Archive for October, 2010

In Memoriam

Sunday, October 31st, 2010
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Luke 6: 20-31

Preface
My study of theology began in 1976 at Broadway and 120th street in New York, a fine avenue, if not quite Commonwealth Avenue. There walked in those days on those streets the ghosts and memories of saints past, like Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Heschel, one from the Union Theological Seminary and one from the Jewish Theological Seminary. In fact, the story or myth or legend was that on fall afternoons and evenings, Niebuhr and Heschel could be found walking, and talking, in the 1950’s, as they circled Grant’s Tomb, and strolled along Riverside Drive, and lingered in the shadows of Riverside Church. It is just that kind of refreshing and leisurely stroll I would like, metaphorically speaking, to take with you this morning. I would like to remember two saints, and to imagine their conversations.

You probably know Niebuhr, or at least his serenity prayer about patience, courage and wisdom. You may remember too that Heschel was the greatest voice of his generation, and century, to interpret the Hebrew prophets. Micah 6. Amos 5. Isaiah 55. Hosea 11. He said, ‘the higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments’ (repeat). With humble confidence and confident humility, in books and lectures and articles, Heschel taught a generation the unique, sui generis, power of the prophetic tradition. I like to think of Reinhold and Abraham, of an afternoon, celebrating difference, honoring diversity. They probably would not have used that phrase. But their conversation, and others like it, holds a part of our future. In thinking about All Saints, Heschel and Neibuhr came to mind. In Memoriam. With you I meditate upon them today.

Past

I wonder if they discussed difference, considered diversity in the past? If they did, they would have recognized that diversity often precedes unity. E pluribus unum, says our dollar bill. Out of many…one. Diversity comes first in history, and in religious history. Huston Smith and Stephen Prothero could help us to remember this. Their books, a generation apart, are nonetheless equally contemporary. Smith is a perennialist, Prothero is not. Meaning Smith highlights the similarities among religions, but Prothero emphasizes the differences between them.

Yet what sometimes escapes careful notice emerges at the intersection of diversity and history. In religious history, diversity regularly precedes unity. In earliest Christianity, to take one example, diversity preceded unity. Before there was one canon of Scripture, there were many books. Before there was one central authority, there were many city congregations. Before there was one unity of doctrine, there were many and various expressions of faith. I think often of my teacher Cyril Richardson, who brought this understanding to bear on his students. The 27 books of the New Testament show startling diversity. Four gospels, all distinct, especially the most radically different, John. 14 letters somehow connected to Paul (including Hebrews here), all very different, especially the 7 authentically Pauline. Throughout the collection, a range of expression of resurrection, which Valentinus (for someone and something completely different), in his Treatise on Resurrection, called ‘a revelation, a transformation, and a transition into newness’.

Diversity came first. So, difference does not surprise, astound, alarm, or confound us. Difference does not frighten us. Hold that thought. Difference does not shake us. We expect it. It is in our history, after all.

Present

I wonder if Heschel and Niebuhr talked about diversity in our time, in this the late modern period? If they did, on those autumn and spring late afternoon ‘paseos’, along the Hudson, they might have brought up Howard Thurman. Thurman preached and taught in the 1950’s. He did so here in Boston, right here in Marsh Chapel. I tell my students about Thurman, my predecessor at Marsh Chapel, by saying that he was ‘100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, which puts him still 50 years ahead of us’. In those years, people would go one Sunday to Trinity Church to hear Theodore Ferris, and the next Sunday to Marsh Chapel to hear Howard Thurman, and the third Sunday to Harvard Memorial Church to hear George Buttrick. And the fourth Sunday they stayed home, I guess.

My father graduated from Boston University School of Theology in 1953. I wonder if they were the voices of Buttrick, Thurman and Ferris which echoed in his memory as he wrote the poem ten years ago, titled Preaching:

Preaching is not Bible study, but
It does require Biblical understanding

Preaching is not theology, but
There must be theology in it.

Preaching is not biography, but
It does require an understanding of people.

Preaching is not teaching, but
It is instructional.

Preaching is not social ethics, but
It must point to social responsibility.

Preaching is one vehicle God has chosen
That can grow life.

Preaching is humbling,
Frightening,
And Rewarding!

In all cases and places, those hearing Ferris, Thurman and Buttrick would have heard echoes of a recognition that diversity includes the poor. ‘Those at the dawn of life, those in the twilight of life, those in the shadows of life’. The disinherited. This morning, we might especially recall those displaced from their homeland, at various points in history. Those who wandered. Those who became strangers. Those who were refugees. Those who became immigrants. You too once were so. Remember. In memoriam.

Thurman spoke about ‘common ground’. John Dewey spoke about ‘common faith’. Today at Marsh we talk about ‘common hope’. But Thurman wrote a book and scores of sermons on ‘The Search for Common Ground’. He hunted for those places of connection. “People, all people, belong to one another”, he taught. For this Thurman is well remembered. But Thurman also emphasized the distinctive, the particular, and the individual. He especially highlighted the plight of those ‘whose backs are against the wall’. Long before the slogan about ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’, Thurman was probing the need and experience of the poor. His best book is ‘Jesus and the Disinherited’, in which one finds a consideration of present diversity, including those whose backs are against the wall.

Our present understanding of difference, of diversity, which we offer in memoriam, provides an ample space for the emerging claims, the just claims, of those most in need.

Future

I wonder if Rabbi Abraham and Pastor Reinhold took time, in their wandering ‘tertullias’, for some imagination about diversity and difference in the future?

A sense of diversity into the future provokes an attitude of prayer. One thing about a walk, either along the Hudson or the Charles, is that it keeps your feet on the ground. You are not free to see the world from 30,000 feet in the air. You see things up close.

In 2003 this country trag
ically entered into a war that for the first time in our history placed us outside of the bounds of inherited understandings of just war. Religious traditions have made space for pacifism, on the one hand, and just war theory, on the other. The latter, particularly in Judeo Christian tradition, has emphasized war as a last resort, as an international or communal imperative, as a response to unjust incursion, and with attention to proportionality and reciprocity. This was our heritage as a people, as well. But in 2003 we entered a campaign that was pre-emptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, reckless, immoral, post Judeo-Christian, and wrong. So, some seven years later, now we find ourselves in standing in the need of prayer.

The world’s great religious traditions have everything to offer to us. Here are the treasure troves of the languages of lament, hymns of compunction, psalms of contrition, poems of regret, and prayers of confession that we shall need again to fulfill our human being, our being human. Dealing directly, on the ground, feet on the ground, with diversity provokes prayer.

One aspect of this prayer, provoked by tragic mistake, is the outworking of prayer in action. Here is on example. Refugee Immigration Ministries, under the leadership of the Rev. Ruth Bersin, is offering us water to slake our thirst for compunction, the bread of life to feed our deep need for confession and pardon. For this reason, we at Marsh Chapel have strongly and happily partnered with her since 2007.

Prayers are deeds. And deeds are prayers. Diversity provokes prayer as we enter an unforeseeable future. As Heschel wrote, ‘when I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old I admire kind people’.

With Huston Smith, I tend to the see the similarities, the perennial, lasting common ground. Maybe you do too. There is a spirit of wholeness, one expression of which is our judeo-christian tradition.

We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion. We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns. All six billion.

Coda

I remember sitting in chapel, at McGill University, in the autumn of 1981. The preacher was my teacher, for whom I was teaching assistant, until very recently the Bishop of Durham, NT Wright. He stunned us by saying that just before service his wife had telephoned. Anwar Sadat had been killed.

Sometime read again the way prison changed Sadat. Time in prison changed so many in the course of history, from Paul to Martin Luther King. Sadat wrote eloquently about the quiet and inner peace that he found, which led to his courageous leadership, which led to his death. He wrote, ‘I should like them to write on my tomb: he has lived for peace and he has died for principles’ (repeat).

May we live for peace, and give ourselves to lasting principles, including these: diversity precedes unity; diversity includes the poor; diversity provokes prayer. May we live with clear memories of those who have given us saintly versions of living.

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

Young Man Jesus

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

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Luke 18:9-14

Young

Once when our son was ten years old, he accompanied me during a visit with two parishioners. Mary and Bill had married just after the Second World War. They raised four daughters, who all had become vibrant, creative, caring adults. In addition they found time to prepare the Altar for Sunday, to sit through various Worship Committee meetings, to take an interest in local politics, to read and learn and grow in change, as faith intersected with life.

During the October that Bill was dying, our son Ben went with me once to see him. On an earlier visit, Bill had told me about his experience in the war. At age 20 Bill had become a pilot, and had flown 30 missions from England into and over Germany. His plane had been shot down once. He had survived, though not all of his crew had survived. He had carried responsibility for an airplane, a crew, many missions, and to some small but human degree, the outcome of the war itself. He was honored and decorated when the war ended. 30 missions later, several deaths later, many hours of anxious service later, many buildings and bridges destroyed later, after three years in command in England in the air in the war, he came home. He was 22. Bill was 22 years old, when the war ended, and he came home.

I cannot remember how this happened, but our son either asked to see or was offered to see Bill’s flight jacket. It was a heavy, worn, brown leather flight jacket, waist long with an old center zipper. At age 10, and I do not remember how this happened, whether he asked or was offered, Ben donned the jacket. He was small in it, but Bill himself was somewhat small, and the jacket fit, if poorly. Here was a moment when Mary, soon to be a widow, and Bill, soon to be dead, and Ben, soon to be 11, and I, soon to conduct a funeral, were fully quiet together. With that jacket Bill came home, 30 missions later, a war won, at 22 years of age. 22. A young man. Bill worked the next 40 years as a public relations writer for a small manufacturing company, a quiet life of backroom pencil sharpening, phoning, rewriting, and mailing.

Some moments stand frozen in time. Our son in Bill’s jacket is one. Bill’s primary work, his main adult life, as he reflected on all of his life, was completed by age 22. Which leads to a question: Where did we ever get the idea that young people are not capable of great things?

Sometimes a culture’s generalized apperception of something or someone needs to change, to be changed. A culture which values one group of people as only 3/5 human, needs to change, or, by force of arms, to be changed. A culture which covers over, literally or figuratively, the humanity of one gender, or another, needs to change, or to be changed. A culture which will not see patent, enduring, difference, between children who grow with one innate attraction and children who grow up with another, needs to change, or to be changed. Sometimes a culture or sub-culture just needs to change, in order to accommodate lived experience, stubborn facts, lasting substantial truths.

Perhaps that is what Paul saw in Timothy.

Timothy was a youthful associate of Paul and Silas. The NT letters written by later teachers, were written in his name and in his honor, even as his name honors God, meaning ‘one who honors God’ (1 Thess.1:1). Paul trusted Timothy with the gospel. Associate, servant, brother, emissary. The Corinthians wanted someone older, less bashful, more confident, less diffident. They wanted the head man, not the assistant. (As one School Principal asked me after my appointment to a formerly strong city church at 29, ‘Brother Hill? You the head man up there?’) Timothy failed in 1 Cor. Titus succeeded in 2 Cor. All the Pauline letters mention him: a faithful companion, a guide to the Gentile churches, a son to a father: ‘my true child in the faith’. His mother was a Jewish Christian, his father a gentile. “Do not be discouraged by your youthfulness” (1 Tim. 4:12).

When he was alive, my Dad used to say, ‘I love to come over to Boston to be reminded that there are so fine many young people in the world’.

Man

Jesus meets us today in the Word. He greets us. He greets us a real human being, fully human.

How shall we say this, today?

You know, for a long time, people have been trying to say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, about Jesus.

To an unruly church, Matthew said: “Hold it. Jesus was a teacher.”

To a suffering church, Mark said: “Remember. Jesus was crucified. He suffered too.”

To a settled, more comfortable church, Luke said: “Wait a minute. Jesus loved the poor, those outside”.

To a philosophical church, John said: “Stop. God’s word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

You know, for a long time, groups of people have been trying to say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, about Jesus.

In 1848, over in Seneca Falls, Jesus was well remembered as an advocate for, a friend of women.

In 1862, in the autumn, as Lincoln pondered the Emancipation Proclamation, Jesus would have been remembered as a person of color, semitic, dark, today we would say black.

In 1933, the only worth saying in Berlin and Tubingen about Jesus was that he was a Jew. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said then that the Christian church in Germany either would be found standing next to for and up for the Jewish community or it did not exist at all.

And today?

Humans have always had problems with Jesus’ humanity. The rude manger, innocent and innocuous, we can accept. The empty tomb, divine power and victory, we can accept. It is what lies between Christmas and Easter that is harder for us.

On October 24, 2010, at Boston University Marsh Chapel, amid 4400 freshmen and women, and 40,000 people in a community of learning, what shall we say about the humanity of Jesus?

Just this: He lived and died a young man. So he is, as a classmate once wrote, ‘perpetually ripe’. Our Bible is not written to record the history of Jesus but to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. All of the details of his life are enmeshed in the great, larger project of the New Testament, the announcement of divine love. Still, our Gospels carry the understanding that Jesus was 33 years old at the time of his death (4bce to 29ce, on the most common understanding).

His relative youth may seem strange to us, as youth often does seem, new and strange to each new generation. The joy of faith lies in crossing boundaries and bridges into formerly strange territory. Today the very technology of communication, that meant to bridge one to another, can become the very boundary meant to be bridged.

I once watched a man on the subway find and open a used church newsletter. Like almost all church newsletters it had one to two standard titles: the Visitor or the Carillon. He read through the pages, with some interest. He is my own favorite interlocutor: someone outside, not on the mailing lis
t, not regularly in attendance, not unmindful of the church nor unmindful of the church’s failings, still ready to listen. The stranger, the secularist, the singular—I have loved working with these far more than with others. So, here I am in Boston. In the heart of a post-Christian, utterly secular culture. In the belly of the University whale where for single students, the younger among us, 11am is the very middle of the night come Sunday. In the hearing of those afar, a radio congregation, a phrase that is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist. You should be careful what you pray for.

His relative youth includes his singleness. Do we reflect at all on this? We repeat often enough that at Cana of Galilee Jesus’ blessed the married state, the partnered condition. But he meets us in all the youthfulness of single life. He never married. He blessed the state of single adults by taking this path himself in his tabernacle days. This I take to be excellent news for the many young and not so young single folks listening this morning. The true light that enlightens every single person came into the world. He lived by himself. He went up the mountain alone. He rebuked Peter solo. He prayed without help in Gethsemane. He died deserted on Golgotha. Cradle to cross he entered, wore and blessed the single life, as do many young adults. His communion creates fellowship, real friendship, apart from family ties.

His relative youth includes his worldliness, his secularity. Youth in all its strange, single, secular power. Harvey Cox wrote a long time ago about the Secular City of the modern age. His great forebears, predecessors might have writing about the Secular Christ. They knew their Calvin: “Christ now lives his glorious life in our flesh”. They knew their Wesley: “By a most amazing condescension he was made flesh and united himself to our miserable nature”. Jesus has not forgotten the secular city. In fact, he may be more alive there than in the church.

My daughter once asked me if Jesus went to church. You can pick up the undertone, overtone and inclination of the question. Well, He did. In Luke 4 he went, and there was a riot. In John 2 he went with a cat of nine tails and there was further trouble. He walked into the great holy feast of Passover, Mark12 and all, and, a week later, it cost him his life. So, yes, he went to church. He knew religion. But he loved the world. You will not find his youthful countenance neither in sacrament alone nor in Scripture alone. He is risen, he is not there. You will find him loving the world.

This summer, driving, I heard a radio advertisement for a Sunday morning radio program. The communication listed the many things one might be involved with on Sunday morning: waking, walking, talking, swimming, hours on the beach, hikes in the woods, family gatherings, picnics, sports, meals. Of course, you know what I expected or waited to hear on the list. But it did not come. With no particular polemical edge, with no venom or spite or even irony, the advertisement spoke happily and sunnily about Sunday morning, utterly free of religion. Whether or not the theological movement so-named has any ongoing verve, ours truly is a Secular City.

Forever young, he advances toward us. Will you love this Stranger Messiah? Will you love this Single Lord? Will you love this Secular Redeemer?

Jesus

Jesus lived and died a young man. Most scholars he may been thirty or a bit older on the day of his passion. He too knew the rhythms of youth, of young life. He was single. He was secular. He was a stranger. I wonder how regularly those of us who discuss the incarnation pause to notice, let alone announce the incarnate Young Man Jesus?

We need not be naïve. Youth culture can often be a narcissistic age and place. Christopher Lasch, now dead, put it best: “American youth culture is not a medium that initiates young people into adult life, nor even prepares them for it, but is a quasi-autonomous culture organized around the pursuit of fun and thrills.”

But neither need we lack hope. John Denver once sang this song: ‘What can one man do?’ ‘What one man can do dream. What one man can do is love. What one man can do is take the world and make it young again.’ We can harbor hopes, dreams, excitement and expectation. I am told that in 1990 18% of 20 year olds wanted to do something to make the world a better place, and today 50% do. In the four years we have been at Boston University, having raised three children of our own now in their late 20’s, I believe I can say a positive word to parents: you can be confident, you can have faith that your son or daughter will be well, will be capable of doing good, even great, things, will be fine. You can let go. Good news: in the tradition of the Young Man Jesus, you are free to embrace a little less and expect a little more.

We can and should expect young adults to achieve a high level of personal morality. We can and should expect young adults to use time wisely and frugally, beginning with public worship on the Lord’s Day. We can and should expect young adults not to use or abuse another’s body, particularly with regard to sexual activity: the body is the temple of the Lord. We can and should expect young adults to know the value of a dollar: to earn all they can; to save all they can; to give all they can, especially to avoid debt, to avoid debt like the plague that it is. The notion that young men and women can perhaps be persuaded to fan idealism with occasional forays into justice related projects, but cannot be expected to be continent, sober, and frugal is a false notion. Young adults can. They are no more sinful than their parents. They just have less practice.

We can and should expect young adults to develop keen social consciences. We can and should expect young adults to develop the capacity to imagine the pain of others, particularly those who are well below them in income. We can and should expect young adults to develop an awareness of the power of forgiveness, to let loose their inner socialist before their later, inner Tory arrives. We can and should expect young adults to think in multi-generational frames of mind, especially with regard to irreplaceable gifts of the earth and sea and sky. The notion that young men and women can perhaps gain some minimal individual discipline, but cannot be expected to do justice, love mercy, and walk the earth humbly is a false notion. Young adults can. They are no more selfish than their parents. They just have less money.

Our publican, the picaresque favorite in today’s Gospel, enters formal religion with only one feeling: ‘god be merciful to me’. He goes home justified.

One early Saturday morning, I jogged down toward Massachusetts Avenue. Beacon street comes west above a pond, along the river, beside the school, beneath many layers of concrete overpass. They are a tangled collection of roads, as viewed from underneath, on Beacon Street sidewalk, at the intersection of Charlesgate. I must confess that before this particular Saturday AM, I had not found much of anything to celebrate in the gruff Charlesgate sub-bridge aesthetic. To my surprise that sunny Saturday, right in the darkest reach of the underpass, there stood a painter, easel to the west, eye to the river, hand held with brush pointed. He even wore a painter’s smock and beret, though I did not see any gotee. Out through all the concrete slashes between his easel and the river, when you followed his sight line, you could see the beauty of blue, dozens of shades of blue, in water, on river, in sky, in air. He could see the power and beauty of the carved up blue, and he was setting out to paint it. I wonder what we see amid all the crisscrossing, countervailing, perspective carving
chaos between us and younger people? Do we see the blue? The height? The depth? The breadth? The beauty?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”(TR).

Ghosts visit me in this nave today. They are people who in youth lived their dependence upon God and their gratitude to the mercy of God. Mark Baker at age 20 setting of alone for mission work in Honduras. My wife Jan following me at age 25 to the very frozen Canadian border. John Dempster planting Boston University in 1839. My dad bicycling with the Youth Hostel movement through Europe in 1946. And others, and others, and others…And you?

“Even if the world should end tomorrow, I shall plant my seed today” (attributed to Martin Luther King by Greg Morgenthau, 9/24/10).

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

A Faithful Persistence

Sunday, October 17th, 2010
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Luke 18: 1-8


1. The Lord

There has seldom been a better week in which to meditate upon the saving power of a faithful persistence.

From one half mile beneath the surface of the earth, by dint of prayerful persistence which did not lose heart, by dint of persistent effort which did not give in, 33 Chilean miners emerged from the cave of death and out into the world of life. You may have seen the older leader who emerged, hugged, sang and waved. Then he fell on his knees, arms dangling to the side, chinned bowed. He personified a faithful persistence.

We are taught in the gospel that we, as disciples, should always pray and not lose heart.

The first person to meet us in today’s reading is the Lord Jesus himself, this morning in his role as teacher. You should pray and not lose heart, we are taught. It appears that the very act of praying, events coming and going as they do, itself contests the loss of heart. We should pray and so not lose heart. By the practice of intercessory prayer, weekday and Sunday, we do not presume to try to direct. We are not Babe Ruth pointing to the upper deck, showing the way the ball will go. We pray in order to hearten the heart, regardless of where the ball may go. Intercessory prayer is not only a matter of doxology, and not only a matter of therapy, but is a discipline that affects the heart. Its practice involves a faithful persistence.

Surrounded as we are by the effects of quasi-human communication, in all its technologically potent and existentially unproven forms, we deeply need the nourishment of prayer, including Sunday ordered worship with beauty its in music and homily and liturgy: enchantment not entertainment.

Erazim Kohak who once taught here once wrote:

The ageless boulders of the long abandoned dam, the maple and the great birch by twilight, the chipmunk in the busyness of his days and of his dying, even I, making my dwelling place among them, are not only right in our season. We also have our value in eternity, as witnesses to the audacious miracle of being rather than nothing. Ultimately, that is the moral sense of nature, infinitely to be cherished: that there is something. That is the eternal wonder articulated in the rightness and rhythm of time which humans honor in their commandments, the wonder of being…

Jesus meets us today in an exhortation to the faithful persistence of prayer. Those within earshot have some practice in such practice. But how much love have you shown to a neighbor whom you have not yet invited to pray with you, to join you? To whom you have yet to say: I will be at Marsh Chapel on Sunday. We could have a coffee afterward.

2. The Unjust Judge

It is our fortune that the Gospel has told us the meaning of the parable in advance. Pray so as not to lose heart. For the parable itself careens wildly away from such an easy reading. For the second person we meet is an unjust Judge, who cares nothing for God nor man. His temperment and outlook make him an unlikely God figure, even though it is to him that the parable’s entreaties are presented.

With his growling grumpiness, he is yet a person among other people. His carelessness is not foreign to us. The revelation that decisions are being made behind closed doors, or doors at least closed to us, on less than virtuous grounds, is not news to us either. The humanity of the unjust Judge at least puts the Gospel right in the soil, down in the gritty dirt of life, a secret hidden in the dirt itself. The gospel is about and for people, after all.

Say what you will about the third Gospel, Luke has colorful characters. An outcast Samaritan, who is the savior. Mary and Martha in eternal dialogue about human beings and human doings. An importunate friend, who like the unjust Judge gives in because he is bothered. A Rich Fool with big barns and sudden death. A woman long infirm, touched and healed. A great banquet sent out to the least, last, lost. A man building a tower who ought to count his shekels. A king off to war, who ought to count his troops. A woman hunting a coin, a shepherd finding a sheep, and three prodigals—a son, a brother and a father. A dishonest steward—my favorite accountant. Lazarus teaching Dives. A slave whose master has him work day and night, inside and out. Ten Lepers healed, one thankful. Say what you will, the Gospel is memorably populated, and heavily populated. You feel like they would all make memorable dinner guests. ‘God bless the enemies of your enemies’ they would say as grace for the meal.

Our judge does not well represent law or theology. He represents enlightened self-interest, before the phrase was around. Maybe not so enlightened. Just self-interest. Scoundrels appear with regularity in Luke. There is no expectation that they represent morality or amorality. But they are present. They are part of the human condition, the existential given, that abiding anxiety, alienation, accident that is such a part of our experience. And sometimes to deal with power unattached to love requires us to give voice to love unattached to power. Sometimes that is all we have.

Within our little village of Boston University on the Charles River, two and one half miles long by a half -mile wide, we hear voices raised in love over against seemingly immutable power.

Professor Tariq Ramadan emphasized at our Law School this week that all religions need to practice a mixed measure of humility and consistency and respect “amid modernity’s porous pluralism and the pluralized ethical horizons of our age”. He challenged our young adults , first, to religious self knowledge: “when you don’t know who you are, you are scared by who you are not”. His cure for injustice? “Education, especially in history, philosophy, religions, and the arts”.

Dr. Karl Kaiser spoke to us this week in the International Relations school, regarding the labor involved in the reunification of Germany some twenty years ago. In a fascinating aside, he made reference to the involvement of theological students and theological studies in building part of the community and commitment needed to move two parts of the country together.

Sometimes the route forward involves a faithful persistence, which even the least just judge judges justly.

The stark contrast between powerless widow and powerful judge could not be clearer. A faithful persistence may face down such impediments to justice, when and where nothing else can. Luke back at the examples given in the Gospel thus far this fall: A faithful persistence that handles change. A faithful persistence both inward and outward. A faithful persistence that expresses thanksgiving. A faithful persistence that pursues justice. A faithful persistence that seeks and finds the lost. Luke is hanging portraits of faith along the dusty hallways of our memories, so that when we most need them we may draw on timely examples in timely ways. We talk at Marsh Chapel a fair amount about justice. But just how much justice have we directly done, recently, in our spending, in our voting, in our speaking, in our choosing?

3. The Bothersome Widow

Our Gospel next introduces us to a third person, a bothersome widow, who has gone to court against an adversary. It is not clear just how this story applies to prayer, as the introduction said it was. Her prayer life seems to be one long
legal deposition, and maybe that carries a truth. We are told elsewhere in the Scripture that we are to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5). Such instruction suggests that every word and every whisper involves prayer. We do well to prize our time, now we have it, the Scripture also reminds us (Hebrews 11).

Tonight our Muslim community will celebrate the somewhat recent completion of Ramadan with an Eid feast from 7 to 10pm, which many of us will attend. Our decisions about where to place ourselves on the map, each week, are part of our prayer life, too. In fact our forms of social location have everything to do and much to say about who, in faith, we are choosing to be, day by day.

Now and then, the Gospel testifies, we may want and need to place ourselves alongside the powerless but vocal widow. We may need to learn about speech from the underside.

From this pulpit our colleague (S Hassinger) recently encouraged us to ‘follow, lead and get out of the way’. By ‘follow’, she meant learn, or re-learn, for some learning means unlearning what has been learned. By ‘lead’, she meant discover how to lead from the second chair, not the first chair, for few of us end up in the first chair. By ‘get out of the way’, she meant give people back their own work to do.

The entitled materialism of the last decade may require you to unlearn some things about what matters counts and lasts. Your place in the second row may inspire you to learn the beauty of the viola, in contrast to that to the violin. A sermon on persistence may prompt me to give your work back to you. Remember: your fieldwork is not a substitute for your domestic duties. Pick, shovel, tractor, computer, i-phone, blackberry and calendar are not a replacement for setting the table of the heart and hearth, for sitting inside the house of peace, for preparing a meal of spiritual nourishment. The journey of faith falls along a route of persistent faithfulness.

A highlight of our fall each year at Boston University is the University Lecture, offered this week by Professor Jeremy Yudkin. He showed the discipline, the persistent concision of the music of Beethoven, Miles Davis, and Paul McCartney. A faithful persistence is something the great musicians, including these three, all share. Davis chose his notes carefully, and played only a few of them. Yudkin reminded us of his motto: “You don’t have to play all the notes”, he once said, “you just have to play the pretty ones”.

Researchers say that excellent proficiency in a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice, of actual experience in kicking the ball, playing the sonata, performing the operation, landing the plane, teaching the seminar, chairing the meeting, preaching the sermon. How honest, how realistic are we with ourselves about persistence? We had an old song we used to sing, ‘if you can’t bear the cross then you can’t wear the crown’. Why should we be discouraged about less than perfect performance with less than adequate practice? Practice, practice, practice. Outdated pedagogy? Not according to today’s gospel, and not according to one particularly importunate, especially bothersome, utterly unyielding widow.

4. The Son of Man

We are met by only one other person, one final, fourth figure today. Jesus teaches. The judge vindicates. The widow importunes. Then the account that began in prayer, and continued in virtue, now concludes with a reference to judgment, apocalypse, the end of time. The community’s concern about the delay of the return of Christ is turned on its head. The question, says Luke, should not be ‘when?’ Soon enough, soon enough. The question should be one of preparedness. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith?

The figure of the Son of Man would have been well known to Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not Jesus attributed the title to himself we do not know. Here, the Lord’s question makes it seem anyway like he sees the Son of Man coming, but does not identify himself with that figure.

In general, in the Gospel’s, apocalyptic sayings and teachings are forged again in the white heat of the church’s instruction about how to live. That is, because it is later than you think, you will want to make the most of the time you have. It is this sensibility that one notices in the air and along the hallways of a great University, about this time in the fall, that is, about the time midterms are administered.

If you have a list of two things that truly matter to you in life, whatever they be, and you steadily attend to them, faithfully, persistently, assiduously, then you will see results, you will see progress. It will take longer than you want, but the results will come. It will take longer than you think it should, but the results will come. It will take longer than it would have with another judge in the chair, but the results will come.

Maybe there is a deeper reason why this combination of verses ends with a salute to the last judgment. It may be a warning to us, that is to us all, that is to you, that is to those of you who are already fairly faithful, and fairly persistent. Not everything is worth your persistence. There are other competing, rebalancing texts and sermons for other days: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging; the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results; better defeat for the right than victory for the wrong. Misdirected, misinvested, our persistence can do harm. Not just persistence, but faithful persistence is the announced good news from this late Lukan chapter. To what will you attend, in full, this month, this year? Our gospel challenges you to place faith at the heart of your persistent attention. Attend to the things of faith. Prayer, in word and song. Scripture, by morning and on Sunday. Compassion, in deed and word. A space for faith, a space for Christ in the hotel of your heart. Our friend Wendell Luke put it well in a poem:

Softly, almost unnoticed,
the spirit of Christ enters and becomes;
no hysteric act displays his coming unto us.
A man lived with us and Christ was everywhere
that we might search ourselves
and give him lodging;
The soul, the body is but a Bethlehem manger
where Christ will come seeking birth;
lay carefully your straw of life
and bid him come,
bid him enter there,
bid him come;
in the soft splendor of evening fires he will come;
build your Evening fire
and bid him come;
a fire not tended dies and is no more;
a fire not tended dies.
Set no extravagant nor pompous feast;
a silent evening fire and gentle manger straw
And Jesus comes.
Jesus enters softly.

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

Five Things are Ultimate

Sunday, October 10th, 2010
Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 17: 11-19
2 Timothy 2:8-15

Five things are ultimate in this life: that we be just, that we become whole, that we learn to love, that we present ourselves for judgment, and that we be grateful for all this. Justice, wholeness, love, an identity that means something, and gratitude to the creator: would it not be simpler if there were only one thing that is ultimate in defining our lives? Alas, that is not the case. Our religious life becomes skewed if we leave out any one of these ultimate things, and it becomes desperately skewed if we focus only on one to the exclusion of the rest.

Jesus was a teacher of justice and righteousness: remember the Sermon on the Mount where he said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Some people, however, reduce Christianity to the moral project, turning it into a complex set of moral injunctions defining a way of life. The liberal church has sometimes reduced Christianity to only the social gospel, leaving all the rest aside because it seem selfish, or superstitious, or too hard. Morality, especially social morality, is ultimately important, that without which heaven is closed. But it is not the only ultimate.

Jesus was also a healer, with specialties in dermatology, as in our Gospel for today, gynecology for the woman with the flow of blood, ophthalmology for dealing with blindness, ear, nose and throat for dealing with the deaf and dumb, orthopedics for healing cripples, crisis intervention for those on the brink of death, and most especially psychiatry for casting out internal demons that destroy the wholeness of the soul as well as body. Who of us has not been ultimately concerned for the healing of body or soul? Jesus knew that the healing of body and soul go together, as we have rediscovered in modern science after centuries of thinking them separate. Sometimes the religious life has been reduced to the quest for wholeness, however, and without justice, love, the reconciliation of life’s meaning, and unconditioned gratitude for the whole darkling plain of existence, the search for wholeness can turn into a selfish spiritual individualism.

Justice, wholeness–Jesus was the guru of love, of course. He said the Great Commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself. According to John’s Gospel, he gave his disciples a new commandment, namely to love one another as he had loved them, that is with the special kind of love that Jesus had. Moreover, he said that we should love even our enemies, and this is not to suggest that our love will turn them into friends—we should love them when they remain enemies. Love is an extraordinary power. Those with flawed justice still can be great lovers, as can those whose own lives are broken and who do not achieve much in life, or whose supposed gratitude for existence is shot-through with dark patches of cynicism. But sometimes the religious emphasis on love is an excuse to sit it out when justice calls, to leave our broken lives unhealed, to hide from who we really are, and to refuse to face the failures and the suffering for which we are supposed to be grateful. Without the other ultimates, Christian love can become sentimentality.

Justice, wholeness, love–for much of the Christian tradition, the chief significance of Jesus is that he allows us to come to God as redeemed sinners. Our text from 2 Timothy says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” This would be no problem if we were not sinners. Jesus is presented as the atonement of our sins, a theme especially important to St. Paul. No matter how righteous we try to be, we still fail at justice. No matter how much we invest in our own wholeness and make serious progress, we still are broken. No matter how fervently we strive to love, we still are imperfect in love. No matter how much we achieve in life, we fall short. No matter how grateful we are for our very existence, we cannot help wishing we had been born richer, smarter, better looking, and surrounded by a more supportive cast of characters. Therefore we would be ashamed to present ourselves before God as the mere facts of who we are. This shame leads to estrangement, estrangement to self-hate, and self-hate to a demonic negativity that further corrupts our justice, breaks our wholeness, infects our loves with viral bitterness, and turns gratitude to resentment. Failure to accept ourselves begets demons that ruin everything. So deep is sin that redemption is costly, and the Christian tradition says this cost is paid by God himself in the person of Jesus who is of the family of God. I don’t know how you sit with all those bloody symbols of atonement and redemption. But if they do not grip us somehow we cannot acknowledge the abysmal difficulty of finding ultimate meaning for a life with as much failure as we in fact bear.

Justice, wholeness, love, meaningfulness–now we can sense something of the manifold hurdles to be leapt in the race for unconditional gratitude for existence. Not only is the harsh cosmos unscaled to human affairs, not only are most people indifferent or hostile to us in their own self-interests, not only does our biology wear out and life leave us, but at best we attain to a life where our continued injustice, brokenness, compromised loves, and failed identity are simply accepted and left in place. We are commissioned to go on with life as if those faults did not hold us back. Gratitude for existence is easy when skies are blue. But skies are often dark, and underfoot is the fiery pit, and the way to the other shore is a gossamer path of hope spun out of signals of God’s unconditional love. God’s love is the unbounded, infinite, and arbitrary fecundity of creation, oblivious as to morals, indifferent as to whether we are whole or broken, so massive as to trivialize our own loves, and accepting of all we are, the good, the bad, and the indifferent! But how do we know this divine love? What signals do we have that God’s creation should buoy us up on cresting waves of joy throughout the glorious storms of life?

One of the mysteries in all religions is that there is something ecstatically charismatic in their founders and founding stories. Buddha and Confucius were good teachers but there was something about their persons that transformed the teachings into authority with the power to restore justice, promote wholeness, cultivate compassion, and give meaning. Moses was reputed to shine so brightly after Sinai that he had to wear a veil so as not to blind the people. And Jesus was lovely beyond compare. Perhaps not in his actual lifetime, but enough then that his memory was so transformed that for subsequent generations he was the loveliest imaginable, most attractive, most erotically charged signal of God’s overwhelming unconditional creative and accepting love. More than a teacher of righteousness, healer, lover, and redeemer, Jesus was and is for us an erotic sign who can arouse us to an ecstatic, unmeasured, passionate gratitude toward God despite it all. Like Jesus we can be transfigured. We can chant:

Grow us, God, in Jesus’ image,
Icon of Your loveliness:
Radiant in his fetching visage,
Rousing us to holy lust.
Stimulate our loving ardor,
Change our greed to love’s fire-hue.
Feed us passion’s excess, for we’re
Loveliest when loving You.

This love to which we are drawn in the ima
ge of Jesus is only glimpsed from the corner of the eye when looking at his righteousness, wholeness, love of others, and redemption of our lives. Jesus’ loveliness glazes back to ordinariness if looked at directly. Its image in us feeds on excessive passion in sometimes frightening ways that trivialize justice, wholeness, love of others, and personal redemption. In the gratitude it shapes we glimpse the transfigurations that Jesus and the mystics undergo and that we sometimes feel rumbling in our inner parts. The highest joys that religion enjoins are in this transfigured ecstasy, the fifth ultimate, true gratitude. Have you glimpsed it?

Now we cannot take too much excessive passion before lunch. Come back down to Earth and think about our Gospel for this morning. Jesus healed ten lepers and sent them off to the priest who could declare them clean, according to Levitical law. All ten were made whole, at least dermatologically. But one of them realized that more had happened than becoming whole and turned back in gratitude, praising God and thanking Jesus. He spiritually engaged two ultimates, wholeness and gratitude, and the latter is the more important. What was wrong with the other nine, with whom Jesus was provoked?

It was their demons, I think. Jesus said that what distinguished the grateful former leper from the others was his faith. What does faith mean here? All ten had faith that Jesus could cure them and cried to him for mercy. So it was not faith in the sense of belief in Jesus’ powers of healing. Rather it was a faith that already bordered on gratitude, that saw more in Jesus than his healing powers. It was a faith without the demons of self-hate and estrangement that corrupt the otherwise good things we do. Jesus’ healing of the nine lepers was incomplete, only skin deep, if you can take the pun. He should have cast out their demons. The grateful former-leper had no demons. Most of us are like the nine with demons of negativity and destruction.

By demons I don’t mean supernatural spirits of the first-century sort (though those are pretty good symbols for what I do mean) but rather the semi-organized tumbles of emotional forces that lead from shame to self-hate to destructiveness. Most of us have many pockets of such tumbling emotional forces. The demonic tumble is not limited to individuals. Recent headlines have called attention to the brutalization of gay and other sexual minorities in our righteous American society—last week a thirty year old gay man tortured for hours by nine homophobes for being gay, the week before a gay college student driven to suicide by his roommates’ mocking his sexuality on-line, numerous other suicides in the weeks preceding because of harassment of their sexuality. We remember Matthew Shepherd, beaten and hung on a fence to die alone because his murderers believed this is what you should do to gay people. That’s what it says in Leviticus 20:13. In just about every high school and junior high school in this country, gay boys, lesbian girls, and people of ambiguous sexual identity are taunted, beaten, and made to feel unworthy every day. They are made to feel ashamed, to hate themselves, and often to be self-destructive. The suicide rate among sexual minority teens is far above the average. But it is others who force those demons on them. A writer in the New York Times called the flaming homophobic bigotry in the churches and synagogues a “spiritual malpractice.” But it is worse: it is religious demonry of the highest order—unfounded shame about sex among good people turning to self-hate, projected onto those who are different in sexual identity, and transformed into legitimated persecution and destructiveness. There are demons in the houses of the holy—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and the rest—and the saints have not yet prevailed against them. Religious bigotry against sexual minorities, like ethnic bigotry and racism, is a leprous condition whose contagion spreads from sacred writings to doctrine to popular consciousness to the cell phones of the faithful that send out the demons of death and destruction. Would to God that we could exorcise our demons!

So I call your attention to five ultimates about which the Christian traditions learns from Jesus: justice, wholeness, love of others, redeemed meaningfulness of life, and joyous gratitude for the existence of it all. Together they define the rich complexity and intensity of the religious life in Christian form. They are problematic for us, however, because of our demons that turn ultimately important endeavors to negativity, distortion, and self-defeat. Much of religious life is struggling with those demons, a deeper brokenness than skin-deep leprosy. Warfare against demons is at the heart of our spiritual lives. Tom Troeger, a friend who has preached from this pulpit, and Carol Doran, a Boston musician who sometimes works at Boston University, wrote a hymn that is our battle-cry against demons, a drum-beat quick-step:

“Silence, frenzied, unclean spirit!” cried God’s healing Holy One.
“Cease your ranting! Flesh can’t bear it; flee as night before the sun.”
At Christ’s words the demon trembled, from its victim madly rushed,
While the crowd that was assembled stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.

Lord, the demons still are thriving in the gray cells of the mind:
Tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind,
Doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason’s sight,
Guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.

Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit in our mind and in our heart;
Speak your word that when we hear it, all our demons shall depart.
Clear our thought and calm our feeling; still the fractured, warring soul.
By the power of your healing make us faithful, true, and whole.

May the power of God to overwhelm our shame with joy cast out our demons so that we might pursue justice, wholeness, love, meaning, and gratitude like athletes running the race of life with the pristine power that comes from touching ultimate things!

Amen.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Cummings Neville,
Dean of Marsh Chapel, 2003-2006

Thanksgiving

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010
Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 17: 5-10

Frontispiece

Eucharist means thanksgiving. Our Sacrament of Remembrance (the sermon from September 5), our Sacrament of Presence (the sermon coming for November 7), is also a Sacrament of Thanksgiving, a mode and moment of gratitude, of giving thanks (today’s sermon forWorld Communion Sunday). He took the bread, and gave thanks. He took the cup, and gave thanks.

Are you a grateful person?

Does your day begin with some kind of quiet whisper, in gratitude for the gift of being alive? Do your meals begin with some gesture or silence or utterance by which to acknowledge the gifts of nourishment? Does your evening end, as the covers are turned back, with a twilight thanks for this another day? Does your week start with a word of gracious, honest thanks for what we have been given? Can you pause midweek, when the occasion occasions it, to say a word or send a note of thanks? Does your work conclude with a sane recognition in gratitude of what others and The Other have given?

A young student this week said with innocent conviction, ‘I try to be a grateful person’. Such a beautiful sentence in American English. ‘I try to be a grateful person’.

And you?

Community

Thanksgiving requires a living community, and a particular language, and a personal experience.

You have entered, in this hour, a community formed for gratitude. The Bible tells us so. Our lesson (2 Tim.) promotes a communal structure for thanksgiving. Our psalm (100) sings the most glorious of thanksgiving hymns. Our gospel uncovers the very depth of faith, religion, the inward journey, the spiritual life—your prey in the hunt of coming to church: the marrow is thanksgiving.

Our parable today, in the heart of Luke’s own collection of personal materials, recollections, sources, sayings—in a way a kind of separate Gospel all its own from chapter 9 to 19—tells us that our field work is not a substitute for our interior duties. For those who may have missed a phrase or two in the reading, the Gospel tells of daylong servant work, after which the servant come inside and serves again. Does the master give thanks? No. It is the servant who is meant to be thankful, to be thankful for both the outward and inward journeys. Our fieldwork is not a substitute for our domestic duties. Our professional work, our day job, is no substitute for the matters of the heart. Wednesday does not replace Sunday. Achievement is not a substitute for grace. Pick and shovel do not compensate for a lack of table manners, nor does the furrow plowed cover the lack of table grace. To be human means to work outside and inside both. And the marrow of the inward journey is thanksgiving. Your soul life starts with a deep feeling of gratitude.

A restless heart, finally resting in God, said Augustine.

A cold heart, finally and strangely warmed, wrote Wesley.

A powerful feeling of absolute dependence on the grace of another, opined Schleiermacher.

A capacity to accept our own acceptance, preached Tillich.

A sense of timelessness, wrote Thurman.

Warmth is what Miguel de Unamuno called it: ‘Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, it is the frost.”

Academic communities particularly need his caution about night and frost, about the difference between understanding and overcoming. It is not the night of unknowing but the frost of unloving that kills. We sometimes presume that if we can write it down, then we don’t have to live it through. If you can get it down on paper, then you don’t have to live it. Not true. Le couer a sais raisons

Joan Chittester, writing with of Rowan Williams, in their book UNCOMMON GRATITUDE, records a conversation between them: “Finally I asked him directly, ‘what really interests you most about the spiritual life?’ He paused a moment. ‘I find myself coming back again and again to the meaning of ‘alleluia’’, he said. (viii). A hymnic life, a daily alleluia, is the ultimate expression of thanksgiving, she concludes (ix). But to enter the kingdom of thanksgiving, one needs a community of grateful people to show the way. We depend upon the exhortation and example of others.

Language

Culture is built on language. A culture can either magnify or diminish thanksgiving. Most do a bit of both. At its worst, student life and culture across the country can be a seething stew of all things degenerate, foul, graceless, and cruel. One incident (Rutgers, GW Bridge) last week bore lasting testimony to this hard truth. We here have a responsibility to do what we can, in our place and in our time, to extend the reach and influence of a culture, the church’s culture, a culture of grateful kindness. Four buses, two catholic and two evangelical, took students on retreat this weekend, and two buses took Protestants and others apple picking last Saturday. Thanksgiving at word and table. Jonathan Franzen’s new novel FREEDOM carries this startling statement: “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off…(we have) a trillion little bits of distorted noise”. Students entering college find sometimes that they must summon an inner courage to face off, square off against a graceless ingratitude. You may need to find a way to say to your roommate, “One of us is wrong, and I think it is you.” That is, you may need to create some physical and emotional distance between yourself and others who carry themselves in a different way. And you will need a community, whether this one or another, in which to be nurtured by gratitude.

Sometimes people ask whether they should introduce their children to religion. Should we go to church? This is a serious social question today, especially in a region like ours where no such expectation is the cultural norm. We may rightly honor many and different responses. But children do not grow up naturally grateful. They need to see thanksgiving in the lives of others, preferably not of their own kin, their own household. They need to run into others who will impress them with worn proverbs like, ‘If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he did not get there by himself’. They need the language of thanksgiving. Gratitude leads to generosity and generosity to grace.

The prayers of the church begin and end in thanks. The psalms of the church, if not laments, are full blown thanksgivings. The hymns of the church, in music and in poetry, exude thanksgiving. The teaching of the church adorns thanksgiving. The central sacrament of the church is thanksgiving, Eucharist.

But a community alone will not produce gratitude. A grateful attitude develops like a language develops. One learns to ‘speak’ faith, by trial and error, by practice, by listening and learning, by patient instruction. George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine taught us this some years ago. We learn the language of music. We learn the language of faith. We learn the language of thanksgiving.

An article this week catalogued the linguistic difficulties we Americans have in knowing religious language. Where was Jesus born? Who received the Ten Commandments? What leader created the Protestant refo
rmation? As it happens, most people do not know the answers to these questions. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons, do, but not the average person of faith.

It takes time and practice, much time and much practice, to grow in faith. It takes time and practice, much time and much practice, to become adept at being a grateful person. We learn to be grateful by seeing gratitude conferred on us, ‘spoken’ to us through the gracious, grateful lives of others.

You have learned and taught the language of thanksgiving over this last decade: y2k, dangling chad, nineleven, shock and awe, collateral damage, housing bubble, credit default swap, leveraged speculation, bursting bubble, hope and change, great recession, jobless recovery… Through it all you have kept alleluia alive, kept thanksgiving alive, kept gratitude alive.

Experience

But language alone, community alone, cannot confer thanksgiving. We must at the end of the day enter the house. We will want to go inside, set the table, prepare the meal, serve the dinner, and clean the dishes.

Your fieldwork is not a substitute for your homework.

You cannot claim the successes of profession or business as substitutes for the work of the inward journey, the path toward wholeness, health, and happiness involves becoming a grateful person.

“I try to be a grateful person”. A beautiful sentence.

Our need for thanksgiving is met in the service of thanksgiving, the Eucharist. We are servants of an eternal master who does not discount the invisible, interior, indoor work of the inward journey.

Some years ago, in the course of a capital campaign, my friend and I visited lovely new homes, bought before the housing bubble burst, purchased by young people who had enough to pay the mortgage, but in many cases nothing left over to furnish the interior. Looking back, I wonder now how many went into foreclosure. I wonder if some of our lives are not too often too similar to those fine homes, whose exteriors shine, but whose interiors are unfurnished, or at least under furnished. I wonder how many of us are on the brink of a kind of spiritual foreclosure?

I wonder about students whose parents have saved to support an expensive education, and who so enjoy a subsidized freedom. How do they learn heartfelt gratitude?

I wonder about young parents both at work who enjoy the blessings of employment and activity, whose fieldwork consumes them and leaves little space for the inward journey. How do they learn a heartfelt gratitude?

I wonder about middle age men who have had the benefit of preparation and education and experience, perhaps with few collapses. How do they learn a heartfelt gratitude?

I wonder about those at the heights of life who have the blessings that accrue to place and position. How do they learn a heartfelt gratitude?

Our colleague (S Hassinger) recently encouraged us to ‘follow, lead and get out of the way’. By ‘follow’, she meant learn, or re-learn, for some learning means unlearning what has been learned. By ‘lead’, she meant discover how to lead from the second chair, not the first chair, for few of us end up in the first chair. By ‘get out of the way’, she meant give people back their own work to do.

The entitled materialism of the last decade may require you to unlearn some things about what matters counts and lasts. Your place in the second row may inspire you to learn the beauty of the viola, in contrast to that to the violin. A sermon on thanksgiving may prompt me to give your work back to you. Your fieldwork is not a substitute for your domestic duties. Pick, shovel, tractor, computer, i-phone, blackberry and calendar are not a replacement for setting the table of the heart and hearth, for sitting inside the house of peace, for preparing a meal of spiritual nourishment. The first, best step in the journey of faith comes with thanksgiving.

Coda

The pragmatists and Methodists among you will want something more specific, so here it is. You best know thanksgiving when giving. If you have no other access to gratitude, to a grateful heart, you always have this route forward: give something with thanks to somebody, something real and costly and spot on. The heart follows the hand. You will be grateful when you have shown gratitude, by giving something to somebody.

This summer my wife attended worship in a church that had dispensed with the offering, and the offering plates, and the offertory. I have no idea why. But she was deeply incensed, and not only because of her Scottish ancestry. I think it had to do with the deep sense that gratitude, giving, thanksgiving is the marrow of the spiritual life, the inward journey.

Your fieldwork is no substitute for your domestic duties, nor can the outward journey replace the inward. As you come to receive the Eucharist (the word means thanksgiving) determine today to open or deepen your sense of thanksgiving by receiving bread and cup and by imagining a gift you may give to another.

O Give Thanks
O Give Thanks
O Give Thanks
Unto the Lord
For He is Gracious and His Mercy
Endureth
Endureth
Endureth
Forever
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel