Archive for November, 2009

Take Heed

Sunday, November 29th, 2009
Luke 21:25-36

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Superstition discourages us from thinking too much about things that are too bad. Let sleeping dogs lie, we say. Irrationally, but honestly, we resist considering harsh possibilities, partly out of the very human hope that if we do not mention them, they will not happen, or, more dreamily, might not even exist. My parents’ generation had this feeling about the word ‘cancer’. In fact, at some level, most of us construe our lives most days as if we were, in the words of a poet and former parishioner now gone on to glory, ‘temporarily immortal’. Religion sadly and regularly includes measures of superstition, idolatry and hypocrisy, of pride, sloth and falsehood. This is the reminder, the warning, given us in the Protestant Principle, the necessary religious critique of religion.

You may augment or even multiply this manner of superstitious avoidance with regard to sermons. Hope, encouragement, promise—these are our homiletical preferences, both in listening and in speaking. A fellow OWU alumnus and an eminent graduate of Boston University, recently honored here and rightly so, made this his single message until his death on Christmas Eve in 1995. There is something to be said of and for, about, and with Norman Vincent Peale and his Power of Positive Thinking. Furthermore, there is simply sometimes a matter of courtesy at work in our reluctance to name the elephant in the room. We much prefer someone else to do so. If we are forced we will sometimes use the device, the locution, “John said that…” , so bracketing the offense in a quotation of some (hopefully absent) soul or other. We avoid, but life has a way of presenting itself anyway.

The day I deposited our youngest child in his freshman dormitory I met a fellow dad, a fellow depositeer. I soon learned that he was from my home town, Syracuse, and that he had been there in our own return years time, during the late 1980’s , and that he had been an SU administrator. Ignorant, I went ahead to ask, ‘How was your time in our neighborhood?’. If I could describe the pain in his eyes, which I cannot, I would not, for your sake, his and mine. “I was heavily involved in the recovery from Lockerbie”, he said. That probably means little or nothing to you from this long distance. Even then, 2002, it took a half-second for me to catch the sub-text, to hear the unspoken. When I caught up, I sorely regretted my courtesy, my prying inquisitiveness, overheated on a day of much emotion.

In 1988, in Lockerbie Scotland, 200 Syracuse students and others were hurled to their painful, horrific deaths by Libyan terrorists. In retrospect, you can draw a straight line with some other dots along it from 1988 to nineleven. That Christmas, then Chancellor Eggers, gave an interview in the Syracuse Herald Journal. I will never forget the tone of pathos, of loss in that interview. Nor will I forget his grief. Nor will I forget his challenge: ‘we look to the chapel, an nothing seems to come’. Now that I am the Dean of a Chapel, his words ring even louder, ever louder, louder still. Mel Eggers, a great builder, a great leader, a great president, never really recovered from Lockerbie, in my view. How could he? Remembering Eggers challenge, I have written today’s sermon, today’s interpretation of Luke 21, an ancient apocalypse.

Today, apologies now made in advance for what is an awkward and difficult message, I want to speak a pastoral word about the fire next time. We have the wisdom of the Bible, the presence of the Spirit and the experience of pastoral imagination to go on, but for a word like this we will also need your wisdom, your spirit, and your experience as well. In advance I ask your patience, forbearance, indulgence, and, perhaps even forgiveness. This is a hard word, both to speak and to hear.

As a world community, as a nation, and particularly as Christian people within both world and national communities, we need furiously to work to prevent, and we need strongly to be prepared. We need to work to prevent and we need to be prepared for the fire next time. I say this as someone who had to wait to hear if parishioners survived nineleven, who conducted services with thousands of people present in those days, whose parishioners were sent to discover the remains of the dead in NYC, who rode through the aftereffects of nineleven in a congregation of many thousand who were by turns faithful, angry, patient, vengeful, patriotic, nationalist, Christian and American. After the Sunday service, as powerful an hour of worship as I can recall, a friend nonetheless critically said, ‘Well, that was good, by you should have ended with ‘God Bless America’.

Nineleven did not start the fire. I hope that nineleven is its end. I pray so, I work so, I hope so, I fervently reverently desire that it may be so, that no other child shall have to hear that mom went to work and did not come home because of fire of that kind. May we spend every thoughtful moment, every creative hour, every generous impulse to beat back the flames of such a fire next time. My prayer and my expectation is that there will be no fire next time, no other nineleven. Such is not God’s will. Such is not our desire. Such is in nobody’s interest.

But I have parishioners, past and present and future. I am baptizing babies, marrying young people, counseling the bereaved, working with the sick, teaching faith by precept and example, and burying the dead, Friday by Friday. I have a pastoral responsibility that anyone with a pastoral imagination will admit includes being prepared for the unforeseen future.

Our apocalyptic gospel from Luke 21, a fading late 1st century prediction of the end of time, no longer occupies, twenty centuries later, the kind of literal centrality for Christian teaching which it did in the year 90. Even then, by Luke’s time, apocalyptic was waning. The church, beginning with the church’s formative influence on the New Testament, converted apocalyptic eschatology into ethical exhortation. Portents and predictions of wars and rumors of wars became, in the main, as they are today, words of caution and preparation, and warning. ‘Take heed…’. Be prepared. And on that basis this morning we shall render, interpret Luke 21.

Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. Then do your most. And leave all the rest. How many times have you heard me say that in three years? Yet how often have we truly preached the first line, about planning for the worst?

