Archive for January, 2012

Authentic Authority

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

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Mark 1: 21-28

Jesus greets us today as the voice of authentic authority, in our own experience.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.

Tradition

First, notice the lingering power of tradition.  Not traditionalism, but the forms of inherited tradition.  The dominical voice of authentic authority whistles through the willow branches of tradition.

Jesus speaks.

When does he speak?  On the Sabbath. Where does he speak?  In the synagogue.

How does he speak?  As a teacher.

All three of these aspects of his speaking are named for us, though we might have inferred two of the three from just the mention of one, or another.  They go together—holy time, holy space, holy words.  The gospel means to emphasize by repetition.

There is, at the outset, a regard, a lingering respect for what has been, for what one inherits.  For tradition, though not traditionalism.  The Sabbath is the occasion.  The synagogue is the setting.  The role of teacher frames the message.

A time of rest and refreshment, Sabbath, here receives Jesus’ blessing, at least in the manner of his recognition and participation.   Sunday can be a time of Sabbath rest.  A time for sleep, for recovery, for reading, for gathering.   We are a sleep deprived people, somnambulant in a sleep deprived culture.  So a traditional occasion, a time for retreat and renewal can feed us, if we let it.  There are none so weary as those who will not sleep.

Following my sermons, some arise inspired and some awake refreshed.  Both are good outcomes.

Likewise, synagogue, a coming together, is a traditional form.  It means, a gathering together.  Blessed are the hosts, for they shall be called the cooks of God.   When you have had a hand in gathering together a gathering together, you have brushed close to something good, something godly.

The other Sunday, a cold one, I made the mistake of walking to worship without a hat.  Brr!  I put my hands over my ears.  I hurried on to come here, eager to see who would be with us in church, eager to hear a response from the listening congregation, eager to be nourished by the ministers of music, eager to be gathered into a warm, inviting, loving, embracing community.  When it is cold enough, you can really appreciate a heated church home.  When it is relationally cold enough, you can really appreciate a gathering together.  When someone finds a church family to love and a church home to enjoy—when the gathering together holds—there is a holy moment.

So, too, the role of the teacher.  A familiar role, a familiar social location.  It is not in some exotic form that Jesus greets his hearers today.  The form is familiar, the teacher.  We may sometimes look too far, too wide for what we most want and need, when nearby, familiarly so, our health awaits.

Sabbath, synagogue, rabbi.  Tradition.  Here Jesus is more than willing to don the raiment of inheritance, to be harnessed by the yoke of tradition.  Jeremiah recommended the old paths.  Matthew prized every jot and tittel.  We hunger for those voices that will help us translate the tradition into insights for effective living.

Some memories of college years, here, will be connected to the particular sound of our choir.  Some recollections of exams passed or nearly passed, will be held in earshot of a meal or a trip or a talk, here.  Some remembrances of things past, even of hard moments of loss or regret or disappointment, will have about them a shaft of light through stained glass, an echo of truth through scripture read, an admission of prayer needed and offered.

Our gospel today, which announces Jesus’ voice of authentic authority, notices the lingering power of tradition.

It is in the midst of this house, this lineage, this inheritance that Jesus speaks, not absent it.

His hearers are astonished.  He is not confused in their hearing with their hearing of the scribes, his usual opponents in the flow of this gospel.  They know a different voice when they hear it.  A voice of authority, authentic authority.

But we are not told what exactly made the voice authoritative.

Like last week, in the calling of the disciples, the two sets of brothers.  We are told nothing, there, about what made them move, what caused their decision, what set them free.  And this week, in the authorization of teaching, we are told nothing about what made the sermon so good.  Only that it was.

Over time, we all finally decide what constitutes authentic authority, what such authority sounds like.

Sometime a bit of old tradition can sound and seem like a new teaching.  Our neighbor at Boston College, Kerry Cronin, teaches students about an old fashioned tradition called ‘dating’.  She gives them a script.  She advises:  women should ask men too; ask in person not by twitter; if you ask, you should pay; enjoy talking for an hour; make it alchohol free; you cannot pass her course without going on a date.  “If we can retrieve from the old dating script a set of low level expectations…that would be great…The script can ultimately give you more freedom. (CC, 1/25/12, 29)

Jesus greets us today as the voice of authentic authority.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  First, tradition.

Confrontation

Second, notice, and how can you help it, the centrality of confrontation.  Here there is an unclean spirit loose, loose amid the holy time and place and role.

Authentic authority calls out his nemesis.  We are straightway here in the realm of apocalyptic, cosmic apocalyptic, battle.

Last week we hosted a memorial service here in Marsh Chapel as now we do three times or so a month.  With some of our BU family we grieved, remembered, accepted and affirmed.  As is not uncommon in some religious traditions, though perhaps not common for many of us here today, as the service began we heard a long, low wail.  The crie de couer continued, ramped up in volume, split out in thunderous cacophony, then trailed off again, only, again to ramp up in volume, split out in thunderous cacophony, and trail off again.  I can remember the first burial, now nearly thirty years ago, in which such wailing occurred in my hearing.  It was startling, as, for many, here, it was last week.  But it was true and real.  That is, now and then, people still ‘cry with a loud voice’, sometimes, in church.

