Sunday
May 10

Way, Truth, Life

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 2:2–10

John 14:1-14

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          Wherever there is a way, there is Christ.  Wherever there is truth, there is Christ.  Wherever there is life, there is Christ.

          The Gospel today reveals three secrets to lasting health in life.  Here is the marrow of worship, wherein we care for the Body of Christ, to rediscover the things that make for peace.  This is the point of Mother’s Day, to reflect on the healthy habits of being, graciously given us by those who raised us, that have made us happy, and kept us healthy.  One day at a time. One day at a time. As my grandmother pasted on her kitchen door, in her late eighties, Today.  Do one thing.  There. You’ve done one thing.

          Now an opening confession, and a concern about your preacher today.  He is pretty rusty at preaching on Mothers’ Day.  For fourteen years past, here at Marsh Chapel, this was the Sunday our graduating seniors spoke (you will be pleased to hear four of them next Sunday, May 17).  For eleven years before that, in Rochester NY, the Mothers’ Day sermon was usually given by one of my three supremely talented female associates—with accumulated degrees from Boston University, from Colgate, from Yale, from University of Pennsylvania, from Colgate Rochester, and, exceptionally, preeminently from Ohio Wesleyan.  This was a practice based on the awareness that these three, pioneers from the first full wave, and at the top level, of women in ministry, also were all mothers of many years’ experience, and might actually know quite a bit more about it all than their boss. Which they did.  What gifts they brought to ministry!  (We shall continue to see, by the way, in similar fashion the gracious gifts, of gay clergy, now not just here and there, but in a great wave.)  Then, too, in Syracuse, the eleven years before that, the Sunday was devoted to a celebration of the United Methodist Women of that church, without whom no money would have been raised, no educational programs mounted, no mission investment done, nor hardly a fellowship dinner arranged.  The sermon came from the UMW President that day.  It usually began with an old story…

Like the one about the UMW group that was mistakenly sent to hell.  After a month the devil placed a long-distance phone call upstairs to heaven to ask that they be removed.  Why, asked Peter?  Because, said Beelzebub—they are thorn in my flesh.  They are organized.  They raise money.  They increase membership and now, the last straw, they have fundraiser to put in air conditioning.  I want them out of here.

          Or like the one about a friend who once received a gracious introduction with this humorous response: “I wish my parents were in the room to hear such a glowing, flattering introduction.  My father would have enjoyed it.  And my mother would have believed it!”

          Or like the one about the UMW leader who was asked, “Madam President, if I give lots of money to the church will it get me into heaven?”  Discarding all the theological responses to the contrary, she paused and replied, “Well, it’s worth a try!”

So, it has been 36 years, and the pastor today is a little rusty regarding Mothers’ Day preaching.  Bear with me, preach with me, and hear the Gospel; Way, Truth, Life.  Wherever there is a way, there is Christ.  Wherever there is truth, there is Christ.  Wherever there is life, there is Christ.  This is one of the deepest unities of the Scripture.  In the deep unities of Scripture, we lean again into the secrets of happy life.

          First, Way

           We learn from others.  Especially in the home.  What parents do is crucial.  Especially, we might say, during this virus, the example parents set will be the path children walk.  Parents, regardless of any or nor religious tradition, model dimensions of spirituality for their children.  Children watch and listen.  I think this Mothers’ Day 2020 of young mothers in New England.  Maybe you? Today, one half mom, one half professional, one half wife, one half home school administrator, one half neighbor.  And that’s not the half of it.

          One day I saw a young mother walking in a department store.  She had too little girls in tow to starboard, and her own elderly mother to port.  The girls pulled ahead, and grandma lagged behind, and between daughters and grandmother and promises to keep I thought I overheard this practical prayer from the mom in middle: “Lord get me through this day.”

          Phyllis Trible taught us long ago that reading the Bible involves your own perspective.  It matters what you bring with you into the reading room.  I imagine women, and men, on this Sunday, trying desperately to balance the generational claims of relationship.  And in some cases, to sift through hard memories, hurts, traumas left by another generation.  You are trying to raise another generation to be faithful, good boys and girls, women and men.  They know what they see.

          But we know others are hurting too, in harsher and different ways.  We keep things in perspective, and in prayer.  Think for a moment of the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, killed in the cross fire of race and class, the cross fire of culture and guns.  We hold things in perspective, and in prayer.

          Our Gospel lessons, like John 14, are primary sources for the time, occasion, community and condition in and for which they were first written.  They are secondary sources, at best, for what may have come before.  So, two weeks ago, Luke 24 showed us Luke, and his community, in joyful celebration of the mystery of the Lord’s ascent.  At his ascent they did assent, perhaps following decades of loss, displacement, and martyrdom.  Having lived through the long old-time religion winter of most of the first century, and all its rigors, they acclaimed a faith in a high, divine goodness, through it all.

This is the example that Jesus has shown us, in his life, and in the lives of his own.   More than we acknowledge, the examples of those around us sustain us in hidden, powerful ways.  Near Pittsburgh Frank Lloyd Wright built his famous home for the Kaufmann family, called “Falling Waters”.  It is built into the stone, on top of the flowing water, alongside the verdant forest, amid the wondrous rolling beauty of southern Pennsylvania.  It protrudes, suspended nearly in thin air, like our own lives so often seem to be.  The house is held up by cantilevers, like a diving board or a teeter totter.  The strength and saving grounding are hidden away in the rock, and out the house stretches.  I think that is like the hidden, silent strength that parents by example give to children.  We remember what we have seen, by example, through others.  This Mothers’ Day 2020 we think of suffrage and suffragettes 100 years ago:  Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Staunton; of reforms and reformer, 100 years ago: Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman.

We learn from others.  Especially in the home.  What parents do is crucial.

 

          Second, Truth

          So too is what parents say.  As we are tightly quartered, now, parents at the office in the living room, and children at school in the dining room, we might want to measure what we say.  To think before we speak.

          For the gospel reveals another of the secrets to health, in what is said.  We learn from what is said to us by those whom we love.  Our minds cannot change unless our hearts are changed.  No argument will ever be as strong as ardent care.  What changes people comes from what is said by those they know who care.  One esteemed UTS professor could in the end never speak to me because he could never speak for me.  Especially, we might say, during this virus, the wisdom, the sayings, the forms of speech children hear from their parents will be more formative and more lasting than the pandemic itself.  A friend said to me, just recently, ‘I think of my grandmother telling me, ‘keep your wits about you, keep your wits about you.’

          At Sing Sing, almost100 years ago, another suffragette, the warden’s wife became one of those people.  She attended to the imprisoned.  When she found a blind prisoner, she learned Braille and taught him.  When she found a deaf prisoner, she learned sign language and taught him.  In that hardest of spaces, she spoke the language of love.  When she died and her coffin was pulled past the gates, the men stood in silence in her honor, and asked if the gate could be opened so that they might fill the chapel, promising to return.  The warden took them at their word, and to a man they kept the promise and returned.  We listen to those we trust.

          Our deeds are important.  So, Matthew Mark and Luke.  But so, and more so are our words.  So, we have a fourth gospel, John.  John best reminds us that what lasts is what we say.  What did Jesus say on the night he was glorified, John 14-17? John celebrates the secret in speech.  God-Christ-Spirit—all for John are known in the ‘glory’ that is the cross, the strange divine manner among us; the little preposition “in” holds the mystical magic every day—celebrate, dance, love, sing, live—God in Christ, Christ in God, we in him, they in us; a new commandment…new…new…something new…are we ready for something new?  Jesus has said something to us that is the very secret of lasting health.  What is it?

          He binds what he says to what he does.  Form and function come and go together.  So, Jesus is the Word, the Word of God for us.

          The Gospel continues to teach us something that is the very secret of lasting health and happiness.  At every step, Jesus is inviting you to deepen your capacity, to sharpen your acuity, to soften your heart.

          Third, Life

          Today we dimly realize, again, just how much Jesus has shared with us.  

 

I think of that young mother, balancing daughters and grandmother.  They stop at the counter, in Kaufmann’s, and she buys some perfumes and body lotions.  Later she wraps them and gives them as symbols of affection.  Especially, we might say, during this virus, the living, the sharing of life modeled by parents will in the long run have a sturdy, lasting effect on children.  It is not so much what we are going through, as how we are going through what we are going through, in spring 2020, that lasts.  It is not so much what we are going through, as how we are going through what we are going through, in spring 2020, that lasts.  

          We need to learn in the north from our southern cousins.  They have shown us how to take care of Mother Church. At least this.  We need to learn again to attend to the Body of Christ.  They care to apply the body lotions of hospitality and generosity to the Body of Christ.  They attend to the Body, like a mother tending her children and parents.  They attend to the Body, the church, the Body of Christ, like a young mother fretting for toddlers and the aged.  It is not just the Mind of Christ that we seek.  It is not only the Spirit of Christ that we need.  It is not solely the Truth of Christ that we desire.  We need years of body lotions, applied to the church, the Body of Christ, in the north. As Hal Luccock always said, in gentle reference to different religious cultures and worship attendance patterns, When I preached in the south the sermon hymn was always, ‘O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing’. When I preached in the north, the Gospel Lesson was always, ‘Wherever two or three are gathered…’. 

          Oddly, or divinely, were we to invest ourselves fully in the house not made with hands, our more minor differences would gradually dissolve.  We need to apply some ointment, some healing salve, some body lotions to the Body of Christ.

          I remember visiting a young woman who had been raised by her grandmother. In the last months of her grandmother’s life, the young woman would visit, and I was privileged to watch their consort together.  She would stand by the bedside and comb her grandmother’s hair, and straighten her glasses, and rub her arms and hands with lotion.  It was a wordless rebaptism that meant more than all the Psalms of David and all the Parables of Jesus and all the paragraphs of the Book of Discipline.

          As Gene Outka of Yale put it: ‘God loves us before any merit on our part.  Love is spontaneous and unmotivated, indifferent to value, creative, and initiates fellowship…God’s love should (prevail) when we estimate our neighbors’ value.  We should not allow our dislike of particular harms others inflict on us, or our condemnation of particular evil deeds, however understandable or justified, to take normative precedence over God’s love for every person.  Such love should rather carry final authority for us, and evoke in us a corresponding love.’

This too is the secret of lasting health which Jesus has shared.

          The secret shown:  Love one another. Way.

          The secret spoken: Love one another.  Truth.

          The secret shared:  Love one another. Life.

          Coda

          Now, if memory serves, and remember your preacher today is rusty, a Mothers’ Day sermon concludes with a memory.  So, in the late spring of 1966, my mom invited me to have a talk on the back stoop of our parsonage, the only home then I had ever really known.  Now I had never been invited to back porch conversation.  In those days, gently, she ambled about the little town of Hamilton NY, a bucolic place, of ice skating, sleds, swimming lessons, autumn, the Baptist Church bells hour by hour and loud and deep, early in the morning, late at night.  After breakfast, one day that spring, gently, she sat with me on the back steps.  The words hardly landed, caught as I was in the Eastertide reverie of boyhood. Making plans for the next ball game. From where we sat, I could spot two windows through which I had flown, launched, catapulted two baseball.  Eric, whose dad was the Colgate librarian, was also involved. 2 Sons break, 2 fathers repair, the world turns.  I could see a half finished go cart, no wheels.  I could look at the neighbors’ garden, which I had also tilled for fun–such is youth.  Across the street lived the feared Russian professor, next door to the feared TKE fraternity, alongside a feared empty, and quite possibly haunted, house.  I could see the evidence of unreflective, free life, naive, unaware, redolent with happiness, responsive.  All this was about to change, for good or forever.  Gently she spoke, but again I could not quite hear or believe or intuit. “We are moving in June.  Next month we will leave Hamilton.  You will have your twelfth birthday in another town”.  It was clear that I did not comprehend.  “Bobby, we are going to move in June.” Then a torrent of words I did not understand, and to some measure still do not, came forth.  Itinerancy, appointment, Methodism, conference, apportionment, Bishop.  I also was not seeing her clearly, because somehow my eyes were all watered, producing a difficulty to see.  Probably due to pollen in the spring air, don’t you think?  We had not needed privacy, before, in which to speak.  Somehow, I should have known that a back-porch talk meant dark news.  And so early in the morning, early, too early to gather the friends, our fight and argue gang, and attempt to puzzle through the meaning of such disaster.  But the talk was not done.  Way, Truth, Life. She, my then young, lovely, gentle, mom, in example, and in speech, and in generosity, had something more to say.  ‘You know, I know this makes you very sad.  But this will the best thing that ever happened to you.  You will make new friends.  You will see.  You will have a new house, bigger and better.  You will see.  You can come back in the summer by bus for the Colgate chemistry program.  You will see.  Your sisters will be with you.  (Here she may have gotten a little off script).  You will see.  And there is something more.  Your dad and I and your siblings need you to help us to do this.  We are going to do this together.  You are the oldest.  And you can do it.  I just know you can, and I know you will.  You are going to love it.  I guarantee it.  And, of course, she was right. 

          Wherever there is a way, there is Christ.  Wherever there is truth, there is Christ.  Wherever there is life, there is Christ.

The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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