The Things That Are God’s

October 19th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 22: 15-22

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Frontispiece

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?  We are not told.  There is no live interview from the heavenly conference room.  There is no point-by-point bulletin, with details promised at 11pm.  There is no footnote, or explanatory second conversation.  We are left on our own by our Lord to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.   We are given a fair and good amount of freedom in doing so.

In conscience, do you wonder about ‘the things that are God’s’?

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  Give to God the things that are God’s.  (In the Gospel of Thomas, (110ad?) a bit yet later than Matthew (85ad?) who is a bit yet later than Mark (70ad?) who is a good bit later than whatever Jesus might actually have said (30ad?), the Lord adds, ‘and give to me the things that are mine’!)

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God, and give to me what is mine (GT, logion 100).

Matthew, true to form, intensifies the bitterness of Jesus toward Pharisees, of church toward synagogue, of Christian to Jew.  He hikes up entrap (Mark) to entangle.  He is ‘aware of their malice’.  To the question, ‘why put me to the test’ he adds, for good measure, ‘you hypocrites’.   His Jesus demands not just a coin, but  ‘(all) the money for the tax’.

Through the year, from this pulpit, we have tried continuously to trace the moves Matthew makes in 85ad away from what Mark, his source, had written in 70ad.  Mostly, we want to be crystal clear about the way the gospel changes, with the setting, changes with the occasion, changes, with the time and season and year.  New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.  One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

A standard reading of the passage is that the Herodians (supporters of Herod who is the Simon Legree of Rome in the cotton fields of Palestine) would want the tax paid to Caesar whereas the Pharisees (the French Resistance of Palestine against the Third Reich of Rome) would want resistance to payment of the tax.  Jesus is caught.   If he agrees with the Herodians, the people will kill him.  If he agrees with the Pharisees, the Romans will kill him.

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe…the starry heavens above and the moral law within,” wrote the German philosopher Immanuel Kant at the end of his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and these words were inscribed on his tombstone.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?   Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within?  Wonder and conscience?  Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul?

 

The Starry Heavens Above:  Spirit

            Wonder.  Without wonder your God is too large.  Wonder at the small things, for they are the things of God.

1. Wonder marvels that small things make a big difference.

The boat motor idled well and even carried the pontoon boat forward, but at a snail’s pace.  All boats disappoint just like all dogs bite.   The summer on our lake is a series of boat breakdowns.  I wondered.  Old age finally taking the motor?  Carburator?  Choke?  Throttle wires?  I am no mechanic.  This usually means taking the boat out of the water and towing it 30 miles for repairs.  The motor casing came off easily.  In a few minutes, it was apparent even to a non-mechanic that a single connection, throttle to gas line, had slipped undone.  Just as easily, without tools, it was reconnected.  The motor purred.   Small things, little things, can make a big difference.

Our out cottage, a broken down old fishing camp, built probably on weekends by one guy with tools, a six pack and a rod and reel, has a pump.  On that well and pump depend cooking, eating, cleaning washing, showers and other forms of relief.  It is outside, so subject to weather and other beings.  The pump stopped one afternoon.  I am no plumber, but I know a good one.  We called him.  You worry when your family needs water and you have no way to provide it.  A new pump?  Line problems?  Dry well? What is wrong?  But it was something very little.  Ants had found their way into the electric box and broken the connection.  Two minutes of expert attention, ants erased, problem solved.  Small little things can make a big difference.

The dock itself is new, partly brand new.  The dock is our island into the lake, our portal into boating, our entrance into swimming, our bridge into fishing, our outpost of land in water.   It is just a wonderful territory in itself.  But in order to get from the hillside down onto the dock, a makeshift staircase is required.  It is fraction of the size of the dock, a farthing compared to a pound.  It is a humble set of six stairs in wood reaching out onto the majesterial dock.  Without the stairs, though, the dock is useless.  All the weight, all the space, all the expanse, all the expense of the four piece dock lies permanently adrift from the mainland without the simple steps.  Small things, little things, make a difference, and open up the possibility of much, much greater things.

2. Wonder remembers the little things with lasting consequences.  Children begin to get hearts of wisdom in learning this.

Back from the fishing camp, and a warm water pumped shower there, now out on the dock beneath the stairs, ready to board the boat for a motor powered rid, our 7 year old granddaughter caught something in her younger brother’s rhetoric.  Brother said, “Eric said to me yesterday that he would take me tubing behind his boat today’.  Sister said, “I know that is what he said, but that is not what he meant.”  There is short, short way from birdie to bogie, from right to almost right, from what is said to what is meant.  To be able to hear that difference is a spiritual gift, a small, little, powerful, spiritual gift.  “I know that is what he said, but that is not what he meant!”  Small things, little things, make a difference, and open up the possibility of real understanding.

It is a Sabbath reminder for us.  Little things can change the world. Remember when someone said something to you that intervened, helped, saved.  Sometimes the best medicine is whatever gives you the courage to take one more step forward.  You have the mind, heart, faith and voice to speak such an intervening word this week.  Will it make any difference?  Small, little things, make a difference.

Wonder keeps us from making God too large.

 

The Moral Law Within:  Soul

Conscience.  Without conscience your God is too small.

Without wonder your God is too large.  Without God conscience your God is too small.

Conscience is the beating heart of truth and justice.  Conscience is the soul of soul.  Let your conscience be your guide, for conscience is soul, conscience is one of the things of God.  Conscience reminds that the kingdom of heaven is not a present state of mind but a coming state of affairs.

1. Conscience recoils at the horror of injustice.

Peterboro is one of the poor, small towns with rich histories that dot the upstate landscape.  Like Seneca Falls, known for the birth of the women’s movement.  Like Palmyra, known for the birth of Mormonism.  Like Oneida, known for the birth of a communitarian utopianism which itself gave birth to the children of stirpiculture there.  Like New Lebanon, known for the birth of the Shaker community.  Like Fort Stanwix and Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Poughkeepsie, where the American Revolution was saved in thwarting British advance.  Like Fulton, which with Robert Fulton gave birth to the steamboat.  Like the long winding stretch of water forming the remains of the Erie Canal, Albany to Buffalo, the opening the west to commerce.  Like Lake Placid of Olympic fame, the retreat, home and burial place of the cloud-splitter himself, John Brown, who in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry, and from his gallows pulpit did ignite the civil war, to free the slaves.  Like Orwell and Redfield, tiny northern towns, know home to Unity Acres, a ministry with the poor, and the places of origin for the Berrigan brothers, radical catholic peace activists over the last 50 years.  Like Onondaga Lake, the center of the Iroquois confederacy—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and later Tuscarora, and the legend of Hiawatha.  Like the gloriously beautiful Finger Lakes, known as the ‘burned over district’ of religious fervor following the second great awakening.  Like Corning, Rome, Oneida, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Schenectady known for the birth of industrial development in glass, firearms, silver, film, salt, steel, and electricity.   Like Rochester, known for Frederick Douglass and his abolitionist paper, the North Star.  Like Syracuse, known for world wide leadership in the creation and development of air conditioning.  The Southern states owe a great debt to Rochester and Syracuse, for the two things that make current southern growth possible at all, civil right and air conditioning.  Peterboro is one of these now poor, small towns with rich histories.

Peterboro was founded by Gerrit Smith.  Smith was an ardent abolitionist with a trust fund.  He spent his father’s money to buy land southeast of Syracuse, along the high ridge at the northern end of the Allegheny plateau.  He used the land to provide safe dwellings for free slaves, who came up from the south in dark, crossing various rivers, Susquehanna, Genesee, Delaware, with dogs barking and slavers chasing, and the occasional Harriet Tubman as guide, armed with prayer and a pistol.  The tracts he gave to these people of misfortune and found fortune are still farmed today, and in some few cases by the familial descendants of Gerritt Smith’s abolitionist largesse.  He also built an almshouse, a kind of hospital for the poor, in Eaton NY, nearby Peterboro, which as an 8 year old I remember entering as my father made a pastoral call on a dying man there.  It has long since closed.  The Methodist church in Peterboro, the remains thereof, includes people of color who are of the lineage of Gerritt Smith’s abolitionist generosity.   It is rare more colorful hue in the pew than one finds in other upstate churches.

That is, there is much good, of good conscience, in the length and breadth, the history and legacy of Upstate New York.  That is, there is much good in the very village, the little town of Peterboro, a poor hamlet with a rich history.

Yet on July 8 at 7pm a tornado took the lives of four people in and near Peterboro, NY.   A four–month old little girl and her 35 year old mother died when their mobile home was crushed in the wind.  The local paper carried photographs of them both, two beautiful pictures on the front page.  Two others died, an elderly woman, and also the male partner of a female oncologist in the region.

Tornados are rare in New York, some ten or so per year, almost all minor and inconsequential.   Tornados are unknown, or had been, in this part of the upstate region, as Governor Cuomo said in his remarks about the tragedy, and the new normal in radical weather events.

Why do such things happen?  Why?

2. Conscience recoils at the violence and accident in nature and history.

During that tornado week, other cyclones hit.  A fine young woman gave birth to a baby daughter with a whole in her heart.  A salt of the earth carpenter, a laboring gentleman, had to clean of the car door against which his older brother had shot himself after years of financial difficulty and depression.  A 60 year old saintly woman who has given her life to pre school children and the Methodist church, in equal measure, was told she would need chemotherapy for the rest of her life.  A father of four, a recovering alcoholic, grandfather of nine, community leader and faithful soul discovered he has esophageal cancer.   We do not mention global rates of infant mortality, especially in the first month of life, statistics that have not improved at all in our time.   We do not mention 180,000 civilian dead in Syria, surpassing the number slain in Iraq.  We do not mention the hundreds of Palestinians killed without a single Israeli death, in the mini war of the same fortnight.  Just to say, that during that tornado week, scores of other cylones, microbursts, wind blasts of various types and size did touch ground, in the heart of human lives.  From May 2012 to May 2013 we buried 13 BU students.

Why?  Why do such things happen?

We do not know why these things happen.  We know in our experience of random hurt the biblical truth in Jesus’ teaching that rain falls on just and the unjust alike.  We know in our experience of horrible, unspeakable tragedy the biblical reference to the tower of Siloam that fell killing dozens who were no better nor worse than those spared.  We know in our experience the falsehood of Job’s friends and counselors who in mistake and error tried to explain to Job his misery, which they had not themselves suffered.  We know in our experience of sin, death, meaninglessness the gut cry of Jesus in debate, ‘none is good but God, and in the garden, ‘let this cup pass from me’, and on the cross, ‘why have you forsaken me?’.

And in our experience, we confess, we find if far easier to discount in size, scope, measure and meaning the pain of others than we do to discount our own.  For instance.  How often have I thought, and heard, in some arguments, ‘things in this world would be different if men bore children and knew the pain of childbirth’. 6 to 3 votes in the Supreme Court can on this score be quite revealing. We do not know why these things happen, and we are prone to discount others’ lacerations by comparison with our own.  How many of us wish we had Syrian passports, Iraqi citizenship, or Ukrainian bank accounts this morning?

Conscience keeps us from making God too small.

Credo

My wife Jan drove home, that is, on July 8 at 7pm, heading to our summer house, coming with 7 miles of Peterboro at the tornado hour.  She has never seen a darker sky, she says.  And if she had not gotten home?  That is, if our family were now living with the tornado tragedy and loss inflicted on others?  I would be of great gratitude, at a minimum, to find myself surrounded, as this morning, by a company of women and men, honest about hurt, graceful in grief, dignified in the hour of death, and loving in the face of meaningless, inexplicable, unintelligible laceration.  But I know I would harbor, for the long stretch of healing it would take, a white hot anger at the injustice of such a loss.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?   Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within?  Wonder and conscience?  Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul, things of God.

*****

I believe in God.  I believe in the creative divine power that unleashed the universe.  I believe that no one has ever seen God.  I believe in the potential for a purposeful existence by faith, the faithfulness of God in Christ in my case.  I believe that even the darkest moment and harshest experience is held, included, embraced and redeemed in the divine love, as a mystery and as a hope.

I believe in freedom.  I do not believe that God has a plan for every single life, free of human freedom.  I do not believe that God has a map quest route for your life, nor that God sends tornados to chew up poor towns with rich histories, nor that God brutally executes young mothers and little children living in mobile homes.  I do not believe that everything has a purpose, that everything is beautiful in its own way, that we will understand it better by and by, or that all experience is directly, divinely, precisely ordered.  Who would worship a God like that?

I believe in love.  The gospel is the gospel of freedom, of grace, of love, of pardon, of forgiveness, of acceptance, of healing, and of hope.  I believe all of us are better when we are loved by others and when we connect in faith with divine love.   For me, the statement, God is Love, is about the second not the first person of the Trinity. For those looking today for a more formally exacting or exacting theological position, my heart felt regrets and condolences.

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

The Long Wait

October 12th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 25:1-13

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Trimmed Lamps

            The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life is a long wait.

Our gospel has made use of a story known elsewhere in antiquity (Bultmann, HST, loc.cit).  The power of the wedding, as you know from other parts of Holy Scripture, stood at the very pinnacle of experience and religious teaching, in antiquity.   Here the gospel writer has appended a (very noble) encouragement to watchfulness, to a parable re-arranged near the end of the first century of the common era.

Our more trustworthy manuscripts include the bride, too, ‘ten maidens…went to meet the bridegroom and the bride’.   In fact, nowhere in antiquity do maidens await the bridegroom.  They await the bride.  That is why we call them bridesmaids.  They attend the bride, and especially in the great exultation of the translation from home to home, from parents to spouse, like the sun rising from the eastern heavens, daily, the bridegroom with the bride runs the course with joy.

So, why has the writer eliminated the bride?  He does so to make the parable fit the church’s biggest spiritual disappointment, keenly and painfully suffered by 90ad.  Christ was risen from the dead which must mean the end of time which must mean his return in power and glory which must mean the soon and very soon parousia, the coming of the Lord.  But 30ad became 50ad and 50ad became 70ad and 70ad became 90ad.  And the bridegroom (here shorn of bride clearly a figure of Christ) delays.

The original parable is not about awaiting the return of Christ, more about this later in the great and glorious gospel of John, but about living through a long wait. The maidens, the bridesmaids, some prepared and some not, all have to wait.  And it is a long wait.  And that is just the point.

You may think of a woman waiting to give birth.  You may think of a population, long enslaved, waiting for justice to roll down like waters.  You may think of a war torn region, the setting for endless decades of mayhem and war and violence, waiting for the dawn of peace.   You may think of a doctoral student waiting for that final report, the dissertation is finished.  You may think of a denomination waiting the wisdom to affirm the full humanity of gay people now recognized across nearly three dozen states.  You may think of those afflicted and infected with a deadly virus awaiting a vaccine for healing.  You may think of a man hoping for a job and daily awaiting a letter.  You may think of a physician attending a patient suffering from a mental illness, hoping against hope for a delayed cure.  You may think of a lonely woman, a tithing Christian, waiting for a pastor to leave off further libraries and degrees and come to her church, and come to her house, and make a visit, and say a prayer.

Whether or not the full range of doctrine and teaching in Christianity convinces you, surely, at least at this point, you would admit its congruence with your experience.  Faith and life both are a long wait.

How shall we trim our lamps for the wait?  The parable moves quickly to the importance of preparation.  A little patience?  A little persistence?  Oil for the lamps during the long wait.

Patience and Persistence

Patience.  The patience of Job.  Patience is a virtue. Love, joy, peace, patience.  Patient in suffering.

Persistence.  Persistent prayer.  Persistence as insistence.  To exist is to persist. Labor omnia vincit.  The persistence of Paul.

The life of faith, the spiritual life, carries us down into the caverns of experience.  Our steadiness in faith, our reliance on faith, are most clear to us when everything else is murky, misty, dark and dank.  Faith is only faith when it is all you have left.

Two registers of the spiritual life, the life of faith, down in the declivities and caves of time, are patience and persistence.   Over the course of a week, or a year, or a lifetime, one needs both.  You need both.  You need both the passive receptivity of patience and the active resistance of persistence.

One is the brake pedal.  That is patience.  You are careening down hill.  Your plan, your work, your friendship, your marriage, your profession are going south.  You need a way to put a foot on the brakes, to slow the decline, to ease the demise.  Patience can help you to do that.  One day at a time.  Sleep on it.  Things will look better in the morning.  Patience is your way of managing the rolling ride down hill.

The other is the accelerator, the gas peddle.  That is persistence.  You are looking uphill.  The climb is before you and the incline daunting.  Your plan, your work, your friendship, your marriage, your profession are all in the balance, nothing is for sure, nothing is taken for granted.  You can rest, but later.  Now you need to put the peddle to the metal and climb the hill.  Slow and steady wins the day.  Keep on keeping on.  One step at a time.  Persistence is your way of empowering the grinding ride up hill.

Both patience and persistence are underrated virtues.  They shy away from the lime light.  They don’t do well in the bright light.  But for your faith to quicken and to continue, you will need both patience and persistence.  For sustenance, energy, endurance in the long wait, you and I need both.

Some of you are more naturally patient.  Make sure you practice persistence too.  Some of you are more naturally persistent.  Make sure you practice patience too.

The care of children requires and elicits endless patience.  Patience to rock.  Patience to feed.  Patience to listen.  Patience to play.  Patience to teach.  Patience to watch.  Patience to repeat.  Patience simply to live alongside a slowly developing person, personality, personhood.  Someone let you grow up, after all.  The patience you received will need to become a part of the patience you conceive and retrieve and give.  A part of our fast forward work culture can use the brake peddle, the quiet pause, the important lack of doing, that is the patience of the cure of souls in general, and the care of children in particular.   Honor, celebrate the hours and stamina given to breakfast cleanup, to snack and nap time, to bathing, to the settling of squabbles, the cleanup of messes, the endurance of crying, the midnight coddling—all and so much more that require the patience of parenting.

Learning any language, at any time, is a demanding enterprise.  The language of faith—the grammar of trust, the syntax of belief, the spelling of practice—is no different.  Children blessed in patient care to learn to speak, and then also to learn to speak in a language of faith, are given the gift of life.  To know from childhood the power of love.  To know from childhood the example of forgiveness.  To know from childhood the posture of hope.  To know from childhood the virtue of patience.  If you learn the language early, taking it as your mother tongue, and imbibing it with your mother’s milk, you have it all your life.  A hymn to hum.  A verse to remember.  A prayer to use.  A psalm to recite.  A story to tell.

You certainly learn to speak another language in mid-life.  People do so all the time.  That too requires patience, both for listener and for speaker.  It may involve a difference in pronunciation, an accent.

In the summer we cared for four of our five grandchildren over several days.  The older three one afternoon went with their grandmother, the fourth having been left for a nap with her grandfather.  She awoke after a couple of hours, not overly pleased to find out who had been assigned as her temporary guardian, or captor.  But she allowed herself to be held, to be given the chance slowly to wake up, to see the blue in sky and lake, and to let the breeze of mid summer caress face and hands, hair and skin.  She could sit, and wait.  She only needed a patience, a patient presence.

Sometimes though, in the life of faith, in the spiritual life, you need more gas and less brake, more persistence than patience.

We will offer one immediate example, literally present to Marsh Chapel today, and figuratively present in many, many settings.

Dr. Doug Reeves, in his blog CHANGELEADERS, has something to offer you, first for those finishing a PhD, and second, more broadly, for all.  His particular advice applies, well and broadly.   Patience is a virtue.  But so is persistence.  He offers the wisdom of persistence, in five forms:

(Top Five Tips for Finishing Your Dissertation by Doug Reeves)

1)  Call your advisor.  The top reason that doctoral students are stuck is neither their overwhelming literature review nor their complex research methodologies.  It’s failure to communicate with their advisor.  Pick up the phone, drop by the office, or as a last resort, e-mail.  Make personal contact with the person who will most influence your ability to finish your doctorate…

2)  Read exemplary dissertations.  Although this is your first dissertation, your committee has been through this exercise many times.  Ask them to give you the title and author of the best dissertation they have ever seen.  It may be their own, and it’s never a bad idea to read the publications of your advisor and committee members.  Exemplary dissertations give you the clearest possible idea of the substance and style that your committee expects of you.

3)  Create a cohort.  Boston College dramatically increased the completion rate of their doctoral program when they created small groups of four or five students who meet regularly with one another, sharing research, emotional support, and intellectual engagement.  If your university does not provide such a cohort, then create your own.  Find like-minded colleagues who are committed to walking across the stage on the same date as you will, commit to weekly meetings, and share a one-page summary of just one article or book that you have reviewed that week.  Ideally, the group will have complementary strengths – perhaps one with expertise in quantitative methods and another with a focus on qualitative methods. 

4)  Forget perfection.  There is a technical academic term for the perfect dissertation – it is called “unfinished.”  You are doing important work, and while you should not tolerate sloppy research, you must forgive yourself for imperfections.  You will think of many reasons that your research could be better.  You could have a larger sample size; you could use a more contemporary analytical technique; you could add fifty more citations to your literature review.  The list never ends.  As my advisor told me many years ago, “this is not your last piece of research, it’s your first piece of research, so get it finished.” 

5)  The 45-minute rule.  Don’t wait for the sabbatical, vacation, weekend, or free day.  The vast majority of dissertation writers are working professionals who have many demands on their time, so the key to finishing is not waiting for the illusory gift of free time, but rather the work-a-day chore of finishing a paragraph, an article, or a quick synthesis – something that you can do in 45 minutes.  One of the best ways to give yourself 45 minutes of uninterrupted time is to turn off e-mail – not forever, not even for a full day, but for just 45 minutes.  You will be amazed at what just 45 minutes of focused energy will provide for you.

How remarkably, with just a little here again there again revision, these points about persistence may fit your own and very long wait!

Invitation

            The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life, as in the story, is simply a long wait.  It is a long wait, and that is just the point.   The primitive Christian church endured such a lengthy wait through nearly seven decades , prior to the Gospel of John and the new commandment, to love, the new gift, of spirit, the new hope, of truth making free, the new gospel dimension, really, of an hour coming that, somehow, now, is.

Here is an invitation.

You may benefit, should you seek patience and persistence, from consort with a community born in patience (that is, suffering) and persistence (that is, endurance.  Suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint us.  Why?  Because of the Love of God that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

You may of course sally forth on your own.  Many do.  Most do, it may be.  But how are you going to know the power of persistence without immersion in a persistent community of faith?  How are you going to gain the capacity of patience without involvement in a patient community of faith?  How are you going to go up the hills and down the hills of life without some, genuine, comraderie along the trail, some consanguinity on the hike, some compassion amid the passion of the heat of the day?  Life is hard enough, the wait is long enough, without some church family to love and some church home to enjoy and some church community of faith with whom to keep faith.  Especially for children as they grow.  Especially for adults trying to ferret out some meaning in life.  Especially for the more elderly, wise but lonely, having much to offer but not much mobility with which to offer it.  It gladdens me when one or another, elsewhere or here, finds a seat in the community of patient persistence, of persistent patience.

Need we even pause to add that such a fellowship, of faith working through love, could never have given itself birth, and could never have sustained itself by merely inventive imaginative activity, and could never have conjoured for itself the sustainable energies uphill and downhill, patience and persistence?  Such fellowship, sustenance, and energy come from the divine presence, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Love of God, the transcript in time of God in eternity, whose own lasting love through the long wait, marked on the cross, is, finally, all we have, and all we need.

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

The Marsh Spirit

October 5th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 21

Philippians 3

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Praise:  Max Miller

 

Today:  American Cancer Society Fighting to End Breast Cancer

Classical Music, Methodist Hymnody

Max Miller 2013

Praise:  Psalm 17

Marsh Nave Greetings

Marsh Nave Echoes

Word and Music:  Bible and Hymnal

Vancouver 1983

Out of Poverty: Industry and Frugality

Life Together:  Invitation, Compassion, Vocation, Aspiration

 

Passion:  Earl Marlatt

 

Passion for Compassion

Earl Marlatt 1934, Sermon centered curriculum: B,H,S,P theology
First Serving of Faith

Bill Murray

Passion:  Religion and Vengeance in Mt 21

We are not exempt:  Krister Stendahl

Pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy

BU Graduate students take a church

Weddings in Barns

Thanksgiving and Christmas on the Frozen River

George Kirk Marlowe Trout River 1982

 

Personality:  Susanna Wesley

 

Should be in a window: 20 Children

Love Divine:  Are We Lovers Anymore?

You are the Gospel others read and hear and see

Personality:  Paul:  Press On

Conversion comes from the heart

L Cohen:  Ring the Bells that still can ring

Marital Benedictions

Communion Liturgy

 

Prayer

 

Marital Benedictions

 

Good Morning.  Good Morning

Sleep Well?  Not too bad.

Have a good one.  You too.

Be careful.  I will

How was it?  Not bad.

I’m sorry.  Not to worry.

I apologize.  No problem

Please forgive me.  I forgive you.

I don’t understand.  Let me say it another way.

Do you agree?  Not really.

Could we talk about it? We could talk about it.

How much does it cost?  I don’t remember.

Does it hurt?  Not so much.

Do you?  I do.

Will you?  I will.

Do you promise? Yes, I promise.

Thank you.  You’re welcome.

Thanks.  You’re welcome.

I love you.  I love you.

Good night.  Good night.

 

Marsh Greetings and Echoes

 

Come Sunday, every Sunday, here at Marsh Chapel:

 

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you

 

The Chapel’s sixty-year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you

 

The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you

 

The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you

 

The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.

 

 

Listen for its echoes…listen…listen to the voices of Boston University and of Marsh Chapel…

 

All the good you can…

 

The two so long disjoined…

 

Heart of the city, service of the city…

 

Learning, virtue, piety…

 

Good friends all…

 

Hope of the world…

 

Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…

 

Common ground…

 

Content of character…

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

The Bach Experience

September 28th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 21:23-32

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Experience

We are entering a new year, whether with the academics at matriculation, or with those following this season’s autumnal sports, or with the hikers and campers as fall arrives.  Our Holy Scripture and our Cantata this morning both offer us insight for a new day.

In particular, those of you who may find yourself outside of the religious traditions around you, or the tradition, if any, in which you were raised, may be heartened to hear the music and word this morning.

Our community of faith at Marsh Chapel, Boston University, shares with other such communities, far and near, an alertness to the meaning in beginnings.  Jesus shall be my everything.  Jesus shall remain my beginning.  Jesus is my light of joy.  So the duet affirms in just a few moments.  Beginnings remain.  The start of something new stays with us long after the newness has been spent.  We recognize the power of new beginnings.

Look at the few days of this week and weekend.

Thursday, hundreds of students and other gathered within the Jewish community to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the start of the Jewish new year.  Songs, prayers, readings, teachings were deployed to plumb the depth of meaning in the return of the year’s opening.

Saturday, many hundreds of students and others gathered for feasting and dancing at the celebration of Raas Lela, the seasonal and communal recognition of what is new this autumn.  Songs, prayers, readings, teachings were deployed to plumb the depth of meaning in the return of the year’s opening.

Boston University is proud to host the largest Hindu student association in the country.  Their yearly Saturday evening festival provides a colorful, fervent, rhythmic opening to the rest of the year.  The dance and the meal seem to pray, as does our cantata: bless all faithful teachers, bless hearers of the word, may peace and loyalty kiss each other, thus we would live this entire year in blessing.

This evening, this Sunday evening, yet another several hundred students and others will gather to share a common meal, a common table, a common reading, a common address, a community of fellowship.  The event is the feast of Eid, in which our Muslim community completes Ramadan and enters the year following those days of discipline.  Songs, prayers, readings, teachings will be deployed to plumb the depth of meaning in a sort of return to the year’s opening.  Let us complete the year to the praise of the divine name.  So the meal suggests, as the cantata affirms.

All of these events this year will have been located in the same space, in the same week, in the same University, on the same street.  They happened and will have happened in the very same room.  In engaging difference, in embracing alterity, we do well not to minimize the variations present.  We also do well to recognize the common hope present.  Community emerges from diversity when diversity is longing for unity.  Without that common hope there will be no common faith and then over time no common ground.

In addition, the Christian community will be gathered for worship, here in the nave of Marsh Chapel and across the airwaves, and later in through the afternoon and week for other Christian services—three Catholic masses, an Evening Ecumenical Sunday Eucharist, prayer and devotion preceding the Inner Strength Gospel Choir practice, a Monday evening Orthodox communion, a Wednesday evening ecumenical and Episcopal Evening Prayer, a school of theology service, a moment of Thursday silent prayer, a Common Ground Thursday communion service, and other services, all located here in the Chapel.  Next Sunday afternoon we will celebrate at 2pm the baptism of Nathan Hutchison-Jones, one of several infants baptized this year.  It is an hour of new beginnings as well.  Beginnings remain.  Beginnings reverberate.  Beginnings resound through time and space.  And every dawn, every morning awakening, is one such new beginning.  How seriously, studiously, and curiously, famously wondered Howard Thurman, have taken our moment of waking from slumber, morning by morning?

Keep a list this week of beginnings, new year celebrations of different kinds.  A first paper submitted.  A first date enjoyed.  A first real conversation in friendship.  A first blistering failure.  A first day on the job.  A first ache in the bones to hint at the advent of autumn in life.  A first handshake.  A first argument.  A first genuine disappointment.  Whatever ‘years’ begin in the next week, take a moment to savor them or at least to consider them.  You can do so with confidence, as we hear in a moment: His good Spirit, which shows me the path to Life, guides and leads me upon a level road, therefore I begin this year in Jesus’ name.

Dr. Jarrett, you have been our guide to the heart of the music brought us by choir and collegium, over these past several years.  How best should we listen, receive, give ear to word and music this morning?

Bach (Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett)

Thank you, Dean Hill. Today’s cantata was first performed on New Year’s Day in January of 1724 for the Feast of the Circumcision and the Naming of Jesus. It may seem an odd choice for the end of September, but the text of the cantata celebrates the start of the new year, and contains all the hopes for God’s blessings and guidance in new endeavors. It seemed particular appropriate for the new beginnings all around us. In particular this morning, we welcome our newest choir members, and four new Choral Scholars, two of whom – Ethan De Puy and Kim Leeds –  sing their first solos in our Bach Experience this morning.

Just as our Gospel lesson from Matthew 21 finds Jesus in the temple teaching, the Luke 2 lesson that occasioned this cantata finds Jesus in the temple just eight days after his birth for the celebration of his official naming. It is a moment of great joy and promise, and Bach provides music full of fanfare and flourish.

Like so many of Bach’s opening choral movements, Psalms of praise are used to ring in the new year: Sing to the Lord a new song; The company of Saints shall praise Him; Praise him with drums and dances; Praise him with strings and pipes, and finally, All that hath breath, praise ye the Lord, Alleluia. Scored for full festival forces with three trumpets and timpani, three oboes and the usual complement of strings, Bach engages the full range of the concerted style. The opening movement is cast in three contrasting sections. The central text, ‘All that hath breath, praise the Lord’,  is treated contrapuntally as a fugue, but offset from the outer sections by grand unison statements from Luther’s setting of the Te Deum, ‘Lord God, we praise you’ and later, ‘Lord God, we thank you.’

The second movement introduces the three soloists in personal and contemporary petitions. And with the choir’s interjections of the Luther Te Deum texts, the movement serves as an extension of the opening chorus. There are two arias in today’s cantata. The first, sung by alto soloist Kim Leeds, is an elegant dance-like movement for strings with characteristics of the polonaise. After a recitative seeking God’s guidance in the new year through the Jesus’s name, tenor Ethan De Puy and DJ Matsko sing a duet, again in spirited dance rhythms. Listen for the outline of the melody in the opening solo played by Ben Fox on the Oboe d’amore.  Bach dresses up the otherwise mundane chorale tune with trumpet and timpani flourishes, rounding out a festive work brimming with hope and expectation.

And if I may be permitted, Dean Hill, on behalf of the musicians, we wish to offer you and the Marsh community our sincerest thanks for supporting our continued study of the fifth evangelist and his astonishing repertoire. Over the years, we have taught, explored, and performed more than 30 cantatas, with regular performances of the St John and St Matthew Passions. Last year’s survey of the B Minor Mass kept us on the mountain-top from September to April. As we begin the eighth year of the Bach Experience, please know how truly grateful we are for your support.

 Faith

This is a day of new beginnings.  As by potential at least is every day, and every Lord’s Day.  Now is the acceptable time.  Today is the day of salvation.

Our love of Holy Scripture impels us to listen, again, just a bit more closely, to the new beginning announced in Matthew 21.

One portion of our passage explores the perennial religious issue of authority.  The pages of the New Testament themselves were composed and collected in no small measure as a way of exploring authority.  ‘By what authority?’ is the question Jesus parries with another question which puts his interrogators on the horns of a dilemma.  When something new is on the horizon, this question invariably arises.  In a new year setting, a day of new beginnings, when something big and new is in the offing, it may be worth asking:  On whose authority shall weighty and consequential decisions be taken?  It is at least worth thinking about: by what authority?

Another portion of our passage tells of two sons and the opportunity to work the vineyard.  It is easy for us to hear the acclaim reserved for the first, who goes ahead and does the work, and to hear the criticism of the one who pays lip service to the stewardship of the vineyard, but goes another way.   For Matthew, at least, here, at least, the surprising gospel is that those not attired in the formal clothing of faith, those even who are engaged in the most secular and ancient of professions, seize the day, and take up the labor and tend the vineyard.  Not the membership list, but the prospect list.   Not the clergy, but the laity. Not those at the center, but those on the periphery.  Not the nominally present, but the actually absent.  Not those who have cleaned the outside of the cup, but those who have had the inside washed and laundered and pressed and put to service.  Not those who say a comfortable yes, but those who say an honest no, yet whose lives say yes, when others’ lives say no.  Here, at least, to the extent one understands the phrase, one hears an initial encouraging word for those who may be ‘spiritual but not religious’.   The vineyard awaits those who will tend it.  This perhaps is what John Wesley meant to say as he preached, ‘if thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand’.

Paul says it clearly:  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

It may be that on reflection, the first son had a vision of what such a vineyard could look like over time, what such an unusual kind of labor could feel like over time, what such a new start to a new year in a new way could become over time.  It may be that on reflection you will have a vision of what such a vineyard, God’s garden, could look like over time, with a little effort, what such an unusual kind of labor, faith working through love, could feel like over time, and what such a new start to a sober and loving life this autumn Sunday could become over time.  If so, you may silently whisper, walking or driving home, Lord God we praise you, since you with this new year send us new fortune and new blessing and still think upon us in grace.

- The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel and Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Remembering Robert Hamill

September 21st, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 20:1-14

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Hamill

Our sermon today remembers Dean Robert Hamill and reflects upon the Matthean gospel of divine generosity.  The latter ennobled the former, and the former exuded the latter.

Robert Hamill served in his last ministerial appointment as the Dean of Marsh Chapel, Boston University, from 1965 until his death in 1975.   During his tenure, here, the University and the country were convulsed in the throes of struggles over civil rights, over racial relations, over war and opposition to war, and over the authority of those governing and the responsibility of those governed.  He was third in the line of six deans here, alongside a number of others who served in interim capacities.   He was a Methodist minister.  He was a preacher. He was a teacher and author.  And his first name was Robert.  In short, he was fully qualified for the position (J).

Dr. Hamill came here following a long and distinguished ministry in the mid west, including work on campuses and in college communities.  He wrote regularly for MOTIVE magazine.  He helped Howard Thurman in the last years of Thurman’s ministry here, without much recognition in that era.  He had the task of following an iconic figure, filling big shoes, and carrying forward the work of Marsh Chapel in a turbulent time.  He died of cancer on the job.

Matthew

Meanwhile, now, in Matthew 20, in the vineyard, our parable represents the ‘undifferentiated rewards of the Kingdom of God’. (Bultmann) The parable affirms divine generosity, and inscrutable divine goodness and generosity.  Its point:  behold the divine generosity, do not begrudge the divine generosity.

Consider the parable (found only in Matthew). All the workers are paid the same.  As in life, so here in Scripture, there is no sure, consistent justice.  To be sure, the landowner has paid what he agreed to pay.  To be sure, hour by hour, the workers have received what they agreed to receive.  To be sure, the daily needs of all for the day to come are met, from each according to his stamina and to each according to his needs.  To be sure, the added proverb, about last becoming first and first last fits the parable awkwardly if at all.    The parable acclaims God’s bounteous generosity, not God’s impartial justice.

When a job truly fit and meant for you goes to another, on a shaky or unjust premise or process, you know the feeling of the early workers.  When an illness unearned and unexpected afflicts your loved one, you know the feeling of those working among the grapes and feeling the grapes of wrath.  When a day begins and ends as an existential illustration of Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet, you know the resentment addressed in the story from Matthew 20:1-16.

Hamill

On Alumni Weekend each year, we have remembered one of our forebears—like Franklin Littell or Daniel Marsh or Allan Knight Chalmers or Howard Thurman, and others.  This year, Robert Hamill.

Hamill’s time in the vineyard was long and difficult.  His years in this pulpit were long and hard years.  He did not come into his labor at evening, or even at noon, but early in the day, and did not find his rest until he found his eternal rest at the day’s end.  He worked, here, in the time my friend yesterday, a visiting alumnus, referred to as the time of ‘the troubles’. Unlike his predecessor, he did not enjoy quite as wide a range of recognition, nor quite as strong a national following, nor just as steady a range of response to his pulpit work.  Unlike those who had worked in the fifties, a time of relative peace and prosperity, his era 1965-75 was fraught with conflict, with anxiety, with discord, with strife.   A Christmas Sunday 12/24/74 sermon in his last year, whose recording was found and heard earlier this week, decries the war in Vietnam, and a bombing campaign in progress.  A 1970 sermon on racial justice and black power, preached some years earlier, became required reading for work in racial justice on campuses in the south.  An earlier book of sermons on the theme of freedom, exhibits clearly the clouds gathering all about of constraints.

In other words, Robert Hamill lived within the rhythms of some comparative difficulty and injustice.  On more than one occasion, you could perhaps surmise, he might have paused to wonder aloud, crossing Commonwealth Avenue, about the justice of it all, the unequal distribution of generosity, the unfairness of circumstance, the pain and pained crucible of disappointment.   He did not live anywhere near long enough to see that particular war ended, to see the gradual amelioration of some racial injustices, to see the still expanding circle of his great and beloved theme of freedom.  He got to work before dawn, labored through the noon day heat, and went to eternal sleep after dusk, with no retirement to enjoy, no decades of cruises and tours, no relaxed season to hold the grandchildren, no sunset years.

For instance, in October of 1970, early on a Sunday morning, 200 federal marshals, Boston Police, and FBI agents entered the chapel in which you are sitting, and arrested an AWOL Army Private whom the chapel congregation had given sanctuary.  Students keeping vigil in the nave were awakened and cleared from the aisle.  Rev Hamill later led a Sunday service of worship here that morning, broadcast on WBUR.

The fissures and fractures that were fragmenting the country as a whole, epitomized May 4 1970 at Kent State, were visible and tangible right here.  One can imagine that Hamill and his wife may well have wished that the timing of their ministry here had been other than it was.  Yet when Deda, whom I knew, (Hamill’s second wife whom he married after the death of his first wife, Hannah,) herself died two years ago, a mutual friend brought us the guest book used in those years at the Hamill residence.  What is striking is that for all the turmoil of the times, worship continued on Sunday mornings, and the Hamills regularly offered hospitality over a traditional Sunday dinner in their home.  The book contains the personal signatures of their guests, over the months and years, after church on Sunday:  Takako Shimo, James and Eunice Matthews, Robert and Pat Nelson, Walter and Martha Muelder, Robert Luccock, Max and Betty Miller, Merle Jordan, F Thomas Trotter, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman, Ruth and Paul Deats, Earl Kent Brown, Joe Bassett, Edward Carroll, Marjorie Metcalf, Harrell Beck, Peter Bertocci, Joe Polak, Kathryn Silber, John Silber, Loumona Petroff, and many others.   The work in the vineyard continued, in season and out.

Matthew

Let us return for a moment to Matthew.  Meanwhile, back in the vineyard, the undeniable difference between equality and justice faces us, as it did Jesus, Matthew, the Rabbis and others.  Jesus, loving the amahaaretz, the poor of the land, may have been telling the Pharisees to broaden their embrace.  Matthew, among Jews and Gentiles, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, may have been admonishing the former to honor the latter.  The Rabbis, in the same period, used the same story, but added that the later workers did in two hours what took the earlier ones all day.  Oye ve (J).

Our landowner, through Matthew’s rendering, is called an ‘OIKODESPOTES’, a person of some power.  The allegory is clear.  God is obliged to nobody.  Further, the timing of God’s grace and generosity is God’s own affair, only without prejudice either to the early or to the late.  In this way, Matthew concurs with Paul in 1 Thessalonians that the living will not precede the dead, in the hour of judgment.

Our parable does not rely on the famous passage from Exodus 16, read a moment ago.  (This is a passage you should know and know about by the way.)  Yet the acclamation of divine generosity in both is the same.  Evening comes, and morning, and in the morning there is a sweet hoar frost covering all the ground, a layer of dew under which is the ‘manna from heaven’.  ‘The bread the Lord has given you to eat”.

Hamill

The steadiness, the weekly, seasonal consistency in Robert Hamill’s hospitality at table, Sunday by Sunday, continued throughout his years here.

Some here will remember that no graduation service was held at Boston University in 1970.  Here in Marsh Chapel in May, 2010 we gathered for a service of remembrance before some of those received their diplomas, forty years later, the next day.  The chapel was packed, hot, and tense. The pianist played Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Let it Be, and We Shall Overcome.  Midway into the proceedings a spirited woman stood up and interrupted the Dean’s remarks.  From the back pew she began to preach her own sermon.  Somehow, it did seem to fit the time, class and occasion.  After a bit I told her I could not hear her, and went on.  James Carroll, now a married columnist, but in 1970 the Catholic priest at BU, offered a powerful pastor meditation, remembering Hamill, the Armory, the war, and concluding as he asked:  What are we doing here tonight?  Have we not come in order to face, and thereby to let go, of a troubled time long ago?

            The recording of Hamill’s 1974 Christmas Sunday sermon includes his admonition to those listening to join him in rising on Christmas Day and before presents and fellowship and turkey dinner and all else sending a letter to the White House demanding an end to the war.  His voice is raspy but his challenge is clear, six months from death.  In his sermon book HOW FREE ARE YOU he noted:  When you get into the fight for freedom, you encounter trouble for sure.  One of the notable preachers of our time who consistently fought for free men in a free society was Dr. Ernest Fremont Tittle.  One day I asked Dr. Tittle how he handled controversial material, and he gave three rules of thumb:  ‘Be sure of your facts.  Speak the truth in love.  Then be unafraid of the consequences.’  (Freedom, 77). Hamill may have been thinking of Tittle coming toward his own last Christmas day.

Matthew

Meanwhile, back in the vineyard, we have again to ponder the labor at the heart of life and the labor at the heart of faith.  Faith comes by hearing, but it is an active, ‘employed’ listening that allows for that hearing.  Faith is a gift, but is a gift like any other that requires receipt, and response, and embrace, (and a thank you note, too).  (If faith comes by hearing it help if you are in earshot.  You truly have nothing better to do for an hour on Sunday than worship.) Faith comes as a gift at the time of God’s choosing, but to labor and live in faith requires of us a steady, even fruitful, practice of faith.   Here is what Paul is driving at in his letter to the Philippians:  live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

You may have been impressed this week by Ken Burns’ ever engaging latest documentary on the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin and Eleanor.  Eleanor as an orphan was raised by drunken uncles and others in the small Hudson River village of Tivoli, a little town where my grandparents met and where my grandfather is now buried.   It happens, I learned this week, that a great aunt, Ella Lascher Coons, my mother’s aunt, with some others in Tivoli sewed Eleanor’s wedding dress.  We are that is, neither in space or time, all that very far from Tivoli and the New Deal.

All three of these iconic American leaders suffered—Theodore in childhood illness and adult defeat and early death, Eleanor in childhood loneliness and adult betrayal and isolation, Franklin in polio.  Whether they would have taken Paul’s formula as theirs, he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ but of suffering for him as well, one cannot say.  There certainly is no justice to any suffering as such, and certainly not to theirs, intimately and poignantly depicted in Burns’ fine film.  Yet there is something underneath the grumbling of the workers, the hiddenness of the landowner, the various and capricious deposits of weal and woe, in the Matthean parable, in the Roosevelt lives, and, more to the point, in our very own.  Call it a different light, a refraction out of a different lens, of the divine generosity, and what happens when someone seizes—or better is seized by—that glorious, mysterious divine radiance, divine goodness, divine generosity.

There is a scene in Burns’ film inwhich the camera shows polio afflicted children swimming in the Warm Springs Florida pool.  This is the pool that finally allowed Franklin, buoyed and warmed in its water, to stand after months and years of utter torment.  The camera scans the children, playing, swimming, dunking, and laughing.  Then the camera closes in on the biggest of the children, the six foot tall future president, who is right there, soaked and joyful in the midst of them.  It was unmistakable, even at this distance of years and miles and technology, to see the glint and gleam in his eye.  The divine generosity was splashing through him and out onto all the similarly afflicted children round about.  Something happened to him, in all the injustice and unfairness and inscrutability of his hours in the existential vineyard.  Something happened that made a difference—to the poor of the depression, to the nearly conquered in Europe and Asia, to the women and people of color and otherwise abled whom Eleanor prodded him, cajoled him, and implored him to aid.  He found a part of himself able to help, really help, others similarly afflicted, and somehow that part, once raised to life, opened his life to all the rest.

I wonder about you? and me?  Has the unfailing light and love of divine generosity worked on us at all this week?  Are we better people than we were last Sunday?

John Calvin (for once) on this parable:  We may also gather that our whole life is useless and we are justly condemned of laziness until we frame our life to the command and calling of God.  From this it follows that they labor in vain who thoughtlessly take up this or that kind of life and do not wait for God’s calling.  Finally we may also infer from Christ’s words that only they are pleasing to God who work for the advantage of their brethren. (loc cit 266)

Hamill

I think back, or try to think back, fifty years—a flick of the wrist, a batting of eye, no time at all.   Here is Robert Hamill, walking toward us in the memory, this Alumni weekend 2014.   He knew the labor in the vineyard.  Yet Sunday dinner he offered every week.  He knew the unheralded service in ministry during a time of tumult, a time of trouble.  Yet Sunday dinner was served every week.  He knew the unwelcome unfairness of the difficulty on his watch, the intractable conflicts therein, the lack of resolution thereof, and, to top it off, early death at an early age.  Yet Sunday dinner’s hospitality, the Hamills’ form of faithfulness, never lagged and never flagged.  Around that table, come Sunday, with china and linens and silver and meal, one feels, there was, amid all the pain of the ‘troubles’, a refraction of glory, a reflection of the divine generosity.

Somehow, knowing Robert Hamill’s labor in the vineyard, somehow I think I, and I expect we, can find the energy and courage generously to live, so generously to live, as well.

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

Being and Belonging

September 14th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Romans 14:1-9, 13

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Please Pray with me: God, you are the great homesickness we can never shake off, the one who urges us to be and tells us that we belong, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight-amen.

Thank you to Dean Hill and the Marsh Chapel staff and community for inviting me to preach this lovely September Sunday. As the chaplain for International students here at Boston University, my heart is overjoyed by the fall chill in the air and the mass of Students walking up and down Commonwealth Avenue in the autumn sunlight-I find it a particular privilege to share my sermonic thoughts with you for the beginning of the school year.

As a Chaplain for International students I am privileged to work with students from all over the world who speak a variety of different languages. This is a particular treat for me-as I love to collect interesting, funny, and intriguing words from other languages. I made friends with a German graduate student last year who taught me three of my new favorite German words that I think are perfectly hilarious and worth sharing with you now: The word in German for ambulance is Krankenwagen-which I think might possibly be the most fun word to shout out loud, and is quite appropriate in a description of the ambulance-as a cranking wagon. Another great German word is Kummerspeck, which in English would translate to stress eating-that instance when you might be sad, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed and then eat too much to compensate-but in German this word literally translates to ‘Grief Bacon’, which provides even deeper meaning to my own life. But the German word that I think is particularly helpful in understanding our letter from the apostle Paul today is fremdscham-we don’t really have an English equivalent of this expression, but it is the notion of being embarrassed for somebody else, and then consequently silently judging them. Perhaps, you hear someone talking loudly on their cell phone on the train about personal matters, or you see someone slopping food down their front unknowingly at a restaurant-you might feel fremdscham towards them. In your mind forms a quiet critique, a passing of concise judgment and a twinge of embarrassment at the things your neighbors are doing.

In our passage today in Romans, we see the apostle Paul addressing a community in conflict. The church in Rome is newly budding and as all new communities form-so do regulations and standards-those regulations and standards are also typically followed by conflict. In the Roman church’s case-Paul has heard hearsay of gossip and judgment towards one another about what they are eating and what days they find it most appropriate to worship. More specifically-some people are eating meat, while others are refusing to eat meat on religious ground, and some choose to keep Saturday as Sabbath while others keep no Sabbath at all. Due to Paul’s more gentle language used in this section of the letter, historical scholars conclude that no harsh physical confrontation has broken out over these disagreements-but there has been a good deal of whispering on these topics:  sly judgment from one group to the other, that critical sense of embarrassment about one’s neighbor-each group in Rome was feeling very fremdschaum towards one another-embarrassed by the other’s unorthodox eating practices and judgmental towards their choices in worship.

Now, I would love to say that this is an ancient ridiculous argument that we have far surpassed today-why bother or fight about what your neighbor Christian is eating? –but unfortunately, similar debates continue today, 2,000 years later. There are still little church scoffs and scuffles about whether to drink grape juice or wine at communion, to eat wafers or pita bread, and in our society there is a robust debate about health style superiority: being vegetarian or eating meat, vegan, paleo etc etc.  Paul identifies that the issue at hand is not solely about food and drink, worship and Sabbath, but it is about judging each other, deeming one’s own group as ‘true’ and the other group as an ‘imposter’.  Each group fears that they are in the wrong, that they are the community at fault, and thus jumps to persuade Paul and other church leaders of their self-righteousness, and correctness. Afraid of being discovered as the ‘imposter group’ in this early development of the church, gossip slowly becomes a battle of wits and slander to create regulations and rules for the community.

This fear of being an imposter, and thus judging others or feeling judged, is rampant in our society, and especially (I would say) on our college campuses at the start of the new school year. Young adults are particularly prone to what is commonly called “imposter syndrome”. I know that I have felt this way numerous times in the past few years, as my life has transitioned. When I was first accepted to Princeton Theological Seminary, I found myself on the first day of orientation standing among the gothic buildings and the ivy and thinking to myself “Everyone is going to find out I am not smart enough to be here.” I fervently scribbled notes about fire drills, codes of conduct, and scholarships during our orientation sessions just to look like I was keeping up and fitting in, in my fear others would discover my true identity-as a Midwestern girl from a tiny school in Iowa who read more fiction and poetry than theology in her undergraduate. And then, in our first chapel service of the year, the campus chaplain, Rev. Jan Ammon, sat down the entire freshmen class and told us all to get over our ‘imposter syndrome’. I had never heard this term before, but she went on to explain. Imposter syndrome is when you live in a constant state of fear that the people around you will find out that you aren’t as great as they think that you are. That you aren’t really smart enough to be at Princeton-or perhaps in your case, BU. That you are the Admissions Office’s big mistake. That you don’t really make enough money to live the lifestyle that your colleagues think you do. That you aren’t as nice as everyone thinks you are, or as thoughtful. That someone might find out that you aren’t as talented an athlete as your reputation leads them to believe. That you aren’t as faithful or disciplined in your spiritual life as you lead others to believe. Or that you don’t work as hard or as fast as others in your office. Most of us deal with this fear each and every day of our lives. We are so afraid of being ‘found out’ for all of our faults and failures, that we occasionally begin to judge others. Like the churches in Rome, we feel tempted to call out the faults of others to mask our own faults, worries, imperfections -to hide the imposter syndrome that we feel in ourselves.  Occasionally, our anxiety of letting our faults be known creates distance between ourselves and our communities, as we feel we are being judged and respond by judging others. This is a vicious cycle that upholds perfectionism and rejects humility, imperfection, and disregards the notion that fault actually creates growth.

I once heard a story about a Catholic Priest named Father Joseph. A new member of Father Joseph’s monastic order once committed a fault. A council was called to determine the punishment, but when the monks assembled it was noticed that Father Joseph was not among them. The superior sent someone to say to him, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you.” So Father Joseph got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him. When the others saw this they asked, “What is this, father?” Father Joseph said to them, “My faults and imperfections run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the error of another?” When we judge each other in order to cover up for our own imperfections, we are at jeopardy of truly becoming an imposter-instead we are called to acknowledge the worth of all people, accepting others for exactly who they are and encouraging our most authentic selves to be expressed. When we accept and encourage others to be-just who they are-we develop a truly beautiful sense of hospitality and build compassionate communities.

In my first few weeks of Chaplaincy for International students here at B.U. I started an International Student Fellowship Dinner. This was a group for International students to come to feel more connected with each other, to process through all of the adjustments of living to a foreign city, and to create deep and lasting friendships across cultures. Every week, we gather in the lower level of Marsh Chapel and we cook cultural foods together-things that the students miss from home. We’ve had Italian students teach us how to make lasagna, and Taiwanese students teach us how to make miso soup, Indian students teach us how to make a spicy apple curry-and as we eat our comfort foods we talk about what its like to be living in Boston, what our lives are like, the things from home we long for, and the things in Boston we wish we could share with friends and family back home. Attending this group in the middle of the fall semester last year was a young graduate student who was from Nepal and living in the United States for the first time in her life. After her second week in a row of attending International Student Fellowship, she asked if she could speak at the end of our discussion, she said, “I just wanted to thank this group. I was so afraid of saying something wrong or messing up my words, but you made it ok. In the last two hours I have spoken more than I have in my last two weeks of being in Boston.”  That imposter syndrome that our this student had of being ‘found out’ debilitated her from speaking for nearly two weeks- for students in the start of the school year the pressure to be perfect is immense, and it seems that imposter syndrome goes hand in hand with fear of being judged. Luckily, our Nepalese friend was able to shake off that imposter syndrome and find her own voice. She then went on to be the president of her International student Organization in her graduate program and spends her days creating safe spaces for others to talk, try out their voice, discover who they are and feel that they truly belong.

The good news we find in this letter from Paul to Rome is that there is no such thing as an imposter when it comes to God. In Romans 14:3, Paul writes don’t judge each other, who are you to pass judgment? What you should know is that God has already welcomed everyone and God has welcomed us for being exactly who we are. Every single one of us-from the early church in Rome to the people sitting in these pews today-Jew and Greek, meat eaters and vegetarians, people who worship on Saturdays, people who worship on Sundays,–you are welcomed: whether you are southern, northern, western, new Englander, Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Taiwanese, Nepalese, African, Columbian, Mexican, European-you are welcome here, you are not an imposter, you are fully known and accepted for being just who you are. Paul writes that you should simply BE YOU. In everything you are, be authentic, hold true to your values and the goodness and compassion seated within your heart-hold on to that. He writes that we all live and we all die, but as long as we live and die with holiness, with God with truth, with goodness, and with beauty in our hearts then we have the Genuine welling up with in us urging us to be. Just be. My favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote a poem about God calling us to be-Rilke wrote, “Live you said out loud, and die you said softly, and over and over and over again you said be.” Just be you, let go of your imposter syndrome and your fear, let go of the temptation to judge yourself against others, let go of your embarrassment-for you have been called over and over again to be.

And in your being-discover that you belong. Paul writes three times in this passage that all are welcome. I want to add to my collection of intriguing words the Greek word that Paul uses for ‘welcome’ here-which comes from the root word Lambano-we only see this word used 11 times in the New Testament and it is so multi-dimensional that the interpretations tend to vary-but they always have the essence of hospitality. Lambano, literally translates to receive or to take in. In the ancient world, there was a formalized system of hospitality for taking people into your home, offering them food, water, but also protection-and thus to welcome somebody was to take them in as one of you, as one of you own clan, as one of your own family. This is the Greek word Paul chooses to describe God’s nature. Amidst the judging, and the fremdscham feelings among these two groups people in Rome, Paul silences the scrapple about food and Sabbath and instead he beautifully makes statements about the character of God. Paul says that whoever you are, be you, be your truest self, and God will lambano-will welcome you-God will take you into gods own family, gods own self and offer you comfort, hospitality, protection-you belong with God and God belongs with you. This is an ultimate gift of belonging and welcome. If there is ever a moment when you feel that you are a stray, a wanderer, an unconnected human being-take comfort! Take rest! God has already welcomed you and made you a part of the holy household of spirit and presence and compassion. You have been taken in, you are not an imposter, you are not alone. God calls you over and over again simply to be and to know that you belong.

Paul challenges the Church in Rome one step further-saying it is now our responsibility to offer that same welcome to others, whether we disagree, eat different foods, speak different languages, etc.-we all belong in the eyes of God, and thus our hospitality should reach out to each person we meet. WE are now destined to share this lambano of god in our churches, in our lives, in our university, in our actions every single day. As God has created a home for us, we too must create a home for others. As the spirit of God lives within and among us-so we belong to one another.  Let us welcome with open arms those who differ from us in culture and lifestyles, let us extend our own hospitality, comfort, and protection in love. Ask a fellow student who is far from home to have coffee with you, invite your neighbor to go to a hockey game, take a long walk on the esplanade with someone you just met, reach out your hand and ask the person next to you what their name is and where they are from, show signs of welcome everywhere you go.  I challenge you, all of you, but especially our Boston University students- As the school year starts, find courage to be You, exactly as you are, and know that you are taken in, you have been received and warmly welcomed by God. Know that you are welcome in Marsh Chapel, feel that you have been welcomed into this house of god by god and let your heart fill up with a sense of belonging.  Know that you are welcome here in Boston University, this is a place for you to thrive, grow, belong, and in turn reach out with open arms of hospitality towards others. Discover who it is that you are, be a part of this compassionate community and then extend your own sense of welcome to everyone you meet. This school year, and every year henceforth may you find the courage to be you and know that you belong.

Amen

-Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain

The Marsh Spirit

September 7th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 18: 15-20

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Welcome

 Ecclesia.  Symphonison.  Pragmata.  Church.  Agreement.  Issues…

Welcome to the ministry of Marsh Chapel!   Here you will find a heart in the heart of the global city, and a worship service in the service of the global city.   Here you will find passionate interest in matters related to gospel voice, personal vocation, and congregational volume.  I look forward to knowing your name!

Please take advantage of the opportunities here for ministry, for music, for hospitality and for international engagement.  Find your way to your own true interests in our midst.  Get to know Br. Larry, Dr. Jarrett, Mr. Bouchard, and Rev. Longsdorf.  I look forward to their knowing your name!

For Marsh Chapel to be a if not the leading liberal pulpit in the country, an if not the exemplary collegium for vocational discernment in our time, and a if not the largest University congregation in the country, we need you.  We need your Sunday presence, your tithing generosity, your acceptance of service roles, your prayer before worship and night and day, and mainly your own best self.

Our preaching this year, September 2014 to May 2015, will cycle around and through an engagement with Spirit.  We will of course follow the common lectionary, and offer ordered 11am Sunday worship in the Marsh tradition.  The sermons will test the spirits (1 Thess. 5) to see if any be of God (1 John 4).  The sermons will speak with those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’.

In particular, the first Sunday sermons, normally delivered from the chancel, will explore ‘The Marsh Spirit”.  What is the particular, soulful spirit of our community here, over 60 years?  What makes Marsh Chapel, Marsh Chapel?  Then, also, once each month a theme sermon, will explore what the Spirit is saying to the Church on issues of moment (the moral equivalents of war, religion on campus, safety and student life, drones, law and love in the United Methodist Church, and other).  Advent and Lent will give us seasons of Spirit cycles.  In Lent, we will debate Jonathan Edwards, but on the matter of Spirit.

So find your way to the Paraclete.  Open your door to the Spirit of Truth.  Study a little about the Holy Spirit.  Channel your inner Third Person persona.  And get ready.  The word this year: Spirit.

We began in a more general way a bit last week.

The Spirit offers grace in invitation, compassion, vocation, and aspiration.

We are a people alive in welcome to others, because we have been welcomed.  Frost:  You come too…

We are a community attuned to hurt, for we have known that pain.  Frost:  Treason, to go with the drift of things….

We are a congregation that has developed a culture in which a sense of calling is celebrated.  Frost:  Yield who will…

We are a gathering of women and men who look out, and look down, but who regularly look up, to aspire to height and heaven and wholeness.  Frost:  It asks of us a certain height…

Inquiry

Our spirit at Marsh Chapel is one of inquiry.  We are learning together:  from each others’ voices, through each others’ thoughts, out of each others’ conflicts, with each others’ histories and mysteries.

The Marsh Spirit includes the experimental creativity honored by Daniel Marsh, by Howard Thurman,  by Huston Smith, by Floyd Flake, by Robert Neville, and by our learning together in these years.

The Marsh Spirit, which we explicitly explore, this year, on our Eucharist Sundays, is an unabashedly liberal one.   Compassionate, not permissive.   Curious, not fearful.   Coherent, not chaotic.   Traditional and Scriptural, but not unreasonable or impersonal.   ‘Test the spirits, to see whether any be of God.’  Scriptures of every religious tradition direly need to be fettered by our experience and our reason, alongside our traditions of understanding.

Liberal in the Christian, Protestant, Methodist, Bostonian, Personalist manner.

Theologically liberal, that is, not necessarily politically so, all the way.  For instance, often you have heard our voice inquiring about the health of gambling.  Citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts might want to inquire about virtue and vice in publicly embraced gaming.  Have you lived near Atlantic City or in Oneida NY?   You might want to inquire of those who have, what the consequences have been.  We have lived near a major casino:  blighted neighborhoods, children left for hours in back seats, people with cash to use for slots but not for heath care, a few solid jobs and many, many poor people made poorer and poor children made poorer.

Our College of Arts and Sciences has a hospitality table in the main hall for the first week of classes.   Here is a place where information of moment and meaning may be given over to those in need.  Call it a sermon table.

Three students were discussing the heat and humidity, the first week and first weekend, causes curricular and extra curricular.  Said one, pointing down the hall:  I had a class in that room.  It was terrible.   A passerby asked:  Which was terrible—the room or the class?   Well, in this case, it was the room.

But there along Commonwealth Avenue, inside a great Cram and Ferguson building, there arose a momentary insight into the troubles of interpretation.  Which—room or class?  In order to know, to hear properly, you have to dig a little deeper, ask a question or two, probe and inquire.

Our spirit at Marsh Chapel is one of inquiry.  We are learning together:  from each others’ voices, through each others’ thoughts, out of each others’ conflicts, with each others’ histories and mysteries.

We inquire after truth.  That which has been believed always and everywhere by everyone, as John Wesley put it.  Nothing human is foreign to us—nihil humanum, as Terence put it.

How shall we do so?

 One:  Talk

In verse 15, Matthew begins to give advice about how to life in community.   Community involves difference, but also can involve hurt.  Communication makes community.  Matthew’s Jesus teaches us to speak to each other in our presence and not of each other in our absence—to each other in our presence not of each other in our absence.

This week I received a triangulating e-mail.  It came from the leader of organization I dislike, seeking support for a person I do like.  I loathe one and love the other.  The triangulation in the communication forces me either to support an organization I do not like or to disappoint a person I do like.  What do you do in such a situation?  The kinder approach from the organization would have been a visit, or a phone call, in which sensibilities could be explored.  But now we have the e-document:  eternal, irretrievable, international, indelible.  And the tangled triangle.  It will take 3 hours or more to unbind and loosen this knot.  You know, there was time when people had to come and see you before they so complicated your life.

I think on inquiry, that Matthew 18: 15 teaches me how to respond.  I shall not send a steaming reply, tempting as that would be.  I shall not reply from a distance at all.  I must go and see my interlocutor.  I must make a visit to the author of the e-mail and find a way through the horns of the dilemma, the Scylla of support for an organization I dislike and the Caribdis of hurt to a person I do like.

In verse 17, Matthew provides a further suggestion, to use if the earlier ones fail.  Tell the whole church, his Jesus says.  We are clearly hearing overtones of what was needed in Matthew’s community, toward the end of the first century.  Jesus may well have taught in such fashion, though the use of a Greek word like ‘ecclesia’—twice here—probably indicates this is later material placed on Jesus’ lips.  But the import remains—gather the community for deliberation.  Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

Two:  Remember

In verse 16, Matthew quotes from Deuteronomy 19.  That is, he goes back to the basics, back to the starting point, the Old Testament, back to kindergarten, if you will, as many of gone this week.

New York City has more than doubled, from 20K to 55K, the number of 4 year old children in free universal pre-kindergarten.  Who says things cannot change for the better, and quickly?  In Albany our four year old granddaughter entered a similar program and her Dad wrote:

“According to Anne, Sally’s drop off went very smoothly.  True to form, Sally walked into the school confidently and eagerly and, unlike many of the other kids, refused to hold her mother’s hand.  She knew right where her classroom was and where to go, found her cubby right away, put her things in it, greeted and hugged her new teacher, and then found a book, sat down on the carpet in the spot marked for her, and started to read quietly while the other kids filtered in.  I’m so proud of her!!!”

Robert Fulghum had it right a generation ago:  Everything I have ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten:

1. Share everything.

2. Play fair.

3. Don’t hit people.

4. Put things back where you found them.

5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.

6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.

8. Wash your hands before you eat.

9. Flush.

10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.

12. Take a nap every afternoon.

13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

15. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.

16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”

 Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

Three: Walk

In verse 18, Matthew strongly affirms the lasting power of such church considerations, even saying, similar to our reading two weeks ago, in the phrase, ‘the keys to the kingdom of heaven’,  that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, what is forgiven on earth is forgiven in heaven. Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 19, two or three, when truly together, suffice to form a judgement.   Our English words ‘symphony’ and ‘pragmatic’ are rooted in the Greek here for agreement and matter. Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 20, to conclude, the gospel further celebrates the precious joy of common life in the present, in the here and now, and it only takes a few, ‘wherever two or three ARE gathered in my name, there I AM as well.’ Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

This is the announcement of presence, in word and table, in audition and celebration, in pulpit and altar.

In the spirit I call you to the Marsh Spirit of inquiry.  In conversation, memory, and exercise.  If you have not had a real conversation once a day, you have missed something.  If you have not memorized something once a week, you have missed a chance to be mindful.  If you have walked along the sea shore, near Boston, once a month, you have missed the cleansing of the spirit.  If you have walked down to the harbor and back to BU once a year, you have missed something.

I can not speak to you if I have not spoken for you and I cannot speak for you if I have not spoken with you.  To needs for and for needs with.

So the Apostle had made us an urgent appeal, an appeal to love one another.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Wind is a gift of the sea.  Salt sea breeze is a gift of the great oceans deep.  Spirit, a spirit of inquiry, is a gift of God, our gift to share.

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

With All Your Mind

August 31st, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 22: 34-40

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‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and soul, and mind’ (Matthew 22: 37)

Preface

In 1762, John and Charles Wesley opened a school in Kingswood, England.  Charles wrote:  ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety’.  He had love in mind.

In college you develop habits of mind.  Will love in mind be one?  Will you find a way to love God with all your mind?

Unlike some philosophy and some religion today, the gospel does not separate head from heart, does not separate mind from faith, does not separate the spiritual and the cerebral.  In fact, here, to love with heart and soul means, emphatically to love with the your mind.  Do you? 

 Matthew 

Our gospel lesson today, Matthew’s curt summary of the Markan teaching, gives us a way forward, a way to live out such a common hope.

Matthew has shortened the passage from Mark.  He has taken out the positive reference to the Jewish interlocutor.  He has winnowed the narrative structure of the text.  He has emphasized mind.  Especially he has removed the kind response Jesus makes in Mark to his questioner:  ‘you are not far from the kingdom of God’.  What he has added is an introduction that describes a conniving collusion of the Pharisees and Sadducees to ‘test’ Jesus.  In Mark Jesus is invited to help, and he does.  In Matthew he is put to the test.  Love of God.  Love of Neighbor.  On these two depend all the others.  That is, even in the darker condition of the church, perhaps in the fear of the terror of Domitian, reflected in Matthew, the gospel stands.  Love means love in mind.

And ‘mind’?  Almost every NT use of the word mind is in Paul.  There, in Paul, and here, in Matthew, the word refers to the breadth of human intellect, ingenuity, and creativity.  But in Matthew there is a prefix, and the word gives a breathing, process, dimension to the root of the noun, which you will recognize, nous.  Here:  Not so much thought, as thinking.  Not so much mind, as minding.  Understanding as gerund:  “if I am understanding you…” A disposition.  A manner of thinking, like ‘after a manner of speaking’. (BGD, loc cit).

Let us love the lord with all our mind.  But how?

T.U.L.I.P.

We send you home with a tulip, as a way to think about love andmind. We will follow from our Presbyterian siblings.  It seems to me impossible to speak of Calvinism without mentioning the famous/infamous acrostic for the 5 points of Calvinism—TULIP  Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints). We shall use our Presbyterian siblings’ acrostic, in a different manner, to engage Matthew 22: 37—T, true; U-universal; L-lasting; I-inspired; P-personal.

A real celebration of the Gospel will depend upon a common hope. T. Something true. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting.  L. Something lasting  of love in mind. A developed expression of contrition.  I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination.  P. Something personal. An openness to power and presence.

Something true.

To be good news, the gospel must be true—true to God, to world, to self, to others.

We know this with regard to the full humanity of gay people.  Bigotry against sexual minorities is not the gospel.

We know this in our treatment of others, especially in our personal and professional relationships.  If you play fast and loose with someone’s identity—in a professional relationship, say—you risk doing permanent harm.  You will not the full effect of this until it has happened to you.

Pray for a spirit of truth this year, beginning today, Matriculation Sunday, with this prayer:

Thou who loves us into love and frees us into freedom

We bring forward our thanks today for the freedom to study at Boston University

For the study of medicine, dentistry, physical therapy

Whose fruit is public health

For the study of law

Whose fruit is justice

For the study of management, business and economics

Whose fruit is community

For the study of art—music, dance, drama, all

Whose fruit is beauty

For the study of communication

Whose fruit is truth

For the study of engineering

Whose fruit is expanding safety

For the liberal, metropolitan and general study of art and science

Whose fruit is freedom

For the study of hospitality

Whose fruit is conviviality

For the study of education

Whose fruit is memory and hope

For the study of military and physical education

Whose fruit is security and strength

For the study of social work

Whose fruit is systemic compassion

For the study of theology and the practice of religion

Whose fruit is meaning, belonging and empowerment

In this year may the 40,000 member family of Boston University—students, faculty, administrators, staff, alumni, neighbors all—become, by grace:

healthier, more just, more connected, fairer, truer, sturdier, freer, gentler, deeper, safer, more compassionate, and more aware

O Thou who loves us into love and frees us into freedom.

Amen

 

Something true.

Something universal.

Jesus is our Lord and Savior, but Jesus is not all the God there is.  We are not Unitarians of the second person of the Trinity.  Nor are we alone as the sole religious tradition on the planet.  We shall need to share the spiritual nurture of earth’s 7 billion inhabitants with others.  With Muslims, like Anwar Sadat; and Hindus like Mahatma Ghandi; and Jews like Elie Wiesel; and Buddhists like our BU student killed in last year’s Marathon, Lu Lingzi.  True peace is found in Jesus but not exclusively in Jesus. Lu Lingzi’s memorial service last year in Boston made this fully clear to those of us present.

Our friend and colleague Dean Kenn Elmore said during a recent conversation, and in a truly Howard Thurman-like way, ‘sometimes we lose our capacity to reach for, to grasp, to hold onto the universals’.  To love the Lord with all our mind.

Something universal.

Something lasting.

As we minister with the students this year, we will need today’s gospel.

You will need love in mind. Learning that begets virtue and virtue that begets piety.  Knowledge that begets action and action that begets being.  Love in mind—your thoughts, your understandings, your perspectives.

At Erwin Church in Syracuse NY several years ago we had some memorable failures in ministry.  But sometimes the things that seem less than successful turn out better than you think.  Like the dinner we gave in 1985, hoping for 20 or 30 students and none came, save one young woman, Pam Brush.  But she was all it took, she and God’s grace, to grow, over time, a vibrant neighborhood young adult ministry.

And now at Marsh Chapel.  I wonder if Pam,  or someone like her, is here this year?  Here at Marsh Chapel.  A place with 2000 years and more of traditions, embedded in stained glass, a 1000 year old gothic architecture ‘built to last’, a 175 year denominational legacy, a 60 year old building and congregation, and a handshake, a hand to hold onto that is lastingly steady.  You may need that hand and handshake someday this year.

Something lasting.

Something inspired.

A bit of wonder, a bit of wonder.

Ralph Sockman:  ‘the larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it.’

GK Chesterton:  ‘the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder’

Dag Hammarskjold:  “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason”.

Something like the 139th Psalm (recited)…

We are focused this year on spirit.

Something imaginative.

Something personal.

Robert Frost taught us about personal things, about invitation and compassion and vocation and aspiration.   Our ushers, lead by Mark Gray, and our hospitality ministry, lead by Ray Bouchard, need your help with invitation.  Our student ministries, lead by Br Larry Whitney, need your help with compassion.  Our vocational discernment program, lead by Revs Hessler and Quigley, need your help with vocation.  Our global international ministry, lead by Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, and our musical ministry, lead by Dr. Jarrett, need your help with aspiration.  There is on this little island of Marsh Chapel in the great sea of Boston University, an island of peace and safety, of challenge and inquiry, of thought and meditation, of decency and health, there is on this little of island of Marsh Chapel, a place for you, over these four years.

Coda

This world is not going to get better only with the comforting aid of sentiment, feeling, emotion, and things of the heart.  It will take a hard headed realism, and a hard minded love to transform this world.  That is where you come in.  When you write your history of John Wesley, summarize please his teaching in TULIP formula.  The future, God’s future, needs your mind:  T. Something true. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting.  L. Something of lasting.  I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination.  P. Something personal.

In the spirit I call you to love the Lord with all your mind.  In conversation, memory, and exercise.  If you have not had a real conversation once a day, you have missed something.  If you have not memorized something once a week, you have missed a chance to be mindful.  If you have walked along the sea shore, near Boston, once a month, you have missed the cleansing of the spirit.  If you have walked down to the harbor and back to BU once a year, you have missed something.

I can not speak to you if I have not spoken for you and I cannot speak for you if I have not spoken with you.  To needs for and for needs with.

From this day forward, will you love the Lord your God with all your mind?

John and Charles Wesley did so in 1762.  John Dempster did so by founding Boston University in 1839, just a few years later: 

Boston University, proud with mission sure

Keeping the light of knowledge high, long to endure

Treasuring the best of all that’s old

Searching out the new

Our Alma Mater evermore

Hail! BU!

 

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

Learning Together

August 24th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 16: 13-20

Romans 12: 1-8

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Frontispiece

                        It is good to be home.

We have missed you, your smiling faces, your singing voices, your radio responses, your stories, daily appended, of our shared journey in faith.  We have missed being with you in worship.

Although we did join you last Sunday.   The Sunday free, after a joyful itinerancy north and south through the summer, we became radio\internet listeners to your service.  Under a blue sky, before a blue lake, on the deck of a federal blue cottage, cooled by a light breeze, a spirit wind, we worshipped with Marsh Chapel.  The sprightly hymns.  The crisp readings.  The magnificent choral and organ music.  The word of God rightly spoken in the sermon.  Moments of prayer and communal celebration.  You gave us all these.  Jan and I thank you.  As the final hymn was lifted I thought, ‘I could go to that church’.  I said so to Jan.  She said, ‘you do’.  She is always so right.  ‘You will be there next Sunday’.  Right again.  Such a beautiful and highly recommended marital utterance:  ‘You are so right’.  I commend it to you.  It will bless you.

With you, in the blue, blue sky blue house blue lake, we prayed to the Blue God, and were fed, and nourished and satisfied.   Your witness here, virtual and actual, lasts, matters, counts and is real.  You help us and others learn, as we learn together.

Learning in Voice

                        We have been learning this summer in voice, through voice.  Our 8th annual national summer guest preacher series has brought you emerging adult voices on the theme, ‘the gospel and emerging adulthood.’  Rev. Dr. Walton served as my teaching fellow for the course on the Gospel of John—for seven years.  And lived!  She has heard me say everything I know about the fourth gospel, seven times.   She has heard me say more than that!  Like the woman who went Niagara Falls in a barrel—and lived!  Her ‘batting cleanup’ voice lingers in our memory as do these all.  A diminutive priest,  more David than Goliath, more Zaccheus than Caiaphas,  she was told by a radio listener, ‘in the Marsh Pulpit who sound like you are 5’7”! Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, our sister and friend and colleague in ministry, occupies a position unique in the whole country, a university chaplaincy devoted to international students as a whole—not a role carved out of the petty narcissism of small religious differences, but a common ground spiritual ministry with Buddhist and Bahai, Muslim and Hindu, Confucian and Secular, all.  Your dean celebrated and spoke next, preceded a week by our dear partner in University Church ministry, from Harvard, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Walton, whose partnership in gospel becomes ever more meaningful to us here, across the river.  Dr. Echol Nix come up all the way from Furman College in South Carolina, to honor his alma mater, and gather with friends here in Boston, and bring us the voice of a philosophical theologian in the pulpit.  Br. Larry Whitney, who guides our ministry with students here at Marsh, and never complains to preach on July 4 weekend, brought his own voice in sermon and celebration.  My son in law from Rochester,(a newly minted Princeton PhD, a student of the Rev. Dr. Kenda Dean, whose theological conversation partner for the dissertation was Howard Thurman), Rev. Dr. Stephen Cady, brought his voice and the singing voices of his wife and 3 children, or, the voices of our daughter and grandchildren, depending on your perspective.   Our own Rev. Dr. Robin Olson, probably the most expert and knowledgeable minister in New England regarding emerging adulthood, brought her voice way back in June, ‘our lead off hitter’, as she said.  That is, we are learning with and through the voices of others.  Proud of their varieties of perspective, of their varieties in gender, race, background, denomination and ethnicity.   Their ministries, and their personal gifts over many miles and years, to me, are exceedingly sweet and precious, precious jewels, voices of the present and future beloved community.   And all, with one notable decanal exception, themselves in or very near emerging adulthood!  Voice that themselves are echoes of a gospel not yet fully spoken. Comparisons are odious, and all 8 series have brought height and breadth and depth.  This summer’s though brought just a little more height, all the way to 5’7”, and beyond.  Spend an evening reading or listening again to the nine sermons, and we shall continue learning together, in voice!  And mark the learning:  there is new generation of excellent preachers, emerging in and around Marsh Chapel.  Amazing Grace how sweet the sound!

Learning in Thought

                        And what did we learn?  My dad, before he died 4 years ago, a proud alumnus of BU 1953 by the way, for whom our coming to Marsh Chapel meant more initially than it meant to anyone else on planet earth I think, partly because he knew the history more fully and felt the potential more keenly, (and I am so eternally happy that he could be here himself, for worship with us, for some years), used to ask me, and others, following high or in some cases low moments:  ‘and what did you learn?’

We are learning in thought, we are learning to learn and think, together.  Not one generation instructing another only, or another reconstructing another only.  Not GI\Silent\Gen X\Millenial\Gen Y in verbal or other competition, though creative tension is often creative, but together is this confluent space of Marsh Chapel and environs and extended community, a hoped for community, an aspirational desire to live, learning together.  So what did you learn this summer?

I ask graduate students to learn to summarize a book in a page.   What is good for the goose is good for the gander.  So, we will here summarize a summer in nine sentences, one per sermon, June to August., and then in a word each. 1.  A capacity for wonder bursts from the faithful witness of emerging adults.  2. Emerging adults want love of neighbor, learned and taught in substantive even traditional worship. 3. Development for emerging adults is misunderstood if it is linear only, and benefits from a non-linear perspective.  4.  The gospel, particularly for the college years, is about the transformation of the mind.  5. Emerging adults benefit to remember Bonhoeffer and the cost of discipleship (both these themes quite fit for our readings this morning.  6. Wise leadership is humble leadership, all other appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.  7.  Higher education is wonderful but alone cannot finally teach emerging adults how to live, cannot feed all alone, especially in the most difficult experiences.  8. Be quiet.  Silence!  Silence is golden, and emerging adults know it, and teach it by example.  9.  Emerging adults were recently children, and children are full participants, fully fellow itinerants, on the journey of faith—especially when it comes to worship.

For those of you who tuned out one or all summer Sundays, I offer, free of charge, like the grace of the gospel itself, this humble nine word summary of the emerging adulthood gospel :  wondrous, hospitable, non-linear, transformative, costly, humble, nourishing, quiet, childlike.  Listen or read through the sermons again.  They have fed us this summer 2014

Learning in Conflict

                        We have needed the nourishment.  Our thirst, our hunger, have needed the slaking, the feeding of the gospel this summer—grace, freedom, love, forgiveness, pardon, peace, acceptance.   These are your middle names. John Grace Smith.  Mary Freedom Jones.  You are children of light.  And if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another.   That is who you are.  You are a child of God.  Pray in the morning remembering that.  Read Scripture at noon remembering that.  Visit a lonely neighbor in the afternoon remembering that.  Send a check in the evening remembering that.  And come to church—here or elsewhere—come Sunday, remembering that.  You are a child of God.

We need that steady reminder.  For our summer has been one in which the background of violence all about us has spilled into the foreground of existence nearer to us.  You list the summer 2014 background conditions…Gaza and Israel: Phyrric victories; Europe and Ukraine: collective effort;  Ferguson and Race, second summer: continued trauma;Iraq and Syria: islands of decency; Planet and Warming: Bill McGibben calling us to compunction; College women and campus safety:  our failure, our shame at 1/5 assaulted; Tornadoes and Fires:  natural disaster;  Debt personal and debt national:  $1T in student loans alone.

We lift only one, and briefly, this morning, Ferguson.

Rev. Earbie Bledsoe, on Ferguson: “No, I don’t think things have changed much. Not enough to write down,” he said.   (msnbc.com 8/19/14)

Not enough to write down.  

By your measure, what percentage of slavery is still with us?

The wiser and more sensitive see in Ferguson a moment of judgment and revelation, an eschatological incursion into the present time, of harm from the past and hope for the future.  As with Treyvon Martin last summer, we are brought up short, chastened, brought to compunction and to lament.  Our desire for justice, an even handed, common justice, common to all without privilege or prejudice, is not what we see in the mirror of events in Ferguson.

A sermon is often a mirror held up before a community, so that as a community we can see ourselves, as we are together.  In a sermon we are learning together, and learning to be together.   There we see ongoing distrust, ongoing fear and distance, ongoing hatred that boils up into violence.  We also learn together about the amount of military weaponry and equipment that has somehow found its way into otherwise small, sleepy communities.  As with the violence and loss in Gaza, we are learning the hard way, learning together.  Ferguson is a sermon.

Now, one thing a town of any size can use, can benefit from, is a strong, loving church. This will bring us in a moment to Matthew 16.  It is noteworthy that the clergy in Ferguson, of the black churches and of many churches, were a part of the leadership for compassion and civility last week.  Pastors who make home visits know people, their voices, their needs, their fears.  They have a built up and built in trust, or credibility, when they have been doing their pastoral work.  So when, in the course of events, some of that pastoral capital needs to be spent and invested in the free market of peace and justice, there is money in the bank.  You need to have some of that spiritual money in the bank, in order to lead a community out of stranglehold and suffocation.  You need some institutional traction.  In its clergy and churches Ferguson had some of that.

This too is something our bright, compassionate emerging adults are struggling with.

“It is no surprise, as Pew reported, that the millennial generation is skeptical of institutions — political and religious — and prefers to improvise solutions to the challenges of the moment. “  ( 8/17/14 NYT)

Yet…

“Empathy was a theme sounded repeatedly by some of the millennials photographed for this article, and interviewed in an online slide show that accompanies it.”

For empathy to be real, to be learned, to be experienced, and then to be a source of action, and hopefully of transformation to justice, for there to be traction in history toward good ends, you need institutions, particularly political and religious ones.  Empathy without institutions is dead.  King and others needed the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund.   Wesley and others needed the annual conference, and its systematic itinerant appointments.  Thurman and others needed Marsh Chapel, the Church of All Nations, and Rankin Chapel.  Frederick Douglass needed the North Star.  Abraham Lincoln needed the Republican Party.  Dorothy Day needed the Catholic Workers.  Kate Millett needed NOW, whether or not fish needed bicycles like women needed men.  Bob Hill has needed:  the Methodist Church, Camp Casowasco, Ohio Wesleyan, UnionMcGillColgateRochesterBostonUniversity, and yes, Marsh Chapel.  And Matthew needed the church, the ecclesia. Faith without works is dead and empathy without institutions is, too.  Slavery is still 30% with us, and to be rid of it we shall need INSTITUTIONAL reform—education, employment, health, public safety, and, yes, strong liberal southern and Midwestern churches.  Rev. Earbie Bledsoe has been pastor at his church, built with his own hands, for 43 years.  And the gates of hell have not prevailed against it.

Learning in Scripture

                        To conclude.  A healthy institution of any sort, particularly of any religious sort and certainly of any Christian sort, is a community that is learning together.  As Camus said, the healthy society is a circle in which all are seated and each reminds the other:  ‘You are not God.  I am not God.  You are not God.’

We are disciples.  The word means student.  Disciple means student.  Save Discipuli.  Save Magistra.   Discipleship means studentship.  The model of faithfulness recommended, particular in Matthew, and especially in Matthew 16, is the model of the student.  Perhaps if we simply said ‘studentship’ rather than ‘discipleship’  we would do better.

Living right means learning together—in voice, in thought, in conflict, in Scripture.  Learning together.

It is this driving kerygma that causes Matthew to eviscerate Mark here.   Matthew has taken a passage from Mark 8 and turned it upside down.   It is not so much the detail, by the way, of the manner in which Matthew and Luke revise Mark, which is important.  What matters is that they happily regospeled the gospel for their own day, to a fair thee well.

No?  No?  Oh Yes.  Yes indeed.  Yes.

Mark in the passage calls Peter ‘Satan’.  Matthew calls him Rock.  Mark has no mention of any church of any kind, staying still within the community of Judaism.  Matthew uses the word, ecclesia—not easily something Jesus would have said, and gives Peter keys to the kingdom.  Mark has Jesus tell the disciples—the students—to keep it all secret.  Matthew rejects that secrecy, except for the title, messiah, and says, ‘preach it’.  Why?  Why does Matthew gut Mark?  Answer:  he and his community are learning together.  From voices.  From thoughts.  From conflicts.  And Matthew sternly tells his people:  you need institutional grounding, support, protection, and sustenance.  And let me be clear about it:  the gates of shall not prevail against it.

Coda

                        Just more thing, as are learning together in voice, thought, conflict and scripture.

Like Peter Falk used to say, in his character as Colombo, the absent minded professor like detective:  ‘Just one more thing…’

Who do you say He is?  Notice the passage crashes away from the general and the philosophical—what do others say (general) about the son of man (philosophical).  Some say (general), the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the Prophets (philosophical).  Notice the move to the specific and the personal.  Who do you say I am?  Meaning for you today:  how are you going to live?  A life of studentship, or not?

Said Peter, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

And you?

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

The Grown-Ups of God vs. Mustard Seed Faith

August 17th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Genesis 26:12-18

Psalm 84

Luke 18:15-17

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I’m thrilled to be back among you this morning at Marsh Chapel, and I want to thank Dean Hill for the invitation to, in his words, “bat clean up” in this summer’s national preaching series. I’ve had a chance to listen to the fine sermons that have been preached in this series, and they are available on the Marsh Chapel website for you as well.

I must say, though, the last time I preached here, I was a lot less nervous in preparing my sermon, because I really had no idea just how many people listened to this broadcast. But then the following week people kept coming up to me or emailing and saying, “Hey, I heard you on the radio!” In fact I’ve learned that there are people out there right now listening who went to church this morning and heard one sermon already, and now they’re listening to another service on their way home.  If that describes you, I just want to say, “Wow.” That’s like what the Puritans did, two sermons on a Sunday. It’s wonderful to think of what an eclectic Communion of Saints this service brings together over the airwaves; God bless you all.

The theme for this series has been “The Gospel and Emerging Adults.” That’s a category used to refer to younger adults, 18 to 29 years of age, or sometimes more generously 18 to 35. Sometimes even beyond that, though I feel like by the time you hit 40, you’ve emerged, for better or worse.

So the preachers in this series have reflected on many important virtues and values: on wonder, wisdom, simplicity, silence, hospitality, and how these relate to ministry with emerging adults. This morning I want to go in a bit of a different direction, and talk about how the church understands young adults. This topic has some urgency, as so-called emerging adults are leaving the church in record numbers, a phenomena sometimes called “the rise of the nones,” N-O-N-E-S, those who do not identify with any particular faith. This is a fast-growing group and includes a third of all Americans under thirty.

But “emerging adults” emerge from somewhere; I actually want to go back even further and meditate on how the church understands emerging emerging adults: what we usually call “children.” I want to suggest that many of us who are followers of Christ, despite our best intentions and our desire to welcome children, youth, and young adults into faith and into our churches, have a flawed paradigm of spiritual development. And this flawed understanding is helping to bring about the opposite of what we desire, namely, young adults abandoning the church in record numbers. (pause.)

A few weeks ago my family was vacationing in Maine, and I decided to do something that many of my parishioners do all the time, but that I, as an Episcopal priest serving a church, don’t get to do very often: go to church and sit in the pew with my children. My husband and son decided to sleep in, but I found a church nearby and went with my three-year-old daughter, Cecily. We brought a small backpack full of My Little Ponies to aid Cecily’s worship experience. She was very excited to go.

But the people who were already in the pew when we arrived seemed . . . less excited to see her. No one said anything, but when we sat down, their mouths were set in the stiff lines of those who must endure. We were in the back, so there was room to unpack the ponies. The usher brought us another box of books and crayons. Cecily had a great time at church. She liked the hymns, she loved the stained glass windows. We stood in the back in the aisle for Communion so she could see the priest consecrating the elements. She noticed the paschal candle, and the font where babies are baptized. She was so eager to receive Communion, that she suggested we cut to the front of the line. When I said that we needed to wait our turn, she complimented some people near us on how patiently they were waiting. She talked about Jesus, in her best stage whisper (which, admittedly, is not great as whispers go). Cecily was worshipping in her way.

But we didn’t get much of a welcome. At the end, the other people in our pew left as quickly as possible. No one really spoke to us, and I felt how I imagine the parents of many young children feel at the end of a service, like we had “pulled something off” or “gotten through the service.” Like airplanes and fancy restaurants, worship at church is one place parents of young children can feel acute anxiety, as if we’ve brought our kids somewhere that they don’t really belong.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke tells us, “People were bringing even infants to Jesus that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it.” Parents wanted their children to experience Jesus’ blessing. They wanted to bring them close to the presence of God. But the disciples decided to act like bodyguards, and send them away. There are two reasons this passage is surprising to me: first, because, think of all the other kinds of people who were permitted open access to Jesus: reviled tax collectors and prostitutes, lepers, people possessed by demons. But really, no babies? What were the disciples afraid they would do? And the second surprising thing: these are the disciples, not the Pharisees. These are the people who have left everything to follow Jesus, to align themselves with his message. These are the people who love Jesus the most—and yet they totally misinterpret what response best expresses the kingdom he is preaching about.

Jesus tells the disciples to “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them or hinder them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” And then he adds, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

This story appears in three of the four gospels; it is a cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching. A passage in the gospel of Matthew contains an even more pointed warning: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (pause.)

Now, the Bible doesn’t contain any stories or references to the Grown-Ups of God. They don’t exist! We are all, always and forever, children of God. The disciples didn’t understand this. But understanding this is key to following the way of Jesus. The Greek word for “change” that Jesus uses in Matthew also means to turn or to convert, to make a dramatic change of direction. “Unless you convert and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I’ve observed that many of us today who follow Jesus don’t have proper perspective of the faith lives of children. Pretty much all churches I know of say they welcome children and families with young children—in fact, these families are highly sought-after, since a church full of children is taken as a sign of health for the future. But we must ask ourselves: are we valuing children for what they represent, especially in terms of institutional vitality, or are we valuing them because of who they are, and what we can learn from them? Are we welcoming children, but not honoring them and the unique contributions they make? Are we truly considering them as spiritual equals, and full members of the church, with real, meaningful and regular opportunities to worship, to learn, and to serve?

John Westerhoff wrote a wonderful book many years ago called Will Our Children Have Faith, that I highly recommend to you. He had a term for what I’m talking about. He said that in order to transmit and sustain faith, there must be “Shared experience, storytelling, celebration, action, and reflection between and among [what he called] equal faithing selves.” Equal faithing selves. (p. 89)

Children don’t want to know about God. They want to know God. That is a line from Jerome Berryman, the developer of a method of Christian education called Godly Play, which is based on Montessori educational practices. Children don’t need Grown-Ups of God acting as mediators to the divine. They need companions on their journey. They don’t need ministry for them, but ministry with them, that includes them fully. Children want to learn, children want to serve, at church and in the world, and children want to worship. However, adults often act towards young people in church as if children don’t want any of these things, and in fact are incapable of anything but a poor imitation of them. (pause.)

There was a little boy named Joel in a previous parish where I served, and when he was three, his mother began to let him help her usher at church. Or, rather, I think, Joel insisted that he be allowed to help usher. He loved greeting people and handing out bulletins. He never once dropped the offering plate. He saw a place where he could serve, and he did serve. His mother, Emily, taught him how. One Sunday, Emily told me that during the week he had been misbehaving in a store, and she said to him, “Joel, if you don’t calm down right now, I’m not going to let you usher with me on Sunday!” And that did the trick instantly.

Faith is taught, and faith is caught. Emily knew that. The Greek word that the early church used for teaching is “catechesis,” like catechism. Catechesis literally means echoing, echoing back. But for our children to be able to echo back, that means they have to be within earshot. That means they have to be alongside us, worshipping, learning, serving.

John Westerhoff, in Will Our Children Have Faith, writes about how in the last fifty or so years, the church did something it had never done before, in its whole history: it began separating children out of the main congregation, putting them out of earshot. The larger culture changed, with the generations becoming more separate from each other, and the church, for the most part, changed along with the culture. But it wasn’t always so. (pause.)

Of course, Jesus didn’t say just to include children, to honor them, to welcome them: he tells us to convert and become like them! To receive the kingdom of God as they would! To learn from them; to echo them in our lives of faith. What can this mean?

First of all, it means humility. In the ancient world, there was no romanticizing of children as paragons of purity or innocence. Children had no status; they were the lowest in the pecking order. Children are aware of their own vulnerability. They trust and rely on those who care for them. We are called to have this same kind of trust and dependence on God. We are called to be humble in heart. We can learn this from children.

Second, awe and wonder. Children revel in the newness of everything around them, in the natural world, in new experiences, in beauty, in friendship. My son said to me yesterday, “Look at this awesome drop of milk sliding down the side of my cup.” Children recognize the extraordinary in the ordinary. We can learn this, or re-learn this, from children, and our souls can grow in wonder and gratitude and appreciation for the lives we’ve been given, and the world in which we live.

More virtues: curiosity: knowing that we don’t know, and wanting to know more. The ability to give oneself over to joy, and to mystery, and to silliness and fun. All these things we can learn from the children in our midst—but they have to be in our midst.

And this brings us back, by the long road, to “emerging adults.” I am not a sociologist, though there are some fine sociological studies of why so many young adults are leaving church after college and not coming back. But here is my hunch, which is backed up by some of these studies: young adults are leaving the church, in part because: they were never really invited into a full life of faith as children. They were not really given authentic opportunities to worship, to learn, and to serve. They were not immersed in the stories of our faith, and told that these stories were about them. Instead they were told to be quiet during church, given coloring worksheets, and asked to put some pennies in a cardboard box during Lent. They were given a sanitized gospel, like one of the toddler children’s bibles we have at home, where every story ends before anything bad happens: so Adam and Eve are happy in the Garden, and Joseph gets to keep his beautiful coat, and baby Moses sleeps in a basket. The end. No sadness, no pain. But no redemption, either. They were given a kiddie-sized faith, without the language of death and resurrection, and new beginnings out of calamity. And so if calamity ever happened to them, faith had nothing to say about it. No wonder they lost interest.

I’ve noticed over the years how the church takes an interest in adolescents that it never had in children. After all, adolescents can reason abstractly. They are somewhat better at sitting still. They can go on service projects and mission trips. They are on their way to becoming a Grown-Up of God.

But by then, it is usually too late. They have been out of earshot too long. All those best years of echoing back the faith are past, and of course the desire for closeness with adults has waned with this new developmental stage.

But there is a new paradigm of faith formation. Which is really an old paradigm, from the parables of Jesus. Jesus tells two of his pithiest parables about a mustard seed: the first one says, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you can move mountains. The second one says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that grows into the largest of shrubs. (I always like the anti-climax there—the largest of shrubs!)

With Jesus, humility always wins the day. This is why children are the best receivers of the kingdom. Faith like a mustard seed: the smallest amount of faith, is still faith! The faith contained in the smallest of people, is still faith! And it can grow and flourish continually. This is truly good news, not just for youngsters, but for us oldsters, who are still trying to figure out who we are in God.

We are not called to be mediators or gatekeepers to the youngest among us. We are called to be fellow pilgrims who learn from each other. That means spending time together, learning together, listening to each other, serving together, wondering together, worshipping together, young and old. It’s not always easy. It takes practice and patience, this echoing and echoing back, this sharing, this mutuality. But this is how, together, we receive the kingdom of God, as children of God, still growing, wherever we are on the path—with or without My Little Ponies in the pew. In God’s name, Amen.

~The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton