Ten Point Start

Mark 7: 24-37

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Following Jesus’ declaration that all foods are clean, the Gospel of Mark begins to tell us about healings. These are healings done, in the main, for Gentiles. They are points of serious, apocalyptic incursion, when Spirit brings Life. They are openings, beginning points. ‘Ephatha’, says the Lord, ‘be opened’.

As the term opens, in the Spirit of the ancient ritual of Matriculation, we too are opened. We start again. I wish I had kept count this last week of the number of times someone said, ‘Happy New Year’. For our University community, this is a New Year. Be opened. Spirit is bringing Life to the community of Marsh Chapel in the heart of Boston University. Ten old refrains, ministerial proverbs, may open us further. Remember them as you start, as something truly new opens up.

1. Well begun is half done. You never step into the same river twice. Together we spent a full year, 2006-2007, on entry. We greeted and met, we visited and welcomed. The year passed quickly as we developed strategic plan. It was capped by the installation service of March 2007. It is worth the time to take the time to start well. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. (You see, as promised this is a sermon full of old sayings!).

2. Begin with the end in mind. Every New Year’s Day, one Unitarian minister goes to his own grave site, near Seattle, and sits during the better part of the day. You know Robert Fulghum as a humorist and preacher. He exemplifies, though, as serious point, to start. In your beginning is your ending (that is Eliot). We began in 2007 with an envisioned mission, to be ‘a heart for the heart of the city and a service for the service of the city’. We began with three Marsh thrusts: a return to national voice, a regard for the holy matter of vocation, and a re-entry into volume in worship. We are set among the Gentiles, among the Greeks, in Athens, nor Jerusalem. We are along the trolley line that runs from Tyre to Sidon. Just here! Just here, the Markan Jesus teaches us, just here is a new beginning, healing.

3. Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres. Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are. Mark does not need to tell his community much more than that Jesus was bested in argument by a Greek, a woman, a GREEK WOMAN, in order to show God’s love for the outcast, the stranger, the foreigner, the Gentile. You tell me with whom you spend your time, and I will tell you who you are. Better, I will tell you what sort of starting point they give you. “Keep your friendships in good repair” said Dr. Johnson. Better, attend to the gifts of good friendship that befall you. Vision in hand, we applied vision to staff strategy, and then built a new Marsh staff in 2008 out of that new strategy. Almost all our staff people, out of 36, are new in the last two years. This was the work of 2008, to see who would best ride on the bus, as Jim Collins said.

4. They need to know how much you care before they will care how much you know. We send our seminarians out, full of knowledge. (Do you know what the N on the Northeastern football helmet stands for? Knowledge). (☺) Jesus’ healing and the accounts of his healing are woven tightly around his teaching. The freedom of the pulpit is purchased in pastoral listening. If you are not listening 25 times a week, at the second level, that is, at a deep, personal level, in pastoral visitation, you will have nothing to say and no right to say it. The three rules of weekday ministry apply: visit the people, visit the people, visit the people. Last year, 2008-9 we printed our first term book. You have year two in your hand this morning (for radio congregants, there is coming a website version). The practice of faith is a communal project. Jesus’ brings an end to religion. The church is a ‘community of faith working through love’. Knowledge is good. Love is better.

5. Having just the vision is no solution, everything depends on execution. I quote S Sondheim, here, for once. Commitment to excellence means little without attention to detail. ‘If I by the finger of God..’ Jesus once said. Does God have fingers? Is God a Methodist? I cannot answer. But touch, the detail of attention, heals. Say aah… ‘He put his fingers in his ears and spat and touched his tongue’. There is hardly anything more modest in detail than saliva. Yet here is touch, and touch that heals. We want the voice of the Marsh broadcast service—the choir’s anthems, the pulpit’s challenge, the beauty of the liturgy—shared abroad. Touch. We want the vocation, the calling, where one’s deepest passion touches the world’s greatest need, explored. Touch. It is one thing to make living, another to make a life. We want the volume in worship here to soar! Touch.

6. Follow the money. Watergate taught us this. But Proverbs preceded Woodward and Bernstein. Money answers everything. For your sake, as you start, as you start a new autumn, or as you start a new life in faith, start right. Tithing, giving away 10% of what you earn, is the front step, the front porch, the front door of faithfulness. It is not a spiritual practice left only for maturity, left only for clergy, left only for times of ease. Start now, when you are unemployed. Start now, when you are a student. Start now, when your kids are students. For the JOY of it. Our advisory board, now two years old, leads by example. I love the tough, gritty response of the GREEK WOMAN! My colleague Rev. Robin Olson (a BU graduate) once preached a sermon titled, ‘There is Nothing Like an Uppity Woman’, on this text. She challenged Jesus to give. And he did. I challenge you to tithe. Not for my sake. Not for the Chapel’s sake. Not for the church’s sake. Not for the world’s sake. For your sake…You only truly have, you only truly own what you can give away.

7. Love your subject, love your students. Augustine of Hippo so summarized teaching. We are in a setting of teaching and learning. All of us are learning. All of us have something to teach. At a minimum, we need to sit in a circle, smiling, and say to one another: You are not God. I am not God. We are not God. (So, Camus). Our closest partners in this ministry are: The office of All University Events, the Chaplaincies and campus ministries (welcome Joshua Thomas), the College of Fine Arts, the School of Theology, the Dean of Students office, and the Medical Campus. No real learning occurs without a respect for the material and a respect for the student. Start by loving your students and loving your subject.

8. Preach the gospel and love the people. There are ways to summarize. This epigram summarizes the ministry of a community like ours. Preach with joy, serve with happiness! I visited occasionally an Episcopalian in our old neighborhood. She was a retired biology professor, who climbed trees in her 80’s. She served tea and offered joy, to the weary, to the clergy, to me. There once was a Pastor named Fiddle, who refused to accept a degree, for he said, ‘Tis enough to be Fiddle, without being Fiddle D D’! Jesus’ care for the health, the physical health of people, all even Gentile people, shines through the Gospel record. Health is a starting point. Ephphatha. Be opened.

9. Unite the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety. Now you have had ten sermons this summer, devoted to Darwin and faith, that scorched the angels’ wings, so high they were, so learned, and erudite, and powerful, and true. We turn to start the autumn. Can we join piety to this learning? Will people see vital piety, th
is week, in your forbearance, in your pastoral imagination, in your kindness, in your generosity, in your love? If not, when? Just when did you plan to make a start in faith? It is time for some of us to stop auditing the course of life, and to sign up, and to pay tuition, and to purchase books, and to take the course for a grade. And yes, if you wonder if I am talking about you, I am. Jesus did not spend every hour in the library. The moment he is located there, by the way, in the library, are relatively few. Zero to be exact.

10. Ministry is service. The word diakonia means service. Every Christian is a deacon, every deacon is a deacon, every elder is a deacon, the community of faith is diaconal through and through. Ministry is presence, but moreso, ministry is service. Let love be genuine….

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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