Archive for November, 2008

Keep Awake

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

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Isaiah 64.1-9
Psalm 80
Mark 13.24-end

Those of you who were here over the summer when I preached a sermon entitled “Pay Attention” are probably getting tired of the propensity of young preachers to employ sermon titles toward mundane ends. You may be thinking, “Apparently ‘pay attention’ didn’t go so well, so now he’s hoping we’ll just stay awake!” Just you wait until Dean Hill assigns me to preach the parable of the wedding banquet, when the sermon title will be “Show up!” No, far be it from me to discourage any impulse to congregational vigor during the sermon. Nevertheless, like last June, I hope the sermon itself will draw attention to other ends toward which the title might be pointing.

May God be with you.

And also with you.

Let us pray:

Almighty God,

give us grace to cast away the works of darkness

and to put on the armor of light,

now in the time of this mortal life,

in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;

that on the last day,

when he shall come again in his glorious majesty

to judge the living and the dead,

we may rise to the life immortal;

through him who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

As a matter of fact, it should not be too terribly difficult to keep awake during this first, (or is it the last?), Sunday of the Christian year. After all, anxiety makes it hard to fall asleep. Advent is nothing if not an anxious time, the first Sunday especially. Time itself seems to have gotten wrapped around. It is the start of the Christian year but simultaneously the end of all time. The hallmark of advent is the theme of waiting, waiting for the Christ child to come and waiting for Christ to come again, all at the same time. And so, perhaps, we can understand something of our experience, about this time last year, that may not have been as strange as we once thought, when we found Dean Hill meandering through the basement of the chapel, singing “Have an anxious, edgy advent, it’s the worst time of the year…” (to the tune of, “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas), in his out-of-tune way.

Indeed, it is an anxious time in anxious times. We don’t know quite what to expect. Will the stock market continue its dramatic climbs, as it has since the next economic team was announced? Or will it take another staggering drop as yet another financial firm, or an automotive company, announces insolvency and bankruptcy? Of course, it could be that our anxiety about the economy is blinding us from other concerns that should be more pressing. Will ten men with guns, wearing designer t-shirts and blue jeans, come shooting into our favorite restaurants and hotels, even our places of worship, as happened this past week in Mumbai? No! Say it isn’t so! This is the season of HOPE! At least, we hope so.

Surely, some of the hostages in the Oberoi hotel harbored a few apocalyptic thoughts, perhaps along the lines of those proffered in our prophetic text this morning:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

so that the mountains would quake at your presence—

as when fire kindles brushwood

and the fire causes water to boil—

to make your name known to your adversaries,

so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

From ages past no one has heard,

no ear has perceived,

no eye has seen any God besides you,

who works for those who wait for him.

It seems like a good idea, we think, for God to show up right about now and overcome our adversaries. As we hide under a table, we can imagine the archangel Michael striding forth, knocking the gun out of the young man’s hands and cleaving his head from his shoulders with a fiery sword. After all, surely we are God’s elect, and our Gospel lesson tells us, “he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

Imaginations of supernatural interventions in the face of extreme terror and distress are probably coping mechanisms. They distract us from the carnage going on about us and provide a sense of calming and assurance that holds back the instinctual fight or flight reactions that could draw more attention to us. To such ends they are surely good things. But what are we to make of them when the terror and carnage stop? How might we understand such experiences in the light of day? And what are we to make of the fact that there was no angel with a fiery sword? The first thing we might do is give thanks that the God who creates us creates us with coping mechanisms so that we have a better chance of surviving such acts of terrorism. Not all did survive, we know, and for them, their families and friends we pray especially this morning.

Of course, it may be that the next morning, in the light of day, we find ourselves quietly relieved that no angel with a fiery sword actually showed up. If one had, then there really would be some explaining to do! No, in the scientific age, our problem is less explaining why God does not intervene in mundane affairs and more how to understand our traditions
and texts that make claims to past and future divine interventions. Such understandings are especially hard to come by when it is Jesus who predicts the intervention. After all, no one wants to be caught claiming that the Son of God was wrong! On the other hand, it may be less that Jesus was wrong and more that there is something inadequate in our interpretive framework, more specifically in our understanding of time. Let us consider, for a few moments, what Christ’s coming, and our watchfulness, might mean from the perspective of eternity.

A recent dean of Marsh Chapel is fond of pointing out that “God is not in time, time is in God.” God’s perspective is not temporal; it is eternal. And eternity is not static; it is dynamic. In eternity, the past, present and future of things are held together. In time, things have pasts that do not change and futures that are open except as constrained by the unchanging past and present choices. But in eternity, we are both our present selves, conditioned by all of our past choices, and our past selves prior to having made those choices, and all of the future selves that are possible given the choices we have, or might have, made.

That’s enough metaphysics for one sermon, or perhaps too much. But what does it mean for our texts? It means that Jesus is absolutely right that no one but the Father knows the day or the hour. The day and the hour is a concern of temporal creatures, not a concern of the eternal God. God comes to us in all the modes of time: past, present and future. God comes to us in the present by offering us our past selves, out of which we choose to continue or change course in light of future possibilities. God comes to us in the past as the value we have achieved in our choices as they were present according to the possibilities that were future. God comes to us in the future as the possibilities we might actualize by changing past actualizations in present choices.

And so Jesus was also right to say that, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” By the time each generation passes away, God has come to all of the members of that generation in their past actuality, in their present choices, and in their future possibilities at each moment of their lifetimes. So too, “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Heaven and earth are parts of creation and so are subject to temporality. Time passes. This is obvious. But Jesus’ words will not pass away. God is eternal and so God comes to us in all of the pasts and all of the presents and all of the futures of our lives.

What, then, does it mean to keep awake? Does it mean that we are to be on the lookout for angels with fiery swords? Well, maybe for those brief moments while the gunmen are shooting up the dining room and we are appropriately cowering under the table. But the rest of the time, to keep awake is to attune ourselves to the coming of God in every moment of our lives in eternal perspective. God is continually coming to us in each moment as it has a past, a present and a future. Jesus is surely right that we “do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.” We do not know when because “when?” is a question of temporal creatures. The eternal God comes to us in the evening and at midnight and at cockcrow and at dawn as each watch of the night passes from future possibility into present choice and then into past actuality.

But before we go on about our way, happily rejoicing that God is eternally come, it is important to pause for a moment and remember that God’s coming is not always such a happy or pleasant thing.

Did you hear it? Did you hear last week, as the choir sang Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 147: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben? Well, perhaps you didn’t if you don’t speak German. But hopefully you read it in the translation. “Heart and mouth and deed and life must give testimony of Christ without fear or hypocrisy that he is God and savior.” Indeed, all of this talk of God coming to us in each and all of the modes of time is a giving of testimony that Christ is God and savior. But to what do we testify? The tenor recitative declaims Mary giving thanks for the Christ child, and we too give thanks, but it also announces Christ as both liberator and judge. We can rest comfortably with the freedom Christ brings, but are we willing to welcome the coming of Christ in judgment, as our rose window depicts? Later the bass depicts Christ coming both to throw down and to lift up. Surely we all know both moments in our lives worthy of being cast down and times worthy of being lifted up. As the tenor sings at the beginning of the second half of the cantata, we are in need of help to acknowledge God who comes to us “in prosperity and in woe, in joy and in sorrow.” Bach leaves us resting in the arms of a loving and caring Jesus, but we would do well to remember that God’s coming is as sure as the sunrise and not always so docile: our God is a consuming fire.

Here, in the first week of advent, time does indeed collapse together and we catch a glimpse of the coming to us of the wild God who creates the world out of eternity. The good news for us today is that a day of peace does shine for us, albeit dimly. It shines to us out of the future through which God is also present to us, through our hopes and prayers and dreams. It shines to us who are awake to the eternity out of which we are created and judged. “And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.”

Amen.

-Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

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On this Thanksgiving Sunday, 2008, we pause to utter a word of thanks. With appreciation we remember Deans Thurman, Hamill, Naismith, Thornburg and Neville who have preceded us here. It is Thurman’s prayer we remember today, as is our custom, come Thanksgiving. How fitting today, it is, to do so!

After forty years of wandering, after forty years of the apotheosis of difference, after forty years of wrangling about particularity, after forty years of a distinction unto distrust, after forty years of languishing in a spiritual malaise, after forty years of exile without nostalgia awaiting return without remorse, after again a biblical forty years of private tears and narrow fears—look!—a meadow lies before us. A green meadow of responsibility. A brown meadow of maturity. A harvest meadow of liberality. We have come ‘round again to a place of ardent possibility, of common faith, common ground, and common hope.

Howard Thurman was a hundred years head of his time fifty years ago. His poem:

Howard Thurman’s Thanksgiving Prayer

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father
The playmates of my childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives
Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies
And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the
Eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I
Feared the step before me in darkness;
The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest
And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open
Page when my decision hung in the balance.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:
The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,
Without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp
And whose words would only find fulfillment
In the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;
The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream
Could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment
To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,
My desires, my gifts;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence
That I have never done my best, I have never dared
To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind
Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the
inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the
children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Surprised by Joy

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

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Philippians 4: 1-9

Caves

Plato, 500 years before Christ, described the world as a great cave, in which dim reflections of an external light sent figures and shadows dancing upon the dank cavernous walls of life.

You do not have to be Greek or a philosopher or a Greek philosopher to appreciate his thought. We have our own spelunking experiences, our own caves. I think we come to church, Sunday, sometimes just hoping that somehow, someone will light a birch bark torch for us, to put a little more warmth and brightness into our cave.

Do you remember the end of Tom Sawyer, when Huck and Tom disappear into such a cave? A neighbor is assaulted, a friend falls ill, a job falls through, a limb gives way, a child falls ill or very ill or worse still, a theological certainty cracks and crumbles, a relationship rolls downhill faster than a barrel over Niagara, and we sit among the stalactites and stalagmites, listening to water drip below or behind, shivering in the near dark.

Some years ago I attended a meeting, in which people I knew well and loved deeply, for some reason became–not themselves, ghosts really of their real persons. They were reticent, somber, afraid, defensive, and touchy. I cannot say why. As a newcomer to that circle, I wondered, though, whether there were memories, long-toothed but not forgotten, that returned with the rejoining of that meeting. Memories of past things—hurts, angers, betrayals—that still hung like mold and mildew on the wet walls of that cave. It felt like we had all gone down into the earth, into a cave.

My childhood friend’s father ran a slaughter house. Though we didn’t usually go when the cutting was done, you could feel and sense the past brutality there—it hung in the air, it flew through the spirit like a bat through a cave.

Life can become one long stint of hard time in a cave, in the calaboose.

Prison

St. Paul is writing to the Philippians, and so to us, from a cave. He is to be heard today, from the heart of the Roman prison, where he evidently awaits execution. The Bible records loving, wise and faithful responses to pain, hurt and failure, to exile, and to execution. Its remarkable trait is honesty about pain. Paul writes from inside a cave, Jonah in the belly of the provincial whale.

How stunning his word.

Paul, in Philippians, writes largely about joy.

Spirit

All of the New Testament, but particularly the letters of Paul and especially the Gospel of John, bear witness to the earliest church’s experience of Spirit. “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”, wrote Paul. And the Epistle of John, in a clear warning to those living in times like ours says, “test the spirits, to see whether they are of God.” It is not enough to be full of spirit. Rather, the question is, which spirit? Which spirit?

Here again, the Scripture guides us. As we know people by their deeds, their fruits, so we are to recognize the footprints of the Spirit in the fruit she bestows, ripe in this spiritual season. The Spirit gives…joy (Gal 5:22).

My friend Don Harp preaches in a big Atlanta church, Peachtree UMC. When he moved to Atlanta he liked to walk in his new neighborhood. One day he came upon dark skinned girl and red haired boy selling lemonade. He spent 25 cents on a cup. Being a pastor, and being pastoral, he struck up some conversation. Finally, the girl asked if he was finished. He said he was. Then she asked for his cup. “If you don’t mind, we would like the cup back. It’s the only one we have and we expect to have another customer in a little while”.

For those who will stop and drink, there is a river of joy in every day.

Scripture

The good news of Jesus Christ, toward which we are summoned today, is throughout a glorious expression of joy. We trust the Bible as it records this open secret. Joy is truly native to God alone, and in God’s word this joy enters our life. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little, we will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master!”

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.

Peter Berger puts it this way: Faith is faith in the validity of joy. (QOF, 18)

Christ Jesus

Furthermore, in this passage, St Paul reminds us that the Lord is at hand. Nearby. At hand but not in hand. Absent, yet close. It is the risen Lord whom we worship, in this and every age.

You are people of faith, those for whom the pattern of struggle and rest, pain and glory known in Christ Jesus forms the basis of life. You are people of faith, attentive to the Spirit who bestows such ripe fruit upon us. And we are in a season of spiritual harvest.

Where I run much of the summer there are apple trees. Most years, in summer, I have only been able to enjoy their sight. This summer, though, the fragrance of ripening fruit has been covering the dirt path along the lake for some weeks. The fruit is ripe, and surprisingly early. The fruit is ripe, and surprisingly ample.

The Spirit bears this fruit, of joy, into our common life, like a baby born into an expectant family. Yours is the family of Christ.

Which is, to put it less gently, to be reminded that we are people of faith. For example, if we are Christians, we are Christians, not Jesusites. That is, we are Christians, not Jesusites. We worship Christ, the risen Lord, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. We are not enslaved, but freed. We are not Jesusites. We do not live in Palestine, nor do we feel we must. We do not wear robes and sandals (except at bedtime), nor do we feel inclined to do so. We do not travel by donkey or chariot. We do not, most of us, speak Aramaic. We do not read Hebrew. We do not think that David wrote all of the Psalms, or that the world is flat, or that the Rock of Gibraltar is the end of civilization. And some of us are not celibate. We are not Jesusites.

The millennial question is not “What would Jesus do?” Rather, the question is “What does the Lord want me to do?” Where do I taste the fruit of the spirit? And blessed as we are with a mission to fulfill, it is the sun of vision, not the moon of mission, which awakens us to real life. God is giving us a vision of joy! Joy in worship, joy at judgment, even joy amid persecution.

Surprised by Joy

1. Worship

Sunday can bring joy. Yes, there is routine and there is atte
ntion

Required. Someone asked my son a couple of years ago about worship and he said: “Church is church.” Well, yes. Surprisingly, though, joy can overtake us here. In fact, this is an hour meant for joy. In prayer, or worship, or devotion of any real kind we enter the presence of what is given us and leave behind the cloying grasp of what we make. Joy finds us here—freedom in fellowship, through all our silliness and sanctimoniousness.

Do you remember David’s dance? King David had won battles, slain foes, built a kingdom, defeated both Goliath and Saul (fightings without and fears within), yet, perhaps due to his many achievements, he could reckon with their limitation. In his older age he searched for joy. Way up north, in the hill country, he found an old ark, a box, mysterious and potent. Last month, we heard about the ark and its landlord, Obededom the Gittite. The ark still brings joy! In thy presence there is fullness of joy! And when David found the ark—the Presence of the Holy—he danced! He made merry! He worshipped with song and lyre and harp and tambourine and castanet and cymbal, clad only in an ephod, which lies somewhere between a napkin and a handkerchief. Since God is present, joy is in the air. Worship is the one time in the week when we don’t have to celebrate ourselves.

Remember the tides of the sea that swell up along coast, the coast so near and dear to us. Think of the twinkling stars that stand mute, seemingly motionless, light years away. Picture the great brown fields of the northern reaches of Vermont. Another hand has given us our home and guided our history. Another heart speaks to yours in worship. We can say with Jeremiah, “O Lord, your word was unto me a joy!”

Our sermon title is borrowed from C.S.Lewis. Think of the very end of the film Shadowlands. A slow walk, with cane and dog. A meadow, an English meadow, an English meadow in the warming spring. A memory, searing painful yet ultimately joyful, of love, unexpected love, love which seizes us, love whose way to surprise by joy.

2. Judgment

The invasion of worship by joy is nowhere near as surprising as the next invasive step in joy’s march. For after worship, joy inhabits judgment. Down under the happy word of joy, caused by God, is the awareness that sometime we will need to give an account for our living. People of faith have never questioned this. Scripture and Life, two sides of one truth, conspire to remind us. We have exactly one life to live, one string of days, one complex of history and hope, just one chance. Sometime, someday we will give an account of how we have lived.

As some of you have done this fall, I lost a dear friend recently. It reminds you–does it not?–to prize your time, while you have it.

Paul’s letter points to the day of Christ toward which we run, and not in vain. You can approach any and all accounting with joy. All that is good will have its just reward. Nothing is ever as good now as it will be later, and nothing is ever as bad now as it seems. Or as Barbara Brown Taylor said one summer, “The bad news is that we do not get what we deserve. And the good news is that we do not get what we deserve. God is more than just. God is gracious.” We can approach the border, every border, with a joyful anticipation.

Let us be honest that we are all equally in the dark as we approach ultimate borders.

For some years I traveled across the northern border of our nation almost every week day. I never lost completely a sense of anticipation and even dread at the border. One very cold morning, near 5am, down in the dark beyond Huntingdon Quebec, I stopped in the snow alongside a lost trucker. I lowered the window to catch his question “Ou est le frontiere?”. When I had finally translated the simple sentence, “where is the border”, I leaned back and haltingly replied in French, but before I could say anymore he caught my accent, or maybe it was my abysmal grammar. Sensing a common soul, and jumping for joy he said, “You speak English!” There is a surprising joyful anticipation, in faith, as we approach the border. At the border, the same language we have used for a lifetime is in use, the language of grace. We cross the same border with every confession of sin and every acceptance of pardon. We cross the same border with every awareness of idolatry and every word of forgiveness. We have crossed over before in the daylight, so that when night falls, we need not fear. We know what the Psalmist meant, we can hear it on the lips of Martin Luther King Sr at his son’s burial, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

3. Persecution

More surprising still, even than joy’s eruption in worship and

Judgment, is the presence of joy in the hearts of people persecuted. Joy abounds in the fellowship of worship, in the prospect of accounting and as promise for the persecuted. Mt 5:11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad.”

This seems at first a hard word for us, partly because we do not think we know much about persecution, and partly because we doubt it as an occasion of joy. We sense masochism and recoil.

Yet, I think some of you have known more persecution than you think. Some have learned the hard way that real virtue is not always rewarded on this earth. Some have paid dearly for speaking and living a less than popular truth. Some have seen the cost of accepting a calling in life: a life with purpose is not necessarily one free of pain. Some have been exposed to the difficulty of having to choose between home and work, between friendship and honesty, between the short term and the long haul. Look back. I bet you are heartened most by the running you did with unfairly added leg weights. In the long run, there is sweet, sweet joy in choosing the narrow gate and the straight path. The altar of this church and its cross are signs of promise that when persecution comes it will also carry a kind of joy. You can read about it in Philippians, or in CS Lewis’ book, Surprised by Joy, or, probably, if you will invest the time and energy, simply by getting to know well the person sitting next to you in the pew. Every heart has secret sorrows. Yet every heart is made for joy.

It is hard to lose. We know what Lincoln meant by his phrase, ‘too hurt to laugh and too old to cry’. I loved what Governor Tim Pawlenty said this week. He said he came back from the campaign trail, trying to help others of his party. He looked in the mirror and said to his wife, ‘Look at me. I’m looking old. I’m looking tired. My hair is receding. I’m going bald. I’ve put on ten pounds. My belly is leaning over my belt. Is there anything you can say to cheer me up?’ ‘Well’, she said, ‘there is nothing wrong with your eyesight!’

For those who will stop and look, there is a vista of joy in every day.

Vision

One day, in the fullness of time, Joy will reign.

One day, in the fullness of time, says the Old Testament, the joy of the Lord will be our strength.

One day, in the fullness of time, says the New Testament, they that sow in tears shall reap in joy.

One day—and why not begin here and why not start now?—we will count it all joy when various trials beset us.

I tell you truly—and base your struggles upon it—“weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning!”

Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say rejoice!

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Material Grace

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

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Philippians 4: 14
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
Matthew 25:1-13

Preface

Let those refuse to sing, who never knew our God. But children of the heavenly King must speak our joys abroad!

This fall we have traced through the etched, earnest marrow of Paul’s last, best letter, the Epistle to the Philippians. The letter acclaims our actual identity: your commonwealth is in heaven. Philippians is Paul’s loveliest letter. We interpret it along America’s loveliest avenue, Commonwealth Avenue, Boston.

It is kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving except you; for even in Thessalonica you sent me help once and again. Not that I seek the gift. But I seek the fruit which increases to your credit. I have received full payment and more. I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.

You only have what you give away. You only truly possess what you have the freedom and power to give to another.

Stroll today on Commonwealth Avenue, you whose commonwealth is heaven. At Arlington—does this surprise you?—look up at Alexander Hamilton. There is discussion this week about a Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was our first. Born in the West Indies, educated in New Jersey and at Columbia, felled in the end in his duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton labored in the service of material grace, or at least of one version of material grace. He first sought to establish the credit of the young nation (see how contemporary history can be!), by paying all the nation’s debts in full. As my friend said about leadership and development, ‘you have to give people a reason to trust you’. Then he funded the new government with taxes on imports, and taxes on whisky. The latter landed him in something of a mess, known as the Whisky Rebellion. Against Jefferson, he argued for a mint, a national bank, and a strong central government. His was a singular voice in our Constitutional Convention, supporting the form of government we now enjoy. (As an aside: In the forests of upstate New York a college was named for him, he its first Trustee. Hamilton College (1793) regularly required four years of public speaking education for every graduate, speaking of material grace).

At the opening of the Commonwealth Mall and at the heart of the letter to the Philippians there stands, in timeless symbol, a respect for material grace. Christianity acclaims an incarnate faith, one that takes place and takes its place on the street where you live. We are learning again that when grace abounds, grace enshrouds the material world. Come Sunday, in resurrection spirit, we steadily announce a material grace.

Paul and Material Grace

Paul’s triumphant letter to the Philippians may be read as a thank you note.

This may puzzle us given the majestic poetry of the letter. When we think of Philippians, we think of the trumpet voluntary of its last chapter, ‘Rejoice…!’ Our mind, turning to Philippians, turns to Paul’s self-disclosure, and self-abandon, counting all his achievements as ‘rubbish’. This is the mountain top letter, in which Paul gave all time and our time the great hymn to Christ’s humility, ‘taking the form of a servant’. In Philippians we find enshrined the definitions of excellence—truth, honor, justice, purity, love, grace, praise. Here is the peace of God which passes all understanding.

Yet the letter serves a purpose, a very practical purpose as well. As has long been noted, Paul is expressing gratitude in this letter for some gift, perhaps some monetary gift, which the congregation has sent him. The gift has touched and inspired him, as any real gift really does. There is a magic art in gifts, when they truly match the moment and the recipient.

The other day our daughter in law and son moved into a new residence, a brownstone flat, in the city of Albany. We had the wisdom to call on them after their belongings had been moved, moved by a volunteer crew of friends and church members.

With them we celebrated the transition, admired the new space, enjoyed the historic neighborhood, and imagined future life for a young couple in a charming city. But on the back porch, over refreshment that evening, our son expressed his sense of the day: “what makes me happiest about all this is that our friends were willing to come and help us move—what a gift!”

