Chariot of Fire

August 23rd, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 6:56-69

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For a year we have embraced spirit.  Listen again to the prayer response in a moment.  Spirit. Presence. Awareness.  Conscious embrace.  St. Mark revealed Spirit.  Jonathan Edwards preached Spirit.  The Beloved Community awaits Spirit.  The Gospel of John adores, prioritizes, lifts the Spirit.  Our word 2015 has been Spirit.

Today, to conclude, we bring a familiar story and a spiritual question.  The story is that of Elijah.  The question is that of your legacy.

The story.

In (or near) the year 850 bc, Elijah, the prophet, stood against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  He alone stood against 450.  The enemy prophets called on Baal to bring fire.  Baal did not.  But Yahweh did, at Elijah’s imprecation.  Cry aloud, for he is a god.  Either he is musing.  Or he is inside.  Or he is on a journey.  Or he is asleep—he needs to wake up.  Maybe he does not hear well.  Try again.  Elijah also announced the end of a great drought.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 820, Elijah went up a high mountain, not unlike that on which Jesus stood some weeks ago in Mark, and listened for God.  He heard God.  Not in fire, or smoke, or whirlwind, or techno wizardry, or techno frenzy.  For God was not there.  But in a still small voice.  In silence, the silence before hearing and speech. In conscience.  In mind and will. The Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire—a still, small voice.   On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 800bc Elijah, the troubler of Israel, saw King Ahab, through his wife, Jezebel, take the garden of a poor man, Naboth, and kill Naboth in the process.  I will give you a better vineyard for it.   But Naboth did not want another, but his own.  And Ahab sulked, vexed and sullen, and lay down on his bed, and turned his face, and would eat no food.  But Naboth held onto his vineyard.  But Jezebel said, ‘Do you govern Israel?  Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful.  I will get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.  But Naboth resisted her, too.  So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.  And Jezebel said, go and take Naboth’s vineyard, for he is dead.  But Elijah confronted the king.  Have you killed and taken?  Then I tell you—In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.  Elijah, the troubler of Israel.  It is one thing to desire another’s property, and another to take it by force.  Elijah held a mirror before the country that wanted such a king, and the influence of such a queen.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 30ad, we saw this winter, Elijah’s spirit awakened Peter, who went up a high mountain, with Jesus, to see Him changed.  Elijah brought reason and morality to the religion Moses founded.  Lent is meant to remind us of the priority of worship.  Find a way to get to worship.  Worship brings the insight of personal need, lifted in prayer.  Worship brings the insight of another’s hurt, lifted in communal, singing, four part harmonic hymns.  Worship brings the insight of clarity, a word fitly spoken, lifted in the sermon.  Worship brings the insight of choosing, the choice of faith, not thrill but will, lifted in the invitations, to devotion, discipline, dedication.  Worship brings the insight of loyalty, of heart, lifted every Sunday in the offering of gifts and tithes.  Elijah brought hope, prophetic hope, into the tradition and minds of his people.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 90ad, our Gospel today acclaimed Spirit.   Notice the theme of ascent in the Fourth Gospel, through and through.  You notice here that John turns the tables on flesh.  All chapter 6, you are expected to recall, accounted for feeding, the feeding of 5,000.  2 fish and five loaves and all satisfied.  Or was it five fish and two loaves and all satisfied?  Then ancient discourse upon the food that perishes, and the One who is the bread of life.  Then, too, more traditional language, in chapter 6, we are expected to remember, about ‘the last day’, about bread of life, about flesh given for the life of the world, about ‘munching’ the flesh of the Son of Man, and then our passage, starting, ‘my flesh is food indeed’.   And then?  All, come John 6: 56-69, all the above is set aside, abrogated, trumped.  By…Spirit.  No not flesh, no not bread, no not eating, no not muching, no not tradition, no not table, no not eucharist.  ‘See the Son of Man ascending’, LIKE ELIJAH LIKE ELIJAH LIKE ELIJAH.  ‘It is the Spirit that giveth life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.’  There is no last supper in John.  Yes, 1 Cor. 11.  Yes, the pastoral epistles, TTT.  Yes, the Synoptics MML.  But not John.  He prefers the actual service of foot-washing, and eliminates the Eucharistic meal, supplanting it with—Spirit.  There is no last supper in John because for John the supper does not last (repeat).  Your words will long outlive your deeds. What you say and the way you say it have much longer life than what you do.  Odd as that may seem.  What lasts?  Spirit.  What ascends?  Spirit.  Elijah, on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1735, we saw this winter, the spirit of Elijah rested on the New England community of North Hampton, and the ministry of a Puritan divine, Jonathan Edwards, our Calvinist interlocutor this Lent.  Edwards saw the divine light shining in the human soul.  Edwards saw that the material universe exists in God’s mind.  Edwards saw faith in the willingness of saints to be damned for the glory of God.  Edwards saw religious affections, inclinations, dispositions, all gifts of God in faith, the love of God that kindles joy, hope, trust, peace and ‘a sense of the heart’.  Edwards saw the centrality of the experience of faith: a person may know that honey is sweet, but no one can know what sweet means until they taste the honey.  Edwards saw that ‘God delights properly in the devotions, graces, and good works of his saints.’  Jonathan Elijah Edwards, our New England precursor, walked along the Connecticut River, on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1865, in our nation’s capital, the spirit of Elijah touched the tongue of Abraham Lincoln.  Months and days before Lincoln died, Lincoln cried out, with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work that we are in.  Real cost, real costs, occasion our very freedom to gather in community for worship this morning.   The same spirit, of 850bc, that presence, that quickened consciousness, that affection, that devotion, that inclination were present with Lincoln, and are with us today.  You have the brute fact of the brute creation.  You have too the spirit.

In the year 1951, the spirit of Elijah rested in the mind of Ray Bradbury.  He wrote a book, Fahrenheit 451 (this is the temperature at which paper burns), an eschatological prophecy about the end of books, the end of reading, the end of memory.  The novel ends along a river.  Montag finds himself with hoboes around a campfire, along the river bank.  He is surprised to find that fire, the mode of book destruction he has resisted, can ‘give as well as take, warm and well as burn’.   He waits in the shadows.  The men around the fire summon him out of the dark, and take him in.  He learns that each one of them has committed some book to memory.  One is living Plato’s Republic.  One is the work of Thomas Hardy.  One has memorized several of the plays of Shakespeare.  Byron, Machiavelli, Tom Paine, and the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—all these are carried in the minds of hoboes, walking libraries, the remaining memory of the art of the race.  “What have you to offer?” they ask Montag.  “Parts of Ecclesiastes and of the Revelation to St. John”, he replies.  In 2015, an age that has eschewed reading for scanning, books for blogs, google for memory, and earning for knowing, Elijah Bradbury’s word resonates.  On the way out from the river Jordan.

In the year 1965, we recalled this year,  in early March, 50 years later, the spirit of Elijah walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  John Lewis was there, ‘not angry, but full of righteous indignation’, as he said.  Through the history, offices and gifts of Boston University we sat next to him over dinner three years ago.  He wanted to be a preacher, growing up: I would come home and preach to the chickens, he remembered. If nothing else, perhaps 50 years hence we could remember that real change is real hard but comes in real time when people really work at it, on the ground, in personal conversation, then in small groups, with gifted leadership.  Down on the way from the River Jordan.

In the winter of the year 2015, Elijah, the spirit of Elijah brooded over the face of New England snow fields.  The sore muscles of a shoveling people, the tired torsos of a commuting community, the undaunted willingness still to help a neighbor, the gritty determination to get through the blizzard, the awareness of needs for investment in the communal forms of transport, the gladness of children and the extra time of adults, the same spirit visited.   But also.  The sore memory muscles wrestling with the horror and mayhem—needless and cruel—of  Marathon 2013.  The blizzard of feeling and thought inevitably brought by a current courtroom trial to the surface.  The rush of anger alongside the search for the better angels of one’s nature.  You may not daily recognize Elijah.  But he is present.  Morning in reading.  Mealtime in prayer.  Evening in quiet.  Sunday in worship.  (People have such odd reasons for avoiding worship.)  On the way forward from the river Jordan.  Elijah: elusive spirit, mysterious ghost, the divine present absence, personified.

In the year of spirit, 2015, the spirit of prophet Elijah hovered in the nave of Marsh Chapel, Boston University.   The chapel has given, to you and others, over many decades—beauty, grace, preachment, music, recollection.  Some here have found God, and some here have been found by God.  Marsh—a gift.  And so you have responded.  By listening on the radio—good.  By joining us one Sunday—good.  By giving to and through this ministry—good.  By inviting someone to listen, too.  By inviting someone to come with you.  Good.  By dreaming of an even more permanent place, and even stronger witness, and even more vibrant voice at Marsh.  One of you may choose to endow the deanship of this chapel.  Good.  Elijah awaits us.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the summer of 2015, the spirit and voice of the prophet Elijah echoed here.   We together ruminated about ‘beloved community’, whose root is the Gospel of John, whose trunk is Bostonian Josiah Royce, and whose branches include the hope of Martin Luther King.   David Romanik had some homiletical advice:  Larry Whitney gave some ecclesiastical advice: the beloved community is not easy.   Chapin Garner added a warning, not ‘your God is too small’, but ‘your God is too tame’.  Bob Hill added footnotes on intimations in social history and influences of personal faith.  Regina Walton taught us to ‘abide’, and pointed out that we are branches, tangled, not potted plants, aloof.  And Brittany Longsdorf ended with a poetic hymn to love.  In a phrase, what shall we hold from this summer?  Beloved Community.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 20??, I apologize, I have mislaid the exact date, the prophet Elijah will be on my doorstep, and knocking on your door.  Perhaps at midnight.  Maybe at noon day.  Possibly at dawn.  Or in the wee hours of the morning.   The eschatological prophet, the prophet of the last things, the one invited by Peter to a booth with Jesus, Elijah, the prophet of God, will make a pastoral visit.  In the last hour of my life, and yours.  There will be the river Jordan.  There will be a mantel slapped on the water.  There will be a parting of the ways.  There will be a step forward.  There will be a chariot, a sweet chariot, a swinging sweet chariot, a firey, swinging, sweet chariot.  There will be a presence.  Could it be that the weeks of cascade, the days of Nevada, the snow and snow and snow of our 2015 New England winter of discontent should carry an evocation, a query, a reminder, a call, premonition, a measuring, a warning, a promise?  Most of what we spend our time on, and our money, doesn’t matter at all.  It is the spirit that giveth life.  

In the summer of 2015, going back a half step, an Elijah spirit  ushered us toward a new book of Harper Lee, a surprise and an adventure.  In this newly discovered book, I understand, Scout is grown up, and Atticus Finch is old, and the setting is not the depression but the early civil rights movement.  We know whence Scout emerged.  Maybe we will re-read ‘Mockingbird’, including its spiritual conculsion.  TL Butts preached:

“Near the end of Nelle Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a touching and unforgettable scene.  Jean Louise (Scout), young daughter of the courageous Atticus Finch, has persuaded her father to let her come to the courtroom to hear the verdict in the controversial case in which he is defending a black man.  She chose to sit in the balcony with the black people.  The inevitable “guilty” verdict is rendered.  It is over.  Atticus Finch gathers his papers, places them in his briefcase, and begins a sad and lonely walk down the center aisle to the back door.  Scout hears someone call her name, “Miss Jean Louise?”  She looks behind her and sees that all of the black people are standing ups as her father walks down the aisle.  Then she heard the voice of the black minister, Rev. Sykes:  “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, stand up, your father’s passin’.”  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard.

Here is one way to live.  In Spirit.  Elijah’s way.  The spirit way.  The way of confidence born of obedience.  The way of the journey of faith, the obedience of faith.  In this way, we live with the trust to see things through.  To cross over.  To cross the river.  To trust our past.  To  trust our experience.  To trust the spirit.  To trust our Elisha’s, our friends and successors.  To trust that in some way spiritually similar to Elijah at Jordan, a sweet chariot awaits.  So, Elijah’s story.

Now, the question.

Yes, to end, we promised a question.  A story, Elijah’s.  A question,  yours.

Elijah leaves Elisha a double portion of his spirit?  What do you hope to pass on?  What do you hope to leave behind?  What legacy is yours?  You are 22 and you have been to college and you have 15 year old sister heading that way?  Any advice?  You are a young parent watching your toddlers toddle.  What do you want to give them that they will never lose?  You are a grandparent, and you have some things you would like to bequethe.  What are they, and what will you give in management, money and material to make it happen?  It is the spirit question, the Elijah question, the community question, and it is yours.  For me, the answer is simple.  I want to pass on the possibility of preaching, of a word fitly spoken, of a saving intervening word,  Spirit in speech, for the next generations.  As the chariot approaches, what do you want to leave behind?

And here it comes…A chariot of promise.  A chariot of freedom.  A chariot of hope.  A chariot of deliverance.  A chariot of salvation.  A chariot of heaven.  A chariot to carry us home.

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green

And was the Holy of Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen…

I shall not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land

Breakfast on the Beach

August 16th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 21:4-19

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The text is not available for this sermon.

–Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, Multifaith Chaplain, Bates College, Lewiston ME

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Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton on The Beloved Community

August 9th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 15:1-8

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I’m very happy to be back with you at Marsh Chapel, and greetings to you also who are listening on the radio. Our theme this summer is the Beloved Community, so it’s a little funny to begin with a story about a hermit, but that is what I’m going to do. This story comes from my favorite religious psychologists, the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century. It’s called “The Angry Brother and the Water Jug.”

“A brother was a [monk in a monastery] and was often moved to anger so he said to himself, ‘I will leave and go live by myself, and, because I won’t have anything to do with anyone and will be at peace, my passion will cease.’ So he left and lived in a cave by himself. One day he filled a small jug with water and put it on the ground and all of a sudden it fell over. He picked it up and filled it a second time and again it fell over. Then he filled it a third time and it fell over. Enraged, he grabbed hold of the jug and broke it. When he came to himself, he knew he had been mocked by the [Evil One] and said, ‘I’ve left and gone to live by myself, and even here, I’ve been defeated. Therefore, I will return to the [monastery]. There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.’ And he got up, and returned.” [Tim Vivian, ed. Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Cistercian Publications, 2008, p. 190-191]

The desert fathers and mothers were a quirky bunch, but I love them. With just a few words and a few key details, their stories express so much about the human quest to know the divine. Brevity and clarity. Would that preachers had these gifts as well! But they elude so many of us in the pulpit.

The monk in this story thinks at first that his brothers are getting in the way of his spiritual development. He has a quick temper, and in community he has a lot of other people to exercise it on. Much better, the thinks, to live alone, with no annoying fellow monks around. Then he’ll make some real progress. Of course he realizes, after he smashes the innocent water-jug, that it is not his fellow monks who are the problem, but himself. Community, he’s come to understand, is not a stumbling block after all: it is a training ground, a school of virtues, a school of love.

This is a sermon in two parts: the first is about Christian community, and why we should bother with it. And the second part names three qualities of beloved communities as I see them.

When Jesus in John’s gospel talks about beloved community, he uses the word “abide.” Jesus says in John 15, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

“Abide” is now archaic; except for the movie The Big Lebowski. We don’t say, “Abide here in the car while I run into Starbucks.” (pause) “Abide by the law” is one of the only current uses of the word. Some other contemporary translations of the Bible use “remain in my love” instead. But there is reason to retain “abide” apart from the poetry of it. None of the synonyms for “abide” fully capture the state of being that Jesus is describing. It can mean “remain,” or “stay,” but it also has shades of waiting and expectance, waiting in this state of love until Jesus comes again, to “dwell,” (another archaic word) in Christ’s love. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, translates this verse as “Make yourself at home in my love.” He is connecting “abide” to another word to which it is related, “abode.” (The place where you abide.)

    God welcomes us into God’s love, and this love is our shelter. But Jesus, in asking his disciples to abide in his love and to keep his commandment to love one another, is using a poetic word to ask them to do something extremely difficult. The abode that he is inviting them in to has many other guests all trying to make themselves at home as well.

To abide in Christ’s love requires something from us. It is not just a cozy meeting of like-minded individuals. It is hard work. All of us trying to make ourselves at home in God’s love; we bump elbows sometimes.

That is part of the appeal of being what is commonly called “spiritual but not religious.” Or as it is sometimes abbreviated, SBNR. One can be SBNR without any kind of community. Or, SBNR community can be fluid and without much accountability, like a yoga class. One advantage of finding God in watching a sunset, or on a mountaintop, instead of at church is that, well, you don’t have to deal with anyone else on the mountaintop! It’s just you and the view.

But the story of the Angry Brother and the Water Jug challenges the SBNR view of things. “There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.” Getting away from it all spiritually will only get us so far.

Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets. Actually I think of her as my former employer, since I used to work as a docent in her house when I was in college in Western Mass.  She famously wrote, “Some keep the Sabbath going to church/I keep it staying at home/With a bobolink for a chorister/And an orchard for a dome.” Beautiful lines. Deeply true for her, since she loved nature with all her heart, and really hated going to church. Actually if there had been radio church in Dickinson’s day, I think she probably would have tuned in, if only for the hymns.

Every summer for the past 15 years, I have gone to a retreat center where I can look out on a meadow and hear lots of birds, maybe even a bobolink or two, and that time apart is very important to the health of my soul. That time of awe and wonder in God’s creation has given me many wonderful gifts. But it can’t give me everything I need. The peace of the meadow refreshes me, but only for a while, until I’m stuck in traffic again. The bobolink, with its peaceful chirping, can help to give me some clarity about the parts of my life where I am falling short. But the opportunities to actually do that work of inner change require leaving the meadow. Because, in order to grow into the full stature of our exemplar, Jesus,  “There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.”

Patient endurance is a good synonym for “abiding.” “Patiently endure in my love.” “Hang in there in my love.” It’s a process.

The New York Times pundit David Brooks in some columns and in his book The Road to Character says this:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

[David Brooks, The Moral Bucket List, The New York Times, April 11, 2015]

We Christians might call eulogy virtues “the fruit of the Spirit,” from Paul’s list in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I’m a parish priest. What I hope we are on our best days at my parish, Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, is a School for Eulogy Virtues. We are all students, and Jesus is our teacher. It’s a funny kind of school, since no one ever graduates. We don’t graduate, but we do grow. It’s an organic curriculum, the Jesus-following life.

And Jesus, our teacher, says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Stay close, Jesus says. That’s how you become more like me.

The best grapes are produced closest to the vine, where the nutrients are. That’s why the branches are pruned, so they don’t get too long. Long branches ramble away from the vine, and produce small and sour grapes.

So spiritually, we want to stay close to our energy source. Otherwise, we are just putting our sour grapes out there, into a world that has enough sourness and bitterness already.

How do we do this? How do we abide in Christ’s love, staying close to our energy source? In my tradition, the Episcopal Church, we take the vows of our baptismal covenant as the blueprint for abiding. The first set of questions is about our Christian beliefs, but then there are questions about how we are to live our lives.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” This is not easy stuff, by the way.

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

And the answer to all of these questions is, “I will, with God’s help.” Because, there needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere. We answer these questions not only with our lips, but with our lives, every day. And of course we fail at them all the time, and ask God’s forgiveness, and begin again. That’s part of abiding, too—the grace of always beginning again.

Very few of us are cut out to be spiritual hermits. In community we learn from each other, and we learn about ourselves. We abide. At my parish, our abiding usually involves food, and lots of it. Abiding and constant snacks go quite well together, actually. (pause)

Jesus uses the image of vines and branches. Branches tend to be all tangled up with each other. There’s a messiness in that. Many of us would prefer it if Jesus had used houseplants as his model, each one of us in our own little self-enclosed pot. But we’re not houseplants; we’re vine branches, tangled, woven together, and sometimes in each other’s way.

Beloved communities are examples of mutual abiding. They are also places of radical welcome. That is why the story we heard from Acts, of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, is a story of the Beloved Community to me. Two people in the middle of nowhere—not much of a community, on the surface. But nevertheless, a story of how we come to abide in God’s love, and one that that Christians are made, not born. Following Christ is a process of becoming. This story is from the early days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, when the disciples are learning to listen for the Holy Spirit guiding them. And Philip hears the Spirit telling him to head south on the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. Holy Spirit as GPS. The text says, “This is a wilderness road.” And as he walks along this road, he comes upon the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in charge of the Queen’s treasury. Philip hears the Eunuch reading from the scroll of Isaiah, since these are the days when everyone read aloud. And he says, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the Eunuch says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” This story reminds us that the Bible was just as confusing then as it is today. And it reminds us too that the Church has always been struggling with issues of sexuality and race and culture. After all, being a eunuch was hardly a lifestyle choice promoted by ancient Judaism. The eunuch had been at the Temple in Jerusalem to worship; but he likely would not have made it past the outer gates, because of his sexual difference. He was a proselyte, or maybe what was called a God-fearer, a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism, but for cultural or ethnic reasons did not convert. In any case, he had made a very long journey to sit in the outer courtyards of the Temple. A person of great importance in his country, he would remain a second-class citizen in the Jewish faith. And yet a hunger to know the God of Israel drew him over many miles to Jerusalem.

Philip joins him in the chariot, and they continue on together, as Philip opens the scriptures to him, and tells him about Jesus, and about baptism, and about adoption as God’s children through Christ.

When they pass by some water, the Eunuch says, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And so the wilderness road becomes a place of beloved community, of radical inclusivity. The eunuch goes home, no longer on the outside looking in, but a part of the whole, a member of the body of Christ.

Philip doesn’t just welcome him; he forms him in faith. He interprets the scriptures to him. He listens to him. He answers his questions and addresses his confusion. In all of this he is led by the Spirit.

Philip walks the wilderness road, but he brings all the resources of his faith with him. He is open to the Spirit and its surprises—but it is the practices that he has cultivated in synagogue and with Jesus and the disciples, of prayer, of scripture reading, of discernment—that’s what he has to offer.

We are in a moment, as people of faith, when we are called to walk the wilderness road. We are called to reach out and walk alongside new people, in new places, and to be open and adaptable in ways not imaginable before. But we won’t be very effective in all this, if we leave the resources of our tradition behind us. We won’t be effective out in the wilderness if we have left behind the practices of prayer and scripture reading and worship and discernment that nourished us within the walls of our churches. We won’t succeed with the new technology, as rapidly as it evolves, if we also don’t remain plugged in to the “old school” technology: of relationships and showing up for each other in authentic ways. We won’t succeed as faith-based activists, if we are not also faith-based contemplativists, always listening for the Spirit’s guidance. Philip’s witness to the eunuch teaches us this.

So Beloved Community is about abiding, with God and with each other, in Jesus’ name. And Beloved Community is about radical welcome, taking the tools we’ve learned in our sanctuaries, and carrying them out to the Wilderness Road.

And there’s one more thing: Beloved Community is about what we will not abide.

Martin Luther King Jr., graduate of this university, spoke about the Beloved Community as the outcome, the end result, of nonviolence. It is the fruit that grows out of this good soil.

So inherent in the Beloved Community is a continuing stance against violence and oppression in all forms. The epistle reading from 1 John reminds us of this: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

Today is the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I hope to God that we are on the verge of a new Civil Rights movement in this country. There are things that we cannot abide, if we want to be the Beloved Community. If we dare to proclaim that we follow Jesus. We live in a complicated world. But there are three things that should not be complicated for us in the church. There are three things that are really no-brainers for us to get behind as American Christians of any stripe, for us to march for, and to demonstrate for, to be a force for change. Three things about which there is no excuse for our silence; we simply cannot abide them.

First: systemic racism, especially against African Americans and people of color. I believe the church is especially called to stand up to systemic racism as it is expressed in our public schools and in our criminal justice and prison systems. There are special opportunities for the witness of the church there.

Next, the peculiar institution of American gun violence. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it is this way nowhere else in the world. This epidemic, combined with the epidemic of racism in our land—you read the papers too. You know. It has to stop. We have unique opportunities as people of faith to witness against gun violence, and for peace. To change the laws. To change our culture. So many lives needlessly ripped away. But perfect love casts out fear.

Third, the destruction of the environment. It’s right there in Genesis: this world, this created order, is good, and sacred. Time is running out. We have abused our position as stewards of the earth. Jesus called us to lives of simplicity and generosity, to live in harmony with each other, resisting the forces of greed and waste.

We serve the God of love and life. In these three areas, the shadow of death is creeping over us. We serve the God of reconciliation, of resurrection, of re-creation.

There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere. And God’s help is everywhere. Indeed, that is the only way we can hope to have any impact on these issues at all. The only way. Struggle and patient endurance and calling on God’s help. That is the stuff of abiding. May God bless us, and empower us to live out this calling, together, and in Christ’s name. Amen.

–The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Rector, Grace Church, Newton, MA

Gracenewton.org

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Personal Faith and the Beloved Community

August 2nd, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 6:24-35

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To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Among the powers that drew us here to Boston, was the chance to labor in the shadow of Howard Thurman and to preach from the pulpit he once filled. Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel, 1953-1965.  This summer, read his autobiography,  With Head and Heart.  In the work of grieving and departing from one setting, Rochester, and entering another, Boston, I was telephoned by a friend and parishioner.  She wanted to set an appointment to talk, before we left Rochester. A saintly woman, Donna Adcock, made an appointment, a good formal appointment, to see me.  ‘A chat after church won’t do for this’, she averred. That Wednesday she brought in a poem which she had typed out from an original handscript.  Typing is an ancient technology, no longer in use, but some years ago, even, still around.  (I do not linger to define keystroke, white out, ribbon, carbon paper, or Smith Corona (not a beer, by the way)).  ‘This poem Howard Thurman your predecessor at Marsh Chapel recited in a sermon in Kansas City, my home, in 1950’, she said.  ‘I was years old, 56 years younger when that sermon changed my life.  I spent the next 50 years in ‘full time Christian service’, through the YWCA.  I heard something that summer day, in Kansas City, in 1950, that changed my life.  I want you to have this poem.  You do not need to live in New England to love it, but it does help. The fact that I heard it through Howard Thurman’s beautiful voice adds to it for me”.

The ‘little duck’ is a poem about the freedom of a duck floating on the waves, written in 1947 by Donald Babcock. Here are verses from that poem…

There is a big heaving in the Atlantic

And he is part of it

He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic

Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is

And neither do you

But he realizes it

And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it

He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.

That is religion, and the duck has it.

He has made himself part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it touches him.

I like the little duck.

He doesn’t know much.

But he has religion.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Three years ago we hosted the memorial service for Dr. Ken Edelin.  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, Charlayne Hunter Gault introduced herself.  You will 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.’

Sometimes words are all we have.  A regular radio listener from Rhode Island telephoned a few weeks ago.  He said, ‘sometimes words are all we have’.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

In late June from this pulpit we invited those moved to consider the possibility, to spend a Sunday worshipping in an African Methodist Episcopal Church this summer.  ‘Take with you the greetings of Marsh Chapel’, we suggested.  This sort of visit is not for everyone, and can take many forms.  It has been interesting, and encouraging, to see that this summer some of you have done so.  One friend, regular in attendance here, did so a few weeks ago.  He has a story to tell, and has made a personal connection or three.  One radio listener, virtually present by radio or podcast week by week, went further.  She is arranging a neighborhood gathering, she hopes, and hopes we can help her.  Real change is real hard but happens in real time when real people really work at it.  There is a latent goodness, a common faith a common ground and a common hope, all about us, like the ocean holding the duck, like the still waters that restore the soul.  My friends, you are bringing a personal to bear upon the emergence of a beloved community.   Look at what Robert Gates has done, in the right time in the right way, in leading the Boy Scouts of American in a new direction.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Coming to communion you come with your lost loved ones in mind and heart.  This last winter we bade farewell to a father in law, Charlie. When we receive the Lord’s Supper we do so with the communion of saints all around us.  Charlie was a lover.

He loved nature.  Garden.  Seed time. Harvest. Planting. Weeding.  Watering.  Like the parables of Jesus.  He had a green thumb.  Most plant benefitted by the touch of his hand.

He loved work.  With his hands.  Carpentry.  Also some good company in carpentry, if I remember the Bible that they had us memorize at church camp.  14 features of our cottage have known the touch of his hand.

He loved the poor and the other.  In his study group. In work with Abraham House, Retired Teachers, and Habitat for Humanity and various churches and causes.  He loved others, and I mean others.  Of other religions, other places, other races, other backgrounds, other orientations.  He loved.  Others, and they felt the touch of his hand.

He loved his country.  He was not a member of any organized political party.  His patriotism, his love of country was not only liberty and justice, but liberty and justice FOR ALL.  And with his own hands he lived that.

He loved his church.  Its committees, its pastors, its building needs, its study groups, its quirks and oddities.  Especially he loved the reading he did with others.

He loved his family, and expressed that love in rocking horses and tools given and evergreens planted and windows replaced and sincere, repeated words of love.

He touched us in the most touching of ways.

He loved God by loving the things of God, the creation of God, the tasks of God, the people of God, the church of God.

He was our ‘dad’ and we learned from him.  We all need models of personal faith, people who can show us by example the dimensions of spirituality we so desire.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called…

Some years ago, Jan and I went out onto the bay in Mallorca one Sunday. Once a year we try to go somewhere, alone, together.  In that bay a boat called the ‘Marco Polo’ will take you ten kilometers or so south, or north, dock for a half hour swim, then bring you back to port.  We embarked covered with sunscreen.

In the stern a dozen Germans were gathered, stoic, and after a while they began to sing, in German.  Sort of like our Marsh choir sings some Sundays.  Madrilenos, Catalans, Natives of Andalucia, other Spaniards, sat up front with the youth, maybe a dozen young people.  Thence much laughter.  Sort of like our Marsh Community lunch.  We sat under cover, mid-ship, with the British enfrocked in bonnets, sweaters, long stockings, sunglasses.  We sat against an open window, beautifully open to the sea in the middle of the earth.

Like a large sea gull, we bobbed along, in the summer beauty, summer sun, summer heat, summer grace and freedom and love.  An earnest relationship with work you may find in America, among Americans.  Vacation belongs to the Europeans.  A hearty relationship with vacation they have.  Anne Murrow Lindbergh, a European at heart, to paraphrase, said, ‘A vacation is a month, at least.  Take a month, at least, or don’t bother’.

Above us in the ‘Marco Polo’ was a roof covered with life jackets, an old anchor, some rope, other flotsam and jetsam.  We sat with the dour British—Spanish laughter a fore, German song aft, and watching the tide role away.  There is just something about the ocean.

A gull floated along with us.  Wind, sand, stars—ocean.  St. Exuprey.  Of a sudden, to the right appeared several feet!  Small feet, young feet.  Left foot, right foot, hay foot, straw foot.  The young had commandeered the roof, dangling their feet, kicking, drumming, jostling, lounging and lifting their feet out toward the sea in the middle of the earth.  Then, gone.  The lifeguard must have appeared.  It made me think of Paul, in Corinthians, ‘shall the head say to the feet, I have no need of thee?’  And of Isaiah, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings’.  And of Jesus, washing in humble service the feet of 12 men, disciples, whom he called ‘friends’.

Of a sudden! To the left, across the cabin, outside the other window, feet, numerous feet, numinous feet, kicking and leaning and pushing.  Young people can take the world and make it young again.  Dangling feet, dangling prepositions, dangling thoughts—you will make the world playful, youthful, happy, hopeful.  Just don’t fall overboard, but that is another sermon.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

One of our fellow seekers of the beloved community offered this prayer, with which we conclude.

Adonai, we pray that all may come to the understanding that one person’s grief is a shared experience that we will all face, one person’s love is a love that all will someday experience, one person’s exclusion or shunning is one that we all hope never to experience. One person’s success does not in any way diminish us. Friendship with someone new does not change the friendships that are already part of us. A person being praised and appreciated does not mean that we are not, it is just not your turn, or that there are reasons why they needed those words more at that moment. Consequences of actions born of love have a way of transforming who we are. Until each human being realizes that inflicting harm to another either intentionally or unintentionally or participates in such group dynamics that do, we will not have peace on this earth. Yet when a whispered prayer reaches out to you Adonai, and you reach back to us. We have reached the center where we know that we are loved, and nothing on heaven or earth can change that. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. (TERRY BAURLEY)

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

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The Beloved Community in a Wild and Crazy World!

July 26th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 12:15-21

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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The Beloved Community of a Wild and Crazy God!

July 19th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 24:36-44

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Intimations of a Beloved Community

July 12th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6:14-29

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Our gospel is a grim reminder of the prophetic precursor to Jesus, whose own death prefigures the Lord’s.  My friend Jennifer, a celebrated New Testament scholar, once referred to the passage as ‘the only mother and daughter scene in the NT’ a way of sidestepping its bloody horror with a mordant, wry wit, a not unusual reaction to such a gruesome passage.   Mark is foreshadowing the coming cross of Christ, by remembering John the Baptist.

We can do the same.  There are those who at cost have paved the way, affirms our Scripture today.  As we gather in summer worship this morning, here in historic Marsh Chapel, we may take some sustenance from such a reminder, and be inspired to remember those who paved a way for us.  Who stands as a true precursor for your life and faith?  As in these months and weeks, across this great land, a country yet filled with latent goodness, we brood about violence and prejudice, we may take some sustenance from such a direct reminder of the prophetic spirit, truth spoken for love in the face of adversity.  Who risked friendship for the sake of you, as a friend?  As, this summer, we meditate together upon the mighty theme of the Beloved Community, we might recall earlier intimations, prophetic voices, which paved our way, cut our trail, made a space and place in grace for our own hopes.

I have driven to you at dawn this morning along the Mohawk River.  It is the same route John Dempster took on his way to New England to give life to Boston University, in 1839.  Let your mind wander with me, this morning, ‘fifteen miles on the Erie Canal’.  Think back and think west. Think precursors.  This region bears the distinction of having given rise to many women and men who did not leave freedom to somebody else.  Its price of eternal vigilance they provided in very daily, very personal, very local, very immediate ways.  In the same manner by which we take for granted Niagara Falls, so close and so grand, we take these mighty stories for granted, saving stories of freedom and faith.

The Mohawk River, the Erie Canal.  This is the land of Hiawatha (“who causes rivers to run”).  Such musical names adorn this landscape:  Canandaigua, Tioghnioga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Cuyahoga.  Hiawatha, the great native leader of the Iroquois showed in the 15th century the critical need for union, for space and time in which to live together.  His leadership was focused on common space, on collegial relations, on counsel together, and so he is harbinger of all the examples of faith and freedom to come up along the Mohawk and the Erie Canal.  In nineteenth century verse:

All your strength is in your union

All your weakness in discord

Therefore be at peace henceforward

And as brothers live together

This is the land of Harriet Tubman.  You may want to visit her home in Auburn, NY.  (Her neighbor William Seward, Lincoln’s rival and Secretary of State, also from Auburn, bought Alaska, considered at the time a folly, an “ice-box”.) Tubman’s grand niece, Janet Lauerson, was on my church staff for a time in Syracuse, after we both migrated down from the far north country, not far from the burial place of John Brown.  His body lies moldering under a ski lift near Lake Placid.  He and Gerritt Smith, founder of Peterboro, were not compatiblists regarding slavery.  As Lincoln would later say, they felt those who most affirmed slavery should start by trying it for themselves. Brown, Smith, Seward and others were the chorus before which Tubman could sing out the life of freedom, following the underground railroad.  Remember her wisdom:  “When I found I had crossed that line (on her first escape from slavery, 1845), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything…I started with this idea in my head, ‘There’s two things I’ve got a right to…death or liberty’…’Twant me, ‘twas the Lord.  I always told him, “I trust you.  I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me, and he always did.”

Now that we are as far west as Auburn, you will expect to hear something of Frederick Douglass, buried in Rochester.  His burial plot is across the street from Strong Hospital.  As one patient said, looking through the window, “it gives you something to think about”.  Douglass printed his newspaper, the “North Star”, in Rochester, and through it developed a voice for a new people in a new era.  At Syracuse University, 100 years later, it was Professor Roland Wolseley who developed the first national program in Black Journalism.  Wolseley was formed in the faith under the great preaching of the best Methodist preacher in the 20th century, Ernest Freemont Tittle, when Wolseley’s young wife was Tittle’s secretary. Wolseley was my pastor parish chair for 10 years.  Digressing, for a moment, where the vale of Onondaga meets the eastern sky, you might look in the Carrier Dome at the moving tribute to Ernie Davis, a young man from Elmira, who, a century after Douglass, and in the lifespan of Wolseley, gave tragic, courageous, and lasting embodiment to the common hope of racial justice, harmony and integration.  He also played football.   The voice of Douglass rings out against the harmonic background of Tittle, Wolseley, Davis and others.  In the North Star, Douglass wrote: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening.  They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.” Or maybe we should give the honor to his ally Sojourner Truth:  “That…man…says women can’t have as many rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with him!”

Susan B. Anthony did not leave the project of freedom to others.  I wonder what sort of dinner companion she might have been.  Her constant consort with governors and senators across the Empire state made her an early Eleanor Roosevelt.  My grandmother grew up in Cooperstown and graduated from Smith College four years before she had the right to vote.  My mother was born in Syracuse only a few years after full suffrage.  My wife is a musician and teacher, my sister is a corporate attorney, many of my closest colleagues in ministry are female.  I scratch my head to imagine a world without their voices.  Syracuse produced Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first women ordained to ministry in the Protestant Episcopal church.  One of the Philadelphia 11.  We study her now in Introduction to Religion.  One rainy day when my daughter Emily was 13 and had the flu, we met Schiess, at the druggist.  The pharmacist called her name.  I clamored over to investigate whether it were she, the famous Schiess.  “Who wants to know?” she replied.  As she left, after good banter, she turned in her slicker and totting an umbrella pronounced this blessing:  “One day you will be a Methodist bishop”.   I was about to reply when I realized she was speaking to Emily.  ‘Thank you’, my daughter replied.  Think about precursors whose prophetic voices and costly faithfulness paved your way.  We may need such a brief reminder, this summer,  that real change is real hard but it comes in real time when real people really work at it.  So.  You may visit the birthplace of suffrage and feminism in Seneca Falls.   Anthony’s witness stands out among the witness of so many others:  your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your wife, your daughter, your pastor, Betty Bone Schiess, and so many others.  Who can forget the motto of Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible” (on her 86th birthday, 1906), or her warning, “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform.  Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Sometimes the freedom train derailed. Not everything along the Mohawk River was perfect or turned round right.  Exuberance can produce minor collisions. I want to talk to you about sexual experimentation, that is, a long time before the summer of love.  Woodstock paled by comparison with the communal experiments along the Erie Canal during the nineteenth century.   The Shaker Community and the Oneida Community perhaps can bracket our discussion.  Under Mother Ann Lee, and starting in farm country near New Lebanon (Albany area), not far from from Tanglewood, and our BU musical program there, one of the current sponsors for WBUR, the shaking Quakers firmly and unequivocally addressed the matter of sex.  They forbade it.  Like the desert fathers and Qumran communities of old, they took Paul at his word and meditated fully on 1 Corinthians 7, ‘let those who have wives live as if they had none’.  In the Shaker community, women and men came together only once a week, in worship, on Sunday morning, for ecstatic singing and dancing, like David in the ephod before the ark–hence their name, ‘shakers’.  This made church attendance somewhat more than casual liturgical observance.  I understand attendance was quite good.  However, the practice did not amplify the community itself:  infant baptisms lacked the requisite infant, and so were infrequent.  Consequently the Shakers moved to Cleveland where they blended into Sherwood Anderson’s new Ohio, returning to the old ways of industry, monogamy, and frugality.  In short, they became Methodists.   Hear again the Shaker tune:

When true, simplicity is gain

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn, will be our delight

‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right

Now, the Oneida’s.  You may want to read the book, Without Sin, the best review in our generation of their somewhat different experiment.  Also along the Erie Canal the Oneida community set out to find heaven on earth, the end of all oppressions, and even the hope that, as John H Noyes read from Revelation, “death itself will be no more”.  Although I went to High School in Oneida I do not recall a full lesson on the matter of stirpiculture, the heart of the Oneida experiment. The Oneidas practiced “complex” marriage, in which every man was married to every woman and vice-versa, and sexual relations were freely permitted as long as the men practiced ‘continence’ to avoid pregnancy.  Procreation was planned, through a deliberated, committee processed, but nonetheless free-love sharing of the marriage bed in the hope of producing a better race, a finer human being. (For those of you for whom this is more information than you require, I apologize) Three hundred in number at their greatest growth, the community produced bear traps and then silver, continuing, in some fashion, until just a few years ago.  Of all the utopian experiments, the Oneida project is the most fascinating.  After word got out about the doings and practices in Oneida, clergy in Syracuse banded together and ran them out of town, first to Canada and then to the Midwest.  Noyes died on the trip, and the community disappeared, except in the silver on your dinner table, in wedding gifts, and in quality restaurants.  Let us remember the love of freedom, as Noyes expressed it, even if we cannot affirm his methods: “I am free of sin and in a state of Perfection”.

Precursors remind us of what can be done. Another drum along the Mohawk you will find perhaps an unlikely name to include, that of Norman Vincent Peale. When we were at Union Seminary in New York the faculty there, both regularly and rightly criticized the inadequate theology of the Marble Collegiate Church.  I remember James Sanders sternly referring to this famed congregation as the “First Church of Marduke”, (not an accolade).  Of course you know that for fifty years, a graduate of Boston University, and Ohio Wesleyan, and a proponent of the power of positive thinking held forth, without notes, from the so-called Marduke pulpit.  His son in law, Arthur Caliandro, followed him, with notes.  You may not trust his theology.  I myself am a critic, schooled as I was in the dour, German realism of Tillich, Niehbuhr, and company.  You may find it too shallow.  Everybody has their criticism of Norman Vincent Peale.  Even Adlai Stevenson had gripes.  When attacked from Marduke Stevenson defended his Christianity on the basis of the Apostle to the Gentiles, all this in 1956, and rounded out his peroration thus:  “Sir, I am a Christian.  As such, I find Paul appealing, but Peale, appalling.”  You too may find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.  But hold one thought.  Peale began his preaching a stone’s throw from where my morning drive and this morning’s sermon began, this morning.  In Syracuse, at University Methodist Church.  He found there a happy people.  He found there a positive people.  He found there a hopeful people, an optimistic congregation.  Why, they were so good to him that he relaxed and fell in love and married an SU coed, Ruth.  My old, good friend Forrest Whitmeyer, a graduate of Boston Latin, knew them both well.  It was that native buckeye spirit (Norman) married to that native orange soul (Ruth), and it produced the power of positive thinking, itself a form of faith and freedom not to be entirely forgotten.  A time or two in the course of a full ministry, we might just remember Peale, positively. The Peales, Ruth and Norman both, did not leave the project of freedom to somebody else.  It is biblical and faithful to remember Peale’s seven most important words:  “You can if you think you can.”  Yes, you can.

Intimations of a Beloved Community.  God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Gimself.  The faith of Jesus Christ and the freedom of Jesus Christ we offer you today.  As Paul’s student writing in Ephesians put it:  ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance…so that we might live for the praise of his glory’.  Our forebears were disinclined to leave the pursuit of freedom to others.  They seized freedom in their own hands and by their own lives.  They did not wait on others.  They did not pause to seek a secret blessing.  They did not wait until some ethereal sign emerged.  They did not expect some magic insight.  They preferred deliverance to diffidence.  They glimpsed and then followed after intimations of a beloved community.

In earshot of our Lord’s teaching, in remembrance of the freedom and faith in our shared past, and especially on this Lord’s day, there is no avoiding a very personal question:  as a Christian man or woman, what are you going to do to continue to expand the circle of freedom in our time?  Where is your tribal council to create?  Where is your slavery to escape?  Where is your North Star to publish?  Where is your franchise to find?  Where is your libertinism to avoid?  Where is your hope to share? How will you lift a hand?

And take heart.  Have you watched the dawn come?  This morning I drove due east, along the Mohawk river, into a full black sky, darker than a hundred midnights, down in the cypress swamp.  It seemed forever before there was any light.  But somewhere around 5am, imperceptibly, very gradually, black became dark blue, and dark blue a misty gray, and gray a lightened blue, and blue a bright sun.  Little bit by little bit by little bit.  Dawn came.  Like the glory of the morning on the wave…

All that Mohawk river water falls finally into the ocean, running at the feet of Emma Lazarus’ poem:

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breath free

The restless refuse of your teeming shore

Send these, the lost, the tempest tossed to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

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

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Contra Ecclesia: Beloved Communities

July 5th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6:1-13

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The theme of our summer preacher series this year is “Beloved Community.” Coined by Josiah Royce, the concept of the beloved community was popularized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While eschewing the utopian vision of Royce, King nevertheless developed his conception of the beloved community out of the idealist philosophy of Boston Personalism in which he was formed here at Boston University.

For King, the beloved community is first and foremost a social reality. The beloved community arises from the personal commitments of individual people to the method of nonviolence enacted socially. As King said, “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” Nonviolence is the means, but “the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.” The beloved community is spiritual as well as social, “it is the love of God working in the lives of [people].” The beloved community is global, or as King described it, “a great world house in which we have to live together.” And surely it is the cosmic dimension of the beloved community that King had in mind when he quoted Theodore Parker that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

King fully that this vision of the beloved community would be realized and actualized socially. He was beginning the process of building a late modern sacred canopy in hopes that it would become the societal governing norm, complete with cosmic dimension, over time.

From the vantage point of 2015, some sixty years after King began to popularize the beloved community, it is hard to imagine such a global and universal ethos taking hold. Rather than a single sacred canopy, as Peter Berger himself has acknowledged, what we are experiencing in our pluralistic age is ongoing contestation of our various sacred canopies, or perhaps better, sacred tents. Rather than participating in a singular canopy, we inhabit, in our lives, various tents: the family tent, the work tent, the school tent, the neighborhood tent, the friends tent, and on and on. We inhabit each of these tents differently, fitting our individual uniqueness to the social norms governing each. These tents overlap one another at the intersection of us; that is, we are the locus of overlap for all of the tents we inhabit, even if they would never otherwise intersect and do not regularly have anything to do with one another. The sacred canopy in this sense, then, is much more like the jungle canopy, which exists only after the fact as the limbs of the trees grow to overlap one another organically.

Of course, some of the tents we inhabit are more central to our sense of self and identity than others; they are more important to us than others; they are where we find our deepest sense of belonging. The tent where you find your deepest gladness realized, where you feel you most fully belong, where you experience the greatest freedom, that tent, then, is your beloved community. Rather than a global, universal, cosmic beloved community, these beloved communities are more often intimate, vulnerable, and personal.

Theologically, what King envisioned as the beloved community resonates deeply with what the church aspires to be: global, universal, and mediator of cosmic harmony. The church aspires to be a community of universal love and belonging. It is for this reason that the church all too frequently proclaims itself to be the unique and universal context for salvation.

Alas, in living out the vocation of cultivating universal love and belonging, the church is caught on the horns of a dilemma. In order to achieve what it aspires, that is in order to become truly global and universal, the church must find ways to cope with the many particularities embodied by the human beings it desires to include. In order to do so, the church has two options. First, the church can articulate its canopy in ways so vague and abstract that it can embrace anyone. The problem with this option is that the canopy demands little and so inspires minimal allegiance, and it quickly becomes viewed as superfluous and irrelevant. Second, the church can articulate its canopy in stricter ways and insist that everyone abide by the norms it articulates. The problem with this option is that the demands of the canopy are so oppressive for some, or perhaps many, that escaping the canopy becomes preferable to suffocating under it. In sum, it is sheer hubris to claim that the experience of grace of one person, or even a subset of people, is determinative of what the experience of grace must be for everyone.

Jesus knew something of the challenge of being beloved in community, indeed in the very communities where one might most expect to find love: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Jesus taught the disciples that they too would find places that could not, or at least would not, be beloved communities for them: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” The sacred canopy of Jesus’ hometown was no place for him to be beloved; the sacred canopy he offered could not meet everyone where they were.

So too today the church is wrestling precisely on the horns of this dilemma. This has never been exemplified more clearly than in the response of too much of the church to the recent US Supreme Court decision finding a constitutional right for gay and lesbian people to marry. Many churches are experiencing that the strict ways they have articulated their sacred canopies with respect to marriage are increasingly intolerable conditions for many people to inhabit. These same churches accuse the churches that have embraced gay marriage of being “wishy washy,” that is, of demanding so little that they are becoming irrelevant.

Sadly, many of these churches that take themselves to be the ultimate context of salvation have forgotten that the very terms of that salvation are their own interpretation of what God is doing. Of course, this forgetting that the sacred canopy is our own construction is precisely one of the movements of its construction that Peter Berger describes. The problem is that in forgetting we come to confuse our own human institutions with the will of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “the serious Christian, set down for the first time in Christian community, is likely to bring with them a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

Just as Saint Paul thought that he knew what he needed and what would be best for him, so too we must learn once again to rely more firmly on God’s grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities of disabled persons and those who accompany them, reminds us that, “community is a terrible place, a place where our limitations and egoisms are revealed to us. When we begin to live full time with others we discover our poverty and our weakness, our inability to get on with others… our mental and emotional blocks; our affective and sexual disturbances, our frustrations and jealousies… and our hatred and desire to destroy.” Beloved community is not easy, but it is precisely by moving together through these weaknesses that the power of the beloved community is perfected.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that God is at work inspiring, encouraging, and nurturing beloved communities. Everyone deserves a beloved community. This is the gospel message that Justice Kennedy articulated in Obergefell v. Hodges: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.” Even when the church is unwilling to be and become a beloved community, and even when the church is unwilling to acknowledge the beloved community that folks are building together, the government must acknowledge and nurture and foster these beloved communities.

This is a challenging gospel for the church to hear: First, not everyone will find their beloved community in the church. The grace of God is at work outside the church, and often as not in spite of the church. Claims to the contrary are mere hubris, but God’s grace is sufficient because power is made perfect in weakness. Second, the grace of God is nurturing beloved communities, not beloved community. The experience of being beloved cannot be fostered in monolithic, universal, totalizing sacred canopies. Instead we need intimate tents where vulnerability and weakness may be cultivated in contexts of trust and security, because it is in weakness that power is made perfect. The church must repent of the sin of claiming that grace for one is grace for all.

Let me be clear, not all beloved communities are healthy. Dyllan Roof, the accused racist terrorist who killed nine members of a bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last month, was nurtured in a community to feel beloved precisely by rejecting the humanity and personhood of black people. This orientation is not unrelated to his experience in church. Unequivocally, this is a perversion of what it means to be beloved. There is no grace here.

The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, calls us to return to the gospel of grace: “According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace — as a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and shortsightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

Today we gather at the table of grace to receive the grace of God whose own weakness was made absolute, and thus whose power is perfected, in the crucifixion and death of Jesus. What will you do with this grace? Go out, take nothing for your journey, and build beloved communities. Build family communities of intimacy, love, and mutual support. Build work communities of imagination, dedication, and collaboration. Build school communities of learning, virtue, and piety. Inhabit all of the communities in which you find belonging and are beloved with grace, that is, in weakness, that your power may be perfected. And may the grace of God empower you to serve as the point of intersection among these communities such that love and justice may flourish. Amen.

–Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, University Chaplain for Community Life, Boston University

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The Unimportance of being Earnest

June 28th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 5:21-43

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Still Point

June 21st, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 4: 35-41

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As we gather in worship this morning, along with countless others in countless churches across the country and beyond, our hearts and minds are brooding over the tragic slayings in Charleston, what Cornell William Brooks, President of the NAACP, who spoke from this pulpit one month ago, has aptly called ‘racist terrorism’.   We think of these nine lost lives.  We lift them and their families in prayer.  We lift their AME church, and the AME connection itself, in prayer.   We wonder just how to say something that is both honest and hopeful, both hopeful and honest.  Honesty about the storm.  Hope in the Still Point who is ‘the Teacher’, our Lord.

Others have done so before.  In Rome, about 70ad, a preacher, it may be, stood before a small group of men and women, gathered in a home or courtyard.  Though varied in aspect, they who gathered were similar, for they came from various margins, the margins of life.  Some were women.  Some were Jews.  Some were slaves and former slaves.   Some were rich, but most poor.  Some were educated, but most not.  They shared Jesus Christ, crucified.  They shared Jesus Christ, risen.  Together they had already been seized by an allegiance to him, the still point in a turning world.  They were walking in faith.  As we are.  But they were alarmed, angered, frightened and saddened.  As we are today.  They were haunted, perhaps by the memory of the Emperor Nero, who famously fiddled as Rome burned, but who found time for an Empire wide persecution of those on the margins, including the early Christians, and if legend serves, including to martyrdom both Peter and Paul.  We are not haunted by Nero.  We are though haunted by months and years and memories of violence, racism, terrorism, gun culture and untimely death.

In this borrowed upper room or small courtyard, it may be, the preacher acclaimed Jesus, whose word is Peace and whose voice says Be Still.  The raised crucified, the still point in a churning world.  The preacher, perhaps,  remembered from of old and from afar, his days on the Syrian sea, Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee.  He imagined in his sermon a night scene.  He offered in stylized memory an account of a boating mishap.  Some recollection of the book of Jonah may have stirred him.  The preacher looked straight into the hurt and heart of his storm tossed church, if you can use that word for that gathering at that time.  He could see their fear of drowning, of perishing.  He painted into his story portrait other ‘boats’, boats always a symbol of the church.  He told of Jesus sleeping.  He fixed his hearers’ anger and sadness right in the belly of the whale of the sermon: ‘we are perishing’, they cried.  We know that cry, that crie de cour.  Then he stood solemnly.   Facing all storms, offering in a prophetic spirit the very voice of Christ, he said, ‘Be still’.  And the sermon ended.  And there was a fullness.  And there was a dead calm.  A word had been spoken and heard, in resurrection time and space.  Around the Still Point, they paused, in silence.

Jesus meets us today right in the teeth of the gale, in the heart of the storm.   He speaks to us the eternal word.  Peace.  He speaks to us the saving word.  Be Still.  He is the still point in the turning, churning world.

Eliot:  ‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is’

His is a timely word, a fit word, a word fitly spoken, for us.  For  we are a people drenched in sorrow, anger, worry, and exasperation.  The boat is heaving from side to side, stem to stern, port to starboard.   Newtown, Marathon, Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, North Charleston, and McKinley.  And now this Charleston church killing, this unspeakable horror, this malevolent mixture of guns and illness and ideology and racism.

This one verse in our Gospel today that we have no problem understanding is the angry cry of Jesus’ frightened fellow travelers: Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

Here we are.  The storm is raging.  The winds are blowing.  The waves are swamping our little ship.  The raging tide of racism.  The towering undulation of gun availablity.  The windstorm of violence pressing upon us from all sides.  We get this today.

Like the little Roman church addressed in today’s Gospel, for whom the lakeside story, the nature imagery, the threat of drowning, the savior’s voice, the mysterious and miraculous heeded command, Be Still, were offered in the soulful, caring preaching of the early pastor, if one can use that title, we too dread drowning.

We dread drowning in a sea of guns.  We dread drowning in a tide of deeply embedded, persistent, perduring, encultured racism.  We dread drowning in a great windstorm, with waves beating upon us, and the boat half swamped as it is.  After a week like this, it is hard to know what to say, if we truly want to be both honest and hopeful.

For these nine dear Methodist souls in Charleston, praying in church, died because of a persistent, pervasive racism that covers this land like a flood tide.  They died because of a sea of guns, available to anyone, well or ill, well intended or ill intended, at any time, without any consequence, financial consequence, to the seller, the procurer, those who profit.  These nine died because of an ongoing ignorance about the pervasive continuing impacts of chattel slavery 150 years ago, impacts measurable in economic, social, educational and civic life.  These nine died because of a fiercely advocated and heavily funded broad agenda to privilege states rights over human rights, gun ownership over human survival, and individual freedom over the common good.

Charles Pierce wrote honestly this week:

What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unthinkable.” Somebody thought long and hard about it. Somebody thought to load the weapon. Somebody thought to pick the church. Somebody thought to sit, quietly, through some of Wednesday night bible study. Somebody thought to stand up and open fire, killing nine people, including the pastor. Somebody reportedly thought to leave one woman alive so she could tell his story to the world. Somebody thought enough to flee. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unthinkable is not one of them.

What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unspeakable.” We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was.

We should speak of it as an attack on history, which it was. This was the church founded by Denmark Vesey, who planned a slave revolt in 1822. Vesey was convicted in a secret trial in which many of the witnesses testified after being tortured. After they hung him, a mob burned down the church he built. His sons rebuilt it. On Wednesday night, someone turned it into a slaughter pen.

Yes, at least this one verse in our Gospel today that we have no problem understanding, the angry cry of Jesus’ frightened fellow travelers: Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

But the gospel does not end there.  Maybe it would be easier if it did. The Scripture brings us both honesty and hope.  The hope is harder to hear and to live.  The hope requires of us ears and minds to discipline ourselves, to prepare ourselves with a spiritual discipline against resentment, to train ourselves for the long distance run, to hope against, for hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see.

In the ancient sermon, in Rome, in 70ad, a still voice, a voice to still the storm was heard.  Can we hear that voice this morning?   Can we hear a rumor of angels?  Can we at least hear that none of this historical tragedy is inevitable?  It is not inevitable.  Because it is not, it can be changed, changed for the better, changed in the future.  You can lend your voice to that of the man who stilled the water, to that of the man who calmed the sea.  You can make a difference.

You can continue to pray, to vote and to act.

By pray I do mean daily meditation, including the shouting, actual or metaphorical, of lament in the face of horrific evil.  But I also mean the intentional gathering, come Sunday, with others who seek a measure of meaning, belonging and empowerment.  You can do this.  One of our members, a native of Charleston, asked to read a lesson today, which he did.  You can engage and support others.  You need the pew fellowship, the breathing community of different others.  If week by week you only regularly see family, co-workers, or those who share your own interests, you will not meet with difference, which you need in order to grow, and which this great land, full of latent goodness, needs in practice and for practice.  But in the pew you have every prospect of meeting with others who are not relatives, not employees or employers, and not inclined to your own particular enjoyments.  Not your mom, not your boss, and not your golf partner.  Others–who are other.  Somehow as a people we think that we can muster the will to address communal issues on the grand scale, when so often our communal orbits of relationship are with people who are like us, are like ourselves.  This is like desiring to recite Shakespeare without knowing the alphabet, or diving into the Calculus without mastering multiplication tables, or running a marathon without first jogging two miles.  This summer our preaching series considers Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community’.  But to stretch toward that Johannine, Roycean, and Kingly vision, we have to start by sitting for an hour near people who are other than we, in the presence of God.

King:  “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

By vote I do mean election-day ballots.  One of our BU administrative leaders here, when asked at year end what advice she might have for graduates of 2015 said, simply, ‘vote’.  Yes, go to the polls.  But I also mean the direct engagement with elected officials and others over time that makes a difference.  Personal engagement.  Susan, one of our most beloved and vivacious friends here in Boston died suddenly of cancer four years ago.  How we miss her.  One day we were walking together on the Esplanade.  We were talking about gun violence.  In the middle of the talk, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed her congressman.  She said, in her usual spirited voice:  ‘They know me there.  I have them on speed dial’.  She poured out the contents of our conversation to some staff person.  Well that may not be your style, or mine, but it was hers, and she voted every day with her time, her energy, and her money.  She was a great person.  We need to be speaking and listening, in person, by voice, to and with one another, to a degree well and far beyond what we are doing now.

By act I do mean doing something, within your sphere of influence.  Several gathered here on Marsh Plaza for a vigil on Friday noon.  Others attended other events.  A pastor gathered a multi faith service in Medford last night.  There is another at Charles Street tonight. You may have decided to attend an AME church one Sunday this summer, to be present, to be in communion.  Good.  Tell them Dean Hill sent you.  So, let us find ways to act.  There is a danger of freezing in the face of seemingly intractable difficulties, in the face of seemingly endless unsolvable contentions.

You can recite the litany.  300 million guns there are across the land.  The top 20% send 84% of their children to college.  The bottom 20% send 8%.  The average asset value of the majority household in this country is $110,000(car, house, savings).  The average asset value of the minority household is $9,000. The number and percentage of young men of color imprisoned, at all levels, is itself a crime.  The agenda of individual rights, like gun possession, and states rights, like denial of health care, has seized control of state house after state house across the middle of the country.  Look sometime at a photo page of elected officials in Kansas.  Yes.  Yes.  I know.  These and other facts of the present can freeze us, if we are not careful.  But you know, life is full of change, even surprising change.  In her late 80’s my grandmother had a sign up on her kitchen door.  It read:  ‘Do one thing.  There.  You have done one thing.’  I have a voice, and I will use my voice.  You do too.  Use it.

You can continue to pray, to vote and to act.

A couple of weeks ago a woman in our community sent me a prayer.  Prayer is much on my mind, just now, as a form of action as well as contemplation.   It gives me some measure of hope to have received this prayer.  I asked permission to use it, with attribution, and with its honesty and hope we conclude.  Here is Terry Baurley’s prayer:

Adonai, we pray that all may come to the understanding that one person’s grief is a shared experience that we will all face, one person’s love is a love that all will someday experience, one person’s exclusion or shunning is one that we all hope never to experience. One person’s success does not in any way diminish us. Friendship with someone new does not change the friendships that are already part of us. A person being praised and appreciated does not mean that we are not, it is just not your turn, or that there are reasons why they needed those words more at that moment. Consequences of actions born of love have a way of transforming who we are. Until each human being realizes that inflicting harm to another either intentionally or unintentionally or participates in such group dynamics that do, we will not have peace on this earth. Yet when a whispered prayer reaches out to you Adonai, and you reach back to us. We have reached the center where we know that we are loved, and nothing on heaven or earth can change that. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. (TERRY BAURLEY)

 

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

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