving Hill, President of the Conference Youth Council at the time.) People like Al, and Ruth, who gave whatever meager shekels they may have had, with typical, generous, careless, abandon, and who gave their time to kids, sitting on the hard benches of that rustic church. I bet you can hear the bell ring, in your mind’s ear, the big old church bell that sits at the doorstep.

Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong.

In my last month as a lifeguard there, I came sauntering down the road. My friend asks me to be attentive to the etymology of the word saunter. I am. I came sauntering down the road at age twenty. From there, because of the incline, you can see right into the full chapel, and up to the cross, and on through the window, and on a clear morning, right down the lake, right down to the end of the lake, right there where Charon has his boat. It was a clear morning that morning. Sometimes when I have had too much religion, I travel myself by memory back to age twenty, your age Rebecca, back to that downhill road, back to that campground, back to that chapel, back to that window, and back to that cross. I have not decided what to do in life as I come down that road. I am not married. I have no children. I have no parchment, no degree. I have no military experience, no romantic experience, no financial experience, no tragic sense of life. Not quite yet. I am lollygagging, breakfast served and done, swimming lessons to teach, sunshine on my shoulder. Sunshine on my shoulder.

In the chapel I see, though he cannot see me, a short, bald, bespectacled, homely fellow, swinging a broom in the air. At first I find it a source of hilarity—old Al has finally lost it. But as I approach, as I peer into the darkened church, I see that Al is deadly serious. He is utterly absorbed in his flayling about. A sparrow is trapped in the chapel, and, Al must have seen, is set on flying straight toward false deliverance, straight at the clear glass, straight at the brightly scrubbed religious glass cleaned up with so much Methodist cleanliness is next to godliness piety that the poor thing is deceived into mistaking piety for salvation, glass for air. Kyrie Eleison! Al swings, shouts, jumps, doing as he can everything he can to drive the bird out of the church, to drive the bird out the open door, past the steps, out the path, over the bell, beyond the little steeple, and into the grace and freedom of the open air.

His parishioner however is an orthodox bird, religious and pious, and set on a disciplined course. What bird anyway ever understands until it is too late the difference between air and glass, freedom and religion?

I watch, and I suddenly have the dread feeling that I am an uninvited observer in a personal drama, trauma, amid flora and fauna. Al swings, the bird loops, dives, lifts, flies—thud.

Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong.

Unseen, I watch Al as Al groans and cries. He moves to the window, and shamelessly I watch from my hiding place. Under the cross he finds the bird, another victim of religion and piety, deader than a doornail. He takes a large white handkerchief from his pocket. Later in life, his and mine, I learn the constant contents of his pocket—handkerchief, cigarettes, billfold, pocket knife. He bows to the bird. He gathers the sparrow in his hands, weeping, covers the bird in his handkerchief, weeping, holds the bird at the glass, weeping.

I saw this with my own eyes.

There he stood, before the beautiful blue expanse, the home and heart loveliness of Owasco Lake, in the heart of the Finger Lakes, the single most beautiful place in the world, heaven for those of us who did swim there. I stood as long as his back was toward me, a good long while. Then, when he began to move, to find a way toward some natural burial, I jogged out down to the waterfront, and to my safety duties, and to the teaching of the prone float. I never mentioned it to Al, and he never spoke of it in my hearing.

In the next several years I became better acquainted with, better related to tragedy, of various sorts. Into each life a little rain must fall. I ended up a preacher, too, not least because of Al. I preached at funerals. I preached at memorials. I preached on Memorial Sundays. I preached at commemorations. Once a year I preached on Good Friday. Thirty and more years later I look back through the open chapel door, past the pews, over the cross, out through the window and over the lake. There still is Al, still before the silence of lake and cross. I felt that day that I had been given a front row seat at something, somewhere, (Mercy? Calvary?), at the origins of loving and giving. We live out of the future and understand out of the past. While I gaze at this in memory, or recollection, I realize that this is just about the best definition I can give of a pastor. One who knows the difference between religion and salvation, between glass and air, between cross and freedom, and chases those hiding from life out of church into life, with all his might, and when he fails, knows and shows cruciform love.

