Archive for September, 2008

Bach and the Gospel

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

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Cantata Sunday #1

Matthew 21: 23-32

Beauty opens the world to grace. Beauty may prepare you for the gospel of faith, the faith of the gospel. Beauty is a ‘preparatio evangelium’, a preparation of the gospel. Bach is a prelude to faith.

You will recognize the two sons of today’s parable. One strong and one weak. One secular and one religious. One defiant and one compliant. One directly negative and one indirectly positive. One comes to faith.

Nineteen year olds, strong and secular and stepping away from their primary identity, recognize our gospel’s dilemma. Whether to say a meek ‘yes’ to cradle religion, when the heart is steadfastly in the ‘no’ column, or whether to speak up, to rise up, that is, to stay away, to stay in bed on a Sunday morning, and so be honest to God, if not happy in God. I walk past snoring dorms full, brother, every Sunday morning.

Forty one year olds, conditioned and religious and doubting in the pew, recognize our gospel’s dilemma. Whether to say a meek ‘yes’ to Biblicist religion, when the mind stays steadfastly in the ‘no’ column, or whether to rise up, that is, to step away from the fundamentalism that has swamped American religion today like a hurricane turning good cities into mud, or to stay put, to smile, to murmur Sola Scriptura, and so to be dishonest to God, as well as unhappy in God. For thirty years I have served in churches among such struggling souls, every Sunday morning.

Sixty five year olds, who have avoided pride and falsehood since 1968, but when it comes to faith have succumbed to sloth, to a kind of personal laziness, a deadly personal ennui, recognize our gospel’s dilemma. Whether, having said a good, honest, heartfelt ‘no’ some years ago, whether to look real hard at what condition your condition is in, and then whether—HOW HARD THIS IS—to think again. About what? About love, about meaning, about eternity, about God, about faith. It takes a leap. And the leap takes some preparation. Yes, when it comes to faith, there is always a leap involved. And that leap requires some preparation.

Paul Newman charmed us for fifty years. You remember when he sat next to Robert Redford on a high cliff. In the natural beauty of the great western mountains. In earshot of a beautiful musical score. In the theatrical representation of the beauty of friendship. In the terrific beauty of a liminal moment of choice. In the playful beauty of rhetorical humor. They, the two, faced a leap, which would save or drown. ‘I can’t swim” said Redford. ‘Are you crazy? The fall will kill you.’, chortled Newman. And off they went, and over they went. Faith requires a leap, too.

And leap requires preparation. Our colleague Peter Berger has written about this preparation: “I can find in human reality certain intimations of (God’s) speech, signals, unclear though they are, of His presence…joy, expressed in (great music) which seeks eternity…the human propensity to order which appears to correlate with an order in the universe…the immensely suggestive experience of play and humor, the irrepressible human propensity to hope, the certainty of some moral judgments, and last, but not least, the experiences of beauty…”(Questions of Faith, 12).

Beauty prepares us for faith. Bach is a prelude to the gospel.

When you stand before your grandchild, in the hour of birth, you might think about that. When you look into your father’s eyes, as he lies critically ill, you might think about that. When you realize that you have a real friend, one real friend, you might think about that. When you look at your beautiful country, in a mess, and wonder whether you should bestir yourself to write a check or make a phone call, you might think about that. When a sunset seizes you, when a poem teases you, when a sermon freezes you, you might think about that. It takes a leap. Faith takes a leap.

The beauty of our gospel, in part, is found in its silence about what caused brother one to take his leap, to turn around, to come back, to seize, I mean to be seized by, Love. We do not know. Only Matthew tells this story. His telling is misremembered in five different versions in its textual history. Its challenge and promise are the same: “the irreligious can often be awakened to a realization of their spiritual need, while those who are actually more righteous are sometimes impervious to the gospel and make no progress beyond the formal morality which they already possess” (IBD, loc. Cit., 510).

Something beautiful may have prepared our brother. Bach may prepare you today. Bach may lift your soul beyond youthful grunge. Bach may raise your soul out of religious hiding. Bach may sear your soul with beauty, and call you out of forty years of spiritual sloth. It would not be the first time. Today we hear a song of thanksgiving, a grateful and beautiful anthem. “Bach’s cantatas, in fact, were conceived and should be regarded not as concert pieces at all, but as musical sermons; and they were incorporated as such in the regular Sunday church services”. (The Cambridge Companion to Bach, 86). I wonder whether the beautiful holiness of this music will touch you? I know that you swore an oath on your last visit to the Vietnam Memorial that you had turned your back on all that, all this, all gospel, all God. I know. I did the same. But I wonder whether there is preparation this morning for your return. I believe there is. I know that the flat building, shallow music, one dimensional fundamentalism you hear as faith has soured you. I know. It did me too. But I wonder whether there is a preparation this morning for your return. I believe there is. I know that the lonely, awkward wastelands of freshman year can make you question anything lovely and lasting. I know. They did me as well. But I wonder whether there is a preparation this morning for your return.

“Son, Go and work in the vineyard today.” And he answered, “I will not”. But afterward, he repented and went.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

At Your Service

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

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Philippians 2:5-7

A long time ago, our family was driving home at night following a dinner and grandma’s house. Our three elementary school age children were asleep in the back of the minivan. Jan and I were talking and enjoying the rolling drive over country roads south of Utica, NY. We were traveling down a road that itself followed the banks of the Chenango canal, a canal dug out to connect Binghamton with Utica, and thus with the Erie Canal, in about 1850. Most of the farms for which the canal was dug had since grown up to brush, in the ensuing 150 years. Not much has replaced them. Like much of the forgotten, rural Northeast the darkened farmhouses and little towns along our path were, and are, inhabited by people living on the margins of life: some milking 50 cows and hoping the bank will forgiving; some on one form or another of government support; some traveling good distances to work hard at hard, menial jobs; some crafting a simple existence out of limited incomes and limited needs.

Suddenly a large orange hit the side of the van. The kids awoke, the car lurched, the driver shouted in anger. We were driving through the little village of Deansboro. Once there was a musical museum there, now closed. Once there was a Methodist church there, now closed. Once there was a Boy Scout troop there, now disbanded. There is a bar, still open, as it was that night.

I do not like being hit with oranges. Or other missiles, or projectiles. There is something about that kind of unprovoked, preemptive attack that just seems wrong. Doesn’t it? When someone hits you and you haven’t hit them first, well, something about that just seems wrong. It makes you kind of angry.

I was still at an age of reactive temper and excitable temperament, the night the orange hit. I had redder hair. Well, I mean I had more hair. I had hair. So I pulled the van over

At Your Service (When the People Say No): Philippians 1:18

Have no anxiety about anything but in all things in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your needs be known to God, for our commonwealth is in heaven.

In the advent of Christ Jesus, anxiety is eclipsed by joy, fear is overcome in thanksgiving.

Thirty years ago James Dittes explored the ranges of redemptive reality in church conflict. A then veteran, now deceased, ever kindly minister had, I cleanly recall, recommended Dittes. But I only caught up to him this summer when my Dad flipped me his book, saying, ‘read the last page’. I read them all, including the last.

Dittes re-reads conflict. He reads conflict in churches with an historical critical eye, and with a sense of the grace that lies under and around honest disappointment. How can I be a minister if you will not be church? Dittes picks up the disappointment ministers know too well. Yet he does so with reverence for the meaning underlying rejection. He encourages you and me not to slay opposition but to join it, not to defeat it but to be submerged by it, and so to discover the potential, in no, of yes, in resistance, of ministry.

What are they saying? What are the people saying when they say no? What are they saying when they miss meetings, skip church, forget to give, refuse to tithe, oppose improvements, resist new liturgies, resist new ministries, resist new thoughts, resist new ideas, resist new moves? What are they truly saying?

They are saying something more than no. They are not saying yes. They are saying something about their experience and their hope.

It takes a big dose of courage to swallow rejection and to hunt around in resistance for what may happen when people meet in a real, shared partnership based on real, shared struggle.

It may be that this attitude lies behind Paul’s first salvo in Philippians. Paul notes the resistance that some have to his trip into the slammer. Not everyone finds his stay in calaboose uplifting. Some do. Some see the gospel advanced through imprisonment. Some do not. Some see Paul being Paul, always spoiling for a fight, always on the edge of conflict, always polemical Paul. They preach Christ, but denigrate Paul, or denigrate Paul in the way they preach Christ. What then?

To be a minister is to know the most searing grief and abandonment, daily and profoundly. 1. If the minister can let go and open up, then perhaps the people can too. 86. There is nurture and direction to be found in the wilderness, a message in the mess, manna in the mania. 40. You cannot make full commitment unless you risk the certain grief that lies within it. 150.

Paul hears the people say no. Elsewhere he indulges the highly satisfactory response, one we may admit we too would readily and lustily employ, of attack and battle. Beware the dogs, the evilworkers, the mutilators. But here, no, here Paul hears the no and subverts it by being subject to it. He finds the common interest—Christ. He sticks to the common interest—the advance of the gospel.

Let us imagine what may also have been in the air, though we cannot prove it. Let us imagine that Paul decides not, at this point, to parry. Imagine that rather, he listens, hard to this no. He listens to the shame people feel when their leader is in stir, up the river, in the joint, in the tank, doing time. People are people. Paul allows himself to feel this. Imagine that he further intuits some fear. Philippians is largely about joy that eclipses fear. He can readily see that some may expect that they too will end up in the calaboose, in the big house, in the grey bar hotel. They have children. They have spouses. They have responsibilities and vulnerabilities. They too are ‘in prison’. They have their own kinds of captors and leg irons. Maybe Paul, still testy, can appreciate this, and so grudgingly admits that they have a point, that they too are part of the struggle for lasting good.

I think most of us do not get this far down the ministry trail. I know I have my limits to affirming people who call me names, put false nametags on me, or resolutely resist what I know, I KNOW, is the right way forward. Maybe you do too. Hence, log jam. Hence, conflict. Hence, the opportunity, missed, to enter another’s real life, real pain, real soul.

No is hardly more articulate than ouch and often means much the same thing. No, like ouch, usually signals pain and fear. It is a genuine groan. It is so inarticulate, so lacking in clues as to what is painful and feared, that the only way to minister to it is through it. The minister enters into the experience of the groaning no, sharing it as a partner, rather than fighting it as the adversary into which it is tempting to be cast. The minister tries to feel what it is like to be this person. 28.

Ministers are appointed by Bishops or located by committees. But the real assignments and locations come daily in the places others put or want to put the minister. (I call this the name-tag syndrome). Visit me. Find me a job. Pray over the cannon on Memorial Day. Join Rotary. Come to my recital. Address our class. Give the grace at the father and son dinner, and please wear a clerical collar, and please keep it brief, and, oh, we will cover your dinner.

The noble traditions of the church, my own struggling to discern meaningful vocation, my long and anguished and continuing to fit myself to fulfill that vocation, the daily discipline I impose on myself to try to be responsive to the deepest rumblings and highest aspirations of life, the careful way I budget my time to try to be a faithful steward of the little time I have available in the light of the immense needs I see—in the face of this earnestness
about my ministry, you want me to give an evening so I can perform, like a trained dog, a short sacerdotal trick, after which you will throw me my supper and ask me to be still. I can’ t think of any more abrupt way of being shouldered off course.

But the ministry lies, neither in compliance or defiance. It lies in accepting the place offered at the table, and then engaging in conversation, perhaps, about why the invitation was the way it was and why it was so important, or so needed, or so meaningful, if it was.

It is from the locations that the people give you that you will give the people something healing. If they place you in a high pulpit, far off and up there, and 15 feet above contradiction, the ministry will have to begin there. It need not end there. If they place you in a rough parsonage with a leaky roof and long, sad history, the ministry will have to begin there, but should not end there. If they place you at the family table, as guest and as host and as minister, you can start where they are, there.

In 1982, one bitter cold Saturday night, we were invited to dinner. Saturday night always carries the proleptic anxiety over Sunday morning, especially, as in the case of this clear winter night, on the Canadian border, when the morning’s sermon was still in gestation, seven months at least from birth. The family dinner, it turned out, was an extended family dinner. Three generations, hosted by grandma and grandpa. After dinner, the dozen of us retired to the family room of the big farm house, when, over dessert, the purpose of the evening arrived. Grandpa wanted grandson to be Christian, to belief, to be confirmed, and to attend church, and wanted the new preacher, or his wife, to effect this, to explain faith, to defend belief, to convert the heathen, then and there. It needs emphasis that these, all were the ruddiest and handsomest and best of good people. They had a location into which they had appointed a minister, their minister. If ministry was to start, it would have to start there, which it did, over a couple of hours. The minister answered what questions he could. He did not complain about the ambush, but he did identify it. Then he also asked his questions, of the family and for the family, questions of histories and systems and silences and patients. By 11pm, the work was done, but not the sermon. It was a sneak attack, to be sure. But it was also an invitation to partnership. Leaving in huff, defiance, would have communicated boundaries but would not have been ministry. Answering questions but asking none, compliance, would have communicated sincerity but not authenticity, and would not have been ministry.

Exhausted and enervated, the minister and young family drove home through the crisp snow and well below at 20 below zero. You cannot leave the nametags on your shirt or back, as inevitable as their placement is. They need removal. But you also cannot predict where real, responsive ministry will emerge. People only hear you when they are moving toward you and they are moving toward you when you are located near them. I am believer in clergy housing allowances, and a fervent supporter of them. But one spiritual feature of parsonages deserves affirmation, too. The people locate their minister, and for some that location, that overture to partnership, finds expression in an historic mode of housing, for all its miseries. Removing the parsonage—I applaud its removal—does not remove, and cannot and should not, the ‘location’ the ‘placement’ the ‘appointment’ of the minister within the social and cultural geography available to the people.

When you are invited to become chaplain of the fire department, accept. When you are asked to pray at the blue and gold banquet, accept. When you are invited to Saturday dinner, accept. When you are called to come to the barn for a talk, accept. When you are asked to visit the family burial ground, accept. When you are invited to speak at Christmas for the service club, go. When you are encouraged, not so subtly, to visit Aunt Tillie, make the visit. These are overtures, questions and hopes, addressed to you and to who knows who.

To be a minister is to know the theological (and maybe even the sociological and psychological) significance of baptism—and to be right about that and able to communicate it meaningfully—yet still be willing, for the time being, to give all that up and to accept the misplacement of being called in merely and casually to baptize the new baby. Such misplacement is accepted in order to have A place in the life of the parents, the only place they have available for the minister now. Maybe it’s like having to be born in a stable because there is no room in the inn, or even like riding a donkey and fitting into people’s hosannahed expectations of messiah even when you know better. Once in place though misplaced, then ministry proceeds in the new place, which feels like no place, which is located, and momentarily bounded by, the parents’ urgent need to have the baby baptized…Ministry is to accept the misplacement so as to open it up, address it, and come to find it replaced. 147.

I thank my God…for your partnership in the Gospel.

Our commonwealth is in heaven.

Rejoice in the Lord always.

The Lord is at hand.

If there is any excellence…think about these things.

He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Stand firm in spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind.

Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.

God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Whatever gain I had I count as loss for the sake of Christ.

I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Have no anxiety about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.

I know how to be abased and I know how to abound.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Again I say rejoice.

Let all men know your forbearance.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Forbearance

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

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Philippians 4:5

Image

George Washington looks out toward us from the far eastern end of Commonwealth Avenue. He surveys the mall. He rides unfettered now by time and unbounded by space. Ride on, ride on, thou lasting image of patient restraint.

Much of religion today, including Christianity, emphasizes moments of breakthrough. Their view, this view, emphasizes the gloominess of existence, apart from an occasional sunburst, an occasional feeling, an occasional point of purpose, an occasional touch of eternity. Once in awhile, so goes this version of life, the sun momentarily shines. Breakthrough religion.

Yet, that is not what is found in the Bible. Not breakthrough, but shot through religion is found in Scripture. A rising radiance of resurrection is shot through all experience, shot through all culture, shot through all life, according to the Bible. The earth shall be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. Your true commonwealth, citizenship, homeland, and mother tongue—heaven—is shot through earth, just as the faith of gospel is shot through the common ways and Commonwealth avenues of life. The kingdom of heaven is in your midst.

We are tracing Paul’s announcement of resurrection radiance shot through life, found in his finest epistle, Philippians. If Commonwealth Avenue is the loveliest street in the land, Philippians is the loveliest letter in the land of Pauline epistles. Everywhere, everywhere, SURSUM CORDA!, cries Paul from prison, everywhere there is a resurrection radiance. Learn its verses by heart:

Let all men know your forbearance.

Forbearance.

If you were to be known by just one virtue, one trait, what would it be?
In fact, we do tend to think of groups, and even individuals, in terms of one quintessential grace.
Monday’s child is full of woe. Tuesday’s child has far to go…
If you were to aspire to live your live so as to define one form of goodness, what would it be?

For Tillich, it was courage. For Niehbuhr, responsibility. For Barth, resistance. For Lincoln, humility. For Churchill, resolve. For Teresa, trust. For Luther, faith. For Franklin, industry– and frugality. For you?

Paul’s intimate letter to the Philippians ends in the fourth chapter with a crashing crescendo of rejoicing, of joy, of thanksgiving, of expectation and of hope. Yet Paul here also inserts his answer to our question.

What one virtue, ‘at the end of the day’ (as the wise of this world now say though I truly do not know the meaning of this phrase), what one would he wish for his loved ones?

Before you look down at the bulletin, cast your imagination upon Paul as you know him, and try to guess.
Obedience? Paul stresses obedience with the Romans.
Preparedness? Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to be on guard, on the qui vive.
Magnanimity? Paul gives Philemon a thought or two about giving.
Love? Who could argue against love? Paul sings a hymn of love to the sometimes lovely Corinthians.
Freedom? Stand fast, you Galatians, Paul urges.
Yet to none of these earlier (assuming for the moment that Philippians is Paul’s latest letter) foci does Paul return here at the rhetorical summit of his work.

Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, he acclaims, and then he selects his cardinal virtue.
You will be surprised at the choice he makes.
For Paul is himself irascible, polemical, argumentative, tempermental, anger prone, blunt to a fault. Yet, in his cardinal virtue, selected for the Philippians, he turns in another direction.
They are to be known, he hopes, by their…

Forbearance, epiekes, means what is fitting, right, equitable. It refers to a person of balance, of equable temperament. It refers to you, as you are moderate, gentle, kind, and gracious, and it refers to Christ Jesus, in whom we are saved. Radiance, resurrection radiance is shot through life. Forbearance tells us so. Your faith produces in you a saving gentleness, an earthly counterpart of heavenly glory, glorious sunshine from your heavenly commonwealth, gilding and guiding your steps from Arlington to Mass. Ave.

Look hard, next time, at a piece of work you admire. A building, perhaps a beautiful sanctuary like this one. An institution or company, perhaps a great university. A marriage, perhaps that one marriage you have secretly admired over time. A program, perhaps a school or chorus or ball team. A finely crafted painting, poem, song, sermon, or story. Maybe the radiant, glorious opera, La Cenerentola, magnificently performed, by our choral scholars and others, right here at Marsh Chapel last night. (Shot through, shot through, not breakthrough…) Look very hard, deeply inspect some fine work you admire, I say, and I guarantee you a discovery. Even a mildly surprising discovery. What you so admire was brought out of the mud of nothingness, was created, with forbearance. Forbearance. Take a deep, broad high look at something good and I tell you, you are going to find that this Good, whatever it is, is made out of forbearance. This is a great power for doing Good.

Obededom

Which brings us, straightway, to Obededom. God love him. Love his name! I do not need to tell you that for millennia Christian preaching has scoured the Hebrew Scripture for illustrations. Obededom personifies forbearance. Long I have loved his story, his encounter with David.

David was a builder. He made music with lute and lyre. He made war upon the Philistines. He made a nation out of warring tribes. More than all that, in the Psalms he made a language of religious longing and discovery that is without parallel. David was a builder. And the Lord loved him for it. And we do too.

To crown his other achievements, David decided upon a risky project. In order to weld together the northern and southern kingdoms into one unmistakable union, David planned to move the “ark of God” out of the north country, and down into Jerusalem. It was a brilliant symbolic decision, daring and deadly, like most of David’s moves. David gathered 30,000 soldiers and went up to where the ark was hidden, in the house of Abinadab.

For all his accomplishments and talent, David was a profoundly fearful man, as the Psalms show us. So, when the ark, a holy and sacred object, was finally on the road, David was relieved, and casting off all restraint, had one wild party. 30,000 men singing, dancing, shouting, along the old Jerusalem road! Suddenly, one of the oxen drawing the ark slipped, and a poor bloke named Uzzah reached out to steady the wagon, and somehow fell down dead. The party ended abruptly. David’s great-hearted fears returned and he found himself quaking in the road, dying the thousand deaths of a confirmed coward.

Did God reach out and touch Uzzah and kill him? I do not believe it. I do not believe for a moment that such breakthrough capricious destruction fits the Bible picture of God, the one to whom Jesus prayed. Such a God is not the one of Scripture, and is not the object of our worship. Who would worship such a beastly God? Would you? No. Yet, it appears, in the depths of his fear, David did believe that God had killed Uzzah.

David, that is, let his fear get the best of him and his thought about God became, what yours also can become, a mirror of our worst fears: a projection of our anxieties, our worries, our hatreds, our worst selves. Talk about God has long carried this danger. David, we know, was a guilty ridden person, and someti
mes, because of his sense of guilt, his thought about God became fearful. God became David’s worst nightmare.

In this fear David stood frozen. Mark my words, this same fear is freezing people today, too. David could not go forward, and could not go backward, and so he entered the lists of leaders, secular and religious, who, in a pinch, solve a problem by making the problem someone else’s problem. That is, he passed the buck. He went up the road a little bit and knocked at the door of an unsuspecting fellow, a poor guy named Obededom. I can hear David, kingly and cowardly, addressing the humble Gittite.

“Yes, Obededom, my friend, do you mind if I call you Obed, or Obie? How about Obs? Listen, we have out here, what you might call a situation, a situation for which your own many talents, Obs, are sorely needed. Now, you see that little box over there. I want to leave that box over in your back yard for a while, and if, well, if nothing extraordinary happens for a while (That is, if you, Obededom the Gittite, do not get lit up fried and scorched), then I will come back and get it.”

Perhaps you have never had the Obededic experience of having someone in authority over you dump a problem in your backyard. Somehow, though, I think most of us know the experience. And I even wager that right now, out in the back lawns of the lives represented here today, and across our listening congregation, there are some little David gifts, some holy arks, bucks passed and dumped and left out of fear. David passed the buck and went home. Night fell on the village of Gath, and the ark lay there, ominous, dangerous, foreboding like all unknown things, especially like your future and mine.

Now the Bible gives us a remarkable, beautiful gift. It says nothing more about Obededom. The story of Obededom ends here. Obededom does…nothing. In the face of David’s bureaucratic haughtiness, all too human fearfulness, treacherous carelessness, in the face of these unpleasantries and dangers Obededom does…nothing. Obededom forbears, practices a little forbearance. He lives somehow with a sense of radiance shot through life. Without his forbearance, the great city of Jerusalem would never finally have been built. Without his forbearance David would never have regained his courage, the ark would have stayed north, the kingdom would have been divided still, the great project of the Old Testament would lay in ruins. Obededom, the Gittite. Endured, tolerated, kept himself in check, controlled himself under provocation. Obededom taught David and teaches us forbearance, the power of patient restraint.

Oh, I admire Obededom, the poor guy. My natural reaction, in such perverse situation, call it life as we know it, is the contrary, not to forbear but to yell, to scream, to reject, to retaliate, to point out the injustice, to militate against the Powers that Be. All of which would have done no good, for David was not, shall we say, in the mood, to change his mind. No, Obededom could see what we so often miss, that something good, something good for God needs forbearance in its making. This is nearly without exception.

Coda

Look hard, next time, at something well done. It was made out of Obededic forbearance. That sanctuary you find so lovely got approved mainly because someone bit his tongue so hard it bled. That university you admire was started with the aid of someone’s heartfelt forbearance. That president you so admire who with a keen mind and cool hand practiced forbearance in October of 1962, and so averted a nuclear disaster. That marriage you think so much of is based on a decision, down in the deep reaches of human communication, a decision to forbear a weakness, forgive a fault. That choir you love to hear came out of the ground on the shoulders of someone’s patient restraint. That work of art you admire was produced by a modern Obededom, willing to tolerate and endure the sacrifices required of any true artist. That school you support was created with lots of people forbearing one another. That opera last night that was world class magnificence would not have been presented without some serious forbearance in rearranging rehearsal spots at the last minute, at the drop of a hat. Hardly a decent thing ever gets done without the power of forbearance, patient restraint, the willingness to keep oneself in check, to refrain from retaliation. Look hard, look deep. If it is good, it was made with forbearance. Forbearance is prevenient forgiveness, the presupposition shot through today’s gospel, and the radiance of the resurrection gospel shot through life.

I overhear your question. No, forbearance is not appeasement. Appeasement in personal or in global relations is pure illness. There does come a time when restraint no longer works, but let us admit that usually the time comes far later than our impatient, impetuous, imperious selves would think. David, and we so much like him, are not naturally forbearing. With David we love to prance, to twirl wildly in the loin cloth. With David we are all spit and fury, all energy, all readiness to build–until our fears overtake us.

When you think about it, this is also the message of the cross and the hope of the church. We can admire Obededom because we know that his forbearance, more than David’s fear, fairly reflects God. We worship a God who has shown God’s own forbearance toward us, and shows it still, shot through every day, not breaking through at whim and will. God’s patient restraint, God’s power made manifest in weakness, is the power of the cross. Shakespeare had it near to right, “Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.” God forbears to become the God of David’s fears. God forbears to treat us the way we treat each other. Here too is a strange word: God even forbears to protect God’s self, God’s Christ, God’s Love from us. God’s forbearance is the foundation of the world and of the church. It is the forbearance of God, at the heart of the universe, which gives life, makes life worth living, and saves us from our ravenous selves.

Perhaps this week, recalling the cross, and remembering the example of Obededom the Gittite, we can practice a little forbearance. Sisters and Brothers in Christ, let us promise to forbear one another in love!

-Dean Robert Allan Hill

Philippians Recited

Sunday, September 7th, 2008
Philippians 1: 9-10

Matriculation Sunday


Scaling the Wall

The pull of gravity keeps our feet on the ground as we move out into an unknown future. Our commonwealth is from heaven, of heaven, heavenly. But we know the pull of gravity whose spiritual dimension is fear. The Commonwealth Avenue Mall honors many women and also men who looked fear in the eye. Today, the eye falls on Leif Erickson. Think about sailing across the Atlantic in wood and sail, hundreds of years ago. Even John Wesley found his faith, his sea legs, finally, watching the Moravians fearless in the Hurricane, and listening to their singing. Peace, perfect peace. Peace, perfect peace. Even Rev. Tindley, could reach out and down at Tindley Temple in Philadelphia, to pen great spiritual hymns: when the storms of life are raging stand by me…

At Boston University I see women and men facing down fear. I see professors looking out into forty eyes in twenty chairs. I see students thumbing through books in foreign languages. I see administrators making good, tough choices. I see parents going up a set stairs with hands full of furniture and coming down the same set of stairs with eyes full of tears.

One local and particularly favorite fear focus is on Commonwealth Avenue, our earthly not our heavenly commonwealth. You will have to go up a few blocks though. You will have to enter the new Fitness and Recreation Center—a beautiful space. Go in with a friend. Go downstairs. Stop at the desk. Tim will greet you. You will see behind him some shoes that look like bowling shoes, except they are so slight, so light, so small. There is probably a pair that will fit you. Then turn around. These are shoes worn by those who face down the fear of heights, scaling a man-made rock wall. Here is an image of a climbing wall, of little shoes, of spotter and rope…of a willingness to move closely over the face of the rock, to know its bumps, its rises, its gullies, its angles of repose.

Every moment of interpretation is such a perilous project. Will the feet stay settled on a ledge of translation? Will the body lean right or left as needed to find the right paraphrase? Will the hands, particularly the hands, hold tight to the meaning, old and new, of the words interpreted? Will there be somebody to catch you if you fall? Who is holding that safety rope, in the hour of interpretation? What did Paul mean when he sent the following greeting and salutation to Philippi?

Greeting and Salutation

Here, the Revised Standard Version translation of Philippians 1: 1-12 is recited from the chancel ,in front of the altar, before the Marsh congregation and between the choir stalls and choristers…

Hold Fast: Knowledge, Discernment, Approval, Excellence

This year we are learning to do some spiritual rock climbing. We reach toward our heavenly commonwealth, grounded in the reality of our earthly commonwealth, our existential hope grounded in the gravity of our fears. We are moving slowly, ledge by ledge, over the face of this great promontory, Paul’s loveliest letter. We see up close its joints, its crevices, its moss, its façade. We climb to interpret, interpret to climb, climb to interpret, interpret to climb. Hold on! Reach up to the next hand hold.

It is my prayer that your love will abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve what is excellent.

Now these are slippery and surprising words to grasp, to hold onto. Be careful will you! We hear ‘love’ and then words to interpret love that we would least expect. Yet here they are. On the climbing wall. I mean in the Bible. Knowledge. Discernment. Approve. Excellent. (*The renditions that follow are the preacher’s, in conversation with articles in TDNT, loc. Cit.)

Love, but knowingly, with knowledge.

Here is a mighty term: Epignosei… Knowledge.

What does the N on the Nebraska footfall helmet stand for? Nowledge!

And what does knowledge here mean? Gnosis? The Acute Hellenization of Christianity? Pessimistic Enthusiasm? Plato in the later years? Epi—super, moreso? Just like knowledge only moreso?

Knowledge signifies grasp, comprehension, and understanding. It is the knowledge needed to learn something, like a swimming stroke, like the butterfly (not perception, though they are connected). In Greek thought, knowledge has the character of
seeing. “For Plato, knowledge is the presupposition for right political action.” Knowledge was the goal of Hellenistic piety. Knowledge involves a concern for what really is. Is God—beyond or separate, Greek or Gnostic? For Paul gnosis (as here) is always set under agape, without which it is worthless.

‘It is the God who said ‘let light shine out of darkness… Knowledge puffs up, love builds up…

Love, but discerningly, with discernment.

Here is a mighty term. Aisthesai. All insight. All discernment. Judgment (!), KJV. Temperment. Some things the Philippians do need from Paul. They need understanding and insight. Love must fasten itself on things which are worth loving.

Here is the power of moral discrimination and ethical judgment. The howling of the TV in our time makes people fearful that our discourse has left all connection in quality and kind with the kind and quality of discourse we need in our fateful moment in history. This is ethical judgment as distinct from religious judgment. A: sensual perception; B: perception or spiritual discernment; C: intellectual understanding. It is primarily A, a capacity of the soul, as distinct from a capacity of the mind. Today we would say transformation not just information.

Love, but by approving what is excellent.

Here is a mighty phrase. Dokimazein… Diapheronta…

Approve. Support. Test. Literally, “That you may test the things that differ.” Look for Essential qualities. So live that there is nothing to condemn. Test! Try! This is a peculiar use in the NT. ‘Human existence stands under the divine testing in which it must prove itself’. Testing, in a fuller and deeper sense, is the result of the experience of the Christian community.

Approve what is …Excellent. I will show you a more excellent way. 1Cor 13. Rom 2:18. ‘approve what is excellent’ (same phrase)….’that which is fitting in a given situation’. We need not apologize for a commitment to excellent. We cannot avoid a calling to excellence.

What is worth more, what is superior to, what is best, what is right, the things that “carry through”. What lasts, matters, counts, works. Behold! At the heart of the Bible, a commitment to excellence, and an attention to detail.

Intelligence is knowing the right story for the right moment, or the right illustration for the right sermon (otherwise, the sideshow that ate up the circus). That last also has political ramifications.

The Saints Who Are at Marsh

We honor examples of identified lay ministry here at Marsh Chapel. For the second year, this first September Sunday is identified as our own, Marsh Chapel Matriculation Service. At the beginning of term, we offer praise to God, we listen for God’s word, we receive the Lord’s Supper, we distribute a new term book, a new brochure, a new information card. And we name, to honor their example, some of our lay leadership here at Marsh. We do so, though, in the spirit and following the letter of Philippians 1, addressing ALL the saints who are at Boston. If your name is not here, it is here still:

Ministry Staff and Chapel Associates

Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+, University Chaplain for Community Life

August Delbert, Ministry Associate for First-Year Students

Liz Douglass, Chapel Associate for LGBTQ Ministry

Susan Forshey, Chapel Associate for Ministry Formation

The Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, OSL, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Ross Ponder, Ministry Associate for Undergraduate Students

Tom Reis, Ministry Assistant

Tyler Sit, Marsh Associate for LGBTQ Ministry; Ministry Assistant

Elizabeth Siwo-Okundi, M Div, Chapel Associate for Students of African Descent

Jeri-Katherine Warden, Ministry Associate for Student Athletes

Music and Worship Staff

Scott Allen Jarrett, DMA, CFA ’07, Director of Music

David Ames, Chapel Sacristan

Justin Thomas Blackwell, Associate Director of Music

Rachel Cape, Music Program Administrator

Kara Harris, Choral Scholar

Herbert S. Jones, Director, Inner Strength Gospel Choir

Emily Marvosh, Choral Scholar

Stefan Reed, Choral Scholar

Melissa Riesgo, Music Program Administrator

Joshua Taylor, Choral Scholar

Teresa Wakim, Choral Scholar

Brenna Wells, Choral Scholar

Timothy Westerhaus, Assistant Conductor, Marsh Chapel Choir

Graham T. Wright, Choral Scholar

Office and Support Team

Ray Bouchard, MTS, STH ’95, Director of Marsh Chapel

Elizabeth Fomby, Director of Hospitality

Justin Blackwell, Director of Communications

Lea Christoforou, Student Staff

Kaitlin Daly, Student Staff

Heidi Freimanis, Wedding Coordinator

Hae Won Lee, Student Staff

Karen Smith, Student Staff

Lay Leaders, Coordinators and Representatives of Special Ministries

Sandra Cole, Service Ministry, Liturgy, Membership Role

George Coulter, Laura Elliott, Mark Gray, Ushers

Jay Reeg, Kim Schreiber, Jennifer Williams, Ushers

Susan Forshey, Adult Study

Patrick Fulford, Br. Larry Whitney, LC+, Affiliate Churches

Mark Gray, Dean’s Study

Ondine Brent, Dr. Beverly Brown, Advisory Board

Nancy Marsh Hartman, Graham T. Wright, Advisory Board

Rachel Harvester, Co-Chair, Servant Team

Jan Hill, Children’s Choir and Chapel Women’s Forum

Sean McQuarrie, Co-Chair, Servant Team

Glenn Messer, History and Records

The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville, Eucharistic Ministry

John Pedican, Lay Reading

Cecilia Robinson, Hospitality

Roy Sassi, Radio Congregation

Rhoda Serafim, Ministry through RIM with Iraqi refugees

Nellie Staley, Encouragement Letters

Sherman Wissinger, Photography

TBD, Habitat for Humanity

You Are Philippians Recited

Friends.

We have listened with love, with joy, with wonder, to the words of holy writ. Hands chapped, arms sore, body tired, we have at last settled our feet upon the good earth, down from the great climb of the great wall of holy writ. We are ready for rest, for cleansing, for showering, for refreshment. Holy Communion awaits us. (Those listening may call to request communion in the home).

In conclusion, though we are still staring at Philippians Recited. We realize something. In the week to come, ready or not, prepared or not, feeling so or not, YOU are Philippians. For your neighbor, the only explanation of this word received will be the one you live, on your front porch, in your dorm hall. For your office staff, the only definition of approval that will matter is the one they hear from you, both in what you say and in the way you say it, both in what you do not say, and in the way you do not say it. For your students, I mean your teachers, I mean your colleagues in study, the only preaching of excellence that will have meaning will be the one they hear, or overhear, in your daily discourse. For your family, discernment will be Greek to the, unless they experience your discerning care. YOU are Philippians Recited, come Monday.

Hey, my work is done! I did what I could for you! You know where I am! You had your chance! Now, ministry is up to you.

-Dean Robert Allan Hill