Archive for October, 2007

A Confident Exit

Sunday, October 28th, 2007


Luke 18 and Lections

John 9:23

In a quiet moment, over the dining room table or along a familiar path, when quiet settles the moment, you may think for a moment about exits. How you leave something can be just about the most important thing you do. For something. Or someone. You could call this a religious issue, except that ‘religious’ is a term now readily dismissed from existential struggles. Think of it then as an existential issue. Jean Paul Sartre wrote a whole play, ‘No Exit’, a hard look at and lament over a closed sphere of existence.

The Gospel of John is largely about Jesus’ exit and lingering absence. His departure for the house of the many rooms, the Father’s house, becomes the occasion of learning to live with confidence. His absence is more valuable to the disciples than his presence.

It would swamp the gunnels of any sermon to illustrate in full the fact that the Bible itself is largely a string of exit scenes. The ending of things gives us the thing in itself, toward which it has moved from the beginning. So the Bible in both its testaments highlights exits. Count them, scouring the Scripture, this afternoon, and pick a favorite.

Every service of worship prepares and presages our personal exits, our existential exit, too. You may think that college students, so imbued with entrance and expansion, have no feeling for leave taking. This is not so. Our students are keenly alive to departure in all its forms, including its ultimate form. You will hear that keen alertness in the cantata sung later. It is one gift and task of religion to prepare a place for confidence in exit.

That in fact is the heart of the two lessons read earlier. One lesson is an imaginary valediction, written by someone taking Paul’s name and something of his legacy, and adoringly describing Paul’s exit. It is an ancient obituary of one who has fought the good fight. The other, the temple scene, compares two forms of confidence before God, confidence before the last horizon, so poetically named here as ‘going down to one’s house’. Of all the scriptural euphemisms for death, I think I like this one best. Down to his house…Which one do you think went down to his house justified? Down to his house…Down to his house…With what shall we go, with what shall you go down to your house? The music today Bach created as a preparation for a final exit. How shall we leave? It is about the most important thing we do.

The temple represents the ultimate threshold, the last horizon, as does Sunday worship for us. Two forms of confidence are contrasted, one of law and one of grace. We know the Pharisee far too well to stoop in our assessment of his virtues. He is a better person than we. He tithes, for example. He has far more reason than we to be confident at eventide, and that is what he is saying he is thankful for. We would do well to take some ethical cues from the Pharisee. But the passage is primarily about exits not ethics. It is about going down to one’s house. The words do have an ominous ring.

Before Luke adds the line about humility and exaltation, we hear in the parable a straight teaching, Jesus’ teaching, about what it takes to exit well. Mercy. What will get us down to the house justified is the gift of mercy. God be merciful to me. The announcement, relentless and thunderous and real and personal, that God is merciful and gracious, exploded into the Reformation, so many years ago. It was a remembrance of the confident exit, which is the confidence of faith in the face of all that closes off life. Daily. God be merciful to me, a sinner. Not merit but mercy merits confidence on the day of mercy.

In a quiet moment, over the dining room table or along a familiar path, when the quiet settles the moment, you may think for a moment about exits. How you leave something can be just about the most important thing you do.

Hear again Borden Parker Bowne’s warning, as he exited his great book on Personalism: “Belief must be lived to acquire any real substance or controlling character. This is the case with all practical and concrete beliefs. If we ignore them practically we may soon accost them skeptically; and they vanish like a fading gleam”. Mercy…

In the depths of life, one meets a longing for grace, mercy, forgiveness, and a deep recognition, too, that like life itself, and like eternal life, pardon lies beyond our power to add or detract, to create or destroy. It is a grace. It is grace. We may offer such a grace, or receive it, or refuse it, or neglect it. But it is not within our power to create it. We meet it in the life, in the obedience of faith.

Leave it to Flannery O’Connor to remind us of healing mercy that empowers a confident exit. It is the action of mercy that makes life real. Her voice, her stories appeal to our time. Almost any of her stories might have had this sentence tucked in amid the apocalyptic plots and grotesque characters:

Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again, but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood that it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker. (Habits, 270)

Leave it Reinhold Niebuhr to remind us of humbling mercy that may empower a confident exit. As Andrew Bacevich so recently and so eloquently recalled here at Boston University: “Such humility is in short supply (today)…The conviction persists that (we) are called upon to serve, in Niebuhr’s most memor
able phrase, ‘as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection’ (Bacevich, 10/07, Niebuhr World Crisis, 76). This too, is a voice that appeals to our time.

We shall need to summon both spirit and strategy to find our way forward. It is this spirit of contrition, coupled with a rigorous generosity of heart and mind, which we shall need to exit our current national entanglement in the debacle of the Middle East. People of faith: you have something to offer, here, to our situation. Our liturgy in Christian worship, for these decades to come, will consistently circle around the Kyrie—the cry of the heart in the Temple of life, the recognition of what we have done, the regret, compunction, and lament that is the first spiritual step toward home. God…be merciful…to us. Our life in Christian service, for these decades, will consistently circle around a lived Kyrie—an embrace of those now victims, those now refugees. With every sung Kyrie, and with every lived Kyrie, we will take a step toward home. Here is a lasting image, a parable, by which to see our way home. Confidence in exit comes with recognition of the need for mercy, grace and forgiveness, coupled with confidence in what that utterance itself portends: a pardoning God. Worship today might forget everything else, except confession and pardon. Service today might forget everything else, except mercy and grace.

Leave it to a short lived Bostonian President, fifty years ago, to kindle in us a hopeful mercy that could empower a confident exit from the cloud of fear besetting us. His is a strangely contemporary voice, appealing to our time.

Seeing the last made first was at one time not very far from the heart of our shared hope. Fifty years ago we agreed that totalitarianism should be opposed, for the sake of the weakest among us. We agreed that nuclear weaponry should be controlled, for the sake of the planet as a whole. We agreed that our southern neighbors in Latin America deserved our lavish support, for the sake of children and the elderly and the poorest of the poor. We agreed that religious relations, say between Protestant and Catholic, should be set aside whenever possible, to avoid causing one’s brother to stumble. We agreed that basic civil rights belonged to all, especially to those whom history had marginalized and fractionalized. We agreed that young people who wanted to offer two years of service to God and country, to build for peace, should be encouraged and enabled to do so, for the sake of the least, the last, the lost. We agreed that we should explore the universe, the moon and stars and planets, for the sake of scientific learning to benefit yet unborn. We had more humility, perhaps, more sense of the merciful expense required, a leader then said, (such a Johannine phrase, this, for all its Pauline roots) ‘to bear the burden of the long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’. So the last might indeed become first, and the first last. Then we would, truly would, set sail, exit the harbor with confidence, as the chiseled memorial says at Hyannisport: ‘I believe that America should set sail, and not lie still in the harbor’.

In a quiet moment, over the dining room table or along a familiar path, when the quiet settles the moment, you may think for amount about exits. How you leave something can be just about the most important thing you do. A confident exit relies on mercy. Mercy, a healing mercy. Mercy a humbling mercy. Mercy, a hopeful mercy. A confident exit relies on mercy.

A Parental Report Card

Sunday, October 21st, 2007


Lectionary Readings

I am told of a young woman, in another era, who watched from a second floor library as her parents drove away from her small Midwestern college. In that fresh water setting, they lacked the late October crack of the bat in Fenway Park, the sculling and calling in rhythm resounding from the banks of the Charles, and the multitude of high soprano notes of choirs along Commonwealth Avenue which surround us this weekend. They had though the same human dilemma of communication across distance which is one of the hallmarks of college life, as it is of all life. What reports, parental reports, shall we receive and give, across distance and time? Her parents drove an old Ford, and as she watched they pulled to the side of the street. Her father, a fastidious dresser, dusted his trousers as he brushed them against the faithful vehicle. He walked to the curb. There she watched as he took carefully from his jacket pocket a single envelope. He opened the post box, deposited the letter, and returned to the inner silence of the silent car. Off they drove. She received her first college letter the next day, an early parental report. “We love you. We miss you. Write soon.”

Some parental reports, parental report cards, go from school to home. You remember your elementary school report cards, sent home for parental review. English: B. Works and plays well with others: needs improvement. Today the reports may be informal. “I have learned six things about how I can be happy in college: 1. Study. 2. Walk. 3. Say ‘No’. 4. Explore 5. Have Fun. 6. Find a Friend”. A change in the relational landscape requires a change in relational development.

On the other hand, we could imagine a parental report card sent from school to parent. Like friendship, parenting is something so vital and yet so difficult. Who taught you how to be a parent? How would you grade yourself? Nourishment: A. Shelter and Raiment: A-. Guidance and Discipline: A+. If you are supporting a child in college, and have visited for parents weekend, and are attending or listening to a chapel service, you have three extra credit points: tuition, travel and tithing! Or is there a more helpful way to think about parenting? We lived in Ithaca, near Cornell, when we found our first pet, a beagle puppy named Rockefeller. Rocky tore up our home. He chewed books, he stole steaks, he ran loose, he ruled the roost. Ithaca being Ithaca, and Cornell Cornell, it happened that our neighbor was a dog psychologist, who agreed to counsel Rocky. Rocky spent a day at his house. After that day, the dog psychologist brought the beagle home, quieted, gentled, disciplined. ‘Rocky is fine’, he said. ‘You can let him out back.’ Then he turned to us: ‘Now let me talk to you two about you two.’ Parenting is example. Parenting is setting boundaries. Parenting is supporting health. Parenting is consistency. Parenting is communication. Parenting is hard work. All these, first, are about the parent, and for the parent.

Come Parents’ weekend, a parental report card might alternatively include a report on the state of the school, and our President has the lead the way in providing just such a timely letter. We could do the same with regard to religious life. We have now 7 University Chaplains and 29 religious groups. At Marsh, we have a Dean, one chaplain for student ministries, four chapel associates and five ministry associates. This setting teems with potential for spiritual growth. You may find the details on the website and in the newsletter. We are not parents, no longer in ‘in loco parentis’, but we are partners with parents, ‘in loco fraternis’.

Personally, we could report upon our preaching of the gospel this fall, and its four fold emphasis on John. On the courage of the Gospel of John. On the courage of John Dempster and those who built our institutions. On the courage of John Kennedy, and a bygone steadiness of purpose. On the courage of John Wesley and his followers to this day who have a confidence to be happy in God.

Any of these or any number of other Parental report cards have their place, and value. Yet there is another, more ancient and yet more present report, to which we turn, in heart and mind, this morning. In the recreation of Jeremiah, in the redemption of Timothy, in the redundancy of Luke, and culmination in a single verse from John, we are graced and freed by another sort of parental report, parental report card. Looming behind and beneath other and various reports there emerges a divine parental report card. It is a parental presence in absence, an absence in presence, a divine presence which these passages announce.

Jeremiah has found his way, by chapter 33, to a new hearing of the divine voice. Recreation is his theme. After the years of exile, and the horrors of suffering, Jeremiah announces recreation. A new covenant he acclaims. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David—all these and their covenants now are transformed, renegotiated, in a covenant of heart, forgiveness, and intimacy. Jeremiah takes what is oldest in Israel, covenant, and makes it new again. From the mists of time past, out of the craggy cloud covered edges of the prophets, comes a divine parental report. The God of Sinai is a God of freedom, grace, recreation, change, and something eternally new. Ecclesiastes will dissent, and that dissent we need, but here the report in Jeremiah is of a divine parent, a divine presence shot through with the morning light of newness. “The image of God which emerges from Jeremiah’s oracles is that of a deity who is radically innovative, never bound by the decisions of the past”. (IBDS, 471). Jeremiah is imaginative and innovative, too, offering a theological flexibility in the face of 587 bce. And look what came from Jeremiah 31:31: a summary of his own thought; the heart of the Hebrews in the NT; the basis of the Eucharistic, ‘new covenant’; the divide between OTNT.

Timothy, or rather the author of 2 Timothy, has found his way by the end of his letter, to a divinely reported pattern for renewal, for redemption. Redemption is his theme. In the case of this author, and this chapter, the confident expression of the divine presence is located directly in relationship to reading, and to the reading of Scripture. Although 2 Timothy was not itself Scripture when it was written, it became so, over time. The author finds value, a kind of parental value, in scripture, for teaching, reproof, correction, and tra
ining. Here is a practical report, a divine presence in the work of redemption. College life, all of life, is about taking good people and making us better people. In some cases, it is about taking not so good people and making us good people. College is not only about learning. It is about life, about what is good in life.

Luke brings his collection of parables of Jesus almost to a close, by remembering the story of an ornery judge and a persistent woman. Repetition is his theme. Redundancy is his theme. The character of the divine reported on the card of Luke 18, embodied in the long suffering, the undefeated persistence of a lone, powerless woman, is redundancy. Hebrews will say, ‘Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever’. But Luke says something slightly different. Here his recollection of Jesus’ parable shows an activity, a festivity in the lasting persistence of one doggedly committed person.

Recreation, Redemption, Repetition. This is good news for us. Our time needs encouragement. Our culture needs a restoration of realistic confidence, fed by deep streams of living water from another, an earlier time. It is the divine report from Jeremiah, Timothy, and Luke, a report of divine presence which our time desperately needs. God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human. Jeremiah saw this in a new covenant. Timothy heard this in a useful text. Luke admired this in the capacity for commitment.

It is the fourth Gospel, finally, that sums up the rest. Jesus asserts that he and the Father are one. His voice is that of divine presence. A presence in absence and an absence in presence to be sure, but a divine presence nonetheless. Presence with the swing of the bat. Presence with the feathering of the oar. Presence with the harmony of the choir. Presence, presence, presence…

A few years ago, our youngest child graduated from college. At his graduation we heard a remarkable story, given by the speaker of the day. You may know the speaker. His name is Byron Pitts, and he is a CBS News correspondent. Pitts spoke with humor and love of this faith and of his mother who raised him alone. He arrived at college functionally illiterate. He got through high school, as he said, ‘living in disguise’. But his college English teacher confronted him, saying: “Mr. Pitts you are wasting my time and the government’s money. You are not (college) material, and you should not be here”. So, the next day Pitts went to the administration building to drop out. He was sitting on the steps. An instructor in the writing lab, who knew him, went over to him and asked him what was wrong. As he said, ‘having nothing to lose, I told her.’ All she said was, “promise me you will not leave today”. He did. The next day, and every day after all year, he went to her office. She counseled and coached him. She gave him the chance to learn to read. She helped him conquer his stuttering. He has gone on to a great life, professional success, and personal happiness.

That is what can happen in the presence…In the presence of a divine parental report card, who is the Christ, one with the Father, in whom there is everlasting recreation, everlasting redemption, everlasting resistance. Christ, through for and in whom none shall be left behind.

A presence in absence and an absence in presence to be sure, but a divine presence nonetheless. Presence with the swing of the bat. Presence with the feathering of the oar. Presence with the harmony of the choir. Presence, presence, presence…

Heart and Voice

Sunday, October 14th, 2007


Luke 17

A couple of years ago Jan and I found ourselves driving to New York City. That April was a rainy month, and that Friday was a rainy morning. Jan had left school, suddenly, and I had left church, suddenly. Jan left preparations for the spring concert. I left a major financial meeting and that morning’s unexpected offer of another job. When it rains it pours. We were racing down the Thruway, from Rochester to Manhattan. We were hurrying toward a hospital on the lower east side of Manhattan. We had just been told that a close friend of ours was about to die.

Our friend had been with her daughter, and other high school students, on a trip to New York. She had volunteered to chaperone that spring’s high school trip. The group had spent a rainy week in museums and restaurants and theaters. Her heart gave out on the last night of the trip.

We know that the heart is an organ, or as we might now put it in the monistic materialist language of our time, ‘just an organ’. It is just an organ, one of the many bodily organs, just a body, one of the many human bodies that crowd this teeming, warming planet. When it gives out, it gives out. But that is not what you think or see when a young mother, a devoted wife, a caring neighbor, a creative friend, a music teacher, a person of faith, someone you care for, lies dying. Then a heart is more than just an organ. It is a heart.

Cell phone equipped, we stayed in hourly contact to the bedside. A dear friend, and heart doctor himself, a heart doctor with a heart, had gone down earlier, and was keeping vigil. We know that anyone born is old enough to die. You qualify, to die, once you are born. There is no other age requirement. We know this. We know it when a college student dies. Yet we do not know it. We know it when a high school student dies. Yet we do not know it. We know it when one of our own children dies. Yet we do not know it. We know it when a friend dies. Yet we do not know it. There is a part of us that is pretty certain that death happens to other people than we, to people older than we, to people unrelated by kinship or friendship. So it comes with a wallop and a shock to hear the summons: “Come now. You may be too late”.

The Thruway is a good road in the rain. Crossing the George Washington Bridge, we had some hopeful news. Somehow she had stabilized. We hurried on. We found some sort of parking, and some sort of meal, and some sort of lodging. Then we sat around the crowded bedside. She awoke. We prayed. We listened. We sang a couple of hymns. One nurse sang with us. Another listened along with us. Our friend asked, quizzed the nurse about her church life. It was a compelling setting for that quizzing, and it made a compelling impact. By evening, it looked like she was going to make it. Somehow. I still do not know how. Maybe no one really does. It came time for lights out. We made ready to go. Our friend gestured, and whispered to us. Wonthrydo. Jan could not make it out. I could not. Her husband could not. The heart doctor could not. Wonthrydo. She was insistent but incoherent. I made a mental note comparing that to some preaching. She was adamant but unintelligible. Again, like some sermons you will have heard. Wonthrydo.

The rain had lifted by the time we walked across town to our hotel. A heart attacked had been healed. But we could not hear her voice, or at least the meaning of her voice. Then right in the middle of one great avenue her husband stopped, oblivious of traffic. In midtown Manhattan, in the middle of the avenue, he raised his arms to the heavens. He smiled. He realized what she was saying. That happens sometimes in marriage. You know what the other is saying. You know what the other is thinking, even when the words are muffled. That happens in friendship, partnership and marriage. Sometimes that is a good thing.

Her husband caught her meaning. Wonthrydo. We had been singing hymns. She is a church organist, pianist. She loves hymns. She has a favorite hymn. Actually, we all were quite aware of it, because she regularly asked for it to be sung. In a hymn sing or informal service or around the piano after dinner, whenever there was a chance to pick a hymn, she picked hers. It was not one of those familiar favorite hymns like Amazing Grace or Abide With Me or When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. But it was hers. 1-3-2. He got it. 1-3-2. Wonthrydo. Back from death, she was asking us to sing her favorite hymn for her. 1-3-2. The next morning we did. And she nodded. It was a moment of heart and voice.

We have just sung 1-3-2, “All my hope is firmly grounded.”

There is more than enough death that comes when you least expect it. When those fewer moments arrive, though, and death does not come though you most expect it, your heart is in your throat, and you have heart and voice.

Whether or not Luke was a doctor, let alone a heart doctor, we know he was a person of heart. Luke brings shepherds to the manger. Luke remembers every parable he has heard and some, let us suggest, that he has not heard. Luke remembers people. I hear little Fred Craddock and his stringy voice when I read Luke. Craddock liked to ask preachers: ‘where are all the people?’ He would lament sermons that were full of words and ideas and sin and atonement and transgression and salvation, but without population. Luke was a Craddock preacher. He remembered the people. Another Samaritan along a deserted road. A crazy, dishonest manager. A woman hunting for a coin. A man hunting for a sheep. A boy running up the road to his dad. A dad running down the road to his boy. A tax collector up a tree. In more ways than one. And ten lepers healed, and one leper well.

Did you catch that? Ten healed. One well. I hear little Fred Craddock and his wily voice when I read Luke. Craddock liked to surprise. Luke was that kind of writer. Seeds somehow flowering at 100 fold. Feet on top of water. Thousands fed, and none hungry. And right here, a little surprise for the hearer. All the ten are healed. Then one returns to offer thanks. Jesus says, which makes no sense
, ‘your faith has made you well’. No, Jesus has healed them, according to the story. The story is made out to allow the one healed to acknowledge healing and to praise God. Yet Jesus says his faith has healed him. I mean made him well. I mean healed him. I mean made him well. Wait a minute. Let me read that passage again.

Oh…

I understand inspiration, in Scripture and in Life, to be just the right word at just the right moment in just the right way. Often enough, that is the Scripture’s way with us. So it is Scripture, and so it is Holy. It carries that pragmatic function. It works. Like truth, it happens. Dear St. Luke has rifled through his verbal vocabulary for us in 17: 11-19. There are four key verbs. He could have used one size to fit all. Lord heal us…They were healed…He saw he was healed…Your faith has healed you. That is NOT what Luke wrote. He wrote, and meant, something else. So first the lepers say ‘Have mercy’. We hear the same word in our Kyrie—eleison: have mercy. Second, the lepers are cleansed. If your name is Katherine, you are cleansed, clean. That is our word here: made clean. Third, one fellow deeply understands, appreciates his new condition. He is healed. Here the word is a simple word for cure. All these three are verbs in the punctiliar Greek tense called the aorist. But behind door number four there is yet another verb. You will recognize its sound as well. Before I reveal it let me also tell you that it is in the perfect tense, a tense somewhat different in Greek than in English, a bit ‘narrower’ as Dr. Wenham says. The perfect in English slides all over the place. In Greek it means just this: “a present state resulting from a past action”. It is an existential condition running on into the present and future. It is a powerful, strong tense. It is grammatical good news. The verb is not eleson, nor ekatherisan, nor iathe. It is sowdso, and it means ‘saved’, made whole, made holy, made healthy, made well. It is a gigantic verb. Our words—soteriology—salvation—come from it. It is what life is all about, being well, being made well. To receive this wellness is why we come to church, why we listen to sermons, why we sing hymns, why we offer our prayers. It is the meaning of life. Luke the physician has become Luke the metaphysician. And suddenly the passage makes sense.

I see…

Luke is trying to improve further on the same story Mark reported in Mark 1:40 and Luke himself already told once in Luke 5:12. He has bigger fish to fry this time. It is one thing to be healed. It is another to be well. Luke loves surprises. In that way, he is like the great, true gospel, that of John. For John, the miracles (signs) are all calls to faith. Surprise. For John, the miracles are to no avail if they do not inspire faith. Surprise. For John, the miracles are not really what inspire faith. Surprise. Every healing and wonder, for John, and here for Luke, and surely for us, should be heard under the banner of John 20:21, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe”. Whose faith has made them well.

What is faith?

Faith is courage.

Faith is not just life dressed up in a choir robe. Faith is life, lived. Courage. Courage to start courage to change courage to choose courage to be courage to speak…Faith is courage. The gift of God. Faith is the courage to sing with the voice of what has happened in the heart. It is the experience of really being alive.

Today faith is pictured face down in the mud. Nose down in the dirt, our grateful leper, with still gnarled fingers and still soiled tunic and still scarred psyche, has found his voice. He has found a way to say what is what. To speak. That is courage.

You know that courage is a matter of the heart. That is what the word means. ‘Cour’. Courage is heart, and voice. It is the condition of being that gives way to utterance. It is the consequence of healing or of any other deep experience, which then becomes voice. Courage is vocalized healing.

Somehow, our friend, hospitalized on Manhattan, was healed. 1-3-2 made her well. It was the utterance, the speech, the voice of faith which, according to the full Gospel of John, and to this portion of Luke 17, made her well. Heart is made for voice. Heart becomes heart when it is singing. The other nine may have been healed but they were not yet well. I have confidence that one day and in their own time they were. Their faith made them well one day as well.

It is a surprising thing to be surprised on a Sunday by a surprising passage. What heals is not what makes one well. It is when the heart is healed and the voice is lifted that one is made well.

Has a cat got your tongue?

Your life is meant to speak. Parker Palmer’s book is still readable, ‘Let Your Life Speak’. Face down in the mud, someday, healed and humbled, someday, clothing still soiled, someday, the gnarled effects of hard living to show for it, someday, you may find your voice. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks”.

Your life is meant to speak. Sometimes it is after, or only after, the most bitter of moments face down in the mud, that heart gives way to voice. I always cringe a little, preaching on healing passages. I think of so many I have known in thirty pastoral years whose loved ones did not find healing. It is important t
o hear about heart AND voice, about being healed AND being made well. Mr. Coffin said after his son died that he spent the next spring enjoying every single bud, every single flower, every single sunlit morning, every single beautiful thing. Both gain and loss bring heart. Do you see? I mean, do you see without seeing? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet…It is the courage of faith, or the faith of courage, that makes well. Not the healing, or at least not the healing alone. Faith gives meaning, in heart and voice, whether or not there is healing, and moreso when there is not.

Your life is meant to speak. Our leper discovered that face down at Jesus’ feet. Bill Coffin discovered that face down in loss. Al Gore discovered that face down in dangling chads. Doris Lessing discovered that face down in sexism. Andrew Bacevich speaks for a whole country which has discovered that face down in Iraq. Our congregation discovers that face down in the slugfest of every week, and gives it voice every Sunday—introit, hymn, kyrie, anthem, Gloria, hymn, Gloria, response, hymn, benediction. Your faith has made you well.

Your life is meant to speak. I believe that our church is discovering this face down in the ruins of our current condition. I will not refer today to the emptiness of our collapsing churches. Look rather simply at the ranks of the Protestant clergy. Clergy were once the healthiest people in any profession, in the top 5%. Now, as a group, we are in bottom 5%. We gained weight, aged, lost teeth, picked up cholesterol, and forgot to exercise. “Jesus Master have mercy on us”, we rightly cry. It is a cry of the heart. Just there, in the cri de cour, is the dawn, the morning light of healing. There is another day coming. We will need most those young women and men who can see what they cannot see, who can see across the ridge up ahead, and hold out and hold on for a brighter day, and praise God with a loud voice!

Your life is meant to speak. This is what Paul Tillich’s voice meant to another generation: “The faith which makes the courage of despair possible is the acceptance of the power of being, even in the grip of nonbeing. Even in the despair about meaning being affirms itself through us. The act of accepting meaninglessness is in itself a meaningful act. It is an act of faith… The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness is aware of a hidden meaning within the destruction of meaning…Absolute faith, or the state of being grasped by the God beyond God, is not a state which appears beside other states of the mind. It never is something separated and definite, an event which could be isolated and described. It is always a movement in, with, and under other states of mind. It is the situation on the boundary of man’s possibilities. It is this boundary. Therefore it is both the courage of despair and the courage in and above every courage. It is not a place where one can live, it is without the safety of words and concepts, it is without a name, a church, a cult, a theology. But it is moving in the depth of all of them. It is the power of being, in which they participate and of which they are fragmentary expressions.”

Your life is meant to speak. In that spirit, recognizing that truth, a thousand students showed up yesterday to great the Nobel prize winner of last year, Mohammed Yunus, who saves poor folks, one $15 loan at a time. Little changes, over time, added together, make a difference.

Your life is meant to speak. Few remember Ernest Fremont Tittle today. Yet his interpretations of Luke, in pulpit and commentary, remain some of the finest: “We take for granted a tradition of unselfish devotion and service that stems from the life and love of Christ, and accept as a matter of course things done for us daily by others”. (p 187, Commentary).

Your life is meant to speak. We invited those so moved to pray and discern with us about the needs of Iraqi refugees. Many have done so. One spoke, with healed heart and vibrant voice. Our forum has been the Dean’s blog. Here is the courageous voice of an anonymous person of faith: I would be interested in participating in some way with refugees from Iraq. Perhaps as an individual, perhaps as a representative from my church in Lowell. Thanks for bringing this message and potential action. I know there must be many “practical” issues with moving forward on this, however it has struck a spot inside me. I feel that as a US citizen I am responsible for the plight of these folk and there is the possibility for some healing if I can contribute.

Your life is meant to speak. Can you hear that? It begs to be heard!

Heart and voice. Heart and voice. In the April rain, on the fourth floor of a New York hospital, there once was a curious sound and sight. Our friend had by grace been given back her heart, given her heart again. It is one thing to be healed, another to be made well. The latter evokes a voice. That morning, one agnostic nurse, one overworked doctor, one heart doctor, two frightened daughters, one real friend, one unmusical preacher and one bed ridden patient, all face down at the very edge of death and life, found their voice. Wonthrydo. 1-3-2 is what they sang. For all I know about time and eternity, that sort of time may be kept in a lasting bottle somewhere.

All my hope is firmly grounded

In the great and living Lord

Who whenever I most need him

Never fails to keep his word

God I must wholly trust

God the ever good and just

Courage to Be

Sunday, October 7th, 2007


Luke 17:5-10

John 6:63

A voice of responsible Christian liberalism will, at some time or another, need to honor the lives of pilgrims and pioneers from another generation, who themselves lifted a hymn or two in the key of responsible Christian liberalism.

Many of these women and men would happily have recognized themselves in the spirited courage of the Gospel of John, and in the realism, the realistic humble service, of Luke’s jarring parable this morning. While Holy Communion means more than remembrance, there is a wide berth for remembrance on a day such as this, set aside for World Communion.

You were raised, many of you, alongside these servants. They worked the long day of their lives. They did so with honor. They struggled through the hard challenges of their day. They did so with grace. They summoned and were summoned by the courage to be. They had the courage to live. They were not afraid to seek the truth which alone sets free. They were not lastingly discouraged. They trusted that there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe. Out in the fields, and later at home in the house, bent with service, they nonetheless held their heads high. They were proud people.

They had learned in their youth that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. They had been cautioned, rightly, that ‘not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’, is kingdom ready. They did recall the admonition to judge not, that one be not judged. Some put a hand to the plow and tilled the economic earth. Some tended the sheep of school, church, hospital, and prison.

But they knew that their field work was not ever to be a substitute for their domestic duties. They might have preferred the courage to do. But they did not avoid the tremendous challenge of the courage to be. They had a sixth sense too that Religion, particularly much of the Biblicist religion which passes for religion across the country today, is a tremendous challenge—even a mortal danger– to the courage to be, to communion, to World Communion. Religion is a hiding place, of the wrong sort, when it becomes avoidance of the courage to be.

Your field work will not suffice to supplant matters of the heart. There is only one you. There is only one person ever of your mind, heart, soul and strength. You may labor before plow and alongside sheep all your life long, but it will not suffice if you cannot come in, come home and prepare table service. You were not created to live someone else’s life. You were not given arms to cut against the grain of your own wood. You were not blessed with imagination in order to color in the blank spots in someone else’s canvass. Whether or not there is a God Delusion abroad, there is for sure a Soul Delusion, when the human being, made also for “domestic duties”, made to know the courage to be, is tricked into thinking that field work alone will suffice. Do not trade you birth right for a mess of pottage. Summon, that is, be summoned by, the courage to be.

On the right, in the large land of biblical fundamentalism, the Karl Barth of the Barthians, not the wise Karl Barth of the Humanity of God or the young Karl Barth of the Epistle to the Romans, but the Barth of what my friend might call ‘geographical theology, I mean of longitude and platitude’, the Barth of the Dogmatics, has captured the voices of American pulpits. In part because much of what once was responsible Christian liberalism has become neither responsible nor Christian nor even liberal, many have gone south. In the metaphorical north, the liberal voice has been muffled by liberationism to the farther left of the left and neo-orthodoxy to the farther right of the left.

And what has become of the servant who has come in from his field work? What is left of table, hearth, supper, bread and cup? What has happened to the command, to the duty, to service of the table? What has happened to courage?

It would take the courage of a Jeremiah to buy land in the territory of responsible Christian liberalism today. Who wants to discover the courage to be, when the interest in doing and being done to, along with its religious, Biblicist, clothing, has seized imagination by the throat? Who wants to face the table? To face the heart? To face the soul? Give us degrees to earn, problems to solve, committees to organize, careers to craft—and just before nightfall, adequate health care. That seems to be enough for us. Field work. Field work. Endless field work…

Still…

There is a deeper voice…

The DEEP VOICE summons us, summons us still…

Your field work, all your human doing, is no lasting substitute for your home work, your human being…

Table service? Hearth? Heart? Supper? The courage to be? Why, we hardly understand the terms anymore. We have to reach back fifty years to Thurman and Tillich just to get the alphabet, and the basic declensions and conjugations. The full language itself is almost entirely foreign. We have just enough attention to begin to learn the grammar of courage and being.

May it be enough of a spark. To speak, to sing, to live it…

Here is the gospel. Here is the resounding voice, the deep voice… Which one of you, following field work, will not say…SUPPER, SERVE, EAT, DRINK, TABLE? Heart. Soul.

Marsh Chapel, through its radio service, offers a voice of responsible Christian liberalism. It can be cover, for those young preachers finding the voice of the soul. It can be contrast to the bombast across the full right, and from the left of the left and the right of the left. It can be a return to domestic duties. A reminder. Of the courage. To be. It is a loss that over so much of the last generation, in the pulpits, the metaphorical southern preachments have not had a responding and resounding northern national voice, a liberal dancing partner from the metaphorical north. We have all missed the balance that might have been, therein. So we are in Boston for these years to attend to the courage to be, the domestic duties, the service of table, the songs of the heart.

Some listening will recognize that it is Paul Tillich’s phrase, ‘the courage to be’, which guides this sermon. No one cares to romanticize a past era, or wallow in nostalgia for a bygone moment. That was then and this is now. Let the dead bury the dead as once was said. But when you take a wrong turn in a spiritual road, say, fifty years ago, to make any progress, you at least have to revisit the last place you knew a bit of where and who you were. Hear the good news:

The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself.

Oh, prayer will help, and reading of the scripture and a church family and the habits of generosity and service, they also will help, as preparation evangelium, preparation for the gospel. All these will help. You can do these. Please do. But it is largely and lastly Grace that has brought you safe thus far, and largely and lastly it is grace that will see you through.

Please, as the author of Hebrews taught, please attend to the field work: 1.Love; 2. Love Strangers; 3.Love Prisoners; 4.Honor Marriage; 5. Be Good Stewards; 6. Remember Your Leaders; 7. Avoid Strange Teaching; 8.Praise God Ceaselessly; 9.Obey Your Elders; 10.Pray for the Church

Please do.

Just don’t expect the field work to count for the matters of the hearth. I mean heart. I mean hearth. We are all both field hands and house servants.

Which one of you, having a servant, would allow him to stop working at the front porch? Do you not say? Do you not command? Do you not expect to eat and drink? Some paragraphs are so well written that they sing fifty years later. We close with one of Tillich’s best:

We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. … It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!‘ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”

Life has given us ample space and time for our plowing and shepherding. Now life comes to the front porch. And what shall we say to life? No to supper? No to table? No to food and drink? No to heart and hearth? No to sacrament? No to the courage to be? Are we to say no to depth and truth and grace? God forbid. No, we say, prepare supper, and serve and give us the courage to be. It is only what is commanded, and right and dutiful. It is the spirit that giveth life, the flesh is of no avail. In bread and cup we are summoned by a courage to be.