Archive for February, 2010

Atonement, Lenten Series II

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

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Philippians 3:17-4:1
Psalm 27
Luke 13:31-end

Well, dear friends, here we are, once again, plodding through the liturgical season of Lent. The weather has decided, this year, to cooperate with the penitential feel of the Lenten season. Here in Boston, unseasonably warm temperatures have yielded a series of rainy, dreary days instead of the usual snow. Snow, of course, is too beautiful to be penitential, although New York and Washington, DC may wish to point out that they have been experiencing penitential snowfall by sheer quantity.

Now, it must be said, and at the outset, that natural occurrences and calamities, be they rainfall and snowstorms or the earthquakes that rocked Haiti last month and Chile yesterday, are simply not a result of divine malign. In theology, like in statistics, correlation is not causation. The facts that rain and snow fall from the skies and that human beings are sinful do not mean that human sinfulness causes rain and snowstorms. The facts that the earth shifts and shakes and that human beings are sinful do not mean that human sinfulness causes earthquakes, any more than rainfall, snowstorms, or earthquakes are excuses for human sinfulness. While natural events may provide an emotional canvas on which to paint our spiritual journey, it is both a spiritual and a theological mistake to confuse the painting for reality.

Having set aside the temptation to equate natural events with divine intent, it is our task in considering the theme of atonement to investigate the equation of human sinfulness and divine grace. Temptation and addiction are two central figures in the drama of human sinfulness. Here at Marsh Chapel we may be prone to an addiction to excellent preaching. This is why it is important for me to step into the pulpit occasionally, to break the habit and remind everyone not to take for granted the homiletical extravaganza they are blessed to hear every other week.

It is no easy task we have set ourselves, to speak of atonement. Not that we at Marsh Chapel are prone to taking the easy road. Last summer we tackled the theme of Darwin and Faith, one of the greatest sources of tension in contemporary religious life. Now we delve into one of the greatest controversies in the history of Christian doctrine: how is it that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth almost two thousand years ago effects a transformation from sin by grace in you and in me today and every day?

Rehearsing the myriad theological treatments of this central question in Christian faith and life would consume our time together and almost certainly result in even more snoring than is already emanating from the congregation. Alas, I am afraid that the vast majority of atonement theologies would not touch on the lived experience of so many of us in the second decade of the 21st century. In our question of the atonement we are not looking for the correlation between sin and Jesus, but for a causal relationship. We expect God in the person and work of Jesus Christ to actually do something to or for us on account of our sinfulness. But I wonder if the way we pose the relationship is not the source of our trouble in understanding atonement in light of our lived experience.

You see, in our posing the question, we expect something of God; that our sinfulness causes God to do something. Our Gospel lesson today sets things up differently. Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Paul too understands the discrepancy when in our reading from his letter to the Philippians he says “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” What Jesus and Paul explain is that we understand very well what God does for us; what we do not understand is ourselves and our sinfulness. We are not willing. Our minds are set on earthly things.

There are four movements of atonement: confession, repentance, mercy, forgiveness. Atonement theologies have historically been arguments about the relationships among these movements. But our lived experience, and the breakdown in the atonement process, that Jesus and Paul knew and that we live daily, is not in the process itself but before and between its movements. In my admittedly brief time in ministry, my own experience is that people are often in one of two places with regard to their lived experience.

The first place many of us find ourselves is stuck in the starting gate; the atonement process never even gets going. As anyone who has ever moved from addiction to recovery can tell you, the first step in overcoming the addiction is admitting that you have a problem. Yes, dear friends, many of us are in denial, and I do not mean a river in Egypt. (Clearly, that for which I most need to atone is a predilection to bad puns).

The most obvious form of denial is the excuse. The most thoroughgoing excuse conceived in human history is the strict determinism of scientific materialism, resulting in the statement, “the universe made me do it!” Indeed, many of us cannot identify the exact cause of our failures of responsibility, but the sense that something beyond our control must have impinged upon our actions is prevalent. And the conclusion is that whatever it was that intervened should be held responsible for our failure.

If you are wondering if you have ever actually had an experience that matches up with this abstract musing, just ask yourself this question. Have you ever found yourself saying, or at least thinking, “Oops! I forgot…”? “Oops! I forgot to turn off the stove!” “Oops! I forgot to make my rent payment!” “Oops! I forgot to fill the car with gas.” Really, it works with just about anything. “Oops! I slept through class.” “Oops! I cheated on my girlfriend.” “Oops! I pressed the wrong button.” The word “oops” serves a dual function in our experience. It signals that we know something is wrong, and that we should not be held entirely responsible. After all, how can I possibly be expected to remember everything? I forgot to turn off the stove, but I remembered to lock the front door. I forgot to pay my rent but I paid the cable and electricity bills. I slept through class but I work so hard and for so many hours that I get exhausted. I cheated on my girlfriend but I was drunk.

Another form of denial takes the form of “it’s not that big a deal.” This is the recognition that something is not quite right, but also the concomitant belief that the not-quite-rightness does not rise to the level of a real problem; certainly not to the level of sin. The “no big deal” form of denial is less verbal than the impingement form, mostly because we tend not to acknowledge such events since they are of supposedly negligible importance. Nevertheless, there is a sense that things could have been better. “I could have said that better.” “The sauce could use more oregano.” “The prelude would
have been better if I’d hit the F# instead of the F-natural.” Of course, Justin never hits a wrong note so he wouldn’t know.

