Archive for September, 2006

You Come Too

Sunday, September 24th, 2006

Mark 9: 30-37

Preface

The shortest distance between two points is the length of the line segment connecting them. Here the distance from heaven to earth is measured in the meaning of ‘welcome’. Power in the power of invitation is good news for the community of faith, for you.

Synoptic Gospel passages, like this one, have usually a quadraphonic complexion. Like a fine hymn, lifted to the praise of God, Mark 9: 30 welcomes us in four part harmony. There is a soprano voice, that of Jesus of Nazareth. The alto, arguably the most important voice, wells up from the diaphragm of the earliest church, which formed and fashioned these passages for its own needs. Mark himself is the tenor voice, the author, the evangelist, weaving past memory into the fabric of present need. You and I complete the baritone line, stretching across two thousand years of clefs and scales and chords.

We want to be sure to honor each voice, as we listen for the divine word. Admittedly, though the musicology of the gospels is well known, few pulpits regularly enjoy the full range of the music in the Gospel. The one dimensional culture around, the drive to black and white distinctions, the need for certainty in a fear driven society, the unwillingness to admit that there is much gray, and that ‘now we see in a mirror dimly’—in short, our flat screen view of life mitigates against a textured hearing. What a loss! The Bible has as story too!

Soprano

Although the Gospels were not written as histories, they surely rest upon an historical base. The Gospel of Mark proclaims Jesus as the Christ, crucified. Yet, underneath, or behind this proclamation, there looms some shadowy recollection of Jesus, and his words and his deeds. Now, I must confess that, as your current preacher and pastor, I bring a minimalist perspective to the question of what we can know, for sure, about Jesus, and his words and his deeds. Let me take you around this once more, to be clear. Some history of Jesus is contained here in Mark 9. It comes, though, in a certain package, namely the memory of Jesus which the early church needed, and needed to use. The higher pitched duet of soprano and alto, Jesus and early church, lovely it is, is also very difficult to distinguish, voice by voice.

A few years ago, we had a nationwide flattening of the Scripture in the phrase ‘what would Jesus do?’ The gospels are written around another question, raised by the early church, a much more nuanced and careful question; ‘what would Jesus have us do?’

Still, the soprano voice of the historical Jesus sounds forth. Here, one might posit, Jesus is remembered, as elsewhere, to have acclaimed service and to have loved children. We sing together of both. The greatness of those who would serve, and the divine preference for the least and the littlest have ample visibility in the gospel records. Jesus taught the value of service, as many teachers, ancient and modern, have also done. Jesus celebrated the life of children, as many teachers, ancient and modern, have also done.

Though primary, this voice is regularly the weakest in the gospel harmony. Our own tradition of interpretation, the ringing voice of the gospel author, and especially the formative influence of the fixing of memory by the earliest church, all conspire to muffle, mute and almost quiet the originary voice of the Nazarene.

When in our worship this is forgotten, danger and even disaster follow. Go and buy an exemplary book by one of our Boston University colleagues, Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, which provides a devastating review, highly readable, of American religious conjectures and fictional portraits of Jesus. Jesus the pioneer. Jesus the businessman. Jesus the androgyne. Jesus the muscleman. Jesus the Mormon. Jesus the revolutionary. Jesus, as in Salman’s head of Christ, the long haired European. More than a careful, minimal assessment of what Jesus said, and did, opens a religious Pandora’s box. We do not know what Jesus would do, in part because we do not know what he did.

One hundred years ago, Albert Schweitzer did show this in his Quest of the Historical Jesus. He looked back at 19th century historical study of the life of Jesus and found that scholars found what they wanted to find. So the churchman found Jesus to be an ecclesiastical leader. The bohemian saw in Jesus a free spirit. The Marxist painted him as proletarian. The conservative, as a conservative. The liberal as a liberal. Beware an overly carefully drawn portrait of the Man who stilled the waters. Schweitzer left the New Testament for Africa. He left the reading of theology for the living of theology. He went to heal children and to serve. ‘He comes to us as one unknown…’

Alto

The passage that begins at 9:33 was probably a list of instructions that Mark had inherited from the early church. This in itself, for those of us listening for good news in century 21, carries thrill. We are listening in upon a conversation from the middle of the first century! The language of the passage, a regular reminder here helps, is common Greek, the language of bills of lading, of general commerce, of death certificates, of letters, of news and announcements. Jesus spoke no Greek. Another generation, another society, communicating in a different setting and especially in a different language, has shaped the passages that came into Mark’s hands.

The needs of the church, not unlike our needs today, pressed upon the community of those who had committed themselves to the Crucifi
ed. Now it is not very hard to identify what these issues were. Power and weakness, authority and authenticity, internal leadership and external care. Anyone who has been around religious life, or life, will testify to the endless contention and intractable difference lurking in every budding congregation committed to love. In the struggles of the early church—over leadership and welcome—this collection of sayings and instructions found its birth. There are clues that set off these passages as later constructions, significantly later than the walks along the roads of Galilee that Jesus and his disciples surely took. Capernaum, in Galilee, was a reminder to the many Greeks that Jesus took interest in the land of the non-Jews, Galilee of the Gentiles. Also, when Jesus is portrayed as advancing toward the disciples (as he is here, questioning rather than responding), the interests of the early church are being carried forward with his question.

The two issues here, practically speaking, future preachers of America take note, are the hallmarks of pain in pastoral ministry. Who has authority? Who is in and who is out? Leadership and welcome. Every church issue since King David slew Uriah the Hittite can be traced roughly to authority and inauguration, power and welcome. In trying, probably with limited success, to address these issues, unknown memories and unseen voices recalled and applied memories to needs.

Who is to lead? Did not Jesus acclaim service? Did Jesus not live a life of servant suffering? This will be our way, too.

Who is welcome? Did not Jesus embrace children? Did not children, the weakest and least and least powerful become for him the sign of the divine? This will be our way, too. The church opens to all, particularly the least, last and lost. ‘As you have done it to the littlest (gk) of these, you have done it to me…’ (MT25).

This morning you see the stoles worn here, signs of yokes, of humble service. I asked my mentor what was the single hardest thing about ministry? He said, ‘remembering that ministry is service’.

This morning you see the windows and doors of an open church, open especially and pointedly to those who differ, those who are fewer, those who are weaker and littler in every regard. I asked my dad once what hope our church had. He said, ‘well, we have tried to remember the poor.’ Anyone who has ever had issues with authority has good company here. Anyone who has ever struggled with inclusion has good company here. Hail Alto, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…

Tenor

Mark has taken the tradition before him into a new fight. Yes, he with us will affirm the bedrock yes to service and love of children, with our Lord Jesus. Yes, Mark with us will slake our communal thirst on the record that others too struggle over leadership and inclusion. But Mark has other fish to fry, too. He composes a short introduction to this passage, that places all that came before in a new light. He makes these stories to serve his larger war against the disciples.

In Mark, the disciples are ‘reprobates’ (Weeden). They just do not ever get it. They misunderstand. They misinterpret. They willfully disagree and disregard Jesus and his teaching. Jesus must regularly condemn them, often in terms harsher than those used against the Pharisees. The disciples are McHale’s Navy, the crew of the Titanic, the captain of the Minnow headed for Gilligan’s island. You miss the Mark in Mark if you miss this. He hates the disciples, and attacks them at every point. Why?

The disciples represent for Mark those in his own church who are interested in glory. Jesus here is Mark’s voice, reminding his own people of the way of the cross. The disciples are those miracle loving, glory seeking, happy and easy living, strong and handsome and beautiful emerging ‘leaders’ in the church at Rome. After all, Rome was the center, and used to the best. Why not in the church as well?

Mark’s opponents want ease. Jesus speaks of suffering. Mark’s ‘disciples’ garner power. Jesus speaks of weakness. Mark’s foils and foiled disciples expect that faith will ever and always empower, heal, help, enrich, enhance, embolden. Jesus says again: ‘here comes betrayal, here comes struggle, here comes suffering, here comes the cross.’The evangelist, here and elsewhere, is intentionally attacking the disciples (they want power, they refuse humility, they do not suffer children, they do not welcome)” (Weeden, Traditions in Conflict).

How you lead your life is directly dependent upon how you view the Christ of God. Christology forms discipleship. A Christ of great fame, fortune, future—this Christ will create a certain kind of discipleship, a discipleship of glory. To this, elsewhere and similarly, Paul, Apostle said, ‘suffering produces endurance, endurance character, character hope, and hope does not disappoint’. Just remember Ecclesiastes 9:11.

Bass

Bring us home bass section.

The echo of Jesus’ faint voice in acclaim of service and children gives us courage to acclaim service and children. The early church’s ready attention to power and weakness, insiders and outsiders, leadership and welcome gives us courage this week to give ready attention to the ways we use power and include others. Most especially, Mark’s savage attack upon the characters he constructs as the Twelve for their theology of glory gives us courage this week to sacrifice authority for authenticity, to measure our worth as individuals, churches, societies by how we treat the littlest and weakest among us.

In other words, we have responsibility imaginatively to interpret and apply the gospel to our very lives. Here is a fine definition of pastoral imagination: “In a pastoral, priestly, or rabbinic imagination, this is the capacity to see a biblical text the form of a sermon, or in the depths of a fractured relationship clues to reconciliation; to hear in an ancient prayer the voices of those who have prayed it through the centuries; in the act of a child’s generosity a vision for the stewardship of the earth”. (Foster, Educating Clergy, 323.

The measure of university success, on this model, is measured in the freshman dorm first, and at the alumni weekend last. The measure of church success, on this model, is measured by just how much welcome we extend to those who can do nothing for us, at least until they grow up.

The line segment of life is from God’s heaven to a child’s earth, from cloud to cheek, passing through Christ. This means change, toward service and toward hospitality. 150 years after Mark, an ancient document called the Acts of Philip said it this way: ‘unless you change your down to up and up to down and left to right and right to left you shall not enter my kingdom of heaven’.

We may some encouragement here. Those who are wrestling with just how to use the measures of power afforded them may contemplate 35, “whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all”. Those pondering just how wide to cast the net for that next invitation may contemplate 37, “whoever welcomes a child welcomes God”.

Welcome, Mark 9

Soprano

What did Jesus say and when did he say it? Bultmann….

Alto

Two sayings, authority and welcome coupled. Why? Why was this good news for the community? Power and weakness…polemic against a conservative Jewish Christian group…

Tenor

How does this fit into the role envisioned by Mark for the disciples? Weeden

Core: the first shall be last, and the last first…”In Mark, Galilee is a theological-geographical sphere…” Disciples monopolize Mark’s attention…Disciples gray, with mass white and establishment black…

Bass

How did the rest of the NT, and the Fathers, handle this? How about the other texts?

AND SO WHAT FOR US?

How shall we think about the ruins of the church, and about Marsh as not the biggest but the best (music, liturgy, preaching).

What about children, then and now? What does the symbol mean?

Nineleven

Sunday, September 17th, 2006

Mark 8: 27-38

1. Preface

(The sermon was preceded by R Thompson’s ‘Two Roads’, the first Frostiana piece, and the first of seven uses of the seven pieces at Marsh this fall, corresponding to the Markan lectionary, and the sermons of the day. The service concluded with #426 UMH, to the tune ‘Marsh Chapel’.)

As Jesus taught, and Mark wrote, and Frost sang, we become who we are by the decisions we make.

We survivors, surviving survival, and moving from the guilt of survival to the gift of survival, when last we gathered did affirm…

The World Trade Center may fall, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies, may fall, but the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many, may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country, may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride, may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss, may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’ (Niebuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

2. A Defining Moment

Sometimes, Fosdick said, a sermon is a twenty five minute public session in pastoral counsel. We mean a place where two or more souls, in Rilke’s words, “protect, border and salute each other”. In God’s presence we may stand by one another, at the border of the soul. Not to avoid. Not to interfere. To honor.

On September 11, 2001 four airplanes were commandeered and employed as weapons in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. More than 2500 people died in hellish ways in the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and in an open field, as a consequence of this infamous assault. Parents lost children. Children lost mothers and fathers. Husbands lost wives, and wives husbands. This senseless slaughter of innocent civilians, a cruel and hate filled act inflicted upon defenseless citizens, was further exacerbated by the expressed celebration of American deaths by terrorists across the globe. Wives of New Jersey firefighters were forced to bury their loved ones against the background music of such choruses of joy. Parents of young, single women were caused to weep for their dead within earshot of the terrorist network’s bright eyed happiness. A generation of younger Americans was caused to carry into life lasting pictures of horror: a body, floating like a leaf, falling 100 stories…two young women, clasping hands in the fire of the 90th floor, and jumping hand in hand to their deaths…the greatest of human constructs in two giant towers rendered dust…a city paralyzed…a nation frightened…a culture permanently altered. Nineleven made us a people drenched in fear, anger, sorrow, and hatred. We have scarcely begun to absorb, to digest, or to reflect upon the experience.

3. The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

Robert Pinsky has given us poetry. Rowan Williams has written a short book. The television produced a docudrama. Of late, the movie industry is stirring to life with a film or two. Newspaper articles, now and then, appear and are gone. A collection of sermons from that week has been printed. There are the remaining struggles over the memorial.

But what about you? ‘Who do you say that I am?’

From the perspective of the pastoral theologian, we have hardly begun to work through the psychic, spiritual ground of this tragedy. The time honored cadences of avoidance, denial, and repression are readily apparent to the pastoral eye and theological ear. This is a tragedy, too. In some ways this is the greater tragedy.

Each of us has a slice of this pie. On August 27th, I had determined to preach a bluntly simple sermon, two live parables, about going the wrong direction and making mistakes. Jesus told paradoxically simple parables. I followed, or tried to. But I must tell you that in the hours before that service, I did not know whether I would find the courage to say what needed saying. No, we do not underestimate the spiritual struggle for health in which we are all, intimately, involved. Each of us has as slice of this pie.

For since nineleven our theological hibernation—theological hibernation– has allowed a series of actions that multiply the tragedy of the day into the tragedy of a lifetime. We have not sifted and settled our hearts about the horror of that day. In consequence, our national life has been subliminally formed and shaped by undigested angers, unreflective fears, impatient hatreds, and untamed sorrows.

How else, in retrospect, shall we explain the race to war without final evidence for its need? How else, in retrospect, shall we account for the abuses of power in military prisons? How else, in retrospect, do we understand a sudden celebration of victory when all the evidence pointed to its opposite? How else, in retrospect, do we think about a general election decided by votes garnered through the fear of, the specter of, gay marriage, of all things? How else, in retrospect, can we possibly explain the relative silence about casualties and collateral deaths, about maiming and civilian losses? It was our own suffering and survival of these very things that got us into the war in the first place. How else, in retrospect, can we fathom our neglect of our original motto, “meet violence with patient justice”? How else, in retrospect, shall we try to understand the fracture of freedoms hard won over two hundred and more years of American history?

On a more personal, local level, how else, in retrospect, do we analyze the conservative cast of our culture that affects every opportunity to change, every opportunity to grow, every responsible risk to take, every single investment in the future? What has become of us? Tell me: are you looser or tighter with your money since nineleven?

We have survived, when others did not. Can we say that out loud? We survived, when others died. Are we able to name that simple reality? Are we able to articulate and so escape the pervasive survivor’s guilt of this age?

4. Undercurrents of Healing

There are undercurrents of healing. Over dinner Wednesday we heard the recorded voice of Johnny Cash. It is remarkable, for instance, that the new film about Johnny Cash, well attended, is built squarely on a plot about survivor’s guilt. Cash’s father said, when Cash’s brother died, “the wrong boy died”. And the singer spent a lifetime healing from his own survivor’s guilt. He survived. His brother did not. He did. He poured his talent and art into lament and atonement.

Remember from last Sunday the contours of existential survivor’s guilt…

Here is a description of the effects of survivor’s guilt: “general anxiety, depression, inability to sleep, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing tasks, an inexplicable sense of guilt.” (Borgess). That sounds like life as we know it.

With birth survival, deliverance and survival down the birth canal, must come a kind of congenital survivor’s guilt, way down deeper than words, that we all, every human one of us, we all share. Not something we have done, but the air we breathe. All, all have been traumatized and stopped short of the Glory of God. Nineleven rekindles it.

This is our condition. “Like the beating of the heart, it is always present.” (Tillich). It? Tragedy, estrangement, sin, unbelief, hubris, concupiscence, separation, guilt, meaninglessness, despair, anxiety. For Peter, Luke, and Acts: especially existential survivor’s guilt. For you, your generation, your race, and your culture—the same. “It is experienced as something for which one is responsible, in spite of its universal, tragic actuality.” (Tillich)

Fair or not, we lived. Survival–strangely–brings a kind of guilt, irrational and unjust and useless, that nonetheless needs healing and pardon. Today we announce absolution for your survivor’s guilt. Kyrie Eleison. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven the fact that we survived. And we are ready to choose life, to choose the way of the future, that includes by the cross the recognition that such life will not be pain free. Good living is not cost free or cross free. We have the tenor voice of the evangelist, here at the crux of the Gospel. Mark has had to construct (so Haenchen, loc. Cit. and Weeden, loc.cit.) this passage to remind the later church of Jesus’ suffering servant role, and so, by extension, their own. (Weeden, Traditions in Conflict, 65ff).

Peter survived and thrived. Your generation survived and thrived. Your mother’s child—YOU—survived and thrived. Our country can too. But we will need to do the things that make for peace, for healing. Here they are. Once forgiven, we are thawed, freed. Now we can move, and we had better move fast. THE ONLY THING WE HAVE TO FEAR IS FEAR ITSELF.

5. Steps Toward Surviving Nineleven

The Boston Globe carried a discussion this week of survival. Don Murray, on 9/12/06, wrote about memory and surviving war. He wrote about ‘the guilt of the survivor’. Yesterday, a fellow veteran responded, insightfully, placing the phrase ‘the gift of survival’, alongside Murray’s ‘guilt of survival’. In a phrase, that is the gospel, the movement from guilt to gift. May it be ours, in the heart and in the mind, and in the soul, this day. Here are some steps along the path from guilt to gift. As one theologian has suggested, we are as a community to experience “the church as ritual sustenance”, for the journey of faith and life (RCNeville, The Symbols of Jesus, chpt 2).

1. Lament

First, we need to lament. Wail. Curse. Shout. Lament. Some of us will need to take time away from religion, until we can make sure our religion is real. Julie Nicholson, an English priest, lost her daughter to terrorists on July 7, 2005, in the London bombings. She had been ordained two years earlier. She resigned her pastorate. She could not reconcile her priestly duties with her refusal to forgive her daughter’s murderers. “I think forgiveness is a cheap grace. We have to be careful that we are not putting layer after layer on a deep and festering wound. I felt it after 9/11 and I feel it now. For a number of months, faith was more a hindrance than a help.” (New York Times, 5/6/06). The conscience of the believer is inviolable.

2. Protect

Second, it is bloodily clear that we have in this world people who will kill without qualm, and on a grand scale. There will be the possibility of further terror. We need to do all that is patient and just militarily to resist such terror. In a responsive way. Together with other nations. Without interest in gain. With exit strategies as a first priority in every case. We face a mortal threat, and with integrity we must face it down.

