Remembering Howard Thurman

September 22nd, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 16:1-13

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Luke

Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable.  There is no easy interpretation for this parable.  Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know.  Why is his master happy to be cheated?  We cannot say.  Why is an accountant’s swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell.  What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend (“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations”? ) We do not see.  What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs?  Little at all, except that they all deal with money.  How did this story make it into Luke’s travel narrative?  It is not clear.  Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to “manage wealth in the direction of justice?” (Ringe)  Perhaps!  And, most of all, where is Jesus, The Divine Mystery Incarnate (Spirit and Presence Both) to be found in our reading today? The parable of the dishonest steward has really just one meaning, and it is very good news:  Faith gives spiritual health in the midst of change, including the transition into college life, in the voice of Presence Spirit, Spirit Presence.

Let us recall the mystery of Christ, the Stranger in our midst.  Spirit.  Presence. We can announce his spirited presence today, again today.  He is among us:  dealing with issues we dismiss…speaking with people whom we dislike…considering options we disdain…selecting vocations that do not yet fully exist…expanding spaces that we constrict…accepting lifestyles that we reject…attending to possibilities that we ignore…approaching horizons that we avoid…healing wounds that we disguise…questioning assumptions that we enjoy…protecting persons whom we mistreat…making allowances that we distrust.  So, strangely, is He among us.

For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him.  In the strange world of the Bible.  In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church.  Hidden in the brutal estrangement of our personal life.  Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, “L’Etranger”, “The Stranger”.

His spirited presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political.  He draws us, lures us, and enchants us.  So he sets us free.

For St. Luke in chapters 9 to 19 has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, “On the Road”.  We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church.  We are making a trip to the promised land.  We are headed in a certain direction.  With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey.  Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread.  There they became the slaves of Pharaoh.  But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness.  He brought them the ten commandments.  At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey.  In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed.  They even built a temple, and chose a King.  Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong.  Although the prophets did warn them, listen to Jeremiah today, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc.  On these hundreds of years of history depends the cry of Jeremiah, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep, night and day, for the slain of my poor people.” (9:1). Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.  Faith heals, manages, handles the hardest of change.

Luke’s mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the maelstrom of wild, unexpected change and economic crisis.  On the road, the journey of faith, the Gospel of Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses, the issue of money.  Remember how Luke traces the Gospel.  Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor.  John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward.  Isaiah’s words and hopes are affirmed.  Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his ‘sermon on the plain’.  Remember the parable of the ‘rich fool’, “tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?”  Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions.  And, by the way, get ready in conclusion, to meet Lazarus and Dives.  Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a community and as a community of faith and as individuals.

Two Christological Perils

 

            Our son Ben said once of his grandfather, ‘I love to hear his voice’.   One year, his grandfather survived a nearly mortal illness.  There are not words to convey the joy, the gratitude, that we his family experienced in his escape.  Those who have been on the brink of death can appreciate the gospel promise, ‘I give them eternal life and they shall never perish and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’(John 10:28).  Not all such deliverance has an earthly horizon.  Some freedom and some grace must await us across the river.  And I don’t mean Harvard.  But some comes to us here.   He and my mother lived here in Boston 1950-1953.  In 1975, he wrote the following sentences in the back of a book.

            The temptation for the people of the church in every age is to believe: a) Jesus is only human; b) Jesus only appeared to be human.  For those who settle on ‘a’ there is no power, no mystery, no pull to pry them out of much of life.  For those who choose ‘b’ there is no hope because mankind cannot ascend the heights of divinity.  Both are heresies.  The pious wise men of 325ad  saw, though they could not explain it, that he was fully human and fully divine.

 

            My parents departed from Boston in 1953 just as Howard Thurman came to town.  Rev. Peter Gomes recalled, one year, as he and I exchanged pulpits, that George Buttrick and Howard Thurman used to do the same.  Thurman’s voice carries us into two dimensions, two realms of reality.  He was 100 years ahead of his time, 50 years ago, so he is still 50 years ahead of you (and me).  He evoked the Christ of Common Ground, transcendent, universal, shared, unconfined, free.  He evoked the Christ of the Disinherited, immanent, particular, grasped, embodied, back against the wall.  Two Christs.  Spirit and Presence.  Calling out to you to know the grain of your own wood, not to cut against the grain of your own wood…

                        We turn for support to Howard Thurman.  To his book, THE SEARCH FOR COMMON GROUND.  To his book, JESUS AND THE DISINHERITED.

 

  1. Thurman and Transcendence:  The Search for Common Ground (Hillary)

 

Spirit.  Hillary, what does Howard Thurman say about Spirit?

As Thurman wrote in the Search for Common Ground, “The Hopi Indian myth carries still, in its thematic emphasis on “the memory of a lost harmony””.  (CG, 40)

There is a unity of living structures…that includes rocks, plants, animals, and humans.  Antibodies and antigens.  And the arrangement of a cell in a human child (CG, 40).

Thurman cites Plato: ‘Until philosophers are kings…and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside…cities will never have rest from their evils’.  (CG, 53)

 

In the voice of Howard Thurman, 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, there is a regard for mystery, silence, presence, the transcendent.  One in kinship with all of creation. One in kinship with every human being, so that nothing human is foreign to us.  One in transformative engagement with our natural world, our home, our condition, our circumstance.  One in openness to the great differences and diversities of personal, that is to say religious, expression, including myth from long ago and far away.

The Spirit.

  1. Thurman and Immanence:  Jesus and the Disinherited (Mahalia)

 

Mahalia, what did Howard Thurman say about Presence?

 

‘Jesus rejected hatred.  It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength.  It was not because he lacked the incentive.  Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.  He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God.  If a man’s ego has been stabilized, resulting in a sure grounding of his sense of personal worth and dignity, then he is in a position to appraise his own intrinsic powers, gifts, talents and abilities.  He no longer views his equipment through the darkened lenses of those who are largely responsible for his social position’ (JATD, 53).

The basic fact is that Christianity, as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker, appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed…In him was life, and the life was the light of all people…Wherever this spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.

 

The Presence, as well.

 

An Invitation

 

How will you live out the deep river truths, spirit and presence?  How will you live down its opposition, however you understand it?  Have you truly intuited the brevity of life?  Have you really absorbed the capacity we have as humans to harm others?  Have you faced the dualism of decision that is the marrow of every Sunday, every prayer, every sermon, every service?  Are you ready to make a break for it?  Are you ready to discover freedom in disappointment and grace in dislocation?  Are you set to place one hand in that of The Spirit and the other in that of the Presence?

As Director Katherine Kennedy once said, “The beauty of Thurman is that he wasn’t trying to convert people to Christianity. Rather, he wanted people to see that there is a common ground we can reach by respecting one another’s differences, while still holding onto those beliefs that are uniquely ours.”

Coda

Jan and I came over here to Boston fourteen years ago, in order to invest the last quarter of our ministry in the next generation of preachers, teachers, ministers of the gospel.  You hear today voices that will change the world for the better.  A few years ago, I asked in Thurman fashion a half dozen undergraduates to say something about Jesus.

Tom, what did they say?

Jesus

 

is all the world to me…

loves me…

is perpetually ripe….

means freedom…

shows us that self giving love is the way to life…is my transforming friend…

has got my back…

is the consoler of the poor…the lamp of the poor …

is unconditional love…

is the constant companion on life’s journey…

My greatest gift…

Patient pursuer….

In love with us….

the Hound of Heaven…

Friend on the Journey….

challenges us because he loves us…

brings out our best self…

 

He is…

Known in the promise of this season

 

Reflected in the joys of autumn

 

Overheard in the words and vows of commitment

 

Expanded into the lengthening evening daylight

 

Enjoyed in the gatherings of families and friends

 

Celebrated in the ceremonies of completion

 

And carried forward from this hour of worship and day of remembrance 

 

In the words of Emily Dickinson:


I stepped from plank to plank
A slow and cautious way;
the stars above my head I felt,
About my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next
would be my final inch.
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call experience.

All Count

September 15th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Luke 15:1-10

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        A long time ago JB Phillips wrote a good book titled ‘Your God Is Too Small’. On another day, a sermon from St. Luke might pursue that theme. But the parables of sheep, coin and prodigal, Luke 15, take us in the opposite direction. Sometimes, ‘Our God Is Too Large’. All count, all sheep, all coins, all prodigals, all however small, all count.

Listener

        All listeners count. They say on the radio you should think of speaking just to one person. Have one person in mind, not a blurry assembly of many. So, Krista Tippet has one person in mind, say, when she interviews Imani Perry over the radio waves from Chautauqua Institution. Or the Red Sox play by play announcer has one fan in mind, not a township, say. Perhaps we should sometimes do the same here. (After all, if we have 200 in the sanctuary, and 20,000 listening from afar, that is a factor difference of 100.) So…

        In southern New Hampshire, it may be, then, a woman is listening this morning. The house is quiet. Her teenage children, one back from college, are still asleep. Her husband is golfing, probably stopping right now after the ninth hole for any early beer and hot dog, before the back nine. She is alone though not lonely. She plunks a bagel in the toaster, and sips coffee. She loves WBUR, and tolerates the Sunday morning worship service. That said, she loves the music and tolerates the sermon. She loves the familiar pieces, ‘Lead me Lord’ and the sung benediction (I wish he would talk less so that I could hear that more often.), and tolerates the new sounds. She loves the old hymns, but sometimes a new one will spark something in her too.

        The house is solid, the roof is new last summer. The lawn is mowed. Her kids are grown and growing. They will take you for a ride, she thinks. She does not love her job, but who does? Her husband seems happy enough, and they too together. Men. She heard William Sloane Coffin say once that ‘Preachers are egotists with a theological alibi’. She smiles and thinks ‘Men are egotists with a cultural alibi’. Men. She chuckles.

        The Gospel, she realizes, is about a woman cleaning a house. That sounds way too familiar. But it is good that the woman is the star. Actually, she now remembers, in this Gospel of Luke woman are often set so. She mulls that for a while. In the story, the woman is hunting for a coin. She thinks about last Christmas when for love nor money could not find the bracelet that she wanted to wear for the company party. Then she found it on a snow day in February. The sermon is about finding the lost, including the outcast, hunting for the one in a hundred in real need, and how God’s grace finds the lost, includes the outcast and hunts for those in need.

        At book club last Tuesday, they talked about politics, she remembers, as the sermon drones on. She vaguely hopes the choir will sing that ‘walk through the valley in peace’ afterward. At book club she thought about the last national election and how she voted. She is middle of road, middle aged, middle class. She had an idea about why she voted as she did, but she now has a funny feeling about that. Somebody at book club had said, ‘I realize about that now what I meant is not what it means. I meant one thing but it turned out to mean something else.’ She enjoys the bagel. The sermon meanders on. Where does he get this stuff?, she wonders.

        Then for some reason she thinks about last February when they went to San Diego. They decided to go down past Chula Vista and into Tijuana. There is a piercing, sharp memory of those poor children, looking into the train window, some with shoes and teeth and some not. She thinks about her two teenagers. Then her mind wanders back to her grandmother who came over from Scotland, and held every penny tight as if it were a hundred dollars, and counted every coin in her purse twice, and waited for the sales to buy anything, not that she ever bought anything. Then she thinks of those families in the Bahamas, one blind man who had to walk out of his blown down house carrying his disabled teenaged son, right in the middle of the storm. She thinks about her two sleeping teenagers. She remembers reading in college a book by Howard Thurman, The Disinherited. She thinks about her two teenagers, and wonders what they are reading…or are they reading at all? The sermon ends.

        And the choir sings. Come noon she walks out onto the patio, thinking about the week ahead. All count. All listeners count.

Sound

        All words count. Last year this week we went to celebrate a wedding bear New York City. Driving home, past the Long Island Sound, my wife asked, ‘What do they call it that?’ Sound? A dexterous monosyllable.

        Is your faith sound?

        Does it have breadth, like a body of water?

        Is it reliable, durable, sound rather than unsound?

        Does it sound right, does it sound of off, does it make a sound, as the trumpet shall sound?

        Is your faith broad, durable and audible?

        Is your life? Broad, durable, audible? Here is a question: do you use email or voice mail, sight or sound?

        What is sound? What sound do you make and hear and revere?

        A long time ago, my dad gave me, with intent and portent, a book I believe titled, THE MAYO BROTHERS. He had read it and loved it. I set it aside for future reading. Fortunately, 50 years later, Ken Burns has saved me.

        One of the SOUND features, the saving features, of our shared, patriotic, national, purple common hope is, simply, health. Health, salvus, is a mode of salvation. If Gandhi rightly could teach that for the hungry God must come, and only, as bread, then we could add, with the Brothers Mayo, that for the sick, God must come, and only, as health, as medicine, as doctoral care, as nursing love, as healing. We might differ, a bit, about delivery and cost and structure. But when you have appendicitis, you want a good surgeon. When you break your arm in a boating accident, you want a skilled orthopedic clinic, nearby. When your hip is worn out and you need new one, you want somebody who knows what they are doing. We have an easier time cutting costs on other peoples’ medical care than we do cutting costs on our own. The place to begin thinking about medical frugalities is from your own hospital bed, when your own healing, that is life, is at stake, with your own family standing around in anxiety and tears. Most good thinking starts at the hospital bed side, in any case, as does much good praying. We say a direct personal word of blessing to those listening live right now in hospital, in nursing home, in rehabilitation, and right at home.

        But as Alf Landon said, ‘I am liberal, not a spend thrift’. Sound, that. So, we can still keep Ben Franklin close, ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’. All count. All words, even those with single syllables, all count.

Loss

        All losses count. Today’s parable is about loss. Think for a moment about loss. About the loss of love, say, or about falling out of love.

        Sometimes we fall out of love. Love of a job, love of a house, love of a vocation or avocation, and, well, other loves too.

        More is written in all modes about falling in love, and so it should be. But sometimes the reverse occurs. What once drew now repels, what once beckons now repulses, what once enticed now sours.

        Our youngest, Christopher, is an athlete. People would come to watch him at age 5, in children’s soccer, to see how many goals he could score in 10 minutes. I saw him hit the only hole in one I have seen live. He played baseball, basketball, football, golf, and, especially soccer. He was team captain on a good team. Yet I saw something memorable in his senior year of high school. He fell out of love with soccer, his favorite sport. I watched him game after game becoming more and more listless, less and less engaged, no longer seeing the field, no longer leading the squad, content to play his position and finish the game. His talent was the same, his ability the same, his condition and capability the same. He just no

        longer loved the game after 12 years of loving it so. He really could give no explanation, though he did try, and I did pry. His heart just was no longer in it.

        Have you ever fallen out of love? Academics might pick up again Richard Russo’s novel, Straight Man, which is largely about a man who falls out of love—with his work, with his employer, with his co-workers, with his vocation, with his parents, with his children, with his baseball team, with his friends, with his place in life. It is an uproariously funny novel. Yet, underneath, it is a meditation on what it means to fall out of love. Sometimes something happens to somebody that steals from them a way of loving something or someone, that breaks whatever energy current was running, or that somehow fractures an ability to love. You have seen it, in life, in pastoral care, in reading, and in reflection.

        Sometimes you just fall out of love. Better to admit it, whatever you end up doing about it. Sometimes the way out is the way through, through love lost to love found, found like a coin after cleaning and sweeping and hunting. All count. All loves count, both past and future.

Found

        All souls count. The gospel comes in meager morsels. 3 years of preaching, teaching and healing: the ministry of Jesus. 27 short books: a New Testament. 12 original followers, fisherfolk and others: the disciples. An audacious claim, God-Love-Resurrection-Faith-Heaven, resting on a tiny patch of land, an outback area of history, a single individual, a scandalous, small, particularity. Jesus Christ and him crucified. Yet today you in love may of a sudden be ready, in the small, in the heart, for a new love, a divine love, a loving life of faith.

        Nancy Marsh Hartman, of blessed memory, lived faith as a singing Methodist all her life, right here, and said often, Life is how you take it.

        Rudyard Kipling was once addressing students at McGill University in Montreal. The lure of having things and even the power of success all sound so good if you listen quick. Yet, powerful successful egotism is the ultimate failure. Kipling said: Someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.

        Speaking of listeners, from New Haven our dear friend Dr. Kristopher Kahle sent a line from the Polanus, a reformed theologian: God is able to raise up for Godself children from stones—he can establish inanimate creatures as the heralds of divine glory. As with a coin lost.

        Lost, we. And then, of a sudden, by dint of a still small voice, found, in God, found, of God, found, by God. All count. All souls count, all. You count. You count. You count.

Joy

        8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins,[a] if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Counting the Cost

September 8th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 18: 1-11

Luke 14: 25-33

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‘One small step for (a)man, one giant leap for mankind.’

            Our steps fifty summers ago were up and down the red rock mountains of Cimarron NM, and Philmont Scout Ranch, including July 20, 1969.   We ascended that day the sheer rock cliff known as the ‘Tooth of Time’, fourteen fourteen year olds and a beleaguered kindly insurance man scoutmaster.  ‘They should be on the moon by now’, he said.   But the detail we would only learn coming out of the wilderness some days later.

 ‘We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’  Hard.

            That was said in a New England voice, with a New England accent, by a young, imperfect but brilliant New England President, who could celebrate Washington DC and its combination of northern charm and southern efficiency, and could compliment a room full of eminent dinner guests by saying they were the most intelligent dinner gathering ever convened in the White House, with the exception of those evenings when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.  He was a war hero, but an accidental one, as he said that he became such in a simple way: ‘they sank my boat’.    His wife could speak French, charm Royalty, set fashion directions, comment on musical selections, and light up a room, and the globe, with a smile.  He said, in introduction, ‘You will recognize me as the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris’.   Grace.  Charm.  Elegance.  A fit for the office and for the house and for the role.  Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

            Decision, self-sacrifice, service above self.  The greater good.

            And look at us now. Look at our national ethos, culture, rhetoric and leadership now.

            SMH.  ‘Shakin’ my head’.

            We know better.  Or at least you do, New England.   You know better.

            Out on the Tooth of Time we looked at the stars on that night, July 20, 1969.  The world of possibilities in the world around us flickered and sparkled and blazed.   It asked of us a certain height.

            The Gospel, Luke 14, interpreted here bears up under the weight of shame, of bitter conflict, of family feud.   The Gospel gives you the grace to endure, to withstand, to withstand when you cannot understand.  And its means to such a saving end?  Arithmetic.  Counting.  Counting the cost.  Hear the Gospel of Luke 14, the saving power of arithmetic.

Exposition

            Count the cost.  Ahead of time, count the cost.  By way of illustration:  in business, and in war.  In war that is big business and in business that is warfare.  And in everything in between.  Count the cost.

            Do the arithmetic, study the detail, count.

            You, careful listener, you recognize that Luke 14: 25-33 is not Jesus talking, but Luke writing.  You realize that Jesus left no written record, like Socrates in that.  You recognize that he spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and whether or not he was literate.  You recall the arithmetic of his life, death and destiny, the years 4bce to 33ce, and the distance of those from our reading, Luke 14, in 85ce, to the earliest (some would date Luke much later).  What we hear this morning is, in the first instance, not the voice of Jesus but the composition of Luke.   Of course, and granted, there will be traces of Jesus’ voice, along the way, Luke 9-19, especially, and especially therein the parables, his own mode of teaching, without which nothing.  In all, though, and on the bigger whole, this is not Jesus’ voice but Luke’s writing.  This makes all the arithmetical difference in the world, these 50 years and 2 opposed forms of rhetoric.

            Now, it may be, gazing again at the bulletin, or ruminating on the remembered reading of the Gospel, the high-water mark of our worship each Sunday, you begin to wonder, to ponder, to question.   Here are your questions, or some of them.

            Why this discussion of hatred, when the Gospel in other clothing is about love?  Why this denigration of family, when the family is one of the protected entities in the Decalogue:  protection of truth, of communication, of speech, of worship, of family, of life, of property, of marriage, of law, and of commerce?  Therein, whence the rejection of life itself, when otherwise the Gospel acclaims life, having life, and having life in abundance?   There seems to be some counting and accounting needed.

            More so:  What is the mention here of the cross?  Jesus in this narrative is preaching, teaching, healing, going about in Galilee and Judea a free itinerant prophet.  All of a sudden, here comes a word from much later, ‘cross’.  Was Jesus making a prediction that only he could see and understand?  Or is this a clue to the fountain and origin of this passage?  Cross?  Cross?  I thought we were sharing parables and blessing children and rounding up disciples.  Moreso, the cross is ‘one’s own cross’.  The writer seems to assume that all will get the reference, including you, and me, to the cross.  How all this talk about the cross when Jesus just now in Luke is teaching in parables and healing the sick, a long way from Jerusalem and ‘the cross’?

