Matthew 22: 1-14
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?
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
Dean of Marsh Chapel