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.
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 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 honored his own conscience and heart, and expected others to do the same. The conscience of the believer is inviolable.
And as I heard him say, circa 1990,during a meeting in the Oneida church sanctuary, ‘because I am loved, I can love’.
Dean of Marsh Chapel