3. Assess

Third, we need to be realistic about the scope of this threat, by comparison with other past threats. Joseph Ellis has given one example. His view may not be yours, but may provoke you to compose yours: My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic. Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility. Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic (N
YTIMES, 3/06)

4. Divine

Fourth, we need honestly to assess what this does to our understanding of God. We need to think theologically about nineleven. God did not intervene on that day, nor is that the pattern of God’s participation in life. God must love freedom, says Bishop Tutu, because God leaves us free to go straight to hell if we so choose. Our understanding of God can not make space for a small, tribal divinity, even including some of our most cherished Christological affirmations. World religions are as close as the window on your cubical, as a plane approaches. It really matters—to you and your children—how 6 billion people think about God. It is a matter of life and death, of heaven and hell, right here on earth. We will need to become steadily and quickly adept at framing our faith posture in ways that accept, accommodate, and admire others. We shall need theologically, more than ever we have done in history, theologically to love our neighbor as our self. We shall need to be particular in our honest celebration of the faith of Jesus Christ without becoming exclusive to other genuine expressions of faith. Otherwise the kind of theological hatred of which we have our own personal and very local experiences will become the lingua franca of a death-prone world culture.

We want to build five theological bridges for every theological fence, five theological doors for every theological wall, five theological handshakes for every theological fist. We do not have to ‘win’. We do have to love. We shall need to love others as ourselves, by treating different theology as a new friend, not a certain opponent. When we feel the shackles of guilt falling away, we shall be able to summon the courage and energy to get on with the task at hand.

You can read one serious, hard book on world religions this year. You can find a way to offer gracious, unsolicited help to the poor, non-Christian world. You can develop a sensitivity to others, the other. You can see this post-modern world, with its fragmented face, not as a threat to be fought, but as an opportunity to be embraced. You can fund all this by tithing, and you can gain the power to tithe by selling your house and buying a smaller one, selling your car and buying a smaller one, limiting your purchases and leisure investments to a third of their current levels. It is only the unabsolved survivor’s guilt that keeps us from an heroic life. HERE THE GOOD NEWS: YOU ARE FORGIVEN FOR SURVIVING NINELEVEN. TE ABSOLVO. TE ABSOLVO. TE ABSOLVO. Now go and make your peace.

5. Appreciate

Fifth, we see in this shadow, dimly, the living and lively shades of others who have taken the narrow path. We are encouraged to remember them.

Look around , and you will see what I mean. In Toronto there lives the great Jewish teacher, and Holocaust survivor, Emil Fackenheim. Once he was asked, “How can you practice faith in God after the horror of the Holocaust?” (That may be the single most important theological question of our time.) His reply: “I practice faith, in the face of Holocaust, “in order not to permit Hitler any posthumous victories.” He survived, and survived his survival.

Look around. In Montreal there lives a great French Canadian teacher, Jean Vanier. He left the pastoral life to create a movement of caring ministries with developmentally challenged people. Working with survivors to help them survive survival. His organization, L’Arche, has attracted great acclaim, including the service at the end of life of Henri Nouwen.

Look around. When our first two little survivors arrived, we lived in a little cottage in Ithaca, around 1980. In the 1930’s, Pearl Buck and her husband had lived there as he served that church and studied at Cornell. I think of her celebration of Chinese survival, and her effort to save the survivors there, here evocation of birth in the rice paddies of Canton. With her contemporary William Faulkner, she trusted that the human race would not merely survive, but would prevail.

And whence the energy for these steps? Whence the power to continue, when weary feet refuse to climb? Whence the motive? This is our watch. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ We look for a rebirth of hope, real hope, global hope, a living common hope…

6. A Common Hope

This week we pause in prayer and quiet to honor those who lost their lives 5 years ago, and those who lost loved ones the same day. We meet this moment, in quiet, to honor and remember. In doing so we do not neglect, we do not forget, we do not side-step, those who have lost life and loved ones since. In service of God and neighbor, in service of God and country, in Tsunami and hurricane and disease, we remember those who have been hurt, in a world of hurt.

Rightly to honor those lost and those loved, and fitly to meet this moment, we shall need briefly to look out toward the far side of trouble. There is, we hope, a far side to trouble. We may watch from the near side, but there is a far side to trouble as well. That is our ancient and future hope. Dewey spoke of a common faith. Thurman preached about a common ground. Today we identify a common hope.

This is the hope of peace. We long for the far side of trouble, for a global community of steady interaction, an international fellowship of accommodation, a world together dedicated to softening the inevitable collisions of life. This is the hope of peace.

Without putting too fine a point upon it, this hope, the vision of the far side of trouble, is the hallmark of the space in which we stand, and the place before which we stand. If nowhere else, here on this plaza, and here before this nave, we may lift our prayer of hope. There is a story here, of peace.

Methodists are like everyone else, only more so, the saying goes—a wide and diffuse denomination, committed to a handshake and a song, and that shared ‘creed’ of ‘that which has been believed, always, everywhere, and by everyone (so, John Wesley).

Mahatmas Ghandi, walking and singing ‘Lead Kindly Light’, embodied this common hope. Ghandi
wrote: “I am part and parcel of the whole, and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity”. A common hope of peace. Ghandi inspired and taught the earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman.

Howard Thurman, hands raised in silence, later wrote: “The events of my days strike a full balance of what seems both good and bad. Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at had the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.” A common hope of peace.

Thurman taught King, whose stentorian voice fills our memory and whose sculpture adorns our village green. King wrote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”. A common hope of peace. Martin Luther King inspired a whole generation of ministers, including the current Dean of this Chapel.

He (Robert Allan Hill) wrote: “We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion. We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.”

This week, in memory and honor, we lift our hope for a day to live on the far side of trouble. We remember our ancient and future hope, a hope of peace.

7. Coda

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave
So the world shall be his footstool and the soul of wrong his slave
Our God is marching on.

Take, Read

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006


Matthew 9: 9-13

Matriculation 2006

Boston University School of Theology


Preface

Many of us are quite new here. We hardly know each others’ names, let alone seeing each others hearts. We learn one name at a time, I and Thou.

At Chautauqua in 1999 I introduced myself to a frail saint, who asked my name, heard it, and chuckled. Hill is not a colorful enough name to become much of source of hilarity, but she chuckled still. She explained. “You know, I had such a fear of asking people their names again, once they had told me once, that I came up with a system that invariably worked. Rather than saying, ‘I have forgotten your name, please remind me’, or something equally honest, I would say, ‘now, tell me again, do you spell your last name with an ‘i’ or an ‘e’. My technique succeeded. Chuckle. Until I used it with a man who shares your surname. ‘Do you spell your last name with an ‘i’ or an ‘e’? He blustered. My name is Hill not Hell, you spell it H I L L!

Caught between our own identities, and visions for the future, both heavenly and hellish, we have arrived in Boston. Like Matthew, who in chapter 9 paints himself, as Velazquez did, into his own portrait, we are invited. Follow me. “He comes to us as one unknown as he did long ago, saying ‘Follow me,…”, wrote Schweitzer. The real moment of real invitation and real response is real apocalypse. Paul said he met Jesus ‘by apocalypse’. I am here by apocalypse. Another story for another day. You may be too. What are we doing here?

We are here for matriculation, to begin, to exchange on maternity for another. Here is a matriculation account. Vernon Jordan went to Depauw ( a small Methodist school for small Methodists) in Indiana, lead by various BU graduates. His dad, mom, and younger siblings drove him up and dropped him off their in Greencastle, “up south”, Martin King might have said, from their home in Lousiana. Weeping, his father said, “Vernon, we are not coming back until four years from now. You are here where your future opens. At graduation we will be here, sitting in the front row. This is your time. I have one word of advice. Read. When others are playing, you read. When others are sleeping, you read. When others are drinking, you read. When others are partying, you read.” Take, Vernon, take and read.

In mid September of 1976, perhaps 30 years ago to the very day, many of us stood in the common room at the Union Theological Seminary. I stood near Linda Clarke and Horace Allen, and among the ghosts of theologians past that haunted those halls as others of equal tremor do these. George Landes spoke for the Biblical Field. Sanders, Terrien, Brown, and Martyn sat behind him. “There has been some question about whether the Bible is relevant”, he said quietly, this exacting teacher of Hebrew, and noted Jonah scholar. “We in the Biblical field”—here he gestured meaningfully to his esteemed colleagues—“ask that before you settle that question, whether or not the Bible is relevant, that you…read it.” That is what I remember, in sum, from the days of entry into theological study. I cannot tell you, in retrospect, and though those days themselves were not easy, just how majestically meaningful the voices, many now dead, in that room have been to me. They are in my ears. They are here beside me. As the theological voices of this uniquely exciting, young, potent, new faculty of the Boston University School of Theology will be for many, for many years to come. May your retrospective in 2036 be similar. I hope you will remember, three decades hence, something similar. Whatever others do, in these precious days of somehow subsidized freedom, you read. Read. The savings habits of careful reading can become the difference between life and death.

Matthew on Taking and Reading

Matthew says go and learn, follow and discern, take and read. Matthew, the author of a dark Gospel, reflecting perhaps the persecutions of the late first century, has stitched his own matriculation to faith together with an apothegm (that is a word that you never use in a sermon) about reading. His entry involved reading. “Go and learn….” Why should anyone have needed to learn the meaning of such a fine and famous line from Hosea, about mercy and sacrifice? Evidently, the meaning was far from evident, by the time of Matthew’s suffering. More study was needed. Why? The experience of the fragile church of the late first century required new readings of the inherited traditions of the church. Here is the preacher’s task, to translate tradition into insights for effective living.

Each Synoptic passage is like a choral piece, including four voices. There is the Soprano voice of Jesus of Nazareth, embedded somewhere in the full harmonic mix. In Matthew 9, Jesus conflicts with the Pharisaic aversion to pagan inscriptions and iconography. There is the alto voice of the primitive church, arguably always the most important of the four voices, that which carries the forming of the passage in the needs of the community. From Mark to Matthew an insertion has arisen, the citation of Hosea 6:6. Evidently, the earliest church needed the fuller support of the prophetic tradition—mercy not sacrifice, compassion not holiness—as it moved farther out and away from the memory of Jesus. The tenor line is that of the evangelist. Matthew is here, marking his own appearance in the record. His work seems to reflect a connection to school, to scribes, perhaps as Stendahl said from across the river, years ago, to Qumran. The baritone is borne by later interpretation, beginning soon with Irenaeus, Against Heresies: “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?” ( Adv. Haer., in Richardson, ECF, 377) If our church music carries only one line, we may be tempted to interpret our Scripture with only one voice, and miss the SATB harmonies therein, to our detriment.

There are two steps in today’s Gospel. Take, Read. The first is invitation, offered and received. The second is education, prepared and planned. You have, somehow, washed up on this shore, out of the ranges of materialism all around. You have set aside more lucrative degrees, you have refrained from taking more reliable paths, and you have stepped aside from entering upon more pleasant routines. What were you thinking? You are here. Thanks to somebody, and some potent word of invitation. Then, too, you are here to learn. To learn what the ancient world still thought was obscure, even following Hosea and Plato: God delights in mercy. I (thelo) desire, delight in, enjoy, am happy for, celebrate, am passionate about…mercy.

One wonders just how pointed Matthew’s reference here is in regard to his own community. Is the contrast between the partnership of the gospel and the willingness to suffer in the coliseum? Or the choice between a hearty entrance into some of the culture around, rather than a sacrificial abstemiousness about the world? Or the happy delight in new deliverance, over against the trudging discipline of mature faith? What of mercy, and what of sacrifice? What pastoral visit, and what new learning has formed this passage? Go…and learn. Take…and read.

Point One: Take

Close reading is crucial to health.

One day, following the morning service, we visited a dear saint in her home. She had been in hospital that week, and sat recuperating in her parlor. Her family was with her. And she had a story to tell.

That Tuesday, she prepared to be taken, by ambulance, from one hospital to another, for a particular procedure. She is a fine, older Methodist lady, so she prepared herself with what dignity one can muster in a hospital bed, robed in a hospital gown, and alone in the corridor of life. A little makeup, a comb and brush, some careful adjustments of remaining raiment, glasses perched, smile shining.

She could see the elevator door open, and her stretcher moving out. Then the attendants clearly mentioned her name as they signed the paper work at the desk. The nurse motioned across the hall in the general direction of her room. She poised herself, prepared to be a good, courteous patient. Down the hall the men came, and she waved. They returned the gesture. To her door they rolled—and then, remarkably, rolled on by! They passed to the next room, 129 not 128—such a small difference, a room inhabited alone by a frail, kindly woman who is deaf as a post. “Mrs. Smith?” “YES” she replied, her volume in inverse proportion to her accuracy. Into the stretcher went the wrong woman, and down the hall they moved. My dear parishioner called out, used her buzzer, flailed her arms like a gypsy at the campfire. But in a New York minute they were gone, carrying away the wrong person. On the way home, following the procedure, someone apparently had the presence of mind to look at the stretchered woman’s wrist band, name tag. I wonder how the reader felt not to see the name Smith. A rare moment of revelation. In this case, little lasting harm occurred. Our hospitals, in fact, to my eye, given their hourly commitment to excellence and attention to detail, put other institutions to shame. We all know the fear of the wrong arm amputated, the wrong knee replaced, the wrong woman put in the stretcher. Physician’s malpracti
ce. But the news, good news, of medical malpractice is that you know soon—an hour, a day, a decade—what has happened, and you can endure it or correct it. So it goes with the physician’s malpractice.

Not so with the metaphysician’s.

Biological error lasts, at most, a lifetime. Theological error resides for three generations, or more. If, as ML King Sr. said, ‘it takes three generations to make a preacher’, then it also takes three generations, or more, to recognize and correct the effects of metaphysical malpractice. You cannot fully see its effect for 20 or 40 or 60 or 80 years. And it is a short way from birdie to bogie, from clean cuts to nicks and scratches in innocent organs, mistaken severations and amputations, blood spilled and shed in the wrong bed. Choose the physical mistakes, for the metaphysical are so much more insidious, more damaging, more real. Read carefully the signs of the times, and their distinctive differences…

There is a crucial difference between sacrifice and mercy. There is a crucial difference between holiness and compassion. There is a crucial difference between law and love. There is crucial difference between representation and redemption. There is a crucial difference between incantation and incarnation. There is a crucial difference between innocence and integrity. There is a crucial difference between independence and interdependence. There is a crucial difference between Christology and theology. There is a crucial difference between giving and tithing.

When we let the very worthy interests in representation eclipse the main work of the gospel, in redemption, we are making a surgical mistake…

We risk harm when we replace incarnation with incantation, forgetting that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath…

Integrity and holiness survive beyond innocence, so we might say: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity…

We risk harm when we replace just war with just war, interdependence with independence. The 2003 invasion of Iraq jettisoned our inherited experience codified in just war theory. It was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, not responsive, multilateral, restorative, and limited…

We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity…

There is a world of difference between habit and mercy, contribution and generosity, giving and tithing. The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in tithing, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in tithing, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of exurban life receives its denial in tithing, not in mere givin

These are crucial distinctions. How are we ever going to make them, and learn consistently to make them well, to avoid metaphysical misdirection?

Point Two: Read

How are we to take up the stressful work, the hard labor of careful practice?

You go and read.

Find yourself in front of the Sculpture of Arthur Fiedler, on a bench. Sit farther along the river, as the sun sets. Make permanent friends with the quiet pews of Marsh Chapel and the hidden crannies of the library. Locate that 2am diner breakfast that helped Fred Craddock become a preacher. Find the Arthur Fiedler reading room, a beautiful spot. When others are at war with administration, you read. When others are cursing their Bishops, you read. When others are finding fault with faculty hairstyles, you read. You may especially want to read those who have lived through other times of ruin. Reading frees you from the 21st century. Reading cuts you loose from your own time and place. Others too have taught and preached in the ruins of the church….

I picture a bright autumn day. You are walking the emerald necklace, with lunch and a bag full of books.

*You start out a Charlesgate, thinking about reading today….

You live in a country in which 40% of the population can name the Three Stooges, and fewer than 5% the ten commandments. Literacy has a new meaning, referring not to those who can read, but to those who do read. We are preparing for teaching and ministry among those who do read, or will soon.

You think of a little office in the World Council of Churches, that of Paolo Freire. There he sat, brown bag lunch in hand. Who taught a continent, for their liberation, to read…

You remember from A River Runs Through It, the line that Methodists are Baptists who can read. But today, the literate are not those who can, but those who do read.

Close, careful reading, matters. I believe Colin Powell could testify to the difference between close, exacting reading, and visual learning. But he is only our best mirror upon ourselves. What have we been reading, as a people? Not enough world history. Not enough comparative religion. Not enough detailed daily news. Not enough economics or political science. Certainly not enough of the koine greek of Matthew 9, or the Hebrew verbs of Hosea 6.

*You pause to sit at the Fenway gardens to read in books from BUSTH, past and future…

The future of the globe relies not on those who can read, but on those who do. Allan Knight Chalmers taught his students here in the 1950’s to read a book a day.

Elmer Leslie, in the same decade, wrote, interpreting Psalm 1. He concluded his book on The Psalms with Psalm 1.

The psalmist first describes negatively the man who walks life’s good way, that is, by what he does not do. He refuses to walk as the morally loose, criminal element in society counsel him to do, or to stand where those congregate who have missed life’s true goal, or to sit as a willing crony among those who scoff at goodness. Then the psalmist turns to positive description and depicts a good man in terms of what he does. He delights in religion and meditates upon the Lord’s requirements as enjoined in the law, brooding over them by day and in the wakeful hours of the night. (op. cit. 432)

From Area A, learn with AT Pierson to “sanctify ambition, not crucify it”. A close distinction in a careful reading of life. From Area B, learn with Hildegard of Bingham to “become one’s ownmost”. From Area C, learn the nature of “good Samaritan” Christians. From Area D, learn with 19th century Methodism the lasting danger of poor financial planning, and learn the merits of disciplined sacramental observance. Or, learn the history of 3 Timothy. All this and more, you can read in the books of your teachers in this fine school. Read what you want, what you need, when you want, as you need.

*You sit beside the lawn at Emmanuel College, to pray…

In our own reforming, newly reconstituted community here at BUSTH, we have been further chastened and strongly sobered by death coming as a thief in the night. In one sense, there is little we can say, either to others or to ourselves. We must hold our tongue, and stand, and, just like a preacher, wait and wring our hands. We do not know why these things happen. There is no explaining, finally, the depth of tragic loss. But we can be present to one another, and treat each other with an honest kindness, a kind honesty. And with a little humility about our own limitations. And with a happy grace that embraces every morning with a sense of wonder. G.K.Chesterton caught it right, as he did so often; “the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder.” This harrowing week does not lack for meanings, but only for a sense of meaning. We can trust the unseen God to give confidence, faith, and your lived capacity to withstand what you cannot understand. Sometimes that is all you have, the faith to withstand what you cannot understand. For the loss of a brother does not make this week, this matriculation, any less meaningful, or less meaning filled. In fact, it frames our study in the arch of eternity, and recalls for us the heart of ministry, which is the health of persons, the saving of souls. We are on the edge of eternity in every moment of life. You, teacher, you preacher, you pastor, are living testimony to the Eternal Now.

*You may pause and rest at the beginning of the Riverway to think practically about theological education…

The ministry will be upon you in three years, or less, or more. If you can start, by reading, to think theologically, and model that dimension of spirituality for your parishioners, you will have done them a world of good.

Students, read the bottom line. You need to leave seminary with no debt. Faculty, read for the fine truth that sets free. Teachers, love your subjects and your students, as Augustine advised. You have nothing to do but to know the truth. Administration, read the need for conviviality, with joy. Minimize debt, students. Marginalize delusion, faculty. Maximize community, administration.

Oh, I know, there is more to life than books. I remember the 1904 Discipline and its terse rebuke, “we would rather throw over all the libraries in the world, rather than let one soul perish”. The difference 100 years later is that for the world soul not to perish, you must become living libraries. Bradbury’s campfire at the end of Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind.

*You find a quiet corner along the river think about the impact of careful reading, and its absence…

This fall we shall witness a titanic struggle for the minds and hearts of America. We do not cast a single ballot in any direction. But the difference between a fear soaked visual bombardment, and a careful literate philosophy of peace, is close to the marrow of what will or will not save us. What some discern as the shift from a gender to a religious divide, should perhaps be seen as a literacy divide. It matters what hymns, prayers, liturgy, and certainly sermons people know.

One does not live by bread alone. Better read than dead. Better well hung than ill wed, better well read than spiritually dead.

Read now. Robert Kennedy did not have the freedom to do a research paper on Aeschylus the night Martin King was killed. He either had read or he hadn’t. He had. His 3 minutes in the Indianapolis rain were his greatest words, because he had read. There is very little left of the historic Protestant church in the Northeast. What there is clings for life to the words, and to the Word.

*In the glade you wonder about the nature of reading itself…

And what relationship shall the reader have to the read? Who among us does anywhere near enough to deconstruct our own various contexts? Is the text to have the sole divining voice, or is the reader king? What of the relationship between the unsaid and the uttered? In reading, how do ranges of power dance with colors of truth? Is the truth of Scripture the sole truth? Or one truth among many? Or primus inter pares? Or an anachronism altogether? How then do you read?

Misreading intelligence can land a nation in the soup of a civil war. Misreading tests can land a patient in the wrong surgical suite. Misreading accounts payable can land a business in bankruptcy. Misreading a traffic signal can land you in the ditch. Most of these have healing solutions available within one generation. Theological misreading lasts for several generations. It takes three of four generations to bring correction to a sincere or not so authentic theological misreading. Be careful how you read, for how read is how you think, and how you think is how you act.

*You may circle the pond at Jamaica Plains, eat lunch, and read especially from those who have read and preached in various conditions of the ruins of the church…

Here is an October Saturday in the sun. Read in the ruins. Take, Read. Read along with those who also rose to preaching amid the ruins of the church. You walk. You read BBTaylor. Leaving Church. You walk. You read K Phillips, American Theocracy. You walk. At Jamaica Pond you read P Beinhart, The Good Fight. Then you read Vaclev Havel, on almost anything. You read H Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston is your campus.

McCourt in Angela’s Ashes is really giving you a hymn to language. He sits by the hospital bed of his eleven year old girlfriend. She teaches him a poem, “The Highwayman”, and she dies. He is so hungry that he finds a soiled newspaper, with the remains of fish and chips, and licks the grease…and the words…off the paper. That is, McCourt’s lovely bildungsroman, Angela’s Ashes, ends with the young boy escaping his past, escaping his family of origin, escaping the biology that threatens always to become full destiny, and feeding himself. He is so hungry that he finds trashed newspapers in which the daily fish and chips have been wrapped, and he licks the papers clean of scraps and bits and crumbs and oil, until the words on the paper fill his mouth. His whole book is about his deliverance, how he learned to live by reading, how he learned to love through words.

*At last, as night is falling, you pause for a minute on the way home to read this last passage from Augustine’s Confessions…

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. (Outler translation, Book V111)

At dinner someone may ask what the matriculation sermon on Wednesday was about. You would say, well, I think he was singing a song of love for reading; I think he was raising a hymn of praise for reading; I think he was lining out a psalm of affirmation for reading…

Tole, lege…

Leaves from the Notebook of a Survivor

Sunday, September 10th, 2006

Acts 10: 34-43

Marsh Chapel, Boston University


Preface

On Thursday the newspaper (NY Times 9/7/06) carried a narrative, a retrospective interview of NYC, five years after nineleven. Births, migrations, deaths have changed the city’s population, so that today New York City is a city of “newcomers and survivors”. The writer, Michael Brick, attended to themes of a biblical nature. Loss, empathy, anxiety, sadness. Especially, survival.

Today’s Gospel is a word about survival.

Peter, we are expected to remember, denied Jesus three times. His sermon is ostensibly remembered here today. But there was another day in Peter’s life, too. Cowering in the corner, he watched Jesus die. Peter survived. Maybe this is why his sermon here begins with testimony: “I truly understand…”

The early church, we are able to recall, watched the destruction of Jerusalem from afar. They saw the temple destroyed in 70ad. Luke and the church survived. Is this what fuels the memory here of Galilee and Judea and even Jerusalem? “Beginning in Galilee…”

This text, Acts 10, we are stunned to see, displays a potential, universal salvation. Any and all who have lived well, and lived to tell the story–are accepted. The race survives. Fear God and do what is right: “anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him”.

Yet there is more. What Jesus the Risen Christ brings is survival grace, survival forgiveness, the capacity for you to survive your survival. For those who survive often do so with a shadowy sense of –well, read the paper–guilt—irrational, unutterable, survivor’s guilt. Peter—forgiven in survival. Luke—forgiven in survival. All—forgiven in survival. We—forgiven our survival.

Remember the newspaper’s careful report about thought and emotion in the city of New York, five years after nineleven. NYC today is a community of newcomers and survivors. The former discover a capacity for empathy, the latter a way forward.

Peter survives, but he will carry with him always, as the Gospels testify, a memory, and a sense of guilt, about his darkest hour. The story of his life, and perhaps of ours, comes in leaves from the notebook of a survivor. Survivors’ guilt is a condition, that sense that ‘it could have, might have, should have been me’.

Peter raises a question for you about the greatest trauma you have personally have survived. You did survive. Good for you, you survivor, you. Now: have you had absolved the lingering sense of guilt that attends almost every survival?

Luke raises a question for you about the greatest trauma your generation has survived. Your generation did survive. Good for you, you survivor you. Now: have you all received absolution for the lingering sense of guilt that attends almost any survival?

Acts raises a question for you about the greatest trauma the human being has survived. Now: have you heard the word of absolution for the lingering sense of guilt that attends any survival?

You survived a car accident. You survived a war. You survived birth. Personal, generational, congenital survival. It is the Gospel that will empower you to survive your survival, too.

1. Peter and You: Personal Salvation

Have you named your greatest trauma? Death of a brother. Loss of a son in law. Expiration of a mother. Pink slip. Bone cancer. Hospital closing. A phone call from the Bishop announcing your displacement. Moving after 25 years. Abuse at an earlier age. A child’s suicide. An unexpected pregnancy. A plane crash. Divorce. A car accident. A run across an open field, with live ammunition coming at you. The sudden death of a classmate at the opening of term.

In the first three Gospels, it is centrally Peter who faces trauma like this. He has left all. He has followed. He has stayed. He has loved. He has waited in the dark courtyard. But then—his singular existential trauma—he has denied his Lord thrice. And Jesus has died and Peter has survived, watching the death of his Beloved.

The Gospel accounts of Peter’s denial, or betrayal, form the rich heart of the passion narrative. The pathos, the hurt with which the accounts are given reach to the depths of our hearts, even 2000 years later. Yet, through it all, Peter has survived. What remains for Peter, and for us, is to learn how to live as survivors, to survive our own survival.

I am not a psychologist, nor the son of a psychologist. But I know that “survivor’s guilt” is real. Do you remember the film “
Ordinary People” (based on Judith Guest’s novel), about two brothers who capsize in a boat? One dies and one survives. Mary Tyler Moore oversees a spotless home where “everything is in its proper place—except the past.” Berger, the counselor says at one point: “a little advice about feelings kiddo, don’t expect it always to tickle.” Conrad, the survivor, very nearly takes his own life, saved at the last by wise, loving, intervening words of his counselor, and friend, who asks repeatedly, “what is it that makes you feel so bad?” The answer, at last: “I survived.”

Never doubt the saving power of personal presence and a word fitly spoken.

You too have survived. Something. Some years ago we were grieving the Columbine tragedy. The kids there testified, truly, that a strange guilt followed their grief. This is the tragic guilt of the innocent, survivor guilt. “Megan hid her tears behind sunglasses: ‘I just feel so lucky to still be here.” Greg Martinez said, “You almost feel guilty, about, you know, having your kid get out.” Their counselor said those who feel guilty for making it out alive “need to be reassured that they can celebrate their survival.” (AP, A Levinson, 4/99).

Here is a description of the effects of survivor’s guilt: “general anxiety, depression, inability to sleep, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing tasks, an inexplicable sense of guilt.” (Borgess).

That sounds a lot like human life in general!

In the light of Resurrection, Peter finds the power not only to survive but to prevail. He finds the power to enter a new life, to change, to risk. He finds courage that will take him beyond mere survival and will help him travel throughout the known world, and, if legend serves us, to die a martyr in the far off city of Rome. He survives his own survival.

Here is a promise for all of us. Whatever lingering survivor’s guilt attends our survival through trauma, here is a power that frees us for a new life, beyond that great past tomb.

Are you ready to survive your own survival?

Even more. Something from that trauma you may fashion into a great gift for others, this side of Resurrection. Your loss will sensitize you to others. Your illness, to that of others. Your demotion, your failure, your dislocation—these now are gifts in your love for others.

For something happened, to Peter, that took a suffering survivor, bitterly weeping at the foot of the cross, and made him a fisherman for God, on whom the whole church has been built. What happened? Something happened. Something that saved Peter from his own survival.

2. Luke and Vietnam: Generational Salvation

What is true of individuals like you and Peter, is also promised today to generations, like yours and Luke’s. Again, I ask. What is single greatest trauma your generation has survived?

For the people to whom Luke speaks, now toward the end of the first century, one great generational trauma overshadows their life. Thirty years earlier, in the year 66ad, the Jews began a tragic, and losing, conflict with Rome. The war ended with the burning of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.

Did you ever wonder why Rome, not Jerusalem, is so central to Christianity? Jesus, Peter, John, James, Paul—all Jews, all focused on Jerusalem. The earliest church—that in Jerusalem. But by Luke’s time, all that has been destroyed. And Luke’s church is adrift. They have survived the destruction of Jerusalem. Others have died, including perhaps the brother of Jesus, James. But they have survived this central generational trauma. Now the question is whether they can survive their own survival.

Have you named your generation’s greatest trauma?

For one generation today, located halfway between my father and me, that trauma was Vietnam. This conflict, in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, on the grassy lawns of Kent State, in the classrooms of Columbia University and the board rooms of America, traumatized a whole generation. The trauma is not limited to one political perspective. All, all have been traumatized, to retranslate Romans 5: 12. All, the whole generation, all have been traumatized and stopped short of the glory of God.

Still, as a generation, you have survived. You survivor, you. The Chevy 409 is gone. But here is the Chrysler Sebring. Arnold Palmer is retired. But here is Tiger Woods. You got through. Not all did. But you did. Do you come through with some generational survivor’s guilt? Does it continues to carry the potential to hobble, maim and kill. For another generation, the trauma was that of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. (Still a great film). For you, it is Coming Home, The Killing Fields, Apocalypse Now, Platoon. Public trust, the place of authority, community commitments, and your relationships to other generations are overshadowed by trauma past. Yes, you survive. But the Easter gospel brings power to survive your own survival.

Here is historical fact. Something happened to Luke that 60 year later still had the power to take a generation like Luke’s, a church that had lost its Jewish moorings and was adrift in a punishing and forbidding culture, and make a movement that became an Empire wide community, full of men and women ready to die in public rather than call Caesar God.

Even more. Something from that generational trauma you will be able to carry forward, from many perspectives, to make a new way, for a new day. God had a purpose for Luke and his generation.

Resurrection is cutting you free from generational survivor’s guilt. This is unspeakably good news, like fine wine, 30 years in the making. And one day, a generation we have hardly seen in church since they were teenagers will come home, surviving their own survival. Coming home, this generation situated half-way between my father and me. Coming home out of survival guilt, to explore the use of a great wave of treasure, a huge transfer of wealth (and I would like to speak to some of you personally!). Coming home to a new rebirth of wonder, and a new global community, with one shepherding Lord.

How will this occur? In church. But the church is so…. Yes, the church is always both a representation and a distortion of the divine. But how can you love God and hate the things of God? How can you come near to God at a distance from the grace of God? How can you experience God without praying, singing, communing, hearing, giving, serving? No, you will have to find a church. Maybe not this church, but a church.

3. Christ and Humanity: Congenital Salvation

Could it be that the salvation promised to you and Peter, the power given to your generation and Luke’s, is also conferred upon the human race?

For a third time I ask a question. What is the single greatest trauma shared by the human race? All of us together?

Peter runs to the tomb, sees the linen clothes, marvels and wonders. It is Paul who puts the unspeakable into words. He reminds us that all have been traumatized and fallen short of God’s glory. Individuals, generations, races—all for some unknowable reason—are tinged with survivor’s guilt. It is an irrational, inaccurate, unfair, untrue sense of ennui, gonewrongness, fallenness, exile. It is what the Bible means by sin—not something we do, but the air we breathe. Paul understands that God has subjected the whole creation to futility, for the final purpose of saving the whole creation.

Just here, St. Luke in Acts has much to give us. Luke emphasizes the will and plan of God. Luke explores the nature of the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. Luke proclaims as far back as Christmas Eve: “all flesh shall see it together.” Luke repeatedly uses a lit
tle greek verb, found also in verse 7 of today’s reading, dei—it is necessary, it is purposefully required, it is providentially needed, it is necessary. Luke holds all life in three parts: the time of Israel, the time of Jesus, and the time of the Church. For Luke, this time—our time—is the greatest of times, the time of the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. For Luke, there abides a twin craving, held at the heart of the universe: a craving for a faith that appeals to culture and a culture that is attractive to faith. When church and city, faith and culture dance together on the bandstand of brotherhood—that is the Kingdom of God! And Luke, with scholarly Paul (Gal 3) and wondering Peter (Acts 10), means this for all people. All.

What great trauma do all people share?

Birth.

You by virtue of your lonesome journey through birth are an heroic survivor. You by virtue of your gestation for nine long months, are an heroic survivor. You by virtue of your sudden, violent and cataclysmic deliverance, through natal Red Sea waters, are an heroic survivor. You made it. You got through. Others may not have. But you did. You survivor, you. And there you are, crying and all messy, pink and little fisted and wrinkled and wailing to beat the band. You survived.

Not unscathed, but undefeated. Bloodied but unbowed. I have not read it anywhere, and have not time to write my own book, but I think that with birth survival must come a kind of congenital survivor’s guilt, way down deeper than words, that we all, every human one of us, we all share. Not something we have done, but the air we breath. All, all have been traumatized and stopped short of the Glory of God.

This is our condition. “Like the beating of the heart, it is always present.” (Tillich, STIII, 188). It? Tragedy, estrangement, sin, unbelief, hubris, concupiscence, separation, guilt, meaninglessness, despair, anxiety. Existential survivor’s guilt. “It is experienced as something for which one is responsible, in spite of its universal, tragic actuality.” (Tillich).

As Jim Croce might have written, had he survived: I’ve got those steadily depressing, low down, mind messing, existential post-partem blues.

Hear the promise of salvation from survivor’s guilt. You just may survive your own survival. The resurrection saves us from the lingering effects of birth by giving us—second birth. Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” Friends, on Easter we are set free to live in the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of love and light!

God is cutting us free from congenital survivor’s guilt. We are set loose to risk, to try, to change, to laugh, to weep, to become who we were meant to be. Irenaeus: The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

For Peter, for Luke, for the church….For you, for your generation, for you race…

Something happened. Something that even 2000 years later has men and women saying prayers, giving money, offering time, swinging hammers, sorting clothes, attending meetings, singing hymns, loving neighbors and on every day in every way building the kingdom of God. Luke would love it. What happened? Something happened, something that opens life up wide and frees us from our original survival and saves us for a new life, a new way, a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth!

You survived trauma, Vietnam, and birth. You will survive surviving 9/11 too. (Come next week.)

Next week, once we have survived nineleven again, we shall consider the gospel as it speaks to the single greatest trauma our nation, recently, has faced….Then we shall sing…

The World Trade Center may fall, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub
of global economies, may fall, but the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many, may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country, may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride, may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss, may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (as Reinhold Niebuhr, author of Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

Take, Read

Wednesday, September 6th, 2006

Matthew 9: 9-13

Matriculation 2006

Preface

Many of us are quite new here. We hardly know each others’ names, let alone seeing each others hearts. We learn one name at a time, I and Thou.

At Chautauqua in 1999 I introduced myself to a frail saint, who asked my name, heard it, and chuckled. Hill is not a colorful enough name to become much of source of hilarity, but she chuckled still. She explained. “You know, I had such a fear of asking people their names again, once they had told me once, that I came up with a system that invariably worked. Rather than saying, ‘I have forgotten your name, please remind me’, or something equally honest, I would say, ‘now, tell me again, do you spell your last name with an ‘i’ or an ‘e’. My technique succeeded. Chuckle. Until I used it with a man who shares your surname. ‘Do you spell your last name with an ‘i’ or an ‘e’? He blustered. My name is Hill not Hell, you spell it H I L L!

Caught between our own identities, and visions for the future, both heavenly and hellish, we have arrived in Boston. Like Matthew, who in chapter 9 paints himself, as Velazquez did, into his own portrait, we are invited. Follow me. “He comes to us as one unknown as he did long ago, saying ‘Follow me,…”, wrote Schweitzer. The real moment of real invitation and real response is real apocalypse. Paul said he met Jesus ‘by apocalypse’. I am here by apocalypse. Another story for another day. You may be too. What are we doing here?

We are here for matriculation, to begin, to exchange on maternity for another. Here is a matriculation account. Vernon Jordan went to Depauw ( a small Methodist school for small Methodists) in Indiana, lead by various BU graduates. His dad, mom, and younger siblings drove him up and dropped him off their in Greencastle, “up south”, Martin King might have said, from their home in Lousiana. Weeping, his father said, “Vernon, we are not coming back until four years from now. You are here where your future opens. At graduation we will be here, sitting in the front row. This is your time. I have one word of advice. Read. When others are playing, you read. When others are sleeping, you read. When others are drinking, you read. When others are partying, you read.” Take, Vernon, take and read.

In mid September of 1976, perhaps 30 years ago to the very day, many of us stood in the common room at the Union Theological Seminary. I stood near Linda Clarke and Horace Allen, and among the ghosts of theologians past that haunted those halls as others of equal tremor do these. George Landes spoke for the Biblical Field. Sanders, Terrien, Brown, and Martyn sat behind him. “There has been some question about whether the Bible is relevant”, he said quietly, this exacting teacher of Hebrew, and noted Jonah scholar. “We in the Biblical field”—here he gestured meaningfully to his esteemed colleagues—“ask that before you settle that question, whether or not the Bible is relevant, that you…read it.” That is what I remember, in sum, from the days of entry into theological study. I cannot tell you, in retrospect, and though those days themselves were not easy, just how majestically meaningful the voices, many now dead, in that room have been to me. They are in my ears. They are here beside me. As the theological voices of this uniquely exciting, young, potent, new faculty of the Boston University School of Theology will be for many, for many years to come. May your retrospective in 2036 be similar. I hope you will remember, three decades hence, something similar. Whatever others do, in these precious days of somehow subsidized freedom, you read. Read. The savings habits of careful reading can become the difference between life and death.

Matthew on Taking and Reading

Matthew says go and learn, follow and discern, take and read. Matthew, the author of a dark Gospel, reflecting perhaps the persecutions of the late first century, has stitched his own matriculation to faith together with an apothegm (that is a word that you never use in a sermon) about reading. His entry involved reading. “Go and learn….” Why should anyone have needed to learn the meaning of such a fine and famous line from Hosea, about mercy and sacrifice? Evidently, the meaning was far from evident, by the time of Matthew’s suffering. More study was needed. Why? The experience of the fragile church of the late first century required new readings of the inherited traditions of the church. Here is the preacher’s task, to translate tradition into insights for effective living.

Each Synoptic passage is like a choral piece, including four voices. There is the Soprano voice of Jesus of Nazareth, embedded somewhere in the full harmonic mix. In Matthew 9, Jesus conflicts with the Pharisaic aversion to pagan inscriptions and iconography. There is the alto voice of the primitive church, arguably always the most important of the four voices, that which carries the forming of the passage in the needs of the community. From Mark to Matthew an insertion has arisen, the citation of Hosea 6:6. Evidently, the earliest church needed the fuller support of the prophetic tradition—mercy not sacrifice, compassion not holiness—as it moved farther out and away from the memory of Jesus. The tenor line is that of the evangelist. Matthew is here, marking his own appearance in the record. His work seems to reflect a connection to school, to scribes, perhaps as Stendahl said from across the river, years ago, to Qumran. The baritone is borne by later interpretation, beginning soon with Irenaeus, Against Heresies: “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?” ( Adv. Haer., in Richardson, ECF, 377) If our church music carries only one line, we may be tempted to interpret our Scripture with only one voice, and miss the SATB harmonies therein, to our detriment.

There are two steps in today’s Gospel. Take, Read. The first is invitation, offered and received. The second is education, prepared and planned. You have, somehow, washed up on this shore, out of the ranges of materialism
all around. You have set aside more lucrative degrees, you have refrained from taking more reliable paths, and you have stepped aside from entering upon more pleasant routines. What were you thinking? You are here. Thanks to somebody, and some potent word of invitation. Then, too, you are here to learn. To learn what the ancient world still thought was obscure, even following Hosea and Plato: God delights in mercy. I (thelo) desire, delight in, enjoy, am happy for, celebrate, am passionate about…mercy.

One wonders just how pointed Matthew’s reference here is in regard to his own community. Is the contrast between the partnership of the gospel and the willingness to suffer in the coliseum? Or the choice between a hearty entrance into some of the culture around, rather than a sacrificial abstemiousness about the world? Or the happy delight in new deliverance, over against the trudging discipline of mature faith? What of mercy, and what of sacrifice? What pastoral visit, and what new learning has formed this passage? Go…and learn. Take…and read.

Point One: Take

Close reading is crucial to health.

One day, following the morning service, we visited a dear saint in her home. She had been in hospital that week, and sat recuperating in her parlor. Her family was with her. And she had a story to tell.

That Tuesday, she prepared to be taken, by ambulance, from one hospital to another, for a particular procedure. She is a fine, older Methodist lady, so she prepared herself with what dignity one can muster in a hospital bed, robed in a hospital gown, and alone in the corridor of life. A little makeup, a comb and brush, some careful adjustments of remaining raiment, glasses perched, smile shining.

She could see the elevator door open, and her stretcher moving out. Then the attendants clearly mentioned her name as they signed the paper work at the desk. The nurse motioned across the hall in the general direction of her room. She poised herself, prepared to be a good, courteous patient. Down the hall the men came, and she waved. They returned the gesture. To her door they rolled—and then, remarkably, rolled on by! They passed to the next room, 129 not 128—such a small difference, a room inhabited alone by a frail, kindly woman who is deaf as a post. “Mrs. Smith?” “YES” she replied, her volume in inverse proportion to her accuracy. Into the stretcher went the wrong woman, and down the hall they moved. My dear parishioner called out, used her buzzer, flailed her arms like a gypsy at the campfire. But in a New York minute they were gone, carrying away the wrong person. On the way home, following the procedure, someone apparently had the presence of mind to look at the stretchered woman’s wrist band, name tag. I wonder how the reader felt not to see the name Smith. A rare moment of revelation. In this case, little lasting harm occurred. Our hospitals, in fact, to my eye, given their hourly commitment to excellence and attention to detail, put other institutions to shame. We all know the fear of the wrong arm amputated, the wrong knee replaced, the wrong woman put in the stretcher. Physician’s malpractice. But the news, good news, of medical malpractice is that you know soon—an hour, a day, a decade—what has happened, and you can endure it or correct it. So it goes with the physician’s malpractice.

Not so with the metaphysician’s.

Biological error lasts, at most, a lifetime. Theological error resides for three generations, or more. If, as ML King Sr. said, ‘it takes three generations to make a preacher’, then it also takes three generations, or more, to recognize and correct the effects of metaphysical malpractice. You cannot fully see its effect for 20 or 40 or 60 or 80 years. And it is a short way from birdie to bogie, from clean cuts to nicks and scratches in innocent organs, mistaken severations and amputations, blood spilled and shed in the wrong bed. Choose the physical mistakes, for the metaphysical are so much more insidious, more damaging, more real. Read carefully the signs of the times, and their distinctive differences…

There is a crucial difference between sacrifice and mercy. There is a crucial difference between holiness and compassion. There is a crucial difference between law and love. There is crucial difference between representation and redemption. There is a crucial difference between incantation and incarnation. There is a crucial difference between innocence and integrity. There is a crucial difference between independence and interdependence. There is a crucial difference between Christology and theology. There is a crucial difference between giving and tithing.

When we let the very worthy interests in representation eclipse the main work of the gospel, in redemption, we are making a surgical mistake…

We risk harm when we replace incarnation with incantation, forgetting that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath…

Integrity and holiness survive beyond innocence, so we might say: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity…

We risk harm when we replace just war with just war, interdependence with independence. The 2003 invasion of Iraq jettisoned our inherited experience codified in just war theory. It was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, not responsive, multilateral, restorative, and limited…

We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity…

There is a world of difference between habit and mercy, contribution and generosity, giving and tithing. The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in tithing, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in tithing, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of exurban life receives its denial in tithing, not in mere givin

These are crucial distinctions. How are we ever going to make them, and learn consistently to make them well, to avoid metaphysical misdirection?

Point Two: Read

How are we to take up the stressful work, the hard labor of careful practice?

You go and read.

Find yourself in front of the Sculpture of Arthur Fiedler, on a bench. Sit farther along the river, as the sun sets. Make permanent friends with the quiet pews of Marsh Chapel and the hidden crannies of the library. Locate that 2am diner breakfast that helped Fred Craddock become a preacher. Find the Arthur Fiedler reading room, a beautiful spot. When others are at war with administration, you read. When others are cursing their Bishops, you read. When others are finding fault with faculty hairstyles, you read. You may especially want to read those who have lived through other times of ruin. Reading frees you from the 21st century. Reading cuts you loose from your own time and place. Others too have taught and preached in the ruins of the church….

I picture a bright autumn day. You are walking the emerald necklace, with lunch and a bag full of books.

*You start out a Charlesgate, thinking about reading today….

You live in a country in which 40% of the population can name the Three Stooges, and fewer than 5% the ten commandments. Literacy has a new meaning, referring not to those who can read, but to those who do read. We are preparing for teaching and ministry among those who do read, or will soon.

You think of a little office in the World Council of Churches, that of Paolo Freire. There he sat, brown bag lunch in hand. Who taught a continent, for their liberation, to read…

You remember from A River Runs Through It, the line that Methodists are Baptists who can read. But today, the literate are not those who can, but those who do read.

Close, careful reading, matters. I believe Colin Powell could testify to the difference between close, exacting reading, and visual learning. But he is only our best mirror upon ourselves. What have we been reading, as a people? Not enough world history. Not enough comparative religion. Not enough detailed daily news. Not enough economics or political science. Certainly not enough of the koine greek of Matthew 9, or the Hebrew verbs of Hosea 6.

*You pause to sit at the Fenway gardens to read in books from BUSTH, past and future…

The future of the globe relies not on those who can read, but on those who do. Allan Knight Chalmers taught his students here in the 1950’s to read a book a day.

Elmer Leslie, in the same decade, wrote, interpreting Psalm 1. He concluded his book on The Psalms with Psalm 1.

The psalmist first describes negatively the man who walks life’s good way, that is, by what he does not do. He refuses to walk as the morally loose, criminal element in society counsel him to do, or to stand where those congregate who have missed life’s true goal, or to sit as a willing crony among those who scoff at goodness. Then the psalmist turns to positive description and depicts a good man in terms of what he does. He delights in religion and meditates upon the Lord’s requirements as enjoined in the law, brooding over them by day and in the wakeful hours of the night. (op. cit. 432)

From Area A, learn with AT Pierson to “sanctify ambition, not crucify it”. A close distinction in a careful reading of life. From Area B, learn with Hildegard of Bingham to “become one’s ownmost”. From Area C, learn the nature of “good Samaritan” Christians. From Area D, learn with 19th century Methodism the lasting danger of poor financial planning, and learn the merits of disciplined sacramental observance. Or, learn the history of 3 Timothy. All this and more, you can read in the books of your teachers in this fine school. Read what you want, what you need, when you want, as you need.

*You sit beside the lawn at Emmanuel College, to pray…

In our own reforming, newly reconstituted community here at BUSTH, we have been further chastened and strongly sobered by death coming as a thief in the night. In one sense, there is little we can say, either to others or to ourselves. We must hold our tongue, and stand, and, just like a preacher, wait and wring our hands. We do not know why these things happen. There is no explaining, finally, the depth of tragic loss. But we can be present to one another, and treat each other with an honest kindness, a kind honesty. And with a little humility about our own limitations. And with a happy grace that embraces every morning with a sense of wonder. G.K.Chesterton caught it right, as he did so often; “the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder.” This harrowing week does not lack for meanings, but only for a sense of meaning. We can trust the unseen God to give confidence, faith, and your lived capacity to withstand what you cannot understand. Sometimes that is all you have, the faith to withstand what you cannot understand. For the loss of a brother does not make this week, this matriculation, any less meaningful, or less meaning filled. In fact, it frames our study in the arch of eternity, and recalls for us the heart of ministry, which is the health of persons, the saving of souls. We are on the edge of eternity in every moment of life. You, teacher, you preacher, you pastor, are living testimony to the Eternal Now.

*You may pause and rest at the beginning of the Riverway to think practically about theological education…

The ministry will be upon you in three years, or less, or more. If you can start, by reading, to think theologically, and model that dimension of spirituality for your parishioners, you will have done them a world of good.

Students, read the bottom line. You need to leave seminary with no debt. Faculty, read for the fine truth that sets free. Teachers, love your subjects and your students, as Augustine advised. You have nothing to do but to know the truth. Administration, read the need for conviviality, with joy. Minimize debt, students. Marginalize delusion, faculty. Maximize community, administration.

Oh, I know, there is more to life than books. I remember the 1904 Discipline and its terse rebuke, “we would rather throw over all the libraries in the world, rather than let one soul perish”. The difference 100 years later is that for the world soul not to perish, you must become living libraries. Bradbury’s campfire at the end of Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind.

*You find a quiet corner along the river think about the impact of careful reading, and its absence…

This fall we shall witness a titanic struggle for the minds and hearts of America. We do not cast a single ballot in any direction. But the difference between a fear soaked visual bombardment, and a careful literate philosophy of peace, is close to the marrow of what will or will not save us. What some discern as the shift from a gender to a religious divide, should perhaps be seen as a literacy divide. It matters what hymns, prayers, liturgy, and certainly sermons people know.

One does not live by bread alone. Better read than dead. Better well hung than ill wed, better well read than spiritually dead.

Read now. Robert Kennedy did not have the freedom to do a research paper on Aeschylus the night Martin King was killed. He either had read or he hadn’t. He had. His 3 minutes in the Indianapolis rain were his greatest words, because he had read. There is very little left of the historic Protestant church in the Northeast. What there is clings for life to the words, and to the Word.

*In the glade you wonder about the nature of reading itself…

And what relationship shall the reader have to the read? Who among us does anywhere near enough to deconstruct our own various contexts? Is the text to have the sole divining voice, or is the reader king? What of the relationship between the unsaid and the uttered? In reading, how do ranges of power dance with colors of truth? Is the truth of Scripture the sole truth? Or one truth among many? Or primus inter pares? Or an anachronism altogether? How then do you read?

Misreading intelligence can land a nation in the soup of a civil war. Misreading tests can land a patient in the wrong surgical suite. Misreading accounts payable can land a business in bankruptcy. Misreading a traffic signal can land you in the ditch. Most of these have healing solutions available within one generation. Theological misreading lasts for several generations. It takes three of four generations to bring correction to a sincere or not so authentic theological misreading. Be careful how you read, for how read is how you think, and how you think is how you act.

*You may circle the pond at Jamaica Plains, eat lunch, and read especially from those who have read and preached in various conditions of the ruins of the church…

Here is an October Saturday in the sun. Read in the ruins. Take, Read. Read along with those who also rose to preaching amid the ruins of the church. You walk. You read BBTaylor. Leaving Church. You walk. You read K Phillips, American Theocracy. You walk. At Jamaica Pond you read P Beinhart, The Good Fight. Then you read Vaclev Havel, on almost anything. You read H Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston is your campus.

McCourt in Angela’s Ashes is really giving you a hymn to language. He sits by the hospital bed of his eleven year old girlfriend. She teaches him a poem, “The Highwayman”, and she dies. He is so hungry that he finds a soiled newspaper, with the remains of fish and chips, and licks the grease…and the words…off the paper. That is, McCourt’s lovely bildungsroman, Angela’s Ashes, ends with the young boy escaping his past, escaping his family of origin, escaping the biology that threatens always to become full destiny, and feeding himself. He is so hungry that he finds trashed newspapers in which the daily fish and chips have been wrapped, and he licks the papers clean of scraps and bits and crumbs and oil, until the words on the paper fill his mouth. His whole book is about his deliverance, how he learned to live by reading, how he learned to love through words.

*At last, as night is falling, you pause for a minute on the way home to read this last passage from Augustine’s Confessions…

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alyp
ius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. (Outler translation, Book V111)

At dinner someone may ask what the matriculation sermon on Wednesday was about. You would say, well, I think he was singing a song of love for reading; I think he was raising a hymn of praise for reading; I think he was lining out a psalm of affirmation for reading…

Tole, lege…

From Tradition to Insight

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006


Mark 7:1-8, 14-15

Marsh Chapel, Boston University

The challenge of preaching, and of our preaching this autumn, is to translate tradition into insight. To announce the gospel is to translate the tradition into insights for effective living. Our gathering, actual and virtual, come Sunday, moves us along the path from tradition to insight.

Today’s Gospel provides a feast and a tangle of traditions, variously entwined. At depth, Mark 7 rests on the prophetic insight that one does not speak of God by speaking of the human in a loud voice. Jesus’ citation is from Isaiah. One tradition from Hebrew Scripture is set above and before another set of practices, involving cleanliness and holiness. Then we also have a translation, of sorts, explaining Jewish practices, in Greek, for a largely Greek community. We have, too, an assumed distinction between the traditions of the Pharisees and others, carried by Mark for his church into another kind of insight. The relationship, in religious life, of holiness and compassion, and their balances, it could be said, is crucial to our life in the 21st century. Every global religious tradition, ours included—need this be said in the shadows of Methodism and Wesley?—wrestles mightily with their comparative strengths. Tradition, insight. Come Sunday, we try to translate the tradition into insights for effective living. We try to remember that the Sabbath was made for the human being, not the human being for the Sabbath. Likewise, liturgy. Likewise, hymnody. Likewise, homily. Likewise, community. Here, as we happily celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the very heart of our tradition, we remember, discover and celebrate moments of insight in tradition.

It is insight for effective living that is the gift of tradition rightly rendered. Today the preacher interprets Mark, and Mark Jesus, and Jesus Isaiah, and Isaiah a holiness tradition.

1. Invitation

One insight welling up from a rich tradition, remembered Come Sunday, lies in the power of an invitation. We offer ourselves to God in worship in response to an invitation. We feel the insight of the New England poet regarding seven moments of insight symbolized in the sanctuary, and opening our ordinary time worship for this autumn, beginning at the communion rail of invitation:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away

And wait to watch the water clear I may

I shan’t be gone long. You come too.

You come too.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin and are in love and charity with your neighbors and intend to lead a new life following the commandments of God, draw near with faith, and take this sacrament to your comfort. Abstain from evil, practice good, worship God. Enter the front of door of Christianity by faithfulness, devotion and tithing. At the rail we move from tradition to the insight of invitation.

2. Embrace

A second insight welling up from rich tradition come in a musical voice, sometimes a choral voice. For the Wesleys, hymnody was about embrace, love, evangelism, even when, for a time, one refrains from embracing. Here is Frost’s voice again:

As I came to the edge of the woods,

Thrush music — hark!

Now if it was dusk outside,

Inside it was dark.

Faith is not only a walk in the dark. Faith is a song in the dark. The chancel harmony, SATB, reminds us of the four voices in every Gospel text: the soprano of Jesus’ teaching; the alto—most important—of its formation in the early church; the tenor of the evangelist; and the bass line of historic church interpretation. Embrace, musical embrace, moves us from tradition to insight, in the chancel of love.

3. Grace

A third insight from tradition, and resting in the baptismal font, lies in the recollection of the gifts we have received, from the One who from our mothers arms has blessed us on our way. In poetic verse we could say:

A neighbor of mine in the village

Likes to tell how one spring

When she was a girl on the farm

She did a childlike thing

One day she asked her father

To give her a garden plot

To plant and tend and reap for herself,

And he said, ‘Why not’?

It is humility we gain at the font, by remembering that we are saved by what we receive, not by what we achieve. Ortega taught: Yo soy yo y mis circunstancias. The Spanish have a saying: dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres. From Marney to Forbes to Hill: to translate the tradition into insights for effective living: grace at the font.

4. Teaching

Insight in teaching arises from the reading and hearing of Scripture. To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the words of the tradition, is finally to gain insight about how to communicate, and so how to live. And communication is a delicate art:

Don’t you remember what it was you said?

First tell me what you thought you heard?

Grace moves us, prevenient grace, from being self centered to becoming centered selves (Tillich). We remember with our freshman coming today the words of Romans 12: let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast…

In the reading of Scripture an ear culture invades our e-culture. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

5. Height

There is a fifth, central way, in which we gain insight for living, out of our tradition, represented so wonderfully here at Marsh Chapel in these beautiful stained glass windows. They remind us, story by story, of those women and men who found the courage and strength to gain by losing, to offer themselves in committed service, and to keep their commitments.

In season and out, to choose something like a star:

It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

6. Commitment

Today we have gathered at the Lord’s Table to renew again our way of living. We hear and trust the grace of God carries us forward, as we make and keep our several commitments. To this table we come, as generations before and after have done. We come for pause, for the existential snow that makes things slow. We come for meaning, belonging and empowerment. We come to celebrate presence, remembrance and thanksgiving. We come to live our commitments, and to remember that sin is the neglect of doing specific acts of kindness and love. We want, as Wesley said, to do all the good we can, in all the ways we can, in all…

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse
near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

7. Vocation

From tradition to insight. Rail, chancel, font, lectern, nave, altar, pulpit. Every sermon is a call to decision.

We become who we are by the choices we make. Many of these are relatively small decisions. A turn to the left, a turn to the right. In one sense, every sermon, including this one, is a call to decision. To walk in the light…To discern one’s calling is the work of a whole lifetime, marked along the way by choices, smaller and larger and smaller still. You will make some choices this week, but the question is whether you will be alert and awake. Not to miss the moment. To meet the moment. To master the moment. To be mastered by the moment. Not to miss the Christ in life. To meet the Christ. To master Christ’s teachings. And so to be mastered by him.

The night before we made the decision to come to Boston, at a nearby restaurant, she asked to remember this poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

May this be a week, this coming week, of invitation, of embrace, of learning, of grace, of height, of commitment, and of vocation.