Archive for March, 2007

March 25

Becoming Like Him

By Marsh Chapel

Philippians 3 and John 12

George Marlowe lived in a trailer on the Canadian border. His son Kirk lived there with George, and cared for his father. George had lost his legs—to diabetes or in Vietnam or by a farm accident (the cause itself is lost to memory). The son delivered mail in and around Trout River and was the sole care giver for his dad.

Kirk was a jolly soul—big, brawny, full of life and humor. He claimed the border country mosquitoes could stretch up to open the mailboxes into which he delivered the daily post, they were so large. This was hyperbole, but also contained a grain of truth, as hyperbole does. George and Kirk lived together for several years, and largely in peace. They did sometimes argue loudly when by nightfall they had drunk too well. Their neighbors, Lyle and Pat Wilson, in the next trailer down, a double wide, checked on George during the day, when they could. Or they would send one of their daughters to look in on him. Or, if no other remedy was available, they would call the preacher to ask him to stop by on his way down into Canada, to visit with George.

The midday summer heat on a single wide trailer by the 4th of July is just a simmering oven heat. You would not want a breeze, even if there was one, which there was not. George’s self-medication and relaxed housekeeping, and chain smoking made of the trailer a singular environment. In the summer of 1982, the last of his life, George offered his neighbors a reminder of mortality. In the summer of 1982, emerging into adult life, Kirk offered his neighbors the example of loyalty. Kirk was a simple person. He simply offered and lavished the loyalty of love on his dad, by day and by night. He poured his life like perfume onto the body of George Marlowe, his father.

Our two readings, Philippians 3 and John 12, recall Kirk and George–these readings, that is, along with the hymn we have sung about ‘love and loyalty’. Philippians is about loyalty. John is about mortality. Kirk taught us something about loyalty. George taught us something about mortality. ‘Thy guiding radiance, above us shall be, a beacon to God, to love and loyalty’. George was buried near the border and near where he was born, on July 26, 1982, at 2:00pm. In the blur of activities, come Sunday, in Christ, one is accosted by loyalty and mortality, through whom, in Christ, ‘we become like him’.

Two very different readings from Scripture greet us this Sunday morning. One describes loyalty. The other evokes mortality. Both are good news, and each story amplifies and explicates the other. For you this morning, the lesson and the gospel raise a mortal question about your forms of loyalty, and a loyal question about your sense of mortality. A hymn of love and a reminder of death are somewhere, somehow buried in every sermon and every service of worship. In decisions about loyalty and in the encroachment of mortality, we become like Him: Jesus Christ, the loyalty of God; Jesus Christ, the mortality of man.

There is today a tendency to minimize Paul’s change of allegiance, as expressed in Philippians 3, and elsewhere. So this scholarly trend would argue: Paul did not really distance himself from his earlier religious expression. Paul did not really reject his mother tongue, mother land, mother religion. Paul did not expressly depart from the eighth day, the tribe, the law. Paul did not really intend to step aside from his inheritance. Paul was born loyal and died loyal, and his loyalty at birth and death were of a piece. So, your teacher here at the Head of the Charles, Krister Stendahl, and so my teacher in Montreal, Bishop NT Wright, and so EP Sanders and so many others. I suppose that scholarly trends, like fashion, move in and out of vogue, for and with some regularity. Certainly, the work of these mentioned scholars, and that of many others, reminding us of the depth and breadth of Jewish background to the letters of the APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), carry much of importance. Still, there is the little matter of rubbish.

