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?
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?
Are you walking in the light?
Dean of Marsh Chapel