Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

Christianity on Monday Morning and Saturday Night

Sunday, April 19, 2009

 

 

Mark 14: 22-26

 

 Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

Let me begin this morning with a story. If you understand this story, you understand much of what I have been trying to communicate these past weeks since I began this sermon series way back in February.

 

It is a story about one of my heroes when I was a young minister – the South Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney. The last church he served before his death in 1979 Myer Park Baptist in Charlotte, NC was expelled a couple of years ago from the South Baptist Convention for being inclusive and affirming of its gay and lesbian members. Carlyle Marney’s would have expected no less.

 

Here’s the story: Carlyle Marney was once spending a couple of days at a seminary in the South. He wondered into a room where some of the seminary students were having a discussion. They were arguing about where the Garden of Eden had been located. Some thought it had been in what is today Israel; others thought it had been located in Egypt.

 

One of the students asked Carlyle Marney where he thought the Garden of Eden had been located. He said: “I know exactly where it was. It was at 1611 Locust Street, Memphis, Tennessee.”

 

The students looked at him as if he was crazy, so he continued.

 

“It was at 1611 Locust Street in Memphis,” he said, “that my mother gave me some money when I was a small boy to go to the corner store to get milk. When I got there, instead of buying milk, I bought candy. I had eaten the candy by the time I got home. When I got there I hid in the hallway closet behind the coats. After awhile, my mother came and opened the closet door and pushed aside the coats and looked at me and said, ‘Carl, what have you done.’ So you see,” he told the students, “the Garden of Eden was located at 1611 Locust Street, Memphis, Tennessee.”

 

Each of us has in our life a Garden of Eden. Each of us has in our life a Tower of Babel, an Egypt, a Red Sea, a Sinai, a wilderness and a Promised Land. Each of us has in our life a Jerusalem and a Temple, a Babylon, an exile, a Diaspora, and a homecoming. Each of us has in our life a Bethlehem of Judea, a Capernaum, a Samaria, a Jerusalem, a Gethsemane, an Upper Room, a Golgotha, a betrayal, a denial, and an empty tomb. Each of us has in our life a Pentecost, a road to Damascus, an Isle of Patmos, a New Jerusalem, and a heavenly city.

 

Christianity is a sacramental religion, and as soon as it stops being sacramental, it is likely to become thwarting and repressive, rather than liberating and renewing.

 

Here’s what Christianity is: Christianity is a loosey/goosey collection of stories, poems, tunes, memories from the past, speculations about the future, myths, laws, reasoning and logic, jokes, rites, rituals, habits, practices and silences. The purpose of all these stories and rituals is to help us find ways to talk about and to think about and to feel about our lives which are mysterious and imponderable and full of unanswered and unanswerable questions. Christianity gives us all this as a way to discover meaning in life when its meaning is not obvious, which it never is. Christianity is about finding the inward and spiritual grace in the outward and visible things of daily life.   

 

What do you think Christians have fought with each other about more than anything else over the past 500 years? For the first 500 years of Christianity the big debate was about the divinity and the humanity of Christ. Then Eastern and Western Christianity split as a result of the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  Then there were the crusades and the inquisitions. But what do you think Christians have fought about more than anything else these past 500 years? Turn to someone near you and take 30 seconds to tell each other what you think Christians have fought with each other most about over the past five centuries.

 

Here’s the answer: More than anything else over the past 500 years, Christians have fought with each other about the sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion.

 

Should baptism be by immersion, pouring or sprinkling? Should babies be baptized or only those who have reached an age where they can decide for themselves whether they want to be Christians: infant baptism or believers’ baptism?

 

The first Baptists, called Anabaptists, were persecuted for their beliefs and often executed by both Catholics and Protestants by drowning. The Pope and the Protestant reformers said, “If you like water so much, we’ll drown you.”  That’s how conflictual the issue of baptism became among Christians.

 

Christians over the past 500 years have argued endlessly about Communion. Does the bread actually and literally become the body of Christ? Or is the bread merely symbolic? Does the wine literally and physically become the blood of Christ or is it only a symbol of Christ’s blood?

 

There have been big arguments and divisions within Christianity about transubstantiation. Do the molecules actually change into something else or, as others believe, is this only a memorial…a way of remembering?

 

James White was a United Methodist professor of liturgy and worship who eventually came to teach at Notre Dame University – an odd place for a Methodist to be teaching liturgy and worship, I’d think. James White used to say that it was easier for him to believe that the bread and wine were the body and blood of Christ than it was for him to believe that the wafer and grape juice were bread and wine.

 

I had a professor in seminary who, whenever the topic of “the real presence of Christ” in Communion would come up, would ask, “What’s the alternative? The unreal presence?”

 

So why do you think Christians have fought so ardently about the sacraments? Persecuting and drowning each other about the sacraments?

 

Because the big question of the past 500 years – the big question of modernity – is the question of where God is present in the world…where God is present, if God is present, in your life and mine.

 

This is the age of secularization. This is the age of science and scientific explanations for everything. This is the age of rationality. This is the age of urbanization. This is the age of our conquest of nature: our alienation from nature.

 

Where is God to be found in the age of modernity?

 

Modernity is a different world than the Bible was written in. The assumptions we live by are different. What we see and experience in life is different.

 

Bill McKibben is a well-known writer and activist about environmental concerns.  Al Gore says that he was greatly influenced by Bill. He lives in Vermont and happens to be a very active United Methodist. He is most famous for his book The End of Nature but I think his greatest book is a much lesser known book entitled The Age of Missing Information.[i] I’ve mentioned this book before and probably will again. 

 

Our time has been called the age of information. Modernity began with the inventing of the printing press. But McKibben says what has really happened is that the kind of information we have has changed, and he suggested not totally for the better.

 

One of the things McKibben did to prepare to write the Age of Missing Information is that he spent a month watching television in Fairfax, Virginia. At that time, 1992, the Fairfax Virginia cable company provided more channels than any other cable company in the world. He spent every waking hour of a month watching TV, every channel – 1700 hours watching cable TV.

 

Then he went camping in the Adirondacks. He compared what he learned from cable TV and what he learned from camping in nature. Even the nature shows on TV, he says, distort nature by taking vast stretches of time and compressing them into a few dramatic moments. One of his most startling observations is that while watching 1700 hours of TV he saw lots of death, but never a natural death, whereas his camping trip was full of the natural cycles of life and death.

 

When we are alienated from nature, from the natural rhythms of life, where do we find God?

 

How many of us had milk with our breakfast this morning? How many of us have ever milked a cow? Even farmers don’t milk cows anymore. Machines milk cows.

 

How many of us on an average day are awoken by the sun? By a rooster crowing? By an alarm clock?

 

How many of us go to sleep when it starts to get dark?

 

How many of us have, say, an hour of silence daily in our waking lives…no talking, no phone, no radio, TV, or iPod?

 

So with no contact with nature, no silence, where do we experience the divine and holy in the midst of life?

 

This is really what we have been debating these past 500 years in our debate about the sacraments.

 

Some Christians have said there are holy objects and holy moments. You take bread and you say words over it, and it becomes transformed –transubstantiated – into something else – the body of Christ – and, when you eat it, Christ enters into your body. You find God in special segregated moments of your life when you are being religious. You find the Lord on the Lord’s Day in the Lord’s house when you read the Lord’s book.

 

Others have said you take bread and it merely symbolic. The Lord isn’t really present. It is just an idea, just a memory, just a hope for the future.

 

Both of these are non-sacramental ways of thinking. Sacramental Christianity says that God is present in all of life. The bread is every moment of our life. The Eternal is present in every moment of time. The Kingdom of God is in our midst.

 

What actually happens when we baptized a child? Does God suddenly start loving that child? Of course not. God loved Max before he was born. God loved Max so much that God held up Dee and Chris’s adoption process again and again until Max would be ready for them to come to China to take him home with them.  

 

So what actually happens at baptism? Is it purely a symbolic act? Just something that reminds us of the love of God for each of us?

 

No, I’ve done enough baptisms to know that something very real happens at baptisms. Well, what happens?

 

In this moment something happens that happens through our entire lives for each one of us. God sprinkles God’s grace and love on us. God pours out God’s grace and love every moment of our lives. God plunges us into grace and love.

 

All of life is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace: all of life.

 

The problem is that modernity has crowded grace and love out of our lives. This is why we fight about the sacraments. Because modernity has squeezed Christ out of our daily lives Monday mornings through Saturday nights, sacraments now mean either everything or nothing. They have no connection to the rest of our lives.

 

While Jane and I are in Wales, we will visit the R. S. Thomas collection at the University of Bangor. R. S. Thomas, the great Welsh poet of the last century, a priest of the church of Wales, a Welsh patriot who loves the beauty of Wales. He says he spent every early morning of his adult life bird-watching. The question R.S. Thomas asked again and again in his poetry is: Where can we find God in a world where there is only the noise of machines and never any silence? How can we taste the goodness of God when the food we eat is ripened by carbon dioxide rather than by the sun and has no taste?

 

Our sacraments say all of life is worship, all of life is holy, every bush is a burning bush aflame with the Divine, every shower is a baptism, every meal is the body of Christ. The eternal is here and now. The kingdom of God is in our midst.    

 

Last Sunday night – Easter night – was one of those nights for me when I was very tired but not sleepy. It was 11 at night. Jane’s mother was visiting. She had long ago gone to bed. Jane had gone to bed. I was trying to read, but the book was not holding my attention.

 

I did something I know I should never do at 11 o’clock at night. I decided to listen to a song on YouTube.

 

I’d talked about Zimbabwe in my Easter sermon and I felt like listening to some African music so I found a  Ladysmith Black Mambazo song on YouTube. But you know the problem with YouTube is that when you listen to something on YouTube, it gives you listing of 30 other videos you might be interested in.

 

So after listening to a couple of Ladysmith Black Mambazo songs, I notice that there are links there to a Paul Simon concert in Zimbabwe with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. So I listen to some songs from that concert.

 

And then there are some other links. And more links. Everything sort of devolves and the next thing I know it is three hours later, 2 in the morning, and I am listening to Warren Zevon singing “Werewolves of London.”

 

Do you know Warren Zevon? He was born the same year I was. He started his musical career playing piano for the Everly Brothers. He eventually wrote and performed his own songs. He had a sort of twisted sense of humor. His songs were sort of funny and unsettling at the same time. He used drugs heavily and hung out with Hunter S. Thompson. But he eventually found sobriety, or sobriety found him. Some time after that he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer.

 

Before his death, he appeared on the David Letterman show to sing four of his songs and to talk to Letterman about his life and what it felt like to be dying. He talked about it was an amazing calmness and humor. David Letterman did an amazing interview. Letterman went up many notches in book. You can watch it on four YouTube segments.

 

At one point, David Letterman asks Warren Zevon this question: Is there anything you know from the place you are now that I might not know.  Zevon thinks for a few seconds. He says; “Not really, I guess… except enjoy every sandwich.”

 

Every sandwich is the body of Christ broken for you: every sandwich.

 

Just before he died, Carlyle Marney prayed a prayer:

If entering now the zenith of my brief arc around and within creation I should enter God’s grand hall tomorrow, called to my account for myself, I should offer this confession and defense if indeed I could do more than call down. But if able to give vocal response at all, I should say this, “Thou knowest, dear Lord of our lives, that for fifty of Thy/my years in ignorance, zest, zeal and sin I lived as if creation and I had no limit. I lived and wanted as if I had forever, without regard for time or wit or strength or need or limit or endurance and as if sleep were a heedless luxury and digestion an automatic process. But Thou, O Lord of real love, did snatch my bit and ride me into Thy back pasture and didst rub my nose in my vulnerability and didst split my lungs into acquiescence and didst freeze my colon in grief loss and didst press me into that long depression at the anger I directed against myself. And Thou didst read over my shoulder my diary of that long journey when I did melt before Thee as a mere preacher. Thou didst hear.

Hear now my pitiable defense. In all my sixty years I killed no creature of Thine I did not need for food except for a few rattlesnakes, a turtle or two, two quail I left overlong in my coat and three geese poisoned on bad grain before I shot them in Nebraska, plus one wood duck in Korea. In all my years I consciously battered no child though my own claimed much need to forgive me. And consciously misused no person. Thou knowest my aim to treat no human being as thing, never to hate overlong, to pass no child without catching his or her eye and my innermost wish to love as Thou doest love by seeing no shade of color or class.

And Thou didst long ago hear my cry to let me go from Paducah. Thou knowest my covenant with Elizabeth in our youth and Thou knowest it has been kept better than my covenant with Thee and wilst Thou forgive? Indeed Thou hast.

Hear now my intention with grace as if it were fact. I do and have intended to be responsible in creation by covenant and where I have defaulted do Thou forgive. Forgive Thou my vicarious responsibility for all the defection from Thy purpose of all Thy responsible creatures and accept this my admission of utter dependency on Thy mercy.

Naked I came into the world, how I am dressed at the conclusion makes no difference. A pair of jeans or a Glasgow robe, it makes no difference. Meantime, well I mow, I cut wood for winter, I clean drainage ditches, I preach what is happening and look to see what God will do in the earth. I watch out always for babies and little rabbits in front of my mower and old folks nearby and black snakes worth preserving, and little puppies on the road, and the young-old who stutter and laugh and can’t hear too. The cry of us all, “Come Lord Jesus, come.[ii]

 

 

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[i] Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006).

[ii] From the book Marney  published by Myers Park Baptist Church cited at http://www.reallivepreacher.com/node/217