Archive for March, 2008

Three Shades of Joy

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008


John 20:1-11

Easter Sunday

The Lord is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

The joy of Easter comes in three shades. The resurrection is “a transformation, a revelation, and a transition into newness.” So said Valentinus (Treatise on Resurrection), who had his own troubles with semi-organized religion, near the year 150ad. We begin in 2008 where the Easter 2007 sermon ended. Valentinus may have been trying to summarize the earliest teaching on Easter, found in the then scattered books of the yet to be collected New Testament. He may have read what Peter, Paul, and, today, Mary had to say about the matter. Peter, Paul, and Mary. It has a nice ring to it. Hear the good news: The joy of Easter comes in three shades, and means three different things to three different kinds of people, or to you in three different hours of need. But count it all joy.

On this hallelujah day, we keep for ourselves the advice of one Missouri chicken to another about how to lay an egg on the highway: Do it fast and lay it on the line. So here it is.

  1. Peter

First, Easter is the resurrection of body. Of belonging in life. Today is the resurrection of the body, of community.

You are not alone. Ortega was right: ‘Yo soy yo y mis circunstancias’. John Donne was right: No man is an Island. The African proverb is right: It takes a village. Dr Johnson was right: Keep your friendships in good repair.

Church is the worst sort of organization there is—except for all the others. The body needs the body to be the body.

Something happened. At dawn. Early. Out in the country. ‘He is risen. He is not here.’ Here is the religious resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of the body. Now in the creed, this phrase, ‘the resurrection of the body’, can refer to the daily rebirth of the church, the ongoing life of the Body of Christ—the church. The church. The astounding remarkable, historical, actual fact of the church. The daily Easter miracle that the church survives. We have lived in 13 parsonages in 50 years, served 7 churches, and attended 35 annual conference sessions. I guarantee you this: it is a miracle, and not a minor, that the church survives at all, this human ‘representation and distortion of the divine’ (Tillich). But it does! Against all odds. Beyond all comprehension. Well beyond any reasonable calculus of what ought to have happened. The church is of God. And will be preserved to the end of time. Through the daily resurrection of the body. Of Christ. Easter is about genuine belonging that crosses the line of death.

Religious resurrection. Beyond: A religion of shared experience and the common faith of John Dewey. Beyond: A religion of shared existence and the common ground of Howard Thurman. Beyond: A religion of shared expectation and the common hope of Marsh Chapel’s preaching during our decade. A poem calling us into the beyond.

Last week on Commonwealth one of our students wore a shirt reading: ‘A Chorus Line’. In a twinkling I was back almost thirty years.

We took our youth group to New York City 25 years ago. The drive was difficult, our lodging was imperfect, we were late arriving, the show we saw was “A Chorus Line”, full of words and gestures that I thought would have me defrocked before I was frocked. So at midnight we sat in a circle uptown to review the day. I expressed my concerns. No one said anything. Then Kathy Likens said: “I am just so glad to be here. I mean, I have never been here. I have never been in New York. And I have never been on Broadway. We were on Broadway! And here I am. And it is so great! I wouldn’t trade this for anything, to be here with you all. I will never forget it as long as I live.” It is a beautiful thing. To be. Here. Together. Hers was the joy of belonging, and the eclipse of loneliness. There is a real, bitter loneliness that can visit young people. Some of the loneliest folks anywhere are freshman and sophomores in college.

Being human requires community. You need genuine love. You need real compassion. You need honest companionship. All of these you will find right here. In the church. He is risen! In his basin, towel, tears, stripes, agony, death and cross, an entirely divine seal has now been set. The empty tomb, the resurrection of the body, the religious resurrection of Christ, Peter’s shade of joy, is our joy too.

  1. Paul

Second, Easter is the resurrection of truth and meaning in life.

Words matter. Dollars matter. Decisions matter. You matter. You count. Here is the spiritual meaning of Easter. Over time, truth emerges. There is a self-correcting spirit of Truth loose in the universe. You can count on it. And it matters. We might linger, briefly, at 1 Corinthians 15.

So, Paul. If Christ be not raised from the dead, we are of all people most to be pitied. Because then nothing really, lastingly matters. There is no real failure. There is no real loss. There is no real consequence to anything. Yet, in fact, acclaims our earliest witness, things do matter. As our own experience, honestly construed, does too. You do count.

Christ is risen Resurrection is about life. Meaning. Truth. What matters. What counts. Your choices this year about sex, money, religion, vocation, work, family, politics—they matter. Or as the Apostle trenchantly puts it: “if the dead are not raised, why am I in peril every hour?. If the dead are not raised, ‘let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’.

Paul was not a disciple. He was an outlaw not an in-law. Paul misses all the family stories: shepherds, kings, Mary, healings, sermons, temple, parables, all. He never heard Jesus say, ‘I by the finger of God cast out demons’. In fact, he never heard Jesus say anything, as far as we know. No wonder he never got the word, or accepted the word, about the empty tomb. Which he did not.

Paul does not mean, by resurrection, an empty tomb. No. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, says Paul. For those this morning who hear the tradition of Peter, and his shade of joy, and the account of the empty tomb, and say, ‘Why can’t some people just let a story be a story?’ there is a further joy. What a friend you have in Paul. Who knows and says nothing about an empty tomb. He’s your man. He says ‘resurrection’. And what does that mean? The incursion of grace, the invasion of heaven, the apocalypse of love, the end of the old world, the opening the new, a new heaven and earth. “To live by such faith, it is clear from the biblical depictions, is to be on trial as part of a mission in the earth that remains countercultural insofar as the culture embodies the powers of domination opposed to love and freedom that the power of Resurrection brings”. (C Morse)

But Paul, how are dead raised? You yourself have said no to flesh and blood inheriting the kingdom. Just what do you mean?

We may argue with Paul…

It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.

OK, Paul. I understand physical body. I mean, I know losing sight, hearing, memory, daily deterioration—that I got. I am with you. But what do you mean by spiritual body? And don’t say it’s a mystery.

Lo I tell you a mystery.

I knew you would say that. I mean I just knew you would use the word mystery. It is so like you to do that. What does it mean? And don’t use that metaphor of sleep, how we emerge from sleep, as from a dream.

We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.

See, I knew you would do that. I mean honestly, when I think about the difference, the daily transition from sleeping to waking, I am amazed. I think about the dreams I can remember. How colorful they are. How creative. How real. How strange. And how totally unlike the waking world. And yet they are real. In some ways fiercely so. So you talk about change. Good. I guess. And what may I say is that? But please don’t use another metaphor, and no philosophy please.

The perishable must put on the imperishable.

See, there you go again. Perishableimperishable, weaknesspower, dustheaven, mortalimmortal. And how is that to be?

The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised and we shall be raised imperishable and we shall be changed!

Paul, Paul, Paul…I guess I see what you mean…. Who are we, really, to question the resurrection. Easter is the solemn assurance that it is not we who question who question resurrection, but resurrection that questions us.

Some of our younger adults this morning are truly wrestling with this matter of meaning, wrestling with doubt. Is it true? Is the faith of Christ true? Is it to be trusted, held, affirmed? If it is not, if not resurrection, then what? Adolph von Harnack viewed our Scriptures as sources not norms. Sources of historical information, not norms of spiritual faith. He also carried this warning, that the greatest danger may not be doubt, but entrapment. If you become trapped in a truth too small, you are in greater danger than that which some doubt about a truth much larger may inflict. Better what he called a measure of ‘persistent uncertainity’ than a full measure of unqualified belief. Better the freedom of honest doubt than the prison of false certainty.

The truth of the Gospel, and the spiritual resurrection of Christ, Paul’s shade of joy at Easter, is our joy too.

3. Mary

Third, Easter is the resurrection of possibility. This is resurrection in its most personal mode. It is John who knows Easter best because he needs it least. He leaves Easter to Mary and the garden. For John, the cross alone has accomplished the mission of Christ. It is finished. And the great waves of grief that the community then knew are overwhelmed by the joy of faith.

John gives us four resurrection accounts in chapter 20: Absence, Presence, Recognition, Mission. Today our Easter Gospel is the gospel of absence. Here is Mary weeping…they have taken away my lord …grief…in the ordinary, in the voice, in the name, in the garden, in the gardener, when your name is truly called MARY. The spell of her grief is broken by the spoken. Her grief is broken by the spoken power of an intervening word. She hears. Heart to heart.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of making three visits in the back bay—a home, an office, a school. There is freedom and joy in pastoral visitation. Along Marlborough street I saw a banner, ‘cor ad cor loquitur’. It means heart speaks to heart, and I could ferret that out, but the verb looked wrong. Its ending, I mean. So I phoned up my Latin teacher, who doubles as my mother, a multitasking person still. She explained that the verb is deponent, passive in form, active in meaning. Personal resurrection comes slant, comes latent, comes deponent. Grief is a life work, but it allows of some resolution. It does. Though that resolution may be passive in form, it is powerful, active in meaning. It comes in a word spoken and heard. Today is a day of personal resurrection from ongoing grief.

Here we are together. And listening along the North Shore by radio. And on the internet down in Sarasota. And in Australia by the same stream. Now it is just a further, short leap, symbolized by our memorial insert, to say that by resurrection faith I see you, too, just outside the wall of sight, the doorway of hearing, the threshold of touch. You can silently provide their names…

The whole of the second half of John is shot through with grief. The good news of Easter is that grief is succeeded by joy, a joy as mysterious and full as our grief has been real and shared. And this is the whole record of Scripture as well…

Wise men from the east at last find a star and a child and they rejoice with great joy.

Common shepherds hear tidings of great joy, meant for all people, and are shaken to their boots.

Some seed falls on good ground and…you and you and you…receive the word with great joy.

A servant is faithful over a little, and is set over much, and enters…the joy of the master.

There is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over 99 who lack nothing.

Even the evening of his death, Jesus sings with joy his affection for his disciples.

And early women go to the tomb, and finding it empty are turned upside down and leave with fear and great, great joy.

For Mary it is not the belonging, nor the believing of resurrection that are paramount. It is the joy of becoming! Easter, by Mary’s report—and who would know better?—is the unkillable possibility of the Christian life, the power and empowerment of authentic human life, the unmaskable potential in every space for love.

But some of it is “up to you”. As Augustine said, “the God who made you without you will not justify you without you.” The resurrection is personal possibility, for you.

The possibility in the gospel, and the personal resurrection of Christ, Mary’s shade of joy, is our joy too.

Coda

The joy of Easter comes in three shades, and means three things to three different kinds of people, or three people in different settings, or three moments in the lives of various people, or three sets of ears on three different days.

Resurrection is the transformation of community, the revelation meaning and the transition into newness that is possibility. Communion, Meaning, and empowerment.

Easter is community for those seeking belonging. Easter is truth for those hungry for meaning. Easter is possibility for those seeking faith.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed. Amen.

Oh, I almost forgot… One other thing…. Just a thought. Take it for what it is worth.. …If love can prevail in a culture of selfishness…If truth can survive in a world of mendacity…If faith can persist in a time of fear…

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? It makes you wonder, it makes the joy wonder heavenly and the hope of heaven wonderful…

Just a thought.

Walking into the Future

Sunday, March 16th, 2008
Palm Sunday

Jesus meets us today on the road to the future, His and ours. Our decisions about calling, about vocation, open our future.

On Thursday last week, Brett Favre lost it. I recognize the peril of mentioning a non-Bostonian athlete in these hallowed precincts of the home of the bean the cod. As ever I depend upon your forebearance. Favre lost it on Thursday, and, on Thursday, he found it. He found his voice to name his vocation, his next step on the road into the future. He chose. And in choosing he entered life.

Your life counts. Remember, though, that you are not alone in making the decisions that open your life. Your freedom emerges from a particular history, even a particular destiny. Your freedom is found in a particular common family. Your freedom is nurtured in a particular community. Your life counts, but you can count on others, walking into the future.

With the palm waving children, we remember today the teaching of Jesus. You are the light of the world, he taught. Light. Let your light so shine, he taught. Light. This side of Jordan there is hardly a happier verse in the Bible. It radiates a positive joy, a positive peace. The verse resounds with memories. One recalls singing this verse in a children’s day program. Another remembers hearing it in a rock opera, Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. You remember hearing the upbeat rendition given by the Kingston trio. I remember William Sloane Coffin singing it at the end of his first sermon at Riverside Church, thirty years ago. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Yet this happy verse is also the cruelest of verses, like coming April, to Eliot, is the cruelest of months. In a verse it captures the light and shadow of Palm Sunday. A verse about light, it is in some ways the most haunting and the most harrowing of verses, because it asks the ongoing existential question. “Just how, now, do I, do you, let your light shine, truly shine? What is my life meant to illumine? What corner of the earth is it meant to brighten? Seniors in college, seniors in retirement both face some version of this hard question of light. At 18 we ask, how do I invest? At 81 we ask, how do I divest?

I have in mind a young man who is now returning from Spring break. He may have slept in this Sunday. He may listen to the sermon later by i-pod. He may not. He has received plenty of career advice, from family and friends and university. His parents have a particularly acute interest. Yet it is the deeper, murkier matter of vocation that intrigues him as he looks forward to commencement. I also have in mind a strong woman who is now in the winter of life, just a hop, skip and jump from that earlier Spring brother. Careers she has had. And now: to what is she called in the deeper murkier matter of vocation. How does he truly let his light shine? How does she truly let her light shine? And how do you?

These questions about light are not light questions. These questions about light, about walking in light, about walking into the future and letting light shine—not light at all. They are dark, murky matters of vocation.

At Marsh Chapel our envisioned mission is to be a heart for the heart of the city, and a (worship) service in the service of the city. Living so, we embrace three hopes. First, we hope to become a national voice for responsible Christian liberalism. Second, we hope to turn up the volume of life and work at Marsh Chapel. Our third hope is at the heart of our concern today, neither voice nor volume, but vocation. We embrace the hope of expanding the human sense of human calling to ‘walk in the light’, to let light shine, to live as a city on a hill, to harbor a hopeful form of service. Today, that is, we lean hard into our very mission, here alongside this venerable pulpit. You have exactly, precisely, one life. How will you let your light shine? You have 4,000 Sundays in your one life. How will they profit you? Both our seniors, our college senior with 3,000 Sundays to go, and our existential senior with 300 Sundays to go, are looking for the light. The thrust of this sermon is simple: Vocation is a part of a common hope. Your vocation is yours and ours. Hear the gospel: in the original greek the youyours in Matthew 5 are plural, ‘you all’.

Both the freshman looking forward to being a senior, and the senior remembering her freshman year are part of the people walking in the light and walking into the future. Our Scripture and our tradition affirm both, both your hope and your heritage, both your reaction and your recantation, both your heresy and your history, both your insight and your inheritance. Both count. Both matter. Walking into the future, you are both yourself and your situation. Your light is precisely yours as it goes away from you, into the world around. Your own intimate experience is precisely your shared experience, experience shared. In fact, what makes your freedom your freedom is precisely its expression and location in your own history and destiny. Light is light in the world. Both our imaginary freshman and our imaginary senior are a part of what is real. Those persons who make up your community have a shared interest in a shared experience of discernment.

We have lived in college towns nestled along river banks. Ohio Wesleyan sits on the banks of the Olentangy. Columbia rises above the powerful Hudson. Cornell straddles Fall Creek in Ithaca. Montreal swims in the middle of the mighty St. Lawrence. Syracuse University you find where the vale of Onondaga meets the eastern sky. George Eastman removed the University of Rochester to the very edge of the Genesee. And here we are in Boston, where the head of the Charles meets the heart of the country, in learning and virtue and piety, at Boston University.

In Syracuse, our children grew up with a Chemistry Professor next door to the north, a Mathematician next door to the south, a Physicist next door o the east, and cemetery west across the road. Carl Rosensweig, the physicist, was the most religious and the most spiritu
al. His family practiced a rigorous orthodox Judaism, and their children best friended our own. In childhood the gifts of society and nature which charm out faith radiate. The Rosensweig kids came and borrowed our picnic table every fall for Sukkoth. They taught us the mirth of Purim. They helped us see how long a Saturday could be, before at last dusk would come, and out they could tumble into the summer twilight to engage again the radiant gifts of life. Swing sets. Sprinklers. Ball gloves. Forts and fortresses. Hot wheels and hillsides. Popsicles which somehow were kosher enough, or if not, hidden well enough. Imaginary friends, imaginary journeys, imaginary battles, imaginary adventures. Tricycles rocketing down ‘Rock Spook Road’. Until at the last the streetlights came on and the day was ended. I can hear Carl calling his daughter, right now, as if he were here in the chancel: “Simone…It’s time for dinner…Simone…It’s time for dinner…Simone…Bring your brother…Simone…It’s time for dinner”.

Carl advised his students with care. Once he told me the pattern of advisement.

In the freshman year, every one of my students pronounces some version of the following decision: ‘Whatever I do I know one thing. I AM NOT, REPEAT NOT, GOING INTO MY FATHER’S BUSINESS.’ I nod and affirm and agree. In the senior year, every one of my students pronounces some version of the following decision: ‘I have finally discerned that the best choice for me following graduation this spring to is to go into my father’s business.’ I nod and affirm and agree.

That is, both Carl’s imaginary freshman and his imaginary senior are part of what is real about you, your calling, your freedom and your destiny. You are yourself, in your setting. Both are right, and neither is completely right. Both are wrong, and neither is completely wrong. As Tillich put it,

‘Man experiences the structure of the individual as the bearer of freedom within the larger structures to which the individual belongs. Destiny points to this situation in which man finds himself, facing the world to which, at the same time, he belongs…Freedom is experienced as deliberation, decision, and responsibility. Our destiny is that out of which our decisions arise…it is the concreteness of our being which makes all our decisions OUR decisions…Destiny is not a strange power which determines what shall happen to me. It is myself as given, formed by nature, history and myself. My destiny is the basis of my freedom; my freedom participates in shaping my destiny.’

In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer recalls the experience he had deciding whether to take a position that was almost right for him. There is difference between right and almost right. His Quaker community sat and listened to him. We listen to you. His Quaker friends prayed with him. We pray with you. His Quaker community leveled with him. We level with you. So, when asked what he would most enjoy about the position, a college Presidency, Palmer responded: ‘Seeing my photo in the paper announcing the selection’. And then he knew, then and there, that he was on the wrong track. It took a community. It took a community though to help him let his light shine. You need a community that will honor your light. Marsh Chapel is one. We shall return soon to this theme of vocation. But for those who will be choosing in the interim, we may offer a ten digit collection of practical aids as we conclude this morning:

  1. Remember that you are yourself and your circumstances together.

  2. Be careful not to cut against the grain of your own wood.

  3. Learn to compromise and not to compromise, to settle and not to settle. Remember Wesley’s motto: ‘in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’.

  4. Talk to six confidants when you face a life decision, at least five of whom are sure to level with you.

  5. Know the scent of responsible risk.

  6. Do not let money eclipse love, do not let money drive the car, do not let money run the show, do not let money become a first level concern.

  7. Do not fear failure. Learn from it.

  8. Consider where you can have the most influence, the greatest impact on the greatest number.

  9. Be able and willing to change your mind, to entertain good second thoughts.

10. To paraphrase Beuchner, discover where your deepest

passion meets the world’s greatest need.