Presence

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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

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