Talking About Death

August 13th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Acts 9:36-43

John 14:1-3

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Testimonials always get my attention.  I love to hear people tell stories about what works for them. Diet testimonials are the best: “How I lost 96 pounds and transformed my life.”

Children give testimonials all the time. A three-year-old said:

“I was really, really scared, and then I put my special blue blanket over my head and now I’m not scared anymore.”

The Tabitha story is a testimonial of the early church telling how Peter resurrected Tabitha from the dead, this devoted woman who helped the poor.

I’m convinced that we can all benefit by becoming more comfortable hearing and telling stories about death. Every single one of us is going to die, and if we live a very long time, we’ll have to deal with the death of most of our friends and family.

In addition to death, we have hundreds of other kinds of losses. Like people moving away, the world falling apart, families falling apart, health and health care falling apart, society and the climate acting crazy and out of control, and everything changing all the time. All losses prepare us for the next loss and the biggest ones, especially if we give testimonials, stories from our own experience about what makes loss bearable, and how we have grown and learned from loss.

Today, I will continue to talk about Tabitha, and I want to share 8 testimonials from Mom’s passing.

 

TESTIMONIAL #1: Death is Normal

Note: our family is far, far from ideal, but Mom and Dad were superstars about talking about death.

Death was kind of like a distant relative we would finally get to meet and when we did, it would be very wonderful.  The Best. Safe, Fun, beautiful.  Quite soon everybody we knew and loved would join us.

As children, we went to the calling hours of our parent’s friends and relatives from the time that we could behave.  I remember mother and Grammy looking at my Great Aunt Lilly in the casket and straightening her dress, and talking about her.

They answered my 7-year-old questions: “Can she hear us?” No, not like we hear people.

“Can I touch her?”  Yes, but her body will be very cold, and her spirit isn’t in it any more—it is with Jesus. Her spirit can visit us in our hearts, when we think about her, but it doesn’t live here any more. It is not scary. Just different. God has it figured out; we don’t have to worry about it.

 

TESTIMONIAL #2: The Bible Speaks

Picture this: I was 12, sitting at my grandmother’s funeral. The preacher got up and read from John 14.

Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.

Believe in God, Believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many rooms; If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

At that moment the Word was so profoundly real that I knew it was true in a mysterious kind of way, and I also knew from that day forward that the Bible could speak to you like a close friend, and tell you things you needed to know. When people read stories about what Jesus said, Jesus was talking directly to you.

 

TESTIMONIAL #3: Cremation

I remember the struggle that Mother had years ago, deciding to be cremated instead of buried, because she loved the casket traditions she grew up with.

Daddy reminded her that at one of the churches he served the cemetery had to be dug up and moved. When they excavated, they saw that at the bottom of each grave was a simple layer of earth that had once been a body a hundred+ years before.  Mama said in her southern voice:

“Well, I guess I might as well be cremated and get it over with.”

 

TESTIMONIAL #4: Humor and Sorrow

Mom and Dad were OK about death, knew it would come, and Dad made jokes about it all the time.  When we was really sick, he’d say: ”I made honorable mention in the obituaries this morning.”  When he began to lose mobility he said: “keep moving and they won’t throw dirt on you.”

They made funeral arrangements early on, talked about it, and dealt with death a lot.  They had such a positive feeling about death, but they weren’t naïve. Dad lost two siblings in childhood, Mom lost her mom and dad and six brother and a sister, one of them dying by suicide. They lost their oldest son. Dad always told the story of how a soldier on each side of him died in World War II. They weren’t immunity to tragedy, heartbreak, unfairness, horror.  But still: Death was normal and God is in charge.

 

TESTIMONIAL #5: Saying Goodbye

We were with Mom when they took out the breathing tube they had given her until we could all arrive in North Carolina. Her brain aneurism had made it impossible for her to breath on her own at 85 years old. She lived about 10 minutes and then in one last long exhale, she was gone. He essence vanished and left her sweet old body looking like a beautiful sculpture, not a living being.

Just the night before, I talked with her on the phone.  Her last words were what she always said at the end of a phone call:

Bye bye darlin’ I love you.

I’m telling these stories, because I think it is important to give testimonials about death and dying. Death is normal.

Telling the stories of this precious season called the end stage of earthly life is healing. Sharing our faith and trust in the eternal presence of God is comforting.  And it is important to remember to say something like “bye bye darlin’ I love you,” every time.

 

TESTIMONIAL #6: Memorial Services

As a pastor for 40 years, I have performed hundreds of Memorial services, and I have loved doing them. But going to Mother’s service as a daughter, not the minister was different.

I wasn’t talking about someone else’s death.

I was experiencing my Mama being gone, and her spiritual presence being with me. It wasn’t like the Bible story of Tabitha being raised from the dead when Peter prayed.

But for me it was a small scale subtle experience of resurrection. Mama is gone. And the great mystery is: Mama’s spirit is still here.

We didn’t do anything grandiose at mother’s service. We talked about how great she was with laundry. She never, ever washed socks with dishtowels. She started teaching adult Sunday School at age 80 when she finally got over a fear of public speaking.

Steve, Her former next-door neighbor of 20 years drove 2 hours to the service, came up front, and said:

“Jean knew that my partner and I were gay. She called us “the boys next door.” And she treated us like her boys. She gave us the key to her house in case we ever needed to get in. She was a wonderful neighbor.”

I just want to say that the town where Mom’s memorial service was held a decade ago was not a place where you talk about being gay, certainly not in church. But that is what happened at Mother’s service.

A Memorial service is a chance for God to use us one more time to make an impact on the people in our orbit.

A memorial service is a way of making all of us who are still alive, more aware of the small ordinary things that make a difference:   keeping things and relationships really clean, being neighborly, kindness, making lots of people your family.

So don’t let me hear about any of you saying:

“Oh no, I don’t want anything. No service, nothing at the burial.”  You’d be denying your friends and your family and maybe even some strangers, a chance for the healing of the Holy Spirit. That happens when our hearts are opened by love and grief.

Your memorial service or funeral is not for you.  At your service, the rest of us have a chance to frame the relationship we had with you during life and start to piece together the relationship we have with you when you leave this earthly plane.

It is a time when we start picturing you with the angels–a new picture that needs developing.

 

 TESTIMONY #7: Kindness

 We had the calling hours at Mom and Dad’s house. People showed up with food and flowers and hugs and love and stories. All these people simply sharing kindness in the face of grief.

I started sobbing over the four chocolate meringue pies that showed up, because Mother always made Daddy a chocolate Meringue pie for his birthday. It was a symbol of 65 years of love, and marriage, and seeing it opened my heart, and I connected with the love, and with the loss, and with my Dad.

At the time of death or loss, or grief, people are more willing to be vulnerable, intimate with you if you create some space for that.

In the Bible story we read, that is what the women did for Tabitha. They came to her house to prepare her body, they brought the clothes that she had made for them and showed everyone and talked about her other acts of charity and devotion .

That Bible story in Act 9 give us guidance about how to go through the death of a loved one.  They wept. They helped. They reached out for guidance.

We had calling hours at Mother and Dad’s home. Their neighbor, Mr. A.J. Dexter sat beside me and told stories about growing up as a sharecropper’s son. The sharecroppers were the next to the lowest on the social scale in rural N. C. in the 1940’s.

Sharecroppers were kind of like the women in the Bible that Tabitha served – poor women who didn’t have decent clothes until Tabitha made them and gifted them.

Mr. Dexter shared that his mother made his clothes from feed sacks.  He stuttered so badly that all the kids made fun of him.

I asked Mr. Dexter, how did you get over stuttering?  He answered quietly, with great authenticity, looking me in the eye:

Rebecca, I gave it over to the Lord in prayer.  And the Lord gave me a 10th grade teacher who worked with me every afternoon after school before football practice, until I could talk. It was a miracle, he said, a miracle of prayer and conviction and her kindness.

That is what Peter did in the Bible Story.  He prayed for Tabitha, this woman who has served God by serving the widows who had no resources. The story about Tabitha became a testimonial of how God can do what we think is impossible. Open-hearted testimonials like Mr. Dexter’s and Tabitha’s friends and her healing, open our hearts.

The pay-off of an open heart is the experience of being empowered by kindness, fueled by tears, strengthened by pain, and connected heart to heart with other beings – strangers who tell sweet stories at calling hours, characters in the Bible, and all the people you know. The open heart connects us with the divine mystery that Jesus proclaimed: “Where I am you will be also.”

Here is a summary:

Death is normal, God is in charge, talk about death, use humor, grieve, celebrate life at the time of death, kindness is the greatest gift, and God works in ways that seem impossible. Bear witness to this truth.

 

TESTIMONY #8: Life/Death/Life

My brother died of cancer at age 46. The night he died our whole family was there: his wife and three teenage sons, Mom and Dad, my other brothers and their families, and my own. When he breathed his last, we called in the Chaplain, who was wonderful with children. We talked about important things, and then all piled into one elevator. Just before it closed, one of Kelly’s sons let out the biggest belch ever heard, and everybody started laughing like crazy. Couldn’t stop. It was the type of laugh that released years of tension and sorrow.

A woman was running to catch our elevator, but when she got there and saw these crazy laughing people, she decided to take the next elevator.

We filed into the lobby, laughing, crying, hugging and talking about logistics.  Logistics ground us at a time like this. The elevator opened again, and out came the woman we saw before.  She came over to my Mom and my brother Jim and asked this question: “Has there been a birth?”

They answered at the same time: “Yes, there has been a birth.”

We are born. We walk together. We suffer, laugh, die, and we are given a new birth into what Christian call the resurrection and the life everlasting. God is with us the whole time. Thanks be to God!

And that is the good news of the Gospel.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.


The Rev. Rebecca W. Dolch from the United Methodist Minister Church in Upper New York Conference, Ithaca, New York delivers a guest sermon entitled, “Talking About Death” as part of the 2017 Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series. 

Free Food

August 6th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 55:1-11

Psalm 145: 8-9

Matthew 14:13-21

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The disciples think it’s time to be done. It’s late. They are out in the middle of nowhere. It’s getting dark, and they are away from the safety of the city. There are 5000 men with them. And let’s not forget those women. And let’s certainly not forget those children. Arsenic hour is coming if it’s not already there. Jesus has been curing their sick for a while. But none of them show any signs of moving. Time for Jesus to stop being with them. Time for them to go get some food. Time to send them away. It’s just the crowd, after all.

Instead, the disciples hear, “They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” The disciples state the obvious: five loaves and two fish are not going to do it. Then Jesus invites his disciples to bring the food, their food, all the food they have, to him. And then Jesus feeds them all: the crowd, the men, the women, the children. Who knows who they are, who knows whether or not they are serious in their coming to Jesus, there are probably even some Gentiles. And let’s not forget those disciples. The food that was not enough is somehow more than enough for them too. Everyone is fed, full, and there are twelve baskets of food that remain for the encore meals.

This feeding of the 5,000 men, with women and children, comes at a challenging time for Jesus and the disciples. Jesus’ family member John the Baptist has just been beheaded in the puppet king Herod’s prison. This day was meant to be a time for Jesus to go off in a boat to be alone. But the crowds follow him from all around, and wait for him on the shore. They want to hear his message of a loving life with God and neighbor. They want to see the signs Jesus brings of God’s presence among them. Their life is hard under Roman occupation, and Jesus brings them hope. Or at least a change, something new and different, a good show. So Jesus has compassion for them, and cures their sick, and gives them something to eat.

People being fed by God and by God’s prophets in a time of trouble is a theme that runs throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Our lesson this morning is from II Isaiah. He presents God as a market woman. She hawks her free food and drink to anyone who will listen and will come, even Gentiles. She challenges her listeners to recognize true value. If they listen to her, she says, not only will their bodies be nourished, but their souls will live as well. She invites everyone to join in the return to God’s love and the fulfillment of God’s promises.

II Isaiah writes in a challenging time. The Israelites are in exile in Babylon. Like the disciples, they are tired and discouraged. They assume that they cannot nourish themselves or anyone else in a strange land. II Isaiah writes to give them hope, to remind them of God’s provision. He invites them to seek God and to look for the evidence of God’s presence with them. God promises them that they will return home. They will become a light to the nations once again.

We too are in a challenging time. Sometimes it seems as though our life of faith is one demand after another, especially when we find ourselves in trouble, or we are tired, lonely, and hungry. Certainly many of us feel that we are strangers in a very strange land, and we do not know when our land will return to “normal”, or whether normal will even be possible again, or what the new “normal” might be. And while we might want to be compassionate as Jesus was, this is the age of the internet. Now we see those crowds for whom Jesus has compassion not just in the places where we live, but all over the planet. Not all of the crowds – bees, frogs, forests, sea creatures – not all of the crowds are human. Even if we bring our resources to God, it is hard to believe they will be enough, or that they will be in time.

And yet, through the very unlikely decision of Cyrus the Persian, who conquered Babylon some time after II Isaiah and whose motives may not have been compassion, the Israelites are sent home. They become a people once again. They proclaim the provision of their God, so that Jesus grows up to see the evidence of the presence of God with him and with everyone, even in their strange land. And later, the disciples see for themselves the evidence of God’s presence amongst them. They knew themselves changed from often recalcitrant followers of Jesus in the middle of nowhere in the Roman Empire, to Christians.   They shared their experience of God’s compassion and provision, and they changed the world.

And here we are, in our own time and our own strange land. We are surrounded by our own crowds. We deal with our own hunger, loneliness, fatigue, illness, even anger. And yet, every Sunday we hear the stories of God’s compassion, the testimonies to God’s provision. And at least the first Sunday of every month, God feeds us and restores us to God’s own self, to our own selves, and to each other. Thanks to David Ames, our sacristan, and Jim Olsen, a former staff member, and some folks amongst us who wanted things to be beautiful for our Lord’s supper, we have a fine table set before us. Thanks to Brother Larry and his team, the bread is delicious, the gluten-free wafers are tasty, and the wine and grape juice are sweet. We are well nourished in our bodies. And, God offers us different kinds of nourishment as well. While the elements of grape and grain nourish our bodies, our prayers and proclamations of our Communion nourish our souls also. There is a lot going on here. Take a look at the bulletin with me now, and if you are in our radio or online congregation, the bulletin is online and you can look at it now or later.

We are now on page five of the bulletin. We have already intentionally invited God into our midst, and we have asked God to help us be prepared by the Holy Spirit so that we may be focused and increased in our love and relationship with God. We have already been invited to the table. We have confessed our sin and been forgiven and restored to right relationship with God. We have passed the peace with one another. We have asked the Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the scriptures read and the word proclaimed, so that we can receive them as good news. We have sung and heard the music of devotion and given glory to God in song. The vibrations and sounds have soothed our bodies and minds.

Now we will offer our resources to God. We will give thanks to God, and hear the acts of God in history. We will remember Jesus’ love for all his friends and followers as he created this meal for them and for us. We will offer ourselves to God’s purposes in union with Jesus’ offering for us. We will proclaim the mystery of faith. We will ask that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us, here and now, so that in the mystery of this sacrament – this outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – in this mystery we, we, may somehow become the heart and head and voice and hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the world, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit who is our energy and freedom. And we ask that Spirit to make us one, to unite us with Christ, unite us with each other, to unite us in ministry to the whole world, so that we show the power of God at work in us through our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – through all these signs of compassion – and this until the end of time. Then we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, and we are fed. Grape and grain, served in nursery schools all over the country. As the Iona Community describes them, the simple things of the world through which God will bless us. Then, if we discover that an area of our life wants attention, we can pray about it and be anointed with oil as another sign of God’s presence with us.

Then we will give thanks again. We will ask to go into the world with the strength of the Holy Spirit, whose images are fire, water, wind, and the freedom of flight, so that we can offer our compassion and companionship to others as Jesus did. Then we will go out in peace, because we know that God loves us, forgives us, nourishes, and empowers us to love, forgive, nourish, and empower others.

All this is free. The food, the love, the forgiveness, the power. It’s for free, and it’s for everyone who accepts the invitation. It doesn’t matter who we are, what we’ve done, or whether we are completely sure about all this. John Wesley, the founder of my own faith tradition of United Methodism, referred to communion as a “converting ordinance”. He welcomed everyone to the Communion table, because so many of the early Methodists testified that they had come to belief through their experience of the presence of God in the communion, and in being fed.

“They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” This morning we all are invited to the free food of God. Let us come to this meal with expectation, with trust, to enjoy God’s presence and each other’s presence, to be fed and nourished, and in the old saying “take this sacrament to our comfort”. And then, when we keep ourselves full with the love and provisions of God, even in the difficult times, we can indeed give others something to eat.

Amen.

The Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell & The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

A Little Beauty

July 30th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 29:15-28

Romans 8:26-39

Matthew 13:31-34, 44-52

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Ant

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

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

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

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

 

Berry

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

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

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

 

Fence

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

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

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

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

 

Cloud

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

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

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

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

Breeze

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

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

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

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

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

Neighbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You

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

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

Salt and Light

July 23rd, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Matthew 5:13-16

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The point of salt is to be salty.  We are the salt of the earth.

The point of light is to shine. We are the light of the world.

The point of life is to love. We are alive.

 

I.[1]

Jane was a traveler, and as happens to travelers from time to time, one day she found herself in a new city—the City of Everywhere.  Perhaps you’ve been there.

Jane had not, but being a city girl at heart, having grown up in the land of the bean and the cod, she was open to the experience.

After all, the City of Everywhere was beautiful; the streets were clean, the architecture was appealing, and the people were so friendly.  There was just one thing, one tiny detail that, as Jane walked down the street, she thought was a little strange.

You see, no one, not a single person that she passed was wearing shoes.

Strange, Jane thought, as she ducked into a coffee shop.

As she was waiting for her iced latte, looking around at all the shoeless people, her curiosity finally got the better of her and she said to the manager, “Excuse me, manager.  I’m new to your city.  What a wonderful place, the streets are so clean, the architecture so appealing, the people so friendly.  I just have one quick question.  Tell me, why doesn’t anyone wear shoes?”

The manager gave her a knowing smile and offered in a thoughtful voice, “Ah, that’s the question, why don’t we?”

“Right.” Said Jane, “That’s what I’m asking, why don’t you wear any shoes? Don’t you all believe in shoes?”

“Believe in shoes?!” said the manager, “Of course, we believe in shoes, that’s the first article of our creed—shoe wearing. Oh, think of the suffering shoes prevent; think of the sores, the splinters, the stubs avoided by those wonders of wonders—shoes.”

Jane, a little freaked out, smiled and nodded her head and quietly left the coffee shop. (With her iced latte of course.) As she walked down the street, she was in such a state of consternation that she almost missed the beautiful stone building in front of her.

It had a spire that reached to the sky and colorful glass windows with pictures in them. As she was staring at it, an old man said to her, “Beautiful isn’t it?”  “Yes,” said Jane, “What is it?”

“This?” said the man pointing to the beautiful building, “Ah, this is our pride and joy. This is our shoe manufacturing establishment.”

Surprised, Jane responded, “You mean you make shoes there?”

“No, no, no,” laughed the man, “don’t be silly. No, this is where we talk about making shoes.  We have a staff of people we pay to speak to us each week about shoe wearing.  We broadcast the message live on the radio for thousands to hear and there are moments when the speakers are so persuasive about shoe-wearing that people weep and commit to wearing shoes in the week ahead.”

Sneaking a peak at his feet, Jane asked the man, “You go here?”

“Every week!” said the man, “and even when I miss I tune in on the radio or listen to the podcast or read the blogpost later in the week.”

“Well, why don’t you wear shoes, then?”  said Jane.

The man, looking her in the eye, nodded with a knowing smile, “Ahhh, that’s the question, why don’t I?”

Just then, over the man’s shoulder, Jane noticed a small cobbler’s shop across the street.  She excused herself to the older man and crossed the street into the shop. Though the sign said “open,” there was not a single customer there. Interrupting the cobbler as he was putting the finishing touches on a beautiful pair of shoes.  Jane asked the cobbler, “Why is your shop empty?”

The cobbler responded, “As you can see, I have plenty of shoes, but people around here just want to talk about shoes. No one actually wears them.”

Then Jane had an idea. Surprising the cobbler, Jane bought as many pairs as she could carry and ran across the street to the man she had just left and said to him, “Sir, good news, I have shoes for you.  They are different shapes and sizes, but surely there is a pair that fits you?  Isn’t there?”

The man, looked down at the shoes and then up at Jane, then back down at the shoes and back up at Jane and his faced turned a little crimson, “Thank you miss, that’s very kind, but you see, it’s just not done.”

Said an exasperated Jane, “Why don’t you wear shoes?”

Said the man, “That’s the question, Why don’t we?”

And as Jane traveled back from The City of Everywhere to here, that question resonated in her mind, “Why don’t we, why don’t we, why don’t we?”

 

II.

Jesus was standing on a hill giving the sermon of his life before he gave his life as the sermon.

He began poetically, perhaps you’ve heard it, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek,” and so on and so forth.

And then, according to Matthew, he got to the meat of the sermon…or at least the seasoning.

Looking at the disciples, he said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Now if we’re honest, that’s sort of a weird thing to say, but setting the strangeness aside for a moment, we should recognize what he was doing.

He was pausing in the middle of the sermon at the beginning of his ministry, to remind the people gathered around him of who they were, of why they were important.

“You are the salt of the earth.”

To be clear, he was not speaking literally, he was speaking theologically.

He was saying to the disciples and in turn to us that we are people of worth.  By virtue of our very being we have worth.

Not because of the things we do, but because of who we are.

And sometimes, as we know, we could use the reminder.

After all, we live in a world that from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed tries to convince us that we are not enough. That who we are is not enough. That our worth comes from how we look or who we know or who knows us.

But friends, it’s not true.

We are more than our tweets, more than our Facebook or Instagram likes. We are more than the way the world perceives us, more than our jobs, our grades, our bodies.

We are the salt of the earth.  In other words, we matter not because of the things we do, but because of who we are.

And for those who may have forgotten between last week and this one, let me say it again, you are as I am a child of God.

But accepting that, friends, is only the first step.  We also have to live like it matters.

Jesus continues, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste (its saltiness) how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

In other words, friends, the point, the entire point of salt is to be salty.

We know from our own experience that when we lose our proverbial saltiness, when we forget who we are in the eyes of God, when we try and find our worth in those fleeting things of life, money, sex, accomplishment, it can feel like the world is walking all over us.

The good news is that even then, we have worth.

You see, not only was salt an important preservative of the ancient world and a form of currency, (hence something not being worth its salt), it was also frequently used as a leveling agent for the most common fuel for outdoor fires of the time: manure.

That’s right: manure.  Salt helped manure patties to burn longer, hotter, and more evenly, and then, when they were done, the solid charred remains were used on roads to help absorb mud.

In other words, they were literally trampled upon…and still had worth.

And while that doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, think for a moment about what it would mean for us to be leveling agents for the world.  What would it mean if we took seriously the call not only to preserve the message that Jesus was sharing—to not only talk about loving—but to be the agents who helped spread that message evenly. To all. To spread it in such a way that long after we are gone, the love we shared made the path a little easier for those who come after us.

Or said another way, friends, what would it mean if we wore the shoes we talked so much about?

Let’s be honest, Christians haven’t always done this well…if at all.

When was the last time Christians made the news for their love? Think of the last year alone and all of the fear of refugees, of immigrants, of our Muslim brothers and sisters.  What has been the Christian voice?

The entirety of the Christian faith is predicated on the notion that we are to welcome the stranger in our midst—to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s not a part of our faith, it is our faith.   And yet, when our voice is needed, we’ve been silent at best, and complicit at worst.

Friends, salt is meant to be salty.  We are the salt of the earth.

But just in case the salt metaphor is not working, Matthew has Jesus switch to a new one…light, though the point is the same.  He says, “A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand so that it may give light to all in the house.” In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.
Do you hear?  Let your light shine before others.

The point of light is to shine.

So, in case we’ve missed it, here’s the point—we are not people who get together to just talk about light, we are people who shine it. We are not people who talk about shoes, we wear them.  Or, to drop the metaphors for a moment, we don’t just talk about life, we live it…and the only way to do that is through love.

I give you a new command, love one another.

Sometimes we can get really cynical about this whole faith thing. We look at it and shake our heads and think, this is all a bunch of manure.  And most of the time, we’re right.

The truth is, our faith is only as good as the people willing to live like it matters.

We have spent too long convincing ourselves that our faith is about what happens when we die.  But the opposite is true…it’s about what happens when we live, not at death, but right now.

And the only way to life is through love.

Friends, what is it in your life that is worth dying for?  Isn’t it worth living for as well?
As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And if changing the world seems too hard, let’s start with the part we have some control over—ourselves…our interactions with each another.  If we can make those relationships a little more loving, if we can practice forgiveness and grace and compassion in those, if we can make a little kingdom of heaven here, then there just might be hope for The Cities of Everywhere.

And if there comes a time in our travels through life when we look in the mirror and discover that we don’t love as we should, then we owe it to ourselves to ask the hard question: Why don’t we?  Why don’t we?  Why don’t we?

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

As part of the Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series, this Sunday’s guest preacher is the Rev. Dr. Stephen M. Cady, II, Senior Minister from Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York.


[1] This allegory is based on “The City of Everywhere” by Hugh Price Hughes which I first discovered in the writings of Howard Thurman.

Among You (Us)

July 16th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Romans 7:15-25a

Luke 17:20-21

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The kingdom of God is among us.

***

Many years ago, there was a man who worked in a pottery factory—a large man, a quiet man… Let’s call him Joe.[1]

Like so many of us, every day, Joe came to work, kept his head down, did his job to the best of his ability and then went home.

Now, as happens in most factories, there was always something extraneous to the process that was left over at the end of the day; nothing much: a piece of glass, a bit of ribbon, a shard of broken pottery—you know, trash—the result of human error along the production line.

Most of those items would be discarded, thrown away, sent to a landfill somewhere never to be seen again, but not all of them.

You see, before he left for the day, much to the bemusement of his coworkers, Joe went around silently sifting through those extraneous pieces, those scraps of the industrial process, the things that everyone else had thrown away. He would search until he found at least a couple of items to add to what most considered a pile of junk now occupying a rather comical portion of his locker.

But the snickers from his coworkers didn’t stop Joe.

No, every day, either staying late or coming in early, Joe found some time to do something with that junk. Every day Joe E Everydaworked with those scraps to make something new, not always large or complex or artful, but new so that he always had something colorful or unique to bring home.

You see, Joe had a son at home whom he knew from his birth would never leave his bed.  His “wee lad,” as he called him, spent each day in his small bed in his small room in a small house.  And large Joe, though he couldn’t always find ways to express it with words, loved his “wee lad” more than anything in this broken world.  And though it meant a little extra time at work, he brought something home every day that he knew, if only for a moment, would make his son’s face light up.

Every day he pulled together scraps that others had discarded in the name of love.

The kingdom of God is among us.

***

Once, according to Luke, some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God was coming. We don’t have much context for the question in Luke’s Gospel, we’re just told that once—that is, at some point—they asked it.

And if we’re honest, we get it.  After all, it’s a question we’ve asked from time to time as well.  If not always in those words.

Perhaps some of us have done so this week. As we look around at the political mess we find ourselves in, as we get increasingly terrifying news alerts on our phones, as we witness the saber rattling our leaders, as we learn of the ice caps breaking apart, of meetings with Russian lawyers, of health care without the care, of nobel peace prize winning dissidents dying in prison, it might be only natural to pause and ask ourselves…is this the end? Is the kingdom of God finally upon us?

The Pharisees had similar question.  They were concerned with timing.  Who knows? Maybe they wanted to get invitations out in time for the party.  More likely, they wanted to prepare themselves for the end; for that time when God would come in final victory and their hard work would be rewarded.

Now to be fair, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, also seemed to believe that the Kingdom of God was imminent; as each of those gospel writers said in their own way, they believed that not a generation would pass before the Kingdom would be upon them; hopeful words for those first century Christians to whom they writing.

Those early Christians must have heard these gospels and taken comfort that the kingdom of God was right around the corner, that the uncertainty and alienation and exclusion of their present age would soon pass…that they needed only to bide their time.

But, as we know, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, was wrong.   John, writing at least a generation later, had to deal with their misunderstanding in his gospel, but friends, no matter how we dice it, the kingdom of God didn’t come about within a generation. Nor, as it turns out, in the hundreds of generations since.  The truth is, we’re still waiting for that uncertainty and alienation and exclusion to pass.

In other words, the gospel writers were wrong.

Now, on the one hand, it’s comforting to know that even the gospel writers could be wrong every once in a while…after all, we know the feeling.  On the other, though, it’s a little disconcerting.

Here, they had been waiting for something to happen, longing for something to happen, promised that something would happen, and then, it didn’t.

And now we, nearly 2000 years later, are left to ask, “Why?”  Another question with which we have more than a passing familiarity. Why?

Fortunately, we get by with a little help from our friends.

In our case today, we receive some help from the Gospel of Luke itself; from a quirky little passage that speaks about the Kingdom of God in such a different way than the rest of the gospel that its authenticity to Luke has been questioned.

You see in our passage today, when the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming he surprises them by saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “look, here it is,” or “there is it!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Do you hear? Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you,” or as might better be translated, “within you.”  The Kingdom of God is among us.

That changes some things, doesn’t it?  At the very least, it shifts our attention from the sky to the mirror.  Not that that makes it easier, it doesn’t, but it does make sense.  It makes sense to us that the Kingdom of God is not something that happens to us, but rather something that we take part in.  It’s not passive, but active.

Friends, the Kingdom of God is not some apocalyptic vision about the end of the world, but rather a hope for a world in which we all finally and fully live as God commands.

And fortunately, we know the gospel writers didn’t get that part wrong.  We have the rest of Scripture and our own experience to affirm it: in the end, we know how we are called to live.  We know that as a people of faith we are really only called to do two things: to love God and to love our neighbor.  Or said more succinctly we are called to love. Full stop.

“I give you a new command, that you love one another.”

For some of us, that means staying a little late at the factory.

For some of us, it means letting go of a broken relationship, or workplace, or heart.

For some of us, it means changing the way we spend our time or money or life.

The truth is, we don’t love in the abstract, we love in the concrete.  Human to human, person to person, heart to heart.

Friends, the kingdom of God is among us and is revealed one relationship at a time.

The good news is that we don’t have to figure it out on our own.  That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’ve tuned in this morning, isn’t it?   To get a little help from our friends?

The purpose of the church universal is to help one another find better and fuller ways to love.  And though we’ve made it more complicated and at times missed the point entirely, that’s really the only purpose we have.

Friends, we are called to keep reminding each other that each person we encounter is someone of worth, a child of the same God.

All of us, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, broken and whole.  All of us are God’s children, which among other things means that we have an awfully big family to care for.

It means we have an awfully strange family to care for.

It means that we collect the scraps that everyone else thinks of as trash.

But we don’t do it alone.  And as we know from hard experience, we can do an awful lot if we know we don’t have to do it alone.

As Howard Thurman said, we have each, by the grace of God, been given a crown to grow into…a crown which we did nothing to earn and, thank God, can do nothing to take away. A crown of grace which means that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, the kingdom of God is within us.

Friends, Luke believed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. He believed that it would not be long before the barriers that we use to divide ourselves, the walls that we build would finally and fully be taken down.  After all, it’s hard to love your neighbor through a wall.

Perhaps he was more optimistic than he should have been, but the good news, friends, is that the Kingdom of God is just as close today as it was when Luke was writing.

The kingdom of God is not a place.  It’s our hope for a world in which we each recognize the crown we have been given and then help others to do the same.

Do you hear? The kingdom of God is among us.

And sometimes it only takes one act of love to change this broken world.

***

Nobody quite knows how Joe’s co-workers found out about his “wee lad,”—no one ever spoke about it.

Nevertheless, one by one, the other pottery workers began to collect scraps of their own.  And soon, a couple times a week, Joe would return to his locker to find a little cup with wheels or a painted piece of scrap, or an engraving in wood, and he understood.

Over the next few months, the culture of the factory began to change.  The workers were said to grow quiet, becoming gentle and kind, swearing less frequently, even if not altogether.  Then, at some point they noticed the increasingly weary look on Joe’s face and knew that the inevitable shadow was drawing nearer.

They began to do a piece for him every day and put it on a sanded plank to dry so that he could come in later or go home earlier.

And so it was that when the funeral bell tolled and that small boy finally left that small house in a small procession, there stood a hundred stalwart workers from the pottery with clean clothes on, having taken the day off for the privilege of walking alongside Joe and the “wee lad” that not one had ever seen in life.

Do you see? They couldn’t take away Joe’s pain—that’s a part of love.  But in the end, they could remind him that he was not alone.

Friends, neither are we.

The kingdom of God is among us…let’s not leave each other waiting.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

As part of the Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series, this Sunday’s guest preacher is the Rev. Dr. Stephen M. Cady, II, Senior Minister from Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York.


[1] This is my adaptation of a story found in Howard Thurman’s The Growing Edge.

Imagination and Discipleship

July 9th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Upon this summer Sunday, let us meditate together on imagination, and its influence in discipleship.  Our gospel turns to the playful imagination of children in the marketplace.  St. Paul wrote in a similar way to his Corinthian congregation:

One

19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.

20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:

27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

Discipleship requires more than wisdom alone.  The walk of faith evokes and involves imagination, the free play of insight, the province of children and saints.

Two

What a gift are the parables of Jesus!  He taught them in parables, says the Scripture, and without a parable he taught not one thing.  Here, in a story form, is the same sentiment just remembered from Paul, God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.

Jesus stands in the marketplace.  He sees two warring groups of children.  All community is endless contention and intractable difference.  One group wants to play a game called ‘weddings’:  we have our pipes, we are ready to dance, come and join us, and let us play the game of weddings.  Another group wants to play a game called ‘funerals’:  we have our tears, our wailing, our gathered mourning clothes and forms, come and join us and let us play the game of funerals.  One game for the enjoyment of life preferred by Jesus himself, one game for the dour, self-discipline for life, preferred by John the Baptist.  Come and join!  

Yet neither group will give way.  Groups, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us in Moral Man and Immoral Society, have a hard time changing direction, or giving way, or forgiving, or summoning an imagination ready for discipleship.  That requires a childlike heart.  It requires an imagination soaked discipleship. It requires the person whom you are meant to become.

Did you ever know and love somebody who was always a bit on edge?  I mean a beautiful person with a heart of gold, who was run raw by the gone-wrongness of life?  This can be a rough world for a sensitive soul.  Someone who has an unquenchable passion for getting things right and for knowing when things are wrong.  A little of that can go a long way.  If your very hunger is for what establishes the soul, you can sometimes go hungry.

Imagine with her eyes:  Every child in the community was attending a safe, well-lit, quiet school, where virtually all could read at the sixth grade level by the time they finished the sixth grade level.  Every sick person in the community had ample medical care, most of it preventive, and all of it shot through with a heavenly infusion of time, talent and money.  Every person of color in the community felt confident entering the public spaces—theaters, churches, stadiums, stores—in every corner of the community. Every man was free to be a man.  And every woman was free to be a woman.  Every person is seen and heard as a real human being.

Three

Here at University, we are blessed with intelligence, youth, freedom, and reason.  

We want to be careful, and caring, so we pause here.  We educators sometimes  tend to leave civil society to the rest of society. We have much freedom, but how we choose to use it, in relation to the rest of community and society, is another matter. We after all have that next paper to write, 50 pages of small print not including footnotes, titled with some version of the title, ‘Obscurity Squared’.  To do that, one needs a capacity to spend 12 hours a day alone in a library or in front of a computer screen.  To do that, to write that series of scholarly papers become books become resume become tenure become professor, can risk leaving aside, if we are not careful, or leaving to others, if we are not careful, the imaginative stewardship of forms of civil society.  Girl Scout cookies.  Umpire work for the Little League.  Pinewood derby leadership.  A seat on the PTA.  Sunday worship.  Neighborhood watch.  Refugee resettlement work.  These we have to leave in the hands of others, or at least we think we do, those basic cultural building blocks that rest on a willingness to sit quietly in dull meetings, hoping against hope for the blessed refrain, ‘I guess we’re done for tonight’.  In civil society we have the chance to influence others, and to be influenced among others, in lasting, personal ways.  You want to speak to others, to convince others, to educate—good. But.  You cannot speak to others until or unless you speak for others.  To be speak to requires first to speak for.  Others will not hear or heed you, and should not, in your speech to them, if they do not, with utter confidence, feel, feel, that you speak for them as well.  To speak for, you have to be with.  At breakfast.  Playing golf.  In book club. In church.  At the YMCA.  Then, only then, will you enough funds in the relational bank when you need to withdraw some to say something that may then be audible. If you want people in Wisconsin to hear you, candidate, you have to go and be with people in Wisconsin.  If you want people to hear you, preacher, you have to go and be with people, in visitation, on their turf.  If you want to speak to others, educators, you will have to find a way to speak for others, not just to others.  This is the whole genius of American civil society, from the time of De Tocqueville.   Whether we will find, in the humiliations of an era whose leadership is shredding inherited forms of civil society on an hourly basis, the humility to go out and suffer with and for others, over the better part of the next decade, in order then to speak, is an unanswered question.  To get to an answer we may just need some imagination in our discipleship.

Four

Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.  Our Gospel lures us and lures our imagination forward, for discipleship.  Have we yet learned the lesson that what one means—by an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say—is not all that such an act means?  We have experienced this lesson this year. The lesson, that is, that what you in your heart meant by an act, a word, a statement—a vote, is not in fact the limit of what that act, word, statement or vote meant:  in fact it is a small part, the greater part of the meaning being found in the effect, the impact, the historical influence of the deed. Wisdom is vindicated, known, in her deeds. The meaning of a text is found in the future it opens, the future it imagines, the future it creates. (Ray Hart). So too, the meaning of an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say, is found in the future, bright or dark, which it creates.  What you meant is not what it means.  For that, you have to listen to those harmed, or helped, by it.  Meaning is social, not individual, hence our use of words, our developed language, our investment in culture, our life in community.  You may have meant it one way, but its meaning is found along another.  Such hard, tragic lessons, to have to learn and re-learn.

Jesus is our beacon not our boundary.  Imagination is a dimension of discipleship that is waxing not waning, needed not superfluous, crucial not peripheral.  Our passages today, Genesis, Psalms, and Romans, draw our imaginations to forms of authority, and our engagement with them.  In Genesis, the authority in ancestry.  In Psalms, the authority in government.  In Romans, the authority in conscience.  In all these, the writers struggle to imagine a way forward, following the light of the beacon across the challenge of the boundary.

Five

Pause and meditate a little this summer on your own enjoyment of play. Our esteemed colleague and beloved mentor, now of blessed memory, Peter Berger did so, with imagination for discipleship, years ago in his little book, A Rumor of Angels.  1. I see grown men enthralled on a green field following a wee little white ball, which seems to have a mind of its own, for three or four hours in the hot sun.  2. I see grown women shopping together without any particular need, but immersed, self-forgetful, in the process of purchasing, God knows what.  3.I see emerging adults fixed and fixated, days on end, in the World of Warcraft. 4.Can you remember playing bridge in college all night long, to the detriment of your zoology grade?  Peter Berger: A. In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.  The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence.  It can readily be found in the reality of ordinary life…The religious justification of the experience can be achieved only in an act of faith…B. This faith is inductive—it does not rest on a mysterious revelation, but rather on what we experience in our common, ordinary lives…Religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these.  One said: “I played basketball today, on the intramural team—it was awesome.”  Talk about it a bit, parents and children.

Six

Imagination in discipleship forms a wisdom vindicated, justified by her deeds.  (Luke has changed the ending to ‘justified by all her children’—maybe an even closer memory to the marrow of imagination.)

Hear again the imaginative wisdom of Boston University’s own late personalist philosopher, Erazim Kohak, The Embers and The Stars, with ten of whose epigrams we conclude, this summer morning, to kindle the imagination:

‘We shall dig again the wells of our Fathers.’

‘Humans grow angry so easily, so heedlessly venting their anger at those nearest and most vulnerable, needlessly, wantonly injuring what is most precious and most fragile’.

‘Humans are not only humans, moral subjects and vital organisms.  They are also Persons, capable of fusing eternity and time in the precious, anguished reality of a love that would be eternal amid the concreteness of time.  A person is a being through whom eternity enters time.’

‘There is self-discovery in remembrance.’

‘We have a sense of history.  But we have lost a sense of eternity.’

‘The authentic relation between beings is the personal encounter of mutual’ respect.  208

‘Most of the time we possess and covet far more than we can care for and cherish.’ 212

‘Generosity personalizes as greed depersonalizes.’

‘We need to rediscover ourselves as persons, not as need gratifying organisms.’ 215

‘The chief task of philosophy is to write footnotes to the text of experience’ 219

But to what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting  in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’…Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

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

The Discipleship of the Lost

July 2nd, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Genesis 22:1-14

Romans 6:12-23

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May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock, and our redeemer. Amen.

We journey together in these summer months, we who gather along the banks of the Charles, whether near or afar. We journey along with friends and with guests during our annual summer preacher series at Marsh Chapel. We journey, this summer, charting new directions in discipleship.

Over the course of this liturgical year, Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, we have been journeying with Matthew, who is the leftmost figure in our Altarpiece here at Marsh Chapel, depicting Jesus and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For the past three weeks, we have abided for a time in the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel as Jesus calls and sends out the twelve disciples. We would do well to remember how that sending begins in verses five and six: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Most of the rest of the tenth chapter delineates just how fraught their mission will be, replete with persecution, rejection, and division.

At last, we come, this week, to the final three verses of the chapter and the conclusion of Jesus’ mandate in mission to the disciples. At last, things are beginning to look a bit brighter. At last, the disciples are encouraged to gird up their loins and persevere for they will receive the just rewards of the righteous if they do. And so, Jesus declares, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” In sum, good things come to those who persist.

And so, we pick ourselves up, and dust ourselves off, emboldened and encouraged by Jesus’ words of instruction. Off we go, continuing our journey. Now wait a minute, I forgot, where was it you said we were to go again, Jesus? “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Israel. Right. Off we go.

Now wait just a second. WE are of the house of Israel. WE descend from the house and family of Jacob. And what’s more, SO DO YOU, JESUS! Well, isn’t this a fine “how do you do!?” This is no journey to see the sites, to get out in the world, to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus is telling us to go home!

Indeed, Jesus finds it easier to find faithfulness outside of Israel than within. Just back in chapter eight, we recall that “When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (8: 5-8; 10-12).

“Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” We remember that God made covenant with Abram, who was renamed Abraham, that his descendants would become nations, including both of his sons, Isaac, who he almost sacrificed, and Ishmael who he sent away and whose nation was the harbinger of Islam. But it was Isaac’s son Jacob, who was renamed Israel, whose tribe would become lost so that Jesus must send the disciples to find them. Indeed, “in no one in Israel have I found such faith,” and “the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

It would be all too easy, and over the course of Christian history we have proven all too susceptible to making this finding of a lack of faith in Israel a justification for antisemitism. To be sure, the community of the Gospel of Matthew was in the midst of a wrenching divorce within synagogues between those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and those who did not. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the moral of this story is to write off those who did not understand Jesus to be the Messiah. The moral of the story, instead, is that to learn what it means to be faithful, that is, what it means to be a disciple, and thus what we should be teaching and mentoring each other to become, we may have to look outside of our own community, as Jesus did here in the eighth chapter, and again in the fifteenth:

“Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (15: 22-28).

This is not a matter of those outside of Israel being right and those within being wrong. This question as to proper faithfulness and discipleship in Matthew is not antisemitism. Just as Jesus found a Roman centurion and a Canaanite woman to be faithful by contrast with Israel, so too he found his Israelite disciples to be faithful by contrast with his natural family in the twelfth chapter: “While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (12: 46-50).

So, you want to be a disciple of Jesus, do you? Go home! Go home. Go home to the lost sheep of Israel, that is, go home to the church, your church, your tribe, and your nation, and testify to the faithfulness you have encountered on the highways and byways of life. Go home to your brothers and your sisters and your mother, and tell them of those from the east and from the west whom you expect to meet at the banquet table of heaven.

My, my, my, you may be thinking, that does sound hard. Indeed, there is a great deal more at stake in providing welcome, in providing hospitality, whether to a prophet, or to a righteous person, or to a little one, than merely providing food, and drink, and shelter. After all, to welcome one of them is to welcome Jesus is to welcome God.

Consider, then, the sermon preached on Palm Sunday in 1959 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. He took as his sermon texts two passages from the Gospel of John: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold” (10:16) and “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do, shall he do also. And greater works than these shall he do because I go unto my Father” (14:12). Doctor King applied both of these verses to Gandhi, and in doing so made two significant moves. The first is to simultaneously acknowledge the religious otherness of Gandhi and to adopt that very otherness of Gandhi’s life, practice, thought, and person into the fold of God. King argues that Gandhi is a Christian not by being a Christian but by being a Hindu, and thus not of this fold. This is to say that it is by virtue of Gandhi’s Hinduism that he belongs to King’s God.

The second move is even more startling, especially since it arrives in a sermon on Palm Sunday, third only in importance on the Christian liturgical calendar to Christmas and Easter. The appellation of the second text signals that Doctor King believed that in his life Gandhi had achieved greater things than Jesus. To be sure, by noting that Jesus predicted this, King is safeguarding the sanctity of the Christian narrative. Nevertheless, the greatest accomplishment of Jesus according to the Christian narrative is nothing less than the salvation of the world. It is that very Christian narrative, then, that Doctor King employs to elevate the significance of Gandhi’s life to the level of soteriological efficacy. This is a shocking move for any Christian preacher to make, even one trained at the Boston University School of Theology.

Doctor King came north via Morehouse College in Atlanta and Crozier Divinity School in Philadelphia to take his PhD in systematic theology at Boston University. It was on that journey that he learned about Gandhi, not least from the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman here at Marsh Chapel. Then, he went home. He went home to the south. He went home to Atlanta and to Selma and to Montgomery and he testified to the faithfulness he had encountered on the way.

And what did Gandhi’s faithfulness consist in, you may be wondering? The faithfulness of Gandhi may best be summed up in a word: Satyagraha, loosely translated, insistence on or holding fast to truth. Satyagraha was the name Gandhi gave to his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. It was also the name he gave to the ashram he founded. Of the first half of the term, satya, Gandhi says, “The word Satya (Truth) is derived from Sat, which means ‘being.’ Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. That is why Sat or Truth is perhaps the most important name of God. In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God, than to say that God is Truth. But as we cannot do without a ruler or a general, names of God such as ‘King of Kings’ or ‘the Almighty’ are and will remain generally current. On deeper thinking, however, it will be realized, that Sat or Satya is the only correct and fully significant name for God.” (M. K. Gandhi.  Non-Violent Resistance. New York: Schocken Books, 1951. 38.)

A testament to truth we may also find yet further east, in China. Consider then the words of the scholar Xunzi of the third century BCE: “If a man has attained perfection of truthfulness, he will have no other concern than to uphold the principle of humanity and to behave with justice. If with truthfulness of mind he upholds the principle of humanity, it will be given form. Having been given form, it becomes intelligible. Having become intelligible, it can produce transmutation. If with truthfulness of mind he behaves with justice, it will accord with natural order. According with natural order, it will become clear. Having become clear, it can produce transformation. To cause transmutation and transformation to flourish in succession is called the ‘Power of Nature.’” (John Knoblock, Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1988. 177-78).

Truth is at the root of the power of nature. Truth is the only correct and fully significant name for God. “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Could the will of God be anything other than truth? Faithfulness. Discipleship. “Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Faithfulness. Discipleship.

Go home! Go home. Go home to the lost sheep of Israel. Go home to the church, your church. Go home to your tribe, and your nation. Go home and testify to the faithfulness you have encountered on the highways and byways of life. Go home and witness to the discipleship of the Roman and the Canaanite and the Hindu and the Ru. Go home to your brothers and your sisters and your mother, and tell them of those from the east and from the west whom you expect to meet at the banquet table of heaven. Amen.

-Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, University Chaplain for Community Life

Word to the Wise

June 25th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Genesis 21:8-21

Romans 6:1b-11

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Matthew 10:24-39

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People of faith, hear the Gospel, a Word to the wise: God’s grace shines through and over all human weakness; human failing cannot eclipse divine grace; the moonlight of the Grace of God still illumines, even if dimly at points and darkly at times, the very shadowlands of life. True in Scripture, true in life. Let us lift up our hearts and hear the Gospel: God’s grace, light, and love, shine upon us this Lord’s day.

Scripture

Pause for a moment, as summer begins, to ponder and to wonder at the strange world of the Bible. Our own reckoning with law, prophecy, and wisdom, with gospel, epistle, and revelation, in our brief lived experience, occurs, and stands out before, the strange world of Scripture, whence we turn—where else shall we go?—come Sunday. And the works of our time and times we most prize, at some times we name ‘biblical’ in portion and proportion. And the challenges, the momentous lived responsibilities of our time and times (love means taking responsibility after all) we most anxiously apprehend, at some times we name ‘biblical’ in portion and proportion. Think of an age wrestling with health, like ours, for instance. Our wise women and men over time have begun to prepare us.

Consider WIT, a play by Margaret Edson who teaches elementary school near Atlanta. Some years ago she wrote this one play.   It was a success. She was asked to write more, but she demurred. ‘We are busy people here in 3rd grade. We are busy people here in Georgia, in the third grade. What with the periodic table, and the solar system, and the multiplication tables, and the dissection of frogs, and the poetry of America, and a bit of recess every now and then—we are busy people here. I won’t have time to do another stage play anytime soon, thank you very much. I have all I want to do with these young minds here. One play is enough’. We gladly remember her on the day of our own annual Vacation Bible School.

Her work is biblical in proportion, about death and life, a sort of commentary if you will on Matthew and on Matthew 10. And apt for Marsh Chapel, here at the intersection of academic wisdom and human mortality. The protagonist is Vivian Bearing, a world class John Donne scholar, and the product of a world class doctoral program. At age 50, a single strong determined poetry professor, she discovers 4th stage metastatic cancer is killing her.   Her young physician is a former student, who failed to get an A in her course. Her savior is a nurse, who loves her, loves her physically with hand lotion and hugs, loves her verbally with honesty and grace, loves her personally with kindness and care. ‘This treatment will be very hard’ she hears the doctor say. ‘I love hard things’ she retorts.   In 90 minutes she is dead, the curtain falling on the reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny. Is Donne’s line ‘Death be not proud” to be followed by an exclamation point or a comma? It comes down to that.   For the physician, it may be, the exclamation point. For the nurse, it may be, the comma.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

*******

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more;

Death, thou shalt die.

Her performance is the kind of saving collision that can befall earnest faithful men and women, a choice encounter of human striving with physical pain and proximate death. It is a play worth reading or seeing again, just now, in the cross currents of debate about health, healing, salvus, salvation: God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

            Biblical, in proportion, yes ‘biblical’.

The rugged biblical texts read this morning convey to us this existential dilemma. With Hagar we can sometimes find ourselves at the point of no return. With Paul we do face our endless and inevitable sin, yet are not free to wallow in it. With Matthew we are confronted by a stark twist to the fifth commandment, to Honor Father and Mother, to admit that there are times, when to do so is to do the opposite–in order to do so. One best honors an abusive parent with dishonor. Whatever comes not from faith is sin. The height of human longing, the starkness of proximate death.

Pause for a moment with Hagar, Paul, and Matthew. Our dear friend, colleague, now suddenly deceased and of blessed memory, with us in a greater light and from a farther shore, Professor Dale Andrews, regularly taught us, taught all, to consider, among other things, the social, the cultural contexts of the texts we read. We honor him in memory, but so let us honor him in spirit, word, and deed. Set these rugged texts in context, if you please.

The project of Genesis (beginning), is the beginning of creation, covenant, and providence. Our passage lies squarely in the most central of the beginnings, that of the people of faith, the story of Israel, the covenant people. To make way for Isaac, what will become of his half brother? What of the other peoples alongside the ‘chosen’? The earthy cry of a mother for a child braces and embraces us, like Rachel weeping for her children. There is no avoidance of the real costs of decision, choice, preference. God visits Hagar. Theology is learned over time in the school of visitation, of confession, of prayer, of conversation, of pastoral presence in the presence of Presence. God has mercy and shows mercy, an extra mercy, if you will, hearing and heeding. ‘God was with the boy’. At least here, at least for a moment in this passage, there is in the context of Scripture a divine expanse, an universal embrace, an extra mercy. And there is no substitute for visitation, no substitute for hearing the voice of pain, no substitute for seeing in the flesh the need of the other.

Paul’s work in Romans, as well, and whether or not for the moment you agree with Luther that this is the one, main text of the New Testament or not, likewise emerges in context. ‘Paul among Jews and Gentiles’ is the way our neighbor Krister Stendahl regularly phrased it. How are we to live by grace as people who are utterly mortal, regularly prone to harm others, in the deepest sense finally unable to rehabilitate ourselves? His vocabulary may differ a bit from ours, but Paul’s probing of the depths of life is very much our own as well. How are we to live both as healed and as sinful, both as saved and as broken? Well, here the context in full makes every difference. Paul is writing to answer this and other questions, but the writing is not his final answer. Is this your final answer Paul? No. What is? His final answer is coming. He is coming to make a visit, pay a call, stop by and see, pause in Rome and talk with his confreres. For the moment let us give Luther a nod, and, for the sake of argument, agree that Romans is THE book in the New Testament. (Or is it Galatians?). No, let us say Romans for today. But look: the whole of the letter is MERELY an introductory note to the main event, his coming visit to Rome, which he does make, and which leads then to his martyrdom. How important visitation.

Matthew has placed a harrowing set of demands, strictures, commands before us. He too was facing a decade of humiliation, though his in the latter years of the first century ad. He wanted his people steeled, ready, perseverant, of happy heart, of glad spirit, but of disciplined capacity for faithfulness. After all, those who took up the journey would be in regular visitation among others of different perspective. We do well to recall, as we did in February, regarding some of the hyperbole in the dominical teaching, particularly as recorded in Matthew, the wise, word to the wise, interpretation of Amos Wilder:

Jesus meant the requirements very explicitly…but the radical formulation of the requirements is to be explained by the imminence of the kingdom of God.  The judgment was immediately at hand and an extraordinary ethic was proper for an extraordinary emergency.  We have then in Schweitzer’s term ‘interim-ethics’ immediately relevant only to Jesus’ disciples in the brief period before the end…his insight that the teaching is significantly governed by the drawing near of the new age is today generally accepted. (IBD 161) As did Matthew, we are under obligation to appropriate (Jesus’ words) in a free and responsible way, applying them to our own situation…bearing in mind the disparity between his situation and ours (IBD 164) (Amos Wilder).

            We read the text in context, as our beloved Dr. Andrews and so many others would have us to do.

 

Life

 

As in Scripture, so in life. Pause for a moment, as summer begins, to ponder and to wonder at the strange world of our lived experience.

The weekly ministry of the gospel, as basically constituted, in most settings and painting with a rough broad brush, requires a sermon, as good as one can do fifty times a year, and two dozen pastoral visits—home, hospital, nursing home, work place, third place. The two are intricately interwoven, the speaking the listening, the visiting and the proclamation. One significant portion of the visitation necessarily includes hospital and nursing home visits.   In a week of national debate about health care, these rise to the surface of memory and reflection. Not only Scripture but also our lived experience, this Lord’s Day, in the announcement of the Gospel, strikingly recall us to the power of visitation. Have we not learned so in our own struggle?

On an August Sunday, in 1975, there is a 20-year old recovering from an appendectomy, in a rural hospital.   There are four beds in the modest room, 1975. Into the room come four people, a minister in the AME tradition, dark and in dark suit and collar, and his wife and two deacons. They are there to visit the roommate on the left. In the heat the talk quietly and briefly. The fans buzz. Most of the afternoon—hours—they spend in silence. Once a bit of hymn, once a furtive reading out of a prayer book. A prayer at the end. As it happens, this one cameo becomes one of the myriad pushes into ministry for the fellow in the bed beside.

Here in the summer of 1976, oddly in the same rural hospital, is a 21 year old untrained minister making a first pastoral visit on a 22-year old man, who for three years has hoped to be a State Policeman in the Empire State. His life dream. But in the prior weekend he crashed a motorcycle, risking life and limb. His life was spared, but not the future full us of his left leg, his limb. He would heal in time, but not in a way that would allow him to hold his life dream any longer. What does one say?

That same summer, in the overheated house nursing homes of small villages, many soon to be and rightly summarily closed by the state, one saw and heard, and experienced with all the senses, the plight of the sick.   In four decades much progress has been made, but we are still a long way from Tipperary.   Have you been in a nursing home of late?

In the early 80’s, a call in the evening, pre-surgery. “Are you ready to go?” (meaning intended, ‘are you ready for the procedure’)   “I certainly am not. I will survive”. (meaning heard—and what else do you think of when the minister shows up—‘are you ready for the end’.)

In the late 1980’s on Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas, accompanied by growing children, there were visits in homes and nursing homes, maybe on those holy days a dozen in the afternoon before dinner.

Then a decade later, and moving quickly, a fuller string of stops to make, some so quick that others referred to them not as visits but as sightings. Even moving quickly though, things happen, one conversation turning into another, and a roommate and a relative and another room and the day can just go. Today, one’s own mother, who would have expected this, resides in one of those places.

This year, one of our dear friends spent some time in such a home, and in recovery had struggle. One shadowy day a boy came and sat with her, a ten year old on the lam from his own family down the hall. “What’s your name?” he asked. “What do you do?” And from there, a long magic mystery in the gift of grace in human conversation, an intervention, a visitation, an appreciation, a recognition of the humanity of one older person through the humanity of one younger person. Healing ensued.

If you were to ask the changes, hospital and nursing home, in all these years, there have been many and very many. If you were to ask the abiding realities, what is the same, what is constant, unchanging, that is very simple to state: then as now, most people have no visitors. Most people in hospital and nursing home have next to no visitors. Even the inbred, trained, generations deep pastoral habits of visitation, in fact, and including those of one’s own denomination, have themselves atrophied, given the ever attractive lures of the computer screen.

So, now, with a decision on the table in our nation’s capital, whether or not to eliminate 25% of Medicaid support, when 60% of nursing home residents depend on Medicaid support, we are at sea a bit, because we have not been regular in our visitation. It is much easier when you no lived experience of what cutting from three nurses a day to two nurses a day will do to those who have no visitors.

One wrote a month ago: ‘Have we really degenerated into a nation so lacking in compassion and mercy that those of us who have more than we need are no longer willing to extend a hand to those who don’t have enough?’ (NYT, letters, 5/25/27).

Real religion is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction and remain unstained from the world, wrote James (1:27). Each one of us this week could make a visit in a nursing home. Call on a neighbor, a parishioner, a family member, or just show up on the second floor with some Oreo cookies and stay a few minutes. This is one of those sermons with an altar call, a call to decision, an invitation to discipleship. You are hereby happily invited sometime within the next seven days, to help set our common conversation about health and care in the context of actual faithful experience, of pastoral visitation (never the sole privilege of the clergy, though their example matters greatly). Visit some or someone in a nursing home this week. Make a personal visit. Erazim Kohak: ‘Humans are not only humans, moral subjects and vital organisms. They are also Persons, capable of fusing eternity and time in the precious, anguished reality of a love that would be eternal amid the concreteness of time. A person is a being through whom eternity enters time.’

People of faith, hear the Gospel, a Word to the wise: God’s grace shines through and over all human weakness; human failing cannot eclipse divine grace; the moonlight of the Grace of God still illumines, even if dimly at points and darkly at times, the very shadowlands of life. True in Scripture, true in life, let us lift up our hearts and hear the Gospel: God’s grace, light, and love, shine upon us this Lord’s day.

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

Stirring the Pot

June 18th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Exodus 19:2-8a

Romans 5:1-8

Psalm 116:1-4, 8-10, 12-19

Matthew 9:35-10:1, 10:5-8, 14-22

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Pretty nifty, huh?  The disciples get to cast out unclean spirits.  They get to cure every disease and every sickness.  They get to go out on their own to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near.  They can raise the dead! Cleanse the lepers! Cast out demons!  They are going to be so cool!

And then Jesus spoils it.   Apparently, even with all this amazing power, some folks are not going to welcome the disciples, or pay attention to them.  What’s this sheep among wolves stuff?  Wise as serpents – why do they need to be careful and prudent?  And then there’s the being handed over, and the flogging, and the dragging before the authorities, to say nothing of the public speaking.  Really?  Family betrayals and hatred?  This is some pep talk.  What in the world is Jesus doing?

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a Christian community very like that of the disciples.  They were just starting to engage in mission, and while Matthew is a Gospel, it has  features that remind us of a handbook or manual for teaching.  Scholars also note that Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, and that the community did not see their Christian faith as a new religion.  They saw it as a new constituency of Israel.  This brought particular challenges to their mission,

The Gospel was written after the year 70, in a highly politicized time.  In the year 70, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple, which was the center of worship for Israel  So there was then the external challenge of Roman oppression with its calling to account of the Jesus movement within Judaism.  There were also the internal concerns within Judaism for Jewish identity and who were to be the true heirs of the covenant.  The Gospel of Matthew was written for a community constantly aware of and  in discussion with their Jewish roots and identity.  And sometimes the community was over against them.  The warnings of floggings within the synagogue were for apparent violations of the Torah and for consorting with Gentiles.  The warnings of family betrayals came out of the griefs and challenges of a family fight within the Judaism of the time.  Jesus as portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel is the Jesus who sees the urgency of the need for mission and empowers his disciples to go out in compassion. He also wants his disciples to know what they will be up against and how to take care of themselves.

Our own situation is not so dissimilar from that of the disciples and the Matthean community.  We too are called to share in Jesus’ ministry of compassion, to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near.  And we too live in a politicized and polarized time.  No matter what our political preferences are, the uncertain situation in Washington is the 800-pound elephant in many a room.  With this come increasing concerns for the right to protest  and communicate our concerns to government.  The return of the church sanctuary movement, the concern for eco-justice and creation care, the incivility of our debates, and the violence of our racism and sexism – these all speak to our questions of identity and of who has right to belong.  Who has the right to power   Who has the right to resources.  Our family fights as to national and religious identity and inclusion are still a source of grief as well as frustration.  How do we put ourselves out there in compassion?  And given the challenges, why would we?
Well, there are certain themes in our scriptures this morning that invite us to take these risks.  One is gratitude.  Because we are thankful for what we have received, we do not hoard it, but we share what we have received with others.  In Matthew, Jesus reminds his disciples that they have received the good news of God’s love and community for free.  So they can give their witness to God’s love and power freely to others.  Paul writes to the church in Rome, and reminds them that through Christ they have the grace and peace of right relationship with God. So they can boast of their hope in sharing God’s glory.  God’s love came to them even when they were estranged from God in sin, to the extent that Christ died for them even before they believed in him.  So they can extend God’s invitation to others who do not yet believe.  The Psalmist testifies to God’s help and provision in trouble.  In return he will become God’s servant and pay vows to God in the midst of the people.  And the Israelites, delivered from Egypt and cared for in the desert, agree to covenant with God in love and obedience.  They will become a priestly and holy nation to bring other nations to God.

Our compassion comes from our gratitude.  It does not come from a place of patronage or superiority.  It does not put on a show.  Our compassion comes from our own having been loved and cared for in our own challenges and pain.  It comes from our gratitude for our release from sin and death and  for our freedom in God to choose the good.  So gratitude is something that encourages our compassion.

Another theme is that we are not alone.  The Spirit companions us.  It empowers us to act in compassion.   It gives us the words we need to witness in the face of challenge.   It pours God’s love into our hearts so that we can even boast in our sufferings.  They produce endurance. Endurance produces in us that character that trusts and expects great things from God.   Trust and expectation produce the hope that does not disappoint because we know that God loves us and will help us in our lives and in our work, because God has done this  for us before.  Even if we say with the Psalmist, “I am greatly afflicted.”, we can keep our faith.

And we are not alone because we have each other.  The disciples went out together, the Matthean and Roman churches endured together, the Psalmist sang first to his congregation.  So we bring our own selves, our talents and resources, our knowledge and our diversity of experience.  We do not have to do everything ourselves.  We can do our part and know that others are doing theirs for the good of the whole.

It is our past deliverance and present guidance that gives us confidence in being able to carry out our ministry of compassion.   And that mission is no small thing.  In all these scriptures, we are invited to join in Jesus’ ministry of compassion on a large scale.  In capital cities like Jerusalem and Rome, and maybe Washington.   In the cities and villages of a whole country, maybe in Boston.  In the midst of all the people, as a priestly nation that serves to bring the world to God.  It will take a big vision to accomplish a ministry of power and compassion.  There are a great many persons and groups who have no compassion.  They have vested interests in keeping people sick, dead, isolated, and enmeshed in evil.  Of course, we as individuals and as a community cannot do everything.  But the old phrase “think globally, act locally” does come to mind.  In a globalized world, our sin has far-reaching consequences as it separates us from God, ourselves and our neighbors.  But our acts of compassion have far-reaching consequences as well, that bring us together in trust and hope, to act in compassion toward love and justice.

Cure the sick.  Raise the dead.  Cleanse the lepers.  Cast out demons.  In our ministry of compassion, some of us will take these instructions literally.  And, even if we don’t: there are plenty of folks who are where we may have been, sick in spirit or body or mind or relationships.  As we may have, they need healing even more than cure, if cure is only for the symptoms.  There are plenty of folks who are where we may have been, dead in despair or numb or hopeless.  As we may have, they could use a witness in word or deed to the hope of grace, love, and power.  As we may have been, there are plenty of folks that are considered “unclean” by some standards of birth and religion, who in compassion, justice, and common humanity are to be included in the same love and acceptance that we have received, as beloved of God.  And there are plenty of demons, forces of systemic and even personal evil, that are to be named and confronted in the name of Jesus and the creativity of the Spirit.

Jesus wants us to be aware of the challenges.   The work of compassion stirs the pot.  It brings to the surface what is down below.  It mixes up what has been separated.  It distributes the heat.  Just because we are doing something right and good does not mean that everybody will like our work, or even like us.  But as we act out of gratitude, and know that we are not alone, we increase our own faith, hope, and confidence in God, as well as increase faith, hope, and confidence in God in others.

The other night I had dinner with a friend.  She is a practicing Christian, and often speaks of how God’s love and provision are at work in her life.  She said that she had joined a local group to voice some concerns and include some folks in discussion.   The group felt that these folks and concerns were either invisible or were being ignored in the community.  She also said that after feeling quite overwhelmed and depressed about these issues, joining the group had given her new energy and hope.  The group brought a lot of different experience and talents together, and there was a high degree of commitment to the naming of the issues, to the inclusion of those previously excluded, and to practical solutions for the challenges.  She was no longer alone in her concerns and her compassion, and was grateful to have been introduced to the group.

For what do we ourselves have concerns?  For whom do we ourselves have compassion?  The harvest is still plentiful, the laborers are still few.  The lord of the harvest invites us to join him in the work.  With gratitude, and companionship with God and each other, we can be confident in our calling and our work.  Amen.

– The Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell

Grace, Love, Communion

June 11th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

2 Corinthians 13: 11-13

Matthew 28: 16-20

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Good Morning! It is truly wonderful to be speaking again from the pulpit of Marsh Chapel today. My thanks to Dean Hill for making this opportunity available to me and to my colleagues here at the chapel for their support in leading worship this morning.

Imagine my pleasure when I discovered that the reading from the Hebrew Bible for the lectionary this week is the first creation account in Genesis (also the longest lectionary reading – thanks for your patience and participation!). As someone who studies environmental/ecological ethics, this is a perfect starting off point for a sermon. Themes of dominion vs. stewardship, our understanding of ourselves as a part of the creation and not separate from it, and the world having inherent value because of God’s care in creating it are all found in this one passage and are often upheld by Christian ecological theologians and ethicists as justification for why Christians should seek justice for the earth. So, easy for me. Slam dunk. This sermon could be written in an hour.

But instead, I’m choosing to go on a path that has many hills and obstacles instead of clear one. It builds character, right? Today is Trinity Sunday which celebrates the threefold nature of God. Theologically, the Trinity continues to be one of the most challenging aspects of Christianity to fully grasp. Martin Luther infamously stated that “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation, to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.” Similarly, John Wesley stated “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a human being, and then I will show you a human being that can comprehend the Triune God!” There are many similar warnings from many theologians about the dangers and limits in human comprehension of one of the central claims to our belief system.

Let me start by saying, I do not fully understand the Trinity. And this sermon is not meant as an attempt at that. When we talk about the Trinity, with a capital “T”, we are usually referring to God in three persons or types – historically delineated as God the Father, God’s only begotten Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons in one. The Christian math of 1+1+1 = 1. It’s found all over our liturgy. Disagreements about the nature of the Trinity go back to the fourth century when the church fathers tried to define whether Jesus was divine or not as well as establish the official doctrine of the Trinity (for more information see the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople from which we get the Nicene Creed professed in some mainline protestant denominations to this day). The entire church has split over understandings of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. As Luther and Wesley have rightly pointed out, the Trinity continues to be a mystery to human beings. We can never fully comprehend it. But, that does not mean that we cannot try to understand aspects of the trinity and of God.

Instead of using the typical formulation which we find in Matthew today (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), I am more interested in the threefold description of God that Paul uses in closing the second letter to the Corinthians. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” A commentary on this passage that I read in preparation for this sermon referred to Paul’s formulation as “faintly trinitarian (with a small ‘t’).”[1] Formal orthodoxy about the Trinity (with a big T) wouldn’t come until hundreds of years after this epistle was written. While Paul’s use of Grace, Love, and Communion would most assuredly inform the later formal doctrine, he would most likely have not referred to himself as a Trinitarian, even though he does split God into three separate entities in this passage. Instead, what we can take from this passage is one way to express three foundational aspects of understanding how God and human beings relate to one another.

Paul’s formulation of the grace, love, and communion found in the divine may ring familiar to some of you, as it is for me – “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”. Growing up in the Lutheran church, this scripture passage was and is still used as the greeting at each service. In fact, while I was preparing this sermon, Brother Larry commented on how “Lutheran” my title is, which isn’t surprising given Luther’s particular fondness for Paul’s epistles. Used in the context of a worship service, grace, love, and community serve as a welcome and an opportunity for us to come together as one in praise of God. But we can take these words for granted. Just like in any relationship, we must be attentive to maintain a healthy relationship with God and with others. And now, when we find ourselves in deeply troubling and divisive times, perhaps it is more imperative than ever to remind ourselves what lies at the core of our Christian teachings.

You’ll notice that in the reading of second Corinthians we heard today, Paul is ending his letter to the Church in Corinth, not beginning it with this greeting.  Paul writes to the Corinthians after finding out that there have been crises in the Church that have created division between people in Corinth. This letter is meant as encouragement for the church to continue to move forward in reconciliation. Scholars believe that Paul sent another letter in between the epistles we have come to know as first and second Corinthians in which he admonished them for their behavior and was very harsh with them (he states as much in second Corinthians itself). The church in Corinth turned itself around to serve God and be in community with one another. One of Paul’s means of encouragement is to remind them that their strength and power comes from the ultimate source – God. In verse 5 of chapter 13, just before the passage we read today, Paul inquires, “Examine yourselves: are you living the life of faith?” This entreaty is not just to scold the Christians in Corinth to do better but to also recognize the fundamental reality that God resides with us in all that we do and by acting faithfully we affirm our commitment to God. Then, in closing he cites grace, love, and communion as expressions of this faithful relationship.

If we are to ask ourselves this question, “are we living the life of faith?”, what would our answer be? What does it mean to live a life of faith? Grace, love, and communion are all interrelated concepts, just as the relationship found in the Trinity are interrelational. They inform and help to shed light on one another.  Let’s explore together the ideas of grace, love, and communion a bit more to try to understand how we live a life of faith together and can be better disciples of Christ in the world.

Grace

One thing that we must fundamentally understand about our Christian identity is that it is relational. God as source of all maintains a relationship with the world and humanity. Our reading from Genesis for today is not out of place with the other readings – it demonstrates a gracious God who creates and proclaims a world that is inherently good. It also places God as the source of all that we can rely on when times get tough.

For Protestants, the grace extended by God is an essential part of our relationship with God. God freely gives grace to humanity. Grace is a gift from God given through Jesus Christ. Charis, the Greek word for grace, implies a gift freely given, even undeserved by those who receive it. As a Lutheran, my understanding of grace is that we do not deserve it, but that God actively extends it to us if we have faith. This is where the idea of “justification by faith” or sola fides comes from in our protestant traditions. Good works are not required in order to receive God’s grace, but good works come out of that faith and grace that we receive. For most Protestants, this understanding of Grace is central to our theological interpretations of the Divine-human relationship.

Why should we bother to do anything good then? If God’s grace is given to us freely, no matter what, then shouldn’t we just anticipate that it will be given to us? The answer is no, because faith is still required of us. Faith is the dynamic actor on the side of humanity in the divine-human relationship. Out of faith grows our sense of responsibility for others, for creation, and for ourselves. If we turn back to our scripture from Genesis for today, God creates all good things and finds the creation to be very good, but gives responsibility to human beings to be stewards of that creation. Although our reading used the words “subdue” and “dominion” when discussing the human relationship with the Earth, a more correct understanding is our care and stewardship of that which is ultimately God’s, not ours, and that which God finds to be good outside of our use for it. This flies in the face of claims that we might hear from some Christians today who say things like, if there is such a thing as climate change (and news flash: there is), God will take care of it for us. To believe such a thing abdicates us from our responsibilities and partnership with God and with others. This brings me to the second of our relational identities with God: love.

Love

Love, agape, is how we interact with others. The love expressed by God through Jesus is understood to be self-giving, seeking out the needs of the neighbor. Love is our duty to one another – to serve and meet the needs of those around us. Again, referring to love, Luther reminds us that faith and love are intertwined with one another. Love is a consequence of faith. It is how we express our faith to others and in the world around us. There is a direct relationship between grace, faith and love. We are set free by the grace of God to love and do the work of God with our hands.

And that love is not limited in scope. We must love our neighbors and love our enemies. Surely hating what is evil is also proclaimed in the scriptures, and we must continue to resist ideologies that are damaging to those who are most in need, but the challenge for us is to try to find common ground with those who see things differently than us. As I said before, this is a deeply divisive time in our country. Recently, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the presiding Bishop of the ELCA, wrote a column in Living Lutheran, the monthly ELCA magazine entitled “Serving the neighbor in charged times.”[2] In it, she reminds Lutherans of their call to be in service to others, no matter who they are, and that in order to do it we must be civically engaged. She states “We forget that we are one people. I think we fail to recognize Christ in others, whether the other is across the pew or across the world. We forget that we all—whatever our politics—stand under the judgment of God and that only God’s promise of reconciling love in Jesus can save us. Set free by that promise we can find a way to serve the neighbor.”

Aided by echo-chambers of media outlets and social media accounts, we can easily find the people who agree with us and reject/block/unfriend those who don’t. We can forget that those who hold beliefs that differ from ours are still people. Extending love does not mean that we necessarily have to agree with those who hold different beliefs than our own, but we must remember that our need to be in service to others outweighs political affiliation, race, religious identity, or sexual orientation, gender. True kindness and compassion should be our guiding light.

It is often in moments of tragedy and extreme strain that we see the walls that divide us come down. We saw it a few weeks ago in Manchester, as people offered their homes to complete strangers, and as people lined up around the corner to donate blood for those who were injured. We saw it a year ago this weekend, when over fifty people were murdered at Pulse nightclub in Orlando during Pride and a great outpouring of care and support came from people all over the U.S. and the world. We saw it in Boston four years ago as we proudly proclaimed “Boston Strong” after the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing.  But must we wait until tragedy strikes to show our support for others? Can we be reliable neighbors every day for those we often fail to recognize who need our help the most? What does it mean to be in a community with others and to share in God’s love?

Communion

This brings us to the last of the attributes Paul assigns to God. Communion. Koinonia. A fellowship or gathering. Christianity is not a solitary endeavor. In order to be relational, we must interact with others. We come together in worship to hear the scripture together and to praise God, but we also come together in many other ways to live out our Christian witness. We commonly think of communion in terms of Holy communion – the Lord’s Supper that we share together during worship. We share in this sacrament with each other and with God at the same time, in a very obvious way. But communion and fellowship can be expressed in so many other ways. Obviously food is a great way to bring people together. During the school year, Marsh Chapel offers many opportunities for chapter members, students, and faculty to come together over a meal. I host Global Dinner Club each week. This space encourages students to not only learn some much-needed cooking skills for when they are on their own after college, but also gives us opportunity to find places of commonality or difference in our backgrounds. Undergraduate and graduate students, people of faith and people of no faith, domestic and international gather in preparing food, eating and having conversation. We’ve talked about everything from television shows to the finer nuances of process theology during these dinners and everyone walks away learning something new, like the history of the great molasses flood in Boston, and, more importantly, building bonds with other people. We can all recognize the inexpressible feeling that develops when a group of people comes together. I like to think that feeling, that connection we share is God. God is experienced through faith, through grace, through love, and in communion with others.

Some communities we get to voluntarily choose, for example, what church we attend or the friends we keep close. Others we have less of a choice in: our families, our neighbors (to an extent), and our school or work colleagues, even the ecosystems we are a part of. But whether our communities are self-selected or not, we have the opportunity in all cases to try to learn a little more about one another and to share with one another. Our community as a Christian congregation is important, to be sure, but we are not only in Christian contexts. We can bring our faith and our values to these other communities by practicing the love that God enables us to share with one another. When Jesus sends the disciples out to go and make disciples in all nations, to form a worldwide community of people of faith, it is through the word and baptism, but also through the actions of those whom he sends that disciples are made. Our faith informs our actions and those actions make an impression on the world around us.

Grace, Love, and Communion. As a welcoming wish at the start of a worship service or the departing words of a letter written nearly 2000 years ago, the Christian message is delivered through these three interrelated concepts. Our challenge now is to go out into the world and live into them as fully as we can to be disciples of Christ.
Amen.

– Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 13:11-13,” WorkingPreacher.org, May 18, 2008. Accessed June 7, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3258

[2] Elizabeth Eaton, “Serving the Neighbor in Charged Times,” Living Lutheran, June 2, 2017. Accessed June 7, 2017. https://www.livinglutheran.org/2017/06/serving-neighbor-charged-times/