Archive for July, 2006

Have a Good Summer

Sunday, July 16th, 2006
Marsh Chapel


Introduction

“Have a good summer!” Has someone said this to you recently? Or, something similar? “Are you having a good summer?” “How’s the summer?” “What a great summer!”

It is such a simple phrase, but to the needy, reflective ear, it raises a mortal question, a singular and, perhaps shattering, perhaps justifying question: What is a good summer?

In the most cotidian of clauses, there lie embedded sacred moments which deserve and require our attention, our full and alert attention. Please…Thank You…Hello…Goodbye…God bless you…Have a nice day…Have a good summer.

What is a good summer?

Before addressing this question, I digress to offer a story. You perhaps know it. Or perhaps you have told it. A farmer had an odd habit of feeding his only pig in a distinctive way. He would hold the pig in his arms, and carry him under an apple tree. There the pig would happily eat his fill as the farmer, arms aching, waited. At last a neighbor asked: “John, that is one way to feed a pig, but, in addition to straining your back and arms, it must take a whole lot of time. Aren’t you worried about that lost time?” “Oh”, said the farmer, “Of course you are right, it is a lot of time, but, then…what’s time to a pig?”

In the distance that lies between pearls and swine, between the precious pearl of great price and the swinish disregard for the Holy, between a glorious moment known as this summer, and our human capacity to miss the significance of the precious gift of such time, there may emerge an articulation of the good news.

The Gospel then is a warning to those of us, like me, who raise such questions, and those of us, like you, who chew on them. What is a good summer? A mortal question, to be understood, and a saving truth, to be told, depend on hearing. Faith, that is, comes by right hearing, and such hearing by the word of God.

Thus the simple sentence, “Have a good summer”, is, like much in life, a very thin ordinary veneer covering a deep, existential interrogative: just what is a good summer?

What constitutes a good, a godly summer? Perhaps with your help, and under the shadow of the Holy Scripture, which towers over our experience like a steeple towers over our communion today, we can respond by raising other questions. One good question deserves another.

1. Interruption

Has your summer allowed an interruption? Of what? Of routine, of the usual of set patterns, of your own plotting and planning, of comfort, of discomfort, of what has been. Has summer provided a pause? Many of the parables of Jesus help us here, like that of the Rich Fool, a warning word from Jesus for the followers of Jesus. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Wait, stop, think, heal write.

A Hindu proverb says: During its lifetime, the lordly goose looks down upon the humble mushroom. But in the end, they are both served up on the same platter.

Life is meant to become a rich offering toward God, not a laying up of treasure on earth where moth and rust consume, and thieves break in and

steal. Life is space and time when the bone wearying labor of pulling on oars against a mighty wind, may give way, by interruption, to a vision of the divine. Against all odds, He walked to them, and sat with them, and spoke to them, and blessed them.

Mark 6 carries the account of Jesus unexpectedly appea
ring to astonish, and so to encourage, his wayward disciples.

Speaking of interruptions, of thieves breaking in, and of the unexpected, please allow this brief digressive interruption.

It reminds us of the ostensibly humorous story of the burglar, speaking of greed and covetousness, who slipped with his flashlight into a dark suburban home. He took jewelry and cash. Then in the dark he heard a voice: “Jesus is watching. I’m warning you.” The burglar trembled, wondering who had spoken. Turning on the light, he saw a parrot in a cage, who said, “My name is Moses, and I warn you, Jesus is watching.” Relieved, for the moment, the burglar smiled and said, “What kind of silly suburban people name their parrot Moses?” The parrot replied, “The same kind of silly people who name their long toothed, ferocious dog, Jesus. I warned you, Jesus is watching.”

Life is more than security. The best things about life are free. Travel light…I shan’t be gone long, you come too…

2. Inflammation

Has your summer involved some inflammation? Has the season brought spirit to a fever pitch? Is there around now any love on fire? The country is scorching hot. Various volcanoes are flowing with lava. And in your heart? Where is the fire? What is it that you love so much that it makes you…now nostalgic, now tender, now torrid, now angry, now remorseful, now hot, now vengeful, now envious, now determined, now happy?

One religious worker told us this week of his moment of calling, when he heard at a prayer meeting, “There is nothing better you can do with your life than to give your life to something greater than yourself.”

The Bible readers among us are right to suspect that Hosea 11 smolders here. Listen to this loveliest of passages again: “When Israel was a child I loved him…”

I am not talking about passion only, eros only, the body only, feeling only. Though I mean all that. I mean, rather, something beyond mere ‘sloppy agape’. I mean the heart. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Julia Kristeva, French philosopher, said of summer that there are “three great things in life: to think, to heal, and to write.” A Schweitzer would have agreed, and said, “There are three great instruments—the Bible, the pipe organ, and the stethescope.” I say: find a way, your way, every day, to preach and to sing and to love.

Somewhere in every life there is a hot, scorched, midwestern summer. Remember it. Somewhere in every life there is a potent lava flow, about to burst, bursting, having burst. Seek it. Somewhere in every life there is the love of Hosea 11, God like a mother holding an infant to the cheek. Recover it.

Has your summer involved some inflammation?

For many years, across the river at MIT, Huston Smith taught religion to engineers. His passion, inflammation, was world religions. In many ways, he was a generation ahead of his time. But in his eighties he is on fire. He is on fire to help us understand the world’s great religious traditions, in the large as well as in the little. There on the bookstore shelf is Why Religion Matters. There is The Soul of Christianity. There is Huston Smith reminding us, with fire, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, and that “we are in good hands and so it well behooves us to bear one another’s burdens”.

Some summer reading will kindle our passion for the tru
e and the good and the beautiful. We need reminders of all three, in a world that has ample reminders of their absence. A train bombed in India. A tunnel collapsing in Boston. A Middle East in turmoil. A war of our own making now remaking us. And a broken leg, a knee to replace, a sudden loss, a new boss.

Have we forgotten the love we had at first? Now is the time to rekindle that holy fire. Out on the Cape. Along the coast in Maine. Up in the White Mountains. Along lake Winnepesake. And in the heat of the city, and in the thick of things too. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…

3. Institution

Has your summer included the care and feeding of an institution? Yes, I could have used another word like ‘incarnation’, more theological and perhaps more accurate. But then we all would have gone home unclear, un conflicted, un confronted, and un helped. Operational incarnation means institution.

Life does not give ground before individuals apart from institutions. Transformation, lasting good change, in history, happens not through individuals only, nor through movements only. Real traction in history involves institutions. Like corporations, governments, businesses, schools, parties, universities, associations, cities, and, churches. A movement is not superior to an institution. An institution is a movement that has grown up.

The reading from Ephesians 1 ( I commend to you this wonderful chapter), coming from the hand of a disciple of Paul of Tarsus, is a reminder to us of the need for institutional life. Here is the gracious beginning of an account of ‘God’s people’. In the corporate life of the church—an institution itself which as Tillich reminded us is both a revelation and a distortion of the divine—we are given adoption, inheritance, spirit, promise, forgiveness, fullness. tells us to “set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.” Christ, here, may be your lips, Christ, your reward, Christ, your glory, Christ, your new person, Christ, your Lord may truly be revealed in and through you. recites the tradition of deliverance, liberation, rescue, redemption, that is your birthright…

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will…”

Has your summer involved an institution?

4. Inspiration

Has this summer brought inspiration? Something? Something fine and true? Something sensual? Something grand and loving? I truly hope so. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

2 Samuel 6 recalls David dancing furiously before the Ark of the covenant. The travels of this remarkable symbol, including to and from the home of Obededom the Gittite, are the subject of another sermon. Today is a happier moment in the account of the Ark, but not the only account, and others are less cheery. Nonetheless, here at the least the great King David is enthralled by a moment of uncontrolled glee.

I saw an eagle soaring in the mountains last Tuesday. Karl Barth, said that “the gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight”. And I remembered the proverb: “Three things are too wonderful for me, and four I cannot understand. The way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a ship upon the high sea, the way of a serpent on a rock, and the way of a man with a woman.”

Has the summer brought inspiration?

David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, brought a different kind of inspiration, recently, in response to the disorders and tragedies in the natural world, notably the Tsunami. At least he is writing about God and Creation, and that itself is inspirational.

If nothing else, the Gnostics of the early centuries inhabited the same imaginative and spiritual universe as the earliest Christians: they no more than Paul took the principalities and powers and elements of this world as myths or allegories; they not less than Paul proclaimed themselves free from the tyranny of the ‘god of this world’. And, like Paul or the author of John’s gospel, the Gnostics understood spiritual liberation as something subversive of the order of the cosmos…a glorious escape from the kingdom of death. Any Christian who has not felt at least an occasional stirring of the pathos of Gnosticism…and a rage against the fashion of this world, and of a mysterious yearning for another and perfect world, at once strange and familiar, cannot in all likelihood fully appreciate the spiritual and moral sensibility of the New Testament.

Coda

Have a good summer

A summer that allows interruption

A summer that involves inflammation

A summer that includes an institution

A summer that brings some inspiration

(And, as you probably suspect that the sermon more deeply intends, in the same ways, have a good life).

The Walk of Faith

Sunday, July 9th, 2006

Mark 6: 1-13

Dark

Faith is a walk in the dark.

As Paul Tillich said many years ago, “Faith is the state of being grasped…by the ultimate in being and meaning…being grasped by an ultimate concern…being grasped by the Spiritual Presence… and opened…It is the act of keeping ourselves open…” (III, 130-1)

Faith is walk forward into the unknown, into the dark, and open entrance into the future.

Darkness need not surprise you. There may be no darkness in God, as 1 John declares.

But there is a lot of God in darkness. There may be no darkness in divinity, but there surely is divinity in darkness. The Bible tells us so.

In its very first sentence. In its very first sentence, the Bible tells us so. Darkness was upon the face of the deep, when the divine sermon spoke creation. Darkness. Darker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp. In the beginning, there was darkness—infused with divinity.

Darkness lurks in every Scriptural nook and darkness lurks in every Biblical cranny. Jacob scurries to the river called Jabbok. At night. The children of Israel would neither have heeded nor have needed a great pillar of fire, across the wilderness, except that they traveled…at night. Yahweh gave them a cloud of smoke—his daily obscurity—and a pillar of fire—his nightly obscurity, with which to chart their course. Obscurity squared. You remember the university professor of theology and culture, Nicodemus. Nicodemus saw the light, at night. Every Holy Week encounter happens at night. Jesus prays at night. Peter betrays at night. Thomas doubts at night. Mary shouts at night. All the crucial passion scenes occur at night. And Paul? Paul and Silas, past midnight, have their chains ripped off in a Roman prison. Their guard is petrified. But they are not surprised. The night time—is the right time…

You would like faith to be simple and sunny and clear? You would prefer that faith be as plain as the nose on your face? Or, plainer still, as plain as the nose on MY face? Really. When has that ever been so? With Jeremiah, walking, by night, in chains, to Babylon? With Samson, blinded, seeing a lifelong night? With Paul shipwrecked? With George Washington, Christmas Eve of 1776, marching in the snow at midnight, crossing the river to Trenton, with all the chips on the table? With Harriet Tubman, listening at 2am for bloodhounds along the Susquehanna? Or maybe with Dwight Eisenhower, at 3am, on June 6, 1944? Or with Nelson Mandela in the 28 years of darkness behind bars? No. Darkness surprises no one who lives in friendship with God, least of all you who have been baptized to the cross.

The word comes at night. First at night, in the Genesis pattern, “evening and morning…” The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. The light shines—IN THE DARKNESS.

Our Scripture today was formed, formed in the dark catacombs of Rome, seven decades after Christmas, and four decades after Good Friday. Mark lights a candle for faith by trying—throughout the Gospel and especially in this chapter—to answer a hard question. Why did Jesus suffer? Why did Jesus die? Why did Jesus fail? Why was the Messiah rejected, dishonored, and unheeded? Answer one, verses 1-6: so it is with prophets, especially at home. Answer two, verses 7-13: so to teach us to go forward into the dark, fearless. One needs no bag or second tunic, just a bit of attitude, and a whistle in the dark.

Now, if we are honest, darkness is frightening. But not unexpected. Frightening, but not surprising. It is sobering to see a loved one taken off in a stretcher, down the long night hallway of uncertainty. Human life in a nuclear age is anxious life, ever shadowed life, lived against the background of a potential nuclear winter. Who would not sleep with one eye open, come hurricane season, when the wind begins to blow, after Tsunami and Katrina? Who is not sobered by the report of a potential subway bombing? Beware, beware a cheery, cozy, quasi Christ, unfamiliar with the dark. Beware a Jesus who has not been given his night license. Beware a loud, light, boxy, bongo, easy Christ. There are plenty around today. Steven Prothero’s excellent book American Jesus will show you the historical bestiary. Beware a trumpeted acclamation that it is already, always MORNING. As in, “It’s morning in America…” It isn’t. Jesus’ cross is the nighttime hallmark of his loving. In fact, in sum, his heavy walking is his loving. His departure is the heart of his loving.

You know from your experience about loving and leaving. Like a mother leaving a daughter at school, or a father leaving a son at camp, or a teacher leaving a student at graduation, or a boss leaving an apprentice at retirement, or a parent, perhaps a mother or father memorialized here today, leaving this earth. As Bonhoeffer’s sturdy words remind us, the leaving is the loving:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. He does not fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.

The darkness is frightening, but you need not fear it. The edgy fragments of a post-modern sensibility—every generation and identity group for itself and the devil take the hindmost—is frightening, but you need not fear it. The
cataclysmic demise of authentic Christianity in the Northeast— lovely, large, lasting and liberal, and increasingly gone—is frightening, but you need not fear it. The emptiness of the world when your spouse dies and the thought of emptying the closets is a prospect worse than death itself is indeed frightening, but you need not fear it. Here is why. You come from a long line of women and men who have practiced discipleship in the dark. Who have earned their night licenses, as you also have done. Your people knew God…at night. You will too. Miguel de Unamuno had it right: “Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold not of darkness. It is not the night that kills. It is the frost.”

We share with the early church an experience of God, at night. At their best, they knew how to take responsible risk. At their best, they knew both how to come and to go, to enter and to leave. At their highest, they trusted their instincts. At their finest, they had the guts to start out before dawn, before the fog lifted, before daybreak. They hoped, that is, for what they did not see. Who hopes for what he sees? We hope for what we do not see.

Do we minimize the obscurity of the future, the dark night of the unforeseen? Do we repress the forebodings of the subconscious? Do we deny the complexities of power? Do we call darkness light and night day? No. No. No. No. No.

Nothing of the night is foreign to us. Nothing of darkness is foreign to us. We avoid nothing, nothing, though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us. Darkness is no surprise.

Walk

We have learned to walk in the dark.

You will not want to race in the dark, like a cabbie hurtling down Commonwealth at midnight. We do not run headlong—foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. No. We do not hurl ourselves like fools into the black beyond. You know the value of virtue: prudence, temperance, courage, patience.

Walk.

Walk humbly. If we walk…we have fellowship. Walk by faith not sight. Walk with God. At night, especially, walk. Do not run. Walk.

Slow and steady wins the day. A stitch in time saves nine. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Let your head save your heels. Look before you leap.

Thunders Isaiah, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” Those today sensing a call to the ministry want to remember Isaiah.

Ghandi weighed 100 lbs, wore a sari, and looked sorrier. He walked four miles a day. And, oh, by the way, he changed the world for the better. Jesus never left Palestine. He walked, preaching and teaching and healing. John Wesley walked slowly to Aldersgate Street, and more slowly home, a changed man. His horse walked all over England. Morality, generosity, piety followed the man on horseback. Said Wesley, “I am always in haste, but never in a hurry.” James Bashford peers down upon us from the stained glass of this hallowed space. He took his time. First as pastor (his highest honor), then as President of Ohio Wesleyan, then as Bishop of Korea. His way of living, walking, inspired a generation to take the world and make it young again. Like Branch Rickey, who integrated baseball. (But that was last week’s sermon!) Easy, slow. Walk. Saunter. Lollygag.

Self-destruction awaits a hasty pace in the dark. On the down side, Methodists and others have sometimes been hasty about doing all the good we can. Sometimes we are too optimistic in our accounting. We accentuate the positive, which is alright, but suffocate the negative, which is not alright. We engage in wishful thinking, when it comes to money, sometimes. We see what we want to see, rather than what is. After all, were we not meant to be “happy in God”? The newspapers this week, or a great history like David Hempton’s Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (109ff), or our own experience itself, will confirm our penchant for hasty counting, and even for tragically overoptimistic accounting.

Take your time at night. Feel your way. Step along. Be careful. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is very hard to get it back in. Let your eyesight grow accustomed to the obscurity of experience and the hidden nature of God. Befriend shadows. Walk. Skulk. Lurk. Who hopes for what he sees? Said Alice Walker, “at middle age I slowed down so that whatever was trying to catch up to me would have an easier time of it.”

Abraham Heschel would call this Sabbath living:

There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have, but to be, not to own, but to give, not to control, but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord…The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. (Sabbath, 9-11)

To face sacred moments.

Walk. Swing your arms. Smile. Greet your neighbors and their wayward kids. Take your time. Only the devil has no time to let things grow. It is a foolish farmer who pulls up his carrots every week to check their progress. Easy, easy.

Otherwise, you will miss the fullness of life and faith.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born 100 years ago this year, a great interpreter in word and life of Mark 6, is best remembered for his teaching, by word and sacrifice, about grace,
and his reverence for the walk of faith announced in today’s Gospel:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without contrition.

Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be SOUGHT again and again, the gift which must be ASKED FOR, the door on which a person must KNOCK. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs us our life, and it is grace because it gives us our only true life.

Costly grace takes time. It requires us to walk, and not faint. Costly grace takes time. Time to invite, and to tithe. Time to fish and to plant. Faith begins with giving way 10% of what we earn, and ends in inviting someone to dinner.

The only way to make headway in the dark is to walk. The night time is the right time—if you will walk.

Victor Hugo wrote, Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.

Here is the good news: Faith. . .is a walk. . .in the dark.

“The Sermon on the Mound”

Sunday, July 2nd, 2006

Mark 5: 35-43

Greeting

Humbled and honored we are to stand among you today, in this happy and historic space. Another chapter of life and ministry is opening. We do not yet know each other, neither sanctuary congregation and preacher, nor radio congregation and preacher, so we will need to go on a bit of trust—trust in God, in the Gospel, in the Spirit, in the community and in ourselves.

We have traveled to you from Rochester, NY, from the arms of a wonderfully loving congregation in the Finger Lakes. A land of opportunity and enterprise. Opportunity: F Douglass, EC Stanton, SB Anthony, H Tubman. Enterprise: the Erie Canal, Carrier air conditioning, the Xerox Copy, the Kodak moment, and, not to be forgotten, the invention of–Jello. Hello, New England, hello!

This is also the region that invested earlier in Boston, providing the enrichment of George Eastman, the education of Howard Thurman, and the emancipation of Harriet Tubman, all of which bore fruit in this city on the Bay.

One said of his minister’s sermons, “sometimes I arise inspired, and sometimes I awake refreshed.” Both are good, which brings us into today’s text…

Sleeping Not Dead

The dear girl was sleeping, not dead. She is not dead, but doth she sleep…the wrong shall fail, the right prevail…

Looking back forty years to Jesus’ ministry, our writer has in stylized memory recalled a healing moment. All the Gospels, including are text, were formed, formed in the white heat of early church life, when the hand of death threatened a frightened church, perhaps in Rome, perhaps in the year 70.

So Mark will teach the meaning of a Hebrew phrase to his many Greeks. Talitha cumi. He will recall or imagine the child’s age, 12. He will repeat the standard command to secrecy which gives his gospel its strange allure. He will mention Jesus’ advice to eat. (Matthew and Luke, reading Mark 20 years later, are as puzzled as we are to interpret these features, and readily remove some of them.) In all, what looked like death turns out to be a need to wake up from slumber.

This is the meaning of the sermon, to wake us up from a death-like sleep, to take us out of the arms of Morpheus. With Mark’s frightened early church, we may again hear good news. Sometimes what seems like death is merely napping. A word fitly spoken, and a life rightly lived may cause us both to arise inspired, and to awake refreshed! For example, this holiday weekend, we may want to remember…

Winthrop

Out on the Massachusetts Bay, in the autumn of 1630, Governor Jonathan Winthrop spoke to frightened pilgrims, half of whom would be gone before spring. One can try to imagine the rolling of the frigate in the surf, out on the Atlantic. One can feel the salt breeze, the water wind of the sea. The Governor is brief, in his sermon for the day: “We must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world”. A remarkable, truly remarkable warning, to our country, at the moment of its inception. Do they awaken us to a sense of compunction?

Lincoln

It is a cold day in early March, 1865. Four score and eight years after Independence, the nation has indeed become, as Winthrop prophesied in his Boston sermon, “a story and byword through the world”. 600,000 men will have died by the time Lee and Grant meet at Appomatox, approximately one death for every 10 slaves forcibly brought to the New World. This day in March, Mr. Lincoln delivers his own sermon, to the gathered and, we may assume, chastened congress. It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address: “The Almighty has His own purposes…Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work that we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Into the next decade the state of Mississippi will spend 20% of its annual budget, each year, for artificial limbs. Lincoln himself will die within weeks.

A remarkable warning. Do these words awaken us
to a sense of contrition?

King

Now we witness another gathering, and we hear another sermon. A hundred more years have past. It is August 28, 1963, a sweltering day in the nation’s capitol. Thousands of women and men have gathered within earshot of Lincoln’s memorial, and within earshot of his Second Inaugural. They have come—maybe some of you were there—with firmness in the right as God gives to see the right, to strive to finish the work. A Baptist preacher captures the moment in ringing oratory: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

Remarkable, truly remarkable words. Do they awaken us to a sense of conviction?

Winthrop. Lincoln. King. 1630. 1865. 1963. These are three of the greatest sermons ever preached in our country’s history. Do you notice that not one of them was delivered in a church? Yet they all interpret the church’s Gospel to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Winthrop. Lincoln. King. They believed in God’s providence. They trusted, through terror, in God’s favor. They thought that persons, even they themselves,

had roles to play in the divine human drama. They spoke in a way that awakened the hearer.

They warned of tragedy, they endured tragedy, they honestly acknowledged tragedy. What Winthrop prohesied, and what Lincoln witnessed, and what King addressed is to some degree our national tragedy still. Though there has been progress, we still judge, far too much, by the color of skin and not by the content of character. As Dr Neville well said, from this pulpit last Sunday: Probably the deepest issue in our society is racism, a poisonous stain that mixes evil into the very best of our inventive history of democracy and our love of freedom.

A Sermon on the Mound

But God has not left us, nor does God abandon God’s children. God works through human hearts, to bind up the nation’s wounds. It is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which will bring peace. The church has nothing better to do, nothing other to do, nothing more important to do, nothing else to do than to preach.

And some of the best preaching happens beyond church. Some is spoken and some is lived. Said Franklin, teaching the two values he thought important—industry and frugality: “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing”.

Here is one saving story from which, over time, we may gain strength and insight for our common story, poetry and preaching. For what Whitman said about poetry is doubly true for the Gospel itself: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and the night…Really great poetry is always the result of a national spirit, and not the privilege of a polished and select few the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.”

Branch Rickey

Next year we shall pass the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball. 60 years ago, the armed forces were still legally segregated. So were public schools. So, America in 1947, when a tee-totaling, Bible quoting, Republican, Methodist from Ohio, Mr. Branch Rickey, brought racial integration to major league baseball. Who remembers today this lone ranger type who spent most of a lifetime working for one transformation? Rickey was taught the Gospel in a church where there was to be no separation between a deep personal faith and an active social involvement. He was formed at a small Methodist school, Ohio Wesleyan, one of whose Presidents, Bishop James Bashford, peers down on us today from the beautiful stained glass of Marsh Chapel, looking out on Commonwealth Avenue. Rickey was one of those people who just never heard that “it can’t be done”. For thirty years, slowly, painstakingly, he maneuvered and strategized and planned and brought about the greatest change in the history of our national pastime. IT CAN BE DONE. How do I know? I have been watching the Red Sox over the last week! Quite a colorful team. Go to Cooperstown this summer and see the story unfold. There is a sermon on the mound, preached in life, brought to voice through one lone Methodist, in one lone lifetime, in one lone sport, in one lone generation. Things can change for the better. IT CAN BE DONE. But you need a preacher, like Rickey: “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”.

Where is the Branch Rickey of Wall Street? Where is the Branch Rickey to waken the local church? Where is the Branch Rickey of the urban public schools? Where is the Branch Rickey of your neighborhood? Where is that secular saint who doesn’t realize it can’t be done? Where is the preacher of the next sermon on the mound? And where are the actual preachers of the next generation who will remember and hope in grace and freedom?

Maybe she is here today.

Maybe you are she.

Things can change for the better, when sleepers awake.

I heard William McClain, an African American preacher, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn. “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him. When he struck out we did too. When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered. When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants. When he stole a base, he stole for us. When he hit a home run, we were the victors. And when he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south. He gave us hope. He gave us hope.”

Don’t let people tell you things can’t change for the better. They can. This country can work. We just need a few more Branch Rickeys.

And a few more sermons on the mound…