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…