Our worldview is not cosmic apocalyptic confrontation.  We do not see a convulsive as one demon, of an unclean sort, challenging another Jesus demon of an authoritative sort.  We are late modern people, women and men who do not cry out in public, unless we are at a sporting event, drinking heavily, or about to call the police into a domestic dispute.  Maybe, in compensation, that is why sports and drinking and all become so central to us.

Authentic authority involves confrontation, not just pleasant courtesies of disagreement, but  genuine squaring off.  To your roommate you finally say: ‘One of us is wrong and I think it is you.’  To your boss you finally say:  ‘Look, do you want to do my work or will you let me do it?’  To your political economy (known by the way for good reason as ‘capitalism’ not ‘laborism’, because capital rules labor in capitalism) you finally say:  ‘One way or another my son needs a job.’  To your good friend, gently, you say: ‘I am sorry you feel that way.  Goodbye’.  To your spouse you say:  ‘You can have me or him but not both at the same time’.  To your warring world you finally shout:  ‘My son is not your cannon fodder’.

One thing I truly admired about my dad was how he easy he was around confrontation.  A man would stand up and shout and carry on a church meeting, walk out of worship the next Sunday, or send a blistering hand written hate note to the pastor, and my dad would shrug and smile and say, ‘I like to see him get worked up.  It is worth the price of admission just to see him so angry.’  Less naturally and more slowly, I too have learned to honor and receive anger.  Mark would understand.

Here Mark is starting his gospel, with a confrontation.  The verb here rendered ‘be silent’ (so polite) means ‘to muzzle’.  Be muzzled.  Shut your trap. (so J Marcus, loc. Cit.).  Matthew begins his public gospel with the Sermon on the Mount.  Luke begins his public gospel with the sermon in Nazareth.  John begins his public gospel with the wedding in Cana (again, Marcus).  But Mark?  He begins with demons and confrontation.

When we get angry we get in touch with something deep inside, something not necessarily at all related to what we think we are angry about.  We are not so very far from the ‘unclean spirit’ of Mark 1.  We are complicated creatures.

You see and hear this again in the current play, ‘Freud’s Last Session’, an imagined conversation between Sigmund Freud, the great psychologist, and C. S. Lewis, the great apologist.  Bombs are falling on London.  Freud is suffering with mouth cancer.  Lewis is struggling with his young man’s sexuality. And through it all—the question of God.  Freud and Lewis confront each other. They lock horns for 90 minutes of verbal combat.  Each memorizes and delivers the equivalent of two Sunday sermons.  They square off and argue.  Good.

Lewis:  ‘in pleasure God whispers, in pain God shouts’.  Freud:  ‘just why are you living with your best friend’s mother?’  Lewis:  ‘I got on my cycle an atheist, and got off a believer, all one day’.  Freud:  ‘you might want to see somebody about that’.  Lewis: ‘faith is most reasonable thing on earth’.  Freud: ‘yes, such a good God—bombs, death, disease, pain’.  Lewis: ‘I will pray for you’.  Freud:  ‘you do that’.

Yet at the very end, though Freud has turned the radio off to mute the music in carries for much of the play, and of course Lewis, in good Freudian fashion, has asked why the good Dr. cannot listen to the music, and has given his spirited and spiritual analysis, at the end and alone, dying and in pain, the great psychoanalyst slowly turns up the music, and Mozart rings out.

There is no resolution—how could there be in 90 minutes?  But there is confrontation that exudes an authentic authority.

Jesus greets us today as the voice of authentic authority.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  Second, confrontation.  It takes the exorcising power, the authentic authority, finally, of love, to move us.

Response

Third, response.  Notice the response.  The emphasis falls on an acknowledgement of authority, authentic authority.  ‘With authority…a new teaching…he commands…even the demons obey…his fame spread throughout the north country’.   It works.  Whatever he said, whatever he taught, it helped somebody.  We wish we knew what it was!

Yet, there is a quieter wisdom in the silence of Scripture here.  If we knew, we would be tempted just to repeat rather than to rehearse.  We need to have the tradition, in the moment of confrontation, translated into insights for effective living which, in response, we can use.  That is authentic authority in the full.  If we knew that he used the 100th Psalm, we would repeat it every Sunday.  If we knew he preached on Jeremiah, we would invariably do so.  If we knew he taught specific proverbs, we would ignore the rest.  No, there is freedom in the silence of the gospel, here, a freedom to live and love with authentic authority.  To respond.

Freud finally turned on the music.

And you?

I am a Christian because the best people, leading the best lives, in my experience, have been so.  I respond to the freedom and love I see in other people of faith, now 65 generations after the exorcism in Capernaum, and the response all across Galilee.  In other lives I have seen glimpses of what I could be and do, if I would only straighten up and fly right.  Some of those lives are in this room.  Some are in memory.  Some are out there waiting to be introduced.  Don’t kid yourself.  Especially, especially in a University setting, people are taking your measure.  Good.  Your example counts, matters, lasts, works.

Tradition and confrontation evoke a response.  The unclean spirit leaves.  The congregation murmurs.  The report goes forth.

Let me turn it around.  When you fail somehow, and we all you do, sometime, you know the negative influence of your own response.  Give yourself some credit then, on the up side of the ledger.  Dean Jones gave me a book.  Professor Jones listened with care.  That TA gave me the benefit of the doubt.  I will always be grateful for what Chaplain Jones did for me.  Let me say to those of us thirty years old and more:  eyes are watching, ears are listening, minds are considering what path to take.  Your example makes a difference in their response, right here, right now, right at Marsh Chapel.  We are forever teaching and learning, learning and teaching.

Someone taught you.  A High School band director?  A Latin teacher in college (Agricola, agricolae…)?  A chemistry professor who lingered with you in the lab?  Who?

Nellie responded to her Latin teacher.  Bob responded to his science teacher.  Jan responded to her history teacher.  Jen responded to her family matriarch.  Larry responded to his theology professor.  As Carlyle Marney put it:  “Who told you who you was?”

Somehow, with four growing children and a preacher’s meager salary, my parents managed to give us all piano lessons.  My teacher was a farm wife, thirty years younger than her husband.  The distance from the barn to the house, from the manger to the piano, was very short, in both geographic and olfactory senses.  I feel the warmth of that space and that tutelage today, even though those precious parsonage dollars were almost entirely wasted on me, to my regret.  I can’t play a scale, after at least 5 years of lessons.  I can though appreciate the difficulty of what others do.  And there was something more, somewhere between Lewis and Freud, in those afternoon lessons, which usually began with an honest question:  “Did you practice?” and a less than honest response:  “Some”.

You know, looking back that was one of the few places and times, week by week, when I was in the sole presence of a non-parental adult: honest, trustworthy, kind, caring.  Now where the farm was there is an auto dealer and a pizza parlor.  But the hay, the barn, the milking, the home, the warmth, the music, the teaching, the—may I call it friendship?, live on.  In her forties she died of cancer, three fine children, one great marriage, several years of crops and evenings and mornings of milking, and some less than stellar piano students later.  At her funeral the minister preached this sermon:  ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  That itself is thirty years ago, but I remember it in full.  ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  You are too.  And so are you.  And so are you.

The music is playing all around us, all through us, in our triumph and in our tragedy.  We just need to respond.  To lean over, and turn the dial, and set the music free.

Five winters ago a young woman in graduate school stopped to talk after worship.  She said, ‘That sermon was about me.’  She started coming every week.  She found her ministry here.  She took on a major responsibility, and then a big job.  A whole lot of you all who are here in this sanctuary this morning are here because of her outreach, her welcome, her embrace.  She heard, and she responded. Then she met another graduate student, another Texan, on the T of all places. A romance on the T.  They started to like each other. That had all that Texas stuff in common after all. Pretty soon they were in love.  Not long later they were engaged.  And then they got married.  And then moved by the United States Army to some place in Oklahoma. Elizabeth and Brian both responded and evoked response. You can too, starting today.  This is your moment.  You are a song that God is singing.

Oh, I wish they hadn’t moved.  Of course I miss them. But that doesn’t worry me.  I wish they were closer.  But that doesn’t make me anxious. I wish they were in the pew this morning.  But they aren’t and I am not concerned.  Because I know those two fine young people will let their music resound wherever they are.  And those in any chorus with them will be the richer for their presence.  Authentic authority is found in real response.

The Gospel According to St. Mark starts off with a voice of authentic authority.  When you are searching for a sense of reliable, authentic authority, then hunt around a healthy bit of lost tradition, and for a courageous and cleansing moment of confrontation and  for a real and personal, public response.

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

At First Light

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

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Mark 1: 14-20

At first light, we see Jesus walking the shore of his beloved Galilee.  He who is the First Light sets out at dawn, as the fishermen begin, casting and mending.  This stylized memory from the mind of Mark kindles our own memory and hope, too.

That first light of the day, daybreak, carries a power unlike any other hour’s hue.  The excitement of beginning.  The promise of another start.  The crisp, cold opening of the year in January.  Like the skier, mits and poles at the ready, we adjust our goggles, and we lean, and…

Here is Jesus, midway from Christmas to Easter, from manger to cross, from nativity to passion.  Along the shoreline he strides, one foot in sea and one on shore.  He makes two invitations.

The First Invitation

He meets two brothers at first light, and they meet him, God’s First Light, the light that shines in the darkness.  Notice how Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, are sketched.  There is little too nothing of history here, but what there is says so much!  There is no parental shadow lying on their fishing nets.  One hears no maternal imperative, no paternal dictate.  These boys are on their own.  They have left home already, maybe leaving the city to the south to find a meager middle-class existence with their own means of production.  They are small business men, boat owners, fishermen.  Neither the amhaaretz nor the gentry, they.  Not poor, not rich.  Working stiffs.  Young, young men.  Simon already has a nick-name.  A sign of joviality, of conviviality, of gregarious playful fun.  Peter, the Rock.  Is this for his steady faithfulness or his failure to float?  On this rock…Sinks like a Rock…You sense that these brothers play in the surf a little, kick up the sand a little, ogle the Palestinianas a little, take time to take life as it comes.  Brown are their forearms, and burnished their brows.  They love the lake and life, and have made already their entrance into adult life.  For they have left home.  One envies their youth and freedom.  They have taken to the little inland sea of Galilee, and with joy they meet each dawn, like this one, at first light, as they see Light.

You can feel the sand under their feet as they take a moment to play and laugh.  You can feel the chill of the water as they swim, while breakfast cooks over the fire.  You can feel their feeling of vitality and joy as they greet another day at first light.

I wonder whether we allow ourselves to drift a little too far from that first light feeling.  Those pure moments of rapturous illumination.

Your first child, tiny, red, crinkled, fists waving, crying and then asleep, literally in your hand.  First light.

Your daughter, or son, taking the vows of confirmed faith, in the church’s chancel.  Yes, there was some part child and another part adult in what was said.  But they were there, in tie and dress.  They were there, in public and in church.  They murmured, and they murmured piously.  And how did that feel Dad?  First light.

Your day of matrimony.  Down the aisle they come, or you come, father and daughter.  Do you? Do you?  I do. They do.  And what was once a simpler world now has further complexity and creative power.  A new creation.  First light.

There must have been some moment, sometime, when you felt an intimacy with the universe, a closeness, a sense of purpose.  That too is a kind of daybreak, dawn, first light.

We get too far away from dawn, if we are not careful.  Faith is trust. A simple trust, like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea…

I am told (by Dr Rod Wilmoth) of a boy who goes to a winter vacation with his parents in Florida.  They set him loose on the swimming pool.  Before diving, he goes around the cement shoreline, a latter day Jesus on a latter day lake, asking one and another the same question:

Are you a Christian?

Oh, no, I don’t go to church…

Are you a Christian…

Well, I do go on Christmas and at Easter.  I was there last month.  But you know I don’t read the Bible, or anything like that…

Are you a Christian?

You know, I used to be, but I kind of got away from it.  So many other things…

Are you a Christian?

(An older man at last brings the reply he is looking for):

Why yes, I was baptized in my youth, and later made a moment of confirmation.  I go to church every Sunday.  I can’t stand to miss it.  Yes, I tithe, I give away 10% of what I have each year, not all to the church, but mostly to the church, because that is the seed bed for future wonder, morality and generosity.  I keep faith with my family and friends.  I am a Christian.  But why are you asking?

Well sir I want to go swimming, and have two quarters here in my shorts, and I wanted someone I could trust to hold them while I swim.

Our malaise, our ennui, should we have such, our “acedia”—spiritual sloth or indifference, literally, our “not-caring”—so often is due to our turning away from the first light, dawn, daybreak, that elemental experience of love that energizes everything else.

Peter and Andrew are casting, casting nets.  They have no furrowed brows, no endless worries, no pessimism, and no angst.  They probably have left unattended some holes in their nets, these two happy brothers.  They are willing to accept that their casting will be imperfect, as all evangelism is imperfect.  But that imperfection will not keep them from enjoying the labor of casting.  To miss the first light is to miss the fun of faith!

Invite that neighbor, the one across the street whose porch light

is always on, that roommate, who sleeps until 5pm on Sunday.  Here at dawn…those first stirrings, first longings, first intimations of something new and good.

The Second Invitation

Meanwhile, back on the beach, Jesus heads south, cove by cove, with Andrew and Peter frolicking in tow.  They had already left home.  They are ready to take a flier on some new trek, not fully sure how it will work out.  It is a miracle that they are remembered, perhaps with a little hagiography, as having responded “immediately”.  Still, every little scrap of memory of these two brothers tends in the same direction—full of vim, vigor, vitality and pepperino.  Yes, they will follow!  But Jesus is about to make a second invitation.  Not to the defiant, but to the compliant.  Not to the independent, but to the dependent.  Not to the strong, but to the weak.  Not to the secular, but to the religious.

Down the shoreline a little, there rests another boat.  A different story, a different set of brothers altogether.  James and John.  Known as the sons of Zebedee.  Simon has already earned his own name and nick-name.  But these two are known by their father’s name.  They haven’t left home.  They have not yet acquired that second identity.  Here they are, as usual at dawn, stuck in the back of the boat.  All these years they have watched the Peter and Andrew show.  All these years they have envied the fun and frolic down the beach.  The late night parties.  The bonfires.  The singing.  The swimming.  And here they sit strapped to the old boat of old Zebedee.  They are covered with the ancient equivalents of chap stick and coppertone.  And, more to the point, they are trapped under the glaring gaze of Zebedee, whose thunderous voice has so filled their home that their own voices have emerged.  Every day, in the back of the boat.  And what are they doing?  Why you could have guessed it, even if the text had not made it plain.  Are they casting?  No.  Are they fishing yet?  No.  Are they sailing?  No.  They are mending.  Mending.  Knit one, pearl two… Their dad has got them into that conservation, protection, preservation mode. That worst side of churchgoing mode.  Mending.  At first light!  Of course nets need mending, but the nets and the mending are meant in a greater service!  The fun is in the fishing!  The joy is in the casting.  And there they sit, sober souls, looking for a bad time if a bad time can be had, mending.

Here we are mid-way between Christmas and Easter, midway between passion and nativity.  This is a crucial moment, for the ministry of Marsh Chapel, and our saving balance. The two stories of Jesus, of his birth and of his death, are meant to complement and interpret each other.  Today, Epiphany 3, we need to seize and be seized by the life story of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Here he is.  Jesus’ life is a pronouncement of a broad peace, on earth.  On earth.  With Ghandi along the Ganges.  Beside Tutu on the southern cape.  Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet.  In Tegucigalpa with our friend Lynn Baker. This is no quietism, like that which so suddenly has taken over some Protestant American Christianity, from its seedbeds in the Orthodox Calvinist and Anabaptist communions:  cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed grace.  No, this is Christmas:  warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, angry, and hopeful!  Hope has two beautiful daughters, Augustine reminded us:  anger and courage.

The early church told two stories about Jesus.  The first about his death.  The second about his life.  The first, about the cross, is the oldest and most fundamental.  The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight, the code to decipher the first.   Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  But who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.  You need them both, Marsh Chapel, you need them both, New England, you need them both, America.  It takes two wings to fly.

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Epiphany is the time to tell it, and tell it out loud.  The life story, Christmas on, is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Christmas is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas and Epiphany are meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had were Holy Week.  And the Christmas images are the worker bees in this theological hive.  Easter may announce the power of peace, but Christmas names the place of peace.  Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did.  Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did.  That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm.  What lovely news for us!  Such a passionate year we have had.  Now comes this season again, and the story of Jesus at first light again, to announce that there is more to Jesus than the passion.  There is the matter of peace as well.  There is more to Jesus than his death.  There is the matter of his life as well.

The real miracles of this account lie in the second invitation to the second set of brothers.  It is a miracle that Jesus stopped and invited them, so somber are they.  I wonder if he took in the timbre of Zebedee’s voice, and saw them quaking in the back of the boat.  Perhaps his heart went out to James and John.  So he stops, and he asks.  And he stops this morning to ask you, especially if you are quiet in the back of the boat, still cringing under the booming stentorian parental voice, more paternalistic than paternal.  You know, you can hide out pretty well in church, if you decide to.  Church can be an excellent hide out from life, from love, from God.  But here he is, at first light, inviting you:  follow me.

Here is the great thing about an invitation.  All you can do is ask.  Do ask.  Ye have not because ye ask not.  And for the first time in their lives, James and John are invited to live.  So many people live half asleep.  They don’t live life, life lives them.  Like these two knitting in the back of the boat.  Half asleep.  Then dawn comes, and day breaks, and that first light shines!  And a voice like no other, so equanimous and so serene, casts its spell upon them.  Watch.  It is a first light moment.  First one, then the other, stands and moves.  Under the shadow of that harsh paternalistic presence, under the sound of that sour maternalistic imperative of home.  They rise.  And they move toward First Light.  They are about to grow up. They are about to grow up.  Wonderful!  And what do they leave behind?  You would have known even if the Scripture had not laid it right out.  They leave behind the boat…and their father.  We best honor the adults in our lives when we become adults ourselves, when we shake off dependence.

Will this world grow up?  That is what the United Nations and the World Council of Churches and the United Methodist Church and so many people of good will have been striving and hoping for.  Will we find a way to live together, all six billion of us, and to drink from the same cup?

This text, strangely like the Gospel of John, claims for Jesus that Jesus is light.  Not color, now.  Light.  Color is great, and good.  But we all want finally to be able to drink from the same water fountain, we want our children in one school, we want to sit at one table, we want to drink from one goblet.  It is light that we will need into the 21st century.  Not color, light. We finally all are meant to drink from the same cup.

I was told  (by the Rev. Don Harp) of a man who stopped in his new neighborhood to buy lemonade from a freckle faced 7 year old girl and a mahogany skinned 6 year old boy.  He paid his dime and drank his beverage and stayed to talk.  After a while the girl asked if there was anything else he wanted.  No, he said, why?

Well sir, we are running a business here, and we have had a busy morning, and we hope for a busy afternoon, but that cup you are holding is the only one we have, so if you don’t mind we’d like it back.

One cup.  Light, not color. We forget it at our worldly peril.  If we walk in the light as he is in the light we have fellowship with one another.  We have more in common, as tragedy and triumph remind us, all around the globe, than we do in difference.  Give us light, not darkness, Wesley not Calvin, not just passion, but peace too, not just death but life too, not just Lent but Epiphany too.  You are not meant to live forever in Lent (as Dean Snyder once reminded us).  Advent and Lent prepare you.  But you are meant to live in light, in life, in forgiveness and acceptance and transcendence and—dare we say it?—love.  Are we lovers anymore?

The challenge of the 21st century is found not at the color line, but at first light.

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.

Would you like to have come alive, to have some fun, this week?  Look around for dawn breaking, and kick up some sand.  Jesus calls to you, at first light.

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

Standing on the Rock

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

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Matthew 21: 33-44

Sermon text is unavailable at this time.

~The Reverend Dr. Walter Earl Fluker
Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Ethical Leadership
Boston University School of Theology

By Water and The Spirit

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

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Mark 1: 4-11

Good morning.

It is a wonderful honor to address you from this pulpit.  I share my sincere thanks to Dean Hill for the opportunity.

Baptisms are often amusing events for a family and a whole church community.  A wily uncle takes guesses from a host of cousins about whether their baby cousin will squeal when the pastor pours water on her head.  A congregation quietly wonders if the new pastor has the touch to hold a squirmy child and pour water at the same time.  When the pastor’s less than motherly touch turns the squirming to a whimper, congregants smile and whisper to one another that the young pastor will improve when he has children himself someday.  And for that young pastor, the terror of attempting to hold a squirming infant, recite a prayer, and sprinkle water all at the same time soon gives way to shared smiles with the child’s family when the fantastic juggling act is over.  The sight of a child’s baptism is sure to bring a smile or two, if only for the odd spectacle of the occasion.

Do you remember your baptism?  Do you remember being thrust underwater in a baptismal font, a community pool, maybe a local river or lake?  Maybe you had water sprinkled on your head?  Perhaps all you remember is water.  But that occasion was about a whole lot more than water.  The place may or may not have been familiar, but certainly the people surrounding you on that special occasion were: a parent, god-parents, an aunt, a grandparent, close friends.

However, for many of us, our memories of baptism are not our own.  We were baptized as infants.  Our parents or other special people in our lives made a commitment to God and to the church to nurture us.  They promised that through their teaching and example in our lives we might be guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves and profess our own faith openly.

Perhaps these words of commitment are familiar to you as you shared in the joy of the baptism of a loved one.  Your memories of baptism may come from hearing a crying infant alarmed by the surprising sprinkling of water on the forehead or through seeing a young person emerge astonished from the water of a family swimming pool.  Perhaps you, yourself, have committed to nurture a child in the church so that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly.

Or perhaps you are able to recall your own baptism:  You freely elected to accept a special relationship with God and the church universal.  You entered into a covenant.  You assented to a series of questions that sounded something like these:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
Reject the evil powers of this world,
And repent of your sin?”

“I do.”

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression
In whatever forms they present themselves?”

“I do.”

“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior,
Put your whole trust in his grace,
And promise to serve him as your Lord,
In union with the church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?”

“I do.”

“According to the grace given to you,
Will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church
And serve as Christ’s representative in the world?”

“I will.”

But you were likely not the only one asked a question by the officiant.  The community gathered around was probably asked a question or two:

“Do you, as Christ’s body, the Church,
Reaffirm both your rejection of sin
And your commitment to Christ?”

And they responded, “We do.”

“Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life
And include this person now before you in your care
And surround this person with a community of love and forgiveness?”

And they responded, “We will.”

Your baptism marked not only your commitment to God and to the church community but also that community’s commitment to you.   Churches come in all shapes and sizes, and chances are that you will encounter and be joined to a handful or more in your life.  I know Marsh Chapel to be one of those places.  Marsh Chapel sees itself as a particular community of support for a particular demographic of persons (students) but also offers it support to the wider community and to anyone who is seeking authentic Christian community.  I say this by way of invitation, especially to those listening on the radio or via the internet; we, at Marsh Chapel, are delighted to be in relationship with you by phone or email or in physical presence as the Spirit allows. Whether you entered into the sacrament as an infant, a young person, or an adult, baptism binds you to God in love through mutual commitment.  We here at Marsh Chapel affirm that relationship and seek to support your spiritual journey.  And for those who wish to learn more about the sacrament and a relationship with God, we are a community of support and love.

Baptism is more than a simple dedication of one’s life to God; in baptism God offers the gift of God’s unfailing grace for us to accept.

This first Sunday following the Epiphany has historically been used by the church to reflect upon the great gift of grace we received in Christ’s birth.  The angels of our gospel lessons only two weeks ago have return to their heavenly abode.  The shepherds have returned to the fields to tend their sheep.  The wise men have presented their gifts, mounted their animals and begun the long sojourn back East.  And now the liturgical calendar condenses Jesus’ first thirty years of life into a week.  Jesus’ childhood is largely absent from the Gospel accounts.  In the gospel of Mark, we fast forward through Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood and find him standing at the edge of the river Jordan.

We know very little about Jesus’ first thirty years of life, and we know even less about the community which supported Jesus during those thirty years.  But we know there were people who surrounded him, shared happy occasions with him, and who grieved with him.  He was formed by a community, Mary, Joseph, and many, many others.  And it was that community of support which helped prepare him to head to the Jordan.  We too need a community of support to prepare us and form us for the journey of life.

In Mark’s account, John the Baptist serves as herald for Jesus, his ministry, and the great gift he offers humanity.  John the Baptist, the wild man living in the desert, wearing animal skin and eating locusts, was proclaiming Good News to all of Israel, inviting them to repentance of sins and foretelling of the gift of God’s real presence with us in the Holy Spirit.  Mark writes of John the Baptist’s description of Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  But soon the one about whom John was proclaiming appeared on the river’s edge to greet John and to be baptized.

This powerful prophet, divine healer, the one about whom John had been preaching was coming to John to be baptized.  The perfect, most-powerful son of God did not have any need to repent of anything and be baptized.  Rather, he asked for baptism for the sake of others.  Jesus took part in John’s baptism by water to be united with all people who earnestly seek to be in relationship with God.

In Jesus’ baptism, God acted in a very powerful, very visible way.  The heavens were torn apart and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus.  This visible sign of the Spirit’s presence with Jesus in his baptism is part of God’s promise of the Spirit’s presence with us in baptism.  In the sacrament of baptism, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.  We are baptized by water for repentance of sins and baptized by the spirit in covenant relationship with God.  In trust of God’s continued covenant with all baptized persons we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, acknowledging in the sacrament that the individual being baptized accepts a special relationship with the divine and desires God’s already present grace.  While we may not see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending in baptism, we know and trust that God is fully present in the sacrament and in the lives of all people.

John Wesley taught that in baptism a person was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated in to the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.  A lot is going on in the few moments of baptism.  Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the moment.  Perhaps that has been our own experience of baptism.  Have we felt the full wonder of the miracle of the sacrament?  Have we felt cleansed? Initiated into covenant with God?  Received into the church?  Made heirs of the kingdom?  Born anew?

Sometimes as we go through life, we don’t always recognize the gravity and magnitude of the events unfolding around us until after they have happened.  For many in this nave college graduation might be one of those moments that we didn’t fully comprehend as it unfolded.  A young man received a diploma last May.  But it wasn’t until August 1st and a new job that he fully appreciated days of sleeping until 10:30 for class.

Now baptism is certainly a more deeply transformational experience than a college graduation, but perhaps you are still contemplating its meaning in your life, whether you were baptized last Easter or decades ago as an infant.  Baptism is more than our pledge and dedication to God and to the church, it is our acceptance of God’s grace – the opportunity to be in communion with the divine, to experience forgiveness and reconciliation, to fellowship in and with the Holy Spirit.

Through baptism we come to know the assurance of pardon offered in the gift of Christ’s life.  Here at Marsh we include in the liturgy an assurance of pardon as a reminder of the gift God freely gives and which we accepted in baptism.  Each week, during the service you hear a member of the ministry staff share this good news saying either: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” or on Sundays when communion is celebrated we hear: “Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”  This is meant to be an ongoing reminder of the gift we receive through Jesus Christ.  Indeed if we earnestly repent and accept God, we are forgiven.

Accepting God’s gift of love is at the heart of our passage from Acts today.  The disciples that Paul encounters in Ephesus had repented of their sins but had not accepted the gift of the Spirit.  Their baptism was incomplete.  They had not heard the totality of the Good News of Christ’s baptism.  Through it they could join in fellowship with the divine, be born anew, given a fresh start.  And in the sacrament of baptism, we are joined in this fellowship, born anew, and given a fresh start.

During the Christmas season, the hustle and bustle, the traveling, the visiting relatives, the special gift of God to us – that is forgiveness and fellowship – may not have been at the forefront of our minds.  Perhaps we did not think of it at all.   Perhaps in quiet and lonesome moments, we longed for fellowship and did not experience what we had hoped for.  I think that very often when we are journeying through advent in expectation of the celebration of the birth of the infant, we lose sight of the gift that the infant brings.  In Christ’s birth, life, and ministry, God does come to dwell among us to be with us.  Is God’s presence with us the gift we seek during Christmas?  I challenge you that as we begin a new liturgical season and as we begin a new year, that the gift we ought to seek is God’s true and real presence with us.

So often during the Christmas season we hear about Emanuel – “God with us” – God born into the world as a babe in a stable and laid in a manger.  Indeed, God was made flesh in Jesus and dwelt among us.  And God continues to be with us through the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we invite God to be with us in a very special way.  We commit ourselves to God and know that God will be with us during all of life’s trials and toils.  We trust that in the Spirit, whose presence we accept in baptism, God will be our constant companion and supporter.  God does not abandon God’s covenant with us, even if we wander from it.  The Spirit remains steadfast, chasing after us as a tireless friend even when we turn away.

Perhaps you wish to renew that relationship with the Spirit today.  Perhaps you wish to think more about accepting that gift of relationship with God for the first time.  If you have not received the sacrament of baptism and feel moved to closer relationship with God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and seek to experience God’s grace through the sacrament, I encourage you to speak with me or another member of the chapel staff following the service or to call or email the chapel office this week and ask to speak with a member of the ministry staff about receiving the sacrament.

For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, I invite you to renew your baptismal vows now, to recommit yourself to God, and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew:

Brothers and sisters in Christ:
Through the Sacrament of Baptism
We are initiated into Christ’s holy Church.
We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation
And given new birth through water and the Spirit.
All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Through the reaffirmation of our faith
We renew the covenant declared at our baptism,
Acknowledge what God is doing for us,
And affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
Reject the evil powers of this world,
And repent of your sin?

If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression
In whatever forms they present themselves?

If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
Put your whole trust in his grace,
And promise to serve him as your Lord,
In union with the Church which Christ has opened
To people of all ages, nations, and races?

If so, please respond, “I do.”

According to the grace given to you,
Will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church
And serve as Christ’s representative in the world?

If so, please respond, “I will.”

We remember our baptism and are thankful.

May the Holy Spirit work within us,
That having been born through water and the Spirit,
We may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ
And be assured of God’s love for all people.
Amen.