As one great theologian, who is no stranger to this pulpit, has said, to be human is to be obligated. We are all responsible to fulfill all of our obligations. But, alas, our obligations are so many and various as to mutually exclude each other and overwhelm us. It is this condition that gives rise to the coping mechanism of denial. It is easier to simply say that fulfilling all of my obligations is impossible so I cannot possibly be responsible. Such coping mechanisms are reinforced when they are successful in getting us out of the consequences for our failures. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism is not entirely true, and thus not entirely helpful. The fact of the matter is that we do feel our obligations and resulting responsibility deeply. Even if it is the case that our obligations overlap and conflict, we still must choose which we will fulfill responsibly, and we are still responsible for the ones we choose not to fulfill. We are responsible. We ourselves. Not someone else. Not the situation. We are responsible and we have failed in our responsibility, despite any intervening agents and situational complexity. We have failed. We have sinned. We are responsible and culpable and in need of repentance, mercy and forgiveness.

The other place that many of us find ourselves is stuck in the middle. Of course, the truth is that in some sense we are all stuck in the middle. It is always the case that we have sinned again before the sin we just confessed and repented of can be forgiven. But this is a different kind of being stuck in the middle. This is the kind of stuck in the middle that gets depicted in the 1998 dramatic film, What Dreams May Come. The character Annie, wracked by guilt over the death of her husband Chris, commits suicide and is damned to hell, not by God, but by the psychological pain that brought her to commit the act in the first place. This middle place, which for many is a hell of their own making, is marked by an overwhelming sense of guilt.

The place of guilt is in many respects the opposite end of the pendulum swing from the place of denial. In guilt it is not that our obligations are overwhelming and therefore we cannot be held responsible, but that our obligations are overwhelming and we are so responsible that we can never escape. There is not enough mercy in the world to overcome our failures. To be stuck in the middle is to be stuck constantly repeating Hagrid: “I should not have said that. I should not have said that. I should not have said that.”

The problem here, once again, is not really a lack of confidence in God, but a lack of self-confidence that we are really worthy of forgiveness. God could not possibly forgive me, not because God is not capable, but because I am not worthy. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The agony of the place of guilt is only partly our own agony in the face of our own sinfulness; it is also the agony of God who longs for relationship but we are unwilling. It is not God who counts us unworthy; it is we ourselves.

How, then, might we bring the pendulum back to the balance point? And what might life look like once it is there? Let’s take the second question first, shall we?

We, in the spirit of Lent, seek to live in the space between denial and guilt. If we are to avoid denial, we must be honest, first and foremost with ourselves, about our own failures and thus our own sinfulness. And yet, to avoid extreme guilt, we must learn humility. We must humbly acknowledge our faults and enter a place of deep contrition out of which those we have faulted may offer forgiveness. So too, we must humbly recognize that the mercy of God is far greater than any sin we might possibly commit. When I was last on silent retreat with the Community of Taizé, Br. Sebastian led our daily reflections. He pointed out that the only possible way to withstand humiliation is to cultivate humility. Denial and guilt are both defense responses that attempt to fend off humiliation. But at the end of the day, neither are successful coping mechanisms. Br. Sebastian is correct. The only possible way to withstand humiliation is to cultivate humility.

I often find myself saying to faculty and administrators that if students at Boston University learn nothing in the classroom, but during their time here learn to fail and recover gracefully, then we will have succeeded in our mission as an institution of higher education. To fail in our responsibilities is indeed inevitable in life. This inevitability does not absolve us of our responsibility. Only God can do that. But neither does it doom us to live guilt-wracked existences. We can, in fact, recover.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that there is more love in God than sin in us. “But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3: 21-25).

From the perspectives of denial and guilt, it may appear as the saying goes, “you just can’t get there from here.” In the Protestant traditions there is a hesitation here, because justification is by faith, not by works. Indeed, it is God who delivers mercy and offers forgiveness of sins, and yet it is we ourselves who must make the spiritual journey of Lent from denial and guilt to humility. This journey largely consists in ritual.

There are two theories of ritual at Boston University. The first is that of the former Dean of Marsh Chapel, the Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville, who points out that ritual is the cultivation of habits that allow us to live well in the world. The second is that of anthropology and religion professors, respectively, Rob Weller and Adam Seligman. For them, ritual is the creation of subjunctive, “as if” spaces in which our own brokenness and the world’s brokenness can be held together as if they were whole. In neither perspective is ritual identified solely with religious rites such as the one we are in the midst of now. Both understand that ritual consists in such mundane patterns of behavior as walking down the street and driving the car, all the way up to the patterns of ceremony involved in religion and civil society.

So who is right? Is ritual a set of patterned behaviors that allow us to live well, or the creation of “as if” spaces that help us cope with our own and the world’s brokenness? The mistake would be in assuming that the two views are mutually exclusive, and the Lenten spiritual journey is the perfect case for demonstrating that the correct answer is a resounding, “both!”

On the one hand, the rituals of discipline in Lent really are better ways of living in the world. To reject temptations, begin to recover from addictions, and honestly and humbly recognize our own sinfulness makes us better able to see ourselves and our world as they truly are. Furthermore, the ritual movements from confession and repentance through mercy and forgiveness help us keep balance between denial and guilt and to cultivate humility. When we do so we are better able to relate to friends, family, neighbors, the world and, above all, God.

But in order to have that effect on our lives, ritual must first pull us out of our world and then stuff us right back in. The rituals of Lent pull us out of our normal daily existence and confront us with that fact that human sinfulness is world destroying. According to the Christian narr
ative, it was human sinfulness that lead to the death of Jesus on the cross, not the sinfulness of some humans, but the sinfulness of all humanity. Jesus Christ, who in our ritual context was in the beginning with God and through whom God created the world, is destroyed by our sin. But just as surely as our sinfulness is world destroying, so too is the grace of God world founding. Sin is not the final answer, but is overcome by the victory of resurrection life by the grace and mercy of God. And so the ritual places us back in the world in the middle, not stuck but moving more fluidly through the process of confession, repentance, mercy and forgiveness.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” In the Lenten journey let us participate in the drama of atonement, the movements of confession, repentance, mercy and forgiveness that we might become willing participants in the realm of justice and peace that resurrection ordains. To do so we must in all humility reject the extremes of denial and guilt by allowing the ritual discipline of Lent to do its work. The ability to fail and recover gracefully is the greatest learning we might hope for, and then give thanks that the love and mercy of God indeed triumph over sin and death.

Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

-Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

Led Into Wild Spaces

Sunday, February 21st, 2010
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Luke 4:1‐13

Grace to you, and peace, in the name of Jesus our brother who embodies God’s love for us and leads us into life. Amen.

Taken into the wild at the Spirit’s leading, Jesus, the newly baptized, fasts forty days and nights, tempted by the devil even before the threefold test begins. The Spirit descendent like a dove had alighted on him at the Jordan, when John had drawn Jesus into waters and the Voice declared him ‘the Beloved.’ But the next thing we know, “full of the Holy Spirit” Jesus is led out. He’s led out deep into Judean wilderness, to desert landscape—that spare terrain—“location of choice in luring God’s people to a deeper understanding of who they are” (Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 46).

Like those before him whose sojourns in the wild are part of the ‘family story,’ Jesus’ time of solitude occasions not only struggle but, more basically, a stretching, a breaking-open if you will: exposure to elements and to the Elemental. In the desert, as on Dakota plains about which Kathleen Norris so famously wrote, “A person is forced inward by the sparseness of what is outward and visible in all [the] land and sky… what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state” (Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, 157).

The territory of Jesus’ testing is no small part of the story as a whole. That fierce landscape quite literally grounds him. It grounds Jesus out in the wilds; grounds him, in effect, beyond culture or class, in time and yet somehow beyond it; far-flung from the usual diversions by which we seek to transcend the distances of 2000 years and some 6000 miles. The evangelist Luke puts him there, on the margins, that we might see this Second Adam in quintessential struggle of identity: teasing out relationship and living into vocation. As with the psalmist whose moisture was “all dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4), so Jesus enters the time of his Testing with Jordan waters but a distant memory, the voice of God’s pleasure likely to be only a slight stirring amid groans of hunger and thirst. (Remember, Jesus is famished.) Trust will be all in all as the Tempter presses Jesus to exploit his equality with God (Philippians 2:6).

Famished. Hollowed out. Empty. That’s what Jesus is when challenged:
“Turn those stones to bread and satisfy your hunger!”
“Let angels bear you up!”
“Claim the kingdoms of this world and all their store!”

It is tempting, indeed! The lures of the world, easy satisfactions… But, remember the wilderness! The wilderness has stripped away more than food and drink, more than comfort and security. Laying waste all illusions, emptying him of all he does not need, Jesus has been drawn to his truest self—his deep hungers fed by God’s word in nurture, companionship, and strength that satisfies more than momentary fixes of food or fortune ever will. And thus, in touch with his truest self Jesus counters devilish words with deep trust. Over and again, the Tempter presses, “If you are the Son of God…” And yet it is because, it is because he is God’s Beloved that Jesus will live by (and even live as) the word that comes from God’s mouth, worshiping and serving only God, not putting the Lord to the test. Indeed, Jesus’ answer, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”, effectively becomes a cry. “Away with you!” he seems to say. And thus the Test is ended. Luke says “The Devil retreated temporarily, lying in wait for another opportunity” (The Message, Luke 4:13).

Each year the church’s Lenten journey begins with this narrative accompaniment to Jesus’ wilderness testing. And while we have scrubbed them from sight, still it is with ash-smudged foreheads that we link ourselves all Lent long. We link ourselves to Source and End: the dust we are, God’s very own. Turning and returning, we walk a pilgrim way—rarely as contemplative or purgative as with a forty day fast, but carving out such patterns of discipline as will take us deeper into the Word, feeding us with more than bread for bellies’ cravings. Like Jesus out in the wilds, in our forty days we open spaces; we open spaces within our hearts. In what we give up and let go of in Lent, we trim away the excesses as best we can so as to walk a road less burdened. It is a narrow way, a road that leads to awesome mystery: God’s Own for the world, given in love.

All the while, “The brutality of the cross casts a long shadow over Lent…” So says a spiritual companion to my Lenten journey this year. By this, Jan Richardson means to acknowledge the starkness of the season and the difficulty one sometimes has in learning to see the “beauty present in its starkness and the secrets in its terrain.”

Yet, she says, “Lent is a season that invites us to explore its hollows and, in so doing, to explore our own, to enter the sometimes stark spaces in our souls that we may prefer to avoid. The season challenges us to think of our own lives as vessels, to contemplate the cracks, to rub our fingers over the worn places, to ponder whether we are feeling full or empty, to question what we open ourselves to. [Lent] beckons us to ponder what we have shaped—or bent—our lives around, whether the shape of the container of our life offers freedom or confinement, and whether it opens us to the possibility of new life to which the empty tomb points” (Richardson, Garden of Hollows, 1).

Of course, what constitutes the stark spaces of wilderness will be different for each of us. Still, we should be clear: the landscape of our pilgrimage need not be that of a thirsty land. Topography is not the key.

• No, for us, the wild terrain might just as well be made of our horror in the face of natural disaster such as we witness in Haiti’s rubble, the painful truths of human tragedy blowing hard against us like strong, hot winds.
• The sands – they could be of loneliness or despair. The great gulf of distance separating many of us from families and friends “back home,” or the pain of separation right here in Boston when our relationships break apart and we are set on paths of our future once more alone.
• The night’s bitter cold? It may come through poverty… or plenty, from overwork or lack of work, from fatigue or even failure. Even as the day’s heat might scorch because one feels misunderstood or maligned…or because one has burdened another with the same.

The point here is not so much the how but rather the what. The point is the “what” of an opening: of openings to metaphorical landscapes and their contours, openings to companions on our journeys. The point lies in openings to the emptiness of bellies and hearts and tables…the emptiness of our own solutions and self-satisfactions.
Friends, following the Spirit’s lead into wild places, often amounts to little other than opening ourselves to the sometimes painful places of life. And God knows, there are plenty of those places in a world such as ours.
Tuesday’s New York Times front page story above the fold opened with the question: “Will anyone remember that 17-year-old Angelania Ritchelle, a parentless high school student who wanted to be a fashion model, died of fright two days after the earthquake and ended up in a mass grave on the outskirts of [Port-au-Prince]?” Will anyone remember? Tha
t was the question 23 year old Emmanuella was asking as she grieved her young cousin’s death, noting that Angie “is just one of the nameless, faceless victims.” Wrenchingly, poignantly, she added, “And I hate that.”

To date, the quake is said to have killed 230,000 people. That seems to me to be a number incomprehensible to most of us, eh? To put it in some perspective, though, it is roughly equal to all the students attending every one of the 77 colleges and universities in metropolitan Boston. In other terms, it’s about 37% of the total population of our neighbors to the north in the great state of Vermont. 230,000 lives: and most of them buried unknown, without memorials. This quake has been called “an equal opportunity leveler with such mass deadliness that it erased the individuality of its victims.” Ah yes, there’s plenty of pain in the wild spaces to which we might open ourselves this season.

And still closer to home, we must know as well that aftershocks continue wreaking devastation among our Haitian neighbors. Our city is the third largest Haitian community in the United States. And Boston is trying to respond to the needs of the thousands here whose families back home struggle to stand in the aftermath of the quake. One such remarkable response to those needs is a concert to be held this Friday at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, downtown, adjacent to the Park Street T stop. At 7:30 on Friday evening they will host an effort spearheaded by many of our students called “Singing in the Aftermath.” Singing in the Aftermath: it’s a concert for Haiti with the Greater Boston Haitian Community. Financial contributions gathered there will support the extraordinary relief work of Partners in Health, while canned goods collected will restock empty shelves in local food pantries. A nice discipline to add to Lent’s rounds.

Of course, attending to the suffering of Haiti is only one way to open ourselves to the painful places of life. Surely, right here—even within our very selves—here also are great griefs to bear as each of us fails to live “as intended;” whether those disappointments come in coursework or relationships, in our jobs or by lack of living from our own core values. The reality is, we all fail. We all have broken places. Painful places.

But here is one of Lent’s gifts. It seems to me that this is a season that can bear the stark landscapes. The point is that we should not turn away from failings, from the broken in or around us. Indeed, the reality of our struggles – both outward and inward, both globally and locally – the reality of our struggles is part and parcel of why Lent stands to offer us more than just challenges to our willpower. Going into the wild places on a Lenten pilgrimage asks us, more deeply, to explore the very marrow of our being. As it did with Jesus in his forty days apart, Lent stretches before us pressing us to look at what ultimately satisfies, what gives us strength, what holds us safe.

Just so, however and wherever we find ourselves as we walk the ‘pilgrim way of Lent,’ I pray each of us finds what we need to face the fierce landscapes. In the emptying and refilling, in the turning and returning, may God’s own Holy Spirit among us be Energy for Life. May it lead us to the places we need to go, and strengthen us for all the testing ahead. Throughout, may the Lenten desert landscape be seen less as a place of temptation and more as a kind of proving ground, a place where emptying creates room enough to receive all God offers us. Thus, as with the One who has gone ahead of us—Jesus our brother with whose cross we have been signed—thus we would come through these forty days to ever-deeper understandings of who we are and how graciously God provides all that we need: grace upon grace upon grace.

Dear friends, companions on the way, traveling mercies I bid you. May we all keep a holy Lent out in the wilds! Amen.

~ The Reverend Joanne Engquist,
University Chaplain for Lutheran Students

Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

At St. Patrick’s Elementary School in Huntington, New York, the 3rd-5th grade classrooms and the nurse’s office are on the second floor. The hallway next to the nurse’s office is also home to an interesting piece of artwork. It is in imitation of a stained glass window, about five feet long and four feet high, but instead of brightly colored glass, it is a composite of various stained wood pieces. This makes for a dark, earthy mosaic. The subject matter? Our gospel reading today, the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. The bottom-right corner depicts a woman in a mismatch of disheveled garments, tears streaking her face, hands protecting her head. The top left corner features a huddle of well-dressed frowning men, a pile of untouched rocks before them. In between, kneels Jesus, face hidden, writing with a single finger in the dust. Above his head, a translucent plastic speech bubble contains the second half of John 8:7. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The mosaic sits above a stern bench on which students waiting to see the nurse sit. More than one child has been miraculously cured of her fake illness sitting under that looming scene. My third grade class soon learned that this picture came from the story of Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery. We didn’t understand what adultery was, we simply thought it was something bad that only adults did. What a strange, out-of-place work of art!

The story of Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery is itself a strange, out-of-place work of art within the Gospel of John. Nearly all biblical scholars agree that this text is a later addition to the Gospel. Jesus has just been speaking about rivers of living water, and as soon as our gospel reading ends, Jesus goes right on to his next metaphor, identifying himself as the light of the world. The Johannine Jesus doesn’t normally get his hands dirty, as he does in this text. In comparison with the Synoptic Jesus, who shows a remarkable fondness for spittle and hands-on-healing, the Johannine Jesus works signs with more sterility and symbolism. Thus, for its interruption of the theological flow, its shift in language, and its out-of-character Jesus, the conclusion is drawn that this text as an insert must be an afterthought. Why add this out-of-place work of art at all? Maybe because it is too important a story to leave out.

Even in this spiritual gospel, we find this “lost pearl of ancient tradition,” (W. Heitmuller) which reminds us that Jesus isn’t afraid to get down into the dirt and the sin of life. In this makeshift trial scene, the Pharisees could care less about the violation or the woman; they are there with an agenda, “to test Jesus, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” They have quite literally objectified her, turning her into a topic of debate, no different from the discussion of whether to pay taxes to Caesar in Matthew 22. The Pharisees have become so wrapped up in themselves and in getting what they want that they fail to notice the very human element of this story. Jesus doesn’t consider their inquiries worthy of his attention, and instead crouches down to “doodle in the dust.” Perhaps Jesus is referring the Pharisees to Jeremiah 17:13 (O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.) or perhaps the writing on the wall in Daniel 5, but what is clear is that Jesus is referring the Pharisees “to the judgment of God, before whom all are sinners.” (Schnackenburg 166). The Pharisees don’t get it, though, and Jesus has to get explicit, saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one, each walks away. Many times we focus this story on the judgment of the woman, but Jesus’s real judgment is focused on the Pharisees. They are in no place to judge one another, when they stand judged before God.

We all stand judged before God.

We all stand judged before God. This is an essential part of our Christian identity and our Lenten journey. We all have need of remembrance, remorse, repentance. Emily Dickinson, holed up in her quiet solitude, writes “Remorse is memory awake, her parties all astir, a presence of departed acts at window and at door. It’s past set down before the soul and lighted with a match, perusal to facilitate and help belief to stretch.” Ash Wednesday awakens our memory with its multi-sensory liturgical shift: the musical tone becomes more plaintive, we feel the touch of ash on our fore-heads and see everywhere we go the same sign on others. Ash Wednesday is a messy holy-day, a strange, out-of-place interjection into the early part of a new semester, when, in the middle of a fresh snow and a still-blank semester transcript, the burnt-up palms from the Passion Sunday of a year ago are placed on our foreheads with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remembrance awakened: remorse. Remorse embodied: repentence.

What does it mean to embody remorse, to repent? This requires us to find a way to speak about that from which we repent: sin. The philosopher Paul Riceour argues in The Symbolism of Evil that we cannot grasp ideas such as love and sin without understanding the ways that people talk about these ideas, the metaphors and stories that individuals and communities use to embody these abstracts. The Bible is full of vivid imagery of sin, as we find in Psalm 51, read today. We ask for sin to be blotted out, to be washed away, to be cleansed, we ask for our hearts to be made new, to be restored, to be delivered. There is another image, another phrase, which has too often been twisted and co-opted to signify more and mean less than it should: conversion. Conversion literally means turning. The Greek we find in the New Testament also means a turning about: metanoia. But from where do we turn, and to where do we turn?

In the 31st Canto of Dante’s Inferno, we find the giant Ephialtes, who Dante tells us “rebelled against Jove.” He is chained with one arm behind, one arm in front, so that he is twisted in on himself. Isn’t that what the Pharisees have done, getting wrapped up in their own agenda? Sin is a chain in which we twist in on ourselves. What is repentence? To break those chains…to untwist and face others. Sin is an inward turning act, repentence turns the focus outward. This is why Isaiah criticizes so vehemently the false-fast…the self-interested fast. “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” What is the fast that the Lord chooses but “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free.” Isaiah calls us to “not hide ourselves from our own kin.”

This is what we are called to do today; we stand before each other and acknowledge our sinfulness, and we ask forgiveness from God as a community. We face each other with the remembrance of sin and the hope of forgiveness upon our foreheads. What if the Pharisees had been able to stand together with this woman? What if they had been able to face her, look her in the eye, and reach out to her with love and forgiveness? God’s action is to always reach out to us, to turn towards us, and to challenge us not to turn in on ourselves again. What if the Pharisees had followed Jesus in this way? What if, instead of ignoring the woman, they had turned to her, faced her directly? So, as we discern our own Lenten practice, I ask, does our Lenten practice break us from the habits that cause me to turn in on myself, to not notice others? Maybe we’re giving up dessert, or meat, or facebook… let us make this choice in order to interrupt our self-focus, to give us clarity and open our eyes to notice others? Do we take on this Lenten practice to challenge us to reach out to others, to notice those who are in need and to help them? Maybe we have resolved to do one good thing for other
s every day, or to smile and say hi in the elevator or on the T. Do we take on this Lenten practice to stretch our belief, to This practice may make us feel strange, out-of-place, even a little too hands-on, but it is the example Jesus sets, bending down even in the tidiest of gospels, to get on his hands the dust of the earth.
As thou didst hunger, bear, and thirst, so teach us gracious Lord, to die to self, and chiefly live by thy most Holy Word. Amen.

~ Jen Quigley,
Ministry Associate for Student Affairs

I Will Bear Witness

Sunday, February 14th, 2010
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Luke 9:28-36

Bear witness.

Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. Do not get too attached to the results.

This is the law and the prophets. It is today’s gospel, too.

Klemperer

The ninth commandment requires us not to bear false
witness.

Ten years ago the English translation of Victor Klemperer’s two volume history, memoir, and diary of Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s was published. “I Will Bear Witness”, it is titled. I encourage you to read it. A Jewish man who became a liberal Protestant, a cultural and literary historian, an esteemed professor and writer, Klemperer applied himself to a humble daily task. He quietly recorded, in his diary, the clinking sounds of the Nazi shackles slowly, gradually tightening upon the German people, and, horrifically, with tragic weight upon those of Jewish ancestry. Including Klemperer.

Little things. Rationing. Distinctions in the process of rationing. Automobile registrations. Distinctions in the manner of registration. Little things. Slight, ever so subtle shifts in social behaviors. Invitations extended without response. Dinners offered but not reciprocated. Gradual transformations in daily language, in the language of the morning newspaper. Decisions about which words would be or would not be allowed, in the common spaces of life. Little things, really. Variations in the wording of classified ads. Glances, furtive looks across the street where before there was full eye to eye contact. Just little things. But seen, revealed, transfigured in the prescient, humble diary composition of one quiet teacher.

As you know, little things became big things. Family, friends and neighbors who decide to emigrate. Positions limited. Positions trimmed. Positions eliminated. The threat of confinement to town. Then confinement. To house. Then confinement. Marches in brown shirts. Yellow stars. Captivity. War. The unimaginable. The unspeakable…

Klemperer recorded events and words both great and small, in order not to bear false witness.

Awakening

To some degree, in the light of the Transfiguration, in the light of truth, the true light that enlightens everyone, we all have responsibility to bear witness. In fact, our saving possibility lies in the very challenge and calling we have to try to respond to the light, however dim, the true light, however dusky.

Your awakening to faith, your Christian reawakening as my friend put it, may occur, may arrive on the witness stand.

You are a junior in college. What have you seen? What have you heard? What have you experienced of wisdom and love?

You are a man without a job. 85% of jobs lost have been men’s in the great mancession. What have you seen? What have you heard? What have you experienced of wisdom and love?

You are a professional. Necessarily an institution has a claim on you. Adult life is invariable institutional, whether or not you are institutionalized. What have you seen? What have you heard? What have you experienced of wisdom and love?

You are an elder of many moons and many moccasins. If someone spares the time to ask your testimony, what will it be? What have you seen? What have you heard? What have you experienced of wisdom and love?

Worship

On the mountain, the baffled disciples tried to bear true witness—word, tent, accolade, mystery. What did you see? I saw…

The passage is an account developed after Easter, as a way of trying to symbolize Jesus Christ as risen Lord. It has no biographical or earthly valence, nor does it need any, nor does it claim any. It is about seeing, and being transfigured by what one sees. “During his lifetime a few of his followers were permitted a glimpse of what he was to become” (IBD, loc cit, 173).

Our witness arrives after a word and before a deed. Transfiguration precedes healing for the shrieking, convulsing foaming at the mouth demoniac, a case that stumped all disciples. Transfiguration follows the word of the cross, ‘if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow’.

A moment of witness follows a word and forecasts a deed.

You are good and sturdy gospel listeners so you know without elaboration that Moses embodies the law and Elijah the prophets. You know the revelation of wisdom from Moses, the Decalogue. Recite it with me. You know the audition of love from Elijah. Remember the still, small voice. (… the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake, fire… and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19)…), Sinai and Horeb, the Law and the Prophets.

Here, it is as if the Gospel of John has spilled ink upon the page of Luke. Notice the little things: law and prophets, Moses and Elijah; a prophecy of the cross, called by the term ‘departure’ (did John write this?!?) (the greek word is ‘exodos’); Andrew absent; Peter confused.

But what of his confusion? The confusion itself is confusing. ‘Not knowing what he said..’ What does that mean? Jesus confuses Peter. Peter confuses Luke. Luke confuses the preacher of the day. The preacher confuses you. There is an opacity here, a stymied utterance. To which, oddly but honestly, Peter bears witness.

There is a cloud here, a cloud of unknowing.

There is a mountain here, a mountain of unknowing

There is a voice here, a voice of unknowing.

There is a countenance here, a face of unknowing.

There is a white robe here, a robe of unknowing.

There is a silence here…

Silence…

Silence…

Silence…

This is worship. Enchantment. Not entertainment.

Bear witness.

Bear Witness? How?

1. You may be in college. Good for you. A moment in life of subsidized freedom. Has freedom led to grace? One student said he realized part of his role in school was to combat debauchery. Tartly put, that. And you? We begin Lent on Wednesday. Religious life on campus sings another song, an older song, a truer song than much of the cacophony around. Our little bands of worshippers, here and there, are oases of freedom become grace. So the Song of Solomon graces Valentines Day, and love by covenant challenges love by convenience. Our sermons this Lent involve our University Chaplains in a rendering of the meaning of Atonement. Especially if you have suffered loss, or known grief, or experienced regret, you may want to bear witness by attending worship.

2. You may know a man in search of a job. Or his wife, or daughter. You may be his neighbor. How shall you witness to the loneliness, depression, hurt of this time? Across the land, men long for jobs. Depression breeds depression. Those who have no work, who have talent and energy and will and love and experience and children and loyalty, but not work, are waiting across this land. Like the effects of war, the effects of massive recession are not known for years, for a decade or more. But there are effects. Lasting effects. We are far too complacent about the lasting societal effects of unemployment. Can you record your experience, and bear witness? Better: can you encourage someone who is looking for work? Would you not be happy if twenty years from now someone remembered you, say at a funeral, by saying, ‘Nobody knows this but when I
was out of work, John found a way to make a way for a job for me’?

3. You may be a middle aged professional, whose beloved institution is foundering. You cannot stand it. You cannot change it. You cannot leave it. Ah. You can make a difference, by bearing witness to another time, past, another possibility, future.

I attended my home conference, my spiritual home. As an itinerant preacher, a traveling elder, my church is the gathering of similarly cast about travelers, my conference. My brothers in ministry, my sisters in itinerancy. Hymns to sing. My life goes on in endless song…I drove to Clarence Center, near Buffalo, thinking about the plane crash last winter which put the little town on the map. My sad reverie was shaken as I passed a church sign which read: ‘True peace is found only through Jesus Christ’. I do not believe that. Neither do you.

I drove on, glad to be arriving at a MAGNANIMOUS METHODIST conference wherein ‘there is no east or west, wherein no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth, wherein there is broad peace, peace perfect peace, wherein Wesley is remembered.

Listen to my incipient musing: Not for you, not for us the holier than thou neo-gnostic Unitarianism of the second person of the Trinity, patronizingly triumphalistic, christofascist, exclusivist hatred of such a saying: ‘True peace is found only in Jesus Christ’. No.

But. As you probably already surmise, in the rear view mirror, and beneath the aforequoated warped proverb, I cringed and wept to read the church’s name, Harris Hill United Methodist Church. And. As you may now guess, at the conference itself the opening sermon, an atrocity, gave more than ample cover to such christomonist religious one-up-man ship.

I cannot change it. I cannot stand it. I cannot leave it. But I can bear witness, by remembering another time and another possibility, another past and another future.

I can bear witness.

I can re-read Romans 8 again about the whole creation groaning if you must.

I can read Acts 10 about all in their own way being saved if you must.

I can re-read Galatians 3:26 about the end of religious distinctions if I must.

I can channel John Wesley—“if thine heart be as mine then give me thine hand”—if I must.

I can re-read any of Huston Smiths books… Remember Abraham Heschel….Remember Anwar Sadat…. Remember Abraham Lincoln….Remember Mahatma Ghandi….Recall the Dalai Lama…

I can bear witness. To Wisdom and Love, Law and Prophets, Moses and Elijah.

We know in our bones that there are many ways of keeping faith. We know in our guts that in the Father’s house there are many rooms. We know in our hearts that the true light that enlightens EVERY ONE has come into the world.

4. You may be an elder of the tribe, many moons and many moccasins. Can you bear witness to what you have seen and heard? I know a man in his eighties who takes an hour every Sunday to send a poetic memory, a personal email page to his children and grandchildren. You can too. We children and grandchildren appreciate it.

Diamond Point

In our School of Theology we teach students that a sermon should have a point. It should not be three points in search of a sermon, but a sermon with a point. A diamond point, we say—that sharp, that fine, that beautiful, that valuable.

A sermon could, say, have a two word point to it: bear witness. A sermon should have a point. The point today is: bear witness.

William McGuire King: ‘one’s own salvation rest(s) in the freedom God offers …to enter into his atoning activity in history’(Evans, LWI, 44).

Pray! Journal! Read! Blog! Paint!

Bear witness.

Coda

You will bear witness. As you do, you will come awake, come to worship, come to awareness, find your tongue. Your life will sing. You will live as a song that God is singing. Our Canadian siblings sang this way:

We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.

We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

Bear witness.

Show up. Especially at 20. Pay attention. Especially at 40. Tell the truth. Especially at 60. Don’t get too attached to the results. Especially at 80.

In the winter, my wife’s children’s choir sang here in Boston’s Back Bay. They lifted a poem which our own Marsh choir has also sung, and beautifully. In dresses and bow ties, dark pants and paten leather shoes, fidgeting and swaying, they did bear witness, to far more than they could know.

My life goes on in endless song…

Above earth’s lamentation…

I hear the clear though far off hymn…

That hails a new creation…

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

The Gift of Grace

Sunday, February 7th, 2010
click cere to hear sermon only

I have this response to those of you who will not abate the ongoing contention related to my claim that Ground Hog Day is the best of all holidays:

In the ministry you surrender to God and neighbor all weekends, most evenings and holidays, and then work 9-5, Monday to Friday. All this takes a chunk out of the year. Holidays, in particular, carry, shall we say, some stress. Christmas, for an example. There are expectations. Special services. People. Doings.

Behold the blessing of February 7! An utterly ordinary day, and a holiday to boot! No expectations. No special services. No people. No Doings. Just the blessing of a single, average, wintry, bereft of expectation day. Ground Hog Day. It doesn’t get better than Ground Hog Day. A quiet, ordinary, no frills day.

What is ordinary about any day, anyway?

Every one of them is a gem.

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go
Friday’s child is loving and giving
Saturday’s child works hard for a living
But the child that is born on the Sabbath Day
Is happy, witty, bright and gay!

Every day is a chance to do a good turn. Do one daily. BE:

Trustworthy
Loyal
Helpful
Friendly
Courteous
Kind
Obedient
Cheerful
Thrifty
Brave
Clean
Reverent

The 111th Psalm was meant for use on a holiday, a festival. It is set out in an acrostic format. There are 22 lines, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet. “This is an arrangement that makes for considerable artificiality”. Well yes. And some fun! Look what daily, ordinary gifts are celebrated: community, observation, memory, food, history, wisdom.

Reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom. What a remarkable phrase, the beginning of wisdom. A hopeful phrase, too, that wisdom grows. We all have wisdom sayings with which we have grown.

Some are cultural:

A stitch in time saves nine
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Look before you leap

Some are personal and familial. In my family:

You would complain if you were to be hung with a new

Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time. And it annoys the pig.

Are you a journalist or are you writing a book?

Where were you before you were born? Down in Canada boiling soap.

There are no ordinary days, no insignificant holidays.

Emily Webb stands as our fiercest sentinel to the landscape of this, truth, the Gospel of Ground Hog Day.

You will remember that she and George were graduated from High School in Grover’s Corners. On the basis of a frank talking to over a soda, in which Emily criticizes George for being less than fully humble, George decides not to leave home, not to go to college, but to start working an uncle’s farm right away, and to marry Emily, the girl next door. You remember their wedding. “ A man looks pretty small at a wedding, all those good women standing shoulder to shoulder, making sure the knot is tied in a mighty public way.” You remember that Emily, after just a few years of profoundly happy marriage and life, tragically dies in childbirth. You remember that George finds no way to manage the extreme grief of his loss. Simple Yankee English. Simple reckoning about love, life, death and meaning.

Maybe you also remember, in the playwright’s imagination, Emily from the communion of saints looking out on her young husband and wanting to go back.

Others warn her away from the plan: “All I can say Emily, is, don’t…it isn’t wise…(If you must do it) Choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day of your life. It will be important enough.”

She chooses February 11, 1899, her 12th birthday. She arrives at dawn. She sees Main Street, the drugstore, the livery stable, and breathes the brightness of a crisp winter morning. Simple. She looks into her own house. Her mother is making breakfast, her father returning from a speech given at Hamilton College. Neighbors pass in the snow. Simple. She sees how young and pretty her mother looks-can’t quite believe it. It is 10 below zero. There is fussing to find a blue hair ribbon-“its on the dresser-if it were a snake it would bite you”. Simple. Papa enters to give a hug and a kiss and a birthday gift. And others from mother and the boy next door. Simple. “Just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment now we’re all together. Just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.”

Simple. This is the gospel of Ground Hog Day, the best holiday of the year, the holiday of the extraordinary ordinary, of the uncommonly common, of the sunlit winter, of the eternal now. Simple. Grover’s Corners. Papa. Mama. Clocks ticking. Sunflowers. Food. Coffee. New ironed dresses. Hot baths. Sleeping. Waking up. “Earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

Reverence for Life is the beginning of wisdom.

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