Archive for June, 2010

The Call to Ministry

Sunday, June 27th, 2010
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Luke 9:51-62

Preface

The sermon today is an unapologetic, unabashed, direct appeal to you to consider whether you are meant to preach. To see whether or not this is so, you will look at your relationships.

Things that really matter are ultimately relational, whether that relationship is with others, with self, or with God. Our friends give us ourselves. Our sense of presence gives us ourselves. Close relationships count. So too does relationship to the divine.

1. Close Relationships

First, close relationships. Here is one quiet account, one testimony, no worse nor better than any other.

We learned to love Jesus in the simple rhythms of the ordinary. We learned to love Jesus in the pause before meals, with grace in his name. We learned to love Jesus singing hymns to Him, in church, at camp, in the car. We learned to love Jesus as we read about his life in the Bible. We learned to love Jesus by celebrating his birth in snowy December, and his destiny in snow melting April. We learned to love Jesus by seeing older people love him, really love him, with their hands, and their money and their time and most especially with their choices, and within that, with their choices about things not to say, not to be, not to do. We learned to love Jesus like we learned to speak English, one lisp at a time, one dangling preposition at a time, one new word at a time. The music of Jesus played the accompaniment to all of the growth and decay of life around us. There was no wall of separation, neither artificial, nor sacramental, nor communal, between our life and his. His was our life, and our life was his.

This sounds romantic, but it is not meant to be. Conflict, envy, hurt, gossip, anger, misjudgment, unfairness, tragedy, hatred, fear, abuse, neglect, betrayal, addiction, and loneliness sat around the table too—around the kitchen table, around the picnic table, around the coffee table, around the communion table.

Still there was a closeness in the Christ who raised us in a nearby, the Empire State—a pine needle Adirondack Christ, with the dawn scent of the forest primeval, a sunlit Finger Lake Christ, a blue collar Erie Canal Christ, a blizzard Christ, an autumn peak Christ, a high summer Christ, a Christ with mud on Easter shoes. You could say that we were more Gospel people than Letter people, more Peter than Paul, more good Samaritan than justification by faith, more Methodist than Presbyterian. There was no forced or feigned distance between Jesus and us, between his life and our own.

He was with us in school. Our teachers attended church, and when they scolded us for talking or not wearing our eyeglasses, Jesus walked past us and smiled.

He was with us at home. Our parents entertained college students, all then of just one gender, with sandwiches and pickles. The men stood when their hostess entered the room. They wore ties. Jesus sampled the pickles, with us.

He was with us in the summer. He felt the glow of a warm campfire on a cool mountain night. When the ministers worried whether there was too much kissing, too much holding hands, Jesus worried too, and then you could see him, almost, holding a young couple as they held each other.

He was with us when we grew up and became teenagers ourselves.

He was with us when all hell broke loose. When older boys, or younger men, went off in pressed uniforms to someplace on a map we had seen in school. When some came home, and when some partly came home, and when some did not come home, He wept.

He was with us in college, at marriage, in studies, at work.

You go with your friends. So if your friends go off to college, you may too. If they enlist, you may too. If they take a job in the south, you may too. It is a natural thing.

If people you know and love go into the ministry, you may too. If you respect somebody who is in the ministry, you may be inclined to preach. If your parents, with pride, have the pastor to Sunday dinner, you might think about taking that seat, and holding that fork, and intoning that prayer. If you grow up with Rev. Jones, and sense she is a real human being, you might try to become one such yourself. If the kind of people who are your kind of people enter Christian service, you might, too. And if your mother, father, grandparents, spiritual aunts and uncles, and a boyfriend or two study for the ministry, you may too.

Trust your experience. Honor your instincts. Listen to your heart. Mostly, attend to your relationships.

Your relationships are crucial, crucial in the dawning of a sense of vocation.

It takes a long time to grow a preacher. Relationships hold the key.

Our gospel calls you to serious relationships. Foxes have their holes…Let the dead bury the dead…Who sets his hand to the plow…

2. A Relationship with God

Second, relationship with God.

A longing deeper than the relationships of human being to human being surrounds us, a deeper longing brought our forebears close enough to hear the call to ministry. Theirs, and ours, is a deeper longing, a longing for a relationship with God. Without such, our hearts are tragically, endlessly and painfully restless.

St. Augustine of Hippo at long last found himself, his soul, and his true vocation, by finding a personal relationship to God. He is with us this morning, in lead and glass, to my right hand. Yes, Augustine entered the ministry. He became priest and bishop in North Africa about 400ad. He wrote 500 letters, 200 sermons, 2 great books. In an age, like yours, of intercultural conflict, Augustine made sense of faith’s highest vision…the city of God. In a culture, like yours, that wore the nametag of Christianity without fully understanding its meaning, Augustine celebrated…the grace of God. In a political climate, like ours, that honored highly individualized freedom and the power to choose, Augustine praised God’s freedom to choose, and acclaimed…the freedom of God. In a highly sexualized age, like ours, Augustine colorfully confessed his own wandering, his own mistakes, which, he attested, did test but did not exhaust the …patience of God. In a religious climate, like ours, which buffeted a truly biblical belief, Augustine praised his maker, and so reminded the church of the proper…praise of God. His Confessions—perhaps part of your summer reading—his great autobiography, is a prayer—for the city of God, by the grace of God, in the freedom of God, to the patience of God, as the praise of God. Augustine found a relationship with God and was ordained. And vice versa.

It may be that the only way God has to relate to some of us, to get our attention, to mute our pride, to kindle our affection, is to get us into the ministry. Baptism and confirmation suffice for most. But for the real hard cases—the guy who wrote the book on pride, the gal whose picture is alongside the dictionary definition of sloth, the one who embodies real falsehood—like us, like Augustine….like you?…God keeps ordination in reserve.

Long ye for God? Preach. Said John Wesley: Preach until you believe it, then preach because you believe it. Long ye for God? Preach.

et tu?

Thirty four years ago today I preached my first sermon, in New Hope, New York. It does not take long to go from being a young turk to becoming an old turkey. Who will come along to take my place?

Think about it…

Our gospel calls yo
u to serious relationships. Foxes have their holes…Let the dead bury the dead…Who sets his hand to the plow…

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

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

Sunday, June 20th, 2010
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Matthew 9:35-10:15

Sermon text is not available at this time.

Go in Peace

Sunday, June 13th, 2010
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Luke 7:36 – 8:3

“ … we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” This is quite a statement from a well-brought-up Pharisee. And Paul, like Simon in our Gospel story this morning, was a very good Pharisee.

Now Pharisees have a rather mixed reputation in the Gospels, but they were actually good people – devoted to God, and in that devotion very observant of the Law certain kinds and standards of behavior. And, even before Paul writes to the Galatians, like so many good people, some of the Pharisees had begun to isolate themselves in their own goodness, in their own goodness as defined by how well they kept the Law. They had begun to isolate themselves in what they did, rather than in who they were, God’s loved and forgiven and restored people, whose actions came from their love of God and neighbor in response to God’s compassionate love and forgiveness toward them. They began to isolate themselves from others in their community, and to judge them for not coming up to their own particular standards. This same kind of isolation thinking had begun to surface in the Galatian church, and Paul wants to make it very clear that for Christians, it is faith in God through Jesus Christ, the one who loved us enough to share our life and death, the one who lives within us, it is faith in Jesus Christ that brings us to right relationship with God.

Luke’s account of Simon’s dinner party illustrates what that faith might look like in practice. Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner. We are not sure what his motives are; Luke portrays Jesus and the Pharisees as already having had numerous discussions, not all of them friendly. Certainly when the uninvited woman intrudes into his home Simon does not evict or stop her, and instead seems to think that Jesus has failed some kind of test that involves her: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him–that she is a sinner.” Simon completely ignores what the woman does and has no interest in why she does it. For him, her sin is what defines her in the past and in the present, and her sin is what should define her in her relationship to Jesus and in Jesus’ relationship to her.

The woman, as happens so often with women in the Bible, is not recorded by name, and she is recorded as not saying anything. But what she is when she is with Jesus speaks more clearly than words. She has found him – after she has taken the time and effort to find out where Jesus is staying. She has found him — so she then intrudes on a private party and proceeds to display towards Jesus an extravagance of devotion. Her extravagance is one of money: she brings ointment, not just any ointment but the kind of ointment that comes in a fancy jar made of highly-prized alabaster. Her extravagance is one of luxury: the ointment is used to anoint Jesus’ feet. Her extravagance is one of emotion: she weeps in Jesus’ presence, to the extent that she can bathe his feet with her tears. Her extravagance is one of physicality: she bends to his feet as he reclines at dinner as was the custom for men, her tears wet his feet, she dries his feet with her hair; she kisses his feet and rubs the ointment into them in an act of respect and comfort. Her whole self is this extravagance of love and devotion, and manifests as extravagant acts of recognition and hospitality as she welcomes Jesus and the possibilities he brings into her life.

Jesus in turn recognizes her: not as the sinner she may have been, but as the woman of faith she now is, a woman who responds to the compassion and forgiveness of God that she sees in Jesus with a change of life that brings a new relationship with God and with other people. In her love and devotion it is she who becomes Jesus’ true hostess, and what Simon, or anyone else, thinks of her no longer matters. Her faith that God’s compassion and forgiveness are for her has saved her from the power of the past, so that she can go in the present and into the future in peace.

Simon is a good man. And, like so many good people, he cannot get beyond his own goodness. He calls Jesus “Teacher”, but he does not take the lesson. He does realize that the more one is forgiven, the more one will love the forgiver, but he does not see that this might apply to himself. He feels no need for compassion or forgiveness for himself or for the woman. He does not realize his own transgression against the law as he neglects Jesus, his invited guest. He cannot recognize the great change taking place in the woman and in her new reality, but persists in trying to keep her in her place as a sinner. He denies not just his own need for change, but denies himself the compassion and forgiveness of God and the possibilities that might open up for him. In a poignant irony, in his refusal of forgiveness he denies himself and others the best of what he can both be and do: “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

The story of Simon and the woman who crashes his party is our story as well. We live in a culture that pays much more attention to what we do than to what we are, a culture that demands retribution, not restoration, if we transgress. We can never be too rich or too thin, and our exposure to an average of 30,000 advertisements a day tells us that whatever we do or have, it is not enough. Our schedules look like train wrecks and there is no place on the planet where people cannot reach us through some kind of technology. Already we are a nation that works more than any other, and in this economic climate many of us come into work even earlier and stay even later now all seven days a week, and we no longer take the time to eat even at our desks. And if we do not have a job, maybe we should just try a little harder. We overmedicate our children to keep them socially acceptable, and over self-medicate ourselves either to bear the pain or to keep all the balls in the air, or to do both. We have more people in prison than any other nation on earth. Anyone who really tries to change their life will tell you that it’s not the realization of their own mistakes or sin, or the need to change, or the acceptance of forgiveness, or the taking of responsibility for the choice of the good that is the hardest thing: the hardest thing to overcome it is the refusal of other people to acknowledge that any change is possible for him or her or has actually occurred. And as we all know, the hardest person of all to forgive is ourself.

It does not matter how well we keep the law, whatever law we choose to observe. Last October Frank Warren visited Boston to talk about the latest book and news on his PostSecret project. He began the project five years ago when he invited people to mail in anonymously a secret printed on one side of a postcard decorated with art meaningful to them. The secret could be anything, as long as it was true and the sender had never shared it with anyone before. Half a million postcards later and counting from all over the world, and with the postcard secrets posted on a website and on Facebook and Twitter, the project has become a phenomenon, and is still going strong. The secrets are funny, or they sadden, shock, move, or disturb, and they reveal our common humanity and our common desire and need to keep some things hidden, some things we feel we cannot let anyone else know. We are not, and cannot be, perfect: especially to ourselves. And yet our need to reveal, the need for someone
to know, is also there, relieved if only by a stranger’s invitation to let ourselves be fully known without judgment. Frank Warren’s project has grown, and he has become known as “the most trusted stranger in America”, because he does not judge, but accepts each secret confession with respect and compassion. This invites the sharer of the secret also to have respect and compassion for the secret they have shared: many who have posted a secret report that they have gone on to share the secret with those who have needed to know it or with people who can help them with any next steps they may want to take. This also invites the reader to have respect and compassion for the secret, for the sharer of the secret, and for the reader’s own secrets so that the reader feels less alone. When the secret is shared, and compassion is shared, it becomes less a question of what we do than a question of who we are in our common humanity.

The challenge for us as followers of Christ is to claim who we are in the midst of and in spite of the demands made of us to do. In the great religious and philosophical treasury of bumper sticker wisdom, it is revealed that we are not perfect, just forgiven. What we do or how acceptably we behave does not save us in this world; the demands continue to escalate, all we do is never enough. Instead we are saved by our faith in the promises of God through Jesus Christ, that in that faith we are forgiven, we are forgiven, that the whole process of repentance, compassion, forgiveness, and restoration is at work in us and for us, even us, with our mistakes and our secrets and our sin. And our faith does not save us just once for all, for some place where we will have pie in the sky when we die by and by. Our faith saves us also for our whole life long, for this life here in this world, in this place and time, so that we are freed from the power of the past and can live in peace with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbors right now. For when we know that the compassion and forgiveness of God is at work in our lives, we can begin to invite others to experience these gifts as well, and can begin to recognize them at work in others and to support their peace and wholeness as we do our own.

Now this may sound simple. But it may not be easy. Our faith in our own forgiveness may shock others, and may surprise us as well. There are plenty of people like Simon who will want to keep us in the past or in the opinions they have of us. There are people like the other guests at the dinner party, who may question whether our forgiveness is legitimate. People like the other guests at the dinner party who took exception to Jesus’ support of the woman may take exception to our support of others as they move toward a new way of being. Forgiveness comes from change as repentance, and forgiveness results in change as peace and wholeness of life, and, that change may not look like what we expect. It may look extravagant, or messy, or shocking, or outside our familiar categories. We might expect, as it might be assumed it was for the woman whose sins were forgiven, that those who are not respectable will become respectable. What may also happen, that we might not expect, is that those who are respectable may become not respectable. This happened for Mary Magdalene (even though she had already been relieved of seven demons). It happened for Joanna (the wife of Herod’s steward, no less). It happened for Susanna, and for the many other women, who out of their love for and devotion to Jesus found themselves called to leave home and to travel around the country, to keep the Son of God and twelve other men out of their own resources, and to shatter every stereotype of both respectable women and respectable community, just by their very being.

So the key in all this, as the woman at the dinner party demonstrated, is to keep our focus on Jesus, to keep our focus on our love for and devotion to him, and to keep our focust on the possibilities he offers for our own peace and wholeness through the compassion and forgiveness of God he proclaims and embodies. Then, like the woman at the dinner party, and the women on the road with Jesus proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kin-dom of God, we can have faith in our own forgiveness in spite of what others may think, and in spite of what others may think can offer that forgiveness, peace, and wholeness to others.

There’s no time like the present. If we ourselves have not repented or changed our direction and claimed God’s compassion and forgiveness, we can do that now or whenever we choose. If we already have faith that forgiveness continues to work in our lives, we can begin or continue to move out on that faith to build relationships of forgiveness, health and wholeness with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbors. If we already have faith that forgiveness continues to work in our lives, we can also begin or continue to recognize where forgiveness is or has been at work in the lives of those around us, and can begin to support them as they become a new creation in spite of the obstacles thrown up by those who have a vested interest in the status quo. No matter what we have done in the past, or if now we make mistakes, or backslide, or just choose the not good out of ignorance or orneriness; it is our faith in God through Jesus Christ, our faith in the compassion and forgiveness of God at work for us and in us, it is our faith that has and will save us, so that we can go in peace into our lives and into the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

~The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell, OSL
Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Healing Remembered

Sunday, June 6th, 2010
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Luke 7: 11-17

One wishes that the outset of our gospel were not so utterly contemporary. There are Sundays when it might be a comfort to listen to a lesson that seems utterly innocuous—something about the Jebusites, or the seventh heaven, or camels and loincloths. But here we have an utterly familiar scene, familiar anyway to the remaining readers of remaining front pages of remaining newspapers. A city street. A crowd gathered. A mother who is a widow. The mother’s only son. And he, dead. In all the cities of our residence, over thirty years, New York, Syracuse, Montreal, Rochester, Boston, this story has been, and still is, once the weather gets warmer, regular front page news.

One wonders how those to whom healing has not come receive a gospel lesson like today’s gospel lesson. For healing of the sort provided here, sudden and miraculous, a raising from the very dead, is not routinely a part of our experience. In fact, you and I have not ever seen a man really dead suddenly and really sit up and speak. When healing comes, it comes not like this. And often it does not come. One thinks of those women and men, who have prayed and hoped for healing for their loved ones, and it did not come. A reading like ours might feel like salt in the wound, a needless rhetorical cruelty.

One ponders, even more pointedly, how those whose religion celebrates healing, for whom salvus (health) is the heart of salvation, might receive this kind of story, if in their own experience, the experience has been otherwise. Healing sought that does not come. One imagines a woman in Westfield, whose son is permanently buried, or a man in Marlboro whose wife is permanently disabled, or a daughter in Worcester whose parents are gone and not coming back. And if these three and others had also grown up with a sacramentalism that was revealed as untrustworthy by brute experience? And if these three and others had also grown up with a literalism that was revealed as untrustworthy by brute experience? What then? What would these religious words repeated today sound like?

What is the point of a healing remembered, when so often healing does not come? How are you going to hear gospel, assuming your experience, which is our shared common experience, of loss, grief, sickness to death, dream deferred, and healing that does not always come? What is the point of such a story, such a memory, such a history? How shall we preach about a healing remembered in the midst of so much experience of healing rescinded? The pain, the bruising reminder, of a healing that did not come can last a lifetime. The increased pain in that pain, the wound salt, of misguided religion—literal Biblicism, magical sacramentalism— can take more than a generation to remove from a family system.

Let us together give our Gospel a moment to respond, in a way that fits the reading’s own intention. We are right to analyze and criticize and demythologize our Holy Scriptures—they can take it. But we also want to give space for the Holy Scripture to analyze us and criticize us and demythologize us. To listen, in other words, to the Word. In our lesson today, healing remembered becomes memory healed. Healing remembered is in the service of memory healed. The account is recalled as a way of remembering again who we are meant to be, who you really are.

Our lesson from Luke is modeled after the longer reading made earlier from 1 Kings. There too, a widow. There too, a son. There too, a healing. There too, a proof of prophetic power. There too, at the climax, ‘he gave him to his mother’. There too, a word about a Word, a word of truth. In the Old Testament lesson, as in the New Testament Gospel, the healing is remembered as a part of the spreading of the word, a word of truth, that sets things right again, and that sets us on our right path again. Like Elijah, Jesus heals, and the healing is remembered. Here we have a clue to the point of a healing remembered.

For the community of faith, this one healing does not eclipse all of the others that did not come, that do not come, that have not come in the desired mode. How could it? After all, even all of the wonderfully typical compassion of the Lukan Jesus, who saw, had compassion, touched, spoke and made right, happens, let the reader understand, at sunset, in the twilight, under the shadow of the coming Cross. The healer is the crucified, from whom no pain and no hurt and no failure, and no loss are kept. On his way to the cross, Jesus has compassion. On his way to powerless failure, Jesus shows a healing power. His resurrection power is remembered even in the shadow of the cross.

Here there is something unexpected which unexpectedly occurs. Life can be like that, and that is good. Here there is something which stitches together family sundered and life ended. Here there is a mission, a desire, a thrust into the future. We come to church, listen for the word, and receive the sacrament, for just such a moment of memory, right remembrance, reclaimed. This one healing—a great joy and wondrous gift, however it may have happened—is meant to teach us, to remind us, that we are a part of the healing work in the world. We have something to learn from this, something to recall. The recollection is offered for all—healed and hurt, well and ill, recovered and removed. In some ways it is meant especially for those whose first dreams have been deferred, and for those whose initial hopes have been disappointed. Today, that may be you. In healing rightly remembered, our memory is rightly healed, and we have the chance again to be who we are meant to be, healers. Healers who remember that sometimes surprising, unexpected, good things happen. Healers who are not willing to give up on hope for what is not yet seen. Healers who relish the chance to heal, and be healed. Healers who recall the long parade of healing, with Jesus in the midst –the Great Physician. Healers who see in moments of health a sign of God’s loving presence in the world, ready and willing to heal and make new.

One wonders if there has ever been a time that more needed such a word, such a healing remembered bringing memory healed. Police battling city street crime need that memory. Diplomats battling the urge and surge to war need that memory. Discouraged engineers battling the deep cut into the earth gushing oil into the future need that memory. Spouses of those with tough diagnoses need that memory. In remembering past healing, we learn something -–something saving and true–about ourselves.

Lee Woodruff spoke for an hour in April, just down the street, about a healing remembered. Those who heard her left in tears because our memory was healed. Lee is a journalist, married to Bob Woodruff, who is a journalist, too, a national television anchor man. Bob nearly died in Iraq, coming home in a deep coma, with near fatal head trauma. Lee spoke at the Sargent School, our college for physical therapy. She told the future healers her story…in order to remind them of who they are meant to become. She related her terror and fear a a young mother with a husband whose wounds seemed incurable. She described the day by day routine of visiting a comatose spouse, 35 days with no response. She critically witnessed about those, mainly doctors, who spoke only of the worst possible outcomes: ‘the nurses were truer, saying that no one knew, but they had seen cases of healing’.

She was reminding by remembering. Her healing remembered became memory healed: Illness affects a whole family not just a patient. Do not be afraid to offer hope. Give information slowly. Touch him like
a person. Rub his feet. Keep the whole family in view. Tell it like it is.

And. Have faith. Faith is not some icky, scary, non-PC thing. It is one of the tools in recovery. Recognize that things happen randomly, that there is not a set plan whereby all things occur. Yet believe that God’s desire is for healing, healing in every setting, in every trauma, in every illness.

Lee read him letters that came from all over the country. Day after day. No response. One letter came from Bruce Springsteen. She added a few sentences of her own to what was written, saying that Bob was invited when better to go on stage and play with E-street band. No response.

Then on the 36th morning of his coma, following her usual swim and Starbucks stop, Lee Woodruff walked in to find her husband sitting up and saying, ‘Hi Lee, where have you been?’

For months later they battled aphasia. One day he gestured with his arms, not remembering the word for guitar, but making the motions. ‘Why do you want a guitar?’ ‘To get ready to play with Springsteen’, he replied. And today he has almost fully recovered. But the burden of her sermon, and it was such, a powerful sermon which might have had as its text Luke 7:11, was to remind us that we all and we each have some role in healing. You are meant to be healers. You were baptized into the community of healing. You have grown up to faith in a tradition of healing. You are those who are hopeful for healing. You gather regularly around a simple table, to share the bread and the cup, to taste the new wine of memory healed, which is today announced in the account of a healing remembered.

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