The Partnership of the Gospel

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?

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