Hope that is Seen is not Hope

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James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

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Frontispiece

Hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see, and what for it with patience.

Our denomination bade farewell to one of its great matriarchs this summer, Barbara Steen, who with her husband the Rev. Tom Steen mentored generations of clergy, especially regarding invitation in outreach and fellowship.  Chuck Foster (Educating Clergy)Is an example.  Their example teaches us about hope.  In fact, Barb lived out the sense and substance of the Letter to the Romans, chapters 1,3,5,8,12,15 (here verses are recited in the sermon). 

What gracious good news to recall in this era of racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, irresponsibility, perversity, rapacity, and, especially, mendacity. Listen again to James, and to Mark.

 

The Tongue

If ever there were an age that could hear, and appreciate, the teaching of James about the tongue as a fire, it is our own. You know, the preacher here does not need to bring exegesis to bear, or to give explanation for the wisdom proffered, or to bring examples, many or few.  We know in our evenings of listening to the cable news.  We hear in our mornings of commuting with the radio on. We read and learn and inwardly digest what speech can do for ill.  We are coming to a point where even James 3 is too tepid, too mild to describe our national condition.  At some point we will need to repair to Amos, and to drink the hard cold medicine of his teaching.  When we wreck the use of words without pause, you do come to a time when words no longer work.  You have stripped the gears.  You have shredded the fabric.  You have cut the muscle.  And no one can speak the truth and no can hear the truth any longer. 

Behold the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.  And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line’.  Then the Lord said, ‘Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel;  I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac will be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid to waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword’. Amos 7: 7-8.        

‘Behold the days are coming’ says the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east, they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.’ Amos 8: 11-12

 

Mark 8: 24-37

To renounce oneself, said John Chrysostom is ‘to treat oneself as if one were another person’ (Marcus, II, 624). Consider oneself as every day on the edge of death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  We live at the intersection of present advent and future hope. What good is the greatest possession if there is no possessor to enjoy it?  ‘Take up the cross’ is a reference to the beginning of the journey, and the next part, ‘follow me’ refers to the ongoing life of faith. Baptism, first, you could say, Communion, second, you could say.

We like Peter have aversion to suffering, as did Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus is more than a prophet.  But he is not less than a prophet.

Mark’s harsh portrayal of Peter as ‘Satan’ is too much for Luke, who omits it later, and that reaction was probably not unique, for we can understand it too.

Hope that is seen is not hope.  So your preachers this summer reminded you:  Br. Whitney, Dr. Walton, Rev. Gaskell, Dr. Coleman, Rev. Donahue, and the dean, speaking about hope and righteousness, hope and freedom, hope and disappointment, hope and children, hope and lying, hope and listening, hope and the sweet aroma of the bread of life, hope and blending blue and red into purple (ok, maybe it was more like violet!), hope and faith.

Seek the Lost: Outreach

Barb and Tom Steen lived out of a desire to seek and to save the lost.   That is old language, for sure.  But it catches the fire and flavor of their, of her, faith.  Many of us have had several helpings of faith, Sunday by Sunday.  But for some, for some others, the first meal has yet to be served.  That is where some of our youth work, some of our outreach and evangelism, some of our willingness to open the church to others who may at some point need community comes in. AFUMC did this to national recognition in August this year.

Barb loved the camping programs at Watson Homestead and Casowasco.  This summer, driving along Route 90, our granddaughter counted up the number of times she will be at, she will have been at Casowasco, this year and next.  Many times.  Barb would have smiled.

We knew her many years ago, along the lakeshore of Owasco Lake, in the parlors of the building there aptly named ‘Galilee’. We saw there the effect that loving community, caring presence, modulated teaching, all in a naturally beautiful setting can have.

One summer, toward the end of the season, we had a young man of about 15 as a camper.  He had never been to camp before.  He was a rugged, stout fellow, who could and did pass the swim test, but barely.  He was just full of life, and not overly attuned to boundaries.  He had to sit out every now and then, but was quite affable about it, not minding the light discipline.  He was such an exuberant fellow, it was hard not smile at his various antics.  He was having a whale of time, all week long.  I was working as the lifeguard so I don’t know how much Scripture he learned, or how much praying he did, or how fully he could articulate his sense of faith.  But he was every bit alive, all week.  And the meaning of life is in the living of life anyway, isn’t it?

Come Friday, after lunch, our young friend disappeared.  He did not show up for rest period, and the later class, nor the swim at 2pm.  His counselors were rightly worried.  We formed up a search group, and trekked up to Mt Tabor, and hunted across the road in the Highlands, and looked through the gorge and the woods surrounding.  No luck.  By dinner we were plenty worried, even looking through the waterfront.  Then early that evening, I was walking up the railroad track, to the south of the camp, still hunting.  There he came, shuffling along.  He told me why he ran away.  He said that he did not want to go home.  He said that the week had been the best one of his life, that he for once friends, that he loved the hiking and meals and swimming, even the evening vespers. He just had never known anything like it.  And he did not want to go home, to what he had to go home to.  He told me about that, too.

