Archive for June, 2007

A Whole New Life

Sunday, June 24th, 2007


Galatians 3: 23-29

There are a few moments in every season when the broad, deep expanse of life opens up to us and we wonder about the meaning, the purpose of things.

A woman stops for the red light. She has finished her day job, working 9-5. She will swing quickly now into a parking lot to gather up her two children from daycare. On the way toward home she will stop to pick up a pizza, ordered a few minutes earlier by car phone. Her husband is traveling so she will not be going this month to the evening church meeting. As she looks out at the long line of snarled traffic, she wonders: “What am I doing here? Who am I?”

Who are you?

A man leaves home in the gray early morning light. He came in at 10:00 and leaves again at 6:30. His teenage children have grown accustomed to his wandering, finding his presence odder than his absence. His job, like all, never ends. For every inch he gives, it takes a mile. He recalls the story of Hercules and the hydra. The gas gauge is on empty—he forgot yesterday to fill it. He backs out of the driveway, and then has this strange moment when he wonders: “What am I doing here? Who am I?

Who are you?

A couple in retirement spend Wednesday morning visiting the physician and the specialist and the therapist. They stop to fill prescriptions and to go to market and to finish the banking. They have lost good friends to death this year. The radio plays a mix of new music and old news. It is raining again. She looks at the street and he looks at her and then past her. Silently they wonder, without speaking, “What am I doing here? Who am I?”

Who are you?

Love without truth is sentimentality. Truth without love is brutality. Today we are swept up again into the great rainbow goodness of Almighty God, who calls us both to honesty and to kindness.

We find our primal identity in Jesus Christ, baptized as we are into him. In Him, we are all children of God. Our identity is not found in our religious tribe. Our identity is not found in our financial insecurity. Our identity is not found, either, in our sex. None of these distinctions, so fundamental to everyday life, gives us our identity. We are children of God, by the promise of God which overpowers every religious, economic, and gender distinction.

We are promised, in the Christ who is Lord of the New Creation, a whole new life.

One day, a friend and I had breakfast, and talked about Reynolds Price’s book, A Whole New Life. In it, Price traces the grace of healing which comes to him in the midst of critical illness. Price, a gifted southern author, succumbed without warning to a malady that nearly took his life. He records the terror, the pain, and the disease that nearly killed him. He remembers the kindness, the friendship, the prayer, and the skill that finally saved him.

At breakfast, we mentioned the book a couple of times, A Whole New Life. Our waitress overheard and, bringing the coffee said, “… that’s what I want—a whole new life!”

As she returned with juice, I asked, “And what kind of life would you like?”

“Let me think about it”, she replied. How would you have answered?

Carrying over grapefruit and oatmeal, she pronounced: “I’ve decided on my new life…I want to become a baby again…To be held, to be loved, to be rocked, to be protected, to be fed, to be cradled, to be cared for…I’d like to become a child again…and THAT WHOLE NAP THING—WAY UNDERRATED…THAT NAP THING IS TOTALLY UNDERRATED.”

Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is one of the great high peaks of the New Testament. It is about a whole new life, a new creation. In fact, it may be the highest peak in the whole range, the Mount Everest of the Bible. It is written to address this question: “Must a Gentile become a Jew before he can become a Christian?” Is there a religious condition to be met, prior to the reception of God’s apocalypse in Christ?

After Paul had been converted to Christ, he spent 17 years in unremarkable, quiet ministry. We know nothing of these two decades spent in Arabia. All the letters we have of Paul come from a later decade. Paul was converted to Christ, as he says earlier in this letter, “by apocalypse”. Christ revealed himself to Paul. Thus, for Paul, the authority in Christ is not finally in the Scripture, nor in traditions, nor in reason, nor in experience. Christ captured Paul through none of these, but rather through revelation, the apocalypse of God. In short, Paul was not a Methodist.

There is a singular, awesome freedom in the way Paul understands Christ. We have yet, I believe, in the church that bears His name, to acknowledge in full that freedom.

After these 17 years, Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet with the pillars of the church. Can you picture the moment? All in one room: Paul, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Titus, Barnabas. And in that room there was argument, difference. Paul preached the cross of Christ to unreligious people, and they heard. What would the Jerusalem elders say? Jesus was a Jew, and had been circumcised. So also were all the first Christians, including Paul himself. But God had done something astounding. It was the Gentiles, not the Jews, who fervently believed the Good News. Should these unreligious children of God be brought back into the Covenant of Circumcision? No, they all agreed, no. God had done something new. So, Peter went to the circumcised, and Paul went to the uncircumcised. Peter went to the Jews, and Paul to the Gentiles. They agreed to disagree, agreeably. And the meeting ended and it was settled.

But you know how sometimes it’s not the meeting but the meeting after the meeting that counts? What was settled in Jerusalem was unsettled later. Peter couldn’t be counted on to hold the line, and Paul told him so, to his face. Peter was inconsistent about freedom—sometimes he ate with the unclean Gentiles—that’s all of you by the way. Sometimes, when somebody was watching, he backed away. And Paul caught him at it and as he ways, “opposed him to his face”. I wish all opposition in church was so clean, direct, personal, and honest. “One of us is wrong and I think it’s you!” Paul doesn’t talk about Peter, he talks to Peter. There’s a life lesson.

The lines that are drawn in the name of religion are so marked, so indelible. Look at the Middle East, Ireland, Bosnia, Botswana, India, Quebec. We listened again the other night to the music of West Side Story, and heard the poignant plea in Maria’s song, “There’s a place for us.” For some, caught between various Montagues and Capulets, there is never a place.

Paul envisions the end of religion, Christ “the end of the law”. In its place he pictures the community of faith working through love. Whatever does not come from faith is sin.

Your primal identity does not come from your religion. Christ brings a whole new life, the end of religion and the beginning of the church, understood as the community of faith working through love.

As potent as is the power of religion to determine identity, money is stronger still. This is why in the Gospels Jesus speaks so repeatedly about money, about its dangers…where moth and rust consume. If you are used to solving your problems by writing a check, you are doubly endangered by the real problems, for which no check is large enough.

I remember an old District Superintendent 25 years ago saying to me that Jesus spoke more about money than about anything else, and I was offended. “I thought it was love”, I smugly and arrogantly and full of my Union Seminary theological degree did respond.

But over time I have learned from experience, about how selfishness can hurt the spirit, and how mixed up our priorities can become. And I read the Bible weekly for 25 years, and I hear Jesus: with Zacchaeus in the Sycamore, and Matthew the tax collector, and the widow giving her mite, and the prodigal son squandering, and the man fearful of the talents, and the crafty steward, and rendering to Caesar, and—you see how the list grows?

Paul sees what we still hardly ever do see. Money can’t buy love. Finally, one’s place on the map of economic life is not one’s primal identity. It is interesting to remember at the end of his life that John Wesley worried about the growing wealth of his poor Methodists. They did what he told them. They earned all they could. They saved all they could. They gave all they could. They prospered. And in their prosperity, they were endangered. They forgot the poor, once they were not poor. Their diligence, frugality, and industry, all wondrously good things, also contained the potential to obscure their primal identity. We are not what spend, nor are we what we buy.

We are stewards, not owners. Finally we only truly own what we give away.

I remember an old friend of ours, who is now a City School Superintendent. I have watched him for 25 years, as he struggles to teach the poorest children in our region. I will not sentimentalize his work. The city schools in the northeast are in tough shape. Violence and disrespect are rampant in many places. He and I watched our own children hurt by these schools. No, we need not sentimentalize.

But I also remember another day. It was a bright June day like this one, and I had left the office for the hospital when I drove past the school which my friend led so well. There on the side lawn, moving in a circle, were 400 students, 50 teachers and administrators, and a dozen custodians and cooks. There they were—half black, half white; half rich half poor; half male half female; most straight and a few gay; Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jew; some Republicans, and many others; some past puberty, and some a long way from it; some A students and some delinquents. But in that hour, they danced together, with a good leader. In that moment, they swayed back and forth to some new Polynesian beat and rhythm. I pulled to the curb to watch, and pray. It wasn’t quite heaven, but you could see it from there. Neither slave nor free. No, your primal identity does not come from your wallet, either.

What could mark more indelibly than religion and money? What could keep our attention better than religion and money? If you had to devise a televised soap opera to mesmerize 270 million people and much cattle for a whole year, what, other than religion and money, would you use? Any thoughts?

In the resurrection, there will be no gender. At least according to Paul in Galatians. In Christ, there is no ‘male and female’. Gender is swallowed up in victory. The Oneidas and the Shakers could sense this, odd and contrasted as were their ways of living it out.

We have yet, I doubt, to take seriously the Good News of liberation found in these passages. Your identity does not come from your sexuality, your gender, your orientation.

In this passage, in the Bible, Paul points to a clue, as well, to one of our great arguments today. Here, your identity is not to be inferred from creation….but from new creation! This apocalyptic baptismal formula declares the erasure—who says there is nothing radical about Christ?—of the distinction we so heighten, that between male and female.

God is calling into existence a new community of faith working through love. There is your identity. Not what is natural but what is heavenly about us forms our primary identity. That is, the Bible itself, from the vantage point of this great mountain passage, opens the way for an understanding of identity that is not just nature or creation, but new creation. This is the community of faith working through love. Here, there is a place where God may be doing something new, revealing something new. And, most strangely, it may be those who are not so easily confined by the creational categories of male and female, those who are both or neither, who are on the edge of the new creation. I know what Paul writes in Romans, but you still must ask yourself, at this point, which is Mount Everest: Galatians 3 or Romans 1? I think it is Galatians 3. I have come to believe that gender and orientation do not provide our primal identity. No male and female means no gay and straight, no homosexual and heterosexual. God is doing something new, which includes all in the community of faith working through love.

The trajectory of Paul’s preaching in Galatians, and thus in total, makes ample space in our churches for gay people. If you love Jesus, and especially if you love the Bible, then you may just find courage not only to defend a moral life in a post-moral culture, but also to preserve freedom for those who have found a whole new life, like Reynolds Price–a gay man, and so are harbingers of the new creation.

Who are you?

If your identity does not come from religion or money or sex, then who are you?

Are you a part of the new creation?

Are you a child, daughter or son, of the living God?

Are you, baptized into Christ, now wrapped in Him?

Are you an heir of God’s promise that predates all else?

Are you identified by faith, the faith of Jesus Christ?

Are you then walking in newness of life?

Are you found in the community of faith that works in love?

Are you on the edge of heaven?

Are you one in Christ Jesus?

Filioque

Sunday, June 10th, 2007


Galatians 1: 11-24 and John 13: 31-35

Thought, Word and Deed. Lover, Loved, Love. Memory, Understanding, Will. Sun, Ray, Touch. Breath, Hearing, Laughter. Father, Son, Spirit…

Fear not, the sermon is not going to devolve from an inscrutable title into an unintelligible body toward an unfathomable conclusion. At least, we shall hope not. We will not try, with the fabled preacher, to “define the indefinite, explain the unexplainable, and unscrew the inscrutable”. We shall hope that the sermon, at least to one sense, does not approximate the peace of God, which ‘passes all understanding and endures forever’.

Rather, we shall meditate on a kindlier, clearer text. ‘Jesus said…love one another’. Some Christianity, more Religion, and much Life, strangely, sails adrift from such a word. ‘Jesus said…love’. Salvation depends upon the saying of things. It is not enough not to say. To tell the truth is to shame the devil. There is a crucial saving power embedded in the lowliest of creatures, a clear intervening word. Says the Apostle, ‘The Gospel proclaimed by me is not of human origin’. It is not gospel if it is not said.

I remember when George Gibbs was so saved in conversation, with Emily Webb who has ‘just got to tell the truth and shame the devil’.

On the way home from school, George offers to carry Emily’s books. When she gives them to him, he notices that she is peeved about something. When he asks why she is angry, she tells him that he is so caught up in baseball and other activities–he has just been elected president of his class while Emily was elected secretary-treasurer–that he hardly notices his friends anymore. He is stuck-up. George takes the criticism gracefully, saying he will strive to improve his behavior. When Emily tearfully regrets her criticism, George invites her to have an ice-cream soda with him at Morgan’s Drugstore.
…….In the drugstore, the stage manager–playing Mr. Morgan–fills George’s order for strawberry sodas. Then–in a shy, roundabout way–they begin expressing their feelings about each other. George says he no longer desires to go off to college to study agriculture; he’d rather stay home and be with Emily. George says, “I think that once you’ve found a person you’re very fond of . . . I mean a person who’s fond of you, too, and likes you enough to be interested in your character . . . Well, I think that’s just as important as college is, and even more so.”

If Emily had not spoken then George would not have responded and she would not have wept and he would not have bought ice cream and they would not have admitted their love and he would not have taken the farm and they would not have married and she would not have loved and left and he would not have loved and lost and no one would know anything about Grover’s Corners. Sometimes you have to say something to somebody. A word fitly spoken is like an apple in the sun. Words, just the right word at just the right time in just the right way, do matter.

A federal in Chicago told us last month, with keen humor, about the importance of words. A young preacher was sent to a tiny congregation, deeply wise but formally untutored, off in the hills, or so she said. After three months he had visited everyone, written sermons ahead for a month, and edited the cradle roll. So, he decided to do something new and called a meeting. In the little packed church the minister announced, ‘what we need here is a chandelier’. Silence ensued. At last a kindly granddad from the back stood up. ‘Well, brother, we love you, we do. But as to this chandelier, I am against it. And for three reasons. First, there’s not one of us here who can spell it. Second, nobody around here knows how to play one. And third, what we really need in this sanctuary is more light!’. Moral: say what you mean and mean what you say. If you need more light, say you need more light!

Careful now: We are about to take a sharp turn into the past.

Eight letters, printed as today’s sermon title, broke the ancient church in half, east and west. To this day, our Orthodox and Catholic friends, with various Protestants strewn along the path like so much brush, divide over filioque, the Latin for ‘and the son’, or as the Latin teachers and students who recognize the ablative when they see it would add, ‘and from the son’. The Nicene Creed affirmed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. As time went by (I particularly like the maverick Spaniards and their role here), the church altered the formula: the Spirit proceeds from the Father—filioque—‘and from the Son’. What difference does it make? In 1054, along with concerns about the Pope, the eight letters split the church—eastwest, RomeConstantinople, popepatriarchs.

It is remarkable that just a few letters can make such a difference, that just a few words rightly or wrongly spoken can make such a difference. We find it hard to understand. Of course, we do understand what eighteen words, misspoken, can mean, in a speech in 2003. Of course, we do understand what a few letters, WMD, incorrectly identified at in 2003, could mean. Yet every single one of us, every last one of us, has at least eighteen words ill spoken to regret, and at least three letters to rue. For the preacher, you may multiply that by many thousands. So, on reflection, we can at least generally understand the power of eight letters.

We have a saying in American English: two is company, three is a crowd. The ancient debates about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were about the way three relate to two, two to one, one to three, three to one. God is one and three, said the west. God is three and one, said the east. In our time, we have no doubt that Jesus was human. We wonder about his divinity. But the opposite was the truth for antiquity. They wondered about his humanity, but Jesus was divine, for sure. So they further thought about his
relation to the other aspects of divinity, Father and Spirit. Augustine encouraged the expansion ‘and the Son’: “God the Father alone is He from whom the Word is born, and from whom the Holy Spirit principally proceeds. And therefore I have added the word principally, because we find that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son also”. (Walker, 189)

Why ‘and from the Son’?

Here, libraries are full of full responses. Yet, in earshot of today’s lessons, one particular response resounds.

Why, ‘and from the Son’? Why from the Word? Why from the Logos? Why from the Word of God? Why Spirit proceeding from Word?

Because spirit proceeds from word. Spirit emerges from Word. You have to say it. The deed is the child of the word as the word is the child of the thought. ‘In thought, word and deed…’, we pray. There is a profoundly experiential, spiritually existential dimension to filioque. In other words, the divine dimension of life is really three dimensions: thought, word and deed. In the beginning was the Word, with God and God. It is not enough to think. Thinking alone does not create. It takes utterance, speech, word. Spirit proceeds from God the Father and from God the Son: from God the Creator and from God the Redeemer: from God the Mind and from God the Voice: from God the Ground of Being and from God the Word made Flesh. Filioque is at the heart of hospitality, and of communion, and of service.

Ten years ago two friends were walking on a Saturday along a River. They strolled along the river bank, looking out across the River at the window of a Chapel. They were on the other, not to say lesser bank. They shared a profession, and a friendship. It was a natural thing. They walked and talked and fed the geese. An engaging woman and a personable man strolling along a beautiful river. After a while, inspired, she simply told him about her church, across the river—its minister, its time of worship, its personality, its quirks. She invited him to come. She spoke a word. She said it. Now both have a church home to enjoy and a church family to love. Word—God the Son—filioque—is at the heart of hospitality.

Some years ago, you may have heard on audio tape Frank McCourt’s hymn to words, Angela’s Ashes. It contains one of the most beautiful accounts of being in love, being delivered in Christ from our otherwise one-dimensional time and world. Two ten year old hospital patients, Frank and Patricia Madigan, become friends. She calls him ‘typhoid boy’. She has a poetry book, and reads to him, as he heals. Or is it that he heals as she reads to him? He hates the owl and the pussycat and says so. She says she will not read to typhoid boy. But she relents, and reads another poem, and makes him memorize it.

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor

And the highwayman came riding

Riding, riding

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin

A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin,

They fitted with never a wrinkle, his boots were up to his thigh.

And he rode with a jeweled twinkle,

His pistol butts a-twinkle,

His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky. (Angela’s Ashes, 196)

Of course Frankie, typhoid boy, falls in love with Patricia Madigan, whom he cannot see behind the curtain of the next bed, but whose voice carries him to health. And of course he waits every day for her to come back from therapy and recite another verse of the poem. And of course he memorizes the verse with the feverish attention of first love. And of course he learns, there, then, in sickness, the power of language. And of course he waits so he cannot sleep for the excitement of it, he waits for the voice behind the curtain, and for the ongoing poetry of life, and for the next installment of the Highwayman. And of course Patricia dies. And of course you see, no you hear, no you feel, no—filioque—you know that spirit proceeds from word.

Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,

When they shot him down in the highway,

Down like a dog in the highway,

And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

Word—God the Son—filioque—is at the heart of communion. Like Patricia Madigan’s, the body of the historic church in the north is wasting away. Yet, in all our affliction, we may still whisper a saving word to the future world. Yes, a love a God. Yes, a love
of language. Yes, a love of the Word. Yes, a love of words. Yes, in our time and place, particularly, the language we shall most need, going forward, the spiritual language of lament, compunction, contrition, confession, regret, and the longing therein for pardon, and the hunger therein for peace, and the witness therein to a better day, some day.

Howard Thurman as a hundred years ahead of his time, fifty years ago. Fifty years from now we may catch up to him. Thurman’s was not a high Christology. He knew, though, the power of speech, as well as of silence. His well remembered silences, lengthy and deep, were themselves full attestations to the power of love proceeding from speech, spirit from word. Something must be said. You need go no further, no further, than the first page of his autobiography.

Thurman has finished one year in seminary, here in Rochester, NY. He has been offered an internship in Roanoke VA, at the First Baptist Church, to care for the church while the minister is away on vacation. On the first night in the parsonage, the phone rings: May I speak with Dr James? Dr James is the hospital chaplain. There is a patient here who is dying. He is asking for a minister. Are you a minister? Yes, I am a minister. Please hurry, or you will be too late.

Thurman is anxious, ambivalent about life and calling. He rushes out, forgetting to bring his Bible. He approaches the dreaded curtain around the dying man.

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 of 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. (With Head and Heart, 3).

Beloved, speak the good words.