Archive for October, 2006

Stopping By Woods

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

Philippians 4: 1-9

Greeting

(As with the other sermons in this autumn 2006 series from Marsh Chapel, the choir sang immediately prior to the sermon one of the Randall Thompson ‘Frostiana’ pieces—for this Sunday, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)

What is the Bible about?

You know, it is possible to miss the forest for the trees. Today we look at the full forest.

Stop for a moment, by the woods. East, West, South, and especially due North, here is a natural survey of majestic freedom, symbolic of the Bible—its main theme freedom, and its four compass points of faith, fact, fairness, and future. The Bible is a book about freedom.

God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. The pulpit is freedom’s voice. The church is freedom’s defense. And the Bible is freedom’s book. The Bible is a survey of freedom.

What James Smart decried a generation ago, “The Strange Silence of the Scripture in the Churches”, is true of you as well. All books suffer in a video culture, including the Good Book. You may yourself continue as literate (not one who can read only but one who does), but your grandchildren are stumbling about in other thickets. So if the content of the Bible is ever stranger and more foreign in an increasingly illiterate (not those who cannot read but those who do not) culture, then how much greater is the lack of capacity to interpret the book whose contents themselves are distant relations.

The old levees of biblical understanding have given way to the great flood of video culture, whose hurricane forces have carried in the disease of Biblicism, the destruction of literalism, the rampant looting of Providentialism, the tidal crash of unbiblical bibliolatry. These levees cannot be rebuilt in a New York minute. They have to be painstakingly renewed, sermon by sermon. We are doing some of this today. What kind of book have we given them? In what key is the music of scripture best played? What is the Bible about? From what angle of vision do we best see the Bible?

Faith

Stop by the woods. Turn East. We see the Bible with the eyes of faith. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. The righteousness of God is from faith to faith. Abraham had faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Yes, we may affirm, the Bible is a survey of faith. Faith is trusting reliance upon God. Says Huston Smith: “we are in good hands and in recognition of that fact it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.” You are committed to a combination of a deep personal faith and an active social involvement. Holiness, personal and social. Ruth had faith to leave. Esther had faith to speak. Eudaia and Synteche had faith to work. Faith is the courage to shake of sleep and worry and get to church on Sunday. Faith is the courage to tote up one’s income and give away 10%. Faith is the courage to keep faith with one’s partners, through thick and thin. Faith is a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. Yes, the Bible is about faith. We give our children the grammar of faith, the language of faith, the mother tongue of faith, when we give them their Bibles. Whether or not they choose to speak is their decision. Here is Paul’s testimony of this faith: “Do not be anxious about anything but in all things by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

For 2000 years women and men have found faith in the hearing of the Scripture. These are the stories and events that give us the courage to face death with dignity, disappointment with honesty, and failure with a steady hope. In the apocalyptic language of the New Testament, this faith is revealed to us. It comes by inspiration, imagination, invocation. Faith is being grasped, being seized by a love that will not let go. As Karl Barth said, visiting New York City, and asked to state his faith: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

But faith alone, with due respect and apologies to Luther, is not the whole story. In fact, such a reading of the Bible can become the Bible’s undoing. The Bible is not to be memorized, but interpreted. It is not meant only to be repeated, but to be read. It opens its pages best not to faith alone but to faith seeking understanding. In our tradition, the Bible is not the only source of truth, primary though it be. There are many places where the Bible may be theologically though not historically accurate, which leads to another thought.

Fact

Stop by the woods. Look South. We understand the Bible with the mind of reason. The Bible is, second, a book of fact. For more than 200 years, generations of scholars have critically studied the 66 books of the Bible. We have learned a great deal about its languages, history, geography. We have seen the four different hands at work in the writing of the books of Moses. The Greek influences on Ecclesiastes we now appreciate. Isaiah’s three different modes we comprehend. Jesus meets us in these wondrous pages, and the few facts of his life of which we are certain we can list, as James Sanders did years ago. We know that Paul probably did not write 2 Thessalonians, any more than he wrote 3 Corinthians, a document from the third century. The Revelation to St John we now understand, if that is the right word, in the context of similar apocalypses from antiquity. The withering inspection and criticism of the Scripture since 1750 have borne fruit. Law, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, Letters, Apocalypse: all six parts of the Bible have factual features. We have searched the Scriptures for 200 years. Here Paul names names: two women, one man, many co-workers. Facts. Earliest Christians. Facts endure. He
re Paul discloses his worldview: time is short, the end is near, the day is at hand, as Dave Brubek would put it: ‘it’s later than you think’. Or, in verse: “The Lord is near”. It is a fact that Paul’s worldview is not our own. But his world is, and that too is a fact.

In fact, the factual limitations of the Scriptures have been the primary learning of this period. The world was not created in 7 days, unless by 7 days you mean 15 billion years. The human being was not made in a day, unless you mean by a day, the emergence out of primordial ooze that began 3 billion years ago, and is still continuing today. The words of Moses and of Jesus are not video recordings of speeches captured by unerring scribes, but are far more—words formed in the community of faith. Most famously, the scientific–religious showdown of the 20th century was captured early on in the Scopes trial of 1925. We remember or misremember the trial largely through the play Inherit the Wind which itself was more theologically than historically accurate. William Jennings Bryant was not the buffoon caricature of that fine play, nor was his enemy Darwinism as much as it was Social Darwinism, nor was the generally insipid cast of old time religion anything like accurate with regard to golden rule Christianity, then or now. Bryant is made to say, “I am more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the ages of rocks”, and is pilloried by the protagonist, Clarence Darrow: “the Bible is a book, a good book, but not the only book”. In the matter of fact, the Bible carries a more limited weight and role in our time.

But science, and its measured facts alone, can only carry a part of the sacred story. As Justice Holmes said, science gives major answers to minor questions. Religion gives minor answers to major questions. Science alone—as wonderful as it is—does not cross the bridge from fact to value, cannot swim the river from flesh to spirit, has not forded the creek from brain to mind, and cannot judge about the things that matter most—love, death, memory, hope, thought, desire, heaven and God. To the one most important question of life, God, science has no response. Because there is no conclusive evidence. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (H Smith). Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…

Fairness

Stop by the woods. Look West. We hear the Bible with the ears of fairness. The Bible is, third, a hymn to fairness. To justice, equality, the right and the good. In our time, African Americans and others have found again the liberating power of the Hebrew Scriptures, of Exodus and Amos. The suffering masses of Latin America and Asia have returned to, and been nourished by, the abiding picture of God in the Bible, God who has a preferential option for the poor. Most lastingly, the feminist movement has found in the pages of the patriarchal Bible, a warning about justice, justice delayed, and justice denied. The deep rivers of fairness and justice have been diverted to flow over the dry land of prejudice, injustice, and patriarchy. The Bible is a testament, on this view, to fairness. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God? It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. So, the Bible is a resource for liberation movements of many and good kinds, and the record of the churches in peace and justice is improved. Here in Philippians Paul asks for unity and peace. For fairness. He exposes his reliance on the kindness of strangers and the company of women. Paul had great regard for his partners in the Gospel, Eudaia and Syntyche, whatever he may have written elsewhere about liturgical proprieties. “I urge Eudaia and Syntyche to be of the same mind…help these women for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel”. Beside. Not beneath. Not behind. Not before. Beside.

It is difficult to overestimate the crucial significance of this perspective on the Scripture. Real religion is never very far from fairness, from justice. Fairness does not always mean equality, nor justice always similarity. There are varieties of gifts. But the renderings of Moses, the citations of Micah, the meditations on Job, the pictures of Jesus, the readings of Paul and even the explorations of the Apocalypse which in our time have focused on fairness, and justice, have a penultimate power. “The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, said Martin Luther King. None of us fully ever deconstructs our own background, our own culture. We need, however, the whiter and maler and straighter especially that we are, to acknowledge our own privileges. The sense of limitation and injustice to which the Biblical measure of fairness responds is the gift of our time to the unforeseen future. Still, fairness alone is not the full Bible.

Will we see the Bible in our time, in full, through these lenses of faith, fact, and fairness? No, important and good as these views are, they are not the heart of the matter. They are not the heart of the Bible nor the heart of the church nor the heart of the matter. They are good, but not the final good. You will sense in them the predominant views of the Bible to date—pre-modern, modern, post-modern, or, traditional, scientific and liberal. Faith: the traditional view. Fact: the scientific view. Fairness: the liberal view. Let me show you a still more excellent way….

Future

Stop by the woods. Look North. Follow the drinking gourd. The Bible is preeminently more than faith alone, fact preserved, or fairness defended. The Bible is a survey of freedom, divine and human. In a word, the Bible is a book about freedom. God’s freeing love, and our freedom in love. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. God’s way with us is loving and free, free and loving. You cannot coerce another into freedom, and you cannot frighten another into love. BUT NOTE THIS WELL: this freedom is mostly known as hope—hope for this earth and hope for eternal life, the future of freedom promised today.

Strangely, then, the Bible is fully and precisely the word we need in our emerging 21st century.

This is the heart of what Paul writes to the Philippians. Yes, with pre-modernity, his words celebrate faith. Yes, with modernity his words carry fact. Yes, with post-modernity, his words seek fairness. But if that is all you have heard, you have missed the marrow of his meaning. Paul is s
inging here, a song of freedom. With the best insights in all of Scripture, these words of his carry us out into the open space of God’s future. Rejoice always…no anxiety about anything…whatsoever things are true…the Lord is near…Here is the radiance of resurrection, the freedom for which Christ has set us free. To the word of faith, Paul will say, yes, but work out your own salvation in fear and trembling. To the word of fact Paul will say, yes, but who hopes for what he sees. To the word of fairness, Paul will say, yes, but I know how to be abased and how to abound. The Bible is more than a source of inspiration, or of information or of insurrection. It is all those. But it is more. It is hope for the future! It is a survey of freedom, real freedom, the freedom from love and the freedom to love. The future holds an indestructible promise of freedom—of peace and joy in this life and of everlasting peace and joy in the life to come.

It has the shocking temerity to recall for us our utter dependence on God and one another, our utter similarity before the cross, before death, before God. Personal faith, yes. Factual understanding, yes. The struggle for fairness, yes. But there is more. Our age has the chance to interpret the Bible in full, as a survey of freedom, divine and human. It is this shared gift of freedom that will deliver us from the evil of this age. We are free, and in the hands of the God of freedom. All of us. The same. In our time, we need, desperately need, to reclaim our religious commonality. Across this small planet, we are all more alike than we are different. And spare us, please, as Freud said, “the petty narcissism of small differences”.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

Ringing out—it is unmistakable in this text and on this morning and within this sanctuary—from the heart of the Bible is a transcendent hope of a future freedom, on earth as it is in heaven, but not for all that lacking in heaven. The transcendent beauty of this nave, the transcendent glory of this sanctuary, the transcendent loveliness of this music, the transcendent history of this congregation, the transcendent height of pulpit and depth of prayer here, hold a future freedom that will endure well beyond the days that all the bongo drums are in garage sales, and all the horizontal worship spaces have been reconverted to Wal-Mart’s.

This hope is for earth and for heaven. For a day when the lion will lay down with the lamb, and lamb will be able to sleep. Asbury First, this year, in a time of change, we truly need the Bible’s perspective, its survey of freedom. We need its steady affirmation of faith, to steady us when we are anxious. We need its craggy collections of facts, when we might be tempted to avoid the harder facts. We need its preference for fairness, when we might be happier to take an easier, less far route. It will take faith, fact, fairness and more for us to prevail in this year. And more. We have no words really with which to name this. But the survey of freedom that is the Bible rests on resurrection. On a reliable future. You sing your courage and confidence:

And thou our sister gentle death

Waiting to hush our latest breath

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou leadest home the child of God

And Christ our Lord the way has trod

O praise ye

O praise ye

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Coda

Howard Thurman could have spent his whole ministry absorbed in the inherited expressions of faith. He chose to move forward instead. He could have spent his whole ministry engaged in the science of history and psychology. He looked farther out. He could have spent his whole ministry upon the vital issue of racial justice. He saw a farther horizon. He saw, knew, felt, and heard the Bible as a survey of freedom. One night he spent walking the beach, wading in the surf, and listening to the stars above in a cloudless canopy. He wrote,

“The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings,” wrote Thurman. “The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances. Death would be a minor thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace.”

The Least and the Greatest

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

Mark 10: 35-45

Who taught you about power?

Who taught you by precept or example about the use of authority?

Think for a minute, or for a good stretch of a lifetime, about those who modeled for you the spiritual dimensions of leadership. Unreflectively we follow their lead if reflectively we do not assess their example. And every one of us has power, exercises some authority, and leads, especially in our example. None of us deconstructs our own identity in culture as fully as we might. And we need to. Let there be no secrets where the issue is power. (Wouldn’t that be heavenly?) We are only as sick as our secrets.

Carlyle Marney used to ask us: “Friend, who told you who you was?”

The Gospel today asks of us a narrower question: who taught you about power? The Gospel today tells us that authentic authority, real responsibility are a matter of the heart. What are your models of power? Do they include at least a little Shaker simplicity, a little Ambrosian authority, a little steady service?

Shaker Simplicity?

Is one the heartfelt happiness of simplicity? Heartfelt leadership is ultimately simple.

It is intriguing that the Gospel lessons about living, in Mark, are set in the humble reaches of the lake country of Galilee. Writing in Rome in trouble in 70AD, there must have been some comfort, some folkloric encouragement for the persecuted urban Christians in these polished memories of Jesus teaching along the shores of Galilee. There is beauty along the lake. There is calm along the lake. There is peace along the lake. There is serenity along the lake. Along the lake there is space and time to sift, reminisce, remember, sort. The still waters still restore the soul to stillness. Today’s regatta, outside our Chapel, at the head of the Charles, in its pristine beauty and vigorous discipline, bring a kind of peace, too.

Yet, though our lesson is ostensibly set in the country, up in the North Country lake region, make no mistake: these few phrases are crafted in urban Christianity. We have, exegetically, an ‘alto aria’ in Mark 10. Very little of what we hear today, and through this season of readings, comes out of the history of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the church, like we, that is struggling in these pages for a sense of power’s use. That is the second level or line in a Gospel reading. Surely #4 the baritone of tradition will follow. Surely #3 Mark, in his tenor editing, will intervene. Surely #1, the ethereal Soprano of the Nazarene echoes still. But the earliest struggles of the early church are visible here, in the dominical sayings about power. In #2, the alto voice…

Mark 10: 35ff is a place where the priority, of Mark is clear. Mark is the earliest gospel. Notice how his successors cringe at his composition. Most tellingly, Matthew removes the selfish request from the lips of the disciples, and has their mother ask! But then Matthew still has Jesus respond to the disciples! Matthew, ever the scribe, pins the responsibility on their ‘Momma’, like many today telling ‘yo momma’ jokes.

Luke simply erases the passage, and so ‘spares the twelve’. They too knew the embarrassment of inherited Scripture: what is your sense of the most offensive? John, the Jews…Psalms, dash their children on rocks…Genesis, rape and violence…David (not a children’s story)…household codes in Colossians, and assumption of slavery and of patriarchy…I

These readings come around and we mutter, ‘Is this really necessary?’

THE SCRIPTURE IS A LIVING TRADITION—the earliest writers were utterly clear about that (Luke is so embarrassed he eliminates the whole passage. Matthew has their mother ask!—and John Wesley assumes he is right!).

Mark wants to show that the disciples, as do many in his own church, intentionally miss the point. The point? There is no real greatness, there is no real leadership, without humility, none without suffering, none without pain, none without public rebuke, none without the patience of Job, none without a pastoral heart for those who experience the consequences of decisions which others make. If, in your work, you have shown humility, known suffering, felt pain, had rebuke, summoned patience, found empathy—for all the cost, take heart. You are not far from the leadership kingdom of heaven…

The intonation of glory is a clue that we are reading from years after Golgotha. The stark reference to the cup of sorrow bears a memory of Golgotha. The knowing, counter knowing of the question about baptism, and its portents reveals the hurt of Golgotha. The shadow of grief that darkens this discourse is the shadow of the Cross of Christ. And the final phrase is unmistakable in its reference: to give his life as a ransom for many.the Christian community, we ourselves included, may not ever be unclear about the potential abuse of power. That particular portal to blindness has been nailed, nailed shut.

Who taught you what you know about power?

Said John Wesley, repeatedly, “if thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand”.