Not all tragedy befalls someone else. Not all inexplicable, hurtful, senseless accident happens to other families. Not all fire burns in the next town down the line. Into each life a little rain, and more than a little rain, does fall. If every heart has secret sorrows, which every heart does, then every home harbors potential hurt, as every home does. More: Religious expression has its perils.

The best way to prepare for the fire next time is fire prevention. The best way to stop the fire is to keep it from starting. We all have some responsibility here. You have responsibility. You have responsibility in your time and in your way to strive for the things that make for peace. You can make a difference. Let me take just two examples, speaking of religion, with regard to a crowded small world in which, Europe and some parts of North America excepted, religion is furiously alive. That is not necessarily a good thing, but it is a fact.

First, you need to know something about non-Christian religion. You are in a good place to make a start. In 30 minutes, starting at Marsh Chapel, you can visit active communities of mo
st of the world’s great religions, on foot, along Bay State Road. Right here, you can take a walk and learn something in one half hour about Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism, and, that great New England religious expression, Baseball. A simple walk along Bay State Road and on out to Fenway Park will show you Hinduism, Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and the search for Common Ground. You can read Huston Smith, or read him again. Before you come back to church, push yourself to some further, better comprehension of the world’s religions. They make a difference—not always for the good. Take heed. It is good form not to judge what you do not understand or know. Walk in different moccasins. You need not affirm, agree with, or accept any particulars from any of these traditions, but these are things that matter, greatly, to the vast majority of the world’s population which population looks, by the way, not all like you.

Second, for your own health and well being you need, for your own health, to find one counter influence to the fire next time, of your own considered selection, and make a point of doing something. Help Iraqi refugees. Support housing for the world’s poor. Fund a mission trip beyond the borders of this country. Travel for learning and for serving. Spend some time in ‘women without borders’ discussion groups. As Christian people you have nothing to defend and everything to share. Our special offering envelopes today support Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Coalition. Support our own nascent, new this year, Marsh Chapel and BU Religious Life InterFaith Council. If nothing else, you could write a check.

Prevention matters. Nonetheless, all the prevention in the world and for the world is not enough. It is not enough to prevent, as primary as that is. We also need to prepare.

We may have another serious catastrophe, somewhere in the country or somewhere around the globe. It is not a question of taking such a portent in stride, for there is no such stride and no such taking. Yet we can prepare ourselves, spiritually, for days we hope will never arrive. We can prepare by ‘taking heed’, facing facts, being ready.

How?

One starting point is a phrase from our President in 2002: ‘we shall meet violence with patient justice.’ I never tire of repeating this quintessentially wise proverb. You may dispute the living of it, even harshly judge various failures both in patience and in justice. That however does not diminish the truth, and the honest integrity, of the desire and insight. Patient justice. We can learn to respond not to react. We can learn to be responsible not reactive, that is to seek patient justice.

But to do so, we shall need deeper, truer preparation. I wonder what kind of training those civil disobedient youth had fifty years ago that kept them in check in the face of dogs, hoses, curses and clubs? No training alone would ever be enough. There must reside, deeper in the heart, what Niebuhr called ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’. That is, we are going to need to learn the arts of disciplined endurance. I think at some low level of our collective psyche we are pushing toward this. Hence the increase in jogging, in running, in cycling, in all forms of physical endurance. At some bone level our bodies are telling us to be prepared for a long twilight struggle.

Those of us who live in US cities by choice have every reason to think soberly in these terms. We are potential targets. Radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, and other forms of terrorism, are actual historic realities, which need to be tracked, contained and defeated by international police and military work. Meanwhile, here we are. The fact that another so-called fire may break out, or does break out, does not change the lasting commitments we have to freedom, peace, justice, and love. In fact, such portents serve to toughen and harden our commitments so named. As Luke remembered his apocalyptic inheritance, let us remember our religious inheritance, in the voices of those who can encourage, admonish, and advise us. Here are three, and very different voices, lifted near here, this fall.

One. Anton Chekov advises us. A friend led me back to his work, after thirty years. Coming from someone so wise who died so young, his words bear weighted meaning. I note them and quote them for they bear such weighted meaning: ‘My holy of holies is the human body…faith is rooted in experience and in acts of charity…Knowledge leads to truth, but knowledge does not exhaust truth…I affirm an all embracing love of life’ (Fr Thomas, in BMC lecture, 11/19/09)

Two. Andrew Bacevich admonishes us. His prophetic voice has gradually received a fuller hearing, across the land, though from his Boston University office he has been writing and speaking for more than a decade. Caution and promise: real change is real hard and takes real time. Bacevich gives me encouragement because his work and word have only gradually, first minimally, then marginally, then more massively gained a purchase, a foothold, a hearing. He taught twice here at Marsh Chapel earlier this month. Coming from someone so wise and from someone of his experience, his words bear weighted meaning. I note them and quote them fully for their bear such weighted meaning. He admonishes, ‘The American people will ignore the imperative of settling accounts—balancing budgets, curbing consumption, and paying down debt. They will remain passive as politicians fritter away US military might on unnecessary wars. They will permit officials responsible for failed policies to dodge accountability. In Niebuhr’s words, they will cling to ‘a culture which makes ‘living standards’ the final norm of the good life and which regards the perfection of techniques as the guarantor of every cultural as well as every social-moral value’. Above all, they will venerate freedom while carefully refraining from assessing its content or measuring its costs. ‘The trustful acceptance of false solutions for our perplexing problems adds a touch of pathos to the tragedy of our age’. (Limits, 182).

Three. Elie Wiesel is a great encouragement to many of us. Each autumn at Boston University, on three Monday evenings, our community sits to listen as he sits to teach. Biblical theology, historical criticism, religious insight, and pastoral guidance are annually, regularly, beautifully combined. I listened to his last, his third lecture, this fall, from the balcony. Due to another earlier commitment, I had to arrive a little late, and so went up to the balcony. In any case, by confession, I am a balcony sitter, by nature. The sight lines are always better, the sound is always the clearer, and there is plenty of space. Wiesel this year concluded his reflections on the tragic history of the ‘St Louis’, a moment of American moral failure which had mortal consequences, with some words of advice. Coming from someone so wise and from someone of his experience, they bear weighted meaning. I noted them quickly and quote them fully for they bear weighted meaning. They bear weighted meaning for us, as we face an uncertain, unforeseeable, unforeseen, and perilous, future: ‘Waiting in the face of crisis is a sin…Silence in a crisis is a sin too…When you are planning to give help, do so quickly…Act yourself, do things yourself, do not depend on someone else to do it for you…Never give in to despair…Never give up on hope…Think higher…Feel deeper’.

So we also read in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 21, verse 25 and following:

But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand be
fore the Son of Man.

~The Reverend Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

Bach and Beauty

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009
John 18:33-37
Revelation 1 4b

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Robert Allan Hill: As you were saying…

Scott Jarrett: Yes, as I was saying, two months ago, when last our broadcast and local worship service featured a Bach cantata, there is a rare beauty in Bach.

RAH: This year we determined in dialogue, you and I, on Bach Sundays, to affirm the good of Christ by entering more deeply the beauty of Bach.

SJ: Yes, word and music together, music and word, the gospel sung.

RAH: I guess we are a sort of religious ‘Click and Clack’.

SJ: Maybe more like ‘Clink and Clunk’?

RAH: Maybe so. Not every nineteen year old, nor even every ninety one year old hears clearly, at the first hearing, the beauty in Bach. Like all things lasting and good, there is some learning, effort, extension, growth, change, challenge involved.

SJ: True, enough. Pilate asks ‘What is truth?’ Well, the poet answered, ‘truth is beauty, and beauty is truth’. True enough. Though not all of the Scriptures are immediately transparent to us, or at least to me, they are nonetheless very beautiful.

RAH: Today’s Christ the King readings are just so, opaque and lovely. ‘Behold he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him’ (Rev. 1:7). Even uprooted out of its ancient apocalyptic ground, uprooted from the primitive hope of the earliest church, there is a soaring beauty to such a triumphant hope. Beauty brings hope.

SJ: Ah, at last, dear friend, you have brought us to Bach.

RAH: Did I? I was merely interpreting a verse from the Revelation?

SJ: Some of our best accomplishments come quite by accident…even in preaching…

RAH: This is ruefully so… Dr. Jarrett, can you guide us for a moment into the beauty of this Bach Cantata? For what shall listen in the thirty minutes to follow?

SJ: Let me mention three things. First, today’s cantata was originally written for Advent, and then later transposed for Christ the King. So, there is a fair amount of ‘eschatological beauty’ here. That is, the ultimate things, the last things, the lasting things, ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’, are pronounced here. Second, there are a couple of words for which we should particularly listen…Third, the most beautiful moment in the cantata, for me, comes at a certain point. Let me name it for you…

RAH: When you teach your students about music, is there a moral sense that arises, within the beauty?

SJ: Well, that depends on what you mean. The music, the choral beauty, just is. It has and needs no defense. Like truth. Truth needs no defense, falsehood has none.

RAH: In the long run.

SJ: In the very long run, but you were the one who brought up eschatology.

RAH: True. And beautiful!

SJ: When you see our students, especially our undergraduates, what do you wish for them, come Sunday?

RAH: Many things. But today, come this Sunday, I covet for them beauty. Beauty reminds us of grace. Beauty recalls our high humanity. Beauty lifts us up from the curb and places us in the clouds. Beauty dresses us up in the finery for which we were meant, for which our grandparents prayed and our parents paid. Beauty takes the world and makes it clean again, holy not innocent to be sure, but clean again. Beauty—today Bach, tomorrow Monet, next week Chekov—beauty saves us from our own worst selves and returns us to the road of our own best selves.

SJ: You know, when I come into Marsh Chapel, I feel that. I see beauty in the architecture. I hear beauty in the silence. I admire beauty in the windows. I revere beauty in the words chiseled in stone. Boston University, here, reaches for beauty.

RAH: The history of our school includes many who sought beauty in truth, and truth in beauty.

SJ: Do any particular people come to mind?

RAH: Why thank you for asking! Erazim Kohak, a philosopher from the last generation said, ‘Humans can become wholly absorbed in the preoccupations of time…There can humans who become blind to goodness, to truth, to beauty, who drink wine without pausing to cherish it, who pluck flowers without pausing to give thanks, who accept joy and grief as all in a day’s work, to be enjoyed or managed, without ever seeing the presence of eternity in them. But that is not the point. What is crucial is that humans, whether they do so or not, are capable of encountering a moment…as the miracle of eternity ingressing into time. That, rather than the ability to fashion tools, stands out as the distinctive human calling’. (Embers, 85). Bach and beauty, Bach and beauty…

SJ: Who do not sing a Bach cantata every Sunday, but you know there is a kind of cantata sung with every hymn. Every time our congregation stands to sing, in four part harmony, we approach beauty. Further, that harmony, that experienced harmony out of difference, unity out of diversity, one hymn out of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, that harmony is itself a saving reminder, a remembered salvation. Difference blends, often blends well. When we forget, when our voices and bones forget the experience of beauty in four part, in choral harmony, we miss something crucial, saving, essential, for our common life.

RAH: In other words, the future depends on good, four voice, hymn singing?

SJ: Maybe it isn’t quite that simple. But there is a beauty, there is a beauty, and a truth within it.

RAH: Friends give our own true selves back to us, as you have done today. Here is what I mean. You have helped me understand something, something deep and good. Last summer I went around preaching in various places, as you know. One day I went to speak at a big conference. There were about 1,000 people, gathered in a large hotel room, for worship and communion. There was music, of a sort. Some instruments, a praise group, a music leader with words thrown up on a screen behind. All sang, pretty well, together, following the screen and one melody line. Something though was radically missing. The sermon came and went. We began the ritual for eucharist. The one line singing continued, just words on the screen, no notes. Then, maybe by accident, the music leader played the melody for a familiar hymn, ‘Let us break bread together’. All of sudden, the room lit up. The color blind saw red and blue. The deaf heard. I mean, the conference members knew, by memory, the four part harmony of the hymn. They knew the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines, by heart. And they sang them, together. It was an apocalyptic moment. A joyful moment. An inbreaking of eternity into time moment.

SJ: That may happen again today. You never know. Bach and beauty, truth and beauty, harmony and beauty. ‘Behold He is coming with the clouds, and every eye shall see him’.

RAH: Let us rise and harmonically sing together.

~Dean Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel,
and Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music at Marsh Chapel

Little Apocalypse

Sunday, November 15th, 2009
Mark 13:1-8
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The passage today from St Mark is sometimes called the ‘Little Apocalypse’. The reading is a place in the Gospel where and when we overhear the troubles of Mark’s community. They face persecution. In facing trouble, they wonder whether the end of time has come.

The Gospel writer records the Lord’s response that ‘the end is not yet’. The rest of this long chapter, which will include some apocalyptic language and imagery from the first century, continues to make the same point. The end is not here. There may be trouble, trauma, and persecution, but the end is not here. In end, at the end of Mark 13, we will be counseled that no one can see the future, and that we should therefore be watchful.

In this way, the Gospel lesson is not that different from the reading from Hebrews, where we are similarly encouraged to be gentle, thankful, loving, and watchful. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works”. A remarkable, beautiful admonition.

Taken as whole, the New Testament books, while shot through with apocalyptic language and imagery, like that found in Mark 13, expectations of the end of time current at the time the books were written, these books move away from apocalyptic thought. Some temper that thought. Some discard it. The Gospel of Mark tempers it. The Gospel of John discards it.

In its place, in the main, the New Testament books proclaim a way of living in thanksgiving, a way of living in love. In our day, and in our particular part of history, including these past several days with their own troubles and their own trauma, we may want to take a clear reminder with us of thanksgiving, of love. ‘Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works’.

Howard Thurman helps us to ‘consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.’ Every year, about this time, I re-read his seasonal prayer. Listen to it again…

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.

A former neighbor and fellow pastor, Max Coots, had a way of helping us to ‘consider how to stir up one another to love and good works’. Every year, about this time, I remember his poem to that effect.

“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:
For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….
For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;
For feisty friends as tart as apples;
For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;
For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;
For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;
For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;
For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;
For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;
For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;
And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;
For all these we give thanks.”

Our very language, our way of speaking, helps us to ‘consider how to stir up one another to love and good works’. The Gospel reminds us that every day is our last, that every day we are called to live the full assurance of faith, to the very best of our ability. We do it with similes, that call us to live with faithful assurance. To live with our utmost faithfulness. To live by encouraging one another, to be…

As bold as…brass
As safe as…a church
As pretty as…a picture
As rich as…Rockefeller
As easy as…pie
As happy as…a lark
As happy as …a clam
As old as…Methusala
As cold as…ice
As neat as…a pin
As tall as… a mountain
As fit as…a fiddle
As pretty as…a picture
As deep as…the ocean
As high as…the sky
As gentle as a lamb

“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works”.

May this be the way our community is know, our church is seen, and our lives are measured. May this be the way we are named, by others.

The Reverend Doctor Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

A Tale of Two Marks

Sunday, November 8th, 2009
Mark 12: 38-44
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1. Preface

Before you work high you build a scaffold to get yourself up there.

Steeple Jacks do not use a scaffold. They use rope and pulleys, and they rightly earn many hundreds of dollars an hour. As one said to me, quoting Scripture, and speaking of the dangers of height, “Jesus said, ‘Lo(w) I am with you”. Meaning, he continued, ‘up high you are on your own’.

Our first and smaller churches, some five of them, hired Steeple Jacks for the minor tiling, shingling, painting and other repairs required of small church steeples on small steeple churches. One was squat enough (the church I mean not the Jack) that he could go up by ladder. Our sixth church (and the seventh, too) was a ‘tall steeple church’. The trustees tried to get by with a Steeple Jack, every time repairs were needed, but most times, no, they needed to spend more. Once a two hundred pound section of copper plate fell off that steeple onto a University neighborhood street. Exposure, liability, act of God, randomness—these words appeared in sermons later that month. No one was hurt. Scaffolding went up the next week, and stayed up for several expensive days.

The interior space of churches also requires endless attention. As with care of the human body after the age of forty, the motto for sanctuary care must be ‘maintenance, maintenance, maintenance’. Interior scaffolding also comes at a price. Sure you prefer to change light bulbs and paint ceilings with a huge step ladder and a fearless Trustee or hired painter. Sure. But the higher the nave, the, well, I refer you to adage above. “Lo(w) I am with you”. Not high.
Even before any paint is spilled, and even before any long lasting bulbs are replaced, there is work, there is cost, there is meaningful preparation.

So it is, as you know, in preaching. The interpreter either swings in the breeze like a Steeple Jack, if the matters of historical interpretation are low fences (Paul’s letters come to mind), or, if the height is greater, scaffolding is needed (the Hebrew Scripture, all the Gospels, and especially the Gospel of John come to mind). What you see when the work is done, is the steeple repaired, the roof replaced, the paint (both coats) applied, the bulbs changed. But before that there has been scaffolding up, so that the work could be done.

2. Markan Scaffolds

We come this morning to the interpretation of a passage from Mark. Mark requires scaffolding. We cannot begin to paint until we have someplace to stand. No light bulbs will be changed until we can reach the fixtures. Help me with the scaffolding this morning.

We know not who wrote Mark, only his name. He wrote for a particular community, whose location and name are also unknown. He even mentions by name members of his church, Alexander and Rufus (15:21). The book is meant to help a community of Christians. It is written to support and encourage people who already have been embraced by faith. While it purports to report on events long ago, in the ministry of Jesus, its main thrust is toward its own hearers and readers forty years later. So it is not an evangelistic tract and it is not a diary and it is emphatically not a history.

You will want to know what we can say, then, about Mark’s community. If the community gave birth to the gospel, and if the community is the primary focus of the gospel, and if the community is the gospel’s intended audience, you would like to know something about them. For one thing, the community is persecuted, or is dreading persecution, or both. Jesus suffered and so do, or so will, you. This is what Mark says. This gospel prepares its hearers for persecution. For another thing, the church may have been in or around Rome, or more probably somewhere in Syria. It is likely that Mark was written between 69 and 73 ce. For yet another thing, Mark’s fellow congregants, fellow Christians, are Gentiles, in the main, not Jews. He is writing to this largely Gentile group. He writes for them neither a timeless philosophical tract nor an ethereal piece of poetry. His is rather a ‘message on target’. Further, Mark’s composition, editing, comparisons, saying combinations, style and Christology all point to Mark as the earliest gospel (J Marcus).

I have used the word gospel. You have heard the word many times, and know that it means ‘good news’. It is an old term. You could compare it to ‘ghost’. Gospel is to good news and ghost is to spirit, you might say. Yet Mark calls his writing a ‘gospel’. He creates something new. Mark is a writing unlike any other to precede it. It is not popular today any longer, no longer fashionable, to say this. It is however true. Mark is not a history, not a biography, not a novel, not an apocalypse, not an essay, not a treatise, not an epistle. Examples of all these were to hand for him. Mark might have written one of any one of them. He did not. He wrote something else and so in form, in genre, gave us something new. A gospel. His is the first, but not the last.

Mark is not great literature. It is not Plato, not Cicero, not Homer. Nor is the Greek of the gospel a finely tuned instrument. It is harsh, coarse and common. The gospel was formed, formed in the life of a community, as described earlier. Its passages and messages were announced as memories meant to offer hope. Its account of Jesus, in healing and preaching and teaching, all the way to the cross and beyond, is offered to a very human group of humans who are trying to make their way along His way. The Gospel is a record of the preaching of the gospel. To miss this, or to mistake this, is to miss the main point of the Gospel, and of the gospel. It is in preaching that the gospel arrives, enters, feasts, embraces, loves, and leaves. It is in preaching that you hear something that makes life meaningful, makes life loving, makes life real. It is in preaching that the Gospel of Mark came to be, as a community, over time, heard and reheard, remembered and rehearsed the story of Jesus crucified (his past) and risen (his presence). We should not expect narrative linearity, historical accuracy, or re-collective precision here. And in fact, we find none. Let me put it another way around. Most of the NT documents are, in one way or another, attempts to remember, accurately, the nature and meaning of baptism. Well, Mark fits that description. What does it mean, here and now, to be a Christian?

3. Mini Anti-Fundamentalist Jeremiad

You may preach, you may interpret the Gospel flat, in a synchronic not a diachronic way. You may simply read it, and make comments on it, as you please. In the same way, you may fix a roof by hurling shingles to the heavens, hoping some, with appropriate missile guided nails, will land on the roof. You may paint the walls of your church by opening the can, stirring the paint, and letting fly. It is a primitive procedure, but you are free to use it. You may aim your arm at various fixtures, and pitch light bulbs upward in the hope that some may land in place and, perhaps with a little breeze, turn themselves in. Across the l
and we have examples of this kind of preaching without scaffolding. I do not recommend it, neither for hearer nor for speaker. You know anyway when somebody doses you with a bucket of paint. You know what it feels like and how to judge it.

So far, there is, with a few exceptions, broad consensus on the needed Markan scaffolding, in its general shape, heft and contours, as just described. But we have one more tier to place before we have reached our necessary height. Here the height and the weight of the matter make the scaffold lean and swing a little. Just which planks need to go where, here, is uncertain. In our reading and hearing of the Gospel of Mark we need to step carefully here, just at the very top.

4. Last Plank: A Tale of Two Marks

I put it this way. Ours is a tale of two Marks. Is Mark a moderate critic or is Mark a critical moderate? How you answer will both depend on and indicate where you stand on the scaffold. Moderate critic, critical moderate? That is, across the length of his Gospel, is Mark actively criticizing others or is he carefully moderating, coaching if you will, the approach of others? Is the tone of the gospel polemic or irenic?

Mark is clearly an apocalyptic writing, although clarity about this has only fully emerged in the last generation or so. Mark expects the end of all things in his own time, and so the Markan Jesus so instructs his followers. In fact, Mark expects the culmination of all things, soon and very soon. In this regard, and in regard to his understanding of the cross, Mark has some congruence with the letters of Paul. Given this apocalyptic perspective, is Mark a critic or a coach?
Critic

The first option, Mark the moderate critic, was most piercingly presented almost forty years ago. First let me give you the outline of the planking in this part of the scaffold, and then let me tell you about the carpenter.

On this view, Mark combats a view of Jesus that will not accept his suffering, his crucifixion. Long after the events of Calvary and Golgotha, spirited and strong people, singing a happy song, have caused the earliest church to forget their baptism, or its meaning. They expect ease, spirit, joy, and, soon, a conquering victory over all that plagues and persecutes them. Mark says no. To say no Mark remembers in delicate detail the story of Jesus’ passion, relying on a source, a document he has inherited. To say no, Mark pointedly shows the ignorance and cowardice of Peter, at Caesarea Philippi and in Jerusalem. To say no, Mark criticizes, diminishes the miracles of Jesus, letting them wind away to nothing as the Gospel progresses. To say no, Mark describes the disciples as diabolical dunces. They didn’t understand it and neither do you, he says. Mark stays within the fold of the inherited story of Jesus, the gospel of teaching and passion, of Galilee and Jerusalem. But he does so as a moderate critic of those who are unrealistic of the suffering that continues, from which the gospel does not deliver, any more than Jesus had been delivered from the cross. Saved, yes, delivered, no. On this view, at the heart of Mark there is a bitter dispute in earliest Christianity about what constitutes discipleship, baptism, and Mark is out to prove his opponents wrong. As with the alternative, there is plenty of evidence to support this sort of scaffold.

I am pleased, and honored, to tell you that the person who most powerfully presented this view is a dear friend of mine. In fact, he was my immediate predecessor in our Rochester church. My eleven years in that pulpit immediately followed his seventeen. He is a Methodist minister who did his doctoral work at Claremont. It has taken some decades for the force and power of his argument to stand up and stand out in comparison to the work of others. Ted Weeden is his name: ‘Jesus serves as a surrogate for Mark, and the disciples serve as surrogates for Mark’s opponents…The disciples are reprobates’. (op cit, 163).
Coach

The second option, Mark the critical moderate, has in a way been present for a longer time, and, one could say, is still the more dominant, the majoritarian position. I read through the summer the culminating presentation of this position in a two volume Anchor Bible Commentary. Imagine my surprise, opening the books, to read that the author was (once) on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology. His name is Joel Marcus, now at Duke. On this view, things in Mark’s community are not so much at daggers drawn. There are differences to be sure, but the disagreements are differences among friends. The Markan coaching does not face strong spirit people, committed to an idea of the ‘divine man’. Mark is not so negative about miracles. The disciples are mistaken but not malevolent. The titles for Jesus are not so telling or convincing. The real trouble is not so much in the community itself (perish the thought), but outside, among the potential deceivers of the church. Hence, on this scaffold, Mark has the job of more gently reminding his hearers of the cross, of suffering, of discipline, of the cruciform character of Christianity, as a moderate, a critical moderate, but a moderate more than a critic.

We have a hard time imaging that our faith tradition was born out of serious conflict. It is like family stories. We really don’t like to imagine that our family tree is littered with broken branches, dead limbs, crooked roots, and Dutch elm disease. We like the picture of the Palm Tree, majestic and free. The second option appeals to our sense of pride in our Christian heritage. It is a more pleasing view. But the former, Weeden’s Mark, is over time the stronger scaffold, and what we need from a scaffold is not presentation but reliability, not beauty but strength.

Here is where my feet come down. Marcus appeals to my heart, what I wish were true or truer. But my mind trusts Weeden. Our passage today, Mark 12: 38-44, is a case in point.

5. Today’s Markan Gospel

Our passage today teems with criticism. There is venom here. There is hurt, too. There is an outsider looking in. There is a widow, righteous, but overshadowed. You too were outsiders, the passage recalls. You follow one who sat outside, who had his eye on the sparrow, who resented the robes, the prayers, the stoles, the seats, the feasts, the forgetful unsympathy which occludes human vision and corrupts human life. Be careful. In God’s time, the first become last. When it comes to giving, the question is not how much but from how much…

“The fact that it follows Jesus’ summons of the disciples, moreover, could hint that the lesson is particularly important for the members of the Markan community. Are there perhaps rich people there as well as poor ones, and are the ostentatiousness of the former and their callousness toward the latter among the spiritual dangers besetting Mark’s church home” (Marcus, II, 861).? For Mark, the disciples are the church, his church. Just how hard on them is he?

Mark: moderate or critic? This passage begins with an attack upon the scribes of old, and so upon the leaders of Mark’s church. This passage concludes with a wry portrait of a poor widow, a picaresque portrait of unjust distance between rich and poor in the Temple, and so in the community of Mark’s church. Today’s passage, concluding the gospel’s narrative before the passion, shows us Mark the critic, Mark the prophet. He might have Jesus add: ‘I saw many in the temple that day….and it seems like I saw some of you there, too.’

Two tones are po
ssible for this sentence: she has given all she has, her whole life. One moderate, a good stewardship lesson. One critical, a call to change. The latter is the truer, the latter is the gospel.

6. Climbing Down: Applying Today’s Gospel

Three suggestions follow, regarding awareness, regarding assessment, and regarding allegiance, when it comes to scaffolds, to the frames from which we see and hear, build and repair.

We see what we expect, or want, to see. We hear what we are accustomed to hear. We have our scaffolds. “All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye” (Pope)._

Are they the right ones?

Granted that the scaffolds on which you stand to build or repair the steeples of your lives are fundamental, necessary, and crucial, are these, yours, the right ones for your life today? Are you aware of your presentiments, your prejudices, your perspectives? Are you? Can you give an account, for example, of your religious perspective? We are more regularly challenged to account for our political perspective, conservative or liberal, or our economic perspective, libertarian or egalitarian, or our cultural perspective, bohemian or bourgois. Today the Markan Jesus sits, sits, outside the temple, and turns a moderate or critical eye upon the horizon, upon the whole, upon what purports to represent the good, true, beautiful, and holy. What is your scaffold made of, when you lean toward the realities of dawn and twilight?

Are you aware of the scaffolds you have ascended?

Then let me ask you, since this Sunday, and now we have awareness, to assess your religious scaffolding. Does it hold? Here are a couple of tests, ways to jump a bit up and down on the board, without yet falling. What about death and taxes?

Does your religious scaffold hold, when you are reaching out to fix up the steeple in the hour of death? Last Sunday, Tom Long, our colleague in Atlanta, preached an op-ed sermon about our cultural, spiritual inability gracefully to approach and accept death. He recommends some better scaffolding: ‘show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people (Gladstone’…People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living’. (NYT, 11/1/09)

Does your scaffold hold, when you are facing financial extremity? Has the scaffold the strength to hold you up, while you look out for that next job, while you look down at the prospect of debt, while you look up at your hope for measured frugality, while you look in toward the same potential greed Jesus saw in the temple of old? If the scaffold wobbles here, you have some work to do.

Have you assessed your scaffold?

Then, to conclude, let me ask you something. Where is your lasting allegiance? Given awareness. Granted assessment. Whose are you? Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Where is your allegiance? Is it time to change? Is it time to find a better scaffold, I mean perspective, I mean scaffold, I mean worldview, I mean scaffold, I mean faith? One of our friends sent in this comment on a sermon last month: ‘I’d further suggest it is time to unleash a more aggressive message: that only stupid people think they are so smart that they can figure out everything for themselves and that if they (and everyone else) just maximize their self-interest we will end up with the best of all possible worlds. Rather, really smart people know that they are both limited but responsible and that their best hope is to join in the company of other faithful people in a life of prayer and study and worship to help illumine the path.’

Have you come to a moment of change?

A long time ago, a preacher and Greek scholar summed up his own way of thinking: ‘If thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand’. Can you hear the trust held, affirmed, offered there? ‘If thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand’. Can you hear the openness, there, the maturely naïve confidence there, the fresh breeze there? ‘If thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand’. Can you hear the freedom and grace there? It begs to be heard. In its hearing is your health, safety, healing, salvation.

The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

Simplicity

Sunday, November 1st, 2009
John 11: 32-44
Click here to hear sermon only

Preface

Purity of the heart is to will one thing.

To will one thing.

Simplicity.

Have no anxiety about anything but in all things in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving lift your needs to God.

No anxiety.

Simplicity.

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindkness, and walk humbly with your God?

Simplicity.

So Kierkegaard. So Paul. So Micah.

My friend says it this way…

Wherever you are, be there.

Jesus says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’.

Simplicity?

Our text, our tradition, our time in life today evoke within us an awareness of a simplicity that is not so simple longing.

So of course we must preface all that comes with a Dutch uncle paragraph to warn against simplicity that is false, shallow, untrue. The airwaves abound with such.

Our text, our tradition, our time itself will guide us.

One: Text

First, John 11.

Is this not the end of the seven signs? It is.

Is this not an account peculiar to John’s memory? It is.

Is this not the crowning announcement of the gospel which ends—you remember how the book ends?—‘these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ and that believing you may have life in his name’.

To hear John today we must, must, hear his story, the story of the community that formed the gospel out of disappointment, dislocation and departure. There, there, they found freedom, grace and love.

Lazarus is unknown to the rest of the New Testament. It is sondersprache.

My children had their own such speech. Yours did too.

John whose community found freedom in the aftermath of disappointment. John whose community grasped grace in the aftermath of dislocation.

The greatest hope of the primitive church had been disappointed. Christ had not returned, one, two, three generations later. John, alone, had the courage to look about and find the freedom to change his thought. Heaven is here and now. Hell and judgment, too. Every day is the last day. As Rauschenbusch said, “which is more daunting, the thought of meeting Christ on the last day, or the thought that every day is lived in his presence? Today is the last day, until the next last day, which is tomorrow.

We too need to find our theological voices, after 50 years of wandering in the wilderness. There is hardly any lasting theological writing from the Protestant churches since Tillich. We have been surviving as nomads in a wasteland, now two generations wide. Voices, free and graces, will emerge, new voices for a new day. Especially that will help us think again about unity and diversity, and move us from a unified diversity to a diversified unity, which we shall need to survive the challenges of century 21, Islamic totalitarianism and the ventures of the new sciences.

Likewise John and crew had been shown the door of inherited religion, and expulsed from the temple. Yet they found a strange and new grace in this difficult dislocation. In our region and time, too, we are dislocated. Since (taking Vahanian’s calendar) the opening of the post-Christian era in 1965, we have been moved from a mode of remembering to one of rebuilding. From Christ in culture to Christ transforming culture. We have 150 year old buildings, 100 year old habits, 50 year old preachers, all of which need rebuilding. Rebuilding is harder than building. And more fun. There is more texture, more history, more complexity, more detail. And more fun, for the right temperaments.

And now, in these rare chapters, John concludes his twilight Gospel, by bearing for us the recollection of departure. These next 5 chapters are drenched in sorrow, the sorrow of loss, of grief, of change, of departure. To hear them, aright, we need to focus on two losses. That of Jesus and that of John. Jesus in 33ad on the cross. John, or the beloved disciple, or whomever, this church’s beloved patriarch, who after many himself at last gave up the ghost. These twin shadows, of Jesus and John, lie upon our passage.

Two: Tradition

Second, tradition.

“Wherever you are, be there”.

We at Marsh Chapel, and we at Boston University may not yet have the largest financial endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. One day, that may change. If you would like to help us to help that to change, please let me know. Be assured that we will do whatever we can for your personal and spiritual welfare, in gratitude. But there is another way in which Marsh Chapel, and Boston University may already have the largest endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. Our riches are vocal. Our largest endowment is not financial but audible, not monetary but epistolary, not in the coin of the realm but in the language of the heart. Boston University, and centrally within the University, Marsh Chapel, is a treasure store of voice. You notice that, probably, every Sunday when you come across the plaza, and pass the sculpture and monument to Martin Luther King, birds in flight. Said Karl Barth, ‘The gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight’. But King’s voice was not only or mainly a solo voice. He sang in a choir, in choro novo. He sang as one bird in the flock. Howard Thurman sang with him, for example. So did Allan Knight Chalmers. Robert Hamill’s voice was known in his regular column in motive magazine. Littell lead the way.

Come Sunday, every Sunday, here at Marsh Chapel:

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you

The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you

The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you

The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.
Endowment.

Yes, a word brings a lift to the decanal eyebrow, a stirring to the soul, a tingle to the spirit, a warming to heart.
A welcome word, today. Now, endowments are crucial for chapel, for school, for university. We shall other days on which to build such.

But today is All Saints’ Day.

Today we celebrate the endowment we already have. It is a rich treasure.

It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material.

Listen for its echoes…listen…listen to the voices of Boston University and of Marsh Chapel…

All the good you can…

The two so long disjoined…

Heart of the city, service of the city…

Learning, virtue, piety…

Good friends all…

Hope of the world…

Last Week: Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…

Common ground…

Content of character…

Wesley. His Brother. Merlin. Warren. Marsh. Harkness. Marlatt. Thurman. King.

A vocal endowment.

These saints, our vocal endowment, offer a kind of simplicity. It is a confidence born of obedience, a readiness to hear and speak, to listen and act.

Three: Times
Third, our time.

Our times demand nothing less.

Let me ask you bl
untly about disappointment. That job, girl, promotion, rank, offer, possibility that never came. No religious water will wash away the rank, raw hurt of it. Forget that. What the gospel, John 11, resurrection and life offers is an ancient testimony that with a different way of thinking and speaking, one can by apocalypse find freedom right in the guts of disappointment. John lost the primitive hope of Jesus’ return. Surprise! Just there, just there in disappointment, not before it in anticipation nor after it in redirection, but right there, he found, they found freedom. To think spirit, not speculation, artistry not Armageddon, paraclete not parousia. Is there something you are not seeing in disappointment? Like a new, radical freedom?

Let me ask you to level with about dislocation. That reassignment, that rejection, that sudden turn in the road, that dismissal, that shift in social location. The hurt…stays. But John and company were heaved out of their mother land, their mother religion, and, dusting themselves off, and looking up, here is what they found. They found a grace to love that they could not have known without leaving the old country. They found, well, diversity. They found a wide open world. Et toi? Is there something we have not yet found, down in the cave of dislocation? Look again. Something else, like a new doorway to grace?

What of our common disappointments and dislocations? Are they bringing us, all wrangling aside to a new day? A healthier day? Are they bringing us, all strategic wrangling aside, to a new day? A more just, participatory, sustainable day?

One note, to close. Should you ever mistake the staggering distance and difference between John and his synoptic siblings, remember this. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, what sends Jesus to the gallows? What event? The temple cleansing is the answer, the chasing of the money changers from the temple. In John, it is Lazarus, the raising of Lazarus, that puts Jesus in peril. ‘They determined to kill him’.

John ever raises the stakes, ups the ante, lifts a call to a kind of revealed, radical, root simplicity. Resurrection. Life.

Not religious ritual, but spiritual power is what Jesus brings. Not religious ritual, but spiritual power is what the Pharisees rightly fear. Not religious ritual, but spiritual power places Jesus in peril. Not the cleansing of the temple, but the raising of the dead.

In table and word, we offer our service. We announce Jesus Christ, who is, just now, right here, for you, in truth, resurrection and life.

Coda

Lazarus—come out! Come down! Come forth! Out of the caves of disappointment and dislocation and into the sunlight of freedom and grace. Receive the bread of freedom and the wine of grace, the bread of resurrection and the cup of life.

The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel