Archive for June, 2011

Two Persistent Women

Sunday, June 26th, 2011
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Luke 18:1-8

1. Persistence in Luke

We begin today in the town court of Nazareth, the honorable UnJ Judge presiding. We are courtroom focused in Boston this week, so we can imagine the scene. Hear ye, hear ye. Hizzoner awaits. And Behold the Lord Jesus Christ dressed today in the apparel of a poor woman: He told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

It is a story about a persistent woman, who had her voice and her persistence to go on, and not much else. She prevailed.

We may be ready, this summer, for such an encouraging word.

We fear, and try to find our security in larger automobiles or drug supplies or stock collections or homes or layers of disconnection, gated communities of the mind and heart. But security comes not through possession, but through relationship. Do you want to be safe and secure? Invest your self in a lifetime of building and keeping healthy relationships. There is your security, where neither moth nor rust consumes.

Jesus pointed to the Town Court of Nazareth and therein to the simple figure of a persistent woman. See her at the bench. Watch her in the aisle. Listen to her steady voice. Feel her stolid forbearance. Says she: “Grant me justice.” We leave her there for a moment.

2. A Summer Run

Instead, jog for a moment along a familiar village green. For there is a second persistent woman today, not of Scripture but of experience. It is largely in the interplay between these two women, Scripture and Experience, that we discover truth. You can see her in your own past, your own gallery of saints. Name the most persistent woman you ever met. Bella Abzug. Betty Bone Scheiss. Florence Nightengale. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Eleanor Roosevelt. Esther. Barbara Streisand. That uppity Syropheonician woman. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Susanna Wesley. Your grandmother. Whomever. I was thinking of one such persistent woman on a 90 degree day several summers ago. For that summer day, hot and humid and happy, I took the car from our lake house into the neighboring little village of Hamilton, NY (the home of Colgate University) for repair. They needed much skill and two hours and some money to do the job. So in the great heat I was free to run through a familiar village, and across a village green, where long ago I was raised in a patchwork complex of relationships, durable and healthy.

Running along, with no deeds to do no promises to keep, I recalled an earlier age…There is a lanky Baptist preacher, heralding the promise of truth; and a musician on the bandstand, singing for justice; and a postmaster protecting communications; and a library, awaiting the emergence of justice; and a church and a store, and a graveyard with night falling. All in the mind’s eye.

Through the familiar streets I ran thinking, steadily and especially, of my teacher, Marjorie Shafer. In the sixth grade she opened the world to us–by teaching us to read. June 25 is good Sunday to remember teachers who made us who we are. As a teacher, she used the resources she had available, namely, her time and her voice. She persisted, through those years, prayerfully using the common resources of time and voice. You have time and you have a voice, too. You have need of persistent prayer, too. You have a desire not to lose heart, too. I was impressed, with the dogs barking in the summer heat, by the persistent memory of her persistence. It was good to remember the time given and the voice lifted, in 1966 in the 6th grade—SRA reading, sock hop, changes in classmates, baseball—Sandy Kofax and Orlando Cepeda, the Beatles, James Bond, memorizing the map of Africa, a mock debate about Vietnam, and the long great story of Bilbo Baggins. And, suddenly, awareness of another gender:

Three things I do not understand
Four are too wonderful for me
The way of a ship on the high sea
The way of an eagle in the sky
The way of the serpent on the rock
And the way of a man with a woman

So continued this reverie, in a summer run, on a hot day, along a village green, several years ago.

3. An Unexpected Christ

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem town court, all rise hear ye hear ye the honorable U J Judge presiding, another persistent woman employs time and voice. You have time and you have voice. Like Christ himself, she implores the implacable world to grant justice. Like Christ himself, she comes on a donkey of tongue and patience. Like Christ himself, she continues to plead, to intercede. Like Christ himself, she importunes the enduring injustice of this world. Like Christ himself she prays without ceasing. Like Christ himself she persists. She is an example to us of how we should use whatever time we have and whatever breath remains–to pray. It is prayer that is the most realistic and wisest repose of the anxious of this season of our several fears—global, political, economic, personal. By prayer I mean formal prayer, yes. But by prayer I mean the persistent daily leaning toward justice, the continuous pressure in history from the voice of the voiceless and the time of the time bound.

What drove Luke, alone, to remember or construct this parable? The lengthening years, without ultimate victory, since the cross? The long decades of living without Jesus? The uncertainties of institution and culture and citizenship and multiple responsibilities? The daily stresses of managing a budget? It is the primitive church that can give an example to an America trying to balance liberty and justice, courage and compassion. Things take time. They waited for Jesus to return. And he delayed. And he delays, still. And there is rampant, hateful hurt, across God’s village green earth. It is enough to make you lose heart.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed
By schism rent asunder by heresy distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping their cry goes up ‘howlong’?
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.

It is a long wait. And that is just the point. Like the bridesmaids who waited with lamps trimmed, we feel the length of the wait.

Notice, waiting with us, is a poor widow. She lacks power, authority, status, position, wealth. She has her voice and all the time in the world. Like Jesus Christ, whose faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of the word. We shut the courtroom door for a moment.

4. Persistence in Life

Meanwhile, back along the village green of experience, not the town court of Scripture, the heat hangs heavy on happy halcyon Hamilton, NY. I run over to the Golf course, up the willow walk, past the artesian well, around the library, by the road to Chapel House, down Fraternity row, along the swan pond. I am carried by the wings of love and faith, and Rev. Al Childs now dead runs with me and Rev. Dale Winter now dead runs with me. Goodness and mercy—got my back.

This summer my friend said: “In my life I want to focus on relationships and flexibility”. I said: “yes, on love and faith, relationships and flexibility.”

I decided, with still more than an hour left of repairs, to run over to the school, down Kendrick Ave.

This one persistent woman, Marjorie Shafer, gave us a love of books—Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, the Hobbit, Harriet the Spy, the biographies of the Presidents, the Gospel of Luke. I suppose she looked out for the day when every voice would be lifted in praise. I perceive in hindsight that she, and your own favorite feckless female, persisted by faith. She was already old when she taught us. She was at least 40. I suppose she was one of those saints waiting with persistence. I guess maybe she rode down to Washington on a bus a few years earlier and heard a good sermon:

One day every valley shall be exalted…
With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope…
With this faith we will be able to work together…
This will be the day when all God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning…

And she taught for several more decades, persistent, tough, helpful, kind.

She found a corner of the world in which she could have some influence for good, and invested her time and her voice in another generation. She persisted.

5. Persistent Prayer and Justice

We enter again the Nazareth Town Court. The Honorable U J Judge presiding, and falling asleep. Our Bishop fell asleep at Conference a few years ago. It was a memorable moment. There was more awareness in that somnolence than in many other moments.

If we are not to lose heart, in the seemingly unending search for justice, we shall need to pray always, to “relax into the truth”, and to give ourselves over to the divine presence in our midst. Maybe this summer, starting today, will be a summer of prayer, for you. And me.

Ernest Fremont Tittle was the greatest Methodist preacher of his mid twentieth century generation. Tougher than Sockman, truer than Peale, Tittle preached in Chicago until he died at his desk, writing about Luke. This is his book, only at best half written, and published after his death. It reads like someone cleaned off his desk into a printer. Yet I prize this volume. Here is what he thought about persistence and prayer:

There is special need for persistence in prayer when the object sought is the redressing of social wrongs. God will see justice done if the human instruments of his justice to not give way to weariness, impatience, or discouragement, but persevere in prayer and labor for the improvement of world conditions. Here we can learn from the scientist. Medical research is a prayer for the relief of suffering, the abolition of disease, the conservation of life—a prayer in which the scientist perseveres in the face of whatever odds, whatever darkness and delay. More especially we can learn from great religious leader like Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, Shaftsbury, who year upon year prayed and fought for the causes to which they dedicated their lives. The need for persistence in prayer arises not only from the intransigence of the oppressor, but also from the immaturity and imperfection of the would-be reformer. We have a lot to learn and much in ourselves to overcome before we can be used of God as instruments of his justice. Recognizing this, Gandhi spent hours each day in prayer and meditation, and maintained a weekly day of silence.

The importunate widow continues, simply continues, and by her continuation comes to personify the divine. All this, behind the humble door of the Nazareth Town Court.

6. Surprise!

And meanwhile, jogging on the village green, the sun is getting higher as noon approaches. It is time to head back out toward the garage, and pay the piper. I have been running in such a sweet reverie, a happy retrospective, that the hour has come too fast. I have been thinking all morning of my old teacher. Now the school is a block away. She must be in her mid-eighties now. I wonder if she is still active. I remember how it felt to walk to school at age 12, excited for the start of every day, arriving 20 minutes early, entering the school that marked the portal to the future. What a persistent presence in so many lives she was! Behind the school there is a large parking lot, and a long park. The park sometimes is used for family reunions. Almost choosing otherwise, I decide to run out to the back, to see the park. This has been a long run, and I am tired. It has been a long run in the ministry. It has been a long run in the church. It has been a long run in the conference. It has been a long run in the academy. I am feeling the burning in the calves, some ache in breathing. It is hot.

Where do we find the persistence that keeps us going through adversity so that we do not lose heart? Do we not find it, given to us in prayer? Is this not our source of sustaining grace? How shall we have any lasting life without prayer, worship, study, tithing, service, song, fellowship, loving conversation?

Do you ever have a feeling that something is going to happen and then it does? A kind of premonition? I turned down into the back lot, empty for summer vacation, and saw just one lone car. It was hot and I was sweating, so I could not see too clearly for a time. And there was a kind of haze in the hot air. I saw the car move and stop, move and stop, two women in the front seat. I slowed, the car paused. I paused, the car waited. I looked, and then I looked again. There in the rider’s seat, to my utter astonished amazement, sat Mrs. Shafer, as old as could be, teaching, still teaching, using her voice and her time, this morning teaching her granddaughter to drive. I had not seen her in many years. “Hello Mrs Shafer” I said. “Hello Bobby”, she bemusedly replied, “it’s nice to see you.”

Sometimes you just need keep going, to run one block more. Sometimes, with a little persistence, just a little more running, just one more street, keep going just one more block don’t stop for quitting for suicide for divorce for giving up for leaving, you run headlong into Presence. “In thy presence there is fullness of joy.”

I ran on to get my car, confident that at least one sermon illustration had been offered on a hot day, in a long run, in a little village.

Hear the gospel of two persistent woman, Scripture and Life, a first century plaintiff and a twentieth century teacher, who both say to us:

7. Coda
Pray always
Labor Omnia Vincit
Do not lose heart
Work conquers all
Pray always
All of us are better when we are loved
Do not lose heart
Early to bed and early to bed and early to rise
Pray always
A stitch in time
Do not lose heart
Waste not want not
Pray always
Rome was not built in a day
Do not lose heart
Only the devil has no time
Pray always
God is time and voice
Do not lose heart

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

As You Go, Make of All Disciples

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

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Matthew 28:16-20
One who hears a witness becomes a witness.

Professor Elie Wiesel has taught us this at Boston University over the years.

To hear a witness is to become a witness yourself.  In that sense, every Sunday on which we stand to hear the witness of the Gospel, we again become witnesses.  We stand up, and becoming upstanding, in bearing witness.

Our Gospel today, the sacramental and hospitable conclusion to the First Gospel, that of St. Matthew, addresses us as a community about our witness.

What then shall your witness be?  To whom, to what, to whom shall you bear witness?

Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres, say the Spanish:  Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.

Wiesel again spoke to us this past year, as he has for 34 years at Boston University.  He spoke about Deborah, in the Book of Judges.  He spoke that is about the Scripture and about the interpretation of the Scripture.  He spoke about meaning, justice, and truth in our time and all time.  He delivered his meditative lecture as a witness to an earlier witness, the witness of Deborah.

Around us this past school year have swirled other such witnesses.  Professors Prothero and Bacevich recalled and reflected, one evening, upon Jonathan Winthrop’s famous sermon from the Massachusetts Bay in 1630, ‘a city set on a hill’.  They were recalling earlier witnesses.  Downtown, earlier in the year, during the meeting of a civic club, a woman remembered the sermon series on ‘Darwin and Faith’ which we provided here at Marsh Chapel two summers ago.  She was recalling a form of witness.  One evening in our Gottlieb center, four people who were children in Europe in the Second World War gave witness to the searing, tragic experiences of their childhoods, and those who helped save them.  They were recalling the people who got them to where they are, who got them to whom they are.  Various BU alumni have appeared to visit this year and have spent some time in reverie and reminiscence.  They have been recalling those who made them the kind of disciples they are.  Two visitors brought a video recollection of Howard Thurman, our predecessor here at Marsh Chapel.  They recalled his witness.  A man wrote from Oregon, not long ago remembering a sermon of Thurman’s from that era:  ‘Fear not the Fallow’.  Did we have a copy?  We have not discovered it yet, but, that title pretty much preaches the sermon, a good early summer reminder;  ‘Fear Not the Fallow’.  Our students and staff, including some from Marsh Chapel have remembered this year their experiences growing up gay, and the ‘fightings without and fears within’ which they experienced, including those who encouraged and sustained them.  They were recalling witnesses.

In our Gospel Lesson, St. Matthew too offers a word about bearing witness.  The original frames the Matthean exhortation in the shape of a journey:  “As you go, make…” We hear the Gospel and we are reminded, recalled to a rightful mind.  We are reminded that we are children of God. The Gospel reminds us that the good news is for people, about people, within people.  We have rehearsed before us today again the ethic of love in the teaching of the church, the ethic of Jesus in the teaching of the church.

In a few minutes, we shall close our service, singing a familiar hymn, “Go Make of All Disciples”.  Every hymn has a story, every hymn is itself a witness.  This one was written and first used for a June Sunday service like ours today, back in 1955.  It was composed by the minister of University Methodist Church, in Syracuse, NY (twenty years after Norman Vincent Peale had left that pulpit for Marble Collegiate Church in NYC).  The hymn was lifted on a day of great celebration, with many hundreds of children, that Children’s Sunday, singing their way into the summer, with a reminder:  ‘as you go, make’.

Our capacity to understand and then to embody such a gospel and such an ethic depends in a practical way upon those whom we know well enough and admire fully enough to choose as mentors.  The church has recognized this need, over the years, by remembering, in particular, particular persons who have led, exemplary lives.  One tradition may hallow and revere individuals, chosen and examined over time.  Another tradition may emphasize in the communion of saints, the COMMUNION more than the individual saints.  You may find that there is some wisdom in both.  But when we are touched by the communion of SAINTS or by the COMMUNION of saints, we are influenced, shaped and changed.  To hear a witness is to become a witness.

Over this past year, you have perhaps experienced some loss.  The cloud of witnesses to whom you turn in heaven for guidance on earth may have grown. One—only one—part of your work in grieving their loss will evolve through your own assessment of their helpful examples.  You will want to find ways to hold up and to hold on to the gifts, graces and goodness of their lives, as time goes by.  My family joined your grieving in the labors of love when our Dad died last June.  The manifold, multiple kindnesses which were extended to us, through a season of bereavement, for which we are deeply thankful, have connected us to you, one to another, in a deep, and personal, way.  Bereavement is a sacrament.  Bereavement is a kind of sacrament.  There is a grace, a deep river of grace, running through it all.  In particular, this year, I have been impressed by the memories which men have shared, of their own fathers, memories which men have recalled and related, concerning the deaths of their dads, of your dads.  They come to mind this Father’s Day.

A part of grace in bereavement arises from the communal capacity to remember.  As a graduate of BUSTH in the class of 1953, my father could appreciate that communal capacity of memory.  To hear a witness is to become one yourself.  The ethic of love in the teaching of the church, the ethic of Jesus in the teaching of the church, becomes personal and real when we can identify persons who witness to that ethic and that teaching, and so teach us how to live.  Another generation heard the witness of Earl Marlatt, then professor and Dean in our BU School of Theology, who asked a question:  Are Ye Able…said, to remember, when the shadows, still the master.

In the spring of 1973 six freshmen from Ohio Wesleyan University (as we have noted before, a small Methodist college for small Methodists) drove a large Oldsmobile in the rain, across eastern Ohio and Central Pennsylvania, bound for a lake cottage in upstate New York.  We had planned to meet my father there for a late dinner, and the beginning of a summer break.  In the rain on route 80, the car went over an embankment.  Passengers and luggage went in all directions.  I had been bringing two white lab mice, in an open bucket equipped with a drip water dispenser, as some sort of gift for my sister Cynthia.  After the crash the mice were gone, the car drivable but without windshield wipers, and the six freshmen rightly frightened.  We inched along in the rain in silence.  About an hour into the silence a roommate in the front seat started shouting and screaming at the top of his lungs.  At least one of the mice had survived, and was crawling up his left leg.  We inched along in the rain in further silence, one headlight, no wipers.  Near dawn we turned down the camp road to see lights burning, and a little smoke coming from the chimney.

Dad had paced all night, after we had called to tell him our delay, and greeted us with a fierce joy.  He fixed us a lumberjack breakfast.  As we went to sleep, I could see him stoking the fire, before going off to work, to meet the challenges of 1973, after a sleepless night.  Just before dosing off I heard him singing:  “Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart I will pray.  Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart I will pray”.

That song at the hearth and from the heart still resounds, rings out, true of his life and faith.  It is important for us, for the coming generations, the remember the witness of those who taught us how to bear witness.   Unhappy are those who lose access to their own best past.  Happy are those who find access to their own best past.  In that personal song of spirit, experience, and prayer were many of the cherished beliefs and values for which he lived, by which he lived.  Let me name some of them.

He and his companions in the ministry lived in the openness, the magnanimous freedom of grace, the freedom for which Christ sets us free, on which we are to stand fast, and not to be enslaved again.

He lived convinced of the lasting worth, the ultimate value of persons and personality.
He lived and taught that love means taking responsibility.
He placed the highest premiums on marriage, family, children, and friends.
He had a rare, great capacity for friendship.

He could be restless with and critical of those perspectives which narrow the wideness of God’s mercy.  And he could be restless with and critical of those practices in personal and institutional life which did not become the gospel, were not becoming to the gospel.

He trusted that wherever there is a way, there is Christ, wherever there is truth, there is Christ, wherever there is life, there is Christ.

He honored his own conscience and heart, and expected others to do the same.  The conscience of the believer is inviolable.

Many of you remember today those who helped you become a disciple, with  toughness in love and love in  toughness.

And as I heard him say, circa 1990,during a meeting in the Oneida church sanctuary, ‘because I am loved, I can love’.

Given Matthew 28:16, and given this particular Sunday, and given the venerable pulpit here the stewardship of which in these years is our shared responsibility, it is fitting to remember his poem about preaching:
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 g
row life.

Preaching is humbling,
Frightening,
And Rewarding!


As you probably suspect, I believe these words fit more than preaching.  They really ask us about our witness to what most matters, counts, lasts, and works.  They ask us about our journey in faith.  “As you go…’ What?

Does your way of living have some root and grounding in ancient, holy, inspired Scripture?  Well then, as you go, read the Bible some and set an example for those growing up to become students, that is disciples, with you.

Does your way of living, your going as you go, afford a place for thoughtful reflection, for putting things in the light of divine love?  Well then, as you go, you might want to share your regard for thoughtful living, for theological reflection, and so set an example for those growing up to become students, that is disciples, with you.

Does your path, your journey involve some other, interesting people?  Some colorful characters?  I hope so!  Tell their stories to those you are making as disciples.

Does your own experience leave you with something to pass on to others, some life learning?  Well then, as you go, find some creative ways to leave a trail of bread crumbs for others to follow.

Does your way of living in faith bear the weight of responsibility we share for the common good?  What about justice, and mercy, and humility?  Do you have a cause or three?  (Like refugee resettlement, or employment for all, or care for those in military service?)  Well then, as you go, let us know.

On this Father’s day, to conclude, is your way of living a kind of living that grows life for others, and sets an example that is humbling, challenging and rewarding?  My marine friend says this:  ‘Leadership is example. Period.’ 

As you go, make of all disciples…

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel

Birthday of the Church

Sunday, June 12th, 2011
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John 20:19-23

Pentecost is the birthday of the church.

The church will exist until the end of time. Some parts of the church may not. Nevertheless, discreet communities, communities of common faith and common ground and common hope, communities of meaning and belonging and empowerment, will continue to the end of time.

Our text from John 20 identifies several abiding features of the church, of community life, as the community of the beloved disciple took shape in the early second century. Notice them with me, on this happy Pentecost Sunday.

In the life of this community, there is continuity between the Lord and his disciples, the life of Jesus and the lives of those who have gone over to him, gone after him. ‘Jesus came and stood among them’. We are not after the physics of this, but the metaphysics. There is a flow, a river of being, a somehow marvelous interlacing of death and life, of Jesus and church. Every Sunday we marvel at this. People are in worship, and yet they have their minds, rightly, on loved ones afar: traveling, in peril, gone to God, in another country. With Jesus we learn to pray first, walk together, and save lives.

In the life of this community, the connection or interlacing of the Lord and the disciples is effected through speech. ‘He said…’ Our voice, our most personal characteristic, carries us from the lonely continent of our personal isolation across the sea and hell of anxious separation, and transplants us onto the dry shore of another person’s heart and mind. This is what it means to fall in love, to experience friendship, and to know forgiveness. We see this week by week in our churches, often in pastoral care. The good pastor begins and ends work by getting to know his people, by keeping track of them, by watching out for them, by taking the time to go out onto their own turf.

In the life of this community, whose birthday we today celebrate, the roadsigns point to peace. ‘Peace be with you’. Peace is not so much the absence of conflict as it is the awareness of love.

In the life of the community of the beloved, the church, we should note, there is real bodily hurt, and real personal change. ‘He showed them his hands and his side’. Yes, this was mentioned to show that the crucified was the raised, the glorified was the ascended. But before the theology, there was the tragedy. The church came out of hurt, suffering, defeat. Things do not always turn out. Justice is not always done. Some things end badly. It is the hallmark of the church, at its truest, to be honest about this. Then, too, the one sent, sends. We are all spiritual itinerants. We change, we move, we grow, we age.

In the life of this community, there is a breath of fresh air. We receive the Spirit. And here, unlike in the rest of the Gospel, that spirit gift is tied to forgiveness, with the further admonition that we are playing for keeps. People will know forgiveness in the actual living of a forgiving community. ‘They have been forgiven’. How this sudden occurrence, not recurrence, but occurrence of a word on forgiveness relates to the rest of a Gospel that does not mention forgiveness, I am not sure. I am sure that it stands out here, a beacon, a lighthouse, a voice in wilderness, a swan song: forgiveness. People know forgiveness by being forgiven. If you are like most people, including me, you probably have some unfinished forgiveness projects strewn around the basement and attic and garage of your unconscious mind.

The utter reality, the unrepeatable miracle of days lived is here shouted, blasted at us: every day matters. Fortunately (to call on Paul) we are not alone. Those of us who keep silence, have among us others who utter wisdom. Those of us who have no knack for healing, have among us others who are natural healers. Those of us who are clumsy at insight and imagination, have among us others who shine in the dark. Those of us who are all thumbs, have among us others who put the X in dexterous. We have a whole body, a church, born on Pentecost.

Let us love our church, let us love our community, let us love our beloved community. For the church today is in serious decline, and so truly can benefit from love. By today’s Gospel, we are responsible for what has been forgiven and what has been retained.

The decline of my own beloved Methodism in the Northeast (a harbinger of similar decline coming soon to other regions) is not the consequence of the will of God (the theological defense). Nor is this decline the result of inevitable demographic trends (the sociological defense). Neither is the decline due to insuperable national and regional trends in lifestyle or commitment levels (the cultural defense). This spectacular decline is also not assignable to educational fashions (the pedagogical defense). Our decline toward death in the Northeast has been a matter of consistent, deliberate, and conscious choice, on the part of church leadership. It is a case of the banality of evil. Little decisions, choices, elections, selections, expenditures, repeated and reinforced, over time. It need not have happened. It did. We did it. To ourselves. Neither a vengeful God, nor a drop in population, nor culture wars, nor seminary curricula are to blame. We simply chose decline over health, death over life. The banality of demise is seen in its location in every mistaken expenditure, every misdirected election, selection, choice, decision, budget and appointment. We are responsible for what has been forgiven and what has been retained.

We had several excellent reasons.

In the meantime, though, the body of the church lost significantly more than half its size, and aged well out into retirement years. In the span of little more than a generation. We simply decided not to tithe at any level of church life, not to engage in the exacting discipline required to preach well, and not to replenish our spirits in the vital liturgical traditions of the church.

Since 1972, my beloved church, the United Methodist Church of the Northeast, has displaced, off loaded, dismembered half of her people. 2% a year for 30 years. The farther north, and the farther east, the worse the numbers. Lyle Schaller’s tragic prophecy has come true: ‘the denominations will gladly accept 2% annual decline in exchange for the tacit agreement that there be no significant change’. We don’t seem to mind dying, as long as we can do it at home, in our jammies, watching TV, eating ice-cream, with pleasant pastoral (read hospice) care.

So let us remember where we are, whose we are, and what time it is. Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the birthday of the church.

Dearly beloved, the Church is of God, and will be preserved to the end of time, for the conduct of worship and the due administration of (God’s) Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All of every age and station stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies. (UMH, 1968).

He said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you’. And when he said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.

There is a gentle, warm summer wind breathing through us today. The happy news is that a return to excellence in preaching, consistency in tithing, and immersion in tradition will bring us back to life. Here are some gentle suggestions, as we pray first, walk together and save lives.

The m
ark of disciplined living in our time most needed by our churches is robust giving. The old word, a good word, is tithing. In a materialistic age, nothing testifies better to the invisible than generosity with abandon. People notice. Likewise, when the church appears to act irresponsibly with money, people also notice. In an age of entitlement, nothing witnesses better to graceful love than intentional self-abandon in regular (not occasional) giving. Steady investment in fellowship is a great joy to the giver. In an age of greed, nothing bears stronger witness to another way, than another way of relating to wealth. We have not always and consistently remembered well our inherited practice of tithing. Our current average lay giving hovers between 1 and 2% of income. Our current average clergy giving is lower still. More sadly still, we have overburdened our basic ministries in the local churches by requiring not a tithe, but often over 25% of income to be sent on into the elaborated ministries of the denomination. The power to apportion is the power to destroy. This heavy handed ladling of required donations has most hampered growing and larger churches, which most would have benefited from the reinvestment of extra-tithe resource in developing ministries of worship, education and service. To equip our church for the struggle ahead, we will need to teach tithing by precept and example, in season and out.

In Methodism we need to recover our confidence about the importance of education. No denomination anywhere, ever did more to support educational development than did the Methodist church in America during its first two centuries of life. 128 US schools and colleges continue to this day to honor such investment. More statues to John Wesley are found on campuses than in churches today. John Dempster (Methodist minister and founder of Boston University) exemplified the recognition of an earlier era to the need for education in the preparation of clergy, and education in the development of laity. Our current willingness to let semi-prepared people occupy our pulpits in large numbers is a direct contradiction of our own best past. When I entered the ministry in 1979, about 5% of the pulpits in our conference were held by non-elders. Today it is 55%. 500 of the 937 pulpits in upstate New York are occupied by unordained, only partially educated ministers. You cannot run a college on adjuncts. It is far better to have one good sermon preached four times than to have four bad sermons preached one by one. Our confidence in our inherited use of circuits has disappeared. We have made a virtue of uneducated piety. But there is no such thing as piety without learning. The two go together. Better a good sermon preached four times on a circuit than four bad ones comfortably heard and given, without any driving.

We shall need to recover a love for worship that is traditional without the scourge of traditionalism, that is enchantment not entertainment, that is God centered not conversation centered, and that is excellent, entrepreneurial and enjoyable. Every church both deserves and requires fine preaching and music. Especially preaching. It is the heart of pastoral ministry. It is the one thing most desired and needed in our churches. It is the single thread of consistency linking all healthy and growing churches. It is utterly difficult consistently to do well. It is more important than all the other features of community life. It was what we have been known for, our verbal endowment. “I am grateful for the discipline which preaching requires” (R Dolch). We hunger, hunger for the right handling of the word of truth.

For some years our churches have been under the sway of a kind of preaching meant to distance the church from the culture. Unlike Jesus, who ate with sinners, and Paul, who wrote good Koine Greek, and John, whose Gospel itself may be considered (to borrow from Harnack) the acute Hellenization (that is acculturation) of Christianity, this currently influential quasi-Gospel tells us we are resident aliens. Resident aliens. I heard this same now tired, now old phrase used again this week. In it there is some truth, we must affirm, the truth of the narrow gate and the straight way. But on the whole it misses the large, Pentecost, great, Spirited, good, Gospel. Friends: you are not resident aliens in Boston! You are angelic residents of Boston. Not resident aliens, but angelic residents.

Such preaching takes preachers who love both the Bible and the people, both the church and its life, both the community of faith and the culture in which it dwells. If thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand. (J Wesley). How shall they hear without a preacher? The cunning of a private detective, the resilience of a boxer, the courage of the matador—these are the marks of speech which moves from peace to forgiveness, which is the preaching of the gospel.

For example, we have been told recently of a governor in a far off golden state, who lived for decade, in a household where he was a known father of some, but an unknown father of another. Daily deception. Remarkable. (Of course I feel sorry for all in this situation, and want the grace of forgiveness extended to all.) The Governor was living a double life, his deeds and their consequences all around him, visible fully to him, but not to others. Until a moment of revelation.

But just a minute (so says a preacher). Just how many of us are utterly, completely known by others as we know ourselves? Just how many of us have metaphorical offspring whom we see, but others do not? Others may not see our illegitimate offspring (I am speaking by analogy here, metaphorically here). But we do. They walk right by us, on the way to breakfast. That is what makes the California story of some weeks ago so compelling. It is not just about him, it is about us, about you and me. We see, suffer, rue, endure the presence of things about ourselves that others do not see. We are all the ‘party pooper’, to some degree.

Hence the dire need for the announcement of forgiveness. The Gospel is that God’s grace frees us and forgives us not only from what is seen, but also from what is not seen. Forgiveness frees us again to try to live the lives we hope to live, and which we hope will inspire others, particularly the young.

We want to love our church.

Every spring, we try again to do so, in our Annual Conferences. Although we continue to fail, I find the spring time call of the Spirit utterly compelling. A conference is a chance to confer. This week I heard a saintly superannuated preacher, and Boston University graduate, open his heart in eloquent confession, before 2000 others, about a view of his from 1980 and 1984 which he now knows to be mistaken, in light of Scripture AND tradition AND reason AND experience. This week I listened to a saintly preacher in mid life, and a Boston University School of Theology graduate, who has quietly spent 22 years rebuilding a tiny church into a great community—the real, messy foundational work of our era in ministry—and July 1 will move 100 miles to start all over and do the same in another setting. This morning I have the privilege of meeting and greeting the spirited congregation of Marsh Chapel, a heart for the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city. Listen, as we end this morning, to the historic questions every budding preacher answers on her way to ordination. See if these questions do not catch you up. See if they do not inspire you. See if they do not touch your heart, and make you think, about how best to live, from this day forward:

Have you faith in Christ?
Are you going on to perfection?
Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
Are you earnestly striving after it?
Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?
Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
Will you keep them?
Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony
with the Holy Scriptures?
Will you preach and maintain them?
Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
Do you approve our Church government and polity?
Will you support and maintain them?
Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?
Will you visit from house to house?
Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?
Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?
Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?
Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed
By schism rent asunder, by heresy distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes us ‘How long?’
And soon the night of weeping, will be the morn of song.

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.

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

Consecration

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

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John 17: 1-11

1. Summit

High atop the world’s greatest writings sits our Holy Scripture. Such knowledge is too wonderful for us. It is high. We cannot attain it.

Within the Scripture itself are conjoined the sibling testaments, the older and newer, the Hebrew Scripture and the Christian Writings. For us just now, the 27 newer books stand a little bit higher.

The Gospels and the Letters and the Apocalyptic Writings are all inspired and inspiring, all sufficient for faith and practice. The gospels though have a certain priority, in our liturgy, and in our hearts. They lie just a step or two higher, atop higher ground.

You love all the Gospels. One there is though which from antiquity has been known as the sublime, the spiritual gospel. We shall ascend today, on ascension Sunday, to the craggy paths and rarified air of the Fourth Gospel.

High above the rest of John, above the seven signs to begin and above the passion and resurrection to end, there lies the strangest moonscape in the Scripture, and so in all literature, and so in life. I mean chapters 13-17. We are about to place our homiletical flag on the very summit, the highest of high peaks, the textual Matterhorn, Everest, Mount Washington, Pike’s Peak: John 17.

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

2. Where We Least Expect

Your own participation in this sermon is cordially invited, and fully required today. We affirm, with the ancient Gospel according to St. John the Divine, that we find freedom in disappointment, we grasp grace in dislocation, and we learn love in departure. Look back at all your experience to date. What is your greatest disappointment? It is a clue to freedom. What is your hardest dislocation? It is a signpost for grace. What is your most grievous departure? It is the way of love.

The community of the beloved disciple knew about disappointment. After three generations, and some, the community had awaited the primitive hope of the church to be realized. They awaited the return of Christ. The resurrection of the dead from their graves. The end of time. The apocalypse of God. It did not come. He did not come, at least not in the way once hoped. I find it the most remarkable experience of the New Testament that John, rather than being lost in a sea of disheartening failure, in the very eye of his most stormy theological hurricane, found freedom. In disappointment he found freedom.

The community of the beloved disciple knew about dislocation. They had lost their family of origin. They were sent out from their mother religion. The church that wrote John had been thrown out of the synagogue. The life they grew up with had cast them out. It took three generations for them to grasp the joyful grace in dislocation. Count it all grace, brethren, when various dislocations beset you!

Our time has also known dislocation aplenty. We should hunt more for grace in the financial dislocation that is endemic in our time. I have yet to serve a church that was not financially challenged. Every religious institution in our region—church, conference, seminary, campground, school, all—is under water in financial terms. More: middle aged families are sinking into the quicksand of debt. They are buying groceries on credit. Debt is work undone. Savings is work done. We have work to do. Go back and read Who Moved My Cheese.

The community of the beloved disciple knew about departure. The layers of grief culminating in chapter 17, while ostensibly a rehearsal of Jesus’ own departure, may also have been crafted by the heart and voice of their aged John, the other and beloved disciple, whose own departure, in the midst of disappointment and dislocation, itself provoked these layers of grief. Is it not ironic that the sharpest, most rarified language of love in all of the New Testament—in all of literature—arises in the hour of departure?

In our time, we are bidding a reluctant farewell to God. To a certain, junior, perception of God. God reigns. This we affirm with the church militant and triumphant. But God’s way among us is away from us. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him. The measures of freedom and grace given to us become real possibilities, real freedom and real grace, only when we have the gracious freedom to decide for faith. The same is magnificently true of love. This is the message of John, at the end.

The departure of the Christ makes space for love. As I have loved you, so you also ought to love one another.

3. Brother John

We are four siblings in my family of origin. The older three have brown hair. The youngest is a redhead, whose name is John. John’s bright red locks are unlike, quite unlike, the less remarkable curls of Bob, Cathy and Cynthia. He stands apart, does John. It makes you wonder where he came from, with such a distinctive aspect. John is like his Gospel namesake, the Fourth Gospel. The youngest of the four, he stands out, so different from his synoptic siblings Matthew, Mark and Luke. They with their shared brown hair, their shared parables and teachings, their shared emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, their shared trips from Galilee to Jerusalem, they just don’t look at all like their younger redheaded brother.

In the summer, it happens, as it may in your family, there is a family reunion for one part of our tribe. Occasionally, we would go, growing up. Like yours, ours is something of standard reunion. It is held on a farm near Albany, which has been in the family since before George Washington rode a horse. After the usual light meal of beef, corn, potatoes, bread, sausage, pies, and pickles and so on, the extended family (or those who having eaten so can still move) will sometimes stand for a photograph on the long farm house veranda. I ask you to look at the photo. I am holding it here. Can you see it? Well, even if you cannot see it across the radio waves, you can probably guess what it shows. Of these eighty people, do you see how many have red hair? About 60—young or old, tall or short, heavy or slight, male or female, they mostly have red hair, like John. 75% are redheads. In fact, in the photo, it looks like a sea of red hair. Maybe a red heads convention out in the farm fields of Cooperstown, NY. John isn’t the odd ball. His siblings are.

John is not the second century Greco Roman odd ball. His synoptic siblings are. When you put the Fourth Gospel, with all its red haired radical difference, on the farm house veranda of second century religious family literature, he fits right in. He stands shoulder to shoulder with all the Gnostic writings that are so like him, especially in these late chapters. It looks like a redheads convention. He looks and sounds quite like the rest of his second and third cousins, once or twice removed: The Paraphrase of Shem, the Treatise on the Resurrection, the Odes of Solomon, the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary. How e
lse will we ever hear this voice of Jesus from John 17?

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God.

This voice is NOTHING like that of the sermon on the mount, or that of the parable of the Good Samaritan, or that of the cry from Psalm 22 on the cross. Not human, but divine, here. Not earthly, but heavenly, here. Not low, but high, here. Not immanent, but transcendent, here.
The community of the Gospel of John had a radical experience of Jesus, as God on earth. To render that experience meaningful, they had the radical courage to take language from the heretics around them, the Gnostics, and use it as their own BECAUSE IT FIT. It worked. It explained to the huddled humans clinging to Christ what they had experienced in him: divine grace and divine freedom. It rendered the sense of consecration, the sense of holy living and dying, the sense of consecrated joy, which they had found, with the Light of the World, with the Bread of Life, with the Good Shepherd, with the Resurrection, with the Word made flesh.

The community of the Gospel of John feared not the culture around them. They feared not truth, even when that truth was best expressed outside of their particular religious circle. They had the guts to use language belonging to pagans, outsiders, heretics, Gnostics to celebrate and consecrate their faith. In doing so, they opened up the church to the world, to the future, to the culture around them. They changed their way of speaking of Christ, and pointed to Christ above, in, and transforming the culture around them. They changed. They had the courage to change.

In age, our own, when the Gospel of John, served raw, without cooking, without historical interpretation, can be made to sound like the voice not of tradition but of traditionalism, we do well to remember John’s courage to change, to reach out to the culture around, to put the gospel in word and music on the air waves of a pagan culture, out on the radio waves of a secular world, and where possible to use that same culture, and its language, for the cause of consecration.

4. Spirit of Truth

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide
In the strife of truth with falsehood
For the good or evil side
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah
Offering each the bloom or blight
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light
New occasions teach new duties
Time makes ancient good uncouth
One must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth

5. Rich Man, Poor Man

A poor man went to a Methodist church for worship. The congregation welcomed him and he returned week by week. After a while the women’s circle took up a collection and bought him a nice new suit, with a blue tie. He happily received the gift, but they never saw him in church again.

A while later, on the street, one of church members saw him and asked what had happened. Did he not like the suit? Did it not fit? Was he afraid to wear it?

“Oh no, I love the suit. I look great in it. When I say myself in the mirror, I looked so good I thought, ‘I look like a million bucks. I look too good to go just to the Methodist church. I think I’m dressed well enough to go the Episcopal church. I think I will go there. And that is what I did”

6. Carol and Realized Eschatology

Sometimes a dose of realized eschatology can clear the mind and strengthen the soul. In a way, every day is our last. In a way, heaven and hell are here and now. In a way, the end time is all of time. John puts it this way: ‘the hour is coming AND NOW IS’.

Some years ago we sat at dinner with several other couples, in a beautiful home, over a majestic meal, graciously served. Because the couples new each other well, and were in trust to each other, there was the chance for hard and serious conversation, consecrated conversation you might say. This evening the debate swirled around gay marriage.

There are tipping points in the way a culture moves. Some of them occur at dinner, in beautiful homes, over majestic meals, graciously served. The host was opposed, to gay marriage that is. The conversation widened, and then narrowed, and then widened again. We can surely agree that there are many ways of keeping faith, and many honest, different, points of view, on this and on many issues.

Across the table sat Carol, mother of two fine teenagers, married with joy to a business leader, baseball player, Red Sox fan. She had battled cancer once before, and now it returned, and she fought it again. We could not see it then, but in seven months she was gone.

Over some heat and some laughter, much disagreement but little discord, the conversation, consecrated you might say, moved on. Carol spoke fully, and at one point said: ‘You know, I have learned how precious life is, how fragile, what a gift every day is. Here is what I feel: if two people truly love each other, deeply commit to each other, and want to consecrate their vows, that is they want what Doug and I have, why would I ever want to stand in their way, why would I ever want to deprive them of that happiness that I know so well.’ I heard some minds changing as dessert came that night.

7. Give us the 66th!

Pasternak loved Shakespeare’s Sonnett 66. It is said that whenever he read aloud the crowd would not let him leave until he had rehearsed it for them. “Give us the 66th…” Its evocation of daily anxiety bears remembering. The poem is unequaled in its announcement of trouble. When life gives you the 66th remember Shakespeare, but especially his last couplet.

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly–doctor-like–controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

‘Captive good attending captain ill…’ Can you hear that? It begs to be heard. Stand with your people in tragedy, honest and kind in word and deed.

8. Presence and Thanksgiving (Ps 139)

1 O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me!
2 Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar.
3 Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.
5 Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.
7 Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be n
ight,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with Thee

9. Coda

“Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” While we may shed the inherited demonic mythology in the verse, knowing and honoring its origins in the distant past, we nonetheless fully recognize the spiritual truth in 1 Peter: we know not what a day may bring, but only that the hour for serving is always present. Our dear Springfield mother, covering her daughter and so saving her in a bathtub, knew not what a day would bring, but only the presence of mind to save her beloved.

We too want to discipline ourselves and keep alert, as the 2nd century author of 1 Peter instructs his baptizand. So we pray. Do you pray? So we commune. Do you receive the eucharist? So we study. Have you devotionally read your Bible this week? So we converse with one another. Have you opened home and heart recently in Christian conversation? So we fast—park your car, save your money, do not reply all: fight pollution, debt and dehumanization. We too want to discipline ourselves and keep alert.

We want to live consecrated lives.

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