A Topography of Love

May 1st, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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John 14:23-29

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“Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’”

You are invited to walk in the land of love, from this day forward. Walk in love.  Walk across the landscape of love.  Make love your aim.  Love one another.  Here is a Johannine topographical map for your travels in just one verse alone, John 14: 23.

Our earth science teacher had a way of finding a way to excite 13 year olds with the mysteries of topography.  A.  He traced the advance and retreat of glaciers, and their deposits, in kells and drumlins and valleys and lakes.  He reminded us that we are ice people, up north here.  He pointed out the undersides of the mountains and the different geological formations underneath the similar beauties of the Adirondacks and Catskills.  B. With great energy, he showed us how rivers formed and wound around and changed course.  He reminded us that Susquehanna means ‘winding river’, and then would drift off into meditations upon other native names:  Onondaga, Tioghnioga, Canandaigua, Oneida.  These place names, a part of one local topography, in his merriment and memory became lodged in us, placing us in their places.  The best of the days were those spent pouring over the maps, and the ways that rivers remake landscape.  There is a flow to things, a watery fluidity underneath and sometimes well above the apparent surfaces of life.  C.  He took us beyond the constellations—Ursa Major and Minor, Draco the Dragon, Orion the Archer, Cassiopia on her throne—which we had already located in scouting, and spread out the universe, 14 billion years of age, endless ranges of galaxies, meteors sailing, suns exploding, darkness and light.  He was trying to say something to us, looking back, about our place in the great Place of the  Cosmos. D. He gestured to the winds, the gusting climactic climate about us.  Freezing points, dew points, compass points—all good points.  Behold the topographical mysteries!

Ours today is a topography, not of earth but of heaven, not of earth science but of heavenly science, not of land but of love.  

Love.  Are we lovers anymore?

It can feel blasphemous to speak of love at all.  In a world where warfare continues to bubble up and out of Tutsi and Hutu history; in a world where Ecuadorian huts and barrios are wrecked in natural catastrophic earthquakes; in a world in which Columbian children are kidnapped and made child warriors; in a country, our own, in which there is lasting dispute about whether non-rich children should have full access to education and health care to age 21; in a country in which democracy—as both the ancient Greeks and our constitutional founders soberly feared—suddenly seems to give way to demagoguery (largely it must be underscored, due to the habits of mind, forms of rhetoric, and decades of contention exported from one party and this year from one candidate); in a country that comes to resemble, in spirit,  the ancient Israel decried by Amos, and others, shot through with personal depravity, vapid worship, rampant neglect of the poor, and haughty, foolish overreliance on military might;  in a culture that prizes counting but not reckoning; in a culture which emphasizes knowledge to the exclusion of relationship producing citizens who are often knowledgeably advanced but relationally delayed; in a culture, bounded by misogyny, blinded by racism, bordered by greed, which sees no longer any eternal horizon, nor values any longer the traditions of self-giving which themselves gave the culture its very birth; in a week of further gun death, including that of a two year old shooting his mother from the back seat of the car; in a week of violence in city after city; in a week of smaller slights, hidden swindles, and personal abuses which all fill in the Latin phrase, homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man; in such a world, country, culture and week it can seem the height of hubris, or naivete, to utter in public the word ‘love’ at all.  It can seem blasphemous to speak of love at all.

Nevertheless….

Here we are!  Here you are!  Bearing witness, giving thanks, offering prayers and tithes, seeking the Lord together.  Sursum Corda:  Lift up your hearts!

Our Gospel does so speak.  Of love.

Are we lovers any more?

Do we let love be our aim?  Do we think daily, and act weekly, and practice monthly the scales, vaults, verifications, and measurements of love?  Do we love God and love our neighbor, loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourself?  Are we going on to wholeness, to becoming healthy and whole in love in this lifetime (Are you going on to perfection?  Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?) For what do we live?  If you are not going on to wholeness in love, what you are going on to?

Are we familiar with a topography of love—its glacial forms, its meandering rivers, its celestial stars and lights, its wind blowing where it wills?

Are we lovers anymore?  Are you ready to get the lay of the land?  God’s nature and name is love.  Are we loving people?  

Our topography of love is a verse in four phrases.

Those who love me

Ages ago glaciers cut lakes and hollows and mountains into lasting shapes.   Love has done the same, cut lakes and hollows and mountains into lasting, existential shape.

Faith is a gift.  Faith is not a task, not an achievement, not a work, not an accomplishment.  Faith is a gift, through which we live out our lives in thanksgiving.  Faith is a gift.  You gain no praise in receipt of such a gift, and you incur no blame in the lack of such a gift.  

For those who have been seized by the love of God, the faith of Christ, the confession of the church—is this who you are?—love is the form, the topographical outline of life.  Walk in love.

It must be stressed that, at least here in the Holy Scripture, and at least here in the Gospel of John, John 14: 23, there is no argument that some should jump across a line, or make a personal choice.  It is geological, glacial force at work, here.  Those called to love, those called to love Him, are those called to love, those called to love Him.  Is this you (pl.)?

The verse affirms that there are those who have a revelation that they are meant to love.  They have the gift, the faithful gift of love.  Some have the gift of strength, some the gift of music, some the gift of philanthropy, some the gift of insight.  Faith (pistis) is such a gift.  Love (agape) is such a gift.

For the first readers and hearers of this passage, our verse revealed a mystical union, a mystical audition, a mystical shift, a mystical experience, whose essence in retrospect became: We are meant to live in love, as those who love Him.

Will keep my word

The lakes and rivers that filled with water, over long, flowing, fluid, time, kept alive a saturation, a potential to slake the thirsts of life.  Especially their propensity to meander, to wander, to saunter, to wonder, to move and live and have being, that propensity to fluidity makes a lively, loving word.

We may want to wrestle a bit with both the verb and the noun here.  

To keep is not to obey, to keep is not to hold, to keep is not to hear, to keep is not to possess, although it is all those things and more.

In a small upper room, perhaps in Ephesus, maybe in the year 90ad, possibly with 30 or 40 present, a word is spoken and heard.  It is a voice that speaks like no other, ‘so equable, magnanimous, and serene’ (J. Ashton).  To hear it one needs to listen.  One needs to learn to hear, to practice listening, to train the ear, as some music schools do.

A word is not text, ancient or cyber, nor a verse, however venerable or holy, nor a doctrine, even a powerful doctrine.  The word is near your heart and your lips, too.   How will you hear a word of God without listening for such a word?  In Scripture, in Prayer, in Worship, in Conversation, in Meditation, in Sacrament, in Silence—day to day pours forth speech.  But have we ears, ears to hear?  There is a kind of turning of the back upon the world commanded by this word, His word.

(In an age sorrowfully awash in vulgar words, hateful words, misogynist, xenophobic, racist, artfully hateful words, in an age sorrowfully awash in a culture that languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise, a pervasive amnesia, a pervasive torpidity, a pervasive ugliness, now unleashed, to our shame, in the political events of this year, one especially needs the care and cultivation of hearing.)  

Good news:  you may have confidence that such a word, yours to keep, yours for the keeping, may be spoken and heard.  Here.  Now.

My Father will love them

Now the celestial lights are before us.  The planets, the stars, the meteors, the darkness and the light, the evening sky—these illumine our few days upon the earth.

We this week had sign board on the plaza for students to use to write out what they hoped to do and be in life.  The word love was not absent, but almost so, as my friend pointed out.  Many other words were written on the chalk board, but not love, not often.  One wrote: I hope to find someone to love.  Another: I want to love as I have been loved.  But these sorts of sentences were few in number.  

The day before we held vigil, again, for a student who died three years ago.  Her mother, her friends, her former housemates gathered, three years on, at the monument, the King monument.  You look for something sturdy in grief.  We stood with flowers, wreaths, and photos.  We ‘said some words’ (interesting locution).  We waited in quiet.  We wept, some at length and with profusion.  We lit candles, shielding them from a light wind.  When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

Again, there is no transaction here, no quid pro quo, no love for love trade.  Here is eternal love, ‘my Father will love them’.  Topos is place; graphe is writing—the depiction of a space, a topography of love.  No one has ever seen God.  But if we love one another God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us.

Huston Smith, when teaching at MIT long ago, said:  we are in good hands, and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens. 

We will make our home with them

To see which way the wind is blowing you need an anemometer.  A glacial form, a river bed, a sacred canopy—earth, water, stars—make up our topography of love, with one addition, by the strength of this verse, John 14:23.

There is to be an indwelling, a making oneself at home, Father and Son will come and take up residence, be present, become presence.  Here our humble sacraments, of holy baptism and holy communion, of bath and meal, of washing and eating, of cleansing and nourishment may bring a helpful reminder, with thanksgiving, of presence, His presence.

Yet the earliest hearers and readers of our verse felt something more.  They felt Him making a home in their midst.  They felt Him living with them.  They felt Him dwelling among them.  I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps.  They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps.  I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.  His day is marching on.  

Here is Paul in the seventh heaven.  Here is Lydia opening her life.  Here is the Psalmist at peace.  Here is Augustine in the garden.  Here is Aquinas calling a lifetime’s writing, ‘so much straw’.  Here is John of the Cross, en una noche oscura.  Here is Luther in agony.  Here is Wesley in the rain of Aldersgate Street.  Here is Harriet Tubman, walking north to freedom.  Here is Martin Luther King, signing books on Manhattan, suddenly wounded and bleeding.  Here is Francis, Bishop of Rome, in our time, imploring all to honor the conscience of the believer, which is inviolable.  Here is Howard Thurman, on the beach.  Here you are—formed by love, guided by love, embraced by love, now touched by love.  You may recall in prayer:  I am loved.  So I can love.  The topography of love carries a mysterious, no a mystical, wind, breath, breeze…spirit.

Are we lovers any more?

Do we let love be our aim?  Do we think daily, and act weekly, and practice monthly the scales, vaults, verifications, and measurements of love?  Do we love God and love our neighbor, loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourself?  Are we going on to wholeness, to becoming healthy and whole in love in this lifetime (Are you going on to perfection?  Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?) For what do we live? If you are not going on to wholeness in love, what you are going on to?

Are we familiar with topography of love—its glacial forms, its meandering rivers, its celestial stars and lights, its wind blowing where it wills?

Are we lovers anymore?  Are you ready to get the lay of the land?  God’s nature and name is love.  Are we loving people?

“Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’”

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

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Take Care

April 24th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Acts 11:1-18

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Good morning! It is a pleasure to join you again from this historic pulpit. My thanks to Dean Hill for this opportunity to speak with you again on the weekend of Earth Day 2016. It’s become tradition that I preach on a Sunday near Earth Day because of my academic interest in social and ecological ethics. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to share my passion with you today.

Like some young adults who live quite a distance away from their nuclear family, I try dutifully to maintain contact with my parents on at least a weekly basis via phone call. Some weeks it’s more than once a week, some weeks go by and I realized I haven’t called them in x-many days. Of course, my mom still keeps up with what I’m doing by checking Facebook for my latest status updates, or chatting with one of my siblings whom I’ve texted or messaged in the past few days. But nothing compares to taking the time to sit and verbally communicate with my parents for a half hour, or an hour, or more. By the time we reach the end of our conversation we say our typical goodbyes…”Alright. I hope you have a good week/It’ll all work out./I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.” However, my dad almost always ends our conversations with the same two words “Take Care.” “Alright, talk to you soon, take care, bye.” “Take care” itself isn’t unusual in this context. It’s a common phrase to use when saying goodbye to someone, especially someone that’s close to you. But I like to think of it as my dad’s way of saying “I love you.” “Take care” is a shortened version of “Take care of yourself,” a directive that not only indicates that the person you’re leaving or ending a conversation with wants to you to be well, but also that you continue treating yourself well. It indicates that because you will not be together that other person will not be able to physically care for you, but he/she wishes that you will carry with you the emotional care he/she sends you with.

Taking care of ourselves is hard, and often we must rely on others to help us do it. Or at least we need them to remind us to take care of ourselves. A recent article I came across on 101 ways to practice self-care linked from the website “the Mighty” puts our human situation succinctly: “Being a human can be a messy, hard, confusing, painful experience sometimes.” We can become so driven by outside forces – like getting good grades, or advancing in our workplace, or earning more money – that we lose sight of the need to give ourselves a break sometimes. Friends and family can often be helpful in reminding us to take care of ourselves when we need it most. To be gentle with ourselves when things don’t go the way we want. To take a break when we need it. We can be pretty terrible at cutting ourselves some slack when we need it because we think there are standards or goals that everyone else is somehow accomplishing, and we’re failing to do so. Often all it will take to gain some clarity is to step away from the situation, give ourselves 5, 10, 20 minutes to breathe, hydrate, eat, be silent, engage our bodies rather than our minds, or talk to someone who can remind us of who we are and that we have value by just being us.

For example, I have a good friend who encourages her close friends to periodically (once or twice a year) to have a “decadent day.” She offers to help you plan whatever your day of “decadence” might look like. You know, treating yourself to those things that you love to do and relieve your stress, but that you never find the time to do on your own. Fans of the television show Parks and Recreation may think of this another way – a “treat yo’ self” day. It might be going to get a massage, or watching Christmas videos all day while you bake cookies, or going to a place you haven’t been to before because you don’t have a car (but she does), or it could just be hanging out all day in pj’s, coloring, and taking naps when you feel like it. Taking one day, every once in a while to focus on what it is you REALLY want to do and having a friend there to remind you that this day is not meant to be stressful or guilt-inducing, can help you hit the pause button on the rest of your life for a little while. You should care for yourself, and often others can be the gateway to help you recognize that.

In today’s gospel reading, we encounter another instance of a “take care” directive. Let me set the scene for you – we’ve traveled back before Easter, just after Jesus has washed the feet of the disciples and shared in a last meal with them. The “he” referred to at the beginning of the scripture – “When he had gone out…” – is Judas who has just departed to betray Jesus to the Roman authorities. Jesus knows that the time is coming when he must give away his life for those that he loves, and that one of those that he has loved is turning against him. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of what is to come, Jesus turns to his disciples and issues them a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is slightly different than the older love commandment found in the book of Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This love is a mutual love that will strengthen the disciples in service to one another once Jesus is no longer with them. Not only will it help to strengthen their community, it will come to define their community, and Jesus knows that. Jesus serves his disciples both physically and spiritually in this one night. He washes their feet, showing them care in a way that was typically done by someone in a lower social standing. He also tells them what he has been demonstrating to them all along, and will culminate in doing through his crucifixion – that mutual care and love for each other is God’s will for them.

Jesus is essentially saying “take care” in this message to the disciples. He is about to leave them, but before he does, it’s important to emphasize to them how they should continue on without his physical presence when he is gone. However, the “take care” here is not “take care of yourself” like the version we often use today. Instead, it is “take care of each other.” Care for the other in such a way one thinks and puts the need of the other before oneself, bringing the community closer together.

But there’s more to the love commandment Jesus issues. Martin Luther, upon reflecting on this passage of John states, “To love does not mean…to wish someone else well, but to bear someone else’s burdens, that is to bear what is burdensome to you and what you would rather not bear.” As Luther highlights, Jesus’ command to the disciples is not easy or should be taken lightly. It’s hard to love in the way that Christ wants us to love. So many of us don’t love in that way. We don’t put others’ needs before our own. We fail to have empathy for those who are in difficult positions. We try to advance ourselves at all costs and neglect to see how that might impact others around us. One doesn’t need to look far to see how individualism and egocentrism runs rampant in our country and even in our world. While it is important to value ourselves, we cannot do it to an extreme that excludes others to the point of oppression. Instead Christ’s love, Christ’s form of taking care, requires us to take on the burdens of others.  We must help those who need it.

Just as Jesus meets the practical needs of the disciples by washing their feet, we might meet the practical needs of our community by bringing a covered dish to share on the first Sunday of the month for our community luncheon or by helping a new person in our community locate something as simple as the restroom. But the spiritual support that we supply for others is also a part of this. We can be a listening ear, we can provide prayers, we can offer spaces for people to laugh or cry, be there for moments of joy and of pain.

Today, “Taking care” cannot just be about being in community with other human beings, though. If you’ve noticed any of the movements among Christian denominations toward environmentalism, the discussion is usually framed around “Creation Care” or Caring for Our Earth. In fact, the denomination to which I belong, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s social statement on environmental care is found in a document entitled “Caring for Creation.” In it, the ELCA states that “Humans, in service to God, have special roles on behalf on the whole creation. Made in the image of God, we are called to care for the earth as God cares for the Earth.” This stewardship model, which places responsibility to tend and care for God’s creation with humanity, emphasizes the notion of care. We are a part of God’s creation, created from the same materials as the rocks, water, air, and creatures with which we share this planet. Even more than just caring for the planet that God created, we must recognize that we are in a relationship with the world around us by the very nature of our dependence upon Earth’s natural systems that sustain us.

Care is a verb that we can wrap our minds around when we talk about the earth. We have a sense, even if we don’t actively practice it, of what care should look like. Care is also easier to understand or grasp than the idea of loving creation. Love has too many different connotations in English to make a clearly identifiable action. So in this case, when we talk about our relationship with the Earth, care seems to make more sense than love, but the sentiment is very similar. Care means that we should have consideration for another that is in relationship with us. Care means that we want what is best for the other. Care means that we claim our responsibility to a much larger network of others. Us taking care of the earth and the Earth taking care of us is a mutual relationship that we share.

The earth cares for us in many ways. We might automatically think of all the practical and physical (utilitarian) uses that we have for the Earth, but we might not think of them as care, initially. The oxygen we breathe is a direct result of the respiration of the trees and other plants around us. The food we need comes from tending to the land and raising crops. The water we drink, although processed through water treatment plants, originates from the same water cycle that supplies our lakes, rivers, and streams. While we may not consider this care in the same way that we would through expressions of love from other people in our lives, we cannot exist without the essential natural goods that the Earth provides for us. We are connected to the Earth. These practical ways that the Earth supports us should be considered as care, and we tend to take them for granted. That is, we tend to take them for granted until things go awry.

When water becomes undrinkable, like it did in Flint, MI, when crops are decimated by drought, like during the great drought felt on the West Coast of the United States, when our air becomes polluted by industrial practices, like methane release or coal-burning power plants, we become acutely aware of the ways in which our connection with the earth is essential for our health and well-being. Even aesthetically, when nature is disrupted by human activity that destroys ecosystems and displaces other creatures, taking away its beauty, we lose the renewed sense of awe and wonder nature can give us that can inspire us to be more creative and feel more connected to others and with God. When we fail to recognize the ways in which we need to love the Earth, to take care of the Earth in the ways we need to for mutual support, we all lose and fail to meet God’s will.

If we are truly to take care of ourselves and take care of others as Christians, then we must also make sure that we expand our notion of care beyond the human community. In fact, many of the systems that create oppression and harm to other human beings are also harmful to our environment. The impacts of global warming, which is caused by a global reliance on fuels, tend to disproportionately harm those who are the most socioeconomically vulnerable. Members of developing nations, particularly women and children, face greater challenges than those of us in developed nations because we have the capital to develop technologies that will mitigate some of the effects created by this global problem. But in addition to these impacts on other human beings, we are also damaging the ecosystems that support all life on earth, and the quality of the Earth’s health as well. It is important to draw out the impacts of ecological degradation on other human beings, but it is also important to remember that the “Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” We are connected in a vast web of creation that finds its source in God. As we’re reminded in today’s Psalm reading:

1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

2Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!

3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!

4Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

5Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.

6He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,

8fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!

9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!

10Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!

11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!

12Young men and women alike, old and young together!

13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.

We are only a small part of the whole earth that is called to praise God, the creator and sustainer life. Through our connection we have a responsibility to care for the Earth. We must pay attention to the ways we impact it. How often are we reusing items we possess instead of using disposable items? Do we walk or bike instead of driving to a nearby location? Have we thought about where our energy comes from and how its source may be impacting the world? These are burden some question to ask ourselves – and it would be easier to continue in the way we have been acting. But eventually, our actions will come back in a negative way and impact us. Our time to act in a caring way toward the Earth is now, not at some point in the future

In the gospel reading we are told that followers of Christ need not state who they are, because people will know them by their actions of mutual love. To be Christ’s disciple is to love each other as Christ loved us. We do this not necessarily for our own benefit, but because it benefits the other. Although we must care for ourselves, we are often reminded by others why that care is necessary and are often helped to see the ways in which care can be expressed by the care offered to us by other people. All of these ways of caring are connected to each other. Ourselves, our human community, our world – we are all interconnected and our care must be connected as well. If our Earth is cared for, it will care for us. If our friends are cared for, they will care for us. If we care for ourselves, we are capable of caring for others.

So like my dad when we end our phone conversations, I will leave you with these two words – take care. Take care of yourself because God cares about you. Take care of those around you because it helps to share your burdens with someone. Take care of the earth because we’ve already done so much to harm it, and it’s the only one we’ve got. Take care.

Amen.

-Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Bach Experience

April 17th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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John 10:22-30

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Dean Hill

So let us keep the festival whereto the Lord invites us; Christ is himself the joy of all, the Sun that warms and lights us.  By his grace he doth impart eternal sunshine to the heart; the night of sin is ended.  Alleluia!  (So wrote Martin Luther in 1524).

You will see down the street a block, outside the BU Academy, a new photograph commending the Academy.  A young woman, with face upturned, radiantly smiles and casts a long look, eyes beaming, into an unseen future.  It is a striking, even staggering image, the look of Easter.  Behold there the look of promise, hope, freedom, openness, courage, excitement, joy, and peace.

Lent is for preparation and discipline in living.  Easter is for living.  We are not meant to live in Lent.  We are meant to live in Easter.   For this reason itself and alone, it will have been excellent practice for us to have heard all Easter cantatas all year, here at Marsh Chapel, where we are blessed with the finest University Chapel music anywhere in the country.   Your life is made for and meant for and marked for meaningful freedom, joyful growth, loving service, and personal peace.  You are a child of God, one for whom Christ died, and in whom His resurrection is intended to dwell.  If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, then you will be saved.  Confession is an act, uttered by the lips, and lived in the spirit.  Belief is a matter of the heart, embraced in the dark, and carried forward in the light.   

Think about the novelty of Marsh Chapel Community Ecclesiology, one of several ‘new ways of being church’.  You are in one sense‘The Church of the UnChurched (students, radio listeners, occasional attendees, those returning to faith, pod cast people, all)’.  God is doing a new thing.   You come Sunday, you listen Sunday.  Sunday opens the rest of the week for living.   Then you live in community and University in the three other ‘ships’, other than worship—discipleship, fellowship, and stewardship.  This wide berth of freedom can be a great challenge, but is also a magnificent gift, for those with ears to hear.  As WS Coffin so often said, ‘God gives us minimum protection and maximum support’.

Our Holy Scripture, the prototype of every type of struggle in life, breathes us life.

Psalm 23 forever proclaims a Good Shepherd, a shepherding goodness forever available, always possible, eternally present.  Goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days of my life.  But such shepherding, incarnate, requires human time, effort, voices, notes and donations.

Acts 9—we still are reading Luke, but have jumped to the second season for a time, his full history, the Acts of the Apostles—accounts a dramatic healing, a raising like that of Lazarus, but this time at the hands of Peter, not of Jesus.   Our teacher reminded us that the one-to-one things are the most important, the personal things count most.  Tabitha!  Rise!  Please do not become lost in the mystery or magic of these multiple acts in Acts.  Here the Scripture attests strongly and simply to real healing, the potential for real help, in real time.

Revelation 7 begins with tribulation, suffering.  There will be a time, a place, a setting when the Shepherd will guide the thirsty to springs of living water, when the Shepherd will meet the sorrowful and wipe away every tear from their eyes, when the Shepherd will find the hungry and feed them all, when the Shepherd will embrace the thirsty and slake their thirst, when the Shepherd will wash with mercy and peace the robes of tribulation and suffering.   Now this is aspiration not actuality, right now.  We are hoping for what we do not see; we are seeing in a glass dimly; we are holding treasures in earthen vessels

John 10:22-30 makes audible the voice of the Shepherd, and so the sheep may know that voice, they may hear and they may know and they may follow.  This Spiritual Gospel of John is so lastingly redolent with the Divine Presence!  We are in good hands, and so we are able to bear one another’s burdens (H Smith).

John Wesley taught us: “Do all the good you can, at all the times you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can”….and… “Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”

Dr. Jarrett, for what shall we listen, this Eastertide, as the beauty of Bach’s Cantata addresses us?

Dr. Jarrett

Our cantata this morning is one of the most famous in all Bach’s output. One of his earliest cantatas, Christ lag in Todesbanden, or Christ lay in Death’s Bonds, sets all seven verses of Martin Luther’s 1524 hymn in a remarkable display of invention and variation, within an overall symmetrical design of proportion and elegance so familiar to us from this composer.

The text depicts the epic battle of life over death, redemption versus destruction — the Paschal lamb roars as the Lion of Judah. Bach scored his cantata for strings only, including two viola lines, and achieves an astonishing degree of variety and color with such limited instrumental resources. Here are few things to listen for this morning:

  • Each verse ends with a refrain of Hallelujah. Note the variety and possibility of emotion explored with each of these refrains, from the frenetic energy of the first alla breve, the doleful Hallelujahs of the soprano and alto, the chorus’s scurrying refrain as the epic battle falls away; or the pealing, rounded Hallelujahs of the soprano and tenor in the final festive duet.
  • If you follow a translation or word book, note the opportunities to stay fixed visually, aurally, and theologically on the Cross. The Cross becomes the ultimate emblem of victory over sin.
  • In the central choral movement, listen for the fantastic depiction of the battle: soprano, tenor, and bass voices scrape and thrash around each as Death Gobbles Death in scathing mockery.

In many ways, Christ lag is the best connection of  the joy of Easter with the glory of Christ’s passion. The focus is not on the disciples, mourning the loss of their leader, nor is the focus on our human frailty clinging to the hem of Christ’s garment. The victory of the cross and the triumph of love is our theme, Christ as Victor.  

“So we celebrate the high festival with joy of heart and delight, which the Lord radiates upon us, He himself is the Sun, that through the splendor of his Grace illuminates our hearts completely, the night of sin has disappeared. Hallelujah!”

Dean Hill

The few Bach Easter works, as Mr. Kostrzewski reminds us, exude and exemplify ‘an air of humility that remains ever present, the music and the libretti constantly referring to the Passion as the gateway to the Resurrection’.  Yes.  The Resurrection follows but does not replace the Cross.  Luther: crux sola nostra teologia, the cross alone is our theology.  Mr. Wesley was converted to full faith under the hearing of Martin Luther’s exposition of Romans 8, on rainy Sunday evening in London, May 23, 1738.  We still live in two worlds.

We live in a glorious, wonderful world. There are at least 100 billion galaxies besides our own (NYRB, 3.16).  The universe is expanding, and the rate of that expansion is increasing.  Every second over 600 billion particles called neutrinos penetrate every square centimeter of your body. The visible universe is the sideshow:  the important stuff is invisible.  We live in a glorious, wonderful world.

We live in a suffering, violent world.  Examples abound. Dr. Jonathan Haidt ‘denies that reason ordinarily plays any part in motivating moral judgments, seeing it rather as a post-hoc means of justifying the intuitions we form quickly and unreflectively.’  He reminds us that we struggle with:  Care vs harm; fairness vs cheating; loyalty vs betrayal; authority vs subversion; sanctity vs degradation; liberty vs oppression.  Our world sometimes boils down to Hobbes’ single hope, during a life that is ‘solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short’:  avoid conflict.  After 83 waterboardings of Abu Zubaydah, what was the result?—NOTHING.   70 million in USA have some form of criminal records (Globe 4/12/16). 30% of NFL players suffer dementia.  We live in a suffering, violent world.

Easter, in Gospel spoken and sung this morning, Easter in resurrection and cross, cross and resurrection, resurrection and cross, promises us that we can do what we need to do: we can live in both worlds, transforming the latter and translating the former, transforming suffering and violence by translating glory and wonder into insights for healthy, happy living.

In a season when our country seems to be going through a form of political and cultural psychosis, we may be able to help others by modeling together this balance, living in both worlds, with this Resurrection song, bell and tale: ‘The worst thing is not the last thing’ (F Beuchner).  The Marathon survivors in worship on Friday at Old South Church, so attested, and so heard in the sermon by former Governor Duval Patrick.  Balance.  As Pope Francis argued last month:  the conscience of the believer is inviolable, so we want to form consciences not replace them; Eucharist (say worship, say faith) is not a prize for the excellent, but nourishment for the weak.  Balance.  As Luther wrote, ‘faith holds the door against death’.

It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended; the victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended.  Stripped of power, no more it reigns, and empty form alone remains; death’s sting is lost forever.  Alleluia!  (So wrote Martin Luther in 1524).

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

& Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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Breakfast With Peter

April 10th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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John 21:1-19

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In pastoral work, day by day, we come back to a familiar story.

One man asked another, ‘Tell me, in just one word, how is your life?”

His friend replied, slowly, “In one word?  In one word, my life is, well…good”.

Sensing something, the man asked again, “Then tell me, in just two words, how is your life?”

His friend replied, slowly, “My life, in two words?  In two words, my life is, well…not good”.

Both the brevity of life and the strange estrangements of our experience in life, place us, if we are honest, come Sunday, somewhere between the first and second replies, between good and not good.

We know the thrill of victory and the agony of betrayal.  We know the joy of birth and the pain of death.  We know the exuberance of growth and the hurt of departure.

The Gospel of John ended last week, with its concluding sentence, ‘These things are written that you may believe that Jesus in the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”  Jesus:  Lord and God, doorway both to allegiance and to reverence.  Jesus:  word incarnate, good shepherd, feeder of thousands, alchemist of water and wine, healer of the blind, raiser of the dead, doorway to grace, freedom, love, spirit, community, and friendship.  Only believe, only believe.  Live in tune with the universe.

Startling then, today’s lesson, added ten or twenty years after the Gospel’s original conclusion.  A simple meal, of 153 fish, breakfast with Peter.   Different language and imagery here.  A different, now heroic role, for the robbing and disrobing Peter, here.  A different voice for the beloved disciple here.  A different reflection on death and life here.  A different prediction of Peter’s martyrdom here.   What is the meaning of this strange breakfast?

Just this:  for all the grace, freedom and love, all the spirit, community and friendship rightly trumpeted in the Fourth Gospel, people are still people.  This chapter is about fishing and farming, about catching and tending, about boats and fields, fishermen and shepherds.  In church language, that is, 21 is about evangelism and pastoral care.  

You are leading a Christian life, you are committed to the way of discipleship, the path of love.  Then, and so, you will need to receive and give invitation and comfort.

Life

In a word,  resurrection.  In two words, evangelism and pastoral care, work and structure, laity and clergy, world and church.  

Breakfast is a simple meal.  The worst hour of the day, the worst food of the day, the worst attitude of the day, everything and everyone more human than not.   Carried by resurrection, we re-enter the world of invitation and compassion, the world of the preacher and the pastor.  Every week, you are encouraged to make one invitation to another about what you find lastingly good.  Come to worship with me.  Every week, you are encouraged to offer one compassionate word to another from the source of lasting compassion.  I will pray for you.

Public worship places us in the necessary presence of others who are not our own kith, kin and kindred.  With the child behind us, the student beside us, the professor ahead of us, the widow across from us, we worship God.  We perceive again the utter variety and actual need of others.  It is a cautionary move against the prevailing winds about us, including tornadoes, including dehumanizing techno-communication and distance drone aerial bombardment.  A woman will receive that email.  I might have seen her, or her kith, kin and kindred, in church.  A child could be harmed by that weapon.  I might have seen his kith, kin and kindred, in church. Public worship places us in the necessary presence of others who are not our own kith, kin and kindred.  So crucial, saving, significant, then the simple invitation: join me for worship.

Compassionate pastoral care, personal kindness, a willingness to listen—feed, tend, sheep to sheep—connects us to the deeper dimensions, those for which life is given.  Fifty years ago M L King sat writing in a prison cell in Birmingham Alabama.  He wrote the famous Letter, which bears your re-reading this afternoon, addressed to pastors, fellow clergy, who could not or did not or would not hear: “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness”.  While most of us will not regularly write such a momentous letter, in our pastoral that is personal correspondence, we will write.   You know of another’s inattention, another’s pain.  You can sit down, put pen to paper, and select some caring words—sorry, condolence, hope, help, prayer.  You can imagine another opening the mailbox, holding the letter, seeing the penmanship, removing the page, reading the card.  Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.

It is not  that the Fourth Gospel diminishes or discounts invitation and compassion, evangelism and pastoral care, laity and clergy.  It is just that the writer(s) had bigger fish to fry and sheep to tend of another fold.  So along came—someone—who wrote 21 for us, to remind us.  In a word—good.  In two words—not good.  Your life in Christ requires invitation and compassion, beginning again every day at breakfast.  The good news is that a restored Peter is there at breakfast with you.

Jesus

Jesus speaks to us today from the edge of the shoreline.  His voice, although we often mistake or mishear or misunderstand it, carries over from shore to sea, from heaven to earth.  For the  souls gathered here today, that voice—His voice—makes life worth living.  Within earshot of His voice there are no merely ordinary nights or days or catches of fish or meals or questions or answers or friendships or loves or losses.  Within earshot of His voice there are no merely ordinary moments.  When the Master calls from the shoreline, “children…have you…cast the net…bring some fish…have breakfast”, no one who hears will dare ask, “And who are you?”.  We dare not.  For we know.  Jesus speaks to us today from the edge of the shoreline.

His disciples stumble through all the magic and grit of a fishing expedition.  Many of us still find some magic in fishing, though few of us have had to depend on this sport for sustenance.  Still—we know the thrill of it!  And the disappointment.  The roll of the boat with each passing wave.  The smell of the water and the wind.  The feel of the fish, the sounds of cleaning, the sky, a scent of rain:  this is our life, too.  All night long, dropping the nets, trawling, lifting the nets with a heave.  And catching nothing.  The magic comes with the connection of time and space—being at the right place at the right time.  How every fisherman would like to know the right place and the right time.  It’s magic!  The tug on the line!  The jolt to the pole!  The humming of the reel!  A catch.  And woe to the sandy-haired, freckle faced girl or boy (age 12 or 90) who cannot feel the thrill of being at the right place at the right time!

John Stewart Mill once wrote that understanding the chemistry of a pink sunset did not diminish at all his profound sense of wonder at sunset beauty.  In fact, we might add, real understanding heightens true apprehension.

Easter is a season of new beginnings. The promise of resurrection is upon us.  Resurrection disarms fear.  Resurrection ignores defeat.  Resurrection displaces and replaces loneliness.  Resurrection will not abide the voice that whispers, “There’s nothing extraordinary here.  There’s no reason for gaiety, excitement, sobriety or wonder.”  Resurrection will not abide the easy and the cheap.  Resurrection takes a day-break catch, a charcoal fire, a dawn mist, fish, bread, and hungry, weary travelers, and reveals the Lord present, and Peter at the table.

The failing of this world, whether we see it more clearly in the superstition of religion, the idolatry of politics, or the hypocrisy of social life, has its root in blindness to the extraordinary.  Because we are unholy, we think God must be, too.  But hear—and today taste—the good news!  The King of love his table spreads.  And the humblest meal becomes—Breakfast with Peter!

Therefore Christian people, as we work and fight, play and pray this week, let us resist with joy all that cheapens life, all that dishonors God, all that mistakes our ordinary sin for the extraordinary love, power, mercy and grace of God.

New Beginnings

Real change is real hard but it happens in real time when real people in real ways really work at it.  Or, at least, that is the good news of John 21, a late addition to a late edition of the fourth gospel, and its menu of freedom over Breakfast with Peter.

Take a look at the soteriology next door.  You may be at a point where a different chapter or a different verse may bring healing.   You have been raised Roman Catholic and left the church, but now seek elsewhere a measure of meaning, belonging and community as your faith develops.   You are looking toward a soteriology next door, a way of salvation next door, a religious perspective and posture next door, a healing next door.  You may have been raised an evangelical and left that church, but now seek elsewhere a measure of meaning, belonging and community as your faith develops.   You are looking toward a soteriology next door, a way of salvation next door, a religious perspective and posture next door, a healing next door.  You may have been raised in a mainline church but having left that fold now seek elsewhere a measure of meaning, belonging and community as your faith develops.   You are looking toward a soteriology next door, a way of salvation next door, a religious perspective and posture next door, a healing next door.  Good for you.  Find your way forward.  Sometimes a new look at salvation, for a new need in life, is the very gospel.   John 21, if nothing else, gives biblical currency to such courageous change on your part.  We are with you, and we are for you, as you walk up the steps to another house within the lasting, loving neighborhood of salvation.  There are many faithful ways of keeping faith.

Hear the good news that forgiveness is about the future, not the past.  Stephen Bauman reminded me of this last week.  The past is finished, and unchangeable.  There is no changing what has happened.  We may revisit, by memory travel, and we may relearn by historical excavation, but the past is what it is.  Done.  Forgiveness is not about the past.  That is what the church discovered at Easter.  Easter is not about Mary’s misunderstanding, nor about Thomas’s doubt, nor about the disciples’ fear, nor about the worst of horror, the cross.  All that is set,  forever, in the past.  Forgiveness opens the future.  Forgiveness does not change the past, but opens up a new future, a free future, a joyful future, in spite of the past.  That is what makes Easter such a miracle.  That is what makes Peter fit company at breakfast. He is good company over the fish.  He has a new life, a new open future.   He has a new future, in spite of, in spite of, in spite of, the past.  Hear the good news that forgiveness is about the future, not about the past.

Reclaim the power of conversation in a cyber held world.   Would that we could, including breakfast, understand the power and lasting meaning of fellowship at tables.   Our bodily nourishment requires this pause, this consumption, this energy.  Our spiritual nourishment requires the words spoken and heard during this pause, this consumption, this energy.  If you have been recently, around a convivial meal, around a conversational table, around a gathered companionship—well, you know.   Friendship is conversation.  Love is conversation.  Marriage is conversation.  Community, real communion, community, real consanguinity, is mightily  and in some ways totally conversation.  So the disciples are around a fire, charcoal fire, eating breakfast, 153 fish, with a restored leader, Peter.  If you are not indulging in at least one decent conversational meal a day you are missing the mark.   Fast food is real, but not fast conversation.  Reclaim the power of conversation in a cyber held world.   

Feel free to shake the dust from your employment feet and find another job.  You know, now that the economy is a little better, at least for some, it is a little easier to say what needs saying in any case at any time.  You have one life to live.  You need to make a living, but you need to make a living in a way that makes a life.  If what you are doing with your body is killing your soul, it is time to quit.   There are sixty ways to leave your employer, as Paul Simon said, sort of.  Make a little plan, Stan.  Easter breakfast with Peter is just the time to converse about this, in a forgiving mode, in light of the soteriology next door.

Real change is real hard but it happens in real time when real people in real ways really work at it.  Or, at least, that is the good news of John 21, a late addition to a late edition of the fourth gospel, and its menu of freedom over Breakfast with Peter.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.       

Exemplum Docet

April 3rd, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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John 20:19-31

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There is no text for this sermon.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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Easter Morning

March 27th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 24:1-12

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Luke

Opening: Canadian Creed

Our Gospel provides a particular kind of memory, a powerful kind of prayer, and a persistent kind of love as hallmarks of Easter morning.  Do they mark your life?  Do memory (‘Remember how he told you…and they remembered his words’), prayer (‘They bowed their faces to the ground’) and love (‘They went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared) clothe life for you?

Easter morning is resurrection in memory, in prayer, and in love.  Luke the historian cherished memory.  Luke the healer cherished prayer.  Luke the evangelist cherished love.   What empty space, what unoccupied tomb, abides in your life for these three, and the greatest of these—love?

On Easter morning the women with courage walked tomb-ward to work through their worst experience.  The set forth to do the work of facing grief with grace, failure with faith, hurt with hope, and death with dignity.  And thee?  Is that work begun, continued, or completed?  Easter brings you life, uplift, a lift for living, even into the teeth of death, so you may face, face down, and live down death.

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.

God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human. (J Bennett).

Easter morning means to uplift you—listen, hear, trust—from death to life.  Seek ‘the Living One’, He who is more alive than all life, whose life is the marrow of being alive.  Why do you seek the Living One (ton zonta)—a title perhaps, a Person, for sure, an announcement of Christ, crucified and risen.  All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding…

‘The marks of the new age are present hidden in the old age.  At the juncture of the ages the marks of the resurrection are hidden and revealed in the cross of the disciple’s daily death, and only there…this is what the turn of the ages means, that life is manifested in death’ (JL Martyn, of blessed memory, in 1967, Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages).  

We need not over-preach at Easter.  We still walk by faith not by sight.  We still see in a mirror, dimly.  We still have this treasure in earthen vessels.  We still hope for what we do not see.  The resurrection follows, but not replace the cross.

Today Luke announces resurrection in his own manner.  Luke honors the women at the tomb, following Mark, but he replaces Salome with Johanna, and names Mary the mother of James.  Luke’s women are composed, calm. Mark remembers the women in fear and trembling, rushing away with horror and terror and great anxiety, and speaking to no one.   In Luke, they actually remembered angelic words: on return, they calmly told the eleven ‘all’:  the prediction of the Galilean—betrayal, suffering to death, and on the third day arisen; the additional angel, the more dazzling attire, and the preference for Jerusalem not Galilee.  Luke is different from Mark, and Paul is different from both.

Paul? Paul gives no indication that he is familiar with the doctrine of the empty tomb.  There is not the remotest reference to it in any of his letters, and his conviction that the resurrection body is not the body of this flesh but a spiritual body waiting for the soul of man in heaven makes it improbable that he would have found it congenial (Gilmour, IB, loc. cit.)

Easter comes with the morning, every morning.   So walk with the women, walk with me too, let us walk together through the Gospel in sermon.  And if you get done with the sermon before the sermon gets done, if you are finished with it before I am, have no fear, do not worry.  Just wait a bit, and I will catch up with you!

Marathon 2013

We do not know what a day will bring.  True this is of every day, but truer of some days than others.  Focus for a moment on the ‘gravest’ of days you have known.  Someday I would like to hear of it.

For some who are seniors or juniors today, Patriots’ Day 2013 was such a day, nearly 3 years ago.  We learned first hand in this neighborhood about the visitation of death, tragically known again in Brussels and around the globe this week.  Spelled D…E…A…T…H. Not your imaginary friend, but an equally omni-present invisible enemy…

That Monday began with brunch and celebration, and ended with terror, and needless slaughter and (humanly speaking) unforgivable horror.  Our staff opened the chapel later for the throngs walking, T-less, by.  Water, refreshment, prayer, counsel, they gave.  One runner came very cold and was shrouded with a clergy gown, all we had to offer, a shepherd’s outfit.  What a week.  Tuesday brought us to the plaza, come evening, in vigil, to honor and reflect.  Wednesday, in this chapel, and also at other hours in other settings, gathered us for ordered worship, prayer, music, liturgy, Eucharist and sermon.  Thursday we heard President Obama, on a familiar theme, ‘running the race set before us’.  Friday at home we watched televised news.  Saturday we listened for the musical succor of Handel’s beautiful Messiah, right here.  The Monday next we gathered again for a memorial service, for our deceased BU student, Lu Lingzi. 

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  

You remember death.  Your neighbor.   Your hourly companion.  You spell his or her name D…E…A…T…H. Easter morning is about intimations of life, the Living One outlasting death.  Paul:  As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  Behold: a glimmer of light in the dark, a rumor of life in death, an angel reclining in the tomb.

Clem: Memory

Memory gives us life.  Remember how he told you…

If there has been ever an age that more needed better memory than ours, I know not what it would have been.  Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.  The past is not dead;  it is not even past.

During that week journalists from around the globe contacted us, and others, across the university.  Many, perhaps most, called or wrote from Asia.  Some needed commentary for radio news or other newscasts.  The main newspapers across the country also sent reporters.

On Wednesday, the office took a call from the Philadelphia Enquirer.  Could someone meet their man and his photographer at the steps of the chapel, to help convey something of the nightly vigils, services and informal prayers of the week.  We picked a mid-afternoon hour.   In the April sunlight the interview began.  Suddenly the photographer dropped his camera and shouted:  Bob.  Bob.  Bob.  His name is Clem Murray, a high school classmate and friend.  He and his girlfriend Mimi Sinopoli were the ‘class couple’ because they were the most beautiful couple, a truly stunning two some.  I had seen neither for forty years.  I had heard that they married in college.  Somehow, he recognized enough of my former self, hidden behind the current condition of my condition, and recognized my name.  He let go of the camera for a hug.  We finished the interview and photo.  I turned then as they were going to ask, ‘So how is Mimi?’  You only know the really awkward moments too late.  They come up after you, like alligators out of the Florida swamp.  Clem said nothing.  He didn’t need to.  I could see what he was holding back in his face and eyes.   He just shook his head and shook.  “Two years ago she died of cancer”.   In the midst of life we are in death, every moment.   All I could see of her was a white graduation gown, a little cap and tassle.   Three decades of marriage, three children, all things bright and beautiful, and then a malignancy unto death.  Clem waved goodbye.  A kairos, not a chronos moment…

We held, together, a memory of life, that made life, that gave life, that made alive.  In the very presence of death.  It was a resurrection memory.  A living memory takes you out of the present and into a living past.  It was a resurrection memory.  And perhaps the most powerful personal conversation I have known.

Marcel Proust with his madeleine moment teaches us best:  a single minute released from the chronological order of time has re-created in us the human being similarly released…situated outside the scope of time, what could one fear from the future…(these are) resurrections of the past (Proust, RTP, II, 992, 996).   

Memory gives us life.   

Ceremonial Bow: Prayer

Prayer gives us life.  They bowed their faces…

A week after the Marathon, you may remember, we memorialized our student Lu Lingzi.  This service was held, as had been the memorial for President John Silber the autumn before, in the George Sherman Union.  Two thousand attended, with an unknown number around the globe watching and listening by cyber cast.   The service proceeded, word and music, after careful attention and planning by musicians and clergy.  We heard the Gospel of Mark and the Analects of Confucius.  We listened to instrumental and choral music.  We grieved, remembered, accepted, and affirmed, together.  The family, eighteen or so, and dressed in black, sat in the front row.  As the service ended, from the next row, I could see and hear a susurration along the family pew.  They then were meant to move to the gathering and greeting room, but no one stood.  Further conversation moved up and down the row, in a language I could not of course understand.  I feared:  have we forgotten a eulogy, or left out a reading, or skipped over an anthem?  No.  It was something else.  After a moment, the family, dressed in black stood as one, moved as one, turned as one, and faced the congregation and the world.  A long quiet ensued.  Then, as one, they bowed at the waist, and held the bow.  To honor the gathering, to honor the moment, to honor the life, to honor Life, they bowed, in silence.  It is the most powerful liturgical moment I have ever known.  It was a resurrection prayer.  And it is perhaps the most powerful liturgical moment I have seen.

‘Many are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’ (A Heschel).  We should repeat this three times a day.

Prayer gives us life.

Hold On: Love

Love gives us life.  They went to the tomb…

The next Sunday, April 28, turned out to be a nice, warm early spring day.  As the sun came up, we looked forward to a day of rest and worship, a chance for a return to normal.

About 1 hour before the Sunday service, Br. Larry came in to the office to say, ‘We have another one’.  It took me some moment to understand and internalize the fact of another death.  She had died tragically in a fire, caught in an upper room.  Her mother would be coming up from NYC on the bus later that evening.  The police would have informed her of her daughter’s death.  Our Dean of Students, Kenn Elmore, and his associate, John Battaglino and I planned to meet the bus.  That evening we awaited a delayed Greyhound, talking a bit about the week past.  We pondered how best to greet the grieving mom.  It was decided I would meet the bus, and greet her as she came down the steps, to offer our heart felt condolences, and start the trek over to the hotel.  The noise of the terminal, the lateness of the hour, the long weeks of terror and loss, and the approximate presence of death itself settled on us, and gave us that quiet of the soul that sometimes overtakes us.

In the bus rolled.  The mother came down the steps carrying a beautifully decorated box, holding it with both hands.

“I want to greet you for the University and express our deepest sympathy and heart felt concern” I said.  

She replied, “Where is my daughter?  What hospital is she in?  Please take me to her, so I can see her and talk with her.  I want to go and see her.  Where is she?  How is she doing?  I brought a rice cake.  See.  In the box.  It is her favorite.  Rice cake.  I know it will make her feel better.”

Honestly, at every phrase I tried to say, with honesty and kindness, that her daughter had in fact died the night before, caught in an awful fire.  Apparently she did not understand the police, or they did not speak clearly, or someone else in the family took the call.  I tried everything.   But she could not understand, or could not hear, until, at last, she looked up and hard and asked, ‘You mean…she…is dead?’  Yes.

There is a phrase in the Christmas gospel about Rachel weeping for her children.  That Bus Terminal echoed with the chilling, haunting, painful cries of a mother who rightly could not and would not be consoled, as Rachel could not.  The reverberation of her sobbing across that urban nighttime cacophony I can hear still.  Nothing I said helped.  Nothing I did helped.  Nothing I could offer her could she receive.  We sat on a bench, the wailing stronger still, the cake and box on the floor, the gathered friends lost in grief.   Then she stiffened, her arm in mine becoming taut and cold.  Perhaps she was going into shock.  Everything I tried—counsel, prayer, listening, scripture, all—was of no avail.

Then from her other side Dean Elmore simply surrounded, enfolded her.  He put all of his body and arms all around her, as she wailed and stiffened.  He held her.  He rocked her.  He embraced her.  And little by little, sob by sob, she began to relax.  And little by little, breath by breath, she began to loosen up.  And little by little, held tight, she came through it.  Her lament lessened, her limbs loosened. Out up from the tomb she came.   A physical unspoken compassion brought her through, from death to life.  It was a resurrection love, compassion, embrace, grace, freedom, care, acceptance, mercy, pardon, peace, inclusion.  It was a resurrection love.  And it is perhaps the most powerful very public, pastoral ministry I have witnessed.

Unamuno:  warmth, warmth, warmth;  we are dying of cold not of darkness; it is not the night that kills, it is the frost.

Six years, at the time of our dad’s death, Elie Wiesel sent a note.  It was love physical, compassionate and personal, and as with all resurrection love it made a difference.  It concluded: we have a saying in our tradition, ‘may you be spared another further hardship’.

Love gives us life.

Memory. Prayer. Love.

‘The marks of the new age are present hidden in the old age.  At the juncture of the ages the marks of the resurrection are hidden and revealed in the cross of the disciple’s daily death, and only there…this is what the turn of the ages means, that life is manifested in death’ (JL Martyn, Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages).  

Easter morning is memory, prayer and love, creation, redemption, sanctification, Father, Son, Spirit, life in death.  And life in death holds out a promise of something grander still, life after death.

Closing:  Apostles Creed

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

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Calvin for Lent

March 13th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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John 12:1-8

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Mattherhorn

By an imaginative grace in the mind of a Presbyterian minister, we were invited to spend part of a seminary year in Geneva, Switzerland, underneath the shadow the great mountains, the Alps, of that region.  The minister was the Rev. George Todd, a founder two decades earlier of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, a still exemplary incarnation of community engagement against poverty, against racism, against bigotry, against xenophobia, against sexism, against the notion that the ‘poor you have always with you’.  Apparently, given the rhetoric and revelations of this political season in the United States, we still have a great deal of work to do.  Would somebody please shut the windows of heaven, that the saints need not hear our current discourse, language lastingly insulting to Mexicans, to Muslims, to women, by coarse extension to others who are other, and with the capacity for lasting hurt, especially in the ears of our children.  Shut the windows of heaven. George and Kathy Todd, with others, raised a generation of ministers and missioners, now the subject of a fine, new study, in a dissertation just completed here at Boston University, by a friend of Marsh Chapel, Ada Focer.

George corralled us, and a few others, to work for him at the World Council of Churches, whence he had recently gone, to provide, as he growled, ‘heat, light, and running water’.  Jan, you can still overhear, in those months, accompanied by piano the World Council mid-week worship service, with Emilio Castro or Philip Potter preaching. To think back upon George Todd’s influence, now decades past, is to scale up a great high peak, and to look out upon the vast beauty and need of a human race, longing, in such odd ways, for the presence of Christ. As we complete this decade’s reflection at Marsh Chapel, in dialogue with Calvin for Lent, George and others like him stand up and stand out as signs of hope for the future.

One summer Saturday that year we left Geneva, John Calvin’s city, and we drove an old car, a ‘deux chevaux’, a ‘two horse’, to find our way into the mountains.  After a while we transferred to a train, going higher still, and then later from Zermatt to Gornergratt, along old railroad lines.  As the sun came to a noonday brilliance, a cable car took us thence to the top of a great mountain, snow in July, and the powerful height, the pristine beauty of the creation, a hint of the power and majesty of Calvin’s view of the Creator.  Calvin is seen best from the pinnacle of the Matterhorn.  For this theological height, for this reverence for the divine freedom, for this austere, awesome vista, in his work, we are lastingly thankful, notwithstanding all and many profound disagreements along the railway up and forward.

“TULIP”

John Calvin’s theology has traditionally, perhaps over-simply, but at a first approximation accurately, been summarized by the so-called TULIP formula:  Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints.  A sober if not an entirely cheery, happy creed.

Yet, in the New Testament as a whole, the full gospel, at a first order of approximation, the opposite is expressed.  In the Gospel, Jesus loves people.  These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been totally depraved.  In the Gospel, as today, Jesus recognizes the choices that inevitably make us who we are.  Choice is relational and conditional, and makes us inspect what condition our condition is in.  These people, and we too, must have not been unconditionally elected.  In the Gospel, Jesus gathers everybody, all, and addresses all with the invitation, as today, to repent. These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been limited to the very narrow, tiny minority of the pre-destined elect.  In the Gospel, Jesus faces, heartsick, the brutal truth, that people, and we ourselves, can and do resist the invitations of love.  They must not have been powerless.  Jesus’ grace was resisted, steadily and effectively, to the path of the cross.  Speaking of the cross, here Jesus himself does not persevere, not at least in Jerusalem, or in the spiritual culture of our time, nor does his cause, at least not in this passage.  Persecution not perseverance awaits this holy one, our work of memory in Lent.

In this decade, come Lent, we have pondered and wondered about Calvin, and conjured something like this:  A real celebration of the Gospel will depend upon another TULIP:   T. Something temporal. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting.  L. Something lasting  of love in mind. A developed expression of contrition.  I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination.  P. Some real power. An openness to power and presence.    

A Biblical Chorus Line

Hear again the gospel in John 12.  The main trouble a preacher faces, with regularity, is how to understand, and so interpret, a passage from 2,000 years ago.  Every gospel passage, like this one from John 12, is like a hymn, or an anthem.  There is soprano line (the lead, the voice of Jesus of Nazareth).  There is an alto line (the most important voice, that just below the surface of the text, the voice of the early church, in its preaching of the gospel, its remembering, hearing and speaking.  For the early church Jesus meant freedom, and his cross and resurrection meant one thing—the preaching of good news, that we may face the world free from the world).  There is the tenor line (what we read from the pulpit, the gospel writer, in this case John).  And there is the baritone, basso profundo (the way the line reverberates throughout the rest of scripture, and down through nineteen hundred years of experience to us today, as John gives way to 1 John, and 1 John to Irenaeus, and Irenaeus to Calvin, Calvin to Wesley, and Wesley to March 13, 2016.)

Calvin on John 12

Calvin’s reading of John 12 emphasizes the overarching divine freedom, and a determinism at work in human affairs.  He writes:

It is surprising that Christ should have chosen as treasurer a man whom He knew to be a thief.  For what was it but giving him a rope to hang himself with.  Mortal man’s only reply can be that the judgments of God are a profound abyss.

Here is the inheritance of determinism, along with the view of Scripture addressed two weeks ago, the second lastingly great trouble for us, coming out of Calvinism.  Calvin:

God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation…We ought to contemplate providence not as curious and fickle persons are wont to do but as a ground of confidence and excitement to prayer.

So let us take stock of our Gospel today.  It includes one of the most infamous lines in Scripture, ‘the poor you have always with you’.   John here is making a Christological point, another sermon for another day, but in much regular memory of the Bible, especially when colored by a kind of Calvinism, the verse has not been a way of recognizing the overwhelmingly gracious presence of Christ, overshadowing all other concerns, but rather a tragic support to careless disregard for those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadow of life.  Be careful about your theological inheritance.   

K Tanner, in recent essay:  More specifically, a religiously inspired psychological sanction for hard work in the pursuit of profit reaches its height, Weber thinks, among religious people of a Calvinist stripe who believe in double predestination—that God predestines from all eternity some to salvation and some to damnation—and where the only effective way, it’s also believed, of stilling anxiety about whether one is to be saved or damned is the outwardly disciplined character of one’s everyday behavior without regard for material enjoyment. If one is graced by God, among the elect, one’s actions in ordinary pursuits will be of this character: coolly self-disciplined, restrained, non-hedonistic. And in that way amenable to capitalism’s requirements.”

The poor always with us?  Nonsense.  On a daily basis, we have as many poor among us as we choose to have poor among us.  There is no divine determinism about how many 12 year olds across this land, let alone those younger, are stripped of layers of human dignity, and saddled with the lastingly crippling effects of childhood poverty.  The poor we have are the number we choose to have, as a society.  The number of children and others without full education, effective health care, protective communal services that we have is a direct consequence, not of some pre-ordained, divinely determined formula, but of human choice, of human freedom.  It is a result of our choices in election and selection.  It is a result of our choices, in tithing and generosity.  It is a result of just how many poor we want to have with us, or how many we can somehow justify having with us.  There need not be any.  There need not be any.   It is a matter of human not divine freedom.  Diane Ravitch (NYRB 3/16):  As a society we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty and violence every day of their lives.

Presence For Lent

Jesus Christ may enter your life, at this point, along this night road crowded with terror.  This house is filled with the fragrance of perfume  covering him by grace. So utterly gracious is He that you may not notice without at least a homiletical whisper of introduction.   To the question of the poor, He makes no philosophical response.  To Plato he leaves the Thought that, really, suffering is illusory, unreal.  To Aeschylus  he leaves the proposition that suffering produces wisdom.  To Boethius he leaves the idea that suffering is instructive, since we need truth more than we need comfort.  To Freud he leaves the deep insight that all life, all creativity springs forth from some birth-pangs of suffering.  He makes no philosophical response.  His response is personal, and divine.

Rather, he prepares for his crucifixion, his burial, and his lasting resurrection presence.  Jesus meets us inside our suffering.  He meets us when we ask to withstand even when we cannot understand. He is with us.  Search the Scripture.  We find Jesus in the longsuffering of our people.

In the Old Testament teaching about the utter patience—passion–of divine love—in Jacob who worked for 7 years for Leah and another 7 for Rachel, throughout the exodus (Exodus 34), in the heart of the wilderness (Numbers 14), in psalms of lament (Psalm 86), in prophetic pain (Jeremiah 15).  Can’t you hear Jeremiah crying out:  “O Lord, thou knowest:  remember me and visit me and take vengeance upon my persecutors.  In thy patience, take me not away, now that for thy sake I bear reproach.”? Here he comes, prefigured in Job.  In Hosea, patient with adultery.  In Isaiah, awaiting resurrection. In John the Baptist, patient before death. In Paul, and Peter, and John of Patmos.

Sometimes, when we miss Jesus amid all our activity, we may find him again, or rather be found again by him, entering the poverty and hurt of his people…standing with the ill, ministering with the aging, incarnate to the lonely, showering himself on the pains of this life, present as the charismatic fullness of real life.  Jesus Christ empowers us to withstand suffering, even when, honestly, we have no way to understand it.  Here is Jesus Christ, publicly portrayed for you as crucified, who, unlike any merely religious representation of God, who, come Lent, invades the depth, the troubled dark night of life, to claim that darkness is as light for Him and for his own.

One Day

One day, in the fullness of time, compassion will reign.

One day there will emerge a people fully filled with a passion for compassion.

One day, as the Old Testament says, in the heart of difficulty with Job we will “sing songs in the night”.  And, “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.  They shall mount up with wings as eagles.  They shall run and not be weary.  They shall walk and not faint.”

One day, as the New Testament says, the “long-suffering” grace of God will prevail.  Suffering will produce patience, and patience endurance, and endurance hope, and hope shall not disappoint us, because of the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

One day…and why not start here, and why not begin now?…there will be a real community setting a patient, passionate, compassionate beat, a cadence of quiet endurance.

One day, in the fullness of time, His presence will reign.

O Day of God draw nigh

In beauty and in power

Come with thy timeless judgments now

To match our present hour.

Bring to our troubled minds

Uncertain and afraid

The quiet of a steadfast faith

Calm of a call obeyed.

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

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Sacrament as Prayer

March 6th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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Came to himself….

Scripture

J Wesley, 5 means of grace

Bible, reading and memory, examples

Luke:  what is absent (religion), spiritual not religious, greek and gnostic, Delphic oracle

Bible full of variety, not a single theme (eg Gospels)

Diversity preceded unity in earliest Christianity

Marrow of Gospel; grace, freedom, pardon, acceptance, mercy, reconciliation, peace, acceptance, inclusion, embrace…love

2 Cor

1 John 4: 7

Fasting

Meaning, diet and exercise

Wesley, T\F, horseback, 5am preaching

We, spirit, soul, body

Spiritual Yoga: integration, stillness community
Ministry on campus:  worship, relationship, safety

Lent has its point here—though we are not meant to live in Lent, we live in Easter, and Sundays remind us so in Lent

Prayer

Public and private, all year this year at Marsh

Senses, Language, Practice, Architecture, Sacrament of Prayer

Moment, quiet, meditation, walk, pause, own-most self

Have no anxiety about anything…Phil 4

In this nave, week by week—nothing

Well being vs work\ production vs self\immediacy vs imagination

Sacrament

Mystery, definition, two, five rites, sign, grace, simplest elements, entry\journey, belonging\meaning, beginning\sustaining, prevenient\sanctifying

Thanksgiving (eucharist), remembrance, presence

Ever need to take a spiritual shower? (Remember baptism)

Cleanse, from misuse of public forms of rhetoric, meant to allow difference, courtesy maintains a way to disagree, sermon prayer speech address debate, when gears stripped, better angels, ask not, then the path opens from a civil society to social incivility, be careful what you find entertaining, or where, where entertainment ever TRUMPS engagement

Grief as a sacrament

Conversation

Luke 15 is a conversation, barely engaged

The week at Marsh

Circles of 6-12 people

Sherry Turkel 2 books

What is an education—periodic table or finding one’s voice?

Soul and World Soul, Word and Word of God,

Thurman to recite 139

Sacrament as Prayer:  mark the means of grace:  Scripture, fasting, prayer, sacrament, Christian conversation

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

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Calvin for Lent

February 28th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:1-9

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Frontispiece

Lift up your hearts:  Amid the furious, random hurts in life, which fall upon us without respect of person and without divine intention, in random chaotic violent abandon, there remains, over time, a chance for growth, the possibility of good change, a capacity for faithfulness, over time.  Learn sympathy.  Cultivate patience. Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time. Let it alone, Sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure.  And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you may cut it down.

Calvin Again

This Lent we again, one last time, engage as our theological conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).   We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England.   The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom.  In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant. For example, Genesis 1 is a more Anglican or Methodist chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation.  2 and 3 are more Presbyterian or Calvinist, if you will, representing the fallen character of creation, known daily to us in sin, death and the threat of meaninglessness.  Both traditions, English and French, make space for both creation and fall.  But the emphasis is different, one more garden the other more serpent, one more creation the other more fall.  The English tradition emphasizes human freedom, and the French divine freedom.  (Both traditions are with us today, even embodied, as it happens, in our current Presidential campaigns, wherein still there is at least one Presbyterian and at least one Methodist (☺)). With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged in Lent in other years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  

    2016 marks the tenth and last Lent in which from this pulpit we engage the Calvinist tradition.  Over the next decade, beginning Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?

Calvin Interpreting Luke (1)

Let us listen, now, to John Calvin interpreting today’s Gospel, Luke 13: 1-9.   In brief, we might judge, his interpretation, utterly typical of his work on the whole, is both right and wrong, both true and false.  First true, second false.

First, Calvin rightly and directly applies the passage to our self-concern, wherein we tend to be more self-centered than centered selves.

Calvin: “The chief value of this passage springs from the fact that we suffer from the almost inborn disease of over-strict and severe critics of others while approving of our own sins…Whoever is not shaken by God’s hand sleeps soundly in his sins as if God were favorable and propitious to him…(Commentaries, loc. cit.)

Calvin judges, rightly, that we do not easily sympathize with others’ hurt.  We sleep.  We sleep in our sins, unless somehow roused.  This gradual awakening to random hurt is at the very heart of young adulthood, and at the very heart of a college education.

Speaking of education:  You hear Elie Wiesel, in the death camps, saying that God is swinging on a rope in the face of the hung child.  You hear Arthur Ashe, dying of Aids, saying that the experience of racism is far worse than his mortal illness.  You hear Werner Klemperer bear witness to the slowly tightening noose around his Jewish neck in the Germany of the 1930’s. You hear Frank McCourt tell about licking greasy newspaper to survive childhood in Ireland.  You hear Agate Nasal tell of unspeakable horrors inflicted on defenseless women on the eastern front in the 1940’s.   You hear Tim O’ Brien remembering ‘The Things They Carried”.  And these all bear witness to hurt in history—with another list needed for hurricane and earthquake and tornado and plague, nature’s own force against innocent life.   You are becoming educated.

Speaking of emerging adulthood:  All of us learn in these years. In junior high school you often look in admiration at those just older.  Being with you takes us, daily, back to those fairer days.   One remembers…

When the senior youth gathered in the church or parsonage, we just younger watched and listened.  Our retired assistant pastor (he died suddenly at a church dinner a few years later) had a red haired son, Tommy.  He was a favorite for all—happy, a prankster, kind.  The next fall the group gathered at Christmas, the spring graduates now home from college for the first time, and enjoying the firelight, the tree, the chocolates, and the mistletoe.  That Christmas Tommy stood out for his red hair, but also for his green uniform.  Bright red hair, sharp green private’s Army uniform.  Red and Green.  He was headed to Vietnam.  He came to mind last week, getting the sermon ready, in a quiet moment of reading Tim O’Brien’s memoir, The Things They Carried.  A few years later, the war now over, some of us came home from our first year of college, too.  The pastor said, he teaching meager sympathy in a violent world, ‘You might want to go over to the V.A. in Syracuse sometime this break.  Tom Mallabar is there.  He lost his legs, you know, in the war.’  We did not know.  We did go.  The pastor knew how easy it is, Calvin was right, absent an act of sympathy, absent a readiness to stop, to look, to listen, to look past the tragedy of lasting hurt.  We sleep, unless roused. How human it is to look past hurt, someone else’s anyway.   Some of in the years of emerging adulthood, includes waking up to others’ hurt.  You are becoming adults.

And a Lukan word from Ernest Tittle: Perhaps we, too, would do well to reject the way of military force and violence, placing reliance instead on efforts to combat hunger, misery and despair, to lift from anxious peoples the burden and threat of armaments, to abolish racial and religious discrimination, bring industry under the law of service, and assure to all (people) everywhere the opportunity of a good life (39)…(E.F. Tittle)

Calvin Interpreting Luke (2)

Second, however, Calvin misinterprets by a wide margin the fuller meaning of the Gospel today.  His penchant for judgment occludes his vision of grace.  On a regular basis.

Rendering not the stories now but the parable of the fig tree: “The sum of it is that many are tolerated for a time who deserve destruction…They do not realize their sin unless they are forced…”

But listen to the parable, Brother Calvin!  Here in Luke, not judgment, but grace is affirmed, not death but life, not authority or force, but growth and change.  In Luke 13, the question of ‘Why?’ is set aside in favor of the challenge to repent.  Governmental terrorism, in the hands of Pilate, and natural accident, in the case of a Tower in Siloam, are simply admitted to be what they are—utterly random in impact.  

In the parable, the gardener points away from past performance and points toward future potential.  Time.  Time is given.  A time of reprieve, a time of reckoning, a time of recollection, a time of restoration.  Time heals.  There is impending judgment, but there is time for change.  This is Luke’s own material.  This is Luke’s own toddler, budding attempt to deal with what John, alone, in full adult fashion, addressed, the church’s abject disappointment that the expected return of Jesus, on the clouds of heaven, ‘before this generation passes away’ (Luke 21:32) has not happened.  The first century is ending and Jesus has not returned.  In the main, Luke simply continues to hold out hope, soon and very soon, of the traditional expectation.  Not here in the parable of the fig tree.  Here he finds, channeling his inner Fourth Gospel Spirit, the possibility that more time may be a good thing.  We would all say so, 20 centuries later, since more time has become our time!  The Greeks taught us that life is long.  Give it just a little more time.  Here Calvin, wrongly, misses Luke’s point and power, as much as earlier he caught both.  Too much TULIP and not enough fig tree.  Especially, and perilously:  too authoritarian and too inflexible, and too inerrant, a view of the Holy Scripture.  Scripture alone, not Scripture in tradition by reason with experience.  No, says Luke, change, over time, can come and can become lasting goodness.  

Friday last week we sat in the southern California sunshine, the daily environment of our son and daughter in law, paradise, San Diego.   Imagine our surprise as we opened the New York Times, the paper of record, that morning, in the blue-sky light breeze warm water SO CAL sun.  One of two letters to the editor was written from the pews of Marsh Chapel.  Written out of your community, sent to the great city of New York, printed, and passed on to the needs of the world around, including those of us reading 3,000 miles away, on Pacific Beach.

Our friend, Advisory Board member, retired BU Academy Headmaster, Mr. James Berkman addressed the country, in four paragraphs, regarding the life, death and legacy of Antonin Scalia, and the matter of interpretation. The letter complimented recent Times reporting on Scalia.  The letter affirmed the ‘inarguably brilliant’ aspects of the judge’s work, and its pervasive influence.  The letter recalled a question raised by the author to Judge Scalia, in Cleveland, years ago, and the creative ‘dissent’ the judge offered in response: ‘he sidestepped to deliver a powerful answer on a facet he cared more about’.   Yet, the letter, in true honorable fashion, also recognized the limitations and dangers of ‘originalism’:  ‘if we were to follow (Scalia’s) philosophy, where would women and blacks be today:  still treated as second class citizens and slaves of our founding fathers?’

Interpretation of an ancient text, whether the US Constitution, or the Holy Scripture, does indeed require acute appreciation for what the venerable text originally meant. Without that mooring, we are adrift, forever at sea with our own proclivities alone to guide us.  But truth was meant to set sail and not merely to lie still in the harbor!  The bark needs both anchor and sail, both mooring and wind.  Interpretation, that is, also, and more so, requires of us the courage to exact from the text, not only what it meant, but also, now, what it means.  Our teacher Father Raymond Brown, said often, and taught repeatedly, that the full meaning of a text is not always best given in its mere wooden repetition.  In fact, the conservative Roman Catholic Father Brown taught otherwise:  what most resembles faithfulness to the ancient tradition may look very much like change, growth, something new, today.

In life and in interpretation things take time.  Time.  Let the fig tree have another year.  Time.  Let me nourish the tree with water and nutrients.  Time.  Give this scrawny plant some time, and see what happens.  As the letter to the editor said, ‘it is appropriate to weigh the balance of legacy’.  One of the real, lasting dangers and perils left to us by a certain perspective in the Calvinist tradition, still strong and at large today across parts of this great land, is the shadow of Biblicism, even of Bibliolatry, the mistaken preference for the text over the very Lord to whom the text bears witness.  And the Lord is the Spirit.  And where the Spirit is, there is freedom.  Over forty years of ministry now, and over forty years of the privilege of teaching the Bible, which I love with all my heart, which I love with my very life and time and work, the terrible, stinging memory stands out, of ways the Bible has maimed children, women, men, families, others, when wrongly rendered.  Calvin and Luther may have needed all the weight and power of the Bible, without its aporia, nuance, variety and depth, to break from Rome.  Sadly, some of that weight, without time without water or nutrient, and without proper, educated, informed, disciplined interpretation, falls like a millstone upon the weak.  A case in point, of course, is current Methodist use of the Scripture to support bigotry against gay people.  When one brings to mind all the children in all the churches in all the pews in all the years, who know at age 8 that they are gay, and what they have heard from men in black robes, ministers respected and revered even by their parents, it causes one to tremble.  On one hand, asked how well I know the Bible, I can respond, ‘The real truth is not how well I know the Bible, but how well the Bible knows me’.  I love the Bible.  On the other hand, when the weight of holy writ, and the power of tradition, by bad–originalist?–interpretation—six verses from Leviticus, Romans and Corinthians as opposed to whole New Testament, the whole Pauline corpus, and the whole letter to the Galatians, see the whole of its chapter 3—falls like a millstone on the necks of children in the minority, and that with the blessing of many who should and do know better, but say nothing, and many of them educated at Africa University, and riding Methodist dollars into prosperity on that continent, then I do not love the Bible.  Calvin bears some responsibility here—though of course, not alone.  One of the two great failings we inherit from Calvinism we see just here:  The Bible become a millstone around the neck.  (The second we shall address March 13.)

Coda

Amid the furious, random hurts in life, which fall upon us without respect of person and without divine intention, in random chaotic violent abandon, there remains, over time, a chance for growth, the possibility of good change, a capacity for faithfulness, over time.  Learn sympathy.  Cultivate patience. Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time. Let it alone, Sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure.  And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you may cut it down.

Bring sympathy and patience to bear.  Can you do that this week? Where in your life will a little sympathy and a little patience bear a lot of fruit? Paul Scherer, a fine Calvinist, wrote in a much more sympathetic and patient era:  “I know the things that happen:  the loss and the loneliness and the pain…But there is a mark on it now:  as if Someone who knew that way himself, because he had traveled it, had gone on before and left his sign; and all of it begins to make a little sense at last—gathered up, laughter and tears, into the life of God, with His arms around it!”

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

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A Heavenly Citizenship

February 21st, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 9:28-36

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Good morning! I am always humbled at the opportunity to stand in this pulpit, where so many past and present great preachers stand, and I am always grateful to Dean Hill for extending the invitation to be with you again this morning.

The lectionary is a lovely discipline, but it also can be pretty terrifying, especially when your limited preaching schedule is determined by those far above your pay grade. J

The regular rhythms of ordered worship, including regular lectionary preaching, can have as much of the wild movement of the spirit in them as any other form of worship and preaching. Case in point: I recently had an extended conversation with the Dean about my in-progress dissertation on Philippians, and a large part of the conversation focused on the question, “will it preach?” I ask this question because I am concerned with ethics just as much as history; that is, I would like to do history ethically but I am also concerned about the ethical implications of our shared Christian histories. I am concerned with communities long gone just as much as those living and moving and having their being today; that is, I take the communion of the saints both in heaven and on earth seriously. Our fraught, fragile, humanity is entangled in its own histories, and the past is no more dead than the present is alive; that is, the gospel is both good and news because it is and has been told, retold, studied, shared, spoken, preached, taught, written, shared, translated, and lived not in a vacuum, but by real people.

So I felt a sense of the spirit, or at least of Deanly intervention, when I found my annual preaching assignment falling on this Second Sunday of Lent, where our epistle lesson is from Philippians. And lo and behold, it’s a text I have studiously avoided dealing with in my dissertation! So here I am, dealing with it this morning, in sermonic form.

Knowing that, my sisters and brothers, I ask for your indulgence to let me lay aside, for today, Luke’s lament for Jerusalem, to gloss over the courageous question of the Psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?”, and to let me focus instead on Philippians. And, perhaps worse, I’m not even going to deal with our whole reading today, but instead focus on a single clause, “our citizenship is in heaven.” [This by the way, is how people write whole dissertations about a single, four-chapter letter.]

So I invite you to meditate with me this morning upon “A Heavenly Citizenship”

The best way I can get at what it means to have citizenship in heaven is to think about the koinōnia of the gospel, the commonwealth of the gospel, which is, I think, the central theme of this letter. In other letters to other communities, Paul calls them ekklēsiai, assemblies, churches, but here, in Philippians, in a letter full of love, imitation, friendship, and calls to like-mindedness, Paul claims that he and this beloved community are in a koinōnia in the gospel.

Koinōnia is far too frequently translated as fellowship today, a term which calls to mind at once our beloved coffee hour and some sort of men’s glee club meeting, but our community is not only our coffee hours and our hymn singing. My best way to describe a koinōnia is as a joint venture. Paul and the Philippians, and you and I and the whole of the community of faith, we are in a joint venture in the gospel together.

This might make you a little squeamish because it sounds a little business-y, doesn’t it? And, actually, it is really an economic sort of term. In antiquity, people used this term, koinōnia, venture, in all sorts of business transactions. From land-leases, to marriage contracts, to joint investments in flax-seeds businesses, this terms springs up again and again in ancient papyri and epigraphy, little scraps of ancient paper and scratchings in stone. When there is a sharing of both risk and reward, there you have a koinōnia. And that, beloved, is what I think Paul means by modelling the community of faith as a koinōnia, a venture. For together we take on the risk and reward of the gospel.

If this were my dissertation (it’s not), I’d share with you some ancient inscriptions to help illustrate my point, but I’ll spare you here. I think I can explain this with a more contemporary example.

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate student, I stole a BU mattress. Technically, I didn’t actually steal a mattress, but the university thought I did, and I ended up paying exactly 1/3 the cost of a bright-blue, fire-retardant, twin X-long mattress, $90, which to the university is basically the same thing as acknowledging that I stole a mattress.

How the heck did this all happen? My freshman year, I won, or thought I won, the housing lottery. Instead of a crowded, stinky large dormitory, with its shared bathrooms and cinderblock walls, I was placed in a triple in a brownstone on Bay State Road. I was destined for wall sconces, a non-working fireplace, wood paneling, and other features that suggested a classier college experience. Imagine my and my roommates’ surprise, when, moving in, we found ourselves in what can only be described as one of the smallest triples on campus. Two of us slept a mere 2 feet apart from one another perpendicular to the wall, and the third had to set up her mattress against the wall apart from us. To squeeze between the space left in the middle of the room, you had to turn sideways and shimmy, or you’d bang your legs against the metal bedframes. Somehow, we also squeezed three dressers, and three desks into this oddly shaped room. The windows looked out, not over Bay State Road, but the alley, including the delivery entrance for Sargent, where they deliver the cadavers for the Human Gross Anatomy Lab. The rest of the building had spacious doubles and triples, but we, we were clearly in the worst room in the place.

The three of us made do for the year, but when room selection time rolled around, we began to eye the room across the hall. None of us really wanted to be in a triple again, but we weren’t confident we could get a lottery number high enough to snag a double or single. So, we entered a pact to move together as a triple, and we managed to get the room across the hall. The following year, we would be moving into a giant triple, facing the trees of bay state road. We had room to bring in a futon in addition to the BU furniture, and there would still be room to move about. There were 11 windows, We would have a large walk-in closet, and each of us would have a large corner of the room. With proper dresser positioning, we could each even have some modicum of privacy.

Except, that summer, we each received notice that one of the mattresses from the tiny triple was missing upon final inspection of the rooms. Before our accounts could be settled, before we could move in, before we could reach the promised land across the hallway, each one of us would need to pay for 1/3 of the mattress, that is unless one of us fessed up to taking the mattress. At first, vague accusations and mistrust flew. Who had checked out last, anyway? (We couldn’t remember.) Was one of us lying? After all, how well did we know one another anyway? Perhaps it was the impossibly chic roommate from Paris who had landed a hostessing job through charm and charisma. She was always staying out late for fascinating parties, poetry readings, gallery openings; maybe she took it for a lark or an art project. Or perhaps it was the roommate who had just gotten her first college boyfriend a few weeks ago. He had been hanging around quite a bit lately, and college students do things with mattresses all the time. Or maybe it was the quiet one who didn’t spend as much time with the other two. Who knew what she was thinking? None of this, of course, got us anywhere, because none of us had actually done anything with the mattress in question. Somehow, through bureaucratic red tape or facilities error, or other great mystery, we were all on the hook for this single, solitary mattress.

So, to reach the promised land across the green carpet and the original hardwood, we all eventually ponied up $90.

Beloved, my roommates and I were in a koinōnia; we shared together the risk, the hardship, and the reward, and we all shared in the joint cost of that mattress.

So Paul’s letter to the Philippians is chock full of financial language, including this central theme of a koinōnia in the gospel. This koinōnia, this venture, is not only how we relate to one another, but it is part of a much larger divine economy. Unlike my college roommate story, our koinonia is under God’s supervision; thus Paul writes in Philippians 1:6 “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Our gospel venture is not worked out in a vacuum, but in the confidence of faith we know that God has begun a good work in us and is able to bring it to completion. In a divine economy, God’s oikonomia, God’s house-rules, our relationship to one another is a joint venture, but this joint venture has God as its ultimate investor and site supervisor.

And now, to return to what it means to consider “A heavenly citizenship.”

Too often, when we read this passage, we imagine heavenly citizenship as endorsing an outlook that is solely otherworldly. Our heavenly citizenship is used to comfort us in suffering, our heavenly citizenships overlooks our human frailty in this life in hopes of the world to come. This is not necessarily bad theology, and it might sometimes be good pastoral care, but it is not a complete picture of our heavenly citizenship. Or heavenly citizenship is used to wash our hands of the troubles and challenges of this world. We invoke a kind of quietism because the world is just too messed up, too mired in sin to have any hope. Our denomination takes 40 years of wandering in the wilderness on LGBTQ inclusion. Our American political rhetoric has descended to a nadir of demagoguery, fear-mongering, and division. Our personal, student, and national debt seems too overwhelmingly large to ever possibly address, so we just keep putting off payments. Too often we throw our hands up, or wash our hands of these matters, despairing of this world, looking to our heavenly citizenship, to a long moral arc of the universe without any willingness to ask whether we or the universe need to be bending just a little, right now, to participate and move toward that long moral arc.

Too often we think of our heavenly citizenship as our passport. As Christians, we’ve got this little blue book which we can show upon arrival on the far shores of the stormy Jordan. No trouble with our border crossing, no wall to cross, we’re bound for the promised land, because we have our heavenly citizenship.

But passports aren’t the only part of citizenship. Citizenship comes with a participation in the bigger system, in the divine economy, and with that comes some obligations. Citizenship is not only about the benefits you get out of it, and that’s as true today as it was when Paul exhorted these Christ-communities in Philippi that they and we have a citizenship that is in heaven. Rome wasn’t exactly known as a tax-free haven, and the empire had significant judicial, financial, and bureaucratic systems that affected citizens and non-citizens alike. Paul couldn’t have conceived of any form of citizenship that didn’t also have participatory obligations attached to it, so I’m surprised when Christians think of heavenly citizenship as simply a “get out of hell free card.”

Perhaps as Protestants this makes us nervous because it sounds a little too much like works righteousness, but I don’t think that an expansive view of our participation in the broader divine economy in anyway contradicts a reliance upon God’s grace for salvation. As citizens of heaven we are in a koinōnia in the gospel under God’s supervision, and it is only by the grace of God that we are participants in this joint venture. This is how Paul can write that despite his current imprisonment, he and we can be confident that we are all shareholders in God’s grace. (Phil 1:7) We didn’t and we can’t earn those shares, they are a gift freely given, but our larger participation as a result of that grace demands our use of those gifts in full participation of our venture in the gospel.

I realize these are deep, and perhaps swirling, theological waters that might be crashing over your head, and probably mine, too, right now, so I’ll offer another more contemporary example.

The other day I came home from a productive meeting with my advisor after a short day of teaching to find Soren sitting on the couch, surrounded by a 6-foot radius of piles of paper. He had begun filling out our taxes. Soren has always done our taxes, but this year they are extra complicated, because we purchased a home in Portland last year and have been renting it on AirBnb. Asking him how it was going, he gave me the kind of look that communicates that I didn’t even have to ask. He told me that because of our AirBnb rental and because we are married, we are declaring ourselves a “qualified joint venture,” which means for tax purposes we would split all of the cost deductions and all of the profits equally. “That’s awesome!” I said, “Do you know what this means? In the eyes of the federal government, we’re in a koinōnia!” Soren was less thrilled, because he still has to do our taxes, but he did share my enthusiasm for a brief moment.

Beloved, our heavenly citizenship means that we participate with one another in God’s economy, and that participation is not without risk, reward, and obligation. Perhaps a theological orientation that is more wholistic, less self-oriented, and, I think, makes more sense, is to ask not what your heavenly citizenship can do for you, but what you can do for your heavenly citizenship.

And I think meditating on that sort of question is an excellent practice for Lent. Do not ask what heaven can do for you, but what you can do for heaven. I think this letter, this line of communication back and forth, binding together Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus and the saints at Philippi, offers a roadmap, an examination of conscience, a way into prayer for you this Lent as you consider your heavenly citizenship. As much as we tend towards the heroization of Paul, he’s a part of a larger community, entangled with one another, bound together in the spirit. We’re a big community here at Marsh Chapel. We’re bound to one another across the vast expanses of time and distance, and we are together entangled in these moments of ordered worship that overcome these distances.

So, as a Lenten practice, I invite you to imagine Paul and Timothy writing, perhaps Epaphroditus carrying and reading aloud, and these named and unnamed saints listening to these words:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full discernment to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Do you pray with joy, and thank God for those whom your remember in prayer? Are you confident that God is at work in you and that God will bring that work to completion? Do you hold one another in your hearts? Do you share in God’s grace with one another? Are you confident in your share in that grace no matter what your current circumstances? Do you long for better connection with those around you? Do you pray for others? Do you pray for their love to overflow more and more? Do you pray for them to have knowledge and full discernment? Do you help one another produce a harvest of righteousness for the glory and praise of God?

If, as the hymn says, I am bound for the promised land, where do my possessions lie? Where do I invest my wealth, my time, my energy, my life, and my very self? Do I invest myself in that which is most lasting, most true? Do I invest myself in other people, in their growth in faith and faithfulness?

And if I am bound for the promised land, whom do I invite to go with me? For, beloved, we are together in a koinōnia in the gospel.

We are, together, citizens of heaven.

Amen.

–The Rev. Jen Quigley, Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment

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