Archive for November, 2007

A New Frontier of Peace

Sunday, November 25th, 2007


Lections and John 14:27

Asbury First United Methodist Church

1. 63 Lincoln

In the Henry Ford Museum, near Detroit, you will find a remarkable assortment of Amerabilia. Would you like to see Ford’s first automobile? Its tiny little black wooden self greets you. Do you remember the Edsel? Here is one. Have you spent time over the years in a Howard Johnsons—not recently, I know, but once on a time? Here are signs for the restaurant and the ice cream and the motel. Do you own a map of the country that features Route 66? You will want one after this tour. Did you ever see one of those amphibious cars, both auto and boat, with drive shaft and propellers? The museum has one in baby blue. What is it about that 57 Chevy? One two-tone, green and cream, greets you.

I did not plan to be personally moved in the car museum and was not moved. Until the end. At the end there is a procession of presidential automobiles, sort of Motor Force One, you could say. One that TR used and with him Woodrow Wilson. FDR had a great black one. And Eisenhower, too. I think they were all Lincolns. Most of the detail, though, I forgot as I came to the 1963 version. Now topped, not convertible. Now bulletproof, not open. Now shined, black and immobile, not dusty and scuffed and moving past a grassy knoll. But right there, right blessed there.

A fine, long, black 1963 Lincoln Continental, the very best of American engineering, on the best of American roads, in the best of American cities, carried the best of American leaders…to his death.

Where were you in November, 1963, 44 years ago?

2. November

These gray days, late autumn days, with shifting light and shadow—they carry an uncanny significance. Something in them. Something in the naked tree limbs, grasping empty gray. Something in the crisp air, foretaste of winter to come. Something in the constant twilight. Something of a cosmic sacrality lurks behind the dark maple limbs of November.

The naked limbs also recall the violent death of a young president. Television and modern American violence have grown up together over forty years. Women and men of one generation know where they were on November 22, 1963 at 2:00pm, like those of another generation recall December 7, 1941, and those of yet another will recall September 11, 2001. They remember the hour the message came, the people who delivered the word, the reactions of family members, the atmosphere of the day, the hidden meanings, unspoken words, portents of the future which all were somehow connected to the dark maple limbs of that November. One remembers: the flag covered casket, borne by a simple wagon, drawn by a team of horses; crowds of mourners; women’s black hats; men’s fedoras; children waving; school flags at half mast; bewilderment, anger, fear, grief. An English teacher recites Whitman’s then 100 year old eulogy for Abraham Lincoln:

O Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won

Exult O shores and ring O bells

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies

Fallen cold and dead.

3. Violence

Forty years later many can still feel, can taste the trauma of those days, days in which a hard and bitter truth flew home, “came home to roost.” While the memory which Luke preserves, on this Sunday of Christ the King, remains substantially different in many ways from our own similar memories of loss, nonetheless there is shared in them all a recognition of the numbing pain of violence. If nothing else, in this passage and texts similar, we are challenged to become practiced at viewing violence from the ground, not from 30,000 feet. We want to become as human as we can be.

Perhaps the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel composed most eloquently the hope of that time:

This is an age of suspicion, when most of us seem to live by the rule: Suspect thy neighbor as thyself. Such radical suspicion leads to despair of (our) capacity to be free and to eventual surrender to demonic forces, surrender to idols of power, to the monsters of self-righteous ideologies…

What will save us is a revival of reverence for (the human being), immitigable indignation at acts of violence, burning compassion for all who are deprived, the wisdom of the heart. Before imputing guilt to others, let us examine our own failures. Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace. God has a stake in the life of every (person). (God) never exposes humanity to a challenge without giving humanity the power to face the challenge. Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are the same. We have a vision in common of Him in whose compassion all prayers meet…

God’s voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions. The word of God never comes to an end. No word is God’s last word. (The human being’s) most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is (the human being).”

Once the horror of violence hits home, a new frontier can open before us. Where sin abounds, grace overabounds. Once aware of the horror of violence which clearly we are since 9/11, and once touched by the sting of violence which clearly we are since 9/11, and once free of the fear of violence, which clearly we are not since 9/11 (truly the thing we have to fear is fear itself and its capacity to take our thanksgiving, our native generosity from us), then we may with renewed vigor look out onto a new frontier. This is the new frontier of peace.

This same moment faces us as a nation, as a people and as a church. We have been stung by violence too. We can respond with further violence. Or we can begin to ‘go home’ day by day, to suffer th
e daily shame and dishonor which all violence finally bequeaths, and, in Christ, as Calvin would say ‘in the school of Christ’, learn to practice the things that make for peace. Living daily with the bruises and damage of yesterday’s rapacity takes the memory of the cross of Jesus Christ. It is the cross that alone in our tradition carries the symbolic power for such a laborious, long march of mercy. In the cross we discover a love that casts out fear. And fear is our greatest, most fearsome obstacle to the new frontier of peace. When we come toward any new frontier we naturally have fear.

4. The New Frontier of Peace

The gospel empowers us in the way beyond violence. The New Testament, culminating in the word of the cross as read in Luke 23, and interpreted as a word of peace in John 14, gives us two broad perspectives and five particular directions.

The Scripture reminds us that we all face judgment, an accounting, a reckoning. This is not news. Life itself spells this out for us. Old age, dusk, autumn, November—we know in our bones about accounting time. Harvest, report cards, evaluations, income tax—we know in our experience about judgment. These passages remind us that life includes reckoning. They say little by the way about individual reckoning, only that accorded to nations. They tell us that we will be judged as nations, for our own collective, common lives. These and other passages also remind us to connect judgment with relationship not religion, with human relations not religious experience. In this judgment, heightened religious experience counts not at all. It is actual living, not religious experience, which is judged. Service—not music not retreats not fellowship not ecstasy not preaching not prayer not all the things that feed us. But service, for which the religious nourishment is meant to give sustenance.

Time and again we are given forms of exercise for those preparing for judgment, all of which are measured by their effect on the littlest members of the church and the human family. Here is one frequently repeated collection (cf Matthew 25, inter alia).

  1. Find a way to sit quietly with those who are imprisoned. Including those imprisoned by fear, pride, ideology, personality, accident, circumstance. Go and sit with them and listen.

  1. Find a way to heal sickness. Health is too important to leave to physicians only. You go and heal. Assess what habits have brought you health and share them. Salvation is health.

  1. Find a way to cover the naked. Those who are exposed, open to harm, exposed to scorn and mocking and criticism. Go and put some clothing on them, some encouragement, some humor, some honor.

  1. Find a way to befriend strangers. Strangers need welcome, friendship. Until you have been one, maybe you don’t know. Watch for the stranger and offer hospitality.

  1. Find a way to offer food and drink, not to those who have already plenty of both, but those who have parched throats and empty stomachs. How we would love to take pitchers of faith and loaves of hope and batches of love to all of the people in our county who hunger for them!

These are the things that make for peace. These are the signposts on the long road home from violence. These are the gospel judgment words. A church which practices them, and is practiced in their arts, will have much to offer to the healing of a violated culture.

7. Set Sail!

One summer we visited Hyannis port, and there walked around the Kennedy memorial. It is a moving experience. The harbor is laden with beautiful sailboats. The monument is handsome. Across the round deck of the memorial there is chiseled a sentence quotation: “I believe that American should set sail and not lie still in the harbor”. Here is remembered an appeal to our honor not to our security: “not a set of promises but a set of challenges”. It is our honor and our willingness to sacrifice which will mitigate violence: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. It is our stamina which will take us to the new frontier of peace: “to bear the long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”.

In retrospect, much of what others planned forty years ago has been achieved. A trip to the Kennedy Center here in Boston, which inspired some of this autumn’ preaching, will offer reminders. Communism is dead. Nuclear weaponry is largely under control. Relations between Protestants and Catholics are good. Basic civil rights have been achieved. Latin America is open to us. A man has landed on the moon.

But violence, ah violence, violence remains.

So let us set sail for a new frontier, and practice the things that make for peace. And let us be willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to face down the fear that violence brings, and to cross into a new frontier.

A Thanksgiving Recipe

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

A Thanksgiving Recipe

Lections (Isaiah 65, Luke 21)

It is hard to think about Thanksgiving and not think of food in general and turkey in particular. So attentive are we to the meal itself that the Thanksgiving prayer we offer becomes an afterthought, unless carefully we pause to think about a prayerful recipe for a real thanksgiving. The meal, the turkey, we leave to you. But here, in sermonic guise, we offer a recipe for the prayer on Thanksgiving, a thanksgiving recipe, a recipe, that is, for a thanksgiving prayer.

First, clean. To start, you might clean the outside of the prayer. Pluck its feathers. Wash its torso. Get rid of the fluff that does not feed anyway. Especially this year perhaps we can dispense with the note of pride, of self-congratulation that so easily enters the heart. ‘Lord I thank thee that I am not like other men—extortionists, liars, or even like this publican here’. Jesus directly proscribed such prayer. Pluck and clean and here is what you find. Most of who we are and even more of what we have is pure gift. Our genetic makeup. Our history. Our natural surroundings. Our upbringing. Our humors and talents. Our religious tradition or lack thereof. For all our vaunted independence, we depend, utterly depend, truly depend, we are deeply dependent for what counts: for life, for forgiveness, for eternal life. For all our vaunted enterprise, we have relied on others, and we have been shaped by others. Is there a better city in North American in which to remember that than Boston? As a city, as a people, as a nation, as a church, we are the creatures of the courage of others, who in one sense or another gave the last full measure of devotion. Who are we kidding anyway? Most of what we are and even more of what we have is pure gift. As my friend says, ‘if you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he did not get there on his own’.

The Psalmist knew this. ‘For not by their own sword did they win the land; nor did their own arm give them victory; but by thy right hand and thine arm and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them’.

Paul of Tarsus also knew this. ‘I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through the faith of Christ’.

To give thanks means first to pluck the bird’s prideful feathers, one at a time. Pride, sloth and falsehood abide these three, but the greatest of these is pride.

Second, season. Cleansed, our prayer is ready for a little seasoning. Personal seasoning. Real gratitude is real personal. Prayer is intimate. Prayer is personal. Like a sermon. Utterly personal. Like a photograph. Utterly personal. A prayer of thanks is thanks for what makes a personal difference. For a friend sent along by life’s surging current. For a spouse met. For a child. For a child saved from death in a car accident. For a lawsuit avoided. For an assault survived. For a family fence mended. For a vocation. For a vacation. For an exciting new job. For breath, for breadth, for board.

We went north toward Montreal in 1981 to serve two little churches with two little children and too little money. We went to Montreal in order to study for a PhD so that one day we could come to Boston and teach in the school of theology and preach in Marsh Chapel and offer pastoral care to an academic community of 40,000. Be glad for what you do not have, for it is the doorway into what you will have. That summer of 1981 we were given a car, and old red Ford Mustang convertible, anno domini 1973. A real boat, v8, white top, black interior, and rust to the horizon. Said the donor: ‘it will last you 6 months. Leave it in a field’. It lasted 10 years. It was such a thoughtful and such helpful gift—the right thing at the right time in the right way—that no words could ever convey our gratitude (Hart on gift). No formal note—“Dear Aunt Esther, in life’s many vicissitudes it is so important to be made mindful of those who help…blah, blah, blah…’ No. Thanksgiving is a personal shout, a cry from the heart: Thank You!

Alice Walker appeared on late night television a while ago. She said two stunning things. ‘At middle age’, she said, ‘I am learning to slow down so that whatever life intends for me will have an easier time catching up’. Then, after minutes of complements for Nelson Mandela, and what he did for South Africa, she reflected: ‘of course, he is a great leader, but the point is that each one of us is to be our own great leader’. Personal. Personal. Very personal.

A sermon does not conclude the preaching for the week. A sermon begins the preaching for the week. The point of a sermon is found in your active, personal articulation of faith. In a journal. In public speaking. In a simple devotional at a meeting. In the shower. And, this Thursday, in a thanksgiving prayer. Sit down ahead of time and right it out. Make it personal. Season it so. Season it properly. Find your tongue. Season it personally.

Third, cook. Cook the prayer. Cook it in experiences of adversity. Let the adverse experiences of life make our prayer and our soul tender. One of my forebears in the ministry long ago used this line and it has stuck. It is nothing to remember a line for thirty years, when it is a real sentence. ‘Let the heat of adversity make us tender’. Sometimes nothing else will. This is a difficult point. When I heard my friend utter the line, because I knew his experience, I wept. There is no way finally to understand, let alone justify, the heat of life at its worst. But we can pray that such adverse experience will humanize us, that such heat will make us tender.

Let the bird cook, simmer. Cooking makes the bird tender. Life’s heat makes us tender too.

Think again of Paul. ‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character pr
oduces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us.’

In the radio congregation today, and in the visible congregation today, there are many who know this well. You have graciously preached this sermon in your own lives. You have faced adversity and so become spiritually sensitive. You have felt physical pain but have learned redemptively to manage your suffering. You have suffered loss and survived. You have managed suffering redemptively. You have worn the ancient clothing: ‘afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed; and you do not lose heart, for though the outer nature is wasting away, the inner nature is being renewed every day’. For all the heat, your Thanksgiving prayer this year will be most tender and most sweet.

Here is a recipe for Thanksgiving, a recipe for a prayer at Thanksgiving. Clean it. Season it. Cook it. Cleanse it of pride. Season it in person. And allow the heat of adversity to make you tender.

It was this recipe that my students on Wednesday perceived in Howard Thurman’s exemplary prayer:

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger on by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness t
hat only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

Profiles in Courage

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Lections and John 11:25

Opening

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

This autumn we have scaled a great promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination.

The fourth gospel gives us two profiles in courage. One is the courage of grace amid dislocation. Haggai also speaks of this. The second is the courage of freedom following disappointment. Luke also speaks of this. Grace amid dislocation and freedom following disappointment: two profiles in courage.

Two Level Drama

This autumn we have let John be John, to let this meta-gospel give us clues and cues for interpreting the lessons of the day and the lessons of these days. John brings a divine word in two dimensions, one the imaginative narrations about the person of Jesus, the other the historical reconstruction of the community which produced John.

The first dimension: John features Jesus in mortal combat over many issues. Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana. Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus. Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the well. Jesus heals a broken spirit. Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stereoptic, to a man born blind. Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and brings resurrection and life. He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness. He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism. He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt. He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia. He brings the church out of the closet of hunger. He brings the dead to life.

The second dimension: The two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues of salvation today.

The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre eminently embedded in John, is the movement away from Judaism. How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek? The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion.

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ. Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.

Two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of the parousia. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own. First: How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become? Second: What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down the profound despair of nuclear twilight and break free into a loving global future? More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second.

Both take courage. Both bring us to the summits of grace and freedom.

One: Grace

In the Gospel of John we have found grace amid dislocation and freedom following disappointment (repeat). These are the twin gifts of this twilight gospel, grace and freedom, John Wesley’s two favorite words. In dislocation we depend upon grace: going off to college or military service (as with our ROTC students Friday); immersed in a new culture of electronic Gnosticism; on the cusp of the courage to change our mind; in the matters, intimate and crucial, of human sexuality; in the course of finding a new home; in the throes of struggles with our denomination. Yet all these foreground dislocations, and many others, really are meant to prepare us for the one great dislocation, death. What grace does the gospel give in this dislocation of little daily deaths and in the final dislocation itself?

John does not cast aside the primitive Christian hope, even in its most primitive garb. Mary says that she knows her brother will be raised, at the resurrection of the last day. John lets this hope stand, as does our traditional liturgy of committal at the grave. That is, whether we trust that in the hour of death we are translated to God’s presence, or whether in this apocalyptic hope we trust that at the end of time, with all the children of God, still, in both cases, grace is found amid the dislocation of death. This is our
belief, our first belief. And whether the hope is traditional or contemporary in its expression, the courage of this belief is what gives us the capacity to be truly human.

We are given the courage of grace choose and to move. Our religious symbols need augmentation for a new century. It will require grace to shift: From rainbow to firmament. From isolation to community. From nationalism to patriotism. From control to freedom. From life to spirit. From home to health. From spiritual hunger to hungry spirituality. From congenital blindness to spiritual sight. From denominationalism to ecumenism. From fear to love. From death to life.

In less symbolic terms, and more general biblical phrases, we express something of this same, first, belief, in future hope, in grace at the dislocation of death. As we said last spring, during the memorial for one of our great saints:

If we believe that life has meaning and purpose

And we do

If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us

And we do

If we believe that divine love lasts

And we do

If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure

And we do

If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son

And we do

If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity

And we do

If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight

And we do

If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe

And we do

If we believe that God has loved us personally

And we do

If we believe in God

And we do

Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death

And we do

Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death

And we do

Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection

And we do

Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone

And we do

Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality

And we do

Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain

And we do

Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life

And we do

Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally

And we do

Then we shall trust that at death we rest protected in God’s embrace

And we do

Then we shall trust in God

And we do.

Two: Freedom

Grace amid the dislocation of death. Freedom following disappointment. We have known disappointment. Following disappointment we find freedom: following the terror of 9/11; after trials with the complexities of life; in the hard discovery that the past is immutable; through the shameful admission that Christianity, and the Fourth Gospel, have harbored anti-Semitism; facing the stunted theological imagination of the last half century. Yet all these foreground disappointments, and many others like them, are merely preparations for our encounter with the one great existential disappointment, which is our enduring condition, what John names as sin, that is: our distance from God, from depth, from meaning, from purpose, from love.

Our time, our culture, our world do not readily prepare us for this. This surprise, of hope hidden in the unexpected, in particular has a frigh
tful time in a post-Christian world. We just do not handle the unexpected very well. This has been true for generations, but clearly it has 9/11 overtones as well. We live in a preventive age, a pre-emptive age, an abortive age, a prophylactic age. We prefer, and this in measures that go out to the edges, what we can control to what we cannot control, what we can measure to what we cannot fathom, what we can account to what we cannot. We prefer the measurable even at the expense of the meaningful. What is planned, what is foreseen, what is prepared, what is arranged—these lie within our zone of comfort. It does make the word of resurrection somewhat difficult to interpret. We rely more on what we can count than what we can count on.

We live in a prophylactic age. The Greek word for guard is fulakh. Hence pro—before, phylactic—guard. This same Greek word, rendered guard, can also mean prison. That which we count on to protect us also imprisons us. That behind which we hide also hides us. We need to be careful about what guards, that is what prisons, we permit. It is like Aesop’s fable of the horse and stag. To defeat the stag, the horse asks the man to ride him. The man agrees, as long as the horse will accept a bit and bridle. He does, and he is protected—and imprisoned. Here is hope: that we may see clearly those things that protect us to the extent that they imprison us.

The next time you fly into Boston, think about the disappointment of sin and the power of freedom. Ours is a beautiful region, and ours is a lovely city. From a distance, especially, it shines. You can even make out the steeples of Marsh Chapel as the plane wings its way home. How disappointing it must be, for the angels, to see what we also see, when we truly see. A city separated by economic distances. Some children raised in opulence, others is squalor. Some children raised in safety, others in peril. Some children raised in educational abundance, others in educational scarcity. Some children raised with all the comforts of home, some raised within homes of little comfort. Some children raised in earshot of resurrection and life, some left to fend for themselves amid the wolves of disappointment and dislocation. There will always be those who have much and those who have little. That is the price of liberty. You are people of resurrection and life, however, and you expect that those who have much will not have too much and those who have little will not have too little. That is the requirement of justice. That is, resurrection and life are here and now, not just there and then. Where you find resurrection, there is Jesus Christ. Where you find life, there is Jesus Christ.

It is resurrection and life on which Beth Stroud and the Germantown UMC leaned, a couple of years ago, when Beth was “put out of the synagogue”, defrocked of her Methodist ordination because of her identity. There has been disappointment. But there is a lasting spirit of freedom to continue the long, twilight march to justice.

It is resurrection and life on which the UCC lean, now, as a group expressed here at Marsh over lunch on Wednesday. Their own “open doors” campaign, similar to but more explicit than ours, has been treated to the injustice of Caesar’s justice, and “put out of the media synagogue”, at least by two networks. But there is also a spirit of freedom to continue the long, twilight, multi-generational march to justice.

It is resurrection and life that steadies us and carries us! Sometimes in mistaken condescension, we Protestants observe the Roman Catholic orders of ministry. “How sad”, we say. “How odd”, we assert. “How strange, how unfair. How wrong to take someone called to ministry and say, ‘Yes, you may be ordained to love God, but you must give up the love of a wife if you do so.’ Oh, we cluck, how shortsighted. How wrong.

Yet another, future generation will look back upon us, out of the next 50 years, and say of us, particularly of us Methodists today, “How sad. How odd. How strange. How unfair. How wrong to take some young woman or man, called to ministry and say, ‘Yes, you may be ordained to love God, but if you are gay you must give up the intimacy and covenant of human love, your love for your partner’.”

I know there will be a better day, because of the examples of saints I have known in the course of ministry.

Most of ministry, these years, has been in snow. In smaller assignments, the snow fell often on afternoons given over to sharing the gospel, one by one. At the kitchen table. Over coffee. In a parking lot. Within a small office. At the hospital. At school. With lunch. In a nursing home. In the barn, at dusk, milking time. In the sugar house. On a tractor.

Snow swirled that day, as the Nursing Home hove into view. Gladys deserved a call, on the line between life and death, and the preacher came prepared, or so he thought.

Would you like me to pray with you? Oh, it is not necessary. Of course I love all the prayers of the great church, particularly, now that I see little, those I carry in memory from our old liturgy. But I am fine.

Perhaps you would like to hear the Psalms? My grandmother appreciated them read as she, uh… You mean as she lay dying?…Yes. Oh, it is not necessary. I mean I do love the Psalms, and was lucky to have them taught rote to me at church camp so that they rest on my memory, like goodness and mercy, all the days of my life. But I am fine.

I know that you sang in our choir. Would you like some of the hymns recited for you? Oh that is not necessary. I do so love music! I can sing the hymns from memory to myself at night! I found my faith singing, you know. It just seemed so real when we would sing, when we were younger, around the piano, around the campfire, around the church. I knew in my heart, I knew Whom I could trust. But I am fine.

I brought communion for you in this old traveling kit. Oh, that is not necessary. We can have communion if you like. It is so meaningful to me. I can feel my husband right at my side, knee to knee. After he died, I could not hear anything that was said in yo
ur fine sermons for so long, my heart hurt so loudly. But I still could get grace in communion. But I am fine.

So the snow was falling, as it does in all ministry in our region. Snow on snow…flake on flake…Just like a preacher, nothing to offer, but to stand and wait and wring the hands…

Gladys, is there anything that I could bring you today? As a matter of fact, there is…Tell me about our church…I have been out of worship for so long… How is the church doing this autumn?…Are the children coming and being taught to give their money to others? And what of the youth? Are they in church and skating and sledding and hayriding and falling in love? Tell me about the UMW and their mission goal. Did they make it? A dollar means so little to us and so much in Honduras and China. And tell me about the building… Are the Trustees preparing for another generation? It is so easy to defer maintenance…What about the choir—are they singing from faith to faith?…Tell me about your preaching, and the DS, and our Bishop…What is going to happen with our little church …Tell me, please, tell me about our church…It is where I find meaning and depth and love…That is what you can bring me today.

Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. She who believes in me, though she die, yet will she live. There are those places where what is beyond us enters among us. Where the line of death is smudged and crossed. Where it is not just so clear what is really death and what is really life. Worship, this hour, is such a moment, too. You can have an experience of God. Even in church.

Closing

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

Good news: in dislocation, hold onto grace, the grace to be co-dependent no more; in disappointment, hold onto freedom, the freedom to walk in the light as he is in the light.

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (Frost). So too a sermon, and a life.

This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination. This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination. Two profiles in courage: grace and freedom.

Faith is personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.

Now is the time to jump.

Wedding Homily: Something New

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007
1 John 4, Matthew 5

Park Ridge Community Church

Park Ridge, Illinois

Anne and Ben.

This is a day of new beginnings.

Dressed up ourselves, we are dressing up this day, this very evening hour, in the costumes and customs meant for such a new beginning. You feel it. In the pricey corsages. In the beauty of the ladies. In the shoes, polished. In the haircuts. In the nervous musicians. In those who are cutting a fashion edge, and in those who aren’t. In the mayhem, merriment, mischief, misunderstanding and mystery of marriage. Your marriage is an evening of new beginnings.

For the gathered congregation, who are less visible and so less stressed than the bridal couple and party, it is possible to sense and see in this new beginning a reflection of others. You mirror other first moments. Some will remember your births, like all births, your crinkly pink emergence from water into light. Others will recall a first day at school, a first trip away overnight, a first injury, a first failure or success. They will link this moment to other beginnings. Yours and theirs.

We will let them have a moment to do so. We will let the congregation reminisce for a moment as we up front here together announce the good news, declare the gospel, of a new beginning.

1 John and Matthew 5 bring a startling word. It is a new word. God is not known in power but in love, says John. The blessed are not the strong but the weak, says Matthew. The poor, including the poor in spirit. The mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, including those hungry for the good. The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, including those persecuted for a good cause. It has been fifty years since there has been a generation committed to the least, the last, and the lost. You just may change that. It will take work in public policy and in law, a lifetime or two of such labor. Yes, John and Matthew acclaim a new good, a good news. John’s wording, rightly rendered, cuts very close to the bone. He who does not love has not begun to know God (trans. A. Wilder). We are met this evening by a divine presence, good—eternally good, new—eternally new. Good. News.

Some from the congregation, though, reverie lifting for a moment, may wonder…

Is there really anything new? Including right now, is there really anything new? Here and now even? I have been to this service before. I have heard these words before. I have heard this preacher before. Didn’t I see him at some other wedding? I might even have heard this sermon before. Is he using old material? I feel like I’ve been here before. Generations come and go. Rapidly. The sun rises and sets. Repeatedly. Youth gives way to age, the limber and the nubile stepping aside for the lumbering and the nettled. Regularly. “Once in a thousand times, it is interesting” wrote Thornton Wilder. Doubt shadows faith, like Ecclesiastes follows Isaiah: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun…Is there anything of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has already been, in the ages before”. All that, by the way, is in the Bible. Doubt, a realistic, hard, cross examination of life, is a part of faith. It is bass note and grace note in the song of faith. And when old habits cling, and when old hurts linger, and when old conflicts flare, and when old disappointments appear, we wonder—it is a bone heart cry—we wonder just what exactly is new about anything.

We will let the congregation cogitate on that for a moment, while we listen to the mysterious gospel song again. They can think about doubt for a while. We will let them. After all, they brought it up.

Is there anything new?

I am convinced that you two, at least, believe so. Otherwise, you would not have had the temerity, the courage, to stand here. Where did this courage, con fide, come from? Somewhere. You have been loved. So you can love. You have been trusted. So you can trust. You have been respected. So you may in turn respect, trust and love one another. There is plenty of reason for your courage and your confidence in what is new. You feel it, for one thing. You have known something new in your own experience. A glance across a crowded restaurant, a new face, and you are mesmerized. The new discovery of mutually loved habits and values, and you are enthralled. The experience of newly shared simply joys—exercise, nature, fishing, camping—and you are emboldened. You know what Paul felt, if not fully yet what he meant: “the old has passed away, behold the new has come”.

The ‘new’ of biblical faith lives on the far side of the old, not the near side but the far side of the old. You might call this faith something real new. New that has weathered a good shellacking of the old.

Faith admits, faces, and endures the old. And moves through and moves on. Jacob believed in something new and said, ‘surely the Lord was in this place and we knew it not’. He walked in wonder, but he walked with a limp. Ruth believed in something new and said, ‘entreat me not to leave you or to turn back from following after you. For where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.’ Ruth committed herself. But to enter the new she had to lose the old, even at the cost of homesickness. Paul, idiosyncratic enervating Paul, believed in a new creation, and so delighted in a new life. ‘Let love be genuine…’ He had faith in the new, but it was new born from and bearing up under the old
. With limping Jacob and homesick Ruth and oddball Paul, you have faith in something new. At least I think you do. And you are now saying that you do.

You know, I sense that the non-sleeping part of the congregation grudgingly agrees. They have to admit it. Here is the hint of something new in a vow taken. Here is a glimpse of something new in a ring offered. Here is a glimpse of something new in a handshake, handclasp, prayer and kiss. Your novel hospitality has brought us from Michigan in the north and Dallas in the south, from Boston in the east and San Diego in the west, from the banks of the Erie Canal (Albany, Utica, Oneida, Syracuse, Rochester) to the Wisconsin lake shore, from the country roads of West Virginia to the barbecue pits of Kansas City, and has included a cloud of witnesses from Depauw and Ohio Wesleyan. Someone even came from London. London, England that is. What has brought us all this way?

Something new!

A new creation. A holy estate. A mystical union. Something adorned and beautified …

This is a day, an hour, an evening of new beginnings.

Something new.