Profiles in Courage

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.

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