Sunday
July 5

Rescuers Need Not Apply

By Marsh Chapel

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Zechariah 9:9-12

Psalm 145:8-14

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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Every once in a while, as someone who usually preaches from the lectionary, I look at the selections of Scripture for the week and say to myself, “What were they thinking when they put these together?”  This week, there were almost twice the selections that ended up in the Bulletin for today, so that meant I had to make choices.  And, quite frankly, what I had to choose from had little appeal.  Especially problematic for me was that the majority of my choices involved texts in which women were either rejoicing themselves, or were told by others to rejoice, because a rescuer had arrived.  Even more challenging was the Gospel text, in which Jesus presents himself as a rescuer, and a problematic one at that.  The wise and intelligent know nothing.  God has given him everything.  He’s the only one who knows God, God is the only one who knows him, and no one else can know God except him and anyone that he chooses to reveal God to.

These texts have little appeal and lots of challenge because many women – along with many other populations – have learned to be wary of rescuers  These other populations include but are not limited to other gender than female, minorities, commercial businesses in straightened circumstances, people promised good jobs in far-away places, even nations.  Too often, it seems, the rescuers become either betrayers or destroyers, so that people are not rescued at all, but are pushed off the rescuer’s charger into the ditch, worse off than they were before.  Still, especially when times are tough, going to desperate, many individuals and populations do look for rescuers.  And there are plenty of people, especially now, who are very willing to take on the role.

The Gospel of Matthew is often referred to as a manual for discipleship, and there are plenty of teachings in Matthew that describe the desired behavior and attitudes of disciples, in this case, disciples of Jesus.  And, it also becomes clear that one of Matthew’s major concerns is to answer the question, if we are to be disciples of Jesus, do we choose to follow him as he is a rescuer or as he is a leader?

This is not just a question for us as followers of Jesus.  The question of what kind of leaders we choose to follow comes to us in all walks of life.  Religious walks, certainly.  My own denomination’s leadership after fifty years plus has not been able yet to help us decide institutionally whether or not God loves lesbian and gay people in a fully inclusive way. BTQIA+ people have not even been part of the conversation until very recently, and certainly not by formal invitation or inclusion, so we haven’t decided institutionally if God loves them either.  Many members of the denomination feel that in the harm that has been done, these leaders’ times have passed, to the point of desiring schism rather than more debate.  Many religious leaders generally in this country, in theory and action, have questioned and still question the full humanity, human rights, and dignity of indigenous and African-American people.  Political walks are also involved, as a number of leaders around the world have each presented themselves as the “only one” able to save their people from the encroachments of change, and the “only one” able to restore their countries to their rightful places of power and prestige in the world.  Work walks also, as we find ourselves questioning the meaning of the work we do in this time of social upheaval and global climate change, and we question whether or not our business leaders care for us to any extent as much as they care for the stockholders and their own profit.  And now, in what seems to be the increasingly long middle of a pandemic, scientists, politicians, religious leaders, public health practitioners, business people, and our own complexity and complicity of hopes and fears all lead us to question whose voice or voices we should follow.  The idea of a rescuer, someone who will take us away from the confusion and pain of our suffering and bring us to a place of safety and stability – that idea often holds an attraction that the idea of a leader does not.

Now don’t get me wrong.  If I am in a tough spot and there seems to be no one around to help me out of it before disaster ensues, I’m all for a rescuer, as many of us may have had a chance to appreciate.  People who competently intervene in a touchy situation, first responders, folks who get us where we need to go when we have no means of getting there on our own, folks who help us with skills and graces that we desperately need to regain our health or life or soul – we give thanks to God for them.  And, just because the idea of imminent disaster comes along with the idea of rescue, so a rescuer saves, delivers, and shines in the moment, in the immediate, in the one-time big need.  A leader, on the other hand, works longer-term, as a guide, conductor, director, authority, or influencer.  To mistake a rescuer for a leader is to risk the betrayal and imprisonment so many have experienced in the long-term hands of rescuers, whose decision-making skills and power in the moment may not be effective or helpful in the long-term.  And to mistake a rescuer for a leader begs the question of what kind of leadership is necessary for the long haul, as so many of our challenges now seem to be.

Recently there have been a number of articles and even books on leadership.  While the certain schools of leadership debate what might be necessary for a particular situation in a particular walk of life, there is surprising agreement on what kind of leadership is not effective in any situation or walk of life, and far from being necessary, is more often than not harmful if not toxic.

A summary of this harmful leadership is often discussed in terms of narcissism. Narcissism in itself is not necessarily bad.  Often leaders need a strong sense of self and need to be confident that they are the best person to lead others to reach the goals required in a particular situation.  They also, as do many of us, have the healthy desire to know themselves unique, appreciated, and effective in the world.  Where healthy narcissism becomes a problem is when it goes beyond the healthy to include a number of unhealthy traits:  grand exaggeration about one’s talents, knowledge, and achievements; difficulty in accepting even helpful or necessary criticism; an excessive need and demand  for devotion and admiration; a sense of exceptionalism and entitlement, so that the usual societal norms and ethics do not apply to them; and a lack of empathy and/or compassion.  In practical terms these traits often manifest in behaviors such as:  lying; a refusal to delegate authority or power, or to denounce or fire those who have been given authority or power when they do not operate in lockstep with or criticize the leader; a preoccupation with enemies and traitors; and the attempt to normalize behavior and ideologies formerly thought of as unacceptable or problematic, such as cruelty, disorder, and division.

In our Gospel text today, Jesus at first glance presents as both a rescuer and as a problematic leader.  He’s got everything!  Directly from God!  The supposedly wise and intelligent know nothing!  He’s the only one who knows God, God is the only one who knows him, and no one else can know God except him and anyone that he chooses to reveal God to!  But as we noted before, while Matthew emphasizes the attitudes and behaviors of discipleship, he is also careful to emphasize all the attitudes and behaviors of Jesus, the leader who the disciples follow.

So a look at the whole Gospel reveals that there are certain themes in Matthew’s descriptions of Jesus’ leadership that put our scripture today more in perspective.  He is consistent with the law and the prophets of his religious tradition, coming to fulfill them, not replace them.  He is consistent in his life and teaching, with a focus on the kingdom of God.  He performs miracles of healing, teaches with authority, and, as in our text this morning, has a strong sense of who he is and who he is in relation to God.  And, in the whole of his work he also delegates power and authority to his disciples for mission on their own.  He prepares them for what is coming as they go along, and teaches them attitudes, behaviors, and ways of being together that will sustain his followers and the mission after he is gone.  He respects women and even changes his mind about the mission in an exchange with a Canaanite woman.  He holds up children as an example to follow.  He practices his own teachings about forgiveness and reconciliation, with Peter after Peter’s betrayal, and in the calling of Matthew. considered a traitor to his people as he collaborates with the Roman occupiers of Israel as a tax collector.  Jesus is not cruel or capricious.  His teachings here in the Gospel of Matthew are full of the need to do unto others as you would have them do to you, the need for lack of judgement of others, the need for reconciliation and non-retaliation.  In our text this morning he acknowledges that we can’t please all of the people all of the time, and he will not do things — and by extension his disciples will not do things – just because people expect it of him or them.  He invites all sorts of people to follow him, and instead of worldly success or glory he promises ways for them to experience rest in he midst of weariness and the heavy burdens of life.  And while he does teach that his disciples must serve one another and the mission, the yoke of that service will be easy, and the burden of it will be light.  As a last gift to them Jesus gives them an expansive community around a meal of grape and grain, so they can remember his life, teaching, and covenant with them even to death, and so they can nourish each other both in body and spirit,   They will not be alone, and the yoke and burden will be even lighter because they will have others with whom to share them.

Jesus is a leader for the long haul who invites and includes them and us, everyone who will, to follow him in his work of reconciliation between God, self, and neighbor toward the present and coming Kingdom of God.  And he is a leader for the long haul because he does not sugarcoat – he is clear that there is lots of work to do, in ourselves and in the world, and there are choices to be made.

Crystal Williams, Boston University’s Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, spoke during last week’s Boston University’s Day of Collective Engagement around racism and anti-racism.  She noted that our current situation is unique – the corona virus pandemic simultaneously with a great outpouring of energy toward justice for those who have experienced state-sponsored violence and injustice for far too long – as a Moment.  A Moment is what many people understand to be a time of great import, often unexpected, when old or new fissures in society are revealed in particularly intense ways and new possibilities and opportunities to make things right appear.  But Williams noted that it is not just or even the dramatic Moments that bring about lasing change toward diversity, inclusion, and equity.  It is also or even more everyday life, and the small essential choices we make every day,  This is especially true as we acknowledge our allegiances to Jesus and recognize our need for good societal leaders as well.  Paul in our passage from his letter to the church at Rome points out our dilemma:  he and we often do what we do not want or intend to do, and we often do not do what we want or intend to do.  We are caught between the workings of God within us which we intend and the workings of sin within us that we repudiate.  Paul recognizes that Jesus’ leadership is of the kind that can help both Paul and us to choose ever more the workings of God in us, toward the restoration of the image of God within us, and toward the recognition of the image of God within others.  Our choices of societal leaders then might want to promote the similar ends in similar ways.

This is part of the yoke and the burden for us in this moment of pandemic and national upheaval, the yoke and burden of choice.  Jesus does not rescue us from the challenges of change and the choices we must make as we are caught up in what is often unexpected and often not wanted.  And the societal leaders we need, for the long haul that change will demand to be sustainable, will not rescue us either.  So except in very short and limited circumstances, rescuers need not apply to us in this moment.  Instead, as we follow the leadership of Jesus that teaches, companions, and empowers us in our discipleship, we will be able to choose societal leaders that also teach, companion, and empower us in particular human situations, and together we will be able to make the choices in the Moments and in everyday life that will move us toward sustainable love and justice.  The yoke will be easy, and the burden will be light.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ indeed.  AMEN.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

Sunday
June 28

A Reading Life

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 10: 40-42

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Hear the gospel:  He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.

Community

At Marsh Chapel in June, we have a fairly long-standing set of Sunday traditions, honored this year, for the obvious reasons, in the breach.  On the first Sunday of June we gather for Holy Communion and monthly dish to pass luncheon, with a presentation by Sharon Wheeler of BU on planned giving, and a review of forms of ministry in our midst.  On the second Sunday of June we gather ahead of worship for a discussion of “suggestions for summer reading’, led by the Dean, or a staff member or a lay leader in the congregation.  On the third Sunday of June we gather for Fathers’ Day brunch, welcoming all of every age and station, fathers or not, ahead of worship.  On the fourth Sunday of June we offer a foreshortened Vacation Bible School, after worship and over lunch, with one leading the singing and another teaching the Bible.  Well, this June 2020, none of this has come to pass, a bit of a loss for or community, June being the optimal time, before vacation and after graduation, to focus on the congregation itself, University and Summer notwithstanding.

Still, though, it has been pleasant to think of these none so rare as a day in June rituals, amid pandemic and pandemonium.  More, it seemed perhaps fitting to offer a sermon, this Fourth Sunday in June, to pick up at least one of these threads, that of reading.  At least, in a fallow time, we may find more time to read.  Who taught you to read?  Not how to read, but to read, to love to read?  Who taught you to read?

Reading

In 1965 our sixth-grade teacher, Marjorie Shafer, began each morning by reading to the class.  She read for about thirty minutes, standing in the middle of the front of the room, glasses fixed and eyes down (though she could readily spot any movement, misbehavior, drowsiness or discourtesy).   While other books remain in some misty memory (Harriet the Spy for example), only one of the books she read from stem to stern hangs in the mind to this day.  This was JR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  My seat was somewhere in the middle rows, somewhere mid-way back, neither by choice nor personal assignment, but by the luck of the alphabet and a last name starting with H.  Jill Hance sat right in front of me as she had, more or less, every year of grammar school.  The Hobbit captured my imagination.  The figure of Bilbo Baggins.  The setting out on a journey from home to somewhere.  The various tangles and intrigues.  The mystical setting.  The return.  It was a sad day when the book ended.  In the spring, I learned that our family was moving out of town, the only town I really knew, and the place of school and friendships since kindergarten.  For some reason I became sick, and unable to go to school for about ten days.  One afternoon Mrs. Shafer came to our home to read to me from the last book of the year (Harriet), to make sure I did not miss the conclusion.

A few years later, rummaging in the ten-year old pile of Saturday Evening Post magazines in our summer cabin, there appeared a simple story.  The title, author, and details are gone.  Only the plot remains.  The high school quarterback and class president is challenged by his friends to date a very plain, bespectacled, socially awkward girl, a loner in their class.  On a bet and on a whim, he does so.  At first all goes well:  he is able to take her out and return to his friends and laugh with them about their trick.  But then something happens, or some things happen.  Given his attention, her attire and appearance change.  She starts to dress, well.  She doffs her spectacles.  She dotes on him, and is enthralled with his stories.  In short order she becomes something of a beauty.  Given her transformation, his own behavior changes.  The dates are no longer tricks, the words no longer jokes.  He stops seeing his friends afterward.  They fall in love, they fall fully and passionately in love.  Well.  Behold the power narrative.

One summer in high school, 1971, Tolkien struck again, this time in the form of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  If memory serves, I read the three books that one summer.  They carried me away, into another place and kind of place, and into another mind and kind of mind, and into another story and kind of story.  The struggle of light and darkness, of what is good and what is not, compellingly conveyed, stayed in memory and in heart.

Then, two summers later, heading into a Great Books of Russia autumn course, taught at OWU by Dr. Ruth Davies, a Professor of fearsome reputation, I took to lifeguarding work at church camp The Brothers Karamazov. It seems as though it took me the whole summer to read it, and to savor it, and to capture and be captured by it.  You could feel the power in the pain of Raskolnikov and the love in Alyosha, without knowing much of anything, yet, about life and books and all.  Needless to say, the book served as a fitting preparation for an introduction to the course, which, of all college courses, in its readings, requirements and sessions, was easily the best, and the hardest.

I skip to For Whom the Bell Tolls, set in the hills up outside Segovia, Spain, where I lived and studied 1974-5, the last year in the life of Francisco Franco, and of his Spain, and where I read this perhaps my favorite book.

During the fall term of seminary year one, when I should have been reading the detailed notes about the 39 books of Hebrew Scripture, about which prior I knew next to nothing, and during which season my relationship with my soon to be wife Jan was settling and congealing, heading toward marriage the next summer, I found myself up late at night reading, for the first time, Moby Dick.  In another sense, my reading life began with this book, though, in detail and in full, it would be hard to say why.  Yet it proved to be an excellent backstage for theological study of the formal sort still proffered at Union, NYC.

Two years or so out of seminary, say 1981, before the long journey into doctoral work, I found myself at the cottage, in dead summer, reading, line by line K Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.  It landed with the same demolition on my soul and ministry as it had landed ‘on the playground of the theologians’ earlier in the century.  You cannot speak of God by speaking of Man in a loud voice.  I was not, and am not, a Barthian, but I am a lover of the Bible, in part due to my reading of Barth that summer.  For many years into the next decade, it seems, any free time for reading, not sermonic or ministerial, was flooded into the dissertation.  There was gain and loss in that gain and loss.  I found myself reading less fiction.

That changed again in the 1990’s, for whatever reason.  The two books of Alistair Macleod, Island and No Great Mischief, with their silently beautifully rendering of the geography of Cape Breton, and of the inner geography of its people, stunned and captivated.  And from there I found my way back along the trails of older classics, especially Middlemarch, G. Eliot, whose close reading of close living in cloistered secular culture kept my imagination and interest.  And so many others…The Remembrance of Things Past, Proust…The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley…and on…Who taught you, not how to read, but how to love to read?

The Strange World of the Bible

 Those who fall in love with reading will often, over time, find the pages of Holy Writ.  Because in these there is a durability, a realism, a poignant sense of suffering, and a depth that are at least and more a match for our own experience.  As this very hour, in our lessons from Holy, Holy Scripture.

Take decisions, for example.  While Genesis 22, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the tragedy of choices.  People choose, but they do not choose their choices.  For three months, you have been choosing, and you have that freedom, and must use it with courage, but you do not choose the context—say COVID 19—of the choices.  So, each day carries a dim reminder that our choices, not fully ours, will have ramifications, even mortal ramifications, in the lives of others.  My friend said last week, in full heart confession, ‘I am suffering from decision fatigue.  I am suffering from decision fatigue’.  Maybe you know the feeling today.  Abraham, caught between faith and love, between God and son, at least reminds us that we are not the first, at this grim altar of choice.

Take change, for example.  While Romans 6, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the great watershed—god, freedom, love, grace, heaven—into which Paul has been washed, and to which, by apocalyptic poetry, he bears witness.  You can change, be changed.  The world can change, be changed.  A country can change, be changed.  The orb of sin, the wages of which are also grim, may be displaced.  Life may become an orbit around the planet of love.  HERE: Love God, Love neighbor.  Love, and do what you will.   Paul, exiled from his god, has now been enslaved in love by THE GOD BEYOND GOD.

Take contagion, for example.  While Matthew 10, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the power of contagious love.  It is a hundred years at least in Boston since the citizenry has been so aware of the dark mystery of contagion.  One finger touches another, one hand by doorknob traces another, one chill cough caught in the breeze catches up to another.  Beloved we are probably many months and tragically hundreds of thousands of deaths away from getting away from COVID 19.  Contagion is our condition.  But read the Holy Scripture, Matthew 10.  Here the power of contagion OF A GOOD SORT is the metaphor for God in the world.  Not, to be sure, the malevolent contagion of infection, virus, illness.  But the power of it.  That kind of power—and you have seen it, here and there, now and then—where one contagious prophet and prophecy touches another, where one contagious justice touches another, where one hand of faith, act of kindness, moment of self-abnegation touches, and gives birth to another.

