Archive for November, 2010

Walk in the Light

Sunday, November 28th, 2010
Click here to hear the sermon only.

Isaiah 2: Romans 13; Matthew 24


You may be trying to find your spiritual footing.

Other than the emergence of language itself, the stumbling child’s movements in learning to walk are perhaps the most tender in memory. Adults learn to walk in various ways too. I watched my father, nearly killed by an infection, and bed-bound for months, learn to walk again. While I can see his first steps, baby steps at age 80, I would not be fully able to convey the power of those steps.

You too may be trying to get your balance, to find your religious footing. As with so many things, the decision to try is the main thing.

On Ground Hog Day each year I set aside an hour to skate with students on the Frog Pond. Some of those from South Carolina and Korea are just learning to skate. They have the most fun.

About ten days ago the wind was swirling on Bay State Road, catching up the leaves in little multi colored cyclones, and twirling them around. It was raining red an orange, yellow and brown, whipping the leaves to the cheek. Then coming toward me a young woman, seeing the swirl, herself dropped her books, made a pirouette, and twirled in tandem with the leaves. One loop, two loops, three… I judge it was the right response to the wind.

In an age and setting that demeans and diminishes mystery and history, she danced. She found her footing, along our street.

Yes, it is important to take it slow as you begin. On the open path among leaves no step has yet trodden black, it makes sense to takes things slow. A sermon about taking such primordial steps, should take a slow pace. Don’t you think?

I believe many women and men who do not regularly darken doors of churches are nonetheless trying to find spiritual footing. I believe that a Sunday sermon, of all things, can bring the balance needed for the walk of faith. In fact, if the sermon cannot, what can? Like the bullfighter with the cape waving, like the boxer circling to find that one opening, like the private detective waving the flashlight in the cellar, here we are, everything at stake.

Will somebody please lend a hand? Someone is trying to learn to walk. I have been humbled to see people to learn to walk, especially in the imagination. As a matter of fact, I think I saw some of you there.

If you are going to walk, you will need light to see your way. It is dark in December, dark in Advent, dark as the readings shift from sunny Luke to dark Matthew, dark as the church begins another liturgical year, dark as finals befall, dark, dark, outside it is dark.

So let us look for light in which to walk.

Look up. Light falls to illumine the path, THE WAY, ahead. Look. Let us walk in the light of the Lord. How many times this week have you touched something nearly 3000 years old? Isaiah’s words are that old. There shall be a mountain. The highest of mountains. Upon the mountain the house of Lord shall sit. To its beauty and goodness and truth the nations shall flow (how lovely). Swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Year by year as I hear again read these Isaian prophecies, they seem annually ever farther off. They just seem so improbable. I give you North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation…

Isaiah is not exclusively full of promise, though promise is the heart of today’s reading. Isaiah predicts doom for the people of God. Isaiah is like Amos and Hosea and Micah, in whom the whole of our reading today is also found. These were old and popular verses, to which both Isaiah and Micah repaired. The oracles of judgment upon the people of God, which both precede and follow our lesson today, underscore one particular ailment within the body of God’s people. This is a lesson we may do well to keep steadily before us. The primary impediment to relationship with God is injustice. Repeatedly all of these early prophets return to this single theme. The relationship between God and people is torn, rent asunder, by mistreatment of the poor. We will want to hear this as clearly as possible, as we find our footing, along the walk of faith. It is not only true that justice is desirable. Justice itself is marker along our path, a way of walking in the light. But it is not an end in itself. It absence is not desirable, but for a fuller reason. Injustice impedes our walk in the light. Injustice interferes with our relationship with God. As bad as injustice is in its own right, its damage to our relationship with God is far worse.

I believe this is why the pulpit of Marsh Chapel has resounded for so many decades in attention to the weight matters of justice: Littell and the holocaust, Thurman and race, Hamill and war, Thornburg and cults, Neville and identity, Hill and peace. My predecessors knew well that you have to look up in hope, look up in dream, look up in desire, look up in expectation. To find our footing going forward we need the light that comes from a sense of possibility, a sense of promise.

And they beat their swords into….

Along comes Isaiah to remind us:

There will come a day when the swords of terror are beaten into the plowshares of learning, the swords of conflict into the plowshares of cooperation, the swords of division into the plowshares of communion, the swords of despair into the plowshares of promise. That is, in Isaiah, judgment is not the last word. Without a sense of a final horizon of hope, without a sense of the love of God, without a sense of the prospect of lasting meaning hidden somehow in history, without a word to guide us about the latter days, no matter how far off, the muscle for the daily struggle deteriorates. You’ve got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to have a dream come true?

Look up in hope, in promise.

Look down. Look down every now and then, too. In the quiet of late autumn, in the dusk of early Advent, we will want to look down at ourselves, not on ourselves but at ourselves. We are listening to three ancient lessons, trusting that in their interpretation, we may find some light for the path ahead.

In the last third of his great letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul offers his wisdom for living, to a church he has yet to visit. As in Isaiah, the words are meant as advice for groups, for the chosen people of God and for the called people of God, for Israel and the church. (Is this the original meaning of that obscure saying, ‘Many are called (church), few are chosen (Israel)?’) The Apostle’s advice is very earthly. It causes us to look at our shoes, our actual manner of walking. In fact, the advice sounds like it had been written as a challenge not only to culture at large but also to student culture. The verses form a cautionary tale about student life. I think that almost every week there is a student here or listening from afar who may be ready to hear Paul’s challenge (Rom 13:13). In fact, Marsh Chapel and places like it may simply stand as silent witnesses to the hope that students may emerge from their studies without undue regret, without too many regrets. We all carry regrets, but if we love one another we will want them to be fewer rather than more. Paul warns about the regrets embedded in drunkenness, debauchery and quarrelling.

What warning would we add today?

For thos
e of us working nearby young adults in this era, the manner and meaning of instrumental communication is a serious issue, or set of issues. We are the grownups on the lot, and yet we are largely immigrants to a land far more native to our students. In some cases, we are still back in the old country. How are we going to bring to bear the wisdom of the ages, in the twitter age? Are we attentive, curious, honest, straight, kind? Or do we hang back, and let things take their own course? I pose this not as a question for sudden answer, yours or mine, but as a lingering, daily, annual point of meditation. How much blackberry and how much blackberry pie? How much Facebook and how much face time?

For St Paul, salvation is close at hand (13:11-12). He still feels the heat of the apocalyptic end, coming he expects in his lifetime. Yet note for the all specificity of his warnings (drunkenness, debauchery, quarrelling) just how open, how free is his advice: ‘put on Christ’. And what, we may ask, does that look like? He has no need to say, for he has said so just prior to our reading; ‘love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to the neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’ (13: 10).

Look down. Polish your shoes. Watch your step. A walk in the light requires a careful step, as responsible stewardship.

And look out. Look out! Isaiah lifts our gaze. Paul lowers our gaze. Matthew lengthens our gaze.

I believe that many people, perhaps you among them, are looking for ways to find their spiritual footing. You may nod a quiet affirmation, with Isaiah, to the need for promise. You may whisper a quiet agreement, with Paul, for the need for discipline. But our third lesson, our Gospel, may at first seem less helpful. It may in fact be less helpful.

You may wonder why a church, or this chapel, would have read such odd passages about the days of Noah, about sudden disappearance in field and mill, about thieves in the night, about the coming of the Son of Man. Why do these ancient, foreign, strange chapters from the history of our religious families still occupy our attention? After all, the fervent first century hope that the end would come before the first generation had passed away was disappointed. Why listen any longer to these predictions?

The meal is over, and we are left with leftovers.

But you know, sometimes the leftovers from the feast prove distinctly savory, nourishing, healthy, and good. In fact, Matthew himself seems to recognize that he is cooking in the aftermath of another meal. So the roast becomes a sandwich and the carcass becomes a soup. The apocalyptic language and imagery which appear here and in Luke, and may have simply been taken over from contemporary Judaism, are made to serve, in this Gospel, another purpose than in their original serving. Eschatology becomes ethics. Expectation about the end is made to serve a moral point: be ready; watch. In our funeral service we repeat in our prayers, ‘we know not what a day may bring, but only that the hour for serving thee is always present’.

Just as the meal is gone and we are left with the leftovers, so too now the family has gone, and we are left with the memories.

But you know, sometimes the memories from the gathering can prove distinctly encouraging, powerful, healing, and good, even better than the gathering itself. Like an ornery uncle or disapproving great aunt, these apocalyptic passages, which were the ancestors of the language of our whole New Testament, can prove hard to have around, but they also have stories to tell, and wisdom to share.

Like a strange uncle, they can remind us of how unexpectedly things can change. “I lost everything I had in the depression”. Like a feisty aunt, they can challenge us to be ready, “I never thought that day that I would meet my husband on a train to St Louis”. Like a cousin we seldom see, they can jolt us because they look like us and sound like us when they say, “If I had known then what I know now I would have acted more quickly”.

You need the family memories and tasty leftovers as much as you need the turkey and company. Look out! Be watchful and mindful and careful.

You just never know what a day will bring.

One year ago we were unexpectedly invaded by a hatemongering pseudo- religious group from Kansas. Do you remember that rather sudden, even apocalyptic, invasion of our community life here, and that utterly regrettable vilification of one of our sister ministries here at BU? After that worship service, last year, I said:

The presence near our campus of an ostensibly ‘Christian’ organization devoted to the hatred of gay people, to the hatred of people of other religions, and to the hatred of Christians of non-protestant denominations, is a sorry, tragic, affront to our University, to its history, to its stated mission, to its motto, to its ethos and practice, to its various communities, and to its religious life leadership, chaplains, and groups. It is difficult to find words strong and true enough to convey the shared disdain of our community for this most unwelcome intrusion. Particularly for those of Christian orientation, the reminder of the lasting vitality in our time of bigotry and anti-Semitism, cloaked in the garb of religion, brings measures of pain and shame. We recognize the right of free speech on city streets, but we unequivocally deplore what is said by this group.
But we had to address that without much preparation. It was not enough to generalize or specialize. We had to improvise. You will probably need to ‘look out’ and improvise a bit too, now and then.

You may be trying to find your spiritual footing. It is in fact hard to get started, in anything, and really hard in anything that really matters.

Walk in the light of promise.

Walk in the light of discipline.

Walk in the light of readiness.

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.

Today’s sermon is a sermon for those of us who are trying to find our spiritual footing.

Sometimes the people who say or think they have the least faith in fact have the most. I am not interested in how many psalms you can recite, though I implore you to learn some. I am not interested in how many hymns you know by heart, though when you are ill or alone they could be saving companions. I am not interested in how many religious books you have read, though learning and piety are meant to live together. I am not interested in how many church services you have attended, though there is no better way to grow in faith.

But I am interested in this. Are you putting one foot ahead of the other? Are you trying? Are you concerned about it? Are you walking? Are you walking in the light? Are you letting some of the sunlight of promise fall on your shoulder? Are you letting some of the inner light of discipline carry your feet along? Are you watching for that unexpected ray of inspiration, burst of imagination or challenge to investigation?

Not: are you running? Not: are you winning? Not: are you starring? Not: are you succeeding? Not: are you finishing?

Just this:

Are you walking in the light?

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

A Thanksgiving Feast

Sunday, November 21st, 2010
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John 6: 25-35

Pilgrims they were, and not merely immigrants, who ate the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621.

William Bradford: “They knew they were pilgrims”.

Pilgrims journey. Pilgrims travel in a certain direction. Pilgrims hear within their earthly travels the echoes, faint but real, of lasting meaning. Are you pilgrims?

Thanksgiving at least allows us to pause and consider whether or not we are going anywhere. And so, even this holiday can become an opportunity for the power of God to change hearts. As Ernest Tittle well wrote, “It is not required of us to save the world. It is required of us to say what the world must do to be saved. The event is in the hands of God.”

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, anno domini 1621, that is in the second year of that community’s life, Governor William Bradford declared December 13, 1621 to be set aside for feasting and prayer. He meant for the pilgrims to look back a year, to give thanks, and to pray. Have you lived through a trying year? So had Bradford’s pilgrims.

During the winter before, 1620-1621, ONE HALF of all the original travelers had died.

William Bradford: “The living were scarcely able to bury the dead”.

Somehow, the rest survived. After a full year of struggle with nature and history and providence, on Bradford’s order they sat down for feasting and prayer, to look back a year and to give thanks and to pray. They gathered at table with their Native American neighbors—hosts, saviors, fellow pilgrims—and paused.

In 1621, the people of that little struggling pilgrim community paused, for feasting and prayer. The women of the community baked for days. The children turned roasted wild pigs on spits atop blazing open fires. The Native peoples brought wild turkey and venison. The pilgrims brought ducks and fish and geese—the provision of an abundant if harsh environment. Together they ate the meat with journey cake, cornmeal bread with nuts. For dessert there was pumpkin stewed in maple sap. They spent three days singing, and eating, and praying. And then they went back to work.

William Bradford’s Plymouth Rock pilgrims knew better than we do how unforgiving the world can be. Nature and History both. The snows of 1620 and the squabbles of 1621 ravaged their community, starved their children, infected their loved ones and nearly extinguished the candle of hope with which they had come to the New World. For the pilgrims had hoped to find a place, however rude and poor, in which freely to worship God. They very nearly did not survive. Yet they found, in that first Thanksgiving, a reason to be thankful, a feast fit for pilgrims such as they and such as we. And just what spiritual feast, what Thanksgiving Feast, did they celebrate on December 13, 1621 on the shores of the Massachusetts Bay?

Safety

Perhaps, in part, they simply celebrated safety. In their feasting they gave thanks for a measure of physical safety and security. Governor Bradford himself had reason thus to be thankful. He grew up on a farm in England, but was touched by the Spirit of God and began to seek religious freedom. First he fled to Holland, but then he finally sailed to the New World, at last to be safe from religious persecution. Yes, the pilgrims gave thanks for safety, though they knew it to be a passing blessing, an uncertain commodity.

You will not always be safe. The forces of nature and the iron necessities of history continue, random and raging and relentless. You cannot absolutely control what may happen on an airliner. Nor can you determine when and how the earth will quake. Nor can you predict or preclude, this coming Thursday, what your mother in law may say, as she passes the oyster dressing. Security is a great blessing, even our great blessing today, but not all in the world are so blessed, and not always are those now blessed ever so blessed.

William Bradford: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness.”

As Y B Yeats wrote, some people are bred to harder things than Triumph. As we know, some best people, are bred to truer things than success or even safety. No, a measure of temporary security alone did not create the first Thanksgiving feast.

Community

Perhaps they also gave thanks for community. It is one thing to have troubles, and another to have troubles together.

In class this week, as we studied the Gospel of John, I asked my students where they think faith comes from. Then one asked the same of me. After 35 years of ministry, I gave a quick answer, and I believe a true one. Faith? “Faith comes from trouble. If you ask most people how they came to faith they will tell you a story about trouble. Faith comes from trouble.”

Perhaps our ancestors were thankful for company in misery, for community in trouble. Pilgrims share a common purpose, and so a community along the earthly road. Always this is reason for joy. Here is an odd definition: A solution is a problem that has been shared. And in the life span of every problem there is a point at which it is large enough to see and small enough to solve. Savor those moments! A problem is a solution waiting for a comrade. Harry Truman found two times of real joy in his earlier life, one in the army, and the other in the Senate, both because of the very real comradeship, the very real community of those groups. I have found in the covenant of the clergy, in the brotherhood of the clergy, when and where it has actually existed, a true, profound, unique companionship (a word by the way that has its root in the sharing of bread). We take our churches so much for granted, and yet, as the cultural sun of post-Christian America continues to set, and the twilight of the full 21st century approaches, these little lights along the shore stand out, every more precious. What a precious event it is when someone finds a church home to enjoy, and church family to love, a church community for which to give thanks.

William Bradford: “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled has shone unto many.” Beware a word or a deed, every so slight, that damages real community. Be glad for every real opportunity for an experience of shared experience.

It is ironic that Northern cities in which pilgrim virtues are regularly honored, are still so racially divided. Particularly our systems of education, in which we all participate one way or another, bear witness against us. We are sowing the present wind, to reap a future whirlwind, as segregation feeds prejudice and prejudice, hatred and hatred, violence and violence, death. Not one of us is innocent, nor can be, until a real community emerges, visible first in shared, not de facto segregated, schools.

Community, as all pilgrims know, comes with sacrifice.

For those aged 10 to 30, the sacrifice involves attention, the willingness to set aside singular forms of communication in favor of the singular beauty of communion. It involves the sacrifice of the blackberry for the beauty of the blackberry pie. It involves the sacrifice of the Facebook for the beauty of the breathing human face.

For those aged 30 to 50, the sacrifice involves time, that rarest commodity for young families. Time. Time in church and time in school, but time—in advocacy, tutoring, conversation, consideration of the common good. The generation of parental influence needs to invest time.

For those aged 50-
70, the sacrifice involves authority. Also a precious feature of life. Your generation is still profoundly ambivalent about authority, and will need to learn to sacrifice some freedom for the sake of order. Those of us of this generation especially need to grow into a realization that there is a place for authentic authority in order to build community. I challenge you, now that you are the generation of political influence, to recognize and accept the real role of authority in the development of any community. Once we accept the legitimate authority of others, we then are free to take on our own legitimate authority. The generation of political influence needs to invest authority.

For those aged 70 and up, another sacrifice is specifically though not exclusively required. Tithing begins for all on the front porch of faith. You learn faith by giving, by tithing. Community requires money. Now I know the objections. Any community will waste some money. But it is a question of whether it is money well wasted. Community is not a given. It has to be built and maintained, brick and mortar, and in the age of cyberspace, click and mortar. The generation of financial influence needs to invest in the future, in the community, in the pilgrim project by investing resources.

Along the wooden benches in Plymouth, 1621, the thanksgiving feast may have celebrated the power of community, but community alone did not create the first Thanksgiving.

Life

Perhaps the pilgrims also gave thanks for life.

William Bradford: “Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”

Yes, they gave thanks for life. As my grandmother used to say daily, “It is a great life and I am so glad to be living it!”

Yet, we know how contingent life is. We are so dependent, so fragile. Every benediction every Sunday is meant as a provisional, final word of blessing. We view ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’. And then we are reminded. Often by an unbidden and unwelcome phone call in the wee hours of the morning. The day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night—unexpected, dreadful, and painful. So, yes, we give thanks for life, but life is contingent, dependent, fragile. Life alone did not evoke the prayer and feasting of the first Thanksgiving. Pilgrims they were, and not merely immigrants, who celebrated the first feast.

Bread of Life

Pilgrims give thanks, not only for security and community and life, but also for Another Reality, what our Gospel calls the food that endures for eternal life, bread from heaven, the true bread from heaven, the bread of life. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In fact, none of these others would matter—safety, community, life– were it not for the Bread of Life.

People hunt for God in such varied and tragic ways. In temples and great buildings. In nature mysticism and love of grass and water. In wild activity—even on MTV one overhears a faint high pitched longing—GODGODGOD. In influence, position, intelligence. So men and women root around for God, usually under the guise of more culturally affirmed habits.

But in hearing of the Word today, we are accosted by The Bread of Life, and the news that God meets us, in person, to heal us.

The One who is The Bread of Life is taking us and translating us, out of our mother tongue of fear, and into the new idiom of ready forgiveness. You know it. When someone has really hurt you, not lightly but deeply. And hurt moves to anger moves to hatred—and then, by grace you find you can fully accept your opponent, and know that an adversary is not necessarily an enemy. That is spiritual translation at work, and The Son of Man is the translator. Pilgrims are thankful for the bread of life which nourishes spiritual translation.

The One who is the Bread of Life is investing in the whole dimly lit world, to show us God. This investment, to which we respond in a moment by presenting our gifts, our tithes and offerings, this is all we can know of God, for God is invisible both to our eye and to our mind. A true Thanksgiving Feast, the very Bread of Life comes to invest in us, to work beside us. Work is good. That is spiritual investment at work. Let us be thankful for such investment.

The One who is the Bread of Life is guiding us and uniting us, one to another. Once real companionship takes hold in your life, there is no going back. Another kind of thanksgiving feast today is calling us to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. That is spiritual unification at work. Let us be thankful for such communal unification.

The One who is the Bread of Life, against serious odds, is forming a body. Apart from what you may hope and I may think, the bread of God comes down from heaven and is forming a new creation, clean and shiny and happy and good. Life is a smorgasbord for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Thanksgiving feast guarantees it. Let us be thankful for the former and founder of faith.

The One who is the Bread of Life is leading pilgrims on, through defeat and bitterness and fear, through illness and discord and exclusion, through killing and conflict, leading pilgrims, like us, to resurrection. Let us be thankful for the one in whom we shall not hunger, the one in whom we shall never thirst.

The One who is the Bread of Life is reconciling to himself all things. All things. This is the peace wrought for us finally upon the cross, work done for us not by us. This is spiritual reconciliation at work. Let us be thankful for this Thanksgiving Feast of Spiritual Reconciliation. You too can develop a spiritual discipline against resentment.

Here is the Son of Man, the Bread of Life, our true Thanksgiving Feast: a voice of a divine presence, resident among us, a voice so equable and serene and assured; a voice among us as a lingering essence, a persistent and distinctive aroma—and nothing more; the voice of a Lord, to whom those at the original feast also gave thanks, who makes of us pilgrims, and of our wanderings a real journey. Who makes of all our wanderings a real journey….

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

Apocalypse as Opportunity

Sunday, November 14th, 2010
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Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 98, Luke 21: 5-19

“I believe it is the word of God. I do not believe it is the word of God for me.” Lutheran pastor, gifted preacher, noted Biblical scholar, Dean and professor of Harvard Divinity School, and Bishop of the Church of Sweden, when he said those words Krister Stendahl did not advocate the picking and choosing of only the Scriptures we like or feel comfortable with as the basis for our life of faith. Neither did he advocate the summary dismissal of any text that seems to us culturally strange or politically incorrect. Rather he called us to examine closely both the Scripture and our own lives, to see clearly the differences as well as the similarities between them, so we could see and hear more clearly the call of God to us, not two thousand years ago, but here and now, in our own place and time.


Our Gospel reading this morning is the “little apocalypse” of Luke. “Apocalypse” means “revelation” or “unveiling”, and here Luke portrays Jesus as the one who reveals or unveils to his disciples not only the fate of the Temple and the world, but their fate as well. Certainly there are similarities between the lives of those disciples and our own. Luke is writing to a community which realizes that the Second Coming of Jesus is delayed, so that “the end will not follow immediately”. They, like we, are in a time of waiting. We, like them, know that “nations rise against nation”, that false gods are numerous, that there are indeed famines and plagues and portents although whether these are “great signs from heaven” or part of our own human folly is not entirely clear.


But there are two major differences between our place and time and the place and time of the Lucan community. The first difference is that while our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world are indeed under persecution, at least at this time in this place, we here are not. The second difference is that as we are connected to a major research university in whatever capacity, it is our work, even our calling, precisely to “prepare our defense in advance”: to study, to learn, to examine, to theorize and present theses, to argue, to debate, to prove, to conclude, to receive and also to develop our own words and wisdom that none will be able to contradict; all this in the interests of our careers, our lives, even our faith as we understand ourselves called to this place by God.


It may be that these differences are related. It may be that even with all our preparation in advance, we are not worth persecution. For the words and wisdom we are given and develop in this place are increasingly seen as irrelevant. Not just our theology and faith, but also our scientific knowledge and understanding, our honest emotion, our rational argument. For what are theology and faith, what are science and emotion and rationality, where there is money to be made, where there is fear to be cosseted or manipulated, where there is power over others to be gained. Let us be realistic.


Ours is a more insidious age and place than the first-century Mediterranean. The challenge to our faith is not persecution but seduction. An average of 30,000 advertisements a day tell us that we are not and do not have enough; that only more consumption will make us rich, thin, forever young, and successful. Alcohol, drugs, sex, or gaming promise us relief from our pain and our loneliness. Violence, technology, and empire offer us quick fixes and easy redemption.


The title of this sermon is “Apocalypse as opportunity”. Barry Neil Kaufman of the Option Institute invites the participants in his programs to use the hardest and most challenging events of their lives as means of transformation, with the phrase, “What an opportunity!” What an opportunity to live out our deepest and highest ideals, to live out the choices we most truly want for ourselves and for those around us. As he puts it, “Happiness is a choice, and misery is always an option.” Our apocalypse, the revelation or unveiling of our reality, offers us that same kind of opportunity, not to be seduced by expediency or fear, but to live out the word of God that is for us, in this place and time. Just as for the Lucan community in a different kind of apocalypse, so our apocalypse gives us the opportunity to testify to the good news of God.


Now we all know that pr
eachers love words. Academics love words too, just as much as preachers or maybe even more, depending on the day. People who hang out or tune in with preachers and academics love words too; they have to, or they’d go crazy. I am both preacher and academic, and I love words, in more than one language. So I am a bit leery to suggest the preaching and academic heresy that for our apocalypse, words may not be enough for the testimony we are called to give. Still, I suggest it any way. Phrases like “Actions speak louder than words.”, and “Your behavior speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”, are truisms in both our language and our experience. It is the living out, not just the speaking out, of the good news of God that is our testimony, our testimony that our “opponents will not be able to withstand or contradict”.


Last week the class for which I am a teaching assistant had the privilege and honor of a visit from the Reverend R. Edwin King. He was in town as one of the recipients of the School of Theology’s Distinguished Alumni Award, in recognition of his own work and his work with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the movement for racial justice. He talked with us about the class theme for the day of “negotiating power”, and he talked with us about his testimony to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the “Beloved Community”. In order to make that vision into a reality, he said, he and his colleagues committed themselves to continue to work toward it, even if they might not fully realize it; they committed themselves to live it even as they struggled for it; they committed to try not to betray it as they worked for it.


As a white United Methodist pastor in the Deep South of the time, for Ed King his testimony included marches, rejection by his religious colleagues, beatings, imprisonment, hard labor, torture, military surveillance, a place on the President of the United States’ “Enemies List”, and strategic compromise and back-room dealing on a local and national level. And, as he says, while there is still a ways to go, he is amazed at how far the vision has come, how much it has become reality. Ed King says, “We are not alone.”


Now it is a different time, and we too are not alone, in any sense of the word. For us in a globalized world, this morning Isaiah proclaims a globalized vision: an entirely new creation, of this world, in this life, so new that former things will not be remembered or even come to mind. Jerusalem, that holy city now such a center of conflict and pain, Jerusalem will be re-created a joy. There will be no more mourning, there will be no sickness and all will live to a ripe old age, there will be enough for all to live with stability and pleasure, and those who work and create will enjoy the fruits of their labor themselves. There will be perfect communion with God. There will be a “Beloved Community”, if you will, in which all of creation will be fulfilled in harmony, justice, and peace.


For us to realize this the vision we are given, there may not be marches and prison. But there is the equally, and perhaps even more, challenging work: to claim our relative freedom and stability, and in that freedom and stability to stand with our sisters and brothers who undergo persecution, to stand with them not just in spiritual ways but in political and material ways as well, so that they too know that they are not alone or forgotten. For us to realize this the vision we are given, there may not be beatings and torture. But there is the equally, and perhaps even more, challenging need: for what Saints Jane de Chantal and Francis de Sales called “the little virtues”: friendship, generosity, cordiality, hospitality, kindness, patience, and the like; those practices that sound so simple and obvious in words and are often so difficult actually to do, especially with those we see — or are increasingly told to see — as “them”: the person of another faith or another skin color or another body weight, the competition in the next library carrel, the immigrant, the differently gender-preferencing, the stranger or newcomer, those who have lost their jobs or their homes or both. For us to realize the vision we are given in our time, there may not be backroom dealings and rejection from our religious colleagues. But there is the equally, and perhaps even more, challenging invitation: for us to consider, as individuals and as members of communities, our own behavior; to consider how and where and on what we spend our money, our life energy, our time; to consider what and who we let into our minds and our bodies and our emotions; to consider whether what we do as well as what we say is just more capitulation to seduction, or is it behavior to answer the call of God and help bring in the vision for our place and time.


Apocalypse, the revelation, the unveiling, is opportunity: opportunity not just to see the world in our place and time as it is, but to see it as it might be. It is opportunity to testify to the creativity of God at work in the world through our behavior, behaviors that help to manifest the globalized vision of a new world of justice and peace right here, right now. There will be a certain amount of working toward it, even if we might not fully realize it; a certain amount of living it even as we struggle for it; a certain commitment to try not to betray it as we work for it. So there is with any vision. But the vision itself will sustain us, if we keep our focus on that prize, and not on the seductions that surround us. When we claim those aspects of
the vision that already exist in our own lives, it becomes easier to resist the seductions and to live out the vision even more fully. The writer Sarah Ban Breathnach reminds us: “Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we shall tend. … When we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but on the abundance that’s present – love, health, family, friends, work, and personal pursuits that bring us pleasure – the wasteland falls away and we experience joy in the real lives we live each day.”


We are not alone. The God who calls to us out of the Apocalypse, the revelation, the

unveiling, that is the God who goes before us into the places where the vision is not yet realized, who goes with creativity and love to prepare those places for us and to meet us there with power and grace. And we have each other, both right around us and further away, even in virtual reality, people of like mind and purpose. We can work together not just in spite of our differences but because of them, as our differences make a whole of our talents and of our results. The organizational consultant Margaret J. Wheatley writes, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”. Both in the Church and in the Academy we can discover whole networks of individuals and communities that care with passion about what we care about, networks that invite us to join with them or who will accept our invitation, the invitation to do something practical, to bring that shared vision into being.


Apocalypse as opportunity. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”, says God. Amen.


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

Presence

Sunday, November 7th, 2010
Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 20: 24-37

To begin September we meditated together on the first meaning of the Eucharist, the Lord’s supper, which again we celebrate today: remembrance. ‘This do in remembrance of me’. To begin October we meditated together on the second meaning of the Eucharist, the Lord’s supper, which we celebrate again today: thanksgiving. Eucharist means thanksgiving. Now to begin November we shall complete the triad as we meditate together on the third meaning of the Eucharist, which holds for us not only remembrance, and not only thanksgiving, but also presence. We trust here in the real presence of Christ. Presence. Presence. ‘Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them’.

A friend reminded me that Charlie Brown once sat and talked with Linus about spiritual matters. I suppose they may have been speaking together between Halloween and Christmas. Linus was still awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. Charlie Brown was still telling him not to expect the Great Pumpkin because the Great Pumpkin was not real. This of course disappointed Linus, who sat gazing at the starry, starry night. Finally Linus burst out, “you may not think the Great Pumpkin is real, but he is a lot more real than that heavy set, bearded, old man dressed in red and riding behind reindeer who you wait for every winter”. Now it is Charlie Brown’s turn to look up at the starry, starry night for a few frames, which he does. Sigh. After which he says, ‘The world is full of theological differences”.

In this autumn we are mightily aware of differences, deep and lasting differences among us as a people. Some of these are social and political. But many lasting differences finally find their root in religious disagreement. And our view of resurrection, heaven, the last day, ultimate reality makes every manner of difference today. My once teacher and now colleague Christopher Morse’s new book, The Difference Heaven Makes, makes just this case.

As if we needed any further reminder of a world full of theological, we might even say eschatological, differences, we are met with today’s two readings. In different ways, they record the gospel as it is announced across serious differences. The writer of 2 Thessalonians, probably a student of St Paul honoring his teacher by writing in his name 50 years after Paul’s death, argues for a traditional day of the Lord to come. As 2 Peter will say another 50 years later, we should not doubt the fullness of divine promise, and should not doubt that the day of the Lord will come, even though our days and God’s days don’t seem to be the same the length of days. The writer even asserts that St Paul himself had written of various apocalyptic themes, when he was still with the church. The exact interpretation of this features and figures lies still beyond us, many years later. In fact, our writer himself does not seem to use easily or grasp clearly the intent and content of the terms he dusts off for use from the fairly distant past.

Clearly, someone in the church is arguing for a new teaching, or a different teaching, and our letter writer wants to hold onto the traditions that once were taught. Now we do not easily think in these apocalyptic terms today, so our hearing is challenged. But we do know about differences. We may take heart to hear that in the earliest church there were varieties of differences. The author of the 2 Thessalonians describes a contention about the day of the Lord as a backdrop for a larger announcement. We shall to listen with care for that larger announcement.

Then the Lukan portion of the Gospel of Luke (chapters 9-19) trails off and we return to familiar territory in chapter 20, including this account of marriage and resurrection which you have already heard in both Matthew and Mark. Here too we meet up with strange, unfamiliar arguments about marriage in heaven. Not marriage made in heaven, but marriage made on earth, in heaven. Whose wife will she be? Luke has taken Mark’s account of the question concerning resurrection, and reshaped it. In Mark Jesus harshly rebukes his interlocutors: ‘Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?’ He concludes, ‘You are quite wrong’. But in Luke the dialogue is Socratic and the love Platonic and the tone irenic. No criticism, no rebuke. And his contestants respond, ‘Teacher you have spoken well”. The older debates about Levirate marriage, between the resurrectional Pharisees and the non resurrectional Sadd-u-cees, recalled by Luke as if from a far off and exotic land, are presented as background, contentious background, for a larger Lukan pronouncement. We shall want to listen with care for that larger pronouncement.

To do so, however, we shall need honestly to acknowledge foreground dissonance. We meet difference every hour. Some may be transposed into lasting harmony. But some abides. Some things do not work out. Some relationships end. Some of these which end, end badly. That is why they end. That is, in their unhappy denoument we see clearly why the ending came. The manner of the ending is the ending itself. Some businesses, some partnerships, some relationships do not succeed. I do not say this lightly, especially with regard to the holiest of companionships in friendship and marriage. But sometimes, for the sake of friendship, a friendship ends. And sometimes, for the sake of marriage, a marriage ends. To get close to home: sometimes people need to find another church home. Life is too short to spend a high percentage of the 4,000 Sundays we have on earth in a relationship that should end. Sometimes you just need to ‘slip out the back, jack’. And find someplace your soul can breathe. Now you know I do not say that lightly. I say it though as a gift of freedom for you. Every human being both needs and deserves a community of faith, a congregation to love and a church to enjoy. As much as humanly possible, I want this community of faith to become yours, a church family to love and a church home to enjoy.

Our lessons make their way to a large announcement about presence.

Our two Scripture lessons provide us horizontal and vertical dimensions by which to name presence. In the teaching about the day of the Lord, the last day, there is a sweeping promise that ‘out that long way far further than you see beyond the last horizon and beyond that too’, there abides the God who chose you from the beginning, to be saved, to be sanctified, to be inspired, to be true. In the teaching about the resurrection there is a sweeping promise that ‘up beyond a long way up farther than you see beyond the highest hill and farthest star a way up beyond that too’ there abides the God who is the God of the living, and all live in him whether living or dying. The presence of the Lord, from the last day until today, and from the highest heaven down to this humble chancel, is known to us in the promises of God, the God of the living.

Let us put it this way, when it comes to resurrection and heaven and people. As C S Lewis once meditated, when you see another human being, you are seeing a being fit for heaven, now a little lower than the angels, but one day, one fine day, angelic too. Such a thought may make us a bit careful, a bit cautious about how we treat each other.

For those listening from afar, along the highway or in the kitchen or at the desk, you may want to settle your imagination close to where we are right now. You are with us here. Presence has no limit, no zip code, no curb, no boundary. Behind me is a lovely, laden altar. To the left, to my left, and to the right, to my right, are beautiful stained glass windows, which represent the traditions of the church, from Augustine of Hippo to Lincoln of Springfield. Before me is gathered a singing congregation, lead by a beautifully singing choir. Stone, glass, and wood meet flesh, bone and voice. Along the Avenue a trolley carries us a little tintinnabulation as a grace note. Then, around, the whole universe, robed in silence.

Elie Wiesel told a story this week, about a precocious young rabbi to be. Someone said, ‘I will give you a gold coin if you will tell me where God is’. The boy replied, ‘I will give you five if you tell me where He is not’.

Ours is an open table. We trust at this table that real remembrance of the Lord will prevail. We trust that at this table a full sense of thanksgiving will endure. We trust that at this table we stand in the real presence of the Living God. Over thirty and more years of gathering for communion, this presence has been my lived experience. I do not presume or pretend to have a novel theory of presence, real presence, at the table of the Lord. But I bear witness to such presence. I take the words of the 16th Psalm: The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; though holdest my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage…Thou dost show me the path of life; in thy presence there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.’

Jan and I began together at Eucharist in the pews of Riverside Church, as William Sloane Coffin began his ministry there. He squeezed his ample Presbyterian self into the simple Baptist liturgy for communion, as Frederick Swann accompanied the choir. The bells of that great tower still ring in the mind and memory. His voice is as real today as it was 35 years ago: There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us. Guilt is the last refuge of pride. I’m not OK and you’re not OK, but that’s OK. The separation of church and state is not the separation of a Christian from his politics. In tragedy God’s heart is the first to break.

Real Presence in 1977.

An illness took us to Ithaca and Cornell. The sacrament was administered then (I had no orders yet) by a retired preacher, Roy Smyres, who had known Pearl Buck when her husband served that little church, who had served it himself in the 1920’s, just following John R Mott, and who had walked across Africa. I see today his worn shoes.

Real Presence in 1981.

Then outside Montreal, an hour or so south, we once had communion on Maundy Thursday in the town where Almonzo Wilder lived and where Laura set her book Farmer Boy. Except that the oil furnace did not fire. So 70 of us went into the parsonage, many you could sense just out of the barn a bit earlier, and had communion around the piano, and through the house, and up the stairs and in the kitchen.

Real Presence in 1984.

In Syracuse, later, one Christmas Eve, a dozen new students from around globe joined us at midnight. Some were holding their hymnals upside down, in the dark. All enjoyed the candles, as the wax touched our palms . I spoke about Ernie Davis and tragedy and faith.

Real Presence in 1990.

Then in Rochester, from under a pulpit like that from which Coffin taught us, ‘fifteen feet above contradiction’, and in graveshot from those about whom he taught us (Douglass, Stanton, Anthony, Rauschenbush)to close the circle, in a simple service of the Lord’s Supper a friend’s face from 40 years earlier, unexpected and unconnected, looked up and partook, with a smile and a tear.

Real Presence in 2001.

And this morning, in range of Cape Cod and Portsmouth, of Worcester and Nashua, and otherwise around the globe, here we are. Alongside Daniel Marsh and William Bashford and Earl Marlatt. And you, and you, and you.

Real Presence in 2010.

Spirit Consoling let us find

Thy hand when sorrows leave us blind

In the gray valley let us hear

Thy silent voice “Lo, I am near”

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