Simplicity

John 11: 32-44
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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

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