Archive for December, 2008

Kingly Gifts: A Christmas Reverie

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

The wise men from the East are still, lectionarily, a few days journey away. We expect them tonight. We await their kingly gifts. They are at hand, but not in hand, like the gospel itself, like grace itself, like the Prince of Peace Himself. Kingly gifts…

These wise folks who carry the burden of the Christmas story tonight, and who bear such expensive gifts to the scene of Jesus’ birth, also bring you gifts. We certainly can be glad for the gold and incense and medicine with which they have again showered the Prince of Peace. What gifts, other than our whole selves and our every resource, are worthy of a Messiah? But, in their journey, remembered again tonight, the wise professors from Iraq also present you with holiday presents, gifts of the spirit. It is good to recieve as well as to give.

In the first place, the kings are seekers and searchers. They embody the dominical saying, “seek and ye shall find.” They do search, diligently, and they do find their hearts’ desire. One card given me this year ended with the phrase, “may you find your heart’s desire.” These magi would applaud such a note. Not for them, the one storey life. Not for them, the one horse life. Not for them, the overly easy, overly simple. To search diligently for your heart’s desire means work and loss and failure. To seek means to question, to reject, to give up. It may even mean changing your mind or your plan. I love Christmas eve because I know that at least some have come to church searching, or have come to church to represent to themselves that they still wonder, they still care, they still are yearning for the heart’s desire. Here is a kingly gift for every one who is searching diligently. Our wise men tonight bless you. They may represent God’s benevolence toward you, the benevolent watching and guiding of a shepherd, or of a parent, or of a teacher. If no church will encourage your search, if no popular movement will animate your soul, if no family member or friend finally will validate your seeking–fear not: the kings of the East know the precious value of your search, for it has been theirs as well.

In the second place, the wise ones offer you a gift which may not seem very religious, nor very fit for yuletide. Yet it is a princely possession for those who will recieve it. I refer to their capacity to sift and measure, to sift and separate wheat from chaff, true from evil. These kings remind you of your own high calling, to discern, to test everything, to consider and ponder and think. Life is more than activity and work. Life is more than running and stopping. Life is more than selling and buying. Actually, none of these outward acts means much, without the heart’s desire. Here the magi have shared a remarkable, choice possession, yours for the asking. Herod’s information is accurate but his motives are unclean and his purpose is malevolent. Herod is a wolf, in sheep’s clothing. Wisdom knows the howl of the wolf. The kings could overhear the deception in Herod’s claim to worship. Herod lives still, and the wise of this world learn to distinguish true from evil.

In the third place, the kings give you another look at the star. They encourage you to trust the inner sense you have of guiding, of light, of direction. You were not born without a moral compass. You have a conscience. It lives as long as you live. Through all of the valleys and hills of life, this inner sense will orient you, if you will recieve it as the royal gift it is. All too often we forsake our own best insight, out of false humility, out of laziness, out of fear, out of self-doubt. Just here, the three kings have a Christmas gift to offer you. Train your ear to hear your own conscience. Strain your mind and heart to know the pure tones of the heart’s desire. There is a difference, distinct if definite, between your almost self and your own most self. God is with you in your almost self, prevenient grace abounding before you know it. God is with you to guide you from your almost self to your own most self, the salt, light, peace, heart, soul, marrow of your being, the you the world is waiting to know, justifying grace abounding here and now, and making happy people, happy in God. God is with you to lift your own most self into your utmost self, sanctifying grace, day by day, decade by decade. Practice. Abstain from evil. Do good. Worship God

Strange gifts, for a strange story, and a strange night. Wise men from the east bring gold and frankincense and myrrh. Also, they bring you some gifts tonight. They are yours for the unwrapping. A blessing upon searchers. A blessing upon thinkers. A blessing upon believers. Go and search. Go and measure. Go and trust. Then, with these ancient travelers, you too will have something to lay at the feet of the Messiah.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Two Views of Christmas

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

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Luke 1: 26-38
Lectionary Readings

Looking Down

There are two ways to sing of Christmas. Christmas is a sung gospel, a sung Psalter, a sung liturgy, a sung word of grace.

There are two perspectives on the Gospel read this morning.

One is to look down and see the Gospel. One is to look up and see the Gospel. One is to sing Christmas from memory. One is to sing Christmas in hope. Both are good, both are glad, both are glad tidings of great joy, to all people.

First.

The song of Christmas is one that we remember from days gone by, beginning with the days of Herod the King. Christmas has a depth, a past, a root, a ground. Christmas grounds our being, gives grounding to our souls, grinds out our salvation, generation to generation. We remember the Christmas song.

The other day with a friend I visited the Hattie Cooper House in Roxbury. More than a hundred years ago, a Methodist minister’s wife began teaching and shepherding neighborhood children, needy children in a tough setting. The work continues, generations later. The remembered Christmas song, there, is sung. That morning a class of four year olds, conscripts for music for the visitors, were marched before us to sing. They sang como si fueran angeles. Their last number was ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’. Do you know how many verses there are to that song? About 200. One happy boy in the middle kept murmuring something. Verse by verse passed. The wind and the rain, in his hands. You and me brother, in his hands. You and me sister, in his hands. Everybody, in his hands. But, like Rachel of old, my favorite four year old conscript chorister was not consoled. He whispered: what about the itty bitty baby? He stammered, after the next verse: what about the itty bitty baby? And when the song was finished, and his verse was not heard, he resoundly remonstrated: WHAT ABOUT THE ITTY BITTY BABY? So we all sang together verse 201. From memory.

We may look down as we sing. Down to depth, down to past, down to root, down to ground.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is down deep, down there. We trust that in Christ, contrary to any and all appearance, there is an explosive impulse for lasting good, peace, good will, among all. This is deep Christmas, sung from the diaphragm. We learn this language, and have learned it, our mother tongue.

Such ground, root, depth, past and memory encircled our Christmas tree, here at Marsh Chapel, when on a Thursday night a dozen undergraduates trimmed the tree. One was from Southern California, another from Minnesota, a third from Florida, one from Washington, another from New York, a sixth from Texas. They made up the tree, and made this nave their home, away from home. They remembered, and acted the memory through.

A deep recession is not as deep as the Christmas impulse for lasting good. A deeply disturbing swindle is not as deep as the Christmas impulse for good. A deep darkness of mistaken warfare is not as deep as the Christmas impulse for good. A deep, dark fear of unemployment, real and tragic, is not as deep as the Christmas impulse for good.

We remember at Christmas, remember the itty bitty baby.

We remember the house and lineage of David. David moves from pasture to palace, from shepherd to King. The impulse, an impulse for lasting good, will appoint a place for all people.

We remember the terse Pauline formula of the Christmas impulse for lasting good: “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret but is now disclosed, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16: 26).

We may note, as we look down, that this teaching is found nowhere in the letters of Paul, our earliest record of Christian hope. We may also record that the other Gospels make no place for the teaching. Mark, our earliest gospel, records nothing of the sort. Matthew and Luke, where they share material, make no provision for it. Later stories in Luke 2 seem to assume the opposite, a natural role for Joseph in the natural birth of Jesus. Only the first chapter of Matthew has anything similar, and is drawing on a reading of Isaiah 7: 14 (‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a child, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’)

Absent any first century hospital records, noting the shock and awe of a miraculous birth, we have no possible way to confirm or deny anything of the historical renderings here. Like the resurrection itself, the account is a call to faith, not a proof for faith. In fact, the narrative has a strong and strange effect on us, today, for the following reason. In our time, we tend to focus on the question of the Divinity enmeshed here. How could God enter a womb? How could the Spirit impregnate a woman? How could the supernatural invade the natural? As Sojourner Truth said to her patronizing patriarchs, ‘He was born of God and woman—man had nothin’ to do with it’! Our gospel does acclaim this mysterious and miraculous event. Yet, its purpose drives down into the human dimension. Luke, here and throughout, is not mainly intent on showing a divine birth (of which the ancient world had many accounts). His purpose is to make sure the Christ of God, God with us, is utterly and certainly human.

It is the humanity of Jesus which is at stake for Luke, not his divinity. Jesus was born of Mary. He grew up, like any other boy. He grew older, like any other young man. With the exception of early teaching prowess and later miracles of healing, his life is like ours, early, middle and late, except without sin. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth was meant to secure Jesus’ humanity as much as his divinity. Our modern concern about the latter, in the white heat of Resurrection faith, was not the central point of the story.

It is our sung Gospel, our sung memory, in the first place, which is our Christmas song. For 2,000 years, women and men of keen mind, good heart, and strong faith have trusted the Christmas impulse for lasting good. In that faith, the world has tasted salt and seen light and gotten better.

The gospel of Christmas is a call to faith. Everything lastingly good in my own life has come in Christ: name by baptism, faith in confirmation, community in Eucharist, vocation and employment in ordination, partnership in marriage, pardon by day and decade in forgiveness, and the hope of eternal life on the last day. I am irremediably Christian, irretrievably so. Yet, when I look up, in Christmas song, I have a sense something more. Look with me as we sing.

Looking Up

There are two ways to sing of Christmas. Christmas is a sung gospel, a sung Psalter, a sung liturgy, a sung word of grace.

There are two perspectives on the Gospel read this morning.

One is to look down and see the Gospel. One is to look up and see the Gospel. One is to sing Christmas from memory. One is to sing Christmas in hope. Both are good, both are glad, both are glad tidings of great joy, to all people.

Second.

Presence. Enchantment. The Christmas Story—which, let us note again, we mainly sing, year by year, rather than teach—turns us toward a capacity to live in the new. To be, and be present. To worship, and be enchanted. Christmas calls you to the possibility of a real, religious experience.

We are in the presence of all that enchants. With ears deadened by entertainment, we are turned to enchantment.

To hear of an angel, Gabriel is to move into Presence, to be grasped by enchantment.

To hear the angel voice quoted—the Lord is with you

A Common Hope

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

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Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the Gospel.

The same phrase with which Paul concludes his letter to the Philippians here opens the Gospel of Mark. The beginning of the gospel. The Greek phrase, without article in either case, is the same, arche tou euaggeliou. The reference in Paul is to the start of friendship and the creation of an addressable community in Philippi, to the inception of a new dawn of hope. The reference here in Mark is to the start of a narrative, a gospel, a new kind of literature for a new kind of story, to the inception of a new dawn of hope. Mark 1:1. Philippians 4:15.

The beginning of the Gospel.

Today we come to the Altar of Love, to the Table of Grace, to the Real Presence of Christ in Bread and Cup. As a community, we lay down the work of fifteen weeks. For we have traced the nexus of Commonwealth Avenue and our commonwealth in heaven, week by week. We have walked the lovely lanes of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, week by week. We have strolled the beautiful shared space of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, week by week. Now we are done. It remains, only, to recognize, in retrospect, our common hope. It remains, only, to recognize, in retrospect, our duty to respond to a call to decision. (For those who have deferred attendance or audition until the holidays, you may consider this your makeup sermon for all fourteen, August to December!)

There is an echo from heaven to earth and back again. That echo is the preaching of the Gospel. Walk along the lovely lines of Paul’s best letter, Philippians, for a moment. Walk along the lovely lanes of America’s best avenue, Commonwealth, for a moment. Faith is calling to faith, and hope to hope, step by step, verse by verse, street by street.

Scripture and Life, both, acclaim a common hope. To hear and heed hope’s echo is to walk in the light, as He is in the light. You have one life. One day, your life will find completion. On that day, whatever your life was, it is. That is who he was, they will say on that day and that is who he is. On that day, will these marks of a common hope be remembered? Will we be remembered as those who lived on Commonwealth Avenue, as those whose true commonwealth is heaven?

Hope echoes partnership. Paul acclaimed partnership. Abigail with John Adams lived in partnership. Listen in love for the cadence of mystery that befalls us in partnership.

Hope echoes courage. Paul faced the unknown with courage, with no anxiety. Leif Erickson sailed fearlessly across an uncharted sea. We know the pull of gravity whose spiritual dimension is fear. Our commonwealth is from heaven, of heaven, heavenly

Hope echoes forbearance. Paul taught forbearance. George Washington modeled forbearance. 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 the gospel, and the radiance of hope shot through life.

Hope echoes service. Paul affirmed service. We honor firefighters and others who serve the common good. Ministry is service. The word means service. We are taught, here, to hunt for life, to find real life, to have the experience of really being alive, in ministry, in service.

Hope echoes beauty. Paul exclaimed that we should meditate on beauty. Our one street, our lovely setting exudes beauty, from Arlington to Massachusetts Avenue. 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. Beauty, like that of the music of Bach is a prelude to faith.

Hope echoes generosity. Paul challenged his people to generosity. The shared common space in our city is a reminder of common hope. You will live exemplary lives, when it comes to money. You will give generously, ten percent a year, to something, someone beyond yourself. You will avoid debt like the plague. When someone offers you the enticing shackles of debt, you will say, be gone. You will save ten percent a year, in anticipation of something, someone, beyond yourself. You will see the challenge of saving as a sport, frugality. You will see the challenge of honest labor as a sport, industry. You will see the pressure of exact reporting as a sport, accounting. And you will exercise, develop, grow and prosper.

Hope echoes equality. Paul honored women. He names Euodia and Syntche. We remember Lucy Stone and Phyllis Wheatley. The full range of women and women’s voices across the centuries has yet to receive ample appreciation. In our time, we shall do our part to fill up here what is lacking. We know the power of a diaconal mystique.

Hope echoes vocation. Paul experienced vocation. At Marsh Chapel of Boston University on Commonwealth Avenue we revere vocation, and remember those, like Schweitzer and Addams and Thurman who help us define the word. Vocation leads to God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand when your passion meets the world’s need.

Hope echoes memory. Paul remembered the beginning of the gospel, and so had access to his own best past. Our libraries in Boston provide access to hopeful people from our past like Allan Knight Chalmers. Here is one definition of hell: losing access to your own best past. Here is one description of heaven: finding access to your own best past.

Hope echoes excellence. Paul approved what is excellent. So do our Commonwealth heroes and heroines. We travel in the company of the blessed, those who have guided us into the deep and the good, the beautiful and the true.

Hope echoes grace. Paul preached a material grace. Alexander Hamilton championed a kind of material grace. At the opening of the Commonwealth Mall an
d 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.

Hope echoes joy. Paul sings of joy. It is joy to walk the commonwealth mall. 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 prison, a cave, Jonah in the belly of the provincial whale. How stunning his word. Paul, in Philippians, writes largely about joy.

Hope echoes thanksgiving. Paul worships in thanksgiving. With our predecessors along this avenue we do, too. This very year, 2008, 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! Today!—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.

Partnership. Courage. Forbearance. Service. Beauty. Generosity. Equality. Vocation. Memory. Excellence. Grace. Joy. Thanksgiving.

Here are the hallmarks of a common hope, a way, a path into the future. A sidewalk on which to wander, to walk, to live. What kind of a future will it be? It is ‘up to you’.

My friend met a spiritual person and their conversation went as follows.

So you are a spiritual person?

I am. I am a spiritual person.

You are—spiritual?

I am. Spiritual.

So, then, do you pray?

No, oh no, I do not practice formal prayer.

Do you meditate?

No, I do not meditate. There never seems to be the time.

Do you walk and wander?

I don’t. I do use the excercycle, but I usually watch QVC then.

What about reading? Do you like to read?

I never really got into reading, no, I am not really a reader.

Do you hike in the woods?

You know, that has always seemed a little boring to me.

Do you have a community of faith and friends?

No, I am more of a spiritual person, not really religious.

Do you give your money to help younger or poorer people?

I don’t. Those appeals to give turn me off.

How about your time? Do you volunteer, say in a food pantry?

No, I don’t really go into volunteering, it’s not my thing.

So, let me get this straight.

OK.

You are spiritual.

Yes, I am a spiritual person.

You are spiritual?

Yes.

You do not pray, meditate, walk, read, wander, commune, give, or serve.

Right.

But you are spiritual?

Yes, I am a kind of spiritual person.

Friends at Marsh, Friends in New England, Friends abroad: the exciting claim of a common hope calls out to you, this morning, for a decision. Our season invites, no, implores a resounding Yes!, to echo the marks of a common hope. This is the ‘beginning of the gospel’!

When your friend asks you if you are a hopeful person, what will you say?

Yes.

Yes!

Yes to Partnership. Courage. Forbearance. Service. Beauty. Generosity. Equality. Vocation. Memory. Excellence. Grace. Joy. Thanksgiving.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill