Archive for October, 2011

A Tradition of Principled Resistance

Sunday, October 30th, 2011
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Matthew 23: 1-12

Introduction
This week you may, suddenly, find that a choice is required of you, through no fault, intention, planning or device of your own. Further, the choice you want to make perhaps could involve resistance: refusal of a request from an archetypal authority, resistance to a popular mood, resistance to an ingrained habit, refusal of the pleas of a friend. Russell Lowell predicts that at least once to every person and group comes such a moment to decide.

With all your heart you may want to resist. An invitation, a suggestion, a promotion, a direction, an order. Resistance always costs. Resistance means sacrifice. Resistance hurts. The slings and arrow of fortune’s discontent draw blood. Resistance. Does such principled denial have a place in Christian living? Dare ask: Does God evoke and use resistance? Does Christ, God’s everlasting Yes–in whom Paul says there is no longer Yea and Nay, but only Yes–Does Christ desire resistance?

1. Daniel

For Daniel, refusal to give up his family name, his religion, his faith landed him, with the others, in the heart of a furnace. You enjoy the story, I know. Daniel resists the order to blaspheme, and accepts punishment, even death. Bound in the heart of fire, the prophet of God is protected, strangely, by God who answers prayer.

2. Naboth

For Naboth, refusal came more dear. Old King Ahab had every vineyard he wanted but one. He asked for the land. Naboth refused. He asked again, this time presumably in a more kingly voice. Naboth refused. Ahab asked again, with a hint of threat on his tongue. Naboth refused. And Ahab went whimpering to bed. Not so, Jezebel, who simply took Naboth aside, and cut off his head. Refusal can either cost you a king’s friendship, or your head, or both.

3. John of Patmos

John of Patmos did something to put himself out on the rocky prison isle, a first century Papillon, as he wrote his Revelation, our last Bible book. Refusing to worship Caesar? Names jeeringly attached to Rome–beast, satan, whore? Resistance to the more established synagogue?

4. You are a part of a tradition of principled resistance. For Matthew, writing us these lines, the view is clear–Jesus who endured the cross both received and forever illumined a tradition of refusal, in the face of pummeling authority.

Here is such a loving, stark painting of Jesus, Matthew 23:1. He practices what he preaches, wearing out by wearing down, resisting the ‘strong man of this world’. He is respectful, but he resists. Resist those who do not practice what they preach. Resist those who ask much of others, but little of themselves. Resist those who have to have the limelight, for whom appearance trumps reality, the façade hides the face of God. Resist those who claim to teach without honestly admitting that all teachers are students too. Resist, refuse, resist. “How can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?’ (Mat 12: 29)

5. Bonhoeffer

I simply, again, lift Bonhoeffer’s name.

A year before he was executed by the Nazis, languishing in a small prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn:

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
and confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand
We take it thankfully and without trembling
Out of so good and so beloved a hand.”

6. A Tradition of Principled Refusal

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you
The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you
The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you
The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.
Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.
Endowment. Yes, a word brings a lift to the decanal eyebrow, a stirring to the Episcopal soul, a tingle to the Provostial spirit, a warming to the Presidential heart.
A welcome word, today. Now, endowments are crucial for chapel, for school, for university. We shall other days on which to build such.
But today we celebrate the endowment we already have. It is a rich and treasure. It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material. Listen for its echoes…listen…
All the good you can…
The two so long disjoined…
Heart of the city, service of the city…
Learning, virtue, piety…
Good friends all…
Hope of the world…
Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…
Common ground…
Content of character…
Just a tiny little minute but eternity is in it…

What if I were to shout to you this morning that this church had received a magnificent bequest, a precious gift left us by an ancestor? Further, were I to announce that this one gift was worth more than all our buildings and all our current endowment and all our church program put together? Would you not dance, sing, soar?

You inherit a tradition of principled resistance, a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, a precious gift. A tradition of principled resistance. It is your saving birthright, with you all your life long.

7. Rosa Parks

In 1994 an older woman was robbed at gunpoint in her own home in Montgomery, Alabama. She found a prowler downstairs, drunk, who beat her. She died just six Octobers ago, 2005. The robber took $50. The newspaper, perhaps accurately, has quoted her in full as regards her view of this crime: “We are raising a generation of hooligans.” She might have thought she was through all that.

Pummeled still, even in old age, even in closeted retirement, the violent spirit of the age pounds at her, lacing her with blows left and right. Yet she resists! You may recognize her, now.

This is Rosa Parks. A younger Mrs. Parks found herself, seated midway back in a Montgomery bus, on December 1, 1955, pummeled again by the hand of aggression, the Strong Man of this world. For some reason, she refused to move. Bus stopped. Police came. Crowd gathered. Anger, shouting. The Montgomery bus boycott began. A tradition of principled refusal–this is your native land, your mother tongue, your home territory.

Our alumni weekend reminds us so, in the honoring and recollection of spirited forebears, in spirited speeches. Thank you: Bob Herbert, James Lawson, Walter Fluker. Allan Knight Chalmers would be proud of you.

8. The Prophets

The prophets of old knew about all this. They spoke about God’s unbending holiness. They spoke about God’s own refusal to set his seal on any present moment, any present setup, any present arrangement of power. They spoke about human suffering, about how God sees, hears, knows, remembers, and intervenes for the suffering. They spoke about God’s justice, crit
ical of every established power. They resisted. Here it is: “Prophetic speech is an act of relentless hope that refuses to despair, that refuses to believe that the world is closed off in patterns of exploitation and oppression.” (Brueggeman).

These Biblical promises can seem so improbable. They promise an eighth round coming, for which all godly resistance, all principled resistance prepares, by tiring out, binding the strong man of this world. Against the ropes, hum the verses:

The earth shall be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning
They shall not hurt or destroy any more in all my holy mountain
The lion shall lay down with the lamb
And all flesh shall see it together

And remember Amos 5 in sun and snow: Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever flowing stream. Or, let Justice roll down like an avalanche, and righteousness as a never ending blizzard.

9. Rope-a-Dope

My son Ben had only one request for a Christmas Gift. He showed me a catalogue that pictured a little grill, for cooking meat, “ A lean, mean fat reducing machine, guaranteed to reduce each average hamburger by 3 oz of fat–$59.95” Then I noticed the sponsor of this culinary instrument—George Foreman. And I inflicted a story on Ben.

In 1974, one of the greatest boxing matches of the century pitted Mohammed Ali against the world champion, George Forman. Kinshasha, Zaire. November 2. Ali predicted: “The most spectacular wonder human eyes have ever witnessed.” 60,000 cheering fans, shouting, “Ali Bu Mal Ye”, which antiseptically translated means, “Go get him”.

Scenes: Forman charging, rounds 1-6. Forman 25, young, strong, powerful. Recently defeated both Frazier and Norton. Ali: 32, guile fitness and will. After 5 rounds, Forman arm weary and bewildered. 3rd Round, Ali leans to crowd: “He don’t hurt me much”. 5th round, Forman tantalized by the stationary target, angry, frustrated. Angelo Dundee had loosened the ropes! Ali, later: “The bull is stronger but the matador is smarter”. Then, 8th round: “Ali is leaning back against the ropes, inviting the champion’s hardest blows..suddenly in the next instant he springs forward smashing Forman’s face with 2 straight rights and a left hook. Down the champion went, the first time ever he had been knocked out.

Ali: “I’m the champion but I don’t feel any different from that fan over there. I still walk in the ghetto, answer questions, kiss babies. I didn’t go nude in the movies. I’ll never forget my people.”

The historic Christian church in this country has been on the ropes for a generation, 40 years of blows to the midsection. God’s spirit is not in a mode of lightening triumph, for those who would still maintain a real connection between deep personal faith and active social involvement. Jesus’ apocalyptic word: first the strong man must be wearied, bound. First the God of this world must be arm weary, frustrated, raging, tired. First the strong man must be bound, then the kingdom of God may enter.

Those who may need to resist and refuse today are part of the spiritual rope strategy, the wearying of the Strong Man, the binding of evil. It’s not pleasant. Hurt, setbacks, delay, confusion. But there is an eighth round coming! There is an eighth round coming! Don’t be surprised when the guileful, fit, willing spirit lunges out from the rope a dope crouch to fell the Adversary.

Tired, aging, fat, Ali was taunted by the press and others for entering the ring at all. For several rounds of brutal semi-sport, Forman landed crushing blows to the head and midsection of the Louisville champ. It appeared as if Ali was simply beaten. Yet, he resisted. He refused to fall. In fact, it was his strategy to lean back against the ring rope, and bind the Strong Man Forman by tiring him, resisting, refusing to drop, enduring the blows of great force, which permanently crippled him.

Today he is an invalid. (A relative’s firm does his legal work, so I hear of him directly and regularly). My seminary roommate left theological school to write for Sports Illustrated,, saying: “Sport opens the world to the observant eye”. In this one case, I believe, he was right. Here is an image of the binding of a Strong Man, Jesus’ apocalyptic preachment: God himself subverts the strength of the Adversary, the Devil if you will, by binding, tiring, outlasting the Strong Man Satan. One instrument in God’s providence, one way he binds his Adversary, is through moments of human refusal, human resistance to the pummeling blows of this world’s God.

How hungry the church is today to perceive this truth. God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human, as Paul Lehmann never tired to repeat. In part, to encourage and give stamina to those on the ropes, using Ali’s rope a dope strategy, binding the Strong Man. A tradition of principled resistance. A pragmatic resistance, we might say, like that of John Dewey: to surrender the actual experienced good for the sake of the possible ideal good—that is the struggle (as Victor Kestenbaum has written in The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal).

10. Two Objections From the Balcony

Well taken, is your perhaps silent objection thus far: some refusal is Godly, but some is not. Too often those who resist or refuse are simply petulant, immature, arrogant, slothful, idiotic, selfish. Agreed. We speak here not of forms of hypocrisy, so many they are. Rather, we speak of principled resistance, which shows its character by suffering the body blows, by leaning against the rope and aching.

Or, maybe you doubt that refusal takes a part of small stage play. Perhaps only the civil disobedience of Ghandi or the peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King or the risky French Resistance of Albert Camus stand out, great historic refusals, great moments of common endurance. But you would be wrong, I suggest, to think so. Most refusal is hidden, unheralded, unknown, unrewarded. Most principled refusal is known only to the one sagging against the ropes, the one catching the body blows. Most real principled refusal is very ordinary.

Recall the Ten Commandments. These are bedrock resistance tools. The first three call us to resist idolatry. The second two call us to resist pride. The last five call us to resist selfishness.

11. Three Examples of Ordinary Refusal

Three examples. Tithing is primary a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s understanding of success and refusal to accept the implication that all that we have is ours alone. Worship is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s time clock, where all time is meant for work or play. Marriage and loyal friendship are primarily forms of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s low estimate of intimacy, refusal to accept the unholy as good.

Christian Smith has recently written about this: The following chapters describe the ideas and behaviors of 18 to 23 year old Americans concerning morality, sex, alchohol and drugs, civic and political engagement…There is a dark side that shadows the lives of many emerging adults today. (Lost in Transition, 6-7)

12. Conclusion

In 350, Philip of Macedon wanted to unite Greece, which he did except for Sparta. He did everything he could. Finally he sent them a note: If you do not submit at once I will invade your country. If I invade I will pillage and burn everything in sight. If I march into Laconia, I will level your great city to the ground. The Spartans sent back this one
word reply; “if”. (laconic).

Thomas Moore tells us: “We live in a society that primarily starves our soul…we have to really resist the culture to care for the soul…but…if we choose with care our professions and ways we spend our time and our homes in which we live, if we take care of our families and don’t see them as problems, and if we nurture our relationships and friendships and marriages then the soul probably will not show its complaints so badly.”

On the other hand, you may not need this word today. You may want to remember it, though, especially if you are young. For one day, one day, you may want to use some of your spiritual bequest, your prophetic endowment. You may need to draw on the tradition of principled resistance.

Good news has it that along the ropes, and upon the cross, Jesus has bound up the Strong Evil, subverting by being subject to, and so empowered us to refuse.

13. Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning Gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.

I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

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

Where is Your Passion?

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Matthew 22: 34-46


The Passion of St. Matthew

Rolling down through the ages there cascades a gospel shout:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

St. Matthew’s fiercest passion, hidden from you in this sermon for a moment in order to build some interest and suspense, wells up out of the scripture for these weeks in autumn 2011September. Matthew holds a very high view of the church, far higher than we expect, far higher than yours and mine, I could add. For Matthew, the church is empowered: with the means of lasting forgiveness with a mind for sound ethics, and especially with the real presence of Christ.

Matthew trusts this risen Christ and this voice of the risen Christ to free him to follow his bliss, to succumb to his passion. And what is Matthew’s passion? What passion pulses through the parchment of this popular gospel? What force of energy is on the “kiviev” on the lookout, on the wing, hanging ten, parachuting in, ready to climax here today? It is the passion of an evangelist who finds every blessed possible way to connect Jewish Jesus with a Greek world. It’s the passion of an evangelist who enlists an old missionary teaching tract (“Q”) to spread inspiration, truth, and joy. It is the passion of an evangelist who portrays your Savior among pagans, amid harlots, appended to the cross, about the resurrection work of compassion. It is the passion of an evangelist who sums up his Gospel this way: “Go make of all disciples”. Here is this autumn’s Gospel: the point of St Matthew the blessed evangelist is that he is an evangelist. The whole point of the gospel of St Matthew the evangelist is that he is an evangelist. Matthew’s passion? Seeking the lost! Expanding the communion of saints, the circle of divine love!

And yours?

Sunday is the day for that kind of question. Where does your deep gladness meet the world’s great need? (So, F Beuchner).

Matthew, the writer of our first gospel, exudes a passion. Others have caught it.

I turn the historians among you to the poetry of Dionysius the Aeropagite, the archaeological preservations of St Helena, the mystic fervor of St Theresa of Avila, the fecundity of Susanna Wesley, the marvelous zeal of Sojourner Truth, the compassion of Jane Addams, the tenacity of Frances Willard, the alacrity of your mothers and aunts.

Some men helped along the way too.

This same passion moved Wesley from the Anglican Tree, shipped Asbury out from Brittany, placed the Gospel in a far country, and saved the souls of you and me.

One oustanding fact: by far and very far, Matthew is the most frequently quoted gospel in the first three centuries of the church’s life.

You shall love the Lord your God
With all your heart, not just your head
With all your soul, not just your body
With all your mind, not just your brain

Others have summarized the commandments in various numbers and lists: Moses 631, David 11, Isaiah 6, Micah 3, Amos 2, Habbakuk 1, Rabbi Hillel also summarizes with Lev 18:19.

Our granddaughter was sheepish around me at age 3. She didn’t know how to address me. One day I left for work, and she did not see me go. After a while, she came to her grandmother, puzzled: Where is somebody? I am looking for somebody. Do you know where somebody is? You mean grandpa? (I finally became SOMEBODY!)

You are a person. Somebody. This is good news. You have a heart, a soul, a mind. You come to worship to remember that. These ancient words have serious contemporary meaning.

You have a heart.

Kardia—cardiac…Bauer: the seat of physical, spiritual, mental life, seat of the inner life…organ of enlightenment…center of will, of moral decisions, (THEN ONLY of emotions, wishes, desires, love)…something like conscience, dwelling place of the heavenly powers.

You have a soul.

Psyche—psyche…Bauer: soul, life…’impossible to draw hard and fast lines between the meanings of this many sided word’…earthly life, center of life that transcends the earthly…that which makes alive…what one loses or saves

You have a mind.


Dianoia—mind…Bauer: understanding, intelligence, mind, seat of reason, thinking disposition, purpose and plan, ‘gird up the loins of the mind’… and the verb: perceive, apprehend, understand, gain insight into, think, imagine…understand the commandments, the parables, heavenly things, what is invisible

(But not isxus—strength…Bauer: strength, power, might be in possession of one’s powers, be competent, able, have power, be mighty…Why did Matthew not keep strength, as Mark had it? Bultmann: The tradition has repressed the prophetic-apocalyptic character of the mission of Jesus in favor of his activity as a Rabbi. Matt.Jesus casts doubts on the veracity and value of the Davidic descent. Was Matthew a Gentile? He wrote in Greek. He bring the Kings to the nativity. He has much to say about kosher cleanliness, as novel and new. And here, he throws David under the bus.)

I know the taste—I have savored it before. I can recall the landscape—I have seen it before. I want you to come with me. It is a long way from here and many days journey, some at night, and some in the rain. There are mountains to ascend and rivers to ford. Some grasshoppers will look, for a time, like giants. It may take up to 40 years. You will feel like you are in a wilderness. I cannot do it for you and I will not do it to you. But I can do it with you.

But have you forgotten the love you had at first? Have you begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh? Hear the Gospel! St Matthew the evangelist, all this fall, will invite you to succumb to another passion, one you have not yet fully known.

Discover, careful now as you unwrap the gift, the pure joy of a passion for compassion, a desire, of the first water, to love the neighbor.

A Passionate Invitation

Where is your passion?

Aging it may be, brings the preacher to the point of having the temerity to offer any advice of any kind on anything. To know Christ is to know His benefits, said the reformers. Counting those benefits may be one of the joys of aging.

Parents today will tell you that aging can be bittersweet.

Like the day after engagement when you are told about registering for china and appliances for wedding gifts. You feel older. But I just wanted to get married! What is all this merchandizing?

Or when you turn thirty, from twenty nine. A day that will live in infamy, a day of darkness and not of light. Who may abide the day and its coming? It is like a refiner’s fire. Illness descends.

Like the decision to buy a van, and to sell a convertible. The shift from sports car to van or station wagon—need I say more? Is there a surer measure of aging?

Time flies—ah no. Time stays—we go.

Like when you watch a 3 hour movie and realize that the stars look to you like they are teenagers. I prepare you for the pain.

Or when you find yourself asking people to repeat what they have said because you did not quite hear them. “Could you repeat that?” “Would you care to repeat what you said?” “Excuse me, but, huh?”

Or, on more serious note, you begin to feel the onset of age as you see that the great reforms you had hoped might occur in your own lifetime lie still buried under heaps of sloth and falsehood and pride.

Blame some aging for the urge to advise.

And the sheer beauty of a brief moment, a weekend, when the generations meet, for a moment. Parent’s Weekend.

Over donuts, on a tour, listening to two choirs and an organ, and walking the campus, I saw parents and children: some arm in arm, some playing and racing each other, some enjoying the sunshine and boats, some quiet, gentle in respect for the moment.

It made we wonder when the last day was that I lifted up my daughter in my arms—she who now has a daughter of her own. It made me wish I could remember the last day, the last time I lifted my son from sidewalk to shoulders—he who now lifts his own child so. It made me wish I had noticed, and recorded the last time our youngest was small enough and I strong enough to lift him and hug him—he who now can lift and hold me.

That is sacramental moment. But we don’t know when it comes, and we don’t record when it goes by. We expect, I suspect, that there will be another.

So, with time’s winged chariot hastening on, a word or two of interpretation, of advice. In loco parentis.

You can discover your passion in college, if you will remember six words. (They may just apply to life, eternal life, real life in life, as well…)

Study.

An often underrated part of the student life is found in this verb. One reasonable way to undercover your passion in college is to study. Force yourself. Train yourself. Flog yourself. And when all else fails, talk with a mentor. Find a way to use your time wisely. As George Fox told the Quakers, quoting Hebrews, “Prize your time now you have it, for God is a consuming fire”. If possible, work some study time into your schedule every day. The benefits will accrue immediately. Your parents will be pleased. Your grades will be better. You will be happier with yourself. And, you may graduate!

Les nearly failed his way out of Oswego State 30 years ago. He had a wonderful time and mad probation mid-way through the fall semester. Then he met Diane, bowling. They had such fun. It made all his other revelries pale. Friendship and humour and love and joy—and she was a good bowler too. After a long and late Friday night, Les asked to see her again on Saturday. “Sure”, she replied, “we can study together. One night a week of parties is plenty.” Les walked home on cloud nine, waiting for tomorrow, certain she was kidding. But 8pm Saturday night came and Les walked along Lake Ontario toward the dorm. He was dressed for the evening, but Diane met him at the door in jeans with a stack of books. So Les went to the library for the first time that semester. He squeaked by the fall and spring, picked up speed and graduated with his class. Diane and he were married just before he went off to Princeton seminary. There half his teachers asked him if he was born again and the other half if he was in tune with the universe. Les will tell you, “I had not realized how big a part of college studying can be, if you let it.”

Let the main thing be the main thing.

Walk.

Silence is rare in dorms. Students, like Jesus sitting in the temple, are beginning to think on their own, but they need time to do so. One dorm advisor who worked in a 600 student dorm made just one suggestion at orientation: take a walk every day. Thinking is the process of integrating information and insight, experience and judgment. To think you need time and freedom to step back from the 599 others and their stereos. Otherwise the mental muscle will not develop, and you will go too easily with the flow.

Late one night a sophomore knocked at her resident advisor’s door. She was the most socially active girl on her hall—soccer, sorority, floor meetings, ski club, marching band and, even, classes. The advisor was at first surprised to hear her whisper: “I’m so lonely here.” Fleeing her own becoming person, she had grown weary. At last she stopped and faced her fear. Said her advisor, “You are lonely because, now, you are alone. Stop running from yourself. Every afternoon walk up the hill to the Ag Quad and back. Twenty minutes of pure solitude and you won’t feel so lonely.” She quoted Pascal about sitting alone, too.

In walking—we have not spoken of prayer yet—you can hear your soul grow and change, remember and foresee. You can overhear what others are too busy or noisy to hear, even the deeper truth of their own lives. And behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy: Boston is pedestrian heaven; with some good walking shoes you can acquaint yourself with America’s most historic city, Boston, the cradle of liberty.

No!

Here is another underrated word.

But like a river needs banks, a life needs limits. Otherwise the current of Being spills out all over the plain and there is no direction, no force, no power to the river. You just drift and glide. A good life needs boundaries, river banks. When parents sandbag, the responsibility lies elsewhere. Amos says we are to hate evil as well as love good. You will define yourself as much by what you oppose as by what you affirm.

Not every body of water is fit for swimming, for you.

Every “no” is an upside down “yes”.

If you say no to steady drunkenness it is for the joy of bodily health.
If you say no to religious discord you point out the path of future peace.
If you say no to $250 sneakers it is an affirmation of things invisible.
If you say no to nuclear arsenals it is too affirm the sacredness of life.
If you say no to flagrant abuse of the gifts of sexuality, you are trying to affirm covenant and integrity and future happiness.
If you say no to a life focused only on obtaining, you make room for enjoyment and love.

Every no hides a yes, and you can be negatively positive.

We all find some of our passion by finding our “no’s” and sticking to them.

Fun.

Have some fun along the way.

One depressed junior spoke to his teacher who simply asked him what he liked to do for fun. The list was made. Do you do any of these things regularly. No, I am too busy. The teacher sentenced the junior to a daily game of bridge, two basketball games a week, several monthly movies, and poptarts every morning for breakfast. He sentenced the student to use his own list. All work and no play makes Bob a dull boy.

Explore.

Try not to explore in ways you will regret, for regret is the forecourt of hell. But explore nonetheless!

Three sorts of exploration make good sense in college.

One is travel, far and wide, national and international.
Another is into the past, mainly by reading.
A third is across cultures.

Geography, history and culture are more open to you now than they may ever be again. As is theology.

RAH: No one has ever seen God. God is not our own best self writ large across the sky. God is not a clockmaker, a designer, a timekeeper, a being among other beings, a cause of causes, a definition of definitions. No one has ever seen God. God is other, people. Let’s make sure we put in the comma. Rationality is good, especially by comparison to irrationality; efficiency is good, especially by comparison with inefficiency. And then? And so? And yes? So what? In its lifetime the goose looks down upon the lowly mushroom, and lords it over the lowly mushroom, but in the end, come mealtime, they are both served up on the same platter.

Explore, with the single aim of finding what is good, of integrating this good into your vision of the truth. “Liberal education flourishes when it prepares the way for a discussion of a unified view of nature and man’s place in it.” (A. Bloom).

Friend.

Last, not least, open yourself to real friendship.

The friendships formed in these years will last a lifetime if they are well Planted and watered. The freedoms and struggles of that first real experience of independence can also provide the nutrients for the growth of real friendships. In friendship, as in love, there is terror and mystery.

Several stages are visible in the growth of a friendship.

Deciding when and how and who leads and follows.
Learning to give up something for another.
Making a really big life mistake.
Talking about making a really big life mistake.
Disagreeing.
Encouraging.
Parting.

Chapters in a book.

Friendships developed now can last a lifetime. One graduate of Smith College in the year 1914 corresponded through the 1980’s monthly with her college roomate. Illness and age prevented visits, but the letters still came and went.

Friendships developed now can transform.

I remember fondly the story of Jack Bruen, Colgate University basketball coach. Bruen died at 48. We have knew his kindness to our children over many summers of basketball camp. Said one former student, “Besides my father, his is the only shoulder I’ve ever cried on”. Read some books in college, but read the human documents too. They will change your life.

For the best of them, through friendship, will recall the spirit of Jesus, whom we affirm, this day, as
our transforming friend. The Lord who calls us up to love and calls us out to our own truest passion.

Study. Walk. Say No. Have Fun. Explore. Befriend.

You will find your passion, your calling, your voice, your vocation, your ownmost self. You will Be Somebody.

Some ways to find passion in college. And in life. And “in God”. Lao Tse: The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within.

Where is your passion?

Sursum Corda:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

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

An Embraceable Variant

Sunday, October 16th, 2011
Click here to hear the sermon only.
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 To Find It: Freedom In Disappointment, Grace In Dislocation, Love In Departure: John

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.

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 else 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, and Jesus Christ whom though hast sent.

Six Synoptic differences! Eternal life, not kingdom of heaven. Know, not believe. The only true God, not Abba. Jesus Christ, not Rabbi or Master. Sent, not begotten.

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.

Raymond Brown: ‘Some scholars may ponder on the luck of the Beloved Disciple that his community’s Gospel was not recognized for the sectarian tractate that it really was. But others among us will see this as a recognition by Apostolic Christians that the Johannine language was not really a riddle and the Johannine voice was not alien…What the Johannine Christians considered to be a tradition that had come down from Jesus seems to have been accepted by many other Christians as an embraceable variant of the tradition that they had from Jesus’. (TCOTBD, 18)

4. Where We Least Expect To Find It: Freedom In Disappointment, Grace In Dislocation, Love In Departure: Today

Freedom

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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”

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’.

The freedom of the gospel has gradually embraced multiple variants. The poor. The immigrant. People of color. Those once enslaved. Women. Gay people. Others. The Other. In fact, the lesson of the gospel of freedom enshrined in John is the spiritual expansion of freedom found in the embrace of the embraceable variant.

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.

At a wedding dinner this month, in a beautiful room, with fine food and gracious hosts, gay and straight danced the night away together, gay and straight. It was right, normal, easy, organic, natural—the way things are meant to be. The embodiment of the embraceable variant.

Grace

Our churches are in the throes of dislocation. Lyle Schaller had our number 25 years ago when he said: “These denominations will gladly accept 2-3% annual decline in exchange for the tacit agreement that there be no significant change”. And so, in 25 years, in the Northeast, United Methodism has lost 50% of its membership. Today more 511 of the 930 pulpits in my home conference, Upper New York, are occupied by non-elders: the preaching and ministry are done by people without full or proper education, preparation, examination or ordination. In what other sector of serious life would we permit this?

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.

In grace, our healthy future will come from a resurrection of thought, word and deed: of traditional worship, of traveling elders who excel in preaching, and in tithing to support the church we love.

All of the lastingly good features of my life have come through grace in dislocation: name in baptism, faith in confirmation, community in eucharist, partnership in marriage, work in ordination, love in pardon, and hope in Christ for this life and the next.

Love

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

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 here: we know not what a day may bring, but only that the hour for serving is always present. Our dear Springfield mother, caught in a tornado, 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. 1 John 4: 7-12 captures love divinely: Beloved let us love one another…

We too want to discipline ourselves and keep alert. 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.

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 night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with Thee”


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

Let Love Be Genuine

Sunday, October 9th, 2011
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Matthew 22: 1-14

To stand in a beloved familiar pulpit evokes, must evoke, some sense of humility rooted in pride, some sense of understanding rooted in wonder, some sense of life rooted in an awareness of death, some sense of love rooted in need.

Especially following the six Sundays since August, it feels good to pause and be thankful for your observance of the Lord’s Day. On August 28 there was a hurricane! Then matriculation, first for Chapel and then for University, on September 4. We engaged in a full day of observances on 9/11. Then came a special Thurman Sunday here, and a visit to the Congregational pulpit in Concord MA, the next Sunday. September 25 brought us the beauty of Bach and a farewell to our ‘shepherdess’, as she identified herself, our director of hospitality, Elizabeth Fomby Hall. Together we celebrated World Communion last Sunday. Much has befallen us in these three fortnights.

We also have tried to absorb our Yankee shared grief. You know the reference I make here. Ecclesiastes is right that the end of things is better than their beginning, unless you are referring to a baseball season like this one. Ecclesiastes certainly we feel was right to say ‘the race is not always to the swift…’ . A hundred year old poem came forcefully to mind…(Casey at the Bat).

After all of this, it is good to stand for a moment, to be thankful, to stand up in a venerable, historic, significant, beloved, familiar pulpit.

It is good also to stand in earshot of a well-worn text. To ‘stand in’ a beloved familiar text evokes, must evoke, some sense of humility rooted in pride, some sense of understanding rooted in wonder, some sense of life grounded in a premonition of death, some longing for love, genuine love, rooted in the struggle, acedia, ennui, loneliness of need. Romans 12: 9, and verses following, is a beloved familiar passage now to be opened, divided, interpreted aboard the great ship Marsh Chapel, and from—as Father Maple would have it—the ship’s promontory, bow, beak, nose—its pulpit. The pulpit rules the world, said he, in the opening pages of Moby Dick. We turn to Romans 12: 9-13.

We have an inserted copy for you to take home with you.

A bright sun dappled summer day can cut the haze of life. And so can a hurricane. This baker’s dozen commands can, like sun or wind, cut the haze of experience. Here, here, here! Here is how you do it, says the apostle to the gentiles, who is more regularly given to pastoral theology than practical advice.

Two years ago at the December University Leadership Council, a formal recommendation to create a PhD in Practical Theology was affirmed. Following the vote, a member asked, in good December spirit: “What may I ask would impractical theology be?”. Laughter subsided, our President said, ‘We will ask Dean Hill for a response.” I said, “I’m not sure, but Lessons and Carols is Friday evening, and I hope you all will come.”

Paul leaves speculative, less practical theology and jarringly tells us how to live. You would not expect such from one who traced our cosmic condition (our sin) from creation through conscience, in Romans 1 and 2. Impractical theology, there, though most treasured and precious. You would not expect such from the Apostle who poured out the great watershed (our salvation) from Christ to cross in Romans 3-5. Impractical theology there, though pearls, great in price, field hidden. Nor would you expect the 13 lightening bolts of 12:9 from the epileptic, tee totaling, bachelor, tent making, spitfire—what a friend we have in Paul—who unveiled Spirit (Holy Spirit) in the freedom of grace, in Romans 6-8, or who wept and pouted and conjured and pleaded about his own extended religious family, Judaism, in Romans 9-11. Impractical theology, there and there, though the high water mark of all his writing, a Spirit interceding for weakness, speaking of genuine love and honest need.

Imagine your shock. Not sin, not salvation, not Spirit nor synagogue, come 12:9. Rather, some utterly practical (in the normal English usage) theology, utterly applicable theology.

People—you?—will ask now and then for a basic primer, a summary of Christianity—faith, hope and love. Over 35 years of ministry I have often said either, ‘There is none—you would as hunt for a cliff notes version of dying, or growing up, or falling in love, or remembering the dreams of youth, or burying your spouse on a cold November day, or of anticipating and enduring child birth. You live it, then you learn it”; or, more practically, I have said, ‘Try C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, or N T Wright, Simply Christian, or Leslie Weatherhead, The Christian Agnostic, or The Gospel of Luke, or D Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, or Augustine of Hippo, Confessions or J Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, or Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, or Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, or P Tillich, You Are Accepted, or R Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic or my own Village Green. The first answer is too little, and the second is too much.

Oye! Oye! The Pauline 13 may be your best—not too little, not too much—threshold, liminal line, front door in response to the question, ‘can you help me get going on this faith business?’ What does it mean to be a person of faith?

It means to let love be genuine.

Let love be genuine.

All these, note well, are plural directives. You all. All you all. The command in Genesis ‘be fruitful, multiply, fill the whole earth” is not an individual command, meant for you and your household alone. Your family does not need to do so alone, though Samuels and Susanna Wesley certainly did their double dozen best. It is a communal command. You all. All of you. In fact, given our limitations (I am being kind), there is no way for us to accomplish such commands on our own. Let love be genuine. Unhypocritical, in fact. Unfeigned, guileless, hearty, real, reflecting God’s own creative, salvific, reconciling love. God gives us life, eternal life, and forgiveness: ‘to create us, to draw us to eschatological consummation, and when we have alienated ourselves from God to reconcile us’ (D Kelsey).

Not all love is, genuine that is. Not all from the heart, nor true, nor durable, nor real. So one hymn we used to sing made reference to ‘by the light of burning martyrs’.

What does it mean to live in faith?

Hate what is evil.

It means to hate what is evil. Notice the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty. In sin, salvation, spirit he has now confidence that –for our time—we shall know the place of hatred and the outline of evil. He gives no list, he makes no single sculpture image, his art is not representational or personificational, he does not limit or quench. How would he know what 2011 looks like? He trusts in the freedom of birds in flight, the gospel, the grace and liberty of genuine love to guide us. He trusts Spirit to bring salvation out of sin. Implied here, b
y the flock of birds in flight, his verbal memorial to love, is this, from a hymn we used to sing: new occasions teach new duties. Not all of student social life is good. Some is, like the public garden. Some is not, like the Charles river. We are free, nay called, nay called out, in our own setting, to ‘hate what is evil’. I think of Amos: ‘I hate, despise your feasts. Let justice roll down like waters.’

Can you get me going on this way of faith? What does it mean?

Hold fast to what is good.

It means to hold fast what is good. Notice the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness of his certainty. As David Kelsey reminds us: life is neither evil, nor a problem, nor a predicament. Life is good, and we are living it on ‘borrowed breath’. Of one scriptural admonition (like perhaps the coarse ending of our lesson, ‘heaping coals of fire’), K Stendahl once said, ‘It may be the word of God, but it is not the word of God for me’. We used to sing together, ‘time makes ancient good uncouth.’

Love one another with mutual affection.

It means to love one another with mutual affection, brotherly affection, a bond that is fraternal, sororial, militant if not military, visceral. And reciprocal. Real affection, genuine love, is reciprocal, mutual. Affection wherein one party has all the votes and the other pays all the bills (note here, a subtle reference in my own Methodist denomination to the current bad marriage between American bill payers and African voters) is not affectionate. It is not loving. It is affectionless, affected, not effective. Phil Wogaman identified last week the three biggest issues of our time as poverty and unemployment, interfaith dialogue, and religious legalism. He concluded: ‘whatever your issue, when you die, I want to find your body there’.

Outdo one another in showing honor.

It means—living by the faithfulness of Christ that is—to outdo one another in showing honor. From 1500 BC the Hindu Vedas were transmitted orally, father to son, with precise perfection, as Dr Doniger recently reminded us. Creative generosity, happy hospitality, continuously counting others better—here is our way. Forebear one another in love. You rule the roost. Good for you. Your wife rule the rooster. Light, salt, sheep: people need to see your giving hands, taste the spice of your commendation, and expect a willingness to be shorn. As our own Ed McClure put it his week: ‘We need balance. We need to balance what I want and what you want with what we need….If you don’t know how to talk to people you will need a stick or a gun.’

Never lag in zeal.

To live by faith means not to lag in zeal, to be ardent in Spirit, and to serve the Lord. These three dicta largely place before you the directive to get yourself out of bed, into some relatively clean clothes, over to Marsh Chapel, and into a seat in the fourth pew, come Sunday. A walk in the country or on the beach is good, but not good enough. With Thoreau, you may see: ‘I walk toward one of our ponds but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.’ Turning on the radio is good, but not good enough. People have so many reasons not to go to church. They range from the hilarious to the pitiful. But, on a Sunday when there is not another hurricane, think about this. Your sister here needs you, needs to see you, needs to lean on the encouraging support of your zealous passion. Your brother here needs the example of your ardent spirit. Serve the Lord! His service is perfect freedom and the worship service is all of one hour. We can become so lackadaisical about worship: and I am not only speaking about theologians ()! In a lifetime you have 4,000 Sunday, 1,500 haircuts, 60 income tax returns, and 529, 600 minutes a year (42, 368,000 total minutes). Come Sunday: zeal, spirit, service, baby!

Be ardent in spirit.

It orders your life. As Steve Jobs recommended, ‘simplify, simplify, simplify’.

Serve the Lord.

And here, we may touch the hem of Matthew’s dark parable, too. Again this week we hear (22: 1-14) a dark, baffling parable. Here is outpouring, divine generosity. Here is unawareness and resistance. Here is divine righteous indignation, and harsh judgment. Here is repeated outpouring, divine generosity. Here is speechless lack of awareness. Here is a riddle about the called and the chosen. You may read Luke’s lighter, happier version this afternoon. But Matthew has in his mind the culmination of the Jewish War in 70ad, and the destruction in that year of Jerusalem. Matthew has in his mind the tepid response to Jesus, certainly among his own people, and also in the wider Roman world, whose first century writes record not a single clear mention of Jesus. Matthew has in his mind the need for self protection in the late first century church, following the persecutions of Domitian. Matthew expresses an odium theologicum here, not unlike that of the Fourth Gospel. All this he marshalls to emphasize the importance of repentance and righteousness. Ardent, zealous service, he would affirm, with Paul.

Rejoice in your hope.

Faith means to ride the waves in community of hope and pain and prayer. Hope carries us beyond pain through prayer. We will gather for a wedding today, remembering all the sardonic lines from Thornton Wilder about weddings (‘once in a thousand times it’s interesting…a man looks pretty small at a wedding’) His sardonic preacher nonetheless solemnizes a marriage in great hope. It is an hour of great hope. This afternoon our wedding prayer will have us say: ‘Give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others’.

Be patient in tribulation.

Patient here is longsuffering endurance. It is a hard recognition that life includes inexplicable hurt. Such pain drives us hard back onto hope in prayer. Prayer brings us up, out and forward through it all, whether in hope or pain. Faith is faith especially when it is all you have left. Some of us today are driven had back through our pain onto hope in prayer. With adorable beauty, nonetheless, the combination of Voltaire and Bernstein in ‘Candide’ brought us up short: ‘To give birth in anguish to miserable and sinful children, who will suffer everything themselves and make everyone else suffer! What! To experience every sickness, feel every grief, die in anguish, and then in recompense be roasted for eternity! This fate is really the best thing possible?’ (Voltaire, 1764). When we have hope, we celebrate, together. When we have pain, we endure, together.

Be constant in prayer.

Be constant, steady, regular, punctual, reliable, disciplined in prayer. Tutu wrote: ‘Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death. Victory is ours through him who loves us.’ How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice…

Contribute to the needs of the saints
.

The Apostle reserves the two toughest, communal, challenges for last, one about money and one about time. Fellowship, partner with the needs of the community. I will take one tithing Christian over every 100 of the born again variety. I will take one Christian who remembers the church or some form of shared service in her will over every stadium full of politically praying types. Maybe you would agree to the desire for less hat and more cattle. Wouldn’t be interesting to know what our potential Presidential candidates actually gave away last year? You cannot love what you do not support. Contribute to the needs, not the irresponsibility but the needs of the community, at 10%. Our BU business and hospitality schools serve the same ends: the nature of community. Leaders of both, I am proud to say, lead also in Marsh Chapel. You may wonder: if we can send (and pay) men and women in uniform to Iraq, why can we not send (and pay) women and men to schools, parks, road repairs, urban neighborhoods, and hospitals—why is there no WPA today when 14 million need work? Isn’t this question what is gurgling under the street encampments here and elsewhere?

Practice hospitality.

Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money. Hospitality is how you spend your time (such an interesting phrase in our mother tongue, to spend time). Hospitality—making the bed of friendship, cooking the meal of companionship, pouring the bath of empathy, cleaning the linens of suffering, embracing those completing a portion of the whole of the journey of life—“Welcome home! How was the trip! Let’s see your photos!”. Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money. Practice. Practice! You will get better with time. Our BU Dean of Hospitality identifies six touchstones in this realm: be both a customer and an owner, both an innkeeper and an innovator, both a servant and a leader.

Will you let love be genuine? Are we lovers anymore? Will you look for love, genuine love, this week?

If this were a Methodist revival, I would end by lining this out like a hymn, and having you sing. If this were the black church, I would call you to response in call and response, response and call, in rhythm and rhyme, rhyme and rhythm. If this were Fenway Park I would start the wave or Sweet Caroline. But this is Marsh Chapel, which in one sense is none of these, and in another sense is something like all of them together. So I will ask you, as a manner of encouraging our memory, just to repeat after me:

Let love be genuine

Hate what is evil

Hold fast to what is good

Love one another with mutual affection

Outdo one another in showing honor

Never lag in zeal

Be ardent in spirit

Serve the Lord

Rejoice in your hope

Be patient in tribulation

Be constant in prayer

Contribute to the needs of the saints

Practice hospitality

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

Grace Note

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Click here to hear the sermon only.
Matthew 21: 33-46

Jesus meets us today to challenge us, to confront us and to inspire us with the hope of something new. Faith in Him, and love for his community, and a life directed toward a final hope—all these lie before us in this holy meal.

Some years ago, in our first year after seminary, a very small act of mercy on the part of a colleague began to show me the power of the new life, found in the doing of the faith. As the psychologists say, the heart follows the hand.

We had only been married a couple of years, and had more recently entered the working world. Some of you are there today, others remember those days, others expect them, one day. Our little house was gradually filling up, or being filled up, with the materials of early married life. A car in the driveway. Clothing on the line out back. A crib. Dog food bowls in the kitchen corner. Wedding and family photographs in new albums. It all happens so quickly! Marriage, degree, job, house, child, car, dog, clothes. All of a sudden. It hardly seems real, or possible.

One day during this period in our early life together there came a most surprising bit of information. This news was delivered in the course of a simple supper, as the dog barked and the drying clothes flapped in the breeze and the baby upstairs cried on to sleep. The information was in sum a medical bulletin, one of those little messages from doctor to patient to patient’s family, an insignificant bit of news as far as the televised world news was concerned, just another report, and a report on a lab report. Soon there would be another mouth to feed. What excitement! It hardly seemed possible, or real.

But reality did set in.

And reality did set in, was ushered in, not surprisingly, by means of the checkbook. Ah the checkbook. Stern reminder of the limits of life. Unerring measurer of the various pursuits of happiness. Implacable judge of the ways of humans. The checkbook. Clothes, dog, child, car and all finally had to be paid for, from one source. Reality did finally set in. Both Paul and Matthew, by the way, in their own way, are trying to convey a sense of reality.

So it was in this period of early marriage, the period of judgment by way of the checkbook, when, I recall, a great kindness was done.

Among many other unmanageable expenses, our car needed new brake pads. I did check to see the price that would be charged to have them installed. I wondered how we would afford it. Which is where things sat on a late summer evening, in a small cottage-like parsonage, nearby one of the great Finger Lakes, with the clothes flapping on the line, the dog well fed and ill behaved, and the baby crying to the moon above.

That evening I met with a new neighboring minister, a man about 15 years older than I. We did our work, and then set to talking about life in general. The topic of cars and brakes and brake pads somehow wiggled to the surface, and with it all the manifold cares and worries of this life, about which the Scripture says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. This fellow minister then suggested that the next day, early in the morning, I bring the car to his house, where and when he would teach me how to change the brake pads on the car. This we did together. In the course of the morning we also talked through various strategies open to young married couples to avoid the stern, grim judgment of the checkbook. There are ways, it turned out, and he had been there.

I know this backwater tale of an unimportant act of kindness done in 1980 hardly constitutes earthshaking news. I guess it is just a matter of vineyards and harvest, of the prize of the upward call, of the way we ought to be, as people of faith. Such a recollection of such a simple generosity hardly seems worth mention.

And yet it meant a great deal, and hovers in memory, years later, as the very grace of God. Here is one doing what he and we ought to have done. Here is an act of compassion. Here is an act of mercy. Here is something new. Here is what Emerson meant: “virtue alone creates something new”.

Today, World Communion Sunday, I sense a hunger, a sharp hunger in the souls of women and men from all different walks of life. It is a hunger that does not abate with the ministrations of all that position and fortune and plenty can provide. It is a hunger that reaches for God. It is a hunger for God. There is a hunger for God today in the souls of men and women that will not be filled by anything else. It will not be filled by anything other than God. Finally, the hunger and thirst for righteousness—and I believe there is such a fine, fine hunger in your own heart—can only be filled by God, by love, by freedom, by grace. By the faith of Jesus Christ and by love for his community and by a life directed toward a final hope of glory.

We can and will proclaim this hunger from this pulpit. We can and will announce God’s gracious love from this pulpit. But in the end you will find it, or it will find you, in your own experience. One by one. Two by two. You are likely to be shocked to faith by no more than one real encounter with one real act of mercy at the hand of one real person. Or, said negatively, as dour Matthew might, if one real kindness does not point you to new life, will a hundred, or will a thousand? One grace note, rung and heard, is all it takes.

Here is the vineyard, still. Here is the wine press, still. Here is the harvest, coming still. There comes a time when our time is no longer our own. So today: Let your own hand guide your own heart. Act in kindness and you will find that you are kinder too. Act in generosity and you will discover a generous spirit within. Act with faith and faith will find you. Your heart will follow your hand.

We come to meet Jesus who meets us in deed, now, not only in word. He meets us in the central moment of life, the full giving that is real loving, the real loving that is full giving, the offering of life for life.

Are we ready to receive Him today?


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