            Even more so:  How is it that all of a sudden, everyone around Jesus is expected to be a monk?  Ridding oneself of all, all, not most, not much, but all possessions?  All.  That’s at a lot, even in an era of tunics, ephods, camels, donkeys, sandals, fishing, shepherding and travel by foot.  All?  What is transpiring here?

            Nor does this seem metaphorical, in a way that our current preaching would likely choose.   Hatred—well, you know, not exactly hatred but mature self-differentiation.  Life—well, you know, not exactly life in the sense of breath and nourishment, but in the sense of deep meaning.  Cross—well, you know, not exactly crucifixion in the bloody and excruciating physical sense, but self-discipline, more in the sense of yoga.  Possessions—well, you know, not in exactly the form of car, home, bank account and pension, but in the sense of a general materiality, of not letting your possessions possess you.  No, actually Luke 14 does not seem or sound metaphorical at all, regarding hatred, life, cross, or possessions.  It sounds literal enough.

            Forgive what is only an interpretative guess, even less than that, yet after many decades of hearing these harsh words, even in Luke–the Gospel of peace, the Gospel of love, the Gospel of church, the Gospel of freedom—these are phrases that sound like the esoteric, ascetic, anti-worldliness of the emerging gnostic movement.  It is as if here, in Luke and Matthew, by way of Q, some measure of the enthusiastic pessimism, the bodily asceticism, the turning away from the world which we know in full in full Gnosticism, has grown up alongside the gospel, wheat and tares together sown.    There are strong parallels, almost identical, in the Gospel of Thomas, a gnosticizing document of about the same time as Luke. And there are strong parallels in Poimandres, a fully gnostic document of about the same time as Luke (Fitzmeier, Anchor, 1064).

            Uncompromising demands regarding self, regarding family, and regarding possessions may well be part of the life of faith, warns Luke out of the gnostic shadows of his sources.  Like all serious engagements, this spiritual one is not be entered into lightly, but reverently, discreetly and in the fear of God.  ‘Jesus counsels his followers not to decide on discipleship without advance, mature self-probing’.   It is as if Jesus is saying, ‘come along, I want to make this for you the hardest decision of your life’.

            So.  This may mean that the struggles under this passage of Holy Scripture, our sufficient rule of faith and practice, are from 85ad, not 30ad.  That there is in the emerging church a set of conflicts that require some arithmetic, some counting and accounting.  How much home, how much away?  How much kindness, how much honesty?  How much self-affirmation and how much self-abnegation?  How much materiality and how much spirituality?  Before you set out, to go to college or to take a job or to move in together or to get married or to sell the farm or to go to war or to build a tower, well, you might want to…do the math.

Explanation

            A few years ago, both at Marsh Chapel and in other pulpits, and not to worry if you remember it not, we will not be offended (much), we offered a sermon on the theme ‘Exit or Voice?’.  The heart of that sermon engaged a dilemma familiar to many, perhaps to you:  do I stay and lift my voice in a situation I find intolerable, or do I leave an intolerable situation and lose my voice to effect its change?   An economic study from MIT in the 1970’s, on a similar though commercially related thesis had partly inspired the sermon.  The question in the Gospels generally, about freedom and determinism, human will and divine will, gave the theological background to the sermon.

            The difficulty—exit or voice?—is in some ways a daily one for people of faith, in matters tiny and gigantic.   It requires arithmetic, and a counting of cost, an accounting.  Do I leave my church because of its current discrimination against gays, or do I stay to lift my voice in opposition to that discrimination?  Do I leave my party, perhaps the party of my upbringing, now become party of ethnic hatred and rhetorical ugliness, or do I stay and live to fight another day?  Do I leave regular relationship with my extended family out of real painful hurt occasioned in conversation, or do I stay and take my lumps and hope for sunshine at the next holiday gathering?  The determining impact and influence of conditions and situations, well beyond my control, is undeniable.  But so is the freedom, or sense of freedom, I feel to make a choice, make a decision, and make some difference, one way or another.  You will not be surprised to know that the theme still enervates, reverberates, and agitates, near and far.  Call it a daily cruciform arithmetic.

            Here is an example and application of our gospel lesson. Three years ago, summer 2016, David Brooks took time to consider a meaningful, cultural and personal issue, perhaps a newly nuanced though unintended approach to ‘exit, voice’, ‘at the edge of inside’.   He starts, though with different language, at the juncture of exit and voice.  Then, adds:  there’s also a third position in any organization:  those who are at the edge of the inside.  These people are within the organization, but they’re not subsumed by group think.  They work at the boundaries, bridges, and entranceways…I borrow this concept from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who lives in Albuquerque.  His point is that people who live at the edge of the inside have crucial roles to play…You are free from (a group’s) central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways…A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between these two loves.  A person at the edge of inside can be the strongest reformer (think of Martin Luther King)…A person on the edge of the inside knows how to take advantage of the standards and practices of the organization but not be imprisoned by them…Now more than ever we need people who have the courage to live on the edge of inside, who love their parties and organizations so much that they can critique them as a brother, operate on them from the inside as a friend and dauntlessly insist that they live up to their truest selves.  (NYT, June 2016)

            One could hear, here, encouragement for University congregations and pulpits, at once on the edge of the academic inside, and on the edge of the ecclesiastical inside too.  One could hear, here, a question for you to take home, about your social location in gospel ministry.  Again, with Luke, a reminder of the need for some basic arithmetic.

Coda

            It is a matter of arithmetic, of counting and accounting.  Try to fit that for which you hope into the waist and shirt size of the clothing you have to put on.  Calculate.  (Such an interesting word, referring to counting pebbles!) Sometimes that counting and accounting is found inside and sometimes outside.  Sometimes this is about what you can hold in your hand.   We begin 21 minutes ago in New England, where also we shall conclude. Not all great poets and poems come from New England.  But…But you are now in New England.  So, to conclude, Robert Frost,  ‘And what I would not part with I have kept’.   Be able to count what you can count on your own experience.  And leave the rest.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

 -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

A Day of New Beginnings

September 1st, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14: 1, 7-14

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Tradition

We believe in God who has created and is creating, who has come in the true person, Jesus, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the spirit…

We remember and respect the ten commandments, Thou shalt have no other God before me…

We recall and are nourished by the Beatitudes, Blessed are the poor in spirit…

We affirm the creed, though perhaps not in every phrase with all fulsome understanding, We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…

And we begin the day, the Lord’s Day, the first day Matriculation day, the lasting and every day of God’s mercy and peace and love with hope.  We are here to offer a word of faith, in a pastoral voice, toward a common hope.

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

 

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

 

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

(E Dickinson)

Matriculation

Last year on Matriculation Sunday, following the Matriculation service at Agganis Arena, three freshmen come up upon me, walking back this way on Commonwealth Avenue, now nicely restored, in the heat of that day, one year ago.  They could see that I continue to try to earn the prize as the slowest walker at BU, and they graciously accommodated my pace.  We walked.  We strolled.  We sauntered.  We were flaneurs, flaneur dans les route.  We lollygagged.  There is time, even in college, for real life.  One from China, one from Maryland born in Puerto Rico, one from Florida.  We talked about the Matriculation service.  They had gracious, kind things to say.  Especially the third, who said:  “Well, I am the first person in my family to go to college.  I am first generation student.  Today at Matriculation I learned that 17% of my class are first generation college students.  That really was meaningful to me.  And then I heard the President, President Brown say, that he himself was first generation college student, the first in his family to go to college.  And he has a PhD.  And he’s the President!”  Another asked her, “Do you want to be a college president some day?”  “If I have time, I might!”  What an exciting, joyful day this is, full of new possibilities.

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all.

Parable

Walk with me some day, in a slow pace, and tell me your hopes, along Commonwealth Avenue.  Come alongside me and tell me what you hope to have time for down the road.

And listen now and then for a parable or two.  Jesus taught in parables, teaching not one thing without a parable, and today’s two are clear as a bell two millennia later:  one on humility and one on generosity;  be self-critical, self-aware, count others better than yourself, make space at the table; and, be generous, give to those who need, who cannot give you something back, tithe, remember those less fortunate;  one on humility and one on generosity.  Good reminders at Matriculation.

So taught and inspired, we will offer a third parable for the day, for those starting a four year journey.

Be careful.  Four years from now, may your happy memories be many, and your sour regrets be few.  I preached for a week in Ohio in June. After the Sunday service, a college classmate of mine came up and re-introduced himself, Lenny Baker.  My freshman year at Ohio Wesleyan, Lenny had taken me home for Easter break, in Canton, Ohio. He is now retired, married to a Methodist minister—just a great guy with whom I had sadly lost touch.  I had not seen him since graduation in 1976.   Later that week, at luncheon, he rose to tell a college story about us.  I admit I was a little nervous about what he might narrate!  He said:

We lived together our sophomore year together in the TKE house, which was a little wild.  Bob was often, though not always, a voice of reason.  One day some of us went up to the roof with a cat we somehow caught, for which we had made a parachute.  We were going to throw the cat over the roof of the three-story ante-bellum house, when he said, ‘Don’t do that.  You will kill that cat.  Look, instead, experiment. Go down in the kitchen and get a milk bottle, and fill it to the weight of the cat, then use the parachute first with milk bottle.  You will see then if your parachute works.  You know, pilot your idea first.’  Well the brothers of TKE were not inclined to delay and debated that for some time, but in the end voted for the experiment and fetched the milk bottle.  We latched up the parachute, counted to three, and threw the flying milk bottle off the roof of that three story—former stop on the underground railroad in mid-Ohio by the way—fraternity house.  It fell on the driveway and splattered into smithereens.  The brothers silently let the cat go free, with eight lives left to spare.  I said, ‘Lenny, I don’t remember that.  Is that true?’ ‘Bob, I have been telling that story for thirty years and it sure is true.  It is a happy college memory’.   

Of course, there is a Matriculation moral to this feline fable.  Be careful.  Think twice.  May your happy memories be many, and your regrets few.

Hope

May the Gracious God, holy and just, on this day of new beginnings, give us hope and joy and anticipation, as we in faith lift a common hope.

A common hope that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

A common hope that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

A common hope that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

A common hope that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make fine education and excellent health care truly available to all children, poor and rich.

A common hope that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

A common hope that our families, in some many ways divided, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey but also talk turkey and pass the potatoes but also pass along a word of kindness in a spirit of honesty.

A common hope that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

A common hope that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that your own days be long upon the earth.

Today we lift in common, a hope not of this world only, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just life but eternal life, not just earth but heaven, not just creation but new creation.

We sing with our forebears of old: Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be, let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee, changed from glory into glory, ‘til in heaven we take our place, ‘til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

Weight of the World

August 25th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:10-17

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Let there be peace among us and let us not be part of our own or another’s oppression.

It was a perfect late fall day.  You know one of those days where the warmth of the sun on your face and the light jacket that you are wearing has everyone remarking to each other that it looks like a mild New England winter may be in the making.  “If it could feel like this in February, that would be wonderful”. Nodding in agreement with the full knowledge that New England winters never work like this.  

I had been ordained to the priesthood two months prior and was serving as an assistant priest in a parish west of Boston, the beginning of the church year was in high gear.  Parish activities were fully underway, church school, bible study, pastoral response ministry, cooking lunch for those on the margins, the resale shop to name a few of the goings on.  

That day I had just returned from visiting Ellen one of our homebound parishioners.  While her body didn’t allow her to attend Sunday worship, her mind was sharp, and her quick wit was always provided a delightful visit

I walked into the office and our parish administrator said “Rob called and said his son was gone and is sobbing uncontrollably”.  “He want either you or the rector” to call him immediately. I must note here due to the sensitivity nature of the story, I am using pseudonyms.  Rob’s and his family were a fixture in the town. His wife was his high-school sweetheart, his sons were smart, popular, and handsome and played a lot of sports. I called and said “Hi Rob, M said to call you”.  Rob replied: “my son is gone, my son is gone” still sobbing uncontrollably. I said: “I am on my way to your house right now”. On my way out the door the rector was getting out of his car having run out to meet with someone and grab a sandwich.  I said “hand me your sandwich, Rob just called and said his son is gone, I was on my way to the house but feel it is better if you go”. “I’ll stay here and hold space”.

The rector called me a little while later from Rob’s house and said that Rob’s son who was a freshman in college had taken his own life.  It hit all of us like a brick wall. Rob’s wife and his mother were both in shock. The entire town was in shock. News travels fast in a small town.  Many of our youth group members and their friends came to the church and wept openly. Many parents came to the church and wept openly and held their children close.  Many people we had never meet came to the church as a place of solace. 

Later that evening I was sitting in my office which overlooked the side street where the church was located  an saw three police cars and an ambulance pull up and run into a house three doors up. I only saw flashlights scanning a corner room when more students came into my office.  We found out the next day another young person had taken their life. In the following weeks there would be additional young people who would take their own lives. The air hung heavy everywhere in the town.  Parents were fearful, youth were fearful. The schools partnered with the town and houses of worship to be with each other. To provide support, to hold space, to offer a shoulder or a meal, to provide love. An entire town was weighed down with grief.  

I don’t know if the expression “we made it through” is an apt description.  However, we were all bent over carrying the weight of the world, the weight of grieving parents, the weight of grieving young people, the weight of an entire town.  What I do know is that people in this town and surrounding towns came together, supported each other, cooked for each other, held each other, cried with each other, held space for each other when on some days that was all that was all we could offer.  Rob and his family have moved out of the town but is still active in the church and he serves on a foundation for suicide prevention. The school system and houses of worship still work together most recently to address the opioid epidemic among young people.  A tragedy brought people together. It is love and an awareness that no one should have to shoulder anything alone that keeps them together.

I want us to try something this Sunday.  You know they say that when we are tense we tend to hold our shoulders up near our ears.  So try this, hold your shoulders up to your ears in a tense position. Then try to move your head to the left, now to the right.  It’s hard right? Now try and move your body, to the left, to the right. It’s hard. Now let go with an exhale.

There is an expression “he / she looks like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.” What we just did was an example of that statement.  

When you are carrying the weight of the world it is hard to move.

We don’t know what weight the bent over woman was carrying: perhaps she was the victim of some sort of oppression, perhaps her binary pronoun did not match their non-binary authenticity, perhaps she was the victim of domestic abuse.  If it wasn’t for the fact she was bent over she would just have been another woman going on with her day to day activities.  

But Jesus noticed that she was carrying the weight of the world and had been for so long that people assumed that she had an infirmity.  But Jesus sees her suffering and he heals her on the Sabbath. Notice here that Jesus approaches the woman. Not the usual healing stores of the infirmed approaching Jesus for healing. 

In the second half of the Gospel the woman recedes from the narrative and we move into Jesus’ encounter with the leader of the synagogue. It’s not the healing that concerns the leader of the synagogue, it’s that Jesus heals on the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath was meant to be a complete day of rest as God had rested on the 7th day.  No work was to be done; no farming, no fishing, no shopping, no cooking, no healing.  The leader was caught up in the when’s and the where’s of the letter of the law by pointing out that this was not the day.  Pick another day to heal. But Jesus saw the same law much differently. The law did not trump God’s action when it came to God’s children especially this child of God, the daughter of Abraham.  From where Jesus stood, what better way to honor the Sabbath than by setting a captive free?

This is why he came after all.  Early on in Luke’s Gospel Jesus made know his work in the world as he read the words of Isiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19. 

The invitation that Jesus gave the woman who was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders is the same invitation he extends to us today.

Jesus says: Stand up!  Breathe and let your shoulders down with whatever the weight of the world that you are bearing.

He invites us to stand up and be transformed, and to be released from the things that leave us bent over, feeling low and less than, to be released from whatever bondage messes with our self-worth and our self-esteem.  We are invited to come from out of the shadows and valleys, and into the light of God’s amazing and healing love.

So many times we try to put our best foot forward and never let on how burdened we may really feel.  Some of us come into a place of worship with our brokenness and we feel that if we keep a smile on our faces and pretend that everything is alright no one will ever know the weight that we are facing.  Once inside places where we think we are safe we still are unable to look up and see the world around us. We may feel alone or forgotten. We may struggle to see and remember that God is present. But like the woman who stood tall in the synagogue that day, we are the children of a loving and caring God.  God’s grace working among us and through us helps us to stand up straight.

This week in a news release from the Public Affairs Office of the Episcopal Church the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry and the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, The Rt. Rev. James B. Magness have invited Episcopal Churches to take part in a national action to remember and honor the first enslaved Africans who landed in English North America this week in 1619.  The Bishops have asked that Episcopal churches toll their bells for on minute today at 3:00 pm Eastern Time.

To quote Bishop Curry “I’m inviting us as The Episcopal Church to join in this commemoration as part of our continued work or racial healing and reconciliation.  At 3:00 pm we can join together with people of other Christian faiths and people of all faiths to remember those who came as enslaved, who came to a country that one day would proclaim liberty. And so we remember them and pray for a new future for us all.”

Bishop Magness in his response says “ The 2019 commemoration of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to North America is for me a highly personal occasion.  As a descendent of slaveholders, and as a white male who came of age in the racially polarized south during the 1950’s and 1960’s, I am painfully aware of my own complicity in furthering and perpetuating the subjugation of my African American brothers and sisters.  At a time when the racial divide in this country seems to be growing rather than diminishing, we are in dire need of a moment, an event when we can stop and take stock of our responsibilities to bring races together, perhaps in a new manner that truly is an embrace of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ”.

The Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia further notes “The first African people were brought to this continent in harrowing and dehumanizing circumstances.  As we remember the 400th anniversary of their survival, I pray that we will do the hard work of reconciliation that God longs for us to do.” “God forgive us. God give us courage and resolve. And God bless us.”

On the cover of the The New York Times Magazine Section of August 16th there is a grey hued photo of water and the caption below reads “In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia.  It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. American was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.  

The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times was born to not only chronicle that day but to place the consequences of slavery at the center of a larger story that we tell ourselves about where we are as a country.  You can find the entire article and supporting and educational material on The New York Times website.

My sisters and brothers, I want to tell you: there is no day, week, hour or moment that the God who formed and created us does not see our plight or hear our cries.  Our God energizes us and gives us hope no matter what trail, burden, or injustice we might face. And God gives us one another to share in that hope.

I would like to stand before you and preach that we are beyond being bent over carrying the weight of the world but we all are aware that recently we have witnessed firsthand the actions of the weight that is being pressed down on innocent children, the weight being pressed down on those who feel that they are not heard, the weight of families whose loved ones have died as a result of guns violence.  We are never in a position in God’s eyes to oppress another, belittle another, scare or gaslight another or to act like another is less than. That thought that it doesn’t happen here, it won’t happen here, it doesn’t apply to me disconnects us from the love of God and from our neighbor.

Like so many prophets known and unknown, past and present, like Jesus himself, we have been put on this earth so that we might find a way to ease one another’s pain and release from bondage and set them free, to raise up people and children who will stand tall knowing that they are precious children of God and worthy to share in God’s love.

It was a Sabbath day when the bent over woman was told to stand and stand she did and she praised God.

With God’s help, any day is a good day to help others to stand.  Amen.

– The Reverend Dr. Karen Coleman

Summer Reverie

August 18th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:49-56

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Ant

                        The beauty of summer, sub specie aeternitatis, and particularly in a climate, like yours, long in darkness and deep in cold, the beauty that is of the four score summers God gives you, at the largest extent of God’s favor, is itself a matter for parabolic teaching, in the spirit of the Gospel for the day.  Let us meditate together today for a few minutes by taking a homiletical walk, down a dusty summer road, watching for a little beauty.   In the mind’s eye, and with the sun upon our backs, let us meander a moment, and see what we can see.  After all, Jesus taught in parables, ‘teaching not one thing without a parable.’

Start small.  There in front of your left moccasin moves a lonely red ant, the lowliest of creatures, yet, like a Connecticut Yankee, bursting with the two revolutionary virtues, industry and frugality.   Benjamin Franklin wrote, admiring such frugality and industry, and dubious of much dogmatic preaching, “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing.”  A good reminder.

While we step around the ant, the little insect recalls others:  grasshoppers, flies, locusts.   Simple creatures.   Some of our friends prefer the heat of the west, and its insects, to the rain of the east, and ours.  The locusts, burning dry heat, flat arid landscape, and lack of water, out west, would seem to offer no competition.  Yet, some love the virtue of the good people known there.  Some like the simple rhythm of town life, and enjoy the simple summer gatherings—reunions, little league, band concerts, parades. “The people there—they are folks with good hearts.”  And as Jesus taught his students, “if people have some measure of goodness themselves, think how good their maker must be.

Maybe that is the beauty of summer, to pause and appreciate simple, good people, folks with good hearts.

Berry

                        We can stop up the path just a bit.   Raspberries, blackberries, all kinds of wild fruit are plentiful now.  Jesus taught us to ask, simply, for bread and a name.  We daily need food and forgiveness.  Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we forgive all who are indebted to us.  What bread does for the body, pardon does for the soul.   One of the gifts of summer is the time and leisure to remember this.   A church should be fullest in the summer, for this reason, this recognition of our ultimate needs.

Our neighbor has baked some of these wild berries into morning muffins.  We stop to savor them, with butter and coffee.   We listen to one another along the path.  So we are nourished, by one another, and made ready for the next steps in the journey.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to pause and make space for real worship, for that which can feed our hungers, and set us free for the next adventure.

Fence

                        Up ahead there is an old fence.  For a river to be a river, it needs riverbanks high enough to contain the flowing water.  For a lake to hold its integrity it needs a shoreline that stands and lasts.  For a field to retain any semblance of usefulness, it needs fences to mark its beginnings and endings.   For an individual to have any identity one needs the limits of positive improvement, as Jesus taught about perseverance, and of protective caution, as Jesus taught about times of trial.  For a life to have meaning and coherence, it needs those riverbanks, shorelines, fences, and limits that give life shape and substance.

We can spend some summer time mending fences.  Especially at a time and across a country so keenly divided, a house divided against itself.  It is hard work, but utterly crucial. Keep your friendships in good repair, and mend the fences where they need it.    Think, heal, write, love.

Some years ago, I came by this same old fence.  I was walking with my dad, as it happened.  We had some coffee and a muffin.  Then we started off together, down the old road, he to walk with a gnarled walking stick, and I to jog after my own eccentric fashion.  But for a mile up to the same fence, to the place where the road parts, we walked together.  We shuffled and talked a little,  remembering the name of a former neighbor, spotting a new garden planted, making a plan or two for later on.   We remembered an old friend, a old style doctor, long dead.  He remembered that Dr Thro came to visit him the day his mother died.  “It’s hard when your mother dies,” he said, “it gets you right in the chest!”  I remembered Dr. Thro swimming the length of the lake and, while he did so, barking various orders at the universe and some of this patients along the shoreline, riverbank, fence—along the virtuous limits that make a life.   We came to fork, one taking the high road and one the low, and with that an embrace and a word and a glance and we were alone again.  Now, along that fence, summer by summer, I walk with my dad again, feeling him beside me.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to set limits and keep them, to mend our fences and protect them, to honor one another in faith and love.

Cloud

                        This is a clear day, in our reverie, but even so there are a few dancing clouds, white and bright.    We try to make sense of the summer, and to make space for the summer, and to honor this season, one that brings together meteorological splendor and theological insight.    In our chapel, we put together different summer experiences—a wedding and luncheon one day, a talk on Summer reading another, a brunch to honor parents, dads and all, a singing Vacation Bible School for the Young and Young at Heart, a Holiday Brunch, an annual summer national preacher series, and fellowship each week on the plaza–to allow meteorology and theology to dance well together.

There is a dimension of possibility alive in the summer that is hard to approximate in the rest of the year.  We alter our summer habits, not at all to suggest that devotion is less central now, for in some ways summer ought to be the most spiritual of the seasons, but rather to accommodate our life to the necessary rhythms of life around us.

It is astounding to hear again in the Gospel that the kingdom of heaven is hidden, small, lovely, precious, immaterial, consequential, and secret.  But so Jesus teaches us, parable by parable. Summer is the season and devotion is the focus of all such wonder and possibility.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to pause and allow a fuller consideration of all the possibilities around us.

Breeze

                        A summer wind accompanies us as we walk farther down the dirt road.   A fawn—or was it a fox?—darts into the brush.  The smell apples, already ripening, greets us at the turn.  More sun, bigger and higher and hotter, makes us sweat.

I guess every family has a family secret or two, that one subject that dominates every present moment by it the sheer weight of its hidden silence, that one taboo topic that somehow screams through its apparent muteness.   Daddy’s drinking.  Junior’s juvenile record.  Grampa’s prison term.  The so-called elephant in the room.  True of nations, too, and businesses, and projects and even churches.  You find it, finally, by asking gently about what is feared.

The human family has this same kind of family secret.  Something we avoid discussing, if at all possible, something that makes us fearful, something that dominates us through our code of silence.  It is our mortality.  Our coming death is the one thing that most makes us who we are, mortal, mortals, creatures, sheep in Another’s pasture, not perfect because not perfectible, the image of God but not God, “fear in a handful of dust”.  Yet we are so busy with so many other things that this elemental feature of existence we avoid.

In the face of death, we turn heavily upon our faith.  It is the steady and warming wind, the breeze of the Holy Spirit, that keeps us and strengthens us all along the road.  Here is the argument.  If your children ask you for something, do you not provide it?  And you are evil!  (Not to put too fine a point on it!)  Imagine, then, how much more God will provide for the children beloved of the all powerful, holy God.  You are loved, beloved, graced, embraced—a child of the living God.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to number our days that we get hearts of wisdom, to measure the mystery about us and give over our imaginations to a consideration of our limits.

Neighbor

                        Walking along, you may conjure or contract a traveling bug.  Shall we drive north?  A popular refrain in Montreal runs like this: “Canada could have had the best of three worlds: British government, American industry, and French culture; instead, Canada collected the worst of all three: French bureaucracy, British economics, and American culture!”

But don’t you believe it. As that proverb’s tangled contents and tone of wry self-criticism tell, Canada has a great deal to offer you and me. We can learn from our northern neighbors. This is part testimony and part admonition: Take a look at the Dominion of Canada. In particular, let me suggest three things that we can bring across the border.

First, there is the Anglican Church of Canada. Its influence far exceeds that of its sister Protestant Episcopal church in the United States. Though still statistically small, Canadian Anglicanism in one sense is the ecclesiastical leader of its land. We United Methodists-especially those out of the Methodist Episcopal tradition-need to hear the voice of the Church of England. After all, we are called to honor our father and mother; where would Methodism be without its Anglican mother? In this age when theological judgment is so frightfully difficult, the history and tradition and liturgy of this parent church have much to offer us. To take just one example: We here south of the border make much of religious experience. But there are some things that should not have to be learned from experience. The richness of our Anglican heritage can remind us of this.

Second, there is Dr. Douglas John Hall, professor at McGill University in Montreal, former student of Paul Tillich, and author. His book Lighten Our Darkness sounds like a voice of realistic truth crying in  pious wilderness. For example:

The test of theological authenticity is whether we can present Jesus as the crucified. To be concrete: Can one perceive in the Jesus of this theology a man who knows the meaning of meaninglessness, the experience of negation, the anguish of hopelessness? Does he encounter the absurd, and with trembling? Would a man dare to confess to this Jesus his deepest anxieties, his most ultimate questions? Would such a Jesus comprehend the gnawing care of a generation of parents who live every day with the questions: Will my children be able to survive as human beings?…Will there be enough to eat? Will they be permitted to have children? Would he, the God-Man of this theology, be able to weep over the dead bodies of little children in Southeast Asia and Brazil, as he wept over his friend Lazarus?…Would he be able to agonize over the millions of other beings-not quite little-children, fetuses-for whom there was no place; and over the mothers…Could he share our doubt: doubt about God, about man, about life, about every absolute? Could he understand why we cling to expectations that are no longer affirmed or confirmed by experience, why we repress the most essential questions? Would such a Christ understand failure? Could he participate in our failure? Or is he eternally above all that?

Douglas J. Hall, Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross

(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), 211-212.

Third, there is the United Church. It was formed in 1925 as a union among Methodists, some Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Protestant groups. Today it is a church of some 2 million members (in a country of only 30 million), built out of a combination of Methodist and Presbyterian policy. It is not a church without problems. But for those of us who are still interested in walking a little further down the road toward ecumenism, the experience of the United Church in both its victories and defeats offers a glimpse of what our future might be like.  Its predecessor denominations, including Methodism, gave up their inheritance for a new future, gave up their name and habits and protections, for the joy of a better future, a church not only with a yesterday, but with a tomorrow.

Canadian tourism commercials entice us to the natural, scenic, and cultural wonders of Canada, our neighbor to the north, le Europe prochein“the world next door.”  On a dusty, dreamy summer walk, I believe, we have at least three other reasons for interest: Anglicanism, Doug Hall, the United Church. Take a look.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to nourish our souls in the heart and heat of a looming decade of humiliation, with still nine years to go, and to learn from our smaller, little neighbor due north.  Sometimes it can good to fall in love with the soteriology next door, come summer.

You

                        May the Good and Gracious God, in the beauty of holiness, make of all of us attentive people, simple and true in our virtues of the heart, nourishing and nourished in pardon, disciplined by hard even bitter fences of peace, inspired by gracious clouds billowing and high, and supported all the day long by a summer wind, a spirited faith in the face of death, and a bright willingness to continue to journey, travel, learn and grow.  May we find a little summer beauty in the ant, the berry, the fence, the cloud, the breeze, and the neighbor.  The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

Alive To Possibility

August 11th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:32-40

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A Word of Faith

            In faith, you are alive to possibility.

The haunting portrait of Hebrews 11, as much as any other passage of Scripture, calls out and calls up to us, to you:  in faith, you are alive to possibility.   In the imagination of the Biblical Writer of Hebrews, unknown to us, himself anonymous, there is the pantheon of those who came before us, alive to possibility.  They waited, and did not see.  They expected, and did not receive.  They looked forward, but were not satisfied.  But.  They were alive to possibility, which is faith, being alive to possibility, and which is daunting, haunting, searing and wearing.  Faith closed the door to apathy and ignorance as choices for living.   Faith commands the road forward, a road of heavy heart, and daily dismay, and earthly ennui—awaiting like those figures of old, a better world, a better day, a better life.  They died without seeing it, in full.  But from a distance, waiting, they saw and greeted.  On those days when you are tempted to throw in the towel, to retreat, to shuffle off the mantel of possibility, look back for a moment, and remember all those who lived in faith, alive to possibility, even and especially when that love was at least temporarily unrequited.   The promise and the task of our life in community, of your life at its best is just this:  in faith, you are alive to possibility.

My father, dead now 9 years, had a salty way of speaking truth.  One year he graciously came to play in a golf tournament our church had set up as a fund raiser for mission and children’s work.  About 50 men spent the day riding around plunking balls into the woods, or beyond, hoping against hope that our proven ineptitude for the game would somehow be momentarily overcome by unearned prowess.  This did not happen, not any year.  Late in the day, with a 25 foot put looming, I said, ‘Dad I could sink this.’  He answered, ‘Yes, son, you could.  But you won’t.  He was right in the second phrase, and also right in the first.  You could.  In faith, we are alive to possibility, even when we cannot see it, and do not calculate its immediate arrival.  Perhaps especially then.  Faith is painful, for it includes living with endless contention, intractable difference, and seemingly incurable illness, all under the lasting horizon of the possibility of something different, better, good and right.  Yet, as yet, unseen.  Today, across this great country, one might say, we feel this keenly.  Faith—things hoped for, not seen.

The strange world of the Bible, in the large much stranger than we usually account it, come Sunday, opens us again to this same ringing affirmation in Luke 12.  Be alert.  Be prepared. Live on the Qui Vive.  For you never know.  The earliest rendering of this may have been in the apocalyptic teaching of Jesus, awaiting the coming of the Son of Man himself.  But the clearest rendering comes from decades later, as the church prepares itself in the face of, shall we say simply, difficulty.  The waning but not yet absent expectation of the Messiah’s return, and soon and very soon, prompts commands about discipleship, about heavenly hope, about impending judgment, about the middle of the night.  And the later still and abiding rendering, ours too today, on top of what Jesus may have said, and on top of what Luke clearly wrote, say 85ad, is just this.  To live as a community in faith, to live in faith is to bear the cross of possibility:  in faith—and you have no choice having been captured by the confession of the church, and the gift of faith, for faith is always and ever and only a gift—in faith you are alive, painfully, to possibility.  It is true.  Things could be a whole lot better.   Isaiah once foretold it.  Wash yourselves.  Make yourselves clean.  Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes.  Cease to do evil.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice.  Rescue the oppressed.  Defend the orphan.  Plead for the widow.  The Biblical command to do justice is as plain as the nose on my face.  And underneath it is the abiding great deep roiling sea of possibility.  Yes, you could.  You may not.  But you could.  Are you sure you want to live with the daunting, haunting reality, in faith, of possibility?  Much easier to live without it, Ecclesiastes not Isaiah, Calvin not Wesley, depravity not possibility.  Yet here you are, alive in the pew, listening on the radio, wondering again about faith.

In faith, you are alive to possibility.  A word of faith.

A Pastoral Voice

            For those here or listening, for those in the orbit of ministry of Marsh Chapel, these things are even a little bit harder.  For we are not, from this pulpit and in this faith community, interested in rigid orthodoxy on the one hand, even newer forms of righteously indignant and progressive orthodoxies, nor in secular humanism, or post religious humanism alone, on the other.  We baptize.  But here we hope that the baptized in holy water will one day be swimming in a cultural sea of clean water.  Why the cleansing of baptism, only to throw the faithful out into a sewer?  No, we are of the liberal perspective here, the now largely attenuated desire to place tradition and experience in dialectic, in dialogue, to affirm a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Or at least the possibility thereof.   Faith sets you free, but not loose, here.  Here faith sets you free, but not loose.

As so many other Sundays over the last many years, we gather today in the shadow of violence, unnecessary and curbable violence, violence abetted by violent speech, cascading from national leadership for sure, but tragically finding a home and hearing, or least a guest room, in the heart of the heartland.   In the liberal tradition, it is not enough to announce faith, pray and move on.  Nor in the liberal tradition, is it enough to pronounce judgment, curse, and move on.  Though both are more than tempting.  No, our work, here, affirms a word of faith, yes, in pastoral voice, too, toward a common hope, afar.  A word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.  Those who hope for no pastoral application of the Biblical perspective to our shared dilemmas will find little warmth here.  Those who hope for no religious reflection on the depths of our secular wanderings will find little warmth here.  There are other pulpits.

Ours is, then, by necessity a pastoral voice.  We are thinking of parents in Dayton Ohio trying to explain to their elementary age children why neighboring children and others are maimed, when assault weaponry or at least its ammunition could be outlawed.  Some pastor is this week visiting there, you could imagine, about this, with a mom and dad raising kids.  We are thinking of grandparents in El Paso, a city that is 84% Hispanic, worried sick about what may await their grandkids, given the deadly combinations of rhetorical hatreds and endlessly available weaponry.  Some pastor is this week out making one of the two dozen weekly visits necessary for competent pastoral ministry, and praying with grandads and moms, in El Paso.  Will it always be this way, it may be, that the parents in Dayton and grandparents in El Paso ask?  Easier to shake your head, pray and move on, with shrug, saying, ‘I guess so’.   Truer to tell the gospel.  No, these things need not be, and one day there may be a better day, but many in faith have grown old and died awaiting that horizon. Tragically, these tragic horrors are not inevitable, they are communal choices with horrific consequences.  We have chosen across the land to prefer it this way.  But faith, hear the harsh gospel, at least faith preached in a pastoral voice, does not allow for this.  In faith, you are, tragically, alive to possibility, including the possibility of something far better and far different.

Having enjoyed a pastoral conversation this week with her, I bring you greetings from El Paso, from Elizabeth Fomby Hall and her fine family, she who did so much a few years ago, to grow this Marsh community of faith as our director of hospitality.  She and three boys are safe.  The community there, as you did here in Boston, April 2013, is pulling together, giving blood, weeping with those who weep.  She says hello to you and all and all y’all.  And she and they are safe.  For now.

In faith, you are alive to possibility.   A pastoral voice.

A Common Hope

            This summer our national preacher series has conjoured a witness to faith in community.  It takes a common hope to undergird a common faith, a faith in community and through community.  Your stained glass window here on the west wall of this breezy nave pictures St. Francis.  Why do you single him out here, Marsh Chapel, to greet you every week, this Francis of peace?  Why?  It would be easier not to have his chafing voice of reminder so close to hand.  It would be easier not to have to see him, alive to possibility, alive to life, working to make and keep human life human, there he is, with the birds in the beauty of the stained glass.  He puts a demand, a hand, on me.  He bluntly scolds me that I am not free to walk past 30 dead bodies in El Paso and Dayton and California, and order a café latte, and with a shrug muse that nothing can be done, and that I am not involved.  No, that is the hard news of Luke 12.  In faith, you and I are ever alive to possibility.  God bless us.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

            Toni Morrison took her last breath this week.  Maybe her writing did not move you, as it did so many of us, though it seems hard to imagine that.  She spent some lonely, cold dark winters early on Syracuse.  As one wrote this week, ‘she also comprehended that…being nice is not the same as being good’.   She wrote in part about ‘what it is like to be actually hated—hated for things we have no conrolt over’.  She also celebrated laughter and humor, ‘a way of taking the reins in your own hands’. (D Garner, NYT, 8/7/19).  She placed her characters, often, in small Midwestern towns.  Like Dayton. Or like El Paso.  She could be ruthless in her rendering of the truth.  But not hopeless.  For all the unspeakably unnecessary slaughter of the day, of her day, and now alas once more of our own,  her voice did ring out again and again.  Get up.  Start over. Tomorrow is another day.

In 1974, my summer boss, my first real boss, for whom I ran a waterfront with one profound rule, ‘no drowning allowed’, was tragically killed in a hunting accident.  I grew up with deer hunting all around, dad, uncle, neighbors.  He was running the deer above Owasco Lake and his close friend mistook him for one.  Koert Foster.  I was studying in Spain. My mother sent a hand written—she has excellent penmanship—aerogram, carefully composed.  “Bob, I am so awfully sorry to have to tell you this.  Your dear boss, Koert, died yesterday.  We know how much you loved him.”   Every evening Koert took us water skiing, a kindness meant to divert our attention from what he could not pay us.  And Koert gathered us every morning for breakfast.  Every summer breakfast, a huge meal and necessarily so by the way, began with his table grace prayer, offered as his Springer Spaniel rustled and dreamed under foot, under the table.  “Lord, we thank you for this another day.  We thank you for this another morning. We thank you for this another day.”  After Koert’s death, I realized that my then trajectory toward teaching Spanish Literature, and a graduate degree at Tulane, was not enough.  Unamuno, Ortega and Calderon de la Barca wwere a good response, perhaps, but not my best response to God.  Much as wanted to avoid the ministry, in some ways, his death compelled me, at age 20, impelled me, as a college senior, to think twice, to think again.  His death made me alive to possibility.  You never know.  It may be that someone, here, or someone, listening, will be nudged by tragedy into ministry, awakened by tragedy to a new dawn of service.  Nudged by Jesus, with Jesus, to bear the cross, the daily cross of possibility.

You never know.  May these deaths make us alive to possibility, too.  For this is another day.  And Lord we thank you for this another day.

In faith, you are alive to possibility.  Toward a common hope.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks…You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

Faith in Community, Part II

August 4th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell

Faith in Community

July 27th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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 John 13:12–17, 33–35

Faith in Community

 

The title phrase of our Summer sermon series, “Faith in Community”, can be interpreted in at least two ways.  One interpretation is “Faith in Community” – belief and trust in the idea of community itself.  That is, broadly, the idea of the unity of a body of people that share something in common: interests, location, characteristics, beliefs, and/or culture.  Another interpretation of the title is “Faith in Community” – the ways in which faith is lived out in community both by the individuals in a community and by the community altogether.  As I am preaching this Sunday and next, I thought we might explore both these interpretations.  Today we’ll consider faith in the idea of community itself,  and next Sunday we’ll consider some of the ways faith is lived out by the individuals in community and by the community altogether.

So, today, Faith in the idea of community itself, belief and trust in the idea of the unity of a body or group of people that share something in common:  interests, location, characteristics, beliefs, and/or culture.

But first, I’d like to tell you a little about what I’ve done so far on my Summer vacation.  Many of you know that I have the privilege to facilitate the Abolitionist Chapel Today group, or A.C.T., here at Marsh.  We are a study/program/advocacy group in the larger resistance to human trafficking and modern-day slavery.  The work is often a challenge.  Human trafficking and modern-day slavery together comprise the second-largest and most lucrative criminal activity on the planet.  Mostly women and children, millions are victimized world-wide and over 100,000 are victimized in the United States every year, for the purposes of forced labor, sexual exploitation, debt bondage, child soldiering, and sale of body parts.  The experiences we read about are often horrific, in the great scheme of things our group itself is small, and some days are discouraging.  Our homework reminder to each other is “don’t read or watch this at night, don’t read or watch this alone, don’t read or watch this before you go to sleep, and do something really fun after you’ve read or watched this.”

On the other hand, Abolitionist Chapel Today is not alone.  The word is getting out, and new people and groups join in the resistance all the time – some of them right here within the Boston University community, and some are those who we have come to know in Massachusetts and the wider national and global resistance.  Law enforcement, businesses, politicians, and health providers are increasingly aware of the signs and issues of trafficking and modern-day slavery and are involved as well.  We in A.C.T. enjoy each other’s company and appreciate each other’s gifts and interests, and we make sure to share “good news” stories about what people are doing to resist this evil.

I came upon one good news story on my Summer vacation.  We went down to visit my brother and his family near Nashville TN.  While we were there, my sister-in-law took me out to lunch at the Thistle Farms Café and to check out their adjoining shop.  The restaurant was spotless and attractive, the service was great, the food was delicious, and the almond cake – well, the almond cake invited a private experience of gustatory bliss.  The shop offered helpful and knowledgeable service and a number of “kind-to-the earth as well as to the body” bath and body products, all made by hand through Thistle Farms from essential oils with various wonderful fragrances.  The Shop also offers bags, jewelry, and household items made by Thistle Farms and by their global partners.  There are also books about Thistle Farms and its accompanying residential program Magdalene House – these are written by their founder, an Episcopal priest named Becca Stevens.  What was most interesting to me about the café and shop, and the reason my sister-in-law took me there, is that Magdalene House is a two-year residential community.  It  provides food, housing, medical and dental care, therapy, education, and job training – at no cost to them – for women who have survived trafficking, sexual exploitation, addiction, and/or life on the streets.  Thistle Farms Café and Shop are staffed in their operations by residents and graduates of the Magdalene community, with all sales proceeds going back to the Magdalene community and the Café and Shop.  Graduates of Magdalene and Thistle Farms also receive ongoing support through networking, emergency assistance, and continuing education and job skills development.  In the Thistle Farms National Network, over 50 organizations have programs based on Thistle’s model of recovery, with 25 of them having residential programs.  There is a Magdalene prison program in Tennessee so that women can begin their healing journey in prison and then upon release can transition into the residential program.  With its more than 30 global partners in 20 countries on 5 continents working to alleviate extreme poverty, the Shop practices a “shared trade” model, in which both the partner and the Shop share the profits they make together.  Last year alone, the combined enterprises provided thousands of hours of safe housing, employment, and employment support for survivors, over a million dollars in income for survivors, and hundreds of hours of counseling, therapy, and medical care for survivors. and 1,200 women artisans were supported by the global partnerships.

The thistle is an apt symbol for Magdalene and Thistle Farms.  It is considered

by most to be a weed, but its taproot can grow through concrete and survive drought. Its leaves and stem are prickly in defense, but the flower is soft and full of beautiful color – rather like the survivors themselves as they move through the program.   Out of Becca Steven’s own story of childhood loss, betrayal, sexual abuse, and economic challenges, and out of the stories of women who have survived excruciating pain, poverty, and violence, out of these shared interests and experiences has come a community, a people truly united by new shared experience and interests in healing and hope.  And all of it, as Becca Stevens writes, is 20 years of “witness to the truth that love is the most powerful force for social change in the world.”

That’s a very interesting statement.  Faith in love as a force for social change does not seem very evident in these days of children separated from their parents and held in cages at our southern border, where they either suffer hunger, filth, and disease if not death, or are lost entirely so that no one has any idea where they are.  Faith in community as unity through shared interests doesn’t seem to have much traction either, except as very narrowly defined by certain groups more concerned for their own interests against those of anyone else, even to the death of the planet, even to the trafficking and enslavement of those they consider as commodities for their personal gratification.  Part of it may be that our ideas of love and community have become fuzzy, so that we don’t know what love or community actually looks like.  “Love” is the most over-used and fuzzy word in the language:  I love my God, I love my dog (and/or cat), I love Cherry Garcia ice cream, I love your hat, I love that window treatment.  “Community” also most often seems to mean a collection of people having some common interests, but not necessarily interests that create unity.  For instance, my own denomination of United Methodism has many common interests, including allegiance to Jesus and an assumption of leadership and guidance by the Holy Spirit.  But these are apparently not enough to overcome the demands for a litmus test around the full inclusion of LBGTQIA persons, or not enough in the face of these demands to continue to maintain the unity around the other common interests and the ongoing life of the community.

Jesus himself, and the early church, however, had clear ideas of community and love, three of which are remembered in our scriptures this morning.  John’s Gospel recalls Jesus as leaving his disciples with a new commandment:  they are to love one another as he has loved them, and it is by this love that everyone will know that they are Jesus’ disciples.  So how did Jesus love his disciples?  He washed their feet, as an example to them.  He brought them together as a community, a group of people united by their interests in the good news of God’s kingdom, and freedom from the slavery of sin and separation from God, self, and neighbor.  He changed his mind in front of them as he grew into his work.  The community included the original twelve men and then other men; the women who funded the ministry, opened their homes and their pantries, and first told the news of the resurrection; and let’s not forget all those children, who brought loaves and fish and were set in the middle of the adults as examples of God’s kingdom.  And when the community had the examples and the training and any healing they needed, Jesus sent them out tp preach and teach and heal and be examples themselves.

The Gospel of Matthew recalls Jesus’ story of what we now call the Last Judgement.  It is the righteous, those who have acted in accordance with divine or moral law, who will inherit the blessing and the promises of God.  They will do so because they have fed the the Lord when he was hungry, given drink to him when he was thirsty, welcomed him as a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him in prison.  And when the righteous have no idea when in fact they did all this, the Lord tells them that when they did all these things for the least of these, who are the Lord’s – not just community but family – they have done it to the Lord himself.

The letter of James in the early church states that faith without works is dead.  In other words, the way one is shown to be a faithful disciple in the Christian community is by the actions one takes, not by what one says or believes.  Faith is the wellspring of action, and the example James gives of an appropriate action is to care for the bodily needs of those who are suffering.  The community of faith does not just have a spiritual mission; it has a mission of holistic engagement with the needs of the world as well.

Magdalene and Thistle Farms have this kind of faith in community:  they believe that the unity of people who share interests and experiences can change the world.  Out of the worst sorts of abuse and exploitation, and out of being overlooked or judged harshly by others, they choose love as the power they will develop in themselves and for others to promote their own holistic hope and healing and to offer that hope and healing to others.  Their community grew organically out of the people who comprised it, from Steven’s own interest in oils and balms as aids to her own ministry and healing, to the use of oils and balms by the Magdalen residents to bring freshness and soothing to their own lives, to the realization that these comforts could be offered to others for their enjoyment and self-care as well as to provide for the support and expansion of the Magdalene program and the Café and Shop, to the invitations to others to join them globally in the promotion of health and healing in other places of challenge. It has not always been easy.  The first batches of a combination oil they attempted in the kitchen ended as sludge on the bottom of the pot.  Fears and doubts raise their heads.  Survivors do not complete or relapse from the program; they go back to their old lives, they die.  Human trafficking and modern-day slavery are now being called a public healh crisis or a social pandemic.  And life in community is always real in both its gifts and its challenges  But Becca Stevens and the Magdalen and Thistle communities ground their faith in community as did Jesus and the early church.  They ground their faith in love, in what Stevens calls the four axioms of love.  First, love is eternal, with no beginning or end.  Second, love is the story of God unfolding in our lives.  Third, love is not concerned so much with dogma as it is a dogged determination to bloom and speak.  Fourth, love is sufficient.

The work of resistance to human trafficking and modern-day slavery is not for everyone, and even if it is generally for some, it is not the same specific work for everyone.  For instance, Abolitionist Chapel Today does not run a residential program, a café, or a shop.  We are a study, programming, and advocacy group.  But we and Magdalene and Thistle Farms both do witness to the truth, that faith in community empowered by love can change the world in their places and time.  Faith in community powered by love can change the world in other places and times as well.

We ourselves may not do the work that Magdalene and Thistle Farms are doing.  But what communities do we love enough to have faith in?  These communities may not necessarily be churches, although they may, like Magdalene and Thistle Farms, be deeply informed and grounded in the ideas of community held by Jesus and the early church.  But each one of us has communities that we love and want the best for, in which we share a unity of interests and experiences.  How might these communities grow organically out of our experiences and interests and the experiences of the other people who comprise them?  What among our shared experiences and interests might point to ways we might invite others to join us, or provide others with the holistic resources for hope and growth?

There are just some things that we cannot do alone.  We cannot recover from trauma and pain, or find hope and new life, alone.  We cannot face the personal, spiritual, and societal challenges of a complex and changing world, much less find the solutions we need, alone.  We cannot love and be loved, alone.  We need the unity of community.  Not just the unity of shared experiences and interests, but the unity of love.  The kind of love that Jesus taught, that we may not know as we talk about it or believe it, but we sure know it when we see it or experience it.  The love that respects, that teaches by example, that speaks truth with love, that keeps our sense of humor going, that allows and leads to changed minds and changed lives.  That kind of love creates not just the idea of community, but real communities with real unity that we can have faith in to carry us through to hope and goodness.  As the noted cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Whether it is the community of Jesus, the community of the early church, the communities of Magdalene and Thistle Farms, or even we ourselves, AMEN to that.

 

-Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell

A Basket of Summer Fruit

July 21st, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 10:38-42

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A Basket of Summer Fruit

Beloved, it is so good to be back in Marsh Chapel. My deepest thanks to Dean Hill for the invitation to stand in this pulpit again, to Ray and Heidi for the logistics and hospitality, and Jess and Victoria and Justin for their leadership and organization of the liturgy this morning. It is good to be worshipping with you again as we meditate this warm summer morning on a basket of summer fruit. 

You might have memories of summer fruit, of those ripened, sunburst, sweet moments of summer joy and delight. Call them to the mind’s eye for a moment. 

My memory wanders back to when I was a kid, and we would spend a few precious days every summer in Wells Beach, Maine, staying at my grandmother’s small cottage at the end of a dead end road two short blocks from the beach. Our days were filled with swimming and boogie boarding in the icy waters whose temperature hovered right around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (sounds nice on a day like today, right?) My parents and aunts and uncles would allow all of the cousins to swim until our lips turned blue or our teeth chattered. Then, we would be yanked out of the water and warmed up in fluffy beach towels until we had pinked up enough to splash right back in. We would walk along the beach, searching for sand dollars in the shallows. We would carefully crawl around tidal rocks, peeking under barnacled stones to see snails and starfish. As the tide came in and the beach became smaller and smaller, we would retreat to a flat boulder we called the boat rock, begging to stay long enough to be splashed by the seawater as it rushed around us before retreating to higher ground. We would track sand back to the cottage, hose down our feet, and scarf down hot dogs and fried clams, and, for one single glorious meal each year, a shiny red lobster, which we would crack into with messy delight. We would spend hours curled up in an old slip covered chair reading the best in children’s fiction. I met Aslan in that chair, learned the secret about Severus Snape, followed a hobbit to a misty mountain, all bathed in the warmth of the summer sun. 

Once, perhaps twice, we would wrangle some quarters from an adult and would walk to the shockingly painted teal blue arcade, to trade those quarters for a few precious tickets, which we would pool and save and never spend, hoping for that day, untold years hence, when we might have the 3,000 tickets to buy the giant stuffed animal or cheap electronic device. Once, perhaps twice, we would pile into the car and run circles around the giant wooden sign at the Scoop Deck, which listed some 50+ homemade ice cream flavors, and we would shriek from delight and from the sugar high as we devoured waffle cones the size of our heads, piled high with peppermint stick ice cream or triple chocolate fudge and eating our way down to the delicate mini marshmallow at the bottom of the cone, which held the ice cream in and kept the whole contraption together. We would make a tremendous mess. Once, perhaps twice, we would wander the halls of an antiques hall that held about as much junk as antiques. We would stare at old tools, and mishandle vintage toys, and gawk at costume jewelry, and we would try to restrain ourselves from touching anything too breakable. Once, perhaps only once, we would light sparklers after dark and dance alongside the fireflies, drawing circles of light at the end of our fingertips. 

When you call to your mind your own sunburst moments of joy and delight, what summer fruit comes to mind? Perhaps it is a quiet lake, a wooded path, bursting forth to a mountain view. Perhaps it is a field of strawberries, plucked, and a warm kitchen of jarring jam. Perhaps it is the strains of an outdoor concert and the comfort of a blanket spread on the ground. What comes to mind that looks, smells, sounds, tastes, like a basket of summer fruit?

These moments are precious because they seem, because they are both endless and terribly fleeting. A basket of summer fruit. Amos understood this in choosing the image of summer fruit at the outset of a prophecy about divine judgment for unfair labor practices, condemning those who trample the needy, boost prices, and cheat with dishonest scales. We don’t see it as clearly in English, but there is a word play in the Hebrew here between the word for summer fruit and the end. They are a half a thought apart. So, too, are fruit and fruition, ends and eternities. And we know this from experience to be true, right? This is just the time of summer when we both bask in its endlessness and begin to feel that creeping sense that it is somehow, already, almost over. Children know this, deep in their bones; they can feel when school looms. Tiny sun-filled strawberries fade quickly, sunburst wild blueberries wither, peaches and nectarines overripen into mush. 

The life of faith lived in community teaches us to appreciate those summer moments of joy, both endless and always ending. This is the lesson that we learn in Amos and in Luke, too, from Mary’s meditative focus on the joy of encounter with the divine. To savor our summer fruits.

The life of faith lived in community also teaches us about the labor it takes to enjoy such summer fruit. This is the lesson we learn in Amos and in Luke, too, from Martha’s labor to make space for joy. There is another way to tell the story of this idyllic, childlike wondrous scene. You who have been what my fellow millennials call #adulting for a little or a long time know this well, too. 

After all, that two block jaunt to the beach required lugging supplies to keep us kids happy and healthy; chairs, towels, sunblock, boogie boards, umbrella, more towels, snacks, drinks, a cooler, plastic shovels and buckets for playing in the sand. Our tiny arms could carry some things, but the adults often ended up checking the list and carrying the majority of the burden. An adult, too, without the circulation of the very young, would need to freeze alongside us in the ocean, splashed with that 60 degree Fahrenheit water, to make sure that we didn’t swim too deep and that we didn’t catch hypothermia. An adult, too, would have towels ready and then remind us to reapply sunscreen. An adult would precariously balance alongside us on the tidal rocks, tending to scrapes from the barnacles and protecting the wildlife from being permanently transplanted from their homes. As the tide came in and the beach became smaller and smaller, an adult would patiently move all of the beach luggage, once, twice, thrice, away from the water, and ultimately, would wade waist deep to rescue us from the boat rock as the tide became too high and our shrieks of delight turned to shrieks of fear. An adult would beg us to rinse off our feet and spend an hour sweeping all of the sand that made it in the house anyway at the end of the week. 

Those hot dogs didn’t cook themselves, and someone needed to stand in line at the lobster pound and the ice cream parlor, to clean up the detritus of the seafood feast and the dribbles of melted ice cream, and someone had to do all those dishes. So many dishes. Grown-ups, too, would want a few precious moments to read in the warmth of the summer sun, or to wander around an antique shop without worrying whether they’d need to pay for a broken vase, and maybe, once all of the above work had been done, they too, could enjoy the taste of summer fruits. 

 

Martha and Mary, Mary and Martha. There are two ways that this gospel story is usually preached. Sometimes these two followers of Jesus are abstracted into ways of living in faith. Mary the contemplative, Martha the activist. Both are needed.

But sometimes these two women are treated as stereotypical characters in a vacation drama. After all, this story falls in the middle of the Lukan travel narrative. There are pitfalls ahead for the lazy preacher on a lazy summer Sunday. Mary and Martha are too easily pitted against one another, rivals for Jesus’s attention and favor. It’s too easy to portray Martha as an overworked housewife, complaining about Mary not helping out in the kitchen. In too many sermons, I have heard this story preached in this way, with the final message, geared far too often to women, “Don’t worry so much, everything is fine, try to relax and not stress so much.” 

Women who hear this story preached in this way often get frustrated. Feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza paints a vivid picture of how women hear these lazy exegetes. When women hear sermons like this, women who make a congregation run, especially in a church that is so often sustained by women, who teach vacation bible school, brew coffee, clean altar linens, plant flowers, organize fundraisers, call those who are shut in at home, who “do all of this often without ever receiving a ‘thank you,’ [they get frustrated.] They therefore identify with Martha who openly complains. They resent Jesus who seems to be ungrateful and unfair in taking Mary’s side. But they repress this resentment [it is Jesus after all] and vent it against other women who, like Mary, have abandoned the traditional feminine role.” 

To preach this passage as a “chill out” message to women too busy with household chores is a misreading of the text, a myopic telling of this story as only about Martha and Mary’s gender, and a misunderstanding of what it means to find faith in community. Instead, we need to reconsider what this pause for respite, this moment of hospitality, can mean for the life of faith in community. 

Two lessons from Luke help us to read this passage to sustain and nourish the life of faith lived in community. First, since we are in the Lukan travel narrative, we need to remember that the disciples are sent out in pairs; at the beginning of Luke 10, Jesus was sending out the seventy to teach, heal, and preach. Disciples come in pairs in Luke, and they are not sent out as polarized lessons for the church pitted against one another, they are sent out to work together for the sake of the gospel. So the story of Martha is not about a hostess too busy in the kitchen to enjoy her Jesus party; no, these are two disciples doing the work of discipleship. Martha has questions about the work of faith. To be sure, she is anxious about that work, but this is not only about worrying about who does the dishes, no she is anxious about about the partnership of ministry, about hospitality, abut diakonia, about the service work that makes the community of faith the community of faith. And her question to Jesus, a fair one, is how to work together in partnership to accomplish all that needs doing for community to thrive. Jesus’s answer, then, is not a rebuke of the work, this is no patronizing reminder to chill out, but rather, a reminder that making space for transformative divine encounter is the point of the community of faith. Martha’s question, too, reminds us that on this earth and in this life, it takes labor to make space for joy.

Which brings me to my second point. I’ve always wondered in this passage where all the other disciples were. After all, where were the rest of the disciples, anyway? They seem to follow Jesus just about everywhere. They were there just a moment ago reporting on their work and having a little tête a tête with Jesus. They’ll reappear again in just a moment, in just a few verses. just in time to be taught the Lord’s prayer. So where are Peter, and James, and John, and the others? Were they off in the backyard drinking a beer while dinner was made and the dishes were done? If you look through the gospels, you’ll find that the male apostles seem pretty helpless, especially when it comes to fixing meals. Jesus himself has to step up more than once to put dinner on the table, whether that is through miraculous multiplication of loaves, or grilling the fish on the shore after the resurrection. Jesus shares in the labor of the community of faith, but the disciples often don’t. Can you imagine the disciples can’t even cook breakfast for themselves and Jesus after the resurrection? This passage, and the glaring absence of the disciples, reminds us that we need the whole community of faith to do the work to make space for joy. 

So sometimes, I picture in my mind’s eye this scene from Luke 10:38-42. Mary is speaking with Jesus, and Martha is stuck with all the work of hospitality, all of the work of discipleship, all of the work of the community of faith. Desperate for a little help, she comes through the doorway, squints as her eyes adjust to the outside light, and asks Jesus for Mary’s assistance. Jesus reminds her about the joy of divine encounter. “What Mary has chosen shall not be taken away from her,” he says. Martha stares, a small furrow forming at her brow, ready to ask a follow up, but Jesus continues, “Martha, you are worried, there is only need of one thing.” And Jesus stops and stares, pointedly, through the door, at Peter, and James, and John, and the other disciples laughing inside. They fall silent. Jesus repeats, a little more loudly this time “There is only need of one thing.” The disciples get up, put down their drinks, and begin to set the table for dinner and start doing some of the dishes. Martha smiles, and Mary laughs. 

Beloved, there is only need of one thing. Transformative divine encounter. The role of the community of faith, the life of faith lived out in community, is to make space for the joy of divine encounter. And, beloved, it takes work to make space for the joy of divine encounter. That is the work not of any one of us, but of the community. Faith in community makes space for all of us to share both the joy and the work of divine encounter. To share the labor and the harvest of a basket of summer fruit. To share in the endless and always ending sweetness of this life in preparation for eternity. 

I now know, as an adult, just how much work went into those sunburst summer vacations in Maine. But I also know, as an adult, how to see, if you looked at just the right angle, the same childlike joy in the faces of the kids and grownups alike. Joy would spread like wildfire among the adults while watching the kids dance alongside the fireflies, drawing circles of light with their sparklers. And sometimes the whole family, even the adults, would dance alongside the children, if only to keep them from burning their fingers. Beloved, that is faith in community.  

Amen. 

-The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley