Hope that is Seen is not Hope

September 16th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

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Frontispiece

Hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see, and what for it with patience.

Our denomination bade farewell to one of its great matriarchs this summer, Barbara Steen, who with her husband the Rev. Tom Steen mentored generations of clergy, especially regarding invitation in outreach and fellowship.  Chuck Foster (Educating Clergy)Is an example.  Their example teaches us about hope.  In fact, Barb lived out the sense and substance of the Letter to the Romans, chapters 1,3,5,8,12,15 (here verses are recited in the sermon). 

What gracious good news to recall in this era of racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, irresponsibility, perversity, rapacity, and, especially, mendacity. Listen again to James, and to Mark.

 

The Tongue

If ever there were an age that could hear, and appreciate, the teaching of James about the tongue as a fire, it is our own. You know, the preacher here does not need to bring exegesis to bear, or to give explanation for the wisdom proffered, or to bring examples, many or few.  We know in our evenings of listening to the cable news.  We hear in our mornings of commuting with the radio on. We read and learn and inwardly digest what speech can do for ill.  We are coming to a point where even James 3 is too tepid, too mild to describe our national condition.  At some point we will need to repair to Amos, and to drink the hard cold medicine of his teaching.  When we wreck the use of words without pause, you do come to a time when words no longer work.  You have stripped the gears.  You have shredded the fabric.  You have cut the muscle.  And no one can speak the truth and no can hear the truth any longer. 

Behold the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.  And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line’.  Then the Lord said, ‘Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel;  I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac will be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid to waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword’. Amos 7: 7-8.        

‘Behold the days are coming’ says the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east, they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.’ Amos 8: 11-12

 

Mark 8: 24-37

To renounce oneself, said John Chrysostom is ‘to treat oneself as if one were another person’ (Marcus, II, 624). Consider oneself as every day on the edge of death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  We live at the intersection of present advent and future hope. What good is the greatest possession if there is no possessor to enjoy it?  ‘Take up the cross’ is a reference to the beginning of the journey, and the next part, ‘follow me’ refers to the ongoing life of faith. Baptism, first, you could say, Communion, second, you could say.

We like Peter have aversion to suffering, as did Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus is more than a prophet.  But he is not less than a prophet.

Mark’s harsh portrayal of Peter as ‘Satan’ is too much for Luke, who omits it later, and that reaction was probably not unique, for we can understand it too.

Hope that is seen is not hope.  So your preachers this summer reminded you:  Br. Whitney, Dr. Walton, Rev. Gaskell, Dr. Coleman, Rev. Donahue, and the dean, speaking about hope and righteousness, hope and freedom, hope and disappointment, hope and children, hope and lying, hope and listening, hope and the sweet aroma of the bread of life, hope and blending blue and red into purple (ok, maybe it was more like violet!), hope and faith.

Seek the Lost: Outreach

Barb and Tom Steen lived out of a desire to seek and to save the lost.   That is old language, for sure.  But it catches the fire and flavor of their, of her, faith.  Many of us have had several helpings of faith, Sunday by Sunday.  But for some, for some others, the first meal has yet to be served.  That is where some of our youth work, some of our outreach and evangelism, some of our willingness to open the church to others who may at some point need community comes in. AFUMC did this to national recognition in August this year.

Barb loved the camping programs at Watson Homestead and Casowasco.  This summer, driving along Route 90, our granddaughter counted up the number of times she will be at, she will have been at Casowasco, this year and next.  Many times.  Barb would have smiled.

We knew her many years ago, along the lakeshore of Owasco Lake, in the parlors of the building there aptly named ‘Galilee’. We saw there the effect that loving community, caring presence, modulated teaching, all in a naturally beautiful setting can have.

One summer, toward the end of the season, we had a young man of about 15 as a camper.  He had never been to camp before.  He was a rugged, stout fellow, who could and did pass the swim test, but barely.  He was just full of life, and not overly attuned to boundaries.  He had to sit out every now and then, but was quite affable about it, not minding the light discipline.  He was such an exuberant fellow, it was hard not smile at his various antics.  He was having a whale of time, all week long.  I was working as the lifeguard so I don’t know how much Scripture he learned, or how much praying he did, or how fully he could articulate his sense of faith.  But he was every bit alive, all week.  And the meaning of life is in the living of life anyway, isn’t it?

Come Friday, after lunch, our young friend disappeared.  He did not show up for rest period, and the later class, nor the swim at 2pm.  His counselors were rightly worried.  We formed up a search group, and trekked up to Mt Tabor, and hunted across the road in the Highlands, and looked through the gorge and the woods surrounding.  No luck.  By dinner we were plenty worried, even looking through the waterfront.  Then early that evening, I was walking up the railroad track, to the south of the camp, still hunting.  There he came, shuffling along.  He told me why he ran away.  He said that he did not want to go home.  He said that the week had been the best one of his life, that he for once friends, that he loved the hiking and meals and swimming, even the evening vespers. He just had never known anything like it.  And he did not want to go home, to what he had to go home to.  He told me about that, too.

That night, as he had some late supper, he came to something of realization.  It wasn’t so much that he could put everything into words.  The gist of his thought was along the line that he would go home and he would make the best of it.  But he would do it with memory of the week he had had, and that he would not forget, and he would not let the memory of the week fade. He would have to go home, but he could take something new home with him.  Another way, another experience, another perspective, a little hope. 

That is an example of what Barb and Tom were aimed at, in that part of their ministry.  A first helping of faith, shared genuinely, shared authentically, with those who had not yet had a chance to sit down at the table of fellowship and faith. It is what inspired her regular phone calls to our home, in Rochester, as our growing up children would hear, rattled out rapidly, ‘Hi Hon, Barb Steen here, how are you doing, how is school, is your mom there, thanks’.  She made her list of 5 or 10 calls she would make every day, and she made them.

Welcome the Stranger: Fellowship

We left New York City suddenly, in 1979, to take a church in Ithaca, in the snows of February.  Jan was ill, with child, and both the mother and the in utero baby had survived surgery for an ovarian cyst.  The doctor at St. Elizabeth’s in NYC had been unsure whether he could save either.  Our conference and Bishop had an open Cornell neighborhood church and we had every need to be in place, be employed, be able to heal and prepare.  Ordination—and with it health insurance as a conference member—were months away, in mid-June, near the due date for the birth.  As it happened, the child, our first, arrived two weeks late, a gift for some in the family, and a task for others.

We knew no one really, of our age, in the conference at that time.  Those were hot, lonely months, with all the pure joy and utter confusion of parenthood’s sudden arrival.  The birth of the daughter, that day, July 5,1979, was and remains the happiest day of my life.  Whatever joy is, it is not something I can think about without the sight of that little beautiful baby, that beautiful young mother and the delivery which was deliverance too.  So we began to stumble around in ministry, writing sermons, making visits, trying to make sense of personal and church budgets, a salary of $8K a year, plus a house. 

In early September the phone rang in our little parsonage cottage in Ithaca, at the end of Forest Home Drive.  ‘Hi Hon Barb Steen here, how are you doing, how is the ministry, Ithaca has enough committees for everyone to be the chair of at least one, these people don’t want faith they want a graduate course in religion—ugh!—is your wife there?’  We knew Barb and Tom by reputation only, a part of which we were about to see in real time, their commitment to small groups, to welcome, to hospitality, to invitation.  She called to invite us to a brunch two weeks hence in the Newfield parsonage, then occupied by Gary and Jeannie Judson.  Later in ministry our Syracuse predecessor Rev. Wayne Archer, his wife a Fenton of Fenton glass, reminded us that the Newfield church burned down during his ministry there. Oddly, the DS had said, ‘Archer, light a fire under that church’.  Well, Wayne also had served a church in Pennsylvania that hard burned, hence his nickname, ‘the Arson Parson’.  But Newfield UMC was rebuilt, and parsonage, as the older ones do, had a big parlor. 

Barb had gathered a dozen twenty something couples, including the Judsons and the Hills, who didn’t know each other form Adam’s house cat, for a meal.  Half or more had little babies in tow.  We sang and prayed a little, ate a little more, and laughed a whole lot more about the oddities of life, young adult life, parenthood, ministry and the loneliness lurking behind and above and underneath them all.  She gave us ourselves, by giving us to each other. She gave us ourselves, by giving us to each other.  We came alive.  The next week the phone rang. ‘Hi hon Barb Steen here, how is the ministry, how is life, how is that beautiful little ‘Emly’ how are your folks Marcia and Irv, wasn’t that a great brunch at Judsons, is Jan there?

From that one gathering friendships formed. One minister then took me to lunch. Another suggested a round of golf. A third saw my car and told to me to come over so that he would teach me to how to change the brake pads.  ‘You don’t want to spend money on that.  You can’t afford it on $8K a year. I’ll help you’. A fourth came and preached on Christmas Eve, making reference, in earshot of Rudolph, to the blessed taste of venison.  Thanks to Bob, to Duane, to Gary, and to Dale.  Tom Steen himself got me into a clergy study of the Psalms that lasted two years until we moved north.

The habits of visitation, the habits of welcome, the habits of outreach, the habits of hospitality, the habits of Christian charity and love, all so dearly central to any genuine form of ministry, are not necessarily permanent gifts.  They have to be remembered.  To be remembered they have to be modeled.  To be modeled that have to be practiced.  I give you Barb Steen.

Peter Berger (Rumor of Angels) reminded us that the very sense we have of lasting, earthly injustice, of wrongs not and never made right, a real and palpable sentiment, is itself a rumor of something more.  Which we cannot see, of course, and of which we do not know, of course. But maybe a heavenly breakfast will again be served, at which the table will seat the resurrection of the just. We hope for what we do not see.

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

Begin With The Hope In Mind

September 9th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7: 24-37

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Begin with the hope in mind.  For there is a healing that hope brings.  Begin with hope in mind.  For there is a healing that hope brings.

 

         Since her cousins and sister had already jumped into the cold lake, right off the end of the dock, Jane too headed that way.  It was her turn to jump.  The air was warm but the water was cold, she knew, from wading earlier.  She wanted to jump but she feared the cold.  She had some hope, but it had a cousin called fear. She longed to proceed as others had but she feared the pain, the jolt, the cold of the water.  So, she paused, she pondered, she hesitated, she equivocated, she moved left and right. Then she asked to take a moment to go down into the water, wading, to get her feet wet, and to get herself wet before the jump.  Up she came, but still, she stood still.  ‘Jump, Jane’ called her cousins. So since that light moistening didn’t work she asked to go down into the water to submerge in full, and be all wet before the jump.  Surely that would do the trick. But that didn’t work either.  Finally, she negotiated an end to the hostilities by deciding to wait until the next day.  She went up the hill dry and warm, but unsuccessful and downcast, her fear mollified but her hope deferred.  She had it right, though, both ways, didn’t she?  Yes, it would feel good to jump and yes, it would not feel good to jump. Both.  At the same time.  The sheer, public full honesty of the dilemma, the horns of the dilemma, is something we adults somehow learn or manage to disguise.  One is always better than the other, when it comes to choices, we suppose.  Right? Is that right? Well, not really. Yes, it feels good to jump, but yes it feels bad to jump.  Both. At the same time.  And there was evening, and there was morning, another day. And the next day, a whole day older and wiser, she took her usual place, fourth among six, and sauntered to the end of the dock, counted to the ritual three, uno dos tres, and, without a moment’s hesitation, she jumped.  She came up smiling.  Now less fear, now more hope. Choices in real time, choices in our experience, choices in freedom, for young and old, are strange things, dialectical and multi-dimensional.  We want what we fear and we fear what we want.  We hope for what we do not see, and we do not see the way toward that for which we hope.  And, sometimes, the air feels better, and sometimes the water.  The meaning in life and the meaning of life is in the living of life.  Choose. Choose!  And then choose again.  But as you begin, begin with the hope in mind.  There is fear, but there is hope.

 

         For the Gospel of Mark, it is ever a question, put to us again today, whether we can learn to see through Jesus’ eyes, to begin with the hope in mind.  To be honest about our fears, for sure, and, in due course, to give them their due.  But when your child is ill, as was the child of the Syro-Phoenician woman, to begin with hope in mind.  But when your body needs healing, as did that of the Gentile without hearing, to begin with hope in mind.  Hope is the spiritual air we need to breathe.  It is not so much that where there is life there is hope, but more that where there is hope there is life.      

        

         We are savingly accosted today by the healing that hope brings.  Jesus in his earthly ministry preached, and taught, and healed.  Our Gospel of Mark, read this morning and throughout this year, spares no expense or effort to make sure we recognize the power for healing in His hopeful Presence.  In fact, today, we have two healing stories conflated and combined, to double the punch.  The second records a healing of speech and hearing, brought along by Jesus in the region of the Sea of Galilee, the healing of a deaf mute, whose ears are opened and whose tongue is set free.  There is no mistaking the intention here to evoke and invoke the preaching of the church, on its own unable to hear and so unable to talk.  But with the Risen Christ, radiant in these apocalyptic passages, these things become real possibilities, the chance for the hearing of a word fitly spoken, and the chance for utterance of a word fitly spoken. An old story this, it carries an Aramaic word into the Greek language and world of Mark’s written Gospel and Roman community: Ephphatha!  Be opened.  May it be so.

 

         We are savingly accosted today by the healing that hope brings.  Jesus in his earthly ministry preached, and taught, and healed.  Our Gospel of Mark, read this morning and throughout this year, spares no expense or effort to make sure we recognize the power for healing in His hopeful Presence.  In fact, today, we have two healing stories conflated and combined, to double the punch.   The first story, if ever there was to be one story truly accurate about Jesus’ earthly life, carries us to Jesus’ worn tunic side, to Jesus’ young man’s body, to Jesus’ somehow power to heal, to Jesus’ willingness to be corrected, to stand corrected.  Mark and the early church had every reason to forget such embarrassment, the Lord of life brought to terms by a poor woman, a fearful and fretful mother who would do anything for her daughter, a GENTILE woman, an outsider, not truly religious, who challenges him.  Yes, Lord.  Yet even…There is no mistaking the intention here to evoke and invoke the preaching of the church, on its own mistaken about the universality, the breadth, the magnanimity of the mighty God and his God begotten Son.  But with the Risen Christ, radiant in these apocalyptic passages, these errors become real possible pathways to full healing, to a child brought back from the brink, to the chance for the hearing of a word fitly spoken, and the chance for utterance of a word fitly spoken.  An old story this, it carries a woman’s harsh rebuke of Him the church and Mark’s Roman community proclaim Risen Savior, Son of God, Lord and Christ. 

 

         Both stories are shot through with magical, exorcistic language, so much so that Matthew in retelling the Gospel on the basis of Mark, two decades or so later, eliminated them. The language can cause us to miss the meaning of the stories: they are meant to be understood symbolically, metaphorically.  The hope that Jesus brings, announces our Gospel, can be spoken and heard by those not originally religious, those not within the accustomed heritage of faith—the Gentiles.  Why Jesus even loses the one argument he loses in his whole ministry, here, to a Gentile, a Syro-Phoenician woman, a wily, crafty, Gentile woman.  The hope that Jesus brings can be spoken and heard by those not naturally inclined to such speech and hearing, those not gifted say with a religious gene or a spiritual gene.  For some music comes easily, for others not so.  For some faith comes easy, for others not so.  It is in the nature of things, this difference. Yet the hope in the healing that Jesus brings, here, overcomes both cultural and the natural barriers.  Jesus is still working miracles of speaking and hearing, of ‘loosening tied up tongues’ (J. Marcus, Anchor Bible, I, 480). 

 

         Salvation is a Latin rooted word, stemming from salvus, which means health.  The hope of salvation is the hope of healing.  Where there is healing, there is the Risen Christ, as if He were to say, I am the hospital, I am the diagnosis, I am the medicine, no comes to healing but by me, and wherever healing happens there I am also. 

 

         Every day this fall, begin with hope in mind.  Every week this fall, on the Lord’s day, come to church, and begin with hope in mind. At every turn, with every challenge, in every season, begin with hope in mind.

 

         You heard the hope of healing again in Senator McCain’s memorial last weekend.  Yes in the trumpets and traditional American music of the Navy Hymn, and in Boston’s My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the nature hymn, How Great Thou Art.  Yes in the wise voices of Presidents and Senators and family and friends.  Yes in the Gospel of John, with attendant, lesser Scriptures.  Yes in the organ, the gothic nave, the robed choirs, the solemn liturgy.  Yes, yes. But primordially you heard the hope of healing in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s two verse poem, with which the sermon that morning began: 

 

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myselfit speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

 

I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.    

…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…

 

         Many of us had left campus last spring before the full ‘beginning’, the full celebration of ‘commencement’.  Those days offered great hope in beginnings.  Our Commencement at Boston University in 2018 was a new beginning that began with hope.

        

          We heard hope in the voice of the Deans in conference who spoke about ‘What constitutes ideal student life?’   Here are some of the words used.  See if they sound to you like they sound to me:  meaning, belonging, joy, happiness, in the world for the world, being known, friendship, community, care, pastoral care, health, tradition, gatherings, shared big experience, lessened anxiety, mental health, candle lighting.  That all sounds to me like religion.  All require a leap of faith.  Jump, Jane!  You cannot get within earshot of meaning, belonging, joy, happiness, in the world for the world, being known, friendship, community, care, pastoral care, health, tradition, gatherings, shared big experience, lessened anxiety, mental health, candle lighting,apart from religion.

 

         We heard hope in the voice of those honored by induction into the Scarlet Key.  This has been donefor 105 years.

 

         We heard hope in the honored faculty member in the School of Dentistry.  He remembered his own graduation and having six family members stay with him in his one bedroom apartment.  Then he said to the graduates:  work for the cause not the applause work for the cause not the applause. 

 

         We heard hope in the voice of Professor Nancy Ammerman preaching from this pulpit during the STH hooding ceremony.  She fully acknowledged the difficulties in ministry and in life which bedevil our time, indeed which shadow and make anxious every day.  Then she quietly and strongly spoke the gospel and spoke about the gospel.  The Gospel is leaven, light and salt.  The Gospel is leaven, light and salt. And her sermon was leaven, light and salt.

 

         We heard hope in the voice of the the tenor soloist at the Boston Pops singing from Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent West Side Story:  Maria…Do what you love and love what you do!

 

         We heard hope in the voice of Carmen Yulinda Cruz Soto, mayor of San Juan, who simply asked what you will do when you are faced, as she and her people were last year, with choices of life and death.  How will face that?  Then she broke down briefly and beautifully in emotional remembrance of what her parents had sacrificed to send her to Boston University, including mortgaging their house twice.

 

         We heard hope in the voice of John Lewis at the biggest of our gatherings, 20,000 of us at Nickerson Field, after Lewis had worshipped here at Marsh Chapel.  He told about his first correspondence with and first conversation with Martin Luther King more than fifty years ago.  Then he challenged the 20,000 present at Nickerson Field.   So, good for you, you have a degree.  And then what?  You will get a good job.  And then what?  You buy a new car.  And then what?  You will build a new house.  And then what?  You will advance in your career.  And then what?  You will make money.  And then what?  What lasting meaning will your life and work have had?  What lasting meaning will your life and work have had?

 

         We heard hope from Colonel Thomas M. Stewart at one of our smallest but most meaningful gatherings, the ROTC Commissioning, annually at Fanueil Hall, but this year at City Hall: Speaking of Ego, Royalty  left the Army when the British left Boston.  You put your mission first.  You focus on your people always.  You be adaptable.  You practice life-long learning.  Then their parents stood beside them, placing upon their shoulders the apullets, the shoulder boards, marking them for service and sacrifice as they promised to Support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign or domestic.  Did you hear the wording?  The Constitution…all enemies… foreign or domestic. 

 

         We heard hope in the voice of Cardinal Sean O’Malley, in the reception of our Madeiros Scholars, telling these 20 full scholarship recipients that because you have been given a great gift, you have a responsibility in the future, in some significant way, to give back.

 

         Today we begin with the hope in mind, a sermon offered as a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.  May our global listenership, including this year Kasey Shultz in Madagascar, continue to expand.  May our undergraduate student members, like those present and participating today, continue to increase.  May our worship service be distributed broadly to NPR stations coast to coast, so that those in Idaho and Texas can hear the service live on his home NPR station.  May the interpretation of the Scriptures here, and elsewhere, continue to try to bring a biblical, prophetic critique, to bear upon national and cultural leadership under such manifold cloud cover today. May we try to strengthen the vital habits of assembly and representative democracy, these crucial though underattended, time and labor intensive communal gatherings, in Faculty Assembly, in Annual Conference, in Congress, and in Life.  May our pastoral care ministry, embodied in chaplains and in many Lay Leaders, be matched by similarly vigorous ministries of outreach and of evangelism.

 

         This may not be the morning for you to take a leap of faith.  The timing may not be right.  The air may be warmer than the water, and the water may still be cold.  The right balance of hope and fear may not yet have arrived.  No worries. There is tomorrow, and there is next week, and there is another day.  Yesterday was ‘Splash’, the celebration of student life and groups, inviting a leap of faith.  Friday night, said John Kerry, in reference to his recent writing about faith:  ‘you know, it takes a leap;  faith, it always takes a leap’.

 

         Or, on the other hand, the time may be right and the air and water temperature fit, for just that leap of faith. 

        

         Begin with the hope in mind. For there is a healing that hope brings. Begin with hope in mind.  For there is a healing that hope brings.

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

 

 

 

Communion Meditation

September 2nd, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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James 1:22-27

Mark 7:1-8

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As you enter this year of study, every day you will have a chance and a need for some pause, some moments of quiet.  Use your familiar devotional reminders to bring peace of mind and encouragement of heart.  Recite the decalogue.  Recall the creed.  Repeat the beatitudes.  Rely on the Lord’s Prayer.  Remember Paul’s admonitions.  One of our student choristers brings you our sincere,  communal and heartfelt word of welcome.  Maggie?

 

Welcome

 

Maggie:  Welcome to the varied ministry of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, fall 2018!  We look forward to getting to know you, as you sign up to sing in a choir, as you volunteer to usher or greet, as you attend a fellowship or study group, and especially as you worship with us on Sunday at 11am! 

            The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is to be ‘a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city’.  To that end Dr. Jarrett will invite you to vocal expressions of faith in the life of our music program.  To that end Ms. Chicka will invite you to global outreach in our work with International students.  To that end Br. Whitney will invite you to take part and take leadership in campus student ministry.  To that end Mr. Bouchard will solicit your support for work and works in hospitality. 

            This year, with our emphasis on ‘voice, vocation, and volume’ in our shared life, we are using as a focus for our work the word ‘hope’.   Our summer, fall and spring term worship and community life are laden with expressions of hope.  We trust and hope that each and every Sunday Morning will become an occasion for the speaking and hearing of ‘a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope’. 

            Where we can be personally helpful to you, and where our staff, chaplains, and campus ministers can be a benefit and blessing to you, do not hesitate to call up on us. 

            John Wesley famously called for a means of grace to ‘spread scriptural holiness and reform the nation’.  Now that was a big dream! May grace expand and extend in meaning for us in the fall term, 2018!

To begin, as you enter, as you ‘matriculate’, today and this week, we offer you, in communion meditation, three thoughts on adventure, regret, and faith.

 

  1. Adventure

 

We will keep ourselves in good balance by a daily quiet, a regular silence.  In this time we may recall and recite the ten commandments, the apostles’ creed, the Lord’s prayer, and the beatitudes.

In so doing, we may be able to remember, to recollect, to regather ourselves by reference to our best selves, to our own-most selves.  We have, for instance, had three years of shouting about a wall to be built along the Rio Grande.  But even once, or at all, have you heard a reference in all this hollering to the Monroe Doctrine?  The Monroe Doctrine expressed a singular, particular interest, on the part of the United States, in the whole of the Western Hemisphere.  It privileged, rather than denigrated, our relationship with the peoples and lands from Canada to Mexico to Chile.  Have you heard it quoted, or referenced in the last two years?

We happily have a rising senior, who is a student leader at Marsh Chapel, and an international studies major, who can help us remember the Monroe Doctrine.  Denise, what can you tell us?

Denise:  The Monroe Doctrine, authored by James Monroe in 1823, is in the main a statement of American commitment to the welfare and well-being of our northern and southern neighbors, Canada to Chile.  It has waned and waxed in actual influence, and at times has been tragically abused.  Theodore Roosevelt added his own corollary about 100 years after the original.  The Monroe Doctrine expresses American commitment to protection and defense of our neighbors in this hemisphere. 

Who knows?  Perhaps some part of our matriculating class of 2022 will engage in the adventure of rebuilding culture, society, economy and politics in our international neighborhood.  Listen again to the love poetry in the Song of Songs.  The voice of my beloved!  Behold he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. Voice…Beloved…Leaping…Bounding!   Life is just full of potential, of possibility!!  Life is an unending set of adventures!!  Why we could as a country, for instance, rebuild the Central American societies and economies that are sending parents and children fleeing for their lives north to America.  We have the means.  We have the motivation.  Bridges are better than walls.  In safety and with jobs, people could stay in their own countries.  What an adventure that would be, to see the Monroe Doctrine refit for the 21st century!   You might want to venture in adventure to study abroad, even perhaps south of the border.

 

  1. Regret

 

We will keep ourselves in good balance by a daily quiet, a regular silence.  In this time we may recall and recite the ten commandments, the apostles’ creed, the Lord’s prayer, and the beatitudes.  In so doing, we may be able to sharpen our capacity to the tell the difference between the true and the false, between the decent and the scurrilous.

You probably remember the phrase, ‘Methinks the lady protesteth too much’.   In hindsight we gain insight though often the insight is painful.  Where is this remembered phrase found?  In Shakespeare.   It expresses doubt in another’s sincerity (for those older than I), or authenticity (for those of my own generation), or capacity for irony (for those coming into the student ranks today).

We happily have a rising junior, who is a student leader at Marsh Chapel, and an English major, who can help us remember Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, from near the year 1600.  Tom, what can you tell us?

Tom:  Well, actually, Dean Hill, the quotation, though often put as you did, is more accurately, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks“.  The line so spoken is a little subtler and has an irony to it.  Here Queen Gertrude remarks on the insincerity, the overstatement within the ‘play within the play’ that Prince Hamlet writes.   The play itself shows guilt and insincerity, as does the famous line about ‘protesting too much’.  We use it in everyday speech to say that someone is lying.

By the way, if you have to choose, along the way, what in college to read, read some Shakespeare and read some Scripture.  The Bible and the Bard are the best, in the long run.  Both know about regret, a short or one word definition of hell.  Hell is regret, and regret is hell.  Hardly anyone escapes this life with no regrets.  They befall us all.  But we can at least be aware of them.  We can least strive to minimize them, both in quantity and in quality, both in number and size.  These years, if it be possible, we pray, let your regrets be few, so that your fulsome sense of irony and authenticity and sincerity will shine through.   The thing about social media, the newer technological forms, is that it is possible to represent yourself as someone a bit other than yourself.  For a time.  But over time, the truth, the hard truth, comes out.  When you look others in the eye and speak.  And they look in you in the eye and listen.  That is when you don’t want to have to ‘protest too much’.  As the Bard also wrote, trite but still true, ‘to thine own self be true’.  At least as much as possible!  When I lie, I hurt most myself.  Regret, the recognition of a lived moment of lying, hurts not others, but me.  Eschew regret.  Limit regret.  May your regrets be few and far between.

My esteemed friend Professor Andrew Bacevich, speaking to the graduating class of our own BU Academy some years ago, said:  ‘Now you are going off to college.  You will sometimes find yourself in a situation where a little soulful radar sounds inside you.  You know that something is afoot that just might not be right.  Listen to the beeping, the conscience, the sound of that soulful radar’.  The hardened and stern lessons of the Letter of James stand in this tradition: ‘be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves’.  It is not just what you learn or hear, it is what you do or don’t do that makes a life, a college career, and a person.

 

  1. Faith

 

We will keep ourselves in good balance by a daily quiet, a regular silence.  In this time we may recall and recite the ten commandments, the apostles’ creed, the Lord’s prayer, and the beatitudes.

We are living through a national debate about whether honor is necessary to leadership, or not.  Here in Mark 7 honor comes in two varieties, the one of the lips and the other of the heart.  Said one this week, speaking of his work place, ‘What is missing there is heart’.

May your adventures be many, and may your regrets be few.  The power to see things through, both when you need the accelerator and when you need the brakes, the capacity to balance the two, goes by the name of faith.   As the Gospel today emphasizes, it is the inside of the cup, the heart, the sense of honor, over time, that matters most.  Faith is the courage to continue to lean forward, when adventure is in the balance, and the courage to continue to lean backward, when regret is in the outcome.  Whatever, says Paul, is not of faith, that is sin.  So we gather for prayer every Sunday, and are led by lay leaders like Sandra, who often prays with and for us, as she does this morning.  Sandra?

 

Sandra:   Gracious God Holy and Just

Thou from whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

Thou our dwelling place in all generations

Rest upon us in the silence of this moment we pray

Dry the tears of those moved to emotion in an hour of separation

Illumine the skyline of opportunity that lies behind the rain clouds of worry

Carry young hearts open to friendship into seas of friendship

Help us hear for our time the voice of the Prophet

‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly’?

Help us we earnestly pray to prefer justice to judgment

Help us we earnestly pray to love the merciful more than the material

Help us we earnestly pray to walk humbly not haughtily

May the degrees we earn turn by degrees the wheel of life from judgment to justice

May the courses we choose inspire in choices later a keenness of mind matched by a fullness of heart

May the learning we gain afford us the gain of humility, the honest desire to give credit where credit is due, and not to tip the scale

May the friendships we make in their turn make us less inclined to judgment and more enamored of justice

May the regrets we acquire then incline us to mercy, as we have felt mercy, and not to material measurements alone

May the adventures we bravely pursue give us the wisdom to know our condition, mortal, frail, prone to harm others, frail, mortal

May all our acquisition of knowledge chase us toward justice, toward mercy, and toward humility

And the wisdom to welcome, later, perhaps much later, the recognition that

The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery  that surrounds it

The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it

Amen

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

A Homily by The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

August 26th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

Click here to listen to the meditations only 

About 18 months ago, I stood in the trauma room of a busy Los Angeles hospital. For probably the 7thor 8thtime my phone went off alerting me that there was an emergency. I walked in and saw the usual signs of a gang shooting. This was the first night I met Mark, whose name is not really Mark. Mark had been shot twice, looked to be about 15, and was covered in tattoos. As I searched for identifying gang symbols, I came across a tattoo of the rosary on the underside of his forearm. The mixture of religious and gang symbols was not uncommon. After speaking and saying a prayer, he went off to surgery. A few visits, and days later, the DCFS worker informed the hospital that they were out of placement options. Child protective services had nowhere for Mark to go when he was discharged, so they asked us to keep him while they “worked something out.” In the ensuing months, Mark and I had countless conversations.

He openly shared about his life and place in the gang, including the crimes he committed on the streets and even the strategies for not getting caught. Marks whole family belonged to different gangs. A dangerous fact and a harsh environment. When I asked Mark what he wanted to be as a kid he told me, “I never had a choice. The only choice I ever got in life was which gang I was going to choose.”

Over the course of the months, we talked a lot about faith and spirituality. Mark considered himself spiritual but not religious, as so many young people do. He shared how the rosary was a source of comfort and protection for him, which is why it was tattooed on his arm. He would continually ask me for rosaries because he would give them out to his friends and fellow gang members. In fact, the night he was shot, he had given his rosary to a friend, a fact that only reinforced his quasi-magical, or perhaps mystical, view that the rosary was a source of God’s protection.  

As we talked, I discovered that Mark was angry with God. When he was thirteen, his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. He stopped going to school to care for her and prayed every day for her healing. As far as I could tell, she was the only family member that ever cared for Mark, so when she died he lost the most important person in his life. He stopped going to Mass, for all intents and purposes he stopped going to school, and he was “adopted” by a local gang that he would later join. Mark was angry with God for the death of his grandmother. He felt pushed away, belief and trust were too hard, and so Mark walked away. He told me of the bargains he made with God if only God would save her. Good grades, a clean life, perhaps even serving the Church. But they did not work.

I imagine there are those of us who have made similar bargains to no avail. When life and faith do not go the way we plan or pray, it is easy to become frustrated. To be angry. Perhaps even to lose hope. Being angry, mad, sad, sorrowful, full of lament these are all normal feelings and expressions that occur as a natural part of life. Even losing hope can be natural; yet, the stormy waters of despair cut to the core. The loss of hope comes with a side effect of paralysis. Time slows and despair stretches. It is so insidious for its capacity to make people feel trapped. A loss of hope can feel like a loss of life itself.

In these times, one can feel that God has turned God’s face away. It can feel like, either God does not hear prayer or God is choosing not to answer. Sometimes it just feels like we are being pushed away. It can be hard to reconcile our image of God as all loving with feeling pushed away. Our Gospel reading today is somewhat puzzling in a similar vein. In these past few weeks, we have traveled through John chapter six where Jesus consistently calls himself the bread of life and draws the people to him. He fed the 5000 men and countless woman and children, taught from the mountainside, had to avoid being made a king, calmed the sea, and walked on water.

In fact, when Jesus tried to get away from the crowd by traveling to the other side of the sea, the people followed him. He had the crowds following him and eating out of his hands. It is here that Jesus delves into what is known as the bread of life discourse. And at first, the people want the bread that Jesus is offerings. He tells them about the life that it provides and they ask for it. They seem desperate for it and really, who wouldn’t be desperate for bread that provides life and hope. At first, they are willing to believe, based on the wonderful signs that Jesus has done. They believe that he is able to provide them with this living bread from heaven.

Yet, Jesus goes on. He not only has the audacity to say that he is the living bread sent from heaven but also that God is his Father. Jesus calls himself the bread of life from Heaven and reveals his deep and personal connection to the Father. This claim of a special relationship is a cause of complaining, but it does not yet cause the people to walk away. The desperate need for life and hope is still more potent, at least for a time.

Perhaps Jesus was not well versed in the church growth literature of the time. Because it is at this point, a potential climax for his ministry, that he seems to drive the crowds away. The signs, the miracles, and the teaching have brought the people. All is going well for the fledgling community and hope is so much easier to maintain when things are going well. Yet, the tide turns and in the midst of the grumblings, Jesus pushes harder.

 He goes on to use cannibalistic terms, saying that eating the Son of Mans flesh and drinking his blood are now requirements for his followers. You can almost hear the people say “I didn’t sign up for this.”   As they slowly back away. But some of the more ardent supporters, some of those more desperate for this bread, may have thought they had misheard Jesus or that Jesus did not mean what he said. So, verse sixty says “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Perhaps this was an attempt to help Jesus back off on this teaching. It is interesting that John uses the term disciples here. “When many of his disciples heard it…”

When we hear “disciples,” we often think of the 12 but there were many other followers of Jesus, some who were present for most if not all of his ministry. Here we have not just the crowds grumbling and questing Jesus, but his disciples as well. Those who had traveled with him and heard his teaching over time. These people knew Jesus and Jesus knew them. The text says “But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”…

Does this offend you? While avoiding offending people at all costs is a hallmark of society, even our abhorrence for giving a reason for offense does not capture the sentiment as it is recorded in Greek. The Greek word is skandalizei from which our word scandal is derived. So, when Jesus is aware that the crowds and his disciples are complaining about him, he asks if his teachings are scandalizing them and then he doubles down. The crowds leave. Most of the disciples leave.

The scandalous radical nature of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood is often lost on those prone to spiritualize this passage. This Johannine passage often gets filtered through the Eucharistic ritual where eating and drinking Christ is a regular practice. The idea of eating another’s flesh and drinking their blood has lost much of the scandalizing nature it held in ancient times. Perhaps though, other scandals can just as easily take its place as reasons why people walk away or lose hope.

Clergy abuses in all shapes and sizes, infidelity and sexual misconduct, financial mishandling, racism, sexism, the abuse of children. We see these across the country and across denominations. Scandals that cause people to question faith and hope. Now, unlike in John 6, Jesus is not causing these scandals through his teachings. Nonetheless, the church is burdened with them. Nonetheless, people are leaving due to failures of the institution and the people who are to be paragons of virtue. Certainty we cannot equate faith with the church and we might maintain that these failures do not occur in my church or our church. Yet, if we are going to hold that the Church is the body of Christ that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, we ought to ask the hard questions. Why and how? We ought to weep, lament, and seek change. We ought to recognize the challenge of holding onto faith in the midst of scandal. The challenging of hope when hopelessness is so much easier.

What do we do when faith breaks down? When the well-worn paths of piety perish? When it feels that God is calling us to the impossible or when despair looms so large that the valley of the shadow of death feels like a permanent dwelling place. What can we do? We can walk away and look elsewhere. Give up on finding ways to incorporate faith into modern life. Giving up that there are deeper meanings and purposes to life. Eschewing hope.

In the text, Jesus turned to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” We do not know if they were the only ones left at this point, but it is significant to note that this is the first time the Gospel of John mentions the twelve disciples as a distinct group. John records some of the early calling stories we find in the Synoptic accounts but here, for the first time in John, they are named the twelve. Perhaps the last 12 still standing.            Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

We don’t know the tone of Peter’s response. Perhaps this was a triumphant proclamation of courage and hope “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Perhaps it was said with a mixture of despair and realization “Lord, to whom can we go?” As if to say they would go somewhere if they could, but they’ve already left their jobs and are marked as your disciples no one else would ever take us at this point. We put our trust in you and now we have no other choice. “Lord, to whom can we go?”

Maybe it was said with a mixture of hope and despair. Certainty the disciples could not escape feeling despair as they watched Jesus and by extension themselves be abandoned by fellow disciples; and yet, they chose to stay which is fundamentally hopeful. The harshness of the teaching certainly would not have been lost on them. The reality that the people would go from trying to make Jesus king to having some try to kill him in the next passage would not have been lost on them. That even in the midst of rejection, even in the midst of hard teachings and hard times, twelve remained. Hope won.

Even a glimmer of hope, the smallest spark, and the dimmest candle stand in defiance to proclaim that all if not lost. Our summer preaching series is titled “Toward a Common Hope.” I love how Boston University’s paper titled their article about the series “The Necessityof Hope InspiresSummer Preaching at Marsh Chapel.” The necessity of hope inspires. Of course, the word inspires is derived from the Latin inspirare, in breath or in the Spirit. Hope is inspired in, by, and through the Spirit. The deprivation of hope in daily life means it has become a rare commodity. The need for hope is why people love stories about those who have beaten the odds or rise to the challenge.  People are so desperate for hope because far too many of us are starved of it. When Jesus says I am the bread of life, what he also says is I am hope.

It would be great if I could stand here and tell you that Mark, that young man I met with for months at the hospital changed his whole life. That he left resolved to get off the streets and go back to school. But I cannot. One day I went to the hospital and he was gone. As he had done in many foster care homes, he ran away. No goodbye. No forwarding address. For all I know, he could have left and been killed in the retaliation that was planned. I have no idea what effect my conversations had with him. What seeds germinated and which ones didn’t. But I choose to trust, hope, and pray that Christ is not done with him. That Mark has the opportunity to find nourishing hope that can only be found in the bread of life.

Even though life is not filled with story book endings, it does not mean that there is no hope. There is a sense in which the hope of Christ, the nourishment of the bread of life can be found in the most unlikely places. Faith and spirituality do not need to fit into neat boxes. Christ is not bound by the walls of the Church or words on a page. My friends hope is infectious. It only takes a little to grow and spread. But we live in a time where we must choose to search for hope. To plant hope. To nurture hope. And to share hope. Dear friends, choose hope.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

The Color Purple

August 19th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:51-58

Click here to listen to the meditations only

(The form of today’s sermon is borrowed from the work of CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, although today’s preacher does not share Lewis’s fuller theology, nor does he believe in a literal devil or devils.) 

My Dear Wormwood,

Again it is my pleasure to write your annual review, you devil you.  No uncle was ever prouder of a nephew than I am of you, Wormwood, given the excellent, successful year you have had making devilry among the good people of planet earth.  As chief representative of the fallen angels in this part of the universe, I have a close relationship with the Prince of Darkness Himself, our Father below.  You may rest assured that news of your various nefarious victories will sink to his hellish level.

         In particular, your work in the United States of America, Wormwood, has been nothing short of masterful. I take my horns off to you, one devil to another, and salute your destructivity.  You have kept them fighting among themselves, morning to night, like children in a marketplace, solely sighting their own interests, assured that the one truth they each hold is the only truth, the only crayon in the box.  Excellent, Wormwood, excellent.  I could not have done better myself, even when I wore a younger devil’s tail.  Keep at it, nephew, keep at it, set them one against the other, a man against his own house, a house divided, rich against poor, red against blue, radical against fundamentalist, communist against tea partier, personal ethics against social justice, doing against being.  Oh the thrill we have to observe such needless hurt!  Good boy.  With this letter I enclose your official promotion, commendation, and ribbon as demon of the year, with special commendation for inciting divisive discord, in particular in the ‘lower forty eight’.  Wormwood—you devil you!

         Now, Wormwood, it would not do for me, your affectionate Uncle,  Screwtape, Superintendent of demons in the near Milky Way, to let you go without a little avuncular advice.  Call it a little devilish Dutch uncle advice, to keep you on your way. Down below they are considering this year, this fall in major proportion, the great hope of a land of the free, and a home of the brave, a community with liberty and justice for all, a place where those who have much might not have too much, and those who have little might not have too little.  Ouch!  It cools the fires of hell to hear such loving rhetoric.  Here are some bits of wisdom, Wormwood my dear nephew, from your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.

         Be most careful, Wormwood, not to let any of these groups you have so carefully set upon each other, with daggers drawn, get Solomon’s idea that wisdom comes from the humility of service, that wisdom is justified by deeds, that wisdom is justified by all her children, that wisdom comes in more than one color.  Make sure the blue stay blue, and the red stay red.  Flee the color purple, Wormwood, with its recognition of dialectical thought, its movement toward full truth, its bow before the sin all share, its willingness to learn the painful lesson of humility within a time of humiliation.  Keep them fighting.  Keep the Presbyterians denouncing pride, and forgetting about sloth and falsehood. Keep the Methodists denouncing sloth, and forgetting about pride and falsehood.  Keep the Lutherans denouncing falsehood, and forgetting about pride and sloth.  Yes. Excellent.  Purple is dangerous to us, Wormwood.  If the blue start seeing that the red have a point, here and there, or at least that real change is real hard and takes real work in real time including actually showing up at the polls on voting day—your cause is lost. Keep them shouting at each other, like children in a marketplace, one group wanting to play weddings and another wanting to play funerals, pipes vs. wails, dances vs. weepings.  Take the purple out of their crayon boxes.  You want gated communities, the demise of public schools, lines of suburban\urban separation, racial disease and distrust, class separations, ideological fences, and a verbal war of all against all.  Tweet by tweet by tweet.  Children in the marketplace, as their Savior, said, yes, Wormwood, well done.

         And keep them discouraged in defeat.  When they lose make sure they lose hope too.  I am worried about far sighted, eloquent, hopeful leaders, like that Mario Cuomo a generation ago.  Remember when he got defeated?   But on the night of his defeat, remember what he said: “I come from a religion where the whole symbol of the religion ended in condemnation and crucifixion. But that wasn’t the measure of the experience…That’s just the way it ended…This is a metaphor for everybody’s life, that it is in the living…that you make your mark.  Sometimes you win.  Sometimes you lose”.   The meaning of life is in the living of life (E Fromm).

         Here is an example.  I hear the good heart, the Solomonic heart and mind, of some of their leaders saying something about children, about the need for education and health care for all children and young adults, across the land, through age 21.    Wormwood, this is peril for us!  Be on the qui vive!  If that country ever got behind that idea, and every child had medical care, education, respect—oh, it worries me.  Why, the natural aristocracy as Ortega called it, would come to the surface.  Keep them pinned down, keep their leaders pinned down, Wormwood, in tragic conflict, in financial red ink, in culture wars.  And be vigilant!  Sometimes they get the idea!  You remember, many years ago, how that 11 year old Boy Scout, Brennan Hawkins, was lost for a month in the Utah mountains, and 3000 searchers looked for four days until they found him!  The lost was found.  Oh, the joy they had in it, too.  It is like the joy a Christian has at bringing a friend, relative, neighbor to church to experience love and faith.  There is no greater joy!  It makes my devil’s blood freeze.  The rescuer said, “I feel relieved and happy.”  Oh Lordy.  See, if they really meant it, if they really chose to live with hope against hope, hoping for what they do not see, and waiting for it with patience, we would be out of business in your part of the hemisphere.  And business has been so good, of late!

         Another example, Wormwood. We head devils hate to hear about people moving from poverty to well-being.  We want a permanent underclass, so that we can then use it to foment division.  We want a few of the people to have almost all the money.  Excellent.  But this country and its churches, especially the Methodists, have always championed social mobility, like that in the churches of Paul, way back when.  His urban Christians were ‘status inconsistent’, and so are the living churches today.  They are vibrant, they are diverse.  Take that Chapel down in Boston there, not far from you, Wormwood, you devil you.  Marsh Chapel. They are of many colors and hues and shapes and backgrounds.  They resemble the globe on a Sunday.  They know—AND THEY LIVE—the universal gospel of the living bread, come down from heaven, with whom to be in communion is eternal life.  Oooh, that bothers me Wormwood, to hear such preaching, that ongoing incessant acclamation of a word of faith in pastoral voice toward a common hope. It is irritating! It really frosts my preserves. See what you can do to keep people from listening on the radio, or, worse, horror of horrors, showing up in worship.  Those Marsh Chapel people are like that Paul of Tarsus, a thorn in MY flesh, that Apostle to the Gentiles, but we got him at last, remember? We need to keep people in their place.  I tell you, nephew, it bothers me when I read about a young woman, Della Mae Justice, who was a 15 year old foster child living in a hut with a dirt floor, until her uncle came and found her and took her into his own home.  He was an attorney in Kentucky.  She said it was like little Orphan Annie going to live with the Rockefellers. Listen to this Wormwood, listen to what she said, and see if doesn’t freeze your blood:

 “It was not easy.  I was shy and socially inept.  For the first time, I could have had the right clothes, but I didn’t have any idea what the right clothes were.  I didn’t know much about the world, and I was always afraid of making the wrong move. When we had a school trip for chorus we went to a restaurant.  I ordered a club sandwich, but when it came with those toothpicks on either end, I didn’t know how to eat it, so I just sat there, well, staring at it and starving and saying I didn’t feel well.”

Her uncle educated her at Berea College, a school set up especially for hard working, children of the poor who want a fine education.  Now she is an attorney in his firm.  Wormwood! Be on the lookout!  This kind of story will find its way into somebody’s pulpit, into to some sermon some Sunday,  if it is not snuffed out.  See who have on our side in the newspapers, and work on it.  

Or, look at this matter of the ‘Queen of Soul’. When one young woman grows up in the church, her dad a preacher, and then she starts singing, and she has a voice from, you know, up there–heaven…pretty soon all those divisions we worked so hard to set up start melting: gospel against rock, jazz against R and B, spirituality against sensuality, and pretty soon have the ‘Queen of Soul’ whose music is universally loved.  I mean it Wormwood, purple can be a sound as well as a color as well as a voice as well as a word.  Keep them all divided up if you can, and get that purple crayon out of their  national, their existential crayon box.  Purple means good hope for a good future.  Get rid of it nephew, Wormwood, you devil you.

Confusion, miscommunication, mistrust—these are your best allies, my shrewd nephew.  And there, I must compliment you:  you have done so much to them through technology and they have hardly caught up 10%;  they have hardly any idea!  But be careful.  Over time they could catch on. They must not be allowed to remember the lessons of the past.  Like that Solomon and his wise, measured understanding. Or that author of Ephesians talking about personal, communal balance and discipline, that ‘keep calm carry on’ malarky. Or, especially, that Fourth Gospel, ever announcing the hope of the presence of the divine.  The last thing on earth our Fearless Leader, the Prince of Darkness, wants is a hope of planetary peace.  Then people would be free, purple crayon in hand, to draw a picture of a nation and a world that can work, measured by the condition of the least, the last, and the lost.

Let me be blunt, Wormwood. When you see a red woman and a blue man determined to think together, learn from each other, and work side by side, and they have lunch at a table adorned in purple, close that restaurant. We just cannot have that kind of synthesis going on. Thesis, yes.  Antithesis, yes.  But no Synthesis. Red we can stand, blue we can handle.  It is the color purple that is our downfall.  We cannot afford that kind of creativity, new creation, new thinking. We can’t have Bob Gates defending John Brennan, on the basis of what is true, right, hopeful and just.  That Gates, that Texas Methodist, always out there doing good for others, now in business, here at a college, there in the defense department–with the red and then the blue, then fixing the Boy Scouts mistake about gays, then, here he is again, supporting John Brennan over against emerging authoritarianism.  Purple, Gates is purple to the core. Beware that kind of person, Wormwood.  That is purple and that is our peril, Wormwood, you devil you.

 Let me be blunter, Wormwood. When you see a church, one of the last places people actually gather if they gather at all, that is both red and blue, and putting on a robe with a purple hue, weaken that church.  A denomination that stands for children, for the poor, for social mobility, for justice, for Biblical, dialectical thought, not just the thunderbolts from far left and right–drain that swamp.  What you have done to the Methodists in the Northeast, eliminating half their membership in a generation, you need to do across the country. Get them so worked up with each other that they just can’t work together.  Have them so entirely invested in resistance that they have no energy, or imagination, or voice, for restoration.  Restoration, that is the purple hope, the purple trouble, the purple hue. Make them angry, not hopeful.  Keep them angry, not hopeful.

I have one specific request, dear nephew.  Keep your eye on that chapel in Boston.  You know, the one on Commonwealth Avenue.  They are growing.  They are building.  They are liberal and yet they are blue and red together.  They love children.  They are learning to tithe.  They are starting to invite.  Work on them, Wormwood.  Make them fear the unknown. Make them tentative.  Make them forget their outreach to students, their welcome to faculty, their mission work and children’s programs.  Make them accentuate divisions, all divisions, gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, class –sweet divisions, sweet divisions. Make them disagree wherever they can.  I will check your work at our Halloween review.  Halloween—what a fitting, a good time for us to be together, Wormwood.

I send you best wishes for all that is predatory and mendacious, nephew.  Remember my theme song, your Uncle Screwtape’s favorite, stolen from Blake, our shared theme song:  When Satan first the black bow bent, and the moral law from the gospel rent, he turned the law into a sword and spilt the blood of mercy’s Lord.

And put your horns, pitch fork and tail into it, Wormwood, you devil you. Hold back that Solmonic wisdom: I am only a little child, and I do not know how to come out or go in.  Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to discern between good and evil.  Hold back that teaching from Ephesians: Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil…sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.  Hold back that Gospel promise in John:  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live foreverWhoever eats of this bread will live foreverWhoever eats of this bread will live forever

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

We are the Bread of Life

August 12th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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1 Kings 19:4-8

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

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“Let there be peace among us and let us not be part of our own or another’s oppression”

When I was a child my parents and I would drive out to my great Aunt Jessie and great Uncle Stewart’s place “in the country”. We were usually accompanied by my cousin, my aunt and my grandparents.  It was a place where my cousin and I were pretty predictable in our actions.  First, we would stop in the kitchen to see if Aunt Jessie was going to make peach ice cream, which also meant that we were going to take turns hand turning it on the front porch.  On the counter there was a large beige earthenware mixing bowl covered with a damp dish towel. 

That was the indication that we were having rolls with dinner. My cousin and I were then given instructions on what fresh vegetables were to be picked for dinner: Kentucky wonder beans, corn, tomatoes, lettuce to name a few.  Returning from our outdoor farmers market, my cousin and I then took a walk down the dirt road to Mr. and Mrs. Mack’s house.  The Mack’s had a real farm complete with a barn, and animals.  Mr. Mack would ride us around on his tractor and let us feed the chickens.  Mrs. Mack would then treat us to fresh squeezed lemonade and homemade chocolate chip cookies.  Quite satisfied we would then run back to the house to begin the churning of the ice cream. My father would take the sealed metal container of milk, cream, sugar and peaches and secure it in the ice cream maker, surround it with ice and top it off with rock salt.  I preferred to churn later in the process as what I really wanted to do was to punch down the dough for the rolls.  I remember my Aunt Jessie saying “give it a good punch”.  My small hand lost in the dough that then surrounded it.  She would then take the back of a dinner knife and scrape the dough off my hand. I would watch her intently knead the dough.  She had arthritis of the hands and I never grasped the full weight of how difficult a task this might have been.  She rolled the dough out on a wooden board that she had spread flour.  Taking a drinking glass, dipping the rim of the glass into flour, she would cut circles of dough to form the rolls.  She would then pick up each circle and fold over the top third of the roll.  Then taking each roll and placing it carefully on a greased baking sheet.  The remaining dough would be gathered and the process repeated until there were two full pans of rolls.  Another rise, then brushed with melted butter and placed in the oven.  The house smelled wonderful.  It was as a young child that I learned that Making Bread is An Act of Love.

Over the years I have made yeast breads but nothing ever equated my Aunt Jessie’s rolls.  But I continue to hold my truth that the making of bread is an act love. I recall making a loaf of challah and my father and I sitting at the dining table, a warm loaf of bread and a plate of butter between us. 

My current love for bread baking came after I read Michael Pollan’s book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Bread in the modern context as we have come to know it, is the result of the advent of roller mills that made white flour widely available and of the commercialization yeast in the 1880’s.   While it made life easier it took much of the nutrition out of bread and made bread commercially available for purchase.  It was a staple of the dinner table in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s predictable in color and pretty tasteless, it had preservatives so it had a long shelf life. It must be noted that for most of European history, bread represented more than half the calories in the diet of the peasantry and urban poor according to French historian Fernand Braudel.

But ask any serious two thousand and eighteen, bread maker and they will tell you time and time again, that making bread is an act of love.  My friend Julie Carson, gifted me with starter yeast last year.  Since then I have tended, fed and used the yeast to bake bread. Now that act of love hasn’t been easy and at many times it appears one sided in the yeast favor.   Yeast has popped out of containers moved in mysterious ways along the kitchen counter and made its way onto the floor.  Only to continue to expand in the process.  Julie says this means that I am doing it right.  Baking bread is a gift of love and an abundant, life giving and sustaining gift.

So, when Jesus says “I am the bread of life” are we looking at Jesus as boring factory-made bread?  What comes to mind when we hear “I am the bread of life”?

Perhaps some will think of the bread that we used for communion.  In most Episcopal and Anglican churches to commemorate the Lord’s Supper we use the communion wafer.  It’s easy, it’s convenient and it comes in a resealable container of 500 and it has no resemblance to the taste of bread.  Is this the “bread of life” to which Jesus likened himself to? 

Today’s Gospel reading begins with Jesus’ proclamation “I am the bread of life.” Earlier we read the story that has come to be known as the feeding of the five thousand, where many hungry people are feed because there was love and sharing enough for all.  The focus of this feeding story has been on the meal and very little attention paid to the bread itself and what is might signify.  In the same way that the focus on mass feeding has been on the miracle and not on the food itself, so, too, with today’s proclamation that Jesus is the “bread of life,” we usually focus our attention on Jesus rather than on the bread.

But how can we begin to understand what Jesus was saying about himself until we look more closely at the bread?  When Jesus talks about the bread he is looking about a community that is all inclusive.  All inclusive, means all-inclusive because if we don’t include ALL we place restrictions on the way that we live our life in this world.  We get predictable bread.

When I visited South Africa a few years ago I was introduced to a rich dense brad they call Seed Loaf, boasting different seeds and grains which yield a loaf of complex texture and rich flavor.  This is how it was described on the market’s web site “Seed Loaf, our healthiest loaf, is hearty and moist.  Made from white flour, whole wheat flour, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds, bran, sunflower oil and honey and yeast.”  This is definitely the sort of bread invoked by Jesus’ claim: I am the bread of life.

The passage from John’s Gospel is a lesson is about love, believe, and abundance.  It is difficult to associate mass-produced bread with the actual kneading and baking of a loaf of bread.  We are all accustomed to a huge aisle devoted to bread in our local market. Abundance, yes. Not so much anything else!

Consider Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Western MA, a small bakery. Berkshire Mountain makes its own yeast and only uses fresh milled flour.   Online orders need to be placed by Sunday at noon to be baked and shipped on Tuesday. They have a sort of cult following of “breadies” and followers of the bread guru Richard Bourdan.  One can order:

Cheese & Herb Bread

Cherry Pecan

Ciabatta

Dark chocolate

Jalapeno and Cheese

Peasant French Pan

Spelt Bread

Visiting the bakery is a bread Disneyland. Driving through small towns in Western MA confused by the GPS, I was on a mission to search out and buy “real bread”. When we finally arrive, I stood in front of a small wall of daily selections speechless and mouth ajar. Here I was with real bread, food for the soul, handmade, made with care, made with love. When the bread is sold out for the day there is no going to the back of the bakery to retrieve additional loaves. No bread comes in a plastic sleeve.

Our lives – our families and friends are enriched – with a diversity of likes and dislikes.  Why not our bread? And to turn that around: When Jesus spoke of himself as bread, as the Bread of Life, is it possible that he was speaking of richness of texture, of boldness and flavor? That he was inviting us to a greater feast in our life of faith?

Jesus’ ministry was built on the rich foundation of many stories of feeding and being fed.  We have one example in Today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible.  I reading from Kings, Elijah sets out on a long journey sustained by the gift of the angel of the Lord: food! Not just once does the angel feed him, but twice.  The angel commands him: “Get up and eat!”.  This wasn’t just any food, but bread.  Elijah “got up and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”

Jesus was well-acquainted with the Exodus story, and would have known the tradition that the Lord God sustained the Israelites in the wilderness with manna – bread—from heaven.  Which is actually not bread as we know it but is a sustainable, edible food that combines morning frost is edible and tasted like bread.

The Exodus theme permeates John’s Gospel, setting up a tension between the manna given from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread that feeds us in the wilderness of our souls.  Somewhere in the midst of that tension we find the bread of life: not manna from God, not the flesh of Christ, but the Bread of Life, the Bread that brings LIFE.

Now if we continue on with the reading we have those who aren’t quite sure about Jesus’ claim of who and whose he is. Now, bear with me one moment as I am going to change the context of some of the commentaries about this passage. I am going with the phrase the crowd began to complain.  I have been blessed with long longevity on both my mothers and fathers’ side of the family.  Part of this blessing is that I was blessed at an early age with the importance of listening and being with the elders.  Respect was given by me and in turn stories were given to me as an oral history of struggle and triumph.  In my own family, my grandfather moved north for the promise and fulfillment of a good job at the Ford Motor Factory.  The pay was good and steady and moved many African Americans into the middle class. My father’s older brothers went to work at Fords, however my father after his first few months of working at Ford as a welder was pulled aside by a fellow auto worker who said to my father: “this work is not for you, go to college”.  It was a few weeks later that my father fell off a scaffolding and was given the time and space to consider his career path.  His choice to go to college was initially met with a community that wasn’t sure how a college education was going to lead to steady employment and to provide for a family.  Many a neighbor said “you know Wyatt and Christine’s child… “He’s going to college, He’s thinks he better, who does he think he is? 

My father received a PhD and encouraged his younger brothers to obtain a college degree. We have all known a person or two or three in our lives who said “you know what so and so’s child is doing…”.   Do we say that in disbelief or do we say that in amazement for blessings that have been given to that person?  This is not an old conversation.  The writer of John knew the people they were writing to and knew the questions on their heart and minds.

Jesus was baking something new.  Creating the yeast that would break from the plastic container on the counter and flow onto the kitchen counter and onto the floor and carried out the door to feed the people.

This vision of bread given to us in John’s Gospel teaches us that we will be feed that we are enough, that we are loved.

To eat the bread of life in love means that communities come together to have conversations about their differences and support each other when forms of racial hatred are expressed in their communities.

To eat the bread of life in love is to check our privileges at the door and stop for a moment to let the Holy Spirit into our hearts and into our thoughts.

To eat the bread of life and love is to have compassion for one another even under the most difficult of circumstances,

To eat the bread of life means we struggle and wiggle in comfortable and uncomfortable conversation with the other of differing opinions and we stay present.

To eat the bread of life means we don’t discount, belittle or shame the other as we are all “the other” at times.

The author and humanist chaplain, Jim Palmer wrote this week:

My God is better than your God

My religion is better than your religion

My belief system is better than your belief system.

My philosophy is better than your philosophy.

My ideology is better than your ideology,

My ism is better than your ism

My race is better than your race.

My socioeconomic class is better than yours.

My degree is better than yours.

My cause is better than your cause.

My political party is better than your political party.

 

And the wheels on the bus go round and round.

Meanwhile, there is something beneath all those layers that unite all of us together as one.

We are operating out of the beliefs, mindset, narratives and ideologies that are programmed in our heads.  We are divided and separated.  But when we allow ourselves to sink down into our innermost being and common humanity, we discover we are more alike than we are different.  We desire and fear the same things, we are caught up in that inescapable network of mutuality and single garment of destiny, and when we let ourselves go there we know in our deepest self that love goodness, peace, harmony, beauty, solidarity and compassion is what’s most real.

We are one human special and family: there is no real conflict or division between us.

Stop listening to them, Start listening to you.  –Jim Palmer

 To break real bread is messy, crumbs fall everywhere, bread broken by hand is never even, but there is a joy and a love in the sharing with others.

Breaking bread is beautiful.  Breaking bread is messy. Breaking bread is comforting.   Breaking bread is an amazing act of love. 

Let us break, bread together on our knees, or at our table or when we encounter the other or one another daily in our journey.

-The Reverend Dr. Karen Coleman, Associate Chaplain for Episcopal Ministry

A Building Block for a Common Hope

August 5th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Acts 10:1-17, 19-24, 27-30, 33-36, 44-48; 11:1-3, 15-18

Luke 6:43-45, 8:16-18

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Our Summer Preaching series is entitled, “Toward a Common Hope”.  This Summer we find we preach against the tide:  given the other preaching of division, exclusion, and isolation that surrounds us, the idea of a common anything is a hard sell.  And while hope is vital if we are to live, and to know what we hope for in detail is essential, hope also requires common action, if it is to be fulfilled hope in the world. 

Nowadays our problem is often that we don’t know what to hope for or know the hope we could have. The chaos just keeps coming, so there is no stability on which to stand or from which to act.  We are so busy and scheduled that it is more than enough to make it through the day.   And often our personal, national, and planetary news is so dire that our hope feels crushed even if we were able at one point to have it.  How do we recognize our hope, encourage one another, and find allies in hope that will help us make the changes that will expand our hope, so that we can go on?

Our story from the Book of Acts recounts one way that a group of people recognized a hope that they did not know they had, and recognized new allies even amongst many differences.  The story also describes an action that we can take to recognize our help us recognize our hope, recognize our allies, and take one action that is a building block for  our present and future common hope.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is known in some circles as The Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit, and our story this morning is also known as “The Gentile Pentecost”.  It begins with visions:  Cornelius, a Gentile, sees and hears an angel who tells him to send for Simon Peter, a Christian believer of Jewish heritage, so that Cornelius can be recognized for his devotion and generosity before God.  Simon Peter, also Jesus’ disciple and a leader in the growing Jesus movement, has three visions, all the same:  a sort of sheet is lowered from heaven that contains animals both allowed and forbidden to eat by Jewish dietary laws.  A voice tells him to get up, and kill and eat any of the animals.  Peter refuses to do this in obedience to the dietary laws, and then the voice tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This dictum is further reinforced for Peter when the Holy Spirit tells him to go with Cornelius’s messengers without hesitation, for the Spirit’s own self has sent them.  Peter invites the messengers in for the night, and then goes with them to Cornelius’ home, where a mixed group of Gentile family and friends has gathered.

In Cornelius’ and Peter’s day, this behavior was counter-cultural.  Roman officers did not usually seek to emulate the religious practices of those toward whom they were given military orders.  Nor did they usually invite complete strangers of a different social class and of a populace under Roman rule into their homes amongst family and friends.  As for Peter, Christian believers of Jewish heritage did not mix with Gentiles in their personal or religious lives, and while Cornelius was a good guy, he was also a slaveholder and an officer of the army that occupied and subjugated Israel. Neither Cornelius’s nor Peter’s behavior is within the norm.  Both of them go beyond that:  Cornelius welcomes Peter and his companions warmly, describes their meeting as being in the presence of a God who is God to them all, and he and his family and friends are willing to listen to what Peter and his companions have to say as words that God has commanded them to bring.  Peter for his part has taken his vision and the Spirit’s speaking to heart, and begins his teaching with the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

The story of the Gentile Pentecost continues as just that, a time of sign and wonder that echoes the first Pentecost.  To the astonishment of Peter’s companions, the gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all the Gentiles in the room – they begin to speak in tongues, and glorify and praise God for the good news of Jesus Christ that Peter has brought to them. This sign is enough for Peter to decide to baptize Cornelius and his family and friends, and for them all to visit together for several days.  Very unexpectedly, they all are now allies in the common hope they have together in Jesus Christ.  This story marks the beginning of fulfillment, not just of Cornelius vision and Peter’s vision, not just of the sign and wonder and hope of a Gentile Pentecost.  It marks the fulfillment of God’s hope, and of God’s vision of inclusion for the Church’s expansion into all the world.

And, the story of the Gentile Pentecost is also a story of conflict.  The apostles and believers of Jewish heritage in the Jerusalem church had not attended the celebration in Cornelius’ home. They had not had visions, they had not heard voices, they had not seen the sign.  They criticized Peter for visiting with Gentiles and eating with them. But when Peter told them all that had happened from his vision on, including the Gentiles’ baptism, the ones who criticized were silenced.  They were silenced by the enormous new thing that God had done, by a hope that they didn’t even know they had.  And then, “they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

Vision. Voices. Signs.  It’s a bit different now.  We who have been kicking around in the faith for a while now would love to have regular, obvious visions, voices, and signs, with clear directions to recognize what to hope for, tips on how to encourage each other, and ways to find allies.  And that is not to say that we don’t have visions, voices, and signs now more intermittently, or that we may not yet have them.  And, they are no longer frequent.  John Wesley, the founder of my faith tradition of Methodism, wrote that the reason we do not have these things is that we do not have the faith to receive them.  And, even if we don’t have visions or voices, or signs, we still have intuition, gut, imagination, hunch, mother wit, feeling, no such thing as coincidence, hairs on the backs of our necks, and so on. And, if we don’t have even these, we all still have one gift from God, can take one action.  We can practice this gift, this action; with it we can be in cooperation with the Holy Spirit; it can be a building block for a common hope and for that hope’s fulfillment in the world.

Because the larger story of the Gentile Pentecost is actually made of a series of stories.  And in each of these stories, the one thing that everybody does … is listen.  They listen to the voice of the Spirit, they listen to the unknown languages, but most of all they listen to each other’s stories.  And in that way they all hear the Spirit and the unknown languages, and all the stories become part of everybody’s common story. They listen in the broad sense, not only or even with ears, but with an open heart and a willingness to understand. They listen in a way that anyone can do to receive whatever communication that might come to them from another person – with respect and full attention and by any means necessary. Even if they cannot understand the language, listening to it allows for translation, and carries significant meaning. Each of the smaller stories in the larger story – of the Spirit, of Cornelius and of his family and friends, of Peter and of his companions, of the apostles and uncircumcised believers in Jerusalem – all these and all of our stories only have meaning if someone listens to them. 

This is not the kind of listening that many of us so often do, not the kind in which we nod our heads and make encouraging noises while all the while thinking not of what the other person is saying but of what we want to say instead or in response.  Neither is it the kind of listening that demands lockstep ideological purity all the way through all the issues.  Instead it is the kind of listening that allows us to welcome our allies where we find them.  Kenneth Elmore, Associate Provost and Dean of Students at Boston University, noted in an interview given at the School of Theology that if we have one point of agreement with a person, no matter our other differences, we have an ally on that one point, and it is from that one point that we can move to find other points of alliance.  This is an important thing to remember in our time that so promotes division and discord: if the apostles and believers of Jewish heritage had listened to Peter and his companions only with the demand for continued ideological purity, there is a good chance that many of us today would not be listening to this service of worship.  There’s nothing wrong with criticism and disagreement.  They are often a consequence of the Spirit’s work, and they often open up discussion and creativity as the demand for ideological purity does not.  In the church we are all both Gentiles and believers of Jewish heritage at any given time.

My friend Lucy is a Methodist minister.  She tells the story of a time in the middle years of her ministry.  At a conference she was paired for a conversation with a woman who turned out to be a Native American tradition bearer for one of the tribes in New England.  While she and Lucy were much of an age, in many ways they were very different. Aside from the differences in faith tradition, Lucy is very white, and privileged by any of the world’s standards. Her Native American companion, as became clear in their mutual telling of their stories, while privileged in many ways, by many of the world’s standards was not.  Some people would see them as natural adversaries rather than as colleagues or allies.  And yet they shared profound similarities that deeply moved both of them. The elders in both their traditions were beginning to die, so now they themselves were becoming the elders.  The responsibility for carrying their traditions lay a bit heavy on both of them. Had they learned their traditions well enough?  Were they skilled enough in the ways necessary to help pass their traditions along to the next generation?  Were they skilled enough to help their communities face the challenges and use the gifts of their traditions as well as those of the present day?  They found that the joys and sorrows of their callings were much the same, as were the personal challenges and growth they had experienced.  And they found a common hope in the goods they wanted for their communities and in the resilience and adaptability of their traditions.  Neither was converted to the other’s belief system – there was no thought of that.  Further conversations might have revealed areas of profound disagreement and even conflict between them.   And yet in that time as they listened deeply to each other’s story, they unexpectedly realized that they were allies, each working in her own way and in her own community to fulfill a common hope of inclusion and peace. In they listened and then talked together they both found encouragement and strength for their own hopes for what might be possible.  There were no plans for follow-up:  it was not that kind of conversation, and really did not need to be.  Lucy has never seen her colleague and ally again.  And, she often thinks of and prays for her and her community, and even sends money to projects Lucy knows may support their common hope.  Their time together was a time of mutual inclusion and alliance, and Lucy considers it a blessed touchstone in her life.  As we read in the Gospel of Luke, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

To listen is to take action, and the act of listening is a building block for a common hope.  To listen to the truth of another person that brings us joy, to listen to the truth of another person that may make us uncomfortable, allows us to cooperate with the Spirit in its work of inclusion.  As we listen to God and to one another, even in the midst of disagreement and division, we can discover what to hope for or the hope that we could have.  We can find allies on just one point.  And with a common hope and allies, we can begin to fulfill our hope in this place and time.  As we read in the Gospel of Luke, “Then pay attention to how you listen.”  Amen.

—Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

The Least of These

July 29th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

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Our Gospel this morning, sung in hymns, including children’s hymns, read in Holy Scripture, including the Fourth Gospel, approached in thought and speech, including in a twenty minute sermon, and, in full, lived out in the exuberance of a summer Sunday, accents the glory and revelation in the least among us, the littlest among us. The Gospel of John exalts the glory of God revealed in the divine presence, throughout and through all of life. Our passage from John 6 is one of seven great miraculous accounts recalled in the preaching of the earlier church, and collected in the first half of the Gospel of John, as a way to ring the bell, and sing the song, and tell the tale of the divine presence.  It is miraculous that 5,000 have gathered. It is miraculous that all are fed in one setting.  It is miraculous, more miraculous still, that not only are they fed, but they are satisfied.  That is a glorious morning, when all are satisfied.  It is miraculous that in this revelation, there arises, for the author of John in reflection, a sense of what this must mean, that one from beyond has entered within, that one from above has descended below, that ‘a prophet’—such a strange appellation—has come into the world.  To be sure, John has received this story from tradition (as in Mark 6), but he has changed it to celebrate a glorious revelation, which takes him well beyond any simply sacramental concern.  And of all John’s changes, perhaps, the greatest is the agency he gives to one of the least of those present.  In John, unlike in Mark and the other gospels, there is a new figure in the story, a boy, a lad, a little fellow, who is the only one who remembered to bring a lunch along.  There was, John avers, a lad with 5 barley loaves and two fish.  John smuggles into the morning’s Gospel a new character in the ongoing story of Gospel, of divine presence.  In radiant exuberance, the revelatory joy of Jesus’ presence, then and now, on the hills of Palestine and in the hills of New England, John alerts us to this one little lad, the boy with the lunch to share.  This is good news packaged in the lunch pail of the least of these among us.

On the streets of Boston in the summer, we too are alert to the least of these among us.  Summer takes our city and makes it young, younger still, young again.  This is a time when people from all over the globe come and pay us a call, come and visit us here.  Just look at the license plates of the cars driving past you some time on the highways north, south and west.  Just listen to the languages spoken as you saunter down a summer day in this magical city, as you ‘flaneur dans le rue’.  It is an unutterable happiness to be graced with those who want to visit, who come from afar, who save and plan and travel to get here to see something, to learn something, to touch the hem of something.

For this is dear old Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, where the Lowells will speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God.  Boston, in so many ways the city of origin, the point of departure.  Boston, birthplace of the republic:  Haymarket Square, Old North Church, Bunker Hill, Old Ironsides. 

Boston, home to heroes: Paul Revere, Abigail Adams, John Hancock.  Boston, where in 1832  the city heard a children’s choir sing, “My Country tis of thee”, written a year earlier, and sung first at Park Street Church, just a few blocks from here.  This afternoon, on the Freedom Trail you can talk with “Ben Franklin” attired in the garb of 1780.  On the subway you can stop at the Scollay Square station and remember the man who never returned.  Take the train to Fenway park and peer at the green monster.  Try not to make the mistake of wearing a Yankees hat.  Walk through downtown and the flower gardens in the glorious Public Garden.  Spend a minute along the old streets, and feel the freshness of a country being born, being formed, being built.  Visit the children’s science museum.  Boston your home town takes the world and makes it young again!

One of the best spots in this young city, this birthing room for freedom, is the Aquarium.  Right on the port shoreline your city has built a magnificent structure, a several tiered tank.  Coral has been transported from the Caribbean, and then also reproduced. Fish of dozens of colors, shapes, sizes swim in the blue green cylinder.  Divers in fins, wetsuits and air tanks maintain the giant manmade ocean tank.  Stingrays swimming in a separate pool–you could touch them!  And around and around the outside of the cylinder walk mesmerized children and adults, looking on the splendor of the Neptune’s kingdom.  There are six kinds of sharks in the Aquarium. The sand shark and others.  At the top level you can watch them jump and swim. Boston returns one to the great ocean deep from which life at last emerged across the millennia.  Boston takes the world and makes it young again!           

A generation ago, with three children in tow, in the summer heat and on a limited budget, it is a happy glory to recall,  our then young family visited the Aquarium.  The place was mobbed, packed with kids and parents, classes and groups. The colors and shapes and sizes of the humans walking clockwise around the tank mimicked nicely the variety of fish swimming counterclockwise inside.  We saw a little girl pressing her nose against the glass up toward the tank top, just as the sand shark swam by.  Two women photographed the coral.  A boy screamed as he patted the stingray.  There were maybe 3000 people inside the Aquarium.  All of a sudden, the loudspeaker crackled.  “Please be quiet, all of you.”  Soon the tall structure, full of children and parents, was nearly silent.  The announcer continued, “I must regrettably report that a little boy is lost. He is three years old.  He is wearing jeans and a white sweatshirt that says Boston College on the front.  He has red hair.  Please take a minute wherever you are and look toward the tank and then along the walkway.”  In a moment, you could feel the atmosphere in the building shift from lark to worry. Every parent’s worst nightmare had hit. The tension around the tank was palpable.  The thought that one child, even one, out for a day of learning and play would disappear, or worse, held the gathered company on a tight leash.

In a single moment, the joy of the many had been overshadowed, darkly overshadowed by the need of just one. All knew instinctively that there are no extra children, none to spare, not one to give up, to throw to the sharks. In that kind of dramatic moment, it so very clear:  every child is precious, every one dear. 

We have wondered a little this summer, remembering our long ago visit, about the way the announcement so disturbed those of us who could see our own children.  Of course you can think of many reasons.  But one central reason the announcement “child lost…white sweat shirt..” pierced the group that day is that we are dimly aware that there is a kind of revelation in the least of these, like the lunch for the road of life brought along by the lad with the 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Children have not had a chance in full at life yet.  They have not had their time yet in the batter’s box. They give a sharp measure of how what we say stands up to what we do, of what our walk is like in earshot of all our talk.  Children suffer the effects of poverty most strongly.  Children endure the effects of family demise most squarely.  Children miss the care of physicians and dentists most keenly.  Children feel the impact of bad diet most sharply.  Children are too little, too weak, too powerless, too small in every way to watch out for themselves. Children measure the depth of morality around us by measuring the amount of time, energy, commitment, and money within us, ready to be devoted to children.

As a country, just a few weeks ago, we had a shared, convulsive, similar moment, did we not?  We know the need for laws, for borders, for the institutions that make up a civil society, including proper, legal, fair immigration practices.  Across different perspectives, we can largely agree that law is central to safety and peace, that law is meant to make us more human and humane rather than less. And we also, by vast majority, know and affirm the centrality of immigration in the birth and life and health of our land.  But law, like scripture, requires interpretation, and application, and therein lies challenge.  So when as country, we faced the shame and humiliation, within this decade of humiliation, of seeing children taken from their parents, seeing parents deprived of their children, seeing what can befall the least among us, and especially those 2,000 directly affected, in our own time, at the borders of life, there was a common revulsion, a common reaction, a common response. Nota bene. There is in that one moment a sign, a sign of a common hope.  Like the presence of the little lad who shared his lunch, across the lake from Capernaum, and so both took and gave the measure of that Gospel moment, so the least of these measure us. 

 

As a church, let us readily confess as well, we have yet to achieve the kind of caring for children which we profess.  The pious words of a recent Methodist Church statement (“Durham Declaration”) are ones we all share:  “We believe that caring and providing for one another includes welcoming children into the family of the Church.  As members of the Body of Christ, we know that children are gifts from God.  In this we follow the example of our Lord, who, during his earthly ministry and in the face of opposition, welcomed children to his side.  And we conform to the example of the early church, which, though living in the midst of a pagan empire that casually practiced abortion and abandoned children (usually to slavery, prostitution or death), helped to provide refuge for unwanted ones and their needy parents.”  There was even a footnote to the Didache.  Well, good.  Good words. But anyone who has been around the church for very long knows that we do not endlessly, fully practice what we preach, in this as in so many areas.  We sometimes devote more language to love of children in church than we do actual time spent with children.  Vacation Bible School (we have run one every year since 1979, including a small one here June 24) is one bellwether for our commitment.  Sunday School is a close second.  We are still more than rightly judged by the sort of people we produce, the sort of children we raise, in the communities of faith.

One day this summer, after a round of golf, two friends stopped at the home of a third to have supper.  The host is a retired physician, a family doctor from the bygone days of “fee for service”.  Redolent with exercise and at ease in the company of friends, the doctor reflected on his life and work.  A summer evening, a twilight supper, a moment before the light begins to fade and the cool air returns–this became an hour for thoughts before the autumn twilight of life, a moment before a great change of season.

He spoke about service and care. He ruminated regarding “the young doctors coming up”.  He unabashedly celebrated great-grandchildren, grandchildren, and children (both adopted and biological).  A large family portrait hung on the living room wall.  Mostly, though, this veteran of decades of stewardship campaigns talked about his church.  He reckoned:  “I try to tithe because in the church children get what they cannot get anywhere else.  They catch a sense of wonder–wonder at the world, wonder at love, wonder before holiness. They see real kindness–kind people, kind ideas, kind words, kind works.  Most of all, they learn about generosity–generosity in church that makes a world of difference.  In the church seeds are planted:  seeds of wonder, kindness, and generosity.  I am happy to hope that my tithing has made a difference.”

It made me happy to hear him say so.  It makes me happy, on this summer Sunday, to think of all the good women and men, near and far, who are offering themselves, offering yourselves, to, and with, and through the least of these.  A student teaching church school.  A woman running a child care center.  A man hiking with scouts.  A musician volunteering with a children’s choir.  A graduate student preparing to work with, to counsel children.  A couple who lead confirmation classes.  The blessed ones who will volunteer to lead youth groups.  Summer camp counselors, overworked and underpaid.  And more broadly, the citizenry of this land, which still dimly perceives that the lad with the fish and loaves, the least of these among us, measures us. 

Someone helped you grow up. Someone helped you discover discipline, hard work and a passion for education.  Discipline to reflect the ordering power of God.  Work to reflect the creative energy of God.  Education to reflect the life-giving newness of God’s spirit.  Children, the least of these, are made “in the image and likeness of God.”

People know that there are no extra children, none to spare, not even one to throw to the sharks.  When the need is clearly presented, the problem is almost solved.  So it was on a July day in dear old Boston, a generation ago, that after twenty minutes of looking and waiting, the tourists at the Boston Aquarium again heard the crackling loudspeaker, and again heard the announcer’s voice, and at last heard the report,  the child is found, the lost is found.  Several thousand people stared at one another and many fish and cheered instinctively, just as we will stand and cheer when every child across this great land and around the world over has what she needs to make a life.  

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” …When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement

July 22nd, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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1 Kings 19:4-16

2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Matthew 11:28-30

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Exactly one year ago, I was in Sewanee, Tennessee for a conference. One afternoon we went off campus for a hike, and as we were driving back in one of the big University of the South vans, we started to pass an historical marker on the side of the road, and the driver asked, “Does anybody know about the Highlander Folk School?” I said, “Stop the van!” We pulled over at the site where the original Highlander Folk School had stood. Founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton, Highlander’s first focus had been the education and empowerment of rural people in Tennessee. It became active for decades in the labor movement, but when the unions reneged on their commitment to racial equality, Highlander shifted its focus to the Civil Rights movement. It hosted Citizenship Schools and voter registration drives across the South, and held workshops that brought whites and blacks together for training and planning. It was shut down by the state of Tennessee in 1961, and then reincorporated as the Highlander Center in New Market, TN, where it continues its work today. Pete Seeger learned the song “We Shall Overcome” at Highlander. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended its workshops, and a photo of him there was plastered all over billboards in the South with the caption, “MLK attends Communist Training School.” I had learned about Highlander as part of my seminary education, and have long been inspired by its scrappy dedication to democratic education, creative resistance to prejudice and oppression, and perseverance in the face of long odds.

My favorite story about Highlander took place in 1955. A number of black and white civil rights activists had gathered from across the South for two weeks of training. At the end of the workshop, these men and women went around in a circle to share what they planned to do when they returned home to their communities. One woman, though, could not think of what to say. She was in her early 40s, the executive secretary of the NAACP in Montgomery. But she had grown discouraged, and the thought of returning home was daunting. “I’m from the cradle of the confederacy,”she said, when her turn came. “The whites won’t let the blacks do anything, and the blacks won’t stick together. I can’t think of anything I could do that would make a difference.”

That was 1955. In 1956, this same woman decided that she did have it in her, after all, to do something, at home in Montgomery. Or, rather, to not do something. She decided not to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, in defiance of Jim Crow law. Her name was Rosa Parks.

This sermon series at Marsh Chapel is on the theme of “Moving Towards Hope,” and my sermon this morning is titled, “The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement.” We can’t move through hope, without moving through discouragement. And yet, discouragement is a feeling that Christians are usually discouraged from having. It is seen as a trap, the gateway to despair, or just plain negative. Pessimistic. We have a sense that spiritual people, and especially Americans, should be able to look on the bright side, to see the silver lining, to remain optimistic and hopeful no matter what.

But you know, dumpster fires don’t have a silver lining. And there are many reasons why the phrase “dumpster fire” was added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary earlier this year.

So I guess I’m here this morning to preach some good news about discouragement, for those of you who, like me, find yourselves deeply discouraged about our national life, the state of our democracy, and even the state of our humanity. The good news is that we can engage our discouragement, learn from it, maybe even wrestle a blessing from it. We can do that, with God’s help. Our discouragement has things to teach us, if we let it. But we can’t learn from it unless we are willing to spend some time exploring what discouragement truly is, and what its utility might be. So first we’ll define it; we will consider three uses of it; and then we’ll talk about how to move through it, towards hope.

Were you surprised that Rosa Parks, one year before her famous act of civil disobedience, was in such a low place? That she felt that all her faithful work of many years had been futile? That even after experiencing two weeks of the kind of equality and harmony that she had dreamed of, that she still felt powerless?

\If we banish discouragement from the range of spiritually acceptable emotions, and view our own discouragement as a failure, then we usually also reason that spiritual giants like Rosa Parks, MLK, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the saints of the church—they must not have ever felt this way. Or, at least not for very long. But if you read biographies, or the lives of the saints—you’ll know this is not true. If anything, great souls have more and deeper bouts of discouragement, more intense periods of self-doubt, more times when they wonder if their work has been for nothing, than most of us. So the first step of grappling with our own discouragement, whether it comes from within, or from what is going on in our world, is to stop treating it like a sign of our weakness or failure, and instead to claim it as a rational human response to deep disappointment.

What causes discouragement? Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has an alliterative answer: “fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear.” Discouragement is an emotional response to these four kinds of experiences. (http://www1.cbn.com/biblestudy/some-cures-for-discouragement)

I have a few different images for discouragement. The first is, discouragement as a crossroads. It is a disorientation that forces us to choose a new direction. It is a kind of reckoning. And just as a crossroads is between towns in a kind of no man’s land, our own times of discouragement can feel like a wilderness, where we don’t know which road to choose, or are too worn down to even make a choice, and so we’re stuck.

My second image is of a kind of sinking feeling. I think of discouragement as, when you are swimming in a pool, and you choose to allow yourself to sink to the bottom for a while. There might be lots of splashing and activity above, but you have sunk down so that, holding your breath, you are looking at the pool from below, from a new perspective. Now, if you stay there too long, you’ll drown. That is called despair. But this perspective, from the bottom of the pool, can be a useful vantage point, temporarily. You can see things with a stillness and a clarity that you can’t see from the surface. So while discouragement can feel like sinking, it is a sinking that can also allow us to go deeper.

And finally, discouragement is a heart condition. That is the root of the word, courage, cor, Latin for heart. To be encouraged is to take heart; to be discouraged is to lose heart. And this is “heart” in the sense of the Hebrew Bible, of heart, soul, and mind being wrapped up together: heart as the core, the center of our being. Discouragement rocks us to our core. It is destabilizing, diminishing; it’s a spiritual loss of oxygen.

So how can a condition like this have any kind of utility for us as Christians? Well, I’ll be frank with you: according to the great Google, most people think that it doesn’t. So this is some original theology happening, right now! But I am convinced, that in God, no part of our experience is wasted; what seems to be garbage turns out to be compost.

So here are three spiritual uses of discouragement, which we will look at through the lens of our scriptures for today.

First, discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. Second, it gives us a unique perspective on our situation that is disorienting, but also valuable. Third, discouragement is an important part of the soul’s natural pendulum.  There are three uses, because three is the holiest number for preachers! Three persons of the Trinity; three points to every sermon.

So, use number one: Discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. When I’m doing fine, when it’s smooth sailing, I tend to chalk that up to my own efforts. The temptation of peaceful times is to become spiritually complacent. Fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear shake off that complacency quickly. I turn back to God—for assurance, for solace, for wisdom, for clarity out of perplexity. We sang “Sweet Hour of Prayer” just now—I love the way this hymn depicts prayer as this sheltering relationship in the midst of the storm of life. “In seasons of distress and grief/my soul has often found relief.” Our trials and griefs make us turn back towards God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”the Psalmist asks. In his distress, he longs for God, “as a deer longs for flowing streams.”Discouragement makes us thirsty for the waters of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give your rest. . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”Times of discouragement are painful—but they can also force us to seek God with a greater yearning; to go deeperin our relationship with God; to put away our stained-glass sentiments and to show up to prayer boldly, and with greater honesty and vulnerability. Our families, our friends, our colleagues may not want to see that side of us: but God does. Jesus says, take my yoke upon you. Let’s work on this together.

Secondly, discouragement gives us a perspective that is disorienting, but also valuable. It is the bottom of the pool. For Rosa Parks, the safety of the Highlander Folk School provided her with this kind of new perspective. She wrote, “At Highlander, I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, and that there was such a thing as people of different races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops, and living together in peace and harmony. It was a place I was very reluctant to leave.” (Myles Horton, The Long Haul, pp.149-150) This supportive environment allowed her to confront her discouragement honestly: to admit to herself that she felt the odds were too great, and the forces of segregation were too strong for her to confront. She said, “I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks, but for all oppressed people.”But this strength came not by pushing away her feelings of doubt and discouragement, but by acknowledging them, and sharing them.

The prophet Elijah had a similar experience, of retreating to a place of safety, to confront the cost of facing the forces of oppression. Elijah is a political dissenter. He is a fighter and a crusader for justice. But in the lesson from second Kings, we see him exhausted, ready to give up in the wilderness, having fled for his life from Ahab and Jezebel. He is done. He is despairing. Huddled in a cave on Mt. Horeb, the word of the Lord speaks to him: “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah gives a summary of his career as a prophet, and ends with, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”It was all for nothing.

And then Elijah is granted this vision of the Lord passing by, where there is a gale force wind, and then an earthquake, and then fire. And the scripture says that the Lord was not in any of these; they were just the prelude to the presence of the Lord. Elijah knows the presence of the Lord is in that place when he hears this mysterious “sound of sheer silence.” Paradoxical. Ominous. The King James Version translates the Hebrew as “a still small voice.” But the “sound of sheer silence” has something very intense about it, something powerful.

When this reading appears in the lectionary, it ends at that verse. Sermons on this passage often end up being about listening to the voice of God within, and the importance of still small voices as opposed to displays of power, etc. And those are fine sentiments. But they ignore the main message of what the sound of sheer silence actually communicates to Elijah, which comes in the next several verses. And let me tell you, the still small voice throws it down. It tells Elijah to essentially go back, and foment revolution against Ahab and all the political powers that have become idolatrous and have abandoned the covenant with Yahweh. Elijah is told to start a holy war. He is to anoint two new kings, which of course is not going to sit well with the current kings, and also to anoint his own successor, Elisha.

And when these things come to pass, we learn that Elijah was wrong: he was not the only one left. There are seven thousand other prophets left in Israel who still worship the Lord. And through a long and circuitous path that is not without great cost, Israel returns to the Lord.

Elijah’s time in the wilderness forced him to answer some big questions. And if we sit with our own discouragement instead of pushing it away, we, too, will have some questions to answer: core questions about our identity, our deepest beliefs, and what is truly possible for us. Who do I think I am? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? And what can I really do?

Seasons of discouragement can be times of painful disillusionment in our lives. But you know, there’s a funny thing about the word “disillusionment.” To become disillusioned, is to experience loss. And yet, it is also a gain: because it is better to live without illusions! Disillusionment means we are no longer being deceived, or deceiving ourselves. The truth can hurt, but in the Gospel of John we are told that the truth will set us free.

The third utility of discouragement is that it is part of the soul’s natural pendulum. I’m thinking here of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16thcentury founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Ignatius knew the value of the emotions, all the emotions, in the life of the spirit. He knew that the so-called negative emotions, channeled correctly, could help us grow in love and grow closer to God; in fact, that they are essential to our life-long conversion. He talked about a movement of the soul between desolation and consolation. And this movement continues all our lives, back and forth. This is how we grow spiritually. It’s important to understand this, and to understand that both states are temporary, and neither is better than the other. In times of discouragement, we need to remember that engaging with the sources of our discouragement can propel us out of this state, and into consolation, into encouragement, again. Elijah did as the still small voice commanded him. He did return, in spite of his fears, to confront Ahab, and to triumph over the prophets of Baal. Rosa Parks admitted her discouragement, her feelings of the futility of her work. And then she participated in an act of civil disobedience that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights movement. In the middle of the bus boycott she wrote to a colleague, We are having a difficult time here, but we are not discouraged. The increased pressure seems to strengthen us for the next blow.” (https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/the-boycott/)

So how do we come to that place, where in the midst of such struggle, we don’t feel discouraged, but empowered and equipped? That rather than disoriented, disillusioned, we feel grounded in our identity, our purpose, and in the truth of God’s love? I think here, the Apostle Paul is our man.

Paul certainly embraced the full range of his emotions. No recipient of any of his epistles ever asked, “But tell us how you really feel, Paul.”

Paul understood that Christianity is the religion of paradox—and that from a disciple’s point of view, that means holding contradictions together within oneself. As he says in 2nd Corinthians in describing his often-calamitous missionary journeys, We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

In other words, Paul had a really robust theology of down but not out. And I think we need to have one, too. Paul was willing to wrestle the blessing out of discouragement, to call upon the name of the Lord in his times of need, to sing out loud and proud in prison. Paul was in it for the long haul. He was committed.

Years ago in a parish where I once served, there was a woman named Roz who, whenever she ran into another member of the parish, would ask them if they were committed. You know, in the grocery store or at the dry cleaner’s. And it took a bit for these mild-mannered Episcopalians to realize that she was asking them if they were committed to Christ. Maybe we all need a friend like that—to challenge us and to provoke us into stating our deepest commitments, our truest purpose, wherever we are. Sometimes, our own discouragement is that friend—if we can befriend it.

         There is a wonderful few lines that I think sums up all I’ve been trying to say this morning. Margery Stoneman Douglas was the namesake of the high school in Parkland, Florida where, after the massacre in February, a number of students reignited the debate on gun control, all while in the earliest days of their own deepest grief. Margery surely would have been very proud of them. A journalist, advocate for women’s suffrage, ardent environmentalist responsible for the conservation of the Florida Everglades, and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Stoneman Douglas passed away in 1998 at the age of 108. She once quipped, “I studied elocution at Wellesley College, and I’ve been going around elocuting ever since.”And her example has now inspired a new generation of courageous students, who are travelling the country, speaking and registering voters this summer. (https://www.teenvogue.com/story/who-marjory-stoneman-douglas-was) This is what Stoneman Douglas wrote in 1980:

“Be a nuisance where it counts, but never a bore. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption, and bad politics—but never give up.”

We in the progressive Church need a robust theology of “down but not out,” and we need to engage in the spiritual practice of targeted nuisance-ing. This requires us to fully engage with our own discouragement, at the same time that we renew our trust in God, and cast ourselves on God’s mercy. To not be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed in all the violations of God’s law of love that make up the headlines today, would be to diminish our very humanity through callousness or willed ignorance. The odds are long: but God’s people are always in it for the long haul. We can learn from discouragement, and grow from it, without giving in to despair—and God’s grace will propel us into a new dawn of justice, compassion, and peace.

In God’s name, Amen.

 

Benediction:

May your own discouragement become a deep well from which you draw many gifts: reliance on God’s mercy; clarity from disorientation, and renewed purpose and commitment. May you wrestle a blessing from it, and widen the way of love in the world. And may God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you and equip you to be a nuisance where it counts, to the glory of God’s holy name. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Pastor and Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, Massachusetts; Denominational Counselor for Episcopal/Anglican Students, Harvard Divinity School

The Foundation for a Common Hope

July 15th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Acts 5:1-11

Luke 4:1-4

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When I was younger in the faith, I spent a bit of time doing what many folks younger in the faith do: I went through the Bible looking for the parts they don’t tell you about in Sunday School.  And that’s when I first read the story of Ananias and Sapphira. 

At the time I thought it was one of the most disturbing stories I had ever read – terrifying, even, what with people dropping dead in a church meeting.  I still think it is a disturbing story, now for different reasons, and apparently I am not the only one.  In years in the church I have never heard it preached, and most recommended Bible commentaries don’t comment much on it at all.  The sermons on the internet that deal with it focus almost exclusively on Ananias’ and Sapphira’s deaths.  They ignore other elements that equally provoke thought and disturb. 

Now when elements in a Bible story that provoke thought and disturb, or the story itself, are so ignored, it almost always means the Bible story deserves a second look.  For instance, Ananias’ and Sapphira’s story’s placement in the Acts larger narrative instructs as well as shocks. The story raises the complex and oh-so-contemprary issue of The Lie.  And, it is a story that involves the Holy Spirit.  It is because of these other elements, not just the deaths, that I preach on it this morning, in our preaching series context of a common hope.

First, ler’s look at the story’s placement in the larger narrative of Acts. It comes after Luke’s description of the beginning of the church. In the beginning, the members were of one heart and soul in their beliefs and in their life together.  All their resources were held in common, the apostles gave their witness to the resurrection with great power, and great grace was upon everyone.  No one wanted for anything, because those who had private resources sold them and brought the proceeds to the apostles for redistribution, as did Barnabas the “son of encouragement”.  It was truly the beloved, and loving, community, the hope of return to which inspires the church to this day.

But in this beloved and lovng community are also Ananias and Sapphira.

They also agree to sell a piece of property, but give only a part of the proceeds to the apostles for distribution.  They keep the rest for themselves.  And here is the crux of the story:  they tell the apostles they are giving them the whole amount. They lie.

Have you noticed how so few people lie nowadays?  They fib, prevaricate, misspeak, misunderstand, deceive, mislead, tell whoppers, are disingenuous, tell white lies, fudge or fuzz the truth, skirt the issue, deviate from the truth, slander, libel, trump-up charges, pad a resume or expense account, present and spread fake news, but they don’t lie. Actually to call someone a liar or something a lie is apparently almost too strong, too judgmental on what seems to be a social rather than a moral scale.  Even in the media, even in government, no one lies.  No one is even an alleged liar.  To say, “They lie.” seems say too much.

But Peter, of course, being Peter, has no such care for social niceties.  He clearly expresses the enormity of what Ananias and Sapphira have done.  It has nothing to do with the fact that they kept back part of the proceeds – they could just as well have kept back the whole amount, or not sold the property at all. But they lied, and said they had given the whole.  And by that lie, as Peter points out, they have done so much more.  They have listened to Satan – the one who works against Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the one who is the tempter in the wilderness against Jesus’ own integrity and self-understanding and against the Holy Spirit’s leading.  Even though the community will be affected, their lie to the community pales in comparison to the fact that they have lied to God, in particular to the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains them all.  And they have put the Holy Spirit to the test. The Lie is an attempt to undermine the Spirit’s presence and its power to guide, protect, and inspire in the face of The Lie’s creation of mistrust and confusion.

Finally, their lie will come back on Ananias and Sapphira.  For whatever reason, and debate rages, the lie is a prelude to their deaths.  And interestingly enough, at the end of the story, the beloved community, which began as “the whole group of those who believed”, has become “the church”, the ekklesia, the people called out and gathered to be God’s people. They are now distinct from those who surround them, because they know The Lie is within them as well as without – and now they will have to make choices.  And great fear has come upon them, and everyone who hears the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  The church in Acts is still the beloved community, but now they know that the dangers to their mutuality and mission can come from within as well as without. Distrust and betrayal are now possibilities even among the beloved.  And they know that these dangers from within begin with The Lie.

The noted moral philosopher, peace activist, and ethicist Sissela Bok, in her landmark book Lying:  Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, notes that now, it is even hard to decide what a lie is.  So she focuses on what she defines as “’clear-cut lies’.  These are lies where the intention to mislead is obvious, where the liar knows that what they are communicating is not what they believe, and where they have not deluded themselves into believing their own deceits.” Bok defines a lie as “any intentionally deceptive message that is stated.” – which statement can include such media as Morse code, sign language, signal flags, and so on.  Note the emphasis on intention and statement.  It is not the truth or falsity of what a person says that settles the question of whether or not that person is lying – it is whether or not they intend their statement to be a lie. 

The presence of intention points up the great paradox of The Lie.  We more often than not lie with good intent.  As Bok notes, we lie to excuse ourselves or to get ourselves out of something without causing offense.  We lie to protect and advance our standing and our place in the world.  We lie to save ourselves and others in a crisis.  We lie to expose liars.  We lie to enemies to defeat them.  We lie to protect our children, peers, and clients.  We lie for the public good, and we lie to people for their own good, especially if they are very ill or dying, or if we have power over them.  All we want to do is make life easier for ourselves and others.  All we want to do is help.  Everybody lies.  And no one drops down dead.

It’s true that the results of their lie were extreme for Ananias and Sapphira.  But every lie bears a cost, to both the liar and the ones lied to.  Bok makes the connection between deception and violence as the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings.  Both coerce, but The Lie is the more subtle – it works on belief as well as action.  A lie forces because it intends someone to believe something that is not true.  Iago did not need to kill Othello; he only had to lie to him, and have him believe it, to destroy him.  Bok also notes that lying almost always accompanies every other form of wrongdoing and harm:  murder, theft, bribery, and so on almost require that one lie.  Lying almost always accompanies many other forms of human misery as well.  Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, writer and podcast host.  He is famous also for being one of “the Four Horsemen of Atheism”. I do not agree with all of his ideas, and, in his book Lying, he has some ideas that I do agree with.  He connects lies with the perpetuation of addiction and of domestic violence, and with the self-sabotage of family relationships, careers, and reputations.  He notes that as human beings, we often act in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy, and calls lying “the royal road to chaos”. In particular he notes that “white lies” are the ones that most tempt us, and “tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.” He also suggests that the lies we tell for the good of others presume that we are the best judges of how much other people should understand about their own lives.  This is an arrogant position that disrespects those we claim to care about.

In any case, Bok and Harris both note that lying always requires a reason, a justification:  one has to convince oneself to lie, and if found out one needs to convince others that the lie was necessary.

These costs of lying are different for those deceived and for the liar, but they often are great costs for both.  For the deceived, when we find out we have been lied to, for whatever reason, none of us likes it.  Even in small things, we may be angry, or feel betrayed. Suspicion is now part of the relationship – if someone will lie to us in small things, why wouldn’t they lie to us in big things too.  If it is a big lie, we may mourn the choices we were unable to make or the things we would have done differently had we known the truth, or we may lose faith in the persons or institutions that we once believed in.  If a single person or a small group of persons is lied to, a number of people may still be hurt by the lie, as when a public health official is lied to about the purity of a city’s water system. 

While these costs to those lied to may be more obvious, there are costs to the liar as well.  Liars know that they lie – they intend to lie, and to have that lie believed.  A liar then has to regard those they have lied to with caution.  They have to remember what lies they have told to specific people and be careful not to get mixed up.  Once they have lied, it becomes easier to tell more lies.  This ups the risk of getting caught, and if they are caught, the damage to their credibility and reputation far outweighs any benefits they may have obtained from the lie. And while liars may take into account the effect their lie may have on an individual, they do not always realize the ways that these effects may spread to affect whole communities in negative ways, including the communities of which they are a part. 

We in our time know the costs of The Lie, both as we are lied to by people and institutions we have trusted, and as we are caught up in the temptation to lie if only to make our lives a little easier.  And yet it is all too easy to imagine our society, our communities, our lives, sliding into a state where words cannot ever be trusted again. Technology makes this seem more likely. But even more there is in our time an aversion to truthtelling.  It is too difficult.  It takes too much time and effort, or it is not as effective for what we want as is the violence of lying.  Even in the church, we often lie, especially white lie, because to have a telling-the-truth-in-love-and-mutuality conversation with someone seems too intrusive or fraught or complicated – when in fact by not having that conversation we may deny that person a chance to learn more about themselves and us, in ways that might help, heal, or reconcile them with us, or with others, or with themselves. 

A common hope seems more and more like an unreachable ideal — certainly in society, and even in the church, certainly if The Lie becomes entrenched and is not exposed and rooted out for what it is. The Lie is a cheat:  against the community, against the individual, even against the liar.  It sets up a false goal of superficiality and complacency rather than the love and justice that God intends for human beings and creation.  Fortunately, while the Spirit may be put to the test, that does not mean that the Spirit cannot pass the test, and then do even more. 

Sissela Bok wrote her book first in 1979, another time of big and small lies in the country and in the world, and her book has gone through two more editions since.  She notes that, due to people who exposed and rejected lies, some things have changed.  Doctors used to lie routinely to their patients as to the state of their health and the probabilities of procedures; indeed, given interpretations of patient confidentiality, they often found themselves lying to one patient while preserving the confidentiality of another.  Now there are prohibitions for lying and requirements for informed consent.  Scientific researchers and behavioral researchers often did not inform their subjects as to what actually was being done to them or the true aims of the research; now there are privacy mandates and requirements for informed consent. Exposures of the lies of government and other institutions have brought about more healthy skepticism, and more demands for institutional accountability:  fact checkers and investigative reporting are now integrated into public life.  Recently Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, Flint Michigan, Women’s Marches, and demonstrations for immigration reform have put on notice the status quoof lies and violence against people and creation. Both Bok and Harris also suggest that if people still insist on lying, there should be a sort of agreed-upon “just lie” theory, rather like a “just war” theory. It would begin with the questioning of the necessity for lying at all, and go on to mitigate as many negative effects of The Lie as possible.  But perhaps Harris the atheist has the most thought-provoking  idea for the beloved community and a common hope:  It would promote the benefits of telling the truth most – if not all – of the time.  So there’s nothing to keep track of.  We don’t have to justify ourselves.  We as honest persons for others and other honest people for us become a refuge:  we mean what we say, we won’t say one thing to others’ faces and another behind their backs, both our constructive criticism and our praise can be relied on.  We can honestly change our minds, and we can be open about our doubts and fears.  We will avoid many forms of suffering and embarrassment.  While there may be discomfort, it will be short-lived, because we can be kind in telling the truth to others:  we don’t want to offend or hurt them, we just want them to have the same knowledge we have and would want in the same situation. Through telling the truth we can also learn new ways we want to grow and learn.

The American author and humorist Mark Twain wrote:  “When in doubt, tell the truth.  It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”  While The Lie sets us up for misery, there is humor and joy in telling the truth.  In the beloved community, telling the truth is a foundation for a common hope.  It is a foundation for love, joy, peace, justice, kindness, and compassion in that common hope.  It sets us up for a common hope for right relationship with God, self, and all the neighbors.  It removes obstacles to the Holy Spirit’s work, and is a big part of our cooperation with that Spirit and its work.  The story of Ananias and Sapphira is the story of the Fall in the beloved community of the church, the story of the shaking of the common hope.  When we as members and restorers of the beloved community, and our common hope, tell the truth, we reverse that story, and bring back the mutuality and trust and hope intended for God’s people and for creation.  Amen.

—Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students