One Tuesday, over lunch, a pastor told us about children at church camp. One 9 year old in pig tails chose horse camp last year. I didn’t know Methodists ran horse camp. We do. But on Monday she fell off, or was frightened or something. She cowered through the week, unable to get back on the horse and ride. Her counselor just kept on encouraging. Friday was the rodeo. I guess that is horse camp graduation. All week she wrestled, her fear of falling grappling with her desire to be in the rodeo. Dawn broke on Friday, as it does. I loved, really loved, the way the minister told us about the rodeo. The girl in pig tails put herself on the horse. The old glue factory mare stumbled around the little circle made of six orange cones. First the girl hugged the horse’s neck and kept her eyes closed. But then, after a little while, she opened her eyes. Then she looked up. Then she sat up. Then she leaned back. Then she straightened her back. Then she dug her knees into horse flesh. Then she clicked her tongue. Then she slapped the reins. The old glue factory mare plodded along. But the jockey beamed. She waved to the crowd. She nodded response to her counselor’s encouragement. She rode around the circle again. And again. And again. The rodeo went 30 minutes over schedule. With a little encouragement, a little girl grew up a little.
It made me think about encouragement. A few years ago somebody came up with the idea that the Little League champs should play their dads on Labor Day. A picnic was arranged, with watermelon and chili dogs. The right fielder’s dad tried not to come. First he said he had to work. Then a trip was planned. Then he felt ill. But his son kept after him. Dad was at middle age and he had always been a simply terrible batter. He could not hit the broad side of a barn, when he was young. Now he was bald. And his glasses were thick, very thick. And, speaking delicately, he carried frontside a bit, let us say, of a paunch. The thought of facing fast pitching made him squirm. His son, though, was not to be stymied. Dad prayed for rain, or a hurricane, or untimely death. Anyone’s. But dawn broke on Labor Day, as it does. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. 72 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. It could have been San Diego. Distraught, Dad went. The dreaded moment came, his “ups”. He stood in the box, remembering every strike out of 30 years ago. He thought of running. He adjusted his coke bottle glasses, and sweated. All of a sudden from right field he heard, in the full throated innocent confidence of his son’s voice, “Come on Dad, you can do it, I know you can.” He took a ball, and stood tall. “I know you can!” He took a strike and felt a little better. “Come on Dad, I know you can hit it.” Over the plate came a fast straight pitch. Do you know how good he felt to see that little Texas leaguer dropping in behind second base? Rounding first, and stopping, he wiped his glasses. He felt good. Behind him a whisper, “I knew you could, Dad, I just knew you could.”
For the first time in a decade one High School basketball team competed in sectional semi-finals, some years ago. It is a mystery how this happened. A team shorter, skinnier, weaker, smaller, and less experienced than nearly every opponent, somehow succeeded. They grew steadily in ability and confidence. They failed and lost, and in this they learned. Sometimes they won, and in this they learned, too. Every so often you would see, as visible as a cocoon giving way to a butterfly or a snake shedding its skin or a calf standing after birth, one of the players find himself on the court. It was something to behold. The parents, as ever, attributed all losses to bad officiating, and all wins to marvelous genes. Before the post season, the coach sent a personal, hand written note to every one of his players. He thanked them for their willingness to play. He honestly commended their improvement. He admitted how much he enjoyed their company. Then he challenged them to rise to the post season challenge. They did. He wrote personally to one young man, number 43 on the team, “my own son is growing and learning to play ball, too, and when he asks me how to play and how to be, I just say, you look on the court and you watch 43 and what he does you do –be like 43”. Dawn broke on the day of the sectional game, and they won.
In October of 1997 my brother and I trained to run in the Washington Marine Corps Marathon, around the Pentagon twice, through Georgetown, past every good monument, and out onto the peninsula. Dawn broke on Sunday, a rainy cold morning. I thought I was ready. I was wrong. Maybe it was the driving 40 degree rain, or maybe I’m just older than I think. My brother finished more than an hour before I did. I hit the wall at mile 16. In the rain, I was passed by young men, young women, old men, old women, waddlers, craddlers, wigglers, people in wheel chairs, moms, soccer moms, and man from Denver running backwards. It was not pretty. Somehow though, I finished. In part, looking back, through the encouragement of anonymous curbside exhorters. I was wearing a red Ohio Wesleyan sweatshirt. It was encouraging to hear a shout, “Go red guy!” It was more encouraging to hear, “Keep going Ohio!” It was even more encouraging to hear, “Good going, Ohio Wesleyan!” But most encouraging of all were the occasional alumni voices, “Go OWU!” The more personal, the more particular the encouragement, the more powerful it is. I made it to the Iwo Gima monument. Chris and I drove home.
In similar beguilingly simple terms, Paul wrote to the Romans. Our reading today could well be memorized and recited, daily, for the course of a lifetime. Our reading this morning might properly be printed and framed for the office desk or the kitchen counter. Our reading this Sunday could rightly be imprinted upon the heart, written on every human heart. This is the great watershed of the faith of Christ, simply stated for you and me, for the dying.
What dim reflections we find of Love, here in the dark, come from the death of Christ. The great peaks in human history dimly reflect this love: Alexander the glory of Athens, Augustus and the pride of Rome, Michaelangelo and the beauty of Florence, Franklin and the birth of a nation. The great peaks of spirit do too: Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine’s mother, Katie von Bora, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila. Love is not for the simple, only. Love is for the wise. One friend, now dead, alone caught the humor of a single phrase, years ago: we think of ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’.
You remember the basic points in Romans: 1:16, the Gospel of which Paul is not ashamed…2:21, our condition, foolish faithless,
heartless ruthless…8:33, hope that is seen is not hope…10:9, if you confess with your lips…12:9, let love be genuine…
You hear and receive his basic terms in this central high peak chapter 5: faith, the gift of God in Jesus Christ; peace, the closeness of faith and the absence of barrier; hope, not seen; glory, heaven yes but also the full humanity for which we were made; spirit, that which confers conveys conducts all the above, and all of them circling agape, the initiative of God loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.
Our business here is dying. Life is about learning to die. How are we ever going to manage? Our almost interminable avoidance will not, in itself, cut it.
To be saved is to be incorporated “in Christ”, that is , to belong to this new and heavenly order, primarily eschatological but even now proleptically present, just as the day is present in the dawn. (J Knox).
Love alone justifies. Love alone bring peace. Love alone provides space in grace. Love alone hints at glory. Love alone outlasts suffering. Love alone is stronger than death. Love alone stoops to give out for the weak and lost. Love alone bleeds on your behalf. Love alone reconciles enemies.
Love alone has the grace and power savingly to soften the inevitable collisions (Isaiah Berlin) of personal and social life.
The first Christians even found in suffering something productive. It was their manner of suffering that impressed others. It was their manner of dying, it was Paul’s manner of dying, perhaps in Rome, that others noticed:
Dean of Marsh Chapel