On the Road Again
The icon on the front cover of my appointment book depicts a circuit rider, the emblem for the United Methodist pastor, a remembrance of the days when the preacher on the frontier had several churches to nourish with the Gospel. That icon contradicts my reality. I hit the road for Jesus only once in forty-six and a half years, and then I traveled only sixteen miles to the East. I rationalized my immovability with the thought that there was no longer a need for circuitous ministry since congregants had become so transient.
Since retirement in June 2002 I have engaged in itinerant preaching just twice, once for a needy church in Vermont, the other time to help my former congregants celebrate a homecoming. That's roughly 3000 words in five years. This past Sunday made it three times. We have been worshiping at The Hartford UMC more often than anywhere else. The pastor of the church, a young man without a family in the parsonage, has been plugging away at the local church ministry with hardly a break for two years. But early in July he returned home to Texas. He asked me if I would be willing to fill-in for him on July 8th. I was and I did. Herewith is the sermon the Christians (Methodist variety) heard this past Sunday morning, along with the prayers composed for the service.
Caring, Convinced, and Carefree
Barbara, I am her husband, and I have been worshipping with you a little more than once a month for the past two years. I am a retired United Methodist minister, yes, in the New York Annual Conference, living in West Hartford, about ten minutes from here, with Barbara, our eldest daughter, Betsy, and her twin sons, Henry and Robert, in the same class at Hall High as Jessica Nix. Actually, my history with this church predates most, if not all, of you, going back to 1960 when the Annual Conference session was held in this room. In the mists of time I thought I was ordained a deacon here by Bishop Welch, but the year is too late and I could find no historical evidence of it. Still I do remember being here when your pastor was Loyd (spelled with one “l”) Worley, my pastor in Stamford during my teenage years.
I have preached on a Sunday only twice since June 2002. Five years of virtual silence. I may be a trifle rusty, but not long-winded. It isn’t my style. I hope. You do too.
Bryan confirmed the lections for this morning more than a month ago. With a choice of five texts, I am going with the Gospel according to Luke, that passage reporting Jesus sending disciples into the byways of Hartford, going door to door to recruit followers to spread the good news of the coming kingdom of love and light. Sound familiar? Should. I understand that you have gone and done likewise, rung doorbells, left handbills, and, maybe, shook the dust off your feet when a door closed a mite bit too quickly in your face.
Jesus tells us to go into the towns and villages and all the world to care and care lovingly, intensely for our neighbors. Loving Jesus leads inexorably to loving your neighbor. The second greatest commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves, flows seamlessly from the first and greatest commandment, to love God with everything we are. You cannot have the one without the other. It’s an impulse born in Bethlehem that threatens to overwhelm the world, thank God. Hospitals. Schools. Begun in God’s name and for humanity’s sake. The centers of healing and education are not just the consequence of a sense of community self-preservation (though they could be). I mean, what do we name them? St. Francis. Wesleyan. Trinity. That wheelbarrow Paul Taylor or another usher pushes to the front of this room during the Doxology every Sunday morning really began its journey a couple of millennia and thousands of miles ago, gifts from the heart for the stomach in the name of the Son of God. That elementary school down the street, north on Whitney, bearing the name I do believe of a faithful West Hartford Congregationalist of yore who not only produced the first American dictionary but also published a revised edition of the KJV of the Bible, that school where a number of you coax, cajole, and encourage children, not your own, to do their lessons and get a good start toward an abundant life: why do you do it? Oh, sure, there are many reasons, but none better nor more powerful than that the Lord Jesus told you to, get off your duff and do something useful for others… which is as richly Methodist a motivation as you will find anywhere this side of Aldersgate.
Christians care and care deeply, expensively, persistently, joyfully… for others.
And not just for those in this room or in the West End. The whole world. Rose, the proprietor, in her pizzeria in Brooklyn heard me one night long, long ago offering a message on sign-off for Channel 2, CBS. The sight of me there earned me a free slice of pizza. My message in the sign-off was what Jesus tells us in that passage every sports fan has seen lifted up on TV, John 3:16, that God so loves the world… the world, mind you, not just good people, not just believers, but the whole wide world and all of the other sinners in it. The summons by Jesus to care for others is that wide. I should have had us sing this morning the hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” Your pastor once, Loyd Worley, God’s blessed collector of lost causes if ever there was one, taught me that. He was in a perpetual passion to save the world. Peace. Temperance. Rapprochement with China. Euthanasia. Racial integration. Dr. Worley (maybe you called him “Pop” Worley; I never could bring myself to do that) cared for those immediately outside the church doors and around the world with the same intensity he did for those who sat in front of him every Sunday morning.
Christians are a passionately caring people.
Who can do it, spend themselves recklessly on others, because they are possessed by a grand certainty. That’s another theme that comes shining through the passage in the Gospel according to Luke that is the morning lection: the total certainty that the kingdom will come, God’s will will be done, peace will break out, life will trump death, and goodness displace evil. When the disciples return from their adventures in the Hartford neighborhood, Jesus exclaims about their success, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning… rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
The victory of our Lord over everything that would knock us down, including the demons inside us, is assured. You did convey that message, didn’t you, as you went door to door in the West End? That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet? That, if a million worthy battles must still be fought for love and decency, kindness and justice, the war is won.
In retirement I’ve had time, a lot more time, to read books I would have, in my years in the pastoral ministry only wished I could have read. One such was written by a Methodist bishop about a Swiss theologian. Interesting combination. William Willamon of the Northern Alabama Area reports a phone conversation of Karl Barth the night before he died. Barth is regarded by some as the greatest Christian theologian maybe of all time, this according to my swimmer friend, a messianic Jewish rabbi. Barth, moments before his departure from these scenes, declared to a friend words to this effect: “Jesus reigns.” Like my friend in Brooklyn, pastor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, George Licht Knight: he described his preferred scenario for his own departure to the Father’s House, standing in the pulpit on an Easter morning, shouting, “He is risen, hallelujah!” and forthwith shucking off this mortal coil. I never did find out if George got his wish.
But there it is, we live and die triumphantly with the conviction that the world belongs to God and God’s Christ and, whatever, his kingdom will come.
So, what the… heaven. Down the corridors of time, salvation history is replete with the carefree witness of heroic disciples of Jesus, free to love and serve and spend themselves recklessly on others because they know they can’t lose. Beginning with Paul, the Apostle Paul, who writes in his Letter to the Philippians (1:20): “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.” Or Martin Luther echoing Paul, on his way, Luther is, from the emperor’s court banished, wanted dead or alive, he declares that for him it is a very small thing whether he lives or dies. I googled that phrase to make sure I had it right and found references also to Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Tom Fox, a Baptist missionary assassinated in Iraq. Such faithful nonchalance, so grand and noble an indifference to what the world can throw at you: I wish I could catch some of it, if only a smidgeon, this carefree approach to our mortal existence. Like Jesus about whom the Letter to the Hebrews hymns, that, for the joy set before him he endured the cross.
So the next time Bryan and Jesus send you forth into the byways of Hartford to tell the good news, to be the good news, and to live the good news, caring deeply for those you find along the way, go in the faithful certainty that God has already accomplished the victory of life and love; go with an angel-may-care demeanor; and you shall win that high apostolic benediction that you/we are more than conquerors through him who loves us. And maybe the pews will be filled. After all, everyone loves a winner.
Lighting of the Christ Candle
God of our broken world, well-apprised of our penchant for violence since the beginning of time, put within our hearts, not just some of us but all of us across the face of the earth, a greater disposition toward kindness and compassion, that the hateful passions which give rise to war may be overwhelmed by that eternal love which flows from the heart of the universe, your own heart, if grieving for our evil, hoping for our redemption through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Amen.
Lord Jesus, who honored the Samaritan who went out of his way to help a stranger in his distress, the Savior you are who never fails to reach out to us when things go awry, grant us the faith and courage to follow these twin examples of compassion…and grant us the grace to do it; that we may: make peace; feed the hungry; comfort those who mourn; protect and guide the children, including those not our own; seek justice and not for ourselves alone, for somebody else; visit the sick and those in prison; hold in loving arms the dying; speak truth to those in power; and… well, all of those good things with which your life was filled with doing. One more thing we would ask, within and over any duty of discipleship, ordinary and extraordinary, that we may have in our hearts an abiding certainty of your love and your final victory; that we may go through our days with a faithful lightness of heart, a song on our lips, and a glad welcome toward all we meet along the way. Thinking this morning especially of these our friends and members of our family of faith who need some particular attention:
Lord Jesus, be never far from us, our companion here as long as we have life and breath, and our companion in better scenes for ever. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
God and giver of all good gifts, this life we have and the wherewithal to live it, you give us more than we need, if not as much as we want, fill our minds and hearts with a surer understanding of the extravagance of your grace toward us, that we may return the favor to you by sharing our plenty with our neighbors here and around the world; through him who is the surest evidence of your overwhelming generosity, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Go forth to face the day and the world strong in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Go in the name of God’s great love as champions sure of Christ’s victory over the principalities and the powers here and for ever. Amen.