And Calvin: What is the chief purpose of human life? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.

There will come a day when you wake up to the purity of the heart that, as Kierkegaard said, is to “will one thing”. That is conversion, often wrought in power struggle.

You may come to a morning hour, even this one, in which you sense a new opening, a desire to live a life that makes God smile. You will become kinder, happier, more generous, more forgiving. This is the purpose of being alive, to speak and act and be in a way that brings a smile to the divine countenance.

Again I remind you of the Shaker community. In their work, their dress, their furniture, their devotion, their relations, the Shakers lived simply. The heart of their simplicity, and ours at our best, is the desire to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called”. Every renewal in Christian history has had this feature: Paul mending tents, Augustine chaste again, Luther and Erasmus cleansing Rome, Wesley and his coal miners, Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human church.

Who are you trying to please? And how? And why?

Think of someone you have known who lived with a heartfelt, powerful simplicity.

Who taught you about authority?

There is an authority that is visible in
every person who has found the freedom of vocation, the freedom to live with abandon. Look around at the windows in this charming Chapel, following worship, and you will see the faces of women and men who found a simplicity, a way to live with abandon.

Ambrosian Authority?

Is another model the heartfelt affirmation of the common good?

Mark 10:35 is one of the few spots in the earliest gospel at which the emerging institutional needs of the church are visible. Christianity wrestled with formational questions in the first century: For whom is the gospel? What are the definitive texts? And especially, who shall hold authority? What, How, Where. And Who?

As this passage shows, from the outset it has been terribly difficult for the Christian church to maintain its own authentic form of authority, over against the lesser models abroad in every age. I emphasize the little phrase, slave of all, or servant of the whole. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.

Aristotle taught us to attend to the true, the good, the beautiful. In the late fourth century there emerged a good, great leader of the church, Ambrose of Milan. In just eight days he went from unbaptized layman to Bishop. His rhetorical skill, musicianship, diplomatic agility and attention to the preparations for Baptism provided the power behind his lasting influence in Northern Italy. Above all, Ambrose used his authority for the common good. Notice in the Scripture there is no avoidance of the need for leadership. Authority may be shared but responsibility is not to be shirked. What lasts, what counts, what is true and good and beautiful, finally, is what “builds up”.

The greatest teacher of the earlier church, Augustine of Hippo, came to Milan a non-Christian. From the influence of Ambrose he left baptized and believing and worked a generation to set the foundations for the church over a thousand years to come.

I find some striking parallels to the story of Ambrose in a now popular book by Jim Collins, “Good to Great.” Here are the qualities of those in authority in companies that became great when they had before been good: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings—a plow horse not a show horse. A plow horse not a show horse. A lot of progress can be made when we do not linger too long over who gets the credit.

Some years ago I went to a church meeting near Canada on a very cold night. It was led by our Bishop. For some reason I was not in a very happy mood, nor was I very charitable in my internal review of his remarks that evening. I do not recall his topic or theme. I remember clearly seeing him help to move hymnals, borrowed from other churches for the large crowd, so they could be returned. Snow, dark, long arms carrying a dozen hymnals into the tundra.

Who taught you about power?

Think of someone you have known who lived with heartfelt passion for the common good.

Who taught you about leadership?

Steady Service?

Is another the example of deliberate and deliberative service, of steady service, of sincere service, of suffering service?

Bultmann places our passage in his category of ‘legal sayings and church rules’. These later sayings have used a word like ransom and: ‘ taken from the redemption theories of Hellenistic Christianity’ (Bultmann, HST, 87).

The earlier warnings of suffering and death had fallen upon deaf ears…

“The basic inability of the disciples to grasp or accept Jesus’ concept of messiahship or its corollary, suffering discipleship, becomes reflected more and more in their total relationship to Jesus. The conflict over the correct interpretation of messiahship widens into a general conflict and misunderstanding in almost every area of their relationship

A few years ago Charles Rice of Drew spoke about the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox Church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel. Then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon.

Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image, making it clear again. A servant of the servants of God, washing away the accumulated piety before her…

Rice had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. And through him I did too. Maybe it will work for you. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety. Including pretense and presumption and position. Service that lasts is deliberate and also deliberative, it is steady service.

Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt service to the servants of God. Steady, sincere, suffering service.

Who taught you about power?

Coda

Every one of us has some power. If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some authority.

Who taught you, by precept and example, how to use it? How much of what you picked up needs keeping and how much needs to be put out on the curb?

A simple passion for the common good of the servants of God is at the heart of leadership.

Here is leadership: simple, authentic service.

Here is leadership: simple, authentic service.

Here is leadership: simple, authentic service.

For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

How To Be Happy In College

Sunday, October 15th, 2006


Mark 10:17

Aging it may be, brings the preacher to the point of having the temerity to offer any advice of any kind on anything. To know Christ is to know His benefits, said the reformers. Counting those benefits may be one of the joys of aging.

Parents will tell you that aging can be bittersweet.

Like the day after engagement when you are told about registering for china and appliances for wedding gifts. You feel older. But I just wanted to get married! What is all this merchandizing?

Or when you turn thirty, from twenty nine. A day that will live in infamy, a day of darkness and not of light. Who may abide the day and its coming? It is like a refiner’s fire. Illness descends.

Like the decision to buy a van, and to sell a convertible. The shift from sports car to van or station wagon—need I say more? Is there a surer measure of aging?

Time flies—ah no. Time stays—we go.

Like when you watch a 3 hour movie and realize that the stars look to you like they are teenagers. I prepare you for the pain.

Or when you find yourself asking people to repeat what they have said because you did not quite hear them. “Could you repeat that?” “Would you care to repeat what you said?” “Excuse me, but, huh?”

Or, on more serious note, you begin to feel the onset of age as you see that the great reforms you had hoped might occur in your own lifetime lie still buried under heaps of sloth and falsehood and pride.

Blame some aging for the urge to advise.

You can be happy in college, if you will remember seven words. (They may just apply to life, eternal life, real life in life, as well…)

  1. Study.

An often underrated part of the student life is found in this verb. One reasonable way to find happiness in college is to study. Force yourself. Train yourself. Flog yourself. And when all else fails, talk with a mentor. Find a way to use your time wisely. As George Fox told the Quakers, quoting Hebrews, “Prize your time now you have it, for God is a consuming fire”. If possible, work some study time into your schedule every day. The benefits will accrue immediately. Your parents will be pleased. Your grades will be better. You will be happier with yourself. And, you may graduate!

Les nearly failed his way out of Oswego State 30 years ago. He had a wonderful time and mad probation mid-way through the fall semester. Then he met Diane, bowling. They had such fun. It made all his other revelries pale. Friendship and humour and love and joy—and she was a good bowler too. After a long and late Friday night, Les asked to see her again on Saturday. “Sure”, she replied, “we can study together. One night a week of parties is plenty.” Les walked home on cloud nine, waiting for tomorrow, certain she was kidding. But 8pm Saturday night came and Les walked along Lake Ontario toward the dorm. He was dressed for the evening, but Diane met him at the door in jeans with a stack of books. So Les went to the library for the first time that semester. He squeaked by the fall and spring, picked up speed and graduated with his class. Diane and he were married just before he went off to Princeton seminary. Les will tell you, “I had not realized how big a part of college studying can be, if you let it.”

Let the main thing be the main thing.

  1. Walk.

There is a time to speak, says Ecclesiastes, and a time to be silent. Silence

Is rare in dorms. Students, like Jesus sitting in the temple, are beginning to think on their own, but they need time to do so. One dorm advisor who worked in a 600 student dorm (Delplain Hall) made just one suggestion at orientation: take a walk every day. Thinking is the process of integrating information and insight, experience and judgment. To think you need time and freedom to step back from the 599 others and their stereos. Otherwise the mental muscle will not develop, and you will go too easily with the flow.

Late one night a sophomore knocked at her resident advisor’s door. She was the most socially active girl on her hall—soccer, sorority, floor meetings, ski club, marching band and, even, classes. The advisor was at first surprised to hear her whisper: “I’m so lonely here.” Fleeing her own becoming person, she had grown weary. At last she stopped and faced her fear. Said her advisor, “You are lonely because, now, you are alone. Stop running from yourself. Every afternoon walk up the hill to the Ag Quad and back. Twenty minutes of pure solitude and you won’t feel so lonely.” She quoted Pascal about sitting alone, too.

In walking—we have not spoken of prayer yet—you can hear your soul grow and change, remember and foresee. You can overhear what others are too busy or noisy to hear, even the deeper truth of their own lives.

  1. No!

Here is another underrated word.

But like a river needs banks, a life needs limits. Otherwise the current of

Being spills out all over the plain and there is no direction, no force, no power to the river. You just drift and glide. A good life needs boundaries, river banks. When parents sandbag, the responsibility lies elsewhere. Amos says we are too hate
evil as well as love good. You will define yourself as much by what you oppose as by what you affirm.

Every “no” is an upside down “yes”.

If you say no to steady drunkenness it is for the joy of bodily health.

If you say no to racial hatred you point out the path of future peace.

If you say no to $120 sneakers it is an affirmation of things invisible.

If you say no to nuclear arsenals it is too affirm the sacredness of life.

If you say no to flagrant abuse of the gifts of sexuality, you are trying to affirm covenant and integrity and future happiness.

If you say no to a life focused only on obtaining, you make room for enjoyment and love.

Every no hides a yes, and you can be negatively positive.

We all find some happiness by finding our “no’s” and sticking to them.

  1. Fun.

Have some fun along the way.

One depressed junior spoke to his teacher who simply asked him what he

liked to do for fun. The list was made. Do you do any of these things regularly? No, I am too busy. The teacher sentenced the junior to a daily game of bridge, two basketball games a week, several monthly movies, and pop tarts every morning for breakfast. He sentenced the student too use his own list. All work and no play makes Bob a dull boy.

  1. Explore.

In college and in retirement you have various kinds of freedom to explore.

Try not to explore in ways you will regret, for regret is the forecourt of hell. But explore nonetheless!

Three sorts of exploration make good sense in college.

One is travel, far and wide, national and international.

Another is into the past, mainly by reading.

A third is across cultures.

Geography, history and culture are more open to you now than they may ever be again.

Explore, with the single aim of finding what is good, of integrating this good into your vision of the truth. “Liberal education flourishes when it prepares the way for a discussion of a unified view of nature and man’s place in it.” (A. Bloom).

  1. Friend.

Last, not least, open yourself to real friendship.

The friendships formed in these years will last a lifetime if they are well

Planted and watered. The freedoms and struggles of that first real experience of independence can also provide the nutrients for the growth of real friendships. In friendship, as in love, there is terror and mystery.

Several stages are visible in the growth of a friendship.

Deciding when and how and who leads and follows.

Learning to give up something for another.

Making a really big life mistake.

Talking about making a really big life mistake.

Disagreeing.

Encouraging.

Parting.

Chapters in a book.

Friendships developed now can last a lifetime. One graduate of Smith College in the year 1914 corresponded through the 1980’s monthly with her college roommate. Illness and age prevented visits, but the letters still came and went.

Friendships developed now can transform.

The newspaper recently carried the story of Jack Bruen, Colgate basketball coach. Ill but still coaching when the article appeared, Bruen died at 48 last week. We have known his kindness to our children over many summers of basketball camp. Said one former student, “Besides my father, his is the only shoulder I’ve ever cried on”. Read some books in college, but read the human documents too. They will change your life.

For the best of them, through friendship, will recall the spirit of Jesus, whom we affirm, this day, as our transforming friend.

  1. Love

Love. But this word, given our Scripture today, in a very particular sen
se.

Love: learn to love the poor.

Our man in Mark lacks. One thing you lack…He is haunted by what he lacks, though he probably could not have named or narrated his lack for himself. It is the preaching of the gospel—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—which awakens, in him, I mean in you, I mean in him, I mean in us, the profound lack.

He lacks the lightness of being that comes from the lack that he lacks. Poverty. He lacks that ‘spiritual’ (for once we shall carefully use the word) freedom from abundance of possessions which poverty, sharply, may bring. What he lacks is lack itself.

Love…learn to love the poor.

Isn’t it curious…Elliot Spitzer, Princeton, candidate for governor in the Empire State, remembers, vividly, his college summer among the poor—a completely different side of life. Did that summer shape his mind? His HEART? There, then did he learn to live with abandon?

Isn’t it curious…This week Muhammed Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for giving tiny loans to poor people in Bangladesh? His first loan: $27 out of his own pocket in 1976, repaid quickly and in full. “If you can make so many people happy with such a small amount of money, why shouldn’t you do more of it?” Yunus lives with abandon. Cut lose from all that smothers, you can find your own true self. You can become your “ownmost” self. To find your calling, your true vocation, your voice, is more than getting an A and getting a job. Sometimes people live well into their fifties before admitting and accepting their vocation—that which has them live ‘with abandon’.

The textured nuances of this text—sure signs of the middle alto voice of the early church—bear emphasis. Not all are blessed and burdened with great wealth. But all know the struggle with greed. Covenant with the poor will fill your lack. Not all are faced with the particular challenge of camel and needle. But all depend fully on the impossible possibility of grace. Before God we are naked. Before God we are empty handed. None is good but God. Connection with the poor can free you. You will recognize that grace where you are free to live ‘with abandon’.

Isn’t it curious…Some years ago—long before I knew much about Howard Thurman, or that he had stood in this pulpit—his profound little book, ‘Jesus and the Disinherited’, hit my desk. We then used it as a study guide among the clients of our dining center, after breakfast on Tuesdays. You know, I have endured and inflicted hundreds of classes and groups. But that small, untidy, alcohol scented, ravaged, male group haunts still, haunts through lack.

Have we learned to love the poor? Where great University learning and a confident love of the poor, of the least and last and lost have bonded, there has been fire. Think of Luther at Wittenberg, and among the German peasants. Think of Ignatius, in Paris, the poor in the city and the learning of the University, in 1540. Of course, think of Wesley at Oxford and in the mines.

And thee? Where is that Boston scout troop, looking for a 20 year old assistant scout master? Where is that big sister program, just waiting for what your parents gave you for free? Where is that city school, ready for your cyberknowledge? Where is that church school class without a teacher?

Says the man in the third pew, ‘Preacher, you seem to be mentioning things and words that are unhappy (study, no, poor…). Is part of learning to be happy learning to be unhappy?’ You might say so. ‘The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it’. (Lao Tse). Empty yourself and you will be satisfied. Empty yourself, and you will be full. As Mark writes later, ‘the last shall be first, and the first shall be last’.

And remember, there are two ways be rich: have lots of money, or very few needs.

To be happy, learn from some unhappiness, and happily so…

Study. Walk. Say No. Have Fun. Explore. Befriend. Love the poor…

Some ways to be happy in college. And in life. And “in God”.

A Failure to Communicate

Sunday, October 8th, 2006

Matthew 9: 9-13


1. Matthew on Mercy and Sacrifice (Exegesis)

Caught between our own identities, and the fires of Hell, we have arrived in worship. Like Matthew, who paints himself as Velazquez did into his own portrait, we are invited. Follow me. “He comes to us as one unknown as he did long ago…”, wrote Schweitzer. The real moment of real invitation and real response is real apocalypse. Paul said he met Jesus ‘by apocalypse’. I am here by apocalypse. Another story for another day. You may be too. What are we doing here?

This is a rare and holy moment. Holy, and rare.

Matthew, the author of a dark Gospel, reflecting perhaps the persecutions of the late first century, has stitched his own matriculation to faith together with an apothegem (that is a word that you never use in a sermon) about reading. His entry involved reading. “Go and learn….” Why should anyone have needed to learn the meaning of such a fine and famous line from Hosea, about mercy and sacrifice? Evidently, the meaning was far from evident, by the time of Matthew’s suffering. More study was needed. Why? The experience of the fragile church under Domitian required new readings of the inherited traditions of the church. An inheritance without interpretation breeds a failure in communication. And, as the Amish of Pennsylvania have magnificently reminded us this week, it is costly yet true to desire mercy. The first word, forgiveness.

Each Synoptic passage is like a choral piece, including four voices. There is the Soprano voice of Jesus of Nazareth, embedded somewhere in the full harmonic mix. In Matthew 9, Jesus conflicts with the Pharisaic aversion to pagan inscriptions and iconography. There is the alto voice of the primitive church, arguably always the most important of the four voices, that which carries the forming of the passage in the needs of the community. From Mark to Matthew an insertion has arisen, the citation of Hosea 6:6. Evidently, the earliest church needed the fuller support of the prophetic tradition—mercy not sacrifice, compassion not holiness—as it moved farther out and away from the memory of Jesus. The tenor line is that of the evangelist. Matthew here, marking his own appearance in the record. His work seems to reflect a connection to school, to scribes, perhaps as Stendahl said from across the river, years ago, to Qumran. The baritone is borne by later interpretation, beginning soon with Irenaeus, Against Heresies: “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?” ( in Richardson, ECF, 377) If our church music carries only one line, we may be tempted to interpret our Scripture with only one voice, and miss the SATB harmonies therein, to our detriment.

2. Failures to Communicate (Explication)

Communication is such a delicate art. Frost’s telephone poem, set to SATB harmony by R Thompson and our choir, reminds us. A little means a lot. Otherwise, a failure to communicate.

Like the preacher who stood before the congregation at Yale chapel some years ago, where did hang a banner, ‘God is other people’, and for the word of that day simply said he wanted to replace the comma, ‘God is Other, people’. I am not God and you are not God and we are not God, together, as Camus might have reminded us. Otherwise, a failure to communicate.

Registering our cars in Massachusetts, I chuckled with the receptionist, who could not understand whether her interlocutor was speaking of Don a man or Dawn a woman. Two people separated by common language and inflection. By the glories of England and New England both. Nearly, a failure to communicate.

Communication can have dire consequences.

One day, following the morning service, we visited a dear saint in her home. She had been in hospital that week, and sat recuperating in her parlor. Her family was with her. And she had a story to tell.

That Tuesday, she prepared to be taken, by ambulance, from one hospital to another, for a particular procedure. She is a fine, older Methodist lady, so she prepared herself with what dignity one can muster in a hospital bed, robed in a hospital gown, and alone in the corridor of life. A little makeup, a comb and brush, some careful adjustments of remaining raiment, glasses perched, smile shining.

She could see the elevator door open, and her stretcher moving out. Then the attendants clearly mentioned her name as they signed the paper work at the desk. The nurse motioned across the hall in the general direction of her room. She poised herself, prepared to be a good, courteous patient. Down the hall the men came, and she waved. They returned the gesture. To her door they rolled—and then, remarkably, rolled on by! They passed to the next room, one inhabited alone by a frail, kindly woman who is deaf as a post. “Mrs. Smith?” “YES” she replied, her volume in inverse proportion to her accuracy. Into the stretcher went the wrong woman, and down the hall they moved. My dear parishioner called out, used her buzzer, flailed her arms like a gypsy at the campfire. But in a New York minute they were gone, carrying away the wrong person. On the way home, following the procedure, someone apparently had the presence of mind to look at the stretchered woman’s wrist band, name tag. I wonder how the reader felt not to see the name Smith. A rare moment of revelation. In this case, little lasting harm occurred. Our hospitals, in fact, to my eye, given their hourly commitment to excellence and attention to detail, put other institutions to shame. We all know the fear of the wrong arm amputated, the wrong knee replaced, the wrong woman put in the stretcher. Physician’s malpractice. But the news, good news, of medical malpractice is that you know soon—an hour, a day, a decade—what has happened, and you can endure it or correct it. So it goes with the physician’s malpractice.

Not so with the m
etaphysician’s.

Biological error lasts, at most, a lifetime. Theological error resides for three generations, or more. If, as ML King Sr. said, ‘it takes three generations to make a preacher’, then it also takes three generations, or more, to recognize and correct the effects of metaphysical malpractice. You cannot fully see its effect for 20 or 40 or 60 or 80 years. And it is a short way from birdie to bogie, from clean cuts to nicks and scratches in innocent organs, mistaken severations and amputations, blood spilled and shed in the wrong bed. Choose the physical mistakes, for the metaphysical are so much more insidious, more damaging, more real.

3. Go and Learn What this Means (Exemplification)…

Sacrifice may be good, but mercy is great. Without mercy, we have a failure to communicate. Without mercy, we have a failure to communicate. Hear the gospel in the movement from sacrifice to mercy…and…

From Incantation to Incarnation…

We risk harm when we replace incarnation with incantation. The gospel of John affirms the incarnation of the Christ, in the flesh. That is—children’s flesh, adolescent’s flesh, young couples’ flesh, people, people, people. The image of God. We have forsaken our passionate interest in people, young or old, fat or thin. Half our membership in the Northeast has been erased, since my ordination. Cataclysm. Apocalypse. A moment, maybe this one, when you look down at the stretcher and you see that the nametag is not what you expected. And you face failure. Face it. It won’t kill you. Denying it will kill more than facing it. We have decided to enjoy incantation, instead, the pseudo worship that has eviscerated many of our churches across the region. We, for the most part, have not wanted to do the hard work of preaching and liturgical preparation. We prefer easy incantation to the rich announcement of incarnation. People notice. We need to cross the river from incantation to incarnation!

From Innocence to Integrity…

We risk harm when we replace integrity with innocence. Innocence is not holiness, nor holiness innocence. While there are many facets to this single haphazard metamedical blunder, the matter of sex alone should make it clear. In our region we no longer talk about sex—a tragic silence given the unfiltered filth of the internet that has invaded most homes far beyond our poor power to add or detract. After the flames of the 60’s Jack Tuell and a couple of other Bishops sat over coffee and came up with the phrase, “in singleness celibacy, in marriage fidelity”. Given the chaos of the time, the phrase made some ordering sense. But today it has served to muzzle and muffle fully honest talk about sex. Tuell’s own confessional, repositioning sermon on homosexuality specifically mentions, and laments, the phrase. But the gays are the least of our problems. Our malpractice has caused fairly good people to mask their struggle for integrity, in failure as well as success, with a false innocence, assuming there can be no integrity without innocence. Our own church has had past denominational leadership that was struggling with personal identity and sexual expression. Is there any wonder that we have no significant conference or area work on human sexuality? We need to find our voice again, to honor God’s good gift of sexuality, and its best expression within the sacramental rite of marriage. We need to pull the scalpel out of the wrong intestine, and wash up and start again. We need a fuller conversation. You can have integrity and holiness without innocence. I might redact Tuell this way: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity. We are crossing a river from the east bank of innocence to the great capital region of integrity!

From Independence to Interdependence…

We risk harm when we replace just war with just war, interdependence with independence. The 2003 invasion of Iraq jettisoned our inherited experience codified in just war theory. It was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, post-Christian, immoral, and wrong. Anybody with half a Bible could see that. But what did our pulpits say in 2002 and 2003? With a baker’s dozen exceptions, across the country, we said: not sure, don’t know, support the troops, what a world, hope it all works out, give it up to God… We had the wrong woman in the stretcher all along, but we just were too busy tuning our electric guitars to see so. Now 2700 are dead in Iraq. It took 25 years, but the chickens did come home to roost. Let us cross over from the quiet shore of independence to the bright light of interdependence!

Now we have, for many of our own close friends right here in this community who hale from other lands, jettisoned habeus corpus. My mother is a Latin teacher and my son a lawyer, so I did my research by phone. The gospel is for the wise: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. From the Magna Charta to John Wesley to the Bill of Rights to this hour, we have understood, rightly, the high priority and cost of individual rights. The right to trial when imprisoned, the right to petition. The right to see evidence against you. The importance of due process. Have we begun with the spirit to end with the flesh?

In the large minutes of early Methodist conversations between Mr. Wesley and his preachers, a remarkable sentence abides. Wesley has given his usual ‘the beatings will continue until morale improves’ speech: Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Be serious. Let your motto be holiness. Avoid all lightness, jesting, foolish talking. Converse sparingly with women, especially young women. Be punctual. Be ashamed of nothing but sin. You have nothing to do but save souls, spend and be spent in the work. Take no step toward marriage without consulting your brethren…

And then: Believe evil of no one; unless you see it done…You know the Judge is always to be on the prisoner’s side…

Garrison Keillor recently wrote:

I would not send my college kid off for a semester abroad if I were you. This week, we have suspended human rights in America, and what goes around comes around. Ixnay habeas corpus.

The U.S. Senate, in all its splendor and majesty, has decided that an “enemy combatant” is any non-citizen whom the president says is an enemy combatant, including your Korean greengrocer or your Swedish grandmother or your Czech au pair, an d can be arrested and held for as long as authorities
wish without any right of appeal to a court of law to examine the matter. If your college kid were to be arrested in Bangkok or Cairo, suspected of “crimes against the state,” and held in prison, you’d assume that an American foreign service officer would be able to speak to your kid and arrange for a lawyer, but this may not be true anymore. Be forewarned
.

From Theological Theology to Christological Theology….

We risk harm when we replace God with Jesus. I love Barth, too, but Jesus is not all the God there is. We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity. Just when the gentle wisdom of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Huston Smith and so many others might have broadened our creaky Christomonism, we let in the Calvinists. Yes, we want to name the name. The name that is above every name. But that name does not drown the others, like a Gulf hurricane, or bomb the others, like a Desert Storm, or burn the others like a terrorist hijacking. When John wrote “I am the way…”, he meant that wherever there is a way– there is the Christ, wherever there is truth– there is Christ, wherever there is life– there Christ is, too. The day I met the Clergy Session of Conference, at Syracuse University, to be passed on for orders, Huston Smith walked over to the session from his office on the other side of the quad. He stood by me, outside as I waited. I was nervous. He assured me I had no reason to be. We need that voice today! The mystery of God is greater than the measure of Calvin’s mind, and greater than the Christology of the Reformation, and greater than the purpose driven life. We are crossing over the raging river from exclusivity to particularity, from Christology to Theology!

From Giving to Tithing…

We risk harm when we replace tithing with giving. The Christian life involves specific, serious commitments with regard to time, to people, and to money. To be a Christian is to worship weekly, to keep faith in marriage and other close relationships, and to give away 10% of what one earns. Not more than 10% but not less either. Where did we go off the reservation here?

The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in tithing, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in tithing, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of exurban life receives its denial in tithing, not in mere giving. We have spent too much time trying to encourage people, bit by bit, to keep faith.

How would your spouse feel if you said, “You know, I was 40% faithful this year, a 5% increase from last year.” That would not fly in my home. Other things would fly (pans, knives, etc), but that would not! Nor can this euphemistic blather about “abundance”, a culture of abundance, last much longer. We need full affirmation of a culture of scarcity, not abundance, and the virtues, once our stock in trade, that come with scarcity: frugality, saving, temperance, industry, and, yes, tithing. Let us cross over and rest in the shade of the tithing trees!

Coda

You live in a country in which 40% of the population can name the Three Stooges, and fewer than 5% the ten commandments. Literacy has a new meaning, referring not to those who can read, but to those who do read. You remember from A River Runs Through It, the line that Methodists are Baptists who can read. The future of the globe relies not on those who can read, but on those who do. Who communicate…

Would you see Christianity reborn? Be careful what you say.

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice…’

Incarnation

Integrity

Interdependence

Theology

Tithing