Before you miss the chance, in a short life time, to befriend the Bible, reckon with its durability, realism, poignant sense of suffering, and depth that are at least and more a match for our own experience.  Especially today’s Gospel, Matthew 10.

Matthew 10

The authority of Jesus’ ministry is herein transferred to disciples, ancient and modern.  To you.

We meet Jesus today on the hinges of the first Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel swings from Lord to apostles. In the announcement of this good news is included a measure of empowerment for each one of us. This is the kind of day on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we may be seized by a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven has come near to you. When that sentence makes a home in a heart, or in the heart of a community, a different kind of life ensues.

Capture in the mind’s eye for a moment the sweep of the gospel in Matthew 10.  First. Jesus has been about, teaching and preaching and healing. His compassion abounds. The endless range of needs about him he unblinkingly faces. Second. Jesus calls and sends the disciples, and empowers them, and by extension empowers us. The gospel will have been read thus, as it is thus read by us. He instructs and directs them in their work, where to go, what to do, how to be. Learning, virtue, and piety together. Start at home, heal the sick, travel light. Third. Jesus expects and forecasts for them less than utter victory in their work. They are to know how to shake dust from their feet. Fourth. Jesus warns that there will be a price to pay. The discipline that is the hallmark of the disciple here is named. Shall we not remember Jesus ministry? Shall we ignore the call and power offered here? Shall we forget the directions given? Shall we expect to turn a deaf ear to the caution about consequences? We pray not. The main sweep of the gospel today is clear as a bell. Jesus gives power to his disciples.

Hold that thought.

The clear call of Christ upon our consciences in the main flow of the gospel. For the main point is crystal clear. To follow Jesus means to take up where he and his earliest companions left off.  Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to his disciples, his apostles. We have been seized by the confession of the Church; we are Christians. Now his ministry, this ministry, is ours.

Which part of this ministry draws you?

Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.  Many at BU did so, or tried to, this Wednesday June 24.

Reading Today

In consonance with the preaching of Marsh Chapel over long time, and especially in the last three months, Boston University this week offered a full day of teaching and reflection on racism and anti-racism, this past Wednesday.  What was central, and striking, in the rich hours of presentation and discussion, were the many, and extemporaneous, references to apocalyptic, revelatory insights, recalled by the speakers—aha moments!—in reading.  In reading.  Alongside our own ministry through Marsh Chapel and Religious Life, and that of the now beautifully expanded Howard Thurman Center, which you celebrated right here in worship on January 19, 2020, the voices and leadership of the faculty, staff, presidential and provostial leadership of the University, and then that of the African American Studies Program, the Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, and the new BU Center for Anti-Racism, came together in a great watershed, a confluence new in my experience.  It was wonderful.  I commend to you its recorded version.  Let me leave you with ten sentences (out of a hundred that might have been quoted) from that day, rooted in a shared, reading life:

There is nothing innate about our racial hierarchy.

The final act of violence is the very denial of violence.

The heartbeat of racism is denial.

Racism creates a group differentiated vulnerability, and premature death.

Freedom, real freedom is a whole lot more than civil rights alone.

It is unjust to ask those marginalized by the current system now alone to fix it.

Even if you can’t do empathy, can you at least do justice?

People are rediscovering their own power.

We are at a point now that comes from a movement fifty years ago.

(And last, as a cautionary note, in a sermon on reading):  We can’t just read our way out of this.  (!!)

Is yours a reading life, liberally fed by what is read?  Happy Reading, summer 2020!

Hear the gospel:  He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Sunday
June 21

Have You Ever Been Afraid?

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 10:2439

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The text of the sermon will be posted when it is available.

-The Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman, Associate Chaplain for Episcopal Ministry

Sunday
June 14

Better When Loved

By Marsh Chapel

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Romans 5: 1-8

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All of us are better when we are loved.

Ride On

One day, over lunch, a pastor told us about children at church camp. One 9-year-old in pig tails chose horse camp last year. I didn’t know Methodists ran horse camp. They do. This was pre-COVID when there was still summer camp and horse camp and Methodist horse camp. But on Monday she fell off a horse, or was frightened or something. She cowered through the week, unable to get back on the horse and ride. Her counselor just kept on encouraging. Friday was the rodeo. I guess that is horse camp graduation. All week she wrestled, her fear of falling grappling with her desire to be in the rodeo. Dawn broke on Friday, as it does. I loved, really loved, the way the minister told us about the rodeo. The girl in pig tails put herself on the horse. The old glue factory mare stumbled around the little circle made of six orange cones. First the girl hugged the horse’s neck and kept her eyes closed. But then, after a little while, she opened her eyes. Then she looked up. Then she sat up. Then she leaned back. Then she straightened her back. Then she dug her knees into horse flesh. Then she clicked her tongue. Then she slapped the reins. The old glue factory mare plodded along. But the jockey beamed. She waved to the crowd. She nodded response to her counselor’s encouragement. She rode around the circle again. And again. And again. The rodeo went 30 minutes over schedule. With a little encouragement, a little girl grew up a little.

All of us ride better when we’re loved.

Swing Batter

It made me think about encouragement. A few years ago, somebody came up with the idea that the Little League champs should play their dads on Labor Day. A picnic was arranged, with watermelon and chili dogs. The right fielder’s dad tried not to come. First, he said he had to work. Then a trip was planned. Then he felt ill. But his son kept after him. Dad was at middle age and he had always been a simply terrible batter. He could not hit the broad side of a barn, when he was young. Now he was bald. And his glasses were thick, very thick. And, speaking delicately, he carried frontside a bit, let us say, of a paunch. The thought of facing fast pitching made him squirm. His son, though, was not to be stymied. Dad prayed for rain, or a hurricane, or untimely death. Anyone’s. But dawn broke on Labor Day, as it does. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. 72 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. It could have been San Diego. Distraught, Dad went. The dreaded moment came, his “ups”. He stood in the box, remembering every strike out of 30 years ago. He thought of running. He adjusted his coke bottle glasses, and sweated. All of a sudden from right field he heard, in the full-throated innocent confidence of his son’s voice, “Come on Dad, you can do it, I know you can.” He took a ball, and stood tall. “I know you can!” He took a strike and felt a little better. “Come on Dad, I know you can hit it.” Over the plate came a fast, straight pitch. And he hit it. He hit the ball! Do you know how good he felt to see that little Texas leaguer dropping in behind second base? Rounding first, and stopping, he wiped his glasses. He felt good. Behind him a whisper, “I knew you could, Dad, I just knew you could.”

 All of us swing better when we’re loved.

Be Like 43

For the first time in a decade one High School basketball team competed in sectional semi-finals, some years ago. It is a mystery how this happened. A team shorter, skinnier, weaker, smaller, and less experienced than nearly every opponent, somehow succeeded. They grew steadily in ability and confidence. They failed and lost, and in this they learned. Sometimes they won, and in this they learned, too. Every so often you would see, as visible as a cocoon giving way to a butterfly or a snake shedding its skin or a calf standing after birth, one of the players find himself on the court. It was something to behold. The parents, as ever, attributed all losses to bad officiating, and all wins to marvelous genes. Before the post season, the coach sent a personal, hand written note to every one of his players. He thanked them for their willingness to play. He honestly commended their improvement. He admitted how much he enjoyed their company. Then he challenged them to rise to the post season challenge. They did. He wrote personally to one young man, number 43 on the team, “my own son is growing and learning to play ball, too, and when he asks me how to play and how to be, I just say, you look on the court and you watch 43 and what he does you do –be like 43”. Dawn broke on the day of the sectional game, and they won. Number 43 is my son.

All of us rebound better when we’re loved.

Go OWU

On October more than a few years ago, my brother and I trained to run in the Washington Marine Corps Marathon, around the Pentagon twice, through Georgetown, past every good monument, and out onto the peninsula. Dawn broke on Sunday, a rainy cold morning. I thought I was ready. I was wrong. Maybe it was the driving 40-degree rain, or maybe I’m just older than I think. My brother finished more than an hour before I did. I hit the wall at mile 16. In the rain, I was passed by young men, young women, old men, old women, waddlers, craddlers, wigglers, people in wheel chairs, moms, soccer moms, and man from Denver running backwards. It was not pretty. Somehow though, I finished. In part, looking back, through the encouragement of anonymous curbside exhorters. I was wearing a red Ohio Wesleyan sweatshirt. It was encouraging to hear a shout, “Go red guy!” It was more encouraging to hear, “Keep going Ohio!” It was even more encouraging to hear, “Good going, Ohio Wesleyan!” But most encouraging of all were the occasional alumni voices, “Go OWU!” The more personal, the more particular the encouragement, the more powerful it is. I made it to the Iwo Gima monument. Chris and I drove home.

All of us run better when we’re loved.

