Good morning. It is a wonder and a joy to be part of this community, and I am especially grateful to Dean Hill for the invitation to join you in the pulpit today.
As your bulletin notes, today is the last Sunday after Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday. It is that time in the Christian year when we recognize the real presence of God incarnate in Jesus. This theological claim grounds our preparation in Lent (which begins on Wednesday) for the celebration of the miracle of Easter and resurrection. My sermon title plays on the claim that is made in Matthew’s description of Jesus on the mountain. Particularity, this theological concept that God’s incarnation happened through Jesus as a particular person at a particular time and place – about two millennia ago in the region near the Sea of Galilee, is front and center in our gospel today.
Christian particularity, what makes us unique and distinct as a religious body, is grounded in this idea that Jesus is God. Within religious communities we often do a pretty good job of telling our own folk why we are unique and special, what makes us different from everybody else, but that does not always lend itself to thoughtfully engaging folks outside of the community.
Thankfully for the preacher, this is a well-trod topic. (Although for the PhD candidate in me, I wonder how I am ever supposed to contribute to a two-millennia-old conversation.) Twenty years ago, Mary Elizabeth Moore, wrote an article for the British Journal of Religious Education titled, “Teaching Christian particularity in a pluralistic world.” In the article she writes, “Christianity itself lives in the tension between formation and freedom, particularity and pluralism, and that tension is represented in Jesus Christ himself. Although Christians vary greatly in what they believe about Jesus and his teaching, a common heritage of Christians is an affirmation of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. This heritage has sometimes been used as a wedge to divide Christians from people of other faiths, drawing upon such biblical texts as ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6b, NRSV) … this very heritage can instead be the source of basic impulses to embrace the pluralistic world, and … the heritage can be discovered most fully when we practise education by conversation – seeking to know ourselves and others by engaging with the diverse traditions of Christianity and with the diverse traditions of other religious communities” (BJRE 17:2, pp. 71-72).
After all, isn’t the collegiate experience all about education by conversation? We come to know the other through conversation with the other and also grow to more fully understand ourselves.
I was sitting in the College of General Studies building lobby on Friday afternoon – 70 degrees, sunny, and gorgeous outside. Classes were letting out a little after 2pm, and nearly everyone was headed for a place outside. A young woman sat down at a table near me in the lobby, jean jacket, stylish shades, and venti Very Berry Hibiscus Starbucks refresher in hand. She looked the part of a person ready to enjoy a beautiful early spring day. However, she busied herself on her phone, waiting for something or someone. A few minutes later a young man also looks for a place to sit. He recognizes the young woman, she looks up from her phone, and he walks to her table. “We’re in class together?” He stammers the question. She smiles warmly, “Yeah.” A hand extended, a name offered, he introduces himself. They begin to chat. Eventually she invites him to sit. “Are you rushing? Everybody in class seems to be rushing.” “Um, no,” he replies, clearly hoping that was the right answer. “I didn’t know that was such a big thing here.” “I’m not rushing either,” she says. A sigh of relief. He concedes, “I’m just not into that.” Conversation continues. Eventually she shares that several women in her family went to BU and that it was always part of her awareness applying to schools. She speaks passionately about the institution’s history and commitment to social justice and accessibility for the common working person in Boston. An aunt got a degree while working full-time. She continues that she only applied to schools in New England. He applied to 15 schools across the country, BU and BC – got into both. “Oh, I didn’t apply to BC,” she says. He stops again. Perhaps, he said the wrong thing. But she continues and talks about the character of an institution. She didn’t have anything against BC, BU just represented the kind of institution she wanted to be a part of, a place which values diversity, a place where you can find a place to belong, and a place where anyone can improve their future. “That’s why I’m here.” They continue to chat.
I think to myself, “Wow, she’d make a great campus tour guide.” Their conversation continues, he learns more about BU, and she is at least entertained by his curiosity. Eventually he says, “I don’t think I have your number. We should hang out.” “I’d like that,” she responds as she types some digits in his phone.
Conversation is a constant part of college life. You meet new people. You learn new things; you learn about yourself, and sometimes you make a friend.
When we engage with the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable we learn a little bit more about ourselves. That’s why I left all of the lectionary readings in the liturgy this week. For some, one text or another is uncomfortable, awkward, or jarring. Psalm 99 has an abundance of masculine lordship language, itself at odds with the feminist commitments espoused by many members of the staff and regular folks in the pews, but it is interlaced with profound truths fundamental to the commitments of this community: “lover of justice, you have established equity” and “you were a forgiving God to them.” But that line is immediately followed with “[you are] an avenger of their wrongdoings.” What? Do we worship a God of wrath and judgement? (Plenty of Christians do.) What do we believe and why do we believe it? How do today’s readings trouble your notions of the divine? Is God a devouring fire? Is the Holy Spirit spoken by God? The images from the lessons today all ground the language and ingrained imagery of our tradition. We may find some useful, others not, but they are part of the tradition. Together the texts contribute to our collective Christian particularity and inform your own theological particularity.
Like many Methodists, I learned my theology through song. The sermon hymn today, which Justin Blackwell, our organist and Associate Director of Music, tells me is the most popular of the four or so Transfiguration hymns in the United Methodist Hymnal, frames the uniqueness of Jesus and Jesus’ relationship with God. It also provides a glimpse of what the Western Church has taught about the transfiguration for centuries:
From age to age the tale declares
how with the three disciples there
where Moses and Elijah meet,
the Lord holds converse high and sweet.
The law and prophets there have place,
two chosen witnesses of grace.
These lines from the Sarum Breviary, the variant of the Roman rite commonly used in the Diocese of Salisbury in England from the 11th to 16th centuries, allude to the principle teaching of the early church that this encounter among Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, signals that the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels ought to be received and read in conversation with one another.
John Mason Neale, the 19th century Anglican priest and hymnwriter best known for his carol “Good King Wenceslas,” translated the disused Use of Salisbury and a number of other Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian liturgical texts into English. Much of the ancient liturgy we now sing in English is thanks to Rev. Neale. His translation continues:
With shining face and bright array,
Christ deigns to manifest that day
what glory shall be theirs above
who joy in God with perfect love.
These Sarum lines connect our future Heavenly glory-bodies of which Paul writes in Corinthians with Jesus’ appearance on the mountain. It is in his appearance we see the promise of resurrection.
The last line of the gospel pericope also more clearly reinforces the resurrection connection: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That line is also a truth claim in our Gospel today.
How do we navigate these Christian truth claims in a pluralistic world? Perhaps we scrutinize them in our encounter with the other. In conversation, we bring reason, tradition, and experience to bear on scripture, and we come to own what is good, real, and true in our texts.
Marsh Chapel is a lectionary-based liturgical experience. Week by week, we read through a three-year cycle of scriptural texts. However, the preacher may elect (and the dean often does) to include only a portion of the texts appointed for the day. Usually the lectionary includes a Hebrew Bible lesson, a selection from a New Testament epistle (or Acts), a Psalm (or portion of one), and a Gospel lesson. To explicate four, at best, loosely related, texts in about 20 minutes is a practical challenge. Often the dean’s 22.5 minutes is not even enough time to fully engage with one text let alone four. Your preacher today decided it better to invite you into conversation with each text – although truth be told, today’s lectionary lists two Psalms – Psalm 99 is the alternate text, the less common one – even if a full treatment of each text may escape his ability today.
By engaging with the diverse texts and traditions of Christianity and with the diverse traditions of other religious communities we come to know ourselves.
In 2 Peter 1:21, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophesy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophesy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God,” we are reminded of the campaign of our United Church of Christ friends, “God is still speaking.” Are we listening for the movement of the Spirit and recognizing God’s continuing movement in the world?
This chapel was constructed with the expectation that God was still speaking. A regular worshipper or listener knows the saints whose images adorn the clerestory windows of this sacred space: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist, Athanasius, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Francis Asbury, Abraham Lincoln, and Frances Willard. Yes, Daniel Marsh even believed that God was speaking through a woman! It would take his denomination (my own) almost another two decades to get on board that women could and should have equal place with men in the church. But Frances Willard, like so many heroes is a complicated person, temperance leader, suffragette, and in Marsh’s day, the only woman to have a statue in the Capitol rotunda. However, she also tacitly encouraged racism and bigotry in the temperance and suffrage pamphlets and fliers her organizations produced. At a time when other leaders, women and men, worked for greater racial inclusion, she did very little to further that cause. She prophesied a land of inclusion and equality for women (but was that vision only for white women?). Part of her message was on point, part of it not. How does the reality her life and work square with our verse from 2 Peter today? Our conversation partners help us make sense of our scripture and the tradition we inherit.
Perhaps our particularity, our personal Christian theological particularity, changes over time, educated by conversation.
When I teach United Methodist polity, that is the organization, structure, and law of the denomination (contained in the Book of Discipline), I encounter a number of cradle United Methodist students preparing for a lifetime of (usually) itinerant service to the denomination. Many have been swaddled in the rhythms of church life and denominational jargon, but they often refer to themselves as “Methodist,” not “United Methodist.” When asked, “Why Methodist? Why not United Methodist?” The usual answer goes something like this, “Oh, it sounds so formal. It refers to the official body of the denomination. ‘Methodist’ is more generic, more general, more personal.” I often then ask if they have an affinity for John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Responses are often mixed. “Well, how about Phillip William Otterbein.” “Phillip who?” The name does not usually register unless they are from Ohio or Pennsylvania (or they have taken a United Methodist history class). Phillip William Otterbein, founder of the United Brethren in Christ, lifelong friend of Francis Asbury, the early American Methodist bishop. Otterbein, the German-speaking, university-educated immigrant minister who together with Martin Boehm, a German-speaking farmer-turned-minister, organized religious communities for the German immigrants of Pennsylvania and Ohio in the early 19th century. The same Otterbein, who with Boehm and Asbury, appears in the list of bishops of the United Methodist Church. When the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968, the lists of episcopal leaders merged, and Otterbein and Boehm found a place alongside Asbury, Thomas Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Jacob Albright as founding episcopal leaders of our denomination. The tiny communities which dot the farmlands of Pennsylvania and Ohio still often have two United Methodist Churches, one historically Methodist Episcopal and one EUB. There are plenty of United Methodists who aren’t Wesleyans, in fact they don’t see themselves as Methodists. They are United Methodists, the product of a merged church, a big tent, where competing theological views are welcome, and where for almost 50 years we have agreed to disagree on many things. I share with students that I describe myself as “United Methodist” because I believe in a big tent church. Yes, I am personally “Methodist” in theology and practice but I have come to value and learn from the conversation partners I find within my own denomination – especially the non-Wesleyan ones.
A good conversation partner is someone with whom you can be honest about your particularity, whether that’s BU, BC, United Methodist, Lutheran, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.
Last week, I had the responsibility of communicating the morning announcements. I began in the usual fashion, “Good morning and welcome to Marsh Chapel. Whether you join us here in the nave at 735 Commonwealth Avenue by radio airwaves @ 90.9 WBUR or via the podcast, we are glad you are with us for a moment of pause, rest, and worship.” As I continued, I simply made that welcome a bit more specific: “As we strive to be a service in the service of the city – Boston – and a heart in the heart of the city, know that you are welcome here – immigrant, refugee, or 8th generation New Englander, black, brown, white, gay, straight, bi, trans, something else, or simply not sure. You are welcome here. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party, Independent, you are welcome here.”
Anyone who listens regularly to the Sunday morning service knows that the Dean has worked over these last several years to cultivate a culture of genuine welcome and hospitality in the Marsh Chapel community. We are a multigenerational, multiethnic, politically and theologically diverse worshipping community, but sometimes we are not always explicit that “a welcome to all” means “all.”
We hope that you find the chapel to be a place where you can be honest about your particularity, find a receptive conversation partner, learn about their particularity, and also reflect on your own. Coffee hour after the service is an excellent opportunity for education by conversation – so is Monday night dinner, Create Space on Tuesdays, Wednesday School of Theology worship here in the nave, and Common Ground Communion on Thursdays out on Marsh Plaza. Find a good conversation partner here at Marsh Chapel, in one of your classes, at the AA meeting, in your candlepin league, or at your yoga class.
How are we to engage a pluralistic world?
Be honest about your own particularity and get an education by conversation about yourself and about the other.
-the Reverend Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development