~Mr. Soren Hessler
Chapel Associate for Undergraduate Ministry

A Turn to Grace

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

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Matthew 2: 1-12

Turn

At the turn of the year we may have more time to listen, to listen among others to the voices of children.

It is my turn….It is your turn…Whose turn is it?…Take your turn…

Teaching a new comer to English can provide a challenge or two, as in these turns of phrase.

A turn is a chance, an opportunity, an opening.  Her turn…

Our New Testament, beloved and holy, our Holy Scripture, beloved and lovely, carries such a sense of opening, its gospel itself a turn to grace.   Metanoia, repentance, means to turn around.  The wisdom of the east comes in a narrative about turning around, following a star, offering gifts, and turning again to go home by another way.

At the turn of the year, are you ready to make a turn to grace?

Wisdom

We notice that these wise men, unnumbered in Scripture, though by tradition three, are from afar.  They are Gentiles, representing the longing of all the world for the wisdom of all the world across the people of all the world turning to the God of all the world.  For a gospel usually understood, or misunderstood, to be oriented to Judaism, pride of place at the manger is given here to the Gentiles.  This should caution us about what we assume in Matthew.

Love is for the wise, our story says.   Astounding birth befits the wisdom of the ages, as such birth narratives acclaim in all religious traditions.   Herod…star rising…Messiah…prophetic lineage….homage….joy….gold, frankincense, myrrh…dream

Sages leave your contemplations, brighter visions beam afar, seek the great desire of nations, ye have seen his natal star, come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the new born King

They turn to the gratuitous kindness, the epiphany, the light, revelation, shining star.

And we?

Kindness

One of our dear Marsh chapel members is in hospital.  We visited her on Wednesday at Beth Israel Deaconess.  She heals, hour by hour.  How grateful we are for the skill and care of doctors and nurses there.  The best wisdom of the reason, the finest attention to efficient detail, the steady combat, as in every hospital, against infection—these we again prized, this Christmastide.

After conversation and prayer, the elevator brought us again to the first floor.  As the door opened, something…A wondrous note, an audible epiphany, a gratuitous kindness…the sonorous notes of a harp.  To the gifts of medicine, there were added the gifts of music.  Deep, resonant, lovely.  Something else.  Something transcendent.  A gratuitous kindness, calling us up and calling us out.  How fitting that harp note.  A gift not strictly necessary, but utterly meaningful.

Walking away, one heard something, something deeply about being human or becoming fully human.  We will not reach our height, become who we are, only by rationality and efficiency, as crucial, as saving as they are.  To become who we are we shall need a turn to grace, that chord of depth and height and breadth and love, resounding from the nimble fingers of someone making a gift of gratuitous kindness.

Star

Borden Parker Bowne, a legendary Boston University professor, who had studied in East, famously said:  Philosophy begins in wonder.

The gospel of the nativity, at the turn of the year, the gospel of epiphany, at the turn of the year, reminds us so.  To be fully human, we shall need to seek the star, listen for the grace note, and practice the habits of gratuitous kindness.

We come to visit you, to honor your New England poetic heritage.   I am a simple country preacher translated to the finesse of Boston.  North of Boston, already you have seen your star and heard of its rising.

It asks of us a certain height so when at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame to far we may take something like as star to stay our minds on and be staid (Frost)…

Hear is the musical voice, the call of the ages, to you.  It is not in this instance a voice of authority calling out obedience, as important as that legal voice can be.  That is Moses, the Law, the Prophets.  But you are beckoned to make a turn to grace, the voice not of authority to obedience but of wisdom to happiness, of wisdom to happiness, of wisdom to happiness.

Breath

The whole creation is groaning together until now, awaiting the revealing of the children of God (Rom. 8)

Years ago…13 billion the Big Bang…4 Billion a solar system…2Billion oxygen…500million a Cambrian explosion…250 million dinosaurs, extinct at 60 million…4 million a hominid…100,000 homo sapiens…30,000 years of art and culture

Above it all a star in the East, a wondrous star, beckoning us to a certain height, to a turn to grace, to the music of the harp, to a practice of the habits of gratuitous kindness.

Grace

Imagine the realm of the possible, the fullness of being in the fullness of time.

There is a longing for God that emerges clearly in the candle light of Christmas eve and in the morning light of New Year’s day.      A longing for the love that came down at Christmas.

You know his bridge.  His prayer?

I heard the bells on Christmas day their old familiar carols play and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth good will to men.  But then in grief I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.  Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, of peace on earth good will to men.

Will there be space, this year, will there be time, this year, will there be a resolution, this year, a turn to grace?

Eucharist

Will there be a longing in us, those of us who have sat long at table, to offer others, first comers, a first helping, a first serving of faith?

Will there be a willingness, once a week, to imagine and offer a gratuitous kindness?  Not something in the job description, nor something to which you are obliged by friendship or family or history or tradition, nor something contractually obligated, nor something expected.  Something like the music of a harp, unexpected and gracious and kind?

A long letter to an old friend?  A rising up for a righteous cause?   A call to lonely neighbor?  An invitation:  join me in worship?  A gift as generous as it was unsolicited?

Such a gratuitous kindness would be a marker on the journey, a signpost at the turn to grace

When the song of the angels is stilled….

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