A Dog’s Life

The twin powers of gathering and hearing are at the heart of Pentecost. In a combination of community and audibility Spirit arrives.

Our understanding of the Acts of the Apostles has deepened and sharpened over the last two hundred years. How we interpret the church’s first history is a matter of some debate. Is the book, written by Luke, a sourced, reliable, historical document, rendered for the benefit of the church as an actual account of its earliest life—a kind of stylized ecclesiastical baby-book? This would be the traditional, often the British view. Or is the book, written by Luke, a selective memory, presented to make a point and to offer a perspective—a kind of ecclesiastical court brief? This would be the critical, often German view. Long after WWII ended, this particular biblical studies conflict between London and Berlin (really Cambridge and Tubingen) continues. How much of Luke’s history is Luke and how much is history? How much of Acts 2—wind, tongues of fire, drama, miracle—is what Luke thought, and how much is what Luke thought happened? Both bear truth and meaning, both are holy and good, both have precedent in religion and Scripture. How much of this is history and how much of this is theology, granted that both history and theology are good things?

It may be that there is some merit to both views, but that the needle points toward theology. That is, our Holy Scripture in Acts 2, we might decide, was not written chiefly to record or fend off a charge of drunkenness against Peter from early one morning, nor to catalogue the nationalities of that day’s immigrants, legal or illegal, who appeared at the birthday party of the church. The passage is written to communicate, lastingly, good news about Spirit, good news about how the power of gathering inspires the power of hearing.

A delight for this day is found here. Our epistle lesson from Romans 8 squarely interprets spirit as that which gathers, which includes, which gives lineage, which names heirs—the religious dimension of belonging. Our gospel lesson from John 14 squarely interprets spirit as truth heard, as speaking which was understood, as the gift of ‘a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe. Acts announces the power of gathering inspires the power of hearing. Romans reminds us about gathering. John reminds us about hearing.

Today’s lessons do not exclusively assign Spirit a religious wardrobe or zipcode. Although these readings are later to become building blocks for religious building blocks, they are not in their birth swaddled only in the birth cloths of religion. John least so, as he speaks fiercely of truth. Paul hardly so, as he writes of children lisping at the urging of an inner voice. Luke in Acts, barely so, as he gathers Medes and Persians, and heralds the hearing of Parthians and Edomites. Spirit on Pentecost has yet to don its religious robes. Spirit is loose in the universe. Our readings hold up for us the possibility that we may meet Spirit on the street where we live. Our readings hold up for us the possibility that we may hear Spirit in our own tongues, our own hearts. We may have had a foretaste last week. For example, to take one example, to take one common example of gathering and hearing, last week’s Commencement, The Boston University terrier, the dog of this sermon’s title, is fully alive. There is a common Pentecost, a part of our everyday experience, that arises wherever the power of gathering inspires the power of hearing.

Your life is nourished by the pentecosts of your life. The nourishment may come through the regular gathering and hearing in worship that focuses on a sermon. Or it may come through a regular family gathering, that focuses on a meal and stories of encouragement. Or perhaps through a regular reunion, relational or professional, that focuses on fun and reflection. Gatherings which inspire hearing are crucial to your personal, spiritual life. The same is true for a university like ours.

We gathered Friday at the Tennis and Track Center for the Dental School Commencement. Some of us help others choose, and some help others chew, and both are vitally important. At the dental school commencement ceremony, the fine speaker, Dr Shadi Daher, warmly introduced by Dean Hutter, had a profoundly insightful bit of wisdom and encouragement to offer. “Try to find something new in every case, and learn from it. Find the new learning in even the most repeated and routine procedures. Learn something new every day. For the biggest challenges are not outside us, they are within us, in our attention, our attitude, our emotions, our thoughts and feelings.” The radiant life, and the rich range of diverse human presence—in age, gender, race, nationality, ethnicity—at the dental school was a joy to behold!

Then on Saturday afternoon, the ROTC commissioning ceremony was held in historic Faneuil Hall. It is very moving to see the parents of these young soldiers pin signs of rank upon their children’s shoulders. This year, a young couple going off to ministry in the military chaplaincy joined us, which made the ceremony even more meaningful. Senator Scott Brown spoke an encouraging word to the commissionees, and connected his own experience in years past with their coming years of service.

Dr Douglas Sears speaks each year for the University. He is the administrative head of the program at BU. He reminds us that academic freedom is a subset of political freedom, and that the broader political freedoms we enjoy are not free: they come with costs in service, sacrifice, and devotion. Freedom is not free. He also reminds us that with our religious history rooted in the Methodist tradition, he can say to the young people not only good luck, but also Godspeed.

We went from Scott Brown in Faneuil Hall to James Carroll in Marsh Chapel. (☺) We have looked at life from both sides now (☺)!

For last Saturday night this Marsh chapel was full with 250 members of the BU class of 1970. That class did not have a formal graduation, having been sent home in the danger and chaos that followed Kent State. So they were invited back, this year, to ‘walk’ (to receive their diplomas at Commencement, in robes, on the field). In preparation for their arrival, I talked by phone with some members of the class. One told me that he received his diploma by mail one summer afternoon in 1970. He was alone in the house, except for his two dogs. He opened the diploma and showed it to his dear pets. Then he put it in a drawer. “I had a canine commencement of my own”, he said. He was with us Saturday. The power of the gathering here in the nave was palpable. It was thick like a fog on the ocean at dawn. A soloist sang ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. A pianist played the sound track of 1970. There was a litany and a time of silent remembrance. Then the catholic chaplain of the time, James Carroll, now a columnist for our city’s paper, piercingly addressed the gathering. He briefly called up the memory of that spring forty years ago, focusing on a perilous confrontation between students and those trying to keep the peace. But then he turned with emotion and asked the congregation (for by now this was an addressable community, a congregation that is) ‘So what are we doing here?’ Are we here to find
healing? Are we here to hunt for some completion? Are we hear to seek some inner peace? In preaching terms, he moved deftly from the prophetic to the pastoral. The soloist began then to sing ‘Let it Be’, but the solo quickly became a hymn, as all joined in. And yes, as foreshadowed a moment ago, the pianist, Jan Hill, played us out with ‘Both Sides Now’. Gathering and hearing. You can read about in the New York Times. Gathering and hearing. You can read about it in Acts 2.

There is something about the intersection of gathering and hearing, the twin powers of Pentecost, which ushers in a new wind. Boston University’s metaphorical mascot, the terrier, the dog of this sermon’s title, showed Spirit Life last weekend. I do not find references to the Book of Discipline, to the Book of Order, to the Book of Common Prayer, or even to the hymnal, in the Scripture lessons for Pentecost. I do read about a spirit of truth. I do read about a spirit of sonship. I do read about a mighty wind. The church may have to think more broadly about the nature of the church than we inside the church have been accustomed to do.

Here in church last Sunday our Baccalaureate speaker, Dr Wafaa El-Sadr, spoke about her work with AIDS patients. She urged us not to oppose a ‘culture of no’. Then she told of a patient, who said of her illness: ‘AIDS is the best thing that has happened to me. Once I got it, I left the street, I left the hustle, I left the drugs, and I cleaned up my life’.

How long has it been since you were immersed in the gathering and speaking of a graduation? The atmosphere teems with aspiration, promise, foretaste, and hope. When 25,000 people stand to applaud a civil rights legal champion like William Coleman, awarded an honorary degree last Sunday, you feel the earth shake a little bit. All together know the power of that gathering and that hearing. All the ‘laudes’ From summa to ‘thank ya’, all the graduates know, and so does everyone else. It is not only in Methodism that gathering and speaking have announced spirit (we would say conference and preaching of course). Life itself does. Wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is that kind of freedom.

Then came the gathering of 25,000 under the sun at Nickerson field, and with it, speaking and hearing. Graciously introduced by President Brown, Commencement speaker Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the gathering: “I am reminded of Dr. King, not only because he blazed the trail that allows me to stand on this stage as our nation’s first African-American Attorney General; and not only because his dream of a more just and inclusive world remains one of our most important guideposts. Today, I am reminded of Dr. King because he, too, took leave of this campus at a difficult, and defining, moment in America’s history. “I know,” he said, “that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

The best moment of Commencement came with the student address, preached by a young African American man from Mississippi, Jonathan Priester, on behalf of the class of 2010. You will not surprised, once you hear his words, as to the reason for my personal ‘hallelujah’ in response:

“As this day has approached – the end of my stay at Boston University as a student – I found myself walking around campus trying to remember as much as I can about this place. A place that has been my home for the last four years. While attempting to retrace my numerous adventures on this campus, I noticed the inscription on a wall in Marsh Chapel. It reads, “we hope that the procession of immortal youth passing through the halls of Boston University for the next thousand years will be vouchsafed a vision of greatness and that that vision of greatness will become habitual and result in moral progress.” I like that line. At its center is my favorite word: progress.

“Our challenge is to do just what is said on the wall of Marsh Chapel. We must make greatness habitual in order for moral progress to be the result of our lives’ journeys.

“The University itself gives the best example of the truth and direction offered by the inscription in Marsh Chapel. This University has made greatness habitual. Boston University has struggled and survived… and has managed to continually emerge victorious over ignorant, regressive traditions that had long gone unchallenged…Let’s reclaim the energy, optimism and fire that gave the founders of Boston University the courage to establish our great school.

Remember the words of Boston University’s very own Dr. Howard Thurman: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have.”

Can somebody say Amen? I can.

The gathering turned to speaking—the dog’s life on display last weekend—concluded with our high school graduates, who are honored every year in a most dignified commencement of their own. Speaking of history and theology, listen to Head of School James Berkman’s charge to the senior class of BU Academy, on Monday morning:

“Continue your educational adventure, knowing it will lead you to a variety of life roles. Be sure your life’s work has three components: To love what you do every day like Odysseus, to bring the poetry of the spirit into it like Chaucer, and to be sure anything you do well and invent serves the good of others like Ben Franklin.”

A closing image. Late on Saturday evening, a full Symphony Hall listened to the music of John Williams, as he conducted the Boston Pops. At the end, as the patriotic fanfare proceeded, a certain familiar dog, full of life, a Boston Terrier, full of life, scampered up one aisle and down another. In that assembly and in that audition, focused on that dog’s life, we were reminded, as we were again this morning that the power of gathering inspires the power of hearing.

May your summer breathe, breathe with little pentecosts of assembly and audition!

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

Leave a Reply