Paul calls his inheritance rubbish. SKUBALA. It is a remarkable Greek word, whose force you can hear in its simple repetition. SKUBALA. Rubbish. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish. It will not do to muffle Paul’s apocalyptic sense of loyalty. In fact, much of the work of late that tries to do so ends up representing a view of Paul that is much more akin to the views of his opponents than to those of Paul himself. But what of the particular inheritance, yours and mine and Paul’s? What of our particular, idiosyncratic, experiences and cultures and hues? What of circumcision, of covenant, of history, of torah, of valiant duty past? I regard them as…SKUBALA. We may wish Paul had been more temperate. He was not. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings an apocalyptic, cataclysmic, sea change in the fount of loyalty. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Across town, across the Scripture that is, and in the heart of the Fourth Gospel, meanwhile, we are engaged by another story. Now mortality, not loyalty, addresses us. If there is a richer set of eight verses in the entire New Testament than John 12: 1-8, honestly, I do not know where you would find it. Here is the Passover, the third in the fourth Gospel. Here too is Bethany, site of earlier astonishment. Here is Lazarus, who emerged from a tomb, covered with bandages, odorous and squinting. Martha, of serving fame, and Mary, of praying memory, are here, too. A year’s wages are here poured out on feet, feet of course being of sacramental power in this Gospel, as we saw two weeks ago. There is fragrance, the fragrant scent of perfume poured on holy feet, perfume dried in loving hands, perfume gathered on the hairs of the head. An astounding scene, already, but there is more. In comes Judas Iscariot. There arises an argument about money, surely not the last religious argument about money. The poor and the present are set against each other, surely not the last religious argument about the good and beautiful. And then a dominical pronouncement: keep it for the day of my burial. After so many visual, audible, tactile, olfactory and savory images, we are sensorially exhausted and ready for a nap. These images share a common trait. They evoke mortality.

The Passover is the scene of death. Lazarus was raised from death. Mary has a premonition of death. Martha and Mary pleaded with Jesus about death. Judas Iscariot is the agent of death. The plight of the poor is mentioned to avoid a confrontation with death. The perfume is a symbol of anointing at death. If there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—and it is not clear that there is anything more significant in Scripture than justice—but if there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—it is mortality. Our gospel lesson this morning pulls out every stop to evoke mortality.

Reminders of mortality, like attendance in worship itself, which is one such reminder on a weekly basis, may make us squirm. We have a way of thinking that death happens always to somebody else. We find ways to change the channel. In the last four years we have become experts at changing the channel. Our misdeed in the Middle East, preemptive, unilateral, imperial, reckless, immoral, post-Christian, and wrong, has brought death. Interruption of to the regular routines, rhythms, lives and dreams of 200,000 loyal, heroic soldiers of ours. Physical death to 3,200 of those. Serious injury to 25,000. As yet uncountable losses—50,000 to 500,000—to Iraqi civilians: children, women, older adults, young people, daughters with child, young men not twenty, recent grandparents, eight year old boys, three year old girls. Diminishment to a part of the gentle hope, for a real spiritual culture and community, across this land, in our time. Harm to some of the soaring ideals of a young republic, now seen from abroad as a pre-emptive behemoth. Defeat to a part of the great dream of those who built the United Nations. Yes, reminders of death make us squirm.

So let us return to loyalty for a moment.

Meanwhile, back in Philippians, our APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), has now stated for us the force and source of loyalty in Jesus Christ, as he does with equal power in Galatians 2 and Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 and 1 Thessalonians 4. That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness of God based on faith. (The loyalty of Christ, the righteousness of God based on Christ’s loyalty.) Paul has been found in a new life. His earlier code and covenant have come to an end. They are set aside. They are good and true and beautiful, but not by comparison with the truly good and the beautifully true and the divinely beautiful. It is the loyalty of Christ to which Paul sings his hymn of praise as read this morning. The rendering of these verses depends upon a reading of the phrase, ‘faith..Christ’ as first in reference to Christ’s own faith, by which in faith Paul and we are ‘owned’. It may be that Paul has written these words in prison, and it may be that these words from prison were written at the end of his life. He will have had, as we do on some days, and Sundays, a clear sense of the fragility of life and its brevity.

So let us return to mortality for a moment.

The several marks of mortality set before us in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, are also reminders of divine love. Lazarus evokes such love from Jesus that, in that shortest of verses, we are reminded, ‘Jesus wept’. Mary and Martha are the figures of serving and praying that we know so well in the teachings about disciplined love. Judas is never portrayed as doing ill for the sake of doing harm, but is found to mistake some love for all love. Most strongly, the pouring of perfume in lavish expense is understood as the full fragrance of affection and love.

Our readings today give us grace to live by faith. We may want to consider, on a bright spring Sunday afternoon walk, the examples of abiding loyalty and loving mortality which we have known. We are meant to ‘become like him’, and so we shall want to notice the forms of loyalty and limitation that are ever before us.

We may want to remember something of Josiah Royce, and his evocation of loyalty. You may recall from your own life and family experience, the example of a truly loyal friend. You may recognize that sometimes lesser loyalties must be laid aside in the face of greater loyalties. No one wants the lower lights to occlude the one great loyalty of life. You may recognize the difference, say, between asking forgiveness for a promise broken, and asking forgiveness for a promise that should never have been made in the first place, whether kept or broken. We may deeply recognize the need we have to reclaim the language of remorse out of our religious traditions, so that we might walk again in newness of life, following Lenten confession.

We shall want to find and practice the forms of loyalty by which, and through which we may dimly acknowledge our mortality. Any pastor will tell you that young people live as if they were immortal, and not only young people. There is a youthful courage in this, but also a tragic risk. We may want to recall the verses of Scripture that warn us about limits. Store ye not up treasure on earth where moth and rust consume…All flesh is grass, it withers and fades…Prize your time now you have it, for God is a consuming fire…The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…This night is your soul required of you…

Here is a potentially saving word. It is the intimation of mortality that puts steel in the spine of our loyalty. It is the practiced sacrifice of loyalty that gives us courage for the facing of the last things. Where there is a sense of mortality there is a sense of loyalty. Where there is a preparation of loyalty there is a preparation for mortality. The one inspires the other. (Where there is no inkling of mortality there is no spur to loyalty). Perhaps that is why, in the mystery of all things, and in the planning for Sunday readings, Philippians 3 and John 12 were yoked. Think this lent about your lasting commitments. Think this lent about your limitations.

On July 26th 1982, the little church, Constable UMC, where Kirk Marlowe had been recruited a few years earlier for youth fellowship, was sparsely populated. Two dozen sweaty souls spread out across a hot church to celebrate the life and faith of George Marlowe. The funeral service was read. Good English sentences, scrip
tural and traditional and not too lengthy. A prayer. A psalm. A Gloria. A gospel lesson. A homily. A prayer. Kirk had also asked to offer a word at the end. So, with the prayer executed, the preacher sat. George’s son stood with a wordless dignity. He surveyed the congregation with a silent dignity. He opened a guitar case and unpacked his acoustic guitar. He would not have used the word ‘solemnize’, but he could have. With a languid ease, and all the time in the world, Kirk tuned the instrument. Then he strummed. In a country beat. Country. Things are slow in the country. Then he began to sing, when the choking was subsided.

His was a hymn of love, sung by loyalty, into the teeth of mortality. Earl Marlatt wrote ‘Are Ye Able’, one of the Deans of Boston University School of Theology. Marlatt wrote, in his last annual report, ‘we have developed a sermon-centered curriculum’. Marlatt’s hymn, and these two texts, Philippians and John, through this sermon, ask you to develop a mortality conscious and loyalty laden life. A mortality conscious and loyalty laden life…

Son to father, loyalty to mortality, Kirk to George:

Are ye able…

Said the Master, to be crucified with me

When the shadows close around you with sod

Still the Master whispers down eternity

Lord we are able…

March 11

The Spirit of Truth in Communion

By Marsh Chapel

John 13: 1-9

Jesus meets us today in the communion of service, and in the service of communion. Together let us listen for the gospel this Lent.

The strange world of the Bible includes no more mysterious, different country than these later chapters in John. If Antarctica is our most different continent in all the world, and the desert southwest the most geographically distinct region in our country, then, in like fashion, these chapters full of speech at the end of John are such a tract.

Our passage today makes two affirmations. One is about Jesus. The other is about his disciples.

Our passage reminds us of what we only with great difficulty continue to see: the Christ is incarnate in humility. For some reason, according to my gospel and yours, God has chosen the scandalous way of the cross, the path of humility in which to make God’s self known to us: a stumbling block to the religious spirit and sheer folly to the reason. Yet this is the witness of Scripture, tradition, and our own considered experience. It may have been that John, our latest Gospel (and much later in time, it may be, than has regularly been assumed) could already see the inevitable triumphalism that the sacraments would carry. The pride of place, the less than blessed assurance that can come with a signed, sealed, delivered grace, controllable grace, cheap grace. So John, throughout his Gospel, eliminates the sacraments. In the fourth gospel we find hardly any reference to sacrament: not to baptism by John the Baptist; not to the baptism of Jesus; not to the Lord’s Supper at the last supper; not to the words of institution; not to the memory of the upper room; not to the revision of the paschal meal. Just here, in John 13, as closer readers of the Gospel sense, just here where on the night of betrayal, and in Jerusalem, and in the quiet secrecy of the familiar gathering, just here where we are about to settle into another recollection of the sacrament of the last supper– John turns a corner. Where the holy meal has been, we have the stark, searing, unforgettable humiliation of the footwashing. Jesus Christ is known to us in the scandal of real incarnation, not in the magic of a mystery cult. His presence is found in absence, his power in weakness, his authority in service. The great tradition of growth and strength, found more in the other gospels and notoriously celebrated in Acts, is here rejected. Here, nakedness. Here a towel. Here a basin. Here the humility of a servant’s work. Here the grime of feet. Here, ministry. This is the word of faith, and for John anything, anything that stands in the way of the Word of faith, including the sacraments themselves, are to be set aside. There is no Last Supper in the Gospel of John. There is only Jesus the Christ, incarnate in humility. For some, the greatest dimension of sin is falsehood. For some it is sloth. For John, here, the demon is the sin of pride. Christ, the real Host, is the Servant.

It will take some further chapters for the second aspect of this teaching in John 13 fully to emerge. Here in John 13, there is a service of communion that is the communion of service, not Holy Communion. Then in 14, the spirit of truth is known in conversation. In 15, the same spirit in commandment. In 16, the same spirit of truth in catechesis. In 17, the same truth in consecration. But here, in John 13, there is the divine hand on the human foot. Not only Judas the sword bearer, but also Peter, especially Peter, Peter whom the writer of the fourth Gospel deprecates, Peter, first among the misinformed, expects something else and is horrified. He expects—what? A place? A name? Authority? And he is presented an emblem of humble service. There is to be forever in the community of love, which is the church, a serving humility, a humble service: So the cross. So the bowl and towel on the altar. So the stole, an ox yoke, to mock religious garb, so the collection plate, so the call to prayer, so the serving of meals, so the wiping of children, so the profound service of listening, so the quiet willingness to forgive, so the acknowledgement of ignorance, so the capacity to empathize, so the tithe, so the disciplines of discipleship, so the modest art of politics, so the artless labors of administration, so the season of Lent, so the pathetic simplicity of bread and cup, so the actual, earthly, incarnate, humble replication and resurrection of One, who on the night he was betrayed, took a towel, and when he had blessed it, he took it to his disciples, saying, take, wash, this is my labor given for you, do this as oft as ye shall gather, in remembrance of me. Communion, real communion, is service in truth.

A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Even as I have loved you, so you also ought to love one another. This is my commandment, that you love one another.

This is your ministry, to love one another. Ministry is worshipping. Love one another in worship. Ministry is proclaiming. Love one another is speech. Ministry is teaching. Love one another in learning. Ministry is healing. Love one another in healing. Ministry is serving. Love one another in service. Ministry is liberating. Love one another in setting others free. Ministry is reconciling. Love one another in reconciliation.

One example. Parker Palmer writes movingly of his salvation from depression in Let Your Life Speak. Those who know depression up close and personal will appreciate his diligent honesty. Palmer painfully records those many attempts to help that were not helpful. Well meaning but ineffective. Sympathy that only led to greater sadness. Positive advice that made him more depressed. Reminders of his many talents, which left him in greater malaise. Those who said they knew what he was going through, which, of course, no one ever does. He concludes: Having not only been ‘comforted’ by friends, but having tried to comfort others in the same way, I think I understand what the syndrome is about: avoidance and denial. One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to ‘fix’ it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery… Blessedly there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling—and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race. Bill rarely spok
e a word. When he did, he never gave advice but simply mirrored my condition. He would say, ‘I can sense your struggle today’, or, ‘It feels like you are getting stronger’. I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful: they reassured me that I could still be seen by someone—life giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible. It is impossible to put into words what my friend’s ministry meant to me. Perhaps it is enough to say that I now have deep appreciation for the biblical story of Jesus and the washing of the feet. (64)

This is my prayer: that you in hearing or in receiving, today, may have ‘life giving knowledge’ in the face of whatever in life is making you feel annihilated and invisible. This is the spirit of truth in communion.

A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Even as I have loved you, so you also ought to love one another. This is my commandment, that you love one another.

March 4

The Partnership of the Gospel

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 13: 31-35


We have been gathered here, from Texas and Chicago, from Rochester and Providence, from Bay State Road and Brookline, gathered by grace. From a University President to a babe in the womb, from the least to the greatest, we are, for a moment, gathered. As Thornton Wilder wrote, ‘just for a minute we are all together: let’s look at each other’. Let us meet the moment, not miss it. As Abraham Heschel said, ‘let us learn to meet the moment’. Like a mother hen gathers her brood, the Spirit of Christ has gathered us, and welcomed us again into real life, which is the partnership of the Gospel. Welcome, and please know how meaningful your own presence truly is for this gathering.

A sermon like this one, a salutation, ought to begin with some recognition of the difficulty involved in interpretation, and perhaps with a bit of humor. To those twin ends, we recall the account of the man who was stopped for driving 90 miles an hour on the turnpike. He explained his velocity to the officer by saying he had seen a sign that said ‘90’ so he drove ‘90’. Then the officer noticed three petrified and terrified backseat riders, and asked if they were frightened by their turnpike ride. One said, “Oh no, route 90 was fine, we just hope and pray he is not going back onto route 220—that was really scary!” Interpretation is a delicate art. A gospel text needs and deserves some exegetical examination and some theological explanation and some practical application.

A. Exegetical Examination

In fact, our lesson today, Luke 13:31ff., exudes as poignant, as heartfelt, as realistic, and as personal an outlook as one can find anywhere in the Gospels, in its soprano voice of the lingering teaching of Jesus, or in its alto voice of the earliest church’s memory, or in its tenor voice of the gospel author, or in its baritone rendering in tradition.

The highest note is Jesus’ own. The first line, the melody, is a kind of dominical soprano voice, laden with maternal imagery today. ‘Like a hen gathers, would I have gathered you?’ All these lines (31-33) are found only in Luke, and clearly go back to Jesus himself. The nature imagery, the kindliness of the Pharisees, the use of the term ‘fox’( from a country preacher’s lexicon), the gritty undercurrent of fear, the poetry of three days: mirable dictum!, we hear today what Jesus said. His voice, vss. 31-33, carries across two millennia. Go tell that fox…As a hen gathers her chicks…today, tomorrow, the third day… Here is Jesus of Nazareth, in 33ad, facing the tragic sense of life.

(There also is his frightened, hopeful church, in 70 ad, facing the tragic sense of life. There is Luke, in 90ad, facing the tragic sense of life. And here we are, gathered as partners in the Gospel. Thoreau wrote: “If it is not a tragical life we live, then I know not what to call it. Such a story as that of Jesus Christ–the history of Jerusalem, say, being a part of the Universal History. The naked, the embalmed, unburied death of Jerusalem amid its desolate hills—think of it…”)

Listen particularly, just for moment, to the voice of the writer, Luke, the third or tenor line, if you will, in this harmonic composition. Luke makes two novel moves, which differ from the interpretation offered by Matthew, with whom Luke shares a use of a portion of this text. Both moves impress us today.

First, Luke uses two powerful, forceful verbs to show the sweep of Jesus’ divine embrace, the gathering motion of the mother hen, the announcement of partnership, divine and human (thelo and sunago). I would have done…I would have done…I longed, desired, deeply wished…to gather, to embrace, to join together, to partner…There is a deeply moving aspect to this emphasis, as Luke has Jesus open the next several chapters of the Gospel of Luke, which include all the favorite and solely Lukan materials. We have the Good Samaritan, thanks to Luke. And the lost sheep and coin, thanks to him. We have the prodigal son, that most Gnostic of parables, thanks to Luke. And the dishonest steward, thanks to him. Luke is probing the partnership of the Gospel, and he begins his own emphasis right here. What we think about God determines how we live. Luke illumines that partnership.

Second, Luke stands Matthew’s interpretation of expectation on its head. For Matthew, the prediction of the coming of the Son of Man was an end of the world prediction. Not for Luke. Matthew looks up, Luke looks out. Luke sees the world a little more as we do, with miles to go before we sleep, with generations to go before we sleep. We have work to do. Here. Now. In partnership. Together. In real unity, not just in passing togetherness. Where Matthew heralds parousia, Luke heralds incarnation, and the coming entry, triumphal entry, into Jerusalem. Here Luke foreshadows what is to come. For him, as George Buttrick wrote, “Jesus was killed by the insurrectionists in the mob and by the reactionaries in the temple” (a good warning about the far left as well as the right). We can learn in our time from this text, and offer a form for its theological explanation.

B. Theological Explanation

Gathered here are we, in Boston the cradle of liberty, and at Boston University, the cradle of Methodist ministry. It is hard to walk much farther east, without some swimming trunks. It is hard to walk much farther back, without some memories. John Adams and John Dempster would like a word or two with us. The church whose educational project Dempster, a Mohawk valley native, began, here, and the country whose cultural project Adams, a Braintree native, began, here, both depend on human freedom, human grace.

I longed…to gather…Go
d in Christ invites a partnership of the Gospel, as Paul names it in Philippians 1: a partnership, a koinonia, a partnership. (Tragically, the NRSV has rendered the word, there, a sharing. How pale, how ‘us’ today.) Sursum corda: Jesus gathers us, to live out a muscular partnership of the Gospel: to learn not only to chew, but also to choose.

Our lesson shows Jesus, fully human as well as a body of divinity, ‘the transcript in time of who God is in eternity’.

T. Here Jesus loves his own people like a momma, like a mother hen. These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been totally depraved.

U. Here Jesus recognizes the choices that inevitably make us who we are. Choice is relational and conditional, and makes us inspect what condition our condition is in. These people, and we too, must have not been unconditionally elected.

L. Here Jesus gathers everybody, all, all, like a hen with a brood. These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been limited to the very narrow, tiny minority of the pre-destined elect.

I. Here Jesus faces, heartsick, the brutal truth, that these people, and we ourselves, can and do resist the invitations of love, even the momma like, mother love of a hen gathering chicks. They must not have been powerless. Jesus’ grace was resisted, steadily and effectively, to the path of the cross.

P. Here Jesus himself does not persevere, not at least in Jerusalem, or in the spiritual culture of our time, nor does his cause, at least not in this passage. Persecution not perseverance awaits this holy one.

Jesus, here, means freedom. The one requirement of your picture of God is that God must be ‘worshippable’, worthy of worship (neither cruel, nor evil, nor blind, nor capricious, nor us on our worst day). Today Jesus sets us on a path of freedom—a good Boston theme. Human freedom that is temporal, universal, loving, imaginative, and powerful. We will think of it in a moment as another kind of TULIP formula. We hunger for the partnership of the Gospel, the partnership of grace, divine and human, and the partnership of freedom divine and human.

A sermon like this one, a salutation, ought to continue with some analysis and examination, careful examination, and perhaps a touch of humor. To those twin ends, Mark Trotter reminded me once of the physician who provided a thorough medical exam to one patient, declaring him as ‘healthy as a horse’. As the man took up his coat to go, he fell down dead as a doornail. The secretary overheard the thud, entered, and asked, ‘what are we to do?’ To which the doctor, in view of misdiagnosis, said, ‘Well, I don’t know. But at least could we turn him around so that it looks like his coming in, not going out?’ Be wary of overly optimistic charts, graphs, reports, diagnoses. Keep the verses of Yeats at hand, “the center does not hold…”

For all our warlike failings, there is still a grandeur to the human being, a grandeur personally known in love, and that love modeled after its partner in the divine love, love divine, all loves excelling! (But not erasing!)

The personalist liberals of Boston knew about partnership–Brightman and his dark God-given, Ferre and his hymn to love, and our own colleagues on imagination and creation. Yet they underestimated the power of human freedom, for evil. Their editors and mid course correctors of the neo-orthodox school knew about partnership. Yet they underestimated the power of human freedom, for good. Their successors, the liberationists, knew about human freedom. Yet they underestimated the power of human freedom, to reach across inherited boundaries.

Many decades ahead of his time, one voice stood out, and from this very pulpit. Howard Thurman explicitly championed the partnership of the Gospel. Oh, he celebrated personality with his teachers, but knew the darker dimensions of experience for both Jesus and the disinherited. Oh, he too acclaimed faith, but knew the dangers of Christo-monism, and the neglect of a common ground. Oh, he too faced the terrors of power without truth, but knew the dangers of any ghetto, and could preach a scandalous universality, and acclaim a spiritual presence. Brightman and Niehbuhr and Guttierez all offer something, but not enough, not alone. Not enough for a world hungry for the partnership of the Gospel. Thurman would have gathered them together, like a mother hen gathering her chicks.

How shall we appropriate such an explanation? As my grandmother would admonish, ‘give us something practical to take home’.

C. Practical Application

Jan and I have come to Boston to spend the fourth part of our ministry in gathering chicks, in a generative mode, and in a spirit of partnership—to build a congregation, and recruit preachers, and exemplify spiritual hospitality, in a way that engages the next generation in the partnership of the Gospel. A national voice, a Methodist ethos, an excellent hospitality—these are our signposts. Marsh Chapel can become a heart for the heart of the city and a worship service for the service of the city. We will rightly be measured by the kind of people we produce, and the kind of pastors we produce. Humanly speaking, the death or life of the church depends upon the leadership of the church, and its voice. The voice of responsible Christian liberalism may be dormant but is not dead, not yet. You are here today because you are the natural partners in this expression of the Gospel. Our voice is a responsible Christian liberal voice, one that sails between the Scilla of reaction and the Caribdis of rejection. The voice of Marsh Chapel is a responsibly Christian liberalism.

A real partnership of the Gospel will depend upon a common hope. It is not enough for us to recall the common faith of John Dewey. It is not enough for us to recall the common ground of Howard Thurman. On a reliable, common hope hang our future. What are the features of the common hope, this partnership, this partnership of the Gospel? We have preached some of them this year. T. Something temporal. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting. L. Something of love. A developed expression of contrition. I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination. P. Some real power. An openness to power and presence. Today, Come Installation Sunday, a capacity for partnership, heart to heart, that rests on a faith in the partnership of God in the Gospel.

The human being for all his and her faults, has a capacity for wonder, for love, for courage, for the mutuality of work in partnership, on which this fragile globe depends. The best speech I have heard was by Mario Cuomo, who at the close said he would like to be remembered by one word, ‘participant’. As Charles Darwin’s exhibit reminds us, for all the changes that reason and experience have brought us, which we need not fear: “there is a grandeur about this view of life…” Nearby we have leading thinkers who write about imagination with creativity and about creation with imagination.

Is partnership to have a voice? Or will the Gospel be only ‘the throwing of a stone’? Will the heteronomous freedom of partnership in the Gospel—temporal, universal, loving, imaginative, and powerful–find a hearing? Or shall the determinists (both Biblicist and materialist) win? Will your grandchildren sing the songs of freedom and grace? Or will a lockstep legalism of a purpose driven life prevail? Hear the gospel: as a hen gathers her chicks…

No, it is not too late for partnership. Abraham had a whole lot of nothing. And faith. And that gave him a future. Who knows what may come? Fifty two years ago, I doubt that Marcia and Irving Hill thought that once they named their misbehaving first baby Allan after Allan Knight Chalmers, that he would be one day the Dean of Marsh Chapel. But here he is. It is not too late. The best time to plant an oak tree is one hundred years ago. The second best time is today

We need one another. We need healthy partnerships: of learning and piety, of church and school, of school and university, of pulpit and lectern, of words and music, of lay and clergy, of women and men. To the partnership of the Gospel we turn, for labor, in love, in the next decade. Will you respond? You are gathered here today for a reason, the partnership of the Gospel. Will you act? Forgive me if I become quite specific, for a moment.

Voice, ethos, and hospitality cost.

Sermon by sermon this year, we have tried to announce a call to the ministry: our future voice. Sermon by sermon this year, we have tried to remember a charmed chapel story: our historical ethos. Sermon by sermon this year, we have taught disciplined generosity: our chance at real hospitality.

We hope to complete the endowment of the Marsh Chapel deanship. Is there one person who would feel called to such a gift, in the partnership of the Gospel?

We hope to renovate this building. Are there 100 people who would fee called to share the burden of such giving, in the partnership of the Gospel?

We hope to establish a Dempster House, an interreligous living unit for students (Hindu, Moslem, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, all) committed to a common hope. Are there 1000 people who could share the burden of such a project, in the partnership of the Gospel?


We have provided personal counsel, and some solace, in this past week. One couple, reflecting on a grim tragedy, a loss of life and of friendship, sought counsel under the shadow of a familiar portrait. As we completed a prayer, the young man asked, ‘Who was Howard Thurman?’ Before I could put into gear my own lengthy response, which, like the peace of God would have passed all understanding and endured forever, his friend spoke. She answered, ‘Oh, I know his story: Dean of Marsh Chapel, religious teacher, guide to Martin Luther King, advocate for a common ground…’ In eight sentences, she had it. I still do not know which was more thrilling, his question or her answer! Thurman wrote:

For this is why we were born: People, all people, belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.

Will you embrace the partnership of the Gospel?