Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Class of 2005, What Does the Lord Require of You? --a baccalaureate sermon

Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Scripture: Micah 6: 6-8; Matthew 5: 38-48

It was 40 years ago this coming August that my father drove me here to this campus from our home in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. He helped me carry my suitcases up to the second floor of Albright Court, gave me a $20 bill (which was more money then than it is now), and drove home without me.

It was a momentous day for me.

When I came here in 1965 I had a Pennsylvania Dutch accent so thick people sometimes had to ask me to repeat myself in order to understand what I was saying. My dutchified English was the butt of more than a few jokes.

"Outen the light," I would say, or "Plug out the radio," and my friends from Philadelphia would look at me strangely.

"The potatoes are all," I would say in the dining hall, and --after a pause-- someone would ask, "The potatoes are all what?"

And let me advise you not to try to tell a female classmate that she is looking particularly pretty by saying to her, "You look good in the face today."

Here at Albright, I was plunged into a world of new ideas, new experiences and new possibilities. I pray your time here at Albright has been even half as exciting and stretching and challenging as mine was 40 years ago.

It was here at Albright that I became a man. I remember the exact instant it happened.

The spring semester of my sophomore year I began to get restless. I felt unfulfilled by the rut I'd fallen into of studying hard all week and partying hard on weekends. I went to the chaplain's office and asked if there was somewhere in the community I might volunteer where I could make some kind of difference in the real world.

The chaplain's secretary arranged for me to volunteer Thursday mornings when I had no classes at a Head Start program in an old Baptist church in the section of Reading considered in those days to be the disadvantaged inner-city.

From the first day I walked into that Head Start classroom, a five-year-old boy named Tye attached himself to me. He was hungry for attention. He became my Thursday morning shadow. He followed me everywhere. He insisted I play with him and pay attention to him.

Mid-semester I missed a couple of Thursday mornings at the Head Start program because of spring break. The Thursday morning after spring break when I walked into the Baptist Church, Tye stood up and pointed and shouted at the top of his lungs, "The man's here! The man's here!"

I looked around to see who he was talking about. There was no one else there. Suddenly I realized Tye was pointing at me. Tye thought I was a man. I was shocked. I still thought of myself as a boy.

Tye helped me realize it was time for me to begin putting away childish things and to begin to act like the adult he thought I was. In many ways, it was the moment I grew up.

I am honored that the Albright trustees and administration have invited me back to share in this baccalaureate service, especially this baccalaureate service for the Class of 2005, graduating from Albright these 40 years after I became a student here.

I have one warning for you. Forty years go by like a snap of your fingers. So pay attention. Don't miss a moment of your own life. Forty years go by like a snap.

Be sure to learn everything you can as soon as you can from your grandparents, your parents, your aunts and uncles. Ask them everything you can think to ask and listen closely to their answers. They will not be here forever.

Savor your joys. Feel your disappointments and sadnesses as deeply as you can because they are part of life, too, and in their own way are blessings. Don't be afraid to live. Let nothing or no one steal your joy.

Forty years go by like a snap.

So, Class of 2005, here is the question of the morning: What does the Lord require of you?
Distinguished and Beloved Albright College Class of 2005, what does the Lord require of you?

No matter how much you and I might want to think of ourselves as individuals -- to say I am my own woman, I am my own man, not a part of the crowd, not a demographic-- like it or not, we are influenced and shaped by the culture of which we are part. The way we understand our world and our deepest assumptions about life can be greatly influenced by culturally shared experiences and events at critical ages and stages of our lives. Generations can have defining moments.

A defining moment for my parents' generation was Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the day the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. My parents lived their lives in anticipation of the possibility it would happen again. It was a defining moment for their generation.

My older brother Nevin, 19 years older than I am, tells me one of his generation's defining moments was May 8, 1945, VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, when Nazi Germany surrendered and everyone, it seemed, was proud to be an American.

Defining moments for my generation included November 22, 1963 the day President John F. Kennedy was shot, and April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. died. We were inspired by our heroes and shaken by their deaths.

Surely for you, Class of 2005, one of your defining moments must be September 11, 2001. It is a day none of us will ever forget, but especially you. Many of you were beginning your freshman year here at Albright when the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon was wounded. You will never forget. You will live, to some degree or another, the rest of your lives in the shadow of 9-11. We all will, but for you this will be especially true. How can 9-11 not influence your world view and your deepest assumptions about life?

So, Beloved Class of 2005, what does the Lord require of you?

In one sense, the Lord requires of you what the Lord requires of us all.

The prophet Micah said it this way: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

The Lord requires us to do justice. Justice means fairness, treating each other rightly, protecting each one's basic human freedoms and rights, insuring equal opportunity for all regardless of anything, and correcting for past injustices. The Lord requires us to do justice.

The Lord requires us to walk humbly with our God ... to know the limits of our own knowledge, to spiritually acknowledge our fallibility, our imperfections, our limitations, our proclivity toward selfishness, greed, and sin. To walk humbly with our God.

And the Lord requires us to love kindness. Loving kindness is what I want to say a word about to you this morning, because I wonder if it isn't harder to love kindness in the shadow of 9-11?

The Hebrew word is hesed. To love hesed. The word hesed appears frequently in Hebrew scriptures, about 250 times. There is no English word that adequately captures the meaning of hesed.

Sometimes hesed is translated "kindness." Sometimes it is translated 'loving kindness." Sometimes it is translated "mercy." Sometimes it is translated "blessing." Sometimes it is translated "love." It might be translated "grace."

Hesed means caring for others not because they deserve to be cared for, but because they need care. It means forgiving those who have hurt us. It means reconciling with those from whom we have been alienated. It means healing the wounds between us and others. It means risking vulnerability toward those who might reject us. It means treating others the way God treats us.

When I read the prophet Micah I am always amazed that, while he says the Lord requires us to do justice, he says the Lord requires us to love hesed.

It is apparently not enough that we choose to act kindly and mercifully. The Lord expects us to love kindness and mercy, to love forgiveness, to love being a blessing to others, to love being reconciled, to love healing the wounds between us. Not just to do it but to love it.

I worry that, as a nation and a people, we have found loving hesed more difficult since 9-11. We seem more ready to assume the worst about others, more fearful of the strangers among us, more wary of people who are different, more willing to put them in jail just in case. Our new golden rule seems to be not "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but "Do unto others before they get a chance to do unto you."

I blog. I am a blogger. I think I am not the oldest blogger in the blogosphere. I hope not. But I know for sure I am not the youngest. One of the reasons I blog is to be in communication with people who are different from me in some ways -- people who think differently theologically and politically, people who are younger than myself.

One of the people whose blog I read is a young person named John. He is under 30. He is intelligent. He obviously has a great sense of humor. He is a person of sincere and deep faith. His blogs are often thoughtful and insightful.

Recently he has been writing about Islam. "Since 9/11," he writes, "Americans and others in the West have used a lot of couched language to hide what we really think: that Islam is not a Religion of Peace but a religion of war and that Islamic culture is fundamentally sick and barbaric. ... There have been enough planes crashing into skyscrapers (to the delight of Arabs literally dancing in the streets) and wild, senseless riots to make the Religion of Peace label seem ludicrous." (See here.)

John quotes others on the internet who write about the "bizarre mental disorder of the West which prevents it from understanding the threat of Islam and dealing with it appropriately." He adds: "Notice that I didn't say the 'threat of Islamic extremism' or the 'threat of Islamofascism.' I said and meant the threat of Islam. Let's stop pretending that we're not in a clash of civilizations. It's a struggle that will end in one of two ways: 1) The virus of democracy successfully infects the Middle East and drastically softens its sociopathic hatred of everything non-Muslim. 2) Vast areas of the Middle East are irradiated and left lifeless after the United States responds to terrorist nuclear attacks on its homeland." (See here.)

Reading John's blog over time, I have come to respect and even to feel affection for John, but I fear that 9-11 has so shaped his understanding of the world that he has come to see a whole culture of the world's people as foreign and hostile ... to see millions of people as alien and other. I worry that this will be more or less true for an entire generation, including the Class of 2005.

My experience as a pastor has taught me this: When trouble comes to any one of us, we can react either by pulling away from others and isolating ourselves --going it alone-- or we can respond by letting others embrace us and by embracing them.

The first response leads toward anger and bitterness. We can even come to love being angry and bitter. I have known those who have nursed their hurts until they have come to love being angry, resentful and bitter, and their very souls were poisoned by it.

The second response leads toward hesed. I have known those who have even come to love being kind, merciful, forgiving and reconciling -- to love it! I have known those who have been deeply hurt by life and instead of becoming bitter, they have used their own experience of being hurt to become so understanding of the hurts of others, that they have come to love being kind and merciful toward those whom we would least think deserve kindness -- to love it!

This is also true when trouble comes to our nation and to our globe. When trouble comes we can either isolate ourselves and become resentful and bitter, or we can choose hesed.

Is it possible? Can we turn the other check? Can we go the second mile? Can we love our enemies? Can we love those who do not love us? Or was Jesus just blowing smoke? (Mat 5: 38-48)

Micah asks an even harder question: Can we love to love our enemies? Can we love hesed?

You, Class of 2005, will answer this question for us. This may be the question for your generation. Can we love a world that we are not sure loves us? Can we love hesed? You will show us.

There is a story I first read in a book of sermons more than 30 years ago. For some reason it has lodged itself in my mind. It happened following the Korean War. A reporter went to Korea to write about what it was like there in the aftermath of the war. He came across an American nun, a nurse, who was treating wounded Korean soldiers -- the enemy.

Toward the end of the war, the Korean army had few supplies or medicines left. The soldiers' wounds had not been treated, and the wounds had become infected and gangrenous and ugly.

As the reporter watched the nun cutting away gangrenous flesh from a Korean soldier's leg, he held a handkerchief over his face and muttered under his breath, "I couldn't do that for all the money in the world."

The nun heard him. She paused in her work for a second and said to him, "Neither could I."

May this nun who loved hesed --kindness and mercy -- more than anything the world could offer her live in you and in me. And may she especially live in you, Beloved Class of 2005. May she especially live in you, for today we begin to entrust the world to your care. Please be kind.


Blogger John said...

You are correct that 9/11 has shaped my understanding of the world in a critical fashion. Yes, I have seen Islam as the 'other', and as an alien culture.

9/11 has made me very afraid. Over time, it is easier and easier for small nations, groups, and even individuals to develop nuclear weapons. I fear this future world of easy nuclear access. I think that we are in a race against time to civilize the Islamic world before it attacks us. And the Law of the Bomb still prevails, as it did during the Cold War. The horrible result of a terrorist nuclear attack on the U.S. would be an even worse reprisal in the Middle East.

We do not want to go down that road. We do not want the blood millions on our hands. That is why it is critical that we move quickly to spread the calming and pacifying effect of liberal democracy throughout the Islamic world.

You might find my writing alarming, but I want people to be scared of Islam. I don't think that we should fetishize it and view in a way that does reflect reality. It is by facing the reality of Islam that we can begin to deal with it.

I notice that although you quoted me, you did not refute my allegations. Was that agreement, or were you limited by time to not addressing these issues?

What is your solution? The clock of nuclear proliferation is ticking, and I'm scared.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...


I share your concern about access to small nuclear devices. I live three blocks from the US Capitol, so I think of it from time to time.

However, I visited Jordan in 2000 and met many educated, smart, pious, sincere Muslims. There is still anger about the establishment of Israel that folk will have to get over because Israel is not going away, and Zionism was itself a reaction to great pain and suffering. There is also anger because of U.S. unconditional support of Israel, which is understandable. But the folk I met with were looking for solutions, not bombs.

There were ways the Islamic culture was different -- much more machismo. It was in some ways like my parent's very moralistic values.

I have not been to the Middle East since 9-11, and since Shock and Awe, and since Abu Ghraib. I believe the crude muscle-flexing of Shock and Awe sent the message to folk that they'd better get bombs if they want to protect themselves. Those who live by the sword, etc.

My most pressing question is what is the church of Jesus Christ doing? I wrote a little about this in Constellation http://www.tcpc.org/resources/constellation/fall_03/snyder.htm. I know mission work in Muslem countries can be difficult, but still ...

(By the way, while news networks were showing a few people dancing in the streets after 9-11, I got dozens of reports from missionaries and other friends ofthat Muslems and Christians were gathering for prayer vigils in sympathy for American lives lost.)

I am not opposed to reasonable efforts to protect ourselves. I did not complain when authorities removed the mail boxes from my neighbor during the inauguration because they might be good places to hide bombs.

I think this kind of act, however, is just as --or more-- likely to come from a Timothy McVeigh. The hard question is how we can modersate violence and hatred, and I think we make both a theological and a tactical error if we assume the capacity for violence resides with one particular group of people.

Anyway, I appreciate being in conversation. I am sure I am isolated in a politically liberal city and a somewhat liberal congregation. It is good to read your blog and others. Thanks.

7:26 PM  

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