Transcending Boundaries

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Matthew 18: 21-35
A. Sin
1. Thirteen Fears

We are a people somewhat dampened by fear.

For some the drenching is total like the water now cascading down from Vermont and Northern New England. For others the damp moisture is more like the relative sprinkling we in Boston received two Sundays ago. But the rain has fallen on all, the northern and southern, the just and unjust.

We have used our umbrellas and it has been a long time coming.

Since the day our freshmen went to kindergarten…

A cloudburst in 1998 about impeachment and redefinitions for simple words like ‘is’, like ‘sex’.

A thunderstorm in 1999 about Y2K. Some communities even had Y2k committees. Our church did.

A donnybrook in 2000 over a close election, decided finally by the Supreme Court. Can you spell ‘dangling chad’?

The hurricane in 2011 of 9/11/01, whose memory we mark today.

An autumn rain in 2002, a move from patience (‘we shall meet violence with patient justice’) to pre-emption, a full blown doctrine thereof.

A tornado in 2003, a tragic invasion of Iraq.

A tempest in an Ohio teapot in election2004and a Tsunami across the pacific.

A whirlwind in 2005, Katrina.

A change in wind direction in 2006, abroad, surge, at home, election.

An early morning rain starting to fall in 2007, falling on housing near and far.

A cataract in 2008, the Great Recession, unabated still. 14 million, 14 million, 14 million hunting for work.

Cloudbursts in 2009—tarp, stimulus, health care, and 401k to 201k, oil spilled in the gulf.

Steady rain since 2010, a country divided along the lines of liberty and justice, freedom and compassion, conservative and liberal.

We are a people moistened by fear. But it has been raining, after all. If you feel a little moist, you may have some reason.

2. Religious Troubles

My dear dad—a graduate of BU—used to say, with a smile, ‘just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you’. Since that sentence has several negatives, let me say it again: ‘just because you are paranoid, does not meant they are not out to get you’.

It was his way of saying that we need to be both realistic and self-aware.

To some friends, I might emphasize the word paranoid. To others, I might emphasize that that does not mean nobody is out to get you.

It is not the case that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. There are real, serious threats to security, collective and individual, which cannot and should not be avoided or denied.

Some of these are religious in nature. Religion qua religion is not necessarily good. It can be. Often it is not.

A surgeon who worshipped with us, a fine southern gentleman, would greet me at the door, following worship, in this way: How is your protoplasm Dr Hill?

In his memory I ask you: How is your eschatology, your pneumatology? Your sense of hope, your sense of presence?

It raises the issue sung out in the old spiritual: Have you got good religion, or bad?

An eschatological vision that promises paradise as reward for violence is religious, for sure, and bad. Bad eschatology is not the exclusive province and possession of only one religious tradition, to be sure. A pneumatological understanding of boundaries that makes of one set of cultural practices a necessary target of hatred is religious, for sure, and bad. Bad pneumatology is not the exclusive province of only one religious tradition, to be sure.

Good religion transcends boundaries, whether of hope or of spirit, whether of heaven or earth, whether eschatological or pneumatological.

Today I want to probe sense of presence and sense of hope.

B. Salvation

What we have heard in our Scriptures today is not unlike what may be found in the world’s great traditions: Bahai: ‘be generous in prosperity, thankful in adversity’; Buddhist: ‘may those frightened cease to be afraid’; Hindu: ‘may there be peace on earth’; Jewish: ‘swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks’; Muslim: ‘if thine enemy incline toward peace, do thou also’; Christian: ‘blessed are the peacemakers’.

But this common ground, when flooded with fear, can be difficult to hold, to walk. Our boots slide in the wet mud.

How are we ever going to dry out, drenched as we are? How will we get the roads rebuilt, the bridges repaired, the sewers flowing, the mud cleared, the clothes ironed?

Today the sun is shining. Briefly let us bask in the its light and warmth.

Religious people bear responsibility for religious problems.

1. Paul

Paul wrote so to the Romans.

Some think of this passage as advice for the church, the church alone. Jews and Gentiles. Get along, welcome one another, liberal Protestants embrace conservative Catholics, march together under the banner of Christ. The strong (the liberal) are to be forbearing of the weak (the conservative). Church advice for church people. Days and diet, Sabbath and sweets.

Is this what he means? If so, why is the word Christ all but absent? Paul says Lord, not Christ, with one exception.

No, Paul has bigger fish to fry than ecumenical relations. He is preaching about cosmic transformation. He is speaking about the Lord. Who is the Lord? The Lord is the Spirit. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. What this world needs is not a religious revival but a cultural revolution.

No age needs Romans 14 more than ours does. Here is the announcement, healing for nineleven, of the religion of unreligion.

You will need to channel your inner perennialist, in order religiously to enter the 21st century. Your human BA comes before your spiritual MA. The petty narcissism of small religious differences won’t survive the drenching of the eternal now, now. At the human level, the undergraduate level, the level of real human relationship, unnecessary boundaries based on outmoded religious distinctions need to go. When Daniel Marsh built a chapel without a permanent cross in it, with a star of David in it, with Abraham Lincoln enshrined in it, he took heat—radical moves for 1949. Humans have more in common than not with one another.

In other words, before we move on to the graduate school of human religious difference, let us complete our undergraduate study in human religious likeness.

All six billion of us.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes
, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

I need to remember that I am first a man, second a witness, and third a minister, in that order, not in the reverse order.

2. Matthew

Even Matthew—dark, dreary Matthew—challenged his church so.

We have reason to be careful, to see that our loved ones, that children, that people all people are protected, secured, made safe. We need make no apology for defending human life from religiously inspired hatreds or any others.

But you cannot win the game by playing defense alone. The Red Sox cannot win with pitching alone.

There is only one way forward, with regard to past hurt. There are many ways backward: regret, revenge, resentment come to mind. To move forward, we shall need, in Niebuhr’s under-heralded phrase, to become adept at a spiritual discipline against resentment. We shall need to learn the arts of forgiveness. The only antidote to religion is mercy. So, the Scripture, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.

God’s delight is forgiveness. That is the gospel. The question then is, what is ours, what is our delight? What do we desire?

Mercy is a great mystery; forgiveness, when it happens, a grace. To err is human, to forgive, divine. Or, as thesis advisors suppose, to write is human, to edit, divine.

Our first Marsh Chapel preacher and Dean, Franklin Littell, so reminded us:

Just as the child is aware of the mother before it is self-aware, just as it commonly says mama before it says I, so the awareness of God and his work in history is primordially known to the person of faith. But the world of techne, in its aversion to the mysterious and the open, has sealed off that dimension of human experience. From the elementary school, the young person is taught to think in the symmetry of the closed, the traditional mathematical model, and by the time he has finished with the university he may be a skilled technician—but he is rarely a wise man. (13)

It is the threshold of the mind and heart of Howard Thurman, the great former Dean of Marsh Chapel. He wrote, “A beautiful and significant phrase, “Island of Peace within one’s own soul. Well within the island is the Temple where God dwells – not the God of the creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart. Into His Presence one comes with all of one’s problems and faces His scrutiny. What a man is, what his plans are, what his authentic point is, where his life goes – all is available to him in the Presence.”

Our third Dean, Robert Hamill, said much the same:

To anyone who is seriously seeking for this final truth, it will come to him, often unannounced, sometimes unnoticed. It may come through some reading in Scripture or elsewhere, or some glimpse of beauty, or some encounter with a friend, or with an enemy, or by some shattering engagement with yourself, with failure, or guilt, or unspeakable joy. It may happen to you especially in some act of obedience, when you seek not so much to obey the commandments which bind, but to obey him who liberates. (motive, 1/61)

In this spirit, our fourth, Robert Thornburg, wrote recently about prayer:

Coming to the 10th anniversary of “9/11”, I had a really scary dream. What would happen if I were to be asked to say a prayer at some public occasion near ground zero? I pondered that possibility in other dreams. I envisioned looking through my file of “prayers for public occasions”. Those were interfaith enough, and written to include the widest circle of folk. But surely not adequate for a time so filled with sorrow, anger, love and hope— all those feelings that bubble up at the mention of those two numbers. When all else failed, I began instead to ask myself “what would I prayer for?” “For whom should I pray?” and remember: this is a prayer we are uttering to the Eternal God, not a political manifesto.

Easy at the start: pray for those who were killed and their families, then add first-responders, both those who died trying, and others still suffering the effects. But what about those “other” people: Muslims who want to pray nearby, others who are even thinking of destruction again. I think that is the kind of situation our Master had in mind when he said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Could I believe that prayer changes things, and that the Almighty God might move in all of us to change things by the power of incredible love and profound hope.

Then I woke with a start. What was I thinking about? If our faith and all the religions of the world has any hope of helping the terrible mess our world finds itself in, then we had all better pray without ceasing and include the widest possible circle of both friends and those who probably think of themselves as our enemies. (8/20/11)

Dean Five, Robert Neville (do you sense an emerging pattern of Roberts?), wrote:

For us religious people the most frightening dimension of the recent terrorism is its idolatry. If our speculations about the motives of the terrorists are right, or we take Mr. Bin Laden’s statements at face value, a political cause has been cloaked in ultimacy that belongs to God alone. Any political cause, just or unjust, or any ambiguous mixture of the two that is associated with divinity is idolatry. (9/20/01).

C. Service

What good difference will our worship today, and our observance later today, make?

We are a flawed and bruised people. We are long way from perfect. We are a little moist, a little damp.

Some time ago our Religious Life Council and leaders began to prepare an observance for this day. I met with my colleague, Rabbi Polak, among others, to seek his counsel. As we talked he invited a student working at the front desk to sit with us, and to tell us what she recommended for 9/11/11.

“Well, I would want to remember what the day was like for me and for my family. Then I think I would want some simple, quiet way to honor losses from that day, and to honor those lost. And then I would want to see if there are ways I could do something positive, to remember by serving.”

She echoed what others had said, and outlined what we have done: boards to write out memories, like those used ten years ago; an observance at noon on the Plaza, like those 5 and 10 years ago; and suggestions for service, listed and announced, like this one:

In 1995 I married a great couple, Jim the husband a Methodist minister and religion professor, and Betsy the wife a health specialist and first responsder. After 9/11/01, in the loss and rubble and fear, she and a small group of others decided to do something positive, to remember by serving, as our student put it. In Syracuse NY, bit by bit, she and they developed a network of women—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Agnostic, Other—who began to meet together on a monthly basis. They formed bonds of friendship—‘belonging’ as the religious sociologists might name it. They read and talked together—‘meaning’ in sociological terms. They chose limited but fruitful conjoint acts of public service that made a difference—‘empowerment’ in sociology. In their small city, week by month by year, they brought a little bit of compassion
, understanding, and hope up and out of the ashes of ground zero. They are still at it. Today, in the New York Times, you will find a supplement devoted to this date. It is a realistic, even pessimistic, darkly challenging segment. But there, right there, right there in the middle of today’s news, stands Betsy. There is the account, a glimmer of light and a ray of hope, of her friends who came together and formed Women Transcending Boundaries. They have 470 members. As Elie Wiesel has taught us: one who hears a witness becomes a witness.

What boundaries will you work to transcend this year? Religious people have a religious task, a religious responsibility. That is to transcend boundaries, eschatological or pneumatological, of hope or presence, which threaten to undo us.

The World Trade Center may fall, but no terror can topple the Truth at the Center of the world.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies, may fall, but the economy of grace still stands in the Truth at the center of the world.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many, may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the Truth at the center of the world.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country, may fall, but grace and justice still stand, through the Truth at the center of the world.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national honor, may fall, but divine humility stands, through the Truth at the center of the world.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss, may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niebuhr) still stands, through the Truth at the center of the world.

Speaking of eschatology, there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe. Speaking a pneumatology, there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.

George Buttrick once remembered an evening in Boston:

All we know is that each man’s witness is needed, since each man is a person, in separate and distinctive gift a child of God. Recently at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert the man with the triangle was required by the music to sound one note. Minutes before that note he stood ready, like a runner on his mark, triangle and hammer uplifted and poised. To most of us the note would not have been missed, but Conductor Muench would have missed it. We are responsible to the music and the conductor, not mainly to the listener. The man drew my eyes—and my concern. Suppose he should come in too early or too late! Suppose he should swing his little hammer and miss! But true to time and score: ping! I would like in the hereafter to be able to tell the Conductor that I pinged my little ping, in the right place and at the right time. (motive, 2/58, p.16)

Me too, George, me too.

Come! Live with us! Be a witness to the Truth at the center of the world! You can make a small, lasting difference!

L Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

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

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