That night, as he had some late supper, he came to something of realization.  It wasn’t so much that he could put everything into words.  The gist of his thought was along the line that he would go home and he would make the best of it.  But he would do it with memory of the week he had had, and that he would not forget, and he would not let the memory of the week fade. He would have to go home, but he could take something new home with him.  Another way, another experience, another perspective, a little hope. 

That is an example of what Barb and Tom were aimed at, in that part of their ministry.  A first helping of faith, shared genuinely, shared authentically, with those who had not yet had a chance to sit down at the table of fellowship and faith. It is what inspired her regular phone calls to our home, in Rochester, as our growing up children would hear, rattled out rapidly, ‘Hi Hon, Barb Steen here, how are you doing, how is school, is your mom there, thanks’.  She made her list of 5 or 10 calls she would make every day, and she made them.

Welcome the Stranger: Fellowship

We left New York City suddenly, in 1979, to take a church in Ithaca, in the snows of February.  Jan was ill, with child, and both the mother and the in utero baby had survived surgery for an ovarian cyst.  The doctor at St. Elizabeth’s in NYC had been unsure whether he could save either.  Our conference and Bishop had an open Cornell neighborhood church and we had every need to be in place, be employed, be able to heal and prepare.  Ordination—and with it health insurance as a conference member—were months away, in mid-June, near the due date for the birth.  As it happened, the child, our first, arrived two weeks late, a gift for some in the family, and a task for others.

We knew no one really, of our age, in the conference at that time.  Those were hot, lonely months, with all the pure joy and utter confusion of parenthood’s sudden arrival.  The birth of the daughter, that day, July 5,1979, was and remains the happiest day of my life.  Whatever joy is, it is not something I can think about without the sight of that little beautiful baby, that beautiful young mother and the delivery which was deliverance too.  So we began to stumble around in ministry, writing sermons, making visits, trying to make sense of personal and church budgets, a salary of $8K a year, plus a house. 

In early September the phone rang in our little parsonage cottage in Ithaca, at the end of Forest Home Drive.  ‘Hi Hon Barb Steen here, how are you doing, how is the ministry, Ithaca has enough committees for everyone to be the chair of at least one, these people don’t want faith they want a graduate course in religion—ugh!—is your wife there?’  We knew Barb and Tom by reputation only, a part of which we were about to see in real time, their commitment to small groups, to welcome, to hospitality, to invitation.  She called to invite us to a brunch two weeks hence in the Newfield parsonage, then occupied by Gary and Jeannie Judson.  Later in ministry our Syracuse predecessor Rev. Wayne Archer, his wife a Fenton of Fenton glass, reminded us that the Newfield church burned down during his ministry there. Oddly, the DS had said, ‘Archer, light a fire under that church’.  Well, Wayne also had served a church in Pennsylvania that hard burned, hence his nickname, ‘the Arson Parson’.  But Newfield UMC was rebuilt, and parsonage, as the older ones do, had a big parlor. 

Barb had gathered a dozen twenty something couples, including the Judsons and the Hills, who didn’t know each other form Adam’s house cat, for a meal.  Half or more had little babies in tow.  We sang and prayed a little, ate a little more, and laughed a whole lot more about the oddities of life, young adult life, parenthood, ministry and the loneliness lurking behind and above and underneath them all.  She gave us ourselves, by giving us to each other. She gave us ourselves, by giving us to each other.  We came alive.  The next week the phone rang. ‘Hi hon Barb Steen here, how is the ministry, how is life, how is that beautiful little ‘Emly’ how are your folks Marcia and Irv, wasn’t that a great brunch at Judsons, is Jan there?

From that one gathering friendships formed. One minister then took me to lunch. Another suggested a round of golf. A third saw my car and told to me to come over so that he would teach me to how to change the brake pads.  ‘You don’t want to spend money on that.  You can’t afford it on $8K a year. I’ll help you’. A fourth came and preached on Christmas Eve, making reference, in earshot of Rudolph, to the blessed taste of venison.  Thanks to Bob, to Duane, to Gary, and to Dale.  Tom Steen himself got me into a clergy study of the Psalms that lasted two years until we moved north.

The habits of visitation, the habits of welcome, the habits of outreach, the habits of hospitality, the habits of Christian charity and love, all so dearly central to any genuine form of ministry, are not necessarily permanent gifts.  They have to be remembered.  To be remembered they have to be modeled.  To be modeled that have to be practiced.  I give you Barb Steen.

Peter Berger (Rumor of Angels) reminded us that the very sense we have of lasting, earthly injustice, of wrongs not and never made right, a real and palpable sentiment, is itself a rumor of something more.  Which we cannot see, of course, and of which we do not know, of course. But maybe a heavenly breakfast will again be served, at which the table will seat the resurrection of the just. We hope for what we do not see.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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