Rebecca, my Memorial Sunday prayer for you is that you will take a sense of cradling care with you, for every hour, on every day, enough to sustain you and your family, and enough more to share with your neighbor.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these…The Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. Even the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Kryie Eleison…

Kyrie Eleison…

Kryie Eleison…

Kryie Eleison…

Kryie Eleison…

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Great Thanksgiving

Luke 24: 44-53

Ascension Sunday

In a moment we shall again stand together to proclaim the mystery of faith. We shall offer a great thanksgiving. Responsively, we shall offer the Lord’s presence to one another. Responsively, we shall encourage one another to lift our hearts to the Lord. Responsively, we shall recall the right goodness, the good rightness of great thanksgiving. Friends, we are rooted and grounded in a history of joyful blessing, of great and loving thanksgiving. Eucharist means thanksgiving.

Our gospel is rooted and grounded in a history of thanksgiving, even as it is read and spoken in order to root us and ground us in love. Luke, the author of both readings for today, has every intention of bonding us to the long parade of women and men who lived with happy hearts, in joyful blessing and great thanksgiving. Our Sunday service of ordered worship has its own roots deep in the past, carrying us in memory all the way back into the first century. You come from people who were thankful people, joyfully praising God. They give us a clear example, these earlier witnesses, of a balanced faith, a faith honest to God about sin, death and meaninglessness, but a faith yet confident, joyful and thankful in life. Luke ends his first book, the gospel, and starts his second, the Acts, with thanksgiving.

Now we may pause a moment to be grateful for the form of Luke’s message. He does believe in doing things decently and in order. Luke provides, by his own assessment, dear Theophilus, an orderly account. It is his view that the words of the Old Testament in law and prophets and psalms, when written of the Christ, are fulfilled in an orderly account of the life of Christ. It is Luke’s further view that Christ opens minds to understand Scripture. Luke makes plain the prediction, embedded in a right reading of inherited Scripture, of cross and resurrection and repentance and forgiveness and the preaching of all the above. It is his understanding that disciples are thus witnesses of all these things. They will be blessed as they bear witness. We will be blessed as we bear witness. You will be blessed as you bear witness. His gospel ends with our reading today, an orderly ending to a well ordered gospel. Jesus blesses and leaves. The disciples give thanks and stay.

Some of the ancient manuscripts which we have of this passage say simply, ‘he blessed them and parted from them’. Others read, ‘he blessed them and parted from them and was carried up into heaven’. It is not clear, at least to this interpreter, which reading is stronger, which more probably original. Yet it is significant, at least to this interpreter, to see and know that more than one version of this passage exists. The addition, if it was a later addition, of ‘was carried up into heaven’, makes this passage a suitable and qualified Ascension passage, unmistakably congruent to the account in Acts 1. Luke’s penchant for the orderly may have inspired a follower of his to do likewise, and clean up one aspect of the conclusion to the gospel. To Luke it mattered to put things in order, to get things right. His spiritual descendents may have had the same passion. The true desire to get things right reveals, makes naked, a joyful thanksgiving. A passion for true goodness, good beauty, beautiful truth, in life, work, politics, music, art, architecture, religion, hospitality and friendship reveals, unclothes, a spirit of thanksgiving.

We are thankful for Luke’s orderly account. We may be a bit mystified by the mythic account of Ascension. We may be less than certain of the meaning of such symbolic imagery in our own time. But we can be utterly confident about the effect of Ascension, on our forebears, and so on us. The religious consequence of the Luke’s conclusion to the Gospel is thanksgiving. The religious consequence of Luke’s introduction to Acts is thanksgiving. Our Sunday praise of God is thanksgiving.

For all the dimness of creation, of the created order and the history within it, for all the trouble in life, in the gift of life and the history that comes with it, for all the fracture in body, in the body of Christ and the history that comes with it, still, at Ascension, there is thanksgiving. Sometimes the gospel and its very human interpreters need to shore up our sense of the way things have gone wrong. I suppose Lent and perhaps Advent too are markedly important seasons for emphasis upon the Fall—the way creation has somehow been loosened from the divine grasp. Sometimes the gospel and its very human interpreters need to short up our sense of creation as God’s creative act, in thanksgiving for what is right. Eastertide and Ascension may be such times. Today, in gospel and Eucharist, is such a day.

With you, I try to read the news and listen to the events of the day. As you do, I try to overhear behind the immediate din of sounds and bites, something of the heart of people and of our people. This spring, sometimes, I overhear a pained and painful sense of doubt about the possibilities in life. A doubt that things can change very much. A doubt that anything new could ever emerge. A doubt that people can repent and turn around. A doubt that systems, so entrenched and contentious, can ever be made orderly. A doubt that any of the older differences among us can ever be bridged. A doubt that any common expression of faith can be trusted. A doubt that any common faith or common ground or common hope can ever, with authenticity, emerge and survive. A doubt that minimizing one’s own visibility or audibility, for the sake of something bigger and someone else, could ever be faithful or reasonable. A doubt that the general public could be trusted to shoulder significant sacrifice. A doubt that anything I do or you do would ever make a difference.

When this cloud of doubt gets so thick that it eclipses both the sun and the moon, it is time to hear again the Ascension gospel. Such a thick cloud comes from a theological weather system

in which the cold front of wrong has chased out the warm front of right,

in which the low pressure of the fall has displaced the high pressure of creation,

in which the radical postmodern apotheosis of difference has silenced the liberal late modern openness to shared experience, to promise and future, to common faith, common ground, common hope,

in which the cream of liberalism has curdled into the sour milk of radicalism,

in which the creation is seen from the cavern of the fall, not the fall from the prairie of creation.

This is not a “pastor problem”, but a pastoral problem. It is not a political conflict, it is a theological contrast. It is not a matter of church coloration or religious style, it is a matter of creation, of God’s creation and the truth about creative goodness. Just how balanced is your balance between creation and fall?

There are for sure a lot of things wrong. But there are also, and more surely still, a lot of things right. Hear the good news. The gospel ends in joy. You are witnesses of the goodness of God, witnesses who come from a long line of people who joyfully bless, and routinely give great thanks. “Faith is an event expressing the conviction that the things not yet seen are more real than those that can be seen” (L Keck). As you, as I, as we together walk toward our last adventure, our own look over Jordan, it is this thanksgiving, a great thanksgiving, which carries us.

Marilyn Robinson’s novel, Gilead, is about a man who rightly balances creation and fall. We end this sermon, a call to thanksgiving, as she ended her novel, another call to great thanksgiving:

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.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Mysterious Allure of Service

John 14: 1-14


He that believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do” (Jn 14: 12).

Which works? Which works are your works? Which works are the shared works of the Mysterious Christ?

How shall we sense whether, and how, we are called? How do you know what you are called to be and do?

Between the basin and towel of the washing of feet, in chapter 13, and the cross and pain of the crucifixion, in chapter 19, the strange voice of Christ is raised again, here, in a well worn passage.

This morning we shall leave to one side the better known, though often misinterpreted, lyrics in this song in John 14, and hold fast to the conclusion of the reading, about works.

In faith one will do the works I do…

In the face of all our troubles, a radiant memory remains of the power in service to, service with, service for others.

This week, that is, we face squarely the overwarming of the planet, the hunger of the earth’s children, the steady drumbeat of warfare, and the manifold hurts and ailments which beset every family to some degree and every person at some moment.

Yet, this week, we also hear and overhear a high note above all our troubles. We hear this high note, even when we cannot see out to its origin. We hear and overhear a long, sonorous melody that will not cease, will not let go, and will not let us go. To hear it more clearly may be why we come to church.

You heard a bit of it as you listened to your student friends and neighbors sorting out, now that graduation is near, the various claims upon their lives. What a privilege to listen in on the hardest of hard works, the decisions about vocation. Every community harbors such conversation, as does every University worth its salt. Career placement is good, but vocational discernment sings in a higher key. Marsh Chapel is focused on vocation choices. A mysterious allure there is to service…

You heard a bit of it as you listened to your Jewish friends and neighbors celebrating the Passover. So lovely and choice are the rhythms of a holy meal around a family table! Questions and answers. Songs and psalms. A memory of hardship in times of ease, and a memory of redemption in times of trial. The service includes, at its outset, this high note for which we listen. ‘To know one’s service before the Lord is the task of the wise’. A mysterious allure there is to service…

You heard a bit of it as you listened to your Roman Catholic friends and neighbors, watching the Bishop of Rome, making his choices and visits. You may have wondered, psalm in mind, how he ever would sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. You saw the throngs, parades, and visits. And where was the high note? Was it heard when a moment of pastoral attention, a moment of watching over one another in love, stood out? Flickeringly, the memory have served up Pope Gregory’s self description, ‘the servant of the servants of God’. Servant of the servants. A mysterious allure there is to service…

He that believes will do the works that I do…’

What are these works? How shall we hear of them in this strange passage?

These words, however finally sifted, for historical information and insight, as we have done here with regularity, also deserve and require application to life as we know it. The passage and its message, and indeed its Messenger, bear to us an indirect invitation, an evocation of the allure of service in relationship to the divine. It is an odd reading. But the whole of the gospel is of this type.

