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.
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.
You are spiritual.
Yes, I am a spiritual person.
You are spiritual?
You do not pray, meditate, walk, read, wander, commune, give, or serve.
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 to Partnership. Courage. Forbearance. Service. Beauty. Generosity. Equality. Vocation. Memory. Excellence. Grace. Joy. Thanksgiving.