Paul Writes to Rome

In similar beguilingly simple terms, Paul wrote to the Romans. Our reading today could well be memorized and recited, daily, for the course of a lifetime. Our reading this morning might properly be printed and framed for the office desk or the kitchen counter. Our reading this Sunday could rightly be imprinted upon the heart, written on every human heart. This is the great watershed of the faith of Christ, simply stated for you and me, for the dying. Romans 5: 1-8.

What dim reflections we find of Love, here in the dark, come from the death of Christ. The great peaks in human history dimly reflect this love: Alexander the glory of Athens, Augustus and the pride of Rome, Michaelangelo and the beauty of Florence, Franklin and the birth of a nation. The great peaks of spirit do too: Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine’s mother, Katie von Bora, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila. Love is not for the simple, only. Love is for the wise. One friend, now dead, alone caught the humor of a single phrase, years ago: we think of ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’.

You remember the basic points in Romans: 1:16, the Gospel of which Paul is not ashamed…2:21, our condition, foolish faithless, heartless ruthless…8:33, hope that is seen is not hope…10:9, if you confess with your lips…12:9, let love be genuine…

You hear and receive his basic terms in this central high peak chapter 5: faith, the gift of God in Jesus Christ; peace, the closeness of faith and the absence of barrier; hope, not seen; glory, heaven yes but also the full humanity for which we were made; spirit, that which confers conveys conducts all the above, and all of them circling agape, the initiative of God loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

Our business here is dying. Life is about learning to die. How are we ever going to manage? Our almost interminable avoidance will not, in itself, cut it.

To be saved is to be incorporated “in Christ”, that is, to belong to this new and heavenly order, primarily eschatological but even now proleptically present, just as the day is present in the dawn. (J Knox).

Love alone justifies. Love alone bring peace. Love alone provides space in grace. Love alone hints at glory. Love alone outlasts suffering. Love alone is stronger than death. Love alone stoops to give out for the weak and lost. Love alone bleeds on your behalf. Love alone reconciles enemies.

Now friends, there are a lot of things wrong. You can find them fast enough. In climate. In culture. In corona. In classism. In racism. In connection. In church. Right now, there are a lot of things that just are wrong. It may be that the tragic, horrible death of George Floyd will galvanize and focus us, as a people, in a new and different way. There are for sure a lot of things wrong.

But friends, there are also a lot of things right. We are going to need to hold on to these, too, in order to have a future worthy of the name. Just this week I see and hear them. Where? In the self-less ministry of our BU Catholic Chaplain, Fr. David Barnes, giving last rites for two months, recently described in the New York Times. Where? In the advent of Professor Ibram X. Kendi, coming soon to BU to found a new Center for Anti-Racist Research. Where? In a kind note from a former student, Sam Needham, now finishing his PhD, applying to lead a University Chapel, hoping to ‘incorporate both academic work and pastoral leadership into my ministerial career, as you have done so well’. Where? I give no better sermonic encouragement than that found this week inn the hopeful words of our fellow Dean, School of Public Health, Boston University, Dr. Sandro Galea:

There is no question that the circumstances of the moment are unremittingly difficult. That many millions are, and will continue, suffering ill-effects from this great national trauma for years to come. That the consequences of the moment include a loss of hope and of trust in our collective capacity to grapple with complex problems and an anxiety and fear that will haunt our dreams for years. There is no question that the moment will further entrench social divides and that these divides themselves will continue to challenge our capacity to see one another as we do ourselves, separating us by widening gulfs of experience, straining our capacity for empathy.
And yet, and yet, we shall, perhaps against all odds, survive even this moment. Why? We know that the country has survived dark moments and has gone on—at least for the privileged some—to thrive. We did survive 1918, 1933, 1968, 2001. We also survived two world wars. Each of these moments seemed to defy hope, to threaten our sense of safety and stability for our world. And yet, there was a year that came after each of these moments that brought better, a dawn after a stormy night.

Each of these moments found some resolution, in some cases vastly imperfect, that allowed the country to move on. We also know, and have seen even in this moment, that the country has stores of fierce determination to survive, to get past the dark. We have seen it in the abundant cases of heroism in the face of COVID-19, in first responders—not only nurses and doctors, but also grocery store clerks and morgue attendants—who continue to do their job, at high personal risk, because it is is the right thing to do, and because it is what is needed to ensure that our society continues to function, that we make it past the moment. We have seen it in the acts of generosity that have sustained so many through the economic hardships of the moment, and in the acts of courage in the face of unimaginable adversity shown by those who are speaking for social justice, facing down entrenched systems of structural racism that are larger than all of us. The past, and the abundant traces of hope offered by the tenuous present, both suggest that we will emerge from this moment. That there shall be sun after the dark of 2020.
Dean Galea brought us a timely, saving word of loving encouragement. For love alone has the grace and power, savingly to soften the inevitable collisions (Isaiah Berlin) of personal and social life.

Just so, Romans 5 brings a clear, even simple, word of encouragement, some bread for the journey. Better when loved, better when loved. Like many of you, we learned first this power of encouragement from our parents. My mother died, Friday, at 7pm, in a COVID encased nursing home. We were able to be with her for the hours prior to that, an opening in protocol that came just soon enough for family to gather with her. She turned 91 last Saturday, and carried her genial and congenial spirit, her smile, her gracious spirit to the very end. Before Friday, I happened to be the last person to be immediately with her, in conversation, on March 9. After that it was only through nurses (wonderful), FaceTime (equally so), and arranged ‘through the glass’ waves and greetings with my sisters (not so good, but better than nothing). It is reminder of the torrents of unexpressed, unaddressed grief around us, that will consume our work for months, perhaps longer, into the future. And, although she did not say it directly, she surely lived it fully, this saving word of loving encouragement: all of us are better when we are loved.

The first Christians even found in suffering something productive. It was their manner of suffering that impressed others. It was their manner of dying, it was Paul’s manner of dying, perhaps in Rome, that others noticed:

All of us live and, especially, die better when we’re loved.
All of us are better when we are loved.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Sunday
June 7

Ground of Being

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 28: 16-20

Click here to hear just the meditations

We are a people drenched in sorrows. As this sermon is recorded, today, Wednesday, June 3, we are a nation afflicted, caught somewhere between pandemic and pandemonium. So, come with me for a moment aside, a moment apart, wherein we scour together the high ground, the background, and the common ground of our current condition, the condition our condition is in.

The High Ground

First, the high ground.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson led us toward high ground this week. He had done so before. Right here. Some of you will remember his voice in 2014 from this pulpit. Secretary Johnson preached from the Marsh pulpit on January 25, 2014. Present with Johnson and the Dean of Marsh Chapel were Charlene Hunter-Gault, two dozen BU medical students in their white coats, another physician who had been the doctor for Arthur Ashe, the then President of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, and about 300 guests, family, and friends. We were present to honor the life and faithfulness of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a BU alumnus, renowned physician, and national civil rights leader. Marsh Chapel was full. At one point we asked the congregation to recite together the 23 Psalm. Family and friends in the first pew did so. Colleagues and physicians across the nave did so. Leaders of national organizations near and far did so. In the balcony, twenty white coated medical students together did so. Either at that point or another in the service they stood silently together, to honor the life and faith of the deceased. That day I met a friend a personal physician of Arthur Ashe, whose life, prowess, faithfulness and service have always so inspired me. Read again this summer his autobiography, Days of Grace. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

In the collation following the service, some of us remembered Arthur Ashe. “Arthur Ashe: Ashe suffered a heart attack in 1979. He would later undergo surgery for quadruple bypass, but continued to suffer chest pain. This forced him to retire from tennis with a record of 818-260, including his three Grand Slams.

He remains the only African-American male to have won any of these Men’s Single titles. Ashe would have to under-go a second bypass surgery in 1983. During this operation he received a blood transfusion: the blood Ashe received was infected with human immunodeficiency virus—HIV. In 1988, this discovery was made. The condition was kept private until 1992, when Ashe announced to the world, he had AIDS. When asked if having AIDS was the toughest challenge he had ever had to face, Ashe replied: “No, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with was being a black man in this society…having to live as a minority in America. Even now it feels like an extra weight tied around me.” (Blaine Spence, 2009).”

Also, in the collation following the service, Charlayne Hunter Gault introduced herself. You may remember her, as we did, from her many and fine contributions to the News Hour, with Jim Lehrer. She said, ‘I need to talk to you later about the 23 Psalm’. I was so pleased to meet her, and then so worried that I had somehow offended her, that the collation time passed anxiously. It needn’t have done. She wanted to recall a memory. A memory of her younger self. At 18. The first African American to integrate the University of Georgia. The daughter of a Baptist minister. Alone in a big place, a strange place, a new place. Walking home the third night, there were taunts and threats. The University that day had suggested she might want to go home, at least for a while. She went into her room. She closed the door. She turned out the lights. And she waited, until quiet came. And then—it was the only thing that came to her mind—the prayer of David in Psalm 23 came to her. And she spoke the psalm, alone, afraid, uncertain, at night. ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.’

I do not recall the full content in that memorial of Secretary Jeh Johnson’s eulogy. I do clearly remember his necessarily taking over my downstairs office, with two fully uniformed attaches carrying the famous black box, who announced, ‘we need to be next to a telephone land line’. I do also recall what Johnson said on Tuesday of this week, keeping us focused on the high ground, the high ground. June 2, 2020: “Protest, as Martin Luther King said, is a form of language by those who believe that their voices are not heard. And the grievance here is legitimate. Protests that crosses into violence is counterproductive to the message. It undermines the message. It cedes the moral high ground and it strengthens those on the other side of the debate…looting undermines the larger effort here. It undermines the message, it distracts from it, and it gives — it strengthens the hand of those on the militant extremist law and order side.”

As the sermon last Sunday affirmed, order matters, order matters…in order that the legitimate grievance be heard, the language of protest be heard.

The Background

Second, the background. From high ground to background.

We have covered this ground, call it the background, from this pulpit, many times before. A few from several examples: We did so under the theme ‘A New Birth of Freedom’, in reference to Jeremiah Wright, January 18, 2009. We did so under the theme ‘Learning Together, in reference to Ferguson and Treyvon Martin, August 24, 2014. We did so under the theme, ‘Still Point’, in reference to the Charleston Nine, June 21, 2015. We did so under the theme ‘Bear Witness to the Truth’, in reference to Charlottesville a year earlier, November 25, 2018. We do so today under the theme ‘Ground of Being’, in reference to George Floyd. These are offered with encouragement that if you have the time and energy, you take the time and energy to read these, or other materials, to know better our background.

Not everyone will find satisfaction in listening to or reading old sermons. Pity. So, you may simply want to read, and read. So, read! Don’t scan. Read.

Start with James Baldwin:

‘Nothing is fixed forever and forever, it is not fixed. The earth is always shifting and the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down the rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them, because they are the only witnesses we have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to one another, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with each other, the sea engulfs us, and the light goes out’…James Baldwin: whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves. (Letter from a Region in my Mind (New Yorker, reprint, 12/3/18)

Continue with William Faulkner, Light in August, say, something bracing and dark, Faulkner on fire:

…a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change. Yes. A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and dont try to hold him, that he cant escape from.” …He said, ‘Remember this. 240

The past is not dead. It is not even past.

But don’t stop until you have read Cornell professor Edward Baptist’s,

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. You dwell in the tenth floor of a building whose first three stories were constructed with stolen land and enslaved labor, free land and free labor, for the benefit of anyone who had or used money, then or now. Now bear with me a moment, as we cover the contours of our background.

Read Baptist on the building of the new south, 1807-1861: The massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire—this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power (xix).

Read Baptist on the investment incentives therein: And because the main in the iron collar and all who followed him into the depths of the continent would make not a luxury product but the most basic commodity in a new kind of endlessly expanding economy, there would also be no limit to the number of enslavers, or to the number of investors who would want to chase enslavement’s rewards. Only conscience, or the inability of the world’s investment markets to deploy enough savings, could impede the transfer of capital to slavery’s new frontiers (41).

Read Baptist on avarice: A world greedy for a slice of the whipping-machine’s super-profits had financed the occupation of a continent, and the forced migration of enslaved African Americans to the southwestern cotton fields helped to make the modern world economy possible…Slavery’s expansion was the driving force in US history between the framing of the constitution and the beginning of the Civil War. It made the nation large and unified (413).

The Common Ground

Third, the common ground. We conclude with a Trinitarian reminder of our common ground, from high ground to background to common ground, in our holy gospel.

Our gospel lesson, the conclusion of St. Matthew, is an early introduction of the Trinity, the relational mode of divinity so struggled after and so central to early Christianity. In that way, the Trinity is the original Christian common ground, the divine dimension of the possibility of relationship. We can use that reminder this morning in early June 2020. We conclude with a Trinitarian reminder of common ground, in our very humanity.

We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All eight billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All eight billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All eight billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All eight billion. We all age, and after age fifty its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All eight billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All eight billion.”

We conclude with a trinitarian, that is a relational reminder of common ground, in our communion with one another, the communion of saints. A reminder that given our endless fallibility and our ending mortality, we need each other.

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for Eucharist. We are not together to receive together the bread and cup. But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer. And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel. Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past

Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints… Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Sunday
May 31

Receive the Holy Spirit

By Marsh Chapel

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John 20: 19-23

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Spirit

For the months and years ahead, we shall need… Spirit. Those who worship shall worship in spirit and in truth. Receive the Holy Spirit, beloved. Today is Pentecost! Receive the Holy Spirit!

Scripture and tradition depend on reason and experience. Spirit involves reason and experience. A question for you, day by day as our mortally challenging pandemic reminds us, is whether we can find the courage to trust our own experience and whether we can find the capacity to rely on our own reason. Opportunities to subcontract both are amply available. But in order to live a life that is yours not almost yours, Spirit is needed. More: not many of us signed up to make decisions, choices, on almost a daily basis, that may in fact have direct impact on another’s safety, health and well-being. We have the freedom of spirit, but there is a weight, a dead weight to that freedom. Said Robert McAffee Brown, This is God’s world. But it is a crummy world. And we have to live with both realities. It is the Triune God as Spirit that empowers, makes a space, for Brown’s proverb.

Wind at midnight. Wind from the sea. Summer wind, blowing in. The wind blows where it wills. Wind of God…

The strangest of strange outcroppings of Spirit in all of Scripture is located in the Fourth Gospel, in the odium theologicum of John 7, and on the windswept steppe of John 14, the ice-covered snow peak of the Bible, the haunted moonscape of planet Gospel, and, especially, come Pentecost, today, in the elusive presence of John 20. In John both the mystical eye and the ethical ear, in Samuel Terrien’s phrase, are alive, ethics here only meaning love God and love your neighbor. Once you have ascended John including to the last discourse, John 14ff, you are clearly in a strange, strange land and landscape. The venerable preacher who originally spoke to the late first century community in the town of Ephesus (say) if nothing else had absolute confidence in his own experience. It led him, and thus his church, to establish what became later emerging Christianity. Here, Logos. Here, Nicodemus. Here, Blind Man healed. Here, Lazarus—raised. Here, Beloved Disciple. Here, Paraclete, especially, Spirit, by another name.

John

John has had the courage to face the awful disappointment behind the New Testament: Jesus did not return, not on schedule, not as expected, not soon and very soon, not maranatha, not yet. But John looked at his own experience, and in biblical measure, with traditional tools, reasoned. In place of apocalypse, he celebrated the artistry of the everyday, and in place of the speculation about the end, he celebrated the Spirit of truth, and in place of parousia, the coming of the Lord, he nominated Paraclete, the presence of the Lord. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. One way to solve problems is to face them, to name them, to admit them. No parousia. Paraclete. To face our present challenge, with courage, neither with recklessness nor with anxiety, neither with rashness nor with timidity, as the President of Notre Dame put it this week.

The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet fully to admit. In the COVID time, it may be, you will have the time or take the time or make the time, to become better acquainted: with the Bible, with the Gospel, with John. With faith. Faith, says my friend, is a response in the affirmative to the question whether life has any meaning. Is there meaning in life, to life? Faith says ‘Yes’. My beloved advisor, perhaps the greatest John scholar of our era, Fr. Raymond Brown, got only as far as saying that John is best understood as ‘an embraceable variant’ emphasis on embraceable less emphasis on variant. But when we get to the summit, John 14 and following out to John 20, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle: Spirit. Paraclete. The endless enemy of conformity. The lasting foe of the nearly lived life. The champion of the quixotic. The standard bearer of liberty. The one true spirit of spirited truth. Yet we cannot even give the history of the term, nor fully define its meaning, nor aptly place it in context, nor finally determine its translation. And maybe that is as it should be. Paraclete eludes us. Spirit evades us. Paraclete outpaces us. Spirit escapes us. There is, says faith of meaning in life, says faith in meaning in life, there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.

Notice that the Spirit is given to all, not just to a few or to the twelve, definitely not. Notice that it is Spirit not structure on which John relies. Notice it is Spirit not memory which we shall trust (good news for those of us whose memory may slip a little). Notice that Spirit stands over against what John calls ‘the world’ in the later chapters—another dark mystery in meaning. Notice that the community around John’s Jesus is amply conveyed a powerful trust in Spirit.

John, Spirit in John, may be the verses of the Bible we most need in Corona Time. Especially recent graduates. Six months ago, you had multiple opportunities, jobs and internships and travel and study and any myriad of combinations thereof. Today? Today we need the Spirit to empower us to edit our dreams, to recognize past dreams and edit them for a new, challenging time.

Other parts of the New Testament take another trail. The Book of Acts offers confidence by way of hagiographical memories of Peter and Paul, and of exaggerated but loving assertions of the utter agreement of Peter and Paul. The

Pastoral and Catholic Epistles—and to some degree 1 John in opposition to his gospel namesake—rely not on memory or memories and not on Spirit, but on structure: presbyters, faith once delivered to saints, deacons, codes of conduct, stylized memories of orderly transmission of tradition. We need memory. We need structure. Neither can hold a candle to Spirit. That is, for John, what Moses, the Law, the historical Jesus, the Sacraments or any other can suggest, Paraclete provides. By Spirit we hear the Word God. God reveals by Spirit. God self-reveals by Spirit. Here the stakes are very high.

Raymond Brown: People who live by the spirit is the only way others will be convinced of the victory of Jesus (Hill, Courageous, 82). You. You living by the Spirit will be the only way others will be convinced of faith, of the affirmation of meaning in life.

Paraclete

Parakletos, Paraclete, is a word used only by John. In the first letter of John the word is used to describe Jesus. The word comes from kalein, to call, to call along side of. It is the legal form for advocate, one who has been called along side to help (ad vocare). The Holy Spirit will tell you what to say: this is the Synoptic claim. But that is not quite what John says here. Here the Holy Spirit is a prosecuting attorney. He puts the world on trial. There is a legal sense to Paraclete. A lot of this language and imagery ought to be understood in light of the trial of Jesus itself. The Paraclete is Jesus’ Spirit. The Spirit is not just a memory but is a living force.

In Job we hear “I know that my defender lives”. The figure here is probably an angelic defender. He will prove to the world Job’s innocence. The angelic figure in the Job passage is translated by the rabbi’s as “paraclete”. “My defense attorney”. The angelic spirit is related to the individual.

However, “the Advocate” is not the whole picture. “The Comforter” is also a part of this. The Spirit will comfort, will hold your hand. Paraclete has this notion too. Luther’s Bible emphasized the notion of the comforter. Thus, we have in English the Paraclete as comforter. Furthermore, this figure is a ‘he’, though there is no intention to emphasize maleness. This is Jesus’ Paraclete since he is our own defense attorney. And the Paraclete is with us forever.

Even Jesus was confined by time and space. But the Paraclete is not bound by time and space. The Paraclete is given to all who love Jesus and keep his commandments. There is no contract here for John. The Paraclete is not given only to a few. (In Acts, by contrast, the spirit is tied more directly to the twelve). In John, the Spirit is the property of all. The Spirit is an internal force which the world cannot see. The world cannot see the Spirit. And the Spirit has no name. His identity comes from Jesus and the Father. The Spirit takes on the role of Jesus, and is sent in Jesus’ name. He will teach. He will remind. He will tell. Just as Jesus did. This is the Teacher

for the Johannine community. He will not speak on his own. He will speak only what he hears. He will speak of the things to come.

At the end of the first century, the apostolic churches had a moment of paralysis. All the leaders were now dead. “How are we going to survive?”, they mused. We will hold on. Preserve what has been given. One way to cope is to structure, to pass on. This structure is the test of the Spirit. It is a mechanism for preserving the situation. There is a human witness, to be sure. But that witness is only powerful because of the Paraclete. Thus, the Beloved Disciple is so exemplary, because of the Holy Spirit. This is the notion of passing things on, in a viable, adaptable way.

The Paraclete teaches.

There are two different visions of Christian mechanisms for dealing with the future. One: Acts, the Pastorals, preserve and remember. Two: John, the Spirit. This is a most interesting tension: spirit guidance plus guidance from structure.

Here the Paraclete is also the grounding of the community. Says Jesus: For your own good, I will go away. The presence of the Spirit in the long run is better. I have many things to say, but you cannot bear them now.

Now

The person who possesses the Spirit possesses Jesus.

The Spirit is the Advocate. He calls forth and calls out and calls down. The word for Spirit, pneuma, is actually neuter in gender. Our friend Linda, an OWU and BU graduate, lives by Spirit. She happened to call, a Friday ago, to offer thanks for a BU program she had heard. When she finished her BA in Delaware Ohio and wanted to go on to study religious education her chaplain, James Leslie, son of former BU Old Testament professor Elmer Leslie, suggested BU. “Who knows, you may even meet your husband there” he said. She went and she did. Last year Linda was spotted holding a sign in traffic near an upstate New York shopping center. She and her husband Gary, a BUSTH graduate of 1964, served a dozen urban and rural churches together, never really complaining about itinerancy or salary or ministry. Gary retired and unexpectedly died shortly thereafter. Linda teaches Sunday school, writes letters to the editor, checks in on elderly preachers’ widows, and reads poetry. This particular day she was moved with a few others to stand in a busy traffic area holding a sign, ‘Remember the children of the Middle East’. An advocate. Do you possess, or are you possessed by, the Advocate?

The Spirit is the Counselor. A recent college graduate, call her Emma, works for an outdoor therapy program, aimed at delinquent teenagers. She loves nature, having studied the environment and environmental science in college. A 15 year-old boy asked her why he should bother to get up in the morning. He meant it. She

had no answer, at first. But then she brought him a paragraph the next day from Thoreau. She meant it. Somehow, maybe more for this trust in her and her care for him, a saving, an intervening word of counsel was spoken, and more importantly, was spoken and heard. Faith is the affirmative response to the question whether life has meaning. Do you possess, or are you possessed by, the Counselor?

The Spirit is the Comforter. On the edges of mayhem in various parts of the world, let us not forgot for all our current troubles, there are camps for refugees. Millions of refugees. There are tents, there is food, there are medical units, there is some semblance of order. Temporary, insufficient, makeshift order, but order nonetheless. A photo of one of the nurses in one, eyes wide and tear-filled and kind, stood out from the newspaper the other day. She stood for all the heroic first responders right around us in this pandemic. We all cannot do such work. But we can appreciate and admire, respect and support, those who do. We take order for granted, to our peril. One day we shall need the succor of such women, and the safety of such order, however temporary, insufficient and makeshift. Do you possess, or are you possessed by, the Comforter?

The Spirit is the Helper. Brian was admitted to my alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan, but really could not read well. He was failing everything, left and right and center. His history teacher told him ‘you do not belong here’. He tried, but he could not continue. He found his way to the registrar, and got papers to withdraw. He sat on the steps of Gray Chapel one afternoon, filling in the forms. A secretary in the admissions office saw him, remembered his spirit and spunk, his energy and courtesy, from the spring. She stopped looking into her computer and went out to look at him, asking what he was doing. He began to weep. He stumbled through an explanation. They sat quietly. “Brian, you are not going home, at least not today, and at least not in this way. We have help here. We are a small school and we take care of our kids. We have a writing center here. We have ways to make this work for you. Just come with me.” You may have seen or heard Brian. Today he is a prominent news anchor. He told this story the day our third, our youngest child, graduated from OWU. “She saved my life by helping me” he said. Do you possess, or are you possessed by, the Helper?

Hear the Gospel: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you…These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you

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

Sunday
May 24

A Shared Future

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 4:3-10

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A reading from Genesis chapter 4, verses 3-10,

3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!

If you look back through the last few decades, you might notice that there has been an ongoing rise of dystopian and post-apocalyptic works. The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, The Handmaid’s Tale, Planet of the Apes, and dozens of other works have capture the attentions of readers and viewers. All of these works say something about the world in which we live. These works tend to re-imagine society in light of suffering or offer a restructuring of life. The power of good dystopian literature is its connection to reality and the way it forces the reader to reconsider aspects of life. I cannot say for certain what the affinity between these works and the current zeitgeist is, but the correlation is significant.

One particular dystopian novel has been especially on my mind lately, The Giver. The Giver is a 1993 novel by Lois Lowry, which was turned into a movie in 2014. The novel takes place in a society designed to function without pain, war, or fear. For all intents and purposes, the society seems to be a utopian one at first; however, throughout the book the reader learns the costs of creating the society. In order to achieve the societal ideals, the community enforces strict uniformity toward utilitarian purposes. Individuals have to conform to societal norms. The ability to choose or make the meaningful decisions in life is taken away from the individual and placed into the hands of a council. People are assigned to families and jobs. The society is without many emotions like love. People cannot see the color of the sky, ground, or anything else. Those who are not useful are euthanized. What appeared to be utopian was dystopian.

One of the ways in which the society was able to enforce uniformity is that considerable amounts of the past have been intentionally forgotten. This provides a powerful formative force. Societies are shaped by what they remember and forget so, the ability to shape a society based on what it remembers and forgets is a profound power. We go through a similar formative process every day, even when we are not aware of it. We are shaped by the stories told, events remembered and we are shaped by the untold stories and events forgotten. While there is no council with the ability to take away our memories, there is an ongoing struggle for whose memories and stories are true and matter.

Turn with me to the story of Cain and Abel where two brothers made an offering to God. The planter Cain, gave an offering from the fruit of the ground and Abel, the herdsman from his flock. Each made gifts to God from their work. For some reason, Abel’s sacrifice pleased God, and Cain’s did not. Theologians have argued for centuries about why Abel’s sacrifice was more pleasing. The author of Hebrews indicated that faith had something to do with it. Hebrews 11:4 says “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.” The faith aspect reminds us that inward dispositions impact outward actions. Augustine thought similarity when he argued that the reception of the offerings must have correlated with the intentions of the giver. In other words, Augustine believed that Abel’s heart was in the right place and Cain’s was not. Whatever the initial reason, it is clear that God recognized the consequences of favoring one brother’s offering over the others. So God warned Cain that he must not succumb to the anger in his heart. Cain was given a warning and a chance to overcome unjust anger against his brother. Cain was given the chance to recognize that blessings from God to others are not a cause of jealousy. But Cain lured his brother into a field and attacked him. One person killed another, brother killed brother.

After Cain killed Abel, God questioned him about Abel’s whereabouts. Because Cain was alive, he could tell the story and retorted, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper.” Cain counted on the past being the past and dead bodies being silent. What Cain did not remember is that God has a way of knowing. God said to Cain “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” The passage from Hebrews also said that Abel still speaks by faith even though he is dead. The blood of Abel cried out to God. Abel’s cry was a song of sorrow. The ground was marred by blood and became the location of this song of sorrow. Creation recognized the injustice that sounded out from the marred soil. Clearly, Cain did not want to hear this song of sorrow or take responsibility for the direct role he played in its creation. God did not stand for his actions and ignorance. In fact, God says listen to Cain. Cain is directed to listen to God and the song of sorrow rising from his brother’s body in the ground. God directed him to listen to what God can hear from what remains of Abel.

Listening here is a way of remembering. God does not allow Cain to ignore the travesty he committed against his brother to go unaccounted for through verbal dexterity. A person is dead. Cain’s brother is dead. The world will never be the same. God does not allow the song of sorrow to go unheard.

If we were to venture out to listen for voices in the soil, what would we hear? What are the songs of sorrow crying out to God for justice? Can you hear the blood and sweat of a black runner from Georgia, the tears of abused women, the gasps of soldiers waking up from all too real dreams, and the coughs of the poor who died without adequate health care coming from polluted ground? If you cannot hear these songs, it does not mean that they do not exist, they are there and God says listen. If you cannot hear them, then it is time to ask why. What is separating you from the laments of the suffering?

Perhaps we do not hear the songs because we do not want to. We do not want to admit culpability or witness any more pain and suffering. It is also hard to hear them when listening feels like swimming upstream. It’s hard to hear when the mainstream pulls us away. There are songs and memories that mainstream society is trying so desperately to drown out and it is beyond time to ask why. It is time to listen and remember the truth told from the ground and not those standing over the bodies. Bodies will continue to fall and cry until we listen.

In the dystopian world of The Giver, the society was able to select what memories would shape the community. The council controlled the stories told and events remembered. Rather than remember all the hurt and destruction that humanity inflicted, the society designated one person to be the keeper of memories. The keeper of memories remembered the good and the bad. In this way, the past could be the past as people went through life ignorant of much of what came before. But trying to leave the past in the past brought about serious consequences. The society bent or perhaps even broke truth in the way it understood it’s past and present. The community rested on unstable ground as the songs of sorrow were drowned out. Without the ability to remember, the community could not listen. Memories are not purely passive traces of events, they are poignantly active markers of life. Memories have meaning and when they are taken away, forgotten, or denied life is impacted. The fabric of the world is altered when memories are snuffed out.

The protagonist of The Giver Jonas, as the new keeper of memories, was faced with a difficult choice, does he perpetuate the communal myths by keeping all of the society’s memories to himself, or does he expose the duplicitous ground the community uneasily rests upon? You can read the book to see what Jonas did but remember that part of the power of good dystopian literature is its capacity to capture pertinent aspects of life. In other words, if you read the book, you might just have to ask yourself the same question, can you accept the communal myths and the duplicitous ground that society rests upon when it tries to forget its past?

You can learn a lot about a society by looking at what they choose to remember. Alternatively, you can uncover much by pondering what would rather be forgotten. The Giver illustrates that there are dire repercussions when societies and communities refuse to remember certain things. Selective memory may make those in control of the narrative feel better but the truth cannot be hidden. The truth cannot be dismissed so casually. Memories and lingering effects have a way of surfacing and demand to be heard. The voices of the past cry out.

Beyond hearing the songs of sorrow that stem from injustices, the temptation to forget, ignore, and perpetuate in the present is fueled by radical individualism. This individualism says it was not my hand that struck the brother or sister; therefore, I do not have to listen. I do not live in Georgia. I do not own a gun. I smile at people who do not look like me when I walk by them. I donate money to organizations that make a difference. If I do all of this, God, surely I am not responsible for the bodies in the ground? I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?  Individualism focuses on the self that is standing and refuses to see or hear the body on the ground. Individualism tries to forget that we are part of a communal society, whether we feel like it or not. It teaches us that we are isolated islands moving through a world that exists for us. This excuses the suffering or pain of others as inevitable or caused by moral deficiencies. The “me” mindset focuses on the self while viewing other people as minor characters in our story. This could not be further from the truth though. We exist in an interconnected interdependent world. We live in a shared world where the Holy Spirit fills the space that is between us.

Our lives and identities are forever changed when we come into contact with each other. For good or for ill, we impact those around us. Continental philosopher Paul Ricoeur said it this way: “in our experience the life history of each of us is caught up in the histories of others. Whole sections of my life are part of the life history of others—of my parents, my friends, my companions in work and in leisure.”[1] To answer the ancient question from Genesis, YES you are your brother’s keeper, and you are your sister’s keeper, your friend’s keeper, your annoying person in the office keeper, yes, you are even your enemies’ keeper. There is no one for whom you are not a keeper. That doesn’t mean you must continue to engage with people who have hurt and abused you. It doesn’t mean you cannot walk away from people who do not keep you but you are a keeper. For today, this places the obligation to listen to songs of sorrow and remember. To be a keeper for others recognizes that we share life, the world, and God with one another.

I doubt that the author of The Giver had Genesis in mind when she wrote about the keeper of memories but maybe being a keeper also means holding onto each other’s stories with trust and care. Maybe it means listening deeply to those around us and honoring the ways in which we are connected, even if these connections are not visible. In The Giver, the keeper of memories is tasked with remembering on behalf of the community for the good of all. But we do not live in a world where just one person is the keeper of memories. We all are and because we are all keepers, we are partners in the hard work of remembering. Ricoeur says that we are entangled with one another and this entanglement should result in mutual care and concern for each other. Your life is directly shaped by the people surrounding you. You impact the people around you. This entanglement challenges notions radical individualism because of the way life is inherently connected. On the one hand, this means the present is shaped by mutuality. On the other hand, it means that the past and memory do not belong to any particular individual or even a particular community. This is not to say that we are bound by the past or memories in a fatalistic manner; however, they are always present even when we are not aware. History is shared and there is an ethical responsibility to the past when forgetting and remembering. How we remember and what we remember must be measured because of the way in which they shape the present and the future.

If you travel around any city, you will see statues, plaques, and monuments. These represent events, people, or times that are memorialized. There are times we observe special days in the year. These are formative reminders of what has been. Tomorrow is Memorial Day. On this day, we remember those who gave their lives in military service on behalf of the United States. Tomorrow we remember that war is not free and that the costs of war extend far beyond what the U.S. treasury department can print. Memorial Day is a day of remembering.  But it is also a challenging day. How do we honor the good and remember the injustices? How do we live in the tensions and ambiguities of life that are always more complex than a simple good/bad dichotomy. How do we remember more fully and truthfully?

We live in a shared world. This means that until there is freedom for all, there can never be freedom for some. Freedom cannot be achieved for a few on the backs of the many. While songs of sorrow are the dirge of the land, the land is not a place freedom. Recognizing this means reclaiming and remembering aspects of the past. It necessities being keepers for one another. We are keepers of the voices of the past. We are keepers of voices in the present. Yet, there is another important way that we are keepers. We are keepers of each other’s futures. We not only live in a shared world but we must move toward a shared future. The future is not mine, it is not yours, and it is ours. God invites you to work as a keeper toward a shared future for everyone. This invitation is hard but it is good news for everyone. The shared future is not wishful thinking it is God’s promise.

[1] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1992, 161.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics

Boston University School of Theology

Sunday
May 17

This I Believe

By Marsh Chapel

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Acts 1:15–17, 21–26

John 17:6–19

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The test of the meditations will be posted shortly.

Sunday
May 10

Way, Truth, Life

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 2:2–10

John 14:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          First, Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

          Second, Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

          Third, Life

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

          The secret shown:  Love one another. Way.

          The secret spoken: Love one another.  Truth.

          The secret shared:  Love one another. Life.

          Coda

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

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

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

Sunday
May 3

The Shepherd

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

Acts 2:42-43

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        To begin, our colleague the Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman I have asked to give us a few verses from Robert Frost:

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

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.

        Last Sunday, April 26, given the new and different schedule of Sunday during the pandemic, I happened to tune in to a television show, one new to me.  Before of course tuning in to WBUR for virtual worship of course.  Well, all Sunday morning TV is pretty much new to me, at least any such from the last forty some years or so.  I peddled along on my little stationary bike, sipped a coffee, and listened.  A familiar person—it took me a while to settle up on the memory of her name, not Katie Couric, not Meredith Vieira —with grace and a happy smile gave an overview of what the program would include.  Her name—ah yes, Jane Pauley.  She proposed to tell us about Julie Andrews.  

        Now most people of a certain age, and in fact many of any age, can begin singing, just at the introduction of her name.  Doe, a deer… Edelweiss…Chim chiminee…My favorite things…It was all very satisfactory, along with lazy exercise and coffee, and a kind of mental freedom somewhat or entirely new to me, Come Sunday.  In fact, it made you wonder how people leave this sort of thing behind and get going out the door to church at all.  Julie Andrews, she, of unmatchable voice, a four- octave voice as the music teacher in our home recalled, she lost her voice a few years ago in a medical operation. Did you know that?  She lost her voice.  Such a voice to lose.  Something pierced the heart, in a corona swept country, to be reminded amid our own immediate loss, of such a loss.  

        Now something happened.  In a whirl, a great whoosh, there appeared a combination of modes and media in the televised telling of this tale.  You had the guide speaking, the afore-remembered Ms. Pauley.  You had the grace and voice of the British star, Julie Andrews.  You had clips of scenes and songs from long ago, spliced and splashed into the moment.  You had soon enough the appearance of Ms. Andrews talented daughter, an author of children’s books.  You had footage of Ms. Andrews as a child in London during World War II.  Hm…You then had mother and daughter, across the miles from Long Island to Southern California, or as we like to call that area from our snow perch here in Boston, ‘heaven’.  They agreed that Ms. Andrews had found another sort of voice, in the work with her daughter on children’s books.

        It was the mixture of media, to which we are a bit more attuned here, now on Sunday, now last Sunday and now this Sunday that mesmerized, for a moment at least.  Splicing.  The old.  The new.  The Voice.  The music. An empty home, really, a kind of empty church.  All you needed was a sermon.  And it came.  The guide, the afore remembered Ms. Pauley asked the daughter, ‘what did your mother teach you that stands out in memory?’  Now that is a daunting question to answer in front of God and the whole televisioned world.  But she did neither falter nor quail at all.  ‘My mother taught me, ‘When in doubt, stand still.  When in doubt, stop, stand still’.

        Now that is in some fashion what happens for us on Sunday morning.  We come to church, or in this remarkable season, virtual worship, dressed in our doubts.  And we are asked, for just an hour, just one hour, to stand still.  To bring our doubts to the full emptiness of a silent church.  To bring our doubts to the fullness, the fullness of an empty church. 

        Ah, an empty church.  An empty church has a strange potent power to touch our hearts.  One church organist confessed that after practicing for a while, alone in the nave, he would sit, still, and “let the power of the place fill me”.  A woman told of entering an empty church after, by phone, she learned that her father had suffered a stroke: “the power of the place filled me”.  One young husband went late into a large old church when his wife went under the surgeon’s knife: “I let the power of that place help me”, he said of the empty nave.  Even a boy and girl in youth group once groped into a dark sanctuary to talk and touch and taste tender love: “the place, empty, was full”.  A Bishop, adrift in a sea of paper, prayed in a fully empty big sanctuary:  “it was powerful to be there”.  An empty church has a strange potent power to touch our hearts. Emerson:  I love the silent church, before any speaking.

        Augustine in Hippo there awaited the vandals.  St Aquinas there realized what he had written—a life work—was “so much straw”.  Thomas More there prayed before death.  Luther, Calvin and Wesley there awaited Christ.  Oscar Romero there died, in the prayer of humble access.  Though he had no elements, alone each morning Terry Waite in prison for four years had communion—by imagination—in all the great British Cathedrals:  Monday in Salisbury, Tuesday in Durham, Wednesday at Coventry….

        With you, I try to read the news and listen to the events of the day.  As you do, I try to overhear behind the immediate din of sounds and bites, something of the heart of people and of our people.  This spring, sometimes, I overhear a pained and painful sense of doubt about the possibilities in life.  A doubt that things can change very much.  A doubt that anything new could ever emerge.  A doubt that people can repent and turn around.  A doubt that systems, so entrenched and contentious, can ever be made orderly.  A doubt that any of the older differences among us can ever be bridged.  A doubt that any common expression of faith can be trusted.  A doubt that any common faith or common ground or common hope can ever, with authenticity, emerge and survive.  A doubt in which the radical postmodern apotheosis of difference has silenced the liberal late modern openness to shared experience, to promise and future, to common faith, common ground, common hope. A doubt that minimizing one’s own visibility or audibility, for the sake of something bigger and someone else, could ever be faithful or reasonable.  A doubt that the general public could be trusted to shoulder significant sacrifice.  A doubt that anything I do or you do would ever make a difference.  A doubt that this virus will ever let us go…A viral doubt.

        When this cloud of doubt gets so thick that it eclipses both the sun and the moon, it is time to hear again the gospel.  When in doubt, stand still. 

        John 10 today shows us the fullness of emptiness, presence in absence. John has always more than one opponent or contestant. He is fighting always on two fronts. So much for tradition, so much for culture. So much for depth, so much for breadth. So much for Hebrew, so much for Greek. So much for church and so much for community. So much for memory, so much for experience. John contrasts the freedom of Christ with fragile, formulaic faith. Things do not always fit into little boxes. The Hurricane winds of change, the reaches of pandemic, say, rearrange every manner of dwelling.

        The Gospel of John, more than any other ancient Christian writing, and in odd contrast to its prevalent misunderstanding abroad today, knew the necessity of nimble engagement of current experience, and the saving capacity to change, in the face of new circumstances.   The community of this Gospel could do so because they had experienced the Shepherd, present, ‘here’, here and now.  In distress, we hold onto divine presence, we hold onto the Shepherd– hic et nunc. Speaking, and hearing.  They found that in speaking of the Shepherd: ‘he is here’.  ‘I am…’  That is all, still, we have, the voice.  Utterance.  ‘I am…’  The ‘here’ is in the hearing.  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard, here.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

        Others over time have heard the same.  At this time of year, I often think of Churchill and Wesley.

        These two Englishmen have something for us, in any spring time, and perhaps most especially this corona spring time.  Think of England in May 1940.  Think of London in May 1738.

        At the right moment, in May of 1940, Winston Churchill faced down the more polished, better heeled, more popular and more experienced old Britons of his newly formed war cabinet, and steadily led his country away from their desire to compromise with Adolf Hitler.  With Belgium defeated, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With France cut in two, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With 400,000 men stranded at Dunkirk and escape virtually impossible, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With the whole German air force poised to incinerate England’s green and pleasant land, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With Lord Halifax ready to seek terms, and Lord Chamberlain ready to let him, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.   Re-read this summer John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940.   He concludes: “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War.  In the end, America and Russian did.  But in May 1940 Churchill (alone) was the one who did not lose it.”  Easter faith is about love of freedom. In his presence we find the courage for our own assent.

         In the same London, at midlife, one enchanting night in May of 1738, John Wesley heard something said in church that warmed his heart for good.   He had been on Aldersgate street that Sunday evening, going to chapel service more from duty than from passion, when he heard a preacher read Romans 8 and also Martin Luther’s commentary on that passage.  There is something so fragrant and so full about damp London in the springtime.  As he left church, Wesley felt something new, a freeing love in the heart, which is the creation and work of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it.   Easter faith is about freeing love.  In his presence we find the courage for our own assent.

        There are for sure a lot of things wrong.  But there are also, and more surely still, a lot of things right.  Hear the good news.  You are witnesses of the goodness of God, witnesses who come from a long line of people who joyfully bless, and routinely give great thanks.  “Faith is an event expressing the conviction that the things not yet seen are more real than those that can be seen” (L Keck).  As you, as I, as we together walk toward our last adventure, our mortality, our own look over Jordan, it is this freeing love, which carries us.

        John 10 is an altar call for you.  Come Sunday, I propose that you come to an imagined communion, as did Terry Waite, ready to accept the gift of faith, to give assent in the hour of the divine presence, of the Sheperd:  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

        So come, to experience freeing love.  So come, to receive a love of freedom.  So come, to give thanks for the freedom to love.   Such is the gift of the Gospel, upon this Lord’s day.  So come, on a feast day of the Lord’s ready and willing, joyful and happy to assent to a new life of faith, hope and love.

        Wherever two or three are gathered, there I am with you.

        There is a fullness to an empty church, right here and just now.  I don’t see you.  I don’t hear you.  I don’t touch or taste or sense you present.  But I know you are out there, listening and praying and worshipping.  But I can’t see you.  That is something like faith, faith in God, in love, in meaning.  I don’t see it or hear it or measure it our touch it or scent it.  But I know it’s there.  So, alongside you, touched by the fullness of an empty church, I may just be able to go forward, as of old the apostles did too.

        To conclude, our colleague the Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman I have asked to give us our lectionary verses from Acts 2:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

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