It is odd that John has no record of the Last Supper, in his account of the passion. It is odd that John demotes Peter from his regular central role. It is odd that this gospel carries no remembrance of parables. It is odd that hardly anything of the standard ministry of Jesus, usual gospel fare, appears here. It is odd that the humanity of Jesus has virtually disappeared into the bright eternal light of his form in John, “God striding upon the earth”. It is odd that the New Testament would include a Gospel so fully at odds with its three synoptic cousins. Cousins, not siblings. It is odd that John, by the main, has no use for the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Where would the church be without birth to cleanse and guilt to absolve? It is odd that the Gospel we read today is shaped around seven stunning miracles, and four impenetrable chapters of teaching. It is odd that a Gospel so wildly different from the rest of those in the Bible should have made the cut, and been included. If you think having Ecclesiastes—which rejects, contradicts and humiliates much of the rest of the Hebrew Scripture—included there is a strange thing, then multiply that odd presence by 20 or 50 and you have a sense of how different is John. Nor in church nor in academia have we yet begun to account for the radical freedom and difference of this nonconforming gospel. It is odd.

What remains, as we consider our calling, our vocation?

A testimony to the power of relationship remains. John 14 sets aside predictions, instructions, and demonstrations, found here in the other gospels. Here relationship, relationship alone, remains. The relationship of Father and Son. The relationship of departed and devoted. The relationship of doubter and disciple. The relationship of community and pastor. The relationship of faith and works. The relationship of Jesus and his own.

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. So this morning let me directly ask you to think about your close relationships, your work relationships, and your relationship to God. In these relationships you may overhear the humming, mysterious allure of service.

Close Relationships

First, think about your closest relationships, and the ways you were raised to them. Last week I asked you to draw to active awareness the name and memory of an influential teacher. Likewise, for a moment this morning, I ask you to draw up into active awareness, the close relationships that have given you yourself, along the way life, deep in the truth of life. An influential complex of relationships…

For example, here is one account, one testimony, no worse or better than any other. Through our upbringing, we were given a hint of the allure, mysterious but real, of service. I offer my own memory of close relationship, only to encourage your active awareness of your own.

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 Christ, with the dawn scent of the forest primeval, a sunlit lakeside Christ, a blue collar chapped finger 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 Calvinist, more song than verse. There was no forced or feigned distance between Jesus and us, between his life and our own.

He was with us in school, at home, in the summer, as we grew, as we studied, and married and worked. In relationship, in relationships.

Look, for a moment. Look at the good relationships that have sustained you thus far.

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

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

Work Relationships

Second, think about your work relationships in light of relationships that actually work. Let us for a moment be bluntly practical.

So now you are beginning to work, to hold a job. Day by day you may think about your work. Why does the television show ‘The Office’ appeal to so many?

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, deeply important ones. Do not, do not ensnare yourself with something that diseases your soul.

A while ago I picked up a book about work. 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 five part report on surveys of what people most want in work:

I. Responsibility: Being able to contribute and have impact. . .Knowing that one’s 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.

Now hear some good news! Many forms of service, including by the way, the Christian ministry, get A+ in four of these five, in responsibility, flexibility, stability and growth. There is no greater challenge or responsibility than shepherding souls, or otherwise attending to human need. Those invested in service often have some flexibility in determining use of time. A pastor has a pulpit—somewhere. Reading a book a day, or the equivalent, is a guarantee of personal growth. Responsibility! Flexibility! Stability! Growth! (And compensation? I will leave compensation for another day).

Says Robert Fogel:

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.

The mysterious allure of service challenges us to measure our relationship with work by our relationships that work. The mysterious allure of service challenges us to measure our relationship with work by our relationships that work.

A Relationship with God

Third, think about your relationship with God.

For the strange, even odd, mystery of this passage, its acclamation of the mysterious allure of service, takes us farther still. ‘He who believes in me will also do the works that I do.’

A longing deeper than the relationships of belonging, in family, and the relationships of meaning, in work, lies within our passage this morning. Here 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.

That is…

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.



There are many, many ways of keeping faith. There are many paths into the future. In light of today’s gospel, we affirm the mysterious allure of service. Close relationships, work relationships, relationships in faith give us clues.

There is a mysterious allure to a life of service. Frederick Beuchner well named its location: Where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. There is a mysterious allure to a life of service.