A gift colors space with a new hue of grace. Something spatial and physical changed in Paul’s prison cell with the arrival of Epaphroditus, and of the Philippian gift.

Paul was not surprised. His practice, over decades, was to make his own living as a leather worker, a tent-maker, in the cities of the Roman Empire to which he traveled. He regularly admonishes his congregations that they are to support their leaders, their spiritual teachers, verses that are clerical favorites for preachers to this day. Clergy know them by heart, and sing them in the shower. Yet, for his own part, Paul took nothing for his missionary work, in order not to burden his fledgling flock. In addition, through much of his recorded work, we know he is raising money in another direction, his major work of collecting support for the Jerusalem congregation. We can date many of his letters with reference to his work on the collection. Philippians shows no evidence of the Jerusalem collection, so it may perhaps be a later, and even the latest, of Paul’s known works. With the Philippians, things were different. Paul did accept their gifts, early and late. Somehow, they found a way to give, and he a way to receive, that was not typical of his relationships.

Friendship is found in such gifts. For all the difficulties which beset Paul in his work of building the primitive church, here, in Philippians, here, in prison, we see Paul enjoying the rare delicacy of friendship, known in a gift. He writes the letter as a bread and butter note.

As a New Testament scholar and teacher, of course, I have a vested interest in seeing spiritual or theological insight embedded in the quotidian utmost. It was in the development of church life that the sayings and doings of Jesus were remembered and rehearsed. It was in the occasional needs of the churches that the biblical letters were called to life. It was in the dire conflict between Christian Judaism and Jewish Christianity that the theological essays of the newer Testament were forged. It was in the later construction of church leadership, pastoral care, service to the poor, and relation to culture that the pseudonymous writings were composed. But even so, here at the end of Philippians, without any special scholarly or pedagogical pleading, we can see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Paul’s thank you note becomes his Hallelujah Chorus.

You may not have any particular need of a sermon about material grace. Your financial affairs may be all of a piece, all in order. You may live in a country that long ago paid off its debts and deficits and built a trillion dollar endowment for the future. If so, listen to the rest of this sermon as if you did, or with the recognition that some day you may.

Paul teases out some fascinating advice about money, here. We know he is deadly serious, because he pulls his favorite iron from the bag to
swing at the outset. Koinonia. ‘Kind of you to share’—a weak translation to be sure. ‘Truly generous of you to enter my soul in fellowship’—a little closer. He reflects, with some nostalgia, on their earlier creativity, during a time Paul identifies as the ‘beginning of the gospel’. Here the gospel is not faith speaking to faith, but is a time and a place and a friendship. Again Paul uses the favorite eight iron, when he could as well have chosen another instrument. Koinonia. No other church entered into koinonia, at least this kind of koinonia, this kind of partnership with me. You did, in giving and receiving. This recognition and remembrance pulls Paul farther along, and us with him. He needs nothing—‘I do not seek the gift’. He knows how to be abased and how to abound. Yet he sees something else in the giving. There is fruit in giving. There is fruit—love, joy, peace, and so on.

Giving, the encouragement of generosity, is for the benefit of the giver. Paul reminds us of this. Again, he relies on God to supply every need, is full to overflowing, needs nothing further, holds onto the riches of glory (itself a pregnant phrase). It is the Philippians who benefit, to whom increase of credit accrues.

A non-fundamentalist, unselfish non-moribund expression of responsible Christian liberalism has everything to do with the use of money. The founder of Methodism said of money: get all you can, save all you can, give all you can (not borrow all you can, spend all you can, take all you can).

Along with worshipful use of time, and earnest faithfulness in partnership, tithing, disciplined generosity, is the threshold of faith, the beginning of real faith.

The deepest part of Paul’s teaching about money is found in 2 Corinthians. There, particularly in chapter 8, Paul offers us his heart and mind on money. The very phrases he selects, even apart from their composition in argument, are compelling, to this day:

A wealth of liberality
Jesus though rich became poor
According to what a man has, not according to what he has not
As a matter of equality your abundance should supply their want
Who sows sparingly, reaps sparingly, who sows bountifully reaps bountifully
Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion
God loves a cheerful giver
So that…
One who has much has not too much, one who has little has not too little

Experience of Material Grace

The happiest side of ministry—by complete surprise—over thirty years, has come in admiration of generosity, the material grace of gracious people, including you and you all present today.

We began one capital campaign in the fall of 1987. Timing is everything. Another started in the fall of 2002. Timing is everything. In a way, the struggles made them both all the sweeter.

Mike Mckee, my friend, said as he left our home in January 2003: “Bob, one thing about this work: enjoy it. You are going to have some real fun.” He was right.

By Christmas of 2003, we had raised $1M in pledges. By May of 2004, $2M. By Christmas of 2004, $3M. And so on…

I have chuckled and laughed and felt tears all along the way.

The first gift of $500 came from the most veteran of our Tuesday AM men’s group. It made me smile.

We asked many people to join us at the leadership level ($50,000). Many did. It makes me smile.

One woman came to say, “I can only give $5 a week more—will that make a difference?” Together we did the math, over 5 years. It does make a difference. It made me smile.

Out of blue, a couple made a large deferred gift, 6 figures and more. It made me pause, offer a little thanks prayer, and it made me smile.

A retired preacher called up to say, briefly and bluntly, that he was surpassing the $50,000 level in giving. Just wanted me to know. It made me smile after it made me emotional. Then he left a tongue in cheek message asking why the stock market went down after he made his gift. He thought he was assured of prosperity! That really made me smile.

I remember pulling many pounds of silver out from under a bed, to get it ready for sale, and a significant pledge. We all smiled at that.

Several times we came away from homes of newer members, who had made really strong pledges, and there was a silence, a full silence, a happy, full silence in the car. It does make you smile.

One refusal letter was so well worded, and so caring, and so on the edge of commitment, that it made me want to smile, too.

There was a family together who made an unexpected and strong named gift. The way they planned and prepared it made me really smile.

We had a couple in the office, who had to bring their teenager along, due to other commitments. I watched her watch her parents—such truly good people—filling in the pledge card. I wondered what her 15 year old mind made of all this. I found myself smiling on the way home that night.

The other night I sat with one of our Trustees. She said something that I want you all to hear and remember and cherish: “You know, if you didn’t raise another dime, you have done wonderfully! Already, at $3.3M, you have done beautifully.” What a gracious thing to say. She said it smiling.

Of all the Easter signs of Christ, raised, other perhaps than the preaching of the Gospel itself, I do not think of any others that more majestically announce Life in a world of death than these moments of sheer generosity. Here is a material grace. This is the sense, the feeling—far more than emotion by the way—which Paul knew in his prison cell. I am filled, having received the gifts you sent…

To whom much has been given, from him much is required.

The Power of Material Grace

Some years ago I officiated at a wedding. It was beautiful autumn day as so many have been this year. The service was wonderful. The organist played a version of “Love Divine” with bells that rounded off the service to perfection. I was proud to be here. Later, in the ready room, a woman who had attended the service asked about my family.

We talked, and I discovered that she was from the North Country, and had been raised with some difficulty by a single mother.

“Near Alexandria Bay?”

“In Alexandria Bay.”

“Did you know Rev. Pennock, who was there in retirement?” (who is Jan’s grandfather)?

All of sudden her face became red and her eyes filled. I wondered what I had said to upset her. This is the “joy” of the ministry – you enter a room and everyone is uncomfortable! You make small talk and women cry!

“No”, she said, “you don’t understand…When I was a young woman, I barely could go to college. Every semester I received a check from the Alexandria Bay Church, money that was to pay for my voice lessons…This kept me going in college, not just the money, which was significant, but more so the thought, the fact that somebody believed in me, could see me with a future, outside of my struggling family and small town, and invested in me….”

What does that have to do with me?

“I learned a few years ago that your wife’s grandfather is the one who gave the money for those lessons! His gift formed my life!”

What are you doing today?

“I am the Director of Music for a church near Albany. The bride grew up in my youth choir. She invited me to the wedding. Music is my life.”

Over all those years, and so many miles, across such a great existential distance, look what happened: A moment of material grace. I was given an experience of God, emotion laded and heartfelt and real and good, and even in church or at least almost, as a consequence of a gift made long ago and far away. The hidden blessing of gen
erosity is that giving opens the world to the possibility of experiences of God. Rev. Harold Pennock is long dead. His wife Anstress is long dead. Their time in the parsonage of a small town on the St Lawrence River is long gone. But one autumn day, many years later, after a wedding, in the late afternoon, his thoughtful kindness opened the world.

The Radiance of Material Grace

There is a radiance that comes shining through a material grace.

I see this radiance in generosity well invested. Recently we visited a newborn baby. The plaque on the hospital wall read, ‘This hospital was built and endowed by the people of this city’. Built and endowed. I wish every church we had built we had also fully endowed, and every college, and every seminary, and every hospital.

I see this radiance in young people who are eager to endow, with material grace, the world which that new born child enters. To endow it with clean air and water. To endow it with stable justice. To endow it with colorblind equality. To endow it with a rigorous preparation for peace. To endow it with virtue which has place neither for selfishness nor for sloth. To endow it with the wisdom of a Lincoln, on whose lap we all would sit this week. To endow it with a heartfelt trust that there is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.

I see this radiance today. Paul in prison and Hamilton on Arlington would agree. Lord grant us a material grace, a grateful generosity.

I see this radiance out in front of our chapel this morning. Outside Marsh Chapel there is a materially gracious monument to Martin Luther King. On Wednesday of this week, following lunch, my colleague and I passed the front of the King memorial. In front were bunches of flowers. Beautiful bouquets of flowers. More appeared on Thursday, and more still on Friday. Only one carried a note. To Martin Luther King: thank you.

We close with a prayer King used in 1959, citing a slave preacher (related in a NYTimes column, 11/6/08): ‘Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we oughta be; we ain’t what we gonna be; but thank God, we ain’t what we was’.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

November Communion Meditation

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

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All Saints Communion

Matthew 5: 1-11

Beatitudes

We travel in the company of the blessed, in Jesus’ teaching: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted. We travel among the many, the communion of saints. Lift up your hearts.

Philippian Benedictions

We travel in the company of the blessed, those over whom Paul gave his benedictions, in the radiant letter to the Philippians.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit
To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever
The God of peace will be with you
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus
God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure

May your love abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God

We travel among those who also have been found in the heart of an addressable community, those addressed and blessed by benediction. Lift up your hearts.

The Beautiful and the True

We travel in the company of the blessed, those who have guided us into the deep and the good, the beautiful and the true.

Dante calls to us. As Peter Hawkins taught many here:
In Virgil’s company he (Dante) learns that the ascent must be prefaced by a descent, for to move toward the light he must confront everything that is murky and tangled not only within himself but within all of humanity (Hawkins, 7)

Hopkins makes us shiver:

Thou mastering me
God giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
(GMH)

We travel along behind those who have opened the world to grace. Lift up your hearts.

Newton Falls NY

We travel in the company of the blessed, among those who know that all of this, life as given, is not about somebody else. It is about you and me and we together.

Remember: You can if you think you can.

Eight years ago the paper mill closed in Newton Falls, taking with it 100 jobs out of a town of 75 houses in the Adirondacks. The mill is open again, as of June 5 2008 (NYTimes). Levi Durham and Andy Leroux would not let it die. Starting in 2000, they cleaned the closed mill. They kept the machinery oiled and running. ‘We had to do what we had to do to get our mill going again’, said Leroux. Today the mill is open, running 24/7, making paper for cookbooks, for newspapers, for catalogues, for biology textbooks. 104 people have good jobs there, near the great timber forests of the great Adirondack mountains. ‘We decided to stop thinking about our mill and actually do something to save it’. They worked almost for free for many. At 20 below with 30 mile winds, winter after winter, they shoveled the roof. ‘To us, the mill was idle. There’s a difference between closed and idle’. A town group of small business people, retirees, teachers, and elected officials hunted for a buyer, a buyer who would let the mill be the mill, as a whole, not sold off bit by bit. They called people. They searched the internet. Finally they found Dennis Bunnell of Buffalo who, along with a Canadian partner, bought the mill for $20M. Bunnell said: ‘All there is to a mill is machinery and people. What makes a difference in this case is that the people who work here truly care about this mill’. Maple trees, birch trees, spruce trees, responsibly harvested nearby, produce fiber that is bleached, soaked, stretched, smoothed and steamed in a 300 foot long machine. All of this adventure, in the middle of nowhere. 7 hours north of NYC, in a picturesque setting of rivers, lakes and mountains where you can buy a home for $20,000. ‘We’re hard workers. We’re stubborn and even when it looks like the whole world is against us, we don’t give up. Today 100 workers make $22\hr and have medical, dental and retirement plans.

We travel in the company of those who wrestle with angels, who wake in the morning to say, ‘Surely the Lord was in this place, and I knew it not’. Lift up your hearts.

Prayer for November 2, 2008
We travel in the company of the blessed, like my friend Ken Carter whose prayer, SURSUM CORDA, is ours today:

Creator of us all:
you are the source of every blessing,
the judge of every nation
and the hope of earth and heaven:
We pray to you on the eve of this important and historic election.
We call to mind the best that is within us:
That we live under God,
that we are indivisible,
that liberty and justice extend to all.
We acknowledge the sin that runs through our history as a nation:
The displacement of native peoples, racial injustice,
economic inequity, regional separation.
And we profess a deep and abiding gratitude
for the goodness of ordinary people who have made sacrifices,
who have sought opportunities,
who have journeyed to this land as immigrants
and strengthened its promise in successive generations,
who have found freedom on these shores,
and defended this freedom at tremendous cost.
Be with us in the days that are near.
Remind us that your ways are not our ways,
that your power and might transcend
the plans of every nation,
that you are not mocked.
Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ be a peaceable people
in the midst of division.
Send your Spirit of peace, justice and freedom upon us,
break down the walls of political partisanship,
and make us one.
Give us wisdom to walk in your ways,
courage to speak in your name,
and humility to trust in your providence.
Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill