Archive for February, 2009

Strength to Start

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

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I Corinthians 1: 1-9

Introduction

The dawn is breaking, slowly, over the snow blanketed city. You have assembled yourself for the morning, with your coat and hat and mittens. You stand like a medieval knight with his standard, you with your great-mouthed shovel in hand, and dawn is breaking, slowly, over the fourth day of Nevada, the great snowfall. You are ready to start.

In our shared epiphany, this early winter, we have prepared to start. We encouraged you to begin by breathing. We pondered the possibility of a New Birth of Freedom. We noticed the early, first light of love in music, love and music. We announced and received a winter grace. We meditated on starting over. You have had already a homiletically busy year.

Yet there is a relationship between knowing and doing that dies without the strength of choosing. It is one thing to know the true and good and beautiful. It is another thing to do the true and good and beautiful. How do we move from knowing to doing? By choosing. Learning becomes virtue through piety. Learning becomes virtue through piety. Learning becomes virtue through piety…

In some best only known to you, by faith, you are ready to start. You have practiced the breathing of prayer. You have seen the horizon of freedom. You have heard the loving angels sing. You have admired a winter grace. You have seen the need to start over. Somehow. I do not know, fully, all of your new starts, though some are pretty clear, and shared. All share this: it takes strength to start. To change to a new path requires strength to start.

Shakespeare knew the beauty and terror of the dawn:

The grey eyed morn smiles on the frowning night
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
Form forth days path and Titan’s fiery wheels
Now ere the sun advance his burning eye
The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry

I sometimes long to leave all and teach Shakespeare, perhaps the only English voice needed for guidance, apart from the many voices of Scripture. The great poet and playwright knew, as was said of our Lord in his earthly ministry, knew the heart of man. He knew the complexity of moral judgment. He knew the ambiguity of corporate and governmental life. He knew the strange subterranean interplay of spirituality and sexuality. He knew the elusive mobility of truth, which, to be spoken, requires a lifetime of rapt attention, and years of isolated pain and imprisonment. He knew the repetitions, generation to generation, of impeachment and trial and coverup and revelation. What this country needs is neither a chicken in every pot nor a good 5 cent cigar nor a plain, new, fair, or square deal, but, a rivetingly taught course in Shakespeare!

As you start, at whatever dawn you face, ponder this: Christ gives strength to start. A new year? Strength to start. A new path? Strength to start. A new relationship? Strength to start. A new diagnosis? Strength to start. A new commitment? Strength to start. A new situation? Strength to start. Christ offers strength to start.

To you remains the decision to choose what you know you should do. Here are three encouragements to such a choice.

Strength in Christ

In the first place, we may plainly affirm that we find strength in Christ.

At the start of his long letter to the feisty Corinthians, St Paul places the few choice verses read aloud for us this morning. We listen to them and we hear them as God’s Word. The words of Scripture are “holy” in that they stand over against us, they take the measure of our self-deception, they outlast our passions and defeats and very lives. These verses will live longer than we, and rightly so.

It will be more obvious to the newer among us that every Sunday we hear two contrasting readings. One is from Mark, the gospel, a story, a narrative, an announcement of resurrection set in an account of Jesus’ ministry. The other is 1 Corinthians, a letter, a direct statement about how to live, sent from Paul to his church. I believe we who are more used to hearing these parallel readings have grown insensitive to just how different they are from one another.

Having followed Jesus in his healing ministry for some weeks, we turn now to Paul. We have returned to the beginning of the letter from which we have heard so much this winter.

While these verses are a part of a standard letter opening, used in almost all of Paul’s epistles, they are far from perfunctory greetings or boilerplate thanksgiving. To the contrary, subtly here Paul surveys the whole of the coming letter and summarizes what he is about to proclaim. He starts with the whole and with the end in view.

We too must make our various beginnings, and so we are not displeased to find here an inspired manner of entry. Paul asserts strength to start.

And what a generous start does he make! All of the pieces of the letter’s later puzzles are laid out here in the grand style. Where later there will be acrimony, difficulty, opaque philosophy, deep meaning, ethical admonition—scolding, and other standard religious fare, here there is great strength, a happy word, something good with which to start.

Our sixth grade teacher, a harsh task master as the day wore on, nonetheless began every morning with 30 minutes of simple reading–from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or from Harriet the Spy, or from Tom Sawyer.
Then she would turn to math or history saying, “well begun is half done”.

Think of the Voyage of the Beagle, five years long, on which and through which, early in his life, Charles Darwin started to develop his lastingly powerful comprehension of our origins. We have a whole series of sermons on Darwin coming this summer.

The letter opens with joy, and with a new vocabulary of love and delight. This is meant to be our daily glossary, too, even as Paul now will teach it to the Corinthians.

Grace
Peace
Thanksgiving
Saints together
Gifts-charismata
Guiltless
Fellowship
In Christ
God is faithful

Oh that we would bathe ourselves at the outset of each day in such a shower of strength!

For you, all of you, have been found in a new situation. You are “in Christ”.

Start the day strong—much will befall to challenge by dusk.
Start life strong in childhood—much comes later to unsettle.
Start with laughter and play in summer—much in autumn proves more difficult.
Start this New Year with strength, and like a skier carried along by Newton’s gravity, you will pass by and over and around the bumps.
Start this week and each week with the hearing of the Holy Word—much that is less than holy will greet you later.

Strength in Time of Need

In the second place, we may plainly affirm that the gifts of Christ are reliable in time of need, are firm in the face of danger. They make us certain when we need to be and inwardly secure when we have to be.

Whether we are babes in Christ or approved in Christ or wise in Christ—we make our starts with strength.

For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill, but time and chance happen to t
hem all.

How well we remember the final game of the NCAA tournament in 1989, pitting Syracuse against Indiana. You remember the close finish, the wild crowd, the first place ranking at stake. Derek Coleman, then a freshman, somehow, inexplicably missed an easy shot at the end, and the player berating, chair kicking, opponent bedeviling Coach Knight went on victory. “O somewhere in this favored land the sun was shining bright, and somewhere children were singing, and somewhere hearts were light, but there was joy in upstate New York when mighty Derek struck out.” The race is not always to the swift…

On Monday the Rotary Club lunch began, in a deep and sorrowful reverie, broken only half-heartedly by the dejected President’s call to order, the weekly off-key singing of the national anthem, and then, as usual, with the prayer, offered that day by county judge Jack Schultz. “Dear God, we know that we cannot always win. We know that we learn from our losses as well as our victories. We thank you for many blessings that have come our way, even though this inferior Indiana team, lead by a heartless and ruthless tyrant, has stolen our one chance in this generation for glory. Lord, we do not expect always to win…but, but, but… we do demand justice in the future! Amen.” It still rings out as the most heartfelt public prayer I have heard.

No, the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill, but time and chance happen to them all.

Life is not fair, not by a country mile.

Not fair to those who suffer untimely loss
Not fair to those stricken with unexpected illness
Not fair to those whose limbs are taken and torn
Not fair to those who should have been chosen
Not fair to those whose flight falls earthward
Not fair to you

Time and chance happen to all.

Jan and I know the Buffalo airport well. For many years, about half our flights began or concluded there. We know the little village become suburb of Clarence Center, and the Clarence Center United Methodist church. We know the rhythms of travel for women and men who go downstate to work and come upstate to live.

I remember living in the Syracuse University neighborhood in 1988, when the Lockerbie crash occurred, and 200 lives were lost.

Our hearts reach out to the lost and the grieving. We do not know what a day may bring, but only that the hour for serving good is always present. One of the reasons, over time, that we struggle to start something new is that we cannot see all the risks in and of the future. Things go wrong, in ways that we do not expect. It can make us gun shy. It can make us risk averse. It can make us think only twice but twenty times twice. So it takes strength to start.

So we long to hear an encouragement to start with strength.

I have a friend who loves to start almost anything, but has no energy to finish. He loves to take things apart, but not to put them back together. He loves to initiate ideas but not to see them through. He loves to begin, but not to complete.

St Paul had something of this spirit. Who can say why?

He loved to start people on the road to faith, to start the preaching of the Gospel, to start churches on the road of their common life. And so, he ignited a church in Thessalonaica, and incited a church in Corinth and initiated a church in Galatia and one Philippi and on he went, to finish preaching the good news through the whole inhabited world before Christ would return.

His was a dawn faith, a morning view, a salutation, a hello…

You can take some of his starting strength with you today.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…
He who has begun a good work in you will complete it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ…
Have you begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh?…
It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ…
He is the beginning, the first born from the dead that in everything he might be pre eminent…
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him…

Martin Luther, whose sermon on these verses is one of his finest and most personal, recounts his many attempts to find peace with God through self-discipline, through religious duty, through acts of contrition, through his own works, until at last he collapsed.

“But this availed me nothing; nor did it free me from a fearful and dreadful conscience…This is God’s Word… this one thing God asks of you, that you honor him by accepting comfort; believe and know that he forgives your transgressions and has no wrath against you.”

You may start again with strength. You have the love of God, the Gospel of Christ, the Grace of the Lord, the baptism of the church, the prayers of the church, the Lord’s prayer, the ten commandments, the sacrament of communion, the word of absolution, and the decision of faith.

Strength in the Hope of the Future

In the third place, we may plainly affirm the strength that comes from beginning with the end in view.

The verb found here translated now as confirmed and then as sustained is really the same verb and it means “strengthened”. The testimony of Christ is strengthened among you….He will strengthen you to the end, blameless in the day…

You recognize here the language of ancient Jewish apocalyptic. Paul expresses his hope in the characteristic mode of his time and his people. He writes of the end and of the day of the Lord. Jesus in Mark 13, Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and John in John 14 say, in short, that speculation about dates and times is useless. “Of that day no one knows”.

But Paul here reminds us, and this is a source of strength for the beginnings of life, that the Lord Christ is both Alpha and Omega. When at last we set down our various tools and trades, when at last we have lost our eyes and ears, when at last the various dawns have given way to dusk and dusk and dusk—here too we are in Christ and nowhere else, of Christ and no one else. Somehow all the little subplots and sufferings of this present time are going to find their full place and point in a greater story, the day of God, the life-span of Jesus Christ. Today is God’s, and tomorrow is too.

Only such a hope could have sustained Paul, even as it has sustained the church for these many generations. Only such a hope could have strengthened Martin Luther King on August 28 1963 in Washington and all the long bitter way to April 3 1968, his last earthly night: “I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land…So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” Only such a hope could have sustained Abraham Lincoln, and given him, after slaughter, the strength to start again, ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right’.

Our young leaders here opened the world to breathing, to freedom, to love, to music, to grace, and to strength on Friday night. In a strange, humble way, our communal fellowship on Friday evening exemplified this strength. Our Valentine’s evening was beautiful, gracious, enjoyable, full, delicious, well-attended, and real. It was an experience of really being alive. Yet our young leaders had never done this. They had to summon the strength to start. Our hospitality team had to ‘worry the evening into existence’ as one said, finding a strength to start something new. Our musicians had to open the
mselves, give themselves to the moment, finding a strength to start something new. Our community in ministry had to come together, in a new way, finding a strength to start something new.

We looked back on all the similar new starts over the years. In Ithaca, a summer fair. In the North Country, a fall tea and sale. In Syracuse, a spaghetti dinner. In Rochester, a golf tournament. All very human, very humble moments. But people do not leave off being human when they come to faith. And people do not leave off being human when they come to university. Being in community requires a decision to be in community, and that requires strength to start, and that requires a choice, to choose to do what we know is true.

You start with confidence about the end. That is the main thing in Paul’s hope. You are strengthened to start in the hope of Jesus Christ.

I do not know, precisely, what you may be about to start. But I call you to decide to do so, to start with strength. The strength is God’s gift to you. The start is up to you.

Conclusion

Strength to start.
Strength to start in Christ
Strength to start in times of trial
Strength to start with hope for the end

Put on the whole clothing of Christ!

As you stand at the dawn of the rest of life…
We will put it in terms familiar…

Put on the whole wardrobe of Christ

Put on the sweater of grace
Put on the boots of peace
Put on the mittens of thanksgiving
Put on the tuke of fellowship
Put on the scarf of faithfulness
Put on the snowsuit of sanctification
Pick up the shovel of salvation
And the ice-pick of hope
And the salt of happiness

For IN CHRIST ARE YOU GIVEN STRENGTH TO START!

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Starting Over

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

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Mark 1: 29-39

1. Healing at Sundown

My friend visits his mother frequently. She is 100 years old. She now lives in a nursing home, a quiet place along the north shore. Over 100 years she and her family have known many places, other homes, many regions, other settings.

Sometimes, as here, a mother and son can share over many years a deepening and deeply loving friendship. I wonder how Peter and his mother-in-law got along. I wonder about you and your mom and your mother in law, too. I wonder if Peter’s affection and connection were as strong as that between my friend and his mom.

One day my friend was visiting, late in the afternoon. You are probably aware of the phenomenon tagged by the term ‘sun downing’. Later in the day, women and men who otherwise can function, who otherwise can be fairly clear headed, head into the twilight. As the sun sets, the sun sets for them. They lose track. They lose their way. They lose a part of their mind. We are not told of Peter’s mother in law’s malady, or of the time of day or night on which she was touched. She had a fever. She felt worse and then felt better. On the day my friend visited, he visited in the later afternoon.

I don’t know about you, but the prospect of losing one’s memory and mind, or a part of one’s memory and mind, chills me. For some years I have been reading Proust, a few pages a day, to marvel at the magic of memory. Now, in my mid fifties, I find, here and there, that my certainty in memory sometimes is proven to be in inverse proportion to the exact nature of the events remembered. The more certain I am of something, now and then, the less true is the memory, the less certain the certainty. I addressed a friend a few days ago, certain he had graduated from Cornell. He had not. Indeed, he had not and had not any affection or desire for the school. He was not offended at the mismemory, but neither was he honored. This is to say that even the younger among us can appreciate sunset. Carpe Diem…

My friend visited his mother at twilight. When he visits, they tell stories, and share cotidian morsels. They remember together. In that, they resemble our gathering here. We remember together, too. Some of that memory is in prayer, or liturgy if you like bigger words. Some of that memory, some of the best of it, is in hymnody. Some of that memory is in readings like this one, wherein St Mark in about 70ad, recalls a moment in 25ad. I wonder how certain he was as he wrote out these few Greek sentences? Mark seems to have been given a little collection of healing stories, which he then arranges, with a little attempt to give them form and order. Yet there is very little in the historical cupboard here, for us. No furniture in the room, for example, and no room. No words of healing, like ‘epratha’ or ‘anastasia’. No prayers, no hours, no murmuring of crowds. He gives us only the memory of someone who starts over. Sick, now well. Fever, now gone. One lone mother-in-law. Do you notice how the Gospel moves person to person? Do you notice how healing gives way to service? And she served them…

There is little need for the early church to go into detail. Their conviction is that the Lord of whom Mark writes, is the Lord who speaks in the community of the faithful, the same Jesus who is present to them…and to us.

There is an individual quality to the passage today, not always present, particularly in the fully apocalyptic passages, like this one, laden with disease and healing, laden with possession and demons, laden with quiet and speech. Truly new starts begin with individuals. Finally and fully, you have only one sort of control, self-control. And even that ninth fruit of spirit is fragile. The world gets better one person at a time. So Simon. So Simon’s mother in law. So Simon’s neighbors and friends. Then, at last the whole city. You start resurrection like you start a campfire. You start over, one twig at a time, the smaller the better. In resurrection, that is, there is a place for twenty year olds.

Once the sun had set my friend thought maybe he should be moving along. He is a minister and so sometimes he says a prayer by the bedside. Sometimes he reads a little bit from the Psalms, or from the Gospels. ‘That evening, AT SUNDOWN, they brought to him all who were sick…’ I like to think that he read to her Mark 1:32, ‘at sundown…. Finding a living connection, a nexus as Peter Berger calls it, between your life and your religious tradition, is like finding a way to start over. Sundown, in Palestine, in 25ad. Sundown, in Massachusetts, in 2009ad. I like to think of my friend, at sundown, with his mother, at sundown, reading and praying, at sundown. The image has a healing quality to it, a medicinal and transformative quality. The day begins at sundown. Evening and morning, one day. Evening is the sign and the time to start over.

The world gets better one person at a time. I want to leave my friend hovering of his mother for a moment, like Simon leaning over his feverish mother in law. Hold him there in your mind, just for a moment.

2. There is Time

In the healing ministry of Jesus there was, and there still is, a powerful incentive to start over. He healed many… You may have missed several classes this term already, but there is time to start over. You may have fallen off the wagon year after year, over against much New Year’s resolution, but there is time to start over. You may have missed a chance or three to set things right with your partner, but there is time to start over. You may have now an enforced, a pink slip occasion to set out again, out onto the wide sea of a new career, but your time is time to start over. 82% of all job losses this recession have befallen men, not women. Men, there is time, time to start over. You might want to dust off your copy of an old book, Who Moved My Cheese?.

In the exorcist ministry of Jesus there was, and there still is, a powerful incentive to start over. He cast out many demons…This country may have let an unconscionable distance grow between the least among us and the elite among us, but there is time to start over. This country may have fallen off the wagon year after year, over against much resolution to eschew greed, but there is still time to start over. This country may have missed chances to build wise partnerships the globe over to support the things that make for peace, but there is still time to start over. We may now have an enforced, depression based occasion to set out again, out onto the wide sea of liberty and justice FOR ALL, but this is nonetheless, though perhaps unbidden and unchosen, still an occasion to start over. You might want to dust off your copy of an old book, The Courage To Be.

3. Religious Make Over

You sit in a likely place to start over. The gospel of Jesus Christ envisions a two way street between religious and intellectual life. One recent afternoon, on your behalf, with you in spirit and mind, I visited the Hillel House regarding a program on grieving, I visited the Islamic Society as they began their weekly prayers in the basement of the student union, I visited Swami Tyagananda at the Vedanta Society. We have nothing to defend and everything to share, if we remember who we are.

You sit in a likely place to start over. The
gospel of Jesus Christ envisions a two way street between the religious community and human experience. We sit together with those who ponder rules and policies for student life. We plan to celebrate with all who will come the non-religious holiday of Valentines’ Day, even as we already have observed Ground Hog day. We join with the Catholic Center and others in a mid-week celebration of Christian Unity. We have nothing to defend and everything to share, if we remember who we are.

4. The Glory of God is a Woman Fully Alive

Speaking of healing, we celebrated the funeral for a nurse here this week. Rose Dixon, a real human being! You may have seen her obituary in the Boston Globe. Born in 1949, an African American woman, Rose one day found the grace to start over. In 1967 she was working in drudgery, back in the file room of an insurance company. For someone of her vibrant personality, it must have been a prison. One afternoon a friend stopped in and told her about ODWIN, a new program for nurses. She graduated in 1972 from Boston University with a degree in nursing. She was healed, and she did heal!

Yet her healing was a part, a thin tradition voice across all these decades, of what life might be, a healing of the nation. Her niece, Melissa Christine Goodrum, an accomplished poet, put it this way:

Auntie Rose loved being Auntie Rose
And the billowing costumes of Masterpiece Theatre
The drama of the theatre, ballet and lights on Broadway
PBS, BBC and anything having to do with Jane Austin
Looking at the costumes, patrons and talking furs of the opera
Listening to the sopranos’ aria at the opera
Anrea Boccelli, Luciano Pavarrotti, Kathleen Battle, Mahalia Jackson and Sweet Honey and the Rock
Singing along with the soundtrack from the BODYGUARD
Listening to Mozart in her Mazda while driving along the Charles
The lights of New York City, Chinatown, and bargaining at the open market
Talking about the market and being savvy
Watching the pundits on CNN
Commenting like a pundit on CNN
Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, 60 Minutes and the Latest Breaking News
Watching Charlie Rose, listening to Charlie Rose
And watching his interviews with Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington and Sean Penn
Talking about the state of the world
Being hopeful about the future of the world
Talking about history and the politicians in the world

Another niece simply said, ‘Auntie Rose thought it was more important to look good than to be on time’.

She was healed, she healed, and she became a part of the healing of the nation.

The world gets better one person at a time.

To have time alone, Jesus rose early, and went out to a lonely place. The mystery of his life already prefigures the mystery of his death. The demons know him, so he will not let them speak. Preaching and healing, he continues on the way.

Did you notice the conclusion to our Psalm? Steadfast love is itself an inspiration to hope. An individual example of reliable love—and I have seen many this week among and within this congregation—is itself a source of hope. One by one. Peter, Mother in Law, Neighbor, Neighborhood, City, all…

5. A Chance Meeting

On Thursday Boston University gathered for the single biggest photograph ever. Students, faculty and staff filled out onto the basketball court at Agganis Arena, following the twilight victory, after sundown, of BU over Albany. One of the students was dressed as Jesus: long hair, full beard, white tunic, sandals. And a BU scarlet scarf. Who would have known that our Lord was a Terrier fan? Through the crowd I moved to greet him. I felt it was my duty, as Dean of the Chapel. At last the crowd parted, and before the sea of students moved again, I had the chance to stretch out my hand. My mind was blank, my lips were dry, and my voice quaked. At last, not knowing what to say, I gurgled, ‘I have always wanted to meet you…’ He lowered his chin, piercing me with his dark eyes, paused, and then said, simply, ‘I understand’. We talk about Jesus every Sunday here in Marsh Chapel, but at the Athletic Department, you can shake his hand. We preach about him here, but there you can greet him. We sing his praise here, but there you can look him in the eye. Unfair competition…

Healing happens one by one. This week, during my annual physical, our doctor measured, and looked, and tested, and questioned. Mostly, though, she listened. If you want to heal others, first you must make sure you are healthy. Jesus went out early, alone, to pray.

Sunday morning is the time we start over. Every Lord’s Day, every Resurrection Day, every Sunday is a time to start over. We remember, now, who are, who are meant to be, who we want to be, who we are trying to be.

6. G.B.Caird Starts Over

This summer I discovered in an old box, a prize possession, a copy of a sermon from 60 years ago.

It is GB Caird’s inaugural sermon as a professor of New Testament at McGill University, Montreal, in 1951. Here are some highlights:

“Today we have come to recognize that we have no knowledge of any Jesus of history other than the Christ to whom the writers of the New Testament bear united witness, that St. Paul made good his claim to have the mind of Christ and is in fact the greatest of all Christ’s interpreters, and that St. Mark’s Gospel is no less theological than that of St. John.

“Anyone who imagines that the contribution of critical scholarship to the study of the New Testament can be lightly brushed aside to allow for a return to the traditional orthodoxy must be totally ignorant of what he condemns.

“Sooner or later the demand was bound to be made for a new movement which should rediscover beneath the diversity the fundamental unity of the New Testament, which can be felt even by those unable to prove its existence. The prophet of the new movement was C H Dodd.

“We can still regard the Bible as the Word of God—a word communicated not by the automatic processes of verbal inspiration but through the fallible powers and kaleidoscopic variety of human speech and thought, yet a word unique in its authority and appeal.

“I propose to set before you in three illustrations a view of life which seems to me to be common to all the richly varied writings of the New Testament, and to be the peculiar contribution of those writings to the religious thought of mankind.

“The Sovereignty of God: God is the Lord of heaven and earth. It is he who makes his sun shine on the evil and the good…The invisible nature of God is clearly seen in the things he has made…Nowhere outside the Bible do we find such an exalted faith in the Living God…Only in the Bible and the religions derived from it do we find a belief in the sovereign purposes of God.

(Caird addresses Jewish nationalism, pessimism and legalism), before turning to the problem of evil, to which academic question the NT gives no answer, but rather responds to what can be done about it: “God has done something. His kingdom of righteousness has broken in upon the kingdom of Satan.” The NT supplants the above three with universalism, optimism, and spiritual freedom.

The Destiny of Man. “The NT always regards the life of man in the light of eternity…NT thought is always eschatological.” (NT combines vertical Greek with horizontal Hebrew eschatology. “The essence of sin is self-love and the essence of salvation is that the old self dies in order that out of it may rise a new self with its love set on the proper objects of love—God and neighbors.

“The Christian who knows and practices
the New Testament faith regards the world not as a vale of tears or as a house of correction, but as a fit setting for a life of heavenly citizenship…Perfection is a social achievement and only in the corporate perfection of the new society of God’s kingdom can a man find his own subordinate perfection.

The Argument from Experience. “Life in the New Testament is viewed in the light not of theory but of experience…It is impossible to describe an experience to one who is incapable of sharing it…It is no criticism of St Paul as a theologian if we say that he touches the deepest springs of our spiritual life when the theologian yields to the poet…The New Testament does not leave us in any doubt as to the nature of the equipment required for the appreciation of its testimony. To the humbling of all University professors, let it be admitted that it is not intellectual; there are things hidden from the wise and learned which are revealed to babes. The equipment is moral. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled…Whatever be the relation in other faculties between pure and applied science, we in the Faculty of Divinity are ever conscious that the science of theology must be subservient to the practice of Christian living.

“To the fatalism of those who see the world hustled by a blind impulse to an unknown destiny the New Testament proclaims that behind the manifold workings of the mysterious universe there is a personal and purposing power; to the loneliness of those whom the friendship of this world has failed to satisfy it offers the fellowship of a new society; to the optimism which still hopes to build utopia by social reform it declares that that society is already in being; to the materialism which has submitted to the facile attractions of worldly security and comfort it asserts that the kingdom is not of this world; to the rationalism which demands logical proof it responds with the testimony of personal experience; and to the pessimism which is overwhelmed by the burden of the world’s shame and sorrow it gives the assurance that the Lord God omnipotent reigns.”

7. Coda

Memory is such a fragile magic. I don’t know about you, but the thought of losing one’s memory and mind is chilling, to me.

Now it is sundown in the nursing home. Now my friend has read and prayed. Now he is ready to go, to go home, to go on to other duties and promises. His mother drifts a little at twilight. He puts on his coat and hat. He draws out his gloves. She gestures to him. ‘Tell me again who you are?’ And he does. ‘Oh, yes. Yes.’ He gives his love, and tells her of his love. He moves to leave. She gestures again to him. ‘Tell me again why it is that we love each other?’

Your memory is not as good as you think it is. Not for the big, old things, at any rate. So before the week begins, before I put on my gloves, before Monday morning hits, before we part company, we linger to remember why it is that we love each other. Then we are ready to start over.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

A Winter Grace

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

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Mark 1: 21-32

1. Frost Frontispiece

On New Year’s Day we gathered with our family. Many of you did the same. Four generations enjoyed a meal and time to talk, in a home in upstate New York. This lovely home is located in the Stockbridge Valley, one of the glacial cuts that did not sink deep enough to create a Finger Lake. It is a long lake-like indentation in the earth, but without any water, a beautiful valley, dotted with farms and homes and fields of corn stubble shooting up through the snow.

Speaking of snow. Our nieces had come the night before from southern Virginia, with one fervent hope. That it might snow. And snow it did, all night long, so that the bright morning sun broke out over a white sea of freedom, change and hope, a white sea of glistening powdered snow. Children have a different view of snow. The Bible says we must become as little children. We see snow and we see trouble. And we are right to see trouble. Trouble for plows, trouble for cars, trouble for traffic and transit, trouble for those otherwise abled, trouble for the general routine and run of things. Snow is bad for business, unless you run a ski lodge. In this economy, we see what is bad for business as even more trouble than usual. We count the cost. We count the cost of pews empty, restaurants half full, theatres quiet, power lunches cancelled, programs postponed, government offices shut. We have to do this accounting. We are the adults in the room.

Not so, children. Here is what children see when they wake up in the Stockbridge Valley and there is a powder all down the fields and rolling hills as far as the eye can see. They see freedom. They see a day of pure joy, down and up and down and up. They see a natural grace, the gift of the heavens for every child with a sled. So while the adults ate and talked, the children, with a few of the more young at heart uncles and aunts, headed for the hills. Down with a great whoosh! Up again and down. A pause for lunch and again to the unfettered freedom of free white powder, fallen from the heavens, bringing freedom.

We see what we want to see. We see what we expect to see. We see what we are accustomed to see. Children see with different eyes. For them, a comb is not only a grooming tool. It is a musical instrument as well. A pan and spoon are not only for cooking. You can make music with them, too. Clothes go on the right way, and they go on the wrong way too. And snow? Snow means freedom. Snow is not trouble. Snow is snow forts and snow is skiing and snow is sledding and snow is a cost free day of joy. Snow is a blanket of entertainment, like the gospel itself, free of charge.

2. Existential Winter

In May of 1992, in the middle of a big church meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, I got more than unusually lost, driving to church, an unfamiliar church, in that less than familiar city. I ended up somewhere I know not where on the other side of the wrong side of the tracks, driving on a peach of a spring Sunday morning, driving past row after row of terrible housing. Every city has such a neighborhood. Dirt where grass should have been. Rubble where porches should have been. Air where glass should have been. Peeling where paint should have been. And in front of this so-called housing, a range of quiet and taciturn children and grandparents. I guess this Louisville slum is not the poorest place I have seen but it stands out as the saddest poorest place, especially so on sleeping city sidewalk, and Sunday morning (coming down). Nothing as lonesome as that sound.

Imagine my shock to turn a corner, still irretrievably lost, to meet this sign: “The birthplace of Cassius Clay, Mohammed Ali, heavyweight champion of the world.” The prettiest, the greatest, the champion.

Bishop Robert Spain preached a wonderful sermon that morning, when I finally found my way. The music, teaching, fellowship and love of the suburban Methodist church were real and good. But God’s Word, that Sunday, was in the drooping porches and rat infested squalor that somehow, miraculously, gave birth to a champion. How could such a voice, a face, a body, a spirit, an intellect, a will, a mind, a man ever, ever, ever have emerged from such abuse and neglect? Why, it would be like saying that the divine could emerge from cattle stalls, or over-packed inns, or Palestinian slums, or neglected religion. Change is possible, change for the better.
How does something good emerge from what is not good? How does healing come out of ill health? While we have our more modern ways of describing the mystery, the same mystery met those listening to Jesus as he began his ministry. An unclean spirit, of plural dimension (‘us’), cries out. Jesus speaks: ‘Be silent. Come out.’ He speaks the same word still: be silent, come out. In apocalyptic mystery, ‘the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him’. All that long winter of hurt, and there, just there, grace. Wasn’t it Paul who claimed, ‘where sin abounds, grace over-abounds’? A winter grace…

3. January Prayer

Such a winter blast, life long, grants the courage of right prayer. Did you hear the beautiful Lowery benediction at the Inaugural?

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand — true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.
We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we’ve shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.
For we know that, Lord, you’re able and you’re willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.
We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.
And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.
And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or
wherever we seek your will.
Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.
We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.
Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right.
Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.

4. Snowscape

I preached all but one Sunday service from mid-August until the New Year. Then on January 4 I had the day off. We were driving up from Princeton with our daughter and two little grandchildren (two cars, many stops). North of Hartford on route 84 I began to pick up WBUR and heard (with intermittent interruptions from a Spanish language rock music program) the Marsh Chapel service. I listened as we crossed into Massachusetts, and as we drove east on Route 90. I wondered how many of my fellow drivers were listening as well (as noted above, Peter Lydotes at WBUR numbers our radio listenership at 30,000; we are trying to find a way to gauge the additional internet listenership). The service made me proud and made me tearfully happy. The music, liturgy and sermon were of the finest excellence. A live, poetic, musical, beautiful voice, emanating from Boston University! I paused just to savor it that morning, and to be grateful for the work of my staff and colleagues. While I have listened frequently to recordings of our services, this is the first one I have heard live, ‘on the road’, as it were. God lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.

5. Cool Air Coda

A new year, 2009, and with it so much brisk, cool newness of life! As night fell on the first day of 2009, we drove through a nearby city. Gone were the fields and corn stubble, gone the farms and livestock, gone the open wide spaces. It was still light, though just barely so, that dusky twilight that says so much to us every day, if we will but listen with the heart of an evening prayer. Up and down the city streets we drove as gradually the street lights came on. And every corner what did we see? Sleds in tow. Oh, the children were somewhat different in hue, somewhat different in attire, somewhat different aspect. Somewhat more ‘colorful’, somewhat more Lincoln-connected. You knew you were no longer in the country. But as the children crossed under streetlights, corner by corner, there it was, again, unmistakable, adorned in snow. Carried with the toboggan, lingering in the wet mitten, pushing out with the frosted breath, stashed in the snow clogged boot, there it was, again. Freedom. The very same freedom given from the heavens by a beautiful Nevada, what children see in snow, a day of freedom. It is one snow, and one snow alone, and one snowfall under which together we all breathe.

Can you recall Romans 12: 9-11?

The pardon:

In Hebrew, the same word for iniquity is the word for punishment. Your iniquity is your punishment. Your crime is your punishment. (M Robinson).

Jack Boughton was included in a ‘general happiness’ when playing baseball. This is like what happens at Fenway. New England. It is preparation evangelium. (M Robinson)

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill